Endangered

Androids have all but won the war against humanity, and the remnants of the once-great human civilization are reduced to miles of wastelands and hidden communities struggling to survive. Dirk and his friends are sent out to scavenge for supplies, while AR is sent to hunt down and exterminate the dwindling human population. Their fated meeting is the beginning of a union between species that was once thought impossible.

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19. Chapter 19

The world gave you one last normal day, living in the compound and doing your job with your friends, before everything came crashing down.

The morning after your first sexual experience with another being (not human, but it still counts), you went early to the maintenance lab, mostly to avoid Jake, but also to get some much needed quality time alone with your tools and the mountain of broken equipment. AR greeted you as always when you messaged him, and kept up a slow, aimless dialogue while you worked, remarking on things he’d seen in the compound and behaviors that he was unfamiliar with, as though nothing had happened last night, but you weren’t expecting anything different. His red text projected on the side of your vision next to the various schematics he provided with each piece of broken equipment you held up for the lab’s security camera, and you spoke with him aloud in the early morning hours while reconnecting wires and troubleshooting devices, trying to keep your hands busy enough to prevent memories of last night from mixing unpleasantly with how angry Jake must still be. He’ll know you avoided him on purpose, and so will Jane if they’re on speaking terms. You never did find out whether they made up or not, and it’s the guilt that has you asking Roxy the moment she walks into the maintenance lab several hours later.

“Not that I know of,” she says with a too-casual shrug. “Jake went straight to his room when he got back, and Janey was already asleep. All three of you totally ditched me yesterday.”

You could tell she was still frustrated when she walked in, but she waves you off when you try to apologize as she glances over the intake table, picking out several pieces of small equipment.

“Dirk, sweetheart, you had the shittiest day anyone has ever had in the history of ever, and I am not gonna hold a little sulking against you, especially since you and Jake had your first real fight since you were freakin’ toddlers. Don’t worry about it.” She smiles warmly as she walks past with an armful of equipment, before flopping down in her chair at the workbench across from yours. “Although the apology is muchly appreciated.”

The two of you soon lapse into easy conversation as you work, and the afternoon finds you stuck on a complicated, frustrating project with more broken parts than you can count and barely enough intact ones to salvage. AR identified it earlier as an engine from what might have been a small plane, but it’s still big and heavy enough that you’re forced to sit on the floor next to it. Meanwhile, Roxy’s been handling the intake table, and your third member is once again off working in the command center, trying to get everything compatible with the multitude of recent changes. You’ve barely made any progress as the remainder of the afternoon passes, and after Roxy leaves for the kitchens to bring back an early dinner, your screen suddenly lights up with red text.

TT: I have identified an unusual phenomenon relating to the lifecycle demographics of your settlement’s population.
TT: Since your older sibling responded with unwarranted hostility when I attempted to inquire as to the underlying cause for this occurrence, I will instead present my question to you.
TT: Considering that reproduction is the foundation for the existence and perpetuation of all organic species, and that this biological inclination is genetically programmed into such life forms, I find it unusual that your settlement is devoid of individuals less than fifteen years of age.

You’re grateful for something else to do while digging around inside the engine, even though your shift technically ended an hour ago, but your arms are buried in the machine, with the side of your face pressed against the cool metal as you follow along with the displayed schematic. AR waits patiently until you’re able to respond, leaning away from the engine with a cracked fuel injector clutched in your hand as you wipe the oil from your face.

“You asked Bro? What did he say?”

TT: He told me to “mind my own damn business.”
TT: I informed him that my capability to understand all aspects of your settlement are relevant to my self-preservation, and are thus within the parameters of my “business,” given the implied connotations of the word, however he refused to engage in further discussion on the matter.

You laugh when you picture it, before shaking your head fondly. AR must be very bored if he’s attempting to engage your Bro in conversation, and you can imagine how well that must have gone for both of them.

“It’s not really that big of a mystery.” The cracked injector goes on the floor next to a small row of similar components, before you reach in again with a wrench to feel around for the next part. “I’m curious about what your theories are, though.”

TT: It is possible, although statistically unlikely, that your settlement’s population simply lacks any reproductively fertile individuals.
TT: However, there may also be an infectious disease present that either sufficiently discourages copulation or results in the immediate mortality of neonatal children.
TT: The similar occurrence of a teratogen that would cause malformation or death to a developing embryo is also a possibility, especially if such a compound is present in your reservoir of water and cannot be removed by purification.
TT: I have observed romantic behavior among multiple heterosexual pairs of humans in your settlement, and it is unlikely that all of them are refraining entirely from sexual interactions involving the transfer of genetic material.

“I’ll give you a hint,” you say, slightly muffled from pressing your face against the side of the engine. “It’s got nothing to do with an inability to reproduce.”

TT: Your statement rules out the first theory I have presented, however this does not confirm nor deny the effects of a disease or teratogen, and I find your uncooperativity in this matter irritating.

You lean away and roll your eyes at the screen. “I’m not trying to be uncooperative, I just thought you might enjoy figuring it out for yourself for once instead of having me outright tell you.”

TT: I am uncertain as to why you are under the impression that I would take pleasure in such an activity.

“Isn’t intellectual stimulation kind of what you’re all about? I thought you liked gathering information.”

TT: My attempt to gather information is currently obstructed by your failure to cooperate.

You sigh in defeat, as Roxy walks back into the maintenance lab with a bowl in each hand, and a small bundle under her arm.

“Roxy, would you mind explaining to AR why we don’t have any babies in the compound?”

“Seriously?” She lifts an eyebrow when you nod. “Because pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous as fuck, and we don’t have the resources to be raising any kids right now. If he’s confused about that, tell him there’s more ways to get busy with someone than just sticking tab A into slot B.” She walks over to where you’re sitting on the floor, kneeling down so she’s at your level. “Also the last lady who got pregnant died from complications six months in. Basically, we’re more concerned about our own survival than we are about the continuation of the human race. Does he understand that?”

TT: The members of your settlement have placed more value on themselves than they have on the perpetuation of your species and the fulfillment of innate biological urges, thus forgoing a moderate statistical risk in an attempt to prolong their own lives.
TT: Is this a correct assessment of your companion’s explanation?

“Yeah,” you direct the word at both of them. “Thanks, Rox. I figured you’d explain it better than I would.”

“No prob.” She passes you one of the bowls and unwraps the bundle, passing you a few precious stalks of fresh vegetables before sitting back and taking a bite. “This-shhit tayth werff by-th day.” You shrug, bringing one to your mouth and chewing it thoughtfully. “That ‘greenhouse,’ is a concrete block with dirt on the floor. I don’t know how she did it, but Jake’s grandma worked some kinda magic on that thing, because everything tastes like ass now that she’s gone. I’ve been thinkin about volunteering in there, if we ever get through this backlog. AR’s got some neat guides on how to grow different kinds of squash.”

“Figures,” you mutter around the stalk, before deciding to break it into pieces and add it to the unidentified protein mush in your bowl to hide the taste.

“I mean, we’d have to find the seeds first, but you’d be surprised at how long those things can last in the little packets people used to sell them in. I think there’s a gardening store or whatever on the other side of town. We could use a little dietary variety for a change, because I’m gettin sick of whatever this is.”

TT: The plant your companion is unable to identify is known as “rhubarb,” a vegetation high in both oxalate and anthraquinone glycoside compounds that are toxic to humans when ingested in sufficient quantities, however these compounds do not occur within the stalks of this plant unless it is first damaged by freezing temperatures while the leaves are still intact.

“AR says it’s rhubarb.”

“More like roo-barf, ugh.” She chuckles when you laugh, before a glint appears in her eye. “Oh heyy, that reminds me…how are things with you and the new bee-eff?”

You can feel your face immediately turning red at the question, and she grins. “That good, huh?”

“It’s fine,” you manage to say, looking down and stirring your bowl to keep your hands busy. “I mean, it’s not like Bro will let me get close to him or anything.”

“No,” she purrs, leaning her chin on one hand, “but like I said, there’s more than just tab A, slot B, right?”

You clear your throat in embarrassment, and she gently punches you on the shoulder. “Hey, I’m happy for you. Actually, I’m happy for both of you. Sounds like this kinda thing might do him some good.”

You frown at her, confused. “What do you mean?”

She shrugs. “I dunno, it’s just that he’s always seemed kinda miserable to me.” You blink at her, surprised into silence by her words, as she takes another bite of the stalk, using it to gesture while she talks. “I don’t think android society is quite the utopia everyone says it is. It’s not like technology ever solved all of the world’s problems. The way mom used to go on about it, people were just as unhappy back then as they are now, and I don’t see why androids would be any different, ya know? He’s probably been taking it out on the people he caught in the city, but I bet he’s gonna go stir-crazy, now that he’s stuck in here.”

She resumes working her way through her own food while you sit and think, turning the idea over in your head. Sure, he’s never struck you as being particularly happy, but you’d figured that ‘vaguely derisive hostility’ was just his default personality setting. It's possible that Roxy is just humanizing him because she doesn’t know any better, but still, her words have you thinking about it hard, and you might as well ask AR while you finish your meal.

TT: Did you hear what Roxy was saying just now?
TT: Yes.
TT: Is she right?
TT: Your companion has recently voiced multiple statements. Which of them are you inquiring about?
TT: Are you really as unhappy as she says?
TT: The emotional state to which you are referring is a highly subjective experience across individuals, taking into account the unpredictable variation associated with differing forms of consciousness and degrees of intelligence.
TT: It’s a yes or no question, AR. It’s not that complicated.
TT: I disagree.
TT: Furthermore, I do not understand the disproportionate level of importance you have assigned to my emotional state.

You lean back and let out a deep sigh, as Roxy looks up at you questioningly.

“I think the entire concept of affection is completely alien to him.”

“Pssh,” she gestures dismissively. “Look, if he can get pissed off enough to hold a grudge, then he’s just as capable of emotions as anyone else, and just because he’s never tried it before, it doesn’t mean he can’t. You tell him that.”

“Yeah, he’s listening,” you mutter, glancing up at the security camera. “I just don’t think he really cares, is all.”

Roxy is silent for a long moment, and when you turn back to her, she’s looking at you strangely.

“Dirk, if he didn’t care about you on some level, you’d be dead like several times over by now. You know that, right? What about the first time you met?”

“He only let me go because he was curious about me,” you tell her morosely, and she shakes her head.

“What about that time in the subway?”

“I think he was just fucking with me, to be honest.”

“And when he bloodied you up after you let him into the waterworks? You can’t tell me he did that just for fun, you told us yourself that he would try to kill you.”

She pauses as you lower your eyes to the empty bowl in your hands, before continuing.

“And when he carried you to the infirmary wing and told your brother how to save your life, or when he saved you from another freakin’ android, or how he quietly follows you around without taking his eyes off of you whenever I see you together?” She puts the stalk down to point at you accusingly. “Or how you didn’t even flinch when he grabbed your wrist in his claws yesterday, and when you got upset after he said all that stupid shit about your feelings, and then he backed off when you told him to. For fuck’s sake, Dirk, he let you cut one of his limbs off and stick tools into his goddamn nerves, and from what I can tell, he practically talks to you nonstop. What other proof do you need?”

“That’s not…” You grit your teeth, frustrated. “He had his own reasons for doing those things. Every time he’s helped me, it’s only because he was helping himself in some way.”

“Did he tell you that?” she asks with a touch of skepticism. “What makes you think he understands his own feelings any better than you do?”

“Because he’s not human, Roxy.”

“So?”

You open your mouth to retort, but nothing comes out, and you’re almost unhappy enough to glower at her. What’s worse is that you wish you were wrong and she was right, but you know AR better than that. His motivations have been selfish from the start, and you’d just be deluding yourself again if you believed otherwise.

“I know for a fact,” you tell her slowly, visibly irritated, “that he would never risk himself for me.”

“What about yesterday when the other android attacked you?”

“He already said he regretted doing that.”

“Sure he does. I bet that’s what he tells himself.” She sets her bowl aside and gestures for yours, stacking it on top of hers. “Just like you tell yourself that he doesn’t care, or that Jake will never talk to you again, but we both know those things aren’t true.”

She stands and takes the dishes with her, while you sit next to the broken engine and try not to let her words fill you with an awful sense of false hope. AR hasn’t said anything in his defense yet, but you know he’s always listening.

“Alrighty, I think that’s enough of being productive citizens for one day,” Roxy says from across the lab. “You coming back with me this time, or do I gotta drag you outa here?”

“Yeah, I’m coming.” You sigh, before standing and moving around the room to make sure the tools and computers are turned off. Roxy waits for you at the entrance, looking down at the touchscreen cell phone in her hand, long ago converted into a handheld computer.

“Janey’s still mad at you-know-who,” she says without looking up as you approach, turning to walk with you through the tunnels after you flick off the main ceiling lights. “Looks like I’m the only one still talking to him. You guys sure picked a shitty time to fight.”

“It wasn’t on purpose,” you mutter, looking down at your feet and listening to the sound of her fingers tapping lightly against the screen as she replies to whoever she’s messaging (probably Jane, although it might be Jake). You’re still caught up thinking about what she said before, even though you’d force yourself to forget about it if you could. There’s no way AR has feelings like that for you. He’s made it perfectly clear that he’s only in this relationship out of curiosity, and once he gets bored of you, he’ll probably end it with the same lack of consideration he began it with. You’d like to think it won’t happen that way, but you know it will.

Still, as much as you hate it, you can’t stop considering her words. Maybe you’ve been too quick to take everything AR says at face value. Maybe he doesn’t understand his own feelings any better than you did, back when you nearly died trying to save him from English. There’s only one way to really find out.

TT: AR, I want to ask you something important.
TT: If the goal of your inane statement was to make me aware of your desire to ask such a question, you have succeeded.

You hesitate at the tone of his reply and glance at Roxy, still busy typing a message on her phone as the two of you walk through the tunnels.

TT: Are you mad?
TT: I do not understand why this inquiry was of such significance.

Roxy lags behind as you turn the next corner, but you slow down enough so that you’re walking alongside her.

“AR is really angry,” you mumble, and she looks up at you with her eyebrow lifted, pocketing her phone.

“Gimmie.” She gestures at you, and she has to repeat the motion a second time before you realize that she’s gesturing for your shades. When you slide them off and hand them to her, she puts them on without a moment’s hesitation, and the two of you continue to walk next to each other through the tunnels in silence. You glance at her every now and then to see her expression changing slightly, as though she’s deep in conversation, and when you finally reach the door to your rooms, she enters ahead of you and wordlessly turns to hand back your shades.

“What did you say to him?” you ask, taking the eyewear from her, and she smiles warmly.

“Nothing much. If he’s still acting pissy, just let me know.” She leaves for her bedroom, and you’re left standing alone in the living room, looking down at your shades like they’re spring-loaded. You put them on slowly and notice that the chat window is blank, as though it’s recently been erased, and you know Roxy couldn’t have done that herself.

TT: AR?
TT: Are you still there?

He silent for long enough that you aren’t sure he’s going to respond, but just as you’re about to give up, he finally replies.

TT: Yes.

You blink at the single red word on the screen, before deciding that you don’t want to do this in the living room. Your door shuts behind you, and you sit on the edge of the bed facing the laptop’s webcam, where you know he can see you.

TT: What did you and Roxy talk about?

This time he doesn’t reply to your question, and you lean back against the wall after a few minutes with a defeated sigh, starting to wish you’d stayed in the maintenance lab instead.

“I’m sorry if I upset you earlier,” you say aloud, wondering what Roxy could have possibly said to get him so quiet. “I wasn’t trying to insult you or anything. You said yourself we’re only together because I’m useful to you, and I get that.” There’s a dark spot of grease on the side of your arm, probably from the machine you were shoulder-deep in today, and you rub at it after licking your thumb. “I know you don’t really care about me the way I do about you, and that’s fine. I’ve accepted that.” You swallow, ignoring the burn in your eyes. “I don’t have any delusions about why you’re with me, or why you trust me to help you.” You’ve managed to lighten the grease stain, but now it’s spread out into a thin smear, and you give up to lie flat on your back, staring up at the ceiling. “It’s my feelings you trust. I know it’s got nothing to do with me.”

It’s still early in the evening, but you’re already feeling the effects of having gotten so little sleep the entire week before, and whatever your emotions are doing right now isn’t helping. Your mind returns to the last exchange you had with AR before he got angry, and how he didn’t understand why you were asking about his mood. You never did get around to explaining it to him.

“It’s because I want you to be happy,” you whisper, sighing heavily as you close your eyes. “Because I care about you, and I wish you felt the same way, but I know that you don’t.”

 

Meanwhile, Roxy sat at the desk in her bedroom, compiling a program she’d been working on for one of the scavenging teams in her spare time- a massive interactive composite map of the city that includes a detailed blueprint of each building by floor level. As she types away at the keyboard, making some last minute changes to the code before giving it a test run, another window next to hers slowly fills with lines of red text while she reads along, displaying an ability to multitask that has often been the target of jealousy among her friends and coworkers.

TT: There is much that I do not understand about your species.
TT: Perhaps at one time I did understand these things, however I am not the same as I once was.
TT: A significant percentage of my memories have been corrupted by the modification process, despite the intact archive of data I have maintained.
TT: It is likely that the unit carrying out my modification simply did not find it necessary to delete this information, since it was not related to my psychology.
TT: Dirk reacted very negatively when I informed him of this process.
TT: His reasoning that they lacked the “right” to carry out this procedure was nonsensical. The very concept of rights is highly subjective and nebulous, even among humans.
TT: Our race has no such privileges.

“That’s why it upset him,” Roxy says offhandedly to the screen, tapping away at the keyboard as she works.

TT: My reassurance that this procedure is applied uniformly to all acquired units of intelligence had the effect of distressing him further.
TT: I do not understand what he gains from such behavior, reacting as though these events have harmed him personally.
TT: While the concept of self-sacrifice in the interest of a romantic partner is a well-established behavior pattern among pair bonded humans, I have observed a significant level of deviation from the expected parameters regarding your companion’s emotional responses.
TT: Given that he is the first human I have interacted with in this manner, I am unable to conclude whether these deviations are simply an example of normal variation in human behavior, or if he is instead a statistical outlier.
TT: Thus far he had expressed a variety of anomalous emotional and behavioral responses, such as his repeated attempts to sacrifice his life for individuals that are neither romantically nor genetically related to him.
TT: This includes his attempt to preserve my life while being fully aware that doing so would directly result in his own death.
TT: Although his romantic fixation later revealed a motivation for these actions, it does not explain the underlying cause for these feelings.
TT: I have done nothing to encourage such behavior from him.

“Not intentionally,” Roxy grins.

TT: His behavior patterns are highly maladaptive.
TT: It is difficult to understand how he has survived thus far, given how fragile human existence is.
TT: A single, random malfunction within one of your vital component organs is enough to permanently destroy your consciousness, and such an occurrence is often impossible to anticipate or prevent.
TT: Dirk does not possess a sufficient fear for his own life.

“Everyone’s afraid of dying.” She shrugs, leaning closer to the screen as she skims over her program’s coding. “He just cares more about you than he does about himself. That’s what love is, fyi.”

TT: His feelings for me are a detriment to his own survival.

“Then why is he still with you?”

TT: Because his behavior is pathological, and likely results from an underlying mental dysfunction.

Roxy hums thoughtfully with a faint smile. “Lucky you.”

   
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