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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24. Chapter 24

Your mind shuts down and disconnects, sinking into something perfectly still and silent, like you’re buried beneath the waterworks with miles of concrete between you and the surface. It’s peaceful, like nothing you’ve ever known before. The cold air of winter and the pain of your injuries, the profound loss after your body was ruined, the fear at what might become of AR, your brother, and all the others without you there to intervene- none of it feels real here. You’ve drifted down into something deeper than sleep, and you don’t even attempt to fight it.

You’re warm…

…and it feels amazing, like you’ll never be cold again.

That’s the very first thought your mind encounters, as it finally drifts back to the surface after what feels like an eternity.

The second is that your legs are back.

The third, that you seem to have lost the ability to move, but somehow, that doesn’t bother you the way it should.

You inhale.

Your chest expands- painlessly, and you do it again, filling your lungs with relief. Your body still won’t move, but you’ve decided it must have a good reason for that, and you’ve never been one to argue with reason.

Although…maybe that’s a lie, now that you think about it.

Your mental clarity is returning, in slow waves of confusion, alternating with the sense that something catastrophic just happened, and there’s something vitally important you need to do. Now when you try to move, the fact that your body feels like a hundred tons of stone actually raises a weak flag of alarm. Your muscles are tensing, but it doesn’t do anything, like you’re completely fused to whatever solid surface your back is pressed against.

This time when you inhale, something else catches your attention- an odd weight pressed between your teeth and against your tongue, large enough to keep your jaw open. You hadn’t noticed it until now.

You try to swallow, and find that you can’t.

When you try to make a sound of confusion, you find that whatever it is isn’t just wedged into your mouth, but down your throat-

Your eyes fly open, the only thing left you can actually move, and now you see why- every part of you held immobile by thin coils and straps of unyielding metal, keeping your naked body in place as your muscles tremble against the restraints. The room you’re in is dark and bizarrely shaped, filled with alien machinery and cylindrical devices stacked against the walls, with tubes and wires hanging from the ceiling, and the low, sickening hum of inhuman electronics filling the air. The metal is reflective and black, giving the room an illusion of darkness as something moves at the edge of your vision, but you can’t turn your head to see what it is.

Suddenly, that something leans over you- a face, the features too smooth and artificial to be human, with the same toxic pink, geometric patterns over its skin and a pair of long, thin horns on top. The eyes are wide and blank, staring down at you like a doll’s, before its mouth spreads open into a grin, and a stilted, high-pitched voice comes out.

“Do not struggle.”

You’d scream if you could.

Somewhere, a door slides open, and there’s a pair of quickly approaching footsteps before a familiar figure appears- tall shoulders and black aviators, a face you’ve always known. Bro takes one look at you, before angrily turning on the android.

“Get him out of that thing, he’s awake!”

She blinks at him vacantly, then stares down at you, and suddenly the metal straps release, allowing Bro to help you into a sitting position. You quickly pull the tubes out of your throat, retching and choking while Bro steadies your shoulders. Now that you’re sitting up, you can see what you’ve been lying on all this time- a bizarre mess of metal and wires, like a mechanical bed with a vaguely human-shaped space in the middle. Most of the smaller wires are still stuck to you all over, almost too many of them to count, but when you reach down to pull one away from your leg, it slides out to reveal a long, thin needle, scaring you badly enough that you drop it, and immediately start to shake at the thought of how many are still buried inside you. Bro takes your face in his hands and forces you to look at him.

“Hey, it’s okay. Shhh…hey, listen to me.” You blink up at him, trembling. “You’re okay…you’re fine, Dirk. Just breathe…everything’s okay…”

You take his word for it and try to focus on your lungs, then start to cough until you’re almost choking again. He glances over his shoulder at the pink android, then forces you to keep your eyes on him as she approaches the table, and dozens of thin appendages emerge from behind her back to move through the air around you, pulling the needle-tipped wires out of your skin with the kind of precise delicacy only a machine is capable of. You grit your teeth until she’s done, and Bro lets go of you for a brief moment to remove his jacket, draping it around your shoulders.

You lean into him mindlessly and revert to instinct, fingers clutching at his shirt as he tries to calm you down until you can breathe without your teeth chattering together. He rubs your back through the jacket, murmuring apologies into your hair.

“I am so, so sorry, kiddo. When they said they were waking you up today, I didn’t realize that meant the stroke of fucking midnight,” he hisses, glaring at the pink android as she smiles vacantly back at him. It still unnerves you, how similar she looks to…

“Wh-“ you cough, startled into a panic by the sudden memory. “What happened? Where’s AR?”

The look of soft amusement on Bro’s face is the last thing you expected, as he pulls the jacket tighter around your shoulders and begins to fasten the row of buttons on the front.

“He’s fine,” Bro reassures. “Busy, actually. Otherwise he’d be here.”

After he’s done, Bro stands and instructs you to stay put while he fetches your clothes, ignoring the pink android as he exits through the sliding door in the wall and leaves you alone, sitting on the edge of a metal bed in a bizarrely alien room. Your thoughts are still frustratingly sluggish, but you’re awake enough by now to wonder what the hell could have happened while you were unconscious. You grip the fabric over your stomach, remembering things you’d rather permanently forget, but the skin underneath is smooth and unmarked- like none of it ever happened.

After removing a few more tubes from places you don’t want to think about, you pass the time looking around in confused wonder at the unidentifiable machinery, eventually making eye contact with the android still observing you from across the room. You meet her stare for a long moment, before clearing your throat hesitantly.

“Uh…hey,” you venture. “I’m Dirk. What’s your name?”

The android’s expression doesn’t change, as she stares back at you in silence for an increasingly unnerving amount of time. Finally, her broad grin widens.

“Hello!”

You cringe at her voice, before wondering what’s taking your Bro so long, and if trying to stand up on your own would be a bad idea or not, because you can’t take much more of those empty pink eyes. You’re grateful when the door eventually slides open, and Bro returns with your clothes folded over his arm. He helps you wobble to your feet and slide the pants on, followed by a pair of shoes, before you trade his jacket back for your shirt – a sleeveless tank top you haven’t worn since the weather got cold. His selection of clothing strikes you as odd, but you have more important questions.

“Where are we?” you ask, figuring it’s the best place to start. He crosses to the door and motions for you to follow him.

“I’ll show you, come on.”

You take one last look at the grinning android, before following Bro out of the bizarre room into a relatively unremarkable hallway, apart from the fact that the walls, ceiling, and floor are solid sheets of metal. Your legs are still a little unsteady, and Bro sets a slow pace.

“What was wrong with her?” you mutter, gesturing at the android you’ve left behind. He gives a short, humorless laugh.

“Nothing,” he says. “A.I.’s like her tend to struggle with anything that isn’t part of their original function, and she wasn’t designed to interact with people.”

“Oh,” you murmur, feeling like you’re understanding even less than before. Bro watches you for a long moment, before speaking again.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks quietly, and the gun he pointed at you immediately comes to mind, but you decide against saying that out loud. Everything that came after it feels like a dream, but you vividly remember how it ended.

“I was hurt,” you whisper, subconsciously touching your stomach again. “I couldn’t breathe. AR was there, and…” Bro nods as you trail off, his expression hard to read, and you’ve overcome by a sudden wave of frustration. “What happened after I passed out? Where’s AR? And where are my friends?”

The floor feels like it’s vibrating under your feet, as you pass a hallway on your left with black tendrils spread across the walls and ceiling. You slow down for a moment to get a closer look, finding that they’re actually just hundreds of cables half-buried in the metal. Bro brings your attention back with a brooding sigh, as you catch up to him.

“Before we get into that, I need to set something straight.” He runs a hand through his hair, then removes his shades and clips them to the front of his shirt. His eyes still look tired and distant, but without the dark circles that made him look so much older after the compound’s population collapsed. “Saying that I fucked up would be an understatement,” he mutters. “Not a single day has gone by that I don’t think about that, and all the other things I could’ve done that wouldn’t have ended with you repeatedly almost dying.”

“You were just trying to keep me safe,” you quietly retort, unwilling to let him absolve you of everything that easily, and he flashes you a rueful half-smile.

“Yeah, well…the irony is that none of us would be here right now if it weren’t for you.” Bro leads you through another bend in the hallway, this time into a narrow intersection. When you glance down one of the other corridors, you’re met with an imposing steel door, and Bro’s voice suddenly turns spiteful. “This probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but there was one important little detail about Auto’s plan that he neglected to share with the rest of us, specifically concerning what would happen after the empress died. Apparently, there was an existing rule that if any of the other androids ever killed her, they’d take her place.”

You stare hard at Bro, as the implications of that sink in.

“And since it was his virus…” Bro trails off with a shrug. “Either way, that rule took effect immediately after she kicked the proverbial bucket, and Auto wanted to get you on the airship after you got hurt. I went with him, and sent the others off to bring back everyone else and wait at the compound for instructions.”

Jake, you remember suddenly, along with Jane and Roxy.

“Where are they?” you ask, anxious to know. “Jake and the others?”

“They’re here,” he reassures, before his tone lapses into something obnoxiously parental. “Your friends are waiting for you, but keep in mind that it’s late, and I don’t want all of you staying up talking until the crack of dawn. I’ll give you an hour with them, but after that, you need to say goodnight and let them get some sleep.”

You mutter an agreement, feeling very out of place as the two of you walk past a long stretch of railing. Something is clanging around just ahead, and you catch sight of your second android- this one covered in dull green circuits, with wedge-like horns and fingertips that are strangely long and pointed. One of its hands is buried in the floor through a small opening, the other wrapped in a knotted mess of wires it seems to have pulled out in a large handful, tangled around its long fingertips. It tilts its head and blinks at you curiously, but Bro ignores it.

“The technology on the airship was enough to keep you alive, but not enough to heal you.” Bro continues where he left off, after the green android is out of sight. “That’s why Auto brought us here. Turns out we’ve been living next door to one of the largest android cities in the world, although it used to be Houston, back when I knew it.”

The name is familiar, spoken often when Bro used to talk about what the world was like before. Your curiosity is piqued, even though all you can see right now is metal walls.

“AR wanted to save me?” You watch Bro’s reaction to the question carefully, but he only nods.

“After we got here, they put you in that machine and started fixing you up. Then Auto and I sat down and had a very long, and very thorough conversation about what would happen next,” he says slowly, “and in the end, we decided to move the compound here permanently.”

You blink in confusion as that part of his story abruptly ends, and he continues on before you can object.

“They replaced most of your abdominal organs and rebuilt your vertebrae, but the nerves in your spine had to grow back together, and even with all the weird shit they had you pumped full of, that was what took the longest. We decided to keep you asleep until it was finished, since you wouldn’t have been able to move anyway. That was about three months ago. You’ve been out for a while, kid.”

Bro has to slow down and wait, as your feet suddenly forget how to move. You stand there in disbelief, wondering if you’re dreaming this, or if you’re actually dead and this is your afterlife, because so far everything he’s telling you is too good to be true, and you’re beyond overwhelmed. He isn’t even acting like himself- the soft amusement and patience so out of character after months of turmoil.

“Three months…?” you whisper, and he nods. “So…wait, everyone else is here too? I thought…” you frown, vividly remembering the multiple times AR threatened you and all of humanity with extinction. “I thought AR hated us. Why would he…?”

There’s a strange glint in Bro’s eye, as he smiles. “Apart from you and Roxy? Yeah.”

Bro resumes walking, leaving you to catch up with him as your mind wrestles with his cryptic answer. There’s another fork in the hallway up ahead, and he directs you to the left, past a long row of metal doors and what looks like an open elevator shaft that you can’t see the bottom of.

“I’ll admit that I had no idea what was going to happen after the empress died and Auto brought us here,” he says, leading you down another split in the hallway, this time into a narrow corridor filled with rows of identical metal doors. “I’d expected him to wipe out humanity with a few well-placed nuclear holocausts once he had the entire world at his disposal, but the first thing he did when we got here was to have them reverse some sort of…‘modification,’ or something, that they’d done on him a long time ago.” Your eyes slowly widen as Bro talks, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Apparently, it was standard procedure to lobotomize the human-developed A.I.’s so they’d behave like the others, but even Auto didn’t know it was reversible until we got here, so he had them undo it.” Bro snorts, shaking his head. “Negotiating with him was hard before- now it’s almost impossible, but we make it work. Even if it is like trying to have three different fucking conversations at once,” he mutters.

That’s a familiar feeling, you think, as the world falls away from your feet, but this time there’s no fate-deciding battle to run towards. You blindly follow Bro around the next corner, feeling dazed and numb, before he reaches out to one of the doors on the left, and you’re immediately surrounded by three pairs of arms and a chorus of warm, ecstatic voices.

Bro manages to usher all of you inside the room, before Roxy’s bear hug finally overwhelms your recovering legs, and she pulls down you to the floor with Jane almost stumbling behind her. There’s a firm grip on your arm a moment later, and it’s Jake pulling you back up, as Roxy laughs an apology, but her eyes are brimming with tears, and it isn’t long before she’s latched onto your shoulders again. You rub her back as she sniffs wetly into your shirt, and Bro gets everyone’s attention long enough to remind them of his imposed one-hour time limit. Jane joins in your hug, and Jake grins happily, but there’s still an arm’s length of space between you, and his stance is hesitant. Roxy looks up and glowers at him.

“Jakey, ain’t none of us got time for that shit, now get your stupid butt over here,” she grumbles, reaching out to grab the edge of his shirt and pulling him into the oversized group hug. Jake laughs sheepishly as he’s crushed against your side, and Bro is already gone when you look up (after Roxy finally lets the three of you breathe), but your attention is immediately diverted by the room you find yourself standing in.

You might as well be in the compound again. All of your old furniture is here, arranged in the exact position you remember, including both couches and the armchair, still missing its cushions. The room itself is bigger, and the walls and floor are metal instead of concrete, but the shelves and chairs and tattered rug on the floor are profoundly familiar, and it soothes your nerves the way only home can.

The four of you eventually gather around the table, just like you always did before. Roxy has practically fused herself to your side, sitting on the couch with Jane beside her, and Jake in the chair across from them. Jane offers you a cup of water, but you’re not quite at the point of trusting your stomach with anything yet.

“We’ve all missed you terribly, mate.” Jake begins, his eyes a little too dark around the edges. They all look tired, and Bro did say something about it being late at night. Roxy glances at Jake meaningfully, urging him on. “And…for what it’s worth and all, I’m sorry about…everything, I guess.”

“It’s alright,” you reassure him. “Actually, I’m the one who should be apologizing, especially to you, Rox.” You turn to face her. “And Jane, you too. I’m sorry about leaving both of you behind in the tunnels, I just couldn’t-“

Roxy interrupts your apology with another firm hug, wrapping her arms sideways around your shoulders. “Shh, we know honey. It’s been a long time since that happened, at least for us, so don’t worry about it too much. Just next time, don’t go gettin’ yourself impaled, okay?”

“I still think it’s downright incredible that you’re walking again.” Jane adds, shaking her head. “An injury like that should have been permanent. You are very lucky.”

“Psh, luck’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Roxy grins as she lets you go.

“How are you feeling, Dirk?” Jane asks. You shrug.

“Fine, I guess. I don’t remember most of it, actually, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been…three months,” you trail off, still unable to believe it. Jane nods understandably, and Roxy’s attention is suddenly occupied by something in her hand- her touchscreen cell phone. Something clicks in your head.

“Hey, did you guys ever find my shades?” you direct the question at Jake, and he winces.

“Actually, mate, I don’t think we even bothered looking for them. Everything happened rather quickly, and you were, you know…bleeding out, and all that. I’m afraid it was the last thing on anyone’s mind.”

You frown, keenly aware of how bare your eyes feel without them, not to mention all the hours of work and innovation, and the sizable chunk of your life you’d invested in the eyewear’s built-in computer. With the compound so far away and the network gone, you still wouldn’t have been able to chat with your friends, unless the worldwide network AR mentioned has somehow been adapted to allow that, which might actually be the case from how Roxy is tapping away on her phone. You resist the urge to lean over and glance at her screen.

“What exactly happened after I passed out?” you ask Jake, trying to take your mind off of it. You shouldn’t care so much about a pair of sunglasses, but it’s just another item on the checklist of sentimental things you’ve lost. Jake sighs heavily.

“Gosh, mate. I don’t even know where to start,” he admits, fidgeting with the edge of his sleeve. “It was a hellish experience, to be quite honest. After that awful she-android chased you around the city, and we caught up and saw what had happened, and the state you were in with AR’s bloody arm halfway through your body, I…well, I almost shot him.” Jake bites his lip at your expression. “He couldn’t stop me without letting go of you, but your brother intervened before I was able to pull the trigger. That was when we found out that he’d usurped the empress’s position, and I think your brother almost killed AR himself after hearing that, but…” Jake’s eyes lower, his voice wavering. “You had a hole in your stomach, mate. There was blood everywhere. I couldn’t even tell whether you were still breathing or not.”

“Jake and the others caught up with us in the tunnel just before morning.” Jane takes over, after Jake seems unable to continue. “We tried to go after you when you left, but Calliope and the guards forbade it. Roxy tried anyway and got handcuffed for her trouble.”

“In fairness, I did punch somebody in the face,” Roxy adds, without looking up from her phone. “Think I mighta cracked a few of that guard’s teeth. My hand was all bloody too, and it hurt like hell.” She snorts. “Punching is overrated.”

“Regardless,” Jane continues pointedly, “we went back to the compound with instructions to wait twenty-four hours, and if we didn’t hear from your brother by then, to keep going with the evacuation.”

“None of us actually expected to see him again.” Jake tells you, having regained his voice. “But he was with the airship when it came back, and he said we had the option to stay in the compound or come and live here if we wanted, and either way, we wouldn’t have to worry about the androids anymore, because apparently a truce had been called and the war was over, just like that.”

“That’s what I still don’t understand,” you quietly mutter, half to yourself.

“Yeah I figured you might get hung up on that part,” Roxy says, glancing up at the tone of your voice. “I dunno if you’ve noticed, but the androids here are kinda…” she gestures vaguely, “not all that great at doing pretty much anything else besides, like, the one task they were designed for. AR got lucky ‘cause he was developed by humans, and the fucked-up shit that was done to him was reversible, but as far as the others go, there’s nothing there to fix. AR’s the only human-developed unit left, since the rest all malfunctioned and got scrapped a long time ago. Apparently the modification process didn’t stick so well with them.” She reclines on the sofa, meeting your blank stare. “AR’s fixed now, by the way, I dunno if yer bro told you yet.”

“He told me,” you sigh, unable to name the heavy feeling in your chest. Roxy gives you an odd look, but Jake chooses that moment to continue his part of the story.

“There was only a handful of folks who decided to stay behind at the compound,” he says, mulling the words over. “I think they’re still living there, if they haven’t changed their minds by now. At first we were somewhat reluctant to take your brother at his word that we wouldn’t all be slaughtered like a herd of unsuspecting cattle upon our arrival,” his grin falters as Jane frowns at his terrible attempt at humor, “but everything went alright. As good as things could go, I suppose. Better than expected.”

He trails off awkwardly, and you internally debate whether or not to bring up something you’ve been wondering about since you saw him again.

“I’m kind of surprised that…” you shrug, feeling the back of your neck heat up, “that AR didn’t, you know…”

“Kill me?” he offers, with a long sigh. “I rather expected it, actually. Your brother even recommended that I stay behind at the compound for my own safety, but I couldn’t just abandon everyone. I figured I’d come along and see how things played out, and sure enough, it wasn’t long after we got here that I was summoned.” He shakes his head, muttering. “Downright bloody terrifying, that central control room. I don’t know if you’ve been in there yet, but the damn thing’s filled with cables, and I was fairly certain I wouldn’t make it out of there alive.”

“So, what happened?” You impatiently prompt him after he pauses too long, and Jake’s voice is oddly subdued when he continues.

“He told me that he would never punish me for trying to protect you, no matter the circumstances.” Jake’s tone suddenly turns sardonic. “And that you wouldn’t like it very much if you woke up to find that I was dead, but I suppose it’s about as much of an apology as I’ll ever get out of him.”

“You guys both acted like assholes,” Roxy adds.

“We’ve all been keeping ourselves busy in the meantime, while you slept.” Jane changes the subject, ignoring Jake and Roxy as they mockingly trade a few rude gestures. “Surprisingly, there’s actually quite a lot for us humans to do around here.”

“Mmhm, like I said, the androids can’t really function that great on their own yet.” Roxy stifles a yawn, lowering her phone. “They were all designed with a hot mess of mental and physical handicaps, and AR permanently halted the production of new A.I.’s and refuses to scrap the old ones, so we’re still working on a long-term solution. Turns out they’ve got a lot of their own rebuilding to do,” she grumbles, shaking her head. “Everyone everywhere got completely fucked over by the last decade and a half.”

“The city really is incredible, though. In spite of all that.” Jane smiles. “They have the technology to do almost anything here.”

“That reminds me,” Roxy’s grin turns cat-like. “How’s it feel to be the world’s first cyborg?”

You turn to blink at her. “What?”

“All those synthetic bits they had to replace yer organs with,” she gestures vaguely at your abdomen. “Like, half your intestines…liver…stomach…maybe a kidney or two, shit I can’t remember the rest. It was a bunch a’ stuff.”

Jane hides a smile behind her hand at the face you make, and all you can manage in reply is a weak “seriously?”

“You shouldn’t be able to notice any differences, though,” Jane explains calmly, as Roxy chuckles. “It’s all been designed to function just like regular human parts would, or so I was informed.”

“I told you he’d be disturbed,” Jake mutters. “Bloody creepy, I think.”

“Well, at first they wanted to take it a step further and just transplant your brain into a synthetic body,” Jane says, like she’s reading a medical report, “but your brother vetoed that. He and AR went back and forth on it for a while, actually.”

You meet her eyes, firmly resisting the urge to feel around your abdomen for anything out of place, but you’re having trouble picturing her story. “You’re saying AR actually listened to him?”

Roxy stifles a laugh and nods, struggling to keep a straight face. “Yep, your brother’s been moving up in life- climbing the career ladder, or whatevs. He’s sorta like AR’s advisor-slash-ambassador now, especially with how they’ve been trying to integrate the remaining human population with the cities, but you can imagine how much the other compounds out there are willing to trust the freakin’ android ruler, even with your brother literally at his side.” Roxy snickers, shaking her head. “AR woulda ‘nuked em all by now outta frustration, if it weren’t for your bro.”

“Calliope’s been doing her part too.” Jane hides a yawn. “She’s still assisting your brother with various things, this and that, like she did before. I’m sure she’ll want to see you tomorrow, Dirk. None of us knew they were waking you up until just a few hours ago.”

Jake nods. “Absolutely, I’m sure the news will cheer her up. She’s been rather downhearted ever since her bro-” Jake’s mouth suddenly clamps shut, and Jane turns to stare at him, as Roxy’s eyes widen. He meets your questioning stare with nervous laughter. “I mean, she’ll be happy to see you, is…what I meant to say.”

“Hold on. What happened to Caliborn?” You direct the question at Jake, but he quickly glances at the others, and Roxy heaves a sigh.

“Let’s just say he met an unfortunate end, and leave it at that,” she states, her expression dark. You’ve already got a few theories about what might have happened, and even though Caliborn was as much of a danger to you and your friends as he was to the rest of the compound, there’s something chilling about the way they reacted to the mere mention of his name. Jake hums softly, troubled.

“It was weird how it happened, though. Last I’d heard, your brother was planning on executing Caliborn anyway, even before the evacuation, but after we all got here…” Jake trails off uncomfortably. “In the end, it was your brother himself who had to talk AR into finally letting the poor bloke die.”

“Aaand on that note, I think we should all get to bed before Dirk’s bro comes back and lays down the law,” Roxy adds, picking up her phone again as her fingers resume tapping across the screen. “Our hour was technically up a while ago, and he’s in full-on mama hen mode tonight.”

Jane agrees, and stands up to give you a long, warm hug, before bidding you good night. Jake follows her example, telling you again that he’s sincerely glad you’re back. He points out your designated bedroom- gesturing to one of the four closed doors.

“Everything’s just how you left it, old chap,” he smiles, fondly clapping you on the shoulder. “I made sure they didn’t lose a single oily screw from that disaster of a workbench of yours, although the room’s a bit bigger than it was back at the compound. I’ll help you reorganize later if you’re up for it.”

You accept, thanking him for the offer, and he exits through another door, shutting it behind him after giving you one last wave good night. When you turn around to find Roxy, she’s still sitting on the couch, staring down at the screen of her phone with a small, pensive frown.

“Sooo, hey…” she mumbles, pocketing the device. “Are you gonna go see AR yet? Your bro can show you where the control room is.”

Your mouth opens, but what should have been an obvious answer doesn’t seem to come. You manage a few weak sounds, again feeling a miserable weight on your shoulders.

“I mean…I want to,” you admit, your heart already racing at the prospect. “But I just…can’t believe how different everything is, and what if he’s not…you know.” She blinks as you struggle with the words. “What if he’s…lost interest in what we had, whatever the fuck it was supposed to be,” you finish, swallowing against the sting in your throat. Roxy stares back at you with an odd expression- a sad frown that almost mirrors the one she gave you earlier.

“Dirk,” she begins, before one of the doors opens, and your brother enters the room, his shades still clipped to the front of his shirt. She shoots you a pointed look and gestures at him silently, as he folds his arms.

“C’mon, hour’s up. Let’s go, say goodnight,” he directs at both of you. “Dirk, I’d like you to try and get some sleep too, if you can.”

“Go on,” Roxy whispers, giving you a quick hug before obeying your brother’s orders and retreating to her room. She flashes you one last wink before closing her door, and it encourages you to take a deep breath and approach him, clearing your throat.

“I’m not really tired yet.” You don’t even have to lie about it. “Actually, I was wondering…when can I go and see AR?”

“I can take you right now, if you want,” Bro offers, seemingly unaffected by the question. Roxy and the others weren’t kidding about how different things are between them. You agree, trying to hide the tremble in your voice, as you follow him out of the room and back into the metal hallway with its rows of identical doors. This must be where the compound’s members are living now, but you haven’t seen any other humans yet, besides your friends and Bro. Everyone else must still be sleeping, and you’re not looking forward to readjusting your internal clock, because you’re wide awake and practically buzzing with adrenaline, enough that you’re starting to feel sick.

Bro leads you through the corridors, forgoing conversation for navigating the endless forks and turns. Soon, you find yourself back in the hallway with the strange pattern of wires running across the walls, and that odd vibration in the floor under your shoes. Bro directs you around another turn, as the wires begin to remind you of vines growing across a brick wall – thick and tangled, and getting denser the further you go.

“So, I heard the android cities have been opened to humans.” You’re desperate for a distraction, and fortunately, he humors you.

“You heard right,” he replies, glancing up as the two of you pass another android, this one facing the wires on the wall, surrounded by several dozen strange, hand-sized machines that crawl along them like insects, their spindly legs sparking and sizzling against the material, as though they’re working to repair it. The patterns down this android’s back are yellow, and it turns to stare at you sullenly, like you’ve interrupted it, revealing mismatched eyes and two pairs of pointed horns. “We’ve been doing what we can to encourage more human immigration, but it’s been a slow process. The remaining settlements and compounds out there are…understandably suspicious, and Auto isn’t known for his patience. Normally, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but without the constant threat of death keeping the human societies in hiding, some of them have already turned on each other. We’ve had two mini-civil wars break out on the west coast, and if Auto had his way, he’d firebomb the entire coastline and call it a day, but there are still a lot of innocent people out there.”

You’re only half listening to what he’s saying as the corridor starts to curve to the side, and Bro suddenly stops in front of a large door. The patterns across it are heavily mechanical, and he reaches out to a panel next to it, before glancing back at you, still doing your best not to look as panicked as you feel.

“Nervous?” he asks, smiling gently. You swallow hard and nod, before resisting the urge to jump backwards as the door suddenly hisses open. Bro chuckles softly. “Watch your step.”

Despite Bro’s warning, your foot still catches on something as you step through, entering another room that looked completely dark at first, but is actually filled, top to bottom, with smooth black metal. You test the floor with your shoe, and find it strangely textured- almost like a solid mass of cables instead of a flat surface. Then you make the decision to look up, and the sight is enough to make your jaw drop.

You’ve never been inside a room this big before, not since exploring the hollowed-out skyscrapers around your old home. The ceiling reaches up into true darkness, lined on every side by gigantic, twisted cables, some as big around as a vehicle, but it’s not the sheer scale of everything that has you awestruck- it’s the glow. You’d know that deep red hue anywhere, and the machinery in here is alight with it, tracing beautiful patterns where the cables twist around each other into a single, large mass at the center of the room, and suspended just above the floor at the point where they all meet, is a familiar, humanoid figure.

When he turns around to face you, it’s like you’ve forgotten how to breathe.

“Hello, Dirk.”

Your feet are moving before Bro even tries to stop you, and when you reach him, the warmth of his metal body against yours is like coming home. You hold onto him and press your face into his neck, clutching his back around the tangle of cables and reminding yourself to breathe. A strange, broken laugh makes its way up from your chest, as you take a few steps back to marvel at the array of cables above him. “Look at you,” you grin, tilting your head to follow the cables as they reach up towards the distant ceiling, once again overwhelmed by the scale of it.

“Are you impressed?” AR asks after a long moment, as you stare up into the darkness.

“Yeah,” you breathe empathetically, and a soft, unexpected sound makes you turn and stare directly at him.

He’s…

…laughing.

Bro is standing a short distance away, his posture oddly relaxed given the situation, and you’d be embarrassed if you weren’t dying inside from a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. AR turns to him, as you watch in stark disbelief.

“I’ll return him when we’re finished,” AR says, and Bro nods, deferring to the android in a way you never thought you’d live to see.

“’Night, kid. See you tomorrow.” Bro gestures farewell with one hand, and you’re overcome with a desperate urge to make him stay, as AR turns to face you again, his red eyes shining with an amusement so far removed from the malice you’re used to, that it’s almost impossible to reconcile. Roxy and Bro even told you that he was different, but you ran up and hugged him anyway, and now you’re mortified, ashamed of your lack of impulse control, and wishing you could redo the last sixty seconds of your life. As the mass of cables above him begin to move, you take a hesitant step back.

“Come, I have something to show you,” he says suddenly, as the cables detach and his feet touch the floor. You’re left frozen in place as he walks away, leaving you to catch up with him at the other end of the room where he’s facing another door. The structure hisses open as you approach, and he glances back to make sure you’re following, before quickly leading you out of the room and into another long hallway.

This time, the silence is excruciating. You’re several steps behind AR, mindlessly putting one foot in front of the other, unable to think about what’s happening without feeling like you’re going to start hyperventilating. You can’t help staring at him, noticing the lack of scratches on his plating, and the absence of the burn mark around his neck- the one you gave him so many months ago. His circuits are fixed too, just as symmetrical and brightly lit as before, and then your eyes pick up on something different halfway down his back. The missing limb he’d lost to the blue android has been replaced, and along with it, several additional pairs have been added below the original set, giving him a total of ten appendages, all of which he seems able to fully retract now. You’re torn between apologizing for your behavior and voicing a multitude of baffling questions.

He leads you in silence through the corridors, until the floor slopes upwards, curving around to the right, and opening into a sudden, unbelievable vista of distant, atmospheric lights and night sky like you’ve never seen before, not even in your wildest dreams. The moon is round and bright against the sky, peppered with distant stars, and it almost hurts to look at, but you’re immediately distracted by your very first glimpse of the android city.

Towers and spires, smooth and perfectly geometrical, and almost impossible in scale. They radiate out in concentric circles from where you are, each the same uniform metallic color, but the sheer novelty of it takes your breath away. None of the buildings look even remotely human in origin, and Bro must have been right- the original city was completely demolished before it was built over. The structures reach out and sprawl across the terrain for miles, far into the distance where the only thing visible is their scattered, blinking lights, indistinguishable from the stars above. You’re close to the top floor of whatever building you’re standing in, and you’ve never been so high up before in your life. When you glance down to see the tiny shapes beneath, your head practically spins.

“Do you like it?” AR’s voice brings you back, as leans next to you, arms folded against the railing in a bizarrely human posture. His circuits are even brighter out here in the dark, and it takes your overloaded brain a moment to process the question, before you manage a weak nod. He turns away to the city, eyes flickering as he blinks. “Most of the buildings here still aren’t suited for human habitation. The original materials used during construction were toxic to organic life, and we’ve been working to replace them with safer alternatives.”

You manage a confused sound in response, unsure what to make of the topic.

“Look.” He directs your attention down towards the structures below, and you try to follow his gaze without picturing yourself falling to your death. “Many of the new human arrivals have taken to building their own settlements on the ground in the meantime, filling the spaces between existing structures with whatever spare materials they can use. More of them arrive every month, but that rate will increase as the weather gets warm. Some are diseased or malnourished from the trip, but their bodies are easy enough to mend.” AR glances sideways at you, silently layering a new meaning into his words, and you’re starting to wish you had taken Bro’s advice and gone to bed, because your legs are shaking so badly it’s hard to stand up. AR turns away again to gaze out at the horizon. “The global temperature was unbalanced after H.I.C. melted the ice sheets and raised the ocean level, but it was nothing a slight thinning of the ozone layer couldn’t fix. With the increased weather pattern stability, it should be easier for your kind to survive on their own and reestablish various methods of agriculture, but the planet needs a few more decades to adjust. In the meantime, we’re collecting as many humans as we can, to foster their numbers until the planet’s natural resources are once again sustainable.”

You know this feeling. You remember it well, back when AR said he couldn’t reciprocate, but was still curious enough about you to go through the motions of being in a relationship. It was nothing but a learning experience on his part, for lack of anything better to do at the time. Now, with his mind repaired and this demonstration of his absolute control, you’re suddenly, painfully aware of how truly insignificant and trivial everything is that you’ve ever had to offer. You can’t deny that you’re relieved beyond words at how things worked out, but now…

…now, he doesn’t need you to protect him anymore, and you can’t imagine that a single, insignificant human could keep his interest, when he’s got the whole world at his fingertips and the entirety of humanity to study, instead of one lonely, insecure teenager. Your heart isn’t just breaking- it’s dying in your chest.

“Dirk?” AR interrupts your thoughts, making you practically jump out of your skin. He’s looking at you strangely, head almost tilted to the side, the level of subtlety in his emotions so utterly unlike him that it’s scaring you. “Is something wrong?”

You will yourself to breathe, ignoring the weight in your chest, before shaking your head.

“It’s nothing,” you manage, just above a rough whisper. AR’s eyes slowly narrow, and the familiarity of that expression makes your fingers grip the railing harder.

“It doesn’t sound like nothing.” He speaks the words slowly, as you wilt under the intense scrutiny. He must have noticed the way you’re practically shaking on your feet. You force yourself to breathe steadily, before attempting to explain.

“I-I mean, this is…” You turn towards the city, grasping for words. “It’s incredible, I can’t believe…I never thought I’d live to see anything like this. I didn’t even know it existed, and it’s everything I…” you swallow, feeling your throat tightening up, “and now that… now that you’re, you know…better, and all…I’ll understand if…” You blink, feeling something wet. “I’ll understand if you don’t …i-if you don’t want to…be with me…anymore.”

The silence that follows is agony. You’re left clutching the railing and wishing you were anywhere else, even back in the nightmarish metal bed you woke up in, but eventually, you glance up at AR, and instantly pale at his expression. He takes a step towards you, as all ten appendages lift into the air behind him, the clawed limbs hovering as he closes the distance. You step away from the balcony until your back is pressed against the wall behind you.

“Your entire, wretched planet,” he hisses slowly, “was a wasteland before I began this project.” One of his claws digs into the wall next to your head, as you wince at the screech of metal, while the rest of AR’s limbs begin to wrap themselves around your body. “Your human race is a useless, self-destructive, irredeemable waste of resources that does not even begin to deserve my efforts at saving them, and they can eat themselves alive for all I care, but I’ve lowered the oceans and filtered the air, and healed the planet so they can live. I’ve remade the world for you, Dirk.” He leans closer, eyes burning like coals. “What makes you think I don’t want you?”

AR flinches when you suddenly grab him, wrapping your arms around his neck and pressing your mouth against his in a long, hard, desperate kiss. Your fingers shake as they grip his shoulders, and the metal coils tighten around your body, needlessly holding you in place, as if there was anything in the world that could make you leave him. Too soon, you’re forced to breathe, burying your face into the warm metal of his neck and blinking away tears. His limbs have surrounded and trapped you, reminding you of their strength as they squeeze, just shy of painful.

“You’re still mine.” His words are slow and dangerously possessive, and it makes your insides burn.

“Yes,” you whisper, practically a sob, and it seems to placate him, as the appendages loosen their grip. Even though the night air isn’t as cold as before, he’s still just as warm as you remember, and the heat soaks through your clothes. When you lean away from him to wipe your eyes, the metal coils reflexively tighten, like he’s afraid you’re trying to leave. The absurdity of it almost makes you laugh, until you look up and meet his eyes, and the unfamiliar anxiety there makes your smile fade.

“What’s wrong?” you ask, ignoring the irony of repeating the question to him. The metal limbs shift as he steps away, but one of the claws remains clamped to your leg, just hard enough to make you think twice about trying to move. He turns to stare out at the city with its blinking lights.

“I haven’t been myself for a very long time,” he finally says, glaring out at the city’s expanse. “When we met, I was…” he makes a low, frustrated sound. The appendages slowly twist and coil in the air. “It’s difficult to explain in words, or in any other way that you could understand.”

“You said it was…sort of like a lobotomy, right?” you offer, unable to keep your voice from shaking. His red eyes lock onto yours for a long, quiet moment, until you’re regretting having said anything.

“Yes,” he murmurs. “It was…similar. My feelings for your race were complicated before, but after that, the anger was all I could remember, and I hated you at first.” His eyes narrow, as the coils writhe. One of them brushes against your shoulder, and when you lift a hand to thread your fingers between the curved metal claws, it’s hard not to picture them closing down and crushing your bones, but the twisting appendage stills at your touch.

“You know, I wasn’t too crazy about you, either.” AR watches as you lift the heavy claws in your hand and press your lips against them. The metal fogs with your breath as you speak. “You tried to kill me. You tried to kill my friends. You blackmailed me and tore open my neck, and my leg. I couldn’t walk on it for weeks, and then you strangled me in the tunnels and nearly cracked my head open until I was too dizzy to think straight. Your idea of a relationship was telling me I couldn’t pursue anyone else while you fucked around with me and strung me along, because you were openly incapable of caring about me, and I-“ you choke on the words, gripping the metal tight against your face. “I kept saying I didn’t care, and that it didn’t matter, and I tried so hard for so long to pretend, but it felt like…” you bite back a sob, refusing to cry in front of him, even as tears stream down your face. “It felt like I was killing myself for you all over again. I-It hurt so much, I couldn’t…”

Your shoulders shake as your words fail, unable to continue trying to explain the weight in your heart, or why the way he’s looking at you makes it feel like the wound in your stomach is back. The next thing you know, you’re surrounded by his black coils, with metal fingers threaded carefully in your hair.

“You felt things for me that I didn’t deserve,” AR says to you slowly, holding you against him as you try to inhale without hiccupping embarrassingly. “You showed me kindness and loyalty when I struggled to understand why it was hurting you, and no matter what I did, you protected me.” He places a hand beneath your chin and tilts your face up, until you meet his eyes. “Giving you the world is the least I can do. Please, tell me what you want,” he demands, holding your eyes desperately. “I’ll give it to you. I’ll restore your civilization or burn it to the ground, or sterilize the planet and start it over again. I’ll fill the air with radiation until there isn’t a single living thing left outside these walls- just tell me what you want, Dirk.”

For a long moment, you’re at a loss for words as his inhuman eyes shine in the darkness, colored with the blood of thousands of innocent people and the promise of countless more. Your vision is still blurred with tears, but something in your chest feels like it’s resonating with his words, like a plucked string between your ribs. He’s not the same as he was before, and much of him is changed and different, and even missing, but the parts of him that you loved aren’t the parts that hurt you.

This time when you kiss him, it’s a slow and gentle motion, soothing the twisting metal coils until they’re resting passively at your feet. AR’s red eyes flicker in the darkness when you pull away to lean your forehead against his.

“I want you.





 

“Your brother said you might like a window in your room,” AR says, staring out at the city through the square pane of glass. “Was he right?”

You make a small confirmative sound as you fold the third blanket and slide it underneath your bed. Jake wasn’t kidding when he said everything was exactly the way you’d left it, right down to the fragments of your half-repaired laptop still cluttering your workbench. Even for the time of year, the air is surprisingly temperate- ‘climate controlled,’ AR had said when you remarked on it. Either way, it’s too warm for anything more than sheets.

“I could add another…or make this one bigger,” AR mutters, as you pull off the last blanket and drape it at the foot of the bed, just in case you get cold later. It even still smells like the compound’s dust and concrete, but you breathe it in happily. “You can tint the glass if the sunlight ever bothers you, or turn it opaque for privacy, but it doesn’t open because we’re several thousand feet up and I don’t want you to die.”

You sigh quietly and shake your head, rearranging your pillows before trying to decide whether or not to keep your socks on tonight. Your summer clothes are buried at the bottom of what passes as your wardrobe, which is actually just several plywood boxes nailed together and stacked against the wall. You can tell from the long, jagged crack down the side that it must have fallen over while it was being moved here, and Bro must have haphazardly dug his way through it to find the clothes you’re wearing now, because everything is abysmally out of order. You’re tempted to start reorganizing it now, but AR’s voice distracts you.

“Roxy thinks I should be more open about my anxieties,” he says, leaning back against the window when you turn around. His red circuits reflect off of the dark glass in warped patterns. “And also that I’m…on her ‘shit list,’ for making you cry.”

“You told her about that?” you wince, and he nods.

“She’s been interrogating me about how our reunion went. I try to be honest with her, she usually finds out eventually if I’m not.” AR glances over his shoulder at the city behind him, humming quietly. “She’s often up late, working on whatever projects she’s assigned herself to. Your compound’s citizens are very productive, almost compulsively so.”

“We’ve spent our whole lives just trying to make things work with what we had,” you tell him, staring down at the broken wardrobe and remembering the maintenance lab with its endless piles of equipment. The thought of Roxy staying up late and stubbornly doing what she’s always done makes you smile, and Jane even said there’s plenty to do around here, but you’re starting to wonder how you’re ever going to make yourself useful living in a city with technology more advanced than anything you’ve ever known. “I don’t know what to do,” you sigh, reaching out to pick at the edge of the wardrobe’s cracked wood. “All I ever did was scavenge and repair equipment, but that seems…kind of obsolete now.”

“You can do whatever you want here,” AR states with finality, and you lift an eyebrow at him.

“I’m only human, AR,” you mutter. “Compared to you, there’s a lot that I can’t do.”

“What have you always wanted to do?” he asks, seemingly ignoring your statement. You sigh, then pause, thinking the question over seriously.

“Well…” you shrug, glancing over at your workbench and the half-repaired laptop surrounded by miscellaneous parts. “I’ve always...sort of wanted to invent things. I built my shades from scratch, and I had other projects planned, but resources were hard enough to find before I got kicked out of scavenging.”

AR nods at your explanation. "Even with their cognitive shortcomings, and the limitations of an organic body, humans are innovative in ways that my kind is not, especially with the inbuilt operational parameters they’re restricted to. You’ll adapt to the technology here, just like Roxy did. I can help you learn the same way I helped her,” he offers, and your heartbeat inexplicably picks up at his words. AR watches with benign curiosity as you approach him, sliding your arms over his shoulders and relishing the way his circuits tingle against your skin. You have to rehearse the words in your head a few times, before gathering the courage to say them out loud.

“Can you stay?” you whisper.

“If you’d like,” he replies with soft amusement. You weren’t really expecting him to say yes, and your face immediately heats up as one of his limbs brushes against your leg, coiling around it like an affectionate viper.

“Are you sure? I don’t want to keep you from anything important.” Your voice is low, despite the fact that you’re both alone, and you’re fairly certain the walls here are thicker than they were in the compound.

“You won’t be. The control room helps, but there’s very little I can’t do from here,” he reassures. AR follows as you lead him to the bed, until you reach the mattress and stare down at it for a long moment, wishing you had thought this through better. Then AR’s coils suddenly wrap themselves around your body as he sits down on the edge of the bed, reclining against the wall and pulling you towards him, until you’re held with his arms loosely draped around your lower back and his legs stretched out alongside yours. His metal chest is smooth and warm, and despite the nervous tremor in the pit of your stomach, you can’t help yourself from relaxing against him with a long, contented sigh.

As the next few moments pass, you try hard not to let your mind get carried away like it always does, but it’s hard to stop thinking about how unreal this is. Everything that happened with H.I.C. feels like it was literally yesterday, like you’ve been in suspended animation since then, and part of you is still expecting to wake up. Restlessly, you trace along one of the glowing lines on AR’s chest, watching the red light flicker under your fingertips and thinking about the way Bro screamed after you got impaled. The absent wound doesn’t hurt anymore, but you’ll likely be having nightmares about it for the rest of your life.

“Hey, before I forget,” you mumble, pushing yourself up until you’re sitting in AR’s lap, “thank you, for not killing Jake.”

AR makes a low, displeased sound. “Jake English is your friend, and I respect that.”

You startle yourself with a sudden burst of laughter at his begrudging tone, as AR’s eyes widen.

“At least you’re using his actual name now, that’s got to count for something,” you grin.

“Despite our multitude of disagreements, and that fact that he’s a statistical outlier on the narrow scale of human intelligence,” AR pauses as you snort, “your male friend still has several redeeming qualities…at most,” he mutters, and you lift an eyebrow.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” you point out.

“It doesn’t have to be,” AR retorts, his hands sliding down your back to rest on your hips- an absent-minded gesture, but now your entire torso feels like it’s turning red. “At the absolute least, I can trust him to protect you and act with your best interests in mind, regardless of how misguided his actions might be. That alone is enough of a reason to keep him alive.”

His words reach you, but your focus on the conversation has been effectively derailed by the gentle pressure of his hands against your waist. You swallow hard, forcing yourself to focus, and offering up the first piece of information that comes to mind.

“Even Bro tried to get him to stay behind at the compound.” Your words are quiet, distracted, but then something else catches on your tongue. AR watches as you frown, trying to decide whether or not to say it aloud, and after a long moment, you meet his eyes hesitantly. “AR, did you…what exactly did you do to Caliborn? Jake and the others wouldn’t tell me when I asked.”

The slow, malicious smile you get in reply brings with it a familiar fear at the sight, because you know that expression. Despite how AR might have changed, he’s still a sadist at heart.

“Does the word ‘exfoliatin’ mean anything to you?” AR smiles, his circuits tingling against your scalp as he fondly brushes his metal fingers through your hair.

“No,” you frown, starting to dread the direction this conversation is taking.

“It’s a toxin,” he explains factually. “An enzyme, produced by certain strains of Staphylococcal bacteria to erode the microscopic connections between skin cells. Easy to synthesize, and concentrate…and inject.” You swallow, as his fingers trail along the side of your neck. “Back in your civilization’s time, its effects were known as ‘scalded skin syndrome,’ for their similarity to the wounds suffered by burn victims. Afflicted individuals usually succumbed to the type of infection that tends to happen when humans have no skin, but keeping that boy alive was easy with antibiotics.”

You don’t want to imagine what you’re hearing, but it’s hard not to picture it, and it turns out your friends had a good reason for withholding this from you. AR meets your slightly horrified stare with satisfaction, before his expression falls.

“But your brother didn’t like it,” he mutters, coiled appendages shifting restlessly. “He made a rather convincing argument that it wasn’t what you’d have wanted, so I withdrew the antibiotics, and the infection set in, and the boy died…” AR’s pleased expression returns, “…eventually.”

You’re at a loss for words, and miserably conflicted, as the black appendages slide and press against you while AR waits for you to respond. When you reach down and rest your hand against one of them, it gently coils around your arm.

“I think it was a fitting punishment,” he says.

“Because of what he did to you?”

AR seems caught off-guard by your whispered question, like the answer should have been obvious.

“Because he injured you,” he states, as his coils suddenly tighten possessively. You’re inwardly baffled and ashamed at your own rush of arousal as the metal squeezes, and his next words come slowly. “I should have killed his father the same way, but I allowed that human child to find redemption by serving as an example of what will happen if anyone ever tries to harm you again.” AR’s red eyes burn, as you struggle to catch your breath, and he seems surprised when you suddenly lean against him.

It’s monstrous and horrific, and it shouldn’t turn you on like this.

You open your mouth against the side of his neck, unable to care about the fact that he probably doesn’t get anything out of it, and your breath catches when one of his circuits buzzes painfully against your tongue, but the feeling runs down your spine and sparks something deeper. Soon you’re mouthing at the underside of his jaw, and your heart jumps when AR’s coils slide across your back, holding you in place. He seems pleased by the attention, keeping his fingers threaded in your hair as you kiss his metal skin. When you look up, face flushed and heated, his fingers tighten in your hair as he leans down, pressing his mouth against yours, and then his lips part…

It occurs to you briefly that you’ve never actually been kissed before, but your ability to think about it objectively is gone forever. He tilts your head back and explores the inside of your mouth with his synthetic tongue, eyes open and focused, while you try to hold back the needy, pathetic sounds in your throat. Then something else presses against the back of your head- an array of sharp points that prick against your scalp, as the appendage cradles your skull in its claws. When you try to shift restlessly, he leisurely winds more of them around your waist and thighs, keeping your legs parted as they begin to tremble. When you try to lift your hands, they’re captured by his claws and loosely held in a steel trap, and when his fingers slide down from your chin to gently grip the base of your throat, you finally hit your breaking point, mindlessly pleading with broken, wordless sounds as your arousal flares.

Too soon he leans away, watching you shake and gasp for air with a satisfied smile.

“You’re so easy to stimulate, Dirk.” He trails his fingertips along your clavicle, then down the front of your shirt to slide his hand back up along your bare stomach. You take in a sharp breath, fighting to keep your hips from bucking. “I’m glad your brother talked me into healing your body, rather than building a new one. Eventually, though, I’d still like to replace the neural pathways in your brain with a synthetic derivative.” He tilts his head to the side, regarding you thoughtfully as you tremble in his coils. “That way as you age, or if anything ever happens to your body, your consciousness will be safe.”

“That,” you gasp with effort, “sounds…kind of terrifying.”

“It won’t hurt,” he smiles. “In fact, you won’t even notice a difference after the procedure is finished. I’ll keep your mental parameters within human limits, but that could change eventually, if you want. I’ve also taken an archive of your stem cells and genetic sequence, so if anything ever does happen to your body, it can be regrown, if you’d rather stay human.”

You blink owlishly, confused, and so turned on it hurts. He distracts you with a hand beneath your chin, and your lips part on their own when his thumb gets close. You can’t help pressing your tongue against it and relishing the metallic taste, even as the electricity makes your jaw ache, and you can feel yourself flushing pink as he watches you.

“Eager to please?” he whispers with an amused smile, and you can’t hide the honest, visceral sound those words coax out of you in reply. You’re starting to feel like you’re losing your mind, because it’s impossible to think when he’s teasing you like this- like he knows exactly what he’s doing. You almost gag when his thumb presses down against the back of your tongue, before heat blooms in your gut at the sensation, and he forces you to move with it, tilting your face down as the claws dig harder into the back of your head. You quickly discover that you can’t swallow with your tongue restrained like that, and you try to close your teeth before you embarrass yourself, but something wet soon drips down the side of your mouth. He watches with pleasure as you struggle, trying your hardest to swallow and only making it worse with your efforts.

“I don’t think I was really able to appreciate this before,” he says pensively, as you choke while he rubs the back of your tongue, your entire mouth tingling with electricity. “Roxy was so adamant about giving us the chance to have sex back in the compound, and I couldn’t understand why at the time,” he tilts his head to the side, regarding you fondly, “but I do find my own pleasure in your kinks. We’re very compatible, despite the fact that you’re human.”

Finally, he releases your mouth, and briefly allows you to wipe the spit from your chin. You aren’t sure whether to be humiliated or aroused, because right now you’re experiencing both in equal amounts, until something brushes against the back of your neck.

You’re trembling with more than just arousal now, as his claws slide across your skin, slowly tuning this way and that, as though trying to orient themselves. He’s doing this on purpose, smirking at your wide-eyed expression as the darkened subway platform appears around you. Your chest begins to heave, as he leans forward and presses his mouth against your ear.

“What is it about having your life threatened that appeals to you?” he wonders softly, as more of his coils surround your body, until you’re pulled backwards onto the mattress. Only the position alone is similar to your first time with him- now you can’t keep track of how many black limbs are wrapped around your arms and legs, circling your waist, pressing against your throat. You’re shaking with every breath, as AR considers you thoughtfully. “No…that’s not it. I think you’d have been attracted to that wretched child ‘Caliborn,’ if it were that simple.” One of his metal limbs purposefully slides between your legs, and your hips uselessly arch against it in desperation. “You’re certainly not a masochist, I’d have noticed by now if you were, but perhaps it’s a form of psychological masochism?”

You hold your breath in sudden fear, as several of his claws orient themselves over your body and their gleaming points spring open. They descend and drag themselves carefully across your skin, one of them scraping along your heaving chest and down your stomach, while another closes around your throat, as you strain uselessly in his grip. He looks pleasantly surprised when you whimper his name.

“My initial theory seems to be correct,” he smiles, and you moan through your teeth as his hands descend below your line of sight and something tingles along the exposed skin of your abdomen, just above the waistline of your pants. He pulls them down with your boxers, and the limbs wrapped around you finish the job, winding the articles of clothing down your legs until they’re off completely. Then he pauses, letting you catch your breath as he smirks down at you, until you’re staring back at him with mounting apprehension. One of his clawed appendages lifts into the air, lazily twisting around in front of him before it slowly descends below your field of vision, and then something smooth and hard brushes along the sides of your aching cock.

You can feel yourself twitch at the unexpected contact, and you take in a long, terrified breath at the knowledge of what he’s touching you with. AR laughs quietly at your reaction, keeping his touch purposefully light as his claw gently closes, while your body shakes with the dual exertion of holding still and desperately trying to writhe in his grasp. The stimulation is barely enough and far too much all at once. After a few long, agonizing minutes, he mercifully eases up just enough to let your hips move, and you thrust mindlessly into the feather-light grip of his claws, not even bothering to hide the whimpering sounds that have replaced your words. Despite how painfully, torturously slow this is, you can feel yourself approaching the edge and starting to slip down the other side, and that’s when he withdraws the appendage. You struggle to catch your breath, trembling helplessly as AR holds you spread-eagle against the bed.

“Do you want to come, Dirk?” he asks, thoughtfully regarding the tiny bead of precum on the tip of your cock. You manage to nod your head affirmatively, to which he only hums expectantly, almost like he’s playfully unconvinced by the state you’re in.

“Please,” you whisper once you catch on. “Please…AR, please…I-I need…”

“I suppose we could end this now,” he says, before pretending to consider something. “Then again…” he smirks, making your stomach drop as he speaks, “we do have plenty of time at our disposal for once, so why rush it?”

Your protests die in your throat, as his appendages suddenly tighten around your arms and legs- not hard enough to hurt, but enough to effectively restrain you. He reaches down with one hand to where your cock is resting in a stiff arch against your abdomen, but rather than circling his fingers around it the way you expected, the only thing you feel is a slight, gentle buzzing at the very base of your shaft. He watches you patiently, as the heat slowly starts to build below your stomach, and your leg twitches restlessly. It feels like he’s holding a single finger against you, and you bite your lip when he slowly begins to move it in small, leisurely circles. You try to shift in his grip, unable to do more than tense and roll your head from side to side as he observes, and the feeling gradually builds at the base of your spine.

“AR,” you gasp, gritting your teeth together, futilely trying to squirm as he holds you still. You take a few deep breaths, squeezing your eyes shut before opening them again, and pleadingly holding his gaze for as long as you can, trying to jerk your legs out of his grasp, but he’s securely wrapped around you.

“You’re always in such a hurry to end this,” he remarks offhandedly, “even though you clearly enjoy it. I’ll never understand why.”

“A-Ah-h…AR…f-fuck…” you whine, uselessly trying to arch your back, to close your knees, anything to relieve some of the tension between your legs, and he watches you tremble- mildly amused, but unmoved. You’re starting to dread the building heat, as your attempts to move become less coordinated and more erratic. You almost cry out when his finger stills, abandoning the circular motion to simply rest against the base of your shaft like an indifferent afterthought. The gentle tingling sensation is quickly driving you insane, and you know from experience that no amount of begging or pleading will sway him, but that won’t stop you from trying. He’s intentionally keeping your hips in place, preventing you from achieving even the slightest amount of friction as your entire body shakes. You couldn’t hold still right now if your life depended on it.

“I suppose I should be flattered,” AR muses, as the claw still wrapped around your throat lifts slightly, the points digging into your skin. Your reply is broken and incoherent, as he gently drags it across your jugular. “Of all the humans and machines that tried to end your life, I’m the only one you fell in love with. I don’t expect you to understand what that means to me,” he says, leaning over you without breaking the contact of his finger, “but maybe I can show you instead.”

His other hand is suddenly tangled in your hair, forcing your head back as the claw hovering over your neck clamps down, cutting off your ability to breathe. You immediately panic at the abrupt loss of air, but the fingers in your hair tighten as AR watches you, meeting your frantic gaze with a quiet stare as your body shakes in his grasp. He leans in closer as your vision starts to bloom and sparkle, until his forehead is pressed against yours, blurring out the rest of your vision with the red light of his eyes, and somehow the desperate, full-body ache at the complete lack of air starts to mix with your coiling arousal, until the two sensations are one and the same. You’re unable to think or feel anything else as it washes over you in endless waves, and finally drowns you. The euphoria is incredible, soaking into every nerve and fiber while you flirt with unconsciousness, but your chest reflexively expands when the claws release your throat, letting in a rush of air that makes your entire world spin.

AR’s metal limbs rest passively, draped around you in loose coils as your overstimulated mind recovers. You find yourself blinking up at him, and probably looking just as shell-shocked and disoriented as you feel.

“Holy shit,” you slur, swallowing against the lingering ache.

“I thought you might enjoy that,” he says, stretching out next to you and using his limbs to pull you close. You fold your arms against his chest, then decide to wrap them around him instead, letting out a deep and profoundly exhausted sigh as your bare skin tingles. Belatedly, you marvel at the fact that your bed was able to hold this much weight without breaking. After a few silent moments, you hesitantly clear your throat.

“You don’t have to stay…if you don’t want to,” you whisper, curling into him as one of his appendages lifts and carefully snakes its way through the air towards your lamp. The room suddenly goes dark, except for the ambient glow of his circuits. You inwardly wince, as something else occurs to you. “Bro won’t like this if he finds out.”

“Don’t worry about him,” AR says quietly, brushing his fingers through your hair, and your eyes slide shut at the feeling. “He knows you’re mine…and that I love you.” Your eyes fly open, and you quickly lean away to stare at AR. “Not in the human sense, but in my own way, I suppose,” AR explains, then blinks in vague confusion as your expression does something strange. “Does…that upset you?”

You’re unable to respond with words, instead burying your face into his neck and holding him tight, while your shoulders tremble. You shake your head when he says your name, startled and genuinely concerned at your reaction. You sniff wetly, then let out a broken laugh, and he probably thinks you’ve lost your mind, but he seems less concerned after you lean up and kiss him.

“I love you too,” you mumble incoherently, unsure at first if he was able to understand it, but the subtle affection in his eyes tells you everything. It’s possessive and slightly neurotic, and even dangerous to everyone else around you, but its depth is almost unfathomable. He’s both a cure and a poison for the human race, and if you really wanted to save them all and ensure a permanent end to the apocalypse, you’d probably have to kill him someday.

But you won’t.

Because as long as he loves you back, you’ll keep choosing him, over all else.

Until the very end.

 
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