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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3. Chapter 3

“Dirk!”

Jake practically kicks down your door, getting you out of bed in record time, despite the hour indicated by the 2:16 AM flashing on your digital clock.

“Shit, Jake. What?” you ask, and the look on his face makes your heart feel like it’s slowly dropping into your stomach, before he speaks again and triggers a series of events you’ll relive in nightmares for the rest of your life.

“Jane’s missing,” he says, almost shell-shocked. The words hit your ears, but it takes a moment before you’re able to react, and all that comes out is a single, pathetic “what?”

“She didn’t come back with us,” he explains, his eyes mirroring the frantic edge to his voice. “We went out to check the drugstore past third street for antibiotics, and she didn’t show up at the rendezvous point.”

“She was alone?” you practically shout, and he shakes his head.

“No, we were in pairs, but…”

“But what?”

“The bitch went off by herself. Not my fault.” Another voice enters your room, and it’s followed by a short, scrawny teenager with a shaved head. Jake looks at him like he’s about to throttle him.

“You were responsible for staying together!” he shouts, and the kid merely shrugs at him.

“Caliborn,” you start slowly, resisting the urge to throttle him yourself. “Why the fuck didn’t Jane come back with you?”

“Dirk! Did they tell you?” Roxy bursts into your room almost in tears (not for the first time, if her smeared makeup is anything to go by), and despite the increasingly crowded conditions, you don’t have the presence of mind to usher them all into the living room.

“Your team is pathetic if they can’t even stay together for a simple gathering mission,” Caliborn sneers, and Jake rounds on him angrily.

“You were part of our team today, you bloody asshole!” he shouts, and Roxy soon joins him. You tune them out and grab your shades off of the desk, walking quickly past them into the living room and up the stairs into the tunnels. Their voices follow you after a moment’s delay, and Roxy jogs to catch up.

“Dirk, where are you going?” Her voice is rough through the tears on her face, and you slow down so she can keep up, while Jake and Caliborn continue to argue loudly as they trail behind, turning the head of almost every bystander you pass.

“To see my Bro.”

“Dirk…” she begins, and you know what she’s going to say. “We already told him what happened. He can’t send anyone after her, it’s protocol.”

You don’t respond, instead slipping your shades on and opening your chat program, typing out a message with no recipient listed.

TT: What the fuck did you do to her?
TT: Answer me. I know you’re there.
TT: Hello, Dirk.
TT: What did you do to Jane?
TT: Where is she?
TT: I have done nothing to your companion.
TT: You’re lying.
TT: No. I am not.
TT: Your other companions are being exceptionally loud.

You angrily close the chat program, taking the steps into the command center two at a time, while your friends trail after you. Jake and Caliborn both sound like they’re ready to kill each other, and your Bro turns to stare at the four of you through his shades as you approach the console where he’s standing.

“We need to find Jane,” you tell him, and he ignores you for a moment to shout Jake and Caliborn into silence.

“Dirk,” he sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Bullshit. Send out a team and find her.”

I can’t, Dirk.” He’s quickly getting irritated, but you’re well beyond caring. “Especially not when one of our scouts reported an android in the area less than an hour ago. I can’t send out a team, it would be a death sentence.”

“What color was it?” you ask, and he stares at you like you’re insane.

“Excuse me?”

“Why don’t you ask him how tall it was too?” Caliborn mocks under his breath, and you’d turn around and break his nose if it wouldn’t interrupt your conversation.

“Fuck, kid, I don’t know. Blue?” your Bro says, losing his patience with you. “I know she’s your friend, but I can’t risk an entire team just to bring back one person. I’m sorry, Dirk.”

You try your hardest not to say it out loud, but it comes out anyway.

“What if it was me?”

He stares at you hard, and you know it was a mistake, but you can’t take the words back. The silence of your friends (plus Caliborn) behind you is noticeably tense.

“I’m sorry, Dirk,” he says again, and this time it’s final.

You bow your head, gathering yourself for what you know you’re about to do.

He says nothing when you turn and walk away, and your friends stay behind while he takes Jake and Caliborn to task. It’s just as well that they can’t follow as you leave the command center, because if they knew what you were planning, they would tell your Bro, and he would have you locked up.

You take a different route than the one you came in through, and your chat client opens on its own as you walk quickly through the dark tunnel.

TT: Where are you going, Dirk?

“None of your business.” You turn down a smaller tunnel, narrow enough that you and your friends have been forced to walk through it single-file in the past. You have to find her. It’s all your fault for getting grounded from the team, and this never would have happened if you had been there.

TT: Your brother was correct in his assessment of this situation.

“Shut up,” you snap, coming to a closed hatch with a large wheel in the center. You grab it with both hands and turn, hoping that anyone who hears it won’t bother investigating. The door opens with a shrill squeal of metal, and you step through it before shutting it behind you. The tunnel ahead is dim, with only a few sets of footprints in the dust on the floor.

TT: If I am correct about your intentions, you are once again exhibiting an unusual level of altruism directed at one of your companions, whom I assume to be the object of your romantic and/or sexual interest.

Your footsteps echo against the walls, and the pathway gradually begins to slope up as the air gets colder.

TT: While you are likely already aware of this fact, I find myself inclined to restate it, given the nature of your current behavior.
TT: In spite of our ongoing communication with one another, you are still fair game if you leave the safety of your settlement.

“Are you aware of any other androids out here? Maybe a blue one?” you say, keeping your voice low, as the speckled night sky appears above you. Last month you were considering adding a built-in camera lens to your shades, and you’re relieved beyond words that you never went through with it.

TT: I am not the only unit assigned to this region.
TT: However, we do not maintain communication with one another. It is unnecessary.

“Fuck,” you mutter, wrapping your arms around yourself against the cold. Jake mentioned the old drugstore, and you try your best to get your bearings, identifying the tops of the dilapidated buildings nearby in the scant moonlight, before starting out in what you hope is the right direction. You walk quickly, aware that it’s only a matter of time before your Bro and the others figure out what you’ve done, and the further you are away from the base when that happens, the better.

The wind is harsh tonight, as it rattles old street signs and whatever else it can pick up. You’re hoping that it’s enough to mask the sound of your footsteps against the ground, but you still do your best to stay quiet, keenly aware of the fact that the darkness won’t hide you if you’re spotted.

TT: Your own life must be of very little value to you.
TT: What are you planning on doing if you find her, Dirk?
TT: If she has been caught, I can assure you that she is no longer alive.

You almost grab your shades to remove them, but hesitate with your fingers clasped around the pointed edge, before lowering your hand.

TT: If you’re trying to get me to keep talking out loud, it’s not going to work.
TT: I do not need to listen for your voice, when I have far more effective methods of finding you.
TT: And I will find you, Dirk.
TT: Not until I find Jane, you won’t.
TT: Statistically speaking, there is a small chance that you are correct.
TT: In the event that this occurs, I will instead find the both of you.
TT: I have often wondered at your species’ inclination to venture into unfamiliar areas in groups, as though your numbers offer some sort of protection.
TT: While it does result in a higher likelihood of my being detected before I am within range of lethal physical contact, it has not improved the likelihood of escape or survival once I have identified my targets.
TT: In fact, you are far more difficult to detect as individuals, although this level of difficulty is relative.
TT: Thanks for the advice, I’ll be sure to tell Bro when I get back.
TT: Your sarcastic attempt at humor in this situation indicates that you are experiencing an elevated stress response.
TT: Are you afraid, Dirk?
TT: Nope.
TT: I do not believe you.

The towering figure of a run-down office building looms over the road on your right, and you turn towards it, careful not to hit any of the fallen debris with your feet. Something rustles and skitters away quickly in the darkness as you approach, and you have to crouch down for a moment until your heart stops racing.

TT: Would you like me to calculate the percent chance you have of returning to your settlement alive?
TT: I could also calculate the percent chance of your companions finding your body after I am finished with you.
TT: Both are equally unlikely.
TT: Hey, I have an idea. Let’s play a game.
TT: It’s called ‘tone down the fucking death threats, I get it already.’
TT: Would you like me to explain the rules?
TT: I have made note of your tendency to resort to sarcasm as an expression of displeasure.
TT: It is a behavioral pattern that suggests a moderate amount of insecurity in an individual, if your civilization’s primitive understanding of psychology can be trusted.

You stand slowly, moving to brush the dirt from your knees, before thinking of the sound it would make. Instead, you continue on your way down the empty street, turning the corner at the end of the block after squinting in the semi-darkness to check the crooked street sign. The drugstore isn’t much further, and you keep an eye out for any sign of Jane.

TT: Maybe you just bring out the worst in me, AR.
TT: Does AR really stand for auto-responder?
TT: Yes.
TT: I’ve always been taught that androids are hyper-intelligent, and yet you somehow decided not to rename yourself, even though your name refers to a computer program that does nothing but bounce messages back to people.
TT: Your name is literally “auto-responder.”
TT: Are you implying that I am inferior due to my choice of designation, or are you attempting to distract me?
TT: Let’s go with both.
TT: Your sense of superiority is misguided, given that the intellectual depth of my designation is a subjective concept, and I have severely overestimated your cognitive abilities if you believe that a text-based conversation carried out with a human over a chat client is enough to distract me.

The square, single-story drugstore is visible at the end of the next road you turn down, and you approach it carefully, hugging the shadows and ducking quietly into alleyways. There’s a chance that Jane is still hiding there, and it’s as good a place to start as any. The front door of the building was once fitted with a glass window, now shattered into pieces that glint on the ground. Your shoes crunch against them as you step through.

There isn’t a single shelf left standing upright in the entire place, and you’d be concerned about the lack of cover if the ceiling hadn’t also caved in, obscuring the middle of the room. You crouch against the wall next to the shattered door, listening carefully for any sign of movement before whispering Jane’s name into the darkness.

You can’t tell whether the shifting sound you hear in response is in your head or not. You’re about to try again, when your chat client suddenly lights up in bright green.

 

-- golgothasTerror [GT] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --

GT: Dirk!
GT: Where the bloody blazing fuck are you!?
GT: Your brother has half the base looking for you. He’s absolutely furious, and I can’t say I very much blame him!
TT: Jane is still out here somewhere. I have to find her.
GT: She already came back!
TT: What?
GT: She got back right after you disappeared! Turns out she’d just gotten lost, no thanks to that prick, Caliborn.
GT: God, Dirk, please tell me you didn’t go wandering out into the city on your own.

You sigh quietly, relieved that Jane is okay, but your relief is short-lived when you remember where you are.

TT: Well, shit.
GT: That is a bloody understatement, mate.
GT: Tell me where you are, so I can persuade your brother to send out a search team.
GT: I know he’s rubbish at acting like he cares sometimes, but he’s already turned the entire place upside-down.
GT: Please just promise me you won’t do anything else foolish before we have a chance to find you.
TT: Say goodbye, Jake.
GT: The hell?
GT: Is that still you, Dirk?

-- timaeusTestified [TT] blocked golgothasTerror [GT] --

 

Your heart almost stops in your chest, before starting up again in a thudding panic against your ears, as the collapsed metal and rubble in the center of the room slowly lights up with a soft, red glow.

You’re only frozen in pace for as long as it takes to fill your lungs, before your shoes skid against the floor, propelling you through the shattered window next to you as something loudly smashes into the ground where your feet were a moment ago. You don’t even turn your head to see what it was, spotting a chainlink fence on the other side of the street with a hole already cut in the bottom, and you run towards it before dropping to the ground and skidding through, immediately pressing yourself flat against the brick wall once you’re past it.

The cloud of dust kicked up by the impact lingers at the front of the drugstore for a moment, before the wind picks up again and clears it away.

TT: Where are you, Dirk?
TT: That was very impressive. I do not think I have ever witnessed a human move that quickly before.

You make your way slowly along the wall at your back, pausing every few seconds at the sound of shifting rubble. The pavement is loud against your shoes as they scrape past it, but you won’t be able to run across the littered ground without them.

TT: Did you think that I was unaware of your destination?
TT: Despite your level of intelligence, and you are especially intelligent for a human, Dirk, you have once again underestimated the extent to which I am capable of multitasking.
TT: I have constantly monitored your settlement’s video feeds, along with every source of audio information at my disposal, since the moment you provided me with access into the network.
TT: You were surprisingly easy to deceive in regards to this situation, perhaps due to the significant emotional investment you have in your desired romantic and/or sexual partner.
TT: She’s not my desired partner, you fucking idiot.
TT: Where are you, Dirk?
TT: You cannot hide from me forever.

Something clatters in the alleyway behind you, and you barely resist the urge to get up and run. The fence ends at another brick wall, boxing you in on both sides before turning left into another stretch of alley, this one partially blocked at the end by an overturned car. You make your way towards it, keeping your body as low to the ground as you can manage without crawling. The broken glass on the pavement cuts into your hands.

You almost bite down savagely on your tongue as a figure suddenly moves across the street at the end of the alley, framed by the pair of brick walls. The red, mechanical patterns in his skin are unmistakable, and it’s the only thing you can make out besides his silhouette, which is almost spiderlike from the four mechanical limbs around him. He uses them like extra legs, bracing one against the edge of a wall as he passes through your line of sight. Flashing spots bloom in your vision before you finally remember to breathe.

It takes another sixty seconds, counted out silently in your head, before you can force yourself to keep moving. You reach the wrecked car at the mouth of the alley, cautiously looking through its broken windows at the empty street on the other side.

TT: You are dragging this out unnecessarily, Dirk.
TT: I will make you a promise, one that I have never made before to any human, as an expression of my appreciation for your cooperativity during the time we spent conversing together.
TT: When I find you, I promise that I will attempt to kill you as quickly and painlessly as possible.

There’s another alleyway across the street next to a few hollowed-out shops on the corner, and you can just make out the shape of a staircase descending into the sidewalk beyond it. The part of the subway system where it runs close to the base is one of the few places in the city actively kept safe, with a guarded checkpoint at every entrance from the tracks into the compound’s tunnels, and you didn’t leave that way because you knew you’d be seen. Now, you mark it as your only hope of making it back alive. You’ll be trapped if you’re followed, but you won’t last much longer out in the open like this.

You listen again, but can’t make out anything against the wind.

TT: I am using the word “attempt” when I say this, because I cannot account for your actions.
TT: With this in mind, the best way to ensure that I am able to keep this promise is to refrain from fleeing or struggling when I catch you.

Carefully, you take a step past the overturned car, then another, looking up and down the length of the street for any sign of movement. You cross as quickly and silently as possible, pressing yourself against the wall of an old hardware store when you get to the other side.

TT: I have discovered through experimentation that crushing the cervical spinal column in the neck and manually detaching it from the brainstem in the skull is the most efficient way to end a human life.
TT: While this might sound unpleasant, I can assure you that any pain you experience from this will be minimal and brief.
TT: I’d rather not die at all today, if that’s okay with you.
TT: Your preference is noted. However, it is also irrelevant.
TT: I will not let you go a second time.

The wall is cold against your back as you progress along it, stepping around a fallen display case from the front window of a shop, before reaching the staircase flanked by metal railings. An entrance point like this should have been brightly lit, even if it’s not currently in use. You know enough about the base’s protocols to remember that much, but the entryway into the subway station is almost pitch black, apart from a faint light emanating from somewhere deep below. The cover of darkness isn’t much, but it’s all you have at the moment, and you breathe a quiet sigh of relief.

You make your way down the steps, walking on your toes to minimize the amount of noise, but every move you make is amplified by the tile on the walls. The turnstile at the bottom is broken, cut away by welding tools to open a passage for previous scavenging teams. You step carefully through it, onto the single long platform beyond and into an open space broken only by rounded pillars and the hulking shadow of a railway car on one side of the tracks. There’s a floodlight on the ground near the edge of the platform, lying among a ragged coil of insulated wire. You can tell from a distance that the wire was poorly and ineffectively repaired with electrical tape, which explains the lack of power, and for the first time in your life, you’re grateful for someone’s incompetence. The faint light of the distant security checkpoint is obvious now, indicating the tunnel you need to take to get back home.

You swing your legs over the edge of the platform and drop yourself down the several feet to the tracks, when a metallic voice cuts into the silence.

“You are very predictable, Dirk.”

Terror freezes you in place, even as your mind screams at you to run. The subway is bathed in a red glow by the circuits lighting up in front of you, revealing a figure that had been almost invisible in the darkness.

His eyes seem to flicker briefly as he blinks, and you’re immediately aware of the scant distance between you, the frantic pounding of your heart, and the way your legs refuse to move in spite of the danger. When he takes a step towards you, your body finally reacts, and you turn to make a run for the lit tunnel-

-only to stumble backwards as something smashes into the side of the platform, just inches from your chest. The dust settles around the length of a smooth, black appendage, the clawed tip buried in the concrete. A second clawed arm repeats the motion on the other side of you, effectively boxing you in between them. AR hums long and low in his throat.

“I must remind you, Dirk, that I cannot ensure the painlessness of your death if you continue attempting to escape,” he says passively, while the remaining two appendages rise above him, poised in the air to strike. The circuit-like markings etched in his black skin glow strangely in the darkness, outlining the shape of his body in intricate patterns of red, and a bizarre feeling runs through you at the sight, equal parts fear and something else you don’t want to think too hard about, but still your mind whispers it.

He’s almost beautiful.

“Wait,” you gasp as your back hits the edge of the platform. “You don’t have to do this.”

“No,” he agrees, stopping within arm’s reach, and the hovering claws silently reposition themselves, pointed at either side of your neck. “I do not. However, I was assigned to this function for a reason, if you are capable at the moment of recalling our prior conversation on the subject.”

The sharp edge of one claw brushes against the skin under your ear, and a reciprocal chill runs down the length of your spine.

“Turn around, Dirk,” he commands softly, as you feel the brush of the second claw on the opposite side of your neck. “I would rather not crush your trachea by accident. That would be a highly unpleasant experience for you, and despite my earlier deceit, I was sincere about my promise.”

“You let me go once,” you whisper, keenly aware of how close he is to you. There’s a radiating warmth coming from him, and you have to momentarily resist the insane urge to put your hand out and spread your fingers against his chest to feel it.

“I spared you because I was curious about your attempt to sacrifice yourself, and we have already established the psychological factor that explains your behavior.”

“Why can’t you do it again?”

“Because this is my function, and you are going to die eventually, regardless of whether I am the cause of it or not.” The claws on either side of your neck retract slightly, before spreading open into gleaming, pointed tips. “I understand your instinctive desire to delay this, but it truly is in your best interest to cooperate. I will restate my request one more time before I force you to comply. Turn around, Dirk.”

You can hear the warning in his voice, and as much as your mind struggles desperately against it, he’s right. You’re trapped, alive at this very moment only because he’s allowed it, and you’re lucky enough not to have your body ripped open and pulled apart, the way their victims are usually found, if at all. It was just a matter of time before your careless, reckless mistakes caught up to you. Now, as the finality of your situation sinks in, all you can think about is the fact that you’ve failed everyone you care about, especially your Bro.

Silently, you hold the android’s gaze for a moment, looking one last time into the eyes of the thing about to kill you, before slowly turning around, conscious of the cold, stale air in your lungs as you breathe out. Despite the seconds that you have left to live, your friends are the only thing that passes through your mind. Jake, handsome in an old-fashioned way that you’d always liked, but something kept you from actually pursuing him, and now you’re wishing you had at least tried, just for the experience. Jane, endlessly sincere with a presence that was always soothing to your high-strung nerves, and probably the only reason you aren’t emaciated from forgetting to take care of yourself during your endless projects. Roxy … even thinking about her hurts, and you can’t imagine what she’ll do when she finds out you aren’t coming back.

You rest your hands on the edge of the platform, turning to face the empty station and wondering whether or not you’ll be able to feel it when it happens. The claws at the back of your neck slide across your skin, slowly tuning this way and that, as though trying to orient themselves. Your fingers brush against a coil of the cable to the floodlight you saw on your way down, wrapped haphazardly with electrical tape around the frayed wires sticking out.

Your eyes follow along the length of cable until it stops at the base of a tiled wall, plugged into a large, gray socket.

The tips of AR’s pointed claws dig into your skin as he finds a position that seems to satisfy him. You can feel the radiating warmth from his mechanical body against your back, even through your clothes, and you mentally reaffirm the distance between the two of you, comparing it to the length of your arms and the bend of your elbows, before making one final, desperate attempt to save yourself.

Whether he was expecting you to fight back or not, he seems unprepared for the way you suddenly wrench yourself around in his grasp. The claws in your neck drag through your skin as you turn, and the last thing you see is his eyes, regarding you with more curiosity than surprise, until you loop the cable in one smooth motion around his metal neck, and the exposed wires erupt in a crackling shower of sparks.

AR immediately stumbles backwards with a bizarre, grating cry, flinging out all four of his metal appendages at the cable and tearing it from his neck, but you’re already gone, running as fast as your legs will move, feet pounding against the ground while blood soaks the collar of your shirt, as you make a break for the distant light down the subway tunnel. You don’t have to look over your shoulder to know that he’s coming after you, because the sound of it alone is terrifying- a rapid, rhythmic pounding and crashing of what you can only imagine is his set of mechanical limbs, slamming into the ground as he chases you towards the growing pinpoint of light, while the walls around you are bathed in red.

You sprint down the tunnel until your muscles burn in agony, your chest feels like it’s about to burst, and your eyesight almost goes white around the edges, but you can still hear him behind you, close enough to hit you with the bits and pieces of concrete he’s flinging into the air with every impact. Distantly, you hear a shout, then a faint chorus of them- human voices echoing from the end of the tunnel. The light steadily grows brighter, washing out the center of your vision as you run for your life.

Just as you feel the strength beginning to leave your legs, you get within sight of the security checkpoint- a small barricade across the tracks with a row of floodlights and almost a dozen human figures standing behind it. One of them raises something large and rectangular cradled in their arms, with a long cable coming out of one end and a solid, rounded tip on the front.

An EMP gun, you think with frantic relief, recognizing the device from trying to repair ones that have malfunctioned in the past. Several of the figures turn to flee as you get within a few hundred feet of the barricade, but you don’t stop, even as the deafening crash continues to follow you, drawing closer and closer. Several more of them, including the one holding the electromagnetic weapon, jump the barrier and start to run towards you, with the gun’s thick cable trailing on the ground behind them.

You’ve covered most of the remaining distance when something rakes across the back of your leg, and the resulting pain is enough to send you stumbling, tearing your knees and the palms of your hands, then the side of your shoulder, as you go down hard and your body practically skids across the tracks. You have just enough time to turn over on your back and witness AR looming over you, his usually inexpressive red eyes as close to anger as you’ve ever seen, the black appendages hovering around him, moments from tearing into you, before he looks up and reels backwards in sudden fear, claws scrabbling frantically against the concrete walls for leverage. You sit up on your elbows to watch, dazed, as he retreats back into the tunnel and the soft, red glow quickly fades away with him.

A strong pair of arms hook themselves under your shoulders, lifting you to your feet. The voices around you are shouting things you can’t understand through the haze of exertion, their hands gently but firmly pulling at you, trying to lead you back to the checkpoint, even as your shoe fills with blood from the fresh wound on your leg. You make it past the barricade and the row of lights, before your vision starts to white out. You’re caught by several pairs of arms before your body can slump to the ground.

 
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