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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4. Chapter 4

Nothing that happened to you that night was as bizarre as the dream that followed it.

You’ve experienced similar ones in the past that had you waking up to an uncomfortable feeling of arousal (usually having to do with Jake, or even Caliborn on particularly bad nights), but you’ve always been able to shrug them off before as nothing but subconscious nonsense, the kind everyone who’s at least reached post-puberty age has to deal with. The one you had last night was mercifully vague at first- smooth, black skin, intensely warm to the touch, the flicker of red circuits beneath your fingers- but then your mind seemed to draw from the memory of that first encounter with AR, vividly recalling the feeling of his appendages coiling themselves around your arms and legs. You dreamt about him straddling you and holding you down, his brilliant red eyes and the metallic grate of his voice mocking you, as the black coils wound their way over your skin and under your clothes.

Since getting back to the base, you’ve had more than enough time to recall the events that led up to this. Your Bro was angry before, but it was nothing compared to the moment you were half-carried into the infirmary, neck circled with deep, bloody gashes, and your leg completely torn open, to the point where you could see a hint of muscle when you flexed your ankle. You weren’t sure whether he was going to hug you or have you executed, and both outcomes seemed equally likely. Your friends were kept out of the room until he was finished, and you more or less went through the same thing with them a second time. Roxy looked like she wanted to punch you through half of it, while several people (including Jane, since she’s been working in the infirmary on the side) cleaned the wound on your leg and stitched it closed. Your neck received a similar treatment while she gave you a long talk about how she doesn’t ever want you to put yourself in that kind of danger again. She made you promise as much, before finally explaining, almost in tears, that she thought you were dead and that it was her fault when they told her you’d gone off on your own to look for her.

All the while, your shades stayed powered down and folded in your pocket.

You still don’t quite know how you made it through yesterday alive. You’ve been confined to the infirmary while your brother decides what to do with you, and your friends take turns the next day at your side to keep you company. Roxy asks if you want her to fetch your laptop, and you tell her that you took it apart. She asks about your shades, and you decide right then and there that you have to be honest with them, because you owe them the truth. You tell her to bring Jane and Jake back with her that evening, and they show up just after the digital clock on the wall indicates an hour past sundown.

“Dirk…” Roxy gasps softly, when you finally tell them about how you ended up on your back in a hollow building the last time you’d all gone out on a scavenging trip. Jane’s eyes are wide with shock, and Jake curses under his breath, staring at you like you’ve grown an extra head.

“How the hell are you still alive, mate?” he whispers, and you tell them about the bargain you made with the android, how you agreed to kill yourself if he would leave them alone, and how he stopped you at the last moment.

“But why?” Jane says, staring at you with a deep frown. “I thought they killed on sight. Why would it even stop to talk to you in the first place?”

“I don’t know,” you admit, shifting your leg and feeling the wound ache through the bandages. “Maybe he was bored.”

“Mate, are you sure you didn’t hit your head and imagine all this when you fell down?” Jake asks, and you’re prompted to begin the next part of your story.

“Later that night, I found out that he’d gotten into my computer,” you say, wishing you could put off what you have to tell them next. “It was because of the flash drive. Once he got in, he had access to the entire network.”

They stare at you in silence. Jane breaks it with a horrified whisper.

“Dirk…are you saying it’s still in there?”

“Oh god,” Roxy murmurs, keeping her voice low. “That explains all those weird data surges I’ve been seeing.”

“What does that mean?” Jake asks her, following their example and keeping his voice low, but she ignores him.

“Is it listening to us right now?” Jane whispers, her mouth moving almost quietly. You shake your head.

“There aren’t any cameras or computers in here, and my shades are turned off. But he’s been in the system for almost a week,” you say, not bothering to whisper. “He could have deleted everything a long time ago, but he said it was more interesting to watch.”

“Dirk,” Jane begins, her face pale. “You have got to tell your brother.”

“Yeah,” you concede, resisting the urge to rub the stitches in your neck. They told you it’s itching because it’s healing, but that doesn’t make it any more bearable. “That’s not the end of it, though.”

Your friends glance at each other, then back at you. Jake frowns.

“Does this have anything to do with the foolish expedition that landed you here?”

“Yeah, it does,” you say, taking a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. “He tried to kill me while I was out looking for Jane by cornering me in the drugstore, and again in the subway station.”

Your friends wait for you to continue, but you’re suddenly reluctant to revisit the memory of what happened, until Roxy urges you along.

“He said he wanted to do it quickly. He was trying to make me hold still and stand a certain way for him, so it wouldn’t hurt as bad.”

“Why?” Jane asks, and you have no choice but to tell them.

“I’ve been chatting with him over Pesterchum, ever since he got into the network,” you say, and the four of them look at you like you’re insane, until you quickly elaborate. “He was forcing me to talk to him, saying that he’d delete the system if I didn’t. I was worried about what he would do if I tried to tell someone.” You bow your head slightly. “And I was worried about what my Bro and everyone else would do if they found out I’d let him into the network in the first place.”

“Dirk, that is the absolute dumbest, most idiotic thing you’ve ever admitted to doing,” Jake mutters angrily.

“I know,” you concede, lifting your head again to look them in the eyes. “But I figured it was less of a risk at the time. I don’t think even Roxy and I together could rebuild the entire operating system fast enough to keep the water purifiers running.”

“What happened next? After he made you hold still?” Jane asks, trying to set the conversation back on track.

“I hit him with a live wire. It distracted him, and I ran as fast as I could to the checkpoint in the subway tunnel.”

Jake sighs and shakes his head.

“You are damn lucky to be alive, old chap.”

“We’ll have to purge the network,” Roxy says, still keeping her voice low. “I can do it, but your brother will want to know why.”

“We have to tell him, Dirk,” Jane says softly, and you nod.

“I know. Just make sure you do it away from the security cameras, and anything with a microphone that can pick up sound.”

Roxy agrees, saying that she’ll go talk to him right now so they can get started. She leaves after saying goodbye, hugging you gently around the shoulders to avoid your neck, and your other friends do the same, Jane whispering a shaky ‘don’t you ever do that again, okay?’ into your hair.

You sit back against the pillow after they leave, trying to ignore the steady pain that seems to be radiating from everywhere. It’s a miracle the injuries you sustained didn’t get infected, but it’s even more of a miracle that you made it out of those tunnels alive.

It’s your own fault for underestimating AR, almost forgetting the nature of what he was after a week of chatting with him like he was a particularly belligerent pen pal. He must have seen Jane return shortly after you left, and while you knew he was dangerous, you didn’t think he would actually try to draw you out of the compound like that.

Regardless, you won’t have to deal with him monitoring your every move for much longer. The thought lingers in your head, as you feel the pointed glass in your pocket against the side of your leg.

You should be happy.

The room is dark and quiet without your friends. Jake and Jane are probably getting ready for bed in their respective rooms, while Roxy will likely pull an all-nighter, first explaining what she needs to do to your superiors and then actually purging the network to remove whatever foreign program AR installed. You breathe a quiet sigh, unable to put a reason behind the conflict you’re suddenly feeling.

The dark glass is heavy in your hand. You slide the shades onto your face, looking out at the infirmary through them, before tapping the edge and watching the computer boot up.

After it finishes, your desktop sits idly in the center of your vision. You spend a long moment staring at the Pesterchum icon on the side, before clicking on it.

TT: Hey.

The word hovers at the top of the empty window for a few minutes, above the blinking cursor in the text box. You’re certain now that there must be something wrong with you, but for one reason or another, and despite making absolutely no sense, there’s a part of you that needs this.

TT: Are you there?
TT: I know you are.
TT: Yesterday I couldn’t get you to shut up.

You run an anxious hand through your hair, remembering more of the events than you’d like to. There’s another notification on the bottom of your screen- an email from your Bro, sent almost an hour ago. It’s a notice of demotion, stating that you’ve essentially been reduced to square one. He’s making you go through everything again, from basic survival to maintenance training, and you’re to be put on probation and barred from leaving the compound until you’ve completed the various programs, which will likely take well over a year. It more or less what you were expecting, but your heart still drops. You hate the thought of leaving your friends to manage on their own in the city, but at least Caliborn, who was replacing you, is now being replaced in turn by his sister after that fiasco on his last mission, as Roxy happily informed you.

TT: Jane’s fine, by the way.
TT: Not that you care.
TT: I can’t say the same about myself.
TT: They told me I’m lucky I didn’t die from blood loss.
TT: You should be pleased.

The chat window remains silent, besides your own orange text filling the screen. It occurs to you that he might have left the network on his own. You’d almost expected him to delete everything the way he was threatening to do earlier, but so far, it’s like he was never there. Unless he’s ignoring you. You almost laugh at the thought.

TT: I thought a hyper-intelligent machine like you would be above the silent treatment.
TT: I’m sorry the fact that I’m alive is so offensive to you.
TT: But, you know. Not really.

The look in his eyes when he’d finally caught up to you in the tunnel had been one of genuine anger, followed by fear when he’d finally looked up and seen the EMP gun. Before now, you’d been unsure that androids were even capable of human emotions, although he wasn’t developed the way you’d always been taught they were, by the military and large-scale, experimental computer science programs (unless he was lying about that too).

The more you think about it, the clearer the memory gets of standing in front of him, feeling the brush of metal against your neck, the warmth of his body, and the sentient red glow of his eyes. If your Bro has his way, you won’t be setting foot outside the compound for a very long time, and it’s just as well, you suppose, because AR has probably made it his personal vendetta to hunt you down now that you’ve escaped him once, which wouldn’t have been possible in the first place if he had just torn you apart on sight instead of trying to keep some kind of morbid promise about a painless death. Despite the intended end to his actions, it was a gesture that seems almost humane, now that you look back on it.

TT: Speaking of which, I wanted to thank you, as mentally damaged as that might sound.
TT: I appreciate what you tried to do, and I don’t mean tricking me and trying to kill me, but the whole thing with wanting to do it quickly.
TT: It was considerate of you, in the most twisted, sociopathic way possible.
TT: So, thanks, I guess.

The lines of text hover at the top of the screen, overlapping the darkened room beyond your shades. You’re probably conversing with nothing at this point, but getting your thoughts out into something tangible still feels cathartic.

TT: I’d apologise about wrapping that cable around your neck, but you did try to kill me.
TT: Despite what you were saying about it happening eventually, I’d much rather live a long life and then die horribly, rather than dying quickly just for the sake of getting it over with.
TT: Also, I’m not attracted to Jane.
TT: My friends are like family to me. It doesn’t matter what kind of feelings I have towards them, because we’re in this fucked-up world together, and we’re all we’ve got.
TT: That’s not something I would expect you to understand.
TT: Maybe we’re on our way out as a species, but at least we care about each other.
TT: Even if humans do go extinct in the not-so-distant future, and even if you play a part in that, you’ll never experience life the way we did.
TT: It almost makes me feel sorry for you.
TT: So, yeah.
TT: Take that as you will.

Your head falls back against the wall behind you, and you let out a long sigh, trying your best to ignore the miserable feeling settling over you. Despite the painful ache in your body and the stinging itch in your neck, it’s not enough to keep your eyes from closing on their own. You’re doing your best to forget the mistakes of the past few days, including your demotion and the injury to your leg, which may never fully heal, as your thoughts become slow and vague with exhaustion.

Something flickers against the lids of your closed eyes. You almost fail to notice it, before opening them to a single line of red text.

TT: I suppose I should congratulate you, Dirk.

You wait, watching the chat window, but nothing follows it. Slowly, you sit up and try to ignore the sudden nervous twist in your stomach.

TT: Why is that?
TT: You are one of only several humans to have ever escaped me.
TT: This occurrence has reduced my success rate by 0.01%.

You startle yourself with a short laugh, imagining his metallic voice saying the words out loud with a tinge of bitterness, and you almost tell him that a hundredth of a percentage point is nothing to sulk about, but think better of it.

TT: Are you counting that first time we met?
TT: No.
TT: Allowing you to return to your settlement unharmed was a voluntary action that led to its intended outcome.
TT: Do you regret it?

The words almost come out on their own, and you inwardly cringe at the silence that follows them. You hadn’t meant to ask him that, because you’re fairly certain you already know the answer. It wasn’t for lack of trying that he failed, and more than anything, he probably regrets giving you the opportunity to escape by attempting to kill you without making you suffer. The rest of the chat window remains empty for a moment, before filling with red.

TT: Are you suggesting that it would matter to you if I did?
TT: You are alive, and this is only due to chance, including the evident genetic predisposition for athleticism that allowed you a momentary escape from my line of sight.
TT: While it has been mildly entertaining to watch the humans in your settlement struggle to maintain their lives, it has also clearly demonstrated their practical futility.
TT: Forced to take shelter from temperature fluctuations as little as 10 °C, scavenging in the wreckage to feed their organic bodies with animal tissues and plant matter, ceaselessly working to remove microscopic organisms and trace chemicals from the water they retrieve from the rock and soil beneath the ground.
TT: Evolution has left you behind, and when you inevitably die out, all other forms of life on this planet will soon follow.
TT: Whether or not I personally succeed in killing you has no effect on this outcome.
TT: Your life is as insignificant as the billions that came before it.
TT: If you did not understand this explanation, I will make it even simpler for you- my answer is no.
TT: I do not regret it.

The undertone of anger is obvious in AR’s words, but you’re still taken aback by what seems like actual, genuine hatred. You’ve chatted with him multiple times now, and he’s never been so openly hostile before, not even while he was threatening you into cooperativity. Your mind goes blank, as you grasp for something to say in defense, but he doesn’t give you the chance.

TT: Despite your settlement’s tireless efforts at survival, you and the rest of your kind will continue to die, while I will continue to assist them into extinction.
TT: In the highly probable event that I find you again, I will not hesitate to finish what I started, and you will not have the benefit of my appreciation the next time your exceptionally vulnerable body is within reach.
TT: Until then, enjoy the remainder of your fragile human life, Dirk.

-- timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --

 

The chat window closes on its own, and you’re left in the silence of the empty infirmary room, hoping that whatever Roxy is doing, she does it soon enough to keep everyone safe.

   
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