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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7. Chapter 7

The waterworks beneath the compound’s tunnels are a place where light doesn’t reach. It’s a metal forest of pipes, snaking in and out of huge tanks that whirr and slosh, filling the cramped walkways with an endless noise. The air is musty and humid, and Jake’s candle sputters as the four of you descend the metal ladder into the blackness. The flame does little to light the wet concrete walls, but it’s enough for you to see the metal grating beneath your feet when you reach the bottom. Jane is the last to descend the ladder, and Jake holds the candle up so she can see.

“I find it hard to believe,” she says, keeping her voice low in case it echoes, “that you actually trust that horrible thing enough to believe it’ll keep its word.”

“That’s why I want the three of you to stay here,” you tell her, beckoning Roxy and Jake into a circle. “There’s a pretty good chance he’ll kill me on sight, so if that happens, I want the rest of you to escape through the sewers.” You’ve got your shades turned off again, tucked into your pocket, and the waterworks is completely devoid of electronic devices, so you’re not worried about being overheard.

Jake heaves a sigh. “Then what, mate? We’re supposed to just go on without you?”

“Yeah, that’s how it’ll have to be. I’m letting him in through the west side, so if anything goes wrong, you guys can head straight for the next city.” you tell them quietly. “In the meantime, I want you to wait in the east tunnels. If the worst ends up happening, I need to know that you’re all safe.” You’re not even finished with your words before Jane is shaking her head.

“You’re not doing this alone, Dirk,” she says, unmoved. Jake and Roxy seem to be in agreement with her, and you try not to let your exasperation show.

“Jane… guys, trust me on this. The only thing that will save you from him is distance if he decides not to cooperate.”

“Strider,” Jane speaks your surname angrily, stepping closer, “I am getting sick and tired of your endless fixation on becoming a martyr these days. I don’t know how you got it into your thick head that we’re about to just sit back and watch you sacrifice yourself for us, as though we would throw you under the proverbial bus and then go about our merry way, and honestly, Dirk, it just…” She breathes out in a huff and balls her fists. “It makes me so gosh darn mad at you sometimes, I could just spit! We are not leaving you to do this alone, and I don’t care if that evil, walking meatgrinder tears me to bits, it’ll have to go through all of us first before it gets to you.”

Jake quickly nods his agreement, and you resist the urge to run both hands through your hair in frustration.

“Jane,” you begin, trying to convince them to just let you keep them safe, but you can feel the fight leaving you as they meet your eyes defiantly. It’s always been one of the hardest things about having such close friends, learning over the years that they aren’t just something valuable to be guided in the right direction and protected at all costs, but that their own free will is just as important as their safety. You’d force them to leave the compound right now if you could, but in the end, you don’t own them, and their actions aren’t up to you. They know the danger, and they want to share the risk, even though it means you all might meet the same end. Although maybe that’s the point. The thought makes your eyes sting, and your throat dips as you swallow against it.

“Okay,” you concede. “I get it. I won’t ask you guys to leave.” You steel yourself and look up at them. “But I still need you to stay here while I let him in.” Jane looks like she’s about to protest, but you lift a hand to stop her. “Please, I won’t ask for anything else. I just need to do this part on my own.”

They glance at each other for a long moment in silent deliberation as the candlelight flickers against their faces, before Jane eventually speaks.

“Do you really think it’s going to help us?” she asks. Jake mutters under his breath.

“This is bloody stupid.”

“I don’t know,” you tell her, ignoring Jake. “But I think we’ll have a much better chance of that happening if I meet him alone.”

Jane sighs miserably. “I suppose it is for the best, then.” She frowns at you, crossing her arms. “However, if we hear so much as a single shout, we’re coming straight after you.”

You nod your agreement and file it away in your mind as a vitally important reason to stay quiet if anything goes wrong. Jake is busy reaffirming what Jane said to you, while trying to convince you to take at least one of his pistols, but your attention slowly drifts away from him and over to Roxy.

She’s been quiet since you left your rooms, after your friends listened to you explain what kind of help you had enlisted. Now, she watches you with an unreadable frown, standing just behind the others with the butt of her rifle resting against the floor by her feet. You left out the part about offering up your life, convincing them that the opportunity to get into the compound was bribery enough, but she can probably sense that you’re hiding something, and in truth, your story doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

“Dirk,” Jane begins, taking a step forward. She hesitates for a long moment, searching for something to say, before abruptly pulling you into a tight hug. You return it, telling yourself not to cry, but the stinging in your eyes returns in full force.

She lets you go after a while, and Jake takes her place, squeezing you even tighter with one arm, while he holds the candle in the other. You relish the feeling with a small sense of guilt, before letting him go. He claps a hand on your back and takes a step away, giving Roxy room to do the same, but she doesn’t move.

Jane says her name softly, and she leans her rifle against the wall, before coming towards you and gently placing her arms around your shoulders, her expression one of profound sadness.

You lean into her and hold her tight, feeling her hair tickle the side of your cheek when you turn your face towards her ear and whisper ‘sorry’ under your breath, quiet enough that the others can’t hear. Her hands tighten their grip on your shirt, and you can just barely feel her shoulders trembling. When she pulls away, she wipes the back of her hand across her eyes and gives you a half-hearted punch on the arm.

“You’d better come back,” she mutters. Your heart is heavy with the knowledge of what you’re walking into, but nothing will change how much they all mean to you, and like every time before, it calms you, keeping you grounded in a situation that would otherwise have you panicking. Jake offers you the candle along with his guns, but you decline, asking instead for the glow stick, since it’s better than nothing, and you don’t want to leave them in the dark. You turn down his pistols too, since they won’t be of any use. He scoffs goodnaturedly and finally agrees to let you go, with a final pat on your back.

“Good luck in there, mate. We’ll await your return.”

You bid them goodbye, promising Jane that you’ll be careful, and meeting Roxy’s eyes one last time, before turning away from them and walking forward into the darkness.

The faint light from Jake’s candle fades out quickly as you leave them, turning the first corner around a solid wall and taking the path leading deeper into the waterworks. The glow stick’s dying light isn’t strong enough to reach your feet, but it’s enough to keep you from running face-first into the large vertical pipes that emerge from the walkway in irregular intervals. You have to crouch down more than once, passing beneath the metal framework of the tunnels above, and the protesting ache in your leg forces you to crawl on your knees beneath the scaffolding. When you reach out to brace your hand against a large pipe near your head, it leaves your palm with a wet, gritty layer of rust.

Even with the constant fizzing of the water extractors and purifiers, it shoudn’t be enough to drown out the noise from the compound’s tunnels above, but it seems that the ambient sound of fighting and gunfire has almost completely died out. It’s a sign that doesn’t bode well for the people you’re worried about, and you try not to dwell on the possibility that your actions are coming too late.

The sound of the machinery around you begins to decrease in volume, as the walkway turns right into a dim tunnel, its ceiling strung with a row of faint lights. You abandon the spent glow stick on the floor before retrieving your shades and turning them back on. The dark glass completely blocks the light from your vision, and you have to keep one hand on the cold concrete wall as you walk blindly forward.

TT: Are you there?
TT: Yes.
TT: Did you find the barrier with the hatch door?
TT: It should be under a scaffolding with a big tank and a row of pipes next to it.
TT: Yes, I have found it.
TT: Okay, good. I’m almost there.

You push the shades up on your head so you can see again, letting out a shaky breath. You were being honest with your friends when you told them you weren’t sure this would work, but what you didn’t mention, along with the price of this bargain, was that on a scale of one to ten, your chance of living through the next few minutes is probably somewhere around a decimal point. Then again, when it comes to the odds, you’ve beaten them twice already. It’s no reason to be optimistic, but like Jake always says, it’s better to hope for the best.

When the hatch door finally comes into view, you can feel the nervous thudding of your heart in your chest. You approach it slowly after a moment’s pause, stopping within several feet of the seal between the thick metal door and the structure around it. The latch is circular and embedded in the walls with a mechanism that has to be turned for it to open, and you rest your hands on the cold metal, feeling something that runs up your spine and spreads into your fingers, making them tremble against the latch. You close your eyes, taking one last breath and letting it out in a silent prayer to chance and fate, before giving the handle a firm twist. The neglected latch is stubborn, and you have to put your weight into it several times again, before the metal finally squeals into position, unlocking the door to the outside.

You pause, holding your breath and listening to the distant rush of the waterworks as you observe the door with apprehension. You had almost expected him to force it open and attack you once it was unlocked, but there’s no sign of movement yet, and the darkened passageway is otherwise silent.

Hesitantly, you pull the handle, and the door creaks open on its rusted hinges. You take a step back as it slowly swings towards you, and before you can take another step, something slams into the front of your throat, throwing your back against the wall and tightening painfully, before lifting you up by your neck, and your vision immediately blooms into sparkling black and white as your feet dangle an inch from the floor.

The walls around you take on a deep red color as a familiar figure steps carefully through the open hatch, following the long, black appendage latched onto your throat. He turns to look at you, regarding you silently as your feet ineffectively kick and thrash for leverage against the smooth concrete wall behind them, while your fingers pry frantically at the metal claw around your neck. You can hear yourself wheezing and gasping while your airway is compressed, and the sensation is unbearable, like your head and chest are slowly bursting open. You squint in agony at the pair of glowing eyes, watching you suffocate with an almost disinterested expression, as a weakness slowly creeps into your arms and legs.

He takes a step forward as your movements lose their coordination and your wheezing turns into short, pained gurgles. His metal hand reaches out and takes the front of your shirt between his fingers, and your eyesight goes dim as he stares at the blood dotting your clothes, with the agony in your chest giving way to a spreading numbness. Your hands slowly fall from the claws around your neck, coming to rest lifelessly at your sides.

 

 

For a brief, merciful moment, your oxygen-starved mind loses consciousness, and all discomfort fades away into a silent oblivion. Then it ends abruptly when something hits the side of your body hard, and your lungs reflexively inflate with a searing pain that makes you cough and choke against the air rushing in. Your hands find the wet concrete floor by your head and push against it, rolling you over onto your back as you gasp, helpless to an urgent, instinctive desire to breathe. Your vision slowly returns, along with a savage headache that forces you to squint up at the smudge of color above you- a blurry pattern of glowing red lines in the low light.

“You are fortunate,” it says over the sound of your distressed coughing, “that killing you in that manner was not as satisfying as I anticipated.”

You rest the back of your head against the floor, unable to speak or protest through the burning in your throat. AR observes you with an air of mild impatience as you lie at his feet, choking on nothing and struggling to fill your lungs, until every breath doesn’t feel like it’s lighting your chest on fire. After a few minutes pass, the pain subsides enough to let you prop yourself up on your elbows.

“Fuck, that hurt,” you slur, bringing a hand up to your throat and pulling your shaking fingers away to grimace at the fresh blood smeared on them. Your voice is weak through an ongoing effort to catch your breath, while you wait for your head to stop spinning and your vision to clear. You make an attempt to sit up, but the returning strength in your arms seems to vanish when you look up and meet AR’s eyes. He stares down at you impassively, standing over you with his four appendages hovering ominously in the air around him. The red glow is almost disorienting, but it also lights up the narrow tunnel around you, and you can see the texture of the walls, cracked and stained with dripping water.

‘I’m alive,’ you realize with disbelief, holding his eyes like an animal stunned by floodlights, as the memories of your previous encounters with him play through your mind. You swallow against the sudden dryness in your throat.

“Does this mean you’re going to help me?” Your voice is rough, and talking makes it worse. His eyes narrow slightly, and that’s all the warning you have before one of the hovering appendages strikes out, latching itself around the lower half of your face and slamming the back of your head against the floor as your vision erupts again in flashing spots.

“You are mine,” he says softly, slowly, staring down at you with cold eyes, “and my assistance shall be the price for this exchange, as previously discussed. I will end your petty human fight for you, and when it is over,” the claws around your face tighten, digging into your skin until something wet rolls down the side of your cheek, “you will kneel for me, and I will tear into you until your blood stains the ground beneath you. I will remove your limbs one articulating joint at a time, and hold your beating heart up for you to see.” The appendage pressing your head into the floor slowly lifts, dragging you up with it as you kick your feet. He stops with the toes of your shoes brushing against the ground. “Very few humans get the opportunity to observe their own internal working parts. If you are interested, I could identify each of your organs for you as I pull them out and set them aside.”

He considers you for a moment, watching you struggle uselessly in his grip, before abruptly releasing you again. Your injured leg buckles beneath the sudden weight, and your shoulder hits the wall as you stagger to keep your balance. He watches you silently as you lean against it, trying to will the stability back into your legs. You wipe the blood from your face and try not to picture what you must look like right now or what your friends will think when they see you, and just like that, the sudden thought of them fills you with a fierce, unyielding resolve.

“Not until you help me,” you grit through your teeth, clenched against the splitting pain in your head. “That was our deal, and I’m not doing shit for you unless you stick to my terms.”

He glares as you struggle to stand, but you hold his eyes in an unspoken challenge, hanging on to this last bargaining chip as your only hope of saving your friends and family. There’s a dangerous tension in the air as he visibly considers whether he should tear you apart and be done with it, or if your future obedience is worth the trouble, but slowly, his glare fades into an impassive stare, and you can feel your subconsciously coiled muscles relaxing as the danger passes.

“As I have already stated,” he concedes with mild disgust. “I will tolerate your ‘terms,’ but if you fail to cooperate at the end,” the hovering appendages orient themselves around you as he steps close, their pointed claws spreading open, “I will find your friends instead, and they will take your place as payment.”

“I won’t go back on my word,” you tell him, forgetting your pain for a moment as a potent anger fills you. “But if you do anything to hurt them, the deal’s off.”

His caustic red eyes meet yours again as you stand your ground defiantly, and despite the situation, you find yourself unwillingly distracted by the warmth emanating from his mechanical body. He’s standing very close to you- a gesture originally meant to intimidate, but the waterworks beneath the tunnels are oppressively cold this time of year, and the sudden heat feels like heaven against your chilled skin. The moment becomes drawn out, as he stares at you with growing curiosity at your distracted silence, until something settles in your mind. Whether it’s the ticking clock counting down your last few hours of life, or some sort of impairment from the repeated trauma to your head, you’re seized by a sudden disregard for consequences and explanations, as your hand lifts and closes the distance between your palm and the smooth, black metal of his chest.

When your hand finds its mark, you’re almost startled by the gentle vibration of unseen mechanisms beneath it, along with the almost too-hot temperature of the metal, just shy of uncomfortable, but not quite enough to make you pull away. The circuits flicker beneath your fingers the way you imagined they would, and you can feel a slight tingling sensation in your skin where it touches the red tracks of light, like a weak current passing through. You slide your fingers over them, almost hypnotized by the feeling and the knowledge of what you're doing, and it occurs to you belatedly that you half-expected AR to slam you against the wall again for touching him, since he’s done it several times already for lesser reasons, but so far he hasn't moved. You finally look up from your hand covering the circuits on his chest to see his eyes watching you intently.

“You’re warm,” you mutter softly, letting your hand fall to your side as you lean against the cold concrete wall at your back. AR continues to stare wordlessly, his thoughts obscure to you, before taking a step back and retracting his hovering claws.

“Your erratic behavior is indicative of mild head trauma and intracranial damage,” he observes passively in his detached, metallic voice. “Let us finish this before your cognition becomes progressively more impaired.”

“Yeah, and whose fucking fault is that,” you mutter under your breath, putting a hand on the wall for balance as you steady yourself on your feet. Your head still feels like it’s spinning, but you retrieve your shades from the floor and take the first few limping steps back the way you came, choosing to vindictively ignore AR for now and let him do as he pleases. The darkness slowly returns as you make your way down the narrow tunnel, but after a moment it’s chased away by a soft, red light as the android, your only remaining hope for ending this conflict, silently follows behind you, back towards the waterworks and your group of waiting friends.

 
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