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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8. Chapter 8

The glow from AR’s circuits lights up the waterworks with an ambient red light, turning the forest of pipes into an expanse of gigantic capillaries and blood vessels surrounding the metal walkway at your feet. The comparison lingers strangely in your mind as you progress, losing count of the number of times you have to check over your shoulder to make sure he’s still following you. The light should be evidence enough, but you’d expected his metal feet to make more of a sound against the floor. You’d never know he was behind you otherwise, except for the intermittent, metallic sound of his claws as he uses the appendages to lighten his weight, slowly reaching out one at a time and latching them onto the pipes and parts of the metal framework around him as he walks. It would be fascinating to watch if his glowing eyes weren’t already locked onto yours every time you turn around to look. As the two of you progress deeper into the waterworks, the air gets progressively thicker with moisture, and AR’s circuits turn the air into a deep, red fog.

“Hey,” you murmur, as something occurs to you, “will you be okay with all this water down here?”

He’s only a few steps behind you, but you can still feel his warmth at your back, and the palm of your hand tingles with the memory of touching him. You almost don’t hear his response to your question as a result, but the disdain in his voice is obvious.

“The ambient humidity in this area will not cause damage to my external circuitry, if that is what you are needlessly concerned about.”

“Alright, fine. I was just making sure,” you ungrateful asshole. Your thoughts are more distracted than usual, thanks to the steady pain in your head, but the thought of the armed conflict above soon coming to an end is more than enough to keep you going. You try not to dwell too much on what will come after, or what your friends (and Bro, if he’s still alive) will do when they find out you’ve bartered your life away. The thought of them reminds you suddenly of something important, and you slow your limping pace for AR to catch up, until he’s walking next to you with his spiderlike limbs, forcing you to duck beneath them every now and then when he reaches for a pipe over your head.

“I have one more condition to add,” you tell him, and he turns to fix you with a warning stare. “It’s nothing major, I just…didn’t tell my friends about our deal, or how I’ll be leaving with you after this, so don’t mention it to them.”

He turns away in disinterest, and it might be your imagination, but you think you see his eyes roll.

“The information you choose to share or neglect with your companions does not concern me.”

“You can’t tell them,” you order him, doing your best to make your voice sound commanding, and he lets out a quiet, impatient sigh.

“I have no intention of doing so,” he repeats slowly, and his metal appendages seem to briefly twist in the air, like a gesture of frustration. “Your excessive concern over this hypothetical situation is unfounded and irrational.”

You bite back a retort, forcing yourself to be content with his backhanded agreement, but your frustration is quickly forgotten as your eyes pick up on a strange discoloration around the base of his neck as he walks alongside you. It’s easy to miss in the monochrome light, but you can just make out the smudged shape and irregular edges, almost like a burn mark. You hadn’t noticed it before.

‘Did I actually hurt him?’ you wonder, eyeing the evidence. He must be able to feel things somehow, but you didn’t think androids would be capable of pain. Although, it could explain why he’s been so hostile ever since the incident in the subway. Maybe he’s never been hurt like that before, but it’s impossible to know for sure, and you’re not about to ask.

He falls behind again as you get on your knees to crawl under a stretch of low scaffolding. You turn to watch him crouch beneath it, moving effortlessly through the narrow space with his eight limbs to your four. They must be invaluable for navigating the ruins of the city, but they’re also potent killing devices, as the now-constant ache in your body reminds you. Your vision isn’t swimming anymore, but you can’t seem to shake the feeling of being slightly off-balance. The only upside is that it won’t matter for much longer, as your ears pick up on the soft sound of voices around the next corner.

You pause and glance back at him, squinting against the light of his circuits and weighing whether or not you should reiterate your very serious condition that he is prohibited from hurting your friends, but he’s meeting your stare with a vaguely displeased expression, as though he can sense what you’re thinking. You turn away, deciding that you’d rather not antagonize him any further, and take a deep breath, hoping desperately that this doesn’t end badly.

He lags behind as you turn the last corner, your eyes adjusting to the sudden variety of color as the red glow gives way somewhat to the yellowed light of the candle in Jake’s hand. They’re standing in a loose circle, and it looks like they might have been seated before hearing you approach. All three of them are now watching you silently, as the red glow becomes stronger, and AR quietly emerges behind you.

In this moment, you’ve decided that the best way you can protect them is by refusing to show fear. You stand up straight, keeping a careful eye on their reactions, as Jake slowly raises one of his pistols at the android. Roxy reaches over before you can tell him off, and puts a hand on his arm, mumbling something to him, before he reluctantly lowers it. AR, for his part, seems to be observing the three of them with nothing beyond mild disdain, and you make sure to keep yourself firmly between him and your friends as you approach them slowly. Jane’s eyes are wide, and Roxy has a similar expression on her face as she grips the stock of her rifle, but it takes you a moment to realize that they’re not looking at AR. Jane’s expression seems to twist for a moment, before she finally breaks off from the others and approaches you. She seizes the edge of her shirt and tears off a large strip of cloth, using it to wipe at the side of your face.

“You’re covered in blood.” Her voice is subdued and miserable, as she uses the fabric to clean the scratches in your skin, before pressing it to a deep gash in your neck. Jake’s expression is slowly darkening, his eyes trained on AR, and you silently beg him not to open his mouth, but then Jane brushes her fingers through the hair at the back of your head, and you hiss through your teeth at the sudden stab of pain. When she pulls her hand away, it’s smeared with blood, and she reaches around to press the cloth strip against the wound.

“Are you okay?” She whispers, and you force a small smile.

“Yeah, I’m alright. It looks worse than it is.”

She frowns at you, seeing instantly through your bravado, then glares angrily over your shoulder at AR. Jake’s eyes haven’t left him either.

“What did you do to him, you monster?” He snarls, clutching the pistol still in his hand.

Jake,” you snap, pinning him with a warning glare.

“Jake, put it away,” Roxy repeats quietly, as Jane holds the cloth in place at the back of your head. Jake glowers at the rest of you unhappily for a moment, before reholstering his gun. You glance over your shoulder, but AR’s expression is still safely neutral with a vague air of impatience, and you breath a quiet sigh of relief, although your nerves are still on edge. “I’m fine, you guys. It’s alright.”

“Shut it, Dirk, you’re not fine,” Jane mutters, motioning Jake to bring the candle over and hold it up. She tilts your head back, lifting your eyelid with her thumb and checking the size of your pupils.

“We don’t have time for this, Jane,” you whisper apologetically, gently taking her wrist and lowering her hand. She looks like she wants to protest, but glances again at AR standing behind you, and seems to reconsider. The longer this goes on, the riskier it becomes for them, just by virtue of their proximity, and you quietly thank Jane for her help and apologise again to Roxy and Jake for worrying them, before beckoning your friends into a circle.

“Alright, let’s hurry up and figure this out,” you sigh, holding Jane’s cloth against the back of your head. The others are seated around you on the floor, with Jake’s candle forgotten in favor of the bright glow from AR’s circuits. The android crouches silently off to the side, keeping his distance from the four of you while he watches impassively. You’d like to pretend it doesn’t unnerve you, but so long as he leaves your friends alone, he can stare all he wants.

“It’s gone rather quiet up there,” Jake murmurs, sparing a glare in AR’s direction while the android pointedly ignores him, to your relief. “I’m afraid the fighting might have ended entirely while you were gone.”

“Yeah, I noticed that earlier.” You pull the cloth away and wince at the amount of blood on it. There’s a noticeably sticky feeling on the back of your head, and you can only imagine what it looks like from behind.

“We should have heard something by now, if English had lost,” Jane says, taking the ragged edge of her shirt and tearing off another strip of fabric, exposing the pale skin of her stomach. She hands it to you in exchange for the one in your hand, discarding the bloodied cloth on the floor.

“English is our target, but we’ll try to get rid of his gang in the process if we can.” you tell her, carefully pressing the cloth to your head. “I’m guessing he’s in the command center, since he might be getting ready to overhaul the compound.” A thought occurs to you, and you turn to AR, sitting a short distance away with his metal appendages resting on the floor. “Can you see through the security cameras?”

“Yes,” his reply is brief, and your mind conjures a vivid image of the word in red text on a screen.

“We’re looking for English,” you tell him, before considering that he might not know who you’re talking about. “He’s a large man with green clothes, like a shirt and suspenders, under a heavy coat.”

“A really ugly coat,” Roxy adds under her breath.

AR gazes back at you quietly, and one of the metal coils on the floor begins to shift. Jane stares at it apprehensively and mutters your name, while Jake’s grip tightens on his holstered gun.

“I am not able to perceive color through the limited range of photosites in your primitive cameras,” he responds impatiently.

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Jake growls at AR, and you have to resist the powerful urge to hit him upside the head, before Roxy leans over and tells him that the security cameras only record in black and white.

“Shit,” you mutter. “We need to find him before we do anything else. What about the command center?” you ask, but even as the words come out, something else is already on your mind. “Is my brother in there?”

“What about my grandma?” Jake speaks up, his voice suddenly subdued. Jane and Roxy are watching the two of you hesitantly, and you know they’re wondering about their parents. AR blinks at them, and doesn’t respond.

“It’s a large room, with lots of computer monitors and consoles,” you tell him. “It’s where my brother coordinates the base’s activities, you’ve seen him in there before.”

He stares at you silently, while your friends do the same, before the shifting metal appendage lifts into the air.

“Give me your computing device,” he says, his tone almost reluctant. Your mind stumbles for a moment, before realizing that he’s talking about your shades, and Roxy puts out a hand to help you stand up. You limp the short distance over to him, before tucking Jane’s cloth into your pocket and removing your folded shades, holding them out in your hand.

The black appendage twists slowly in the air, approaching your outstretched hand and extending its pointed claws. They gently close around the eyewear and retract slightly, before lifting it and returning to him. He reaches behind his neck and pulls out a black wire grasped between his fingers, taking your shades in his other hand and plugging the tip into the device.

“Put them on,” he orders, holding the eyewear out to you with the wire still plugged in. You meet his eyes apprehensively, with your friends watching behind you, before reaching out and carefully taking it from him. The desktop display is bright against your eyes, forcing you squint against it as you feel the lopsided weight of the wire against your ear. After a moment, the screen flickers, displaying an error message that reverts into a console window, as lines of code rapidly flash across your vision, the letters and numbers passing by too quickly for your eyes to keep up. Another window opens on top of it, the image nothing but jumping static, before it flickers again, and you’re suddenly left staring at yourself, with the thin, black wire coming out of the side of your shades and the skin all the way around your neck smeared with drying blood. You can also see the others behind you, lit by the candle on the floor between them, and before you can say anything, the image flickers again and reverts to static, this time resolving into an overhead view of a room in grainy black and white.

You recognize the command center, even from the strange perspective and poor quality. A small number of people are moving around, and you can see a larger figure at one of the consoles, with a familiar man standing next to him. A third figure stands behind the second one, with a small gun pointed at his head.

“Bro,” you whisper, watching as English turns and says something to him, his mouth moving wordlessly. He seems to pause, waiting for a response, before turning back to the screen and putting his hand on the keyboard, his fingers moving. You notice your Bro’s arms are held strangely behind his back, as though his hands are tied together, and your heart clenches painfully, before a slow wave of anger takes its place.

“Dirk? What’s going on?” you hear Jake asking, his voice hesitant. You watch the screen for a moment longer, as English continues typing something and your Bro stands motionlessly next to him.

“I can see the command center,” you tell him, scanning the room for more familiar faces. There’s a small figure crouched off to the side in a chair, halfway obscured by the edge of the screen, and you think it might be Calliope, hugging her knees to her chest. You recognize some of English’s followers by their faces, and are somewhat startled to realize that the several large, dark shapes on the floor are actually bodies.

“Is my mom there?” Roxy’s voice this time. You shake your head, mindful of the wire attached to your shades.

“I don’t see her,” you say softly, squinting through the grainy image at the figures, “but I can only make out half of the room.” As soon as you’re done saying the words, the image suddenly jumps again, and you’re left with a view from a different direction. The metal door leading out to the tunnels has a figure standing next to it, holding a gun with a rag tied around their upper arm. You can still see your brother and English, standing in front of the large console. Then your eyes pick up on another figure, slumped against the far wall, with very long, white hair covering their face. You’d recognize her hair anywhere. You’d always admired it when you were younger, and every time she let you run your fingers through the soft strands, you wondered what it would be like to grow your own hair out like that, but your brother never allowed it. You have to savagely bite the inside of your lip to keep your eyes from filling with tears.

‘Shit,’ you think miserably, trying to decide what to say to Jake, or if you should refrain from mentioning it for now. Jane’s dad is nowhere to be seen, and Roxy’s mother hasn’t made an appearance either, although they could be held captive somewhere else. You let out a slow breath.

“I can see my Bro. He’s with English,” you tell them, lifting the shades to glance at your group of waiting friends, then at AR, watching you silently. Your direct your next question at him. “Can you tell what they’re doing?”

He stares at you for another long moment, before his eyes become unfocused, their color dimming slightly as he speaks.

“They are altering the encryptions present in multiple file sets and programs within that device.”

“He’s taking the passwords from Bro.” you mutter to them, letting your shades fall back into place and watching your brother’s mouth move as he speaks again. The man behind him suddenly shoves his head forward with the gun, as another member of English’s gang comes into view, and the screen flickers, before a simplified chat window opens on top of the footage.

TT: I do not understand why your companions are here.
TT: If you wished to keep them from harm, as you have repeatedly stated, why are they not gathered in a hidden location?

You grit your teeth together, trying not to glare at AR over the top of your shades.

TT: Because they wanted to stay.
TT: I am well acquainted with your lack of survival instincts, however I was not aware that this self-destructive trait was shared by your entire group of companions, as though it were a communicable disease.

You glare at him anyway, and he meets your eyes impassively.

TT: They’re my friends, and we don’t abandon each other.
TT: This desire to remain in close proximity to you is a significant detriment to their safety, and your permittance of this behavior is in direct conflict with your repeated desire to keep them safe.
TT: Perhaps I have overestimated your intellect.

“Do you see anything else?” Jane asks hesitantly at your ongoing silence, and you let out a frustrated breath, cursing silently at the android while willing your voice to be calm.

“No,” you tell her, removing the shades from your face and turning them sideways to curiously touch the wire plugged into them. AR is staring at you impatiently, and you almost jump when he speaks in his metallic voice.

“This continued deliberation is unnecessary,” he says, one of his appendages extending towards you and taking the eyewear when you reflexively hold it out. “The location of your family members is irrelevant to the task I am here to perform.”

“It’s not irrelevant, you bloody machine.” Jake snaps back. You watch in horror as AR’s eyes narrow at him dangerously, and a familiar fear crawls up your spine.

“Jake,” you say quickly, “guys, please. We know where English is, so let’s just focus on that and try to get this over with.” As you finish talking, AR’s appendage holds the shades out to you with the wire removed, and you take it from him before returning to your circle of friends. Jane and Roxy are visibly unnerved, but you do your best to keep the conversation on track, even though you’re still trying to push down your frustration as you fold the shades into your pocket.

“Dirk,” Roxy leans over and glances at AR, her voice low. “I get that he won’t have any problems with the guns or whatever they’re walking around with up there, but what about the EMP devices?”

Jane makes a small sound of affirmation as she realizes the same thing. Jake is sitting in a brooding silence, apparently still upset by the exchange. You force yourself to put the thought of his grandmother at the back of your mind, along with the gun pointed at your brother’s head.

“That’s why we’re taking them by surprise,” you say, looking around at the others. “The entire base only has a few electromagnetic weapons to begin with, and they’re all at the main entrance points or in maintenance. Even if English kept the security measures in place during his armed takeover, they won’t be expecting an android to show up already inside the compound.”

“Then what about the cameras?” Roxy asks. “The security feeds go straight to the command center’s consoles. They’ll see him coming, unless we can do something about that.”

“AR can disrupt the video feeds. Someone might notice, but it shouldn’t matter.” As you talk, you notice a strange expression pass over their faces almost simultaneously.

“I’m sorry, mate, but what was that? It sounded like you said ‘error,’” Jake says curiously.

“It’s his name,” you explain under your breath, gesturing at the android. “AR, like the letters. It’s an acronym.”

“For what?” Jake asks in disbelief. “Hold on, they actually have names?”

Jane elbows him, and you silently thank her, before trying to get the conversation back on track.

“The door to the command center was closed, but it isn’t reinforced.” You pause and glance at AR, who stares back at you derisively. “I don’t think it should be a problem for him. I’ve seen those metal claws break through solid concrete.”

“Are you going up there too?” Roxy asks, frowning slightly. You nod, and her face falls.

“I have to, just in case. I need to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone he’s not supposed to.”

“Well then, we’re going with you,” Jake says, matter-of-factly.

“No, you’re not,” you tell him, and he glares at you.

“And why the bloody hell not? What’s your confounded reason for it this time, Strider?”

“Because I need the three of you to make sure that none of English’s gang escape.” You meet their eyes, trying to convince them, since there’s no way in hell you’re letting them come with you. “The command center has two main routes leading out of it. Once AR and I get there, everything will go to hell within minutes, so I need you guys at the opposite route on the other side of the base to take care of any stragglers.”

Your argument is convincing at first glance, but what you aren’t telling them is that it’ll be entirely unnecessary in the end. Once English is gone, it’s doubtful that any of his underlings will have the initiative or the authority over the others to lead. It’s even more unlikely that any of them will make it out of the command center alive once you lead AR into there, and those left patrolling the tunnels will flee into the city if they escape, where they’ll be picked off by the androids, if the weather and lack of resources don’t kill them first. Even so, it’ll be easier for everyone if you can leave afterwards without them around to notice. You’ve thought long and hard about telling them, but if their reactions lately are anything to go by, it’s obvious that they’ll try to stop you, or worse, try to stop AR. It’s a risk you can’t take, even if it means you won’t get to say goodbye.

They agree to your plan, although somewhat halfheartedly. You tell them to follow the waterworks to the other side of the compound, and to wait there until they hear anything that sounds like mass panic, then check the maintenance labs for hostages after taking care of any fleeing gang members. Roxy’s mom could be in there, if they stuck to their philosophy about sparing those with “useful” skills, and Jane’s dad could be anywhere, although you aren’t sure about his chances, given that his most useful skillset was his affinity for cooking.

You stand as they do the same, gathering up their weapons, and Jake suddenly pulls you aside.

“Listen mate, I know you’re not going to hear a single thing I have to say,” he says, holding up a hand when you start to protest, “but I don’t trust that glowing tin can any more than the others do, and I know you’ve worked out some sort of arrangement with him, but you may as well have made an agreement with a toaster, for all the good that’ll come of it.” He leans in close, putting a hand on your shoulder where it meets your neck, and you can feel the rough skin of his calloused fingers. “We talked it over a bit after you left, and we all think it would be best if you gave your unpleasant companion the slip once the fighting starts. We’ll come and find you after it’s done, and then figure out what to do if he decides not to leave after getting rid of my uncle.”

You swallow, trying not to stare at Jake’s green eyes, because chances are you’ll never see him again after this. He smiles when you nod, mistaking your hesitation for consideration of his plan, and you fantasize momentarily about hugging him just to feel it one last time, but he steps away, and turns back to the others to help them figure out which direction to go through the waterworks. You let out a long, mournful breath, watching them taking together in a loose circle, trying to memorize the sight of it like a treasured photograph. You turn to check on AR as an afterthought, to find his red eyes staring at you intently, before glancing over to Jake, and you can almost see him putting the pieces together.

“Dirk?” Jane calls you over, holding one of Jake’s pistols in her hand. She abandoned her bloodied pipe in your shared rooms, along with your sword. “We’re ready to get going, if you are.”

“Yeah, let’s get this over with.” You exchange parting words with them, Jane telling you to be safe, Jake wishing you luck, and Roxy ordering you to come back in one piece. You lie to each of them, and watch as they turn to leave together, Jake holding the flickering candle in one hand while they make their way through the first layer of pipes. After a few long moments, AR appears silently beside you.

“This has been a significant waste of time,” he says irately.

“Come on,” you reply simply, walking towards the metal ladder leading up to the tunnels above, as the distant light of your friends vanishes.

 
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