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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25. Epilogue

“Dave, I’m fairly certain we passed third street,” Rose tells him placatingly, as Dave glares down at the disassembled electric lamp in front of him, pinching one of the long, bent wires between his fingers. He twists it carefully, before hissing and wrenching his arm away as something inside of it sparks.

“Wow, Rose, really? That’s incredible, I had no idea you’d developed night vision between now and yesterday,” he mocks, before sucking on the tip of his finger with a grimace. Jade gives him a pained look and rubs the side of his arm where she’s leaning against him, wrapped in an oversized blanket against the chill.

“I’m certain we’ll figure out where we are once the sun comes up,” Rose states calmly, folding the map in front of her, before tucking it into the satchel next to your oversized backpack. She reaches for the small candle on the floor in front of her, the yellow flame wavering as it’s lifted into the air. “Besides, why don’t we just use this? I’m sure there’s a street sign nearby somewhere.”

“Because it’s windy out there, and we can’t afford to waste any more matches.” Dave pushes the broken lamp aside with frustration, before carefully reaching around Jade’s shoulders to pull the blanket tighter. He grumbles angrily under his breath. “This wouldn’t have even been a problem, if we had a lamp that actually worked.”

“Oh my god, Dave, I’m sorry,” you exclaim, meeting his sulking glare with your own frustration. “I didn’t know it was broken! It’s not my fault they never organized anything in storage.”

“So maybe try pressing the actual fucking button next time to make sure it works and that we’re not left carrying around a useless piece of shit on a two-hundred mile fucking hike through the countryside!”

You lean back and sulk, as Rose talks him down in a soft, but scolding tone. Dave still won’t let the lamp thing go, no matter how many times you apologise for it, and honestly, anyone could have made that mistake. The storage room was always a complete disaster, and it’s a miracle you even found the thing in the thirty-second window you had to swipe what you needed. The cold night air makes you shiver, and you wrap your arms around yourself, as Jade catches your eye, smiling apologetically. You return it, feeling your spirits lift just a little bit. Dave and Rose are still going back and forth, as the candlelight flickers, lighting up the inside of the overturned bus you’re all spending the night in.

“We’ve already reached Beaumont City,” Rose tries to persuade him. “I think that perhaps we can afford to slow down a little.”

“Fuck no, we’re not slowing down,” he growls. “The longer this takes, the colder it’ll get. We have to keep moving.”

“Dave, she’s exhausted.” Rose gestures at Jade, and the glare she gets in return from Dave is enough to momentarily end their conversation. You shift in the ensuing awkward silence, trying in vain to get comfortable. The wind picks up again, peppering the outside of the bus with a shower of dirt that hisses against the metal. Rose seems occupied with her own thoughts, as Jade coughs under the blanket and Dave leans over to whisper to her quietly. You roll onto your back, staring up at the dirty windows through the decaying wool and foam of the rows of seats. At least the glass didn’t shatter when the bus rolled onto its side however many years ago. You’re just grateful to have somewhere to rest where the wind can’t get in. Rose says there’s another empty stretch of countryside to get through after this city, before you finally reach your destination.

“...do you really think they won’t follow us?” you whisper, and Dave sighs.

“It’s been over a week, Egbert. I think we’re safe.”

“But we stole food,” you roll back onto your side, ignoring the window frame digging into your arm, “and medicine.”

“All the more reason they can’t come after us,” he mutters. Rose lets out a long sigh.

“We aren’t the first to abandon the compound, John. Every time it’s happened, all they’ve done is tighten security even further. To my knowledge, they haven’t even tried to bring anyone back yet, at least not by force.”

“More like a fucking prison,” Dave hisses under his breath. Jade suddenly starts coughing again, harder this time, and he forgets his anger for a moment to wrap his arms around her, as she shivers against his chest under the blanket. “They’re all cowards, too scared to leave their precious fortress, while everyone rots in there with them.”

“But what if we’re wrong?” you ask, pushing yourself up to face them. “What if it really was just a rumor? What if we’re walking into a trap or something?”

“Because we’d have been caught and ground into hamburger by now if it weren’t true, now shut up and go to sleep, Egbert.”

Dave ignores the scowl you throw at him, and you vindictively roll onto your other side where you can’t see him. There’s the sound of someone moving a few minutes later, and Rose settles down next to you, making herself comfortable before finally blowing out the candle.

“You know he doesn’t mean it,” she whispers, quiet enough that you can barely hear. You let out a long sigh, as Jade coughs again. The rough sound makes you wince sympathetically. Just listening to her is enough to make your own chest feel like it’s hurting.

“I know,” you mumble, “and he’s right, I guess. We’ve traveled over a hundred miles, and there hasn’t been a single android to stop us. Not that I want to see one or anything, but it’s just weird, is all.”

“I agree with you. It is strange, but it certainly lends credence to the stories we’ve been hearing,” she answers, before your quiet conversation lapses into silence. Despite the cold air and the uncomfortable position, and Jade’s coughing repeatedly pulling you out of a meager, light sleep, it isn’t long before the sky turns from black into a faint, darkened blue.

The four of you make short work of breakfast, passing around what’s left of the open can from last night, while Rose packs up the supplies, and Dave gently coaxes Jade into eating her food. You lift the backpack onto your shoulders, noticing how much lighter it is compared to when you started this journey. The door at the back of the bus (labeled “Emergency” in black letters), opens and swings down when you pull the handle, and you climb out before extending a hand to Rose. Dave follows soon after, wearing his dark aviators and carrying Jade on his back with her arms wrapped around his shoulders. She flashes you a tired grin, and you return it happily, forcing yourself to ignore the dark circles around her sunken eyes. Rose unfolds the map and hums thoughtfully.

“Here’s the last place we stopped.” She points to a spot on the paper, then traces her finger across it in a straight line. “This should be close to where we are now. Let’s all keep an eye out for street signs, if there are any.”

“This place is wrecked,” you remark, as you walk along the road, cluttered with overturned cars and debris. “It’s even worse than the last city we passed through.”

“We’re getting closer,” Dave tells you, and you’re still a bit sore about last night, but you nod.

“Yeah, how much further, though?”

He shrugs, the gesture limited by Jade’s weight.

“Another week, perhaps,” Rose answers. “Still, I’m also surprised by the amount of destruction here. It even looks like some of the buildings were hollowed out.”

Rose and Dave lapse into an aimless, meandering conversation, while you distract yourself by staring up at the buildings and peering into every alley as you pass by. The air is warming up as the sun rises higher, and you gratefully shake off the night’s chill. Eventually, Jade falls asleep on Dave’s back, and Rose slows down enough to walk alongside you, pointing out one of the taller buildings in the distance, then to the corresponding spot on her map.

Dave is the first to stop walking, coming to a halt in front of a strange disruption on the next paved road. You and Rose catch up to him a minute later, and you whistle through your teeth at the sight.

“Woah,” you breathe slowly, taking in the path of destruction laid out in front of you. The asphalt from here to the next few blocks over and beyond has been completely torn up, like something huge and heavy was dragged down the road, and the buildings weren’t spared either, their sides covered in bizarre, winding scratch marks and shattered windows. The sidewalks are littered with broken glass and concrete. “What happened here?” you whisper.

“Something bad,” Dave mutters, carefully descending into the wide, shallow trench where the road used to be. “Might be a good place to stop, though.”

“Are you sure?” you hesitate, but he doesn’t respond, too occupied with waking Jade up and helping her down. Rose joins them, and you follow soon after, careful not to lose your footing.

After you’ve removed your backpack and sorted through the remaining cans of food, Rose spreads out the map and points at various spots while Dave hovers over her shoulder, nodding and muttering to her. Jade is leaning back against one of the larger slabs of concrete, her chest heaving silently beneath the blanket. Her long black hair makes her skin look even paler than it already is.

You find one of the water bottles at the bottom of your backpack, carefully unscrewing the cap and taking just enough to wet your mouth. Dave accepts it wordlessly when you pass it to him, before you lean back on your hands and feel something prick the side of your palm in the dirt.

“Hey Dave, check it out,” you grin, blowing the dirt off of the pair of pointed sunglasses, before removing your own and placing them on your face. The black glass is cracked and impossible to see through. “Am I cool like you now?”

“Egbert, you are a walking, talking, textbook antonym of the word ‘cool,’” he retorts, but the side of his mouth quirks up in an unwilling smile.

“John, take those off, you don’t know where they’ve been,” Rose gently scolds.

“Man, these are totally busted,” you mumble, pushing them down on your nose so you can see, to find Jade watching you. Then you push them back up to make a few silly faces for her, like you’re posing for a photograph. She chuckles quietly, then starts coughing until she’s almost wheezing for air. You wilt under Dave’s haughty glare, as he abandons the map to kneel next to her, rubbing her back and helping her lean forward. She coughs into his shoulder, and your stomach twists at the tiny red flecks on his shirt when he moves away.

You avoid meeting Dave’s eyes for the rest of the afternoon, eating your food in silence after discarding the broken sunglasses somewhere in the dirt. Rose folds up the map when she’s done, and the three of you make your way out of the trench and along the streets. You spend the rest of the day navigating through the wreckage, before the city slowly gives way to an empty expanse of dirt and brush, and the occasional twisted, miserable tree. It’s a view you’re painfully familiar with, as your feet ache at the sight.

 

You follow the endless road alongside your friends, keeping pace with them as Rose tracks your progress on the map, and Dave tirelessly carries Jade on his back. You’re in charge of managing the supplies, and you calculated carefully before you left- just enough food and water to get you to there, but nothing for getting back. Chances are the four of you would be gunned down on sight if you tried to return, even though it was Dave’s idea to leave in the first place, followed by Rose once he got her on board, and finally you, after refusing to be left behind. Jade didn’t have much of a say in the matter, but she probably would have agreed anyway, knowing what she was like before she got sick.

After a few more days on the interstate road, sleeping huddled together in the ditch and staring out at the same expanse of scrub brush and horizon for countless hours on end, the next sunrise reflects off of something in the distance. By midday, you can make out a series of strange shapes sticking up from the earth like a wall of needles. Every day after that brings you closer, until you’re facing an expanse of towering black spires.

You stare in utter, shell-shocked disbelief when your small group passes by a moderate gathering of people some distance away from the side of the road, busy with what seem to be rows of plants. Several of them look up briefly as you pass, but they seem far less interested in you by comparison. Dave urges the rest of you to keep moving, and it isn’t long before you pass another group of people, along with a row of shacks and a few more cultivated plots of land. Rose stares at them in fascination, and is the first to greet several individuals as they pass you on the road, heading in the other direction. The shacks get closer together and more permanent-looking as you keep going, until you’re passing beneath your first spire, an alien structure that punctures the sky through the clouds, and rises out of sight.

By the time the sun begins to set, you’re surrounded by loose crowds of human beings, more than you’ve ever seen before in your life, and the noise is disorienting. You stay close to your friends, careful not to lose sight of them as Dave pulls someone aside. The man listens to him talk, then points at something off in the distance. You’re led between buildings and stalls, the narrow streets busy and crowded, before something else catches your eye- a figure standing off to the side with a small group of people, wearing what you thought was black clothing at first glance, but the light reflects strangely off of their shoulders as you pass by, and you almost didn’t notice the curled horns on either side of their head. Dave sets a demanding pace through the crowd, and you’re forced to swallow your curiosity and keep moving.

“There it is,” he says, directing your gaze up to the dizzyingly massive tower a short distance away, rising tall above the surrounding spires. “They said that’s the place to go if you need help.”

“Well, we've certainly made good time,” Rose sighs, setting her satchel down and leaning against one of the nearby walls, “but it’s gotten very late, Dave. I’m not certain we’ll be welcomed at this hour.”

Almost as though she’s agreeing, Jade coughs weakly, her shoulders shaking with the effort. It’s been several days since the last time Jade even tried to interact with you, and Dave’s been guarding her more than ever. He carefully sets her down, propping her up against the wall and leaning in close to whisper to her. Rose sits down and pulls off her shoes with a relieved sigh, and you cross the narrow street to join her, removing your backpack and opening the last can of food. Your supply of water ran out this morning, and you wish you had some left, at least for Jade. She’s wheezing quietly with every breath now, like there’s something stuck in her throat, but Rose says it’s her lungs. Dave doesn’t join the two of you for dinner, until you pass the can to him, and he carefully feeds Jade with his fingers.

 

Later that night, and well before morning, you’re awoken by the sound of Dave screaming.

You bolt upright to find him leaning over Jade, shaking her shoulders and frantically calling her name. Rose is next to him a moment later, and you scramble to your feet as Dave wrenches away from her and grabs Jade, lifting and cradling her in his arms. He runs down the street as you and Rose are left to catch up, following the sound of his pounding footsteps towards the looming central tower in the darkness. He’s at the base of the structure when you catch up to him, gasping for air with Jade’s limp body in his arms. There’s a faint outline of a door in the metal in front of him, and he kicks at it violently with one leg.

“Let us in!” he screams hoarsely, kicking the door again, before almost losing his balance and stumbling backwards. You take his place and pound on the black metal, yelling at the top of your lungs for help, when the door suddenly slides open, and there’s a very hostile android glaring down at you. Its horns are almost unnoticeable compared to the others- just a pair of rounded nubs, but its circuits are a bright, almost angry cherry red.

“Please, our friend is sick, help…” you immediately plead in a wavering voice, ignoring the fear crawling up and down your spine as the android stares at you, then at Rose and Dave, and finally at Jade in his arms, her lips pale. The android hisses for a moment, like a low, breathy growl, before abruptly turning around.

“Come. Now.” Its voice has a strange, metallic rasp, but Dave shoves past you to walk quickly behind it, as you’re led into a dark, narrow corridor. The door you came in through closes on its own, and you’re left following the android’s neon-red circuits as it leads your group in silence.

Eventually, after several twists and turns, the corridor opens up into a larger room, this one lit from above by electric lights, with multiple open hallways leading out of it. The android stops in the center of the room and turns to face your group.

“Wait.” It practically barks the word, before leaving through one of the corridors. Dave looks like he’s about to split himself in half, as he watches the android leave. He kneels down with Jade still cradled in his arms, muttering curses under his breath through tears and gritted teeth. You take a step towards him, before Rose stops you with a hand on your shoulder, shaking her head sadly when you meet her eyes.

“But, we’ve come this far,” you whisper to her, feeling your eyes sting as Dave wraps his arms around Jade, gently rocking her back and forth. Rose pulls you away, leading you to the other side of the circular room. “This can’t...it can’t just happen like this…”

“John, we’ve done all we can for now,” she says sadly, as you try your hardest to ignore the bitter sound of Dave crying behind you. “We’ve accomplished something incredible by making it here on our own, and I know that fate will reward us somehow. Jade’s stronger than all of us combined. She’ll make it through this.”

You force yourself to believe her, refusing to think about the alternative. The passing seconds are unbearable, as Rose does her best to reassure you, but there’s a sound like footsteps on the other side of the room, followed quickly by Dave’s frantic voice.

“Wh- what are you...hey, wait! Where are you taking her?!” he shouts, and you turn to see a second android, this one covered in bright pink circuits, with long horns and an unnerving, shark-like grin. It has Jade’s body wrapped up in more metal tentacles than you can count, and is in the process of carrying her away towards one of the corridors, while Dave throws himself into a panic. Rose quickly crosses the room and tries to subdue him, just as another figure appears from one of the hallways- a human boy that looks only a little older than you, with sandy blond hair and pale, freckled skin. He takes one look at the commotion, before quickly making his way towards them.

“No! Bring her back! Jade!” Dave screams, trying to wrestle out of Rose’s grasp as the pink android disappears down the corridor. The older boy gets there just in time to prevent Dave from sprinting down the hallway, grabbing onto his arm and wrestling him away, before Dave suddenly lashes out, and the stranger is on the floor a moment later, covering his mouth with one hand, his eyes squeezed shut in pain.

Rose grabs onto Dave’s shoulders and tries to yell some sense into him, as you approach the stranger on the floor and kneel down, helping him sit up.

“Where are they taking her?!” Dave shouts.

“To the infirmary!” the boy snaps back, uncovering his mouth. You grimace at the huge split lip and trickle of blood dripping down his nose and chin, soaking into the collar of his shirt, but you’re also momentarily distracted by the stunning amber color of his eyes. Dave seems to finally pause at the sight of blood, staring down at the older boy in dawning realization of what he just did. Rose kneels next to you and unwraps her favorite pink scarf from her neck, balling up the fabric and pressing it to the stranger’s chin.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he mutters, hissing in pain as she pulls the scarf away to check the damage. The side of his face already looks swollen. “I’m Dirk, by the way. Nice to meet you.”

Dave shifts awkwardly, still glancing every few seconds down the corridor where the android left with Jade, while Rose does her best to stop the bleeding. She shoots Dave a pointed, disapproving glare, and he clears his throat hesitantly.

“Sorry,” he mumbles. Rose shakes her head at him, before helping Dirk stand.

“I’m John,” you venture, trying to derail the situation, as you offer Dirk your hand. He blinks at you for a confused moment, before accepting the handshake. “This is Rose, and that’s Dave. Jade is our other friend, who...I guess got carried off somewhere, just now.”

“Where are you guys all from?” Dirk asks, rubbing the side of his chin with a wince. You’re about to answer, when Dave beats you to it.

“I need to know where they took Jade,” he demands, and Rose glowers at him silently, but Dave looks like he’s on the verge of panicking again. “I need to know what’s happening to her, I need to see her...please,” Dave begs, his voice thick and unsteady. Dirk meets his eyes for a long moment, before a slow, strange expression passes over his features. He takes in a long breath, before letting it out.

“Yeah, okay,” he says softly, surprising all three of you. “I can show you where the infirmary is. Follow me,” he gestures, turning and leading you down the hallway and into a long corridor.

Dave lags behind you and Rose, as Dirk leads the way, directing your group through another few twists and turns, before slowly coaxing the three of you onto a round platform in what looks like an open elevator shaft. You swallow your nerves as the thing vibrates under your feet, carrying you higher and higher, until your ears feel like they’re imploding, and Rose directs you to pinch your nose and blow to relieve the pressure. Dave is standing off to the side of the platform, rubbing the back of his hand, his knuckles still smeared with red, while Dirk has the front of his own shirt pinched between his fingers, using it to stop the trickle of blood oozing from the wide split in his lip. After another long moment, Rose clears her throat.

“I’m...very sorry about all this trouble,” she ventures uncertainly, as Dirk’s head lifts at her voice, and you notice something you hadn’t before- a black band around his neck, almost like a metal collar, with a faintly glowing, red geometric pattern etched into it. “What with it being so late at night and all,” Rose continues.

Dirk sniffs wetly, wiping the blood from his face and giving her a pained, lopsided smile. “Nah, don’t worry, it’s only, uh…” he lifts one hand and briefly touches the side of his finger to the collar, like an absent-minded gesture, “...just past two-thirty, but I don’t usually go to sleep until around four. It’s easy to lose track of time in here,” he laughs, then presses his shirt to his mouth again, before the blood can drip down his chin.

“Have you lived here long?” Rose asks, as the platform finally comes to a stop, and you’re left facing another long, featureless metal hallway. Dirk takes the lead and Rose follows, as Dave lags a few steps behind you.

“Almost a year by now,” he replies, voice muffled through the fabric. “I actually lived nearby for a long time, but we moved here after the war ended.”

“Oh, are you here with your family?” Rose is a master of small talk, and you fall back as the two of them easily converse, until you’re walking next to Dave.

“Hey, how you holding up?” you ask, and he snorts humorlessly.

“Fine, just made a total fucking ass of myself, but what’s new,” he mutters unhappily, rubbing the back of his hand.

“Well, it sounds like Jade’s going to be ok,” you offer, trying to lift his spirits. “Come on, Dave, we did it! We made it all the way here, and they’re going to help her, and she’ll get better, and everything will be ok, just like you said.”

“Alright, fine,” he mumbles, meeting your grin with a halfhearted smile. “You’ve got a point. I was right about everything. I tried to tell you the rumors were true, Egbert, but you made me and Rose drag you all the way here just so we could prove it to you, oh ye of little faith, or however that old timey saying goes.”

“Sure thing, Dave,” you drawl. “Just don’t let it swell up your big, fat head, or those stupid sunglasses won’t fit anymore. Why are you even still wearing them? We’re inside of a huge metal building, if you haven’t noticed.”

“Hey, you see this?” Dave points at his own face, and you roll your eyes. “This, right here? This never goes out of style.”

He chuckles when you shove him, and Rose turns over her shoulder to give you both a pointed look, but you’re too relieved to care, just hearing Dave laugh again and knowing that Jade will be ok, and finally getting to see the android city- you’re almost giddy with it all. Dirk soon comes to a stop in front of a metal door, holding an arm out to keep the three of you back, before he reaches out to a panel on the wall, and the door hisses open.

Dave’s grin immediately vanishes when he sees what’s inside. The pink android from before is there, leaning over what looks like a metal bed, with countless tubes and cylinders arranged around it. You can barely make out Jade’s body, tangled up among hundreds of wires, her eyes closed and her expression peaceful. Dave stares for a long, silent moment, until Rose puts a hand on his shoulder.

“She’ll feel good as new when she wakes up,” Dirk says softly. “I promise.”

“When will that be?” Dave asks, and Dirk hums uncertainly.

“Depends,” he says, once again lifting his hand to the collar on his neck. He pauses for a moment, his eyes flicking back and forth strangely, like he’s reading something. “Looks like it’ll be a few months while they regrow her lungs. Tuberculosis isn’t uncommon, but it can be nasty. Actually, all of you should undergo treatment, since it’s contagious and you’re probably infected. I mean, you don’t have to, but…” he trails off, and Rose nods.

“Thank you, for all of this,” she says, leading Dave away from the room as the door closes, and he silently broods a few steps behind her, as the four of you continue down the hallway.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dirk says, pausing to wipe another trickle of blood from his lip. The skin around it is already starting to turn an ugly shade of purple and blue, and you try not to make a face at the sight. “The treatment is easy, by the way. It’s just an implant, about the size of your thumbnail.” He points to his chest, just below his throat. “It goes here, behind your sternum, and it’s bioreactive, meaning it’ll neutralize anything that gets into your body, so basically you’ll never get sick again.”

“Woah, really?” you breathe in wonder, and he nods.

“Pretty cool, right?” he grins. “I mean, sure it might be kinda overkill, but I caught the flu last month, so…” he laughs awkwardly, before suddenly trailing off, like he’s embarrassed.

“Wait...you came down with the flu?” Rose wonders, frowning slightly, “...and you’re saying that’s why these ‘implants’ were made?”

Dirk turns away and clears his throat, and you can see the back of his neck turning red.

“I told him he was overreacting,” he mutters under his breath. The conversation fizzles out after that, and you’re left to walk behind them in silence for another few minutes, before you start to get antsy.

“Hey, sooo...what’s that thing around your neck? Also, where are we going?” you ask, and Rose’s eyebrows almost lift into her hair. You think you hear Dave snort, before muttering ‘classic Egbert.’ Dirk is happy to answer your questions- it seems the silence was getting to him too.

“I figured I’d show you guys where the living quarters are, since your friend is going to be here for a while. We’ve got plenty of room, although most of the new arrivals would rather stay outside with other humans than live here in the tower. It’s up to you.” He points at the black band around his throat. “As for this, it’s sort of an all-purpose device, like a computer, but one that stays attached to me.”

“Does it hurt? Can you take it off?” you wonder aloud, and Rose shakes her head at you. Dave laughs under his breath.

“No. I mean, yeah, if I really wanted to, but this thing is interfaced with my brain.” He meets your blank stare, before elaborating. “The wires run up through my neck and into my skull. I could technically pull them out if I had to, but it would probably hurt.”

“How fascinating,” Rose remarks with interest. “I didn’t know the human mind was capable of interfacing with machinery like that.”

Dirk meets her pleasant smile, before glancing away hesitantly, and the conversation lapses into awkward silence again. Rose clears her throat, probably under the impression that she said something wrong.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” she begins tentatively, “we’ve been somewhat...out of the loop lately, when it comes to recent historical events, and you seem to be very knowledgeable.” She pauses before continuing, encouraged by Dirk’s neutral expression at the topic. “The last we’d heard, after the killing stopped and before our compound closed itself off, was that a new android emperor had risen after defeating the old one.”

“Well, it’s complicated, but that’s more or less what happened,” Dirk answers cryptically, as you’re led around the next corner and into a long hallway, with rows of identical doors on either side. “I’ll give you the full story later, after we find you guys an empty room. You’re all probably exhausted, and it’s getting late. I’ll show you where everything else is tomorrow.”

A few scattered handfuls of people are nearby, along with the occasional black humanoid figure, all of them going about their own business or talking in halted words and gestures with the people standing around. Rose looks up as one of the androids passes your group, this one with intricate olive-green circuits and mismatched horns, one of them bent at the tip. The android stares back at her curiously, but Dirk leads you around another bend in the hallway, before coming to a sudden, abrupt stop.

You follow his apprehensive stare down the corridor, to find a pair of figures standing close together a short distance away. They’re both facing away from you, but one of them appears to be an older man dressed in a formal-looking suit, while next to him stands another of the black metal figures, outlined in vivid, foreboding red. Even from here, you can tell this one is different from the others you’ve seen so far, with almost a dozen claw-tipped metal limbs hovering in the air around it. The two seem to be deep in conversation, until the man nods at something and turns to leave. He’s out of sight by the time the red android turns around, and its glowing eyes immediately lock on to your small group.

Dirk seems to hesitate, before slowly walking forwards, and Rose puts out an arm when you try to follow. The android quickly meets him halfway, taking the boy’s chin in his metal hand and examining Dirk’s split lip, along with the ugly bruise on his jaw. Your veins turn to ice when the android’s caustic red eyes suddenly flick up, pinning you and your friends with a cold, hard stare.

“I think we might be in trouble,” Rose warns under her breath, as Dirk says something to divert the android’s attention, and they begin talking back and forth in hushed, urgent tones. Dirk leads it closer, until they’re both within earshot.

“-needs to explain what she’s doing, before she goes dragging people away like that,” Dirk finishes, as they come to stand in front of your group. Your skin practically crawls as the android’s eyes pass over you, then Rose, and finally Dave, with his bloodstained knuckles casually tucked into his pocket, but the glowing eyes linger on him, until Dirk speaks again.

“John,” he gestures at you, “Rose, Dave...this is AR.” The android stares down at the three of you, as the clawed tentacles behind its back slowly writhe, and you resist the urge to fidget nervously. “He’s the one who replaced the old ruler, and ended the war,” Dirk says slowly, directing the statement at Rose. Her eyes widen.

“It is truly a profound honor to meet you, sir,” she says, bowing her head slightly. “We are in your debt, all of us.”

The android’s eyes seem to lose some of their hostility, and you breathe a sigh of relief when the twisting appendages lower to rest passively on the floor. One of them shifts, slowly curling around Dirk’s leg, but he doesn’t seem alarmed, or even concerned.

“A group of four young humans, minus your ill companion, and none among you older than your teens, with an apparently even gender distribution,” the emperor observes in his eerie metallic voice, before glancing meaningfully at Dirk. “An interesting demographic.”

“They came all the way from Lafayette,” Dirk mentions easily, and the android’s expression sours.

“I am very nearly at the end of my patience with that compound.”

“Oh man, yeah, that place sucks,” you add without thinking, then pale at the number of eyes on you. Dirk laughs pleasantly.

“You’re all welcome to stay, even after your friend gets better,” he says, leaning back against the android’s shoulder in a strangely intimate gesture. “We’re always trying to expand the human population here.”

“We’d be honored.” Rose answers for the rest of you, bowing again slightly. “Thank you again, for everything. Our friend owes you her life, as we all do.”

The emperor seems placated by her words, and you repeat the sentiment, while Dave continues trying to keep a low profile. You’re directed to one of the metal doors in the hallway, and find a large room on the other side, with scattered, mismatched furniture. Dirk explains that several groups have come and gone, but you’re welcome to rearrange things and make yourselves at home. He leaves soon after, saying that he’ll be back in the morning to show you where the food and water are synthesized, and Rose seems fascinated by the topic, but thanks him again, and bids him good night.

After you’ve unpacked your meager supplies and claimed one of the mattresses for yourself, you drag it into the middle of the room, positioning yourself next to Dave and Rose, as they likewise settle in for the night. You lie on your back and listen to them whispering to each other, Rose quietly reassuring him that Jade will be up and running laps around the city before he knows it, while Dave thanks her for abandoning the compound to go on a suicide mission with him and for putting up with his shit. You interrupt their conversation with an exaggerated cough, and Dave yanks the pillow out from under your head, before you wrestle it back and hit him with it. Rose ignores the two of you, and Dave ends your scuffle a few minutes later with a firm headlock, but your ploy works, and he not only thanks you, but apologises for how things have been going between the two of you lately. You tell him that you’re just glad to be out of the cold, and he affectionately calls you a dweeb, before rolling over and falling silent. Rose is already breathing slowly, and you follow them a few minutes later, closing your eyes, and letting the gentle, distant hum of the metal city lull you into your first deep, peaceful sleep in years.

 
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