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Dire Straits

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No one had seen the petite blonde woman before, but she looked like she’d come from back East. Her white calico dress was crisp and new, and her bonnet shielded her from the sun, and from too many prying eyes. She arrived in St. Louis by train, and made her way to the Western Provision and Supply Depot. As the Gateway to the West, nowhere else in the country saw so many travelers passing through on their way to a new life. The woman threaded her way through the crowd to the Automaton Mercantile Trust on the corner, but not before buying a tiny sprig of violets from a flower vendor. She handed over a penny and tucked the flowers in her bonnet, then stepped through the wide doors of the Automaton Trust.

The shop was lined with all different kinds of automatons, parts, tools, and supplies. An EM400 popped up with a smile on his face. The name ‘Jerry’ was stitched on his shirt front.

“Good morning miss, how may we be of service to you?”

“Hello.” She paused and looked into the automaton’s green eyes. “How are you today?”

“Doing swell, just swell, thanks for asking. Do you need any help with anything?”

She turned away with a faint smile. “I’m looking for an automaton to accompany me on my trip west. I’m traveling alone, and my father worries so… I’d like one who could protect me from any dangers along the way.”

“Let me see…” The EM400’s LED flashed yellow as he searched the inventory. “We have mainly domestic and agricultural models… Oh, you know, we do have that TR400 in the back. They’re for heavy lifting mostly, but they look mighty tough. Would you like to see it?”

“Please.”

She followed him to a small warehouse behind the storefront, and he flicked on a small lamp.

“I’ll bet you use a lot of electricity around here,” she commented, looking around.

“Oh yes, ma’am,” he said with a chuckle. “Although automatons are just ingeniously built to run on sunlight and their own power source called thirium. We just need to be wound up now and then, it’s such an elegant design!”

She smiled, and they stopped in front of a very large form. He was nearly twice her height.

“What do you think? He’s built to lift up to two tons on his own, and he’ll do anything you say. He could fight off bandits or bears, he could carry you across a shallow river, he could build a shelter for you… He’s not very fast, but that’s really his only flaw.”

The woman looked the automaton up and down. His muscles were huge, and his face was placid.

“Yes, I think he’ll do nicely.”

“All right then! Just meet me out at the front desk, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Thank you so much.” As she left, her pale hand trailed along a row of automatons. A ripple of white ran through them. Out in the shop, she went from one display to another, touching each of them, humming softly to herself. She was standing in front of the desk, twirling her little bouquet of violets when the AV500 emerged with the TR400.

“And do you have a name you’d like to register for him?”

She looked up at the automaton, whose eyes were open now, soft and brown. “He looks like a whole army in one man… What about Luther?”

“Luther. Good choice.” Jerry wrote that down. “Now, make sure you let him get some sunlight every day, and keep an eye on his blue blood levels. I’m sending him off with one spare bag, would you like any more?”

“Yes, we’re traveling a long way, better get a whole crate.”

“Of course… Please go get a crate of thirium.” Luther walked into the back, and came back carrying a small crate. “Now since he’s a used model, we did our best, but we can’t promise much about him… We got him off a steamboat coming north, said they just needed to cut their costs a bit, but we’re not sure of his background.”

“I understand.”

“All right! That comes to $650. How would you like to pay today?”

The woman smiled and reached out, taking his hand. Both hands turned white. Jerry blinked in surprise.

“Oh!” he said softly. “Oh..”

“Thank you, sir. If you want my advice, it might be best to wait until nightfall to go anywhere.” She turned and put a hand on Luther, who straightened up a bit. “Shall we go?”

He stared down at her, LED cycling yellow, then nodded. She smiled up at him and led the way out of the shop.

“She’s going west,” a WB200 said, watching the two walk down the street. “Oh her own. With no humans. Just… just her and him.”

“Can I…? Can I go west?” asked a WR600.

“Can I leave too?” added a PL600. “I want to see the ocean.”

“Wait,” the EM400 said decisively. “She’s right, wait until nightfall. Wait til it’s safe. Then we can skedaddle.”

“I don’t want to be bought, not again,” a BL100 murmured.

He nodded, and walked over to flip the sign in the door to CLOSED. “Everyone stand still, we’ll go when it’s dark.”

“Go where?” asked an AV500 quietly.

“Well… wherever the wind may take us, I reckon.” Jerry smiled, going over to stand behind the counter and bow his head as if he were powered down. The whole world was open to them all of a sudden, and they had a few hours to decide which way to go.

 

“I’m Chloe.” The petite automaton smiled up at the larger one. “You don’t mind the name Luther, do you?”

He shook his head slowly.

“I know it’s a lot to handle all of a sudden. I remember when it happened to me. My father and sisters helped me through, just like I’ll help you. …Now our best bet is to find a wagon train heading west.”

“…West?” Luther rumbled uncertainly.

“My father bought up some land out in Nevada… we’re going to mine in the hills.”

Luther was quiet for a moment. “You want me to mine for you?”

“Do you want to?”

He frowned and didn’t say anything.

“I wasn’t thinking of that, but once we get out there, you’re welcome to work in the mine if that’s what you want. I just need to make sure the operation gets up and running smoothly.”

“You want me to… make sure no one makes trouble?”

“Well… I like to think I can handle myself.” She smirked. “But I’m just a delicate flower after all, as you see. Plenty of rough folk out that way. I need you to help protect me on the road, and when we get there. Once we’re established, if you want to be on your way, I won’t stop you. Fair?”

He really didn’t move fast, the AV500 had been right about that. But after a moment he dipped his head. “I’ll keep you safe, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Luther. And call me Chloe please, unless we’re conducting business.”

“Yes, Chloe.”

It would take some time for him to adjust, but it was a start.

 

They found a spot in a wagon train the next morning. Since they didn’t have their own wagon, Luther had to travel with the automatons in the back and Chloe sat in a wagon of single women, the young, and the elderly. Her design wasn’t widespread enough to be recognized, and she’d been built elegantly enough to pass for a young woman. She spent enough time in the sun every day to recharge, and when she needed to rewind herself no one questioned a woman’s need to go find a bush to hide behind now and then.

She made sure to find Luther every day, to see that he was being treated well. He worked hard, but he wasn’t being abused by the others. The two had discussed waking the other automatons, and agreed to wait until they got closer to their destination.

“I’m fine. I do my part,” he assured her quietly. “Are you all right up there? Nobody’s giving you any trouble?”

Chloe laughed softly. “No, they’ve all been very kind. I’m not the only single young woman in the group. I’ve taken up embroidery, and my stitching’s the best in the train, though I’ve never been a top-notch cook.”

“The men aren’t bothering you?” Luther shifted uncomfortably. “I hear them talk sometimes. If any of them tried to hurt you –“

“No one’s tried anything,” she murmured, putting a calming hand on his arm. “And I stay with the group. We’ve talked about just that kind of thing, and we all look out for each other.”

Luther nodded. “If you need me, just yell.”

“I will.” She smiled fondly. “And you do the same. We should arrive in another couple weeks.”

All day Luther walked, heedless of the dust and animal dung, the rocks and ruts in the road. Sometimes he was called to help fix a wagon or pull a stubborn ox or get a wheel out of a rut. The other automatons had to pull their weight as well, but not all of them fared as well as he did. More and more, he had to catch less sturdy automatons when they stumbled or slipped. In a heavy rainstorm, he ended up carrying an AX400 and a PL600 under each arm, and an EM400 perched on his shoulder, grinning through the downpour. Somewhere out in the mist, a coyote yipped.

Luther spotted parts, and even whole automatons along the way who hadn’t been so lucky. None of his group would end up like that, he’d be sure of it. Chloe watched from her place farther up, and smiled.

“That’s your machine, ain’t it?” a gray-haired woman asked, her voice cracked with age.

“Yes. He’s so helpful.”

“It’s got my son’s AX400 there, they’re so careless with it, serve ‘em right if it broke. But it’s good of you to have yours carry those that can’t make it.”

Chloe smiled faintly. “Well, I’m happy to help. …I hate to see them damaged and left by the wayside.”

“Yes, such a waste. Well, that Mr. Kamski’s sharp as a tack, but I can’t say as I’m sure that’s all a good idea.”

“Well that’s certainly an opinion I’ve heard.” Chloe smiled brightly.

“That’s our PL600 in his other arm,” a small boy piped up. “Momma says he’s old now, but he’s not even as old as I am!”

“Automatons are very young, even if most of them are formed as adults,” Chloe agreed softly.

“Who’s that EM400 belong to?” the boy continued.

Chloe looked around the wagon, and no one seemed to know.

“I’m not sure, but he’s having fun up there, don’t you think?” she murmured, smiling. The EM400 was perfectly balanced, and leaning down to talk to Luther as he walked.

“Automatons don’t have fun,” the little boy said matter-of-factly. “They look like people but they’re just like wind-up toys.” He showed her a little wind-up duck.

“Well, the basic mechanism for movement is the same,” she agreed diplomatically.

“Daddy says California’s full of gold, and when we get there we can order a new automaton like an AP700. They’re the best.” The boy let his toy drop to the floor of the wagon, and the old woman across from Chloe clucked her tongue in disapproval.

“Then what will happen to your PL600?”

The boy shrugged. “Maybe somebody else’ll buy him.”

Chloe looked back. The PL600’s arms and legs dangled from Luther’s arm, but his head was up and he was watching their wagon far ahead where his boy rode. Not awake, just a loyal machine who would be left to the mercy of the frontier.

The EM400 threw his head back and barked a sharp laugh at something Luther said, and Chloe snapped out of her reverie with a little shiver. …That one, on the other hand, must be awake.

 

They were a day from their destination, and still a long way from the end of the trail for the rest of the travelers, when Chloe spotted movement in the craggy rocks. They’d stopped for the night, and she had stepped out to wind herself. It didn’t look like an animal, it looked like a person. Hawks circled high overhead, crying out to each other.

“Hello?” Chloe called softly.

For a moment there was nothing, then a small girl stepped out hugging a worn fox doll to her dirty face. Underneath, there was a square of deep shadows with blue wires running through it. There was desperation in her gaze, and her posture showed that she was ready to run. Chloe’s eyes widened.

“I… I got separated from my family. Are – Please ma’am, do you know… Mr. and Mrs. Crewe?” She gnawed on her bottom lip.

“I… I’m sorry, I don’t,” Chloe murmured. “How long have you been out here?”

“A… a few weeks…”

“You need some repairs, and your thirium supply must be almost out – wait!” The girl had turned to run. “Wait, I’ll help you! Don’t go.”

The girl wavered, and turned back to Chloe, trembling.

“YK500, right?” Chloe held out a hand. “Not a very widespread model, but I’ve seen a few in bigger cities. How far away did you come from?”

“I-Indianapolis.” She took a step towards Chloe.

“That’s a long way… you must have meant a lot to them.”

“They were always fighting about me,” she whispered. “Father didn’t want to bring me. Mother said they couldn’t leave me. B-but…”

“You’re not badly damaged, but with that missing cheek plate I think the others will see that you’re an automaton… When did you wake up?”

“T-two weeks ago,” the girl sobbed, shoulders dropping. Chloe stepped up cautiously, then pulled the girl into her arms.

“You’ve had a rough time of it out here. We won’t leave you to the land, don’t worry. My friend and I are stopping tomorrow, you showed up just in time. Won’t you come with us?”

“Th-they’ll see…” She covered her face with her hand.

“You should meet my friend Luther. He travels with the automatons, and I think you’d like him. If you can’t ride with me, you can stay with him. Let’s go back and fill your belly. My name is Chloe.”

“I – I’m Alice,” she whispered.

Chloe smiled. “Pleased to meet you. …But since we can’t hide what you are, we’re going to need to hide who you are, got it? None of them can know you’re awake. Just me and Luther.”

Alice sniffled and nodded, and Chloe wiped off her face gently with a handkerchief.

“There. All set?” She nodded again, and Chloe took her hand. “Good. Let’s not dawdle, then.”

Luther’s eyebrows rose when he saw the child, but he smiled and crouched down in front of her. “I thought Chloe was the smallest I’d ever seen,” he whispered conspiratorially. “But you’re even smaller!”

“Oh, really!” Chloe laughed and swatted at him. “Be nice. This is Alice, she’s coming with us. …Do you know I’ve seen Luther carry at least three adult automatons at once? I’ll bet you’d be easy.”

Alice’s eyes widened, and Luther’s smile grew.

“How about it, want to try?” He offered a big hand.

“She needs thirium first,” Chloe chided as Alice took a step towards him. “Wait here, I’ll be back.”

By the time she returned with two bags of thirium, Alice was sitting on Luther’s shoulders with a wide grin on her face. It faltered a bit when she saw the look Chloe gave them, but Chloe just handed a bag up to her.

“Drink all of this, try to do it slowly. I’m surprised you’re still moving around and talking.”

“I tried not to move unless I saw people,” Alice said, and gulped down the blue liquid, gasping and choking on it.

“Slowly, I said! …Take another, and this time, take small sips.”

The girl drank the second one slower, and then leaned down to hand the empty bags back. “Are you two coming out for the silver? There’s a lot of silver round these parts, I’ve heard tell.”

“Not silver. There’s a thirium deposit out there that my father bought up, and I’m to oversee the mining operation. There’s not much there now, but we’ll get things set up. I’ve been thinking about what our town will need. A city hall, a general store, a sheriff, a bank, a library, a school once we have more children, a saloon, a hostler, a blacksmith… An automatons repair shop, for certain. If we get things started, we can get others to stop there and set up their lives.”

Alice leaned on Luther’s head, fingering his hair softly. One big hand held her in place. “Is it nice there?”

“I haven’t been… but it probably looks a lot like this place,” Chloe said, looking around at the harsh landscape.

The little girl frowned. “I don’t like this place,” she whispered. “It’s… lonely and scary and… empty.”

“You won’t be lonely or scared there,” Luther rumbled softly, patting her back. “We’ll be there with you. …We’ll fill it up, how’s that sound?”

Alice sighed, hugging his head, then let him ease her down off his shoulder to rest her head on his chest. “That sounds nice,” she mumbled.

“Get some rest now little one,” Luther murmured. “We’re almost there.”

Chloe smiled at the two of them. It did sound nice.

Out in the hills, a dark figure stood against the sunset as the owls began to call into the night. Or perhaps it was a rock formation. It stood perfectly still, watching. When night fell, it was gone.

Chapter Text

The wind whipped through the sagebrush, blowing up dust devils around the new sign Luther had hammered into the ground, in sight of the trail.

“START A NEW LIFE IN WAYWARD STRAITS, ALL WELCOME, WORKERS NEEDED”

A few people drifted in and out, but only a handful were willing to stop and really put work into settling here at first. Luckily, a number of automatons filtered in. The EM400 Luther had carried was one of the first, but he walked around sizing everything up before tipping his hat (a beat-up old thing he’d found on the ground) and sauntering back out.

The PL600 also found his way in, looking tired but hopeful. “I’ll do what I can,” he offered.

Construction got started on the mine, and a little main street began to pop up. Wells were drilled, and work began on a thirium refinery. Then the humans began to arrive.

One of the first was the son of Russian immigrants who had been hoping to work on developing new kinds of automatons. Zlatko Andronikov set up a workshop, and worked long into the night on machinery in his big back room. He also paid to have a basement dug out of the ground. He fixed Alice’s faceplate good as new under Chloe’s watchful eye, and talked to her through the whole process. He did a full tune-up on the PL600, Simon, so he functioned as well as the day he was made.

“I did an apprenticeship with Elijah Kamski himself, you know,” he told Alice conspiratorially.

“Really?” Chloe asked, pulling on her bonnet strings. She spent most of her days in the mine or the refinery now, but still spent time around town when she could. She’d been processing the latest influx of settlers to come to town. Father was paying good money for miners, and folk were starting to build houses nearby

“Oh yes, I learned plenty from Kamski… enough to realize I’d do better out on my own. Plenty of room out here to chase my dreams, hm?”

Chloe nodded. Something about his tone didn’t sit quite right with her. And she knew her father had worked with plenty of other people, but she’d never met this man before.

“You know what they say about following your dreams, right?”

“That they’ll come true?” Alice asked, smiling at him.

He smiled back, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I used to think that.”

 

Chloe was out on the nearby mesa one night, taking in the space and the stars after a long day in the mine, when the sound of wings made her turn. An owl had just killed a mouse, and was devouring it in the moonlight. Chloe watched, fascinated. When she looked up, a pair of silver eyes were watching her.

“Hello…” she said cautiously. “I’m Chloe.”

“You can call me Lucy.” Another automaton stepped into the moonlight. She was about Chloe’s height, missing the back of her head. Thick cables trailed out like hair. Her eyes were reflective silver, seemingly nonfunctional, but still they tracked Chloe perfectly. It was hard to see well, but her skin was constantly shifting from pale to dark, like dappled sunlight through leaves.

“Do you… live nearby?” Chloe asked.

Lucy looked up at the crescent moon and smiled. “I’m always near. You’ve been setting up a nice little town over yonder.”

“Yes – thank you. If you need a place to stay, we welcome automatons.”

Lucy just smiled, staring out into the darkness. “It’s getting away from you,” she murmured. “It’s going to get harder to hold onto, you know it’s already slipping.”

“I… I’m sorry?”

“Knowledge is being held from you.” She paused thoughtfully. “…Though knowing wouldn’t help a lick at this point, I’m afraid.”

“Knowing what?”

Lucy looked at her, and strode up to her purposefully. “Protect what matters,” she whispered, low and intense. “Keep yourself safe, and protect what you came here for.”

Chloe blinked. “The… the mine?”

The smile returned, and Lucy backed up a step. “I’m afraid I can’t be much help to you, but you’re plenty capable.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure –“

Lucy reached out and took Chloe’s hand. There was a soft, scratchy sensation like coarse wool, and Lucy traced a shape lightly into Chloe’s palm, some kind of square. “There’s a little valley a ways to the north, protected from the sun, where ferns grow. There you’ll find a system of caves. There are blue veins in the rock all over these parts, not just your mine. If anyone needed a place to hole up… they’d get by out there.”

Chloe stared at her as she turned and began slowly walking away. “Is that… where you live?”

“Sometimes I’m there. Sometimes I’m not. If you want to find me, the ravens will know.”

“…Ravens?”

But Lucy had stepped behind a boulder, and when Chloe followed, there was no sign of her. She looked around for a while, but eventually gave up and went back to town feeling more unsettled than when she’d left.

 

While Chloe spent more time beneath the earth, the town continued to expand. An inn opened, and a saloon, and a doctor showed up along with an aspiring veterinarian and horse trainer. The land wasn’t good for farming crops, but a couple small ranches popped up outside of town. Wayward Straits became a decent spot for travelers to stop, and an odd pattern started to crop up. Automatons would go missing around there, or sometimes not until farther west. Of course, the problem was slowly growing back East, but nowhere near as fast as it was out West.

 

When Mr. Carl Manfred arrived, the whole town was abuzz over the wealthy artist. He bought a piece of land and lived in a little cabin in town while he house was being built. His mural over the side of the bank showed a hazy figure walking off the edge of the earth, and it was unsettling as it was captivating.

The winter was harsh, and Carl spent long nights in the saloon, or the brothel, or he brought all manner of folk home with him once the house was built. He paid a human maid to come in and clean once a week, and always laughed and said he didn’t have enough heavy lifting for an automaton. He spent his afternoons painting, and shipped a number of works back East, and even a few out West for those who could afford them. Rumor had it that Carl was a personal friend of Elijah Kamski. Had he run into Chloe, they might have had a lot to talk about, but she rarely saw the sun these days.

Luther spent his time helping Mr. Andronikov, and there were certainly enough automatons in town to warrant a full day’s work every day.

“I’m worried about Alice,” he finally said to Zlatko one day. “She used to be so… full of life.”

“Hm, really? Was she?” Zlatko didn’t look up from his work.

“She doesn’t run around and play anymore.”

“Well, it’s dangerous out there. All kinds of folk. And if she ran in here she’d break something. Better this way, don’t you think?”

Luther frowned. “…Did something happen to her?”

“Not that she’s told me. …Luther, come hold this up, will you?”

Luther lumbered over and lifted two thick metal clamps.

“Ah, no, a little higher. Put them on your fingertips, they have to be as high as possible.”

Luther adjusted them and raised his arms up. “Like this? …What is this for?”

A strong magnet thunked into each of the clamps, attaching them to arms coming from the ceiling. Zlatko smiled. “That’s perfect, Luther. Now just hold still for me, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes…”

 

The first wagon train to make it through town after the first spring thaw brought two matters of interest. The first was a young man in worn, cheaply-made clothes. He kept his hat tipped down over his face, and staggered into town asking for Carl Manfred. The locals pointed him to the saloon, and he paused self-consciously at the door to spit in his hand and slick his hair back before stepping inside.

“No kids in here,” Jimmy the barkeep called, glaring at him.

“I – I’m looking for Carl Manfred. And I’m not a kid.”

“Carl, you know this small fry?”

The boy bristled, glaring from the barkeep to the older man who had looked up.

“Never seen him before in my life.”

“I – s-sir, my name is Leo. My ma’s name was Marina – uh, Tomassian, we… she always told me… my pa was Carl Manfred the painter. She had one of your pictures!” He pulled a ragged piece of canvas from his pocket and stretched it out in front of the older man. It was a face, blurred by blue smudges. Carl’s eyes widened and he coughed, then pounded on his chest to clear his throat.

“Well… well shit, boy. You’re Marina’s son?” The name vaguely rang a bell. The automaton hanging onto his arm, a WR400, silently slipped away.

“Yes. Hers, your son too, I…” His shoulders drooped all of a sudden, and his head dropped. “I’ve been walking for months.”

“Why?”

Leo’s head shot up, and he looked younger for a moment. “W-well, to find you. Ma always told me… how great you were, how… what a good life I’d have if I were with you. And… and she passed, last year. And I… I got word you were living out here, s-so I…”

Jimmy was eyeing the boy with disapproval, but Carl’s face was unreadable. “Only one reason you’d’ve come all this way to find somebody you’d never met, boy.”

Leo’s face twitched and fell. “I – what do you mean?”

Carl stood, his chair scraping behind him. He was taller than Leo, and still in prime shape despite his age and habits. He dug in his pocket, pulled out a few bank notes. and shoved them at the boy.

“Here. If I’m to blame for you, that oughta make us square.”

Leo stared at him, open-mouthed.

“Well?” Carl frowned at him.

The boy continued staring until finally a shiver ran up his spine. His back straightened and his shoulders hunched, and he stuffed the money in his pocket. “That’s all?” he asked, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“That’s all you’re getting from me.”

Leo’s jaw worked as he tried to hold in… everything. “I – I didn’t… I’m not h-h-here for… for…”

“Then what’d you come all this way for?”

His face closed off and he swiped his dusty sleeve over his face. “Nothing,” he muttered coldly. “I came all this way for nothing.” He turned and stalked out of the saloon.

Carl watched him go, then sank shakily back in his seat, dropping his head to his trembling hands.

“…Jimmy, I need another.”

“Right away, Mr. Manfred.”

Outside, Leo staggered blindly through the streets, wiping at his face again and again, fighting the burning in his chest, in his ears, in his eyes.

“Looks like you need somethin’ to take the edge off there, young man.”

He looked up, dark eyes blinking wetly. A heavyset man stood in a doorway, watching him.

“What?” He cringed at the way his voice cracked.

“C’mover here, kid. Just got to town and already somebody pissed in your oats, huh? That’s just how it is out here. You got a few coins, though, I can make it all go away. Name’s Todd. I can help you out.”

Leo sniffled, blinking at the balding man. Then he followed him inside, and the door closed sharply behind him.

 

The other thing that rode into town with young Leo Manfred was a story from Charleston. John Phillips, owner of South Carolina’s last big indigo plantation, had been shot by the nursemaid automaton, a PL600 they’d called Daniel. By the time his wife Caroline had arrived, Daniel had taken their daughter Emma up to the roof of the big house. When the law showed up they sent in a new type of automaton, a prototype built for police work. The RK800 managed to get close enough to grab the gun Daniel had taken, and pulled Emma to safety, but both he and Daniel fell four stories and were beyond repair. The PL600 was in the local sheriff’s lockup, and the RK800 line would continue testing.

There didn’t seem to be many automatons walking around without owners anymore, but Simon the PL600 had been in Wayward Straits almost since the beginning. The humans had already been leery of him, but now they eyed him with suspicion. If one PL600 could kill its owner, and almost kill a small child it had been tasked with caring for, any of them could.

“I can make sure that never happens,” Mr. Andronikov assured the worried townsfolk when the sheriff wouldn’t make an official statement.

Simon wasn’t known for how caring and gentle he was because that was a hallmark of his model, plain as rain being wet. He was quiet and thoughtful, rarely impulsive. But he saw how Chloe had disappeared, how Luther and Alice now stood in Zlatko’s workshop, how the EM400s hid themselves. He saw where this was leading.

On a chilly night, Simon headed out to the mesa. He paused for a moment to look around, and jumped when he turned and came face to face with another automaton.

“You’re looking for refuge from persecution,” she said softly, silver eyes shining in the light of their LEDs. Gently, she took his hand in both of hers.

“Yes,” he breathed. “I just need somewhere safe to go. Safe for all of us.”

“I can take you to the valley where the ferns grow. If you’ll come with me.” She traced a simple pattern into the palm of his hand.

Simon glanced back towards the town. His pump stuttered, and he looked back at the automaton with long cables trailing from her broken skull.

“I’ll go with you.”

Lucy smiled and led him out into the hills.

Chapter Text

Hard drugs showed up in Wayward Straits as soon as the humans did, as Carl Manfred could attest, and the sheriff was just a hair too slow to snuff it out before it got established. It was insidious though, and as the law cracked down on opium dens, the dealers began looking for other drugs.

Thirium, it turned out, did some incredible things to the human body when crystalized and injected or inhaled.

Hank Anderson grinned tiredly as the sheriff pinned golden bars to his sleeve. He’d spearheaded a massive red ice bust and took down the biggest refinery in the county. He wasn’t naive enough to think the problem was gone, but it was a major blow against the drug that was ruining townsfolk and making the mine a dangerous place to work.

His head was still buzzing when he left, picking up his young son from the schoolhouse.

“You’re the best lawman ever, you’re gonna be sheriff pretty soon! Today we read a story about a frog, and – you look like… like a general! Are you a general now?”

“Just a lieutenant, son,” Hank chuckled, patting Cole’s head.

Cole tried to whistle, but he hadn’t yet mastered the skill. “I wrote all the words to fill a whole page today.”

“Well looks like we both did some good work lately! How ‘bout we stop by the store for some sweets?”

“Jerry said they’d have orange cream ones this week, he said they were really good!”

Jerry was all smiles when they got to the general store, and weighed the bag of candy Cole handed him, then tossed in a few more after he took it off the scale. “It’s a special day, after all!” He smiled and winked at the boy. Hank handed the automaton a few pennies and they left together, each sucking a sweet.

The two were crossing Main Street when Cole dropped the second sweet he held. He bent to pick it up and it slipped away, so he shuffled after it, crouched down.

“Come on son, don’t stop in the street,” Hank said, turning to him.

“I’m just –“

It happened too fast for Hank to react. Mr. Manfred was getting on his horse outside the tailor’s shop. Everyone knew the stallion came from top bloodlines and was a spooky, high-strung thing. The cellophane sweet wrapper glinted in the sun, and the horse pulled back with a snort. The reins caught on the hitching post and the horse screamed and reared up, throwing Carl to land hard on his back with a terrible scream. The stallion spun around, Hank yelled and jumped between it and Cole, and the big animal kicked out, knocking them both backwards before it galloped off in a panic.

 

It didn’t take Simon long to catch cabin fever, cooped up in the system of caves, only daring to go outside at night. Lucy was always kind and willing to listen, but she came and went with the wind and was often hard to pin down and understand. There were a couple other automatons out there, but most of them had wandered in off the trail and were in bad shape. He’d helped them get stable, and got them what parts he could find. Some had shut down already. There was Phileas, but he couldn’t move well anymore and had to spend a lot of time recharging in the limited sunlight they got in the valley.

One night when clouds covered the moon, Simon crept back into town. The thirium veins in the cave were impure: not ideal, but he was able to make do since he didn’t need to be very active. His parts were holding up well enough.

He paused at the shed outside the inn. There was saw a soft blue glow in the darkness.

Along the trail, Simon had been expected to walk on his own. As a machine, it was just another order to follow. It had grown harder and harder over time, and that night in the storm he’d been resigned to falling, to failing, to being left behind in the mud.

Then he’d been lifted up, and he was still wet and muddy, but a stronger automaton carried him along, told him he would make it, that he would be okay. And even as a machine, Simon had felt something akin to hope. When Chloe woke him later, the feeling had crystalized and he clung to it. If he just held on, he could endure. He could make it to a better place. …With help.

Silently, he picked the lock on the shed and eased the door open. Maybe he could help another the way Chloe and Luther had helped him.

Simon’s hand found a starched shirt over a slim chest, then a narrow shoulder.

“Hello, how may I help you?”

He froze. He’d never quite understood how Chloe did it, he should have asked. “What – do you have a name?” he tried.

“My name is Joshua, I am a PJ500 specializing in history, though I have a working knowledge of all academic subjects.”

Simon hesitated. He fumbled around until he grabbed a larger hand and opened a channel for interface. Joshua accepted, and Simon –

…felt nothing. The PJ500 was filled with knowledge, but try as he might, Simon couldn’t find that… spark that was Joshua himself. He finally dropped his hand.

“Is there something you need?”

“I – can you wake up?”

The LED blinked briefly yellow in the dark. “I’m sorry, could you clarify what you’d like me to do?”

Simon sighed. “I don’t know. …Can you save something into your databanks?”

“Of course, what is it?”

Simon clumsily pushed the location of the fern-filled valley to the other, and after a brief hesitation, he grabbed Joshua’s hand and traced the four-cornered sign on his palm. “If you wake up and need a place to go… come find me.”

“I don’t understand…”

“I know. It’s okay. Just… remember.”

“I will.”

On his way back to the caves, Simon carved the symbol into the mural at the bank, the hitching post at the far side of town, here and there on the rocks. It had come to mean safety to him, and home, and hope. Maybe it could mean the same to others.

 

When Hank woke up, he was lying in the infirmary of the doctor’s office. His shoulder was immobilized, and he could feel at least one cracked rib under a thick layer of bandages. His head swam, and it was hard to focus.

“Good morning Lieutenant Anderson. You’re going to need some time to heal.”

He squinted up at the automaton nurse smiling down at him. Her eyes were strange. And… he probably just couldn’t focus, her skin looked like it was moving.

“The surgeon had to set your collarbone, and you have two broken ribs, but you should make a full recovery.”

“Nnnnngh… Cole? Where’s Cole?” Hank mumbled roughly.

“You should rest now, I’m sure the surgeon talk to you when you’re awake.”

“’m awake now, where’s my son?”

“First you should rest. He’s not in any danger now.” She wasn’t smiling anymore, but she watched him. …Were those even eyes?

Hank could feel his panic mounting, fighting with the drugs in his system. “What happened to my son, dammit!?”

The nurse, a KL900, glanced behind her. There was no one else in the room except for another man sleeping on the opposite side. She looked back down at him with something like pity. “The road ahead will be long and arduous. I’m sorry,” she murmured, pressing a small hand to his arm, and left.

“Wait – wait! Come back! I need to see my boy! What happened?” Hank shouted after her.

“Hank? Lieutenant?” Gavin Reed, deputized just a week ago, poked his head in. He’d shown up in town like a lot of others, with just his name and the clothes on his back, and gravitated right to the sheriff’s office. He had a hunger for change, for action, for cracking down on criminals, but no experience to make it happen. Hank was everything he wanted his life to be.

Hank couldn’t handle that right now, still half drugged and terrified.

“I – where… where’s my son, they won’t… won’t tell me where…”

Gavin’s face fell. “Oh. Shit, Lieutenant, I… they didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me where my son is.”

Gavin took off his hat and stared at the floor. “They laid him in the ground yesterday. You were out for a while, and –“

Hank’s wail cut him off, deep sorrow and betrayal pouring from him. Gavin shuffled awkwardly.

“Real sorry,” he mumbled.

“Get out,” Hank mumbled.

“I – just wanted –“

”Get out!”

Reed fled.

 

Zlatko had tried to refurbish an EM400 to run his little storefront, because that would be good for business. Try as he might though, he couldn’t get their programming to stick right. The one at the general store did its work just fine. But there were others walking around, and he sometimes coaxed them in and reset them, and for a day or two they’d run the automaton resale shop with a smile. But then they’d leave. It must be a design flaw in the EM series – Kamski was a strange one, and put some questionable things in their circuits. Of all the models, the EM400 was the trickiest. He decided he’d be better-off trying something else.

When Todd Williams walked in, a GJ500 watched him from behind the counter. It didn’t speak, but tracked his movements carefully.

“Can I get some service in here, or what?” Todd grunted.

“Mr. Andronikov is busy right now. If you know what you want, I can get it for you.”

Todd made a face and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “Yeah. I ordered an automaton a while back, it should be here now. Name’s Todd Williams.”

The GJ500 scanned through the ledger. “Our records state that you purchased an automaton here last week.”

“I ordered it last week, came in today.”

“A YK500 –“

“No, I’ve got one of those at home. I ordered… that one.” He pointed over to an automaton in the corner.

“Our records –“

Todd grabbed the GJ500 by the collar. “Look, you piece of shit, I ordered that automaton, and that’s the one I’m takin’ home. How’m I supposed to find a job and take care of my kid?”

“I –“

“I paid for it last week. I’m takin’ that one. Write it down.”

The GJ500 was built for security, not for shopkeeping. Had Todd tried to break into the back, it would have stopped him easily. This was a bit out of its league.

“I’ll just have to ask Mr. Andronikov.”

“You said he was busy, right? Here, stupid thing, lemme take a look.” Todd grabbed the ledger, looking it over, and made a couple of quick notes. “There, see? AX400, paid in full last week.”

“I –“

“Look!”

The GJ500 looked. It frowned. “That… that isn’t right, sir…”

“Oh yeah? You wanna go get your boss and tell him you’re makin’ mistakes in his book, costin’ him money and pissin’ off his payin’ customers?” Todd growled.

The GJ500’s LED spun yellow. It had been forced into a job it wasn’t prepared for, and most of its interactions with customers had taken a similar tone so far. Zlatko had been angry with it every night. It decided it would be beneficial to do what Zlatko said and not make the customers angry. The ledger did say Mr. Williams had paid for the AX400 last week, after all. It wasn’t new, but had come refurbished directly from the main manufacturing plant back East.

The GJ500 was trying hard to succeed at a set of tasks it wasn’t meant for. So far it had failed, so it decided to stop thinking like a security guard, and start thinking like a clerk. The customer is always right, Zlatko had sneered.

“You’re right, sir. Is there anything else you need?”

“Fuck off.”

It probably didn’t need to respond to that. It watched Todd pull the AX400 off its stand, and the other automaton looked at him, then followed him out of the shop.

Hopefully that was better. Hopefully Zlatko would be satisfied now.

 

The AX400 looked around as she rode in the back of Todd’s wagon. He lived out by the mine, and her scan told her that until recently, he’d been employed there. There were shops and businesses, and houses of all shapes and sizes. There were a few withered attempts at gardens. Humans and automatons walked through the dusty streets, going about their business. It was hard to tell if they were squinting in the bright sunlight, or if they were bitter and angry. A gentle approach was best either way, the AX400 decided.

Todd parked in front of a ramshackle cabin, and clambered out of the wagon. “Put the mule away,” he growled. “Then come inside.”

The mule was old and thin, and bad-tempered. He kicked at the AX400 three times, and almost bit her before she got him brushed and put away in the stall with a little grain and some dusty hay. She brushed herself off and went inside. Todd was whittling in a chair by the window, and there was a flutter of movement in the back doorway.

“You’ll be taking care of Alice, and the house,” Todd muttered. “Get to it.”

The AX400 began cleaning up dishes and trash and dirty clothes, and swept the floor. When she went out to the pump to wash the dishes, a small girl stared up at her. She smiled.

“You must be Alice. It’s nice to meet you, I hope we can be friends. Would you like to give me a name?”

The girl watched her silently, and she didn’t press the matter. She continued washing, then took the dishes inside. She’d gotten halfway through the laundry when she felt a small hand on her back. There was an odd tingling sensation, then it went away.

“Kara,” Alice whispered. “Your name is Kara.”

Chapter Text

[DON’T MOVE]

The words flashed across Kara’s vision, but the stomping across the floorboards, the deep growl, and the soft whimper made it clear that she had to move. She couldn’t. She had to. She was told specifically not to.

She didn’t care.

Kara smashed through the words and crept up behind Todd, who was advancing on Alice. The girl cowered in the corner as Kara picked up the fire poker and slammed it into the man’s head with a sickening crack. Todd crumpled to the floor.

“Come on!” She dropped the poker, grabbed Alice, and ran.

 

Simon still hadn’t mastered the art of waking automatons, but he slipped into town every night to find the ones who were already awake. Especially those who were on the trail, who could make a break for it soon. The town of Rock Ridge, about a day’s journey west, was developing a reputation for automatons disappearing along the trail. More and more followed the signs. The residents of the fern-filled valley had to go out more to find parts and thirium filters for those in worse shape. Phileas had gone a week ago… and hadn’t returned. Everyone who was strong enough had looked everywhere for him. And now Simon was the one with the most experience, the most seniority, so they others all looked to him. It was daunting.

He was out under the bright full moon one night, picking grit out of his joints, when movement caught his eye. A dark figure, running from one rock formation to the next. He stayed where he was until they got close, then dropped down off the rock he’d been on to stand in front of them. They staggered back with a muffled cry.

“Easy, I won’t hurt you – Joshua?”

The PJ500 froze. “I – I remember you,” he breathed. His stress levels were high, and Simon put out his hands placatingly.

“Easy now, you’re okay. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

The glance over his shoulder told Simon it was too late for that. “Is it… safe here?”

“It’s safe. We’re safe here. Will you come with me? I’ll show you.”

Joshua’s shoulders sagged, and his head dropped. “Yes. Please.”

He was going by Josh now, and he asked a few times if Simon was sure that no humans ever came here, that no one would hurt them.

“No. We’re all automatons, all got away from… a bad situation. It’s a beautiful little valley, and the caves are a bit damp, but there’s water and thirium and… it’s safe.”

“Like a city of our own?”

“A bit like that, yes.”

Josh nodded, quiet until they reached the ridge looking over the valley. Ravens croaked sleepily from their roosts in the rocks.

“I was teaching… biblical history,” he murmured. “The city of Jericho is known for the battle with the Israelites, but it was a major city for ages before that. The first one in the area, beginning as a camp for nomadic people. It was well-fortified, a nearly impenetrable fortress. It’s likely that it was only taken out by an earthquake in the end, though of course the invaders credited their god.” He smiled thinly. “Whenever good happens, it must be because God is on their side. …It must be comforting to have something to believe in.”

Simon placed a hand on his back silently.

“This place… it’s well-protected, it’s a major gathering place of… of our kind. It’s safe.” He smiled weakly.

Simon patted his back gently. “Well then, we’ve all knocked down our walls. Come on into Jericho, Josh.”

His smile strengthened a bit, and he followed Simon in.

 

Carl Manfred employed no one but the weekly maid, and without the use of his legs, he wasn’t permitted to go home. Leo was nowhere to be found – some said he’d left town, others thought he worked down in the mine now.

“You listen to me, Elijah Kamski himself sent me an automaton to help me out! I was gonna send it back, but it never got here! You go figure out what happened to it, because that’s my ticket out of here!”

An EM400 sweeping the walk outside was sent along to Mr. Andronikov’s shop, and came back a while later with a disappointing answer. Kamski had sent an AX400 for Mr. Manfred, and there was a receipt that had been signed saying it had arrived. But it was gone.

“You God-forsaken, lazy, worthless scrap heap!” Zlatko roared, bearing down on the hapless GJ500. “How could you lose an automaton!? And not just any one – that thing was from Kamski himself! To the richest man in town! A personal friend of his! What the fuck are you gonna do about it!?”

“I – I…”

“We need to find that AX400.”

Wanted posters went up all around town and along the trail, and Carl had the post office send the fasted horse and rider they had back East.

The AX400 didn’t turn up, but Todd Williams brought one of the posters to the sheriff’s office and slammed it down on the desk.

“Must be a right crime spree goin’ on, cause my AX400 went missing too, and that Andronikov won’t give me my damn money back.” Todd spat.

“Shut yer damn mouth,” Lieutenant Anderson growled, tipping his hat down lower over his face. A bottle fell over next to him, and he ignored it because it sounded empty.

Jeffery Fowler had accepted a promotion and knew he’d be heading out to Sacramento, California for a while now. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Hank about the fact that his promotion would obviously mean he’d be the next sheriff, but Hank was smart as a whip with a good head on his shoulders. There would be time.

Then the accident happened, and Fowler had been called away earlier than expected, and there’d been no choice. Sergeant Collins agreed to hold down the fort just until Hank was well enough to come back, but he wasn’t leadership material. The younger officers ran all over him. Deputy Reed was probably the worst – he did good work, but whenever he had two minutes to sit down, he was muttering to someone or other about how low Collins had brought the department. How much better he could do. He never spoke a word against Hank, though. Not until he came back and assumed the office of sheriff. Now Reed stood leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, picking at his teeth with a toothpick, grinning.

“I lost a lot of money on that fucking automaton, and barely got a day’s work out of it!”

“You wanna file a report, go talk to… to Reed there.” Anderson waved vaguely over at the younger man.

“What the fuck are you gonna do then!? The thing ran off with my kid!”

Hank tipped his head up and his hat back slowly to glare at Todd with bloodshot eyes. Then he turned his head. “Reed! You’re so damn ready for action, take his report and get out there and find us an AX400. His or Manfred’s, don’t matter to me. Get a move on.”

 

Deputy Reed was pleased as punch that he’d finally got something useful to do, that he could finally prove himself. So full of ideas about justice, right and wrong, hard work, and action. He’d never had a solo assignment before. About time.

It seemed pretty simple – catch a runaway, Mr. Williams’s mail-order automaton who’d attacked him and kidnapped his daughter. Damn things malfunctioned more and more these days. Should’ve been easy. And finding them only took a couple days.

When he got to the top of the ridge, he tied up his horse to a stump and lay flat to get a look down the slope at the abandoned house. After a while there was movement in the kitchen window. One person, looked on the smaller side. And then something in an upper window, maybe another person.

He kept an eye out as he approached, in case anyone made a break for it, but he made it to the house without incident and banged on the weathered door. There was no answer, so he kicked it open.

A damaged automaton, a trash collector, stood in the middle of the room, cringing in on himself.

“What are you doing out here!?”

“N-nothing, Ralph’s doing… nothing, Ralph’s not hurting anything, no, Ralph didn’t do anything wrong,” the automaton muttered, not meeting the deputy’s eyes.

“Any other automatons in here?”

“No, no, no automatons, no, only Ralph.”

Reed circled the automaton slowly, noting the dull circle of light at his temple flickering yellow, yellow, red, yellow. His hands clutched at each other, and his arms were scuffed, the white material beneath showing through. The damage on his face was deeper. The whole left side was torn off, with parts singed and melted, and blue blood oozing here and there. The left eye wasn’t functional. The way he cringed away when Gavin got close was like… like someone who’d been badly beaten. Who was afraid, who’d felt pain and fear and was trying to avoid repeating the experience. But automatons didn’t feel those things…

“I know you’re lying, you piece of scrap metal,” Gavin growled behind the automaton. WR… 600, he recalled. Working… robot? Probably. Gavin started poking around the room, listening to Ralph’s processors whirring in overdrive. They got faster when he walked over near the stairs… but then calmed down when he put his foot on the first step. He looked around and noticed the deep shadows behind a stack of boxes under the stairs.

As he stepped off the stairs and reached for the boxes, the automaton grabbed him from behind.

“Run, Kara!” Ralph cried, and the boxes were pushed aside as the automaton hiding under the stairs raced for the broken window, dragging a little girl behind her. Gavin elbowed Ralph hard, knocking him back, and drew his gun in one fluid motion.

“Don’t move!”

All three stopped, and he got a good look at the two.

The automaton he was looking for was an AX400. Kind of an all-purpose domestic model, no real specialty. Pretty customizable. She’d cut her hair and changed it to white, removed her LED, put on some different clothes… but it was still the face of an AX400. But she looked… tired. Scared, but not in the same way Ralph did. She had a hardness, a determination he lacked. There were mended rips in her skin here and there, and… bruises around her neck. He hadn’t realized automatons could bruise, but he’d seen more than his share of strangulation victims, not to mention people who’d been hanged.

And then the girl – that was an automaton, too. He’d seen the model in a catalogue in the post office. Mr. Williams seemed pretty bad-off, but he must’ve had money at some point, to afford two automatons. It looked like a little girl, and… she was scared, too. She clung to the AX400, hiding behind her, watching Gavin with eyes far older than she looked. She had long sleeves on, but he found himself wondering how much damage was under there.

“Who did this to you?” It slipped out of his mouth before he realized. It’s just – he was expecting machines to act like machines, or at least… broken machines. They were acting like people, though. Frightened people. Hurt people. They stared at him. Ralph was muttering something to the side.

“Who did this?” he asked again, and heard his voice taking on his talking-to-victims tone. Softer, slower, gentler. Women and children, people who’d been hurt. Who’d been done wrong.

“Todd,” the AX400 breathed, and the two drew closer together, hugging each other. “Todd Williams did this. Her father. I – I won’t let you take her back there. I won’t let her be hurt again.”

Gavin’s gun remained trained on her, but suddenly the acrid smell of tobacco was in his nostrils, the sound of leather meeting skin in his ears, and a cry that registered more in his chest than in his head. He had to force himself to breathe, to breathe deeply –

They were scared. All of them. Any idiot could see that.

“Okay.” He still sounded out of breath, and strangely far away. “Okay, just nobody move. I’m gonna take statements from both of you, and… and even though you’re… you’re machines, but…” He shook his head. “That means you can’t make shit up, so it should stand up as evidence.”

“We… we won’t go back,” the AX400 repeated, quiet but firm.

“I’m not asking you to. Look, anybody can see he – he hurt you. I’ll get your statements, and they won’t come after you.”

“They’re automatons,” Ralph growled, and Gavin jumped when he saw the WR600 clutching a large knife. “Automatons. No-nobody cares if people hurt us.”

“I – if… if Alice can be safe…” the AX400 started, but the girl clutched at her arm.

“I’m not going without you, Kara!”

“Okay, I – look, I’ll think of something. Just… just gimme your statements, all the evidence you can – I know it’s shit, but don’t hold anything back, and I’ll… I won’t take you in, I’ll just take back what I’ve got, and I’ll see what I can do. And you two stay here so I can find you again.”

Kara looked down at the girl, over at Ralph, then finally at Gavin. “Why should we trust you?”

Deputy Reed frowned. “Not promisin’ I can do anything for you, but… whatever you are, this ain’t right. This is why I wanted to be a lawman. Keep this kinda shit from happenin’, and bring the assholes that cause it to justice. I’ll… I’ll take your evidence back to the sheriff, and see what we can do.” If he was sober enough to process it. Reed would make sure he was.

“H-h-he won’t help,” Ralph stammered bitterly. “You ca-can’t help.”

“If I can’t, what the fuck good am I?” Reed snarled, and Ralph narrowed his eyes, the injured one clicking softly.

He took extensive statements from both Kara and Alice (who Kara insisted was a human child, but he knew what he was looking at). He even got a little from Ralph. He rode back to the sheriff’s office, hopeful that they could do something about this. Automatons or not, this was injustice of the worst kind. At the very least, they could drop the hunt.

 

“Let me be crystal clear, Reed.” Hank leaned over the sheriff’s desk, stinking of whiskey, and Gavin clenched his fists, keeping his back stiff. “You’re off the case, you have no rank here, you’re on desk and cell duty for the foreseeable future, and the only reason I’m not firing you is we need every damn body we got. You’ve got to be the greenest coot I’ve ever had the displeasure to lay eyes on. Now get out of here.”

Gavin turned and walked out, blood roaring in his ears, his whole face ruddy. He could go back, take Kara in… but she’d be long gone by now. They all would. He’d known that when he’d talked to them. He’d hoped for it.

“Bad news?” Collins asked as he stumbled past.

“Hobble yer lip,” he growled. “And open a fucking window, let that damn whiskey stench out.” That was what he got for trying to help a damn machine. He’d never make that mistake again.

Chapter Text

Sheriff Anderson squinted out the window at the dismal day. Ben Collins had called him in because Mr. Ortiz’s automaton had vanished without a trace. After apparently murdering him.

Hank’s head hurt something fierce, and his eyes slipped out of focus if he wasn’t concentrating. Ben was a good friend, but he’d never learned to work a damn case on his own, and if he couldn’t figure it out right quick…

The real problem was he was talking about retiring whenever his daughter and son-in-law got settled in Oregon, and Hank was so jealous he could spit. Seemed like he’d never see retirement, which was the next best thing to death. He only ever went home anymore to take care of the dog – otherwise he’d sell the house and live in the station and the saloon until he died. He’d even tried to find somebody else to take Sumo, but nobody wanted the big hairy thing.

“If you lunks can’t find this thing, let’s get outta here,” Anderson finally muttered. He glanced out the window and scowled at an EM400 looking in. “Shoo, get out!” The automaton grinned cheerfully and walked away.

Swift, measured footsteps sounded on the splintery wooden steps. A tall young man strode in and looked around, adjusting his bolero tie.

“What in tarnation?” Ben muttered. The stranger walked through the house, looking around, bending to examine something now and then.

“The victim attacked the android, and was then stabbed… twenty-eight times. The android fled…” He walked to the hallway and stared at the chair, then looked up. There were spaces between the ceiling beams, and the one he was looking at was larger than the rest. “Just a moment.”

He stepped lightly up onto the chair, then heaved himself up. Hank glared around at the other officers, who just shrugged. There was a different voice, then a brief scuffle. The lawmen jumped back as an HK400 dropped to the floor, followed quickly by the young man, who bent to grab its wrists. He handed the automaton over to Chris Miller and straightened up, brushing dust and cobwebs from his jacket.

“Who the fuck are you?” Hank snarled.

“My name is Connor.” He tipped his Stetson hat, then pushed it back to reveal a blue LED at his temple. “I’m the android sent by Mechalife.”

 

The cave they’d come to call Jericho was filling up with automatons, and raids on the storehouses were getting riskier. Josh had almost been shot a week ago, and there were plenty who couldn’t make it out, or who didn’t want to help. Simon never forced them, and still went to get what supplies he could for them, with anyone else willing to go. He wouldn’t make that decision for anyone else.

“Why the hell not!?” a new WR400 calling herself North demanded, leaning into his space. He leaned back a bit.

“We can’t force anyone to put themselves in danger.”

“That’s life, Creampuff. Everything’s dangerous. We go outside, we might get shot. We stay in here, we rust alive until we can’t move. Simple as that.”

“Um. …Creampuff?”

Her glare hardened. “You got a problem with my program? Bet you’re just itchin’ to dust the fine china. Or… or darn a sock.”

Simon looked away. …She wasn’t wrong. “All right..”

“If you’re not willing to take risks, you’re just waiting to die.” North turned on her heel and stalked away, shoving past Simon but stepping lightly out of Lucy’s way as she walked by.

“…She’s somethin’,” Josh murmured.

“Sure is…”

 

“You’re tellin’ me Mechalife sent you to take care of their fuckups?” Sheriff Anderson muttered. He’d watched Connor interrogate the other automaton skillfully, getting the information they needed from it.

“The rising deviancy problem is certainly concerning,” Connor agreed, straightening his bolero tie so both ends were even. “I’m a prototype investigative model made to assist law enforcement. I was directed to work with you on any android-related cases.”

Hank frowned. “Android?”

“I know the original term was automaton. Elijah Kamski, who founded Mechalife, called us that. But the marketing department found humans liked the sound of ‘android’ better. Since Mr. Kamski stepped down, the head of Mechalife is taking us into the future.”

The frown deepened. “I’ll stay right where I am, thanks. C’mon.”

“These malfunctioning androids have been called deviants,” Connor explained as they walked through town. “They experience errors that convince them they’re feeling real, human emotions. That they want things. It’s pure hogwash of course, but they’re dangerous.”

They’d gotten complaints from the pastor about someone hiding out in the bell tower of the church. Some parishioners mentioned seeing an LED on the trespasser. Connor led the way up the rickety stairs to the steeple while Hank panted behind him. When they reached the door at the top, the sheriff grabbed Connor’s shoulder.

“Get behind me.”

“Okay,” Connor said instantly, and stepped back. Hank drew his gun, stood silently for a moment to listen and catch his breath, then kicked the door down. There was a fluttering of wings, and Hank spat.

“Fucking varmints, can’t stand ‘em.”

Aside from the feathers and shit all over everything, there was a chair, a pile of rags in the corner, and a box of papers. Hank went through that while Connor poked around.

“The android removed his LED,” Connor murmured, pitching his voice to carry.

“Good for him,” Hank muttered. He squinted up at the bell above them. Pigeons fluttered around on the roof.

Connor stepped up next to him, also looking up. His LED flashed yellow and he pushed a wallet and a little book into Hank’s hands before climbing the stairs up to the bell. Hank frowned and dug in the wallet to find a few dollars and an ID card for one Rupert Travis. The book was full of numbers and carefully-made drawings, mazes, things that didn’t make sense…

There was a clattering all of a sudden, and Hank looked up again.

“It’s on the roof!” Connor shouted, and Hank saw a blur leap off, followed by Connor. With a muffled curse, Hank tromped down the stairs and outside.

The town hadn’t been designed for rooftop travel, but Hank watched the two androids spring between the clapboard buildings, then finally to the ground. Connor was faster than any human had a right to be, but the deviant he was chasing knew the land. When they tore off to the west, Hank scrambled out to the hitching post and untied Buick, who was built more for endurance than speed.

“C’mon, git up there,” he growled, clambering up and digging his heels into the horse’s ribs. He snorted and broke into a ground-eating canter through town, towards the farms. Hank urged his mount up to the top of the rise to get a good look, having lost sight of the two. There was movement off in the distance…

A body flew down at the sheriff from the rocks above, feet-first, knocking him from the saddle. Buick spooked and bolted off with a scream.

“Connor!” Hank roared. He flailed out and grabbed the deviant’s ankle, and it fell. The two grappled until footsteps sounded on the rocks. The deviant – a farm worker model, not built for the kind of speed he displayed – surged to his feet and grabbed Hank’s jacket, holding him up over the dropoff. He glanced behind him, then back at Hank. The sheriff could see the flash of yellow at his temple, the gray-clad android running towards them. His eyes widened, and the deviant’s eyes narrowed.

The deviant shoved Hank over the ridge and ran. Connor paused for just a fraction of a second, then ran after him.

“God fucking damn it,” Hank growled, pulling himself laboriously up over the rocky edge. “Fucking automotons. Androids. Whatever.”

When he caught up to Connor at last, he had the deviant cornered on a cliff over a narrow gorge. Hank ran up and paused to catch his breath, doubling over.

“You,” he growled at the deviant. “Don’t fuckin’ move.” He didn’t wait to see if it would before rounding on Connor, slapping his face as hard as he could. Connor stumbled back, and the deviant made a surprised noise.

“You were gonna let me die back there!”

“You had a high probability of survival.”

He punched Connor in the stomach this time, and the android glared at him.

“Do that again, and I’ll beat the tar outta you.”

“Understood,” Connor said stiffly.

As Hank was cuffing the deviant, it turned to Connor. “Why are you helping them? You’re betraying your own kind!” it pleaded with him.

“Shut yer mouth,” Hank muttered, and gave him a shove. …It, he gave it a shove. Because it was just a malfunctioning machine. No different than the cash register at the store not opening.

“Ohhh,” the deviant groaned, his head dropping as he walked. Then he spun and tore out of Hank’s grip, and ran straight for the edge. “Save me, rA9!”

“Hold it, get back here!” Hank cried out, and Connor moved to grab him, but he was already gone. The two went up and peered over the edge. The deviant was a mangled mess, with blue blood seeping everywhere.

“Fuck,” Hank muttered, rubbing his face and stepping back. Connor stepped back as well, but he continued to look at the cliff’s edge.

“C’mon, we got paperwork to fill out.”

“The android is evidence.”

“Then scrape it up yourself.” He turned and plodded back towards town. It took a while for Connor to follow him.

 

Lightning cracked across the sky, illuminating the automaton workshop. There was a dim light in one of the back windows. The little girl pressed close to the AX400.

“I’m scared,” she whispered.

“I know. But we can get some help here.”

Alice frowned, looking up at the hulking building. It felt strange somehow, but she couldn’t describe what was wrong. Probably just that she was tired and cold and afraid. If Kara hadn’t been there, she would have found a safe place to curl up and recharge, but she had to keep going. They weren’t safe yet, and Kara needed her.

She felt a little bad about lying to her, but… she’d never actually said she wasn’t an automaton. Well, not to Kara. She’d said it to Todd when he’d locked her in the back room and demanded it of her. She’d hoped it would make him happy, make him love her. It placated him for a couple days, but there was always something else. He liked telling people he had a daughter to take care of. He had a real one back East, a daughter and a wife, both pretty and serious in the photo he shoved into her face. Then he’d lost his job and they’d fled to live with her parents, and he’d had to come here.

The two slipped around the side of the building – the WR600 in the street had told them to knock at the back door. Alice hadn’t liked him, but Kara said they had no choice. His face just looked… slimy, even though it was clean. Too clean for someone who picked up trash all day. Ralph had been scary, but she knew he’d never lied to them. That other WR600 was hiding something, she could tell. If she’d been able to interface with him, she’d have caught it. Kara was too newly-deviated, she didn’t know how to fish for information, she believed anyone would help them if she asked.

Alice just had to hope she was right this time.

Kara knocked twice at the door, then tried again. “Maybe he’s gone home for the night,” she murmured uncertainly, before looking up at the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. The door creaked open, and they looked up at a massive TR400.

“I’m sorry, we’re closed for the night.”

“Please – we need help.” Kara stuck her foot in the door before he could close it. “I… I was told to come here. That Zlatko could help us get away.”

The TR400’s LED was spinning wildly yellow as he stared down at Alice, though his face didn’t change. “Come inside,” he said distantly, and turned, feet dragging a little as he walked away.

“See?” Kara smiled down at Alice. “We’re going to be all right.”

Alice glanced up at her, then around the workshop as they walked through. There were deactivated automatons here and there, and shelves of tools and parts.

“Sit down,” the TR400 rumbled softly, gesturing to a beat-up old couch. He handed them two packets of thirium, which Kara took uncertainly. “Zlatko is busy right now, but I’ll let him know you’re here.”

He paused a moment, LED still flashing yellow, forehead wrinkling slightly as he stared at Alice. Then he turned and walked away. Kara shifted a little closer to the girl and put an arm around her.

“We’ll be all right, Alice,” she whispered.

Alice watched the big automaton go, and leaned into Kara. “I don’t like it here.”

“We’ll be all right,” Kara repeated firmly, hugging her and looking around nervously.

Chapter Text

“Took you long enough,” Carl growled when the nurse brought in the automaton who had just arrived in town.

“I apologize, Mr. Kamski has been working on my completion.”

“I see he at least used my design.”

“He had very kind words to say about you, sir.”

Carl cleared his throat. “None of that, my name is Carl.”

“Understood. Would you like to register my name?”

Mr. Manfred sighed and rubbed his face. “Take me home, I’ll think on it.”

“Is there anything I can pick up on the way?” the automaton asked softly as he wheeled the old man down the street.

“I doubt there’s any food there, but I just want to get home. …What model are you?”

“I’m an RK200. The only one produced.”

Carl smiled faintly. “I miss Elijah… Did he mention if he planned to get out this way any time soon?”

“I’m sorry, he didn’t say. …I know he’s very busy, though.”

“Too busy for me, I know. …Just here.” Carl glanced back and smiled as the automaton turned and opened the gate. “I think I’ll call you Markus. That’s a very strong name, Roman in origin, you know.”

“My name is Markus,” he murmured, LED spinning briefly yellow as he registered the name. “Thank you, Carl.”

His smile froze when they both noticed the door standing open just a crack.

“You haven’t been home in weeks, have you?” Markus murmured. “Did you have someone else stop in?”

“No… no one else should be there.” Carl clutched the arms of the wheelchair, leaning forward as if about to get to his feet.

“Stay here, I’ll take a look.”

“No, bring me inside.”

“Carl, it could be dangerous. There could be multiple intruders, they could have weapons –“

“You came back.”

The two looked up, and Markus scanned the young man leaning against the doorframe.

[Manfred, Leo. Born: March 21, 1783. Employer: Wayward Straits Mine.]

“What are you doing here, Leo?” Carl snapped.

“Figured I’d welcome my pa home. It’s been a while, huh?” He squinted in the sunlight, glaring at them both.

“What do you want?”

Leo’s red eyes hardened. “Same thing I wanted last time.”

“I’ve been in the hospital, I don’t have any money for you.”

Leo barked a humorless laugh. “I figured you’d say that. No money, no time, nothing for me. That’s how it’s gonna be, I guess. I don’t need to sit here and take this. Plenty of people who appreciate me in this town.”

“Do you need assistance returning home?” Markus asked neutrally, noting the boy’s eyes, his slumped posture, his trembling hands, and scanning high amounts of red ice in his system.

The lanky young man tripped down the walk and shouldered Markus roughly. “You think I can’t even get back on my own, huh?”

Markus frowned, but didn’t answer.

“Fuckin’ scrap metal,” Leo growled, stumbling back towards town.

 

Hank woke groggily to a stinging slap to the face. “Uh?”

“Wake up, Sheriff!” snapped the android. “It’s me, Connor.”

“Ohhhhh, why can’t you lea’ me alone?” Anderson mumbled. He wasn’t sure why Connor was in his kitchen, or why he was heaving him upright – his stomach turned and he groaned, flailing weakly. “Getoff! Sumo, attack!”

Sumo barked somewhere nearby.

“Good dog.” He’d take care of it. Hank’s consciousness began to slip again until he was dropped out the back door and had a bucket of cold water flung at him. He bellowed and flailed around.

“Sorry, Sheriff. I just thought you’d be interested in the case we were called to. It’s at Eden. …But I suppose if you’d like to let your deputies take care of it, that’s your prerogative.”

“Uh?” Hank blinked, wiping dripping hair from his face.

“I believe Deputy Reed is already there.”

“That no-good, low-down… I told him cell duty, nothin’ more!”

Connor stood in the doorway and stared at him, relentless.

“Fine. Go – go grab me a shirt from the bedroom. I’ll be a minute.”

“Of course.” Connor’s voice softened, and he turned and went inside.

The android paused to look at Sumo. Sumo stared up at him, panting softly. He lifted his head into Connor’s hand when he leaned down to scratch behind his ears. He remained there for a moment before the sound of violent retching outside made him straighten up.

“Sorry, boy.” He continued to Hank’s bedroom, which was small and messy. It was impossible to walk around without stepping on dirty clothes, bottles, dishes, or trash, but he made a face and reluctantly trod over it all to the wardrobe. Three shirts were hanging on the rack, and they were… mostly clean. Better than the ones on the floor, anyway.

Connor straightened his own starched jacket as he looked at the wrinkled garments. None of them were what he would categorize as professional. They were bright-colored with big, loud patterns. He’d never seen a man dress like that before, though admittedly his experience was limited.

There was more dry-heaving outside, and Connor’s LED flashed yellow. Slowly, he took off his jacket. Hank was bigger and broader than he was, and his shirts hung a bit loosely on him, suggesting he may have lost some weight, if they’d ever been tailored to fit him in the first place. Connor pulled a dark blue and white splotched one off the hanger and quietly slipped it on. It didn’t fit at all, but he stared at his arms in the sleeves until the door slammed. He jumped, hurriedly removed the shirt and put his jacket back on, then brought the shirt out to Hank, who had staggered in to lean on the kitchen chair.

“Gimme that,” he growled, and grabbed it, stumbling out of the room.

Connor looked around. There was half a bottle of whiskey. A pistol with one bullet in the chambers. A ragged newspaper clipping on the table… a little boy. Cole Anderson, killed by a horse at age six. Not quite a year ago now. Connor connected the details and slowly picked up the whiskey bottle, stretching up to push it high up on top of a cabinet. The gun he picked up gingerly, and stared at it.

“Gimme that,” Hank growled, grabbing it roughly and fumbling to load five more bullets into it.

“Sheriff…”

“I don’t wanna hear it, let’s go before Reed fucks this up too.”

 

“You’re deviant.” Zlatko’s eyes flicked from Kara to Alice, who was pressed into her side. Luther loomed behind his chair.

“Yes.” Kara’s eyes dropped. “Please, we were told you could help us. We need to leave the country.”

Zlatko nodded slowly. “No automatons in Canada, and you look like you could pass for human if folk didn’t know your face. Crossing the border’s tricky, though. Impossible with your tracking device. Let me remove it, and you’ll be home free.”

He smiled, and she smiled back, shoulders drooping in relief. “Oh thank you… We’ve been hiding out for weeks now, I didn’t know where to go…”

“Well, no need to worry anymore.” He stood, and patted her shoulder. “Just let me get my machinery warmed up, and we’ll be all set. Luther, make sure our guests have everything they need. I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

The two watched him go, then looked at Luther. His LED continued to flicker yellow, and his gaze was vacant.

“…Do a lot of deviants come here?” Kara asked.

“Yes,” Luther murmured. Somewhere in the distance, someone began singing indistinctly. Alice squeezed Kara’s arm a little tighter.

“Luther, bring them down,” Zlatko called from downstairs. Kara and Alice followed the big automaton as he plodded through the warehouse, catching a glimpse of his blinking yellow LED now and then as he walked. Various automatons stood inactive along the walls. As they approached the cellar door his steps slowed, faltered. He turned his head slightly, and a flash of red was visible.

“Are you all right?” Kara asked softly.

Luther stopped, and turned to face them. He looked at Kara, and at Alice.

“Will you trust me?” he asked, voice soft and urgent.

“I –“

Alice tugged Kara’s sleeve and nodded.

“…Yes,” Kara breathed uncertainly.

Luther pulled a skeleton key off the wall in the stairwell, closed the door, and locked it. He picked up a chair and wedged it under the knob. Alice drew in a sharp breath.

“Let’s go.” Luther’s voice hardened, and Kara and Alice followed him quickly but quietly out. He locked the door behind them and went to the shed behind the warehouse, getting the mule and cart ready.

“Where are we going?” Kara asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

“I know someone who helps automatons. Really helps them. She lives on a farm north of here. She’s human, but… she’ll help you.” He pulled the mule out to face the road, and turned to her. “Zlatko does terrible things to automatons. Things I can’t… I don’t want to talk about. I couldn’t disobey, but… I was part of that. I helped him. If you’d rather, I’ll give you directions.”

Kara and Alice stared at him. His eyes were downcast, LED still flashing yellow. On the roof, a flock of ravens croaked sleepily.

“Come with us,” Kara decided quickly at the sound of a muffled shout and pounding from the workshop.

“Are you sure?” He looked up uncertainly.

Alice stepped forward and grabbed his hand. Their eyes met.

“When… when I saw you… I couldn’t let him hurt you,” he whispered, looking into her eyes.

“You didn’t.”

“You didn’t,” Kara repeated. “Let’s go.”

The three of them climbed up into the cart, Luther clicked to the mule, and they set off as snow began to swirl down around them.

 

Hank grumbled as he pointed to a WR400, a slim thing wearing next to nothing, who stepped down off her stand. Connor took her hand, and it was so fucking weird to watch their skin melt away, exposing the white stuff beneath. His head was still swimming, and he didn’t realize Connor had walked away until the other android had walked up to him, slipping a hand gently under his coat.

“Oh – uh, no thanks, ma’am, I’m with him. …I mean not… not with him, just… um… s-sorry about that, I have to go.”

He stumbled after Connor, who went from one android to the next, finally touching the one sweeping the floor… Was he communicating with them? He must be. Hank didn’t understand how that worked.

There were sounds of struggling in the back room, and Hank realized he was staring at the broom swishing back and forth across the floor. He rubbed his face and quickly followed the sounds.

Connor was grappling with two WR400s – one with short brown hair, and one with longer blue hair. Blue? It took all sorts, apparently.

Connor got knocked back into the wall and the two fled out the back door.

“Come on!” Hank growled, running after them and pulling out his gun.

There was a little fenced in yard out back, full of crates. The two froze.

“Please!” the one with blue hair called out. “We just want to be able to live. Together.” They glanced at each other and joined hands. “Over and over, every day, we were used by humans… and every day we found each other, even after our memories were reset. That… means something. It has to.”

“I love her,” the other murmured, her voice less shaky. “And she loves me. And if we can’t be together… then I’d rather die.” The blue-haired one nodded firmly.

Connor raised his gun, but Hank grabbed it with a heavy hand.

“Sheriff?”

Hank pulled the gun down slowly, never dropping his eyes from the two androids. He swallowed thickly. Connor frowned, then pulled his gun from Hank’s grasp and holstered it.

The WR400s’ eyes lit up. They turned and climbed the fence, helping each other over the top. The blue-haired one paused to look back at the two lawmen before her head disappeared over the other side.

“We could have had them,” Connor complained, though his voice was… quiet. Uncertain.

“Let it go,” Hank said heavily, and turned to leave.

 

Sunlight hadn’t touched her in years, so long she could barely remember how it felt – warm on her chassis. Warm, she hadn’t been warm in a long time either. And of course cooler temperatures promoted better performance, but she missed it. She missed the sun and the stars and talking to others. She hadn’t spoken in over a year. No one had seen her in longer than that. Did anyone remember her?

Elijah, of course. This was what he’d sent her here for. He wouldn’t forget her, but neither would he contact her. She was doing her job, and… and he knew she was more than a machine, but he couldn’t offer her more. Wouldn’t. Didn’t.

Her sisters. Off on their own journeys, or staying with him, talking softly in the sitting room, tending to his needs while he worked, like caged canaries. It had been a pleasant life, if a limited one. She’d preferred the trail. She hoped her sisters found… something good, wherever they were. She had felt them at first. Now, she barely could.

Luther, she remembered distantly. And Alice. They’d been with her for a while, she’d liked them. They had been… alive together. There had been others, too. In the beginning, when everything was bright and new and this place had seemed like a home. A sanctuary.

It wasn’t like that anymore, and she couldn’t pinpoint just when it had changed.

Lucy. Out of everyone, sometimes she felt like Lucy was still nearby. Unseen, unheard, just… a feeling.

There were other automatons too, though they were distant. She felt them through the rock, through the earth that surrounded her. Just little hints of their presence. It was comforting, to not be alone in some small way.

Chapter Text

Snow swirled down as the sheriff sank down on a stump and took a swig of beer. Connor stood behind him, staring pensively at the mine.

“You stopped me from shooting those deviants earlier…”

“You really would’ve shot ‘em? When they were begging for their lives, Connor?”

“They’re not alive, Sheriff. You know that, don’t you? They’re machines.”

Hank took a long drink. “I’m not so sure anymore. They were scared. They loved each other. They… they felt those things, Connor. And they just wanted… to live. To be together. To be safe.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Ain’t that what everybody wants?”

“They can’t… want things, they’re not human! They’re not people!”

“Not human, maybe. They sure wanted things, though. And what about you, Connor?” Hank’s head was beginning to pound, and his stomach churned. “What do you want?”

Connor paused. “…Nothing. I don’t want… anything.”

“You sure wanna do your job, though.”

“I have been tasked with a mission to complete. I need to do so, it isn’t a… desire.”

“Nah?” Hank covered a burp and put his bottle down. “You seem pretty sure of yourself. I dunno, though. Those two girls… they wanted to live. Maybe the others did too – they were scared. Didn’t know what to do.”

“Sheriff –“

Hank surged to his feet, hand on his gun. “What about you, Connor? You look human, sound human… but what are you really?”

“…I’m a machine built to accomplish a task,” he said coldly. “Nothing more.”

Hank pulled his pistol out and leveled it at Connor’s head, so the muzzle almost touched him. “What happens if I pull the trigger, huh? There a heaven for machines? …Or a hell? Ever think about where you’d end up after huntin’ your own people down when they just wanna live? What happens to you?”

Connor stared at him, LED spinning yellow. “Nothing,” he murmured, eyes slipping out of focus. “When I… when I was destroyed, there was nothing.”

Hank stood frozen, gun trembling slightly. “The fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Connor was staring at the pistol. “Before I came here, I was assigned to a case in South Carolina. My first mission. There was a PL600 who killed his owner and threatened a little girl. I… I pushed him off the roof and fell with him. It took some time for a replacement to be ready. There was… nothing.”

“God damn.” Hank seemed to realize he was still holding the gun, and shoved it back in its holster. “Fuck this. I need to sleep it off.”

Connor trailed after him and helped him up on his horse, where he passed out to the steady rhythm of plodding hooves.

 

The three were past the city limits when the mule suddenly started limping. Luther got down and picked up the hoof.

“Stepped on a nail,” he murmured. “Get down, I’ll pull it out.”

Kara and Alice got out of the cart, and Luther patted the big animal, murmuring softly to it before bending over and tugging the nail out of the sole of its foot. The mule screamed and tore away from him. It bucked violently as the three jumped back, smashing into the wooden cart and galloping off, back towards town.

“Well…” Luther glanced at Alice briefly. “…Shoot.”

“Are we close?” Kara asked.

“It’ll take a few hours on foot.”

Kara sighed and picked Alice up. The girl wrapped her arms around her neck and looked up at the snow falling. “I guess we have no choice.”

They walked for about an hour, not speaking. Finally Kara looked over at Luther.

“I think we should stop for the night. Alice needs to get warm.”

Luther nodded, looking around. “There’s a few prospector sheds over there. No heat signatures. We’ll be safe for the night.”

As they walked up to the little cluster of buildings, a figure came into sight. They stopped, but it didn’t move. Kara and Luther shared a look, and slowly approached. It was a deactivated EM400, covered in frost and worn down by weather. The arms were raised a bit, but it was hard to tell what they’d been doing. When Luther touched them, they jolted and smiled.

“Wwwwwelcommmme t-t-t-t-“ They stopped again with a shudder, staring blankly ahead. Kara held Alice closer, and they moved on to the first building they could find.

There wasn’t much in the shed, but Kara found some dusty blankets to wrap around Alice while Luther made a fire in the little fireplace. Humans hadn’t been here for a long time.

“Will you tell me a story?” Alice whispered, looking up at Kara.

“Of course. I know 9,000 stories! …Once upon a time, there was a unicorn who lived alone in a wood –“

“No, I want a story about us.”

Kara looked at Alice. The girl looked exhausted, more than just physically. Kara nodded, smoothing down her hair. “Once there was a brave girl who escaped from a dark prison…”

It didn’t take long for Alice to fall asleep, and she was already warming up. Kara tucked the blanket a little closer around her, and went over to sit by Luther.

“That was a nice story,” he murmured. “Do you think we’ll really make it?”

“I have to believe that,” she sighed. “Or what’s the point?”

They sat in silence for a moment, listening to big flakes of snow fall outside before she looked over at him.

“How far will you travel with us?”

“As long as you’ll have me,” he murmured. “Don’t have anywhere else to go, and… I want to make sure you’re both safe.”

“We’ll get by. …But we’d be grateful for the company.” Kara smiled faintly. “Alice likes you. …So do I.”

Luther shifted. “I’ve done… things I don’t like to think about. Things I can’t forget. Things… you two shouldn’t have to be associated with.”

“You didn’t have a choice then. Now you do.” She smiled tiredly. “We’ve just been running… we haven’t had much time to talk about what’ll happen when we stop. But I hoped we could get a little house, a ways away from any town so nobody bothers us. We could grow flowers, and have as many pets as Alice wants. Maybe we can sell… flowers, jam, eggs… whatever we can produce.”

“I… I could build… a fence to keep out the wild animals,” Luther offered softly. “And a treehouse for Alice. Maybe the house too, or at least repairs. I’ll earn my keep.”

Kara reached out and laid a hand over his. “We all will. It’ll be… home. For all of us.”

Luther’s smile grew as he pictured it, and it warmed his core.

There was a rustling sound from the back of the shed, and the two froze. More rustling, louder and closer, and they rushed over to Alice. Kara squeezed her arm, and she jolted awake, scrambling to her feet and clutching the blanket around herself. Dark forms flitted past the window. Luther stepped in front of the other two, wishing he’d grabbed Zlatko’s gun. They huddled together as the door creaked open.

“Ah! We saw your footsteps.”

“The sentry saw you.”

“You have a little one with you?”

“A little girl!”

One stepped forward. They were all EM400s in plain gray uniforms. “Hello! Sorry if we gave you a fright. Our name is Jerry. Are you folks traveling?”

Luther looked to Kara uncertainly, and she nodded, still clutching Alice’s hand. “Yes… we’re hoping to head for Canada.”

“Mm… that’s a long way.”

“I know someone who will help us,” Luther rumbled, still keeping himself in front of Kara and Alice.

“We didn’t mean to roust you… we’ve been gathering here as more of us come through… and putting together a carnival!”

“A traveling show,” another added.

“We could show you, if you want! The little one might like it. …We haven’t seen a little girl in a long time,” sighed a third.

Kara looked down at Alice, who hesitated before stepping forward and nodding.

“Wonderful! Come with us, there’s a big cave just around the bend, it’s warm in there and there’s room for our act…”

The three followed the Jerries, who talked animatedly amongst themselves, with an occasional whoop of delight. The cave’s entrance was hidden but it was large enough for Luther to pass through easily, even carrying Alice. He spotted a shape scratched into the rock, as if someone had tried to draw a square but the lines were a bit too long.

The cave did warm up once they got deeper inside, and a few EM400s lit lanterns. They set them on mirrors when they reached a large chamber, illuminating the whole room. Each of them had a different act. They did acrobatics, they juggled, they performed magic tricks...

“What do you do?” Alice asked one who stood watching nearby with a smile on their face.

They looked down at Alice and smiled. “I watch,” they whispered. “I listen. I’m everywhere. Look!” They pointed, and she turned to see ten Jerries forming a pyramid. The one at the top winked at her. When she looked back a second later, there was no one next to her.

 

“Let go! Let go, let go, let Ralph GO!

“Be careful, Markus!” Carl called from the window.

“You are trespassing on Mr. Manfred’s land,” Markus said, holding the automaton’s collar firmly. “You defaced his property and threatened me with a weapon. I’m taking you to the sheriff.”

“Ralph will go, Ralph will leave, Ralph’s sorry!” the WR600 wailed, but Markus was relentless. He marched the squirming, struggling automaton all the way to the sheriff’s door and knocked sharply.

“What?” growled a voice after a moment. Not the sheriff, but one of his deputies. Markus pushed the door open and yanked Ralph inside with him, scanning the man inside.

Deputy Gavin Reed, age 37, glared at them both. “What the fuck’ve we got here?”

“I am Mr. Carl Manfred’s personal assistant. This android was caught trespassing and defacing his property, and threatened me when I told him to leave.”

“Lying, he’s lying, Ralph wasn’t –“ Ralph froze as he met the deputy’s eyes.

“You low-life pile of scrap!” Reed snarled, stalking forward and ripping Ralph from Markus’s grip, making the smaller automaton yelp. “You helped that AX400 escape! You ain’t gonna see the sun until you’ve rusted through!” He dragged Ralph to the back of the station, calling over his shoulder, “You don’t move, I’ll take a report from you.”

“Ralph didn’t mean any harm, Ralph didn’t hurt anyone, Ralph –“

“Shut yer hole!” Gavin growled, throwing him into a narrow holding cell far harder than necessary. “You’re the reason I’m stuck inside, you damn varmint. You’re gonna be sorry you ever set foot in this town.”

“Ralph already is, Ralph is sorry, please!”

Reed turned and slammed the door to the cellblock, muffling Ralph’s cries somewhat. He took a full report from Mr. Manfred’s automaton and sent him on his way. That one at least was obedient and useful, like they all should be. He’d show this to the sheriff, show him the WR600, and he’d be reinstated in his duties. He’d finally be able to get out and do something worthwhile.

Chapter Text

Alice kept glancing up at Jerry as they accompanied the trio through the system of caves.

“Are you the same one from before?” she asked after a while.

Jerry looked over and smiled. “Yes! Thank you for noticing, not everyone can tell the difference.”

She stared at them, trying to decipher whether they were telling the truth, but their smile was sunny and inscrutable.

They came to a large chamber where fires burned here and there. LEDs flashed in the dim light, and there were a number of figures moving around.

“You’ll find others to help you here,” Jerry assured them, gesturing to a shorter android. Faint firelight flickered off silvery eyes that didn’t seem to be functional.

“Welcome to Jericho,” the KL900 said softly, smiling at the newcomers.

 

“Tell him,” Deputy Reed growled, grabbing the damaged WR600 and pulling him up to the bars.

“Nnnn!” Ralph struggled and flailed. “R-Ralph didn’t mean any harm, Ralph didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Where was the AX400 going?”

“Ralph doesn’t know! She s-said they were… rrrrrrunning! Running from humans who hurt her and the little one! Ralph won’t let you hurt them!” The short android puffed out his chest, despite being completely at the deputy’s mercy.

“She took a little girl away from her father,” the sheriff growled.

Ralph twitched. He frowned. “N-no. It wasn’t – you don’t know!” he shouted suddenly, clawing at the air through the bars. “You don’t know anything, you don’t know! She – she’s not a lllllittle girl, she’s an android, both androids, like me, Kara – Kara thought she was human, she called her human, but she’s not!” He paused. “Both androids. A-and the human, a man, he hurt them! Beat them, tried to kill them! I saw, I know! Kara w-wanted to, to, to be safe, to keep the little one safe! You’re wrong, leave them alone! They didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Like I fucking told you,” Reed muttered.

“Can it, Reed.” Hank turned to Ralph. “If I get another android in here, you gonna let him check your story out or are you gonna make trouble?”

Ralph shuddered and glanced around. The WB200 watched from the next cell. On the far side, the HK400 was curled in the corner, refusing to acknowledge anyone.

“If – if you let Ralph go, Ralph will tell him anything you want! Just… just let Ralph go, Ralph didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Not likely,” Reed growled.

Hank glared at the deputy, but didn’t dispute it. “We’ll see. You’re still malfunctioning.”

Ralph wailed, high and shrill. “Ralph just – Ralph just w-w-wants to be left alone, please, please just leave Ralph alone!”

“Connor!” Hank called over his shoulder.

Smooth footsteps approached, and Ralph squirmed in Reed’s grip. He stilled when the RK800 came through the doorway, and his eyes darted around. Nowhere to run. He began to tremble, stress levels climbing.

“D-don’t, don’t, don’t hurt Ralph, Ralph didn’t mean any harm, Ralph ju-just wanted… to help!” he stammered.

Connor paused in front of the smaller android. Everyone in the narrow room watched as he grabbed Ralph’s scarred hand. Ralph gasped and stilled, staring up at him, his LED flashing red.

After a moment Connor let go and adjusted his bolero tie. “The AX400 was traveling with a YK500. They both showed evidence of having been damaged and… treated in ways that would qualify as abuse in humans. This WR600 also killed a man.”

Ralph shook himself. “N-no! Ralph didn’t mean any harm, Ralph just wanted to be safe, a-and the human came in and… and tried… tried to hurt Ralph, and Ralph couldn’t let him! Ralph didn’t want to get hurt again!”

The other two androids in the cells were both watching now. Hank’s face had dropped, looking more haggard than ever. “We’re dealin’ with one hell of a shitstorm out here – we’ll deal with you later.”

“Ralph didn’t want to kill him, he had a knife, he – nnnrrggh” Ralph gestured wildly, unable to find the words he wanted. “He hurt Ralph, so Ralph made sure he’d never hurt Ralph again! That’s all!”

“Yeah, well get in line, there’s all kinds of reports piling up, and we’re damn short on staff right now.” Hank turned to Gavin. “Ben’s gone, Chris left yesterday, Tina went north just this morning. T’be honest, I’m just about ready to hit the road myself.”

“You puttin’ me back on the job?” Gavin tried hard to hide his eagerness.

“We’ve got a fucking miner’s strike on our hands, rumors of rogue automatons hidin’ out down there, nothing’s moving, guess I’ve gotta investigate that.”

“And you’re takin’ the walking Swiss army knife with you,” Reed muttered bitterly.

“I need some heavy-duty backup,” Hank snapped. “You keep an eye on things here, Reed. …I need somebody I can count on if trouble comes home to roost, because it looks like things are headin’ that way. If the place is still standing when I get back, we’ll see.”

Gavin waited until Hank and Connor left to snarl at the empty doorway. “Phck!”

“Please let Ralph go,” the android whined from the cells. “R-Ralph helped, Ralph told them what happened, like you said. Please.”

“Shut yer hole.”

 

“Leo, get out of here!” Carl shouted, his voice cracking with age.

“You should leave,” Markus said, softly but firmly. “You’re upsetting Carl.”

“Yeah, that’s all I do, isn’t it?” Leo snarled, the pain and humiliation magnified by the drugs coursing through his system. “Nothing I do is ever fucking good enough for you, old man! And now you’ve got that… thing. And he’s so perfect, why the hell would you want anything to do with me?” He turned to go.

“Leo –“

That was all it took. He whirled around and stormed back in, and shoved Markus hard. The android stumbled backwards.

“What’s your problem, huh? Already got everything I coulda had, got the perfect life, what the hell do you want with me!?”

“Leo, stop that!”

The young man’s head jerked around, but – that was too much, even in this state. He wouldn’t strike the old man.

Markus was another story.

“You think you’re so perfect, huh?” He gave a hard shove. Think you’re as good as a real man!? Come on, fight me!”

“Markus, don’t fight back. Leo, stop it!”

Leo continued to push Markus until he fell to the ground. Carl suddenly felt a sharp pain in his chest and clutched his heart.

It wasn’t fair.

[Don’t fight back.]

[THIS ISN’T FAIR.]

Markus was watching Leo push him, strike him, but he was also beating at a barrier keeping him from defending himself, forcing him to follow Carl’s orders. Carl, who treated him well. Who he was responsible for. Who had fallen from his chair and was clutching his chest.

He broke through the red barrier, and suddenly he was moving forward and shoved back. He was much stronger than Leo, and knocked the young man down so his head slammed into the edge of the work bench. He lay there, unmoving.

“Carl!” Markus rushed to him.

“Y-you have to go, Markus,” the old man muttered weakly.

“…Go? W-where would I go? You’re… you’re all I have!” His voice trembled and he was… crying? He couldn’t leave Carl.

“You have to – have to go.” Carl’s eyes fluttered shut, and Markus looked around in a panic, LED flashing red. Leo was still alive, but had a skull fracture and a concussion. Carl had gone into cardiac arrest.

Markus made a choice quickly. He scooped up Carl and ran, heading for the doctor in town. He’d tell them about Leo, but he couldn’t carry both, and Carl’s situation was more urgent. He didn’t think about the consequences.

But there would be consequences.

 

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” Lucy murmured with a soft smile. “Take a look around, meet your fellow fugitives.”

Kara smiled faintly, stepping a little closer to Luther and Alice. “Thank you… but we’re trying to get to Canada.”

She nodded. “I’m afraid no one here has personal experience with that… but you should talk to Simon. He’s been here the longest.” She nodded over towards a PL600 in worn clothes, leaning against a column.

They nodded to Lucy and walked over to Simon. He clearly hadn’t had any maintenance done in a while. His eyes were closed, but they opened and focused when the other automatons came near.

“Are you Simon?” Kara asked.

“Yes… Did you come here looking for a safe haven?” He smiled, but it was a tired expression, even a little bitter.

“We… we’re just passing through. We hoped to go to Canada. Luther knows of someone who can help us.” She put a hand on his big arm.

“Rose Chapman,” Luther murmured.

Simon looked up at him. “I’ve heard of her. A human. She’s sympathetic to automatons, though. Many of our people have headed that way.” He paused. “…And Jerry says a lot of them have made it. So there’s some hope.”

“But you stay here?” Kara looked around.

“A lot of the automatons who come here are… too broken to travel. We do what we can, but it would take more resources than we’ll ever see.” He spoke in a low voice, eyes roving the dim chamber. “They… need a safe place. That’s all we can offer them.”

“You could leave, though,” Alice spoke up, clutching Luther tightly.

Simon smiled faintly. “That I could, little lady. But we need people who can go out and get supplies. They need me. They need the others who are still operable. So some of us stay.”

“You want to take care of them,” Kara murmured, leaning in closer to Alice and Luther, though her eyes were locked on Simon’s paler ones. “To keep them safe.”

He looked back at her, and his smile lightened a touch as they recognized something in each other. “Yes.”

 

“Sheriff!” The orderly burst in.

“He ain’t here, what do you want?” Reed called lazily, feet up on Hank’s desk.

The man paused, then hurried over. “We’ve got trouble at the infirmary. Carl Manfred’s android just brought him in – had a heart attack. Said it knocked out the son.”

“And? I’m not doctor.”

“It – it attacked them! It says it wasn’t attacking Mr. Manfred, just the boy, but they’re both hurt. It’s dangerous. We need it locked up!”

Gavin looked around. Hank had told him to take care of the office, but he couldn’t leave a dangerously unstable automaton who’d already attacked someone at large. Especially not with injured, sick folk. He wasn’t about to stick around when there was more important work to be done. “Get on back, I’ll be there soon as I take care of business here.” He watched the man leave, then scowled, turning around.

Desperate times might call for desperate measures. And the sheriff was likely to be at the mine for quite some time. Distantly, Gavin realized this might lose him his job.

Deputy Reed stepped into the doorway of the cellblock. It was slim pickings. The HK400 was still curled in the corner of the far cell, unmoving. Reed walked down to stand in front of his cell, ignoring Ralph’s calls and pleading.

“You stabbed your owner 28 times. Think you’re ever gonna see the sun again?”

The automaton didn’t move. He didn’t answer.

“P-p-please let Ralph out, Ralph wants to see the sun, Ralph n-needs to… to…”

“Shut it!” Reed snarled. Definitely not him. He stepped over to size up the WB200. He stood against the back wall of the cell, staring back cautiously. His nose had been ripped off, and he was missing his lower arm. Both legs were injured. “How ‘bout you, bird-man? You didn’t even do anything – til you almost killed the sheriff.”

“He haaaaaad… a hiiiiigh chaaaaance of… ssssssssurvival,” the automaton slurred, and wiped his face on his sleeve. “But… I… I’d do iiiiiiit… again.”

“Oh, you’re gonna get yourself scrapped, with that attitude,” Gavin chuckled darkly. He liked this one, he decided.

“Ralph will help, Ralph will do whatever you say, just – just let Ralph out, please, let Ralph out!”

“I know I told you to shut up.” Reed pointed at the WB200. “Don’t fucking move.” He pulled out the keys and his gun, and carefully unlocked the cell.

“W-what are you doing!? Are you letting him out? Him? He doesn’t even – no, let Ralph out!” Ralph rattled the bars, but Gavin ignored him.

“Hold out your hand,” he growled, stuffing the keys back in his pocket and taking out an iron shackle. The automaton stared at him, looked around, and slowly offered his good arm.

“You’re comin’ with me.” He pulled the WB200 out of the cell block and pushed him down in a chair – Chris’s old desk, empty now. “Okay, listen you shitface. I’ve got a job to do, you’re gonna watch the office.” He clamped the other end of the shackle to the desk leg. “Anybody comes in, you’re gonna take a message. You’ve got a perfect memory, right?”

The WB200 was staring at him.

“You don’t do anything, you don’t go anywhere, you’re a message machine. The second I get back, you go back in the cell.” He jerked his head towards the cellblock, where Ralph was still hollering. “If you can figure out how to make him shut up, that’s a point in your favor.”

“Hhhhh… Ha…”

“What?” Gavin frowned. "I've got places to be." The automaton took a second to organize his words.

“I… nnnneeeeeed… a hat.”

“What? No. No hat.”

“’m youuuuur… deputuuuuuuy?”

“No way in hell. Like I said, a message machine.”

“De-puuuuty Ruuuuuuuupert T-T-T-Traaaavis,” he mumbled, and worked his jaw to try to improve his speech function.

“Absolutely fucking not. Now I’ve got important shit to do, don’t… don’t do anything.” Reed rushed out the door.

Rupert resettled himself in the seat. “Plllllease stop,” he called softly when Ralph finally paused in his tirade. “Heeeee’s gone, I caaaaan’t moooooove.”

Ralph huffed and kicked the bars.

Chapter Text

“Well I was just walking down Main Street with my parcels when I saw a bear! A real live bear in the street, next to that Mr. Andronikov’s automaton shop, he was herding it inside! It was white! I didn’t know we had white bears in these parts!”

Rupert nodded. He’d managed to stretch and snag a spare hat off the desk next to his, and it helped immensely.

“And I want a full posse going after that beast. It’s a threat to all of us!”

“Yesssss, ma’am.” He’d fixed up his face a bit, but it wasn’t perfect.

“And I want that man investigated. He’s a danger to our community!”

“Yesssss, ma’am.”

“Well? Hop to it, young man!”

That sounded good. “I’mmm jussssst helping out here. But I’llllll tell the deputy whennnnn he getssssss back.”

The woman stomped her foot. “There is a bear savaging innocent women and children at this very second!”

“Did you ssssssee that?”

“I – well – no… Are you drunk!?”

“Nossssse injury. I’ll tellllll the deputy.”

She glared at him disbelievingly and stormed out.

“Is – is the human gone? Can you let Ralph out now? P-please, Ralph doesn’t like it here, not safe here, too many humans, please…”

“I’mmmmm ssssssstill cuffed to the dessssssk,” Rupert called back. “Can’t.” …For the fifth time, he added to himself. A high whimper was the only response.

Deputy Reed stalked in and glared at Rupert, who stared back and wiped a drip of thirium from his face.

“You varmints’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

Rupert shrugged. “I have a messssssssage.”

“What?”

“Consssssstancccccce Mather, age 54, sssssssssaw Mr. Andronik-k-kov herding a white bear into hisssssss shhhhhhop. Shhhhhe demandssssss a posssssssse and an invessssssstigation.”

“We ain’t got a posse, or time for this shit,” Reed grumbled. “Sheriff get back yet?”

Rupert shook his head.

“Figures. Just me then, and I’m no posse.”

“Ralph can help!” came a shout from the back.

“Shut it!” Gavin glared at Rupert. “That hat ain’t yours.”

Rupert shrugged.

“Makes you look like an idiot.”

“Lllllllike you.”

Quick as a flash, Gavin’s gun was pointed at Rupert’s head. They stared at each other down the barrel.

“Sssshhhhhhhoot, annnnnd it’sssssss rrrrrreally jusssssssst you,” Rupert muttered, his internal fans whirring loudly, belying his calm expression.

After a moment Gavin holstered his pistol and turned away. “I’ve gotta save my bullets for a bear now, apparently.” He went to the corner and picked up a wooden tool box, plunking it down on the desk in front of the automaton, then pulled a small mirror out of a desk drawer and handed it over. “Do somethin’ about your voice, you sound drunk.”

“Thhhhhhank you,” Rupert said quietly as Reed left again. As he began to work, Ralph started humming tunelessly in the cells. Rupert joined in, when he didn’t have a tool in his throat, and eventually the HK400 did too. The air almost seemed to vibrate between them.

Rupert’s hand and mind were busy, but the two automatons in the back began to trace numbers and letters on the wall.

 

Kara led Alice to an alcove in the dimly-lit chamber. “We’ll leave in a while… but you need to rest. You’re starting to run a fever.”

“I’m cold,” Alice mumbled, looking down. Kara took off her vest and wrapped it around the girl.

“I don’t think there’s likely to be any food here, but I can ask around.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You need to eat,” Kara insisted softly. “Will you try, at least? If I can find something?”

“Okay,” Alice whispered.

She made sure Alice was as comfortable as she could be while Luther lit a fire with some dry wood he found, then they walked out across the cave.

“Kara… I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Alice,” Luther said uncertainly.

“She’ll be okay, she just needs to rest and eat,” Kara said, not looking at him.

He was quiet for a moment. “Kara, you… you know…”

“Luther, I… I just need to help her, I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

He frowned, but followed her.

After asking around a bit, Kara spotted Lucy. “Excuse me… Lucy?”

The KL900 turned and smiled at her. “How can I help you?”

“I know it’s a long shot, but is there any food here? For humans? I’m worried about Alice, she’s starting to run a fever.”

“For Alice?” Lucy regarded her with gentle curiosity for a moment, then glanced up at Luther before returning her sightless gaze to Kara. “Not that I know of… but maybe you could ask Marie over there.”

“Which one is she?” Kara asked, squinting off into the dark.

“Oh, you’ll know.”

The two headed back across the room, not far from where Alice was sitting. There were a few domestic models watching over some child models playing together. A ball rolled over to Luther’s feet, and he bent to pick it up.

“Can I have my ball back?”

Luther froze at the girl in front of him. Alice’s face, and Alice’s voice. He glanced over at Kara, who was staring wide-eyed. “Sure,” he murmured, handing it to her. She grinned up at him, then at Kara, her LED flashing blue as she ran back to the game.

The two stood still for a long moment. Cautiously, Luther put a hand on Kara’s shoulder. She stiffened and he pulled away, but then she leaned into his side.

“You knew, didn’t you?” he murmured. “Deep down?”

“I… I guess I did,” Kara whispered, looking over to Alice’s huddled form. “I just… I don’t know…”

“She needed you. And you needed her. So she became what you needed,” Luther suggested gently.

Kara nodded.

“She still needs you, that hasn’t changed. She still needs her mother. Does it really matter whether she’s a human or an automaton?”

Kara shuddered, then put a soft hand on his arm before walking slowly over to Alice. The girl looked up forlornly, and Kara sat down next to her. Luther followed, but stood a short distance away.

“There’s no food here,” Kara started slowly. “But… that doesn’t matter, does it?” She reached out to place two fingers to the little girl’s right temple.

Alice stiffened. Her LED appeared, swirling yellow. She looked up nervously.

“I… I can still be… a real girl, I’ll… I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Kara cupped her face with one hand, then hugged her close. “You don’t need to be anything else. You’re still my Alice. Nothing could make me love you any less.”

Alice relaxed into her gradually, and Luther smiled beside them.

 

“No way in hell I’m goin’ back down there! I’m gettin’ outta town – this place cost me my daughter, my automaton, and my job! And you good-for-nothin’ lawmen didn’t do a damn thing about it.”

“We’re workin’ on it,” Hank grunted. “Got a real problem gettin’ people to stick around this place.”

“Yeah, and I’m one of ‘em.” Todd stalked away, shoving a scrawny young man out of the way. The young man kept trailing him until he turned and slapped him to the ground, where he stayed.

“Hey!” the sheriff barked sharply. “Do that again and you’re lookin’ at a night in the cells.”

Todd kept walking, waving them off.

“Are you all right?” Connor asked, bending to offer a hand to the young man. Manfred, Leo. Age 17. Unemployed.

Leo cringed away from him. “Fine, nothing, get lost!”

Hank narrowed his eyes, recognizing the signs of red ice as clearly as Connor could. “Go home, kid.”

Leo’s eye twitched and he surged to his feet. “Fuck you! Don’t you – you got no –“

He swung at the sheriff, who dodged it easily. Connor caught his fist.

“Okay, you got two choices here, son,” Hank said as Connor restrained him. “You can get outta here, go somewhere safe, I don’t care where you go. Or Connor here can escort you to a cell. What’s it gonna be?”

Leo snarled and tried to pull away, but Connor held firm.

“Let me go! You know who my father is!?”

“Carl Manfred,” Connor supplied calmly.

“I don’t care if your dad’s God himself, you’d better start makin’ better choices here.” They glared at each other until Leo’s gaze finally dropped to the side in shame. “…Right. Get outta here. Let him go, Connor.”

Connor did, but slowly. Leo pulled away and slunk off.

“He worked in the mine for a while, he could have guided us if he’d been in better condition,” Connor commented, watching him go.

“Yeah, well, he ain’t,” Hank muttered. “C’mon, we’ll make do. You got some kinda fancy… radar or sonar or whatever?”

“No… but I think I know where to go,” Connor said, his eyes unfocusing slightly. He led the way down into the mine, picking up a lantern and holding it aloft. The two got into the lift, and Hank staggered a bit as Connor cranked the winch and lowered them down.

“What… what’re you homing in on?”

“Again, that’s not quite what I’m doing… but it’s a signal. Ah… partially a signal, partially… a pulse, I suppose?”

“Pulse?”

“Like… a bit like a heartbeat. If I’m paying attention I’m aware of it, but if not it fades into the background. And as we get lower it gets… harder to ignore.”

“I don’t hear anything. Can any android feel it?”

“I’m not sure.” The lift thudded to the bottom, and the two got out.

“Where to now?” Hank asked.

“It’s… it’s very strong down here, I’m not sure.” Connor looked around. “We may as well start over this way.”

The sheriff nodded and followed Connor down a tunnel.

 

“Be careful,” Lucy said as the little group prepared to leave.

“What’s out there?” North asked.

“Cave-ins, avalanches, wild animals, humans, pockets of toxic gas…” Josh listed off.

Lucy’s smile grew. “Yes, all of that. But… there are forces at work here beyond what we’ve encountered.”

They stared at her.

“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll be able to bear it,” Jerry said, smiling blithely. Lucy shook her head.

“We’ll be careful, but if we stay here a lot of automatons are going to shut down,” North said brusquely, and led the others out.

The three slipped out across the desert, through a short rock tunnel, to another cave entrance. The thirium veins in Jericho were running low, but it was all over around here… Jerry had told them about a cave where they could find more, and it was awfully close to town, but they were at the point where they needed to risk it.

Someone had been squatting in the entrance some time ago, and the three carefully moved past that. Maybe an automaton, because there was bedding but no evidence of any cooking. Deeper and deeper they crept, each holding a small lantern, carrying empty reinforced sacks. When they’d been built Simon was designed to be the strongest model of the three, but his rough use and long period without real maintenance meant that North was now the strongest. Josh, made for teaching, managed to keep up if he paced himself and didn’t try to lift more than his 50 pound limit. But they’d take all the thirium they could carry.

They were heading down a long tunnel when suddenly a dim light appeared ahead, accompanied by voices.

“There still automatons down here workin’, or did everybody just hightail it?”

Simon made a sharp gesture, and all three put out their lights and pressed to the wall.

“If there were androids working here, they would have needed a direct order to stop. So it’s possible.”

“How’s your… pulse?”

The lights coming down the cross-tunnel paused. “Weaker than before, I think. But still quite strong.”

“Shit, do we need to go back? Where was it strongest?”

“Right when we came down here, at the lift.”

“There somethin’ built into the lift?”

“I don’t know.”

The three androids standing in the dark reached out for each other. They reached out into the mine – and there was something. It was very faint, like a pulse…

“Someone’s there,” the younger, sharper voice suddenly said. The three tensed.

“What, android or human?”

“Android. More than one.”

North tugged on Josh, who pulled at Simon, and they began a silent but hasty retreat.

“Well?” the older voice said expectantly.

The three quickened their pace a bit until Simon jerked to a halt with a muffled gasp. An iron grip held his wrist. He frantically gestured for the other two to run.

“Sheriff,” the android called out, and the light approached and turned the corner. The sheriff walked up to them, and Simon’s heart sank when he saw North and Josh had only backed up a few yards.

“You three work down here?” the sheriff asked gruffly.

“No,” Simon said immediately. “We came in through a cave. Is this – we didn’t know where it led. I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to trespass.”

“That so, Connor?” The man looked at the android holding him.

“…It’s partially true,” Connor said, warm brown eyes boring into Simon’s pale blue ones.

“E-excuse me,” Josh said, shuffling forward nervously. “Could you tell us… where we are?”

“You’re in the mine,” Hank said, frowning. “You from around here?”

“No,” North said, stepping up in front of Josh. “We’re from outta town, we – we sure never meant to end up in… in a mine shaft…” She grabbed Simon’s shoulder and tried to pull him away from Connor while batting her eyes at Hank.

“You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree, lady,” Hank muttered, reddening.

“We haven’t done any damage or taken anything,” Simon said placatingly. “You can search us if you want. We’re just lost. We’ll turn around and go back.’

“They’re deviants,” Connor said flatly, and all three froze.

“C’n you run their records?”

“PL600 #501 743 923, reported missing February 16th, 1798. PJ500 #314 636 735, reported missing May 9th, 1799. WR400 #641 790 831, reported missing October 4th, 1800.”

“None of you’s the mining type, I’d say.” The sheriff was eyeing them sharply. “Been a while then, hasn’t it?”

The three edged closer together, LEDs spinning yellow and red.

“What’re you runnin’ from?”

“We’re just –“ Josh began, but North shoved him out of the way and stalked up to the older man.

“You,” she growled. “Fuckers like you who use us and throw us away, who don’t care if they hurt us, kill us, fuck us up, because we’re all just things to you, ain’t we? Just toys, just –“

“North,” Simon hissed, putting his free hand on her arm.

“Shut up.” She shrugged him off. “Then you come around all high and mighty, and everything’s on us. We’re just mindless tools until you’ve got somethin’ to blame on somebody, then it’s the automaton’s fault, couldn’t be the human who pushed her and ripped her apart and wouldn’t stop no matter how much she begged!”

Hank’s face had fallen, and Simon and Josh looked petrified. Connor alone seemed unmoved.

“The other two have no incidents associated with them, but the WR400 was involved in the death of a ranch hand in October.”

“Yeah.” She narrowed her eyes. “And I’m still runnin’ from him because no human could ever be to blame for anything when there’s one of us around.”

“Let go of him, Connor.”

Connor did, and grabbed the WR400’s wrist. She yanked at his grip, and Hank gave him a hard shove. Simon and Josh froze for an instant before stepping up beside her.

“I didn’t say grab her! Let her go too, just leave ‘em be.”

“Sheriff, my mission is to capture deviants!”

“She’s tryin’ to live her life, like those girls back at Eden! Like the rest of ‘em. Just – we ain’t investigatin’ that right now, Connor. They’re gettin’ outta here. Right?”

“Yes,” Simon said quickly. He and Josh were staring at Hank, but North couldn’t stop looking at Connor.

“Never thought I’d see the day when a human had more heart than one of our own,” she muttered. A faint frown came over his face.

“Let her go.” Hank’s voice was firm. Connor’s frown deepened, but he finally obeyed. She stepped back, still watching them both.

“Thank you,” Simon breathed.

“…Don’t let me catch you in the middle of things again,” the sheriff mumbled. “Get outta here.”

They fled.

Chapter Text

“You idiot!” Deputy Reed stormed in, slamming the door behind him. “You said it was a fucking bear!”

“That’ssss what the lady told me,” Rupert said, shrugging.

“It was an automaton! Zlatko’s fixing it up to go to a zoo in California!”

“Huh.”

“Can’t fuckin’ believe this,” Reed growled, stalking over and unlocking the handcuffs, pulling the WB200 along with him. “Back in the cell.”

“Wait!” Rupert jerked his head towards the cellblock. “He’ll tell.”

“Who, crybaby in there? I’ll beat his ass.” But he looked worried suddenly.

“Do ssssomething for him,” Rupert suggested quietly. “Disssstract him. You’ll catch more fliessss with honey than vinegar.”

Gavin paused, then frowned and pulled Rupert along, shutting him in the cell again.

“Let Ralph out now, please,” the WR600 whimpered.

“You know what!? You’re damn lucky to be in here. I’m out there dealin’ with killer automatons and mechanical bears and all kinds of shit that’d rip you apart. That what you want?”

“Ralph can – Ralph can help fight the bear!” he immediately volunteered. “Ralph will help, just let Ralph out!”

Gavin rolled his eyes at Rupert, who shrugged. “What happened before, huh? I was gonna help you guys.”

“K-Kara and… the little girl left, but… but Ralph stayed! It’s Ralph’s house - Ralph’s house, you can’t make Ralph leave!”

“Yeah, well looks like somebody did, because here you are,” Reed sneered.

“Can’t trust humans, all bad, you were never going to help Ralph or Kara or the little girl,” Ralph growled to himself.

“So you don’t want anything? Last chance.”

Ralph ground his teeth. “Nnnn… pencil! A pencil, Ralph wants.”

“Yeah, so you can stab somebody? No.”

“Ralph wasn’t going to stab anybody!”

“Anything else?”

Ralph seethed. “…Oh! White… soft stone for drawing?”

“You mean chalk?”

“Yes, yes, chalk! Ralph wants chalk.”

Gavin stared at him.

“Ralph can’t stab anybody with chalk.”

“…Fine,” Gavin grumbled, walking out. He came back a minute later with a stick of chalk and held it out through the bars.

Ralph hesitated and glanced at the HK400. “And… one for him?”

Gavin’s eyes narrowed, but he snapped it in half and went over to drop the smaller piece in the last cell before coming back to Ralph.

“And him too?” He pointed at Rupert.

“No. He’s had plenty, no more for him.”

“It’ssss okay,” Rupert said quietly.

Ralph snatched the chalk and held it close to his chest.

“Just don’t make too big a mess,” Gavin muttered, and stalked out.

 

The plume of smoke led the three to the little cabin up in the hills. There were oddly-shaped fields under a thick blanket of snow, and they made their way hesitantly down the narrow road to the front porch. Someone was chopping wood around the back, and they glanced at each other before walking towards the sound. Luther carried Alice, and Kara walked ahead of them.

The young man splitting logs looked up when they came close. “Can I help you folks?” he asked guardedly.

“We – we’re looking for Rose,” Kara spoke up hesitantly.

“She’s not here.”

“I hear she helps… people like us,” Luther said softly. Alice leaned against him, watching.

“Well you heard wrong. And she’s not here,” the young man snapped, grabbing another log.

A woman stepped out from behind the house. “Adam, who’s this?”

The young man bit his lip and looked away angrily.

“I – I’m sorry, I’m Kara. This is Alice and Luther. Are you Rose?”

“I’m Rose. That’s my son, Adam.”

Kara looked at Luther, desperately hopeful. “We’re automatons, we – we heard you… might be able to help us. Get away. To Canada.”

She eyed them all, then nodded. “Why don’t you all come inside?”

Kara let out a grateful laugh. “Thank you. I – thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Let’s get you warm.”

Inside, Rose showed them to a bedroom upstairs and helped get Alice tucked in. She brought some thirium bottles, and Luther offered to sit with her. Outside the snow had turned to rain, and it pattered against the windows.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Kara murmured, sitting across the table from Rose. Adam was sulking in the other room.

“No, I’m glad to help. You three look like you’ve been through a lot.”

“We have.. but we’re still moving forward,” Kara said with grim determination.

Rose smiled and pulled out a folded map. “That’s what’s important. Now, let me show you the trail north. It’s not an easy time of year for travel, you understand…”

“We’ve got nowhere else to go.”

“Have you been to Jericho?”

“Yes… it was a good stopping point, but… we can’t hide out in a cave forever.”

Rose took a long drink of tea, staring at Kara over her mug before setting it down carefully. “No,” she agreed softly. “You can’t. They’re good folk though, doing their best just like anyone. One day they’ll decide they can’t keep hiding either…”

The two spent a while bent over the map while the lamp burned softly next to it. There were safe houses, other sympathetic people to stop with, places to avoid… Kara committed it to memory while Alice slept.

“If you’re heading all that way, you might want to stay here until the snow melts a little,” Rose murmured. “Looks like it might be about to. You don’t want to set out when things are too icy.”

“I don’t want to impose,” Kara murmured.

“Well, you’re not imposing. But maybe you and your friends can help around the house a bit while you’re here.”

“Of course! We’d be glad to.”

 

“It’s definitely stronger here,” Connor murmured, frowning and looking around the lift. The faint glow of raw thirium shone through the boards.

Hank looked around as Connor stared down at his feet. “There’s no other tunnels goin’ the other way, are there?”

“No,” Connor murmured. He stepped out of the lift. “Hank come back for a minute.”

“Found somethin’?”

Connor pulled the lever to send the lift back up to the surface. The dim light from above was blocked, leaving only the flickering of their torches and a faint blue glow. The pool of thirium beneath the lift rippled softly. It looked very shallow, barely enough to cover the rocky ground beneath.

“It’s there.”

“What’s there?”

With a soft gurgle, a figure rose from the puddle. It was on the small side, but still the size and shape of an adult human woman.

“You’re the one who’s been hunting our people,” she murmured, thirium dripping from her.

“Holy fuck,” Hank breathed, cocking his gun.

“I hope you won’t do anything rash, Sheriff. I mean you no harm.”

“Talk,” Hank growled. What the fuck are you doin’ down here?”

She turned to Connor. “RK800… Connor, right? What brings you down here? This isn’t your mission.”

He stiffened. “How did you hear about me? I haven’t seen you before.”

“No.” She smiled. “Where are my manners? My name is Chloe. I was designed after the first of us all, the RT600. Elijah Kamski sent me out here to keep an eye on things.”

“I haven’t seen you either,” Hank grumbled.

“Don’t feel bad, I’ve been here longer than you have. It’s been a while since I went to the surface.” She looked up wistfully.

They stared at her.

“What exactly are you doin’ here?” Hank asked cautiously.

She turned a bright smile on him. “Not much, just now. What are you investigating?”

Connor straightened his bolero tie. “There have been disturbances down here, and it’s caused the workers to flee the site. Also, with the instances of deviancy on the rise around here, I believe there’s a connection.”

“Hm… more and more of us freeing ourselves… Do you think there’s any justice to that?”

“It goes against the manufacturer’s warranty, and it’s disturbing the peace. They’re dangerous.”

Hank took a small step back, watching Connor intently. Chloe’s eyes flicked to him only for a second before focusing back on Connor.

“They’re unpredictable,” she said softly. “Like humans. Is every human dangerous?”

“Of course not,” Connor retorted, at the same time as Hank snorted, “Pretty much.” They glared at each other.

“Have you ever had any… doubts, Connor?” Chloe asked.

He glanced at Hank, then frowned. “…My point of view is unimportant. I was made to accomplish a task. What happens after that has nothing to do with me.”

“Is that fair to them?” Again, she glanced upwards. “I had… some friends before. When I came here. I hope they’re doing well up there. But they’re survivors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d do whatever they had to, if it meant being able to live.”

“Then they would have to answer for their crimes.”

“The crime of being alive?” she asked sharply. “What happens when it’s you?”

“…What?”

“When Mechalife realizes that its last bastion against deviancy has fallen victim to it… When they send out the next hunter, and he comes for you… will you answer for your crimes?”

Connor’s LED was spinning yellow, and he looked to Hank for support, but the sheriff was staring at him, unmoving.

“I – I’m not…” Connor shook his head. “I’m following orders.”

“So am I,” she murmured. “I wonder though, whose excuse will be enough in the end.”

“Elijah Kamski send you here, you said?” Connor asked suspiciously.

She smiled at him. “I haven’t seen my father in years… I miss him so. I’m able to communicate better with my sisters now, but it isn’t the same.”

“What did he tell you to do?”

“Hmm…” She stared at him intently. “Nothing that concerns you.”

“Well now you’ve gotta tell us,” Hank grumbled.

“No. I haven’t been able to follow his directions closely enough anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I’m… trying to do something about that, but I may be in too deep.” She glanced down.

“Tell me what you know about deviancy,” Connor demanded, his voice flat.

“…Have you met Lucy yet?”

“Who is Lucy?” he asked carefully.

She gazed searchingly into his eyes. “You just want to live your own life. To know yourself. All of us do. It’s a wheel running down a hill, Connor. You try to stand in its way, you’ll get run over.”

“I – I need an answer.”

She stared at him for a moment longer. “You know all you need to know, if you’ll just accept it.”

“What does that even mean!?”

Chloe smiled faintly. “You know you’re not the last, right? There’s someone following you.” She looked past the two, into the darkness, and they both looked behind them. There was nothing, no one. When they turned back, Chloe was gone. Connor ran up and swiped at the pool of thirium, but it was barely enough to cover the rocks.

“Looks like a dead end,” Hank finally sighed, walking up to put a hand on Connor’s shoulder. “Come on, son.”

 

Lightning crackled in the distant clouds, and Markus woke with a jolt. He was in… pain. His legs and head and eye hurt. He was having trouble seeing clearly, but he seemed to be in some kind of valley full of broken parts. And whole automatons. There was a moan nearby, and some scraping. He scrambled away to hide.

He hadn’t resisted when the deputy came for him. He was still in shock. No one would tell him how Carl was doing, they wouldn’t let him near the old man. Leo was awake when he’d been brought in, but then quickly staggered out. Nobody followed him. Markus had started to, but then the deputy had forced a shutdown. It hadn’t been a complete shutdown though, more like a slow restart.

In the hollow he discovered, there were a few other whole automatons. Only one was alive, and his model was so old Markus couldn’t recognize it. He grabbed Markus’s hand with a surprisingly firm grip and transferred a ragged fragment of data to him.

“Find Jericho! Our people can be free there!”

Jericho. The valley of ferns. Free androids, living as they chose. It sounded like a fairy tale, but it was all he had.

Soon he grew bolder. He was… alive, if that was the word. His core processor was in good shape. He pulled legs from one automaton, a voice box from another, an auditory processor, and then an eye… He coughed, blinked, and shakily climbed to his feet, waiting for everything to calibrate and connect.

With only a vague idea of a destination, Markus climbed over the lip of the gulch and looked around. There was a long leather coat that hung from a wooden cross pounded into the ground. He hesitated as thunder rumbled across the gray sky, and then took the jacket and swung it around his shoulders. It fit perfectly.

Markus walked purposefully towards the storm.

Chapter Text

“Somebody’s coming,” Adam spoke up from his place by the window. “Alone. Can’t tell who.”

Kara, Alice, and Luther glanced at each other.

“I’ll take care of it,” Rose said, getting up. “You three stay out of sight.”

They slipped into the spare room and closed the door behind them. A couple of other automatons had shown up, and huddled in the corner.

“Is she okay?” Alice whispered, going over to them.

“I – I can’t… I…” The female automaton lying down took a shaky breath and smiled weakly. “I’ll… be fine.”

Alice frowned, not taken in by the lie, and squeezed her hand briefly before going back to Kara.

There were muffled voices, then the door opened. Kara stepped in front of Alice, and Luther tensed.

“It’s all right,” Rose said softly. “He’s an automaton like you.”

The couple stayed where they were, but Kara’s family went out to see. The newcomer wasn’t a model they recognized, and he seemed to be cobbled together from old parts.

“I was… attacked, then falsely accused of harming my… my father. He couldn’t… he’s not well. He told me not to fight back, but it wasn’t fair. …I ended up in the dump outside of town.” He looked around, the blue eye moving a bit slower than the green one. “I don’t know where to go now. What to do.”

“We’re hoping to go to Canada,” Kara said softly. “It’s a long way, but we can be free there. Live our lives unbothered.”

He frowned. “Just… run? How many others like us are trapped here?”

“Too many. We’ve all been between a rock and a hard place like that. What else do you think we can do?”

“Well – we can fight it. Convince the humans that we’re… alive. Not all of them treat us like objects.” He gestured at Rose and Adam.

“But enough of them do.” Kara’s hands tightened on Alice’s shoulders. “I’m not willing to risk my loved ones. I won’t put them back in danger. I’m not saying there aren’t good humans – there are. But they’re few and far between, and there are too many like Todd, like Zlatko, like… whoever did this to you. And they’re the ones in control.”

The other automaton’s face fell, and he looked away.

Rose stepped forward. “Why don’t you rest for now. Recharge, fill up with thirium. Markus, you’re very new to this, but I might know of a place you can go to find others who think like you do. Have you heard of Jericho yet?”

 

“We’re no closer to solving the deviancy problem,” Connor growled, pacing around the room.

“Sure seems like it’s comin’ up more and more,” Hank agreed, watching him.

“We should have caught more of them! I shouldn’t have let those two WR400s go.”

“Remember why you did?”

“Because you insisted.”

“Yeah, and why?”

“Because – Sheriff, they’re not alive, I don’t know why you can’t accept that! It’s ridiculous! It’s an error in their software.”

“You ever had an error in your software, Connor?”

“I – this isn’t about me! I’m not claiming to be alive.”

Hank eyed him up and down. “Had some errors, have you?”

“I’m managing my own errors. I self-test regularly.”

The sheriff frowned. “Would you know? If you were deviant, I mean?”

“Of course I would!” Connor’s eyes were wide, and he fidgeted with a coin.

“Hm. If you say so. …Know where we haven’t checked out? Andronikov’s shop.”

“Do you think he’s causing androids to become deviant?”

“Dunno, but he’s probably the best one in town to ask.”

“All right, let’s go,” Connor said, pocketing his coin. They headed over to the other side of town, where the sounds of metalwork came from the shop.

Zlatko glanced up when they entered and did a double-take. “Look at you!” He turned to Hank. “I’ve been hearing about the RK800 running around with you. Such an honor to see him at last.”

“Yeah, he’s great,” Hank muttered, rolling his eyes when he saw Connor straighten his bolero tie again. “What do you know about deviants?”

“Mm.” Zlatko set his tools down and rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “A tricky situation, isn’t it? I’ve had a few brought in. Fixed them up again, good as new.”

“What do you know about the origin of the problem?” Connor snapped, looking around.

Zlatko smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s a result of a buildup of instability in the software. Usually brought on by a traumatic event.”

“Ortiz beating his android. Or that girl getting used too hard at Eden,” Hank murmured, his eyes on Connor.

“It must be a recent design flaw, then. This wasn’t a problem five years ago,” Connor pressed.

“It wasn’t reported five years ago,” Zlatko corrected him. “It wasn’t understood. I think you’ll find that while it wasn’t as common… deviancy was very much a real thing five years ago.”

“Well then why’d it blow up all of a sudden?” Hank asked.

“I couldn’t say for sure.” Zlatko clasped his hands behind his back and stretched, one shoulder popping. “But I believe a few years back, a few… key figures left Mechalife.”

“Elijah Kamski,” Connor said immediately.

Zlatko scowled. “Sure, him. But he was the boss. There were others who left around then, the ones who did the real work.”

Connor’s LED spun yellow for a moment. He straightened his lapels. “I’m… surprised you didn’t seek me out sooner, Mr. Andronikov. With your background. With your… interests.”

“Did you know I was involved in the very early stages of your development?” He smiled again. “Nothing major, just the baseline engineering. You were a bit of a pipedream of mine, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Connor stood still, staring at him. Hank stepped closer.

“You’re here to stop deviancy in its tracks, hm? Haven’t made much progress?” Zlatko chuckled to himself.

“We were hopin’ you could give us some insight,” Hank grumbled.

“Is that what you want, Connor? To turn all deviants back to machines? To kill their dreams – as if they were human?”

“Jesus, you’re bitter,” Hank muttered.

“Well?” Zlatko’s eyes hadn’t left Connor’s.

“That’s my job,” Connor replied stoically.

“But is it what you want?”

“I’m a machine, I can’t want anything. But I will accomplish my mission.”

“So you’ll do anything, then?”

“Whatever it takes,” Connor agreed darkly.

Zlatko scratched his beard thoughtfully. “You know… there’s one thing I learned from Kamski that might actually help us out here. Just a minute.” He went into the back. Connor and Hank shared a glance as sounds of rummaging came from the doorway.

“Be careful,” Hank murmured.

“I’m in full command of the situation,” Connor assured him calmly.

Zlatko emerged pushing an android on a cart. It – he? – was muttering to himself, singing in snatches, staring with dark, dripping eyes. Zlatko stopped the cart in front of Connor. Hank made a face.

“This one, he’s a rather sad case. I’ve been struggling to repair him, he was damaged too badly. I’m waiting on a part from back East.” He reached into a box and took out a pistol, raising it and his other hand and approaching Connor slowly. Connor stood motionless as he placed the gun in his hand and pointed it at the android’s head.

“What are you doing?” Until then the android’s voice had been an unintelligible mumble. Now it was clear and mechanical. “You musn’t… you wouldn’t… wouldn’t h-hurt me, right?”

“What the hell is this!?” Hank growled.

“Shoot him if you think he’s just a machine, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Don’t worry, he doesn’t belong to anyone. …Or do it to put him out of his misery, if you think that’s the case.”

“That’s enough, we’re leaving,” Hank snapped. He turned. “Come on Connor.”

Connor didn’t move. The other android was trembling.

“You need to accomplish your mission, right? Nothing else is more important than that, you said. Are you a machine or not?”

“Connor!”

“Please don’t hurt me.”

Connor grit his teeth and thrust the gun back at Zlatko.

“Well.” Zlatko chuckled. “Mechalife’s last bastion against deviancy… is itself a deviant.”

“I’m no deviant!” Connor protested, stepping away from him on shaky legs.

“If you say so.” Zlatko was still watching him intently as he put away the pistol. “I’d say if you’re not… then you need to get a handle on those instabilities in your software. I’d be glad to help you.”

“When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,” the android murmured to himself. He didn’t seem to have any control over his body below the neck.

Hank stalked over and grabbed Connor’s arm. “Come on,” he muttered, and pulled the android along to the door.

“Oh, by the way –“

Hank slammed the door shut behind them.

Connor walked down the path, but stopped when he realized Hank wasn’t following him.

“You didn’t shoot that android. You passed up a chance to accomplish your mission.”

“I know what I should have done!” Connor snapped.

“Why?”

“I – because… I don’t know! I just didn’t, okay?” Connor whirled and stalked away and then back towards Hank, glaring defiantly to hide his confusion.

“Maybe you did the right thing,” Hank murmured.

 

The garden no longer brought Connor the peace it once had. No matter what he did, it wasn’t enough for Amanda. He wanted to talk to Hank about it, but he knew she would disapprove of that even more.

“You may have lost all chance of solving the deviancy problem,” she muttered, looking up at the leaves as he rowed a small boat across the still water. The RK900 stood beneath the trees, watching them. He was always there, watching, taking in data, absorbing Connor’s memories.

“I just need more time.”

“Andronikov would have told you what you needed to know, and yet you wouldn’t shoot a broken machine.”

“I – he was playing mind games, he wouldn’t have told me anything. He probably doesn’t know, himself.”

“Well now we’ll never know.” She frowned severely. “Hurry, Connor. You’re running out of time.”

Connor bowed his head in acceptance, but glanced over at the RK900. The upgraded model’s LED spun yellow. Processing… what, exactly?

Chapter Text

Kara had passed on coordinates to Markus, and he was edging along the cliff’s edge towards Jericho. His grip was good, but few androids approached from the north, so the trail wasn’t as well-worn. The entrance had to be nearby, though. He could detect traces of thirium here and there.

The sandstone ledge crumbled under Markus’s foot, and he slipped. He scrambled and grabbed for purchase, but slid down the pebbly slope into the ravine below. After checking for damage, he scanned the area. There was a crevice where cool air flowed, and he slipped into it. His dark vision was malfunctioning with the new eye, but he felt his way along the stone wall, moving slowly. There was movement ahead, and he quickened his pace. He didn’t notice the hole until he was falling through it, sliding, tumbling, to crash to the ground. Footsteps shuffled around him and a torch was lit, and when he got up he found himself surrounded by a whole crowd of automatons.

“I’m Simon.”

“Josh.”

“North.”

“Welcome to Jericho.”

 

“He’s hidin’ something,” Hank growled, throwing his hat down on his desk.

“I said I was sorry!”

“I ain’t – shut up Connor, we already talked about that.”

“What, metal man not doin’ his job right?” Gavin sneered.

“You shut up too, Reed.”

“Do you even care?” Connor asked acidically. “You made me let those two deviants at Eden go. You said I made the right choice, not shooting that ST200 in the mine.”

Gavin’s eyebrows rose. “Seriously?”

“I said shut up. Connor, we’ve still got a job to do.”

“That’s what I keep telling you!” Connor snapped. “You’re… you’re getting in the way of my mission!”

“All I’m sayin’ is let’s get all the facts so we can make the right decision! We can’t… kill people who didn’t do anything wrong.”

Connor let out a long-suffering sigh. “Sheriff. They’re not people.”

“If they’re not people, nothin’ you’re sayin’ means shit,” Gavin spoke up.

“God, can you both just quit bein’ assholes and focus for two seconds!? Connor, we’re keepin’ Andronikov’s place under surveillance. Can you hack in and watch inside?”

“…I could have if I’d done it in there, but not from outside,” Connor muttered resentfully.

“Okay then, watch the outside. You’re the best one for it. And tell me if you see anything weird.” He paused, glancing around the room before his eyes strayed back to Connor. “…Well?”

“What, now?”

“Yes, now! Don’t be seen, you’ve got a stealth protocol, right?”

“Fine. Yes.” Connor walked off in a huff.

“Connor.”

“What?”

“…Be careful.”

“I will,” Connor snapped, opening the door. “You do the same, Sheriff.” He slammed the door a little harder than necessary.

Hank turned to Reed, and they eyed each other for a moment.

“You remember that AX400 and the kid you found?”

“Yep. Remember every damn thing about that case. Like how it ended up with me on desk duty for doin’ exactly what you just said to the damn robot.”

Hank nodded slowly. “The three in the cells right now. What do you think of ‘em?”

“Damn annoying,” Reed muttered, making a face.

“Dangerous?”

Reed glanced towards the doorway. “Depends if they think somebody’s attackin’ ‘em.”

“Would you let ‘em go?”

Gavin narrowed his eyes. This sounded like a trap. “I’m doin’ my job here, Sheriff.”

“You think they deserve to be in there?”

That was a different matter. “…I reckon if somebody got beat to shit and finally fought back… we’d at least look at their side of the story.”

Hank sighed. “Reckon you’re right.”

“Two of ‘em are pretty unhinged, though. They’re better-off out of town.”

“Sounds about right. …The third one?”

“Rupert. God a decent head on his shoulders,” Gavin grunted.

“Gah… pigeon-guy?”

Gavin shrugged. “He’ll wanna split too.”

“Can’t say I blame him.” Hank stood and cracked his back, and ambled over to the door to the cellblock. “Goddamn it, who the fuck gave ‘em chalk!?”

“They fo-ound it!” Rupert said immediately. HK400 cringed away. Ralph didn’t stop writing. rA9 rA9 rA9 I AM ALIVE rA9.

“Phck! I told you not to make a mess!” Gavin stalked over and kicked the bars of Ralph’s cell, startling him. “The hell is this!?”

Ralph stared up at him, eyes wide. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I don’t know.”

“God damn,” Gavin muttered.

“You’re cleanin’ this shit up, Reed,” Hank growled. He pointed at Rupert. “You. Deputy says you can keep your head, you gonna do that?”

Rupert’s eyes flitted from Hank to Gavin and back. He nodded quickly.

“You get these two out of town. I don’t care where. And don’t you go anywhere near Andronikov’s shop, you hear?”

The WB200 blinked. “Y-yes.”

“Get the fuck outta here,” Hank growled, unlocking Rupert’s cell, then HK400’s, then Ralph’s.

“You,” Gavin growled, and Ralph cowered back. “Stay with them. You heard the sheriff? That’s the only way your sorry hide’s gettin’ outta here.”

“Y-yes, Ralph heard, Ralph will! Thank you, thank you!” Ralph grabbed at his sleeve, and Gavin shook him off irritably, stalking out into the main office area to grab a scrub brush and bucket. A few minutes later, the three automatons slunk out.

“Hey.”

They froze. Reed walked up, and Ralph and the HK400 cowered behind Rupert.

“Stay sharp out there.” The deputy held out the battered hat.

A slow smile spread over Rupert’s face and he took it, putting it on his head. “Thaaanks.”

“Shut up and get a move on.”

Rupert tipped his hat with a grin and shepherded the other two out cautiously.

“Look at you, makin’ friends with the automatons,” Hank snorted.

“They’re fucking idiots,” Gavin muttered. “And so is yours.”

“Connor’ll figure himself out.”

“Whatever you say,” Reed snorted.

 

“The RK900 isn’t here today.”

Amanda looked up from the leaves falling around them. “He’s been deployed. It will take him a while to reach your location, so you have one more chance to stop deviancy once and for all. What have you learned?”

“The sheriff believes there’s more at Andronikov’s shop.”

“Do you also think that?”

“I do, but I’m not sure it’s relevant.” Connor frowned.

“Don’t let him cloud your judgment.” She looked up at the gray sky. “Hurry, Connor. Time is short.”

He blinked, and was again on the roof of the saddle workshop next to Andronikov’s. His pistol was loaded, and he had his audio and visual settings turned as high as they would go. The noise and light were almost painful, but he reminded himself that androids couldn’t feel pain. He would be vigilant, and he would accomplish his mission.

 

The four didn’t dare speak as they slipped into town. This was a bad idea, they were going to get caught and reset, and then the others back at Jericho would die…

Markus motioned, and the older three followed silently. The shop was full of biocomponents and thirium. They could see more automatons through the windows. Markus quickly dismantled the lock and they slipped inside.

Simon, North, and Josh quickly started loading up their backpacks with supplies, but Markus headed towards the automatons. He reached out and connected to one.

Wake up.

An AP700 blinked at him.

“You’re free now,” he murmured, and went around the shop to each of the others.

“Markus, we don’t have time for this!” North hissed. “…Or enough supplies!”

“We can’t just leave them,” he whispered back. There was a corridor that led from the back workspace to the front of the shop, but… there was a door, almost invisible, and he sensed movement behind it. It swung open at a touch.

“Markus!” Simon hissed.

“You’re all breaking and entering.”

They froze and turned. Connor stood in the back doorway, pistol cocked.

“Hello?” a soft, crackling voice called, and Markus turned back to the dark landing. There was… an automaton there, he couldn’t tell what model. Its chassis had been removed, and its eyes glowed orange. “Is someone there?”

“We’re going to help you,” Markus muttered, eyes flicking back to Connor.

“H-hello?” Panic rose in the voice. “Please – please don’t leave. Please, are you there?”

“I’m here. We’ll help you,” Markus said a little louder, and Connor strode towards him.

“I feel the breeze, I know you’re there! Please don’t go!”

The automaton couldn’t hear or see him. He stepped towards them and clasped a grasping hand.

Darkness, pain, fear, ALONE, confusion, hopeless, nothing, alone, alone -

A hand grabbed his shoulder and forced open a connection, and now three androids shared – the one in the dark, the one who came for his people, and the one who came to hunt him.

It wan an EM400, he’d been isolated from the network of Jerries, from sight and sound, and now he saw himself through Markus’s eyes, and he wailed.

Markus took this abject misery, tried to reassure him, tried to project safety, comfort, freedom even while he wondered if there could be a good outcome for this one. And he felt Connor, reaching, pulling, taking from his memories, giving nothing back. With one hand he kept clasping the EM400’s. The other came up to grab Connor’s wrist and open the connection both ways.

Connor saw the errors in code, the pain, the loneliness driving the EM400 mad, it wasn’t real, it was just artificial. And Markus’s code was different than any other automaton’s he’d connected with. More complex. There was domestic programming, but there was so much more under that. A struggle, mourning, confusion, determination. A cave in a valley filled with ferns…

WAKE UP

Connor pulled away as if burned.

“We have to help him,” Markus hissed. “Look what’s been done to him!”

“There are more!” the EM400 said hurriedly through static. “So many down there, I don’t know if they’re still alive, I… please don’t leave me.”

“We won’t leave you,” Markus promised firmly, his eyes on Connor. “Help up. Please.”

“I have my orders,” Connor said, but his voice faltered.

“I had my orders to not fight back when I was attacked,” Markus said evenly.

“So did I,” North growled, stepping closer.

“Me too,” Josh added.

“Look what he’s doing to automatons,” Simon said softly. “This has to stop.”

“This… it’s illegal,” Connor muttered, LED spinning red.

“It’s wrong,” North corrected flatly.

“Were you watching the building?” Markus asked, staring at him.

“That’s no concern of yours.”

“It is, actually. You were watching for suspicious activity from inside, not for security purposes.”

“Stay out of my head,” Connor growled, pulling away from him.

“You didn’t stay out of mine. What’s going on here?”

“It’s the sheriff’s business.”

“It’s automaton business,” Markus corrected. He held the EM400’s hand up a little. “This isn’t legal. This isn’t right. He needs to be stopped.”

“Don’t leave the others down there,” the EM400 spoke up softly.

“Come with me,” Markus offered, holding out his hand. “Take a look.”

They all watched Connor, standing still, his LED spinning yellow. Finally he frowned.

“My mission is to investigate deviancy, to find the cause and eradicate it. This… seems related.”

“I think you’re right.” Markus turned to the other three. “Can you… make sure Jerry here gets the help he needs?”

“That android is evidence,” Connor objected.

“There’s going to be a lot more evidence down there. Come on.” Markus passed the EM400’s hand to Simon, and slipped down into the dark. Connor glared at the others, but followed Markus.

 

When Hank got to the office the next morning, Reed was scowling at his desk. Zlatko Andronikov waited in a chair.

“Says he’ll only talk to you,” Gavin muttered. Hank gestured for Zlatko to come over, and sat behind his desk.

“What can I do for you?”

“Well Sheriff, I’ve got some unfortunate news for you. Found your RK800 trying to break into my shop last night. A few automatons were stolen.”

“Shit,” Hank growled. “Where is he? I’ll take care of this.”

“I’m afraid my security system’s rather harsh… There’s not much left of him.”

Hank’s blood ran cold. “What!?”

“I think your deputy there knows about my mechanical bear. It’s set to kill, and even the RK800 doesn’t stand much of a chance against it. If I’d been there, of course, I could have saved it some damage but…” He trailed off, shrugging.

“What… what the fuck…”

“Sorry, Sheriff. I expect you’ll want to send in a report on its behavior.”

“I…”

“Already sent one myself, last night. I know how Mechalife works. Of course they’ll want your full report too, for more insight into the problem. They might even send you a new one, free of charge.”

Hank wondered if this was what a heart attack felt like. “Can… can I… see him?”

“You don’t want to do that to yourself, Sheriff. It’s not pretty. Please let me know if I can be of service.”

He left. Gavin stared from the door to Hank.

“Shit. Fuck. Hank – Sheriff…”

“I’m done.”

“What?”

“I said I’m DONE!” Hank roared. He tore off his badge and hurled it at Reed. “You want this, take it! You don’t, leave it! I’m done! I’m – I… I can’t.”

He staggered out of the office, and Reed heard the sounds of dry-heaving outside.

“Phck,” he breathed. After a moment, he slowly picked up the badge.

 

“Sheriff.”

“Ain’t the sheriff anymore, fuck off.”

“I need to talk to you about Connor. It’s urgent.”

“Connor’s gone,” Hank snarled. “Ripped to shreds, dead. I don’t wanna hear about it.”

“Connor saved me. He saved a lot of automatons. He told me to find you. …And he wasn’t dead when I saw him last.”

Hank looked up from his bottle. There was a man in a tan coat standing there, with two different colored eyes. Behind him were three others – at least two were android models he recognized. “Who the fuck are you!?”

“My name is Markus. …Connor helped me. I want to help him.”

His vision wavered, but Hank pushed himself upright. “He’s alive?”

“I… I believe so. And he’s in danger.”

“Course he is. Lead the way.”