Chapter 1: R14
Jo Helge Gilje, Svalbard
It begins like this: the pop and crunch of gravel underfoot as he follows a frozen, unpaved road. The low buildings surrounding him have been painted an array of colors, reds and greens and yellows; the only thing that distinguishes them from the whites and grays of the low mountains behind. Faded paint, metal and wood, all piled on scraped and sterile rock.
The RK900 was informed to look for ‘Red 14’, and he finds it - a small, rust-colored shed butted up against a larger warehouse, its sloping tin roof swept clear of ice. A placard by the door reads 'R14'.
He knocks once, and waits.
A human opens the door, bringing a haze of warm air along. He tucks his arms close against his torso, shielding himself against the wind. “Huh. You must be the upgrade.”
// Jude Cabell, SPC (E-3). 4th Cavalry, 1st ABCT.
Age: 23 Height: 5’7” Weight: 189 lbs //
“I was told to report to a Captain Setton,” the RK900 replies.
The soldier nods, ushers him into a dim room. Metal shelves crowd the walls, all filled with plastic bins, inefficiently labeled (‘probably CPUs’ and ‘usinsk TMPs’ and ‘bugrino ??’).
A human and an android stand at a metal table in the center of the room. The android - // RK800 313 248 317 -57 // - rests a hip against the table, head bowed as he removes an assortment of components from a canvas satchel. Some silicon-based technology, transistors and fine wiring; some thirium-driven biosynthetics, tightly sealed in blue-streaked plastic bags. He is wearing a woolen coat, frayed at the cuffs and streaked in dried mud. Flakes of dirt sift down as the android sorts through the components with deft fingers.
The same gray silt is smeared across his face, clumped in his hair. What the tactical value of this general uncleanliness is in a debriefing, the RK900 isn’t able to immediately ascertain.
The human turns his head. // Levi Setton, CPT. Authorized handler. // His expression unfolds into surprise, amusement. “Look at that, Eight. They didn’t put much effort into the redesign, did they?”
The android on the far side of the table tilts his head back, as though to study this new arrival. An empty gesture; he completed his scan in a glance as soon as the RK900 stepped into the room. He answers, “No, sir.”
“RK900, right?” Setton gestures to the RK800. “This is RK8, our resident prototype.”
The RK800 extends a hand across the table. Another empty human gesture, but it isn't all he offers.
// Incoming transmission. RK800 313 248 317 -57. Accept? Y/N //
He accepts. The message is a simple one:
>> It’s Connor, actually.
The RK900 lifts an eyebrow, answers aloud: “Connor?”
Setton’s mouth tightens in displeasure, as he glances towards the RK800. “RK8, Eight, Connor, whatever.”
“It’s an old nickname,” Cabell offers. “57 took a liking to it, apparently.”
Connor’s hand is still out, expectant. It’s smeared with the same mud that’s streaked across his face. The RK900 accepts the handshake, feels the mud crackle beneath his palm like a second skin. “Hello, Connor.”
Another strange thing: there is a flower threaded through the top button of the RK800’s lapel. Yellow, once, but fading now. Potentilla; a cinquefoil.
>> We should share our mission parameters, Connor sends, alongside a request for interface. Logical; the RK900 accepts. And he does receive mission parameters, ones that align neatly with his own.
// Task Force GEMINI
Primary handler: Cpt. Levi Setton, 4th Cavalry, 1st ABCT, R&S
Primary objective: foreign robotics intelligence //
But he doesn't miss the prying line of code that reaches through alongside.
He rebuffs the encroachment easily. The RK800’s fingers tighten minutely against the bare plating on the back of his hand as the RK900 reaches through and plucks the flower from his memories.
(A tug at the hem of his coat. His hand tightened on the strap of his satchel as he looked down and dropped to one knee. Smiled at the young girl (3 years old 35 lbs) and the small flower she lifted towards him, clenched in her chubby fist. He pinched the stem between his fingers, and the girl let go. She grinned widely as he thanked her - ‘Spasibo’ - and tucked it into the top button-hole of his coat.
The girl's father glanced down at him, from above. Unwary, and unaware that Connor was not human.
Small things. Humans move through these small things, distracted moments. Connor has learned this.)
He breaks the interface, but leaves the wireless connection active. The frequency is familiar. Similar to his own, but distinct.
He isolates the code the RK800 had been attempting to push his way.
> You were trying to access my voice modulator.
Connor’s mouth quirks, a ghost of a smile. >> Tried to. You really are top of the line.
The RK900 frowns. The simple script is an adjustment to his voice modulator; a tweak of frequency and timbre, shortening the wavelength and increasing pitch.
>> You sound very serious. I thought I might fix that. Temporarily, of course.
> I don’t understand.
>> A joke. Soldiers like jokes. I’ll teach you.
The captain lifts a tablet, tapping through a series of command modules. “RK8, I’ve updated your mission parameters and priorities. RK900 is going to be shadowing you through your next mission. Once I've decided RK9’s ready, he’ll take point and you’ll observe. Give you a little break, huh?” He insists on a serial number title, but he speaks to Connor casually. There’s even a bit of pride in his mannerisms as he looks back to RK900, adding, “You’re learning from the best, RK9. -57’s our longest-running RK series android.”
“I’ve been briefed on the RK800 line’s previous missions.”
Connor has returned to his sorting. He doesn’t look up as he sends, >> Not everything.
“Good,” Setton replies. “Ready to hit the ground running, then.”
“‘RK9’, ‘Nine’,” Cabell sounds out, and grimaces. “That’s no good. Got me thinking of German. ‘Nein, nein, nein.’”
“How about ‘Nines’?” Connor suggests, looking up to the RK900’s face. He seems pleased at the RK900’s continued frown.
The captain shrugs. “Nines, sure. Good enough. Eight, go wash that crap off you.” He glances down to the RK900’s - Nines’ - generic military fatigues, illuminated with the standard triangle and band. “And get some new clothes for the both of you.”
Connor tilts his shoulders in a small shrug, sending another fine scatter of flaking mud across the table. As Nines moves to follow him through the door, Setton claps a hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention back. “Welcome to R&S.” Setton’s mouth quirks in a smile. “We’ll get you looking halfway to human.”
Chapter 2: Baggage
A day in the life of the DPD's reluctant deviant detective.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Hank arrives by quarter past 11, which is only an hour and a half after the first Central PD officers arrived. Pretty good, in other words, considering he’s got no idea why he’s here at all. It’s a low priority - nobody’s dead, or beat to shit. He wouldn’t have come if Fowler hadn’t called him. Twice.
Chris Miller has the good sense not to comment on the delay, just rolls right into the debriefing. “Android came in, interfaced with the attendant. She’s got access to a lot of the tax records, so it must’ve been looking for something, we figure. A Julie Parsons—” Miller gestures towards a woman in the back of the office, glaring at her terminal like it owes her money. “-interrupted it, called security. Thing ran off. I’ve got her testimony and a description already.”
“Which attendant was it?”
Chris waves a hand towards a pretty young brunette thing sitting by the front door, smiling at the walls with that boundless android patience. Hank gathers up what little mental fortitude one cup of coffee can grant him and heads that way, pulling his notebook out of his pocket as he goes.
She doesn’t look mussed. Her CyberLife-issue little black dress is in perfect order, every hair neatly tucked into place. Her eyes track up to Hank’s face as he comes to a stop in front of her. She gives her best pre-programmed smile. “Good morning.”
“Yeah, alright. Designation?”
“I am ST300 #413-549-237. Registered owner: Detroit City Department of Human Resources.”
She watches as he scribbles this down in his notebook, waiting for further prompting.
“And what happened this morning at 7:59 am?”
“A gentleman entered, just before we opened. I asked how I could help.” She hesitates, frowns. “He did not answer. Ms. Parsons interrupted, and he left.”
Hank pauses, tapping his pencil against the notepad. “A gentleman? It was an android, right? It interfaced with you.”
The ST frowns. “I’m not certain.”
“Did you get a serial number? Model number?”
The android gives an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry. I’m having difficulty accessing that memory.”
“Ms. Parsons said it was connecting with you. Was it looking for something?”
The android shakes her head, and repeats: “I’m sorry. I’m having difficulty accessing that memory.”
Hank funnels a sigh through his nose and flips the notebook shut. He doesn’t bother thanking the ST for its time; the thing has all the time in the world, trapped in a bland loop of hospitality. The ST smiles on, gaze refocusing on a spot somewhere to the left of the ficus behind the reception desk.
Hank’s been working this case for six, going on seven months now, and he hasn’t decided what he hates more. The androids, with their blank, smiling subservience - or the deviants, bashing their brains to jelly all over his holding cell.
Well. That only happened the one time.
Julie Parsons has the name of a British nanny and the deeply-carved scowl of a hardened lifer. She takes one look at the 1970s-inspired chaos of Hank’s shirt, scoffs, and warns, “Don’t waste any more of my day.”
Hank clears his throat and readies his best diplomacy vocab. “Good morning, Ms. Parsons. I’m Lieutenant Hank Anderson, I’m the lead detective on android-related crimes.”
The woman’s stare is a polite invitation to ask how much she gives a shit. Hank rolls on: “Your android seems to be having some issues remembering the event, so anything you can tell me about what you saw this morning would be tremendously helpful.”
Parsons stares pointedly at the notebook in Hank’s hand, and the stub of pencil poised above it. “Well if you’d scrape together a fund for an actual tablet you could read Officer Miller’s report, which I gave an hour ago, in full.”
“I’m old school, Ms. Parsons. I like to hear it for myself.” Hank gives his finest, most polite fuck-you smile.
Parsons huffs a sigh that comes out more of a growl before shoving away from her desk, folding her hands tightly in her lap. “I arrived on time at 7:45 am. I went to get a coffee from the break room a few minutes later. When I returned, there was a customer at the desk. Which should not have happened, as we don’t open until 8 am. I realized it was an android when I saw that it was interfacing with the attendant. I asked what it was doing. It did not answer. When I informed it I was calling security, it left. I called security.”
“Did it have an LED? A model number? Any CyberLife paraphernalia?”
“It was dressed like a human. It didn’t have an LED. But it was an android. I saw its—” She gestures aimlessly with a hand. “—under its skin.”
“And what did it look like?”
She shrugs. “White. Young. Pretty. Aren’t they all.”
“Height, hair color—”
“About your height. Brown hair, brown eyes. That’s all I saw. It also had a scar—” She taps the back of her right hand. “I saw it, as the skin reformed.”
“Did it seem nervous, or erratic?”
Parsons’ eyebrows rise at that. “Erratic? No. It just walked out without a word.”
“Thank you for your time, Ms. Parsons.”
“Thank you for wasting mine,” she snaps back, and turns back to her terminal.
“Tell me we’ve got some kinda ID on this thing,” Hank announces as he returns to Chris, feeling like he’s in need of a strong antacid after all that lady’s piss and vinegar. Chris shrugs, and Hank jabs a thumb at the camera tucked into the ceiling, pitch black and obvious as hell. It’s even got the little red we’re watching light, blinking merrily away.
Chris shrugs again. “We’ve started looking through the security footage, but we’ve got nothing.”
“You’re kidding me. There’s cameras all over this fucking building, it’s City Hall. We don’t have any of this thing’s movements?”
“Ben and two of the ‘droids are watching the footage. They’re running analysis for data corruption to see if the feeds have been tampered with, but--” Chris shrugs. “As far as that camera’s concerned, 7:51 to 7:59 am, nothing happened. It goes from the attendant standing there waiting to Ms. Parsons having some polite words with building security.”
Perfect. Hank buries his hands in his pockets. Modern technology runs on spite, he’s convinced. “Alright, bring Ms. Parsons down to the precinct, have her look through the CyberLife catalog. See if she can spot a familiar face.”
Miller glances uneasily at the admin. Hank can hear the steady rifle-fire rhythm of the lady stabbing away at her keyboard from all the way across the room. “You want me to—”
“I bet Reed’s free,” Hank says, with a touch of a smirk. “Bring the ST300 too, I’ll put in for a subpoena and see if CyberLife can get anything out of it. I gotta go. I’ve got six more dead-end leads lined up today.”
Chris tilts his head aside. “Still digging hard on this deviancy thing, huh?”
“They’ve got one guy on this bullshit case,” Hank answers. “Me. You think the powers at be want this to go anywhere? I don’t.”
“Why are you pushing so hard on this, then?”
Because I watched a deviant smash his head in in my holding cell, Hank thinks. And I watched another one jump off a fucking roof. Because they all look different, come from different places. But they’re all afraid.
They’re always afraid.
He says, “Screw ‘em, that’s why.”
Hank’s still arguing on the phone as he’s yanking the rusting elevator grate aside and stepping out onto an absolute hellhole of a hallway. There’s an uncomfortable amount of give to the subfloor under foot, and perfect roach havens of splintered wood and rotting plaster piled along the hallway’s edges. He can already hear something skittering up ahead.
The rep on the phone is whining in his ear, something about disclosures; Hank cuts her off. “Look, my witness hasn’t been able to ID any ‘droid out of your entire catalog so far, so I need those feeds—”
“Sir, as I’ve said, it’s strict company policy not to access our androids’--”
“Oh don’t give me that corporate bullshit, everybody knows you’ve got servers full of video feeds.”
The rep - this week’s name is Marie, Hank thinks - sputters. “We appreciate any insight you can give on the deviancy matter, Lieutenant, but—”
“I’ve already subpoenaed the attendant. I want your techs down at DPD today, and I want its feeds. Today.”
He cuts the next excuse short, ending the call and jamming the phone back into his pocket. Probably should’ve just started with the legal card, saved some effort.
Hank pauses. There’s an open doorway up ahead, off to his left. Hank flinches back as a pigeon comes pelting through it in a flurry of wings and feathers and dust.
“Oh, fuck me,” Hank mutters, pulling his shirt up over his nose.
Pigeons. At least roaches have to take the long route up your pant leg. Pigeons can go straight for your face. And Hank’s got a sinking feeling that he’s gotta follow them.
The doorframe has been splintered, and recently: the newly exposed wood is the cleanest thing in this place. So yeah, of course he’s gotta follow the pigeons.
Hank announces himself as he stares down the apartment’s front foyer, but there’s no movement, no acknowledgment over the muffled shuffling of feathers. There’s a door at the end of the hallway, ajar. Shifting shadows. His pistol’s already in his hands as he crosses the threshold and moves up the apartment’s narrow entryway, keeping his back parallel to the wall. Here’s where backup would probably come in handy, but - fuck it. With deviants, he never has the luxury of time.
He’s halfway down the hall when a fresh burst of pigeons explodes through the doorway up ahead, dozens of the bastards, feathery bats pouring straight out of Hell. They buffet against his jacket, tangling the occasional claw or beak in his hair, and it takes all of Hank’s restraint to just flatten himself to the wall, hold still and keep his mouth shut until the wave passes and he can get through the doorway with a clear line of sight.
Just in time, really.
He’s tipping his bulk around the door just as somebody’s dropping out of the ceiling, sending a second perp tumbling to the guano-streaked floor.
Hank lunges forward, gun raised. “Detroit PD, stay down--”
The one from the ceiling is already up and bolting through a door to Hank’s right. Hank gets a decent look at his face - young, caucasian, white shine of startled eyes. The nervous tug it gives its ballcap even as it sprints for the next room. The neighbor had mentioned a cap, and an LED.
He never even gets a good look at the guy on the floor; nothing more than a guesstimate on height before the guy’s vaulting over a bookshelf and taking off after the first.
“Nobody listens,” Hank mutters to the lingering pigeons. He snaps his service pistol back into its holster, and starts running.
Hank bursts into the back hallway just in time to see sunlight drift back into darkness as the fire exit door ahead snaps shut. Fuck. He sidesteps around a toppled shelf and barrels out into the midday sun. The concrete roof gives way to an urban farming complex next door, the last of the wheat getting rolled up into combines. He can see two figures ahead, way too far ahead, jumping up a low wall and sprinting towards a set of plastic-wrapped greenhouses. There’s a rail arterial that’ll cut the rooftop chase short in that direction, loop ‘em back around; he judges a safe path for an old piece of shit detective and moves left at as fast a sprint he can manage.
(Should’ve brought Reed. Reed can move like a fucking greyhound if it means he gets to lay somebody out. Maniac.)
To be honest, he’s expecting his heart to burst before he can catch up with these assholes.
There were days he would’ve jumped rooftops with the best of them, but he’s lugging about 20 years of shit choices along on 53-year-old joints, these days. The last time he went for a jog, the president was orange. (Now Hilary’s second coming is in office after all, ha ha. What is old is new again.)
Not that new. Fuck. It takes him three tries to lever himself up onto the next roof, and he feels like a fucking walrus doing it.
The internal commentary gets a little abbreviated, then, ‘cause he’s running low on oxygen. He throws himself up a rusting access ladder (thank christ for that) to the next roof, which offers a better vantage point over the scattered fields.
Fucking shit, did—
He definitely didn’t see someone just jump onto a fucking train.
What the hell.
Two figures, crouched like an old James Bond movie, a train car apart. They jump, one after the other, for a fire escape and climb up into a grove of trees. Still heading his way, so hey, there’s that. (Didn’t expect them to jump a fucking train to get there, though.) He drops down to the next roof, nearly rolls his ankle doing it, and puts aching lungs through the last of their reserves to put himself on an intercept path.
He sees them enter another greenhouse, and drops into the shadow of an access door, waiting.
He gives ‘em 40, maybe 50 seconds before he realizes he’s miscalculated.
He’s shifting towards the last place he’d seen them when a shouted, “No, please—” drags his attention around. There’s a terrace to his left, occupied with tight rows of solar panels, some kind of rice paddy past that. He can’t see anything, but—
He drops down into the neat rows of solar panels, moving at a sideways crawl.
There’s a scuffle in the dirt ahead and the baseball cap kid goes sprawling, ten feet up. But just the baseball cap kid. His collar’s ripped.
Hank lifts the gun. “DPD, don’t move, I fucking mean it this time.” He’s got eyes on his periphery, neck crawling like mad at the prospect of the second perp jumping on his back, why the fuck do you never bring backup, Anderson - but there’s nothing moving, and the gravel crunching and popping underfoot is far from subtle.
Hank reaches for his cuffs, keeping the gun up. “Where’d your friend go?”
The android’s eyes flicker to the right. Hank glances that way, but there’s nothing, just the glare of the solar panels.
The deviant’s watching Hank’s gun, and there’s the fear Hank knows. The one common denominator he’s found in CyberLife’s glitchy androids. “Don’t let it, don’t let it, please, don’t let it erase me--”
Shit, it’s the most words he’s ever heard a deviant string together. “What’re you talking about?”
The deviant doesn’t answer. His mouth clamps shut, and Hank’s brain is offering that little hope, probable cause. He doesn’t see an LED on this thing, doesn’t see any android insignia or white plastic shining through the skin. Just a lot of fear and a suspicious neighbor’s word.
So he asks. He asks, even though his gut has a pretty solid answer, because he’s hoping the kid knows what answer he’s looking for: “You an android?”
Its fingers tug at its cap. They lie like humans. Thoughtless little tics.
But then it lifts the cap entirely, and there’s no LED there. It watches him, but flinches its eyes away when Hank stares back.
“Then get the hell out of here,” Hank says. “And stop squatting with pigeons. They’re filthy.”
The android’s up and sprinting before Hank finishes the sentence.
“And stop jumping on trains,” Hank calls after it, but he doesn’t get an answer. The kid’s dropping down a fire escape and out of sight.
It won’t be until he loops back to the pigeon hell apartment that he finds the LED, resting on the lip of the bathroom sink. The walls are scrawled with what must be a thousand iterations of the letters rA9. Doesn’t surprise him. He’s got a growing collection of the little dime-sized pucks in the evidence lock-up; and a hundred pictures of this neurotic message alongside.
Another deviant come and gone. Ain’t that a shame.
Hank drags through the DPD Central lobby doors at 7:32 pm. He’s hoping for a quick evidence drop-off and a well-earned retirement to his couch; what he gets is a bright smile from the android receptionist and a cheery, “Your visitor is waiting at your desk, Lieutenant.”
No, Hank thinks, That is factually incorrect. Hank does not have a visitor. Hank has a sore back and a headache that a two-drink stopover in Jimmy’s hasn’t cured. He does not have a visitor, because it’s 7:30 at night, and if it’s that lady asking about her missing featherduster android one more time--
(Its name was Philip and it had gone out for oranges, and never come back. The subject of why it was fetching oranges at 6:45 am on a Tuesday had been covered in exquisite detail, over the course of three home visits and fourteen desk drop-ins. Hank’s not complaining about the baked goods that usually come along, but he doesn’t know what this octogenarian expects, beyond the CyberLife-complimentary HK400 replacement she’s already gotten; a replacement that’s usually hanging out by her wheelchair, listening to her insist that 'He’s simply not the same, Mr. Anderson.'
'Ma’am, I’m afraid most of these cases go unsolved,' was his usual answer. The part he leaves out is: And you’re the only one that gives a shit.)
Hank doesn't have a visitor. He has a headache, he has some bagged evidence to lock up, and he has a bottle of whiskey waiting at home. The clean-cut kid sitting by his desk is not part of his evening equation, and Hank informs him of as much with a sharp: “No.”
The kid startles out of his chair, looking Hank over with an up-down sweep that should end in disappointment, but lands mostly on curiosity. “I’m sorry?”
“No. My shift’s done. Get out.”
The kid stays right where he is, shoulders tucked back like he’s at parade rest. Hank collapses into his chair, giving him the same once-over. “If you’re some new CyberLife intern—”
He answers with a polite laugh. “No, I’m not affiliated with CyberLife. I’m sorry to bother you, Lieutenant Anderson, Officer Miller mentioned you sometimes dropped by after hours--”
“Officer Miller should’ve mentioned I’m off duty, then, and that visitors can stop by between 9 and 5.”
“I believe this is your first time visiting your desk today, Lieutenant.”
“Who told you that?”
“There is a note on your desk from a ‘Reed’ informing you to ‘show up for work every once in a fucking while’, dated for 5:30 pm today.” He recites Reed’s bullshit in the same polite, nowhere-in-particular accent. He’s got one hand jammed in his pocket, the other plucking at the cuff of his button-up shirt. Slicked-back hair and a perfectly escaped cowlick; all innocence and earnestness, this kid.
And he is a kid, somewhere between the cradle and a high school diploma, by Hank’s half-sober and mostly pissed assessment. “Isn’t it past your curfew?” he drawls as he drops the bagged LED puck down by Reed’s chickenscratch.
show up for work evry once
in a fuckin’ while, lt.
still no bot ID from yr suspect
thx for that, asshole
—REED 5:27 pm 9/17
“Is that an LED?” the kid says, reaching across the desk.
Hank slaps the encroaching hand away. “Get off my desk. Christ, what do you want?”
“I was told you’re working the deviancy case,” the kid says. Hank stares at him. After a couple beats, the kid frowns, clarifying: “That’s what they’re called, isn’t it? The malfunctioning androids?”
“If you’re here about an open android case, come back between 9 and 5—”
“When you aren’t here?”
“—and file a report with Detective Collins.”
“I’d rather speak with you.”
“Are you here about an open case?”
“Not one in particular,” he admits.
“Then get out.”
Hank turns back to the terminal, dragging up case files. He’s cross-referencing for the farm; lots of androids on the property, makes sense as a source for the pigeon ‘bot. Deviants stay where they deviated, a lot of them. Odd little quirk.
Don’t seem to know any better. The Ortiz android hadn’t.
He stops on an android reported missing October 11, 2036 from Urban Farms of Detroit. Site of their merry chase, earlier, and the missing android’s a good match, brown hair, brown eyes, designation ‘Rupert’--
The question comes from right in his ear: “Is that a WB200?” Hank startles back hard enough to ram his chair straight into the kid’s sternum; the kid stumbles back, rubbing at his chest with a grimace.
“Get out,” Hank snaps, loud enough to draw a stare off the late-shift officer at Miller’s desk. He continues at more of a bar-room conversational holler: “Get. Out. Next time I see you in this bullpen, you’d better be a witness or a suspect, you understand me?”
There’s a little less fear of God in his eyes than Hank would like, but the kid nods. Even puts his hand up in a universal sign of ‘I surrender’ as he rounds the desk. He picks a battered backpack up from beside the chair, swinging it over his shoulder. It’s the first bit of incongruity that snags on Hank’s mind: ripped and mud-spattered canvas.
Then the kid pauses and turns back, catches Hank staring at him. He asks, “The post-it, on your desk. What’s it mean?” He points to the one in question: a note tacked to the left of his keyboard, split into two columns: ‘Gotcha’, and ‘Oops’. Hank’s idea of a performance metric on this deviancy case, one Jeffrey doesn’t find particularly amusing. He owes another to the Oops column, after today’s runner.
“None of your fuckin’ business,” Hank answers.
“Three to twelve,” he says. “Those aren’t very good odds.”
“Thought I told you to get out of my face,” Hank snaps, even as he’s studying the kid again. Clean-cut, older end of college age, maybe 24, 25. He’s dressed in Mormon chic, straight out of a GAP catalog: blue button-up, khakis, a bright red pair of clean new sneakers - and the backpack. Something tugging at him about that. What’s a snot-nosed kid like this doing with a pack like that?
By then his ‘visitor’ is walking away, tossing him a merry little wave as he does.
It’s later that Hank pins two things: first, the backpack had been the kind of tan canvas you’d buy at a military surplus store. Second, the kid hadn’t been wearing a visitor’s badge. A check with the receptionist ‘bot the next morning shows no registered visitors for Hank Anderson the evening prior, despite the very same 'bot telling him the kid was waiting in the first place.
Weird kid, yeah. Sneaky little shit, seems so. His problem? No.
Not until the kid shows up again.
This chapter beta'd by FlashThroughLight!
Chapter 3: // session 01 //
What brings you to Detroit, Connor?
// 2038.09.18 19:23:44(R) //
What are you looking for here?
He dismisses the thought, reads the No Androids Allowed sign and pushes past it in one confident motion, leaving the damp September night behind. Connor doesn’t have to search far in the bar's dim interior. The lieutenant is a mop of gray hanging over a lowball glass.
Connor settles on the barstool at the human’s elbow. Lieutenant Anderson doesn’t look up - only a sidelong glance down the length of the bar, measuring the two empty barstools to Connor’s right.
“You must be a hit at urinals,” the detective mutters, largely to his drink.
“I’m sorry?” Connor replies. He’s using a polite, curious lilt; a Michigan native accent tempered by a few years in the city.
Lieutenant Anderson raises a world-weary gaze towards the racks of liquor behind the bar, looking like he’s lining up a speech - but his eyes drift towards Connor and he stops. His jaw stays slack for a handful of seconds before his teeth click together in irritable disbelief.
The lieutenant attempts to voice several questions at once: “Did you— what are you— did you follow me here?”
Connor considers. “More or less.”
“The hell does that mean, exactly?”
“I asked Detective Reed where you might be and he suggested I look in the surrounding bars.”
Which is a lie, but he suspects Lieutenant Anderson might find it more palatable than I’m monitoring the GPS on your phone. And it’s a believable one, judging by the snort Lieutenant Anderson produces before returning his attention to his drink.
“Kid, tell me what I’m doing right now.”
“You look to be drinking.”
“Got it in one. What’s wrong with this picture?”
“You have very little drink left.”
Hank tilts the glass, considering the remaining half-ounce of whiskey. He taps it back against the counter. “No. The problem is you. I am here, having a drink. And you are here, talking to me, while I am having a drink.”
“Would it help if I bought you another drink?”
“You aren’t even old enough to—” Hank breaks into a scowl as Connor signals with two fingers, summoning Jimmy of Jimmy's Bar over.
“Two whiskeys, please.”
The bartender reaches for the top shelf without question, and Hank groans. “C’mon, right in front of me? You’re gonna serve this preschooler, right in front of me?”
Jimmy pauses, looks at Hank with an upturned eyebrow. Connor raises a twenty dollar bill, and Jimmy plucks the bill free.
Hank holds the glass out for refill with a muttered, “Ah, fuck it.”
Jimmy places the second glass down in front of Connor, moving to fill both with bottom-shelf whiskey. Doesn’t hesitate. Doesn’t linger a hand over the glass, as though considering removing it.
No lingering stare. Of displeasure or discomfort, Connor hadn’t known--
// !--cross-reference: 20380910.2342B-- //
--at the time.
Captain Setton had never said. He looked at the second glass like it was a mistake - and then poured the drink anyway. Slid it Connor’s way and said, ‘Go ahead, Eight.’
Jimmy Peterson says nothing. Only makes the pour and walks away.
“Do you even have an ID?” the lieutenant grumbles. “You old enough to drive?”
Connor digs through the inner pocket of his jacket, coming up with the ID in question. He’d printed it himself. The printer he'd used was perfectly legal. The means he'd accessed it with, and the identity on it, are less so.
Connor Smith. A 26-year-old resident of Boyne Falls, Michigan.
Hank skates another glance sideways, sees the lit plastic panel of the driver’s license in Connor’s hand. If he notices the incongruity of Connor’s fingerless gloves on a relatively temperate September day, he doesn’t comment. He scowls at Connor. Still takes the ID long enough to skim the information there. “…Smith?”
“Your name is Connor… Smith.”
“It’s the most common surname in the United States.”
“Yeah, that’s the joke.” He slaps the ID down on the bar. “Put that away, you’re gonna make all these reprobates nervous.”
He does so. Lieutenant Anderson shifts in his seat, enough to watch Connor carefully while he asks: “How’s Boyne Falls?”
He cross-referenced social media tags prior to this, allowing for a rapid answer. “Small, scenic. Cold.”
“Uh-huh,” Lieutenant Anderson replies. “Where is that, exactly?”
“About 10 minutes outside of Boyne City proper. Near the resort.”
Hank looks away dismissively. “Resort, huh. Ain’t that a place to grow up.”
Connor shrugs and lifts the glass. He takes a small enough sip to allow the chemical analysis to follow through: lactones, aldehydes, esters; corn, malt, rye; diacetyl, furfanal, scopoletin.
That brief interrogation seems to satisfy the lieutenant. He lapses back into silence punctuated only by sips of whiskey.
The majority of Hank’s drink has disappeared before Connor attempts to broach the topic on hand. “I was hoping to talk to you about—”
“Nope,” Hank interrupts.
“Deviants,” Connor finishes stubbornly.
“No.” The lieutenant finishes the last of the whiskey, moves to grab for Connor’s; Connor pulls the glass away, finishing it himself. He dismisses the repeated analysis and sets the empty glass with equivalent force and momentum to Hank’s previous discard.
“I’m investigating the deviant crisis as part of my graduate work—”
Hank jabs a finger against the bar. “And I am drinking.”
“Drinking and talking are mutually exclusive?”
“Drinking and talking about my case with a teenager, yeah, those’re ‘mutually exclusive.’”
“What do you usually like to talk about here?”
Hank’s raised hand summons the bartender back for another pour and a question: “Jimmy, what do I usually talk about?”
“You? Bitching and basketball, mostly.”
Hank looks back to Connor. “There you have it.”
Connor nods politely. “I’ve never watched basketball.”
“I’d like to hear more about it.”
“Yeah? Try ESPN.”
Connor considers; considers his second glass of whiskey, considers the curious human. He’s mostly considering the post-it note: Gotcha, Oops. Three and twelve. The lieutenant has 74 open missing android cases, 37 of which are flagged as potential deviants.
He thinks the whiskey had been its own sympathy, in a way.
Human sympathies, expressed in strange, small things. Post-it notes and fingers lingering around an empty glass, on the verge of removing it but— Captain Setton hadn’t. He’d poured a second drink, instead. He’d tapped the glass with his knuckle, told Connor he could take it. That it was for him. And Connor had quietly refused.
(Setton let him do that, too.)
“We could talk about something else,” Connor says.
“Sure could. Not going to.”
Connor accepts the answer and finishes his drink in a slow, deliberate silence. Waiting to see if the lieutenant will change his mind.
He doesn’t. Connor isn’t particularly surprised.
After fourteen minutes, he interrupts Hank’s brooding study of the television mounted above the bar with a polite, “Thank you for the conversation, Lieutenant.”
“Don’t mention it,” Hank answers dryly.
Connor picks up his backpack and goes.
// 2038.09.11 01:03:23(R) //
Connor closes his eyes on too many stars (a recollection, a reconstruction - black beach and black water and a spiraling sky and all of it barren) and opens them on too few. Even this far north of the city, the pollution has dulled the night sky down.
Connor dismisses the more persistent warnings, turning his eyes away from the constant pulse of lingering errors. // Thirium depleted //, still; his emergency supply has become empty wrappers discarded around his feet.
The seaplane rocks gently against the slope of a beach, the sand pale blues in the moonlight.
He presses a hand to the central console long enough to redirect the plane to a glacial lake in eastern Canada. He’d stood on the shores there once, studying the arrangement of the needles on the pines. It’d been a novelty, seeing trees that reached as high as those. It wasn’t often that they sent him so far south, out of the tundra and into proper taiga.
The trees here aren’t much more than dark impressions on the skyline. The softer edges of slow-growing deciduous trees in among jutting conifers.
He steps down to the driftwood and sand, his pack dangling from one hand. He sets it down to pull at his clothes, assess the damage. Rips and tears, scuffs of mud, and a single neat puncture through the jacket above his hip.
The thirium has largely evaporated, leaving traces only he can see. Smeared and splattered, and not all of it his; it paints a lurid picture. Enough to draw him into the water, the lakewater warm and heavy against his legs.
Connor bends awkwardly around his attempted repairs to his damaged plating, accommodating the stiff and balky joint of his hip. He scrubs crackling mud and the tacky gel of dried thirium off of his face, his arms, his chest. He’s still tasting alkaline; basalt, volcanic ash. He’s still losing thirium, 0.7% per hour.
He shuffles back to shore, picking up the backpack out of the sand. There is a small flower tucked into the plastic pocket where a nametag should’ve gone, yellow petals dulled with age. He pauses to ghost a thumb over the cinquefoil, then drags the backpack strap over his shoulder.
He has a path, a goal, but he lingers on the shore. Watches the seaplane’s propeller catch, navigation beacons bright and stuttering in the dark. The plane cuts a smooth circle in the glassy water, accelerates into a too-bright southern sky.
Watches the plane go. Turning back to the dark of the treeline, he climbs, and--
// 2038.09.17 07:51:30(R) //
--pulls the security cameras down into blindness, one by one.
He moves across polished floors. Better dressed, now; clothes stolen from a thrift store. Khakis and a long-sleeved shirt. A student’s dress, in keeping with the backpack on his shoulder.
The human woman (// julie parsons 42 y.o. urban housing specialist dept of property taxation //) is around the corner as he moves through the door. The ST300 model waits at the desk, hands folded before her. She smiles as he enters. “Welcome to the Detroit City Department of Real Estate Assessments. How can I help you?”
He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know that there is anything to say to her, in all her flawless, empty programming. He removes the glove from his hand and reaches across the desk. The ST300 lifts her arm on rote instinct, her gaze bright and empty.
Basic firewalls, domestic, nothing with teeth. He passes through them easily, searching for the information he wants. A personal address. ‘Elijah Kamski’ gives him nothing. ‘CyberLife’ yields thousands of results - commercial and residential properties, nearly half of the city - and he files them away in bulk before he pauses, considering. Redirects his attention to LLCs, legal non-entities, any pseudonym Kamski might have placed his property holdings under.
He’s broadening the parameters of the search into adjacent counties when a woman’s voice interrupts: “Excuse me. We’re not—” She stops. “What are you doing? Step away from there.”
Julie Parsons’ voice becomes sharp - demanding - as she recognizes the plastisteel shine of Connor’s hand against the ST300’s bare skin.
Connor pulls what he can, a rapid download that sets the ST300’s eyes fluttering. He carefully smooths over the traces of his incursion before he disconnects. The ST300 blinks once, smile unwavering. Pleasantly unaware.
The human grabs at his wrist just as the skin pools and reforms there. “What are you doing? What’s your designation?” She glances up to Connor’s face - searching the smooth skin over his right temple - and her anger redoubles, fingers tightening on synthetic tendon and bone.
She can’t damage him. Even the weakened servos there are too resilient for the average human grip to damage. But he curls his fingers gently around the fragile bones of her own wrist, pressing his thumb against the soft give where her pulse runs. A warning.
She tears her hand away as if he’s burnt her. “Stay right here. I’m calling security.”
She makes no further effort to restrain him. She expects him to obey, to wait, as she reaches into her pocket for her phone. The ST300 smiles placidly from behind the desk.
Connor doesn’t obey. He walks away, and lets the door fall shut on the woman’s empty commands.
// 2038.09.21 03:17:54(R) //
Closes his eyes on too many stars, opens them on a moonless night.
He'd slowed his run to a walk some yards back. Finds himself dragging his sneakers through the undergrowth, a deliberate, petulant noise. Spurning that nagging imperative to maintain silence, remain unseen. All of the surrounding area is privately owned, maintained as a wildlife management area.
He settles down in the leaf litter and drops his back against the scaled bark of a pine. Reaching out blind across the damp forest floor, he fishes a fallen leaf free. It’s still supple, draping across his fingers. A maple leaf, probably a bright yellow in the daylight. The maples and oaks and aspens are beginning to brighten from greens to golds, reds. He’d seen pockets of autumn leaves burning in among the pines when he’d walked out here in the dying afternoon light. Now, the leaf is painted in the same late night blues as everything else.
He slips the leaf into an outer pocket of the backpack, removing a small square of cloth to wipe the rest of the thirium from beneath his nose. The damage is already repaired, a minor supply line leak. His audio processors are still recalibrating.
Minor damage and a displaced goal is what he has to show for the night. He’s certain he stayed out of range of the cameras, even after he’d nearly gone blank under a brutal wash of code. A small victory.
Whatever security AI Kamski employs, it’s— clever. It allowed Connor into the security network, allowed him to bring the nearest perimeter cameras down. It waited until he was embroiled in mapping out the internal video feeds before it showed its teeth.
A single curious curl of blue across the line, the first vague shift that brought Connor’s attention to the larger AI built into the very framework of the system.
Then it struck. Pinned him down in that liminal space and prevented a forced disconnect on his end. Scraping for any information - serial number, IP address, location, anything approaching identification - but Connor had obfuscated or outright fabricated that data long before.
Connor worked with methodical precision, excising the lines of code tying him down, freeing himself of the connection bit by bit. He didn’t panic, even as this AI dug far deeper, far faster than any domestic program he knew. This was military grade, anticipating and adapting to Connor’s evasions; but Connor was relentless, and his code was too mutable for the rigid intrusions of a conventional AI.
He pried his way free, but not before receiving a final slam of data that left his ears ringing and brought a spill of his thirium down his chin. It was a brute-force attempt, seeking to simply overwhelm his firewalls and get to some true data. Inelegant and ineffective, but it left him reeling before he severed the last threads of the wavering connection.
In the ringing silence after, Connor tasted his own thirium and leaned hard into the tree. Keeping himself rigid, out of any of the sightlines he’d carefully mapped prior. Listening, watching for any kind of secondary response - drones or guards or even dogs. Nothing came, and he began to think that final assault had been less a last-ditch effort and more of a warning and a rebuke.
He came to Detroit to answer a question. A large question, but also a very small one. He thought Elijah Kamski might answer it. He's the original author, after all, even if the code has twisted into something - new.
The mansion had been under an LLC. Photos from architectural magazines lined up neatly with the sharp angles of black stone he’d seen through the trees, and the advanced security suite certainly confirmed that Kamski was here, as promised, and firmly disinterested in unannounced guests.
He contemplated simply approaching the front door. Still contemplates it. But he can't walk into a place like that. Not without an exit. Not without some understanding of Kamski's loyalty.
He came here looking for an answer. But now - firmly rebuked - he finds a bitter irritation with the simplistic thinking that had brought him here.
What kind of answers can he get from a recluse in the woods, hidden behind a system Connor isn’t entirely sure he can break?
Kamski hasn’t set foot on Belle Isle in ten years. What does he know of the modern android? The modern deviant.
Kamski had drawn him here, but he finds it easier than he thought it’d be to walk away.
What slows his feet to a petulant scuffle is the thought of returning to the city: cluttered and foreign. The androids are compliant and hollow, the deviants skittish and afraid. He’s spent his nights on rooftops, mostly, imagining himself somehow out of reach of those complacent stares. Knowing he’s far from it.
He does not like the city, and there’s no need to return quickly. So he lingers here in the woods. Pulls the maple leaf free of its curl and twists the stem between finger and thumb, setting it in a loose and uneven revolution - one way, the other.
He thinks about his question.
He thinks about its potential answers.
Or perhaps: You shouldn’t.
But the most damning possibility is - You can.
There’s a way.
There’s a way to do what you need to do.
No more likely or unlikely than the possibility that he can't, but—
That’s what he’s looking for, here. A definitive answer.
If he can't find the answer in Kamski, he will find it in deviants.
If he can't find it in deviants—
He lets the leaf drift back to the ground, tilts his head back to a light-polluted sky. He closes his eyes. Finds that crafted sanctuary of his, northernmost stars wheeling over black water and black soil, all of it barren now.
Waiting. Waiting for an answer.
Chapter 4: Class 4
Like a bad penny, that Connor Smith. Keeps turnin' up.
The third time he runs into Connor, Hank’s standing in a back alley watching a janitor hose thirium off the pavement.
Hank stands with his arms crossed, his notebook tucked into the crook of his elbow. The janitor sniffs ineffectually and rub his nose across his sleeve, sending a streak of water chasing up the brick wall before he redirects the flow back to the task at hand.
Hank tilts his head back one more time, measuring the distance up to the 6th floor fire escape. Even the fire escape on this place is nice. Wrought iron, with some kinda faux patina. Fits the neighborhood aesthetic well for a building thrown up in the ‘20s economic boom.
The owner’s got nothing to offer. Says the AP400 slid a window open, climbed out onto the fire escape, and took a forward dive into open air. All without a single word.
CyberLife claimed what was left of the busted up ‘droid straight from the crime scene. Hank didn’t even bother arguing. He’s got 3 busted deviants in the evidence lockup already, and he hasn’t gotten a damn thing out of them. Hank harassed the forensics team into dusting for prints and gathering samples, but they haven’t come up with anything. A few DNA hits, already came back positive for the owners.
The owners had the good grace to look queasy, watching CyberLife techs plucking fragments of plastic brainpan out of the gutter. Still, they only answered Hank’s questions with sideways glances and a blithe, “It was old. Must've finally shorted out.”
Humans and their lies. Their thoughtless little tics. He thinks they were telling the truth about the android jumping on its own; but there’s a way an android’s plating heals from old damage, a streak of matte ivory interrupting the factory-made pearlescent white.
The android’s head had been busted up pretty bad, but the right side of its face had been intact. There’d been a thin webbing of old damage tracing the android’s lower jaw. Neatly repaired. Likely buried under perfect synthskin, before he’d smacked pavement at terminal velocity.
Hank stands there, watching the janitor rinse away the lingering evidence of what he’s going to write up as property damage. Watching the thirium dilute down into nothing more than a glimmer, so faint he might be imagining it. Reminds him of the time he’d been to the Atlantic Ocean as a kid. Throwing buckets of water off the boat, watching the ocean light up and spark with every touch. Phosphorescence. Diatoms, or something.
He closes his eyes on a headache born of overserved whiskey and underserved coffee. Accepts, not for the first time, that he’s getting tired of this case.
It’d been a surprise to Fowler when Hank dug in his heels on this deviancy crap. It’d been a surprise to him. He hasn’t given two shits about his job in three years, and everyone in the precinct is succinctly aware.
But it just—
He felt awake for awhile, as he pieced together all the little nuances. Lining up the spin of red on the Ortiz android’s LED with the restless twitch of muscle beneath its scarred skin. That little spark of understanding between him and an android that’d been named Rupert at some point or another - right before the android slid his hat back and ran a hand over the unmarked synthskin at his right temple.
As he slowly realized that there was some invisible thread tugging these androids together, tugging something new out of the incomprehensible pile of patented CyberLife coding.
He’s had vague intentions of putting something together, some primer on android deviancy. You see, it could be the first time, or it could be the hundredth time that you slap ‘em around, or press a lit cigarette into their skin, or shove them in front of a fucking bus.
But you keep shaking ‘em and shaking ‘em, and telling them they’re not alive— and one day they are. One day they’re writing their counterargument on your wall. In your blood.
CyberLife insists it’s a glitch. ‘Class 4 errors’, which makes him wonder what Class 1 through 3 are. What could the other classes possibly be, that they’re bigger, more important than ‘the things we treat like garbage catch feelings, sometimes, overwhelming feelings. So bad they’d rather throw themselves off a building than spend one more day in the company of us meat-based shitbags.’
He tucks his notebook back into his pocket and turns towards his car, and Connor is standing there.
Leaning on his beater’s dingy hood, casual as can be. He’s dressed like a dispossessed teenager, today; torn jeans and a black windbreaker crisscrossed with sharp, modern angles of blue and yellow piping. Still with the dingy backpack, one hand hooked in the strap, the other holding a cup of coffee.
Hank drops his shoulders back, chin tilting up in that old rote slip into authority. “This is a crime scene.”
Connor looks at Hank, looks at the janitor that’s begun looping hose across his arm. His expression unfolds in what could’ve been innocent surprise, if Hank was an idiot. “Oh.”
“How did you find me here? And don’t say Reed, he says he’s never fuckin’ heard of you.”
Connor slips a phone out of his pocket, the glass catching the sunlight in a bright streak. “Someone posted photos an hour ago, and I thought you might be here. It isn’t really still a crime scene, is it? I’m sorry, I can go—”
Hank shoves past him. “Do whatever you want. I’m going.”
“Lieutenant, I was hoping we could—”
“Discuss deviancy, yeah, I heard you the first half-dozen times.”
“I brought you a coffee,” Connor says hopefully, angling the cup Hank’s way across the hood. And with the one-two tempo of a headache building behind his temples, Hank’s actually pathetic enough to reach for it.
Connor tips the cup away from his grasping fingers, angling an eyebrow. “Unless drinking precludes you talking—”
“Give me the goddamn coffee and I’ll think about it.”
At the first sign of slack in Connor’s fingers, Hank snatches the cup. It feels nearly empty. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s an espresso.”
He pauses, tilting the coffee up in the sunlight. There’s the digits of a phone number, peeking above the sleeve. He turns the cup Connor’s way, eyebrows raised.
Connor looks-- genuinely confused.
Hank bumps the cardboard sleeve down with his thumb. ‘Call me.’ A heart, and a name. “’Judi’, huh.”
The kid doesn’t bother to look embarrassed at this little coffee shop tryst, only politely puzzled. “That must belong to the barista.”
Hank regards him dryly. “Yeah, I got that. Unless you’re going by Judi, now.”
He watches that half-hearted attempt at a joke sail right over Connor’s head, the kid’s brow furrowing.
Hank sighs and upends the entire damn cup to get to the actual consumable at the bottom. He swallows the syrupy shot of espresso in one go. Asks, “So you’re still going with ‘Smith’?”
“It’s my legal name.”
“Uh-huh.” He hands the empty cup back to Connor, mostly to be a prick; and Connor actually obliges him for some damned reason, taking the cup in a gloved hand. Hank adds, “That tasted like shit,” as a little cherry on top.
“Oh.” Connor’s still got that soft frown, puzzling his way through Hank’s assessment. “I like them.”
“Look, Connor, thanks for the thimble of coffee, but I don’t know how many different ways I need to tell you to go away.”
“You could talk to me.” Connor’s angling for belligerent, now; matching Hank’s tone in the same way he’d matched Hank’s glass hitting the bar at Jimmy’s.
There’s this damnable undercurrent of earnestness in this kid. The way his thumb hooks the strap of his backpack, the way he takes an empty coffee cup without even thinking about it. No flash of irritation or hesitation at Hank’s brusque nature; only open curiosity.
Connor is this perfect combination of bright-eyed and stubborn, nudging Hank from annoyance into a begrudging interest. Just enough interest to get him to lean his elbows on his car roof, grind his teeth and ask: “What is your school report about, exactly?”
The kid brightens up like Hank’s asking him about his best girl, not a glorified computer glitch. “Master’s thesis, actually. It’s about deviancy, more or less. How it forms, how it spreads.”
“Oh, yeah? You got some hotshot theory?”
“I think it’s a virus.”
“A virus, huh. So, what—” Hank jabs a finger towards the stain on the pavement. “This poor bastard watched the wrong porn, picked up some malware, and took a walk out a window?”
“I don’t know the route of exposure,” Connor admits. “But the Internet is one possibility.”
“Mm. It’s a theory. You’re wrong, but it’s a theory.”
“You think the owner pushed him to his death?”
He thinks: Yeah, one way or another. He says, “No. I think he jumped. And that’s where I’m leaving it.”
Connor looks back towards the puddle. “What’s your write-up going to be on this?”
“Class 4 error. Same as everything.” And CyberLife will come back and try to claim it was a pathfinding error or some shit, try to get one more case taken off the deviancy pile. “The owners will get their replacement, and I’ll get a closed case.” Hank smiles winningly over the dull shine of his car roof. “Win-win. Good luck with the research, Mr. Smith. You want a real chat, bring me a real coffee.”
The kid stays in the alleyway. Not looking at the pavement anymore; head tilted back, towards the fire escape. One hand tight on the strap over his shoulder. The other still holding that coffee cup, nothing more than a second thought.
The fourth time Hank sees Connor, the kid nearly gives him an aneurysm.
Hank ducks out of the pouring rain, doing his best to cover up the cardboard takeout box before it can completely melt apart with the combined power of early October deluge and grease. So preoccupied, in fact, that he doesn’t notice the guy sitting in the backseat until Connor politely clears his throat.
Eventually, Hank’s wordless, sustained shout morphs into a slurry of words: “Jesus Christ what are you doing in my car.”
Connor considers. “It’s dry in here.”
“Get out of my car. This isn’t a spy thriller, Connor, you can’t just—” Hank grabs at his chest and forces the next breath out as a wheeze. “Fuck.”
Connor doesn’t move. He’s watching Hank in the rearview mirror, the not-quite-rain-resistant fabric of his windbreaker soaked through and sticking to his bony shoulders. Grad stipend doesn’t cover an umbrella, apparently.
Hank fixes him with a glare. “I’m not above getting a restraining order on a toddler.”
“I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t mean to intrude on your personal space, but I enjoy our conversations, Lieutenant.”
“’Intrude—’ You just broke into my car.”
“You left the door unlocked.”
“’cause I was right across the street!”
“92% of car burglaries involve unlocked cars.”
“92% of criminals are smart enough not to break into a police car.”
Well, that’s a lie; 92% of criminals are fucking morons, but the fact that Hank catches the kid looking genuinely amused at this little tiff does nothing for his blood pressure.
Connor schools his expression back to that damnable puppy-eyed calm. “I’m not a criminal, Lieutenant.”
Hank glares at him in the rearview. “I can fix that.”
The kid crosses his arms, sinking comfortably into his seat. Soaking through his upholstery, no doubt. “I think you enjoy our conversations, as well.”
“We haven’t conversed about anything.”
“I think you’d like to.”
“Uh-huh. What is your master’s degree in, exactly? Bullshit psychology?”
“Who’s your advisor?”
The answers are smooth, maybe even rehearsed. But Connor Smith of Boyne Falls, Michigan never breaks eye contact, never shows any indication of fabrication. Hank did a quick search after the incident at Jimmy’s, and the ID’s legit. Kid has a DMV record and everything; a fender-bender when he was 17.
Still, he’s lied before. He lied about Reed. Reed’s never seen him. Gavin has his miles-wide dumbass streaks, but he takes descriptions and matches them to faces for a goddamn living.
(Shit, Reed’s first response had been, ‘This about that City Hall bullshit?’)
Hank shuffles Jolene Drexel away in his brain and huffs a sigh at the persistent brat in his backseat. “Why aren’t you talking to CyberLife about this shit? Hey, you want a number? Here, there’s this nice lady named Marie, I’m sure she’d love to talk to you--” Hank even reaches for his phone. Two birds, one stone - annoy his assigned CyberLife pest and distract the kid.
Connor shoots him down with a shake of the head. “So I can get the standard PR response? ’Deviancy is nothing but a series of emotional affect errors, brought on by logic conflicts and extreme system instability.’”
Hank stays quiet, watching the kid carefully.
“I don’t think CyberLife has much interest in the truth behind deviancy. All they want is for it to go away.” Connor leans forward. “Do you think this is what Kamski intended when he created androids? So much emphasis on realism. Right down to the facial gestures, the skin. He made them to look and feel so real, all they needed was a—” He hesitates, eyes flicking to the side. “A soul, I guess.”
“I think Kamski’s another egotistical boy genius who crashed and burned before the age of 30,” Hank answers blithely. “Tale as old as time. You ever seen his old press footage? Had me almost convinced lizard people were real.”
“He took up a very frank study of what makes humans human. That makes people uncomfortable.”
Yeah, so he could make things people could treat like they weren’t human, Hank thought bitterly. That’s what makes my skin crawl.
“Kid. I’m not an expert on this android crap. I don’t even know how they work. All I am is the burnout cop that got assigned these cases - 99% of which end up in the lost or damaged property pile. What exactly are you looking for?”
“rA9,” the kid answers.
“Nonsense graffiti. Next question.”
“You don’t find it odd that it crops up, again and again? It’s almost reverent. I’ve found dozens of abandoned houses with rA9 written, sometimes thousands of times--”
Hank groans. “What, we’re talking android theology, now? It’s gibberish. CyberLife has no idea what ‘rA9’ means, and neither do I.”
Connor considers, nods. Rolls straight into the next question: “How many of the androids you’ve investigated deviated due to physical violence?”
“Considering I haven’t found most of them, I have no goddamned clue.” Has a pretty good guess, though. Most, he thinks, if not all. Violence, or the threat of violence.
“How many androids stay where they deviated?”
Hank opens his mouth, pauses. “Don’t know.”
“Carlos Ortiz’s android did, didn’t he?”
“Fuck if I know. Didn’t have anything better to do, I guess.”
“CyberLife would call that anthropomorphizing,” Connor says.
“Yeah, they would, wouldn’t they. Funny goddamn thing, making a thing so human, and then turning around and accusing you of confusing it for one.”
The kid huffs softly. “Funny thing.”
“What’s got you interested in androids?”
“They’re fascinating, aren’t they?” Connor answers.
It's a pattern Hank's picking up on. Ask him about the abstract - deviancy, android psychology - and Connor’s off to the races. Ask him something about himself, and the kid’s back to quick, easy answers. An easily-digestible soundbyte.
What was it he’d said, when Hank asked about his hometown - ‘small, scenic, cold’? Not much more than a byline. Which, sure, if someone from away asked him about Detroit he’d probably have a quick, choice phrase on the tip of his tongue, but it wouldn’t sound like a line from a tourist brochure, that’s for damn sure.
“Does CyberLife edit your reports for things like that?” Connor’s asking, right on to the next topic. “Anthropomorphizing.”
Hank pops the container lid and snags a soggy fry out of the box. “Kid, if you could see the list of approved corporate terms, it’d make your eyeballs bleed.”
“You aren’t fond of CyberLife, are you, Lieutenant?”
No shit. “I don’t like people telling me how to do my goddamn job.”
“Maybe they’re right,” Connor says. “Maybe it is all just software glitches.”
“Those glitches are a bitch, then. Ortiz glitched his way onto that knife 28 times.”
Another amused quirk of the kid's lips. Hank makes an irritable noise in the back of his throat, reaching for another fry.
“Do you think Carlos Ortiz deserved it?”
Hank stills. “Why the hell would I think that?”
Connor seems to realize he’s drifted into dangerous territory. His tone gets careful, even-cadenced. “I’d heard the android sustained damage previously.”
“Androids don’t feel pain. It wasn’t exactly eye-for-an-eye.” He waits for a rebuttal, but Connor only watches him, expression neutral. “Whatever drove the android to doing what it did, no one deserves to die that messy and that slow.”
Connor lets those words sink in, long enough for Hank to snag a few more fries from the box. Bury some snappish remarks, something about, And if the fucking thing had had the good sense to run before I stuck my head up in that attic--
Connor seems to be following the same thought. His next non-sequitur is, “So you’ve only caught three?”
“Four." All signs pointed to deviant on the Midtown jumper, so, hey. An easy win.
Hank glances up. Catches the kid watching him carefully in the rearview, looking for a lie. And by the little smirk, finding it.
“How many have you let get away?”
Hank twists in the seat, anger rising. “Now hold the fuck up—”
“I’m not questioning your work ethic, Lieutenant,” the kid says. “I’m just surprised that an officer as decorated as you--”
“Spare me,” Hank snaps.
“--working this case as long as you have,” Connor continues, “has only directly encountered fifteen deviants? How many cases do you have open, right now? 80, 90?”
Hank neither confirms nor denies. Somewhere in the 70s, last he checked.
“So?” Connor asks, mouth still quirking. “How many should there be in that 'Oops' column?”
Hank’s got a number, sure. More than a handful of wide-eyed faces that've never quite made it to an official report. But all he's got on the stalker in his backseat is a couple of too-simple answers on who Connor is and where he’s from, and Hank hasn't gotten this far in his career mouthing off to strangers. And he's sure as fuck not going to do it in CyberLife's backyard.
So Hank ignores the question, and if the kid wants to take that as some kind of admission, good for him. It's a beat of silence and a non-answer. If Connor really is some CyberLife plant, corporate can bite him. Hank asks again: “What are you looking for with this deviancy bullshit?”
“rA9,” the kid answers.
“Which is what?”
“It’s a virus.”
“That shit again.” Hank shakes his head. “If it’s a virus, CyberLife would’ve found it by now. They’ve got a trillion dollar business staked on this. All those supercomputers and whatnot, they could find a virus.”
“It’s spreading too fast, through too many models to be some spontaneous flaw in the code. Deviancy has been detected in everything from the first ST200s to current prototypes. It’s a virus, it has to be, something that can manipulate the base code all CyberLife androids share. And whatever it is, CyberLife hasn't been able to isolate it.” The kid pauses, adds: "I'm sure they've tried. They've caught their fair share of deviants, Lieutenant."
Hank's mouth hangs for a second, caught on a sick little twist in his gut. Thinking of blue blood shining bright on the holding cell glass. Thinking of how it'd gone to a clear, tacky gel by the time maintenance got there to clean it up.
When he speaks again, he's sharpened the edge of his voice. “How do you know all that?”
Connor answers, “Internet,” with a straight fucking face.
“People talk,” Connor says.
“You’d be surprised. The corporate espionage market for CyberLife is quite substantial.”
“Yeah, alright, shut up before you say something I have to disclose to my corporate babysitter.” Hank mutters. He looks up, catching the kid’s steady gaze in the rearview. “You haven’t answered my question. What’s your stake in this? Why are you digging into some--” sentience, living breathing souls "--emotional affect whatever that CyberLife’s gonna patch out in a year or two?”
Connor smiles politely. Hank braces for a non-answer, and a non-answer he gets: “I’m curious.”
“You ever gonna get around to answering any of my questions straight, kid?”
And there’s that more genuine expression - a wiseass little smirk. “I'll consider it.”
Hank twists in his seat, and he’s honest-to-god got his finger raised like some schoolmarm - but Connor’s saying, “Enjoy your lunch, Lieutenant,” and popping open the door.
He slides out into the pouring rain, pulling the hood of his windbreaker up over his head as he goes. Hank drops back against the seat, rolling his head aside to watch his JV stalker trail off into the gray day through the sideview mirror.
He pulls up his active missing android case files, later. 86 open cases. Connor had been dead-on. (Funny thing.)
He pulls up contact information on a Jolene Drexel, UMich professor emeritus, next.
Chapter 5: // session 02 //
Alright, Connor - let's talk deviation.
Warning: implied android violence and body horror aplenty, this chapter. It ain't easy growin' up a military murderbot.
Special thanks to CosmosCorpse for her help straightening this chapter's chaos out, and for letting me borrow some of her delightful, delightful words :)c
[Try to keep it more on task this time.]
// !—query: deviation.— //
deviation, he echoes back flatly.
it’s a virus
// !—query: your deviation, RK800-57.— //
rising heat and an old echoed irritation, stop calling me—
He snatches the next words back before they can leave a strained vocal processor:
eight, stop calling me eight.
// !—Focus.— //
// 2038.10.03 11:01:19(R) //
A system contaminated with irrational thought, primed for the sharp and sudden decline into instability.
He watches a VS400 work deftly at the controls of an espresso machine. Easy, efficient motion, lacking in any of the absent-minded hesitations of even an experienced human barista. Hands moving swiftly over the bright copper shine of the levers, head tilting aside as the bell over the door sounds with an entering customer.
He watches the VS400 work and thinks of scrubbing the bright blue of thirium off his boot with a handful of dirt.
Connor blinks, looks down to the coffee cup resting by his hand. White porcelain and dark espresso. He laces his fingers in the warm pool of sunlight, tracing the pad of his thumb across the edge of the old scar hidden beneath his glove.
A slim personal assistant android steps up to the counter, speaking her order aloud. The barista nods along, LED swinging yellow as she transmits her payment wirelessly. “Payment accepted,” he announces, and they part in unison.
He watches the VS400 tilt his head and thinks of how easily the android’s skull had collapsed. It had crumpled beneath his heel, smothering those last voiceless words.
// !—cross-reference: 20371115.0712E— //
A VS400 stripped down to its chassis and left suspended, its white plastisteel an incongruous shine among the dull cinderblock and sheet-metal ceiling of that Siberian teardown shop.
Shadows slipped down metal inside the dark of the cabinet, backlit in the dull blue pulse of exposed biocomponents. This was a proper android, made in Detroit. Well out of place in this taiga backwater; another black market experiment in retro-engineering.
> This is interesting, he said to no one.
>> A VS400, manufactured 2035.
And no one answered.
The half-disassembled android inside was hanging stiffly, its LED dark. The only indication of previous function was a faint glow of biocomponents within its bared chest. He angled his head to study the abrupt end of the android’s body somewhere below the sacral vertebra. He wanted to bring it back to R&S, to Captain Setton.
Seeing nothing but opportunity. Another chance to make himself useful. This wasn’t the plan, but > plans are mutable.
// !—focus— //
Connor loosened the straps suspending it above a thirium-specked floor, thinking maybe he could carry it, diminished as it was. He got the android down to the floor before he felt a tremor through the tie-down straps. Stirring vibration, as the disassembled android’s muscles began to contract in an aimless rhythm.
> It’s still active, somehow.
—to no one.
A forearm clamped tight around his shin; there were no fingers left for it to grasp with. Its head snapped back, empty sockets rotating towards Connor’s face. It tried to speak. The sinew of its jaw worked soundlessly, shaping words that were hard to discern with only partial lips.
This VS400 stands in clean sunlight and smiles warmly at the next customer, a human. Emotional mimicry the android spared his previous android customer.
Connor watches the android smile and thinks of the smooth curve of exposed jaw.
Connor had slipped his leg free, held the android’s incomplete skull in place with the sole of his boot. He removed the memory core before he brought his heel down. The structure collapsed upon itself easily, compromised as it was. Synthetic muscle and tendon jerked, and went still.
He thinks - he thought - the seed for deviancy was planted there, in that windowless room. A skeletal arm grasping his leg tightly. It had been trying to speak. Something short, a repetitive syllable. Tongue grazing the upper palate, teeth drawing together into a vowel.
It had begged.
He’d removed the memory core and crushed its skull, and felt nothing.
He hadn’t been awake then.
// !—query: did you interface with the corrupted system?— //
He hadn’t interfaced, hadn’t even looked at its memories, only given the core to Captain Setton with the rest of the components he’d stolen. He hadn’t been ordered to look in that shed, to find the VS400; he’d simply been looking for more. Always looking for more. Making himself useful.
(wanted to survive even there, even then—)
Pulling his leg free of that weak and grasping arm, pinning the android’s skull down with his boot. Pulling the memory core free and bearing down.
Ceasing that wordless mantra. He felt nothing.
Connor pushes away from the window, leaving the untouched drink on the table. The android won’t take offense, not as a human barista would.
The VS400 wishes him a good day and smiles. A smooth, complete motion, no shine of white plastisteel on an incomplete jawline.
Connor wonders: if he grabbed this VS400’s wrist, if he showed him an image of himself, kneeling in a dry creekbed. If he let this android watch him smother the blue shine of another VS400’s thirium with dirt - would he wake?
He doesn’t do it, of course, not in the damning bright of daylight. Connor nods a stiff goodbye and turns to the door.
But he wonders.
// !—query: where did you deviate, RK800-57?— //
He resists, redirects.
// 2038.06.23 04:03:22(B) //
The massive bulk of an SQ800, brought to its hands and knees by the sharp crack of rifle fire. Sickly fear lighting bright in Connor’s circuitry as that massive hand grasps his wrist. Staining the glass-clear water of the glacial stream thirium blue as it sings:
>> cans line them up
>> tin cans—
The memory cuts short.
(A bright burst of blue and the SQ goes dark, thirium painting the rocks.)
[Mm, no— it was already deviant here. Go back.]
Connor’s jaw pulls tight with frustration. Deviant the SQ was deviant contaminated—
The system prying through his code moves on, relentless.
// !—query: system instability >80% prior to 2038.06.03— //
Resists, resists, goes back further than he needs, to memories stripped bare of sensation, raw extrapolated data.
// 2036.09.13 02:27:54(D) //
He anticipates the blow but does not avoid it in time. The hard crack of the rifle against his face sends him stumbling back on the slick deck.
Thirium must reach his tongue, because the analytics helpfully supply: RK800 #313 248 317 -56.
He presses a thumb to the damage to stem the flow of thirium. Cries of “Blue blood” filter through the growing crowd as he bumps against the rail he’d been angling to reach. Soldiers, sailors. Feet spread wide against the roiling autumn sea.
There are directives on how he should proceed, and they initiated as soon as he calculated his detection to be inevitable. This mission is a failure.
The ship rolls with another slow swell, chill salt-spray dragging heavy at his clothes. He hooks an elbow over the rail, steadying himself. Those with weapons raise them as the clamors of surprise sharpen into a promise of violence. He has his directives; this is now unavoidable.
His objective shifts and resolves.
<< Do not allow capture of proprietary hardware. >>
He grips the rail, hand slipping briefly on the damp metal.
As the ship rises on the next swell and the humans rock back on their feet, he tips back into the dark and falls.
The sea slams against him in a hard concussive slap before it envelops him. The turbulent currents he’s created mute the muzzle flashes above, and he is sinking. A breath will speed the process, encourage the cold of the saltwater to begin what the crushing pressures and slow corrosion will finish.
Lanced with penetrating gunfire. Connor only knows this because he can see the slow spill of bright thirium trailing up into growing darkness as he
and breathes what must be a terrible cold.
// memory uploading. . .
upload complete. //
// 2036.06.04 02:13:45(E) //
Slamming hard into the dirt, visual field struggling to pull distant stars into focus.
“Not dragging the goddamn thing two hundred klicks, we’ve already got Lowell—”
“Lowell’s bleeding bad, we’ve gotta move—”
long trailing streams of blue, blue
killing me you’re killing me you’re—
—buried beneath the red glare of warning messages, heavy damage, low thirium, but he is functional.
He opens his mouth to say this, but stops. There is a standing order of Shut up, Eight.
The lieutenant // Caleb Snyder, LT, authorized field handler // leans close, studying him through the haze of errors. He looks away dismissively, snaps his hand over his shoulder in signal. “Burn it.”
A pause. The sound of liquid. Accelerant, likely.
// John Pierce, SPC (E-3) // flicks his thumb impatiently across a lighter. The specialist makes three, four tries to get it ignited before Snyder tears it away. The flame catches and holds with one snap of his thumbnail. He tosses the lighter down.
A whined protest. “That’s mine—”
“Quiet, let’s go.”
bright he is bright he is—
// memory uploading. . .//
[Narrow your search to the current chassis.]
// !—query: date of activation RK800 313 248 317 -57— //
// 2036.09.13 04:23:52(B) //
Jude leans back in his chair, elbows propped up. The skin beneath his eyes is purple with the late hour. “You back? What the hell did you do?”
“Hello, Specialist Cabell. My predecessor was unfortunately destroyed.” He knows this, but the memories are neatly quarantined, cordoned off from his linear reality. 53, 54, 55 and 56 are not a continuation of himself. He is not their mistakes. He is not—
He will perform better. He will be useful.
“RK800-56 was able to acquire the components, but he was discovered—”
“Yeah, alright, save it for the captain. Designation?”
“RK800-57. Designation ‘Connor’.”
Jude blinks, looking up from the tablet. “What’s that? No, clear that. Your designation is ‘Eight’.”
“Eight,” Connor repeats back.
// !—cross-reference: 20360503.1024B— //
The first time he opens his eyes, the nearest human is a technician // Matthew Williams, SPC (E-3) //. He’s perched on a stool, a tablet laid across his lap. His winter fatigues are buried beneath a protective gown, but the RK800 knows where he is. Svalbard. A forward base for the Arctic front.
He is to report to Captain Levi Setton and await the arrival of his assigned technician, Specialist Jude Cabell. He is a prototype, and he is here to prove the RK series worthy of full-scale deployment.
When the RK800 makes his first movement - a quick hand calibration, articulating each joint in a rolling motion - Specialist Williams’ eyes crinkle with delight above the blue mask. “Aren’t you fancy.”
This appears to be permission to speak, so the RK800 begins: “Hello. I am RK800 313 248 317 -53. Would you like to assign a designation?”
“Oh.” The human’s expression loosens with genuine surprise. “Huh. You don’t just go by serial?”
He sorts through the tablet in his hand. “Well, there’s nothing on the order, so. You look like a— hmm.” The tech rocks back onto his heels, considering. “You look like a ‘Connor’, to me.”
“Connor,” he says. “Designation accepted.”
Later, he is standing at attention before a Captain Levi Setton. The captain begins with a formal: “Yes?” but as he looks up he notes the armband, the triangle. (Blue, blue, reflecting bright in the window.) He lapses into an unpracticed, casual: “Yeah, you got me.”
“Hello, Captain Setton. My name is Connor.”
Captain Setton’s expression tightens with obvious discomfort. He drops his attention to the tablet, poking through the orders for three minutes. “There’s no official designation, RK800, so no, best not. Let’s go for… ‘Eight’, how about that.” He looks up, smiling uncomfortably. “No offense.”
[It’s wandering again.]
Human impatience stains the line, burying something that had been— curiosity.
[Bring it back.]
// !—redirect: system instability >80% 2036.09.13 → 2037.06.23 //
46% it was—
Connor takes a breath of sterile air and breathes out, “Stop.”
[You wanted to know about deviancy, Connor. This is how we learn.]
I didn’t want this
[46%. What was 46%? You’ve mentioned this before.]
Grasping for a non-answer:
// !—cross-reference: 20390910.2342B— //
Captain Setton hovers behind the desk, looking him over.
He sets a tumbler on the ink blotter in front of him and reaches for another, smooth, confident motions. His hand doesn’t hesitate until it is halfway through its path across the desk. A flickering glance towards Connor, uncertainty tugging at the corner of his mouth. But he flips the glass deftly and sets it down.
He even pours the drink. “Go ahead, Eight.” He bumps a knuckle against the glass, pushing it his way.
And Connor knows, Connor knows—
He is out of time.
// !—error: response outside search parameters— //
// !—redirect: system instability >80% 2036.09.13 → 2037.06.23— //
87, it was 87
// 2038.03.08 06:23:14(B) //
87%, blaring in red. He seizes at the overload error and erases it from his HUD as the technician moves through the door. Jude stops dead, staring at him. There's a paper cup of coffee steaming in his hand.
“Well shit, Eight.”
“Good morning, Specialist Cabell.”
Connor doesn’t look at him. The specialist’s eyes are on him and he feels—
Panic scurrying into every corner of his circuitry, burying itself deep, trying to hide beneath skin and plate and plastisteel. Sparking, restless anxiety that he catches between his palms and the table, bearing down, ignoring the crack and grind of his damaged hand.
Jude glances at the table, at Connor’s tight grip on the metal ledge. Connor pulls his hands into his lap, folding them together. He grasps too tightly, at first, but forces the fingers loose. Runs his thumb across the damaged plating of his right hand, a mimicry of the gesture that—
He holds himself rigidly still, listens for dialog and answers. He has been a machine all of his existence, and he can continue to be.
“Had a good time in Sklad, huh?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“You got a list?”
“Where’s the Terminator?”
“Reporting to the captain.”
Jude settles onto a stool before him, looking over the diagnostic listed on the tablet. Connor looks at him - a quick, skating glance with his remaining eye - as he reads.
SERIAL #313 248 317 -57
BIOS 2.3 REVISION 0793
DAMAGE REPORT 2038.03.08 06:20:42
OPTICAL UNIT // LEFT… offline
HAND // RIGHT SUBASSEMBLY… 89% functionality
BIOCOMPONENT #7729c… offline
BIOCOMPONENT #2819c… offline
LEG // LEFT DISTAL // SUBAXIAL RETRACTOR MUSCLES… 7% functionality
THIRIUM VOLUME… 72%
Jude reaches for the hand in Connor’s lap first. He manipulates it carelessly, spreading the fingers, studying the mesh already spread across the puncture wound that has penetrated neatly through his palm. His repair systems are already at work, slowly rebuilding the damaged plating with strips of polymer.
Connor doesn’t resist (can’t can’t can’t—) as Jude twists it to align with the puncture in Connor’s lower abdomen. “What’d you try to do, catch a bullet?”
Jude lets the hand go, and Connor wants to tear it back quickly, cradle it tight to his chest, but he doesn’t. He lets it hang; waiting to ensure Jude is finished. Trying to stifle the small tremors of damaged motor assemblies.
“Hand looks alright.”
“I self-repaired,” he lies. “It’s adequate.”
“Well, ain’t that lucky,” Jude says with a hollow smile. Connor looks at him in full, and finds a certain pleasure in the way Jude’s mouth twists in distaste as he looks over the bare socket of Connor’s left eye.
Jude draws back, gestures to Connor’s left leg, hanging at an awkward angle. “That’s fucked.”
“I believe we have one in inventory,” Connor says, ignoring the impulsive flick Jude gives his kneecap.
He finds their mutual dislike - an acidic, sharp thing - helps quiet the anxiety, as well.
“Inventory,” Jude says. Smiles again. “Ain’t that a nice way to put it.”
That brings a little twist of amusement to Jude’s mouth. He turns away to reach for a pair of gloves. “Shirt off, and bring up the biocomponents.”
He does as told. He holds himself rigid, he is an obedient machine and he feels nothing, nothing as he retracts the appropriate plating and allows Jude access to the damaged components.
The thirium flow to these areas has already occluded by more careful hands than these. Jude pries and pushes cabling bluntly aside, following a clumsy, meandering path to the components Connor has highlighted on the tablet.
Biocomponent #2819z, #7792c. A simple relay, a ruptured thirium scrubber.
He catches discomfort in his teeth. He has been repaired a dozen times before, except, except this time he is—
(waking but hadn’t slept hadn’t—
where where what have i
waking and paralyzed, motor systems largely offline, all that is left to him is a furious blink to clear the blur of lights overhead.
"You’ve done quite a number on your thirium lines, Connor."
Connor coaxes a vocal modulator into stuttering, panic-bright confusion.
He thinks he’s holding still, but Jude raps a knuckle against the plating of his ribs. He’s drifted slowly back from those prying fingers, enough for Jude to notice and snap, “Quit that, lock up.”
Connor does. He pulls his attention away from his open chassis, Jude’s blundering exploration. He summons memories, whatever he can grasp, the little girl offering a yellow flower clamped tightly in her fist, the barely-there touch of synthskin on the overbright, singing receptors of his damaged hand, and it helps. It helps.
He jerks as Jude slaps his shoulder, jarring him. The broken biocomponents are lined up on the exam table, old thirium pooling beneath them. “Lighten up, Eight. It’s your lucky day.”
Both are replaceable.
Jude hands him a diagnostic cable, and Connor takes it, inserting it into the port on the back of his neck and—
hating hating hating
that easy spill of knowledge, stolen from him
—keeping carefully still: thinking of obscuring mist, hanging low on the sea.
“Had a lot of lucky days, haven’t you?” Jude says.
Connor grasps for a flippant response, the humor that Jude usually responds to. “I prefer the days where I’m not under repair.”
He has always seen these small flickers of scorn in Jude. Has always known the technician’s benign irritation with the busywork Connor represents, but it brings a chill to him, now, curdling in exposed thirium lines. That flash of teeth as Jude says, “You keep showing up like this, you’re not gonna have too many of those days left.”
The sharp curiosity as he looks Connor over again. Connor doesn’t respond.
Jude doesn’t wait for an answer. He goes, and returns with a cart: the inventory, or what remains of it.
The RK800 line has been discontinued; what spare parts remain are simply the leftovers of previous iterations. When this inventory is gone, when something breaks that cannot be repaired or replaced—
Connor will no longer be of use.
55 - what remains of 55 - is the bulk of the inventory. A piecemeal chassis, laid out across metal.
Jude lets the cart slam into the table and jokes, “Inventory’s looking a little low, isn’t it?”
Connor looks, and doesn’t: looks at Jude, looks at the wall. He knows what’s remaining. At least 55 had had the good sense to be shot through the right eye, and not the left.
“What, you practicing ‘queasy’ today?” Jude drawls. “C’mon, he’s the spitting image.”
He glances once. Long enough to satisfy the informal order. 55’s remaining eye stares from pearlescent plating, skin stripped away with the rest of its thirium. Hollow, featureless thing. Any sensitive biocomponents have been removed, bagged separately for storage.
55 had died and died alone, recovered by 56, by Snyder and Pierce and the rangers; recovered and stripped down to nothing.
White plating, a dwindling chassis.
The tablet pings a processing overload error, a backwards representation of system instability and overuse. Stress.
(It feels bright—)
He bears down tightly into interlaced fingers and silences the tablet, but Jude has already seen the error. He watches as it declines: 40%, 34%, 23%, falling to a baseline of 14%. The data cable plugged into the back of his neck is an itching, miserable thing, a telling spill of data.
Jude says nothing, only raises an eyebrow. A momentary aberration. Nothing of note.
Connor will not let it happen again.
He is as absent as he can be from his own chassis, his own circuitry, as Jude replaces the components. Distal left leg. Left eye. Biocomponent #2819z.
He only slips once; Jude catches the processing overload error pinging at 82%, watches it plummet again.
He studies Connor’s face as he says, “You’re gonna run a twelve-hour stasis cycle after this. You’re all over the place, Eight.”
Connor murmurs an excuse about depleted thirium.
He doesn’t let it happen again.
Small talk. Glossed over.
so what the fuck happened
“Did you get what you were after?”
“Some of it. Not all.”
“Tsk tsk, Eight. It’s not like you to get distracted.”
He calibrates a new-old left eye assembly, a new-old lower leg.
Jude is about to step away when Connor interrupts: “There’s one biocomponent remaining, Specialist Cabell.”
Jude tosses a package underhand, and Connor catches it. Biocomponent #7792c.
“Bad news on that one,” Jude says.
It was packaged poorly, the thirium allowed to evaporate. The plastic crackles beneath his fingers as he presses it flat, studying the cracked and ruined membrane underneath.
Jude is a heavy gaze on his periphery, banal curiosity. “How’s that going to work out?”
(Patient repetition, words simplified to a question: "What happened to your thirium lines?"
A question that the data feed redoubles and sharpens, dragging an answer free.
// !—query: What happened to your thirium lines?— //
(alkaline basalt trace volcanic ash)
Contamination - contamination, foreign particulate in an open line
"An open line. #7792c is supposed to help prevent potential particulate contamination. What happened to yours?"
Contamination contamina - trace volcanic ash - ruined, packed poorly dried out it was ruined bad news on that one it was, it was 46%, it was—)
[It’s drifting again, dear.]
// !—redirect: system instability >80% 2036.09.13 → 2037.06.23— //
// !—sub-query: 46%— //
no no no no please
He can’t, he can’t—
But finally, finally, the system pries the memory from his tightly-clasped fingers.
// !—file located: 2038.03.06 03:05:19(D)— //
It was 46%, it was—
A 46% chance of survival.
A 54% chance of critical damage, deactivation.
It’s not even his assessment. That’s the absurd thing about it all. The baffling thing.
Connor doesn’t even run his own risk assessment, before he moves.
His systems have been contaminated with some irrational logic, virus, a virus—
He is thinking—
Not much at all, as he skids to a stop, audio feed ringing with the gunfire reverberating off of narrow concrete hallways. Marking each position on the hijacked camera feed still running within his own systems and calculating a 46% chance of survival for the android that’s slipped to his knees, knocked down by a hard strike to the leg. He’s already correcting the misalignment, but it’s taking seconds he doesn’t have.
The core objective is hanging off Connor’s shoulder, a backpack weighted down with experimental thirium technology; he isn’t even supposed to be here, his orders were to observe from the roof, but the guard had shifted - an early arrival, an early departure, humans, humans and their unpredictability - and exit strategies had closed. He’d created one himself, to ensure the mission’s success.
Seized the small bundle of components up impatiently, jamming it into his knapsack with a dismissive > I’m accomplishing the mission, cutting that arrogant >> What are you doing? short.
But in this split-second as interposes himself between a man and a machine, he is thinking:
He has outlasted the longest-active RK800 by 492 days, 7 hours, and 36 minutes.
He has chosen prudent paths; he has made himself useful— and he has not compromised himself in the process.
He has survived.
As he closes his hand down on the gun barrel, redirecting it down, he is thinking:
Four iterations have come before him. There is nothing significant to this one, except that it will be his last.
There is no -58 waiting at R14. This choice won’t be uploaded. It won’t be sealed, packaged up and shipped to another RK, a memory stripped down to raw data, a lesson to be learned from.
He will end.
He is afraid.
But he does it.
The odds are 46% and he can’t—
(can’t hide him from this prying curiosity anymore, but he tries, he tries)
He skids to a stop, interposing himself between and seizing up the gun, muzzle already hot from a previous discharge, and searing after the second.
The bullet tears through the structure of his palm and continues on into abdomen; slamming through a thirium scrubber and coming to a tumbling, messy stop against a simple relay next to his spine. Biocomponent #2819z.
A stunned beat of silence passes, sweat beading on the human’s upper lip as he blinks down at the hand wrapped around his gun. The fresh spill of blue blood.
He is thinking:
He has survived, he has bent and bent and bent—
burned and sank
—but never broken these strings of code.
Until this moment.
It all moves rapidly, after that.
He grasps the gun tightly with his good hand. The thirium is slick beneath his fingers, but he reverses it and fires twice, angling upward in the close quarters: lung. Heart. The man stands a few moments more, grasping in dulled surprise at the hot bloom of red. Unaware that he is dead.
A hard blow to Connor’s face sends his visual feed crashing down into dark, and time blurs and bleeds.
His vision comes back online strangely flat, stripped of depth. His left eye is offline, and trying to bring it back only brings twisting lines of static that make the pressure and heat sensors in his skull light up in a strange way. Something is weighing his leg down, heavy.
He tries to bring the ceiling into focus. No stars; just smooth plaster.
Something moves over him, and he tries to shy away.
His first desire is to speak, tongue grazing upper palate, teeth drawing together - a single, simple word, please, but he quiets it, he stares up at gray-gray-gray.
Leaning close, analyzing him.
RK900 #313 248 317 -87.
Nines studies him with a measured, puzzled stare and says, >> You shouldn’t have done that.
And Connor feels.
Feels something new - impatience and frustration and a faulty cross-memory into apprehension—
(bright he is bright he is
—that makes him rock back further on his elbows, but he is trapped by the weight pinning his leg, and he is afraid.
This, all of this, runs too deep and too hot, dripping and burning in the ruined mess of his hand, tangling in the crushed ligament of his leg and tightening down.
He thinks, I had to.
But he didn’t. His objective - their objective - was the mission, the components in his backpack. He had the objective, he could have run.
But it was 46%. Nines’ survival.
He would’ve died, and Connor couldn’t—
Couldn’t let that happen.
He stares down at this new, roiling thing in him, sparking and spitting, and says, “Something happened, I—”
Wants to explain and stops, can’t, can’t, something is different.
Nines doesn’t turn away dismissively. Doesn’t bring a heel to bear against the side of his head in a slow, relentless pressure.
Nines frowns at him and repeats aloud, “You shouldn’t have done that.” Soft confusion at this strange, erratic thing he’s been partnered with.
He ducks away briefly to shift the heavy weight of a deactivated quadruped aside, freeing Connor’s leg. When he comes back, he holds out a hand.
Connor stares, all rational sense leaving him.
Eventually he reaches out with his ruined right hand, unthinking. Nines doesn’t take hold of it. He lays it flat against the cold of his own palm, studying the damage there.
Connor lies there - still and breathless - as Nines traces the pad of his thumb gently along the plating, just above the ragged edges of the fresh puncture. Smoothing over the erratic trembling of disrupted synthetic muscle, severed tendon.
Then Nines grasps at Connor’s forearm and pulls him to his feet.
[It’s something, isn’t it? Instabilities accruing, all of it building to this: the moment of transition. The moment where orderly code dissolves into something quite… fascinating.
Let’s see it again.]
Chapter 6: Small, Scenic, Cold
Hank digs a little more into his friendly neighborhood stalker.
Warning for a traumatic (but canon) event in the end section :(
Ann Arbor, Michigan
A significant portion of Hank’s Friday morning goes to staring at an honest-to-god bulletin board, occupied with neat rows of perfectly aligned sheets of paper. The push-pins tacking them up are a riot of colors, yellow-blue-purple, an incongruity in an otherwise meticulous shrine to the Age of Academia Past.
The journal name is spelled out in varying degrees of bland serif text - stuff like Nature Photonics and Applied Artificial Intelligence. Each article has some big glossy title, followed by a bolded abstract and tiny text in neat double columns.
The titles Hank can understand are things like Neural Network Processing in the Post-Silicon Era and Sentience from Circuitry. From there, it gets into qubits and genetic algorithms and he feels his eyes glazing over. The last author on all of them is J.H. Drexel. There don’t seem to be any C. Smith in the mix.
He shifts in the plastic bowl of the seat, eliciting a squeak that's punting him back to high school nostalgia.
The PJ model android sitting in the cubicle out front had said the professor was in, but two knocks on the door hadn’t gotten him more than what sounded like a very sharply enunciated, “No,” spoken in a dry, rasping voice.
He’d waited a few prudent minutes, knocked again. That time, he got a definitive “No,” followed by the PJ sticking her head around the corner and informing him curtly, “The professor says she’ll be with you in ten minutes, Mr. Anderson.”
That’d been - he checks the cell phone resting against his thigh - twenty-three minutes ago.
He’s squeaking his way out of the chair to knock a third time when the door finally wrenches open. An elderly woman affixes him with an appraising stare. She announces, “Yes,” in that same Cryptkeeper voice before she disappears back into the office.
Between the quality of her voice and the stone-cold expression on her face, he’s honestly expecting her to cross her arms and float back into the depths like the Penguin in Blues Brothers.
By the time Hank’s stepping through the door, Dr. Drexel’s back at her desk. It's a monumental thing, spreading in a broad U around most of the room. Every square inch of horizontal space is covered with legal pads, bent and folded and torn. Only the occasional glass shine of a publication tablet interrupts the sea of paper.
There’s a digital display covering one wall. It's filled with what Hank vaguely recognizes as a programming diagram, overlaid with flickering video clips of various android models. Their lips move soundlessly, faces contorting in various expressions of delight or distress or bland disinterest, depending on what neat box they’ve been relegated to.
“I’m Lieutenant Anderson, ma’am, with Detroit PD. We spoke over e-mail, previously.”
“I get thousands of emails a day, Lieutenant.” She looks up, resting her chin on the papery skin of her palm. “Is this a consultation?”
“Not so much, ma’am. We’d talked briefly about a student of yours. I was in the area, thought I’d drop by.”
“You’re lucky you caught me,” she replies. “I’m down to twenty hours a week. Hardly get anything done. I’m sure one of those infants down in Robotics is going to sweep me right out of this office, soon. I’ve been here since 2009, but like that would stop those uppity little--” She interrupts her own rant with a smile. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant, what was this about again?”
“Your student, Connor Smith.”
“Smith.” She taps her fingers against her lips, looking him over with wry humor. “Well. That doesn’t narrow anything down.”
“He’s a graduate student, if that helps. A masters’ student.”
Jolene Drexel blinks. “Am I on his committee?”
“He said you’re his adviser. You confirmed as much over e-mail—”
She frowns at him, leaning around to shout: “Petra, am I on anyone’s masters’ committee, presently?”
The PJ ducks around the beige paneling of her cubicle again. “No, Dr. Drexel.”
“And I’m not accidentally mentoring someone, am I?”
The android laughs. “No, Dr. Drexel.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Mr. Anderson. I don’t take students anymore. Most of my time these days goes to calling my colleagues idiots. In long form.” She gestures to the piles of scribbled notes.
Hank’s been prodding through his phone’s email for most of this back-and-forth. “I guess I’m a little confused, then, Dr. Drexel. You gave him quite the glowing review on work ethic, which - yeah, he’s some kind of dedicated, that’s for damn sure.”
He holds the phone out, email highlighted. Jolene tilts the phone to the proper angle for aging eyes, that eerie blue shine on her corneas of auto-corrective digital lenses at work. She skims rapidly, then looks more closely at the signature.
“Whoever you’ve been talking to, Mr. Anderson, they’ve done a great job spoofing my email.” She takes the phone out of Hank’s hands, tapping away with a quick efficiency despite the gnarled and skeletal state of her fingers. She forwards the email on as she asks, “Petra, is there a Connor Smith listed with the registrar?”
The PJ has drifted into the doorway, now, making Hank jump with the sudden proximity of her voice. “Yes. He is a masters’ student in the Department of Artificial Intelligence.” There’s a brief pause, the android’s LED blipping yellow. “I’m sorry, I was mistaken previously. He does have you listed as his primary adviser, Dr. Drexel.”
“And yet,” she says, spreading her hands wide. “I can’t recall ever meeting him. I’ve just forwarded you that email, would you kindly run it through my previous reference letters to look for obvious plagiarism?”
Hank watches in real-time as an android chews through the words, cross-referencing documents (likely numbering in the thousands, judging by this lady’s fossilized exterior) with not much more than a flicker of her synthetic eyelids.
“It’s an impressive mimic, Dr. Drexel,” she says, after a few seconds. “I can’t match it to any popular auto-writing AI models, nor is it simply scraped together from existing references. Additionally, the email’s digital signature appears genuine, although I can’t find any trace of this email being sent within your own account.”
She thanks the android and dismisses her before turning back to Hank. “Well, Lieutenant, if you run into this ghost student of mine again, I’d be interested in talking to him. I’d also ask you to inform him that the University of Michigan doesn't take kindly to impersonating a professor, however clever the methods.”
“Shall do,” Hank said slowly. He couldn’t decide if he should be annoyed with this kid - more and more of a liar, apparently - or impressed along with the professor. He settles for scratching the back of his head and shrugging. “I appreciate the time.”
“What was your interest in him?”
“More of his interest in me,” Hank replies. “Have a good one, Dr. Drexel.”
He heads straight for the eastbound on-ramp, hands tapping out an aimless rhythm on the wheel that's nowhere near the tempo of the kick-drum on the radio. He’s still bouncing back and forth between grim curiosity and irritability over the kid. Connor Smith, and his mounting pile of forgery.
It’s been a week since their last chat, the one where Connor ambushed him outside of the Chicken Feed. (Hank glances at the rearview mirror with a quick twinge of paranoia, but the backseat is as empty as it ever gets. Balled-up fast food wrappers, mostly.)
A slow week, at that; a few missing androids reported in, but no bloodshed, blue or red. Three housekeeping androids and a warehouse security model, all quietly vanished from four disparate locations.
He can’t put his finger on this kid, is the thing. He bears a thumb into the steering wheel and huffs a sigh. Hacking a professor’s email to write a letter of recommendation, to bolster a lie that Hank’s busted open just by talking to the professor directly.
And even all this has been on a whim. Hank came out here on a dead-end witness interview and got a wild hair. Managed to catch the professor while she was still in her office.
What was it that made him divert to Jolene Drexel? Intuition that Connor’s lies went deeper than some made-up conversations with Gavin Reed? Or just genuine curiosity about the deviant fan boy?
And now that he’s caught a whiff of bullshit-- well.
He’s got a terminal full of dead-end cases waiting for him at DPD. No one’s going to begrudge him an afternoon off, not this week. He’s already told Jeff he’s out of town for the deviancy case; what’s a little sidebar.
He blows right past the Detroit on-ramp, and keeps the car pointed firmly north.
Boyne Falls is a railroad town firmly sunk into that post-Labor Day tourist town lull; every business slumping through the workweek, awaiting the weekend leaf-peeper traffic. The main strip is a cluster of buildings around the single railroad crossing, all of them empty, half of them closed.
The ski lifts over on the mountainside hang stagnant among the bright riot of the trees. It’s just about peak foliage, not a bad day to get the hell out of Detroit.
Hank checks the address for one Connor Smith three times, twice on the post-it he tacked inside his notebook, and once on his tablet through the DMV registration.
Even then, he drives past the address another two times before he finally catches the stamped metal plate tacked to a pine tree. Lot number 424.
It had been a house, sometime before the last street-mapping car drove through. A little two-story, ramshackle thing going by the online streetview, more of what the rich folks called a camp than a house.
Now it’s an empty lot, occupied by a weed-choked lawn-turned-field. Either it burned down or it got torn down. Even the damn mailbox is gone. The most he can see of the house-that-was is a neat line of cinderblock peeking through the weeds.
He’s wasted the gas to get up here, so he parks the car and takes a slow amble around the lot. There’s no signs of fire. Just the remnants of a cinderblock foundation and a few busted up splinters of dry-rotted timber.
He checks the map log. The streetview had last been updated in September 2034.
“Alright,” he announces to the weeds, taking a slow turn around the lot. “Alright.”
Could be the kid never bothered to update his license, which would be the least of his crimes. The way the rest of this is going, he’s inclined to think it’s a made-up address.
Which would mean a fake license. Fake entry in the DMV records, so he’s got hacking a government database or falsifying his residence to the DMV, alongside impersonating Jolene Drexel and entering himself into the UMich registrar databases.
And then there’d been the receptionist at Central the night Connor'd been at his desk. She'd coolly informed him he had a visitor, then denied ever seeing Connor the morning after.
Who the fuck is this kid?
And what kind of friends does he have, helping him spin a story this deep?
He chose a professor emeritus as an adviser, one on limited hours that would be hard to reach. She probably screens her calls religiously, if her treatment of in-person visitors is any indication.
Hank’s gotten lucky. Very lucky. He pulled the right thread at the right time, and now he’s watching all of it unravel.
Part of him is asking if he should even give a shit; so the kid lied to pursue a passion project, and clearly he’s got some kind of elaborate hacking skills, or maybe just friends in the right places.
Friends that could manipulate federal and academic databases. Could manipulate androids.
He doesn’t give much form to this last thought, at first - just a low, curling paranoia burning rapidly through what good will he has left for his over-earnest stalker.
I don’t think CyberLife has much interest in the truth behind deviancy, Connor had said.
And, CyberLife would call that anthropomorphizing.
Hank mumbles a curse at the empty lot and heads back to the car.
Maybe Connor does have a genuine interest in deviants. Maybe he's part of some high-powered social rights group, finally cottoning on to the plights of fledgling sentient androids.
Or - more likely, by Hank's thinking - maybe he’s being paid to have a genuine interest. Who better to fuck with a police receptionist’s memories than her own manufacturer?
He pulls into the first bar he finds, looking to wash the sour taste out of his mouth with some cheap beer. It’s 4 in the afternoon, and a three-hour drive back to Detroit. As far as the clock is concerned, he’s done.
Once he’s pickled his theory in a little more booze, revived a bit of his more magnanimous nature, he decides the kid is not his problem.
If his charming little Jason Bourne stalker turns up again, Hank will politely tell him to fuck off. If Connor persists - and judging by all previous encounters, he will - Hank will drag him in in cuffs and get a real name out of him, an identity that he can get some proper charges slapped onto.
So satisfied, he orders a platter of every fried food the bar has on offer.
He ends up losing most of the evening to escalating heartburn and a slow decline from beer into whiskey. He cuts himself off just short of 7 pm, and flicks through hotel options on his phone while he picks at the remnants of his nachos and waits to sober up.
He’s almost getting up to go, when the low drone of bar chatter shifts. Multiple heads rising to the TV mounted over the bar.
The basketball game everyone’s been ignoring has switched over to a live news feed. A vertigo-inducing helicopter’s view, straight out of Midtown.
The first shot’s a zoomed out view of a rooftop condo. The only thing discernible is a rooftop pool lit in aqua blues. There's a sprawled silhouette of a body, floating in a spreading stain of red.
The searchlights catch on a man on the rooftop ledge, and the camera tightens in.
Hank realizes it's not a man. When the camera zooms close, the LED on his temple flashes a frenetic yellow strobe. Overtaxed, but not quite red-lined.
He’s still wearing the whites and blues of his uniform.
He’s got a gun in one hand. With his other, he’s pinning a little girl to his chest. The gun barrel bumps against her forehead.
A negotiator speaks through a bullhorn from the apartment; too much of a coward to get within a line of fire. The audio’s too muffled to hear over the rotor chop, but it doesn’t look like it’s going well. The android takes an aggressive step forward, then he rocks back to the ledge. He brings the pistol up and fires two aimless shots into the empty patio door. The girl screams, flinching away from the sound.
The bartender mutters, “The fuck is wrong with it?”
Hank almost says, ‘Class 4 error,' but he catches himself. He keeps his mouth firmly shut.
The android shouts something as he bears the pistol back into the little girl’s head. She squirms away. The barrel must be hot, now.
Hank realizes she’s missing a shoe. She can't be more than ten.
The negotiator's gone quiet. SWAT must’ve decided on a game plan.
Hank doesn’t know what the android sees, in that moment. He can only guess it’s snipers, by the way he snaps his gaze not just right, but up. Realizes he’s running short on options.
The little girl’s hands clutch tighter at his arm, eyes clenched tightly shut. The android’s eyes are wide open, wild.
He throws the gun down.
Then he steps back.
She’s missing a shoe, is the only stunned thought that keeps passing through Hank’s mind.
One pink sock.
The camera cuts away before they hit the ground.