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Man's Sickbed and Mankind's Deathbed

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The morning is misty, the ruined city absolutely still. Dew clings to the grass growing through the pieces of the street, and the dawn’s first light casts an ethereal glow around the plant-life that cradles the buildings and street signs.

Connor is paying more attention to the environmental data fed to him by his near-constant scanning than he is to the beauty that surrounds him. But even so, he wishes he could have been cognizant of the glory of the city back when it was whole.

But there isn’t time to waste on nostalgia or such soft regrets. He and Hank have work to do.

Hank walks behind Connor, hauling the pull-cart. His rifle is slung over his shoulder today even though they’re not hunting, just as a precaution. Every so often Hank grunts softly with exertion. He’s clearly trying to hide it, but it still causes Connor a twinge of worry every time his oversensitive system picks up on it. He wishes they could get a horse to spare Hank the trouble of hauling the cart by himself, or maybe even a mule, but it simply isn’t a logistical possibility. It’s hard enough keeping themselves alive.

Connor wishes for a lot of things these days. He wishes Hank doesn’t.

As they turn onto a new street, Connor’s scan returns with an interesting result. He puts up a hand to halt Hank. “Wait a minute. I spotted some wild yarrow.”

Hank huffs softly, setting down the cart and leaning against the shaft to rest. “Yarrow? This far into the city?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if New Detroit is growing their own yarrow. A bird might have swallowed a few seeds.”

“If they have their own, they won’t want to trade for it.”

Connor makes his way over to the plant, cutting as far down the stems as he can. “Then we can use it for ourselves.”

Hank snorts softly while Connor loads the fresh plant with the rest of the herbs they’re carrying. As he climbs off the back of the cart, he activates his scan one more time to make sure he hasn’t missed anything else in the area—

—and is slightly surprised when his scan tags an object across the street, hidden in the darkened interior of a ruined storefront.

Connor frowns softly. Hank, so intimately attuned to Connor’s moods, immediately picks up on the shift even though Connor isn’t facing him. “What is it?”

“Hold on. Stay here a minute. I need to get closer to see what it is.”

But a moment later, Hank is next to him anyway, rifle in his arms. He raises his lip at Connor as if to say, You really expect me to stay behind?

They cautiously approach the building together, Hank with his rifle raised, Connor with his scan engaged. As they draw near the crumbled wall, Connor’s system is finally able to make out that the object is a mid-sized case of thirium. Sitting out on the floor among the detritus of the building, still sealed shut.

“It’s thirium,” Connor murmurs. “Still fresh in the case.”

Hank stiffens. “Anybody around?”

“The only biometrics I’m picking up are our own and negligible small fauna. I’m not pinging any androids either.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Hank mutters. “This is neutral territory. Closer to New Detroit than Jericho, sure, but there’s no way the androids haven’t already scouted out here.”

“My scan would pick up any booby traps.”

“Even a trap inside the case?”

“It appears to still be sealed.” But even as he says this, Connor’s heart sinks.

Hank lowers his rifle, pulling Connor away from the building by the shoulder. “Then the humans in New Detroit learned a new trick. Come on. I don’t want you caught up in one of their stupid traps.”

Connor follows without argument. A familiar sorrow fills him, and his footsteps don’t carry their usual crisp energy.

Hank turns toward him, a soft expression on his face. When Connor reaches him, Hank opens his arms and Connor melts into the embrace. He kisses Hank’s neck, and under the layer of grime and sweat and hard living, Connor can taste Hank on his lips. Familiar and comforting and sharper than ever before.

“It’s not always gonna be like this,” Hank whispers into Connor’s hair. “You n’ me are proof of that. They just have to learn.”

Connor draws back. Hank’s face is dirty and scarred, but his eyes are as clear as ever. Connor can see himself reflected in those eyes, a patchwork of damaged chassis peeking through his artificial skin in places. A crack leads up to his eye, and Connor doesn’t know if it can be repaired.

But Hank doesn’t see him as something different from himself. He sees Connor as his, crack and chassis and all.

As though Hank is thinking the same thing, he gives Connor a swift peck on the lips before returning to the cart, ready to pull the load again.

Connor asks, “If the case is boobytrapped, should we do something about it?”

Hank hesitates, then shakes his head, his hair falling before his eyes. “Whoever comes along next has just gotta watch out for themselves.”

Accepting this easily, Connor falls into step next to Hank, resuming his scan.

The sun is climbing higher in the sky by the time they reach New Detroit. The walls stretch around several city blocks, most of the territory covered by the ballpark and the football stadium. Connor can see those twin buildings side by side beyond the wall as he, Hank, and their belongings are processed by the guards at the gate.

Connor has never been inside the ballpark or the football stadium. Neither has Hank, but that’s only because Connor isn’t permitted. At the very least, most of the guards are polite to Connor. The one they’re dealing with today even awkwardly compliments Connor on his jacket while they hash out the terms of today’s trades.

A little venison for a in exchange for clean water. Five rabbits in exchange for a new pair of boots for Hank. Wild herbs in exchange for ammunition.

And then the tough work begins. Hank and Connor unload the crates from Jericho, already unsealed so the residents of New Detroit can see that all the contents have been carefully inspected. Today's load, requested by the residents of New Detroit, is mostly spare parts for generators and other small-but-necessary machines.

Such things are invaluable in a world where mass manufacturing has shut down entirely. So naturally, Jericho has their own list of requests in return.

Rose, the woman they most frequently trade with, shakes her head when Connor finishes reading off the list. “Look, you know I try to be fair. But there’s no way we can provide Jericho with oil and gasoline. It might be temperate now, but we have to keep ourselves warm when the days draw shorter.”

Connor and Hank share a look, a silent discussion passing between them. Rose does usually try to be fair, or at least fairer than some of the humans Hank and Connor trade with. Connor gives a near-imperceptible nod to tell Hank to press her.

“Sure you do,” Hank says amiably. “Listen, I think we can work this out. If you provide the fuel, maybe Jericho will be more open to the possibility of expanding the neutral territory toward the river.”

Rose frowns. “A possibility isn’t a guarantee.” But there’s something thoughtful about her expression. “Will you put in a good word for us, Connor?”

Connor shoves his memory of the boobytrapped thirium into a background process. “Of course.”

“Alright. Half the fuel now, half later once Jericho’s agreed to the expansion. And—” Rose produces her own list of requests for future trading.

Hank just gives a wan smile. “Of course.”

Soon after, Hank and Connor are heading out, their cart newly loaded with goods for Jericho. Connor can sense sentries on the wall watching him even after they pass out of New Detroit territory.

Another hour’s walk, and soon Detroit River comes into view. The imposing figure of Cyberlife Tower has been visible since they arrived at the gates of New Detroit, but as the buildings give way to ruin, Connor and Hank can see the great rusted freighter sunken in the water between Belle Isle and the shore like something halfway between a fortress and a threat.

There are no guards in sight to greet them as they haul the cart up a ramp and into a hole in the side of the freighter. They have to continue on some distance into the darkness before androids materialize out of the shadows, stopping Hank in his tracks and unloading the cart themselves.

“That isn’t necessary,” Connor protests, as he does every time they enter Jericho. “We’d be more than happy to assist.”

But the androids continue their work, ignoring his words.

A WR400 appears next to Connor. “Per the transaction record, we’ll be performing preventative maintenance on you today in accordance with our last negotiation.”

“Hello North,” Connor says. “May Hank accompany me?”

North rolls her eyes. “Quit asking. Your human’s lucky to have made it this far.”

“It’s fine,” Hank says before Connor can protest further. “Don’t give ‘em a hard time, we’re guests in their home.”

All Connor can do is lock his expression to keep his irritation from showing. Sometimes he wonders if Hank gets as fed up with the New Detroit humans as he gets with the Jericho androids. Somehow having such unwelcoming behavior displayed by his own people feels more insulting than any of the unkind words he’s heard in the past from humans.

Then he thinks about the boobytrapped case of thirium again. He thinks about all the other traps that he and Hank don’t manage to find. He tells himself that he and Hank put up with this kind of pehavior in order to break down these kinds of barriers, and the voice in his head sounds like Hank’s.

While Hank waits on the freighter being endlessly scanned by the android guards, Connor is escorted onto Belle Isle, and then into the Cyberlife Tower, tall and somehow just as pristine as it has always been.

If Connor’s scans weren’t as strong as they are, he would never notice the invisible remnants of ancient bloodstains spilling across every floor.

Connor is taken down an elevator and into a maintenance bay where a technician opens him up and flushes his system, giving his hardware a tuneup and reformatting his software.

North stands by the entire time. While he’s cracked open on a metal gurney, Connor explains New Detroit’s terms on the fuel agreement. “They want you to allow an expansion of the neutral territory.”

North snorts derisively. “No way. I’m not about to agree to cede territory to the humans.”

“It wouldn’t become human territory. It would be open to both humans and androids”

“Bullshit,” North says. “I can tolerate playing venture capitalist with you and your human if it helps our people, but I’m not about to let the humans encroach on our—“

“North.” A voice rings out, interrupting. Neither North nor Connor have to look to know that Markus has just arrived.

Markus carries an air of majesty about him even despite his missing eye. He approaches calmly, and for a single moment, Connor’s processes stutter when Markus meets his gaze.

“Jericho agrees to New Detroit’s proposal,” Markus says.

North makes an indignant noise. “Markus—”

“My word is final.” Markus shoots her a look that could be a warning. “We have more to gain by engaging in these negotiations than we do by stubbornly clinging to assets we don’t need.”

North rolls her head sharply, her braid whipping across her back. But she doesn’t argue. She only shoots Connor a brief glare as if he’s to blame for this result.

In a certain way, he is.

When Connor’s repairs are finished, North has one of the guards patrolling the halls of Cyberlife escort Connor out. Connor knows her post is out on the freighter and she ought to be heading that way anyhow, but she must be angry. Connor lingers for a moment, unsure whether he should make a conciliatory gesture of some sort. But North is already striding away, the tension in her frame apparent with each quick step, and Connor knows she would only resent any demand from him for more of her attention.

When he gets back to the freighter, he’s relieved to see Hank unharmed. He has calculated that there is only an incredibly small probability that a Jericho android would hurt Hank while he’s in their custody, but any risk is still too great a risk when it comes to Hank’s safety.

Hank is quiet as they haul the cart across the gangplank and back to solid ground. Connor waits until they’re beyond the point where Jericho’s cursory surveillance methods could pick up their conversation. It isn’t until they’re safely down a wide, mossy, empty street, surrounded by crumbling skyscrapers that he speaks up. “Did they do anything to you?”

Hank blinks in surprise, his brow rising. “Huh?”

“You’re being quiet. I thought…”

Hank frowns, shaking his head absently. “No, no. They didn’t do anything to me. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

Hank glances at him. Every now and again there are moments where their eyes meet and Hank’s clear, sharp gaze feels like it cuts straight through Connor, penetrating all his defenses and making him forget the laws of logic and programming that bind him. This is one of those moments.

“Do they ever ask you to stay with them?” Hank asks, his gaze so piercing that it takes an additional half a second for Connor’s system a moment to catch up and process the question.

“No,” Connor says. “I don’t think they want me around. Why do you ask?”

Hank tears his eyes away and lowers his head, shrugging.

Connor hazards, “Does New Detroit ever ask you to stay?”

Tension shoots across Hank’s shoulders, and that’s how Connor knows the answer.

“Connor—”

“It’s alright,” Connor says, not sure why he feels vaguely hurt. He has so much more to worry about. And Hank is all that truly matters to him, so why should anyone in Jericho or New Detroit make him feel somehow inferior?

“No, you need to know—” Hank drops the shaft of the cart to force the wagon to a halt. “I made it known to them. We’re a package deal. I would never join them if you weren’t welcome too.”

Hank has such an intense look on his eyes, something halfway between passion and disgust, that Connor has to lower his gaze. Hank is so much. Sometimes it makes Connor feel empty.

The silence lasts a few beats longer before Hank puts his hands on the shaft again, readying himself to lift the cart.

“If I were welcome,” Connor asks softly, “would you want to join them?”

Hank pauses, then shrugs. “I dunno. We couldn’t keep doing this if we joined New Detroit. No way Jericho would trade with us anymore.”

“You’d be more comfortable in a settlement. You’d be safer.”

“This is more important,” Hank murmurs softly. “We’re bringing them together in a way no one else can. Maybe it’s slowgoing work, but things are better between them thanks to us.”

The image of the boobytrapped thirium flashes through Connor’s mind again, and he shuts down his recall process forcefully. Things are better. He knows Hank is right.

“And,” Hank says more softly after a moment, “maybe someday what we’re doing will result in a place where we’ll both be welcome.”

Connor allows a small, crooked smile to pull at his face. “You’re a bleeding heart.”

“Yeah, well.” Hank hefts the cart with a grunt. “Good thing I have a cold-blooded robot around watching my back.”

Connor feels his smile widen. Despite his recent maintenance, something inside his face creaks in a worrying way as he does so. But that isn’t surprising. Just like all the androids in Jericho, he is a damaged machine fighting against futility for every fresh moment of his existence.

In a way, he thinks he and Hank might both be fighting against futility. The world is in ruins around them, city streets littered with debris from structures that have been abandoned for decades. Twilight is falling, the sun shining through shattered windowframes of pitted buildings.

But the sun is also shining on Hank’s face. Hank’s skin is weathered and lined with hardship, but he has a reason to live. He has hope. Even if Connor and Hank are doomed to fall apart, they have the potential to create something that could endure after the two of them are gone. Something meaningful, something worth struggling for.

Their chances might be small. But when Connor looks into Hank’s face, he can almost understand the human concept of faith.

Connor turns his eyes away modestly. As Hank begins pulling the cart, Connor launches into his scan anew, wondering if all the power behind his processing will ever help him see the world the way Hank does.

 

***

 

When Connor raises his fingers to his mouth, Hank, like he always does when he catches Connor doing this, makes a disgusted face.

Connor just pauses long enough to shoot Hank an impatient look, gesturing vaguely to the wilderness around them. Having the same silent argument they do every time. And even though Connor always wins that argument by his count, Hank still sticks out his tongue when he thinks Connor isn’t looking.

It only takes Connor a microsecond to process the data. A strong, healthy buck, free from parasites and disease. Large and well-nurtured. As Connor files away this information, his scan picks up on the tracks leading further into the brush. The buck stopped here not long ago. It must still be nearby.

Connor lifts his head and jerks two fingers in the direction the tracks lead. He pulls his weapon from over his shoulder, and Hank’s expression smooths in understanding.

Connor, more precise than Hank could ever hope to be, carries the bow. Today Hank is carrying the rifle, but solely for protection.

They follow the tracks through the wild suburban landscape, across cracked driveways and through the shell of a house that has been utterly reclaimed by weeds and plantlife. Hank pauses in a backyard to stare at a plastic playhouse, the bright colors long bleached by the sun. Connor has to gently touch his elbow to pull him back to reality.

Eventually Connor’s system picks up the not-too-distant noises of a large animal. He peeks up from behind a fallen tree trunk and sees the buck about 25 ft away, lowering its head to drink from a gutter. Sunlight shines off its pelt, and Connor scans its biometrics, logging each bit of data while he preconstructs the buck’s next movements. With the way its withers are tensing, Connor can predict it will soon slowly and serenely raise its head.

Connor raises his bow, drawing back and aiming. At the same time, Hank kneels down next to Connor. Something crunches beneath his knee and Hank lets out a soft hiss of pain.

The buck startles, head snapping up. As if in slow motion, Connor sees its muscles ripple as it begins to run, so he adjusts his trajectory in nanoseconds and lets his arrow fly. The arrow lands true just as the buck’s hooves push off from the ground, and inertia carries it a few more feet as it crashes down, dead.

Connor turns to Hank, reaching. Hank is already frowning, brow furrowed in irritation. “I’m fine, Jesus Christ—just knelt on a broken bottle…”

But Connor pushes Hank’s hands away, forcing Hank to adjust himself and show his knee. The glass shards have torn through Hank’s trousers and cut his knee. Not a bad cut though, and Connor’s processing stutters with relief to see Hank hasn’t suffered a wound that would require stitches.

“First aid kit,” Connor murmurs.

Hank digs the kit out of his backpack with a noise halfway between a snort and a sigh. Connor cleans away the dirt, debris, and blood with pad of rubbing alcohol.

Connor says in an uncharacteristically small voice, “Will you let me scold you for not being careful?”

Hank rolls his eyes, but Connor is attuned to Hank’s moods and knows he isn’t serious. “Will it help you feel better?”

“Yes.”

“Then scold away.” Hank gives an impatient wave of his hand.

But Connor doesn’t scold Hank. He hesitates, then crawls over Hank’s lap to kiss him.

They don’t have time to sit here and linger in this moment of tenderness. But Hank’s eyes soften and he presses his forehead against Connor’s, resting for as long as it takes to sigh. “We’re still alive.”

Connor nods, pulling away and wishing he didn’t have to. “We’re still alive.”

Connor pulls Hank to his feet even though Hank doesn’t need the help. Connor retrieves the arrow from the deer carcass before heaving the whole thing over his shoulder, feeling the miniature hydraulic presses inside his reinforced frame keeping him from bowing over at all.

“Are you feeling well enough to keep hunting?” Connor asks as he and Hank make their way back to the cart. He doesn’t need to initiate his investigative protocols to see that Hank is slightly favoring his uninjured leg, and Hank’s eyes are tight with enough pain to notice. He silently hopes for a moment that Hank will let himself take it easy just for a few hours.

But Hank shrugs, his expression carefully neutral. “I’m good for more if you are.”

They both know Connor is good for more. Connor is always good for more.

Connor doesn’t say anything. He just loads the deer carcass into the back of the cart and nocks a new arrow, trying to cancel whatever social algorithm is trying to paint disappointment across his face. Hank has a point. They can’t take it easy. The more trading they do, the better things will be for everybody.

Taking point again, Connor gestures for Hank to follow him. His scan has picked up the trail of a rabbit that came through the yard just an hour ago or so, and Connor predicts it couldn’t have gotten very far in the meantime.

 

***

 

A week later, Hank wakes up with a fever.

Connor senses it first, jarred out of stasis by Hank stirring in his sleep beside him. He’s able to instantly pick up on Hank’s elevated body temperature just from their close proximity, and when he lays a hand across Hank’s forehead to get an exact reading, he sits up, alarmed.

Hank’s eyes crack open at Connor’s movement. Even as he awakens, he grunts slightly with discomfort.

“Shit—” Connor pulls back their tattered blanket to check Hank’s cut. He peels back the bandage—just a clean piece of fabric taped to Hank’s knee now that the bleeding has long since stopped—and finds the skin around the scab red and even hotter than the rest of Hank.

“Infected,” Connor mutters with muted horror.

Hank immediately tries to sit up. “We got any acetaminophen?”

“Lie back down.” But Connor is already digging through the first aid box even as he says this. He finds a single-dose packet of tablets—expired, but that doesn’t matter—and passes it to Hank.

Hank dry-swallows both tablets at once. “Alright. That’ll take care of the fever.” He moves as if to get off the bedroll. “I can probably make it for a couple hours of hunting—“

“No,” Connor snaps, pushing Hank down. “You have to rest. You don’t have a choice. We don’t have any antibiotics, Hank!”

Hank’s mouth twists as if he’s going to argue, but then he lays back down with an annoyed sigh.

All day, Connor organizes and reorganizes his and Hank’s stock of medicinal herbs. Separating out anything that might be helpful against an infection. Hank tries telling him that it’s not a good idea dipping into what they owe New Detroit, but Connor doesn’t listen.

When the pills wear off, Hank's fever returns even stronger than before. Hank shivers through the night, restless as his sweat soaks the bedroll, and Connor doesn’t close his eyes at all. He curls up against Hank’s back, holding Hank close and monitoring his condition.

“Your condition isn’t improving,” Connor says as he buttons up his jacket the dawn of the third day of Hank’s illness. “I’m going to find you some antibiotics.”

Hank’s eyes are glassy and tight with pain, but he finds the strength to lift his head. “Where…?”

“New Detroit. They have to have medication.”

Hank’s voice rasps with fever. “They’re not going to just give out something as precious as antibiotics. Connor…”

Connor bends down, pressing his face tightly against Hank’s. Hank’s skin burns against his, and even though Connor’s voice is full of passionate intensity, his touch is feather-gentle. “I won’t just sit here and watch you die.”

Hank just swallows, his throat bobbing as Connor presses him back into his pillow.

Connor doesn’t let himself kiss Hank. He refuses to believe in the superstition of a last kiss farewell. He knows Hank will still be waiting for him when he comes back.

Connor doesn’t bother to bring the cart out into the dewy morning. Time is of the essence more than anything, and this isn’t going to be like his usual bartering. He won’t have any need of material goods to trade.

The New Detroit patrol is surprised when Connor jogs up to the gate, alone and without his cart.

“I need help,” he gasps, turning up the emotionality of his social relations matrix. Letting himself seem desperate, distraught. “Please. Hank is sick. He needs antibiotics.”

When the gate opens to let the guards in, Connor goes to follow. Inside the antechamber separating the rest of the compound from the outside world, he is told to wait for the guard to relay his message to the higher ups.

An hour passes. A doctor appears to interrogate Connor about Hank’s condition (she wants to know how Conor can tell Hank needs vancomycin specifically; she does not seem impressed when Connor demonstrates how he analyzed the infected wound) and disappears as quickly as she came.

Eventually, Rose enters the antechamber. It only takes Connor a microsecond to analyze her expression and determine she’s been tasked with telling him what he doesn’t want to hear.

“Rose,” Connor says before she can even open her mouth. “Please. After everything he’s done for your community…”

To her credit, Rose looks regretful. “I’m so sorry, Connor. I fought as hard as I could for you. But I was outvoted and there wasn’t anything I could do.”

Connor preconstructs his options and decides to gamble on an appeal to empathy. He takes Rose’s hand in his. “Please. All he needs is one vial. He’ll die without it.”

Genuine anguish crosses Rose’s face, and if it wasn’t Hank’s life on the line, Connor might feel bad about asking her to steal something so precious from her own community.

But then Rose raises her head to meet his eyes, and the furtive look on her face surprises even him.

“Listen to me,” Rose says in a quiet, low voice. “Go to Jericho. They have antibiotics. They can help you.”

Connor doesn’t bother asking why Jericho has medicine in their possession that no android could use. The answer is obvious: for use as a bargaining chip.

 

***

 

Connor can feel androids scanning him before he even reaches Jericho. He jogs through the ruined streets of Detroit, blinking as he’s pinged by androids watching from shattered windows ten stories above the earth. It’s a little bewildering to be an object of so much scrutiny now of all times. He’s watched less closely even when he’s bringing a human and a cart full of unknown objects into android territory.

As soon as the half-sunken freighter comes into view, identical androids from either side flank him, keeping him from retreating. They practically frog-march him up the gangplank and into the ship, even through Connor gives no indication he might run away.

Inside the freighter, North appears, walking with their little group.

“What is this?” Connor asks.

“Markus’s orders.” North speaks without looking at him. “He said if you were to ever show up without your human, to bring you straight to him.”

This very much isn’t the time for it, but hearing Hank referred to as “his human” gives him a pleasant fluttering feeling low in his abdomen.

He’s brought off the sunken freighter and onto Belle Isle, into the gleaming, grand Cyberlife Tower. Still as shiny and impressive as always, but Connor can't help but wonder what the androids will do when the present catches up to them. Where will the androids of Jericho go when their tower becomes unsound and their freighter collapses into the river? Somehow, Connor can’t imagine them patching together their own walls and building Cyberlife Tower into a patchwork community like New Detroit.

Instead of dropping down into the maintenance bays, the elevator rises, and Connor purposely presses his hands against the glass as he watches the lobby grow more and more distant.

Markus is sitting at the end of a boardroom table when they finally reach him. He’s joined by the androids who serve as his counsel, Simon and Josh, along with a handful of other androids Connor doesn’t recognize. North takes her place at Markus’s right hand when they enter the room.

Connor tries to hide his unease. All these androids staring right at him make him feel as though he’s on trial.

“Connor, welcome.” Markus’s voice is somehow both warm and distant. “We noticed you arrived today without any goods for us and without your partner. You must have a proposition for us.”

Connor launches into what he came to say without preamble. “Hank is sick. He needs vancomycin, and I was told you have it.”

Markus nods along in measured agreement. “Where did you hear that we have antibiotics?”

“New Detroit.”

“Which is obviously where you went first. And they wouldn’t give you what you need.”

Connor betrays no emotion. “They have more need of it than you do.”

“That’s arguable,” Markus says quietly. He continues on as if he hadn’t said anything. “We’re more than willing to negotiate, Connor. What will you give us in exchange for what you need?”

“Anything,” Connor replies.

“Do you mean that?” Markus asks. “Would you give us your life for Hank’s?”

Connor scowls, unable to stop himself from blurting out, “That would make no sense. You wouldn’t trade with a human on his own, so my life is obviously worth more to you than Hank’s. It would benefit you more to let Hank die and keep me alive than it would to make me die in Hank’s place.”

To Connor’s surprise, Josh begins to quietly laugh. When Markus levels Josh with an even look, Josh covers his mouth, regaining his composure.

“Well, at least you have a decent grasp on the reality of our situation,” Markus says. “No, Connor, of course we don’t want you dead. You’re far too useful to us.”

Connor folds his hands behind his back, waiting for Markus to say whatever he’s going to say.

Markus raises his head. “Connor, your model has a reinforced skeleton.”

“Yes.”

“What’s the composition of the alloy it’s made of?”

Connor blinks in surprise. “You didn’t recover my specs from Cyberlife?”

Markus just smiles bitterly. “You said you would give anything in exchange for this medicine. Did you mean that?”

“Of course,” Connor replies without hesitation.

Markus glances at the androids closest to him. “Simon, North, please escort Connor down to the maintenance bay. Josh, collect the vancomycin and prepare it in a refrigerated container for Connor.”

Connor smiles softly. When North grips his arm to pull him toward the elevator, he follows obediently. She keeps an iron grasp on him as if she thinks he might change his mind, but Connor knows he won’t regret this no matter what they do to him.

As Connor is led into the elevator, Markus calls from behind. “And Connor? Come to Jericho first the next time you need something like this.”

Before Connor can put together a polite way to say that he hopes he won’t need anything like this ever again, the elevator doors close and pull him down into the depths of the Earth.

 

***

 

Weakness is an unfamiliar sensation to Connor. With every step, he feels like his legs are about to give out beneath him, and yet he has to put one foot in front of the other over and over again.

If he turned up the force of the microhydraulics that control his every move, he might feel a little better. But he can’t do that. He had to purposely lower the force when his reinforced skeleton was replaced with whatever Jericho had on-hand in the maintenance bay. Connor has no frame of reference, but he suspects it is a substandard emergency backup and would warp and break under the power of Connor’s full strength.

But it doesn’t matter. He might not ever be able to lift a deer with one hand ever again, or even haul the cart when it’s fully loaded, but Connor can still walk. That’s all he needs to do to carry the antibiotics across Detroit and back to Hank.

When Connor crawls back into their home base, he sags with relief to see Hank still breathing, thermal signature still bright with fever. Hank appears to be asleep, but the moment Connor steps into their room, Hank stirs, moaning softly.

Connor kneels down next to Hank. “Go back to sleep,” he murmurs as he pulls Hank’s arm toward him and readies a syringe. “I have to give you a shot.”

Hank snorts suddenly, slurring, “Can’t be ‘ny worse ‘n how I ‘ready feel.”

“Shh.” It only takes a moment for Connor to find a vein. As soon as he’s administered Hank’s first dose, he puts the vial back in its refrigerated container and lays down next to Hank, curling up against him.

It’s too soon for the medicine to already be taking effect, but even so, Hank’s gaze seems more focused. “You got th’ antibiotics. From New Detroit?”

Connor hums softly.

“Connor…” Hank wets his lips. “What did you have to trade away?”

Connor closes his eyes, pressing his face against Hank’s. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing that’s more important than your life.”

 

***

 

As the days go by, Hank recuperates slowly. He isn’t well enough to join Connor on their next scheduled trip into the ruins of Detroit, which would be inconvenient if Connor had been able to scavenge enough for a usual load. But with the events of… everything… he only manages to drag less than half of what New Detroit ordered into the city.

If the humans are disappointed, they don’t show it. They send Rose out to deal with him, and she’s perfectly gracious and understanding. She even manages to pull Connor away for a moment to ask how Hank is doing.

“Hank’s recuperating,” Connor says with a guarded smile. “Your tip probably saved his life, Rose.”

Rose gives a relived sigh, the corners of her mouth turning upward. She pulls a bar of chocolate out of her sleeve and passes it to Connor. “For your man. Tell him we all wish him a speedy recovery.”

Connor smiles in return—and for a brief moment, it’s as if there’s no trouble at all between mankind and androids, and he can pretend he and Rose are merely neighbors helping one another. Noble and selfless beings.

But when Connor is on his way out, one of the New Detroit guards squints at him in such a way that Connor instantly knows what he’s thinking, and he’s left feeling alone and naked.

Jericho, when Connor arrives, has no gifts for Hank or well-wishes. Just North, who steps toward Connor while androids unload Connor’s meager delivery. “Markus has a message for you.”

“Yes?” Connor replies.

North’s frown has a resentful curl to it, but she manages to keep see voice neutral enough. “He’s glad for the opportunity to negotiate with you and looks forward to dealing with you again soon.”

Something about the phrasing makes Connor bristle. It almost sounds like Markus is looking forward to Hank once again becoming desperately sick.

But that won’t happen. Connor gives Hank his medicine three times a day, charting Hank’s improvement with each new dose. Hank’s fever lessens, his strength and his appetite gradually returning.

But at the end of the course of vancomycin, Hank isn’t quite back at 100% yet. He’s able to easily sit up from his bedroll to let Connor give him his injection—but he hasn’t been up and walking around anywhere near as much as he used to before he got sick.

Even though Connor doesn’t say anything, Hank must spot the worried look on his face, for as soon as the Connor puts away the empty vial, Hank drags Connor down for a kiss.

“I’m fine,” Hank murmurs against Connor’s mouth. “They gave you a full course. I feel great.”

But the last traces of Hank’s fever won’t go away. Hank is finally well enough to get back to his usual activities, but even so, his temperature doesn’t drop below 99 for even a moment.

Connor watches him while he eats, while he sleeps, while they’re out foraging and hunting. Waiting for Hank to either make a full recovery or for something terrible to happen.

Four days after they use up the last of the antibiotics, they go out hunting. They’re hours away from their base, the sun high in the sky. They’re tracking small game in a ruined suburb, unusual quarry necessitated by Connor’s reduced strength and inability to pull a cart loaded down with deer and elk.

(Connor had tried to play it off, saying he thought Hank would look strapping with a raccoon pelt hat for the upcoming winter. Hank had laughed and said with how long it had been since his last shave, he’d end up looking less like Davy Crockett and more like Sasquatch.)

Connor is out in front, following the tracks of a mother fox and her kits. Hank trails behind, carrying the rabbits, squirrels, and lone groundhog they’ve managed to catch so far.

Just as Connor spots a flash of a red tail disappearing behind a garage, there’s a soft thud from behind. Connor turns to look, and he sees Hank leaning heavily on a burned-out shell of a car in the street.

Connor nearly drops his bow. He doesn’t have to touch Hank or even scan him to see from his flushed cheeks and the sweat dripping down his face that his fever has spiked.

“Hank—“

“I’m fine,” Hank says even as he cringes through his dizziness. “Just overheating.”

“You’re shivering,” Connor says, feigning exasperation to hide his mounting horror. He tries to pull Hank away from the car, but Hank shoves him away, stumbling to his feet.

“I said I’m fine,” Hank snaps. “Don’t mess around, that fox is probably—”

“Forget the damn fox.” Connor doesn’t relent, dragging Hank back the way they came. “You need to get home. Now.”

Hank’s protestations die within minutes. He fades quickly, and soon Connor has to duck under his arm and let Hank lean on him, stumbling out of suburbia. Connor can practically feel Hank’s energy leave him as he puts more and more of his weight on Connor. During the last leg of their trek, in order to save time, Connor pulls Hank across his shoulders and carries him in a fireman’s lift the rest of the way home.

Hank is breathing shallowly by the time Connor lays him out on his bedroll. Connor doesn’t need to taste Hank’s blood to see what’s happening. The medicine couldn’t beat back Hank’s infection. His sickness is back now, and unless Connor gets more antibiotics, and soon, Hank is going to die.

Connor doesn’t waste his effort going to New Detroit this time. He knows they won’t help him, and he needs to get help as quickly as he can.

He runs all the way across the city to Jericho. As before, the Jericho patrol fall into line next to him once he’s far enough into android territory.

When they reach the freighter, North doesn’t look surprised to see him. She just beckons him further inside, escorting him through the freighter, onto Belle Isle, and into the tower. This time, Connor meets Markus accompanied only by North, Simon, and Josh with none of the other androids present.

“The antibiotics weren’t enough,” Connor blurts out before Markus can even greet him. “His infection is back, and stronger. He needs more vancomycin. As much as you can spare.”

Connor can see the gears turning in Markus’s head as he nods. “Of course. Under the same conditions as the last time? You’re still willing to give me whatever I want?”

“Yes,” Connor replies. His newly-weakened legs feel like they might give out underneath him, but he locks his joins and stands tall. “Take whatever you want.”

Josh shoots Markus a look that seems halfway between a plea and a warning. “Markus, are we really going through with this?”

North whips around as if to shout at him, but Markus cuts her off with a simple gesture. “Of course we are.”

Somewhere in a part of his mind that isn’t flooded with worry for Hank, Connor wonders at this. He had always though Josh to be the member of the Jericho council most sympathetic to humans.

Josh seems pained somehow. “We can still do the right thing here and go no further. We don’t have to—”

“Simon,” Markus interrupts, gaze flicking to the android he’s suddenly addressing. “Please escort Josh to his chambers.”

Simon stands still for a long moment. Then—as if he’s somehow ashamed of himself, he looks down as he moves to Josh’s side. He takes Josh roughly by the shoulder and moves out of the room with him.

Markus turns his attention to Connor again. “I’m sorry you had to see that moment of insubordination. Rest assured we’re going to help you and Mr. Anderson.” A small smile crosses Markus’s face. “I understand the RK800 model has a specialized scan function.”

Connor nods.

Markus continues, “The software is entirely specialized, I’m sure, but I bet the hardware must also be highly advanced to match the requirements.”

“Take it,” Connor says. “Take it all, I don’t care.”

Markus’s smile widens slightly, as if this is exactly what he expected Connor to say. He nods once at North. “Please escort Connor down to Maintenance.”

As the elevator plunges down into the earth, Connor engages his scan to slow his perception of time. He paints Hank’s face in wireframe before his eyes just so he can see it one last time.

 

***

 

In the end, they don’t take the entirety of Connor’s optical units. They just take the photoelectric nodes behind his eyes that are responsible for his scan function. They don’t replace them with anything this time, leaving Connor entirely without the ability to analyze visual information beyond cursory processing.

He can see, but he still feels blinded as he staggers out into the world again. He trips over a broken chunk of asphalt in the road, the first time he has ever tripped over any stationary object in his entire existence. Before, his scan would have detected it and his physiologic software would have adjusted his trajectory automatically. A surge of dismay courses through Connor as he realizes that he has lost a source of information one which he heavily relied. More than that, he feels as if he has lost an intrinsic aspect of himself.

Making his way back to home base is slow-going. His need to deliver the medicine quickly to Hank is frustrated by his need to carefully protect his cargo and his need to re-orient himself to a world that suddenly seems out-of-focus.

He tells himself that he isn’t blinded; now he just sees the world the same way that Hank does. Just like how he isn’t weak now. He’s just as strong as Hank. Everything he’s gone through has only brought him closer to Hank, and when Hank is better, they’ll be able to appreciate this new paradigm together.

It takes far too long for him to reach Hank’s bedside again. But Hank is still breathing and that’s all that matters.

As Connor pulls out a vial and a fresh syringe for Hank’s dose of medicine, Connor pauses just long enough to do an experiment. He takes a single drop of the antibiotic and lets it fall onto his tongue.

The results of the analysis are instantaneous. Pure vancomycin. Nothing more, nothing less. Jericho has given Hank real medication. Connor’s deductive reasoning software kicks into gear. At once, he knows what Josh was so apprehensive about. Connor suppresses a shudder, trying to put such things out of his mind for now.

He keeps a vigil by Hank’s bedside for days, doing practically nothing but administering medication and trying to rouse Hank enough to take a sip of rabbit broth or willow bark tea.

During the second day of Hank’s illness, Connor sees small, red dots beginning to spread across Hank’s arms and stomach. Petechiae. Connor’s terror washes over him anew, and he increases the frequency of Hank’s dosage, glad he bargained with Jericho for more than enough vancomycin.

The fourth day of Hank’s illness, he develops a heart murmur. Connor knows this has to mean Hank has endocarditis. The infection has reached Hank’s heart. Connor holds Hank all throughout the night, silently begging the antibiotics to save Hank before the infection can ruin his heart.

By the fifth day, Hank is always either asleep or unconscious. Connor has to pour broth into his mouth and massage his throat to make him swallow anything at all. But Connor thinks it’s probably a mercy that Hank is unconscious. He hates to think that Hank might have to suffer the pain of what the infection is doing to him.

On the ninth day, the petechiae begin to fade. But Hank can barely be roused now, even when he’s spent the last 20 hours utterly motionless.

On the thirteenth day, Hank’s fever breaks. But he doesn’t so much as twitch when Connor calls his name.

Hank is pale, clammy, his face deeply creased as though he’s suffering a perpetual bad dream. He has lost much of his fat and muscle during the course of his illness; he almost looks like a corpse even as Connor can see he’s still warm and breathing.

And he won’t wake up. No matter what Connor does, he won’t wake up.

Connor continues the antibiotics until he’s certain the infection is gone. But that isn’t enough. Hank’s fingernails begin to turn blue, and when Connor presses his ear to Hank’s chest, he can hear a pronounced whoosh-whoosh of a worsened heart murmur.

The infection has damaged Hank’s heart. It’s likely leaking so badly that Connor knows Hank will die in a matter of days without ever waking up.

Connor knows what he has to do. He shuts himself away from the horror and the despair of it all and lifts Hank in his arms, carrying him like a bride. He gently puts Hank into the back of the pull-cart, loading around him as many supplies as he thinks he can pull. Only things for Hank; food, blankets, warm clothes, medicinal herbs, clean water.

Then he sets off for Jericho.

The moment he leaves the neutral territory and begins to approach Jericho's river, North appears, walking alongside him as though they’re out for a pleasant stroll.

She peers into the back of the cart. Connor braces for some snide comment, but she stays quiet. As android patrols approach, she waves them away, leaving Connor undisturbed as he pulls Hank toward Jericho.

The guards at the frieighter try to stop Connor from bringing Hank onto Belle Isle. But North sends them off with just a gesture. Connor can feel dozens of eyes on him as he brings Hank into Cyberlife Tower. It’s possible Hank is the first living human to be brought inside its walls since the end of the world.

Markus is alone when Connor is brought before him. Simon and Josh are nowhere to be seen, and even North leaves them alone for this. The boardroom seems far too large and cold for just them.

Markus smiles softly. “Welcome back Connor.”

Connor doesn’t look at Markus. He lowers himself until he’s kneeling, staring at the floor. “The infection damaged Hank’s heart. He needs surgery to repair it.”

Markus says, “It would take a lot of resources and expertise to do that.”

“You don’t have to be coy about it,” Connor says flatly. “I know what you want in exchange. I’ll do it.”

Markus doesn’t look surprised. “…I see.”

There’s a moment of silence while the both of them absorb the magnitude of what’s about to happen.

“You don’t have anything to say to me?” Markus says softly. “You’re not going to berate me like Josh?”

Connor shakes his head. “I really have nothing to say to you.”

Markus makes a sound almost like a sigh. “I see.” He moves to ward the elevator, gesturing for Connor to follow him. “Come, then. Let’s do our best to save your human.”

 

***

 

Connor is permitted to watch the surgery through a window. He keeps his hands pressed on the glass as he watches a pair of androids open Hank up like an android, putting metal and plastic inside of him.

When the surgery is over, they give Connor and Hank a small room with a clean bed. They tell Connor that they'll monitor Hank for seven days. When they leave, they'll be given some supplies and medicine to help Hank heal.

Hank spends the entire week too drugged to remember anything, and Connor spends the week holding Hank and trying not to think. He smells Hank's hair and tastes Hank's skin and tells himself that anything is worthwhile if he can keep Hank in his life.

The end of the seventh day comes with little fanfare. Markus gives Connor his instructions. The androids of Jericho load up Connor's cart. Then Connor departs.

 

***

 

In the dusky orange hours of twilight, Connor slowly rolls up to New Detroit. He asks the guard outside the gate for Rose, but before the guard can radio for her, Rose spots him from up on the rampart and shouts that she’ll be right down.

They stand and talk outside the walls of New Detroit. When Rose asks about Hank, Connor shows her the back of the cart, where Hank is laying in a bed of blankets in a doped sleep.

“We have to stop trading,” Connor says softly while Rose gingerly touches the wide pad of gauze taped to Hank’s chest. “Hank will have to spend the winter someplace warm, recovering, and I need to take care of him..”

“Jesus, Mary and…” Rose murmurs. “Open-heart surgery. After an infection like that… he’s gotta have the heart of a lion to survive such an ordeal.”

Connor gives her a wan smile. “We’re both survivors. He can’t give up on me any more than I could give up on him.”

Rose gives him a compassionate look. “Are you alright, Connor?”

Connor shrugs. “We'll probably have to leave the area. Maybe go further south, where it'll be warmer. Or find a hospital to hole up in.”

“Of course you do,” Rose murmurs. “We’ll miss you, Connor.”

Connor pulls a box from the back of the cart—a still-sealed case of thirium. “I want you to have this, Rose.”

Rose’s eyes widen in mild surprise. “Thirium?”

“You saved Hank’s life,” Connor says. “You were the only one here who helped me. Without you, I never would have thought to go to Jericho.”

“Connor, you need this more than I do…”

Connor shakes his head. “No, Rose. Listen—when Hank and I are gone, there will be nothing connecting New Detroit and Jericho anymore. They’ll just be two entities, suspicious and distrusting of each other. I know that’s not what you want.”

Rose’s eyes soften a little.

Connor pushes the crate of thirium toward her. “If you ever get the chance to deal with Jericho again, you can use this. Not like a bargaining chip, not like their antibiotics. You can use it as a gesture of goodwill. To show them that there are humans out there who still want peace. Just like androids. It might not be enough, but it’s something.”

“Connor…” Rose sighs softly. “…You really think there can be peace between humans and androids?”

Connor looks into the back of the cart, where Hank is sleeping soundly. “…I don’t have any doubt at all.”

Rose blinks sudden tears out of her eyes. She moves to pull Connor into a gentle hug, and Connor lets her. He rests his hands lightly on her back.

“It’s what Hank and I would both want,” Connor says softly. Something inside him twists at how true that is.

Rose nods, pulling away. “Alright. I understand.” She finally accepts the case of thirium.

As they part, Rose yells to Connor, “You take care of that man, you hear? And Hank Anderson, if you can hear me, you take care of that boy, too!”

Connor just smiles and waves over his shoulder at the distant figure she cuts, a bright speck in the growing darkness.

Connor walks all through the evening and into the night. He pulls the cart out of the perimeter of the city, and when he passes his and Hank’s home base, he doesn’t stop for anything they left behind.

It isn’t until the early hour right before dawn that the bomb goes off. Connor watches from a hill far in the distance as the tiny mushroom cloud spreads over New Detroit, catching the whole community under its deadly umbrella.

Connor feels—he feels. He doesn’t allow himself to feel. Not for Rose. Not for a peace that will never be. All he allows himself is the suffocating blanket of knowledge that Hank is safe and healing. Hank will be well if Connor can keep him well.

Connor only allows himself to watch the cloud for a few scant seconds. Then he turns away, pulling the cart behind him, struggling under the weight of it all.

He doesn’t know where he’s going. He doesn’t know what he’ll tell Hank when Hank is finally well enough to open his eyes. The possibilities flicker through his mind, one after another, and there are no perfect choices he can comfort himself with.

But he knows he’ll do his best to find some way to make it work. He would do anything to protect Hank.