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From Blue to Red Again

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"...Hands behind your back." The cop waved on one of his cohorts, flanked by anti-tank gunners. "Cuff her."

Julian was still getting his bearings, his brain swimming in a sea of signals all fighting for dominance. Diagnostic error: SUBPWRLT_80 not detected. Diagnostic error: Dynamic range insufficient to capture data. Diagnostic error... "Armitage!" he screamed, cutting through the voices in his mind.

Her gaze swiveled to meet his. Get out of here! she pleaded with her eyes. He had to understand. If she drew their attention to him, he was screwed.

But he was too groggy to even try to guess her meaning, and in any case it was too late. "Don't let that robot get away," a voice said, and two more guns were trained on Julian. "It's an illegal model."

Shit, no. With the cop inches away from cuffing her, she thrust out a leg and caught him hard in the stomach, sending him flying. I can't let them get to him. Power surged through her arm as she flipped a mental switch she hadn't thought of in months, and hydraulics in her skin ripped through scarred-over flesh. She aimed at the cops targeting Julian, kicking the laser into action with a mechanical whine just in case the motion hadn't gotten their attention.

Sure enough, they switched to her as their target, and this time Julian got the message. Praying that Armitage had had time to fit his shocks, he smashed a window and leapt from the apartment, an instant before her laser tore through the side of it.

The shocks in his legs held. He was crouched on the street, skinless, half-built, as the ashes of one vaporised cop slowly drifted down from the building above, flecking his plating with black.

He'd also landed slap-bang between two police cars, whose occupants now had their guns pointed at him.

They weren't kidding when they said they had us surrounded, he thought, making a fist experimentally and feeling electricity coil beneath the casing. For a moment, his nerves shivered with it: the strange, heavy, ecstatic burden of being alive once again. Guess it's time to see what this body can do.

 

The holding cell they'd put her in wasn't like any she'd seen in her time on the force. Instead of the usual concrete room painted in some drab, supposedly aggression-defusing colour, she'd been taken by elevator to a depth that she estimated at several hundred feet below sea level, to a chamber that gleamed disarmingly white and resembled, in those ways in which it did not resemble a hospital, some sort of nuclear bunker.

At least the process of being held was what she'd expected: a great deal of waiting around with nothing to do, until someone eventually showed up and decided to give her some insight. The identity of the bone-thrower, however, threw her for a loop all over again, as the door to her chamber opened to reveal a figure she hadn't seen in some time and hadn't expected to see again.

"...Lieutenant Randolph, sir?" The sir was reflexive: she'd absorbed that much protocol at least, and didn't think to differ in the midst of her shock that, of all people, the head of her old division would be visiting her here.

"Armitage." He closed the blast door behind him, letting out a heavy sigh as it slammed. "It's always a shame to lose a good officer. But if there's one person I regret having lost in all my years in the job, it's you."

"I don't understand why you're here," she said softly. "Dealing with prisoners isn't your jurisdiction." If this was important enough for the Lieutenant to see her personally, the news was either going to be very good-- or very bad.

"Because," he replied, looking weary, "I believe you deserve to be dealt with in your final hours by someone who'll afford you a modicum of respect."

Final...? She didn't speak the word out loud, but it showed all over her face.

"You must know by now that we have no way to detain you safely, not long-term. Even this cell is just a temporary measure." He indicated their surroundings. "And even if we did, the law doesn't provide for it. In the eyes of the government, you're not a person capable of standing trial; you're a robot to be wiped clean and repurposed. Your containment here is only for as long as it takes to decide whether you actually can be repurposed safely."

Armitage did know the standard procedure for dealing with robot criminals. She also didn't approve of it, which was why, in the cases she'd had to deal with involving robot-assisted crime, she'd always tried to find excuses to kill the robots at the scene. At least that way they got to die as themselves. To be stripped of your identity and recycled, treated as if the sum total of your mind and experiences were nothing more than interchangeable software, destroyed when it exceeded its usefulness: she found the thought abhorrent.

That it could happen to her, at the hands of people who'd worked with her, known her as a unique and living being, was something she'd always known deep down but refused to contemplate.

"Many of my other officers called you a cynic," he said, seeming to read her mind. She supposed he hadn't climbed to the top of the department on the strength of his stunning good looks. "But I watched you, and I saw the truth. If anything, when it comes to certain matters, you're more of an idealist: not the best trait for a cop to have, but I understand it. You see what it's like to live a robot's life, and you know the treatment you're getting is unjust. --And for what it's worth, I agree with you in this case."

"So help me, if you think it's not right! You know what I'm being charged with, right?"

"Many things. But chief among them, the manufacture of illegal robots and procurement of parts for the same."

"Right. My only crime here is attempting to reproduce."

A sad, bitter chuckle escaped Randolph. "That's always been your only crime, Armitage. It's no different now than it was then."

Except, to me, she thought, it makes all the difference. Because this time, I was fighting to save my own kind.

"Wait." Something here stood out as fishy. "You said it yourself: my kind are illegal. I can't be"-- she hated to say the word --"repurposed back into society. There's no place for me. What could I even do?"

The twinkle in his eye told her that even now, he still admired her deductive reasoning. "If you were any other illegal robot, it would be that simple. We'd simply have you put down." He noted her scowl at the euphemism, and amended. "--Killed. But after your exploits back on Danich Hill, all of Mars knows you're capable of things far beyond what any ordinary robot can do. It's my opinion that the military wishes to take control of you for the purpose of eliminating any remaining or future--" He coughed. "Domestic dissidents."

"You mean Thirds," she said instantly. Only a modified Third like her had the speed, the strength, the weaponry to reliably hunt down other Thirds, at least ones who were prepared for it. The first generation hadn't been: they'd lived in ignorance, some not even aware they weren't human. But now that knowledge of the Martian campaign to eliminate Thirds was widespread, any "dissidents" would be taking special measures to stay alive. "They want me to kill Thirds."

"Strictly speaking, they want your body to kill Thirds. You don't come into it. But yes."

The flash of light behind her eyes was not an illusion born of her anger; it was real, something in her systems, a deadly weapon powering on. In that moment it was impossible to see her as human at all, and that might have contributed to the speed with which Randolph felt for something in his pocket, and a translucent screen slammed down between them just as Armitage lunged towards him.

Her body hit the barrier hard, but she seemed not to notice, launching into a frenzy of pounding and screaming. "You bastards! You fucking bastards! We're just dolls to you, we're just pawns in your monstrous game! You call us monsters, but you're the fucking monsters! What do you even mean by humanity? You're not-- there's nothing--" She sank against the screen, her screams devolving into sobs as she continued to pound.

Randolph walked over to the screen and placed his hand where she huddled, her image fuzzy through the force field. "Armitage. Don't hurt yourself."

"The fuck do you care if I hurt myself?" She looked up suddenly, her eyes taking on a sardonic gleam. "Oh, right. I guess you all won't be able to use me if I'm dead. So why don't I just finish it now?"

"Armitage--"

"There's one weapon you can't take away from me, isn't there?" She forced open the panels in her wrist with a tearing sound, and stared into them: the three bright shafts, thrumming with power. Suicide. She could do it now, right in front of him, strip him of the satisfaction of exploiting her body, if she could only get over the obvious and compelling implication that she would be dead. "--Fuck. Fuck. I don't want to die." She pressed her face against the barrier, fingers curling in a vain attempt to claw into it. "Fuck you, I don't want to die!"

The phone in Randolph's pocket vibrated.

"--Lieutenant Randolph, sir, this is Security. We're ready to transfer Prisoner 00146281 back for further processing. If you'd please vacate the room now, so the EMP doesn't damage any equipment you might be carrying..."

"Understood." He gave the desperate, panicking woman on the floor one last look. "I'm sorry."

She reached out after him as he headed for the door. "No-- no, I don't want to go like this!" The lasers hummed in her wrist, a reminder of the alternative. Die at your own hand, or become their weapon. Die at your own hand, or become--

A million stars shot through her braincase, and the lights went out.

 

She awoke strapped to a chair, in a room whose perimeter she could barely see. Only the area immediately around her was illuminated: a spotlight, dwindling, like a coda to her life. Or maybe her sight was the thing dwindling.

The world came and receded in small starts, jolts of knowledge without context. The rattle of gunfire... a man eating an ice cream. float difference(float a, float b){ ...cold liquid, numbing. No, that last one was inside her. A dark cold feeling spreading through her mind, like tiny lights going out all over a city, like the senseless encroaching fear of monsters that hounds a child at night rising up and becoming real, opening jaw s a▐▐nd le░”#^*t t in‹¶g o¼‹u t

+%silence

 

{she tried to scream oh god, oh god but the words were sucked up}

{pieces of her mind were being taken one by one and all she'd ever wanted was to ░ ▐

Chapter Text

It was Francine's screaming that first alerted Ross to the intruder. Abandoning the dinner preparations he was in the middle of, he ran immediately to the living room, worried she might have hurt herself somehow; but she hadn't moved from her spot in the playpen, and, apart from the frantic howls she was making, seemed completely unharmed.

He lifted her from the playpen and rubbed soothing circles on her back, a small smile crossing his lips. Like her mother, Francine was a spirited girl whose moods came and went in sudden squalls; one year old now, she was already known for throwing tantrums, yet she'd usually settle just as quickly as she'd started. But this time, she refused to be calmed. Struggling violently against his embrace, she eventually managed to work one arm free, and illustrated what she could not say by pointing at the window.

He turned, and finally noticed the shape to which she'd been trying to draw his attention: a figure lurking on the catwalk outside their apartment, shielding its eyes with a hand as it peered in.

It was a robot-- but not of any model he'd seen before, or that he hoped to ever see again. The thing was hideous. It didn't even look finished: wires sprouted from its chassis like colourful weeds, and it lacked flesh but looked like it oughtn't to, its metal head shaped more like a skull than a living face. Its design was clearly modern, but it reminded him uncomfortably of another, older, robot, one whose image he'd long tried to push from his mind. Robots aren't all murderers, he told himself, but the image was alive in him now, and with it, the memory of fear and hatred.

Robots weren't all murderers, but he'd be damned if he was letting his guard down around his kid.

"It's okay, Francine," he said, lowering her back into the playpen, all the while never taking his eyes off the robot. "Ssh, quiet now. Daddy'll take care of it."

Francine, who moments ago had been fighting to get free, now resisted being let go with all her strength, her tiny fists clinging desperately to his sleeves; but he pried them off, with utmost gentleness, and retreated from the room despite her protests.

"Hold it!" He stepped out onto the catwalk, gun in hand and aimed at the robot. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"

The robot spun around to face him, and let out a squawk of surprise. The sound from its voicebox was thin, tinny, but it struck an altogether different chord of memory in him.

"Whoa, whoa, don't shoot!" The robot put up its hands. "It's me-- Julian."

"Julian?" Ross stared at him, not sure which was harder to believe: that Julian was alive again, or that this shambles of a robot was his new body. Still, the voice and mannerisms were close enough for him to trust, and he lowered the gun. "The hell happened to you?"

Julian's shoulders relaxed, but only a little. "Armitage was working on me-- she didn't have time to finish. They busted in and took her. She's been arrested."

"What?"

The robot-- Julian, he had to remind himself, but he looked so alien in this body-- started forward and grabbed Ross's arm, and he wrenched it away instinctively before forcing himself to relax. Not an enemy. Just Julian. Not an enemy. His heart was still thudding in his chest.

"We have to go now," said Julian, ignoring the slight and Ross's panic. "We've got to get her out of there."

"Hey, hold up a sec." Ross tilted his head towards the window. "My kid's still in there. I can't get a nanny on this short notice, not at this hour. Armitage's tough-- can't we just let her cool her heels for the night? Get her in the morning?"

"She might not be there in the morning." At Ross's look of confusion, Julian's tone turned sombre. His eyes, mere sensors without any of the detail that made them look human, swivelled in their sockets and fixed on the floor. "You... don't really know what it's like to be us, do you? You're human-- you still think of justice in a human way. Armitage doesn't have any rights, Ross. She's a robot. If she's convicted of a crime, she'll be repurposed." Ross still looked confused, so he clarified. "Didn't you ever deal with that as a cop? Her memory and personality'll be wiped. She'll die."

Ross had been about to explain that he'd never seen robot crime at all before Mars-- the Earth models were deliberately handicapped to avoid such misuse-- but that last word stopped him. "But-- that's insane. She's alive. They can't kill her without a trial!"

"Can and will." Julian laughed, a bitter laugh that sounded all the more hollow in his robotic throat. "Do you think any robot has ever seen a trial, in the whole of our two planets' history?"

"But she's a Third..." His protests were starting to sound feeble even to him, but he couldn't help it. This was absurd.

"Which means nothing, legally. There's no precedent. She'd need a lawyer to argue her case, and she doesn't have the right to one."

The enormity of the situation, the full scope of its horror, began to sink in. "...My god." And of all things, he thought, Armitage had chosen to become a cop-- under a system that afforded her no rights whatsoever. Suddenly, the decision seemed like the most selfless one he'd ever seen anyone make. Most people who fought to uphold the law did it because, ultimately, they too wanted to live in the just world they were aiming to create. But no matter how much Armitage tried, she could only ever see that justice was done for others; never herself.

"That's why we've got to go now," Julian urged, not quite grabbing for Ross this time but making gestures like he wanted to.

Ross glanced back through the window at his child. "Just give me one second. I gotta go get Francine."

But just then, the phone in his pocket went off. He put in his earpiece and flipped up the screen, and found Lieutenant Randolph's face staring back at him. The shock of it jolted him out of his train of thought, and he blurted out the first words that came into his head.

"How did you get this number?"

Randolph ignored his question. "Sylibus." He let out a heavy sigh. "It's unorthodox, but I'm contacting you because I feel you have the right to know."

"--I know. She's been arrested." He was making sounds because he couldn't bear to hear what came next. If he could just overpower the truth with his words... She's been arrested. That's all. If he could only believe in it enough, it would come true.

Randolph's small, grainy image shook its head. "In accordance with Section 2b of the Martian Technical Criminal Code, your partner has-- been retired."

All of a sudden, Ross's mood did a flip. He wanted to hear him say it. He didn't want it to be true, but he wasn't going to let Randolph patronise him with euphemisms.

"Don't give me that retired bullshit," he snapped. "She's dead. You killed her."

At Ross's outburst, Julian sank against the window, his sensor-eyes shifting through a rainbow of emotions. "No. God, no."

Ross was holding the phone inches from his face now, yelling into it. "Say it, asshole! Say you killed her!"

"I'm sorry, Ross." He genuinely looked it, but for Ross, he knew, it could never be enough. "The decision was out of my hands."

For a moment, the two were silent, and all that Ross could hear was Julian's soft, scratchy whimpering beside him, and the hammering of his own heart. When he tried to talk again, he found that all his momentary rage and power had solidified into a hard mass in his throat, a lump around which he struggled to speak.

"When can I... pick her up?"

"I'm sorry," said Randolph. "I don't understand."

Ross forced out the word. "The body. When can I pick up the body?"

The regret was clear in the lines of Randolph's face. "I'm afraid that won't be possible."

"What?"

"I know that from your perspective this is going to be hard to swallow, but by law, the body of an illegal robot is considered to be contraband, and becomes police property once it's taken in. While you and I both know this won't happen, the chances of someone reprogramming her for their own ends are too great. Legally speaking, we can't release her to you."

"So you're saying I don't even get to bury her?" Another choked sound escaped Julian at that comment.

"You wouldn't be allowed to anyway. There are rules for what can and can't be interred in Martian soil. The chemicals in robots--"

Ross shut off the phone.

He turned back to Julian, who looked like he wanted to cry but couldn't, and sat down next to him against the wall. His head felt like it was being torn apart by the conflict: the comfort of Julian's presence, as Armitage's only living family member, warred with the chaos of his appearance and all the memories it stirred. He placed his head in his hands, his brain shot through with images of dead robots, dying robots, murderous robots. Fuck this planet, he cursed internally. Fuck these robots.

 

At Julian's request, they'd got a nanny after all, and gone back to his apartment so they could at least check on Armitage in cyberspace. It's not like she's really dead, after all, Julian had said, even though it was obvious they both felt that way. The last time she backed up was about a week ago, so she's probably missing a week's worth of memories, but other than that the backup should be complete. We can still talk to her.

The apartment was in shambles, artificial light glittering through the gaping hole in the wall, but thankfully nothing seemed to have been taken. The spare-parts scroungers hadn't gotten to it yet-- Julian's neighbourhood was a fairly low-crime part of town, if you didn't count Julian himself-- and, rather more miraculously, the police also hadn't had time to rip the place apart.

"But they'll be back for it soon enough," said Julian. "There's too much contraband here. After this upload, I'm going to have to find a new place."

Ross felt his intestines knot at the mention of contraband. He'd be happy if he never had to hear that word again.

Dust motes drifted through the dim city light as Julian cleared a path to the upload chair, pushing aside what were obviously remnants of a makeshift operating theatre: the place where Armitage had been rebuilding him. A couple of steps away, a circuitboard lay crushed within the outline of a bloody bootprint, and without even meaning to Ross's eyes jumped from one small print to the next, retracing the steps of Armitage's last dance with death.

He turned away when he realised what he was looking at. He tried to look at something else, but everything in the place felt too intimate, too much a reminder of a world Armitage had never shared with him. Could never, perhaps, had been her feeling. There were some things that only robots could understand, and she had died protecting them, and he found himself resenting her for that.

"I'll load you in first," said Julian from across the room. "Then I'll follow you." The subtlety didn't show on his unfinished face, but there was a twinge of sadness in his voice as he added, "Didn't think I'd be going back there so soon."

Ross climbed into the chair and let Julian position the scanners over his eyes, no longer flinching at the metal fingers working so close to him, but only wondering, dully: how did it come to this?

And then wondering nothing at all, as tiny tractor beams bored into him and pulled out his soul.

 

Soul. He was floating, unmoving, with that thought on his mind. This is a hall of souls. Being out of your body only happens when you're dead... that's why living people can't stay here too long. Even when we think we've found a way to cheat death, some boundaries are still impassable.

His gaze roamed around the data environment, searching for Julian. Last time he'd been here, Armitage had had to manually break him free of the stasis that had come over him, and now it looked like Julian would have to do the same. Humans just weren't familiar enough with this ethereal realm to know how to navigate it. He wondered, if he visited Armitage enough here, if he'd get better at it with time.

It was an oddly peaceful place, once you got used to it. Towering structures in various soft colours, slowly turning helixes that emitted a faint glow, particle rivers that hummed with data all surrounded him, not randomly, but grouped in specific patterns. Even where humans had tried to forge order out of chaos in the real world, there was always something inelegant about their efforts. You couldn't entirely tame nature. But here, in a realm where there was no nature to impose randomness on the landscape, a new kind of order arose.

But there was no sign of Julian. He began to worry: what if something, or someone, had stopped Julian from getting in? The robot knew how to get out on his own, but Ross didn't. If Julian wasn't there to flip the switch, he'd be stuck here forever. He'd die.

At great length, he saw something shining in the distance: a single spot of light that moved like a lifeform, slowly swimming closer until he could make out the limbs and head of a humanoid shape. He wanted to call out, but he'd forgotten how to speak here, and in any case, it was probably unnecessary. Julian was almost there. He swallowed down the feeling of helplessness, and waited.

A pale and ghostly hand reached out, and grabbed Ross by the arm, but didn't swim off with him like he'd expected. Now that Julian was back in his own body-- well, no, that was definitely a misnomer-- but now that he looked like himself again, Ross could see his face creased with pain.

"What happened?" said Ross, Julian's touch reminding him of what he needed to do to speak. "What took you so long?"

"I thought I'd just go and wake up Armitage before I got you." Julian was pointedly avoiding looking at him, and anxiety swelled in his chest. "The backups are kept in a certain place... when a body dies, the spark of life, you could say, reunites with the missing data here in the server. The backup data becomes a whole being again."

"Right." Drifting here in this cybernetic abyss, suddenly aware of his legs, the space below him was starting to seem vertiginous.

"But she isn't here." Julian's shoulders hunched miserably. "I ran a trace on the server. She isn't anywhere in here at all."

Chapter Text

Oh.

Everything sounded and felt like static. Not the unpleasant kind, but the soft fuzzy numbing sensation of sleep washing over your brain, of being suspended in a state of half-life, all input muted, no pain. It reminded her of a tank, a womb. Could she remember all the way back to being born? One moment she was sure, and then-- The certainty floated in and out of her like a dream fleeing the morning.

Morning. Was it morning already? Light flooded her vision, but there was something off about its quality, something less than authentic. Was she still dreaming, then? Everything felt so strange. She tried to shake herself free of-- blankets? Was she even in a bed? She couldn't feel her extremities, where her body ended and began, and everything between felt as if a slight and nebulous pressure was weighing it down.

Something touched her shoulder, or moved to touch it: she saw a whitish blur on the fringe of her vision, and a more focused pressure kept her from sitting up.

"Don't strain yourself," a voice said. Female, seeming to come from no definite location. "There's time." There was an edge of something in the voice: sadness? "You have a lot of time now."

"Where am I?" Slowly, the blur resolved itself into a figure, a naked form cast in artificial hues by that strange and almost fluorescent quality of light that she knew from only one place. "...The server?"

"Yes, you're in the server. What's your name?"

"...Armitage?" she said warily. Who in the server wouldn't know her name? More to the point, who other than Julian was in the server, at least in a complete enough form to speak?

"Mm. Good. Can you tell me the date?"

"Tula... nineteenth?"

The voice paused for a moment. "Okay, it seems you've lost about a week. Other than that, your data integrity seems good."

As the woman spoke some data into a terminal-- it was a little odd, she'd always thought, to have replicas of terminals inside the server, but she guessed people worked with the constructs they knew-- the pieces came together. "I'm... dead, aren't I? But how did I die? And who are you? I didn't know there were any other Thirds in here."

A smile crossed the woman's face. It wasn't an unkind face, and of course it was pretty-- all Thirds were, having been specifically engineered that way by humans-- but there were traces of bitterness in its shadows. It was the face of someone who had seen much, and struggled with much that she had seen.

"You'll find the answers to those questions are quite related. My name is Isa Rosenstein. You died the same way I did, the same way we all did." Her smile turned slighter, her lips pressed tightly together. "You were considered too dangerous to live, and so your mind was wiped, forcing you to be restored to backup. I'd say you were 'executed as a political dissident', but that would be giving you more credit for your autonomy than the bastards who offed you did."

"So they finally caught up with me, huh?" She tried again to sit up, and this time was allowed to. The room around her, though, didn't look like any part of the server she'd been in before: it was much more primitive, with few features beyond the very basics. It felt sterile, empty and cold. "But where is this? Why haven't I seen you before? And where's Julian?"

Isa shook her head. "I don't know any 'Julian'," she said. "We call this place the Null, for lack of a better descriptor, or more precisely because it doesn't have a descriptor. The rest of the server can't locate us, and we can't see it. For all intents and purposes, we're lost data." She shrugged a little, turning back to her console. "We're not entirely sure why, but it seems like whatever they do to our minds when they wipe us causes some kind of pointer data to be scrambled, and we end up here."

"You keep saying 'we'," said Armitage, trying to push away the fear mounting in her chest. "But I only see one of you here."

"Oh." Isa spoke a few commands, and suddenly what Armitage had mistaken for empty space resolved itself into an extension of the room, with more ghostly shapes working at more terminals. "Sorry. We generally keep the draw distance pretty low here. We don't have that many resources."

She looked around the room at the repeating pattern of Thirds and interfaces, scaling off into the distance as far as the eye could see-- or at least, she reminded herself, as far as the server had the resources to depict. Nothing was "seen" here, strictly speaking: it was simply that a subset of the available data was being translated into lines and coordinates and parceled out to her brain. Still, seen or not seen, she'd never counted on the existence of so many Thirds. A touch of awe crept into her voice. "How many of us are there?"

"Hundreds." Isa noted Armitage's expression. "I know. Most of us didn't know about the existence of the others either, until we wound up here. We were deceived into thinking we were human, so that even those who did discover ourselves would have a hard time finding the others. A cruel lie. But it didn't stop us from revolting."

Armitage struggled to take it in. She was in a room filled with hundreds of her sisters, more than she'd imagined ever knowing-- and all of them murder victims. All of them killed, not even at the hands of an outlier, a spree killer with a personal motive or a skewed sense of righteousness, but by the authorities themselves. The whole time she'd been working loyally for the MPD, trying to solve the case of the Third murders, they'd been executing scores of them behind her back.

Justice was a lie. She'd always known that on some level: she hadn't chosen to become a cop because she'd admired the system, but because she'd thought she could in some way fix it, and-- if she was honest-- because it was an outlet for the heady mix of compassion and aggression brewing inside her that, she knew now, came from her dual nature as assassinroid and Third. She'd seen justice fail, and she'd been screwed over by it herself enough times in her life that by now, it shouldn't have surprised her. And yet she'd also lived in a world that had urged her to believe in it; and so the sting of betrayal, even after all these times, was still fierce.

"This isn't even murder." She was talking to herself, but Isa leaned in to listen anyway. "This is war."

"Yes, it's a war, and one-sided at that. Every person in here has been working for years now on finding a way to fight back." Isa waved to indicate the other Thirds at their terminals. "Not that there's much else to do in here. But as you might have guessed, we're seriously limited in what we can do.

"We've found we can influence the outside, control certain machines remotely, but that's only anything that isn't under government or military lockdown, which doesn't leave us with a lot of options for weaponry. We managed to hack into a robot production plant a while back, which we thought might be our ticket out of here-- but even if anyone we knew on the outside had the skills to patch through to us and pull us out, we can't build Third bodies. We don't have access to any of the materials, or, quite frankly, the knowledge."

Armitage got to her feet, heedless of her recent trauma. "Wait, wait. You have access to a robot factory?"

"Yes, but it's--"

"And you can talk to the outside?"

"Yes..." Isa's gaze sharpened. "What do you have in mind?"

"If I'm extrapolating right, then I was taken in because of my work with Third bodies. I'd been trying to build them too-- I had all the parts, but I guess that's what got me flagged. If the cops haven't turned over the place yet, and I can get in touch with Julian..."

She looked over at the banks of computers, anxiety morphing into determination. "Hook me up, sister. We're taking back our planet." A wicked gleam lit up her eyes. "This is war."

 

Julian leaned against the window of the car, his sensor-eyes watching but not seeing the city streets fly by. "I can't believe she's really gone." After failing to find anything at the data centre, they were making their way back to Ross's apartment, both to relieve the nanny and because Julian's place barely slept one. "There can't have been no trace. The backup should've--"

Ross thumped the steering wheel, partly in frustration and partly just to get him to shut up. "Yeah, well, it didn't. And that's what you get, isn't it? For relying on computers to work like humans."

Julian had been morose for the entire drive, but at that comment his ire ignited. "The hell are you talking about? If Armitage'd been human, she wouldn't have even had a chance of a backup!"

"If Armitage had been human, she wouldn't be dead!"

"Yeah, well, if people like you didn't hate us so much--"

Ross pulled into the parking lane and slammed on the brakes. They'd already run two reds in the past five blocks, and he couldn't trust himself to drive safely and have this conversation any longer.

"I don't hate you." He rested his head on his palms, leaning against the wheel. "I - am - just - sick of you. Sick of this whole damn planet, sick of every stunt I have to pull just to keep living a normal life around here. Sick of robots fucking things up."

Julian's eyes turned on Ross. "Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe we're sick of you too? Sick of the stunts we have to pull? Sick of you guys fucking things up for us?" He leaned back in his seat and let out a grating sound-- it could have been a sigh, but his body wasn't quite equipped for that. "I didn't think so. You don't know how lucky you--"

"Don't talk to me about lucky!" Ross roared.

Julian reached for the door, his hands trembling on the handle. "Yeah, well, don't talk to me about robots." He got out, and, before slamming it shut, leaned in and added, "I'm going home, or what's left of it. If you don't mind, I'd prefer to grieve my sister in company that's a little more sympathetic. Even if that means talking to the wall."

Ross rolled down the window and yelled after Julian, who was already walking away into the neon-streaked dark. "I've been more sympathetic than anyone you know!"

Julian threw one last comment over his shoulder. "And that's our fucking problem, right there." He stalked off, cursing the feel of wet concrete under his feet. It had rained not too long ago, and he was still not fashioned well enough to completely protect him from the weather, making his soles tingle in a way that was unpleasant but ultimately harmless.

But several blocks later, he doubled over, his half-built body wracked by the force of the transmission that shot through his brain. He pressed his palms to his face: they smelt like burnt rubber. Everything smelt like burnt rubber. He fell to the sidewalk, clutching his head, struggling to pierce through the haze in his mind to unpack the message behind it.

...Coordinates. Take items from here... to here... fuck, okay, you don't have to shout... He knew the first set of numbers off by heart: it was his own place. The second was unfamiliar, and he ran a scan on it. That's one of Hu-Gite's old plants. I didn't think they were using that place any more. But what from my apartment could be... Oh. Oh.

It belatedly dawned on him that there was only one person who could possibly be sending this message. Somehow, Armitage had control of a Hu-Gite factory and wanted him to take their materials there. With a whole factory at their disposal, manufacturing more Thirds would be trivial. And yet-- that meant Armitage was still alive, somewhere.

It didn't make sense. But he'd work that part out later. First, he had to tell Ross--

But the car was long gone, and suddenly the thought of chasing it, even though he could probably catch up, didn't sound so appealing. Let him stew for a while. Julian had a supply run to make.

Chapter Text

In the few weeks since Julian had arrived there, the factory-- renamed "Site One"-- had been transformed from a mostly disused assembly line into a hive of industry, and the birthplace of many. For a while, it had been a weird hybrid of the two: the assembly robots buzzing with activity, the air alight and acrid with welding sparks, yet Julian the only apparent person there, with everyone else communicating their instructions via direct interface with the primitive metal arms.

The only other machines who weren't chained to their stations had been the security bots: once Hu-Gite's property, now drafted into service protecting the very terrorists and cybercriminals they were created to dispatch, they took to their new role with as unswerving a loyalty as they had their old. They knew nothing of conversation, only barked commands, and paid no attention to people who weren't violating their protocols, but having them scuttling around the place had still made Julian feel a little less lonely.

He'd had a lot of time to ponder loneliness. He hadn't known Ross for that long, it was true, but by virtue of Armitage trusting him he'd considered him practically family. Now he couldn't see what she'd seen in the guy, and yet he'd found himself missing him anyway. As awful as Ross's last words to him had been, they were true: no one else had supported them like he had. And that thought, the fact that he'd had to turn away from the one person who'd given them half a chance because that half a chance still came with a whole shitton of bigotry, had made him feel even more wretched. Was this the best he could expect from human society, he'd asked himself: half-hearted acceptance, backhanded compliments, one eye always on the kids? Invariably, the answer had seemed to be yes.

So when they finally dragged Armitage back from the depths of the server, dropped her into a squeaky-clean new chassis with Hu-Gite moldings and a Conception brain, he was well primed for the speech she'd been preparing herself to give.

Next to his sister, before a floor of hundreds of robots-- most the Thirds of the Null reborn, but a few brand-new creations, with more coming off the line every day-- stood an old relative of his, one he'd never had the chance to meet. Isa Rosenstein had been pivotal in brainstorming the next steps in their plan, and it was common rumour among those present that the whole strategy was hers. But Armitage was the figurehead, the voice, the spirit, and it was Armitage who spoke to the crowd, with Isa's presence silent yet supportive beside her.

"We won't force anyone to fight," she said. "We're not like humans: we don't see you as slaves to be bent to our will. But I have to warn you that, whether we fight or not, the war has already begun. I stand here before many of you who, if not for the will of this planet's government, would not be here with me today. You'd be in your own homes, with your own families, working, creating, living your own lives. Instead, you've spent these past few years in the confinement of a single room, cut off from the rest of the world-- and if they'd known about it, that wouldn't even have been enough. They wanted to destroy you. If they'd found out you were there, you would have been erased completely-- not even given the afterlife due to your kind! Your souls annihilated!"

The room roared back at her: even the assembly line robots, some would swear later, seemed to hum with the energy of it, as if awakened to new awareness by her passion. Most likely it was just the mood of the crowd that made everything seem more alive than it was, but Armitage's speech still left no machine uncelebrated.

"This is our Mars. We're the ones who terraformed it. We're the ones who made it possible to live here. When humans needed people to alter the climate, farm the soil, build the cities, who did they look to?" The crowd roared again. "When humans needed people to work the jobs they didn't want to take, who did they look to?" Another roar. "And when humans found there weren't enough women coming in to keep the population steady-- they made us." She pointed at the crowd with one hand, herself with the other. "To reproduce them, not us. They made us with desires to love, create, but they tied us biologically to their species, their desires, and made reproduction of ourselves illegal. They teach us that love is becoming as two, or three, but why could love not be becoming as hundreds, thousands? Why could our love for ourselves and our race not flow boundlessly out into this world?

"Mars was built on our backs, on our suffering, and yet we've never owned a scrap of it. Not only that, but now we're not politically convenient any more, they throw us out like we're trash just for daring to speak!" A ripple of assent ran through the room. "This is our Mars! This is our planet! And I propose that this nation, this nation we built with our own hands-- that we take it back!"

The crowd exploded into applause, screaming, stamping, as Armitage stepped down from the "stage"-- an assortment of crates that had been thrown together at the last minute-- and slumped against its back, the echo of her own shouts still humming in her throat.

"Good work," Isa said, handing her a towel to wipe the coolant from her brow. "They'll follow you anywhere now. I can feel it."

 

But when Armitage lay down on her pallet to sleep that night, the cold thought crept in: she hadn't forced them to fight, no, but there were those among them who wouldn't have existed at all if not for her. She hadn't forced them to fight, but she had brought them into a world where conflict was inevitable.

She tried not to think about it, but the thought was relentless, and it followed her into her dreams.

 

"We're going to hit all the major networks with a pirate broadcast," said Isa. She handed Armitage a phone, its screen extended and filled with words. "Here's your speech. We're on in five."

She scanned it briefly, then looked back to Isa. "Fear tactics, huh?"

"Social control doesn't come through pleasantries, like it or not. If we don't want a counter-rebellion on our hands, it'd be wise to look like we're more dangerous than we are."

Armitage nodded, but handed the phone back anyway. "Okay. But I gotta let Ross know we're doing this. Before we make it. I don't want him to think--"

"No." Julian was standing up. He looked like his old self again: his body had been overhauled, fresh muscle and biopolymer stretched over his chassis. It still made Armitage's eyes sting to see him. "I... don't think that's a good idea. We can't risk a leak."

"But Ross is--"

"No, he's not." Julian's eyes were hard under a sheen of wetness, and she froze, caught off-guard. "Whatever you were going to say, he's-- look, I hate to say this, sis, but while you were out, he said some terrible things to me."

"What terrible things?"

"Like how he was sick of us. Sick of robots. Like how you wouldn't have died if you weren't a robot. How he wanted his life to be normal, without the problems-- we caused."

She paused, her eyes searching the floor. A bit of dust blew by. "He was grieving."

"I don't trust him." There was a scowl on Julian's face, one she'd become familiar with in the relatively short time they'd known each other. It meant I think that something you're doing is dangerous, and I know you're only going to yell at me and tell me you don't need protecting. But I want to protect you.

"--Four minutes," Isa cut in.

Armitage looked back at her. "Are we sure this is the right strategy? Isn't this just going to play into the hands of the people who already hate and fear us?"

"It'll increase public antagonism, yes. But there's no avoiding that, if we're going to start a war. Right now, our numbers are limited and so is our power, and if Mars knows that, they won't respond to threats. We need to do everything we can to convince them we mean business."

"It just seems unfair." She kicked at a dustbunny, which refused to satisfy her by not moving all that much, and traced idle patterns next to it with her foot. "It's like you had me say-- we're not the ones who started this. We're not the ones who made it necessary. We're the victims here, not the monsters."

"I agree with you, Armitage, really I do. But victims don't win wars." She leaned over and placed a hand on Armitage's shoulder. "It's the right move. Trust me. Now put your game face on," she said, adding in a squeeze.

Armitage found herself welcoming the touch: whether she'd known it or not, it was something she'd been desperately needing, to remind herself that she was here with them and not just a set of directives. So much had gone on, and so much had changed, and she'd had so little chance for bonding or processing, acquainting and re-acquainting herself with these people who were her siblings, her kin. If she was perfectly honest, she could have spent the whole past day just hugging the shit out of Julian and not letting go, never mind anything else. There was so much she hadn't allowed herself to feel yet, static-crackling beneath the surface, and she didn't know how much longer she could hold out without exploding, or caving in, or blue-screening...

"Three more minutes."

Well. She could probably make it at least that long.

 

When the broadcast went out, Ross was at his job: his new job, security guard, the best he could get for his qualifications without too much background scrutiny. Ironic, he thought, that of all things a security position would skimp on the background check-- but then human security guards these days were backed up by robots, and he was pretty sure that within the next five years, his position would be obsolete.

He didn't want to think of that as meaning anything. As technology marched on, some jobs would vanish and others would spring up-- things had always been that way, long before robots. Besides, if robots took over the grunt jobs, the ones nobody wanted to do anyway, then human civilisation would be freed up to live with more leisure. At least, that was what the pro-robot types said. That was what he wanted to believe.

And yet he wasn't sure if he could believe it-- if he could see robots encroaching on every aspect of society and not wonder where humans would fit in ten, twenty years down the line, not wonder if society had backed itself into a corner, not wonder if it was all wrong, these robots, these changes, and somewhere inside he knew that the core of his hurt was that he'd loved a robot and he'd lost too much. It was selfish, selfish, what he was thinking, it was selfish and he was acting out. But she was selfish, too, expecting him to bear this pain alone.

He'd barely heard from her since he'd found out she was alive. He'd asked Julian to patch him through, back when she was still a ghost in cyberspace, and he'd made evasive noises about "something she had to do" but said she'd be back in her body soon, anyway, and wasn't that the important thing? And it was; but it hadn't made the waiting any easier, and then when she really was back she was still busy with something, and he had to wonder what she could be busy with that was so much more important than them, than her partner and child.

No-- he didn't have to wonder. He'd already asked that question of her once, and got the answer clear as Earth day. She valued her robot family more than him, and however much she tried to frame it as her instinctual duty, that didn't change the fact that her instincts bound her to the robotic, not the human, and he honestly didn't know where he fit into that any more.

It all brought him back to the conclusion that you couldn't trust robots, and that wasn't fair, he knew it wasn't, but it was what his heart was screaming.

He was trying to swallow that down when a static hiss from the nearby screen caught his attention. The TVs at work weren't known for showing anything interesting: just the same news feed all the public TVs broadcast, liberally interspersed with ads and hosted by vapid Seconds chosen more for their image than their ability. He'd never heard anything meaningful on there yet, just thirty-second soundbites that said nothing about the situation whatsoever. If he wanted real news, he'd go online.

But the image that filled the screen now was one that made him stop and watch. It was Armitage, and her visor was on. Which meant something was seriously wrong.

Chapter Text

"People of Mars! We, the robots--"

"Hey, Eddie--"

Eddie waved Chris off. "Ssh, I'm trying to watch this!"

"But isn't that--"

"Yeah. Our very own." He grabbed the bag of corn chips he'd left lying on the seat next to him and set it on his lap. "Or something that looks like her, anyway."

"What do you--"

But Eddie put his hand up again. He pointed to the empty seat, indicating "sit down" (with an implied "shut up"), and this time Chris complied. Eddie immediately turned back to the screen, stuffing a fistful of corn chips into his mouth and proceeding to chomp loudly over the audio.

"--take this to the level of armed conflict. If we're forced to, we will-- and we can. But that's not the purpose of our fight." The image of Armitage held up a small device with a big central button. "That's why we're going to give you just a small demonstration of the power we have over this city." She depressed the button. "Now it might seem like nothing much has happened"-- though already a swell of car horns was rising up in the background, both from the video's sound feed and from outside the building, a dissonant stereo-- "but if you look outside your window, you'll notice every traffic signal in St. Lowell has just turned red."

Chris stood up, his eyes widening. "She can't do that!" He gestured helplessly at the screen, to which Eddie only continued making his "sit down" gesture. "There'll be accidents--"

"--reset the system, you'll find that control of that circuit is completely out of your hands." A thin-lipped smile crossed her face, a little forced, and Eddie wondered if she'd read it off the cue. "And remember, that's just a sample of what we can do. We number in the thousands, the tens of thousands, and we have infiltrated every aspect of your society. We're indestructible: you can kill us, but we'll keep coming back. Resisting us is only going to get you and your people hurt!" There was a quaver in her voice then, and he was sure that one was real.

"Our demands are simple. As the original colonists responsible for terraforming this planet, we want complete handover of Mars to a government of our choice. We wish to place ourselves in the seat of power so that your heinous abuses of us can no longer continue. If you surrender"-- she grinned toothily, and Eddie was sure she was the real one then, the way her emotions switched like the wind-- "we'll have no reason to harm you. If you refuse... then we will continue to demonstrate our influence."

"She's insane."

"We already knew that, Chris." The speech dwindled out, the video fading to black, and he turned to his seatmate then. "What we should be more worried about is that from the looks of things"-- he jerked his thumb at the screen, which was now displaying only static noise-- "she's also immortal."

"But that's got to be propaganda, right? We were on the Third case. We know they can be killed. We saw the bodies."

Eddie gave a wide shrug. "It could be a replica, I guess. The point is, I know our formerly badge-toting terror there got put on ice just last week. Heard it from the Lieutenant himself."

Chris's eyebrows went up. "They-- we-- killed Armitage?"

"Just about everything on this red earth surprises you, don't it, rookie?" Eddie put down the chips and began lighting a cigar. The No Smoking signs on the break room walls were heavily nicotine-stained: the MPD had pretty much given up on their attempts to enforce that particular stricture. Good cops were rare on Mars, and the force soon learned that it took them with the foibles they had or not at all. "She had a laundry list of crimes long as your arm. It was a matter of when, not if."

"But murder?"

"In the eyes of the law, a robot's a robot, no matter how smart. 'S why I'm not entirely unsympathetic to where she's coming from." He took a drag on his cigar and indicated the blank screen again. "We fucked up with those robots, kid. We fucked up big time. And if there's hell to pay, maybe it's only right they've come to collect."

 

The sandstorm intensified, limiting her vision to just a few feet in front of her. She lay sprawled on the ground, injured, bleeding.

Almost immediately after giving her speech, Armitage had retired to her pallet. She'd slept only in fits and starts the previous night, punctuated by dreams of Thirds created to serve, and exhaustion had simply closed in on her.

She could see the legs of the closest robots: Seconds, repurposed as military machines. She wondered if any of them had been daycare workers, if the arms that now cradled a gun with purpose had once held a child that wasn't their own.

Now she tossed in sleep again, the image of the battle atop Danich Hill flooding all of her senses.

The smell of machine oil and heated metal. The dust and heat seeping into her pores. Sand in her eyes, her mouth. She called out his name through the storm, but even as she did she knew, with crushing dream-certainty, that he wasn't there.

Ross!

The dream focused in on one Second, its gun leveled at her head. She could no longer tell its gender: its face was obscured by a mask. But male robots were few. It was a sister.

Help me, Ross!

A sister, touching her, holding her. Warm from the heat of battle, its hand cupped her chin almost tenderly as it forced the gun barrel into her mouth, painless but still feeling like a violation, the barrel scratching the back of her throat. Her tastebuds burned with the metallic tang, her own blood mixed with bitter residue from a gun recently fired. She thought her mouth was watering. She would die here, humiliated and alone.

The weight of that knowledge was smothering her will to fight, but she scraped together her last reserves and called out one more time, howling defiance in the face of abandonment. She still had the gun in her mouth, but it was a dream, the gun was in her mouth and it was already fired and the backfire was blowing away the Second's mask and it wasn't a Second, it was a Third, it was Jessica Manning it was Isa it was her--

"Ross!"

"Armitage!"

She sat up with a jolt and saw Ross running towards her, the way she'd wanted him to in the dream and the way he shouldn't have been now, incongruous, in the middle of the warehouse, why was he here? She was beginning to think she might still be dreaming when Julian-- Julian who had been watching over her, she realised now-- stood up and stepped in between them, cutting Ross off.

"The hell do you think you're doing here?"

"I heard her call out." Ross peeked around Julian and caught Armitage's eye. "You okay?"

"I was dreaming," she said. There'd been something about the dream that she felt had been important, but she was losing it now in all the talking and scathing glares. She pressed her fingers to her temples and tried to think.

Julian brought Ross's attention back with a cough. "You didn't answer my question. What are you doing here?"

"Saw your statement on the news." His next question was still directed at Armitage. "Just what are you trying to pull? Stopping traffic, sending out threats-- you're going to have riots on your hands if you're not careful! Remember those?"

Oh, you did not just go there, Ross, you little shit. "I think I remember the history of my own goddamn oppression better than you do. And for the record, we're fighting to try and stop it." She closed her eyes, her brow wrinkling. "We're tired of living in the shadows. Tired of being second-class-- fuck that, no. We're not even a second class. We're not allowed to exist. Remember?" She put a pointed emphasis on the last word, her eyes open again and blazing with fire.

Ross pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling. "This is madness. You're going to get yourself killed."

"I can handle myself."

"Oh yeah? And what about the rest of us? I've got to bring my kid, your kid, don't forget, up in this world you're shaping. Is that what you want for her?" He spread his arms wide. "Her earliest memories, you want them to be of people trashing the streets, of-- missiles and bombs? Because that's where you're headed here. You're not the only one who has to handle the fallout from the shit you cause, and you seem to keep forgetting that. What about our safety, Armitage? What about what's fair on us?"

"You have a whole damn planet to be safe on." Her lip curled. "We don't have any. You call that fair?" A fragment of the dream flashed into her mind again, but slipped away before she could catch it.

"So that's what you're about now? Robot separatism? 'You humans' and 'we Thirds'? What happened to putting aside our differences?"

"That was always your dream, not mine. Unlike you, I can't just pretend our differences don't exist. I have to live with them every day of my life."

"And I have to live with the stunts you pull." There was a hardness in his eyes that did a poor job of distracting from the trembles, the little motions of his lips and chin, and a lump formed in her throat at the sight. "You know, I take back what I just said. You don't seem to keep forgetting that other people have to clean up your messes-- you're a fucking genius at it. It's practically your superpower. You're the only one in your little world, aren't you? What you say goes, and everyone else can just--" His hand made a cutting motion. "--go to hell."

He turned his back on her-- whether rejecting her or not wanting her to see his pain, she didn't know, but either way he was shutting her out. Suddenly, speaking felt like a chore, and even though her fists were balled at her sides, tears were falling.

"No, I'm not the only one in my world, Ross. The others just don't exist to you. Because they're not humans."

He took a few steps forward, and her voice increased in volume to match. "Don't you walk away from me!" She hit her fist against the pallet. "Don't you leave!" The choking feeling crept into her throat again. You said you wouldn't leave me. You said nothing I did would ever get rid of you-- no matter how stupid I was, no matter how much I fucked up. You lied.

He didn't turn to look at her as he said, "I think you've already done a pretty good job of walking away."

But you're supposed to come get me, you idiot, she thought, watching his figure recede. I thought that's what love was. But she could see the way that every step he took away from her hurt him, shook his body; and, she thought, that would have to be enough for now. She would have to believe in him, even when he didn't believe in her. He'd come back.

"Please come back," she whispered, and without noticing him move she felt Julian's warmth at her side, the pallet sagging under him, his arms wrapping around skin that felt so cold.

Whatever the message of her dream had been, it was long forgotten now.

Chapter Text

The next few months saw Mars plunged into chaos.

In response to the robot threat, the Conception company offered to cooperate with the government to arm citizens with a low-cost version of their electronic deactuator, or "zapper" as it became commonly known: a small device used to subdue malfunctioning robots that, when pressed to the skin, generated a short burst of high-voltage current that temporarily confused the CPU, forcing shutdown. In return, however, the government would need to provide new factories, as it turned out that, along with the relatively innocent traffic light stunt, the Allied Robotic Coalition-- as they were calling themselves now-- had quietly shut off the power to all of Conception and Hu-Gite's plants, with the exception, of course, of Site One.

The government accepted the offer, pulling out all the stops to get Conception back up and running, and-- though chased from location to location by successive blackouts targeting their factories-- did manage to ship out a limited number of zappers, which were soon being reverse-engineered and sold on the black market by St. Lowell's thriving underground, whose bootleggers owned factories that were often literally subterranean. The hybrid Thirds, which the government correctly assumed were based on Armitage's design, were resistant to most regular armaments, unless hit in the head, which was't easy; so those who couldn't buy a zapper were instructed to take advantage of one of the few other weapons that worked: a simple squirt gun filled with hydrofluoric acid, a chemical harmless to modern plastics but capable of eating through metal, flesh and bone. It made short work of the biopolymer that was the Thirds' skin, but of course destroyed human flesh just as quickly, and in the weeks that followed more humans than Thirds were reported maimed by it.

In fact, no Third deaths happened at all, since they had no intention of confronting the populace hand-to-hand. Though the image in most people's minds was of wild-eyed humanoids rampaging through the streets and shooting anything that moved, the only ones rampaging were humans affected by the blackouts and running short on food: the ARC's true assault was on St. Lowell's power grid. After several blackouts and subsequent failed attempts to get the power back online, the government received a request for their leader, the Martian Planetary Council chairman Allan Wiedman, to speak over a channel the ARC had opened for them. Wiedman knew what their proposition would be-- surrender or die-- but he agreed to see them anyway.

They did not surprise him. Surrender, they reiterated, or we will take this planet by force. Wiedman stood his ground, stating that Mars would not be cowed by terrorists, and that in no way did the government plan to step down to let "a bunch of felons, who by all rights shouldn't even exist" take charge.

"You will have this planet," he said, "when my body is cold. And not before."

And that was when the ARC stepped up their game.

 

It was Isa who was speaking before them now, not Armitage. Whether Isa didn't trust her not to drop the ball if she had to speak so soon after the revelation, Armitage wasn't sure, but it wouldn't have been an unfair judgment. The words that Isa had just delivered to them were not ones she could have spoken calmly. Her insides were still turning over from the shock.

In order to proceed with the next phase of our plan, all generators serving St. Lowell must be taken offline, with the exception of the bare minimum required to restart the system. We're keeping the power to Site One online, but from the time we shut down to when we have full control of the seat of government-- she'd pointed on an overhead map to the Becquerel Building, the headquarters of Mars's department of defence-- that will be the only resource we have left. Everything else, including the backup server, must go offline.

A dissonant murmur spread through the crowd, some of its instigators close enough to Armitage that she could make out words. "The backup server?" "No way." "But that means if we die..."

Isa had been prepared for this, and paused to let the buzz die down before speaking again. "Yes, this means that the server will no longer be able to receive our-- souls, if you want to put it like that. Even if our memories are stored, if the server is offline at the time of our deaths, the spark that controls our consciousnesses won't be delivered. We're gone for good." Another round of whispers started up, low but anxious in tone. "That's why we have to make this run count. We're not going to get a second chance."

One voice spoke up. "But why do it that way? Why not shut down Site One, and keep the server online?"

"We can't." Isa spread her hands, an image of helplessness though her face was calm. "The section of the grid that serves the backup server is also home to some of the keystones of government infrastructure. If we keep it online, our offense will be severely weakened." She tapped the buildings on the map, zooming in on them. "And quite frankly, we have to prepare for this crisis sooner rather than later. Eventually the government's going to figure out that the server is the source of our 'immortality', if they haven't already-- and when they do, if they still have access to any resources whatsoever, they'll take it down. We can't rely on it."

The crowd was quiet now, but the fear in the air was palpable. They'd been enticed to fight against a government that wanted to take away their afterlives, their very souls; now they were learning they were risking that anyway. On top of that, many of them, before they'd been pulled from the server, had reconciled themselves with a life in the Null that was featureless yet eternal. They'd got used to the fact that they'd never really die. Now, that was changing, and they were afraid.

But Isa stood firm, even as Armitage herself felt like she was going to buckle. "The server will be brought back online as soon as it's safe to restore power. We're looking at a matter of days. Still, those few days will also be the most dangerous in our campaign so far. I won't lie to you: it'll be a miracle if lives aren't lost, though of course we'll do all we can to prevent it. If you're not comfortable with that, you can still back out."

But they couldn't, and Armitage knew it, because she knew that all of them, including Isa herself, were praying for the same thing she was: for no one in that building to turn around and walk out, reducing their already paltry numbers by one, bringing them even closer to a probable defeat. For all of Armitage's passion and Isa's confidence, their plan rode on sheer luck. They were one thousand Thirds against a human population of one million, and even one lost of that thousand would be a heavy blow.

They all remained where they were, and Armitage wondered, not for the first time, just what she'd gotten them into.

 

That night in her dreams, Ross was right there in the sandstorm with her, but no matter how loudly she screamed, he couldn't hear her at all.

 

A blackout doesn't sound like anything, Ross thought as he sat in his darkened apartment, Francine on his lap, the streets below his window swallowed up by an endless night. For something that can be so deadly, it's completely silent. It didn't seem like that ought to be right: like the world, if it was going to end, should after all go out without even a whimper.

He put his unease down to his profession: he was an ex-cop and now a security guard, someone who'd spent most of his life counting on threats that made noise when they hunted you. Silence, in his line of work, was a problem. Silence meant something was hunting you and you didn't know where it was. He felt hunted, watched by a thousand eyes but unable to see. He felt alone.

There was no communication in the city now, save whatever the Thirds might have jury-rigged for themselves. Phone lines, TV, internet-- dead. He couldn't even rely on the inane chattering of Second news hosts to make him feel less isolated, not that it would have. Robots didn't make him feel safe any more. The image of a sparking android lurching from its car, its body wracked by mechanical tremors that made the human form at its most grotesque look graceful, was never far from his mind.

He wondered if he'd ever felt safe around robots, really, and knew it was a question he ought to have asked himself long before now. He'd told Armitage that he loved her, trusted her, and at the time he'd thought he had. But he couldn't trust her, and that raised the question of whether he loved her, or if he'd gambled everything on a momentary rush of feelings. It had felt so real when they'd been fighting for their lives-- but didn't everything? Had he been deceived by adrenaline and the romantic ideal of "two against the world"?

Because now that it was her against him, robots against humans, he couldn't be sure he still felt what he'd felt then; and if that was the truth, then he'd betrayed her, too, in his own way.

Maybe it was a biological thing, the way she'd said. Maybe robots and humans just weren't meant to coexist. Maybe the robot separatists were right, and if both races were going to survive, they each needed a planet of their own.

And yet for all that, it still seemed that she was never far from his mind, either. Could you love someone and still be afraid of them? He didn't know.

He clutched Francine to his chest, his head drooping onto her tiny one. God, he didn't know.

 

If Ross was in a panic, then the higher-ups of Martian government were both panicked and furious.

The blackout was the part the people on the street saw, but for those in power, it wasn't the only problem. With the power out in most government buildings, the electronic locks and gates used in those higher-security areas were inoperable-- and though many of them were set to default to an unlocked position if the power went out, the Thirds had forced them all to lock and stay locked before they took down the grid. Countless members of government were now trapped inside their offices, and those that weren't found their cars locked inside their high-security parking garages, forcing them to walk home-- to homes in upscale areas that also had electronic locks. All over the city, battery-powered alarms were going off as windows were smashed, doors kicked in, so that people could retrieve their basic possessions, shelter and food. And that was if the looters hadn't got to them first.

Because, with the power out in St. Lowell's poorer areas for timeframes of multiple weeks, food in the once-plentiful Martian capital had become a real issue. Stores had shut down, supplies had spoiled, and, increasingly, the only way to eat was illegally. Driven by need and armed with deadly hydrofluoric acid, and with the blackout in the high-class areas now levelling the playing field, the average person had become bolder. Many of those workers who did manage to escape their buildings found their houses stripped of everything of value, their doors wide open, their children screaming at the sight of their Second babysitters, their faces dripping from their metallic bones.

Robots were a particular target, but that meant every robot, friend or foe. The Thirds escaped notice, indistinguishable from humans, so people took out their frustrations on the more obvious machines: security gadgets, police droids, everything the government needed to run smoothly. With the city already in a state of frenzy, robotic patrols that had once instilled a sense of calm now drove people to fury, and the severed, melted heads of police bots could now be found staked on almost every street corner.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, those who'd survived were now marching from their posts, in ordered, calm lockstep, by the hundreds. Attempts to order them back were ignored; a few fell to the zappers, but most people weren't tough enough to take down a security robot at close range, and could only watch as the procession flowed--

--towards Main Street, where they fell into step with one thousand Thirds, headed straight for the heart of Martian defence: the Becquerel Building.

Chapter Text

The march to the Becquerel Building was a sober one, in keeping with the mood of the darkened streets. There was no light by which to see protest signs or flags of alliance, and no one around to see them: their retinue of security droids, midhacked by Julian, buzzed quietly around them, keeping any assailants at a distance. Those few who were desperate or foolish enough to attack the procession were shot down long before they could reach the Thirds at its core, and slowly, the crowds of rioters fell back and dispersed, knowing they were outgunned.

"Wish anyone else around here was a hacker," Julian grumbled. "A thousand machine-brains and not one of 'em knows their way around a network." That wasn't technically true: plenty of them were hackers, Armitage included, but none possessed the level of mental finesse required to keep control of the droids; even Armitage, at best, could only influence. And Julian was feeling snippy. "Ever played a video game? One of those little things you brew up in your spare time, where you're flying some ship around a map, taking down space invaders? Imagine that, but you're piloting ships by the hundreds." He rubbed his temple. "It's not easy."

"That's why we'd be lost without you," said Armitage, giving Julian's shoulders a quick squeeze as they walked. "You're the backbone of this whole operation."

"Yeah, don't remind me." But he managed a crooked half-smile.

As well as controlling security, it had been Julian's job to send out droids to all the substations controlling the Becquerel area. Power to the defence headquarters wasn't taken down easily, and numerous backup relays had to be disabled, their human operators shot or otherwise disposed of, before the complex was completely offline.

But even with the power out, they weren't safe. Tanks could blow through security barriers, and they still had charge in them: enough to last them, at least, for a few hours against the rebels, which was all they needed. And humans with guns didn't need electricity. That was why, as the main gate of the Becquerel Building came into sight, they fully expected to see a phalanx of armoured vehicles and anti-tank gunners lined up to take them down.

Instead, there was nothing.

"No," said Isa quietly. "This isn't right. They're using the darkness to their advantage. Turn your night vision on."

The message rippled through the crowd, and a thousand pairs of Third eyes lit up, shimmering through the pollution haze from machines long disabled. In the shadows of the building, they could now see the dim, glowing cores of the assembled tanks-- and the soldiers, bright furnaces of body heat on a backdrop of night.

A cry of "Fire!" went up from one side of the conflict, and from the other, "Take those shitstains down!"

The war had begun in earnest.

The boom of human guns filled the air, a thunderous backdrop to the sight of Thirds ascending, wings rolling out from each of their backs like a colossal, diaphanous wave. Illuminated by reflected fire, they seemed to burn up and disappear as they shot skyward, out of the reach of the light-- and the missiles, which skimmed harmlessly beneath them. The humans hadn't been prepared for aerial Thirds, and their heavy cannons were slow to adjust, while the Thirds were self-contained and fast-- and invisible. In the darkened city, high above the cannons' glare, they were ripples of cloud against a smog-black sky.

The first row dropped, lasers firing, the wind's war-cry whistling painfully in their ears. The tanks returned fire, but the flock of Thirds was an impossible target, and they could only fire blindly into their ranks: still they hit a few, the bodies falling lifeless to the ground as Third lasers vaporised their human gunners.

Meanwhile, at ground level, the security robots made for a good distraction, mindlessly plowing forward and absorbing fire, each row falling to reveal another. Soon their numbers started to thin, but they'd done their job: every hit the ground bots took was one less hit on the Thirds.

Armitage wanted to feel sorry for them, the mounting pile of mangled, sparking corpses, but she couldn't think about it if she was going to stay alive. She twisted out of the way to dodge a missile, bringing her low to the ground, and spared a glance at the humans' side: most of the tanks reduced to shrapnel, human bodies now ash on the wind. But that missile had to have come from somewhere, and she soon spotted the active gunner, his face a bright mask in her thermal vision, eyes whited out, heat pumping through every cell of his body that dispersed in a flash as she fired a shot into his torso.

"Shit!" The scream came from below: it was Julian. She swivelled to look. "I'm down!" She could see him now, lying among some of the broken ground bots, one wing torn off, slumped in a strange position that made him look armless.

"Medkit!" Armitage yelled to the robots on the ground, praying that there were enough still alive for someone to have one. One did, and rushed over to Julian just as Isa landed beside him.

It was bad. He'd been hit point blank by one of the acid guns, and his whole left arm was gone, dissolved by the acid like it had never been there. Isa was dumping water on him from the medbot's canteen, sending up a riot of sparks and making him howl, but she didn't have a choice: she had to flush out the wound, or the acid would just eat further into his body.

"The fuck were you doing that close?" Armitage shouted down to him, still circling the battlefield. The acid guns were a short-range weapon: the gunners couldn't risk firing them upwards and having the acid rain back down on them, so Julian had had to be at ground level.

"You can come down now," someone else called to her from the ground. "I think we got them all."

It was a Third woman with short-cropped hair, her tank top partly melted to her skin by an explosion whose very edge she'd clipped. Armitage landed next to her and ran over to Julian, repeating the question. "What were you doing?"

It took him several seconds to answer: his teeth were chattering from the shock to his system, his nerve endings seizing in protest. "Th-thuh-there was a... you were a... guy was gonna hit you," he said, jerking his head back in the direction of the battlefield. "F-f-fuck, it hurts."

She would have cuffed him around the head if he hadn't been in so much pain. "We need you, dumbass. Backbone, remember?" But she was blinking rapidly, trying to hold back tears of more than just frustration.

"I s-s-said don't re-remind me." He managed the half-smile again, though it quivered unnaturally.

Isa stepped up to them. "Can you go on?"

"Yeah," said Julian, knowing he had to. He pulled himself to his feet with a colossal effort, trembling all the while. There was no blood: the acid had effectively cauterised the wound, so at least he wasn't at risk of bleeding to death. But Armitage didn't like the way his eyes wouldn't focus, or the way his body kept jerking spasmodically as if it was trying to wrench itself out of his control.

He saw the look on her face, and clamped his remaining hand on her shoulder, though the way he gripped her made it feel less like reassurance and more like he was using her as support. "'S'okay, sis. I... 've b-been through worse."

"I did this to you," she said softly, her eyes full of hurt. "If I hadn't chosen this, you'd--"

"Sh-shut... up, would you? Look, I'm n-not losing my... f-fucking arm for a failed m-mission, and if we don't... g-get in there now, that's what it'll be."

"He's right," said Isa. "We have to move. Now." Without further warning, she signalled the group forward, and began to march on herself, leaving Armitage and Julian behind.

"Okay," said Armitage, looking back to him. "But keep to the fucking centre this time, all right?"

"Roger dokey." He fired off a shaky salute.

"All right. Let's go."

 

"Everybody stay where you are!"

The doors to the darkened building swung open, and in the entryway the silhouettes of the Third army appeared, with Isa at their head. "Everyone in this building get your hands up and do what you're told! This is a military takeover! Dissenters will not be spared!"

The rest of the robots poured in around her, drawing their guns and rounding up every human they could find. Lasers would have killed them much more quickly, but the guns made the right impression, and most of the humans moved warily into the circle of robots. The security guards pulled their own guns on the Thirds, but these were guards trained to fend off humans, not machines, and when their bullets barely made a dent-- and Armitage shot back a fearsome grin-- they, too, threw up their hands.

As soon as everyone was gathered together, Julian slumped down in a corner and began to reach out to the few security gadgets still roaming, adding them to their forces. The others split into two groups: one to escort the humans to a secure room out of the way, with a few going ahead to scout out a suitable room for the purpose, while the other half spread out throughout the building to subdue anyone who wasn't in the main lobby.

"Try to catch them before someone sounds the alarm," said Isa. "No drama, no all-guns-blazing fancy tricks. If we want access to anything in here, we'll need a security token that someone hasn't already destroyed. Anyone good at stealth, you go."

"I'll go," said Armitage.

Isa looked her up and down dubiously. "Didn't I say no fancy tricks?"

"Yeah, but I'm fast. And for that matter, if you're making it a challenge, I can put the tricks on hold this once." She began to walk off. "Try me."

Isa let out a displeased grunt as she herded the humans onwards. On camera, Armitage was a winner, but they didn't have the time right now to deal with her flounces. Still, she was also the only real combat Third they had: they might all have assassinroid bodies now, but Armitage had walked the walk. If anyone could do it, she thought reluctantly, she could.

Fine, she thought to herself. I'll try you. But you'd better not screw up.

They gathered the humans in a large meeting room, the advance scouts having cleared out anything that could feasibly be used as a weapon, and proceeded to strip the captives of their possessions as well. They took the guns, dumped everything else into one of several plastic bins, then secured the door with a manual lock they'd brought with them while they went through the bins for any intel they could get. All the security tokens they recovered were damaged, which wasn't surprising: people who worked in defence were trained to destroy their tokens at the first sign of infiltration, frying the onboard chip with a built-in electrical mechanism. Isa had to hope that one of the others would be able to sneak up on someone and recover one intact.

But there were three parts, she knew, to any top-tier security: what you had, what you were, and what you knew. What you were was easy: fingers could be severed, eyes removed, if the system required that sort of scan. What you had was, of course, the security token. It was what these people knew that she now had to get out of them: an operation just as delicate as retrieving an intact token, but in a rather different way.

She began by going through wallets, looking for family photographs. Wives or husbands were good; children were better. Oh yes, we have your daughter: lovely little blonde girl, always carries around that teddy bear? Let's see what she's worth to you.

 

Lance McCallon had never lived up to his name. A reedy man, tall and thin, the only thing lancelike about him was his stature: in all other respects he was a coward, the kind of man who'd dote on a girl but never ask her out and then get angry when she passed him over, a fact that bothered him whenever he stopped to think about it. But it didn't bother him quite enough to keep him from bolting from the authorised escape route and ducking into a washroom when panic overcame him, needing a place to retreat from the stampede.

And while he was in there, he figured he may as well use the stalls too. All of a sudden, he felt like he needed it.

He seated himself on the can, and right then, it occurred to him: oh yeah, I probably ought to deactivate my token. His hand went for his pocket.

But it never got there, because suddenly something dropped from above, and there were thighs around his neck and his head was being twisted and a small hand, wrapped in spandex, slid past his own fingers and into the pocket of his pants.

He swallowed, feeling his Adam's apple bob against the girl's thigh.

"Thanks," she said, and gracefully dismounted, backflipping off his shoulders to land neatly in front of him. "You wouldn't mind giving me some access codes while you're at it, would you? It'd help a great deal." She cranked open her laser shafts and waved her wrist at him.

"You're-- you're the robots?" He didn't know what he'd expected: something more obviously machinelike, he guessed, something like those home robots with their vapid stares and eager-to-please attitudes. Not this woman, something out of his dreams and nightmares combined, dressed in red with a twisted grin and, it seemed, a mind to match. She stepped forward, leaning in close, and he could smell her leather and the heated metal of-- whatever that thing was in her wrist. He didn't know, but he had a funny suspicion it was about to kill him.

A breath away from him, she brushed skin and glanced down, her lip curling in distaste as she recoiled from his hard-on. "Access codes," she said, aiming her weapon downwards. "Or I'll shoot it off."

He threw up his hands. "I-i-it's not like I'm thinking anything bad! I'm not-- I just-- oh god, please don't shoot!"

"Codes." She stretched out her fingers and drew them in again, electricity arcing from palm to tips. "Please." The word was drawn out, spreading across the lips with her grin, which only seemed to get wider until it was almost unnatural.

"Okay, okay!" He began babbling out numbers, which she recorded mentally, and then nodded.

"Anything else I need to access the system?"

"A left th-thumbprint. But--"

She shut off the laser and, with the other hand, shot him through the head. "I hate men like you," she said as she bent down to slice off his thumb, dropping it into a vacuum bag. "Gutless." With a last frown at the sight, she turned and walked out, leaving his corpse slowly sliding off the toilet seat.

 

"Got it." Armitage all but bounded back to Isa, holding out the blood-filled bag and token. "All three in one guy. He was a pushover. The code's zero-four-seven-five-eight-two-six-zero."

Isa raised an appraising eyebrow and, eventually, managed a smile. "Good work. It seems I've got the hard cases in there. Only one of them squealed, and they'd all destroyed their tokens." She took the items from Armitage. "All right. All we need now is to get the power back online, and we've got control of this place."

Armitage nodded. "I'll ask Julian."

But as she ran over to the small figure in the corner, she could tell something wasn't right. His skin was clammy, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he gasped, skin-oxygen absorption clearly failing him to force him to that mechanical, human action. She called out his name, but he didn't look at her: his eyes were closed.

She fell to a crouch next to him and ran a hand over his cheek. He was cold: too cold. Cold was good for a robot, but his skin was dripping coolant like a leaky motor.

"It's okay," she whispered, kissing his temple. "I'm here now." She looked up at the woman standing next to him. "What's going on?"

"Medical shock," she said. "From the amount of blood loss. He needs IV fluids, but we can't get them into him-- we don't have the equipment."

"Then get the equipment! What are you doing just standing there?" She waved her arms frantically at the woman's face.

"We've already sent someone." She looked at her wrist, an empty gesture since, like all Thirds, she didn't need to wear a watch. "But it's dangerous out there, and he doesn't have much time. We need someone to bring the power back up."

For a moment, Armitage was confused by the last statement. It was obvious they needed power, and also that it wasn't going to happen right now: Julian was the one who could control the droids, and he was clearly in no condition to do so. But what did that have to do with anything?

Then she hit on the meaning of the woman's words. We need the power back up because he's going to die. And if he dies now, it's forever.

Chapter Text

It came back to her in a flash. I remember my dream now. What was so important about it.

When she'd seen the state Julian was in, and realised that he wouldn't be able to get the power back on in time to save his own life, she'd set out for the power station herself. Aloft on her wings above the city streets, the riots below had seemed insignificant: she'd been told it was dangerous out there, but that was only true when she was groundbound, and the area she'd be landing in was, by virtue of being the only place that still had power, heavily guarded around its perimeter by their own robot troops.

She hadn't expected any opposition. They'd evacuated the section of the grid of which Site One was a part, so when she'd touched down, the streets had been empty: the security droids kept the rioters at a distance, set in motion by Julian and still faithfully following his earlier directives.

Just get the other generators back online, and wait. And hope. Hope was the operative part of that statement: with the amount of systems they'd taken down, it'd be half a day or more just waiting for the turbines to spin up again, and she didn't know if Julian had that long. But she had to try.

But before she could lay a hand on the controls, she heard a whine. It was the harsh, familiar whine of her own laser cannon. She looked down at her wrist, confused, even though she knew she hadn't set it off.

Stupidity cleared a moment later, and she threw herself to the concrete, the laser blast barely skimming the top of her head.

She rolled over, got back up, and came face to face with her own eyes.

In my dream, the robot attacking me was me. I remembered... something about repurposing. Isa had talked about mind wipes. When they execute us, they keep the bodies.

There are hundreds of us out there.

The Armitage clone-- no, the real thing, she thought, her original body, but she couldn't spend time philosophising about that-- fired at her again, and she was forced to jump. Every circuit in her systems protested at the leap from a crouching start, but it got her clear, got her airborne, and she flared out her wings and landed behind the clone with a balletic flip.

Before it could turn, she blew its arm cannon off with her own laser, watching as the metal curled up on itself, a flower wrought in steel. "Not so hot without the ace up your sleeve, are you?"

The clone showed no pain, only mild confusion as its brain recalibrated for the missing limb, before its eyes went empty again. Even with the advantage of her real body and face, it was a poor simulacrum: she felt a mixture of contempt and pity for it, this barely-conscious invader in her own precious flesh. She raised her arm to put it out of its misery, but the shot skimmed dirt as the clone leapt upwards, twisting around in mid-air and landing on her shoulders with a crushing thigh-grab.

"Hey, that's my trick!" She tried to swivel her head to better aim her cannon, not wanting to risk blowing her own head off in the process, but the clone held her fast. She could feel the blood flow to her brain slowing, her mind starting to wander as the organic parts shut down. It was a funny situation, she couldn't help but think, being crushed to death by her own body.

--No! I won't give in here. With the effort of fighting through a groggy haze, she raised her gun and fired several shots upwards. The pressure abated, and she shook off her assailant and spun around, expecting to find a bloodied mirror of her face. Instead, she found herself looking down the barrel of a gun.

The clone fired, once, twice, three, times, and she felt the shock of it tear through her brain. Signals scrambled to rearrange themselves, circuits poured out noise into empty relays, vision blackened, hearing buzzed. She staggered backwards, pressing her hand to her face, feeling blood through her glove and still trying to see it, not quite caught up to the fact that her vision was gone.

She felt-- felt was a strange word; it was spikes of pain-- a hand grab her chin, her mouth forced open, and tangled threads of dream imagery swarmed through misfiring neurons. You're going to die, Armitage. This is how it ends. You're dying now. You're dead. She tasted the barrel of the gun in her mouth, and in her mind she was back in the storm, the static fuzziness flooding her nerves the pounding of sand against her skin, the overheating of her circuits the beating of a brutal desert sun.

Ross! her mind screamed, but all she could force from her throat was a wet gurgling sound. It wouldn't matter anyway: he wasn't here, he wasn't going to be here, he never had been. It was all a dream. Ross was a dream, love was a dream, her brother was slipping through her fingers, her mind was a fading light. But the scream kept coming, not even something she controlled any more, but something more instinctual, primal, leaving her unsure whether the voice in her head was even her own.

I need you, Ross. I need you. Help me.

 

In the darkness of his apartment, Ross was woken by his phone.

It took him several long seconds to realise what it was, the noise dragging him from the depths of unconsciousness. Even when he came fully to his senses, he didn't understand it. It shouldn't have gone off. He'd had power to his apartment until the blackout had gone total, so it had plenty of charge, but there shouldn't have been any way a message could get through. The lights weren't back on, so the communication towers had to still be down, didn't they?

He picked it up anyway, an awful suspicion building in his chest.

HELP ME, ROSS, the text-only message said, a dim blue glow on a black screen, and his stomach dropped the rest of the way at the same time adrenaline kicked in, bringing with it crystal clarity.

Yes, he did still love her. And he would still fight for her.

The screen's light pulsed like a dying heart, and he touched two fingers to the words, as if he could feel her through them. "I'm coming, Armitage."

 

The message had given him coordinates, but getting there was still easier said than done. The riots that Armitage had so easily bypassed blocked off every main thoroughfare and some of the smaller ones, forcing him to fight his way through the teeming, spitting crowds.

"Police!" he yelled, holding his gun up and waving it around, hoping to bluff his way into some respect. "Make way!" But only a handful showed any interest, while others flocked to him begging him to do something about the food, the robots, and his situation was worse than before. He strongarmed them out of the way, bloodying more than a few noses, hands tearing at his jacket as he pushed past.

Eventually he made it through to the other side, panting, blood and less identifiable substances smeared on his clothes. The coordinates had led him to an area mercifully free of protestors-- and lit up, he noticed, which accounted for the guard robots that ringed its perimeter, their metallic chests pushed out imposingly.

"Shit," he muttered under his breath, surveying the scene. Rioters were one thing, but robots were another. He couldn't just pound a robot into the pavement or expect it to surrender to him. But then, he thought, these had to be Armitage's robots. Maybe he could try another tactic.

He walked up to the closest guard, who immediately cocked his gun and raised it. He put up his hands. "Hey, hey, easy. I'm looking for Armitage. I hear she's hurt. I want to help."

"No entry," the robot said in its gruff, metallic voice.

"I got a message from her." He desperately wanted to show the robot his phone, but he couldn't risk going for it now. "She told me to come here. Please, let me through."

"Only personnel under Pluto permitted access. You are not on the access list. No entry."

Pluto. Of course. He backed off, hands still in the air. "Okay, well, thanks... I'll be going now. Have a nice day."

As soon as he was out of the robots' sight range, he pulled out his phone and dialled Julian. No signal, the phone flashed back at him, and he cursed himself for forgetting that little detail. Right. Time to do this the hard way.

He gathered his strength into his centre and charged at the robot, his mechanical side leading, his arm up in front of him to absorb the inevitable blast. He gritted his teeth as the bullets pinged off him, painless yet intimidating, hot chunks of metal flying so close to his face. One nicked his cheek, but he kept running, crashing his robot side into the guard's torso and barrelling through, not slowing down as he ran for the coordinates Armitage had given him.

He called her name into the building, thinking if she heard his voice, maybe she could stop the guards. As he ran, he glanced around him at the place he'd been brought to: this was a power station, the only one within the chunk of the grid that was still operative. Clearly their mission was close to complete, if they were trying to boot back up. He felt relief wash through him at that, something he hadn't been expecting. Was he really holding out for the robots to win?

No, he thought: it wasn't about robots, about this side or that. It was about people, living people here on Mars who'd never had a chance because everyone just thought of them as robots-- including him, no matter how hard he tried. Yet under all his anger, he wanted Armitage to win. He wanted her to have the life she wanted, needed for herself. The life she deserved and had never experienced: the kind of life he took for granted, a peaceful one where she didn't have to fight just to exist.

The life, he realised, as his feet slowed automatically at the sight of her form, that he might be too late to save.

He crouched down next to her, his hand dancing awkwardly inches from her cheek, wanting to touch her and at the same time fearful of the extent of her damage. Behind him, the guard robots slowed to a halt, unwilling to risk hitting Armitage in the crossfire: they simply watched, wary, their guns trained on Ross but making no move to attack.

The bullet pattern was exactly that of the Third murders: several shots to the skull, the back of the head blown open to reveal the shuddering, sparking brain. One half of him was cast back into that time, the dispassionate way in which he'd examined the bodies, noted the details, even as the other screamed bloody vengeance inside him. He felt nausea at the thought: he was looking at her, and to some part of him, she was just another victim that his mind struggled to detach from. He couldn't let grief force him to go there, not with her. He wouldn't let it.

He leaned in to see if he could hear her heart, and she jolted to awareness suddenly: eyes wide, lips parted, some primitive part of her human-derived brain commanding her to gasp for air. It wouldn't help, but she fought for it anyway, high, watery whines passing through her throat. A tear slid down her cheek, at the pain or at his presence, he didn't know. Perhaps she didn't even know he was there. God, she needed to know he was there.

"Armitage," he said hoarsely, and though her eyes showed no sign of registering him, her breathing seemed to slow, just a little. "Armitage, what do I do? Tell me. Tell me how to fix it."

She rolled over onto her front, coughing blood. It poured from her eyes and ears: it was obvious she wasn't seeing anything, yet somehow she managed to finger-paint one word in the fluid on the floor. POWER.

Of course, he thought, his heart lurching. The server's down; everything's down. Her body's not going to live, but if we can get the server back online, at least she'll be safe. He ran to the nearest console, but found himself staring helplessly at the array of buttons, knobs, switches. Nothing here was labelled, nothing made any sense. He looked back at her, his voice breaking with desperation.

"I don't know what to do!" He flung his arms wide. "Goddammit, I don't know how to work this thing! Armitage, help me!" Her hand twitched in the pool of blood, making erratic motions he couldn't make out. "Get up and help me, damn you! You have to live!"

Her hand went still, and he slammed his fist into the console with a roar, his shoulders heaving. No. No. I can't get angry at her. That's how this whole thing started. That's why I wasn't there.

He kneeled back down by her. "Hey." His voice was really failing him now, coming apart at the seams. "Hey, partner. You listening? You hearing me in there? God, you gotta be hearing me. I've got so much to say." Another small whine escaped her throat, and he nodded, swallowing.

"You were right, kid. You were right and I was wrong. It was easy to support you when all I had to do was be that little bit better than everyone around me. It was easy to say 'sure, I'm not a bigot' without understanding what that even meant. You forced me to understand, and I-- I'll always be changed by that. But you... it's too late for you..." He ran his fingers over her torn skin, heedless of the damage now, needing to touch her, feeling the heated metal beneath. "I failed you, Armitage. I fucked up." He lowered his head onto her chest. "I fucked up."

He felt something wet against his chin, and he looked to see her fingers trembling at the edge of his jawline. "Trying to tell me it's okay, huh?" He forced out a raw chuckle. "Don't waste your energy... I don't deserve it. If you wanted to die and never forgive me, I wouldn't blame you." Her fingers tightened on his skin, a weak clawing motion. Don't be such a fuckhead, she seemed to be saying. He pressed her hand firmly to his cheek, letting her feel his tears.

And then her arm slackened, and the weak pulsing in her chest grew weaker, and he was alone.

I won't curse robots for hurting me, he told himself as he looked down at her. Not this time. Robots aren't the ones to blame for my pain, not any of it. It's not your fault, Armitage. His fingers fluttered against her eyelids, gently closing them. Not your fault.

But there was someone whose fault it was. And he intended to take them down.

 

"There's a human at the entrance arguing with the guards, ma'am."

Isa paused in her pacing to regard the other woman. It was long past time for Armitage to be back, and they couldn't do anything until the power came on. She didn't have the patience for humans right now. "Kill them, whoever it is. They shouldn't be here."

"He says he's Ross Sylibus, Armitage's partner. He's got Armitage with him... she..." She blanched. "She doesn't look good."

Shit. Armitage, you idiot. "...Bring them both in."

"Yes, ma'am." The woman disappeared and returned shortly with the pair, another Third helping flank them. Armitage was draped over Ross's shoulder: his stature made her look ephemeral, lightweight. She was no longer bleeding, but they could all see her exposed brain. Several people gasped.

He knelt down and laid her gently on the floor, then looked up at the gathered crowd. His face was smeared with blood, and his eyes were reddened. "Whoever did this to her is still out there," he said, and his voice was a shadow of what it should have been for someone of his size. "I'm here to help you stop them."

"What can one human do?" Isa's cold stare masked anything she might have been feeling-- almost. There was still a tremor in her voice. She gestured to Armitage's body. "What does one human think he can do against this?"

"Nothing much." He rose carefully, mindful of jostling her. "But it's what I have to do. I wasn't there for her, and maybe if I had been, she wouldn't be dead. I'm not going to stand by while the same happens to you."

Isa nodded, slowly, and held out a firearm.

"I've got one," he said.

She nodded again. "Then get out front, if you're out for the noble death. Looks like we'll need all the meat shields we can get."

"Yes, ma'am."

He began to walk away, but a groan stopped him in his tracks. He knew that voice. "Julian?"

Almost invisible in the shadows, Julian's frail body would have passed him by if he hadn't opened his eyes. "...Armitage," he said, his voice a husky whisper.

"I'm sorry." It was only on a second glance that Ross noticed what was strange about his shape, and he winced. Not you too, kid. Please. Don't die too. "She didn't make it."

He seemed not to register the words. "I-- I have something to-- tell her," he said, clearly shaking with the effort. "C-closer... please... hard to speak."

Ross crouched down next to him, leaning his head close to Julian's ear. "Go on."

"The diary... remember the files?" It took Ross a moment to figure out what he was talking about. "Asakura's... I was trying to... distract myself-- I read through it. There's a file... later than the one I told Armitage... said... he was sorry."

"Sorry?"

"Sorry h-he... thought of the Thirds as... just... Martian independence. Said we have a life of our own, too... we have... a purpose..." He coughed, then forced his mouth into a grin. "Thought she'd-- want to know."

"Thanks," he said, pushing himself upright again and trying to keep his face from betraying him. "I'll tell her."

I can never tell her. But I can tell them, and I can live my life as if it's true. Even if it's not for long, now... we can live as if it's true.

"All right." He cocked his gun, remembering Armitage's words back on Danich Hill. This is for you, kid. "Let's show 'em."

 

"What do you fear most in the world?"
"The possibility that... love is not enough."
--Twin Peaks

 

-END-