Dorian's fear module always pinged with cases over the Wall, but this one was making him especially nervous. Not that he'd demonstrate that to John, although his increased backtalk was probably enough to alert his partner that something was up. But this was Nigel Vaughn, his creator. Father of all of his fellow DRNs, and also the murderous XRNs; a disgraced thief and crook and mad scientist who had escaped custody and run over the Wall to the anarchotech zone. Dorian counted himself lucky that he and John were permitted to be on the case, and forcibly quieted his wayward emotions.
“You're disco-facing red, Dorian,” John said, and Dorian mentally sighed. Too late. “You up for this? Because we could just let Paul take his chances with that new MX mode...”
“No,” Dorian interrupted. “I got it together, man. It's just weird to apprehend your criminal father, you know? Your dad was an honorable cop.” Their squad car had pulled around to the quadrant H-9 Wall gate, and Dorian barely waited for the wheels to stop turning before jumping out. Was that eagerness he detected rolling out of the DRN emotion chip? No, he just wanted to get on with this, for better or worse.
John rolled his eyes as his own door slammed behind him. “Head of a tech company doesn't make someone your father, Dorian,” he countered. “There's no relationship there. Vaughn's more like, I dunno, an intellectual sperm donor. Technically your creator, but not an actual parent.”
“I suppose I should be grateful for that. He mentored Danica, or at least put more of himself in her, and look at how that turned out. Do you think we'll find more of her, over the Wall?”
“I sure as hell hope not. I could barely take a bunch of you when you were rolled off the assembly line,” John said, and marched into the black gate.
* * * * *
Over the Wall they had to be incognito, for this was merely a scouting mission. So no tanks or armored gear or obvious hovering drones to provide quick backup or defense. Nothing to give them away as cops, including the MX face. DRNs weren't associated with the police anymore, and they knew a few were wandered around the zone already. They were accompanied by a few groundrones, programmed as insects to unobtrusively follow them and regularly ping headquarters, with the capability to actually fly back over the Wall with reconnaissance were comm-blackout trouble to brew.
They both wore old-fashioned jeans and hoodies, scuffed up and worn, and carried the standard packs of rations issued to new denizens of the zone. It was two am. Dorian kept his face down and hood up over the data matrix on his cheek, hoping to pass as human to the casual observer. New traffic through the gates was likely to be noted by the residents, but they were being met by a local informant. Plus the MX guard gave what Dorian swore was a gleeful kick as he booted them through the gate. For show, DRN-494, the bot pinged him. Data indicates that mild aversive behavior on the part of authorities solidifies your anarchist criminal status.
“Whatever, dude,” Dorian muttered, but didn't transmit it back, trying to keep activity on his face down to a minimum. He wished they'd taken the time to get Rudy to remove the tell-tale data matrix, but that made his face uncomfortably numb. Plus Dorianhated getting significant alterations to his appearance, so anyone looking closely was likely to recognize him as an old synthetic right off even without the flashy cheekbones.
The man they were scheduled to meet scurried out into the gate's spotlights and jerked his head towards a significantly darker residential area out of the range of the Wall's lighting. Even though Dorian had the guy's ID and knew what he would look like, he still struck his analyzer as an archetypal snitch. Short and thin, jittery, unkempt, odd eye contact, likely intoxicated with a mind-altering substance. Dorian wondered how he was connected to the police department, and how much he was being paid. This information was not available in his files.
Walking closer, the dark building turned out to be a bar-slash-trading post, still open with a few bedraggled customers. Barely lit, of course, for the zone wasn't connected with the grid, and everyone in it made due with ubiquitous solar cells. One trader had apparently perked up at the gate's brightened floodlights. “Hey, new meat! Need a place to stay? A guide to the wild lands of the anarchotech paradise? All yours for a few hard bars of...”
“Stiff it, Jimmy,” the informant hissed. “They're with me. No new meat.” He tossed he guy a cube of something Dorian didn't recognize, and the guy shrugged, tipped his head back on his chair, and immediately dozed off. Only then was the flesh-colored implant on the temple of his forehead obvious.
“Thanks. Ash, right?” John murmured, once they were out of earshot.
The guy was still jumpy. Dorian eyed his vitals before speaking softly. Heart rate increased to 110. Sweating. “That's probably all we need as a guide. My map of the zone's external structures is updated.”
“You're the bot, okay? Good bot,” Ash said, too loudly.
Now John turned and stared at him too, then jerked his head away from the alley towards the deep shadows of a external wall, before grabbing the guy and pulling him towards it. “Let's all be quiet now, Ash, got it? We know the way, and don't want to draw attention to ourselves.”
“Toooooo late. Shouldn't have preinformed me you'd bring a DRN,” Ash said.
John let him go as he absorbed the words, and turned to run. But it was indeed too late. Two small droids of some sort rolled up to them out of the shadows, and each sparked them in the shin. A taze in the damned legs shouldn't have done anything but hamper their mobility, but whatever it was, it wasn't just an electric shock. Dorian felt the horrifying sensation of something small crawling up his leg and he tried to lumber away, and then his systems began to grow dark. Out of the corner of his visual field, he saw John fall into a seizing heap next to him.
“Sorry, so sorry. Vaughn pays a lot for his DRNs,” Ash said, hopping from one foot to another. “Two solar cells! My grafts need a tweak, a bite, right?”
The last thing Dorian managed to do before blacking out was ping the bugs: One go back. Three follow. Then he too began to bang the ground, before the total nothingness of deactivation descended on him.
* * * * *
When Dorian woke up, it was abrupt, as it always was. One second he was twitching in a dark alley, the next he was restrained on top of a table in a dim room, completely naked. His internal clock told him five hours and thirty-four minutes had passed, so it should now be morning, but there were no memories or sensations to go with those five hours. He opened his eyes. Nigel Vaughn was standing there, looking over him.
“Father,” Dorian said, numbly. It was if his emotion chip was deactivated, although it pinged functionality. He was simply ignoring its input. He didn't know he could do that. “What is happening? Where is John?”
Vaughn rested his hand on Dorian's forehead. Normally Dorian would take the touch as comforting – he was so rarely touched – but here it seemed cold. “Four-nine-four. You called yourself Dorian, I believe. I'm sorry to do this to you, Dorian, but I have so few hosts.”
Dorian shifted his eyes back and forth, to evaluate the room as best he could from his prone position. A bot with the face of the XRN – Danica – stared at him from a corner. John was laying on one side of a standard mattress off to one side, unconscious or sleeping. A weird mound of what appeared to be plastic garbage was heaped into another. The room was otherwise bare, notably of any electronics.
While he was evaluating the room, Dorian realized it wasn't just emotions he was ignoring – tactile sensations were not being registered either. He focused on those for a second, and was inundated with the sensation of crawling, crawling, all over his skin. He shivered, shifting in his cuffs and recoiling although there was no escape, and worked to black the input again.
“Yes, dampening tactile would be a good idea for now,” Vaughn said, as if reading his mind, although there seemed to be no monitors on neural inputs dragging off his head. “You won't be able to suppress them forever, because the nanos need to integrate. A necessary part of the process, I'm afraid.”
Illicit nanos. They could be programmed for anything. Dorian pulled again on the cuffs, with real force this time. “What are you doing to me? Modifying me? Stop, please, just tell me what you are doing.” His limbs were frantically pinging the central processor now, alerting him to systems going haywire. Synthetic skin. Circulatory fluid. Microprocessor programming. It was like being nibbled alive. “What are you doing to me!?”
“You know I stole the synthetic souls,” Vaughn continued. As if he hadn't heard him, as if Dorian wasn't laying there begging. “But manufacture of bodies, well, hard to get an industrial factory going over here in the zone. They don't exactly let a flow of materials get in here, for good reason. But there are some very creative nanoprogrammers just the same.”
Over on the floor, John groaned. With what little analysis he could spare, Dorian scanned his partner's vitals. Muscle movement. Strong heartbeat. Bloodflow to the head and other vital organs. Probably not too damaged, then. The new Danica stood up and walked over to John, and put her hand on his chest to hold him to the mattress.
“So you want more foot soldiers, then,” Dorian said, desperately wanting to distract their captors long enough for John to at least wake up. “Is that what this is? You're reprogramming me to be loyal to your crazy cause, and no longer be a cop?” He knew this was wrong even as he said it. Why bother infecting the body, then? Why not just his central processor, if behavior modification was the goal?
“Well, I might get around to that someday, if you are very uncooperative. But no, honestly I like you as you are, Dorian. Spunk and stability, I like that. I simply need more like you.”
“More?” Dorian asked. “How do you get...more androids...with nanos?”
Vaughn moved from stroking Dorian's forehead to his cheek matrix. Dorian drew in a breath at the comforting sensation, the only pleasant thing happening to him right now, but he still would have violently rejected it if he could. “Duplication nanos. Rather clever beasts. Unfortunately we've only had the chance to try them out on our droid friends here, so it's hard to predict how hard this will be on you. It'll be a hell of an interesting experiment, though.” He smiled pleasantly, and then nodded at Danica. Together they left the room.
“John,” Dorian almost shouted. “John, wake up! Kennex, get your ass out of bed, I need some assistance here.”
“Gimme a second, my brain's not working,” John mumbled from the floor.
“Your brain never works, and yet you somehow manage,” Dorian shot back. “Meanwhile I've got a raging case of nano infection, and it sucks. Get out of bed, man. Please.” His limbs had gone ominously silent, from their end this time, and now both the DRN emotional affect chip and the synthetic soul – both located in his chest cavity -- were beginning to squawk. Of his major systems, only his central processor, located in the head, remained unaffected. And now the pressure sensors from the skin on his abdomen began to signal strain – from the inside.
John managed to push himself upright, then unsteadily to his feet. The droid left in the corner rolled a bit towards him, and John wagged a finger at it. “Hey now, no more zapping. You wouldn't have left me in here if you didn't want me to help him.” He stumbled over to the table and leaned on it, looming over Dorian's face.
“Wow, dude, that's more of you than I ever wanted to see.”
“Ditto, I can see up your nostrils,” Dorian gritted out. “Maybe help with the restraints? I want to see what the hell's going on in my chest cavity.”
John's eyes managed to travel up from his genitalia to the navel region. “Oh shit, wow,” he said, which was not comforting in the slightest. Still gripping the table for support, John managed to hobble down a couple of feet to Dorian's restrained wrists. With just a touch from John, they clicked off, which annoyed Dorian more than it should have. Possibly human DNA-activated. “Hey, I guess they don't need you tied down after all,” he said.
“That means they don't think I'm a threat in this state.” Dorian sat up, or tried to; the roiling lumps in the vicinity of his stomach prevented him form getting completely upright, so he propped himself up on his hands to take a look downwards. His abdomen bulged the size of an irregular cantaloupe.
“Is a slime alien going to punch out of that?” John joked, but his voice was shaky. “What're your sensors say about that...thing?”
“I've...lost some input,” Dorian said. He was genuinely afraid now, and the emotion chip was screaming. “I'm losing power, John. The nanos are sucking it down. I don't know what they're doing to my legs.”
“Okay. Just calm down for a second, and we'll think this through.”
“Vaughn mentioned duplication,” Dorian said, thinking out loud now. Thankfully the central processor and motor control in his head still seemed to work fine. “The nanos, I think they're rearranging me, somehow.”
“Fuck, how is that possible?” John said, staring hard at the lump now. It rippled and vibrated with activity under the skin. “You mean, it's replicating more nanos, with you as the goddamned host?”
“I mean he wants more DRNs,” Dorian whispered. “He wants to replicate me.”
The lump was growing before their eyes. Dorian measured a one point five centimeter increase in the minute or so he'd been sitting up, and a corresponding loss in the legs. Law of conservation of mass, the nanos couldn't create something from nothing. Dorian wondered if he was going to be split in two in the end, into two child-sized DRNs.
“Let's...let's get you to the bed, so you don't fall off the table,” John said, his voice wavering even more. “Fuck, Dee, I don't know what to do here.”
“Just keep talking to me.”
There wasn't much either one of them could do. Dorian tried to send for help, but communications were blocked. There was no sign of the three remaining groundrones, and Dorian couldn't tell whether they had at least followed them to whatever building they were currently holed up in. It was impossible to tell if backup would be coming, or if headquarters even knew they were in trouble at all.
Dorian lay down on the mattress, slightly propped up against John. It was the most comfortable position for his numb abdomen and legs. “I'm going to try and turn on some more sensory input now,” he told John. “This weird numbness is freaking me out.”
“That's what freaking you out?” John said, but didn't object.
Dorian tried to ping the tactile and proprioceptive sensors in his abdomen, but nothing responded in the normal fashion. So he took a chance and turned off all filters. Fortunately he didn't have the capacity for actual pain, but the sensations emanating from his lower body were...odd. Profoundly wrong, as if the old shape of his body had imprinted on his central processor, and now the deviation from that template was a constantly pinging series of violations. Even after that time he'd been shot and had to have his chest plate replaced, he'd never felt this eating fear of wrongness and deviation.
John was babbling something, but despite his admonishment to keep talking, Dorian ignored him. He needed more information. He realized his hand sensors seemed relatively unaffected, so he placed his palm on his belly and manuallyscanned, as if the bulge were outside him altogether. Tens of thousands of nanos were clustered on the swollen mass, which his processor classified as a partially formed droid of some kind. No, not a mechanical droid – it had the rough form of a small human, with a distinct head and torso and four limbs with appropriate digits. A miniature android.
“It's a baby,” Dorian murmured.
John's eyes tried to pop out of his head. “A baby robot?!” he squeaked. “That's just stupid, Dorian. You're a machine, you don't, like, grow.”
“Well, this one does,” Dorian shot back. “Maybe it's designed to permanently symbiose with the nanos, to develop into a full-sized form.”
“And maybe it's designed to eat you alive and turn your metal bones into something more simpatico to Vaughn,” Kennex added.
“You really are the worst pregnancy partner, John, you know that?” Dorian gently rubbed the lump, probing. Somehow, knowing it was an actual being reduced his fear.
“Pregnancy.” John harrumphed, and rubbed his shell-shocked head. “I'm not going to be a fucking midwife for you. Not gonna happen.”
“There is that.. I wonder if Vaughn's plan is to pop my chest plate off and remove the infant that way. You'd only have to remove the soul module and a few other chips, and avoid puncturing the...”
“Stop. Gross. No puncturing purple goo, you robots are gross. Where the hell's Rudy when you need him?”
“You're a huge comfort in my time of need, John. Can you stroke my cheek matrix, that feels good.”
“Shut the fuck up, bot.” But he did rest his hand on top of Dorian's head, sort of awkwardly petting his hair, which was close enough. Unlike when Vaughn did it, it was helpful to know his partner was there for him, purple hydraulic fluid and all.
Dorian closed his eyes, and was suddenly struck with a new sensation: hunger. Which was bizarre; he didn't eat, didn't need to eat, and had no idea what hunger should feel like. But the nanos must have needed something, because there it was, a stream of new messages coming from he didn't know where, new programming somehow, telling him to put material in his mouth. On a lark he queried the sensation: What is food? Dorian shivered at the dislocated response.
“Hey, John,” he said, trying to keep it casual. “Can you, uh, bring me some of that garbage over there?” He reached a hand towards the plastic pile in the corner off to one side of them.
“Garbage. Do I want to know?” John muttered, and leaned over to pick up a standard printed yogurt container. All of the pile, in fact, was the same 3D printed polycarbonate that was ubiquitous in their environment. It looked delicious, although it was hard to chew.
“Okay, new level of gross,” said John, as Dorian ripped into the container.
“Better tha' bein' cannibalized,” Dorian said through a full mouth. “Don' know why they never made us like this before. Better than the refill cartridges while powering up. Like, recycling.” He waved for a bigger chunk and tore into it.
After a couple of minutes of dedicated recycling, his hand sensors told him the infant was gaining new skin and other external features from the additional material. Plus his own skin needed growth too, to accommodate the growing bulge. The nanos had decreased his tritium skeletal structure by eight percent and hydraulic fluid by five. Dorian felt exhausted; power reserves were down to thirty percent, and energy-saving protocols were kicking in. He ceased scanning and rested his hand on his burgeoning belly again. John stroked his arm.
Outside they could hear the faint sounds of yelling, and the shaking associated with shots fired. “Think the cavalry's here,” John said. “Guess the groundrones made it back with actionable intel. Maybe they caught Vaughn. Mission accomplished?”
Dorian laughed weakly. “I was bait all along.” Down below in the lump in his belly, some of his skin began to buzz. It was very low down, just above his hip structure and below the reinforced chest plate. A bit of a vulnerable area, but that was necessary for mobility. It was also the thinnest and least damaging route of escape. He laughed again, apropos of nothing.
John noticed. “Uhhh, Dorian, you've got a weird line forming, you know, down there.”
“'Down there'? Are you a grown man, John?” But he pushed himself up a bit to get a look at it from the outside. The skin along the line was an angry bruise-like purple, almost black, and beginning to form two troughs. His receptors registered it as an intense pulling, like the skin was ripping itself apart.
“Almost time,” murmured Dorian. “You're gonna have to reach in there and pull it out, John. I don't exactly have the muscle mechanics to push.”
“WHAT,” John choked. “Uh-uh. No midwifing! No purple goo! No no nooooo.”
“Stop being squeamish and just do it,” Dorian snapped. “I'd do it myself but it'd be better to pull down and out, and I only have so long arms.”
“It's a thing, Dorian. A parasite droid that doesn't need to breathe and doesn't need to be born. Let's just wait until we get you to Rudy, he can cut it out of you. Backup's almost here...”
Something in Dorian lurched at that, at the all-too-human goddamned objectification. “It's not a thing anymore than I'm a thing,” he snapped. “Am I an object, John, or do I count as a person? Because whatever it is, so is he.” He pulled his body forward, intending to use gravity to awkwardly shift the child out himself, when John held him back.
“Sit down you dumb bot, before you hurt yourself. I'd only do this for you, Dee.”
John shiftedaway from Dorian's shoulders, leaving him to prop himself up on his hands again. He flexed his abdomen out in a mimic of an exhale, and the thin line of skin popped open. Somehow the nanos had cauterized the site, so he didn't immediately start leaking hydraulic fluid. Out of the incision, out popped a tiny brown foot.
“Fuuuuuuck,” John said, but then he squinted and tucked his fingers into the openingto grasp the body attached to the miniscule limb. The head was bigger than the body, and John awkwardly tried to hold the baby's neck as he pulled it out with slight suctioning pop. The android baby likely didn't need joint support like a human newborn, but Dorian appreciated the effort.
Dorian inhaled. The incision sealed up. Inside him, Dorian could sense the nanobots dispersing, turning themselves back into some of the polycarbonate he had lost in the process.
The baby didn't move. He did look like a baby-version clone of himself, but with the open all-black eyes of deactivation. There was no wriggling, no crying, no first breath.
“Oh God, is it alive?” John asked, handing him over to Dorian. “What happened? Why's he just laying there like that?”
“I don't know,” Dorian whispered.
Next to them, the forgotten droid rolled up, startling both of them. It popped out a small compartmental drawer. Inside it was what looked like a glass stick, glowing with swirling pastels.
“It's one of the synthetic soul sticks,” Dorian said. He picked it up, while cradling the baby in his other arm. The object was half as long as the baby's whole abdomen, but when Dorian traced the area with a finger, a slight indentation in the skin popped open. He slid the stick into the pocket, then held the baby to his face and kissed his temple. The site of DRN activation. His eyes filled in blue, and his arms began to wiggle.
John grinned. “Hey, well done, Dad. That's freaking amazing.”
Dorian grinned back. The baby grinned at the two of them in imitation, an abnormally advanced behavior for a supposed newborn. “Annnnd we're back to creepy,” John commented.
Dorian stuck a finger up to his face for the baby to grasp, and was surprised by a pinging transmitted message at the contact. Dear 494, Dorian. If you get this message, reproduction has been successful! The infant's nanos will still be active, and it will require inputs of tritium, polycarbonate, hydrofluid, and probably some spare MX parts lying around for microminerals, in order to expand to full adult size. I'm sure you will take fine care of the child. Teach him to be a good person. I've left the DRN ethical reasoning intact. Your father, Nigel.
He looked up at John. “Vaughn's gone. He expected us to be rescued.”
John snorted. “So, he just knocked you up and ran away? Asshole creator.” He stroked the baby's cheek, and it flashed red in response. Dorian could sense the baby probing for communication access in a primitive way, rather like a sparkling newAI server straight off the production line.
“I think he always was an asshole. But he gave me this.”
Dorian held the baby up to his chest, skin to synthetic skin. A novel sensation flooded out from his emotion chip. It was some heady combination of relief, affection and protectiveness, and a sense of wonder that this little creature had somehow emerged from him, had been born of his body, literally from the same molecules. It washed away the fear associated with his now ragged dysfunctional body. A form of love, in his DRN way. He began to talk to his child, and to teach.