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a light in the dark

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John is very careful to act as he usually does. Buys a bottle of alcohol, only to empty it out in the sink at the library, away from prying digital eyes. He doesn't want to The Machine to know, doesn't want one of his social security numbers to pop up, ready to be rescued.

He doesn't want to be saved.

He follows a meandering path to the bridge, making frequent stops, but before he's halfway there, his phone rings. He doesn't pick up, has half a mind to chuck it and the earpiece into the street, but finds he doesn't care enough to do so. Let Harold's child say her final piece; it wouldn't change his mind.

 

"John. I had hoped it wouldn't come to this."

 

John perks up. He's gotten good at knowing Harold's voice from The Machine's clever copies. He'd worked a few numbers that way, the familiar cadence of Harold's speech calming him down. But in the end, it had been too painful, and he'd told The Machine to stop. It mostly listened to Root now, without Harold to guide it, but John was glad they continued to help the irrelevants. It was what Harold would have wanted.

What John is hearing right now, he's certain, is Harold's actual voice. John stops to sit down, right there on the sidewalk. He's out of the way, and smells homeless besides; he's back to whatever he'd been before Harold crashed into his life and upended it.

"If you're listening to this, it means that The Machine has..."

Here he trails off, and even though he's dead, John feels a pang of sympathy for Harold. Harold had been a fighter, a survivor, through and through. There was a part of him that never quite understood what it was like to give up, not the way John did.

So it was easy to understand Harold's difficulty right now. Or, well, the difficulty he had, when he'd been alive to record the message.

"Before you do anything, there's something I want you to see." Harold's voice simply says.

In the street, a driverless car pulls up in front of John, the door opening to let that particular new car smell out.

 

"Get in," The Machine says in her usual voice, and John does. Climbs in to the back seat and lies down. It feels good, that the last meaningful thing John will do is an errand from Harold himself.

 

---

 

John comes slowly awake as the car comes to a gentle stop. The car door opens, and John is greeted by the sight of an enormous warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Idly, he notices solar panels and windmills. A cistern for collecting and purifying rain water.

What an elaborate operation.

The doors open, beckoning him inside, and John obliges. Another day, he might have been wary of a trap, but even in death he trusts Harold implicitly.

 

The inside is almost all white, sterile like a hospital, but surprisingly warm. There are shelves upon shelves of files, and John lets himself wander a bit, looking at a file here and there.

The entire place is like a temple to the irrelevants. It's every number they've ever saved, and the ones they hadn't.

John is surprised, but not by much. Of course Harold would think that the numbers would be enough to pull him back from the edge. They'd done it once before.

'Nice try, Harold.' John thinks, fondness making him smile, 'But no dice.'

It was a different kind of sadness that drove him to the bridge now. It wasn't the sharp, angry thing he'd felt after Jessica.

No, this was a more peaceful kind. A resignation. Harold had done what he had to do, and John had to live with it. Or not, as the case was. But John feels no bitterness in his soul. Just the emptiness of where his heart used to live, and the dread of knowing that it was never coming back.

There are lights along the floor, blinking, setting a path for John to follow. So John does, abruptly tired again. He just wants this to be over with.

The path leads to a door, and as he approaches, John wonders what could be inside. Nothing short of Harold himself would make John change his mind at this point.

 

It's Harold.

 

He doesn't quite believe it at first, sure that it's another trick, another digital sleight of hand. But the room is not that big, and John could see for himself that it was.

On the hospital bed, Harold was pale, and thin, and tubes were coming out every which way, but it was Harold.

John drops to his knees beside the bed, taking a still hand gently into his own shaking ones. He doesn't say a word, doesn't make a single sound, but The Machine answers him anyway.

"I had sent an unmanned helicopter to the rooftop," The Machine was saying. John forces himself to listen.

"He made it off before the missile hit, but the explosion sent the helicopter crashing. He's been in a coma since."

John looks around the room for the first time, tearing his eyes away from the figure on the bed.

There was another bed, on wheels, probably to make changing the sheets easier. In the corner was a vaguely human-shaped monstrosity. No doubt some kind of robotic nurse.

 

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" John asks eventually. The thought of nothing but cold impersonal metal on Harold's skin for months on end is distressing to John.

"Father asked me not to." is The Machine's reply.

Abruptly, John is angry. As if every ounce of anger he hadn't felt over the past few months is coming to him now. How dare Harold do this, keep this from him. Wait until the last possible second to, to...

"He did not expect to survive," The Machine kept talking

"The helicopter was my last Hail Mary pass, and he was only humoring me by going along. His last wish was that I help you move on, if I could. That you live a happy life."

And just like that, the anger passes. What matters now is that Harold is blessedly, miraculously alive. And John would be there for him.

 

---

 

In a way, John feels as if he had made it off the bridge. Because he's at peace. Whether he's in heaven, hell, or purgatory, he's not sure. But Harold is there, and that's enough.

The robotic monstrosity is covered with a sheet to keep it from gathering dust as John takes over all its duties. The car leaves and returns at least once a week, with clothes, food, everything they need. John doesn't question it. 

People start looking for him after a month or so. John only guesses. Time is a little fuzzy here. Only Root was allowed into the warehouse, to see Harold. But she leaves soon after, saying that it was painful to see Harold like that. John is mostly okay with her now. Mostly. So he bites back the hurtful words he wants to say, like asking her if she would have preferred Harold dead, a martyr for her beloved Machine.

 

---

 

Shaw doesn't visit, she only calls. John looks forward to hearing her voice.

"It's a good thing you're not dead," she says one time, after John had explained everything.

"Harold would kill me if he wakes up, and finds out I'd let you die on my watch,"

Then she sends Bear with the next car, and John can't thank her enough.

 

---

 

John has taken to reading to Harold to pass the time. When he asks The Machine, she sends over books from the library. And he knows they're from the library, too. He recognizes the Asimov with the teeth marks, the dog-eared copy of Stress Fractures in Titanium.

Between Bear, the books, and the Sencha tea that John likes to brew, if not drink, the room in the warehouse begins to smell and feel like home. The Machine tells John to remove Harold's intubation tube soon after, no need to replace it with a ventilator. John tries desperately not to get his hopes up, and mostly fails.

 

---

 

It is an ordinary Thursday afternoon when Harold opens his eyes. John is reading to him, Bear at his feet, dozing from his morning run.

John pauses from reading about androids and their dreams of electric sheep when he feels eyes on him. There is only one other person in the room.

John turns his head to find Harold looking at him like he's a ghost.

 

"Are you really here, John?" His voice is uneven, shaky, and rough from disuse. It's the most beautiful sound John has ever heard.

 

John carefully puts the book down and takes one of Harold's hands in both of his. Offers a wobbly smile and says,

 

"Always."