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Domesticity

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Cole is two years and three months old when Hank’s wife leaves. Just packs up and leaves with barely any explanation. Hank is ankle-deep in blood at the scene of a particularly gruesome murder-suicide when he gets a call from Cole’s daycare saying that Joanna never came to pick up their kid. He spends the entire drive to the daycare yelling into Joanna’s voicemail, then spends the entire drive home yelling into Joanna’s voicemail at a greatly reduced volume because Cole is dozing in the backseat.

“I swear to Christ, Joey, this is so fucking typical of you,” he hisses into the phone pinched between his shoulder and his cheek as he wrestles Cole out of his carseat. “So fucking checked out of life. So disinterested in anything going on outside your own little bubble of reality. You know, other guys would be worried sick. They’d think maybe their wife was in a horrible accident or something. But me, I know you too fucking well!” He slams the car door for emphasis. “Did you just forget about Cole, Joanna!? Did you just forget about me!? You better find a motel to stay at tonight, Joey, because right now I don’t even want to look at you ever again!”

A few minutes later he finds the envelope on the kitchen table, his name written on it in Joanna’s cramped but tidy handwriting.

Oh, so that’s what’s going on, he thinks dimly.

Joanna doesn’t waste any time on sentimentality in her letter. Hank knows he and Joanna are long past any of that. She has written, very straightforwardly, that she has met someone new and is running away with him to somewhere warmer. No forwarding address, no “Good luck with our son,” and she didn’t even sign her full name at the bottom. Just ‘Jo,’ even though she always said she hated being called that.

So. Fucking. Typical of Joanna.

And just like that, Hank becomes a single parent. A single parent who’s juggling his responsibilities to his toddler and his insane career with the DPD. As a lieutenant, Hank may not have to suffer through rotating shifts that would make securing childcare an impossible nightmare, but there’s still frequent work that has to be done outside a daycare’s usual business hours. It’s not as though Hank can somehow force every homicide in Detroit to only occur between nine and five.

He can’t cut back his hours to care for Cole. He’ll be damned if he puts Cole’s health insurance at risk, and beside that, there’s still the mortgage to worry about. And Joanna still has joint ownership of the house, so selling the place and moving somewhere smaller and cheaper isn’t an option either. Not until the divorce finalizes, and God only knows how long that will take since no one in Detroit seems to know exactly where Joanna disappeared to.

Hank pays a little old lady who lives down the street to watch Cole whenever he gets called into work during evenings or nights, but after one unfortunate week when Hank has to wake her up at 2am three nights in a row, he can tell she’s losing patience with their arrangement and he’ll have to come up with some other plan when her goodwill finally gives out.

And even on nights when Hank doesn’t get called into work, Cole is still a toddler who’s adjusting to the sudden disappearance of his mother. He’s been having frequent nightmares and regressing in his potty training. And he’s being so heartbreakingly clingy. It isn’t unusual for Hank to have to get up at all hours of the night to soothe Cole after he’s woken up crying. Clean him up, change his sheets, spend half an hour bouncing Cole in his arms while Hank tries to ignore the burn of exhaustion behind his eyes. Try to put Cole back in his own bed only for Cole to start crying all over again, reaching for Hank with his face red and pinched and looking like his whole world’s gonna crumble if Hank lets go of him.

Hank loves Cole more than he’s ever loved anyone in his entire life, but he’s pushing fifty with a toddler and a demanding career and no help and he’s fucking exhausted.

He falls asleep on his feet at Chicken Feed while waiting for Gary to make his lunch.

“Hank. Hank, man. You’re snoring,” Gary says as he puts Hank’s food on the counter.

“Shut up. I am not,” he snaps, feeling sluggish even as he comes to alertness.

“Christ, when’s the last time you actually slept?”

Hank can only grunt. He doesn’t have the energy to try and remember.

Gary holds up his palms like he’s gearing up to say something offensive. “Okay, man. Can I give you some advice? As a friend?”

“Gary, I don’t want your babysitting tips. Unless you’re about to give me tomorrow’s Powerball numbers, I’m not interested.”

“I swear to God, I never thought I’d say this to anybody,” Gary’s voice is placating, “but you need to get an android.”

Hank stares at him. “Are you serious?” He isn’t sure whether he wants to laugh or get angry. “What the hell, Gary? I know for a fact that you don’t like androids. Hell, you got a sticker right there advertising how proud you are that all your food is made by humans.”

“Yeah, I don’t like androids, but if I suddenly had a couple grand to burn, you know what I’d do with it?”

“Get your food hygiene license up to date?”

“I’d buy one of those nannybots,” Gary says sharply, shooting Hank a pointed look, “and I’d give it to my sister so she wouldn’t be running herself ragged between her kids and her job. Maybe she could go to school if she had a little more time to herself. Get herself a better-paying job, one she wasn’t constantly in danger of losing to an android.” He shrugs. “So, yeah, I don’t like androids. But what else is anyone supposed to do when they need to crawl out of a hole? I don’t play that game, but only because I can afford not to. I own my own business and I’m my only employee. I don’t have to deal with androids if I don’t want to.”

Hank furrows his brow. Gary’s making an unusual amount of sense.

“You, on the other hand,” Gary continues, “you and my sister are in the same shitty position. Being pulled too many ways by too many responsibilities. Don’t tell me a live-in nanny wouldn’t help.”

Cole misses his mother. He misses his mother, so he’s clinging to Hank as desperately as he can. An android wouldn’t fix that particular problem, but Hank is hard-pressed to think of any other problems it wouldn’t fix. He wouldn’t have to bother the little old lady down the street in the middle of the night anymore and maybe he’d finally be able to get a full night’s sleep.

“Androids are so damn expensive, though,” Hank mutters. “It’s not like Joey’s sending any child support along from Aruba, or wherever she is.”

Gary shrugs. “You got options. Dip into your life insurance. Or your kid’s college fund.”

“Jesus Christ, Gary!” Hank slams a hand down on the counter. “I’m not dipping into Cole’s college fund to pay for a plastic babysitter!”

Gary just rolls his eyes. “Man, come on. You could pull your kid out of daycare with an android taking care of him. You’d save enough to put the money back in a year, tops. Don’t be dramatic.”

Hank is still bristling, staring at the food that’s been sitting on the counter while he and Gary have been talking. He’s seriously considering leaving the food and walking away to demonstrate just how offended he is. He would never dream of touching Cole’s college money. He’d sooner shoot himself than jeopardize Cole’s future, even temporarily.

But if he leaves in a huff, he’s just proving Gary’s point about how dramatic he’s being. It’s a tough call.

He’s waited too long now, because Gary’s expression softens. “Hank, man. Why are you making this such a difficult thing?”

Deep down, Hank knows why. If he touches money that, in his mind, already belongs to Cole, then that means he’s failed to provide for his son. He’s failed as a parent. On another level, considering getting an android means that he’s failed in a different way.

In the immediate aftermath of Joanna’s disappearance, he kept himself afloat on a sense of spiteful pride. He ran himself ragged between doing his job and caring for Cole, and it felt like he was shaking his fist at the world. He repeated over and over to himself, like a mantra, I don’t need Joey! I don’t need anyone! Those first few intense, crazed days without filled him with energy. For a while, it was true. He was barely managing, but he was managing.

But now, with reality creeping up his back and exhaustion tugging at his eyes, he’s realizing that the pride that kept him afloat was hollow. He can’t manage indefinitely. He needs help, and he hates that he needs help.

Of course, Hank would never say any of that out loud to Gary, so he scowls and shrugs at him. “It’s just a tough decision. Lay off.”

Gary still has that soft look in his eyes as he watches Hank. Hank wonders if Gary’s thinking about his sister and her jobs and her kids.

“Parenthood is tough,” Gary says softly, and nods like he understands. “Just get the damn android, Hank. Get it used if you really won’t touch your kid’s money.” He pushes the food toward Hank, closing the door on the conversation for good.

Hank eats his food in his car, then reclines the seat and has a nap. He dreams about a tall woman with empty eyes, and he can’t tell whether it’s Joanna or the robot who’s supposed to replace her.

***

It isn’t illegal to sell used and refurbished androids, but Cyberlife sure makes it difficult to do so outside official channels. Cyberlife doesn’t release model specs to the public, and even the novel-length user manual that comes with a new android has just a scant section on troubleshooting that directs users to call technical support with any problems. It’s difficult to get an android serviced or repaired outside of a Cyberlife store or maintenance center.

Difficult, but not impossible. And there are still people selling refurbished androids away from the ever-watchful eyes of Cyberlife if one knows where to look.

Hank obviously knows where to look. He may not know androids very well, but he knows Detroit and its people.

The second-hand android and repair shop is in a modified garage, which strikes Hank as appropriate. After all, if an android costs as much as a car, where else would be better? The open floor plan means that there are androids on display in the front half of the garage, standing on small wood pallets and smiling empty half-smiles at him. Further back in the shop, presumably where the repairs are done, he can see skinless android bodies with their chests wide open, exposing all the metal inside of them. There’s a stray arm all by itself laying on the floor and it reminds Hank of a dismemberment case he worked the year before.

The place gives Hank the creeps. He wonders if it bothers the functioning androids to look at the back half of the shop, but they all seem to have blank looks on their faces, so he supposes not. In a way, the functional androids are creepier than the dismembered ones.

A human technician hurries over from the back of the shop. At least, Hank assumes he’s human from the lack of an LED on his head and the fact that he’s expressing an emotion other than bored neutrality.

“Hey, I’m Jamie,” the technician says, taking Hank’s hand and bumping shoulders with him. Hank’s never been in a Cyberlife store before, but he’s pretty sure the employees there don’t do that. He feels more at ease, despite the visible android parts in the back of the shop. “You come looking to buy?”

“I’m looking to look,” Hank say, shooting Jamie his don’t-try-to-upsell-me glare.

This doesn’t seem to ruffle Jamie. He rubs his hands together. “Cool, no problem. What do we wanna look at today? I got a fine selection of commercially-available androids.”

The way Jamie says commercially-available makes Hank think that Jamie might also have some androids for sale that are a little less commercially-available to civilians, if Hank were to ask in the right way. But Hank’s not interested in busting Jamie or buying anything too exotic or wild, so he ignores this.

“I’m looking for an android to help with childcare,” Hank says. “I have a toddler and I work a demanding job, so I need something that’ll be able to give my kid a bath and tuck him in if I get called in without warning. If it could help out around the house too, that’d be great, but the childcare is the most important part.”

“You’re in luck,” Jamie says with a cool smile. “Domestic assistants are the most common type of android we get here. New models get produced all the time with newer features and more memory, so people are always offloading their old domestic assistants so they can upgrade. You got plenty of different models to look at.”

“Well, I don’t really care about fancy features,” Hank says, waving a hand dismissively. “I don’t need it to… I don’t know, make balloon animals for birthday parties or anything. If it can keep my kid from shoving a fork in an outlet while I’m gone, I’ll be happy with it.”

Jamie beckons Hank closer to the functioning androids. “Male or female?”

“Doesn’t matter to me.”

“Lemme show you a selection, then.” Jamie glances at the androids. “MP500, CX100, PL600, come over here.”

Three androids who had moments ago been standing at a standstill, staring at nothing, approach from various corners of the store and line up shoulder to shoulder. It’s a little spooky to watch them suddenly and simultaneously come to life, synchronizing wordlessly with each other.

Jamie directs Hank’s attention to the first android in line, a female with short red hair. “The MP500 is an older, very basic model. It sounds like it may be what you’re looking for. It’s perfectly safe to leave children with, even if its conversational skills leave something to be desired.”

Jamie chuckles. “But hey, some people see that as a plus. No one likes their android to act like it’s smarter than them.”

Hank scratches his whiskers. “Mmm. I know I said basic is what I’m looking for, but maybe that’s too basic. Cole’s still learning to talk, I don’t want him growing up… I don’t know, stunted or something cause his android nanny never talked to him.”

“The MP500 can talk,” Jamie clarifies, “it just tends to be rather shy and unimaginative. Putting it in human terms, of course. It’s not as though the android is programmed to be shy. It just doesn’t tend to initiate conversation or ask questions without prompting.”

“So if there’s an emergency at home when I’m not there, can I trust it to call 911?”

“You may have to specifically order it to do so and show it how, but I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Hank frowns, wishing he had bothered to do a little research on androids before coming by. He hadn’t realized different domestic models had different capabilities and limitations to the point where he might have to teach an android what to do in case of an emergency. Jamie had said that this model was safe to leave children with, but how could Hank trust an android to recognize an emergency if it had to be taught how to react to an emergency? Would Hank have to think up everything that could possibly go wrong when watching a child and talk about every individual permutation with the android?

He eyes the other androids in the lineup—and suddenly notices that a fourth android has joined the three that had initially been called over. Hank hadn’t seen it approach or join the others. It must have done so completely silently.

Hank points at the fourth android. “Hang on. Where’d this guy come from?”

Jamie leans around the MP500 to look, then groans and rubs his eyes. “Connor, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t ask for you.”

The fourth android (Connor, and Hank wonders why this android has a name when the other three apparently don’t) has a perfectly agreeable look on his face. “I took the liberty of presenting myself when I heard Lieutenant Anderson explain to you what he’s looking for in an android. I fit his expressed parameters and I thought the Lieutenant would appreciate having as many options as possible shown to him.”

Hank scowls at Jamie. “This thing knows my rank?  How the hell did it get my name and rank?”

 “I don’t know! Don’t ask me! It’s just a thing it does and I don’t know how or why.”

“I am a domestic assistance and family caretaker android capable of caring for children and infants of all ages,” Connor says. “I am equipped with a scanner and database which allows me to identify humans on sight.”

“Don’t listen to it, it doesn’t know what it’s talking about,” Jamie says. Then he wiggles his hand in exasperation. “Well, I mean, that scanner and database stuff is probably real. But it’s not a domestic android.”

“Wait, not a domestic android?” Hank says. “What do you mean? It just introduced itself as one.”

“Yeah. It thinks it’s a domestic android for some reason. But it’s not actually one.” Jamie huffs and gives Hank a frustrated look. “I’ve been working on this thing for weeks, trying to figure out what it actually is.”

“I am a domestic assistance and family caretaker android,” Connor politely insists. “I am equipped with all the appropriate software of a domestic android. My protocols include housework, yardwork, childcare, household management, simple to moderate repairs—”

“No one asked, Connor,” Jamie interrupts.

Hank regards Connor with a careful eye. Connor is meeting his gaze. After a moment, Connor folds his arms behind his back and cocks his head slightly as though he’s waiting for Hank to say something. Small, simple movements, but they’re more than any other android has done while Hank’s been in the store. Even the other androids in line would be perfectly still if they weren’t simulating breathing.

Hank addresses Jamie despite how he’s still looking at Connor. “It got into line without anyone telling it to. It must be pretty smart to do that.”

Jamie opens his mouth to reply, but Connor cuts him off before he can get a word out. “I follow my programming, Lieutenant Anderson. If my programming directs me to execute an action despite not being given explicit orders to do so, I will do so.”

“So you just do whatever you want?”

“I am an analytical android,” Connor says. “I possess the capacity to analyze my surroundings and determine when action is warranted and when it is not. My judgement is sound, and I do not go against my programming.”

Hank looks at Jamie. “It sounds like a domestic android to me. Why are you so sure it’s not one?”

Jamie gestures at the three other androids in line. “Look, I get domestic androids all the time in here. I said before that they’re the most common type of android that get traded in, right? So I know my domestic androids pretty well.” He looks at Connor. “Connor, what’s your model?”

“RK800,” Connor replies. Hank notices that the smock Connor is wearing only displays his name and not his model number. Although Connor is wearing the same clothes as the PL600 he’s standing next to, he looks nothing like the blond android.

“That’s not a model of domestic android,” Jamie says. “At least, not a model that’s available for just anybody to buy. You can look it up, if you want. If you walk into a Cyberlife store and ask to buy a RK800, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.

“Not only that,” Jamie continues, “but I’ve poked around inside Connor, trying to figure out what makes it tick. This thing isn’t built like any domestic android I’ve ever seen before. It’s crazy how sturdy it is. I’ve never seen a domestic model with such a reinforced build. You could probably hit it with a car and it’d keep going.”

Hank looks at Connor again, surprised to hear that. The android didn’t look particularly sturdy to him. As a matter of fact, Hank thinks Connor looks a bit delicate compared to some of the other androids in the shop. Connor has gentle brown eyes, freckles scattered across his face, and a stray lock of hair brushing his forehead. The entire effect makes him look rather boyish.

Hank says, “So why does it think it’s a domestic model?”

Jamie shrugs. “Beats me. Androids wind up here from all over. First thing I always do when one comes into my possession is wipe its memory so it can be properly refurbished and resold. So all the androids out here on the floor are ideally just like brand-new androids from a Cyberlife store.” His mouth thins. “The drawback to that is that if I ever encounter any problems, the android can’t tell me its history. So I really have no idea what happened to Connor. I think someone messed with its software, but hell if I know for sure.”

Hank squints at Connor. Connor simply gazes back at him, as if all this talk about whatever could be wrong with him doesn’t bother him at all. It makes Hank feel a little sleazy, talking about the problems with Connor right in front of him as if he isn’t even there. Hank has to remind himself that Connor isn’t a person and there isn’t any reason why their behavior would upset him.

“Jamie, why is this thing on the floor if it’s so messed up?” Hank asks incredulously.

Jamie hesitates before answering. “Well… even if it’s not a domestic android, it’s pretty good at keeping the place clean. If I didn’t have any scruples, I probably could sell it as a domestic model without any trouble. But, no. It’s on the floor because I’ve done just about everything I can with it, and if a hobbyist comes in here looking for a challenge to tinker with, I’ll know just what to give them.”

Then Jamie shrugs, giving Connor a distant, appraising look. “Barring that, Connor has a lot of pretty unusual biocomponents. If I can’t move it, I’ll probably disassemble it and see what I can get for its parts.”

An unpleasant feeling stirs in the pit of Hank’s stomach as he hears this. He’s a police lieutenant, and his every instinct is screaming at him that there’s a mystery here, waiting to be solved. Hearing that Connor might end up scrapped and sold for parts dismays that bloodhound part of Hank, the part of him that tirelessly tracks every lead to its end.

Connor still has a calm, neutral look on his face. Hank is unsettled by his peaceful demeanor, reminded just how inhuman androids must be if talking about dismembering them right in front of them isn’t enough to trigger a reaction.

But then Hank remembers how Connor inserted himself into the line of androids being presented to him without being instructed to. Connor said that he did that because he felt he fit the parameters of what Hank was looking for, but was that really the only reason? Could he be trying to get bought up before he's disassembled?

Hank stares at Connor. Connor looks back at Hank. He’s been looking at Hank this whole time, Hank realizes, watching him with depthless eyes even while Hank and Jamie were talking. Has Connor been watching Hank since the moment he stepped into the shop?

Fuck, Hank thinks, here we go.

“Connor,” Hank barks suddenly in his best authoritative-police-lieutenant voice. Jamie jumps, but Connor doesn’t. “What would you do if you were home alone with my son and the oven caught fire?”

Connor’s answer is immediate. “I would remove your son from your home while calling emergency services to report a house fire.”

“What about if he had a sudden medical emergency?”

“I would call emergency services while administering first aid, depending on the specific nature of the medical emergency,” Connor replies. “I am programmed to perform over two hundred minor medical procedures. But I feel I should inform you that I am able to analyze household products in real time to ensure they are not toxic, abrasive, or otherwise harmful to children. I am also able to use this analysis function to predict the possibility of injury when your son is in my care. So while I cannot rule out sudden illness, the likelihood of your son ingesting something dangerous or being injured while in my care is relatively low.”

 “Okay, smart guy,” Hank says. “What would you do if I told you to make sirloin sandwiches for dinner for me and my son?”

Connor doesn’t even need a moment to think about it before he replies. “You mentioned to Jamie earlier that Cole is a toddler and is still learning to talk. Although Cole is at a developmental stage where he’s ready to eat solid foods, a sirloin sandwich would likely not be an appropriate meal for him. Knowing this, I would suggest suitable alternatives which meet Cole’s nutritional needs.”

There’s a short pause before Connor adds, “But I would happily make you a steak sandwich, Lieutenant. Provided it wouldn’t put you over your daily recommended intake of calories and saturated fats.”

Hank blinks, a little thrown by hearing an android describe himself as undertaking anything happily. It’s probably a deliberate choice by whoever designed Connor’s social protocols in order to make him seem deferential and agreeable. Hank knows that androids don’t actually have desires or emotions the same way that humans do.

And yet. Connor put himself in line to be examined. Connor has been watching Hank with calm, careful eyes. Connor has his head quirked inquisitively to one side, as though he’s waiting for Hank to say something. Hank, suffering from exhaustion and sleep deprivation, doesn’t have the energy at the moment to suss out how much of Connor’s behavior is emotionless programming and how much of it might be genuine. Probably none of it is genuine. All Hank can think of is that it doesn’t seem fair, somehow, to create a machine and design it to emulate humanity. But whether it’s more unfair to Hank or to Connor, Hank can’t say.

“Fuck it,” Hank groans, rubbing his hands over his eyes. He can’t think about this anymore. “Connor, you’re coming with me.”

***

Despite all Jamie’s talk about Connor definitely not being a domestic assistant, he doesn’t give Hank a very hard time while he processes Hank’s purchase. Hank gets the sense that maybe he’s glad to see Connor go. Or maybe he’s just glad he won’t end up stripping Connor for parts.

All he does is look Hank straight in the eyes before he runs Hank’s card. “You sure about this, man? I don’t do returns.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Hank says. “I like to live dangerously. If my job or my cholesterol levels don’t kill me before I’m fifty, this buggy-ass android probably will.”

Jamie just chuckles at that, and Hank realizes that despite his joke, he’s not actually worried about Connor being a danger to himself or to Cole.

“Nah, Connor’s a good egg,” Jamie says. “Between you and me, I’ve got some ideas about what it might have been originally built for.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I think maybe Connor’s supposed to be a bodyguard.”

Hank glances at Connor. Despite the android’s slim, unassuming appearance, he can definitely see what Jamie’s talking about. Connor has impressive powers of observation. He watches Hank like he’s waiting for something to happen. And Hank can tell that Connor is going to take his responsibility to keep Cole safe seriously.

They walk out of the store with Connor trailing behind Hank a couple paces to the right. Hank imagines Connor walking alongside some big-shot politician the same way, scanning crowds of people for potential threats. Remaining tirelessly vigilant. How would an android like that have wound up in a barely-legal android refurbishment shop with its software so addled that it thinks it’s meant to clean up pizza boxes for the rest of its days?

Hank drives the two of them to Cole’s daycare. He watches Connor out of the corner of his eye. Connor sits straight up in his seat, his posture still perfect. Hank wonders if Connor is capable of slouching or relaxing. He supposes he’ll find out sooner or later.

“May I ask a question, Lieutenant?” Connor says out of the blue, surprising Hank.

“You just did,” Hank says. “So, no. You used up your only question for the day.”

“Alright,” Connor says, perfectly agreeable.

The silence stretches.

“Fuck, Connor,” Hank groans, “I was being sarcastic. Were you programmed without a sense of humor or something?”

“I have a database of over nine thousand family-friendly jokes. Would you like to hear one?”

“God, no. Clean jokes are the saddest fucking things in the world. Just—just ask the stupid question you wanted to ask me.”

Connor’s eyes flicker to Hank’s face. “Did you buy me to prevent me from being disassembled?”

Hank’s stomach flips. He tightens his fist around the steering wheel. “Yeah. But… it wasn’t the only reason. I guess… you impressed me with how you put yourself in line like that. I don’t know if any of the other androids in the shop would’ve done that. It made me feel like—” Hank cuts himself off before he can finish the sentence the way he meant to. Like you could be a real person.

“It made me feel like you know how to make decisions,” Hank finishes.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Connor says. “I’ll do my best to not disappoint you.”

“I’m holding you to that,” Hank grumbles, staring at the road ahead of him. He is far too sleep-deprived to properly explore the implications of Connor’s question. He just wants to pick up Cole, go home, and have a nap. Not think about Connor and the paradox of how he can possibly be too human and too inhuman at the same time.

They pull up to a red light. There’s a flicker of movement in Hank’s peripheral vision. He thinks maybe Connor might have smiled at him, but when he turns to see, Connor has turned his head away and is watching the people collected on the street corner.

He doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the ride.