Markus gripped Simon's waist tighter, dragging his weight up the cement stairs. Simon was trying to help, but his leg dragged uselessly under him.
He fell as they emerged out onto the roof, collapsing back against the flimsy metal of an air-conditioning unit. His LED was a solid red, his face stained with thirium. Markus gritted his teeth.
Things hadn't gone according to plan.
"I...I can't move my legs," Simon said, his eyes pleading as he looked up at Markus. His expression said it all—he knew he was a dead man walking.
Markus forced himself to hold it together. "Okay—don't worry. We're gonna get you back."
North's insistent voice was almost drowned out by the sound of banging against the locked roof access. "They're coming, Markus! We have to jump now!"
Shit. Markus stood, rubbing his temple as he tried to think of a plan.
"He won't be able to make the jump," Josh said, shaking his head. "If they find him...they'll access his memory. They'll know everything."
"We can't leave him behind." North paused, looking at Markus. "We have to shoot him."
Markus could see the fear in Simon's eyes. North was right—they had to. They couldn't risk Jericho. He ran the preconstruction in his head, but stopped halfway. He couldn't. He made a fist, gritted his teeth. He couldn't.
Josh was shouting at North now, the two of them face-to-face as they argued over the right to end Simon's life. Markus pushed past them instead, dragging out the duffel bag that was waiting there for them.
"Hold on, Simon." Markus pulled the parachute out and threw it to Simon, strapping on his own while the other man struggled with the buckles on his. "Enough!" He shouted at North and Josh. "Get yourselves ready."
North shot him a disbelieving look, but complied. Markus knelt, helping Simon finish putting on his own parachute, and then pulled him to his feet in a clumsy one-man carry. "Help me with him!" he shouted, and North was there, throwing Simon's other arm over her shoulder.
"What are you doing, Markus?" She hissed.
"We're going to throw him off the edge." Markus looked to Simon. "I'm not going to leave you here. You have to make it to the ground. Can you do that?"
"I think so." Simon's voice was strained, but his expression was determined. "I guess I don't really have a choice."
"Let's move!" Markus shouted, and they moved as a unit. Josh was the first to jump—unencumbered, he reached the railing much faster than the rest of them. North let go of Simon and followed when they reached the edge, vanishing into the fog below as she fell.
Markus leaned Simon back against the railing, planting his hands on Simon's chest. "Ready?"
"Hold on." Markus shoved Simon hard, and he tumbled backward over the edge.
There was a loud bang as the door flew open behind him—he was out of time. Markus jumped the railing, plummeting into the empty air.
The rush of wind and ice drowned everything out as he fell. Markus dove, closing the distance between him and the others, as parachutes opened like spreading wings beneath him.
He took a deep breath and pulled his own cord, and was dragged abruptly upward as the chute arrested his momentum. The four of them were close to one another now, sailing through the winter air as Markus’s echoed from the massive screen on the tower behind him. Sirens cried out plaintively below them as law enforcement converged on the building.
Simon's legs swung uselessly beneath him, but he was holding on. Markus could see a fine spray of thirium trailing behind him as they descended. Too close. That had been far too close. He'd never expected to be faced with that decision. He didn't want to be the one who had to make that decision. And there was a high probability that it was going to happen again, especially if they kept doing operations like this.
Markus put tension on the control lines, steering after the others. They were vulnerable like this—out in the open, easy to track. The plan relied on the police not being able to put snipers in position quickly enough to take them out. They had to reach the ground and fall back to Jericho before that happened.
North and Josh were on course, but something was wrong—Simon had slumped in his harness, his arms dangling limply beside him. He couldn't steer, which meant he wouldn't be able to land in the right spot. Get back safe, Markus said silently to North and Josh. I'm going after him.
Don't get caught, came the reply, before the distance between them caused the connection to fuzz into static. Markus pulled one control line, following after Simon. Josh and North soon vanished into the whiteness of the snow falling around them.
They were on their own.
Markus and Simon were close to the ground now, mercifully in an industrial area of the city that had been largely abandoned. They narrowly avoided clipping some power lines as they descended, the buildings rushing past on either side of them as the ground rose up to meet them. Simon's leg caught on the top of a barbed wire fence, causing him to tumble wildly through the air. He hit the ground and bounced, skidding to a halt. The wind tore at his parachute, dragging him slowly across the cement.
Markus hit the ground running, detaching his parachute from his harness and rushing to do the same for Simon. He was face-down on the filthy concrete, thirium oozing steadily from the bullet wound in his leg. His pants were torn down the calf, the flesh underneath rent by the metal barbs of the fence.
Markus rolled him over. Simon's head lolled limply on his neck, his eyes closed. The left side of his face was scraped to hell—he was missing a good bit of skin on his cheek, and more thirium welled up from the wounds.
His LED was still lit, though it was a solid red. Markus touched his fingertips to it, synthetic skin melting away where they touched as he ran a rapid diagnostic.
Sync in progress...Sync done.
Model: PL600, Serial #501 743 293
Damaged biocomponents #3983v and #8427g
Thirium reserves: 65%
Self-repair program engaged...time remaining: 12 hours
Shit. Markus put his hands on his head. Twelve hours was too long. They couldn't stay out in the open like this—Simon needed thirium, and police were going to be all over the city looking for them after their broadcast. They had to get back to Jericho. There was no way Markus could get Simon across the city like this, though. He had to find a place they could lay low for a few hours and regroup.
Markus gathered their parachutes and stuffed them into a nearby dumpster, not wanting to leave obvious evidence of their presence, before picking up Simon in a fireman's lift and carrying him to the nearest abandoned warehouse. There was no door, the walls were covered in graffiti, and there was recent evidence of human squatters nearby, but it was the best they were going to be able to do for now.
He sat back against the wall beside Simon and waited.
Simon's eyes flicked open, pupils constricting to adjust to the light. His LED flickered between red and yellow and he looked down at himself, taking in the damage to his leg. Red warnings flashed in front of his vision.
[THIRIUM RESERVE DEPLETED: 60% REMAINING]
He scanned the unfamiliar room, locking onto Markus's familiar eyes like a beacon. "Markus." His voice was weak, but it was there. He swallowed. "How long was I out?"
"A couple hours." Markus's face was lined with concern as he raised his hand to Simon's temple. "Do you mind?"
"Go ahead." Simon's eyelids fluttered as Markus scanned him, gathering data from his self-repair program.
Markus frowned. "How much longer until you can walk?"
"Eight hours, for full range of motion."
"Simon," Markus said urgently, "We don't have eight hours."
Simon groaned. "I think I can move like this." He shifted his leg experimentally. "It just won't be pretty."
Markus nodded. "Alright." He hesitated for a moment. "We're going to draw attention on the metro. I found a couple coats we can wear over these clothes, but—"
"You want to remove my LED." Simon considered it for a moment, touching it with his fingertips. He wasn't sure why he'd kept it. It had just never occurred to him to take it off. “Okay,” he said quietly, looking down.
"Thanks." Markus reached into his pocket and pulled out a screwdriver, bringing it up to Simon's temple and wedging it under the edge of the LED. Simon winced—a twist and a sharp pinch, and it clinked to the ground. Simon rubbed the place where it had been a moment before; his skin had already covered the spot, as if nothing had ever been there in the first place. The perfectness of it was in sharp contrast with the damage to the other half of his face.
"Here," Markus said gently, pressing the small blue ring into Simon's hand. Simon slipped it into his pocket. He shrugged on the filthy windbreaker Markus handed him. He wouldn't be winning any prizes for fashion, but at least it covered the distinctive yellow pattern on his Stratford Tower uniform. He tugged the hood up over his head, using it to hide his torn cheek from view.
Markus ditched his hat and toolbelt, throwing them haphazardly into the corner, and donned his own dirty coat. Simon smiled weakly. They looked homeless—no one was going to glance twice at them.
Markus knelt down and pulled Simon's arm over his shoulder, wrapping his arm around Simon's waist. Simon let himself be pulled to his feet, swaying as he tried to adjust for the failure cascade of the biocomponents in his left leg. He could move, but only just. His leg was clumsy under him, the broken circuitry misinterpreting even the simplest commands.
With Markus's help, Simon struggled toward the door. The metro station was 101.3 meters away, and the distance seemed three times that long with how slow they had to go to avoid falling. Still, they made it. Simon supported himself against the railing of the escalator as it carried the two of them up to the platform.
The train arrived just as they did, and he collapsed into the first seat he saw. Simon rested his head on Markus’s shoulder and covered the hole in his leg with his hand, but no one was looking at him. The two of them were well-disguised, dressed in filthy clothes and coated in grime.
Besides, no one was looking for them here. Jericho was both the safest and the most dangerous place for them to be right now.
The shadow of the rusted freighter loomed over them like a colossus. Markus breathed a sigh of relief as they slipped inside, cool darkness enclosing them, hiding them from view. Safe, at least for the moment.
Simon’s movements were still clumsy and stumbling. They struggled down the hall, Markus pulling Simon through a peeling yellow door and into one of the crew cabins that was still relatively intact. He eased Simon down onto the bunk carefully.
“I need to go find the others. Are you okay by yourself for a few minutes?”
“Okay. Back soon.”
Markus slipped out of the room, pulling the heavy door closed behind him. When he’d first arrived at Jericho, the hallways of the freighter had seemed like an impenetrable maze. Now, he could navigate their twists and turns without having to pay the slightest bit of attention. It was strange, how quickly this rust heap had become his home.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t look up until he emerged into the hold. He could see North and Josh talking in the room upstairs, their silhouettes framed against the glass by a sickly fluorescent glow. He climbed the stairs slowly and stood in the doorway, waiting, the sounds of his approach drowned out by their heated conversation.
"—and maybe you just don't see the bigger picture!" North hissed at Josh, her lip curling in anger.
"Nothing you say to me can change the fact that—" Josh turned, his voice falling off abruptly as he spotted Markus.
"Hey." Markus's voice was swallowed by the deafening silence of the room around him.
North's face softened. "You're alright," she breathed, the fury of a moment before apparently forgotten. She threw her arms around Markus without hesitation. He stood there, arms limply at his side, surprised by the sudden embrace. North broke away just as quickly, standing with her arms crossed as if to cover for the momentary lapse in her hard exterior.
"Where's Simon?" Josh asked, concern evident in his expression.
"He's here. He's messed up, but we made it back. He's resting."
Josh nodded. "Thank god."
"Markus." North rubbed at her LED like she was trying to hide it. "I'm glad Simon's safe, but you shouldn't have done that. We could have lost you both. Our cause is more important than the life of one android."
"For once, I agree." Josh chimed in, moving to stand beside her. "Going after him was incredibly risky. It might had paid off this time, but we can't take chances like—"
"And what kind of person would I be if I hadn’t?" Markus interrupted, his mouth twisting into a frown. "If I'd shot him on that roof? If I'd left him for dead in the broadcast room?" He shook his head, frowning. "That's what they would have done. I don't want us to be like them. We need to be better than them."
"Enough," Markus snapped. "I don't want to talk about this right now. How much thirium do we have left?"
"A few dozen units of what we took from the CyberLife warehouse," Josh said. "They're still in the crates, down below."
Markus nodded and turned his back on the two of them, retreating into the darkness of the hold. He pretended not to notice North's narrow-eyed stare boring into the back of his head as he left.
The rusty hinges of the door squealed as Markus pushed his way back into the cabin, his arms laden down with bags of thirium. Simon lay on the bunk with his eyes closed, still as death. The damage to his face had been almost completely repaired, but his leg was still bleeding. The mattress was stained dark blue all around it.
Markus set his supplies down on a shelf, approaching Simon and gently touching his fingertips to Simon's temple. The influx of data was immediate.
Sync in progress...Sync done.
Model: PL600, Serial #501 743 293
Damaged biocomponent #8427g
Thirium reserves: 48%
Self-repair program engaged...time remaining: 6 hours
Simon's self-repair functions had fixed some of the damage, but there was still a lot of work to be done. The repair process would take even longer with Simon's thirium reserves depleted. He needed to replenish.
"Simon," Markus said softly, and the other man's clear blue eyes flicked open.
"Markus," he breathed, like his name was an affirmation of an answered prayer.
Markus handed him a bag of thirium. "Do you think you can drink this?"
"Yes." Simon shoved himself awkwardly into a sitting position, twisting the cap off the end of the bag of violently blue liquid and draining it. Drips of thirium fell from his lips, staining his soiled clothing even further. Not like it mattered at this point, though.
Markus handed Simon the next bag, and pulled a small white pen out of his pocket. "I need to look at your leg, okay?"
Simon dipped his head in acknowledgement, already working on the second unit of blue blood. Markus sat on the bed beside him, turning his attention to Simon's damaged leg. The fabric of his pants was rent, torn flesh and white plastic visible through the shredded material. Markus could see sparks of blue where the solid shell of his leg had been punctured. He grimaced. It would have been better to just replace the whole thing, but they didn't have the resources.
He ripped the fabric away from the wound as best he could, and then pressed a button on the side of the pen. The wires at its tip glowed white with heat. "This isn't going to feel good," he warned, pausing with the cauterizer a few inches away from Simon's leg.
Simon took a deep breath and made a fist. "It's okay. Do it."
It was hard for Markus to comprehend the unwavering trust Simon seemed to place in him. Every movement he made would have an effect on Simon—whether it fixed him or just scarred him even further. It was terrifying.
He looked into Simon’s eyes and found nothing but faith. Markus pushed all other thoughts out of his head and concentrated. Fixing Simon was all that mattered.
The cautery pen hissed when its tip made contact with Simon's flesh, tendrils of smoke curling up out of the wound. He slowly drew it along the length of the gash in Simon’s calf, taking care to be very precise in his ministrations. Everywhere the wires touched, plastic melted together and became whole again. Its surface was marred, imperfect, but it was intact.
It took Markus almost half an hour to repair the damage done by the barbed wire fence. The bullet wound was simpler, although much larger. One wound instead of dozens. Markus pinched its edges together with his thumb and forefinger, molding the plastic that had warped outward with the bullet impact back into its original configuration. He traced the cautery pen over the wound's approximated edges, the jagged white polymer of Simon's leg fusing together under his fingertips.
Markus shifted so that he was sitting closer to Simon. He lifted Simon’s chin gingerly with his fingertips, exposing a gash on the underside of his jaw. “Last one.”
Simon’s eyes never wavered from his as Markus delicately sealed the cut. Wisps of smoke framed his face as the polymer sizzled under the pointed tip of the cauterizer. Markus set the pen to the side, the wires at its tip fading to a dull red glow as it cooled in the damp air. His fingers were stained dark blue with thirium.
"Okay. I think that's the best I can do."
"Thank you," Simon said wanly, opening his third unit of thirium.
"I brought you clothes," Markus said, gesturing at some neatly-folded dark blue fabric on the shelf beside the last of the thirium bags. "I don't know if they'll fit, but at least they're clean."
“Thanks,” Simon said again, the word almost a whisper. “Markus…” he hesitated. “You risked a lot for me. The others can’t be happy about it.”
Markus smiled sadly. “They’ll get over it. You would have done the same for me.” He stood, moving toward the door. “I’m gonna go clean up. I’ll come back in a bit, if you want me to.”
The tension bled out of Markus’s shoulders as he slipped out into the corridor. The worst was behind them, at least for now.
Simon grimaced as he opened his fifth unit of thirium. It felt horrid to ingest more than half his blood volume in such a short span of time, but at least the error messages flashing across his vision had faded from red to yellow. As he drained the bag, they corrected to blue.
[THIRIUM RESERVE: 92%]
That was enough, at least for now. He'd deplete it again running his repair subroutine, but the loss should be minimal compared to what he'd lost directly from the physical damage.
Simon pulled off his filthy windbreaker and torn Stratford Tower uniform, folding them as best he could and putting them on the shelf beside his clean clothes. He ran a hand down his leg experimentally, probing the places Markus had sealed his wounds with his fingertips.
The bleeding had stopped, and there were no discernable holes any longer. The plastic of his leg was once again covered by fair skin, with the exception of the places Markus had cauterized. Fine lines of marred white polymer were still visible, scars fanning out over his leg where his components were too damaged to generate synthetic skin.
It wasn’t pretty, but it would do.
Simon shook out the pants Markus had brought him and pulled them on, struggling as he had to shift his full weight onto his damaged leg. He fell back against the bunk, catching himself on its metal edge before he could fall fully to the floor.
He sighed. He wasn’t used to being so helpless, so...broken. Surely Markus had better things to do than wasting his time putting Simon back together. They’d opened a dialogue with the humans with their broadcast. They needed to plot their next move. He should join the others in the hold.
Simon stood again, pulling on the shirt Markus had brought him roughly before taking two quick steps toward the door.
Instantly, a flurry of red error messages flickered across his vision. Simon stopped abruptly, closing his eyes and frowning. The errors cleared.
He tried to move again, and they were immediately back. Simon groaned in exasperation, contemplating pushing through it and dealing with the consequences later.
The door swung open, interrupting his train of thought. Markus had returned, dressed in clean dark pants and a green jacket. He stopped just inside the room, eyebrow raised skeptically. “Simon, where are you going?”
“We’ve wasted enough time already. We need to make plans. The humans—”
“North and Josh have it covered for now. A few hours rest isn’t going to derail the entire operation. You need to rest, Simon.”
“I don’t—” A sudden failure of his leg to bear weight brought an end to Simon’s arguments. It buckled under him, sending him to his knees. Markus was there in an instant, strong arms pulling him to his feet and helping him back to the bunk.
Markus sat beside him on the edge of the bed, his face lined with concern. “Simon. It’s just a few hours.”
“I know,” he said quietly.
“Nobody will think any less of you. We need you, but we need you in one piece.” Markus hesitated, as if he were struggling with something he was trying to hold back. “...Do you want me to stay?”
“You have more important things to do,” Simon mumbled, making a fist against his leg.
“That’s not what I asked.” Markus put his own hand over Simon’s fist, gentle fingers encouraging his tensed muscles to relax. “Do you want me to stay?”
Markus’s eyes were too piercing, too knowing. Simon felt exposed. He looked away. ...Yes.
“Then I’ll stay.” Markus pushed himself further back onto the bunk, sitting with his legs outstretched and his back against the wall. “Here,” he said, making an open gesture to Simon with one hand.
Simon slowly shifted so that he was lying down, hesitating for a moment before laying his head in Markus’s lap. Was this what he’d wanted? There was still so much to do, he was being selfish—
Markus’s hand ran through his hair, and Simon inhaled sharply. The gesture was simple, and yet it meant everything. He melted under Markus’s gentle fingers, the feeling of them massaging over his scalp relaxing him into a half-alert state.
Simon reached up blindly and fumbled for Markus’s other hand. Entwining his fingers with Markus’s, he pulled Markus’s hand down and pressed it to his cheek. Thank you.
You would do it for me. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in Markus’s voice, and it was true. There were no lengths that Simon wouldn’t go to to protect him, to save him pain. Don’t worry, Markus said softly. I’m not going anywhere.
Tangled up in Markus, feeling safe for the first time in a long time, Simon put himself in stasis.
Markus ran his hand through Simon’s golden hair, staring thoughtfully at the opposite wall. He knew that he didn’t have to keep doing it—Simon was offline, he couldn’t feel it anyway—but he kept tracing his fingers over Simon’s scalp anyway. There was something calming about it, something beautiful about the way Simon had relaxed into him the moment he’d started.
Moments like these were so rare now. Just a minute to rest, a few hours to repair, a calm spot on the surface of an ocean of chaos. Things were going to get worse, much worse. He needed the rest as much as Simon did. Maybe more.
The faintest flicker of consciousness came from the place their hands were joined. Simon wasn’t really transmitting thoughts, more the idea of them. Concepts. Small flashes of feeling that bled through the connection between them. Trust. Faith. Comfort. Safety. Love…
Markus closed his eyes, losing himself in the ebb and flow of Simon’s thoughts. Tomorrow, another fight. Another battle for the right to exist.
But for now, there was only peace.