When Hank Anderson and Connor finally approached the city that used to be theirs, skidding their car off the road onto a lawn to dodge a huge pile-up of rusted vehicles, they saw three old pickup trucks arranged haphazardly in a row right across the bottleneck road. Milling around behind the trucks, Hank caught some type of motion— a group of people.
Hank hadn’t seen a group of people in a long time.
“Humans,” Connor said, his voice blank, his body tense.
“Turn around,” Hank croaked. “We’ll go another way.”
“No,” Connor said, and he had made up his mind, their car inevitably barreling forward. “You need calorie intake.”
“I can wait a few more hours,” Hank said. He had long ago stopped feeling hungry. He had long ago stopped feeling anything. His throat was raw when he growled, “These fuckers are trouble and I’m not letting you go out there alone, you hear me?”
“I’ve heard you,” Connor spat, and his body was a taut wire, “but you’re not making any sense.”
Hank wanted to scream at him, wrestle him away from the steering wheel and shake some real sense into his obstinate plastic frame. He usually did, especially in the beginning. He didn’t know how many days had passed, since the beginning. But the anger wouldn’t come, today.
When the words came out, they were deflated. “Connor, I can’t fight you right now.”
Connor made a calculated effort to assume a more relaxed position. He was pretending to back down, Hank knew. “I’m sorry, Hank. But logically, if we turn back now, they will pursue us.”
“Sure,” Hank agreed, watching the dark metal tips of two men’s assault rifles peak over the top of their pickup trucks. “Now they will.”
Connor stopped the car twenty feet away from the blockade.
“I’ll handle it,” Connor said, mechanically shifting the car into park.
“I’m tired of you handling things, Con,” Hank said.
Connor reached over and cradled the side of Hank’s face, brushing his thumb over his beard just the once. His eyes went soft and he ran his cracked finger over the heavy bag under Hank’s eyes. “For you, Hank? I’d do anything.” He tore his hand away and clicked open the door, stepping out into the open, hands raised even with his head.
He looked skinny and pitiful, standing there alone, red sun shining through a tear in the thick grey clouds behind him, wearing his bad combination of a dirty tank top, shorts, and winter boots. It was obvious that he had to be an android, even without the broken piece of clear plastic that used to be his LED and the black cracks and fissures that trailed up his arms like he was a broken porcelain doll.
It was obvious that he had to be an android because Hank was wearing three different jackets in the middle of the summer. At least Hank thought it was the summer. He didn’t know anymore.
There was a pistol tucked in back of Connor’s shorts.
Hank leaned further back in his seat. He didn’t want to watch.
Maybe, this time, he thought to himself, those men out there deserve it. The last pitiful remains of the law ingrained in his heart wanted it to be like that. But Hank himself was too tired, too weak, and too hungry to care about that anymore.
In few years, everyone would be dead anyway.
Ten minutes later, seven different shots went off, and Hank slowly closed his eyes, taking in the definite ringing silence. After a moment, he finally heard the soft padding of Connor’s ridiculous looking boots on the pavement. Connor leaned through the empty window frame and said, “Food, Hank.”
Hank opened his eyes and took in the granola bar in Connor’s cracked, blood-stained hand. He smiled mirthlessly. “You wanna feed it to me?”
Connor smirked back at him, and there was a single blood droplet on his cheek. “Would you like me to?”
Hank reached over and wiped the droplet off with his thumb. “I’d rather kiss you.”
“Of course you would,” Connor said, as if it was obvious, and he dropped the granola bar in his lap and pulled away from the window. “But you’re going to eat first.”
“This is blackmailing,” Hank said. “You’re blackmailing a cop!”
“I know! It’s fun!” Connor called, turning and walking back towards the line of pickups.
Hank stuffed the granola bar in his pocket and kicked open the door and got out. For a second, he wobbled, catching himself with a hand on the roof of the car, but then he straightened up and followed Connor over to where he’d pulled himself up into the driver’s seat of one of the trucks.
“I’m going to clear the blockade,” Connor said. Hank grunted and went to another truck, pulling open the door and checking the back for any supplies. There wasn’t anything out in the open, but Hank knew where to look. He checked under the seats. The front compartment. Under the wheel well. He kicked up the carpeting on the floor, and checked for loose paneling. There was a pack of batteries and a blocky piece of hardware Hank hadn’t seen since he was fifteen, and it took him a moment to place what it was called. An MP3 player. He stuffed them both in his pocket.
He walked past a body with a neat hole in his forehead to reach the other truck and checked that one, too. There was a small bag of red ice stuffed in the sun visor and for a delirious moment Hank felt like he’d hit the jackpot. He’d caught the perp red-fucking-handed. Hank emptied the bag on the ground and stepped on it.
After moving the truck, Connor approached him with a backpack. He hefted it. “All their food.”
Hank took one look at it and knew. “Feast fit for kings?” he said.
“A feast fit for ten kings,” Connor lied.
“You spoil me,” Hank said, wishing for the thousandth time that things didn’t have to be this way.
Connor’s eyes flickered, scanning him up and down. He clenched his jaw, but Hank saw that he didn’t end up saying what he wanted to. “I found evidence of a base nearby. I don’t believe that they were a part of a larger group. It’s likely that it’s their storm shelter.”
“Yeah, figured they didn’t live out here in the open. If I were them, I’d put out a rotation.”
Connor nodded. “Makes sense. Steal resources from anyone approaching the city while maintaining all the city’s resources for themselves.”
“Someone’s gotta be protecting the base, though,” Hank said. “Rule Number One.”
The cloud cover finally billowed over the sun, and the world pitched into a darker shadow.
“Rule Number One of what?” Connor asked, throwing the backpack over his shoulder.
“But I thought you told me Rule Number One of Survival was ‘Don’t Die’?”
“You’re such a little shit,” Hank said, and he knocked his shoulder into Connor’s, feeling Connor let himself sway. Connor tried to smile but it came out strained. Hank sighed. “Just say it.”
“Say what?” Connor said, widening his eyes.
“Whatever you want to say.”
Connor’s face twitched, eyes blinking a few times like he was processing a glitch, angling his head to look at the ground. Softy, he said, without meeting Hank’s eyes, “Please eat something.”
Hank felt like a piece of shit. He took out the granola bar and ripped it open, taking a careful bite and speaking with his mouth full, “Happy?”
Connor still wouldn’t meet his eyes, and Hank took another bite.
“None of the trucks run on gas,” Connor eventually said. “Electric, like usual.”
“Great fucking good that’ll do us,” Hank mumbled.
“We should take their guns,” he continued.
“I bet they took ‘em off the military.”
“They’re military-grade.” Connor finally looked up at him, eyes trained on the granola bar in Hank’s hand. Connor liked watching Hank eat. Hank pretended that it confused him, just another weird android quirk— but it didn’t confuse him at all. Connor liked watching Hank eat for the same reason that Hank liked watching Connor sit out in those few short moments of sunlight and soak it in, eyes closed, face towards the sun. He was charging.
“Better take them,” Hank said, rolling up the empty wrapper and tossing it on the ground. It didn’t matter. He didn’t remember what the granola bar had tasted like. It must have tasted like ash. Everything tasted like ash. “Do I get my kiss, now?”
Connor grabbed the lapel of his jacket and tugged him closer, pressing their chests together. “Maybe,” Connor drawled, tilting his head and slowly glancing up, coy. His face was covered in patches of dirt. His hair was trying to maintain his hairstyle but failing. There was a nick on his left ear from a gunshot. He was beautiful. Hank leaned forward, mouth slightly parted, and Connor patted his chest once and smiled impishly before pulling away.
“We’ve got work to do,” Connor said, reaching over and tugging on Hank’s arm. Hank let himself get pulled and together they gathered the weapons and put them into the back of their car with the rest of their supplies. There weren’t a lot of bullets. Maybe a single spare magazine. They got back into their car. Connor carefully settled the food backpack on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Hank took a few long drags of water out of his canteen.
Connor started up the car.
“We’re going to their base,” Hank said.
“There is a strong probability that they heard the gunshots. It will put them on guard.”
“Shit happens,” Hank shrugged. There was nothing they could do.
“They should have more food at that location,” Connor said, brows furrowed, pushing the gear into drive. Hank knew, with a sinking feeling in his chest, what that meant. Connor had made up a plan. When Connor made up a plan, he followed through. Always.
They drove into the city that they had left a long time ago. Connor probably knew exactly how long it had been since they’d set foot in Detroit, but Hank didn’t want to know, so he didn’t ask.
He cleared his throat. “I found an MP3 player.”
“An MP3 player, referring to the MP3 audio file format,” Connor said, eyes focused on the pavement.
“Brilliant deduction, Sherlock.”
“You don’t know what the MP3 file format is, Hank,” Connor said.
“Fuck— you caught me.”
“I’ll always catch you.”
Hank let out a short chuckle. “I dunno if that’s terrifying or reassuring.”
Connor shot him a warm glance. “Why did you bring up the audio player?”
“‘Cause it’s probably got music on it, you dumbass.”
“Oh,” Connor said. He pulled around a small pile-up of autonomous cars. “We should attempt to access it.”
“Later tonight,” Hank said.
“I’d like that.”
Connor pulled their car behind another car parallel parked on the side of the street. “It’s close. That office building.” Connor pointed. Hank didn’t ask how he knew that.
“Looks quiet,” Hank said, taking in the blocky shape and crumbling foundations. It was easily the sturdiest building left on the block.
“It’s been quiet for a long time,” Connor said, and Hank couldn’t interpret his tone. “Take a weapon and let’s go.”
“Once more unto the breach,” Hank grumbled.
Once they were outside, Hank with one of the assault rifles slung across his back, and facing off against the locked front entrance, two rusted metal-lined doors the same slate grey as the sky, Connor said, “Shakespeare, Henry V.”
“You’re an ass.” Hank grabbed the handle and tried to force it open. It took a couple kicks and Connor ramming against it with his shoulder before the door burst open into a cloud of dust. Hank coughed, waving a hand in front of his face.
Connor strode into the room, taking a quick survey. “It’s clear,” he said.
Hank followed him in. It was a thin hallway, doors branching off into smaller rooms. At the end of the hallway, it intersected another in a T. There was an elevator and a staircase. Hank pulled the rifle into his hand and settled into an activity he’d done a thousand times.
He pushed open one of the doors, surveying the empty desk and 2038 calendar still hanging up on the wall. “Clear!”
Distantly, he heard Connor say, from another room, “Clear!”
They checked the entire first floor. Some of the furniture had looked like it was missing. Hank thought it made sense to set up a base on the upper floor. Better vantage point. Safe from marauders. Connor had said that he’d found small drag patterns on the hardwood, which corresponded to moving heavy furniture with inadequate technique. Or so Connor thought.
They took the stairs two at a time and emerged into another intersection of hallways just like the first floor. Connor held up his hand and Hank stopped. Connor tilted his head and gestured to the right. They managed to take two steps forward before a man emerged from the last door at the end of the hallway and threw a black object as quickly as a person could blink before rushing back inside the door and slamming it shut.
Hank felt like Connor moved instantaneously. He grabbed Hank around the waist and Hank was forced to drop his gun while Connor threw both of them back down the stairs. Hank felt Connor try to roll them so Connor would be on the bottom, but it didn’t work out as well as he had intended it to, and every step thundered into Hank’s back, his head slammed against the wall, turning the world into black dots, and his arm caught underneath him and he heard a crack that was quiet in comparison to the deafening bang that exploded on the second floor, a bright white flash that Hank could see without opening his eyes, and a sound so loud that it made him want to scream.
When it was over, Connor was gently sitting him up against the wall and whispering something to him that he couldn’t hear. He kept on touching a stream of liquid coming from Hank’s head, brushing away a few strands of Hank’s hair.
“I need to go,” Hank thought he read from Connor’s lips.
“No,” Hank wanted to say. “Don’t leave me.”
Connor pressed a kiss to Hank’s cheek before standing and running back up the stairs, into a cloud of smoke and plaster and disappearing like a phantom. Hank realized that he was panting and his heart was racing like that time Connor had shut down for two weeks after the cloud cover had gotten so thick that the daylight never came, and Hank was left alone in an abandoned motel room living in a perpetual night with no stars.
Connor came back to him, like he always did, a bullet wound in his left arm that he didn’t even bother trying to hide.
Sound started to trickle back to Hank in a low ringing buzz.
Connor reached down and wrapped his hands under Hank’s arms, pulling him to his feet. Hank didn’t want to be carried, but he allowed Connor to position his good arm across Connor’s shoulders, Hank’s other arm dangling uselessly at his side. Connor led him back up the stairs, and Hank was glad to finally hear the sound of their footsteps.
At the end of the hall, the door the man had emerged from was knocked off its hinges. The room was windowless and lit by lanterns scattered around the room, diffusing a soft orange glow. Hank saw that the man had been an android, and Connor had shot him three times and removed his thirium pump. There was a sound, a little choking cry, and Hank knew it instantly but he hadn’t heard it in such a long time.
“There’s a baby,” Hank croaked.
Connor settled him down on an office swivel chair. There was a line of desks all along the far wall, covered in supplies. In another corner was a pile of blankets and pillows, easily large enough for five people, and that’s where the sound came from. The dead body was halfway between the door and the baby, like he had been blocking it.
Connor quickly walked over to the line of desks and grabbed a tackle box, bringing it back over to Hank and settling it on the floor. He opened it up and took out gauze, medical tape, and a small tube of antibacterial gel that Hank didn’t think had anything left in it.
“You’ve got a concussion and a broken arm,” Connor said, voice quiet and mechanical. He was panicking.
“Hey,” Hank said, reaching over with his good arm and his vision wobbled like it did when he was drunk but he managed to find Connor’s arm. “I’m okay. I’m going to be okay.”
Connor sniffed, like a human holding back tears. Hank realized a while ago that sometimes Connor liked to copy some of Hank’s human gestures. He was a learning system, Connor always liked to say.
“What about you?” Hank asked as Connor blotted at the wound on Hank’s forehead. He taped down the gauze. “Your arm.”
“I can fix it,” Connor said. “It impairs some movement, currently.”
“Shit,” Hank said. He tried not to think about his own arm, which still didn’t feel like anything.
“I’m going to set your arm.” Connor went over and ripped off a small plank of wood from one of the desks and took Hank’s left arm into his lap.
“Okay,” Hank sighed, closing his eyes. “Wish I was drunk right now.”
“You’re not allowed to drink with a concussion,” Connor lectured, and he cracked Hank’s forearm back into place. A single stab of white-hot pain went up his arm in waves. Hank let out a hiss. Connor attached the plank and began taping it around Hank’s arm.
The child was still crying.
“There’s a kid,” Hank huffed out, again.
“I know,” Connor said. He finished wrapping Hank’s arm but kept it on his lap, holding his hand. “A little girl. Approximately 1.5 years old.”
“Jesus Christ. We need to—” a wave of dizziness made Hank lose his train of thought. He tried to stand up and Connor pushed him back down. “We need to calm her down.”
“Sure, Hank,” Connor said and his eyes were sad.
Hank tried to stand up again and this time Connor let him, though he stayed under Hank’s arm and wrapped a hand around his waist. They shuffled over to the corner of the room where they saw her, a small bob of blonde hair, arms curled around her tiny knees, sobbing. Hank settled down cross-legged on the blankets next to her and she shuffled away. Connor sat down, too, draping himself across Hank’s side, hugging Hank’s good arm.
“Hi there,” Hank said, using his ‘talking to child’ voice. “I’m Hank. What’s your name?”
She hiccupped once, shaking her head.
“I promise we won’t hurt you,” Hank continued. “Did that man take care of you?”
“Don,” she choked out, nodding.
“Is Don his name?” Hank said kindly.
“Don,” she said again.
Hank’s head pounded with every beat of his heart. Connor rested his forehead on Hank’s shoulder. He was a good weight.
“Don’s going to get better,” Hank said, making up his mind. “Did other people take care of you?”
She didn’t say anything. More tears leaked out of her eyes.
“What’s your name?” Hank tried again.
“Baby,” she said.
“Your name’s baby?”
“Call Baby,” she mumbled.
Something sad hit the hardened wall of his heart. “Okay, Baby. You’re going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right.” Connor tightened his grip on Hank’s arm. “Is there anyone else here besides Don?”
“Don sleep?” she asked. “Don no sleep.”
“Don’s sleeping, yes. Sometimes androids have to sleep,” Hank lied.
“Wake,” she said.
“Later, he’ll wake. He needs to sleep for now.”
“‘Kay,” she sniffed.
Hank moved his head slightly and got hit by another wave of dizziness. “I think I need to lie down,” he said through clenched teeth.
“We’ll make this our base for tonight,” Connor said, voice muffled by Hank’s jacket. He picked up his head and helped Hank shuffle into a reclined position, setting out two pillows for his head. Hank could barely make out the ceiling in the dim light.
The building lightly shook and Hank tensed.
“It’s just a storm,” Connor said as if he was certain. He gently ran a hand through Hank’s long hair.
“Fuck. Our supplies.”
“Everything’s sealed,” Connor told him.
Hank watched his face, his brows furrowed in concentration as he looked at Hank. Hank wondered what he was thinking.
“What’re you thinking?” Hank asked.
Connor smiled. “I’m thinking about you.”
“Cute,” Hank mocked. “I’m thinking about our supplies getting fucked.”
Connor’s smile turned dark. “I’m thinking about you getting fucked.”
“Now that’s just inappropriate,” Hank said, tamping down his own smile. “There’s a child present.”
“My apologies,” Connor demurred, not taking his eyes off Hank. Hank looked over and saw that Baby had taken up a small stuffed animal dolphin and was hugging it to her chest.
Hank sighed. “Detroit was a bad idea.”
Connor’s smile wiped away. “We know there’s food here. It’s not a bad idea.”
“But you’re injured, Con,” Hank said, his voice cracking.
Connor looked over to his bullet wound like he had just remembered that it existed. “There’s a toolkit here. I told you— I can repair it.”
Hank let out a breath. “I trust you. Just don’t— don’t leave me.”
Connor leaned over and cradled Hank’s face with both his hands and Hank finally knew that he was getting his kiss. Connor’s synthetic lips gently pressed against his like a promise and it was like all the weight of the world faded away into a dull ache. Hank felt his eyes flutter closed and he ignored the pounding in his head.
When Connor finally pulled away, sharing Hank’s air, he murmured, “I’ll never leave you.”
Hank smiled. “Except when I go take a shit.”
“Humans,” Connor said, sitting up straight and rolling his eyes.
Hank wanted to laugh. The building shook again, wind pounding against the outer walls. His thoughts dragged on slowly, raggedly. “Maybe now’s a good time to try out the MP3.”
“That’s a good idea.” Connor didn’t wait for Hank to hand it to him and simply reached into Hank’s pocket and pulled it out. He fiddled with a few of the buttons and Hank saw a small screen light up. “It has battery.”
Connor chose a song and hit play.
An organ began swelling, soft strings humming in the background.
‘There’s no time for us. There’s no place for us.’
“Heh,” Hank huffed, closing his eyes, “Queen.”
Connor laid down next to Hank, resting his head on Hank’s pillow. He put the MP3 player between them.
The music settled through the air easily, floating, calming. Even Baby seemed to relax, falling back to lean against the wall. Connor reached over and held Hank’s good hand, entwining their fingers. Connor’s hands were cold and smooth, and Hank loved them.
“When the storm’s over,” Hank began, turning his head to whisper, “We’ll leave. Take some supplies, but leave some, too. Reactivate Don. Kid doesn’t deserve this.”
‘Who wants to live forever?’
“She was born into this world,” Connor said. “She never knew anything else. Do you think that’s sad?”
“I guess,” Hank said. “It’s a fucking harsh break, is what it is.”
“Do you think she wants to live?”
“I do,” Hank breathed. “God, I fucking want to live.”
Connor clenched his hand. “Me too.”
The song slowly trailed to an end. Hank never was a big Queen fan, but damn if he hadn’t heard any music in a long ass time, and the sound made him want to cry. He didn’t know that he still had any tears left.
For once, Hank felt selfish, and he found himself saying, “Die with me, Connor.”
Connor pressed another kiss to his cheek. “For you, I’d do anything.”
The ash storm railed against their building, but they were safe inside their lantern-lit stolen room, nestled in a pile of blankets.