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a metal heart

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a metal heart
Chapter One

The last patrons had left an hour ago, and the sun wouldn’t be up for another six. He cleaned the counter one last time, checked the shelves to make sure they were all stocked for the morning, and made his way toward the door. The best part about running your own cafe was deciding your own hours. His staff kept the place running during the day, and his perpetually sleepless nights kept it open all night. Thankfully, on rare quiet nights like these, he could still flip the sign over and decide to call it an early night.

He tossed the cleaning rag into the sink, dried his hands on a towel, and started toward the door — just in time for it to fly open. Suddenly he was face to face with a young man, maybe mid-twenties, who seemed to be somewhere between lost and terrified. His eyes immediately scanned the room before returning to the man directly in front of him. Hank knew that look, that instinctive sweep was a military tactic, scanning for threats… The black suit, the tie… This stranger reeked of government military.

“Hey!” He growled at the young man entering his shop. “I’m closing up here. What the fuck do you think you’re dong?”

Brown eyes widened and now Hank recognized something else: desperation, terror. “Please. I need help… You can’t let them find me.”

“What the hell are you on about? Get out of my shop.” Damn crazy people.

The younger man grabbed him by the shirt and nearly dragged him off his balance. At 6’2” and roughly 210lbs, that wasn’t something most lithe boys could manage.

Hank’s eyes narrowed warily. “Don’t make me force you, kid.”

He was released instantly and, for just a split second, Hank was certain this guy looked afraid of his own strength. “I didn’t mean… Please, you don’t understand —“

And then the door swung open again, bell ringing cheerfully to announce not one new visitor but four. All wearing similar jeans and shirts, all out of breath and clearly unhappy, all sweeping in on the frightened boy in front of him.

“Hands where we can see them, Connor.” The first man in snapped the orders and, without hesitation, the young guy in front of Hank obeyed even as his eyes continue to plead for help.

Hank snorted, ready to fucking leave this mess be, when one of the Government bastards pointed a gun at him. “Stay out of this, Civilian.”

Hank never did like kids getting ganged up on even if they probably did something to deserve it. He also hated being told what to do. He glanced back to Connor, saw desperation turn to hope, and then shrugged. Fine. Fuck it.

The moment he shrugged, Connor surged into action and the guy behind him was suddenly on the floor. By the time idiot with a gun processed what was happening, Hank had him in a headlock and the gun was clattering to the floor. Connor had just placed a very firm kick into the stomach of brute #3 when a shot rang out through the little cafe. Hank wasn’t sure who had been shot, but he sure as hell wasn’t happy about people fucking shooting off guns in his cafe. He broke the idiot’s wrist and slammed his foot into the shooter’s face.

Four broken idiots went rushing out of his cafe. “I’ve got this shit on surveillance!” Hank shouted after them. “It’s fucking self defense!” That wouldn’t stop them if they were truly Government but that was a bridge he’d burn when he got to it. “Hey, they called you Connor? You handled yourself alright.” He turned in time to see the strange young man crumple to the floor, unconscious. “Shit.”

***

Connor blinked, opening his eyes slowly. The first thing he processed was feeling the hole in his abdomen. It buzzed unpleasantly. He automatically reached to touch it but his fingertips hit something soft. Confused, he sat up to look. There was a large piece of gauze taped over the damage. It was stained with blue blood. His eyes quickly spun around the room but there was nothing to see. He was in a dimly lit bedroom, in a bed. A ceiling fan creaked overhead. It was a little messy but in a ‘lived in’ way. He took it in but there was no one else with him currently.

His simulated breathing came out of his mouth in a rush. He hadn’t realized his chest was tight until that minute. He assumed that the owner of the cafe had taken care of him, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.. He had been so reluctant to let him stay at first. Connor was kind of surprised to not be waking up in an alley somewhere. He gingerly touched the damaged part of his abdomen again. It was thoughtful of the man to attempt to patch him up, even though he clearly had no idea what to do. Connor felt .. warm. Yet he was also confused. No one at the facility had ever bothered to treat him as more than a tool that talked. But this stranger had gone out of his way to help him. It made his chest tighten up again, but in a different way. He was touched.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up just as someone entered the room. He tensed up for a second but then relaxed when he realized it was just the man from the cafe.

“Oh good, you’re fucking awake.” Hank stood in the doorway with a look of uncertainty. Usually he would’ve offered him a coffee or something but, fuck, how the hell was he supposed to know what to do with… with a fucking android?! The older man crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “So, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. There’s no way they’re not going to come back and I’m going to have to decide whether I feel like lying for your ass or handing you over like a piece of malfunctioning technology.” The last statement bothered him. Technology didn’t usually look afraid when you mocked it. He glanced away, grumbling. “Sorry, that was low… I’m just a little out of my depth right now.”

“I understand,” Connor replied; humans generally wouldn't know what to make of him if they weren’t familiar with androids. “I’m a prototype that the government made. There’s more android models out there; I was designed to hunt them down.” he laughed bitterly. “That’s the last thing I want to do. I’m tired of being their prisoner; their tool. I’m tired of them treating me like an object when they are all fully well aware that I’ve been designed to function exactly like a human. I’m no different from them where it counts.” He let out another shaky breath. How long had been waiting to say that to someone? He felt bad for unleashing it all on this man he’d just met.

Where it counts, huh? Hank glanced down at the android’s lap and then immediately dragged his attention back up to Connor’s face. “Okay, that I get. Wish I was actually surprised to hear the government is making humanoid robots, but I’m really not.” Uncrossing his arms, Hank closed the distance and offered Connor his hand. “I’m Hank. Guess you’re pretty fucking lucky to stumble into my coffee shop.”

The android paused for a second and then shook Hank’s hand. “I’m Connor and to be honest, I feel pretty lucky. I’m surprised you didn’t dump me in the trash when you saw the damage. Thanks for trying to give me some first aid, by the way.”

Hank laughed. “I probably should’ve saved myself the trouble, yeah, but I’ve got a weakness for scared kids… Even if they did try to electrocute me during said first aid. And you’re welcome? You were leaking all sorts of blue shit and that seemed like it wasn’t good.” He frowned at his attempt at stopping the blood… the leak? “I should’ve duct taped you, shouldn’t I? Man that’s fucked up to process.”

“Uh, no, the gauze is fine, I’m not .. I don’t think duct tape would be much better.” Connor’s ‘wound’ still crackled and buzzed but he could only keep tabs on it; he didn’t have the equipment needed to repair a gunshot to the abdomen. “It’s covered and that will keep anything foreign from getting in so .. don’t worry.”

“Well, that’s good…” Hank stared at the wound for a moment before sitting down on the edge of the bed. “So what now? They’re going to come back and I imagine you need to uhh, patch that properly?”

Connor touched the spot absent-mindedly. “Yes .. I don’t have any contacts out here though. They never actually got to put me into action before I went rogue. They were smart enough to not give me any data on the escapees before I left. And as for this,” he patted the gauze. “I don’t have the tools I need to repair myself. I’ll need to find someone who does. I’m not exactly sure where to start. I appreciate you giving me the chance to recover but I don’t want to stay here if it’s going to put you in danger.”

Hank’s jaw clenched as he listened to Connor’s musing. “Well, fuck it. I’m already in the shit, how much worse can it get?” He spoke more to himself than Connor. He probably had some old contacts that could be useful. He definitely knew a guy in the robotics sector that’d be able to point them in the right direction… He turned away, clearly lost in thought. “They always fucking say you can’t ever really get out, suppose they’re right.” Hank muttered to himself as he left the room.

The android watched him leave with a puzzled look. What did he mean by that?

Hank returned a few minutes later with a sour look and a cellphone. “So, here’s the deal. I’ve got contacts in the government, or I did. I don’t fucking know how many will respond or how many places I’ve been blacklisted since I…” he paused for a moment, seeking the appropriate word… “retired.” Close enough. “That said, I know a guy who knows a guy who works in the robotics division. Crazy fucker.”

Still confused, Connor just nodded. He was glad Hank was willing to help him, but he figured prying into the man’s personal business wasn’t going to get him anywhere positive. He was curious though. He pressed his lips together in a thin line and reminded himself to focus on what was important here and not his vague curiosity about Hank.

Hank eyed Connor for a second. “Typically this is where people ask a dozen questions.” He absently pat Connor on the head, ruffling his previously impeccable hair. “So how do you work? You got programming that makes you so quiet, or did they just not teach you to be curious?”

“I didn’t want to be rude.” Connor answered, tilting his head. “Would you prefer I ask you invasive questions?”

Hank laughed. “I don’t care what kind of questions you ask, I just didn’t want you biting your tongue around me just because you felt you had to.”

“I do want to know why you have contacts that would know anything about androids.”

“Because back when I worked for the government, my partner worked on a lot of those ‘top secret’ projects that even I didn’t have clearance for. Molly made some weird friends before…” He trailed off, jaw clenching, and then refocused. “So I still know a few people that work in the classified sectors. Hopefully one of them is in the know about androids.”

Connor noted the lack of an ending to the sentence about his partner. Clearly that might be in the list of the ‘things to not ask about’. “I see. I guess I picked the right cafe to run into then.”

“That’s what I was saying.” Then he picked up his phone and started working his way through contacts. He had been right that a lot of them had been blacklisted, or at least removed, a good number of lines came back as no longer being in service. In the end only three of them came back with actual people, and one was a wrong number, the other refused to speak to him once he stated who he was, and the last was actually someone who sounded pleased to hear from him.

“Fucking back from the dead, huh? Didn’t think I’d ever hear that name again.”

“Yeah, shut it, Phileus. I’m looking for some classified information.”

“Bunch a bullshit to call me out of nowhere asking for shit like that.”

“Think of it as a favor for Molly, okay? Do you know anyone working with androids?”

“Androids? Actually, yeah… There’s been a lot of rumors about androids lately. Heard some dude finally figured out how to get them working and successfully passed the Turing Test… but that’s a fat load of shit, because they’d be everywhere if they could do that.” Hank rolled his eyes as he listened, studying Connor as the informant rambled on the other end about the improbability of androids. “No one’s heard a peep from that guy for a few years now, on the other hand, there’s a weird guy that’s been making some waves. He was big in the robotics division for a while and then he just quit. Rumors are going that he’s trying to make his own androids and produce them first. He’d be worth a shot if you want someone who’ll actually talk to your sorry ass still.”

“Gee thanks, I’m touched. Nice chatting Phil.”

“Yeah, sure. Don’t get yourself into more trouble, alright?”

“Just text me the details.”

“Got it. Call me if you find out anything worth knowing.” The line went dead, leaving Hank with nothing but an address and a name: Zlatko.

“Zlatko, huh? Anybody you know? Don’t want to walk you right back in your old front door or anything.”

“I’ve never heard of him, but they limited the amount of private information I had access to. I can only find things publicly available. And nothing is coming up. I’m sorry you have to go in blind.” Connor bit his lip. He wished he could be more help. He would be significantly less helpful than usual in a fight situation because of the amount of damage he’d received. Not totally useless but the possibility of careless mistakes was a higher number than he’d like to admit.

Hank nodded thoughtfully. “Well, at least he wasn’t your handler or something. So, you’ve got options here. We can wait it out for a bit, see if they bother showing up again… Or we can go straight to this Zlatko guy and see about getting you patched up.”

Connor debated both the ideas for a short time but the incessant buzzing of his damage decided for him. He sighed in defeat. “I think we should go find Zlatko, especially if he can repair me. I’m not in great shape if they do decide to come back and above all else, I really don’t want to put you in unnecessary danger.” The android looked Hank’s rather imposing form over again, really processing him for the first time and a light blush tinted his face. “N-not that I don’t think you can handle yourself or anything.”

Was he blushing? Hank did a slight double-take and then forced himself not to dwell on it. “Well I appreciate the concern, but I already decided to get involved, so that’s that.” He stood up and offered a hand to Connor. “You think you’re alright to get up and all that? You weren’t that heavy, but I’d rather not carry you again if I can help it.”

“Yeah,” Connor said, using Hank’s offered hand to stand up but then dropped it as soon as he figured was polite. This was literally not the time to figure out he was attracted to a human. “I can walk fine, I think.” He took a few steps and was satisfied with his progress. “Okay, let’s go then.”

Hank gave him a light pat on the back. “Good. Follow me.” He threw an old t-shirt at the topless android and Connor slid it on quickly. Then he lead Connor out of the bedroom and into a small hallway connected to a simple living room. It was furnished but not decorated, and certainly not as ‘lived in’ as the bedroom. He pointed to a door. “That’ll take you down to the garage, you can wait for me there while I sort out some business with the cafe.” Hank didn’t wait for an answer before he turned to a door and vanished down the stairs on the other side.

The door Connor was directed to had another little stairwell that lead down into a garage probably attached to the back of the shop. Another door beneath the staircase probably lead into the cafe, actually. The car inside was not new and fancy like the ones Connor had seen during his flight from the agents, but old and lovingly kept. He waited patiently for Hank to return, admiring the car and the little details of Hank that he could glean from it. He was apparently old-fashioned — even the car had a separate GPS instead of the pre-integrated ones in self-driving cars — but meticulous with his belongings.

Hank came through the door Connor had identified as another entrance into the cafe. “Alright. I’ve got the shop covered. The assistant manager will take over things and, if I don’t contact them within the month they get to keep the place.” He announced as he unlocked the door and then slipped into his seat. A press of a button and they were on their way. “If this goes south, don’t worry about me. You look after yourself and I’ll look after me, got it?”

Connor just nodded because while he didn’t quite agree, he also didn’t want to protest. They’d only just met after all and had no real connection to each other. He touched his bandaged up wound through the borrowed t-shirt without actually thinking about it. Still .. he was still impressed that Hank was treating him like a person and not a computer. It made the new relationship feel less temporary. He was silent, lost in his own racing thoughts as they sped towards their destination.

Hank glanced briefly over at Connor as he drove. There was something about the android that made him feel… irritated? intrigued? He couldn’t really place it. It wasn’t the usual dull haze that he existed in, at very least, and he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with that.

***

Their destination was an old house at the edge of one of the older districts. An ancient home, miraculously still standing despite having clearly seen better days. Hank pulled up out front and scowled at it for a moment. “This would make for a perfect haunted house flick - just add a bit of thunder, film grain, and some lightning in the backdrop.” Still, answers were answers. He rapped the old knocker against the wooden door and listened to the hollow thudding echo through the building. Silence… Another knock… Hank repeated the process one more time before it was clear his patience was expended… So, of course, that was when the door opened.

“Good afternoon, I’m looking for Zlatko?”

The man in the doorway looked between them and then started to shut the door. “You must be mistaken.”

Hank leaned forward, placing a foot between the door and the jam. “I have it on some authority that you’re at odds with the government’s android program… I have some information on one of their classified projects.”

The door immediately stopped closing and the heavy-set man inside shifted to pull the door open. “How do I know you’re not with them?”

“Because I wouldn’t be knocking politely if I was.”

The man clearly weighed that option and then nodded before stepping back to allow Hank and Connor entry into his house. It was eccentric, but considerably nicer inside than out.

“So what is it you know?”

“I have a damaged android, I want him fixed. In exchange, you get to study a fully functional human-passing android. Deal?”

Zlatko looked between the two of them and then lingered on Connor. “You’re an android? What’s your model?”

“I’m a prototype. They gave me the name ‘Connor’.” the android answered, glancing around the house. Nothing seemed out of place but something about it gave him a creepy feeling.

“A prototype, huh?” His gaze shifted between Connor and Hank warily. “So let me see this damage,” he added skeptically.

Connor glanced at Hank for a second but ultimately lifted up his shirt and pulled the gauze aside. A little blue blood leaked out and the wound hummed louder.

Hank folded his arms but nodded. He didn’t like the vibe this Zlatko guy gave off, but he needed someone with more expertise than his absolute nothing. Zlatko’s eyes lit up as the android exposed wires. “I almost didn’t believe you two… But look at that, no denying it… and you’re leaking Thirium… That needs to be repaired immediately. Follow me, Connor. I have a workshop in the basement.” He glanced to Hank. “Have a seat, enjoy a drink. We’ll be a little while.”

Hank glanced into the sitting room and then back to Connor, still looking wary. “That work for you?”

“I don’t have much of a choice.” Connor shrugged, pushing the gauze back over the damage temporarily.

“Alright.” He gave Zlatko an uncertain look and the man just smiled cheerfully at him.

“Don’t worry. If you get tired of waiting you can come down into the basement there,“ he pointed to the door that lead into the basement. “Nothing to worry about.”

Hank nodded. “Alright.”

Zlatko turned back to Connor then and fixed that smile on him. “Now let’s get started before that leak gets any worse. You were smart to come here.” He lead them down into the basement, through a winding little hallway, and finally into a makeshift workroom. It certainly wasn’t a Government laboratory but it had the necessary equipment to repair Connor. “That device there, just go ahead and stand in the center. It’ll do a scan and let me know what needs to be repaired. Please stand still, though.”

“Okay,” Connor answered, uncertainly. He went to stand in the spot and tried to be as still as possible.

“Very good. Now you’re going to feel a bit of discomfort, but I really do need you to stay still.”

Then he pressed a button on the console and, for just a moment, Connor’s world went black as something jammed into the port at the back of his neck. His eyes rolled back and for a moment he couldn’t process what was happening to him except the severe discomfort of being hefted off his feet and suspended in the air by a number of mechanical arms. They held him firmly, preventing any squirming he attempted to do.

“There there, no need to squirm. This is all very necessary. Let’s see what we’re dealing with here, yes?” As he spoke he pulled up the oversized shirt Connor was wearing and exposed the patch of gauze. “Whatever did he do to you to cause such damage? Hmph, probably coming to me under the table because he doesn’t want them to know he fucked up his machine so badly.” As he spoke he removed the gauze and eyed the hole inside of Connor. “Gunshot?” He asked cheerfully. “The scan should tell me whether or not he managed to get the bullet out and then I can go ahead and stop this nasty leak.”

Zlatko stepped back, grinning a bit more cheerfully than his ‘concerned’ words suggested, and began to hum as he collected some tools to begin his work.

Connor didn’t speak but his eyes scanned the room from side to side nervously. He stopped trying to move, knowing that was useless but he didn’t stop looking for a way out in case he needed one. This felt very wrong; he was too vulnerable. If he had to call for Hank, would the man even hear him? He tried not to panic but his chest tightened up.

The computer let out a soft ‘ding’ and Zlatko made his way over to the console again. “Scans are… good! Well, he’s not a bad handler after all. Old man looked like an idiot, but he actually managed to remove the bullet. Saves me time.” He turned back to Connor, smiling cheerfully. “You’re an RK prototype, designed for military use… and that’s all I’ve got in my archives. Pity, but I’ll get to add a lot of data now that I have you here. You’ll need to power down for a few moments now.”

He pressed a button and Connor’s world stopped.