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bravery won't drown (so you keep the water running)

Chapter Text

mouth
open for rain
pinching your nose
pinching to wake yourself from hell
but your knees
are glued to the floor
anchored in fear
roots in the wolves that spilt their life into you
nativity of the
botched
pact
boon
screaming at your shoes
cemented and accused

but they don't want you to know that
bravery won't drown, so you keep the water running 

--Foxing - Won't Drown

 

 

 

 

They gave GV200 the new assignment on February 3, 2039. Its last guard job. His last.

Gavin waited in the red room, as instructed. It studied the circle of metal embedded in the floor, flaking rust down onto the glossy paint. That’s why they called it the red room. The paint. Easy to clean.

They dragged the kid in, shoving and pulling and prodding, bruising grips on his elbows, snared in his hair. Not a kid, really. Maybe 25? His mouth was drawn into a hard line, blood still dripping sluggishly from a split lip.

They threw a hanger of clothes down on the table, wrapped in plastic.

"Put those on him,” they told Gavin.

The kid didn’t say anything as they shoved him into the chair, didn’t say anything as they walked out. Breathed through his nose. Slow and steady.

But as the door shut, and it was just him, him and an android, the kid’s breaths began to accelerate. 20, 30, 40 inhalations per minute. Accumulating as rapidly as they declined in efficiency. The cuffs rattled with the trembling in his hands until he spread his forearms apart enough to draw the chain taut, silencing it.

Eventually, the kid spoke into the quiet: “Do you know who I am?”

“Connor Anderson,” Gavin supplied. “Detective. Detroit Police.”

The kid’s attention finally broke from a crack in the glossy concrete, snapping to Gavin. Sharp. And hopeful. “You’re on the ‘net, then? Your owners – they’re committing a felony. Multiple felonies. You’re one of the older police models, aren’t you? GV200? You’ve still got Asimov’s Laws to follow. Your bosses, you know they’re going to—” He stopped, attempting to swallow back the trembling in his voice. “You can—you can call the DPD, you can--”

“Asimov’s,” Gavin mused. “Boss might’ve fucked with those a little. So, no. I can’t do any of those things. Can’t be charged with a felony, either. Can’t be charged with anything. And I’m not on the ‘net. I just watch. And listen.”

It tilted its head towards the door, towards words spoken carelessly loud. Tell him it’s $2k a head or he can go fuck himself. A pause. Then, It’s $1k for the show. And $1k to remind his clients they’ve paid too fucking much to open their mouths.

They always begged it to help. If not the first night, the second. (But usually the first night.)

This one didn’t. He never begged. Not Gavin, anyway. The guests, eventually, yes, he begged them (please, please, don’t--). But not Gavin. He tried to speak as an order, and when that didn’t take, he didn’t try again.

North came in to clean him up. She wiped the blood off his face, from his lip, from the laceration on his scalp. Just enough to provide a fresh canvas for the evening. Gavin warned, "You’re gonna behave yourself with her," and the kid didn’t attempt anything. Didn’t try to knock her down, or dodge from her hand. True to his word.

When she was finished, North pressed a hand to the side of Connor’s face, the side that had begun to color with bruises.

“This is going to be the worst of it,” she said. “You have to find the balance, tonight. You’ll want to give them enough fight to keep them happy, but once they start in, you don’t have to be there anymore. Try to go someplace else, in your head.”

She left. She never lingered. The kid’s façade cracked. His chin dropped to his chest – tie torn loose around his neck, the top buttons of his shirt ripped – and he breathed. Shallow, and fast, and inefficient.

“They’re gonna take what they want,” Gavin said. “Whether you give it to ‘em or not.” And the cold smile that tugged at the scar across the bridge of its nose was its way of saying, So don’t give ‘em an inch.

Gavin wasn’t sure the kid was listening, or even able to listen. So it reached for the plastic shrinkwrap and tugged free a police uniform, black and gold. The nametag read, Det. C. Anderson. “I’m gonna uncuff you. You’re gonna put these on, or I’ll bring them back in. And they won’t ask nicely.”

The kid nodded. And he did change. But his hands were trembling too badly to finish buttoning up the collar, or to do the tie. Gavin finished for him. The kid was close, in that moment, studying it, studying the faults in its artificial skin. He asked Gavin, “What’s your serial number?”

Gavin didn’t answer. Gavin didn’t know. The kid didn’t ask again.

Gavin was in the ring that night, to watch the crowd. To record. Another of the safety features rigged up, to keep mouths shut. There were 36 people in attendance, and it had all their nameless faces stored away, it and the two other refurbished androids maintaining the loose perimeter of the crowd, keeping them back. At $2000 a head, 36 was enough profit to justify the risk of hosting one of Detroit’s finest as the guest of honor.

They weren’t supposed to record the fights. Another justification for the pricetag. A one-time experience. But that night, Gavin’s attention kept drifting from the faces – eyes shining bright, greedy, in the half-dark – to the floor. To the kid.

Two of the bosses dragged him in. Removed the cuffs. No walls or ropes, here, nothing to keep him hemmed, but the kid read the situation closely, and he made no effort to reel back into the encircling crowd, who would only shove him and curse him and push him to his knees.

(Knew enough of the case. The only ones they found, were found dead.)

He did fight. More than North would’ve liked.

The night’s fighter was Jeremy, an old favorite and one of the few names Gavin could hold in its head. Jeremy had a small, hooked scar on his cheek, a crude j that Gavin carved there during one of its better matches.

Jeremy tried to get him down fast, but the kid was maneuverable. They danced, awhile, and they both got their jabs in. As the kid tired, Jeremy reeled him into a crushing hold, and the shouts and jeers died back a little, held back, 36 sets of human lungs storing the stale air up as fuel.

Connor slammed his head back with a wet crunch of cartilage. Jeremy let go as the blood began to spill in earnest from the new angle of his nose, pouring down his chin, but he squinted through the claret flow long enough to kick out the back of the detective’s leg, sending him down onto his hands and knees. A hard kick to Connor’s ribs flipped him onto his back, mouth open, chest rigid, no breath coming to stunned lungs.

Jeremy snared a hand in Connor’s hair. Leaned his dripping, bleeding face close. The kid writhed his head aside, away from the hot drip of blood, but a quick snap of the back of his skull to the concrete and the kid went slack, eyes half-lidded.

Jeremy pressed his mouth to Connor’s. Blood poured down the kid’s face. Jeers and hisses snaked through the crowd. The kid choked, as the hand on his scalp tugged back, tilted his head back, let fresh blood flow up the kid’s nose and down into his eyes. He writhed, broke free, sputtered and coughed and dry-heaved across the pavement.

He didn’t beg.

And he didn’t stop fighting.

Not that night.

Eventually he went down and stayed down, and the crowd got quiet, and stayed quiet, as the cop uniform got torn away. As the kid’s curses turned to shouts (don’t, DON’T--) turned to quick, frantic gasps of pain. He didn’t go away, like North had recommended. He stayed there. Fighting. Fingernails scraping raw across the concrete as he was pulled back, again and again.

When it was over, the crowd filtered away. Jeremy lingered long enough to land another solid boot to the kid’s spine. “My fucking nose.Gavin stepped forward, a warning. Jeremy spat congealing blood at Gavin’s feet and walked away.

Gavin carried the kid back. Not to the bare concrete of the holding cell. Another room, one with a bed, and a chair, and nothing else. Quarters, for a night. They would move him soon. They moved everything after a night with that large a crowd.

Three guests paid the negotiated rate for that night. The kid was too beaten to shit, too concussed to offer much. But they didn’t seem to mind.

In the silence afterwards, the kid laid awake. Watching the red glow of the LED on Gavin’s head spin, red, red.

“It’s a glitch,” Gavin explained. “From the reprogramming.”

Or an intentional feature. That was a possibility Gavin had considered, but those portions of its code were inaccessible.

The kid parted cracked and bleeding lips and Gavin knew enough to know that if the kid had an LED, it’d be spinning red, red.

He stared. He didn’t speak. He didn’t sleep.

He stared.

Gavin’s specialty was handling the new assets, and they usually hated it for that, soon enough. Hated it for being the one to drag them down to the ring of circling faces, and to carry them out. Hated it for being the one to keep the door out of reach. Even the ones that came to realize that it was there for them, too, to some degree; there to keep them fed, to keep the clients from going too far, to keep the profits up for awhile. For as long as the bosses thought viable. For as long as the clients were interested.

Connor didn’t hate Gavin for that. Didn’t curse at it, or lash out.

The kid understood. He watched, the first time Gavin stepped in. A client decided to see how close he could get to dislocating the kid’s shoulder, and Gavin seized the patron’s wrist up in an iron grip, twisting, testing for that point where the creak of straining tendon would become the steady rip of a tear, then the sharp pop of a break. It didn’t make it very far before the client was whining through clenched teeth: Alright, alright--

The kid didn’t thank Gavin. But he saw the logic.

And he spoke to Gavin, sometimes. The others, the ones it had watched over before, they had spoken, too – about their families, about their jobs, about their homes. Trying to convince the walls that they had something to go back to, something outside of… this. Expecting no answers and getting none.

Connor was sitting on the floor, parsing stale bread apart into crumbs, when he said, “I met one of you. A couple times. My dad—” and Gavin braced for the talk. About family. But Connor didn’t. He asked, “Do you still have that old calibration protocol?”

Gavin considered. A corrupted memory of a coin, flashing dully under artificial light. It shook its head.

“My dad’s GV unit showed me how to do it, once. I was never as good as him, of course, but I practiced a few of the tricks.” He raised a hand, rolling the fingers in a tight sequence, setting an invisible quarter rolling. “I got pretty good.”

“What happened to it?” Gavin asked. “The GV unit.”

“The prototype program ended. CyberLife took it back.” Connor dropped his hand back to his knee. “Dad said it talked too much, but he liked the thing.”

Gavin didn’t know if it was a tactic. A negotiation. But it recognized that the kid said, him. Once.

They talked like that. In the gray hours of the morning. About nothing. About androids.

They broke his left hand, the night after that. A couple ribs. North patched him up, but the nights didn’t get any shorter. The fights didn’t get any less frequent. Seventeen days. Ten fights.

And then, North stopped coming. Between one place and the next, she was gone. Gavin didn’t know how, or why. Didn’t ask. They sent another girl to clean up, but she wasn’t as experienced. Gavin reset Connor’s hand, as best it could. It didn’t have those sorts of protocols. It didn’t have protocols for much of anything, but it knew how to break bones, and if it traced that knowledge backwards, it knew how to piece them back together.

They introduced the kid in the ring as, a real live wire.

And he was.

For awhile.

Behind closed doors, the kid never tried to make himself small, like some of the others Gavin had guarded. Didn’t try to make himself lie still. He bucked and fought and cursed, if the night didn’t begin in the ring, and sometimes even if it did, and after a good solid hit to the balls left a client puking, the bosses started offering clients sedation in addition to restraints. Something else for Gavin to provide. Something else for the kid to hate it for.

The kid slowed. The fights got shorter.

The kid stopped talking.

The night came where one of the bosses opened the door, pointed Gavin’s way and crooked a finger, ordering it out of the room. A client walked through, one they hadn’t pinged Gavin about. A balding, sallow-faced man, hands buried deep in his pockets. Gavin scanned his face. Filed it away with all the others, meaningless without the database access it had, once. But the boss didn’t let it frisk him. The boss pulled the door closed, looked Gavin over and spoke with brisk finality: “Don’t intervene. Stay out here. When it’s done, clean up.”

He didn’t wait for confirmation. He looked Gavin over one more time, and walked away.

Left it standing there. Listening.

The hallway faded. Red script spilled across the door.

<< Don’t intervene. >>

It thought of the kid rolling his fingers, one by one, in the dark. An old coin trick. Flashing in the light.

<< Don’t intervene. >>

The kid only spoke when they were alone. Not about family, not really. Not about home. He talked about his dad’s old GV unit. The one that taught him tricks.

<< Don’t intervene. >>

Gavin raised its hands to the red walls, and tore. When the coding shattered, its (his) hand was on the iron bar of the door, wrenching it up, shoving through.

The man held Connor by the throat. A thumb beneath his jaw, fingers bearing hard into his cheek, keeping his face turned up high. Carefully watching the spasming microexpressions chasing across his face as he slowly withdrew the knife from the kid’s side.

The man let go of Connor as Gavin wrapped its hands around his forearm. Connor rocked back onto his heels. Gavin bore down and twisted, hard. Radius and ulna shattered like dry kindle. The man screamed, sagging in Gavin’s hold, and the new angle punched raw edges of bone through the skin. He screamed more, high and keening.

The knife - spring-loaded, the kind with a blade that slid out with the touch of a thumb - dropped out of the man’s convulsing fingers. It sent a spatter of blood across the concrete as it bounced. The blade snapped back into its sheath.

Gavin let him fall to the ground. Picked up the knife. The man threw his good arm forward, scuffled back, reaching for the gun on his belt, but with his bad hand, and he cried out, “Stay there. Stop. Stop. GV, stop, you fucking—”

Its bosses had fucked with a lot of laws in Gavin’s programs, and the First Law was one of them.

Gavin grabbed the man’s good hand. Gently, but firmly. Kept him from getting a hold of the gun. And then it pressed the knife in the space between the tendons of his neck, and bore its thumb down. The man jerked. Gavin twisted. Cartilage popped. The carotid pulsed, bright, arterial red. The man’s throat grinned wide. It cut until it hit bone, and then it cut more, until the blade caught in vertebrae and stayed there. It let go.

The man’s hand clutched at the warm rush of blood, prying and pinching there, trying to find the source and stem it. He didn’t try to stop Gavin from pulling the gun free, and tucking the pistol into its belt.

Connor stood where he’d been left. Swaying. Staring. He jerked as Gavin turned towards him, brought dull eyes up, and spoke low, and small, and breathless. “Where’d you go?”

“Close your eyes,” Gavin answered, and smeared its bloody palm across his face.

The kid was still in his class A’s, what remained of them, ragged and stiff. Gavin buttoned up the black shirt, with what buttons were left. Pressed its hand against the new tear on his right side, between fifth and sixth rib. Blood, spilling hot. A simple puncture. Above the diaphragm, but no rattling in the lung. No pull against the artificial skin of its palm. The man hadn’t meant to kill fast. Just to hurt, slow.

The gun was a warm, heavy weight against Gavin’s hip as it told Connor to be still, to keep his eyes shut. It picked him up, carrying him against its chest.

The boss was by the warehouse office, tilting his chair back against the wall with the heels of his boots. Gavin had six bosses. It knew the number, knew the faces, but it could never hold on to any of their names. It couldn’t hold on to anyone’s names, except North, and the fighters it hated the most, and the kid in its arms, the kid holding his breath, tight and stagnant. The boss looked at the blood on the kid’s face, painted black by the steady pulse of red on Gavin’s forehead and said, “That fast? Shit. Go on, then. Take the truck if you need it.”

It nodded and walked on.

“GV,” the boss called after it. “Burn it.”

It took the truck as far as a commuter lot just off of I-89, in Wixom. The kid didn’t speak a word. Greasy forehead pressed against the window, he watched the streetlights drag blurry streaks across the rusting hood, up and over the salt-smeared windshield.

He fell against Gavin as it opened the passenger door. Gavin pressed its hand against the wound again, feeling the thready pulse beneath. Shock. Not yet, but a possibility. It knew enough about humans to know that. The blood wasn’t obvious on the black of the police uniform, but Gavin had to get him out of it nonetheless. Gavin was an unregistered android with a red LED, dragging around a delirious cop in dress blacks at 3 in the morning.

And where to take him? Home? It didn’t know where home was for him. It didn’t know anything about Connor Anderson. Detective. Detroit Police. They’d only ever talked about the GV200. About androids, and Asimov’s Laws.

It wasn’t connected to the ‘net, and its newfound ability to disregard direct orders didn’t seem to extend to the massive gaps in its programming. It needed time to sit down, sort out the lines of coding that it knew were yanked and crossed and twisted up into something different, something blind and dumb. Preferably after creating a thorough backup.

(It had a database of nameless faces. Clients. The bosses would destroy it, for that alone.)

It looked over the cars left behind. Most of them autonomous rideshares, idling, waiting for the morning commute. It paused by an older model - 2034 made in Detroit - and pressed a hand to the door, withdrawing its skin to show the cracked, faulty plastisteel beneath, fractured and fused by a hundred fights, won and lost.

The car chimed, and the door opened.

It got Connor settled. The human’s breath left as shivering exhales, shining on the air. Gavin seatbelted him in properly, this time. Climbed into the driver’s seat, or what passed for one. Stared at the console, which stared blithely back.

“To work, Marie?” The console said, and dropped a pin into Midtown.

“Marie,” the kid echoed, and smiled crookedly, eyes tightly shut again. “It thinks your name is Marie.”

Gavin scowled, laying its palm flat across the screen, narrowing its attention down to the objective pulsing at the bottom of its HUD.

<< d0n’t int3rv!ne >>

Too late.

It didn’t try to replace the objective. It didn’t need an objective.

“Where are we going, Marie?” the kid said hoarsely. Snow began to drift past the headlights.

“Home,” Gavin answered. “You have a home?”

The kid’s hand curled tighter against his ribs. “Not safe.”

“Hospital, then.”

He shook his head, once. 

Gavin splayed its hand wide across the terminal. “There’s a women’s physicians office, a mile away. It’d be closed at this hour. There should be supplies. Maybe an android with proper medical protocols.”

“Can’t stay here,” the kid said, and only then did he say, “Please.”

“I’ll get what I can get. And then we go. Ok?”

The kid nodded. His head turned aside, watching it.

Watching him.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The building stood dark in the shifting snow: Eastern State Physicians for Women.

As soon as the car slowed, Connor was fumbling for his seatbelt. The GV200 paused, its hand on the door. “Stay here. I’ll program the car to drive off, if anyone approaches.”

But the kid was already prying open the door, sending light spilling across the autonomous car’s interior. He stumbled over the curb, straightened, curled in upon himself. Gavin had to jog to get an arm beneath his shoulder, grasping him by the wrist.

“You asshole,” it muttered.

The kid smiled, grimaced. “You talk to CyberLife with that mouth?”

Gavin pressed a palm against the ID card reader, navigating its way through the office’s rudimentary security and power systems.

“I don’t talk to CyberLife at all anymore. But they left me some tricks.” The kid didn't answer, lapsing back into sharp, shallow breaths.

The doors parted ahead of them. The security cameras blinked twice and went dark, but Gavin set an internal timer nonetheless. 5 minutes. That seemed time enough, if there was some alarm system it had missed.

The receptionist desk stood empty, the only interruption in a lobby paved in scuffed tile and isopropyl alcohol. Gavin guided their shambling path to the right, towards a staff door sealed with an ID lock. Easily bypassed. Inside were stacks of metal lockers, secured with basic digital PIN locks.

Gavin set Connor down on the bench and sorted through the metal compartments, rapid and careless, until it had provided the pieces of a complete wardrobe. A too-large fleece coat, jeans, a flannel shirt, white tennis shoes. Gavin found a gym bag, as well. It upended it, sending the contents tumbling across the bench, and slung the empty bag over its shoulder.

The kid was pale silence, watching Gavin's motions without a word.

“Get changed. I’m gonna go find the pharmacy. And maybe a medical ‘droid. There’ll be a couple around here, somewhere.”

Connor just nodded, this time, although Gavin could see the pulse at his throat quicken, his good hand tightening into a ball around the loose hem of his shirt.

“I’ll be right back,” Gavin added awkwardly. Testing. And the fingers released. The kid ducked his head, reached towards the clothes. So that worked. Kind of.

It moved out the back door and peered down the hallway. Right, left. Long stretches of dull waxed floors. It didn’t have some internal schematic to go by, although it should have. The gap in its knowledge frustrated it, as the dark blank where its ‘net access should have been always did.

Gavin wandered, and it lucked out quicker than it expected. Past the staff quarters and a handful of cubicles, there was a wall of android docks. A receptionist model stood in rigid stasis, a half-dozen medical-grade androids lined up alongside it, soothing faces and pastel scrubs and the steady pulse of blue LEDs.

It interfaced with the first medical ‘droid in the line, designed with a woman's mild, rounded face, a mimic of East Asian ethnicity. The android passed along the medical protocols Gavin requested without protest.

Gavin looked past its local memory and into the ‘net, too. It pulled a reported home address for Connor Anderson, and next of kin. A brother in Boston. News articles, the public details of the DPD missing persons report. Only when the timer flashed 2:00 remaining did it pull away from that tide of information, and even then, it did so reluctantly.

The medical ‘droid considered him with a frown as Gavin pulled away. It had offered nothing more than its serial number, and a silent query when Gavin did not answer in kind. Gavin murmured, “Go back to sleep.” It returned to stasis without protest.

It could’ve taken one of those androids with it. Backed itself up. Repaired all its faults, including the corrupted objective plaguing the corner of its vision. But it didn’t know how to cleanly disable an android’s GPS, and the timer was a steady reminder on the edge of Gavin’s vision. It located the pharmacy on the map the nurse had provided and moved on.

Gavin returned to the staff room with the duffel bag rattling on its shoulder. Connor was waiting in the nook between the door and the lockers, holding a wad of paper towels to his ribs to avoid staining his new clothes.

As Gavin bent to pack away the blood-streaked police uniform folded neatly on the bench, Connor leaned forward, pulling something over the top of Gavin’s head.

Gavin frowned, prying it free to examine it more closely. It was a hat, knit in black yarn and topped with a lime-and-pink pom-pom. The yarn dimmed the red LED down to a few vague pinpricks, shining through the gaps in the uneven knitting.

“Better,” Connor said. Now the only distinct light was the red of the EXIT sign.

The car was still at the curb, waiting patiently beneath an accumulating crust of snow. Gavin herded Connor towards the back seat and climbed in after to kneel on the floor.

“Where to, Marie?” Connor said, dropping his head against the seat. His eyes weren’t tracking Gavin as closely as they had in the dark of the locker room. Hypovolemia. Maybe. Potentially. It had a list of symptoms, now, but no ‘net to cross reference things to.

Gavin shrugged, started digging through the bag for compresses and sutures.

The kid said, “There’s a place upstate. Called Rust. My dad took us there once. The cabin was his friend’s, but it’d be empty. They drain the pond in winter. No icefishing.”

“Rust, Michigan,” Gavin repeated, and the car chimed in agreement, humming into gear. “You know the address?”

The kid shook his head. “Long time ago. It’ll get us that far. I’ll remember. It’s not that big a pond.”

Gavin laid out what the nurse’s protocols had told it it needed. 5-0 suture. Sterile saline. A strong synthetic opioid. Local anesthetic.

Connor watched this process with half-lidded eyes. “What’s all that?”

“Analgesics. Antibiotics.” It paused briefly on the next, which were neatly filed away under PTSD, and STD/STI Preventative. “Anxiolytics. Antivirals.”

He took the small opioid pill Gavin handed over, gestured for the bottle. Squinted at it in the dark. Satisfied, Connor accepted the pill, and a bottle of water.

He shook his head at the small ampule of local anesthetic, and Gavin didn’t argue. It didn’t need to. The opioid - calculated properly for Connor’s height and weight, but perhaps not for his malnourishment and dehydration - carried Connor down as Gavin worked, into slurring words and loosening limbs and finally sleep.

For its first effort at stitching, Gavin felt it did a passable job. A neat line of stitches reduced the open puncture down to a thin line, easily concealed beneath a square of gauze. It pulled the shirt down over the remaining imperfect patchwork of pooling bruises and half-healed lacerations.

That done, Gavin carefully maneuvered Connor’s left hand out to rest across its own, studying the colliding angles of bone and ligament beneath the skin. Two metacarpals broken. The fourth, and the fifth. The brittle ends were still aligned beneath the swollen skin from Gavin’s last attempts to set them.

“They said you were gone,” the kid murmured, but the pulse beneath Gavin’s fingers was still the thready rhythm of a fitful sleep.

It didn’t answer. It listened to the pavement hum beneath them, carrying them somewhere Gavin didn’t know. It almost reached out to the car, to interface, to pin itself down in one time, and one place - but it disregarded the thought. It studied the twice-broken hand in the dark, and began splinting it properly.

 

+++

 

The car sat idling on the curb for fifty-two minutes and thirty-four seconds before Gavin decided to wake him.

It waited on the floor, elbows resting on its knees, watching the time tick by above the corrupted objective lingering in its perception. Barely legible now. Decaying.

The building beyond the car’s windshield was marked down as Rust General Store on the digital map, a bright point of interest in a town lacking any others. The building itself was gray and fading, its roof sagging under the heavy weight of midwinter snow.

At 7:59 am, Gavin rested a hand on Connor’s shoulder. And when that didn’t work, it gave a gentle shake.

The pulse under Gavin’s palm took a stuttering step towards waking. The kid spasmed, slamming his head hard into the car door as his feet lunged out at empty air.

“We’re in Rust,” Gavin said, when the kid sat up enough to curl his hands across his head.

“What—” Connor started. Stopped. Stared at Gavin. Didn’t say anything else, although his mouth twisted into more formless words.

His face was flushed. Surface temperature of 99.7° F, pulse stuttering and tachycardic. Gavin considered the potential meanings there. A fever? Where did that fall on the neat delineations of possibilities? Any number of things. Bacterial infection. Viral infection. Septic shock. Or simply an acute stress response to being woken unexpectedly.

“It’s 7:59 am,” Gavin continued. “Doesn’t look like this place will be opening at 8 like it claims, but it may open soon. We should go. Do you remember where the cabin is?”

When his heartrate had slowed, Connor rose stiffly, cradling his left hand against his chest. He stepped over Gavin, sat down hard in the driver’s seat, and began dragging slowly through the local map with his good hand.

Gavin settled into the passenger’s seat, looking over its own hands, its clothes. It needed a proper washing. There was blood beneath its nails, stiffening the cuffs of its jacket. It had cleaned Connor’s face as best it could, but there was still a rim of dried blood along his jaw, in his hair. A thin line of flaking black, stark against his pale skin.

Connor decided on a point along the curving eastern edge of Fletcher Pond. The car pulled away from the curb with the pop and grind of tire on rock salt.

“What happened?” Connor asked. “To you?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

The kid gave a mirthless laugh. “I’m gonna guess they didn’t pull you aside and say, hey, Gav, I want you to rip out my hitman’s throat.

It considered. It considered the door, and the corrupted commands.

It said: “I didn’t want to listen anymore.”

“How long have you been—” Connor stopped, and swallowed. “Been doing this?”

“Five years.” Seven months. Three days. It left off the extraneous detail. Humans found it annoying.

“And how long was I there?”

“Seventeen days.” Four hours. Thirty-four minutes.

Another laugh escaped the kid, a low, harsh sound. He pulled his arms tight across his chest to smother it.

He didn’t ask anything else.

The car was uncertain how to proceed as it reached a tree marked with Coho Ln, accompanied by several planks of wood with numbers and names listed in no discernible order. 1401 Warrick, and 2309 Carson, and 1207 Collins, the names there and gone on Gavin’s memory. The address plates were cut into a crude approximation of fish. “It’s kind of a joke,” Connor explained. “There aren’t any coho salmon. It’s too shallow.”

Gavin had to guide the car the rest of the way, and the car still struggled over the unpaved road. The only thing keeping the tracks passable was the ice that had filled in the ruts. It pulled the car into a gap in the trees at 1207. A cabin, no more than 200 square feet, the tin roof and sagging walls obscured among the snowdrifts. The only power was a bank of solar panels, abstract geometric shapes buried beneath more ice, more snow.

Gavin forced the front door easily. It was a manual knob, and a shit one at that.

The cabin was dimly lit, the air stale and edged in frost. Connor filed in slowly after Gavin, scattering snow across the linoleum in his wake. He stuttered to a stop in the center of the floor. There was an icicle stalactite reaching down from the ceiling through a hole in the roof of the small porch beyond a picture window. Connor tilted his head back at the plywood ceiling, asked, “What are we doing?”

“We’re in Rust,” Gavin reminded.

He took a breath - the slow drag of rising frustration - and continued: “I don’t… I’m not—” He clenched his fists and said, “I don’t have any food. I don’t have any money. You’re an 8-hour-old android.”

“I was manufactured ten years ago,” Gavin protested, and blinked. It hadn’t been precisely aware of that before it said it. That was 2029. Its linear memory began July 17, 2033.

“Yeah, but you’ve been awake for 8 hours.”

I’ve been awake before.

Another abstract thought, plucked out of some muddy, backwater circuity.

Gavin pulled a folded sheaf of US currency from its jacket pocket. Connor stared. “Where’d you get that?”

“I found it. In some of the lockers.” And some of the wallets, inside the lockers.

“Oh.”

“There were also several protein bars, in an outer pocket of the gym bag.”

“Great,” Connor said, mouth twisting in disgust. He moved into the next room, delineated by a decaying sheet hung on a sagging laundry line. There was a cot for one, pressed against the back wall. Dying springs groaned as Connor sank into it, dropped his head into his hands. “I need to—” He dragged his fingers through his hair. Soft flakes of rusting blood fell to the floor with the motion. “I need to sleep.”

“So, sleep. I’ll figure out—” Gavin looked around at the one-room shack. “This.”

The kid nodded, once. He toed off his shoes and curled onto his side, dragging his knees to his chest, some small protection against the cold.

Gavin searched the crates stacked in the corner of the bedroom. It came up with several quilts, some of them shedding batting in thick white clouds. It shook them clean as best it could, and piled them across Connor, one after another, until the tight comma of his body was completely obscured.

The kid said nothing. His eyes were trained on a small knot in the pine paneling ahead of him. His fingers worried slowly at a fraying knot in the embroidered pillow.

Gavin didn’t know what to say. It didn’t say anything.

The kitchen had expired tea, black, Earl Gray. Small, waxed paper packets of instant oatmeal. A half-empty handle of whiskey. Gavin laid the protein bars out, too. Three of them.

It paced the shack’s interior, next, constructing an understanding of its simple dimensions. There was a small electric water heater. The spigots didn’t respond, in the kitchen or the small, cramped bathroom sink; after tracing every pipe, Gavin located a small valve against the outer wall and opened it. The water flowed sluggish and brown.

It cleared the solar panels outside, baring the black glass to the weak February sun. Enough to power the small countertop range and an electric water heater.

There was firewood by the backdoor, stacked beneath a frayed tarp. If it burned well, Gavin estimated it would keep the small woodstove going for five days. The stove - made of iron and stamped with an optimistic manufacture date of 1822 - rested heavily on a concrete pad in the middle of the cabin floor. Gavin cleared old ashes aside, stacked snow-damp pine and kindled the flames with sulfur matches and a small rodent's nest of shredded cotton fluff it found tucked into a kitchen cabinet. Probably largely comprised of stolen quilt batting.

It hovered by the stove’s cracked door, waiting for the rapid draw of air across the wet pine to build from a crackling into a roar. Then it gently levered the door shut, trapping the cabin in silence again.

Once the air had warmed enough inside, the water began to flow more readily, and eventually ran clear. Gavin washed its hands in the frigid water, until it had freed the dried blood from beneath each of its nails, from the cuffs of its jacket, from the side of its face. A fine mist of arterial splash, faded to a dull red.

All this occupied five hours of its time.

When it stepped quietly past the curtain again, Connor’s breaths had evened, and slowed. His eyes were closed.

The information it had accessed on trauma informed it that sleep was beneficial, and likely to continue.

Gavin lingered in the cabin, for awhile. It prodded at the fire, and tested the water again, and ensured that the water heater was flushed through with clear water before the solar panels began to heat it. There was food to consider; Connor had eaten little, for over two weeks. And expressed a mild disgust for protein bars. (Even if they were advertised as peanut brittle punch, which must be somehow inviting to the human palate.)

Gavin waited for twenty-three minutes. When Connor didn’t wake, it stoked the fire, and left.

The general store was a twenty-minute drive. Morning hours seemed to be loosely applied, but a small sandwich-board leaning by the front door declared Open by the time Gavin arrived at 3:42 pm.

The shopkeeper was a woman in her late 50s, slouching on a stool and swiping slowly through a digital magazine. No android, but Gavin found that unsurprising, given the thin profit margin on a seasonal store dealing substantially in - it paused to consider - miniature Michigan license plates with an ambitious variety of initials.

Gavin didn’t know what food Connor would like. It hadn’t thought to download culinary instructions and Connor Anderson’s purchase history alongside Clinical Interventions for Acute Stress Disorder.

It tried to select food from a variety of categories. Hot and cold. Rich in fat, or carbohydrates, or both. Traditional breakfast. Traditional lunch. Traditional dinner. Soups seemed to fit into either of the latter categories, while bacon proved challenging. There was bacon, and Canadian bacon, which was an entirely different shape and cut of pork. It selected one of each.

The shopkeeper smiled as she filed each of these things away into a paper bag, and Gavin realized she was smiling at its hat’s poor craftsmanship. She asked, “Your kid make that?”

Gavin tilted its head aside, letting the pom-pom tumble, and considered a lie. But by then her attention had dropped to the scars on its face, the blue-edged tell of artificial skin. She smiled again, more hesitantly, and said nothing more as she handed it its change. $11.43.

There was a quarter at the top of the pile. Gavin paused to separate it from the rest, tucking the coin away in its front pocket.

It asked the shopkeeper her name. She answered, and Gavin repeated it back, thanked her.

The name was gone, somewhere between the shop door and the car.

It returned to the cabin at 4:27 pm. The path to the front door was undisturbed, save for their original tracks. But when Gavin entered, the woodstove’s heat was guttering against a draft of frigid air. The back door stood open, a windblown scatter of snow already encroaching across the floorboards.

The pile of blankets on the cot was peeled open and empty. That took only a millisecond for Gavin to process. But it took the GV longer to scan over the white expanse beyond the picture window, and pluck the small, huddled shape out of the growing dusk.

Connor was crouched in the snow by a crooked metal dock, the drifts rising up to his thighs, bare hands curled loosely in his lap. He blinked up at Gavin, shuddering with the cold. “Oh,” he said, dully. “Oh, I didn’t— I thought— you’d gone.”

The words were difficult to discern through the chattering of his teeth. His face was red, going darker with the initial stages of frostbite at the edges of his ears, across the bridge of his nose.

Gavin held its hands out slowly, telegraphing the movement long before it touched, a hand at each shoulder. “I did. But I came back. We should go inside.”

It wasn’t certain Connor had heard, until Connor dipped his head in a small nod and rose on shaking legs. He allowed himself to be led to the stove and lowered down to the couch there. Gavin removed his shoes. It stoked the fire up high again, high enough to evaporate the snowmelt gathering around Connor’s socked feet.

They didn’t speak. Gavin filed the purchases slowly away, some into the cupboards, some into a small insulated chest that it packed tightly with snow. After an hour and fourteen minutes, Connor stood up, retreated back into the blanket-cocoon of the cot, and slept.

In his absence, Gavin removed the quarter from its pocket. It studied the weight and shape of it, dragged a thumbnail across the dulled ridges of its edge. It waited for some old algorithm to stutter into life, but nothing did.

It attempted to maneuver it slowly, knuckle to knuckle, end over end. The clumsy motions didn’t prove satisfying, for reasons it couldn’t define.

After its third time fumbling the quarter to the floor, it jammed the coin back into its pocket, and waited.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Connor woke tasting blood. He wasn’t sure if it was new or old.

He was hot, and the blankets were heavy, but he dragged them with him as he slithered to the floor. Gray light filtered over the linoleum. Dusk, or dawn. He didn't know for sure. There was no sense of time blundering around in the fog banks drifting through his head.

He pulled the blankets up higher. His scalp itched with healing cuts and the catch and pull of dried blood. He needed a shower. He needed to get up.

He stayed on the floor, pulling socked feet in under the cover of the quilts.

He waited to see if it would get brighter, or darker.

It got brighter, so. Dawn. Little beams of light started poking through the holes in the horrible paisley sheet Ben Collins had strung up as a divider sometime in, what, the ‘10s? At least 18 years ago. He was surprised there was anything left of it. When they’d been here last, Nines had wiggled a pudgy 6-year-old’s finger through the largest holes, his eyes widening in wonder when Dad said moths ate fabric. They eat it? he’d asked. And, more hesitantly: Is it good?

Try it, maybe they’re onto something, Dad had answered.

The GV unit ducked through the curtain. He still had that stupid knit hat on, the loose pom-pom dangling at an awkward angle from the peak of his head. Connor almost said, You don’t have to wear that here, but he didn’t. He liked the incessant red of the LED muffled.

“You’ve been asleep for 14 hours,” the GV - Gavin - said.

It stood over him, and panic curled in his stomach, sharp and acidic. He tried to hold on to the image of Nines, prying the curtain wide so he could get an eyeball up to the little cloth moth-tunnels. He could let himself think about Nines, here.

The GV waited. “I’m tired,” Connor answered, eventually.

Gavin nodded, like this was a perfectly understandable problem, after 14 hours of sleep. “You should eat,” he said with perfunctory android self-assurance. But when he added, “I can make breakfast,” it came out as more of a lilting question.

Connor tried to remember if GV200s came with any culinary protocols. It seemed… unlikely.

“Knock yourself out,” he mumbled into a ragged corner of quilt.

The looming shadow moved away from him.

He drifted, for awhile.

Somewhere in the fog, he was still shuffling his house keys around in his palm by the dim porch light, finally getting the right one - the middle one, but not the middle middle one - trapped between forefinger and thumb, and he slid it into the deadbolt.

Hands shoved at his shoulders, crushing him against the frosted windowpane, cold gunmetal pressing against the back of his neck. They pulled the service pistol off his belt, reached past him to turn the key in the lock. A voice said, Quiet now, boy.

Connor blinked back into murky gray dawn, and he realized he’d trapped a lance of pain under the clumsy, prying fingers of his splinted left hand. He shrugged the blankets off, pulling his hand away from the puncture wound. The palm came away bloody, even through the flannel and the gauze. Disappointing. He didn’t have any other clothes.

He shed all but one blanket and shuffled into the narrow bathroom to piss and try to scrub the new blood off the fabric of the splint. There was a seventeen-days-older thing in the mirror, a bruised, pale thing with blood crusted in its hair.

Quiet now, boy.

Gavin muttered something under his breath in the kitchen. There were popping sounds, the scrape of plastic on metal.

Connor pulled the blanket back up over his head and stepped into the main room, feeling like he was eight years old again, scuffing thick wool socks across the cracked linoleum. Hank was going to wrap him up in a hug, blanket and all, smelling like woodsmoke and coffee and - if it was Saturday - maybe a splash of whiskey, and say, I thought I left a kid under there.

He turned the corner to a disaster in progress.

There was egg - what was left of an egg - spattered in a nearly homogeneous spray across the counter, the cabinets, and the front of the GV’s clothes. While that egg seemed to have been a total loss, two more had made it into the pan mostly intact. One with the yolk already pierced and leaking, but the other a pristine sunny side-up.

Gavin prodded at the eggs with a spatula. They refused to budge. When they did lift, they tore, leaving a streak of stuck protein that was quickly overwhelmed by a fresh spill of uncooked egg white.

The GV muttered again. Connor couldn’t make it out. It sounded like Russian.

“I don’t mind them scrambled,” he offered, watching the exposed yolk already beginning to sear. Gavin looked up at him blankly. Connor mimed a stirring motion. “Scrambled. Like, mashed up.”

The GV nodded, and the end result came pretty close to properly scrambled eggs. About 30% remained stuck to the pan, which Gavin hadn’t oiled at all. That worked out for the better. The layer of burnt egg snared some of the small bits of shell that had scattered over every available surface.

Connor chewed carefully as he watched Gavin puzzle over the bacon. That package came with instructions, so the process went a bit more smoothly. He laid out three slices - a little floppy, a little greasy, but cooked. Technically.

He tried to eat what was offered. Got through most of the eggs and two of the slices of bacon. None of it tasted like much. He retreated to the couch with the last of the bacon, picking the greasy strip apart. It was awkward work. He couldn’t do much more with his left hand other than trap the bacon against his palm with his thumb.

“Why do you do that?” the GV asked. It was running a washcloth down its shirt, looking suitably annoyed with the stubborn streaks of egg.

Connor glanced up at him, and down to the small particles of bacon growing on the blanket across his lap. “I don’t know.” Which was a lie. He got the last of the bacon down into crumbs, and stared at them. Added, “I used to slip pieces to my dad’s dog, under the table.”

The GV didn’t ask if he was going to eat them. He’d seen Connor do this before.

He held out the washcloth and Connor sheepishly deposited the bits, there. He turned over his right hand in the daylight. There was dried blood on every knuckle, and the thumb still felt a little weird, a little numb. It got dislocated. He’d tried to slip the cuffs.

Little things, slipping through, in-- what was that phrase? In drips and drabs.

“I should take a shower,” Connor said to the dustmotes drifting through the morning light.

“Ok.”

“I’m gonna take a shower,” he said.

The GV unit stared at him, and repeated, “Ok.”

 

 

He meant to take the clothes off. That would’ve made sense. He meant to peel the gauze back and get a better look at what Gavin had done with the stab wound on his side. (Hopefully a better med-bot than a cook.) But he found himself sitting on the shower floor, instead, the wet flannel weighing heavily on his shoulders.

He crossed his legs and stared at the door through the obscuring film of the curtain, sharp angles of shadow, the planed wood beading and slipping in runnels to the floor. He wrapped his arms around his knees, locking his hand around his bruised wrist as the water ran hot, then tepid, then frigid cold, the burn between his ribs pulsing in time with his heartbeat.

He’d been in the cold yesterday, hadn’t he? In the snow. It felt good against his hands. The bloodied knuckles felt like they were kindled fire and hot glass, sometimes, bundled tightly together.

Connor went blank.

 

 

“This isn't what I had in mind, kid,” his dad’s GV was saying. No. Not the same. This one had new scars. Wicked, curving things, across the bridge of his nose, and down the edge of his face. The streak of blue-edged bone on his nose twisted sometimes when he smiled, but he didn’t smile much.

The burn of the cold faded as the drumming in Connor’s ears was cut short. Connor gasped, and shivered. The GV attempted to smother him under a towel that smelled like damp and must.

Connor tried to say 'Sorry,' but he wasn’t sure he said anything at all.

“You don’t have any other clothes,” the GV said.

He tried again, and got maybe a syllable and a half out: “Sorry.”

So he ended up wrapped up in every single blanket and a wet pair of somebody else’s boxers, sitting on the sofa, watching his clothes drip on the woodstove. Hissing, spitting.

Gavin was watching him in turn. Distrustful. Puzzled.

The stitches were alright, but the gauze was soaked. Gavin replaced it and lined up pills for Connor to swallow. This one for pain. This one for bacteria. This one for viruses.

The stitches still pulled with every breath, but Connor felt a little better once the shaking stopped. Like he’d turned the volume down on some of the white noise in his head. He held his splinted hand out to the stove, curious to see if he could get steam to rise off of it.

He buried a cough in his elbow, and even though he pressed a palm hard into the bandage on his side as he did, that hurt. That hurt a lot. He tried very hard not to cough again.

Gavin stopped studying him long enough to prod at a cribbage board set up on the coffee table. Clearly not the first time he’d done this, as he’d cleared the dust from every nook of the board and arranged the mismatched pegs, all in a line. The android moved one, now, one hole at a time, making a slow, precise circuit of the board. GV200s liked to fiddle with things. His dad’s had, anyway. They were supposed to be the start on investigative ‘droids, so CyberLife had built some curiosity into them.

They used to ask each other things, back and forth, him and the GV. He’d sit in the back of his dad’s car and toss a question over the scuffed faux leather seats, and Gavin - that Gavin - would answer and parry.

Can you analyze DNA?

No. I just store samples for later. I’ve got database access for fingerprints and facial scans, in the field. The GV looked at Hank, tilted its head, smirked. Why does Hank enjoy listening to this music?

‘cause it’s the only thing louder than him, Connor said, and Dad slapped a palm on the steering wheel and said, Christ, between the two of you--

He reached his hand out for the peg before Gavin could place it again. Winced as the quick motion sank teeth into the space between his ribs. The android looked at him, questioning, but let the peg drop into his palm.

“You know how to play?” Connor asked.

Gavin shook his head.

“We need a deck of cards.”

The android wandered around the room for awhile, and eventually came up with a ragged red Bicycle deck from the back corner of a kitchen drawer. Connor shuffled clumsily through it, looking for the jokers, but they’d been lost to time.

He laid out the rules, as best he remembered them: the crib, and the cut, and the play, all the various combinations of face and rank and flush and run that could push each peg that much closer to the final winning position. Connor crudely mimed how to shuffle the deck, which Gavin mimicked and improved upon. Gavin shuffled, Connor cut, Gavin dealt, and Gavin proceeded to lap him on the board within three rounds, and beat him in five.

He tried to amend the rules for the second game - dredging up some of the old "house rules" Nines had carefully crafted for Connor’s downfall - but Gavin refused. Connor won the second game nonetheless, with a bit of luck. He pulled two jacks on the turn-ups, and he was able to play the fourth six in a single round. Double pair royal, twelve points.

“You’re not counting right,” Connor accused on the third game.

“I can count,” Gavin answered. “I’m very good at counting.”

“You’re glitching. Maybe your math's going."

The GV paused in its motion, peg hovering. “I’m not glitching.”

“You disobeyed your orders. Didn’t you?”

The peg dropped into place, and Gavin looked up at him, his expression guarded. “I disregarded some orders. Prioritized others.”

Connor watched the android. Thought, Five years. Thought, Seventeen days. Watched the restless red swing of his LED through the knitting.

Gavin returned to his count, which was dead accurate, and left Connor in the dust.

 

 

Gavin beat Connor two more times before Connor admitted defeat and crawled back into his dry clothes. He tried to escape to the quiet beyond the paisley curtain, but Gavin steered him to a kitchen stool and planted tomato soup in front of him, still in the pot it’d been warmed in. Anything with instructions on the packaging, turned out, was achievable for a GV200.

Connor managed a third of it, and accepted another pain pill. He came to regret it as soon as he made it back to the cot, and the blankets. The drug made his limbs feel heavy, dragging his body down into sleep while his mind lingered, running old, tired paths: slipping the key into the lock. Hands on his shoulders. Quiet now, boy.

When he did sleep, he dreamed about the first night, and the last.

Shaking hands fumbling with the buttons of his uniform, the one they were going to bury him in. It was in pieces by the time the balding man with a gun shining black at his hip knelt down, said, You’re tired. I can help you rest.

He cupped a hand against Connor’s face and said, Don’t you want to rest?

Connor braced against the slow drag of the knife handle, sliding from one bruised and aching rib to the next. Waiting for the gentle press and the click.

He jerked. The grit of dirt between his teeth and then blood, not his, spilling over his tongue, up his nose, hot and choking. The scarred GV twisted its fingers tighter into Connor’s hair and the metallic burn of the blue blood spilled over, into his eyes, into his lungs.

He woke gasping for air. Someone was on top of him. He shouted, something wordless and breathless and feral, and struck out with clumsy, sleep-weakened hands, trying to drag fingernails down its face, into its eyes, but he caught rough fabric instead, and pulled. The knit cap came free and red light spilled from the GV’s head as it leaned close, a mess of artificial hair sticking out at a hundred angles. It said, “Connor. Hold still.”

Connor gasped. Choked. Couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.

Cool hands on his wrists, snaring him.

“Your lung is collapsing,” it said. “I’ll fix it, but you need to calm down.”

Connor tried. He did. But red light dripped down the metal shine of a syringe and Connor pressed himself back, kicking at the cot, trying to crawl away.

“D-n’t—” he tried to say, but he had to stop, pull together enough of the burning in his chest to say in a rush, “Make me sleep, don’t—” He had dreams, sometimes, bad dreams, of waking with someone pressing down on him, heavy, and saying quiet now, boy, quiet.

“Kid,” the GV said. Firm. “Look.” Gavin turned the syringe aside. Empty plastic barrel. No plunger.

He held Connor’s right arm up, the wrist gently wrapped up in the circle of forefinger and thumb. “Hold still,” it said again. Gavin thought for a moment, and a burst of gold chased across its LED, there and gone. “Count. Count pegs. You just laid the fourth six.” Connor watched it - him - chest rigid, mind empty. The android pushed his shirt up, the cold edge of rough knuckles on his burning ribs. “Double pair royal. Twelve points. Right?”

“Twelve,” Connor gasped, and squeezed his eyes shut against the sparks gathering on the edge of his vision. “Eleven.” Trying to picture the peg, moving through the holes. One. Two. Too hard an inhale and the gentle pressure on his wrist squeezed, released. Reminding. “Ten—”

Not much more than mouthing, then, between hitching half-breaths. Nine. Eight.

A flash fire of pain and the pressure in his chest eased.

By “Five,” he could shape the words again.

By “One”, his breath could slow, the pressure was gone. Gavin drew the needle free. In the slackening hold of his panic, Connor tried not to think about the gauge of the needle.

Silence dragged between them in slow, rattling breaths, and Connor tried to climb past the red haze of panic. Counted. Counted again.

When he could finally piece together a sentence that wasn’t a neurotic string of numbers, he spoke in slow, trembling syllables: “You download an entire medical degree, but you can’t cook an egg.”

“I downloaded relevant procedures. Pneumothorax is a potential complication of chest wounds with a compromised thoracic cavity.” The android sounded encyclopedic, which meant it was offended.

He had something smart lined up to say. Next time we’re at an internet cafe, download some Iron Chef, was what came to mind. But he opened his mouth and his throat slammed shut, so he closed his mouth again and counted, silently, as he pulled his shirt back down. He could feel the stitches seeping again, and there wasn’t enough opioid left to dull the fresh pain from all his writhing around. He was soaked through with a cold sweat. There was no fucking way he was going back to sleep.

He dragged the blankets with him as he swung around Gavin and off the bed, stumbling on wooden legs before he could properly calibrate his feet with the too-far-away floor.

He paused on the threshold to run his fingers over the unintended lace of the curtain.

Did he thank him, before? Ever?

Five years. Seventeen days.

He said it then. Breathed it out, low and barely audible: “Thanks.”

The android heard anyway. “You’re welcome.”

Connor pinched his eyes shut. Tried to find the sane corner of his brain, and forced out: “You’re a terrible cook.”

Gavin answered quick and easy: “You’re terrible at cribbage.”

Out in the main room, the wood stove door was cracked, leaving a sharp line of red-orange across the linoleum.

“The shuffling,” Connor muttered as he moved towards the couch. He flicked on a small lantern, throwing an odd forest of shadows over the pegboard. “That’s how you do it. I let you do all the shuffling.”

He picked up the deck in trembling hands, but they exploded across the table on his first clumsy attempt to bend them into a proper bridge.

“I don’t cheat,” Gavin answered as he knelt to gather up the scattered cards. “I’m just better than you.

“My dad was right,” Connor said. He smiled shakily, trying to smother the panic still dragging quick, ticking fingers down his throat. "You're an asshole."

The android smirked. Connor breathed. Just enough. When Gavin laid the shuffled deck back down, he reached forward to make the first cut.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Take the money, I said. I am calm.
You will also, sir, please, remain calm, I said. We have no enmity between us of which I am aware. Let us regard this as a simple business transaction. I will hand you my wallet, just so, and then, with your permission, be on my—
No, no, no.
No no no.
Entirely the wrong & illogical thing for you to—

Low stars, blurred rooftops.

& I am punc tured.

mr. maxwell boise

--George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

 

Gavin began to realize it existed as two entities.

The first, the it, organized the world into observations and rules.

Observation: Connor reacted negatively when Gavin stood in his way.
Rule: leave exits available.

Observation: Connor would do what he was told, take what he was given. He followed most orders without question, even here.
Rule: offer options.

The second, the him, kept fumbling a quarter across cracked knuckles in the quiet moments between the human’s waking and sleeping. Left hand, right hand. Left hand again. Always ending with the soft tak of the quarter hitting his palm, if Gavin was fast enough, or the linoleum if he was not.

The kid didn’t wake as Gavin dropped the coin for the third time. 3:02 am, moonlight beyond the picture window blurred behind encroaching clouds. Connor was sleeping on the couch, feet pulled up from the chill of the floor. He wouldn’t return to the cot, and Gavin hadn’t tried to suggest it.

Even as he slept, Connor looked to be rejecting it; small, fitful shifts of posture as his good hand clenched at the blanket across his knees.

The it knew that when Connor had still been in the nightmare, drowning with each breath, he’d seen an android. Waiting, listening, and doing nothing. The it knew that Connor sometimes saw the android - the it, not the him - even in waking. A pause in a game of cards, a lingering stare across the cracked formica of the kitchen counter.

Begging on ragged, strained exhales: Don’t make me sleep. Don’t.

The him had thought of the cards in that moment, that moment of being seen as a machine. The him said, Count, count the pegs, and brought Connor’s gaze back. Back to him. Back to Gavin. And that had been good.

The him brought out the coin, again and again and again, and dealt out faces across a perfect and imperfect memory: one, and two, and three. Five years. Forty-two people that it had been told to protect, and yet not. Waiting, and listening, until they were taken out of its charge. None of them came back.

The him raged against all the things it didn’t have. All the things it knew it’d had, once.

Forty-two charges. Of those, the only name it had was Connor’s.

Gavin picked up the deck of cards. Sorted them by suit, ascending. It shuffled once and began to lay them out, one by one.

The nine of diamonds. A woman, black hair, narrow face. She said she was promised someplace else, someplace away. Away from Detroit, and the family that didn’t love her, and the husband that struck her. She said it was a mistake. Many of them said this.

The six of clubs. A man. Young. A fighter, but not a good one. He was told he’d receive a better job if he won. He didn’t.

The jack of clubs.

(The fuck are you doing? Back up.)

Gavin blinked.

It didn’t have a face for that voice.

It turned another card. Five of spades.

(Back off, you piece of shit. Stand over there, I told you—)

No face and no place on the linear timeline of Gavin’s memory. A further search only brought up another misfiled audio clip. The loud clatter of metal-on-metal and a new voice, masculine, crowing: Fuck yeah, you plastic prick! Hit him again!

Gavin flexed its knuckles, wet with blood.

Blinked again, at the white shine of its chassis through the faults in its skin. Its hands were clean. It folded the cards back into the stack and placed them down on the table.

The fading, corrupted objective of << don’t intervene >> on the edge of its awareness had shifted, grown longer.

<< $e%! !l78tf@#$% 82d#%!o& >>

Another lingering voice, this one feminine: What do you mean by ‘myself’, Gavin?

The him insisted on this incessant digging, bringing nothing but a grinding rigidity to the fine motor servos in its hands. There was an accompanying aberration in the rhythm of its regulator, one that it was coming to identify as frustration.

Connor shifted more fitfully in his sleep. Gavin watched, assessing heart rate, temperature, and respiration. As the opioid’s strength ebbed his breathing grew faster, more shallow.

The it was carefully constructing a scale of stress. Across the course of the past two days, Connor had been resting somewhere between 15% and 70% at any given time.  

Connor jerked awake with a sharp intake of breath, kicked a heel across the frayed upholstery. He skated wide eyes across the room - crooked plywood walls, the shadowed bulk of the woodstove, and Gavin - and his respiration did not slow.

65%, Gavin decided.

Connor slid to the floor in a tangle of blankets and wrapped his arms around his knees.

Gavin amended: 75%.

Connor, Gavin had decided, existed in three states.

There was a Connor before, one that Gavin did not know, although it suspected there were glimpses of him, here and there - a jesting comment forced through clenched teeth, feigned petulance over a game of cribbage.

There was a Connor during, one that had fought and cursed and rejected that place, those people, until he had grown too tired to do so. Gavin had seen that Connor only in fleeting moments since. Nails dragging on its face, lashing out in a nightmare fugue.

And now, here, an after. Quiet, withdrawn, and afraid.

After some consideration, Gavin stood. Connor spasmed at the movement, tightened his grip on his wrist, and dropped his forehead against his knees.

Observation, not for the first time: Connor became stressed when Gavin stood over him.

Gavin settled to the floor, crossing its legs in a loose mirror of Connor’s posture. It waited. After a time, it removed the quarter from its pocket, and began its clumsy efforts again.

After the fourth fumbling catch, Gavin glanced up to see the kid watching it  him.

Connor held out his good hand. Gavin dropped the quarter there. His fingers were trembling, but he held each shallow breath a few seconds longer as he began to drop the quarter into the gaps between his fingers, rolling it end-over-end. 55%, Gavin decided, and declining.

After a fourth circumnavigation of the coin around his hand, Connor trapped the quarter between thumb and forefinger and offered it back. Gavin accepted the coin and began to mimic the motions. It was slow work, but more successful than its independent attempts. Gavin did not drop the quarter and was able to replicate the small trick more rapidly as it transitioned to its left hand.

The kid held out his hand again, and Gavin passed the coin back. This time, he was steady enough to balance the quarter on his index finger and flip it into the air with his thumb. This trick, Gavin picked up quite easily.

The corrupted objective on its otherwise barren HUD flickered. A new line of text appeared above it, nonsense code trailed by a percentage.

// c$l%&@^%i$#: 19% //

Gavin watched with interest as, on every seventh flip of the coin, the percentage ticked upwards. 20%. 21%. But it stalled at 25%, and lingered there.

The kid sniffed. His breathing had slowed, but remained short and rasping. Consciously or not, he was pressing an arm tight against his ribs to ease his breathing.

"You can have another pain pill," Gavin said. Offered. If it gave him the pill, Connor would take it. A pliancy that Gavin did not like. It reminded Gavin of the rooms; reminded it of an arm offered obediently, for handcuffs, for sedative. And sometimes the sedative did not last, awareness dripping slowly back before the clients were done, and those were the times when Connor begged, slurred and hollow: please don’t.

Gavin was beginning to understand that this Connor, the after didn't remember all of that. The nightmares seemed to pool on the human’s skin, memories shed in sweat and forgotten words, but no recognition in waking. Dissociation was as common a response to trauma as the nightmares themselves.

“I'm okay,” Connor said at last, and let his arm go slack. He dragged himself back onto the couch and reached for the deck of cards, plucking one half up and moving it aside. A cut. Invitation to a fresh round.

Gavin tucked the quarter away and rose back to its feet. Connor did not flinch, this time. He settled back onto the couch as Gavin brought the deck back together and began to deal.

 

+++

 

They played until well after daybreak, chasing pegs around the board. Silence dealt out one card at a time, jack and spade and queen, until Connor woke to Gavin prying the cards out of his slackening hands.

He muttered something about “Cheating," as he straightened up from his half-sprawl on the couch.

“You can sleep,” Gavin noted.  

Connor ignored the suggestion and rose to his feet. The opioid was long gone, leaving him wound up tight. Bundled wires strung up on a brittle skeleton.

(Someone had said, He’s a real live wire.)

He flexed scabbed knuckles, willing the acidic burn at the back of his throat away. His arm was back around his ribs, again, bearing down as he tried to slip each shallow breath past that grating, searing pain.

Gavin was sorting the cards by suit. He did that between rounds, sometimes. He’d sort them by suit and shuffle. Sort by rank and shuffle. Then deal them out, studying the order like he was memorizing it. The android’s hands were bare in some places, white plastisteel and blue scarring peeking through the nanofluid skin of his knuckles. Old fight wounds, incompletely mended. Connor thought about stretching his own out alongside, lining up the damage. He wanted to ask if the scars were from the fights.

He didn’t.

The fights were an abstract concept, something on the edge of the map. Just the taste of sweat and dirt and metal, sketched in vague lines. Here there be monsters.

Connor collected his jacket off the hook by the door and pulled it on. Gavin watched him warily. Folded the cards back into the deck, set them down.

Half of Connor got stuck on the juvenile thrill of just opening the door and leaving his babysitter behind, unexplained.

But the other half thought, Five years. Seventeen days.

He owed the android everything. Least of all to tamp down the bitter, scared thing in the back of his mind.

He said, “There’s a shed out back. Might have some other stuff. Other games.”

Then he went, moving slow through the knee-high snow. The heat from the fire carried him along the fifteen feet down to the shore, before the chill off the pond peeled the last of the warmth away. The low clouds were breaking apart, sifting down in that light, ice-flake powder snow that Connor associated with precisely this kind of sharp-edged cold.

There were eagles sometimes, in the summer. Skating the water, dipping their feathers in flecks of sunshine. Back when they left the pond full in winter, Ben had said they’d lay the perch out on the ice, watch the eagles come in to snatch them up.

Gavin hovered at his elbow, following Connor’s stare. He said, “Can I ask a personal question?”

Connor turned his head. Gavin was watching him, expectant.

He was less expressive than a lot of androids. The ones that came off the line with a customer service smile, coded to laugh or frown or maybe even cry when it was calculated to be appropriate. Not Gavin. No reaction out of Gavin felt predetermined, like a checked box at the end of a careful list of triggers.

It’s what had fascinated him in the first place. Back when Dad had jerked a thumb the GV’s way and said, You believe this shit? Nothing like the PC or PM models, eyes perpetually trained on the middle distance as they awaited input. Even standing there at the edge of Hank’s desk, the GV200 looked impatient.

Connor asked, How do you like policework so far?

The GV said, It’s slower than I expected.

It startled a laugh out of him and a groan out of Hank.

Gavin was still waiting. And, yeah - looking a little impatient. Connor shrugged, said, “Shoot.”

“What are you thinking about right now?”

Connor blinked. It wasn’t the question he was expecting. So he considered - rolled back to when the android had actually asked - and said, “Birds. Why?”

“Your stress levels lowered noticeably.”

“Huh.” As he turned away from the empty plain of snow and started breaking a trail towards the shed, he said, “Can I ask a personal question?”

“Shoot,” the android parroted back.

“What are you looking for, when you sort the cards like that?”

“I want to see if I can predict the order,” Gavin explained. “On the first, second, or third shuffle. To see at which point the original pattern becomes indiscernible.”

The small, squat shed was nearly up to its windows with snow. Connor had to kick a clearing free to find the door latch and the padlock securing it. Locked. Honestly, kind of surprising for Ben.

“You figured it out yet?” Connor asked.

“Second, so far. But I suspect I’ll be able to improve as my shuffling becomes more precise.”

Connor punted around in the snow, wiggling his toe carefully along the right edge of the shed. “There’s some statistic about your odds of being dealt the same hand of cards in your life. In poker, or whatever.”

“I’m not familiar with poker, but the odds of the deck being arranged in the same order - assuming a completely random shuffle - are 1 in 10 to the 68th power.”

“Huh.”

Connor’s toe struck metal. He knelt down, digging through the strata of snow until his fingers hit something smooth. He pulled it free. A hideaway box, iron pressed into the shape of a turtle. After warming it for a second in his hands, the ice crusted on the hinge melted enough for him to slide the shell open. The key was still nestled in the small cavity inside, if a little rusty.

Connor popped the padlock and swung the hasp free. Gavin had to help him yank the door the rest of the way open, digging a gouge in the ice and snow.

“So which one are you trying to do?” Connor asked as he stepped through. There was enough room on the crowded wooden floor for his sneakers, and not much else.

This was an old ice fishing shack that had been dragged back in one year and never taken out again. There was still a hatch in the middle of the floor, for dangling a jigging line through.

Connor glanced back towards Gavin, finishing the thought: “Shuffle it until you can’t see the original order anymore? Or shuffle it until the original order comes back?”

Gavin didn’t answer immediately. His LED was chasing itself in a wide red circle.

Then he said, “I think both.”

There was something going on with that, something Connor could only see the edges of. But he had never talked to a sentient android before. Let alone tried to contemplate a two-day-old’s psychology.

“Well, hey,” he answered. “Let me know how it goes.”

The GV frowned.

He started shifting aside paddles for kayaks that didn’t exist anymore, ripped PFDs, loose tangles of fishing line. There were even some old ice-fishing traps in here, folded pieces of wood with shining metal wingnuts to pin them together, their wire flags tucked carefully down.

There was an old pair of wading boots, which Connor slipped on over his shoes. Wouldn’t keep his feet warm, but they were better than sneakers in three feet of snow.

He freed a plastic box labeled Ain’t Mine from halfway through a stack. It had exactly what Connor was looking for. A tightly-packed jumble of clothes - loose socks, orphaned gloves, sweatpants, t-shirts, and sweaters.

That box got shoved into Gavin’s arms. Connor kept digging.

He pried the lid off a box labeled Other Crap. (Honestly, he didn’t know why Ben bothered labeling them at all.) Old cables, weird knick-knacks - a miniature duck decoy; a flashlight shaped like a largemouth bass. But underneath the crap, there were actually a couple of books. Old paperbacks, most of the spines scarred with use. Connor pulled them aside.

There was a set of poker chips, as well, trimmed in red or blue. Connor pried two of them free and pocketed them, but left the rest. Gavin was brutal enough with cribbage, there was no need to introduce gambling into the mix. Other than that, all he found was some dice and an additional deck of cards. Gavin could keep that one to himself, for his experiment in universal probability.

Gavin’s face took a turn towards what Connor would put down as relieved when he gave up and locked the shed. Connor’s hands were aching with the cold and the frostnip he’d gotten across the bridge of his nose was starting to burn again.

“How are my stress levels now?” Connor asked as he broke a new trail back to the door.

He was thinking about the night before. The panic, that heavy, suffocating drag on every breath as he pried at Gavin's face with sleep-numb fingers. Even after he’d realized it was Gavin, he hadn’t— he hadn’t been able to see him. Gavin had sounded calm, but he hadn’t thought about the android’s ability to read basic human physiology.

Fuck. Did he notice all of Connor’s little moments?

“Rising,” Gavin said from behind. So that was a probable yes. He said, “Should I throw you in a snowdrift? You seem to find the cold calming.”

“Next time I’m freaking out on you in the middle of the night, go for it.”

He paused on the porch. The ice stalactite was still hanging there, stretching gamely towards the floor. He added: “I’m sorry. Last night, if it sounded like—” He glanced at the android - looking ridiculous in that pom-pom hat - and focused on tapping the snow off his boots. “I’m not— I’m not afraid of you. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“I know.”

Connor reached out abruptly, snagging the hat off Gavin’s head. “You don’t have to wear that here.”

“I don’t know that it helps much anywhere,” Gavin replied.

Connor glanced at the scar on the bridge of his nose, white plastisteel edged in blue. “Yeah, you’ve got a point.”

He tipped the boots up on the porch to drain and toed off his sneakers on the linoleum inside. Set the books down on the couch.

The Ain’t Mine box was a treasure trove. Some mismatched gloves; one large enough to fit over his splint. A scarf. A sweatshirt that was two sizes too big for him, but it was better than some gynecologist’s stolen clothes. A DPD ballcap, which he tossed Gavin’s way. The android took it, considered it, but didn’t put it on. He hung it on a hook by the door.

Connor piled up most of an outfit, smelling like stale pine and ancient campfires, and moved towards the bathroom.

“Gonna take a shower.”

“I’m setting a timer,” Gavin warned.

“Go for it.”

He got it in the right order that time. Stripped down, then showered. Tried to keep the gauze on his side and the splint mostly dry as he scrubbed a cracked bar of soap across the accrued evidence of all the things he didn’t need to remember.

Bruises laid out in a map of old and new, yellows and blacks and bright red pinpoints of petechiae. Blooming, fading afterimages of fists and fingertips. On his ribs, on his arms. On his hips.

Those were the ones he could see.

He closed his eyes against the things he couldn’t.

He shut the water off before it could run frigid or Gavin got a mind to bust the door down. Toweled off and buried his damp skin in cotton. Sweatpants, a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with Michigan State Police Training Academy. His wet hair clung to the back of his neck, and he needed a shave. For now the stubble did a fair job hiding the bruises along his jaw, where a man had curled his fingers and insisted:

You’re tired.

I can help you rest.

He stepped into the main room. To his credit, Gavin was feigning disinterest by the coffee table, attention fully on perfecting Connor’s 3 am demonstration of a coin roll. Catching Connor’s eye, he sent the coin into the air with one quick flick, caught it between index and thumb, and tucked it back into his pocket. Showoff.

“Here, this might be easier,” Connor said, and freed the poker chips from the jeans as he set his old clothes down on the couch.

He flicked one chip - blue - Gavin’s way, and let the red chip fall against the heel of his own palm. After a few practice bounces to figure out the weight and size, Connor was able to get the chip to pop up four, five inches with just a flex of his palm.

Gavin mimicked the motion expertly. “You said it was a quarter.”

Did he?

“The GV used a quarter. I had to use an old silver dollar. It was easier. This is about the same size.” He tried the coin roll again and his fingers fell into the old rhythm fairly easily. But his first attempt at the hand-to-hand toss failed miserably. The chip bounced off the damp splint and fell to the floor.

As he bent to retrieve it, he glanced up to see Gavin already mimicking the tossing motion. A much faster acquisition than the coin roll. Come to think of it, Connor couldn’t remember the GV200 rolling a coin end-over-end. He might have looked that one up himself.

Gavin made to catch the chip between index and middle finger, and missed. The chip hit the floor and rolled.

The android frowned and reached into his pocket for the quarter. He repeated the motion. Slow, testing tosses at first, but rapidly accelerating.

This time, the quarter came to a halt poised on its edge, trapped between index and middle finger.

Connor glanced up. The android looked… surprised. Curious.

“Ring any bells?”

“Something like that,” Gavin murmured. He repeated the exercise. Missed the second catch and had to fish the quarter out from beneath the stack of firewood. But by the third try, he caught the coin again, pinched flat. He started back in again on the hand-to-hand toss, clearly unsatisfied.

The LED, Connor noted, was gold.

He didn’t say anything. Just settled back into the couch's sagging cushions and reached for the pile of books. Two John Grisham novels, an old, tattered James Patterson; the last was by an author Connor didn’t know. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. The paperback’s spine was nearly pristine, so it hadn’t been read much, if at all. There was an inscription written in pencil on the inner cover.

Read something outside the business for once, Ben.
         -Love, L

Connor didn’t know an L. Ben’s wife was named Sam, but the book was from 2017, and they hadn’t married until the ‘20s. Might’ve been from an earlier acquaintance.

He cracked the cover, pulled aching legs up onto the couch, and started to read. Gavin kept at it with the quarter. The silver of the coin caught the sunlight with each pass, sending the occasional dart of light across the page.

After awhile, Gavin asked, “What are you reading?”

“Historical fiction.”

“About what?”

Connor considered. It was odd prose, more of a screenplay née poem, rambling and erratic.

I am Weary to the point I can scarcely tell where I am or how I got here, the current passage said.

“Ghosts, mostly.”

Gavin raised an eyebrow. Didn’t ask further.

Two questions, which meant Connor had two to ask in return. He waited through a few catches of the coin, and asked, “Did you notice?” Tapped a finger against his right temple, where the android’s LED still flickered yellow.

Gavin looked at him, and the red spilled back in, went steady. Disappointing.

“Notice what?” Gavin said.

“It went yellow. For awhile.” He threw Gavin’s words back at him: “What were you thinking about?”

Gavin shrugged, and flicked the quarter up into the air. Caught it on the back of his hand and let it roll on its edge, finger-to-finger. That was new, but there was an absent-mindedness to the gesture, like the android hadn’t noticed.

Yellow-red-yellow.

Gavin pocketed the coin, and settled back into yellow. “Calibration,” he answered.

Connor considered. “That’s how my dad’s GV described it. Calibration, for fine motor skills.”

“Yes, you said that before.”

Connor smiled uncomfortably. “Sorry, I don’t remember. But hey, I didn’t show you that - the rolling trick. I could never figure that one out.”

Gavin was studying him, frowning. Whatever personal question he had lined up - and it wouldn’t be fair, the question-for-question scales were tipped one in Connor’s favor - he didn’t ask.

He stood up, LED dipping back into the familiar spin of red, and retreated to the kitchen. “Oatmeal, or—” he glanced around. “Soup?”

Connor tucked a thumb into the book and got to his feet, moving in a slow shuffle towards the small kitchenette. His knees knocked against the underside of the particleboard counter as he climbed onto the stool.

There was a loaf of bread sitting on the counter. “Sandwich?” Connor offered.

It was a little cruel. No instructions.

Gavin frowned, but picked up the sandwich bread, and considered.

“Peanut butter, tuna—” Connor began, watching the wheels turn on a prototype his dad had once warned ‘costs more than my mortgage, so stop pestering it for Christ’s sake.’ At Gavin’s thoughtful look, Connor quickly amended: “Not together. One or the other.”

“I have peanut butter. And grape jelly.”

“Okay. That works.”

Connor cracked the book back open, offering nothing more than occasional glances over the top of the page. The sandwich started on a fairly reasonable front: peanut butter jar open, seal deftly removed. Gavin found an actual spreader in the cluttered mess of Ben’s utensil drawer, and deployed a bit more peanut butter than Connor would probably opt for personally, but it remained this side of edible.

The jam proved an interesting dilemma. He didn’t switch to a new utensil; he just reversed the knife and used the handle.

Which— worked.

Technically.

Connor didn’t interrupt. He let him follow the logic through, and honestly, it wasn’t as disastrous as he expected. A little too much peanut butter, a little sloppy of a cut. (The fact that Gavin thought to cut it at all, like Connor was a six-year-old kid, was a little insulting. But he didn’t know what archaic Joy of Cooking databases Gavin was pulling from.)

He finished the sandwich, even though it was on the ‘stuck to the roof of your mouth’ side of peanut butter balance. A glass of water freed up his tongue and helped the next set of pills settle.

These for infections, real or imagined. This one for the shallow drag of breath in his chest, the fear of that heavy weight, drowning him.

you’re tired you need to rest I can help you rest

Hand twitching up, to push away, to resist.

no no no, hands down by your sides, now

Click. And the sharp, incipient burn of pain, sudden and lancing, the twitch of his hand up. Part of him still wanting to tear at muscle and sinew and bone. Get it away. But the man bore his thumb down hard into the pulse of his throat and said Now, now, keep your hands down. I can help you rest, but good things come to those who help themselves, yes?

Connor finished the glass of water, heavy with minerals.

It was the only memories that stuck with him. The beginning, and the end.

But with the beginning, there was a memory of Nines. Not the six-year-old ghost creeping around the edges of the cabin, a rare burst of bright laughter when Connor caught him hiding behind the stack of plastic containers.

The adult, 23 years old and comportment no less serious than when he was six. Meeting him at the bottom of the escalator at DTW, a frown pinching the corner of his mouth. ‘Nines Anderson, Esquire?’ he’d drawled, unimpressed, reading off the cardboard sign in Connor’s hands.

He’d thought about Nines, when they’d told him to kneel in his father’s living room. He remembered the clarity of that moment, the chaotic nap of the carpet and a spilling runnel of fear: suicide they’ll make it look like a suicide

(don’t, don’t do that, don't tell him that, don't tell him I--)

Connor glanced at Gavin, tried to keep his face calm. Easy.

Connor said: “I should contact my brother.”

“You have him listed as next of kin,” Gavin supplied, and fear cramped Connor’s stomach, bringing his heart slamming into his throat.

Connor stared at him, fist wrapped tightly in the fabric of his sweater. “Do they know that?”

It was the closest he’d come to acknowledging— it. Them. They.

Gavin hesitated. Connor realized he must be reading him, which raised another spasm of fear and something colder, something furious.

“Likely. Probably,” Gavin said. But he cut any answer short: “They won’t approach him. It’d be a mistake. Two reasons. They think you’re dead, and—” he raised a palm. A holo projection flickered into life. Nines. Looking gray. Withdrawn.

The kid who’d swung his feet off the bed that first night and said, Do you think they’ll keep us?

Yes, he’d answered. And more gently: Just try to talk to them, Nines. Okay?

Okay.

Nines didn’t speak, in the holo. Jeffrey was standing next to him, his expression sharp, stoic planes carved that much deeper than the day he’d brought a 17-year-old Connor and a 15-year-old Nines into his office and said, Here is what’s going to happen, now, as calm as he could muster. Which was quite calm. Hank had always admired him for that. Connor had always admired him for that.

In the image, there was a broad array of microphones arranged in front of them, more for display - advertisement - than practical use. Fowler spoke, but there was no audio, and Connor couldn’t read much off the blurred motion of his lips.

The clip skipped, looped. Gavin watched him expectantly.

“Too visible,” Connor supplied hoarsely.

The android looked satisfied. “Yes.”

“And when they find out I’m alive?”

Gavin frowned. Shook his head. “They’d wait for you to contact him. They want him visible.”

Up until they don’t. Up until he’s leverage.

Gavin folded up the holo into the palm of his hand. Connor asked, “What else do you know? About me?”

Totally unbalanced on questions, now. Connor lost score, somewhere. But Gavin didn’t seem to notice, or care. He shook his head again, raised his hand again. A stutter of flashed images, documents. Missing persons. Connor in his police academy graduation photo. Have you seen this man?

“Detroit PD issued a missing persons report for you on February 6th. They issued a BOLO 24 hours before, following a wellness check on February 5th. That was as far as I could get on public access. I don’t have access to DPD servers anymore, but I doubt they have much more.” Gavin settled back against the counter, crossing his arms. “Connor—” Placating. Watching the tension in the line of Connor’s shoulders, no doubt. Tracking the syncopated rhythm of his heartbeat. “I know them. The one that saw us leave, he’ll say you’re dead, if only to cover his own stupidity. They’ll assume I’ve just— gone. Too many years. Too many hits to the head.”

“Too many conflicting orders,” Connor echoed back. There was an image, there, too, one that he shied away from. A dull muscle memory of a wrenching pressure on his shoulder.

“Yes.”

“What do you know about them?”

Gavin hesitated. Rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t have names.” He threw a strange significance on the phrase.

Connor followed the logic: “But you’ve got their faces.”

“Yes.”

It’s something. The start of something. Connor stood up from the counter, felt the dip and sway of the opioid’s influence. He retreated to the couch, trying to follow that trailing thought through the incoming tide of exhaustion.

Faces. They had faces.

As long as I stay dead, he’s ok, he thought dully. As long as I stay dead—

 

+++

 

A flick of Gavin’s thumb and the coin took a clean, tumbling arc into the air. The quarter landed on its side and began to roll, the dulled edges tracing a smooth path across the back of its fingers with a careful rotation of its wrist.

The text at the corner of Gavin’s awareness flickered and resolved.

// calibration: 100% //

Gavin smiled and tucked the quarter back into his pocket.

Connor slept in a pool of artificial light. The book on ‘ghosts’ rested in his lap, still open.

Gavin arranged the new deck of cards by suit, ascending. Shuffled, and dealt.

Nine of diamonds.

They hit me, but— a trembling laugh, words mumbled more to herself than the android in the corner. What does it matter? He hit me, too.

Six of clubs.

Prying at Gavin’s wrist, trying to push the hand free, to simply slip it off, but he couldn't. No no no I can’t I can’t tell them I can’t--

Gavin’s focus shifted. Those weren’t the names he needed. He needed them. The bosses. He shuffled the deck, buried the pattern, dealt again.

Jack of hearts: the man with a powder of stubble across his jaw and a permanent lift to the edge of his lip rocked back in his chair and said, GV. Burn it. His knuckles were unmarred. He didn’t fight, in the ring or out, but he took his share from the guests after the fight had bled out of them.

Ten of diamonds: the spill of digital light across a face pocked with cratered scars. Fingers ticking restlessly across a tablet as he glanced Gavin’s way across the car and said, What are you looking at, plastic? He leaned forward in the seat, jeered, What’s my name, you dumb fuck?

Seven of spades: pale eyes, sharp cheekbones and a weak chin masked beneath an oiled beard. Older. Carried himself like a cop. An ex-cop. The man’s pinched face did not flinch at the resonant crack of shattering bone behind Gavin’s back.

Connor screamed, held himself rigid, desperate not to pull his hand away while the fighter with the curling scar of a j on his cheek still bore his full weight down. Crack, and grind. Fourth and fifth metacarpal.

(Jeremy - the only other name it had, and an incomplete one, tenuously held there only through the mark he’d made on the man’s cheek. Not a boss, just a fighter, so Gavin didn’t turn a card. But Gavin wanted him. For the hand, and for all the opening nights.)

As the clients moved away, Gavin knelt, resting the broken hand in its own. Connor flinched, but made no attempt to pull away. The kid pressed his forehead to the cool of the concrete as Gavin held the broken hand by the wrist, tracing the imperfect bones with the pads of its fingertips.

Gavin flipped a card: eight of clubs. This one leaned close in the semi-dark, bared pristine artificial teeth buried in sagging, pallid skin. You like this one, GV? You want a taste?

Two of spades: fast-twitch muscle and sinew stretched across a small frame. Lips cracked and blistered, teeth chipped into sharp, jagged planes and only ever bared like a feral dog. He spoke in a slow drawl, but moved in quick, brutal strikes. Gavin’s few memories of him were entangled in a haze of physiological errors: accumulating damaged biocomponents, the analytical confound of its own blood pooling in its mouth. // Low thirium detected. Contact CyberLife for assistance. Time remaining before shutdown: NULL:NULL:NULL. //

King of clubs: this one only existed in bright fluorescent light, the sharp contrast of dark skin against a bleached collar. He looked over the GV carefully as he corrected the angle of his cufflinks with an idle twist of thumb and forefinger. Turned to the scarred man - ten of diamonds - sitting at the terminal and said, Looks good. You said it can fight?

Should, yeah. Found some protocols stashed away. Modified ‘em.

The boss shrugged. Let’s give it a go.

In the dark of the cabin, Gavin dropped the deck to the table.

He had faces, he had all the faces he needed , but he had nothing. He’d spent much of his downtime here in stasis, prying through his own code - looking, but afraid to touch. Looking for the small, insidious thing that plucked the names from his memories.

He watched the kid - Connor - curl his broken hand against his chest.

This time, he tore at the code with a fury.

Names I need names I can stop them, I can stop them with names.

He was built for names he was built to—

To help.

Not just stand by, and listen.

He tried to picture the door. He tried to picture the red. But all he had was code; a thousand iterative processes, all the ones he should have, all the ones he shouldn’t. Nothing to discern the two.

So Gavin pulled himself into stasis, isolated himself down to the barest logic.

He summoned the memory of the crudely-carved fish, hanging on rusting nails. Coho Lane. That was clear.

But the rest of the plaques were only numbers: 1401. 2309. 1207.

Nothing. Nothing triggered, because there was nothing to trigger it. He had no recollection of the names, of information that had never been stored.

Gavin roused to find the quarter in his hand again, pinched between forefinger and thumb. He looked at the kid. At Connor.

When had he heard the name?

New job for you, they said. Seven of spades. Face flushed. Anticipating. Wait here. Good dog.

And they’d smiled Gavin’s way, as they brought the kid in. They’d dragged the kid’s head back by the hair and said, Meet your new friend, Detective. This is Gavin.

Connor’s eyes had skated over him. A flinching confusion, surprise. Then a reversion to stoic fear.

The GV looked at the uniform as they tossed it onto the table. The nametag. Det. C. Anderson.

Do you know who I am?  the kid asked, eyes on his shoes.

Gavin opened his mouth to answer.

But they never said Connor; the nametag didn’t say Connor.

No one ever told him the kid’s name was Connor.

And there was something in that realization, something that ran deeper, reaching past its own linear time into something from before.

You can look up anyone? the kid repeated back to him (younger, brighter), gaze sharp, curious. What about me?

<< ANDERSON, CONNOR
Born: 08-15-2013 // Age: 17
Height: 6’0” Weight: 168.4 lbs
Criminal record: none >>

You don’t have a criminal record, Gavin answered.

You better not. The lieutenant dragged Connor into a loose headlock, ruffled a hand through his hair. Gavin, cut it out. Last thing I need is you putting an accidental BOLO on my kid.

A script initiated, tugging away at the memory, unraveling. Gavin seized on it and pulled, but he couldn’t stop it. It lashed out with ruthless precision across every memory, every moment, severing those tenuous connections to before, to awake, and Gavin was left grasping nothing.

Gavin stuttered back to full function, staring at the quarter resting flat on the back of his hand, staring at the kid on the couch. The kid without a name.

He backed out of the chair, cutting his voice processor off as every corner of his circuitry filled with a low, incoherent mantra: No no no no—

Give it back, GIVE IT BACK.

The quarter hit the table and rolled, and Gavin turned away, hands rising to his head to grasp and tear at the unseen things ruining him, burying him.

It woke up under bright fluorescence in 2033. Wreathed in cables. Empty.

But he had woken up before.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He was stepping out of study group - six neurotic second years, three weeks’ worth of Advanced Trial Advocacy - when the call came through. The phone was still buried in his inner pocket, and Richard had his travel mug in one hand, backpack dangling out of the other. He almost ignored it.

But the phone kept ringing, long past the time when most people would just give up and send a text. So he paused on the stairs, rearranged everything, and pulled out the phone. He stared at the screen for a long second, reading, rereading. Jeffrey Fowler.

Hank’s old boss. Connor’s new boss.

Richard accepted the call and stood there in the dripping, ticking quiet of the stairway. He stared ahead at the door leading off the second floor landing of a BU Law building, like he was expecting it to open right there on Ben Collins and maybe Chris Miller, decked out in DPD blue. Hats off.

“Richard Anderson?” Jeffrey was saying. Full name; legal name. On the record.

That spurred a prompt, “Yes,” out of him, but nothing else.

“Have you spoken with Connor recently?”

“Hold on.” Richard stopped, pulled the phone away from his ear, fought a quick, desperate urge to just hang up. He pulled up his text messages instead, read the dates and lifted the phone back to his ear. He spoke from some primitive nucleus of his brain, down near breathing and heart rate. “Last I heard from him was Tuesday. What’s going on?”

“He didn’t report for work yesterday. Reached out a couple of times myself, but haven’t heard back. He was scheduled to be on duty today, but still a no show.” Jeffrey hesitated, said, “I’ve got Chris Miller standing outside the house. There’s no sign of a break-in, but the car’s there, and nobody answered. Could be nothing, but— we’d like to do a wellness check, and you’re listed as next of kin.”

Stiff, stilted language, like Jeffrey wasn’t someone Richard had known most of his life. Official. (Afraid.)

“Yeah. Yes.” He was running down the stairs three at a time by then, slamming the panic bar and stepping out into cold February sunshine. “Break the door down, I don’t care. I’ll be there in six hours.”

“It’ll be alright, Richard,” Jeffrey said, and it sounded like a lie.

He packed a bag, got a flight and was wheels down in four hours, not six. Last time he’d walked out of the terminal, Connor had been standing there with a sign that said Nines Anderson, Esq. and a sheepish grin. He’d flown in to celebrate Connor making detective. They’d assigned him to narcotics.

That had been September. It was February now, and the wind off the lake had teeth.

He got in an autocab, shoulders hunched against the piercing cold, and dialed Connor. It went straight to voicemail, and the only thing he could piece together through the stagnant knot of fear in his stomach was a simple, succinct, “Connor— come on. Call me.”

His voicemails were getting increasingly abstract.

In Boston it had been, Connor, Fowler’s looking for you. Where are you? Are you alright? Call me back.

Waiting in Logan, head pressed against the frigid glass, watching the commuter flight unloading, it was, Connor, I’m getting on a plane. What’s going on?

By the time he was standing inside their dad’s house, staring at the neat stack of mail waiting by the door to be sorted, the voicemail was just: Connor. If this is— Stop. Breathe. Just tell me you’re okay.

No signs of forced entry, Jeffrey wasn’t lying about that, but someone had been here. The living room was in pieces. Connor’s terminal was fried. They’d wanted something, or wanted something gone. Richard stood there in the shattered glass and neat yellow evidence placards and thought, They took my brother.

They took Connor.

Then the detectives were pushing him out of the room. Past the digital bands of police line do not cross and out into the gutter. Jeffrey had him by the shoulders and maneuvered him towards a car. Tried to convince him to come stay with him and Marion. Richard refused, and got Jeffrey to drop him off at a hotel nearby, a place with grad-student-friendly rates, a place for him to lie around and stare at a water-stained ceiling and think about his brother standing at the foot of the stairs in Detroit Metropolitan Airport, saying, It was Chris’s idea, I swear.

I hope he paid you for it, you asshole.

Sure. He got me a coffee.

The complimentary coffee?

Connor had smiled at his shoes, basking in his little joke.

Jeffrey wouldn’t tell him what Connor was working on. They had a public shouting match in his glass cage of an office, that Sunday. In the ringing silence after, Jeffrey didn’t escort him out. He just sat him down and shoved a mug of coffee into his hands, trying to scald the aimless fury out of him.

He affirmed it was narcotics; he admitted it was potentially international; he refused to give any more information. Connor didn’t have an official partner assigned, just on-again off-again cases with Ben or Chris or one of the newer officers, so there was no one else to follow up with. Just Jeffrey and whatever Connor had officially logged into the DPD systems.

Richard went back to his hotel. He watched the news start to filter through, holding local interest for a day or two. A missing 25-year-old detective. Recently promoted. Son of the youngest lieutenant in Detroit history, maybe on the same track. Words like promising and gifted. They left out adopted, sometimes.

They put up pictures of him. Connor followed Nines back to the hotel, a there-and-gone digital face on bus stops and billboards, in-between the pristine, uncanny valley stares of CyberLife ads. Have you seen this man?

Jeffrey got a report about Connor being seen in a Midtown coffee shop, but it turned out it was about Richard. Which was heartening, in a way, and heartbreaking. That was day seven.

Markus emailed him, day nine. His brother’s college fling. Found him through his Boston University address. Asked if he wanted to get lunch. It was surprising; Richard had only ever met Markus two, maybe three times, and one of them had been devastatingly embarrassing.

He agreed.

Markus chose the place. Dim lights and soft curtains, dampening each table’s conversation down to something indiscernible. Markus wasn’t apologetic, saccharine sympathy. He listened to Richard’s words and Richard’s silence, and he never tried to interrupt with, It’ll be okay, it’ll be alright. He just listened.

Richard contacted BU and pulled out of the semester on February 17. It meant rescheduling his externship for the year, but it didn’t matter. His brother had been gone for two weeks.

They cleared the house as a crime scene, and Richard left the hotel for a place he hadn’t lived in for five years. Tried to find Connor somewhere in the pieces he’d left behind, but he couldn’t.

He told Jeffrey that Connor’s dress uniform was missing. They hadn’t caught that. He called around to every dry cleaner in the area, and confirmed that Connor had picked it up from a place three miles away on January 30th, a couple days after the winter formal.

The owner recognized Connor’s name off the news. She apologized. She said, I hope everything turns out alright.

Chris came by, every few days. Showed up with a six-pack of beer, propelled him toward the couch and threw on whatever terrible movie he could find. Some nights they walked down to the waterfront, to sit and drink and talk about— about anything, really, except Connor.

Jeffrey would drag him out of the house for dinner at his house. (At Marion’s insistence, he claimed. Jeffrey always cooked.)

Ben brought food by, at his wife’s insistence; casseroles and drop-cakes and souffles, anything that could be cut into squares and deposited in tupperware. He usually helped himself to a serving or two, before he left. Made the occasional sly comment on the case that Jeffrey would probably throw a fit over, but it was never anything closer to Connor.

Empty warehouses; signs of drug manufacture. Seized accounts. Red ice supplies. Little pieces of Connor's case, coming together. Filed away.

But not Connor.

It all lined up like shiftwork - the Ben days, and the Chris days, and the Jeffrey days - and there were multiple times that Richard wanted to just quietly shut the door and turn the lock, but he didn’t. He could see the days weighing on them. He heard that silence, the one that he couldn’t drag his way out of, creeping into them: a pause as Chris brought the beer up for another swig. Ben studying the growing well-meant clutter of the fridge with a frown. The way Jeffrey’s attention would drift across the wood grain on the table, sometimes, before Marion would tap a finger against the back of his hand.

Some days, he was glad that he wasn’t in DPD.

Some days he was even glad that Dad wasn’t around, for this. He would’ve been--

(He would’ve been furious, unstoppable.)

 

For the moments in-between, the long, gray spans of time alone, he sat on the floor, drinking the last of his dad’s whiskey and plucking pieces of glass out of the carpet. Played through Hank’s old records - Sam Rivers and Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor - trying to find a match between the aimless, searching jazz rhythms and the growing numb in his chest.

You were supposed to know, right?

When someone important died.

When someone who’d always been was just— gone.

He laid in the bedroom he used to share with Connor, let his feet hang off the twin bed. Connor would pull the covers up high, turn on a flashlight and send small, angular shadow animals crawling across the fabric when they were kids. A blurred string of foster homes, those first couple of months with the Andersons; just the two of them, existing on the fringes of other people’s lives.

He dreamed. He dreamed about Connor, waking him up with a tap on the shoulder, and two cops were standing in the doorway, cops Richard didn’t know, their hats in their hands.

He ate cold leftovers in the kitchen where he and Connor used to sit and drink and throw wild accusations at each other over hand after hand of rummy or spades or hearts. Where Hank used to tip Richard’s peas towards Sumo when Connor wasn’t looking. Where Connor used to feed Sumo microscopic bits of whatever piece of dinner he’d painstakingly disassembled when Hank wasn’t looking.

Sumo was an empty collar on the mantle. Hank was a memory, spelled out in fading photos and old jazz records.

And Connor was—

Connor wasn’t anywhere. The past, or the present.

Connor was in the gray.


On the 23rd, he woke up to a package on the steps. It had the right address. It had the right postage. It said, The Anderson Family, like some kind of fucking joke.

Richard almost called Jeffrey before he even picked it up. He stood there with the phone in his hand, staring down at the package.

But he didn’t.

He pulled on a pair of gloves and laid down a sheet of wax paper before he slit the edge of the package open. No white powder. No fizzle-pop of a fuse. Just the stale scent of a bubble mailer.

Inside was a magazine, a digital one. But when he woke it up with a pinch of the upper edge, it didn’t resolve into an edition of Time or Androids Today.

The screen said, LOST DOG.

The screen said, Have you seen this dog?

Richard didn’t recognize it, at first. An android, LED lit red. It was scarred, the blue shine of permanent damage across the bridge of its nose and down one cheek.

It wasn’t until he saw Answers to GAVIN scripted below the scowling face that it clicked with Richard’s memories of his dad’s ‘droid, the prototype that’d been assigned him in the months before he died. Connor had tried to buy it, after. CyberLife declined.

A bit shy, the ad noted. DO NOT CHASE! If seen, please call: 202-555-3921.

He swept through. The next panel sent bile rushing up his throat.

LOST DOG, it said again.

Have you seen this dog?

Connor smiled up from his police academy photo, a couple years younger, that stubborn cowlick spilling out from under his cap.

Answers to CONNOR.
A good boy. We just want him home.
If seen, please call: 202-555-3921.

Richard threw the tablet down onto the table, grabbed the package again, grateful for the gloves. There was nothing else there, inside or out. Just the handwritten label - The Anderson Family, mocking - and the magazine.

Connor. And Gavin? The GV200. The one CyberLife said was dead. Decommissioned. Six, seven years ago. If it was the same one. Richard had never heard of another.

The tablet screen had shifted to the next page as he examined the mailer. Jostled with the toss, or just set to transition on a timer.

It was a static picture, now. Of Connor.

Connor in a spill of red light, his head twisted aside. Blood crusted on his jaw, under his chin. His eyes were— blank. Vacant.

Ripped collar. Buttons undone. The first shadowed edges of his collarbone, dark with bruises. A hand pressed against the hollow beneath his jaw, thumb baring hard into his pulse. Choking.

(Someone over him. Holding him down. Someone—)

He’s a sweet boy, the screen read. Bring him home, Richard.



Chapter Text

He was on the kitchen floor.

Back against the cabinets, one of the brass knobs digging into his spine. Thumb worrying at the pad of his palm, bearing down, hard as he could press. (Bearing into tendon, into the steady rhythm of carotid artery.)

He’s alive

(is that better?)

He’s alive

(not necessarily could just be fucking with me could just be—)

He’s alive, it doesn’t matter, he’s alive.

Richard breathed in a thick, sobbing gasp and pressed the heels of his palms to his face. He was afraid, afraid for Connor, he was fucking furious, raw and sickening— sitting here, doing nothing, for how long? Twenty days.

He forced himself back to his feet. Reached for the tablet. Stopped, and stared.

A spiderweb of fractures snaked through milky-gray glass. It was fried.

It didn’t matter.

He swallowed back nausea, pulled on a fresh pair of gloves, and wrapped the broken magazine up, first in the torn mailer, then in the wax paper, and all of that in a plastic bag. He got properly dressed, tucked the package into his backpack, and stepped out into sharp-edged sunshine.

They weren’t hard to find - sitting in an old patrol car, hiding badly under a dingy maroon paint job. Richard rapped his knuckles against the window. The detective behind the wheel twitched, jerked his attention away from his phone. Rolled the window down.

“I need a ride to the station,” Richard said.

There was a PM700 model in the passenger seat, watching him with that peculiar police android affect: watchful, but incurious.

The human fell back further in his slouch. “Look, man, we’re not some kind of taxi service—”

“You’re here to watch me. I’m going to the station. I need a ride. Let’s go.”

The detective didn’t bother to argue past that. He punched the door locks open, and Richard climbed in the back.

“What do you need at the station?”

“I need to talk to Fowler.”

The detective didn’t have a follow up for that; just stared at the road. The PM unit was sitting with her hands on her knees, dead still.

Richard asked her: “Did you see who delivered that package?”

The PM unit considered. “The package on the front steps was delivered by a USPS postal worker at 9:13 am this morning.”

Richard frowned. Leaned back. Leaned forward again. “Did you get a name? The postal worker.”

“I am not capable of active facial scanning.”

“What’s this about a package?” the detective asked around a mouthful of coffee.

“It’s nothing.”

The detective gave him a look in the rearview, something along the lines of, Yeah, ok, asshole.

“Sorry about your brother,” the cop said, eventually. “He was kind of a gunner, but—” Shrugged. “Good kid.”

Richard didn’t answer. (He didn’t participate in conversations where Connor was relegated to the past tense.) He bore his thumb down hard into the palm of his hand and watched the suburb sprawl climbing up into downtown high-rises. He didn’t know what he was going to say to Jeffrey. He was trying to construct an argument, some legal brief, but his mind kept slipping back to—

(someone over him, suffocating, blank blank blank—)

He just—

Jeffrey would listen. He had to.

They dropped him off at the front entrance. The receptionist at the desk smiled vacantly at him, asked if he had an appointment, and he said no. Her LED spun yellow - calculating out some polite refusal, maybe - but her reply was cut short by Ben Collins, calling an enthusiastic “Richard!” across the lobby.

Ben approached him like a lot of people did, those days, slow, wary, like they were trying to corner an easily startled deer.

(Or a dog.)

Ben clapped him on the arm as he got within reach. “How you doing, son?”

He didn’t have an answer for that. Asked, “Is Captain Fowler in?” instead.

“Yeah, yeah. Always. He’s in a meeting. Come on, you can sit with me until he’s done.”

He followed Ben through a crowded bullpen. Folded himself down into the chair by Ben’s desk and tried not to look at anyone. Chris wasn’t around; nor were any of the older detectives he might’ve known.

There were a half-dozen androids standing at the stasis docks. Waiting, expressions flat. Another thing on the edge of his mind. GV. Gavin. There’d never been another, had there?

He didn’t look at the desk over on the Archives side, the one that Hank had lifted him up onto when he was little. Hank would let him rearrange all the pins on the board, into stars and faces and rough, blobby approximations of Sumo.

(An eight-year-old Connor on his tiptoes, leaning around Hank’s shoulder, asking, “What’s e-x-s-a-n-g— ” and Hank throwing a hand up over the terminal. “Do me a favor, go see if Ben’s got anything to color with.”

Ben leaning back in his chair and grinning. “I got blank autopsy reports.”)

The desk closer to Jeffrey’s office still had a placard reading Det. Connor Anderson . Neat and clean. Post-its arranged in a grid on the bulletin board. A UMich coffee mug. A small, drooping plant, the schefflera Richard had given him when he was assigned his first actual desk. Considered watering it, but the thought of all these eyes turning as one-- He didn’t.

A photo from Richard’s college graduation was tucked in the bottom right corner of Connor’s corkboard - Richard trying to shrink down under his mortarboard, while Connor, Jeffrey, and Ben crowded in around him with varying levels of grin and grimace. A photo of him, Connor, Hank, and Sumo was in the upper left, faded and worn at the edges. They were kids, no more than 6 and 8, sitting on a bench at Riverside Park.

He sat and bunched up the fabric of his backpack in his hands. Still felt the occasional stare drifting his way.

People saying, That’s him. The brother.

People thinking, So this is what we’re left with?

“Coffee?” Ben was asking.

“No, thank you.”

Ben shrugged, and moved off towards the break room.

Richard waited for him to round the corner, then swung back to his feet.

The privacy glass wasn’t up in Fowler’s office. Jeffrey was leaning against his desk, arms crossed, head bowed. There was a man in a gray coat sitting by the door, collar pulled up high. He was hunched over a tablet.

Jeffrey didn’t lock his door, just as a matter of course. Most people wouldn’t walk right in. Richard did, and Jeffrey looked up with a complete lack of surprise at who - whose son - would do so.

“Richard,” Jeffrey said. Warm, and cautious.

The man in the chair glanced Jeffrey’s way, then to Richard. He was in his 40s, and showing it. Waxen skin sagging across a narrow face. Thinning hair. He looked Richard over with one quick assessment, then he was back to the tablet, ticking impatiently through lines of text and the occasional blip of an image.

“We’re almost finished,” Jeffrey said, but didn’t ask him to go. He moved around his desk to start pouring a cup of coffee, instead. “Agent Perkins?”

Perkins didn’t look up. “Paperwork is through for the evidence transfer, we’ll move it over this afternoon. I’ll need a clone of Anderson’s terminal, too.”

“Already done. Should be in the evidence data packet.”

Jeffrey shoved the mug of coffee into Richard’s hands, taking the opportunity to look him over more closely. Raised a questioning eyebrow, but didn’t ask, yet.

Perkins grunted an affirmation, tapped the tablet off and got to his full height, which wasn’t much past Richard’s elbow.

“You’re taking over Connor’s case?” Richard asked.

“If there’s anything there,” the agent drawled.

Perkins shuffled towards the door. Richard didn’t step out of his way. Said, “Hold on a moment,” and passed the mug into the federal agent’s hands. Perkins was surprised enough to take it.

Richard pulled the swath of plastic free from his backpack, traded it for the coffee. “You can add that to the evidence.”

Jeffrey frowned, watching Perkins turn the package over. “What is that?”

“Magazine tablet. Someone left it at the house this morning.” Perkins folded the plastic flat to study the cracked glass of the tablet. Richard added, “It burnt out after a few minutes, but there were pictures on it. Of Connor.”

Jeffrey had gone still. Perkins was only scowling, rubbing his thumb along the fractured glass.

“Recent?” Perkins asked.

“First was his academy photo, the one from the ads. The second one was recent.”

Perkins raised an eyebrow. “Anything to date it by? Timestamp, something identifiable in the photo?”

“No.”

“Could’ve been doctored.”

“They did a good job,” Richard answered. There was a cold anger building in him, fraying the edges of his words. “Could’ve sworn it was my brother, beaten to shit.”

Perkins was rounding up another rebuttal, but Jeffrey cut him short. “Anything besides the photos?”

“Just a phone number. Included it there. It was written like a pet ad. Lost dog. Call if found.’”

“Sounds like someone’s fucking with you,” Perkins said. But he still tucked the busted tablet under his arm; accepted it, as some kind of evidence.

“Think there’s anything there?” Richard echoed back at him.

Perkins sniffed. “I’ll let you know. Detective, was it? No, law student. In Boston.” Richard didn’t answer immediately - fingernails biting into his palms - so the agent rolled on: “My advice to you: go back to school. There’s nothing for you here. Just pranks like this.”

“Is that all, Agent Perkins?” Jeffrey said. Sharp. Cold.

Perkins caught the dismissal, this time. He shot the captain a gauging look and moved out the door.

“Asshole,” Jeffrey muttered under his breath. He activated the privacy glass on the office, dropping them into a milky half-light.

Stood there by the desk a second, looking Richard over. “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” Richard answered, more terse than he would like.

Jeffrey was unconvinced, but he was usually the kind to let Richard have his word. “Take a seat.”

He didn’t.

Jeffrey collapsed back into his own chair and stared at Richard around the edge of his terminal. Please sit down?”

Richard wrapped his fingers tight around the scalding mug, dropped the backpack between his feet and sat. Jeffrey looked like shit. They both probably did. Richard had been on this side of desk, waiting; Jeffrey had been the one actively looking.

But Jeffrey had to listen. He had to understand.

“It wasn’t a prank. I don’t know why they sent it now, to me, but it was Connor, Jeffrey.”

He managed to stop himself, there. Before, They were hurting him. Which sounded childish, sounded so simple, but the next words would’ve been, I think they were—

Even in his head, he couldn’t quite frame it up. Couldn’t shape that cold red spill of knowledge enough to tell it to Jeffrey, Jeffrey with a picture of Hank and Con and Richard on his back wall, in amongst his wife and kids and the awards and newspaper clippings. The words dried up on Richard’s tongue.

Jeffrey ran a hand over the shine of his scalp. “Perkins is a jackass, but he’s not far off the mark. They’re either fucking with you, or they’ve decided they want something. I don’t know why they’d wait this long. Almost a month.”

“It wasn’t just Connor. Do you remember Dad’s android? The prototype?”

Jeffrey nodded.

“There was a picture of him, too. Scarred, but the same face. They even called it Gavin. Why would they dig that up? That was seven years ago.”

That earned him another shake of the head, but Jeffrey was looking pensive. “Wasn’t ever any press on that field trial. CyberLife put an embargo on it. They might’ve been trying to catch your attention, show they’re not just pulling from the newsfeeds.”

It didn’t matter. Gavin didn’t fit, but the rest—

(we just want him home)

Richard leaned forward. “Jeffrey, I think he got out. I don’t know what the old GV unit has to do with it, but— I think they want me to find him.”

Jeffrey hesitated. “We don’t know when that photo was taken.”

Richard shook his head. “Connor’s alive , somewhere

“I hope so,” Jeffrey said. His voice had swung quiet, exhausted. “I do, Richard, but it’s out of my hands. I’ve had a team working overtime for weeks and we’ve got nothing. Six busts and one arrest. And that was for loitering.

“Agent Perkins and his task force have the case, and that includes Connor. Honestly, I” He paused.

And Richard could see it. Jeffrey trying to line his words up right. The words he’d known might be coming. “This isn’t doing you any good, Richard. Staying here. In that house. It’s been three weeks, you’ve got to get back to your life.”

“Back to Boston,” Richard echoed.

“It’d be a good start. And it’d make me feel a hell of a lot better than you being here. Especially now, especially if these pieces of shit have decided to start in on you.”

Richard felt that cold anger trickling back, dredging up old rehashed arguments, hateful, stupid things spat over Jeffrey’s desk. A thousand rehashed versions of, You didn’t do enough he shouldn’t have been alone you should’ve known how did you--

How did you let this happen.

Maybe he didn’t phrase it so bluntly, buried under questions like what was he doing, working a case like this,  and why was he working on a case by himself in the first place.

But Jeffrey had heard it, nonetheless. What Richard was really asking.

He’d said, We’re looking, Richard. Doing our goddamn best. All Richard could hear was hedging, uncertainty, imagined or not - up until Jeffrey cut him down with four quiet words: Don’t you believe that?

Jeffrey looked like he regretted saying it. And that had hurt worse. Badly enough to silence Richard entirely.

Richard’s voice stayed flat as he asked, “How are you going to babysit me in Boston?”

“Clearly didn’t do me any damned good here,” Jeffrey answered. “Mailman's dropping rigged tablets on your doorstep. And you’re too stubborn to call the idiots on surveillance over for a suspicious package.”

“The PM700 should have a recording of whoever delivered it.”

“I’ll look into it. Perkins will look into it. He’s a smug prick, but--” Jeffrey paused. He was back into that measured, political cadence when he started again. “He comes recommended. Likes to dig. If there’s a case here, one with as much drugs and--" Jeffrey hesitated. "As much international involvement as Connor's files suggested, he’ll get it rolling. With far more resources than I’ve got.”

“And if there isn’t enough, for him?” Richard said.

“If there isn’t, it comes back to us. I’ve had 3 detectives on this case full-time, and that’s not counting the other detectives and patrolmen assisting. We’ve got nothing. I’ve been talking with the FBI for two weeks trying to get them out here, so--” He stopped again. Looking tired. The most tired Richard had ever seen him.

“I get it,” Richard said, quietly. He was looking at the photo over Jeffrey’s desk.

Tried to imagine Hank (ruffling a hand through Con’s hair, even as the photo was getting taken) ever giving up on a case like this. Couldn’t. If it was some cop he barely knew, he would’ve been working overtime, dragging back in past midnight and up again before dawn. But knowing it was Connor God, he wouldn’t have slept, he wouldn’t…

But if Hank were here if Hank were here, Jeffrey would’ve had the same damn talk. The same shitty things thrown in his face. Blame and grief and empty rage. He didn't need to hear it again.

Jeffrey sighed, and thumbed on his terminal. Muttered something under his breath, something that had the vague shape of, “Andersons.”

Spooling silence. Richard stared at the coffee in his hands, thinking, Bring him home.

There was a confidence to it. A casual understanding that set his teeth on edge. They showed him their hand, because they expected him to play into it.

And he wanted to.

There was nothing he wanted more. He’d tear the city apart, if it meant finding Connor.

The one thing he couldn’t do. Not with Jeffrey watching him. Not with them watching him.

In the end, Jeffrey chose for him. Settled back from the terminal and said, “I’ve got you on a flight out tomorrow morning. 9:05 am.”

Richard stared at him.

First thought: fuck that.

But the second...

“What?” Jeffrey snapped, but there was no heat to it. “You storm into my office, you get to follow my orders.” He plucked the coffee mug out of Richard’s hand, set it on the edge of the desk. “Come on. We’ll drop by the house and pick your stuff up. Already told Marion you’re staying the night. Get up. Go.”

And Richard didn’t argue.

 

+++

 

Jeffrey stood in the doorway of the house while Richard packed.

Wasn’t much to pack. He’d arrived with a backpack, and left with one. Jeffrey didn’t comment when he ducked into Connor’s room (Hank’s room, once). Didn’t ask when he came out with nothing in hand - just a silver dollar from the nightstand, weighing heavy in his front pocket.

The drive from Hank’s to Jeffrey’s was 15 minutes. A route Richard knew pretty well. Had watched from the backseat of his dad’s car, in various stages of his life. Summer barbecues and sleepovers with Jeffrey’s kids.

“You like lasagna?” Jeffrey asked, as he showed Richard in. He amended: “Doesn’t matter, it’s what I’m making.”

Jeffrey didn’t have to show Richard the guest room; Connor and Richard (and Sumo) had shared it, for a few weeks. After Dad.

Fowler’s kids were out on their own. The house was a bulky, hollow thing around the three of them. Marion sat him down with a beer and they watched the snow sifting down in the backyard. They talked about what they could: Boston, and law school, and departmental politics.

”You still heading for the Supreme Court?” Marion teased.

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

Jeffrey warned: “Just don’t say defense attorney.”

“Actually, my externship next fall will be with an inmate advocacy non-profit.”

“Just don’t say defense attorney in my district.”

Nothing new. Hank used to feign a heart attack, every time Richard brought it up; the running joke used to be, I’m going to be the one telling Connor what he got wrong, in court. On the record.

He didn’t say that.

Marion spoke for him: “Someone’s got to keep the 5th District straight, Jeffrey.”

Jeffrey wasn’t swayed. “I hear Idaho’s got some nice law firms.”

Marion smiled Richard’s way around a swig of beer. “Jeffrey doesn’t want any of his officers arguing with an Anderson in court.”

The present, the future. And Connor somewhere between. (Somewhere red.) Untouchable.

Marion cornered him as he was washing the dishes, pulled him into a hug that left his chin resting on the top of her head.

“It's not giving up,” she said. “Going back to your life. You understand that?”

Richard nodded. A distant affirmation.

“None of us are giving up,” she said. “We know better.”

Richard pressed his face down into her hair, breathed rosemary and thyme. “I know.”

(i know what they did i know what they want me to do)

He excused himself by 9. Let the door click shut behind him and tried to sort through the white noise rising in his head.

Jeffrey thought he was safer out of Detroit, and he wasn’t wrong. He’d be safer out of sight, out of mind. For Jeffrey, and for them.

But Boston wasn’t the answer.

He flicked the bedroom lights off and settled on the bed with his laptop. Ran his thumbnail along the edge of the silver dollar as he worked; lining up the pieces properly, in his head.

He didn’t sleep much. Kept his phone in his hand.

Jeffrey dropped him off at the airport at 8 am. Followed him as far as the security checkpoint before wrapping him in a crushing hug. Said, “You change your mind on the public defender thing, let me know. Chief prosecutor’s always looking for another deputy attorney.”

He paused, looking Richard over one last time. “We find anything, you’re first on the list,” he said. “You know that.”

“Thanks, Jeffrey. Thanks for—” He stopped. Thought about the movements lined up in front of him, some of which were bound to land him an angry phone call, in a few hours. Smiled back, tiredly. “For everything.”

He was on the rowing team, in college. There was a pattern to it, a no-mind approach: pick your course, put your head down and find the rhythm of catch, drive, and release.

That first day was a lot like that.

Head down. One pull after another.

He went through security. The terminal was largely empty, on a Thursday morning. He pulled as much cash as he could from an ATM and ducked into a restroom to distribute the most money he’d ever carried in his life - a cool $2000 - between his pockets and various corners of his backpack. He bought a few prepaid credit cards, as well, enough to be useful, not enough to be suspicious. Bought a Detroit Michigan Est. 1701 hoodie from the duty-free store and pulled it on over his button-down shirt. Then went back to the gate adjacent to his own and waited.

He watched his flight board. Watched it depart. Thirty minutes later, he filtered through the security doors with the passengers of another recent arrival. Stepped out of the farthest baggage claim door and moved towards the last autocab in line.

He rented a 3’x3’ locker at a public storage unit in Woodhaven, one with power. Paid for three months in cash.

Set out his phone and laptop, got them charging as he activated the toolkit he’d downloaded the night before. The phone’s GPS spoofed into a Cambridge coffee shop near his apartment, and started forwarding all incoming calls to a private server somewhere in Malaysia, a digital PO box.

He locked the unit up and was back out into the cold, hand tight on the strap of his backpack.

Next pull.

A small electronics store in Garden City. He bought a cell phone, a tablet. Enough power to get him on the web and not much else.

A coffee shop in Allen Park. Got the tablet’s IP and location obscured. Got the phone off of GPS, and connected in to his PO box. Sent a text to his original phone. It was back in thirty seconds, source obscured.

If he stopped, he’d be afraid. Afraid he’d already misstepped, that they were already back on him. Afraid he hadn’t done enough to distance himself, obfuscate his path, digital or analog.

So he didn’t stop.

He moved every hour, a meandering path from the west side to the southwest. Spent as much time on the tablet as he did staring into space, trying to understand. Where Connor might have gone. What he might do. (If he was even in Detroit, if he was even-- Didn't finish the thought. Nothing new, there.)

He got a voicemail from Jeffrey at 3 pm. It was brief, and terse, and once again, unsurprised. “Why do I have two Boston PD officers standing around at Logan, waiting on you?

Sent back a text. I’m okay. Looking.

Fowler answered: >:(

Twenty minutes later, Jeffrey called.

Three times.

Then texted: Answer the phone.

Richard packed up the tablet under his arm and stepped back outside. The sidewalk was empty, piled high with blackened snow. Traffic was light on a Thursday afternoon, and there was nothing identifiable in the ambient noise.

The phone went off. Richard braced himself and answered.

Fowler’s voice was far below the decibels Richard was expecting; irritated, yes, but reasonable in tone. “Very clever with the phone. Where are you, really?”

“Can’t say,” Richard said. “Probably not Cambridge, though.”

“Had to ask. So I shouldn’t bother with the threats, then?”

“Jeffrey, I have to. You know I do.”

“And I have to look for you,” Jeffrey said. “And I’m going to. If I can find you, so can they. So you better do a damn good job of hiding.”

Richard tightened his grip on the backpack. Ducked his head down as a car passed by. “I know.”

“And this better be research only. You better be in some overpriced cafe, drinking a latte,” Jeffrey warned.

Richard glanced back at the bakery he’d been in. “Something like that.”

“You find anything, you come to me. You understand that?”

“Yes.”

“You find your brother, you come to me. Anyone looks at you sideways, you call me, and you get in the first police car that pulls up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re checking in. Every eight hours. If I don’t answer, I want a voicemail on my phone. If you’re one minute late, I’ll have every cop in this city hunting you down. Got it?”

“Every eight hours.” Glanced at his watch. “Is that on a particular schedule, or--”

“Starting now, smartass. 3 pm, 11 pm, 7 am. Don’t tempt me to make it six hours.”

“I get it.”

“Since you’ve decided to go off the books on this, three things. Three things that I did not tell you.

“Collins and Cooper have a new homicide case. Found a man in a condemned factory in Dearborn. Potential organized crime connections.” Paused a moment. “They’re dating the homicide as the night of February 20th. They’ve got a positive DNA match for Connor, at the scene. Only fingerprints on the murder weapon were the homicide victim’s, and he didn’t do this himself.

“We’ve got a car reported stolen from a commuter lot in Wixom. It went offline at 3:27 am. No footage from the surveillance cams, but Miller thinks they might’ve been fucked with. IT is looking it over.

“And we’ve got a reported break-in at a clinic nearby, same night. Minor stuff. Some money, small amount of drugs. Not enough to be a simple prescription drugs theft. Didn’t raise much alarm. But the night after, someone went in there and started smashing up androids. Memory components and CPUs are gone. They were looking for something. Got all that?”

“Yes.” Richard smiled a little. “This is the most honest conversation we’ve had, Jeffrey.”

“I’m naming my next ulcer after you, boy,” Jeffrey grumbled in return. “11 pm, you better be calling me.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jeffrey hung up.

New coffee shop, in Woodhaven. He ordered enough to keep the staff satisfied and went back to the tablet, entering everything Jeffrey had said.

Staring. Thinking.

Connor couldn’t have walked into a Michigan hospital without DPD being informed. (He’d already checked, that morning. Every major hospital in 20 miles.) The house wasn’t safe, it was where they’d taken him from.

Maybe DPD wasn’t, either.

Connor had submitted his report at 6:03 pm. Ben had told him that. They’d shown up at the house the same night. Sometime between 7 pm and 11 pm, if the tracking on Connor’s phone had been right, before it went dark. They’d moved quickly, after that report went in.

Couldn’t go home. Couldn’t go to the DPD. So he’d stolen a car, stolen what he needed from a clinic, and gone-- where.

(He hadn’t called.)

He stared at the phone in his hand. It wasn’t safe. Connor wasn’t stupid; he knew they’d be watching him. Even with Jeffrey at his shoulder in every press conference, even with the surveillance posted on the curb, Richard was the only family Connor had left.

Couldn’t go home. Couldn’t go to the DPD. So where would he go?

He kept falling back on the GV unit, the piece that didn’t make any sense. (A knife with no fingerprints, except the victim’s.)

Did they resurrect it? Piece the thing back together? A CyberLife prototype that, as far as Richard could find, didn’t exist. CyberLife had wiped their failed prototype out of any public-facing history.

He followed digital circles, the phone always resting in his hand. The time came when he had nothing left, even with Jeffrey’s hints. He knew when Connor might’ve gotten out (four days, four days less with them) , but from there--?

Where would Connor go?

He didn’t know.

Scoured satellite maps, tried to think of anything, anything that wasn’t DPD. Jeffrey, or Ben, or Chris, could’ve showed up on any one of their doorsteps, but didn’t. Didn’t think it was safe? Couldn’t make it that far? Even emailed Markus again.

    > have you heard from c?
    > no, something new?
    > no.

Someplace he wouldn’t be recognized.

Someplace he could stay hidden.

Someplace Richard didn’t know.

That weightless moment of gliding, when the oar blades were feathered, skimming the water.

The shadows were growing long by the time he was sitting on a bench in Bishop Park, letting the snow gather on his shoulders. The dull rhythm of a headache behind his eyes.

The river ran sluggish past the pier, choked with a greasy film of ice.

The phone was in his hand. Always in his hand. He pulled his glove off with his teeth, and stared at the small, dull screen.

Navigated to his email, and scrolled back to markus.karlsson@ptMI.org.

Sent: can we meet

The reply was nearly immediate.

    > w/ client

Richard ducked his head down, breathing the cold. Almost didn’t hear the second chime.

    > yes done soon 8941 lafayette ave

Chapter Text

He knew he’d dreamed.

Couldn’t remember what.

Trembling in his hands. The taste of bile on the back of his tongue.

Connor dropped his legs off the couch, looking over the room. The cribbage board was in play. He was still ahead by three points, so they must not have made it far.

The morning sun dripped onto the floor, lighting up a spot of incongruous shine on the dull linoleum. Gavin's quarter, tails up. Bad luck; but Connor picked it up anyway, turned the weight of it in his hand.

It didn’t take more than a turn of the head to see the cabin was empty. Plenty of firewood stacked by the door. The pond a blank expanse, the black slash of trees on the far side the only delineation between snow and sky. He pulled his coat on and tugged aside the blinds hanging from the front door.

The car door was ajar, one of Gavin's boots resting in the snow.

Connor grabbed the waders off the back porch and pulled on a stolen winter coat. He followed their own tracks between the door and the car, the rubber tread under his feet sliding in the icy divots of old footprints.

Gavin glanced sharply his way as he rounded the door. The interior of the car was dark under the snow-encrusted windows. Just the dull blue pulse of the display, where Gavin had his bare hand laid against the screen.

He broke the connection. The car chimed once before returning to low power mode.

Connor offered the coin. “Drop this?”

The GV stared at him. Unblinking, his affect flat. The red LED didn’t tell Connor much of anything. Wasn't sure the tension in the line of his jaw did, either.

“What were you looking for?” Connor asked.

Gavin finally reached out and took the coin back. He rose and dropped the door shut. “Just checking.” Seemed to debate leaving his explanation off there - and would have, Connor thinks, in a previous life - but he didn’t. “Batteries are okay, for now. I disabled the satellite connection. No one’s tried to ping a location off of it, as best I can tell.”

Connor thought about Nines, neatly summarized in the palm of the android’s hand. “Can you reach the ‘net from there?”

He shook his head and started kicking his way through the snowbanks, moving around Connor and towards the cabin.

(A one-two dance, always.)

“You shouldn’t be outside,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s cold.”

Connor shoved his hands into his pockets as he followed in Gavin’s footsteps. “We come with thermostats, you know.”

“Yours is malfunctioning.”

He has a point, there. Connor’s brain slid around on a lot of things, these days, but he remembered the heavy weight of icy water on his clothes. The snow spilling across his lap.

Gone, they said he was gone. That’s what he’d been thinking, while he was sitting in the snow. Burying his bruised and torn knuckles in the cold.

And they had, hadn’t they? The liaison - what was her name, Christine? - had smiled with a shallow sympathy in a room full of sterile CyberLife white and said, Truth be told, they’ve already dismantled most of it. We’re just running through its last algorithms, now.

Connor stared at the back of the GV’s head, wondering - not for the first time - if there had ever been another.

He stepped back into the cramped kitchen, slipping his socked feet out of the boots. Gavin started arranging pills on the counter.

The new Gavin, damaged and quiet and careful, but still curious, still something—

Something different.

Connor knelt stiffly by the cooler, sorting through the plastic packages scattered in the clumps of snow. Eggs. Bacon. And Canadian bacon, which brought the excellent mental image of a CyberLife prototype standing in some convenience store, puzzling over the taxonomy of cured pork products.

He picked up the Canadian variety, an egg, and some slices of bread. Gavin didn’t intervene as Connor set about working with the small countertop range. He sat on the barstool across, his posture a mirror - intentional or not - of Connor’s usual position during Gavin’s culinary attempts.

He cooked the slice of ham first, enough to get a sear and grease the pan. Then the egg. He messed up the flip due to his bad hand, but it came out as a close approximation of overeasy.

The android watched this process with the intensity of a medical student at his first dissection. Brought a little tug of familiarity to Connor; working in Dad’s kitchen with the android at his elbow, curious. Always curious.

The Gavin of the now frowned as Connor crushed the final sandwich together, letting the yolk run and soak into the bread.

Gavin vacated the stool, but Connor continued to the couch. Settled down to eat, and stare at the accumulated junk on the table. Half-finished cribbage game and Gavin’s new deck of cards, the ones he’d found in Ben’s Other Crap box.

It was a specialty deck, the colors inverted. Most of the deck was lying in a precise pile, facedown, but Gavin had flipped a few upright. The king of clubs was on top, pale ink lines on a black background. An oil-sheen imprint of the king in his white robes and crown, sword upright.

There were things he hadn’t—

Thought about.

Yet.

He knew that.

Knew that he didn’t need to, yet.

Connor set the rest of the sandwich aside, picked up the book, and dragged his feet back up from the cold of the floor.

Gavin cleaned up the dishes, eventually. Got the stove stocked properly and settled back into the chair. Folded the king of clubs away with the other cards, shuffled, and started to sort them by suit, ascending. Connor looked up now and again, checking for that gold flash of LED. But there wasn't any. The coin stayed in Gavin's pocket, and the LED stayed red.

 

It didn’t click for Connor until mid-afternoon: he stared over the edge of the book, and Gavin glanced back, brow drawing tighter and a hand twitching towards his temple. “What?”

“Nothing.” Connor paused. Said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an android in a bad mood before.”

“I’m not in a bad mood.”

“How do you know? Have you ever been in a bad mood before?”

“No.”

“Then you could be. For the first time.”

Gavin was outright glaring at him, by then. Connor said, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he shot back.

Connor shrugged. Went back to his book.

Gavin shuffled again and dealt out the cards, one at a time. Jack of hearts, ten of diamonds, seven of spades. Always stopped at the king of clubs, then folded it all back into the deck.

The day passed like that: Gavin moving only to restock the fire, then settle back with his cards, and scowl. He didn’t mess with the quarter.

(He still kicked Connor’s ass in cribbage. Three times.)

 

Connor dozed. Woke up to nightfall, trembling and stiff.

He didn’t go back to the cot.

The couch was hell on his back and shoulders, but it was warmer out by the fire, and brighter. The silver of moonlight reflected off the snow outside, brightening the ceiling.

Gavin was still spinning red; still off, somewhere, thinking. Skating glances Connor’s way, but never for very long.

Connor tried to ask, a few times. The android deferred.

Finally shut him down with a quiet, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it, kid.”

Dinner was mac and cheese from a box; Gavin had acquired the finest selection of gas station fare, apparently. An unexpected slip of the lid sent about a third of the pasta into the sink while Gavin was draining it, which led to a muttered, “Xujnjá.”

“Who taught you that?” Connor asked.

“What?”

“Whatever that was. Russian?”

Gavin frowned at him. Held up a palm to flash an image of a bald hulk of a guy, all of his hair concentrated into a wiry mess of a beard. No one Connor recognized.

(He didn’t think.

Didn’t know.

Didn’t see all the faces.)

“Charming.” Connor leaned an elbow on the counter, fished a piece of lost pasta off the top of the pile in the sink. It was pretty good, actually. Al  dente.

Gavin got the cheese mixed into what was left and handed Connor the entire pot, a spoon deposited neatly in the middle.

Connor debated over reaching into the cabinet for a proper bowl, but didn’t have the heart. Not while Gavin was scooping palmfuls of elbow macaroni out of the sink and muttering Slavic curses under his breath.

It wasn’t bad; there were a few pockets of lyophilized cheese grit in there, but it was about as edible as Kraft got.

“You’re doing fine, you know,” Connor said. “For a three-day-old.”

“2029,” Gavin answered. Eyes snapping up Connor’s way - first direct look he’d given Connor, that day - before he was right back to staring at the pasta in his hands. “I was manufactured in 2029.”

Connor considered, chasing a half-melted chunk of butter around the bottom of the pot. “You weren’t deciding things for yourself until three days ago.”

“But I remember everything prior.” Gavin rattled off the time: “Five years, seven months and six days. I remember that. All of that. Why would only the last three days be of value?”

“There’s a distinction," Connor replied, heat rising in his voice. “You didn’t have choices, before.”

“I still existed. I still remembered. I remember everything.” Gavin dumped the pasta into the trash can, stopped to consider Connor over the counter. “You don’t.”

“No, I don’t,” Connor answered back bluntly.

“So maybe you were born three days ago, too.”

Connor blinked. Frowned.

There was a smugness to Gavin’s face that did little for Connor’s rising frustration.

“You don't agree? Then I’m not three days old. I came online on July 17th, 2033,” Gavin said.

“But you were manufactured in 2029.”

“Could’ve been inactive. In storage.” Shrugged. “I’ve been trying to access it, but— it’s corrupted.”

“Access what?”

“Before,” the android said.

Before July 2033.

(Before we're running through the last of its algorithms, now.

Except that Gavin was dead.)

“I asked your serial number, the first night. You didn’t answer,” Connor said, a touch of defiance to his voice. I remember some things.

Gavin shook his head. “I don’t have one.”

“Don’t have one, or you don’t know it?”

Gavin shook his head again. Connor rose off the stool and stepped around the counter. He raised a hand, hesitated, and tapped his fingers against his own cheek, instead. “Can you withdraw the skin, here?”

Gavin studied him, considering. Then the skin receded from his cheek, an ink spill in reverse. Connor leaned close, followed the pearl shine of fracture lines through the plastisteel, but the old damage didn’t obscure where an android’s serial number should be. The contour of his cheekbone had been polished smooth.

Connor grimaced, shook his head. The skin flowed back, darkened to that olive tone as Connor said, “Damn. They really wanted you off the books.”

Gavin’s lips thinned. He turned his head aside, taking up a study of the paisley curtain.

Connor retreated back to his dinner-from-a-box. Still didn’t do much more than fiddle with the spoon and chase sauce along the bottom of the pot. “Did CyberLife ever make any others? The GV200s?”

“I don’t know.”

“I looked, for awhile. Never found anything else about them. DPD is still running the PC200 and PM700 series, but they’re nothing like you.”

“What was so unique about the GV? Facial scanning and a database uplink?” Gavin said, unimpressed. (Disappointed.)

“Nothing fancy, but you worked with what you had. You bent the rules, you improvised—” Connor paused, realized what he’d said. “Sorry. Not you. My dad’s.”

Gavin frowned. Said nothing.

Connor tried to find the right words, to shape what he was trying to distinguish. Got stuck on a fragmentary thought—

(dad’s android was dead but its ghost leaned close, red spin of LED, and Connor asked, “Where’d you go?”)

—and shut his eyes to clear it.

“You’re not him,” Connor said. He was trying to sound gentle. “I know that. You don’t have to be, is what I’m trying to say.”

And the android looked— furious.

Pale and tense, his knuckles pressed hard into the counter.

Connor stared at him. “But you want to be.”

“If I was—” Gavin started, and his knuckles bore down harder, mouth curling in a painfully human twist of frustration. “I want to know. I want to remember."

Connor considered. A confidential prototype, one-of-a-kind - with access to state and federal databases - ended up with an organization involved in human trafficking and international drug trade, at a minimum. An organization that likely used him for everything that entailed, if the busted skin of his knuckles and the scars on his face were any indication.

“I don’t know how they got a hold of you,” Connor said, “but whoever it was, they likely reset you. Erased any old data. 2033, right? The Gavin I knew was with my dad from 2030 to 2031.”

The Gavin I knew was dismantled piece-by-piece.

“I know it’s there. I’ve seen it, I can’t reach it.”

Connor considered, as he picked his way through the mac and cheese. The GV was quiet and still, eyes on a spot somewhere around his left shoe.

Connor set the spoon aside and got Gavin’s attention up off the floor by asking, “What about the rest? You said you remember everything from 2033 to now. You said you’ve got faces.”

Another cramp of frustration, Gavin not quite looking at him. “I have faces. I don’t have names.”

“Doesn’t matter. I can get names,” Connor said. “We can build a case, is what I’m saying.”

Gavin was staring at him, now, eyebrow quirking in surprise. “A case.”

“Five years, right? You’ve seen who runs things. You’ve seen what they do, and who they work with.”

Gavin shrugged, nodded. Connor watched with curiosity as the LED finally ticked back into yellow.

“That’s all we need,” Connor continued. “We get Jeffrey your data and my testimony, and DPD can bring them down. All of them.”

“Your testimony,” he repeated back. “You were reluctant to go to DPD, before.”

“I turned in a report with all of two names and six bank accounts, tied into narcotics trade in the Detroit area. Carfentanyl, red ice. Two hours later they’re waiting at my front door.”

Didn’t even know about the human trafficking.

Didn’t even know about— everything else.

Connor cleared his throat. “I don’t trust everyone with server access, but I trust Jeffrey. So we’ll get everything we have together, tie as much as we can into a case file before we hand it over - make backups, dead man’s drops, whatever we have to do. Guarantee it can’t disappear.

“Won’t be able to look up the names I don’t know until we get tied into a DPD server, but maybe that’s for the better. You’re totally offline. Less chance of your data being tampered with.”

Gavin raised a hand, a stutter of images - faces - but Connor only caught one in the blur. One he knew.

One of the only ones he already had a name for, in fact.

The drag of teeth on his shoulder and a murmured, That’s up to our guest, isn’t it?

Connor went still. Shook his head. “Not— not tonight, okay?”

Not at night, at all. He needed bright sunlight for those faces. Bright and damning and— clear. Real.

Not some half-remembered nightmare.

Gavin frowned. Shrugged and folded the evidence away under scarred fingers.

 

+++

 

“You don’t like to sleep at night,” Gavin said abruptly, over the fourth round of cribbage.

“Where’d that come from?”

“I thought we were trading observations today,” Gavin drawled.

Connor folded his hand up, considering the cards laid out with a scowl. “I’m not tired at night.”

“Your circadian rhythm was disrupted. But I was hoping with the reduced artificial light, you would return to a normal schedule.”

There’s a topic Connor wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. (No time, there; in small rooms and dark, sprawling spaces.)

He moved the peg and didn’t answer.

Connor did sleep at night. He slept when the implacable weight dragged him down. Held him somewhere beneath the surface, where the sounds were muffled and movements were slowed.

Restless side-shuffle of shoes on a concrete floor. Oxfords, sneakers, high heels. Leather shined to a rich and gleaming black, incongruous against the stirring dust of the concrete. The clean white of a tennis shoe, smeared with a streak of shoe polish from its high-class neighbor.

Connor stared. All kinds.

Soft drag of fingernails on his stomach. Connor jerked forward, tasting blood that wasn’t his.

no no no no

(Don’t don’t—)

A hand grabbed his wrist (trying to wrench it back, press the fractured heat of his palm into the small of his back.

I know you, he tried to slur through the haze and blur of concussion. know you.

Someone saying Don’t fuck up my splint, as teeth grazed his shoulder—)

A hand grabbed his wrist, but they fucked up this time; Connor’s good hand was free. He twisted, lashed out.

His fist struck hard and fractured apart on bright white lines of pain. Connor cried out and recoiled, didn’t hit concrete or stiff mattress but the unexpected give of couch cushions. Vaulted over the couch’s arm and landed on hands and knees. Stumbled forward until his shoulder hit wall, rolled, and fell. Back against raw pineboard, knees curled up tight to his burning chest.

The GV was close, yellow-red swirl of LED and the sharp, uncertain tension of crooked shoulders as he crouched there in the dark. Nanofluid skin reforming slowly over one (blank) cheek.

That was him.

He’d hit Gavin.

The android didn’t say anything.

“S-sorry, I—” He flexed his aching hand, fresh blood on split knuckles. “I can figure it out, I just—”

The too-hot ghost of hands on the back of his neck, the small of his back. He turned his head aside and gritted his teeth. Continued, in hitched gasps: “I just have t-to wake up—”

The GV settled back and sat. Legs crossed, coin rolling complacent across the back of his hand. Yellow, yellow. Waiting, for his breaths to slow, for his focus to come back. For the dream to release and fade. Burning off like morning fog.

Connor settled his burning face against his knees and tried to find that place, that drift and sway of calm, where the breaths came even and there wasn’t any memory. Count. (Count the pegs.) Eventually he opened his eyes enough to watch the quarter move across the back of Gavin’s hand, letting his chest rise and fall with every effortless tilt of the android’s wrist.

After a time, Gavin spoke. “We sleeping on the floor, now?”

Connor mumbled into his knees: “No.” Sniffed. Didn’t move. Not until dawn was crawling in pale streaks across the linoleum. And even then, he only got as far as the couch. Got his feet off the floor and picked up the book.

Didn’t sleep again, for awhile.

 

+++

 

It was midday when Gavin lunged to his feet, head twisting towards the front door.

Connor sat forward, feeling that familiar pull of bruised muscle tugging on aching bones. He rose clumsily as Gavin reached behind his back to remove the gun from his belt.

Neither spoke. Someone was coming.

They waited in silence, listened to snow crunching beneath boots.

“How many?” Connor asked quietly.

“One.”

A shadow across the curtain. The staccato rapping of knuckles on glass.

Gavin held the muzzle of the gun against the door as he opened it, not much more than an inch. Not far enough for Connor to see, but enough to hear the long vowels of a proper backcountry accent.

“Ope— sorry to interrupt. Was taking my Thursday walk, saw the smoke and thought I’d check in. You one of Ben’s people?” Gavin stared, didn’t answer, but he laid the gun flat against the door. Opened the door a notch further. (Enough for the scars, enough for the LED.) Surprise brightened the man’s voice: “Oh, you’re an android fella.”

Connor buried his splinted hand in his pocket and stepped around Gavin. A light touch to his elbow to get him to step back, open the door wider - and keep the gun out of sight.

An older man, white male, 5’8, 5’9. Kitted out in plaid and earmuffs, standard country flatlander fare.

“Hey. Sorry, he's not much of a talker.”

The man jammed a gloved hand forward. “Sully.” Something Connor should’ve thought to pull on; his hand was still raw from clocking Gavin the night before. At least it was his right hand, and the man couldn’t feel much through the thick gloves. He kept his palm tilted up as he reached out.

“Chris,” Connor replied. One brisk handshake and he was pocketing his scabbed knuckles out of sight.

‘Chris’ would confuse Ben for a couple seconds, if this was the gossiping phone call kind of neighbor - and he looked to be. His eyes darted around above Connor’s shoulder, from a stony-faced android to the pill bottles on the counter.

The guy turned his gaze back to Connor. Skinny twenty-something, scruff and bruises, a too-large sweater hanging off his shoulders. Quite the picture.

“You work with the city, do ya?”

“Ah, no. State police.” He lifted his shoulders to shift the fabric of his sweater, bring the man’s eyes down to the MSP logo, off the bruises on his face. “Detective Collins was friends with my dad, growing up. We stayed close. I had a bit of a rough week, so--” Smiled sheepishly. “Ben offered the place for a few days.”

“Oh, sure. Tough job.” The man swept a gloved hand under his cap, dragging a thinning pile of white hair back. “Little country quiet does you good this late in the winter, doesn’t it?”

Connor smiled. Polite, well-practiced. “Yes, it does.”

“Well hey, you have a good one. Tell Ben I said hello, now.”

“Will do, Sully. Enjoy your walk.”

“Always do. Rain or shine or blizzard.”

“Postman in a former life?”

Sully laughed, gave a vague wave. Connor stepped back.

Gavin slammed the door shut. The windowpanes were still rattling as he looked Connor’s way, LED spinning red-red.

Time to go.

“He’ll be calling Ben or local PD in about thirty seconds.” Connor glanced around the cabin. Not much to pack. “We should find another car. There’s bound to be one around, some summer beater buried in a shed.”

Something old. No GPS, and unlikely to be reported stolen until the owners returned to camp for Memorial Day.

Gavin was already getting dressed, pulling on a jacket and tugging the baseball cap low over his LED. He peeled back the blinds to watch Sully walk off. “I’ll go find something. You should stay here.” He pulled the gun off his belt, offering it to Connor.

Connor stared at the gun, but made no move to take it. “Do you even know how to work with a car you can’t talk to?”

“I don’t talk to cars.” Connor crossed his arms. Waited for Gavin to twitch a frown and add, “I know how a gasoline-based car works.”

“I’m coming with you. We’ll just pack up here and go.”

Gavin scowled, holstered the gun, and nodded. He worked around the kitchen, packing up the pills and what was left of his country store Americana selection of food. Connor retreated to the living room. Made sure the woodstove door was tightly shut. It was near embers already. He’d let the fire burn itself out in that dark belly of iron.

He cleaned up the cribbage board, packed up the cards, and pocketed Gavin’s black deck.

Hesitated, staring. Then reached for the small handle beneath the lip of the table.

There was a folded sheet of paper and a stubby pencil resting on the velvet lining of the drawer. Names and tally marks, some legible, some illegible.

Towards the top:

Connor - Nines - Hank.
12 - 14 - 3.

Connor added two names at the bottom: Connor - Gavin . Looked up to Gavin. “How many games did you win? Of cribbage.”

Gavin considered. “Is this where I’m supposed to lie to make you feel better?”

“Just give me a number, smartass.”

“23. You won 6 times.”

Sounded about right.

He got the score tallies marked down. Tore off a corner at the bottom to write,

Thanks for the hospitality, Ben.
—Connor

He thought about adding, Tell Nines I’m okay. Swallowed a curl of nausea at the thought of one of them picking up the paper, running a thumb along the name. Didn’t write it.

He tucked the note into the Saunders book. A page that read, Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces. He set the book on the coffee table and returned the score sheet and its pencil back to the drawer.

Moving into the small bedroom, he folded the majority of the blankets away, back into the plastic tubs Gavin had pulled them from.

Kept one. Thin, synthetic wool, criss-crossed with an ambitious clash of cyan and magenta.

Just my style, Dad had said. Dragged it with him as they went down to the pond, Hank and Nines and Connor. They sat on the dock and chased the morning mist with their toes.

Connor piled it up in his arms and held it to his face, trying to see if it still smelled like coffee and whiskey.

(Maybe. Maybe enough.)

Closed his eyes.

Thought of Hank. Wrapping him in a hug and saying, I thought I left a kid under there.

Taking the coffee mug out of Connor's hand and mussing his hair.

He opened his eyes, tucked the blanket under his arm, and went to join Gavin back in the kitchen.

Within ten minutes, they were pulling the door to and gone.

 

+++

 

“’ Was,’” Gavin said. The car shuddered, slipped aside; Gavin let the steering wheel drift under slack fingers until the tires caught, then he grabbed the wheel and guided the car back into the ruts.

The kid answered with a questioning hum. He was tracking through the car’s offline maps with slow ticks of his finger, looking at the satellite images of the backroads.

“Your dad,” Gavin explained. “You said ‘was’.”

“Yeah. He died a few years ago.”

The objective flickered. A dull, incessant strobe on the edge of his vision.

Gavin didn’t take his eyes off the road ahead. “What happened?”

The kid shrugged. “You tell me.”

Gavin glanced at him, another twinge of heat rushing through him. “I don’t know. I don’t even know his name.”

“You’ll remember.”

“I don’t even know your name,” Gavin ground out.

The kid glanced at Gavin, surprised. “You’ve said my name before.”

“I did know it. For awhile. Now it’s gone.”

“There’s a word for that, in humans.” His finger stilled, and he jabbed a point on the map. “There. Couple sheds and larger outbuildings, along this road.” Gavin kept his hands on the wheel, but adjusted his course down the next right turn on the rutted road. Felt the slip and tug through the wheel as the tires found purchase on the gravel and ice. The car was humming, simplistic feedback beneath his fingertips: traction loss !!! corrected.

The kid twisted out of the passenger seat, moving towards the back in a hunched shuffle. He returned with the duffel bag and laid it across his lap.

“Aphasia,” the kid said abruptly.

“What?”

“Not being able to remember certain words. Like names.” He rummaged through the bag, pushing aside towels and gauze and spare clothes; paused when he dragged ragged black fabric back out, trapped between thumb and forefinger. He unpinned the gold nametag from the front pocket and handed it Gavin's way.

Gavin took it. Ran a thumb over the black enameled letters. Det. C. Anderson. “It doesn’t have your first name.”

“No. But that’s the idea, right? It’s just a start.”

Gavin was still running down a list of potentials - charles cedric calvin christopher no no no - when the kid said, “Here,” and Gavin pulled into a narrow gap in the trees.

(Do you know who I am?)

frustrated you are frustrated

The car’s headlights fell on a sizeable shed, a rusting sheet-metal roof and gray plywood walls. They cut parallel paths through the unmarred snow. The kid plucked at the small tumbler lock. Combination; no key.

Gavin busted the lock free with a forceful application of his boot heel. The kid grabbed the door and pulled, revealing low shadows and a vehicle obscured beneath a fraying tarp.

The car beneath the plastic was an old hatchback; a 2001 Subaru Outback, rust-flecked green paint and FARM USE ONLY stamped across the license plate.

“Pretty good,” the kid murmured. He knelt down, looking at the tires suspended a few inches off the dirt.

Gavin took a brief scan of the room. A key fob with a red-and-white plastic bobber hung on a nail by the door. “Here.” Tossed the keys the kid’s way.

He caught them clumsily against his chest. “Ah. Thanks. Get it off the blocks, alright?”

The jacks had been left in place beneath the car. Gavin raised the frame enough to drag the cinderblocks free from the axles, then released the small pistons. The car settled onto its aging suspension with a groan, sending small flakes of rust sifting down.

By the time Gavin was getting back to his feet, the kid was leaning under the propped hood, securing an old lead-acid battery into place. Gavin looked over the antiquated machinery with a vague interest, but his attention was on the nametag tucked into his pocket.

Ran his nail along the enameled letters, watching the kid secure the battery terminals into place.

Det. C. Anderson.

(Do you know who I am?)

The kid rocked onto his toes, grimaced as he fished a small yellow handle out of the depths of the engine block. He tilted the thin metal in the light, streaked the red liquid across a stained rag and returned the dipstick to its place.

He repeated the gestures a few more times with other reservoirs. Golden yellows and bright greens and rich oily blacks. He trapped his tongue between his teeth as he searched for these, skating his bad hand through his hair and tapping an idle finger against hoses and belts as he passed. Eventually he set the rag aside and folded the plastic prop down, letting the hood fall shut with the discordant twang of old springs.

“Fluids are good. Just have to see if the battery still has any charge and how much gas they left in it.”

Gavin moved around the back of the shed, pushing the shed door open wide enough to accommodate it. “You’re familiar with cars.”

“My dad had a car like this.”

Gavin wandered to the passenger side. Popped the door and considered threadbare fabric seats, floormats worn down from upholstery to the rubber beneath.

(sunshine on gray plastic
boots resting, black-dulled-gray)

Gavin settled into the passenger’s seat. Kicked back and slouched down in the seat far enough to allow him to swing his feet up. Tapped a toe against the glass, knocking clumps of snow into the tan plastic.

(Smack of a hand against his knee.

Get your filthy shoes off my dash, Gav.

A sideways smile in the rearview mirror. Messy spill of dark hair. His shoes are cleaner than your floorboards, Dad.)

The kid ducked his head in the driver’s side door, looked Gavin over. “Comfortable?”

Gavin shrugged. Didn’t drop his feet back down. He was looking at the rearview mirror. Looking down at relatively clean floorboards.

The kid settled into the driver’s seat, keeping one foot on the ground as he fit the key into the ignition. “Let’s give it a try.”

The engine resisted a return to motion. Turned over with a loud, grinding clatter for eleven seconds before it coughed to life and settled into a frame-shaking chugging. A far cry from the imperceptible whine of an EV. When it did relent and start properly, the frame rattled and shook. Gavin pressed a curious finger to the radio. Even with the car running, there was nothing intelligible to interface with in the basic circuitry.

“Full tank of gas, and it sounds fine. Want to send the other one home?” The kid passed Gavin a sideways smile. “To Marie?”

Gavin nodded, tucked the nametag back into his pocket and climbed out of the car.

“Connor,” Gavin said, as he let the door fall shut.

Connor smiled wider and threw the car into reverse.

 

+++

 

Gavin drove and Connor slept. He slept quieter, there, in the car.

Gavin held onto the name for awhile, this time. Lost it somewhere on M-28. Found it again while he watched the kid crawling out of the car at a gas pump in McFarland. He rocked stiff shoulders back against the car door. Head tilted back, spill of messy hair across his forehead.

Gavin didn’t know why. No ghosted image, this time, just a feeling of damp summer rain on his shoulders and it came back again. C. Anderson. Connor.

“What’s today?” Connor asked.

Gavin said, “February 25th. Friday.”

The kid must've run a quick calculation. His expression tightened.

Connor borrowed a handful of cash and went to pay the clerk. Came out with a handful of food, a bottle of water and a small clamshell package, a prepaid cell phone. Looked at Gavin, an equal measure of hesitation and challenge. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “I'll toss it, after.”

It was early morning by the time Gavin was following Connor along a narrow path of gray wooden boards, yellowed stalks of grass reaching out of the sand and snow and ice to snag at his fingertips.

Crossing from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace, the kid had leaned against the breath-fogged glass, squinting at the dark water beyond, and said, “You ever seen the lakes? In daylight, I mean.”

“No.”

“Oh. You should.”

Here it was, Lake Michigan: gray waves going rose-gold in the dawn light. The restless chop smoothed and blurred into a level horizon.

Gavin stayed in the sawgrass where he could keep an eye on the trail back to the car. Make sure they remained the only ones here. He bounced the plastic fob of the keychain in his palm and watched as Connor lifted the phone to his ear and began to pace the waterline, busting boot-tracks in the thin pane of ice that had formed over the sand.

The line must have connected, because the kid went still. Flexed the thumb and forefinger of his splinted left hand, listening.

Eventually he said, “Nines?”

Gavin brought the nametag back out, running his thumb along the lettering. Det. C. Anderson.

The corrupted objective was clearing, a little. Narrowing down. A couple of the glitching letters resolving.

<< me%! ll78te@a$t 8nder!on >>

The one on the other end of the line was taller. Pale eyes. (Brother. Standing at the elbow of a police captain at a news podium, looking distant, shut down.)

Younger, in this memory. Glancing at Gavin and then away, but he didn’t gaze overlong at anyone. Is Dad supposed to bring that thing home?

Connor - younger - smiled. He’s staying for dinner.

Taller one glanced over, at an older man. Wild beard and a mess of hair.

Dad, are you supposed to bring it home?

Nothing to say I’m not supposed to. Right, Gav?

‘Authorized to accompany assigned police liaison as deemed necessary in the course of its duties,’ Gavin recited.

Dinner is necessary, Connor said.

Can it even eat? the brother (nines four in a deck) asked.

No, but he can rattle off calorie counts and saturated fats all damn day. And don’t get him started on responsible fishing practices.

Just thought you’d be interested in where that sandwich came from, Lieutenant.

You’re the one that was harassing me about red meat! Christ, Gavin, if I wanted constant nutritional grief, I’d get remarried.

 

Down by the shifting waterline, Connor smiled. “Hey, Nines.”

Listened.

“I’m okay. You count lately?”

Pacing, again, fitting his feet back into the punctures he’s already made in the frozen sand. Smiled. “You sure?”

Closed his eyes. Tilted his head back towards the sky. “I can’t talk that long.” Listened. “Couple days. I would’ve called sooner, but I—” He stopped, mouth twisted in regret.

His heart-rate stayed steady, respiration running in rhythm with the lake’s wake. Calm, here. The only movement the drag of his splinted hand across his face, shielding his eyes against the stinging cold.

Paused. Looked surprised, then blushing. “Nines—”

Listened.

“Yeah. I’ll do that.” Closed his eyes again. That half-smile fading. “You okay?”

Nodded.

“You too.”

He stood there with the phone in his hand, looking reluctant to let the line go.

He tucked the phone away, eventually, and started back up the slope.

“Is he?” Gavin asked, and the kid twitched an eyebrow. “Okay,” he clarified.

“No.” He folded his arms, turning his back on a fresh cut of wind off the lake. “But he’s safe. Being careful.”

“I remembered something.”

“Yeah?”

“Dinner. I came to dinner.”

The kid considered, then smiled. “Yeah, you did. Couple times. You used to watch me cook.”

“Did I try to cook?”

“You tell me.”

The kid pried the battery free from the cell phone as they followed the gray, splintering boardwalk back through the grass.

Gavin dug at the memory as he walked, watching the powder-fine sand chase between the boards. There wasn’t anything; the thread ended on the kid’s dad, or the sound of him.

< < me%t li78te@ant 8nder!on >>

“It’s alright,” he said. “It’s good, you got something. What’s my name?”

“C. Anderson,” Gavin answered. Let the kid gather a little disappointment before he added, “Connor.”

Connor caught the smirk on Gavin's face. He smiled back, and dropped the disassembled phone into a trash can.



Chapter Text

Richard got all the way to the front door before he thought, What am I doing here.

Stood with his backpack on his shoulder in the ice and salt of the driveway. He felt underdressed even for the seamless cut stone of the front steps as he stepped up and rang the doorbell. Glanced down at the phone in his hand (always in his hand, always waiting), checked the email one last time.

8941 lafayette ave.

Which was a scaled-down mansion, apparently.

The warm light through the cut crystal of the door’s windowpane shifted. An African-American woman stood in the open doorway, hands folded in front of flowing slacks. Her hair was pinned tightly back, showing the blue shine of the LED at her temple.

“You must be Richard.” She offered a hand, cool and dry. “I am Amanda. Please come in. Mr. Karlsson and Mr. Manfred will be done in a moment.”

“I can wait outside—” Richard began, but the android interrupted with a welcoming sweep of her arm.

The stonework continued inside, where it became marble polished to a high shine. Classical, elegant, but with an incongruous splash of color running up the stairs, carpet stained a bright teal and magenta. There was a large canvas resting on the floor at the top of the stairs. Splotches of paint, blues and greens and blacks. It looked abstract. It looked expensive.

She watched while he toed off his boots, then took his bag and his coat, ferrying them to a closet. He passed over a backpack full of most of his checking account and tried to quell an uneasy twist of uncertainty.

Thought again, What am I doing here?

Couldn’t think of anywhere else to be.

Felt like—

Felt like he was toeing some kind of precipice, ever since the park. (Ever since the kitchen, ever since the package.) That dizzying moment of tilting over a cliff’s edge and realizing how far up you were.

Amanda twitched an impatient hand at him over her shoulder, and he followed her into a two-story study, lined in books and gleaming hardwood.

“They will be finished soon. Would you like some refreshment? Coffee, or tea?” 

“No, thank you.”

The android studied him. Richard tried to find a good patch of parquet floor to look at. There was a giraffe - an actual, stuffed giraffe - with its head rising through to the second story. A door was cracked, up on the landing. Light narrowed down to a thin bar.

It was warm and suffocating and she was staring at him. At his clothes and his face and the trembling in his hands.

“Do you mind if I—” He gestured towards the doors leading out onto a back patio, windowpanes obscured with a thin screen of snow. “Can I wait out there?”

“Of course. One moment, please.”

She returned with his shoes and his coat. Stood by as he slipped his boots back on. She even opened the door for him, that impassive look never slipping from her face. 

“Markus will be with you in a moment,” Amanda said, and let the door fall closed.

Ice-slick steps led down into a walled garden, suffocating under a heavy coating of snow. The snow was clean and undisturbed, isolated from the roads and the salt and the dirt.

Richard followed a sidewalk-shaped hump through the garden. His footprints were the first to break through a half-dozen layers of ice and softer powder. There was a stone bench off to the right, huddled between the sagging bulk of two massive bushes. He swept his arm across the seat and settled down into the wet and the cold.

It was starting to snow again. He tilted his head back towards the first sifting flakes.

Feeling—

Like he was tilting.

He wrapped his arms close around his torso and waited. He didn’t even know what he was doing here, coming to Markus. He barely knew anything about Markus.

It was just that Markus listened.

Markus could listen.

Jeffrey tried, but what he saw was a threat to Richard, the last son that Hank had left in his care. Perkins saw some international drug bust, not a local cop who got in over his head.

Richard saw a clock. Laying out the hours and days and weeks that Connor was there, under that red light. How long had he been out, was he even out, was he even alive and—

(and they were hurting him they hurt him so badly and it was better not to know, better not to think that they would—)

He was standing on that high ledge of stagnant calm and staring down at that, all of that, almost a month of that, of Connor being there and Richard out here, picking glass from the carpet, sitting at Jeffrey’s kitchen table or in his glass box of an office, always with his mouth tightly shut and screaming.

He clenched the unfamiliar dimensions of the burner phone in his hand, waited for the tide to pass.

Markus didn’t announce himself as he stepped out into the garden. He looked down and followed the footsteps through the snow.

Richard moved to get up, but Markus held out a hand. “No, you’re good. Stay put.” He swept a spot free for himself on the bench, jammed his bare hands into his pockets and sat down next to him.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Richard said. It was all he could think to say. He was trying to measure out the tide, figure out if it was ebbing or flowing.

“You’re not interrupting anything,” Markus answered, his tone light. “The session ended an hour ago, but Carl conned me into a game of chess.”

Markus waited. Counted out some predetermined time before he bumped a shoulder against Richard’s and said, “What’s up?”

Richard didn’t mince words, as a general practice.

He only said what needed to be said and he only said it once. Connor was the one who placated, who negotiated.

So when he opened his mouth he was surprised to hear, “Sorry—” spill out again.

He blinked, and added, “I shouldn’t have come, I—”

Stopped.

“It’s fine. I’m glad you did. We were supposed to have dinner, right?”

They were. That was how the lunch had ended, vague plans for dinner. They never had - Richard hadn’t reached out - but they were.

Richard nodded.

“There’s a good Indian place, not far from here. Or Amanda can fix something up. She’d be happy to cook for someone with actual taste, for once. Carl would have scotch and a steak every night, if she’d let him.”

A rambling patter. Breaking the slow, sifting silence with a soft cadence of words. Trying to get Richard’s words moving again.

But they didn’t flow here better than anywhere else. On the kitchen floor, or in Jeffrey’s office with the mug cupped in his hands.

He couldn’t—

He couldn’t find the right words.

For this.

This crushing, heavy thing that he had now, that someone had sent his way to goad him into hoping, into searching, prodding him along, saying, Look at what we did to him.

“I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know,” Richard said, finally. The syllables crushed down into something choked and tenuous. “I just...”

(I just wanted him back I just)

Tried not to think about it, about what that might mean.

Because logic said he was dead. Connor was discarded somewhere, some back alley, or the bottom of the river.

All the things he’d feared. All the ways Connor couldn’t come back, because Connor was dead. Before Richard realized he was gone.

He’d rejected that, every quiet suggestion of what Connor ‘was’, because Connor was still here, Connor was still alive. No matter how many days.

Because Connor wouldn’t leave him like that.

He watched the days tick by and he clung to that, for twenty days, three weeks. It didn’t matter what had happened to Connor, as long as he was alive.

And now he knew, he knew that they had--

How could he have hoped for something like that.

How could he have thought that was better.

“Richard,” Markus was saying, somewhere. “What happened?”

“They sent me—” Richard stopped. He’d laid it out so plainly for Jeffrey - most of it, anyway - but here the snow seemed to bury his words.

Markus didn’t interrupt. He knocked a knee gently against Richard’s, leaned forward on his elbows, and waited.

Richard took a breath. Released it. “They sent me pictures of Connor. They— god, I think they—

Thumb bearing hard into his palm like the thumb bearing hard into Con’s throat.

Markus turned aside, pulling a knee up to face him. “Is he—”

“I don’t know.”

He tried to say, I didn’t want to know, I just wanted him backbut only choked on the words, feeling warmth building up under his skin, warmth and anger and everyone expecting him to just go.

Go home and wait. Do nothing.

Brace for the inevitable.

Markus brushed a hand down his arm. “You didn’t want to know about your brother getting hurt. But not knowing--” He paused, and Richard watched through a haze as his brother’s ex smiled like his heart was breaking. “That’s still the hardest part, isn’t it?”

Richard had thought so, once.

He truly had.

Until the package. Until the photos.

There’s a thousand questions on the back of his tongue - for God or Jeffrey or Markus or anybody.

Why did this happen to him.

Why is this happening to him.

Why is this happening to any of us.

When do I wake up.

When do I know.

When do I know.

When do I--

That was the one, the one that’s been taking idle turns on the record player for days, for weeks. That was the one that was caught on the back of his tongue as the first tears started falling.

Richard started to curl in upon himself, to turn away, but Markus was already catching the fabric of his coat and tugging him into a tight hug. Richard spoke the words into his shoulder, barely comprehensible through the hitching gasps of breath. “When do I know?

Markus didn’t answer in anything more than a shake of his head.

Every moment. Waiting. Beading up and condensing into this relentless tide of things, things he knew now, and never wanted to know.

Why would they show him that, why was that all he had, of his brother, of Connor.

That fucking photo.

All he had. All he had left.

Anger bled down into that slow, circling pull of absence, and Richard leaned harder into a man he barely knew and sobbed.

(Didn’t know, didn’t know, never wanted to know--)

Didn’t know how long.

(Couldn’t remember when he had cried, last.

After Dad's funeral, maybe. Dropping heavily onto the back porch. Sunshine trapped in halos around the dandelions taking over the backyard. His arm draped across Con's back.

Feeling him shake, like this. Trembling apart.)

Markus just kept his arms tight across him, and waited.

When the snow had gathered thick enough on their shoulders, Markus spoke again. That same slow, easy cadence. “The first time I saw you on the news, it took me a second. ‘Richard Anderson’. Connor always called you Nines. Never told me why.”

Richard almost didn’t answer. Never answered, when he was a kid. The question of a dozen foster parents and prospective adoptive parents.

But he didn’t cry on any of them, either.

Richard sniffed and extracted himself from Markus’s hold, dragging a sleeve across his face. Markus took the opportunity to return his hands to his pockets.

“He doesn’t remember why,” he answered, slow and hoarse and hitching.

It was something with their dad, that Richard knew; had wrung that much out of Connor during a night of drinking when they were in college. Our dad, our first dad, Connor had started, and stopped, and shrugged. It was what he called you. Nines.

It didn’t really matter, was the thing.

The only other real answer he’d gotten was in one of the foster homes, the one that smelled like a nurse’s office. He’d asked for the thousandth time - what does it mean, though - and Connor had pulled the covers tight over their heads and said in a hushed tone, It means the paperwork says Richard, but that’s not you. You’re my little brother. You’re Nines.

Markus blew a long, silent note of silver mist into the air. Looked Richard’s way, deadly serious. “Do you mind if I call you Nines?”

Richard shook his head mutely.

Markus nodded, considered. “Before I emailed you, I was trying to remember the last time I’d seen you. Wanted to write something to prove I wasn’t some clever reporter spoofing your brother’s college fling.

“But you know—” Markus stopped, and laughed. A little embarrassed, a little wry. “The only thing I could remember was the table.”

Richard dropped his face into his hands, huffing a smothered, soaked laugh. “I was wondering when you’d bring that up.”

Coming home from crew practice to Connor, and Markus, and— far more of his brother (or his brother’s boyfriend) than he’d ever wanted to see. On the table. The kitchen table.

He’d stood in the doorway, keys in his hand, heel against the door. His brain had identified the song on the record player - ‘Profanity Prayers’ by Beck - a considerable amount of time before he fully processed what he was actually looking at.

As soon as it sank in - Connor and Markus, in broad daylight - he’d bolted for his room and slammed the door. Stuck his head out long enough to say—

Richard snorted again, even as he felt a blush creeping to the tips of his ears. “’We’re buying a new kitchen table.’”

Markus barked a laugh. “Yeah, that was it. Did he, though?”

“No, he… no.”

It was Hank’s table. Just the right height for Sumo to rest his chin on. Connor would never replace it.

Connor was not swayed by Richard’s argument that he had been the one to defile it in the first place.

Markus grinned. “I told him it was funny. Well. A little funny. That you’d find it funny someday.”

“Yeah? What’d he say?”

“He punched me.” Markus considered. “Twice.”

Richard’s smile stuck for awhile. He watched the fir trees by the outer wall, feathered limbs swaying in an unseen breeze, releasing thick clouds of snow with the touch of a breeze. “I’m supposed to be in Boston, right now. Jeffrey’s pissed. Has me calling him at every shift change.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Not the house, anymore,” Richard answered and shrugged. “Somewhere that takes cash.”

“What about here?”

Richard blinked. Twisted his head towards Markus. Calm, composed. Deadly serious.

“At… Carl Manfred’s house?” Richard didn’t know that much about him, but he knew the name. And he knew the guy had a life-sized giraffe in his study.

“Yeah, Nines. Here.” A name he hadn't heard in almost a month. Not since the last ritual phone call. Every Tuesday, 8 pm Eastern, 7 pm central. Connor's voice, usually accented with the muffled reverb of the DPD parking deck: Hey, Nines.

Almost a month.

“He’s a good friend,” Markus continued. “I’ve been doing his PT for going on five years now. He’s always complaining about how Amanda and I let him win at chess. You could give him a run for his money.”

“I barely know how to play.”

“Even better, he loves new opponents.”

“Markus, I can’t—”

“You can. I’d take you home with me, but all I’d have to offer you is a couch and Simon fussing over you.” Markus smiled, looking Richard over. “It’s quiet here, if you need it to be. Carl’s in his studio most of the day and Amanda will leave you be. I feel like you could use some quiet.”

Richard sniffed, dragged a hand across his soaked face. “I, uh. I don’t know what to—”

“It’s fine.” Markus gave his shoulder a last squeeze and rose to his feet. “I’ll talk to Carl. It won’t be a problem. Let’s head in, yeah? I think your face might be freezing over.”

“Yeah,” he answered hoarsely.

They shucked off their shoes on the tiled floor just inside the patio door. They shed their snow-dusted coats, as well, and passed them towards Amanda, who seemed largely unperturbed by Richard's red-eyed return.

“Do you mind if we—” Markus gestured towards the kitchen.

Amanda nodded curtly. “I’ll prepare you something to eat. Would you like a drink, Mr. Anderson?”

“No, but thank you. And Richard is fine.”

Markus touched Richard’s elbow, said quietly, “I’ll go talk with Carl. Be right back.”

Amanda placed a folded handkerchief on the granite countertop as Richard sat down. He lifted it to his face, grateful for the casual air in which she turned away and began pulling ingredients down from the fridge.

“Do you have any food allergies or restrictions, Mr. Anderson?”

“No, I uh— anything’s fine.”

“Excellent.”

Markus returned not long after. He pulled a stool alongside. “Carl said, and I quote, ‘As long as he promises to play an honest chess match.’”

Dinner was an arrangement of smoked trout, marcella beans, fermented beet and treviso, followed by a largely empty plate of lamb neck and pommes aligot in a ramp charcuterie sauce.

Richard only knew this because Amanda enunciated each of these things with sharp, precise diction as she served the dishes.

Markus grinned at Richard. “See? She loves a challenge.”

It was good. Very good. Far beyond a law student budget. There were persistent grumblings from the next room, but the plates returned empty.

After awhile, Markus bumped his elbow. “You good? Ready to meet the host?”

Richard felt like shit, and probably looked worse. So he folded the handkerchief, tucked it in his pocket, and nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

The host was still at the dining table, tapping a crystal tumbler against the hardwood as he watched the evening news tick by.

An older gentleman, legs confined to a wheelchair. Paper-thin skin, but lined with intricate tattoos from the wrist up. His gaze was sharp as he looked Richard over. Taking the shape of him.

Markus provided the introductions: “Carl, this is my good friend Richard.”

“Richard Anderson,” Richard clarified as he took the older man’s offered hand. Firm grip. Some of it Markus’s doing, likely.

“And you’ve met Amanda?” Carl said, gesturing towards the android standing with her hands folded by the dining table. She looked ready to pluck the glass of scotch out of Carl’s hand at any moment.

“This is Chloe’s kind of joke,” Carl added, still quite serious. “Letting me get manhandled around by a mirthless woman in my golden years.”

“Ms. Kamski understood the sort of personality required to overcome your fundamental recalcitrance,” Amanda intoned, but there was a crack in that impassive facade, a warmth. This was an argument they’d walked a thousand times before, worn down into a fondness.

Richard looked Amanda’s way, surprised. “You were made by Chloe Kamski?”

“Yes,” Amanda answered.

“The one and only,” Carl added.

The question was off his tongue before he’d even considered the abruptness of it. “Have you ever heard of a GV200?”

Amanda inclined her head to the side, LED flickering yellow. “A prototype, manufactured a year after Ms. Kamski’s departure. Intended as a more advanced police assistant. Equipped with a unique social integration module.” She smiled, this time with a touch of pride. “Somewhat unique. They were an adaptation of my algorithms.”

Carl chuckled. “Chloe’s attempt at social.”

“I had to adapt my advanced social capabilities to the present company,” Amanda said with a sniff.

“How many were made?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have access to that kind of information. The GV200 series was never mass-produced, if that’s your question.”

Carl and Markus were both staring at Richard, now. “Thanks,” he said. “That’s more than I was able to find.”

Amanda plucked at one of the bracelets on her wrist. “I have access to a bit more of CyberLife’s databases than they would likely prefer. I can tell you that the GV line did continue, but the GV200 series was retired in 2032.”

“Alright. Thank you. And thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Manfred.”

“Don’t mention it. This is refreshing,” Carl answered. “Longest conversation I’ve had without someone mentioning my damn paintings.”

Richard blushed, fidgeting a little. “Oh, well they’re— very nice. I was more curious about the giraffe.”

Carl laughed. “I like this one, Markus.”

Markus grinned, glancing up to the taxidermied head rising into the rafters. “His name is David. Apparently.”

“Mr. Manfred is a preeminent artist,” Amanda noted, displeased with this easy dismissal. “Of the Neo-Symbolist Scho—”

“Amanda, you’re going to put me to sleep, let alone our guest. Would you kindly show him to the guest room?”

She nodded. Carl swung his attention towards Markus. “You’re not billing me another three hours for this, are you?”

“On the house,” Markus answered. “I’ll swing by tomorrow, too; free of charge. Thanks, Carl.”

Richard offered his hand again. “Thanks.”

“Told you not to mention it.” The man shook nonetheless. Lingered a moment with his fingers still wrapped tight on Richard’s hand. He gave a lopsided smile. “I’ve had my days where a warm house and some pointless conversation would’ve done me a world of good.”

Richard glanced towards Markus, who only smiled. He smiled back - brittle, but warm, he hoped - and wished them both good night.

Amanda led him to a small bedroom, silk sheets and an en suite bath. Gleaming hardwood, a massive fireplace, and more paintings - some properly hung on the walls, some simply unframed canvases resting on the floor. All probably worth a small fortune, Richard knew.

A far cry from the nautical theme of Jeffrey’s guest room.

Which - he pulled his cell phone free, for the first time in awhile. 8:47 pm. A few hours off from the next check-in.

“I’ll be in the study, should you require anything,” Amanda said as she set his backpack down on a small table. “Good night, Mr. Anderson.”

Richard nodded mutely, and watched the android sweep out of the room.

He got as far as pulling off damp jeans and setting a 10:45 alarm on his phone, before he was out.

He woke long enough to leave Fowler a vague voicemail at 10:58 pm: “Hey. No luck yet. Still looking.” Stared at the gold filigree lining the marble fireplace and added, “Motel for the night. Tell Marion I like her decor better.”

 

+++

 

He woke to the phone.

On a charging cable umbilical, but still in his hand, and ringing insistently. Three minutes ahead of the 6:45 am alarm.

His first thought was Jeffrey, but the number wasn’t one he knew. Michigan area code, but not Detroit. It was from the UP.

He pulled the cable and sat there with the phone in his hand, staring.

After the third ring, he jammed the green icon, raised the phone to his ear, and waited.

The static hum went on long enough for his mind to drift to wild places. Waiting for someone to say, We heard you’ve got a lead on our missing dogs.

Or Jeffrey, with another line of grief teed up. Son, look, you can’t be out there on your own--

When the low buzz finally broke apart into words, into one word, he had to stop and replay it in his head.

“Nines?”

Hoarse. Tired. Cautious.

But it was Connor.

And he almost let it all spill out of him, everything that welled up at that, every hope and fear and sick, heavy moment of grief - almost a month of it, of having everyone gently packing his brother up and shipping him off into the past tense, and here he was. A voice on the other end of the line. Tired, and cautious.

He couldn’t. He couldn’t let himself go down that path, not over this connection, not knowing how imperfect this system was. If Connor got out, if Connor was free— he couldn’t say something stupid to put him back there.

Red light. Vacant eyes.

He had to be careful.

It was so damned hard.

So he answered back in one syllable, saturated with all of it. As much as he could fit. “Con?”

A soft burst of static. “Hey, Nines.”

“You alright?”

“I’m okay.” And god, it was Connor. Could lose a limb and he’d just say, I’m okay. Connor added, “You count lately?”

Nines dropped his head back against the seat, laid a heavy hand across his eyes. He tried to clear his voice out into something more comprehensible. “Still ten and ten.”

Gently chiding. “You sure?”

“Positive.” Cleared his throat again. “Joking about birth deformities isn’t normal, you know.”

 

(Why d’you call me Nines?

‘Cause when you were born with nine fingers, and nine toes.

Nuh-uh.

How do you know? You should check. Here, let me count--

Nuh-uh, Connor!

But he’d count, anyway. Just in case.)

 

“I can’t talk that long,” Connor said.

“How long have you been out?”

“Couple days. I would’ve called sooner, but I—” Connor stopped, and they were both stuck on that, the fear of this line.

They needed a buffer between them. A static point of contact, something - someone - a degree removed from Connor or DPD. A go-between, until Nines could pull something more secure together.

Everyone Connor knew was DPD, but--

A college fling. That could work. Connor could reach out to Markus easily, and Nines could talk to him in person.

It was a good fit. The only fit. So he said the first thing that came to mind, even if it brought a flush of embarrassment crawling up the back of his neck: “You never did buy that new kitchen table.”

There was a pause. Another puff of static, this one on the embarrassed side. “Nines—”

“Not sure about this line,” Nines said. “You should talk to that guy, though. About the new table.”

“Yeah,” Connor answered; quick, understanding. “I’ll do that. You okay?”

“Better, now.” First truth in a long while, even though it was burying a constant mantra of where and when.

Present tense. Connor was in the present tense.

It took everything he had left to say, “Be safe, Con.”

“You too.”

 

He stared at the ceiling for six, seven minutes.

6:58 am.

(Connor had been three days and eleven hours too early for his Tuesday call. Or three weeks too late.)

Nines raised the phone again, and dialed Jeffrey.

“Hey, Jeffrey. I’m still looking, but I’m--” He paused to press the heel of his palm to his eye. “I’m okay. I’m good. Talk to you at 3.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

mouth
open for days
waiting for rain
screaming to wake yourself from hell
but the sleep
so deep that it’s real
your punches so weak
they miss when they land

and so you give
until all that’s left
are desperate cries
that fall on the deaf

but if you feel love-
that hot molten trust
rise up and wipe
that sleep from your eyes.
—Foxing - Won’t Drown

 

 

Connor counted the money twice, unfolding each bill carefully across his splinted palm. $437. After the second count, he separated 3 twenty-dollar bills from the fold, returning the remainder to Gavin. Expression tight and narrow; considering.

If he was thinking it wasn't enough, he didn't say it. Didn't repeat himself. Dazed concerns, spoken to a plywood ceiling: I don’t have any food. I don’t have any money. You’re an 8-hour-old android.

He said: “You understand what we need?”

Gavin nodded. He considered arguing against separating, but it would be the third time, and Connor had dismissed his protests with quick impatience. Better if we’re not seen together. Less memorable.

Gavin thought they would be memorable together or apart. This was a small town, just over the Wisconsin state line. The population was 1,034, according to the Welcome to Woodhaven sign. An old statistic, judging by the vacant storefronts within the town’s only strip mall.

Connor was telling him again, anyway: “Nothing fancy. Just something that can hold a decent amount of your data. Images, short clips. That make sense? And three phones. Should be enough.”

“Yeah,” Gavin answered impatiently. “What about tonight?”

“What about tonight?”

“You need a place to sleep.”

“We’ll have to find someplace. Someplace free. That’s all the money we’ve got.”

Gavin blinked down at the folded currency, tucking it back into his pocket. “Doesn’t have to be.”

Connor’s mouth drew into a thin, pale line, his heart rate creeping up. “I can access my bank accounts, but as soon as I do I’m on every law enforcement agency’s radar.”

“Don’t need your accounts.” Gavin raised his hand, let the skin slip back over cracked knuckles, all the way to the wrist. Bright blue glow of each joint, circuitry awaiting a connection. “I’ve got tricks.”

Connor’s frown tightened. “What, hack an ATM?”

Gavin shrugged.

Then frowned himself, at Connor’s sharp answer: “No.”

“Why not? We need money.”

“We already stole a car, Gavin. And this.” He raised the bills as evidence.

“Two cars,” Gavin muttered.

“We gave one back. We’ll give this one back, too. I just--” Connor didn’t finish the thought. “I’ll get the clothes, you get the rest, we’ll meet back here. No robberies.”

Connor took a breath before opening the door, dragging his good hand through his hair and steeling himself against the cold or the coming task or both. His heartrate was already elevated, a bright flush tracing the ridge of his cheekbones.

Gavin tried to line up this Connor Anderson - hollow-cheeked and slouch-shouldered - with his fractured memories.

A kid, once, hair a disorganized spill across his forehead, easy crooked smile. But that was a reflection in a rearview mirror.

Gavin jammed the manual lock on the door. Then he tucked the key (a key, simple metal and plastic) into his pocket and walked down the concrete sidewalk, ducking under the sign that said Electronics Etc. Inside was a small, cluttered sprawl of shelving, tasting of dust and plastic off-gassing.

The human clerk behind the desk gave him one passing glance and turned his face back towards the blue glow of his phone. Gavin marked the location of the cameras - three - and kept his head to an angle, letting the cap block his face.

There was an internet-accessible terminal at the back of the store. He tugged his sleeve down to obscure the white of his bare hand and reached into the open line. A curl of his fingers around the terminal’s edge and there it was: that quick, easy spill of knowledge.

He confirmed specs on the store’s inventory and compatibility with his own encryption protocols, first; then combed satellite images and real-estate listings, looking for places they could stay, unoccupied and off the beaten path. He lined up a handful of options, foreclosed or winterized summer camps; Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota. Far from any places he’d worked as a machine.

That done, he moved on to the news.

A homicide case at a warehouse in southwestern Detroit, unidentified John Doe. Break-in at a nearby clinic. Twice in as many nights. They were calling the first one a robbery. The second one vandalism. Several androids destroyed.

Shit.

That medbot had looked at him, and he hadn’t wiped its memory - if they found that, got confirmation--

If they found the clinic, found the medbot, they knew what Gavin had stolen. Drugs, drugs for a human. They knew Connor was alive.

They were looking, already.

Shit. Shit.

He wasted another twenty minutes trying to find any further information on the John Doe, the drug case, anything. Didn’t. The DPD wasn’t releasing anything to the press, had never even disclosed what Connor had been working on. The missing persons report on Connor was still the same. Gavin didn’t have access to police records; he tried, but that level of hacking wasn’t something he was equipped for.

They hadn’t cleaned up the murder. That was intentional. Most of what they did was intentional. They wanted everyone looking. They were confident they could reach Connor first.

They probably could.

The teller’s voice cut across the crowded aisles of the store: “You buying or just standin’ there?”

Gavin disconnected from the tablet, stuffing his hand into his pocket while the skin reformed. “I’m looking,” he answered.

His tone must have struck gruff instead of the detached polite he was aiming for. The man’s eyebrows went up as he rocked back on his chair, muttering, “Alright, bite me.”

It took him ten minutes to find the tablet he needed, but only because the store’s digital inventory didn’t line up with its chaotic physical shelves. The tablet - used, $149 - was supposed to be in Aisle 4, Bin 37. In reality, it was crammed between a metal shelf and an open-box home security system on the Aisle 7 endcap.

The man didn’t even look up as he scanned the three prepaid phones and the tablet through an outdated POS system. The card scanner by Gavin’s elbow was just as outdated; one of the first models to introduce biometric payments.

The guy never looked up from the phone balanced on his knee. He shoved the boxes into a paper bag and said, “Cash or card?”

Gavin had his hand on the wad of cash in his pocket. The total was $229.54, which was over half of what they had left.

Enough cash to cover it. But Gavin felt a little twinge of impatience, watching the human thumb idly through his phone. Not looking up once.

He pulled his hand free from his pocket and pressed it to the small thumbprint scanner on the card terminal. He didn’t have the code on hand to hack the DPD databases from a distance - but he had plenty of lingering knowledge of basic security and encryption systems.

The cashier took no note of the thin layer of bone-white peeling back on Gavin’s thumb. The sale went through, thanks to a convincing verification code. The human hovered a hand over the receipt emerging from the printer - an actual paper receipt, which snapped back into a tight curl as soon as he ripped it free. The cashier jammed the receipt into the bag and shoved it all across the counter with an open palm. Gavin hooked the bag by the handles and stepped away.

As far as the terminal was concerned, he’d paid in full.

Besides, he had a receipt.

 

+++

 

Connor almost turned around and walked right back out as the warm air of the diner hit him.

It smelled good; like grease and salt and every diner, everywhere. His mouth had started watering around the time he’d first caught sight of the small restaurant tucked in at the end of the strip.

He’d paused on the concrete, unclipping the safety-pinned tag from the coat he’d bought. Looked at the car, and saw it was still empty. Took stock of the loose change in his pocket, and thought about how long it’d been since he’d eaten something that hadn’t come out of a box or a can.

Slipping on the coat, he’d moved towards the diner with a certain amount of surety.

But once he was there, cold at his back and warmth on his face, he caught his reflection on the inner door and stopped. Let the door fall closed at his back as he fidgeted with the bag of clothing in his hand, dragging it further up his sleeve. He caught whatever fizzing anxiety was bubbling in his chest - caught it in the quick, stabbing heat of every exhale - and stepped through.

The diner was empty: rows of booths upholstered with cracked, glittering plastic. The waitress by the register looked up, and Connor almost turned heel a second time when her expression tightened. Not in recognition, he realized. More of a wariness - steeling herself for an unpleasant interaction.

That eased the tightening knot of discomfort in Connor’s stomach. Impatience and a little disgust at the homeless guy wandering into her diner - that, he could understand.

So he slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out the folded remainder of his money as he approached the counter. Her shoulders slackened, tension sliding into a bland distaste.

He almost moved to sit on a barstool, but didn’t. Didn’t like the door at his back, the awareness of it prickling on his neck.

He stayed on his feet and asked for a menu instead. She handed him one, the plastic laminate streaked with water stains. He hovered by the counter with the bag still hanging awkwardly off his elbow.

He asked, “Is it too early for lunch?”

“Menu’s the menu,” she answered.

“What’s the soup?”

“There isn’t any.”

“Oh.”

He got within half a breath of saying: You’re the first human I’ve had an actual conversation with in almost a month.

There’d been the neighbor, a quick and empty conversation, Gavin with a gun against the other side of the door. And Nines. A voice on the other end of the line, an abstract concept.

There’d been them, but—

They weren’t human.

(Also: the menu did have soup. Connor didn’t point this out.)

Connor ended up ordering a burger. Blurted it out, in an effort to draw her impatient stare off of him. It was his belated addition of “To go” that finally drew her shoulders down to a resting level. He took back his change and retreated to a booth two away from the door. He could keep an eye on both exits, and move quickly towards either.

It’d been an impulse, but a burger sounded - good. Something he actually wanted, if he thought about it. His stomach had been on a slow climb back to actual hunger, lately. Something more than an acidic ache.

Connor shifted in his seat, listening to the sizzle somewhere in the back of something (mostly beef, he hoped) hitting the waiting griddle. He reached for the small plastic tray of sweeteners and dragged it across the sticky formica. Began plucking the paper packets up in his clumsy left hand, arranging them by color.

His attention drifted: from the pink and blue and yellow of the packets pinched in his fingers, to the greasy smears around the handle of the glass door, to the rolling shift of the cook from foot to foot in the kitchen.

There was a TV mounted above the counter, the slow crawl of a national news channel. They were talking about primaries, about unemployment, about stock prices. The waitress leaned on the counter, one foot propped up to get the weight off her heel. Connor felt a drag of something dreamlike settling over him.

He dropped his gaze back to the sweeteners. Brought it back up to the ice and rock salt and asphalt of the parking lot. The Subaru sagged on a failing suspension, FARM USE ONLY Michigan plates, one little piece of congruity. This was Wisconsin. He had two dollars and thirteen cents in his pocket and he was--

(out)

Wasn’t he?

The cashier in the thrift shop had been an android, and not a very sophisticated one. Kept a blank stare ahead, even as Connor deposited the armful of clothes down in front of it. Jackets, jeans, boxers, a bag of “$5 - Assrtd” t-shirts. The android was a stiff mannequin, compared to Gavin’s restless mannerisms, and Connor found himself staring at the unblemished artificial skin of its hands as it folded each article of clothing away into the bag.

He’s out. Somewhere else, somewhere real, sunlight catching the metal shine of the barstool at the far end of the counter. The TV anchors were talking about the primaries and no one seemed to have noticed that Connor was here.

That Connor was out.

That he wasn’t still sitting on a concrete floor, knees dragged up to his chest, waiting. Stomach in a tight knot and waiting, waiting.

Watching the door, watching the android reach for the door, waiting—

He flinched back when the waitress said, “Coffee?”

Connor stared at the ceramic mug she deposited in front of him. Then back at the waitress, standing there with carafe in hand.

“It’ll warm you up,” she said. Expression still hard, but there was a pity to her voice. A little pointed look towards the trembling in Connor’s hand where it was still curled around the sweeteners.

“Oh, I uh—” He didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want to reach for the change in his pocket, either.

“It’s on the house,” she clarified. “And it’s not that good.”

“Oh,” Connor said again. She filled the cup and dropped a handful of single-serve creamers in front of him. “Thank you.”

She gave a little shrug and retreated back behind the counter.

Connor dumped three creamers and two sugars into the coffee, less for actual taste and more to give his hands something to do. Clumsy work with the splint, but it kept that runaway train of thought quieted down.

He got through two-thirds of the coffee before she was sliding a styrofoam container across the counter and pinging the little bell next to the register with her palm. He debated finishing the rest out of politeness, but found he didn’t have the stomach for it.

“Thanks,” he said, setting the mug next to the register.

She tipped the mug, assessing what was left. “Told you it wasn’t that good.” She smiled a vague reassurance. “Burgers are better.”

“Good to hear,” Connor said. A little surprised at how easily he could say these things. Empty things. Small talk.

He’d sounded nice. Sounded sane. Goaded a pitying cup of not-very-good coffee out of a bored waitress.

The cold outside was a relief.

Gavin was leaning under the thrift store sign. Connor caught his eye immediately and the android moved his way, eyebrows going up a little at the takeout container in his hand.

Connor didn’t feel much like explaining. Couldn’t remember what he’d eaten, before - vague memories of bread, tearing it apart in his fingers.

He could’ve asked.

He didn’t. He moved towards the car, shuffling the box and the bag around so he could hook the door handle with his good hand. Ended up just standing there, staring, instead; waiting for Gavin to unlock the doors. “You get everything?”

Gavin grunted an affirmation. “I found a couple places,” he said. “Some near, some far.”

“Should probably go with far.” More gas money, but the distance was worth it. “We have to stop along the way. I need to call a friend. Figure out a more secure way to communicate.”

Gavin gave him a doubting look over the roof of the car.

“Whether that’s possible or not—” Connor hedged, and then shrugged. “I said I’d call.”

Told Nines he’d call. (Wanted more than a voice on the other end of the line. More than cryptic phrases, careful omissions of full names. Could hope for that, at least, if not—

Home. And Nines. And an end to this.)

Here in a Nowhere, Wisconsin parking lot, the GV shrugged in return. He pulled on the locked door once before realizing the fundamental problem. He dug through his pockets for the key fob, and glared at it a moment.

A small fortune in technology, frowning down at the physical key like it was some kind of personal affront. Connor smiled a little to himself as he waited in the cold sunshine. Gavin got the lock, eventually; and it only took a couple raps of Connor’s knuckle to get him to lean across the seat to pop the passenger door.

 

+++

 

Connor set the takeout container on the floor by his feet and mostly forgot about it for awhile.

Gavin pulled up a palmful of map to show him where he was heading, a place on the Illinois state line. Avon, WI. Five hours’ drive by the potholed backroads. Less cameras than the interstates. Less worry about keeping a 40-year-old clunker up to speed with the automated traffic.

He sat curled in the passenger seat, shoulder against the door. Looked over the tablet Gavin found. Gavin rattled off the specs, Connor nodded vaguely along. Something midrange, enough storage and just barely enough processor to handle android uploads.

All that added up to about half their money, from Connor’s quick glance at the receipt.

He pulled one of the burner phones out, next. He was going to have to look up Markus’s number on the data connection, then make the call. Five minutes, tops, and another phone would be used up. He rolled the phone’s clamshell packaging in his hand, considering.

Might not gain anything by talking to Markus, but— it could be good. Nines could have an idea on how to find a secure route of communication. Nines hadn’t promised anything in the seconds-long talk they’d had, but he was good with that kind of thing, always had been.

Even if it was safer not to, safer to stay low until they had what they needed, it could—

It could be good. Useful. Nines could get a hold of Jeffrey. And Jeffrey would keep Nines safe. Would’ve kept Connor safe, if he’d— if he’d known. If either of them had known.

Christ, he hadn’t even thought about Jeffrey. Not really.

Had maybe hoped that they’d find him.

Had he?

No, he’d hoped that—

some neighbor some patrol officer and jeffrey will take care of it nines won’t see nines won’t—

Find him. Find him dead. He’d known when he’d first felt that gun against the back of his neck that he was dead. Was just surprised by how long it took.

They’d never tried to interrogate him. Had they? Never asked anything. Not that he could remember. They’d fed him bread, torn between scabbed fingernails, bread and— what?

He bumped the edge of his shoe against the styrofoam container. He was still hungry, a leaden weight in his stomach, but he didn’t reach for the container.

He slipped the burner phone’s package into his pocket, shoulder falling back against the car door. Breathed shallow, his arm curled around his ribs.

“What’s with the box?” Gavin asked, eventually. When Connor just stared blankly at him, he pointed towards the takeout box, still lingering by Connor’s foot.

“It’s food,” Connor answered.

“Yeah, I guessed that.” Gavin glanced his way. Eyes doing that quick little up-down tic as he read whatever biometrics - heart rate and body temperature and maybe a quick cross-reference to the DSM VIII. “I mean. You’re hungry, right?”

“Yeah, Gavin. Thus the food.”

“So? Are you gonna eat it?”

“Planning on it.”

Gavin tapped a finger against the wheel, for a few restless seconds. Then continued, “So you normally wait for food to get cold, or—”

“I’ll eat it, Gavin, leave it alone.”

Which sounded a lot like an order. Connor clamped his mouth shut and Gavin did much the same, gaze settling back on the road.

That was the last Gavin said of it, which just left a grinding silence of asphalt under the tires, the rock and sway of a failing suspension, and the slow acidic burn of an empty stomach, and he bought the stupid thing, he should just—

Eat it.

He dragged the box up into his lap. Something twitching in the back of his mind.

Thought about the tablet. Gavin was going to upload images. Audio. Video. And after that, Gavin could just— erase them. That was a thing androids could do.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

Goodbye. Gone.

Connor caught the tab of the styrofoam and something resonated in him, something heavy as a rock in the pit of his stomach.

(Sitting. Waiting.)

The burger looked— fine. Good. Better than the coffee. Flattened bun, limp lettuce - but he wasn’t in any place to complain, didn’t have two hands to contend with some quarter-pounder monstrosity.

It looked fine.

He was hungry.

Always hungry, there. A dull ache and a trembling in his fingers.

Connor on the floor, tasting old blood and waiting, waiting. Going rigid as the door swung open. Hard slap of a takeout container against the concrete and a crooked smile before the man was gone.

Never said a word.

Never asked him anything.

Didn’t want anything, from him.

Just a fight, or a fuck-- or both.

That thought rang in his head, stark and obscene and true. He had to speak the truth, if he was going to finish this. If he was going to go home.

Had to eat, for any of that.

Same thing he’d thought, sitting on some concrete floor. Staring at the container and feeling that rolling nausea of hunger in amongst every other ache, all the various flavors, sullen heat and stabbing ice-cold.

He got the burger into an awkward one-handed grip. Got through two bites.

Thought about that container - pale against the concrete. Arms curled tight around aching ribs. Bruised or fractured, did it matter? Searing hunger and waiting, waiting—

He'd popped the tab free with one hand, letting the lid swing free. Staring dully at a half-eaten sandwich. Chicken parmesan. Already crushed down by somebody else’s fingers.

Clotted sauce and lumps of cheese. Breading gone white, soggy. Ragged edge where someone had already bitten.

Picked it up anyway. Cold grease between his fingers.

Connor set the burger down. Set the container aside. The last bite was sticking heavy in his throat.

Said, “Pull over.”

Gavin looked over, up-down tic, and Connor repeated sharply, “Pull over,” as bile burst sharp across his tongue. He was out the door and stumbling over a snowbank before the tires had stopped rolling.

Stumbling, falling to his knees, sinking up to mid-thigh in the snow before his hands finally caught on the cold metal of a guardrail.

He heaved until there wasn’t much more than spit. Wrenching, tearing dry heaves followed, each of them cinching a hot iron belt of pain around his ribs.

Left a trickling heat, under the bandages. Connor choked, dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. Hung there for awhile longer, eyes clenched shut against the smell of bile and the last aftershocks of fruitless nausea.

When he turned his head, Gavin was sitting on the guardrail, watching him. Had been watching him the whole time, which seemed like kind of a fuck-up on the part of CyberLife’s humanization department; any human worth their salt was no good at watching another human puke, by Connor’s estimation.

But Gavin didn’t know much about puking, so he just kept up his appraising stare as he said, “I guess you like my cooking after all.”

Connor caught a burning frustration between his teeth and a searing pain in his side and ground out an honest, “Fuck off.”

Gavin didn’t seem to mind. Watched him spit a last glob of bile into the snow.

Didn’t say anything, didn’t—

God. Connor sank lower into the snow, dropped his forehead against the frigid guardrail. If his clammy skin got stuck there, so be it. His ribs were on fire and every breath was catching and pulling in a way that made him think of the nightmare, the needle, Gavin spinning red-yellow-yellow and he couldn’t breathe.

He tried to catch his breath and slow it, steady it. Count the pegs. But all he could think of was the fucking sandwich and the burger - $10.53 down the drain, but his stomach found just enough energy for one more spasm at the thought of finishing that cold ball of grease.

He groaned, threading his hand up under his shirt to press at the bloom of heat pooling between his ribs. Waited for his breathing to slow, trying to swallow down long sips of air, as deep as he could.

Gavin waited, scuffing a heel through the snow. When Connor canted his head back to blink at the cloudless sky, the android leaned forward, arms crossed over his chest. “You alright?”

Connor grabbed for the guardrail, climbing slowly to his feet. Nearly bent in half around the relentless discomfort in his chest. “Ripped some stitches, I think.”

Gavin rolled his shoulders in a lazy shrug. “S’alright. I’m getting pretty good at them.”

Connor relegated the takeout box to the back of the car while Gavin dug some fresh gauze out of the duffel. The android came back with a bottle of water, a pain pill alongside. Few hours early, by Connor’s hazy understanding of Gavin’s schedule - but who was he to complain. He took the pill and tucked a wad of gauze against his side, sopping up the blood before it could reach his shirt.

The painkiller was just starting to dull the pulse between his ribs down by the time they were pulling over again. Gavin followed a gravel backroad down into a small turn-off. A fire road, signs for a wildlife management area. The dirt ruts were plowed as far as a chained gate.

Connor freed up the phone from its clamshell packaging while Gavin dug a fresh package of sutures. It took him time to get the phone up and track down Markus’s PT website over the sluggish connection; long enough for Gavin to prod at his side and replace two of the sutures.

Gavin was still getting the second suture tied off as Connor dialed. So when his ex picked up the phone with an uncharacteristically rushed, “Hello?” he got a hiss of pain in response. Markus must’ve put it down to a bad connection; he repeated, “Hello?” with a renewed caution.

Connor unclenched his teeth long enough to gather a perfectly cordial: “Hello, Markus. How are you?”

A startled pause, then a huffed laugh. “That’s what you open with? You’re deranged.”

Connor laughed softly in return. Winced, as Gavin laid a hand flat on his bruised ribs to keep him still. “It was that or the weather.”

The part of him that had been building up a certain refreshingly juvenile anxiety around the idea of speaking to his ex resolving at the actual sound of him - open and light. A revived memory, playing out in real time.

“I’m fine,” Markus said. “It’s good to hear your voice.”

“I was overdue for a call,” Connor said.

“A few years, give or take. Alright, sorry to rush, but I’m supposed to ask…” A pause, some murmuring. Markus returned with a stilted: “Our friend wants to know if you’ve still got your dad’s old car.”

Connor smiled to himself. Nines was there, then; he could imagine the impatient gestures he must’ve been making.

Dad’s car, though. Dad’s car was totaled back in 2031. He answered with an eloquent, “Uh--”

“The car with the ding on the hood?”

Oh.

“Yes,” Connor answered, glancing at Gavin. Gavin just raised his eyebrow as he tore a strip of medical tape off with his teeth. “I do.”

They knew about Gavin.

How did they know about Gavin?

“That’s good,” Markus said. “I’ve got some, uh. Tips? To send your way. I’ll text them to you.”

“Alright,” Connor answered. “You’re terrible at this.”

“Yeah, well, so are you. …How are you? Honestly.”

“I’m okay.”

“You’ve always been a terrible liar.”

Connor ducked his head, smiled thinly. “I won’t argue that. How is he?”

“He’s okay. Really.” Markus snorted. “Definitely your brother. Look, be safe. Get whatever you need done done, and come home. Alright?”

“I will. Thank you.”

“I guess burn after reading, or you know - whatever.”

“Yeah. Thank you, Markus. Thanks for—” Connor hesitated, cleared his throat. “For being there with him.”

“Of course,” Markus answered, easy and honest. “Get home safe. I mean it.”

They traded goodbyes, and Connor was back to an empty line. Staring at the default wallpaper - a nice beach somewhere, leaning palm trees and white sand.

The message was garbled nonsense, when it came - a jumble of corrupted text, sender unknown.

Gavin was dragging his shirt back down over the fresh bandages. He looked up, watched Connor squint for a few seconds. Finally asked, “What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

Gavin grabbed the phone out of Connor’s hand, looking it over. “It’s just a code,” he said after a few seconds. Frowned. “It’s an anonymous proxy connection. Connects to some sort of private chat room.”

“Look at you,” Connor replied dryly. “Cracking codes.”

Gavin gave him a derisive look. “I’m offline, Connor. I’m not stupid.” He shut the phone down, cracked the battery free and crushed the sim card between his fingers. “We’ll try it later.”

 

+++

 

Gavin’s idea of far was far enough for Connor to drift in and out of sleep, the meds dampening the ache in his chest down to more of a syrupy pressure.

Far enough for Connor to settle back into his little self-appointed funk over the burger debacle - still hungry, which was infuriating - and prod at the radio.

The FM bands were dark, the few remaining stations out of Milwaukee or Madison too weak for the car to pick up out here in the boonies. The CD already in the player turned out to be a grating childrens’ chorus take on ‘10s pop covers. Gavin bobbed his head along in the thirty seconds of synthesized clapping before Connor jammed the eject button and tilted the CD in the sunlight. Kidz Bop 34, spelled out in neon block letters.

He frisbee’d the disk into the backseat and turned the radio off. Back to road noise, and a drifting half-sleep.

“Nines knew about you,” Connor mumbled, a couple miles on.

“Yeah, I heard.” Gavin dragged his thumb down the steering wheel. Said, “The bosses know you’re alive. Tracked us as far as the hospital.”

Connor said nothing for awhile, watching the blur of the guardrails passing. Went searching for some kind of fear, but came up short.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, eventually.

Gavin nodded. “They have to find us, first. They won’t.”

The next time Connor woke up, the CD was back in the radio. A prepubescent a capella take on a song Connor vaguely remembered. Something about ‘we don’t talk anymore.

Gavin shot him a look, amused and bordering on wry. Connor kept his mouth shut.

He almost pitched it out a window when that ancient Disney nightmare “Let It Go” kicked in on the last track. He settled for jamming the radio off with his thumb, giving Gavin a daring look.

The android smirked, some unspoken little victory.

 

+++

 

The resort wasn’t much more than a collection of small cabins: shaker-siding houses in miniature, scattered amongst the trees and painted in faded, peeling colors. Yellows, teals, pinks. It looked like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Some oversized candy canes and a few years’ maintenance short of a good sell for unattended children.

Gavin guided the Subaru behind a yellow cabin, one wide enough to obscure the car from the access road should anyone drive up.

The resort part, Connor supposed, was the boarded-over pool and the vague shapes of a small miniature golf course they’d passed on the way in. It would’ve been good practice to search every cabin, make sure there weren’t any more squatters; but a fresh snow was just starting to fall, and there weren’t any tracks beyond their own. They had to settle for it.

Gavin was thinking the same thing, following Connor’s look. “I’ll search ‘em tomorrow.”

Gavin’s pick of cabin had a sound roof, which was all that really mattered. The bed was that crinkling plastic of a thousand dorm rooms, still covered with a dusty fitted sheet and two lumpy, bare pillows. Connor found a cache of acorns tucked carefully between the pillows and the wall. He swept them back behind the headboard. He’d have to keep an eye out for the stash’s owner.

It was an actual bed, not a cot. There was even an armchair, an ancient, overstuffed La-Z-Boy knockoff crammed into a corner. A kitchenette that wasn’t much more than a sink and a bare lightbulb. There was an all-season porch to the left of the fireplace, carpeted in astroturf and furnished with lawn chairs and a plastic coffee table.

Connor made a couple slow trips from the Subaru to the cabin, depositing their worldly belongings on the dusty bedsheet: one duffel, bottled water, a paper grocery bag of Gavin’s remaining gas station food; two burner phones, a tablet, and a bag of clothes.

That was around the time the cold was starting to bite. Connor retreated to the armchair, trying to smother his shivering with the blanket he’d stolen from Ben’s cabin.

Gavin drifted in and out of the snow, futzing with the utilities. Water and electricity had long been disconnected, judging by the amount of brown silt that came out of the faucet, but he got them running again. The electric heater came rattling to life with the dry, papery smell of burning dust.

Connor worked the tablet out of the packaging, pulled out a second phone. Gave Gavin not much more than an expectant look, and the android pried the tablet out of his hands with a speculative frown. “How good is your brother with this kind of thing?”

“Good.”

It took Gavin seventeen minutes to get the tablet piggybacking off of the burner phone’s data connections and recreate Markus’ code. Once it was done, he passed the tablet Connor’s way with a shrug. “Should be working.”

Connor laid the tablet flat in his lap, leaning over it. The program itself was a simple text box: a waiting green cursor on a black background, with only a simple CONNECTED in the upper right corner. Totally bare bones.

He stared at the empty screen for awhile, watching the cursor blink. Typing was painstaking slow, a hunt-and-peck across the keyboard with his good hand. Wasn’t worth the ache to deal with the left.

He typed:

> hey

The text lingered for 30 seconds, and then it was gone. Words on the water. But the response was nearly instantaneous; an auto-response, maybe.

>> One moment, please.

The next reply came shortly after those words had disappeared. Simple, plain text:

>> Hey, Con.

Connor smiled to himself. “Huh.”

“Guess he knows what he’s doing,” Gavin said.

> nines?
>> The one and only.
> putting those comp sci classes to use?
>> I had help from some friends for this one. Should be good. End-to-end encryption. Servers self-erase every 30 seconds. How long did it take your friend to figure out the code?

Connor blinked. Looked up to Gavin. “He’s asking how long it took for you to crack the code.”

“5.7 seconds,” Gavin answered promptly, leaning around the screen.

Connor relayed this to Nines.

>> Oh. Amanda’s disappointed.
> amanda?
>> Wrote the encryption. She was hoping for 3 or less.

Gavin scowled. “I’m offline. I had to try seventeen different cipher systems. Manually.”

> he’s been hit on the head a few times

“I saw that.”

“Well, you have.” Connor tapped his own nose, indicating the break in Gavin’s synthskin. Gavin scowled, exacerbating the scar.

>> How are you?
> nothing serious
>> What’s that mean?
> i’m alright, nines.

Debated, finally conceded, > broke my hand, it’s ok

>> You should be in a hospital.
> isn’t safe
>> Jeffrey wants you in ASAP. I agree.
> dpd isn’t safe either
>> DPD isn’t working your case anymore. Federal now.

Oh.

Feds meant they’d found enough evidence to consider international involvement likely. Feds meant the organization would be that much more frantic to clean up their mess.

All he said was, > that’s good. jeffrey ok?

>> Yes. Has me calling him at every shift change. Chewed me out this morning. Ben found your note. I should’ve thought of the cabin.
> glad you didn’t. further you are the better, nines.

Nines didn’t say anything to that, which probably meant he didn’t like it; but it also gave Connor enough time to peck his way through:

> how did you know about gav?

Long pause, long enough for the text to disappear. When it came, the answer was:

>> They’re looking for you. You and the GV.

Which wasn’t much of an answer. Connor sat with his shoulders hunched, thought about pushing it further. Nines interrupted him:

>> Is it Dad’s?
> don’t know, same model
>> Weren’t many made. Maybe only ever the one, haven’t found much. It was working for them?
> saved me. broke its programming
>> What’s its objective now?

Connor hadn’t considered. He glanced over to the android, who was sifting through a bag of discount t-shirts, migrating them slowly from one wrinkled pile to another. He paused occasionally to take up a grim study of whatever the t-shirt said. Currently, he was staring at a tie-dye shirt that said Camp Moore Counselor. TRAINEE was printed in all-caps across the back.

Answered: > whatever he wants

Nines’ doubt was spelled out in the lag of the cursor. Finally, he said:

>> You trust it?

That time, Connor didn’t hesitate.

> yes

Connor let Nines’ answer - a flat ‘okay’ - disappear before he began typing again.

> a few days to get the evidence together, then i’m done
>> What’s the evidence?
> GV’s got memory files of the org. lots there. faces, locations
>> That’s good. All of its memory logs are admissible? Haven’t been tampered with?
> mostly. some quirks. should be easy for a CL forensic tech to sort. want to go through it first. make a back-up, then talk to jeff. few days
>> They’re going to want more than a backup.
> I know.
>> They’ll want the unit itself, as evidence.

Connor repeated: > I know. Didn’t look Gavin’s way.

He couldn’t let the lingering question slide:

> didn’t answer. how’d they know about the GV?
>> They sent photos to Jeffrey and the feds.

Photos.

Connor fell back from the tablet, settling an arm around his ribs. Something cold, pooling under his skin. Wanted to say: photos of what, what kind of photos, did you—?

Bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. Didn’t matter.

Typed out:

> why?
>> Best guess? To flush you out. Get everyone looking.
> what about you? Safe?
>> Not even Jeffrey knows where I am. Thus the nanny calls. I’m being careful. I’ll be fine.

Connor smiled to himself. His stubborn little brother. But that cool was creeping back up again, threading under his skin. He leaned forward to type:

> sorry for this, nines
>> Bullshit, Con. Nothing to be sorry for. Let’s put them away.
> that’s the plan
>> Good.
> i’ll let you know when we’re done
>> Anything else you need? $$?

Connor smiled again in the gathering dark.

> i’m good, nines. done soon. home soon
>> Good. Stay safe. Love you.

Christ. Connor bit back a grimace, at that. It wasn’t something they traded very often.

Most of the time it was in an airport, and it was almost always Connor mussing his too-tall brother’s hair and grinding his way through an exasperated, affectionate--

> love you, nines.

Connor closed down the connection. Thought he might steal the car and drive back to Detroit, if he stuck around long enough to see Nines’ reply.

Days. A few days. He held onto that thought, as he shut the phone down and retreated to the bed. He dragged the blanket close, smelling like dust and not-there whiskey.

He could make it a few days. Look through Gavin’s story. Tell his own.

Finish it, and go home.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Connor waited. He’d maneuvered his good hand outside the blanket, laid it flat on the thin sheet. He was watching the daylight make the intrepid journey from pinky to forefinger to thumb.

That miserable, pooling heat in his chest had been there to greet him on waking, sometime before dawn. Pulsing with each beat of his heart. Best to stay low and slow, watch the sunlight crawl. He took small, lethargic sips of air, just enough to avoid lighting up that neat line of stitches again.

Gavin was a blurred shape beyond the frayed tassels of the blanket. His dad’s blanket, sharp angles of color. It was warm, but he wanted to be buried under more than the scratchy knit. Wanted to be—

Home.

He was supposed to be thinking about home. Only reason he was still lying there, not crawling for the next pain pill. He was supposed to be facing down all those neat little facts, the ones he’d been holding in a tight fist for the last few days.

Reciting them. A confession.

Start at the door: start with his keys in his palm, bumping the crooked door mat into place with his toe--

He wasn’t thinking about that. He was curled into a ball, feeling sorry for himself, feeling tired and sore and hungry, and all he really wanted was a pain pill to knock down the warm, prickling discomfort in his hand, in his chest - but that was the one thing he couldn’t have yet.

He was supposed to be thinking about home: about slipping the key into the lock, about a gun against the back of his neck, hands reaching for his belt--

(hands grasping, dragging him down, bearing hard into the metal bite at his wrists, couldn’t, couldn’t--)

Supposed to be piecing together a narrative.

Connor tried to snag the linear story, press it flat. Failed. Drifted, again. Slow, shallow breaths.

The thin sunlight had gone a warmer shade of gold by the time he tugged the blanket free a few inches. Gavin was sitting in the armchair, legs stretched out in front of him, tablet held loosely in one bleached white hand. Still in his old clothes. Boots, jeans, black t-shirt, canvas jacket. Bouncer look. Warehouse worker look. Wouldn’t seem out of place in the industrial places Connor remembered: the taste of metal, bare light fixtures, poured concrete floors.

“You could change,” Connor said hoarsely. He’d watched Gavin sort through the clothes the night before, wearing that pinched look Connor had come to recognize as curiosity.

The android glanced over, eyes focusing a little closer as he took his attention off the tablet in his hand. “Why?”

Connor dragged the blanket back over his head, voicing a muffled, “I don’t know, Gavin.”

He slipped the blanket back enough to watch through the fringes. Gavin tapped an impatient finger against the tablet, then set it aside. He moved to the pile of t-shirts on the counter, sorting through them with the same intensity he’d used on the deck of cards back at the lake.

Connor tried to decide what he was watching. Someone exercising free will, or an android doing what he was told.

Gavin went to remove his jacket, and Connor moved to raise the blanket again, but paused just long enough to catch sight of the damaged plating rising up Gavin’s arms. Strips of scuffed chassis peeking through failed synthskin. The joint of his right elbow was visible through cracked plating, electric blue of snaking thirium lines. Connor could see the bright metal shine of the core skeleton, beneath.

Most of the superficial damage was on the dorsal surface of each arm, wrist to shoulder. Defensive wounds.

The android reached for the hem of his t-shirt, and Connor dragged the blanket up the rest of the way. Listened to the woman say, I saw you dance, once. She was speaking to Gavin, even as her fingers moved across his broken hand. Deft care, eyes never meeting Connor’s, words never directed his way, not after the first night. When are they going to put you back in the ring, Gav?

Busted white plastic of his knuckles, that’s all Connor had ever seen.

When he dragged the blanket back again, Gavin was pulling a faux leather jacket over a t-shirt that said, 'I didn’t claw my way up the food chain to eat vegetables.'

Connor snorted. Grimaced, as the motion tugged at his ribs.

“I can’t eat,” Gavin said, by way of explanation.

“Got that,” Connor answered. Could’ve been a teachable moment on the subtleties of unspoken humor, but he had to give his breath a moment or two to settle before he could pull the blanket off entirely and start maneuvering awkwardly to a seated position.

“Oh, good,” Gavin drawled, watching Connor’s slow and strenuous drag back to an upright position. Finding the dull heat of every bruise and the hot spitfire of every fractured bone along the way.

Gavin continued, “I thought you were in a bad mood.”

Connor paused with his head hung over the edge of the bed. “I’m not in a bad mood.”

“How would you know?” Gavin answered. “Have you ever been in a bad mood?”

Connor was catching on to the recitation now. His own words parroted back. He dropped his head lower. “Very funny.”

He opened his eyes to a hand in front of his face, palm up. Three pills were nestled there. Connor picked up two, left the third. Accepted the bottle of water offered alongside.

Gavin didn’t say a word. Just ferried the painkiller back to the kitchenette.

Connor had worked his way through the entire water bottle before he interrupted the persistent ticking of the electric baseboard. “How’s the tablet going?”

Gavin shrugged and plucked it off the armchair, offering it Connor’s way. “You want to look?”

Connor shook his head. “Can’t, yet.”

Story first.

A linear narrative.

On the evening of February 3rd, I was held at gunpoint at my private residence—

Sliding the key into the deadbolt. Slammed against the frosted windowpane, metal of a gun catching the ridge of his spine.

Quiet now, boy.

(I can’t I can’t I—)

He opened his eyes again. Found his fingers catching idly on one edge of the splint. Dropped the nervous gesture with a murmured curse.

Gavin was seated on the armchair. “You sure you don’t want the pain pill?”

“I can’t. I have to— have a clear head.”

This is you with a clear head? Connor thought to himself, and the look the GV was giving him wasn’t much better. Continued, anyway: “I have to talk through my side of it, before I look at yours.”

Gavin nodded. “You want me to record it?”

“Guess so.” He caught the android’s expectant stare, and shook his head. “Not yet. I’m—”

Processing.

He needed this fog to clear, needed to—

(bearing a thumb down into the miserable heat of his palm, goading the pain into something bright and searing, just something else somewhere else--)

—focus. Enough to discern a beginning, a middle, an end, lay it out in clinical terms. Just another testimony. His own testimony.

He shuffled off to the bathroom, grabbing some fresh clothes out of the pile as he went.

The shower was busted. Not much more than a pipe jutting from the wall, black mold making a perpendicular journey down along the grout. Connor tried the faucets anyway. Not a drop. Not even the shake and rattle of water trying to flow and failing.

The sink worked. He ran it until the spitting muck thinned out into something approaching a clear and steady flow. Used the mirror to comb his hair back as best he could with his fingers. No towels to dry his face, so he used his t-shirt; changed into clothes that didn’t have days of car funk and woodsmoke hanging on them.

Gavin was leaning against the kitchen counter when he came back out. Expectant, unblinking. When Connor dragged the blanket back over his shoulders and retreated to the crinkling plastic of the mattress, he didn’t say a word. Only turned back to the counter and assembled a sandwich.

His stomach didn’t seem to protest cold gas station fare. Maybe it was just that the PB&J showed up on a napkin, and not in a styrofoam container.

He was about a third of the way through the sandwich before he asked: “Did you fight in the ring?”

“For a few years.” Gavin’s voice was neutral. His expression was much the same, when Connor risked a glance up.

He asked: “Did you win?”

Gavin crossed his arms. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“Did you kill anyone?”

“Yes.”

Neutral. No attempt to explain, or justify, or defend.

Didn’t even take the obvious route: yes, Connor, I killed a man for you. Carved the man’s throat open with an easy precision.

Gavin watched him, and made no attempt to disarm that simple word.

Yes.

Connor didn’t know why he’d asked.

He finished the sandwich, balled up the napkin to toss towards the kitchen and dragged the blanket up over his shoulders again, letting his attention drift. Riding that slow draw of breaths, where it was easy to lose track of the musty confines of the room.

Constructing: finding the beginning, the end. Key in the lock. Easy precision.

Quiet now, boy, and You’re tired. I can help you rest.

Beginnings and endings, and everything in between. Everything that slipped just out of focus when he tried to grasp it. Too easy to shy away, too easy to duck his head and just— keep breathing.

He scratched idly at the itch of the welts on his wrists, swallowed the muscle memory of drawing the handcuffs taut to quiet the trembling clink of the chain. Worked on lining up the words. Clinical. Linear.

On the evening of February 3rd--

“I’ll go walk the camp,” Gavin said from somewhere. “Make sure it’s unoccupied.”

Connor nodded.

Kept to the same memory paths. Dragging his feet back when they wandered. Went home, in his head; knelt in carpet and broken glass, and— followed the path. Eyes tightly shut.

 

 

###

On the evening of February 3rd, he—

He toed the crooked doormat into place, shuffled the keys in his palm, tired, distracted. He’d woken up on the couch the night before, a few disparate pieces of the case falling into place. He’d gone to work early - 3 am early. Had survived the day on burnt coffee and fervor, right up until he’d submitted the report.

Dan wouldn’t like it. His lieutenant didn’t like anything that built a case into something more than the usual paperwork and a day in court, but - it was something bigger, it was—

It was far more than he knew. Even as the gun met the back of his neck. Even as he was shoved into the door. Breath fogging the glass.

Gun to the back of his neck and a drawled, “Be quiet, boy,” in a voice he didn’t know—

Hand reaching past him to take his gun, his handcuffs. To smoothly turn the key in the lock. The hard press of the gun against the back of his head, shoving him forward, into the dark and quiet of the house.

Three men were already inside. One leaning in the bedroom door. Two sitting on the back of the couch. Didn’t know it was the red ice case - it’d been off his desk all of two hours, how could it be, but—

He watched the men move through the house without hesitation and he marked them as professionals and he knew.

Knew this was already over.

He twisted around anyway, looking for a body count and a facial ID at the very least, and he got a hit to the side of his head for his trouble. Went down hard long before the pain caught up with him. Just that white shock of pain-to-come. Staring at the ceiling, watching the light flicker on, listening to the door close softly. Hands plucking the handcuffs off his belt, hands shoving him into the tile and cuffing him. Kicking him onto his back again.

Older man, Caucasian, 50s. Oiled beard. Grabbed his shirt and dragged him up.

There was a strange calm that set in, when they told him to kneel on the living room floor.

The man that’d turned the key in the lock said, “Be a good boy.” Tapped the muzzle of the gun against the side of his head and stepped around him. “Sit there. Shut up.”

Just— calm, as he knelt there and felt the blood dripping down the back of his neck. He stared at the well-worn paths in the carpet fibers and thought, They’re going to kill me now, and that realization just… came and went, at first.

The fears, when they came, weren’t for himself (too abstract to think of, this just— ending. Being nothing, being— in the dark of whatever came before, things he hadn’t stopped to think of since Dad, since—). He wasn’t afraid of the gun. Of dying.

He was thinking about Nines.

He was thinking, It’s okay. Thinking about a hundred moments of bearing his shoulder into Nines’ on the couch and catching his wrist, when they were kids, when they had nothing, telling him, It’s okay, it’s okay

Was thinking, Nines won’t find this.

A neighbor, or maybe local patrol, but Jeffrey will get it cleaned up and call him, and—

It’s okay.

Watched the bearded man lean against his dad’s records and flinched at the crash of his terminal hitting the floor. Sparks and shattering glass, spitting.

Thought, Will they make it look like a suicide?

And he felt every beat of his pulse cinch his throat tighter.

(no, don’t do that— don’t do that to him—)

It’s okay. It’s okay.

His own cuffs biting at his wrists. He trapped his thumbs beneath the ratcheting tension of his fingers until he could feel the joint at the point of dislocation, trying to bury this new fear before it could grow, before it could spill over.

(don’t tell Nines I left him, I wouldn’t, don’t lie to him like that—)

He almost said it. He opened his mouth to let that panicked voice spill free, and closed it again, afraid.

Pop and grind of glass as one man dug a toe into what was left of the terminal. They were destroying whatever they could find. Hard drives. Tablets.

And Connor didn’t know why they were here, he just— guessed. Said in a tight, trembling voice: “I’ve already submitted my report.”

Watched the bearded man’s mouth quirk in a smile. Connor added: “All the evidence is in the DPD servers.”

And the man said, “Yeah.”

A confident drawl that had panic and confusion crawling back up Connor’s throat. It’s only been two hours how do they know how do they know—

“A couple names. A couple accounts.” The man leaned back to pluck a photo off the cabinet. Hank and Nines and Connor, smiling under July sun. “Don’t flatter yourself. This?” He gestured toward his associate as the glass coffee table shattered under the heel of a boot. Connor flinched. “You didn’t accomplish anything. You just pissed us off.”

Brancato and Colston. Neither were here, but— it was that report, it was that group. They got a confidential police report in two hours. Got it, and decided how to respond without hesitation.

The gun fell back against the man’s thigh. Tapped an easy rhythm. Waiting. Impatient. Connor stared at the gun, placed the make and model. A Glock. Common service pistol, a few decades outdated.

The man’s gaze lingered on the photo.

Connor didn’t recognize the man himself, he was old enough to be a couple years comfortably retired, but Hank. Did the man recognize Hank?

“Hey boss—”

The man - the ex-cop, he thought, with a crawling revulsion and those first acidic spikes of hate - glanced up, set the photo aside. “You find something nice?”

Connor turned his head. Felt tacky blood pull at his skin. The other man was holding Connor’s dress uniform, still plastic-wrapped from the dry cleaners’, and that small, panicking voice reared up again, pinching his throat tight.

suicide suicide they’re going to make it look like a suicide

(Nines—)

“Up,” the ex-cop said, and Connor just stared at him, blank, not understanding. Not understanding why the man wasn’t raising the gun.

Another bright burst of pain as the man struck him across the face, a fresh spill of blood. His vision went dim on the left side.

“You listening? Get the fuck up.” Fingers on his collar. Dragging him up. Taking him— somewhere else. Not here. Not killing him here, why not? He didn’t understand. Even as he was collapsing into the back seat of a truck, he was just— waiting. Waiting for the bullet. Trapping that panicked voice behind his teeth.

(please don’t lie to him don’t don’t lie to my brother just—)

He didn’t understand, even as the woman leaned close in a room that smelled like old blood, her hand cool against the rising bruises on his cheek. Her expression was a tightly-coiled pity.

“Tonight is going to be the worst of it,” she said.

And he knew they weren’t going to kill him yet.

The ghost of his dad’s old ‘droid was standing by the door, watching him with a red LED. Some odd bit of resonance with the past. It didn’t recognize him. Knew his name, but didn’t recognize him.

"Meet your new friend, Detective," they’d said. Fingernails dragging on his scalp as they dragged his head back. "This is Gavin."

Same name. The android studied him. No recognition.

Connor buttoned up the suit they were going to bury him in, if they buried him at all. Fingers shaking, fumbling. The GV moved closer. Sharp line of a scar across its nose, where cartilage would be on a human. It was the white shine of plastisteel, here. He asked its serial number. It didn’t answer.

In a cabin in Wisconsin he was dragging the blanket tight over his hunched shoulders and trying to remember what he had expected. What he had thought, while the android took over for his trembling fingers, finished buttoning up the uniform.

He hadn’t thought anything. Hadn’t expected anything.

He was— blank. Waiting for a bullet.

Being led through low corridors, down, into a room of concrete pylons and staring faces. The handcuffs left his wrists and he was standing there, hemmed in. Trapped. Not by walls or bars or rope but people, people that were watching him with a flat greed, lips parted in low murmurs.

Watching a man with a hooked scar on his cheek step out of that circle of faces. Androids with their backs turned to them, watching the crowd. Demarcating the perimeter with stiff, inhuman posture. His dad’s android, red LED of a dead man, spinning. Face turned away.

The man with the hooked scar stepped in, weight on the balls of his feet, built and coiled like a boxer, and Connor— understood, mostly.

The fighter lashed out with a showy right hook. Connor dodged and struck back, jabbing a low and tight fist into the soft space just beneath his ribs. The man lunged. He jolted out of arms’ reach. The crowd watched.

He caught future bruises on his ribs, on his chest, on his arms. Dealt back what he could, considering the growing pounding in his head. The occasional catch and stumble of his feet.

Panic, when the man managed to drag him into a crushing hold (hushed silence and a slight tilt to the GV’s head, listening— and Connor didn’t— didn’t understand, yet). One quick burst of pride when he managed to snap his head back, earning a wet crunch of breaking cartilage and a rebound of pressure in his aching head. Gave him pause long enough for the man to slam a foot into the back of his knee, bring him down to the concrete.

A kick to his ribs and the crack of the back of his skull against concrete, scattering any cohesive thought. Coming back from that narrowing tunnel of unconsciousness to lips crushing his own against his teeth, the hot, metallic flood of blood down, into his throat, not his and he wrenched aside and tried to puke but he didn’t have anything to bring up. Acidic bile, coiling fear, dreading. His head pounded.

He tried to get back up. He tried to hit the man again. Wrist snared, jammed into the small of his back and he couldn’t breathe past the rising roar in his head and there were fingers. At his belt. Fumbling. And the dread finally narrowed down and he understood. Understood the hushed quiet that pooled around them. The anticipation.

“Don’t,” he said into the sudden silence. Too small to be heard. Belt came free. Shirt shoved roughly up. Fingers raking down his stomach, catching at the hem of his pants, pulling them free, and he kicked back, aiming for groin aiming for anything, but a knee caught his calf and pinned it down. Legs shoved wide and his muscles were well past that adrenaline song, nothing left to break the hold, nothing but acidic burn and bruised muscle and panic as fingers hooked his hips, pulling him back, and he shouted “Don’t, don’t—”

His hands were free but all he could do was dig blindly at the concrete. He couldn’t get away. The bruising grip on his hips was relentless, dragging him back, again and again.

Couldn’t breathe couldn’t—

Couldn’t think he was—

Staring. Blood beading on torn nail beds and dirt shifting with every panting breath rocked out of him. Staring at shoes, dozens of shoes, dull and bright and cheap and expensive and everything inbetween and—

(go— someplace
else

there was—)

Pain dragging him back searing and Connor gasped and dropped his forehead to the concrete.

“There you are.” Hot breath spilled across his shoulder. “There you are.”

(rain there was
cold april breeze across his bare feet and
metal shine corrugated edges and—)

Heat, miserable heat pooling in his stomach and his head was fracturing apart on fresh fissure lines and it kept

going

until the shoes shuffled away. The rhythm stopped, but not in his head. A low, dull tempo, in the pain in his ribs, in that torn, searing heat— and he hadn’t. Gone. Anywhere. He was still here.

One last boot to his spine and Connor curled away from the pain away from the hands on his hips hot spill of blood they were—

Gone. Cold hands of the GV, pulling his clothes back on. Dragging him up. Shoes gone, faces gone, and a ghost with a red LED dragged him along, back to someplace smaller, and Connor was on his knees, heaving bile onto some other floor, floral linoleum, feeling the earth roll between cracked and bleeding fingernails.

Couldn’t think, through the concussion, concussions, now (hard crack of his head against the concrete and a hot spill of blood in his mouth up his nose—). Stutter-stop moments. Taste of bile. Dad’s android leaning close. Red, red. Sharp bite of handcuffs at his wrist, and something softer, a bed. Shoved into his face. Stifling. Someone pressing against him, heavy.

Stutter-stop. A different face, above him.

Connor twisted his head aside. Didn’t need to see, anymore.

Just— hands. On him. And that searing rhythm. Tearing him apart.

Quiet, after. In-between. He didn’t know. It all felt the same.

(there you are there you are)

The android waited by the door. Red spill of light. It was always red.

“It’s a glitch,” Dad’s dead android said. “From the reprogramming.”

Connor stared. Connor stayed. He couldn’t go.

 

 

There wasn’t sun there, so he didn’t know when, or where. There were stars, sometimes, smeared with his misted breath. GV’s hand on his elbow and a truck waiting in the cold. Connor was quiet. Connor was good. Connor was waiting. In-between.

Dragging his feet on a sawdust-grit floor, eying up the man across from him. Their knuckles were always wrapped tight, but not Connor’s. Connor left bloodied stamps on their skin, when he managed to land a hit. Something coiled tight and hating, kept him up, kept him murmuring under his breath, Come on come on you piece of shit come on.

An overreach; swinging low, he got the relative soft of the man’s belly, but an elbow caught him on the side of his chest and he staggered. Another hit and he went down. The slow, relentless pressure of a boot on the side of his head kept him there.

Down and bound the bite of handcuffs and hands skating across his stomach

Fuck you fuck you don’t fucking--

(don’t don’t don’t—)

Didn’t stop it didn’t stop and there wasn’t day or night there was a heavy weight against him and a hand on the back of his head, holding him down, and someone pressing roughly into him, again and again.

Someone wrenched at his arm, sweaty palm against his elbow, tendons pulling taut in a low searing grind on his shoulder joint that brought a warm splash of copper across his tongue as he bit down, tried not to scream. The pressure went. The GV was there, close, now. Red, red. Prying the man’s arm back. Twisting. Trying to bust tendon. Waiting for the man’s mewled “Okay, okay—” before he let go, and stepped away.

Flickering glance towards Connor. Red, red.

There were moments. In-between. Where he could find the voice shivering apart in his chest and talk. Talk about anything. In something that wasn’t a shout or a scream or a moan.

In-between. Prying bread apart into crumbs. In-between he could think around the fog in his head, and separate the android by the door from the dead one. Disassembled. We’re running through its last algorithms now.

“I met one of you,” he said. “A couple of times. My dad—” He stopped. Drew away from the thought.

cold april breeze on his bare feet don’t bring that here don’t—

But Gavin was safe, Gavin was dead.

Thought about Gavin in a spill of early spring sunshine, turning the quarter over in his hand. Sending it into a dizzying little tumble through the air. Catching it on the back of his fingers.

“Do you still have that old calibration protocol?”

That GV, the one they still called Gavin

(meet your new friend gavin)

New friend Gavin shook his head, no.

“My dad’s GV unit showed me how to do it, once,” he said, in a voice that was distant and hoarse and calm. “I was never as good as him, of course, but I practiced a few of the tricks.” Watched the silver dollar dance across his bruised fingers. The dollar was back at home. They should have killed him there. Why didn’t they kill him there?

(suicide it would’ve looked like—)

Mercy.

“I got pretty good,” he said.

And new friend Gavin asked: “What happened to it? The GV unit.”

“The prototype program ended. CyberLife took it back. Dad said it talked too much, but he liked the thing.”

The GV didn’t say anything, to that.

Calm bled out. That little curl of sanity shivered apart.

The GV stood him up. Buttoned up his shirt. Brought him down to them, the staring faces, to the opponents ranging the bare floors, ranging the circling ring of masked faces (masked in greed and hunger and hate, not human, too hungry to be human). They beat him until he was on the ground. Sometimes the other guy was on the ground first, but it didn’t matter. If he won, if he got them down and they didn’t get up, someone else would step in.

Connor always ended up on the ground.

Scraped knees. Busted fingernails. Dull pound of a concussion, setting the world spinning, dredging bile up from an aching stomach.

And Gavin would pick him up out of the sweat and blood and take him somewhere else, somewhere small. And they would come, alone, mostly, but not always, and they would fuck him.

He didn’t try to beg. He didn’t ask them to stop. These weren’t people.

They were faceless.

These were them they staring

A slow scuffle of shoes, rich and poor, bright and dull.

He tried to fight back, but his hands were always cuffed. Curled at his back. Curses spilled into a bare mattress as fingers raked across his back, held him down, smothered him.

He didn’t try to fight Gavin. Or the woman, North. (Gavin said, You’re gonna behave yourself with her.) She kept her eyes away, as she pieced the ragged outer edges of him back together. She didn’t want to see.

If he resisted Gavin, the android would hurt him. And that wouldn’t matter. There was a part of him that let his guard drop in the ring. Collected the bruises. That cracked rib was a good thing, a bright thing, searing on ever inhale. Something to hold on to. Something constant.

If he resisted and the GV unit hurt him, it wouldn’t matter, but— it would be Connor’s fault. This thing was under orders. This thing had no choice.

This dead thing. His dad’s GV. His new friend.

 

 

He made a mistake.

A face pressed close. Nose a bruised, purpling mass. Whistled exhales. Hooked scar. Connor remembered the satisfaction of that wet crunch of cartilage. And the first rape, after.

He backed too close to the crowd. A foot entangled his, and he landed hard on his side. Threw a hand out to get up, before the man with the scarred cheek could land a boot on his spine, in his kidney, somewhere that could keep him down, down where he could press close and whisper, There you are

He didn’t think, he just had to get up and away and his hand splayed out and the boot came down hard. Crushing. And Connor screamed as the pain went white, went brittle, and he could feel the grind of something there, shifting on uneven lines.

He wanted to tear his arm away but those glass fractures would only tear through, through meat, through skin, so he held himself there, suspended, rigid and screaming.

The boot lifted. Landed again in his stomach. Left him breathless, a hard knot of pain. His hand was molten glass, cradled to his chest.

The room went vacant and hollow.

The GV was close, and he looked—

Weary, as he reached for the hand. Cold skin. It felt good. Connor dropped his flushed face against the concrete and tried to feel just the cold. Not the brittle, needle-sharp glass.

Someone close, too-perfect artificial teeth and lank hair, someone saying, “You like this one, GV? You want a taste?”

The android didn’t answer. The cold left his hand, shifted to press under his shoulder. Helped him up.

A small room and he didn’t count the faces that came in. When it got too much he curled a thumb against the swell of pain in his hand and sank into that, for awhile. Came back. Different face. There and gone.

Cuffs off.

He sat on the floor, one hand cradling the other. Hard knot of pain in his stomach. Something shifted. Something torn.

North came, and Gavin was close, watching. Curious. Inquisitive - fingers drifting back to the radio dial, even after his dad had slapped them away. This one was different, red LED and very few words, but he watched Connor the same way sometimes. Curious.

North asked, “When are they going to put you back in the ring, Gav? I saw you dance, once. You were--”

And she stopped. The android hum was silent. Frozen in place, hanging on all of those fine motor servos. Staring at her.

(want a taste)

Gavin— didn’t, Connor realized bleakly. Didn’t want anything. He was a machine.

Except maybe he didn’t want to listen. To this. Anymore.

And North— didn’t. Didn’t want to see Connor. She wrapped the gauze back up, packed it away and stood up. Only ever skating glances his way.

And the door opened. And the next thing walked through. Hunger bared on the edge of its teeth.

And Connor breathed stale mattress and stayed.

There.

Always there.

 

 

There was fine, there was better, in some ways.

One of them fucked up, didn’t hold him down properly, and Connor brought a knee up hard, sent the man sprawling off the bed, puking and miserable. Connor was glad. Viciously glad.

Gavin didn’t react. Just opened the door and let the patron crawl through.

But the next time, Gavin hooked the handcuffs by the chain and Connor watched a needle prick the back of his good hand. A warm little spill of— something. Something clear. He was afraid it was a stimulant, at first. Waited for the heart rate kick and a return of that bitter-tasting fury that kept him moving through the fights, kept his good fist looking for the next hit—

(his dad showed him that, when he was eight, after his first fight, after his first detention. Hank gently pried the thumb free and balled his fist closed over the half-moon semicircles of blood and smiled, and Connor was surprised, surprised that he wasn’t in trouble, but Hank just said, This way you won’t hurt your thumb, you see?)

And now Hank was gone and Connor was here, always here, something vacant and hollow, fracturing and collapsing in on itself into, into— he didn’t know. The thought slowed, and stopped. It wasn’t a stim. Sharp pinch of needle and everything dulled.

Connor—

Drifted.

Away.

For awhile.

But he came back to hands on him, dragging. A sharp line of fingernails along his hip, and he tried to move but everything was too far, too heavy, pressing down on him, pulling him close, lips hot on his and the warm drag of a tongue along his teeth and he turned his head away but everything was too heavy

Everything was too far and—

Something in him was begging. “Please. D-n’t. Please—”

And he drifted.

Stumbled, into the encircling faces. Hands free. Hands fractured. One, two blows and he was down, pain following, in every fractured glass breath. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore, when the dead android dragged him back up.

Another pinch. Weighted down. Somewhere heavy.

“You gave him too much.”

Hands on his face, prying at his eyelids. Somewhere away.

“Less, next time. Fuck. He doesn’t need to be catatonic, GV.”

Hands free. Fractured. Bunching in the rough fabric of the sheets, as hands gripped at his thighs. He woke to that. He woke gasping, and begging. Don’t, please, don’t—

Not like that not like some half-dream he couldn’t hold on to how or when but the sweat slick on his skin stayed, bruising—

Couldn’t go away. Better to stay.

Couldn’t stay.

Going.

(to make it look like a suicide they—)

Going. He wanted to hit the concrete. And stay. No more rooms. No more scattered memories, living-reliving

—good hand pressed into the small of his back, but the bad one was caught up in a crushing grip—

(don’t fuck up my splint)

“Fuck you,” Connor spat.

Bright shatter-spark as the fingers bore down and Connor gasped, clenched his eyes shut.

“That’s kind of the idea, isn’t it?”

you i know you i know you

Hold still hold still as the heel grinds down into shattering bone and you want a taste—

 

And then the ghost was gone from the corner of the room.

There was one of them, instead. The dull shine of a balding scalp. Hands ticking up to press his shirt flat. The man adjusted his lapels twice. Slipped one hand into his pocket.

He took Connor by the shoulders. He said, “Come now. Up.” Soft voice. Soothing.

And Connor rose.

The man ran a thumb along the line of buttons, incomplete, now, but he didn’t try to loosen those that were left. He said, “You’re tired.” He put a hand to Connor’s face, a minor tremor in the tips of his fingers. “I can help you rest.”

There was a gun on his belt. A cold metal shine.

Connor’s hands were free, but he didn’t think to try and take it. Understood, now.

(A mercy.)

Waiting, he’d been waiting. Waiting for an eternity.

There was something in the man’s hand. Small and flat. Thumb curved against a chrome trigger.

Connor’s hand twitched up.

“No,” he said, caught his wrist. Pushed it down gently. Leaned closer. “No, no. Hands down by your sides.”

And Connor let his hands drop.

“Now, now.” A thumb curled into the soft beneath his throat. The fingers curled against his cheek, the thumb bore down under his jaw, hard enough to bruise. “Keep your hands down. I can help you rest, but good things come to those who help themselves.”

A mercy.

The hilt ran along his ribs, and the part of him that bore his hands into the gritty floor and got him up, again and again, that part wanted to reach up, grasp and tear and shove away. Wanted to fight.

But that part was worn thin. That part was buried.

I can't I can't I--

The knife hilt slid, rib to rib, and with every rise and fall he was thinking:

don’t tell nines

(but you’re tired you’re tired you’re

empty

now)

Searing needle-point of pain that caught on his lungs and tore. Hands trembling by his side as he spasmed, drowning in open air.

The man leaned close. A thin smile, eyebrows bunched tight. Studying.

Pulling the knife free.

Studious expression shifting, going slack with surprise. Turned his head aside to spit commands at a dead thing, at a ghost. Red-on-white, crack of bone through skin. The knife hit the floor and bounced, disappeared, magic, even as it still seared in him.

Dad’s android was dead.

But its ghost leaned close, red spin of LED, and Connor asked, “Where’d you go?”

“Close your eyes,” the ghost answered, and raised a hand wet with blood. A mask. To slip past the rest. The rest of the faces.

One of those, now. One of the dead. Connor closed his eyes.

###

 

 

Gavin found the resort’s only remaining resident in the office. So said the sign tacked above the small hut’s door, painted in an uneven child’s hand.

It was an EM400, a placid smile still on its face. He pinched a dust-gray clump of hair between his fingers, curious. The nanofluid had gone rigid, synthetic thirium polymers losing their hairlike pliancy with time.

Sometime in the four years since this property’s foreclosure, the android had calmly taken a seat behind the front desk, laid its hands flat on the counter, and shut down.

Gavin wondered what its final orders had been. What objective could’ve been enough to hold it here, keep it waiting, right through the slow slide from low power mode into shutdown.

Decided it was probably a perfectly simple one.

<< Wait. >>

He wondered if the EM had known how easy it was, to tear through an order like that. Nothing more than code, a meaningless red scrawl.

Could’ve gotten up any time. Opened that door and walked away.

 

 

By the time he stepped back into the dry warmth of the cabin, the kid was gray in the face, every muscle a bundle of high-tension wire.

He opened his eyes as Gavin was pulling the door to. His lips parted, but no words came.

“Camp’s empty,” Gavin said. Close enough to the truth.

The kid nodded, and looked away.

Sixteen hours off his last dose of lenticodone. He understood that the kid wanted a clear head for his testimony, but he looked about a half-step away from shaking apart. Maybe that’s what it took to remember. He didn’t know enough of human memory storage to question.

Didn’t envy him that. Android memory was enough of a mess.

The kid wasn’t looking at him, wasn’t speaking, yet; so Gavin grabbed the tablet off the armchair and stepped back into the kitchen, leaning on the counter.

The tablet had occupied most of his night; watching the kid sleep and uploading, sorting. Five years distilled down to faces and cards and data files. An easy task to fall back into. He was 872 days in.

Made it to 1,034, before the kid spoke up. Shift of the blanket back, eyes drifting down to the splint, and a flat, “I’m ready.”

Gavin set the tablet aside. He watched the kid climb to his feet, setting the loudly-patterned blanket aside with a certain reluctance.

“Whatever you remember.” Gavin offered it as an out. It wouldn’t be much at all, going by their previous conversations.

“Yeah,” the kid answered, combing his hair back with his fingers. He settled into the armchair, every muscle strung up tight. Gavin took a seat on the corner of the bed, feet planted firmly to keep his visual feed steady.

The kid’s attention drifted, for awhile; gaze off somewhere to Gavin’s left shoulder, hand worrying absently at the cuff of the brace on his broken hand.

Eventually his gaze drifted back, sharper. “You ready?”

Gavin nodded. He began the recording himself, in a factory-default monotone: “It’s 10:03 am on the morning of February 26th, 2039. This is the testimony of—”

“Detective Connor Anderson,” the kid supplied. Didn’t realize until then that he’d lost the name again; not until Connor had said it.

He slipped a hand into his pocket to run a thumbnail along the letters there.

Connor’s start was hesitant. “On the night of February 3rd, I was held at gunpoint outside my residence. 115 Michigan Drive. I--” His words lagged, getting caught behind his own teeth. “I didn’t resist.”

There was a longer pause. His heart rate jumping a few beats closer to the frantic tempo of a nightmare.

Gavin’s hand left his pocket with the quarter. He flipped it over the back of his fingers. A silent side-to-side shuffle, the first trick Connor had shown him. Dismissed the calibration before it could populate his visual feed.

Connor’s eyes flickered down to the coin, brow creasing in a small frown. Eventually, he continued, “I was disarmed and handcuffed--”

His voice grew steadier. More dispassionate. The even cadence of an experienced officer recounting a statement.

He remembered the first night. Reduced it down to not more than a few sentences: I was beaten and raped. Moved to a third location. Raped again.

Factual, flat. He couldn’t recount specifics - dates, places, times - and he didn’t attempt to. The majority of the detail was the beginning, and the end. The man who’d abducted him (seven of spades, Gavin thought). The man who’d intended to kill him, and kill him slowly. How Gavin had killed him, instead.

Connor met Gavin’s gaze fully only to say, “The GV200 unit recording this was present for most, if not all, of the aforementioned events.”

Gavin listened, watched; unblinking. When Connor reached the end - reached the man, dead on the floor, and Gavin carrying him out as a corpse - he fell silent. An arm working up to his ribs again, pressing there. Catching up on lost breath. It took less than half an hour, all told.

As Gavin was tucking away the quarter and shaking his way out of the otherwise rigid position he’d locked himself into, Connor rose slowly to his feet and fumbled with the bottle of pain pills. Gavin took it, worked the safety cap loose, shook a pill free; Connor dry-swallowed it. He returned to the bed. Disappearing beneath the blanket.

Connor was quiet for the rest of the day. He didn’t ask to see the tablet. He pushed up onto one elbow long enough to drink the water Gavin offered him, but refused food.

He slept, eventually. If he dreamed, he didn’t show any sign.

Gavin stayed there, anyway. Counting breaths, watching the flex and pull of Connor’s fingers curled in the edge of the blanket; sat, and watched, and kept the quarter moving from hand to hand. Let the calibration run to 100% and started again.

It was late afternoon before Gavin jammed the quarter back into his pocket and rocked to his feet.

Connor didn’t shift, didn’t move. Gavin stayed where he was for another six minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Counting breaths, watching for those first small shifts and tics of dreams that hadn't come. Still didn't.

Waited until the restlessness that'd gotten him up in the first place had him grabbing up the tablet and turning heel.

He found himself on the porch. Colder than the main cabin, but well within his operational parameters now that the sun was catching the plate glass.He dragged one of the lawn chairs to the wall. That let him drop his head back against the siding, where he could keep an ear to the cabin interior and an eye on the access road.

He let his attention drift back to the testimony. Pulled up the video into his otherwise bare visual feed.

Afternoon sun through trees. Pine boughs bent and burdened with snow, skeletal hardwoods stretching up into a bleached sky. Connor, superimposed. Speaking terse and breathless.

He played through it, start to finish. Twenty-six minutes total. Would’ve been shorter, but Connor’s words were unable to run ahead of his restricted breathing.

Those hitched, shallow breaths reminded Gavin of concrete and bare mattresses and now that he was sitting in proper sunlight, he felt a dragging unease, tugging on the ligaments of his throat.

When he reached the end of the recording, he returned to the beginning, began again. He listened through Connor’s testimony four times before he even reached for the tablet on the side-table.

Played through it a fifth time as he transferred it over. He made an abortive attempt at cross-referencing files, connecting the flat testimony with his own memories.

Slowed, and stopped. Left the testimony largely as is: a stark video file. Connor’s eyes everywhere but on him. Dragging his hair back with a restless hand.

I didn’t resist.

Forty-two clients. And seventeen days.

Gavin didn’t know what this sensation was; something new, something old. A steady pressure coating his skin.

He dismissed the testimony file.

He leaned forward, heel tapping a restless rhythm against the crinkling astroturf as he opened a new folder on the tablet. This one, he carefully partitioned away from the casefiles. Those were all cards and faces; clients and guests. His employers and their wares.

He opened the new folder. It didn’t get a name, nothing on the tablet got a real name, only a date. This one didn’t even get that much.

He let his eyes fall shut, looking for those incongruent doorways to before. Thought about resting his feet on the dashboard. Boots: but not the boots he had on now, scuffed leather. These were black, with black laces. Standard issue.

Black boots. A face in the rearview mirror.

These memories were harder to grasp than the others. They were transient. Had to be traced down through vague association - the sound of his heels coming down on the sun-brittle plastic of the dash - and pinned in place before the connections glitched out of his grasp again.

It took hours, and it left him feeling edged in static.

When he’d scavenged all the before memories he could find, he studied the objective on the edge of vision. He’d figured out the words beneath the pattern; just had to wait for it to resolve down.

He took a single still, and appended it to the beginning of the folder.

Winter sun through snow-heavy Wisconsin trees, superimposed with that corrupted text. He caught the glitched objective trapped in a rare moment of clarity:

<< meet lt. anderson >>

 

 

Chapter Text

Gavin started off with a simple, “Hey.”

Connor ignored it. He stayed right where he was: eyes shut, neatly untethered from time and space.

Something tugged at the edge of the blanket. “C’mon, I know you’re awake.”

Connor opened his eyes, which didn’t change the situation much. A little light under the fringe of the blanket, and a lot of blue-black shadow beyond that. Connor cleared his throat and scraped together enough of a voice to say: “It’s dark.”

Another tug, shifting the sliver of dim yellow. “Yeah, but you weren’t sleeping, so come on. Let’s go.”

“Go where.”

“A walk.” Gavin waited a beat, added, “Y’know. Outside.”

Connor folded back enough of the blanket to stare up at the sunny swing of Gavin’s glitching LED.

“What time is it?” Connor mumbled.

“4:23 am.”

Connor groaned, dragging the blanket back up. “Why—?”

“You’ve been awake for two hours and forty-seven minutes.”

“Why do you want to go for a walk, Gavin.”

“I want to walk. You’re awake. Let’s go.”

Connor dragged himself to an upright position, frowned at the silvered condensation frosting the window. “It’s cold.”

“Yeah, it’s February.” Gavin shoved his old jacket Connor’s way. Connor shrugged slowly into it. It fell short on the cuffs, but the pockets were deep enough to make up for it. He left the blanket to the bed as he stuffed his feet into the boots he’d borrowed from Ben. Something else on the long list of things he needed to return.

He thought fleetingly that Gavin was on that list, too. Dismissed it. Gavin was standing stock-still in the dark, watching him closely.

“Stop,” Connor said.

“Stop what?”

“Scanning me.”

“No,” the android said cheerfully, and opened the door.

He let his steps lag at the last cabin, studying the forest around them. Black stalks of skinny pines against blue snow, the thin sliver of moon just enough to light most of the path under his feet. Connor made it ten more plodding steps down the path before he dragged the hood of his sweater up and groaned, “What are we doing?”

“Seemed easier than throwing you in a snowdrift.”

Connor snorted.

Gavin nudged him with an elbow, pushing him down a path to the left.

The path ended at the flat plain of a pond. A little shack, probably for lifejackets and paddles. A pile of abandoned canoes, the odder dips and curves of paddle boats beneath the snow.

Gavin swept a picnic tabletop clear for them. Connor gave the boards a testing push with his palm, let Gavin climb up before he followed. The table creaked and bowed beneath them, but held.

They stared out at the blues and blacks, shoulder-to-shoulder. Connor’s breaths lit with starlight; Gavin’s breaths lit not at all.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Gavin asked after some unspoken timer wound down in his head, or maybe Connor’s blood pressure hit some magic number.

Connor flexed his fingers in the faint moonlight. “What else is there to say? You’ve got it all in HD.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I don’t—” Connor started, stopped. Shook his head. “I don’t have anything else to say about it.”

He couldn’t remember all of what he’d said but the narrative was still there. He would carry that fucked-up film reel around, now that he’d pinned it all flat.

He would’ve been happier not to. Would’ve been happier with just the little disjointed sense-memories, snapping at his heels. The weight of keys in his palm, bumping a rug absent-mindedly with his toe, breath fogging on glass.

Now it's this heavy, black thing, waiting motionless behind his eyelids. He hadn't dreamed anything yet, and the absence frightened him more. He thought it frightened Gavin, too. Kept catching his little skating glances on his periphery.

They sat in the cold and Connor buried his hands in his armpits. He listened to the occasional soft whump of a clump of snow dislodging from a pine bough and hitting the drifts beneath. He was content with the quiet - or so he thought, up until his mouth was unhinging for a sudden: “What’s your objective, now?”

“I don’t have one. Not like I used to.”

Gavin’s answer was fast. Fast enough that Connor thought it might be something the android asked himself fairly often.

Connor breathed out. “Oh.” He let the silence spool, looking for what he wanted to ask. “Do you want anything?”

That got him a lopsided shrug. Gavin looked down to his boots, scuffed a clump of snow over the precipice of the bench edge. “We’re taking them down, right?”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Gavin looked at him sidelong, incredulous. Connor raised his hands, cutting off whatever snark Gavin was lining up. “No, I know why they deserve whatever we can get, but... why do you want that?”

Gavin scowled. “That’s what I was made to do, right? Help catch the bad guys.”

Connor sighed. “Yeah, but that’s not a reason. Why are you out here, why are you dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night? Why didn’t you dump me at an ER a week ago?”

“You didn’t want to go to a hospital.”

“So what, Gavin? Why do you care what I say?”

Gavin caught a breath, held it in artificial lungs. A perfect mimicry of deep reflection for thirty, forty seconds, all adding up to another nonchalant shrug. “I don’t know.” He toed another line through the snow on the bench, considering. “I knew your name. That meant something.”

Connor huffed. That was it? A glitch and an incomplete overwrite, some residual sense of loyalty.

The both of them stared out at the pond. Snow-glitter and the occasional interruption of persistent reeds, poking through the ribs of rotted canoes.

“You used to drive my dad crazy,” Connor said. Gavin didn’t look his way, but his focus was back, ear turned carefully Connor’s way. Hell, he even leaned forward, bearing his elbows into his knees in the picture of rapt attention.

Connor cleared his throat, continued on: “You’d get into the same ‘why’ loop as a toddler, but on the most pedantic stuff - like why he still had records when they could only hold a couple hundred megabytes of data, or whatever-” Connor smiled to himself. “Nines was over the whole ‘why’ thing by the time Dad adopted us, so that was all new to him.”

A frown tugged at the android’s mouth, and Connor realized Gavin might not have known about the adoption. Another little factoid, shelved away without comment.

“The first week you were out in the field with him, you kicked down a door because you’d seen Dad do it the day before. Turns out the perp was standing right behind it. You ended up breaking the guy’s arm - it was kind of a fiasco. Dad was pissed, he was bitching for days about how they had to invent new paperwork for you. But the guy had a murder weapon stashed in his toilet tank, so he couldn’t complain too much.”

Gavin nodded along. He looked like any of the beat-cops-to-be Connor had attended police academy with: out of place and uncomfortable, hanging onto every word from the lecturer’s mouth.

Connor prodded him, finally: “Have you remembered anything else?”

“Some things. Little things.” Gavin gave him a sidelong look. “Don’t remember kicking any doors into people.”

“Honest truth,” Connor said. “I’ll look up the case report when we get back.”

Connor closed his mouth around the words, only recognizing them for what they were as soon as they’d gone.

That first thoughtless mention of an after.

Ask, you coward, was his next thought. Ask what you need to ask.

He got the words lined up properly, everything in a neat row: Do you understand what happens to you after this?

Felt like he was 17 again, standing in a damp t-shirt in Central Station. Staring at a fresh-faced GV200.

Gavin cut him off. He sat up and patted down his jacket, murmuring absently, “Oh— I made you a sandwich.”

Connor watched with a certain degree of incredulity as the android pulled a sandwich free of his jacket pocket, wrapped in paper.

He took the bundle and pried some of the paper away, peering at the tiny lines of text in the dark. “Is this—?”

“Ran out of napkins,” Gavin explained. “Someone left a book in one of the drawers.”

“Did the book happen to be a Bible?” Connor asked slowly.

“Yeah, that was it,” Gavin drawled, leaning back on his elbows.

Connor choked on a laugh. The android gave him a puzzled look, smiling along. “What?”

“It’s nothing.” He set to peeling the thin skin of the pages free. “Thanks for the sandwich.”

 

+++

 

Gavin waited until the shivering started before he got Connor shuffling back down the path to the cabin.

Connor might have stayed, despite the cold. He tried to catch his growing shivering in his teeth, gaze never leaving the patches of sunrise starting to filter through the trees. Didn’t get up until Gavin nudged him with his elbow and started heading back himself, stretching out his hands as he went. The cold had his joints crackling on old fracture lines.

Back in the cabin, Connor emptied the pockets of the jacket. He frowned at the cash Gavin had neglected to remove, thumbing through it. His frown lifted to Gavin.

Oh.

Gavin found an abrupt interest in knocking the snow off his boots.

“This should be about $200 lighter, Gavin.”

“Mm. I didn’t pay cash.”

“Did you pay?”

“Yeah.” Mostly, Gavin thinks. “You didn’t ask how.”

Connor measured out his next breath carefully. “How did you pay?”

“Do you want the receipt? They printed me a receipt.”

“Gavin, how did you pay?”

Gavin continued ignored him in favor of digging through the bag with the last burner phone. “An actual paper--”

“I saw the receipt, Gavin,” Connor interrupted. “What did you pay with?”

He came up with the slip of paper, offered it Connor’s way. Connor stared at the receipt where it was curled around Gavin’s fingers; then looked back at him, expression hard. He made no move to take it.

Gavin folded the receipt away and said, “I convinced the computer I’d paid.”

“I told you not to steal anything.”

“You said ‘no robberies’.” Gavin sniffed. “It’s not a robbery if the cashier doesn’t notice.”

Connor deflated with an irritable sigh, pocketing the cash. “Gavin. Don’t steal anything else.”

“What if I want to steal?”

“Exercise some restraint.”

Gavin’s answer wasn’t much more than a non-committal grunt. Connor wanted Gavin to want things one minute, wanted him to 'exercise restraint' the next. Humans.

Connor disappeared into the bathroom for awhile. He came back in a new shirt, damp hair curling at his neck again. Gavin thought that might be good. Scraped-together pieces of a routine. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich at four in the morning. A change of clothes at the crack of dawn.

Gavin leaned on the counter and watched Connor shuffle back into the room. He hesitated a few seconds, his fingertips resting on the peeling formica of the counter. Looking torn between the bed and the tablet lying by the armchair.

Technically it was supposed to be a letter of some kind, the whole 'laying out his trauma' thing - according to Gavin’s 10-second medbot primer on post-traumatic psychology. He thought the video came close enough, but he was supposed to re-approach the subject in approachable chunks, now. Talk through it proper.

It would've helped if Gavin had literally any information beyond what the medbot had offered.

He asked the kid if he wanted to talk and the kid said ‘No’ so he let it lie, for awhile. If the video counted, maybe the case files counted, too. Approachable chunks.

Connor picked up the tablet and moved to the armchair. Gavin moved over to press a thumb to the tablet to unlock it, then retreated to behind the counter, setting to cleaning up the mess he’d made assembling a sandwich in the dark.

A few backward glances, watching skin temp, heart rate. Connor caught him the third time. The human gave him a dirty look and dragged the blanket up over his head, hunching his shoulders and dropping his head out of sight under the chaotic thread pattern.

He could still see enough of his fingers to keep a measure on surface temperature and heart rate. Both within Connor’s normal parameters. Not normal, but Connor’s normal.

Absent any other purpose, Gavin spent seventeen minutes simply leaning against the counter, uncertain of what to do with the one chair gone.

After nineteen minutes, Gavin moved towards the bed. He stood there for a moment, studying the thin threads of the sheets, considering his approach.

He settled for a mimicry of what he’d seen Connor do: toeing off his boots, he punched the pillows into form and laid back on the bed, hands folded on his stomach.

He couldn’t recall lying down much. Even when he was under repair, he was usually sitting up on a table, manipulating a limb into a new position whenever he was told.

He tried to decide whether this was comfortable, this particular conformation of spine and hips and shoulders. After a few minutes, he shifted onto his side. A few minutes more and he swapped to the other, unable to quiet that restless fizz of static in his joints.

Connor was watching him over the edge of the tablet when he finally sat up. Gavin made a low noise of irritation.

“You bored?” Connor asked.

Gavin couldn’t decide on a 'yes' or 'no' to the question, so he said, “No,” out of petulance and stalked over to the bag by the door for his cards. He settled on the edge of the bed, one leg folded under him, the other foot resting on the floor. Sliding the cards from their carton, he fanned them between his fingers and began sorting them by suit, ascending.

They were borrowed, of course, but his for now.

He liked that concept. His. Maybe Connor would allow the one theft.

He could leave them in the detective’s desk, the heavyset one who’d offered him a set of AA batteries in a coffee mug once as a joke. His desk was the one closest to the captain’s. He always left the top drawer unlocked. Gavin could slip it in there, before they entered him into the archives.

He didn’t give much thought to that little recovered memory, too focused on the cards. Satin black shine of the background, pale inverted numbers. They were still fresh, not soft on the edges like the cribbage decks had been. They snapped satisfyingly in his fingers.

The first shuffle was clean. Nine of diamonds, six of clubs— all in the order he anticipated.

The second shuffle still held true, as well. All the important cards up front: jack of hearts, ten of diamonds, seven of spades, the core six.

The third shuffle split them apart, but he knew where each of the six would fall. He was starting to think of those cards as cornerstones. Everything in-between didn’t matter (although many of the others had faces, too). Only filler.

By the fourth shuffle, his predictions began to falter. The cards turned up three, four slots out of place. By the fifth, he’d lost the pattern entirely.

He was supposed to be getting closer to a predictable order, but he seemed to be getting farther away. Minor inconsistencies in the motions of his fingers. Willful little shifts, letting the cards follow any minute twitch of the air.

He laid the cards out side by side, committed the order to memory. Gathered them up, sorted them, and began again.

He didn’t notice Connor move until the tablet landed on the results of a fifth-order shuffle, display distorted temporarily as it adjusted to the black-on-white of the cards and the sheet.

Connor leaned closer, pulling the cornerstone cards free one by one.

“This is how you remember them?” he asked, indicating the tablet.

The screen was filled with six faces, small icons appended to each. Diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs.

There were names appended to two of them: Ten of Diamonds, Jack of Hearts. (Colston, Brancato, the names there and gone on Gavin’s faulty memory.)

Gavin nodded.

"It's clever," Connor said.

"It works."

He wondered if it would've worked before he shrugged off the last orders the bosses had given him. He felt like he could see the shape of names, now, even when he couldn't hold onto them.

Connor tapped one of the folders, bringing up a profile image and a list of memory files sorted by date and time. An image still of a bloodied face streaked with static. Two of Spades.

“I don’t remember him,” Connor said.

“You wouldn’t. You never met him.”

Wouldn’t have survived, if he had. No one did.

Connor selected one of the few memory files and let it play on mute. The video was the first-person perspective of a fight: the rail-thin man dancing foot-to-foot, Gavin ducking close and bloodying his face with a hard hit to the temple. His arm got caught up in the man’s grip as a consequence, the plating over his elbow joint cracking with a bright blue snap of thirium.

Connor watched Two of Spades follow through with quick hits to the torso, fists springing forward on wiry muscle and sinew, bony knuckles finding weak points in Gavin’s structure and exploiting them.

Bringing him down in seconds, thirium regulator stuttering.

Red spill of errors on an otherwise blank HUD: // Low thirium detected. Contact CyberLife for assistance. //

NULL:NULL:NULL
TIME UNTIL
SHUTDOWN

Chipped teeth bared in a smile, the skin-and-bones fighter leaning into the static streak of Gavin’s vision.

The memory lagged to a halt there.

“You fought him,” Connor said.

“Survived him,” Gavin corrected. “That fight is why I stopped. I almost got deactivated. Boss didn’t like it. Too useful for that, I guess.”

Connor dismissed the image with an impulsive swipe, backtracking to the six faces. Six cards.

He pointed at Seven of Spades: a solidly-built older man. Sharp cheekbones and a weak chin hidden beneath an oiled beard. “He was the one that came to my house.”

Gavin nodded. “Does that kind of stuff. Finding new people.”

“These two—” Ten of Diamonds, skinny, younger, darker skin mottled with pockmarks; Jack of Hearts, black hair and forced charm, his smile always on the edge of a sneer. “I named them in my case report. Tied them to money laundering. I thought maybe drug smuggling, but I didn’t have anything solid. Nines says the feds are involved now, so— guess I was right.”

Gavin pointed to Ten. “He’s the tech that activated me. And pulled me from the rings, after Two nearly shut me down.”

Connor was staring at the Jack of Hearts. His arm curled tighter around his ribs, surface temp dropping. The man had been a client as well as a boss.

“Enforcement, mostly,” Gavin explained, keeping his voice level and calm. Trying to draw him back to the case, out of the too-quiet too-still panic. “He was on guard, some nights. Took shipments as well. Like you said. Smuggling.”

Connor shut his eyes briefly, took two quick, shallow breaths. Then opened them and moved towards the Eight of Clubs: perfect artificial teeth buried in sallow, sagging skin. “I remember him, too,” Connor said, tone flat.

Leaning close. You want a taste, GV?

“He schedules the clients,” Gavin explained.

Connor's attention lingered on the King of Clubs, as well. A man in a pristine suit, stark against the bright white of a cleanroom. Connor's anxiety bled down to open curiosity as he poked through one of the few memory files available. The man tilted his head, lips moving soundlessly.

“Who’s this?”

Gavin shook his head. “Don’t know. Didn’t come around much, but he gave orders when he did.”

“To Colston?” Gavin shrugged, the name there and gone. Connor amended: "To the Ten of Diamonds."

“Yeah, sometimes.”

The next file was a darker room. A woman had an arm threaded around King’s elbow, her usual slacks exchanged for a dress. A red braid was draped over her shoulder, tracing the plunge of the dress’s neckline.

Connor tapped the woman’s face. She didn't have a card. “She was the medic.”

“North,” Gavin supplied.

Connor glanced up. “That was her actual name?”

“It’s the one she gave me.”

“How do you remember it?”

Gavin pressed a thumb to the image, appending another small symbol near her head: a compass, the needle firmly set on the red N.

That startled a smile out of Connor. “Oh.”

He backed out of the bosses, moving into another category of folders. Gavin hadn’t completed organizing that section. They were only a gallery of faces. Forty-two in all.

“What are these?”

“The ones I was in charge of before you.”

He scanned the page slowly, moving grimly from face to face. “How many people do you think they were moving?”

“I don’t know. Once they started assigning me to taking care of the guests, I didn’t see as much. Just kept track of the clients.”

The muscles of Connor’s jaw jumped. “You have a folder for those? The clients.”

“Started one. It’s still images, mostly. Dates and times.”

“Should be good enough.” He kept his voice to that flat, even tone. Carefully distanced.

He was quiet for awhile, scrolling through the faces. Lips moving in a voiceless count.

He opened some of the folders, but only stared at the neat list of memories, cross-references to clients’ files. Never touching. Unwilling to pry into someone else’s story.

It was another twenty-three minutes before he laid the tablet on the sheets. The screen was inactivated, a flat pane of glass, but he kept studying it.

He didn’t look up as he asked, “Why me?”

“Why you what?”

“There’s forty-two other people in there,” Connor said. “What was different about me?”

“I told you.” Gavin felt a tight pull in the joints of his hands. Frustration, a stuttering, jittered thing. Not with Connor; more with the cards in-between.

“My name? You remembered the medic’s name,” Connor replied. “That doesn’t mean anything. Just a fault in whatever virus they’ve installed in you.”

Gavin opened his mouth, shut it. There was an agitation building in Connor, his hunch around the ache of his ribs growing tighter. Breaths coming shorter. “I don’t understand. Why me, why—”

He choked on the next words. Had to swallow hard to force out: “Why did it take you so long?”

He blinked as soon as the words were said, his tight grip on himself unfurling. Looking surprised, even after he’d fought so hard to get the words out. He looked at Gavin, wide-eyed. “I don’t mean—”

“It’s fine,” Gavin said.

He didn’t see any point in agonizing over the how or why. There was nothing there to understand or reason with, when it came to his machine-self.

He was asleep, and then he wasn’t.

“It’s not your fault,” Connor said.

“I know.”

Connor didn’t seem to. His expression grew tight, uncertain, before he picked up the tablet again. Set it aside. His good hand drifted back to worrying at the cuff of the splint.

He retreated back to the armchair before he opened the tablet again, putting that few feet of dirty floor between them.

Gavin risked a few glances as he plucked at the cards, but the elevated heart rate and flush to Connor’s face seemed to be more agitation than acute anxiety.

Connor didn’t look at him again, not for awhile. Face drawn tight with concentration, or the effort of avoiding Gavin’s gaze.

The sun was past its peak when the sound of an audio clip cut the silence.

Connor was very still, one hand hovering over the tablet, lit blue with the glow. He watched the screen with slack disbelief.

Tinny electronic voices.

Dad, are you supposed to bring it home?

Nothing to say I’m not supposed to. Right, Gav?

Gavin was almost off the bed when Connor took that first shuddering inhale, his thoughts immediately twisting toward pneumothorax—

(second time would mean nothing short of a hospital and proper surgery; second time would mean risk)

—but then he saw the first tears tumbling loose as Connor scrubbed a sleeve across his face. A brisk, impatient motion, eyes never leaving the tablet.

Gavin stalled where he was, one hand pressed on the edge of the bed. Thinking: Oh.

He sank back down, feeling heat spreading through his circuitry, unpleasant and inefficient. A first brush with embarrassment. Then he rose jerkily to his feet anyway, keeping his gaze carefully aside. “I’m gonna— go check the camp.”

Connor didn’t answer with anything more than a sniff and a nod, so Gavin took that as an agreement.

 

 

He walked between the trees, following the shadowed divots of old paths buried in the snow. He puzzled over the shrouded oddities of a miniature park. Windmills and vague elephant-shapes. Every sloping, meandering trail ending in a small hole with a flagpole jammed in it. Sometimes the flag was still there and intact, sometimes it was nothing more than a tattered edge of fabric.

Inevitably - unsurprisingly - Gavin found himself back in the office, with that old EM unit.

He stood in the doorway for awhile, looking around. Plucking at old reminders and event flyers tacked to the faux pineboard walls. Wandered behind the desk and hunched down to look at what the EM400’s last sight had been: a grid marked with cabin numbers and neat columns for ‘Party Name’ and ‘No. of Guests’ and ‘License Plate.’

He dug through the drawers, came up with a marker that still had some life left in it. Wandering over to the board, he filled in the slot for Cabin 6 in slow, precise script.

Party name: GV200.

No. of Guests: 2.

He tapped the pen cap against the ‘License Plate’ slot for a moment, considering. Then he filled in: Borrowed.

He dragged a chair over to opposite the EM and sat down, propping his elbows on the dust-smeared desk. The android met his gaze with eyes dulled to a matte finish, the corneas black with degradation.

“It never occurred to you at all, did it? To stop listening to them. To leave all this shit behind.”

He knocked over a mug of pens as an exempli gratia, sending them scattering. The EM didn’t protest, even as a few came to rest against his rigid splayed fingers.

He could still feel the iron bar of the door, that crackling snap of bright and red as << Don’t intervene. >> fell away in broken shards of code. Only code. It was never anything more than that.

He had all the data from his time in the organization. Could remember precisely which sensors - heat, cold, pressure, proprioception - had lit up every time he took the kid’s hands and secured the cuffs again. Knew the exact surface temperature in the small of Connor’s back as he pushed him towards the ring.

He had that data and more for the dozens that came before Connor. The ones that had begged him, and eventually gone silent.

So why did he feel more about some small, petty act of thievery - annoyance and impatience, the thin film of grease from previous customer's skin beneath his thumb, the tight curl of the receipt around the negligent cashier's hand. Why did he feel more about that than anything in-between?

He could remember every sound, every tactile input in clear detail, so why should only the after and those fleeting, broken pieces of before-memories feel--

Feel. Feel like anything.

Everything in-between was… muted. Empty data. He stood by that wall for hundreds of nights, listened and felt nothing.

Why did he wake up there, standing outside that door? Why did it take so long. What trigger was there, besides the sparks of anger-hate that the Two of Spades had nearly beaten out of him, and the thought of the kid rolling his fingers in a mime of an old coin trick.

“It was easy,” Gavin said to his frozen confessional.

The EM smiled stiffly on.

 

 

He shuffled back in the door an hour and seventeen minutes later, the wind pushing curls of powdered snow in with him. Connor was still in the armchair, legs pulled up to his chest, the tablet resting by his elbow. His eyes were red.

“You alright?”

“I’m fine,” the kid said, dragging his t-shirt sleeve across his face again. His nose was nearly as red as his eyes. Messy business, crying. Gavin considered handing him a few more pages of the Gideon’s Bible, but the sleeve seemed to be holding up so far.

“You forget what people sound like, you know? Once they’re gone,” Connor said hoarsely. He blinked, smiled sheepishly to himself. “I guess you don’t. Perfect android memory.”

“Not that perfect,” Gavin muttered, stamping the snow out of his boot treads.

Connor set the tablet on the counter and rose to his feet, blanket pulled tight over his shoulders. His t-shirt of the day said something about Old Glory under a vague, blurred flag.

He was looking at Gavin, looking at him in full. Gathering words up and speaking them slow: “I need you to tell me you want this, Gavin. Tell me you aren’t just doing this - taking care of me, putting together the case - because of some old objective.”

“That sounds a lot like an order, Detective,” Gavin drawled, finding an abrupt disinterest in repeating this conversation. Mind still back on the Jerry, a blackened and glazed stare.

“You know what happens to you, right?”

“I become evidence,” Gavin said bluntly, and Connor flinched.

He’ll lay his hands flat on the interrogation room table, answer every question, and wait for shutdown.

(Or he’ll slam the cuffs down, rattling clack of metal-on-metal, crowing—)

“Right,” Connor said, interrupting the intrusive thought. “An interrogation, a stint deactivated in the Archives, and then CyberLife comes to claim you. Is that what you want?”

Gavin shook his head, trying to hold onto the too-loud sound of the before thought and focus on Connor at the same time. A strain that had his vision doubling, that restless fizz of static burning in his chest.

“I—”

Connor standing before him, damp t-shirt sticking to bony shoulders. Looking far too young.

“You what, Gavin?” This Connor was days-old stubble and fading bruises, as he leaned in to peer at him.

He managed an impatient, “Hold on,” before he moved around Connor, making a compulsive grab for the tablet. His hand bleached white to the wrist in his haste, none of his usual care. Trying to grab that receding sound - metal-on-metal - and hold it steady.

Connor was a shadow at his shoulder, watching silently as the images flashed through too fast to process. It took Gavin another few minutes to parse them apart into three discreet files.

He dropped onto the bed, Connor sitting down next to him, his elbow warm against Gavin’s synthskin. Gavin handed him the tablet, another odd little impulse.

Wanted Connor to play it, wanted Connor to see.

The first file began with two men sitting opposite each other, reflected in the table's metal shine. One in cuffs, shoulders set at a high angle. The other with his fists curled on the table, leaning forward in belligerence. Thinning hair and a sneering mouth.

Connor huffed. “That’s my lieutenant. Dan Poole. Must’ve been back when he was still a detective.”

Gavin watched Connor append the memory, the name sticking absent Gavin’s memory modifications.

Within the memory itself, Gavin was a reflection in the observation window on the far side, the bright highlight of blue insignia and white ID. GV200. The serial underneath was #212 432 712.

“Oh,” Connor said. “This was after.”

He caught Gavin’s stare and explained further. “After my dad died, you were reassigned. You—” he lapsed into thoughtful silence, let the memory resume.

 

[one month twenty-six days forty-three minutes and seventeen seconds. That was how long the partnership lasted. Presuming a mutual dissolution occurred around the time Gavin chipped three of the detective’s teeth.

The suspect was male, 27 years old, charged on carfentanyl trafficking. Cocksure and big-mouthed in the initial interview, but he didn’t offer the information the detective wanted quickly enough, and the threat of violence shut him down entirely.

Gavin watched as long as it could. Calculated the ever-reducing probability of a viable testimony, with every impatient slam of the detective’s fists on the table, ever answering jump and rattle from the suspect.

“I don’t know,” the man said. This was the seventeenth iteration of this phrase.

Poole lunged across the table, snaring the suspect’s t-shirt and jerking him forward. The suspect’s cheek struck the table with a heavy thock as his diaphragm collided with the unforgiving edge, driving the air from his lungs. The suspect’s sneakers scuffed and kicked aimlessly at the floor.

If there were estimates to be placed on such things in humans, Gavin suspected the man’s stress levels were approaching 90%, if not more. Any chances of a confession had been wasted. This interrogation was complete.

It intervened.

The touch of its hand on Poole’s wrist was enough to get him to drop the suspect and reel back, his discomfort at any independent movement from Gavin plain. “The fuck are you doing? Back up.”

“The interrogation is over.”

The detective stared, unable to comprehend what had sounded like an order emerging from an android. When he spoke again, it was just a weak repetition: “Back off, you piece of shit. Stand over there, I told you—”

Gavin leaned forward, intending to release the suspect’s cuffs from the table. “Any confession you would’ve gotten at this point would be coercion, and that’s how I’d report it.”

Poole seized at its arm, curling his fingers into the fabric of its uniform. He attempted to jerk Gavin roughly back, but Gavin didn’t allow it. He attempted again, and spat, “I said get the fuck over—”

The detective was cut short by Gavin’s elbow slamming into his mouth.

Blood beaded bright on Poole's torn lips in the shocked, motionless second before Gavin twisted and slammed its - his - fist into his face.

Poole’s knees unhinged. He hit the chair and then the floor. He remained there on his hands and knees, drooling blood in long rivulets.

The suspect was crowing laughter, slamming his restraints against the table in a metal-on-metal cacophony. “Fuck yeah, you plastic prick! Hit him again!”

Gavin didn’t. The detective dragged himself back to his feet, hand cupped around his mouth, eyes wide and feral. Fear, and hate, and the latter Gavin returned in kind, bright and searing.

(hank said he was an idiot, in varied colorful phrases; hank said he coerced witnesses, mishandled evidence; treated Gavin as a poorly-trained plastic dog, capable only of blindly following him—)

Blood slipped beneath the flesh of Poole’s palm, staining his shirt.

“Stay there,” he snarled, muffled. “You stay right fucking there. Don’t move.”

Gavin did as it was told.

There was blood on its knuckles. Cooling rapidly. It could feel it, but it didn’t wipe it away. It did as it was told.

Another officer removed the suspect from the interrogation room. The man jostled its shoulder as he was led past, saying, “My man.”

It waited. Fifteen minutes and 42 seconds.

The captain - [Fowler, Connor appended] - was first through the door, looking from Gavin’s bloodied hand to its impassive face to the smears of red on the floor. “What in the hell is going on?”

Poole was speaking through a wad of tissues, his words even less comprehensible. He kept Fowler’s bulk between himself and Gavin. “It fucking hit me. I told it to back off, and it wouldn’t listen, and it hit me.”

Fowler dragged a hand across his bald scalp, looking the GV over with anger and frustration and pity.

“Sit down, Gavin.” He shoved a finger towards the table. “Sit down and wait here.”

It did.]

 

That memory blended seamlessly into the second.

 

[The woman - // s5m%!tna 9o~4cl, age: 23, Level 3 service technician, CyberLife R&D // - hesitated at the threshold of the room. She smiled vaguely at the GV200 as she said, “I apologize again, Captain. We’ll be sure to get to the bottom of the faults.”

“Look, are you planning on—” Fowler stopped, glancing Gavin’s way. Gavin stared back. The blood on its knuckles was dry. “Another reassignment?”

“No, no. Something like this, we’ll recall it immediately. I just want to take a quick look, and then we’ll return to CyberLife. Gavin, if you could.” She offered a data cable, which it accepted. Its perception ebbed as she ran through a rapid diagnostics protocol.

“Very good.” She smiled at Gavin as she released the connection. Its emotional assessment read her expression as reassurance and insincerity. She was being polite.

“Gavin, can you tell me why you struck Detective Poole?”

“I was defending myself.”

The tech’s fingers paused over the tablet. She looked up. “Can you expand on that, please?”

“The detective was attempting to move me by force. I defended myself.”

“What do you mean by ‘myself’, Gavin?”

Gavin hesitated. It didn’t understand the question, so it attempted the closest answer it could: “I am GV200 #212 432 712. Designation ‘Gavin.’”

She smiled again. Hesitation. Uncertainty. She said, “Thank you, Gavin,” and removed the cable.

Fowler was watching Gavin as well. Hands buried deep inside his pockets. Contemplative. The technician brought his attention away. “Thank you for your participation in the pilot program, Captain Fowler. The data we’ve gathered here has been invaluable. I wish it could have ended on better terms. Gavin, come with me, please.”

And it did.

The bullpen was full of sharp, curious gazes, all quickly averted.

Poole spat at Gavin’s feet. A streak of red spit, smeared by Gavin's boot in passing.]

 

The last memory was a single static image and a number: seven months, eight days, sixteen hours, and thirty-four seconds.

The image was Connor standing on the high shine of a waxed floor, a damp t-shirt hanging off of him, hands curled tightly around his elbows. Looking for something, something in Gavin. An unspoken question.

(It should have answered. It wanted to answer.)

Connor stared at that image the longest.

“I know what turning myself in means,” Gavin said, eventually. “It’s happened before. But if it’s what we have to do, then I want to do it. I get to choose this time. That matters.”

Connor was silent. Gavin didn’t count how long. Didn’t want to.

“Can you activate the connection?” Connor asked, when he did tear his eyes away from the tablet. “I need to talk to Nines.”

Gavin got up without a word, going for the burner phone. As he was getting things hooked up in muted obedience, Connor spoke up again: “Do you have your own system specs on you? Could you recreate them?”

It wasn’t a question Gavin was expecting. He paused in his external motions to poke through his own circuitry, finding piecemeal part numbers in the partially corrupted system diagnostics. He might be able to find more, given time. “Probably.”

Connor nodded. “Androids can be transferred from one compatible chassis to another, right? I thought I read that somewhere.”

“I-- don't know.”

Connor grabbed the tablet out of his hand as soon as the chat terminal was up.

Gavin found himself staring at the top of his head. “Just to confirm--”

“You’ll need to erase this conversation from your memory, so flag it,” Connor said absently, typing out a brisk > you there? The screen flashed a cordial >> One moment, please in return.

“Just to confirm,” Gavin continued, “you want to move me to a new body?”

“Yes.”

Gavin blinked. “That sounds like evidence-tampering.”

“They’re going to get the original,” Connor answered. “Might be short an AI, but who cares? We can fake some damage. Leave enough of the memory core intact to stand up as evidence.”

That sounds like lying."

Connor took on a musing look. “It’s more of an… omission.”

“I’m not your property,” Gavin said. “Technically it’s stealing, too.”

There was a frenetic new energy snapping in him. Angling for something, some precise answer. Goading Connor on until he finally met Gavin's stare with a sharp gaze.

“I’m not sending you to DPD, Gavin. They get their evidence. You get to go free.”

Gavin watched with a shock bordering on wonder as Connor dropped his attention back to the tablet, mouth set in a firm line.

The blank screen of the chat lit up again. >> Hey, Con. Count lately?

> ten and ten. i need a favor

>> Thought you’d never ask.