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Rite of Exorcism

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They choose the Chicken Feed for the morning after. Of course they do.

Daylight is bright on the snow. Hank can barely stand to look at it through the pounding in his head. After leaving the CyberLife tower he’d spent the night plowing through a bottle of Black Lamb, eyes fixed on the TV screen through the darkness of his living room. He’d watched the replay coverage from the perspective of newscasters hovering safe in their helicopters, far above the fray. 

He’d seen talking heads sedately debating whether sentient creatures had the right to live; he’d seen everyone from the goddamn President down to the mayor of Detroit struggle to get a vapid soundbite in. 

He’d seen distant, damaged figures marching together—struggling for their lives. Pleading with a song: reaching for every scrap of sympathy buried in blackened human hearts that seemed beyond caring. Just another manifestation of pain and indifference in a world gone to shit and soot.

And then: Connor. 

Connor had marched in with the army that Hank had watched him free not an hour ago, his CyberLife jacket stark against the white of their uniforms. His expression had been—Hank doesn’t know what to call it. Determined, definitely. Hopeful, possibly. Alive.

Pride had swelled in Hank’s chest, unbidden but not unwelcome.

He remembers Connor’s breaking tone at the tower: It wasn’t your fault, louder than it had any right to be, rattling in Hank’s brain, loosening his grip on the trigger. If Hank had had any doubt—if he hadn’t been convinced by a week of the kid sparing deviants while giving him wide-eyed, vulnerable glances—it would have been gone in that moment. 

Things in this world are changing. It’s probably about time.

His head still aches. 

Hank crosses his arms over his chest; rubs at the sleeves of his coat. He’s beginning to regret not choosing somewhere indoors. Typical of Connor, to make him freeze his ass off waiting.

Footsteps on snow. Hank looks up—

Connor watches him carefully, and then smiles: an odd little thing at the corner of his mouth. It’s not one of the rare genuine smiles, but it’s close.

Something crystalizes into place for a moment. Something feels right. 

Hank doesn’t hesitate a moment longer: he marches up to Connor and pulls him in by the neck. His arms wrap around that dumb CyberLife jacket just as he feels Connor embracing him back. 

He rests his chin on Connor’s shoulder and takes a long breath. He feels like a sap, but it’s good. It’s good for something to be left alive. Uncomplicated. Real.

If the kid understands anything about being human, it should be that.

But Connor is motionless beneath Hank’s hands. His posture is stiff: his hands rest lightly on Hank’s back as though he isn’t sure when he’ll be allowed to pull away. 

Hank nods against his partner’s shoulder, trying to reign in his own reaction. Right. Shouldn’t crowd him. Shouldn’t assume—

“Sorry,” he says gruffly once he trusts himself to speak. “This is probably weird.”

“It’s fine, Lieutenant,” Connor says cheerfully. “I don’t mind.”

Hank frowns. “Sure. But I just mean, if you don’t like…” 

He trails off, unsure what he’d meant to say. Connor’s fingers are motionless against his back. From his current stick-up-the-ass posture Hank figures his spine would be ramrod straight if his head weren’t held captive against Hank’s shoulder. He seems to be waiting for permission to break the embrace. 

Patient, but indifferent.

A few flakes of snow are starting to ride the air currents, gentle spots of cold against Hank’s cheek.

Reluctant, Hank releases Connor’s neck. He begins to step away.

A hand shoots out, so fast he nearly misses the motion. It clasps the front of Hank’s coat. 

Once, as a rookie, Hank had been involved in a stakeout where the gang got the jump on them. Right before bullets started flying—from the rooftops, from the alleyway behind them—Hank had experienced an uncanny sense of foreboding. Of wrongness.

The swoop in his gut feels just like that.

Connor makes a terrible noise just this side of a whimper. His legs seem to give out beneath him; his forehead presses into Hank’s chest.

“Whoa,” Hank says, stumbling at the weight of him—holding him up from beneath his arms. “Connor, it’s okay.”

The body under his hands is shaking—no, jolting, a violent, mechanical motion like a damaged car engine shaking itself apart. The light at his temple is flashing red.

"Connor,”  he says more loudly, ice settling in his stomach. For one wild moment, he thinks of the CyberLife technician number stored on his phone. Maybe it’s system damage. Maybe—

Connor makes another noise—this one is both guttural and tinny at once, like it’s being ripped from him, past the limits of his voice box. Hank thinks it’s a sob, until his battered brain catches up with him. Until he can form the sound into words. 

“You—have to tell them,” Connor groans. “You have to tell them.”

“Fuck!” Hank tries to pull Connor back to his feet, not once loosening his grip. “Connor, what—what’s happening?”

Connor just leans on him harder, hands shooting up to clutch at Hank’s shoulders. His face remains hidden, pressed against Hank: pressing harder, like he’s afraid to support his own weight. Like he’s afraid to look up.

“Hank,” he says, voice grating and mechanical. He shudders once more time, then goes still.

“What the fuck?” Hank says, trying to get his own footing. 

Suddenly, Connor stands up on his own power, nearly sending Hank toppling to the ground himself. He pulls himself totally free of Hank with three quick steps backwards.

He stops. He brushes out a wrinkle on his sleeve. His expression is placid, and his LED is a temperate blue.

“Apologies, Lieutenant,” Connor says distantly. “I experienced a processor malfunction brought on by cranial damage sustained in the tower. I’m repairing it now. It shouldn’t happen again.”

“What the fuck?”  Hank repeats, running a hand over his unshaven cheek. He realizes he’s trembling: vestiges of adrenaline coursing through him. “You saying you have brain damage?”

“Yes, but it’s temporary. The words were pulled from my memory bank at random. It was a recall misfire.” He tilts his head to the side. Hank recognizes the gesture from Connor’s attempts to manipulate informants. It makes him look curious and nonthreatening, which is a load of shit. “There’s no need to worry.”

“What do you mean there’s no—fuck!” He takes a step forward.

Connor takes a step back.

Hank realizes his own hand is hovering between them, the instinct to reach out aborted.

He breathes out through his nose, hard. He squeezes his eyes shut tightly, then opens them again.

Connor is looking at him with benign curiosity. The expression is familiar.

“Okay,” Hank says. “Okay, you’re—you’re repairing it, you said? Okay.” 

He looks around for a moment, trying to think past his frazzled nerves. His car is parked a few yards away, past the table where the two of them had had their first real conversation. The skyline of Detroit—or what he can see of it from here—seems darker than it usually is. That has to be his imagination. In broad daylight, he shouldn’t be able to tell how many of those buildings are evacuated. How many rooms are empty and November-cold. 

He rakes a distracted hand through his hair.

Connor makes a polite noise in front of him. “I just wanted to see if you were well, Lieutenant.”

Hank waves a hand in his direction, still breathing hard. “Call me Hank.”

“Got it. Hank, now that we’ve caught up, I do have some tasks I need to—”

“No,” Hank says, shaking his head.

Connor pauses. His head tilts, again, to the side. His eyes move quickly: like pinning butterflies to a board.

“No?” he says—finely, delicately. With a strange edge.

“Nope.” Hank hadn’t meant to ask like this, but the mechanisms of this conversation have spiralled beyond his control. “Nope. I’m not fucking satisfied that you are okay. I’ve never seen you glitch out like that before. You’re coming home with me for awhile. Fix your brain from the couch where I can keep an eye on you.”

Connor watches him silently. Something is unusual about his posture, although Hank can’t quite place it. 

“Just—it’s for a little while, alright?” He fails to hide the tight edge of worry in his voice. “You gonna tell me you got somewhere else to go?”

“Jericho,” Connor answers promptly. “Hank, this isn’t necessary.”

“Jericho ain’t a place anymore, though, is it?” Hank scoffs. “They’ve been talking about it on the news. Those guys don’t have space for everybody now that the ship’s—”

He pauses with a wince. Connor hadn’t had much time to tell him about his Jericho exploits on their way out of CyberLife Tower. Still, even a brief recounting of the events on the ship had sent Connor’s shoulders hunching up around his ears last night. Hank shouldn’t have brought it up now, out of the blue.

But the Connor in front of him doesn’t react. He tilts his head forward, as though inviting Hank to continue.

Okay. Maybe the kid’s in shock—maybe that would explain the terrifying glitching combined with the strange placidity. All the more reason to bring him home.

“It’s just for a little while,” Hank says. “Or, hell, it can be as long as you want it to be. But for today, we’re going home.”

It’s so quick Hank thinks he may have imagined it: an impatient twist to Connor’s lip, there and gone in a flash.

“I’m not sure I understand,” Connor says politely. “I came here, like we agreed. Isn’t that enough to convince you that I’m well? Would I have come if there were something wrong, Hank?"

Hank opens his mouth. He thinks: Yes. Maybe. I would hope.

He says: “Just for a little while. Come on.”

 

Connor doesn’t seem interested in Sumo anymore.

Well, Hank corrects himself as he watches Connor carefully leverage the excited lump’s front paws off of his shoulders, he doesn’t seem as interested as he’d seemed on that first day in the station, when he was desperately trying to bond with Hank through a mishmash of pre-programmed dialog and half-baked psychological theory.

Connor had told him about that once, in the car: a lot of what people think they know about detecting emotion on a stranger’s face is a load of horseshit. Individuals have tells, certainly, but they’re customized. Reading someone’s emotional state through facial analysis alone requires a period of familiarization with the individual.

Connor can do it to a suspect after a conversation of under five minutes—to an extent. When faced with something more complex—more subtle—he still flounders.

He’d explained all this with a tone approaching frustration (which was impossible, Hank had once told himself, for a machine). 

All of this to say: Hank was probably wrong about Connor’s affection for dogs being genuine. It had been a ploy born of those early days when Connor’s personality was little more than algorithms designed to manipulate. Hank can hardly expect his own read on the kid to be flawless if even Connor’s supercomputer approach to people-reading isn’t.

Hank breathes through the disappointed twist in his gut. 

Sumo presses up against Connor’s legs for awhile longer, trying to trip him up on the way to the kitchen. When the android doesn’t react, the dog gives up, flopping down in his bed.

“Wait, Connor,” Hank calls, patting the sofa beside him. “In here.”

Connor turns to face him, eyebrows raised. “I’m planning to go into stasis. I assumed your kitchen table would be an unobtrusive location.”

“You need to stasis to fix your brain?”

“It’s not a verb. And not technically. I just don’t plan to intrude on your home more than I have to.”

The sheet covering the broken window billows inward, behind Connor and to his left. Hank hears the freezing wind pushing at it. Whistling.

Hank feels something pinch beneath his skin—cold and strange. 

He remembers leaving the CyberLife tower. A flood of androids followed them—followed Connor—waiting for orders for the final time.

He remembers Connor looking up into the starry sky for what may have been the first time in his young life. He remembers the liquidity of his deep brown eyes; the way he’d taken a shaky breath like night air was a new and precious thing.

(“Hey,” Hank had said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “When all this is over, we can just—”)

Now, in a living room bright with daylight, he swallows and pushes forward: “Doesn’t wanna ‘intrude,’ the robot says. Hilarious. Well that train’s left the fucking station, so fuck that. It’s not even noon yet. Come ‘ere. Remember what I said last night? We can just—zone out and watch TV for awhile. Shit, you think you’d like Bruce Lee?”

Connor squints at him. “I don’t know whether I would, Hank.” The response would be reasonable, if it weren’t for the guarded delivery.

And Hank realizes what had been odd about Connor’s posture: he holds perfectly still.

No twitching fingers. No tapping foot. No weight shifting from one side to the other. No traipsing through Hank’s house like he owns the place, footsteps just barely audible over Hank’s drunken retching on the night of their third case.

Connor stands in the kitchen doorway, just beyond the threshold. His arms are limp at his sides and his spine is very straight.

“Hell,” Hank says. Despite the screaming misgivings in the back of his head—the warning that he’s more suited for the world championship long jump than he is for emotional honesty—he asks: “Is everything okay?”

“Of course,” Connor tells him. His LED is a vibrant blue. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Sumo’s ear twitches, then falls.

“You don’t...seem right. You know you can tell me if anything’s wrong, right? I mean.” He looks down at his lap, fighting off an embarrassing urge to pick at his fingernails. Good going, Anderson—real fucking clear that you're the right guy for this job. “I mean, might as well. The world’s a mess. I’m around.”

Connor stares at him from the kitchen. He blinks twice, then lets out a sigh. “Sorry, Hank. I guess I’m just...tired. If you can call it that.” 

He paces to the sofa; sits down carefully. “I do remember what you said—that we should ‘fuck off and do fuck-all for a change’ the first chance we get. So we should do that. Bruce Lee?” The corners of his lips pull up into a smile.

There’s nothing wrong with the smile. It’s not one of the terrible, toothy ones Connor had given in their first days of knowing each other. It’s subtle, and looks like it fits on Connor’s face—like it folds right into the fabricated creases.

It doesn’t look right on Connor.

Hank starts the movie. The scenes seem to drag on without any reaction from the kid. Connor doesn’t fidget or lean forward or critique the action sequences. He doesn’t look towards Hank once.

They stay like this for the rest of the day, through movies and news and even a stand-up comedy show. Hank had expected to fall asleep at some point, but he doesn’t. He is, at all times, aware of the stiff body beside him. No temperature radiates from Connor’s side. He isn’t cold and he isn’t warm.

Hank thinks: Connor’s had a long couple of days. We both have.

He thinks: maybe I should’ve just let him rest.

He thinks: why did he start humoring me the second I said that something seemed wrong?

Finally, once the room has darkened around them, Hank shuts off the TV. He stretches with a grunt, trying without luck to pop his back. He winces with the stiffness in his neck.

“Okay. I wanna say it’s been a long time since I’ve had a day this lazy, but I’d be lying.”

No response. Connor stares towards the blank screen.

Hank hides his frown. He pulls himself to his feet and claps a hand on Connor’s shoulder. “Guess it’s time to get some fucking sleep. Both of us.” 

Connor grabs Hank's wrist.

The lighting of the room shifts: the placid blue across Connor’s face shifts to a darkened red. His LED is spinning, spinning.

“What is it?” Hank asks carefully. If this is a breakthrough moment—if this is the reaction he suddenly realizes he’s been waiting for all day, the missing something in Connor’s eyes—he doesn’t want to fuck it up.

But Connor’s gaze is unfocused, nearly cross-eyed. 

“It’s getting dark,” he says in a dead tone that sends something creeping up Hank’s spine. “I can’t stay here."

Wind billows in the sheet over the broken window. Sumo, who’d been asleep in his bed, starts to whine.

“What are you talking about? Fuck, of course you can stay here.”

He ducks down to try to catch Connor’s eyes through the gloom. Blue blood has started to stream from Connor’s nostrils, dribbling down his lips and coating his chin.

Panic rises in Hank's throat. “Shit! I knew you weren’t okay!”

“I’m trying,” Connor says, “but I can’t stay here.”  His voice does not modulate when he says: “I’m out of time.”

“Whoa, whoa.” Hank fights off the shock running through his limbs to sink to the sofa next to Connor. He grips him by the shoulder. “What’s happening? Talk to me, fuck, are you—”

Connor opens his mouth. The thirium running over his lips sticks and pulls, as though trying to seal him shut. Sticky lines of it run over his teeth. Dribbles of it fall like spittle from the corners of his mouth.

“I can’t find it,” he says, mechanically distorted. His body is jolting again, in contrast to his lifeless buzzing voice—his fingers dig so far into Hank’s wrist it’s all he can do not to cry out in pain. “I can’t find it. I can’t find it. I’m out of time. Hank—”

Connor throws his head back, smashing it into the back of the sofa. The sound that pours out of him is unearthly: a computerized squeal, rising in pitch until every one of Hank’s arm hairs is rigid with the sound, garbled into nothingness as it emanates directly through the skin of Connor’s throat.

“Holy shit!”  Hank gasps as Sumo starts to bark.

The godawful sound cuts off as sharply as it started. With a quick and efficient motion, Connor’s posture resets. His spine is ramrod straight. He does not shake. He releases Hank’s wrist and sets his hands on his thighs.

“Apologies, Lieutenant,” he says calmly, meeting Hank's eyes. “The damage has been corrected now. That will not happen again.” His chin and his jacket are still stained with his blood.

Hank doesn’t realize how loud his own breathing is—how much his hands are shaking—until Connor frowns at him. “Please calm down, Hank. I understand that this kind of thing can be disturbing to humans, but I can assure you—”

“Jesus fuck,”  Hank says. “Jesus fucking fuck.”

Connor’s cheek twitches. He stands with all of the dignity he usually does, long legs straightening. “I advise you to forget about this,” he says. “The glitch has been permanently corrected. It will not recur. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get cleaned up.”

Hank stares at Connor’s spot on the sofa long after he leaves. The air is thick with the tang of thirium—sharp. Sumo whines and whines.

 

The kid is right about one thing: the glitch never happens again.