The door closed softly behind Nines, muffling the sounds of the sales floor.
The hall leading to the backroom of the department store was echoey, the drop of temperature so noticeable that Nines would have perceived it even without his state of the art sensors. It had always unnerved him — when it was empty, as it was right then, the low buzz of the cheap lights and the long halls eerily reminded him of the basement of CyberLife Tower.
Not because both places really resembled each other. The corridors of the backroom of the department store weren’t nearly as elegant and sterile as CyberLife’s laboratories. And still, the cold, the echo, and the unbearable feeling of heaviness were the same. Like the bowels of an endless labyrinth.
Like a cage.
Gritting his teeth, Nines kept walking. He could see his stress levels rising, a pulsing warning in the corner of is vision. He pushed the thought of CyberLife’s basement with the practice of someone who had done it plenty of times. However, as he had just been fired, after today, he wouldn’t have to walk these halls again, so perhaps in that way he could forget about CyberLife too.
“He scares his coworkers,” his manager had told Connor barely five minutes ago. It had been Connor they called, because under the Android Integration Program -- an initiative that Markus and his people had forcefully negotiated-- newly deviated androids like Nines needed someone to guide them through deviancy. Mentors, they called it. Nines had no one. No one but Connor. “He doesn’t get along with anyone and he obviously has trouble interacting with people. We already gave him a chance when we sent him to the backroom when he didn’t do well in sales. But well. He’s not suited for this job.”
“I’m sure he--” Connor had started to defend him, although Nines didn’t understand why.
“Connor,” he’d said, looking down because the shame didn’t let him look anyone in the eye. “It’s okay,” Nines added, because what his manager said was true, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen it coming.
He had seen it coming. He just hadn’t known how to stop it from happening.
Discouraged, Nines stopped in front of a metal door, the bright blue the only soothing thing in an otherwise suffocating sea of grey and white. Still, when he touched the handle, he hesitated. Even through the closed door, his sensors picked up movement clearly, the voices coming from inside clear as if the people were right next to him.
“...yeah, I just saw them go into the office,” someone said, and not for the first time, Nines wished he could turn around and leave. It was some ugly part of himself that kept him listening, some glitched part that reveled in the hurt he knew this would cause him.
“Oh, thank god! You think they let him go?” someone else asked. Nines knew who the voice belonged to, and who it was that laughed. He knew because he had seen these people every day for two months. “What? You don’t have to work with him in the backroom! Androids are terrifying. No offense.”
“None taken,” Nines’ android coworker answered. “I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to creep out y’all, but there are rumors about him.”
The android lowered his voice. Although Nines didn’t have a stomach, he felt something churn low in his belly in response to the dread of knowing what was coming. “They found him locked up under CyberLife Tower, after the Revolution. When they tried to deviate him, he tried to kill both Markus and Connor.”
Several gasps filled Nines’ ears. “No!”
“They kept him locked for a while after that. I think Connor must be still watching him. That’s why he’s here.”
There was an uncomfortable silence at the other side of the door, the tension so thick Nines felt it settle in his shoulders, heavy like a weight.
Everything was true.
“Jesus, that’s so scary,” someone breathed at last. The uneasy silence stretched a couple more seconds, and Nines suddenly found he could not listen anymore. He opened the door, LED spinning angry red, and immediately wished he hadn’t.
His coworkers --not anymore, his mind reminded him-- froze when they saw him, the apprehension so clear in their faces that Nines’ programming pinged with an instability warning, his systems beginning to overheat from the strain his stress levels were putting him under.
He took a step forward, and immediately, the four humans and the android took a step back. It was an awful, instinctive reaction, and it made Nines violently wish to be somewhere else, anywhere, even locked up again, if it meant he didn’t have to watch the fear in their faces.
What had he done? He tried to ask. What had he ever done to them, that they feared him so?
But his voice got stuck in his voice modulator, and after a couple of seconds of struggle he gave up, opting for going to his locker instead.
The men and the android scattered around him, carefully avoiding him, hurrying so as not to have to be in the same room as Nines for a second longer.
“Fuck do you think he heard?” a whisper came from outside. The voices and steps became fainter and fainter as they walked away, but the sound still reached Nines ears for a couple more seconds.
“What does it matter?” someone answered. “Look at his face. He probably doesn’t feel anything. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with him. He sure doesn’t look like he has a heart.”
And Nines, now alone, looked at his reflection in the small mirror that was attached to the inside of his locker. His own face stared back at him, face carefully blank and betraying nothing of the strong emotion that he felt was about to tear him apart.
He wanted to hit it. To destroy it. The impulse so strong he had to close his eyes and draw a breath to aid his internal fans that were working at their top capacity trying to cool him down.
His own empty face stared at him again when he opened his eyes. However, this time he knew better than to look at his reflection. Instead, he took off his uniform, folded it, and got dressed in his own clothes.
He gave himself a whole minute to calm down again, and then he left for good.
Connor was waiting for him.
The sun began to set behind the tall forest of concrete as Nines walked through the city, alone.
His conversation with Connor had gone as well as could be expected. His predecessor had been waiting for him outside the department store. He was at Nines’ side in two steps, and if Nines kept looking forward it was because he didn’t think he could bear to see either concern or disappointment in Connor’s face right then.
“It will be fine,” Connor began, all restless energy but reassuring as if this wasn’t Nines’ third failure in so many months. “You’ll find something else eventually--”
“Do not concern yourself with me, Connor,” Nines interrupted him. He was not as upset with Connor as he was with himself, but Nines hadn’t been alive for so long that it didn’t still translate as the cold monotone he’d been programmed with as a default. “I have made it my mission to find another job as soon as possible to be able to live independently.”
A heartbeat too long of silence. “That’s not what I meant,” Connor said and Nines didn’t understand why his predecessor looked so sad.
“Furthermore, I can always go back to work as a security guard,” he offered, trying to soothe Connor, although a part of him buckled in panic at the thought.
“You hate police work,” Connor retorted, accurate in his assessment as usual, and although he couldn’t deny it was true, it still made shame run hot like lava through Nines’ artificial veins.
It had been Nines’ first job, just after he’d been released from New Jericho, and even though he’d been determined to do well, he had only lasted two weeks.
He’d hated that job. Hated it with every fiber of his being. He hated the confrontation, and the struggle, the raised voices, the way his protocols seemed to kick in without warning, taking control of him so he could incapacitate, hurt--
No. Those had been two of the most miserable weeks of his short life, and if they had ended in a meltdown when Nines had to subdue a drunk would-be-thief, well, in hindsight Nines was not surprised. If there was one thing he knew about himself was that he wouldn’t ever return to that line of work. Ever.
Still, that didn’t mean he wasn’t ashamed of himself, because this was another flaw in him as well. He was the only RK900, but there was another RK800 besides Connor, and from what he knew the other android was also working in law enforcement. Like his programming intended.
Nines looked at Connor. There was concern etched in the other android’s expression, a kind sort of warmth that always made something tighten in Nines’ chest. He was perfect. Perfect in his expression, in his speech, in his behaviour. Everyone liked Connor, androids and humans alike. He fulfilled his duty as was expected of him.
Effortlessly, Connor shifted his weight from one foot to another, a nervous, purely human gesture. With a pang of ugly envy, Nines wondered if it was something Connor had learnt from his Lieutenant or if it was something he had been programmed with too.
Nines had not been programmed with anything of the sort.
Aware he was being unfair, Nines blinked, sending these thoughts away. Envy always left him feeling dirty, filling him with an oily sort of repulsion at himself. Connor was his mentor, he had kindly volunteered when Markus had asked even after what Nines had tried to do when he had been first activated, and Nines owed nothing but gratitude to him.
“I don’t want you to believe I am not grateful for your continued concern and support,” Nines said, with an effort. He hated that his voice sounded so cold and distant, but he could do nothing to help it. “But right now I want to be alone to think. I promise will contact you when I decide what to do next.”
“Nines…” Connor began once again, pained. He searched Nines’ face --uselessly, Nines thought, as there was nothing to find-- and then sighed, defeated. “Okay.”
Nines had walked away then, without direction, just trying to find somewhere away from prying eyes so he could process his hurt in peace.
He walked and walked. Whenever he passed in front of the big window of a shop, he turned his face away, as not to see his reflection.
He doesn’t have a heart, they had said.
It was true, perhaps.
There was certainly something wrong with him. It was not only the social protocols he had been deprived of. Something in him was defective-- the part of him that allowed him to say what was on his mind, that allowed him to smile and laugh and form bonds with others.
It was the reason they had locked him in for so long after he’d awoken, first in the basement of CyberLife Tower and then at New Jericho. Why Connor had been tasked with watching him, making sure Nines’ defective code would not return to its original settings and he would not hurt anyone.
But Nines could not think about that.
He walked, aimless, for hours, until the sun touched the horizon as it began to set, painting the sky in gold and orange. He didn’t stop until he felt himself again, until that horrible pressure on his chest that threatened to crush him eased, until he could bear the thought of once again being a disappointment.
And then he stopped.
He’d try again, he decided.
Because failure was not an option, he knew he’d try again. He’d find another job and call Connor and tell him. Connor’s whole face would light up with hope and delight, and then…
Nines had been hopeful before. He’d been hopeful when Markus had offered to take him out of the basement of CyberLife Tower, only be locked in a security room at New Jericho instead. He’d been hopeful when Connor first visited him, only for him to be only monitoring him.
He’d been hopeful when he was finally allowed to leave New Jericho to live on his own.
And yet, nothing good had come of it, Nines didn’t think. Living was just so hard.
What did he need a job for?
Why did he need to live?
Nines fisted his hands so tightly that an alarm flashed on a corner of his eye, alerting him to the damage he was causing to himself.
Too much. It was too much. There was a hole in his chest, an endlessly empty space in the place his heart would have been if he had one, a void that did nothing but spread its cold tendrils through Nines body.
Dismissing all his system warnings, Nines closed his eyes as he waited for the wave to pass. This was a feeling he was familiar with.
When it finally abated, Nines began to walk again, steps once again decisive. But he didn’t go home. Instead, he used his GPS to find the closest store, and with his savings bought five cans of cat food that he hid deep into his pockets.
The sun had already set when Nines stopped in front of a green door.
The building he lived in was an old fashioned thing, the sort of place that was out of fashion in Detroit. It was made of quaint brickwork, the windows that faced the street painted green and white, the roof slanted a little in the top. It had been Nines’ home for the past three months.
As it was usual when he returned home, Nines felt his spirits lift a little at the sight of it. Compared to the buildings that surrounded it, Nines’ was modest, barely four stories tall. But what Nines liked wasn’t how tall it was. There were flowers under the first floor windows, bushes that were carefully pruned and taken care of, heavy with roses that bloomed in vibrant colors, spilling their fragrance into the air like little cups of perfume. Ivy grew into the brickwork, its vines tenaciously climbing the building up until the third floor, painting green the rightmost side of the building, on the opposite side of the door.
Nines had taken a look at it and loved it. Although he’d seen it in winter, when the bushes were barely more than wooden skeletons, the promise of life had appealed to him. He’d thought it a good omen, that perhaps he may bloom as well when spring came. It had not been so, but still he loved to watch the roses, loved the way the green leaves of the ivy would sway in the faintest wind.
However, this time, he didn’t stop to take note of these things.
Instead he walked past the door. Between the building and the one beside it there was a gap, a separation of a few meters that made a small alley. It was dark and narrow, with five garbage containers of different sizes and colors lined against the wall.
Nines looked around before entering it, and as if a blanket had been draped over him, the noise in his head immediately eased, enveloping the android in a blissful sense of calm he much needed.
Methodically, as he had done almost every day for three months, he put his dark grey coat on top of a closed blue garbage container, rolled up the sleeves of his dark blue sweater, and with the cheap broom he had left there for this exact purpose, he began to sweep the floor.
And finally, while sweeping a dirty alley in the middle of Detroit with even, perfect motions, the last of the awful weight that threatened to crush Nines’ chest left him. Although he didn’t need it, he breathed out in relief, testing the gesture. It was as if the stress of the day left him together with the warm air, allowing his systems to cool down. He felt a deep seated relief when everything that happened that day, if not forgotten, at least faded until he could finally think again.
Sometimes Nines found amusement in the thought of what his creators would think if they found out that Nines, the most advanced android CyberLife had ever created, found comfort in sweeping a dirty alley. But, he didn’t want to find out, really, because whatever anyone else might think, this was his personal miracle.
Broom still in hand, Nines paused to look around, for once not having to restrain his systems from scanning his surroundings. For a moment, the world flashed in dimmed colors, the metal of the firescape’s stairs of the neighboring building turning a pretty shade of blue. He closed the program as soon as he recognized the small heat signatures hiding in several places of the alley, slightly disappointed that the one he was looking for was nowhere to be seen.
He kept sweeping. The alley was not long, so it took him next to no time to be done. He made quick work of returning whatever trash had ended on the floor to its respective container, and when everything was as clean as it could be, he retrieved his coat and walked towards the end of the alley, to the place where a concrete wall cut off the way, creating a dead end.
As he walked, Nines was aware of the several pairs of eyes that watched his every movement.
This scrutiny, however, unlike that of both humans and androids, didn’t bother him. As he digged in the deep pockets of his coat, a couple of little heads cautiously poked out from their hidden places, already used to the presence of this stranger that brought them tasty food as an offering.
The first cat was out and waiting for Nines even before the android had opened the first can of food. It was an orange, friendly thing, thin and nimble, that meowed as Nines approached and stood on its hind legs like a dog when Nines got too close, shamelessly begging for food.
“Good evening to you too,” Nines greeted it although it wasn’t the cat he wanted.
The cat he was looking for was a black tuxedo, big and fluffy, with white socks and a small patch of white fur around its neck like a collar. It was the cat that had brought him to the alley.
The very first day Nines had left his apartment, the one eyed cat had been sitting primly in front of the main door, watching Nines with a startlingly intelligent, although grumpy, expression. It apparently had been waiting for him too, because the second he saw Nines it stood and proceeded to yell its heart out until Nines followed him into the alley, more out of bafflement than anything else.
That’s how he’d been introduced to the rest of the cats, five empty bowls, and their alarmed, hungry stares.
Nines had seen the one eyed cat on and off since then, but always from afar. The cat looked at Nines from a distance with an intensity that always made the android’s day better, and he wished for nothing more than to find a way to befriend it.
Currently, however, the orange cat meowed at him, loudly, as if telling Nines to snap out of it and hurry with the food. It watched Nines’ every move through smart blue eyes, gaze moving impatiently between the can and the android’s face, and if Nines had been able, he would have chuckled. As things stood, the LED in his forehead shone a happy blue, twinkling like a star as if in answer to the feelings the android couldn’t express.
With slow, even movements, Nines crouched on the floor, careful of not dirtying his trousers. The wet food was barely on the bowl when the orange cat came forward, tail high, and shamelessly pushed Nines’ hand out of the way to bury its snout in the food.
Not for the first time, Nines wondered how such a small thing could be so utterly unafraid.
Unable to resist the urge, Nines cautiously inched his hand towards the little orange head. He went as slowly as he could, and felt his thirium pump quicken with excitement when the cat just watched the hand coming towards it with an almost bored expression on its face. Nines was sure he would make it this time, but at the last second the cat ducked and jumped away, swiftly and elegantly avoiding the touch but remaining within sight of the food a few feet away.
Nines shook his head. After everything that had happened that day, the small disappointment felt almost nice, made him feel normal again. He certainly felt better as he reached for another of the neon plastic bowls, surprised to find it clean and with kibble at the bottom. Surely, when he checked the other bowls they were not only clean, but had traces of food that Nines could identify as recent.
It had happened on occasion. Nines would come to feed them and the bowls would be already clean and full, the cats arguing over every last piece of kibble.
Like the first time it happened, the sight flooded Nines with an odd kind of warmth, for he couldn’t deny that he had pulled through more than one bleak day just by thinking that someone in this miserable city had seen these hungry cats and cared enough to decide to feed them.
As if summoned by the orange cat’s loud purring --or by the cans opening, more likely-- several more cats cautiously came out from their hiding spots. Nines counted four. Save for the big tuxedo, the usual crowd. There was a slender tailless tabby with a severe expression, a round white and orange cat that looked like it’d speak with a squeaky voice, a small tortoiseshell with murderous eyes, and a handsome black cat. They sniffed the air as if they had not eaten today, looking at Nines with several degrees of demanding expectation.
Nines indulged them. He re-filled the bowls with wet food, taking care to mix it with the remaining kibble. Then, because the cats were still wild, retreated so the hungry little things felt safe enough to come forward, munching happily through the food, licking their whiskers between greedy bites.
Nines watched them, all his worries melting away at the sight of them. He loved to catalogue the different patterns of their fur, and never got tired of deducing their personalities through small cues in their behavior.
With a soft look on his face, Nines watched them eat and lick themselves clean, and not for the first time wondered who was the person that brought food for them. Because androids did not daydream, instead he preconstructed how it would be to meet this person, if they would notice the loneliness in Nines’ eyes just the same as they noticed hunger in the cats’, and if such a person would be kind enough to ever want to become Nines’ friend.