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To Touch, To Feel

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Pidge woke to the loud clang of something heavy and metallic falling into her mail chute. She sat upright in the midst of her duvet, and stared over at the chute with wide eyes, where a large white cylinder rested. It was the brightest thing in her dimly-lit room, the harsh fluorescent lighting making its white exterior gleam so brightly that she could only look at it for a couple of seconds.

Hurriedly, she shoved the bedcovers off her legs and scrambled up, nearly tripping over her own feet in the process. She was still fully dressed, and she didn’t remember falling asleep. If she had to guess, she’d say it was still midday – she wasn’t feeling the usual grogginess that deep sleep gave her. In her tiny one-room apartment, it took her five steps to reach the chute, all the way across the room. She wrenched the chute door open with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary, and the cylinder – which was double her size – immediately began to fall forwards. On instinct, Pidge held her arms open to catch it, but it was too heavy for her and her knees buckled, sending her sprawling to the floor. The cylinder landed next to her with a much too loud bang.

Her head snapped toward the large metal door of her apartment, watching and waiting for just a moment. The building she lived it didn’t allow it tenants to lock their doors, in the name of safety and easy access for security. It was supposed to make her feel better, she supposed, the idea that at any point building security could barge their way into her home. After a moment of listening out for the marching of robotic feet and hearing nothing, she let out a sigh, and the metal doors remained shut.

Pidge pressed her hands to the front panel of the pod, her hands just a little shaky, and it depressed under her touch, lighting up from within, before It slid sideways to reveal a sleeping man, laying quietly inside it.

Or, what looked like a man, anyway. In reality, it was an android, inhuman and made of metal and plastic, and not a person at all.

The particular model Pidge had bought was specifically made to be as attractive as possible. They were made with romance in mind, to be partners for lonely humans. So Pidge had been expecting pretty. She’d been expecting a square jaw and long eyelashes, beautiful in a devastating, otherworldly way. If it hadn’t been for the plastic indents in its face, though, Pidge may have even thought this android was a human.

It had a sharp, angular face, with dark hair and a tanned complexion, only interrupted by the stylised plastic tubing, shaped like jagged, rectangular bolts of lightning, running underneath its fake skin, which would glow with a light, neon blue liquid when the android was activated. The tubing ran all the way down its neck, and disappeared into the hem of a shirt, emblazoned with the Heliotech logo, though considering what she was supposed to be using this android for, she was surprised it didn’t come naked.

Eventually, after a few seconds of impatient waiting, the front panel of the pod slid off and away, revealing the android in its entirety, and Pidge reached in, grabbing the android under the arms and hauling it up, out of the pod as best she could, considering it was so much heavier than her. Slowly, she dragged it to the corner of the room, and dropped it next to her computer tower, patched together with duct tape and ill-fitting parts. Considering every piece of equipment she had was illegal, she wasn’t about to complain. If it worked, then she didn’t care how it looked. Pidge sent another look at the door, just in case, and when she heard nothing she pulled out a handful of tangled wires.

She made quick work of inserting all the right wires into the corresponding ports, and pulled up the android’s shirt, exposing its chest so that she could see its artificial abdominals (which were defined just enough that she stopped what she was doing for a few seconds, her mouth suddenly dry). For one moment, and one moment only, she let herself entertain the idea of activating it. Of forgetting what she was supposed to be doing and just using her new android the way it was intended to be used. Instead, she pressed down on the panel in the middle of its stomach, and absolutely did not linger. The panel slid to the side, much like the pod’s panel had done, to reveal the android’s internal wires and connectors.

“Oh, wow,” Pidge whispered to herself as she studied the welding, the beautiful way the wires twisted around each other. Heliotech really did outdo themselves every time they rolled out a new model, and Pidge was grudgingly impressed. She wondered, once she’d finished with the android itself, if she could play with its shell. Maybe transform it into something new, maybe even make her own android model out of it. Once more, Pidge glanced toward the apartment doors to find them still shut tight.

Then, with a shaky hand and shaky breaths, she took hold of her illegal, beaten up phone -an old, untraceable brick of a thing left over from generations ago- and dialled the only number she knew.

“Its here,” She said, the second Shiro answered, and he knew immediately what she was talking about. “Its lying right in front of me and I’ve got its stomach open.”

“Good,” Shiro said. “Is it connected to your computer?”

“Not yet,” Pidge said, holding the phone between her head and her shoulder so she could reach both hands into the open cavity in the android’s chest. “It’s the orange wire, yeah?” She asked, already reaching for it.

“That’s right.” Shiro said, voice brisker than Pidge was used to. She tugged the orange connector out of its place in the android’s chest, and she almost expected to see it break somehow. In its place, she plugged in one of the blue wires connected to her computer, and the old, mismatched machine whirred loudly.

“Do you have the chip?” Prompted Shiro. “The one I gave you the last time we saw each other?”

“I do,” Said Pidge, picking said chip up off her floor. She didn’t have many storage spaces, and so she always made sure the chip was within eyesight. “What’s it for, anyway?”

“You’ll see,” Shiro told her cryptically. She must have asked him that question a dozen times, and he had never answered her. If he wasn’t already risking his neck to help her out, she wouldn’t have trusted him at all. “There’s a tiny slit, should be in the middle of your computer tower, can you see it?”

“Affirmative.”

“Put the chip in there. Then all you’ll have to do is upload the data on it into the android’s hardware, and then you’ll be able to do what you need to do without alerting anyone.”

“Got it,” Said Pidge. “And after that, we can use its parts to-“

“Katie,” Shiro interrupted. “Until the data has been uploaded, the android can still record your voice.”

“It’s not even been activated!” Pidge protested.

“Are you willing to take that chance?” Asked Shiro, and Pidge could practically hear him grinding his teeth down the phone at her.

“Right,” Pidge said. “Sorry. It’s just, we’re so close, I swear I can feel it.”

“I get it,” He said. “I’m excited too. We’ve been waiting for this for months. But you have to be careful until we know we’re safe. Do you think you can manage from here?”

“Of course I can,” Pidge scoffed. “Don’t you know who you’re talking to?”

“That’s my girl,” Shiro said. Pidge could hear him smiling. “Call me back once you’ve finished uploading the data, and we’ll go from there.”

“Roger,” Pidge said. “Talk to you soon.” She hung up before Shiro could say anything more, and put the phone down on the floorboards next to her. Her computer monitors bathed the low-lit room in soft blue light, and considering newer buildings tended to not have windows, she couldn’t see much except the android on the floor next to her, and the painfully slow movement of the progress bar on the screen.

There were times when she really wished she could just use her wrist computer. Wrist computers were fast, they weighed literally nothing, all while doing everything bigger, heavier computers couldn’t ever do. But they were made by Heliotech and monitored and traceable and completely untrustworthy, and so Pidge couldn’t take the risk. Especially for something as highly illegal as android modification.

If she was caught, she’d be outcasted, and then she’d never find out what happened to her family.

Pidge looked down at the android. It was her only hope, if she ever wanted to find the truth. Every other plan and tactic she’d tried had been discovered and thwarted, and if this didn’t work, she was beginning to lose hope that anything ever would. Once the data had finished uploading and the android was turned off for good, she’d be able to start harvesting its components, ready for use in whatever machine Shiro was building for her. Excited, she stared over at the screen, trying to will the progress bar to just jury the hell up.

A sudden, bright flash of light caught her attention from the corner of her eye.

When she looked over, she saw that the plastic markings on the android’s shell were beginning to glow a soft neon blue, starting from the feet and crawling slowly upwards, like a cup filling with water. Pidge watched, disbelieving, as the blue liquid slowly crept upward through the android’s shell, showing through the clear plastic in its skin. She watched its progression from its feet, up into its legs, and then into its exposed stomach. And then, finally, its neck and its face.

As Pidge watched, the blue liquid became brighter with every passing second, until it was glowing brightly and thrumming underneath the android’s fake flesh. The android’s shell began to whir, and Pidge could see the cavity in its chest light up in the same unnatural blue.

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Pidge’s heart caught in her throat. The chip was meant to make it so the android could never be activated. Maybe it had to be activated before it was destroyed, but that made no sense. As Pidge watched, an increasingly tense and uncomfortable feeling in her stomach growing with every passing second, the android’s chest began to rise and fall with simulated breaths, the whirring getting louder. She made a jerky motion to unplug the android from her computer, but stopped herself. If this was part of the process, and she interrupted it, both her and Shiro would be completely fucked. Shiro had sacrificed a lot for her. She couldn’t let him down.

Then again, Shiro would know what to do. She grabbed her phone, and was halfway into dialling his number, when the android’s eyes flew open, scanning the room wildly before falling on her. Its eyes were piercing, the same neon blue as its fake blood.

"Oh no," She said. “Oh, shit.” Pidge said, as the android reached out for her. It held her wrist in its hand, its eyes unblinking and looking directly at her. She froze, afraid to even breathe.

“What did you do?” It asked, eyes flittering back and forth over her face. Scanning her. Memorising her.

If Pidge didn’t know any better, she’d say it sounded frightened.

“What did you do?” The android asked again, louder, and Pidge’s breath quickened. Her eyes darted to the monitor, but there were no error messages, and nothing had gone wrong. All it said, in flashing red text, was “Transfer Complete”. She looked down at the orange wire exposed in the android’s shell. Maybe something had gone wrong, somehow. Maybe the android had disconnected itself, someway.

The android followed her gaze, and stared right into its exposed wiring. Then, before Pidge could say anything or try to stop it, the android thrust a hand into its shell and pulled itself free of the wire connecting it to Pidge’s computer. Almost immediately, there was a spark and a loud popping sound as the electricity in her whole apartment stopped working. The android went still, slumped over itself. But Pidge could still see the neon blue, thrumming under its shell.

Something, somewhere, had gone wrong.

Pidge breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, focusing on her breathing while she finished dialling Shiro’s number. She waited, her chest getting tighter with every passing second, but there was no answer, only the electronic tone of the phone ringing.

She hung up and redialled, but there was still no answer. She called again, and again, but the longer the dial tone went on for, the more her vision began to swim.

Something had gone wrong. Against all calculations, she’d fucked something up.

She’d wasted the last chance she had to find her family. She had no idea what to do. With an unpredictable, possibly broken, android, and no power, things were starting to look more and more complicated.

“Okay,” She said, out loud to herself. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. “No panicking. No panicking allowed. Do not panic."

She looked around her apartment. Shiro had told her over and over again to make a backup plan and she hadn’t bothered. She hadn’t thought she’d need one, hadn’t considered that everything would be fucked up the way it was. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth.

Frantically, she grabbed her work bag off the ground and shoved her old phone and old laptop in there. It was all she’d need to keep herself going, should she need technology, and while she’d regret not having her equipment with her, it was large and clunky – not exactly portable.

She shoved some clothes in the bag too, whatever she could find on her floor, and when she slung the bag over her shoulder, it immediately began to hurt, so weighed down with stuff. On a whim, she took the picture of her family off the bedside table, unscrewed the back, folded the picture up and put it in her pocket. Never mind all of her equipment, that was the most important thing she had. With one last deep breath, she turned back to the room, thinking of giving the android one last once-over before she did anything rash, just in case the situation wasn’t hopeless after all.

Except, when she turned around, the place where the android had been was empty. She turned around and around, but she couldn’t catch sight of it. She didn’t understand how it’d managed to escaped from such a tiny room, considering it was quite tall, even for an android. There were no windows, and she hadn’t heard the door, which meant it was still in there with her.

Pidge looked around for any sign of blue lights, ignoring her increasingly shallow breath. The only place big enough to hide an android would be her bed, and sure enough, when she turned to look she noticed the faint, pulsing blue of an activated android. She dropped to her knees beside her bed and met wide, neon irises, hiding in the shadows. She opened her mouth, to try and coax it out, or ask it for answers, but before she could say anything, she was interrupted by a loud pounding on her door.

“Pidge Gunderson,” Came the robotic voice of one of the building maintenance bots. “There has been a power trip in the building, originating in this apartment. We are here to discover what went wrong.”

Fuck, Pidge thought. What hadn’t gone wrong?

The door to her apartment began to open before she could move or speak or think, and Pidge cursed that she’d been placed in a building without locks, but before she could stand, a hand reached out from underneath her bed and pushed her over, and she fell, hard, on the ground.

The android slid fluently out from under her bed and ran towards the door, shoving the two maintenance robots stood there out of the way as soon as the heavy metal door slid open. Pidge swore under her breath, grabbed her bag and stood up and chased after it, past the disoriented robots. She heard the sound of their tinny alarms only seconds after she left them behind.

Which meant that she was in trouble, and she didn’t have long to get out of there.

Already, the lockdown had started. The apartments she passed had already begun to have their shutters lower over the doors. It was ironic, that the only time the doors locked, was in order to keep the residents in. In order to not get caught, she’d have to get out of the building before it locked down. She headed for the train. If she could get on that before it was locked down, she’d have a head start.

It would be incredibly difficult, but she couldn’t afford to not try.

The entrance for the travel tube was shutting and Pidge hadn’t seen the android since it had left her apartment, so it was either lost of incredibly fast. Pidge could see the imposing metal doors slowly shutting, ready to lock her in the building with the maintenance robots, who she’s sure by then would have called Heliotech and reported her.

She ran around corner after corner, the metal shutters closing faster than she could keep up with, and when she finally turned the last corner and the train platform was in sight, the metal doors were already closing, ready to lock her out. Pidge wasn’t going to make it. Her feet pounded against the floor, as she ran, trying to make it in time before she was trapped.

She could hear her heartbeat in her head, could feel the stinging of oncoming tears in her nose. She thought about not being able to get through, of being caught. Of an indeterminable fate. Of never seeing her family again.

She swung her backpack off her shoulder and lobbed it towards the door, one last attempt at freedom. The weight off her back made running easier, and the bag slammed onto the concrete heavily, and Pidge winced at the loud crack of breaking electronics.

She sped as fast as she could toward the door, her lungs burning and her legs screaming at her, and she was within touching distance when the metal clamped down on her backpack. Her laptop and her phone made an awful, loud, popping noise as they were crushed, but they gave Pidge just enough time to crawl onto her belly and roll through the gap, before the door slammed shut with the bots on the other side.

Her whole body deflated, and she wanted nothing more than to lie on the ground until she felt like moving again, but there wasn’t time. There would be more robots and droids and police coming for her, and the train wouldn’t be there forever.

So, with a heave she pushed herself up, darting forward as fast as she could and slipping through the closing train door with seconds to spare, watching through the window as police bots spilled in from every door way. She slid down into the seat closest to her, and breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth.