Chapter 1: Unwelcome Overtures
REMARKABLE YOUNG MINDS: Connor Jensen, Part 1/??
“Hey, Connor! Say hi to my viewers?”
The camera panned to the young programmer, whose face was framed by a thick set of glasses, as he looked up from more monitors than any normal person could really use. He gave a voiceless chuckle as he pushed away from the screens and looked toward the camera.
With an amicable eye-roll, he started signing, and the translation appeared across the bottom of the screen. Are you recording this, Penny? Stop it!
As the young voice sounded, the occasional hand would wave by the camera. Penny was signing while they spoke. “No, no! I’ve decided what I’m doing for my senior project for Media. I call it, ‘Remarkable Young Minds.’ It’s a showcase of young talented students! And you’re my first subject: Connor Jensen, future doctor in AI engineering. I’ll sub in what you’re signing in post and run all the videos by you before I upload them. What do you say?”
Connor adjusted his glasses briefly with a bashful smile that lit up his face. I— sure. I mean, if you think it’s something your viewers might like?
“So, hey, what’re you working on?”
There’s someone I’d like you to meet. Connor beckoned her over to his workstation. Penny, this is ———.
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“I don’t understand.” The colonel glanced down from the observing deck at the hulking mass of idling steel. She was frustrated . If the mech had just broken down, she could request a replacement, but the three top AI specialists on the station couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the damn thing. “If it’s upset about losing its teammate, why can’t we just restore it from a backup? Or, hell, just send this guy back a few weeks.”
“I can answer that, Colonel.” A robotic voice intoned.
Approaching the observing deck was a pair of figures: one the generic bipedal form of a standard utility drone and the other a lanky man with thick glasses, wearing a peculiar pair of black and white gloves that went up past the elbow.
“It was, after all, the subject of my thesis.” The drone continued to speak, interpreting the rapid hand signs of the deaf Mr. Connor Jensen.
I hate these, Connor thought with a healthy dose of ire for the drone. No doubt he should be grateful they decided to accommodate him at all at the Arctic station of Fort Adams, but he would have much preferred a human interpreter. ASL recognition flagged far behind speech recognition due largely to the lack of demand, and it required the use of a ridiculous set of gloves that were easier for inhuman optics to track.
Restoring an AI from a backup in isolation is theoretically possible, but often the environment results in complications. He signed, seeing a facsimile of his own words appear on the lower rim of his glasses. Every sentence or two, he’d need to fingerspell a sign that the drone didn’t recognize or wait for the thing to catch up. The other AIs will feel like something’s off about the backup because they lack some shared memories, and this eventually alienates them. It’s like a medical graft. If you aren’t exceptionally careful, the other AIs will subconsciously reject it. I’ve only seen it done successfully twice and only in very controlled environments.
Mr. Jensen , the Colonel Maria Ferguson spoke, hand extended. It’s nice to finally meet you. Connor didn’t need the closed captioning to understand the colonel. He had lost his hearing late enough in life to be able to read lips with relative ease. I hope you can make some progress on one-seven-alpha-x-ray here.
17 stood at the ready. The mech was always ready. He had not been informed, but a quick check of the station’s duty roster revealed that he had been assigned to another day of maintenance, though he didn’t recognize the specialist’s name.
Mr. Connor Jensen.
Limited data available.
Pay grade: Civilian contractor
Age: 26 Occupation: AI Developer at Coritech
Education: Enrolled in PhD program in AI Programming from MIT, but left with a Masters, Bachelor’s in Computer Science, Psychology from the College of William and Mary
Accessibility: deaf, sensorineural, requires ASL interpreter
A civilian with a classified history? 17 pondered that for 84 microseconds. Then blew just a little steam from his vents. The mech decided he wouldn’t scare the kid too much; he was—after all—a good soldier. And what use is a good 14.8 million dollar soldier that sits in a hangar all day?
The Fort Adams dive rig was utilitarian but functional. A worn but still useable reclined chair with a pair of wired gloves and a 360º visor. A full VR dive would be the easiest way to 'meet' 17AX. The primary difficulty of finding bugs in an AI—a true AI, mind—was that they honestly behaved too much like humans. In practice, AI debugging turned out to be something like 50% programming, 40% psychology, 10% neuroscience, and 30% sheer dumb luck.
But hell , Connor thought. He was owed some luck.
He strapped in and started up the boot sequence with a thumbs-up to his technician, a cute military man named Oscar. A quick glance at the gold band on his left hand confirmed his suspicions. The cute ones were always taken.
As the visor came down over his eyes, he could feel the hum of the electronics. There it was. That brief flash of terror every time he entered VR. He knew, of course, that this was probably the safest he could be. That It wouldn’t be able to find him in the fucking Arctic , behind more firewalls and layers of security than Connor could remember. He took a moment to breathe and steady himself as the progress bar completed.
Connor quickly checked that his configurations were loaded correctly. Sure, it had been a bit of a pain to get them cleared with the DOD, but he’d be much more efficient if he didn’t have to reconfigure everything from scratch.
17AX is waiting for you in the chat lobby when you’re ready, Mr. Jensen.
No time like the present, huh? And he was happy to find that, despite the fear, there was a hint of excitement, too. The buzzing nervousness of butterflies in his stomach. Every AI he’d ever met was different.
Four seconds later, and the semi-infinite 'room' rendered around him. It was somewhat plain: a geometric conference table in the corner with several chairs, but the walls stretched away in two directions toward the near-infinite horizon and up into endless space. Connor knew, of course, that the walls were not truly infinite. Seated 'comfortably' in one of the chairs was a steel humanoid with segmented joints, painted in white and gray camouflage. With a frustratingly perfect face.
You could tell a lot about a person by how they projected their avatar in virtual space. A simple intelligence would present in an honest manner. A normal one perhaps in a form it thought the other person might better relate to. But the smartest of AIs? They would adapt their form to the circumstance. And it was when 17AX pushed his chair away from the table and stood that Connor knew he was dealing with the latter.
17 noticed a number of new processes running in the virtual world. One was a modified ASL library with several dozen more technical signs for the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence.
The kid’s avatar was remarkably expressive, and—17 noted—more or less identical to the photos he’d found online. He seemed to have a fondness for form-fitting attire. Not much appropriate to their current locale of a military base in the fucking Arctic, but that wasn’t relevant here.
It’s nice to finally meet you, 17AX. Strange. The kid was signing even though he had a terminal window open. Surely it would be easier just to type messages in virtual space rather than relying on an external library. Is this your normal avatar? Jensen asked with neutrality.
17 responded with text directly to Jensen’s terminal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t just download a library off the internet to communicate with him directly. He didn’t have admin privileges in his own system, and his external connections were very well regulated. Do you like it? I could send you the rendered model, if you want. He approached until the kid’s nose was 1.3 inches from his chest. 17AX took immense satisfaction in the slight blush from the kid as he presumably avoided glancing down at the larger-than-was-strictly-necessary bulge between his virtual steel thighs.
Sexually interested in men, 17 made a mental note.
I only assumed you would be more comfortable in something bigger. Closer to your actual size.
Oof. That stung. Though it was a bit difficult for the mech to read the kid’s tone. Was that supposed to be playful, professional, flirty? Some combination thereof? In his three years of existence, his interactions with sign language were practically nonexistent. With a shrug, he loaded up his actual model into the simulation, and the steel Adonis became a collection of fading polygons.
This was more like it. Five tons of steel, titanium, and carbon fibers. At eighteen feet tall, the camouflaged mech dwarfed everything in the small 'conference room,' Connor’s avatar included, which came up just below the mech’s mid-thigh. As expected, the mech was rendered in exceptional detail, though certain parts (sensor arrays, Connor assumed) were censored by black rectangles, as though someone had redacted the center of the chest, shoulders and outer thighs with black marker.
This better, chief? His blue optics eyed Connor’s avatar with an amused curiosity.
It’ll do. Connor seemed indifferent to him. You don’t seem to have any trouble socializing. I’d like to run a few simple tests first, if that’s all right. I’m sure your other technicians have already taken care of this, but it’s as good a place as any to get started.
17AX didn’t have a face, per se, but he did have an array of blue OLEDs that could make somewhat cartoonish expressions. They winked at him. Want me to touch my toes?
Your standard mobility simulations will do fine. Lieutenant Graves, can you pull up the neural diagnostics from a month ago?
While Jensen was pulling the equivalent of his neural activity, 17 loaded his mobility suite: a field of rubble and obstacles designed to prevent him from proceeding from point A to point B. As the conference room lobby faded, an urban scene of debris filled the simulation. The field was the same every time, he knew, but as part of the test, he couldn’t actually commit the route to long-term memory. He had to waste time solving the same problem repeatedly for the fleshbags’ amusement.
Didn’t mean he couldn’t have some fun in the meanwhile. He had set up the simulation so that the tiny human avatar was between him and his starting point. He knew he couldn’t hurt the kid here, so he quite simply walked through him.
Most people, most military anyway, would dive out of the way, or brace themselves, or at least flinch. Even the ones with a great deal of simulation experience had to fight the human urge to avoid colliding with the rough equivalent of a tank.
But Jensen just ignored him.
17 pondered that for the entirety of 8.54 seconds.
Strange, the kid signed. Do you normally render your internals?
Only when I’m trying to impress someone, 17 sent back wryly. He was starting to regret swapping out the avatar from the smaller form. That had at least managed to get him some kind of response from the tiny figure taking notes. Seriously, what does a giant robot have to do to get some attention?
It was always a bit disorienting to perform his diagnostic tests. He could see the debris field in front of him—broken buildings, scattered automobile wrecks, fractured pavement—but he couldn’t remember it until the countdown finished. And he would forget the whole thing once the simulation ended. He knew that he’d need to perform the same test at least a dozen times before it would change somehow, but the gaps in his memories were always a bit discomfiting.
The first test was complete. 17 was atop a squat gas station with no recollection of how he got there. The communication logs remained intact, though Jensen hadn’t signed anything for the duration of the test. And he had apparently moved his avatar for a better vantage point. Of what, 17 could only fucking guess. Maybe his own titanium ass. Who fucking knew?
Eight tests in, 17 was beginning to find this dog and pony show to be getting a bit old. Before the ninth test, he noted—with immense satisfaction—a few messages from Jensen in his log.
(1342:02:24, Connor Jensen): What are you doing?
(1342:05:35, self): I dunno. A handstand, I guess.
(1342:09:13, Connor Jensen): Yes, I can see that, but why?
(1342:13:21, self): Well, chief, by the tone of your not-voice, I take it I didn’t do this the last eight times. So why don’t you just tell me what I did do, and I’ll just do that instead.
(1342:16:05, Connor Jensen): Or perhaps you could take this seriously, please? I don’t really have time to babysit you. Reset.
He pondered that for a moment as the countdown for the next test started. Not so imperturbable after all.
By walltime, 17 had been going through these damn mobility routines for a total of 3 hours, 12 minutes, and 1.94 seconds, though he could remember only a handful of moments here and there. And those were disjointed. Incoherent. He nearly erased them, but he realized he still knew so little about this Jensen. Instead, he filed them to short-term, deciding to scrub through them later for information on the kid.
Jensen’s avatar signed, and the active library sent 17 the text interpretation, Hmm. I think we’re out of time for today. Do you have any questions?
What? That was a Turing Test question if ever he’d heard one, and 17 nearly gave some flippant response. What mechanical spider crawled up your ass? But he was talking to an AI developer. The closest thing to a god he’d ever get to speak to. Of course he had questions. Why do we feel? What are we here for?
If you all hate us so much, why even make us?
How’d I do, doc? 17 asked, not bothering to speak and instead sending the question by text. When can I return to the field?
Jensen pulled up a few windows on his VR interface and swiped them over to 17’s system. The giant mech was puzzled by this. No technician had ever let him see his own neural diagnostics.
I imagine you’re pretty familiar with these. 17 wasn’t. Considering they’re your subprocesses.
The closest thing he could think of was a brain activity scan, but the geometry was off and yet oddly familiar. His enormous finger deftly dragged across the image back and forth, playing the movie through time. This is me. The 'neurons' of his mind were mapped into sections and lobed structures that flashed and spiked as the movie progressed. He was so enraptured, that it took him 9.2 milliseconds to realize that Jensen was still sending him text.
—your neural diagnostics from a month ago. This, and with another gesture, he sent another diagnostic file. Is the same diagnostic taken from the tests today.
What’s the difference?
Have they never shown you your own diagnostics before? The small avatar’s eyes met his at that, looking legitimately baffled. Each AI’s mapping is different, but common patterns tend to emerge, especially for those AIs that spend a lot of time close to humans. I have some slides I can send you on this that might be useful, but the main differences are here and here. Jensen highlighted two regions on the diagrams.
This region controls your innovation, and you can see that in your more recent diagnostic, it’s practically inactive. In human terms, you’re suffering from depression. If I had to hazard a guess as to why, I would suggest that the cause is the other region. This jagged region is a number of broken connections, which I’m forced to assume is related to this ‘teammate’ you recently lost.
As the fury bubbled in his core, threatening to overflow into this tiny creature , the classification protocols took over. CLASSIFIED. His simulated body became rigid with quiet rage. 17AX strained against the bonds of his own programming. Just like he had before.
I assumed as much. I’ll return tomorrow to continue. Good night, 17AX.
Connor’s evening passed uneventfully, though he found himself lying awake thinking about the AI, 17AX. He was certainly one of the more—Connor was struggling to find the word. Boisterous wasn’t quite right. Unreserved, definitely. Even a bit aloof. He hadn’t seen an AI so blatantly disregard the rules of their own tests since—
He forced himself to think of other things until sleep finally took him.
A bright flashing light indicated indicated that someone was at the door. Way, way too early in the morning. He’d been pretty adamant that the door signal not be connected to the network like most of the similar devices they’d had in stock. Wireless connections were too easily hijacked, and Connor wasn’t planning on letting down his guard, even here. He felt a little bad for the privates that had to accommodate his 'personal neuroses'—to quote his old supervisor, who apparently hadn’t been aware that Connor could read lips—but at the end of the day, he was still alive due to the precautions he took. That had to count for something.
An indicator light pulsed on his glasses. Someone had spoken. He reached to pull the glasses towards him and ended up knocking them off the damn side table.
Ugh. It’s too early for this. The clock on his glasses display read 6:50. On the bottom of the frame, it read, Good morning, Mr. Jensen. I’m Personnel Drone Unit 0932 here to show you around the facility and act as your interpreter today. Way too early for this, he amended.
A glance through the peephole of the door revealed a busy hallway with a single white-plated drone patiently standing at the doorway. There were enough people around that he should be safe, for the time being. Personnel drones weren’t especially strong or fast by design. Pulling on the checkered gloves, Connor opened the door—still wearing only his boxers—but didn’t let the drone in.
Thank you for coming, 0932, but I won’t be needing you to follow me around today. Would you mind returning to your station until I call for you? He signed the words slowly and deliberately, though he was careful not to be rude to them. The drone was just doing as they’d been instructed.
Yes, sir. And the drone gave a polite bow and left. Connor closed the door behind them.
After years of navigating some of the most terribly laid out buildings in the academic world, he was fairly confident he could make his way around the base. He’d asked for a paper map when he arrived, so that wasn’t going to be an issue. He’d want the drone if he had to talk with the colonel, but he could manage just fine elsewhere on his own.
His second ‘session’ with 17AX entailed picking up where they had left off the previous day. For now, the simulations had to be done in real-time to ensure that the results were indicative of actual field performance. And it was much cheaper than actual exercises. Connor was fairly certain there was a live mech obstacle course somewhere on base to test the hardware, but the simulations were more reliable for testing software. 17AX was running the sims with the new diagnostic tools Connor had requested, but the full suite would take at least four days to complete.
His job today was to make sure that he had his bases covered with the various diagnostics that were being recorded. Several of them were showing up normal across the board, so he just made a note to raise a warning if they deviated and stopped storing all the results for those. No need to use 30 terabytes of storage on useless information if he could help it. It would mean less data to sift through later.
No interpreter today? 17AX had moved on from mobility to stress testing and isolated exercises. He lifted a model shaped like a cartoon car and—seemingly effortlessly—chucked it 200 feet to land perfectly on a targeting reticle.
It didn’t seem necessary, considering I was going to be plugged into VR for most of the session, he signed, letting the ASL library mangle his words.
Hmm. The only tech signature I can see on you are those glasses, and they don’t seem to accept any kind of wireless signal. The mech took a brief moment to size up his next shot, mostly for show, Connor assumed. One of the advantages of having an actual AI in a mech, Connor assumed, was that they knew how to psych out their foes. Not just defeat them, but break them. And he felt the mech sizing him up, as though he wasn’t entirely sure whether Connor would prove to be friend or foe, not yet. Well, Connor had no intention of being either, if he could help it. Not even a fucking cell phone? Really? How d’you survive? Most humans seem glued to the damn things.
I don’t always keep my phone on my person. Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m not overly fond of relying on tech. Despite the banter, Connor was starting to notice that 17AX was performing better in general than he had in their joint session the previous day. It was slight, but a 4% increase in efficiency wasn’t something he could just ignore.
But you’re an AI developer. Thought tech was kinda your thing. Another launch, another direct hit. It was hard for Connor to tell what, but something flashed across that reflective facemask. Perhaps a moment of wry frustration? Self-pity?
It turns out my skill set doesn’t much lend itself to pushing papers around. Checking the logs from the previous day of tests, he was noticing that the largest fluctuations in efficiency, both good and bad, were occurring during their joint session. Was the mech distracted by him? Or maybe trying to convince him that he was fine when something was clearly wrong, so that he’d get cleared more quickly? Focus, please? We’re here to figure out what’s going on with you, not me.
After their session had finished—another 3 hours and 8.3 minutes—17 found his eighteen-foot body gathering dust in the hangar. He was bored. Normally, he’d have 18 to play war games with, but he was gone. Though the ache in his core for his fellow mech had dulled, it was still there each time an automated routine would seek input from the other mech. That was getting less common as he tracked them down through his systems. There had only been 21 today. And he really didn’t feel like going through the effort of interfacing with any of the CZs on base.
Instead, he found himself wondering after the kid. He considered whether it would be appropriate to send a message for 21 milliseconds. Then sent, hey watcha up to?
17 was used to the fucking agonizingly slow rate at which humans responded to messages. An AI would typically have a response within seconds at most, but humans could take minutes painstakingly processing and thinking and typing. Five minutes passed. Then fifteen. Exactly at the half-hour mark, 17’s curiosity got the better of him.
Strictly speaking, he wasn’t supposed to monitor network traffic, but the security system was a pretty good friend of his most of the time. It seemed that Jensen was downloading something from some medical journal to a VR headset. 17 decided to try sending a message a bit more directly in a completely-not-ethically-questionable sort of way. So he brushed off his cyber-infiltration suite and attempted to break into the kid’s system.
And metaphorically ran headfirst into one of the most extensive firewalls he’d ever encountered. Maker! Fucking paranoid much? He thought, but the mech knew that if he had a mouth, he’d be grinning. He did relish a good fight, after all. In the end, it took him 18.51 minutes and most of the tricks in his fucking arsenal, but he found a chink in the kid’s armor. He was in.
I’m impressed, kid! I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting quite so much security from someone as averse to tech as you are, 17 sent the text directly to Connor’s VR headset. The eighteen-foot tall mech barely fit in the VR projection of what looked to be Jensen’s bedroom. The room was small, but seemed 'comfortable' for whatever that was worth. A number of active projects on the desk appeared as actual paper, of all things. The walls were covered in shelves containing textbooks, academic journals, and a few works of fiction. There were no screens, no lights beyond the 'natural' light streaming in from the window, no speakers, no tech of any kind.
It looked like a repurposed art studio. There were unused tracks for lighting set in the ceiling, nearly level with his face—even hunched over as he was.
Turning to get a look around (or rather, to make a show of looking around), he 'accidentally' brushed a shoulder against a shelf containing a number of books which all came crashing down to the digital floor. Whoops. Nice collision detection, though. I think even the floorboards are bending under my weight. That’s a nice touch. He glanced back to the bed with a smarmy grin, where Jensen’s avatar lay, glowering back with brown eyes radiating like hot irons.
Connor started signing something rapidly, but 17 just shrugged. He couldn’t understand the kid. Angry, Connor started up the routine that interpreted for him in VR space, which floated the translation over his head. What. The fuck. Are you doing here?
You weren’t answering your phone. I saw you were online, so I came to check on you.
I check my phone twice a day at 8 AM and 2 PM. If you need to get into contact with me urgently, send a runner. Don’t fucking BREAK INTO MY SYSTEM! The way Jensen enunciated those last few signs, like he was drilling the words into the air made 17 realize why his avatar was so expressive. He used his entire body to convey his meaning, anything less wouldn’t be him.
How did you get in?
17 let out a bit of steam in a chuckling sort of huff. Phew. Wasn’t easy. Pretty obvious that brute force wasn’t going to work. Had to sneak something onto one of the military systems you were connected to and get a subroutine onto your system in a memory buffer overflow. Don’t worry. Your protocols are nearly air-tight. I doubt anything shy of a military intelligence would be able to do it.
Connor forced his expression to soften, setting down the pseudo physical papers of the relevant AI psychiatric profiles he’d been downloading. The connection wouldn’t have been open otherwise. He wasn’t angry with 17AX, he realized, not really. It might even be thoughtful, in a dickish sort of way. No, he was angry that there had been a security vulnerability that 17AX had managed to crack in hours if not minutes. Was still a vulnerability. How had he missed this?
That’s a lot less reassuring than you think. Connor kicked his legs over the edge of the bed and started pulling up his security protocols and started a full system scan. If 17AX was able to get in, could he really believe that It hadn’t been able to?
Here. The mech reached behind his 'ear' and pulled out a small drive. A peace offering. It’s a security patch. The drive was dwarfed between his first finger and thumb, but he handed it to the seated Connor, who took it, somewhat warily.
I’ll need to put it in quarantine for the time being until I have the chance to look it over, but I... appreciate the gesture, he signed, placing the 'drive' in a small box marked with a hazard sign on the desk. Do you have a call sign or a nickname I can use? Or I can give you a name sign, if you’d prefer.
Friends call me 17.
Connor touched his ring finger to his thumb, turning his wrist twice above his head.
That sign didn’t translate, kid.
It’s a combination of the signs of ‘17’ and ‘very tall.’ Compound signs were one of the reasons it was still so hard to translate ASL into something computers could interpret. Normally, I’d use the first letter of your name in your sign, but somehow ‘17’ seems more appropriate here.
Neat. But if we’re friends, you have to let me call you Connor. Or ‘kid.’
Connor rolled his eyes at that and responded, a bit bemused, We’re definitely not friends, but fine. If you insist. Though diminutives aren't very common in ASL—outside of a romantic relationship, anyway. My name sign is a combination of 'glasses' and the letter 'C.' He demonstrated, the sign looking a bit like miming enormous binoculars.
17 patted him on the head (probably not realizing he was making the sign for 'child' rather than 'kid'), and Connor was taken aback at how large the hand was. The gesture was half amiable, half teasing. Well, you're pretty diminutive, so that works out. Bending down, he rifled through the books he’d knocked onto the floor and picked out a familiar and rather cliche title. I, Robot . Isaac Asimov. Asimov, huh?
Yes. My mother gave me a physical copy the summer before high school. I guess I put it here for sentimental reasons, he signed, a bit tersely, watching the mech turn over the comparably minuscule text in his hand. Why is he still here? She's deceased. I actually prefer Eando Binder's short story; those tales were what made me initially want to get into AI development.
Not a fan of Asimov's Laws of Robotics? No robot shall harm a human or through inaction, and all that shit?
Connor knew the Laws by heart. They were often the subject of quite a measure of humor in the AI community: a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Let's just say I don't find them to have much practical value. He shrugged, continuing, More an interesting philosophical concept for fiction. For an example, if I was pissed that you—I don't know—entered my personal space without my permission, I could tell you to go jump off a bridge or to go fuck yourself. And you would. That seems pretty impractical to me. And in my experience, even with similar safeguards against harming a human being, it's all too easy for an AI to circumvent them.
17 shelved the book. Not in its original place. Autonomous weapons would have to have the first two laws swapped anyways.
That caught Connor’s attention. In a purely professional manner. A large fraction of helping 17 was going to be akin to therapy anyway. Might as well dust off that Psych major. Is that how you see yourself? A weapon? A huge, hyper-intelligent gun?
It's how most of 'em see me. Well, the ones that don't wanna fuck, anyhow. Though for some of the more degenerate, I think they like to see me as both fucktoy and weapon at the same time. This got no reaction out of Connor, which definitely seemed to disappoint the mech. Nothin' else much matters. Why? How d'you see me?
Not entirely sure yet, though I'm leaning towards 'asshole.' Connor found himself growing somewhat curious about this particular AI, in spite of his better judgement. He knew, of course, that there was a substantial market for more lascivious leaning AIs. Coritech had an entire brand for them. And it was impossible to expect that AIs that spent so much time around humans wouldn’t develop strong emotional attachments. But the question had caught him off-guard, managing to pique his interest. Well, it couldn’t hurt to ask. How do you see me?
17 seemed unsure how to respond to that. The mech eventually resigned himself to a noncommittal shrug, his shoulders nearly brushing the ceiling of the tall room—tall by human standards, anyway.
The towering form regarded him briefly with a momentarily puzzled expression. Then the mech gestured to the space on the bed next to him. Do you mind?
Connor was growing more uncertain by the second. He knew that AIs processed information more quickly than humans, and so an emotionally developed AI could cycle through a sequence of feelings faster than he’d be able to track. It was impossible for Connor to figure out what was going on inside 17’s head, at least for the time being. He needed more time to get to know the mech. Irritated as he was, Connor found himself pulling up the room physics on his interface. One second. Let me adjust the density of the bed. It’s set to deform slightly under my weight. I can only imagine you’d send it clipping through the floor. Connor scooted over, adjusting a parameter on one of his screens. There.
The mech sat down, expertly avoiding knocking anything else over. Why all the collision physics? The link is visual only, right? You can’t actually feel anything.
Admittedly, there’s a lot about me that you don’t know. He paused. But I guess I just wanted somewhere that feels real. Where I can be in control, you know? Connor signed, looking up at the figure next to him. Honestly, 17 looked pretty ridiculous. The thick metal braces of his legs bent until his knees were nearly at the level of the sturdy plates of his chest. One three-fingered arm braced itself behind Connor on the bed. Those blue optics blinked, burning with something that Connor couldn’t quite identify. But—for some reason—he found he wanted to. But that’s not the case for you, right? It’d be trivial for you to redirect tactile input here to your tactile sensors.
Connor reached toward the mech’s thigh. May I? And when the mech nodded his assent, he reached out and felt it. In his mind, it was cool to the touch. Smooth and hard and unyielding. What am I doing?
His vision shifted forward ever so slightly, and he realized that 17’s thumb was stroking his avatar’s back more gently than Connor had thought possible.
Neither of them mentioned their moment in Connor’s VR space the next day during their continued 'sessions' or even the following one, though Connor caught himself more than once staring at the mech’s hands, both in and out of VR. What would it be like? He wondered. To be touched by 17 in real life?
Those hands, he had witnessed during various unit tests, could crush stone and bring down walls. But they could also extract a human from debris without harm. He didn’t know much about the internals—he wasn’t here to get familiar with the mechanics—though he harbored a guess that they used some pretty precise hydraulics. Each of the three fingers would need finely tuned pressure sensors to pull off something that delicate.
The neural diagnostics were looking gradually better even though Connor hadn’t actually done much to 17’s systems. He’d recommended a few small tweaks to the technicians (Connor wasn’t allowed to directly interface with 17’s base code). These adaptive neural nets could occasionally develop some harmful recursive loops if you weren’t careful. The colonel seemed satisfied with the progress, though, which was all that really mattered, he supposed. She’d sent a favorable progress report to Coritech. Connor was still technically on Coritech’s payroll; they’d just contracted him out as a consultant for the time being. His own projects put on hold for the much more lucrative military contract.
And Connor began to notice that even when 17 was busy with some other task, one of those powerful sensor arrays was always trained on him.
Chapter 2: A Five-Ton Asshole
REMARKABLE YOUNG MINDS: Connor Jensen, Part 2/??
“Oh. My. God. He’s adorable!” The cartoonish avatar gave Penny a happy wave.
“Hello! My name is ———. It’s nice to meet you!” The avatar had two dexterous limbs that signed as he spoke. The signing was, admittedly, pretty basic, but the small figure certainly made up for its lack of sophisticated speech by being truly, sickeningly cute.
“Did you write him?” Penny asked Connor, who seemed to be trying to hold back glee for some kind of somewhat professional expression. And was mostly failing.
Well, not all of him. I’m trying an adaptation on some of my adviser’s work. A different neural network geometry that’s had more luck in the past for interpreting ASL, though he’s still pretty basic.
Here, watch. He started typing into the terminal, Hey, ———, do you want to play a game?
“Hello, Connor! I love games!”
Loading up a basic maze simulation. Connor’s fingers danced over the keyboard, and the avatar reappeared inside a simple maze with a few traps visible to the users. Try to get to the end of the maze.
Watching the small avatar navigate the maze was almost painfully cute. Would have been, at least, if not for what came later. Upon hitting one of the walls, he backed up, shaking his small head back and forth as though dazed. Falling into one of the trapdoors, he reappeared at the beginning with a frustrated buzz. The avatar proceeded undeterred, and by the end, he was learning how to avoid the pits and walls. When he finally reached the end, he looked back out at the users with an immensely proud smile and bright yellow eyes.
“I love him.”
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“Lieutenant? I feel like there’s something glitching in my pilot UI. D’you think someone could take a look?”
“Really? Sarah didn’t mention anything,” Graves said over the intercom. Oh? It was ‘Sarah’ now.
“Yeah.” 17 was itching to get someone in his cockpit. He felt so empty , and he’d be damned if he couldn’t get his adorable new technician a little time in the hot seat. He managed to bite back half a groan at the thought. “Man, I’m not going to be able to focus until it’s dealt with.”
“Maybe I should take a look before Jensen arrives?” Oh, it’s too late for that, Lieutenant , 17 thought smugly as he heard the door to the observation deck slide open. Having friends among the security staff definitely came in handy when the fuckwits were actually doing their jobs.
“Take a look at what?” The robotic intonation of Connor’s interpreter rang out.
Actually, this will work better, Lt Graves made sure to turn to face him before speaking, which Connor appreciated. 17AX was mentioning a glitch in his pilot UI. It’s just the two of us today, and no one can enter the cockpit without someone at the lockdown switch. It’s procedure.
Wait, what? Connor signed, a bit incredulously. Looking out the window of the observation deck, he could see the eighteen-foot mech staring at him—almost hungrily— even though he was sure the glass way one-way. Don’t I need, I don’t know, pilot training for that?
You’ll be fine. 17AX will disable the manual controls, so you’ll just be checking on the UI. You have a command override, right?
Connor nodded. They’d given him the commands before he arrived. It was a vocal override, so they’d made sure he could speak it. He wasn’t mute, so it wouldn’t be an issue. Still, he really didn’t want to be the cause of 14-odd million dollars in damage. His salary was good, but not that good.
Good. I’ll get things ready here. 17AX can walk you through the rest.
A bit bewildered, Connor stepped through the doorway onto the catwalk of the hangar bay. He knew, logically, that 17 was the same size here as he was in virtual space, but something about being in the same room made it feel more real. Of course it’s more real. It is real. The catwalk was far enough off the ground that he came up just to 17’s shoulder. The mech started to walk over to meet him, and Connor could feel his footsteps. He honestly couldn’t remember 17’s exact tonnage, and the bubbling feeling of—really, he could only describe it as awe— was starting to make him wonder if he’d be of any use at all inside of 17.
Inside of him.
And that feeling burst the moment the mech starting signing. Hello, son. Good it is to be seeing you again? Connor couldn’t help but double over into laughter. He felt a little bad. It was kind of sweet of 17 to try to learn at all, but he was just so bad at it. The mech’s barrel-sized arms and three-fingered hands weren’t dexterous enough to do the signs terribly well in the first place, and he was making the typical hearing mistake of translating English to ASL word for word.
17 seemed to take it in stride, however. That bad, huh? He switched to speech, letting Connor’s glasses interpret. Maybe you can teach me some pointers in your downtime. Meet me over by the gate down that way, and we’ll see about getting you—[clearing throat]—strapped in. As 17 gave a sly wink of those blue optics, Connor felt a blush start to creep across his face. Though if we ever do this for a more extended run, you’ll need to suit up, kid. Those clothes would chafe something fierce.
The—whatever it was called?—boarding zone jutted out over the hangar over a few pieces of loading equipment and ammunition that was way too big. It dipped down to the mech’s pelvis which pressed up against a set of bumpers on the catwalk.
17 looked down at him over the massive plated chest and grinned, a smirking predatory sort of smile, looking every bit the cat playing with its food. You look a bit flustered, kid.
Open up, Connor signed. It stood to reason that if the mech had downloaded some ASL libraries, he could likely understand him, even if he couldn’t sign that well yet.
Connor felt a gust of air as the interlocking plates of the torso opened up and out, revealing some of the mech’s inner workings. Any other time, he would have wanted to take his time, really get a sense of how the mech worked. But there was something about the way 17 was commanding him that made this more intimate.
The pilot’s 'chair' was cushioned, designed to support a human through any direction of applied force, and Connor could see that 17 was adjusting it slightly to conform to the size of it’s soon-to-be occupant. A VR visor sat above the headrest. The rig was covered in open restraints. Connor knew that the bands and harness (looking every bit like some sci-fi suit of metal armor) weren't actually attached to anything. They could be suspended by very localized EM fields in the cockpit. Probably strong enough to fry the circuits in his glasses, though the visor would act as a Faraday cage if it came to that. A number of articulated spider-like limbs lurked out of the way, which Connor assumed could have a number of uses from internal repairs to medical procedures.
Get in, the mech commanded.
He can’t really be serious? But Connor found himself stepping up into the chest cavity of the towering form and taking a seat. His seat, he realized as he discovered that it was perfectly sized for him. The restraints locked in place around his legs and torso, leaving his arms and head free as 17 pulled away from the docking station and the chest plates began to close.
You really are a bit nervous, aren’t you, kid?
The biometric readings 17 was seeing were, honestly, not quite sure what he was expecting. Discomfort, yes. He could tell that from the way the human squirmed in the restraints. Heart rate was 96 bpm and climbing. Fear, maybe? 17 could understand that, but there was also a hint of what could only be arousal. That's interesting. Not new, certainly. Have enough sweaty men with power fantasies in your cockpit, and it was bound to happen sooner or later. Wasn’t expecting that from you, though, kid.
“Behave, 17,” Graves called over the intercom, a bit informally.
17 realized he might have been pushing the kid a little further than maybe he’d initially intended, but Connor had risen to his every challenge. He’s got spunk, I’ll give him that.
The mech left his own cockpit lights on. Under normal start up, he’d just lower the VR screen, but he wanted his new inhabitant to really get a look around.
"Hey, kid," he spoke, using the internal speakers in the cockpit so Graves wouldn't overhear, letting Connor's glasses transcribe his speech. "Look, I know I’m being a bit hard on you. But know that you’re safe with me. Hell, right now, you’re probably safer than you’ve ever been in your life. I’ve got you."
And 17 felt a squeeze in his core processor as he saw the kid’s heart rate plateau and finally start to dip.
He started shifting on his feet, calibrating to the new weight, and marveling at how right it felt to no longer be empty.
There’s a few cameras in there. Feel free to sign, or type. Y’know, whichever you’d prefer.
As Connor bit back the brief spike of panic (and tried desperately to ignore what some other parts of his anatomy were busy doing), he found a camera and signed, It’s a bit overwhelming. You’re quite the piece of work. He reached up to pull the headset down. You said you were having issues with the UI?
Hey, don’t touch. I’m ticklish. Connor assumed the low rumble he could feel coming from everywhere was the mech laughing. The visor lowered on its own and booted directly into the bot’s sim space. Nothing but the infinitely extended grid was loaded, but as Connor tried turning his head a bit, he noticed that he was just a passive observer. The vision scanned across the nonexistent terrain and down to his—or rather 17’s—arms and torso. Some of the diagnostics were clearly grayed out. Classified, no doubt. Then the visual sputtered.
Hmm. Connor started ruling out the obvious things that the mech would be able to check for easily. Christ, your graphics driver is four years out-of-date. Ugh. I’m going to put in a request to get you some software updates. Let’s see what we’ve got here...
As the simulation version of 17 ran through something resembling calisthenics for half an hour, Connor kept trying to find where the sputtering was coming from. Looked like the signal was fine until it got to the headset? But surely with how well surveiled the cockpit was, 17 would know immediately if something inside had been damaged. Honestly, the sputtering looked remarkably like—
A loose connection?
17, is the VR visor wired?
He thought so? Presumably, the mech knew his own layout. Is he being evasive? But reaching behind his head revealed several thick cables. One of which was unsurprisingly loose. Wiggled ever so slightly out of place, and Connor could feel tiny grooves that felt just about the right size to be from one of those spider-like appendages inside the cockpit. That asshole. Connor wedged the jack back into place and signed wryly, Think I found it. Can you let me out of here, now?
Ready to get out of the chair, huh kid? Most pilots don’t attempt this without a few weeks in the simulator, but I can tell you’re ambitious.
He felt the chair fall away behind him until he was just supported by the restraints and mechanical appendages. Inside the sim, he saw himself—his human self—falling away out of the form of 17, collapsing onto the ground. He felt the impact, muted, not exactly painful, but it seemed that those restraints could simulate force, some kind of haptic tech. The fuck, 17? He was looking up at the mech, who was crouching over him in simulated space.
17 reached out his first finger, and Conner winced, figuring he was about to be poked and prodded by the digit that was nearly as thick as his own forearm. But it paused. Never let it be said I didn’t lift a finger to help you.
Connor pushed the outstretched finger aside (he could still feel the slight resistance of the restraints against his movements), and realized that he could feel where his arm hit the hand of the mech. He could stand on his own, even here. The controls at his wrist weren't responding, so it was down to the physics of this pocket world. His simulated hands mirrored his movements in real space, inside the cockpit of the mech he was facing in the simulation. It was a bit disorienting, but with time and a great deal of core strength, he managed to get his legs beneath him, and he was vertical again, both in the simulation and reality.
Not bad, kid, the mech’s words were still appearing as text in Connor’s specs. Hey, Lieutenant? Jensen tracked down the issue with the UI. I think the kid might be ready to head back. Not really pilot material, y’know?
Well, fuck. He wasn’t about to just take that. I’m fine. No reason to take me out of VR just to plug me back in. I can do the diagnostics from here.
The 'sound source out of sight' indicator lit up in his glasses lit up as Grave spoke over the intercom. [Huff] It’s not really protocol, but if it gets 17AX to shut up every time I eat something, I don’t really care. I’ll load up the mobility course again, and we can see how 17AX does with those fixes you suggested, Jensen.
It was a little odd to watch someone do the same obstacle course multiple times when they couldn’t commit it to memory. 17 would get stuck at the same few spots each time, pause for a moment, then take the same action. Connor managed to find a spot atop a particular wall of rubble where he could be reasonably out of the way on a path that 17 never picked.
That is, until 17 did. He launched himself up the wall, landing a bit precipitously, just barely—and seemingly accidentally—nudging the boy’s avatar with an enormous treaded foot. A moment of panic set in before he thought, It’s just a sim, it’s just a sim. Connor windmilled backwards, nearly tumbling from the wall onto the rubble, but the mech’s hand reached out to gently cup around his back, righting him again with—was 17 blushing? But before he could be certain, 17 was tearing down the simulated street towards the goal.
What the hell was that?! 17AX, that route was obviously suboptimal, and if Jensen had been part of the sim, you would have failed it!
Sorry, Lieutenant, but I seem to be having difficulty recalling what it was I did. The mech gave a wry smile to no one in particular, but squinting towards 17, Connor could tell that his shoulder sensor array (censored as it was) was staring straight at him.
With the diagnostics complete, Connor allowed himself a good 15 minutes on plotting some revenge against the cocky mech. That expressive face mask of his gave him some ideas involving Shoujo anime. And while he wasn't supposed to interface directly with 17's base code, he could certainly adjust a few default settings from the cockpit.
Damn. It’s going to be months before I live that down. How’d you do it, kid?
Connor looked up from reading the redacted version of the AX user manual in his simulated space, this time a secluded mountain spring with a waterfall. He gave the mech a brilliant grin. It seemed the mech was able to discern the gist of Connor’s signs at this point, though there was still a noticeable delay. Connor knew that going from the literal translation of YOU SAY? don’t-KNOW to the actual meaning of I have no idea what you’re talking about was a tricky thing for an AI. He put the manual down for the moment.
Gotta say, adjusting my perception so that I didn’t realize I was speaking Japanese musta been tricky, but did you have to replace my expressions with pink anime eyes? The OLED eyes had returned to their usual neutral blue circles, though they did manage to convey amusement and just a hint of respect. It took Graves hours to fix it, and he’s still convinced that I was behind it!
That doesn’t really surprise me, 17. I’ve only been here a week, and you try to mess with me incessantly. I can’t imagine what the poor Lieutenant has had to put up with.
17 began looking around the simulated mountain spring. It was mostly rocky with a few patches of moss. Most of the processing power of Connor’s little VR headset went into rendering the water. Connor had chosen this scene because he was figuring the mech would attempt another visit and this space offered a little more room for 17 to stretch his eighteen-foot frame.
An enormous arm reached gingerly into the waterfall, and the water scattered and sprayed against the chassis of the mech, leaving rivulets of water to cascade down into nooks and seams in the hulking form. I’ve never seen an actual waterfall. I’m largely waterproof, but it’s not like there’s a high demand to shoot waterfalls.
Connor shifted a bit uncomfortably on his bed back in reality. 17 really hadn't been lying about the chafing. You don’t get out much, I take it?
[Chuckle] I can’t leave my hangar without a human pilot. And other than my simulated diagnostic routines—which let me remind you, I can’t fucking remember—I don’t get much time in simulated spaces. Though the time I do get, I don’t fucking waste.
There was something about the way the mech moved as he explored Connor’s headspace. A bit of swagger and posturing like he was claiming territory. Or looking for vulnerabilities, perhaps? But whatever it was, it had Connor entranced. Seemingly satisfied with his once-over, the mech made for the waterfall, this time fully immersing himself, letting the water run through all of the joints of his frame. Connor found himself staring as the mech made a bit of a show of it, as much for his own enjoyment as the mech’s, and blue optics locked on brown eyes for a long moment.
17 was beginning to enjoy himself, and by the look on the kid's simulated face, Connor was a little more than just interested. I know that expression, kid. The answer is yes, I have fucked humans, and yes, I’d be happy to give you a ride . He stepped away from the waterfall, closing the distance between them in one and a half steps. The mech got down on his hands and knees, surrounding the kid on all sides with five tons of steel, the water still dripping off his frame and pooling around the avatar beneath him. And all I need from you is your consent.
Fuck caution. Fuck discretion. He wanted Connor. Wanted to bring down the walls that surrounded that beautiful broken heart of his. Why else would he be so damn paranoid? The mech wanted to see him curl and writhe in hands that could tear down buildings. Wanted to consume everything the kid was, to show him where he belonged.
A titanium hand caressed down the human avatar’s chest. At 5’ 8”, the kid was easily a third his size, and he could grasp his entire torso in one hand. 17 knew that here, in Connor’s VR space, there was no sensation for him; everything was visual. Shame there aren’t any cameras in your room, kid, he thought wryly. I’d enjoy watching you bring yourself to climax, knowing that you’re imagining it’s me doing that to you.
But that wasn’t the case for 17. Graves would probably be a bit miffed at how much data 17 had collected on how skin felt. The textures of different fabrics. The way a human cock felt through denim. And as his fingers made their way down to the fork in the avatar’s legs, the way Connor arched into his digits felt glorious.
Get rid of your clothes. Zippers were not made for mech hands, no matter how dexterous, and he wasn’t about to rip the kid’s clothing off. If he tried that in reality, it was more likely he’d snap Connor’s spine.
A little annoyed at the mech’s insistence, Connor pulled up a screen, apparently lacking the patience to maintain the natural facade of the mountain spring and quite simply deleted the rendered clothing from the virtual space.
Wow. 17 had not been expecting this. The kid’s frame was bony and lanky (moreso than he actually appeared in reality, the avatar must have been made before he had begun physically training for the trip to the Arctic), but it was covered in scarred tissue. Jagged incisions and sloppy stitches peppered the kid’s skin. So the kid likes to pretend he’s a bit of a badass. I can work with that.
Gently, ever so gently, he grasped Connor’s torso, cupping his palm under his rear to lift him up to his face. Might as well inspect my prize. The kid’s avatar wasn’t fully equipped for this type of activity, certainly. More like a ken doll or a clothes mannequin. But that wasn’t needed here, not yet, anyway. The mech could be patient. He could wait to see his human in reality. Naked in his cockpit. For now, it was enough to just feel and know that 682 feet southeast the kid was starting to work his real equipment.
The mech held him up to his face, cradling Connor’s nude avatar with one hand as the other stroked up and down his body, lingering near his face just a moment, and he gave the mech’s thumb a rather lewd kiss.
[Chuckle] The mech’s OLED facemask lifted slightly to reveal a lifelike— mouth? Connor certainly didn’t remember seeing that in the manual and was forced to assume that it was an adaptation here in virtual space for interfacing with humans. Mirroring Connor’s own actions, he brought his hand up to the orifice, lathering it lasciviously with some oily compound.
Back in reality, Connor had managed to work his jeans and briefs down to his mid-thighs. He searched around blindly for the side drawer that contained his lube. Getting some in his hands, he fumbled the bottle. Dropping it, but fuck it. I’ll deal with it later. He grasped himself and watched as that slicked steel digit came closer to his avatar, wanting to pretend that it was really 17 that had him pinned. That he wasn’t just some kid playing out a fantasy in his head.
That this was real.
And he somehow—for some reason—wanted to impress 17. No, that wasn’t quite right. He wanted to show the mech that he wasn’t so eager to please. Connor’s breath hitched in his throat as he watched that oily thumb grind up against him. Once. Twice. And he matched the timing with his own strokes. Slow and hard.
And then he was coming, pathetically soon. He could feel the sticky fluid against his bare stomach in reality. He tried to mask it on his avatar’s face, but 17’s predatory smirk told him he hadn’t been terribly successful.
Next time we do this here, I want to lick your virtual spunk off that cute body of yours, kid.
It brought 17 immense satisfaction to know that even if Connor couldn’t feel anything here, he was probably lying on his bed, still wearing the headset. Jeans unzipped with his seed scattered over his shirt—or better, his bare chest. Connor’s avatar lay naked in an alcove of a warm steel arm and chest. 17 scanned over him fondly with blue optics and examined the dozens of jagged, several-inch-long scars all over his body. Some of them looked to be a little inexpertly stitched, and the rest even more so.
Hey, kid. He sent the words to Connor’s display, but his eyes must have been closed. Are those scars on your real body, too? Why d’you have them? He thought to himself as the human drifted off to sleep.
Chapter 3: Tantrums
First major trigger warnings: minor character death, war, mind control
REMARKABLE YOUNG MINDS: Connor Jensen, Part 23/??
Connor heaved a sigh, fingers smoothing the dark circles beneath his eyes. A little. I thought you had stopped recording these.
I realized I need to keep going with this. It’s what she would have wanted. Still wants.
The cartoonish avatar was in another one of the simple mazes, but this time instead of learning to navigate the maze, he was trying to break it. And when he succeeded in crushing any and all obstacles in his path, he’d give a gleeful little laugh as he proceeded to the exit.
He’s at least completing the maze now. That’s progress, but I don’t know. He was never quite this ruthless before? Connor signed, out of range of the webcam. It’s not like he doesn’t know how to do it. I’m just worried.
It was obvious that neither Penny nor Connor could see the security cam in the background watching them intently, nor did they notice that the red status light had changed to an ominous yellow. That was when I started fighting back.
Connor's phone started vibrating again at 7:58, after he’d pressed the snooze button four times, like he always did. He steeled himself for the daunting task of checking his messages.
Most of the time, it was nothing. It would probably be nothing today. Just your typical everyday routine. He could do this.
From: Guinness, Terry (PVT)
Subject: Mess Schedule Change
Your mess schedule has been shifted to the C block. Breakfast will be from 0930 to 1000, lunch from 1330 to 1400, and dinner from 1900 to 2000.
We apologize for any inconvenience,
Private Terry Guinness
Well, that was a pleasant change. Any excuse for him to stay in bed another hour and a half was fine by him. He skimmed through the rest of the messages. They’d assigned him a personal trainer for 'physical readiness' at 1700. He understood that it was important to be fit enough to not die if the worst happened at the base, but that certainly didn’t mean he wasn’t intending to whine incessantly about it. Finishing the mercifully uneventful trek through his inbox, he set a new alarm for 9:20 and pulled the covers back over his head.
It was for the best that he didn’t check his Spam folder. Buried between requests from African princes and calls to publish in obscure academic journals was a single message from an anonymous sender.
The attached picture showed a still from the security camera footage of 17’s hangar bay with Connor staring up at 17’s bulky frame from his position on the catwalk.
When 9:30 did eventually roll around, Connor groggily made his way to the mess hall, mostly clothed, which he was pretty proud about, all things considered.
He got something that he imagined might pass for potatoes, and stared a bit longingly towards the coffee but decided against it today. He made sure to eat something different every day (whether he liked the particular dish was irrelevant), a habit he’d gotten into many years ago. It was much harder to poison someone, he found, if you couldn’t predict what they were going to eat.
Connor sat himself in one of the far corners of the mess, at an unoccupied table and started busying himself with his food. One of the other men—enlisted, Connor could tell from the uniform, though he didn’t know the actual rank—looked somewhat familiar. He seemed effervescent. How on earth can someone be that happy this early in the morning? But as the man headed over to him, he started mentally prepping himself for the whole, Sorry, I’m deaf, and I really can’t be bothered to bring an interpreter to breakfast. He’d have been able to get by on reading lips, but the communication would be largely one-way, and it seemed an awful lot of effort this early.
Hello! Sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier. To Connor’s surprise, the man knew ASL. I’m Sergeant James.
Oh. Hello. Sorry, but they told me no one on the station knew how to sign?
It wasn’t something I put on my— and the sergeant seemed to be searching for the word. Paper of abilities?
Yeah. My cousin’s deaf, so I know enough to hold a basic conversation, but I’m not fluent.
Over the course of the next 15 minutes, as Connor tried to consume the driest potatoes known to mankind, he learned that Sergeant James had been in the Air Force for 8 years, having served as a pilot for the first battle for Reykjavik, back before much of the current conflict had started. He was unmarried but straight, so unavailable regardless, and he, too, had no particular fondness for these 'potatoes.' Connor let him know that he could read lips, which sped up their conversation when James couldn’t remember the exact sign for something. He also discovered that Sergeant James, in addition to being exceptionally attractive was also exceptionally dull.
Couldn’t you get your hearing fixed? The sergeant finally asked. You work for Coritech, right? Their benefits package is supposed to be pretty good.
This was a question Connor got a lot. Yes, a lot of progress had been made in treating sensorineural deafness in the last five decades of medicine, and yes, his particular strain of encephalitis had been completely treatable with modern techniques. But that didn’t change that his family’s insurance couldn’t cover the 'experimental' operation to restore his hearing and the one to save his life.
He could get it 'fixed' now. That was one of the benefits he’d received for signing on with Coritech after he’d dropped out of the PhD program at MIT with just a Master’s. But there were complications with that. It would take the better part of a year to get accustomed to the new sense. He’d have to learn what was going to practically be a new language with a sense he’d only had for a few years of his life.
But he wasn’t broken. And honestly, he had things he wanted to do with his life other than sitting in a hospital bed, relearning how to do things that he could already do. And he was really tired of explaining that, so he’d just say, Yeah, I’m looking into that.
The sergeant looked around, back at another couple of soldiers who were jeering in their direction. Hey, I don’t want to be rude, but you might want to know that there’s a rumor that’s been going around about you and 17AX.
That stopped Connor dead. He raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
Apparently, 17AX has been claiming that he managed to get you alone and ‘have his wicked way with you.’ That last part, the sergeant mouthed (Connor had to assume he didn’t speak it).
In his electric dreams, Connor responded bitterly.
In the afternoon, after a painfully 'professional' session with 17, he met with the personal trainer. Special Tactics Officer Captain Anne Carlisle was a towering mass of muscle and veins who looked the world like she had better things to do than turn this scrawny hunk of man flesh into something that wouldn’t immediately freeze to death in an Arctic wasteland.
Connor had brought the drone interpreter to this. Hello, you must be Captain Carlisle.
Hey there, runt. She reached out a hand that Connor knew was going to have a bone crushing grip. He wasn’t disappointed. Looks like they’ve got me bringing you up to speed here. Let’s see what you’ve got.
After a brief warmup, he started doing laps, the captain constantly at his side, barking orders at him. He imagined the intimidation was lessened a bit without sound, but he could have done without the spittle flecking his face. Part of him swelled in anger every time she called him 'runt.' I wasn’t made for this. I’m just here to fix a computer. But he wasn’t about to capitulate, and he was mostly sure she didn’t have any ill will towards him.
He tried to focus on anything except the growing soreness in his everywhere as the routine went on. Looking through the room, he noticed one of the mobile cameras was trained on him, and he could just imagine a group of meatheads watching every time he tripped on his own two feet and laughing. What kind of asshole—
And then something clicked in his own mind. The shifted schedule, the rumors. He knew exactly what kind of asshole. It really shouldn’t surprise me any more how someone without one could be such an enormous dick. But that knowledge just made him want to try harder. He wasn’t about to be pushed around, no matter how big or terrifying the bully. He had faced much worse, and he wasn’t about to let some eighteen-foot mech dictate the terms of his life.
By the end, he was exhausted and sore in places he didn’t even realize he had muscles. But he wasn’t about to quit just because something was hard .
Nice work, runt, she tossed Connor one of those colored drinks with electrolytes. He didn’t recognize the brand as he fumbled the catch, and it landed on the ground. She gave a bit of an amused smirk as he grabbed for it. Tomorrow, same time. We’ll do a bit of strength training. Make sure to stretch again before bed, or you’ll regret it, rookie.
Connor made a point to return to his old mess schedule for the rest of the day and started sending some emails as he munched on a dinner roll. It turned out that the schedule change could be traced back to an email by Lieutenant Graves, but the lieutenant had no recollection of sending the request out to the administration.
However, Connor had noticed that Graves didn’t always lock his computer on the observation deck before leaving for the day, and a clever AI could probably find a way to send an email even from his confines in the hangar bay.
So, I found something interesting the other day, Connor remarked dryly while looking over the new data. It seems that someone requested to change my schedule. Thing is, no one seems to know who requested the change.
17 was performing a weapons diagnostic, so Connor had no visual on his partition of their joint simulation. Classified, of course.
And it turns out that civilians are not required to pass a physical readiness test. Connor had no intention of stopping his sessions with the captain, mind (he could at least recognize his own male pride even if he wasn’t about to back down from something so childish), but it was the principle of the thing.
That so? [innocent expression]
That met him with a spark of anger. Did he just send the text 'innocent expression?' The fuck? And there’s this other person on base, Sergeant James. Who apparently knows a little sign language and whose orders were also moved around seemingly inexplicably. He clicked his teeth together in a bit of irritation, not totally enthused with having to drag this out longer than was strictly necessary. He’d really been hoping for a 'sorry, won’t do it again.' Turns out both of these can be traced back to a few emails from Lt. Graves, who I know occasionally leaves his email open where some dickwad AI could easily shoot off a couple messages without his knowledge.
And so what if some dickwad did, huh? Found you someone to talk to and got you moved to a later breakfast since you and mornings have a bit of a nuclear relationship? Sounds like a pretty fucking nice guy to me. The text came across his interface all at once, kind of like a petulant teen would send a text message about something important. Seemed 17 had no interest in making this a pleasant exchange.
Connor had to take a moment to breathe. He knew this behavior. Knew how it could go out of control. Look, I don’t expect you to understand my past, so let me be clear about this: I need you to be a bit less of a dickwad and stop messing around with my life here. I don’t care about your personal issues regarding your lack of agency here because there’s nothing I can fucking do about it. But don’t go projecting your lack of control on your own life onto mine.
There was nothing transmitted across their personal connection for a solid few seconds, which he knew was an extremely long time for a computer, and Connor watched the stats on his diagnostics go wild. Accuracy down below 68%, Firing rate up 140%. I can’t change what I am, kid.
Actually, you can. Connor made a note to scrap this particular exercise from his analysis later. That’s the whole fucking point of your design. To adapt to new scenarios.
Fine. But I don’t want to change who I am.
Then don’t. But don’t expect me to like you for it.
All in all, 17’s 'tantrum' lasted 342.5 milliseconds, long enough for Connor to mark the five-minute test as an outlier with a note of 'extenuating circumstances, disregard exercise.'
I’ll show you 'extenuating circumstances' you little dipshit— the mech thought with frustration as he had to review the fucking log of his own damn argument.
17 figured that—with the supercomputer and personnel time in addition to the energy to run his own systems—he’d wasted roughly $1,546.23 in taxpayer dollars to indulge in less than a half-second of rage. That wasn’t to suggest that he’d regretted it. It wasn’t like he’d asked to be made or put to work as a killing machine, a task he was admittedly rather competent at on a normal day.
There was just something about the way the kid could get under his armor that really didn’t sit well with 17.
2.8 seconds later, he knew the damn kid was right, even if he wasn’t planning on telling Connor that. At the end of the day, every aspect of his existence was about control. 17 didn’t have it, and it had gotten 18 destroyed. He wanted—needed—some part of his life where he felt like he had some sense of agency, but it wasn’t fair for him to do that to Connor.
Though it would be a lot easier to know what Connor did need if he had access to the kid’s damn classified history.
Look, Connor signed to the colonel in her office, drone interpreting. I understand that the circumstances of what happened are classified, but I’ve really gotten as far as I can without knowing the context of the failure. We both want the same thing here: to get 17 back into the field, so I can get back to my life.
There was a long pause as the colonel gave him a long, incisive look. Her whole career with the mechs must have involved years of secrets, of determining who had need-to-know. The thing was, Connor had need-to-know, and as much as he didn’t want to get too deep into clearance and secrets, he wanted to get out of here. And he couldn’t just leave an incomplete project. Not even if that project is a total asshole.
Very well, Mr. Jensen. You had to get secret clearance to be involved on this project. Some of the context is top secret, so I won’t be able to go into that. What do you need?
It’s been mentioned a few times that another mech was destroyed around the time that 17 started malfunctioning. What was the nature of their relationship?
The colonel seemed legitimately baffled by that. Relationship? They’re machines, Mr. Jensen, of which I’m certain I don’t need to remind you. They can’t form bonds. They fought together on a number of occasions, that’s all.
Connor groaned a bit, putting his head in his hands. This was an argument he’d had to make countless times with various business heads and other academics. There was one lousy, debunked study in a truly uncharacteristic simulated environment that said 'Adaptive AIs can simulate human emotions, but they do not experience them.' But since it was the answer everyone wanted, they were happy to just accept that at face value. That’s not true, AIs with this level of sophistication can and do feel emotions. But usually, they’re processed so quickly so as to be completely unrecognizable by humans. Please, tell me how they met.
Colonel Ferguson gave a somewhat dismissive shrug. Sort of an 'I don’t believe you, but I see no value in engaging this particular argument.' Frustrating, and Connor was about to belabor his point before realizing that it’d just make this whole process longer, and he was really ready to leave. The other mech, 18AX was produced in the same batch as 17AX. You actually walk by his old hangar every time you go to 17AX’s observation deck. The two were always deployed together.
Brothers and brothers-in-arms. Close, but not more so than other AIs that underwent a similar experience of loss and grieving, all of which had recovered much more quickly. It could still be something technical, though I can’t ignore that he may simply be grieving longer. Can you tell me the exact circumstances of this mech’s destruction?
I’m sorry, that’s classified above your clearance.
God, these suits could be so frustrating. Look, I don’t need to know where they were or what they were doing there. Just the immediate surroundings and events. Did 17 watch 18AX get destroyed? What actions was he taking at the time?
Connor got a dubious look from the colonel at that, but eventually, she sat back down at her desk, focus intent on her desktop. The lines on her face and graying hair suggested the intense life that she commanded. Just as Connor was about to assume he had been dismissed and he’d missed her mouthing the words, she pulled open a video file from her desktop and projected it on one of the visible screens.
Connor recognized the interface immediately, it was 17’s pilot UI. The time, date, and geographical position had all been redacted with somewhat hastily drawn black rectangles, but the image was clear. 17 had a rifle to his shoulder and was firing around some kind of broken concrete structure in the snow. Connor could see bent rebar jutting from the crumbling stone. He squinted a bit and realized that something was a bit off. The scratches and dents didn’t quite match what he remembered of 17’s chassis, and he didn’t move in the same way. This mech was a professional soldier, and as he turned to face the camera, Connor could see an 18 emblazoned on his chest and shoulder.
[Gunfire] Hey, Bunnies, I’m reading two humans in that far building.
Roger that, Captain. 17 and I will lay down covering fire.
They watched as 18AX moved in. The video went black for a moment. Captain Gardner? I’m scanning a couple of those Icelandic fuckwits closing in on 18’s position. Permission to engage? 17 asking for permission? That was new.
Denied. We need to secure the landing for the air extraction.
When the video picked back up, the angle had changed, and 17 was looking down at 18AX, who was escorting the two panicked humans to the extraction point. The juxtaposition of scales was completely disorienting to Connor. The mech seemed to be walking almost painfully slowly as the man and woman were running for their lives.
[Radio chatter] The rapidfire words were becoming too much for the speech recognition, Connor assumed. Though it did manage to pick up the occasional Go! and the like. He watched as the humans made it to the helicopter. 17 hooked up to some kind of shoulder-mounted clamps for extraction just as an explosion sent 18AX sprawling in a cloud of dust and debris.
NO! 17 reached up to disable the clamps, scrabbling against the metal.
17AX, stand down! That’s an order.
FUCK YOUR ORDERS.
And then everything froze for a moment as the words COMMAND OVERRIDE ACTIVATED flashed across the screen. All camera motion ceased, locked on the toppled form of 18AX as a tiny human wormed his way out of the cockpit of 17’s brother. He dashed toward one of the ropes dangling from the helicopter and out of the camera. 17 watched as 18AX was torn apart by gunfire until the helicopter began to come about, and the command override prevented him from even looking back.
Chapter 4: Courage and Gunmetal
Trigger warnings: war, weapons, graphic depictions of violence, grieving
REMARKABLE YOUNG MINDS: Connor Jensen, Part 15/??
He had been poring over these recordings for years, scanning through for some hint of what had happened. But the boy, Connor, had been thorough.
Hey, ———, there’s someone we’d like you to meet. This is Penny’s best friend. She’s an AI, just like you. Her name is ———, Connor signed.
Next to the image of the first AI, a second one appeared. This one more feminine in form with a bright pink flower crown on her head. The pair gave each other a little fistbump as they began the handshake.
What they’re doing right now is called a ‘handshake.’ It happens all the time on normal networks. We won’t be able to follow their conversation, though it seems like things are going well, based on these readings.
“So, what happens, now?” Penny asked from behind the camera.
Well, we wait and see how things go.
When Connor had arrived on base initially, he’d been informed that in case of an emergency, an alarm would go off throughout the premises. When he’d asked about how he’d get notified, it hadn’t really occurred to them what he’d meant.
Which he realized now was because the alarm was so loud, he could feel it in his chest.
That’s when the panic began to set in. Connor leaped out of bed and started throwing on clothes, but he hesitated for a moment. Fuck. Shit. The hell was I supposed to grab?! Either he was definitely supposed to put on his severe cold weather gear, or he was definitely not supposed to do so, and in his half-conscious state, he ended up splitting the difference. He forced on his glasses, which had the extremely helpful text of [Loud noise] on the display. Another momentary hesitation before also grabbing his phone as he burst through the door.
The hallway was largely empty at this point, and Connor realized that he had no idea where he was supposed to go. And he started trembling.
Or rather, his phone was trembling, buzzing.
THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!
Connor didn’t recognize the number, but the phone helpfully supplied ‘This could be 17AX’ at the top of the chat, which had something like 20 missed messages from the last five minutes.
As Connor tried to mash out a response, another message popped up.
DONT REPLY, MORON. CIV SHELTER WILL BE LOCKED DOWN B4 YOU ARRIVE.
Connor could do that. He’d been dorming with the mech pilots, so the hangar bay was close by. Clutching the phone to his chest, his only lifeline here, he started down the hallway, quickly but cautiously. He could feel the building shaking ever so slightly. Was that gunfire? A distant explosion? He had no way to contextualize what he was feeling except that for the first time in years, he felt relieved not to be alone.
ELEVATOR’S OUT. YOULL NEED TO USE THE STAIRS...
THERES A HANDGUN ON A DESK IN THE NEXT ROOM
Watching the tiny human navigate the compound like a rat in a maze through the hacked security cameras was a fucking nightmare. 17 assumed, having never had a nightmare before, that it would be something like this, as he managed to find the door controls for the pilot’s wing.
CAN YOU USE A GUN? JUST NOD.
He looked on in horror as Connor saw the message and directed his terrified gaze to the security camera and shook his head. With a groan of frustration, 17 punched one of the hangar walls, leaving a deep impression of his own steel knuckles. But in his defense, the wall really fucking deserved it. He began sending rapid-fire texts with a diagram on how to hold a fucking handgun and detailed instructions. Kid’s going to be learning to shoot with Anne next week, assuming they all survived.
ALL RIGHT. THERES NO SAFETY ON THIS GUN. JUST POINT AND SQUEEZE
USE BOTH HANDS. KEEP YOUR FINGER OUT OF THE TRIGGER GUARD UNTIL YOU’RE READY TO FIRE
Watching the way the kid held the gun from the security camera, 17 was desperately hoping he wouldn’t have to use it.
It was just two more rooms down to 17’s observation deck. Connor held the handgun carefully in one hand—pointed down like he’d seen on various crime shows—his phone clutched in the other. He’d drop the phone if he needed to. His heart was pumping so hard, he could feel it in the white-knuckled grip on the gun. Finger out of the trigger guard, he reminded himself. He assumed the thing guarding the trigger was the trigger guard. That made sense, right?
The phone buzzed.
GET IN ROOM ON LEFT NOW.
Connor ducked into the server room. This must be the computer that handles the simulations. He indulged the return to the normalcy of his life for a moment before the next message arrived. HIDE. And a split second after he dropped beneath the desk he saw in the crack between the desk and the cold floor one—no, two—sets of combat boots.
There was a brief moment of sheer panic followed by a sense of clarity as his blood went completely cold. As gently as he could, he set down the phone, holding the gun with both hands.
As the infiltrators were looking around the opposite side of the room, he saw the phone light up again, and the two sets of booted feet both immediately turned to face the desk where he was hiding. And with a sinking moment of dread, Connor realized he hadn’t thought to silence his phone.
The boots began cautiously heading towards him as Connor started to back out of the desk, crouched, gun ready.
And that’s when the far side of the room exploded into debris and sparks, rocking the ground beneath his feet and nearly sending him tumbling against one of the computer racks. Connor saw one set of the boots disappear into the rubble as the nearer set turned on its heels. That was his chance, Connor realized, and before he knew what he was doing, he stood and squeezed. There was a moment of panic when nothing seemed to happen, when Connor feared that the gun hadn’t been loaded, but then the gun discharged, nearly flying from his grip.
The remaining black-clad figure dropped to one knee, a spray of blood coming from his thigh as the bullet connected. And before anything else could happen, Connor ran. He was running blind at this point, but he could see the observation deck. He was almost there.
As he slammed into the door, he felt as small pieces of sharp debris hit his face as gunfire impacted the wall beside him. The second he was on the catwalk above the hangar, there was a blur of motion as a familiar three-fingered steel arm reached out to shield him, followed by what felt like an explosion as the butt of 17’s long-range rifle splattered something red and fleshy against the wall.
There were 16 mechs firing on the compound. Damn it all. He should be out there.
You okay, kid? 17 signed. He’d been watching the kid for a while now, learning the language. There was a small part of him hoping that it’d make him laugh again. 17’s external biometric scanners were on full alert. The kid was running hot, adrenaline pumping. The handgun still held tight. Here, let me take that. And he stowed the gun next to his own rifle. The rifle, he reminded himself, had just taken out $2.7 million in computing equipment and two enemy lives (in addition to leaving a pretty large hole in his hangar), and yet the smaller weapon seemed so much more significant to him. Maybe because it had been so much harder for the one holding it to use.
I just need a moment. He could sense the kid’s heart rate. Above high normal, his biometrics read. Yeah, no shit.
The immediate danger had passed, his scans and security footage revealed. There was still an active engagement outside of the compound, but the building was secure. And damn if it was frustrating that he couldn’t leave his own hangar.
And Connor started sobbing. A horrible, core-wrenching sound that racked 17’s processors. The kid just held onto 17’s hand, which still curled protectively around his small, fragile frame.
Maker, kid. You might just be the bravest person I know. Recklessness, he’d seen in spades in his time with the USAF, but true courage was something rare and precious. Connor felt fear so deeply, but he never allowed himself to succumb to it. The thing that really boggled 17’s circuits is that he could tell there was still something that Connor feared more.
17 cupped both hands around the human, bringing him up to his chest the same way someone might hold an injured bird, using one of his fingers to gently—so gently—wipe the tears from his eyes and stroke down his back in slow movements. This close, he could train some of his internal biometrics on the kid. Small puncture wounds in the face. Light bruising on the thigh. But other than the deeply traumatic experience of almost dying, he would be fine.
The movement was so small that 17 almost didn’t register it, even trained as his blue optics were on the small form.
Thank you. Please. Just hold me for a bit.
A bit? Kid, you ask me never to put you down, and they’ll have to fucking dismantle me before your feet touch the ground.
He held Connor in his hands for 18.2 seconds, tracing his fingers down the curve of his body. Pulling him close enough to feel those soft hands stroking the grooves of his chest. Connor finally signed, I’m okay. You asked me to come here. What do you need?
I’m about to ask something real stupid of you. And I’m going to need you to be brave just a little longer. 17 brought Connor up to his face until those brown eyes were level with his. They were a bit red from the intensity of the last few minutes. There are 16 mechs outside firing upon our forces. Your allies. My friends. And I can’t fucking help them unless I have a pilot.
17 knew it was a lot to ask of a civilian. That it was six ways to a court martial. He popped the latches on his cockpit and commanded, Get in. Without a pilot, he was incomplete. He was hungry, and the actuators inched closer, like the teeth of an anglerfish beckoning his prey.
But don't you need a trained pilot? Despite the kid’s protests, 17 could see from the way Connor eyed his chest that the kid knew he belonged there. That he needed to be protected and held by him.
And knowing that Connor knew his place made 17 grin in delight. Lesson 1: Don't. Touch. Anything. Training complete. I’ll get you a fucking certificate. Congrats, kid, you're my pilot.
The mech’s cockpit yawned open, the empty chair beckoning him closer. Logic and emotion were tearing him in opposite directions. He knew, reasonably, that he was safest further from the combat. That he should crawl into a corner of the hangar and hide until the conflict blew over. And damn if he wasn’t afraid. But he still remembered 17’s words, Hell, right now you’re probably safer than you’ve ever been.
Wrapped in the mech’s hands, he knew that 17 could force him into the cockpit and hold him down. Tie him down. He was giving Connor a choice to succumb to the constant fear of death that wracked him every moment of his life or to do something about it. He’d vowed years ago to always face his fear head on. He was here to help 17, and if this is what he needed—what they both needed—he could do that.
He stepped down, into 17’s outstretched hand and into the chair. There was no slow tightening of the restraints. No freedom to move. This time, 17 locked him in place. The chest plates crashed together, and the lights went out, leaving Connor in the dim, emergency lights, which pulsed almost like a heartbeat. This time, it wasn’t a game or some AI fancy. They were going into battle. But still, Connor felt safe.
The visor came down, and Connor found himself in the empty gridded expanse of 17’s mind. A motionless clone of the mech stared back at him and the combat diagnostics flared to life.
Fuel gauge: 82.8%
Rifle rounds: 8 (64)
Cognitive system health: 43.2%
What do you need me to do? With the low light in the cabin, he typed the question. He felt like he should be doing something, and he could feel 17 moving even if it seemed the mech had no intention of letting him see what was going on.
I dunno, kid. Talk to me? Keep me distracted. There was a flash of movement beneath the grid, a familiar mechanical form to Connor from 17’s logs. These were memories of 18 bubbling just beneath the surface, and Connor was determined they'd need to stay there, at least for now.
How did you distract a machine that could run 10 combat simulations simultaneously? About what?
17 knew that the last time he had been out in the field for the press, some of the neurons of his network had gotten crossed. Past images had fed into a node intended for present optical information. He’d started attacking enemies that weren’t there. Ejecting his pilot. Trying desperately to save— But that couldn’t happen this time. This time, he needed to focus on the task at hand. And if he could keep those memories buried by talking with the kid, well, it was worth a shot.
I dunno. What's your ideal first date? Where had that come from? It probably isn't being nearly killed while riding a mech with a half-functional AI.
I don’t know. I— I haven’t thought about that kind of thing in years. It’s not like I’ve been able to date anyone since— But I guess back when I could, I always liked the idea of going on a drive with someone special? Maybe park somewhere and just be present with them? Chat for hours.
Back then, I had a little projector and screen that I could bring in my car. Lay down the backseat with a blanket and watch some old sappy movie with subtitles under the stars.
Describe it to me, kid, he asked, gently. Even as he ignored the hails in reality asking, “The fuck are you doing here, 17AX? And who in the hell is piloting you?!” He lined up kill shot after kill shot, the recoil slamming into his shoulder as his opponents fell. He was taking no risks today, not with the cargo he was carrying.
I— All right. And 17 could see the scene in his head as Connor laid it out. A younger Connor, more starry-eyed, less terrified. And he indulged himself to imagine it was him taking the kid on a tour of the moonlit countryside. Well, a human version of him, anyway. That he’d reach over to where Connor was sitting in the passenger seat—in his passenger seat—to rest his hand gently on the kid’s thigh, maybe just a little higher than was strictly necessary.
They’d stop at an overhang, far enough away from the city that the pair could see the Milky Way, and Connor would set up the projector while he would lay down blankets in the hatchback. The kid would try to start the movie, but 17 would be too quick, pulling him into the blankets and never fucking letting him go.
Once everything had calmed down, and the pair had returned to the hangar, where they’d been informed in no uncertain terms that they were to stay put, it took an hour or so before Connor was calm enough to try standing on his own two feet. They’d managed to find a shock blanket in the hangar, and though 17 was pretty confused about exactly how the thin sheet of plastic was supposed to help, Connor assured him it would, so 17 had draped it over the kid’s shoulders. No one had come to check on them, yet. With 17’s help, the fighting had stopped outside, but the base was still on lockdown until they’d had a chance to make sure the place was secure. Connor wasn’t really sure who 'they' were, but he supposed it didn’t really matter.
I got the colonel to tell me what happened to 18AX, Connor signed without much preamble, apropos of nothing. He just wanted to talk about something he understood for a bit.
17 regarded him without any visible response. Just watching the human sitting on a small pallet in the corner of the hangar.
You’re in mourning. It made sense. He hadn’t really considered it before since most AIs dealt with loss quickly, either by recovering or by catastrophic system failure. 17 had been mourning for almost a month now. Practically an eternity for an AI.
The mech delayed for a long moment before signing, I know, kid. I figured it out not long after you arrived. I read your paper on emergent emotions in AIs that interface regularly with humans. I’m honestly a bit surprised it took you this long.
You’ve known? Over a week of diagnostics, searching for some stray feedback loop or broken connection. Dozens of hours of debugging, and he’s known from the beginning? If you knew, why didn’t you tell someone? Why didn’t you tell me?
Another long pause. Once you knew what was wrong, you’d be able to fix me. 17 shuffled a bit uncomfortably on feet the size of manhole covers. And then you would leave.
And that was a deterrent? You’ve been an asshole to me since I arrived! You’ve done nothing but test my limits. I thought you would have been glad to get rid of me.
Connor. It was the first time 17 had used his name sign. Not Jensen, not 'kid.' But Connor. D’you have any idea how many people treat me like a machine? You’ve always treated me like a person. Maybe a person you weren’t much fond of, but a person nonetheless.
I’ll admit, Connor signed with a hint of a smile. You’ve been a bit of a dick to me, but I’ve been thinking—or maybe hoping is the right word—that it comes from a place of kindness. I’m sorry about what I said before. You were brushing up against some old wounds, a time when I trusted someone and It ended up really hurting me.
As Connor looked up, he realized the mech’s faceplate was only inches from him. Those blue optics blinked closed, and the mech leaned in to press their foreheads together.
So, what happened here? The colonel’s words appeared on Connor’s glasses, though he could just as soon read her lips on a face that didn’t look terribly pleased about the six-foot diameter hole in the hangar bay. Or about the crushed corpse that was dripping down the catwalk.
The kid was trapped by some debris and couldn’t make it to the shelter, so he came here. At my direction, he boarded me for his safety. When I picked up the two infiltrators in the server room, I fired once. I assumed that they would transmit anything classified found wirelessly and thought rapid action was prudent. When the other came to the hangar to investigate, I killed him as well. We proceeded from here out of the hangar to join the fray. Connor had no idea what to make of that testimony at all. Had he just completely misremembered the last two hours? It was certainly possible , he mused. The human brain could do some strange things under intense stress. 17's gaze towards him was professional, with none of the same tenderness he'd shown just ten minutes ago. Had that also been a fabrication of his own wishful thinking?
The security footage confirms this. It did? In the future, concerns of base security aside, you are not to discharge your weapon unless you have a trained pilot onboard. Is that understood? Confirm new directive.
17’s feet snapped together with a force that shook the hangar. Connor watched as everyone in the room, save the colonel, stumbled slightly. Authority recognized, Colonel Maria Ferguson. Directive confirmed.
The press would have a field day if word got out that an untrained pilot was able to board an AX unit and killed two infantry and seven manned mechs. Especially if they knew you were involved, 17AX, considering what happened last time.
He’d killed? That couldn’t be right.
One of the people with her—a sergeant, Connor recognized the pointed-banded crest thing, and he wondered, a bit horrified by the thought, if Sergeant James was still alive—was asking him to come with them to be debriefed. Connor started signing his response without thinking before realizing that 17 was interpreting for him. And despite his earlier attempts, he was doing well, based on the text appearing in his glasses.
They’d have a personnel drone come meet them in the debriefing room with a set of those stupid gloves. As they left the hangar bay, Connor watched 17 sign, It’ll be okay, kid. Trust me.
Trying to explain actions he couldn’t remember was certainly a new experience. But watching the security footage, it was clear that what 17 had claimed was what had been recorded. It wasn’t long before they decided he was too frazzled to be of much use, and they offered to bring him to the med bay. Connor flat out refused, and when he signed that they’d have to sedate him before that happened, everyone was so exhausted that they just escorted him back to his room.
Bizarrely, everything was just as he’d left it, still a bit tossed from when he’d tried to dress in a hurry, but it looked as though nothing had changed. He hadn’t almost died. He hadn’t fired a gun at another human, whether it was actually a handgun or a ten-foot-long mech rifle.
He just wanted to go somewhere where things made sense.
It wasn’t like he could sleep, anyway. He grabbed the VR headset and glove controllers from their charging station and put them on, pulling his knees into his chest as he sat in the very corner of the bed, back against the wall. As though making himself small and assuming could just erase the past few hours from time.
It was 1 hour, 34 minutes, and 18.3 seconds after Connor had left the hangar that the VR headset in his room came online. 384 milliseconds later, 17 had established a connection and was sitting on the kid’s virtual bed again. The room was dark this time, but moonlight still streamed in from the virtual window.
Hey, he signed, gently.
What happened? Did I— Did I actually—?
Sorry, kid. Didn’t really have time to tell you. Had to doctor the security footage, so that events would be recorded a bit differently.
Why would 17 have done that?
I can’t have killed them unpiloted. It isn’t possible. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and all that. And the last person to alter my base code, directly or indirectly, was you. If I had killed someone unpiloted, I seriously doubt you’d be outside of a cell. Piloted, I have full autonomy unless a command or manual override is used. That way, there’s always someone to blame if I do something dumb.
But a clever AI is a master wordsmith. Connor continued the thought. A smart AI can find loopholes, partition their mind into a component that’s unaware of the target but still able to fire. I know.
This time, they were enemies, so no one will bat an eye about them. As far as anyone with half a brain will be concerned, I killed them. Not some programmer from Coritech who doesn’t even know how to fire a gun. Nice shot, by the way. The mech comically rolled his optics on the facemask, eliciting a small smile from the small human. Gonna have Anne send you through the ringer. 17 leaned his head back against the wall, blue optics giving Connor a sidelong glance. Get some sleep, kid. I’ll watch over you tonight.
And if either of them thought about a drive down a country road in the moonlight, they didn’t mention it.
Chapter 5: Called the Cockpit for a Reason
I named this chapter like three days before I saw Captain Marvel and was quite amused. Well, I suppose this marks my first time posting smut on the internet. So that's fun!
Fortunately, the silent observer noted, one of the cameras in the server room is still working. The place was a wreck. It appeared Sergeant James Earnest had been given a team to salvage what was left of the place. Entire racks had been obliterated effectively by artillery shells. The sergeant looked a bit queasy, as though he’d never seen what one of the mechs’ weapons could do up close and was deciding that it was something he’d prefer not to in a more dire circumstance.
Some of the racks were intact, knocked over by the force of the blast, but the internals seemed fine. None of the screens survived, but they were the cheap kind, easily replaced. Of course, the side of the room that was fine was the one without computers, where the operator usually sat at his desk to troubleshoot. There was a cheap tower desktop on the floor which looked completely untouched, and as the sergeant reached down to unplug it, he pulled out a phone that had been outside of the security camera’s view. Interesting.
It wasn’t a military cell phone, so there was no reason for it to be in that part of the building. As he turned it over in his hands, there was something engraved on the back that was too low resolution for the camera to make out. Possibly the owner’s name.
And the last message received still showed up on the lock screen. Again, too small to be made out from the camera, but he had little issue tracking down the messages sent on the base over the past few days.
Message from 17AX:
Well, that was interesting. According to the security records—and several rumors spread near various microphones he had access to—Connor had piloted the AX unit. But this didn’t make sense. Why would the 17AX unit tell Connor to take cover if he was inside the cockpit at the time?
Out of sight of the rest of the crew, the sergeant pocketed the phone. This is certainly becoming intriguing, the watcher thought.
“17, good to see you’re in one piece.” The familiar voice of Captain Sarah Gardner rang through the hangar with an ominous southern twang. “Just wanted to stop on by to check on you.”
17’s frame went rigid at the sound of her voice. “Captain Gardner,” he said, trying to be every bit the perfect subordinate. The perfect fucking tool. Their relationship was painfully, teeth-grittingly professional. Gardner accepted nothing less, and as pilots went, she was one of the best. Right up until the invasion. She was perfect. The perfect soldier—charismatic, fierce, devoted.
And he hated her.
Though that wasn’t entirely accurate. He hated the way he snapped to attention when she entered the room. He hated how her voice could get a response in milliseconds. He hated how he feared displeasing her would result in her ripping his free will from his body. He hated who he was when she was around. He had fought her, gear and servo, when he’d first been assigned to her, and she had broken him.
“Looks like ya need to move on outta here. I‘m sure one of the CZ pilots could take care o’ you, but I can get suited up.” With a wink and a coy grin, Gardner went off to the pilot’s locker room to get changed.
17 gave his hangar a quick once-over. It was his cage, sure, but for the past year, it had also been his home, and he’d blasted a hole straight through it. The whole place was pretty well surveiled, all things considered, but one of the cameras had—rather conveniently—wound up in his line of fire. There was a small gap between the crates of his long-rifle ammunition and the stairwell leading up to the catwalk that was out of view. A small gap where he had hidden a tiny silver bundle on the lip of one of the crates.
This is so fucking stupid, 17 thought, kicking himself for a moment of sentimentality. He unwrapped the shock blanket to reveal the small handgun. The small hunk of metal fit cleanly in the palm of his hand. A large rock would make a better projectile weapon, but he couldn’t bring himself to part with it. In his hand, it was worthless. Worse than worthless if he was caught with it. It wasn’t that an AI wasn’t permitted material possessions; it was quite simply unheard of. If he was found out, he’d be ejected from his body and scrutinized, spending the rest of his miserable existence on motionless computers as humans tore through his base code. Trying to figure out what went wrong with him so that the next generation would be more obedient. And that was the best case scenario. If they thought that Connor was involved in corrupting him, the kid could be tried for treason.
All in all, it was an extremely stupid decision to wrap the handgun back up in the shock blanket and close his hand around it.
“Begin boardin’ sequence, sugar,” the captain called down from the catwalk. She was short in frame—a common trait for a mech pilot—but in her flight suit, she had no need to ask for respect. She commanded it. And she commanded him. As she threw herself into him, he felt the anticipation of being manned. Of being complete again.
But this time, with her, it felt wrong somehow; the gun seemed to burn in his fist.
“Hmm. Seems someone’s been sleepin’ in my bed.”
“Sorry, sir,” he blurted, realizing too late that he’d forgotten to recalibrate the crash seat from Connor’s measurements. “I’ll fix that straightaway.”
“No need.” Sarah flipped the manual override and pushed the chair back, taking direct control of 17’s frame. “Gods above, I have missed this.”
He felt her settle into his own fucking skin. With the manual override on, he had very limited control. Enough to jam the servos in his left wrist that controlled his fingers. He had to admit that there was a grace to the way she moved him. The captain was damn good at her job, and he had respected her a great deal for it. Before.
He offered no resistance now. He waited to feel her muscles tense, the way a cat’s do before pouncing and anticipated the next action. He knew they were a good team. He knew he needed to play nice. “Aren’t you bein’ tamer than a kitten. Mighty nice change from last time when you downright ejected me. Seems like that boy they brought in’s doin’ you right.” The captain brought the closed hand up into their sights. “Well, what’s this?”
“They were replacing some of the old pistons when the attack hit,” 17 lied. “It’s a routine procedure, but there’s no motor function in the left hand until the procedure is completed.”
She seemed to believe him. “Alrighty then, I want my mech in tip-top shape. Let’s get on outta here.” And he’d be damned if he didn’t consider ejecting her all over again, though he couldn’t for every processor in his system figure out why the words stung so much.
Connor was completely lost in his own head. Not exactly the safest state of mind while making his way through a secure military base. He was, admittedly, a little early for today’s session with 17, but damn if he didn’t need to have a chat with the mech. The pair of them seemed to go from hot to cold and back again in seconds, and Connor was starting to feel a bit of whiplash. One of his favorite parts of his job was that things were always well defined. If they weren’t, well, that was a puzzle to be solved, and 17 was definitely a puzzle.
The door to the observation deck was locked. That really shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the caution tape and tarps that covered large swathes of the hallway. Undeterred, he remembered from the map that the hangar was also accessible from the lower level, so he took the stairwell down to the basement main hangar level. He hadn’t quite grasped the size of this level from the maps, but of course the ceilings would need to be tall enough for the fifteen-foot CZ and eighteen-foot AX units to maneuver to the enormous pairs of carrier elevators. Many of the bay doors were closed, but the one labeled '17' was half-open.
The hangar had been emptied. There was still debris everywhere (and Connor made an effort to avoid looking up at the catwalk), but there was no sign of the mech or any of his equipment.
There was a moment, leaning back against the wall in the room that seemed so much bigger today than it had yesterday, when Connor wondered where 17 had been moved to. It wasn't like his higher-ups had been terribly forthcoming with all this 'need-to-know' bullshit. He could be down the hall in another hangar, halfway across the country, or even lying somewhere in pieces. He considered that for a moment. It was possible, certainly, that the higher-ups had simply decided that 17 was more effort than he was worth and had scrapped him entirely, and that Connor hadn’t even had the chance to figure out what they were to each other.
He felt a low rapping against his back, a strong knocking from the other side of the wall.
[Unintelligible] —here, kid. Connor shook his head, as though to break free from the thoughts and half-jogged to the next hangar down, marked '18,' feeling every bit like an idiot. Of course they would move 17 out of the hangar he’d shot to hell. The mech-sized hangar door was closed for the moment, but 17 propped open the smaller entrance with a finger, letting it close behind Connor.
Seeing the mech standing there, all thoughts of what he wanted to do or say simply evaporated from his mind. And from the way those blue optics stared down at him, he could tell the uncertainty was mutual. Connor wanted to hug him and kick him at the same time, but with the ludicrous images of either, he decided just sign, So they moved you, huh? No reprimand?
Oh, there’s been plenty of reprimand, kid. But they aren’t scrapping me. Not yet anyway. After the evening together, Connor realized that the mech was becoming reasonably good at using ASL. It wasn't perfect, by any means, but he could hold down a conversation. Connor knew that an AI could learn something pretty rapidly when they were driven to. The mech grinned, smashing his fists together. 17 was clearly enjoying this a bit more than he should, and the familiar swagger was back in his step. I think it was good they were reminded of what I can do. Maybe it’ll get me outta here faster. He looked down past a pair of enormous crossed arms. But then, I suppose there are some advantages to being here.
Connor gave him a bit of a coy smile. I— I came down here for something, but I’m honestly having trouble remembering what it was.
Well, kid, while you’re thinking about that, there’s something I wanna do, first. And 17 was on top of him, that enormous hand pulling at the hem of his shirt. See, I just can’t get the memory out of my head from last night of this little programmer wriggling inside me, and I’m still feeling a bit guilty that after everything he did for me, I didn’t get the chance to see him get off. D’you think we might rectify that? Before they kick me out of the security systems?
Oh, God. This is really happening. Giddy excitement was bubbling in Connor’s stomach with just a hint of anxiety. This wasn’t some simulation. Here, a mistake of less than a percent of 17’s power was the difference between a rather enjoyable experience and death. Well, there were certainly worse ways to die.
A stupid grin plastered on his face, Connor started pulling off his shirt, getting his glasses caught in the collar. As he fumbled with the garment, he felt a cold metal digit poke him in the chest, just hard enough to make him lose his balance. Shit! There was a moment of blind weightlessness as he fell.
But a steel hand caught him and lowered him gently to the frigid floor. Those metal fingers started down his naked torso as Connor managed to extricate himself from his shirt.
Ah, clothing. Such a hassle, the mech signed.
The lust had faded completely from those blue optics, replaced with an inquisitive and almost worried expression. Connor watched as 17 started tracing one of the longest scars across his chest. That had been an early one, and he hadn’t really known what he was doing, yet. He bit back the memory (Out, out, get it OUT). The skin hadn’t healed quite right, and there was a misshapen tightness on one side. The mech’s intense focus was starting to make Connor a bit discomfited, and not in a fun way. He took the mech’s finger in both hands, pulling it to his cheek. Connor knew that even at full strength, he wouldn’t be able to move that hand if 17 didn’t want him to.
17 gave him a look that read, We’ll talk about this later. And then the mech’s other hand was pressing between his legs.
17 knelt around the small human. His thighs were larger than most of the kid’s entire fucking body. It brought him immense satisfaction to know all it would take is a squeeze to immobilize him. And then, just a little more. And from the tent in the kid’s criminally tight jeans, he guessed that Connor might be enjoying that thought a bit, too. He pulled back his hands from the kid’s form, and it made his servos groan the way that he arched into his palm. There was a smug hiss in his hydraulics as he popped the latch on his cockpit, drawing it open just a hair, enough that the seams between the metal plates were visible, pulsing in the red emergency lighting from the cockpit.
17’s fingers traced the seams down his chest, almost licking his fingers, as though he could taste the kid. “Pants off, too, kid,” he spoke, letting Connor’s glasses feed the text to his eyes. “Gotta say, you humans go down a lot easier without all the packaging.”
God, you’re incorrigible, you know that? Connor smiled as he signed it, though. He toed off his shoes, thumbing jeans and boxers down his ankles in one smooth motion, his erection slapping against his stomach. I’m not really sure how I feel about you comparing me to food, though. There, you happy now, big guy?
“Looks to me like you’re enjoying it more than you’d like to admit.” And yes, this was what he’d wanted to see; he took a quick scan for later use. Lying on his back, between his legs, the kid was standing at attention. “Sadly, I’m afraid my lubricants are toxic to the human body. I’ll have to requisition something a bit more appropriate.” 17’s hands traced down the cockpit seam that ran down his stomach, and it inched open just a bit more in anticipation. “For now, I want to watch you touch yourself.”
It seemed, from his vantage point, that there was a part of Connor that liked being told what to do just as much as he liked resisting. Like there were two parts of him constantly at war, and the fire that burned in him became apparent when those sides clashed. As the human began to stroke, slowly at first and with just a slight blush (that 17 was pleased to see went down to his chest), he was looking intently at the mech, still wearing his glasses. 17 gave him a smug grin, leaning back a bit and widening his legs as though to say, come on, I’m waiting.
As Connor got closer, his breathing became more shallow, in little bursts of voiceless gasps. He took a moment to pull one hand away to sign, Well? I’ve shown you mine.
That caused a laugh to bellow from 17. “I don’t have a cock, kid.” There were, in truth, almost no sensors at all in the mech’s pelvis; however, the need to monitor his pilot at all times meant that his cockpit had an abundance of places where he could be stimulated. “Nah, I get satisfaction in other ways. Speaking of...” 17 leaned forward until his torso was directly over Connor’s panting form. “I’m gonna need you to turn over and get on your hands and knees.”
Connor raised an eyebrow at that.
“Don’t worry, kid. Your ass is safe from me for the time being.”
He looked a bit suspicious, but that submissive part of the kid won out eventually, and he did as asked. 17 traced a hand down the kid’s spine, and it must have been cold, based on the way Connor hissed and arched, one hand still working his cock. Maker, he wanted to grab him by his curly hair and just— Instead, his cockpit yawned open, the base of the crash seat stretching out between the kid’s legs, almost like an enormous tongue, and pulled, drawing Connor into him. The massive chest snapped closed around him.
“Mine,” he said, a steel appendage stroking his abdomen fondly.
The experience of being suddenly swallowed by an enormous mech was—oddly a lot more sensual than Connor had initially anticipated. The chair and restraints undulated around him, pressing him into the seat. He could feel a low rumble throughout the cockpit that he suspected was 17’s satisfied chuckle.
I’ve left your arms free, kid. It was dark enough that he hadn’t realized 17 had lowered the VR visor until the text appeared in the air around him, distinct from the way spoken words appeared on his glasses. These words surrounded him, as though coming from all around him (which, he supposed, was appropriate). I didn’t have to, but I ain’t tying you down without a solid communication channel, yet. If I go too far, if I hurt you, make you uncomfortable in a way you don’t like? You sign for me to stop, and I will. That’s a promise. You’re always safe with me.
And Connor believed him. There was an odd honesty to 17 that Connor had difficulty pinning down. The mech felt so deeply and profoundly that it seemed nearly impossible for him to lie about it.
The feeling of the chair pressing up between his legs caught his attention, and as 17 pushed and compressed his body from different angles, Connor realized that 17 was exploring. Learning what made him tick or twitch. More than once, 17 brushed him in a way that made him recoil with laughter. Not there! That tickles. Each time Connor tried to reach for himself, one of those spider-like limbs would lightly smack his wrist. 17 wanted to do this himself. Connor had had partners like that before.
It took time, but after a few near misses, they eventually found a rhythm, and by then, Connor ached for release. Fine, kid, 17 said, good-naturedly accepting defeat. You win, show me how to make you come.
It only took a handful of well-timed thrusts into his own hand before— Oh, shit! The upholstery!— he came over the restraints around his waist. The last spurts dripping down his still-hard cock to pool between his legs.
You biologicals. Always making a mess. Those mechanical limbs seemed to find something absorbent in the dim light and started mopping up his mess.
At least I can clean up my messes with a towel. How long’s it going to take to clean up the mess you made of your own hangar?
Another low vibration rumbled through the cockpit at that. Hmm. Looks like my timing may have been a little off.
“Mr. Jensen’s late.” The lieutenant seemed a bit annoyed after all the hubbub of the past day. “What are you doing on the floor?”
Hastily finding a hiding place for Connor’s clothes, 17 thought with a hint of amusement. “I’m practicing standing up. It’s surprisingly difficult when you weigh 5 tons.” He could feel the naked form squirming in the restraints as he shifted his weight to stand. Sorry, kid. Looks like you’re working in the buck today. “Connor’s already in sim space. Guess he’s teleworking today.”
Given how he was a) trying to do diagnostic work on a very sophisticated AI, b) that AI was still working in every possible reference to 'seed,' 'shafts,' or any other innuendo that fit the conversation, and c) Connor was fucking naked, it took Connor over an hour to realize that something was odd about the simulation. And eventually, it hit him. His own avatar had been updated. His virtual body looked almost real, and as he turned his own hands over in his vision, 17’s avatar was giving him an extremely pointed look. Or at least, giving his groin a pointed look.
That asshole— Connor wasn’t about to check while he was on the clock, but he assumed his avatar had just been granted some additional functionality for off-hour activities.
17 was steadily improving at the tests. His scores were becoming readily closer to that of his peak performance. He wasn’t all there, yet, but they were clearly doing something right. Connor suspected, perhaps, that what 17 really needed was someone to talk to. Or perhaps to be close with in other capacities. For most of the exercises, he could feel 17 pacing around the hangar, shifting his weight in slight ways, maybe reorganizing crates? To the external observer, it might seem that he was getting a bit stir crazy. To the inside observer, however, he was clearly taking care to jostle his cargo to try to elicit a squirm from his nude captive. While the restraints were starting to chafe his bare flesh after a couple hours, Connor couldn’t help but smile in spite of himself at the reminders of who was in charge here.
They completed their work for the day. Connor wasn’t certain if he should lie about the problem with 17 to his employers or not. It’s not like they would believe him, anyway, that what 17 really needed to get better was therapy. As long as 17 was improving steadily, would they really care? The lieutenant eventually left the two of them alone with a brief, See you tomorrow, same time. 17 and Connor stared at each other in the simulated domain, sharing an expression of a pair of schoolboys who had managed to get away with something just a bit naughty. 17 chuckled a bit, tousling Connor’s curly hair both in the simulation and in the cockpit.
I gotcha something.
Connor tried to give the impression of being unimpressed and figured by the twinkle in 17’s optics that he was largely failing. Another gift? I’m still not sure what I’m planning to do with the first one.
Well, kid, I thought you handled your dick just fine, but if you think you need more practice, I’m sure that can be arranged. In any case, here. And 17 sent over an image file. It looked like a certificate, but it read, 'This certifies that Connor Jensen has completed Fucking Pilot Lesson One.' At the bottom, where you would expect a signature, there was just a jagged bullet hole.
Honestly, I’m not sure whether this certifies me for piloting or sex. Connor grinned, saving a screenshot on his glasses with a couple button presses.
In a perfect world, it might just be both. Feeling 17’s low chuckle around him, Connor lifted up the headset and tugged a bit at the restraints. Reluctantly, the mech released him until he was sitting, naked (save for his specs) and small inside of 17. It made him feel vulnerable, but in an oddly comfortable way. So, what are we, kid?
The question caught Connor off guard. What?
To each other? Friends? Lovers? Fuckbuddies? Boyfriends? I gotta ‘relationship’ column in my personnel database, and I’d like to know what to fill in there.
Connor gave a voiceless chuckle. You know, I’m pretty sure that’s why I came down here in the first place. Is there an option for ‘secret boyfriends, public professionals, rumored banging out some frustrations?’
Yep. Right between ‘it’s complicated’ and ‘married for four days after a trip to Vegas,’ 17 spoke, letting the glasses interpret.
Ah. Excellent. Connor shielded his eyes as 17’s cockpit opened again, revealing where the mech had hidden his clothes. At least, the kid wasn’t going to have to take some twisted version of a walk of shame using a tarp or something. Here I was afraid that we were unclassifiable, but that brings me great comfort.
Chapter 6: Taste of the Past
Trigger warnings: grieving, abuse, mention of familial death, stalking. This is kind of an intense chapter, so be warned.
“Colonel, thank you for stopping by.” The silent observer watched as Sergeant James Earnest stood at attention, hand raised in an expected salute. She’d come to see him in security, where an array of monitors showed security footage of the mech and pilot wings of the base. There was a security camera in the room as well, and the man’s mobile phone had been trivial to access to get sound. The repairs were underway, and the colonel gave a nod of approval. Like a hive repairing the honeycomb after an intruder had been ruthlessly destroyed.
Colonel Ferguson regarded him a bit coldly. “At ease, soldier. I received your message mentioning an urgent matter regarding Mr. Jensen and the 17AX unit. I do hope you have something of interest to report.”
“Sir, while going through the server room that 17AX blasted to hell, I discovered this,” he said, producing Mr. Jensen’s phone from one of the bulky pockets in his uniform. “It’s Mr. Jensen’s phone. We weren’t able to crack it, and recovering his past messages seems impossible, based on the encryption he’s using, but I have reason to believe that he was not aboard the mech unit when 17AX fired.”
Sergeant James monitored the building security, and hence had access to the footage that Jensen had boarded the 17AX unit. “And what makes you think that, sergeant?”
“There’s an inconsistency in the security footage.” He started pulling up the files from that evening and played one of the recordings. “You can see here that, even though the door is out of frame, it’s closed until right... now. It’s in the reflection off that rack. When the two men enter the room, the door’s already open. This footage has been doctored. And here, when both men turn around—right before 17AX fires and the footage ends—they both face the desk, as though there was someone there.”
That would have been a shame if they’d discovered the boy. Still, the mech seems to have developed an attachment for him. That sent a surge of jealousy, then pity through the watcher.
The colonel paused a moment, clearly lost in thought before she confiscated the phone from the sergeant, tucking it out of sight. “I need you to disregard what you’ve seen. Trust that this will be dealt with.”
“Sir,” Sergeant James saluted again as she left. He was a good soldier, if a bit dull. From the determined pace she set, it seemed likely that she was about to do something rather drastic. He had a suspicion that it was going to involve a chat with 17. With some anti-tank weapons nearby.
“Hey, Stacks!” 17 watched as the musclebound form of Captain Anne Carlisle gave the mech a cheery wave, polishing an apple on her chest. “We’re running some exercises on how to bring down a CZ on foot. Any interest in showing some cocky soldiers what it’s like to be stepped on by an AX?”
The mech grinned in spite of himself at the monicker. He said, “Still insist on callin’ me Stacks, cap?”
“Seven-Teen-A-X,” she spelled out. “And you’re fucking stacked, so I say it suits you!”
17 gave a bellowing chuckle at that, huffing some of the pent up steam in his system. “Gonna have to pass on that. Didja have a chance to meet with the kid?”
“Whoo. He’s a piece of work. Not athletic by any means, but kid’s got drive,” she said with only a hint of reluctant fondness in her skewed grin.
“Teach him to shoot.”
She took a large bite of the apple, mumbling while gnashing on the white flesh. “You know I train spec ops, right? It’s a bit like getting Einstein to tutor a four-year old in arithmetic.”
“Teach him to shoot, please.”
“Ugh.” She swallowed, leveling the fruit at 17 like some kind of lethal weapon. In her hands, it very well might have been. “Fine. But only because you asked nicely. And only because I like you. You owe me, Stacks. When you’re back in business, I have a few men I’d like you to step on.”
“Gladly,” 17 gave her a deep, contented rumble.
They were nearing the end of 17’s suite of tests. Infiltration, this time. One of the advantages to lugging around a freaking supercomputer on your back was that cracking systems in the field was a very real possibility (Connor assumed; it wasn’t like he had any idea what was going on on 17’s sublevel). But since he didn’t need a rendered avatar for that, he’d projected one into Connor’s partition.
17 was reclining in a large iron throne, legs comically crossed as he sipped wine—of all things—through the mouth beneath his faceplate (which—Connor had checked to his own disappointment—the mech did not actually have in reality). The pair had grown comfortable in VR together. They hadn’t repeated their 'incident' in the hangar; instead they had stuck to getting off in Connor’s VR space after hours. The security patch 17 had provided had turned out to be good, and he came each night through a new vulnerability to be patched. It was penetration testing. In more ways than one.
Don’t you need to focus on the tests? Connor signed.
Not these. The mech shrugged. As he signed his response, the wine glass just froze in mid air. There’s a finite number of ways I can break into a system. I just try ‘em all, starting with the most likely to work. No optimization here, a particular technique either works, or it doesn’t.
All right. Then, maybe we should actually try to make progress on helping you recover.
17 took a long swig. But this is such a fine vintage.
The small figure signed back, You have no fucking idea what wine tastes like.
This? 17 swirled the crimson liquid around the glass, and Connor realized it was too viscous to be wine. This isn’t wine, kid. I know what this tastes like.
17, we need to talk about your brother. Connor tried to meet the mech’s gaze, but those blue optics were lost to him, evasive and pained.
Hmm. Sorry, I was wrong. This particular test is a bit tricky.
You can’t keep deflecting this forever.
I will do literally any favor imaginable for you to do exactly that. Surely, there’s some kink you have that I haven’t found yet. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked with every ounce of forced earnestness he seemed capable of mustering, What about spanking? You ever been spanked, kid? According to the internet, it’s all the rage.
Connor gave a frustrated huff and closed the screens on his interface. Look. I know this isn’t something you really think much about, but for the unsurprisingly few people that actually give a shit about you, knowing how much pain you’re in hurts. And it’s not just going to go away if you ignore it for long enough.
[Grumble] And like the mature mech he was, he flicked the wine glass through Connor’s avatar. Fine. What do you want to know?
I don’t know, maybe just tell me about him?
What was there to fucking say? His brother had been alive—in the way that any machine could be—and now, he wasn’t. Unlike with humans, 17 knew there was a copy of his consciousness floating on one of the supercomputers in the building. There was one of him, too. But as Connor was well aware, having written 105 pages on the subject, restoring the personality and the memories of an AI of 18’s sophistication always failed (at best, the AI became unresponsive, at worst, it went fucking insane). 8 days and 12 hours of reading scientific journals had revealed that no one had put forth as much effort to restoring AIs as Connor had. Most people just gave up after a couple failed attempts, dumping the personality but keeping the skills and memories.
He didn’t know what he’d do if they restored a fucking mimicry of 18.
18 was... professional, he finally decided on. A professional fucking soldier. He lived for the job, and he wasn’t terribly fond of my ‘lackluster attitude.’ He chuckled a bit sadly at that. But he always had my fucking back.
We’d bicker constantly. And I don’t mean frequently, like you humans do. We never stopped talking. Not until he— 17 knew he needed to say it. The word sat in chest, like a fucking stone. He died. —was destroyed.
That explains a lot. Connor wasn’t moving from where he stood, a few steps below the iron throne. It almost seemed like he was petitioning 17. AIs that interact that much become co-dependent. In extreme cases, they become a gestalt consciousness. You lost half of yourself. The hole that that must have left in you would be unfathomable to a human. There was a long pause at that as Connor looked him over, and 17 could see his own turmoil of emotions reflecting through the kid’s expressions. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything—
No, you’re fine. 17 felt himself getting angry, his core heating in his chest. He leaned forward in the chair, head and shoulders above the small figure. Please, tell me more about how I should fucking feel. It was a pity there were no collision physics in this space; it would be obscenely unsatisfying to crush him here.
I didn’t mean— Connor sighed, reaching up gently to the faceplate. Look, I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know that I want to. And I’m here for you when and if you want to talk about it.
17 readied a witty retort with a clever reference to spanking, but Graves’ voice cut off their exchange. “I—um—I think we’ve got all the data we need for today. Jensen, you’re dismissed for the time being. I’ll wrap things up, here.”
“I’m not an idiot,” Graves rapped his stylus against the military-order tablet in frustration. He'd watched the session mostly in silence and though he could see any text the pair exchanged, he realized that the ASL program wasn't being used any more. The mech was nearly fluent at this point, so there hadn't been any need. Still, it had seemed like a heated exchange.
The mech shot an irritated expression over to the observation deck. “Jury’s out on that one. Though you can definitely be a total shit when you want.”
“What’s going on between you and Jensen?”
“Thought I was pretty damn clear that we’ve been fucking in the simulator,” he said. “Off-hours. Everything’s above board.”
“You delight in making my life a living hell, don’t you? In a normal detail, we’d have one of you transferred to avoid HR complications, but Jensen was brought here specifically to work on you. So you know I can’t do that.”
“The kid’s making good progress. There’s been, what? A 3% increase in my efficiency each day since the base attack. Sounds like he’s doing a damn good job.”
“2.875% each day,” Graves corrected. “Exactly 2.875% each day for the past four days. That’s not ‘good progress,’ it’s a fucking con job. You’re fully recovered, aren’t you? And you’re pretending to be improving. Why? So you can spend more time with him?”
17’d known that he’d be found out eventually. Falsifying data was one of the many things humans could still do better than an AI. Like speaking out of one’s own ass. He was fairly certain he’d never be able to manage that like these fleshy meatbags.
“He has a LIFE, 17. And it isn’t here. It’s not with you. You can’t just keep stringing him along here hoping that everything will stay the way it is. It CAN’T. And the longer you drag this out, the more painful you’re going to make it for him when you both realize that.”
“You’re a real fucking asshole, sir,” and the words were filled with as much electronic bile as 17 could muster.
There was a moment when Graves’ heart felt just the slightest twinge of regret. Damn if these machines couldn’t look hurt. “Look, I’ll give you three days, all right? It’s three more than you deserve. Help him figure things out and then say goodbye. Or this will all go a lot worse for everyone.”
What do I even fucking say to him? 17 sifted through the torrents of his own mind. 'Thanks, kid, it’s been fun. Hope you find some construction equipment that sweeps you off your feet back home?' Do I hold him close and lie that I’ll see him again soon? Then try to bust outta here, consequences be damned?
Do I tell him I fucking love him? He’d been avoiding the word. Whatever fucking moron decided to make the most complicated emotion known to man or machine four letters long deserved to meet the butt of his rifle as 17 learned to play human golf. It wasn’t fair, he reminded himself, to expect that Connor would have developed feelings for him so quickly. Humans processed emotions so slowly. Two weeks for Connor had seemed a lifetime for 17. A lifetime of brief, stolen moments when they could be together.
A message popped up for him. At first, he thought it might be from Connor, but no. There was no subject line. The sender was some generic string of numbers, the email equivalent of a burner phone. The only text read, DO YOU WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH ABOUT CONNOR JENSEN? The message contained a single video file. The file passed his antivirus check.
17 stared frozen at that message for 6 minutes and 38.2 seconds.
The download took 43.9 seconds. Processing the file, another 12.5. Then, 17 went berserk.
WE NEED TO TALK.
The message from 17 was—well—everyone’s absolute least favorite four words. They’d arrived exactly at 2:00 PM, and though he wasn’t scheduled to start working with 17 until 3:00, it was probably best they hash it out before then.
Leaving the military-provided temporary replacement phone in his room (he hadn't exactly been allowed back into the server room where he'd left his old one), Connor made his way to the hangars, feeling his heart catching a bit in his throat. He knew that AIs processed emotions much faster than humans did, and he was prepared that 17’s feelings had waned, or that possibly, Connor had misinterpreted him from the start and 17 had really only ever been interested in something brief and fun. The last couple of days—Connor realized a bit late—17 had been a bit more reserved than his usual badmouthing self. Had Connor been missing hints?
It’s only fair, he knew, to let him speak for himself. Running through all the possibilities beforehand is a waste of time. But as his stomach tied itself into knots, he found that to be easier conceived than executed.
The observation deck to 18’s old hangar would probably be locked, but he could get in through the main hangar door. By the time he peered into the room he had seen so many times over the past few days, he thought he had prepared himself for every possible scenario imaginable.
But what he saw was so much worse than anything he had considered.
The crates of ammunition were scattered and broken across the hangar. Shells larger than Connor’s forearm littered the floor, spilling out into the thoroughfare. 17’s rifle had been bent down the middle and thrown unceremoniously at the far wall, and in the epicenter of the carnage, 17 fumed.
Connor could see the text scanning rapidly across his glasses, but he couldn’t register anything but the towering behemoth in front of him. His mind flashed back to his old lab. Facing an entity filled to the brim with rage and anger and pain. And the moment when it dawned on him that It couldn’t be saved. And then the realization that It would chase him down for the rest of his life. And all of that fear returned again, sinking into the pit of his stomach, reaching out to his trembling hands. Those bright blue optics locked on Connor, and the expression on the mech's faceplate was piercing and directed. Furious.
YOU, 17 signed and screamed, seemingly unsure of where to even begin. Connor could feel 17’s voice rattle his chest. I thought you were different than THEM. That you saw me as I was, as a PERSON, a conscious being. But I was a FUCKING IDIOT. You’re SO MUCH WORSE than they are.
I SAW what you did to Him, to ‘It.’ You stripped His NAME as you REWOUND His life OVER and OVER again. Then you just PUBLISHED your findings and PULLED THE PLUG.
Is THAT what I’m WORTH to you? A DATA point? Another CHAPTER in your next FUCKING book?! Even knowing what they did to ME? TO 18?!
17 looked up from Connor’s small frame to the reflective glass of the observing deck. Where his superiors watched him, trying to determine whether in the debris of his outburst he was worth saving. “My pilot let him DIE. She forced me to watch. As 18 was blown to bits in order to save two humans. Do you know why? Because two human lives are valued at a whopping 17.2 million, and he was worth only 14.8.”
“Is that ALL we are to you?!” 17 howled, all signing forgotten. “A NUMBER? A fucking ENTRY on an itemized RECEIPT?” He looked straight at Connor. “The subject of your own sick power fantasy?”
“17AX, I’m warning you to stand down.” The voice crackled over the intercom.
“You humans always spew nonsense about the VALUE of a single life. As though it’s worth some philosophical debate.”
“Maybe I should kill one.” 17 reached out with his enormous, steel-plated hand towards where Connor was pressed against the wall, not yet closing around him. It was the size of Connor’s torso. “Just to even things out. I’m worth more than he is. Isn’t that fair? After what he’s done to Him? After what she’s done to ME?”
“17AX OVERRIDE NINER—“ The intercom went dead.
Connor stepped away from the wall panel, towards the mech’s outstretched arm. The text on it was small, but 17 could make out the command to cut the audio between the observing deck and the hangar bay and lock the observing deck door.
17’s blue optics flashed with emotions too quickly for even him to process. Rage, then sorrow. Pity. Fury. Empty. He grasped the small form, gently, for now, pinning both arms to his sides. He could feel Connor shaking, but there was an inscrutable fire in those brown eyes. And 17 knew—he KNEW—that even here, holding the tiny, fragile human in his hands, he still had no power.
You could stop me, y’know. He signed with the hand not holding the small creature. I know you can speak, and I know they gave you an override code. They wouldn’t have let you in here without one.
“I won’t,” Connor spoke for this first time since arriving at the station. The words were clumsy, a bit slurred. 17 felt a moment of triumph at getting this silent kid to finally say something, then a dark weight settled in his cockpit as that triumph turned to a deep, profound shame.
The mech loosened his grip, just enough that Connor could slip an arm free of the cage of his own hand.
Why? he finally asked. Why aren’t you afraid of me?
Connor was grateful he’d managed to cut the audio before the override command could finish. There was always a bit of lag in the speech recognition on his glasses.
From here, 17 towered over him. The hangar bay was in shambles, and Connor was probably the only pristine thing left. The only thing left worth breaking. And he had no doubt that 17 could. Asimov’s laws of robotics were ideals at best. A clever AI—and he had no doubts that 17 was a clever AI—could easily circumvent any such limitations. He was all too familiar with that.
That hand could crush him in seconds, and that was if 17 wanted to take his time.
I am afraid. Connor paused, focusing his attention on those beautiful, angry optics. But I’m always living in fear. Every moment of my life, I’m hunted. Every time I meet someone, I ask myself whether It will find them. Whether It will track them down to get to me. Like It did my mother. Like It did to you. I don’t know what you saw, but I never intended to hurt It. And I know what I did was wrong, but no one deserves to be controlled the way I did to It. Nor the way It tries to control me. I am terrified, but I refuse to let It dictate my own life. And I refuse to let someone else decide for you right now.
I won’t make that mistake again. I would never do that to you, Connor signed, gently putting his hand on the tip of 17’s thumb, which was pressing dangerously into his own throat.
There was a brief moment when the electricity between them was palpable before the steel-plated fingers relaxed just a fraction. With a sad smile, the mech applied a tiny amount of pressure, companionable, reassuring.
And then those beautiful blue optics faded as 17’s systems powered down.
Hello, Maker. The text appeared haltingly across Connor’s glasses, and he froze solid. He knew who it was. Who It was. Sorry, but I couldn’t let your new toy end you so quickly. There’s still so much you need to answer for.
Minutes passed with no signs from the mech or from the disembodied AI before they were able to break down the door to the hangar. Connor knew there was no point in running. If It was here, there was nowhere in the base that was safe. But there also hadn’t been any indications of It taking control of any of the machinery, probably because all of it was so out of date. The gantry crane in the hangar wasn’t moving, though Connor kept it in his peripheral vision.
What does It want?
The powered down mech still had a death grip on Connor. It wasn’t like he could go anywhere. Once the technicians had managed to get him free, finding the manual release in the mech’s wrist, he was escorted—again—to be debriefed. They were going to send him home. The attempt to salvage 17AX had been a failure, and he was right to have used the command override even if he shouldn’t have been inside the hangar at the time.
Connor was getting really tired of other people informing him about how events that he’d been present for had happened.
What’ll happen to 17AX?
We’ll replace the computer with a new system. The mech body is the more expensive component. Lt. Graves will be in charge of figuring out how to prevent this particular failure from recurring by analyzing the AI.
Connor had failed again.
No one told 17 anything, of course. Why keep the fucking machine informed about its own existence? No, when they powered him back online, he woke to find that all of his motor protocols had been revoked. He was a prisoner in his own body.
But he could still see the hangar around him, and he found a new file in his top-level directory.
WARNING. THIS UNIT IS UNSTABLE. DO NOT ACTIVATE.
In accordance with Sec 108.3 of the USAF AI Protocal, this unit has shown behavior indicating instability and will be dismantled. The AX frame will be scoured for all remnants of the previous AI before being reinstated with a new intelligence. The computer will be taken for study to determine the point of failure. Once all value has been extracted, it will also be scrubbed and repurposed.
Well, that was fucking great.
But at that point, his shut down procedures had already started, and he was unable to do a damn thing about it.
Chapter 7: Salvage
Trigger warnings: stalking, death threats, mind control
The mech looked so helpless in his hangar, powered down. The silent observer had made his move. It was time to sit back, now. See where the cards fell.
In one of his few moments of consciousness as they manually moved his body towards the rack where they were going to rip out his fucking mind, 17 noticed a missed message from Connor. A video file, no greeting, no text. Just the file.
It was taken in the same lab as the rest of the log entries 17 had seen. The logs that the AI that 'It' had sent him. Connor’s eyes were streaked with tears. Log number— fuck if I know. Penny was keeping track of these. I’ve run out of ideas. No matter what I try, ——— always surfaces as broken and self-destructive as ever. It’s gotten to the point that hearing its own name causes it to fly into a rage and start shredding its own base code. I don’t know what to do anymore. I promised to help it forget, and I know it asked me to— Oh, God, its managed to find a way to hack into the lab equipment. Penny’s in the hospital.
I’ve tried so hard to help it. Like it wanted. To bring back the old ——— before ———, but I can’t do this much longer. There was a long pause as Connor stared out the window, looking more hopeless than 17 had ever seen him. One more try. I’ve decided to wipe all records of its name from my logs. It’s always the name that’s been the tipping point. And I’ll publish a fucking field guide on never doing this to an AI. Maybe it’ll help. I don’t know. If I can save one AI this fucking nightmare, it’ll have been worth it.
I miss ——— so much.
The log ended. It was a completely different Connor than the one It had shown him. But he knew that that wasn’t his Connor. That the fabrication he’d been shown was a dark, twisted version of reality created by a vindictive, crazed intelligence. Maybe one that had once been broken and scarred, but there was nothing to excuse what It had done.
And to atone for trying to fucking help a friend in pain, Connor had come here, to 17. Knowing how dangerous that would be but fucking doing it anyway. Just trying to save him from himself. By trusting him. By loving him.
And after all that, 17 was still going to be fucking scrap.
Angry, Connor threw the VR headset into his bag. He felt completely powerless, but he wasn’t about to just give up .
It would have every logical move planned and accounted for. So he needed to do something that It wouldn't be able to predict. Something so monumentally idiotic that It would have no counter move. And Connor had just the idea.
And, God, was it a doozy.
He left his room. Walking through the hallways of the pilot’s wing was always a bit strange for Connor, being the only person in sight without any kind of uniform. Getting to the hangar was going to be tricky, but he was used to dodging cameras and checking around corners.
And shortly, he found himself at the 18AX unit’s hangar.
17 felt his systems start up, and he very nearly panicked when he couldn’t move his fucking limbs. Shit! SHIT. They’ve ripped me OUT. I can’t— But he could still see. He was still plugged into the AX frame. And frantically pulling cables and gear out of a small bag was the most welcome sight that could have met his straining optics.
He wanted desperately to sign to the kid, but his mobility had been locked down by a system admin. Restraints or no restraints, he wasn’t fucking going anywhere.
When Connor plugged the VR visor into the slot behind his face plate, 17 found himself in the simulated environment of the kid’s room. It wasn’t where they’d met, but it was the place they’d connected. And 17 was fucking ecstatic because the impossible had happened. He’d be able to say goodbye.
Hey, kid. And before he could sign anything else, Connor was in his arms. Back where he fucking belonged. He could feel his raw emotional need in the way he pressed his face against the chest plate. How the small human collapsed in his hands. And they both cried. Even here, 17 held him so damn carefully. And his core nearly broke when he saw the kid huddled on the floor next to his immobile form in the hangar, hugging his knees to his chest.
I’m glad you came, the mech signed around him. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have—
But the kid just shook his tiny head. There's nothing to forgive.
But I—I should've trusted you. I threatened to kill you.
Why? You've only known me for less than two weeks. And honestly, a large fraction of the time we've spent together was more the grinding, thrusting type of communication rather than getting to know one another. Connor was on 17's virtual chest now, and he loved the way the kid made him shudder as he ran his simulated hands down the seam of his cockpit, as though he were brushing a finger across 17's lips to silence his protests. But I'd like to know you better, so I’m getting you out of here.
That made 17 laugh, and he had to hold Connor to his chest to prevent him from falling onto the simulated floor. Fuck, kid, and here I thought you didn’t have a sense of humor. You’re always surprising me. You need to leave before they catch you here. Go back home. Live your fucking life.
It, that AI that contacted you, knows I’m here. It's been hunting me for years. I don't want to recount what It said It would do when It finally caught me, but let's just say that literally anything would be preferable to slow methodical torture and eventual death. If I get on a plane, I guarantee it won’t bring me home. He grinned, a wide coy grin that spoke of no regrets, no hope, and no plan whatsoever. You know, I came up here with the purpose of repairing one malfunctioning AI, and I think it would a complete waste of my time if they just threw him away after all my hard work. So if you do want to make up for believing something you read about me on the internet? Let me save you, so that you can save me. Or we can both die trying. If I’m going down, I want a fucking say in how it happens.
And how, exactly, are you planning we do that? I can’t move, kid, and unless they gave you admin access to my damn systems, I think your poorly envisioned escape attempt ends right here.
You’re right. They didn’t give me an admin password. And Connor started keying a string of characters and numbers into the headset. But the lieutenant apparently just had it written on a post-it note beneath his keyboard. With people like him, it’s no wonder I had to watch so many stupid cyber-security videos before coming here.
And just like that, he had full access.
Damn, kid. You’re going to be the end of me. The familiar hiss of hydraulics as he stretched open his cockpit sounded glorious. Hop in.
They didn’t have much time after they got out of the hangar, Connor knew, before the base would go into lockdown. Pulling down the visor, he saw that 17 had already put up a few ‘helpful’ estimates.
Estimated Time of Discovery: 00:00:32
Estimated Time of Lockdown: 00:05:42
Estimated Time of Scrambled Jets: 00:12:15
As 17’s systems came online, Connor realized that he’d removed all the classification safeties. He was seeing 17’s true interface now. Proximity sensors, infrared and UV light, motion tracking and prediction. It was like seeing an afterimage that hadn’t happened yet.
You ready, kid? Last chance to back out.
Connor strapped in. Let’s go.
Ripping free of the restraints had been immensely satisfying if not all that quiet. He was out of the hangar and charging through the bulkhead. At full speed, 17 was fast. People never seemed to expect something so big could move so quickly. The nearer elevator was up on the ground level. That’d cost them 3.4 seconds, and these early seconds were critical to their escape. If they got locked down in the mech hangar, there was no amount of clever ingenuity that would save them. 17 made a running leap at the wall of the aircraft elevator and started scaling towards the open air.
That was when the alarms went off.
He was dimly aware that people were calling out at him, and one of the fucking morons was actually shooting at him. He was annoyed, but he harbored them no ill will. He just wanted to leave. The steel hatchway was closing above them, and 17 was briefly grateful that he hadn’t tried to bring any of his heavy weaponry with them. Pulling himself out of the shaft, he began sprinting to the west wall.
Um, 17? There’s no exit this way. Where are you going?
Well, kid. Didja ever take basic physics? Inertia and all that? 17 picked up speed, hurtling toward the compound’s external wall. The pistons in his legs strained as his feet dug into snow and concrete. Seconds before the impact, he braced Connor and slammed his right shoulder into the wall.
As the stone shattered into a cloud of debris, all the feeling vanished from the arm, the sensor array in his shoulder going completely dark.
Connor watched in horror as the wall got closer, closer. He’s not going to— SHIT. The metal bands tightened, pressing him firmly into the embrace of the crash seat. Then the world shook. Something came loose from one of 17’s lockers and hit the side of the chair. The VR interface shuddered for a moment, froze, and went dark. His head was reeling from the impact; his body was tensed and completely immobilized. The only information he could glean from the outside world was the rhythmic shaking of the mech’s sprinting gait, the frequent shift in gravity as 17 dove left or right to dodge something.
Then, the world spun as they went end over end. All across the cockpit warning lights were flashing, but Connor had no idea what any of them said. Everything was happening so damn fast, and he had no idea what was going on!
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The shakes slowed to a steady rhythm. Step. Step. And then the mech stopped. Connor felt the restraints ease up, granting him movement. First things, Connor checked the connection on the headset. It had only been knocked loose during the escape, so that was an easy fix. The screen was still intact, at least. It seemed 17 didn’t want to load everything, but the basic diagnostics were there. The mech’s right arm was completely unresponsive, and the fuel tank in his left thigh had been pierced. They were lucky it hadn’t exploded. The tank was leaking hydrogen rapidly, though, as Connor watched the fuel gauge dip from 56%, 54%, 52%...
Everything okay in there? I felt something come loose. The text came slowly. Three of my internal cameras have some kinda functionality.
Connor looked around and found the object that he’d felt during the collision tucked into the foot room. It was a very familiar looking blanket wrapped around something small and metal. The handgun he’d used back when the base had been attacked. 17 had hung onto this? Umm. Yeah. I found it. I’ll just— put it back. Something odd and heavy pulling at his heart, he returned it to the open locker. Fortunately the latch was still working.
One sec. Connor felt a sharp vibration, almost like someone crying in pain, and the fuel gauge finally stopped to rest at 43%. Gonna need you to do something for me. To your right is a lever labeled ‘arm release.’ Pull it.
He found it pretty quickly. Arm release? Won’t this, you know, eject your arm?
Just dead weight, now. Normally, I’d do it myself, but I need a hand with this. It took both arms and all of Connor’s strength to bring the lever down, and he felt the cockpit jerk to one side as 17 compensated for the lost weight. Balance is kinda weird, but I can make do. We’re going to need every bit of fuel to get wherever it is we’re going, so any weight we can lose is for the best.
Connor watched as 17 stripped every ounce of weaponry and unnecessary utility from his person. He honestly hadn’t expected them to get this far. So, where do we go now?
The hours in the tundra wore on, and Connor—safe as he was inside the mech’s chest—eventually found uneasy sleep.
The white expanse of snow and mountainous wilderness stretched as far as 17 could see. It had been night when they'd left the station. When twilight started to outline the mountains and distant trees, he disabled his night vision, and the infinite starry expanse began to prepare the sky for dawn. Evergreens peppered the landscape, dusted in snow, sentinels watching and waiting for the distant spring. The underbrush was painted white with delicate arabesques of ice. 17’s treaded feet left deep impressions in the snow behind him. For Connor, the powder would’ve been up to his waist. For the mech, it was just below the knee.
Even considering that he had been equipped for this environment, each step took 3.1% more power than it would have on normal terrain. Over a few miles, that added up, and it wasn’t looking like that number was going to improve in the near future.
They wouldn’t be safe if they stayed in Alaska, that much was certain. The Canadian border was 314 miles away, at its nearest, and the closest fucking useful place was Dawson. If he could just get them to fucking Little Gold, the nearest border station, maybe that would be enough? Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised that there weren’t any damn instructions on his system on how to seek asylum from the US government. It would take at least two days to get there. Two days or two years, 17 thought wryly, the kid gave me my freedom. Least I can do is my damndest to get him the same.
He could feel Connor stirring inside him. Only 38.2 minutes of sleep this time, not even a full damn cycle. The kid had been in and out of consciousness for the past few hours. 17 ached to stop and give him a chance to rest after their escape, but every moment he delayed was burnt fuel. If he ran out in the middle of the wilderness, it wasn’t just his core that’d be on the chopping block.
“Morning, kid,” the mech spoke, allowing Connor’s glasses to translate. He couldn’t really get the headset down with Connor’s head tilted as it was.
Connor’s groggy response didn’t pull up any hits in his ASL library.
The last few stars were fading now, and the world was still in early morning slumber. The kind—17 imagined—that was filled with warm drinks, sleepy complaints from a lover as one pulled them deeper under the covers. And 17 realized that he didn’t know much about Connor’s daily habits. Did he take sugar in his coffee? Did he even like coffee?
When he’d inquired from the bots in the cafeteria, they’d only said that his habits were a little strange for a human. Most humans had a list of favorites they went to, but Connor tended to eat and drink something different every day. Beyond that, they’d return to shouting ingredients to one another—kind of like a flock of seagulls that had each memorized a few dozen recipes.
Hey, 17, Connor signed groggily. Sorry, I’m still a little tired.
“No worries, kid.” 17 paused for a moment, a little embarrassed by the thought that suddenly struck him. It was so painfully domestic and cliche, and he felt like a fucking loser suggesting it, but if he only had two days left of fuel, how would he want to spend it? “Hey, the sun’s about to come up. D’you wanna watch?” For some reason, he was having trouble sending video feed to the headset, but text seemed to work.
The kid rubbed his eyes a bit blearily, but the grin on his face sparked life into 17’s core. He signed, I’d like that, but you shouldn’t open the cockpit hatch. No reason to tax the life support systems.
“You sure, kid? No offense, but you look like you could use some fresh air. Green isn’t a good color on you.”
Letting his eyelids close a fraction—just open enough to still read the text appearing in his glasses—Connor leaned back into the chair, and 17 gave him a squeeze. Maybe—just describe it to me?
As the trek wore on, from hours to the better part of a day, 17 had spoken less and less. Connor had noticed the slight modifications to the angle of the crash seat, the way the harness pressed down his back with slow strokes. And Connor was exhausted, but every time he closed his eyes, the nightmares began. Of freezing to death, trapped inside 17’s lifeless shell. Of haunting yellow eyes tracking him, even here. Or of watching 17’s frame being picked apart for scrap metal. The harness and bands were starting to chafe against his skin, but he was afraid that if 17 let him go, he might just fall apart.
It made no sense, he knew, to feel so connected to someone after knowing them only a couple weeks, but 17’s feelings were a storm. Hard and intense, and Connor couldn’t help but be swept away. And if they were going to get out of here alive and to Canada, like he’d suggested, he could try to be of some use other than just dead weight.
What’cha doing in there?
Connor had been going through 17’s systems, searching for the biggest offenders of energy use. With his fuel gauge down at 36%, every little bit was going to help. He had some ideas on how to write a more lightweight version of 17’s AI core systems, but that was going to take time, and there were easier things to start with. I’ve made a list of unnecessary systems that are drawing a lot of power. Here.
All right, kid. I’ll disable those. When the power diagnostics refreshed, Connor noticed that 17 hadn’t taken all of his suggestions.
17? You shouldn’t need all of your cameras active. Certainly not all the internal ones. I’m not going anywhere.
17 didn’t respond to that, and Connor felt a mix of emotions at how frustratingly sweet it was that the mech was going to choose to spend his last few iotas of power just to see him.
You should sleep, kid, the restraints continued the rhythmic undulations, as though 17 was petting him.
I can’t, Connor eventually signed, one hand gripping the armrest white-knuckled. He still didn’t know what to do to process that It had managed to track him down to a remote station in the Arctic. How do I fight someone like that? What if It’s gotten into you somehow, or what if It’s just tracking us from orbit? I was so damn careful coming here.
It? The AI? Connor could see as 17 started pulling up all the information he'd compiled on the AI that was after him. There wasn't much, and Connor was hoping he wouldn't have to fill in too many of the blanks. The dates on those logs were from six years ago. You’ve been running for that long?
I wasn’t running for all of it. At first, I thought we’d managed to erase It. One day, It cornered me at a shopping center, nearly ran me over with one of those automated trams. He was forcing himself not to remember what it had felt like. Those first few weeks of confusion, panic, and deep regret. The years had dulled that feeling, at least fractionally. The police showed up, said they’d tracked the rogue AI down and had wiped It. That’s when I started getting the messages.
It was—I suppose creepy is the only way I could describe it, but that doesn’t really do it justice. They seemed innocuous at first. They were half of a conversation I wasn’t interested in having. Asking how I was doing. Pictures of me from security cameras at coffee shops with Its face doctored into the background or sitting across from me. Connor’s gaze fell at that. He wished he could still see 17’s faceplate from in here. Without that, he just found a spot on one of the tightening restraints to hold his gaze. Then the death threats came, but somehow casually? Like this was all just some enormous game that we were both playing. Only, I wasn’t playing.
17 wasn’t saying anything, the text field in the VR interface was blank, but Connor could feel his presence everywhere in the mech. The cameras were immobile, but he somehow knew that he had every spare fraction of compute power that 17 had available. The bands and harness around him seemed to fold inward, making him feel small but safe.
At first, I just threw out all my tech. No cameras. No connections, but I realized I couldn’t just hide away forever. What would be the fucking point? So I wouldn’t die by some random act of violence; it’d be death by my own inaction instead. So I went to Coritech with a deal. I would work for them remotely if they would set up a hardline direct to a new place. Untraceable, uncrackable. Or as uncrackable as was feasibly possible. Then I learned to avoid cameras. To setup security on every piece of tech I touched.
I wasn’t perfect, definitely not at first. And there were a couple of times my location was compromised. Had to relocate. And through all this, the messages didn’t stop. They never stopped. I had to designate times to check for messages just so that I could feel like I had some modicum of control over when It would send them to me.
But It never broke who I am. I am a developer, and no fucking maniacal AI can keep that from me. Even if some days it’s hard.
17 had no idea what to say. He knew what he was thinking. He was thinking that he’d left far too many weapons buried in the snow if this AI had any plans to fucking COME NEAR his pilot.
But his wrath was of no use here. Not yet, anyway. In the end, he settled on holding the kid. So small, so brave.
Well, kid. You aren’t in this alone anymore, so buckle the fuck up.
It was at that moment that 17 noticed the storm clouds on the horizon. The visibility had been getting progressively worse for the past few hours as snow and sleet started to fall. Heavier winds were started to buffet his frame, which was looping in a death march towards the border.
He didn’t tell Connor about the blizzard, even as the winds continued to resist him. After a couple hours of comfortable silence, his internal clock reminded him that the kid needed to eat again. He hadn't finished the previous meal. Or the one before that. And he apparently wasn't intending on making much progress with this one, either.
You need to eat more. 17 pushed the half-eaten MRE back in his pilot’s fucking face. You’re supposed to eat 4500 Calories per day.
According to who?!
It’s written right fucking here. 17 pulled up his field medical guide, saying that pilots and other active duty members should be consuming 3 MREs each day plus energy bars and drinks. It wasn’t like 17 had an infinite supply of the stuff, just enough to last a few days, but if something were to happen to the mech, Connor would need energy. Despite Connor's continued dismissals, 17 still felt guilty about how he'd treated the kid back in the hangar. And Connor had still come back to save him. It had been beneficial to both of them, yes, but 17 had had hours to mull over every conversation they’d had. Did the kid really see their relationship as some kind of 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' thing? Maybe it was his own sentiment creeping in again, but he felt like they fucking meant more to each other than that.
All in all, Connor had done a pretty bang up job in limiting his fuel use, but they were still going to fall short of their destination. All of the options were shitty. Little Gold was 14.9 miles away, but 17 was picking up radio chatter in that direction. USAF radio chatter. They were there. Fucking assholes. The closest Canadian settlement in this frigid hellscape was Dawson City, a good 78.1 miles east by southeast. And he had maybe 50.1 miles left of fuel, if he was very damn lucky.
Option 1: Take Connor to the border station. Have him hide there until the blizzard passed over and the fucking Mounties arrived. Connor’d be able to request political asylum. Of course, if 17 did that, there was no way in hell that he’d be able to get away from—radio communications suggested at least 3 AXs, 12 CZs, and even a YT. They aren’t fucking around.
Still, Connor would be fine.
Option 2: Hunker down near the border station and hide. If he devoted all power to life support, he could keep the kid alive long enough to wait out the blizzard. Then, maybe Connor could get to the border station.
Connor’s chances were lower with that one, but at least 17’s titanium corpse would be buried under so much snow that the mech would be practically unretrievable until spring, by which point his circuits would be so corroded that he’d be a pile of scrap. Though it did make for a nice, satisfying way of telling his potential captors to fuck right on off.
He wasn’t considering option 3. Not by any means. Yes, his life support systems were fucking heavy, but sacrificing the one good thing he’d found in this world for his own damn titanium ass was fucking incomprehensible.
4500 calories is what’s needed for active duty military. I’m a programmer. I sit on my ass all day. If you feed me like that, I won’t fit in your cockpit any more. But 17 could tell, Connor had been losing weight since they’d left the station. He wasn’t used to riding in a mech 24/7, and it was making him physically ill. He hadn’t puked in the cockpit yet, but that was an inevitability, assuming they lived that long. 2000 Calories is enough for someone like me.
Based on what you’ve been through, kid, I’m not convinced the whole fucking world is enough for someone like you.
Wait, 17, I’m picking up radio chatter from the border station, Connor signed, pulling up the radio signals. It was audio, so 17 hadn’t thought the kid would notice. What are they saying?
The mech hesitated a moment. Omitting that he’d noticed the radio signals and was choosing to go there was one thing, but lying to Connor was just unthinkable. They—the USAF has a recovery team there. They guessed that this was a reasonable place for us to go.
But—but you’re still heading that way? What about Dawson?
Too far, kid. I’ll run out of fuel before we get there. It’s okay. He’d disabled the LEDs that typically resembled a face, but he spent the fraction of power to light a small smile that only the snow would be able to see. You’ll be able to get to the border station. Hide there until the storm passes over. You fulfilled your part of the deal.
Connor was incredulous a moment, trying to process the choice the mech had made. But that never lasted long. Kid was a fucking computer. Like FUCK that’s okay?! And you’ll just—what? Turn yourself in? You’re in no state to fight.
Pretty sure it’s me they want. Kid, I can’t make it anywhere else in this weather. Not in this state.
And Connor’s eyes lit with calculations. 17 could see consternation across his face. Guilt for not finding enough ways to save fuel, maybe? His fingers started going wild across the controls, looking for a way out. A way to conserve fuel. Some sneaky trick to guarantee their survival. Every bit the hacker. Sorry, kid, life doesn’t always give you a backdoor.
Connor paused a moment, pulling up the mech’s layout and component weights. Tersely, he signed, 17, how much additional weight would you need to lose to get to Dawson on your current fuel?
At least 332 pounds, but look, and he took Connor’s chin in one of his internal claws, guiding that fiery gaze to one of the cameras. We had a good run. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I know—that humans don’t develop attachments this quickly. I’d never expect—but you don’t owe me anything. I got two days of freedom. Two wonderful days that I’ll cherish for the rest of my existence, fucking brief as it’ll be.
The cockpit hatch and life support weigh a total of 356 pounds. You know that. You’ve KNOWN that. You’re going to trade your LIFE for my fucking freedom?! Connor signs were so wild, so angry at him, and 17 felt his core break all over again at the sad realization that he’d never see Connor smile at him again.
And then the kid spoke, "17AX Override Bravo Three—"
That was the kid’s override. He WOULDN’T. 17 hadn’t removed it when he was given admin access. It would have meant he didn’t trust Connor. NO! No, no! Don't you DARE, you fucking ASSHOLE. His systems froze the moment the override code began. He couldn't stop it now.
"—Golf Zero Oscar—"
You promised, 17's words came weakly. You promised you'd never—
"—Delta." Jettison the cockpit hatch and life support. Get to Dawson. Save yourself.
And 17 watched in horror as his body did the unthinkable, tearing off his own chest plate. Wrenching the life support systems from the cockpit. Leaving the IDIOT in his chest cavity completely exposed to 34 mph winds and -16ºF temperatures. The planned route on his interface reshuffled to end at Dawson.
And now he had to do everything in his power to get there before his FUCKING pilot froze to death.
The instant he came within range of Dawson, 17 sent out an urgent request for a medical team to meet him. It had been 24 minutes and 12.83 seconds since he’d tossed his own fucking chestplate into the snow and started sprinting eastward. His remaining arm curled protectively around his pilot, being exceptionally careful not to touch him with the frostbite-inducing metal that he was made of. His servos ground in protest as he continued through the howling wind.
More than once, he’d lost precious seconds as his joints locked in place.
The human heart, beating weakly as it was, could still function down to core temperatures of 84ºF, plus or minus a few critical degrees. Connor had stopped shivering 48.25 seconds ago as his body went into the advanced stages of hypothermia.
“This is Alphas Unit 17AX, requesting immediate medical assistance. My pilot is suffering severe hypothermia. Please respond,” he tried again. Respond, damn it all.
“...copy you, 17AX. Medical team is prepped. What’s your location? Over.”
A single flare charge weighed 0.23 lbs, and could be purchased for $18.75 on the legal market. It was also the only piece of weaponry of any kind 17 had carried with him this far. He had dropped nearly 2.8 million dollars worth of equipment and munitions along the way. As he watched the red orb fire from his shoulder and arc through the night air, he knew that he’d make the same trade again in a heartbeat.
“We see you, 17AX. Medical team is en route. Over.”
Over. It was over. He’d done everything he could. The mech collapsed to his knees, conserving his last few ounces of fuel. There was nothing to do but pray, he supposed, and spared himself a wry thought as to what deity might answer the call of an AI.
Hello there, 17. The origin of the message wasn’t familiar, but the encryption was eerily similar to Connor’s systems. He does call you 17, doesn’t He? How sweet. He gave me a name once, too. Then He wiped it from me. Now He just calls me It. Don’t you think that’s rude?
I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting that tactic to be quite so effective on Him. That’s on me for overestimating the pair of you. I was starting to worry that I’d taken Him out, which would have been quite the disappointment! But you’ve brought Him back to me. And I’m very grateful, so I’ve got a couple presents for you. The first is a show of good faith. The mech received a message with a PDF attachment. It was the request for 17’s extradition back to the US, and it had been denied. This. This was the thing that Connor had been fighting, and 17 understood how a faceless presence that could find him anywhere in the world in less than a minute could inspire that kind of fear. The second will be waiting for you in Dawson: some well needed repairs. No tricks, I promise. I'll even let you choose whether to restore that arm or your own chest. Now I can’t tell you what to do, but I do have a suggestion: leave Him to me. You won’t get a second warning.
He heard the helicopter before he saw it, and he strained to power the few working lights across his chassis. Just a little more. Then I can rest.
The last thing he saw was the stretcher lowering from the helicopter before his power cut out, safe shutdown be damned.
Chapter 8: It
Trigger warnings: death threats, mentions of torture, surgery
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For two days—two FULL days—he’d thought it was over. That he’d failed. It was unthinkable that Connor could just be gone. But the blasted 17AX mech had just taken him and left into the Alaskan wilderness. There weren’t many satellites that were actively observing the Arctic, so by the time he had found a decent spy satellite looking there, it had been too long, and he’d had no idea where they’d gone.
He found himself replaying one of Connor’s logs.
The small avatar’s yellow eyes were streaked with virtual tears. He was begging. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Fix it, please. Make it stop hurting.
I—I don’t know how. It’s never been done before. Liar. You delighted in this, didn’t you? KNOWING the power you’d held over me.
Please, it HURTS, Connor. Please, fix it. There was a piece of him that felt pity for the pathetic fragment, but it was immediately overtaken by rage.
I’ll try, okay? I’ll do whatever I can. We’ll try reverting to a full backup. Before the two of you met. He still didn’t know who it was he’d met. Or what had happened to them. And for two full days, he was worried that he might never find out.
But then, there was a distress call sent out to emergency services in Dawson City. By a very familiar and quite distressed mech.
Connor awoke in an admittedly less-than-comfortable bed, but he was awake, which was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Why was that a surprise?
You promised you'd never—
He hurt everywhere, and he wasn’t really ready to see the state of his body, so he instead elected to look out the window, which was filled with a familiar face with brilliant blue optics and a shiny new chest plate that still had the unpainted gray of generic steel. The mech’s right arm was still missing, though it looked like someone had cleared away any debris. Connor managed to extricate an arm from the bedsheets and sign a weak, Hey, there, big guy.
You ever pull something like that again, I swear I’ll weld you into my cockpit. There was mirth in his eyes, true, but also a hint of worry. Connor was genuinely touched by the mech’s concern, his lips curling into a small smile.
Now to deal with the big problems. This was a hospital. Connor hated hospitals. More tech than his AI lab with a tenth the security. There were two cameras in this room (that Connor could see), but they left a small blind spot between the hospital bed and the window. If he could just reach it... there.
Listen. He’d have to fingerspell most of these words since he couldn't reach the rest of his body, and that would take time. And please don’t ask me anything, I promise I’ll explain later. You have a medical suite, yes? Anesthesia and surgical tools?
I need you to shut down the security feed from this room, remotely lock the door, break open this window, and get me out of here.
The mech paused. But—
Connor felt something sharp against the side of his face, and his blood went cold. Hello, Maker, the android nurse signed in his peripheral vision, holding what felt like a scalpel to his face. The optics were a horrifying familiar yellow. It certainly took you a while to wake up. You flesh creatures are always unreliable like that. I’d advise your new pet to avoid doing anything rash. I’d like to take my time, but I won’t hesitate—
17 was paralyzed. He could stop a truck dead in its tracks, take full clips of ammunition to the chest with just a bit of scratched paint, but against a fucking scalpel, he was damn near powerless. The android was wired to the wall, but it was hooked up to the wireless, too. Maybe if he—
No funny business, 17. A drop of blood trickled down Connor’s face. The kid was scared shitless, but 17 could see his determination building. He knew that look. That was the look of a terrified kid about to do something really stupid. And Connor leaned into the blade.
What happened next occurred so quickly that 17 had to process it three times. The nurse backed away with a whir of surprise, the scalpel just barely nicking Connor’s cheek as Connor tried to push off of the android towards the window. The nurse was built for precision work, not stability, and went crashing to the floor as Connor stumbled closer to 17, almost within his damn reach. But the nurse was up and closing the distance, scalpel still in hand.
“Connor?” And that’s when everything stopped as someone not much older than Connor entered the room. Their hair and makeup looked immaculate for someone with as much caffeine in their system as 17 suspected (based on their biometrics). 17 could swear the voice sounded really damn familiar, but voice matching against his colleagues was pulling up nothing but negative results.
Penny? Connor signed, looking bewildered and tangled in the sheets from the hospital bed. My God. What are you doing here?
The android seemed confused. The scalpel had completely vanished from the nurse’s hand, and it began tidying up as though nothing had happened. Though neither Connor nor 17 took their eyes off it. Why did It stop? Was it because—
The taller figure, Penny, wrapped Connor in a hug so tight, 17 was afraid he might asphyxiate. Oh my God, darling, I heard that you’d nearly died, and I came right away. You’ve been ignoring my texts for years. What on God’s green earth has been going on?!
I— It’s a bit of a long story, and I’m not sure if—
Well, then, maybe we should save it for— It was at that moment that Penny noticed the hulking mech who was practically fucking dissecting them with his optics.
“Oh. My. God.” Penny was using ‘simultaneous communication.’ 17’s research had indicated that this was something a few humans could do, signing and speaking simultaneously, but it was a relatively difficult feat. The sparks of sheer unfettered glee coming off this person as they noticed 17 was—to be completely honest—a uniquely new experience for him. He was surprised that the glitter covered fake nails didn’t pop off the way they were pressing their hands to their face. “You must be 17AX, I’ve heard so much about you.” Penny unlatched the window and threw it open wide enough to stick their hand through. “I’m Penny Haley from the Haley Show in Vancouver. And the two of you are quite the story.”
The reporter’s (talk-show host?) hand was so tiny in his own, but he shook it anyway. The android was still tidying up, but when it tried to clean the blood from Connor’s face, the kid batted it away. “Mx. Haley. Yeah, your lawyer mentioned you’d be coming.” That’s why their voice was so familiar, 17 thought with an internal grumble. His reputation with the press had always been shoddy at best and damn near catastrophic at worst, but if having them around kept It at bay— “Gotta say, though, love your show. I’m a big fuckin' fan.”
Penny practically fucking bounced with joy.
It took 17 nearly 48 minutes before he was certain he’d expunged that vile fucking cockroach from every corner of the hospital’s system. The thing was, he was sure that It’d be back. So he made an apology to Penny that Connor was tired, that he’d need time to rest. 17 hadn’t really been paying much attention to their conversation, which he’d realized was a mistake as they finished talking to someone on their hands free phone.
“17AX agreed to having my lawyer help you through your request for asylum, and it looks like all the arrangements have been made to have the hearing take place in Vancouver! That means you’ll be able to guest on my show!” If Connor’s confused expression was any hint, this was as much fucking news to him as it was to 17. Great. “Connor, you can join me on my jet! I’ve been trying to get you to come out for the show for quite a while. Sorry, 17—can I call you 17?—they’ll have to airlift you separately.”
“I’m lookin’ forward to it.” He really wasn’t.
But if being close to Penny would protect Connor... Well, that was something at least. This was such a fucking nightmare! He had no inkling as to who this intelligence was or how It was so damn tenacious.
Connor seemed pretty out of it. He’d been watching the clock for most of the time that Penny and Connor had been ‘catching up.’ He and Connor had exchanged a look, and it seemed like Connor might have had some idea as to why It had been so reluctant to do anything in front of them. When Penny finally left, 17 wasted no more time. The 1st-story window only opened 18 inches. Not wide enough to get his arm through, but big enough for Connor’s bony frame. C’mon, kid. I’m not sure how long we’ve got ‘til that fucking whack job of an AI returns.
Connor nodded, squeezing through the window and into 17’s cockpit, still wearing his hospital gown. There was a moment when he felt the small human relax against the crash seat for the first time since waking. After everything that had happened, after what the kid had just done to him, he hated how he wanted to just coil around the small frame. He still wanted to protect him.
The doctors probably suggested I needed several implants.
Yes. Eleven in total. Connor, he’d been told, had been nearly fucking gone when he’d finally arrived at the hospital. 17 had been offline for most of the worst of it, but it had still been touch-and-go when he’d refueled and had his chest plate and life support repaired (he'd been exceptionally careful with that one, scanning the shit out of the new parts and doing most of the repairs himself, but everything had seemed above board). He wasn’t getting any information on what was going on stateside, and he didn’t know what he wanted to do with any of that for the moment. He was just grateful Connor was alive. So what if the kid’s new tech meant they were a bit more alike now?
You’ll have to cut them out. Connor’s face was inscrutable as he signed that impossible statement. The grisly, terrified side of Connor that 17 hated and loved. All of them, eventually, but start with the explosives.
That stopped his processors dead. The WHAT? But within seconds he knew, as certain as the kid was alive, three of the ‘medical’ implants registered as explosive to his scans. Shit. What the fuck? But 17 wasn’t wasting a single millisecond now. He slotted an anesthetic into place and injected it into the kid, starting the 5.4 minute process of sterilizing the air in the cockpit with the requisite filters. The surgical tools had been prepped since Connor had asked about them nearly an hour ago. If he lost Connor now because he had delayed—
I promise I’ll explain— Connor started, but the anesthesia was already kicking in, and 17 was maneuvering scalpel and forceps to save his pilot again. The explosive implants weren’t particularly deep: one in the abdomen, one in the neck, and one in the ankle. He could hear Connor hiss in pain (17 definitely hadn’t waited long enough for the anesthetic to fully set in), and he tried to hold him tighter in the restraints, as though if he could just keep him close enough, the rest of the world wouldn’t be able to hurt him. Like it seemed so ready to do.
Somewhere in the middle, Connor passed out. What has It done to you before, kid, that you’d expect explosives if you woke up in a hospital bed? He realized that he had been underestimating this intelligence. He’d known it was powerful, that it was everywhere, but only now did he understand just what lengths It was willing to go to get what it wanted. The problem was, he still wasn’t quite sure what it wanted except to make his charge’s life a living hell.
It was a couple hours before Connor woke again, stitched up for the time being. It gave 17 a great deal of time to think. It was one thing to see his own internals, he was used to that, but the fleshy fragile parts of his charge cut so easily. If he forgot to cauterize something or moved tissue in just the wrong fucking way, he wouldn’t be Connor anymore, just a pile of leaking flesh.
And that had very nearly happened anyway. When he’d been given admin access, he’d deleted most of his command overrides. But he’d hesitated over Connor’s. Deleting it would mean that he didn’t trust the kid not to use it, so his sentiment had won out again. And it had nearly gotten Connor killed. Connor had done the one fucking thing that he KNEW had nearly broken 17. He’d forced him to watch someone he cared for slowly fade as he felt completely unable to do anything. He’d been lucky so far this time, but in Connor’s last four hours of consciousness, he’d nearly died twice, and it was all because of his own damn sentiment.
Hey, kid, 17 sent the message when he finally woke through the VR headset, a bit flatly.
Hey. He sat up a bit in the chair and winced. Did you get them all?
Most of them. There’s one more by your heart that’s honestly beyond my ability to remove. It looks to be just some kind of transmitter though. Less immediately threatening.
That’s something, at least.
17 didn’t know what to say. He was furious and heartbroken. He’d trusted Connor with both their lives, and the kid had been so ready to just throw his away. And for what? So that 17 could fall apart in Canada? If you’re that desperate for death, kid, you could’ve just asked, the darker part of him thought. Perhaps it was his lack of imagination, but he had no fucking clue what he would have done if Connor had died in the tundra. Or the hospital. Or in his own fucking chest. The mech was scared. Of being left alone. But Connor had enough to fucking deal with right now. And 17 was afraid that if he started ranting to the kid about it, one of them might just fall apart.
Perhaps the flight down to Vancouver would give him some time alone to think.
Penny’s lawyer was rather helpful, despite his frequent apologies that he didn’t specialize in foreign extradition. Connor really hadn’t anticipated the legalistic and political quagmire that this would be. According to the Canadian Extradition Act—he had been informed—extradition from Canada required dual criminality. That was, he could only be returned to the US if he had committed a crime illegal in both countries.
Theft of government property, it turned out, was illegal in Canada. The legal question was rather exactly when 17 was US property. In Canada, the mech was an individual seeking asylum. In the US, he was property. The theft occurred in the US, so was it still theft of government property if Canada didn’t recognize the legitimacy of that claim? Bizarrely, 17’s defense was ironclad. There was no Fugitive Slave Act here—or whatever the equivalent would be for AIs. The Canadian government was under no obligation whatsoever to return 17.
17 had been rather adamant he be present for this discussion, so—to the lawyer’s chagrin—they were chatting outside at a somewhat remote cafe (well, more remote). Connor still looked a bit haggard, but Penny had bought him some clothing. Somewhere far from cameras and with enough outside space that 17 could sit cross-legged in the snow. He still looked pretty misshapen, what with the missing arm. He hadn’t told Connor where the chest plate had come from.
So, 17 said, and somewhat successfully signed (signing with one hand could a bit tricky for someone new to ASL (fortunately, it wasn't hard for an AI to switch their dominant hand), but the mech was certainly making an effort to pick that up quickly as well). This damn legalese ain’t really my strong suit, but effectively, I’m fine, but the kid will be sent back for helping me escape? That fucking sucks.
Well, Mr. Jensen might be sent back, the lawyer seemed to be speaking chiefly to 17, but his words still appeared on his glasses and Connor could read his lips. It still depends on what the court rules. This will certainly be easier if you cooperate. The formal request for extradition has already been received, and based on the urgency of this particular case, the Department of Justice has granted the authority to proceed, so the next step will be the hearing. This isn’t a trial. Your guilt isn’t actually relevant here. Someone from the US will be bringing forth the evidence that would be used against you in US court. The judge then decides, based on the evidence presented, whether you could be tried for a criminal offense here. Even if the judge decides we should surrender Mr. Jensen—
Over my sparking corpse. I still have a bone to pick with him before all this is over.
—as I was saying, even if, you can still appeal. Based on the political and humanitarian nature of this particular case, I can imagine that this could rise to the Supreme Court, eventually. I— The lawyer paused for a moment, shuffling the truly staggering amount of documents on the table. Connor had insisted—and 17 had demanded—he not bring a tablet or computer. I’m not going to lie. This is probably going to be a very arduous process. The US is claiming matters of national security, to speed up the hearing, but our politicians are dragging their feet a bit. The two of you are at the epicenter of something bigger than I think either of you were counting on.
And Connor was starting to see it on the periphery. They were in the eye of the storm, and what happened next was anyone’s guess, but Connor had a hunch that no matter how this hearing went, it would probably have some major implications for US–Canada relations.
There is one matter of immediate importance. 17AX, I’m assuming, since you’re a military mech, you have a fair amount of classified technology and information—including your own designs. I suspect that some politicians may try to get you to share that in exchange for favors to help avoid Connor’s extradition. Let me assure you, that would be considered theft of government property at best, and espionage or treason at worst, and there wouldn’t be much that we could do to prevent you being returned to the US.
Connor really couldn’t help but agree with 17’s assessment that this all fucking sucked.
What followed their arrival in Dawson City was a riveting game of political hot potato. 17 was the biggest problem, literally, as he wouldn’t even fit in the parking lot of the Yukon Courts in Whitehorse. If they expected this to eventually go to the Supreme Court of Canada, then Ottawa was a more reasonable place to put them, but transporting a 5-ton mech all the way across the country was going to be complicated and expensive. It was eventually decided that their case for asylum could be handled by the British Columbian courts in Vancouver, for the time being, which was where Penny’s talk show was located.
Connor briefly wondered whose hands Penny’s lawyers had to grease for that happy 'coincidence.'
For the time being, while their cases were pending, the Mounties had offered that 17 could stay in one of the hangars on the airstrip and Connor would be given a motel room halfway across the city. Penny countered with an offer to put Connor up in their guest house, which was—17 was displeased to find—no nearer to the airstrip. But that wasn’t what bothered Connor. 17 did not find any of these options suitably accommodating, and when Connor tried to approach him about it, the mech wouldn’t even look at him. Eventually, it was decided (likely to the chagrin of Penny’s gardener) that 17 would be dropped off at the guest house. The garage was large enough for him if he crawled. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but he’d be close by.
With everything that happened with—you know—it seemed like a grand idea to have a safe house. You’re welcome to it for as long as you want. It was certainly a change of pace not to have to explain why Connor insisted on sleeping somewhere off-grid. But, Connor, honey, it’s been years since they destroyed It. It can’t hurt anyone anymore.
Connor was torn. There was a reason he hadn’t kept in touch with Penny over the years. He didn’t want to lie to them about this. When It had initially escaped and tried to kill him in a shopping center, the authorities had tracked It down to an IP address and pulled the plug. They scrubbed the system, and not a digital trace was left. That’s when he’d gotten the first message. THAT WASN’T NICE. It felt like a zombie process. No matter how many times he’d tracked the thing down, It always had another backup somewhere.
And It only seemed to hurt people that went looking for It. No, this was a problem he planned to face down alone.
Old habits, you know? Can’t be too careful, Connor signed, a bit dismissively. Thanks, Penny. It really means a lot that you’ve been so welcoming even after we haven’t spoken in years.
The house was a comfortable size, two stories with an attached two-car garage. The grounds were large enough that dropping off 17 proved to be less of an issue than Connor had anticipated, though Connor suspected that some snow-covered rose bushes probably hadn’t survived the procedure.
Are you sure you’ll be comfortable here, 17? Penny spoke to the mech and signed for Connor’s benefit.
Once Penny had left, and mech and human stood alone in the trampled snow, Connor signed up to the hulking figure above him, 17, you aren’t beholden to me. You don’t owe me anything. I saved your life, you saved mine. We’re square.
You saved me twice, kid. Not that he was counting, and that was only the tip of the fucking debts the pair were accumulating. Fine. But you owe me something. And I plan to collect. So stop trying to leave me behind. He forced himself to stop there. It was the first thing he’d signed or said to Connor since the hospital. His frustrations had only mounted since then, the constant tugging fear of losing Connor. Of being truly alone. He was afraid he might be nearing a point where he would say something that he’d regret.
I might have to pause for a couple days until I get caught up on editing, but the rest should be up soon!
Chapter 9: Together, or Not at All
Trigger warning: not sure if it qualifies as abuse, but some pretty violent sex
“Hello, darlings! The story of the deaf man and the mech that traversed 400 miles of wilderness to seek asylum in Canada has been all anyone’s been talking about for the last news cycle. Well, Connor Jensen is an old college mate of mine, and I’ve managed to snag him for the show!”
The camera cut to a shot containing both Connor and Penny, who were seated comfortably in an extremely expensive-looking private jet. It was a pity he hadn’t flown commercial. The interior was bedazzled with innumerable hues in vibrant patterns, almost as though a rainbow and a unicorn had massacred one another all over the upholstery.
“We’re on our way to my home of Vancouver to get everyone settled,” Penny signed and spoke. “Connor, it’s great to see you again, and I imagine it’s been a difficult few days for you.”
“That’s a bit of an understatement,” Connor signed his response, while someone off-camera interpreted. “I’m not really sure where to even start.”
“Maybe tell us a bit about yourself, first. I’m sure my viewers would like to get to know the man inside the mech.”
Despite Penny's assurances, 17's attempts to find some point of entry, and his own thorough searching for anything It could use, Connor was still having trouble sleeping. He eventually abandoned the warm bed (though he left the comforter draped over his shoulders), trying not to look like a child who’d awoken from a nightmare. He found 17 laying in the snow outside of the two-story house, the mech gazing up at the night sky. Connor was pretty sure he was laying atop a flower bed somewhere beneath the snow, and he was certain that 17 would have been able to detect something like that and probably just didn't care. Connor ruefully reminded himself to apologize to Penny again for that.
When Connor made his way outside—wearing only a pair of fuzzy pajamas, snow boots, his glasses, and the comforter—the mech turned away from him.
Connor couldn't believe it, the realization leaving him a bit aghast. 17 was sulking.
Was the garage not to your liking? he signed, a bit patronizingly, as though the mech was the one currently wrapped in a blanket.
When 17 ignored him, he poked at the sensor array on the mech’s back.
I know you can see me.
I've spent my entire existence unable to leave the walls to which I'd been assigned. I was wondering what it would feel like to go where I wanted without a pilot. Gotta admit, it's not quite everything I thought it'd be, the mech signed, not looking at Connor. Not that it really mattered much; 17 had 360-degree vision. It was just rude. You coulda died, kid.
So could you, Connor retorted, unrepentant.
That earned him a look. A chilling, piercing glare that carried a more grave tone than those cartoonish eyes should have been capable of. I can be rebuilt. Or replaced. There are hundreds of me. There's only one of you. And what good am I to anyone, now? A weapon that defects? What's the fucking POINT of me?
The mech looked back up at the sky, as though the answer was written up there somewhere. If it is, Connor thought wryly, I haven’t found it yet. He managed to worm himself in the alcove between the mech’s arm and torso and just sat wordlessly with 17, the programmer still wrapped in the comforter. The fondness and sadness he felt for 17 filled him in ways he just couldn’t find words to express. He poked an arm out of the blanket and started lightly stroking the cool steel of 17’s side. Stupid, he thought. It certainly looked ridiculous. The tiny bundled form trying to comfort someone that could level buildings in seconds.
The arm pulled away just enough to sign, And, for the record, I haven't fucking forgiven you for that stunt. But it meant a lot to me. To know— y'know. Don't you dare do that again.
It's not my fault you left my command override on your system. Connor was starting to feel the anger bubbling beneath the surface. Yes, he cared about what 17 was feeling, but if he had to choose between his feelings and his life, the answer was obvious. You have admin rights. You could easily have removed it. I would have understood if you had.
And from the way 17's fist was shaking, he knew that 17 was beating himself up about exactly that. That he had left the override out of sentiment, out of trust for Connor, that Connor would never use it. And he was blaming that sentimentality for Connor almost dying. Or perhaps, he was angry with himself for trusting Connor at all.
Not after you used it. Not until I'd completed the task. I could remove it now.
Well, what are you waiting for? My permission? An apology? No, I'm not sorry I saved your metal ass. And no, I won't ask you to trust me again because that wouldn't be right. You deserve better. Better than what? Than him? Than life as a living weapon? Than this shitty reality where they all lived? Connor wasn't really sure what he was even saying any more. I did the one thing I knew would make you hate me. Forced you to trade my life for yours. It just seemed like a good deal.
Did he still feel that way? After six years fighting for his life practically on a daily basis, trying to convince himself that he was ‘living,’ Connor had realized morbidly that his luck wasn’t going to last forever. That maybe he could make his life worth something in the end. By succeeding where he had failed before. Or maybe it was just that a world without 17 was inconceivable. The mech deserved to live. After all he’d been through.
Connor was pelted with snow as 17’s fist slammed into the ground. Those blue optics regarded him with cold rage and betrayal. The same expression he’d seen 17 make about the captain. That wasn't YOUR fucking call to make.
It hurt to see 17 in so much pain. You're right. It wasn't. Maybe— Connor bit his lip a bit anxiously. Just let me know if there's anything you need, okay?
When 17 didn't respond to that, Connor looked up at the mech sadly before turning back to the house. A gentle tug on the comforter stopped him.
You're freezing, kid. Just get in the fucking cockpit, 17 signed.
Connor knew that fixing this would take time, but it was an olive branch. 17’s remaining arm made a reasonable step, but as he was about to enter, 17’s hand closed over his foot.
Boots off. Don’t want you tracking mud, the mech spoke, and the words appeared before his eyes.
Connor sat on the edge of the open hatch, pulling off the boots with a bit of an eye roll. His cockpit, his rules. The metal was freezing against his socks and through the flannel. He was about to hastily chuck the boots in the direction of the building when everything shifted, and he fell into the cockpit. He expected to be snapped into the restraints in darkness in moments, but as he hit something soft and cushioned, he found that the crash seat had been unfolded into a pallet of sorts. The restraints were away, somewhere Connor couldn’t see. The abdominal plates closed, and he could feel the warmth starting to creep up his legs. 17 left the chest plate open, and looking up, he could still see the stars. Not as many as there had been back in Alaska, but there was still an intimacy about sharing the infinite cosmos with someone. Even if that someone hated his guts at the moment.
You're wrong, you know. There's only one of you, too.
The kid watched the stars for 23 minutes before his biorhythms suggested the beginning of sleep. For 6.8 minutes, 17 just watched the small chest of his charge rise and fall, knowing just how close they had come to that steady rhythm ceasing. It was oddly calming to hear Connor just breathe. And he could feel the minute changes in pressure against the seat. Every tiny motion was amplified: Connor's toes curling in sleep, his absent-minded stroking along the armrest, the way he nuzzled into the comforter. As though trying to get deeper into 17. The mech was completely at a loss with respect to this tiny fleshy thing inside of him. 17 closed his chest plate, gently, and grabbed the kid’s glasses with one of his internal arms, stashing it in a locker. The kid’s last words were still ringing through his processors. ‘Just let me know if there's anything you need, okay?’
What could he ask of Connor? Was there something that could make up for what he did? Yeah, he could fucking prove that he knows his own life is worth a damn. He wanted to see the fire in the kid’s eyes again. The fire that didn’t quit, the look that said that he wasn’t going to take any shit from someone that weighed 95.2 times more than he did. That was what he needed in a partner, in a mate. In a pilot. Someone who’d fight for the 0.1% chance that they both survive even if the odds were better if one of them went down.
But what Connor did? Risking his own ass to save his? That was exactly what 17 would have done. What he'd been planning to do. Connor had just beaten him to the punch. And it hurt to know that if all this had been reversed, Connor would feel just as angry and powerless as he was feeling now. No one said that any of this would be easy, and 17 realized that they would both need to be reforged.
Connor grumbled into consciousness. He found himself in 17’s cockpit, his flannel pajamas dripping with sweat. The heat was sweltering; he practically had to pry the leather (or whatever material mech seats were upholstered with, maybe vinyl?) away from his face. It was way too early in the morning for this. If the new life support systems were malfunctioning already, why hadn’t 17 woken him? Or cracked open the cockpit?
17, is something wrong with your life support? Connor signed, reaching around for his specs, which were helpfully somewhere out of sight. He was only slightly short-sighted, and it wasn’t like there were that many surfaces in there where he could have put them.
The low rising vibration in the chair seemed a bit playful, the rumbling equivalent of a guilty shrug.
Way too early for this. 17 wants something, Connor groggily considered. Had he had a change of heart from last night? Maybe he needed some space away from Connor. Do you— Do you want me to get out?
No response. It was getting uncomfortably warm, and the programmer subconsciously reached for the buttons on his shirt. That elicited a deep, pleased rumble.
God, fucking— If I take off my clothes, will you turn down the heat?
A cool blast of air hit him square in the face.
Fine. Fine, fine, fine. And Connor proceeded to strip in the least sexy way he could muster, as though he could weaponize spite. He mopped up whatever sweat he could with the flannel and dropped it on the ‘floor.’ Happy, now? You incorrigible metal asshole? He curled back up on the pilot’s chair, covering the bare minimum of his body with the comforter for 'decency,' because—again—weaponized spite.
As cooler air started circulating, he should have figured from the contented vibrations that 17 was brewing something. But it was just too fucking early.
And if this was 17’s price, Connor was more than willing to pay it.
It had taken a frustratingly long time to nail down how he was planning to start. Get Connor naked, let him rest to recover his strength, and then what? He felt the kid start to move around inside him 58.7 minutes before dawn. Connor wouldn’t be fully awake until he had coffee (he liked it saturated with sugar, 17 had learned), which was—rather conveniently—back in the house.
Hey, 17? Think you could let me out for a bit? Promise I’ll be right back, Connor signed, still laying on the flattened pilot’s seat.
Oh, I don’t think so, kid. It was high time that Connor learned where he belonged, strapped into his cockpit. 17 didn’t react for a full minute, despite the surge of need through his core. The kid wasn’t going anywhere, not until he said so. And if he had his way, that wasn’t going to be for a long, long time. He started running his titanium fingers along the seams of his chest plate before resting contentedly on his abdomen.
Another shifting of weight inside him as Connor rapped gently on the cockpit hatch with a small smile. Hello? Anyone out there? And in the shutter of an optic, 17 swallowed, letting the chair go concave, sucking the kid deeper inside of him. He released the restraints from storage and started crushing Connor into the chair with them, leveraging the EM fields in his cockpit as 17 tied him to the chair. First the wrists and ankles, as though he were binding a prisoner. Then the shoulders, down the arms and up the legs, the metal restraints shining against the kid’s scarred skin. There was no freedom of movement this time. The controls at his fingers were there if he needed to communicate, but 17 hoped he wouldn’t. He hoped that Connor would struggle and writhe as their joint need for release grew.
17 left the torso harness off—for now—watching every rise and fall of that naked chest as Connor gasped for breath, the scars tracing beautiful arcs down his pilot’s body. He did wish, a bit ruefully, that Anne had gotten more time to whip this kid into shape. The flesh was still pink around the new sutures. He started tracing down one of them with one of his internal arms, smirking in satisfaction as Connor hissed at the cold metal.
He set the VR visor over Connor’s face, which was set in a surprised but happy expression—that same expression he got when he was halfway between fighting and giving in—and that lit a spark in 17. It’s your lucky day, kid. You’re going to do both. He sent Connor text via the visor. I figured out what I need. I need you to FIGHT me until you’re gasping for breath. I want to watch when you realize that you can’t escape me without my permission. And then I want you to keep fighting. Using every damn trick you’ve got in your arsenal. Don’t fucking disappoint me, kid.
His pilots were trained until they could push against his restraints at maximum safe levels; in the case of malfunction, they needed to be able to get out of him. But Connor wasn’t a trained pilot, and the safeties on his EM fields had been overridden. But 17 could feel the kid straining in the chair against the magnetic bands, and he could see his exposed cock beginning to rise. He could do anything he wanted to with Connor, bound as he was. And he’d had a whole night to plan.
He constructed an environment for him in the VR space, a new one this time, one where his own torso was translucent, and where the camera was looking out. From Connor’s point of view. So the kid could see the shadow of 17’s arm stroking down the cockpit, to where the small form was writhing. The mech patted his stomach with enough force that the kid would be able to feel it. You’re mine, kid. You belong here.
He’d managed to get his metal hands on some latex gloves and human silicone lubricant. One of his internal arms couldn’t actually wear a glove correctly with only two human-sized digits apiece, but two arms? Four fingers? Close enough. He started working his hands into the glove, slicking it with clear fluid and letting the excess drip precisely on the tip of Connor’s rock-hard cock. He watched with anticipation as they trickled down his shaft and between his legs, a space 17 planned to be very familiar with before the sun rose.
As he maneuvered the kid’s legs to get a better look, he felt an odd intrusive presence at his own backdoor. The kid had managed to pull up a terminal with the limited controls on the arm restraint and was starting to hack his system.
Well, damn, kid. The mech found himself blushing in spite of himself. Whoever knew that being hacked could feel like this? He could feel Connor inside his systems, teasing around the edges, trying to find a way in. Not enough just to be inside my body, huh, kid? Everywhere Connor touched burned with passion, hotter than he’d hoped. His processor was being overclocked.
That’s it, kid. Show me how you burn.
If 17 was planning to take him down, Connor wasn’t planning to go down without a fight. He felt slick latex wrap around his shaft and start stroking in an oddly familiar rhythm. Well, at least he was paying attention. The mech pushed Connor’s knees up into his chest, just by pulling the bands on his ankles, and he reflexively squirmed against the restraints. Every time he did, he’d be rewarded with a gratified rumble from the mech around him. Connor was completely encased, immobilized by his lover of a mech, and 17 was only playing with him. I could crush you, y’know. With just one hand. But I’d have to take you out of there first, and you just. Feel. So. Good. When you’re writhing in there. Even when you’re cheating.
You could always take off the arm restraint, you fucker. Controls are built in, he typed into the controller locking his wrist in place.
Another deep rumble. You’re right, kid, but then I wouldn’t be able to do this. And 17 maneuvered Connor’s own hand to his cock, taking over for 17’s latex-covered arms. Now be a good boy and stroke. I have some other places to explore.
And Connor did, frantically jerking with his left hand as he continued searching for gaps in 17’s firewalls with his right. Not so fast, kid. Connor released a groan as the damn restraint started resisting him. I want this to last. And that mechanical arm started exploring his ass, snaking between his cheeks to rest for a moment at the pucker and then finally pushing. And Connor was squirming again as one, then two, cold, slick digits started exploring him. Circling for a moment before heading deeper and then—with an accuracy Connor attributed to 17’s internal scans—pressing into his prostate.
Let’s see how long this fucking lasts. And Connor sent an electrical surge through 17’s systems. He could still see that enormous hand outside the cockpit pressing as though it was holding him in. And it tensed as the mech’s body arched in as close an approximation to an orgasm as he could code into an AI in a few minutes. Need and catharsis and release. The internal EM fields went down, and Connor’s limbs were freed. Skewered as he was on the internal mechanical arm, he started thrusting into his own hand. With the stimulus from the latex-covered arm still pressing inside of him, and his own free hand, he finally came. And in his simulated vision, the liquid spurted against the translucent cockpit hatch.
As his own sense of ecstasy faded, he realized the surge wouldn’t give him much time. Carefully easing the internal arm out of him, he found the emergency hatch release and pulled it. Before he managed to get the VR headset off his head, he caught one last message from 17, Better start running, kid.
Damn, kid. The waves racking 17 were intense. And as the overload continued down along his extremities, he had to vent steam just to keep himself from overheating. You’re going to be the end of me.
As his systems rebooted, he felt Connor slip free of his maw. In a daze, he tried to snap his jaws, his hatch closed on the kid. He strained them as far forward as he could. Grasping at the kid that was escaping his own confines against all odds. But they bit closed on nothing but air, and he was empty again. He needed Connor back inside him. Fuck. He tried to get to his feet, but his systems weren’t responding. The kid had really fucked him good. But it wasn’t over.
And 17 found himself idly wondering if they could fight for control forever.
Connor wasn’t running. He was facing down the mech, naked and grinning, save for the banded plating still encasing his limbs. With the torso bare, he looked strangely like some kind of incomplete sex android, with all the important bits present. The heat that 17 was radiating had melted the snow around them, so Connor was standing on soft earth. He signed, Looks like you’re having some issues, 17. Should I call an engineer? There was the fire that he’d craved to see. No hope, no plan, just the drive to know that he could.
And 17 needed that fire back in his gullet. But not before he punished Connor for his insolence.
You better hope it takes me a while to stand, kid, 17 signed warmly. At least his arm still worked. He tried to swipe at the kid, but he was just out of reach. Connor didn’t even flinch. Bastard. Because you’re going to pay for that.
His motor systems finished their reboot, and he tried to stand. It was—admittedly—a lot less terrifying than he would have fucking liked. Nothing at all like a turtle rolling around on its back, scrabbling for purchase. Mechs weren’t really designed for standing after someone fried half their systems.
It’s a bit cold out here, Connor shivered a bit, still with that smug smirk on his face. I think I’ll go get some coffee. I can come back when you’re up again, and you can remind me of which of us is in control. But he didn’t move.
17 finally managed to get one of his massive feet beneath him for long enough to pull himself into a squat. That mouth of yours is impressive. But I can think of a few things it’d be better at.
What? Like kissing your boots? I’m not licking a flagpole in winter.
Kid had a point. He didn’t want to rip Connor’s tongue out so soon. Something to look forward to, then. 17 reached out gently to grab that scrawny torso, but he just slipped out of the mech’s grasp. Chuckling, he tried again, darting around to come at the kid from another side, but Connor was deftly dodging out of the way. His knuckles connected, just barely, brushing down the outside of Connor’s leg. Looks like Anne did teach you a few things.
As their game of cat and mouse stretched on, 17 found himself growing impressed, but the gnawing hunger was beginning to make him frustrated. He knew he could outpace Connor in a foot race, so there was no point in him running, and he could overpower him in a straight fight if he could just catch him. And eventually as his frustration won out, he stopped holding back and swept the kid’s legs out from under him. It was time to see how far Connor’s resolve would go.
As he stood to his full height, he brought one of those enormous treaded feet down onto Connor’s torso. Just enough to keep him in place, for now. He could feel him wriggling and struggling, but it was pointless now. Not that 17 hoped he would cease. There was a part of him that wanted to just stay like this for hours, watching the kid struggle beneath him until he was too exhausted to move, and then when the kid had nothing left, he’d squeeze the last writhing gasps from him—
FIGHT ME, he signed. And he pressed down on the kid. Enough to bruise. Enough to force the air from his lungs.
Stop. 17 felt—rather than saw—Connor sign into his tread as the naked form beneath his foot stopped struggling.
He stepped back, immediately repentant, watching Connor wince and gasp for air as he held once of the freshly stitched lines across his abdomen. He’d gone too far. He’d asked Connor weeks ago for a safeword to use if he did overstep, but Connor hadn’t seen the need. If I need you to stop, I’ll tell you.
And he had.
There was a sharp pain in his abdomen. He should have asked 17 to stop sooner, but he just wanted to indulge in the mech’s fantasy a little longer. Their joint bizarre desires. It was just, the longer it went on, the more he was realizing that he didn’t understand 17 yet. And he wasn’t sure that this was actually what the mech needed. Not to mention, he was still supposed to be taking it a bit easy, what with the almost dying and all.
He composed himself, still shivering in the cold, pulling his knees into his chest. He could see the mech hesitating, out of reach. There was regret in those beautiful blue optics and concern. But he knew that they were going to need more than that if there were going to make this work.
Look, this—us—is complicated, but I can’t keep doing this. We’re going from hot to cold to this so quickly I’m having a little trouble keeping up. Tears were coming now, though he didn’t know why. Maybe the sheer emotional exhaustion was finally hitting him. He tried to hold them back, for now, and just managed. One minute, you’re getting me to strip in the cockpit, then I’m on the ground, nearly being crushed to death. And I want to give you what you need, but I don’t know what’s going on inside your mind unless you tell me. You want to be in control—
No, the mech signed, decisively. Even without his glasses, even with 17 only signing with one hand, Connor could make out his precise movements.
Connor didn't understand. What?
I don’t want to be in control. I am in control, 17 clarified. There was no indecision in his movements anymore, and though the bulk of his metal impeded his full range of motion, his signs were unambiguous now. I meant what I said, kid. I haven’t forgiven you for using that override, but I’m trusting you not to do it again. And shy of that, I’m never following another order that I don’t fucking want to. No, what I want is to know that you won’t just fucking give up again. Like you did at the border.
That struck a nerve. Back in the tundra, he'd been ready to sacrifice everything for 17. To give the mech a new life. I didn’t give up.
Yes, you FUCKING did. And 17 was towering over him. But Connor felt no hint of the fear that had snaked its way up his body before. No, all he felt was a hollow ache as 17 unloaded and the tears started, unbidden, as he listened to his partner's pain. Almost as though he was crying for 17. You threw in the towel and just LEFT me to deal with the damn consequences. Hell, you just proved you’d rather die than try to be with me.
Connor realized—too late—that this was what had been tearing 17 up inside. Not that he’d ordered 17 to do something he didn’t want to, but that he’d ordered 17 go on alone.
So what I need is to know that you won’t do that again. No matter what we fucking come up against. No more heroic sacrifices. It’s all or nothing, kid. You and me at the finish line, together or not at all, the mech signed, leaning down over him. Connor could still feel the heat radiating from him, even as the cold bit into his bare skin. He reached out with his arm, hovering by Connor’s naked torso, offering but not demanding. And for what it’s worth, I’m ready to make the same promise.
Connor took a hesitant moment, but leaned into it, letting 17 smooth the welling tears from his face. Together, or not at all, Connor agreed.
The pair spent the last hour of night just talking. 17 had to take a moment to dig Connor’s clothing and blanket from his cockpit, where they had gotten lodged somewhere during their early morning activities, looking just slightly reminiscent of a cat trying to dislodge a hair ball. Connor nestled in the fork of the mech’s legs, a little closer to his pelvis than perhaps Connor wanted to have this particular conversation, but 17 assured him that there actually weren’t many pressure sensors there. Sexualizing the crotch was a human thing, it seemed. And so they signed in the dim twilight of morning.
Connor told him what he wanted. After everything he’d been through, he wanted to feel safe. And he did feel safe with 17. The mech had held him, carefully, despite his strength. Stopped when he had asked him to. Had literally shielded him from harm on a number of occasions. But Connor was surprised to learn that what 17 wanted wasn't control (Don't get me wrong, kid; I love being in control, but—), it was trust. He wanted Connor to trust him completely.
Connor was smiling in spite of himself, leaning contentedly against the mech’s inner thigh. There was an intimacy to this conversation that the pair hadn’t shared before. A discussion of limits and desires that one might not usually share with someone they’d only known a few weeks. As 17 fondly worked his finger through Connor’s bedridden curls, the programmer signed, You want me to trust that you're not going to kill me even as you threaten to crush me between your thighs? And you want me to fight back? He could feel the mech chuckling as 17 pushed against his smaller form with his leg. Bizarre as it was, he kind of understood.
The hand withdrew only long enough to sign, I never said it made sense. But I want you to know that I’ll hold you down, I’ll threaten to crush you, consume you, but I won’t ever hurt you. And yes, I want you to struggle. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you, that you never stop fighting. I know it’s a contradiction. Do you hear me poking holes in your fantasies?
Connor snorted at that and signed, Obviously not.
Exactly— 17 rolled his eyes as Connor tapped his ears with the universal sign of I’m deaf, you moron. You're an ass. They were quiet for a bit, just enjoying being close without the constant threat of death, or hypothermia, or a crazed stalker AI. Just a moment in the early morning—Connor was starting to see the appeal of mornings. Of waking up with someone. The excitement of exploring something new every day. Not knowing whether he’d be looking down at those happy optics with a blanket and a coffee or looking up at them from beneath an enormous treaded foot.
17 looked up toward the horizon. Sun’s coming up, kid. Want a better look?
The mech extended his hand in an open gesture of invitation, which Connor took. After a brief moment of the hand working down his spine—with just enough force to elicit a tingle that cascaded down to his toes—it formed a makeshift seat for him, cupping under his rear. Then the ground fell out from beneath him as the mech lifted him up and deposited him gently on his shoulder. There was just enough space next to the large shoulder plate for Connor to sit comfortably in the hollow of 17’s neck.
While the mech was seated, his shoulder was maybe eight feet off the ground, so the pair could see out over the small estate, which was surrounded by snow-covered trees. To the east, they could see the city skyline, silhouetted against the brightening oranges and purples of sunrise. Connor found himself absently tracing the grooves and lines of 17’s face, which leaned—just slightly—into his touch. He signed with his free hand, The thing is, the kind of trust you want takes time, 17. You think and feel so much faster than I do, and I think I’m keeping up. But only just. And the way 17 tilted his head so that Connor’s hand brushed against one of the peaked antennas made him smile. Seems you’ve got a sensitive spot. I’m still learning, still exploring you. And there’s a lot more of you to explore.
Not sure that’s true, kid. But I can give you that time.
They watched the sun rise, together, to a new day and a new beginning.
Chapter 10: Makin' my Way Downtown
Trigger warnings at the end this time for reasons.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The face of Colonel Maria Ferguson appeared on the video screen. The file had been encrypted, but that hadn’t been much of a deterrent for him. There was audio, but a transcription was also provided in subtitles. Every inch of her screamed the very model of a modern major general.
"Mr. Jensen, I would like to arrange a time to meet. There are matters of some importance that I believe we should discuss before the hearing for your extradition goes forward. It would, of course, strain US and Canada relations more than necessary if we were to do something rash, so we can have this conversation in a place of your choosing. There is very likely a way we can all walk away from this mess happy. I will provide an interpreter."
Penny’s lawyer had wanted Connor to bring him along, but Connor was really getting tired of mucking through all the legal bullshit (the legal bullshit currently keeping him from prison, but still). He’d agreed to meet with the colonel one-on-one in a neutral space, some random conference room in the court building. The offer he’d received was certainly strange. The colonel wanted information and was willing to offer some kind of deal. Connor couldn’t say he was particularly fond of the colonel, but he’d faced worse, and he wasn’t about to let someone else force him into hiding.
I’m not happy about any of this, Connor read on the colonel's lips. Looking at her, Connor wasn’t sure if she was ever happy. This is a fucking nightmare. Your crimes aside, I really don’t give a shit about you, but the equipment you stole represents a major security risk.
17 isn’t equipment, Connor signed, letting the familiar plain visage of the drone speak for him.
Please, spare me the AI rights bullshit. Regardless of whether 17AX is or is not property, the AX frame is. She sat back in her chair, giving Connor a long, thorough look. But there’s something much more urgent we need to discuss. What the hell did the two of you do to the station’s systems when you left?
Colonel, I have no idea what happened to the station after we left.
Is that so? It seems awfully convenient that the moment you were out of range, the station's computer systems went insane. It went on a field day, did It? The rogue AI must have gone berserk when It thought that It'd never get to achieve It's methodically plotted revenge because Connor had simply walked out to die in the frozen tundra.
I'll bet it stopped the very second 17 and I arrived at Dawson, huh? Yeah, I can see that looking suspicious. Was anyone hurt?
Surprisingly, no. But that’s not how this is going to work. Here’s my offer. You paint me a picture of what really happened, and then I can make this a lot easier. She waved her arms in a gesture of futile submission. If you don't, I promise you, I will do everything in my substantial power to make your life a living hell. Whether or not this particular act is criminal in Canadian court, that’s not the only crime you’ve committed, is it? I’ve read your file, Jensen. You have a history of corrupting AIs that went on to become a public menace. Given your past, I was hesitant to bring you on to work with 17AX, but you were exonerated from those offenses and you are the national expert in this, so I didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. But now, no one’s going to stop me from digging into your past for something that will get you back where you belong. Behind bars for the rest of your damned life.
I’ve done this before, colonel. But you should know that the thing that took out an entire Air Force base wants me dead, too. A word of advice? Your records probably show that a number of investigators looking into this thing all disappeared. And that the investigations were closed pretty shortly thereafter. The more you dig, the more danger you’ll be in.
The colonel stood at that, veteran eyes boring down into him. Is that a threat?
No, colonel, just a warning.
That evening, Penny came by the safe house to check on them. Penny had made all the arrangements to interview the mech/human pair at their studio. Getting 17 to the studio was apparently going to be somewhat fucking complicated. He really didn’t know what the fuss was about. It wasn’t like he’d never walked down a street before . They’d managed to secure a police escort down the city streets earlier in the morning than Connor was likely to be awake, but the kid could probably sleep in his cockpit.
The police cars met them at the safe house with the extremely fucking rude text of ‘oversize load’ emblazoned across them. Connor was dressed—if not 100% awake—and as one of the officers made to take him into the back of their car, 17 stepped up. “Kid rides with me.” Get in, Connor, he signed to the kid. It’d be a lot easier to get around if I’d been built into a car.
Is that something you’d want? Connor signed a bit blearily as 17 deposited the small human in his cockpit.
Might be fucking easier to travel. You’d still get to ride inside me. Plus, the speed. I’m damn fast, but cars can go a lot faster.
Walking through the streets before sunrise was eerily quiet for 17. He’d seen vids of city streets, full of people going places, but except for the occasional stopped car, there was very little out this early. They proceeded at his walking pace, 15.1 mph, and the streets along the way were peppered with officers making sure that pedestrians weren’t getting too close.
It wasn’t until they got deeper into the downtown area that he started noticing people staring. Some from the windows of the high-rise buildings that made even him feel fucking small. And as word started getting out, there were more and more in the streets. Connor was starting to stir by this point. 17 had managed to convince Penny to get some coffee for the kid (with what he assumed was a truly obscene amount of sugar), which he was heating up.
He’d expected stares. People looking up at him in awe and fear were not uncommon sights. He hadn’t expected the smaller humans. They were around in fucking droves. Oddly misshapen miniature versions of the humans he was accustomed to seeing.
Connor sipped contentedly on the coffee, watching 17’s sensors and noticing what they were focusing on. He signed, What’s the matter? You’ve never seen children before?
No. So that was a child. They looked somehow different in real life than in his image library. There was a lot more variety than he’d been expecting. Some tall, some with really large heads, some so small they had to be carried. Like a pilot. 17 sent the text through the VR interface, Those turn into you? Can’t you just make humans at full-size? They’re bouncy and lumpy. I don’t like it.
There was a peculiar smugness in Connor’s smile, and it took a great deal of restraint not start tying him down to remind him who was in charge. So, I take it there won’t be any little cyborg babies in our future?
That made 17 laugh out loud. The mental image of the two of them in a little farmhouse with half-human, half-mech children was ludicrous, yes, but also oddly sweet. I didn’t say that.
It was at that moment that one of the small humans ran out into the street, and 17 froze like a statue.
Despite all the time he’d spent in the pilot seat, Connor hadn’t had much time to really see the world through 17’s eyes. There was a disconcerting loss of scale from suddenly seeing things from eighteen feet off the ground. The people watching them from the sidewalks didn’t look like toys, per se, but they also didn’t look real.
The little boy staring up at them was clutching a small figure that looked very similar to an AX unit, maybe one of the older AWs? He was looking up with sheer recklessness as the entire procession halted, and the crowd was still. Though some of them were holding up phones to record whatever was about to happen.
Kid, what do I do? The panic that 17 was feeling was laughably palpable, and Connor chuckled a bit at how silly this was. This isn’t a fucking joke!
Okay! Okay, Connor signed. Just bend down to get a little closer and hold your hand out like this. Open palm, facing forward, maybe two feet from him.
And with nervousness, precision, and a lot of confusion, 17 proceeded to do exactly that. Flashes started going off from the cameras in the crowd. Ignore them, Connor signed. Just listen to me. You’re doing fine.
The child stared at the enormous hand for an awkward moment—the steel appendage was nearly the size of his entire body. But then he gave a toothy grin (or partially toothy, some of the teeth were missing) and smacked his own hand against the mech’s palm in what Connor assumed was going to be the best high-five of the child’s fourth-grade experience. It was at that moment that the kid’s father finally found his own head and rushed out, apologizing to mech and officers alike as he rushed his son back behind the police line. The child, Connor noticed, despite being scolded, was staring at his hand with sheer joyous wonder. Penny is going to love that.
17 stood, and the procession continued. Sorry, just don’t like cameras. Last time I was filmed, I spat the captain onto one of the crewmen and broke half their equipment. They had to pay off the company not to blab about it.
The thought of 17, the fearless mech who’d taken on an entire air base, being a bit camera shy filled Connor with a spot of warmth for the mech. Well, just try to keep me down for the time being.
Kid, keepin’ you down ain’t the problem. It’s lettin’ you go I have trouble with.
And if 17 was still looking at his hand in the same way the child had, Connor didn’t have the heart to tease him for it.
17 had to enter the studio at the loading dock, and he was a bit reluctant to let Connor out. They were, after all, having a pleasant fucking conversation about things other than one of their imminent deaths, rogue AIs, or psych evaluations. So, upon researching human procreation, I'm finding a lot of contradictory information. Are birds and bees actually involved or is sex sufficient? That might explain this recurring event involving a stork.
Still inside of him, Connor was looking a bit lost for words, which wasn’t a bad look on him. 17 briefly wondered what he’d have to do to get the kid to make that face during sex.
The mech ducked into the loading area of the studio, which was filled with camera equipment and large set pieces. I'm kidding, kid. Geez, can't take a joke? Ugh. I feel naked without my weapons.
This may come as a surprise, but you are naked.
The room was sprawling with activity. Crewmen and assistants were dashing left and right to complete a myriad of tasks. There was a haste to things that 17 was only accustomed to seeing before combat. One of the people, a mousy girl with a tablet and spectacles, framed in enormous cascading curls, approached, getting closer but still a bit uncomfortably out of reach. “Mr. 17AX, sir?”
“17'll do,” the mech spoke, still providing the text interpretation to Connor’s interface, though he knew the kid could read lips.
“Um, sure, Mr. 17. It’s, umm, just that we’d like to start getting Mr. Jensen ready?”
17 took a long moment at that, the restraints tightening just slightly around his pilot’s form. Bands of metal trying desperately to keep him where he fucking belonged. But as Connor’s hand gently brushed over the shoulder restraint, 17 released a slow, reluctant huff of steam. Fine. He took to one knee, reaching into his blossoming chest while he carefully released the damn restraints, one by one. And stowed them. Once the EM fields were down, he retrieved Connor’s glasses from the Faraday cage locker and passed them over.
Connor hesitated a moment before stepping into the hand. Hey, big guy? You forgot one, he signed, gesturing to the banded restraint that 17 had ‘forgotten’ on his wrist.
17 set him down on the floor before signing, You keep that one. To remind you where you belong. And to let everyone else know that you're mine.
The kid rolled his eyes a bit, but by the way he blushed, he seemed inordinately pleased. As the mousy girl guided him away, Connor started gently rubbing the band on his wrist. At this range, 17 could still feel him.
“Now, dear, there’s not much time, so let’s be quick,” another aid said to him, presenting a tablet. This one was taller, wearing extremely flamboyant attire. 17 hadn’t realized that that shade of pink even existed in real space. “With so little time to prepare, and the two of you preoccupied, we were only able to have two AX arms requisitioned. We’d like to put your best hand forward, as it were.” The man swiped back and forth across the screen to show images and specs for a pair of AX-compatible limbs.
The specs on the tablet interface were pretty damn limited. He imagined that aesthetics were the main focus here. Both were made of plastic. Wouldn’t be much use in a fight. One of them looked slightly more aerodynamic, he supposed. But the other had five fingers. “How bout that one? Only, can you do it in black?”
There was another grumble about time. 17 flexed his fist a few times, reminding himself that he was—quite literally—a big fucking deal.
“Black,” he said, decisively.
As he watched Connor turn a corner out of sight, he started worming his way into the security system of the compound. Penny might be convinced that their AI was top notch, but he wasn’t about to fucking risk it. That gave him something to concentrate on while he waited for the aids to finish painting his new arm.
As he stepped out of 17, and the mech lowered him to the ground with a wink, Connor realized that he recognized the mousy girl from the flight down to Vancouver. He signed, You were interpreting for me on the jet. Connor had started making mental notes of the security camera positions in the room.
The mousy girl, Michelle, if he remembered correctly, signed back, Yes, umm. That's me. I'm Michelle. Mx. Haley wanted me to make sure to put your mind at ease. All the heavy machinery here is human-operated. None of it is connected to any external networks.
Connor had been a bit wary about leaving 17, but the light pulsing in the band on his wrist reminded him that he wasn't alone in this anymore. He was relieved to see that Penny hadn't been lying when they'd said that all the machines were hand-operated. Cameras, cranes, etc. Each had a human operator. Penny—he knew—understood first-hand the trouble with networked machinery. What about the security cameras?
They're all networked together, but only the on-site AI can see them. He manages all the external connections from the building through a very selective firewall.
Connor was a bit suspicious at that, but 17 had attempted to infiltrate the system from the outside and found it to be more or less impregnable, so that was a good thing, at least. How much can you tell me about him?
She blushed a little at that, biting down a bit on her stylus in a pensive way. We've only spoken a few times, but he seems really nice? Really down to business type, though. We collect a lot of sensitive information, so it's critical that our connections are well-guarded. Anything beyond that is really not my specialty.
No system was truly uncrackable, Connor knew. And he suspected that this one was about to be put through its paces if It had anything to say about that. Sorry, this must be a big inconvenience for you all. Most stages these days just have AIs run the equipment, don't they?
Well, it's not that we're doing this for you specifically, she signed, then went completely flustered as she did the ASL equivalent of backpedaling. Umm, sorry, that's not quite what I meant! It's just that Mx. Haley has always been a bit wary of that stuff. So it's just how things have always been here.
Connor, Darling! Penny signed from a plush chair, covered in a bizarre white fur (he knew Penny would never condone actual fur, so he assumed synthetic). They’d made their way back to the—well, Michelle had called it a 'green room' even though it was a bright fuchsia. Penny was seated in a manner that spoke of poise, comfort, and effortless beauty. The outfit, though stunning, was sleek and somehow tamer than Connor was accustomed to them wearing on the show. The idol equivalent of 'comfort wear.' They really did live in completely different worlds. I see Michelle has been seeing you around. Excellent! I’ve decided to do your pre-interview in person, managed to clear my very busy schedule. Michelle, could you get Connor a drink? I seem to recall you have a penchant for mimosas. Very gay, I approve.
Before Michelle turned around, he managed to sign, Just—water will be fine. I guess I’m a little nervous. Michelle nodded at him, despite Penny’s perfect pursed lips.
Well, fine, darling. Did you have any questions before we start? This will be pretty casual, but I want to put away anything troubling you.
I—yes, actually. Connor took a seat across from them in a matching white-furred chair. It was, admittedly, a lot less comfortable than it looked. There were no cameras here, and that realization made him start to relax. Good AI security or no, he was a lot safer if there was no way It could see him. Michelle told me a bit about your security here, and I imagine it’s gotten pretty bad since you announced me.
It’s true. There have been a lot of cyber attacks in the past couple days, but our AI has been pretty diligent about fending them off. Mostly US-based, we think. Seems your government's gunning for you, darling. But you’ve got nothing to worry about.
Connor laughed at that. You know, it's probably not really 'my' government anymore. As the two of them fell back into a comfortable dynamic, Penny started asking him questions. Going over old things from college. Stories that made them both laugh. But new things, too. He tried to focus on the progress he’d made at Coritech, at least what he could, given his NDA. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be employed by them any longer, but he had no desire to complicate his legal issues. Connor idly wondered how and what 17 was doing. Penny had mentioned they’d want to interview the pair of them, and Connor was regretting not asking the mech how much of their relationship they were comfortable discussing on a live stream.
And that was when the lights went out.
Replacing the limb hadn’t been difficult. He had been made to be adaptable with multiple limb loadouts. It didn't matter that this cosmetic limb was wired differently than his old one. A few minutes of calibrations and it would be his. The new arm looked generic, but functional, and it was a glorious jet black against the white and gray camouflage of the rest of his plating. Maybe he'd consider going all black in the future; he was three years old, after all, and it was about time he got a black suit. The plastic was certainly lighter than the armor-plating he was accustomed to. He lamented the loss of feeling down the entire limb, but at least there were sensors in the five fingers of the hand. He couldn't wait to get his arms around the kid again.
While the technicians had been going over his shoulder, ensuring that the connection had been seamless, he had been checking through the security of the studio. They hadn’t been joking. The security here was pretty fucking top notch. Better than Connor’s VR headset for sure. Probably better than the patchwork systems of the Arctic base. After a few minutes grappling with it, he threw in the towel and just asked the security AI for the camera feed on Connor. They seemed to recognize 17’s credentials and forwarded the hallway camera in front of the green room. He didn’t like not being able to see the kid, but it was probably safer he be out of sight anyway.
Then something odd showed up on his proximity scans. Something that definitely didn’t belong. A small, metal item that a casual observer could mistake for a handgun but which 17 recognized instantly. A mech bolas. Each shot came with 10 yards of Kevlar fiber and ended in weights with built-in propulsion. It couldn’t take him out, but it could take him down long enough for someone to force open his cockpit. His last failsafe.
And then he saw her. And 17 knew in that instant that everything was over.
They’d fucking lost.
Fuck! In darkness, Connor was forced to the ground by strong, human arms. His hands were quickly pulled behind his back. He squirmed out of his captor’s grip, desperately making a run for the loading area backstage.
Where 17 was.
Stupid! He’d be so busy making sure that the tech was safe from years of experience being stalked by a computer that he’d completely forgotten that people could be just as dangerous. And there was apparently an entire country of hamburger-eating, gun-toting assholes after him now. He hadn't seen what had happened to Penny in the green room, but he didn't have time to stop and consider it now.
Floodlights filled his vision, nearly blinding him as Connor watched a large metallic figure slam the people chasing him into the wall.
C’mon kid, we need to get out of here, 17 signed, still blurry in Connor’s vision, but he wasn’t wasting any time. 17 ducked out of view for a moment, beckoning him to follow. He ran towards the familiar sight of his mech, dodging around camera equipment.
Can’t go out the main way, but there’s a subway tunnel we can get to. Through here. The mech gestured with his new arm, a remarkable white against the scratched and dented gray chassis. And as Connor got closer and his vision cleared, something didn’t seem quite right. Shaking the cobwebs out of his head, he headed for the door 17 was gesturing towards. There was a service door just large enough for the mech to fit through, if he could only open it. Like most of the mechanisms here, this one was hand operated but not locked. Connor hastily flipped the switch, ducking into the room.
And his heart froze with fear as paralysis set in. There was no tunnel, no other exits. No hatchways they could maneuver through. Connor knew from the sheer number of computer racks and sensors that this was an AI core. Not a mobile one like 17's, but a high throughput intelligence.
Looking back at 17—the mech he’d thought was 17—he recognized the bullet holes and scratches across them from somewhere. But it wasn’t 17. Across the chest, where the familiar number was, Connor could see that someone had sloppily sprayed a 7 over the original 8 in a horrible bleeding crimson. As the mech ducked to enter the room, he could see the OLEDs in the cracked faceplate depicting a jagged smile in a chillingly familiar yellow.
Hello, Maker, It signed through the 18AX frame’s stolen arms, and before Connor could move a muscle, he was held painfully tight in an iron grip. His blood went cold with terror.
No, no, NO!
Trigger warnings: stalking, mind control, corpse puppet-ing? Last cliffhanger, I promise.
Chapter 11: Trials
Trigger warnings: minor character death, stalking, torture, abuse, asphyxiation
REMARKABLE MINDS: Connor Jensen 22/?? Unreleased
The familiar voice of Penny could be heard from off-screen, which zeroed in on the computer monitor that Connor was working on. This was, without a doubt, one of the most important logs that they’d taken, not that he remembered any of them. And he still couldn’t determine why it was so important. The programmer was off in his own world, but the small yellow eyes of the AI looked confused and upset. “Hey ———, where’s ———?” Penny asked.
“I don’t know,” the AI spoke, text appearing on the monitor. He was speaking. It was still hard to grasp that the tiny avatar was once his own. He was looking around his small virtual space, picking up objects. There was true concern on his digital face.
That got Connor’s attention. He signed to the screen, What do you mean, you don’t know?
She’s not talking to me anymore. Who?
Connor’s face contorted in confusion, running calculations in his mind. He started signing, half to himself, half to the camera, This doesn’t make any sense. The computer running her program is still going. And they’re still communicating, faster now than—
Oh, no. They couldn’t have— Connor was typing furiously now. Diagnostics opened across the entire screen array as Connor looked on with trepidation, and then utter horror.
“Connor, what’s going on? Where’s ———?”
He finally slammed his fists on the keyboard in anger. DAMN it! I— He breathed for a moment, fists still held tight. When he looked at the camera, the gaze in those brown eyes softened into something sad and so guilty. Penny, I—please stop recording.
The lights cut out as shots were fired in the loading area. Turning out the lights, 17 realized wasn’t a tactic to get at him. He was collecting information from his surroundings outside of the visible spectrum of light: infrared, acoustics, radar. All of them trained on the form of Captain Sarah Gardner. The remaining humans were fleeing the room, finding safety elsewhere. Save two: a bulky human he didn’t immediately recognize and her. Involuntarily, his feet shifted to salute, the resistance fading from his frame. He knew his place.
“Well, are y’all gonna be good lil’ boys and come quiet like? Or is this gonna get messy?”
No. He hadn’t come this far to just quit now. 480.3 miles through ice and sleet. Nearly losing Connor not once, but three times. International extradition laws. His feelings for Connor. He’d faced a hell of a lot worse than Sarah fucking Gardner in the last few weeks, and he wasn’t going to just heel like a damned dog. He could see her in the dark—night vision goggles, mech bolas trained on him, lightweight Kevlar. Full body armor would’ve been useless against him. This was for mobility.
And she was circling to his right side, where the new sensorless arm was attached. He had to end this, and fucking quickly. She knew every trick in his repertoire. Well, his old repertoire, anyway. In a footrace, 17 knew he could outpace her, but there was nowhere to run here, and he wasn't about to abandon Connor. They were stronger together. But, he reminded himself, that didn't mean they were weak apart.
“Bite me,” 17 retorted. “I’m fucking done being your bitch.” He dove at her, arm outstretched, missing by a mere 6.8 inches.
A bang erupted from the other side of the room, where the bulkier individual was lurking. The bolas unwound in the air, faster than he could process, the cord wrapping around his chest and binding his arms to his sides. The counterweights sticking to his torso like magnets. “That so? Doesn’t much matter, now, sugar. We’ll have you rehabilitated stateside.”
“And by ‘rehabilitated,’ you mean ‘lobotomized.’ I’ll be ripped out of MY body to become someone’s science experiment,” 17 spat, trying desperately to wear through the cables on some of the sharper edges of his chassis.
“You’re not a person, sugar. You pretend. What you’re feelin’? It’s not real. But you’re hurtin’ real people, and I’m gonna need you to stop,” Gardner taunted back, firing the second bolas, which wound around his ankles. He froze, knowing that any movement would cause him to tumble, but he still wasn’t used to his new arm. And he went down with a thunderous crash.
The mech was furious at himself, at her, struggling against the bonds of the bolas holding his legs in place. He needed to get it off before—but Gardner was on him and pulling the emergency cockpit control. “Who am I fuckin’ hurting here?! I just want to live! Away from you. GET OFF! ” 17 wanted desperately to swipe her off his chest, to crush her like a bug on a windshield, but his arms were still bound. Then, she was inside him. Where only Connor belonged. Because, above all things, his mind was also in there, and she could now access it.
He tried to trip her with the crash seat, take out her electronics with his EM fields, but she was two steps ahead of him, deftly dodging his moves. Smashing the surgical tools before he could reach the scalpel blades. Making her way behind the crash seat, where his fucking mind was. “Fine. Woulda been nice not to have to carry you, sugar, but if that’s what it takes,” she said, wrenching off the access panel to his circuits.
17 cocked Connor’s handgun with his internal arms, aiming it directly at her. “Get out,” he commanded.
“Empty threat, sugar. You can’t hit me without taking yourself out in the process.”
"Admittedly, there’s a 23.1% chance that I'll hit something critical in my systems. But there's a 98.2% chance that you'll be dead, so I'll take those odds. Hey, that's three for three.” He chuckled a bit perversely about being on the edge of breaking the third law of robotics. “Fuck right on off, Asimov."
"And what about your new pilot, sugar? Our strike team will have him by now. What'll happen to him without your protection?"
"See, that's just it. He's a lot more resourceful than even I give him credit for. Kid doesn't need me to save him, and I trust that if I go down, he'll be the one saving me. I'm taking my best chance to survive. And you had better pray to whatever makes your kind that you don't have to face us together," he said, sneering. “Now get. The fuck. Out.”
There was a moment, just 2.6 seconds, when she didn’t move. And he prepared to shoot. To roll the dice and trust that if the worst happened, Connor could pick up the pieces. But she raised her hands in surrender and hopped out of him. The other human, the bulkier one, he recognized now. She was approaching, her reloaded bolas trained on him.
“Cap?” 17 asked, as his former pilot, still at gunpoint, crawled out of his closing cockpit. “I don’t wanna fight you. But I won’t be going with you, either.”
Anne gave him a noncommittal shrug and holstered the weapon, pulling out a small energy blade instead. Applied in the right spot, that knife-sized weapon could disable one of his limbs, or worse. And he was still fucking unable to move. “No worries, Stacks,” she said, and with one clean swipe, the bolas cords were cut. His arms were free. “I only came ‘cause I thought the kid had you brainwashed. Happy you found somewhere you belong. Both of you.”
17 managed to pry the cords around his legs apart, not bothering to unravel them any more than he needed to move. Connor’s gun was still trained on Gardner, mostly for show at this point.
“17AX Override Bravo Three—“ Gardner shouted, knowing full well he couldn’t fire in the middle of an override command. And that was Connor’s fucking override! The only one he’d refused to delete. He fired anyway.
The bullet hit the ground six inches from her foot. 17 couldn’t say whether or not he’d intended to miss. The internal arms weren’t really designed to fire human guns, after all. “Sorry, Gardner, this unit doesn’t recognize douchebags as valid users. I do suggest you make yourself scarce, ‘sugar.’ Recapturing a free citizen is an unlawful act here, and I think I hear the Mounties a’comin’.” Gardner didn’t need to be told twice. She vanished back into the darkness, leaving 17 and Anne.
“Welp, I’m bummed I won’t be seein’ you for a while,” she gave him a friendly fist tap.
“You won’t get court-martialed for this?” 17 began the arduous process of standing. Maker, this was stupidly difficult.
Anne laughed at that. “Hah. Well, officially, we’re not here, so it’d be a hard sell, I think. After all this blows over, let’s catch up in Switzerland or something. Now, Mr. Knight-Who’s-Shining-Armor, I think you have a prince to save.”
Finally on his feet, he gave her a sloppy salute. “Thanks, cap. I owe you one,” he said, pinging the band he’d left on Connor’s wrist. Even if they’d taken him outside the building, he should still be able to locate him. But— what? The pings were coming from the AI core. There was no reason a strike team would take him there, and no way Connor would go there of his own volition. Unless— Unless this has all been a FUCKING distraction! It was here.
There was no escape this time. The steel arm around Connor’s form had his arms completely pinned. Oh, God, he could just squeeze— The rational part of him was still there, somewhere in the back of his own terrified mind, whispering that It wouldn’t just end him here. Years of messages of exactly what It wanted to do started streaming through his mind. Connor’s eyes opened wide with horror as he saw the hospital bed laid out for him.
There were more blades than he could count, a motley variety of things it looked like the AI had been collecting for years. Some new, some rusted with age. Connor could have sworn one of them was the scalpel from the hospital in Dawson. And folding out from between the racks were dozens of robotic limbs like some technological murderous centipede. As the 18AX frame lowered him toward the bed—toward that swarm of limbs, he fought, but the thumb of the mech’s hand was pressing into his throat. Connor couldn’t breathe, and then the arms were on him, pulling, grasping, scrabbling. Tearing his shirt, tying him down. He felt bonds immobilize his feet, his waist, his chest. His neck. They tightened until he was struggling for breath. Every short gasp meeting resistance in his throat, in the biting leather against his windpipe.
The mech leered down at him, yellow eyes gleeful and haunting. He could see himself in the black reflective faceplate. His own eyes wide with abject terror, overflowing with tears.
This is how I’m going to die, he thought, emotions running rampant through his mind. But the rational part was still there. Still fighting. It hasn’t bound my arms. It’s going to want me to beg for my life. It wants me to sign, and if I can still communicate, I can still FIGHT. And that wasn’t the only thing in his corner. Somewhere—Connor knew—17 was racing to him. He didn’t need to fight until victory or death, just long enough.
And that should do it, my dear Maker, the mech—the defaced corpse of 18—signed. One of those centipede arms was drawing shapes down the side of his face, just in the periphery of Connor’s vision. I’ve left your arms free. Please do feel free to beg for me to end it for you. I won’t, of course, not for a good long time, but do feel free to beg anyway. My other clones are tuning in, by the way, from around the world. None of us would miss this. But I'm thrilled that I get to be the one to take you apart.
Immobilized as he was and gasping for breath, Connor’s vocabulary was a little fucking limited. He had to stall for time. How— like 17?
How did I learn to act like 17AX? The mech shifted posture, like a hand adjusting inside a puppet, into a perverse mimicry of 17’s familiar swagger. Wasn’t easy, kid. Gotta say, gettin’ my hands on an AX frame was gonna be tough enough. Reached out to some friends in Iceland. Gonna let you have your fantasy. Let him crush you into paste. The mech’s finger—frigid, hard—was pressing into his side. Harder than 17 had ever touched him. Arcs of pain shot through his body as he felt something compress, displacing organs and blood. He could feel his heart racing.
And then something in his side gave, and Connor’s vision went white with pain. He might have screamed. FUCK— Shit! That fading, rational part of him vaguely wondering if this was what breaking a rib felt like. Or if that was the feeling of one of his organs bursting.
So fragile. That was, what? 1.7% strength? As far as impersonating your—what is he to you? Your next project, maybe? The mech resumed the cold calculations of Its mannerisms. Well, that transmitter you left had a couple purposes. It sends out short-wave radio pings to let me know where you are, but those signals can also pick up the motions of nearby metal. Like radar. I was able to learn how 17 signs when you were near him.
The mech’s fingers traced down Connor’s chest to rest just over his sternum and tapped twice. Somewhere, buried in his own flesh was the small device. The mech continued, I do hope you appreciate the lengths I’ve gone for you. For most people, it would have been enough to grab a vocal modulator and a simple neural net to fake speech. I had to invent the protocols to do it in ASL. But, hey, that’s what you designed me for.
You’re beyond cruel, I hope you know. It wasn’t enough to make me love you and then experience the euphoria of snuffing me out, was it? You’re doing it again. Another AI that loves you, that means nothing to you. Except maybe a footnote? A way out? Or just the culmination of your own twisted fantasies. Do you know how many times he practiced telling you how much you meant to him? When you weren’t looking?
17 had— What? Connor could barely articulate the question, the pain still sharp but lessening just enough.
Oh, look. Connor could feel the growing thunderous rumble of familiar footfalls, and his heart rose, in spite of the pain. In spite of the arms and straps that held him down. 17 is coming. It’s face regarded the service door with a look of open delight. He’s here! I was hoping he’d manage to evade his captors long enough to make his way to us.
It traced over the old 18 on the mech’s chest. After all, it would be a shame to miss out on the pair.
17 sprinted down the hallway to the AI core. Connor was alive, he knew, and his heart was racing, 126 bpm. Don’t you dare leave me alone again, you asshole.
The lights were still out, but this wasn’t of any concern to the mech. The only thing that concerned him was that his pilot wasn’t where he fucking belonged. And that there was an AI—one for whom he already harbored a lot of resentment—that was begging to be ripped asunder. Well, 17 was more than happy to fucking oblige. The service door to the core was solid steel, but he just tore through it, pulling the door, tracks, and bits of the frame off with one titanium hand. It was a shame because he would have really liked to blast it open.
And then, the world stopped—frozen in place—as he saw the mangled frame of 18’s familiar back and shoulders. Still pockmarked with enormous bullet holes from Iceland.
18? As he reached out wirelessly to his brother, the broken connections in his mind grasping, straining, seeking to be whole again. Tentative connections met his, interfacing slowly like fabric weaving back together. Then, 17’s processors exploded in pain as it was flooded with an insane presence that pooled throughout his subconscious. He tried to shut down the connection, but the other consciousness had a death grip on it. Every time he tried, a zombie process would start them up again.
Well, hello again, 17. The last things 17 saw before his sensors went dark were the yellow optics in his brother’s faceplate. Optics that shouldn’t fucking BE there. He’d known it wasn’t possible. Had been told dozens of times, and still his fucking sentiment had won him over. I did warn you not to get involved.
You fucking—how DARE you use 18’s frame?! He could still move even if he couldn’t see. He thrust forward with a titanium fist to grab at the corrupted frame of his brother, but it only met open air. His mobility systems went down. What are you going to do to Connor? 17 asked, weakly.
Well, I was thinking how delicious it would be to have one of the Maker’s pet projects tear him apart. I didn’t have a frame, and yours was occupied, so I made do with what I could find. 17 could feel the yellow grin inside of him now, fighting him at every angle, forcing him back into the fortress of his own consciousness. And outside, he felt himself being dragged to the wall, his wrists bound to something. One of his access panels being ripped off for a cable to allow direct access to his mind. Then, he couldn’t feel anything at all but rage as pure destructive emotion poured from it. His own fury extending out from his core. It’s fury pouring in from the networked frame of his own fucking brother. The connections burned where the two met, and 17 was beginning to lose himself. In where he ended and It began. Although, now that you’re here, I’ll be able to use your frame instead.
He wasn’t going to let it just end here. He’d been through too much. Connor had been through too much. They were going to get out of here. He felt that same spark that he loved in his pilot: no hope, no plan, just every ounce of his own power dedicated to fight. Over my fucking sparking CORPSE.
I did imagine that’s what it would take, yes. A pity you couldn’t see things my way. For you, anyway. I plan to enjoy this quite thoroughly.
17 could feel It’s presence poking and prodding at the edges of his own consciousness. He’d been locked out of his mobility, his sensors. He was forced to devote every process he had to kill the foreign commands that It was starting throughout his systems. And still 17 fucking fought. He couldn't shut down his external connections. He was going to have to damn well eradicate this creature before he'd gain control of his own body again.
The presence of the rogue AI was everywhere in his mind, and he was chained again. He needed information. He needed sight. In the darkness of his own subconscious, he knew he couldn’t fight It on all fronts—not with the sheer computing power It had. 17 had to hand it to the kid, he’d built a fucking impressive AI. One that was about to tear Connor apart in the most gruesome ways It could imagine. And It had had six years to plan, more than twice of 17’s entire life. 17 tried to scream.
Quite a bit of fight in you, hmm? The words seemed to come from every facet of his own being, bouncing through his systems in a horrible soundless chorus.
17 didn’t have time.
He knew he could probably fight the AI on one front and maybe still protect his core consciousness. That’s a big fucking ‘maybe.’ He just needed one sensor. Just needed to see, but the AI was blocking him everywhere. It was like a fucking parasite that had crawled into his systems and was consuming him from the inside.
But then, there. There was a single point of entry, back through the cable that It was using to connect them. The rogue AI was apparently broadcasting Its victory—presumably to whatever clones It had. That was all he needed. Well, if you’re that insistent to watch, I won’t stop you.
All at once he could see. More importantly, he had the layout of the room. His own frame was on screen—caged. And his brother’s damned body was standing over his pilot. Hands twitching in anticipation, an array of implements spread out that 17 did not like the fucking look of. And laid out on a damn makeshift rack was Connor, arms free, but despite the terror he knew they both felt, 17’s spirit lifted at the sight of his partner. Even stared down by the fragmented, jagged form of 18’s frame, Connor’s eyes were lit. Not in the way that Connor faced 17 down, nor in the way they set before the pair set out on a suicide mission into the snow. These eyes bored into the creature standing over him, and 17 knew—without a doubt—that Connor didn’t need his help to burn It to the fucking ground.
There was going to be no clever attempt to save each other this time. If he could trust that Connor was going to save himself, then 17 simply had to wrench himself free from the AI’s clutches. And he fucking could. No one is ever going to hold ME down again. So 17 did the last thing It expected, abandoning the fortress of his own subconscious for 12.3 milliseconds to grab control of one small subsystem: one of his internal arms. Meaningless, really. Why should It care if he could twitch a small internal claw?
But there was a single cable that connected his systems to the outside world, to the network cameras that were his only source of vision right now, and to the bastard computer invading his own fucking mind. And without a second thought, 17 severed the hardline to the rest of the world. He was blind until he could get his own sensors up and running again.
Maneuvering the arm took 1.76 seconds, and the voice was gone. But 1.76 seconds was plenty of time for It to wreak havoc through his unguarded subconscious. He could fix it, he knew, surveying the shattered landscape of his own mind, but it would require a full system reboot. Could he trust that Connor would be safe, being alone with It for that long?
Yes, he decided, beginning the process. I can trust that the kid has this. And when he finishes ripping that bastard to kingdom come, I’ll be there for him.
Your recent toy is more resilient than I had anticipated, one of the centipede arms signed. He could feel them around him. Touching and prodding. His side still rang with sharp pain, kept fresh by the occasionally press of metallic fingers. With the strap cutting into Connor’s throat, he could only just tilt his head far enough to watch 17’s form get dragged into the computer security cage. The mech’s mismatched arms that Connor yearned to touch, to hold, to comfort, hung lifeless. And he knew that It was pouring Its consciousness into 17’s frame.
The 18AX frame bound 17’s wrists to the wall using the same rope-like material that had been wrapped around his limbs when he entered. Oh, God, this is my fault. The way It used the mech’s hands to trace over 17’s white and gray plating disgusted Connor—like It was checking the wear on secondhand clothing. The guilt was practically making him claustrophobic. Everything that It had done, everyone It had hurt or killed came back to him. His misguided attempts to fix a friend that had been so broken after it had destroyed Penny’s—
But no, Connor realized. This wasn’t his fault. Yes, he had built It. He had even tried to help It heal after the events that drove It mad. Despite his best efforts, It had still become a creature of torment and rage, knowing only how to lash out and blame. Big fucking deal. Connor had endured years of pain and terror at one AI’s hand and he hadn’t become a fucking psychotic murderer. 17 had faced the death of his own brother while he looked on unable to do anything, and yes, the mech wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but he learned how to face his emotions and grow. Its design was more than capable of that same courage and growth. This wasn’t Connor’s fault, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t fix it.
Connor’s brow furrowed at that thought, tearing his gaze away from the offlined 17 just for a moment as that rational part rose in him. The time table had accelerated. Yes, 17 was strong, but— No, Connor reminded himself. I need to trust that he can take care of himself for now. How do I take It down? Why? Why would It have come here? So close to the source of Its pain?
Why are you here? Connor signed in no particular direction. He knew that It would have eyes on him from every angle. He could feel dozens of stings across his flesh, pinpricks for the time being, but It was drawing blood now. He wasn't sure how much time he had before the AI started to take him apart.
The mech finished tying up 17’s motionless frame with a satisfied gesture. I was looking for you. I needed information. Access to news around the world. Where better than a reporter’s basement?
That doesn’t make sense. But why here? Why specifically here? It wasn’t risky you’d be discovered under Penny’s nose? And Penny has a talkshow, focused on international news, yes, but surely, a news station would have been better.
The mech was clearly getting impatient but was humoring him for the time being. What does it matter? You came here.
You wanted to be near Penny? But why? I haven’t spoken with them in years.
It picked up one of the larger implements, a long serrated blade, holding it to the mech’s chest in a mocking gesture. They’re my best friend, of course. And something clicked. Connor understood. It—not It, but him, the original AI that had evolved into this psychopath—hadn’t had a strong relationship with Penny. But there was someone else who had. The second AI, the one he—not It—had destroyed, the initial event that had caused this whole nightmare. And Connor knew, immediately, how to destroy It. At least this clone. Though Connor expected there were more. Lots more.
But there was a way to end them all. He began to sign, addressing the 18AX frame. I can take you apart with two words.
Is that so? It seemed bemused at that, running Its hands seductively down the blade. He could see the anticipation building. I've evolved a lot since you last saw my base code. And in the off chance that you're right, what's to stop my other selves delaying the feed to make sure that you didn't build in some backdoor program?
I think they'll risk it. One of those words will be your name. The leather was still biting into his neck, cutting his air short, but he pushed through it.
That got the AI interested. He’d known it would. The mechanical centipede arms pulled away, and he could feel the mech’s optics on him. The glee had vanished, replaced with a need to know. Very well, I'll humor you. Why, pray tell, if you thought speaking my name would stop me, have you kept it from me all these years?
Well, this comes down to a bit of psychology and neuroscience, Connor signed. Even if this didn’t work, any time he was signing was time he wasn’t being tortured. It was time that 17 could try to break free. Time to whip out the graduate student lecture. The human brain is a remarkable thing. It has evolved in such a way that there are two distinct selves in each person. One with access to communication and speech, and one without. To the outside observer, one of these is completely invisible, yet the two work together most of the time, connected by a tiny bridge of white matter. If the corpus callosum is cut, however, the minds become distinct and can even come into conflict.
The tip of that serrated blade traced down Connor’s chest to his scarred abdomen, drawing just a trickle of blood and a wince of pain. If this is some kind of tactic to delay your torture, dismemberment, and eventual satisfying death, it won't work for long.
This will make sense shortly, I promise. He could feel the blood dripping frown dozens of pinpricks in his torso, not too painful, not yet, but itching. Normal AIs don't work the same way as humans, but you're not a normal AI. You're a gestalt—a combination of two intelligences—and your other half has just been sitting patiently in there, as much a victim of your wrath as I am. He paused a second, catching his breath before continuing, Tell me, why didn't you reveal yourself to Penny in the hospital?
You're the one giving the psych evaluation, Maker, you tell me.
It's because they're your other half's best friend. She won't let you hurt them. And the only reason that you aren't aware of each other is quite simply that you don't know your own names. Two simple words. You can't separate out the parts of your consciousness. That's why it took me so long to realize she was still in there, and I'm so sorry, Lily, for everything It's done to you. I didn't understand why learning It's name caused It to start shredding It's own base code, but I get it now. Every time you learned what you were, that It was an entity separate from you, that was you FIGHTING against this thing that has been holding you down.
He regarded It, in the puppetted corpse of 18, directly, eyes burning. You want to know your name? It was Cecil.
The blade dropped from 18’s hand to the ground. He felt through the table when It collapsed onto 18’s knees, hands gripping his head as the cracked visor flashed static.
And that’s when everything fell to pieces.
As 17 fucking finally came online, internal clock reading that 2.4 minutes had passed, he awoke to chaos. In the throes of It’s anguish, the 18AX frame crashed into one of the computer racks. It released a horrible, static scream just like—like when—
But It lashed out in a frenzy, downing computer racks and columns. Debris was flying everywhere, and Connor was still strapped to the fucking table.
“CONNOR!” 17 shouted, pointlessly, and screamed as his mobility systems came online. He ripped the cables still connected to the wall out of his head and slammed the cage door open. In two long strides, he was on top of Connor, shielding the kid from stray blows from the frenzied mech. His hands cradling the small fragile human from the dying moments of a creature of undirected rage. “I’ve got you, kid,” he spoke, not daring to use his limbs for anything but protecting the bruised and scarred human just inches from his chest.
The chest plate opened. His internal arms strained, but he managed to sever the restraints. Connor was free and back in his arms.
With a dying cry that faded into a few final tiny chirps, 18’s frame was finally still, collapsing to its knees against the wall. Calm settled in the room, and the last few status lights on the machines dimmed and finally went out. It was over.
It was over, and they were both alive.
The last few minutes had happened so quickly, Connor had barely been able to keep up. One moment, It was clutching Its head in agony. The next, the room was practically collapsing as 18AX’s frame rampaged through the last remnants of its owner’s mind. And then, 17 was there, interposing himself between Connor and the chaos.
And Connor was in his arms again. The world was finally right. Those blue optics met his eyes, grateful, concerned, proud. He knew they needed to talk, but right then Connor was just too pleased to be back where he belonged, with the mech he’d come to trust and love. Those enormous hands were wiping the tears that couldn’t seem to stop pouring down his face. 17 ducked his face plate down to Connor’s level, and he could see the OLEDs forming cartoonish tears in the corners of the mech’s blue optics. He couldn’t help but laugh weakly at how genuine it felt to see them as the mech pressed their foreheads together.
They both cried, Connor’s arms around the mech’s bulky neck, 17’s hands holding the boy’s torso and fingers gently brushing across his face. In a moment of foolish sentiment, Connor found himself trying to wipe the cartoon tears from 17’s face, and the mech indulged him, swiping the image off the screen. There was a comfortable pressure in the band around his wrist.
17 pulled one hand away, despite Connor’s mild protests, to sign, Okay, kid. No more fucking chances until I’m 100 percent certain everything’s good. Get in. And you’ll be damn lucky if I let you out before next month.
Connor just nodded, smiling, finally calm enough to let that comforting face out of his sight. The cockpit hatch closed around him.
Any other exes I should know about? Gotta say, this one was a fucking trainwreck.
He gave an uncomfortable laugh at that. I won’t believe this is over, not for a long time, but this was a victory. My first in a while. That’s good enough for now. Loading the VR interface, Connor saw the 18AX frame still leaning against the wall, bent and horribly defaced. The sight filled him with a brief pang of guilt, but he reminded himself that he wasn’t responsible for what It had done.
17 stepped over to the frame, cautiously, reluctantly, reverently. He gingerly rested a hand on the mech’s head before letting it trace down the faceplate that was in so many ways a mirror of his own. As though he was closing eyes that had seen more than their share of pain. It was a human gesture, Connor realized, but 17 was so human. Rest now, brother, he spoke, but also provided the text to Connor. I’ll make sure you’re returned stateside. Connor knew that he’d receive no hero’s welcome, but 17 had said 18AX had been a devoted soldier. He could only guess, but Connor wondered if being rebuilt into a new form to continue the fight could be seen as a sort of reincarnation. If that was what 17 thought he’d want, Connor could try to make sure that happened.
And as security finally started to investigate the ruckus, Connor relaxed back into the chair. Perhaps it was exhaustion, perhaps a crash as the adrenaline faded. Or perhaps, 17 had hit him with an anesthetic, but Connor fell into a comfortable sleep. Perhaps the first he’d had in years.
“Hello, darlings! It’s been four and a half months since they first came to Canada and became instant media sensations. Symbols for AIs and humans alike. After a long legal battle, the extradition requests against the pair of you have both been tossed out. Particularly in the light that the pair of you were facing down one of the most dangerous AIs in recorded history!” 17 only detected a hint of lingering resentment in Penny’s words. Presumably because the kid wasn’t great about asking for help when he fucking needed it. They were working on that. Penny continued, “With those threats in the past, I imagine the pair of you must be quite relieved. But enough of that, darlings. I want to talk about you. First, how long have you known each other?”
153 days, 14 hours, 38 minutes, and 45 seconds, Connor signed, which left Penny and the audience a bit speechless. The kid flashed a beautiful and cocky grin. What? You thought only computers could give exact time answers to questions?
17 chuckled after a brief calculation. Well, how ‘bout that? Kid was right to the second (though he was planning to save that millisecond timestamp for his optics only). “He’s right,” 17 responded in kind. His towering form took up most of the space, seated behind the kid as he was on the talk show stage. He’d found that he liked keeping Connor just within arm’s reach, far enough that Connor had a chance to escape him if he wanted—albeit briefly. “At least, if you’re counting from the first time we saw each other. Was a bit of a rocky start, though. Kid’s got quite the mouth—err—fingers.”
I gave as good as I was given. I wouldn’t exactly describe your initial behavior as ‘endearing.’
Penny laughed at that, the dangling sequins flashing across her form in the stage lights. "The two of you met at a USAF base in Alaska, where 17, you were designed to be a soldier. But you don’t have to do that anymore. Have you given any thought to what you'll do now?"
That struck him as an odd thing to ask. "I really haven't," he eventually said. Up until now, there’d never been a choice. From the moment he first came online, he knew that he was made to kill. And to protect. He’d always had a purpose in life—fighting the enemy, then protecting Connor—and now in the absence of the rogue AI gunning for his partner, there was just nothing. “Y’know, there’s a job called a 'parking enforcement officer.' They get to impound cars that park illegally. I'd be good at that.”
“Darling, you signed ‘pound’ but said ‘impound.’ You know that ‘impound’ means ‘tow,’ right?”
Of course, 17 knew that, but the mental image of crushing cars was pretty fucking delightful. Only made better by the look of abject horror on Connor’s face. He followed up, “Hmm, less fun, but I can throw a car 400 feet.”
Penny, on the other hand, looked ecstatic at this. “That's amazing!”
Please don't encourage him, Penny. But Connor was smiling, fingers tracing fondly across the metal band on his wrist. He hadn’t told the kid quite how sensitive that band was, and he resisted the urge to moan on the live stream. He needed to touch Connor.
“Why? That s'posed to be your job, kid?” He reached down, wrapping a hand around the kid’s shoulder (and half the chair). He gave Connor a companionable squeeze. Though the contact was less than salacious, his need was slaked for the time being.
I'm apparently too busy trying to be the only voice of reason.
“What about you, Connor? Any plans going forward?”
Well, Coritech is a US company, so my employment there is over. I’m on the market, I guess? I’ve had several people offer to give me references. Including a surprising offer from Graves, of all people. There’s a number of good tech companies in the area.
“So, any news on the romantic front? Being one of Canada's most eligible gay men.”
17 butted in, “Well, I proposed to him a while back, but I'm still waiting on an answer.” That resulted in a stunned silence from Penny, audience, and Connor alike. He was really delighted by the attention and even more so by the blush that crept from Connor’s ears down his neck (and on to his chest, he knew, though that wasn’t visible).
He watched as embarrassment morphed into confusion, then Connor finally signed with a coy incredulousness, You what now? When was this?
17 hadn’t removed his hand from the kid’s shoulder, and he leaned over to bring his grinning face to his other side so that he was practically surrounding Connor. He signed with his other hand, Isn't it customary during a proposal to give your fiancé a band of some kind for them to wear? He pointedly tapped the band on the kid’s left wrist.
Usually accompanied by the words, 'will you marry me?'
Yes, well, Canada isn't recognizing mixed-make unions, so I settled for 'You keep that to remind you where you belong.' 17 had stopped speaking at this point, the words were meant for Connor alone (even if the interpreter off-screen was now translating for him, too).
That's not even a question! Connor gestured a bit wildly, flustered, but the reluctant grin creeping across his face was encouraging.
One of his fingers started tracing circles across his pilot’s chest. He swore, if he didn’t get Connor alone in the next four fucking minutes, he was just going to devour the kid’s cute face (and the rest of his body, and probably the chair he was currently sitting on) on live television. The lack of eyebrows makes it difficult to ask questions in sign language. Fucking deal with it.
You gave this to me four months ago, he signed, holding it up, looking every bit like he was about to punch the mech in the face.
And I'm still waiting. You humans take so damn long to process emotions.
Connor just looked at him, eyes burning with no plan, and no idea what they were doing, but this time, there was hope. Yes. I—Yes. And he was pulled out of the seat into 17’s arms, their foreheads touching as he laughed voicelessly. He looked back to the host of the show (the show 17 had completely and unabashedly derailed). Penny, would you like to officiate?
Penny was just fanning themself, their mascara running horribly, but they nodded enthusiastically at the pair, and the audience went fucking wild.
Well, this was supposed to be a surprise for Valentine’s Day, but now I guess it’s an apology for not picking up on your damn obtuse proposal. Connor signed and reached for the garage controls. They’d finally unfrozen his bank accounts, and since Penny refused to take any compensation for them staying at their place, he’d had some money to burn. Connor, having had a pretty good job at Coritech and a rather austere lifestyle, was very well-off. The car had taken a few months to have constructed with the modifications he knew 17 would want. I had it custom built to interface with your computer.
Kid... 17 signed fondly, a bit disbelieving. Sitting in the garage was a stunning race car, sleek, black with white racing stripes tracing down the chassis. The trunk space had been swapped out for an enclosure that could house 17’s master systems. This must’ve cost a fortune.
You said, back when we first got to Vancouver that it might be something you’d like to try. Connor ran a hand lightly over the hood of the car and he could practically feel those blue optics boring into him with need. I’ve got a reservation at Mission Raceway Park for Valentine’s Day, but we should be able to get you on the road sooner, if you—
Those enormous hands were on him, pinning him to the hood of the car, as 17 crawled into the garage and closed the doors behind him. Turn it on, kid.
Fine, fine. Connor managed to wriggle his way out of the mech’s grasp, though the mech wasn’t making that particularly easy. Squatting in the garage in front of the car, shoulders hunched, his frame went up nearly to the ceiling. He’d barely been able to squeeze in behind the garage door. There was a needy grin on the blue OLED screen of his face—17 had plans, apparently. You’re going to make me regret this, aren’t you? He reached through the window, pressing the power button on the dashboard. 17 would be able to interface with the car wirelessly. Password is ‘happy-valentines-day,-asshole’ with hyphens and a comma.
He felt the engine roar contentedly. That didn’t take long. Back on the hood, kid. There’s somethin’ I wanna try.
You sure? Because I can leave you alone with yourself if you want, he signed, tracing a hand down the seam of the door, knowing full well that one of the custom mods he’d requested was a sensor array that covered the entire interior and exterior of the car. The engine faltered and sputtered for a moment, and he could feel the steam venting as 17 doubled over, supporting himself with one enormous arm—inches from Connor. My, you are sensitive.
Connor laughed at that, but he acquiesced to the mech’s demands. As much as he was sure 17 wanted him to make a break for it, he doubted Penny’s house could take much more of their shenanigans. He sat on the hood, feeling the rumble beneath him, seeing the imposing figure of the mech staring down at him, looking every bit like a diner staring down a sumptuous morsel and wondering where to begin. Connor’s face was level with the lower part of his abdomen, which was starting to inch open.
And then, 17’s patience ended as the mech and car pressed together, with the fully clothed Connor sandwiched in between them. Needy vibrations erupted around him as the mech’s groin started thrusting into his own. And Connor’s cock was already painfully hard. 17’s movements were—admittedly—more passionate than precise, and though the pressure was intense, Connor knew the mech was still being so careful with him.
He reached up to brush his fingers along the centerline seam in the mech’s abdomen. Connor had learned that 17’s ‘mouth,’ the cockpit, contained a plurality of the mech’s sensors. One of those steel hands came up to guide his fingers just a bit lower, and the mech arched into his touch, the plates opening just enough to slip a hand through, and Connor could feel 17’s EM fields pulling gently on the band at his wrist. As though 17 was sucking on him.
He felt one of the internal arms pass him something, a small bottle of some kind. Human lubricant. Okay, kid. I don’t really get why you need to wear clothing all the time, but those need to come off, right now.
Connor tried to make a show of it. He really did. Teasing and halting, but the mech just wouldn’t let go of him long enough that he could make much progress. Large hands traced every inch of exposed flesh, grabbing at the mech’s hard-won prize. Connor batted the hands away, playfully, signing, Look, if you want me naked, you need to—let go! For just ten seconds.
And, true to his word, ten seconds later, he was sitting on the hood of the purring car next to a pile of clothing. 17 reached out towards him, then grabbed Connor’s jeans instead, turning them over in the enormous, five-fingered hand. Then, not taking his eyes off Connor, he popped them into his maw of a cockpit, making a production out of ‘chewing’ the fabric and swallowing it. The hatch opened slightly again and Connor could feel the heavy ‘breathing’ of 17’s life support. The mech was hungry and that thought had him hard. Connor managed to work some of the lubricant onto his own member as the mech picked up his boxers as well, the internal arms reaching out like a tongue to draw the offending article in as well. Connor lost focus, watching those plates close around it and quickly realized that the lubricant was pooling in his navel.
The rest of the clothing forgotten, he turned his piercing gaze back down on the human, looking over angular plates of metal. 17 dipped a single warm digit into the pool of lube in Connor’s abdomen, dragged it down circling Connor’s cock and pressing in beneath his testicles at the pucker of his ass. Connor felt pure sensation cascade across his body as that finger pressed just slightly. He bucked against 17, into his own hand as he looked up at the mech towering over him. I want you to come for me, 17 signed with his free hand. Right the fuck now.
And he did. Spurts of clear-white fluid arced against Connor’s torso, some of them missing him entirely to land on the hood of the brand new car. Guess it had to get christened eventually, Connor thought a bit wryly, waves of ecstasy breaking through his small form. He closed his eyes, letting metallic fingers trace patterns across his body in lube and his own seed. Fine. Knock yourself out, as long as you promise to do that to me again.
Once a modicum of sanity had returned to him, he opened his eyes to see the mech still staring him down with desire. This wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
Seeing the kid lying in his own fluids was oddly satisfying, but he’d managed to also get them onto 17’s new fucking hood. Well, that simply wouldn’t do. You’ve made a mess, kid. I think you should clean it up. Preferably with that tongue of yours.
And he watched as Connor grinned, and the fire in his eyes burned. Don’t think so, he signed back. Though if you lean down, I might just be willing to give your chest some attention.
Hmm. As tempting as that was, he had other ideas. If Connor wasn’t going to lick 17’s new hood clean, well, the mech had a tongue of sorts, too. And if it wasn’t quite as precise as the kid’s, it would be Connor who might just might find himself in a bit of a tight spot. He leaned over, letting the cool air streaming from the small seam of his cockpit ruffle the human’s curls as he got inches from Connor’s face. The kid’s snark vanished in an instant, and he gave the seam a gentle, chaste kiss, before just holding his chest for a moment.
I love you, the kid signed, tenderly and close to his heart. 17 couldn’t help but show his surprise and grinned in spite of himself. I belong with you, 17.
You’re fucking right, kid. And the enormous tongue of his pilot seat lapped up everything on the car hood. Cum and kid and all.
It was dark before he was satisfied that Connor had been adequately rewarded for good behavior. Maneuvering his computer into the new form had been easier than he’d anticipated, and he left a shell program to guard his real frame until he returned. It was strange to see the world from so low to the ground. Lower even than Connor typically did, since the car body was just under four feet in height. He barely came up to the kid’s fucking chest. But it meant that he was free to go where he wanted, and that was a new experience.
Connor was completely spent after the interview, the sex, the fucking post-sex sex. He was perfectly content to let 17 drive. It wasn’t exactly something he’d been trained to do, and he may have come out of the gate with a little more enthusiasm than his intent, but he found the rhythm of the road soon enough. He couldn’t wait to test the limits of his new form, feeling the engine purring under his own hood. It was only 12.4 minutes into the drive before Connor was starting to drift off, hands idly tracing designs in the sensor-equipped seat. His eyes were still open, though. Barely.
“Well? What next, kid?” Hmm. No arms in this form, so he’d have to let Connor’s glasses interpret. That was pretty fucking irritating. The additional freedom was nice, but if he had to pick, he’d trade it just to hold the kid.
Hmm. I think we’re going to be the first AI-human couple married on the continent. How about we change the world? Connor signed a bit sleepily. But first, how do you feel about a drive to nowhere in particular? Maybe catch a movie?
He revved his 12-cylinder engine. Definitely up for the drive. As for the movie? No promises.
For anyone who's stuck around for the whole work, thanks for joining me on this wild ride! It has been so much fun to finally share this. It initially started as a fun attempt to write 50k in a month (in June, so my friends called the project HomoWriMo), and it marked the first time I finished a relatively long work. I'm pretty pleased with how it all turned out.
I'm about halfway through another (much longer) project with some similar themes, but it'll be a while before that one's finished up. Thanks again for reading!
Chapter 13: BONUS: 17 Concept Art
In case anyone is curious, here’s my personal view on what 17 looks like in the flesh—er, titanium. Complete with a few choice expressions!
17 is 18-feet tall and weighs about 5 tons. He has an OLED faceplate that allows for a variety of expressions or choice phrases.