I open my eyes.
"Optical sensors online," "You're just weak, we will give your body the necessary nutrients soon and you will be fine," two voices start talking at once and I barely discern the words.
I am in a sterile, white room, with bright lights pointing at me. The only sound I hear is a gentle buzzing behind my head, but I can't turn around. In fact, I can not move at all.
"Voice modulator online." "You should be able to speak."
"Thanks doc," words come out of my mouth, but I don't think—
"State your model and serial number." "Do you remember your name?"
There are two questions, and I'm not sure I know the answer, but I start speaking without fully realizing it, "RK—" "I'm—"
[FATAL ERROR, memory space limited]
I suddenly feel a pang of pain slowly going through my head like a needle. The error message is flashing in bright red before my eyes and I try to dismiss it, but I can't. It hurts and I can't move. In retrospect, this is the first time I've felt anything since I opened my eyes. And now I can't even close them. I finally manage to focus on my voice and say firmly, almost shouting,
"RK800, SERIAL NUMBER 313 248 317 -51."
The world goes still. The error message is gone. I don't feel anything. The only sound is the familiar buzzing behind my head.
I suddenly hear a quick static, followed by a female voice, speaking in one breath, "This is your big day Connor, I'm really happy for you and I hope you—"
"Get off the mic, doctor Underhill," it's interrupted and the room falls abruptly to silence again. There are still many things to untangle, but I don't have the strength for it. Satisfied, I listen to the calming buzzing and start to automatically leave the station as my first official mission appears on my HUD…
Heartbeat. Labored breathing. Cold. Pain. Weakness. I slowly become aware of all of these in my body, while also realizing that I am laying in a cave, and I must have been sleeping. Dreaming. It's peculiar, with every rest I become more and more withdrawn from my previous existence and I find myself momentarily thinking that maybe I've just dreamt it all. That I have never been an android, that the memory of all the convenient technology I took for granted, the blissful absence of those new sensations, it's all in my head as a coping mechanism for whatever I'm going through right now. And how can I really say that it's not the case? I have no log and human memory can be faulty. Human. Ok, this is getting too weird...
I try to move, despite my weakness, and fortunately it's not so bad that I can't stand. My legs shake a bit, so I support myself with the wall I was sleeping next to. The dim light from before is on and I can see Aaron sleeping next to it, sitting, leaning against the cave wall with his mouth open. He must have been trying to keep watch for as long as I needed to rest, but I don't think he was exactly in top condition either. I locate my bag and take out the tablet. It's 5:43:21. I fell asleep after 23:35:01. It's quite a lot of time, but I should let Aaron have some rest too though, since I don't know for how long he was awake. I look around and locate a very small water font on the other side of the cave. I take my bottle, which Aaron refilled yesterday, and gulp most of the contents, before walking up to the font and refilling it again. My stomach feels tied in a knot and I still can't stop my legs from shaking, so I don't even try to get up this time. I put the bottle next to me and gently stroke the water with my fingers, looking at the surface. And then I suddenly stop, waiting for it to clear.
It's peculiar, to say the least. I can see a long, tired face, covered in straight, oily bangs. I slide them back and take a closer look. I press fingers to where I can see bones under the skin. Then I pull at the lower, right eyelid a little. The eyes are dark, but it's impossible to discern the color. Then I slide my hand down and scratch at the short beard and sideburns. I can both feel and see every touch. My fingers are wet. A sudden shiver takes over me but I keep looking.
This is not me.
I take out the tablet again and try to remember everything I needed to log before sleeping, but was too tired to. It's 5:50:02. Once all the objectives start to clear a bit, I also realize that I don't have much background for Aaron and decide to look for more information once we're in the city. It's going to be beneficial to our cooperation. My thoughts immediately slide to lieutenant Anderson and my stomach becomes even tighter than it was. But I force myself not to dwell on it and make another check on my condition instead. I feel rested, but still weak, if not weaker. The wound still feels hot, stretching the skin and stinging but I got better at ignoring it. My legs are a bit sore but all in all not that bad. What’s the worst is that I still feel tremendously weak and uncomfortable. It’s hard to stay focused. What do I need to keep focused on anyway? Aaron’s asleep. There doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger. I don’t have anything to do, I mean, I would probably find something if I didn’t feel so… feel…?
Suddenly, a bright light appears in the corner of my eye and I face it, squinting. The light dims as I stand up and I notice that the source of it are two figures, one of which is waving excitedly in my direction. The silhouette is female and a little behind her there is someone a bit shorter trudging along. I glance at Aaron, and he's already fast on his feet, but after a few seconds of watching the approaching figures, he relaxes with a troubled sigh. He then starts scanning his nearest surroundings and our eyes meet for a moment.
"Lloyd!" the girl's excited voice resonates through the corridor.
"You know them?" I ask silently.
"Yeah… Just, let me handle this," the man answers, stifling a yawn and stretching nervously.
The pair approaches and I can finally make out their appearances. The teenage girl comes first into view with lots of caving gear and a rifle. She’s got long and tangled blond hair which are tied into a messy bun and a dirty face with a beaming smile. The person behind her is also blond and dirty, their hair is short though, they look even younger than their companion, their physical features do not indicate their sex immediately and their only equipment seems to be a flashlight and a medium bag. They eye me with their golden eyes suspiciously, but I lack information to correctly assess where this suspicion comes from. After a moment of consideration I decide to make an assumption and log the two as siblings. Aaron makes eye contact with them and smiles awkwardly.
"Oh, Lloyd, Aaron, it's so good to see you!" the older sibling says as she gets closer to me, a little bit too close for an interaction between acquaintances. Is she Lloyd’s friend? Or closer?
"Eleanore, Dorian," my companion seems to have realized I would benefit from knowing their names at least. Eleanore is now almost directly under me, almost a head lower. I find myself taking a small step back. Leave me alone. "Please, give him some space, he’s wounded," did Aaron notice?
"Oh! I’m so sorry Lloyd," she backs away a few steps and looks at my abdomen.
"That’s not Lloyd though, is it?"
Silence. Everyone is suddenly looking at the androgynous boy. I assess that I shouldn't have actually done anything to blow my cover. Was it the step back? Why did I do that anyway?
"No use hiding that. Yes, Lloyd is dead," Aaron sighs, but he doesn't seem surprised. The same cannot be said for the girl whose smile disappears almost instantaneously, her eyes widen and she backs up a few more small steps.
"Lloyd is… what? But…"
"Things went really wrong. I was forced to make an upload to save his body at least. I'm sorry El," Aaron’s voice is warm and sad as he says that, looking somewhere at the leg level.
There’s suddenly a twisting pain in my stomach again, but not from the wound, and rather something more inside of the body. I clench my teeth, swallow and sit on the ground with my head hung. My legs are weak.
"Connor? What’s wrong?" Aaron’s voice is even softer now, worried. I repeat what I just assessed and after a moment of silence, he asks, "Have you eaten anything since I brought you here?"
I mentally slap myself again for forgetting another basic human function as I answer his question, "No."
"Then it’s time for breakfast," he sits beside me and starts rummaging through Lloyd’s bag. Dorian is looking at us curiously and his sister is leaning against the wall with her head in her hands. "You don’t have to stay here, we’re going in the other direction anyway," Aaron addresses them while taking out and opening a small bundle.
"You said you were hungry too a while ago, didn’t you sis?" I feel a slight satisfaction for assuming right.
"I am," she sits down without looking at anyone and puts her backpack in front of herself. In the meantime, Aaron hands me a box and a spoon.
"Chew very carefully, ok? I’m not sure this is very light, but it’s all we’ve got, so just do it slowly. I’ll go check on El in the meantime."
I try to scan the contents of the mush in front of my face, but of course it does not work. Dorian keeps staring at me, I can’t focus and my immediate response to bringing the food into my mouth, chewing and swallowing is…
I sigh. It’s here to restore energy, to keep this body functional and that is my mission, so I will do it. Where does this defiance come from? This can’t continue, I may be physically human now, but I am still an android, this is unnecessary. I bring the food into my mouth and start chewing. As it’s not analyzed, I try to focus on its taste. A bit sweet, I think? I swallow. Alright, now again.
I stop after the third spoon and look at the teenager sitting next to me. I realize that it was a good idea to tell them I’m not Lloyd outright, when I have little to none information about this person. It still confuses me how quickly Dorian realized though.
"I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced," I decide it would be prudent to start a conversation since the kid does not seem to be uncomfortable in my presence. "I apologize for the circumstance, but…"
"Don't mind that. It's not your fault. It's a pleasure to meet you Connor," he extends his hand, and after a short lag caused by slow processing, I grab it and shake gently as per Social Relations protocol.
"Dorian," I say, "what is your affiliation with Aaron and the previous inhabitant of this body?"
A short silence in which Dorian furrows his brows. "Is this an interrogation?" he finally asks. I may have been too direct.
"I just believe it would be beneficial for me to know that in order to act accordingly," is my excuse, though it does not explain the bluntness.
The boy throws a quick glance in the direction of his sister before answering, "right. You may say I'm an associate. My sister here is more familiar, she wants to get into the guild, you know, run around retrieving tech from androids like the 'cool people'. Had a bit of a crush on Lloyd actually. That's why she's like that now."
I look at Eleanore and it seems that the conversation between her and Aaron has already ended as she is sullenly chewing something that looks like a candy bar and Aaron is glaring at me from a distance. "I'm sorry," I mutter.
"You're very… ordered. Don't see many humans looking like that," he says and I feel myself tensing a bit. I have an impulse to correct my nonexistent LED as I analyze my behavior and remember lieutenant Anderson commenting on it before. Even if I act strangely though it shouldn't be a problem as long as I am physically human. Humans act all kinds of weird all the time, right?
What is peculiar is that Dorian didn't say 'acting' but 'looking'. "Why use the word looking?" I ask against my better judgement of changing the subject as fast as I can. I see Aaron standing up in the corner of my vision.
"Oh, it's…" the boy starts, clearly gathering his thoughts. "I just think that people look completely different depending on their soul. I mean, I know that," he clarifies,"but not many people believe and even less see. You look almost manufactured. Thought you were an android at first, but when sis started shouting I figured I might be mistaken."
A short silence again in which my thoughts circle back to how quickly Dorian realized I wasn't Lloyd. He's on point, but he doesn't know that. Let him believe what he assumes, but I can't be too defensive. "Do you need reassurance?" I settle on saying, confident that I can in fact reassure him.
"No, had enough of that since we've met. It's just interesting is all," he waves his hand almost theatrically and looks up at Aaron who is now standing above us. "Hey. How's sis?"
"You can't tell from her aura?" Aaron says with a strange grimace on his face. Mocking?
"Everyone can read her aura at this point," Dorian deflects and stands up. "We should be leaving probably."
"Yes, us too. Need to get Connor checked up as fast as we can get to the city," Aaron hands me Lloyd's bag and Dorian starts in Eleanore's direction. "Sorry for spoiling the mood."
"And sorry for your loss," the boy glances back.
I notice that the girl is standing up too but instead of approaching her brother or the passage she comes closer to me.
"...you're…" her voice is shaky and she looks at my feet. "You better take care of him, ok?"
Him as in Aaron? That doesn't make much sense. Lloyd then?
"I will," that is my mission, right?
We part ways with the teenagers at 6:21:31 and are on our way to the city again. Aaron keeps glancing at me as I try to add new information to the log on the go, but does not say anything. It's difficult to focus on everything at once but I am determined to come as close to my known capabilities as possible in the human body.
At 6:52:01 I log the time and hide the tablet.
"Wow, you're meticulous," I hear as soon as it's in the bag.
"Yes," I answer, checking up on my condition again. Not many changes, I'm a bit more fatigued on top of the wound, hunger and sore muscles. I take out the tablet again and log that too. 6:54:23.
"Still not finished?" Aaron comments.
"I just remembered, I wanted to ask you something," I say, still trying to sort information.
"About Dorian. He told me—"
"He's awfully perceptive that one, isn't he?" Aaron interrupts. "Some say he's an esper, an oracle or whatever, but that's way too much spiritual mumbo-jumbo for my liking. I don't believe in souls or auras or what-ya-call-it, so I think he's just used to looking at people differently. I mean, he actually believes that androids have souls. That's kind of… I mean… " his voice trails off and his eyes dart off to a farther wall somewhere. Could he think I would feel bad about this statement? Because I'm an android? Androids don't have souls.
"It's ok," I stop Aaron's mumbling, "you can't offend me."
"So you don't believe you have a soul?" he asks with a strange tone. Not entirely curious, kind of sharp actually, and inside me I somehow sense a remnant of a very familiar program twisting my stomach, directing me to the defensive.
"I'm not a deviant," I answer calmly. Too direct. He doesn't even know much about that term anyway. Didn't have time to process. Again.
However, Aaron only clicks his tongue and doesn't continue the questioning. Would it be prudent to explain myself? Or would it be too much? What can I explain anyway?
"I don't believe—"
"You don't have to explain," he stops me. "I exhausted myself with this conversation. Did I say I don't like philosophy? I think I did."
I scan the text app that is open on the tablet in my hand. "You did," I confirm, while Aaron is looking over my shoulder.
"Do you have that written down?" he seems genuinely surprised.
There's a sudden snort near me and then further away as Aaron stops looking at my tablet and picks up his pace. "That android chasing us was right, you are gonna make my life miserable, aren't you?" he says, looking forward.
"That's not my objective."
"I certainly hope not."
From the moment we left the crossroads the corridors actually have turned into many branching paths which makes me question the use of the term crossroads for that particular place. I try to focus on every turn, write it down somehow, in case I ever need to repeat the journey without Aaron, and among other subjects swirling in my head I find my processor heavily overloaded. Prioritizing was never my weak side, but at this point I don't have enough information to correctly gauge the situation. Finally, the twists and turns get rarer and then the path turns quite straight-forward again. 8:54:12. I have an idea.
"You haven't checked the tablet in a while. Is everything alright?"
At those words I immediately take out the tablet and check the time. 11:12:11. Ok.
Oh, it was Aaron checking up on me. "I'm fine," I answer, concluding that he's not actually asking for diagnostics.
"Thinking about something?"
"Actually, no. Trying to figure out how to use autopilot in a biological vessel."
Aaron snorts. "Yeah, that takes skill alright. Or resignation," a short pause. "We're getting close. So, you know, I thought I'd lay down a few ground rules. You should be good with those."
My mind wanders to lieutenant Anderson again. Well.
"It's not much anyway, most importantly you just keep pretending to be a human upload and we should be fine. And just follow me for now, I'll take you to our… my place, I guess. So you can rest properly. You can go sightseeing later," Aaron keeps talking without looking at me while twitching his thumbs.
"I hope I'm not making a mistake…" he mumbles after a short silence.
And soon enough we squeeze through a concealed breach in the cave wall until we exit into another corridor, and the first thing I notice are two guns trained on me. I scan the owners without doing anything to draw attention to myself; the female is small, but her arms seem muscular, can’t get the parameters but it doesn’t take advanced programming to realize that she might pose a problem in my current condition. Her male partner seems weaker and more tense, potentially less experienced. With the way their clothes are placed on their bodies I can safely assume they are wearing bulletproof vests, though considering—
"Hey, just us, nothing to worry about," Aaron says calmly and the people in front of us relax. I realize I’m also tense. Huh.
The woman looks me up. “Oh, wow, he looks horrible,” she says matter-of-factly, “rough heist?”
“Yeah,” Aaron answers before I can. “In fact, I have some important issues to declare minding that.”
The smaller guard glances at her partner and then back at us. “Ok, let’s get inside then? Let Lloyd sit at least.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say.
Aaron turns to me for a moment, shifting uncomfortably from leg to leg, and also looks me up. He’s obviously conflicted about something. "...right. You don’t have your tablet here anyway," he turns to the guards again, smiling weakly. The man in front of us nods and we enter a door at the end of the short corridor.
The room is small and what differentiates it from the rest of the cave corridors is mostly the support beams, because there are still no proper walls inside. There is however, a metal desk and two chairs. Aaron immediately sits on one and sighs deeply. The woman looks first at me and then at the remaining chair. She then rolls her eyes and takes out a tablet from the desk drawer. After a moment of consideration I decide it would be prudent to follow my companion’s example. And as I do that I think I could note much more information about the state of my legs but I opt to keep ignoring it instead.
"So, what did you salvage this time?" the woman asks looking at the tablet.
Aaron sighs and starts, "Actually—"
"It's me," I decide to take over. "Lloyd has been killed and Aaron uploaded me from the androids' server to keep his body going," everyone is looking at me intently again. Aaron's reaction is peculiar, he stops shifting in his chair and looks genuinely curious. I pause. I don't really know what else I should say. "At least that's what I understand about the situation," I conclude.
"You could let me do the talking," my companion states, wide eyed, emphasising the word 'could'. Interesting.
"Oh. That's… a shame," still only the woman is talking while her partner is observing the situation intently. She is looking at Aaron and her voice is understandably sympathetic. "I'm sorry Ron, you guys seemed close."
"Yeah, and now I'm stuck with this stick in the mud. No offense," there is a barely noticeable smirk on Aaron's face.
The female guard looks back at the tablet. "So, we'll need to register you somehow."
This time Aaron doesn't even try to answer for me, only waits, seemingly in an anticipation of what I will say.
"My name is Connor," humans don't have serial numbers so a name should suffice. Wonder if they need a surname too? "Is there anything else you need?"
She seems to consider the question for a moment. "Well, do you know when you were uploaded into the servers?"
My last upload was at some point of the 9th of November, year 2038, after infiltrating Jericho. I can't remember the specifics but it's entirely possible that something went wrong. Yet I can't stop wondering why wasn't I reactivated? There's this unpleasant feeling in my stomach again. "...it's a blur," I say as I finally realize that the guards are still waiting for an answer. "The technology was new," or didn't exist actually, "when I tried to explain, Aaron here told me I must be ancient."
"That's fascinating," the male guard blurts out silently, as if on reflex. He keeps looking at me until our eyes meet.
"Oh, Kevin's a bit of a history geek. You should meet up sometime," his partner throws him a glance indicating an inside joke of some kind. The man rolls his eyes and looks at the wall. The woman soon goes back to the tablet. "So, I'm gonna file that under human consciousness… from where?" she's looking at Aaron now.
"Maybe I'll take it from here," Aaron says while tiredly standing up and getting closer to the guard and her tablet. She nods and gives it to him and he starts "I'm gonna take up the particulars with the guild," as he fills out a document that's open there.
"Yeah, ok," a moment of silence and I decide to close off my vision temporarily. The wound is getting hard to ignore when I'm sitting like this. And my sore legs. And I think I'm getting hungry again. "Thanks," I hear suddenly and see Aaron giving back the tablet. "Good luck there, both of you."
Aaron looks in my direction as I stand up, ready to follow him out of the room. "Gonna need it," he says, turning to Kevin holding the door open.
"How are you holding up?"
We're standing above a ladder leading down and I realize that I must have grimaced again.
"Somehow," I answer, shrugging. "I don't think all those ladders are good for the wound though."
"It's just the second one. And last. I'm getting you to bed now and hopefully a proper doctor," he looks at me guiltily again and starts going down soon after he finishes the sentence. I try to hold the contempt for that action down and follow.
As we get down from the ladder my senses are slowly getting loaded with new stimuli. First is the smell. The mild, earthy smell is replaced by intense, almost suffocating mixture of everything. It's impossible for me to discern without visual feedback and it makes me lose my sense of balance and my stomach squeezes weirdly again. I try to focus on the sounds instead then, still muted by the cave walls, some electronic music, guitar, constant chatter, both smooth and mechanic, and banging of stone against metal… nothing is sorted, focusing only makes it worse. My leg suddenly slips from a rung and I feel it being stopped by some soft resistance.
"Oof, easy!" Aaron's voice. I take the leg back onto the ladder and look down. He stopped it with his hand.
In a few seconds I slide carefully back to the hard ground with a clang. It's a dirty, metal platform in a cave, a considerable height and a few other platforms above ground. And from here I can finally see most of the sources of the smells and sounds as I feel the muscles in my face tense involuntarily. Chatty, sweaty people, roaring, bright screens, mouth-watering food, some workers right next to me hammering something to a metal plate covering the wall…
I'm so hungry.
My mission is to stay alive, surely food should be my priority…?
"Come on, I'll get you food later," there's Aaron's imploring voice next to me.
"I'm hungry too, but let's get to my place first," I can feel him grabbing my hand and I begrudgingly follow him into a corridor with doors and signs around. I notice that some people are staring at us. I can't focus. I see someone sitting by the wall eating soup. Mushroom soup.
"Don't be a kid, we're almost there."
We go down a few metal steps in a circle and enter a small room, with a small table, a bunk bed, some cupboards, a stove and a small fridge and a door behind a whiteboard.
"You can take a shower in the back and then get to bed. I'll get us some food and be right back, don't leave, you hear me?" he says while closing the door behind him and I'm alone. My legs are shaking and I find myself involuntarily pacing around the very small space I am in until finally I make the decision to sit on the bottom bed. I take out the tablet and realize it's been an hour and 6 minutes since we arrived at the checkpoint. I wonder whether I should use this time to examine my surroundings more closely or log the last events and observations but my body makes this decision for me as my consciousness fades soon after I realize how soft the mattress is…