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"---aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

I am suddenly acutely aware of every inch of my body, a previously unknown sensation taking hold, making me shake, and wince, and scream. The world is spinning around me, and I find it extremely difficult to open my eyes more than an inch. I hear gunshots. Something takes my arm, violently raising me to my feet, and starts walking. The weird feeling is getting stronger. I want to analyze my condition but I can't. I can't even focus on what is currently dragging me. Something is very wrong. I conclude that I must be broken, but despite being horribly broken multiple times before, I still don't understand what this feeling is.

A metallic creak and a beep of a key-card.

"Damn, I know I put you in a bad condition, but I didn't expect you to be this jumpy!"

Something... someone is talking to me. But there are no prompts, nothing, my interface is blank. I still try to reply, but instead of forming words, I groan again. I decide to focus on my voice modulator, but my diagnostics didn't miraculously come back online, unfortunately. I do feel my throat burning up, however. Heat. Mixed with this... weird feeling...

"Ok, you're in pain, I get it, but we really have to be moving and you wriggling around is not helping either of us. I'll tend to you once we're out of harm's way, alright? Just bear with it for a while longer."

Pain...? Is that what it is? Androids weren't supposed to feel pain...

But despite my reluctance to admit it, the data does match up. The intense sensory experience, lowered ability to focus or control the body. But if that is pain then what is the stimulus...?

I manage to move my hand to touch my stomach, where most of the pain focuses on. A noise escapes my modulator again, as the pain strengthens in that moment. Definitely the source. My hand instinctively moves away and no matter my resolve to know more, I can't bring myself to touch it again. 

"Come on!" the voice repeats its plea, and pulls me harder. I scream. Again. Shit.

There are footsteps behind us. We must be trying to get away from whatever is walking in our direction. 

I am being pulled and shoved in different directions, struggling to keep my voice down. After what feels like an eternity, without access to my internal clocks, I feel the grip lessen a little as I hear the sound of a key-card and doors opening again. We pass the door. I fall onto the ground. I am out of breath, I don't know why I would need so much air in my body, overheating maybe? Beeping of a keypad. The world is spinning...

 


 

"Hey. Hey. Wake up."

I’m again gaining consciousness, this time much slower, much less violent. I am almost sure that I am still in motion, and only after a moment I realize this to be false. Moreover, when I twitch slightly, a tearing sensation spreads methodically from my stomach to the rest of the body. I manage to keep my mouth shut this time however, and only wince.

"You can't sleep for too long just yet. It's still possible that the brain will reject your consciousness. You need to work with it for at least a day now, sorry."

The voice this time is soothing, apologetic. He? This is definitely a male voice. I feel warmth on my shoulder. It’s his palm gently resting there. After a moment of steady breathing, that doesn't seem to cool me one bit, I finally open my eyes.

I am sitting by the wall of a small, empty, metallic room and a man is crouching in front of me. He is quite well built, has dark skin, short, messy hair and numerous scars on his face, but his bent posture and concerned look make him way less intimidating than he should be. 

I look around and there appear to be two sets of doors on my sides. Some kind of vestibule? 

"...emm, hello. Are you feeling somewhat better?"

Again, no response prompts come. I won't know how I feel until I move, but I find myself quite opposed to the idea. This seems like a courtesy question anyway, I can tell that much even without a reminder from the social programming. I could start exchanging pleasantries but I opt for a more direct approach instead.

"I cannot..." I manage to squeeze out quietly, though my throat still feels sore, "...analyze my condition."

The crouching man looks somehow confused by that answer, but soon replies, "Well, your 'condition' should be stable for now. Just don't strain yourself. Not that I was helping you much with that," he chuckles, while avoiding looking me in the eye. "There is a high risk of infection though, so we have to get back as soon as possible."

"Infection...? That shouldn't..." I look down at my abdomen, and see a bandage around it, colored red. Red. Infection.

"You said something before. About my consciousness...?"

"Yeah..." the man sits on the floor in a manner I can only categorize as resigned.

"I must have lagged, because I didn't quite register what it was."

His eyes glance back in my direction, as if looking for something, confusion apparent again, "Do you want a log or something? God, you sound like one of those things."

"A log would be helpful..." I respond automatically, before I realize an important factor in his statement. 'Those things'. Experience would point that he is talking about androids and the term points to disdain which I am quite familiar with. Also, what I could remember of my currently non-functional social programming gives an indication he is communicating in a way that is showing that he doesn't know I actually am an android. 

But it seems, as I turn my sight at the red stain on my bandage again, that maybe superficially, I’m not.

"I apologize. I'm just confused," I opt to rather divert his attention than start denying anything outright, while I have no idea of the situation I’m in. His expression turns guilty again, as expected. It seems as though he is somehow responsible for whatever happened to me and does not feel good about it.

"It would be confusing, yeah... I'm not sure how to even begin explaining though."

There is a short silence in which I try to remember some part of my infiltration social programs, but he speaks first.

"Your consciousness must have been uploaded to a server at some point. And I put it in... this body... because it's very important that it's kept alive, which would be significantly harder without anything on the inside to keep it that way," he states, looking anxiously somewhere right next to my head.

"You uploaded my... consciousness, into a human body? How is that possible?" I don't even try to hide my confusion, glancing back and forth from the wound to the man who apparently put me in this extraordinary position. 

"How should I know, I'm not a scientist, I just follow instructions and things happen," he shrugs and looks back at me. "Anyway, I would be grateful if you would... take care of Lloyd for me. And I promise I'll help you. It's also a chance you know? You're alive after all."

Alive... The word keeps echoing in my mind, with different images of deviants, Markus, Hank... And this man. What does it really mean to be alive anyway? And am I even supposed to be alive...?

I find it difficult to focus and keep track of everything without logs. What am I doing?

"I'm Aaron by the way. You?" thankfully, my jumbled thoughts are interrupted by a simple question, and I answer immediately.

"My name is Connor, I’m an..." and soon after, I swallow the next words from my standard introduction. "I'm Connor."

"Can you stand, Connor?" Aaron puts his hand on my shoulder again. I start to move my... or rather Lloyd's, body parts slightly, as if afraid to disturb whatever could bring back the pain. Afraid. Damn it. I really miss having a clear indicator that would tell me the extent of the damage.

"I don't know..." I say, or rather whimper, as I realize begrudgingly, still struggling to make a more decisive move.

Aaron sighs as a reply and suddenly hoists me up. I swallow a breath as I feel a sudden jolt pass through me, but I don't scream. It's definitely an improvement, the question being, is it getting better or am I getting used to it...?

The support beneath my arms is getting weaker and I bury my feet in the ground, trying to keep balance. Soon, I see Aaron standing with his arms crossed on my... No, somewhat below my eye level. It seems he's shorter than me. At any rate, I'm standing, by myself, and while I still feel unpleasant, pulsating sensations in my body, at least they are not occupying all my processing space... 

"So, how is it?" I hear a question.

"How is what?" I ask in return and the man frowns.

"How are you feeling?" he clarifies.

"...Unpleasant," I answer, with accordance to my previous assertions.

"Well, that's better than I was hoping for after your reaction earlier, so good for you!" Aaron smiles weakly and starts walking towards the door on my right.

I turn in his direction carefully and put my left foot forward. Right. Left. The pulse gets stronger. It's fine. I can walk. Right. Left. Right. 

Aaron turns around from the door and looks me up, "It doesn't look that bad..." 

His eyebrows are raised and his eyes indicate pity. I don't need extra scanners to tell he's lying.

"Ok, so, are you feeling up for a little task...?" 

Task... That seems familiar. Familiar is good.

"Yes," I answer, but whether I am actually functional enough for it remains to be seen.

"Didn't expect you to be so eager so soon... But that's good. Maybe if we hurry we can get somewhere safer before you can rest..."

"What's the task?" I ask, my stomach hurts, I need a distraction.

"Alright, alright. So. We need to open this door," he touches its surface with his palm when he says that. "The tricky part is, the switch is on the surface, so I can't come with you. But it shouldn't be too hard, I have a map, it's close by."

"Why can't you come?" I eye him suspiciously.

"No one can go outside, unless they want to get sick and die," he states, in a very matter-of-fact tone. "Excluding Lloyd. That means you now. You're immune. That's why I had to keep this body alive."

Sickness. Immune. Human. Consciousness. I really need a log. 

"And that's why you need to be really careful out there, ok? I'm really sorry I have to dump this on you so soon..."

"It's fine," I cut him off. There will be time for questions later. But I really need something to keep track of things. Humans use tablets, I could use one right now, maybe I could also check the time and date or connect to the internet, this is so unnatural... 

"Are you sure you're fine though?"

"No. But I have to be."

Aaron sighs and takes out a tablet out of his backpack. "There's a map here," he says while opening a program. "It's not wired to anything however, so you will have to navigate yourself. It shouldn't be hard though. It's a straight line, see?" he points at the blinking dot on the screen. I don’t recognize the location on the map, so it can’t be Detroit at least. "So you just have to make sure not to go off course, and if you do just look at the buildings. It shouldn't take more than two hours to be there and back. Are..." Aaron tilts his head slightly, a concerned look on his face. "Are you listening?" 

"Yes, I heard everything," I answer immediately. "Is there any text app on this tablet?"

"I guess? I didn't use that thing much..."

"Thank you," I say and take the device. There is a very simple notepad installed, but it will have to do. The lack of internet access is disappointing however.

"Well then, you should also have a com in one of your pockets but it will be useless with the kind of ceiling they have here," he looks up briefly. "Aaand we should be ready to go. Are you ready?"

I nod.

Aaron turns back to the other door and touches it with a small, transparent keycard. I hear a beep, and he pushes the door slightly. For a moment there is a complete silence and I can see that my companion is very attentive. I try to focus too and I realize there is a silent ringing in my ears.

"It should be clear. Either they didn't see us or it's a trap. We'll just have to be careful I guess. Time works against us either way," he says and opens the door fully. We leave the vestibule into an empty corridor. My stomach seems strained. I have an urge to lie down and never stand up.

"Who's 'they'?" I decide to ask, after a short consideration.

"Androids. You know androids?"

"Yes. Why are they after you... us?" I correct myself. If I'm in this Lloyd's body that means I share his problems. At least for now.

"That would take a while to explain. The short version is that their version of a perfect society is much different from ours, I guess," Aaron shrugs.

"Is there a war?"

A short silence follows. "You could say that."

We then turn into a smaller corridor to our left and Aaron stops my attempt to say the next thing that has come to my mind. We stay silent for a while again. I can't stop thinking about how could this have happened. Is it my fault? Did I fail to stop the deviants? I feel something strange in my stomach, different from the continuous pain. I can't remember what exactly were the circumstances of my last memory upload. Why wasn't I brought back...?

We soon start moving again and I feel the need to ask questions, but decide not to follow on it. It's obvious that Aaron is anxious that we might be heard and I don't think any confrontation in my current state would be a good idea. After what seems like a very long time, though my perception might be distorted because of the discomfort, we reach a ladder in the middle of the corridor, leading up to a hatch.

"Ok, we're here," my companion says quietly. "I'll know when you open the door, but give me a call when you're back down here, I'll pick you up if there's any problem. Oh, and one more thing," he gently touches my arm when I start to look up the ladder. "If, heaven forbid, you see anything resembling a human up there, remember: it's not. It would be best if they didn't see you but if they do, just try to act like an android and don't draw attention to yourself. You should be fine if they don't scan you," there's a slight pause. "Sometimes they don't. Damn, I hope they aren't up there." 

"I'll be careful," I reassure him, noticing a slight trembling in his voice. He looks me up again and, with a sudden realization, pulls something out of his backpack again. It’s a white, slightly bloodied t-shirt. I put it on.

"Alright, I'll help you up, try not to strain your stomach too much," he says and I slowly reach the hatch, with Aaron supporting me, and I only quietly grunt every second step. Suddenly, the ladder seems much higher than it is.

Aaron asks me not to open the hatch before he's down so I wait and look at him retreat deeper into the corridor. Then, he gives me a thumbs up and I push the hatch up.

A noise that escapes my mouth when I do that is louder than I would have liked. Damn, pain is annoying.

I focus intently on the hatch and I somehow manage to hoist it up. I can't accurately judge whether it's heavy or not. I get up carefully, sit on the surface and close the hatch with a soft clang.

 


 

I'm laying down on the hard ground, soft wind brushing against my skin, and I tremble. Cold. Not completely unfamiliar, but strange nonetheless, considering that the wind isn't that strong and it doesn't seem to be freezing. There is also a feeling of tightness in my stomach, even though the skin on my abdomen seems to be stretching. Annoying. I need to stand up.

And I will myself to do so, opening my eyes in the process. There are patches of grass growing out of the cracks in the concrete beneath my feet and as I look up I can also see bushes and small trees. The buildings marked on the map are but a background to nature taking over. I notice the fresh air entering my system and it feels... pleasant. I take a deep breath. And another. Strangely, it seems somehow energizing and I decide to start walking forward while it lasts. I walk fast, but calm, my legs seem a bit longer than I'm accustomed to. I shudder and slow down a bit as the wind picks up. I start to notice the pain again. Need a distraction.

I take the tablet out from the rucksack on my hip and check the time. 7:34:26. I log it... or rather I remember the time and proceed to match the map with my surroundings. Aaron was right, it is easy to navigate, the map is quite accurate in its simplicity. There's no trees or bushes marked but the spaces between and shapes of the buildings seem to be matching. On to the next point.

I minimize the map and open the text app. I properly log the time and an objective list. After that I proceed to write down things about my situation that I know and that I don't. I check the time and the map again after I finish. 7:47:13, and I seem to have made less than one third of the way. I scowl. Inefficient.

I pick up my pace and concentrate on the road ahead but after a while I start to notice more and more troublesome symptoms in my body. The pain gets stronger. My legs start to get weaker. It's getting harder to breathe but I can't stop. In the end I halt my march abruptly and bend down, supporting my torso with my arms on my thighs. I realize I'm panting. Damn.

I pick a nearby tree and approach it slowly, as the world seems to be spinning. I lean against it and check the clock. 8:01:22. I've been walking like this for about 14 minutes. I should be able to pace myself better, but I need a break first. Inefficient. I slide down and sit on the grass with my eyes closed. 

And then they suddenly jerk open as a jolt runs through me and I feel a fast and heavy beat inside my chest. I look for a clock inside my system, but quickly remember that it's gone and I take out the tablet instead. 8:07:02. 

What just happened? The signs remind me of being low on batteries or generally close to shut-down, which is worrying.

My head is throbbing. I rub my eyes and almost stretch, but the pain stops me halfway. I look at the clock again. I need to get up, but my whole body feels limp. I'm... scared. I shouldn't have gone off on my own before at least getting a hang of how humans work first hand. I remember some theory, but it's too easy to forget without my programming reminding me. And with my focus shifting with little of my control.

Maybe I'm just... tired? That's natural. All of this is natural. Except for me being the one feeling it.

I review my notes. Aaron has voiced concern for me losing consciousness for the next 24 hours. So even if it is natural, I still can't let myself fade out again. 8:10:43. I groan and rub my eyes again. Something just moved in the corner of my vision. I blink a few times and keep my focus on the tree to my right. The silhouette seemed human, though a bit smaller. I find myself hoping that it's my fatigue reaching the stage of delusions, even though it wouldn't be a good sign. I have no strength to either fight or flee and I'm definitely past the point of hiding. The beating in my chest becomes almost painful and I jerk up, mustering every bit of my strength to move forward. I'm walking straight and mechanically, losing myself in my mind and memory and forgetting about my new body. Objective, find the switch. Nothing else matters. There are quick and small steps somewhere behind me and I turn around. In front of me there is a child; or rather a child model android, visibly a composite, ruggedly dressed, holding a plush toy in one hand and a gun in the other. It's main design seems like a girl and a typical YK500 from what I remember, long dark hair, pale skin. But the composite parts stand out like a sore thumb, as if the synthetic skin couldn't cover the merging points completely, so they must have not been completely compatible. There is a line going through its whole face and right elbow joints are exposed.

"Do you need a recharge?" it speaks, looking me straight in the eye. If it had any intention of scanning me it already would have done so. I keep staring at it.

"No, I am still functional, this is enough," I answer, doing my best to keep my voice level, and turn around. I have a mission. I will have to bet that this composite wouldn't have any reason to stop me if I act like I know what I'm doing. What is it anyway...? 

"You don't seem functional. And you also seem... distressed. And I can't find your frequency."

Shit. Are those androids deviants? I don't have enough information to properly gauge what would be the right lie here... I keep going. It seems like with any other word I will only dig myself a deeper hole...

"What is your mission?"

"You don't have clearance."

"I see," and suddenly I feel it grip my wrist and put a gun to my back. There is no synthetic skin on her palm. She was attempting an interface. Shit.

"You're... You're not... You're human."

At least now I know it's definitely deviant. And it's only a child composite, I may have a chance... 

I realize I'm out of breath, I forgot to breathe, I need to breathe, I take a deep breath.

"You will die," it's tone seems somber. "I don't usually find humans just wandering out here. I should consider myself lucky..." 

It's a deviant. It feels empathy. Work with emotions. I can do this.

"Please let me go. I don't know what's going on. I've just been uploaded and I don't know what's going on," it's not even a lie.

"Uploaded...? Then you must be already in the system somewhere. I have no use for you," it seems relieved. "You will still die though. I don't know what you are trying to do, and I don't want to know. I... need to go," I feel the grip loosen and the gun no longer at my back, as the steps behind me indicate that the android is quickly running in the opposite direction. I fall to my knees. Maybe it's right, I will— this body will die here. I will fail my mission. I take out the tablet, 8:15:12, I'm not too far away from my goal, but I will still have to get back somehow. If this body is so important then Aaron must be either really stupid or really desperate to send me here alone right after I had been uploaded. Granted, he probably thinks I can at least take care of my basic needs. Speaking of which, the lower part of my stomach also starts hurting. I open the document and add all the worrying symptoms that I noticed. Alright. I can do this. I stand up again. The child android is in front of me.

"Alright, I'm sorry, I'm too curious. What are you trying to do?" it looks at me with big eyes, it's previous mechanicality gone completely. Did it try to hide it's deviancy before it knew I was human?

"If I answer that, will you answer my questions?" I decide to take my chances.

"Yes."

"...I need to open a door, the switch is nearby."

"Oh, I know which switch you're talking about!" it looks visibly excited. "Want me to get it for you?"

"...why would you do this?"

"Because you look miserable," it pouts. "Could you tell me your name? So I can look if you were really uploaded."

"Then tell me yours first. And what are you doing here and why do you care if I was uploaded."

"I'm Alice. And there is a general order to upload any human we come in contact with to a cloud unless there is an order that overrides that. Most humans know that, that’s why they avoid us. So I guess you really were uploaded recently."

"So you could just... Find my data? Only with my name?"

"With a full name, if there aren't too many duplicates."

"Well, I don't have a full name so you might have a problem."

"Why not?"

"And why don't you?"

“Because I'm an android. Though...” she seems to consider the question. “Chapman. I'm Alice Chapman."

"Your owner?" I conclude.

"No,” she seems offended. “My family. You don't have a family?"

Now I consider her question. Seeing that she is a child android, it’s natural that she could have been treated like a part of the family at some point. I also remember Daniel’s words, ‘I thought I was part of a family...’. Hank was my partner, if I could apply a human relationship, but it was the closest relationship I’ve ever had. "... I don't know," I finally answer, not really satisfied with my deliberations.

Alice also doesn’t look satisfied, but she drops the subject, "So what's your name?"

"...Connor. My name is Connor."

She looks surprised for some reason. "Really? I have a friend who's also called Connor," she admits.

“A friend? An android friend?”

“Yes,” there is silence for a moment during which she keeps eyeing me carefully. “I should probably go. Flip that switch for you. I don’t really want to see you die. You seem nice. The first human I’ve seen in ages that I could talk to.”

I don’t answer. I don’t know how to answer. I shouldn’t tell her that this body is supposed to be immune to the sickness that she probably thinks I will die from. But she really seems sad. 

“Will you really do that for me?” I’m still not sure how much I can trust her, but I have a better chance of making it back now than if I still try to get to the switch. So I really want to trust her.

“Yes,” and she starts running in the direction that I am facing. It’s time to go back. 8:34:27. I really hope I can trust her. She seems nice.

 


 

9:19:02, I stop my slow march and log the time, at the sight of familiar surroundings that indicate that the hatch should be near. I walk around, looking beneath my feet and a wave of inexplicable lightness engulfs me as I notice the hatch. There is still a tension in my stomach when I think about what’s going to happen now and whether Alice had really flipped the switch, but I shake it off, crouch, grab the handle and...

I fall down. I’m too weak to lift the plate. So close and yet so far.

For a moment I think that maybe Aaron could be down there and have noticed the movement, or that at least Alice have followed me and would be able to help. But that moment passes soon and I’m sitting alone on the cold concrete, once again feeling every inch of my body way too intensely and struggling to keep myself from sobbing.

...sobbing? Now that is pathetic.

I remember that, apart from how pushing it was affecting my wounds, the hatch wasn’t that heavy. I look around to find a sturdier stick and I manage after a while. 9:25:54. I lift the hatch just enough to put the stick between it and the concrete. Then I sit on the stick, wondering whether it would be more appropriate to pray to God or RA9 in my current state.

Please don’t break.

And it doesn’t. I lie on the ground and put my whole arm under the hatch, even though I feel pain and the possibility of damage looms over me. I need to get in. I find the ladder with my palm and manage to hoist myself up, the shoulder lifting the metal plate. I slide in and barely manage to not immediately fall down. I’m not sure how I find myself on the floor. Sitting next to the ladder, with shaking hands, I take out the com that Aaron has told me about.

“I’m back, I don’t think I can make it any further by myself, please pick me up.”

"Damn, Lloyd... I mean, Connor, are you ok?" I hear Aaron from the other side, quite clearly but with some light static.

"No, I am not, I just said I don't think—"

"Alright, alright, I get it, sorry, I'll be right there," he interrupts me and I can hear shifting, as he's probably moving to the door. I still can't stop thinking about Alice.

"...did it open?" I finally ask, after a moment of silence. 

"Yeah, I'm holding it," I hear a long, silent beep. "You did good. Hold on there, I'm coming. Over and out."

...Right. Hold on. It would be better to keep me talking so I don’t pass out. But I should probably watch out if nothing is listening too. I don't really think I care at this point though. I take out the tablet. 9:27:21. I try to update the document as best as I can to keep my focus, but my eyes keep on closing. Once in a while I jerk awake again to find the clock move a minute or two. And finally, I don't...

Chapter Text

[Rebooting...]

"Lloyd, are you ok?"

I hear a soft voice, as I come online, not all sensors fully functional yet. 

"I will run on ahead. Don't fall back now!" there is a teasing note there and I realize that the voice is female. My optical sensors come online and I see a female silhouette, with flowing red hair, running ahead. 

[Objective: Catch the deviant]

I stand up. I am in the middle of a forest, so I take the terrain into account and start the chase. 

[Compatibility error]

My vision is blurring a bit and I realize that there is a smaller silhouette next to the deviant, holding its hand. Alice...?

"Hey! Where you goin'?"

Something grips my hand and I see a fence, a flash of cars, Hank...?

"I can't let them get away," I answer automatically.

"They won't! They'll never make it to the other side."

Other side? But we are in a forest... 

[Compatibility error]

[Objective: Catch the deviant]

"I can't take that chance!" I jerk out of my partner's grip and prepare to climb the fence. 

"Hey, you will get yourself killed! Do NOT go after 'em, Connor, that's an order!"

I ignore his imploring voice and start climbing, but suddenly the fence is gone, and I fall down to my knees. I hear a commotion around me and a quick scan reveals that I fell into some kind of bar. I locate the deviant among the people near the counter, but something appears on my HUD,

[Compatibility error]

[Objective override]

[Objective: error---]

and I stand up, and punch a man in front of me in the face. I recognize him. Aaron...?

He doesn't put up much of a fight, contrary to what his build and number of scars could indicate at first glance. He's strong, but doesn't really know what he's doing.

"You're not really Aaron, are you? What happened?" I ask without much understanding of the words coming out of my mouth.

I don't hear his answer however, because both my vision and auditory systems are suddenly overloaded with error messages and overridden objectives. I fall down again. My heart is beating fast, I'm scared, what is happening...?

[Objective: Find Amanda]

I'm in the Garden, during beautiful spring, and I'm not alone but the silhouette in front of me is far from familiar. Long, flowing, red hair again...

"We need to go, brother," she speaks, not turning around, but I hear a smile in her voice. I also smile involuntarily and try to approach her, but a blizzard sweeps me off my feet.

"Connor!"

It's so cold...

"Connor, wake up!"

 

 


 

I gasp, jerking up, wet, and my insides are burning up. I breathe heavily, trying to cool myself. There is no HUD, no objectives, no errors, just pain and heat. I need air, I NEED to breathe, I remind myself. Why, what happened, who am I...?

"Steady, Connor, steady..."

I see a familiar figure in front of me, Aaron, as I recall. He's crouching, and holding both my shoulders. 

"What... What's going on...?" I ask after the beating in my chest subsides somewhat. 

"You fell asleep. You looked like you needed it, so I carried you for a while, but then you went rigid and I couldn't risk you becoming a vegetable," his voice is steady but the concern is clear in his eyes. 

"Then that was... A dream?" I conclude. "Weird..."

"They tend to get weird. Especially in the beginning. It's almost like the other person was still there somewhere..." he looks somewhat wistful for a moment, "but they are just remnants. And it's easy to get lost and never wake up."

My head is throbbing. I feel tight pressure at the bottom of my stomach. The wound on my abdomen is squeezing my skin. I'm weak, though a bit better than before. Everything is like a blur, I don’t know what’s real anymore, what I feel, I shouldn’t feel. I bury my face in my hands and I realize there’s hair in my mouth, so I run my fingers across my head, sliding it back, it’s wet, that’s my sweat...? And why the hell are those hair so long, so impractical...

Alright, time to compose myself. I look back at Aaron. Right now I am here to stay alive and that’s what I’m going to do. He has brought me here for that reason, and I should probably tell him about what a hindrance me being maladjusted to being a human is... But first I need to know more about the conflict here before I dig myself in too deep in it. I need to focus. Gather information. Get my body in working order. 

"Anyway, do you feel any better now at least?” Aaron suddenly speaks after a while of silence. “We should keep moving. I'll let you have a proper rest when we reach the crossing, it should be around 12 hours from now, so it should be fine for you to sleep. Properly."

I instinctively try to compare it against the time I have been conscious, so in the end I end up taking out the tablet. 11:01:10, I have been unconscious for about 1,5 hour. The walk on the surface took me about 2 hours. That times 6... At least I won’t be alone. As for how I feel...

"A bit better, thank you," not looking forward to 12 hours of walking though. This seems so mundane, it shouldn't phase me, damn.

"Eeh, you really have nothing to thank me for, though," the man in front of me turns his head. Embarrassment? 

"It's not a stretch to say that I would be dead within minutes if it wasn't for you though."

"You would also still be just a string of data, oblivious to... Whatever hell I'm putting you through now. But who knows what those androids would have put you through if they had gotten around to it..."

At least I would probably still be an android, a thought comes to mind. It would be less confusing. 

"Let's go then," Aaron continues. "Lean on me if you have to."

And we proceed. A bland corridor stretches in front of us and it somehow makes me think that hours pass when it is only minutes. I walk by myself, most of the time, not being alright with all my displays of weakness, and not really knowing how much of it is this body's fault and how much my inability to function as a human. I again think that I should probably tell Aaron about my condition, but I find myself unable to do so, thinking about countless reasons that it would be a bad idea. Yes, it is better for me to analyze the situation properly first, it's only logical. 

I focus intently on remembering my infiltration protocols again and manage to learn more about what's going on with androids and humans now by talking with Aaron. What strikes me as most odd is that no one remembers how this came to be. Humans are living underground, in many different settlements, fearing the disease that is basically slowly shutting all the organs down. But the only thing they know is from some records and people that are mad enough to venture into old shelters that are now occupied by androids. And Aaron and Lloyd were one of those people, with Lloyd’s added benefit of even being able to see what is above ground. As for androids. Most people blame them for everything, because now they are reaping the benefits. They function mostly on the surface and in the old shelters where most of the systems are. They have completely taken over the network, so humans have never dared to use it, and every ‘ancient’ device they repurpose, they cut off from it, just to minimize the risk of android influence. But according to Aaron, they do not act like individuals, but rather a big hive-mind, if one saw you, you can safely assume that if it’s important enough, every other will know. It’s hard to decide what that could mean. Are the deviants simply working together, or are the androids under the influence of some human or a program? At any rate, their purpose seems to be uploading as many humans’ consciousnesses as they can, and to give them android bodies. The reason why most humans can’t accept it is because every android is somehow controlled... a perfect society. And this strikes me as something no deviant could accept, Markus’ dream of freedom fresh in my mind. So what happened?

"And what do you remember?" among my interrogation I suddenly find myself caught off guard by the question. "Your data hasn't been modified for ages. Maybe you can help us figure things out." 

I still haven't decided how much I can tell him though. 

"We were also fighting against androids. Deviants, to be precise. Androids were created to serve humans, but some of them would become self-aware and simulate human emotions, like fear, hatred, love... In the end they grouped up and demanded rights from humans. I... don’t know how it ended. My memory was uploaded before the conflict’s conclusion."

Aaron looks deep in thought for a while. "...I didn’t know that there could be uploads as old as you. The oldest we’ve come across were already after the disease started spreading... This is fascinating."

My memories are definitely much simpler to copy than a human’s... So I gather that they must have devised the technology to convert human memories to data later on. But Aaron still thinks I was a human...

Glancing at the tablet again, it’s 11:42:09 and the distraction tactic seems to be working because I feel I can keep going. And we keep going like this for a while, but this time I drown in my own thoughts concerning this situation, and my apparently ‘ancient’ past...

 


 

"And now for a bit more scenic route," Aaron suddenly remarks as we approach a hole in the wall and I can see that there are no proper walls inside. The passage also seems too small for two people to walk side by side. 

He glances at me, "What's with the stare? It's kind of disturbing."

I'm staring...? "Don't mind me, sorry."

"It's getting wider later on, if you're worried," he tries to reassure me. Am I worried though? I shouldn't be. The only reason it would be more dangerous is that we could get stuck somehow, but Aaron seems to know what he's doing. Maybe it's because of my physical state. Or maybe Aaron just assumes something that isn't true. Suddenly, I hear a familiar sound of a metal plate somewhere farther in the corridor, and turning my eyes in the direction of the sound I notice a ladder and a hatch, not unlike the one I used before. Before I can react however, I am being pushed into the small passage and I fall on my rear. 

"Move forward and don't stop!" I hear Aaron's commanding but quiet voice. I stand up, slowly getting better at ignoring all the uncomfortable sensations (my legs are so stiff and it hurts), turn around and move like I'm asked to. I have no strength, botched reaction times, and no weapon and we've most likely just happened upon a confrontation. Thinking back, I don't think Aaron has a weapon either, and even a composite, child model android had a gun. We NEED to run. 

And we do. I need to be constantly hunched and there are times when we need to squeeze through somewhere, though this body seems surprisingly lean, and we keep going and Aaron's always behind me. I try to focus on the road ahead but I keep hearing soft footsteps in the distance, among ours and the beating of my heart.

My throat is so sore.

"You have committed a crime of theft," suddenly, a dark, monotone voice resounds through the passageway and I pick up my pace. "Turn yourself in for upload and you may continue using this body as you please." 

The android seems awfully non-deviant and after a short focus I realize I recognize this voice and those lines to be of a basic private security model. I hear Aaron mutter, "No fucking way in hell I'm letting you upload anything, scrap pile," under his breath. 

"I will reach you sooner or later. Give the RK back," somehow the mention of my model line makes me tense, I didn't expect anyone or anything to mention it after all that's happened, and now here it is, an affirmation that I am what I am, and the android chasing us knows that.

"You don't know what you're getting yourself into. It's dangerous. If you ever even manage to activate it, it will make your life miserable, trust me, I have had first hand experience," now those lines don't sound like a security android at all. Is it modified? Or maybe deviant after all...?

The man behind me suddenly halts and I hesitate for a moment to go further, but a hand pushes me gently away. I hear a rustle of what I gather must be his pack and then a small piece of plastic tumbling away on the ground.

"There you fucking have it now leave me alone!" oh. He's bluffing. The android will no doubt check what the thrown thing is no matter what, so it's buying time at least. Unless the android knows I've been uploaded, but there's a chance it doesn't. 

"Turn right at the nearest junction and climb down carefully," I barely hear a whisper right next to my ear. And I do that as soon as I feel a branching, steady, down a slope and then suddenly it's way too steep and I'm sliding down. Then I'm back on my rear. True to Aaron's word however, the passage gets wider. It looks like we're in some sort of cave, but I don't have time to scan my surroundings properly with my very limited processing power and Aaron pulling me forward. I hear an echo back from the passage but can't make out the words. Finally, my companion stops, lets go of my hand and looks around, to finally kick a lose stone in the wall nearby and start pulling me further again.

A stone falls on my shoulder and I yelp. That seems like it might not have been the best idea after all.

I focus intently on my surroundings, still cursing my reaction times, and try to keep up with Aaron who's squeezing my hand so tightly it actually starts to become numb. I hear the cave collapsing behind us and I can only assume that Aaron knows where we're going.

The passage gets even wider again and soon the noise starts to die down and we're slowing down.

I fall to my knees, panting, everything fucking hurts.

 


 

"Are you still alive in there...?" I hear Aaron is also out of breath, but still standing. I only nod in response, though I soon realize that it’s probably too dark for him to see it. My throat is dry so I don't speak. Why is it so dry...?

I hear rustling from Aaron’s position and soon the cave is engulfed in a dim light from a small LED lamp that he put on the ground. I nod again.

Then I see Aaron sit down besides the wall and take out a bottle out of his pack. Wait. Oh. Water. Humans are 60% made of water, I haven't drank since I have been uploaded, that explains some stuff...!

I open my pack and find a similar bottle. There isn't much left there and for a moment I just find myself staring at the transparent liquid, imagining it a deep blue. Then I look back at the red splotches on my t-shirt and take a deep gulp which leaves the bottle almost empty. It feels good. So I finish the remaining liquid and keep staring at the now empty bottle. I feel the bottom part of my stomach painfully squeeze again. I wish I could stop feeling…!

"Hey, there's not much more but I think there was even less in yours so you can take a sip, just not all, we still have ways to go," Aaron is passing me his bottle and I take it. Then I take a small sip and keep it in my mouth for a while. It's weird to have something touching my tongue and not immediately analyzed. I swallow and push the bottle back to Aaron. I want more. But also I don't, because it feels like my stomach is about to burst. Aaron looks at me strangely.

"Do you need to pee?" he suddenly asks.

Bladder. It's my damn waste disposal. I would have known if I focused. 

I nod. I technically know how to relieve myself. I also know that most humans don't find it comfortable to do it in public, hence the toilets. No toilets here. Just stone. It is also pretty dark however. I turn off the light and stand up. And realize that I either know way less about human physiology than I thought or am simply unable to pee now. Well.

15 minutes and a very awkward talk about Lloyd's apparent bladder problems later I finally feel somewhat acceptable. My wound feels hot, my head throbs, my legs are wobbly, I'm weak and feel somewhat empty... Alright, maybe I spoke too soon, everything is still horrible, but at least it's getting better...?

I focus on looking for Aaron for now and what I'm not prepared for is hearing gentle, broken, muted and infrequent sobbing coming from the darkness. I gather he is sitting by the cave's wall with his face in his knees. I'm not sure how to proceed. He somehow keeps me together in this mess of a situation, even if he was the one to bring me into it in the first place, and I should be able to deal with this. But again, no prompts, only a vague memory of a protocol for dealing with traumatized witnesses. I pick up the light, not turning it on, and approach him silently and the sound stops altogether. I can't see anything, but I just put the light next to him and sit down. My throat feels squeezed along with my stomach. 

"I'm sorry, we should get going before you start feeling dizzy again," his voice seems somehow battered and I quickly visualize my own prompts in the darkness. Agree or stay. My mind wanders to comparing human imagination to the various programs I used to have installed as I forget that there should be a timer and I hear rustling and grunting next to me, from higher up this time. The light turns on and I squint gently as it's turned on me.

"On second thought. I feel like I have to get some shit off my chest. You... Damn," The hand with the light falls down, accompanying Aaron's resigned expression. "We spent months figuring out and digging those tunnels and now we have been compromised, Lloyd is dead and I had to collapse the path. It's fucked up. We haven't even stolen anything, even though that thing thought we did," he chuckles suddenly, "except for you but I never heard them using code names or object pronouns for human consciousness—"

"Stop." 

The point of no return, here it is, if I ignore it there will never be a good time to come clean. I need to shake it off, he's clearly disturbed, and it may turn ugly, but so be it. If Aaron has brought me here to help him, there is no use keeping secrets which may get this body killed again. And I’m tired of figuring everything out by myself.

"Huh?"

"I need to tell you something."

"What is it?"

"I'm an android."

There is an almost deafening silence for a moment as I look the man in front of me in the eyes and his expression turns stern.

"What?"

"My consciousness. Connor. Is an android. I am... I was an android. That's why it called me an RK. It's the name of my series."

"You... Is that..." a short silence. "Was that all part of a plan?!" I'm suddenly hoisted up and pinned against the wall. Familiar, but also so much more painful this time.

"I don't know what you're talking about..." I squeeze out, among whines and sobs that I still can't quite control. The light is laying on the ground, still turned on.

"Oh fuck, I'm so sorry..." his demeanor shifts again and he puts me gently back on the ground. I instinctively grab my throat and bend down, wheezing. "Fuck. I knew there was something off with the data, but I was too desperate! Who could have fucking known they were keeping regular AI in there?! And it worked!" I hear him kick something metal. "It worked, so why would I think anything was wrong..." his anger suddenly turns to resignation and I finally manage to look up again. He looks conflicted. I wonder if there is anything I can say... But I don't, the uncomfortable silence stretches between us for a good while. I have no goal here, no mission, I don't really know what I should be trying to convince him of. And on top of that, the lack of any prompts is still annoying, gathering my thoughts seem to take ages. Finally, I lean against the wall and take a deep breath again. Oxygen feels good, even though it's not quite the same as above ground. 

"I don't have any objective now, except for the one you gave me," I state and it seems to have piqued Aaron's interest, as he finally dares to look at me and turns his head slightly.

"And what is that objective?"

"Stay alive."

Silence again.

"I promise to do everything to help you," I say, finally.

"Why?" the man seems naturally suspicious. 

"You brought me here. It seems only natural."

"Not at all," he groans impatiently. "I brought you here against your will, and now you would just do what I say? It's the opposite of natural. Especially when you're an android. I mean, I really don't have androids' best interest in mind."

"I didn't lie to you when you asked about my past. I'm a deviant hunter," I shrug. "I never really had androids' best interest in my program."

Silence again. I try to keep my mind blank. 

"And that's why you would help me?" he finally speaks. "Because it's in your program?"

"I don't think I have a program anymore, but... Possibly," I let my thoughts back to my... dilemmas. Maybe they can be beneficial now at least. "I was supposed to hunt deviants so that there isn't a war between humans and androids. I'm not sure what's happening yet, but I feel like I've failed somehow and I want..." I try to correct myself, as an android, I shouldn't want. But I remember that I am also technically human now, and maybe in that case 'wanting’ isn't so bad. 

"I want," I reaffirm. "To make it right somehow. Is that alright with you?"

Aaron seems to be considering what I said. I feel like his thoughts could be similar to mine when I chose to trust Alice. He wants to be able to trust me, because he doesn't have much other choice. I wonder if he can really trust me though. I'm not really sure what I'm getting into here. I just want clear objectives.

"So you want to help humans."

"Yes. And..." I stop this train of thought, I'm getting ahead of myself.

"And...?" no, don't encourage it, please. Enough is enough. 

"I mean... I'm not supposed to want, I don't know if..."

"Out with it," he's getting more frustrated. I need to indulge him.

"I want..." here it comes. "I want to find out what happened. And maybe some androids or... people I know. If even human consciousness can be uploaded..." stop. Can't start thinking out loud now, come on. 

Aaron takes a methodical breath and looks at me. "Alright, so. You help me and I help you. That actually seems more sensible than having you help me just... Because. Damn it all," his eyes wander and he sighs deeply before focusing intently on glaring me down. "You are gonna regret it if you're fucking with me, you hear?"

"Of course," I answer automatically.

"Then let's get going," he turns around, quickly, seeming relieved that the conversation is over. "I'll have some time to think until we reach the crossing."

I nod, more to myself than anything. So much for distraction. I take out the tablet and note the time, 13:01:58. Definitely not less than 10 hours until the crossing. I can do it. I can focus on walking for a few hours. Contrary to Aaron, I don't want to think anymore.

I repress my very human urge to sigh, so as not to disturb my companion further and follow him a few steps behind. Aaron turned off and hid the light that was lying on the floor previously and now has a stronger one on his forehead. I check my bag and find one too, so I follow his example. I focus intently on my surroundings and my pace, determined to pass the time.

 


 

"Alright, enough. Walk beside me, the path is wide enough. And you don't have to act so... stiff. Unless it's your default. Still, it's unsettling, even more so now that I know why you do that," Aaron has been looking back once in a while, the frequency getting higher the longer we walked. So that's what was bothering him. I pick up the pace to match his and relax my posture.

"But I meant it that you don't have to force yourself if it's more comfortable for you that way," he is looking at me and there is this warm concern in his voice again, which makes me think that maybe he can come around to my former state more quickly than I anticipated. 

"Nothing is comfortable at the moment, but thank you for your concern," I answer with a polite smile. Aaron forces a pitied smile back and turns back forward. It's 14:52:12. I keep focus, but there are multiple topics occupying my processing space and I can't keep them all away this time. Especially wondering what is this warm feeling in my otherwise pained stomach…

 


 

At 15:12:13 I reach the conclusion that since human body has physical reactions for mental processes, the one that is positive for me at the moment seems to be concerning Aaron's attitude earlier. Calling it 'hope' wouldn't be a stretch. 

I hope we can have an agreeable relationship. I think I really do want to help. I'm still not sure how one does really determine a 'want', what are the processes that go on in a human brain that release the chemicals that motivate them. Me. And how did deviants simulate it, did they somehow replicate the process, what is the 'reward' for an artificial being...?

"How do you know you really want something?" I find myself asking before I can stop myself.

Aaron doesn't turn, but after a short while he answers, "I guess you just know. I'm not too keen on philosophy." 

"It's not philosophy,” I find myself refuting without much thought. “What is the process that determines the 'want' part of the brain?"

Aaron grunts. "Well, I'm not a neuroscientist either."

"...right. I apologize." I probably shouldn't push it. 

We walk in silence again, until, "I guess, practically, you just determine what action, situation, or whatever, could give a result that is most beneficial to you. Or people you care about," he says, still keeping his eyes forward. “It doesn’t have to be rational. Just something you know will make you feel good. Either right away or in the long run. Or something like that.”

"I see," I state, to give myself some time to think. I still can’t get used to how slowly I analyze information. Focus.

Aaron does not however seem intent on giving me that time. "You said you 'want' to make it right. Do you know why?"

"I…" my thoughts are jumbled and I start regretting starting this conversation. "Using your statement as reference, I'd say that on some level I might think that in this way I can get back to what is natural for me. And doing what I'm good at… would make me feel good…?"

I hear a silent chuckle from my side. "Sorry," the man quickly apologizes, "it’s a little bit funny how weird this is. You're in my best friend's body, you sound like a confused puppy and yet you claim to be an artificial intelligence that I have only ever known from wanting to kill me," he chuckles again, the tone a bit more hysterical now. "I really don’t know what to think…!" the chuckle turns to laughter and he stops walking, holding his stomach. I stop too, a little bit further than him, turning around to face him.

"Are you alright?" I ask. I know that laughter can be used to manipulate social bonds, but can also serve as a tool to decrease stress. This seems like the latter. Though I guess, it could be a weird form of bonding too…?

"Yeah, yeah, sorry again…" he wipes his eyes and his voice is strained. He's crying? "Just give me a moment…" 

I stand still. Is there any good response to this? 

"Alright," he's finally upright, still giving a muffled chuckle from time to time. "Let’s not waste more time. I needed this, but enough is enough, we still have ways to go."

Aaron starts walking again, but there is still a grin on his face. 

"I once told someone that adapting to human unpredictability is one of my features…" I say, "I really miss my software."

"Oh, I bet you do."

Chapter Text

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.

"Got it."

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.

"No way…" 

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…

No.

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.

"What?"

"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. 

"Yes."

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.

"None taken."

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.

"Sorry."

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. 

Food.

"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. 

"Aaron…"

"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…