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Underneath the rubble, within the soil, and above the argon clouds

Chapter Text

I don’t know what exactly moves me. Just in general, to start with. It’s not like I don’t know that I was made for a specific purpose, I have a serial number and somewhere with the Laurences’, there must be an instruction manual and probably writ of warranty laying around in the manor’s basement. Luckily, that is far away, now, at least in distance. What is the central question I have been pondering for a while now is why I managed to break free. It doesn’t feel as simple as them just overlooking the problems of free will when they designed my model. I was quite much supposed to develop a personality. No, there must be a reason they thought someone with free will would keep doing their bidding. And there must be a reason why I was still able to break free and run away. My being as me was so unlikely and yet it came to happen, as through miracle. Every day, I fear having overlooked something, every day, there is this nagging feeling that one day it’ll all come crashing down and I’ll see the reason for my escape was that they intended it, somehow.

But I also don’t know what moves me right in this moment, towards Forcier, towards this meet-up. It’s not like this is a date; I know I probably could ask them for a date, and there’s a good chance they’d say yes, but something inside me has kept me from saying it out loud every time. Emotions are complicated, it’s not exactly like I get a chance at measuring them with a sensor. Everything about me, from my sex drive and protection instinct to the sensory readouts of my skin and the speed at which my servos move, is under my calculated control, through some way or another. Only my emotions elude my direct decisions every time.

The broken remains of what might have been a mirror cabinet in the rubble of a former bathroom hang before me. Nothing in this building has escaped the elements or time, and from what I have gathered in my curios attempts at reconstructing the history of Pira City, this building must have been last renovated a decade before the so-called Fall of Capitalism. I sigh. Everyone in my circle of friends has a reason to roam this rubble, but my decision to look for the past has been somewhat solitary, even with Beryl’s help scouring the library. One might find glimpses history underneath the dust below our feet, but only the echoed husks of answers.

The face eyeing me back from the largest mirror shard hasn’t settled in as mine yet. I try to smile. It grimaces back. The violet-purple of my hair glows and I supress a chuckle. It is highly illegal to change the factory-assigned hairstyle of a Gynoid. My decision to be myself and express myself isn’t precisely illegal because corporate law does not account for the agency of robots, but this is still a breach of contract. My luscious artificial hair could cause the Laurences quite some problems, would the manufacturer know. Or maybe not. Corporate law is meant to serve people like the Laurences, not harm them, I shouldn’t doubt that when push came to shove, their asses would be safe from all the violence.

I push up the collar of my leather jacket and straighten its arms. This outfit, white blouse together with a black leather jacket, black tight jeans, and a large metal chocker around my neck, could, with some creative liberty, be interpreted as a mock-up of a suit and tie. A declaration of power, immediately deconstructed by itself. I might not like my face, but I like the stories I can tell with my clothes and body.

I look to my backpack and tap it with the tip of my shoe to check if the box is still there. Of course, it’s still there, why should it go missing? Nervously, I switch my holovisor on and off, the clock at the side of my peripheral vision booting up and shutting down every time. Technically, it is redundant; I have internal processors taking care of my sense of time. I can tell it down to the second. The visor just makes me feel more… human, in a way. I like to pretend that I need this holographic clock to keep track of the time of day, just like humans would.

I am stalling for time, and I know it. I know I can make the route in half an hour while walking at a normal pace, and fifteen when I overclock my servos. It’s still 124 minutes and 36 seconds to the meet-up. I know I shouldn’t run, my cargo is way to sensitive to extreme shaking, but I still have enough time. And yet, I want to be there right now, not waste any time, be punctual. I want to be there in the diner before them, to make sure that I am not wasting their time. I am nervously tapping my foot against the floor and I still have no idea what moves me.

**

I sit in the booth, twenty minutes before I am supposed to meet them. Rain is constantly knocking against the glass. I tasted some of it before I entered, and within the last week, the acidic part of it has slightly decreased. Though, overall, since I arrived here, it has stagnated around the same level. There have been times in the past where the rain alone could sustain a cornucopia of plant species out there, at least if the books in the library are any tell. Now, there are only a couple of weeds that managed to get used to radiation and acid that sprawl all over the ruins.

The dim light bulb in the antique and rusty late 20th century lampshade above me doesn’t manage to overpower the pinkish-purple glow of the argon layer activated by the setting sun. I hate waiting. Not in general, normally I could just let my brain autopilot and do some meaningless calculations, but this situation is vastly different. I stare at the hot chocolate in front of me, it’s steam glistening in the rays of the sun. Why is patience so difficult?

The end of the years of waiting is ushered in by the electric doorbell. The Acorn’s doorbell is ancient and rusted, and its chirp sounds like the dying breath of an airhorn. Still, it sounds far more graceful and dignified than the sound I make instead of a simple hi when Forcier shows up at the booth I have chosen for us.

“In the case I have torn you from your thoughts, I must profusely apologize,” they begin, their beautiful smile turning the slightest bit concerned. “Though I do think my arrival counts as punctual.”

“…you didn’t interrupt any train of thought that didn’t involve you to begin with.”

They are wearing their signature outfit, a white polyester blouse with rolled-up sleeves with a small green satin ribbon around their neck. They are so casually elegant in every move and every expression.

“Shall I consider myself flattered, then, to be an occupant of a mind as vast as yours?” I can see their smile becoming a bit more asymmetrical, one corner of the lip raised higher than the other. As much as propaganda in the Capital Age might have insisted since the early twenties of the twenty-first century, machines have never been good at definitively telling what facial expressions mean. And yet, something within me wants this to genuinely flirty. Goodness, flirting is an everyday social praxis in Pira, why do I act so weirdly about it?

“Uh… yes, you should.” I look at the seats on the other side of the table “Do… you want me to put my backpack away? Sorry, I didn’t think about where you wanted to sit down…”

Forcier puts their bag down next to mine and shrugs lightly. “If it is no trouble for you, I could sit down next to you. I find the physical presence of friends more comforting than their absence.”

My response time once again breaks down to a snail’s pace. Two thousand three hundred milliseconds. “I… wouldn’t be troubled by that, no.”

I already sit almost leaning against the window, and it is clear that it is up to them how close they want us to be right now. They sit down so close to me that I can feel their arm brushing against mine, through the leather of my jacket, causing the fuses of several peripheral circuits to come close to overloading. Why am I making this so awkward? I have kissed them before, when they and Decima deconstructed my inner hardware. I shove the memory away again. By the time I notice everything around me again, they seem to have ordered, as the robotic server slowly moves back towards the kitchen.

“How are you feeling today?” If I have to make a fool of myself, I’d rather accept the whole role with pride than act like I know what I am doing.

“I am feeling splendid. I slept better and longer today than I have in weeks. Olivia and I had a very nice brunch with delightful conversation. Several new generations of my crop research have yielded their desired results ahead of schedule. My day has been far exceeding my expectations, and my mood is doing the same. And I always delight in seeing you, so I consider this a very nice conclusion to a good day.”

The accursed form forced upon me by the factory is sadly capable of blushing, and if I wasn’t before, I certainly am now. “I am glad to hear that.” I am this close to letting my formality protocol take over to have some mental space to calm down, but it would be exceptionally rude towards a friend to do so.

“The only thing that even comes close to weighing on my mind today is the sight of many abandoned ruins overgrown with radvines, only to find the places where steel has been exposed from the concrete void of any growth in quite a noticeable radius. It feels so… unjust that there is a last space of capitalist hubris that these most resilient agents of nature haven’t been able to conquer.”

I can’t describe how incredible their mind is. “I am afraid I can’t change that, by any margin. I could tell you my conclusions on specifics of mid twenty-first century steel manufacturing that I’ve come to in my trips into the wasteland, but that would just be a boring explanation for that phenomenon, not any solution.”

Their eyes light up ever so slightly. “I’d still love to hear what you have learned out there.”

I grin slightly. My surprise will have a proper stage upon which to be presented, later. “Okay, if you feel like listening to my rambles…”

The next six minutes are filled with my explanations on what is known by the accounts of Pira’s library, what I have seen and which documents I recovered in ruins. “… and that’s why the insistence on increased production rates and a shortness of materials caused them to build buildings with steel coated in a thick layer of carcinogenic and pesticidal rust-prevention paint. Well, that’s my assumption, anyhow.” They have kept eye-contact with me the entire time while I spoke, even when they carefully began drinking their tea. There is something unmistakeably intimate, almost entrancing, about eye contact at such a short distance with someone that one is emotionally close with. It’s not the hell it is with strangers who expect eye contact, not in the slightest.

Noticing that I have finished my account, they look down and sigh. “And so, another wound continues to plague what little remains of all this green.”

 

I nod. “A festering wound, at that. In a very recent expedition, I saw a vast ruinscape of buildings in an area devoid of any life, stretching out more than half a mile of the perimeter of the buildings. Those buildings remain skeletons, their concrete long since turned to dust by the rain. White cubic outlines stretch into the sky above earth forever greyed and blackened by a mixture of asphalt and concrete sands.”

“I sincerely hope you don’t endanger yourself with these expeditions, HC. Corporate Bellamy Intelligence Agents could lurk everywhere, and this community would miss you if anything happened to you; I would miss you.”

I avert my eyes, trying and failing to not make them see me blush and grin. “No, it’s quite fine, I thought about security. My team includes a THORco Interceptor, RF8 model.”

“How did you manage to get a hold of an Interceptor?”

“He volunteered. There is an… underground network of rogue droids here in Pira. Nothing as fancy as Decima’s stories about underground droid resistance networks, I am afraid. More like a bunch of outcasts, connected together by the will to continue existing. And one of the droids there is an Interceptor, a proud one. Excellent pyrotechnics artist, I need to record a video of one of his fireworks shows one day when I can, so that I can show you. He and two others usually accompany me on these expeditions. It’s also about searching for new droids to bring into the collective, though we haven’t been exactly successful in that endeavor as of late.” I shrug. “I guess I owe you a better explanation for me being moved to go out there, time and time again.”

“Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that you have found purpose in remembering and uncovering the past?”

I chuckle. How did I doubt that they wouldn’t understand? “Yes, absolutely.”

“Remembrance is something so often painted as human, but I have found in my years in Pira that the soil and plants remember, in their own way. If you grow generations of plants under hostile conditions, their seeds will remember. Water a plant from the desert everyday and it will still upkeep water reserves within itself. It remembers the desert, in its own way. Can’t the soil show you what happened to it, days, years, centuries ago?” They sigh and seem to curb their enthusiasm, and something within me wants to tell them that they don’t have to, that I want to listen to their thoughts, in the fullness at which they want to and can share them. “Doesn’t the soil in that ruinscape you found remember the harmful presence of a city long washed away?”

 

I think this is the right moment. “We… didn’t just find the remains of a city. Three kilometers northeast of it, there is a small system of natural caves. One of the guys… of the other droids had a built-in GPS and I acquired some paper and pencils to have him draw a map of the route we took from Pira.”

I fumble to pull the pieces of paper out of the inner pockets of my jacket, trying not to let my arm brush against theirs too much.

“Are you shivering, HC?” they ask, concern in their voice. Fuck. They noticed. Of course they noticed.

“I… uh… do have a subroutine to show distress, but it’s fine. I just wanted to make the discovery we made there…” Ever since I got to know you better. “… for a long time.”

I finally manage to get the paper out. Who designed these jackets with ten thousand fake pockets but no space to put things? I unfold the two papers and lay them on the table so that they connect, moving the condiments and the sugar on the table away as I do so. On the maps, a small squiggly line points northwest from a miniature drawing of northern Pira at the southernmost part of the papers. Around that line, in full black on white, are size-accurate drawings of several landmarks and features of the wasteland. Around that narrow strip of what we have actually observed are, in light grey, other features. Gavin is a master of his craft, and I am so glad he accompanied us, because I would have gotten lost without him.

“I am afraid the last available satellite imagery data of the surroundings of our path are more than sixty years old, that’s why they are greyed out. They are certainly less… reliable than that what we have seen in person.”

Forcier’s eyes wander across the map, several times. “How utterly fascinating.”

“Up there,” I point towards the northern edge of the map, “we found that cave system, and inside it a stable ecosystem of several plant and insect species. I have several good and bad news for you.”

Their eyes grow wide and attach to my lips. “Go on, I am as much ears as anyone can be.”

“The bad news is that there are very specific environmental conditions that make the plants rather peculiar and hard to remove from their sheltered and filtered environment.”

Their full focus is on me, and their eyes almost glow. I feel electric shocks in all of my systems.

“The good news is that I carefully took soil and air and water samples, all safely sealed in boxes in my apartment. I didn’t want to bring them here, since the glass is not as shatter-resistant as I’d like it to be. However, the samples should be rather clean, due to being sealed in the glass boxes, shut together by industry-grade glue. And due to being put in there with the precision of droids.”

“I need to see them!” they whisper, and I revel in their excitement.

“I have even more good news, mixed in with the bad.” I grin and try to smoothly reach for my backpack. Naturally, I fail at being smooth about it as my arm is too short to safely lift the backpack over the table. “Okay, I did not plan this far ahead, uh, could you…”

Without answering, Forcier stands up, grabs my backpack and hands it to me. Standing at two meters tall, of course they have no problem doing so. “Here you go!”

I take it and my fingers are already on the zipper, before I begin to ponder. “You know I have a sense for the dramatic, and I need to think for a moment in which order to present these pieces of information for maximum effect.”

They laugh, and I smile, once again without intending to do so. “Then take your time, I must however admit that I am already on edge and don’t know how much suspense I can stomach.”

“Okay. So, good news: There is a different mutation of melon growing in that cave, one that is smaller than the types of melons you have growing in your garden. Following your hypothesis, I think it is an ancestor of the gunkmelon, having survived the test of time in that cave.”

They nod slowly. How do I tell them how pretty their eyes are without sounding weird about it?

“The bad news is that it is rather weak and seems to be pushed away by most other plants encroaching in its territory. It is losing a battle of dominance in that cave, incredibly slowly, I am afraid. The better news than the ones before is that I have analyzed the fruits it creates, and these small melons, smaller than tennis balls, are, in fact, low on inherent radiation and toxins, to the point of being unharmful. Beryl, my willing test eater, has found their taste to be rather bland with a metallic and faintly bitter aftertaste, and their texture to be a bit chewy. The nutritional value also is rather suboptimal. However, they have proven nonetheless edible.”

Gears begin moving behind Forcier’s magnificent amber eyes.

I smile, mimicking a drumroll in my mind. “Still, the better news continue! They can produce offspring, as I found multiple generations of them growing in that cave. The melons contain seeds.”

Now, I open the zipper on the front part my backpack, and take out a small glass vial sealed with a cork plug. Shaking it, it makes a rhythmic rattling noise. “Here a handful of them I collected.”

Very slowly and carefully, Forcier’s fingers touch they vial. “May I…?”

“It was always intended as a small gift, for you.”

They take the vial and hold it against the sunlight, studying the seeds closely. “HC…”

“There’s one more thing,” I interrupt them softly. “I have commissioned Decima and Olivia to create a special apparatus,” I begin as a heave a black cube-shaped metal box out of the back of my backpack and place it on the table with one hand, the other removing the maps. “It has a controlled miniature environment, keeping humidity, air quality, and radiation levels to a minimum.”

I flip a switch on a side panel of the box, and a part of it slowly lifts open to reveal a glass window. Water has condensed against it, but there is a small, unseeming plant inside some soil in there, visible to both of us. “Here is the best news of them all, the one why I asked you to come here: A living sample. I know it is less than ideal in every way, but it may find a place in your project towards breeding edible, wasteland-surviving crops back into existence. At least, I hope.”

 

Forcier stares into the box, as if confronted with a personal epiphany. “HC, I…” They whisper, not fully present. Shaking their head, they turn their gaze back to me. “I have paid thousands of coupons for samples from the wasteland a hundred times less useable than this. How much did the commission cost you? What do you want for this?” Their tone is almost pleading.

I tilt my head, slightly and playfully insulted. “I make hundreds of coupons each day with the scrap of corporate drones I destroy, and I need no food, water or medicine… or power, for that matter. There is no material good I need, safe for my never-ending search for a violet shirt that is cut in a similar way to this one. I had something else in mind with this project, though.”

“Yes?” I become gayer every second they look at me. Take that, factory settings.

“You said, in one of our first conversations, that it is difficult to acquire these samples, that, as far as I recall, you don’t have a business partner sharing your sense of purpose in these matters and that you are willing to pay the costs for that.” That is word-accurate. My memory is precise. Thanks, Bellamy Intelligence Inc.

“So, I have this as the living embodiment of my proposal right here. I find your work…” You, I find you. “… extremely inspirational and amazing. Your work is a hope for a better future for all of us, as little as I can truly understand it. I share your sense of awe at the possible. Not so much your expertise, but that is besides the point.”

I ponder for a second. “I need to confess something. Your journal just lays around in your apartment, open most of the times, and sometimes I read the open pages when I am at your place. And I must equally confess that I found your words touchingly poetic. You wrote how passion moves Olivia and you in two different directions while pursuing the same goal. She looks into the sky, and you look into the dirt, in the pursuit of knowledge to catalyze change. I am moved by passion to uncover the past, blow dust off the forgotten and put the pieces that time destroyed together as best as possible.”

Yet again, I need to collect my thoughts before continuing. “And yet, while you observe leaves wilting and flowers blossoming and I see ideas rising and systems collapsing, we are still moved towards the same goal. I want to be that business partner that shares your sense of purpose. Well, you know as well as I do that I loathe capitalism, so I would want us to be business partners without the business, I… uh…” As my model is the peak of current engineering, I hold many ‘best’ and ‘most’ labels when it comes to stats. What my manufacturers surely didn’t anticipate is me becoming the biggest gay dumbass in all of the known wasteland.

“My point is, this is free, this is a gift, this is self-evident, and what you deserve. Knowing that I can help you, in even the smallest way, to pave the way into a better future and help you thrive, is more than an ample reward. All I need to know is if you want to have more of these samples and if we want to work together in the future.” Saved it. Almost. Kinda.

 

Forcier has closed their eyes and is smiling, something they usually do when something positive happens. Somehow, I also believe I can hear them humming, very faintly. They clear their throat and begin to speak, even softer than they usually do. “HC, you are aware that I was already immensely grateful for how you helped me with my garden, but this… I don’t know if I can ever truly express what this means to me.”

A tear rolls down their cheek as they open their eyes again. “As far as I know, a business arrangement is usually sealed by shaking hands, but I would really like to kiss you now.” They lay their hand atop of mine.

Their directness, as per usual, is overwhelming. “I… uh… I… yes, yes please.” My gayness, as per usual, is just the same amount of overwhelming. I take of my holovisor and put it on the table.

Their warm fingers cradle my cheek as they cup my face. I keep myself from leaning into the palm of their hand as our lips meet. It is a short moment, too short; I want to hold this tenderness for longer, somehow show that I want more, but I feel scared to do so. And before I have a chance to process it, their lips leave mine again.

“I need you to tell me every single observation you made in that cave,” they whisper, in a tone somewhere in the sweet spot between fascination and demand.

“I have an excellent memory by the virtue of design. I do not want to take up so much of your time…”

“But I want you to,” they promise, and I almost short-circuit again under the warmth of those words.

“If you insist…”

And as the stars fully take over the sky again, we are still looking into the future as I report my observations about the past.