A double homicide in the seventh district on Sol Jovis wasn’t exactly how Abraham planned to start his weekend – but then, he thought grimly, it probably wasn’t how the victims wanted to start theirs, either. By the time the forensics team finished processing the scene, it was well past full dark. He’d arrived at the crime scene that morning before dawn, and now he dragged himself home almost twenty-four hours later.
Zacharias had already plugged into his charging station for the night, so Abraham went straight upstairs to bed. He stretched out on top of the covers, still fully dressed, and passed out within moments.
The blare of an alarm startled him out of sleep – except not an alarm at all, Abraham realized as he reached blindly for the sound and his fingers curled around his comm instead.
“I need you over here, quick as possible.”
Abraham scrubbed at his eyes and blearily squinted at the clock. He groaned and flopped back down on the bed. It was No Man’s Hour, those awkward forty minutes of nothingness between one day and the next, and he’d only managed to fall asleep two hours ago.
“Maria, I swear to Ares –”
“Get down here.” Her voice was sharp, but now Abraham detected a frisson of unease in her words. He sat up, suddenly awake. “And bring Z with you. I need you here within the hour, understand?”
She signed off without waiting for an answer. Sighing, he closed the comm and lobbed it across the room in frustration. It landed noiselessly in the hamper.
“Zacharias!” he called, feeling about on the floor for his boots. “We’ve been summoned.”
Here, it turned out from the coordinates Maria sent to him, was a cordoned-off brownstone in the twelfth district. Abraham had to present his credentials for the police barrier to lower long enough to let him in, Zacharias close on his heels so that he could slip through as well.
“The station will have recorded that I’m here,” he called as he walked through the narrow kitchen and down a flight of stairs, following the lights that had been left on. “They’ll wonder why I was called to the scene. What in Ares’ name is – oh.”
He blinked. Maria sat cross-legged on the floor of a makeshift lab, a swaddled infant in her lap. Two other children – toddlers, he thought – were playing with what looked like toys pieced together from scrap metal. An older girl, perhaps thirteen, was sitting on a stool and swinging her legs. She looked up as they entered the room, her gaze wary, but she didn’t move.
“What is this?” Abraham managed finally.
“We got an anonymous call about an hour ago. I was first on the scene. There’s a dead man upstairs, and I found them-” Maria nodded at the children around her. “-as I swept the place.”
“You should have called social services.”
“She can’t.” Zacharias spoke for the first time, and Abraham jumped. He’d forgotten his husband was there – understandable, since it wasn’t like Zacharias usually accompanied him to crime scenes. “She can’t call social services, because they’re not human.”
They looked human enough – but then, so did Zacharias. Abraham studied the four children again, his mind racing.
“I’m guessing they’re not registered,” he said finally, “or you would have contacted the cyber crimes department.”
“No,” Maria agreed, “they’re not. They’re illegal tech. If I call social services, cyber crimes will intervene instead and take possession of them.”
Abraham blew out a sharp breath between his teeth.
“Hell,” he said finally. “I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.”
“I don’t expect you to do anything,” Maria said pointedly. “Except maybe help me keep the chief off my ass if it comes to that. Z, I need you.”
“What do you –” But Abraham broke off as Zacharias moved toward the girl sitting in the chair. He extended his hand.
“I’m like you,” he said gently. She looked at him, her face blank, eyes unblinking.
Zacharias touched the heel of his hand, pressing into the soft pseudoflesh with his thumb, and a panel popped open. He peeled it back, exposing delicate circuitry underneath.
“I’m like you,” he repeated. The girl reached out, brushing her fingers over the circuits.
“You are…” She trailed off.
“Mechanical,” Zacharias said. “Yes. I’m an android.”
“Did you kill the man upstairs?” Abraham cringed inwardly at the question, though he had to ask it. She might look like a human child, but she easily had the strength of ten men combined.
“Did you make the anonymous call?”
There was a second of silence before she said, “Yes.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Zacharias said. He brushed back the hair at the nape of her neck, exposing a small device attached to the pseudoflesh there. “There are sensors on the doors. I noticed them when we came in. This device would have prevented her from leaving the lab. It would have shut her down the moment she attempted to step through the doors. She couldn’t have killed him.”
The toddlers each wore one of those devices, too, Abraham noticed as he glanced at their necks.
Zacharias went over to Maria. He crouched and held out his arms.
She handed over the baby – not a baby at all, though, Abraham corrected himself sharply. An automaton. A machine.
But Zacharias took the – machine, baby, android – into his arms, cradling it as gently as one might a human infant. He nestled it in the crook of his arm, gently curling his other hand around the baby’s head. The baby began to fuss, but he calmed it soon enough.
“Shh,” he whispered, rocking – rocking – in place, gently swaying to an unheard beat. “You’re all right. You’re safe.”
The infant settled. Abraham couldn’t stop staring at him.
“Zacharias,” he said finally, “it’s not -”
“He,” Zacharias said. “At least, for now. He’s not merely an object, that much is clear. We should call him something other than it. Unless you believe I’m an object as well?”
Abraham’s jaw clicked shut.
“Of course not,” he managed finally. “It’s just – are they all machines? Androids? Not cyborgs.”
“No,” Zacharias said, his enhanced eyes scanning the children – not children – one last time to be sure. “There is nothing biological about them. They’re androids.”
Maria got to her feet.
“Do you know of anywhere we can take them?” she asked Zacharias bluntly. “Anywhere off the grid? You know what will happen to them if we turn them over to the authorities.”
“They’re unauthorized automatons,” Zacharias said, his voice suddenly flat. They will be disassembled and sold off for scrap metal. Yes, I’m aware.”
“But why would someone create child androids?” Abraham pressed. “What purpose could that possibly serve?”
“You talk about them as though they aren’t able to hear you,” Zacharias admonished gently. He turned to the oldest-appearing android and said, “What is your purpose?”
“To exist.” Her answer was prompt, and obviously rehearsed. It told them nothing of use.
The girl stared at him, seemingly without any other answers.
“We don’t have time for this.” Maria checked her comm. “Forensics and the medical examiner will be here in twenty minutes. We need to get them out of here before they’re discovered.”
“You know some androids in the Mariner Valley,” Abraham said to Zacharias. “Can any of them take the children?”
“I doubt it,” Zacharias said. “Most of them haven’t been given the same amount of leeway I have. They’re still subject to regular visits and inspections by the government. Four illegal androids would almost certainly be discovered and confiscated.”
Abraham cursed under his breath. It wasn’t as though the children could fend for themselves at this point, android or not. He couldn’t very well smuggle them onto a ship to the outer colonies, either. Four children traveling alone would be too conspicuous. Someone would start asking questions.
“Abraham,” Zacharias said, and Abraham didn’t like the sound of that at all. “We’ve discussed having children –”
“Whoa,” Abraham said, throwing up a hand to stop the flow of words. “First of all, discussed is a loose term, we’ve only –”
“Been talking about it for the past eight years, three months, and twelve days?”
“Okay,” he said, “yes, but I never said anything about –”
“Android children?” Zacharias lifted an eyebrow, and Abraham hated when he did that. “You’re only interested in raising human children?”
Abraham forced his mouth closed over his automatic response. Defensiveness would get him nowhere.
“You know that’s not true,” he said finally, evenly. “But Zacharias, androids don’t have children. Not in this sense. You’re all created fully-grown.”
“We still have a period of mental and emotional development, just as in human children,” Zacharias pointed out. He looked down at the infant he held. “With these androids, they will also need to go through physical development.”
He placed the infant in Abraham’s arms – and Abraham, startled, had no choice but to accept the bundle – and crouched in front of the toddlers. They hadn’t made a sound up until this point, and they stared curiously at Zacharias. He peered at them for a moment, and Abraham recognized his “scanning face”.
“They seem to be standard enough. It shouldn’t be difficult to obtain parts for them. Any market on Mars would have what I need,” Zacharias said, pushing himself to his feet. He turned to the girl and said, “Were you once as they were?”
He gestured at the baby and toddlers. After a moment, she nodded.
“So the victim had been creating android babies and then – what – replacing their parts with gradually larger ones so that they “grow”?” Maria shook her head. “What would be the point of that?”
Abraham wondered that as well, not least because he balked at the idea of trying to support four growing androids on a cop’s and professor’s salary. But one look at Zacharias told him it was useless to argue. And then the baby started to fuss, and Abraham instinctively gentled him. The infant grabbed his finger, and what little was left of his apprehension dissolved.
“The neighbors are going to ask questions,” he said finally.
Zacharias shrugged. “I can create false papers for them. We adopted four orphans; it’s not like that’s unusual, given the number left behind by the war. No one will question it.”
Abraham winced. “Please don’t tell your cop husband that you know how to create false papers.”
Zacharias ignored that and turned back to the girl.
“Do you have a designation?”
“My name is Addy.” Christ, she even sounded like a child. What the hell had been happening in this house?
She pointed at the toddlers and said, “They’re Dante and Emil. And that’s Lucio.”
Abraham looked down at the infant who still held his finger.
“Hello, Lucio,” he said softly, and he was rewarded with a grin.
“Heartwarming as this all is,” Maria said impatiently, “we still need to get you out of here. Which car did you bring?”
“Zacharias’s. It should be large enough for everyone.” Abraham looked at Addy. “We didn’t even ask – is that all right? Do you want to come with us?”
After an endless moment, Addy said, “He wasn’t nice to us.”
Zacharias’s face remained carefully neutral, but his eyes turned to cold chips of ice.
“We aren’t like him,” he said firmly. “We will take care of you.”
He went over to an equipment kit, plucked a tool from it, and turned to Addy. Brushing aside her hair once more, he applied the tool to the device on the back of her neck. It fell away. Zacharias caught it, and then did the same for the toddlers. Abraham peeled back the folds of the blanket to check, and found that the infant didn’t yet have one.
“And if at any point you wish to leave us,” Zacharias went on, pocketing the devices so forensics wouldn’t find them, “you are now free to do so. We won’t hold you captive.”
“All right,” Addy said after a moment spent considering him. “That’s acceptable. Yes, we’ll come with you.”
Abraham shared a look with Zacharias, and then nodded. There were still too many questions, too many unknowns, but it didn’t matter right now. They needed to get the children to safety, and they would figure out the rest as it came. Zacharias stooped and gathered the toddlers in his arms, settling them each on a hip as he straightened.
“Come on, then.” Abraham held out his free hand, and Addy grasped it. “Let’s go home.”