Polaris stepped forward, making Andromeda visibly flinch. She was trembling, so Polaris put both hands on her shoulders and tilted her head. "Are you okay?"
Andromeda blinked in shock, but nodded almost imperceptibly and pushed Polaris's hands off her shoulders. "I should get going," she said dismissively, turning away from Polaris.
"Oh," Polaris murmured, disappointment rising in her stomach. "Okay—wait!"
Andromeda looked back.
"Um...do you by any chance have the news on your shuttle?" she asked, tugging on a lock of hair.
Andromeda raised an eyebrow. "I think it was knocked out in the crash. Why?"
Polaris sighed, but beneath it was a small victory, a hope that Andromeda would stay with her, if she gave her the news. "There's been a mass killing—well, a mass death, anyway, of pretty much every single android on Earth. Actually, technically, every single android on Earth, but seeing as I'm still alive, the death rays were obviously the wrong frequency."
Andromeda almost showed emotion at that. Polaris could see it—her brows furrowing, teeth edging forward to instinctively bite at her lip; but she retracted back into her calm, defensive manner before she could bawl like Polaris did.
"Okay," Andromeda said. "Kind of unsafe to venture out into the world as the sole survivor, then."
"But you're an android!" Polaris exclaimed, smiling. "So we're the—the dual survivors!"
It looked like Andromeda was trying very hard not to roll her eyes.
"So we can, like, fly into outer space with your shuttle and go inhabit Mars or something!" Polaris jumped up and clapped her hands.
She gave into the urge and rolled her eyes.
"Polaris, the shuttle's down. And I wouldn't take you with me even if the shuttle were suited for it. You're a Serfdroid, for heavens' sake, you wouldn't last a day in space," Andromeda replied bluntly.
Polaris's lip quivered. She hadn't really thought that she was that terribly equipped; after all, she was pretty intelligent, and while she wasn't that strong, Andromeda looked like a puff of wind could blow her over, tall and slender as she was. But if a Novadroid had said it... "Really?" Polaris whispered.
Andromeda sighed loudly. "Never mind. Come with me. We'll run a diagnosis on the shuttle to see what's usable. Maybe we'll be able to salvage a pod, and we can fly around the country."
Polaris nearly shrieked, unable to contain her joy. Flying around the country when she'd hardly set foot outside the house! She settled for hugging Andromeda tightly—"Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!"
She glimpsed Andromeda's grimace, but it was okay, she'd warm up to her soon enough.
How she got stuck with this dimwit, Andromeda would never know.
Honestly, they had to kill every single android except this one. Were all Serfdroids this bubbly and idiotic? Sure, she was pretty, but that just strengthened the conclusion that Serf manufacturers valued beauty over brains. Andromeda would've picked the corpse of Hugo over this android.
"Okay," Andromeda sighed, stepping through the shuttle door, with Polaris right on her heels. "Don't touch the screens. Don't touch the buttons unless I tell you to. Actually, scratch that—don't touch anything unless I tell you to."
Andromeda looked over her shoulder at Polaris, who was gawking at everything in the shuttle. She smirked despite herself.
"Oh! And apparently the same thing that happened on Earth happened here, too, so don't get scared over any dead androids," Andromeda told her, now thoroughly enjoying the sudden look of fear on Polaris's face.
Andromeda walked over to the control panel and started to run diagnostics. It was a two-person job, actually, so she tried to appreciate Polaris's presence. "Polaris," she said, and in an instant—
"Hi," Polaris giggled, bouncing up and down beside Andromeda.
Andromeda fought down the urge to punch her in the face and swallowed. "Pull down the switches over there, one by one, left to right. Slowly."
"The emergency escape controls?" Polaris asked, stepping over to the switches Andromeda had pointed to.
She stared at Polaris, brows furrowed. Polaris caught her glance and smiled. "I do know a fair bit about astronautics, for a Serfdroid."
Andromeda smiled a little bit, mentally berating herself for labeling Polaris an idiot so quickly. The sight seemed to make Polaris smile even wider, if that was possible. "Okay, just pull the switches," Andromeda told her, and returned to her diagnostic board. She checked off the emergency escape controls and nodded at Polaris, telling her to start.
Andromeda kept her hand on the security clearance screen as Polaris pulled the switches down, one by one, agonizingly slowly.
"Done," Polaris told her after the last was pulled, and stepped over to stand next to Andromeda. She stared at the screen with the other android, waiting for the shuttle to finish running the diagnostics.
Andromeda held her breath in apprehension, then cursed as the diagnostics screen flashed red. Without emergency escape controls, she'd never be able to get the pod out of the shuttle, and who knew if the pod was even in good enough condition to fly...
"Okay, new plan," Andromeda said, looking over at Polaris. "We don't have any transport system. At all. So we're going to have to walk."
She turned away and briskly walked down the stairs, biting her lip nervously.
"But where are we going?" Polaris asked, running after her.
Andromeda kept walking, then abruptly stopped and glared at Polaris. "Where are we?"
"Um, San Francisco. California," Polaris replied.
Andromeda hit herself in the forehead. "ISA Headquarters is on the other side of the country, we'll never make it..."
"We could steal a car," Polaris suggested.
Andromeda glanced at her. "I thought you were against immoral crimes."
"It's not immoral if we're doing it for—wait, we're doing it for something righteous, right?" Polaris asked.
Andromeda shrugged. "Or it could be a kidnapping mission. Depends."
Polaris stared at her, shocked. Andromeda sighed. "Yes, we're doing it for something righteous. Don't Serfdroids understand sarcasm?"
She shrugged, slightly more subdued this time. Andromeda kept walking. "JPL is close by, isn't it?"
"New Pasadena," Polaris supplied immediately.
"Right. New Pasadena. An hour away. Okay." Andromeda stopped in her tracks and looked over at Polaris. "Caltech's there too."
Polaris beamed. "Yeah."
Andromeda bit her lip. "Okay. Step One, steal a car."
She was kind of hesitant about this kind of work.
Not that Polaris had to do anything, of course. Andromeda hacked into the first car they found stationed next to the meadow, easy-peasy. It was a Comet 360, hovering above the magtech parking space, with a simple security system, one of the oldest cars of the century, first manufactured around a decade ago. Since then, they'd made Comet 3600s and then moved onto Neptune 360s. There was a lot of hype about space-named cars nowadays.
"I call shotgun!" Polaris said happily.
Andromeda glared at her. "That's literally a phrase from the 21st century."
Polaris shrugged. "I've never been able to use it before."
She snuggled up in the passenger seat as Andromeda sat in the driver seat. She somehow removed the engine button, poked her fingers inside, and hotwired the car. The engine purred contentedly, and Andromeda shot a smile at Polaris, who felt happier than she'd ever been.
"Let's fly," Andromeda said, and the car roared into the sky.
Honestly, she was glad to be back at Earth.
She was wired for space and programmed for space, but there was a certain familiarity to the trees, artificial as many were, and the rows of apartment spires, stretching high into the sky.
And, of course, the air. Androids didn't strictly have to breathe, but Andromeda had been built for high or low air pressure, built to accommodate any amount of air flowing through her. Earth's air felt just right.
Plus, the Comet 360 was the first convertible Andromeda had ever been in, and she thought it was pretty effing great.
So she tapped in Caltech's address in the car's built-in GPS, and it extended its wings (old, old technology) and flew along the clouds, as high as it could take them. Polaris was shivering in the seat next to her, so she took off her ISA jacket and set it on Polaris's body, smoothing it out.
"Thanks," Polaris murmured, clutching the jacket closer.
"You might want to sleep for the flight," Andromeda told her. "It'll be three hours or so. Recharge your batteries for this upcoming adventure. We can't see much at this height anyway."
Polaris shook her head, and Andromeda understood. The android sitting next to her seemed to be calming down from the initial excitement of going on a trip with a Novadroid, but it was still her first time this far from home. Even if the smog-shrouded view of the cities weren't exactly aesthetically pleasing, Andromeda could imagine Polaris's stubborn desire to poke her head over the door and stare downwards, the wind sweeping her hair back messily.
Andromeda sighed. "Then maybe we should plan this out. We'll find someone to help us. Two lone androids will be detected in an instant."
"That's why we're headed to Caltech?" Polaris asked, looking back towards Andromeda and messing up her dark hair even more in the process.
She nodded. "I've been there. The students work on us sometimes—we enter lockdown and they fiddle with our brains. It's not as bad as it sounds," she added, glimpsing Polaris's horrified expression.
"Okay," Polaris said, blinking. "So we find someone at Caltech to help?"
Andromeda nodded again, running a hand through her hair. "They'll be the most qualified...a professor would be the best, I think, but a student would be less...rule-abiding. Which might work out in our favor."
"They'll be willing to hide us, you mean," Polaris supplied, and Andromeda cracked a smile.
"Exactly. Or bring down the ISA. Whichever."
She looked over at Polaris, who recovered from her shock quickly, realizing it was another case of crappy sarcasm. "Ha-ha," Polaris muttered.
"Sleep," Andromeda said. "I'm serious. You're not missing anything."
Polaris closed her eyes, and Andromeda watched her until, a few moments later, her chest stopped rising and falling, and her barely perceptible air vents closed. She never would've noticed if she hadn't been carefully scrutinizing every part of Polaris. Her owners had really put a lot of effort into her appearance, hiding almost every single discernible electronic part.
Andromeda touched the interface to slide the hood back over the car. The clouds were beginning to get cold.
She awoke fully recharged exactly three hours later, as the Comet was lowering into a magtech parking space next to the most beautiful building she'd ever seen.
"Caltech," Polaris whispered, and she looked back at Andromeda to find her smiling.
"But won't the police get us?" Polaris asked, and Andromeda shrugged.
"They'll probably figure out that there are two androids on the loose before they figure out that someone's car was stolen. Besides, they won't care. Crime is probably pretty rampant at a time like this," she replied.
"Okay. Then, Caltech ho!" Polaris yelled, and opened the car door, stepping outside onto the university path.
Andromeda joined her as they walked into the school, and Polaris looked around her in wonder. The school had been preserved for centuries, and had obviously been remodeled and added onto in some places, but it was in almost pristine condition. The vines (natural, Polaris was sure) tangled around the great stone pillars only added to its look of perfection.
They walked on the sidewalk towards the Aeronautics department. Andromeda knew where it was and what classes were currently being taught.
"They're starting a lecture on Novadroid programming in about ten minutes," Andromeda informed her, "which means we're right on time. We'll stroll around campus and walk back just as class ends, which is in an hour. And then I'll pick one of them. I've got their entire database on the Internet."
Polaris nodded along. "Do I do anything?"
Andromeda glanced at her, and Polaris smiled hopefully.
"No. Just follow me."
Polaris sighed, but reminded herself that Novadroids knew best.
Alistair James Ramirez was a school-renowned genius. And that was saying something when you attended Caltech, the world-renowned genius headquarters.
He'd gotten used to hiding it. There was something off-putting about being so purely genius that even your teachers asked you for help, and your classmates could no longer carry on a conversation with you without sneaking in a comment about how freaking smart you were.
It didn't sound that bad, of course, when Ali tried talking about it to anyone else. How are you supposed to say, "Hey, it's really annoying that other people talk about how smart I am all the time" without appearing either extremely egotistical or extremely rude?
And Ali wasn't rude. He faked rude, sure, just so he wouldn't have to socialize with another group of people constantly gushing about his genius. Sometimes, when he met someone he really liked, someone geeky and funny and kind whom he wanted to befriend, he'd talk like his normal self. If Ali was lucky, they didn't know that he attended Caltech, and they definitely didn't know that he was the resident genius. But about two minutes in, they'd look at him funny and say, you look like that one guy on the news, you know, the really smart one—and Ali wanted to be able to talk to people without hiding anything, so he told them the truth, yes, he was, in fact, that one really smart guy on the news. From that moment on, he'd become more than a person with a life, like the rest of the people on planet Earth and beyond. He'd become an absolute idol.
And Ali was tired of it.
He sought refuge in cheap coffee shops and the Internet, along with his personal stash of illegal anime, which he'd bought off a trader on YouTube, and then hacked into the site to erase the entire transaction so the government would never catch on. Ali still put effort into classes and built projects on his own; he'd never find science exhausting. It was the fame that came with being potentially the smartest person on Earth that got him down.
Also, he was bored. Nothing ever challenged him anymore. He'd already invented teleportation, after all, and his team was working on a prototype of a time machine. He wanted something exciting, something mysterious and alluring, some kind of twisted, science-y spy thriller plot that would never happen to him.
So he fell into a routine. Coffee, class, Internet, anime, constant feeling of being internally dead.
Ali was on step one, in one of his go-to coffee shops, awaiting a caramel Frappuccino with a dark hood hiding his neon-red hair, when his waitress dropped dead.
Her hand let go of the caramel Frappuccino with James printed on it, spilling the drink all over the floor, and then she went down with it.
Her lovely blond locks sent ripples across the liquid on the floor, seeping across the cracks of the linoleum tiles. And her shock-blue eyes were still open as one hand grabbed the other, and tore it out of its socket.
There was no gore. Only wires, sparking with electricity. And her leftover smile.
Ali heard the screams from around him, the people running away, their footsteps echoing, the coffee splashing.
He stayed calm, somehow. He'd seen machinery malfunction before. It was no big deal. Probably some loose wire in her brain that had just come undone. Ali sighed, picked up one of the Frappuccinos lying on the counter that a customer had left, and exited the café.
And then he saw the dead androids scattered across the streets, the cars crashing into one another, swerving to avoid the bodies.
And then he started panicking.
(It occurred to him then just how dangerous the mind of a genius could be.)