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Android Affection (2020) Rogue Zero: 21 — 30

Content Warnings For Android Affection (2020) – Rogue Zero (may contain spoilers): General violence, gore, assault, emesis, sexual assault (implied), kidnapping, sexual content, gender dysphoria, transphobia, conversion therapy (implied), anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, death of a child, death of multiple minor characters, stalking, murder, PTSD, human experimentation, human trafficking, abuse.


21: For Now

 

The broken Assistant jumps onto the car’s roof. It bangs its body against the roof’s thick metals, that soon become imprinted in large dents, which take up the shape of angry, broken fists.

I bite my lip. “I trust you,” I tell Gilbert.

For now.

And that is all he needs to stop the car.

The Assistant that had once been above us goes flying across the tunnel. At first, I wonder if it might be over—it definitely would’ve been if this thing was human. It seems Gilbert knows better though, for he wastes no time grabbing a gun from his pocket, and handing it over to me. “Here, Sir. Please, stay safe,” he says.

I gulp. “You don’t want any help?”

From afar, the Assistant starts to rise. As it runs toward us again, Gilbert shakes his head. “No,” he mutters. “I don’t believe that will be necessary. But—” He presses his palm to my knuckles and guides my fingers, until they are curled around his gun. “Just in case,” Gilbert tells me. “Do not worry. I am merely taking the necessary precautions, Sir.”

But I do worry. And I cannot comprehend how it is that he can still smile as freely as he does, in a situation like this.

I reach out to try and hold Gilbert back, however, he’s already gone when I grab at the hems of his coat. And I can’t go out there to drag him into the car. Doing so would be signing a contract with death herself, which is something I’d rather avoid. At least, not yet—not until I’ve figured out how to get me, and everyone else, out of this dump.

Stuck inside on one of the car’s front seats, I watch in silence as the broken Assistant comes to a halt before Gilbert’s frame. It is like the android has recognised Gilbert as one of its own, because it immediately side-steps the idiot robot, then comes dashing right toward the car. Toward me.

Fuck.” I fumble around for the gun. I ready myself to shoot, and count down in my head from one to three—yet, by the time I reach the number two, I find my plan isn’t necessary anymore.

The artificial veins running across Gilbert’s model blink into an electric blue. The details within his eyes glow a similar colour. He holds out his arm, and from it, is formed a magnificent shield, whose beauty even I can’t deny. Then, he, too, comes speeding toward the me, past the Assistant that he pushes back, with the help of his shield.

But it’s not enough. It never is when it comes to these damned androids. And the corrupted Assistant claws at Gilbert’s feeble attempts to keep it away.

My shoulders tense. I brace myself to dash out of the car and help him if I have to, however, the sight I am met with turns my expectations into a joke.

Gilbert shoves against the Assistant’s every push. Between each small battle they fight, Gilbert’s body grows larger, until it is entirely converted into armour resembling that of a modern knight’s.

I part my lips and gasp. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s… beautiful.

He’s beautiful.

Gilbert lets out a low grunt. It takes me out of my thoughts; shoves me back into reality.

As he mouths the words ‘Forgive me,’ and his transformation finally reaches its completion, I cannot see his face anymore. It is covered by a mask whose glass gleams a dark navy blue. By his side, a sword that matches his shield has been summoned, and his brawl meets its end before it even truly had time to begin.

Gilbert’s blade brings swift death to the Assistant before him. The entirety of the android’s existence is eradicated by the sword plunged deep within the its core.

I cannot move. I’m stunned. I’ve never felt this powerless in my life.

I don’t know how many minutes pass, but I can’t rip my attention away from the scene.

Assistants shouldn’t be able to do all that Gilbert has done tonight.

He isn’t normal. He’s far beyond any machine I’ve ever met before. And I despise the tingles that run across my fingertips—the excitement thrumming in my heart—because it makes me remember my love for androids and technology that I had, before they passed away.

 

22: What are you?

 

Gilbert rips his sword out from the defunct android’s ribcage.

The android tumbles to the floor. As oil spurts out from its body, Gilbert observes the Assistant in silence. His shield and sword fold into each other, then collapse alongside his armor, that retreats back into his joints. His appearance returns to its usual form in seconds. He waits for the android to rise again, but, it does not.

When a minute passes, Gilbert turns, and starts walking back toward his car. For once, he isn’t smiling, though, he does not seem down either. It is like he is lost in thought, and I wish I could tell what kind of information his programming is sending him, even if there’s no way for me to know.

My only relief in all this, is that the android didn’t influence him into turning on me. For now, it seems like he’s still on my side. Humanity’s side. “Gilbert?” I ask, upon noticing that he isn’t getting in the car. He’s just standing there, with numbers blinking across his eyes as he stares fervently at the trunk behind us.

Gilbert doesn’t reply. I’m not sure if he’s ignoring me, or if he just didn’t hear what I said. He seems pretty lost in whatever it is he’s doing.

A minute passes. Then two. As soon as his concentration breaks, Gilbert clears his throat. “Forgive me for the delay, Sir,” he tells me. “It seems I must remain in this area for a few more moments. I appreciate your patience, understanding and cooperation with this matter. Rest assured,” he nods, then steps toward the back of the car, “I have not forgotten about your case, nor about your injuries. The plan is still as follows.”

I rest my arm against the seat’s headrest. As Gilbert shuffles through his trunk, it occurs to me that the gun is still snug in my palm. If I wanted to, I could shoot him.

I could kill him.

But I put the gun down.

I sigh. It wouldn’t be right. Not like this, when he isn’t attacking me.

Maybe later though, I might have to—

There is a loud clank. The car shakes briefly. I jump in my seat. It seems Gilbert found what he was looking for, because he’s closed the trunk again and is now headed toward the android’s lifeless, crippled body.

He kneels, then sets a thick silver briefcase down, next to the android. I squint. What the fuck is he doing?

The reply to my question doesn’t take long to follow, for Gilbert soon begins to dismantle the android right before my eyes. I know that from a human perspective it isn’t that disturbing, because they are just machines, but when I think he’s being forced to take apart his own kind… it unsettles me greatly. And I highly doubt it’s the first time Gilbert’s doing this.

His fingers are too nimble, his actions too quick and precise as he works, for it to be the case.

My throat goes dry. He finishes quickly and nears, with oil smeared all over his gloves and clothes.

Gilbert hasn’t even flinched, nor is there any regret sewn into his features—only a brief expression of neutrality, like the one he wore when he’d carefully shoved each part of the android into his briefcase.

I gulp.

He gets back into the car, then throws the briefcase onto one of the three seats lined up behind us. “W-why did you do that?” I find myself blurting the question without giving it much thought beforehand—because I’ve never seen anything like this.

Gilbert reaches for a nearby drawer. “It is evidence, Sir,” he tells me, as he changes his pair of gloves, for one of the many that have been neatly packed into the small space laid out before him. Once he’s finished, he tilts his head to look at me and adds, “Are you all right?” And it is then that I realise I’d been staring.

I cross my arms. I avert my gaze. “I’m fine,” I mutter.

On the road before us lies a large pool of oil. If anyone passed by here, they would surely just assume it was a leak from an engine and nothing more. It’s eerie how frighteningly precise Gilbert was with cleaning up the scene. I cannot help but wonder how many times he’s done this in the past, and if I have ever come across the result of such a fight without even knowing it myself.

“Very well, then.” Gilbert starts up the engine again. It rumbles as we finally exit the tunnel. I shut my eyes and lean up against the locked door. It’s still raining outside. “Sir?” he whispers. “Are you asleep?” His tone is much softer than before, yet, I don’t reply.

I don’t want to speak with him right now. I would tell him things that are too considerate if I did. They would slip out, I just know it, and I can’t have that. Because then we would be closer—then, we would be more than mere acquaintances—and that would be a problem. It would be my end.

 

23: The prince without a home

 

I don’t recognize any of these faces.

It’s scary.

People greet me, but I barely hear them, nor do I reply.

I want to go home.

My Aunt drags me along by the hand. She apologizes to them for my behavior. She tells me, “Come along now, Lily. I know you’re a bit down, but life must go on.”

No. I don’t want to be here.

Please, let me go home.

We lose ourselves in this sea of relatives unknown to me. It’s like I’m a tiny little boat without its captain anymore, who’s being pulled down the stream of an endless river. I counted how many times people called me Lily today. At sixty, I stopped trying to correct them. Without mom or dad, nobody will ever call me Ian or take me seriously again.

I don’t know why we’re lining up in the cold under the rain like this. It’s not like we’ll get to see my parents anyway. I tried telling the people in charge of the funeral that they didn’t need to close the casket before the guests arrived. No matter how messed up mom and dad looked, they were still the people that raised me. They made me happy. They deserved nothing less than to be called beautiful.

Maybe it’s because nobody knew them like I did, but I was told it was unacceptable to subject the guests to such horrors of life. “It’s our responsibility to make sure your parents are seen off properly before their burial.” When they spoke those words, I instantly knew there was no use in arguing any longer.

I took one final glance at the open coffins where they lay, yet, I could not see what they’d meant by the horrors of life.

The true fear that stirred within my gut hadn’t been created by the state of the disfigured bodies lying before me.

What scares me is the fact that they’re destined to be buried many feet beneath the ground, left all alone in the heart of our planet to never wake again from their eternal slumbers.

And that one day, it will be my turn, too.

My stomach hurts. I can’t stand it—how frail humans are. I remember being three and telling mom I’d be an Assistant once I grew up. I recall being nine and deciding I’d enroll in a robotics field to make the best Assistant in the world. Now, I’m disgusted. I can’t even stand the thought of being near one. I wish they would all disappear.

A brief tap on my shoulder makes me realize that my Aunt and I are already standing in front of the two, rectangular holes.

I don’t want to grab a handful of soil to throw onto the caskets, just like I didn’t want to wear this stupid dress in the morning that preceded this afternoon. But I can’t say no to them anymore, because they are the adults, and grown-ups always know better according to themselves.

My Aunt told me and every other person we know that I’m going through a phase—a moment of confusion, caused by the death of my parents. She doesn’t listen. I hate her.

I grab the soil. I throw it.

I don’t look back.

The next people in line replace our shadows. I stare up at the sky. It is grim, and the clouds aren’t showing any signs of clearing any time soon. I cannot help but feel a little selfish as the funeral comes to an end. Alongside their deaths, I’m also mourning the loss of a part of me I’m scared I might never get back.

I clutch at the fabric above my chest—at these vile, repulsive things that have started to grow.

I ask my Aunt if I can get changed now. “Maybe,” she mutters, without even meeting my gaze once. She’s never been one to spare me a smile. I miss my real family already.

Above us, thunder roars. The rain isn’t showing any sign of letting out soon.

I used to love the word maybe. It was full of uncertainty and possibilities. It made me feel like I could do it all—like anything was possible. Yet, if I were to use it today, it would just make me doubt myself and the people around me. Because there are no maybes. There is only yes. No. There is only certainty.

Cruel, cruel certainty.

Their deaths—yes.

The identity that’s being stripped from me—no. My uncle’s loud cough—yes.

Do I even exist anymore?

No.

If I look to the grass risen by my feet and only listen to the sounds of pitter-patter—if I shut my eyes and ignore the people donning black, mourning their graves—I can almost picture us again before the incident; a perfect family having dinner beside the fireplace in the middle of a storm.

But my Aunt tugs at my arm again, and I know, it’s time to go.

Yes.

I say goodbye—to the memories. To the lullabies. To my mother’s warm voice and my father’s uptight laughter.

Goodbye to my dreams of becoming a mechanic, and goodbye to Ian, a boy I would have liked to grow old with.

Mom, dad, thanks a lot. For everything.

It was great being your son.

I love you.

Always.

 

24: Graveyard of Broken Hearts

 

I groan. A weight on my shoulder that wasn’t there before makes itself known. Someone shakes me awake. I open my eyes.

Apparently, I truly did fall asleep.

“Sir,” Gilbert whispers. “We have arrived. If you would prefer continuing to rest, I can leave the gun with you and head inside alone, it would not be an issue. I would do my best to be back very soon. I wanted to let you know, however, of the current situation, before I departed.”

It takes me a moment to remember what happened, where I am, and who this person is.

It’s still raining outside, and my past and present are both muddled together, as I slowly blink away the lethargic haze of sleep, that had fogged up my mind. Ah… I think, whilst I stare out the window, where an abandoned museum pelted by a myriad of droplets of water stands tall.

It was raining on that day, too.

I sigh. “I’ll go with you,” I say. My voice is still quite, small—nevertheless Gilbert understands me.

Truthfully, I’d like to stay inside, but I know I’m probably best off if I stick with Gilbert. This place is eerie. Who knows what kind of monsters could be lurking in wait for an easy target.

We exit the car. The storm continues to rage. It makes it difficult for me to shake away the memories that have haunted me over these past few years. I can barely remember a day when it was ever this bad around here. It’s usually hot, and stuffy, not humid, like this.

“So, uh—” I cough into my fist and clear my throat as we approach the museum. My boots knock over a bunch of dead leaves in its courtyard. Although the pain in my leg from my injury is still present, the deep throbbing that once was has thankfully disappeared. “Is this also for your investigation?” I ask him.

He nods. “Correct, Sir!” Gilbert chimes. “I believe that analysing parts, which once belonged to the very first Assistants made, will likely be of much use to us!”

Us? I frown. “What do you mean by us?”

He pauses. If I hadn’t been staring at him intently, I might have missed the brief twitch in his lip; but I notice it. And it worries me, because soon after, Gilbert covers up his statement with one of his usual, nonchalant smiles. “The entire civilisation living on this planet, Sir,” he tells me. And, fuck, that’s definitely not what he meant.

This is messing with my brain.

Assistants shouldn’t have the capacity to lie.

We reach the front porch. It’s rare to see buildings styled in such an old fashion manner these days. The words ‘A Brief History of Assistants and Their Descendants’ are inscribed in fancy lettering across a golden plaque, whose edges have faded into a rusted tint of dirty copper.

I gulp. I can’t tell if my head is spinning because I haven’t eaten in hours, or if it’s just my nerves. I still have the gun with me, but that doesn’t change that I’ll have to enter this wretched place, and the thought alone makes me want to crawl into a hole and die.

The front door opens with a devilish creek. The stink of cobwebs, mold, and dust greet my lungs. I cough next to Gilbert and envy him for a short moment. He’s lucky, in a sense—he doesn’t have to experience the bullshit that having a mortal body entails.

“Shall we go inside?” he asks me, with a curt motion of his hand, that causes my attention to travel from the peeling wallpaper, to the register bathed in darkness, until my gaze finally reaches the floorboards at our feet. It seems the ground was initially covered in cheap materials that I assume were meant to resemble the steel on androids, yet, now that half of the carpet has been ripped, the desired effect is definitely subtle. The miserable clump of wooden boards strung together beneath its initial skin is in full view, and where nails once were, now only remain tiny holes, who also happen to be covered in silk webbing. I wonder where they went, and who took them. They couldn’t have all just naturally disappeared. It’s been a while, but it hasn’t been that long.

Shit, I bite my lip.

Someone was here before us, and probably recently, too.

I hope that whatever passed through this museum is long gone now. There’s a limit to how much crap someone should have to deal with in a day, and I’ve definitely reached my breaking point.

 

25: Distant Footsteps

 

“Ian?”

I shove my hands into my pockets then enter the museum. “Yeah, whatever,” I mutter, with a roll of my eyes. “It’s just a junkyard, who cares. It’s not like I’m scared shitless.”

He follows close behind me, until he reaches my side. “Sir, I…” Gilbert frowns. “I do not believe I asked for your thoughts on the current matter. Why have you need to clarify what it is that you—”

As I stop in my tracks and turn to face him, I force myself to smile. “And why do you have to question everything?” I’m about to insult him because his remarks really tire me, however, before we can argue any further, something causes both of us to pause.

We fall into a certain silence I know all too well—a warning. The calm before a storm.

My heart stops as a piece of metal is knocked over on the floor above us. As the sound rings across narrow hallways and the staircase that leads to the museum’s entrance, a pair of eyes peek out at us from the darkness, atop the museum’s staircase.

I take a step toward the front door on instinct, to get the hell out of here, but Gilbert reaches out and grabs my wrist to stop me.

He holds me back. He tugs at my arm, until my back is pressed to his chest. “Quiet,” he whispers, close to my ear.

I part my lips to ask him Why? Yet, no sound leaves me, as I continue to observe the shadowed figure that sways on its feet, from across us.

Fear weighs heavy on my chest. The eyes disappear farther into a distant corridor before I can see who they belong to.

Above us, thunder from the ongoing storm grows louder with each passing second. As water drips from pieces of the rooftop that have been ripped away, the only exit in this room slams shut behind our figures. We are plunged into total and utter darkness, left with nothing but the feeling of holding onto one another for company.

“It does not seem as if this intruder has noticed us yet,” Gilbert whispers; he continues to keep his voice hushed, and as low as it can possibly go. “It is unlikely they would know our location. I cannot see anyone in the immediate vicinity. If we were to open this door again, however, I have no doubt they would find us. In such a case, we would not be able to retrieve the parts, Sir. It would also be complicated to fight them off… You are injured, and I—”

What?” I hiss. “Who cares! Can’t you just do that transformation thing you did back then, when you fought that crazy Assistant in the tunnel?”

Gilbert huffs. His grip tightens against my wrist. “Sir, I am afraid my ability to do so is constrained by a few hours of downtime. My system cannot handle doing such exerting work more than once per day.”

Fuck.

“If it is all right with you, could we proceed with our original plan?”

Are you kidding me?

“I promise we will be out in no less than an hour.”

But what if whatever’s up there finds us first?

“This museum has an emergency exit at the end of its second floor.”

My pulse beats loudly inside my ears. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

Are you serious, you idiot robot?

What if they kill us in that amount of time?

This is a museum full of defunct androids, for fuck’s sake, anything in here could be the end of us! Do you have no grasp on what mortality means?

“I have memorised the map of every floor. It would not be an issue.”

I bite my lip.

“Sir?” Gilbert whispers. “What is your decision?”

My throat goes dry. I don’t want to say yes—I really don’t.

But I do.

He’s right. There’s no way he’ll ever get another opportunity like this, and if Gilbert is truly investigating those murders, it wouldn’t be fair for me to run away. Not when this could fix every single case that’s gone unresolved so far. Including Saki’s.

“Okay,” I mutter under my breath as I grab his hand and give it a squeeze. “Let’s go, asshole. But you better not get me killed. I still have to find Fletcher once we get out of this mess!”

For some reason, Gilbert squeezes back. “Of course, Sir.” He chuckles, despite the rather grim situation, and it reminds me of how different we are. How he could never understand, what it is like to be human. To have these feelings of guilt. Terror. Love.

Being hurt is like nothing to him. It makes sense that he would opt to take such risks, when most would run away.

Gilbert smiles. “You have my word.” Perhaps, this was meant to reassure me, but I only feel even more uneasy. It is this aspect of Assistants that terrify me most.

Capable of anything.

Unpredictable.

Void of emotion.

I hate it.

 

26: This place gives me the creeps

 

“Worry not,” Gilbert tells me, once we are sure the shadow has left, and we take this opportunity to advance toward the next corridor; the first set of steps. “We shall be out soon!” he declares.

Soon…

I frown. Somehow, I doubt that.

It’s still dark, and if Gilbert weren’t leading me across the museum, I’ve no doubt I would have gotten lost by now. Judging from our current location—and what I saw in the lobby earlier on—the museum’s general design was likely pretty neat in its glory days, and resembled something out of an old science fiction movie. The walls remind me of the pictures mom used to collect, that mostly contained ancient rockets as their subject.

But aside from that, the rest of our environment is absolutely dreadful. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of obsolete Assistant models displayed across the entirety of this second floor. It starts with the first one that stemmed from the passion project of two teens who won an award for unknowingly creating mindless killing machines, then ends at the latest prototype that was released right before humanity was divided into two separate classes—the fortunate, and the useless.

Gilbert follows close behind me, until he reaches my side. “Sir, is everything all right?” Even though there isn’t a noise to be heard in the darkness, aside from our footsteps, I can’t help but feel someone’s gaze on my back. “You are shaking.”

“You’re imagining that. It’s just an impression.” Yeah, it’s also me and my fear of thunder and the dark mixed together, that’s courtesy of my childhood trauma, but I’m not going to tell him that.

“All right…” Gilbert pauses. If I squint hard enough, I can make out the blurred edges of a doorway whose entrance has been discarded to the floor. “Sir?” he says it again.

My shoulders tense. “I-is someone there?”

“No, that’s… not exactly… Your hand, Sir. You do not have to hold onto me so tightly. I will not let you go.”

Heat rises to my face. I try to shove my embarrassment down by reminding myself he’s just an Assistant, though it does little to convince me to relax. “I just—

My free hand turns into a fist by my side. I sigh, then look downward. “It would suck if we got separated. You’re literally my only way out of here, and not everyone has night vision like you. So… don’t go getting any weird ideas.”

Gilbert takes a step inside the room before us, and I can only hope he isn’t leading us to our dooms. We’ve been lucky so far, but that doesn’t mean shit around here. That luck could change in less than a second, I’ve seen it happen before back when I was twelve, and too many times, ever since I left Exia.

“What ideas?” he asks.

And, really? Does he not even have a slight clue? “Forget about the ideas,” I mutter. “Did you find anything?”

Gilbert hums. How realistic he sounds continues to baffle me, and I abhor it, because the more time I spend with him, the more I’m intrigued. Eight-year-old Ian would’ve had a field day in his presence. I’m sure he would have asked Gilbert a countless amount of questions about how he came to exist, and if he could, potentially, see how he works from the inside. “Hey, asshole, I asked you a question. Did you—”

A rat runs past my feet.

I take a step back and yelp as I stumble over an old rug. “What the fu—!” My head hits something hard. Rigid. Worry clouds my mind. Because that something wasn’t there before. It’s moving, stepping toward me, whilst I slip and fall to the ground. It’s—

 

27: At least robots won’t judge these sweaty palms

 

“Gilbert…” My eyebrow twitches, whilst Gilbert wraps his arms around me. “Uh, what are you doing?”

Gilbert stares down at my figure and grins in his usual, nonchalant manner. “Saving you, of course, Sir.”

“No, I mean—” I sigh, as he releases me from his hold. “Never mind…”

I turn away from him. But Gilbert grasps my elbow with his free hand, and yanks my arm back in turn. It’s a little rough, which is a bit out of character, especially for him.

I’m not falling for this crap, though. Saki used this trick on me way too many times in the past. “Gilbert?”

“Yes?”

“Stop that,” I say. “You’re not funny.”

“Funny?” Gilbert tilts his head. And, finally, he speaks! “What do you mean by funny?” he asks me.

I groan, then place an open palm over his fingers. They feel a little grimier than usual, however I blame it on the fact that my hand was sweaty, and that I held onto his for too long. I probably got it dirty. “Your hand, dude,” I say. “You can stop trying to pull me into that exhibit. I get it. You tried to scare me, but it didn’t work. I mean, kudos to you for trying though,” another chuckle escapes my lips, “it was pretty good, I admit. Maybe you do have a sense of humor, after all.”

“Sir…” Gilbert mumbles. “I am not touching you.”

I finally stare down at Gilbert’s hand, and discover with horror that it is in fact, not Gilbert’s hand.

The fingers I had been gently caressing belong to the torso of a headless Assistant, whose body is coated in filth. Its nails are torn and have turned a dark, rusty copper due to the decay that has pierced a horde of tiny holes into its metal, from which poke out the legs of insects that buzz from inside its body.

I open my mouth to scream, but Gilbert presses his palm to my lips. “Please, Sir, you must remain calm.”

Of course, when I tell him to let go, and to help me, all of my responses are muffled by his hand. Biting his skin won’t work, either. I’d just break my teeth. Curse him…

Thankfully, Gilbert does decide to come to my rescue. He reaches for the rotting Assistant and squeezes its wrist with a force I did not know he possessed.

The Assistant’s wrist is ripped from its arm with a disconcerting screech. As my own wrist is finally relieved of its grasp, I step away from bronze fingers that continue to move across the floor. It doesn’t seem like the hand has a particular trajectory in mind, and when it crawls beneath a faraway cupboard, I am grateful I don’t have to stare at the sight of its insides, which was filled with a colony of obsidian wings that crisped as they brushed against one another.

After a good minute, Gilbert finally moves again. “Clear,” he declares, without giving me a moment for second thoughts as he advances further into the room, and I hold on to him once more.

“That’s all you have to say for yourself?” I cry. “I was just attacked!” The floorboards creak. A peculiar odor that could be compared to drying paint invades my senses. I try not to sneeze.

“I am sure this fellow Assistant meant you no harm. His holding onto you was likely an old reflex, nothing more.”

I cringe. “Sure, sounds legit…” I take a look around the exhibit. “Anyway… this is the one?” I whisper.

“Yes,” he says. “This is the room with the first Assistant ever made.” And then, “Do you mind letting go for a moment?”

I freeze. That wasn’t in our plan. “Uh, why?

Gilbert holds out his arm. A compartment in the crook of his elbow pops open. The sound of gears turning click across the room. When the noise stops, Gilbert has a fully formed briefcase at his disposal. “Here.” He presses the briefcase into the palm of my hand. Judging by the feel of it, it’s likely it shares many similarities with the one he used back in the tunnel to pick up the runaway android’s pieces.

I hold myself back from asking more questions than necessary, even if, right now, I have many running through my mind. Too many.

“It would be a great help if you could hold onto this in my stead,” he tells me. “That way, I would not have to bend down to put the fellow Assistant’s pieces inside; I could still survey the room, in order to protect you, Sir.”

Oh—so that’s why.

I bite my lip. I hate this. It feels like I’m being pranked, but at the same time, I can’t help but agree with him, because it does seem like the most logical choice to make in this scenario. “Sure… Just,” I huff, “don’t take too long? We’ve already been here for ten minutes, each extra one we spend inside this place is really risking it.” And I should know, I’ve been in many heists before.

Gilbert nods. “Not a problem, Sir—as I said before, we will be out soon.”

The idiot android turns back to whatever’s standing before him. I was assuming he’d use his night vision as he’d been doing up until now, but apparently this asshole just loves to prove me wrong, because he opens his mouth, and out of it comes the equivalent of a flashlight’s glow.

I definitely have even more questions right now, but, when my attention falls onto the self-contained case full of android parts, labelled as the first one used when making the original Assistants who popped up on the market thirty years ago, I mostly stand there gaping, without saying a word. Yeah… kid-me would have loved this.

As Gilbert searches through a myriad of hands and feet with all sorts of wires sticking out of them, I sigh. I didn’t realise how many unresolved feelings being here would awaken within me, and I’m getting these shitty urges to get a closer look at every piece of tech I could possibly get my hands on in this place, just like I used to back then, when I’d build stuff in dad’s garage. It sucks; I need to get my mind off of those memories, so I figure the next best thing from thinking about my love for androids, is making conversation with one I hate, to forget about those dreams.

“Isn’t this weird for you?” I ask Gilbert.

He pauses for a moment, then shuts his mouth and turns to face me again.

I wince.

“Sir, why are you flinching?”

“H-huh?” I look away and try to shrug off his remark. “Maybe it’s cause I don’t want you to tackle me and trap me in handcuffs again? I-I don’t know!” I really don’t. Even if I was holding his hand minutes ago and I’m aware he probably won’t hurt me, it’s just become a reflex at this point.

This is pitiful.

“I suppose…” Gilbert’s hand lingers against a sole, grey foot that has been propped up next to an eyeball. “It is a tad strange, if I stop to consider what I am doing,” he says.

I cross my arms then kick at the dust that’s lying at my feet. “And it doesn’t upset you?”

“Why would it, Sir?”

“Just…” I sigh. “They’re technically your ancestors, aren’t they? So, I thought that—well, m-maybe…”

Gilbert still doesn’t seem to catch on. He only stares at me with a gaze full of incomprehension brimming with bewilderment, as tiny formulas and numbers continue to crawl across his glassy pupils.

I wave his question away and take a step back. “Never mind. It… doesn’t matter that much. I’ll just… let you do your thing,” I mumble, all the while I refrain from begging him to get us the hell out of here again.

Gilbert seems to accept my answer pretty easily, for he soon returns to whatever he was doing before. It’s kind of peculiar to see light coming out of his mouth, yet, somehow I find myself getting used to this sight as the minutes go on.

I take this opportunity to check out my surroundings. But I don’t know if I can enjoy this. I’m trying, yet, wherever I walk and no matter where I look, everything gives me the creeps. “Hey,” I mutter to Gilbert. “Do you have a spare flashlight?”

“I believe I do, Sir,” he says. “Why?”

I gulp. “If you give me the map to this place, I could help?” Again, this is really something I’d like to avoid doing, but if it gets us out faster then that’s all I need as motivation, because somewhere, out there, Fletcher’s waiting for me. And I can’t afford to waste time.

My arms tense by my sides—besides, it’s not like I haven’t done worse, I think.

A recon mission in an abandoned museum should be a piece of cake. “I’ll go and scout out the next rooms. You know, it’ll be faster that way. I’ll be back in five. O-or ten.”

Gilbert tilts his head toward me. I squint as the light emanating from beneath his teeth flickers, slightly. “You do not mind?” he asks.

A bird swoops past the tall window that towers above our figures, and reveals the view of a graveyard for discarded Assistant parts in the gardens below. I cannot tell what kind of bird it is, for its dark form is gone within an instant. Another crow, perhaps?

I sigh. I hold out my hand before the idiot robot. “Just give me the flashlight, tin-man,” I say. “We don’t have all day.”

 

28: Weird.

 

Okay, so Gilbert didn’t have a map to physically give me, big deal. I’ve never been the worst at taking directions, so I just asked him to tell me what was where—of course, if I get lost, my safety is almost totally in his hands, and whether I make it out alive will likely depend on his decision to come back for my miserable self, too…

Yeah. I’d rather ignore that fact, for now. If I don’t, I’ll probably have a panic attack. Who the fuck trusts an Assistant with his life?

God, I wish I wasn’t this desperate.

The thunder still hasn’t died down. It’s killing me inside. I hunch over and tiptoe towards the next corridor that supposedly leads to a larger, open room—Gilbert claimed the exit wasn’t too far from it.

Apparently, the museum’s divided into two parts; we would have been screwed if we’d taken the other side of it as our place of scavenging, because that one had no emergency exits at all. Talk about a shitty layout.

I sigh—although the flashlight lodged tightly between my grasp is helpful, I wish I were in better shape. There’s an obvious limp in my wounded leg. Anyone would be able to see that from afar. I’m fucking vulnerable. I hate it. But regardless of my feelings, I carry on. It’s not humanity’s problem if I feel like I’ve just walked into hell. I just have to remember why I’m doing this. Saving people. And… Fletcher.

I gulp, then nod. Yep. Totally. That’s why I’m here.

It’s definitely not because of the damned Assistant who’s still searching through an old crate full of parts two rooms back.

I didn’t get dragged into this shit at all.

My eyebrow twitches.

Seriously, fuck him.

I step into the exhibit at my far left. There’s a sign nearby. ‘Almost-Human,’ it reads. Behind it, realistic androids are posing with regular household items. Judging from their shapes and colors—and the mere fact that these things are being compared to humans—it’s safe to say this place truly is from decades ago.

I squint. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t do it. I can’t see them as anything else other than hackable machines with no true free will. Those days are over.

Something confuses me though. It’s strange that Gilbert isn’t in the lineup. There aren’t any mentions of plans for his model, out of the hundreds described here, either. Granted, it’s possible they simply hadn’t planned that far ahead yet, however, some posters even describe ideas that were never brought into fruition, so it’s surprising that nothing’s even hinting at his potential existence. And I’ve walked this aisle of nightmares way too many times by now, nervous wreck that I am, to be sure of that. Why? I wonder. From a technical standpoint, Gilbert is brilliant, I can’t deny that.

Why would a museum, whose existence literally relies on bragging about how awesome and high-tech Assistants are, not mention his model, even briefly?

People would have loved him. They would have invested more into such a great tool. I don’t understand.

The way he fought back in that tunnel comes to mind. I bring a fist to my chin. Was Gilbert the only one ever made? Is he meant to be a secret? If so, who funded him? They barely spared enough for regular Assistants back in Exia… I can’t imagine them wanting to make something like this.

This doesn’t make any sense.

He doesn’t make any sense.

I raise two fingers to my temples then shut my eyes. Who was his creator? My hands curl into fists by my sides; as cold sweats travel up my spine, I bite my lip. And what exactly does he want from me?

I take a step away from the exhibit. I huff. “Well… at least I got the right room…” I mutter. “Now, all that’s left to do is go back and let Gilbert know it’s fine to—”

I frown as footsteps echo across the corridor, and Gilbert catches up to me. “Gilbert?” I motion at the room around us. “You’re done already?”

“It’s been ten minutes, Sir.” He nods at the briefcase that’s been deposited right next to his left foot. “I actually took quite some time.”

Oh.

I frown.

Has it been that long already?

Damn, I guess I lost track of time.

“U-um, Gilbert?”

“Yes?”

“Why do you look so happy?”

He chuckles, and Jesus Christ, we’re too fucking close right now. He needs to get out of my face before I cave and punch his stupid nose. “Recently, you have begun to call me by my name, Sir. I am more than delighted to know that I have risen in your esteem.”

I step forward and groan. “Don’t get your hopes up, y-you aren’t—”

Of course, I should have looked at where I was walking. I hate this place.

I trip again. As always, Gilbert catches me.

I furrow my brows. Is this the third time this has happened today?

This is ridiculous.

It’s like someone is playing with my life at this point. Fucking hell. Why?

Gilbert’s grip around me tightens, though, not in a way that could be considered menacing. In fact, he’s surprisingly gentle, and it’s been so long since someone just embraced me like this without any interior motives, that a flush of heat rises up my neck. Shit.

Ian, what are you thinking? Are you an idiot?

Get a grip.

“You can let go of me now,” I mutter.

He tilts his head. “You do not want me to hold your hand anymore, either?”

“U-uh, no— I mean,” I blink. “I do? Just not… my entire body. I can feel your hand on my back. And my waist. It’s…” I avert my gaze from his then clear my throat, “distracting…”

“Oh.” Gilbert pulls away. The pressure from his open palm that had once been pushed up against my spine disappears. “Excuse me,” he says. “I didn’t realize I had been distracting you, Sir.” Honestly, it just feels awkward to be holding his hand right now, but I suppose we’ll have to make do.

“Yeah, uh, anyway—” I point to the empty space over my shoulder with a closed fist and my thumb. “The first model’s in there, somewhere farther out back. You need some help?”

“No, thank you, Sir,” Gilbert tells me with a happy hum, as he leads me by the hand over to the other side of the exhibit. “You’ve already done quite enough. I would not want you to overexert yourself.”

My shoulders tense. I frown. “Hey… you know I’m not that fragile. There’s no need to treat me like I’m going to break. I’ve had my fair share of fights before. I’m no stranger to pain.”

“I never said you were, Sir.” He pauses before the shattered pieces of glass that lay by our feet. It seems they once protected the original Assistant model that stands before us. “But, it is my job to make sure you stay out of harm’s way,” Gilbert adds.

I release his hand. I cross my arms then cock my head to the side. There’s a faint ringing in the background, but I tell myself it is nothing, as I ask him, “Is it, now?”

“Yes, I promised to—”

Dude, I’ve had half my back cut open and kept the marks to prove it. Plus,” I point to the lighter, pink crescent scar beneath my left eye, “this didn’t just come out of nowhere. I earned it. Seriously, a little blood and some stitches aren’t going to put me out of service!” Though, yeah, it would have been nice if the nurses I saw had that balm with regenerative purposes—whose name I can’t remember for the life of me—but, we’re not in Exia, so I’ll just have to deal with this injury the old fashioned way.

Gilbert laughs.

I cringe. “My suffering’s funny to you, asshole?”

“Not really…” He smiles. It is fond, and a tad too endearing for my taste. “You speak as if you are a machine, Sir. Out of service… I have”—he chuckles again—“rarely heard a human use the term to describe themselves.”

“Yeah, well…” I look away then huff. “Old habits die hard.”

“Hm?”

“Just focus on your work, Gilbert.”

Geez. I kneel and stare at the checkered floor that’s peppered in the gentle cyan light, that emanates from Gilbert’s throat. For a top-tier Assistant, he sure is easily distracted.

My eyes widen. I stare at the ground in horror. Wait, hold on a second—

My attention wanders to Gilbert’s figure. Easily distracted? I pause.

He shouldn’t even have the capacity to be distracted.

As expected, Gilbert’s still lost in his work, but… something’s wrong.

Fuck.

My blood goes cold. Goosebumps rise across my arms. What the hell is up with this Assistant?

 

29: Nightly Conversations

 

Gilbert finishes up with checking the old Assistant, for any remaining security measures that may have been set up by the museum in the past, to avoid it getting stolen. Once he deems it safe, he begins to casually dismantle it, like he had with the one back in that tunnel.

“Sir?” His eyes meet mine. “Is everything all right?” he asks me from afar. “It seems you are unresponsive.”

“No, I…” Shit, I hadn’t realized I’d been staring again. I bite my lip. “Gilbert, what exactly is this?”

“What do you mean, Sir?”

“Us.” I motion at him, then to myself. “Why are you helping me? You have nothing to gain from this.”

“That is incorrect, Sir. I have much to gain from our partnership.” Although he tries to correct my claims, I don’t buy it. His arguments all sound like bullshit.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” I say, because if Assistants can kill, perhaps, they can lie, too.

And I think he’s lying, for upon hearing what I have to say, Gilbert immediately starts to look the other way.

Gilbert.” I grab his wrist. There’s no way I’m going to let him bail on me. “Look at you—you’re… the most powerful machine I’ve ever met! You have so many features. You can literally turn into a weapon. Why the hell do you need me to tag along? I’m dead weight. It makes no sense.”

Gilbert peers back at me from over his shoulder. His lips thin into a line of dismay.

“Not even going to comment on that?” My words tremble, then crack. My smile is forced as I tilt my head, until we’re facing each other again.

“I understand your concerns, Sir, but I assure you that…” Gilbert stops himself short. Once again, he appears to be genuinely at loss for words, which makes a familiar sentiment of suspicion rouse within me. How could he have developed such feelings on his own? Although it could be possible—and I might be wrong—his reactions… don’t seem like they were programmed into him.

There’s too much that I don’t know here.

I don’t like it.

“I wasn’t born here,” I tell him.

Nearby, a light buzzes with static electricity. “I lied to you when we first met. I used to live within Exia’s walls,” I mutter.

“That was my secret. Now…” I motion Gilbert’s way with a simple nod. “Tell me yours.”

The way this Assistant tenses—how his lips quiver with hesitation, fright—it appears so human. So eerily, eerily human, that it is uncanny. “But, Sir,” Gilbert gasps. “On your file, it said—”

I release the grasp I’d kept around his wrist and stare at our feet. Strings of shadows are cast across my face from the strands of hair that cover my eyes. “What file?” I ask him. “You knew who I was?” I think we’re both aware at this point, that I’m not just talking about the Rogue Zero thing. “Right from the start?”

Liar. 

You’re all liars.

Gilbert tries to deny everything again by shaking his head, but… his show of innocence doesn’t last long, for, soon-after he finally decides to nod, and say, “Yes, Sir, I was… aware of your history.”

An unbearable silence ensues. One in which I find myself wishing for these dull and lifeless robots around us to start moving, because at least that would break the tension, that lingers in the air like pure static ready to burst. A fight—physical pain over these dreadful memories—would be better than nothing; I recall thinking that, too, when I first realized I’d been trapped in these slums for good.

Gilbert’s hand hovers against his elbow. He squeezes it once. He doesn’t seem proud, and neither am I. What I did to end up earning a one way trip to these outskirts was stupid—as a result, I didn’t even get what I wanted.

How?” I curse how weak, how unstable the timbre of my voice has grown. “How do you know?” Only the government—no, a select few individuals, who might have found my real file, before I replaced it by hacking into the government’s computers—would know.

“My creator told me. He said I should help you.”

“Why?”

“…Because you were promising,” Gilbert forces the words out of his throat as if they are as hard for me to hear as they are for him to say.

Promising—the word rings askew against my ears. Perhaps, in the past it might’ve been true, but he left out the part where I quit, bailed on everything, and was never allowed back in Exia again.

Gilbert is still talking, yet, the rhythm in his speech is all wrong. It’s fragmented in comparison to his usual strict and prompt tempo, and as he alternates between speaking fast, then slow, I eventually lose track of what he’s saying, until he finally pauses to say, “Forgive me, Sir.” His eyes face the floor. His palms are curled into fists. “Forgive me,” he echoes. And I can’t stand this.

“Why?” I ask. Why do I feel so betrayed over him? A stranger. An Assistant. A thing that isn’t even alive.

“Why wait to tell me?” Why take me out to that diner and pretend for an entire day that we were basically strangers, when you knew very well what my situation was?

“This doesn’t make any sense.”

You don’t make any sense.

I take a deep breath. I shut my eyes. “Your creator,” I say. “He wants to use me, yeah?”

“No, Sir. That isn’t what—”

“Just tell me the truth, please. Honestly, I…” I force myself to smile. A certain weight has made its home inside my chest; I can’t make it go away. “I wouldn’t be shocked if it were the case. I know I’m not a good person. I’ve done hideous things in the name of survival. I’d deserve it. People use criminals like me in their sick experiments around here, it’s nothing new.”

Gilbert shakes his head. “No, absolutely not, Sir! He would never!” The lights that run across his body—which I’ve settled on calling his veins, for now—turn a bright hue of red; and I wonder if Gilbert’s decided to record the conversation, or if it’s a signal from his creator. If him using paper to note events down was just a decoy, another lie. “That isn’t in the plan.”

“Oh, so there’s a plan now?” Fuck you.

Fuck you, you shitty, liar of an Assistant.

You’re all the same.

Gilbert clears his throat. He tugs at his coat’s collar. “It is not his plan, Sir…” he mutters. “It is mine.”

I blink—once—then stare at him in complete silence.

I don’t like admitting this, however, right now, I’m truly lost.

Gilbert seems ashamed for some reason, and I need to know why.

I cross my arms. I lean against my better leg. “Mind explaining what that means?” I ask him, as I tap rhythms with my index finger into the sleeve of my shirt. “Or are you just going to stand there like a broken computer from the early 2000s?”

Bastard.

You better not go silent on me now.

 

30: Your Answer

 

I straighten up and stomp toward Gilbert, only to regret it seconds later. The world starts spinning. My surroundings crumble into a blur. Shit, I’m still weak as hell from this fever.

“Tell me,” I mumble. “Don’t leave me in the dark like this.”

Gilbert steps forth and holds onto me once more. He catches my shoulder between his grip in time, before I have a chance to fall.

I grab onto his arms. I lean into him. My head lingers against his chest.

“Sir…” Gilbert’s tone has fallen to one that is softer, quieter, than before. “It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Between the haze of my vision, I smirk for real this time. “Try me, silver man.”

He takes what I assume is the equivalent of a deep breath for a human, and he burrows his face into the crook of my shoulder. “I haven’t been feeling like myself lately,” Gilbert whispers the words as if they are a sin.

I prepare myself to tell him his joke isn’t funny, however, when he pulls away—and when the stern, stoic look in his features doesn’t waver—part of me also feels the urge to run, very far, for I dread what may come next.

What if this is how it starts?

What if this is what the Assistants who murdered my parents also thought of before they ran amok?

“What… do you mean by that?” My throat is dry, my voice withers to a mere mumble, as my legs are frozen in place.

Gilbert straightens up. He releases me from his hold. “I’ve been feeling… certain things,” he says.

“Uh, what kind of things?” I lower my brows, then raise them again. “Y-you’re not… trying to kill someone who wouldn’t be missed, are you? ‘C-cause, for the record—” I press a hand flat against my chest. “I’d like to believe that I still have some people who’d come looking for my dead body!”

His arms tense. I already knew his creator made him eerily similar to us, however, seeing it up close and personal like this is something else. It makes me wonder just how advanced his programming and general mechanics truly are, and why such features would be useful for him in the first place. Unless… I frown, then shake my head. No. I’m overthinking this. He couldn’t have been made to infiltrate Exia—it’s the only reason I can think of, but it’s too much of a stretch.

No one would be that stupid to try.

“How could you suggest this, Sir!” And yep, Gilbert’s mortified—scandalized even—from my semi-serious claims.

I click my tongue. He’s too human. Too uncanny. I’m definitely uncomfortable.

“I— I would never!”

“Hey,” I shrug. “I was only asking. No need to get so defensive.”

His fingertip finds his lips that dip into a frown. “Sir… my whole existence is based around my being programmed to understand a certain sense of justice and act accordingly to said sense of justice. Had I been feeling the need to…” he coughs, “dispose of my comrades, as you say—surely, I would have already turned myself in.”

“Oh?” Whose sense of justice?

And, turn yourself in? To whom?

Outside, a brief spark of light from a car passing by on the highway floods the darkness between us and illuminate our faces. I rest a palm against the back of my neck. “So… you were saying?”

Gilbert’s shoulders sink. He seems a bit more relaxed, and that makes me much more relaxed, too, because now I’m almost positively sure he’s not going to try to kill me; even if I’m also aware I was being irrational for believing that in the first place.

“I think my programming has been evolving. I believe you may be able to help.”

What?

Wait— what?

Seriously?

I throw my arms into the air and abandon all hope. At this point, I can’t really tell if I’m dizzy because I barely slept last night, haven’t eaten, have a fever, or, if it’s from all the anxiety and inner turmoil this dilemma is inflicting on me. “Okay,” I mutter, “hold up—first of all, why? And second of all… what? Just… what? Last time I checked, I wasn’t a genius programmer. Sure, I’m gifted, but that was in the past. I don’t work with robots anymore, and I don’t plan to. Unless you have the wrong person, then yeah, maybe you’re broken and I might be able to help you—not that I want to—but… come on, dude, you must be joking!” I laugh. “I’m seriously the last person who could help you. Ask your creator.”

Gilbert’s giving me a rather irritated look again. I don’t know what to think of it. “I cannot do that, Sir.” He sighs. “Truly, I wish I could, but… it would not work. My creator is not here anymore. And, even if he were, you would still be the better person to ask.”

I pause for a moment to think about what he’s just said. But… “Uh, you sure you’re not malfunctioning there, bud? That’s a really bold claim to—”

“I’ve been feeling human,” he blurts. Our eyes meet. His gaze is earnest; I cannot bring myself to look away.

“Human,” Gilbert echoes. “Just like you.”

 

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