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Android Affection (2020) Rogue Zero: 01 — 10

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.


1: A City Without Hope

 

Fuck alcohol.

The streetlights blink. They remind me of a pattern—my father’s dying breaths. I should kill this habit of getting intoxicated whenever things don’t go my way, but it’s painful when I’m not hurting. I need a distraction, a reason to forget this place. My life.

A gang walks by. They’ve got crowbars and guns lodged between their rugged fists. Neon signs blink, then flare into pinks that soften into marble blues. I stop. Wait. But they don’t spare me another glance. Good. They should know I don’t have any android parts on me, or anything else in my pockets that could be traded off for food.

It’s not worth the risk.

The roads are distorted. I can’t hear a sound. It’s like I’m underwater, or behind glass.

I run into another lone soul, whose face I barely have time to register, before he’s shoving me to the side. Telling me to watch where I’m going.

He cackles with his loud, ugly mouth.

“What’s funny, shithead?” I shout.

The man pauses. His head snaps my way. He stares me down.

His eyes are bloodshot with folly and wide, as he reaches out to grab my shirt, then throws me with brute force against a wall.

The brick is cool to the touch. It hurts. My whole body aches.

I don’t know if he truly meant to do that—human reflexes are shit under the influence, and he’s still giggling, so maybe he’s not mad after all.

But I am.

I’m sick of being a walking corpse. A ragdoll. A flesh-bag.

I hate this world. I hate—

I grin.

Assistants. 

The man lunges at my figure once more. We struggle, until I’m the one on top of him, throwing punch after punch, listening, as he begs me to stop.

I do.

The night is quiet. A pulse beats beneath my bruised knuckles. My shoulder throbs to the tune of my heartbeats. It would suck if he’s broken it. I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from falling anymore, whenever I jump off buildings thirty feet tall.

The man scoffs. “Coward.” His maroon strands match the large cut engraved deep into the right side of his neck.

I release the grasp I’d kept on his collar. My breaths leave traces of a faint fog behind as they mingle with the air. “That’s enough,” I say.

The man mumbles something. It’s slurred. Vague. Ever-elusive. I don’t get it. 

I peer down at him again. Blood drips from my nose, onto his skin. His lip is crimson, his chin a darker shade of violet. It reassures me to see him bleed. A human. 

He’s human, I think.

I tilt my head to the sky. To the full moon shrouded by polluted clouds—a single white eye; an observer. I get up. With heavy legs and an uneven stride, I step into the thinning scape of dawn, far from this man whose name I will never remember.

The concrete sidewalks are deserted. On them lie pieces of rancid meat. Needles, and other rotten things that are long past the point of being recognizable. Tomorrow, I’ll wake to yesterday’s scars—proof of my existence in this city I’ve no choice to call home.

The wind rises.

The breeze grows hot in a way that isn’t pleasant, but intoxicating.

Glass shatters behind me. I wince when the sound breaks the silence of the once so-quiet street. I turn around. I blink. The world disappears. Then, everyone’s gone. There is only him. Us.

The man grips half a glass bottle in his left hand. He runs, straight toward my figure.

Fuck, I think.

Fuck.”

My punch is fast—the fastest one I’ve ever thrown—however that might be the alcohol in my veins talking, because before I’m able to understand what’s happened, he’s straddling my waist, and having another go at my nose. “I’ll break it this time,” the man says. “I swear.” And something cracks.

I scream; they aren’t actual words, just something guttural I needed to let out.

Flashes of utility poles above me—tattered roofs with rusted holes—cloud my vision. The man curls his fingers around my neck. He squeezes, hard, and everything—even the vivid blinks of colors that had once been so blinding—all melt into a blur.

I part my lips to tell him, Stop it. Stop. You’re choking me. I’ll fucking die. But all that comes out is a wheeze.

I elbow him in the chin. He topples backward and presses a hand to his bloodied temple.

There is murder in his glare. I cough. He licks his lips. Slowly, he reaches into his back pocket. I do the same.

As the sun rises behind our backs and threatens to swallow moments of our lives we wanted to kill, the man freezes. I wonder if he’s going to use that bottle on me this time, or if he’ll call the authorities, who’ll take me away and send me somewhere even shittier than the slums.

He doesn’t.

His eyes widen with fear. In them, are the reflection of guards—all radiant metal; missing flesh. “It was his fucking idea!” The man dashes far from this place none of us will ever be able to truly escape. I catch a glimpse of his tattoos when his jacket’s hood crumbles onto his back.

Now, it occurs to me that I should do the same.

Run, Ian.

Now.

I take off in the opposite direction. I curse under my breath. Soon, my sneakers are covered in mud as I huff, and try to pick out a place where I could heave myself up onto some rooftop, to lose those shitty tinmen. But the buildings in this area are too high. And I still need to retrieve my mask, and my belongings, from where I left them at Fletcher’s garage.

Fuck.

My heart races. It thumps rhythms into my ears, like the beats at nightclubs, that are always played too loud. If the guards had been human, I could have escaped, however they are faster than men will ever be—and I know: If I make one wrong move, it’s all over.

There’s a crash in the distance. I take another turn to the right. The guards shout from two streets down. Orders for me to come back. For the man I’d been fighting to show himself. Promises about doing us no harm.

I scoff. I don’t stop. I’m not stupid. Neither of us are. If we are caught, there will be no mercy. They will shoot us, and dump our bodies somewhere far.

An elderly man is sleeping on a cardboard box two streets down. A pair of children watch me from behind broken windows. I gasp. I pick up my pace. If only this whole fucking place didn’t look the same, maybe I could have memorized this part of town. I can’t though. I didn’t. And I’m too far from home now. Whatever that means.

When I finally stop to take in where I’ve ended up, I want to scream at the world and ask it, Why?

Why?

Why?

Why?

No.” I take a step back. I shake my head. “No, fuck, this shouldn’t be—” In front of me lies a dead end. Before I can turn around to trace my steps, something cold latches onto my wrist. The feel of it is like brisk metal, whose rough surface has been dampened by softer materials.

The thing’s face is hidden by shadows cast by dumpsters all around.

It drags me into darkness. Far from the guards; the man, and the streets.

“Let me go,” I whimper.

Please.

 

2: Miles Away

 

I tell myself it’s not true. I’ve just imagined this. It’s the alcohol. It’s always the damned alcohol.

But no matter how much I tug, or pull, it’s no use—my captor’s grasp refuses to waver.

Dots dance around my vision. I’m beat. This maniac’s been hauling me across town for the past twenty minutes at an incredible pace, and I feel like I’m just about ready to kick the bucket, pass out, throw up, or all three of those at once. “Stop. Stop it!” I croak.

“Please, calm down, Sir,” they are the first words I ever hear from him, and his tone screams polite-customer-service if I didn’t know any better.

I hate him already.

“I am not your enemy,” he says. “I am not here to hurt you.” Sure, he’s not! I totally believe it. That’s why his knee jabs the back of mine, and my head meets the concrete flooring once more. Not as if that fucking hurt, right?

And great, now he’s got me in handcuffs. “What the fu—”

“Please, stay still, Sir.”

I shut my eyes and try to center myself. I can’t hear the guards anymore. But I honestly don’t know if this is any better. “Let me go,” I beg. Maybe if I play innocent, he’ll have pity. Then, I’ll stab both his eyes out and run. “Please, I—”

His finger brushes past my wrist. I fall silent. My gut churns. No.

Not now.

Out of all days, why now?

It wasn’t my imagination. His skin is chilled. And his elbow is joined together at its curves by bolts tainted silver. He’s an Assistant. 

Disgusting.

“I am afraid I cannot do that, Sir.” The Assistant looks down at me. His eyes reflect our surroundings like glass. They are turquoise, and peek out from beneath his dark bangs made to look human. Lifeless; like him.

I try to kick at his artificial knees. “Let me go!” I yell, and a crowd starts to form past the window of an abandoned factory nearby. “I’m hurt, you stupid piece of junk!”

The abomination only raises a brow. Maybe his system is confused? I doubt he would even know the concept of pain. “You can’t keep me in handcuffs!” The sudden surge of adrenaline I’d felt before when he’d grabbed me is starting to fade. It’s like the air isn’t coming in my lungs anymore, and I’m sure the way he’s got me pinned to the ground—with his weight pressed against my back—isn’t helping either. “You can’t,” I say. “I need medical attention. You can’t treat me this way! Or else I swear I’ll punch your fucking face once I’m better and make sure you get dismantled, mother fu—”

“You are a very violent person.” The Assistant tilts his head. He shakes it in vague disapproval, undoes my handcuffs, then stands up straight once more. As he rearranges the large dull-onyx shield by his side, that glows golden in time with the intricate patterns resembling veins, which run across his arms and the rest of his body, he says, “There is no need to be angered, Sir. I am only here to make sure you are all right. Please, excuse the discomfort I may have caused you. I did not want you to run away, alone, with the injuries you have sustained. If they had caught you—” He stops himself.

Caught me? I frown. He’s not on their side?

Or is this a trick?

The Assistant offers me his hand. “Allow me to help you up. I will accompany you to an emergency room. Your nose needs treatment, Sir. It is leaking plasma. I have always been taught this is a sign you human beings could be malfunctioning. My appartment isn’t far. If you would like, I could administer first aid as a start to—”

I try to back away.

I huff. “It’s not that bad,” I tell him. But he holds onto my arm, and again, he won’t budge.

Shit.

Stupid technology that’s giving him an iron grip.

“Your nose, Sir,” the Assistant repeats. “We must—”

“No thanks,” I avert my gaze. “I doubt I’ll fit into your charging port. Also,” I shrug, “I don’t know what your deal is, but if you’re trying to help me, forcing me to follow you to the other side of town is the worst thing you could have done.”

He makes a weird face. “I… apologize?”

I cringe. What? My head retreats back into my shoulders. Since when can Assistants hold conversations so freely like this?

This is fucking insane.

I don’t even want to imagine what else he could do, if whoever his creator is gave him that much free will.

“Please, let me heal you. I am not here to bring you harm.”

This is so fucking dangerous that it’s giving me a headache.

“Leave me alone!” I kick him again; it rings hollow this time. “I didn’t come out here to get scammed!”

“Scammed?”

Yeah. You know, the usual: In exchange for whatever service, you’ll ask me to give you some parts, food for your creators”—I shiver—“or pieces of my body… Anyway, I’m pretty well acquainted with how shit works around here. Nothing’s ever free. So, no thanks.” I shove him with my free hand. “Piss off, tinman,” I say, as I continue trying to free my wrist from his grasp.

“I am not pretending I do not want anything in exchange.”

The Assistant’s words cause me to pause. My eyes widen as I stare at the road beneath our feet. It’s in ruins, and I may very well end up that way, too, if I don’t get out of here soon. “What’s your deal, then?” I ask the Assistant. “What the fuck do you want from me, you annoying scrap of metallic—”

“Sir, it appears you are having a bad night.”

Answer my question!” The sole of my boot meets with his chest. It smears dirt all over the modest grey shine of his body. I don’t know how I’m able to be so brave tonight. I would’ve never confronted an Assistant sober.

Maybe that beer wasn’t so bad after all.

Whatever’s in it made me lose my mind.

I hope it’s only temporary.

The Assistant finally releases me. I fall backwards, flat onto my ass with a yelp. As his shadow towers over me, and he digs into the pocket of his coat, I take back everything I claimed two seconds ago.

I’m not crazy.

I’m still afraid. And this brief moment of helplessness, where I am left to wonder what he seeks—without my usual weapons on hand, or the power of my identity—makes my chest tighten, and my eyes water.

He kneels before me. I hold back a scream. What good would asking for help do anyway? It’s not like anyone’ll come to my rescue.

Every person here fights for themselves.

I consider running far, but as I look around—to the long roads ahead of us that stretch on for miles on end—I realize it wouldn’t be enough to stop him. If he bought me to such a desolate place, where even the guards cannot communicate because all signals are gone from the air, then he knows what he’s doing. Maybe… he’s even done this before.

The crowd that had lingered by the shattered windows before us dissipate, though, they do not turn their backs from our eyes as they leave.

I gulp.

If the Assistant won’t let me go until he thinks I’m going to comply with whatever he wants me to do, then, my best chance of survival is making him believe that I will.

“Who are you?” I ask him once more. “And… what do you want from me?”

 

3: Pancake Rhapsody

 

Inside a cheap diner, the noise of silverware clatters, then clangs, atop cheap tables laid out in pairs.

I cringe. It’s hard to keep an open eye when sleep calls. I want to go home… wherever that’ll be today.

The Assistant is still here, seated across from me, casually sipping on his fresh cup of oil. And, God, how I hope he’ll let me go, and that I won’t be found murdered on some empty street corner two hours from now.

This situation sucks.

“Sir?” The Assistant straightens up. He looks me dead in the eye. “It appears you are unresponsive and that your attention has been fully occupied by something other than our conversation. Are you ill? Are the pancakes I ordered for you not to your liking?”

I avert my gaze. I rest my chin against my hand, then stare out the window; at the sparse amount of pedestrians that pollute the street amidst the early morning light.

It’s not the pancakes—even if they’re gross, and made from leftovers the chef found god knows where, I’m still doing my best to scoff them down, because I shouldn’t waste food. “Why don’t you eat them instead?” I say.

He laughs. I hate how genuine it sounds, how close to being human he truly is. It scares me.

“You know very well I cannot do that, Sir.” The Assistant pauses for a moment, then two. “Perhaps, you would rather eat something else? I had heard meals containing sweet beverages and sugar were very effective in terms of cheering humans up. Does this fact not apply to you?”

Something snaps within me. My fists hit the table. If this were an ordinary restaurant, I’m sure the waitresses would have already kicked me out, or at least turned around to observe what the hell I was even doing in their establishment. But they don’t. Because every single one on of them is a machine. Just like him, and the ones who took my parents away from me.

Murderers.

There is a sudden silence. The faint traces of a storm linger in the air. The bright lights that bathe us in whites are ominous. I blink. I’m twelve again, in the hospital, standing before the bodies they asked me to identify. And maybe that damned Assistant is right. Maybe I am a bit sick. In the head. In my mind.

I want to leave. So badly that my body moves on its own. However, before I can even take the first step back towards my shitty life, his wrist curls around my arm once more. “Sir?” The Assistant tilts his head like an innocent puppy would. “What’s wrong?” His voice is hushed. It’s ironic—as if he could disturb another customer when we’re the only ones here. “Where are you going?” I don’t know how to tell him that I hate his kind, that I hate him.

“I’m still a bit drunk. I need some fresh air.” It’s not completely a lie, and I wonder if his programming catches that, because he instantly lets go.

“Thanks,” I mutter between gritted teeth, with my head hung low.

I march past the exit whose doorbells ring certain farewells. The breeze outside is putrid. We barely own any cars, but the inhabitants of Exia do, and it gets worse every day. To think I used to look forward to breathing the summer air long ago when I was one of them feels foreign. Now, I can’t wait for winter, because it means they stay inside. They bother us less. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, Christmas time brings us free food. Scraps they dump into our grounds.

I dig my hand into the back pocket of my jeans. I search for a cigarette that some bald guy gave me at a bar yesterday.

I light it. The filter tastes like shit. Every bit of it is terrible. But nothing else is certain right now other than me coughing up my lungs in less than three seconds, so in that sense, I guess I do enjoy the brief mirage of stability this crap brings me.

The cigarette expires. I extinguish its fire beneath my boots, into the cold asphalt below.

“Excuse me,” a voice says.

I turn around. It’s the Assistant.

 

4: Card

 

The Assistant’s gaze looks emptier than before. He’s made his shield disappear back into his elbow. The modest LEDs that run along his arms are not golden anymore; they blink, from deep reds, to a pale pink.

I’m sure he thinks he can trick people with how harmless he currently seems, but I know the truth. Despite how innocent he may appear, he could turn into a serial killer at any given moment.

“Forgive me, Sir,” the Assistant says. “I am not well versed on hangovers, and every signal here is weak. It is difficult for me to run a search. However, if you could possibly elaborate on your symptoms, I may be able to understand your situation a tad better. Should you need anything, I can definitely—”

“I don’t need your help.My features scrunch up into a scowl. I knock on his chest with a closed fist. It rings hollow. The lights interwoven into his design darken, and I don’t care anymore about what may or may not happen to me. “Just tell me what you fucking want. I’m tired. I need to sleep. Didn’t your shitty creator ever explain to you that humans have to rest every once in a—”

“Please don’t insult my creator.” The Assistant’s tone is much more assertive than before.

I take a step back.

My shoulders tense.

I wait for it—the moment where he will strike me. But the Assistant places his hand flat against his own chest instead, where his heart would have been, if he’d been born human instead. “My creator worked very hard to create me. He made sure that I would be able to instruct myself in the ways of human culture properly, even once he would not be around anymore to teach me your rules. So, please… Don’t—”

A car zooms past us, then honks thrice right after. If the Assistant had even the slightest hint of sorrow across his features before, it’s gone now, and he’s back into full duty mode.

Alert.

Aware.

The blue in his eyes flash a pale white. Numbers and various patterns slither across his pupils as he observes the back of the vehicle, until it falls out of sight. “The license plate is a match…” he mutters.

And I can’t help but blurt the words, “What? What do you mean it’s a match?”

He snaps out of his trance. He doesn’t reply. Instead, he shuffles through his pockets, pauses, then lets out a sigh of relief—and before I can count to ten, a business card is being gently held out toward me.

I raise a brow. “What’s this?”

“So we can keep in touch,” the Assistant tells me with a smile—the same warm and welcoming one he wore back within the restaurant, when he ordered our food. “I must go. Duty calls. But please, do call me once you are ready to talk. I will be at your service for first aid, Sir. And I will also be in need of your assistance with… a case.”

I raise a brow. I cross my arms.  This is fucking shady. “A case?”

He nods. “Yes, I am investigating a problem. I believe you could be of help.”

Oh, hell no—I’m not getting arrested.

I push his hands, and his business card, back toward his body. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” I tell him. “I’m just an average guy. I won’t be of any help to you. Trust me, you’d be better off without me for whatever it is you’re doing.”

Yet, upon registering my words, his smile doesn’t waver.

The Assistant reaches for the front pocket of my jacket. I shut my eyes. I wince.

I can already picture him ripping my heart out, and me—weak little human me—unable to do anything but watch, and scream, and beg for him to stop, to put it back in, to take all of it back. Their deaths. His existence.

My misery.

The Assistant slides his business card into my pocket.

He shakes my hand.

I don’t have time to argue. I don’t have time to pull away. “My name is Gilbert,” he tells me. “I am made to serve. It was a pleasure meeting you, and it will be a pleasure meeting you again, Sir.”

I don’t tell him my name is Ian.

He could look it up anyway once he’s got a better signal. Like everyone else who was thrown out, into this dump, I’m listed as deceased on a public repertoire.

“Please,” the Assistant nods, “call me later. We must meet up. I have many things I must say to you, however…” He lowers his voice yet again, and glances around for a sign of any passersby. Once there are none, he whispers the words, “In private this time.”

I gulp. I don’t even want to imagine what that could mean.

Another car passes us by. It’s bright green. A long, black streak runs down the roof’s middle. The wind summoned by its passing creates ripples in our clothing, that disappear as quickly as they’d come. When I turn to glance at Gilbert again, in order to refuse his offer, he’s gone.

I groan. “What the hell…”

I stare down at the beige, sun-bleached card he left behind, and recall the look on his face when he talked about his creator. A depressed Assistant. What a joke.

If I were still blind, I would have surely fallen for that empathy-inducing feature. But I’m not. My eyes are wide open; I know they aren’t capable of understanding us. They don’t realize what it’s like. To breathe. To hurt. To fear. And I won’t be tricked again.

I rip the card in two and toss it into a nearby bin.

That’s right, I’ll die before I trust another one of those tin cans.

 

5: A Sunrise. A Heartbeat, and a Disappearance.

 

The sun has barely risen when I get back to the streets that lead to Fletcher’s garage. It’s hotter than I’d expected it’d be at this hour. The weather’s only been getting worse lately.

Lost children glare at me from across the road with scowls that linger within my heart long after they are gone. They remind me of how I once was when I first arrived here. I wish I could buy them food, clean T-shirts and water, but I barely have enough to keep myself alive.

A crow flies past me and squawks. Its leg is missing. My chest tightens. They’re almost extinct, and this is how we treat them.

Like food.

I find Fletcher’s garage at the next street corner. Its windows are still broken. I click my tongue. Idiot. I told him he should fix it, but he never listens.

As I step over shards of glass—scraps of metal—through the entrance whose door was smashed to rubble long ago, the irritating sound of Fletcher’s snores come to flood the room that has barely been touched by daylight; left blue, by the stroke of midnight.

I bring a fist to my chin. I clear my throat.

Fletcher gasps. “Ian?”

“Who else?” I ask.

He groans. “Dude, what the fuck— Do you know what time it is? Where were you?”

A huff escapes me. I bend down to lift an old, moldy tile beneath my foot. From under it, I grab my backpack, whose tint has decayed to a darker, more depressed grey. As I sling the damned thing over my shoulder, my breaths hitch, and I wince. It still fucking hurts, and I feel like shit. Fuck.

Fucking android.

This is all his fault.

“I was nowhere,” I tell Fletcher. He rises from the couch, and I’m reminded that I need to patch up the spot that’s been ripped again, near the edges of its armrest.

Fletcher raises a brow. “You don’t look like you were nowhere.”

I roll my eyes. “Look,” I say. “I just ran into this jerk who wanted me to help him investigate some bullshit, but I turned him down, so it’s whatever, really.”

My old friend frowns, then scratches the back of his head. “He let you go? Just like that?” Fletcher pauses to glance out from one of the garage’s window-frames. A hooded man, who stands right outside of it, catches both our attentions.

Out of the two of us, however, Fletcher is quicker to react. His fist dives into his jean’s back pocket. In his hand materializes a gun. He points it straight at the man, then says, “You shouldn’t be here. You’ve got ten seconds to scram.”

The man is gone in eight.

“Fucking creep.” Fletcher shoves his weapon back into his pocket. He cringes. “Who the fuck does that…” My old friend sighs. “Anyway, Ian—” His eyes meet mine once more. “Are you sure you’re not in any kind of trouble?”

Fletcher’s gaze darkens; he lowers his voice. “We could go… take care of the problem, if you’d like.”

But I wave his idea away and shrug it off. “I’m fine,” I say. “You worry too much. I was just asked to investigate a case. It seemed sketchy, so I didn’t outright refuse. He probably thinks we’re meeting up sometime later this morning.” My foot hits the start of the attic’s steps. I scoff. “Sucks for him though, I won’t be going. Anyway,” I yawn; god, I’m beat. “I’m taking a nap. Wake me up in three hours. Thanks.”

As I begin to walk up the stairs, I hear Fletcher mumbling the words, “If you hadn’t been my boss in the past, I would have thrown you out, you know.”

This makes me stop in my tracks, and peek at him from behind the wall that had separated us. I smirk. “Then, I’m glad I was.”

“Just go, Ian, fuck off.”

I chuckle. The stairs creak as I leave him be.

My room is just as I’d left it—in ruins, full of spare parts and masks I don’t use anymore.

I grab a blanket off the wooden floorboards. In the streets below, somebody coughs.

The wool pinched between my fingers starts to unravel. The thought that I’ll need a new blanket briefly crosses my mind, until it is erased by the fact that my life has been reduced to choosing food over comfort. Always.

I lay down onto the makeshift mattress that sits lifeless across the floor. The edges of each pillow that’s arranged into a rectangular puzzle dig into my back. But I’m exhausted. I don’t care anymore.

Soon, I see black.

I don’t know how much time passes. There is a brief shimmer, a glint of bright yellow, before red drips down walls and comes to paint the scene laid out before me. Saki runs towards my figure. She calls out my name. “Come on, Ian! Join us!” Years have gone by since we last met, yet, she still looks like a child here.

I try to lift my foot.

But I’m stuck in quicksand, and I’m sinking, deep into an abyss filled with maggots. Dead things.

I bite down against the taste of bile. I tell Saki to wait. “Please,” I shout. “Don’t leave me here!” But she’s gone. Into the light that draws further away from me with each passing second.

I blink.

The silhouettes of my parents holding hands stand beside Saki.

They laugh. They start to walk away.

I try to yell again, but what comes out of my mouth isn’t sound. It’s slime. Neon-green and viscous. And I choke on the words I’d wanted to say.

I reach out to grab the light. It is much more tangible, softer, than I’d expected; this startles me.

“Saki. Saki. Please.” I whimper.

The breath I take is deep. “Please.” My lungs ache. I weep. “Don’t leave me alone.”

The soft fabric crushed between my fingers is pulled from my hands. However, I refuse to let go. I tug, and tug, and tug until the sound of a grizzled tear brings me back to reality. My attention wanders to the ground, now lit a darker shade of tangerine by the heat of the sky.

I rub my eyes. A piece of the blanket is tangled around a nail that pokes out from beneath the old wood. “Crap.” I cover my eyes, fall back into bed, and sigh. “How am I even going to fix that…”

When silence falls across my room once more, it occurs to me that the usual noises made by Fletcher working on other people’s bikes aren’t present.

My brows furrow. I get up and stretch my shoulder. It doesn’t hurt as badly as it did before, but I should probably take it easy. As for my nose…

Damn, I gulp. I wish it looked terrible because of the crack in the mirror before me, but holy shit, I need to put some ice on that.

I waddle back down the stairs. “Fletcher?” I clear my throat. “Hey, man, do you have some leftover—” My eyes widen.

I freeze.

This place is a wreck—more so than usual. Everything has been turned upside down, and the couch’s surface is even more ripped than before.

Fletcher’s glasses lay smashed, discarded amongst the floor.

My gaze darts left, then right. I inch forward and keep a hand on the blade hooked around my belt. But there’s no one here. This place is deserted.

I don’t understand. Who would do this? Fletcher is needed and well-liked around here. Harming him would bring more of a loss than a win to us all.

I think back to the Assistant. I gulp. Is he the one responsible for this? There’s no way I’m waiting to find out. I’ll fucking kill him.

If I have to force the intel out of his circuits, then so be it—but he’s not getting away with hurting my friend.

I run back up the stairs and grab my things. As I change into my sneakers and tug my gloves onto my fingers, then down to my wrists, I hold onto the windowsill and haul myself up, onto the roof.

The light is dying in the sky—yet, every cloud remains, even if there is no rain. I crack my neck. I put on the biker’s mask I’d modified two years ago. “Fucking hell, Fletcher,” I mutter, as I dash towards the next rooftop and make the jump.

“You better be all right.”

 

6: New Bruises, Old Nights

 

La Brume has barely opened when I arrive. There’s a bouncer up front. I haven’t seen his face before. He’s new, and that’s bad news. It’s going to make speaking with Solenn complicated, because there’s no way he’ll let me in before the rest of the crowd that’s waiting not too far away, in the abandoned factory raised tall at the opposite end of the bar’s building.

“Shit,” I mutter as I stuff my hands back into my pockets, and walk far from the neon sign that blinks on and off like thunder; a faded beat. So much for secretly getting my intel.

I reach for another cigarette in my pocket, but a guy walks up to me and causes me to pause. He holds out his hand. I can’t see his face because he’s wearing a mask; it’s nothing special. Just some black bonnet with holes for his eyes that he’s pulled over his features.

I hold back an irritated sigh. Being out of my usual attire does tend to be less intimidating… He probably thinks I’m an average goon working under some shithead; and that’s great, I need to keep it that way.

This guy has no business knowing who I am.

He starts to tap his foot impatiently against concrete. I throw the cigarette at him. “It’s the only one I have,” I say, without averting my gaze from his. “I’ve got nothing else.”

The man pauses. He stares at my backpack, and of course he would. I don’t usually keep this thing on me, that’s like asking for trouble! I was supposed to directly enter the bar and meet Solenn inside La Brume to deposit it there. Fuck, what shitty luck.

I take a step back. “It’s empty,” I repeat.

The man stomps toward me. He lights my cigarette and shoves it between his lips with a chuckle. “Guess you won’t mind giving it to me then,” he mutters, as he towers over my figure. I hate to admit it, but I’m not the tallest guy around, and it’s never helpful in situations like these.

He whistles, then waves over a group of his men, who’d been on standby in that damned factory.

I don’t wait. I take off and run behind La Brume’s building before I can truly register his insults that start flying once I move—I’ve seen, and lived through enough of these brawls to know where this would go if I stuck around. There’s no need for me to get beaten up more than necessary tonight, if I can avoid it.

Minutes pass.

My breaths are heavy.

They’re still following me. Fucking assholes. They just never know when to give up. The darkness from the dying sky above gains on us as I search for a place to change. Because escaping won’t do me any good—with how persistent they’re being, it’s likely they’ll just wait until I come back and have a go at me then.

There’s a sharp pop to my right as a light sizzles out. My eyes drift over to the railing of an old decaying apartment complex, that may lead to its basement. Usually, this wouldn’t be my first option, but climbing up a rooftop would be much too noticeable, and only an idiot would utilize an unknown basement as his hiding place. So, I smirk, it’s perfect then.

I’ll be that idiot.

I jump over the railing. It’s not rusted to a point of breaking. It manages to hold up my weight. “Heh.” I smirk. Guess being small does come with its perks sometimes, too.

The gang’s hurried footsteps near. I descend down the steps that lead me into a nest of shadows and press my back against its wall. The guy who stole my cigarette is shouting something about his mates being useless. They argue for a while. I hold my breath. One of them suggests checking out the place where I’ve chosen to hide, but their leader turns them down. “You’re mad if you think I’m going to go down there, Jasper. It’s not worth the risk for a fucking backpack. Come on, La Brume’s probably open, we’ll have better luck there.”

They leave.

The tension in my shoulders dissipates. God, that was too close. I sigh. Fuck this place…

Will I ever get a day off around here?

I’m on the verge of walking back up the steps, out of the rectangular stone alcove that leads to another door, when I hear it: heavy breaths that aren’t mine.

The heat of them fall onto my neck. “I rarely get visitors,” somebody whispers.

A man runs his hand up my thigh and presses himself up against me. His voice seems familiar, yet, I have no way of figuring out his identity when we are doused in such bleak light. “Do you also like knives?” he asks me.

My eyes widen. Without thinking, I elbow him in the stomach and dash up the stairs.

My huffs are frantic, loud, as I make my escape.

I expect the man to follow me up, but when I turn around, there’s no one. I don’t know if he’s still there—however, I don’t call out to check.

Rain starts to pour from the sky and lands onto nearby trashcans in the forms of heavy plunks and rust-stained tears. As I hurry back to find La Brume, I grab a wig from my bag and cover the white in my hair with a chestnut shade of brown.

The only sound that can be heard echoing throughout the long, narrow alleyway is an insect being burned, as it bashes its tiny body against a withering stoplight.

Do you also like knives? The stranger’s final question plays on repeat in my mind like a busted record. I try to shake the thought of him away, and when I shiver, I convince myself it is from the cold.

Too many strange occurrings have happened around here lately—especially since Saki’s disappearance—and I don’t like it one bit. It gives me the creeps.

 

7: La Brume

 

Loud songs. Rumbling grounds. A bass that makes the walls tremble, all greet me, as I enter La Brume. The air smells of sweat mixed with cheap perfumes. I don’t like it. I won’t ever get used to this, but it’s necessary, so I drag myself across the room, toward the bar, until Solenn notices me, and waves me over.

I don’t sit down, though, I make sure no one’s around to see it when I lean in to slide five cans of dried nuts beneath the counter. “Fletcher’s missing,” I whisper, as she grabs them from me.

I pull away. Solenn doesn’t. She stays there, still, as if she has been frozen, her bones turned into cement. ‘Don’t panic,’ I mouth the words this time, because with our current distance, it’s likely she wouldn’t hear me unless I screamed.

Her lip twitches. She crosses her arms. Even though she’s chosen not to comment, I can tell she’s pissed.

Behind me, the upbeat song ends, as another one soon begins right after. It’s safe to say half the clientele in this stuffy room decorated by shards of triangular mirrors is already drunk, or at least, pretending to be.

I wait for them to start dancing again. This time, as my gaze meets Solenn’s, I hold up a fist and two fingers before my chest—our signal.

Her eyes dart across both the staff members and her regulars. It takes her a few seconds before she leaves her post and passes me by to go to the bathroom. I don’t have time to distract myself, for she is back before I know it, shoving a key to one of her private rooms, and an envelope, between my fingers. “Those nuts better be worth it,” she hisses next to my ear; and then, “I’ve given you a little extra. Find him.”

I don’t nod to acknowledge her statement. Instead, I turn around and show her a single finger behind my back. Another signal. If anyone didn’t know better, they’d probably think I was rearranging my pants.

There’s a man with a bad case of stubble screaming at another guy in one of the club’s faraway corners. I still don’t get why some people insist on leasing the closest thing La Brume has to a VIP section, when they could easily spend their money on much more useful things, but… whoever these two are, they definitely didn’t rent it out for a quick fuck like most do.

I gulp. I step away from their booth, and the flashing lights, emanating from strobes above. I’m slightly worried for the guy who was being scolded, because the one doing the scolding had punched the wall with his tattooed fist the last time I looked. And I wish I had time to help him, but every second counts in terms of whether or not I’ll be able to find Fletcher again.

For now, I push the two men out from my mind and sneak into a booth of my own. Thankfully, the bouncer in charge of security for this one does recognize me.

Once I’m sure no one’s looking, I grab Solenn’s envelope and tear it open. There’s nothing written on it. It’s only two blank pages.

I scoff. I dig into my pocket to find my flashlight. When I push the bright, ultraviolet glow up to the sheets, lines of messy handwriting and a quickly sketched out portrait appear.

There are shouts from behind the muted, transparent door as people start to jump up, then down, across the dancefloor. I squint to get a better look at the portrait, and a swear escapes me once I’ve gotten a good idea of who the guy staring back at me might be.

There’s no mistaking it. Between my two fingers, lit in bright, fluorescent purples, is a man with a bad case of stubble—the one who wore his temper on his sleeve, in the booth next door.

Now, it’s slowly sinking in that I’m probably going to have to talk to him one way or another. And as much as I love Solenn, I want to punch her right now for doing this to me.

“Shit,” I roll my eyes and sigh. This is going to be interesting, to say the least.

 

8: Fire

 

I cripple the two modest sheets of paper. Toss them into a steel bin. Then, I grab a match, light it, and throw it in along with the evidence that’ll soon be no more. The man’s face disappears in less than five seconds as he is eaten by fire.

I huff. The sound of my breaths are soon overridden by the bass thumping rhythms into the ground. La Brume has reached its peak hour. If I don’t act now, I’ll risk losing him.

And I can’t have that.

I exit the booth. The scent of cigarettes makes my throat itch, and my brain crave another. I’d usually hold back, but—I smirk—this is the perfect occasion. I can use it as a cover.

It seems the man I’m looking for has also left his booth. Solenn’s letter told me his name was Rob. There isn’t a sight of the other guy who was once with him, only, there’s blood on Rob’s knuckles, so… it isn’t difficult to guess what might’ve happened.

Now that I’m getting a better look at him, I want to back out. This guy is ripped. If he caught me in the act of stealing his info, I’m sure he could smash my skull with just a flick of his finger.

His tattoos don’t do anything to make him appear less menacing either. And the vermilion lights above throw dark shadows across his skin that only serve to accentuate his rough features. “You looking at me, boy?”

Shit.

He noticed I was staring.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

I gulp. Something tells me my usual method of threatening people into them giving me intel won’t work this time. “Hey, brat!” Rob snaps, as he cocks his head, then snarls. “I’m talking to you over there! With the black hair.”

For a moment, I forget I’m wearing a wig, and it takes a few seconds after his statement for me to realize he’s referring to my pseudo-hair.

I force my legs to move, then waver over to where he stands, leaning against the wall, with his unshaven arms crossed over his chest.

I have to do something, I think. I’m too suspicious right now.

If I don’t act fast and figure out a plan in the next three seconds, it’s likely my blood will be smeared across his fingers, too. “You’re hot,” I blurt, in an overexaggerated, slurred manner. And, boy, do I hope this guy is into dudes, or else I am fucked.

He grins. I let out a breath of relief. However, this situation becomes a whole other problem all entirely once his hand slithers across my waist. “Oh yeah?” Rob smells like leather and iron, and I’m really hoping Solenn won’t find a dead guy in the booth he used. “Here to have some fun?”

“Y-yeah…” I avert his gaze. My walk is sluggish as I lead him onto the dancefloor.

Thankfully, he follows—even if a bouncer was nearby, it’s always better to be in a crowd, especially for talking. He’ll let his guard down. He won’t think much of it. Of me.

I’m not used to dancing like this, especially not with strangers. Though, it’s not that hard. He seems satisfied if I just grind up against his leg. What a fucking idiot.

Rob leans in. He reaches out to tuck the wig’s hair behind my ear, but I quickly grab his hand and twine our fingers together instead. “Why don’t you tell me about your day?” I whisper, low, and close to his ear. “How badly do you need to relax, Sir?”

“Sir?” He chuckles. “I like that. You’re good.”

I smile in return without breaking eye contact. This time, my expression is quite honest, because he’s right, I am good. And he’s going to give me what I want.

My index finger traces a path from his mouth down to his chin. I bite my lower lip. “So?” I say, in a tone that is more teasing than irritated. “Do you need a distraction, or should I just go?”

His palm comes down to cup my ass. He squeezes it. Once.

I do my best to hold back a cringe. “You’re a curious little one, aren’t you?” And okay, maybe I underestimated him, because I just assumed he would let his emotions get the best of him, like he did back in that booth.

He shouldn’t be questioning our exchange right now.

He should be giving in.

I rub up against him again. A new song plays. It is faster, much more violent than the last. “I’m very open-minded,” I say. And, just when I’m on the verge of leaning in to kiss him—because fuck it, it’s worth it if I can save Fletcher afterward—some fucking asshole decides to literally hump my waist.

My lip twitches.

I turn around, with the intent of teaching a lesson to whoever it is that mistook raunchy dancing for literally emulating sex on a dancefloor, but the person I find myself face-to-face with makes me freeze. “Hello, Rogue Zero.” The Assistant from before shows me his usual hypocritical grin, and of course it’s him. It makes sense that this asshole wouldn’t know how to dance. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again—”

I slap a hand to his lips. “Do not speak that name here,” I hiss.

From behind me, Rob clicks his tongue. He presses his erection to the curve of my ass, and asks, “What name?” He’s heard me. He probably heard The Assistant, too. Fuck.

The people that surround us slow, until they are dancing no more. The floor is silent, even if the music in the speakers above head is still raging, echoing sounds of shotguns across the room. And I know I’m in deep shit now, because they’re all staring at us, without uttering a single word.

 

9: Bust

 

As I turn to face the asshole I’d been trying to seduce, my blood goes cold. Rob looks like he’s going to kill me, if I don’t stab him first.

I force myself to laugh. The noise is muted and made all the more awkward by the soundproof walls. It disgusts me to do so, but I immediately reach out for the Assistant as if we were friends, and lay a hand against his shoulder. “David!” I say. “You idiot, I told you I didn’t want to come to your stupid Halloween party! Nobody celebrates that anymore around here. And, no, for the last fucking time, I’m not going to dress up as Rogue Zero to be your sidekick. It’s a waste of resources. Now get the fuck out of my—”

The Assistant frowns. “My name isn’t—”

I kick him in the leg and mutter the words, “Yes, it fucking is, you forgetful little shit,” under my breath. My palm meets his wrist. I take a step forward with the intent of dragging him out of La Brume, however, Rob holds me back.

“You think I’m an idiot?” he shouts. “You think I’m gonna let you mess with me like that?”

“I’ll be back in five,” I mutter. “No need to be a dick about it.”

Rob’s breaths ghost against my neck. He grunts behind me, then lowers his raspy voice. “I don’t appreciate pranks, brat. You promised me a good time. I ain’t letting you leave with that little friend of yours.”

I smirk, then scoff, and cup a hand around his ear. “Listen, motherfucker,” I whisper, “I saw you beat the shit out of that guy in booth two. I know La Brume’s owner. And if you don’t let me go for five fucking minutes outside, then you’ll be sorry you tested my patience.” I pull away, then look him in the eye. His gaze burns with rage, but nevertheless, he stays silent. “All right?” I show Rob a hypocritical smile. “I’ll be back.”

Surprisingly, this guy does let me leave. And now I’m glad he didn’t actually tell me anything of importance, because I’ve no doubt convincing him to let me step out for a minute or two would have been twice as complicated, if he’d given me the intel I’d wanted.

I drag Gilbert toward the exit.

The crowd parts for us.

Behind the bar, Solenn mouths: ‘What are you doing?’ to me, but I ignore her. If anyone in here realizes Gilbert is an actual Assistant, they’ll waste no time tearing him to pieces—or at least, they’ll try. I can’t believe he doesn’t know this. He’s like a walking sack of money, and he’s alone, too! Anyone could be tempted to take his parts in exchange for a better life.

“Ian, I—”

“Shut it, tin can.”

I slam the front door behind our figures. It’s still raining outside. The bouncer throws me a disapproving glare, though, he doesn’t comment any more than that on my behavior. It’s not like he could throw me out of the club. I’m already gone.

As I take Gilbert to an isolated alleyway—one far from the alcove, where I had my strange encounter earlier on, because I really don’t need any more trouble to add onto this mess—I let out an exasperated sigh.

Above us, red and purple lights flicker from old, outdated signs. There’s a moan coming from the last floor of one of the buildings. I cannot say whether it is one of pain or of pleasure. I hope, for the sake of whoever made the sound, that it’s the latter.

“Were you the one who took Fletcher?” I ask, as rain accumulates at our feet, alongside mist created by puffs of smoke that linger, nearby.

Gilbert furrows his brows. He part his lips. Yet, he does not speak.

“Answer me, God damn it!” I hurl my foot into the trash can standing next to my figure. It falls with a deafening ring. Rats who were once hidden behind the rotting steel go running, fast, into a deeper part of the alleyway’s sewers. “Why did you take him?” I shout. “Where is he?”

“I… am sorry, Sir.” Gilbert purses his lips together. He looks saddened. Why that is, is beyond me. “I do not believe the name Fletcher is in my register.”

My heart drops. What?

I was sure it was him. There was no other explanation. “So, you don’t know who he is, then? You’re sure about that, buddy?” I doubt taking a rather menacing tone will work on an Assistant devoid of fear; it doesn’t stop me from trying, though.

Gilbert shakes his head.

“How did you find me?” I ask him.

“You were lying, Sir.” Our gazes meet. “You were not planning on meeting with me again,” he says.

“So?” I raise a brow.

“So,” Gilbert nods, “I took it upon myself to place a tracking device on you.”

My hands ball into fists. I crouch down and groan into my arms. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

For some reason, he follows me down and kneels in turn. “Sir?” Gilbert blinks. He looks confused. What an asshole. “Is everything all right?”

No!” My voice cracks, until it perishes, engulfed by the sound of the pouring rain. “Nothing is all right! You ruined everything!” Images of what could possibly be happening to Fletcher right now flash through my mind. “My friend is missing, I’m being stalked by my worst nightmare, and… my nose really hurts.”

As Gilbert places his hand against my knuckles, I flinch, but force myself to stay in place. If I pull away now, it’ll show him I’m afraid. Even if I probably don’t, I want to believe I still might have the upper hand here.

“May I fix your injuries?” he asks me.

“In exchange for what?”

He pauses. Then finally says, “Nothing.”

I slap his hand away. “Liar.” I still can’t bring myself to look at him. “You said you wanted me to help you before. I’m no fool.” A broken laugh escapes me. “I know you’ll demand something in return once you’ve fulfilled your part of the bargain.”

Gilbert sighs—at least, it is the equivalent of a sigh, even if I doubt he needs to breathe. “Do you hate me that much?”

“I hate you in general,” I tell him. “It’s nothing personal.”

“Apologies, sir, but I do not understand what that means.”

Heat rises in my throat. I want to scream. I get up again, once I finally find the courage to meet his gaze. “It means I detest your kind,” I say. “Because you’re all destined to become bloodthirsty murderers at some point. And even if some say that’s wrong, I refuse to believe it. This month only”—I point at him—“there were thirty of you who went missing. Thirty of you who came back. And thirty of you who killed at least three hundred of us. Of me.”

“I am aware.” Gilbert averts his gaze. His attention is fixated on the ground, where an abandoned shoelace lies, discarded next to a murky green puddle. If I hadn’t known him to be an Assistant, I might have thought he’d been feeling ashamed. “I am aware,” Gilbert echoes, as his lips tighten into a thin line. “That is why… I am investigating these murders.”

My eyes widen. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

I gasp. “What?

 

10: The Case of a Clumsy Assistant, and His New Companion

 

“It doesn’t matter.” Gilbert walks past me. The rain has drenched him from head to toe. Dew slides down the shine of his dark grey exterior, yet, neither of those things seem to affect him in the slightest, whilst I am over here, shivering like a lost lamb from the cold. “That bar, La Brume…” He holds out a hand for me to take—one I refuse, as I help myself up alone. “Sir, simply put—you cannot go back in there.”

Sure.” I cross my arms, then roll my eyes. The wig on my head is soaked. I regret not taking it off earlier. It’s going to be a pain in the ass to make it look good again. Washing fake hair is the last way I wanted to spend my free time. “I’m totally going to believe an Assistant that followed me without my permission—you’re not suspicious at all!” Also, I’m sure he’s lying. Why would he investigate against his own kind? It makes no sense. This sounds like a ploy for him to get me to trust him.

“I am sorry if I upset you, Sir.”

“You still did it, though.”

He holds up a finger before his chest. “Yes, but—” Gilbert pauses. He lowers his voice. “That man! He was going to hurt you!”

I shrug. “Dude, worse-case scenario we would have banged.”

Gilbert’s eyes widen in fear. “Yes!” He blurts, as he waves his arms around in a frantic manner. I fail to understand what’s so bad about sex to him, but at this point, I’d rather not ask. “You would have died!”

Another moan slips out from the apartment above us. I laugh. “Dude, what? Not really, no. That’s not what I’m into.” He parts his lips to speak again, however I cut him off, and turn around, back toward the road that leads to La Brume. “Anyway, if you don’t have anything better to say, leave me alone, stop stalking me, and go find someone else to bother. I don’t want to see you again.”

“That man will shoot you! He has a gun in his pocket. He was on the verge of taking it out and using it on you when I arrived. That is why I acted the way I did, I—”

The Assistant’s words make me freeze. I trace my steps and take a deep breath. “And I’m supposed to believe that because?” I ask.

He stares at me for a moment. Then, his eyes do that thing again, where they become shrouded in numbers and strange, intricate patterns and codes.

Gilbert zones out for a moment, until the life returns to him and he says, “I learned about you being Rogue Zero by analyzing the contents of your backpack. However, if you would like further proof: You currently have a small dagger hidden in your boot. There is one in your belt, as well—it is covered by your jacket. It has also come to my attention that you have a compartment hidden within your black gloves that contains two blades. Sir, if you still do not trust me, I am entirely willing to give you other details, but I believe it would be in both our best interests if we… left it at this.”

Wait—

What the fuck?

I don’t know whether to feel violated, stunned, or both, but… damn it, it would be stupid of me to ignore his warning since no one—not even my old gang—knows about my gloves. “Okay, fine.” I take a step back, and shit, it’s really cold out here, I wish I could go back inside just for the warmth, catching a cold would suck right now. “I get it.” I wave Gilbert off. “Don’t tell me anymore, please.”

He beams and clasps his hands together. “Truly?”

“Yes, you idiot.” My eyebrow twitches. “Why the hell do you look so happy?”

Thunder illuminates the sky as rain continues to crash down on us. The moans we’d been hearing above head are swallowed by the sounds of nature rebelling in the deep night. “I was unsure if you would ever be willing to listen to me, Sir.”

“Uh, okay, stop making it sound like I trust you,” I snap. “I really don’t.”

“You do not?” he asks me, with a tilt of his head. “Why? Sir, what must I do to have your approval? On a scale of five to fifty-seven… how high would you rate your trust?”

I raise a brow. Five to fifty-seven? Isn’t it usually one to ten?

Did someone mess up when coding his speech?

…Well, regardless of that, his question is a difficult one to answer.

Do I trust him at all? Probably not. He’s still an Assistant, that part hasn’t changed—there’s no telling what he’ll do in the future, or when he’ll decide to turn on me. However, I could use him, and exploit his technology to find Fletcher. “Maybe a little more than before,” is my final answer. And when he offers to attend to my wounds, this time, I’ve no choice but to agree.

“Okay,” I tell him. “Lead the way.”

INDEX  ONWARD

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