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Android Affection (2020) Rogue Zero: 11 — 20

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.


11: Fever Dream

 

Somehow, we ended up back at Fletcher’s garage.

It’s weird. The temperature’s much hotter than when I first left, even though it’s nighttime; and we definitely don’t have a heater.

Maybe it’s just the pollution.

I shouldn’t worry too much.

Solenn probably won’t be happy I fucked out of La Brume before telling her I’d be leaving, since it’s likely she’ll try to stall the guy who wanted to shoot me, but I didn’t want to risk it. Her anger is better than being dead over intel I probably would’ve never gotten anyway.

I sneeze, and squint through the darkness. Gilbert keeps on knocking over trash, or shards of glass across the floor, then profusely apologizing for doing so seconds later.

I counted. In total, he’s done this seven times already. Fucking android.

Another sound of a small, steel nail rolling to the opposite end of the room fills the air between us, and then, I hear yet another, “Apologies, Sir.”

“You know, you don’t need to apologize for stepping on trash.”

“But it’s not trash!” Gilbert blurts. He sounds scandalized, and Jesus Christ, I hope I haven’t accidentally offended him. “Someone poured their heart and soul into making this!”

Ah.

Right—I suppose it makes sense he would sympathize with other machines. Or parts… whatever they are.

“May I ask where your first-aid kit is being held, Sir?”

I don’t answer his question.

I get it for him instead.

As I walk over to the second steel-clad cupboard in the main room’s corner, I tug at the second drawer to my right. Its contents jingle from within their rectangular prison.

I grab a box that was once white, yet is now smeared in mold and oil. Its yellowing edges eat away at the already-half-gnawed plastic. “Here,” I throw the box at the idiot robot. He catches it with ease, despite the room being lit by nothing more than a couple strands of lights, which descend from a flashy street sign nearby. “You can use it,” I say.

I catch him smiling as he thanks me, and motions for me to approach. “Would you like to sit down first, perhaps?” Gilbert asks. “It may be easier if we find some kind of stool. Also, do you happen to have a source of running water here, Sir?”

I scoff. “What do you think this place is? A hotel?” The room is starting to spin, but I ignore it.

It’s normal.

I haven’t eaten in hours.

I’m just tired.

“N-no, Sir, my apologies, I just assumed that if you lived here, then, perhaps you’d—”

“There is no water, Assistant. There’s no gas either. We steal those. And right now, my partner in crime is missing, so there’s barely anything left.” I cross my arms, then huff. “Not to mention…” I mutter, “I was supposed to go get some provisions on the night you pulled me away and literally dragged me to the other side of town,”

Gilbert stays silent. He eyes my motorcycle that stays rested upward, against a nearby wall. “Does it work?”

“Huh?” I cringe. “Of course it does!” I motion at the damned thing. “What, you think we’d just leave something with that many parts together if it was barely usable?”

“But… it’s inside your home.”

Okay, seriously, where does this guy come from? Has he been living in a dumpster? “Yeah, no shit, genius. If we leave it outside, someone’s bound to steal it.”

“Oh. I did not know this.” He presents me with a curt nod and grins again. “Thank you very much for the information, Sir, I will definitely be taking notes!”

“No, dude, there’s no need to…” I groan as he takes out a notepad and starts writing. “Okay, you know what, never mind, do whatever you want. Anyway—” I sigh. “What was it you wanted to ask about my bike?”

“Ah.” Gilbert brings a fist to his chin. “Would you be willing to ride it?”

“Now?”

He nods again.

“That’s…” I raise a brow, “certainly a strange request for someone who claimed he was going to attend to my wounds.”

“I am aware, Sir, and, once again, I am very sorry about this. If you would prefer it, we can proceed with looking at your injuries. I merely thought it favorable, however, to do such a task in a place of resting where we would have access to light, water, and other facilities that are sometimes used to treat humans, such as yourself.”

Geez, he’s so formal that it’s eerie.

“Uh, sure?” I tug at the front of my collar. It’s getting hot in here. I could use some fresh air. “I guess it won’t hurt.” As long as you don’t strangle me from behind.

As I reach around to grab my backpack and unzip it open, the odd, scratchy noise it makes sounds awfully loud throughout the quiet of the night. “Here,” I motion for Gilbert to hand the first-aid kit back over to me.

“You aren’t putting it directly in the trunk?” he asks, and this time, I don’t wait for him to obey. I snatch the box from his fingers.

There’s no resistance on his end. He easily lets go. Weird, I think. That’s… some pretty docile behavior, for an Assistant.

When I’ve somehow managed to stuff the first-aid kit into my bag, I clear my throat again. “Who even brought you here?” I mumble, under my breath. “No, of course, I’m not putting it into the trunk. Geez, people would steal your shit in a second if you had to live around this part of town.” I heave the bag upward and slam it into my trunk, then pat its modest roof once it is closed. “This is… so that we can take everything out at once with ease, if anyone decides to shoot at the bike’s wheels.”

A crow flies past the garage’s window frame.

Moonlight catches across its onyx feathers.

“To save time?” Gilbert tilts his head.

“Pretty much,” I mutter the reply, as my vision turns into a blur again. Fuck. I try to blink it away. This isn’t good.

It’s not like I’ve never driven like this before, or taken some bigger risks out of necessity, but it sucks that I have to feel this way when getting behind a wheel.

I guess it doesn’t really matter much, though—since I’m the only one alive here, I won’t be putting another person in danger if I do happen to crash. Not to mention the streets are mostly empty at these hours anyway, and if they aren’t, it’ll likely be a good thing that whoever’ll be on the other end of an accident would die.

Only people who like to make life difficult for us wander the shadows and take advantage of the darkness.

I hate thinking of it, yet, there is no denying that most days, when light returns to these slums in the early morning hours, food and spare parts aren’t the only things that go missing. Like Fletcher.

I gulp, and think of my old friend. It is all the motivation I need to get on that bike.

“Sit behind me,” I tell Gilbert.

It is terrible when he does, and I hate every part of it—especially when his fingers come to rest against my abs. Even through my shirt, the cool feeling of his lifeless skin is one that makes me want to jolt away. To push him off.

But I don’t.

Instead, I start the engine. And I hope for the best.

No matter what it takes, I will find Fletcher.

 

12: A Road and a Risk

 

Gilbert’s apartment is much farther than I’d anticipated. It’s closer to the diner where we’d gone last time, however since we started our journey from Fletcher’s garage, it’ll take at least a good hour before we’re close to reaching the damned place. Although I’m thankful we’re not on foot this time, I think I might finally have to admit I’m running a fever, and a pretty bad one at that, too. It’s terrible timing, to say the least, because if I stop my bike now—in this isolated part of town—that would open up a whole other can of worms in terms of trouble. We have no signal, and there’s only two of us here. We’re basically the easiest prey anyone could ever ask for.

…I’m starting to regret agreeing to this, though… I guess there are some positive points. One: we’re almost there. And, two: the Assistant hasn’t murdered me yet; with a big emphasis on that yet, because he’s bound to try tomorrow, if not today.

I speed up.

I take a curve—and that’s when I hear it: a chilling scream that pierces the air.

“Okay, we’re taking a detour,” I blurt, without giving it any thought at all.

Gilbert gulps. “What is the—”

However, I don’t give him time to finish that phrase.

I make another turn and backtrack to where the shrilling voice came from. “Stay here if you don’t feel like making yourself useful,” I tell Gilbert, as I hurry to retrieve my backpack from my motorcycle’s trunk, then put on the mask I use when I become Rogue Zero. “I’ll be back soon.”

Covering my face when I’m already burning up fucking sucks, but it’s for the better. If this civilian realizes who I am, that means we’ll become acquainted. And, worse-case scenario, whoever’s attacking them will become my enemy. I don’t want that. I prefer to be a nobody. Forever.

The heavy pants I let out fill my mask with fog. I don’t turn around to check if Gilbert’s followed me as I enter an abandoned garage and scan the perimeter for any signs of life.

Sure enough, I find a woman huddled in a corner at the mercy of an Exian guard.

I can’t be certain of why he decided to attack her, but, judging from the loaf of bread that she holds close to her breast, it isn’t difficult to guess.

As the Assistant raises its fist against her, I grab a modestly sized rock that had been discarded by my feet and throw it, right at its head. “Hey, you piece of crap! Maybe you don’t need to eat, but we do!” I shout.

The android freezes and turns to face me. The dark, coal-like shine of its coated metal reflects deep blues from a nearby stoplight. Its featureless face is covered in red symbols that slowly turn into many different shapes.

The young woman gasps. She covers her bruised chin by raising her wrist before her lips. Her long blonde hair is draped over her scraped knees, and full of dirt. “R-Rogue Zero,” she whimpers. “Is that t-truly you?”

I smirk from beneath my mask. I step forward and take out my short, but trusty blade, along with a pair of gloves that I slip onto my fingers.

The guard doesn’t seem fazed, and the young woman appears a tad worried now—as does Gilbert, who comes running after me. “Sir!” he yells. “You cannot do damage to an Exian guard with such a small—”

“Can it and watch, asshole!” I say.

Gilbert tries to talk me out of it again. I tune out his words and dash toward the guard. He and the young woman both gasp in unison.

The guard tries to grab me, but I’m too fast.

I duck to avoid the blow. I climb onto the guard’s back, and plunge the back of my blade into its spine, where their models tend to have a dent, due to how they’re built.

From over the Assistant’s shoulder, I notice Gilbert’s petrified face, and I wonder if it is due to him working with the guard in question, or if he’s actually somewhat worried for my safety.

All right. I cringe; my thumb lingers over the end of my weapon’s hilt. This is gonna hurt, but fuck, it’s worth it.

I press down against the hilt, which reveals to these three idiots that I’m definitely not holding a regular blade, once a cyan charge of electricity causes it to glow, and sends a fatal current right into the guard’s system.

The codes residing within the digital, oval screen attached to the guard’s face go from immaculate to pure anarchy in seconds, as he struggles against the extra volts that should not be in his system.

As I wince at the pain, the guard takes this opportunity to throw me off his back, then onto the ground with one, violent movement.

But it doesn’t matter now—I’ve won this fight. Even when I land straight into shattered glass.

 

13: Guard

 

The Exian guard’s circuits sizzle and spark a few more times before he drops to the floor all entirely, and lies there, motionless.

The young woman stares at the scene in horror as Gilbert rushes over to my side. I take off my gloves, then curse under my breath—although I do my best to upgrade them every time I can, I still haven’t managed to get them to a point where I’m completely invulnerable to the attacks I launch. My hands are singed, and now, Gilbert knows of my little trick, so that kind of sucks, really sucks, because it only works with Assistants I manage to catch off guard.

“Sir!” Gilbert exclaims, as he reaches for my palms, that I pull away from him immediately. “You have sustained a multitude of burns!”

“Thanks,” I tell him.

I rise to my feet and limp away from the pile of shards that have cut open my leg. “I couldn’t tell.”

“Sir,” Gilbert looks like he’s going to faint, which is kind of ironic since I’m the one who’s beat up here. “Do you also have trouble with your vision—”

“No, for fuck’s sake, it was a joke!” I sigh. I retrieve the knife from the guard’s back and shove it into my pocket again. There’s a throbbing pain right beneath my knee that’s hard to ignore. I’m going to have to get back to my motorcycle and get away from here, fast, to treat it. I don’t want that girl following us.

Speaking of that woman… I turn toward her and motion in her direction with a curt nod. “You okay?” I call, from the other side of the garage.

She sniffles, then rises to her feet. I assume she’s just going to walk away, but instead, the young woman dashes straight for my figure and wraps her arms around me. “Oh, thank you, Rogue Zero! I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here for me.”

I smile. Man, it’s nice to see someone who’s so kind to me. Changes from people who just run off because they get scared of me. “No problem, glad to see you’re well.”

She pulls away with her hands behind her back and snickers. “I’m Savannah. Is there anything I can do to repay you? I— I owe you my life—”

I wave her idea away and quickly step back. “Stay safe out there. Good night.”

Gilbert wastes no time catching up to me, once I’ve left. “Farewell!” he tells the young woman, while I ready myself to drive with injured hands and a fever.

Sometimes, I hate my life.

“Are you all right, Sir?” Gilbert asks me once more, as I lean against my motorcycle and create a makeshift bandage out of a few spare bits of fabric I’d exchanged for food a few weeks ago.

Because I don’t feel like answering his question, I whistle, then say, “She was pretty cute, wasn’t she?”

Gilbert pauses. He squints to observe me as I continue to tighten the cloth, until I’m satisfied. “I cannot say for certain, Sir,” the idiot android mumbles, with a fist pressed to his chin, after what I assume was a moment of reflection from him. “I personally believe you are more aesthetically pleasing.”

I choke on my saliva and hold up a hand between our figures. “Okay, woah—no thanks. Don’t compliment me, that’s weird.”

“Oh.” He tilts his head. “Why?”

“Uh…” I slam my bag into the trunk, once more, with a frown. “It just is,” I mutter. “More importantly…” I rest my hand against my hip, then look into his eyes. “You don’t mind that I just beat up an Assistant?”

“Ah.” Gilbert perks up. “I’m very sorry about that, Sir. I was not fast enough when it came to stopping that hooligan.”

Hooligan?

I raise a brow. I mount my bike. So, he’s not working with them, then?

As I reach into my pocket for my keys, I realize my knife is gone. “You’re fucking kidding me,” I blurt.

“Sir?”

“The weapon I used to disable that Assistant, I—” I huff, and start patting myself down. “Fuck, I actually lost it!”

“If you are looking for your knife, my systems indicate that there is a ninety-nine point six percent chance that it was stolen by that young lady… Shall we chase her down?”

“No,” I avert my gaze from the abandoned garage, that sits beneath an old apartment complex. “I can always make another one. She probably needs it more than I do.” Besides, by the time we reach the parking lot once more, she’ll be long gone. “Come on,” I tell him. “We should get going, too.”

“But, Sir, your leg—”

“I’ll take care of it later.” I blink away the dots in my vision and try to fight the fever that insists on clouding my mind. “Well?” I spare him a glance. “Are you just gonna stand there?”

“No, Sir!” Gilbert slips into the seat behind me. His grip around my waist tightens. I’m always taken aback by how gentle his touch still manages to remain. It is as if he’s aware of his strength, even when he’s just a machine. Strange. This definitely isn’t like an Exian guard’s hold.

Maybe his creator made sure he’d have his limits while programming him?

I squint, then push the question from my mind. Anyway… I guess that doesn’t matter. It’s useless to ponder on such stupid things. Right now, I need to focus on the road before us.

I speed up again, and tell myself it’ll be okay.

This fever won’t get the best of me. I won’t faint.

I can do this.

 

14: I Can’t Do It

 

I can’t do this. I need to focus on the road before us. But the partially chipped and broken signs on the sidewalks turn into blurred shapes and lines.

No matter how many times I blink, it doesn’t change a thing. There are dots in my vision. I fear for the worst. “How much longer until we reach it?” I barely have the energy to scream over the wind anymore, though, by some miracle, Gilbert still manages to hear me.

“Five minutes,” he answers, however, that might be pushing it—the world before me is falling and warped, and I cannot tell what is left, what is right, what is up or down, anymore.

I bite down against my lip in an attempt to keep myself conscious. “Gilbert?”

“What’s wrong?” he immediately asks, to my dismay.

“H-how do you know something’s wrong?”

“You called me by my name, Sir. It has also come to my attention,” he adds, “that your heart rate has also risen significantly over the past few seconds.”

“I’m gonna faint,” I blurt, plainly, as if I were asking a clerk for a sandwich. I don’t really know what else to tell him, honestly. Every word—every thought of mine—feels like they would take away pieces of my lifespan, if I were to use them.

“Lean back against my body.” Gilbert’s tone is serious, and much sterner than a few minutes ago. He puts his hand over my knuckles, and threads his fingers through mine, until they reach the motorcycle’s steering wheel. “Please, Sir. I am in need of your corporation. I cannot make sure that you do not fall off, whilst driving at the same time. If you would like me to jump off with you, and shield your mortal shell from the potential damage such an act would entail, I am able and willing to do so, however… it is likely that I will be destroyed in the process.”

I don’t know what it is within me that makes me agree instead of asking him to jump—if I had to take a guess, it would be the fever’s fault—but I obey Gilbert nevertheless and shut my eyes.

I know I’ve ultimately saved both of us by making this choice, however, there is panic in my gut as I push myself up against his chest, because then it occurs to me that maybe he doesn’t know how to drive. Or, perhaps, there are sadistic intentions behind him pretending to help me. Right now, he could be laughing inside at my weakness. At the trust I’ve put into him in this very moment.

I’m too scared to even want to throw up.

What if we crash?

I’ve thought of death since I was barely twelve. I’ve come close to it more than once. Yet, it never occurred to me that it could happen like this. I had imagined it would be quick, in an alleyway when I’d lose my concentration for a split second in a fight. Or, when I’d be caught by guard and shot down dead, whilst masquerading as Rogue Zero on their grounds.

I didn’t think it would be here.

I didn’t think it would be like this, in the arms of one of these Assistants that I loathe.

Gilbert pulls the brakes on my motorcycle. As we slow, I hear the sound of a strange, and distant crash. My heartbeat rises in my ears. There are tingles that render my fingertips to a certain state of numbness I recognize from having fainted before. A voice calls out to me, but it is far from everything that I am right now. And as my world fades into a devastating void—a moment where I am here yet gone all the same—I do not know what happens next. Only, that I do not feel pain anymore.

 

15: Home is where the charging dock is

 

Sometimes, I have dreams of living in places that would make even those dreams dream. It’s hard to tell whether I appreciate those moments of slumber. Every time I wake up, the illusion is shattered, and I’m always left with the aftermath of thoughts where I picture what could have been. However, today, no matter how many times I blink away my drowsiness, this apartment that surely would’ve cost me a limb and most of my organs is still here.

I gasp. My eyes widen as I push up against an unfamiliar couch and tumble to the floor. When I rise, dark blue sheets that had been wrapped around me slither down to my feet. They form a lump by my ankles, like the large, discarded skin of a reptile. I don’t know where these blankets came from, but it seems they were thrown over me while I was still asleep.

My throat tightens. My shoulders tense. I observe my surroundings—a spacious and newly furnished apartment whose floorboards still smell of fresh wood. What the hell is going on here?

“Ah, Sir, I’m so glad to see you are finally awake!” I turn to face the voice that somehow manages to sound simultaneously artificial and natural. The motorcycle ride returns to me like a hard slap, and never mind dreams, this is a nightmare.

When will he stop pretending?

When will he try to hurt me?

I don’t understand.

This was a perfect opportunity for him to torture me and end my life.

Why hasn’t he killed me yet?

As I get a glimpse of Gilbert’s stupid, welcoming grin, a scowl takes over my features. “What’s your deal?” I snap. “I went to that diner with you, even played chit-chat and pretend friends for a while, so why are you still playing this game?” My jaw tightens. “And where are we? I don’t remember apartments in my district ever being this nice.” He better not have brought me back inside Exia’s walls. My friends need me. I’d be an outcast there. They’d lock me up, or off me for being a waste of resources.

Gilbert tilts his head in a curious manner that makes me want to punch him; again. “Pretend?” he asks. “Sir, whatever do you mean by that?”

“Fuck. I—” I pause.

Don’t let your emotions get the best of you, Ian.

Insulting him shouldn’t be top priority. You know this.

Get a grip, you idiot. “Never mind,” I say. “Just… tell me where we are.”

“You passed out, Sir. I was not going to leave you behind in the streets once we arrived. Therefore, I took the liberty of carrying you inside.”

“Wait a second.” I raise a brow. “You said arrived. So… we made it? To your…” No, wait, that can’t be right.

This can’t be his apartment.

“Yes.” He nods. “This is my… place of resting, as a human would surely call it.”

“Uh, I don’t think you’re using that right, but, sure, whatever.

Gilbert hums. “Using what right?” I hate that he’s mastered those puppy-dog eyes, it’s making things harder than they should be.

“Forget it.” I avert my gaze. “Where’s my bike? And my gear. Also—” I bring out my hands before my eyes and stare at them for a moment. They’re still full of nasty scratches. It makes me cringe. “Didn’t you use that first aid kit on me?” I ask him. “Or did we lose it on our way out here?”

Gilbert clears his throat. He straightens out his coat that hangs, loosely, by his sides. “I admit I had been awaiting for further instructions and your consent to touch you. Or, for the sixty-two-minute deadline to expire in order to call an ambulance, had you not opened your eyes.”

Okay, the way he phrased that sounds totally inappropriate, and I can’t tell if he’s just really that fucking dense, or if he’s testing me.

I eye him warily. It could be both.

I cross my arms. I’m sure it’s definitely both.

Fucking android.

I can’t stand him.

I want to go home.

Home—I linger on the word and what it used to mean.

Great, I’m definitely still a little feverish. It’s unlike me to get sentimental like this. I know better than to recall the faces of anyone I’ve ever loved, and, coincidentally, every person I’ve always lost.

Gilbert leans in. I yelp, then try to back away, but a cool hand presses itself to my forehead. “It is okay,” he whispers. “You are not in any danger, Sir. Please, relax.”

My lips part. How?

It’s like he knows, and I’m transparent under his observant glare.

A pang threatens my heart in ways I do my best to deny. It tells me to give in. To recall everything life had ever meant to me. It is like I am breathing for the first time in days. Feeling, for the first time in months, and I don’t like it. I shouldn’t remember how to be hopeful. If I do, I’ll only get hurt again. “Oh,” I scoff. “So, just because we’ve spent a little time together, you know everything that’s going on in my mind, then?” Asshole. I won’t let you win.

You aren’t who you say you are.

Gilbert pauses for a second, then two, until he glances up to the ceiling and says, “I don’t think. My programming does it for me—that is what they told me.” He looks depressed again. It’s messing with my head. I wonder for a moment about who they are, yet, in the end, I’m not sure if I want to know.

My back falls against the couch once more. I press a palm to my face. A sigh, the remains of a silent whisper, both escape me. “What the fuck is going on here…”

“Would going through official documents stating that this is truly my home reassure and help you in processing, and eventually believing in, the situation, Sir?”

I hate him.

I hate him so much. “Stop that, will you?”

He smiles again, as if I were a little kid and all I’d ever cared about hadn’t been taken from me. “What do you mean, Sir?” Gilbert blinks. “Could you perhaps be a little more specific as to what—”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about!” I cover my eyes. They’re damp. But I won’t break down. Not in front of him. Not again. “This… this act you’re putting on! Your fake goody-two-shoes façade. I’m aware it’s not real. You can stop now.”

Gilbert’s shoulders tense. His brows furrow into a sad, bitter line. “Sir, I don’t understand what you are trying to—”

I chuckle; it is low, shriveled, and definitely not sober of the past. “Born to serve?” I say. “Come on, we both know that’s a lie.”

Crap.

Crap, Ian, you’re doing it again.

“A lie?” he asks me.

Stop.

Stop it. You know this isn’t you.

You know he doesn’t deserve this. 

He’s done nothing wrong.

I blink back my tears. I rise to face him once more. “Yeah. A lie, that’s exactly what you are.” Wearing the proudest grin I can muster, I tell him, “You weren’t born, robot. You were created by the hands of men. Don’t try to pretend you’re one of us. You’ll never be a real—”

Our gazes meet.

I freeze.

Shit.

I want to finish my phrase, to finish him off, but something tugs at my heart again—his expression. The horror etched deep into his features, and the way his mouth wavers as the artificial veins across his arms and body turn a colder shade of blue. I’m aware he’s trying to hide it, but Gilbert has balled his gloved hands into fists. They tremble in his lap. If he could, I think he’d long have started crying by now.

My stomach drops. Fuck.

Fuck—he’s nothing like the Assistants at the store that attacked Mom and Dad.

He’s so much more than a machine, isn’t he?

I bite my lip. Still… I can’t accept that.

I can’t accept him.

I look away. “I have to go,” I say. “This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here.” I stumble toward the door, but the floor turns to squiggles again, and a familiar ache in my stomach makes itself known. I’m not sure if I really hear Gilbert call out to me—if it’s really his arms around my body that prevent me from falling—maybe it’s just my imagination, or wishful thinking. He would be an idiot to help someone like me. Not to mention saving me twice in a row… What is he? My knight in shining steel?

Ridiculous.

He’s ridiculous.

This is so—

“Sir! Stay with me, please!”

 

16: The Fear

 

I groan. It’s like I’m moving, except, it’s not me. Weird.

I reach for the first thing I can find next to my arm with my eyes still shut. It’s someone’s sleeve. I tug at it. The movement and rumbling that had been making my back quiver stops. “Sir, please, calm down, you are running quite a high fever.”

Reality hits me as soon as I hear his voice.

I release the hold I’d kept on Gilbert’s dress shirt and open my eyes. Oh, no. Did I really say those terrible things to him before I passed out? 

Am I crazy?

Do I want him to kill me?

Gilbert’s brows arch as if he were in pain. Although I know it’s not possible, he looks worried. Maybe I should answer…

“Just take me home and leave me there,” I blurt. “I really shouldn’t be—” Here? My eyes widen. Wait a minute—

I pause. Where even is here?

My attention wanders to the dull, grey ceiling that’s a little too close for comfort. It looks nothing like what had been in Gilbert’s apartment. It smells different, too, like dust mixed with some kind of artificial peppermint. However, once I get a glimpse of the windows surrounding us and the outside world, I immediately understand why.

This isn’t Gilbert’s apartment. It’s a car—one he surely uses to kidnap others like me. And I’m not making it up this time, because when I try to stand, I realize my other wrist is handcuffed to a piece of the door.

“N-no.” I whimper through the haze of my fever. “No, please,” I beg him. “You can’t do this. You have no right to keep me here! You need to release me. I won’t tell anyone. So, release me. I’ll leave without harming you, if you don’t touch me, and—”

“Touch you?” Gilbert stops to consider my words. “Excuse me, Sir… although I am extremely alarmed by your sudden state of panic, I must ask you what this is about, as I do not think I quite follow.”

I squint, then tug against my restraints. “What don’t you get? Is this some kind of weird role-play? Is that it?”

“Role-play?”

“You’re kidnapping me, aren’t you? After what I said, you want revenge, to…”

My gaze shifts back between him and the outside world.

The streets are empty of souls. “Isn’t that how you all function?” I mumble, under my breath. “Isn’t that why you killed mom?”

Again, the Assistant appears puzzled. “You are not being kidnapped, Sir.” He stares at me as if I were normal, not at his mercy—not a nuisance, nor an enemy. It’s been years since someone has spared me such an honest glance. It catches me off guard, and reminds me of Saki. For a second, I forget about where we are. Who we are.

“Forgive me, Sir.”

But then, Gilbert leans forward, and fear rises across my arms covered in goosebumps as my throat tightens again.

My shoulders tense. I try to back away, yet, there is no place to escape to, because my arm collides with the row of seats I’d been laying on, and I find myself trapped between him and the interior of his car.

I look down. I part my lips and try to form proper words, however, it’s just like in my dream. I’m stuck. There’s a bad wound slashed across my leg. Part of it is still bleeding despite the cloth pressed up to it, and I cannot help but smile at the irony.

So, he already started when I was passed out, then?

I shut my eyes. I take a deep breath. “Coward,” I tell him, even though what I truly want to say is, Please.

Don’t do this.

Don’t hurt me.

 

17: Tender

 

Gilbert takes a gun out from his pocket. He grasps my hair then pulls my head back. As he shoves the gun’s hilt past my lips, he smirks. It is evil—it is what I’d expected from him when we very first met, and in a certain sense, that reassures me, because at least I was right. At least now I can die knowing there was no way to stop what happened to mom and dad.

He pulls the trigger.

I scream.

I am back in the car again.

Gilbert nudges my wrist. My pulse rises in my throat. He pauses, then glances up to me with apprehension. It is as if he does not know whether or not he should back away. And I cannot understand it. Why?

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Why are you acting this way?

It isn’t normal.

You are not normal.

“Why?” I ask him, as my voice quivers, then breaks.

“I am sorry, Sir.” Our eyes meet. My hands shake. “I did not mean to frighten you. I only wished to undo your restraints.”

Gilbert leans in again. My breaths hitch. “May I?” he asks, as his touch lingers in a gentle, compliant way against the inside of my wrists.

The feel of him pressing his fingers to my skin is cold, alien, to me. I shiver. “I—” I gulp. “Okay,” had he not been this close, I’m sure he wouldn’t have heard me.

Somewhere atop a crooked street-sign, not too far away from where his car has been parked, an owl hoots into the night. Gilbert slowly undoes the cuff. He smiles. “There,” he tells me, in a tone so tender that I do not know what to do with myself anymore. “All done!”

I blink. It wasn’t an illusion. My hand is truly freed from the single cuff, and Gilbert has returned to his initial place, seated up front in the driver’s seat tinged by the smell of leather.

I’m speechless. He… hasn’t laid another finger on me.

“I apologize for the inconvenience, Sir. It was not in my intention to harm you. Simply… you were moving around a lot in your sleep. I did not want you to fall off the seats and hurt yourself. That is why I took the necessary precautions. But you are awake now,” he huffs. “So, it is all right.”

What he’s saying sounds reasonable, however, I’m still not sure I can trust him.

I push up against my elbows and squint. The only view I have of the outside world consists of an empty road up ahead. Tall, ominous heaps of trash. Along with an edge of the moon that pokes out from the sky shrouded in its usual clouds.

Fog aside, I don’t think we’d be able to see much at all without his headlights being on.

Gilbert is staring at me as if he’s expecting a response. The situation does little to calm my nerves; but at least I’d have a chance at fighting back now, if he decides to turn on me.

My hands linger against my knees. “Where were you planning on bringing me?” I ask.

“Ah.” He jolts in his seat. “Actually, Sir…” Gilbert’s head hangs low. “I’m very sorry about this, yet… back at my apartment, when you fainted again, you cut your leg open against my dining table pretty badly. As I do not have the necessary tools to apply stitches to your wound, I did the best I could, however, I still believe it is better that I take you to an infirmary, just to be sure.”

No!” I grasp his arm. My eyes widen. I said the word before I could think things through, and that may very well be my downfall.

Because now he’s asking me, “Why?”

“It’s too far from where I live,” I mutter. There’s no point in lying anymore. If anything, this might work better to convince him, than whatever else I could have said before. “I stopped by, once, when I was wounded in the past. It was hours of waiting. Unless you’re dying, they immediately put you outside and out of their waiting rooms after you’re treated. You can’t linger. And, not too far from their facility, there are shitty people; gangs waiting to rob you when you’re at your weakest. I can’t risk that. Just take me back to my place instead, so that I can—”

“Why not stay at my apartment, then, Sir?”

I cringe. “What?

“I do not mean to offend, however, if your friend has gone missing, perhaps it would not be quite safe for you to rest at your lieu of residence either.”

“And it would be at yours because?” I cross my arms. My head feels groggy, and his bullshit isn’t helping in making it hurt any less.

“You would be free to leave at any time, Sir,” he echoes, ever so casually, in the eerie, monotonic tone that Assistants often use. “My only goal is to make sure you are safe, since this injury of yours is—essentially—due to the fault of my own carelessness.”

I don’t believe him. “I don’t believe you.” He’s just telling me this to earn my trust. I’m not an idiot. I’ve given the exact same discourse to people whenever I wanted them to do something for me, and I also received it from that guy who tried to rob me while I was asleep on a park’s bench, during my first night outside of Exia.

It’s not for my safety. It never is. I’m never the first person they have in mind, and that’s normal. I don’t blame them. We all need to survive, by whatever means possible.

Gilbert’s hand lingers against the steering wheel. He pushes down against a switch. The door on my left clicks open. “You are free to leave at any time, Sir,” he repeats. “If you truly do not wish to remain here any longer, please, step out of the car. I will then assist you in any way I can, or bring you to your home if that is your wish.”

I sigh. “Okay… Okay, fine. I get it.” I have to admit, he’s well-trained at this I’m-On-Your-Side act. “Just… shut the door before anyone else gets in, please.”

“Thank you, Sir! I’m so happy to hear that I have gotten through to you!” The smile he shows me is full of sympathy. Even if it’s fake, I don’t deserve it.

He shouldn’t be so nice to me. It makes me feel like a complete dick. Because if there’s a one percent chance he isn’t malfunctioning like the others, then— No.

Stop it, Ian. That’s impossible.

Just what are you thinking?

“So?” Gilbert takes out one of his business cards and hands it over to me again. “Here,” he says, as he offers it up before my eyes. “I believe you lost the other one.”

My voice cracks. “H-how the fuck do you know that?”

His lip twitches, though he does not lose his annoying grin, as he asks me, “Where would you like to go from here, Sir? Shall I take you to the infirmary?” And, seriously? Did this asshole just ignore me? “Rest assured, I am an android of my word. I promise I will not make any further attempts to convince you to aid me once this is over.”

“Really?” I raise a brow. “And why is that?”

“I am sorry to have brought you harm, Sir. I now realize getting you involved was perhaps… not the best idea, even if my intentions were… good.”

I avert my gaze. I stare out at dump by my right. A chill runs down my spine as something seems to move in the bushes before me, yet, it is gone before Gilbert can notice it, too.

Okay, so being out here alone definitely wouldn’t be safe.

And I know I don’t want to stay at his place. But maybe I could ask him to take me back home after going to the infirmary? The one closest to us is the smallest. It shouldn’t be as crowded as the two, other bigger facilities this place has to offer.

And if I’m just going in for stitches, I sure I can be in and out of there in no time.

“Fine.” I grab the door’s handle then yank it shut. “A-after the infirmary,” I mumble, “we’ll be back at your apartment soon, right? You can just drop me off there—I’ll walk back to my place.”

Gilbert purses his lips together. “Well, Sir, I suppose that all depends on what you consider soon to be.” He scratches at his cheek. “I… may have to take a detour. For… research purposes, first.”

I blink twice and turn to face him once more. “Uh… what? What detour?” I ask. And, God, upon hearing his answer, I start regretting having asked.

Hell, no.

We are not going there.

 

18: This sucks more than a leech on steroids

 

The infirmary isn’t a pretty sight. There are children screaming, mothers dying, and absent fathers whose presence are felt all too well around the waiting room. I don’t want to see it, so I look away and ignore the sick, burning ache that tugs at my gut.

Gilbert reaches for my shoulder. Above us, the yellow glow of a ring-shaped light, etched into the ceiling, flickers. “Is everything all right, you seem a tad—”

“Stop asking me that!” I snap. “You know very well how I’m doing. I told you three minutes ago.”

“But, Sir, that was three minutes ago. Maybe it has changed since—”

“You know what?” I turn toward him and force myself to smile. “Let’s talk about you instead.”

The idiot android tilts his head. “You do not wish to sit down? Your leg is bleeding quite profusely,” he says.

I motion at the injury in question, then roll my eyes. “Trust me, dude, I’ve had worse. This barely hurts.”

“You are wincing.”

“I’m not, shut up.”

I cross my arms. I avoid his gaze; though, I soon find it again, because in this environment, it’s pretty much impossible to devote my attention to a place that isn’t full of wounded people, and I’d rather stare at an Assistant for a couple minutes, over a dying man. “They’ve been piling up lately,” I mutter.

Gilbert parts his lips. “Sir?”

“The Assistants,” I say, as I lean my weight against my better leg. “They’ve been injuring more and more people. I don’t…” I don’t know what to do.

I don’t know what I can do. “I’m trying my best.”

“As Rogue Zero?”

I nod—this time, it doesn’t bother me as much if he speaks the name aloud. Everyone’s too busy suffering in here to eavesdrop anyway.

“I know,” Gilbert tells me, with his typical grin. “You are very dedicated! That is why I have chosen you!”

My eyebrow twitches. Yeah, and you found me by looking through my clothes with that weird vision of yours, too, asshole.

A nurse calls out for a patient named Alex. As a young man rises to his feet to accompany her inside another room, I sigh. “Hey,” I say, “can I ask you something?”

“Of course, Sir. What might you be interested in?” Hell, it should be illegal for him to sound this carefree, considering the situation.

“You…” The grasp I keep around my elbow tightens. I clear my throat. “Is it true what you said? About investigating the murders.” I still can’t wrap my head around it. Why would he do that?

Gilbert pauses and stares at me, blankly, for a few seconds. “You do not believe me, Sir?”

“I-it’s not that. I just…” I purse my lips into a thin line and glance down at our feet. “Look, it’s weird. Really weird. Seriously weird, to a point that I can’t even fathom it.”

“Why?”

Because!” Nearby, someone tells me to tone it down, and I find myself apologizing like an fool before I can finally finish my phrase. I step a little closer to Gilbert. I lower my voice, then ask him, “Don’t you feel like you would be betraying your own kind, by turning them in?”

“Not at all.” He’s staring at me like I’ve gone crazy and I don’t know what to think of it. Maybe I’m kind of offended, because I’ve sunk so low that even a machine is judging me now.

“Human life is precious, Sir. If this continues, we are at risk of a civil war breaking out. Such a scenario would be extremely detrimental to my kind, just as it would be to yours. And…” Gilbert scratches the back of his head. He smiles again. “One could say I am eternally grateful. Thanks to your existence, I was able to exist. Without humanity, I would be nothing.”

My brows furrow into a scowl. Nothing? Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it?

He doesn’t owe us that much. “Who told you that?”

“Told me what, Sir?”

“I don’t know—” I shrug. He’s seriously getting on my nerves right now. “All that bullshit about being in debt to us, maybe?” Upon hearing myself speak, I freeze. His behavior… it’s not normal. Sure, he might sound like he’s thinking for himself, but that’s impossible. Assistants shouldn’t have that capacity. At least, not to this extent.

A gasp escapes my lips. “You’re working for someone, aren’t you?” I say.

And Gilbert steps forth. He raises his hand before his chest. His gaze looks earnest as he braces himself to speak. “Sir, I—”

But a nurse interrupts us. “Ian?” she calls.

And that’s my queue to leave.

“Sorry, dude.” I wave my goodbyes to him quickly. “I guess… we’ll talk about it later.”

Gilbert doesn’t reply to my statement with words. Instead, he shows me yet another curt nod. For once, I’m honestly glad the people around us won’t try to disassemble him here, since they’d get kicked out for being violent, then permanently banned from the infirmary. Because I must learn the truth behind his creation—it could give me the lead that I’ve been looking for during all these years. I can’t let him go just yet.

“Welcome! It’s right this way, Ian!” A medic greets me, but I barely hear him as I continue to lose myself in my thoughts.

I lower my head. I step into the cramped office. The scent of strong antiseptics makes my sinuses itch as they stitch me up.

Fuck, I can’t get his words out of my mind. I have to figure this out.

I need to know who Gilbert’s working for.

 

19: It rained again

 

When we finally exit the infirmary, the rain that had once stopped is pouring out onto the streets once more. I shiver. I’m still wearing the hoodie I passed out in, and even though I’m generally not one to sweat when it’s literally freezing outside, it turns out being feverish made all the difference. Who would have known.

My eyebrow twitches. This sucks. I take the damned thing off. Gilbert gives me a strange look as we continue to walk towards the underside of a bridge not too far away from here, where he parked his car a few hours ago.

I don’t count how many seconds pass, but the jacket is on my shoulders again in probably less than a minute. “Fucking cold…” I mutter, as another quiver gets the best of me.

“You are cold?”

Fucking android…

“No, absolutely not—” I scoff. “God only knows what gave you that idea.”

“Oh.” Gilbert pauses in his tracks. He seems to shrink in on himself as he bows, briefly, before regaining my side. “I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding, Sir.”

My shoulders tense as I listen to his nonsense; I know I’m repeating myself, but… fucking android.

The wind rises.

We arrive at the bridge. Now that I’m getting a better look at it, I finally notice its moss-covered wall is tagged with a bunch of graffiti and anti-Assistant slogans.

FUCK ASSISTANTS. FUCK SCIENTISTS TOO. FUCK YOU.

YOU’LL KILL US ALL.

STEEL-BLOODED MURDERERS.

DIE.

It takes me a moment to realize Gilbert’s reading everything along with me. Although it’s hard to truly tell what signals his programming’s sending to him in this moment, his lips are parted in a mournful gape. As his dark hair continues to be drenched by the clouds above, there is sorrow in the way his brows are knitted together, and his eyes twitch ever so slightly, as if he were trying to blink out tears, when he cannot.

I wait.

I wait.

I wait; a minute passes, then two. I sneeze. I’m on the verge of telling him we should go, but he beats me to it. “Is it true, what they say, Sir?” Gilbert’s voice is the smallest I’ve ever heard it be. He does not sound like the typical android you could find in Exia’s shopping centers. He sounds… weak.

Devastated.

Human.

I shake my head. I immediately limp towards his car. There’s no use in debating on whether or not his feelings are true. I already know the answer. They’re not. They never will be. He’s not like me. He thinks he feels, but it’s only his programming telling him to say it.

“It’s only true if you want it to be,” I mutter, because deep down, maybe I’d like to believe that’s the case, too.

I never wanted us to be enemies.

I never wanted this.

But do we even have a choice now?

A sharp pain travels up my leg. I wince. I shouldn’t have tried to go so fast. The medic said the fever’s just a cold. Apparently, the cut’s temporary, too, and needs no further attending to; however, I’ll be out for at least a good few days, and I admit I’d rather have avoided that, since it’s going to make navigating Exia’s outskirts as Rogue Zero a real pain in the ass. “Fuck,” I curse under my breath. “I long for the day when people who aren’t dying will also have access to painkillers.”

“Sir?” Gilbert tenses. He sounds upset.

I snap my head toward him. “What?” I huff, then narrow my eyes. “I swear, if you ask me one more time about how I’m doing, I will take that finger of yours and shove it into your—”

Gilbert doesn’t let me finish. He tackles me to the ground. And I wonder, even if it was only for a short while, was I wrong to trust him, after all?

 

20: The bite of vengeance from an old friend

 

My ears ring. I barely have time to comprehend what’s happened, when Gilbert throws me over his shoulder then dashes to his car. I want to ask him what’s going on, but I’m too petrified to even lift a single finger. It’s like my veins have been turned to ice, my gut churned into a million pieces, and I fear I may throw up if I utter a word.

Gilbert doesn’t talk to me, either. He’s unusually silent. He doesn’t even ask me if I’m all right, even though he’s been running for at least a good thirty seconds now.

He shoves me into his car. It is not gentle. It is rough, and awakens everything—every fear—that I had tried to push down within my heart.

My lower lip quivers. I want to cry. I want to escape this place. To risk my life by going out there, and staying in the rain surrounded by lowlifes; if it means that I won’t have to be near him again. But everything happens all too fast. Before I can say no. Before I can beg Gilbert to let me leave, the engine is roaring, the ground beneath my feet trembling, and I cannot turn back. I cannot say, “Please, stop. Let me go.

Yet, it does come out. And he notices my plea, almost immediately, for then, Gilbert is apologizing, and telling me, “Forgive me, Sir, I had no choice.”

I don’t understand.

I don’t understand anything anymore. “What do you mean?”

He only shakes his head.

The roaring of the storm grows louder with each passing second. I wait for him to hurt me. For a certain impact that will signal my doom—however, Gilbert does not strike me.

He’s back to normal again.

“Gilbert?”

Gilbert’s fists tighten around the steering wheel. His attention collides with the rearview mirror’s reflection.

And, when I see it, too, I finally realize what he had been trying to do.

My lips part.

My eyes widen.

He saved me.

Gilbert—an Assistant—saved me.

We enter a tunnel.

The defective Assistant that’s hot on our trail follows us at a speed that makes sparks fly from its legs. I know just by taking one look at it that it’s one of the many responsible for the murders that have been going on lately.

It’s limbs are broken and twisted in places where they shouldn’t be. Its skin is torn from half its face, that has been melted by some kind of acid. The Assistant’s fingers are crooked at its joints, and most of its hair has been ripped out in a rather violent fashion. If madness had a face, this would be it.

I gasp. “Gilbert, you—”

“I am sincerely sorry for scaring you, Sir,” Gilbert blurts, all the while he keeps his attention on the road, and his foot pressed hard against the accelerator. “I did not…” His lips purse into a thin line. “I did not know what to say. There was not enough time. Forgive me for—”

“I get it,” I tell him, even if his words do nothing to quell the cold sweats and goosebumps, which rise across my arms and only feed off the everlasting tremors that I’ve been left to deal with after a deep, feeling of lingering doom shrouded my mind minutes ago.

“It’s fine,” I whisper, even though it isn’t—for what can he do about it, in the end? It’s my fault, if I’m still afraid.

It’s my fault, if my body refuses to calm down.

“I believe I may have to stop the car.”

Gilbert’s voice takes me out of my thoughts and shoves me back into the dire reality of our situation. “What?” I don’t mean for my question to come out as a whisper, but it does. My arms move on their own out of instinct when they cross themselves up, before my chest.

“But it’s still out there!” I take another look at the Assistant through the rear-view mirror’s reflection.

It’s closer than before, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll let us go. My fist tightens around itself. Fuck… if only I still had my equipment, I could have—

“I will take care of it.”

I blink, then stare at Gilbert for a good few seconds. There is fire in his gaze. It doesn’t seem like he’s joking. “Ian,” he adds, as his features grow grim. “Do you trust me?”

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