Yuuri never imagined that he would regain consciousness. His awakening was abrupt and accompanied by a wave of emotions that shook him. He took a great puff of air as if he had returned to the surface and considered getting up even though he felt a range of heaviness, an irritable tingling that kept him glued to the padding inside the small confinement. By the time he could blink rapidly, almost to the edge of consternation, a radiant light from the other side of the glass blinded him.
Suddenly he heard a brief noise that startled him. The hatch opened from the base of his feet, retracing itself above his jet-black hair with a mechanical movement. Then he felt the feeding tubes unplugging behind his back, falling to the floor with a loud thud.
As he tried to take the first step, his head began to spin abruptly, distorting his vision with blackened patches emerging intermittently, and the weight of his body swung forward with the clumsiness of a newborn lamb. The instability in his legs almost made him slip with the liquid that had dripped from the feeding tubes; however, a pair of pale hands held him firmly.
"Let me assist you," an affable voice greeted him, sliding his strong arms around his torso to give him the balance he needed so badly.
The touch of the uniformed man was solid, but he had a delicate intent as he led him to the stretcher. Once laid on it, the warmth he had received was replaced by a thin blanket that covered his nudity. Then he heard a couple of steps moving away from his spot. The tall figure, still unrecognizable, walked to the opposite side of the room and activated the hot beverage dispenser. The container was filled with great precision, leaving a space the width of a little finger on the edge. Before tearing a packet of sugar, he looked over his shoulder and begged, "Do not try to sit up, please. You are still weak after the regeneration process."
Yuuri had used his elbows to rise, and was surprised to be discovered with the tips of his toes touching the tile. He supposed he had been stealthy enough not to catch the attention of his benefactor. Surprised by the warning, knowing perfectly well the possible consequences of forcing himself, he just nodded and leaned back. A small stitch bothered him as he did so. The tip of his index ran down his right side, close to his navel, and he remembered the penetrating cut in battle, which was now an unpleasant scab.
Some minutes had passed, and he could already perceive his surroundings. The spaciousness of the dome-shaped room, the colossal window facing the outer space, and the person who had treated him. He approached him holding a cup and leaned closer to look at him.
"Katsuki Yuuri," he said with a strong accent, pressing his tongue over the 'r'.
This provoked a subtle exaltation.
He had no idea how he should feel during the apocalypse. He recognized that it had been devastating to mankind when the Earth reached its breaking point: the lack of water. There was the fear of worse wars, rage and frustration with bits of confusion. By the time he joined an elite force specializing in the colonization of the new planet Caedis, where he was told of great oases that would quench the thirst of the rising masses; he was not sure what the hell he would experience. More hostility and an enormous catastrophe? Because nobody, none of his superiors of the board, had had the decency to warn him about the terrifying wild monsters that emerged from the depths.
But he knew immediately what that bubbly feeling meant when he met Victor. Victor offering him a nice hot peppermint tea and a goddamn five star hotel receptionist's smile. He was the first contact he had had in weeks... or the estimated time he had been recovering. He had no ridiculous claws or fangs, much less an insatiable thirst for blood. On the contrary, he could swear that Victor introduced himself as his greatest weakness by putting his long silver hair in a ponytail. And he could not take his eyes off of his thin lips, which formed a cute cartoonish heart. And what about his masculine jaw? Yuuri couldn’t deny he was captivated by a man who looked in his thirties.
Victor tilted his head to one side with curiosity, analyzing the human's funny expression, who had not hesitated to receive the drink or articulate a word. Running a quick scan, he noticed Yuuri’s pulse had quickened.
"Are you okay? Your heartbeat has increased and your pupils have dilated. You didn’t even bother accepting the tea I’ve prepared for you to rehydrate yourself," he stated, insisting. "Should I assume you’re entering a state of shock? If so, I will have to take you to the emergency room."
"No!" Yuuri exclaimed in disbelief, becoming aware of the sudden thump that hit his ribs.
Yuuri tried to suppress the blush that longed to escape on his cheeks and snatched the tea with the intention of drowning his embarrassment. While drinking by large sips, he pondered how he had been caught both times. Had his actions been so obvious or had the regeneration chamber left him rusty? When he glanced at the man, two sapphire orbs watched him with amusement. Yuuri began to cough, pushing the porcelain from his lips with a kind of urgency.
"If you don’t follow the instructions, you'll end up throwing up," Victor warned, taking the cup off his trembling hands. Then he placed his palm on Yuuri’s bare back and began to rub it. "Keep in mind that you’ve just recovered from lethal injuries and you cannot do as you please, Lieutenant Colonel Katsuki."
"You sound like my mother," he said with a half-smile.
"With all due respect, I doubt you mother was manufactured in Russia," Victor laughed.
"Manufactured?" Yuuri furrowed his brow. "Does that mean you are...?"
Such thought never crossed his mind. It was always commented that certain nations invested an exorbitant amount of money in diverse projects that would facilitate the expedition to new places. Nevertheless, seeing an ONEIROID, a synthetic artificial intelligence organism, came as a bucket of cold water. The skin of his hands on Yuuri’s chest seemed so real, as warm as any other human. His expressions and diction were perfect. But there was a little voice in the back of his head that had been bothering him: He is dead gorgeous. His beauty was out of this world, almost carved by a superior force. Of course, the Russians were always one step ahead with their crazy antics.
"I'm the model VCT-027. To simplify it, the crew members of this ship call me Victor," he added contentedly. "I'm sorry I did not introduce myself earlier. Certainly, your awakening had been planned for the following week like the rest of the survivors who were under your command. But it is no excuse for my bad manners. Believe me, Lieutenant Colonel Katsuki, I am pleased with your fast recovery." Victor bowed, showing his sincere respect. "If you have any other questions, do not hesitate to ask."
Yuuri fell silent. At first glance, Victor would pass by a pleasingly attractive man, and now that Yuuri had knowledge of his true nature, there was no doubt that he was an android, worked by true brilliant minds. Every wrinkle, eyelash, and any other minimum detail of the human body were identical. And every time he spoke, the strange sensation deepened within him. If it was difficult for him to talk to a gentleman when he frequented the various military stations, how was he supposed to address a man of the kind of Victor? Would he analyze every single thing that comes out of his mouth? Would he make a report of how stupid Yuuri looked when he lost his mind for a damn android? Many would say that talking to Victor was like talking to the old espresso machine in the kitchen, but Yuuri thought otherwise.
"Are you really an... ONEIROID?"
Victor let out a petulant giggle.
"Lieutenant Colonel, you think I’m kidding, right? I know that my appearance is the very reflection of a human. Rest assured that I am an ONEIROID, and I have assumed the position as Master Assistant in order to watch over the well-being of both, the crew and yours."
"It's just... You look so-"
His smile widened.
"Don’t tell me this is the first time you’re seeing an android of my kind."
"It's very obvious, do you not think?" Yuuri teased, scratching his neck. "I don’t even know how I should address you. I’d hate to say any word or code that will deactivate you. And in the worst case scenario, have you exploding in thousands of pieces. It’s enough for you guys to be stuck with daily chores or to put up with bossy bastards." Yuuri covered his mouth, catching himself being rude. "I am sorry. I meant I understand that your species is not respected in certain communities and... I must have sounded like an idiot. Nevermind."
Victor's look had persisted stoically throughout the months in complete solitude, only being accompanied by the command voice of the ship and the movies he saw in his boredom. Unexpectedly, he wouldn’t have imagined that he would smile more than ever with such a small talk. At first it was the same expression of courtesy that was given to everyone, but as the conversation deepened, he felt a pleasant unidentified flutter. He guessed that it was a technical fault and he would have to analyze his condition later.
"I appreciate the thought," Victor confessed. He interrupted him before he could intervene with another question and said, "I value how you think of us as a species. And I can assure you that we don’t carry a detonating device. It is not proper for an ONEIROID to want to commit suicide when we know that we would be reactivated. Although it would be entertaining to do so if we wanted to piss off the manufacturer with a couple of millions," he chuckled mischievously.
"Did you just make a joke?" Yuuri gasped, amazed.
"If it upsets you, I can remain silent, Lieutenant Colonel Katsuki."
"No, please." He shook his head. "During duty, it was difficult to maintain the sense of humor with so many killings in Caedis. Laughing makes me feel that I'm still alive. Thank you, Victor."
"As you wish, Lieutenant Co-"
"You don't have to call me that. Just call me Yuuri."
From that point on, Yuuri ended up under the care of the Master Assistant of the ship Asteria, which had arrived to their rescue during the confrontation in Caedis. Later, throughout the days, Victor announced bitter news, and he offered his deepest condolences for the loss of Colonel Phichit in combat when the board of directors arranged to make it official. Unfortunately, his body was nowhere to be found... For Yuuri, it was not easy to digest, but eventually he would accept it by concentrating on his rehabilitation. The exercises ran from the time he got up until Victor would warn him of a possible fracture due to his negligence.
While going for a walk through the east wing, he realized that his heart hammered when he talked to Victor even though he was not working out as usual. And his condition worsened when his shoulders bumped accidentally or there was a small touch upon receiving a glass of juice. Sometimes Victor would ask him if he had caught a cold, and Yuuri would deny it flatly, walking away before Victor could detect what his human friend was truly feeling.
The following week, after the awakening of the rest of the crew, Yuuri could barely meet up with Victor. His work had to be organized in a schedule, occupying a period of time greater than usual. Victor had to focus on each member, receive the notifications of the board and deal with several issues regarding the sudden attack in Caedis. But when they headed to bed, Yuuri took advantage of the tranquility of the empty corridors and looked for Victor in the leisure chamber. How exciting could it get? When they talked nonstop, trusting each other like long-time friends, sharing biscuits with a hot cup of coffee. Hours passed, and Yuuri wondered if the rest of his companions knew of Victor's love for perfume with a fragrance of mahogany, carnation, and cinnamon; his adoration for puppies; or how he loved listening to ballads in Spanish. If he was in a good mood, he would play them on the central computer and dance. Victor asked Yuuri to join him one time, but he shyly refused. If someone had two left feet in Asteria, it was him.
One night, the day Yuuri learned that Victor had being manufactured that exact same date, his heart was close to starting a parade. It all happened so fast. One moment Yuuri celebrated Victor’s first birthday with an industrial-flavored cake, and the next, they were covered with whipped cream to the tip of the nose. Yuuri begged him to stop between giggles. Victor agreed and fell silent. He took a step forward while admiring every well-memorized trait, and before Yuuri could call him by his name, Victor had gotten closer and sealed his lips with a tender kiss... Yuuri didn’t know how to react to his affection. He had no clue what an android’s caress could be called, but it had been soft and innocent. His lips. His lips! It was shocking how cushy they were and the delicate raspberry jam flavor they tasted.
"I've read that humans do this to show their gratitude," Victor whispered, bringing his fingers under his chin. "I haven't done it before, so I hope you can forgive my ineptitude."
Yuuri smiled and decided to return the gesture. It was a chaotic result that danced against his principles because he had learned that a machine and a human should not do those things. After all, did Victor have the slightest idea of what he had just unleashed? But putting aside his moral precepts, he really loved to feel that way about Victor. He did not hurt anyone, and did not interrupt his duties as Master Assistant. In fact, Yuuri considered that there were bigger problems, like the annihilation of the creatures that took the life of the Colonel, who still lurked dangerously. He knew he would have to return with the new crew, and before they gave the order, he preferred to get lost in Victor's arms. It was out of character, taking into account that he could now differentiate his empty smile from a genuine one, which was only dedicated to him.
"I don’t think I can see you today," Victor had said, as he sent certain data to the central memory.
"I understand," Yuuri replied. "Since it was confirmed that we would return to Caedis to continue the mission, you must have a lot of work… Analyzing the information the new Colonel has sent. Could we leave it for tomorrow? Believe it or not, I've been getting ready for our first dance class."
"Of course, Yuuri."
The next day, no class was scheduled.
His fragile, human heart was almost torn when all that kind of romance vanished. They had shared generous moments that it was a dream come true to live, somehow, with someone like Victor. Little kisses had rained, a few deepening with practice. But then... Absolutely nothing.
Victor had locked himself in the laboratory, doing who knows what, besides studying and decoding certain patterns that were sent to him daily. There were no more kisses or other similar caresses. And what hurt him the most was when Victor called him Lieutenant Colonel Katsuki, whether it was in public or in private. The conversations were short and distant. He even tried to get closer by giving him a hug from behind. Victor asked him to get off with the same indifferent tone of voice he used with the rest. Yuuri, though mortified, did not think about it. It was more important to have Victor taking care of the matters he had been ordered, possibly without the interruption of his human companion. Neither did he want to worry or lose his head with the incisive pain he was carrying, knowing that they were close to reaching Caedis, and surviving would be one of his priorities.
Unfortunately, now, Yuuri was hysterical and infuriated, as the crew had chosen to send Victor first to inspect the area with the excuse that the loss of a machine would be easier to bear. A new ONEIROID could be financed with a couple of millions, so it wouldn’t be a problem if Victor ended up being the toy of those creatures.
"He was not trained for this!" Yuuri roared, being restrained by two pairs of arms."We need to go and get him! They'll tear him to pieces thinking he's one of us.Those... Those things have no limit!"
"Try to keep your cool, Lieutenant Colonel," said Minami, a lower-ranking member."The orders from the new Colonel were clear, sir."
"Minami, how can you say that! Victor must be in trouble. He may know what path to take in order to make it easier for us to enter the city, but it doesn’t mean he can fight. We are the ones who have been trained for this!" He repeated firmly, struggling. "Besides, the Colonel said that we could take it as a suggestion, not an order."
"It's just an android, Lieutenant Colonel Katsuki," Yuri said, a trainee to Lieutenant Colonel who was about to share the same rank with Yuuri. He brushed aside his blond bangs and added dryly, "They have been created to serve, and if it is destroyed, we will be given another of the same model... His antics were among the most irritating I’ve encountered so far, so I hope they can remove that stupid function of responding with slyness when it suits him."
Before the rage blinded him, Yuuri took a deep breath and squeezed his fists.
"Let me go! NOW! And that's an order!"
Minami, a colorful-haired Japanese boy, looked at Yuri as if expecting a fair response. If it was an order from a Lieutenant Colonel, he had to comply, but what could he do if it became suicidal? The surface of Caedis was totally deserted, except for the fertile areas for the cultivation of food. As a rough terrain, moderate cities were built for the extraction of water in designated regions. The project would be a success, except for the interference of unknown creatures that infected the vast population of about half a million people. It was like going to Las Vegas on a tour for the new zombie apocalypse.
"No," said Yuri Plisetsky, who also came from the cold Russia. "We're not going to let you go. Not after what happened to Colonel Phichit when he dismissed an order. The board was clear in telling us which region to clean. They never asked us to take one step inside another in worse condition."
"You don’t understand, Plisetsky! If Victor doesn't come back in an hour, we-"
"We will leave him behind and move to a different zone with a new android. Do you understand we don’t want to lose you, Yuuri?" Yuri hissed, getting clearly pissed. "We're not going to lose you, or anyone else. It's been a long time since he left. The most certain thing is that he is dead and we have to ask for reinforcements. And I mean it. You know that in the middle of this disaster, the mortality rate is increasing. It is no longer a luxury like in those times..."
"No, no! What if he got lost? Androids are not perfect. I know there was a little disconnection and he disappeared from the map. It doesn’t mean he is dead! We cannot leave without Victor!"
"It's just a piece of scrap, Lieutenant Colonel," Minami murmured.
The punch… He didn’t see it coming. Minami's head hit the steel structure of the door and his back slid down the wall with a broken nose. The blood began to drip. Yuri was the first to react, pouncing on his superior, but it was in vain. The main gates opened and Yuuri got away. No matter how many times they called him or how the steps behind him were getting closer, he would find Victor and take him back, even if his deplorable action was some sort of request for an expulsion.
In the middle of the thick vegetation, one of the productive zones, Yuuri advanced with his weapon without a specific course. And when he was at a reasonable distance, still hearing his companions calling him, looking for him uncontrollably, he heard the growl of one of those animals. The gnashing of his fangs froze his blood, and he knew too late the terrible mistake he had made. The remorse, Victor's lack of affection, and his frustration devoured him as he fled, leaping over the protruding roots, avoiding the branches and dead trunks. He ran with a heavy lump in his throat, his hands frozen and sweat staining his uniform. There was no turning back...
Much later, he stopped near a slope. Crystalline water ran from the top of a waterfall, and fell hard on a lagoon. The small waves reached the shore and colorful foliage. Yuuri walked away from the edge to keep himself from getting dizzy. He leaned on his knees, taking deep puffs of air and wiping the sweat that flooded his view.
It could have been an illusion that was messing with his mind in a state close to dementia, as it could be Victor in the same old green uniform, standing on a rock. Whatever the vision was, he craved the contact with his synthetic skin. It didn’t matter if it was a hug, a kiss or a simple stroke.
Victor climbed down and walked up to him, scanning their surroundings. He rummaged one of the compartments of his backpack and pulled out a tiny bottle with a strange transparent liquid. He kneeled down next to him.
"You'll feel better if you have this," Victor offered.
Yuuri drank it until he emptied the contents and leaned back against one of the trunks, slightly exhausted.
"You shouldn’t be here, Yuuri. This place is too dangerous. You have to get back to the ship."
"How could I leave you? We said we would wait for you, but the connection was cut off and we could not see you on the map. I thought the worst had happened to you," he murmured, trying to hold Victor's hand.
Victor pulled away.
"I disconnected my location."
"What are you talking about?" He tried to reach him, but Victor rose. "Why would you do something like that? I was waiting for you and-"
His tongue moved slowly, almost as if it was numb. His eyelids weighed and his head dropped with laziness.
"What did you do?" Yuuri stammered with difficulty.
"There are certain things a human like you would not be able to understand, Yuuri."
"Did you just drug me? Why? Victor, you know that we..."
"We? Ah.You mean what we were doing up there," he said coldly."I am very grateful that you allowed me to experience such human-like encounters. It is always good to acquire as much knowledge as possible when an opportunity like this happens. You know what I mean. Making out with a dumb meatbag such as yourself."
If words had the edge of a sword, it would be easier to bear being eaten alive by the monsters instead. He was not Victor. He could not be. Maybe it was a flaw in his system or a virus. Yuuri remained in an exhausting silence as his chest seemed to contract, taking his breath away and the desire to continue listening.
"From your expression I see that it meant something to you, did it not?" He snickered. "You can have a good military rank, but you're too delusional to be twenty-three years old. How stupid can you be? I know that men develop gradually, but how can you take so long? More than the average... You’re quite the retard."
"It's time to get back to reality, Yuuri. It was just an experiment, a distraction. It was like going to the circus on a summer afternoon with a popsicle. What did you think happened between us? Did you think we would live together on a small farm, harvest onions, and be happy? Accept it, child, we are two individuals living in different worlds. I beat the average droid, and I'm better than a ball of flesh and bones like you. You shouldn’t have risked your miserable human arse by coming here, for I can confess I wouldn’t move an insignificant circuit for you."
As much as he tried to keep an unalterable face during the humiliation, the trembling on his lips betrayed him. He didn’t want to burst into tears, not right now. The idea of doing it in front of the person who had stripped him of every ounce of dignity he ever possessed was sickening. Yuuri swallowed, trying not to break down, absorbing the secretion dripping from his nose. He didn’t know if it was the effects of the drug, but his temperature dropped. And when he blinked again, he felt the burning in his eyes... and he collapsed.
"Victor," he implored without looking at him, sobbing.
There was no answer.
"You don’t mean it, right?"
"How could you know?" Victor asked.
Yuuri, in an act of bravery, fixed his gaze on him and within a few seconds his vision faded. He closed his eyes completely, letting the darkness envelop him as his heart sank into the harshness of his words.
Victor remained in a deep and unbalanced silence, pretending not to use brute force against the first thing he reached. If it were not for it would attract the attention of those creatures and the crew, he would go on a rampage. He hated that he hadn’t planned things better, but he had already spat on the wound of the first person who considered him more than junk. Yuuri had given him everything, and here he was, being an ungrateful son of the supreme son of a bitch who made him.
And as Yuuri dozed in Victor's arms, tears fell on his cheeks.
"I'm sorry we have to postpone our dance classes, Yuuri."
Victor tried to level his body temperature, nullifying his own crying before his system overloaded, forced one of his many false smiles and headed to Asteria with his head held up high.