When Wyoming tells him Carolina is admitted for surgery, hairrip pain cracks across Maine’s skull. Sound shrieks and light sears with skullcrack spasm and he grapples his helmet for temple-press relief he can’t find. The world wobbles and Maine kneeknocks and for a moment Sigma becomes his thoughts.
“Multiple AI fragments. What an amazing idea.”
Maine’s anger screams through the migraine thoughtfog. He snarls for Sigma to shut up, log off.
But Sigma’s voice is still there.
It rebounds and replays like regret. Burns for answers. Pushes for progress.
Maine paces the halls, searching for absence.
With head-hang reluctance he checks in to Recovery One. Buckles to weakness.
( which he can’t have, he shouldn’t have — )
He has survived gunshot cacophony, carthrow collisions, and deathfall leaps. He is known for endurance, for invulnerability.
But now he feels bonesnap brittle. Maine sits at the edge of the infirmary bed and peels his helmet from his head, fingerdragging across his scalp. Crowntracing for pressure bubbling underneath his skin. He counts the vertebrae in his neck, measuring tension and constraint. He climbs them to the base of his skull. Inflamed skin stretches over his neural interface, still healing from AI implantation. From a misguided gift.
Recovery One echoes with emptiness. The doctors are busy.
For now, Maine is thankful for it.
Carolina’s surgery is over.
Doctors trickle back in and Maine jawgrinds and headholds through the footfall clatter. Carolina is carried in like a sacrifice, examined like an experiment. He watches them check for heartbeat retort, watches them clean the implantation site like an entry wound. His pulse climbs into his ears, demanding notice, escalating anxiety.
Footsteps shatter his eardrums and pressure sizzles under his skull. A doctor addresses him, tries to speak to him. But all he hears is pain pulsating, sound searing and when they try to touch him his frustration fractures as he smashes his arm into them ( get off me ) and snarls disgust.
The doctors leave him alone after that.
He breathes silence and recollects himself in the chair by Carolina’s bed.
She is rice-paper pale. Her hair smears messily across her forehead, spilling onto her eyelids. Blood rusts against her skin and betrays imperfection, weakness.
( humanity. )
Sigma is logged off but his voice still reverberates around the recesses of Maine’s mind, sandpaper smooth. This is a test for him: an unfortunate success.
But Maine knows. He knows what the AI thinks because his headspace is not his own. Sigma is creativity and he sprawls and expands and his thoughts push and shift until Maine has no room for his own. His head floods with ambition, with metastability. With the obsession for aggregation. It consumes and controls, pushing boundaries, forcing progress. He hears the AI when he's offline. His voiceless echoes and empty flames. He knows his thoughts, his patterns.
He knows this can hurt Carolina. He also knows he could have stopped Sigma.
But his head swells with thought and pushes past capacity and splits with pain. Thought becomes an impossibility. Reaction time slows and empathy atrophies.
It was her head or his. And he couldn't push past the thoughtknock disturbance.
( and this was when it mattered, when he could have helped her, when he could have prevented this — )
He doesn't know if she will be able to push past it, either. He is known for endurance, but this is a pain he cannot handle.
So he studies her. Her skin gleams cold-sweat stark, glowing breakability. He watches the heave of her collarbones, the inhale-exhale resilience, and reminds himself:
Carolina wants this.
She wants the headsplit hairpull pain. She wants to be a vehicle for aggression, an incendiary for competition.
She wants to reclaim herself.
His shoulders wilt with resignation, and he naildrags frustration across his temples. He can’t fault her ambition. They’re too similar — too inclined to seek strength, to brass knuckle their way through failure.
They will wrestle with consequence and lose.
He knows it. He knows his headaches are a countdown to self-destruction. His mind warps and cracks, ringing ineptitude. Signalling self-sacrifice.
But the concussive deathstrike strength he has is worth it. He already knows Carolina thinks the same.
He wishes she wouldn’t.
He shrugs self-consciousness and halts his thoughtpour processes. He replaces his helmet, HUD lights low, visor spilling shadow. It soothes him.
And so does she. He traces through his recovery ward memories. Visits where Carolina denied her sympathy, refused the possibility of guilt, rejected the possibility of his own weakness.
( because there is nothing he hates more. )
Maine will do the same for her.