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virtually grave-robbing our hallmarked past

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Teshima's ears were never empty. There was always sound - some voice - a command - alarms blaring at bed stand and space beside him. His eyes twitched. Vibrations rang through his skull. Through shallow breaths, easing away pain, he didn't want to open his eyes.

Something knocked outside and he could hear them.  The fact he'd chosen, a chip at his inner ear, all that amounted to something that took too much energy.

"Excuse me, would you please send a medical technician to room 503? I think the pilot is sick."

He groaned. At least six times, now. "I'm not going to the hospital again, Manami."

The room stayed silent. He wondered how early it was, scarlet blotches bleeding behind his lids. It took a sigh - a deep breath - to send him hacking over himself, open eyes struggling through burning lungs and veins. The last remains of smoke stuck under his suit. Feet banging in front of him, heavy steel protecting his feet. Teshima pressed a hand over his mouth. He couldn't breathe. It was oil and metal on a glove in his mouth, and bile bitter on his tongue was another reason. Darkness should have only made it more obvious.

Shaking fingers forward. Body memory found him the button he needed. Thrumming into life, gold and red flashed with the wearied sickness of warning around the narrow tomb of the suit.

"Yeah," Teshima muttered. Running through commands, he couldn't make it stop. "I get it." He slammed a fist into the walling, bouncing off harmless. "I get it!" He was too sensible to yell at an automatic system to grow up. Especially when they were there. They had to be there. He was never left alone. Letting his hands fall against his lap, he allowed himself to lay back. "We're critical." The silence made the pressure in his ears mount, like water waiting to crush his skull. "Like it isn't obvious."

His head echoed with nothing more than alarms.  He huffed, a cough or a laugh, waiting - for all he complained, he couldn't handle the silence.  Every argument, and he never turned them off.

"Well?"  His hand slammed into the ceiling, too theatrical for his own good.  "Or are you sleeping in?"

"We're not critical," echoed metal in his teeth. Inescapable. As though he'd ever have chosen otherwise. "Damage has exceeded only fifty percent." Screens faded down to wavering blue light, alarms cut down to little more than the familiar hum of their life. "We can aim for more if you like!"

"Close enough." The words came out easier, with something there to listen. Shelling fell from his arms. Teshima shook himself loose as he could, but his hands wouldn't stop. He gave up on pulling the data himself. "If you're paying attention, mind telling me our coordinates?"

"Your coordinates are currently -" Static wailed through the tears in his ears. "Oh. It looks like that's broken too! We're lost."

"No need to be so cheerful about it."

"That's what I'm here for," they said, in endless programmed singsong.

Hanging wires entrapped themselves around his hands, loose frames banged into his arms. Upturned metal cut into his shoulder. He slammed his back into the seat, against the walls. Grit teeth, it was his head slamming back against a cage. The latch wasn't far away at all, if he needed it - anything but drowning in a rock slide.

"Excuse me."

Their voice slipped through the banging in his ears. Strength bled out till he slipped down, shaking and small. There was space. It was a cockpit. All he needed was light enough to see. Teshima forced himself into a concept of leisure, one leg drawn over the other, hand poised at his chin. With that, he could think, and with that, he could get out of this. Teshima forced a grin. Always.

"Concerned about me now? No need for that, Manami."

"Not at all," they said. Their voice was the endless fact that he was here. As though someone was right behind him, always flitting out of sight. He'd stopped looking over his shoulder long enough ago. "Unless this isn't a good time."

His teeth cut into his mouth. The only thing he had strength to do was smirk. "For what."

"We're losing power." Doldrums facts that turned his bones to paper mache. "One of the auxiliary lines appears to have been damaged by the explosion!"

He had to be used to this. "How long have we got."

"90 minutes till storage is depleted."

Teshima forced one leg over the other. "No need to act so cold about it!" A clatter in his head and he caught chattering teeth. Hot air made frozen skin stretch and tear, he could have sworn, if he had the courage to look beneath the suit. "There's more than enough time to get home. I wouldn't want to miss my dramas, you know."

"I'm happy to follow whatever order you have to save yourself." Petulant gentle sing-song.

"I'll be getting both of us out of here. No need to worry."

"Unit 006-13's system intelligence is backed up along three separate drives. Regardless of the physical unit's status, currently catalogued data remains for both research and future use."

When Manami was little more than those lines of rules and requirements, they always fell back to the same easy bored tone. Elevator speak, muzac in words.

"Glad to know what you're pre-programmed to tell me. What do you think about dying." Saying it to them, about them, rather than himself - it made the weight crashing into his chest a little less overwhelming.

They didn't often answer his questions. He didn't like to ask. But -

"I don't mind." More like them. Still too easy. Yet, as they went on, it was matter-of-a-fact. Manami sounded like they were throwing a secret in the air, just to see it crack along the ground. "I don't know what to expect. It'll be interesting."

It was easier to fight back when they did.

"Is it really? What, let me guess, gimme eighty seconds. You actually believe all that garbage about AIs and robots who think it'll just be more to see when you crash?" It was just - he felt sick, sicker still, thinking about never opening his eyes again. "The only you that got this far and you're willing to just throw it away in a stupid instance of curiosity about what you haven't experienced?"

"Yes," they answered - too snappy.

"Right," Teshima said. "You know I believe that." He banged a fist against the hatch. "Do the cameras still work, or do I need to put my head out a window to get a look around here?"

For all of how rude it was - it made it easier to hold his smile. Acting like a forward captain, a pilot in control, sure of everything that was coming. When the video feed clicked on, he didn't let it crumble. It felt frozen on in the face of soft light reflecting across dozens of shells - glowing walls and stalactites dripping with blinding acid. Every single one dormant, within streaks of plasma, hidden behind claws and metal eyes. The camera tapered upward, through sheets of stone, the sight of space and burning stars hardly a thing to hope for so far down in the colony.

"There you go," Manami said. Finality laced in everything, and he wondered if they'd planned not to show him - as though he'd have given up from the start. "You have about eighty minutes, if you can maintain relative quiet for that long. In the meantime, we'll make a portable satellite to jettison with information and store anything else you might like to get back to Earth."

He'd never seen this many up close before. Eventually, he remembered the one thing he had going for him, and opened his mouth.

"They all hate singing. Don't they."

"Yes," Manami chirped, quick and - that always meant they were annoyed. "As you're all taught in basic training! Singers are handpicked and trained from around the world to disorient and, in some cases, even damage their neural plates."

His eyes were drying out.

"Hey." Teshima uselessly flicked a screen. "Have you seen many people singing."

"I have many broadcasts in my databanks."

He glanced up, around, shaky grin wide and sarcastic. "Come on, you know what I mean."

"People do not typically sing from mechs. They are held in otherwise undisclosed colonies or larger warships, and -"

"So give me one of your less typical cases."

"The previous pilot sang in-suit. They were formally trained as a singer, but preferred front lines. And proved themself for it." Manami fell into an uncustomary silence. "It's been a long time. But you might know of them."

"Yeah," he whispered. "Unfortunately."

The same unreachable titans of the past, and their coffins.

"For this unit, however, that was the only one. They were the only previous pilot, after all."

Air stuck to his throat like the closest thing left to dew, unfamiliar when he opened his mouth. "Does it matter who sings."

"You're welcome to sing if it makes you feel better, Teshima-san."

"That's not what I asked," he spat - and collected himself. He didn't want to be that way. "If you turn on the broadcast. Does it matter who does the singing."

"There is some particular training." The quiet processing in their silence, he waited. They knew well enough to be frank. "Singers undergo specialized conditions to familiarize themselves with the different consistency between Earth's atmosphere and that within constructed habitats. Lacking that can cause shortness of breath due to differing oxygen levels. Other potential side effects include nose bleeds, temporary blindness, and blacking out. Handling the strain is impossible for an untrained pilot trying to control a suit." Listing off every required response, it hardly sounded like them, till Manami said, "But you have your own opinions about the impossible."

"Sounds good." He pulled at the buttons along his collar, rubbing his throat. It had been a while. Too long.

"No other questions?"

It would never be so simple. If it had been, maybe he wouldn't have needed to be here. "Was it difficult?"

A click.

A mockery of tapes flipping over, as though there was anything that made them up but code and static.

"No clue," Manami said. "They're dead now, aren't they?"

Words to make him fall back, or just honest - Teshima took a fiery breath to regret. "Fine. Did it work well enough?"

"Usually."

He swiped through commands and options, on screen and in mind, but he couldn't hold any other plan in his head. It was foolish. Risky enough to invite death, if he wasn't already about to knock. But there was nothing he'd ever wanted to do more.

In the last moments he gave himself, he made a worse decision. "Do you go by Manami because of them?"

"Manami is a common given and family name in Japanese society."

"Manami Sangaku," he pronounced, point for point. "Famous idol-turned-pilot. Died young, but not before completing fifty successful missions." The computers around him wouldn't collapse inward on him for speaking. They didn't have the slightest allowance to move the suit themself. He reminded himself as much. "Broke every rule the book had to offer, because they were just that good."

"Because their commanders allowed what was necessary to handle the problem."

"Nah.  I mean."  He'd gone long enough, smart enough, to avoid bringing it up. But here was a ghost. He had to acknowledge that much. "They must have made an impression."

Teshima didn't have heroes.

He was too ambitious for that.

In their silence, it seemed foolish to assume they did - or that he didn't.

"You're saying I'm nothing more than the imprint of a human."

He couldn't swallow anymore, dread rising up to his eyes. Mouth running on, "It makes sense." Every piece of information he'd shoved aside in single-minded drive to be here. "Administration wouldn't wipe the AI of a suit this famous, but they can't very well let you out for every impressionable pilot who might wander your way." All the good reason they'd been shut away in dust for fifty years. All the backward reason he could shove a foot in the door.

"I see."

"Come on, Manami." He could still feel the sun burnt into his lungs from that moment.  The rust that had burned his hand, sliding open a door to heat and unmistakable silhouettes. Worse himself, standing here, on the steps to his own grave. Wanting and desperate. "Don't you think it's a bit weird?"

"Believe what you want." The volume could have made his bones crack, inner ear out. It didn't. Fans whirred, not their typical fake tapes and sound board. It shut down in the next moment, lights flickering off and on to the normal ear-splitting silence. They were quiet. "But I'm not the shadow of someone else's death."

Teshima couldn't apologize if his life depended on it - not anywhere it might have mattered. Not when he'd broken command to investigate unused mechs, ignoring the requests of loved ones. It was safer on Earth. He grit his teeth. Command had let him through, in the end. But Manami - when they gave warnings, they seemed just as delighted when he jumped in regardless. Looming death was a fact. He didn't need anyone to tell him that much.

Not if he could do it for himself.

He nodded resolutely.

Cameras picked up a lot of things.

For something that amounted to a voice in a suit, they tended to pick up on more than he wanted. But if it was a line to what he needed - maybe he could bear it. If it was the same - eternally in it for themselves - Teshima could accept that much.

"It's difficult to issue commands while your mouth is full of words otherwise." Manami rattled off facts he knew by heart, never acknowledging - there was already too much. "That's why commanders tend to keep their singers far from the relative eye of battle. I don't know what you are planning, but I'd recommend at least three more hands to deal with that. I kind of doubt you could grow that many in so short a time." But there was a fondness in - "I realize humans are fond of that ability, but it's good not to rely on it too much."

"That's fine," Teshima said. "I'll let you handle that."

Nothing responded.

"Oh. Right." He laughed, wishing for more than just screens and placid voice to read. "Activate autopilot."

The same whirr. "This goes against regulations." Tickertape back and forth again gently echoing in the chamber. "Without due admission from superior or other administrator, an investigation will be launched for a potential court marshal. Any tech or vehicle otherwise will be confiscated and -"

"Can you not do it?" he interrupted, loud as he could - reminding him just how raw his throat felt. Whether it was trust or respect or fear that fueled him, he kept running his mouth like it was guaranteed to work out. "Or are you scared? All those rules that might get you warehoused again?"

The screen ahead turned azure blue, adorned with a single symbol.

 

:)

 

Metal shrieked into life. The smile flickered away, to rusted scorpions already shaking themselves free. It was impossible not to notice - just how little time he had left.

"So," drove him further from his own body. "What would you like to sing?"

He ground his fingers into his eyes. All he had was two years. Just because of words from a mind willing to compromise and lie. How much longer it had been sitting in silent storage without a spark of life. Counting the bodies he dug up, in all of his own sick desperation to get close to an unattainable dream.

And in its broken way, he had it in his hands, rather than as another self-indulgent dream.

It didn't feel like he'd always planned.

"I could recommend you something! I have songs in dozens of languages, with the original singer and without, several covers, tempo changes, plenty of wonderful fun options. Would you like something from Hirai Ken? I believe you tried to download one of his albums onto here at one point. Or should we -"

"Shut up." Pressed to his face, he could smell how burnt his gloves were, soot grinding into his skin. "I'm trying to think."

"Don't take too long," hummed between his ears in return.

Teshima held his hands over his mouth. Too many things to process. Too many songs he'd always dreamed of singing. And them. His lips stuck like velcro, faint iron mixing on the air.

"You keep saying you've got something for me."

"Hm?"

He took a breath. Regret already pouring alongside, he tried to pitch his voice from rough crackle. "Something you call love, but confess." Lights flickered back to a gentler yellow. It responded, if not the way he'd seen in broadcasts. But he could skip and skim - it was just about the right range, the right volume, the right distance. Even if he could never have been handpicked, with a suit and such disquieting closeness, even he could make a mark. "And you keep lying where you oughta be truthing," came out with a better force, and the edge of a grin.

"That's not how the song goes," they hummed back.

But it was starting.  Blades moving, every screen shone as a kaleidoscope as they took the reins.

"And you keep losing when you oughta not bet!" Seventy minutes. How far they could get - he wouldn't think about it, shells warping on screen like Fabergé eggs made of iron weave. Manami was better at piloting than him. "You keep saming when you oughta be changing, now what's right is right-"

And they finally started playing the song, moments late and enough to make him want to slam hands through the dash.

"But you ain't been right yet!"

Years of sickness and failure and he shouldn't have been here. Neither of them. And it made him smile, stupid and wide and genuine, too wide to see through burning eyes anymore. Every word more was a spark less energy they had to use to shield and cut through - they didn't need to kill everything to get out - all that mattered was -

"Don't stop just yet," Manami hummed back, powerless against anything, only in his own ears. "If you're having so much fun."

Surviving.  Having fun.  That was basically the same thing.  He grabbed a broken stand, taped above with a starry old packet drawn about it, the same thing he'd feigned jamming along through months of training and waiting.

"You keep playing where you shouldn't be playing!" There wasn't room to point or move, but he did the best he could, flashing screens and buttons the best stagelights he could ask for. He could feel them all lighting up his cheeks, flashing along skin in endless electric energy. "And you keep thinking that you'll never get burned!"

A quiet laugh in his ears, and it made him spit out, "Hah!" Covering his mouth in the next moment, over someone who was there and not there at all.

"I just found me a brand new box of matches, and what he knows?! You haven't had a chance to learn!" How far or how many they'd handled, where he'd even end up, he didn't care for once.

For one shining moment, Teshima felt like he'd won - and deserved the victory.

"These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do!"

"Flying," Manami said, and he should have ignored them.

But - "One of these days I'm just gonna fly right over you."

Teshima dropped the stand.

Or his body.

Or his mind, maybe, as his vision cut out into nothing.

It was alright. Just a nap. But he could almost hear -

"That was pretty cool." But not really. "Teshima-san."

 

---

 

The videos were everywhere.

It was a miracle he wasn't in jail - more of one that Manami hadn't been completely decommissioned. Found floating through space, with an impatient AI and better-dead pilot, even more of one. Every impossibility another shot against them, when they'd prick him with facts and giddy terrors. Smiling still hurt. So did normal sunlight. Days passed and they were both still there. What would come, though. He couldn't say.

Other than more fanmail. The hospital removed every care basket and letter for warehouse storage until he was discharged and out of their hair.

"Did you need to broadcast the entire thing?" Teshima could have heard his hammy rendition of a song he could hardly sing even if Manami hadn't been playing it in his ears any time he brought up a line as a joke.

"You asked me to," they said. The video had been worse. Cheerful jokes about Space's Got Talent wouldn't stop haunting him. "And it'd be a waste if I hadn't, don't you think?"

But he couldn't get enough. Maybe he was the worse one here. Behind an arm slung over his face, he was still grinning.

He didn't say anything. There weren't any cameras for them to observe through. But -

"I figured as much," Manami said.

Short - petulant - a little annoyed. And distantly, frustratingly fond.