It’s not raining anymore, not really. More of a drizzle. But the streets are wet, and green and pink light glows back out of black puddles, reflecting the neon off the buildings. Ambidex Street is empty as Dio walks down it. It usually is, this time of night, besides the Myrmidon patrols. And the stinging, ice-cold rain from ten minutes ago wasn’t much incentive for trespassers to try and sneak onto the restricted streets near the Cradle Pharmaceutical compound.
There are more every week, though. Some sick. Most civilians. All desperate.
They can’t afford treatment, can’t afford the prices Cradle wants them to pay for its genetic manipulation codes. ‘Cybertreatment’, the Cradle Pharma adverts call it. The Myrmidons call it ‘hacking’, to a man, and Dio might have broken the mold a little but in this he’s no exception.
Like all the company’s clones, he gets free access to hacking, if he’s ever injured or ill. But he also doesn’t get paid for his work and has to share a room with two other clones on the compound grounds. All the human workers can opt out of the dorms, rent apartments in the neighborhood, get paid at least decent money – but in exchange, they have to pay for hacking same as everyone else. Six of one, half-dozen of the other, Dio figures.
There are a lot of people in the city that still rely on pills, shots, cough syrup, all that shit. The middle ground between the dickwads rich enough to afford hacking and the impoverished idiots dumb enough to try and steal it. They get along with their lot in life same as Dio does – just doing what they have to.
And then, of course, there’s Crash Keys. Dio’s never seen them himself, and like fuck he wants to – their handiwork has left nine clones in the compound’s hospital wing. He knows they’re the real reason Hongou and the other Cradle Pharma bigwigs make the Myrmidons patrol the perimeter streets so much. Some jumped-up kid trying to steal the code to fix his sister’s cancer is inconsequential compared to an organized force trying to leak all the treatment codes to the public like they’re all in some fucking Robin Hood flick.
Not that Dio isn’t aware that the crazy fuckers are probably in the right. Cradle Pharma is shit awful. But what’s he supposed to do about it? Things are how they are.
Dio tilts his head up, lets a few stray raindrops splatter across his face and run cold tracks down his neck. Then he shakes his head, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and keeps walking – kicking through oily puddles as neon signs flicker and fizzle overhead. It’s going to be a long night.
The very next morning Dio’s reassigned, and he’s indifferent. Work is work, and there’s no more or less prestige in any job given to a Left clone, though he might secretly wish there was.
He’s been assigned to watch the GAULEM – Cradle Pharmaceutical’s compendium of medical knowledge, the thing keeping them exclusive and profitable. You’d think that would be a step up, but he’s heard from a few other clones who’ve had the position and they told him it’s a boring job. Stuck in one suite of rooms at the center of the Cradle Pharma compound, day in and day out. At least when he had patrol duty, Dio could stretch his legs across a borough of the city.
But he’s heard the rooms are nice, at least. Posh. So there’s a silver lining or something to being assigned to a job where he has to sit around and watch a fucking computer day in and day out.
They want Dio to start right away, apparently, because he’s herded off after breakfast by his direct superior, Marcus Call. They wind their way through a maze of corridors Dio’s never had any reason to bother with and stop in front of a pair of fancy-looking double doors. Marcus pulls a key off the ring on his belt, unlocks the doors, and flings them open.
The rooms really are nice, Dio thinks when he sees them. Not to say that the rest of the Cradle Pharma compound is poor quality or cheaply made, but it’s definitely more functional than fashionable. This place, on the other hand? It’s fucking plush. Fancy armchairs, actual wallpaper and carpet instead of industrial steel, paintings hanging on the wall like it’s some fucking five-star hotel suite. It’s the sort of place the CEO would stay, but he’s not here – would almost never be caught dead in the compound when he can give his orders from on high in his fucking penthouse uptown. No, the only people in the GAULEM suite are Dio, his superior, and…
A woman in a purple dress, staring at one of the paintings with her hands folded primly in front of her.
She’s beautiful. Big blue eyes in a freckled face, flame-orange hair braided up precariously. Dio’s never seen anything like her. Some of the women working at Cradle Pharma are beautiful, but they all dress stern and sharp and smile like they want to bite off your fucking head. This woman has none of that aura – she’s wispy and soft.
“This is the GAULEM,” Marcus tells Dio matter-of-factly. “GTF-DM-L-016.”
The GAULEM was supposed to be a machine. A computer. Just some console he had to guard and keep from overheating. Not a— a woman.
“It and the other GAULEMs in storage are the last of Dr. Klim’s creations,” explains Marcus. “They’re androids capable of storing every cybertreatment code, encrypting and distributing them securely for the company’s use, diagnosing patients, and utilizing medical knowledge. Keeps this whole place running.”
“She’s… A robot,” Dio settles on saying at last.
“It can be something of a shock for new guards,” allows Marcus, and the ugly amusement on his face tells Dio that he takes great pleasure in throwing his subordinates off-guard with this reveal. “Yes, the GAULEM is a humanoid robot with a sophisticated artificial intelligence program. You will live here in the suite and guard it, oversee routine maintenance, and other miscellaneous duties. Can you handle that, Dio?”
As if there was any question of it. Dio scoffs.
“’Course I can. Who do you think you’re dealing with here?”
“Good man,” Marcus replies. “I’ll leave you to it, then. First maintenance check is in three days, so just get settled in for now. Don’t fuck anything up in the meantime.”
Then, with a jaunty wave, he steps out of the suite and Dio is left alone with the woman—robot. GAULEM. Whatever. He peers at her out of the corner of his eye, wary, but she doesn’t even turn her head. Just keeps staring at the painting in front of her like he’s not even there.
‘Get settled in’ was a hell of a way to phrase it, Dio considers on the second day of his new assignment, because the GAULEM suite is more unsettling than anywhere else he’s ever been. And it’s not the place itself, it’s the GAULEM. She wanders the rooms of her suite like a ghost – pale, silent, and tragic. Makes Dio feel like the victim of a haunting or some shit. Just spends all her time staring at the paintings or looking up at the sunshine drifting in from the skylight. Everything she does is soundless and it creeps Dio the hell out.
“… Hey,” he says at last around midday, the first word he’s ever spoken to her.
She turns to look at him. Her blue gaze isn’t as listless as her movements would suggest, but she’s obviously not emotionally engaged. If she even can be emotionally engaged, he’s not sure. Fuck if he knows what a GAULEM is capable of.
“Y-yes?” she asks. “Did… Did you need something?”
The stutter is kind of a surprise, but Dio shrugs it off. He’s about to open his mouth and address her by her ID number, but just thinking about it makes his stomach curdle a little. He doesn’t really like the idea of calling something that looks like a person – even if she’s just a robot – by an ID number. Hasn’t liked being called by an ID number himself for so long that denying her a name itches under his skin. To the other Myrmidons and Marcus, he gets to be Dio. They don’t care about idiosyncrasies as long as the job gets done. But he remembers being Clone 410 clearly enough that it still burns.
“D’you have a name?” he asks at last. “Like an actual name?”
The GAULEM comes alive a little at the question, brightens.
“Luna,” she says in a quiet, wistful voice. “The doctor called me Luna.”
She’s one of Klim’s, so there’s pretty much no other doctor she can mean. Dio nods.
“Right. Luna, then. I, uh… I’m Dio.”
For the first time, Luna smiles. It’s small, weak – but it transforms her. Sure, she was pretty before, but… Something about the smile makes everything about her more vibrant. Like going from black and white to color or something.
“I-it… It’s nice to meet you, Dio.”
“Uh, yeah.” He clears his throat, stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Right. You too.”
Still with that tiny smile, Luna returns to gazing at the paintings on the walls.
After that, she’s more interested. Attentive. Something. Watches Dio cobble together meals in the suite’s kitchen, asks him about the card games he plays against himself, stuff like that. Doesn’t really offer any information about herself, but… Well, Dio’s just the guard. Not like she has to share her whole fucking life story with him or anything.
If she even has one. The thought slithers uncomfortably in his stomach. Maybe she’s never left the suite at all. Which is just completely fucked up in about a billion ways, but— she’s a robot. Technically speaking, like him, she belongs to Cradle Pharma. Dio tries to discard that line of thought because imagining having only known, you know, four walls, or whatever, is…
But he just can’t. Stop. Fucking. Thinking. About. It.
Dio avoids it as best he can. But spending so much focus on not thinking about the shitty kind of life Luna might have lived means he’s not spending it on warding off nightmares, which comes back to bite him in the ass almost immediately.
Everything is fire and darkness and falling. Dio knows some of the others have dreams like this too. He’s never asked, never talked about it, but he knows. They all know. All he can do in the moment is struggle against the burning, the rush of air – try not to be consumed. It’ll be over eventually. It has to end sometime.
And it does, even sooner than expected. Dio lurches up in bed with a ragged gasp at the feel of a cold hand clasped around his sweating arm.
“What the fuck?” he demands, wheezing out the words as he drags his other hand through his damp, tangled hair.
“Y-you were having a nightmare,” Luna says quietly, and releases him.
She refuses to meet his eyes, instead staring intently down at her hands as they twist the fabric of her skirt.
“Right,” Dio chokes out, because it’s about the only response he can think to make, nonsensical as it is. “I. Shit. Thanks, I guess.”
He rolls over, a dismissal, an attempt to hide the fucking embarrassment of being woken from a nightmare like a damn kid. But he knows he’s not gonna be able to fall asleep again any time soon. He never is.
And then a tinkling melody starts up, slow and pretty. The notes are too bright to be sad, but there’s something upsetting about it anyway – fuck if Dio knows what. He rolls back over, looks up at Luna in confusion.
“I thought it might help you get to sleep,” she says. “It… It’s quiet. And soothing, I think.”
The sound, the music, is coming from… Her necklace?
“It, it’s a music box. It was a gift, from Dr. Klim,” Luna explains, cradling the pendant in her palms like it’s some kind of delicate animal.
She always talks about the doctor that way, reverently. Maybe it makes sense – he created her, after all. But… He left. He left her, left her alone in this prison. No matter how gilded the bars, a cage is still a cage. Dio knows that.
“Thanks,” he says to her again, softer this time. “That’s… Thank you.”
“Y-yeah. Of course. Anytime.”
Luna sits lightly on the side of the bed, pendant still cupped in her hands. Dio falls asleep with her watching over him – and the nightmare does not return.
Dio’s discomfort returns in the morning, the shame and humiliation. But Luna doesn’t talk about it. She offers to help him make breakfast for himself instead. Smiles, gently. She’s soft, he thinks again. It stirs a bizarre protective instinct in him, the desire to see her safe and happy.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “Lost in thought.”
“That… That’s ok,” replies Luna as she passes him the salt. “S-sometimes I get lost in thought too.”
He wants to know what about, but doesn’t ask. They’re… It’s not like they’re friends or anything, it’s pretty fucking clear that Cradle just sees Luna as a tool and even if the thought squirms in his gut like an eel he’s not deluded enough to think he’s not part of the fucking machinery that keeps her trapped here.
So he doesn’t ask. Just changes the subject. Asks her how many guards she’s had, anything to return to a surface-level subject.
“S-six, I think,” she tells him. “A-and you.”
He spends the day on pins and needles, hating it, and has another nightmare. Luna wakes him from it, again, and plays her little music box. After three nights of that routine, she offers to lend it to him at night so he can listen to the melody as he falls asleep.
The nightmares don’t come back after that.
“You like those a lot, huh?” asks Dio a few weeks later, following Luna’s gaze to one of the paintings on the wall.
Luna shrugs her shoulders.
“They’re mine,” she says, utterly without defensiveness or ownership. “I painted them.”
“You. You painted these?”
Luna nods. Suddenly, the paintings are more than just fancy set dressing to match the rest of the GAULEM suite’s opulence. They’re— art. Luna’s art. But the thing is, Dio’s never seen so much as a fucking paintbrush while staying in the suite.
“I-I haven’t painted in a while,” Luna explains, like she’s reading his fucking mind. “It’s. Um. I don’t really h-have, the, um, supplies. Dr. Klim would get them for me, b-but…”
But he’s gone. Dio goes a little cold and frowns, rubbing his arms. So. Only a couple questions and he knows a hell of a lot more than he’d like to. She hasn’t had anything like a life since the doc jumped ship. Used to have hobbies, someone to care about her, give her gifts… And now Luna’s just treated like what Dio thought the GAULEM would be – a glorified fucking computer. She could be so much more, deserves to be more.
And, well, he’s about the only one who can do a damn thing about it.
Dio scratches the back of his neck, can’t make himself meet Luna’s eyes.
“I could probably work something out,” he says gruffly. “Get you some art supplies and shit.”
“Y-you don’t need to do that,” insists Luna. “I’m fine. R-really!”
She fidgets a little with the fabric of her skirt like she always does and shakes her head. And, sure, she’s not gonna croak or anything without art supplies – she’s survived this long, after all. But so what? Surviving and living aren’t the same. He’s seen what surviving looks like and it’s fucking pathetic. It’s good enough for him. He’s fine with it for himself, doesn’t have any aspirations to reach for. But Luna? There are things she wants.
Things he can help her get back. And Dio’s stubborn as hell, so he’s going to do it.
“You want to paint again,” he says. “Don’t you?”
And it takes a while for her to give him a straight answer, but he already knew what it would be. Yeah, Luna wants to paint again. So. That’s that.
The only free time Dio has – or, well, to be accurate the only time he’s allowed to leave the GAULEM suite, because to be honest the entire fucking assignment has effectively felt like ‘free time’ – is during the weekly maintenance checkup. The whole fucking GAULEM maintenance team troops into the suite in their lab coats to, as far as Dio can tell, poke and prod at Luna and stare intently at tablet screens. Luna doesn’t seem to mind, although she’s stoic as shit when she wants to be so who even knows. But it’s uncomfortable to watch, and this week he actually has something to do with his ‘break’, so he slips out of the suite.
None of the Left clones have money because they don’t get paid. Duh. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have a thriving bartering economy. Just gotta know the right person and you can get pretty much anything. A lot of the scientists are willing to fork shit over for a favor, and most of the Myrmidons on patrol have at least one person on the outside supplying them with contraband. Lots of it is junk food or jewelry. Extra blankets. For art supplies, Dio’s gonna have to go pretty damn far afield.
Which means going to Beta. Ugh.
But at least in that regard, Dio’s got things well in hand. He might not like Beta, but he knows the guy’s tastes. He’s a total diva who, despite having perfect eyesight like every other Left clone, is obsessed with eyeglasses. Lucky for him, Dio happens to have a pair set aside – just in case, you know. Dio thinks ahead like that.
When he knocks on the dorm room door, Beta opens it right away. He’s wearing an ugly-ass tracksuit deal and he’s got a pair of oval frames perched on his nose.
“Oh. Dio,” he says, in that fuck-off polite way people have when they aren’t happy to see you. “How… Unexpected.”
He’s really not here for niceties and dancing around shit.
“Yeah, yeah. Look, I have some glasses, you gonna deal or not?”
The door opens wider and Beta steps aside with a little bow. Prick.
“What is it you’re looking for?” he asks, gesturing to his fucking garbage dump of a room.
It’s like a dragon hoard, just a bunch of shit all piled up everywhere. Gotta suck for the poor bastards who have to room with him.
“Art supplies,” Dio says, studying it all. “Paint, canvas, brushes. Shit like that.”
“Hm. Well, I might be able to find what you’re looking for, but for only one pair of glasses—”
But Dio knows what the fuck he’s about. He tugs the glasses case out of his coat pocket and flips it open. High-quality, name-brand rectangle lenses. Basically the holy grail for Beta. Dio’d had to trade a lot of shit to get them, but it had been worth it to know he’d have an ace in the hole with Beta whenever he ended up needing it.
Never thought he’d be using it to get a gift for someone else, though.
Not that he… He’s not upset about it. Not when he thinks about what Luna’s done for him. Not when he imagines what her expression will look like when she gets some new art supplies to work with.
“Oh,” Beta says, stunned, pulling Dio out of his thoughts.
He smirks, waggling the open case and watching Beta’s eyes follow the glasses intently.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought. You want these? Hand over all the painting supplies you’ve got.”
And, well. Not to brag, but Dio walks out of that room with his arms full of art shit. So. Mission success.
Even better than the thrill of victory, though, is watching Luna’s blue eyes go wide and her face pale with ABT fluid when she finally catches sight of him past the maintenance crew filing out the door. Her expression, all startled and awed and pleased, is about the best thing he’s ever seen in his life.
“Is… Is all of that f-for me?” she asks, and lifts a hand but doesn’t reach for the stuff piled in his arms.
“Yeah,” Dio replies.
He sets it all down on the coffee table – tiny canvases, a whole damn forest of different size brushes, and a rainbow of paint colors. Bolstered by his yes, Luna makes her way over to the table to start picking through the haul. She starts grouping paints by some pattern Dio can’t pick out. He leaves her to it – he’s tired as hell from trekking all the way across the compound and he wants a nap.
The soft clatter of art supplies on the wood of the table lulls him to sleep.
Luna returns to painting with gusto. She spends almost all her free time at it, slow and careful. When she’s concentrating, she sticks out her tongue and it’s cute in a way that makes Dio’s heart squeeze a little bit. He tries not to think about shit like that, though. Keep a lid on things like a fucking professional.
Doesn’t mean he’s gonna stop interacting with Luna, though. Fuck that.
“You paint flowers a lot,” he notes as casually as he can, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
Luna pauses, glances back at him with a smile that hits his heart like a bolt of lightning.
“Yes, I… I really like flowers. Um. A-any plant, really. Growing things. They’re very soothing.”
Only when she turns back to her painting does Dio lift a hand to rub at his chest. The hell is wrong with him, seriously?
Like every-fucking-thing else Luna says, her words stick with him. Dio finds himself thinking about them when he should be doing other things. He burns about five different breakfasts that way before he gives up and decides, like the art supplies, he’s gotta do something about it.
But he’s not going back to Beta. No way in hell.
Not that his other choice is much better.
Hazuki Kashiwabara is a programmer. She’s awful and Dio hates her. The feeling is mutual. Unfortunately, they’ve kind of become friends anyway, out of necessity. There’s no one in the compound better to talk shit about everyone else with. He’s become even more reluctantly fond of her because they both fucking hate the maintenance team.
Dio catches up to Hazuki in a hallway off the main labs, steels himself, and demands a favor.
“Yeah?” she asks, laughs at him a little. “And what the hell do you want from me, hotshot?”
“A—a flower,” he stammers angrily. “A potted plant, I don’t know. Something alive. Growing.”
Hazuki leans forward, studying him a little. Even though his first instinct is to back up, to get more space between them, Dio plants his feet and resists the urge.
“What,” he demands sharply.
Hazuki lifts her shoulder sin a lazy, elegant shrug.
“I’m sure I can find something like that,” she says.
And that’s all. Tension and irritation itch under Dio’s skin – there’s more she isn’t saying, and he wants her to spit it the fuck out already and get it over with. But she doesn’t. Just smiles mysteriously and saunters off down the hall. Ugh. Bitch.
Still, he gets a text that she’s got something for him by the next maintenance checkup. She moves fast, he’ll give her that much. They meet up in the same hallway as before.
“It’s an Echeveria laui,” Hazuki tells him. “A succulent. They’re hardy, difficult to kill. Should be easy to take care of as long as you can get it some sunlight.”
She hands him the little potted plant – its leaves are kind of a dusty purple color, and it’s shaped a little like a rose. Pretty. It reminds him of Luna, and he’s glad about that but also pretty pissed at Hazuki for having him all figured out.
“Thanks,” he tells her, because he’s not a complete fucking philistine.
“And don’t water the plant,” Hazuki adds over her shoulder, already walking off. “Water the soil. Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it.”
If he cradles the plant a little closer to his chest than he has to, well, fuck it, no one’s there to see him.
Though Dio’s head swirls with stupid fantasies of presenting the little succulent directly to Luna – like an offering, like a gift – he knows them for the idiocy they are. Nothing ever goes to plan in real life, and he doesn’t like explaining himself. So he sets it on the low coffee table and leaves it there without a word.
That evening, he catches Luna stroking its leaves with a single fingertip, careful and tender.
Maybe he smiles about it, but there’s nobody to catch him at it.
According to Marcus, the maintenance team is recording a higher efficiency in Luna’s transmissions since Dio started guard duty. Dio gets commendations for it, not that they mean anything. When he offers that letting her paint and take care of a plant seems to help, though, the GAULEM suite fills with art supplies and more succulents on fucking command. So at least someone’s getting something out of it.
Still, it’s irritating that they’re all so fucking shocked about it.
Turns out that, just like any human, the sentient robot that’s the cornerstone of the company works better when happy, Dio thinks to himself scathingly. Who’d’ve thought?
The fact that no one before him cared enough to find out – or didn’t even consider Luna capable of happiness in the first place – burns him up. But he’s here now, and unlike the others he’s not a fucking idiot.
Things continue in about the same manner — and Luna smiles more every day. It’s not boring, because he’s not bored. Not in Luna’s company. But it is quiet, and peaceful, and he sort of… Acclimatizes to that.
And then the break-in happens.
There’s hardly a fucking warning at all. No alarms, no crashes, no shattering glass. Just the click of the lock. It’s night. Normally, Dio would be in bed, but it was just his fucking luck he’d woken from a dream earlier and wasn’t keen on going back to bed. Not a nightmare, because he never had nightmares anymore, but…
Dreaming about holding a hand in yours was downright fucking uncomfortable. Left clones just weren’t built for romance, or affection or… Whatever. A dream like that is troubling. And there’s no one he can tell about it. He’s still struggling with the thought, which is probably how the intruders manage to make it all the way into the room before he sees them.
They’re both dressed in black – a man and a woman – and Dio knows what they are immediately. Assassins. None have ever made it this far into the compound, but he’s heard stories. Crash Keys operatives that want to destroy the GAULEM and steal the codes it contains. It had been a danger before, but now that Dio knows what a GAULEM really is, now that he knows Luna, the idea is fucking chilling.
“Hey!” he snaps, losing the element of surprise but disrupting them from their search for Luna.
The girl is closer, so Dio grabs for her first, crushing her wrist in a tight grip to yank her closer. She lashes out with her other hand, but it’s not like Dio’s a fucking amateur, and he catches that one too. That means Dio doesn’t exactly have any hands left to deal with the other assassin – so he kills two birds with one stone and flings the woman into her partner. They knock over an armchair with a crash.
“… Dio…? I-is everything ok?”
They might be a little dazed, but the assassins are between Dio and Luna. He lunges at them, throws a fist. The man shifts to dodge out of the way, but gets clipped on the cheek. Not hard enough to break anything or knock him back on his ass, but probably enough to bruise. Not that it’s much consolation when he gets clubbed in the head with something heavy and sharp – whatever tool they’re planning to use against Luna, probably. The crack of it against his temple stuns him for a moment, but then – even when the pain and the heat and the wetness of blood streaming down the side of his face – his anger, desperation, pushes him forward into a frenzy.
The guy is smallish, but he’s a scrappy fucker and he doesn’t bother trying to dodge again, just ducks in close, takes the hits to his face and chest, and punches Dio right in the throat. The blow is strong, knocks Dio a few steps back into the wall, where he crumples into a heap, wheezing. For fuck’s sake, he growls at himself, but there are black spots flickering across his vision and each breath is a struggle.
There’s a loud crackle, and then sudden, chilling silence. The whole world stops, and a roaring fills Dio’s ears. He’s still blinking spots out of his eyes, so he can’t see what happened, but he can guess. Grabbing at the wall for purchase, he stumbles to his feet. Finally, past the blood and the dizziness, he can make out the scene. The two of them are bent over Luna.
Reaching down to grab her, to pick her up.
He should have been able to fight them off, but he wasn’t. Still. There’s one last thing he can do. Because the wall he’d hit is the one with a carefully hidden slide panel in it, one with a big red button underneath.
Dio slams a hand on the alarm button, and sirens begin to wail. Red bulbs flash overhead, casting the whole scene in bloody light.
“Shit!” hisses one of the assassins.
He snatches his partner by the sleeve and darts for the door.
“No!” she protests, dragging her heels. “The GAULEM!”
And then they’re gone, out the door. Dio hopes they’ll be caught, but if they made it this far into the compound without detection, they can probably slip back out too even with the alarm. It doesn’t matter. There’s something more important to worry about. Luna, collapsed on the floor, utterly still.
Blood still dripping down his face, Dio stumbles his way over to her, slumps down onto his knees to feel for a pulse. Luna doesn’t have a flesh and blood heart, but she does have a mechanical equivalent – something to pump the ABT fluid through her system. The pulse, usually stable and fixed, is thready and fast under Dio’s fingers.
She doesn’t stir, even at the expletive. Whatever those Crash Key bastards did to her, it’s knocked her out cold. It’s several minutes’ struggle to get her into his arms – her body is heavy with steel and machinery – but he does it. Gets her laid out on the bed. But after that, he doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know if there’s anything he can do.
The ten minutes until she wakes up are an eternity, but finally Luna opens her eyes. It’s not a relief, though, because she doesn’t look well. Something’s still wrong.
“What… What’d they do to you?” Dio asks, even though he isn’t sure he wants the answer.
“A virus,” she says weakly, pushing a strand of orange hair out of her eyes. “It’s… Powerful. Fast-moving. I-I… I think it’s designed to release the cybertreatment codes, o-onto the internet.”
Dio doesn’t give a shit about the codes. Like she’s a sick kid, he puts his hand to her forehead.
“But what about you? Once the codes are out there, once it’s done, it’ll go away?”
“… No. I don’t think so,” she tells him.
Though her skin tends to run cool, her forehead is hot beneath his hand and pale with ABT fluid. Her mechanical systems are overheating as they try to overpower the virus, to hold it at bay, the way a human’s immune system runs a fever to burn out sickness. He’s never seen Luna so humanly vulnerable, and it’s terrifying.
“You’re dying,” he realizes blankly, and his whole chest goes cold.
“I was never really alive, Dio. It’s ok.”
“The hell it is! How— how long do you have?”
Luna closes her eyes, hums a little the way she does when she’s processing something.
“Twenty-three hours, thirty-five minutes, six seconds,” she murmurs.
“Shit.” Dio sits back, takes a shuddering breath and rakes his fingers through his hair. “Shit. Ok. The maintenance team will be here soon. They can fix this. Just… Stay there.”
He wants to stay by her side, but like fuck his freaking out is gonna help her any. He moves out to the parlor to wait for the maintenance team and tries to pace his frustration away.
When they arrive, the tightness in his chest eases for about all of the five minutes it takes them to decide on a course of action. A fucking unacceptable course of action – to transfer Luna’s database over to a new GAULEM and let the fucking virus run its course. Let it fucking kill her, like the stupid database is all that’s important about her.
“Why can’t you just fix her?” Dio demands.
Marcus shakes his head with an almost pitying look on his face, and Dio has never wanted to punch him more.
“Why should we bother? I understand that this was your assignment, Dio, but there are other GAULEMs, and they will serve Cradle Pharmaceutical’s needs equally as well as GTF-DM-L-016 has. They’re all the same, these machines.”
They’re not. There’s no way they are, because Luna has feelings and desires and memories that are hers alone. But Dio’s anger is so thick in his throat that it chokes him and all he can do is nod. It prompts Marcus to clap him on the shoulder, and then heads out the door with the rest of the maintenance team. The door closes with a quiet click, but to Dio it might as well have been slammed.
Digging his hands into his hair, he hisses an angry breath out through his teeth.
They’ll all be back in twenty minutes, once the new GAULEM has been removed from the vault and the machines are ready. The seconds itch under Dio’s skin as they pass. Luna, on the other hand, looks as serene as always. She has less than half an hour of existence left and she’s spending it sitting in a chair and waiting patiently to die. Dio’s hands begin to shake and he clenches them into fists.
No. No, fuck that.
Maybe she’s willing to die, or thinks she has to, but Dio knows better. Cradle Pharma is in it for themselves. And normally Dio had been fine with that, with the status quo. But it’s not just about him anymore, it’s about her. And letting Luna die doesn’t benefit anyone except Cradle. So fuck them. He’s doing what’s best for him instead.
Luna’s reaching out a hand, concerned, but though her fingertips are only a few inches from his arm she doesn’t close the gap between them.
“We’re leaving,” he snaps. “We’re getting you the hell out of here. If they just want to let you die, then fuck them.”
“Dio, it— it doesn’t matter. Even if we left, neither of us can stop the virus.”
They can’t. She’s right. But the bones of a plan are starting to coalesce in Dio’s mind and anything is better than just giving up.
“No,” he says, taking her hand in his, “but I know who can.”