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Turn But Don't Break

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If only Signas didn’t order her to recharge early today or else Alia wouldn’t have come across him.

Processor dangerously at the brink of short-circuiting, it takes everything for Alia to keep her stiff legs from wobbling as she walks to the elevators because she’s a professional. So what if she spent the past fourteen hours in front of the operating console and her lower half has gone creaky from maintaining her position for what’s far too long to be healthy; it’s nothing a quick E-Tank can fix.

That’s what she was thinking until the elevator doors slide open and she freezes at the first reploid that comes out.

She knows this reploid.

Long and straight pale blue hair tucked underneath a bluntly bladed helmet. Dark navy blue armor with white and golden accents and wrists locked together in shock cuffs. It’s a prisoner escort with Captain X and members of the Seventeenth Unit being the armed attendants, but the prisoner’s amused lips shatters the picture of humility.

“Well well well,” quips Dynamo, his sharp eyes lighting up underneath his red visor. He makes an exaggerated show of looking around the hallways around Alia before looking at Navigator again with a smirk. “So this is where you disappeared to? What a downgrade, doc. It doesn’t suit a beauty like you,” he winks flirtatiously.

Oh smelt me, thinks Alia distantly as she feels her core dropping into her tank.

“Alia, you know him?” asks X, his widened eyes indicating his surprise.

“No,” she answers automatically. “I don’t.”

“Oof! Pretending not to know me when we go way back?” whines Dynamo, the effect dampened by his rust-eating grin. “You wound me.”

“As in I don’t know him that well,” Alia hastily rephrases, eyes stubbornly trained on X’s as if by firmly ignoring Dynamo’s presence will make him disappear. “I’ve seen him around my previous workplace a couple of times. We’re acquaintances at best.”

“Darling, you’re talented with a lot of things, but lying ain’t one of them,” laughs Dynamo. “Unless grinding gears in the janitor closet is what you do with all your ‘acquaintances’ – “

“Yes, it is,” Alia lies without a second thought – willing to say anything to shut the other reploid up. Dynamo does clamp up, eyes widening incrementally and Alia is too tired, too scared of more worse consequences than how her coworkers will see her from now – just too much of everything right now. She deliberately scans the arrested reploid up and down, and says flippantly, ” I’d ask what mess you’ve gotten yourself into, but I care more about getting a recharge in. Now if you excuse me gentlemen, I’ll be going.

She’s about to politely side step around the entourage when Dynamo suddenly leans over, blowing into her aural cone when she comes close and she jumps, slapping a hand over the side of her face as if struck. Dynamo gets hauled forcibly back into place by the guards, laughing at Alia’s crimson reaction like he received a trophy.

“Just can’t help myself!” he calls unapologetically – that jerk! - over the Hunters’ squawking as Alia nearly stumbles in her galvanized rush to the elevators. She presses the close button with more strength than needed, her power distributors thrumming during the entire ride to her floor and her walk back to her personal quarters.

Even when the door slides behind her, the blonde reploid doesn’t relax. She mechanically crosses to the other side of her room and picks up the modest watering can sitting on the window ledge. She dips the nose into her beloved calathea, the only house plant she keeps.

As Alia watches the soil turn a deeper shade of brown, her free hand balls into a fist by her side. Before she came to the Hunters for her first day on the job, she was about to stride past a flower shop when she unintentionally overheard the shopkeeper explaining what calatheas symbolized to the customer.

Despite her general disinterest in botany, Alia couldn’t help but buy one herself.

She gingerly fingers one cheerfully green leaf, twisting its rubbery petiole until it’s nearly flipped over before letting it go before it can tear.

Alia is part cold with low-ribbed anxiety and panic, part hot with embarrassment and a familiar desire from kinder times, and all fluttering up and down as if all her wires are knitting into tight knots.

She screws her eyes shut.

Among any of her past ghosts to reach her in the Hunters, it had to be Dynamo.

It’s only a coincidence. We don’t…we don’t mean anything to each other anymore. No, we never did in the first place.

A thoroughly exhausted, recharge-deprived Alia reaches a hand to her face and stomps down the urge to scream.    

 


 

Even though the human police have loaned a couple of their operators to the Hunters, it’s not enough. The human operators work in shorter shifts and the newly enlisted rookies still need to be taught and delegated. Amongst them are even fewer data-combers with the potential to become legitimate Navigators, but the rest can only stop to PSAP status.

Which ultimately leaves Alia as one of the few Senior Navigators who can effectively juggle multiple troops and Units. In fact, she’s the best.

Alia is the most competent and productive operator ever – the only one severely aware how bad the Hunters’ state is right now. So many Navigators were lost during the previous war and the Hunters are still reeling from the aftermath. The Council is still debating whether the Maverick Hunters are worth the trouble to bother tossing a budget for a new line of reploids to enter the forces, and no one outside of the Hunters is eager to take up the newly emptied job positions when they know how they got emptied in the first place. Alia is willing to go through an entire week with barely six hours of full recharge (absolutely ridiculous and extremely unhealthy, fritz, she knows) because she understands the Hunters don’t have options.

Basically, the Hunters need her. She’s not expendable. They won’t…no, they can’t afford to lose her.

…Except the Maverick Hunters doesn’t spare anyone from their judgment and execution once they issue their sentence. Wasn’t Sigma’s Rebellion basically a civil war? Oh bolts, Alia can’t risk relying on her reliability to be forgiven if anyone finds out what she did.

Dynamo is undeniably a threat to her new life.

This is becoming unbearably stressful, Alia thinks darkly, huffing an exvent through her nose as she sits back into her desk chair. It would be so much easier to just make him disa –

It’s honestly just a stray thought. Careless. Anyone else can make that thought with less concern.

But Alia isn’t just anyone and so she’s struck with a crashing wave of remorse that hurts so bad it nearly chokes her. Her nimble and elegant hands are frozen above her keyboard and she wrenches her eyes shut. A noise born from a deep well of self-targeted frustration and regret strangles past her clenched teeth.

“I’m not a Maverick,” she whispers out to no one with a tremor. “I’m here now.”

Here with the Maverick Hunters who are good, courageous people who endlessly fight for a better, safer world. People who don’t compromise morality to complete directives or see the next reploid as a test subject. People who don’t engage in toxic competition and stomp each other down out of petty jealousy or social-scientific curiosity.

And Alia belongs to the Maverick Hunters. If she’s not a good person then she’s at least a better person than before.

This is why she didn’t want to see Dynamo. She doesn’t want to remember. She doesn’t want her past to catch up with her, doesn’t want any of her new friends to view her as someone horrible who deserves to be terminated - 

Calm down. Stop being needlessly emotional for one second and assess. Damage control and working with whatever any given, awful set of circumstances is basically your primary directive. Besides, if he mentions anything, it’ll look like a poor attempt for distraction especially since he has nothing to show for it.

Because if there’s one thing Alia is certain about is that she had personally removed any digital paper trail connecting her to the old research team. Anyone from her past, dead or alive, can say anything about her and have very little evidence to back it. 

The former scientist continues perusing through Dynamo’s profile within the Maverick Hunters’ databanks, the soft blue glow of her computer reflecting on her features. The more she scrolls down, the deeper her frown grows.

His profile isn’t fleshed out.  

The Dynamo she knew was an underground “courier.” He delivered everything from illegal weapons to custom parts lifted off from fallen reploids who Alia still isn’t sure up to this day if he’s involved with anything behind them. 

But the Maverick Hunters basically have Dynamo categorized as a petty informant who may have conducted business with the wrong crowd but nothing's solid - which means the Hunters don’t know exactly who they’re dealing with. The latest report lists him as a bystander when the Elite Unit raided the Orprov Building down in Sector South-24 at Narpithe and Eighteenth.

Apparently Dynamo came with the Hunters instead of…well, run away. Letting anyone tie him down, metaphorically or literally, without a struggle is so uncharacteristic of him.

Maybe he changed?

Alia briefly recalls the whimsical mercenary blowing into her aural cone earlier and grimaces.

Not likely.

Alia finds herself mindlessly playing a strand of her hair, spilled over her aural cone from her usually uptight bun and stills. She pulls down her hand as if burned, cursing quietly.

I don’t care about him. She bites her bottom lip. Not one bit.  

Alia has come way too far to let someone like Dynamo ruin this for her. He’s just someone she used to know, just like Gate and the rest of the team. They’re behind her. Chances are, Dynamo will give the Hunters what they want (or not, it’s not her business) and Alia will probably never see him ever again.

She tells this to herself over and over again until dawn peeks through her window.  

 


 

Sometimes Alia wishes she’s simple like a mechaniloid.

Mechaniloids exist to have a directive and execute it. They don’t have emotions and fatigue and all the other tedious complications that higher thinking people have to ache their day-to-day functioning.

And if they do anything wrong, it’s because of faulty programming, faulty orders, or faulty components. They’re purely innocent in any wrong they make.

So yes, Alia wants to be a mech because it’s already hard enough to be strenuously working with little sleep these days; she would rather go without the wholly unnecessary paranoia to sit on top of the albatross.

The next couple of days pass with little incident. No one has asked her questions, has summoned her to the Commander’s office or the questioning room, or requested her anything outside of her usual workload. Alia was beginning to let herself have an exvent of relief.

Then it flies out of the window of a high-rise and shatters at the bottom.

It starts one afternoon with the Seventeenth Unit Leader quietly calling for the Senior Navigator from the side of her console. Alia mouths,” One moment” to X, taking a quick survey to the Units under her care.

Hazard Unit and Ranger Unit are en-route smoothly. The Armored Unit is nearly completed setting up the defense perimeters at the energen mines and the Recon Unit is proceeding smoothly into the next stage of their operations. Alia can take a step back for now.

She tugs down her headset and faces X, indicating that he has her undivided attention.

The android in question is squirming, appearing suspiciously shy for someone who personally offlined a staggering number of Mavericks by himself.

“Dynamo insists that he’ll only share what he knows if it’s with you,” X says finally.

It takes everything then and there to not demand what Dynamo has told him. The part of Alia that’s not spiraling down to panic, still running on higher cognitive functions, clinically notes that whatever Dynamo may have insinuated, it mustn’t have been much or else they’d be having a completely different conversation now.

Alia wrenches back a frustrated cry. Is it really too smelting much for wanting to start over?

Adopting a clinical tone she uses for panicking Hunters and reploids she operated on to force her core to calm down, Alia begins slowly. ”And exactly, what did he say to give you an idea that we’re anything close?”

Somehow, X pulls off a paradoxical expression that teeters between bashful amusement and an exasperated grimace. “Not much. He said he’s tired of seeing serious and boring Hunters all day and would rather talk to the most gorgeous gal in this building. His words, not mine,” X tacks at the end like an afterthought.

Alia had expected to hear anything but a passed on flirt and the reaction is immediate. Heat blooms across her cheeks, any of the articulate responses she had prepared for a thousand worst case scenarios tumble out in graceless spluttering and oh smelt her, this is completely unprofessional.

The blonde buries her face in her hands, barely suppressing a low moan. She’s trying, she’s really, really trying to be a better person and doesn’t that count for something? Doesn’t she deserve to not get her circuits fried like this?

Ugh, Dynamo isn’t even here in person and he’s still causing her processor to go fritzing haywire!

“This must be very uncomfortable for you,” says X apologetically.

“That’s an understatement,” Alia can’t help but reply, her voice muffled behind her fingers.

“I’m sorry that I have to ask this of you.”

“I can’t - ” Alia swallows, didn’t mean to respond - but even though they’re speaking in hushed tones, surrounded by the rest of the Command Center, everyone else immersed in their own individual tasks, there’s this yawning silence and she can’t take it. She crumbles with a sigh. “I can’t fault you for carrying out your job,” she finishes, tone tainted bitter.

“Still…no one wants to deal with their ex.”

My what?

Alia parts two fingers into a V over one eye, staring incredulously at X whose gaze is one of understanding, but for all the wrong reasons.

“My ex.” Alia says flatly because seriously, what? Dynamo is a lot of things, but an ex is not one of them.

(Because being exes implies what they had was real and that was never the case. Dynamo isn’t committed to anyone else but himself and anything that serves that. Alia isn’t going to make that mistake ever again.)

X turns sheepish. “Dynamo may have let that slip.”

“He’s a former acquaintance,” Alia emphasizes in what she hopes to come across as cool, but sounds dangerously close to a weak denial. “He was one of the many delivery reploids who would drop off raw materials at my old factory. He came frequently enough that I invested some drive space to remember his name. That’s it.”

X’s doesn’t look convinced at all. If anything, he looks more sympathetic and Alia can’t blame him. She’s painting herself further as some scorned, past lover and rust it, fine. Fritzing fine. If that’s the story that Dynamo is selling and everyone else is buying it, so be it. Overall, it’s a better alternative even if it’s absolutely mortifying and Alia wants to crawl inside her recharge tube and never come out.

“Your factory…Alcore Industries, right? Specifically the Bethany Avenue branch,” says X slowly. “I’m sorry for what happened to it.”

Oh, so that’s what X is feeling sorry about.

Alia wrote down that location in her resume precisely because it went up in flames right when her lab crumbled down. The timing was coincidental and useful.

Also, people tend to not dig any deeper into tragedy, which suited Alia’s needs perfectly.

Right now it’s only making her feel worse, reminding her of how many layers of lies and omissions she has holed herself into. She looks away, a gesture that can be read as being upset from an outsider’s perspective when really, she can’t look at X’s sincerity for this blatant lie.

After a while, X speaks up again. “Anyways, that was Dynamo’s request for opening up. I know you probably don’t want to deal with him and that’s why it’ll mean so much if you do.”

Rubbed acid, Alia says coolly, “He’s detained. Accommodating to his fake comforts is an impediment. Why don’t you force the answers out of him? Isn’t this an obstruction to justice?”

“Not exactly. The only crime we can really pin on him is that he’s affiliated with some bad bots. He does have the right to remain silent. Unless…has he done something that you know of, Alia?”

Oh fritz.

This is why this Dynamo’s presence is dangerous.

“Not at all. I know programming, but I’m not as well-versed with law. My apologies, sir.”  

Alia mentally backpedals, filled with remorse again. Dynamo is registered in the gray area between an oblivious accomplice and a low class criminal in the Hunters’ database. He hasn’t done anything that qualifies him to be termination-worthy in the Hunter’s eyes. He’s redeemable.

Alia blinks, reprocessing.

“The reason you want me to talk to him…are you trying to give him an opportunity to join us?” she asks with some incredulity.

X nods with a small smile. “I think that some kindness and persuasion can go a long way over than command.  It may seem naïve considering everything we’ve gone through…but I’ve given other people second chances before and they’ve worked out.”

Like Zero, the former insane Maverick turned amnesiac.

Of course. If the Hunters have given the Red Ripper a second chance, then isn’t it only reasonable they’d give others a chance too? Alia’s no longer in the lab anymore. She’s surrounded by decent people for once. She’s allowed to have some faith in the reploids around her.

Second chances. What would Dynamo do if he’s presented with one?

Honestly, all Alia can come up with is a blank. Dynamo doesn’t seem to be the regretful type. The mercenary has the distractively shininess, slipperiness and integrity of liquid mercury. Goes with the flow like one too. He’s all cool and suave, money and self-preservation the only two concepts he allows to be wholly committed to. He can literally say and do whatever he wants without caring if it nukes a town as long as he’s not there to be involved with the fallout.

Rust, retrospectively fooling around with Dynamo is a pile of bad decisions.

Personally, Alia thinks that Dynamo hasn’t changed. Well. Who knows since they haven’t seen each other for a while, and it’s not like Alia was originally keeping close tabs on him anyway.

But maybe he wants an opportunity. Needs it perhaps. Could be the reason he came into the Hunters quietly.

“…can take your place as Navigator while you head to the questioning room?” finishes X.

Scrap, she wasn’t following.

Quickly replaying what the audio logs her aural cones processed, Alia hesitates. She glances back to her operator console and back to X.

The mercenary wants to see her and Alia wants to confirm where Dynamo is coming from; there’s really only one way to do this.

“This kind of fieldwork is not within my list of primary directives. I’m an operator and an equipment development researcher, not an interrogator. I can’t say how effective I’ll be handling him.”

“It’ll be better than me. For one, he likes you.”

Alia forces an exvent out of her nose. “Okay. What do you need to get out of Dynamo?”

“Anything he can tell us about the White Sarkits, but since he’s an informant…everything he knows.”

Five minutes later after receiving a rundown, Alia is on her way to the detention wing.