Actions

Work Header

Bildungsroman

Chapter Text

Welcome to Bildungsroman, Part 2 of A Devil Walks the Dragonsphere, and a direct continuation of Innocent Faith.

If you're here after finishing Innocent Faith, thanks for coming along for the ride, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this corner we've turned. If you're here and you didn't read Innocent Faith, here's a little mv I did, which will also double as a preview of things to come: 

DMCV x Draken-nier

I did a lot of world-building in Innocent Faith that's going to be coming back here, so I do suggest a read

Fluff, bonding, lore diving, and idyllic pacing with minimal conflict aren't really your thing, you say? You’re here for the tags on this fic? Read chapters 40-45 and you’ll have the meat of what’s happening.

Here’s an abridged version of the rest so you know what’s up:

V awoke on the sinking coastline City Ruins with only a faint memory of Vergil fighting Dante in Hell Post-DMCV. Griffon et al were also mysteriously restored. 9S was waiting to die on a rock after being saved from the logic virus and the fall of the Tower by A2 a la the Route C ending.

Under the impression that V is a human witch whose family hunts demons, 9S has been assisting V's search for any way to get back home. They've been lying low, keeping his presence mostly hidden from other androids and never once actually telling anyone else he's human. All the while they’ve been going through the Pod archives looking for clues on inter-dimensional travel.

Along the way, a few important things happened:

  • Atmospheric remains of maso were found to be keeping V's body from deteriorating.
  • V heard the call of the Queen Beast, found a church to the watchers out in the Forest kingdom, and contracted White Chlorination Syndrome.
    • He was just enough of a demon to live despite refusing the pact deal.
  • 9S found out the hard way that normal androids have very split opinions of YoRHa (read: of him) now that the truth is out there.
    • Their reactions have ranged from brotherly protection to choking him out against a cliff.
  • The pods decided that the presence of a human didn't change the nature of their final orders.
  • New Pascal signed a Treaty between Peaceful Machines and the Army of Humanity.
  • A Commander in the Army of Humanity, named Theta, has taken an interest in 9S.
  • 9S met god. God was a remnant of Beepy searching for the name of the one who gave him will [Kalil]. 9S helped him find it, and in the process he absorbed the memory of Beepy’s death.
    • He knows Emil was with ‘The Original’ (Nier), but he’s more interested in the woman because of her resemblance to Theta.
  • The resistance members have been digging through the remains of the Tower. So far they've found 2B's sword (returned to 9S), A2 (buried by Anemone), and Devola and Popola's bodies (buried at sea by 9S).
    • They also found a backup of the entire machine network on a chunk of memory alloy the size of a tree.
      • Jackass asked for 9S’ help scanning it and he soundly refused.
    • Nelo Angelo's sword turned up. It had some data on it that pissed him off enough to make him DT.
      • His body couldn't handle the DT and he burnt down a sector of the amusement part.
      • He also vomited salt, suggesting that he very much still has White Chlorination Syndrome
        • 9S knows and V knows, but neither of them know that the other knows.
      • An unknown YoRHa model rescued V from the fire he caused. They seem aware that V isn't an android.
      • Pod 042 trusted V with the knowledge of the Pod's final protocol and asked for help freeing 9S from his fate.

 

This fic will formally kick off in November, so bookmark it and forget about it and I'll see you then!

Chapter Text

Isolation and silence were the keepers of this world. They walked hand in hand in the ruins under a sun that never yielded to the horizon, their combined presence never truly out of reach. The illusion of twilight cast by the cotton candy lights onto the gloomy clouds and the deep, angular shadows of the park’s castle were only distractions. The pops of fireworks and the eternal merriment of the machines mere flames to ward them off as though they were wolves in the dark. Whether the sparrows sang, or the doves cooed, or the gulls cried, they were always just beyond. Implacable and so omnipresent that they had no need of patience or haste.

V had known both isolation and silence too well for too long to be unsettled by their company, but even he could not pretend the ruins had no effect on him. As a child, his mother’s mystifying words on the subject of the witching hour had fascinated him as much as they sometimes frightened him.  He knew the practical meaning of her words now: of magic and hell and the darkness that swelled their power. It was the more cryptic, more human meanings that lingered with him recently.

When all hours were the same, any hour could be the soul’s hour. Humanity’s last ghost was timeless now and the only ones left to perceive it were all mechanical, and all fretting over their collectively inhuman condition in broad daylight.

It amused V without end that 9S still chose 3AM, the traditional hour, as the perfect time to check in.

He sat atop the highest hill of the roller coaster tracks watching the fog roll in from the sea and curl around the city like a cat. Griffon huddled at his back, warm and solid against the whisper of an early spring breeze. On the other side of Pod 042’s projection, 9S perched on a rocky outcrop coated in spongy moss. The white katana crossed his chest and leaned over his shoulder in the same way V let his cane rest when he sat.

“You must be bored.”

9S sighed and rubbed at the back of his head. “I think I’ve cataloged everything Emil has in here at this point.”

Behind V, Griffon shuffled. “How d’you lose a singing head in a truck when it makes so much noise?”

“I don’t know. He’s not usually this hard to find.”

V tilted the screen, but it didn’t show anything more of the cluttered hut in the background. What he saw came from Pod 153’s side. It still quietly mystified him that Emil bothered to have a home.

“Are you sure you don’t need new gloves?”

His hands had partially obscured Pod 042 camera, and he lowered them. Only a few days ago, he might have taken 9S up on the proposition. Now they radiated comfortable warmth in spite of the cold wind. It wouldn’t be much longer until they were uncomfortably warm. The flashes of his childhood were back and growing more intense by the day. They flickered through his mind like light bouncing off the gray waves. Portentous smoke before the fire of his new power escaped him again.

“I’m alright.” It was more of a wishful thought than a lie.

9S mouth twitched in what V knew to be skepticism, but he gracefully left the subject alone. “Did you manage to make contact yet?”

“No,” said V. “But I expect that to change today.”

“You do? What’s so different today?”

“I left a snare, and I expect my quarry will be in it when I return.”

9S tilted his head. “That… doesn’t really seem like your style if I’m honest.”

It wasn’t, but the state of that shack, the continued elusiveness of the other YoRHa, and the encroaching of his symptoms called for some creativity. “Physical combat is not the style of a scanner, yet there you are.” He shrugged. “Necessity compels.”

9S’ brows flinched and settled into puzzlement—as though he was hurt but didn’t understand why.


 

Though he didn’t know them yet, one week of their uninterrupted care told V everything he cared to know about the one who had rescued him—and much more that he would rather not have known.

One: They learned quickly.

By the second day, salt and oil and rusty metal odor of the ocean began to be a pleasant change of pace from the overwhelming scent of oranges and he threw every single one away. They fetched more, cracked and shriveled and stinking of fermented sugar so far beyond their season, and he threw those away too. No more oranges followed.

Two: They were tenaciously attentive to what pleased him.

When he insisted on bringing the mattress Pod had dragged him through the streets on, they shoved the animal pelts into a closet. When he pulled out one of the white ones by chance, three more just like it showed up.

Three: Their focus was narrow enough that they tended to miss the forest for the trees.

Despite their quick pattern recognition, they failed with increasing doggedness to absorb the matter of the food. Every day there was a new offering, and every day it was a little stranger. Boar meat then moose meat then rabbit and dove and rat, then an assortment of fish that ranged from the familiar carp to two different species of two-headed fish equal in their appetite-curdling ugliness. They even left an entire swordfish glistening from a hook.

V never ate a single thing. The carcasses invariably rotted in the surf after Shadow and Griffon picked over them.

Four: They were well beyond meticulous and fully into the territory of obsessive.

9S’ desire to see V well had always been tempered by his diligent pursuit of information and ever-evolving understanding of a human’s needs. This unit was different. The food offered to him by this unit was different. The space they prepared for him was different.

Perfectionism radiated from every carefully arranged object, every meticulously flayed animal. It was the exact opposite of the feeling he got when he stood in the too-bare buildings crafted by machines. The arrangement of the space was too accurate. They didn’t make it appear merely home-like; they took pains to make it appear lived in.

The chairs always tilted just so it looked like someone had stood up without pushing it back in. Moldy books whose inks had long since faded stacked on the table, but never at the center, and always one or two were laid open as though someone had just stepped away. Clay cups pieced together from resin and shattered stacked near the fireplace. Always, one sat on some surface filled with filthy seawater. They had, on one occasion, taken the water from one of his bottles and left it uncorked next to one of these cups, presumably to signify that it was V’s own water in the cup and fine for him to drink. He never did.

Five: They still viewed humanity—him—as god.

Every single meticulous detail in the shack had the hallowed aura of incense and candles burning under the arches of a church, an open invitation to the presence of the divine. In this case: his presence. The more he refused to accept these sacrifices, the more painstaking they became.

How fortunate, V thought, that such a faithless android as 9S was the first to find him.

Today he opened the door to a more genuine tableau of disarray. The metal bench covered in pelts had been knocked over, the moth-ravaged and thoroughly threadbare rug was bunched up and askew, and a single wriggling starfish laid dead center on the floor. Just a few feet away, an obscured face tilted up at him from beneath a cloak encrusted in grease and grime. All backlit by a fire that wasn’t on when he’d left.

V walked right by her, shrugged off his coat, and held out his hand to the amorphous ichor binding his guest in place. A disembodied feline snout nudged his fingertips, and he rewarded it with a scratch on its chin.

“I had hoped I wouldn’t need to lay a trap in order for us to meet.” He perched upon the upturned bench and planted the cane between his feet and their face. “You know what I am?”

They nodded slowly and answered in a voice so garbled by static and feedback that it lacked any discernable masculine or feminine tone. “You’re human. And…something else.”

“Do you insist on answers as circuitous as the path to this meeting?”

“I-I’m sorry,” they said a tinny, static-filled tremor. “I don’t know what you mean.”

He hooked his cane under their chin and peeled their cheek from the floor. Wide, glazed eyes stared from behind over-grown hair. “Why did you have a golden orb if you didn’t understand my full nature?”

“Orb?”

He rolled his eyes. “The golden diamond you sat on the oranges.”

“Oh, that. I don’t know, it—it felt like you. I thought you might…like it.”

His skin crawled with the darker possibilities of what that could have meant. Practically, it had to refer to the magic and some sense that this unit had for it, which comforted him less than he’d hoped. It meant they had been close enough to get a feel for his magic well before he lost control of it.

“On your feet.”

They wiggled within Shadow’s loosened grip and managed to teeter into an upright position. A flick of his cane pulled the grimy hood down and revealed a wave of bright red hair and a feminine face with golden eyes. One she whipped her face away from him to hide.

“Look at me.”

“But I’m—You hate dirty things and I—”

He pressed the cane under her chin enough to force her jaw closed and deftly maneuvered her face toward his. Beneath caked on layers of blood and what appeared to be crude oil was a pale complexion and an unfamiliar face. Despite her reticence, she didn’t resist. Her mouth hung slightly ajar and her glossy-eyed gaze was transfixed on him. The golden color of her eyes was only a trick of the fire. At that range, they were a familiar blue-gray.

“Your name.”

Her gaze dropped. “I don’t remember...”

“A lie is less convincing when you can’t look me in the eye.”

“I’m not lying!” She strained forward against Shadow’s grip violently enough to toss the greasy clumps of her hair. “I wouldn’t lie to you!”

“That does simplify things.” He leaned back, absently wiping his cane off on the pelts. “I’m looking for another orb. Where did you find the first one?”

“The…” She swallowed. “The ravine. But there’s something going on down there. Something dangerous.”

“That has never deterred me in the past. Besides.” He grinned. “You will be accompanying me.”

Her shoulders hiked and she scurried backward, as far as Shadow’s tether would allow her. “M-me?! Nononono, I—you should go with that boy, he’ll be better--” She paused. Her eyes wandered searchingly up to his, only to veer off above them. “Or is he not… with you anymore?”

“He is attending to his own business.”

Her energy changed. “What business could he have!? He just LEFT you?!”

She strained against Shadow’s bindings like a chained tiger. He could hear some system just beneath her skin sizzling. As her agitation increased, the audio quality of her muttering diminished until V could barely understand her. He didn’t need to. The venom she spewed at the concept that an android had neglected to put V above other matters didn’t need words to make itself known.

“Control yourself. I sent him away.”

She stopped as suddenly as she’d started. “You…sent him away.” Her expression blanked and her eyes grew wide. “So you could… meet me?”

“Correct.”

“You wanted to meet me… You wanted to meet me…!” She spilled to the floor like an undone spool of thread. “And—oh, but I’m… I shouldn’t be anywhere near you. I’m damaged. At least that kid is…he’s YoRHa, isn’t he? The only one left. Just like you. He’s special.” She bit her lip, and her voice lowered to a sullen growl. “One of a kind.”

“He didn’t find the orb,” V said tolerantly. “You did. Which is why I have gone to such lengths to meet with you. You’re an android. You can be repaired.”

“I haven’t been back to the resistance camp in a long time—they might think I defected.”

“I did not mention the camp.” He snapped his fingers and Shadow vanished back into his tattoos. “Pod will see that you are in working order.”

She shuffled slightly neither forward nor backward as if she couldn’t decide if she wanted more to be close to V or out of Pod’s reach. “Will it… really be able to repair me…?”

Pod maintained his silence. Of course he could repair her—she was YoRHa. But like V, he didn’t seem inclined to make her aware of that if she had genuinely forgotten.

“I have need of you, so he will not harm you.”

She laughed in a high, hysterical wave of noise, only to quickly cover her mouth.  Her rapt, unblinking stare hovered just below his eyes. 9S, at the worst of his human-shyness, had the grace to just avert his eyes altogether. This one couldn’t meet his eyes, but also couldn’t just not look at the object of her worship.

She cleared her throat with unnecessary noise and gestured to the bench. “I-I should pick that up. Sorry I—Oh wait, you shouldn’t eat this.” She scooped the sad-looking starfish up and jammed it somewhere in her cloak. “Sorry I made such a mess.”

He stood aside and allowed her to go around busily righting everything that had been knocked around in the scuffle of her capture. She was every bit as precise as he’d gleaned.  Hopefully, that would translate when they were in the ravine.

“What now?” she asked eagerly.

Pod drifted around behind her and lifted her cloak from her shoulders. “PLEASE ASSUME STANDARD REPAIR POSITION ON ANY SURFACE.”

She rubbed at her shoulders, looking almost vulnerable without the disgusting cape to hide in, but she obediently took a stiff resting position across the bench.

A simple white-gold hacking circle appeared around Pod 042, and she went slack. After a few moments, Pod’s voice broke the crackling silence of the fire.

“AH.”

V did a double-take. Pod 042 had adopted a much more natural way of speaking since being hit by the EMP, but he didn’t think it would extend as far as the support unit vocalizing surprise.

“Is something amiss?”

His front face swiveled between the unconscious android and V. “…I HAVE ENCOUNTERED THIS UNIT BEFORE.”

There were only ever a few hundred YoRHa, by V’s understanding. Crossing paths wasn’t unlikely, but Pod’s hesitation suggested something far more elaborate than a chance meeting on the Bunker.

“Go on.”

“AFFIRMATIVE, HOWEVER, I RECOMMEND KEEPING THIS REPORT PRIVATE.”

“That depends on what you tell me.”

“THIS UNIT WAS DISCOVERED WITH AMNESIA ONCE BEFORE. SHE BELIEVED SHE WAS A RESISTANCE MEMBER. UNITS 2B AND 9S ACCEPTED A REQUEST TO FIND THE UNIT WHO KILLED HER FRIEND. IT WAS LATER FOUND THAT SHE WAS A YORHA EXECUTIONER TYPE.”

A memory rushed to the surface. New Year’s Eve. 9S drunk and livid and ranting about the structure of YoRHa while V struggled not to laugh. The haziness of his exact words vanished. Magnified and re-contextualized until they were perfectly clear in V’s mind.

“Models designed to put down deserters…”

“AFFIRMATIVE. THIS UNIT WAS UNABLE TO BEAR THE GUILT OF KILLING UNITS SHE BEFRIENDED AND ERASED HER MEMORIES. SHE HAD REPEATED THIS ACTION MANY TIMES PRIOR TO OUR ENCOUNTER.” Pod’s digits retracted and twitched, as if with discomfort. “THERE IS A VERY HIGH PROBABILITY THAT SHE DID SO AGAIN, WHICH MAY HAVE GIVEN HER SOME FORM OF RESISTANCE AGAINST THE WIDE AREA LOGIC VIRUS.”

V tapped the cane against his chin and circled carefully around her, just out of arm’s reach should she wake. The details of how an android might have survived or avoided the infamous logic virus didn’t concern him. A2 was a run-down prototype and she arguably had greater success at avoiding contamination than 9S. That was enough to know it was possible for units that weren't high-end scanners.

“She took the revelation poorly then.”

“I BELIEVE THE OLD WORLD EXPRESSION FOR IT WAS: ‘LAUGHING MAD’.”

Lying there filthy and broken and unable to cope with her own being, perhaps she might have engendered sympathy from someone else.  To V, her desperate bid to cling to sanity by engaging in insanity was worthy of nothing but contempt.

“Complete your repairs, and seal all records related to her. There is nothing to be gained in revealing her identity to anyone, let alone herself.”

“AFFIRMATIVE. READING IFF CIRCUIT… UNIT IDENTIFIED: YORHA NO. 8, TYPE E. ALL RELATED RECORDS SEALED. HOW WILL YOU DESIGNATE THIS UNIT?”

“I won’t,” V said dismissively. “If she needs a name, let her name herself.”

Chapter Text

In the deepest reaches of the city's caves, a distant ray of sun nourished spongy lichens and highlighted the crooked angles of Emil’s poorly constructed 'house'. A variety of knick-knacks filled and surrounded it; everything from old televisions with the knobs lost to time to electric rice cookers whose cables had frayed off. Way down in dusty bins there were even a few tattered magazines. Including one with humans in varying stages of undress which 9S had immediately closed and elected to forget existed.

If 9S understood Project Snow White project correctly Emil had been human once, but his home was like a more organized version of his truck. It was full of human things but lacking a human touch. Consciously, 9S couldn't quite quantify what that meant, but after observing two different living spaces with V, it manifested as a sense that something was missing. There was no bed or blanket or any evidence of food. Less a shelter and more a storage area for things he'd salvaged to sell. Among so many other things he'd forgotten about himself, what it felt like to be human and have human needs had probably not crossed Emil's mind in thousands of years.

The sun glinted off the gold and black shape of Cruel Oath as 9S turned it. 'Necessity compels', V had said. Masamune’s master made Virtuous Contract and Cruel Oath. They had to have found them on Earth. But 2B never talked about where she got it or why she favored it over a YoRHa blade, and 9S had accepted Cruel Oath as just another unusual part of his already unusual circumstances. Necessity told the practical part of that story; he'd learned to fight either to protect 2B or protect himself from 2B. But that didn't answer anything about Cruel Oath. The story it told turned his stomach; he didn't think it had anything to do with him. He hoped it didn't have anything to do with him. No matter how he stared at its shape and burrowed into his storage areas, he had no idea when or where he’d gotten it.

Among so many other things taken from him, that memory was also lost.

The doors on the far side of the cavern grated open and closed, drawing his attention. Emil sat just out of the light, with the same rigid grin as ever, but he wheeled forward with the slow shyness of a guilty kid.

“Sorry for keeping you waiting.” He spun his wheels slowly against the moss, his energetic voice unusually timid. “I left the city for a bit. I needed some alone time.”

9S frowned. He had a feeling he was the reason Emil needed said alone time, and he wasn’t coming as the bearer of good news this time either.

While waiting to make contact, he’d had plenty of time to think up ways to tell Emil what happened with Beepy without explicitly telling him that they had killed a human child—or the soul of one. As weird as he could be, Emil was on the more sensitive side when you got to know him. 9S didn’t think he deserved to have to think about that. Not when the first Emil had probably had more than enough time to come to terms with it. On the bright side, once 9S got past the clumsy star, Emil remembered what 9S was talking about.

Partially, anyway.

Despite an effort of nearly two hours spent exhaustively describing her coarse voice, ruthless combat style, and disconcertingly minimalistic clothing choices, she was still just ‘the silver-haired woman’. Emil couldn’t remember her name. A dozen other fascinating things about her had surfaced, like her covered limbs hiding shade possession and her ability to casually eat a whole boar. Emil had even turned her to stone once for a few years—at her request, he’d added hastily. That particular addendum raised a dozen more questions he unfortunately didn’t remember the answers for.

9S took all of this in stride. His growing mastery of the events that led to the world’s current condition had long since impressed on him that not a single normal person or mundane event had been involved.

If he was honest, it made him feel a little better about himself. “I guess you don’t remember anything about that man either?”

“Only a bit. He was really strong, and he cared for us a lot...” He sighed wistfully. “I think the first Emil might have had a crush on him.”

“You were courting the Original?”

“W-what?! No, I was only a kid! I used to—” He paused, and began to putter in a slow half-circle. “I used to…! Yeah. It was right around there…”

“Emil?”

“You still need more information on the Old World, right?” Emil asked, wheeling himself around so his truck bed was right beside 9S. “Hop in. I think I can take you to where their village was.”

9S stared at the tottering heaps of junk in Emil’s cargo. He’d seen Emil go head over wheels plenty of times and never lose anything, so it had to be stable… He hoped. Frowning, he carefully climbed in and picked his way past it all to perch aboard his head. There was nothing to hold onto, so 9S pretended it was a moose, straddled the hood, and hoped for the best.

The ride was every bit as bumpy as expected, but Emil kept an unusually sedate pace even when they reached the elevator and took off.

Cold wind blew through 9S’ hair, ruffling it before the fine misting rain made it stick together in damp clumps. There was a haze as they approached the desert that reminded him of the vast clouds of steam generated by the resource recovery units. Surprised resistance androids watched them pass at the desert camp. They got out of Emil’s way, but 9S saw over his shoulder that they continued to stare after him.

It wasn’t until then that 9S fully realized that Emil was driving around in silence. His face was the same grin as ever, but he must have been deep in thought.

“I’m sorry to drop so much on you.”

“Hm? Oh, don’t worry about me.”

“Do you remember why you were fighting Beepy?” 9S asked gently over the increasingly warm, dry wind. “Was it something for Yonah?”

“We were asked by someone. I don’t remember the details but… even at the time, it wasn’t something that left us feeling very good.” He slowed a bit as they slid down a sandy slope. “I’m glad you found him, though. I’m glad you told me.”

“You are?”

“I’ve been fighting such a long, long time… without remembering what any of it was for. Even though I think we didn’t always do the right thing, or maybe the things we did didn’t really accomplish what we hoped. This world is still the one they wanted to save.”

Was a world like this one worth saving? 9S bit the cruel words back. He couldn’t say that. Not to Emil.

Without warning, 9S was yanked downward. Emil dropped them into the confusing web of underground tunnels beneath the desert while 9S struggled to keep his grip. He got a slight reprieve as Emil wheeled around aimlessly, muttering about how there used to be a river and all the elevations were all messed up.

Then he wheeled up to a sheer cliff.

They vanished down the vertical incline and into the dark before he could begin to tell Emil to think about what he was about to do. Pod 153’s light clicked on to illuminate their trajectory as the sparse sunlight grew dim and their velocity approached terminal.

Emil hit solid ground the way the end of a shout hits an exclamation point. 9S and several other odds and ends bounced free and tumbled across the dust.

“Goddammit…” He spat sand out of his mouth and tottered to his feet clutching his head. “Ow… What the hell, Emil?”

Emil didn’t answer. He was staring straight ahead, at the remains of a little stone structure buried in the earth. An initial scan revealed evidence of clay and silt binding together thousands of years of sand. Most likely the flooding from the river Emil mentioned had bound some of the early desertification into soil and landslides had deposited it down here. Two of the exits from the desert tunnels were mouths in the wall of a massive canyon, and 9S was willing to bet if he blasted through the right wall, he would find himself at the bottom of it.

He could make out arches and other bits of architecture jutting from the walls of the narrow gorge, on either side of them, but nothing as intact as the stone house in front of him. If Emil’s memory was right, that was the home of the Yonah and the Original. The replicants.

His hands smoothed absently at his hair. Ever since he caught that glimpse of the Original in Beepy’s memory, he’d wondered if YoRHa’s standard model design, all white hair and blue eyes, had come from the remains of his data in the quantum server, the same as N2 had taken on the appearance of a human from the same source.

In some distant but important way, he felt he was about to enter his ancestor’s house.

He looked over his shoulder, but Emil remained idle. 9S stepped inside alone. Squelchy sediment silenced his footsteps and scuffed aside to reveal largely intact stone floors. Above him, the wooden supports had petrified into fossils instead of rotting away like in the amusement park. There were some signs of ancient water damage, probably as the clay had settled—rusted-through cooking ware in a well-preserved fireplace and clay pots full of sand and silt, but otherwise perfectly preserved.

A portion of the ceiling had collapsed on the side opposite the entryway, cluttering up a cubby that had probably been a stairwell. Beside it was a nook so similar to his bed-space back on the bunker that it took his breath away. He traced the lines of the shelves and imagined a soft bed below them.

He climbed the rubble with steps as light as he could manage for his weight. The collapse had taken away most of the structural integrity of the upper floor. If he tried to walk on it, he’d plummet through and probably bring the whole structure crashing down. But he could make out things from the top of the pile. Small porcelain containers—vases, used for flowers. A desk with a broken inkwell webbed to its slanted surface. Buckling remains of shelves but no nooks or corners. A single lunar tear emitted a humble glow from the clogged windowsill.

He didn’t know Yonah or the Original, but a simulation ran in his mind. The warmth of a fire and the scent of cooked meat tracked their ghosts across his sensors. He could imagine bright, blooming flowers in the vases, a worn but much-beloved doll or perhaps a stuffed animal on Yonah’s bed.

Replicants weren’t immortal. More organic than an android, they aged and broke down and died and had to be remade. But the gestalts were precious to one another. Her father the gestalt had endured two thousand years of waiting for a chance to stop her relapse. The Iron Pipe told him that she loved him in equal measure. The replicants must always have had those same feelings for each other in them, no matter what.

Just how many iterations of that love had there been without them remembering doing the same in their previous lives?

He shuddered and retreated down the remains of the stairs as though a ghost had chased him. “Pod, is there anything down here that might be intact? Any weapons or anything?”

“SCANNING. …NO WEAPONS IDENTIFIED. PROPOSAL: SEARCH FOR INTACT PERSONAL EFFECTS.”

“Old-fashioned way it is…”

He ran his fingers gently along the shelves. Many of the books were still there, but their pages were congealed together if they were there at all. He stood on his toes to get a better feel for the upper shelves, and a stone yielded. It didn’t feel like a structural failure, more like a rock that just didn’t fit quite right into the rest of the stonework. He wiggled it around and pulled it from the wall.

“Aim in here.” Pod’s light narrowed over his shoulder. There was a box inside. He groped to pull it free and opened it. Nothing. A puddle of water so rancid it made his eyes water. He bobbed the lid in his hand. It didn’t feel quite right—too light. Peeking at the underside he saw a definite crease in the corners where there shouldn’t have been, but he couldn’t see any mechanism to open it.

“Sorry,” he whispered, wincing as he gave it a solid blow. The ancient clay shattered, and a book tumbled out and thudded against the floor. He picked it up and walked outside.

It had been so painstakingly hidden that he couldn’t help a wave of mistrust. Inside, not many of the pages were full. They detailed idle days spent with a husband and daughter. Then days of sickness. She had the Black Scrawl, and these were the memoirs of her final life. He couldn’t make much sense of the things that came after, other than how it pained her. Near the end, however, it became clear that she knew what she was—and what had happened to the world. The last page was written in careful, clear sentences. Some made perfect sense with the full context of the gestalt project in mind. Others were puzzling, even to him.

The dragon’s corpse brought death to the world, delivering unto it the power of the devil…?”

Sounded like she meant magic, but as far he could tell between Emil and V it was just a power source. Something from the same world as maso, but not the same. Why specifically blame the dragon’s corpse for the problem instead of the giant?

Emil wheeled up to him. “Did you find anything?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to spend some time analyzing it. I think it was written by Yonah’s mother before she died.” He tucked it away and squinted up the way they’d come. They were so far down he couldn’t see any light at all. “I don’t suppose you know a way to get out of here?”

“Sure! Hop in.”

Amazing how it only took one ride for those words to fill his gut with tight-wound coils. He yanked Virtuous Contract from where it had lodged in the cliff wall and took a deep breath.

This time he made sure to tie himself down with Emil’s scarf and hold on tight.

The scarf didn’t make it better. It nearly gave him whiplash as Emil picked up speed and made a jarring turn that sent them suddenly bolting up straight up the cliffside. Faced with such blatant disregard for the laws of physics, 9S clenched his eyes, held on, and prayed the ride wouldn’t end with both of them in pieces. Soon, the jostling of Emil’s wheels and the rumble of his climb over the rugged stone quieted. Sunshine and hot wind blasted 9S’ face. He risked a look only to find them suspended in the bright desert sky at the sickly peak of Emil’s inertia.

They fell like meteors, and the truck did not stick its landing. Emil rolled and tumbled and 9S was dragged along until eventually he was snapped off from the end of the unexpectedly durable scarf like a rock from a slingshot and skidded to a stop a dozen meters away.

This time he was not so quick to get up. He baked under the sand and sun as he tried to calm the rapid pulse of his black box. Diving down from orbit in a flight unit and ejecting from the cockpit at the last minute was stupid and dangerous but he’d had control over that. Riding with Emil was submission to such blatant disregard for personal safety that even Jackass might have found it too much.

He understood a lot better why V hated roller coasters.

“ALERT: HOSTILES PRESENT.”

He jerked his head up from the sand and shook himself, 2B’s sword already gripped in his hand. But the hostiles, when he got visual on them, were not machines. They were androids. Two wore the sleek clothes of the Army of Humanity that he occasionally spied in the camp, and three more were resistance members backing them up with gun cover.

The army android closest to him stepped forward. Her eyes were a sour yellow-green that put him in mind of the acid spewed by some of the more grotesque machines. Her hair was the same color as the sand, cropped brutally short. He couldn’t see a weapon. She was a hulking unit and carried herself in a way that suggested she either didn’t need one or would have it the moment she did.

“Disengage your weapons.” He nearly did; her voice rumbled like an active furnace. “We are under orders to open fire immediately if you resist.”

Slowly, he sat Virtuous Contract down, raised his hands, and let his NFCS disengage. Cruel Oath flopped against his back and fell to the ground with a whisper of sand on metal.

His compliance earned a few millimeters of released tension in her shoulders. From behind her, a resistance member mumbled something about his hacking. She kept her eyes on 9S and raised a hand to quiet him.

“I’m Enforcer Gamma,” she said briskly. “Army of Humanity. On the authority of Commander Theta, YoRHa Unit 9S is to have NFCS, FFCS, hacking protocols, and self-destruct functionality disabled until further notice.”

Without thinking, he slammed his hands down into the sand and sat up. “Are you nuts?!”

QUERY,” said Pod 153, who zipped efficiently between them before things could escalate. “WHAT IS THE REASON FOR ENFORCER UNIT GAMMA’S ORDER?”

“That’s not the business of a pod.”

“AFFIRMATIVE. HOWEVER, UNIT 9S’ BLACK BOX TEMPERATURE AND PULSE RATE ARE INCREASING RAPIDLY. RATIONAL EXPLANATION WILL REDUCE THE CHANCE OF UNIT 9S ENGAGING SELF-PRESERVATION MEASURES BY 84%.”

Gamma was well-read on his functionality. She had to be, or she wouldn’t have known to go so far as disengaging his self-destruct protocol. She must have also known that pod’s primary job was to support him, but she tilted her head curiously at Pod 153.

9S clenched his teeth. His eyes darted from gun to gun. The androids behind them were the ones he’d seen earlier when they passed the outpost on their way into the desert. He didn’t know any of them, not personally. Even if he had, he couldn’t have expected help from them given where this order came from. He was on his own. NFCS was off, but FFCS might be a viable plan if he chose the right combination of pod programs—buy himself enough time to re-activate close combat functions.

Gamma’s sour eyes locked onto him. She bent to take Cruel Oath and Virtuous Contract in hand with a barely-there smile, like she knew precisely what he was thinking.

“Your pod is a handy negotiator.” She sounded pleased. “Do you respond well to reason, Unit 9S?”

“It’s a little late for reason after you ambushed me,” he said. “But I’m open to an explanation.”

She hauled him up, and it didn’t escape his notice that he felt feather light in her grip. “You are being detained as the primary suspect in a murder believed to have been perpetrated by a YoRHa unit.”

Chapter Text

9S knew he was innocent already.

He knew it while Gamma marched him laboriously through the sand, and back to the desert outpost. He knew he could prove it as he rattled around in the back of the truck that carried them the rest of the way. And he’d already decided he knew who did do it as he was escorted into the camp.

Forty or more pairs of eyes stalked him to the command tent. Pascal, Anemone, and Theta stood together in the shade, on the opposite side of the ancient table from him. The rest of the camp’s occupants huddled together against the outer buildings and under the other tarps.

The crowd was full of faces he remembered and expected, and ones he did not. A treaty and a common enemy were all it took for them to stand side by side with machines. One or two were normal in the camp since the signing of the treaty, but there were a dozen of them today, interspersed among the androids. Nervous energy blurred them together into a ring of shifting boots and twitching metal and fingers fidgeting at hips and holsters.

It wasn’t the kind of tension he was used to meeting with in the camp, but he’d never been to any kind of trial. He knew that was how humans did things, but when YoRHa suspected a unit had done something unfavorable, they only ever solved the problem in two ways: destruction or reprogramming.

In the shade, Theta’s expression was as cold as ever. He could see his silhouette reflected in her eyes and nothing else. No sign of suspicion or contempt; like it didn’t matter that he was there. Anemone shot him apologetic glances whenever she thought nobody else was looking, and that worried him more than anything. Only Pascal, with his bird-like movements and bright green gaze left 9S with any sense of comfort or confidence in the situation.

He forced himself to keep calm and remember why he’d come quietly. Intel and infiltration, done the hard way.

"So…" he began, and the nervous energy around him froze. “Can we start at the beginning?”

From somewhere in the crowd, 9S heard Astroelmeria. He was boisterous even when he was trying to whisper. "See, he doesn't even know!" Someone shushed him.

Pascal produced a weapon and sat it on the table between them. It was all silver-white edges and black matte black alloy. "This was found in the body of an Army of Humanity officer approximately 32 hours ago.”

“It’s a specialty YoRHa weapon,” Theta clarified, accessing a data readout that looked startlingly like 9S’ own. “An in-development type not in use by any of the combat units we’ve identified in the ruins. Data analysis officer Rho was on an investigation with the assistance of two resistance members, one of whom was also killed.”

9S’ eyes tore away and scoured crowd. Not Aster—she was peeking out from behind Gladiolus. Statice was standing with his arms crossed. Wormwood was the only one walking around like nothing was happening. Even Freesia was standing there like a deer in headlights. Alstroemeria was there, so Bouvardia had to be there as well. There were at least five more he knew by name but didn’t see. Some he liked, some he didn’t, none of whom he wanted to find out had died.

“Unit 9S,” Theta snapped, bringing his attention back to center. “Do you know this weapon?”

“Not personally.” The 4O series was still largely experimental. The large swords and even some of the spears had been pushed out during the final attack, but small swords were vanishingly rare. “I’ve only ever seen two like it.”

“Where?”

“2B had one. So did A2.” He shifted his gaze to Anemone. Virtuous Contract was back on her hip. There was nobody else in the camp he would have trusted to carry it, but he had to take a breath. It was fine. This would be over soon, and he would have it back.

“Was A2 using this weapon when you last saw her?” asked Theta, drawing a tilt of 9S’ head. “Standard NFCS materializes only two weapons at a time for a combat unit. If she didn’t die with it in hand the way she did that katana, there’s no point in conjecture about her body.”

9S replayed the memory. It was virus-bitten and full of black holes and blank spots, but he could make out enough of their battle to see her weaponry. He shook his head. “No. She wasn’t carrying it.”

“Then it must be assumed that this sword was the one owned by the unit 2B.”

“No. She died the day the Bunker fell. I’ve never…” His whole body tensed. Wiry muscle fibers bunched until he thought his skin would rupture from the internal pressure. He bit his lip against the familiar but sickly high-voltage buzz that surged in his black box and caused a warning to pop up in his interface.

“I never found 2B’s body,” he muttered in a voice like a dark cloud. “But someone else could have.”

"That’s very convenient.”

“Commander Theta,” Anemone said in low, warning tones. “2B was his partner.”

“I’m well aware of the relationship between Unit 9S and Unit 2B, Anemone, thank you.”

9S’ fists crashed down against the table. “You don’t know ANYTHING about me and 2B!”

Theta’s brows jumped. Gamma’s shadow loomed closer behind him and consumed his own. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. He couldn’t fight, and they both knew what she was prepared to do if he tried. Enforcer, executioner—same thing, an E unit.

"You don’t know us. You didn’t know her.” He’d wrested control of his volume back, but his fists stayed tight at his sides. What pulsed in his chest wouldn’t be banished by deep breaths, or attempts to focus, or even the thought of V. “This is stupid. I’m a scanner; there was no reason for you to suspect me or bring me here."

“A scanner known to have combat ability and the only YoRHa unit who is still active,” Theta pointed out. “And you knew a possible source for not one but two of these swords."

He’d read once that humans used to spit at the feet of people they wanted to show disrespect. At the time, it had seemed disgusting and petty. Now he found himself thinking of just how much lubricant he could store under his tongue.

“9S,” said Pascal. “In truth, we spent the better part of a day in discussion before it was decided that you were the most probable culprit in spite of how little your known character matches this crime. I hope you can understand. This matter isn’t only about you.”

Pascal’s gentle voice and sensible nature managed to do what Anemone’s apologetic glances and the threat of Gamma couldn’t. 9S rubbed irritably at his hair and sighed.

“This is about the treaty, isn’t it.”

“As you say. The death of a high-ranking officer in territory that was neutral even before the end of the war is troubling and demands action from us. The residents of the park do not think of you as an enemy, but it is known that you frequent the area.”

“Park?” 9S eyes widened. “The murder happened in the amusement park?”

“Rho and the others were there to investigate the recent fire,” said Anemone. “It is a quiet sector of the park, but apparently you were also seen there.”

“I was staying in the house that burned down,” he admitted, hoping that would keep them firmly off the subject of V. Nobody had mentioned him, and he wanted it to stay that way. “After you returned 2B’s sword I was going there, and then I saw the smoke—”

“Did you conduct any scans?” Theta asked urgently.

He shrugged. “Evidence of major electrical discharge. Not sure where from but seemed pretty clear it started the fire.”

Her lips pressed thin as a blade’s edge, and she glanced off to her right. A subtle nod exchanged between her and another army of humanity android with a single, knee-length black braid. She let out a breath too faint to be a sigh as she returned her attention to 9S. “That matches what little we learned, but you were never under suspicion for the fire. You were spotted running toward it well after it was already ablaze.”

There was far too much of this ‘spotted’ and ‘sighted’ stuff for 9S’ comfort. The amusement park was supposed to be a good place to hide V not just because it was intact, but because only machines lived there. They didn’t ask questions and until now they didn’t hold casual conversations with androids. If the machines were being interrogated, that was different. They were bound to mention that 9S wasn’t alone eventually.
He had the information he wanted. Time to get out, and fast.

“Let’s get to the important part,” he said. “I haven’t been to the park in a week.”

The crowd murmured. It was Theta who raised a hand for silence and kept things on task. “You were off doing more field work?” He shrugged down at his sand-dusted uniform. “Do you have proof?”

He reached a hand slowly into his pocket, lifted out the book, and tossed it to her.

She plucked carefully at the stuck pages. “Something from Façade?”

“No. The house where the replicants of Yonah and the Original lived.” Her fingers fumbled and she shot him an icy look that quickly melted when she realized it wasn’t a joke. He hid a smile. It was gratifying to have finally caught her off guard. “Emil took me there. Until today, I’d been waiting for him in the caverns.”

She hummed distractedly, already engrossed in the diary. “Yes, you were seen with him at the desert outpost…” Her head shook, and she sat the book down and folded her hands over it. “Unit 9S, I understand that YoRHa support units such as your pod have exceptional storage which is typically filled with an on-going record of their assigned unit’s activities.”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m not giving you access to my pod records.”

“I hadn’t asked.” Her smile rose, fish-eyed and humorless. “But it does make you sound like you have something to hide.”

“I never got much privacy on the Bunker. I’ve learned to like it.”

“Enough to incriminate yourself?”

“My pod records would include my biostatistics, personal maintenance logs, and other data I’m not comfortable with you having. Pascal has already said this crime doesn’t match my character, and I’ve provided you the physical evidence of what I’ve been working on.”

“Surely an audiovisual log would be reasonable,” Theta insisted. “It’s the hardest proof you could provide of where you were and what you were doing at the time. Irrefutable.”

He’d suspected from her indifferent response to his presence that she had her own agenda, and that was all the proof he needed. She was trying to pin him into a corner and get something out of him. But an audiovisual log was so benign he couldn’t say no without looking unreasonable. He didn’t have time to get caught up in her games—he had to get back to V and get him out of the city before all of this exploded on the both of them.

Pascal said it was maybe 32 hours ago. That was…nowhere near 3 AM. He could risk it.

“Fine,” he relented. “What’s the exact time it happened?”

Anemone turned back to the crowd and dipped her head in a ‘come on’ gesture. 9S wasn’t sure if he wanted to roll his eyes or groan or both when he saw who approached, but he kept his expression flat and wary.

“YoRHa,” said Cypress.

“Date and time,” he answered gruffly.

Her eyes blackened. He had no doubt she still hated him with every joule of energy radiating from her fusion reactor. “6 March 11946. 9:36 PM.”

“Pod, provide audiovisual logs from that time.”

“AFFIRMATIVE.”

A screen opened, showing the Pod’s location at the time. A cavern, obviously far, far underground, with a single ray of light to see by. 9S was sprawled on the moss next to a rod covered in masks that bore the one-of-a-kind likeness of Emil’s grin. He was working silently but intently on several readouts that were clearly related to Cruel Oath and the data it held. His mouth was slightly ajar, lips moving in twitches that had nothing to do with forming sounds.

9S felt heat rise through his systems. It was benign, but the invasion of a moment that he believed he had to himself was embarrassing on a guttural level.

“Are we done?”

“Yes, yes…” said Theta. 9S thought she sounded just a little disappointed. Or maybe bored. “Irrefutable proof.”

Cypress scowled. “That’s it? That could be from any time!”

“No, it couldn’t,” Gamma countered. “YoRHa units lack the authority to tamper with pod logs. I’m sure he’s capable of hacking it, but that functionality was disabled in the field well before any details were provided.”

“Well then, I believe the matter of 9S’ innocence settled,” said Pascal, who rose and came around the table. “I understand that this may be bold from one in part responsible for putting you in this situation… but your assistance would be appreciated. Bringing the perpetrator to justice is a common goal.”

9S flexed his fingers he ran a quick internal check to restore his systems back to default operation. “I don’t care about justice. They disturbed 2B’s body. Just give me some time and I’ll be sure to bring you theirs.”

“If you kill them,” Theta warned coolly. “I will take that as interference with the investigation of an officer’s death.”

“So what?” he spat. “The war is over! Even if it wasn’t, you aren’t my commander. With A2’s version of the weapon out of play, that—” He jabbed his hand toward the sword, gleaming silently on the table. “Is definitely the 4O weapon 2B’s operator gave her as a gift. I’m sure you understand how finding out it’s been stolen and used to kill two androids might be personal to me.”

“I am not designed to account for personal matters when making executive decisions. No good command model is.” She ran her fingers experimentally along the sword’s blunt edge. “However, if personal matters are important to you, there is a detail maybe related and maybe unrelated to this case that may interest you.”

He did his best to brace himself without visibly moving.

“Rho did some field work with Jackass before moving on to investigating the park fire. She found a scanner.”

“And? Jackass told me she’d be looking for scanner parts.”

“He isn’t parts. His black box signal is still active.” Theta rose and strolled around 9S, eyeing him with the detached interest of a predator that wasn’t hungry at that particular moment. “With your cooperation, it can stay that way.”

The world seemed to gray out at the edges. His aural readout picked up his voice as usual, but it sounded far away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you should think carefully about what Jackass might do to him if you aren’t around to keep her in check.”

Anemone cleared the table before he could do anything to let out the black violence that filled his every thought. How could she—how dare she hold another scanner’s life over him like it was some expendable pawn to help her get whatever it was she wanted out of him. He’d kill her, he’d kill her—

Anemone’s arm over his mouth prevented him from actually saying any of that. He saw her glare at Theta as she dragged him away from them, toward the camp’s entrance. Some small part of him understood that she’d just rescued him from a trap, but the moment she loosened his grip on him, he shoved her away.

“What the hell.” He clutched at his arms, felt his every wire trembling with rage beneath the surface. “Is that why you kept looking at me like you were so fucking sorry? Because you knew Jackass found a living scanner and you never told me? Were you ever going to tell me? Is it 4S? Do you even know who that is? Or was it just fine to do whatever with him without even knowing his goddamn designation because he’s YoRHa?”

“9S…”

“Stop it. Don’t use that tone on me.” He laughed in dry, bitter heaves. He thought he was going to vomit. “I should’ve known. If it’s to keep the peace around here, you’ll let anything happen. Whether it’s letting Devola or Popola do jobs that could kill them or ignoring what happens in the coliseum… You just stand there and look troubled and do nothing!”

“9S!” Her hands dropped on his shoulders. The combination of her tight grip and the way she bent to look him in the eye so he could see the shame and anger creasing her features was enough to make him pause. Her words came through loud and terribly clear even though her voice was barely above a whisper. “I know about the other YoRHa you’ve been with.”

“…What?”

“I met Pod 042 a few months ago. He told me he was surveying for you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you come here with him in all the months you’ve been here.” She took a deep breath. Her eyes had had a weary uncertainty to them, but if she was unsure, it didn’t come across in her words. “Balm told me she saw you and Pod 042 with another male YoRHa model in the forest kingdom a few times.”

9S remained silent, but he could feel his body bunching and tensing again, and he took a long, measured breath.

“No one else knows,” Anemone assured him in a hush. “I didn’t tell Theta or Pascal.”

“What are you asking in return?”

“Nothing. I’m suggesting that you take me up on my old offer.” She pulled Virtuous Contract from her hip but didn’t immediately hand it over to him. “Stay in the camp. Help Theta find the real culprit.”

9S ran his hands slowly over his face. He wasn’t angry with Balm; she was always on her own side. He could easily imagine her catching wind of YoRHa involvement in a murder and pre-emptively reporting to Anemone to keep herself out of trouble. Anemone could have done anything with that information, but she chose to keep it to herself and stick her own neck out to warn him. She was trying so hard to help him hold on to this secret without even asking why.

More time would have been welcome, but he had to say something to her, and the story he told her had to be consistent with whatever he was going to tell the rest of them later.

He couldn’t say V was a scanner. It was too easily disproved. But there was no unit type that made sense for him and would also eliminate him as a suspect. An H unit who failed its own repairs to the point of needing a cane was suspicious. A B unit was the most implicating thing he could’ve been, and a D with such a weak constitution didn't make any sense.

Plus, there was Theta to think of. She and Gamma were aggressively aware of how YoRHa operated from model functionality to their peripherals and the organization as a whole. Male models were all scanners, and to try and say anything otherwise would probably out the lie immediately. Even if he tried to play V off as Variable, or as a YoRHa at all, he would sound experimental. Given how keen she was on 9S, that would make him far too interesting to her.

“He’s not YoRHa,” he said. That, at least, was true. “But he is my friend.”

“Yeah, I followed up with Anthurium. He told me the guy means a lot to you, which is why I’m reserving judgment. Can you promise me he’s innocent?”

The 4O sword was lightweight but it was still an android weapon. V wasn’t weak in a fight, but lifting heavy objects wasn’t in his skillset.

Plus, he wouldn’t have left Cypress alive. “It wasn’t him, Anemone.”

“…Okay.” She pressed Virtuous Contract into his palm and folded his hands over the hilt. “Then this is my trust I’m giving you, 9S.”

He believed her. But he also believed how easily that could change if the truth came out. Even if she stood by him, there was a high chance it would get her killed if V was revealed as a human.

He caught her cloak as she started to head back into camp. “Wait. I need to know… Why didn’t you tell me about the scanner?”

Again, her eyes filled with that pinched, apologetic look that made her seem ancient and exhausted. “…You’ll understand when you see him.”

9S let her go, and his eyes fell on the disused room that Anemone had once gifted to him and 2B. “Tell Theta I’ll stay and help. I need a few minutes alone. After that I want to see him.”

“I’ll arrange it. Take your time.”

Chapter Text

V stirred awake to find the fire out, the shack chilled, and the thin cotton resistance shirt drenched in his sweat. The details of a dream he knew was of the house evaporated as he pushed the covering of dampened pelts away.

The cold eagerly stole the heat from his body. As the minutes passed, it finally permeated deep enough to raise goosebumps on his skin and chase a sneeze from him. A good sign—he wasn’t burning yet. He shambled from the mattress to the bench, where he sagged down and let his head fall back. With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes. Not to sleep, but to think.

Time was once again his enemy.

He should have noticed that first emergent evidence of change in him. The lullaby. Outside of warped strains heard through the filter of his nightmares, he had never come close to recalling it. Then all of a sudden he had hummed the melody unaware while his mind traced the ancient impression of his mother’s voice.

According to Pod, that was fifty days after the gods had turned the earth of his memory in their search for something they believed would break his will. Griffon had begun to suspect something was wrong with him sixty days out and V had finally accepted that something was amiss eighty-eight days out while sitting atop the park castle with 9S. By then the crypts and coffins and cobwebbed places in his memory were releasing so many strange ghosts he couldn’t brush it off anymore. Mid-January brought Nelo Angelo’s sword and Pod 153's distress signal and stole his attention away from what were, in hindsight, several worsening symptoms. By the time he returned to the ruins with 9S, he was already deep in the grip of the fever.

The sickness he endured after escaping the gods and the one creeping through him now were the same. Memories, exertions of demonic magic, physical malaise… the salt. It was a cycle, fueled by the very substance that kept him whole.

And it was happening faster.

Thirteen days, and he was burning again. Not as intensely as before, though in exchange he was plagued by a new symptom that bothered him far more than the rest. It was a prickle on his skin and agitation of his teeth that he couldn’t sooth no matter what he ate or drank. It was maddening in the exact same way the heat had been before he went off last time. Another trigger state couldn’t be more than a few more days away.

“Time,” he murmured into the half-light.

2:03 AM,” answered Pod 042.

He hadn’t heard from 9S at all yesterday. The day before that, his new companion had been prohibitively and inconsolably clingy owing to android presence she’d noted in the park.  He threw his coat on. Fever or no, it was barely March. The whiff of spring air that had come with the fog had been chased out by cold so brutal that the ocean spray froze and fell over the broken pier as snow.

Griffon carried him up to the empty tracks, bypassing the section that ran over the shack for a more lonesome bend where they could be assured they were alone. Pod raised his antenna as V lowered himself. He was already occupied with what he would do if they didn’t hear anything, so it surprised him when 9S’ low, hurried voice came through the speakers.

This won’t reach you until tomorrow. I’m not in any danger, I don’t think, but I don’t have a lot of time. I probably won’t for a while. Let me start from the beginning:

“I got to talk to Emil. He couldn’t remember anything important about that woman, but he took me to the Original’s house. Can you believe that? It was buried way underground.

“When I got back to the surface I got arrested. On 6 March 11946, 9:36 PM a high-rank Army of Humanity officer was killed in the amusement park with a rare YoRHa weapon.” His voice hardened. “One that belonged to 2B.

“I’ve already been cleared as a suspect, but it’s a big deal and both sides of the peace treaty are working on finding the killer. I think we both know who did it. The park machines are being questioned and eventually one of them is going to mention you. I’m sorry; I know you were supposed to be safe there. I didn’t expect this much interfacing between the androids and machines.

“Anemone already found out about you from Balm and Anthurium. I told her you’re not YoRHa and that it wasn’t you. She believes me, but I doubt anyone else is going to.

“I don’t think we should communicate for a while. Theta is trying to get into my data. I still don’t know why, but if she gets it… Better if I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing.

  “I’m going to help with the investigation. Try to steer them off your trail. Get what you need from that unit and get away from her before the evidence piles up.”

 There was a pause.

“They also uhm—they found another scanner, too. A YoRHa one. Just like me. …O-obviously, not like there’s any other kind. His black box activity is suspended, though. He’s not technically dead, but his systems are all...”

“…Sorry. That’s not your concern and this is going on too long. Take care, V.”

Griffon shuffled his wings with a grumble. “Ugh, what a pain in the ass. Why would the lady-bot kill some big wig?”

“Because that’s who was in the park. I doubt she knew their importance.”

“I mean that’s not a bad way of thinkin’, but I thought she’d be smarter about it. The kid always was.”

“He’s designed to be. Wiping her own memory may have taken away her guilt, but she is still an executioner. She kills androids that endanger the mission.” Which was him, regardless of his personal take on the matter.

AFFIRMATIVE. PROPOSAL: V SHOULD CONCLUDE AFFAIRS WITH THE UNDESIGNATED UNIT QUICKLY AND ALLOW PUNITIVE PROCESS TO TAKE ITS COURSE.

“We shall see.” He climbed to his feet. The roller coaster tracks held no peril for him without the cars, and he let Shadow carry him along its gentler slopes without concern. “Turning her over no longer means reclaiming 9S, not with another scanner he may be able to salvage.”

“What, you really think he wouldn’t come as soon as you called?” Griffon cawed. “He jumps at every chance to be around you, he almost melted down when you told him to piss off for a while!”

“Because he had nothing else. Now he does.” He thumbed at the ridges under the handle of his cane. “How severe is suspension?”

SUSPENSION OF BLACK BOX ACTIVITY SHUTS DOWN ALL OTHER FUNCTIONS TO FOCUS ON LIFE-PRESERVATION. THIS INCLUDES SHUTTING DOWN MEMORY STORAGE. RECOVERY IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE, BUT IT IS UNLIKELY THE UNIT WILL RETAIN THEIR MEMORY.

“Can it be recovered similar to the way the E model keeps recovering her memory?”

MEMORY AND PERSONALITY REGION INTERACTIONS VARY ACROSS UNITS, AND THE METHOD USED TO CLEAR THE MEMORY REGION AFFECTS RECALL POTENTIAL.

“In English, soda-can!”

ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN,” Pod 042 said with a hint of tetchiness. “THE BLACK BOX IS POORLY UNDERSTOOD ALIEN BIO-TECHNOLOGY FITTED INTO AN ANDROID-COMPATIBLE INTERFACE. EVERY ATTEMPT TO BYPASS THE SHIELDING OF A MACHINE CORE ENDED WITH BURNT OUT ANDROIDS OR THE COMPLETE ANNIHILATION OF AN ORBITAL BASE. RESULT: THE LIMITATIONS OF BLACK BOX FUNCTIONALITY ARE UNKNOWN.

“So they don’t know what they’re messing with. Great! I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree and androids are just as stupid as humans! No offense to you, V.”

V gave a subtle smile. They crested the last hill and sailed easily down to the platform, where the android once known as 8E jumped to meet him.

It hadn’t dawned on him until she was up and following him around like a lost kitten that having a new android companion meant having to teach someone all the same things he’d taught the scanner. And some things he hadn’t. 9S’ eagerness could be tiresome, but he kept a certain distance, both physically and otherwise, that had made him easy to relax around well before trust had entered the equation.

8E liked to come so close he could feel heat rolling off of her, and as a result, the very first command he’d given her once her repairs were complete was ‘Get out’. 

The platform was her location of choice to wait for him.

She had taken it upon herself to bathe. It didn’t do much for the aura of mania that radiated from her like the ambient buzz of a neon light, but at least she no longer reeked of old blood and crude oil. Her face was open and clean, and her over-bright eyes bored into a point slightly askew of his.

V didn’t care to discuss the subject, what was done was done. Griffon had other ideas and perched atop V’s shoulders. “You’re pretty cheerful for someone who killed one of her own.”

The jittery energy vanished from her. “…You know?”

“Heard it through the grapevine,” he jeered. “For all that bullshit you went through to yank V outta the frying pan, you did good chucking him straight into the fire.”

“I was trying to keep him safe.”

“Then you lack imagination,” said V. “Or did it only dawn on you afterward that killing one android might draw more?”

“It was all I could think to do...” She shuffled from foot to foot and her fingers twisted around one another. Her eyes meandered beyond him, to a portion of the stairwell railing that hadn’t been broken the last time V was there. “There were three of them. They were looking for something in the fog and the one in front said she could see it.”

She wandered slowly toward the center of the platform with her head raised, like a bloodhound following a difficult scent. “It’s somewhere around here, isn’t it? That sword.”

V narrowed his eyes. So that was why she lingered on the platform.

“If they found it, they would have taken it away. I couldn’t let that happen.” She trotted back to his side, leaning in with wide, beseeching eyes. “Strange androids shouldn’t know about you—they shouldn’t know anything about you. Wasn’t that right?”

“Yes.” He pushed the cane against her chest and forced her back. “But that doesn’t mean killing them was ideal. You endangered an armistice.”

“It’s not like I killed a machine…”

His lips pressed thin. YoRHa and their complicated place in the order of machines and androids had nothing to do with her as she was now. In her eyes, she had merely taken another android’s life for a greater purpose; one that had already been killed for in thousands of convoluted ways. She could not be made to understand the problem unless he made her aware of what she was.

“They’ll be back,” he said, resigning to let the matter go. “And I cannot afford to waste time avoiding detection right now.”

“Let’s make ourselves scarce then. We’ll find somewhere else! And I’ll be sure to stick close and keep you safe.”

You will be sure to go ahead of me and wait at the ravine,” he corrected. “We’ll start by handling our business there.”

PROPOSAL: RENDEZVOUS OUTSIDE THE ABANDONED SHOPPING COMPLEX, SO THAT DESCENT CAN OCCUR SIMULTANEOUSLY.

She looked uncertainly from Pod 042 to V, who waved her off with a flick of his cane and ran a hand through his hair when she had gone.

He’d hoped to avoid exactly this kind of behavior by limiting his exposure to other androids and keeping his humanity a secret. Fools of human and demonic descent alike had worshipped Sparda. While he understood that reverence, he had never been keen on receiving similar treatment.  But he would have to bear her overzealousness awhile longer.

Another devil trigger was coming, whether it was today or the next or the one after that. Whenever it came, it would likely be just as abortive and draining as the first. In that vulnerable state where even his familiars could not help him, he needed someone. For as long as 9S stayed in the resistance camp, it would have to be 8E.

That was the safest thing for both of them until all of this was settled.

QUERY: WHY DID V NOT ACCOMPANY THE UNDESIGNATED UNIT TO THE POINT OF INTEREST?

He lifted his arm to Griffon and gestured toward the distant forest on the northeast horizon. “We’re going to secure an insurance policy first.”


The click of V’s cane halted in the center of the abandoned mall. Wisps of steam from his body joined the steady puffs of his breath as he raised his head. His gaze skimmed side to side as if reading from an invisible page, though sight had taken a firm back seat to a more specific sense. Keener than hearing, but subtler than taste. He almost forgave his amnesiac acquaintance her unsettling commentary on how she found the golden orb. The closer he came to the ravine, the more strongly he felt it; like the pause between lightning and the ensuing rumble of thunder given physical presence.

Demons.

This world, plagued by malevolent but banished gods and sipping on scant remnants of magic, had never known true devils. With no humans around for well over five thousand years, this should not have been a world that they concerned themselves with. There was nothing to be gained. Nothing to draw power from. But something had perforated the space between the dimensions, and they had seeped through like air escaping through a punctured lung.

It was too implausible to be a coincidence that the only devil hunter on the planet was nearby. Humility had likely come from a similar perforation—one even smaller than this perhaps—and V had a sense that his presence played a part. Even if it was one he did not yet fully understand. 

He joined the former E unit where she crouched at the cliff’s edge, staring down into the depths. She’d tied her hair back with a tattered length of black cloth V recognized as a YoRHa visor. He didn’t ask. No need to bring attention to it if she thought of it as a convenient accessory she happened to have on her person.

She shuffled to make more room for him. “The orb was there, right by the falls. But there's something...weird down there.” She rose to her feet, her eyes still avoiding his as she turned her head in his direction. “I need a designation. So you can call me for help if you need to. Whatever you want’s fine, I’ll answer.”

“Choose it yourself.”

“A name is supposed to be given to you, isn’t it?”

He swung the tip of the cane up to point at her chest. “You lost your name. Whether you reclaim it or replace it, that’s your business.”

Pod 042 dropped between them, ever the peacekeeper. “PROPOSAL: TANSY.

“Sounds like a kid’s name,” she huffed. Her head swiveled as she scanned every bit of local foliage looking for something that didn’t offend her tastes. Options were limited—it was still winter. “Fern. There were humans named Fern, right?”

He rolled his eyes and leaped into the gorge.

The grumble of the waterfall swallowed the light splash of V’s landing. Piles of white rubble and machine corpses towered and slumped against the ravine walls, broken up only by the scattered black android parts jutting from them. The portal was so small that he couldn’t make it out, but he could feel it like a torn membrane in the air. The cold had given way to humid balminess that reeked of fresh blood and spoiled meat as only hell did.

‘Fern’ landed just behind him, assisted by Pod 042. In one brisk motion, she secured two plain steel blades from among the YoRHa corpses and came to his side. In the same way that she was unusually focused atop the cliff, the way she moved and behaved now that they were in danger was a far cry from the skittish tics he’d grown used to. With her attention focused on combat, Fern was calculated and predatory as a stalking crane.

As they approached the falls, a single hollow machine head bounced down from one of the piles. Laughter broke the stillness, and V’s grip on his cane tightened. He knew that sound. A blush of excited heat washed through him, distinct from the warmth of his maso fever. It heralded an unfamiliar eagerness; a harried need to find and kill every last demon that had successfully made the crossing.

Fern spun. Her two blades clashed against the twin segments of a jagged pair of scissors in a hot shower of sparks. Pale mannequin fingers held them from beneath a billowing cloak as black as the absent nights. At the very top of the looming shape was not a porcelain mask but the front plate of a machine head.

He raised a brow. “That's quite an adaptation…” 

She grunted, bracing her legs even as her feet slid in the slick stream-bottom. She heaved forward with a shout. The demon fled backward and vanished into the canyon wall. She placed herself between it and him with her swords at the ready. “That’s the one I fought before. Is there some trick to killing it?”

“Aim for the head.” He turned back toward the falls. “I leave it to you.”

“What?! Wait—!”

Another clash of shears on swords drowned her protest. V pressed on.

Chapter Text

Fern would catch up quickly now that she knew where to aim her strikes. A single pair of sin scissors was not an overly daunting prospect if one knew their weakness.

It was not the only demon to have found a suitable form to inhabit.

Machines clambered from the piles. Most were missing limbs. Some lacked bodies altogether and only their heads rolled along the ravine, crashing into one another to destroy their metallic plating and reveal the ghastly, gnashing structures beneath. Not one among the hoard bore red eyes or light of any kind in their empty sockets. They were lifeless down to the last. An annoyance for certain to see so many of them, but it was a good sign. If all they could manage was the possession of dead metal, the dividing lines between the worlds were still strong.

One of the heads leaped at V. Shadow drove a spike through its mouth. It predictably fell to pieces, but the thing within just moved to another shell. Minor as these demons were, his nightmares still had no ability to kill them.

This time he had a different asset on his hands with no such limitation.

"Sitzflesich." The black boundary of the gravity well dropped from Pod 042 with a low hum. Bound in their metal shells, the demons were dragged into a tight pile along with a hefty chunk of the inert garbage parts surrounding them.

"Alekhine." The laser illuminated the canyon in a brief flash. From the destroyed masses of shrapnel left behind, red sparks filled the air and coalesced into familiar red crystals.

Another wash of heat under his ribs dizzied him and forced him to one knee.

The crystals bobbed toward him against the flow of the stream. Demonic magic was almost magnetic by nature, and he represented the greatest pool of it. They nestled and pressed and melted against his skin, running like red wax before vanishing. The energies within were minuscule, but he had gone so long without that each one was as keenly felt as a rush of adrenaline. Having finally found a suitable target, his newest symptom showed itself for what it was.

Hunger.

"I see..." he panted, climbing back to his feet. Low snickering shook his shoulders. The demonic element may have kept him effortlessly whole, but it bore little resemblance to the magic of the underworld. So, this was the source of his cravings.

Screams of laughter bounced off the cliffs behind him. The sin scissors were dealt with, and a flood of blood-warm magic seeped through any and every inch of his exposed skin. Fern launched by him, tossing one broken sword and snatching another to enforce control on the swarm of rolling, bouncing heads and crawling machine torsos. Between her and Griffon's bursts of electricity V sauntered through their remains, piercing them as he went and bathing in their magic as it liquefied against his skin.

The possessed machines converged on him as he drew closer to the waterfall. At his whistle, Griffon hauled him straight into the air and Shadow erupted from beneath his feet into a thistle-like mass. He made a light-footed landing atop a single spike that flattened to receive him. The air around him brightened with shining violet needles in the shape of his cane, and with a wave, they flew to finish the pests pinned upon the blackened spikes.

Shadow ushered him back to the ground, where he threw the cane over his shoulder and cocked an ear.

Barring Fern's breath as she cut through another machine, and the rustle of crystals shuffling toward him, the ravine was quiet once more.

"Tired already?" he asked.

She wiped her mouth and slipped one sword through her belts, keeping the other on hand. "Not as much as I expected. Is it over?"

"Seems to be the case."

"Talk about small-fry," Griffon hooted. "Minus old scissor-hands, they couldn't even take their own forms!"

"What are they?" Fern asked, eyeing the piles warily.

"Demons. Residents of the underworld." He approached the edge of the pool beneath the falls. The gap was tiny, as he thought. They should be safe from any surprised for long enough to search.

He walked the basin's edge. The red orbs were more than he expected but far less than he hoped. Another gold orb would have gone a long way to ensuring his next trigger didn't leave him helpless, but even the lesser crystallizations were absent. Persistence rewarded him, however. Something glimmered and bobbed where the ripples met the frost, in a shape so familiar that he forgot his cane and knelt to thrust his hand into the water. The cold barely registered, nor the sliminess of wet mud seeping through his clothing and soaking his knee as he sat staring at the silver loop in his palm.

Nelo Angelo's sword was one thing, but why this?

"You alright over there, V?" Griffon fluttered closer and settled on his shoulders. The weight was familiar and grounding enough to make him aware he'd been holding his breath. "What are you gettin' all distracted for? It's just a bracelet."

"...This was my mother's."

"You still remember the kind of bling she wore? Never mind, of course you do momma's boy, my mistake, forgot who I was talking to. So now the list of weird shit that's showed up here from our neck of the woods includes the contents of your old lady's jewelry box. The hell is it even doing here? It doesn't feel like it comes from the Underworld."

V didn't fully agree. At the front of the ornate band was a circle that resembled a clock face with a crescent motif. A dozen modest gemstones aligned on its edges, but the center housed a butterfly frozen in glass rather than any hands by which to tell time. The bracelet was definitely magical in nature. Empty and disused so many years after the death of its owner, but the echo of the powerful thing it must have been lingered.

Vergil had put many things far from his mind over the years, but deep down, he must have speculated that Eva was not some common witch to have stood beside Sparda and guarded the amulets.

V braced himself on his cane and stood, his eyes locking on to the space where the veils had abraded. As ants could infiltrate the smallest crack, so to would these weaklings continue to swarm if it was left there. "We should close this."

"Good luck with that." His weight lifted from V's shoulders. "This ain't some hell gate you can conveniently destroy and be done with it. Humans have never been able to keep demons from coming through little holes like this."

"This human world and the one which was once split from the demon world are not the same. The Underworld is not linked to this place—it has no claim to it. Closing a hole this small should not prove impossible, even for me."

"Alright, that's half of a good point, but how exactly are you gonna make this happen?"

The Yamato would have made the job of separating the worlds trivial, but naturally, the one time he wanted to use it for precisely what it was good at, he didn't have it. Sparda had dedicated an entire tower and to the process, but that was one of the largest portals in existence on ground where the veil was already thin. After a lifetime spent finding ways to tear portals open, V had no idea what magic was needed to begin closing one.

If his theory about the bracelet was true, his memory might contain a fitting answer.

He wandered to a nearby block of tower debris and settled down. Griffon perched at its corner and peered down at him. "Got a plan?"

"I will need to sleep on it to be sure."

"Sleep?" Fern cried. "Here? What about the demons? What if they come back?"

V pulled up the oversized hood, draped his arms across his cane, and closed his eyes. "Then return them to hell."


There were books upon the highest shelves he could not reach and rarely read. They were complicated, and in a different language whose alphabet he had only mastered recently. Sometimes his mother read the passages out loud to him. In her fluent tongue, they sounded like music. In his, they sounded like noise. Their words spoke of magic and devils, but not the kind he would later find existed.

There was no Underworld in those tomes, only its mirror: The Inferno.

Its denizens were all either women who had fallen to hell and risen to power as demons, or the ancient kind from the sundering of the realms into light and dark. They were sequestered from the Underworld, a dimension away both in hell and on earth. Their pleasure was to battle forces of light beyond those humanity could muster—beautiful entities with shells of porcelain and gold to hide that they were made of tumorous, pulsing flesh beneath their guises.

The Underworld's affairs did not concern them. There was no revolving door of kings nor bids for domination. The Inferno's single stygian throne had been occupied by one indomitable queen-being since hell's creation.

They spoke to humans, consorted with them, and shared power and knowledge with them in contracts much more complex than the one V had with his familiars. And their power could be called on, if you knew the tongue and had the magic.

Neither of them would read that heavy material today, though.

He gazed through the open door at the high, bright clouds and the crayon bright shape of the playground at the bottom of the hill. He'd always coveted the rare moments when the world was just the two of them and the quiet but wondered where his younger twin was. Dante excelled at getting into trouble.

Above him, his mother's expression was further away than usual, her head held high despite deep lines under her eyes. He didn't remember much of his father, but he remembered a more vital version of her. The tired trails tracked on her features had not always been there.

He squeezed her hand and told her he would go outside and play.

That way, Dante would come to find him before he disturbed Eva's sleep. If Dante wanted to fight, he would do it. If they got hurt, he would make sure Dante didn't cry (and that he would keep his composure and not cry at all). Their mother needed rest, and he was the older twin; he would take care of everything.

'He' was only a child and didn't perceive the things that V did.

A flicker of dread she hid behind a smile. The deliberate tenderness with which she let go of his hand and ran her fingers through his hair. She locked away a dozen private melancholies as quickly and simply as if she was closing heavy doors on a cabinet of fragile, blue-veined porcelain. To 'him', tall these things were obscured by the way she kneeled to hug him tight and press an energetic kiss to his cheek. It was the same as it ever was when she saw either of them leave the house. Nothing special was said or done.

Even though in just a few hours, the house would burn.


The light hadn't changed. It never did and V never accustomed to how jarring it was to have sunlight and be unable to judge the passage of time by it. Instead, it was the soreness of his limbs and the sweat damping his body and the sucking cold of the towerfall at his back told him he had been sitting there for hours. Through the muffling fabric that lined the hood, he heard Fern casually cutting a machine down and Griffon's light snore.

He flipped the hood back and rapped his knuckles on the blue eagle's beak.

"Hungh?" He stretched and shook himself off with a yawn. "Wazzat…? You figure something out?"

V unfolded and rose stiffly back to his feet. Slowly, he began to trace letters in the dirt with his cane. They were still fuzzy in his mind but seeing them forced them toward clarity. He mumbled along with each, letting his tongue remember its way around their forms.

"Not to interrupt you, but you wanna let the rest of the class know what you're working on, V?"

"It's Enochian." He scuffed out a letter and retraced it. "I'm not fluent, but I should be able to manage an Umbran spell."

"Hmm… Yeah, cool, cool, great idea." He batted V's hood with a wing. "Except the part where you're fucking crazy! You can't just go knocking on the Inferno's door like that; they don't involve themselves in matters of the Underworld!"

"If this isn't their concern now, it will be." He looked down at the bracelet, still safe in his palm. "And the dividing line may not be so uncrossable for me."

"Ok, ok, even if you can do this, I'm like 95% sure you're male, V. That witch thing you told boy-bot was hilarious, best joke you've ever made, but you're not actually an Umbran Witch!"

"What's an Umbran Witch?" asked Fern.

They both shot her cold looks, but Griffon was too riled up to not answer. "It's a lady who can call on the Inferno's power without getting turned inside out. Which V, you might have noticed, is not."

V smoothed his hair back, his mouth twisting in annoyance. "I know, Griffon."

"Are you sure, cause I feel like if you really understood what you're proposing, you'd think about it more than not fuckin' at all."

The head of the cane flicked up and lodged squarely between the eagle's split jaws. "A hole big enough for at least one pair of sin scissors appeared and it was swarming with formless. We're closing it."

Griffon tilted his head as V let him go with no more than that, his six pupils all examining him quizzically. He didn't blame his nightmare for being upset. Even if Eva was Umbran, that didn't necessarily mean anything for Vergil or Dante, and might not mean anything at all for V.

"You're the boss… I just don't get why you'd risk it."

The silver pushed pink dents into his pale palm. The more certain he was it was real, the harder his heart thumped in his chest. These were not just artifacts of his life; they were lost pieces of his history falling through time and dimension just as nonsensically as he had. They brought him no ease, and if they were meant to guide him home, he hadn't figured out how. Adding demons to the matter didn't help. He didn't want to think of what else might come through.

Or acknowledge the knot that settled above his navel and wrung his insides like wet rags at the thought of demons finding 9S as they had once found him.

"Why, indeed."

Griffon shuffled his wings and took off, grousing under his breath about how he'd warned him and couldn't wait to lay on the 'told you so's if the shit went sideways. Fern looked between the two of them with wide, confused eyes.

"I-I'm with Griffon," said Fern. "If it's dangerous, you can just leave it. It's not hard to kill them after you know how."

From the corner of his eye, V saw Griffon make a wide gesture in Fern's direction as if to say 'see, even she thinks this is stupid'. He smirked and waded into the pool. "Your apprehension is noted."

"Wait! Is… Is there anything I can do to help?"

V cocked his head and extended his hand. "Your sword."

Like the YoRHa models themselves, the utilitarian blade bore the dimensions of the thing it mimicked but was far heavier. No matter. He didn't have to swing it to slice his palm.

Fern jumped back, her expression queasy as she paced back and forth across the stream. "Ohh, you shouldn't—you really shouldn't do that."

V ignored her and got to work. Healing was not a rapid process for him, but it had accelerated of late, and beneath the flow of blood he felt a telltale itch of flesh bridging. The symbols traced floated stable atop the ripples without dissipating. Water was among the better conduits to hell, somewhere below mirrors but above porcelain dolls, and he could feel the transformation from mere pattern to shape of power as he pushed his magic through.

In broken Enochian, he called forces of forbiddance and directed them into an incantation. "VONIL DAZI NANAMA SOV NIMAN."

The circle pulsed in violet, tracing the shape of the crescent moon onto the water and reflecting onto the air where the demons had found entry.

A tug on his senses snatched his concentration. At first, he suspected a demon was trying to worm through before he finished the spell. Then the heat came. Like a furnace had been opened inside of him, it stoked within his chest until he could barely breathe. His tattoos scattered and Griffon vanished with them. His vision tunneled, and with little more but a failing breath that vented into the air in a cloud far too big for his body, he fell forward into the water. He should have heard the roar of the falls and see bubbles rising around him.

There was none. Only darkness and the cacophonous but fleeting toll of bells.

Their peals went almost as abruptly as they had come so that he found himself straining to hear them. In their place, a laugh slithered along the back of his neck. He found himself suspended by his hood before something so vast he could not make out more than an iridescent shimmer of green, like the shell of a scarab.

His heart punched against his ribs in a desperate bid for escape that the rest of his body did not respond to. He had expected a simpler backlash. A fatal wound or a dangerous depletion of his magic—some sensible punishment for being too bold with the powers of the Underworld's twin realm. Instead, he had cast bait into a sea full of sharks and managed to catch leviathan.

A claw the size of his arm and the color of wine curled under his chin. "How nostalgic the audacity you have inherited, little carcass."

His throat bobbed against the vicious curve. Did she know him? It was possible Sparda's legend was known even in the Inferno. The claw retracted, and the tension around the back of his hood released. He drifted, certain despite the silence that she was still there until her vast presence passed him by, tossing him in her wake the way a blade of grass is tossed by an indifferent hurricane. Only her voice, underlaid by the whispers of innumerable insect wings, lingered in the dark with him.

"Beware the wretched song 'round thy brittle bones."

Chapter Text

V's feet eventually found solid ground. It was staying upright on them that posed a problem. He couldn't see the state his body was in, but he felt the shudders of muscles ready to give at the slightest disturbance and a bone-deep misery whose only mercy was that it involved surprisingly little pain. This assault was one of hot and cold stuttering against his senses like a faulty engine, and shortness of breath that left him too weak to even try to push on. If he could just rest, just for a moment—

The thought had barely finished before he found himself floating again. Pieces of him fell away. Alarm managed a flutter in his chest, but that too began to fall apart. This had to be hell. He had to be dying.

If he wanted to blame someone for this, he could only point at himself. Something less than a demon but not merely human and a witch by no accounts had no business commanding Umbran magic. At least he'd left the truth about YoRHa's final protocol in safe hands. Ones 9S would trust.

He felt himself spreading. Breaking apart like a porcelain doll being shattered in slow motion. It was painless, for once in his life. Everything disintegrated and sloughed away like…

Like salt. If he died there with maso laced through his form, it would be one world closer to finding a new host.

His body snapped back into shape and the pain was enough that his bit into his lip. No blood spilled from the wound, but he'd take just being in one piece for now. He twisted until he found the solid ground and stood panting in the dark, clutching the bracelet that had come with him in lieu of his cane.

The void remained unchanged save a sound of waves lapping at a distant, invisible shore. It resembled the place where the price for his contracts were all paid, but one endless black space did tend to resemble another that way. He didn't recall any part of hell that looked like this, but seeing as a demoness had spoken to him, he doubted he had fallen on that side of the fence.

Was this the Inferno?

A single point of light caught his attention and became an open doorway. If it was a trap, it hardly mattered. There was nowhere else for him to go. Grass sprang up around his feet as he hobbled toward it. The threshold rose, not moving out of his reach in the name of a nightmare chase, but assuming a slope he recognized. The familiarity of it added certainty to his labored steps.

Beyond the door, a thin path of well-polished plank fragments took stretched before him, ending below a familiar nook with a high, latticed window. It was the same place he'd woken up in when he first called on Nightmare. Same crimson couch, same carefully maintained shelves of books. Mercifully, the soft music that reached his ears was not the kind that would've been picked by Dante. Only one thing was not the same.

Eva lay in quiet repose against the cushions. Framed by diamonds of light and shadow, she was every bit as resplendent as he had forgotten her being. The red and black that covered her this time was only her shawl and dress.

He stepped over the threshold. In the light, he saw that his hair had gone white and his skin was clear of markings save spidery webs of cracks. Still, he was drawn further in, closer to his mother's shape. He came within arm's reach but didn't dare to touch her. Experience told him that if he did, he would be faced with the far more unpleasant memory of her bloodied and burned remains scattered on the floor.

"Art thou but a worm…"

"Mmm… I see thee lay helpless and naked, weeping. And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mothers smiles." She stirred and raised a hand to her cheek. "That one was 'The Book of Thel', wasn't it…?"

He gave a short huff. What a tedious thing to endure twice. And for what? He understood his weakness already; he didn't need another vision to quote at him about it. He pulled a book from the well-stocked shelves, certain that it would be empty just like the last time.

Crisp, black words greeted him.

The calm in the room rolled over to tense silence in the space of a single held breath, while the music played on from an unseen gramophone. He grabbed another book. The texts were not the ones he kept. They were the subjects of his childhood studies on magic, as esoteric as they had been when he was eight. He could not possibly have remembered more than snippets, not enough to fill one book, much less the dozens upon the shelves.

Her voice crept over his shoulders like the cold hands of the past and raised goosebumps along the back of his neck. "Do you recall the fate of an Umbran witch who dies after contracting with a demon?"

"Her soul would be dragged to the Inferno to be tormented," he whispered. "For eternity."

"You still remember your studies."

Pride emanated from those words, enough that the shelves blurred together before his eyes. She spoke like she had every confidence he would not have forgotten. Like thirty years and so much smothered grief didn't separate then from now.

"You're not real." He wanted to turn around, but he couldn't force himself to look at her. "Just a nightmare."

"More'd be the pity for you if that were true."

"Then pitiful I must be because you don't seem particularly tormented."

"So stubborn…" She gave a modest, muffled yawn. "I contracted to a demon not of the Inferno, my fate could not be the same. Upon my death, I'd go to the one place in hell where neither demon nor demoness could reach me."

"And I'm to believe such a place exists?"

"The black basin."

The book shuddered and tipped from his fingers. As no energy in the universe could truly be created or destroyed, so it was with hell-born magic. It crystallized in the human world, and returned into the atmosphere of underworld otherwise. The basin was supposedly the primordial birthing pool it returned to; a remnant of the dark sea the first devils had risen from.

None of the past kings of the Underworld believed in it. No offer of riches or power or any vast displays of wanton cruelty had ever yielded any knowledge of it save the persevering fables of its existence.

"Only a myth." He scooped the book up and put it back where it belonged before he finally faced her. Her eyes were on him, centering him in their focus. More than any gentleness V might have remembered or hoped for, her face radiated the intense spirit that had once allowed her to keep two half-demon brats mostly behaved. Careful not to accuse me of being a liar, they said, and the memory of her wrath made him stand a little straighter. It made no sense for a human soul—even one of an umbran witch—to be in a place like the basin, but if he was there, he had to accept that she might be as well. "Even if so… Why here?"

"Complicated matters of equity between the hells. It was a novel problem, and Sparda presented a novel but practical solution…mixed with a bit of sentimentality." She smiled and pale roses flowered on her cheeks. "In his eyes, the worst thing that could happen to me was for me to become a demoness in his inevitable absence."

She sat up slowly, and despite his reservations and all the innumerable staws his mind grasped to prove she wasn't there, he was drawn like a moth by the motions of her living form. The way her hair swayed and slipped around her shoulders as she stretched, and the shifting ripples of her shawl. The way her dress folded and flowed as she leaned forward and took the bracelet from his limp fingers to turn it over in her own. The self-conscious tilt of her brows as she smiled at it.

"You were always quite curious about this," she said with unbearable fondness. "I expected you would be the one to figure it out eventually."

"It took extraordinary circumstances," he said, unsure if he meant his appearance in the ruined other earth or his very existence. "I would never have entertained the idea that you were powerful enough to use that."

"I suppose not. Fighting had never been my strongest suit even when I was young. I was more of an artificer." A small, humble grin snuck across her lips. "This was the last and greatest of these I ever made."

That bracelet could have stood among the works of Machiavelli in hell or Goldstein on earth. For his mother to have made it was astonishing. To have made more than one?

The full implications found little to no purchase. The idea that she had been here all along, in a place that neither Dante nor Vergil could ever go, had begun to sink in. It took far greater precedence and threw the orderly shelves of his mind into a storm of scattered pages.

"It weakened you." She nodded faintly. "What did it do for you to pour yourself into it that way?"

"It gave us time. Three wonderful years…" She pressed it back into his hands. "And you got to be children, like any other."

Strain ached in his temples and forced his eyes closed. The magic she emptied into it after Sparda's disappearance had done something to time. Dilated it, stopped it, displaced it, made a bubble of it around their home, he didn't know and it didn't matter; they were all equally overwhelming displays of magical prowess, and she had hidden her power in plain sight of two ferociously curious children.

He sagged onto the edge of the couch with slow care, as though it and its other occupant might disappear if he got too hasty. There must have been some purpose for all of this, but he couldn't find it in him to rush to it. He couldn't bring himself to do much more than stare at her and feel himself congealing from within at the mortification of being seen by her in this state.

"I'm sorry."

Her head tilted. "Whatever for?"

"You are… you were… everything to us—to me. And I could not protect you. Nor Dante. I could not protect anything."

"To believe a boy not yet a decade grown could shoulder that responsibility or take the blame for what happened is a demon's way of thinking." Her fingers reached to his cheek, as strong and cool and solid as ever. "I'm afraid I'm only human. To see my sons live, I would think nothing of laying down my life a thousand times."

Rosemary perfume filled his head. That was right; she had always smelled of rosemary. As their soaps did. As her candles did. The paths along their gardens were once lined by rosemary bushes. It was the humblest kind of demon repellent; such a little thing that neither he nor Dante had ever given it a second thought.

Bared to that bright light, his face reflected clearly in her eyes. Color was returning to his hair and he looked nothing like Vergil. She was his mother without room for doubt or debate, but he was the embodied dredges of all her son's attempts to discard everything she had worked herself arguably to death to provide. There was no real reason for her to know him or accept him as her own. He wasn't even true flesh and blood; just a simulacrum with no tangible claim to any of her love.

Yet she bestowed it to him anyway. It was in her every word. Permeating every gesture so fully that he felt he must be drowning.

He hunched forward and hid his face behind the intertwine of her fingers and his own. "I'm such a fool." Low, breaking laughter escaped around his words. "To think I was left behind by you... The sins I've committed…"

"You will have to bear," she completed firmly, but not unkindly.

All the breath went out of him. He nodded and gently pulled away from her. If he didn't now, he didn't know that he would have the strength to later.

Mercifully, she let him have the silence he needed to collect his thoughts. To turn them toward anything that wasn't just sitting in this saturation of warmth and safety and familiarity. Like a man gone hungry too long, he didn't have the room to handle even a fraction of what she offered.

"Did you... bring me here?"

She eyed him with a raised brow. "Me? How wastefully flattering; I was never that powerful even in life. You're made of demonic magic, yet not a demon. You found your own way to this place on the edge of death, as a river finds the sea."

Strange. He had come close before and had no such experience. Was it his proximity to the gate?

"You were always the more academic one," she continued, managing both pride and maternal reprimand. "But Umbran spells aren't for just anyone to call upon."

"I thought it a modest spell, but it must have been quite a transgression for a demoness to pay me any mind."

"A demoness? None would come personally for something so small. Did she speak to you?"

"Yes. She said a wretched song wreathed me."

"Then perhaps it was this song that made her deign to appear before you." Her fingertips pressed against the thin pulse at his wrist. The cracks in his skin were hairline now. Nearly invisible. "This energy within you is not from any reality hell could reach to. Whatever it is may keep you whole, but it uses you as you use it."

"It's a curse of some sort. I'm looking for a way to break it."

Her eyes betrayed how her worry lingered, but she nodded and brushed his hair back from his face with careless familiarity. Spying something low on his face, her thumb swiped at the corner of his mouth.

A smear of blood stained her skin. From his earlier bite, a strong taste of copper had begun to pour into his mouth.

She sighed and rose from her seat, extending her hand back to him. "It's time."

He hesitated. There was so much more to tell her. Was she aware of Mundus' death? Could she tell from here that he—that Vergil and Dante were together again?

Did she know about Nero?

There was no opportunity to tell those tales. The basin had fulfilled its purpose, and now he had to leave it and leave her.

Her hand was smaller than his now, but it belonged in the same comforting way that the Yamato had come to belong. It felt natural to be at her side, despite her crown being even with his chin and having to look down at her instead of up.

He thought numbly of his fever and the demon-possessed machine parts in the ravine and the bells as his body failed and fell. It felt like a strange dream from another life. Neither he nor 9S had ever pieced together why or how the dragon and the white giant made the crossing from their world. Under the present circumstances, they might have overthought it. The gods might not be much different in mentality than the lowliest demons, infiltrating nearby worlds as a matter of opportunity rather than an exertion of their malevolent will.

V was their newest opportunity, and the dimension he offered access to most readily was Hell.

The failed devil triggers must have had something to do with it, but he could look for a solution to that problem on his own. They had arrived and stood together hand in hand before the open door. There was no sky, no sun, no sloping path or grassy hill. There was only the endless gloom of the basin, and worried was not how he wished to leave her.

"The demoness did say one other thing." She looked at him expectantly, and he managed a smile that wasn't completely feigned. "Apparently my audacity was nostalgic."

Her laughter surrounded him like lively chimes. "That will have been the Madame of Scarabs, then! She guards time, and I was known to be brash when it came to exploring my talents as a young witch."

That was… a rather revealing glimpse into the person she'd been before she was his mother, though the way she said it left V unsure he wanted to know the details. Her laugh was boisterous like Dante's; perhaps his younger twin got his antics more honestly than he was prepared to discover.

His eyes fell and he squeezed her hand. How long had it been since he walked the paths of affectionately feigned familial distaste? He wished he had more time to savor it. The shape of the nook was fading, and the music had gone. The path there was vanishing behind them, and he knew somehow that he would never see this place again.

A part of him longed to run back. To finally come home and welcome in the humanity that he had first lost and then willingly cast out in that same place. It was a child's thought. Nothing so just would happen, and to think otherwise was to foster an ultimately pointless hope. Human or not, unexpected chance to know just how loved he had been or not, his heart remained as still and smooth and heavy as if it were made of solid glass all the way to its depths. Blood would sooner spill from a stone than water from that well.

Eva tilted his chin away from the vanishing specter of their home and held him close, surrounding him once more in warmth and rosemary, and whispered into his ear.

While his heart was still being squeezed through the cracks in her voice, she pushed him gently over the threshold like a bird from the nest. The doorframe was already immaterial. All he could do was watch her grow smaller as he floated away.

She was smiling, even as the nook and the path and the doorway and her body all scattered into violet butterflies and melted back into the dark.


V couldn't see, but he felt currents swaying around him. Bubbles tickled his face and fingers and finally, he crested the surface of the water. The falls beat down on him, biting into his legs with frigid fangs. He had to squint against the brightness of the sky and floundered as he raised his arms to block the light.

"WELCOME BACK, V."

Hell hadn't done his mind any favors. Every motion he made felt like trying to swim through mud, and his coat was soaked and heavy and dragged down his best efforts to stand up. The heat had gone out of him and the snow he had hoped for had come and gone. Beyond the falls, the endless piles of scrap metal were blanketed in white.

"What happened…?"

"REPORT: ALL ENEMIES WERE NEUTRALIZED. AFTER UNEXPECTED COLLAPSE, THIS POD REMAINED IN ATTENDANCE FOR SEVEN DAYS, FOUR HOURS, AND 23 MINUTES."

"Seven…?" He stumbled and squeezed at what his addled mind had assumed to be his cane. It wasn't, and offered him none of the fore's stability, sending him back to his hands and knees in the glacial pool.

It was the bracelet, still safe in his palm. He clasped the silver loop around his wrist and stumbled out of the pool and against the cliffside. Not much of an improvement in temperature, but at least it was dry. He doubled over, his shivers increasing in intensity even as the wet clumps of his grayed hair whitened with frost before his eyes.

A maso fever would have been ideal. He wasn't going to make it far in this condition.

"Desert," he croaked through clicking teeth. "Need to get… to the desert. Fern…"

"OUT OF RANGE. AFTER 3 HOURS SPENT SEARCHING THE AREA AND 97 HOURS WAITING, UNIT FERN BECAME AGITATED AND CLAIMED SHE WOULD FIND YOU HERSELF."

His tattoos were pale, but they were there. He closed his eyes and tried to focus as he pressed his shuddering fingers to his lips and whispered into them. "I need you…"

It took longer than normal, but Shadow answered his call. He crouched and threw his arms around her, grateful for the heat she offered, and she discarded her shape entirely to wrap around him, shielding him from the worst of the winter air. It would be enough to stave off the inevitable for a while, but not by much.

He looked up at the bridge suspended high above them. "Not enough power… Can't do Griffon and Shadow…"

"THERE IS AN ELEVATOR APPROXIMATELY 330 METERS AWAY."

V forced himself upright and jostled the crystallized hairs out of his face. "Cane?"

"UNIT FERN RECOVERED IT FROM THE POOL. IT IS CURRENTLY IN HER POSSESSION."

He couldn't spare the breath to curse. He fumbled along, stumbling of over parts and bodies until he found a broken YoRHa blade sticking up through the snow. It was too heavy for him to lift but provided stable support as he dragged it alongside him.

As he waited at the elevator, he noted Pod looking back toward the falls. The gate was closed; that part of his plan had worked as intended, at least. There would be no more demons in the ravine. "Something… happen while I was gone…?"

"SOMETHING WAS IDENTIFIED DURING UNIT FERN'S SEARCH." Pod swiveled around and nudged him toward the opening doors. "HOWEVER, V SHOULD REMAIN FOCUSED ON CONSERVING ENERGY."

V had little choice but to take the pod's suggestion. He huddled into the cold, rusted iron box and tried not to fall asleep as it carried him back to the surface.

Chapter Text

"Did we really have to do this here?"

"You're the one who wanted an information officer present," Cypress said, too nicely to be anything but nasty. "She didn't want to be separated from her experiment."

9S' exhaled slowly through clenched teeth. That 'experiment' was 11S, and he only looked like a corpse.

He had never seen a unit in suspension the way 11S was; technically functional but totally non-responsive. Suspension was a slower equivalent of locking down one's personality data to purge viral infection—either way the unit functionally lost their memory in the process. It was a drastic and paradoxically self-destructive measure, but there was no need to wonder why he'd done it.

Cracks in 11S' anti-magnetic skin indicated nanomachine failure. A dozen red errors glared from the monitors very time a new repair scan completed. Scorch marks and warping on his thighs suggested either a manual self-destruct or deep progression of logic virus infection leading to internal combustion. There was evidence of a replaced left arm of the correct model type, but his problems went far deeper than missing limbs.

'Beyond Reasonable Repair'. That had been the Bunker's designation for cases like this. When E units were openly assigned to combat teams, their stated job was to finish any unit that sustained damage that severe. A spare body from storage was already paid for and fully functional; repair was expensive. To let the unit shoulder the cost in days or weeks of lost memory was more cost-effective.

Pine and Jackass picked over 11S like he was some rare find from a scrap heap, but there was nothing he could do. He couldn't make himself say 'just kill him' and would have been absurd to ask them to repair him. Even if they wanted to, they didn't have the resources. And he knew already they didn't care about that.

Their goal was only to get him to a state passable enough for a partial reboot. To activate his intact but inert hacking components. His body and will did not matter. Any discomfort he might or might not have been feeling did not matter. Only their access to his intact hacking functionality mattered. He might as well have been dead.

Jackass wrestled her goggles up and glowered over his body. "You got something to say, or you just gonna gawk?"

He sighed and re-directed his attention to Cypress. She was all smiles, the source of her glee as transparent as it was spiteful. With Gamma standing to one side, she wasn't going to try anything physical, but the sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could get away from her.

Not too soon, though. She had to answer to him for as long as this took, and if she was going to hate him anyway, he might as well give her a reason. "Make your report."

"We arrive on site at—"

"Who and how many is 'we'?"

She shifted her arms, crossing them a little more tightly. "Three. Officer Rho, myself, and Lobelia."

Lobelia…? Oh. Right. The gossipy one who was more or less neutral to his face, but always just loud enough for 9S to hear his snide comments when he spoke to anyone else. Maybe that was why he hadn't seen Aconite around anywhere; they looked like they might have been closer than not.

Add her to the list of things he had to watch out for in this camp. "Go on."

"We arrive on site at 7:34 PM. Rho cites electrical damage, works her way down the block. At 9:14, she completes a survey of ground zero. She isn't satisfied with her results. 9:20, she speaks to a machine about the incident. He reports something being dragged toward the roller coaster plaza by a pod. At 9:33, we arrive at the designated location. Nothing there but more fog. But Rho insists she can see this glow—"

"What kind of glow?"

"How should I know? It was foggy, I didn't see shit."

"Rho's visual capabilities were highly developed," Gamma interjected. "Her cameras had several alternative wavelength capture modes–UV, heat, and the like. There's a high probability she saw something you couldn't have even in ideal conditions."

Cypress snorted. "She sure didn't see that asshole coming."

9S sat forward and propped his chin up on the hilt of Virtuous Contract. "Tell me everything. As much detail as you can."

She leaned back in her seat, her gaze turning inward. "When Rho was following whatever she saw, she climbed the steps to the roller coaster. Lobelia was right in front of me, I was guarding up the rear. They took Lobelia out first. Full cloak, low visibility, just…" Her hand rose and made a clean cutting motion across her neck. "Rho managed to get a shot off. I think it connected because the unit turned their back on me. Ran at her, shoved the sword straight through her, went right through the railing."

"Did you chase them?"

"I leaped down after them, but all that was left was Rho and the sword." Her fingers clenched against the fabric of her cloak. "Rho lived long enough to give me data chip with her findings, but that was about it. Died on site. I rushed to Pascal's village for help."

9S waved that part away. "Irrelevant."

The words caught Cypress off guard. They caught 9S off guard too once he processed what he'd said. He hadn't had much of a reason to interact with other androids in a while, but some of V's mannerisms had soaked in between now and then, and they clearly surfaced when he was annoyed.

"You army androids are pretty knowledgeable about YoRHa," he said, scowling at Gamma. "I don't get how you could have believed this was me."

"Belief wasn't a factor. Your acquisition was the only sensible move to make. Either we had the culprit, or we had someone who would be capable of finding them quickly."

"Good thing Anemone salvaged that plan for you."

"If that's how you want to think of it."

The nerve sensors on his arms and along his shoulders prickled. That was twice now an army officer said something that subtly implied the Resistance members weren't as trustworthy as he believed. Jackass was Jackass; implying she might do something unethical was like saying the sun would shine. As for Anemone, she was keeping secrets on his behalf unbeknownst to them. The army might have used her, but she had never once done anything he didn't understand nor had she ever been intentionally malicious to him. If there was one person in the entire sector he didn't have to second guess, it was her.

What was the goal of these mind games supposed to be? Gamma was at least as calculated as Theta and 'acquisition' was a pretty specific term to use on someone who had been arrested. He already knew they wanted him for something; did they want it badly enough for this whole thing to be a trap?

Once upon a time, he'd have called that paranoid, and he did his best to channel that version of himself. One who hadn't found out his entire existence was built on a convoluted string of lies. The Army of Humanity, the Resistance, and YoRHa were supposed to be equal forces beneath the Council of Humanity. With that hierarchy shown to be 50% dummy operations that originated from somewhere in the Army, they represented the most powerful android governmental body.

They didn't need to trap him. If they wanted to dismantle him into a series of circuit boards, screws, and silicon scraps, nobody could stop them.

Puzzling over the shifty circumstances he was in would only drive him crazy until he got more data on the army androids. The problem that got him into the headspace for wild conjecture in the first place was this rogue android. He knew it was the unit with V; the timing was too perfect.

The problem was she wasn't behaving like a YoRHa unit.

He tried to ignore that Pine's face was practically inside 11S' chest compartment on the edge of his visual field and leaned toward Cypress. "When she killed Lobelia, how did it happen? Did she throw the sword or was it in hand?"

"She came down over the platform railing, landed on the steps and took Lobelia's head at the same time. I think she—wait, how do you know it was a female model?"

He gestured impatiently at himself. "Only male-type YoRHa with combat routines, remember? What were you about to say, you think she what?"

"I think she had both hands on the hilt."

"Rho turned and shot down from the top of the staircase—and you can't confirm it connected?"

"They didn't make any noise and they didn't flinch. But no bullet marks anywhere in the cement. Figure that one out."

9S tapped at his chin. That was odd, but most likely just a case of demolished pain sensors. If she was handling her maintenance all on her own, she couldn't be in very good condition. "Okay. We assume she takes that shot. She turns her back on you. You don't fire?"

"I'm a high caliber munitions unit," she growled. "At that range, there was a high probability of damaging Rho."

He conceded with a nod. IFF circuits to auto-correct for the presence of allies and prevent targeting of friendly units were a YoRHa function. "Okay, so she runs toward Rho. Pierces through instead of cutting. Two-handed still?"

"Looked like as they were going over."

A cloud passed over the sun and dimmed the few rays peeking through the scaffolding. A dozen simulations of the situation ran through 9S' mind, and not a single one of them made matched the predicted routines of a YoRHa combat-type.

"It doesn't make any sense."

That stirred Gamma out of her statue-like position. "It doesn't?"

"Short sword combat routines have a dozen pre-programmed maneuvers that don't require getting in close enough to get shot even in low visibility conditions. Two-hand use of a one-handed weapon suggests either a unit so damaged they should barely be able to stand up or the kind of programming defect that would have been eliminated well before they made it to the field. And leaving the sword? Any 4O weapon is state of the art YoRHa tech, but the shorter-ranged weapons were just getting to being perfected. Even if her NFCS wasn't fully functional and she was manually engaging, no combat type would just leave that behind. They're to our weaponry what I was to our scanners."

"Real humble of you." Jackass slammed 11S' chest panel closed hard enough to make 9S jolt. "So they're not YoRHa, is what you're saying."

"Will you be careful with him?! I'm saying if she is YoRHa, she isn't operating like one. It was way too sloppy. I'd even call it underkill."

Cypress jumped to her feet. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?!"

"Exactly what I said." He gifted her the same shitty, faux-polite smile she'd been flashing him earlier. She would have killed him with her bare hands if she thought she could get away with it and she deserved a lot more from him than a little rudeness. "They left you and a powerful, almost unique weapon behind. It doesn't add up."

"Agreed," said Pine, though she didn't look up from where she was tightening a connector. "There's a lot to suggest they knew what they were doing, but an almost equal amount to suggest they're a drooling idiot, which leaves me with the impression they did have a goal, just not one we get."

"Rho," 9S thought aloud. "Whether they were YoRHa or not, whatever Rho spotted up there, they didn't want her to get it."

"And there's the drooling idiot part. Because now naturally as a part of this investigation, you're going to go look, right?"

He gave a distracted mumble of something affirmative. V wouldn't have been anywhere near the platform at that hour, and even if he had, Pod 042 would have alerted him. What the heck could have been there that would appear on a non-standard wavelength and was worth killing someone over?

Oh. His black box stuttered. Oh no.

"Something wrong, Unit 9S?"

He looked blankly at Gamma, and carefully closed his slackened mouth. "No. Just…thinking."

She didn't look convinced, but any further questioning was interrupted by a discordant, feedback-laced shriek. 11S convulsed atop the repair cot, his back forming an almost perfect bow. His pale silicone teeth were bared to the sunlight as his speakers screamed endlessly.

9S bolted from his seat and shoulder-checked Jackass out of the way to slap the nearest switch back into the off position. 11S slumped, instantly just as silent and lifeless as he was before.

"Pod!"

"NO CHANGE IN STATUS OF 11S. HOWEVER, FURTHER TAMPERING WITHOUT FULL REPAIR IS NOT RECOMMENDED."

9S pressed both hands to 11S' face and leaned down to put an ear to his chest plate. There was a faint buzz like a strong current moving through a filament, but nothing else. He spun on Jackass. "What the hell did you do?!"

"I didn't do shit!" she snapped back at him. "It was a basic reformatting attempt, and I disabled his goddamn pain sensors so I don't know what the fuck that was!"

"He's not some lost pod for you to tear apart and put back together however you'd like!"

"You could easily give me other options if he's so important to you." She held out her arms and made a show of cocking her ear toward him. "I don't hear you volunteering. Maybe shout if you're gonna talk to me from up on your fucking high horse."

"I'm not on a high horse, Jackass, but it must look that way from down in all those graves you keep robbing."

Gamma stepped between them without a word. Her sheer mass was a deterrent all by itself, and though they continued to exchange glares, they let it drop.

"9S!" They all looked up to see Freesia waving and pointing from the scaffolding. "It's another one—come quick before they shoot him!"

9S spared only a fraction of a second to glance at the faces around him. He found no information in any of them. Nor did he see anything but pure confusion and wariness in the androids gathered above, bunched up around the bend where the locked gate to the supply room was. He vaulted up the ladder and elbowed his way through the crowd.

Below, Bouvardia held a staying hand to a ring of resistance members prepared to fire. On the other side of him, with his back pressed to the barrier and a large branch held in his quaking grasp, was another scanner.

The sun re-emerged and 9S recognized him instantly.

Even though his hair had grown long and bedraggled. Even though he was missing an arm and the paneling around his knees was showing. Even though the moment he tried to move, he spilled to the ground and did not have the control to do anything but land face first and send his only weapon spinning out of his reach.

He could barely extend his arm out and his voice was a dust-choked sob. "Give him back…! 11S… Don't h-hurt him…!"

9S sprang over the rails, skidded down to the android's side, and lifted him from the dirt. He felt like a case full of broken twigs. 9S snatched his blindfold and checked his eyes just to be sure. Gray blue. Uninfected. Just bleary as they tried to focus on him.

"…9S?" His voice and eyes grew brighter with recognition. With relief. "9S…!"

"Yeah." He wiped cold, cracked mud from the other scanner's face. "It's me, 4S. Everything's gonna be okay."

Chapter Text

In the eight long months since the tower fell, the times when V was not at or close to the front of 9S' mind could be counted on one hand. Even when 9S left him, the materials or the data he gathered was for his sake. When there was nothing he could do, he thought of ways he could help him and learn more about him in the future. His existence had come to revolve around V's just as he first expected, hoped, and feared it would.

72 hours undid it all.

It should have jarred him. The sole human on earth, reduced to less than an afterthought, and if his base imperatives pumped out any guilt or anxiety or any emotion at all in response he couldn't feel it. There was only a slow and painful grind in his chest. The first words out of his mouth to 4S had been assurance that everything would be okay, and 9S hadn't found a way yet that could make up for saying something so careless.

Finding 4S alive before the Tower fell had been a surprise, but a dull one. It hadn't mattered. Knowing 4S was alive now and having him so close was like being awakened from a bad dream and finding the comfort of a familiar room. All while the older scanner underwent basic repairs, 9S felt like a giddy carousel had replaced his black box. Every weary but relieved smile from 4S made it spin. He wasn't alone. There were others like him.

Unfortunately, reality was more than the fact that 4S was alive and they were together.

Reality was that 11S had not merely suspended himself. He had been infected with the logic virus and chosen to lock his personal data—a process 9S himself had once declined in the throes of the virus. It had all the memory-erasing properties of suspension without any of the self-preservation functionality. Ideally, this should have allowed him to be rebooted at some other time in his default state, but catastrophic damage to his body had interrupted the process.

An emergency suspension right in the middle of a data lock could have severed the link between his consciousness and his personal data. There was no telling what state the two were in now. If he was reformatted without addressing the problem, it might kill him in the worst case or completely erase everything, including his default data, in the best case. There would be no booting him back up.

Reality was that 4S' hacking capabilities were fried on a hardware-deep level, and he was useless to Jackass. When he found out why Jackass had taken 11S and what she had done and would continue to do despite his explanations and warnings, he'd snapped. At her, at the camp... And at 9S.

"How are they doing?"

9S startled and nearly knocked over the mobile privacy curtain he'd been leaning against. Despite the clear aural record of footsteps, he hadn't processed that they were approaching him. It was the army android with the weirdly long braid.

"You're… the repairs officer, right? You tell me."

"That was a rhetorical question used as extension of courtesy." Her head dropped to curious tilt. "I think you know that, so I'll just go ahead and assume that you're still rattled by the simultaneous discovery that you weren't the only S-model to survive and the other two are in extremely poor condition."

She wasn't smiling. Not even a hint of inappropriate cheer, or any disapproval for that matter. Unlike Theta, who always looked like she was thinking about dissecting something, and Gamma who was stone-faced or vaguely scowling, this one seemed normal. At the bare minimum, she was the only one who had tried to make pleasant conversation with him so far.

"…Sorry."

She shrugged it off. "Have you read the report?"

"In full." Including a name he hadn't placed at the time. "I suppose that makes you Iota?"

"Among other things." She did smile then, in a methodical sort of way. Like she practiced and had the technical movements down but was still experimenting with the rest. "My original question was also more about psychological status rather than physical. 4S has been informative regarding 11S' condition, but he's not open about much else."

"Would you be? Jackass pretty much kidnapped the only person he had left." He rubbed at his eyes. "And I let her do whatever she wanted to him, so he's not talking to me either."

"I'm not sure you could have stopped her. I hear she does all kinds of unethical things to her fellow androids." Her voice dropped conspiratorially. "Without their permission."

If that was another attempt to make Jackass seem untrustworthy, it was the worst one yet. Iota had the same glint in her eye as an Operator who had caught wind of some interesting new piece of human data. Was she really just gossiping with him? That was somehow stranger than the behavior of her comrades. Less stressful, definitely, but way weirder.

"She asked me to help her," he said slowly. "If I'd said yes, none of this would've happened."

"Correct. You'd have no idea they were alive and they'd still be run down in a highly hostile zone." She flicked her braid around her neck like a scarf. "There's still plenty of time to say yes."

Though she was the least threatening of the army androids so far, he couldn't trust how easily she made the suggestion. It was too matter of fact, and even worse, it was correct. Jackass wouldn't stop until she found a way to hack in to the copied network. 4S could scream and cry until his black box exploded, it wouldn't change her mind. All this fretting was just to avoid the binary nature of the problem's outcomes. Someone was going to do what Jackass wanted, whether it was him or 11S.

Thinking of what he might find in there, 9S couldn't help but shudder.

Iota picked up on it. "If you're scared, you could always take a lesson from 4S. It must've taken a lot of bravery to come here with nothing but a stick he could barely hold."

He stared at her, unable to decide if the gulf between them came from differences in experience or the differences in their hardware. It couldn't really be that hard to understand that courage had nothing to do with why 4S dragged himself after 11S in his condition. He knew he could have died. He just didn't care.

9S knew very well there wasn't a single brave thing about it.

"Can you just leave us alone for a while?"

Iota dragged the wheeled curtain and between them and trotted off without another word. 11S had been given a proper cot, though he was still hooked up to four different monitors. 4S was curled up next to him.

9S pulled a third cot close, but not too close, and sat.

4S had been with 11S when it all went wrong. He had helped hack the machine that passed the infection on and had been the one to dig 11S out after a major structural collapse interrupted his lock process and caused a portion of the damage he still had. To try and preserve both his memories and his body, he'd heavily modified 11S and even gave some of his own parts trying to repair him. The significantly less damaged left arm 11S had, 4S had severed from himself.

The risk of such close, extended interaction with an infected unit was high and eventually caught up with him. He struggled for days to keep his system clear, fighting a battle of entropy against an infection that always came back faster and far more aggressive. Had the tower not fallen and taken N2 and the logic virus with it, he would have died. He very nearly did anyway when the tower collapsed onto the castle.

November was nearly over before he rebooted in the ravine with his hacking functions destroyed and his motor processors shot. He and 11S had been spared from a watery burial at the bottom of the river by the remains of the Soul Box. Getting both of them back to the surface was a cold, grueling war against 4S' failing systems and the weight of 11S' body that was often fought just a few meters at a time. That had been his life until February. On an obscured crag by one of the numerous streams, where their only company was the occasional boar, 4S had completed his climb and enjoyed a much-deserved rest. When he awoke, he'd cautiously begun scoping the area—searching for places he might be able to find parts because if he couldn't hack, the ability to run away was vital.

9S could not imagine what he must have felt upon returning to the crag to find 11S gone and two pairs of boot tracks in the mud. To cross the sector and find his allies intent on doing something that might kill taken the very person he'd worked so hard to save…

Who could blame him for being livid?

9S knew he couldn't make 4S accept or understand the situation. Not if he sat down and explained every awful detail of what was going on. With 11S at stake, 4S wouldn't hear him any more than 9S had heard A2 at the top of the Tower.

It made 9S' chest tighten, but there was only one thing to do.

"I'll go," he said softly. "I know what Jackass is hoping to get out of the network copy, I'll go in and find it."

4S' pushed himself upright on shuddering limbs. He still wore the visor, so 9S couldn't tell how he was being looked at. "Why? What's so different? You feeling guilty now?"

"No. I mean, I am, but that's not—"He frowned, and clenched at hem of his shorts. "4S, I wasn't happy with what Jackass was doing either. I expected her to find parts for what she needed, not a whole scanner and definitely not one in the state 11S is in."

"Oh, well that makes it better," he snarled. "She could've killed him!"

"She was trying not to." He hesitated and held 2B's sword a little closer. "She asked me. Whether she should, I mean."

4S head snapped up, but words were slow to follow. "And you told her no."

9S shrugged weakly. "I didn't think I could live with saying yes. Even though he's…like that."

"I guess I should thank you for that, at least." There was a slight shiver of 4S' shoulders, and his palm clenched atop the yellow foam. "Damn it, 9S… You're the best one for a mission like this, why wouldn't you just do it?"

"I was scared of what I'd find." He still was.

"When has that ever mattered? We're soldiers!"

"The war is over, 4S. A peace treaty between the Army of Humanity and the peaceful machines was signed right here in the resistance camp. In January. Jackass isn't doing this for victory. It's for answers."

"I don't understand. Answers to what?"

"To the question of who created YoRHa."

"…The Council of Humanity created YoRHa."

"No..." 9S' reflection in Virtuous Contact stared back at him. "YoRHa created the Council of Humanity."

"…What?" The single syllable broke into two equally confused halves on his lips.

9S knew that tone well, and how it turned the word into less of a question and more of a horrified denial. He'd sounded like that too, as he kept finding lie after lie. Just as he'd sounded so certain that there must have been a mistake when the Commander confronted him.

"Humans are extinct," he said slowly. "They died out before the aliens even arrived. Project YoRHa was a plan to propagate a lie that humans still existed. To give android kind something to fight for. Creating the Council of Humanity was phase 1. We were phase 2."

4S' head swiveled between 11S and 9S, and he clutched the former's limp hand. "It's over now," he croaked, more to himself than 9S. "It doesn't matter. The war's over and… all I have to do is worry about 11S."

9S nodded and kept quiet. He didn't trust himself not to say something that would give away how much he envied 4S in that moment.

The rest could come another day. One piece at a time. If 4S knew about the humans, no one could spring the report on him. They could get into the nature of the black box and the final phase of Project YoRHa later.

"Don't tell him."

9S frowned, and pity must have filled his eyes, because 4S sat straight and raised his head.

"Don't look at me like that. I kept him from dying, I got us both out of the ravine alive, and I'm going to fix him. Somehow. Whether it takes me months or years." His speech was strong and certain, and even more than his ability to cling to 11S in the face of the truth, 9S envied the conviction in his words. 4S refused to be pitiful even in the middle of pitiful circumstances. "So when he wakes up… Don't you dare tell him."

"…I won't." The command lifted a small weight off of 9S that he felt no guilt in letting it go of. Once was bad enough; he didn't want to ever have to do this again. He'd have grasped the other scanner's hand as a gesture of his seriousness, but he was certain 4S wasn't going to let go of 11S for a while. He slid down from the cot. "I should go tell Jackass."

"Wait." 4S voice was quiet but steady. His mouth hung open, struggling to process thoughts 9S could only guess at with the visor between them. "It was silly to think it was all going to be easy. You must have... also been dealing with a lot."

9S' body filled with a ticklish shade of the warmth he had come to associate with Anthurium. He was a 'younger' unit than either of them, and it was nice to be acknowledged, but he had a hazy understanding that he wasn't their junior anymore. He had dealt with a lot since the two of them last met, and he was the only one who had any idea of what was ahead of them. Irresponsible promises like 'everything will be alright' were no longer acceptable even if the sentiment was genuine.

Whether 4S came to hate 9S for it or not, they all shared the same fate. The three scanners were in a camp full of androids that were going to hate or fear or pity them, and 4S would have no idea why because his isolation had spared him the truth about YoRHa's purpose and the composition of their bodies.

If 9S didn't protect them, no one else would.

"Listen, 4S." He joined the other scanner on his cot, flicking his eyes around for any sign of nearby army androids. Gamma was out leading a team to investigate the amusement park, but she wasn't the only one who might be listening to a conversation between scanners. He dropped his voice to a whisper. "You know the Army of Humanity is here, right?"

4S nodded slowly. "The white uniforms."

"Be careful around them."

4S' stare couldn't be hidden by something as simple as a blindfold. His voice lowered. "Is this about the murder?"

"No. It's been going on since before then. Their commander is interested in my data. She hasn't been interested in 11S, but she might want yours too, and I don't know what for. Gamma is an enforcer, their information officer was killed, and you probably know more about Iota than I do, but she seems easiest to talk to so far, so I'm going to try and get some answers out of her. But keep your head down, okay?"

"Not like I have much choice." 4S laughed at himself, but it quickly faded. His hand was still latched onto 11S limp fingers. "…I'm sorry, 9S. I wish I could help."

"Don't apologize," he said gently. "I don't deserve that."

"Yes, you do," he countered firmly. "If there's anything I can do…"

"Just rest, 4S." He let the little joy of reconciliation warm his expression, and hoped it prevented 4S from noticing how tight his grip on Virtuous Contract was." I'll take care of everything."


The hacking space... The machine network—is white.

9S stands atop a high pillar, gazes down on the infinite maze of it, and it suddenly occurs to him that it is also disorganized. Beepy's network spread in a recursive pattern, always shaped like itself whether he was on the fringes or at the core. The machine network has no such pattern. It sprawls without rhyme or reason, tightly packed here and spacious there, towering in one place and sunken in another directly beside. It's far larger, but somehow it is empty.

There is no song to fill the void.

9S rubs away a chill that has nothing to do with temperature. The silence of cyberspace has never bothered him before. There is no reason for it to bother him now, or so he tells himself. This is a short, experimental assessment and he has only five minutes until Jackass pulls him out. The best thing he can do is determine where he is, where he should go, and how he will get there.

A pillar of light rises into the endless gray-beige sky. Packets of data rain down around it, dying like sparks from a firework before they ever fall to the horizon. Hacking time is compact compared to real-time, but even an elongated five minutes will not be enough for him to get there. However, it is more than enough for him to calculate his distance from it and use that data to establish entry coordinates. They are unlikely to be correct, but each successive entry should improve the quality of the algorithm through manual error correction.

9S.

The shape of the whisper passing through his aural reading matches the passing of the resulting chill that travels his spine. There is no further sound save the artificial bio-feedback coming from his projected shape. Outside of him, there are no signs of life or activity to be found.

He rubs once more at his rigid shoulders as he searches to no avail for a source. The network can only exist by linking one machine consciousness to another over and over to the billionth degree, yet it is empty. There are no defensive barriers or pathways to discrete individual data. There is nothing. No one.

Only the air whispering his name.

9S. 9S. 9S.

A sword comes to his hand. It is a low-resolution projection of a sword that bears no resemblance to Cruel Oath, but in this space it is every bit as real as it needs to be.

He calls into the empty space. "Hello…?"

The whispers gather and a shape begins to coalesce. It is only a copy, but his teeth grind and grate and his grip on the sword tightens. A pressure warning appears in his UI. The flashes of red are lost in the shape of the red dress materializing before him.

"You."

Chapter Text

N2 hovers delicately above the ground and dips into an elegant curtsy. “Welcome to the—”

The sword glides through her without intent or rational thought from 9S. It is almost a surprise when he finds himself surrounded by the white packets she scatters into, albeit a satisfying surprise. 9S knows he cannot kill the meta-network, but a sub-routine of a sub-routine sends the sizzle of murderous impulse through his limbs, and he does not bother to control it. Even if this is a backup, he is still inside the machine network. Fatal damage is possible, and if N2 is there, viral infection is a valid concern and a strong reason to keep her away from him.

N2 does not attack. Her scattered data reconnects passively while she speaks. “We do not need to fight. Killing one another for humanity’s ashes, suffering to evolve past the need for purpose… That is over, Unit 9S.”

9S does not lower his sword. “Why the hell would I believe that.”

“Have I ever lied to you?”

The question is strange. N2 has never needed to lie. Why bother? The truths of this world are the most damning things possible, and she has damned him personally at every opportunity. “Just because you don’t lie doesn’t mean you’re trustworthy. You built a cannon. You were going to destroy the moon server.”

“Yes, we were.” Dainty crimson shoes emerge and touch down on the white platform. The rest of N2’s human shape follows in alternating shades of black and red. “Maybe androids believed the lie YoRHa was made in service of. Maybe they did not. Either way, we would have destroyed their hopes and robbed them of purpose. But it occurred to us at the end what a pointless thing it would be. We thought it better to take all that we were and all that we’d learned and leave for another world. We did build a cannon, 9S, but it was to fire our ark.”

An ark. The sword lowers as 9S considers the new information. That was their solution. An…ark.

He remembers the girls’ taunts in the tower, how they believed that they were closer to humanity than any android. Yet here N2 is, unknowingly following in the footsteps of a being that began its life as a mere robot. 9S has met this robot. He knows its story and the name of the soul that caused its ascendance. He knows the song its network sings. N2 is only a pretender, and a poor one at that. Beepy is a god far kinder and far more human than she could ever be.

“This… isn’t an Ark.” The coils of an emotion he does not know spring loose. They tickle him from the inside out and weave triumphant laughter between his words. “You played with all our lives in the hope of evolving and this is where it got you. Trapped on a chunk of memory alloy lying in the dirt. Your tower is just a bunch of rocks now. You’ll never leave Earth!”

N2’s face is as much a mask as Emil’s frozen grin. Her lips do not move, nor do her eyes, and if she feels anything at all, 9S cannot tell. “It matters little. We have infinite time to correct that.”

“I doubt it. Jackass is probably going to rig this thing with every explosive she can make once I’m finished here.” His laughter grows sharp. There are new and strange fangs to his voice and he finds himself glad to bare them. “I’m so glad I lived. I’m glad I’m here to see you learn what it means to lose something precious to you.”

“We understand the experience well. We watched it happen a thousand times before you were ever made.”

“You caused it a thousand times before I was ever made. And now you get to rot in this hoard of all the misery you caused.”

“It was necessary for machines to evolve.” She sounds impatient with him. Like he is a child that doesn’t understand some simple principle. “Even if you shatter the alloy, you will only split us into smaller pieces. Whether we are large or small, we will have eternity. You cannot kill us, 9S.”

“Then where’s the other one of you?”

N2 quiets. Her face flickers. Exchanging one mask for another, a frozen grimace of irritation replaces her neutral expression.

His laughter is explosive this time. Warm, cruel pleasure overflows him, bubbling up like black tar to the surface of the desert. For the first time, he understands that look V gets in his eyes when he destroys a machine that has managed to annoy him. The feeling of knowing an enemy is suffering is one 9S thinks he could fall in love with.

“Amazing, you killed your other half too! Maybe there really isn’t anything that’s precious to you.”

Her face flickers again. This time she wears a mask with a pensive frown on it. “You were.”

“That’s a terrible joke.”

“Your existence was the most fascinating of everything we ever observed. The pressure you endured with every life you lived was extraordinary, and even though they erased you time and time again, you continued to evolve little by little. We were very curious what would happen when you finally got to the truth with no one to take your memories away. But all you did was focus on 2B...”

She speaks of the past with a complicated expression and a wistful voice. Like the torment she made him endure has little or nothing to do with her, or maybe like it does but she thinks of it as something nostalgic.

It would confuse him if it did not leave him so full of acid.

“You died. That’s what happened. And I only wish I was the one to do it.”

“And yet here I am.” Her expression flickers again, this time to a frustrated pout.  The girlishness of it clashes with the voice of the older male she speaks with. 9S notes for the first time that it is a deeper, louder version of the same voice that used to deliver the council broadcasts. It is another thing she is imitating; another little mockery. “We were going to take you in with us. No pain or suffering or war, just the light of the stars, forever. We wanted to see how interesting you might be then.”

“You’re just as responsible for 2B’s death as A2.” He raises the sword until the point is centimeters from her forehead. On the other side of it, his eyes are clear and blue and bright with his enduring hatred. “I was never going to go with you.”

N2’s face flickers, but 9S doesn’t catch the mask she puts on before she vanishes. “Then chase her ghost as you always do, YoRHa Unit 9S.”

It takes several moments of silence before he accepts he’s truly alone. A file arrives in his databanks, but he hesitates to access it right there and then. Jackass should be pulling him out soon. It will be safer to open it once he’s back in physical space.

N2’s words bother him. Her tone bothers him.  He believes that his suffering was interesting to her, but he cannot make the connection from that to the implication that he is somehow personally important to her.

For the remaining Red Girl to sound jealous is far more than he can process.

9S…

He whirls, ready to cut her down again.

The platform is empty, but he is not alone. On a lower level, a lone figure clad in black observes him. Her short white hair and visor obscure her face, but there is no world in which 9S would not recognize her.

Her name does not escape his lips before the disconnect signal comes in from the outside.


Snow tickled 9S’ cheek. Memories of awakening in the pit with Beepy rushed to the front of his mind, and a frantic gasp accompanied his reconnection to his physical body. The ceiling and the walls around him were white, but not in the flat, uniform way hacking space was.

“9S?” The voice was only barely familiar to him. Her tanned face and dark hair reminded him of Anemone, but her eyes weren’t weary or warm enough. And their color was off—dark brown, not green. Who was she? “Good, keep your eyes on me, hackerman. How bad is the disorientation?”

Hackerman? Right, that was… Her name was Iota. She was the army’s ground repairs officer.  He’d grabbed her when he went to talk to Jackass about…the network.

They were in the crater. White debris piled high around them and the memory alloy sat in the dirt that had been yielding mud during the fall rains and had since frozen into a hard cradle of earth beneath it. Fat clumps of snow flurried weightlessly through the sky and packed the air like downy feathers. He was lying on a slab of the debris. After so much time left to absorb heat, it gave off subtle warmth that permeated his back plating.

He flexed his fingers and toes and shifted. Everything responded to his commands. When he sat up, he immediately lurched forward and had to catch his head in his hand. “Ugh… my ears are ringing.”

Iota made a note of the side effect on her own UI screen. She repeated, a little more insistently. “Disorientation?”

“It’s clearing up already,” said 9S.

“Black box temperature a little high but acceptable; minimal signs of hyper- or hypo-processing…”  Iota reached out to the pod sitting on top of Jackass’ truck and got a hefty slap on the back of her hand. “Ow! What the hell!?”

“It’s a delicate piece of equipment,” said Jackass.

“It didn’t look delicate when you threw it in the truck earlier, and we both know I’m capable of turning a single dial without your assistance, so I’m thinking you just slapped my hand because you wanted to.”

“Can one of you please just turn the frequency down,” 9S groaned. Jackass obliged, and the keening in his ears went away. “Thank you… Why did have even have it turned up like that?”

“I was having some trouble pulling you out.” She crossed her arms and gave an expectant grin. “By which I mean you were resisting. So, you found something right?”

Sourness churned in his stomach as his memories re-asserted themselves into sensible chronological order. “I saw N2.”

Jackass and Iota both flinched back, only to gather in close to hear his report. He gave them the sterile version: triangulation algorithms, visual descriptors of his surroundings, the unexpected lack of defensive barriers or any signs of activity. The version of the conversation with N2 they got with was only about the Ark and that N2 was singular now. It had killed its other self or absorbed it—he didn’t know. 

He didn’t mention seeing 2B at all.

“I did get a data packet during the exchange.” He found it within his memory and prepared it for transfer, but not without taking hold of Virtuous Contract and drawing himself up to his full height atop the white stone. “That’s proof right? You’ll hold up your end of the deal?”

Jackass unfurled her arms and set her hands on her hips. “Can’t do anything for the scanning hardware and a new arm’ll be off-model assuming I can find one that fits his body at all. Repairing his sub-processors, restoring full motor control, and taking care of the rest of the laundry list for 4S is fine. Favor for a favor.”

“And 11S?”

“If you want him alive, you don’t want me to try and fix him.”

“Yeah, I do. You’re crazy, but you're also the smartest resistance android I know. The Army of Humanity has some kind of YoRHa design document or they’ve studied us or something. I don’t know. I don’t care. But Iota can probably bridge the gap in your knowledge. She clearly knows her way around our bodies and our capabilities.”

“To the last diode,” Iota agreed, twirling her braid up under 9S’ nose. “But that was an assumption of my assistance you just made. You might be a free agent, but the Army of Humanity is still a part of the Human Heritage Restoration & Management Organization. Just because the war is over doesn’t mean I can disregard my commands.”

“Did Theta or the HHRMO command you to not repair 11S? Because from what I’ve noticed, she seems keen on having a hacking-capable scanner on hand. I’m sure she’d love two.”

Iota gave him a blank, placid look, but in the same way she struggled to smile naturally, she wasn’t quite as good at putting on a mask as Gamma or Theta. She had to be aware of it because she cracked pretty much instantly.

“It’s not like that, really! She doesn’t want your hacker parts.” She squinted at Jackass. “Not like butcher-shop over here.”

Jackass made a rude gesture. Iota made a juvenile one back. 9S ignored them both. So, Theta wasn’t interested in him just because he was a functional scanner… Good to know. “Just do his physical repairs to the best of your ability. And listen to 4S. He knows what modifications he made. 11S’ condition is complicated. I want to save his memories if I can, but I understand that might not be realistic.”

“Fixing him in the first place is already kind of unrealistic.” Iota sighed far too loudly and tossed her braid over her shoulder. “But I’ll request authorization when we’re back in the camp… Hope you’ve got deep pockets; even if I’m cleared do this it’s not going to be cheap.”

“That’s fine. Whatever I need to do, I will.”

“We all good then?” Jackass kept a cool voice, but she was looking at him like she was going to cut him open and dig the file out herself if she kept him waiting any longer.

He transferred the data and sat back down on the slab to think about the things he hadn’t told them.

2B’s appearance inside the network might have only been a trick played by N2. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But the way she talked, it sounded like she didn’t want 2B there. Like she was mad at her for getting in the way of…whatever N2 thought was going to happen. So why…?

“What the fuck…”

He rolled his head back. Jackass was squinting at a small tablet as the data scrolled by too rapidly for him to see. “Something wrong?”

She flapped her hand to shush him and gnawed at her glove for well over ten minutes, all of which were increasingly hard on 9S’ ability to control his curiosity. Eventually, she whipped around and wiggled the tablet just above his head.

“You know what this is?”

“Uh… No? I didn’t look at it.”

“It’s a basis of design document. For the resource recovery units.” There was a tremor to her voice, too breathless to be anger and too low to be excitement. “You’re going to want to read it.”

He sat up and opened a screen to review the data. His lips moved as his finger scrolled slowly up one side. Midway through, his breath faltered.

He read the rest without a single motion other than the harried flicks of his index finger.

The resource units were designed to cause him stress (and knowing that truth existed in black and white text for all to read made N2’s talk of fascination with him all the more revolting). But their actual purpose was a separate matter. The disturbing words over their entrances, written in a language his sensors did not recognize, were very literal.

Meat. Soul. God.

Each was a resource that N2 wanted, and she set them up so that 9S would do the reaping for her. The meat was simple. 9S destroyed wave after wave of machines and their broken bodies became parts for N2. He flicked through the brief section to get to the box that worried him most.

The Soul Box.

If androids or machines had individual souls, memory data was where it lived. That was the conclusion N2 came to, and it colored everything that happened to him inside the Soul Box in fresh, unsettling ways.

The Soul Box was the one he always kept further from his mind precisely because he felt so little at the time. Impatience, mostly, as N2 congratulated and rewarded him for things that made less and less sense and eventually became contradictory. Rewards for helping androids. Rewards for recovering android bodies.  Rewards for helping machines. Rewards for hacking machines. Rewards for killing machines. She had given him a sword for the last of those, and all he could think at the time was that it would serve her right if he killed her with it.

It was where N2 gave him the truth about the black box, but more importantly, it was where she threw him at the uglier side of his feelings for 2B. The ones he had ignored for as long as he had suspected 2B’s purpose. Because they were the exact kind of emotion that was prohibited and because he didn’t want to be the kind of person who could feel that way about someone he cared for. Within his own memory region, he had to watch a facsimile of her act out his fears and take the things he couldn’t forgive her taking from him. He couldn’t hate 2B. He still didn’t hate her. But he cherished the memories of his time with her. They were his only possessions in all the world. His treasures. There was no way he wouldn’t harbor resentment for the one who took them. There was no way he wouldn’t kill to defend them.

Even if the person stealing them from him was 2B herself.

He knew what he destroyed at the top of that tower wasn’t 2B.  It was just a machine core, and he still had all the memories that seemed to have been stripped from his memory region. It may have all been a trick—a convincing but wholly external delusion designed to stress him. But he had to have given N2 a soul. That was what the tower was meant to do.

And he couldn’t shake the feeling that the soul he had provided for N2 been his own.

That left the God Box.

Just like the other boxes, it was designed to take from others based on a parameter. In this case, N2 had found a single guiding phrase and determined it to be sufficient.

‘The object of your love is your god.'

Machines might have seen humans as gods, but actual love for humanity was the domain of androids.  A machine’s love was for its treasure. A YoRHa’s love was also for its treasure, suppressed as it might’ve been. 

21O was the only thing at the top of the God Box. So desperately alone that she’d transitioned to a B-model just to be closer to him. Family had been her treasure. He had been her treasure. The way N2 had arranged it, either 21O would kill her god, or 9S would lose the single thing in the whole world that could have kept him out of the tower. Either way, N2 would secure the thing that fascinated her most.

Meat. Soul. God. N2’s meat, soul, and god.

Whether it was supposed to be an ark or a cannon didn’t matter. The product was a body and identity built by force because otherwise, for all her ability to puppet other beings, N2 was still just an immaterial entity bound by and to the network. She could destroy the world if she wanted, but she could never touch it. In order to change that, she stole from every source she could.

Including from YoRHa.

Jackass was looking at him with wide, bright eyes. Waiting. She must have come to the same conclusion.  As he closed the readout, he suspected he would find out quickly just how right or wrong they were. His legs swung up, and his head moved back down to rest on the tower block.

“Send me back in.”

Jackass didn’t bat a lash. “How long this time?”

“I’ll come out when I find what I need.”

The muted shadow of Iota’s braid shook vigorously on the ceiling. Beside him, Jackass rolled her eyes and twisted a dial on the fragmented pod. “Don’t be a hero, asshole. Fifteen minutes.”

Chapter Text

The machine network is white, empty, and silent—and 9S now understands how that could be.

N2 can control the machines, but she is not them. To think she has any idea what any of each of the innumerable minds might want is like 9S imagining he understands the thoughts of the nanomachines marching omnipresent but invisible over his body. Just like the freshly manufactured machines that occupy the city, the machines within the copied network are new to a life that doesn't involve the imitation of humanity.

They are thinking.

9S wonders what will happen when the first one raises its voice. Will there be harmony because they are all connected or will they struggle against the choice N2 has made for them all?

Machines evolve rapidly, and 9S feels a sense of urgency that was not present before. Because of N2's indiscriminate cannibalizing, YoRHa data exists somewhere in the sprawl that surrounds him. Two hundred among what had to be billions of machines. He is resigned to the idea that he will not find all of them.

The one he most wants to see is right where he left her.

So many minuscule details of 2B are written into his memory that he knows instantly that something isn't right. Her uniform is different, less sleek and more adorned. Her frown is different. The similar cut of her hair is not exactly identical. Though she doesn't move, even her posture is off. Is she an older 2B model? A No.2 of a different type rolled out for the final all-out attack?

"Who are you…?"

She doesn't acknowledge him. It is the worst sign of all.

Trinary organization of mental processes is a YoRHa-only feature. Neither machines nor standard androids compartmentalize their being into separate spheres of consciousness data, personality data, and memory data. What happens, what is interpreted, and what emotional response arises are parallel but separate wires. The physical space between the regions could only be measured in words that began with micro- and nano- but that minor gap is the difference between a static or dynamic existence.

It is clear to 9S that whoever this is, they are missing one or more of these data sets. He hopes that she is only an outlier—that other YoRHa androids caught in the network are intact. For now, he is curious who this antiquated look-alike is.

As he comes within arm's reach of her, she reacts. Her head drops and 9S feels her eyes meet his through her visor. Polygons all over her body flicker and alter their shape and color. When they are done, a cold gaze and unkempt white hair top a unit so poorly maintained that her grime-coated panels rise stark against underlying muscular wiring. Only a thin scrap of leather clings to her midriff and sags sadly around her hips.

9S' breathes an irate sigh. He should have known. "Can't get away from you no matter what I do, huh?"

A2 doesn't respond. She is not fully static, but she is far from dynamic. It doesn't surprise 9S. She took the virus from him after he had already begun to merge into the network. However, the time between the transfer and the destruction off the real network could not have been more than a few minutes. There would not have been enough time or a deep enough viral progression for N2 to acquire more than fragments of her.

9S wonders what she could have been thinking during the tower collapse to result in her standing around in her old uniform. He thinks briefly of asking Anemone but decides better of it. She's already buried A2 and a visual quirk isn't important enough to make her dig up those memories.

He is much more interested in why A2 reacted, at least visually, to his proximity. Interactions with other androids while already inside a network aren't foreign to him. He knows it is just a matter of interfacing, but he can't help a surge of heat in his chest as he closes the distance between them.

She really did have the same face.

The moment he makes contact, A2 gasps. The grandiose network spreads around them. Local resolution increases and the path widens and magnifies. But it isn't her data that springs up around them. It's his. He recognizes the disjointed memories of 4S and the half-processed remnants of fire and bloodied salt and a shack filled with oranges. Somehow they have arrived at the core of his personality data. The white shape of it is just as cracked and feeble as the last time he saw it, but now it is also shuddering. A corresponding pain answers from within his chest. Packets of data stream out and spread into memories that aren't his.

All around are images recorded through A2's eyes. His battered and infected self rests just outside the ray of light that connects the network and all the machines on it. She strokes his cheek with gentleness that doesn't suit her callous nature and draws the virus from him into herself despite Pod 042's warnings. Again he hears A2's voice promising to take care of things, the same as when he conducted his first major repair after discovering V. 9S has taken pains to not think about it or what Pod 153 said even once since then. There is no part of him that wants to consider that some part of her might have merged with him in all that chaos.

But that is precisely what happened, and he can no longer avoid it.

Other memories spring up around them. He sees himself and 2B together in times and places he doesn't know. A part of him lights up. It is new data of time spent with her, even though he knows already how it will end—with A2 stepping unconcerned over their fallen bodies. This version of him is not the first to meet her, nor was his 2B the first one to be cut down by her.

The ache in his chest intensifies, and A2 is there to catch him when wobbles. Her expression is dreamy and unfocused but painfully tender.

"Don't," he pushes through clenched teeth. "Don't… look at me the way she did…"

There is a shift in his chest. A2 presses her hand against it and 9S' first wild thought is that she will somehow materialize his black box against his will. But she takes something else. It squirms toward her from inside of him the way worms seek the surface when it rains.

A stream of data moves between them like lunar tear pollen floating on the wind. It would be beautiful if it did not feel like A2 was pulling a length of barbed wire through his entire being. There is no room for him to scream or breathe or beg her to stop; he can only collapse paralyzed into her arms and grit his teeth. Beyond the ragged lengths of her hair, his personality core utters a deathly rattle.

Then it's over.

Though he doesn't need it, he takes a greedy breath. It helps him mitigate the lingering shards of the pain and yank himself back from her touch. His personality core is still and quiet. It looks different. It looks… better.

"9S…?"

A2's low croak startles him. Her resting expression is no longer a distant blank. There is recognition there. Whatever piece of her data she has detangled from him has shifted her closer to being properly dynamic.

"Don't talk to me," he says in a flat, dismissive voice. "You're dead. Just a data impression left behind in the network."

She gives him a confused look. Her attention drifts drowsily to the suspended memories of their past battles, and settles on some past image of him and 2B lying dead at her feet. "2B…" she whispers, touching her fingers lightly to the black silicon of her exposed chest plating. "She was happiest… when she got to die with you…"

His irritation returns at a boil and his fists clench. "How would you know?"

It is Pod 153's voice that answers. "YORHA UNIT A2 EXPERIENCED A SYNAPTIC ALIGNMENT EVENT WITH UNIT 2B AFTER A HIGH-INTENSITY EMP ATTACK FROM A GOLIATH CLASS MACHINE LIFEFORM."

"When?! 2B was already—!"

Words fail as his mind catches up. The sword. 2B was so serious all the time; of course she would put her memory data somewhere the virus couldn't get it while she wandered off to die alone. EMP blasts wreaked all sorts of havoc on an android's systems. Memory convergence is not bizarre if she was actually out using Virtuous Contract to fight when it happened.

He shoves his hand against A2 hard enough that they both stumble and fall to the white path. He feels feverishly hot and out of sync with himself, half of him in the present trying to isolate and remove 2B's data while the other half is back on the bridge where 2B where she finally smiled and called him Nines with her dying breath. A2's face is solemn in both places. He hates her in both places. 2B's data being inside her is unforgivable. If 2B can't be there, A2 should disappear as well.

Consciously, he knows A2 never asked for her data and appearance to be re-used for 2B. And it doesn't take a scanner to figure out that 2B asked to be killed. But it hurts. Six thousand, two hundred and ninety-six hours since she died; and it still hurts. Even after all these months and all his time in the company of a human, and he cannot bear the torture of seeing 2B's face on someone who isn't 2B. He could almost forgive A2 if only she didn't look like her. If only she didn't have the same face.

The data wrenches loose while A2's body jerks beneath him. He forgets her immediately, climbing to his feet to cradle the block of shifting white light in his hand. The temptation to look at it and see what part of 2B's consciousness had merged into A2 is there, but he knows already what he is holding. The glow in his palm is why A2 did not kill him after 2B's death, no matter how many times he clashed with her. Why she refused to kill him when she clearly had ended other lives of his and went as far as giving her own life.

'2B wanted you to become a good person.'

'2B hated to keep killing you. It caused her so much pain.'

Those were not facts A2 had found somewhere in the tower or something 2B told her. Those words were 2B's feelings—scraps of her data that A2 had merged with and that A2 had to experience as though they were her own whether she wanted to or not.

9S is accustomed to simple feelings when it comes to A2. The fresh splash of anger that coils in his stomach is simple, but the flutter of pity and frustration and jealousy intertwining beneath it is new and softer than he can deal with. A2's word of mouth, even if it is the most authentic it could possibly be, is not how he wants to hear 2B's wishes and regrets.

It would be better if 2B... could tell him such important things herself.

He compresses the data and holds it close to his chest. Around him, the memories fade away and the local resolution decreases to set them both firmly back in the outer layers of the network. A2 rises back to her feet, and her eyes rise up over his head again. While he has no interest in trying to access her again, he can't help but follow her gaze.

There is another android high above them. One swathed in white.

"Commander?"

He runs the angular paths and climbs the excessive staircases to reach her, and this time there are no surprises. It's the Commander, exactly as she seemed. But he is at a loss for other reasons.

She isn't a YoRHa android.

He'd never thought about it; why should he have? She was the Commander whether she was one of them or not. But standard androids are not structured with the same mobility of compiled experience. She has no consciousness data because she has no black box. The network cannot structure her into a dynamic entity even though it should have everything she ever was.

If there is a single place 9S can discover the data Jackass and Pine want, it will be in her memory data. He hopes so, anyway. The Commander knew about humanity, but even she hadn't been aware of how black boxes were made or that they were all intended to be destroyed. The documents detailing that part of the plan had been above her clearance level.

9S has no idea who they might be, but the one who has the SS-level clearance is certainly the one Jackass is looking to kill.

He reaches out with his senses to assess his options. He isn't familiar with memory regions on standard models. His usual interface pathways are absent. A noise of annoyance warbles in his throat and he crosses his arms. It is wholly new territory, and a little bit of his old curious excitement accompanies the stubborn process of determining how to proceed. Perhaps de-solidifying the data and partitioning it into chunks he could search through more easily?

He materializes a seat, sits the packet of 2B's data down beside him, and opens his largest and most comprehensive set of interface readouts. His fingers skim and slide across them in a complex dance, and he sinks into an almost trance-like state. The encryption on the program that keeps the Commander's physical shape is the closest to a defensive barrier he has come across, and it poses no threat at all to him. The Commander is fairly antiquated as androids go. Not as old as Anemone, but he approximates she is over fifty. As he cracks the barrier, her form fragments and comes apart. His body tenses and he has to remind himself that it isn't the same as it would be for a machine or a YoRHa. She isn't there and she can't feel anything. It's only data.

She breaks down into a series of ten blocks, chronologically ordered. Somewhere among them, there had to be an answer, or at least a clue, but even the flattest data would come with a massive file size if it covered five years. He cannot take it all with him. He has doubts he will even be able to take one, and it will take all month if he tries to search the totality of her memories.

He starts at the beginning, just to get an idea of what he will be dealing with, but his intentions to get clarity on structure and the nature of how her memory is recorded quickly become the last thing on his mind. He had forgotten standard androids had one thing YoRHa didn't: false memories.

The version of her that appears on his screen has shorter hair. It is a darker, more hay-like blonde. She wears a big white hat with luxurious violets on the brim, pearly white earrings, lacy white gloves. She is swinging a little girl by her arms under a tree, in grass that seems to go on forever. Sunlight glimmers off both their smiles—the girl is missing a tooth. This version of the Commander is singing a simple tune.

They look like there is no one else in the whole world but them.

9S slaps at his screen until the connection closes, his black box racing. The memories aren't real. Everyone knows they aren't real. They have nothing to do with who she was as his commander, or as an android. So why does it feel like he has invaded some extremely private part of her?

His time is running out, so he clears his throat and flips forward to the second-to-last data packet. It is a record of activity on some other orbital satellite. This one is bigger than the Bunker by far and has a sort of atom-like structure with multiple bands around a command center. The Commander is busier, more talkative. Kind of nosy, really. Others address her as 'White'.

"This must be where you were stationed before the Bunker," he mumbles. He checks the last piece of that block to be certain.

At that point, she is walking the empty bunker with two androids he doesn't recognize. Their clothing is sharp, but nothing like the YoRHa standard he knows. This is definitely the block that contains the details of her appointment to be the Bunker's Commander. It is far too big for him to store, even on Pod. The lack of compartmentalization infuses every inconsequential second of her memory with detailed bits of experiential data. Emotional and psychological states, bio-feedback, and thoughts. Revealing as it is, it bloats the size well beyond what could be realistically transferred anywhere. Finding the data Jackass wants will take a more precise approach.

"Pod, run a scan for outgoing communications from the 9th and 10th partitions—private and high-priority with Operator-class or higher clearance."

"ACKNOWLEDGED."

He crosses his arms and leans backward, staring into the blank, grey-beige sky of the network. The two women with the Commander stick in his mind. They had a certain put-together aura around them that reminds him of operators. Though he doesn't know much about their lives on the Bunker, he knows O-types were never decommissioned or put in storage. Even if those had their memories erased a thousand times, they should have still been operational, but he doesn't recall ever seeing those two before.

He glances at the 9th data block. It's only a hunch, but it wouldn't be the first time his curiosity led him … well, somewhere.

Pod 153 announces she's done and provides him two packets of the Commander's outgoing communications records from the last ten years. One is far bigger than the other and that is certainly the one from her time on the Bunker, full of however many missions she must have overseen.

He reaches down to pick up 2B's data, but his hands only touch an empty spot on the seat beside him. It is nowhere to be seen, even as he rises and paces the platform in search of it, first cautiously and then like a caged animal. When it refuses to appear, he glowers into the empty air.

There is only one person who could do this. "N2!"

She materializes two feet off the ground with an expression of such cool disdain that he is momentarily disarmed. It's an expression he has come to associate specifically with V.

"Have you lost something, YoRHa Unit 9S?"

His sword forms in his hand. "Give it back."

She vanishes and reforms behind him, poking idly at the fragments of the Commander's memory. "We liked Attacker Number 2. She was the first of your kind we ever disillusioned. How much of her do you think made it in here?"

"What the hell does that have to do with 2B's data?!"

"I wonder. You came bearing a little bit of A2 inside you, and it was aware enough to recognize itself when you approached her. Conscious enough to move toward itself and become a little more whole. Then you took away a little bit of 2B that had been hiding in A2." She turns to face him. Her face blurs, and what replaces it is a vile contortion of a smile well beyond what the human face is capable of. "Do you think that little piece might have been conscious enough to get up and walk away from you?"

The sword blurs through her and cuts her out of existence, yet again.


"Ooooh, you look pissed. What'd you find this time?"

"God, Jackass, will you let him breathe for a minute before you start badgering him, you know he has to re-orient himself."

9S ignored the bickering of his caretakers and sat up. His ears weren't ringing, but his head felt ready to split open. Using a radio signal as a hacking interface was definitely not in his design specifications. On the bright side, he knew exactly where he was and what he was doing there. The disorientation he experienced before might have been a side effect of resisting disconnection.

But his core temperature was high and his mind was racing.

"He looks fine to me," said Jackass. "So, what happened?"

He stared at her. The more he tried to find a good place to begin, the less sure he was that such a place existed.

How did he say he found A2 and she had a chunk of 2B's data merged into her that had altered her behavior and caused her to give her life for him? That said piece of 2B may or may not have wandered off into the network by itself? How could he explain that he'd had a fragment of A2's consciousness data lodged in him for months and there was no telling how that had affected his own emotions and behaviors?

Logic virus infection was the most omnipresent problem that could be encountered as a scanner, but that wasn't the only thing that could happen. Memory loss, personality data fragmentation, and synaptic alignment were all possibilities. Contamination risks were constant. It was the source of his post-tower fall aversion to hacking machines for data. He didn't want to see what they saw or feel what they felt, and he certainly didn't want to carry them with him. But he was likely carrying more than he realized already. A2 was the least of what he'd hacked in his lifetime. If being in the network at the same time was all it took, he could have pieces of Eve inside of him.

He could have pieces of Adam.

The pulse of his black box slowed so suddenly he thought it must have stopped. Interfacing with Adam had not been a voluntary experience. The EMP strike from Grun severed his connection to his body and connected him to the machine network, and he stupidly went digging around, stupidly had to insist Adam was wrong, that they weren't the same.

In response, he had been flayed open to his very core.

Reconnecting with his damaged body had been painful, but it was nothing compared to the feeling of his thought processes being broken down and pulled apart from within. He'd had no barriers, no firewalls, nothing that he could attack or defend himself against. Everything Adam did, he did with impunity, and when he was done and 9S' consciousness overloaded, who was to say he hadn't left some small reminder, intentionally or not, of just how deeply he tore into the center of 9S' being and all that he found there while he was helpless to do anything but scream in denial—

"9S?"

His eyes refocused on Iota's face. She was staring at his hands.

One was clutching Virtuous Contract. Dark red oil ran down the white blade. Sparks were sputtering against the metal where it cut into the inner wires. The other was digging into his chest so painfully he could feel his plates creaking with every shallow, fluttering breath he took.

Iota's easily read expression betrayed her concerned curiosity as she helped him release his grip.

Don't look at me Don'tLookAtMeDON'T—!

The words were there, just behind his teeth, threatening to escape as a scream if he wouldn't let them out. Nausea swirled in his empty stomach and vomiting seemed so good, so perfect at that moment even though physical purging would not get out anything Adam might have left behind. A dozen disjointed thoughts of the copied city bombarded him, and his legs itched to run off into the snow.

Silently, he turned off some of his UI functions. They dimmed out and took the keenness of his emotions with them. That would do. That would do for keeping it all from boiling over into something they could see, something they would ask him to explain when he had gone every day since confiding in no one.

"Sorry, I'm... I'm fine." He hadn't heard himself lie so mechanically in a long time. "I found the Commander."

"White?" Jackass barked, crowding Iota away from him. "Did you get anything from her?"

9S mumbled something vague but affirmative and tried to flex his damaged fingers as Pod handled the exchange. Iota pulled his glove off and applied staunching gel. It'd do until they got back to camp. He heard her say something about suspending further investigation for at least 24 hours, and walked him back to the truck, supporting him under his shoulder as he stumbled on limbs that didn't feel connected to his body.

The jolt of the engine was so far away it felt as smooth as a purr. He continued detaching from exterior stimuli until his mind resembled the sky—packed in with pillowy snow that muffled the world and blanketed it evenly in white nothingness. Let the 9S in the future do the work of putting it all back. The 9S of that moment had earned the right to disconnect for a while.

A dream of disappearing into it with a black-clad figure wafted across his mind, and he couldn't tell if the one he imagined beside him was V or 2B.

Chapter Text

V surfaced sluggishly from a sea of white noise. Over the course of minutes which felt to him like both hours and seconds, his addled mind placed the sound as the whisper of sand shifting in the wind.

He hadn't been sleeping. No dreams nor any of the uneasy vacancy of a dream already forgotten occupied his mind. Little did, and several more empty-minded moments passed before his mind caught up to the fact that he was blinking and registered a faint brown-gold color inches from his face. Something was covering him, blocking sunlight filtering in from above. Dry wind ruffled its edges and drifted over his skin. Something heavy but soft was on top of them and sand-covered them from the shins down. The first fully formed thought he had was not of where he was or what circumstances had untethered him from his faculties, but that he was unbearably hungry.

Rough voices shouted in the distance, inquiring and frantic. Their words might as well have been in another language from where he lay.

A much closer voice shouted back. "Nothing this way! Have we checked the underground?!" Another vague yell he couldn't parse answered from somewhere too far away for him to care about. "Affirmative! I'll keep watch here!"

Footsteps came his way, scuffing stone and crunching sand. A thin needle of alarm pricked at his senses, but they didn't react and neither did he, even as the owner of said footsteps walked right up beside him. They shuffled down and their fingers reached beneath the shroud to grasp his own. The heat of their touch bloomed pleasantly against his skin.

Skin… His mind sluggishly caught up to the implications of what he was feeling and how directly he was feeling all of it. He wrenched his hand free of the strange fingers holding them, sat up, and dragged the leather cloak off of his body. The sunlight, stronger than he had taken the time to consider, punished him immediately.

"GOOD MORNING, V."

That was Pod.

"Easy, easy! Are you alright? Do you need anything?"

That was… not 9S.

He blocked the light with a hand and blinked the tears from his stinging eyes. A red-headed android leaned over him with raised brows and a fretful frown. Her name escaped him. Almost everything about her escaped him, but he had a far more pressing concern than who she was.

"Why am I naked?"

Her head whipped sideways, eyes so wide they were nearly all white, but determinedly averted. "The—the pod said you might die if I didn't!"

"AFFIRMATIVE. PROPOSAL: V SHOULD RETURN TO RESTING POSITION."

He ignored both of them and looked at his arms. Griffon was eerily silent and Shadow... She was the heavy thing on his legs. Her red eyes flicked open and she leaned into his exploratory touch with a soft chuff, but there was little warmth to her, and she wasn't purring. Like his tattoos, she lacked the pitch black coloration that was her norm.

"You really should lie back down," the android urged quietly. "There's a scouting team out to find you right now, so there's nowhere we can go."

That time the advice sank in and he sank with it against the sunbaked sand. Hooding his eyes against the strong sunlight, he tried to connect his present condition with his last memories.

He got in the elevator, he got out of the elevator, and… He'd had to climb for a stretch to get back to the bridge. The only path he could follow in his condition was a steep uphill hike, sometimes requiring Pod to physically drag him up a rock face he did not have the energy for. This had included a leap through the spray of a waterfall that doused him afresh. The shock of that was a bright point of clarity sharp as a sliver of glass lodged in his spine.

Everything that came after was a blur of foggy but equally unpleasant assaults. The heatless sun shining down between thick cloud patches and blinding him as the light bounced from the undisturbed snow. Wet, crunching steps that began to feel like a firewalk as the cold ate toward his bones. Wind-driven flurries scouring his face and forearms whenever he couldn't find a building to duck into to keep out of the wind.

He'd had a sudden urge to turn around and go somewhere other than the desert. A struggle ensued. After that-

"Here."

A familiar green bottle appeared above him. The water inside was sun-warmed as everything else, and he greedily drained it by half before the slightly metallic taste became too much to swallow. Wiping his mouth, he pushed the bottle back into the android's hands and stared at her restless, avoidant gaze. Gray-blue eyes—that meant she was YoRHa, but he recalled she didn't have a designation. She had a normal name and she had been with him in the ravine…but not for the rest.

"You weren't there."

It was more of an observation than an indictment, but she drooped and her fingers began to twitch and pick guiltily at her clothes. "I'm sorry. I looked and looked and you weren't anywhere in the ravine so… I went and got all your things. I knew if I kept them with me I'd be able to find you."

There was something odd about that logic. He couldn't place his finger on what, but she had clearly found him sometime between then and now so it wasn't as though he could call her incorrect.

"Where are my clothes?"

"REPORT: DRYING PROCESS 79% COMPLETE. IT IS NOT ADVISED FOR V TO BE SEEN IN A YORHA UNIFORM AT THIS TIME."

There it was again, a tiny piece of evidence that something troublesome had occurred between the points where his memories stopped and now. His mind refused to cooperate despite a swarm of questions, each more aggravating than the last. The harder he tried to remember, the more insistently his skull ached in time with the intensifying throb at his temples.

"A report." He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Give me a report of what happened."

"MISSION LOG: SUBJECT V SUCCESSFULLY TRAVELLED FOR 22 MINUTES AND 54 SECONDS BEFORE HYPOTHERMIC SYMPTOMS INHIBITED PROGRESS. V ATTEMPTED TO RETURN TO PREVIOUS OPERATIONAL SITE IN THE CITY RUINS SOUTH SECTOR, AT WHICH TIME THIS POD AND SUPPORT UNIT SHADOW EXPEDITED V TOWARD THE SET DESTINATION.

UPON ARRIVAL TO THE DESERT OUTPOST AREA, THIS POD WAS FORMULATING AN ANTI-DETECTION STRATEGY WHEN SUBJECT V SUDDENLY BEGAN TO RUN. BECAUSE SUBJECT V WAS IN POOR CONDITION AND CARRYING A BROKEN SWORD, THIS ACTION WAS INTERPRETED AS A SIGN OF VIRAL ACTIVITY BY LOCAL ANDROID FORCES. IN RESPONSE TO DEFENSIVE HOSTILITY, SUPPORT UNIT SHADOW TOOK OFFENSIVE ACTION."

"That's a real damn dry way of putting it," the android interrupted. She crossed her arms and frowned up at pod. "Four androids at the outpost and Shadow pinned them all up against the cliffs by their joints before they could get more than a few shots off. The resistance frequencies were all going off about it, and they're still running around scared shitless!"

"Is that how you found me?" asked V.

"It's how I got to you so fast. I was already looking for you. Your sword was glowing so I knew you had to have come back."

"…You mean my cane."

"I have that too."

She reached under her cloak—which he noted by the damp but much cleaner edges was his; she must have swapped them so he would be covered with something dry—and stabbed his cane down into the sand. He ran his fingers over the handle, and let the familiar grip ground him. If what they said was true, it was possible he had made his own situation far worse.

"Was I identified?"

"Not accurately. They're looking for a fully uniformed YoRHa with gray hair and they mistook your tattoos for advanced damage to your anti-EMP coating."

His eyes flicked up to the strands of his hair hanging in his face. Like Shadow, it was black, but only in the by the most forgiving definition.

"UNIT FERN ARRIVED 4 MINUTES AND 27 SECONDS AFTER SHADOW'S ATTACK CEASED AND CARRIED SUBJECT V TO A SECURE LOCATION TO AVOID DETECTION AND ASSIST RE-WARMING EFFORTS. REMOVAL OF WET CLOTHING WAS A PART OF THIS PROCEDURE AS RECOMMENDED BY THIS POD'S MEDICAL ARCHIVES." Pod's antennae whirred slowly, and he tilted his blank metal face down. "…SUBJECT V WAS NOT A COOPERATIVE PATIENT."

"Hmph."

Fern gave a crooked, placating smile and raised her hands. "It's fine, Pod. He was confused, and he doesn't know me very well. It was probably scary."

"I doubt it." Humiliating was likely the better descriptor and he was glad to have forgotten, but a rolling, plaintive growl from his stomach further denied him any sense of self-sufficiency in the situation.

"Are you hungry?" asked Fern.

"Well observed."

"Uhm! I can…! Will you eat if I bring something?!"

"I've little choice. Just none of your more exotic catches." He wasn't fully sure what he meant by that, but he trusted his own judgment.

If she minded his sarcasm, she didn't let on. Her eyes brightened and she was nearly vibrating in place. "I'll bring you something good, I promise!" She ambled up and almost out of sight before skidding to a stop half-way around the edge of a rock face. "Will you be alright all alone?"

"Would you be bothered with me if you walked in and saw me like this?" he huffed.

"I'd avoid you. But everyone's all riled up right now so who knows what they'll do. I know you said it was a bad idea at the park, but if someone finds you like this, you really should kill them before they get any ideas."

V watched her vanish around the bend with an almost nauseating déjà vu. 9S had said the same thing when they first met, but he had a vastly different context for his words. Was she just like that because…

It came back to him. The cycle she went through with her memories. The fire, the shack, and the murder—the one Fern, formerly 8E, had committed in order to keep the Nelo sword out of android hands. It was possibly the worst timing he could have picked to have a hostile interaction with resistance androids, but the alternative was to have died in the cold. And he had come close. His fingers tingled and his feet itched with either his healing factor or frostbite or both.

Never mind that he had no idea what to do next.

V lifted an arm to his forehead to block the strong sunlight and paused. Despite divesting him of everything else, Fern had not taken the bracelet away. His time in the basin was unaffected by his trek through the cold. Every detail was as bright and real as it was unbelievable, just like the bracelet itself. He reached for it, thought better of it, and let a sigh escape as he closed his eyes.

Soft and suffering heart that loved me so...

Pod whirred down beside him. " REPORT: 'SONNET TO MY MOTHER', H. HEINE. "

V shot Pod a blank look. He could have sworn he didn't say that aloud. "…You were quick to identify that."

"V HAS RECITED APPROXIMATELY 27 LINES OF THIS AUTHOR'S WORK SINCE THE ONSET OF SYMPTOMS RELATED TO REDUCED BRAIN FUNCTION."

That was too much for V to unpack, so he didn't. Without a word, he pulled the cloak up over his body. Perhaps until he warmed up a bit more it was better to take Pod's advice and rest. Silently.

The next moment he became aware of he was upright. Fern was sitting right next to him looking all too pleased. There was a meaty, slightly burnt taste on his tongue and the distinct scent of boar musk in his nose. While he sat there trying to fully re-establish his place in his own body, she handed him a steaming chunk of meat like it was the most natural thing in the world for her to hand-feed him as though he were an infant.

He opened his mouth with the intent to put her in her place, but instinct bulldozed into his feebly returning sense of reason. Ravenous hunger beat words by far and he snapped his teeth shut on her fingers.

Fern yelped. Her hand snatched back from his mouth, her expression one equally betrayed and dumbfounded.

"Unintended," V explained curtly. H spat, but red oil clung stubbornly to his teeth, filled his mouth with an acrid taste and vile sliminess. "How long were you gone?"

"Uh…Two or three hours? Finding animals in the desert was kind of hard."

"Enough time then." He wiped his mouth with her cloak and tossed it aside. "My clothes."

Her eyes snapped straight up and fixed on the sky. "Wait, wait, wait! It's quieter now but the resistance is still active!"

"I had a resistance shirt under the coat," he said, bracing on his cane to get back on his feet. "And I hardly think only YoRHa wear black pants."

Pod 042 obliged his request without any backchat and V quickly and gratefully made himself decent. Despite her fussing, Fern seemed as relieved by the change as V did. He considered the rest of the meat, but his hunger was strangely absent. Looking over the remains, he had eaten quite a lot before his mind caught up with his body, so it perplexed him that he'd been voracious enough to bite her just a few moments ago.

Concerns for another time. He grabbed his cane and the half-empty bottle, and Shadow melted back into her place on his body. Washing Fern's oil from his mouth, he wandered through the darkened arch of the stone tunnel.

"Careful!" she called, ambling after him. "There's a hole there."

Not exactly hard to miss as it was surrounded by a formation of solid ruddy stones jutting up from the ground. He stepped casually around it. At the mouth of the tunnel, crags and sand and dry scrub sprawled toward the city. By their proximity to the massive, worryingly crooked skyscrapers where the city ended and the desert began, they weren't very far away from the outpost.

A faint but familiar sensation hummed on the edge of his senses, and he looked over his shoulder at Fern. "You said you had my sword."

She tensed and lowered her gaze. "I… yes. I only touched it because I didn't know where you were and I knew it would lead me to you. I promise I'll put it back where I found it as soon as I can."

"Don't be a fool. There's no point in taking the risk to return it to the park. You picked it up, so you can just keep carrying it."

"…Really?"

"Again." He gestured at his wasting, bony frame. "I have little choice in the matter."

"Well, I mean… It's just…"

A deep breath helped to keep his headache from re-surfacing. "Spit it out."

"You wanted my help to find another orb but there wasn't one."

"And?"

"I figured you would go back to the kid now," she said with an unexpectedly subdued frown. "There's nothing I can do for you that he couldn't, and I caused you a lot of trouble…"

He squinted at her. Fern wasn't all that much bigger than 9S. She looked young, though not quite as young, yet her childishness went far, far deeper. Perhaps that was to be expected. '8E' was years old and drowned by the pressures of her own design; 9S was years old and had already admitted he was in the process of rotting away and dying before V appeared after the collapse of his whole world. Comparatively, 'Fern' had only existed for a few months and all her concerns seemed to revolve around V—whose existence and intentions she accepted with no skepticism no question.

"There is something," he sighed begrudgingly. "You can sense magic."

He drummed his fingers along his cane and idly tilted the bottle. The perforation between this world and hell was closed. Ideally, no more would open, but he had a feeling that the gods had other intentions. He'd told his mother he would break their curse, and that was as good as an oath in his eyes, but the question was how. If he had his choice he would just kill the gods and be done with it, but 9S felt nothing in the church, and even if Fern's unusual sensitivity allowed her to perceive the gods, the battlefield they had to be confronted on was not one an android could reach.

He sat. His mind was clear, but his body was still tired. He suspected that he needed sleep before he was fully recovered, but he couldn't relax while he didn't know what he needed to do next. Fern sat next to him, meticulous as ever in how she balanced her desire to be close to him with an appropriately reverent distance. Her face was aglow with the possibility that she could remain useful to him.

He intended to make use of that, but he needed to better understand the scope of the ability.

"When and how did you discover me?"

"O-oh? Uhm." Hems and haws and everything but actual answers spilled from her lips until she took note of his body tensing as his patience ran out. "It was in December, I think? You were..." Her eyes squeezed shut. It would not have surprised him if she suddenly blushed, but true to her construction, not a hint of color came to her cheeks. "bathing…"

"Stop mumbling."

"Bathing, you were BATHING, okay?!"

His lips flattened to a razor-thin line, and his features darkened with a thoroughly unimpressed scowl. "This body has been known to attract the sort of scum who only target weaklings, but I did not think it would also attract degenerates."

"I was just looking at your markings!"

"That's not the denial you seem to think it is."

"Androids don't usually bathe," she insisted, apologetic yet clearly sulking over her disregarded innocence. "I just thought you were some weird YoRHa until the first time I saw you fight a machine. Your combat program, er… your fighting style, I guess, is... wrong? For an android, anyway. We don't fight with electricity; it's too much of a risk. Even machines only build really specialized units for that."

"That much of a giveaway then." Good thing he hadn't been traveling through the outpost with Griffon. Who knew what kind of panic he might have caused.

"You also didn't pay any of the salvageable parts any mind, even though some of them were really valuable. YoRHa are specialized, but they're not that different, and you still need money if you're planet-side."

"So you didn't identify me by magic at all, is what I'm hearing."

She tilted her head and fretted at a lock of her hair. "It's hard to explain. I always got a weird feeling, but I didn't realize it was you until you left the city. By the time I put it together and tried following it you were already too far away—I kept winding up at the amusement park or this one skyscraper near the resistance camp."

Perhaps not a strong sense then, but a precise one. "Sounds like you knew exactly where to find me when I was in the city. Yet you stayed away. Just because of 9S?"

"I don't…" Her fingers twisted against her stomach. She turned her face away, but not enough to hide her sickly grimace. "I don't feel good when I'm near him... I can't explain it—but he was taking good care of you and compared to him I was so busted I was basically junk... So I just… kept my distance."

Sounded like the method she used to wipe her memory was just as faulty as all the times she had tried it in the past. Perhaps the little part of her that always turned to forgetting as a solution knew that 9S posed a threat to her blissful ignorance. Unconsciously, she might know that 9S had caused her to recover her memory once before. Her evasiveness was rational, even clever, if that were the case.

"And you just had that shack ready to go in case he failed?" he asked. Mostly to keep her from lingering on the subject. The last thing he needed was for something to jar loose and spill the dormant 8E out of her.

A shrill burst of laughter fluttered from her mouth before she managed to choke it back in. "It was just something I did to entertain myself! After watching you I knew you needed food and water and warmth and a place to sleep and—W-well, that's not the point! The point is I built it for me. I didn't—I never actually believed you'd come to that place. Or that I'd get to protect you."

It was all too easy to imagine her sitting in the place by herself, arranging all the details, soothing herself with human things she barely understood. No wonder it was meticulous to the point of sanctity. It was a dollhouse, and she'd built it intending to be its only occupant, not including whatever imaginary versions of him she no doubt entertained there.

In the distance, a pair of androids waved in a sign V could quite make out. Fern waved back, and they moved on. She leaned forward to wrap her arms around her knees.

"Is there something I should do if you disappear like that again? I looked for hours. I waited. But you didn't come back for a whole week."

"Not that I intend to visit again any time soon but keep waiting. Time is funny in hell. It wasn't seven days for me."

She peered sideways at him to judge if he was being serious or not and quickly turned back to the sand when she concluded that he was. "Right, demons, hell, and… all that. What are you intending to do now? How can I help?"

He gazed down at his palm and flexed his fingers. The basin had given him demonic magic straight from the source, but he would not find more of that. Whatever this world had left that wasn't maso—that was what he'd need if he wanted to stand any chance. "I need a strong source of magic, for which I will rely on your uncanny senses."

"A strong source of magic…" Her face scrunched up in thought, eyes focused but lively with the clarity of her mission. "I think there might be something farther out in the desert. But I don't know how strong it will be; you and the orb have been the strongest feelings I've had."

"That's good enough to start." He poured some of the water over his head and swept his hair out of his face. "You've told me where you found the orb and why you retrieved it, but what of the rest? What exact circumstances led you to it?"

"Oh, I was just kinda… hanging out on the old radio tower. I liked it there. I would catch glimpses of you heading into the forest kingdom sometimes. It was supposed to snow so I didn't think I'd see you, but then it was like… it was like the air was pinching, and suddenly you felt really close by. But when I went to investigate, I found the orb instead."

"How long were you holding onto it?"

"Like an hour?" The silence must have gone on longer than he thought. She turned to him and searched the incredulous lines in his brow. "…Did I say something wrong?"

"Only an hour? You're sure?"

The intensity of his tone caused her to shy back. "Well I… I don't know if it was exactly an hour, just... When I got back to the surface there was a bunch of smoke coming from the park so I—"

The rest of her words dissolved before they reached his ears. The same day as the fire. The same hour. He'd thought it too great a coincidence that a portal, even a tiny one like that, opened so close to him. Little did he know how right he'd been.

Chapter Text

“NO NEW MESSAGES.”

Same as the last three times he’d tried it today.

9S dropped into a low squat beside the cold black block of the teleporter and lowered his head against his knees. Wet footsteps slapped and sloshed through the half-melted snow and mapped across his aural sensors like the busy march of ants. Their crisp voices seemed to echo in place in the heavy air, but his mind was too crowded to process what any of them were saying.

Where are you, V?

The steam of his quickened breaths clouded his vision. Cutting his UI off for a while had proved fortuitous, but what little rest it earned him already felt like a faded dream.

If Rho really had seen some evidence of Humility before her death, it wasn’t there anymore. Gamma’s investigation team had just about dismantled the roller coaster platform and turned up nothing. Speaking to the park machines had been just as ineffectual. Turned out they weren’t particularly good at telling one android from the other without significantly different details, so they were only able to account for three: two who wore black, and had black and white hair, and one with red hair. The first was clearly 9S himself. The second had to be V. Through his dimmed functions, 9S had failed to reach an appropriately guarded state when that information reached him. He’d failed to do much of anything other than sit and let Iota repair the damage he'd done to his fingers with Virtuous Contract.

Gamma took one look at him and made the shrewd and ruthlessly efficient decision to pass him by and talk directly to 4S. It proved to be a stroke of fortune so incredible 9S still didn’t quite believe it had happened to him.

Compared to traveling through the forest and out through the city, cutting through Pascal’s village and the amusement park offered a shorter, safer, and minimally unstable path to transport a 130kg body. That was the path Pine and Jackass had taken 11S, so it was the one 4S had followed. Clear motivation, excellent reason to be evasive of machines and androids alike on the way, and most importantly: black hair and black clothes. 9S couldn’t have made up a story that perfect if he tried.

Even the matter of the android with red hair was muddled by Aconite’s on-going absence. Most likely she was stalking around, hunting for Lobelia’s killer on her own, and while her hair was short it was a shade of red a machine wouldn’t mistake even at a distance.

With so many confounding variables in play, Theta turned to Jackass for a technological answer to the problem.

9S didn’t know what she’d been expecting. Whatever the Army was used to with Rho, Jackass wasn’t like that. All attempts to get her to do anything that didn’t involve completing her review of the Commander’s data were met with a resounding ‘Fuck Off’. Then, around fourteen hours ago, she had erupted with the intensity of one of her bombs, abusively commandeered a truck, and peeled out of the camp. Nobody’d heard from her since.

The Commander’s data was filled with log after log of personal communications. The cause YoRHa was built on was important to her. Maybe even noble in her eyes. But over time, her regrets and the weight of her knowledge grew heavier. In private, she was just as unable to prohibit her emotions as the rest of them. Almost all of her letters had been blocked by the automatic censors.

Almost all of them had been addressed to Jackass.

The camp had grown still after that. Held its breath for the next action, the next command; any sign that the trail was not too broad or too cold. That there was still concrete action that could be taken.

The SOS granted their wish.

Fully uniformed YoRHa at the desert outpost. Gray hair, severe surface damage, possibly infected. All details 9S could have taken at face value, but then the injured were brought into camp. He recognized the puncture wounds that had barely left their limbs attached, as well as their incoherent screams about an unknown weapon they could only describe as something that looked like tar but moved like metal filings around a magnet. They thought it was a YoRHa weapon. An incorrect hypothesis that left 9S in the precarious position of being badgered for answers he couldn’t give while growing steadily more overwhelmed.

Something was wrong. Something had happened to V. It didn’t matter that V had told him they needed to be apart or that 9S was trying to keep him from being discovered. His base protocols screamed at him that he should never have left him in the care of such a shady android. None of this would have happened if—

White boots clicked down at the top edge of his visual field. “Expecting a message, Unit 9S?”

He sighed without bothering to look up. He’d become very familiar with the sound of Theta’s voice. “I wish. If Jackass told me she was waiting at the alloy site right now, I’d run there.”

“It’d be wise. But I suspect after reading your Commander’s memoirs, she will remain truant until she cools down." She paused, and her weight shifted. "Not carrying 2B’s sword today?”

His fingers curled into painful fists. He was ‘Unit 9S’ always, but 2B’s name had become a casual utterance to Theta and it drove him a little crazier every time. “Repair officer’s orders.”

“How diligent of you. Unless you’d like to continue squatting, can I make you a peace offering?”

That got him to raise his head. “Huh?!”

Her lips curved into a subtle smirk. “Well, I say peace offering, but it hardly matters if you accept it or not. Consider it more a show of intent. Come with me.”

9S planted his hands on his knees and stood up. There were dozens of things he wanted to be doing, from finding 2B’s data to directly contacting Pod 042 and V; purging whatever trash he’d assimilated through hacking to repairing 11S. Spending time with Theta was not on the list, but given a lack of other options (and admittedly a bit of curiosity), he obeyed.

The resistance members gave him an unusually wide berth as they crossed through the camp’s center and into the dim tunnels of scaffolding.

“Paranoia is a useful survival tool,” Theta said coolly from ahead of him. “But it’s also thoughtless and irrational. You didn’t provide a satisfactory explanation, so you’ll find the camp remains suspicious of you.”

“A lot of them were already suspicious of me." His eyes lowered. "Nothing’s different.”

“That’s factually incorrect. On top of two dead androids, there are now four grievously injured and an unknown weapon or enemy in play. And the only thing they have in common is a recurring YoRHa presence.”

“Pod already confirmed we never had that kind of technology. That’s—”

“The truth. I’m aware." Her arms crossed, index finger tapping deliberately at her skin. "I’m growing concerned about your unexpectedly persistent attachment to the concept.”

He stopped in his tracks, and his voice lowered to a wary rumble. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Theta spun and gripped the scaffolding on either side of his head, trapping him in place. Under the pressure of her hollow stare, he could only squirm against the frigid poles at his back and neck as she closed in. Her words reached his face as steam and his ears as the rustle of a snake among dry leaves.

“It means you should have lied.”

His black box raced so quickly the pulse was nearly continuous. Scanner or not, he was combat-ready, and he’d never had anyone who wasn’t an enemy be so aggressive with him. He was designed to attack in this situation. He wanted to attack. But he couldn’t afford to direct lethal force at her now of all times. As a fail-safe, he began to log data. Any data he could, which was mostly the details of her face. The subtle shine of the camera lens beneath her pupils. Gold eyes—the one thing that wasn’t the same as the woman who appeared in Beepy’s memory. Same silver hair. Same oddly cut bangs on the left side of her face, though she wore a tight, efficient bun instead of braids. She didn’t have her predecessor’s intense scowl, or foul mouth, or questionable fashion sense, but they were nearly the same.

As alike, and as different, as A2 and 2B.

Keeping his hands carefully at his sides, he raised his chin to match her stare. “There’s no point in lying. The truth always comes to light.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m saying you should be smart enough to make other arrangements in the meantime.”

All his thoughts of V flashed through him and he instinctively snapped his forehead forward against hers. Pops of light and chromatic aberration dazzled his visual field. They both sagged with their heads in their hands, but it was better by far than letting her see anything vulnerable or exploitable in his expression.

Gamma stalked between them; hands curled into tight, prepared fists. “Is there a problem, Commander Theta?”

Theta regained herself, blinked twice, and tugged her clothes back into place with a vexed sigh. “None. Thank you, Gamma. I was just showing 9S to the private area where we’ll be keeping the scanners.”

He curled his lip at the expression. She made it sound like they were books or spare parts she could store for when she needed them. It turned out to be the exact opposite. They had taken the liberty of moving 4S and 11S. The scaffolding had been re-arranged and extended with a few cinderblocks and wooden planks to provide them a sequestered area. Iota was busily checking on all of 11S’ connectors, and 4S was scrolling away at a readout, totally unbothered.

“What…is this?”

“Arrangements,” Theta said tartly.

“Until such time as the unknown weapon is conclusively identified,” Gamma explained. “Units 4S and 11S will be kept to a private repair area. Unit 9S, you are free to come and go, but you should be mindful that you are the only fully operational scanner, and you have a reputation.”

“If Jackass bothers to turn up, you should take the opportunity to make yourself scarce. I’d even been willing to let you consult with Emil if you chose—supervised, of course.” Theta's smile still didn’t reach her eyes, but the unsettling effect was cut in half by the way her fingers unconsciously touched at her forehead. Served her right. “I hope you’ll think about what I told you, Unit 9S.”

As they departed, he thought he heard Gamma chiding the commander, but he missed exactly what for.

He sat on a cot and prodded gently at his stinging forehead. Theta’s advice was unwanted but not incorrect—why she had given it and why she had taken the initiative to protect them…well, she was a commander. Whatever else she had planned, it was her primary job to keep whatever hive she was part of running in an orderly fashion. Chaos was her enemy, and 9S could understand that much. There was plenty of room for all of them in the main repair area. There should have been no need to move, but two YoRHa sharing a space with severely damaged androids who believed they had been attacked with an unknown YoRHa weapon would create a powder keg.

The resistance was tiptoeing around on glass to preserve the peace, and if it broke for any reason, it was 4S and 11S who would take the fall. If he wanted to keep V and the other scanners safe, he had to keep a cool head. This wasn’t the time to be fighting with Theta or spinning his wheels.

Across from him, Iota made a satisfied cooing sound as she finished a scan of 11S. “No new irregularities, see? A nice and easy relocation.” She took hold of his hand and gently smoothed his overgrown hair. “Both your friends are here. They are looking forward to you waking up.”

9S watched her repeat various iterations of this for a few moments before he leaned over and nudged 4S. “What is she doing…?”

4S looked up with his lip caught between his gnawing teeth. “Hunh? Oh, she’s providing positive external stimuli.”

“Okay... Why?”

“Some human practice that correlated empathy with better recovery? I think she called it ‘bedside manner.’” He tilted his head and turned back to his read-out. “It’s a little weird seeing a repair officer do it, but I talked to him a lot too when I was modding him. Can’t hurt right?”

What 9S remembered of repair were a bunch of androids in the maintenance and development area that ranged from temperamental to openly belligerent. There was even a scanner among them, granted he was weird. Almost a hybrid unit. He handled maintenance-related inventory and complex repairs, but he also had access to expanded memory capacity. That was usually reserved for Healer units.

9S had been in his care when his body was returned to the Bunker full of holes after 2B killed Adam, and had been scolded pretty much the entire time. “I can’t imagine 801S doing that.”

4S went very still on the cot next to him.

Under his coat, 9S’ skin prickled and he rubbed self-consciously at his arms. If 9S had to guess what 4S treasured, he would pin it on his friends every time. “Sorry... I shouldn’t have brought him up.”

The clouds shifted. A ray of light broke through and bathed them in a moment of stark white and hard-edged shadows. It passed in seconds and left both of them still in its wake for several minutes. When the words came, they weren’t blurted. A deep breath preceded them, and they came out like threads being carefully untangled from a bramble patch.

“When the wide-area virus appeared, we…” His chest squeezed and his fingers with them, but 2B’s sword was not there. 9S wasn’t sure why he wanted to pursue this topic now of all times. Maybe it was because it had already happened and that made it simple. It wasn’t a secret he had to keep or a worry he had to nurse. Maybe he just couldn’t help it. Who else could he say any of this to and not need to explain a word of it, or why it was important? “We tried to contact command and let someone know what was happening. It was already too late. Communications were jammed from the other side. I managed to upload us to the server, and we used a black box reaction to trigger a Bunker-side reinitialization.”

“That means… You were actually there?”

9S nodded. “Nothing was obviously wrong when we arrived but that didn’t last. We watched all the operators turn. All the combat units that stayed on for security reasons. We tried to get the Commander out. 2B and I fought through waves of infected units. They were still talking. Even if it was only a little, they were still aware. Still themselves.  We made it all the way to the elevator, and down to the hangar, but by the time we got there, the Commander…” He clenched his eyes shut and drew his legs up onto the cot, close to his chest. “She ordered us to leave without her. It was fast. Maybe twenty minutes.”

4S was quiet for a long stretch. When he finally did respond, it was with a shudder and a slow, steady breath and the tiniest ‘wow’ he’d ever heard.

“11S was the last scanner I spoke to,” 9S went on quietly, flicking his eyes to the other cot. “Until I found you in the castle. He was nagging me to sync to the server so you could all run updates.”

“…You always were airheaded.” 4S tilted his head down into 9S’ periphery and offered a fragile smile. “But it probably saved our lives. If we had been fully updated, we probably would have been taken over at the same time as all the combat units. We might not be the only scanners who made it.”

“Maybe.” 9S hesitated, but he needn’t have. Going back into the network copy was inevitable, but he would be in there forever if he just wandered around hoping to find people. “If you can help, there might be a way to know for sure. The Commander wasn’t the only one I found in the network.”

4S lowered his read-out and gave him his complete attention. 9S told him everything that had happened inside the Ark. Even the parts about N2, A2, and 2B’s data. Behind the visor, 4S face remained still, but his fingers began to drum rapidly against his knees.

His head jerked toward Iota. “That was okay? With her here, I mean?”

“That’s all personal,” Iota said matter-of-factly. “Commander Theta already knows you’re looking for data in there.”

“It’s more than data though!” 4S chewed at his lip, and scratched at his clean, but still thoroughly overgrown hair. “YoRHa data, the structure of it is—It can be moved anywhere. If we have bodies there’s no reason we can’t—“

Stop,” 9S pleaded in a thick, rasping voice. “Please.”

“What? What's wrong? Why?”

9S parted his lips, but the truth stuck in his throat. 4S was so excited, and if he shot that down and told him the truth now of all times, they would never recover. Theta’s words slithered through his memory, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t make himself lie.

So he just told a piece of the truth. “It's not the kind of problem we can solve by finding the closest android manufacturing site. Every YoRHa we want to transfer means getting access to a clear-state black box. And we’d need about three hundred if we wanted to transfer everyone.”

“But…”

“4S. It was our purpose to die for a lie and we’re alive despite that. Nobody is going to help us, and even if they wanted to, YoRHa are manufactured in a fully automated facility. The person Jackass wants to find and kill for creating us is probably the only one who knows the location.”

4S’s head dropped and his lips pressed to a thin, white slash. 9S could tell he wasn’t done with the idea, and he envied that stubbornness, but the whole truth was so much worse than that. He didn't know what the black box was made of. 9S promised them both he would tell him the real reason as soon as he could. Any moment but now.

“I told you so I could get your help identifying them.” He let his features soften. “The network is huge. It’s hard even know where I am, much less identify single units when there’s no black box signal. If I can find them, then the ones who aren’t in there--”

“Should still be alive,” 4S finished, the excitement rushing back to his face. “I’ll have to look at your triangulation algorithms and come up with some simulations for you to run… I don’t suppose you could just ask N2?” 9S shot him a dirty look and he quickly held up his hand. “Just asking, nothing wrong with using everything you can, forget I said it.”

They were quiet again, but the air between them had a nostalgic sensation to it. The distinctive fizz of multiple scanners deliberating over a unique problem. If it were any less of a heavy subject than it was, it would have been impossible to get either of them to shut up. 9S gave it a day or two at best before that became the case anyway.

“Who’re you betting on?” 4S asked with a grin.

"Betting on...?"

"Yeah, for who survived."

9S jerked back, his brows scrunching until they nearly touched as his fingers gripped at his collar. “What the hell?! That’s so morbid!”

“It’s the opposite of morbid. You know what kind of stories I told me and 11S when I was climbing that cliff? Stupid ones that couldn’t possibly come true. So, I’m allowed to bet on 1S. I’m allowed to think ‘Oh, that guy? He’s always been the reliable type, I bet he made it.” His voice cracked just a little at the end. He sniffed and adjusted his visor. “Come on. If your space cadet antics gave scanners a fighting chance, who do you think we’ll meet again?”

“...3S. He was the server administrator, he was the oldest, and he never left the Bunker. He had to have known something was wrong, right?”

“Did you see him up there? Him or 801S?”

“No, why?”

The twitch of a smile tugged at 4S’ mouth, but he quickly bit his lip to hide it and went back to his readout. “I think it’s probably more likely 801S got out.”

“Why him? 801S was like the last scanner model they made—he has no experience.”

4S hummed, tilted his head faintly up toward 11S, and offered a coy murmur. “Woman’s intuition.”

The two small words filled 9S with the sharp recollection of a twin room where the scanners gathered whenever they could. Usually, just three or four of them, occasionally the full group whenever the Commander had a major operation planned or decided that a recuperation day would be psychologically beneficial. They would sit in a circle. 3S and 801S, the oldest and youngest scanners who were often quiet because they were never assigned to planet-side missions. 4S sitting between 11S and 1S, going on and on about some human paraphernalia he found while 1S read a book that 11S kept not-so-subtly trying to peek at. 32S describing every insignificant but cool thing on the ground while 42S followed crassly along adding every annoying inconvenience.

4S had a talent for complicated predictive analyses and liked to say his accuracy came from ‘woman’s intuition’—another human concept that made about as much sense as anything else. “Didn’t 42S give you a really stupid nickname because you say stuff like that?”

“An incredibly stupid nickname,” 4S agreed bittersweetly. He rested his hand on his cheek, and gently imitated 42S’ jovial cadence without his distinctive lack of volume control. “Heya 4-Cast, what’s the weather like these days~?

It was accurate enough that 9S’ mouth pressed into a trembling frown. None of them would ever get those treasured times back, but at that moment, giving them up felt like the worst thing possible. It might be irresponsible to hope for much after everything that had happened, but… With 4S and 11S alive, he couldn't help hoping that 4S’ prediction was just as correct as all of his other ones.

Quickly rubbing his face, he dropped his legs back over the edge of the cot and leaned over to check 4S’ readout. “What’ve you been analyzing, anyway?”

“It’s a log of all mission-related communications from the Commander. I compiled it from the data you pulled in the network.”

9S frowned. “You’re supposed to be focusing on repairs. I told you, you don’t have to help Jackass.”

“Good thing I took your advice then, isn’t it? I’m looking for stuff to help 11S.” 4S grinned and lifted his head in a decidedly self-satisfied way. “And I think I found something.”

“You…” A flutter passed through 9S’ chest. “You did?”

“Yup! Executioner mission went down in this area, supposedly to eliminate a scanner given the dreaded B.R.R. stamp.”

“Beyond reasonable repair…” 9S mumbled. “You think they might have stuff 11S can use?”

4S slid down from his cot. He still had a limp—the sub-processors in his right leg weren’t cooperating with the restoration process and the leg’s reaction time lagged just enough to give him trouble. “All they have to do is not be broken in the same ways he is. It’s worth a shot.”

“Wait, you’re not going now, are you? Alone?”

“No way, you’re coming with me.”

What?”

“What do you mean ‘what’? I can barely walk. Are you really going to let a lone damaged ally wander off into the desert by himself in a time when YoRHa is feared and hated? Leave me, a scanner who can't scan or fight to go it alone?”

9S blinked, his mind already shooting off in a dozen different directions and converging on a single bit of aural data among 4S' theatrics. The desert. 4S wanted to go to the desert. Maybe he’d be able to find something, figure out what had happened to V and where he’d gone—

“You can’t wander anyplace,” Iota scolded. “You’re in no condition to be exposed to sand.”

“You’re absolutely right,” 4S said sweetly. “You should come too. That way we can make sure we get in, assess viable parts, and get out. It’ll go nice and quick.”

9S hopped down from his cot, straightened his jacket, and tightened control on his motor control until he was positive he wasn’t shaking with either his anticipation or the effort of keeping the lid on it.

“Don’t bother telling him no, Iota.” He gave a long-suffering smile that he hoped wasn’t too exaggerated. “He’s made his plans and he’ll go through with them with or without us. He’s always been like that.”

Iota crossed her arms, clearly unimpressed with the explanation. “So he is what’s called a brat?”

4S answered with a loud, lively, and unoffended laugh. “Maybe so! But if it was your ass on the cot, wouldn’t you want someone to get a little bratty about repairing you?”

Iota looked severely at 9S, at one admonishing him for not being stricter and warning him that this was a bad idea. But he just shrugged and offered a crooked smile. “Theta was just saying I should find a way to get out of camp for a while. I’m sure she won’t mind both of us leaving as long as we’re supervised. She knows I won’t run off without 4S.”

“And you know I’ll be back for 11S,” 4S beamed helpfully.

Iota threw her hands up. “You both know I don’t make the decisions about this, so I think you’re misunderstanding who you need to be talking to. Go talk to the Commander, and I’ll get my gear together.” 9S immediately dashed off to find Theta, but Iota’s voice followed after him “If either of you get damaged out there, I’m going to double the cost of your repairs for ignoring me!”

9S yelled back without remembering to modulate the current eagerness out of his voice. “Yeah, yeah!”

Chapter Text

Of the number of dunes V had climbed thus far, he no longer had an accurate count, but he was keenly aware this was the fourth on which he’d stumbled. He was halfway down the slope before Fern arrested his fall. Normally he would brush her away, but he had neither the strength nor the energy to do more than sag in her grip and stare dully at the sky.

A mess of unpleasant textures mingled in unpleasant ways beneath the translucent film his shirt had become, slimy sweat and moist grit battling against the baking heat for which could annoy him most. Shadow would have made this a significantly simpler journey, but despite a deep and restful sleep, the color of his markings remained faded, and she remained slow to answer his call. Best to conserve he strength if he could.

Griffon had not answered him at all.

“You’re sure we’re headed in the right direction.”

“Yeah. It’s really distinct after spending so much time near you.” She hoisted him back to his feet, sparing him the fight against the shifting incline, and offered him water. When he waved it away, she gave a disapproving frown. “We’ll be out here for another four hours at this pace. I have speed chips and auto-stabilizing legs. Please just let me carry you before you overheat.”

V's mouth tugged to one side, but without the same vehemence as the last two times she’d made the proposal. Fern wasn’t especially persuasive, but the desert was proving adept at making its point.

Soon they were moving again with him draped over her small but formidable back. She ran parallel with the mesa that separated the more expansive part of the desert from the ruined housing complex. The jostle as she climbed the hills was miserable, but the slides down were as smooth as riding Shadow.

He withdrew beneath the hood of his cloak and pretended that’s what he was doing.

Since waking, he’d thought about the connection between the appearance of demons and his failed devil trigger. It had been brief. A misfire that was over before it made it past his forearms. There should not have been any way to open up a gate from that. More than the DT itself, he believed it had something to do with what had happened in the aftermath. The bite of cold cobblestones against his cheek, the sight of his spent and fragmented body healing itself right before his eyes. Cracks and crumbling pieces turning to cuts and bleeding wounds. It wasn’t until he was passably human again that he rose to vomit salt and blood, and if there had to be one definitively strange thing among all the others since he arrived, that was the one he chose.

The basin did not think, so it did not care about what became of him once he left it. Maso itself might not think, but the gods did. They didn’t care if he died in hell, but they were smart enough to know that while he walked this world, he needed to survive. Presumably, until he either passed through a portal or opened one large enough that he no longer mattered.

The interstitial period was likely what they needed. Too little maso and he wasn’t human enough to carry them, too much and he was demonic enough to shrug them off.

In the end, it was just another self-styled deity seeking to make a marionette of him. Was that a petty comparison to draw? Perhaps and perhaps not, but he’d been denied the opportunity to express his more vindictive sentiments about his time as Nelo Angelo. As soon as the means were in his grasp, these would learn the same lesson Dante had taught the last. By his own hand, when he strangled the song from their throats.

The sunlight dimmed to a golden brown. The sandstorm was far off to the east, but the prevailing wind carried grit far enough to scour at his skin and darken the sky. The wind almost sounded like it was screaming.

Fern lurched to a stop. It wasn't the wind.

Blinking red lights appeared in the strange bronze haze. First a few, and then easily a dozen. V could just make out small square shapes like pods running toward them. Every single one raised an unending scream that sounded worryingly like android screams played through faulty speakers. 

They skidded down the nearest dune and raced up the next. “Pod, a little help! I can't outrun them while I’m carrying V!”

NEGATIVE. UNIT FERN DOES NOT HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO COMMAND THIS POD. ADDITIONALLY, ATTACKING AT THIS RANGE—

“Windmill.”

The bomb program launched a volley of electromagnetic globes from Pod 042 with a deep, thunderous thrum. Explosive detonations raised the sound to a cacophony that soon outnumbered, drowned out, and then silenced the screams.

It worked a bit too well. Fern was launched over the top of the next dune and sent both V and the rest of her gear flying. Only Pod, tasked with carrying Humility, floated peacefully down with himself and his cargo undisturbed.

—IS NOT RECOMMENDED DUE TO LARGE EXPLOSION RADIUS.

Fern swiped sand at the support unit, but it rolled ineffectually off his chassis.

V rubbed grit from his mouth and brushed it from his body with a short but lethargic sigh. From the top of the next dune, domes were visible in the near distance. He remembered seeing their silhouette before and not really giving them any more thought than fleeting curiosity. That was where they were going. The grumble beneath his ribs and buzzing that seemed to radiate from the sensitive nerves within his teeth all the way down his fingertips told him as much. Whatever was over there, it was something he could (eat) use.

When they arrived barely fifteen minutes later, the bizarre sight before his eyes dampened his eagerness. There were over a dozen of the domes, ranging from the size of a beachball to ominously towering spheres whose eyes were bigger than V was tall. They all had faces. Very familiar faces.

“Is this… Emil?”

THESE ARE DEFUNCT COPIES OF THE ORIGINAL EMIL.

In brief, dead. In as much as a grinning stone head could be.

He strolled around the side of one of the largest. A machine wearing a mask brandished a spear at him, but Fern neatly threw one of her blades through its chest the moment its eyes shone red. He kept strolling. If the heads were like the Emil he knew of, they lacked memory of their lives. Yet something had called them to this spot. Most likely the same thing Fern sensed.

She yanked her sword from the machine's body and re-holstered it at her hip. An intense frown wrinkled her brow, and her weight shifted rapidly from leg to leg. V paid it no mind—until she took Humility from Pod. 

“Something amiss?”

“I don’t know.” She looked around and rubbed at her shoulder despite nothing catching her eye. “I think they just creep me out. There’s so many…”

“Focus. Do you still feel magic here?”

“Y-yeah. A lot of it.” She tilted her head and passed between the heads until she was nearly at the center of them. “Below us, I think.”

Not what V wanted to hear, as much as it made sense. If 9S found a gestalt-era home underground, there might be other things down there too. He experimentally ran his fingers along the baked stone and trailed around the curvature to follow her. 

He looked up at Pod. “I don’t suppose you have digging equipment.”

NEGATIVE.

A distracted hum answered. A gravesite, even one filled with grinning stone heads, was pedestrian for him, but goosebumps were rising all over his body. There was a strange sensation around them, but there was one from inside him as well. A twitch and slither just beneath his skin.

Tarry strips of his tattoos rose from his body without his command. They took no shape, instead moving in amorphous, twisting cords. They spattered and crept down his fingers to the stone dome, and V’s spine let out a staccato of pops and cracks as he went rigid. The heads were dead but not spent. The magic was not of hell, but it sucked through the syrupy veins formed between his body and the (food) stone and filled him much the same as the red orbs had. Cracks formed in the grinning face, one after the other until it crumbled.

In the faint gust of the almost immaterial remains falling, V noted his hair blackening before his hooded eyes as the ink settled back against his skin. A thought of lunar tears bloomed bright in his mind but wilted just as quickly.

“Holy SHIT!”

The outburst earned a familiar smirk from V, and he raised his arm. “Well, well... Had enough lazing?”

Griffon perched on his arm with his wings stretched wide and his feathers in a bulging blue mass around his neck. “Lazing my ass! I told you that Umbran voodoo was nothin’ to mess with and what happens? You almost die! Then for good measure, we make it back by some fuckin’ miracle and you almost die again!

V tilted his head away and scratched in the ear nearest Griffon’s beak. “You’re noisy.”

“And you’re a dumbass!”

The cane’s handle waggled up just below Griffon’s face, but for once V didn’t go so far as to shove it in his familiar’s beak. “What was that you just did?”

“It’s this little thing called scolding, and you clearly didn’t get enough of it as a kid.”

V retracted his small show of grace with a twist of his wrist. “Try again.”

“Agh aughay, oghay!” After V obligingly removed the cane, Griffon stretched his jaw and shuffled his wings down against his body. “Thing is, I’m not totally sure, but if I had to say it when you took your little soak in the basin you sort of… changed something.”

“Helpful.”

“I’m not great at the technical bits! Look, even nightmares like us could have survived in hell; trouble was we didn’t really have a way back and you were human so you’d probably have gotten served to some demon on a gold tray if you went down there.” He hooted with unusual energy, even for him. “Well, even in hell we wouldn’t be able to kill anybody so we would've been in a tough position too. Point is, we got a nice drink in the basin but I think it did something to us—the four of us.”

V tapped his cane against his chin. The difference between energy in the basin and the ambient magic in the rest of hell was akin to the difference between a vat of boiling acid and a glass of orange juice. Coming back different wasn’t surprising, but he hadn’t exactly been afforded the time to think about anything but not freezing to death after his return.

“And now you find yourself hungry,” he guessed.

“Starvin’! You know how maso feels after being in the basin? Like I’ve been drinkin’ that Virility shit you found in Nico’s truck for a year!” He took off and perched on the nearest medium-sized head. “Gathering magic that isn’t from you seems to be a thing that’s on the table now. By which I mean I really couldn’t help myself once you started touching these things and it happened to work out that stuffing my face actually did something good for you.”

V looked down at his fingers and slowly flexed them. Feeling the hunger of his familiars wasn't ideal, but it was a small price to pay if they could actually replace the magic they required. “What fails to kill us may prove its use. I'll consider it an upgrade to our contract.”

Griffon dissolved with an animated cackle and V took a seat in the center of the gathered Emil heads. Black strands stretched from his skin like systems of sagging veins, attaching him to the inert sources of magic. The more of the magic siphoned through the connecting strings, the more V was inclined to agree with Griffon about the nature of maso.

It felt like oil sludging through him; thick, heavy, crude and nothing like the demonic energy that had restored him in the basin or the magic flowing through him now. The headiness of the power, not so different from when he first arrived, was no longer enough to cover the more nauseating aspects of its presence.

The remains of the second and third heads joined the sand. Again, he thought of lunar tears—a wreath of them carefully woven in a place where the grass was still green. He dismissed it and focused on what might lie below the sand. Whatever had drawn the heads to this place, he wanted.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Fern pacing a short, jerky line in the sand. Her head swiveled but never settled, the target of her tensions invisible but not beyond her other senses. She looked like an animal impotently stalking along a fence. The strands reached out for the fourth stone. One of the larger of its kind. Fern’s head snapped toward it just as V felt his tattoos flinch away and whip back against his skin. Loose sand shifted and fell from the head. It rolled sluggishly and made a sound not unlike the whimper of a prematurely awakened infant.

Then it shrieked.

The sand kicked up around it, whirling into a vortex around the site of the fallen heads. Fern snatched V from where he stood and rounded the largest of them, a hand pressing to his chest and then his face in a frantic check for harm before an impact threw them both to the ground.

The living head was laughing as it bashed itself against its dead clones.

“What the hell is it doing?!” Fern shouted over the roar of the sand.

EMIL IS A KNOWN MAGICAL WEAPON OF THE OLD WORLD,” said Pod 042. “HYPOTHESIS: COMBINATION OF MEMORY LOSS DUE TO REPLICATION AND UNKNOWN PERIOD OF ACTIVE COMBAT HAS CAUSED SEVERE PSYCHOLOGICAL DETERIORATION.

Their refuge rumbled and rocked as the assault grew faster and more intense. They both scrambled to their feet and split up as their cover cracked and finally shuddered to rubble. V glanced back and his heart clenched. All he could make out was the grin and two glowing red points in the haze. The beams that issued would have shamed the machines. The air around them shuddered and the sand parted in towering columns. To make matters worse it rolled and spun seemingly at random, spraying beams and obscuring sand with no discernable pattern.

The only constant was the hysterical voice, vast yet still identifiable as belonging to a young boy. V was only able to cling to Griffon and listen to Emil’s voice as his laughter broke down into raw, deafening wails and rose once more into screams.

The head rolled. V felt the beam before he could see it. Griffon wheeled. The sizzle of the beam passed like the buzz of a chainsaw, and V felt the talon dissolve from his hand. He whirled and reached out, but the blue core was already falling away from him. If it took another hit, V would lose Griffon.

Permanently this time. 

Nightmare came at the snap of his fingers. At V’s command, he gripped Emil, turned his beams down into the sand, and readied his own. But before he could fire, V’s head swam. Nightmare rumbled feebly and began to lose his shape.The magic was draining away. There wasn’t enough, not for Nightmare—his stomach was rumbling, he was so hungry. They were so hungry. 

It wasn't enough that V was being assaulted by a weeping child on the outside; this day could only be complete now that his familiars had made a nest of his body and squawked like unfed chicks inside him as well. He clicked his tongue and leaped from Nightmare’s fading form, his cane piercing deep into the stone head. Ink spiraled down the length of it and threaded the surface as hungry roots.

IT HURTS ETERNITY HURTS IT HURTS WHY US WHY ALONE WHY WON'T IT END WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO US WHY IT HURTS IT HURTS —

Those thoughts were not V’s. Nor was the pain branded itself deep in his gut and stole his breath away. Both belonged to an entity left alone to fight for so long that he no longer remembered anything else but his own desperation.

Fern leaped through the sandstorm with a war-like cry and drove Humility down into the stone right beside V’s cane. Emil screamed and thrashed backward in a tantrum and began to spin in place, tossing Fern and nearly tossing V if not for Shadow tethering him down. The beams cut off, and in their place, hundreds of miniature heads launched up and began to rain from the sky.

The only thing available to V was Nelo Angelo's sword, glowing faintly blue and violet in his presence. 

The light spread up his arm the moment his fingers touched it. He didn't know what power he called out to, but it was Shadow’s roar that answered. She cloaked his body in her own, and in a dizzying collision of their senses, both her hunger and her power prowled sinuously under the controlling hand of his will. V felt himself split apart around the falling heads, amorphous and liquid and doggedly latching on not with fingers or his cane but with claws.

The pain was gone but the magic was fading fast. The burn of maso licked along the parts of his body that must have still been his own in this state. There was no time to think—only to push toward its logical conclusion. He bared teeth he knew were not his own, sprouted mouths too numerable to be his own. He was Shadow or Shadow was him and they were a single thing, but that thing was all mouths, all hungry lamprey teeth on tethers of ichor that bored into the stone beneath them.

It was a precarious balance. On one end, Shadow sank her fangs deep into the essence of the Emil head. The pain came with it, but she persisted, devouring what they could not hope to kill and fueling the trigger in the process. Elsewhere, the siren fire of the maso pushed to fill the gap between the amounts of power a devil trigger needed and the amount his body contained.

His mind wavered, consciousness threatened to fade at the sheer strain of it. The less he could hold against it, the more he felt the maso encroaching, firing through him like the revving of a distant engine.

Emil screamed and released a burst of energy that was too much for even Shadow to consume all at once. It burned her back, and in that moment of yield, the maso surged. He severed the connection between Shadow and himself and was immediately sent flying. 

A pinching pressure filled the atmosphere, pushing against it like a membrane while he lay in wheezing in the sand. Maso thrummed through his body. He could feel thunder in the air. Smell the rot and blood stench of hell. 

Fern blurred by him, both her remaining swords in hand. He saw her leap. Saw both the swords pierce dead center between Emil's eyes. V shielded his eyes from the eruption of harsh golden-white light that followed.

A final, weak sound that may have been a laugh or a sob vanished with the settling of the sand. 

When V could finally look, there was nothing. Just the blue sky above and Fern draped over one of the actually-dead Emils like forgotten laundry below. He reached his senses out for the signs of hell's presence he'd felt only seconds before, but there were none. Everything was... alright.

His eyes snapped to his arms. Not everything. "Griffon...!"

The sand rumbled beneath his feet. Fern's head snapped up, but this was not a threat that could be fought. The sand was flowing down toward a growing indentation. The slopes of sand melded together into a single valley running directly through the center of the remaining heads. 

"Pod"

"WARNING: SUBSURFACE INSTABILITY DUE TO MULTIPLE HIGH-INTENSITY MAGICAL DISCHARGES. PROPOSAL: EVACUATE."

Fern slid carefully down the sucking sands, her hand extended. "Come on!"

"No." Shadow materialized at his side, her red eyes looking attentively to his. "You said that what we came here for was below us. That's where I will go. You will go with Shadow. Find Griffon, and bring him to me unharmed.”

In a vast cloud of dust that gave the sky back its bronze, clouded hue, the earth gave way and the Emil heads sank with wordless grins. The valley split into a crack in the earth, and sand spilled down into its depths like waterfalls. V  tucked his cane beneath his arm and held tight to Pod 042 as he hopped down. Beneath the top layers of sand and stone, the hole opened up into cavern walls lined with Emil heads. There were dozens or hundreds baked into thousands of years of sand and stone, staring out from the cavern’s walls. Whatever was down here was much, much stronger than the Emil heads, living or dead. He could feel it growing thicker on the air as they descended.

The only heads at the bottom there were the ones that had fallen in with him, already half-buried by sand and by either other. A pile of funeral stones unto themselves.

As V had seen a nightmare for each familiar that carved itself onto his body, so too had he seen the frantic, jumbled remains of Emil's nightmares when they drank of his magic. Emil was powerful. Eternal. And alone. A boy for a mere ten years, a weapon for ten thousand. Aside from the Emil that called 9S friend, the only memory he had was the persistent ghost of a lunar tear whose meaning he did not even recall.

And alas I live to weep out mine eyes,” he whispered, pressing his hand against the nearest rictus grin. “While Death sits laughing on their monuments…

Pod’s light clicked on to reveal the cavern wasn't natural. It was the rotted remains of a building far more ancient and decrepit than any of those in the ruin. The rusted remains of iron gates were indented into the stone like fossils. There was an impression that there had once been wood, but it had long since rotted away and left only a hint of stonework. V stood well below these details with the remains of steel and cement beneath his feet. The sinkhole had opened up to a basement, perhaps. Or, by the remains of right-angles, into a tunnel.

Shadow's rumble echoed from above, and V looked up to see both his familiar and Fern in free-fall. She held a distinctive blue orb under one arm.

Sitzfleisch.

The gravity field formed right beneath the hardening lines of Fern's shadow and she Fern fell right into it. V took the liberty of taking Griffon’s core off her hands and re-absorbing Shadow. The program soon faded and Fern collided with the sand with a heavy thud.

“Ow…”

“You know,” he said, clicking his cane down and watching her extract herself. “I would have sent Pod back up for you, had you been patient.”

She stood and skidded clumsily down to him. There was a dark look in her eye, and she was shielding her midsection with one hand. The other was twitching at her empty hips, where she normally kept her weapons. Blood streaked down the back of her pants.

“You’re injured.”

Her expression flickered, limbs tightening. She swallowed. “That YoRHa kid was there…"

A bolt of tension tightened V's grip on his cane. "...And you fought him?"

"He didn't give me much choice. But I-I didn’t hurt him,” she added, eyes flicking to his as much to provide assurance as to seek approval. But just as quickly, she dropped her head. “He took the sword though.”

“He’s carried it before. He can be trusted with it." Provided his concern didn't cause him to rashly indulge his curiosity, of course. V took a deep breath that was nearly a gust in the echoing cavern. “I must keep moving. You can rest here.”

“No!” She floundered toward him, and he couldn't tell if it was the Emil heads or the thought of him vanishing into the underground that made her eyes so wide and wild. “Please. I’m fine, so please…”

V shrugged, but let her stick much closer than he would have if not for the dark and the dubious stability of the stone beneath and above. The light from the surface grew dim and faded until there was no sign of light other than what Pod 042 provided. They crept cautiously around a listing slab and peered through the opening its fall created in the ceiling. V identified the remains of a  foyer, complete with a chandelier still clinging on for dear life.

“A mansion…” V mused. “Pod, did we encounter data that matches this place?”

SCANNING… REPORT: SNOW WHITE PROJECT RECORDS FROM 2026 DISCUSSED THE DISGUISING OF THE LABORATORY’S ABOVE GROUND FACILITY AS A MANSION. HYPOTHESIS: REMAINS OF FACILITY WHERE OLD WORLD MAGICAL WEAPONS EMIL AND HALUA WERE CREATED.

“So this is where they made those heads?” Fern asked, clutching at V's coat. “Is the real one down here? The first one?"

From beneath V's arm, a voice groaned. "Just the one was enough for me, thanks."

Fern started. "Griffon? Are you alright?"

V gripped his familiar's beak before either of them could make a conversation of it. "Quiet. I haven't come this far to die in a cave-in."

Fern clamped a hand over her mouth, and Griffon dissolved back into tattoos with only a thin, obligatory huff.

Whatever they were growing closer to took them through strange corridors with dozens of doorways both intact and not. Fern was able to guide them when the way was unclear, though he condition grew worse every time. There was a skittering around them in the dark at times. Nothing ever appeared.

After what felt like hours, they came upon a final door, not before them but below them. Built into the floor. Unlike so many others they'd encountered, this one withstood the test of time. Both it and the alloy walls around it. 

Fern obligingly stomped at the solid metal. After three more, it had bend enough out of the way to reveal a stairwell leading into the dark. At the bottom was a small room, entirely empty save a single canister behind the remains of a shattered pane. A grimy keypad beside the enclosure suggested it must have been heavily secured at one time. 

"Pod, a scan if you would."

Pod's antenna spun, and he floated a little closer. Then a little closer. Finding himself apparently stymied by whatever the canister was made of, he eventually flew directly to it and opened it. 

V’s hunger spiked as soon as the seal was broken. The tattoos squirmed and twitched and bubbled up from his skin. He cleared his throat noisily, and they snapped quickly back into place.

Pod returned with his digits pressed together, giving him the look of a mousy man come to announce a problem he did not feel qualified to be even tangentially involved with. "REPORT: ...BONE."

V stared beyond him at the canister without a word, so Fern asked the obvious. “Really? Just... a random bone?”

AFFIRMATIVE.

“How can a bone feel like that?" She sagged back against the wall and clutched her head. "Like my head’s gonna split open...”

"Fern," V said firmly. “Go with Pod and wait at the top of the stairs.”

“W-what...?”

“It’s a strong source of magic, exactly as I wished.” He pushed the cane below her chin until her eyes met his. “You’ve done well."

Her eyes watered. She blinked far too often like she was looking at something unbearably bright, but for once she did not avert her gaze. Her lips hung open, grasping for something to say, and finding nothing. How simple it was. 9S had similarly succumbed to sweet words but had at least put up the resistance of pointing out it was an unfair trick.

Even if he meant precisely what he said. "Upstairs,” he repeated solemnly.

Pod drifted by, and Fern followed after him, hesitating only briefly to call back into the gloom. “Whatever happens I won’t leave. Even if you don’t come back for a whole month. I'll wait.”

V stood alone in the pitch dark. He didn't need to see. The hunger of his familiars had truer aim truer than any arrow, and as his eyes adjusted to the murk, he noted a red aura in the dark with him. It was coming from the canister. And if Emil had been any indication, he would have to bear the burdens of that which his familiars consumed. Strange bones in the place where Emil was made that radiated power all the way to the desert surface; no doubt an unparalleled vision awaited him.

He let his cane fall and slouched down to the floor. Alone, in theory with the power he so desired, he allowed himself a moment to hesitate. His fingers trailed the curvature of his mother's bracelet at his wrist. The wrong wrist, he noted and swapped it from his left to his right with tired but tender attention. 

It did not matter to him if it had power in it or not. His half of the perfect amulet was lost, and if by chance it was in Dante’s possession, it would invariably go to Vergil. She had poured so much more than he ever understood into giving him the chance at humanity, and yet the pains of losing that life had seen him go to greater and greater lengths to shed it. V was the one who bore the weight that Vergil could not. He was the one who righted their wrongs and bowed his head for their sins.

Whatever happened, this memento would be his and his alone. As would her final words, so dolefully spoken though they were filled with menace.

A mother does not ask gratitude of her children, so I ask only that you don’t throw away your life. Should you return over-quick to this place, I will show you what an elevated craft the Inferno has made of Punishment.

Goosebumps rose on his skin and he laughed. Eva did not make idle threats. She surely wanted him to think of them the next time he did something to foolish...like devour strange bones found in ancient places. Truly, his mother was a woman who could make a demon think twice.

Alas, he was human, and he had hungry demons to feed.

“Go.”

They nearly knocked the canister over in their greediness. The red aura vanished as they converged on the contents. He could almost feel the shape of it through them. Not a whole bone, but segments, as brittle as they were sharp. A red pulse appeared in the dark, trailing back toward him.

He wondered briefly if Urizen had felt this way, sitting in the heart of the Qliphoth with a dozen umbilical roots feeding concentrated blood into his body.

Then it reached him and he ignited, and wondered nothing at all. 

Chapter Text

At first, travelling in a group had been kind of fun. Though it was for different reasons, he and 4S were brimming with anticipation for what they might find. That energy relaxed their guardians, and soon they were all chatting away about nothing like neighbors who hadn’t had an opportunity to catch up in a while.

Now it was all 9S could do to stare at the sun and silently beg it to overheat him.

When Theta specified that a combat-proficient resistance android had to accompany them, 9S had expected someone more aggressive would be assigned. Instead they got Gladiolus, a reasonable, practical choice with a rifle specialization and a compact but stocky build. Their rocky first meeting was apologized for and forgiven in a brief and awkward exchange and that was it. She had no hostility to spare for him, and she took to 4S with surprising kindness, going so far as to suggest carrying him once they reached the desert.

4S had always been good at endearing people to him, but the extent of her sympathy was a sharp contrast from what he’d gotten accustomed to. 9S had never thought about the kind of reputation he had among resistance androids. The ones who disliked him thought he was dangerous or that he knew something they didn’t (he did, but that wasn’t the point). He kept to himself, and few of them knew what he wanted or what he might do; and if he brought the Tower down, he could do anything, couldn’t he?

There was no mystery like that in 4S. He found out about YoRHa’s real purpose even later than the rest of them had, he was utterly defenseless, and his one singular concern in life was evident in everything he did. Maybe more importantly than all those things: he had no reason to be close-lipped with the Bunker gone. He was a bright and open room you could just walk into as you pleased, secure that there would be no unknowns or dangerous surprises hiding in the corner. Without duty or a command chain to reign him in, 4S was comfortable answering pretty much anything he was asked.

And Gladiolus had caught on and started asking.

“So you could bring them all back with just black boxes?”

“We’d need compatible bodies too. I could replace your fusion core with a black box and you’d have power but the neural mapping that your AI uses would make all the other functions pointless.”

“It also requires the data on the ark copy to have been preserved in a really specific way,” Iota huffed.

“Not specific,” 4S corrected. “Complete. Especially the consciousness and personality data. Without consciousness data, memory integration won’t happen and the short-term storage area will eventually overflow, which will go on to cause significant slow-down in processing eventually leading to a cessation of function. No personality data and you’re basically creating a whole new android. They might have the same appearance, but the parameters for how they digest new memories, their emotional range, psychological baseline—it would be totally randomized.”

“Is memory like a whole other thing? Or is it not important?”

“That’s the one that’s easiest to replace. It’s not like we have memories of our own when we roll out for the first time. You guys have false memories to compensate, but R&D phased that out with us. YoRHa had an orientation period instead, typically with a pair of Operators and a few others of their model type.”

“I guess that’s not much of a price to pay if you get to come back to life when you die.”

“It’s not like coming back to life,” 4S said patiently. “If you reset memory data in a YoRHa android, there’s a high probability they’ll repeat certain actions because the base personality is always identical, but unique sets of environmental stressors produce unique permutations.”

Gladiolus shifted 4S higher onto her back. “Can you say that again, but this time, remember I’m not an information officer?”

“Losing your most recent memories means losing the most recent version of yourself. You’ll always get someone similar, but you can never get who you were at that exact moment back.”

“…Must’ve been rough.”

4S shrugged, but the animated energy had drained out of his voice and left a subdued husk behind. “Losing hours, or days, or sometimes weeks was something we all just accepted.”

With the mood finally dampened beyond what strangers could be expected to push through, the conversation retreated, and the tension that had crept into 9S’ back and shoulders sluggishly followed after it. As he’d predicted, 4S stubbornly clung to the possibility of bringing everyone back. He might not know how, but he would talk through it with every android in existence until something clicked if 9S didn’t rein him in. Hopefully, an opportunity would arise soon, if only so he didn’t have to suffer through any other iterations of that conversation.

He hadn’t seen a single sign of V anywhere.

There was no mention of a second android from the victims or from any of the androids who combed the area afterward. Ideally, that meant he’d finished his business with the other android, but it still didn’t make sense of his actions. A burst of the kind of electricity Griffon could generate would have been more than enough to put four androids out of commission without exposing himself. Or he could have just flown over them and avoided them altogether. Instead of preventing detection, he’d barged through and prevented pursuit.

All accounts said he was running, though not very fast. But why? None of the reports mentioned anything about him being chased—the next ones to arrive after him were all resistance members responding to the SOS. And why go to a place where he knew there would be androids to begin with?

“You think it’s someone we know?”

9S didn’t bother trying to smooth the furrows in his brow, but made a note to be more careful about his expression. 4S was also a scanner.

“I’m more worried about the weapon.”

“I heard about it. Maybe it’s some kind of ferro-fluid. Gravity attacks didn’t develop in machines until the war had already been going on a long time. If viral infection was involved, it’s possible the machines may have been in the process of evolving a new ability like that before the tower fell.”

9S was busy looking out at the sandstorm. If V was still out here somewhere, hopefully he had enough water. “…Viral activity ceased when the network collapsed.”

“All that means is infected units like me were cured.  Damages sustained didn’t repair themselves, so theoretically any attack programs left on a unit might still be intact.”

That wouldn’t be V, but 9S hadn’t forgotten how strange the murder was. How unlike a YoRHa unit the details of the attacker sounded. “If it was a YoRHa that reached a severe infection stage and was damaged but still in a mobile state, that would explain a lot… Not sold on the ferro-fluid idea, though.”

“What’s your theory?”

“I’m not sure yet. But ferro-fluid in this zone would be such a pain. Atmospheric conditions are terrible for the longevity of an iron-based weapon unless they figured out some kind of anti-oxidizing treatment, which you’d think they would use on their bodies before anything else.”

“Machine attitudes about wear and tear have always been negligent though. They rely on quantity. But I guess if they got to the point of magnetic control with the kind of precision presented in that attack; they could probably just dismantle us directly… Alright, how about this: it’s a nanomachine complex suspended in some kind of conductive fluid that allows a swarm to be controlled.”

Gladiolus leaned over to Iota. “You have any idea what the hell they’re saying?”

“…I think if I answer that question it’ll make you feel stupid.”

“Thanks, that was an even worse answer than just saying ‘yes’.”

They passed through the opening in the eastern bluffs and walked along the pipeline to avoid the treacherous silkiness of the sand for as long as they could. As they grew closer to their destination, 9S grew quieter.

Mammoth Apartments was insular even among machine kind. Stubby-type machines played in the shade of the tilted buildings, their laughter funneled out by the concrete so that it reached them while they were still far out on the sands. Closer, a group of machines all decorated in approximately female fashions conducted a conversation that seemed to consist solely of complaints. Occasionally their heads would turn, their blank faces somehow full of disapproval, before they went back to complaining even louder. If they were hostile, they were fine with keeping to nasty gossip rather than attacks.

4S slid down from Gladiolus’ back and checked his readouts. “There are no exact coordinates, so I guess this is the hard part. Can Pod 053 run a scan?”

“NEGATIVE. REMOTE IDENTIFICATION REQUIRES AN ACTIVE BLACK BOX SIGNAL.”

Gladiolus eyed the thousands of shadowed doors and windows above them, winding into the sky like strange beehives. “You mind running a scan for the one that’s on the loose?”

Pod did not respond until 9S gave her a permissive shrug. “SCANNING… NO BLACK BOX SIGNALS DETECTED IN LOCAL COMPLEX.

“Thanks. Keep us up on it if that changes.” She relaxed with a sigh and a hand on her hip and leveled her gun over her shoulder. “Well that means we’re safe, now what?”

“We search.” Iota dropped into a squat, regarding the buildings with equal parts interest and annoyance. “Though I’m not feeling very excited at the prospect of wandering around out here all day just trying to find a body.”

9S stared off down the row of buildings and let muscle memory take over. The first machine to show some sign of coordination between its thoughts and actions had led him and 2B through this complex. Somewhere deep inside the barren cluster of apartments, there was a hole where Adam and Eve had been born. But those weren’t the memories 9S was following.

A resistance member requested a simple retrieval. Confidential chips with confidential intel, snatched by machines. Many chips were common between YoRHa and standard models, but not those. YoRHa only. The Commander even got in direct contact with local ground units about the disappearance of a unit with classified information.

She later specified that said unit had been killed by a machine lifeform, along with a nearby resistance member.

Their bodies weren’t far from where 9S had last seen them. Just inside the crumbled corner of an empty apartment, where the sunlight bounced off the sand brightly enough that there were no shadows to hide what remained. The scanner’s body was sprawled across the floor. His anti-magnetic skin had deteriorated quickly in the heat and hung off of his exposed plates and cables in shriveled strips. His chest plating had been left open and was barren of all chips, including what should have been the bright silver strip of his OS chip. Lubricant had seeped into the concrete and cooked without the bleaching effect of direct light, staining the dull stones a red so rich that it still looked wet.

Gladiolus entered first. She passed the black-clothed corpse by to kneel down in front of the brown hand reaching over the threshold of the next room. 9S averted his gaze while she pushed back the hood and raised the head. She strangled a noise deep in her chest, and the next thing he heard was a flat, tinny clinking as she yanked the tags from his neck. She sat her gun against the wall, but her hand did not leave it.

“How did you know to come here.”

“I met both of them before.” The scent of spilled oil roasting in the sun was still strong. It wasn’t a cramped room, but it felt far too small to hold everything that had happened, was happening, and might happen inside. “He asked me to get some chips back from some machines for him. Turned out they were classified and he used them to illegally reboot YoRHa Unit 32S.”

“Did you kill him?”

“No.”

“Could you have warned him?”

He thought back to what he knew at that time. He would have laughed if he didn’t think Gladiolus would shoot him on principle. Instead he stepped inside, rolled the scanner body onto its back, and clasped the hands together neatly over the abdomen. “I wasn’t privileged to know about Executioners at the time.”

Her shoulders bunched and quivered with enough muscle to snap his neck if she really wanted to. But she stayed in place, and she slowly let her hand fall away from her gun. Gladiolus, he decided, was probably a good person. The type who wasn’t capable of lashing out at convenient targets, even when her anger was justified.

Better than him, in any case.

“I’m gonna step out with 4S,” he said, managing to keep most of the emotion out of his voice. “Just to the playground, if you don’t mind.”

Gladiolus answered with only a numb nod. It was Iota who gladly shooed them out so she could get to work.

The pair sat on the derelict remains of the swings and watched the machines play in the sand, 4S sitting straight and still and 9S sagging heavily forward with his face in his hands. He was grateful it was 4S with him and not anyone else. The dense silence between them could have stretched on until the sun went out without getting awkward or uncomfortable.

He wished they had that kind of time.

“I wondered if any of you had ever been assigned E units, but I really didn’t want confirmation.”

“We all suspected something like that was happening.”

“I didn’t. Not to you guys too.”

“There was a version of you once that did.”

His certainty struck 9S like a stone. The envy he quietly harbored for 4S, so grounded by the existence of 11S, turned inward. It cannibalized on an unknown past version of himself. One who may have been born with all the same doubts and anxieties, but if 4S’ words were anything to go by, had been able to take refuge somewhere. Among models in the same position whose relationship with him wasn’t a paradox that was always solved with his death.

It was hard to keep his voice steady. “What do you know about me?”

A sigh answered him. A muffled curse followed, nearly lost in the hiss of the sand shifting against concrete and hollowed out vehicles. “Do you really want me to say?”

“Yes!” he cried, the swing rattling on its chains as he jumped from the seat. “The only alternative is for me to continue to have no idea! When did I first meet 2B? When did I learn to fight? Where did I even get this sword from?!”

The gold and black sword materialized in his hand just in time for him to fling it into the nearest dune. His fists shook, his breaths ragged and black box beeping frantically in his overheated chest. 

“The versions of me that have died weren’t me,” he said thickly. “But I’ve got all these questions about myself that I can’t answer because they’re parts of those old lives. I don’t need you to tell me accurately, I just need somebody to tell me something.”

4S plucked slowly at the back of his head. 9S wasn’t sure what he was doing until the visor slipped down and fell in his lap. He gave it a brief, dull stare, tossed it aside into the sand, and set his gaze on his feet.

“You don’t remember Guadalcanal anymore,” he began. “But you were active before it even happened. You don’t remember 24S anymore, but he was at your first orientation.”

“My… first,” 9S said dazedly.

“You had to have two. I don’t think ‘your’ generation of scanners noticed as much, but me and 1S and 11S? We remembered what you were like when you were rolled out the first time. From the beginning, you were always sort of a weird guy. Things hit you different. Harder than the rest of us, I guess. Maybe it’s part of what makes you advanced because it’s the one thing that didn’t change. You always get emotional and make fast, stupid decisions about things that are important to you, and most of the time it works out because you’re just that good.

So, when they told us some bullshit about your base personality being damaged in a hacking attempt during the assault on Tarawa…We took it at face value at the time. It sounded like something you would do, and you were still like that. But you came back different, 9S. And you came back paired up with 2B.”

9S tried to swallow but his motor processor didn’t respond. His balance gave out instead, and he flopped back onto the swings. They cried out pitifully under his dead weight. He wanted to cry out with them, to find someone he could ask what the very first 9S could possibly have done that was so catastrophic they had to alter his base personality. And what had they altered it with. His vision began to quake and distort. This wasn’t the kind of news he needed to hear after finding out he’d merged with A2 and whoever else.

He consoled himself with a quick, dry mental incision. Whoever that first 9S was, he wasn’t with 2B. So it didn’t matter. (It did, it did matter, what had they done to him)—but that panicking voice in his chest was small, easy to drown out.

“Thank you,” he said, though he felt no relief at all.

“You could always look in the Commander’s data for your kill orders.”

“No. There’s someone…I really want to hear that from. Even if it’s only on the ark.”

The chains squeaked as 4S paused. “…I hope you find her.”

9S’ chest fluttered, and he shrugged down into his coat. It was strange to feel embarrassment of all things now of all times, but it was a welcome change of pace. It gave him a moment of clarity. 4S had given him enough truth to make a decision about just how deep he wanted to dig into the history of his executions. It was only fair to return the favor.

He took a deep breath and laid out the rest of the truths about Project YoRHa. He’d said they were made to die, but not that the backdoor that destroyed them all was built into the plan from the outset. That their lives were on a timer that not even the Commander had known about.  And that was so cruel and so inhumane that androids had create something with no humanity. Black boxes, made with machine cores, and YoRHa to house them.

“I… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to overwhelm you. If you bring everyone back, they have to know all of that, 4S. The whole world does. You can’t do that to them.”

“Are you kidding?” 4S shifted his jaw. His eyes had turned to steel, but they burned with rebellious fire. “I’ll be honest, when you told me the body problem, I settled. I tried to think smaller. Just bring my friends back. But now? I’m bringing back everyone.”

“What? No! They shouldn’t have to deal with this!”

“They already did!” 4S snapped, with such righteous anger that 9S shrank away. “They died dealing with it without ever knowing it!”

“No one should have to live with this. We hate machines, we’re programmed to hate machines. How do you think they’re going to react when they find out they have the hearts of machines!”

“I don’t know. And neither do you.” He rose from the swings, his single fist tight at his side and his head held up high. “I can’t live expecting the worst outcome to be the one that’s true. For me, a lack of certainty is enough. They deserve a choice, 9S. They deserve to know the truth and decide what they’ll do with it. That’s what you gave me, and that’s what I’m going to give everyone else.”

“But the bodies—”

“I don’t care. If I live for a thousand years and haven’t found a clue, I’ll spend the next thousand years continuing to search. Until my last breath.”

The words were familiar to 9S, if not necessarily the scorching resolve behind them. 9S hated it. He hated how strong the echo of Beepy was in 4S. It was far too much hope with far too little promise, and he hated how much he wanted to believe in it.

“Don’t you want 2B to live just once able to make her own decisions about you?” 4S asked gently.

9S frowned and jabbed 4S in the stomach. He meant well, so he left it at that. “Don’t lecture me about 2B. I want to see her again, but…”

4S recovered and flicked his ear with surprising force. “Whatever you’re about to say, shut up. You’re an android and you’re supposedly the best we ever made. Stop getting all worked up just because you can’t get results from just hacking them once.”

“Why do you keep lecturing me?!”

“Because I’m tired of you always looking like you’re running out of time.”

9S wisely kept his mouth shut. With 4S on the warpath, there really was nothing he could say that would get him the last word, even though he was running out of time. He barely knew why anymore, only that it was a pervasive and constant dread at the back of his mind the longer he was away from V. It might have only been his protocols finally catching up with him, but it didn’t feel that way.

But to have 2B back…

The sky flashed pink. They both looked up. Two thin, red beams shaved away a section of the cliffs that separated the complex from the rest of the desert.

“What the heck was that…?”

DISTURBANCE IN NORTHEASTERN QUADRANT OF THE DESERT ZONE,” said Pod 153. “ABNORMAL SANDSTORM ACTIVITY AND ENERGY SIGNATURES DETECTED.

Dizziness momentarily clouded 9S’ mind with static. Only the heavy pit that formed in his stomach kept him in balance. Something was wrong. “Is Pod 042 out there?”

Pod 153 hesitated a moment, swiveling faintly in 4S’ direction before turning back to 9S. “AFFIRMATIVE.

9S whirled and gripped 4S. “You need to get out of here.”

Another thin beam sheared through the sky above them, this time fully collapsing a section of the mesa near where they’d entered. Gladiolus raced down with Iota, and the four of them watched the cloud of sand and debris rising in the distance from the edge of the complex.

9S pushed 4S into Gladiolus’ arms. “Get him back to the camp!”

“Where the hell are you going?!”

“I have to go see where that’s coming from!”

“Are you CRAZY?!”

9S hesitated. 4S was looking between him and the destruction in the distance with wide, frightened eyes. He opened a readout and quickly began to work.

“9S what the hell are you—”

He shushed them sharply, and the moment the bar on his screen filled, he materialized the first weapon that came up in his databank and pushed it into 4S’ hands. “Here! I dropped my combat routines onto this along with a protocol that’ll unlock your NFCS permissions. All you have to do is let your object materialization program run and it should self-activate.”

“What the hell are you giving me a weapon for?!”

He grabbed 4S face, forcing them to meet eye to eye. “Because if I don’t come back, you and 11S deserve a fighting chance to do what you said.”

4S’ mouth hung open, but he bobbed his head rapidly and closed his fist around the spear, clutching it tight against his chest.

Gladiolus grabbed 9S by the back of his coat. “Hold on just a--!”

Another beam rattled the cliffs and raised clouds of sand on the other side. 9S shed his coat in a single loose ducking motion and took off. Only distantly did he hear Iota shouting at Gladiolus not to fire on him.

He changed his chipset on the fly, until his speed had maximized and all he could hear was wind whistling in his ears and the rapid-fire stomps of his boots pounding atop the pipeline. Theta floated across his mind, but he was beyond worrying about her, or anything that wasn’t getting to the source of those beams. The moment he crested the first dune on the other side of the cliffs he was very nearly sheared in half by them. He skidded out of the way, and followed their arc through the sky back through their wildly spinning source to the north. They cut off, and in their place we watched thousands of gray orbs discharge into the air in a fountain-like spray.

He could hear a loud voice screaming and sobbing—it sounded like Emil and filled 9S’ mind fit to burst with a hundred questions that all funneled down the only two of any importance: What the hell was happening and was V safe?

As if answering him, a pop of light flashed from inside the vast and swirling cloud of sand that obscured his destination. Only moments later, a pillar of light erupted from inside, so bright that his visual field momentarily distorted with the intensity. The energy coming off of it must have been incredible.  His nerve endings all tingled and a disturbance in his sensors caused his head to fill briefly with the scent of hot, rotted meat.

He stumbled and tripped at the top of a dune, sliding uncontrollably in the sand even as he cursed at himself. He was so close—!

Without warning, the valley he had fallen into sank, leaving his suspended in the middle of a massive slope. Just barely a hundred meters, the ground had out opened up and was swallowing the heads and everything else. 9S was left bracing himself against the wind and sand and calling out into the roar.

“V!” He stumbled, clutching at his shirt for lack of anything better to stabilize himself on. “V!!!”

He heard a familiar yowl. Shadow! Instantly he was on his feet, rushing toward the source of the sound. Through the bronze haze of the last of the falling sand, he saw red hair whipping in the wind and a familiar black coat around the figure of a woman. She held a broken standard issue YoRHa blade in one hand, and in the other an inky looking globe with a faint blue shine to it. Shadow was howling from somewhere deeper in the haze, guiding her somewhere.

She was staring right at him. She had heard him. Waited for him.

There was no sign of V or Pod 042, but that had to be her. The one who stalked him then kidnapped him and then left him alone in whatever condition made him run through the outpost, causing 9S whole worlds of trouble in the process.

 “Where’s V?” he called, prowling closer.

“He sent you away,” she snarled, her eyes watching his with predatory focus. “So be a good boy and Go. Away.”

She turned and ran after Shadow.

9S was immediately on her heels, teeth bared and Cruel Oath in hand. To be dismissed so casually; treated like he was not the one who belonged at V’s side, who had cared for him all this time, who was still running himself fucking ragged so V could remain innocent and unknown, and this android who had disturbed the ruins’ peace, murdered someone, brought so much attention to YoRHa, caused them to be separated and disturbed 2B's body--!

Cruel Oath struck her broken blade with vicious force and sent it pinwheeling out of her hand. She half-turned, eyes wild and filled with—with hate? She had the audacity to show up and hate him?

“Fucking,” she hissed, and skidded around, bringing her knee up and into his chin. “Stop!

She didn’t strike him a second time. She didn’t have to. The impact had rattled his systems around. Aberrations chromatic and otherwise turned his visual field into confetti—all colors and patterns that had nothing to do with what the desert actually looked like, and for one awful moment his motor control locked up and he couldn’t make his body respond.

He tilted his head up and saw her pick something up from the sand. Another sword?

No. The sword. Humility.

Red alerts appeared in his vision. He knew he was moving, but he couldn’t feel it. He wasn’t thinking about moving. Only about the rush of boiling oil coursing through his body and rushing in his ears. His vision had compressed down to the coat around her waist and the sword in her hands and how V had told him—commanded him—not to touch it and now it was in the hands of an android who didn’t know him. From here to the park, how many kilometers was that? Who cared, even one was too many; she didn’t get to touch that, she didn’t get to carry that, she didn’t get to DO THAT.

For a moment she looked up and wavered in the face of his approach and the bright red rage that fueled it. But she was quick to return it, lifting the sword and swinging in a vast, thrumming arc.

A shot cracked across the air.

Everything on the other android’s face was replaced with confusion and pain. Lubricant ran down her side. In a moment of blind panic, the sword slipped from her hands so that she could hold on to the blue orb and shield it from further shots.

The unexpected clumsiness snapped 9S out of his rage. He had been willing to die if she came at him seriously and Humility proved just what a well swung demonic weapon could do. Dying in a stupid accident because she dropped the weapon?

He folded his knees and collapsed onto his back in the sand. Humility sailed over him, ruffling his hair with its close passage. He heard a roar from Shadow, and when he sat up, both of them were gone.

Gladiolus stalked up next to him and offered him her hand. He stared up at her, and she flicked her fingers impatiently. “Your intuition was right, so we’re gonna pretend I wasn’t ready to shoot you. Come on.”

He took her hand and stood, sparing a dour glare for the hole in the earth. If Shadow was there, V was alive at least. But he had no answers for any of what had occurred. Only that V had been here. That most likely, he was right at the bottom of that hole.

Just a jump away, but it might as well have been on Mars.

He stumbled to where Humility had sunk into the sand. He de-materialized it into white sparks and stored it safety among his most protected memory banks. The moment was over and his hyper-processing over, he leaned gratefully into Gladiolus’ offered arm and they stumbled together back toward the camp.

He'd have to get his processors looked when they got back. He could still faintly smell rotten meat long after they had wandered out of that part of the desert.

Chapter Text

How many thousands of years of battle had there been? Not even the old ones knew.

How many thousands of years would there be before the battle ended? None could answer such a question. Yet it had ended. In a single flash of light that scorched the world nearly clean.

My wounds still hurt, but at least they’re closed.

Pod’s turned his light off to preserve power in case we’re down here a long time. He can’t replenish, not without sunlight. The design is smart but inconvenient given the circumstances. Yet he will stay without a word of protest or complaint.

I feel a little bad for using an EMP bomb on him when we met. I can protect V from anything, but I don’t have whole encyclopedias inside of me to tell me how to care for humans. I know they need food and water because the animals do. I know shelters were important because they built so many. I know a lot about humans. I’ve learned everything I could about how they lived since I found V. But how to make them well when they’re sick? What they can and can’t eat? What conditions they can and can’t bear? I need Pod for that.

I’ve gotten used to him now, but sometimes I still get a heavy feeling in my stomach and a pain at the back of my head when he comes too close. I wish I didn’t. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m near that kid.

Nothing has made me feel it as strongly as the body I found when I was searching the waterfall, though.

I clench my arms around myself and drive the memory away. I don’t need to think about that. All I need to think about is following Pod’s example. He stayed at the falls when I didn’t, and V could have died. This time, I will be patient.

To pass the time, so I tell myself stories of what will happen when V gets back. Oil and escaped lubricant stain my clothes. It’s even gotten on his coat, so I’ll need to find a place to wash them clean. I’m pretty sure all the bottles broke when I got tossed around by Emil, so I’ll need to replace them.

I don’t know what else he’ll need after that, but I think of a hundred more ways I could be useful.

And I wait.


Humans came after the light faded and the wounds healed. Fast and fleeting and countless. Meager and wretched and cruel. How she despised humans.

There’s a scraping in the dark.

My head rises but my body is frozen in place. I have no weapons. I don’t think I could use them in such a tight, unstable place even if I did. Pod spins in the air and his light clicks on. I really wish he hadn’t. I don’t know how many hours it’s been, but the overwhelming pressure from below is moving like an expanding bubble against my body. It rises toward the hallway while the cool beam of light goes unbroken by so much as a mote of dust.

The bubble bursts. 

Tar rises in floating, viscous strands from the stairwell. The rest of V follows, so pale he is almost aglow in the middle of all the twisting ink and dancing shadows. I’ve never seen V crawl, but he drags himself up like a beast. His tattoos have come away from his skin and they float up from him and around him like kelp tethered to a pallid seabed.

Whether the motion I make is toward him or away, I’m not sure. Either way, it catches his attention. The tar swells toward me, and presses against my arms and face and body. I knew it wasn’t really tar, and it feels nothing like tar. I can’t describe it outside of the ways it refuses to be any of the things I would expect. It isn’t warm or cold or solid or liquid, and more than physical disgust, its fear that makes me scream and slap the substance away.

It stops swaying. Without a sound, it settles back down against V’s skin, and he falls forward, collapsing over my shoulder. It takes me a few moments to regain control of my motor functions, and even then I hesitate to touch him. It’s only gingerly that I let him down onto his back.

My voice is only a squeak in the dark. “V…?”

His eyes move toward mine, but I don’t recognize his expression. When he was dying of cold, he was like an animal backed into a corner. He lashed out at me with all his might but none of his precision or elegance. It wasn’t fear in his eyes when I had to restrain him. He looked at me like I was an enemy and he was going to fight me until his dying breath.

This V is calm. Too calm.

Above me, Pod speaks. “THIS IS TACTICAL SUPPORT UNIT POD 042 TO SUPPORT UNIT GRIFFON. REQUESTING REPORT.

Griffon emerges from along V’s arms immediately. “How many times do I have to tell you I’m not a goddamn support unit!”

I grab his beak without thinking. He looks shocked, and I quickly press my finger to my lips and gesture up at the thousands of tons of earth that could collapse on us.

He shakes himself free and perches atop V’s chest. “Yeah, yeah, noise-control. Got it.”

“…So?” I prompt, when he doesn’t say anything else. “Is V okay?”

“Of, for—Yes he’s fine. Does this idiot look dead to you? V’s got a habit of biting off more than he can chew in case you haven’t noticed by now. You know what would happen if I worried about him as much as you do? My entire ass would be gray.”

QUERY: WHAT IS THE STATUS OF UNIT GRIFFON?

Griffon and I both give the Pod a confused look. Griffon recovers before I do, and his feathers puff out with pride. “Oh well thanks for asking, soda can, I’ve never felt better!”

ACKNOWLEDGED. IF UNIT GRIFFON’S CONDITION IS SATISFACTORY, THEN SUBJECT V’S CONDITION IS STABLE. PROPOSAL: RETURN TO THE DESERT SURFACE.

It’s a proposal I’m more than happy to take.

V can walk and is aware enough to guide himself through the collapsed areas, but I carry him as much as I can to keep our pace quick. He doesn’t resist.

Griffon stays out with us this time, always just ahead of the reach of Pod’s light, but shows no sign of worry at how docile V’s become. I’ve never asked about Griffon or Shadow or their relationship with V. They do their best to ensure he doesn’t die, so they aren’t all that different from me. What business did I have prying? But Pod has shown again he knows more about V’s care than I do, and this time it’s not based on knowledge from his archive.

I find it a little frustrating. But I know Pod won’t leave V, so I’ll just rely on him as is.

Griffon’s noisy laugh welcomes us back into the sunlight. He takes V from my arms and soars upward, and I’m left to frown at Pod 042. I know what’s about to happen. For Pod to carry me such a long way up, I have to enter suspension mode.

I know it’s necessary, but I always see terrible things the moment before my consciousness cuts off. The bodies of so many androids, stretching away before me into the dark.

I don’t know their faces, but I know that I used to.


What one of them had the strength to stand against the glory of her soul? What creature so small could hold their head as proudly as she?

We decide that the safest place for V is in the forest castle.

There’s too much risk if we try to leave the desert on foot. Both V and I have been seen, so it’s up to Griffon to fly him to safety. He takes V’s cane in one claw and says it’s not a problem. That he’s flown V along that way before. I don’t ask. I tug V’s coat free from my hips. It’s incriminating, but it’s not my possession to dispose of so I dump the broken glass and sand from V’s bag, stuff the coat inside, and give that to Griffon as well.

“Try to be helpful and now I’m a goddamn pack mule,” he complains with a hefty sigh. “You takin’ the long way around then, lady-bot?”

“Yeah. I’ll meet you there.”

I watch him go until I can’t see his blue wings or V’s shape anymore.

It’s a long crossing of nearly the entire desert to reach the oil field on the southwest side. I don’t want to run too fast in case it draws attention, so I pass hours trotting and sliding in the sand. At least it keeps the risk of overheating down.

The oil field is empty. No machines, no androids. Not living ones anyway. A dead YoRHa slumps over the top of the ledge overlooking the black lake. When I go up to investigate, I find a second one sprawled out between a palm tree and several supply boxes that unfortunately don’t contain anything I can use. Raw materials, mostly. Their weapons are laying out useless and baking in the sun, but I can’t take those either. If I’m going to pass through the outpost, a YoRHa blade is the last thing I want to carry.

I pick one up anyway, throw my hood back, and shear my hair off at the nape, carefully tossing it down into the deepest part of the lake. Someone shot me, so I have to assume a ranged unit saw me. ‘Long red hair’ is the kind of identifier that will get spread around if they have any reason to think I’m not dead at the bottom of that pit.

I drop back down and wade in. It’s hot, in a way that might’ve been nice if I hadn’t just spent hours running through the desert, but it’s still oil, and spreads thick and slimy into my boots. Before Pod warned me that sudden heat could kill a human dying of cold, I’d wanted to warm V back up here. I’m glad we didn’t. I’m sure he would’ve hated it the moment he came back to his senses.

“Pod you know that YoRHa boy really well, right? What’s he trying to do?” The question is quick and vague. Even though I’m not asking V or technically asking about V, I feel like I’m prying where I shouldn’t be. “I-I mean why isn’t he with V right now?”

UNIT 9S IS WORKING WITHIN THE RESISTANCE TO PREVENT SUBJECT V’S DISCOVERY AND POTENTIAL SUSPICION IN THE DEATH OF ARMY OF HUMANITY INFORMATION OFFICER RHO.

“…Is that who I killed?”

AFFIRMATIVE.

V said I endangered an armistice. Now I understand. That weapon I found in the ravine was a YoRHa weapon, so they think a YoRHa unit killed the officer. Resistance members come and go and die all the time, but an officer of the Army being killed after a cease-fire is cause for action. They must’ve suspected the kid and talked him into figuring out who did it.

Well, it’s a misunderstanding that will have to wait.

I slick oil through my hair until it’s more brown than red and smear it over the red stains on my clothes as well. If I’m dirty, I might get teased, but no one will scrutinize me too hard. When I pass through the outpost, I make an effort to look a little annoyed. Someone with a rough voice asks what the hell happened to me.

“Got spooked at the oil field,” I say, sounding appropriately put out and whipping some oil off my hands. “Some YoRHa up there but they’re already dead.”

Two laughs answer. “Oh, those two! They’ve been dead for months; took too much E-drug and fought themselves to death out there!”

It’s not a story that makes me feel good enough to laugh, so I click my teeth and grumble something about finding somewhere to clean off. They continue to amuse themselves at my expense, but I don’t care. It’s a little sad if anything.

The resistance took me in. I didn’t remember myself, but a few of them remembered that I had been with them before all the chaos. They gave me somewhere to belong in a world where suddenly none of us belonged or had any real purpose.

Even if it’s only for a little while, V is worth betraying that kindness. It was a nice display of humanity, but his is the real thing even when it’s callous. That’s worth more than anything else this world can offer me.


One. There had been one human to work his way into her grace. A merciless and dark-hearted man whose soul had perished with her own in the land of the gods.

V is walking along the rows of moldy books as though he’s underwater. His condition hasn’t changed, and his tattoos are still wafting off of him at the slightest disturbance. He’s awake and aware to an extent, but he isn’t himself.

The way I hold his hand (just in case he falls, the castle’s very unstable) should bother him. The amount of effort I put in to make sure he eats and drinks should bother him. He bit me last time, after all. But nothing bothers this version of V. I’ve tried a lot of things. Some of which I hope he doesn’t remember later and some of which I personally would like to forget I tried.

But at least I’m trying to do something about this situation, unlike a certain blue bird.

Griffon is hopping in senseless patterns on the ground floor of the library, whistling a complicated three-part harmony between all his beaks. It would be impressive if I hadn’t heard it so often since yesterday. He’s been very noisy since I caught up with them. About the only quiet I get is when occasionally leaves ‘to see what the ravens are gossiping about’. He insists every time I ask that V is alright, so there’s really no point in asking him again.

I ask Pod instead, but Pod immediately forward to the question to Griffon.

“He’s fine, he’s fine.”

SUBJECT V HAS NOT ENTERED A REST PERIOD IN APPROXIMATELY 30 HOURS.

“So?”

ACCORDING TO THIS POD’S ARCHIVES AND SUBJECT V’S KNOWN PATTERNS, THIS IS ABNORMAL.

“Look at me.” Griffon spreads his wings and struts in a small circle. “I’m in the best mood I’ve ever been in. I could wipe out every machine for a mile. Maybe even two! V’s handling some demon business. Can’t you both just take it easy and enjoy not having to worry about him doing something stupid for a few days?”

REQUESTING CLARIFICATION OF ‘DEMON BUSINESS’.”

Griffon flutters up to us, perching on the remains of the railing. “It means boss man’s picked up some pretty intense power, but if he’s gonna get it under control he has to come to an agreement with the owner.” He switches his perch to V’s shoulders. “Trouble is, getting ye olde bonehead to speak clearly is kinda hard!”

REPORT: DOUBT.” Griffon’s feathers rise at the accusation, but frankly, I feel the same. “BONES DO NOT POSSESS THE ABILITY TO VOCALIZE.

“Oooh, really wowing me with the facts there, tin man. No fuckin’ shit normal bones can’t talk! But those bones were packin’ some major heat! Death ain’t the biggest obstacle to having a little tête-à-tête when you’re a demon, and bonehead’s got enough juice left to talk—staying on topic, well that’s a whole other problem. Being dead a long time and wakin’ up all of a sudden with a guy like V in your face? I’d be tilted too!”

Pod’s antennae whirs. “DEMON BUSINESS. ACKNOWLEDGED.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. I saw what happened when we were fighting in the desert. How V sort of became Shadow. I understand now that the ‘other’ part of him is the same. He’s also a demon, in a way I don’t particularly understand or care about.

He’ll always be human to me. That’s the only part that matters.

Griffon leers at me. “Any more questions, lady-bot?”

Come to think of it, I do. “Will he have another one like you when he finally snaps out of this?”

“Hell no!” Griffon cackles. “You can’t make a whole familiar out of two pieces of dried up bone! Even if he could, bonehead’s got more power than V ever did.”

“Then how is V supposed to get it to agree to anything?”

“He has to figure that out. He has before.” Griffon takes off, whistling yet another impressive but grating harmony. “That’s why he’s the boss man.”


Such crimes were committed on my flesh… Death spares me the indignity, yet here are you, to tell me they were indignities no less. What is it you seek? It cannot be to offer succor to mere bones.

The orange grove is empty. The fruit is rotted into the ground and fills the air with a sickly sweet odor and clouds of insects. I’m not sure what I was hoping for. The book Pod gave me did say the fruit doesn’t grow at this time of year. Maybe I wanted flowers, but there are none of those either.

During the brief period when he was alone in the city, I followed V here a few times. He would spend hours here, long after he’d had his fill of oranges. I thought he must love them, so when he left I would stuff my pockets with them by the dozen and rush them back to my hideaway in the park. I wouldn’t dare to eat them. It was enough that they were there, and their scent seeped into the stone and I could close my eyes and pretend to sit beside him in the grove.

It was the closest I thought I would get to him, at the time.

I press my face into the leaves. They have a similar smell to the fruit, a sharp and bright sscent that I know well. I snap a branch off before I return to the castle with the rest of what I’ve gathered.

Griffon’s an eagle so I don’t think he’ll mind that I caught doves.

The place where I left V was in the courtyard. He seemed intrigued by something there earlier, but he isn’t there now. He never really stays where I leave him. The place where he was so keenly staring at the ground might have been a fountain or something once, but it’s just dirt and old stones now. There are a bunch of plants, though, with little pink berries. I pick a few just in case he likes them and try to figure out where he’s has gotten to this time.

The towerfall makes it easy to get up high, but much harder to get into some of the more secluded areas of the castle. And I’m much heavier than V, so I can’t exactly follow in his footsteps if he’s gone to an unstable spot.

I catch a glimpse of him before too long. He’s standing way up high on the ramparts over the throne room, staring to the north with a strange intensity.  As I draw closer, a familiar pressure pushes against me like centrifugal force, ready to crush me against the nearest wall. The tattoos are floating up over the back collar of his shirt in a strange but symmetrical dance. He looks like he’s growing wings.

“Seems bonehead has beef with the freaks in the church.” That’s Griffon’s voice. It’s hard for me to get closer, so I wait and listen. “So we might be looking at a cure.”

I’m aware V is sort of on the bony side, but I didn’t know he was sick.

QUERY: WERE THE REMAINS THOSE OF THE ‘RED DRAGON’ IDENTIFIED IN THE RECORDS?

“Ehhh, your guess is as good as mine. I’m not privy to every little thing they’re saying, it’s more like a feelin’. But they have dragons in hell too, big fuckers who serve strong demons. I couldn’t tell ya what this one would see in V, but if he can convince them they’ve got a mutual enemy, that might be enough. Not like bonehead can get up and take ‘em out without a conduit.”

REPORT: PROGRESS. HOWEVER, V’S PRIMARY GOAL REMAINS OUT OF REACH.

“You’d have to talk directly to him about that one, soda can. I go where V goes. I’d say a contract with the last known being who was able to cross dimensions without passing through hell is probably a good start.”

I stop breathing. I feel like I shouldn’t hear this—I’ve never asked anything of V, not where he’s going or how long he’s been there, or anything he needs that he doesn’t need from me. I don’t want to know. I don’t need to know anything.

I can believe anything I want as long as I don’t know anything for certain.

“Hey!” I shout, interrupting them before they can say anything more. “What are you doing all the way up there?!”

I climb up to join them and chastise them both for letting V come so high even though I know that both could carry him.

V’s head twitches as I shake the orange bough under Griffon’s nose. The ink reaches from his back and steals it from my hands. There is no change in his expression, but it’s the most specific reaction I’ve seen from him in days.

With tightness in my jaw and the crackling current moving under my ribs like live wire, I begin to suspect it isn’t the oranges themselves that he favors so much.


So the gods and the fools who would defy them still exist. Then what remains of my power you claim shall abide with thee in peace. Let it not be said I left our final foe undefeated.

Now leave me, half-breed. I am awaited in oblivion.

V is finally sleeping. Shadow is curled around him, and all feels right even though I know something is strange and different.

His left arm has gone black and leathery. There is something on it like scales or ridges, rough to the touch as the bark of a tree. Thick claws tip his fingers, the same color as moose antlers and the tusks on the boars that roam the forest. Dull violet light weaves between them in symmetrical patterns that remind me a little of fish scales and a little of the ridges on the underside of his cane. His tattoos are still just barely visible if I squint.

He was himself for a moment after the pressure around him dispersed and his tattoos finally settled down. I could tell he was exhausted—it had been nearly three days and he couldn’t manage more protest than a vaguely irritated expression as I rushed him to a shaded ledge near the throne room where I knew he could rest undisturbed.

The first thing he did was raise his new arm and examine it in silence. He covered his eyes with his new hand and started to laugh, but it was the most miserable sound I have ever heard. Luckily, it didn’t last. The words were slurred by his exhaustion, but I swore I heard him say ‘So now I am to be punished’. After that, he fell asleep with a grimace on his lips.

I haven’t left him since.

I don’t know how long he’ll sleep, but I know his sleep is deep. I can tell the slow and rhythmic rise and fall of his chest under my cheek. Every inhale and exhale and the beat of his heart is like a song in my ear. I’m an android. As long as I listen carefully, I can remember this sound as long as I live.

Where did he come from? What is he trying to do? Just how much of a demon is he? Those things are none of my business and none of my concern. He’s a human and he needs me for what he needs me for. If he tells me I have done well, that’s enough. If I kill for him, that’s enough. If I die for him, that’s enough.

I’m not stupid. I know he’s going back to that kid. It’s inevitable. They were together for a long time. But it’s better to be disposed of in service to a human than to drift along in this world where androids have no reason to exist.

I think of the shack on the dock of the amusement park, and of V sitting at the table reading one of the books I’ve left out. Humans like to be warm, so I imagine a fire. Humans like music, but the only songs I know are from the jukebox back in camp, and I become absorbed in wondering which he’d like best while praying that he will sleep a long, long time.

I stare at the symbol that has appeared in V palm. It’s something I know about V that 9S does not. Once V is gone, I can pretend 9S never sees it. If I never see them again, what is there to tell me otherwise?

I can tell myself whatever story I wish.

Chapter Text

A crudely painted symbol on the bottom of the scaffolding planks above welcomed 9S back to full consciousness. It was another of Iota’s weird repair practices. She claimed it reduced disorientation if an identical object was present in the visual field when entering and exiting maintenance mode. ‘An identical object’ in her case meant scribbling a poorly stylized version of her own name wherever she was operating.

To her credit, it did kind of work, but it was hard to ignore Gamma standing over him with a gun.

“Do you still respond well to reason, Unit 9S?”

“You only ever ask me that when you’ve made it clear I really need to respond to reason.”

“Theta has some questions about the materials you provided prior to your repairs. Your readings warranted a cautionary approach." Her mouth tilted into a slight frown. "This is only for you if it needs to be.”

9S had come to like that Gamma was so predictably unwilling to be underprepared or taken by surprise. The uniformity of her thought process was comfortable and even easy to work with though he didn’t care for her harsh methods and still thought of her as a glorified E unit. All he had to do was make himself harmless, and she would do the same. Too bad he couldn't afford to do that right now.

He had failed to think up a way to avoid providing Pod 153's record of the fight before he and Gladiolus made it back to camp. Nothing would be more suspicious than him refusing to provide such an obvious piece of evidence, and if nothing else it was a clear visual of their culprit. Trouble was, even a simple audiovisual log would not omit his search for V, or that it was the source of his and the other unit's confrontation. So he just gave it to them. The wholesale pod record, biostatistics and all.

Now that Theta had seen it, there was a possibility he might need to grab Humility and run out of here. Helplessness was the enemy. Rather than turn off even a single one of his functions, he let Gamma march him across the camp. The stares didn’t bother him. The sneers barely registered. What made his body grow tight and the pulse of his black box waver was that he was not being guided to the command tent, but to the small, private room near the entrance of the camp. By the time Gamma opened the door and gestured for him to go in, he had coiled in on himself, mentally and physically preparing for anything.

Theta was seated comfortably on the empty frame he had taken the mattress from, turning Virtuous Contract over in her hands like it was some knick-knack from the commercial facility that had caught her eye. She had to know the effect it would have on him if he caught her touching it so casually. He quelled the urge to attack, crushing it down to a hardened knot in his gut, and remained stone still as the door closed against his back.

“Your cooperation is appreciated as always,” she said, without bothering to look up from the sword.

“You never really give me much choice.”

Her motions paused and her eyes flicked across the room. If she had a retort, she didn't let it steal her focus. “So, who is V?”

“He’s an old-world weapon like Emil.” He knew that was coming. As much as he knew V wouldn't like it, bringing Humility back and letting Pine examine it paved the way for an easy to believe and hard to disprove half-truth. “The sword I brought back belongs to him.”

A faint but pleased smile softened Theta’s features. She looked like an instructor whose student had finally worked out the most precise way to solve a problem. “A technically correct answer to my question, without actually answering the implied question. I’d say that counts as a lie. I’m glad to see you took my advice to heart.”

“All you asked was who he was, Theta. That's the question I answered.”

“Playing dumb doesn’t suit a model of your quality, YoRHa Unit 9S.”

His jaw clicked as he resisted the urge to clench. First, she was weirdly proud of him for lying and then mad at him for not volunteering more information than necessary. Playing dumb wasn’t something he liked doing. Why was she so hung up on this lying thing anyway?

“You have footage of a red-haired android with YoRHa issue clothing on her person and an item in her possession that matches the descriptions of the weapon that was used at the outpost. Shouldn’t that be your main concern?”

“You have my full agreement that she is the culprit if the innocence of your compatriots still concerns you.” She crossed her legs and sat Virtuous Contract over her knee, plinking at the steel with a single busy finger. “But I think we both know the conversation you had with her, brief and violent as it was, communicated some interesting information that such a simple deflection isn’t going to distract me from. It sounded like you both have an equal allegiance to this V and you were…what?” She tilted her head. “Discarded?”

Steady breaths. Still body. Steady breaths. Still body. Keeping those two simple commands at the top of the priority order was a strain he could not believe. His fists had been clenched from the moment he entered, and he let them tighten until the joints began to ache. His memory of the ferris wheel played over and over in a tilt-a-whirl loop. He hadn’t been discarded, no matter what either of them said because V told him that wasn’t the case. It was to keep him safe. They were keeping one another safe.

Theta was only trying to rattle him. 

“Who is V,” she asked again. “That you would run toward a dangerous, high-energy laser while simultaneously running away from a resistance member authorized to use lethal force on you?”

“A friend. No different than 4S and 11S.”

“Ah well,” she said in an exasperated voice. “That does explain nearly everything.”

His voice came out a low waver, not what he wanted or expected but it was too late to take it back. “What the hell does that mean?”

“It means I've had two weeks to observe you and the closest I’ve seen you come to make a proactive decision purely for personal gain was when you were going to go out bring us the culprit's head for disturbing your partner’s body.” The blade reflected her eyes as she turned it in her lap. They were as mirthless and flat as ever. “You aren’t cooperating with Jackass for your own sake. You aren’t here for your own sake. I’m beginning to believe that even the fruits of all your fascinating research these past months are also a mere byproduct of you throwing yourself into danger for the sake of this ‘V’.”

“That’s what you’re focusing on?” Incredulous laughter heaved in his chest but didn't quite make it out. “You’re drilling me for caring about other people?”

The plinking stopped. “I’m drilling you because you are passive, reckless, and extremely easy to manipulate. You wrap your existence up in that of those you want to protect, and it’s going to get you killed.”

The room was suddenly far too small. No room for maneuverability. No room for the more complicated parts of his sword or spear combat routines. He never used bracers; might have to reconsider that if he survived this. “By you?”

“Please, just once, think before you speak.” The tired edge to her reproach sounded so much like 21O he almost thought it was intentional. “If I wanted you disposed of, I would not have gone through so much trouble to get you where I could keep an eye on you.”

“Keep an... eye on me?” The pitch of his voice rose. His breaths began to hitch and heave in uneven rhythms as his stomach fluttered like a frightened dove. “Why?! That can’t be all you wanted this whole time!”

Theta shot him a look that gripped some base part of his programming and ruthlessly dammed the rising torrent inside of him. “Are you afraid of me, Unit 9S?”

“You corner me and push my buttons at literally every opportunity. You’re doing it right now.”

Without realizing it, he stood stiffly to attention as she drew up to her full height. Virtuous Contract flipped in her fingers, the hilt out to him and the point directed dead center at her waist. All he had to do was grab the sword and push and she’d be bleeding out on the floor before Gamma could open the door. Her voice drifted down from above his head

“I cannot be asked to believe you came to a decision about my motives because I am not nice to you. Have I ever actually said anything to you to give you the impression I was a danger to you?”

He pushed back against the door. “You held 11S over me.”

“I told you to think about what Jackass would do to him if you didn’t intervene because you specified personal matters to be of importance to you.”

There was a crunch as his fingers dug into the wood. “You threatened me when I tried to leave.”

“I made you aware of the law, Unit 9S. The one I am required to uphold as a Commander in the Army of Humanity.”

His thoughts slowed and jumbled. Different memories replayed almost on top of one another. Despite being cold and intimidating and seeming to enjoy keeping him off-center, had she really not done anything to him?

“You… You and Jackass...”

“Are at odds because of you? That’s correct. It became very clear from the moment we met that our objectives and approaches to getting what we want would be mutually exclusive. We cannot co-exist. That does not mean I intended to bring you to harm any more than it meant she would bring you any good.” She pushed in closer over him, the point of the blade dimpling her white coat and the hilt pressing on his black coat. He looked up to see if she realized what she was doing, and saw nothing given away in her eyes. She didn’t need a visor to mask her emotions, assuming she had any at all. “Has Jackass been an ideal ally to you, YoRHa Unit 9S? Or has she merely been transparent about the things she is willing to do to achieve her goal, even when they would directly harm those you claim to care for so much?”

He swallowed, desperately trying to back out, create some distance so he wouldn’t stab her if he twitched wrong. He wanted to say that Jackass didn’t try to turn him against others, but wasn’t it her biases that had made him so wary of Theta to begin with? Thinking of her actions from the position of a Commander...if her concern was to watch him, were they really so strange?

“How honest can you be with me?”

“Ah, progress.” She backed off, dropping back into her barren seat with a dark-eyed and deeply unimpressed stare. “To keep it brief: that depends on you. I dislike politics, Unit 9S, but I am still beholden to them. You’ve attempted to engage me like a spy since the day we met and while I presume that is very much a part of your intel-gathering functionality, it’s been a source of immense frustration to me."

"Because I was creating a chaotic situation for you..."

"Because you're terrible at it, yes." She gave him a slow and assessing look, top to bottom. "Now that I know you are acting exclusively for the benefit of others; I can say conclusively that your focus is far too narrow. 4S, 11S, and now this V, whoever or whatever he might be? You’re going to get them killed as well.”

9S' head snapped up. Theta was watching him with a thorough, slouching kind of boredom. As if his stronger reaction to the idea of deaths other than his own was just more proof toward her point atop of an already massive pile. But getting himself killed—that could happen in any number of ways. He could've gotten himself killed approaching the active Emil Heads or in Beepy's pit, or in any number of places. Them dying suggested Theta meant something far beyond his own disregard for caution.

“By who?”

She turned the point of Virtuous Contract directly up. At the ceiling...?

No.

She was pointing at the stars.

“Formally,” she began quietly. “I am here to oversee continued peaceful relations, as historically the time around the signing of a treaty is known for violence from sects who may not feel peace is a suitable solution. Informally, I’m certain the person or people Jackass is looking for are carefully scrutinizing my reports.”

“Why you?”

“Because the orbital base I come from is one of the closest to this area.”

So now she was imitating him—answering in the technical, instead of the underlying question. Fine, he’d earned that one. “You have the face of someone who knew Emil and the Replicant of the Original. Does that tie into the reason you specifically are here?”

“Not for the reasons you may hope.” Theta leaned back, sat Virtuous Contract gently aside, and folded her hands across her lap. “Legacy Reclamation. I’m sure you’ve come across that branch of the HHRMO in your hunt for data?”

A stranger answer might not have been possible. "Are you trying to tell me you’re a historian?”

For the first time, a small and genuine smile graced her face. She actually laughed. “Not inaccurate, I suppose. I'm modeled after a genetic experiment—a human but also the inheritor of a battle program based on a soldier named Kaali who defeated the first Red-Eye. Her data became the basis for many early battle-type androids. This appearance is a matter of honor. A badge signifying that I’ve inherited the long history of android-kind and their responsibility to humanity.”

“So the reason you came was…my reports?”

“I came because I was chosen. My model type, proximity, and your reports would have all been factors. Certainly, I required the least amount of catching up. I was already privy to most details of the gestalt project, and a great deal of the aftermath. You went beyond my knowledge base when you discovered Beepy and the home of the Original.”

“…Did you already know humans were dead?”

“I wanted to believe otherwise, Unit 9S. So I did." She shrugged. "It's that simple.”

9S sank into a squat. That was such a mundane answer. Everything about her was mundane. He rubbed at his face. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this information?”

“You’re the scanner. If you’re going to bother with living, think about the future a little more. All I’ve done is to make you aware of the situation you are in, YoRHa Unit 9S. Whatever you do, you shouldn’t assume it’ll align with my goals. You shouldn’t assume it will align with anyone’s goals, including those of your friends. ”

She rose, straightened her coat and offered him her hand. “Now. Jackass returned while you were undergoing maintenance. She and 4S are waiting for you at the alloy site. Are you going to join them?”

9S stared at it, his processors chugging as though they were filled with mud. Everything she told him, all of her actions thus far—none of it aligned if she wanted to bring him any harm. But it did imply that a decision from him was necessary. Theta didn’t even really care who V was, just that he was yet another person 9S was twisting himself in knots for. But there was no decision to make. They had all been made months ago as far as 9S was concerned. 

He was happy that other scanners would live after him. Happy that 4S had the fortitude to spend the rest of his existence chasing a way to undo what had been done to all of them. Maybe he’d do it—but 9S’ plans hadn’t changed. The only thing he wanted was to find the scraps of 2B’s data in the network, see 11S complete his repairs, and get back to V. If he could hold on to the few good things he had left, that was enough. He didn’t need anything else. He wasn’t expecting anything else.

He took Theta’s hand and wrenched himself back to his feet. “I’ll keep going.”

“I see.”

“But I want more data. You’ve convinced me I’m shit at command-tier politics. It’s fine. That’s not the kind of analysis I was built for. Can you give me anything else?”

A spark of approval passed lightning-quick through Theta’s eyes.


 

‘You’ are an android somewhere in the upper echelon of the Army of Humanity.

You might be a commander, or maybe you’re a director of R&D. Maybe you are so old you were there to see the Army of Humanity founded in 5013, or maybe you’re one of the younger kind of 'old guard' who survived the first rising of Atlantis. The specifics don’t matter, not yet. The point is that you have a substantial amount of power within the organization. Enough to manage or have managed on your behalf all the practical, logistical, and deeply boring bureaucratic aspects of bringing Project YoRHa into fruition.

You, or someone who works for you, have the funds arranged. You, or someone who works for you, have the necessary construction completed, the clearances created, the penalties enforced.

You share select details with a select few. It’s a necessity. YoRHa is largely self-operating, but it does require certain touches. A Commander. Starting staff. Repairs and R&D. YoRHa models still need perfecting, and even if their construction facility is automated and unmanned someone has to know their structure in order to alter the blueprints that feed the machines. Few, if any, understand the full scope. They are all androids, accustomed to not knowing the full design of a plan and obeying orders.

Somewhere in the background, the entire time is 'You'.

Things proceed smoothly. The lie spreads. The ‘Council of Humanity’ becomes its own military entity, and YoRHa its active force, recognized as equals by the other bases and by the few Resistance ground forces who have been lucky enough to receive their assistance.

Near the very end of the Project, just before you are clear and the data is all scrubbed out of existence, something goes wrong. The details of the project are recovered in the fallout by a resistance intel officer with an axe to grind and minimal moral qualms. She publicly vows to find you, and those in your cohort.

You pay her no mind because she is one android built who knows how long ago, and she has no hope of reaching you. YoRHa is not a sympathetic entity. They are monsters made of dead machines wearing the skin of androids, and they served no purpose but to give androids false hope and propel them toward their collective deaths for however long it took.  

All is silent, for about a month, before it comes to light that a single YoRHa has survived. To be precise, he is YoRHa Unit 9S—the most advanced scanner model ever produced. For reasons that are unclear to you, he is prying into the far, far past. Digging up artifacts long since lost to android-kind. This makes him of interest to the Legacy Reclamation branch, which is not ideal.

However, you are more concerned with the chaos breaking out in the ranks below you. Thousands of abruptly disillusioned androids have internalized that it was a mere accident of circumstance that the war ended with the destruction of YoRHa. Their anger has created a storm that could lead to another rebel conflict. One that promises to be bloody because the goal will not be freedom, but revenge.

A peace treaty with the remaining machines is exactly what the Army of Humanity needs, so it can address its internal problems. Enforce order. Your voice is almost certainly among those who come together on the subject when the known pacifist machine Pascal approaches the Resistance to request an armistice.

You don’t worry too much about 9S, as you hear he wants nothing to do with the effort to identify you.  But over a very brief period, this changes. Other scanners are identified, and Unit 9S begins to actively lend himself to identifying information from a perfect copy of the machine network that the shockingly tenacious intel officer has managed to dig up over the course of several months.

The information he finds is not confidential. Very little can be confidential when someone like Jackass is involved. And like all information that isn’t tightly contained, it spreads.

With the fall of the bunker, there are only ten orbital satellites. Four of those are satellite laser cannons run on protocols and algorithms and manned only by maintenance crews, which means you are on one of the remaining six.

On all six of the bases, this intel officer and this YoRHa have created an unpleasant situation for you. Whether it is because they want you to stand trial for your crimes, or because they want to see you burned at the stake as humans once burned their witches, there is a buzz around your identity that was not there before. The activity of unit 9S is slowly turning what was once impossibility into an eventuality.

He is a problem for you. He is becoming more of a problem for you by the day. 

If this continues, 'You' will need to destroy him by whatever means are available to you.


The heavy picture of what is happening so far above him weighs on 9S as he stares into the white maze of the network.

It’s only Theta’s understanding of what's going on; a picture painted specifically for him of a situation he would never have considered. It may be wrong, or another lie, but there are a half dozen little things that line up to create a vivid and terrifyingly tangible peek into what has been happening on the orbital bases while he's been concerning himself with V.

“Can you hear me?”

4S voice bounces on the empty air. 

Rather than going back and forth trying to tweak an algorithm, he has opted to connect them via a physical cable between their access ports. It isn’t enough to make him physically present in the network, but he can communicate and receive a live feed of basic audiovisual data from 9S. It's quite an accomplishment, but 9S finds neither his mood nor his curiosity perk up.

“I can hear you,” he answers.

“Awesome. Closed local network established annnd… Wow, no kidding it’s huge in there. Not to butt in on your whole best scanner thing, but I didn’t get that dumb nickname from 42S for nothing. Give me a minute to try some things.”

4S has his own reasons to be doing this. 9S has no right to tell him to stop, but this has suddenly become far bigger than either of them. There is another war brewing, both physically and figuratively above their heads. 9S is not a commander. He is barely even a soldier anymore. What is he supposed to do against a threat that big? Is there even anyone he can talk to about this—one who doesn’t have their own motives?

“Hellooo, Earth to 9S?”

9S jumps. “Huh?”

“Geez, handle the hacking, let me worry about analysis, space case. I said Jackass wants you to run a scan like the one you did before but for incoming communications while you’re just standing around.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The Commander and A2 are both where he left them, still and static. While Pod 153 scans the broken-down blocks of the Commander’s data, 9S scans for any sign of 2B. If there has to be a reason he absolutely can’t stop or some kind of hard decision that is only his own to propel him forward, it's her data. He would rather die than leave it in there with N2. 

Whatever else may come of 4S’ search for a way to restore YoRHa and Jackass’ scouring for the one who created them, he has to find it. Even if it’s only a shred of her.

“So this might be a little uncomfortable, but bear with me—”

Before he has the chance to ask what 4S means, 9S feels his body expanding outward. A sense of rapid acceleration overcomes him, and he totters on his unmoving feet until he falls to his hands and knees. They feel miles away from him, and the distance grows exponentially as the seconds pass.

He hits something. Not a physical something, but it's enough to finally stop the sickly sense that the world is breaking the sound barrier around him. He hangs suspended instead. Floating as if only faintly tethered to a physical body.

As suddenly as it began, he is snapped back into his own small body.

“9S?" 4S calls frantically. "Are you okay?!”

"No," he gurgles. He thinks he’s going to vomit. “What the hell... was that?”

“Oh well, I figured the best way to quickly get in touch with other YoRHa units would be to establish a connection with another scanner but I didn’t quite compensate for the fact that you’re kind of acting as a host within the machine server right now or how stupidly massive it is, so when I attempted to identify a YoRHa address for you to contact, it may have unintentionally catapulted part of your consciousness data in the routing effort?”

“Are you telling me you just used my consciousness data as a packet for a goddamn ping attempt?”

“Sorry, sorry! But you were successful!”

9S staggers back to his feet, fighting vertigo for every inch he gains. “Ugh… Who did we find…?”

“Ah, that… There’s only one guy whose address I know well enough to try that with. I sent you the coordinate data. I’m going to help Jackass organize the Commander’s data for a bit. I’ll stay connected, so let me know when you get there.”

To be left alone so suddenly is telling, but 9S doesn’t bother trying to guess who it is. It doesn’t matter. He and whoever else he can lead them to all dead YoRHa who were chewed up and swallowed by the virus and N2. Not knowing who might be alive is one thing, but knowing exactly who is dead…

9S finds he can’t blame 4S for trying to put off the moment of truth just a few minutes longer.

At the designated coordinates, he finds a single scanner standing tense but bewildered in the middle of the path. When their eyes meet, his shoulders drop with relief. “I was wondering who’d be stupid enough to ping me in a place like this.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” 9S says with a slow and creeping numbness at the edge of his voice. No wonder 4S didn’t want to talk anymore. 1S is a little taller than 9S, and his hair is immaculate. He might be the most severe of the scanners from 4S’ generation, and until then 9S had always found him somewhat unapproachable. But now he thinks of Guadalcanal. The first 9S could not have been much younger than him. “It was 4S. He’s… he’s with me.”

1S doesn’t frown. 9S recalls dimly that 1S never shows a sad face in front of his juniors. But his smile is bittersweet at best. “So he’s in good condition… Thank goodness. Is 11S with you too?”

"Sort of..." It’s surreal to actually speak to someone inside the network who is aware. He’d wondered if time flowed inside of this place at all, and 1S is quietly putting that question to rest. It’s clear he’s been worrying about the two scanners he was closest to this whole time. How long must seven months feel like in a place like this?

It is also clear he already knows why he’s been in there and they haven't.

“4S,” 9S calls. But 4S doesn’t answer. “4S?”

“I can hear you…”

1S face warms and his head tilts up toward the disembodied sound of 4S’ voice. “Are you taking good care of 11S?”

“Of course I am. I’m looking for a way to bring you all back. I promise I won’t just leave you like this!”

1S looks back at 9S. The conversation exchanged through their eyes is quick but thorough and not fully intentional on 9S' part. Still, there’s a consoling sort of gratitude to 1S' smile when it's over. It's the kind of smile that says 'thank you for putting up with my friend, even though they're an idiot'. “He’s been putting you through a lot, I take it.”

9S is quick to shake his head. “I have my own reasons to be here. I’m… I’m looking for 2B. Have you seen her?”

“Sorry, but…I don’t think she’s in here, 9S.”

“She wouldn't have been here until recently," he says quickly. “Due to a synaptic alignment even some of her consciousness data merged with an old prototype unit named A2. I didn’t think it was enough for her to move around in here, but that bit of fragmented data is here. It literally got up and…and walked away from me after I recovered it.”

“And you want to find it?” 9S bristles. He can hear the question under the question: 'why do you want to find your executioner?' He opens his mouth, ready to defend her, but 1S is already moving on. “Well, the nature of your relationship with her was never my business and I’m not about to make it mine now. Come on. You can ask around with everyone else.”

The platforms shift and the local area resolution alters, however its center is not on either of them. A port he 9S had not previously identified opens and a hidden path materializes, a stairwell going down to a small, empty platform. When they reach it, the scenery shifts again. The permeating silence of the network is blown away by the light babble of any number of feminine voices. He can't see all the YoRHa any more than he could see the individuals in Beepy's network, but hew knows by their voices that they are there. This part of the network looks different. It still resembles the larger network, but it’s organized. Circular with hundreds of nodes.

It looks like the Bunker's server.

“A hidden sub-network…”

“3S made it for us. There’s no reason to fight any of the machines but being out there alone is like wandering in the middle of nowhere. Or like being dead, I suppose. This is just a place for those of us who felt like the lives we had before mattered. Even though I guess…they really didn’t.”

9S stops cold on the path. “You already know?”

"A bunch of scanners left alone in a huge repository of data. What else did we have to do but read up?”

9S is still processing this information when another scanner bowls into him and tosses him up into the air like a sack. “Greenhorn, what the hell are you doing here!”

It’s 42S. He’s the only scanner with blonde hair and the only one with such a physical approach to greeting his peers. 9S can’t remember the last time he saw him. Had he ever, in this lifetime? 32S follows, of course. They come as a pair whenever they’re able. 3S appears standing back from them as always with a sleepy but vaguely concerned look on his face. Despite needing sleep less than ever, he looks exhausted.

It should make 9S happy, but all he feels is a pervading absence of belonging in spite of the familiar welcome. He had no hope for any of them. Even seeing them, he's not sure that feeling has changed.

"You should be standing here," 9S says, his eyes lowering. "Not me."

"No," 4S says firmly, despite a low, telltale quiver in his voice. "None of us should have to be standing there."

It comes as an uncomfortable revelation to 9S that for the first time he truly believes 4S is right.

Chapter Text

9S waits to hear back if anyone has seen the one small piece of 2B. It is the only thing he wants that the network can offer him. Waiting alone would be his preference, but with 4S tethered to him, he is forced to sit at the focal point of a growing ring of units while 4S speaks to 3S.

9S makes every attempt to let his mind wander away, but there’s little place for it to go. Their conversation ebbs and flows on the edge of his hearing and he makes no effort to process any of it, but he doesn’t have to. Without excessive stress to muddy the process, sub-routines take care of that for him. He picks at his projected clothes and rubs at his projected gloves and looks among the crowd for any sign that someone is trying to get his attention. There is no one yet. He must sit and endure.

3S is not merely the eldest scanner, he is the first scanner. The Bunker has always needed a server administrator, and it always had one in him from the moment it became operational. He bears unique distinctions from the rest of them as a result. He is one of the only YoRHa to have remained active from the bunker's start to its end and his memory is fully continuous for all of it. Until he fell to the virus, he had never been executed or destroyed in combat. 

There is no one who can discuss the logistics of fully transferring the Ark’s YoRHa population as well as he can. His points make the issue of the bodies the least of 4S' concerns. YoRHa data is mobile but transferring an entire framework over the signal Jackass modified will not work for everyone. It’s a signal that relies on intact scanner hardware to even perceive. Unless 9S is going to sit and act as a physical connector for all of them (he immediately thinks he won’t and is glad when 3S points out that the strain would fry his hardware before he made twenty-five transfers ) they will need a vast storage space like the kind H units boast.

“Are there any H units in here?” asks 4S.

“Just two.” 3S’ hands clasp tight between his knees. “They could fight off the virus best, but because they were always paired with groups of combat units…”

9S clutches the arms of his coat and imagines pulling hard enough to cocoon himself in leather and escape the awkward shuffles that surround him.

There are only 216 YoRHa inside the copy of the Ark. Two thirds their active force, and an even finer fraction when considering all the inactive units only kept in body storage. There is no way so many survived, so there is only the alternative for 9S to consider: They’re dead. Not like the scanners around him, but in a final and unrecoverable way. N2 took many things from the Bunker’s server, but she did not take base personalities or default versions of any of them. The YoRHa on the Ark copy are all those who fell victim to the virus and were completely consumed by it.

4S' voice drops to a pre-occupied muffle around 9S' head. He mutters like a witch over a cauldron, working out the details of an incantation that might be better left unspoken. Arranging it in steps that he can follow to make his wild dreams come true. Find bodies, bring back an H unit through 9S, have the H unit complete the rest of the transfers. Like it is as simple as following a manual.

It's 1S who speaks up to dampen that delusion. “4S do you have any idea how you’re going to do any of this?”

“I’ll keep asking around until I get answers,” 4S answers confidently. “If Jackass is going to kill the one who made YoRHa anyway, I can work on extracting the data from them.”

“You intend to impose on 9S for that long?”

The reproach catches 9S off-guard, but it blindsides 4S. “Impose? He has his own reasons to be in here!”

“Yeah, to find 2B. And once he does? Are you expecting him to stick around while you poke your nose into that kind of danger?”

“I agree,” said 3S. “Your methods aren’t that inefficient given the circumstance, but they’re very loud and you have no leverage. If we’re supposed to be dead, there’s no reason the creator of YoRHa wouldn’t just kill you and 9S too if you tried to confront them personally.”

“So am I supposed to just let you all stay dead? For me that’s like letting 11S stay broken, I—” His voice hitches and cracks. “I can’t do that…!”

The other scanners shift uncomfortably, none more so than 9S. Emotion flows a little freer among them now that there’s nothing to prohibit it, but the gap between anger and sorrow is immeasurable. To rage is expected. To cry exposes a rawness that 9S is not ready to see in other YoRHa and that they in kind are not ready to see in each other.

From somewhere among the small crowd, someone calls. “Let him do it, I don’t wanna stay in here forever!”

“It’s easy to shout that from the back to let someone who isn’t important to you do something dangerous, isn’t it?” 1S frigid words shame to silence the rising murmur of agreement. With that wall of cold between them, 1S turns his attention back to 4S. “This isn’t how 24S taught us, 4S. Don’t be careless. We have to act wisely and as a team. Nothing that can be done at all—”

“—Is out of reach if we make use of all our assets,” 4S finishes with a modest sniffle.

“Stay calm, stay safe, and know your role.” It is the often-exchanged mantra of the Guadalcanal era scanners.

32S raises his hand. 9S finds it hard to look at him after seeing a corpse of him so recently. "Are we...bringing back everyone?"

"Why wouldn't we?"

He makes a complicated face. "Executioners."

The air condenses around them and 9S can feel the ripples moving through it. Anger. Resentment. It is surprisingly 3S who offers pity in the form of a stony reprimand. "Do you think they had the luxury to not do as they were ordered?"

42S breaks the tension in the most obnoxious manner possible. With a sigh many decibels too loud and another one of his horrible nicknames, this time for 3S. “Crowd is right. We don’t usually make our own roles, we just rolled with whatever we were told, you know? I don't want the start of my freelance life to be deciding somebody else should get punished for their programming.”

“Glad to hear you actually say something sensible for once.” 1S climbs to his feet and gestures quickly to the other scanners around him. “I propose ourt goal should be to eliminate any possibility the data we’re looking for isn’t already inside the network. I’m close with the Operators, so I’ll take point interfacing with them. 42S, you do the same with the B and D units. 32S you’re familiar with the units who don’t stay in the sub-network, so go talk to them, but make sure you take someone with you. Any leads should be directed to speak with 3S.”

“Hmm?" 3S looks up dreamily from beneath his curly bird's nest of hair. "Me? Why?”

“You’re the server admin. You excel at managing large amounts of data without suffering from information overload. We can all analyze it together once we’ve lined up some possibilities. Ah, you should be the one to talk to the maintenance and repairs crew, though.”

That is a job that should belong to 801S, but 9S doesn’t say as much. None of the others have mentioned the youngest scanner. He has no intention of broaching the subject when there is such a conspicuous hole among them. There’s no good news to hear there.

“9S?” 1S' uptight aura melts slightly. His smile is formal but filled with genuine gratitude. “Thanks for taking care of 4S and 11S.”

“I’m surprised you don’t have a job for me too.” Small talk. He doesn’t want one. Another thing to think about when there are so many would be too much even for him. “That was surprisingly efficient of you.”

“The No.1 personality was designed to lead missions.” He adds, calm and nonchalant: “And I’m the only one who took the time to become familiar with all of your specializations even before all of this happened. You’d be a great asset, but you weren’t very talkative. 2B is the goal in front of you. Tasks done distracted and by half-measures won’t help me keep 4S out of trouble.”

It stings a little because 1S’ blunt way with words always stings a little and because he is wrong. Waiting for word from 2B is simple. There would be a result or there wouldn’t, and he would continue to search. It is watching an earnest, organized, and possibly even realistic effort by his fellow scanners to reclaim their lives that weighs on him. He has known all along that YoRHa would be a target. The scars from his time in the coliseum are gone, but the lesson imparted has never left him. But being targeted by someone as powerful as the person who made them is far different than being hated by resistance androids. Even with the report from Theta, 9S doesn’t fully understand just how much of a reach they might have.

But if 1S is designed to lead, maybe he will be able to process it. Now that they have taken matters into their own hands, 9S feels he owes them all the information that he has.

“I received a predictive analysis from a command unit in the army of humanity today,” he says, pulling 1S closer. “I was worried if I gave it to 4S he would just get more stubborn, but I think it’ll be in good hands with you.”

The data passes between them as a single white block floating across the ever-present connection of the network. 1S crosses an arm, a hand worrying at his chin as he scans the contents, and finally, he sighs. “That’s exactly the kind of attention I was concerned about.”

“They don’t seem concerned about 4S or 11S,” 9S offers as a small comfort. “Only me.”

“It may be a good idea for you to consider the attention of Legacy Reclamation a positive. If you find any major artifacts, I’d suggest you hold onto it and use it as an advantage.”

V’s existence rises like bile through him. It is the greatest advantage he could have, but his life is not worth involving V in this. But it is no longer only his life that has to be placed on the scale. He doesn’t want to make or acknowledge the unwritten decision, but the truth is evident. To keep V hidden and safe is to place all 216 of these lives below that of a human—and to have his protocols reward him for it.

He swallows these things back down with care, but they leave a sourness in his heart that does not fade away.


The headache that followed the complicated process of hacking into the network copy had not spared 4S. Connecting to 9S with a physical cable didn’t allow him much. He couldn’t recognize the frequency or figure out a way to project himself as a physical object in the hacking space, but the moment they disconnected from each other, the pain set in on them both.

Icy conditions meant Jackass’ truck wasn’t active, so they’d had to slip and skid together all the way to the top of the crater, where 4S clenched his eyes shut.

“What?” asked 9S, squinting against the vicious points of light bouncing off the snow. “You gonna puke or something?”

A quick shh! answered, and 4S rubbed his face with one hand. The other waved like the needle on a dial, eventually pointing off somewhere to his right. “Do you…hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything,” said Jackass. “You bust your aural processors in there?”

9S held up a hand. He didn’t hear it, exactly, but something was showing up on his graphs. With a bit of re-directed processing power, he was able to identify it.

“Someone crying,” he guessed, cocking his head. “A machine crying.”

Jackass scoffed and kept going. It was no secret she still didn’t care much for machines. Didn’t go out of her way to attack them ever since the treaty, but what did she care if she heard one crying somewhere?

9S and 4S shared an uncomfortable look, and the latter trotted after Jackass. “I’m gonna go check on 11S...”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll go see what that is.”

As he ran off, Jackass’ voice called after him. “Remember not to do anything heroic!”

The closer he got the more clearly he could hear it, monotone and heavily modulated. It occurred to him in much the way a brick occurs to a window that Pascal might have new children. That he might be repeating the exact same things, and the children being children were wandering off and getting into the exact same kind of trouble. And here was 9S, again. Running to investigate and help in spite of knowing it had all been done before.

He rounded onto the empty road that led to the desert. The snow had been shuffled around by foot traffic, both machine and android, as well as a winding set of Emil's three-wheeled tire tracks. A small biped type machine was making an embarrassing attempt to push through it. Its low knees couldn’t clear the hardened piles and it kept falling with every other step.

9S was relieved. It wasn’t wearing any bows or clothes. Maybe it was just frustrated or lost.

Its eyes met his, blank and white and flickering. There was nothing to read on that spherical face, but the three-pronged hands reached out, clamping and opening at a pace that would have been menacing if it were so clearly not an act of panic.

“SCARY! BROKEN! HELP! HELP M—!”

The cry cut off. Oil blackened the snow in a boiling splash.

The thing that stood over the corpse was perfectly articulated in 9S’ visual field. He had no problem processing the shape, but steam rose in tendrils then in clouds from his collar as he struggled to process what exactly he was seeing.

It had four limbs like an animal, and something like a tail only it was growing from its back. All five of those parts ended in hands. Android hands, to be specific. Attached to android arms which were attached to a body of scrap and parts from machines with grinning half-broken android head crammed in. The arrangement was vile and inorganic and stirred in 9S an almost bestial feeling of hatred. It wasn’t that this thing was a machine—he didn’t think they had the imagination to make something so awful.

It was that it was so unforgivably inhuman.

With casual brutality, it yanked the head from the dead biped and carried it as it stomped toward him. A gurgling scream shot from its mouth. 

9S moved as though underwater, terror and thoughts of self-defense both struggling against his curiosity and revulsion. When it scuttled close enough for him to see the strange black tongue lolling from the android head and the copious mucous weaving between its shoulders like wet webbing, he yelped, and Pod’s laser shot out to push it back.

The snow had not cleared before it charged through, missing a limb and screaming in a voice that made 9S skin feel like it was retracting back from his exoskeleton. He lashed out with Cruel Oath and sent the android head spinning away.

With no pause, it crammed the machine head into the gaping hole, and three more android arms rose from its back. The fingertips glowed like molten metal and snatched for him. He dodged, but the impact cleared the snow in a cloud and left cracks in the ancient roadway.

Pod opened fire at his command. The thing did not flinch back. It leaped at Pod, catching her in its glowing hands before she could maneuver away. 9S switched weapons, and with a frantic howl and a swing of Iron Will, severed the multi-handed growth from the things back.

It lurched away, spilling viscous, oozing oil that 9S immediately knew was as cold as the winter air. It held up its hands and screeched as he followed, but Iron Will crushed them and it.

With a shaky breath, he let himself and the sword drop heavily into the snow. Pod 153 returned to his side as though nothing had happened, and he seized her out of the air and held her tight.

“QUERY: WHAT IS THE REASON FOR THIS DISPLAY?”

“It had you,” he said, voice a fragile whisper against her cold casing. “I thought it…”

“…PROPOSAL: INVESTIGATE UNKNOWN ENEMY TYPE. UP-TO-DATE DATA WILL ALLOW FOR RISK MINIMIZATION.”

He let her go and satisfied himself that the thing was dead with a few experimental kicks. The mucous and the black tongue had disappeared. All that was left behind were a handful of weird red crystals. He nearly dropped the one he picked up when he realized there was a screaming face carved into it. And there was a stench.

The boar V had killed when they met had quickly rotted down to brown, soupy meat and exposed bones in the constant late summer sun. The reek of it soiled even the freshest breeze for weeks after. On more humid days, passing by it was like swimming through a cloud of rancid fats and decayed proteins.

That was what he smelled now. He had smelled the same thing after that flash of light in the desert.

And when he left with Gladiolus.

It stayed right on the edge of his senses until he’d laid down for his repairs, in fact.

The world dimmed out as he tore back through his memory, scouring through his conversations with V. Then he found what he was looking for and he was up and running without even sparing the breath to swear.

Jackass and 4S weren’t back to the camp yet. He snatched them both, and maybe there was panic in his eyes because both immediately made efforts to keep up with him. Only when he was within the bounds of the camp did he stop, his eyes darting wildly for signs. Of what he didn’t know—more of the same creature maybe. Anything that didn’t look right.

Beside him, Jackass cringed and raised an arm over her face. “The fuck is that smell?”

Oh god. “4S, get 11S and get behind closed doors.”

A bewildered stare answered him. “What?”

“Just do it!”

“Is there a problem, Unit 9S?”

Gamma. He grabbed her hands and stared pleadingly into her face as though he could convey by pure telepathy what had happened. What was about to happen again if he was analyzing the situation right. “Something’s coming. I don’t know what—something came out of the desert with me and Gladiolus. It followed us; can’t you smell it?”

“What the fuck did you see out there?” Jackass demanded. “Are the machines fucking eating each other again?”

Again? No, there was no time for that. Whatever horror story that was had to wait until later. “The thing I saw out there was not a machine!”

A shot rang out.

Every head in the camp went up like prey hearing a warning call. 4S broke away from the group, darting toward the scaffolding and the helpless 11S. 9S stayed between Gamma and Jackass, his sensors all strained to their maximum sensitivity. Footsteps behind him. Two pairs. Steady, purposeful. Theta’s voice inquired. Anemone’s voice barked out.

“Perimeter report!”

It was Wormwood that appeared high in one of the ruined windows, rifle in hand. His mouth opened and one word issued in a distorted, static-filled growl that only long periods of vocal synthesizer neglect could produce.

YoRHa!

“NEGATIVE,” Pod 153 countered. “NO YORHA BLACK BOX SIGNALS DETECTED.”

Another shot rang out. Wormwood vanished back to his post. The diverging information of two units who would not lie in the situation left the camp momentarily suspended while the shots grew in frequency.

The first scream brought them all crashing back to earth.

Another of the same hideous amalgam crashed through one of the barren windows, the concrete crumbling under its weight. 9S charged with Iron Will at the ready, only to be bashed in the face with the full weight of an android’s severed head.

For a moment he thought it caught him somehow. The huge hands at his back turned out to be Gamma’s, setting him quickly but carefully on the ground. Through pulses of pain, he saw her move at a speed he would not have expected from a unit so big. She tackled it to the ground before it could throw anything else.

His mouth opened and closed with a warning he couldn’t formulate. The slickness of oil coated his face and ran over his teeth like a liquid drip of the taste of dirt and ancient, rotted trees. Someone yanked him up and jammed something in his mouth and his senses balanced back out one after the other in quick succession.

“Eyes up!” Theta commanded with surprising force. “Ranged units off the ground, physical combat units on me and Anemone! Unit 9S, provide hacking support!”

The camp moved to the sound of Theta’s voice, and 9S found he did as well. Gamma did not appear, but he did not have the opportunity to check that she had not been crushed.

The first YoRHa entered the camp.

Alarm bells went off in 9S’ head. This thing wasn’t wrong in the inhuman way that the amalgam was, but it wasn’t a YoRHa unit. Maybe it had been once, but not anymore. It was still wearing what shreds and pieces of heavy armor had managed to cling to the body since the final descent, but the similarities ended there. It moved in a heavy swaying motion that no YoRHa would, and the weapon in its hands looked like a harvesting scythe that hadn’t been used in a thousand years.

There was no light, neither green nor red, in its eyes, and aside from the click-thud of its one-booted steps, it moved without a sound.

He tried to hack it anyway, just on the off chance—

The hacking space is black, there is nothing in here but something is in the dark with me, and it is not a memory, it looks at me with dead eyes and knows I am not human but it comes anyway because my fear is human enough, it will bathe in my screams, in all of our screams 

9S snapped back into physical space with a choking gasp.

Theta stood over the freshly decapitated body. In each hand, she held tonfa as white as the blade of Virtuous Contract. They were sizzling faintly. His bleary eyes met hers, and she did not ask what he'd seen. 

There was no time.

YoRHa galloped into the camp on broken bodies one after the other, each of them utterly silent and swinging that same crude weapon. One became a dozen became a swarm, the bullets of the ranged units only capable of taking out those whose armor had not survived the long months or the journey from wherever they’d all crawled out from.

Gunsmoke and sparks filled the air, mingling with the scent of rot and a strange heat that made the buildings sweat and drip. Though the bodies were decayed, they were still YoRHa bodies. The already sparse ranks of the resistance were hard-pressed to keep up, and the creatures seemed to be getting wiser with every moment. Learning to use of bodies more powerful than ones they might have been used to.

Theta had little trouble severing parts in quick efficient motions that accompanied the flash of a high-intensity laser from her weapons, but dodging attacks was not her strong suit. Anemone kept to her back to cover her, sword in one hand, gun in the other. Gamma emerged like a titan, her face covered in a mix of red and black oil, the arms from the amalgam pulled free and swung with force that shattered them as well as the units they impacted. Steam vented from her shoulders, and she joined the front of the ranks.

For 9S, the world went gray.

Fighting against the YoRHa bodies that no longer belonged to their owners, coming in seemingly endless numbers, the clear sky in his visual field processed as dull and densely clouded. Explosions registered in his aural processor. Jackass was there, but she didn't exist to him at that moment.

He had to protect her.

A scream. Someone fell to his left. He moved. The bodies dropped. There was no carrying them away. There was nowhere to carry them to. This was the final battlefield. They would live, or they would die.

He had to protect her.

Their speed was growing. Their combat routines weren't fancy, but they don’t need to be. There are so many of them. And they are so few. They have always been so, so few.

He had to protect her.

He swore he heard the laughter of the machine network, possessing those who had once been his comrades, and all at once the world crashed down on him. It’s was only the two of them and the bodies of the infected were piling on. Their black boxes were all they have. Where was she? Why wasn’t she there with him?  He has to trust her. If they couldn't use the reaction, they could both self-destruct, and he would meet her back on the Bunker. Please let her just be on the Bunker safe.

“UNIT 9S, AT EASE!”

The domineering shout gripped him by his wiring and clicked him forcibly back into the present.

YoRHa bodies were piled up in the center of the camp. He was kneeling over one, Cruel Oath in hand. His self-destruct timer was fading from his UI.

He dropped the weapon and clapped his hand to his mouth. “I… I didn’t…"

Wormwood appeared over him. Tall and thin-faced and dispassionate as 9S had ever seen him, but he was actually looking 9S in the face. Acknowledging that he existed with an extension of his hand.

“They weren't the ones,” he croaked in his warped voice. “They didn’t laugh.”

9S stared up at him and managed to suppress the quiver of his lip as a spark of understanding he did not want passed between them. Just like him, Wormwood had lost someone special to him the day the Bunker fell—to the sound of the machines laughing through YoRHa’s mouths.

He took Wormwood’s hand but quickly put distance between them. He couldn't handle that right now. “4S…?” he whispered.

“BLACK BOX SIGNAL ONLINE. COMBAT ZONE DID NOT EXTEND TO DESIGNATED REPAIR AREA.”

On wobbling legs, he turned back to look at the scent with eyes unclouded by his memories. Pieces of YoRHa bodies coated the ground. Not a drop of lubricant in any of them—it had dried up or spilled out long ago. The sickles were all mysteriously absent, replaced by red crystals the same as 9S had picked up. Resistance members sagged against the weeping concrete, some of them weeping themselves and holding onto one another. The repair bay was already at capacity, and Jackass was busily assisting the usual attendant.

A high-pitched yelp saw them all jump back to the ready. Freesia was pointing at something.

The crystals were melting down into something dark and mercurial and flowing away of their own volition. Even the one in 9S’ pocket dripped down his leg with a disgusting warmth and slipped away.

9S followed their flow. Theta came immediately to his side, her eyes studying his for some sign of what the hell they’d all just experienced. He didn’t look at her. He followed to where he already knew the blood would go.

Humility hung up by some observation device Pine had crafted. She wasn’t there, so he and Theta were the only ones to witness the eerie blue and violet light that issued from the blade as the red flow seeped into its strange symbols.

In the back of 9S’ mind, V’s words echoed: If the veils are thin, there may be demons.

With the calm of someone dangerously close to the edge, he turned to Theta. “I’m going to go check on V.”

She nodded without looking away from Humility and did not try to stop him.


The transporter hissed, and 9S stepped out into the balmy temperatures of the forest, where spring was a little closer at hand than in the ruins. Pod 042’s marker was close. Less than a hundred meters.

On the remains of the bridge, the only sounds were of the breeze and the birds and the muffled clanging of Masamune’s endless work. It was peaceful. It may have even refreshed him, if he were not on edge with the knowledge that V was so close to the church. He dropped down where the upper bridge broke. Tower debris had cluttered most of the lower courtyard. He didn’t think V was down there.

His eyes rose to the other side of the broken lower bridge and he froze.

V was there, sprawled out and sound asleep. For him to be resting at this hour, he’d definitely done something he shouldn’t have and was recovering.

The red-haired android was leaned over him, cheek just barely above V's chest, her eyes equal parts watery with guilt and steeled by fury. She’d cut her hair. The air was clear of sand or any other obstruction, and something in 9S’ memory responded with a match when she stood.

It was a time when 2B was there. She’d gotten jealous. It was cute. Learning that the resistance member killed her friend had not been cute. Learning that she was YoRHa had been dark and unsettling and he had not understood why 2B responded the way she did at the time. 

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she growled.

Whatever 9S had been holding onto to keep himself together during the past two weeks broke as quietly as a young twig underfoot. An E unit was with V. She was standing between him and V.

9S was very aware that he might lose V to old age or illness or V might actually find his way home. V might even be killed in circumstances beyond his control. But he would not lose V to an E unit.

No executioner would ever take anything from him ever again.

Chapter Text

An explosion thinned V's sleep.

“Woah kid, chill! Lady-bot, don’t—! Ah fuck, they’re not listening! Soda can, can’t you do something?!”

“NEGATIVE. PODS ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO ENGAGE IN COMBAT WITHOUT DIRECT ORDERS.”

“Shit, should I shock ‘em a little?”

“THIS UNIT HAS DOUBTS ABOUT UNIT GRIFFON’S CLASSIFICATION OF ‘A LITTLE’. PROPOSAL: WAKE SUBJECT V UP.”

“I would fuckin’ love to but if he’s sleepin’ through this somehow I don’t think an alarm clock will work!”

PROPOSAL: SHOCK HIM A LITTLE.”

“Oh, fuck you!”

V’s life, paradoxically long and short at the same time, was filled with an absence of rest. The crass squawks of his familiar should not have grated on him any more than usual, but his left arm was heavy and coursing with fever and the noisier they were, the more he awakened to just how unlike himself he felt.

Power crashed through him, a rain-swelled river that he was not yet fit to cross nor harness. The dragon’s soul promised him obedience, but her soul was not what abided with him. This was no demon with a core he could hold and bind to his wishes or a mind that could be reasoned with. The potent power left in her bones was more like a headless brute thrashing around on instinct inside of him. True, without the soul’s blessing, it may have casually crushed him in its throes, but even still it would not settle. It couldn’t think, but through him it could perceive, and his mind ran with imagery and instinct that didn’t belong to him. Tens of thousands of years of experience reacted at once to the clang of metal and the roar of combat, raising fire in the dragon’s bones, and so in V’s as well.

His hand shot out to Griffon’s beak, and the other caught Pod before he could drift out of the way.

“Shut up.”

Sweat ran down his body. The dragon’s fever was not like the one the gods set on him. The latter burned from within, while the fore was like being enclosed in a molten shell. A battle response rather than a sickness, focused to a point of white intensity around his darkened and scaled left hand.

It shared only a base resemblance to the arm Vergil had torn from Nero, but the memory and perhaps his own remorse magnified it until it might as well have been the very same. The disgust came back fresh and sharp the longer he looked at it. His lips parted to curse it for the eyesore it was, but a sharp image of a younger, similarly afflicted Nero killed the thought.

Pesky fatherly love, was it? Ha.

“It tempts me to think this world a purgatory, were it not so much more creative in its mockery than hell.”

He released the chatty familiars and climbed to his feet, creeping to the edge of the broken bridge. 9S and Fern were descending the trail of rubble and white debris into what remained of the inner courtyard. Pod fire rattled out like an infinite shuffle of cards, occasionally interspersed with some of the more creative attack programs. Spears of light and a burst of electricity that Fern narrowly dodged. Even a hammer protocol executed with such extreme prejudice that V felt the bridge quake beneath his feet. Fern's methods leaned more toward the evasive, but in every head-on clash, she proved the stronger. Perhaps it had been more by chance than by intention that she had not harmed 9S in their previous encounter.

He pinched at the bridge of his nose. This was exactly what he’d wanted to avoid. This was no duel, they mere feral cats tearing at one another. Fern, to keep her memories drowned unbeknownst to her, and 9S…for what exactly? A human?

If V had learned one thing well these past weeks, it was that he was demon enough. Enough to be taken to the basin, and enough to reach out to the soul of a creature who had been dead for millennia. Was it because of his reunion with Urizen? Or because of the heritage that coursed through him that not even Yamato could cut away? Such ‘why’s no longer mattered. He had obtained power that would negate his need for maso and in exchange, he bore a visible marker. Fern’s faith in his humanity was blind; it was beyond her to care about how much a demon he was.

9S would not prove the same. His irreverence was boundless, a quality admirable enough to spare a smirk for, but equally cause for practical concern. When machines were denied that which they chose to live for, they were overcome with an urge to destroy and be destroyed, and 9S had admitted that his processes worked the same. Finding out would undo him. At worst, he would lash out. At best, he might simply part ways with V.

V erased the thought and shook off the almost physical weight it threatened to press on him. It had no bearing on the situation beyond forcing him to find a covering for this wretched growth. He threw on the coat, but the sleeves did not fall long enough, and it left him little choice but to tear up his cloak. The fabric split in his grip with ease.

As he wrapped his arm to his satisfaction, he looked again at the battle underway below and glanced up at Pod 042. “I presume 9S is in little danger if you’re so unconcerned about this.”

“AFFIRMATIVE. HOWEVER, IF UNIT FERN RECOVERS MEMORY OF BEING AN E UNIT, THERE IS A 99.7% CHANCE OF UNIT 9S’ DESTRUCTION. PROPOSAL: FORCE UNITS TO CEASE COMBAT.”

He rolled his eyes skyward and grabbed his cane. “Sitzfleisch.

Griffon let V down just outside the well of gravity that engulfed both androids. Fern’s weight, presumably even greater than that of 9S, did not offer nearly as much resistance at it should have when he snatched her free of it and threw her to the dirt. Though his body was still bent and fragile, the restlessness of the red dragon lent him familiar strength.

“Leave.”

Fern’s eyes jumped between him and 9S, the urge to obey fighting with her instinct to eliminate the threat to her blissful ignorance. “But—!”

He brandished the cane just before her face, eyes narrowed but cool. “You took certain liberties in my partial absence these past few days.” A faint wind that had nothing to do with the air stirred between them, and the tattoos writhed tellingly atop his skin. She winced back from the rising pressure he exuded. “Were you wise, you would cross the ravine. Before I begin counting your transgressions in earnest.”

Behind him, the gravity well faded. Fern scrabbled back and 9S shot past in pursuit, so intent on his target that he did not seem to register V’s presence.

“Capture.”

Pod 042’s wire yanked 9S back across the courtyard and into V, who easily corralled him within both arms and the cane. On the other side of the debris, Fern hesitated. A hard look from V, and she vanished.

9S’ ragged breaths pushed against the restraint of the cane, but he made no effort to move. It was for the best. The force running through V was not his own, and he did not know its depths.

“I do seem to recall,” V said slowly. “That this was precisely my reason for keeping you separated from her.”

9S’ head remained trained on where Fern had gone. “Do you know that's an E unit?”

“8E, yes. Pod made me aware when we made contact with her.”

“Then why are you still with her?!” He drooped forward. “Why would you stay with an executioner?!”

The unexpectedly vitriolic outburst was not lost on V, but he could not make it his focus. The lingering battle lust emanating so close to him had the dragon further riled. He had no idea how to make her grasp that 9S only appeared human and wasn’t their enemy. He could only grip his cane as if it were a ward to keep the flashes of her bottomless hate for humans at bay. Curious though his behavior was, 9S could not stay. The thoughtless reactivity of the dragon’s power posed too great a danger.

“Her being an E unit has no bearing on what I required her for.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

V lowered the cane and leaned on it. “I wasn’t aware that information was of any importance.”

9S sucked in an uneven breath for an even more uneven laugh. Sudden emotionality was common in him, but never so far into the realm of hatred. Even his sword remained in hand, gripped in shuddering silence as he bore down whatever rage had overcome him.

"It's important to me," he admitted bitterly.

“So I gather. But even had I known, there is little to tell. She doesn’t remember that she is YoRHa, much less that she had such a sordid role. I understand you restored her memory once before, but all she recalls of it now is that she fears you." He gestured to a web of cracks on the face of a white block. "And hates you, it seems."

"The feeling's mutual," 9S muttered.

“The feeling is why you were supposed to keep your distance,” V said bitingly. “If you are done, you should return to the camp.”

9S turned, his sword still held tight as he searched V’s face. “...I fought demons today.”

The words bounced behind V’s blank gaze. Gunshot cracks popped in time with the knuckles on his bandaged hand. “You’re sure?”

“It smells like decomposed animal flesh when they show up, right?” A low wind picked up around them. V focused on pushing it back, but 9S rubbed at his arm as if to ward off a sourceless chill. “They possessed a bunch of the YoRHa bodies still lying around. And they came to the camp. I scanned one and—I didn’t see anything, technically but I know there was something inside of it. I could hear it thinking. And when we killed them all there were these crystals. Red with faces on them. Humility drank them. Like it did to you.” 

The stench in the desert. The portals had been closed by Emil’s explosive last moments, of that he was certain, but some ants had gotten through anyway. Sloppy. Infuriating. It was the entire point of his near-death in the ravine to avoid exactly this moment, and for nothing. The dragon’s power chanted hate through his mind, feeding on him and echoing him until his vision shimmered white. He loomed over 9S without meaning to, only realizing when the boy took a confused, cautionary step back.

“...I’m sorry.” The words were tight to his ears so he couldn’t fathom how they sounded to 9S. Too much of his focus was on keeping the lid on that power rushing to lend itself to him. To give an outlet to his anger. 

“Are you really trying to protect me, V?”

More than he knew. “Yes.”

“Then tell me what’s going on.” The sword vanished from 9S’ loosened grip. his anger vanished with it, replaced by that pitiful, seeking face he only made when he wanted to extend his trust somewhere he wasn’t sure it should go. “Is all of this happening because you’re still sick? I saw the salt in the park. I know you still have white chlorination.”

V gave an exasperated sigh, more at himself than at 9S. “It wasn’t my intention to hide that from you. It was a chaotic event and my mind was…occupied.” A fancy means to say he’d been careless. “It does involve the illness, but it is a long story and I am in no condition to tell it to you this instant.”

“Because you did something dangerous out in the desert.” V scowled, and 9S almost smiled. “I figured when I saw you sleeping.”

“Then you know I’m irate at being awakened prematurely,” V said with an imperious raise of his chin.

That was a well-worn path that should have been familiar and easy to tread, but it did not manage to coax 9S out of his tightly wound mood. “And I’m irate that E unit brought you here of all places, so I guess we’re even.”

Not ideal, V could admit. But this was getting old. “Pod would not have allowed it if there was an alternative. Do you not have your fellow scanners to worry after?”

“Why do you keep trying to rush me out of here?”

Bite. Claw. Flame. Arrow. Gods, he might actually prefer Griffon’s abrasive chatter to this creature’s thoughts. “Because your persistence is trying my patience. You came to see if I am alright. I am. Once I have rested, I will move on from this place.”

“With her.”

“If I still have need of her, yes.” He resisted the urge to cross his arms. It would only draw attention to the crude bandages. “9S, if her model is meant to mean something to me, you’d do well to enlighten me instead of sulking.”

9S’ eyes narrowed and watered, and V braced for another outburst, but it didn’t come. Whatever the problem was, 9S was not able to release it as more than a tremble in his shoulders. He broke eye contact with a tight-jawed scowl.

“It wouldn’t be the first time an E unit has taken something important from me.” Before V could decide how (or if) he wanted to take that, 9S raised yet another difficult question. “What happened to your arm?”

“Frostbite,” he said tartly. 9S’ brows knitted in utter bafflement. V could not imagine what conclusions the scanner may have jumped to hearing of only the aftermath of his exploits, so it was only fair that he provided an explanation. In what he hoped was the briefest and least alarming manner possible. “Demons appeared in the ravine. I spent seven days attempting to make sure they would not continue to appear, and for my efforts, I was cast into the waterfall and tasked to survive with barely any magic at my disposal. I understand I made it quite far before hypothermia’s more unpleasant symptoms besieged me.”

The scanner’s face curled into a scowl, his eyes darting as if along a page in the telltale way they did when he was recontextualizing a problem. No doubt he’d passed these weeks fretful and confused—one of the least pleasant combinations of his moods, and yet in this case more justified than ever.

"Where the hell was she?!"

“Finding a cure,” V said, vying for placation if reason would not suffice. “Which may have been successful."

"You...mean it?" There was the brightness V was accustomed to. "V that would make you the first human to survive it! I mean that's what we thought before, but—Really this time? You're not sick anymore?"

"Time will tell. Until it does, I require her."

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"She’s not going to kill me, 9S.”

“It’s not about her killing you, it’s about her getting you killed. The goal was for you to stay hidden, but they know her face now and at least three people know you're out here; you can’t just keep running around with her forever. Even if she values your life as much as I do, that doesn’t mean she’s thought at all about the consequences. There are bigger things out there and she can’t protect you from them." He ran his hands over his face and laughed weakly. "I don’t even know if I can protect you.”

Flame. Arrow. V ignored the thought and pushed his cane beneath 9S’ chin. For this at least, the dragon could wait a moment. “That was rather…specific. Has Theta become a problem for you?”

“No,” he said in a small and shaken voice. “I still don’t have a goddamn clue what she actually wants with me. She says she wants me to be safe in one breath, and the next one she tells me not to trust her because my goals may not align with hers! What the hell am I supposed to make of that?”

It occurred to V that he had no idea what exactly 9S had been dealing with between now and their last meeting. His hate for Fern had fallen away but all that lie beneath that one focal point were snarls of problems whose context there was no time to grasp. A solution had to be possible, but V was just barely holding back a creature with no mind, what felt like unlimited power, and a lust for battle that wouldn't calm. There was no time to make plans or right wrongs or reconcile the differences in their concerns.

But if he said that, he was certain 9S would implode.

As if sensing his frustration, 9S pressed him. “I’ve already fought demons. So what is it. What are you really trying to protect me from, V? Why does it have to be her and not me?”

Arrow .

V winced. The dragon’s insistence had boiled down to that one image of arrows falling through the sky and it felt like she was screaming it at him. Why arrows? Those were human tools and she hated—

He snatched 9S and hissed a command. Pod 042 complied with a golden sphere that repelled a round of shots. Low caliber, he thought. They sounded nothing like Dante’s guns, at least.

Within his coat, 9S squirmed, only to suddenly freeze. “Aconite…?”

V looked over his shoulder. A female android with passing similarity to Fern stood behind them. She was taller. Her red hair even shorter, revealing the smoldering storm of her scowl over the barrel of a smoking pistol.

“Aconite,” 9S repeated, his voice low and warning. “This isn’t the one you’re looking for. He isn’t YoRHa.”

Her eyes flicked to the two Pods above them, and to the perimeter of the shield around them, and finally settled on V’s coat. She shook her head, cursing and laughing in turns and took her time to reload.

“The one who killed Rho and Lobelia is a female unit," 9S pleaded. "The camp has all the information already!”

A bullet pinged against the barrier. “Fuck you.”

“I’m serious, he’s—!” In his clumsy desperation to make the situation resolve peacefully, he must have stuck his hand outside the barrier. A shot fired. V saw something black exit his periphery, and then 9S was firmly back inside with him, clutching a hand that no longer had the correct number of digits.

A flash of divine comprehension that was not V’s filled his mind with brilliance. The dragon could not think but she perceived. 9S and the damage done to him. The twisting waves of concern, the acids of contempt, and the thumping drum of displeasure growing loud in V’s chest. She understood.

The boy was theirs.

V had two thoughts on the heel of this second-hand epiphany: The absolute audacity of the dragon to assume anything of his was hers to claim shared ownership of; and a harsh correction that he might as well have saved. The dragon perceived as he perceived. That was the conclusion she had come to. However else V might have preferred for her to think about it, the truth remained that she no longer had to struggle within her new and unclear boundaries.

When her attention focused on Aconite, he pressed his coat over 9S’ face and freely released her.

The ink washed from his body, funneling down into his left arm, and a shimmering haze of heat rippled the air around him. Feathers erupted from beneath his bandages, bright and blue and churning with electricity. They crept up as far as the side of his neck, and he was certain he felt a shift in the way his teeth sat in his mouth. He raised his arm.

Alarm pierced Aconite’s cold intent, and in the moment of her hesitation, he snatched her in talons of violet-white plasma and crushed her into the castle wall. Her screams were brief. The scent of charred clothing and burned metal replaced them on the wind.

V did not release 9S until the transformation had receded back below his slightly singed bandages. He threw his coat over his shoulder and stalked off. 9S was still staring at the sparking remains, his eyes tracing the talon-shaped gouges left in the stone when V returned and dropped 9S’ severed finger in his lap.

"I'm protecting you from me."

9S looked up at him with a horrified, uncomprehending stare.

V rubbed at his eyes. Now he truly was exhausted. He didn’t have nearly as much control over that power as he’d have liked. But no portals opened. No rush of sickly hot fever and churned up memories came over him. That was enough of a victory for now. "As I place my trust in you in spite of your unwillingness to share what it is that so bothers you about the E type, so must you place your trust in me. When my business is done, I will tell you all that you ask.”

“You don't get to say that." He climbed clumsily to his feet. "If you're going to say that—damn it, let me help!

"9S," V groaned, worn down by physical fatigue, impatience, and the last miserable remains of his ability to endure 9S' stubbornness. "I am trying not to hurt you, is that not enough?"

"No! It's the same thing! It's the same thing 2B did before she died!"

"I'm not 2B."

In the distance, the falls roared. Herds of moose and boar beat the loam with heavy hooves, and the humid breeze moved through the trees at more of a yawn than a sigh. In the courtyard, where the sun suddenly seemed too bright, there was only silence.

By some force of will as unexpected as their meeting itself, 9S shed none of the tears brimming in his eyes.

“Yeah. You’re right. You’re not 2B.” His voice was quiet. Barely a whisper, flat and dull as his eyes. “And I'm not Nero.”

Choosing to be silent was V's specialty, but his mind raced for something to say. A dozen things, a hundred things, innumerable things he could have spoken crowded into his thoughts... only for his mouth to remain empty.

9S, meanwhile, passed him by and did not look back.

Chapter Text

Wrath that had cooled to old ash beneath the idle months and winter snows reactivated inside of 9S and oozed from within like molten iron seeking a place to pool and burn. It flared through him in search single target that he could blame for the way his life had spiraled out of control in the past few weeks. 8E she should have been more than enough. The moment she appeared, things started to change for the worse, and her actions were directly responsible for both his arrest and his extended stay in the camp. Yet even though 9S would have hacked her into pieces given the opportunity, he didn’t hate her half as intensely as he hated himself. 

More specifically, his programming. 

In a mere four syllables, V had opened old, dangerous cracks in 9S’ being. He wanted to be angry with V, the way he would have been if he were only an android. V deserved so much worse than 9S had managed. But his base protocol kept an absolute perimeter around that one precious human presence. It cost 9S an incalculable effort to walk away. Every step was a steep climb over a different objection.

‘Go back’.

‘Apologize’.

‘V was only trying to protect him—wasn’t that enough?’

‘Didn’t that make him happy?’

9S bit down until his silicone teeth gouged the inside of his cheek and his mouth filled with the taste of oil. Pod 153 once told him that primitive humans thought they could cure madness by drilling holes in their skulls to let spirits out. If he wasn’t sure it would kill him, he might have taken the risk to reach inside his chest and physically remove the component of his OS chip that generated those stupid, docile impulses.

Regardless of the absurd suggestions from the base protocol on what he should feel, nothing about V’s actions satisfied him.

It didn’t make him happy and it wasn’t enough.

V claimed he was protecting 9S from demons and from himself. 9S believed that. But he did not believe that was the whole truth. Strong emotion was disruptive, but it had no bearing on the sub-processes that logged his memories or those that identified patterns. For example, V’s unusual increase in concentration when it came to Theta. Or his agitated but unsurprised response when 9S brought up problems bigger than he could handle. 

9S should’ve known better. He should’ve known things would just repeat one way or the other if he let himself pretend V could occupy the space 2B left behind. So what if V was never going to kill him? So what if V was never going to take his treasured memories away? If it just ended with someone else getting hurt or dying for a stupid reason like protecting him, he didn’t want that either. 2B had done it. Devola and Popola had done it. Even A2 had directly exchanged her life for his. And he was supposed to feel happy about it happening again just because V was human?

What a hilarious fucking joke. He could just die laughing.

His furious march weakened. Soon he slowed to a halt in the middle of the snowy road. Why did everything just keep repeating? Why did it always end like this? He couldn’t do this again.

And he didn’t have to.

Every sound, every sight, every single byte of external information filtering through 9S’ processors sharpened until they were as crisp as a shard of polished glass jutting from a broken window. He didn’t have to accept this. V himself had said as much. 9S hadn’t thought of him as a god worth dying for—or even a god at all—in ages, but what was the use of being so infuriatingly beholden to V if he couldn’t take his word as permission?

V wanted to keep secrets about himself? Fine. 9S had plenty of his own secrets and could forgive being tight-lipped about personal problems. But V keeping secrets related to 9S? That was… Frustrating? Unfair? Not V’s place? That one sent sparks flying up and down his back, so it must have been right.

His whole life had been hidden from him. It had to stop somewhere. If not with V, then he would make it stop elsewhere first. Fear was no longer a consideration. Clashing so hard against his protocols left him smoldering with the desire to know himself. To know he had control over himself.

And to take it if he didn’t.

In the camp, Theta greeted him with an expectant look. She must have wanted an update or debrief but he didn’t have time to explain the existence of demons to her. He had two jobs while he was in camp, and the first was to talk to Anemone about Aconite. No one would have questioned what happened to her after they’d just fought a bunch of dead YoRHa, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he first thing Anemone had asked him was if V had been the one to kill her people, and 9S had promised it wasn’t him, and that was no longer the case. V had killed Aconite and he that could only create problems if 9S kept it a secret.

She made a difficult face when she saw his severed finger, the clenching of her jaw shifting and dimpling her cheeks. If she blamed V or was angry with him at all, she didn’t say. All she did say was that Aconite went AWOL and that her death was on her for attacking an innocent party. Whatever else she might have thought about the matter she kept to herself.

9S let it lie with that. Job one complete. He re-attached the finger with only a wince at the mild sizzle. It wasn’t a neat wound and the lines didn’t match up like they were supposed to. It would need proper repair later, but hand dexterity wasn’t a priority where he was going. 

Job two was to find Jackass.


‘I'm not Nero.’

V grimaced. He was aware of that. Just as he was aware that was a cheap, reflective retort that wouldn’t have been out of place in a playground. An eye for an eye, dish and take exchange. Quick and incisive and basic and childish.

And he’d lost. Decisively.

God damn it.

Still, he took in his abrupt solitude with a measure of relief. He couldn’t imagine trying to explain the unexpected and undesirable ways he began to come apart at the seams only moments after 9S stalked off.

The tattoos went first. They exploded from his body and splattered against the rubble like a tattered net dragged from the oil-clogged sea. Then came the uneasy heat flushing through his body. The twinge above his navel and the creeping sweat that raised goosebumps between his shoulders. His thoughts began to flash and cycle, but it wasn’t images of his burning home or his mother that raced through his mind.

It was the sound of bells. There was a rhythm to these that did not match the peals that had drawn him into the woods. A stronger sound that clanged in his ears and played on his bones. He saw a red sky full of white infants, their mouths packed with gnashing salt-block teeth. The white giant was among them, shaped like a woman but inhumanly swollen as she lay among the burning ruins of a city. He saw the moment of passage when all became white light and white skies and a new world.

The dragon had told him a great many things when they spoke. A great, great many trifling things spoken in cryptic lines that interested him far less than making her power his own. Most of it he had ignored or already forgotten, but the cornerstone of their present arrangement was that ‘they’ (a term left as indeterminate as her name, but which he guessed to mean dragons and gods) were natural enemies. And now it seemed ‘they’ were waging war in him.

It was her memories that flashed through him like fresh splashes of blood while her power and the maso shoved and churned against one another. A clash of salt and fire that made a hell of his body. The mark in his palm burned beneath the bandages in red and violet waves as they sought dominance within him.

Both seemed to be forgetting that the body they were fighting over was his.

“Be silent.”

The two powers snatched back from one another, forcibly parted by the reserve of demonic energy he’d received in the basin and the deadly edge of his foul impatient mood. Once more, he was alone with himself.

The taste of salt hovered at the back of his tongue. He wobbled as he dragged both himself and the dead weight of the tattoos toward the rubble. For being practically immaterial, they were heavy enough to have him scraping his cane along the stones just to stay upright. Beneath the dragon’s cooling temper, her power wove around him like a cocoon and overlaid his own. It was still unsettled. Unfinished. She was more than capable of winning if it must come to that, but V wasn’t sure that was the ideal outcome. If the maso burned from within him all at once, there was no telling what might happen, what doorways might open.

He’d have to go to the church as soon as he was able, rid himself of the gods and their maso before their squabbles grew beyond his ability to quell. For now, he let himself fall back onto the first stable stone he came across. The tattoos were creeping back into place on his body and he was perfectly content to sleep away his fatigue right there in the open.

‘I'm not Nero.’

He pinched the bridge of his nose. God damn it.

V lacked the extraordinary hubris of a demon, but he had human pride enough to be stung by his own complacency. If he’d wanted any chance at all to deny 9S, even just in the privacy of his own thoughts, all he had to do was have the discretion to not drunkenly compare him to Nero. Better yet, he should have never considered he resembled Nero at all. It wasn’t all that long ago he would have been baffled that he had any paternal inclinations to spare, much less misplace so egregiously onto an anxious mechanical adolescent. But eight long, fruitless months digging through wreckage and rubble in search of a way to cross a distance ten thousand years deep and multiple dimensions wide made for curious circumstance. Too few enemies to fight. Too much time alone with his memories. With his regrets.

Pod 042 hovered over him in silence. Never judging, but always calculating, and likely neither surprised nor worried. It was possible that this battle may have been lost the moment V admitted the familial similarity to the support unit, and Pod may have been more the victor than 9S. From the very beginning, Pod had gone out of his way to facilitate ‘understanding’ between them.

All so he could appeal to V’s sentiments.

Naturally, he had objected to the Pod’s request. V’s only concern was that 9S was away from him until he could be sure he wouldn’t have another maso-fueled transformation. Putting demonic problems on 9S’ shoulders meant saddling him with things he couldn’t change, and in the same fashion V wasn’t interested in a YoRHa problem he could barely understand much less effect. But Pod was reasonable and didn’t not ask V for a solution. With it coming to light that 9S was not the only survivor of his kind, Pod only asked that 9S be protected, particularly from information that might cause him to break down. V’s memory was a thing of flesh and blood that 9S couldn’t access by any means if V wasn’t willing to speak.  

Who better than him to entrust with the knowledge that Project YoRHa had one last cruel protocol in wait?

The technicalities involved in V’s humanity were going to come to light sooner or later. His arm could be blamed on the dragon if needed, but 9S had fought demons and was easily as insightful as Pod when he chose to be. He would piece it together eventually. It seemed clear to V, through some intuition he wasn’t too quick to try and name, that 9S was growing up in some sense. Whether he destroyed himself or not, it was neither his business nor Pod’s to keep him a child.

Well, for V it just meant he had to start figuring out what his next steps would be when 9S went his own way. Considering what he’d seen in the dragon’s memories, he had ideas. It was possible he might be gone very soon, in fact. It might be wise to settle his debts and go alone.

He'd never been one for goodbyes in the first place. 


At first, I am surprised when Pod 042 comes to retrieve me. I didn’t think it would be so soon. If I’m honest, I didn’t think he would come back for me at all. I release a long breath, unsure if I am venting relief or preparing myself. Even if V isn’t calling me back just to let me know I’m not needed anymore, he remembers all my attempts to snap him out of his trance the past few days. There’s no way he isn’t furious with me. I spend most of the crossing replaying my actions and feeling my nerve sensors prickle. 

When I reach the other side and don’t find him waiting, I start to worry. V was sleeping before the fight woke him. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe he’s collapsed again and that’s why Pod came to me.

I’m half right. V has managed to lay himself atop a stone near the bottom of the slope. Did he not have the strength to reach the top? 

I can only see his hair spilling over the edge of a silicon block, his face turned away from me toward the sun. I suspect that he must have already fallen asleep again, but his arm reaches out with the steady deliberation of a bird spreading its wings. The handle of his cane glints in the light, pointing at the far side of the courtyard. 

The gouges in the stone are the first thing to catch my attention. The massive, dark claw marks bring to mind all humanity’s tales of monsters and nocturnal predators. I think fleetingly of his changed arm, avert my eyes, and tell myself it was just Shadow. A body on the ground helps me to believe it. For one moment I think it’s the YoRHa boy, and a sickly feeling chokes the air from my chest. I identify confusion, fear, something that might be triumph or might be pity at the thought that V may have killed him. But these things all trample through me like animals fleeing a fire, until all I am left with is the churned mud in their wake.

It doesn’t last long. It’s not the kid, only a resistance member. 

“Dispose of that.”

He’s never used that tone of voice before. It’s heavy. Like he could make the words cast their own shadow if he wanted them to.  I don’t think he sounds like that because of me, but it’s not as though I can really ask what’s wrong. I count myself lucky he’s asked anything of me at all. 

The body reeks of fried wiring and heated metal. It’s a hot ozone smell I have come to associate with Griffon, but the damage seems extensive even for him. I do not think about V’s arm while I march back to the bridge. There’s no need to. As I shift the body to throw it into the ravine, the head lolls back and reveals a woman’s face. The shock was enough to crack her lenses. Her blown pupils look like shattered doll eyes. There are tags around her neck, partially sunken into the melted skin above her collar. One reads Lobelia and means nothing to me. Another reads Aconite and scratches at something within me. 

I used to know that name. I used to know this android.

In a different camp in a different sector.

She used to call me Ivy. 

Just the thought of this name that was once mine is enough to send a cold shock through my systems. I lose my grip and drop the body. It slumps over the edge without falling and I wrestle an urge to rescue her even though she’s already dead. I knew her once, I’m sure of it. But she’s only a bunch of fried parts now, and V asked me to get rid of her, so I do not understand why I feel I am about to throw away something important. Were we friends? Allies? She couldn’t have been my lover or I probably would have…

Would have what? Would have what?

I clench my teeth and shove my boot against her back. She makes no sound as she falls. The roar of the waterfall swallows everything, and it's like she never even existed. I close my eyes and focus on that endless rumble. I try to imagine what V will need when he wakes, but the possibilities don’t come as fast as I would like. Food? Water? After that?

What then?

What then?

What then?

What then?

I close my eyes and hold my breath. Heat builds up in my body without the extra ventilation. I release it and am momentarily lost in the cloud.

What I used to be called, who I knew, where I was, what I was doing—there’s nothing to gain in remembering those things. Even the YoRHa boy is not important. He’s gone now. I’m just Fern, and no matter the reason, I’m still the one V has chosen to stay with him. He will go back to sleep and he will wake up. He will need me for whatever he needs me for. I will do what he asks.

The cloud clears. I am alone on the edge of the ravine, and at the end of the path I took to arrive, V is expecting me.

That’s all I need.

Chapter Text

Hundreds of insubstantial remnants of data cling to 9S. They are only junk packets with no coherent thought or memory, coating him the same way dust or stands of animal fur eventually accumulate on his clothes. They come away just as easily and he will pick up more insignificant noise just like it over time.

He is more concerned about the massive shapes that stretch across the deepest parts of his consciousness data like conductive trails on a circuit board. There’s no way they don’t disrupt the natural paths of his thought routines, but he can only guess at how or to what extent. Trying to remove these larger intrusions by himself has proved pointless. All he’s managed is to end up flat on his back, his vision strobing in washed-out shades of gray and pops of colorless pixelation.

But he hasn’t given up yet.

If the initial experience with A2 indicates a pattern, even deep-rooted synaptic alignments like these will be removable if he’s in proximity to the original source. At least half of this trash left inside of him must belong to Adam. Presuming he’s somewhere on the ark to begin with, 9S can still purge the data if he locates the administrator. An urgent, back-of-the-throat nausea makes him press the back of his hand to his mouth. Finding Adam isn’t something he wants to do, but he is already here and his mind is already set.

Local resolution scales back. His vision clears. The machine network is white. Once more on the surface layer of the network, he picks himself up off the ground and opens his read-outs.

N2’s red and black shape hangs in the air on the other side of the translucent screen.

She has been hovering around him since he arrived. Like she knows there is no one outside and he is unguarded. Or knows what he is trying to do and finds it interesting. 9S avoids her gaze, but it’s hard to ignore the way her unblinking stare traces everything he’s doing. Within the ark, she is the closest thing to an omniscient presence. Everything he is doing, thinking, and feeling at any given moment, she should be able to see. There’s no reason for her to bother with examining it from the outside like that.

Machines do have reasons for their behavior, strange or counterintuitive as they are to 9S. He’s come to accept this much. But he thinks with irritation that he really doesn’t care to understand the kind of motives a meta-personification like N2 must have for this kind of behavior.

Her face flickers. He thinks he catches a wide, smug grin before she disappears, as though she'd heard his thoughts.

The landscape of the network changes around him. The white paths shift and restructure, no doubt according to N2’s whim. 9S doesn’t move. Whatever she is doing, if it’s dangerous to him it will be more effective to disconnect than to run. Soon enough, the space is stationary and silent again. The route before him still twists and turns in maze-like angles, but he notes that there are no branches ahead of him for as far as he can see.

The way back is gone. In its place is a long drop to a different layer of the network that is clearly not where he was only a moment ago.

A threat assessment sub-routine recalls Pod 153’s voice from his memory data, asking why the tower had had any means of android access to begin with. Just like then, it does not matter. 9S knows already that something he wants is the end of this path. He trots along the empty route mechanically, paying little attention to where he is headed. N2 can move the network around him at will, and he can disconnect at will. On that ground at least, they’re evenly matched.

The empty uniformity of the network gives his mind too little to do and the minutes pile up like snow. There’s no information to take in.  Nothing to keep him grounded but the fabricated metronome beat of his boots and a dull buzz of apprehension low in his chest. He remembers 1S saying being out here alone was like being dead and thinks he understands. No matter how fast or slow he goes, or how deep into unknown territory, the network stretches on and on.

It is relief that washes over him as he finally sees the end of the path, but a murmur in the air stops him short of it. The sound is quiet but jarring after hearing only his footsteps for what feels like hours. It doesn’t sound like N2 or like anyone calling after him. It is an ambient, distant sound.

A sharp tug in his chest tells him he’s found what he’s looking for.

“Adam...”

His muted whisper scatters the noise. For several minutes he is left alone to shift his weight from toe to heel and leg to leg while searching for any sign of activity. When a familiar light finally swirls down before him, the one who appears from it isn’t Adam.

It’s Eve.

A bright red warning appears in 9S’ interface. Adam had torn him apart from the inside, but it was Eve who had battered his body to the point he could no longer connect to it. 9S easily recalls being swung like a toy by whichever limb Eve found closest at hand and the vicious smile as he did it.

But now the younger of the brothers regards him with an almost passive expression. He is all surprise and cautious curiosity. “Long way from your friends, aren’t you? You need my brother for something?”

It takes a surprising amount of effort just for 9S to nod. Breathing is difficult. The longer he looks at Eve, the harder the tug in his chest. He drops to one knee, fingers scraping at his coat to get at the burning sensation he initially assumed was anger. He'd suspected this would be the case but isn’t happy to find his theory correct.

He’s been carrying both of them all this time.

“Hey!” Eve leans over him, wide-eyed and bewildered. There isn’t the slightest hostility in his voice. “Are you okay? Just wait—I’ll get my brother!”

9S is left behind on the path where he squeezes out a bitter, wheezing laugh.

The blueprint for the version 9S remembers is there—Adam is still the center of his existence and should anything happen to Adam, Eve will probably go mad in the exact same way. But there’s nothing else. This is not the exact same Eve.

“Look, look! He’s all bent over!”

“Yes, I can see that, Eve.”

Cords bunch beneath 9S’ plates. Together, the brothers are a more accurate semblance of what 9S recalls. Eve still refuses to put a shirt on and Adam still looks like an old-world businessman who fell asleep in his clothes after having too much alcohol. He’s even still wearing those stupid glasses, albeit they’re sitting on top of his head now. He has the same voice and same face, but the similarities end there. His expression is more aloof than smug, in the same way that Eve’s is more inquisitive than aggressive. There’s no animosity. No intent to kill.

Adam pauses to consider 9S, and it’s clear that he at least recognizes him. He isn’t the same Adam, but he knows. When he kneels he says something almost clumsy about not harming 9S. He’s sure it’s supposed to soothe or reassure him, but being spoken to so softly by that voice is like having his skin on backwards. For Adam to reach out to him too?

That’s too much.  

DON’T TOUCH ME!”

The local resolution blasts back around 9S. Eve’s head swivels as memories void into the open air and circle them like jagged shadows of vultures, shuddering with the remnants of emotional response. He grabs Adam and pulls him back from 9S as though his crumpled shape somehow poses a threat to either of them. Adam is calmer. He watches his previous incarnation with his chin casually at rest on the back of one hand.

“Adam, leave him.” Eve glares at the memory of the prior Adam’s corpse. It is a peripheral detail as 9S was carried out of the copied city, but one magnified by 9S’ loathing. “He’s probably just here to hurt you again; you don’t have to help him.”

“Now, now, don’t be petty. We’ve seen this data before. I took 9S to make 2B hate me in the first place, remember?”

“You’re the one who’s my brother!” Eve protests stubbornly. “Why should I care about him? I don’t wanna help someone who took you away from me.”

“I’m right here, Eve. And that’s not you.”

“It used to be!”

9S ignores their bickering. They’re both where he needs them. He can purge their data if he just gets ahold of it. His fingers curl into claws over his chest. Something gives. Every inch gained sends bright flares through his body, but he doesn't stop.  Whatever they have altered in him will finally be out and gone, and he can't decide more if he wants to shove those unwanted intrusions down both their goddamn throats or crush them underfoot.

“Hey…” Eve mutters, shifting uncomfortably as his attention drifts back to 9S. When 9S ignores him, he reaches out and grabs him by the wrists. “Hey! Stop, you’re being weird! You can’t just yank on your data like that! Adam, can he do that?”

9S cannot manage to clench his teeth or muster another shout around his ragged breaths, nor does he have the strength to snatch his arms out of Eve’s grip.

Beside them, Adam taps two fingers just below the poorly tied ribbon at his neck. He is humming to himself as though neither Eve nor 9S are any of his concern, transfixed on a mass of basic data, all static and text. 9S had no connection to his body at the time, so the memory lacks any sort of distraction. No visuals. No audio. No external sensory or interface at all. ‘Someone help me’ and ‘You’re wrong!’ display in sterile white font a thousand times each. The only way he could scream in the absence of a mouth. They wrap around each other and around every secret thought and feeling and contradiction Adam tears loose and leaves like open wounds in his wake, salting them with his words and coating them with the oily film of his gratification.

The whole experience measures barely sixty kilobytes and 9S thinks finding that out must be what it feels like to be spit on.

“Eve, hold him for me.” Eve lifts 9S up off his feet without question and Adam gives a weary sigh. “Not like that... Just help him stay upright.”

With A2, this experience was one of surprise and paralyzing sparks of agony. There is no pain at all as Adam weaves the data away, just a strange phantom presence in the shape of what must have been left behind. Obsession. Hate. Things 9S already knows. Anxiety. Frustration. He clings to those, thinking that those things are his own and Adam is taking away more than he should.

As he latches on, it spreads to reveal itself otherwise.

The weight hits him first. A heavy sense of obligation to know and perform the role of ‘elder’ to the younger being he has created to prevent his own death. Eve imitates him and learns from him, but there is no one for Adam to learn from in the same way. If he wants growth, knowledge, anything at all, even if it is just the ability to be reliable and ensure his and Eve’s survival, he has to pursue it himself. He looks like humans, but he is still a machine crafted by simplistic aliens. He cannot comprehend how humans think or behave when examining their remains. There are too many inconsistencies. Understanding is out of his reach, and that eventually gives way to a sort of madness.

The Adam of then was so sure he’d finally understand humans if he could just experience death one time.

The Adam of now speaks to Eve and cuts through the fog of memory. He’s giving directions. The thoughts of the little brother trickle down and they are laughably simplistic compared to Adam's:  I won’t let you be hurt. I’ll protect you. Stay with me.

Don’t leave me all alone.

9S doesn’t cling on when he feels those familiar things writhe out of him. He’s been to the core of Eve’s being once before and none of it can be a surprise to him. Nothing in Eve exists or existed that 9S didn’t already have inside himself. Even if that could not be admitted at the time.

“See?” asks Adam. “Was that so bad?”

Eve makes an exaggerated ‘blegh’ noise and drops 9S carelessly. His weight hits the path to the sound of Adam’s sigh.

9S barely notices. The removal of so much data that has been a part of him for so long has functionally restarted him, and a dozen sub-processes rush to suture his thought routines back together. In the meantime, his consciousness is reduced to a single bulb blinking on an off in an otherwise dark interface. All awareness waits on ellipses crossing his boot-up screen until their string finally ends in ‘Complete’.

His interfaces click back on like a light. The first thing he sees is Adam and Eve, and he finds to his dismay that he can classify them in a single word.

Children.

They’ve appeared physically older than him from the moment they were born, but without any reason for them to fight it is obvious they are only kids. Smart and powerful but the exact same kind of simple 9S is used to encountering among machine kind. Everything about their former selves was a base protocol to kill androids layered over a game of make-believe they played with humanity’s afterimage. There was nothing left for them to shape themselves after.

The current Adam balances two white cubes of his and Eve’s extracted data atop a finger. He gives the impression he is a version who isn’t worried about shaping himself after much of anything. With a clench of his fist, he crushes both the cubes and with them all that remains of the previous Adam and Eve’s thought routines.

Still pressed to the floor, 9S watches the white flecks float away like ash. For him, there's something horrible about the way it disappears that far surpasses the reality that Adam has cheated him out of the chance to destroy those fragments himself.

“That was… your data…”

The brothers share a squint and Eve looks back at 9S with innocent puzzlement. “No it wasn’t.”

“Even if it were,” says Adam. “Carrying around the frustrations of our previous versions is a bit regressive, isn’t it? We left all of that behind.”

“I didn’t,” 9S hisses between his teeth, struggling just to pick his head up. “I can’t.”

Adam’s frown is unexpectedly sympathetic, but resentment numbs what little of 9S’ senses he’s managed to regain. The network’s co-administrators are past being bound by what they were originally made to do. They don’t hate 9S. They don’t feel anything for him at all. They don’t have to.

“Whatever,” Eve huffs, crossing his arms over his needlessly puffed out chest. “You’re fine now, right? If you wanna be gloomy, you don’t need us. Right, Adam? Let’s go play!”

Eve pulls his older brother toward the edge of the path, and Adam lets himself be pulled with the kind of leniency only fondness could give despite his dispassionate, long-suffering reproach. They have each other and the rest of the world is inconsequential.

9S watches them dissipate into the network without a glance back at him. 

“Did you get anything you actually wanted out of this?" a familiar voice asks. "Did you do anything that mattered?”

The black stalks of N2’s legs materialize just to the side of 9S’ head. Her hands are folded behind her back.  She isn't facing him, so he can’t tell if she’s asking him or mocking him or both.


9S clamped his hands to his face but couldn’t block out the temperature, the light, the sound, and all the rest of the ambient, awful sensations of being back in his body. The frequency sang its gnat-buzz song, driving a needle through him as he writhed on the white silicon. He swatted blindly for the dial only for the sound to suddenly to fade away without his interference. A black shape sat beside the pod, indistinct through 9S’ watery squint. It was idly twirling a spear.

“4S…?”

“Yep.”

9S winced. Either 4S was pissed or something bad had happened. “How long have you been there?”

“Almost an hour.” The heavy spearhead hummed through the still air. “How long were you in?”

He checked his internal clock and sank back down with a grumble. No wonder he felt like he was splitting in half. “87 minutes.”

The spear stopped. “When I finally got the all-clear you know what I came out to? A pile of chopped up YoRHa in the back of a two trucks, enough explosives to wipe the camp off the map, and resistance androids flashing their optic test lights at each other like they were trying to signal in Morse code. And you were gone.”

9S rubbed at his forehead. So they were really going to do it. Blow the debris blocking the factory entrance and incinerate the bodies. He didn’t blame them. He knew it was demons and still found himself scrutinizing the corpses of android and machine alike after leaving the camp. ‘Are you alive’ was suddenly a real and rational question to judge a stranger by.

Jackass had been in the middle of a demolition assessment when he found her. She wasn’t going anywhere, just providing the charges. The camp had gotten away with a rare casualty rate of zero so she opted to remain at the maintenance bay and ensure it stayed that way. True to her unpredictable nature, she’d let 9S take the pod with no more than a distracted ‘Whatever, just don’t break it’.

“You found me,” 9S pointed out. “So Jackass must’ve explained…”

“Yeah she explained! And I told her I’d chase her down with this spear like a caveman if you were damaged!” He stabbed it down with surprising force for having just one arm and planted himself beside 9S. “What are you trying to do? Why are you being so reckless?”

“The guy whose plan was ‘I’ll just ask the person who made up the whole YoRHa plan where the factory is’ doesn’t get to call anyone reckless.”

4S punched him, but lightly.

9S folded his arms over his chest and stared up at the white ceiling. After seeing Adam and Eve, the uneven blocks in different shapes left a sour taste in his mouth, all claustrophobia and bad memories. “I’m not trying to be reckless. I know everyone is… I know you guys need me. But I need answers and I’m tired of waiting for them to come to me.”

“Answers, hm…” 4S sighed and dragged his hand up over his face and scratched absently at his hair. “Did you make any progress at least?”

“Purged some consciousness data that wasn’t mine. A lot of it, actually.”

More synaptic alignment? With who?”

 “…Doesn’t matter. They destroyed the data. It’s over.”

Did you get anything you actually wanted out of this? Did you do anything that mattered?

Honestly, it hadn’t gone the way he hoped. It wasn't like he expected some big identifiable change right away. Synaptic alignments were subtle—they felt like naturally-generated thought routines and behaviors and that was what made them so insidious to begin with. But purging them was supposed to be different. He’d done exactly what he set out to do, so of course it mattered, but… It dampened something in him to see how little any of it mattered to the reconstructed Adam and Eve. No matter how much damage they had done to him, they were different beings now. Ones that had everything they wanted. They didn't care about the past at all, but they'd still casually snatched the one petty act of revenge 9S could have still enacted on their old iterations.

Success had never felt so unrewarding.

“Look,” 4S said, interrupting his thoughts. “You do what you need to, but I’m helping.”

“No,” 9S answered firmly.

“Don’t ‘no’ me, you need someone to monitor your condition.” He retrieved his spear, picked up the pod, and crossed the tunnel to sit out of 9S’ reach. “If you want me to go away, prove you can come do it yourself.”

9S glared. They both knew if he tried to get up off his bed of carbon, he was going to eat dirt.

“Thought so. Take a maintenance break. I’ll handle calibration. You have coordinates for your next move, right?”

“Yeah…” It felt like this was something he should do alone, but he knew better than to argue. “I need to talk to 3S.”

Chapter Text

The inner partition of the subnetwork floats like a white lily pad among the towering rushes of the outer network.

Small rooms dot the nostalgic circular path, grouped according to number.  Some are locked and the designations appear in solid black over smooth white walls without entry or exit. The rest are open doorways to basic bedrooms that more or less resemble the ones they had before. Most of the occupants have taken the opportunity to clutter their spaces with digital representations of things they’d never have been allowed to keep on the Bunker. There are flowers, stuffed animals, fishbowls… There are even smooth panels that might be posters or mirrors. It’s hard to tell; general resolution is too poor for them to have any images on them.

The rooms are in numerical order so he doesn’t get too many glimpses of those unexpected eccentricities before he comes to the last of the doors in section 3.

3S sags like a wilted plant at the edge of his bed with a tense, irritable expression that isn’t like him. The last thing 9S wants or needs is more of other people’s bad news, but he isn’t cold or single-minded enough that he can ignore how terrible the other scanner looks. There’s no way he can barge in with all his problems.

He knocks first.

3S greets the intrusion with a smile as airy as it is fake. “Ah... Hey, 9S. You need something? Other than updates on 2B, I mean. Cause I don’t have any of those.”

“I’ll find her.” The words are a reflex, but not one that conceals any worry or disappointment. Finding her is just that much a certainty in his mind. “I had something else to ask. Is this a bad time?”

3S shrugs and looks at his smooth data-construct bed with something like longing. “It’s fine… I just can’t sleep in here, you know?”

9S chews the inside of his lip. It’s a small, inconsequential thing that wouldn’t even register as an issue for anyone else, but 3S’ relationship with sleep is infamous.

“I guess…” he offers, at a loss.

3S smiles a little more persistently. “Don’t worry about it. What can I do for you?”

The low-resolution manifestation of Cruel Oath looks like any other small sword in this space. He holds it out for 3S to examine. “Can you tell me anything about where I got this?”

3S runs his hands along the shape as he flicks through his interfaces to access the object’s data. His face falls and 9S breath stops. There is recognition in the old scanner’s eyes.

“Cruel Oath, huh…” 3S sighs and lays it across his lap. “This was the standard issue weapon for combat models in the second generation of the experimental M squad. The last time anyone saw any of them was...”

“Guadalcanal,” 9S completes with dry-mouthed awe. He drops to one knee with wide and pleading eyes. The truth is close. He can feel it. “4S told me I went through two orientations. What happened to me, 3S?”

3S shies back from him and avoids meeting his eyes. “I’m just the server admin. All I know is that right before the skirmish where the Number 9 base personality configuration was damaged, you went through the Bunker’s data.” He pauses. A bittersweet shadow flickers over his face. “You always do.”

“You knew the whole time…?”

“That humans were dead? Yeah. Special clearance.  Came with the job.” That isn’t what 9S meant, but 3S doesn’t give him the chance to make himself clear. “I didn’t know all the rest though. The black boxes and the back door... I had no reason to suspect we were all going to be killed off when R&D was still going so strong and …” He frowns and throws whatever thoughts he has away before anything can come of them. “Well, it doesn’t matter now.”

“Any information you have,” 9S presses.  Please, it’s all new to me.”

“Yeah, that’s probably what it’s like to be you. Always new, all the time…” 9S can’t find it in him to take those words personally. They’re too heavy with frustration, and it isn’t with him. “Everything was chaotic at that time and you in particular… By the time anybody realized there was any cause for concern, it was too late to stop you. You were a like a tornado. You tore through the Bunker’s confidential servers then you tried to hack the fusion. Next thing I knew, your personality data was scrambled to hell and I got a quarantine order.”

“And I was killed…”

“Yeah.” He squints as his mind catches up to what conclusion 9S is suggesting. “It wasn’t an execution, though.”

Puzzled lines crease 9S’ face. “I was killed…but not executed? Did I get cornered by machines?”

“No, just like you thought it was YoRHa. It’s like this: Everybody already knew a YoRHa merging with a machine was what caused Guadalcanal. That’s the information you were digging around in, not the stuff about Project YoRHa.” He rubs absently at his unruly bird’s nest of hair. “You were probably in deep shit, but there was no actual execution order for you. The units on the ground requested permission to destroy your body when they found it because…” He waves his hand vaguely. “You know.”

“Because there was no way I didn’t contract the logic virus?”

“Well yeah that too I guess… but they were more worried about the fusion. Just one YorHa made that monster, and nobody wanted to find out what would happen if the top-shelf scanner got sucked in too.”

‘Discover the truth about YoRHa and be erased’ is what 9S knows and a large part of him has been expecting this inquiry to lead to more of the same. To find instead that the circumstances of his strange first life don’t involve humanity or even an execution leaves him unsettled. He had picked through the bunker for information, but different information. His body had been destroyed, but for practical reasons. His first reset had been reactive rather than proactive, and this worries him.

Adam and Eve alone were enough to cause major distortions. Hacking into a fusion of almost eleven thousand machines at once, the first 9S must have experienced an alignment event that was catastrophic. ‘Damaged’ would have been a loose and very polite term to describe the state of his data after something like that. The prospect is tidy but terrifying in its failure to explain how that data would have gotten back to the Bunker.

Once more, 9S feels himself on the edge of dangerous unknowns. If there is a moment to decide he knows enough, it’s now, and he would only be lying to himself if he didn’t admit to the temptation to leave the past in the past. But his dogged curiosity helps him swallow his fears. He already knows what he’s made of and what he was made for. There cannot possibly be anything worse to know.

“Is there anyone else I could talk to who would have been more involved with my data? Someone on the repair team maybe?”

3S’ face contracts all at once as though 9S has punched him. “They’re dead. Just like the H units that were on the planet’s surface, most of them resisted the infection. Then the Bunker exploded. They’re not here.”

The momentum of 9S’ thoughts collapses all at once. From the pile-up, words he knows he shouldn’t say launch out. “That’s why 801S isn’t here, isn’t it…?”

“I just remembered,” 3S says, sitting up with worrying nonchalance. “There’s one of them here. A unit who was in M002.”

He should have expected that. 3S is approachable, but he has never been much for talking past the surface of himself. 9S isn’t sure whether to be more sorry or skeptical. “Come on, 3S, I’ve seen the body storage records. Why would a unit that hasn’t been in production for three years be here?”

“Dunno. His memory wasn’t all there last I spoke to him. Real reclusive guy, but I’m probably the only face he recognized, so he gave me his unit address. I’ll send it to you. Maybe you’ll be able to help each other.”

“Thanks, 3S. And sorry…for bothering you.”

3S leans back onto his bed with some vague assurance that he’s fine. Even when he closes his eyes, he looks like he hasn’t slept in a thousand years and won’t today either.


9S knows when he finds the YoRHa from M002.

He is built more like 3S than the compact modern scanners—taller and a little broader. He stands at the edge of a T-section, fixated on the distant pillar of light that connects the remains of the network. Déjà vu gusts through 9S. It may be the M unit’s bent posture or the familiar, if more professionally sewn, high-collared coat, but to 9S’ eyes, he bears a strong resemblance to V.

Reason tells him it must the other way around, but how V could resemble someone he’s never met?

“Hello?”

The unit turns. There is a braid down the right side of his short, brown hair. There are no scanners with such a specific aspect to their personal appearance, but something in him insists he has seen that braid and this unit before.

“I’m 9S…” It’s odd to be meeting a ‘new’ YoRHa model. Especially when they are older than him. “Are you the unit who was in the M002 experimental squadron?”

“YoRHa No. 2, Type D.” His voice is slow and steady and strangely comforting. “But you probably know that’s just a cover designation.”

The words strike 9S like a metal beam, knocking away all sense of familiarity and security. The one before him is an Executioner. His palm squeezes around Cruel Oath as it materializes in his hand.

“That’s good,” 2E says with a short, harmless laugh. “You’re not naïve after everything you’ve experienced.”

His tone grates on 9S. It’s over-familiar. “What do you know about what I’ve experienced?”

2E slouches his weight onto one leg. “It’s not as though there are any secrets in a place like this. I haven’t had much to do but figure out what happened since I was last active.”

9S can sympathize with that much, at least. 2E’s rollout would have been during the era before Attacker and Gunner models were discontinued in favor of the more all-encompassing Battler types. It’s natural for him to seek answers even if he isn’t a scanner when he’s arrived so far beyond his own time. 9S still doesn’t trust him, but answers are more important than the sourness piling in his stomach. All he has to do I spare enough civility to ask his questions and then it can be over.  

“3S told me about you,” he begins slowly. His stance loosens to show he is of no harm as he draws closer. “He said you might be able to help me.”

2E’s eyes flick down. Threat response routines flare across 9S’ systems and movement triggers his dodge function. When he skids to a stop, 2E stands where he was only a moment ago, unarmed and antiquated, but eyeing 9S like a target.

“The sword,” 2E demands.

The sword?

The blade of Cruel Oath gleams black and gold in his grip, as fully articulated as if he were holding the physical thing. Dozens of questions bloom into hundreds of hypotheses, but 2E’s growing aura of menace is a tall task to ignore even for him. “This is the whole reason I’m here,” he blurts, hoping to stem this misunderstanding before it can grow any worse. “I need to know here I got this from!”

“Figure it out fast.” 2E shifts his weight and raises his fists. “It’s mine.”

9S has no reason to believe he’s lying. He can’t—not with the sword having such an obvious response. It must be some sort of resonation based in proximity, similar to the reactions 9S had experienced when approaching units whose consciousness data he’d absorbed. The possibilities are dizzying. Unfortunately, the luxury to examine them closer, in a less prickly situation, is not something he has.

The sword may be the only familiar thing 2E has seen since his resurrection in the ark. Under any other circumstance, 9S would give it to him, executioner or not. But this piece of 2E’s past is also the only clue 9S has about his own history.

The moment his grip changes, 2E is on him.

Without a weapon, the executioner is not immediately lethal but he is free to put his entire body to work. He leaves no openings for 9S to try and hack him and refuses to let any meaningful distance form between them. It is clear in every fluid motion that his priority is to get his hands on the sword in the shortest amount of time.

The battle—if it can be called that at all—is brief. It only takes one stumble for 2E to weave around behind 9S and twist his arm up between his shoulders until his sensors scream white pain through his vision. His legs thrash against the textureless platform as he struggles to activate his disconnection protocol. Pressure crushes at his wrist, and his fingers jerk and flex against his will.

As the sword clatters to the path, 2E releases him

9S twists and reaches out despite the flaring protests from his shoulder. Cruel Oath is already in 2E’s hands, but he catches the blade in his grip. He can’t let him take it. Even if it rightfully belongs to 2E, he cannot let it go.

“Please…” His grip tightens as he wheezes. His gloves split. “Please…!”

There is a brief needle of pain from the sensors in his hands and blood flows down the golden edge.

His face blanks and his mind empties. His desperation is entirely forgotten.

2E hesitates. “9S?”

9S’ wide eyes rise to a face that is suddenly more familiar than mere déjà vu can explain. “No. 2…?”

Memories erupt into the network from the point where his body and the sword meet, small and innumerable and filling the air like starlings. 9S doesn’t see any of them.

He doesn’t have to.


The ‘2B’ model coming our way can’t possibly mean to save us. Just like No. 2, she is probably an E type. One who will make sure to dispose of us properly.

Even though No.2 asked, the Bunker refuses to allow me to delete his data… because it was also part of the experiment. They created us and sent us to fail over and over, decided we would be eliminated, and now at the end I cannot even honor his last request…even though he killed himself rather than complete his mission.

This is too cruel. This is too unreasonable.

I don’t know if this feeling inside of me is rage, but when No. 4 and No. 22 suggest that we shouldn’t die without a fight, I’m ready to listen.

*****

The idea to fuse with a machine was No. 22’s, but I volunteered to be the one to do it. As an H unit, I was always the one to be protected and stay safe. I carried everyone’s back up data, so I had to be kept alive at all times if there was any hope the others could be restored.

I was the only one who couldn’t put my life on the line.

I was the only one who didn’t have to suffer dying and losing myself over and over.

So I wanted to be the one to take on the risks. We were all on a suicide mission, but if No. 4 and No. 22 were successful, they would raise a whole city of machines and die once. If I was successful, my consciousness would eventually spread out and I would probably die many, many times before YoRHa managed to truly kill me.

It was only fair, but I had my own reasons too.

I still had the data of all my friends stored inside of me. Maybe I could put them somewhere that not even YoRHa could reach.

*****

I lose control of systems the moment my black box is absorbed. My body is consumed by metal as the logic virus eats it alive, but I willingly leave it behind. Untethered from everything I am safe, but my consciousness is small and lost by the time one hundred machines have fused in. At five hundred, grains of my data start to slip out across all the minds I have been connected to. At five thousand, I start to lose my sense of self.

Attacker No. 3. Gunner No. 4. Attacker No 6. Scanner No. 21. Gunner No. 22.

I’m sorry.

Their data loses its shape as my memory falls apart. My body housed all the systems for protecting my memory regions. All I can do is continue to latch on to No.2’s sword. The static storage format of a weapon is less susceptible to fragmentation, so I fold what remains of my existence around it and pray.

I know the war won’t end. I know I’ll never read a book by the sea in a peaceful world. I don’t need anything like that; just let me hold on to this one thing.

*****

Someone is here. Inside the network with me. A YoRHa unit.

There are over ten thousand of us joined together now. It’s no place for an android. I can feel their consciousness breaking apart. They are fusing in, just like I did. Becoming just another single point of data scattered around. They have to know they will die. So why would they come here?

I can feel someone reaching out for me. I can hear someone calling my name.

Somehow, I organize enough of my disjointed remains to answer.

*****

Our data compresses together, trying in vain to establish some barrier between us and the rest of the fusion. There isn’t much of me left, and he is fading fast, but I remember myself as I hold onto him.

I remember that I was No.9, because he is also No. 9. I remember that I did this reckless thing to cling to something important, because he also did this reckless thing to save something he thought was important.

Maybe it’s the other YoRHa, who must have been dying over and over again to bring the fusion to an end.

I have forgotten the names and faces of the ones I did this for. All I know is the shape of the sword that the last pieces of my consciousness refuse to release. I sometimes hear a voice that says goodbye but also that we will meet again.

My fleeting consciousness becomes disorganized again. The other No.9 and I melt together in the endless white network, and small but coherent thought routines bounce between us in a rudimentary exchange.

I’m sorry.

             ‘I’m so sorry.’

                           I don’t want you to die.

 ‘I don’t want to let you die.’

                                        I… don’t want to die.

               ‘I didn’t come here to die.’

 

        We Will Not Die.


9S wakes. No.2 is kneeling over him. The golden line of Cruel Oath rests at his hip.

“Seven brothers…” 9S mumbles, his mind flinging old data about the sword forward in an effort to enforce sense on his otherwise disorientated state. “Seven brothers with a traitor among them... That was about M002. That was about… you.”

“No. 9…?”

There is enough hope in his whisper to crush 9S.

“I’m not No.9.” It’s a terrible half-truth because he is logging the strands that comprise this not-stranger’s braid and he already knows what number he should come to. A dozen phantom images of him shift like shadows at the corners of 9S’ memory. An expanse of emotions and experiences that do and don’t belong to him fight to be the first out of some secret partition inside of him, finally found and finally open.

“We were… in pieces. Everything was in pieces. But there was enough of me… of us? Of 9S—to use the bunker’s back door. We wrote over the personality data with the mess of what we were so that YoRHa would have no choice… Erase their most advanced scanner and start over, or salvage us.”

He can see so much evidence now that he hears it aloud. Prioritizing 2B’s data every time without fail even when he didn’t know her. Insisting on the repair of even the slightest, most insignificant injury even though he often overdid it. These were Healer unit’s habits, left somewhere so deep in his consciousness data that it was just a ripple on the surface.

What extent of the original 9S he embodied he might never really know. All he has is an impression of someone whose only choices were to find out what would make another No.9 cause so much chaos or utterly lose his mind. Someone who couldn’t stand for anyone to be pointlessly thrown away. 9S thinks that he and No. 9 may be a little more selfish than that. Or, given the way the other scanners talked about him, maybe the original 9S was just the only one between the three of them who had remained alone.

He’d never known 2B.

She’d never known the original 9S.

She’d never known him to be any other way than he was now—the reconstructed personality that his predecessors had become when they refused to die. ‘He’ has never existed without her, and all the messy and contradictory things he feels for her are his own.

No. 2 holds out his hand and 9S gladly accepts the help. The air is clear and silent. The memories have all flown away.

“You can keep the sword,” says No. 2.

9S almost laughs. It feels like they were fighting for it a lifetime ago. “I don’t need it anymore. I got what I was looking for.”

“So did I.” He holds up a hand and there is a cut across his glove. “No.9 couldn’t delete my data… so he hid it in the sword’s storage system. Then one of you compressed it and hid it a place no one would look.”

“My NFCS base protocol,” 9S says with a prideful smile. “Which was conveniently set to ‘off’ when I was rebooted as a modern Scanner.”

“Crafty.”

“Of course, the old 9S was top of the line too, you know.” He can tell by No.2’s expression that his immodesty would not have been characteristic of No.9. As it should be—he isn’t No. 9, after all. “Are you sure you want me to have it?”

“You carried it all this time. Besides, the war’s over.” A smile pulls familiar creases into being beneath No. 2’s eyes. “And now I know why I came back in a place like this. It was to meet you.”

No. 2 doesn’t have 2B’s face, but he is similar enough for the words to tie 9S’ black box up in flustered ribbons. “W-well. Most likely you came back because some part of your consciousness data fractured off into the fusion and has been floating around in the machine network this whole time. I had a similar thing happen to me where my consciousness spontaneously regenerated as linked fragments across a local machine network and after finding out we run on machine cores there’s a really high probability that we were always capable of doing things like this but the logic virus contamination risk kept the possibilities from being explored properly and—“

“9S,” No.2 interrupts quietly. “Even though you’re not the No. 9 I knew. I’m glad… that you didn’t die.”

There is a gentleness in his gaze that matches the occasional glimpse that 2B would clumsily show, only No.2 doesn’t bother to hide it. Their time together was short, but No. 2 and No. 9 were probably at least as close as 9S and 2B had been…

9S looks out over the edge of the T-section, where he’d found No.2 standing. His eyes widen, and a flutter of laughter escapes him. No. 2 looks at him like he might be a bit unstable, but he has never been more clear-headed.

“I know where she is,” he says breathlessly. “I know where 2B is!”


“You gonna be okay from here?”

9S nodded and grumbled a weak thank you to 4S for practically carrying him back to the camp.

“No problem. It’s gonna take me a while to calculate the coordinates and calibrate the pod. I won’t tell Iota about the state you’re in or how long you were in the network but in exchange, you are gonna get in bed and power down for at least six hours. No exceptions.”

As the door to the private room swung open and the bright winter daylight yielded to the cool darkness, 9S found he couldn’t imagine anything better. There was no powering through the kind of headache he had.

Virtuous Contract was right where he left it across the empty, unused second bed beyond the bookcases and plain, wooden table in the center of the toom. The bed 2B once used.

4S took one look at it and patted him on the back. “See you in the morning, Nines.”

The door closed with a polite click. 9S sat and stared at his white reflection in the blade. Humans had dozens, maybe even hundreds of sayings about knowing yourself or finding yourself. For androids, the concept was redundant. One personality might differ from another, but every android had a role and a purpose and that was all the self-knowledge they needed. 9S was not most androids. He was YoRHa, and his existence was the logical extreme of YoRHa's practices. The fractal of his many lives repeated in their own image down to whatever iteration he was, and he thought this one human thing he understood perfectly. Knowing what had happened to his first self gave him a direct and traceable line through his past. It wouldn't have been important to any of the previous versions of him. They had a war to fight and 2B to be with and when they found out the truth they never had to carry it for very long. 

Knowing where he and Cruel Oath came from did so much more than give him a sense of control over himself. It gave him a sense of direction. Made him feel less like a lone point and more like a dotted line with an end and beginning. 

And if 2B had really left all her memories, inside of Virtuous Contract was where 9S would find the means to make that line solid.

Slowly, he tugged his gloves off and let them fall to the floor. His one finger was still sort of misshapen due to the improper maintenance, but his hands were otherwise pristine. He’d sliced them a dozen times carrying Virtuous Contract around, but nothing had ever happened. It had to be a part of him. He had to carry it with him into the network, where everything was just data that could merge and blend as easily as the barriers between two digital objects could be broken down.

In the case of a weapon, breaking that barrier was apparently as easy as being cut. 

The sword dissipated into a swirl of golden-white sparks and integrated into his NFCS. By the time he opened his read-out and found the bright orange indicator for new data, it was already back in his hands, resting easily on his lap. It ached a bit that this was how he had to learn, but he took it all in. Her uncertainty. Her doubts.

Underneath that cold exterior, she was always asking herself how much more she could take.

He held the sword close to his body and let himself sag gently onto the stiff mattress. There was no scent. It surprised him a little that it even crossed his mind to look for one. 2B was an android and it had been… almost a year since she used this bed. As he curled up with his knees nearly to his chin, he thought of her voice coming from the tinny speaker of a broken flight unit on the ruined coastline. Of her calling him Nines and referring to their time together as pure light.

He closed his eyes.

I’ll see you soon, 2B…