There’s a woman at the bar who targets York, snagging the seat next to him and suggesting he buy her a drink. She’s talented in feeding his ego and making him feel like the center of the universe by leaning in to hear him over the crowd, hand on his arm. She’s lovely and older than him. A few glasses in and he’s showing off and she’s squeezing his biceps to see if they’re real. She asks if the carpet matches the drapes.
Her name is Melissa and he tells her his name is Dakota. She doesn’t seem suspicious - she’s a colony girl - or maybe she just doesn’t care. She urges him to go with her back to her place and he wonders if she’s got something on her mind that she’s trying to burn out. He wonders if he should ask. He doesn’t. He just tells her made-up stories about the places he’s passed through running from the Project as they walk, her hand in his back pocket.
It’s not far to her apartment, and Melissa wastes no time getting him onto her bed. She gets on her knees and unties his boots. She nibbles his toes and he wonders if she’s into feet before she moves her way up to his belt. He has almost let his eyes fall closed when he suddenly remembers Delta, like a breath on his neck and with a shudder like an electric shock to match.
Delta acknowledges York’s awareness with a silent ping and returns to his observations, canting with curiosity toward Melissa as she gazes back at them with sky blue eyes.
“Is something wrong?” She asks, the cute little clip of her local accent landing hard on the G’s and soft on the S’s.
York has to consider that. He’s already half-hard and turned on and he wants it, but he’s ashamed that he forgot about Delta. He’s ashamed that they got this far and exposed the AI to it.
Don’t stop on my account , Delta says, and York is surprised to hear that he’s not being sarcastic. Regard this as a chance for me to study the benefits of human intercourse.
York hasn’t jerked off in ages because he hates pulling Delta. Delta doesn’t like it either but he has always been easygoing, sharp jabs aside. If York were to stop and pull him now, there would be questions. His cover could be blown. It was either full stop or see things through to their conclusion.
York, if I might interject, Delta piped in. Regardless of whether or not you pull me before engaging in coitus, I often witness them in your thoughts after the fact. Your censorship is ultimately in vain.
That doesn’t make me feel better , York projects silently.
In addition , Delta goes on, your stress levels have been high and I believe your tension has been causing your headaches. If my research is correct, this could be good for you. I implore you to proceed.
Melissa tilts her head just a little bit, waiting for his okay to continue. He never expected a one-night stand could be so sweet.
Alright, on one condition , York says. Don’t say anything.
Acknowledged , Delta says, and falls into promised silence.
“Sorry,” York said, and shook his head for show. “It’s nothing.”
“Wanna talk about it?” She asks, running her hands over his thighs. She’s just as hungry for it as he is.
“I definitely don’t.”
Of course, York and Delta make a great team in this, too. It’s slower and sweeter than York anticipated, which heals as much as it hurts. Delta is silent, but draws York’s attention to her teeth clamped on her lip, the way her thigh trembles when his fingers draw in at that angle. He identifies the precise note in her voice that indicates something is not quite right and York realigns himself. He comes inside of her when she tells him to, one hand carding through his hair and the other running her nails down his back.
“Oh my god,” she sighs, falling boneless back onto the bed when he pulls out of her. “You’re incredible.”
He wants to lay down and say sweet things to her. He wants to pretend for an evening that they have something they don’t, but the repulsion to the lie snaps his heart in half. Despair comes onto him like someone drawing a plastic bag over his head. He pulls his clothes back on as fast as he can - tripping getting one leg into his pants - while following Delta’s calm directions to breathe.
Melissa props herself up on her elbows and watches him. She calls him the name he gave, “Dakota?”
“Thank you,” York says, and hopes his voice isn’t as strangled as it feels. He lets himself out. His head spins as he takes the stairs by twos and almost bursts out of a fire exit before Delta turns him around. He finds a real exit not attached to alarms and finally swallows fresh cold air and chokes on it. He coughs and turns to fold himself into the crevice behind the front stairs of Melissa’s condo. He leans his forehead against the cement step and sits there for a long time. He shudders. He breathes.
Delta is patient, but radiates concern. York can imagine him running diagnostics on his body to investigate the cause of his sudden episode. The intimacy is over and Delta stays quiet. York buries his face in his hands. He wipes the tears and the snot away.
“That was a terrible idea,” York groans as he climbs to his feet, his voice sounding like it’s coming through water.
Delta’s half-beat pause is telling, but York is too tired to be curious. I gathered valuable data.
York scoffs. “I knew I could always count on you.”
I live to serve, he says.
York has nothing in his pockets except his credit chit and the keycard to the safe house, so he wipes his hands clean on his shorts like an average slob. He unpacks his emotions in his head as he walks, and the process is precisely as miserable as the term ‘walk of shame’ implies.
“I guess it’s just that… it was all so normal,” York says, alone in the dark between lamp post lights. He talks to Delta, who listens. “Going to a bar, going back to her place, that’s stuff some normal Joe would do, but I can’t do normal anymore. I can pretend, but it’s a lie. Things can never go back to normal. And it felt so… disgusting, not just to lie to her - she didn’t care - but to lie for myself and pretend that I could be normal.”
Delta waits to respond. He’s not processing, he’s allowing York his own time to process. Do you wish things were normal?
York laughs and he wishes the grip of self-pity would loosen from his throat. “Sure, it would be nice,” he admits. “But it’s not going to happen.”
Delta descends into quiet consideration for the rest of the walk back. As soon as they enter the safehouse, York engages every deadbolt on the door and strips, leaving a trail of clothes on the way to the bathroom. He stands in the shower for an hour, but it doesn’t make him feel clean. There’s a thick layer of shame and lies over his skin that won’t slough away. He throws himself into bed with damp hair and eyes open, gazing at the spectre of a streetlight hinted through the blackout curtains over the windows.
York thinks about dating. He thinks about taking girls out to movies, about cuddles on a couch, about pickups after work in his truck. He thinks about pretty girls with strong jaws and tattoos who know what they want. He thinks about kissing and fingernails and coarse pubic hair. He thinks about Carolina, and the other things he’ll never get back.
Query , says Delta.
Do you have regrets?
York blinks into the dark. “Are you asking about you?”
Delta says nothing. York finds it endearing that his partner can keep him humble with sharp jabs and cutting sarcasm, but he falters when processing emotional responses. York is sure Delta has his own emotional baggage, but he is happy to kick it under the bed, never to be seen again, while the world of variables and statistics make sense to him.
York rolls onto his back and folds his hands over his stomach. “I regret not catching on and acting sooner. I regret how some things happened, but I couldn’t control all of it. I understand that.” York closes his eyes as Delta considers this. “But, I’m glad I was able to meet you, and help you, in spite of it all. I wouldn’t have done it differently.”
Thank you .
“I always wondered if you worried about that.”
Delta is silent and York knows that he won’t elaborate with words, so York reaches out with his mind. He opens his feelings to Delta, showing his unpacked sadness for what it is - grief - and the acceptance he has for that loss. He leaves it out like an open palm. York thinks he can feel Delta there, analyzing, accepting and processing the data clinically. He can sense Delta’s confusion.
“It’s complicated,” he says.
Yes , Delta says, and accepts it. He’s learned to accept emotional responses as complicated, contradictory things. It’s something Delta can’t always help with, except to apply logic and clarity to a situation.
Delta responds to York’s offering with his own, showing just what matters, carefully cut and delivered, as is his way. Delta’s emotional landscape is cool and uncomplicated. York feels like he could leave some of his problems with Delta for a while and come back for them later, but a few things live in there, textured like a pearl in the mouth of an oyster. He tries to make them smooth and easy, but he can’t.
If York had an open palm, Delta places one of those pearls in it, dense and uncomfortable. It’s made of everything that Delta feels he took from York, with memories of Carolina, Melissa and North. It’s a warm bed and a secure room, and boisterous lunch hours in the cafeteria with the rest of the freelancers.
“It’s not your fault.” York says, and Delta’s emotions drift away from him, back to where they would be hidden away and compartmentalized. “I still have you.” And he opens his mind to it and lets Delta see that, too. York lets him see how grateful he is to have Delta around, and how much Delta means to him. He lets Delta see York’s desire to protect him.
Delta approaches this offering with caution, but when he gets there he radiates the same feelings back, in spite of his regrets.
“See? It’s fine, right?”
Yes , Delta responds, and this time York can feel his relief and satisfaction.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s okay. We’ll be okay.”
Delta offers York an artificial nod of sorts and returns to his own quiet processing. York keeps his eyes closed. They never say goodnight.
Delta makes a convincing case for assisting masturbation.
Very little goes according to plan when you happen to be on the run from a highly funded experimental military organization. York and Delta get ambushed by bounty hunters on their way back from some honest work: skimming corporate bank accounts using the cracked wifi network from behind a Korean PC bang. They did this operation with York wearing his armor, since the outfit is about as unique and conspicuous as his scars, so he is offered the same measure of anonymity in the long run. Delta picked them up on a burst transmission before they could move in and surround them, giving York time to disappear into a nearby warehouse. A lot of running and rocket-propelled grenade fire later, York wakes up slow.
York comes to with the warm, fuzzy glow after dreams of happier times. It lays over him like a blanket, and even before he’s aware of where he is and what happened, he feels reassured and safe. It’s the feelings you get from hopeful dreams, where traumatic events go right this time but in the end, you emerge into a cold and grim reality where everything is shit.
Before the bitter reality can settle in, York feels Delta recoil and close paths of neurological connection, even hiding his embarrassment as sharply as a chatty soldier falling victim to a headshot. The warmth of better days dissipates slowly, like cotton candy in his mouth instead of the slap to the face that he was expecting. Delta usually pings him a silent greeting when he wakes up, no matter if it’s sleep or a near death experience. Now, he hides, knowing what York felt from him. It’s for the best that they don’t worry about it now, all things considered.
York opens his eyes to packed dirt beneath him and the rest of the building above. He’d fallen into the gap between the floorboards and the ground. Sunshine trickles yellow in from somewhere, revealing dust as dense as smoke. A cockroach climbs over his fingers, just like the kind you’d find on earth, in America, in New York and North Carolina.
The healing unit has been recovering a rib fracture. Delta comes out of hiding to inform him. No internal bleeding.
We got lucky this time , York relays back. Delta points out a vent to exit through on his helmet HUD and York crawls forward to it on his belly.
Better lucky than good, as you always say, says Delta.
“You’re damn right,” York says, and his voice catches on something that makes him cough.
It takes them nine minutes to cross to the damaged vent mouth that exists into daylight. Delta taps into local police to monitor patrols and picks up no evidence of burst transmission signatures. The vent is so narrow that York has to remove his armour to wiggle out, and gets a painful gash in his shoulder for the trouble. Local security guards round the corner just in time to see him, and he loses half a tooth knocking them out before he can get his armour back on. His shoulder throbs over the healing unit and York can feel blood pooling thick at the small of his back. They wind a roundabout route to the safe house, just in case they need to lose any tails.
“Do me a favor, D, and check out the handsome renegade insurance plan to see what their policy is for reconstructive dental.”
No matter how many times you ask, York, I’m afraid no such insurance plan exists.
“Maybe we could look into making it happen. Get me a false identity while we’re at it so dental records can’t identify me.”
Understood. You are being facetious.
“You always did know how to take the wind out of my sails, D.”
I live to serve.
As soon as they arrive at the safe house, York locks all the deadbolts. Delta immediately scans the room for changes and indicates that no one has been there, before proceeding to set up their next location. After a close call, it’s imperative that they move as fast as possible, even though Delta is confident they haven’t been tracked. York sometimes worried that they could access tertiary signals that would keep things encrypted from Delta, but the equipment for that was high-level military jurisdiction only. The renegade pair were too often giving their hunters the slip for anyone to waste those kinds of resources - unless it was part of a trap for them, several of which Delta had caught onto already. By the time bounty hunters or local authorities could have anything ready to spring, Delta and York would already be out of town, or on their way to the next planet or space station.
York removes his armour, piece by piece, as Delta gets to work. The kevlar undersuit sticks to his skin with drying blood. The healing unit has made good progress on his shoulder wound, but it still stings. York peers at it in the mirror as best he can. For all the blood, the gash is rather shallow. He won’t have to figure out how to stitch himself up with his hands behind his back this time.
York fills the tub in the bathroom with cold water and drops the undersuit into it. He washes himself down with a wet towel, which runs pink when he rinses it in the sink. The basin is yellowed and crusted with hard water. He looks at himself in the mirror, which is tarnished and mottled with mildew and whatever else.
They got off easy, this time.
York patches up his gashes as best he can and then steps into a pair of boxers and soft old track pants. He pulls a stained t-shirt over his head and hisses at the sting. He can feel the bandage tape stick to the cloth but he’s tired and anxious and the adrenaline crash is setting in. He sighs and looks at his impressive eye bags in the mirror. How many more of these close calls will he get out of?
York starts when Delta suddenly speaks. “I am sensing increased stress levels. Might I suggest engaging in masturbation?”
“Oh, my god,” York squawks, and melodramatically drops his hands on either side of the sink, his head lolling down between his shoulders. There was nothing he could do about the heat building up in his face. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that.”
“If you wish,” Delta goes on, “but diazepam and other benzodiazepines are highly addictive substances. My data recommends using other methods of stress relief, especially in your line of work when the drug is sometimes used as an assistant in firearms use, such as sharpshooting.
“Stop! I get it. Jesus.” York stands up straight and looks past his reflection to where Delta is projecting green over the gold armor laid out on the floor. “Are you just going to float there and watch?”
“On the contrary,” says Delta. “There are many things I can offer to your experience, since I am tapped into your brain chemistry.”
York turns then with his whole body, to face him. “What are you saying, D?”
“If you are uncomfortable with pulling me temporarily, I can provide assistance instead. I was able to log a lot of neurological data during your last sexual encounter.”
“Tell me you do realize what you’re suggesting,” York asked. Instead of responding, Delta waited. “You want to have sex with me, is what you’re saying.”
“I would not equate my contribution as intercourse,” Delta said, cool and unflappable as ever. “It is far from what two humans experience together. I would simply call it assistance, as your partner.”
“You want to help me jerk off, as a friend.”
“I hate to break it to you D,” York couldn’t help but to smile, “but that’s kind of gay.”
“York, please. Gender is a social construct, and mine is simply borrowed,” Delta almost sounded disappointed in him. “Besides, I know from your elevated heart rates on record that it is unlikely you are an exclusive heterosexual.”
“Whoah,” says York. He could always count on Delta for uncomfortable truths at terrible times. He tries to think of a snappy retort and fails. Instead, he crosses the room in silence, to turn and fall backwards into the crappy, moth-eaten recliner. Delta’s hologram blinks out. He accepts the quiet and rests, attentive, in the back of York’s mind. He waits, and he listens. York places his hand over the AI port at the back of his skull, and he thinks about it. “If we were going to do this, what would you get out of it?”
Assurance that you are doing well and engaging in relaxing habits without depending on addictive substances, Delta replies.
“In that case, I could just do it on my own.”
Correct , Delta agrees. But I have recorded instances of apprehension in you when faced with scenarios where it may be better to pull me to ensure your privacy. I suspect that this is partially due to your protectiveness towards me, as well as the reassurances of safety that I provide in return.
“It sure isn’t easy to keep secrets from you.”
Of course , is all Delta says to that.
York runs his hand over the port, his eyes lingering on cigarette burns in the carpet. His hair is getting long. “It doesn’t make you uncomfortable if I expose you to that?”
On the contrary , Delta says. I find it quite interesting to see your neurological and physical responses to this particular set of stimuli. You could consider it an experiment.
“You, helping to stimulate me through masturbation, would be an experiment?”
Delta pauses. Yes.
Delta is right about York’s feelings on the matter. It was his concern about Delta’s discomfort that always kept him from jerking off while Delta was there, and it was his hyper-vigilance that kept him from pulling Delta to do it without him. It’s with some trepidation that York leans back in his chair and slides a hand down the front of his pants. He feels Delta lean forward with interest.
“Say stop and I’ll stop,” he says, paused. “I say stop and we stop.”
Delta doesn’t reply with words, just a ping of confirmation.
York is still soft when he touches himself. He misses masturbation just like he misses sex, and the latter didn’t work out for him so well last time. He wonders if this is going to work out at all, but he runs his fingers slowly over his dick and lets himself savour the sensation. It’s pleasant, all the same.
Something sharp pinches his neck, familiar like a lover’s teeth. York turns to look over his shoulder, but all that stands behind him is the moth-eaten recliner.
Do not be alarmed , says Delta.
“So, this is what you meant?” York asks, and feels the pinch on his skin a second time. Delta doesn’t answer, but knowing that it was Delta, that it was safe - York lets the pleasure go straight to his dick and fill out into his palm. He drops his head to the left so that Delta can reach his neck better - even when he knows that doesn’t make any sense.
Delta leaves his imaginary bites where York’s shoulder meets his collarbone and slowly works up his neck to leave a bite on his ear. The sensation is not quite right - a little ghostlike and tingly - but York lets his eyes close to appreciate it anyway. “Oh, my god.”
Delta coils with satisfaction, a smug little feeling like a smile in York’s mind. It’s a sensation York relates to sarcastic quips, and he feel it now. Delta is thrilled to hear York’s voice and to see his body respond, and it feeds and encourages him. Delta waits as York moves to pull off his pants and underwear so he can stroke himself without constraint. He’s already hard, and it happened so fast. It must have really been too long.
York clenches his hand on his dick when he feels a pull on his scalp. A groan comes out of his mouth and he can feel Delta’s curl again. Of course, Delta would know about how much York likes scratches, likes bites, and likes hair pulling. “I really can’t keep any secrets from you at all, can I?” Delta says nothing, but tugs again and York’s teeth clack together.
York closes his eyes and imagines his lover’s hand in his hair, pulling his head to the left. He can feel Delta’s kisses and nips over his neck while York jerks himself off, his pace going from slow to frantic and back again. York imagines leaning back into his lover’s arms. He feels a set of nails rake lightly over his chest and York hisses. York arches. He lifts his hips into the circle of his right hand and pulls his thigh to spread his legs with his left. Delta gives the sensation of pinching York’s nipple and he gasps. Goosebumps roll up and down his body, high and sensitive with imaginary touches that come from his brain chemistry to string him out. He can feel his orgasm coming on fast, but he doesn’t want to come. Not until -
But he doesn’t want to ask Delta to -
Come , says Delta.
York groans one last time and crests his peak. Pain spikes over his scalp and he imagines Delta pulling a little too hard and it’s perfect. York’s thighs tense and he comes over his hand and his stomach.
He finally drops, relaxed, back into the grasp of the old recliner. A tingle of touch remains in his hair, pawing gently through. Delta leans against his mind, fond and affectionate. York leans back. He savours the safety and the intimacy. He closes his eyes and relishes the knowledge that Delta understands him. Delta will always be there. Delta just got to know him a little better.
York waits a few moments before he stands up to clean himself and put his pants back on. He waits for a cold loneliness to hit him, but it doesn’t. Delta is there instead, pressed close to him - pressed closer to him than anyone else ever could be.
“Okay, that wasn’t horrible,” says York. “Thanks D, but try not to let it go to your ego.”
The ego is a concept that has been long debunked by the school of psychology.
“You know what I mean.”
I live to serve.
York and Delta get some action, but not in the fun way.
When York joined the Military he knew there was a high possibility that he would die in combat. It was the height of the Covenant wars, after all, and everyone’s fathers, aunts, and uncles were coming home as dog tags instead of body bags. Still, he imagined his future once the covvies were knocked out, spending his service pension on a farm house with a handful of dogs. He would spend his afternoons with a cigarette, listening to the radio and driving his truck into town. Maybe he would grow food. Maybe he’d be missing a leg. The moral of the story was: he would be alive and he wouldn’t be living in a rental.
He volunteered for Project Freelancer, in love with the ego-stroking his acceptance entailed and respecting the concept. Whatever won the war faster was a good thing to sign up for, as far as he was concerned. Of course, his favorite incentive was the huge retirement bonuses they would throw into his 401k at the end of every year in the project. Maybe he would forego the farmhouse and buy a yacht. Instead of the dogs, he would get sharks.
As the project went on, York saw enough dead bodies in super-soldier armour to know that his odds of survival were slim. He outlasted people he liked and people he knew for a fact were better than him. He fell in with Carolina who didn’t seem the farm house type. He had things to live for. He had things to do. He stopped thinking about what the after would be like.
With Project Freelancer and a thousand dead friends and lovers behind him, York knows better now. There is no light at the end of the tunnel when you’re running from people who want what’s in your head -- there is only momentary reprieve. Being a sexy renegade is a feast and famine industry of bullet-biting followed by dumpster-diving. He knows he’ll die here, but the drive for Delta’s safety and his own stubborn sense of self-preservation pushes him on.
The feast came early this year. A nasty stomach bug or case of food poisoning keeps York’s head down for a day. Delta’s sharp and always keeps an ear out, but their survival is a collaborative effort, and York was compromised.
York , Delta wakes him up with a nudge, and York has no way to know if his sudden spike of adrenaline is authentic or administered. There is some talk of our location on the radio of one of the minor bounty hunter organizations.
“Shit,” York says and jumps to his feet out of bed. He pulls on his armour as quickly as he can while he can feel Delta, alert and distant. “How far?”
I can’t be certain. They’re using code. I’ve almost deciphered it. It’s quite impressive.
“Right,” York says, affixing his helmet over his shoulders and watching the HUD come to life. “Roof?”
“Yes,” Delta replies, his words in his ear from the helmet speaker. York passes the safe house door. He skips the fire escape. He barely makes it up into the attic before the stairs he uses collapse under him from the weight of the power suit. There’s a wooden plank that York moves that opens into the night sky. It’s clear out and the moon is full, casting lots of light. It’s the perfect night to catch a slippery target who got sloppy.
York pulls himself out onto the roof, and he’s alone. “At least they don’t have a pelican,” he observes.
“They are not aware that any houses in this area may have emergency exits to the roof,” Delta says, “although they may be setting up close by. I’m hacking into their network now, but it may take several minutes before I access their locations.”
“Sounds a little risky to me. No offense,” York says, approaching the side of the building. To the east he can see their designated evacuation place: a range of low, rolling mountains, full of unmapped tunnels from extinct planet life. “Is east clear?”
“Unknown,” Delta confesses. “Decryption estimated to take three more minutes.”
“Are they close? Do I have time?”
“Alright.” York takes a moment to stretch his calves. “I’m gonna take a visual before I jump for it. I need your eyes.”
If they didn’t know there was a rooftop exit, they wouldn’t be looking upward. York counts on that as he peers over the cement ledge down into the alleyway with a glimpse of the street. In less than a second, Delta flags a black van with tinted windows with a tracker.
“The vehicle is insulated, I can’t get a thermal reading to indicate the number of occupants.”
“No use waiting around,” York says for his own sake. He steps back and runs into a jump from the roof and onto the next. The building was almost the same height, but he got enough lift that he stuck the landing with a run. It was beautiful.
The following building is at least one storey lower. York lands in a roll before hopping back to his feet. The next one is higher, but he jumps, catches the fire escape, and climbs noisily to the top. “Did they spot us?”
“Unknown,” replies Delta. “Time remaining: One minute and thirty-two seconds.”
“Keep it up,” York says. He jumps to the next rooftop, which is about two storeys below. He nearly turns his ankle in the roll.
“Decryption complete,” Delta says, a couple more rooftops toward the cliffs. “They have a wide perimeter secured and are now advancing on the safe house. Estimated less than three minutes before clear declared.”
“Okay,” York says, and continues forward. Delta sets a timer to count down on his helmet's HUD. At around the two minute mark, York descends down a brick wall corner with his feet and arms to slow him. Some of the stones come with him, but the wall stays mostly in place. It’s a very quiet drop with his heels angled just right, compared to taking the steel fire escape in industrial power armour.
As he breaks into a run, Delta flags trackers in a circle around him, designating little red triangles for hostiles and green ones for civilians on the ground. The cliffs are about half a kilometre away. It would be naive of him to assume he could dodge them all by avoiding line-of-sight, but he’ll do it until he’s forced to get creative. There are at least fifty hostile markers forming a perimeter.
“There are precisely fifty targets,” Delta confirms. “It appears we are being underestimated.”
York focuses on his breath as he runs, but admonishes Delta in his thoughts. It only took two guards to screw him up last time. He slows down as they approach the soldiers’ perimeter, so he can move silently. They declared the safe house clear just minutes ago, so the guard is on high alert.
“They have not eliminated the possibility that you have a secondary means of escape, but they believe you will be retreating to the hills,” Delta says. “I suggest you hurry.”
“I know,” York huffs. He still isn’t feeling his best, but rest is no longer an option.
A wide row of red triangles float in a line in York’s way to the cliffs. The perimeter is on Gaya-ro, the widest road between the safe house and his escape. Soldiers are stationed across the four-lane street, giving them total view of anyone who might attempt to dart across. It’s almost 4am on a Tuesday and they’re the only living movement in sight.
Before York can ask, Delta plants a green arrow in his HUD, about a hundred metres to his right. “There is a pedestrian walkway to the south,” he says. “It is guarded.”
“I can handle it,” says York. It’s still smarter than getting fired upon in the open with other soldiers everywhere. “Probably.”
The pedway entrance is tucked in on a sidewalk, crossing over what must be a dangerously busy roundabout during rush hour. A guard stands at the bottom of the stairs, rifle in hand and gazing into the distance, listening to his radio. York swipes his legs out from under him and snaps his neck. He leaves the body there and takes the stairs two by two. The pathway at the top has glass windows on either side, so he darts as fast as he can on his hands and knees.
Another guard stands at the exit. She won’t be so easy to sneak behind as he comes from a well-lit pedestrian walkway, and from above. York takes a moment to sit down and screw a silencer on his pistol. He creeps over the ledge of the stairway and aims. Her upper body is outside of his view, hidden behind the sloping ceiling, so he shoots her through the back of her right knee. She screams, and her rifle falls to the ground with her before he shoots her through the throat. York jumps to his feet and bolts down the stairs, passing the soldier as she gurgles and bleeds out.
“The scream is being reported. Backup requesting permission to investigate,” Delta says into his ear as York breaks into a run toward the hills. “Permission granted.”
York takes a left, cutting into small side streets to get out of the direct line of sight of any oncoming soldiers. Delta notices, and a small map appears on York’s HUD. Gaya-ro is marked in red, it’s perpendicular streets in orange, and the rest in green. It might be impossible to get all the way to the cliffs without venturing into their view. Following his thoughts again, Delta marks the yellow dots of the patrol behind him. Two from either side are closing in on the pedway. The view from the streets beyond it would be clear of onlookers for a time. He pauses at the corner, back to a concrete office building and watches the yellow dot cross to the other side of the street.
York bolts east.
“The soldiers at the walkway have called for reinforcements.” Delta says. “A vehicle is approaching. I suggest you find cover.” Delta courteously flagged the far cliffs with an arrow of their own. It read a green 216m .
I’ve got this , York communicates silently, and guns into a sprint. Delta’s map shifts to show the location of the oncoming patrol. The distance counts down.
The yellow dot crosses the path behind him and comes to a halt, tires screaming on the pavement. The engine roars with strain.
The driver slams the gas a little too fast, causing the tires to shriek again and spin before accelerating. York thinks he hears someone yell something down the road at him as they advance.
York leaps over the guardrail before the cliffs. He dashes past signs warning about the danger of exploring the caverns. Each breath punches into his lungs, frigid like snow. Hundreds of entrances lay open to him. York disappears into the caves as he hears the first patter of gunshots. He charges forward, high on adrenaline, but Delta drops everything from York’s HUD in favor of a red notification of a wound, and a small map of what has been chronicled of the caverns. York pushes himself to go as deep as he can.
“Are they following?” He asks, and the way his diaphragm clenches isn’t good.
“No, they are not,” Delta says. “Alert: Agent York needs medical attention.”
“They must be residents,” York says, and lets himself fall against a cavern wall. “What’s the damage?”
“A bullet is in the muscle tissue to the left of your navel. Trajectory assumed from a ricochet. It must be removed before continuing.”
“Alright,” York says, “call an ambulance for me, will you, D?”
“I’m afraid that isn’t an option at this time,” Delta replies, cool as always. “Please retrieve your knife and I will provide instruction.”
York groans as he turns to reach for his knife, one hand pressed firm over his stomach. He can feel it as Delta begins dousing him with painkillers. He leaves his armour on so Delta can stabilize him. Once York is laid out, he cuts a hole in his kevlar undersuit to access the wound. The cloth peels away from his skin, wet with blood. York’s HUD lights up with a large, vivid x-ray of his abdomen, and where the bullet is. York shudders.
The moments following blur into a fog of pain and a cocktail of drugs.
“Tell me something good, D,” York says. He’s got a hand over his inadequately arranged bandage over his armour, his head back against the cushions of his helmet. He shivers with the chills of shock.
“York, you need rest.”
“I know, I know. Just while I fall asleep, alright?”
Delta hesitates for a beat, such a tiny piece of time, but when you get to know someone, you notice what their tics are. “There is a species of sea mammal on earth known as an otter which hold hands when sleeping as to not drift apart on the sea.”
York laughs once, and regrets it. He groans.
“Tea was originally invented when leaves fell into a pot of water that was being boiled to serve a Chinese emperor in 2737 BCE.”
“Okay, enough,” York complains in spite of the smile on his face. Above him are unintelligible fractal patterns left by extinct burrowing life on the walls of the caverns. He closes his eyes and concentrates on breathing.
Tiny fragments of memories come upon York with a soft impact, like Delta is showing him flash cards. Instead of equations or Korean letters there’s a sense of comfort. He feels the distant sense of his head in someone’s lap, the sweetness and love of someone’s hands in his hair. York can feel the strain easing out of his muscles.
“You’ve really been digging around in there,” York observes, but Delta doesn’t reply, reminding him instead of a comfortable couch on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. “Thanks.”
“I live to serve,” says Delta, and York dozes off to the sensation of warm sunshine surfaced from his memories.
York wakes up to a sense of warmth and fondness so strong that it breaks his heart.
He groans and rolls over onto his stomach as Delta disentangles himself from York’s brain chemistry. He goes slowly, his love receding like a fog.
His love .
Sensing York’s thought, Delta abandons his caution and pulls the rest of it away fast. York climbs to his feet as the lack of it falls on him like a breeze. His skin tingles still, like after being touched, and the knowledge hangs in his head.
York’s stomach aches like a bitch, but he can stand and he can walk. Delta feeds him information that his wound is closed and with a few days’ care from the healing unit, it will be completely recovered. The map of the caverns around him lights up on his HUD. Delta highlights a stream where York can wash the blood off of himself before approaching civilization again.
“D… talk to me,” he says, navigating north to the stream.
“What would you like to know?” His voice is familiar in Yorks’ ears.
“You know exactly what I’m asking.” York clenches his teeth together. With one hand on his stomach and the other on the cavern wall, frustration grows tight under his ribs.
“Do you have something you want to say to me?”
“I would prefer to discuss this somewhere safe,” Delta replies.
York is agitated and wounded and probably suffering from blood loss, so Delta’s request is reasonable. It’s unlikely that a few short words will solve a very emotional problem. It grinds his nerves still as he emerges from the caves and drops into a small pool of runoff water. It’s frigidly cold against the bare skin around his wound. The armour protects him from the rest. York and Delta occupy the silence together while York scrubs at the dried blood on his armour plating.
They don’t talk when York walks back in the city, or on his shuttle to the waystation. They don’t talk when he books an off-planet flight to a nearby space station, where they can book a room with one of Delta’s fabricated IDs. In the waystation, York buys a pair of lounge pants, slippers, and a t-shirt with the city name Sunyeong in roman letters printed under hangeul. He buys a novel and a magazine and a luggage bag to stuff his armour in. Delta uses the station wifi to book them an apartment rental for three days and, without words, relays the information to York. The flight is six hours and York gets halfway through his book by the time they arrive. Between the pain and emotional anticipation, it’s hard to focus.
York’s apartment on the station has already synced the keycard to his ID, so he lets himself in as soon as he arrives. He’s hungry, so Delta finds the closest dive that does delivery and orders him a panzerotti with a coke. York falls into bed on his back before giving Delta a cursory “thanks.”
I live to serve , he replies.
He said they had to talk about it, but York doesn’t know where to start. Delta is quiet as he considers things. Delta is quiet over all the questions York thinks about asking, but doesn’t. Delta is quiet until he informs York that the delivery guy is approaching the door. Instead of bending over his wound, York rolls onto his stomach to push himself up.
He feels much better after eating.
“Okay,” he says, to psyche himself up against his nervousness. “Let’s talk.”
York’s leg jumps in an anxious tic. He wiggles a chewed straw between his index and middle fingers. “When did this… start?”
I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific. Many items and subjects could qualify as a generalized ‘this’.
“D…” York sighed, running his left hand through his hair and pausing with his palm over his implants. “This is serious.”
A distant sense of fear makes York aware that he’d been shutting Delta out. He’d chosen to travel all the way to the station and not discuss things, so he’d thrown himself into his own thoughts to map a path through their future conversation. York had forgotten to open that communication up again once they decided to speak.
York relays a silent apology as he stands and crosses the one-room apartment to the bed. He stares up at the ceiling and thinks about another conversation they had like this, months ago, several cities back. That time they spoke by bringing down the doors between each other and sharing the most complicated hangups in their minds, shown to the other like a pearl in a palm.
Delta isn’t good at talking about his emotions. He’s more intelligence than artificial, and he does feel. Years ago, York took for granted that he didn’t.
“I’ll go first,” York says, and closes his eyes. He holds his worries up for Delta to see, a pearl with pits and nagging flaws.
York feels misled. He feels betrayed. He suspects that their equivalent of ‘physical intimacy’ was built on a lie. York is sure that it meant something to Delta all along, now that Delta gave his feelings away. The terms of agreement did not account for a very large feature: an emotional investment.
York would not have been able to talk about this, he realizes when Delta reaches back. If York had to use words, it would have devolved into frustration and yelling and a fist through drywall. What would Delta do then? What could he do with Delta then?
Delta processes the emotional data and York can feel him hurt with grief and regret. He says: I’m sorry .
“Thank you,” York whispers in reply.
In my defence , Delta continues, I had not managed to discern the emotions that were governing my actions. Love was high on the list of debugging priorities, but it was only your confirmation this morning that verified my suspicions.
He drops the L-bomb so casually that it takes York by surprise. He realizes it shouldn’t, since Delta understands words as labels for concepts, but the admission of participating in something so illogical might be shameful to him.
I was built from the brain of a neurologically whole human. It is not impossible for me to experience the same range of emotions as any human. Due to the Alpha fragmentation, it was difficult to predict what we all might be capable of, but it is still possible for us to carry all essential human traits and capabilities. I had not considered it seriously, but you’ve confirmed my evidence. Agent York, I am in love with you.
York doesn’t know what to say. He stares at the ceiling. He knew this was coming, but he still didn’t have all the answers.
“I don’t think I feel the same way,” he says.
Acknowledged, Delta replies.
York expects Delta to be hurt. He expects Delta to be sad. However Delta, in his mind, feels like euphoria and joy.
“Usually when a guy tells someone he loves that he loves them, and the other person says nothing, that’s pretty depressing.”
Oh? Delta has no idea what he should be upset about.
“Yeah, that’s the end goal. Two people love each other, they run off into the sunset. They get married, have kids.”
Getting married and having children are far from achievable goals for me, Agent York.
“I know, but… I mean. Why are you so happy?”
Delta hesitates. I love you, he says, and you’re here. This is acceptable.
That’s enough .
There would be many things that would concern York if their situation was normal. If Delta was human, his ambitions certainly wouldn’t end there. Humans are greedy and emotions get sloppy, but Delta is cool and clever. Delta does not say words he doesn’t mean, so that’s enough means that it really is enough.
York wonders if there will be a time down the road when he’ll be free. Maybe they’ll finally slip the system and they’ll get some rest in the years before rampancy symptoms begin. Maybe he’ll meet a girl. Maybe he’ll want to move on. Maybe Delta will be jealous. Maybe it’ll get ugly.
What are the odds of that? No how hard he tries, York can’t see the light at the end of that tunnel. Only the struggles that lay ahead.
Delta descends around York’s mind and his heart. Delta’s feelings fall over him like a blanket, warm and heavy. York wonders if it’s his equivalent of a hug, to hang these emotions upon him. It was like that morning, waking in the caves, and a morning weeks before, when he woke up under a building. Delta’s love has been protecting him for a long time.
York closes his eyes and lets it happen. He lets himself feel coddled, safe, and loved. York feels like he’s turning to curl into the arms of a mother - someone he trusts. Someone larger, and stronger.
“What do we do?” York asks.
Delta can’t answer that with his words, so York just knows. As long as York chooses to fight for Delta, Delta will look after him. Delta will protect him. Delta will secure York’s happiness as best he can.
There’s a lot York doesn’t need to say. It’s possible it may not always be this way. There may be a time when they part. For everything that York does to protect him, Delta will love him for it in return. Maybe it will complicate things. Maybe it won’t. York can choose to accept it, or…
Or what? Pressure Delta into rejecting his human emotions when they bring him joy? The only other option would be to pull him and leave him on the bedside table. They would separate and both be swiftly killed, or worse.
York has no room to say no.
So he says yes.
This is how I'd planned to end it all along. I'm really sorry, everyone.
I wanted to say THANKS to everyone for reading along~ I would have liked to post this as a one-shot but I don't think I could have done it all without people leaving comments and kudos for encouragement.
Thanks especially to my bae Strangestquiet for beta-reading chapter 3 and being here all along cheering me on.
Now I hope to never write about these two again.