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Assimilation

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Day 1

His sensors switched on and his internal clock immediately informed him that it had been three weeks, two hours and seven seconds since his system had shut down. Given the extent of the damage he took, though, there was no way to be certain his clock was still keeping accurate time without outside corroboration.

Tres sat up and opened his eyes, and before him an older man was standing and tapping a pipe against his chin. A search of his memory files brought up the name William Walter Wordsworth from a set of data on Vatican personnel he had been implanted with upon first activation. Behind Wordsworth was the Duchess of Milan on one side and an unknown nun on the other. The unknown woman flickered, and for a moment Tres thought his optic sensors were malfunctioning. But the rest of the room was static and lacked the slight glow around her, and which point he realized she must be a holograph. Tres turned his head to check the rest of the room, and found the only additional occupant was Father Abel Nightroad, who was slouching in the corner.

"How long have I been deactivated?" asked Tres.

"Ah, consciousness!" said Professor Wordsworth. "You've been out of it for nearly a month while I tried to figure out how to put you back together again. It would have been quicker if we'd been able to recover Garibaldi's files, but if wishes were horses beggars would ride, and if I do say so myself I think I did a rather top notch job of patching you up freestyle. But tell me, my mechanical friend, how are you feeling?"

"I appear to be fully functional," said Tres. He had begun running diagnostics the instant he woke up and despite how alarming the thought of being put together 'freestyle' was he had found no problems.

"Wonderful! See, didn't I tell you?" said Professor Wordsworth, now addressing Cardinal . "There's no gadget in existence I couldn't improve upon."

"I never doubted you," replied Cardinal Caterina, and then she turned to Tres. "Now that you're awake and fully operational, I'd like to introduce you to the people you'll be working with. This is Professor William Wordsworth," she said, pointing at the Professor and confirming Tres's data, "and this is Sister Kate Scott." She pointed at the holographic woman, who flickered slightly as she smiled and waved.

"And you've already met Abel," continued the Duchess, gesturing towards Father Nightroad.

"I suppose that's one way of putting it," said Father Nightroad, grinning sheepishly. He seemed rather uncomfortable for no clear reason Tres could identify.

Caterina ignored his comment. "In a moment I'd like you to follow Sister Kate, if you don't mind. She's put together a file of all the data you'll need on the AX division for you to download. And Abel will go with you as well, seeing as how he'll be your field partner for the time being."

"Affirmative," said Tres. He slid off the table he'd been sitting on and followed Sister Kate and Father Nightroad out of Wordsworth's workshop.

As he left he heard the Professor say, "You're welcome for fixing you!"

"Just ignore him," said Sister Kate, her projection moving briskly down the hall. Tres noticed she still went through the motions of walking despite the action being irrelevant in a holograph. "The first thing we need to do is get you up to date on all the information AX has. Lucky for you, instead of studying procedures and personnel files for a month, we can just download it all straight into you! I'll meet you on the airship, okay? Abel can show you were it is."

"Affirmative," said Tres. With a smile Sister Kate's image shuddered out of existence, leaving Tres alone with Father Nightroad, who he could not help but notice was getting more fidgety by the moment. They walked on in silence for precisely 68 seconds, at which point the situation became too much for Tres to ignore. "Father Nightroad," he said, and Nightroad jumped visibly at the sound of his name. "Are you well?"

"Err, yes, I'm fine," he said, despite his blatantly apparent nervousness. "Why do you ask?"

Tres found he was having a difficult time reconciling the man he was currently observing with the man who single-handedly took back St. Angelo from the HC series. "You appear nervous in my presence. You seemed uncomfortable in the workshop, and increasingly so since we were left alone together."

"I... I have no idea what would give you that impression!"

There was a slight tension building in Tres's head. "If you do not wish to be around me, I am sure Cardinal Sforza would be willing to make other arrangements."

"No, really, that's not it at all," said Nightroad, and some of his nervous energy seemed to evaporate into melancholy. "Rather, I was worried you would be resistant to being around me."

"I do not understand your comment."

"Well, you know, after everything that happened at St. Angelo..." he said, and then trailed off. He did not seem particularly inclined to keep speaking, but Tres believed he understood his point regardless.

"If you are worried that I hold a grudge over the destruction of the rest of my series, you need not be concerned. I bear you no ill will."

Father Nightroad flinched slightly at the word destruction. "But after all that? I haven't been on a mission that bloody in ages," he said. He seemed to be having difficulty getting the words out. "None of your comrades - your brothers - none of them were left in one piece. And you, I ripped you-"

It was an unhelpful train of thought, so Tres cut him off. "You were completing your mission. Had I been in your position I would have acted similarly, to the extent my abilities would have allowed me to."

"So just like that, I'm forgiven," said Father Nightroad softly.

He still appeared rather down-trodden, and Tres had the nagging feeling that the matter was not as settled as he would like. Still, Tres was not sure what to add to what had already been clearly stated. Nightroad's reaction was irrational, in a manner Tres realized was commonly found in humanity but with which he had little to no personal experience. After all, Father Nightroad had only done as he had been commanded by the Lady Caterina Sforza. No more, no less.

"You were completing you mission," repeated Tres, and then he stopped to consider what there was to add to that. When he thought he had grasped the source of Nightroad's recalcitrance, he continued speaking. "I did not think your actions were excessive or cruel."

Father Nightroad took his time in replying, and Tres considered that he might have miscalculated his response. But he did eventually speak. "Thank you, Tres."

"I do not understand why I am being thanked," said Tres.

Father Nightroad smiled slightly at that. "Well, never mind it," he said, and Tres noted that his mood seemed improved. "Now, we'd better pick up the pace. Sister Kate isn't nearly as patient as she seems."

 

Day 15
"Damage report, Father Nightroad?" asked Tres.

"No, no, you shouldn't say it like that, you sound too robotic," said Abel. "See, what you should say is," and at this point Abel adopted a rather grating falsetto, "'Oh, Abel, are you all right? My heart couldn't bear the thought of a man as nobel and beautiful as you in pain!' Or at least how that's most people would respond. And it's just an example, mind, not a script. I don't want to crush your creativity."

Tres briefly considered a list of replies and found that Father Nightroad's comment didn't deserve any of them. So he ignored it. "Damage report, Father Nightroad?"

Abel sighed in as melodramatic a fashion he was capable of. "I am slightly bruised and wishing I had a more sympathetic partner," he said as Tres offered him a hand up off of the ground. "But otherwise I'm fine. And yourself?"

"Undamaged."

"Yes, well. Your first successful mission! We should celebrate!"

Tres was aware from even his limited previous experience that Father Nightroad would happily jump at even the thinnest chance to celebrate, and that none of it would be very appealing to Tres himself. "I think it would be best if we returned to the airship and reported to Sister Kate before proceeding with any other plans," he said.

"Yes, or we could be boring," grumbled Nightroad, but he followed Tres to the airship without any further protesting.

 

Day 159
"Oh, Tres!" said Sister Kate in a highly dismayed tone of voice. "You look awful!"

"I'm fine," said Father Nightroad, who was lying. He was still disoriented from the blow to the head he'd taken, and the only thing keeping him upright was Tres's right arm. Unfortunately, Tres's left arm had been severed during their fight and was currently being held onto by Father Nightroad, who had managed to drop it three times on the way to the airship's infirmary.

"Oh, Abel, you know I wasn't talking to you," said Sister Kate as Tres helped Father Nightroad onto the infirmary's nearest bed. "Tres, what happened to your arm?"

"It was damaged during the fight," said Tres. He pried his arm away from Father Nightroad, who seemed too dazed to realize he ought to just hand it over.

"Yes, I can see that!" said Sister Kate. She looked oddly displeased with him. "This is the second time in a month you've lost a limb! You should hear the Professor complain about the price alone."

"Professor Wordsworth overstates the price of repairs in order to obtain more funding from the Duchess for his side projects." Over on his bed Father Nightroad was being suspiciously silent. "Father Nightroad, sleeping after a serious head injury is not advisable-" he said, only to be cut off by the sound of the Father's snoring.

"Too late. Anyway, he'll be fine, he always is," said Sister Kate. "And we all know William lies like a dog about money. But it's not really about the cost, Tres. I mean, good Lord, you're sitting there holding on to your own severed limb!"

"It was a clean blow. The necessary repairs will be minimal."

"That's not nearly as reassuring as you seem to think," said Sister Kate. "You're reckless, you know. You need to take better care of yourself."

"Negative. I am not reckless. I calculate the balance of my various imperatives and act in the manner most likely to result in the success of the AX division."

"And hasn't Lady Caterina told you one of your imperatives it not to damage yourself?"

"Not to damage myself needlessly," said Tres, correcting Sister Kate's omission.

Sister Kate sighed. "Well, I suppose she's hardly a good role model for taking care of oneself, is she? But still. It worries me to see you like this so often. You're painful to look at at."

"Your worry is unfounded, Sister Kate. I do not feel pain."

"Of course you don't," said Sister Kate softly. She reached her hand out to Tres' shoulder, an action he assumed was the result of some lingering habit from before she became purely holographic. Neither of them could feel the touch. "Still, though." She sighed again, and her hand dropped down through Tres's shoulder before she brought it back to her side. "It doesn't stop everyone else worrying."

 

Day 160
The smoke from Professor Wordsworth's pipe wafted through the room, but Tres couldn't smell it. While repair mode was running his only working sensors were for basic human-level vision and sound. Less input meant less processing, and that mean the energy could be used elsewhere.

"Taking a bit longer than I thought," said Wordsworth. "This arm is a bit more trashed than I'd originally expected. Still, it won't be much longer."

"I apologize for detaining you," said Tres. "I am aware you were meant to leave for Barcelona today. I would have conducted the repairs myself had it been an option."

"Yes, I can see how it might be difficult to re-attach your own arm." There was a brief spark as Wordsworth touched his spanner to a coupling. "But never you mind about that. I doubt Caterina would have been pleased if I'd left her most reliable agent out of commission for a month to go flit about on a beach. Ah, there, I think we've got it!"

For a moment he thought Wordsworth had been too optimistic, but then sensation flared up through his newly attached arm to his central nervous system. He flipped automatically from repair to diagnostic mode, and he gently moved his fingers to make sure they were responsive. Pain slipped in from those parts of his arm that were still mostly flesh, and although he registered it as part of the repair process he did not allow it to show on his face.

"Hah! There, we managed it," said Wordsworth. "You might want to have Sister Kate look at the fleshier bits, though. It's still a bit gory looking."

"The skin and muscle are capable of regeneration without outside assistance," said Tres. "There is no need to bother Sister Kate. But I would like to thank you for the time."

"Not a problem, my friend," said Wordsworth as he placed his tools back in their proper places. Most of them had been made specifically to deal with repairs to Tres, although he was aware Wordsworth then went on to use them in other projects. "Just don't injure yourself anymore while I'm gone. It'd be hard to enjoy myself knowing you were back here trying to manage with gaping holes in yourself."

 

Day 365
Caterina Sforza was sitting at her desk when Tres entered, her back to him as she looked outside the window. The sound of his footsteps seemed to draw her attention, and she turned around as he drew closer. She did not bother to offer him a chair; at this point she understood that he preferred to stand. She simply started in on the matter at hand.

"It's been a year since you joined AX," she said. "Although I'm sure you already knew that." She was correct that he was aware of the date, although it meant little to him. Anniversaries held little interest for those lacking sentimentality. However, while the day held no meaning for Tres himself, he was aware that it might mean something to those around him.

"That is correct," he said.

She flipped over the cover of a file on her desk, and Tres saw that it was about him. "The reports I have from your colleagues are all quite glowing, I must say. You've fit in very well. A bit of concern over recklessness, true, but I suppose these things are to be expected in a violent line of work. But what I would really like to know, Gunslinger, is how you feel about the situation."

"How I feel?" he asked. He was not sure what she was getting at.

"About your colleagues," she said. "About yourself. Should you remain with Father Nightroad? Should you remain in AX at all? I have other tasks I could direct you towards if you would prefer it. It doesn't have to stay like this."

"I feel that I am currently performing my duties adequately," he said. "But I will follow any instructions you wish to give."

She made a sound of disapproval in her throat. "That's not a particularly helpful answer, Tres. It doesn't tell me much. And I think you know full well it doesn't tell me much."

He considered his possible responses carefully. He did not want to annoy her, but the information she was seeking seemed wholly irrelevant. "It was an accurate statement."

She sighed, and then spoke again. "Let me put it this way, then. If I were to tell you that I was removing you from the current AX system and moving you to another division, what would your response be?"

"There is insufficient data in that hypothetical for me to formulate a response," he said.

"Assume all other things considered equal, then. Play along, Tres."

The parameters were still woefully vague, but it seemed unlikely she would let the matter drop. "While Father Nightroad is wholly illogical, I believe I have observed him long enough to render him at least somewhat predictable. A different partner would require a second acclimation period and would reduce efficiency. Professor Wordsworth is already familiar with my systems and has so far proven skilled at fixing any complications. A change there would also reduce efficiency. Sister Kate is also preferable to any currently known alternatives, as her technological nature allows us a highly efficient means of information exchange."

"So you are happy with the way things currently are," she said.

He had made no mention of emotion in his speech, and even if he had it would have been irrelevant. "I believe I am currently operating at optimal efficiency," replied Tres. "Although I do not see how such a hypothetical is informative."

Caterina smiled and flipped the cover of the file closed. "Well, I found it revealing, or at least something close enough to it," she said. "I think we can keep things the way they are a little longer."