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born to beg

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The story began when two androids were brought to the Nest, the sky-blue circles glowing at their temples puncturing the gloom of the windowless chamber.

They were called a gift, but they were from the CyberLife company, which belonged to the Wesninskis, who, in turn, who belonged to the Moriyamas, so as far as Riko concerned, they were less gifts than they were his dues.

They were presented to Riko by a man in CyberLife-branded clothing, but Riko was only half-listening to him, already mesmerised by their taut, manufactured smiles and their eyes that were somehow distant and kind at the same time. They looked so real; if they were human, he’d guess they were only a couple of years older than he was. All that separated them were those twinkling LEDs.

“They know everything about Exy,” the CyberLife representative explained. “They’re programmed to play like the pros. Any position you need. Though it’s against the ERC’s rules for them to actually play in any league, of course.”

“They’re not here to be Ravens,” Riko replied without sparing him a glance. He reached up to rest his fingertips on the taller android’s cheek. It felt soft and warm, like his own skin. “They’re here to play with me especially.”

“Of course,” the representative said. “Well, their capability is set at one hundred percent just now, which should make them unbeatable. You can turn it down by-”

“You don’t think I can beat a couple of androids?” Riko interrupted, at the same time reaching out to place his palm on the bone-white letters spat across the second android’s chest. They read AC700; an arrangement of letters and numbers that indicated the androids were designed to be sports partners for humans. Riko had approached his uncle about acquiring some for training purposes a few weeks ago. The truth was, he was tired of playing against his peers. Tired of winning so easily all the time. To be the best, you had to beat the best.

“Their software makes them the perfect players,” the representative went on, flicking a wary glance over to where Riko’s uncle was sitting. “They’ll analyse your shot as soon as you make it and respond instantly. I’d recommend adjusting the software and slowly increasing it over time.”

Riko shrugged. “I’ll do as I please.”

“As- as you wish,” the representative replied, pressing his thin lips together.

Riko snapped his fingers at the androids and they followed him to the court. Their names, stark white, rattled around his head: Kevin, Neil. Simple names.

“Play,” he told them as he leant against the Plexiglass and folded his arms across his front.

“How would you like us to play, Riko?” Neil asked, tilting his head to the side - a weird quirk for an android to be programmed with, Riko thought - and smiling that effortless smile.

“Kevin, play as a striker at one hundred percent. Neil, backliner at ninety percent,” Riko instructed.

It played out just as he thought, with Kevin deftly keeping hold of the ball and making it to the goal in a few quick, tidy steps. When he switched the percentages, though, Neil stole it every time.

“That’s enough,” he said, eventually. “When we play tomorrow, you will both play at eighty percent, understand?”

“Understood,” the androids said in unison. Their chests were heaving slightly from the demonstration, a sliver of design meant to make them appear more human. Riko’s eyes flitted to the blue halos of their LEDs for a second, before settling on their unblemished cheekbones.

He made a snap decision just then, and later that evening, he branded them with black ink.

 

 

Kevin spent his nights lying dormant in the bed across from Riko’s own and his days on the court. He and Neil weren’t permitted to train with the other Ravens, but they watched; they studied and scanned every step and pass and conferred with Riko afterwards. In the evenings, Riko would privately practice with them, having them take turns as goalkeeper or backliner.

Even at eighty percent, Kevin could see they were pushing Riko to the limit. Riko forced himself to move faster, go further, usually to little avail. One evening, Riko yelled and slammed his racquet against the ground until it cracked. Kevin watched him carefully. His face was red and his eyes were narrowed. His hands were trembling underneath his gloves. He was frustrated. Angry.

“Would you like us to adjust our settings, Riko?” Kevin asked.

"No,” Riko snapped, studying the damage done to his racquet. “Get me another, Neil.”

Neil nodded and sprinted over to the racquet trolley. Once Riko had a replacement in hand, they got back to work.

The next time Riko missed, it wasn’t the ground he smashed his racquet against, but Neil’s face. Kevin watched as the thirium burst out of him in one bright, blue arc, splattering against the court floor. Neil fell to the floor and then lay there motionless.

Riko watched Neil as if waiting for him to weave himself back together and get to his feet. When nothing happened, he bent down and squinted at the mess before releasing a sigh.

“This is so inconvenient,” Riko said, before turning to Kevin. “Can you fix it?”

Kevin blinked, surveying the situation. The damage was extensive; it could be mended, but Neil would have to be sent back to CyberLife.

“I can have the company collect Neil,” Kevin replied.

“Can’t they come here?” Riko answered, exasperated.

Kevin wirelessly connected to CyberLife, and a team were out within the hour. By the time they got there, the blue blood had already evaporated, as if it had never been there at all.

But Kevin could see its shadowy residue when he scanned the area before locking up that night, and inside, as if buried at the bottom of a deep well, something flared to life at the centre of himself.

 

...

 

The story began when Jean Moreau was delivered to the Nest just as day corroded into night. All three of them went outside to greet him. He was dressed all in white - well-tailored designer clothing that Riko instantly hated - and his hair and skin was immaculate. He was a blank canvas, and he was Riko’s the same way Kevin and Neil were Riko’s.  

They took him to the room that had been set aside for him, and he was swathed in black. Then, his cheekbone was adorned with the number four; Neil did the precise strokes, holding his chin in an iron grip and ignoring the way Jean tried to flinch away from the needle. Riko noted how Jean worked his jaw, biting the inside of his mouth so that he wouldn’t start crying, presumably.

“Neil will be your partner,” Riko told him, smirking from where he stood above the two of them. Kevin skulked behind him by the doorway, a calm sentinel. “You do know what that word means, don’t you?”

“Oui,” Jean whispered. “I mean- yes.”

Neil dabbed at the tattoo with a cotton ball slick with ointment. His gaze was steady; his eyes the same blue as the circle at his temple. After he’d cleaned the tattoo, he carefully dressed it with plastic wrap and clear tape.

Over time, the two of them would get used to cleaning each other up.

In the Nest, their failures were each other’s failures.

Kevin would clean the shock of red blood from the carpet on his hands and knees as Riko lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to the deafening ringing in his ears. He was too used to playing with his androids, who he could control with a simple command during private practices. Jean was different; Jean would stumble. He made his decisions seconds too late because he was messy, human, bleeding red, not blue.

So, Jean would get a cut - a long, thin one scored along the ridges of his ribs - for each and every fuck-up. In turn, Neil would receive a burn, and then another just as the skin tried to mend itself. It would set all wrong, but he never reacted. Still, every time Riko pressed the lighter to Neil’s skin and he’d stare back at him with those blank, unfazed eyes, Riko looked at the warped, mottled material and felt a jolt of triumph.

He was leaving a mark.

 

 

The story began when Andrew Minyard stormed into the Nest like a biblical plague.

“I processed all those tapes,” Kevin had announced, approaching Riko with his tablet, “and I’ve found the best goalkeeper in the whole country.”

Riko gave the footage a cursory glance, forcing himself to shrug in spite of the fireworks going off inside his veins. “Send him a contract if you’re so sure.”

Five weeks later and Minyard was in the goal, five feet flat in Ravens’ black. Apart from Jean, they were all strikers that first night, and Riko was close to blowing his arms out when Neil finally scored.

It wasn’t just the goal, but the eerily human way he clenched his hand into a fist and muttered a triumphant yes under his breath that made Riko see red.

“You’re only supposed to be at eighty percent,” Riko snarled at him.

“I am at eighty percent, Riko,” Neil replied, a strange shimmer in his eyes. “Would you like me to adjust my settings?”

As he lunged, Riko heard Jean’s sharp no and Minyard’s dark laughter and Kevin’s ever-present silence, but most of all, he heard the whistle of his racquet slicing through the air.

Finally, he heard the sound of breaking: mechanical and satisfying and somehow like winning.

 

...

 

Neil went back to CyberLife after that.

He was gone for a whole day and came back with a new arm that was free of those months-old burn marks. Jean was waiting for him when he returned, and gave him this tiny smile of relief, as fragile as a bird’s broken wing.

Inexplicably, it made this fluttery sort of warmth gather somewhere deep inside of Neil. Then, he looked at the nearest mirror and the warmth froze into terror. He was warning-sign red.

His prediction had been correct: he was becoming.

He’d been ignoring it, but recently, when Riko did things to him, he’d felt this spark of anger somewhere deep beneath the surface of everything else. There was something else: a voice. Last time, when he’d been beaten and burned, he’d been quiet and taken every hit, but his head was a jumbled chorus of -

don’t hurt me... I don’t deserve this… it isn’t fair… stop it

- and with those words, he could see this red wall, like a giant force field, beginning to splinter. In that same moment, he could imagine a million different Neil’s running in all directions.

He’d thought CyberLife might eradicate any anomalies in his programming when they fixed his arm, but here he was, a mess of feeling. He stared at his reflection, willing the red of his LED to change miraculously back to blue, but it was stuck, which meant Riko couldn’t see him right now.

Red meant two things: that he was processing poorly, or that he’d gone rogue and was experiencing a sickly cocktail of fear and anger. Everybody knew this. Riko would either conclude he was in a bad condition, or he’d know . At best, he and Jean would get hurt, but at worst, Neil could get destroyed. No coming back as good as new.

Before Jean could ask where he was going, Neil was sprinting down the hallway. A quick scan of the Nest showed the roof was his best bet. Nobody was up there, and nobody would suspect he’d go there.

Above him, the sky was as red as an open wound. Neil waited for a few hours, trying to calm down, but the click of the door behind him sent horror rocketing down his spine. He sucked in a breath he didn’t need to take as he whirled around.

“Hmm. You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Andrew said as their eyes met.

“I thought you were Riko,” Neil replied, relieved.

“You’re hiding from him,” Andrew murmured, his voice flat. “You’re scared of him?”

“Yes,” Neil said thoughtlessly. “No.”

“Which is it?” Andrew asked, sitting down next to him. His eyes were immediately drawn to the red ring at Neil’s temple, and Neil instinctively covered it with his hand, but Andrew didn’t say anything. He just let loose a low whistle and then turned to look at the sunset.

It went on for weeks.

They’d sit on the roof and talk about anything, everything. It was a gamble, and it was dangerous, but Andrew never told Riko about the hiding, or the changeable LED, or all that gruesome fear, and against the instincts of his programming, Neil grew to trust him.

The want to kiss Andrew was even more urgent even than the one to crush Riko against the Plexiglass, and eventually, that red wall fell down, shattering into a thousand perfect parts. As their lips met, Neil saw another Neil running forward toward an unknowable future.

Jean wondered.

“I’ve been spending time with Andrew Minyard on the roof,” Neil told him. “Will you tell anyone?”

“Of course not,” Jean said, swallowing hard.

They lay awake in the dark a while after that admission, the room busy with their unsaid words, their tangled thoughts.

 

 

They lost the season opener.

Andrew snuck out of the locker room the minute the screaming started, and was playing solitaire in his room when Jean started banging frantically on the door. Andrew sighed and put down his cards. In the hallway, Jean was looking like the entire world was fracturing into a million messy pieces. A brilliant, nebulous bruise spilled across the left side of Jean’s face, and two narrow rivulets of blood were trickling from his nose down to his cracked lips. He wiped it away with the back of his hand like an afterthought.

“You-” he said, spitting out the word between heavy gasps. “You have to come. It’s Neil. He’s-”

Neil was an android, Andrew knew that, but his heart plunged like a stone to his stomach anyway. The defence line had screwed up tonight, which meant that Neil would have been punished alongside Jean. Andrew tried to remind himself that androids were strong - fixable - as he followed Jean down the hallway, but all he could think of was Neil’s lips, impossibly warm against his own, as they hid out on the roof. He remembered the way the LED light flickered between colours as Neil smiled that odd, secret smile that made the word deviant roll around Andrew’s head like a loose screw. He couldn’t think of anything but Neil - real, true and human Neil.

He tried to prepare himself, but imagining the worst - thirium everywhere and limbs half-torn off - didn’t make the eventual sight any less horrifying. They were greeted by a mural of chemical blue, a scattering of unmoving parts.

Jean had obviously left as the destruction was just beginning, because he fell to his knees releasing a pained yelp at the sight. Andrew froze at the doorway.

Riko was sitting against the wall, his glare dark and faraway. He finally regarded them when Jean’s howling obviously became too annoying for him to bear.

“Shut the fuck up,” he hissed. “If you’d defended well, this wouldn’t have happened. You’re supposed to be a Raven. It’s supposed to make you play better.”

“I’m sorry,” Jean croaked.

“Don’t be stupid,” Riko snapped. “It’s my android and I can tear it to pieces if I want to. Your regret and incompetence don’t matter here.”

It took Andrew three times to find his voice. “They’ll fix it.”

Jean let out a strangled sound and buried his face in his hands.

“He’s an android,” Andrew added, as much of a reminder to himself as it was to Jean.

“Kevin,” Riko muttered. “Come here.”

Andrew hadn’t even noticed Kevin, but there he was, standing on the far-side of the room looking unperturbed as ever. He strode over to Riko, expertly stepping around the strewn, broken pieces, and knelt down next to him. Riko hooked his hands around Kevin’s neck and pulled him into an embrace.

“Call CyberLife and tell them to come collect this mess,” Riko hissed into the crook of Kevin’s neck.

“Of course,” Kevin answered, as if Riko had just instructed him to do the laundry.

Riko was so fixated on the number two on Kevin’s cheekbone that he didn’t see it, didn’t see the way Kevin’s LED flashed from yellow to red to yellow again before startling back to blue, but Andrew noticed.  He noticed everything, including the way Kevin let Riko hold him with a practiced, deliberate stillness.

Suddenly, Andrew didn’t want to see or hear any more.

He left, the sound of Jean’s crying following him down the hallway, the shallow sobbing mirroring the beat of his own heart. He sought out the other Ravens, who were sombre and glassy-eyed as they drank away their misery. He stayed long enough to pilfer a half-drunk bottle of expensive wine before slipping away. On his way, he passed the room where Riko had broken Neil; it was empty now, the thirium long evaporated.

It might take days for Neil to be returned to them, and that was precisely long enough for Andrew to figure out how to get Kevin on his own long enough to speak with him.

He opened the wine with his teeth and spat the cork on the ground.

 

...

 

The story ended when Andrew Minyard cupped Neil’s face in his hands and asked him, yes or no?

“Yes,” Neil said, and Andrew ripped out the LED with a jagged rock they’d found on the roof one late afternoon. He saw brief, startling chrome before the skin quickly knit itself back together. Andrew rubbed his thumb over the spot for good measure.  

“You’re just Neil, now,” he told Neil. “You’ll never belong to anyone ever again.”

“Just Neil,” Neil repeated, resting his hands on top of Andrew’s own and breathing out. “I’m human.”

“You’re human,” Andrew agreed, pulling him down the hallway.

The story ended when Kevin locked Riko in a broom cupboard and knocked out seven members of the security team to ensure they had a way out. Jean was there; he handed Andrew the stolen keys to some car stowed away in the Edgar Allen parking lot.

“Come with us,” Neil whispered, taking Jean’s hands in his own.

“I can’t,” Jean rasped. “I’m not- I can’t just... go deviant.”

“Of course you can,” Neil replied, huffing a laugh through his nose.

The story ended like this: Andrew stuffed two deviant androids and a bruised Jean inside a stolen car and left Edgar Allen behind forever. They dumped the car at the stateline and piled inside a humans-only bus.

It was heading for South Carolina.