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Fujinuma Sachiko had never liked or become accustomed to the proliferation of androids, and yet this dislike had never passed onto her only child. Satoru had grown up in a world suffering the growing pains of the increasing greyness of ethics; a world that both feared and needed this new technology. He remembers with the fuzzy recollection of a child the bright stains of voices that, day after day, protested the use of android technology in medical procedures on his walk home from school. Clutching his mother's hand tight in his, head turned down, but ears curious, listening. Always listening.

 

"They say it will only be used where necessary, but if we do now act soon, there will be androids on every street corner; androids filling our jobs. Is this the future you want for our children?"

 

Always a bright, adventurous soul, when he could get away, Satoru liked to stay behind to listen to the debates between the protesters and pro-advancement pedestrians. And when his mother caught him, eyebrows drawn tight in worry and anger, she would lecture him the whole way home, but it was worth it. Androids were everywhere, and they were fun, and the dangers she talked of were mere shadows; never present.

 

Until they were. Until Kayo, then Aya, then Hiromi vanished, and Yuuki-

 

He never had a chance. An android who disobeyed his command directives to play with children was a danger: the obvious culprit. And so Satoru cried, and protested, and begged, but Yuuki vanished and Satoru—

 


 

He was lucky, really, that he had had a good enough start in life to be able to give the whole mangaka thing a shot. His mother had worked tirelessly, without complaint, to give him a chance at a good life, and Satoru had done everything possible to make ends meet without asking for her help or running out of nutrient packs.

 

His passion was manga. It always had been, and always would be, but sometimes bills needed to be paid, and in a world where job security was nonexistent and government support for the unemployed was constantly questioned, people had better things to do than waste their time on aggressively mediocre manga. And so, when his third pitch in a row was rejected, Satoru sucked up his pride and entered the busy, maze-like halls of the job center, and resigned himself to becoming another face in the corporate machine.

 

Become the voice of the newest generation of idols!

 

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Satoru hadn't seriously thought searching for a job as an underskilled ex-mangaka was going to be spectacular fun, but he hadn't expected it to be so mind-numbingly boring.

 

And that's why, when presented with with the first job that presented decent wages without the need for specialised training, Satoru accepted, not really thinking about the consequences.

 


 

"First day on the job?" The cheerful girl passes Satoru a cloth, thoughtfully damp to aid in wiping the sludgy mixture of egg and eggshell that clings in clumps in his hair. Satoru nods, breathless, in affirmation, and sets to working it out of his hair.

 

"I don't know why, but I didn't expect my morning commute to be so... intense." He admits, flushing slightly at the admission.

 

"Ahh." She nods sagely, a expression that is oddly fitting on such a young and bouncy girl. "Didn't read the full pitch, only saw the pay and accepted?"

 

"Yep." His tone is wry.

 

"We get a lot that here - although they don't tend to last long. No offense intended, of course. They see the protesters outside and the trouble they cause, and don't want anything more to do with it. The dangers of working with androids in modern times."

 

"It's not so bad." Satoru admits, casting a glance around the break room. It is cozy; soft, squishy armchairs, a mini fridge and even a shower (now he knows why). "I've always liked androids, ever since I was a little kid, so taking an egg to the head for supposedly being a silicon-lover isn't off the mark."

 

"Well! Aren't you a cheerful one. I'm Airi, by the way." Her face brightened at his words, and she sticks out her hand, a sunny grin on her face. "Katagiri Airi. Stick around for a while, you seem like you'll make this place more fun."

 

"Fujinuma Satoru." He clasps her hand and smiles. "I think I just might."

 

Airi, it turns out, is his dedicated welcomer. She whisks him off on a tour of the whole park before the other staff have even arrived, and as they stroll through the high-roofed ceilings of fake jungle habitats and the tight, constrained tunnels of the mining androids alike, she introduces him to his duties. (Although Satoru is fairly sure that she's just using it as an excuse to slack off her duties and have fun teasing the new guy. Her expression when she tells him he'll be in charge of cleaning and polishing the giant t-Rex android that is the pride of the whole park, alone, is enough to tell him that.

 

The strangest thing is that he doesn't mind in the slightest. She reminds him of the younger sister he never had the chance to have.)

 

 The staffing is small for such a large android park; between brightly pointing out his many, many, duties - "I know the advert was just for a janitor, but Yamamoto resigned last week so you'll have to take over his shift in the gift shop until we can find someone else to fill in for him." - Airi regales him with the tale of how things got so bad.

 

"It wasn't always like this, you know. We used to be the biggest attraction in the town! Katagiri's Androids, come see the Kraken come to life and play with dragons! - but then, well, the protesters got really bad and we've had to cut a lot of staff."

 

No answer is needed. Satoru simply nods, understanding. He was just a child, but even he remembers the horror of the first few weeks of the Android Riots through the blurred terror of a child's perspective. Sparked by the murder of a young child by a malfunctioning maid android, the protests and rioting had gone on for weeks. Laws mandating higher standards of control and less autonomy for androids were drafted, but even after the violence had died down, the suspicion didn't.

 

They round the corner - back where they started. Airi's steps slow, and she chews her lip nervously.

 

"I haven't mentioned it to you yet, but there are a few more duties that you'll have to take care of for just a few weeks. I've already mentioned that Yamamoto quit? Well- we're left without a manager for his androids, and I think you might be able to fill in for him. He used to run the android cafe - but all you'd have to do was check in on them every week to satisfy the legal requirements."

 

"What! I mean- I'm, flattered, really, but- I'm just a janitor- and only have been for an hour - how could I?"

 

Airi smiles, her nervousness dimming, and Satoru's face burns again. Let my mouth run away with me again. Did I really say that out loud?

 

"You won't have to provide any maintenance: just turn up to check on them, make sure they're functioning properly. Any problems, you call the tech department immediately, got it?"

 

He could have contested it at any point. But Fujinuma Satoru had always liked androids.

 


 

It's when he's stepping out of the containment room, having checked diligently on 0301, 0328 and 0410, and is stepping into the shuttered android cafe after visiting his charges for the first time that he sees the man. He looks out of place; the slicked-back black hair, the neat, ironed suit and the lack of employee badge say that much. As Satoru takes another hesitant step into the room, his eyes, previously thoughtfully cast out of the window, slowly swivel Satoru's way. Satoru briefly entertains thoughts of commenting on his striking appearance, but the idea is quickly nixed when he realizes how badly that is likely to go wrong. Still, his cheeks flush at the thought: damn if this man isn't exactly his type.

 

"Hello?" he asks, unsure of what else to say. "Who are you?"

 

The - slimy? He can't quite place the emotion- expression on his face never budges: in fact, the smirk only grows stronger.

 

"The more pertinent question to ask, I would think, would be what I am, Fujinuma-san." He hops spryly off the table, unreadable eyes filled with energy. "Unit 0302, at your service."

 

Satoru is honestly not sure what to do with that. Because the android looks so lifelike, so humanoid that he had been willing to treat it as human. But now that he looks closer, there it is- the sleek, memorable lines of the Silicon Trident signet, emblazoned on 0302's neck.

 

"Why aren't you with the others?" He questions, wary. Why are you out? Why do you act like you are human? What are you doing here?

 

0302 smiles, and, well, damn if it isn't a nice smile. Satoru is honestly not sure what's a worse crime: the fact that he's so damned attracted to this android, or that he doesn't care.

 

"It's my job." 0302 explains. "That's why I wear these clothes: I infiltrate the patrons, show them how easily androids nowadays can pass as human."

 

"Not a very popular show in recent times, I imagine."

 

"No." 0302 sighs, almost wistful. "Not at all. There were times, in the past, when we would bring in consistent crowds: flocks of people looking to rest and recuperate and be entertained in the meanwhile. Those were good times."

 

It's a mark of how good 0302 is at its job that all Satoru sees on that silicon face is the nostalgia it wants to show.

 


 

Their second meeting is nowhere as tense, but perhaps more perturbing. It is a few days into his first week working at Katagiri's Androids, and the first wave of exhaustion from early mornings and late nights has just begun to hit him, having finally overcome the wave of adrenaline formed from his stubborn determination to at least keep this job for long enough to be able to finally tell the truth when his mother asks him how he's doing financially next time she calls. So the impromptu nap he takes in the middle of polishing the floor of the android cafe is understandable, if not advised.

 

The first thing he sees, on waking up, is a blurry face, just inches away from his head.

 

"You shouldn't work yourself to death, you know. Who would check in on me then?"

 

"0302?" His voice is scratchy, and he is suddenly aware all at once that his head is in the lap of the strange android. He jolts forwards, and his chin collides with the android's with a nasty crunch. Nursing his head, Satoru sits upright and groans. His glasses are pressed into his hand.

 

When he can see (and think) clearly once again, Satoru repeats the question. "0302? What are you doing here?"

 

"I was just checking on you, Fujinuma-san, so when I saw you lying collapsed on the floor I was naturally concerned. I was worried when you didn't show up to check on my status."

 

The way the android talks about having emotions so - so obviously, even though everyone knows that androids can't - is strange: like walking into a world where red is blue and up is down. Satoru just blinks at him, unsure how to respond.

 

"I-I'm fine. It was just- I haven't been sleeping well, but it's only natural since I have this job to get used to, and all. There's no need to be worried, 0302." Now more fully awake, Satoru feels an inkling of suspicion, and narrows his eyes at 0302. "Why do you care, anyway? Androids don't feel emotions,"

 

"We can simulate them. How is that so different?" 0302 looks genuinley perplexed—not in the typical, cartoonish way, but in the subtle, real way.

 

"It's not real. You don't feel it."

 

"How do you know?"

 

Satoru sighs. "Androids can't choose. You don't have free will."

 

"I may not be able to choose what I do or am, but I am still who I am, and I do what I do. I don't see it as being so different."

 


 

The next day, Satoru is greeted by pandemonium. The common room is in disarray: Junpei, the resident lawyer, is running around like a particularly hassled madman, and Airi looks close to tears, huddled close as she is the the sink. Satoru immediately spies out the coworker who looks the least likely to have an emotional outburst, and makes a beeline for her.

 

"What's happening?"

 

She looks at him, face grim. "0301 - has been murdered."

 

What?

 


 

Apparently, it is quite possible to "murder" an android. Although it isn't called murder, more like "fatal damage to artificially intelligenced property", as Junpei explains to Satoru over a mug of coffee after the whole thing has calmed down. The penalties are lighter than those given to actual, honest-to-god murderers by far. Airi is distraught: no matter how many assurances are heaped on my the (surprisingly tone-deaf) officers that it is just an android, just another silicon doll that can be replaced, she is having none of it.

 

Satoru states the facts to those same police officers, over and over again. Where was he at 9:34pm last night? Cleaning the halls, as always. Was he alone? Yes. Did he know 0301? Yes. In what capacity did he know it? It was his responsibility to check in on it each morning. Had he noticed anything strange about 0301 recently? No. Did he have previous convictions? No. Would he call the number if he ever thought of anything else? Yes.

 

And between the questions, he thinks over the night - over the smile and mannerisms of an android named 0302, and a suspicion begins to grow.

 


 

As soon as the officers have gone, Satoru approaches Airi to ask her for a favor. After all, even though he had never seen it activated, 0301 was his ward, his responsibility. He needs to see it one last time, at least to let the removal(death) sink in.

 

Its face is a pallid grey: that was to be expected, after death. What Satoru had not expected is the limbs, where silicone has been flayed from skeleton in long strips, and the bright blue cooling liquid spilled forth onto the too-white linoleum floor. The removal of the not-skin bares the mechanics of the android to the world, and everything is stained so blue that Satoru finds it hard to believe that this thing could ever have been seen to be human. The face is perfectly preserved: glass eyes staring at the celling, never to close again. Satoru swallows, because as he looks closer, more with his eyes and less with his heart, he can see something else- a pattern. The strips of not-flesh twist into a spiderweb that bloomed out from the head: a fly caught in a blue-stained web, blue blood on blue skin.

 

He clutches his stomach, and although he hardly knows why, he grabs at the nearby bin and vomits.

 


 

It's mad. It's crazy. 0302 is an android, an android who has likely never seen 0301 and who is bound to follow its command directives, which directly ban harming other androids unless in the defense of humans. 0302 has never given Satoru cause for suspicion. 0302 has been cleared to roam the corridors by the technicians - except Satoru has never seen them, never asked them if they did.

 

And so, to put his mind to rest, that is exactly what he does, and comes out relieved. No cause for concern, they had assured him - 0302 was cleared to leave its pod at certain times. Why, they can't imagine, although.

 

Satoru now suspects it has something to do with Airi's significant soft spot for androids. Case closed. Now, he can finally rest.

 

(I don't see it as being so different. It's not so different. Not so different. Not different.)

 

It's never been that easy, has it?

 


 

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but Satoru can't help but hope on the really boring days that he will come down to the cafe, and 0302 will be out and talking again. He can't think why - or rather, he knows why, it's just that knowing is worse than no reason being given. After all, the android was doing no harm; it is merely acting out its programming to entertain him.

 

What's even worse is that sometimes, when it does show, he indulges it, indulges himself.

 

Satoru can't help it; he's always had a curiosity for the worst types of things. So they begin to talk.

 

0302 is interesting. Which, he supposes, is the whole point. Made to entertain, and all that. 0302 can tell stories for hours and laugh in a way that encourages laughter not shame. 0302 seems honest and open and genuine, and seems to have a whole repertoire of magic tricks to pull at out any given moment. Its also a surprisingly good listener; so good that Satoru finds himself straying uncomfortably close to talking about personal things. He is careful to stop himself after that, sticking to safe topics.

 

Because despite all the smiles and laughter, Satoru is stubborn and he can't let go of the notion that has dug itself deep inside him that somehow there is something wrong with 0302.

 


 

"Fujinuma-san." 0302 greets Satoru one day, just over two months into his tenure, as he is making his way back to the android cafe to pick up his backpack. Without even realising it, the the shuttered room had become his home-base for his days at the Theme Park: but now, the low-sun shadows casting  darkening glow on the fixed tables and chairs bolted to the floor, bathing the clean blue interior in a claustrophobic orange, Satoru can't help but compare it to an aquarium.

 

"0302." He greets quietly back. Today has been tiring; his back aches and his hands with it. "What is it?"

 

"I want to show you something."

 

"What is it?"

 

0302 smiles mysteriously. "Not here. Come with me."

 

Satoru shouldn't, but he's always been a curious boy.

 


 

0302 leads him there with strong, lofty strides, always staying at least a few steps ahead of Satoru, who trails behind, somewhat reluctant. He is taken from the corridors and hallways he knows like the back of his hand by now to the ones he doesn't. But still, 0302 forges onward, until they come to a large set of steel-grey doors set in the wall. 0302 halts before them, and turns back to Satoru.

 

"It's not off limits." He says, in answer to Satoru's unasked question. "Just no longer in use."

 

"What is it, then?"

 

"When business was booming, when androids were all the rage, old man Katagiri had plans to expand this park beyond just androids: to diversify their attractions. This is the only piece of that plan that was constructed and still stands today. The power has been cut, but we can still see the room."

 

"What is it?"

 

That damned smile again. "I wouldn't want to spoil the fun, Fujinuma-san." 0302 holds open the door. Satoru's shoe clinks against the linoleum surface, and he steps in.

 

"It's-"

 

It's his childhood all over again, at the children's centre, spending hours entering and reentering the planetarium over and over again, his mother growing more and more exasperated each time. The ceiling is dark, but it doesn't matter: or rather, just the sight of the room once more is enough.

 

"An old-style planetarium." He breaths. "Just like-"

 

Beside him, a voice sounds out of the blue.

 

"Quite a sight, isn't it?" 0302 turns its head to grin at him, and its eyes sweep over his face, examining his reaction with such delighted rigour that Satoru can't help but blush. It is so close that Satoru could swear he feels the phantom ghosting of breath on his face from where it would have been, had 0302 been human. And Satoru makes the stupidest decision he has yet, possibly the worst of his lifetime, and leans over and kisses him.

 

0302 doesn't taste of plastic, which is a relief. If Satoru was being honest, he would say that he had been half-expecting it. He does taste, though: of lolipops, and his tounge and teeth make Satoru think of kissing a tiger, danger and all.

 


 

After the planetarium incident, Satoru is even more conflicted as to how to act around 0302. He goes out of his way to avoid the android for a few weeks, needing desperately to clear his head of the android's influence. Whenever he is around it, his heart beats faster: his brain becomes a mass and a tangle of so many different thoughts and ideas and he begins to think- not only of the future and present, but of the past, and that is dangerous because dark things live in the past. Because when Satoru starts thinking about the past, he starts thinking about Yuuki whose smile was so kind and Yuuki, who carried the weight of his dreams without complaint. Yuuki, who, so much like 0302, acted nothing like an android and everything like a human.

 

And it hurts, to think of Yuuki in the same mental breath as androids, because for so long Satoru had denied the connection. But now that he has acknowledged it he can't go back, and so Satoru begins to think of 0302 not as it, but as him. He mentally catalogues all those small moments, the indicators of emotion that he had labelled as emotion, and looks at them again, this time seeing a person through them. He thinks of the subtle upturn of that smile and the soft crinkle of those eyes behind the - cosmetic? - glasses. What is wrong with him, that when thinking of 0302, all he can think of is how nice he looks?

 

The first time he calls 0302 "he" in a conversation, it is without warning, 0302's face flashes surprised for a single moment, then delighted, then- subdued. His lips narrow, and he scans Satoru's face - looking, searching for something. And Satoru has never felt so wrong and dirty as when 0302 turns away having not found what he was looking for.

 


 

He tries again. This time, he approaches 0302 directly, on a day when he figures all the card are stacked on his side of the table. 0302 seems to be in a good mood, having told several amusing stories and having managed to drag one of out of Satoru himself.

 

"Hey." He had practised saying in the mirror. "I know I should have asked you earlier, but I was wondering if you wanted me to call you anything differently in private?" The words come out right, at least. It's what comes after that blow all his plans out the water.

 

0302's stare is impassive.

 

"Why would you ask" he finally answers, after a long period of starting. "What you already know?"

 

"I know that your number is 0302." Satoru says, patiently. "But that isn't a name. It's not your name, it's a number. It's- dehumanising. And- you may be an android, but you deserve better than that."

 

0302 snorts.

 

"You know nothing." His voice is blank.

 

Satoru opens his mouth, but for once nothing comes out: he has been tested again, and found failing, that much he knows. What is worse than that, really, is the sense he gets that maybe the real emotion in 0302's tone is conveyed in the empty, emotionless speech.

 


 

(Between these standoffs there are, of course, good times: downtime. When Satoru can sneak off work for an extra hour to talk and awkwardly avoiding kissing or coming withing kissing distance. Satoru makes sure not to forget these quiet moments. 

 


 

When he arrives at work and, for the first time in the almost month since 0301, everyone has worked themselves into a bubbling, frothing, panic, Satoru's heart sinks into his stomach, and he knows. Airi spots him from across the room: her eyes are misty again, and Satoru envies that she can express her emotions so freely, because his heart is trapped in his chest, beating its wings futilely like- and -

 

"Which one?" He croaks.

 

"0328."

 

When his first thought is how glad he is that it was not 0302, when he realises how much his heart had dropped at the first oh-three, the disgust the curdles in his stomach is only overpowered by the relief, and then, a second later, the horror. Because now two of his four charges are dead, and Satoru can't shake the horrible feeling it's his fault.

 


 

This time, Airi refuses to take him to see the body. She's already gotten into enough trouble for now without risking more, and, besides, it wouldn't be good for him. He should look after himself better.

 

Satoru would go by himself, but getting caught and fired wouldn't lend itself very well to finding and turning in whoever has done this, so Satoru turns to the only other person he could think of trusting: 0302. 

 

"I know this may be... unorthodox." He admits. "But- these murders- I need to find out why, 0302. I need to. I need to protect you and 0410 and the other androids from this sick bastard."

 

"You want to protect me?" 0302 laughs, and there is something of warmth in his tone. "I'm touched, Satoru-san, really, but I wouldn't want to break the rules, would I?"

 

Right. Of course. Satoru's been so caught up in his own issues and dramas that he's forgotten that 0302 could face serious problems if he helped Satoru.

 

"I'm - I'm sorry." He bows, flustered. "I should never have asked-"

 

When he raises his head again, 0302 is smiling, serene, at him again, and Satoru is certain it is genuine.

 

"It's quite alright, Satoru-san. I will help you in any other way I can. After all, I love you."

 

It's such an odd time for a declaration of love, and said in such an ernest, unbowed way that Satoru would be tempted to think 0302 did not mean what he was saying. It's typical of him, really.

 

"I have to—I have to go."

 

"Come back, when you're ready."

 

He stops the impulse to answer yes, and looks back over his shoulder.

 

"Don't leave me behind, and I'll come back."

 


 

When Satoru first sets eyes on 0328's silicon husk, he flinches away, so realistic is the illusion. Her neck is at an odd angle and the rest of her body perfectly preserved, and for a minute all he can see is another dead girl, a human this time.

 

Focus. Focus, Satoru, or her death with have been for nothing.

 

0328 was another female-presenting android, like 0301. Satoru files the information away carefully- perhaps there was a pattern emerging? Through the binoculars from where he is perched on the roof in the chilled night air, Satoru spies the telltale long, chestnut-brown hair that was her default illuminated in a beam of moonlight, and she is still dressed in the grey jumpsuit, although it is now overwhelmingly stained a rusty red. Combined with the peaceful expression on her face, Satoru assumes that she, unlike 0301, was not awoken before she was killed.

 

He closes his eyes briefly and swallows. Small mercies.

 

0328 died quickly and peacefully: her reactor core removed using professional equipment and her neck twisted, then the core replaced to give the appearance that she had been killed by being strangled.

 

A theme.

 

Satoru finally has a common thread. Three, in fact. He rests down on the roof and catches his breath while he gathers his thoughts from his mind, which is quickly spinning out of control.

 

He knows three things:

 

One, that the killer had targeted two young-presenting, female-presenting androids.

 

Two, that the killer had targeted two androids belonging to the unit overseen by him

 

Three, that the killer had staged one death to accentuate the inhumanity of the android in question, and the other the humanity.

 

The question is, why?

 

Why go to such lengths for what appeared to be such meticulous killings? Why waste hours plotting these killings when there were so many thousands of androids less well protected?

 

The answer is just there, on the tip of his brain, but for the life of him, Satoru cannot seem to remember.

 


 

That night, Satoru dreams.

 

He dreams of a horrible nightmare that happened to a little boy that destroyed his world overnight. He dreams of a series of murders that had torn a town apart and then the little boy apart when his hero was disgraced and destroyed and vilified.

 

He dreams of the danger and fear that the press brought wherever they went afterwards, so much so that the boy's mother told the boy to not talk about the nightmare, that it hadn't happened, that he should forget-

 

And forget he had.

 

He had, until now.

 

He didn't dream this next bit, for even dreams can only hold a finite amount of horror, but he does know this:

 

That in the last chapters of his nightmare, when the boy had had a second and a third chance given to him by a butterfly, that the boy had won, that he had trusted his teacher and that he had been wrong, because his teacher, who smiled so nicely and looked so pretty was a monster, a spider that came and wove the boy in a web so tight that only his mother's pleas had saved him from death, had allowed him to be put into a new body; a body that noone, not even himself, had know was not Fujinuma Satoru's.

 


 

The first thing he does after he has gotten over his shock at remembering is to check what happened to Kayo and Aya and Hiromi. He knows it is irrational; he had saved them, hadn't he? He had had to, because he had gone back in time and lost a decade to save them, so they must be okay. They had to be.

 

When Hinazuki Kayo turned up no results, he felt a stab of panic.

 

When Nakanishi Aya turned up nothing beside an article on a prize she had won a year before she had died the first time around, this turned into full-blown panic, and when Hiromi turned up the same, Satoru knew it to be true. Somehow, he knew it was true.

 

He had failed, somehow, despite being able to travel in time.

 

But it was when he remembered who it was that he had failed to that Satoru's blood truly froze. And suddenly, like a spool of wool aimlessly finding its way across the floor, Satoru saw the pattern unravel before his eyes.

 

  1. The date of Kayo's death

 

  1. The date of Aya's death

 

  1. The date of Hiromi's death

 

0302 - his birthday?

 


 

Gaku looks up from his book as he sits, crouched and supported against the hard wall, only momentarily suprised, and smiles benificently. "Welcome back, Satoru."

 

"Gaku. We need to talk." The book closes with a snap, and he smiles, wide and beaming.

 

"It seems we do, Spice."

 


 

Satoru keeps his promise, and Gaku keeps his. And though neither can change themselves or each other, together they change their world.