"Roy? Are you listening? Your fortitude is in real danger. You need to take your dosage and go home. Roy? Can you hear me?"
"Please, be quiet," Roy cried as he grasped at his aching head.
"Hey, who's there?"
"Shit, come on!" Ken cried as he pulled Roy's arm so hard his briefcase swung behind him. The two scaled the stairs and found a back door leading to another alley, where they were flanked by the two gray-clad men who'd switched to long rifles as they rounded the building.
"Why are you running? Show me your eyes!"
Ken clicked his tongue and ran. Roy, who hadn't stopped trembling like a wounded animal, could only be pulled along. Even when the crack of the rifle's blast consumed the alley, he could only wince.
Despite that, his right arm swung his briefcase sideward without his permission, and pinballed the rubber bullet into a hundred pieces. The soldiers recoiled, and before they could recover their aim, the two cleaning bots rounded the corner behind them and sprayed the ground with bullets. They tap danced with shrieks unfit for their red eyes, and Ken cackled as he hauled Roy around a corner and left them behind.
"Even that briefcase of yours is made of graphene? You're pretty handy, Roybot."
"You hacked… my arm."
"Hey, you can talk again," Ken replied with a snicker. "I thought your circuits blew."
"Why…" Roy mumbled while their rhythmic footsteps soothed his headache. "Why did you show me… that?"
"I told you, that's what this world is built on— killing. Anyone who's got red eyes has killed someone. They're the least dependent on aesthetics, if at all. The founders, the soldiers, everyone at the top of the chain in this place, got there by killing. Every single aspect of this city revolves around killing in some way or another, including your job."
"What do you mean?"
"Your screenings are meant to push people to their mental limits," he replied as he tapped his head. "You do it under the guise of checking their fortitude, and regulating their aesthetics levels to ensure their phony happiness. In reality you're poking and prodding at their psyche, making sure they stay far enough away from The Truth that they can be kept under control. Otherwise, they'll have the desire to kill."
"I don't understand," Roy muttered in reply. "Why would it be bad to keep them from succumbing to Derangement Syndrome? I'm not doing anything bad…"
"You aren't, but why did they all have to be shown The Truth in the first place?"
"To be a citizen, of course."
"Why, Roy…" he said, turning around as he stopped. "Why is it necessary to tell even those ignorant to The Truth? Look at me— I know the second half of The Truth, the cure to Derangement Syndrome. I just don't know the cause. But I don't need aesthetics. None of the quartzes that immigrate here, or the children born and raised in the outer district, need aesthetics when they're ignorant to The Truth."
"But if they were to learn it, aesthetics would help keep Derangement Syndrome at bay," Roy said as he looked slowly up and down the dark, grimy alley. "Citizens know to go to the chapel… to be saved."
"You saw the guy just now, Roy. Did it look like there was reason in those eyes? His only instinct was to kill. He may have been a quartz who learned The Truth before his baptism, or a yellow eye who once killed and then rehabbed with aesthetics. Do you think a topaz or emerald like you would be any different? If I told you The Truth right now, you'd wring my neck." He smirked as he pointed at his throat, where a small mole rested just to the left of his Adam's apple.
"No…" Roy blinked through a massive blur as he took a step back and his navi cried his name like an alarm. "I wouldn't do that."
Ken grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him into the wall. "Get it together, officer! You're supposed to be stronger than the rest of us, right?"
He looked at his blurred hand which shook along with his briefcase. With his left he massaged his temples as if to tell his navi everything was going to be okay.
"Your navi can't act out of your own will, right? You know that. So you don't have to worry about it reporting you if you express your will to go unreported. If you're worried about its logs being checked, I'll clean those up for you."
"Okay then… I'm fine," Roy replied as he blinked the blur away. He pushed past Ken and silently told his navi to let him do his job.
"How did you know that guy was going to chase somebody there, anyway?"
"It's one of the rendezvous points they tell us to use if we're ever faced with a deranged person," Ken said as he walked ahead. "It was just luck that he showed up after us."
"Does that happen often?"
"Yeah, you'd need to up your dosage if I told you the murder rate here. It's just how the system works with quartzes. You wouldn't remember fortitude school, but the little bit I attended was hell. They force them into manual labor, put loads of stress on them to pass their courses, and then have an aesthetics officer come in and get them dependent on aesthetics."
"What about you? You've had an officer already, haven't you?"
"Yeah, one stationed here. He didn't keep his green eyes, though."
Roy gulped. "You… were flagged as non-responsive… Does that mean…"
"Aesthetics don't work on me."
Roy stopped in his tracks. "Is that even possible…"
Ken turned to him with a grin. "My brain does what yours does with it, but on a higher level."
"Turns it into synthetic material?"
"Well, yours uses it as synthetic material for your Roybot parts, right?"
"Other than half my brain, I only have synthetic nerves connecting to my eyes and limbs, and then the skin and muscles of my arms and legs. What about you?"
"Quartzes born here are given just 25% synthetic brains so they'll be receptive to aesthetics. Of course I immigrated, so I had to have that much to get in. Anyway, only having aesthetics going to your brain makes a huge difference, especially if you're skilled in hacking."
"What does your brain do with it that's different from mine?"
"It processes it on a molecular level, so I can use however much of it I want."
"And what do you do with it?"
"Usually I just get high," he replied with a shrug as he turned to walk. "I can use it for focus, or fuel to help me hack. Not that I really need it." He led Roy to a spacious crossroads, and snapped his finger. Dozens of neon lights flicked on and hung a dull haze over four patios made of rotted wood and decorated with tattered sofas and barstools.
He plopped down on a sofa and the TV clicked on. "Phew, just in time for Luiza's night show."
"Is this… where you're staying?" Roy asked as he attempted to blur the rotted wood, but the blur cleared before it ever formed.
"Yeah, you won't be able to use your synthetic brain much here. I have a firewall around the place. It can't be traced, and you have to have the password to get in, unless I bring you."
"Knock knock," someone called in a gravelly voice as they strutted into the neon haze. Roy nearly lept out of his shoes, and grabbed the wobbly railing next to Ken's head.
"Hey, Rocks!" Ken said without taking his eyes off the TV.
"Wait, that's the password?" Roy cried. "There's no firewall keeping anybody out at all, is there?"
"Who's this, Ken?" the chiseled man asked with crossed arms. Roy straightened up and looked him in his pink eyes, which revealed no name. "Roy Grainger, an emerald aesthetics officer… here to see Ken? That sounds like a disaster! I hope he hasn't troubled you too much. Name's Rocks Cannon." He stuck out his hand, to which Roy met with haste.
"It's Rocksroy, actually," Ken said, fully entrenched in the sofa. "Man, that'll confuse me…"
"Not if you just call me Rocks like normal."
"You have a fantastic name, sir," Roy said with a nod as he continued to accost his hand.
"Uh, thanks," he replied with a chuckle as he let go in favor of the back of his bald head.
"Ken has actually troubled me, but I'm here for work so it's okay. Are you a friend of his?"
"I immigrated with him. I'm like his older brother."
"That wasn't in the notes…" Roy muttered, and his navi reminded him he was talking aloud.
"More like uncle," Ken said before he braced himself for a bottle of liquor Rocks tossed into his lap without warning.
"There ya go, mouthy punk," he said as he pulled out a cigarette.
"Is that a nicotine? Also, you really like Suntory, don't you, Ken?" Ken exhaled a sharp "Ahh!" after taking a shot straight from the bottle, and slumped further into the sofa.
"It's all he'll drink, makes him like this after one drink. I call it "SunKen Rock Syndrome."
"Oh, boy, cheesy— but I like it."
"And don't worry, I only let him drink under my supervision," he said with a wink.
"Well I'm guilty of that, too, but after seeing all he's up to, I think that's the least of our concerns."
The two laughed together, and Rocks held the lit cigarette out. "Did you want to try a uh… a nicotine?" he asked with a snort.
"Oh no, that stuff will kill you."
"Ain't that the truth."
"Shut up, Ken. Look, your girlfriend's here."
"Ellie?" he asked as he whirled around, and the lighting dimmed to purple and dark blue.
Four people marched in, each with pink eyes and purple and white uniforms. One of them, a thin teenage girl, seemed to be looking for a place to look. The rest each made eye contact with Roy, and to his surprise, had their names and ages spelled out along with their quartz rank: Dmitri Menkova, 17, Gabriela Rabin, 20, and Hai Lam, 25, whose prosthetic arms swung with a loose yet crisp arc.
"Everyone, meet Roy. Ellie, come and watch Luiza."
"Ken must like you, he doesn't bring just anybody to the hideout," Hai said with a polite grin that matched his combed hair. They shook hands enthusiastically, until Roy had to engage his nerves to numb his hand.
"Pleased to meet you!"
"Hey, I really like your green eyes," Gabriela said as she stuck her neck out and beamed at him despite eyes and cheeks that twitched, which earned her her own fast handshake. "Call me Gabi!"
"Lovely to meet you, Gabi!"
"Hello," Dmitri said in a mumble as he pushed the hair out of his eyes and approached the railing. "Ken, he's not here to screen us, is he?"
Ken's eyes only continued to follow the pop idol like an action movie, his opened Suntory left to bask in the purple haze. "No, not unless you ask him, then I'm sure he'd be happy to." Dmitri turned and shook his head at Roy, who smiled.
"Pleased to meet you, too, Dmitri."
Rocks handed Hai and Gabi a bottle of whisky and walked Roy back to the railing next to Ken's head. "Ken, don't be rude, introduce her."
"Ellie, this is Roybot. His eyes are bright green, so you don't have to look at him if it's too much."
"Hi, Roybot," she said in a mousy voice as she winced at the TV like she drank something sour.
"Hi, there, it's nice to meet you," Roy said with a chuckle. "You must be a good friend of Ken's."
"Mhm, he and the others look after me. For another day at least."
"Right, your baptism is the day after tomorrow! Oh, sorry, I work with Felix— officer Rathskell. He's a close friend as well. I hope he isn't causing you any trouble."
"Felix is nice," she said as she finally cracked a small smile which quickly disappeared. "But I troubled him today..."
"She's been sensitive to light since she was little," Rocks said as he exhaled smoke. "So ever since she was old enough, she's been on a higher dosage than other quartzes."
"Wow, it's a great thing your baptism is coming up, so you'll have relief with the minimum amethyst dosage."
Ken's fist clenched over the bottleneck. "She's already taking more than that. See, aesthetics aren't everything, Roy."
"I didn't think that was possible…"
"It wouldn't be if she was fully synthetic, but that luxury isn't afforded to a quartz. She's lived here her whole life, gone through years of fortitude school, but the system cares more about preparing her to be a good citizen than actually taking care of her right now."
"It will all be worth it when it happens, though. She'll be stronger—"
"Stronger because of what they've put her through? How, if they'll make her forget it all?"
"I— I don't…"
Suntory soaked the rotted wood as Ken stood up. "You don't see that, do you Roy? There's a lot you don't see because of those perfect eyes."
"Take it easy, Ken, you're drunk," Rocks said while he offered himself as a shield, and Ellie tugged his sleeve.
"There's no guarantee it'll even be better for her…" Ken muttered as he slumped back down into the chasm he'd made for himself on the sofa, and picked up the gushing Suntory.
"Is that why you want to get into the city? So you can see for yourself how it'll be for her?"
"That's part of it…" he said before taking a long swig.
"Then I have an idea to get you inside," Roy said as he squeezed the splintered railing despite his navi's protest, and all eyes snapped onto him. "Help the military counter the anti-aesthetics attacks. Turn yourself in."