Roy, I know I said you're on your own, but your blood pressure just went through the roof! His navi continued wailing at him, but the voice was drowned out by his pounding heartbeat. He felt his pulse drumming on the inside of his temples and down his fingers, and the blur he saw in front of him was entirely without fabrication.
"Y-you know I can't do that…" he muttered as he fell to his knees.
"I think you'll realize you can do it," Ken replied with a blank stare. "Besides, only aesthetics officers have the freedom of doing their own screenings, so it's really a matter of will."
He took a step toward him, and reached his hand out. "Come on, let's go to the command post. If we don't do it now, I'm never going to, and I'll forget I ever met you. You'll fail your task, maybe even get demoted. So, for once in your life, take a risk, Roy Grainger."
His trembling hand was the only thing he felt. It shook so hard it hurt, and, forced to ignore his navi's pleas to stabilize his nerves, his other hand clamped over his wrenched chest. The hand that shook began to calm when it moved to meet Ken's statuesque arm.
Don't do it, Roy! You're right, you can't agree to that! You'll lose the fortitude you've worked so hard to build!
There's something about him. Something that makes me want to challenge myself. To actually test my fortitude. Without assistance.
The blur cleared as he took a deep breath and met Ken's hand with a firm grip. "I won't lose myself. I'll make you admit you need aesthetics before you break me."
"Sorry, but I'll break you before you break me," Ken replied with a smirk. "I'll get you to admit you don't need aesthetics."
The two held their handshake in silence, and nobody else said a word as they watched with bated breath. Finally, Ken cocked his head to the side, and Roy stood up. "Let's go."
"Please be careful, Ken," Ellie said as she turned to Roy, and quickly averted her eyes. "Will you take care of him?"
"Yes, of course," Roy replied with a smile.
"Don't say anything that'll get you or me locked up," Rocks said as he sat at a bar stool under the TV and drowned himself in his cigarette.
"See you guys later, okay?" Ken said, leading Roy, who exchanged waves with Gabi and Hai, out of the haze and down another dark alley. He didn't show his face or say a word, and Roy found himself falling behind, arguing with his navi about being out too late.
"Um… Your friends… They're all really pleasant."
"Yes, I'd like to call them my friends, even. But is it okay for them to be at the hideout so late with you and Rocks? Does the Fortitude School allow that?"
"They don't really disallow anything," Ken replied without looking back. "Like I said earlier, they encourage us to experience a bunch of different things."
"Why do they give you more freedom than the actual citizens, though?"
"To expose us to more stress, I guess. Makes it easier to get us reliant on aesthetics. But it probably has something to do with The Truth, too."
"Navi, just filter out that phrase if it's going to bother you so much, I can handle it…. Oh, sorry." Roy looked down as he realized his words meant only for his navi were said aloud.
"I hate it when people talk with their navi in their head whenever they're having a conversation." Roy looked up to see a scowl on Ken's shadowed face.
"Sorry… There's a lot going on that's new to me."
"Fine, if you can't help it, let's connect so we can hear each other's. We'll need to talk in private anyway, if I'm turning myself in." He looked Roy in the eyes and blinked twice.
Will he be able to hear everything? I can't do it if it means he'll hear us all the time…
It's okay, I'm sure I can block him out if he's not around.
Roy nodded and blinked, and his navi asked him to "accept direct contact from Ken Jitsuo's navi". He said yes, and a slightly different voice spoke.
Greetings, Roy Grainger. Direct link established.
I didn't know this was possible.
Ken's voice boomed in his head, and he nearly leapt out of his shoes.
I'll show you how later. Just call out to me if you need to say anything.
The rest of their walk was taken in silence, and they finally reached a gated compound. They didn't have to knock on the floodlit gate to be swarmed by gun-toting red-eyes, who demanded they show their eyes first, and their hands second.
"Ken Jitsuo?" one of the soldiers cried, which sent a stir through the group.
"We're here to see the commanding officer," Roy said as he assured his navi he could withstand the sight of dozens of guns, which numbered as many as the floodlights glued to them as if they were performing a sold out show.
"Come with me," the man said as the gate opened. He led them inside the compound, where Roy counted some ten staggered concrete buildings but couldn't tell any of them apart. There wasn't much for his eyes to even try fixing, because there wasn't much to be broken or rotted in the first place. They traversed gravel and trimmed grass, and by the time they reached the seventh building, the floodlights eased their assault along with the pointed guns.
Roy massaged his temples as they were led inside and down the hall to a room with digital screens projected on each wall. "Wait here, I'll get the commanders."
"Commanders?" Roy muttered underneath his breath as the door shut. Ken shrugged, and proceeded to tap his elbow with his arms crossed.
They didn't have to wait in silence long before a young man and woman walked in. Their suits were entirely gray, aside from the purple buttons that matched their eyes. Purple eyes? Roy asked, staring dumbly until their names were revealed: Emery Braun, 22, Commanding Officer, and Akos Braun, 22, Commanding Officer.
Hey Ken, I'll do the talking. I work with purple eyes everyday.
Knock yourself out.
"Good evening," Akos said, ignoring Ken to shake Roy's hand, while Emery glared at Ken and said, "we've been trying to bring you in for weeks."
"So, you can imagine our shock in hearing we'd been requested by Ken Jitsuo himself," Akos said with a chuckle, surveying Ken as if to ensure he wasn't a projected image. Ken twisted his lips and tried to avoid both sets of leering eyes, and Roy, sensing he wouldn't keep quiet for long, raised a stuttering hand.
"We knew our visit would come as a surprise, but it couldn't wait." He succeeded in reeling Akos back in, but Emery didn't budge, instead resting her hand on her holstered pistol.
"Roy Grainger, huh? You must have had a productive screening. I'm impressed. Honestly, when we received Ken's request to see you specifically, we were reluctant to oblige. We knew it wouldn't have been hard for him to hack into files of aesthetic officers, but we couldn't find anything that stood out about you, so we wondered what made him pick you." He shifted his gaze back to Ken, who let out a yawn. "We figured there must be something he thought he could take advantage of. Yet, only a truck was wrecked, and here he is in front of us."
"I can explain everything," Roy said, smiling. "Well, maybe not about him choosing me to take advantage of… But, the reason he's turning himself in is because he wants to travel freely between districts, and stop hiding."
"So he is turning himself in?" Emery asked, tapping her pistol which drew Ken's sour face. "Or is there a scheme he's roped you in on? Maybe you're being hacked as we speak?"
"He's said he isn't talented enough to pull off synthetic brain hacking yet, and I can assure you I'm myself."
"What about your navi? If he got in there, he could threaten you or make your navi suggest things they normally wouldn't."
"Trust me, my navi has been telling me to go home for hours now. I'd know if anything was off, but you're free to have my navi checked if there's an AI officer on the premises."
"He doesn't sound like he's lying," Akos said with a chuckle. "So what's this about traveling between districts?"
"Ken's willing to work with you against the anti-aesthetics if you let me take him into town."
"That's ludicrous," Emery replied, finally setting her crosshairs on Roy. "Why not wait for his baptism in a week?"
Don't mention Ellie.
What? Okay, fine.
"Well, he's not sure about going straight into AI officer training, so he wants to train with me to see if aesthetics work would suit him better."
"Okay, now he's lying," Akos said, chuckling.
Didn't you say you could handle purple eyes?
This is your fault!
"Your fortitude can manage lying to a superior officer?" Emery asked, her bright purple eyes threatening to turn red and burn through his. "Should I have you screen yourself right now?"
He glanced at the capsule protruding from his hand. "N-no, that won't be necessary, ma'am. It's true that Ken isn't sold on AI work, but really he just isn't sold on life on the inside. Is that a better answer?"
"It's an honest one, at least," Akos said, brow raised with a smirk. "So I'll be honest in turn. I don't really care what his reason is, if he's actually willing to help, I'll accept the offer."
"What if I don't? Shouldn't both CO's come to a decision together?" Emery said, and Roy breathed a sigh of relief as it was Akos' turn to have his eyes put to the fire.
"What would you need to feel better about it, Officer Braun?" Akos asked, his face gone pale.
"I'd like to at least hear it from the kid's own mouth." All eyes turned to Ken, whose forehead scrunched up as if it were none of his business.
"I am willing to help," he said in monotone, looking at the wall.
"See, he doesn't even want to be here."
"It couldn't be that it was Grainger who hacked Ken in a major plot twist, could it?" Akos asked, holding his chin and squinting at the disinterested Ken.
"I can assure you I have no such skill," Roy said with a fervent wave.
"I am here of my own accord."
At least pretend you have a reason to be here, Ken!
"I don't really want to help you, but I do want to travel freely."
"That's better, I guess," Emery said, eyeing Ken as if to size him up.
"If it helps, I'll work alongside him to monitor his fortitude and aesthetics levels."
"Fine, then. I'll let you handle it, Akos. I'm retiring for the night." The door slammed shut before anybody else could say a word, and Roy and Akos flinched while Ken chuckled awkwardly.
"Sorry about my sister, she can be a bit headstrong," Akos said with a smile. "Anyway, we really could use your help. We frankly don't have enough soldiers, and we're having trouble gathering resources on the outside. Not only are the anti-aesthetics hacking our infrastructure, but they're attacking our mining convoys and taking out AI reception towers that allow us to find goods."
"That's Mika, alright," Ken said, nodding with a grimace.
"Mika Furuya… He's the greatest threat Aesthetica has ever faced. And you, Ken Jitsuo, are the only one who can stop him from doing more of this." Akos waved his fingers, and the digital screens on the walls played out multiple videos. There were scenes of military trucks under fire as they traversed a desolate landscape, as well as tall glass towers imploding and collapsing.
Roy cringed, his navi quick to console him but unable to blur a thing. So when the screens showed an orange eyed man chasing a woman before being shot into the glass, as well as an orange-eyed woman being gunned down by cleaning bots just in front of Roy's apartment, there was nothing stopping Roy's stomach from rejecting.
That's what I stepped on this morning…
Ken's crossed arms finally fell, along with his jaw. "Mika's… hacking people into Derangement Syndrome?"