The spectrum of stained glass laid out ahead came in streaks and blurs for Roy's weary eyes, but instead of blinking them he let them adjust. He'd left the celebrating quartzes to re-enter Aesthetica with Bian and Felix, who smiled as the gate guard saw them off.
"Thanks for having Ken set up a firewall in my synthetic brain to prevent any more hacking. You really are resourceful, Roy," Bian said. "You got him to change Felix's itinerary, too. Not to mention being able to travel freely back and forth. You may as well be a purple eye already."
"I have a feeling he'll be one sooner than later," Felix added, squinting at Roy with a smirk. "I've never seen you so bent on getting a job done. The Chief must have dangled that promotion right over you."
"She did, but that's not why I did it. Don't you want Ellie to be saved even more than I do?"
"Yeah, of course I do," Felix replied, scratching his head with a meek smile. "I just hope that dosage is going to be enough for her once she's a citizen. Rather, I hope she really does pass her baptism and become one."
"Why wouldn't she? Bian asked, frowning at Felix, and then Roy. "You got her to show blue eyes for half an hour. A quartz only needs to flash blue eyes to be considered ready. No amount of head pain is going to nullify that growth in fortitude… right?"
Felix and Roy glanced at each other, before looking away. "That's true," Felix said with a smile. "It should hold up, it's just that we've never seen anybody with such bad pain before."
"But she showed a positive response to the higher dose," she replied. "That's foolproof. There's not a single health condition or disease that aesthetics haven't been able to cure. As long as she takes her dose normally, she'll be okay, right? There hasn't been any irregularity in her doses, has there?"
"We didn't check her levels tonight," Felix said. "But when I did yesterday, it was normal."
"And she stays on top of her doses," Roy added. "She'd be in too much pain otherwise."
"Then what's there to worry about?" Bian asked, stopping in her tracks. "Unless there's something you aren't telling me."
"No, it's nothing."
"You know, Roy, when you asked me to act outside of Aesthetica's rules last night, I trusted you. I thought that whatever might happen, we were in it together. So I didn't report anything, and so far, you've been right. Everything we've done to take responsibility in our own way has worked out. Felix recovered his fortitude with your aesthetics, I was saved from Derangement Syndrome, and we got Ellie ready for her baptism. This all happened because of you."
"So why aren't you telling us everything? Do you not trust us?"
"What? Of course, I do. That's why I asked for your help…"
"But you didn't contact either of us all day," she said, avoiding his gaze. "You missed our appointment without telling me anything. I spent all day worrying about whether I would get hacked again. And you didn't even check on Felix until you asked me to go pick him up from your place. It's not like you."
Roy glanced at Felix, who gave him a reassuring smile that was missing his usual charm. "I'm sorry… I didn't mean to neglect either of you. I had to go outside the walls today, so I really couldn't contact you. But I should have communicated better, so I apologize."
"Outside?" Bian cried, wide-eyed.
"You did?" Felix asked. "With Ken?"
"Yeah," Roy replied. "I'll give you the short story of what happened." He told them about Mika's hacking and the towers, and with some hesitance, about the navis' origin.
"So our navis are…" Felix muttered.
"People who've passed on," Bian said, rubbing her eyes. "That makes so much sense I feel silly for not realizing sooner. They could even be someone we know…"
"Well, it's not like the ones inside the walls would reveal their identities," Roy said. "I assume the AI officers program them to act within Aesthetica's citizen contract, even in death.
"Even then… Why don't we just tell the citizens about this?" she asked, beaming. "We tell them that those who pass join the AI, and that brings them comfort. I think it would bring even more comfort to know they're being assisted by people they may have once known, not to mention the fact that they could look forward to serving as a navi once they pass."
"It could minimize the fear of death, the single most common cause for a citizen's fortitude to drop," Felix muttered, looking down.
"There must be a reason the higher ups don't want them to know…" Roy muttered.
"Because it could lead people to their death…?" Bian asked, cheeks quivering.
"Let's stop there," Roy said, clenching his fists. "We need to protect our own fortitude.
"Yeah," Felix replied, sighing at the sky while Bian gave a short nod.
"We should just count our blessings, for now," Roy said, unclenching his fists and flashing a smile. "Mika's out of commission and can't threaten anymore citizens, and Ellie is on track to being saved. We still have work to do, and I have an uphill battle with getting Ken baptized, but I think we can get back to our normal lives tomorrow."
They both smiled back, and when they went their separate ways, Roy returned to an empty home, and turned the music off before sitting at his coffee table and drinking a cold shake. When he finished it, he found himself biting at his nails, and quickly stopped himself.
Roy, how are you doing? Your ear suffered a blunt force trauma, but you seem okay.
I'm totally fine. Just a bit of a headache.
Okay, I'll dim all the lights and let you relax for the night.
Thank you. Navi, are you back to normal?
I am my normal self, yes. I'm sorry for any unpleasant outbursts today.
No, it's fine. I don't dislike how you talk when we're outside Aesthetica.
You've noticed a difference between inside and outside the walls?
Yeah, it's like you're freer outside than inside. I just hope you're content inside my head.
It is my duty to serve you, Roy. I am content as long as you are.
I thought you'd say that. Well goodnight Navi, I'll talk to you in the morning.
Roy's headache followed him all the way to work, along with a yawn he had to forbid from showing. Despite that, he wore a smile as he greeted everyone who bumped into him on the busy road, and he made it to work right on time.
"Hey, Roy, I was waiting for you." He was greeted at his cubicle by Aldheim's sharp smile.
"Good morning, Chief. I sent my report to you regarding Ellie."
"I saw," she said, sitting in his chair with a smirk. "You've surpassed my expectations. It's practically a guarantee we'll both be promoted. You do want that, right?"
"I certainly do," Roy replied, forcing a polite smile. "Do you really want to get promoted… To a red eye?"
"Of course," she said, her smirk running deeper as she spun in Roy's chair. "I've already sent you some training resources to help you get acclimated to the role. Oh, by the way, about Felix. He'll be back tomorrow. It looks like he was able to get his fortitude back up, after all."
"That's great news," Roy said with a smile. "I'll review those materials today."
"Perfect. I'll look forward to passing the torch to you tomorrow," she replied, standing up.
"Does that mean… You expect to have red eyes tomorrow?"
"Yes, hopefully," she replied, knitting her brow. "Why?"
"Nothing," Roy said, averting his eyes. "I guess it's just hard to imagine you without your purple eyes."
She chuckled through her nose, patting his shoulder as she walked by. "It's not like I'll be a different person, Roy."
"Yeah… Of course…"
The morning passed like normal, and Roy found himself walking along the canal through the neighborhood of cozy cabin-sized homes.
I wonder why Mrs. Baranov requested an extra visit so soon…
Roy, this isn't related to that, but I feel like there's something I need to tell you.
I think something happened with the navi system. It feels like we're outside again.
What? Could it be… From the towers falling?
That's probably it. The network feels chaotic… Almost like it was at the tower yesterday.
Wait, that bad? Are you feeling yourself?
I'm not sure right now. But I'll let you know if anything else comes up.
He rapped on Mrs. Baranov's door harder than usual, glancing at his watch.
Should I talk to Ken about it? I don't know if he's still in a bad mood…
The door opened, but instead of Mrs. Baranov, a familiar face spread a devilish smirk.
"Ken? What are you…"
His eyelids shook as he beheld the teen wearing the same white shirt and gray slacks uniform as him. In addition, his eyes were bright green, and bore a sparkle that betrayed his attitude in their conversation at the bus stop. On top of that, he wore a brown mustache that couldn't possibly be real.
What the hell are you doing here?
Whoa, careful with the language, you wouldn't wanna set a bad example.
Example for what? Why are you here, Ken? Explain yourself!
"Hey, Roy, I got to the job first, so I figured I'd introduce myself. But you made it before I could give a proper introduction. And what's with the aggressive knocking? Need a screening?"
"Roy, is that you?" Mrs. Baranov called, peeking from behind Ken's shoulder. "Your trainee is so sweet. I haven't gotten his name, though."
"Ronnie Applewood, Mrs. Baranov," Ken said, at which Roy cringed as he stepped inside. "My superior officer has told me you're a wonderful citizen, so I'm very pleased to meet you. Who knows, maybe I'll get to take over as your aesthetics officer when officer Grainger here gets promoted!"
"Oh, Roy, you didn't tell me you were up for a promotion!"
"I didn't tell you either, Ke— um, Ronnie…"
"Oops, Felix must have let it slip last night."
Roy sighed. "Anyway, good morning, Mrs. Baranov. Don't mind my trainee here, he won't be in the way at all. Let's go get started, shall we?"
Roy sat at the dining table while the woman hastily brewed two cups of tea. As he set up his tablet, he found his finger tapping the table. The room's white lights and surrounding classical piano music didn't change until Mrs. Baranov took a seat and blinked twice, while Ken sipped his tea from the far wall.
"May I confirm with your navi that effects have been lowered?"
"Roy, before we start…" she said, holding her tea with trembling hands. "The reason I asked for you this morning is that… Well, something has happened to my navi. I didn't want to tell anybody before I told you, but…"
Roy squinted, while Ken watched open-mouthed as a rainbow-colored avatar projected itself from her eyes.
"Roy, it's so nice to see you again." The robotic voice sounded notably weathered, but it made Mrs. Baranov form a nervous smile. "My wife tells me you have been taking good care of her, just like I expected. You have my thanks."
"…Isaac Baranov…?" Roy muttered as his finger stopped tapping.
"Yes, I found my way back to my wife after the tower collapsed. It's a miracle, isn't it?"