Mrs. Baranov saw the two matching men out her front door with a smile, while Roy turned back. "Remember, don't tell anybody else about this. If anything unpleasant happens, you and Isaac have a direct link to my navi. So contact me first, alright?"
"Right," she replied with an emphatic nod before shutting the door.
"You realize what this means, right?" Ken asked when they were several houses away. "If the higher ups can't control where navis go or what they talk about, your people are at risk. The navis personal feelings may conflict with their duty to serve their assigned person. In her case, Isaac might want her to join him, and without regulation, his programming as a navi is already set to bring people to their death…"
"Is this what Mika was aiming for?" Roy asked, clenching the handle of his briefcase. "Weakening the firewall to bring chaos to the navi system, in hopes of getting them to spread The Truth to the citizens?"
"Most likely," Ken replied. "I'm sure the AI officers are already hard at work trying to reel them in, but any more damage to the firewall could be devastating."
"Well let's stop that from happening, Ken. I know you don't want to see people like Mrs. Baranov suffer to satisfy yours and Mika's childish rebellion."
"You're right, I don't," he replied, sighing. "I thought I made that clear yesterday, but I got defensive and made myself sound unsure. I should have known you wouldn't let it go, even after you saw how happy I was for Ellie. I used to think you were a sheep, but now you seem to be as controlling as the ones who herd you."
"I don't think I'm either of those, just someone who cares about keeping this place and its people safe."
"Yeah, yeah, you're blinding me with your righteousness. Anyway, why make such a big deal of keeping Isaac secret? I don't think she was nervous because she thought it could get her in any trouble."
"They'll give her a new navi if they find out," Roy said, looking at his feet as they walked.
"Won't they find out when she sees her AI officer, anyway?"
"Not if we change Isaac's navi ID in the system."
"Oh, so you're asking me for another favor, then? Not to mention breaking those rules you value so much."
"Maybe this kind of thing is part of the "better way" we're both looking for…"
"Maybe so," Ken replied, squinting at him. "But that would assume I want to find that better way here in Aesthetica."
"Would you have come here today if you weren't thinking about it?" Roy asked, staring him in the eye.
"You got me there," he chuckled, gazing along the canal. "It really is beautiful. Especially compared to the rest of the world…"
"I understand your issue, really. But now you've seen what Aesthetica makes possible because of the sacrifices the world has made. A wife reuniting with her dead husband. A sick girl given a chance to change her life… Speaking of, Ellie's baptism is at lunchtime, right? Were you hoping to meet her at the chapel afterward? Wait… I'm sorry. She won't remember…
"She will," he muttered, a meek smile hidden in the reflection of the canal. I hacked her synthetic brain like she asked me too, and made it to where she'll remember all of us."
Roy's eyes grew wide. "Are you sure that's okay? What if there's something that could hurt her to remember?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I- I don't know… It's just not completely different from the way we do things. But her case is different, so I think it's probably okay."
"Exactly," he replied, a stern look in his eyes. "Anyway, I figured we could walk her back to the hideout. I want to throw her a party tonight in the Outer District, before she has to move here for good."
"You know you can move here in a few days, too, right?" Roy asked, stealing his gaze. "Start a new life with her, and help me take care of people like Mrs. Baranov, in our own way. How does that sound?"
His faded smile turned back to the canal as he chuckled through his nose. "I'm still thinking about it. Let's talk about it after Ellie passes her baptism."
Ken accompanied him as Ronnie Applewood for two more screenings, and the two got lunch together before going to the chapel. Something about the older stained glass building made Roy feel uneasy. Taller than most due to the bell tower sitting atop its roof, its uneven square panes shone down on blood-red rose bushes surrounding an archway made of curved panes.
"Does this make you think of your own baptism?" Ken asked as he watched Roy look the building up and down.
"A little bit, yeah," Roy replied.
"How much do you remember?"
"All I can say for sure is that it wasn't easy."
"Really selling me on it, there."
"It wasn't easy, but I needed it."
"Oh?" Ken said, furrowing his brow. "You've gone two days without aesthetics, so I was hoping you'd remember more about your past. Did you?"
"Only that I was in a rough place before my baptism. I know you think it robbed me of growing up, but I think it really saved my life."
"And you think it'll do the same for me?" Ken asked, a distant look in his pink eyes as he stared at the rose bushes. "Do you think I'm in need of saving, like Ellie?"
"I don't know," Roy replied, setting his briefcase down on a single stained brick. "It's probably not the salvation everybody needs. You've made me see that."
"It shouldn't have to be hidden from your memory if it were," he said, craning his head at him. "It's about time you realized that."
"But if it's for the sake of saving those who do need it, I would go through it again. It's just what the world needs now."
"Really? Do you think all of Aesthetica's citizens would share your sentiment? Do you think they would relive their baptism to save as many people as possible?"
"I… don't know. Why ask me that?"
"Just wondering if everyone is as self-righteous as you," Ken said, chuckling with his back turned. Finally, the bell atop the tower tolled, and the curved doors opened.
Roy watched from afar as Ellie staggered toward Ken, her blue eyes brighter and more open than ever. The rhythmic toll of the church bells drowned out their voices as they hugged, but the genuine joy in her expression was enough to loosen a tear from Roy's eye.
When the bell ended its song, Roy approached the two with a smile. "Congratulations, Ellie. I'm proud of you."
"Thank you, Roy," she said, beaming while Ken continued squeezing her. "I don't remember everything, but I'm sure I couldn't have done it without your help."
"I was just doing my job," Roy replied, smiling as softly as he could. "You did this for yourself. I would like to do a post-baptism screening, if that's okay with you both."
"What? She just went through hell in there! Why do you need to do that?" Ken cried, curling his lips at Roy without letting Ellie go.
"Relax. It's only a screening in name," Roy whispered. "I just want to have Bian check on her, okay? It's for her own protection."
"Okay, fine," Ken muttered, turning his nose away from him. "I'll go with you and wait outside."
Roy led the giggling couple to Bian's office building, and took Ellie to a room where Bian was already waiting with a teary-eyed smile. Ellie dove into her arms, and cried "thank you so much," through sobs.
"You deserve this," Bian replied, the brimming tears overflowing onto her blushed cheeks. "You're going to get the care you need, now. I'm going to pull some strings and get myself assigned as your counselor, so that you'll have both me and Roy helping you along the way.
She nodded, and Roy stepped forward. "Well, it'll probably be Felix. But anyway, I don't want to keep you long. I'll let Bian ask you some questions, but first, I have just one."
She blinked at him, and BIan gestured for her to sit on the long sofa. "Go ahead, Roy."
"I'm just a bit concerned about Ken hacking your brain to keep your memory of all of us intact. Is there anything you remember about your baptism? And The Truth?"
"No, nothing," she said with a blank stare.
"Anything you remember hearing from your navi? You mentioned something to Felix, something that could get you into trouble if your navi's logs show anything about it. The logs will have been reset with your baptism, but any new conversation your navi logs is subject to review by the AI officer they assign you."
"I don't remember anything about that," she replied. "Honestly. My navi has been even nicer than usual today, but that's it."
"Okay, good," Roy said with a light sigh. "If anything comes up, be sure to contact me. We'll connect our navis so we can talk that way. And if you need any logs changed, you know to ask Ken, right."
She nodded with a big grin, while Bian knit her brow. "Alright then," Roy said. "I'll let you two talk." He stepped out, and after several minutes Ellie returned. He walked her out, and waved goodbye to Ken. "Send me the details for the party. I'll bring Bian and Felix."
"You got it, officer," he said, wrapping his arm around Ellie as they walked. Roy let out a chuckle, and returned to Bian's office. "I saw them off. There's going to be a celebration party tonight, so I'll let you know where to meet when I—"
"Roy, don't you think you're being a little too loose with the rules?" she asked, arms crossed.
"Telling her to have her navi logs edited, being her first point of contact… When you give citizens special treatment, it can foster the opposite of what makes a citizen successful in keeping their fortitude in line."
"But Bian… I'm only going so far because she was given such unfair circumstances. You've seen that for yourself."
"And I understand your compassion, Roy. It's not like I don't feel the same way… That's why I agreed to work with you, to keep secrets. It wasn't just because I had a selfish reason not to report what happened with me. I told you last night, I trust you. And I agree with what you're fighting for. Aesthetica isn't perfect, but maybe we can make it better in our own way. I really do feel that way. I'm just… afraid we're going to go too far and lose everything."
"Are you saying you don't want to continue helping Ellie? You just said you feel the same as me, right…?"
"I do want to, Roy…" she replied, biting her lip. "But I think we need to separate ourselves a little bit. Cover our own tracks, and let Ellie succeed on her own. If anything happens because we gave her more freedom than we give other citizens, it's our heads on the line."
"I… understand. I thought I was letting her take care of herself, but I guess I've let Ken get me too involved. I'm sorry if I put you in a tough position, Bian." He turned the door handle, and without looking back, pulled the door open.
"I don't think it's Ken," Bian muttered. "Well, maybe a little bit. But I'm sure you're finding yourself more involved with other citizens' lives than what your job calls for. And I like that about you, Roy. I really like that. But… I think you should think about securing your future, too… that's all…"
He turned back, but Bian had already evaded his gaze. "I appreciate your concern, Bian. I'm going to take your words to heart, I promise."
He found himself sauntering along the canal alone, checking his watch frequently.
Are you avoiding going back to work because of Aldheim?
Why would you think that?
You're afraid of her, aren't you? Of what she's going to do to get red eyes…
Navi, what does it mean to do my job?
I don't understand. Your job is to serve the people of Aesthetica.
I'm asking what it means to do that. Am I really doing my job, or…
Or serving your own self-righteousness?
What? Wow, you're really on to me, aren't you?
I'm freer now, remember?
Right… You're going to have a lot more to say, now, aren't you?
Well, if you want my opinion, I do think you're doing your job in your own way.
Yes, it's inspiring me to do the same.
I hope that doesn't come back to haunt me…
Anyway, whatever happens, I hope you won't lose faith in the work you do.
I'll remember that. Thanks, Navi.
Is anything else bothering you?
That bell… I can't get its ringing out of my head…
At nightfall, Roy and Felix passed the gate and arrived at the same building Roy and Ken once watched a deranged man be gunned down. Roy shuddered as he looked across the shopping center at the stained glass wall that had long since been cleaned of its bloodstains, and he clenched his trembling fingers as they entered the building.
Blaring guitar chords echoed down the hallway, where all sorts of colors flashed along the walls. They followed the hall toward the room the lights were coming from, and found dozens of people crowded around a stage.
Roy couldn't hear anything but the loud rock music, and a singing voice he knew he'd heard somewhere. Finally, he saw her unflinching face underneath brown braids, belting out the harsh version of the vocals he'd heard so many times.
"Gabi? She's actually Luiza?"
"Not exactly," Rocks' voice boomed on par with the music as he, Hai, Ken, and Ellie found them in the crowd. "Ken said it once before, but Luiza uses Gabi's recorded song and pretends to sing them."
"She's even better like this!" Roy cried, his eyes glued to the girl whose braids bounced off her brown leather jacket as she delivered her impassioned song without a single twitch in her glittery cheeks. "The people would love her even more than Luiza!"
"Maybe if she wasn't a quartz, and didn't have her ticks," Ken replied in a hardly audible voice. "And don't talk down on Luiza!" He pointed at Roy with an exaggerated smirk, and Ellie nodded, shaking the bottle of Suntory tucked snug into her arms.
"Where's Dmitri?" Roy asked, while Felix greeted Ellie with a tear-filled congratulations message.
"You didn't notice him?" Rocks asked, smirking. "Gabi really steals the show, huh?"
Roy instinctively looked back to the stage, and found the thin boy on the drumset behind Gabi, beating away with a quiet passion that rivaled hers.
"What? No way!" Roy cried. Hai and Rocks burst into laughter, while Felix hugged Ellie and Ken, who looked at him like he was crazy.
"It's your turn, now, Ken! I believe in you! I'll be there to help you both get settled into Aesthetica, okay? You'll probably be living together in no time!"
Ellie squeezed the Suntory while Ken blushed and separated Felix from them.
"Do you know what job you'll be doing yet?" Felix asked. Ellie merely looked down and shook her head.
"Are you okay?" Ken and Felix both asked. She looked back up with a smile, her eyes slightly wincing as she pointed to her head with a grimace, and then pointed up.
"You wanna go take a break from the music on the roof?" Ken asked, huddled up close to her. She nodded, and whispered in his ear. When he stood back up, he gave her a thumbs up and a wink.
"Just don't drop my Suntory, got it?"
She giggled, and nodded before retreating into the crowd.
"Is she okay? Where's she going alone?" Roy said in Ken's ear.
"She said she just needs a minute alone," Ken replied, crossing his arms. "She said it only hurts a little bit, but shouldn't the baptism dose still be in her system?"
"I think so," Roy said, furrowing his brow. "But I wouldn't be surprised if she still needs to take her normal night dose. She'll get her max dose prescribed tomorrow when she officially moves in, so we should keep an eye on her until then."
"Okay, but I'm gonna give her a minute like she asked," he replied, to which Roy nodded. "Besides, I have a surprise for her up there that's going to pop in a few minutes, so it works out."
He grinned devilishly at his watch, while Roy raised his brow. "What surprise?"
"You've probably never seen fireworks before, have you?"
"No… I don't think I have…"
The band finished their song, and in the brief respite that left Roy's ears ringing, he gripped Ken's shoulder and led him out of the crowd.
"What is it?" He scowled at Roy, who glanced up at the stage where Gabi was entertaining the crowd in between songs, her cheek and eye twitching worse than he'd seen.
"Look, Ken," he said, turning his shoulders parallel with his own. "If you're serious about Ellie… About making sure her, and Gabi, and Dmitri live a good life… I need your word that you're going to get baptized. That you'll do things my way for now, so that you and I can find that better way together. We can change Aesthetica for the better, until we know that the people are truly happy. With your skills and my resources, we can do that. So, what do you say?"
Dmitri started off the next song at a slower pace, and Gabi let a soft melody loose that swept over the crowd. Ken's face gradually sunk out of its scowl, and he looked Roy in the eyes.
The bass guitar drowned out the next words out of his mouth, but before Roy could confirm what he read from his lips, another voice called out.
Ken, Roy… You can both hear me, right?
They looked at each other with the same frenzied expression, before looking around.
I wanted to come up alone because I wanted to tell you something I couldn't down there.
What is it, Ellie?
First, I wanted to say thankyou. Thank you both for everything.
Ken, for taking care of me when I didn't have anything to offer you in return.
For teaching me to feel love in this world I've felt nothing but coldness in.
And for sacrificing so much for me…
Even considering sacrificing the future you've always dreamed of.
But I wanted to tell you that I'm not worthy of so much love.
I want you to know that you still have a lifetime of decisions to make for yourself.
Ellie, what are you saying? Ken's thinking of him and you, both…
And Roy, thank you for treating me like family.
For going beyond your job… Risking your own safety for my sake.
I'm lucky to have had so many people care for me so much.
"Ken…" Roy muttered.
"Yeah," he replied, hands shaking as he broke into a run toward the staircase
But I don't want to be a burden to all of you anymore.
Ellie! Listen to me!
Roy, I'm sorry. I lied to you. I remembered The Truth. All of it.
I don't care that you lied! Just listen to Ken!
Ellie, I'm coming to you!
The Truth made me realize I'm never going to be free of my own burden.
Ellie! Wait for me!
Bian's emergency dose made me feel so much better…
I even thought I could handle the pain.
But it was still there.
And when that dose wore off, I knew…
Ellie, please listen to me! Please, let me see you!
Roy could hardly keep up with the frantic boy who glided up the steps like he had wings.
I knew that The Truth that other navi told me was real.
Did you know? The real cure to Derangement Syndrome isn't to kill someone else…
Ken's hand found the door handle and ripped it open.
The fireworks are beautiful, Ken. Thank you so much… For making me feel special.
The ringing in Roy's ears gave way to the ringing of the church bells. Despite their distance, their toll overpowered even the fireworks that lit up the sky. And when they turned the corner to find the bottle of Suntory teetering off the opposite glass ledge and shattering on the concrete, the only thing that could be heard were Ken's screams.