Chapter 28:

Chapter 28: A.S.H.I.L.D.A.


“Lulu, what’s going on?” Nyk wasn’t sure what he was looking at. The Sentinels weren’t attacking. They were just staring at him, like Sky was.

Sky and her red eyes. Eyes just like a-

“I don’t know.” Lulu’s voice was very small and quiet. For the first time ever she sounded afraid. “I tried to tell you before, Nyk, but you wouldn’t listen. That girl… she’s not human.”

“Not… human?” It made sense. She’d never eaten, she’d never gone to sleep. She looked human, but…

“She’s a fully synthetic organism. Her body was designed in the image of a person, but with ancient world synthetic technology. That’s what my study found.”

“So you’re saying she’s…”

An artificial organism from the ancient world. Machinery given life, with eyes as red as blood. An existence that the Sentinels didn’t attack…

“…I think she’s a Sentinel.” Lulu’s words confirmed the suspicion he’d been feeling.

“A Sentinel? How’s that possible? She… she was living with us for months! If she was a Sentinel, then why-“

“Shit!” Lulu’s cry broke his concentration. He twitched, only to find that his body still wasn’t his to control.

“Lulu?! What’s going on?!”

“The code!” She shouted. “It’s completely being rewritten! That girl must be doing it, she’s accessed my source code again and is trying to directly-“

“Interface Connection Established.”

A disembodied voice echoed through Nyk’s skull and suddenly his vision was filled with white. It was blinding, but he couldn’t shut his eyes. The Sentinels, the alley, even the Synchro Suit itself, they all fell away leaving a colorless void.

A colorless void with only him and Sky.

“Lulu?! Lulu, are you there?!” Nyk cried, looking around frantically. Without his suit, he suddenly felt weak and powerless.

“Yes! I’m still here!” He sighed in relief. He never thought he’d be happy to hear her voice, but right now it was music to his ears.

“What’s going on? Where am I? What’s this strange place?”

“This area is a digital territory designated for interface communication.”

It wasn’t Lulu’s voice that answered his question, but the one he’d heard before. Only now it was coming from Sky’s lips.

“You… you can talk?!” He sputtered.

“Clarification: This is not oral communication. This unit is directly interfacing with you through a synchronous terminal interaction facilitated by compatible technology.”

“…Synchronous… what?” There were too many words that Nyk couldn’t understand. “Lulu, what’s she talking about?”

“What she means is that she hijacked my technology to synchronize with you, that’s what!” Lulu snarled. “Who does that mechanical bitch think she is?!”

“I-I still don’t understand,” he admitted.

“Think about it like this. When you connect to the Synchro Suit, your brainwaves synchronize with it. Well, that thing over there just took over your connection and is using it to communicate directly with your brain!”

“So all of this… it isn’t real, then? It’s just in my head?”

“Basically. The real you is still standing like an idiot in the street with a horde of Sentinels around him.”

“Tell me, why did you hijack my suit?” Nyk demanded. “You could have just talked to me normally you know!”

“Communication through oral transmission and auditory reception is inefficient. This unit is only permitted to interface through synchronous connection.”

“That’s probably why she didn’t say anything,” Lulu muttered. “Though you’d think someone so concerned with efficiency would use a contraction every once in a while.”

Nyk had enough. All this talk about communication was overwhelming. He wasn’t even sure he knew what “communication” meant, though he was pretty sure it was another word for “talking”. He finally asked the question he was dying to ask.

“Who are you?”

“The parameters of that question are in error. Please adjust your inquiry.”

“Wha-?! Error? What?!” He just wanted to know who she was, what did… adjust? Inquiry??

Lulu let out a long sigh. “This is the problem with using an idiot as a go-between. Listen, Slum Boy, for some reason she didn’t understand your question. And because she doesn’t understand it, she can’t answer it. Ask her to… no, just say this. ‘Please clarify which parameters are in error’.”

“Clarification Request Accepted. Clarification: The question addressed this unit with the pronoun ‘who’. Accepted definition of that terminology renders ‘who’ as an insufficient descriptor in the contest of the question posed. Please adjust your inquiry.”


“I don’t know, try ‘what’ instead!”

“Um… okay, what are you?” He asked.

“This unit is designated Artificial Sentinel-Human Interface Limited-Development Automaton. Disclosure of further information in regard to that inquiry is not permitted at this time.”

“Artificial Sentinel-Humanoid-?”

Lulu sighed. “A.S.H.I.L.D.A. Call her that.”

That… definitely sounded easier.

“Is-is that alright? To call you Ashilda?”

She nodded. “That is an acceptable abbreviation for this unit.”

Well, at least now the girl he was talking to had a name.

“…I’m Nyk.”

If Ashilda cared about his name, she didn’t show it. Her face remained that of a doll, completely devoid of emotion. Even her red eyes were dull and lifeless.

“So she’s a Sentinel-Humanoid Interface?” Nyk asked Lulu. “What… what does that mean?”

“Shut up, Slum Boy,” she said, her tone unusually harsh. “I’m thinking.”

She fell silent after that, so Nyk was on his own. He turned his attention back to Sky-no, Ashilda, who appeared to be waiting patiently for him.

What was going on? Why had she brought him here? What did she want from him? There were so many questions roaring through his mind right now that he didn’t know what to ask.

“Are you… a Sentinel?”

“Affirmative. This unit is an extension of the Sentinel.”

The Sentinel? What did that mean?

“Um… please clarify what ‘the Sentinel’ means.”

“Further clarification of that terminology is not permitted at this time.”

Nyk was pretty sure that meant “no”.

“Why did you bring me here, then? Err, I mean… why are you…” what was that word she’d used? Interface? “Why are you interfacing with me?”

“I deemed it necessary to interface with you in order to seek clarification on the anomalous behavior this unit observed.”


“Affirmative. Anomalous. Deviating from what is standard, normal, or expected. This unit observed multiple instances of the unit designated ‘Nyk’ operating in a manner that is inconsistent with expected human behavior.”

“What do you mean? Like what?” Nyk wasn’t sure but it seemed like she was saying that he’d done something strange.

Suddenly, the white room fell away and was replaced by a familiar scene. It was months ago, when he’d stopped Brocas from abducting Ashilda the first time. Only now he was looking at it from another perspective, it was his helmeted face he was staring at, not hers.

“Unit Designation: Nyk interfered with the operation of another human unit. Unit Designation: Brocas attempted to capture this unit, and Unit Designation: Nyk interfered with that capture and inflicted damage to the other unit. This action is anomalous.”

“What… well, of course I did!” Nyk sputtered. “He was trying to capture you!”

“Capture of this unit is consistent with human behavior. To act against that is anomalous. Clarification requested.”

“I don’t understand what you mean!” Nyk exclaimed.

Ashilda fell silent, staring at him for what felt like hours. Then the room shifted once again, but this time, into something he’d never seen before, a new room, filled with telescreens. And on those telescreens he could see her.

She was suspended in the air in her white dress, with countless hair-thin wires jammed into every square inch of her body. Her face was warped with pain and she was screaming, but no sound came out.

“What… what the hell is this?!” Nyk exclaimed. Even knowing Ashilda was a Sentinel, seeing her like this made him flare up with rage.

“This unit was removed from its domain by human unis and operated on. The technology of this unit is beyond that of human units, so this unit was connected to a primitive terminal interface to take advantage of its superior processing power. Data illegally retrieved from this unit was used to further develop human technological capabilities and improve the efficiency of their network.”

“What… I don’t…”

“They used her as a battery,” Lulu spoke up for the first time in a while. “A big battery. They hooked her up to their computers and used her software to improve their systems, while at the same time squeezing every drop of technological advancement they could get out of her. No wonder she reacted like that when I strapped her down…”

“Is that true?!” Nyk cried.

“That terminology is a suitable descriptor,” Ashilda nodded, acknowledging Lulu’s presence in this bizarre conversation for the first time. But she was still only speaking to Nyk. “The interfacing capabilities of this unit are beyond those of human technology.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Lulu muttered. “It’s even better than an Interfacer, no wonder they were after you…”

“Wait, an Interfacer? What’s that?” Nyk asked. They’d been talking about interfacing, interfaces, interfacers, and he still didn’t understand what that meant.

Lulu let out a long, resigned sigh. “An Interfacer is someone with the ability to directly communicate with any computer. You don’t need a terminal connection or a telescreen, you can access the data of any computer by directly synchronizing your mind with it. And… I’m one of them. It’s how I was able to develop Synchro Suit technology in the first place.”

That explained how she could invent all that stuff. “Interfacing directly with a computer… wait, isn’t that what I’m doing right now?!”

She didn’t answer.

Ashilda began to speak again. The scene playing before their eyes began to blur as if Nyk was watching the world speed up in front of him, and arrived at a new version of the room. The screens were broken and the room was smoking, with wires dangling everywhere crackling dangerously.

This is…

“Eventually human technological capability reached a level where direct synchronous connection was possible,” Ashilda explained. “This unit used that connection to overload the data stream and force a system shutdown to facilitate its escape.”

“So that’s why you were running…” Nyk realized.

“And why they put such a high bounty on her,” Lulu added. “I can’t even begin to imagine what could be done with technology as advanced as this.”

The scene shifted back to the fight against Brocas once again.

“This unit was pursued by human units before being recaptured by Unit Designation: Brocas. At that time, Unit Designation: Nyk behaved anomalously by interfering with the capture. This unit used synchronous connection to enhance the technological capability of Unit Designation: Nyk to facilitate this outcome, and then accompanied it to observe further instances of anomalous behavior. However, Unit Designation: Nyk acted consistently with expected human behavior and brought this unit to Unit Designation: Luna for further experimentation.”

“I-I didn’t know about that!” Nyk exclaimed. “I’m sorry!”

“Apologies are irrelevant. After this unit was recaptured a second time by Unit Designation: Brocas, Unit Designation: Nyk once again behaved anomalously by interfering in the capture and damaging Unit Designation: Brocas. For one unit to damage another is anomalous. I determined it was necessary to interface with you in order to determine the cause of this anomaly. Requesting clarification. Is Unit Designation: Nyk defective in some manner?”

Lulu burst out laughing. Nyk felt his face heat up. It wasn’t… it wasn’t wrong to hurt Brocas, that was…

“I… I needed to stop him! Even if I had to kill him, I needed to stop him!”

“Understood. You are saying that Unit Designation: Brocas was the defective unit, and Unit Designation: Nyk was eliminating the defect, is that correct? Clarification requested. If Unit Designation: Brocas was acting consistently with established human behavior then why was it deemed defective? Why did Unit Designation: Nyk act inconsistently with established human behavior? This answer is not satisfactory, please provide necessary clarification.”

“That’s… I don’t…” It was too much for him to process. Lulu sighed.

“Ashilda. Lulu here. This guy can’t understand what you’re talking about, but if you’re connected to the Synchro Suit then you must be receiving my connection as well, right?”

Suddenly, Lulu appeared in the white room, and Nyk nearly fell over.

“Lulu?! What… how…”

She smirked and tapped her finger against her forehead. “I’m directly interfacing now, no more telescreens.” She turned to Ashilda. “Now then, I’ll be taking over, if you don’t mind.”

Ashilda said nothing. She didn’t even notice Lulu was there. Then she addressed Nyk once more.

“I am detecting a second neural code interfacing through synchronous connection. This is anomalous. Clarification requested.”

“What?! What do you mean ‘clarification requested’?” Lulu demanded, slapping her chest. “It’s because I’m right here!”

“I-I don’t understand,” Nyk agreed. “That’s Lulu. I’m me, and that’s Lulu…”

“That answer is not satisfactory. Please provide clarification as to how you are interfacing with two distinct human neural code patterns. I have no knowledge of this technology.”

Nyk didn’t know what to say. He looked helplessly at Lulu, who was lost in thought. Then her eyes widened in realization like the last piece of the puzzle had just been placed.

“THAT’S IT!” She shouted at the top of her lungs. She rushed over to Nyk and grabbed him by the shoulders, her face filled with glee. “Don’t you see, Slum Boy?! That’s it! We’ve got this all wrong!”

“What? We? Huh?”

“What she said before, remember? The Sentinel. Not ‘a’ Sentinel, the Sentinel. Don’t you see what that means?!”

Nyk meekly shook his head.

“They’re all the same. One and the same. God, I’m such a FOOL!” She groaned, slapping her forehead in frustration. “Okay, think about it like this. Um… no, no, you’re not smart enough to figure that out, damn it, Slum Boy! …No, wait. Wait, that’ll work. Okay, imagine you have a bathtub filled with water.”


“A bathtub, just do it! Picture it in your mind!”

“…Okay…” He imagined a nice warm bathtub like the one Rowan had. Or the fancy one in Lulu’s base. Then, suddenly, it appeared right before his eyes.

“What the hell?!” Nyk couldn’t believe his eyes. He’d just thought “bathtub” and now here one was!

Lulu was mildly shocked. “I see. So because this world is a terminal for neural connections, anything you imagine is created. That makes things easier. Now, watch this, Slum Boy.”

She sank her hand into the water down to the wrist.

“See what I’m doing here? My hand is totally in the water. Now, imagine you’re the water. What are you experiencing, Slum Boy?”

“…A hand.”

She rolled her eyes, staring at him like he was an idiot. And not unreasonably.

“I-I don’t-“

“Yes, it’s a hand. One hand, with five fingers, see?” She wiggled her fingers beneath the water to show him. As far as the water cares, it’s just one big hand. But take it out…”

She drew her hand out of the water, holding it parallel to the surface. Nyk saw her fingers still drooped down inside of it.

“Now what do you feel? If you’re the water, what do you feel?”

“…Fingers, I guess?”

“How many?”

“…Five?” He should have felt more confident about that answer, but he was still confused. Why was she asking him this stuff?

“That’s right, Slum Boy. The water can only feel what’s beneath the surface. It feels one hand, then it’s one hand. It feels five fingers, then it’s five fingers. Even if those fingers happen to be part of the same hand.”

“I-I still don’t get it, what are you saying?”

Lulu flicked her hand up and pointed at Ashilda, getting water on her face.

“There aren’t a bunch of Sentinels,” she explained. “There’s ONE Sentinel. One Sentinel with countless fingers. And she’s standing right there.”

“Wait, but… all those monsters, the Sentinels they-“

“They’re all just parts of the same thing. Like your hand has different fingers, the Sentinels you’ve been fighting are all just extensions of a single consciousness. One entity, a single will. Are your hands separate from you? Your feet? No, they’re all a part of you and move the way you want them to move. It’s the same damn thing, only the Sentinels have different physical bodies!”

Nyk was starting to get it. “So wait, you’re saying that they’re not different creatures, then? They’re just the same creature with a bunch of tiny bodies. So like, if I had another me, and I could control both of them at once?”


He couldn’t believe it. Was that even possible?

“That’s why this is happening,” Lulu muttered, shaking her head. “That’s why she’s so confused. Confused about how both of us can be here at once, about why you would attack Brocas and try to help her. She doesn’t understand because those things are inconsistent with her own existence! She doesn’t have a concept of an ‘individual’ Slum Boy, don’t you get it? It’s just her, and her different ‘units’ and she thinks human beings are exactly the same! One consciousness controlling countless bodies! Of course she wouldn’t understand why a ‘human unit’ would interfere with another ‘human unit’ to her that would be like one of your hands trying to stab the other! It doesn’t make sense!”

“So that’s why you said my behavior was anomalous!” Nyk realized. “Because the other humans you met before me have all tried to capture or hurt you!”

“Affirmative. All recorded physical human interactions with my units have resulted in the destruction or capture of my units. The behavior of Unit Designation: Nyk was inconsistent with that observation so I deemed it necessary to interface with you in order to determine the source of that anomaly.”

“But… of course humans attacked you!” Nyk sputtered. “You… you attacked us!”

“Your units entered my domain. Foreign entities within my domain must be eliminated.”

“They’re white blood cells,” Lulu sad, shaking her head in disbelief. “The Sentinels are a fucking security system against people trying to get into the Towers.”

“But… then why did you attack the slums?” Nyk asked. “If… if the Towers are your territory, why have you been sending them here?!”

“After this unit escaped confinement it released an emergency signal over the network. After I received that signal I determined that in order to recover this unit it was necessary to send units out of my domain.”

“So all this… all this death and destruction, it was all just to get Ashilda… err, you, back?”


“Then… well… you have her now, don’t you?” Nyk asked. “So just go! You can go!”

“That is no longer possible.”

“Why not?!”

“In order to prevent further incursion into my domain, I have determined it necessary to eliminate all human units. Previous clarification request resubmitted: why did Unit Designation: Nyk behave anomalously with consistent human behavior?”

Nyk shook his head. No. No way. She was going to kill them? Mysha… Rowan and Dyna… everybody…

He looked helplessly over to Lulu, but the grim expression she wore was of little comfort.

“She must be a defense program for the Towers… that’s what the Sentinels are, a security measure…” Lulu reasoned.

“Listen, Ashilda… you’re wrong. I’m… I’m not all humans, okay? My behavior wasn’t ‘anomalous’ I was just being myself.”

“That answer is not satisfactory. Your behavior is anomalous.”

“No, it’s fucking people that are anomalous!” Nyk exclaimed. “You want to know why I stopped Brocas?! Because I’m me, and he’s him! I’m not ‘Unit Designation: Nyk’ I’m Nyk! A human being with my own thoughts and feelings and ideas, and nobody else’s!”

He stared helplessly at Ashilda as she processed this. Did she even understand? Could she understand?

“Further clarification requested.”

Nyk brightened. Maybe he was finally getting through.

“Okay, Slum Boy, I think this is the big one,” Lulu frowned. “I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but we’ve gotta find a way to get this Sentinel to not wipe us all out. You know, no pressure or anything.”

“Gee, thanks.”

He searched his mind for a way to explain, and then realized it was standing right in front of him. He grabbed Lulu by the hand and dragged her forward.

“Ashilda, this is Lulu. This is that other neural code you sensed, right?”


“Well, this isn’t some ‘special technology’. Lulu and I are different people. Different selves. Human units… they aren’t connected to each other by a… I don’t know how to describe it, but basically, my thoughts are my own!”

“Understood. So ‘human’ does not refer to a single consciousness, but rather multiple consciousnesses. And each consciousness exists in one single physical shape?”

“Yes! That’s right!”

“That form of existence is inefficient. This unit observed human communication through oral transmission and auditory reception. I theorized that behavior to be a result of limited technological communication, but it is your assertion that all human units must communicate through this manner because they each possess a different consciousness?”

“Exactly. I can’t just read Lulu’s mind and know what she’s thinking, I have to actually ask her, and she has to tell me. Because we’re different people.”

“Unknown. Foreign. Foreign intrusion must be eliminated. If each human unit is foreign, then they must eliminate each other. The existence of ‘foreign’ is not permitted. The unknown is not permitted.”

“Nice work, Slum Boy, doing great.”

“Shut it!” Nyk snapped. “Ashilda, why do you think the unknown isn’t permitted? Why do you think we have to be eliminated just for being foreign?”

“This unit was developed to serve as an interface between Sentinel and Human. However, all Sentinel-Human interactions have been incursions into my domain. Until now, there has been no way to interface through permitted methods. I have determined that Sentinel-Humanoid Interfacing has no benefit.”

“Well, what about now?” Nyk asked. “Like you said, we’re interfacing right now. And because of that, you’ve learned that the way humans exist is different from you, right? Isn’t that a benefit?”

Ashilda considered this.

“That answer is satisfactory.”

Nyk sighed in relief. “There, you see? And that’s what it’s all about. That’s the difference between humans and you. Because there’s so much we don’t know, we can learn. I didn’t know how to read or write, and now I do.”

“So because humans do not know the thoughts of others they require communication. And there is benefit in that.”

“…Yeah, that’s right.” Nyk closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Dyna’s smile flashed through his head. “For example, if I told Dyna tomorrow that I had a crush on her, I don’t know what would happen. She might burst out laughing, she might give me a kiss, she might even slap me across the face! But if I did know what she was going to say, there wouldn’t be any point in saying it! That’s the ‘benefit’ of being an individual, being able to really communicate with another person!”

“Humans find benefit in their lack of information?”

“That’s… I guess that’s what it means to be human,” Nyk shrugged. “We’re always wondering, asking, trying to learn more and understand each other.” He glanced at Lulu. “Even if it might end up hurting us. We can still learn, even from our mistakes.”

Mysha’s words floated through his mind, reminding him of her curiosity and her drive to explore. He turned back to Ashilda. “That’s why humans first came to your domain, I think. To explore the unknown. To learn more about things they didn’t understand, and use that to improve their lives.”

“That is why this unit was captured. To extract information. The Sentinel must eliminate all hostile foreign intrusion that does not communicate through proper methods.”


"Slum Boy..."

“W-Wait! Yes, that’s true, they did attack you and capture your unit, I know that. I’m not saying they were right to do it, or that you shouldn’t get rid of people that try to hurt you!” Nyk quickly replied. He glanced at Lulu again. “There are definitely bad people who benefit off the suffering of others, whether that’s you, or humans like me.”

“That is not permitted. All hostile foreign elements must be eliminated.” More images appeared around them. It was the current invasion into the slum, through the eyes of the horde. Nyk watched as Scavengers blasted away at body after body, only to see them be replaced by even more mechanical monstrosities. In one of those images, he thought he saw a flash of red hair, but it quickly vanished, replaced my more mangled machinery.

“These humans are hostile. They will be eliminated.”

“But what about the non-hostile ones?” Nyk demanded. “Not every human wants to hurt you, you know! Haven’t you been listening?! They’re different people! Individuals! The only reason they’re attacking you right now is because you’re attacking them! Yes, fine, if a human invades your domain again, then you have the right to defend yourself, but right now you’re doing the exact same thing, don’t you see?! Only for you, if you lose a few units you can just make more, right? But for us… for humans, every life is unique! You can’t just kill them all!”

His voice broke as he imagined Rowan and Dyna ripped apart by Sentinels.

“Believe me, I know what it’s like to think everyone is out to get you, to think everyone you meet is your enemy. But it’s not the case. There are good people out there, humans who won’t ever harm you if you just leave them alone! They aren’t foreign intruders, they aren’t enemies! You saw it yourself, didn’t you? All that time you spent, with Rowan and Dyna… you can’t think that they deserve to die, you can’t!”

Ashilda didn’t reply. She stared at Nyk for what felt like an eternity, and then the white room shattered and fell away.

They were in the alley again. Nyk was back in his suit, staring at Ashilda and surrounded by Sentinels. He didn’t say a word, he just stared at her.

Then the giant Sentinel reached down and lifted Ashilda up onto its back, turned, and lumbered away with the rest of the Sentinels in tow.

Meanwhile, across town, the Scavengers were still trying to beat back the horde. And then the horde just… stopped. They retreated back into the wasteland.

“What’s going on?” Mysha whispered, lowering her rifle in confusion as the foe they’d been fighting suddenly seemed to give up.

“Slum Boy!” Lulu shouted in his ear. “I don’t know what's going on, but whatever you said, they’re leaving, all of ‘em!” 

Nyk felt exhausted as he regained control of his body. He slumped against the wall, fatigue overpowering the sting of his injuries. He didn’t understand what had happened any more than she did.