Chapter 26:


Code: Zero Defect

As soon as I opened the doors to the office, Holiday reached her arm out and pulled me to the side. A glass bottle flung right past my head, shattering on the ground behind me.

I couldn't even process it, and the sight I saw before me made it all the more confusing.

Loki was pulling on Minerva's hair while she was doing the same right back at her. Indecent words continued to run out of their mouths, enough to taint the mind of an innocent child within seconds.

Astrid sat by herself in front of a small chess table. She glanced at the two before turning right back around as if this was a normal occurrence.

"Tell me the truth, Minny!" Loki shouted. "You ate the last rainbow sprinkled chocolate glazed donut, didn't you?!

"I already told you!" Minerva screamed back. "Astrid took the last one!"

Astrid calmly moved a white chess piece forward. "No, I didn't."

"Yes, she did! I saw it! She shoved the entire rainbow sprinkled chocolate glazed donut into her mouth in one go!"

"You think I'd believe your fat ass?!" Loki chided.

"I'm not even fat!"

They continued to bicker and fight. If this had been my first time seeing them, I would've thought that the Calypso squad was just a fabricated fairy tale meant to scare the general public.

Holiday rested a hand on her forehead as she sighed. "Zephyr. Shut them up."

"As you command," Zephyr said as she drew her katana.

She shoved her blade right in between them with great precision, forcing the two to immediately stop and stare at her.

"I ate the last rainbow sprinkled chocolate glazed donut," Zephyr declared.

I thought she was supposed to put a stop to them, but it seems her words only made it worse. Loki's eyes curved sinisterly.

"You... what...?" she muttered.

"Did I stutter...?" Zephyr muttered back.

Minerva held both hands over her mouth as her eyes twisted back and forth. Wasn't she just a part of this? It suddenly seems like she's a spectator now.

Finally, Holiday stepped in.

"Enough," she said, gathering everyone's attention.

She sat down at her desk all the way in the back of the tent, turning her chair around to look at me once again.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Muscles are a bit tense," I answered. "Other than that, I'm fine. Zephyr gave me something that made most of the pain go away."

"I see. That's good to hear."

This feels slightly awkward. It was only a couple of hours ago that Holiday nearly crushed me with the power of her code. As a matter of fact, she's the reason why I woke up here... in the infirmary.

I wanted to ask her about it, but I kept my mouth shut. It seemed like she had more to say anyway.

"Strider," Holiday called out solemnly. "This time, I won't tolerate your refusal to answer my questions."

A drop of sweat slid down my face as I forced a gulp. The look on her face was nothing short of determination. What she said earlier about crippling me... I don't think she was joking, and now, nothing is keeping her from going through with it.

"Alright, fine," I sighed. "Ask away."

"What were you doing at the refinery yesterday?" she questioned. "Why did you disobey me when I told you to never come back?"

"I received the news about people going missing from a friend. She said that the refinery was the primary point of suspicion. Upon investigating and sneaking in, I saw them lining up defects and forcing them inside."

The image of the man being operated on was still on my mind. I didn't even know that I was biting my lips until it began to bleed.

"I saw... a man. They cut off his arm and replaced it with an augmented one. His screams of terror, his cries of pain, and his blood that soaked the ground, all of it—displayed right in front of his family. You, of all people, should understand how I felt at that moment. You, too, are defects. What that man went through could also happen to countless people across the city. That's why I was there, and no matter what you tell me, Holiday... I won't stop."

She kept her silence, so I proceeded to tell my side of the story, one that I had bottled up within myself for the past two years.

The first time I stepped into the undercity, I wished I had simply stayed home. What I saw that day, I couldn't believe. Coatsmen beating people up in the street. Even if it's a simple 'no' to the most ridiculous request, they marked people as defective and took them away.

I witnessed a fully conscious woman being operated on dead in the center of the streets. Her desperate wails and cries for help were met with involuntary unwillingness. She was a 'defect' for the simple fact that she refused augmentation. They amputated her legs when there was nothing wrong with her. When she fell unconscious due to the blood loss, they attached augmented legs. What did they do after that? They left her in the streets.

"Those memories refused to be buried," I said. "She was crying for help, but, out of fear, no one dared to stand up against the coatsmen. So I made a vow. If someone is clawing at hope, then I will be the first to back them even if others won't. Never will I look the other way. I will not leave an innocent person to face the same fate. Never again."

I was met by the concentrated attention of the five Calypsos. Their eyes were wide with surprise, and their jaws were slightly ajar. It didn't matter what kind of reaction they had. My answer will always be the same.

I hadn't even noticed that I was clenching my fist the entire time, and the blood that was dripping from my lips had reached my chin.

"I'm sorry," I said as I wiped it off.

"Don't be," Holiday reassured. "At least now, I can see why you continue your song and dance."

"Heh, that's one way of putting it."

"But I still don't understand why you make your path so much more rigorous than it has to be."

An uneasy silence fell between us. Her eyes looked at me with anticipation, and I have a pretty solid guess as to why that is. If she asks, I won't deny it anymore. There's a reason why I refuse to augment myself, and she knows that.

"Please, Solas. Give me an answer this time," she mumbled with a soft tone. "Why?"

"Because... it's my choice," I answered diligently. "If I wish to remain as a normal human being, then I'll do just that regardless of what the High Order dictates. The idea of forcing everyone to undergo something as life-changing as augmentation, even those who have no desire for it... It disgusts me."

Her emotions remained unchanged after I finished. I wonder if she'll condemn me for my choice. After all, I'm surrounded by augmented humans right now.

Holiday then nodded her head. "A sound reason. However, there comes a price to pay. The more you go against the High Order, the more you'll realize the gap between you and the augmented."

"I'm aware," I said.

"And you still wish to continue? Even if you stand a high chance of dying?"

"I've already made it this far. If I die, I'll die as a human. That's all."

These words may seem unrealistic, but that doesn't matter to me. What I do, I do on my own terms. As a human.

Suddenly, a soft smile appeared beneath Holiday's relaxed eyes, a look I never thought I'd see from her. It wasn't just her either. The others held the same expression, even Loki, whose smile was usually terrifying.

Zephyr rested her hand on my shoulder. "Your sister would be so proud."

My eyes widened. So many things happened while I was with them. I almost died at the hands of a general, and I was held at gunpoint by more than twenty guns.

To top it all off, Holiday almost crippled me for life. After all of that, I realized how dangerous it was for me to continue involving myself with Calypso.

However, there wasn't a single part of me that wanted it to end. Sure, I've never been closer to death before, but that's to be expected. If I can get one step closer to changing this city... this world, then I'll keep moving forward.

As I stood before the girls, I couldn't help but crack a subtle smile. Their eyes curled with warmth, and in them, I saw a glimpse of Nelia. It was as if she was smiling at me through them.

"Alright, Strider," Holiday sighed. "Go home and rest."

I figured as much. Besides, Nelia wouldn't want me endangering myself either. I only survived today because Calypso had my back. If it wasn't for them... Mother would've been devastated.

I took a deep breath and let it out. I don't know if I'll stop any time soon, but I'll certainly think about it.

From my pocket, I took out the earpiece that Astrid had given me all those months ago. After presenting it to her, I rested it on the counter next to me.

"Then... I'll be leaving now," I mumbled. "Goodbye."

"Eh?" Loki smirked. "You gonna miss us or something?"

"I'll neither confirm nor deny that, but... It'll be a shame never hearing from you guys again."

"Huh? Why wouldn't you hear from us again?" Minerva asked.

My mind went blank as they stared at me. Now I feel like I'm missing something. Even Holiday seemed confused.

"I... I thought..." I said before Holiday interrupted me.

"I don't blame you for coming to that conclusion," she scoffed. "I would've, too."

"Was that not it?"

"Trust me. As much as I would like to stick with it, we... came to the unfortunate conclusion that you can't be stopped no matter what we do. Hm... For now, we'll just say the primary reason is that Astrid vouched for you."

I turned over to Astrid, who had a proud smug on that annoying face of hers. She unwrapped a lollipop and stuck it in her mouth.

"Hehe. Be grateful, buddy," she snickered. "It took a lot to convince the boss. Not just anyone can hop aboard with Calypso, but you've more than proven yourself. Even as a pure human, I think you'll do just fine."

"And besides," Loki threw an arm around my neck and said. "You're Nemmy's kid brother and a wanted defect. If you're gonna keep tangoing with the High Order, then you should at least be under our command. That way, we can keep watch over you."

I couldn't even say anything, but for some reason, I was happy. It felt like I had recovered a piece of Nelia I never knew existed. She traveled with them, she went on missions with them, and she faced her death with them. I wanted to do the same. And now, I get to.

Well... Except for the dying part. I'll try to avoid that.

"Don't make me regret my decision," Holiday said. "And also, don't come back to the camp until you've fully recovered. Understood?"

"Solid copy," I answered.

"Good. Now, go."

I stepped out of the room and faced the statue of La Senia. Why can't I stop smiling? God, this is so embarrassing.

The legendary Calypso squad, a group that was responsible for the Insurrection of Calypso nine years ago.

Thinking about it, that must've been the true reason why Nelia died. She became a defect, so the High Order hunted her. Soon enough... I'll have to face that same fate.

At this point, it doesn't really matter. I've already made my choice. This is just the beginning. No matter what comes next, I'll be prepared to face it.

That is my choice. That... is my resolve.