Diplomatic Approach

by rei

“Have you ever grown tired of having to watch your hatchlings while getting soooo many chores done at the same time? Can’t handle the stress of multitasking when hatchlings are hyper and running amok? Wish you had an extra pair of hands to help, but can’t afford to keep hiring a maid or babysitter?”

 

“Well worry no more!”

 

“Introducing Project’s newest prototypes, the first two of their line: Household Automatons, or HA001 and HA002!”

 

“Equipped with body language sensors to quickly pick up on your hatchling’s mood swings and soothe your hatchling before a temper tantrum happens - we all know how troublesome those are. They’re also programmed to carry out household chores like cleaning up spills, vacuuming the floor, doing the laundry, you name it, they can do it! Did I mention they come built in with a diffuser to freshen up the house with your choice of air freshener? They come in both male and female models - HA001 here is a female prototype, HA002 is a male prototype, just in case you wanted the freedom of choice.”

 

“These robots have been tested against trained maids, and have consistently been shown to perform at a much more efficient rate than any other dragon when it comes to peak performance. They’re faster, more thorough in their work, and best of all, don’t complain about extra hours, except when you forget to charge their batteries.”

 

“And as if all that wasn’t enough, wait till you hear this - all Household Automatons come with a built-in camera system! No longer will you have to worry about robbers or the likes trespassing onto your property: Household Automaton will stay vigilant at all hours. Be it in the wee hours of the morning or the darkest of nights, these robots can be trusted to keep an eye on your hatchlings, even when the whole family’s out.”

 

“So step right up, good citizens, have a look for yourself and see what marvels these robots can do for you! These are only prototypes, so if you’d like to secure one of the finalized products for yourself, we ask that you please place an order in advance with Project using one of the forms provided over there.”

Had she been able to roll her eyes, HA001 - or Hawan, as she prefers to call herself - surely would’ve rolled them back into their sockets by now. Beside her, HA002 - known as Hatu between them - shoots her a warning glance, as if to say ‘not now’, though it’s wasted on her: even she understands the consequences of failing to perform satisfactorily for today’s audience. 

 

Today, as always, the crowds are clamouring to get a glimpse of these wondrous new creations. Like any other day, there are dragons of all colours and sizes jostling to the front of their exhibition area, all curious to see for themselves what sort of new product Project has come up with. Today, like any other day, HA001 and HA002 are called upon to play the role of the obedient prototypes, showing off their skills to the audience in hopes of swaying potential customers to make a purchase. 

 

Before them lies a mock setup of a messy room, complete with dirt and debris scattered across the floor, a pool of water on the countertop, and a doll sitting on the chair that’s been programmed to wail unless either of them takes the correct steps to soothe it. Without so much as a single word the two of them split up - Hatu targets the soiled floor and begins sucking up the debris with the vacuum built into his tail while snatching a cloth to wipe up the spillage, Hawan makes a beeline for the doll and tenderly picks it up - what a farce, as if hatchlings were capable of crying their lungs out for this long - while rocking it from side to side, cooing meaningless nonsense to it under her breath. Within a matter of seconds the floor is spotless, the countertop is dry, the doll has ceased its unholy shrieking. 

 

Off to the side, a scientist watches their work with an approving nod, though his expression darkens with an unspoken threat the moment Hawan meets his gaze - ‘make a mistake in front of these dragons, and you won’t like the consequences.’

 

Hawan merely affixes her blandest expression in response, pretends to ignore him while looking back over at the crowd. Hatu notices, but wisely chooses to make no comment. This is the norm for them, after all - while they may be loved by the masses, they both know it’s only for the convenience value they bring. Project knows this, too. 

If they so much as falter before the eyes of the public, Project will and can afford to replace them. It’s how they’ve always been. It would hardly be the first time she’s seen certain other models disappearing - older ones, or those that malfunction even the tiniest bit, Project sentences them all to the scrap heap. 

 

For now they are safe. As long as they do their job, spark enough interest in the public and get them to consider buying, they’re fine. 

Their most neutral expressions in place, Hawan and Hatu watch as the crowd shuffles off to other exhibits, other products Project has in mind to market to the world. It is only then they are allowed a brief modicum of rest, but even then it’s not much - robots aren’t supposed to get tired, after all, not even Project is aware that they have minds of their own. It’s better if it remains that way. 

 

No less than five minutes later the next batch of potential customers are streaming into their exhibition area, where the mock setup has been hastily reset to resemble the mess it’s meant to be. Another silent exchange of looks, this time they will swap their duties - she will handle the floor, while Hatu deals with the doll. It’s a mutual agreement they’ve come to after countless repetitions of the same tedious song and dance - the booming voice of the salesdragon, the impressed “oohs” and “aah”s of the audience, the same motions they are bound to repeat time and again for a new set of viewers every time, familiar to the point where Hawan can practically count down the seconds it takes to finish each task. 

 

Most days, they complete the tasks within an average of 30 seconds, she’s been keeping track. Hawan stifles the yawn that almost slips free - showing signs of boredom in front of an audience is shoddy showmanship, not to mention their ‘supervisor’ would surely be displeased with that. There is little that happens to break the neverending cycle - demonstrate, wait for the applause, rest, repeat. The faces of those who watch them have blurred into nothing more than an unidentifiable, vague blob. 

 

Until the day he arrives.

 

Hawan isn’t even paying attention to the crowd anymore as she leans down to whisk the doll into her arms, beginning to rock it back and forth as she always does - except this time it wriggles in her grasp, and for the first time she startles, looks down at the ‘doll’ cradled to her chest to find that she’s holding onto an actual hatchling, a baby imperial. Icy panic sinks its claws into her chest, will they be punished for such a blatant blunder? Had she just kidnapped this child from its parents? How would the crowd react? Beside her, Hatu freezes, raises a bewildered eyebrow at her before looking to their ‘supervisor’ almost helplessly - they’ve never had such a thing as this happen before. 

 

From off to the side, the scientist frowns, but waves for them to carry on as usual.

 

How he somehow clambered onto their little stage, she doesn’t know, but the crowd hasn’t seemed to mind her picking him up at all, in fact they only crowd forwards in anticipation to see just how she handles him. 

At least this one doesn’t cry as loudly as the doll does. Hatu gracefully covers her error by proceeding to quiet the doll while she makes a belated attempt at playing with the hatchling, who’s squealing enthusiastically at the idea of playing with these strangely built draconic beings. Hawan sweeps her tail around and tickles him with the tip of it, even activates the laser pointer in her pinky claw for the little one to chase around. As expected, the crowd roars with amused delight - robots who are able to play with their young ones and keep them occupied, what a marvelous additional function on top of their cleaning capabilities! The tightness in her chest loosens, Hawan allows herself to break into a grin as the hatchling pounces on her tail and latches onto it like a tiny feline refusing to let go. 

 

“What’s your name, little one?”

Her voice sounds strange to her own ears, it’s the first time Hawan has ever spoken during a live demonstration. The crowd quiets down a notch, straining to hear her words. The hatchling merely giggles, slides off her tail to leap onto a chair and from there scamper onto the countertop - how he can reach it is another thing - only to proudly announce that his name is “Ekko”. 

 

For a few more blissful minutes, Hawan is more than content to chase the little rascal around, even Hatu joins in soon enough when he sees they’ve been given the green light to cut loose somewhat - they’re designed to handle hatchlings, what could be better than a live demonstration of how robots of their line would perform with an actual hatchling, compared to a doll? For the first time in a long while, their afternoon is made just a bit brighter with Ekko’s laughter and the sweetness of the air freshener Hatu dispensed earlier - a lively fruity orange-scented mist that lingers long after exhibition hours are over. 

 

However, they cannot spend the whole day playing, their time is up once the next group arrives, waiting at the entrance of the exhibition area for their turn to enter ad witness the wonders of Project’s latest creations. Hawan gently sets the chortling Ekko down and nudges him back towards his mother, who’s been watching from the very front of the crowd since she picked him up. Surprisingly enough, the hatchling refuses to budge, instead takes them both by the hands to try and tug them offstage with him. “Play with me some more outside, please?” he begs, even as his mother shakes her head at him. Flustered, caught off-guard by the sudden pleading request, Hawan is dumbstruck for several long moments, during which Hatu attempts to gently pry him off and return him to his mother. 

 

“We… we can’t do that, Ekko,” Hawan manages at last, but it’s a weak explanation, it is nothing in the face of a stubborn hatchling determined to get answers. 

 

“Why not? Is it because your parents won’t let you play outside?” Ekko plonks himself in front of them once again, this time not even Hatu has the heart to try and move him. “Why can’t you go outside? It’s super fun outside, and you can play with me and all my other friends! Please?” Ekko takes hold of her hand, struggling to pull her along with him, she’s dragged forward a pace or two before she realises what he’s trying to do and shakes him off albeit reluctantly. 

 

“Please? Why won’t they let you go outside?” His squeaky voice cracks on a high note, bordering on a sob, Hawan’s body language scanners scream an alert to comfort him somehow, to hold him close and tell him it’ll be alright, but… she can’t. 

 

Because I want to go outside too. 

She would do close to anything to be free of this wretched place, to escape the cruelty of the staff here. She’s only seen glimpses of the pale blue sky in the world beyond Project’s steel walls, but the sight of it was enough to make her heart ache to see it again. Many are the nights when she and Hatu have shared their dreams - of endless open skies, of freedom beyond anything they’ve ever experienced, of a world where they can live in peace. Even now Hawan can still picture it in her mind’s eye, the first time she was awakened, brought to life by Project’s scientists and left alone to observe how she operated on her own with her designated partner Hatu.

 

“Please, why won’t they let us go outside?”

 

Hatu had smiled at her then, a sad smile. “We’re just prototypes. We’re just here to serve as a living example of what Project creates. Nothing more.” 

 

Ekko’s sobbing fills her ears, but all Hawan can do is stare at him helplessly, what can she say that would make him happy, when she too, dreams of living in the world that he does? What can she say, when there is nothing but white lies left to tell? 

 

What can she say, when she too, wishes she could cry?

 

Hatu makes the decision for her, firmly picking him up and depositing the protesting Ekko back in the arms of his mother, who merely gives them a blank look before dragging her child off. 

His heartbroken wailing rings in their ears for hours, maybe even days after he’s gone.

A week passes, and still Hawan cannot get Ekko’s miserable expression out of her mind. If only there had been some way of telling him just how much she’d had loved to go with him. 

 

They do not see any other hatchlings in the audience after that. 

 

Grudgingly, reluctantly, they fall back into the familiar routine like clockwork, repeating a monotonous cycle that’s been drilled into them by habit. Like a wave, the impact of Ekko’s little performance fades into tiny ripples, until it vanishes entirely. Neither of them make any mention of him afterwards, but Hawan knows Hatu will not forget him either - she’s caught him staring blankly into space more than once onstage, much to their chagrin later on. 

 

Another day, another performance to repeat. The first few times she finds herself sweeping the crowd, scanning for any small heads peeking out from the audience, but when she finds none after the first 12 hours, she lets her mind wander while her body goes through the mindless motions.

 

“...so it’s true, then. Project has trapped you, too.”

 

The cool, collected voice in her ears nearly startles a shriek from Hawan as she jumps, earning a disapproving groan from the audience when she almost drops the doll. Whipping around, her eyes frantically search for the mystery stranger who’s addressed her directly - what did they mean, ‘you too’? - but even as she does so the voice speaks again. 

 

“Don’t be alarmed. I’m a friend, and I can promise that both of you will be freed. Soon.”

 

This time Hawan just barely catches a glimpse of the cloaked figure as she spins back around, about to shoot a question at them, any question at all - who are you, how do you know about us, how can you possibly know we’ll be set free? Before the words ever leave her mouth, though, the figure melts seamlessly into the crowd once more and vanishes from her sight. Oh, what would she have given, to be able to chase after them and demand some proper answers from them, but unfortunately they were still in the middle of a demonstration. Her claws flex ever so slightly, the tips denting the tough rubber of the doll she still holds, but Hawan forces a gracious smile nonetheless and continues the show. 

 

Off to the side, however, the scientist is muttering furiously into a radio transceiver, no longer watching the two onstage, instead his eyes are fixed on the fleeting shadow of a dragon slipping out the exit.

They’re getting sloppy, for some reason. 

It is Hatu who points this out to her in the brief break they have between groups of viewers being shuffled in and out of their room. 

“How so?”

 

In response, all he does is jerk his head to the side, where staff members are already hastily resetting the mock setup to its former messy state - dirt strewn on the floor, pool of water on the countertop, the doll in its usual seat. Even as she studies the familiar scene unfolding, however, she begins to see what he’s talking about. The debris on the ground used to be spread evenly over a certain patch of tile, yet this time they’ve contented themselves with simply tossing clumps of earth on it. The overturned glass of water has been upended more haphazardly than usual, water drips over the edge of the countertop like a leaking faucet, even the doll appears to have been carelessly flung into its chair. 

 

Before Hawan can even think of a response, however, the staff have stepped back to usher in the next group of eager citizens, and there is no more time to consider such abnormalities - they’ve got better things to be doing at the moment. 

 

Their little song and dance had been a routine that was practically etched into their minds by now, something they could perform as effortlessly as blinking, but now they’re being pushed to the limit - is it just her, or are the breaks between each session growing shorter? Each demonstration must be carried out quicker, better than the last, every movement made in time to the salesdragon’s speech. More than once, Hawan catches their supervisor motioning for them to speed things up even further, it makes her itch to find out why they’re even in such a rush - whether she’ll get any answers is another matter. 

 

Once, in her haste, Hawan misses out on cleaning a minor patch of dirt, just barely noticeable to the viewers, but for her efforts - or lack thereof - she receives an excruciating burst of electricity through her circuits, her jaw is forced to clamp shut to silence the howl of pain. She can’t quite tell if it’s the shock making her sluggish, but she could almost swear that the next batch of dragons enter less than a minute after the previous ones have left - so much for an intermission, she grumbles, but what does it matter to Project whether they get rest or not?

It is a danse macabre, and they are merely characters stiffly acting out their roles, performing to the very letter of an unwritten script. 

 

Something’s changed inside the lab.

There are more guards now, more watchful observers scattered throughout the exhibition area, even a few planted amongst the audience members. Hawan can pick them out easily just from the tense way they hold themselves compared to the unassuming curiosity of the public. Like wary birds of prey they circle the perimeter of the clustered viewers, their gazes flicker back and forth as if on the lookout for something, someone. 

 

Granted, on the surface it appears as if business is simply booming for Project - dragons scramble to snag the preorder forms as if they’re solid gold, smiling Project employees are always on hand to shake hands with them, yes yes, thank you for your interest, we hope to see you again soon. The same old story. They should be rejoicing at the profits that will soon come rolling in for the company, but Hawan knows that for some reason, they’re not as happy as they should be.

 

Something is happening, but they do not know what.

 

Once, Hatu makes the mistake of asking their usual supervising employee as to why the security has been tightened. No words are spoken, but the grim scowl on the dragon’s face tells them enough. 

He does not perform with her that day. 

 

Once, perhaps, they would have been told what was going on, perhaps heard whispers from conversations in passing, but now even that much is impossible. Now Project’s staff do nothing but monitor them constantly, whether it’s with cameras installed in their chamber or security guards posted at every possible entrance, not once are they ever allowed to escape the intense scrutiny. It makes Hawan’s skin - if you can call it that - crawl, it’s bad enough that they must be seen by so many people in one day, but to strip away their privacy completely even during intermissions… 

 

Then again, they’re just prototypes.

Prototypes don’t need privacy.

It is another month before anything remotely new happens. An entire month of tension so thick that one could slice it open with a claw, an entire month’s worth of waiting while poised on the edge, a month since she was left with the promise of freedom lingering in her ears. 

 

At first, Hatu had doubted her when she’d filled him in about the day’s events. Impossible, he’d dismissed it with a shake of his head, she must have misheard someone in the crowd. Somehow she must’ve made a mistake somewhere, he begins, it sounds too far-fetched to possibly be true-

 

Halfway through their little discussion, Project’s staff come to drag them away from their little stage. Zero explanations are given, they do not meet her eyes when Hatu screeches in agony and attempts to break free. Resistance is futile, unfortunately, as Hawan soon discovers when she struggles for the briefest of moments, blinding pain instantaneously flashes through her senses as her systems crash, leaving her with no way to -

 

Rebooting…

 

Updating system files… 

 

Updating... 25% complete…

 

Updating… 67% complete....

 

Updating… 100% complete. 

 

Hawan cracks her eyes open tentatively, half-expecting to be hit with the crippling power surge from before, but exhales a relieved sigh when nothing of the sort happens. Craning her head to the side reveals Hatu, who appears equally disoriented as she is. 

 

A scientist bends down to examine her closely, but what astonishes Hawan is the sudden influx of information that her sensors pick up from him - furrowed eyebrows, tense posture, the hasty scribbling of notes in a clipboard, her system in no uncertain terms tells her that this is a dragon who’s unsure of something and wants to identify it immediately. The longer she keeps her eyes on him the more the signals emanating from him change with the passing of each minute, her mind working to put together the visual and verbal cues from her sensory input for a detailed conclusion of the targeted dragon’s mood status, as well as generating suggestions for dealing with a subject in this condition. Hawan silently marvels at these newfound capabilities, previously she’d only been able to read the moods of young hatchlings, never adults. Out of curiosity, she swings her head to the side to try and read Hatu - only to find his gaze already trained on her unblinkingly. It’s almost unnerving, but soon enough he snaps back to his normal self and gives her the tiniest of reassuring nods.

A definite improvement, in her eyes, but the question remains - why? 

 

“HA001, can you read me?”

 

She blinks. “Affirmative. Updated programs have been automatically launched upon start-up.” 

Beside her, Hatu echoes the affirmation.

 

An approving grin is all she gets before his cheeriness fades, replaced by something much more grim. Without thinking, Hawan begins scanning him for the telltale signs that will aid in identifying the problem, but he cuts her off before the process is even midway through.

 

“Units HA001 and HA002 have been upgraded with v 2.0 of the advanced body scanning feature, as well as the body language filter program. You are instructed to utilise these functions in checking the crowd for suspicious individuals, and reporting them to authorised FL/GHT staff. These are your secondary objectives.”

 

Suspicious individuals.

Something in his voice tells Hawan that’s not all there is to the story, but she suppresses the urge to ask. Better to wait and see for herself. 

 

“Yes, sir.”

Without further delay, Hawan and Hatu are returned to their stage, with orders to continue performing as per usual for the public. Project certainly doesn’t waste time, she muses, something Hatu is none too pleased about. 

 

“You think the ones that we’re watching out for might be related to your mystery saviour from the other day?”

 

Hawan shrugs, careful to keep the motion discreet. Around them swarm Project staff rushing to set up the mock scene, neither can afford to draw unnecessary attention to their hushed conversation. “Possible. But who knows?” 

 

One of the staff frowns at them for a moment, Hatu freezes in place until the dragon turns away from him, about to reply when a fresh group of excitedly chattering dragons stream into the exhibition area. Hawan can only sigh in anticipation of yet another mundane day of the same routine, forcing a bright smile to stretch across her lips as she reaches down to pick up the doll, only to nearly drop it as -

 

The doll shudders to life, blinks up at her and contorts its tiny mouth to utter just two words. 

“Be ready.”

 

“Wha- ?! ”

 

A streaking plasma arrow embeds itself in the doll’s skull with a dull thud, Hawan releases it as if she’s been electrified and skitters backwards with a yelp. 

From the now-broken head - no, from the arrow, she sees that now - a hologram crackles into existence, hovering in the air like a taunting signal. A triangle, with three lines running parallel to its sides, and a single, mesmerising word beneath it:

 

FL/GHT.

 

Someone in the audience shrieks a warning to get down, but stranded as they are onstage, there’s nowhere for them to take cover. There is a faint whistling noise as a volley of gleaming arrows whizz across the room. One lands inches from Hatu’s ear, Hawan can hear the quiet hiss he emits when he flinches away from it. She herself is crouched beneath the countertop, peeks out a second later to see what’s going on.

 

The lights go out. 

 

The plunge into darkness is dizzying, but they can still see with their augmented eyes. Not so much the others - the sudden pitch-blackness sends most into mass hysteria. Their cries echo off the walls, only escalating in volume when something explodes with a deafening boom just over their heads. Sparks fly wildly from the smoking remains of the camera, for a moment Hawan thinks she sees something flickering from one camera to the next -

 

Then that camera bursts in a shower of metal and sparks, and the next, a chain series of explosions that rock the entire chamber to its very foundations. Civilians flee for the one bright spot amidst the chaos - the exit gate, nearly trample over each other in their haste to get away. Their panicked cries split the air, but for Hawan and Hatu, there is no such terror in their hearts.

 

Hawan’s just gotten off the stage when something materializes beside her, a silhouette visible only by the neon markings glowing on their body. An identical figure lands beside Hatu and helps him down from the platform, before flanking them both and urging them towards the exit. 

 

“Wait, we can’t go through the gate, not without the access code!”

Hatu’s despairing yell slices through whatever hope she had, but the dragons beside her hold fast. One of them touches her ear, begins speaking into what Hawan assumes is an intercom.

 

“We’ve got a problem at the gate!” 

 

Whatever is spoken on the other end remains unknown to them. Doesn’t matter,  a burst of gunfire forces them to drop to the ground right afterwards. Hawan squeezes her eyes open once it ceases, only to freeze in pure horror at the sight she’s met with. 

 

Great hulking behemoths of titanium plating march inexorably towards their little party, equipped with menacing arm cannons. Hatu dives out of the way as one takes aim at him and fires, the missile shatters steel easily as it would glass and sends shards flying everywhere.

They do not want to imagine being hit by one of those.  

 

A bestial roar interrupts them as an equally bulky figure smashes through the gate without a second thought, charging right for the sentry robots. He launches into a devastating spin moments before he hits the first of the bots, plasma blade shearing clean through their ranks. For a second, they lose sight of him amidst the massive giants. All their eyes can make out is a dizzying blur of destruction, sending sparks flying in all directions along with metallic chunks of the sentry robots.

 

Seconds later he spins right back out of their midst, pieces of sizzling metal hitting the ground as the robots fall. The only one to survive the attack steps back and lands a booming shot square in the back - Hawan and Hatu both gasp in instant dismay, no one could’ve survived that.

Yet the figure shrugs it off, hefts his sword and promptly cleaves into half, quarters, till little remains of the bot but shredded bits of metal. 

 

As impressive as the sight is, more sentry bots are already appearing. With a growl, the figure turns back just for a moment to bark an order. 

 

“Cipher, Error, move! Bring them to the rendezvous point, I’ll catch up.” 

With that, he turns his back on them once more, tilts his head back to utter the most bone-chilling battle cry they’ve ever heard. All they see of him is flashes of light from his swinging blade before Cipher and Error hustle them out of the ruined gate. With no time to waste, they break into a full sprint through the visitor’s corridors, bolting out the exit, where Cipher leads them to a concealed manhole and pops the lid off. One by one they descend into the underground passageway, Hatu tugs Hawan to her feet when she nearly trips mid-step, they must keep moving, Error urges them. 

 

It is only after a solid ten to fifteen minutes of fleeing through the underground tunnels that they are met with someone else. 

The dragon lowers her bow with a relieved sigh upon seeing them up close, somewhat belatedly Hawan recognises them to be the unseen archer who had shot the doll in the first place. Behind them, heavy thudding footsteps resound, moments later the same swordfighter from before appears, grinning triumphantly. 

 

For the first time since the madness back at the lab, Hawan speaks, having come to a sudden realization about something. 

 

“This is what you meant by freeing us, didn’t you? You knew you were seen that day.”

 

The archer’s face lights up instantly. 

 

“Yes. This might hardly be the right place for it, but…”

 

“Welcome to FL/GHT.”

Hawan and Hatu have settled into FL/GHT quite well, despite their less than extraordinary attributes compared to most other FL/GHT members. Their experiences with the body language scanners and the partner-program it comes with have made them ideal candidates for the role of diplomats, a role that both were eager to take on. Even their diffusers have been since altered to diffuse essential oils instead of regular air freshener, for various additional effects on those they enter into negotiations with. 

What better way to negotiate than having diplomats who are able to easily read the other party’s emotions and adapt suitable strategies from there? Granted, finding training for them is a challenge, but Ashe has done her best to teach them what she has learnt from her own dealings. The rest, they must learn from experience.

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