The screwdriver incident
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
These are the 3 Laws of Robotics, which all Clockwork Soul androids must abide by.
She wasn’t supposed to be here.
Kourai watched the laboratory from the shelter of the forest, her legs tucked under her body. While no one being found out was ideal, well... if it came to that, better her than Metals. She was already a known affiliate of FL/GHT, and he was a spy. It wouldn't do to get his cover blown. See, if she painted it in that light, she was almost being logical. This was almost a decision that made sense, and not a rogue mission that'd probably get her scrapped.
This was technically the lab's grounds, but she still had plausible deniability - Oh, I've so sorry, I was flying and I didn't see the fence! I didn't know this belonged to anyone. As if it was possible to miss. As if she didn't know exactly what she was doing, coming back to the place of her own creation.
Leviathan-Wheeler Labs. Affiliate company to Project. Home of the Clockwork Souls, the line of androids she had been born from.
Footsteps sounded from alarmingly close by, forcing her to duck behind a rock for cover before cautiously peeking out. A young coatl stood no more than twenty feet away, clutching a sandwich. Funny, he didn't... look like an employee, aside from the way he was dressed, complete with goggles and lab coat. Couldn't have been any older than fourteen, surely. Maybe he was someone's kid? Well, it didn't really matter. Now wasn't the right time to reveal herself. There were more important things to be done here, and she wasn’t about to let this suicide mission go awry from the very beginning.
Even as she kept a wary eye on the coatl, he winced abruptly, feathers ruffling as if in response to something he’d heard, and Kourai fought the urge to look around, knowing any movement could give her away.
"Um, hello?" His voice cracked, betraying his young age (as if the size wouldn't tip anyone off). "Is... someone there?" He hesitated. "Dublin? Is someone - did you bring something?"
She held her breath. If she kept silent...
"Just..." His voice trailed a little. "You're being kind of - loud is all."
That wasn't right. How could he possibly have heard her? She - well, there was a limit to how quiet she could be, after all, machinery made noise, no matter how muffled. Hiding would only make her look even more guilty at this point. Forcing her most innocent smile, she stumbled out from behind the rock, half-stumbling as if she'd been walking for a while. "Oh! It's good to see someone." She chimed, scratching her head somewhat sheepishly. "Sorry to disturb you, I, ah, I got a little lost. See, I was doing some errands for my clan, and there was this big lightning storm that sort of forced me to land, and... ah, long story short, I'm not sure where I am?"
Gods, something about this place put her on edge. Maybe it was because of what little she already knew about the lab, but something just felt wrong. Every inch of her screamed to be gone from here, to run and never look back, but she’d come all this way for a reason. There had to be some way around the Three Laws, and if there were any answers to be found, they would be here, at the origin of her creation.
"Wheeler-Leviathan Laboratories. We're a little ways off from the lab - you don't seem damaged, at least. Could probably fix you up if you needed it though." Treading closer, his feathers sprang all the way up at the sound of near-inaudible ticking. Without thinking, she stepped back a pace, all too aware of the way his eyes seemed to bore right through her, as if he wasn’t quite looking at her, but at something deeper within. It was a look she’d seen countless times before - the sizing up of parts, the collective sum of her components outweighing her worth as a ‘being’. It made her skin crawl.
“Oh! A Clockwork Soul? I knew you sounded familiar."
"A... Clockwork Soul?" Her pulse quickened, the perpetual ticking inside her chest speeding up. He knew of her kind. Had he made her, too? Sensing that they were treading on perilous ground, she swallowed down the pressing urge to seize him by the shoulders and demand all he knew. Instead she kept her smile as bright as always, and her tone equally cheery, though the hand clutching her pearl trembled, ever so slightly.
Do you know who I am?
“Yeah, there’s some clockwork in me! I’ve heard it.” Inching closer, she cocked her head to the side, eyeing him carefully even as a new thought struck her. It was a far stretch, but if he knew enough to identify her on sight so quickly, could he be… ? Was he… ?
“No way,” she breathed. “Did you make me?”
Her real creator. This was lunacy.
"Yeah! Well, I guess technically me and Metals. He helps with assembly - I find the pieces and put them in place.” Visibly relaxing, the young engineer smiled back at her innocently, looking almost too pleased at this chance meeting - or was she imagining things? "Looks like everything's been going alright with everyone?"
Everyone... oh. He must’ve been referring to the clan that had bought her - though wording it that way had never sat well with her. They were the first friends she’d come to know, and they were good people who took care to honour her requests not to be ordered around. FL/GHT, of course, were largely incapable of setting off the Three Laws, seeing as most of them were androids themselves, but he didn’t know that.
"Oh, you know, it - hasn't always been perfect, but it's been good. There are people who look out for me, they're careful and they care." She chimed nonchalantly, figuring that was a neutral enough middle ground. Sure, there were still some imperfections, but frankly, it was more than she'd ever dreamed of. Just being around people who meant well, people who saw her as she was... at some point, her dream had become reality, and she would never forget those who had made it possible.
Before she could think to say anything else, his expression morphed abruptly into something inscrutable - lips pursed, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, staring not at her but through her. If she hadn't known any better, she would've thought he was in pain. He was coming closer, now, stepping right into her bubble of personal space - she took one step back, and he followed with one step forward, still staring at her with those too-sharp eyes, as if he knew something she didn't. It sent a chill down her spine even as she forced her voice to retain some trace of its former calmness, blinking up at him with bewildered eyes. There was no way he could know she was from FL/GHT, no way of knowing what she'd really come here in search of. Despite knowing that, a part of her deep down remained unconvinced, creeping doubt unfurling within her throat and threatening to choke her.
There was no way he could possibly know, she repeated to herself.
"Er, pardon, what's - what's wrong?"
She hadn't done anything wrong, had she? Bracing herself for the inevitable accusations, she dug her feet into the dirt beneath, prepared to turn tail and flee the moment things got ugly. Instead, she was met with three simple words.
"Who hurt you?"
Hurt... ? Something wasn’t making sense here. Backing away steadily, she flinched back even as he approached, one hand outstretched and reaching for the shining pearl in her grasp. Shoving down the apprehension that had risen in her throat, she clutched it tight to her chest, eyes darting about for an escape. What had gotten into him? He was just a child, surely he wasn’t like the others, the ones who had poked and prodded and taken her apart at the seams to deduce her every flaw-
"Hey! Cut it out!"
It didn’t sound like her own voice, thin and too high and far more shaky than she would ever willingly admit. She cringed back from his reach, desperately praying she had not made a most terrible mistake in coming here. He wasn’t allowed to touch that. It belonged to her, the jumble of messages and memories stored away for the days when she couldn’t even trust her own mind. "You're- you're acting weird. Do you even hear me?" she asked tentatively, her smile stretched taut across her frozen face, clockwork ticking away so aggressively she feared the gears would explode from within her chest.
As if he’d been snapped free of some enchantment, the coatl halted completely, feathered crests drooping limply. At least he had the grace to appear sorry, she reflected, loosening her grip on the precious burden in her arms, now that the moment of danger had passed.
"Right. Pearlcatcher model." He took a step back. "I'm sorry." The words were genuine enough as he picked at a blade of grass, eyes downcast. "You're all so loud. It's hard to pick out a single one sometimes. I - someone messed with your pearl, though, didn't they?" Gesturing towards it vaguely, he continued to squint at the pearl’s metallic surface, though he made no move to touch it again. "I think an en-vee-em rom specifically. They aren't good with using Draconic." A pause.
"Right. You don't hear it, do you." A statement, not a question.
Hear what? Maybe he really was mad. Or ill. Fevers did that to you sometimes, didn’t they? Maybe he wasn’t feeling well, or something like that. She caught herself just before she opened her mouth to ask what on earth he was babbling about, mentally chiding herself for sympathizing with the enemy.
Focus. Remember the goal. She wasn’t here to talk in riddles with eccentric child engineers, no matter how brilliant. If this was her true creator, he had to know something about the laws that governed her every action, kept her prisoner in her own body. All he needed was a little prodding in the right direction, but his thoughts had all the coordination of a train gone off its rails, spinning wildly beyond her wildest of imaginations. The best she could do was play along, nudge him into spilling details about her creation.
"Well. Someone messed with my everything, I guess. I, um. Don't really know the full extent of what she did." Strange. His apology seemed genuine, but she couldn’t even begin to fathom what was going on in that mind of his. It bothered her. Chewing her lip, she shook her head, quite lost as to what he might be referring to. "I, yeah- I'm sorry, but I really don't know what you're talking about."
"All of you." Waving along the length of her body, he continued. “Every wire, every plate, every chip - they're speaking right now. But I'm sure you don't hear it. No one else does, not even Metals." Despite his sad smile and her frown, his tone was rather cheery. "They're happy being you, you know. Well, except the NVM ROM. It was happy when I first put everything together, I'm certain - I don't let anyone leave until they're happy where they are and who they're with." Sighing, he redirected his gaze to the pearl, the smile vanishing as swiftly as it had formed, clearly troubled by whatever it was he was hearing. "Oh, just what did she do to you?"
She didn’t have any answers to that. By all rights, he was the enemy, the one responsible for the accursed laws embedded into her programming, and the rightful recipient of her hatred. Yet she couldn’t find it in herself to be furious with him, even though she’d replayed this very same scenario in her head a dozen times and more.
They're happy being you, you know. Despite that being one of the oddest things he'd said, it reassured her the most(whatever little that counted for). Dwelling too long on the way he’d addressed the parts inside of her as if they were alive wouldn’t do her any good now. Besides, she needed answers, and he was the only one who could provide them, at least for the time being. "Listen,” she began hesitantly, still keeping a wary watch on her surroundings, “you can take a look, but just don't do anything until I give you permission, okay?"
Surprisingly, he nodded, accepting the condition without complaint. "I... can open it up out here,” he explained. “I wouldn't go any further without my tools, though. It'll hurt them to try anything barehanded." He held out his hands expectantly, careful not to move too quickly or to try reaching for the pearl again. When it became clear he meant what he’d said, she gingerly deposited the metallic orb in his hands, fingers lingering over the cool surface for just a moment longer than necessary before drawing back. The lack of reassuring weight felt far more prominent than it should have, left her shifting uneasily from one foot to another, fidgeting restlessly with the soft ends of the scarf around her neck. It simply wasn’t meant to be gone. Even when they’d made her, the pearl had been a part of her from the very beginning. To hand over what was, for all intents and purposes, a second heart, felt undeniably wrong.
For someone so young, she wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting. A little clumsiness, perhaps, some trembling in the fingers. But no, he simply examined the pearl with almost far-too-practiced ease, arranging his fingers in some complex pattern on the outer shell before pressing an unseen switch. A thin seam formed along the pearl, and the coatl glanced up at her, silently seeking permission to split it open and peer within.
To any dragon, the sight was likely normal - a routine dismantling of mechanical parts. But this was her pearl, part of her body. It was like watching someone perform surgery on your brain while it was outside of your skull. One slip, one mistake, and everything was over.
Her memories. Her secrets. All in the hands of a stranger. She’d been wrong to allow this, she decided, he would inevitably mess up somewhere and what that could do to her, she didn’t know. Better to let FL/GHT handle it, than a kid who for all she knew, wouldn’t hesitate to rob her of her newfound freedom. Just as she was about to stop him, however, a small, wounded noise escaped the horrified coatl, who was staring at a blue computer chip planted within. Small black bars had been seamlessly interconnected in - sans one, messily soldered on.
"Oh." His voice shook. "Uh. Wow. That's-" He broke off with a shudder, gaze still fixated on the chip. Despite her initial misgivings, she couldn’t help but inch closer to see for herself, blinking at the obvious flaw. Had it always been like that? She’d never really noticed, but seeing it like this now... it certainly didn’t look normal.
"That doesn't look right." She echoed, blinking.
"That's - gods, they mutilated you, didn't they?" It was clear, though, he was addressing the small computer chip, wincing at something she couldn’t quite hear and practically scrambling to comfort the tiny broken piece of her as if it were a newborn. "It's ok, I've got everything back at the lab, I can help you-"
No good. It was like he couldn’t even hear her anymore, too focused on the chip to even realize she was standing right in front of him. Not even waving her hand in front of his face worked. It was as if ‘Kourai’ didn’t matter, she realized, but only the mechanical components that made up her body did.
Mutilated. That was one way to put it. It was probably for the best that she didn’t remember most of the actual process - it hadn’t hurt, not really, and she’d agreed to it in the first place in desperate hope that it would give her some way around the laws of robotics. Taking a hesitant step towards the fretting engineer still hunched over her split pearl, she gave him a gentle nudge on the shoulder, clearing her throat. “If you undid that, do you know what would happen?” she prodded, laying one hand atop the surface of one of the metallic halves, swallowing hard as she carefully selected her next words. "Let's just, I don't know, learn what it does before we do anything drastic."
'We' was comforting. 'We' meant she had a say in what happened next, even if she wasn't entirely certain that was true.
"Oh, that's easy. It's a processing unit." His tone had gone utterly flat, almost chilling in its detachment. "Since it's on the NVM ROM, that means they were probably trying to expand long-term memory space and affect base programming. Clearing it off might require me to disconnect the battery - I heard that!" He practically hissed the last words aloud, glaring at something unseen, obviously addressing one of the voices only he could hear. "I'll put it back afterwards! - and dump memory files, but I'll definitely be able to remove it."
Dump memory files. Affect base programming. Expand long-term memory space.
She went cold. Memory files. She couldn’t afford to lose those. Not again. It took every ounce of self-control to keep herself from protesting immediately, doing so would only make her look far more suspicious than she already did. Somewhere in the distance, she was vaguely aware of the coatl saying something else, but the words were fading in and out of her hearing. Something about it being painless. She’d be lucky if that was the only thing she had to worry about.
So far she’d gotten lucky, to be spotted by someone who hadn’t called security or tried to capture her for resale. She absolutely could and would not waste this precious opportunity she’d been given. Shoving down the acrid fear rising at the back of her throat, she twisted her mouth into a gruesome semblance of a smile, not that he appeared to notice. “Yeah, okay, let’s fix it,” she agreed, ignoring the tremor in her own voice. "But, um... sorry, this is hard to say, and it might not make any sense. Could I say goodbye for a second? I know it might seem silly, but the stuff we're getting rid of was part of me for a long time."
He looked up at her - not in suspicion, but blatant confusion. "But.... it's hurting right now." Some emotion leaked back into his voice. "Why would you want to put off fixing it?"
It was so tempting to bite back that it couldn't possibly hurt, it was just a chip and a bunch of wires, but then again she was a bunch of wires and plates of metal and that had never stopped her before. Maybe it was in pain. She couldn't know. And right now, she didn't especially care. "Not for long, just... a minute, less, even." Was that desperation, coloring her words with the reek of despair? Funny. That didn't suit the act. "When something's been with you for as long as you can remember, it can be scary to let it go, you know?” A pause for breath, before she looked straight into his eyes.
"I know it's for the best, I'll let you do it, I just... need a second to say goodbye."
Silence dwarfed them, left them both stranded for words that wouldn’t come. The uncertainty on his face was written clearly into the frown lines, the way he simply kept staring at her like she’d sprouted an extra pair of wings.
It’s hurting right now.
Her, or him?
"I mean, I'd be taking you to the lab with me,” he offered at last. “The place is huge, I wouldn't want you getting hurt while I was working or anything." For a moment, she could have sworn she’d caught a glimpse of something flickering across his face, but it was gone in a blink, replaced with a placid smile. "Besides, Dublin might try reselling you if he saw you walking around." It stung at her pride, even as he gently closed the pearl back up, twisting it and letting the seam vanish before scooping it into his arms. The sight of him carrying her pearl didn’t sit well, unease prickling unpleasantly beneath her skin. She should be the one carrying it. It had no business being in his possession, not even for a second.
Worse came to worse, even if she lost her memories, she'd still be Kourai. She'd find the messages again, she would, this wasn't the end of the world. Besides, the whole point of coming here was to get into the lab. She couldn’t exactly afford to say no. It occurred to her somewhat belatedly that this was merely karmic punishment, for leaving without a word to her peers back at FL/GHT. Ashe could be mad at her later, if she made it out of this intact.
"If - if you'd be okay with it, I'd like that. I've always been curious about where I came from." That much was genuine. This simply hadn’t been quite how she’d envisioned their encounter to be like. "It's... sorry, it's been a long day, but I'm pretty starstruck to meet my real creator. If you'd be okay with showing me the lab, then yeah, let's go."
It was the truth. Just not the full one.
"I mean, of course! I guess it's sorta your home too, so why not?" He paused, seeming to give it some genuine thought. "I mean.... maybe more a nesting ground. I guess your current clan is your home... a second home?" Mulling over the idea, he carefully cradled the pearl close so he could reach above the rock and get his sandwich back, though he gave up trying to hold both pearl and sandwich at the same time. With a dejected noise, he tossed the sandwich up and caught it in his mouth to chew, bag and all.
"So, yeah," he said, mouth full. " 'dis way. Also, my name's Skylar." He jerked his head back towards the main building.
"Oh, man. It's weird to think about." A nesting ground, huh? The very idea of it felt almost foreign, when you considered the circumstances of her ‘birth’. "I never really... thought of myself in terms of having a nesting ground," she admitted, tilting back her head to stare up at the sky above them. "But yeah. My current clan, they're really good to me. Yours is, too, right?" She piped, more curious about the topic than she was willing to admit to herself.
"Acsh-" Skylar swallowed, sandwich remnants and chewed-up bag alike. "I mean, I don't actually interact with most of them." The pang of sympathy deep in her stomach felt... weird. This whole thing was weird. Listening to him ramble on about his clanmates only increased the unnerving sense of something horribly, dreadfully wrong. He was a threat, but he was also, what, ten? Countless times, she’d played out the scenario of their meeting in her head, thought of all the things she’d tell her creator off for, but seeing him now, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. He was just a child. In some ways, she was older than him.
She didn’t like it. He was supposed to be the enemy. There was no place in her heart for sympathy, not for the likes of him. Yet the more he talked, the more she observed him, the more obvious it became that he was only mortal, capable of mistakes just like any other dragon. Preoccupied with her own thoughts, she lost track of his rambling completely, only came back to her senses when she caught him glancing over at her.
"I think that covers dealing with them? But you don't have to be nervous either. They're pretty good people."
She nodded along, pretending to understand and praying she hadn’t been caught zoning out. "They sound like an interesting bunch." She replied, and despite herself, the fondness wasn't all fake. Interesting-but-good people were her favorites. Her clan was full of them, after all, and she wouldn’t be here today if not for their help.
"They are. I mean, I guess if you or your clan ever need a potion made or a card reading or stuff, you should probably try reaching out." Potionmaking, card reading - it sounded like the rest of his clan leaned more towards magic than science. She gave a thoughtful hum, thinking on it for just a moment, before the coatl giggled. "Though, looks like you got a brewer too - hey, hey-" He gestured towards her goggles and then his own. Mildly confused, she simply blinked at him before he explained: "Goggle buddies!"
"Goggle buddies!" She agreed, a grin splitting her face even as she visibly relaxed, glad to have found some sort of common ground. "Yeah, we've got a bit of an alchemist, but she's... better at exploding things then making 'em."
Maybe so, but she had nothing but fond memories of Smolder. If not for that absentminded noodle of a dragon, she wouldn't have encountered her clan. She chuckled to herself, before Wheeler-Leviathan Laboratories came into view, looming in all its modern-cubic glory. She tipped her head back to take in the entire building, joy fading into awe.
So there was where she was born.
Stepping ahead to get the door, she was about to offer to carry her pearl - anything to have it safe in her grasp again, just for a moment - when Skylar bumped his snout against the door itself for leverage, pushing it open with the pearl safely in his arms. At least he was being careful with it, she supposed. That much, she had to give him credit for.
Inside proved only a little less intimidating and sterile than the outside - different from Project, but this place was unmistakably a robotics lab. Distant chatter buzzed in the background as they took an immediate left through the corridor, Skylar barely even pausing to check if she was following before veering for the second door down the hallway.
Multiple server racks loomed over them, sleek black cages of steel which elicited a half-hearted wave from the engineer, pain contorting his features briefly. Beside the racks stood a drawing desk with a motherboard and a half-completed sketch resting atop it, though she couldn't quite see what was drawn on the paper, and in the middle of the room rested a strange cylindrical apparatus, multiple mechanical arms raised above it almost menacingly.
He meant her no harm, or so he'd said. Yet something about actually standing in the workshop where she and countless other robots had been made set her nerves on edge. Had she seen all this before she'd been sold? Had he assembled her piece by piece on that very same desk? Without thinking, her pace slowed, stopping now and then to admire whatever caught her eye. It was disturbing, to say the least, to think that she would one day return to her origins like this - and they could just as easily reset her, if they wanted. Surely Skylar knew how to do it, and a rogue android loose in their workshop would most definitely warrant immediate disarmament of her defensive mechanisms. One misstep, and she would fall to her doom.
"This is... nice, I think, something about it feels right." Maybe something deep inside her subconsciousness remembered this place after all. Her eyes and her heart told her different stories, but she wasn't sure which one was comfortable and which one was afraid. Wasn't that funny? Pearlcatcher and pearl were meant to be one, but here she was, torn between nagging familiarity and a growing sense of dread, both voices threatening to drown each other out in her mind. Glancing at the raised arms, a frown creased her face where wonder had been a moment before, her heart sinking even deeper within her clockwork chest. How could she have forgotten?
A robot with exposed metal plates and golden runes, shaped almost like her, was tending to the apparatus. Metals. The only father she could claim to truly have, working as a spy for FL/GHT whilst located within Leviathan-Wheeler Labs - both were the first Clockwork Souls in existence, but unlike her mother Kaya, Metals had to remain here. He spared only a glance at first before doing a double-take at Skylar and the pearl he held, before cautiously raising his head to try to peer behind the short coatl, recognition flaring bright within his eyes, though it died out as soon as it had appeared. What little hope she'd held flickered out, replaced with heavy guilt. She'd meant to make his job easier, not harder. Mouthing a silent apology, she turned back to Skylar, pretending not to notice the way Metals' hands were trembling. "Do the server racks not get along?" she queried, unable to completely suppress the sorrow in her voice.
He nodded, apparently missing Metals' reaction (who, upon seeing Kourai without a pearl, seemed to make a point of appearing to focus on the apparatus). "Boss says they can order new ones next quarter. I keep asking them to just let me try swapping some around first." He set the drawing desk flat and gently pushed aside the paper, shaking his head. "I think they'd be a lot happier if they could find who they belonged with."
Who they belonged with. Not a concept she would ordinarily associate with machinery and robotics, but she didn’t have the heart to mention as much. It was with quiet unease that she watched him open her pearl back up with almost frightening ease - that was a part of her, he couldn’t just do that and not be the slightest bit disturbed at how much of her he was holding in those slender hands.
"I guess if you want to say bye now? I just need to grab my work tools." He jabbed his thumb over to a more traditional-looking desk, complete with computer; sprawled over its surface were numerous tools for hardware.
Goodbye. The word alone made her skin crawl with apprehension, biting her lip to suppress the shiver that ran up her spine. Her memories, her thoughts - everything that made up the consciousness known as ‘Kourai’ - rested in that pearl. It had become her refuge, her sanctuary when not even her consciousness had been within her control, and now all of that was about to disappear. She would do anything to snatch it back, if not for the inevitable alarm being raised right after - she’d come too far to turn back now, and being brainwashed was not an option. Its metallic surface was comfortingly cool against her palm as she rested her hand on it, staring hard at the complex, crisscrossing inner mechanisms, a million thoughts swirling restlessly in the recesses of her mind.
"We've been through a lot, huh?" A subdued chuckle. "Thanks for being with me. I couldn't have done it without you."
It was odd, talking to a part of herself. Weirder still was the fact that her words weren't entirely false. She never would've made it out without her pearl - at least, not intact. Not alive, however one chose to define that word. Fighting the urge to scoop it up and hold it tight, she instead schooled her features into as kind a mask she could muster - he was still young, nothing like her fevered imaginations of a graying, crazed scientist.
"And, you know-" She turned back to Skylar, a faint smile on her face. "Thanks for creating me. I like being alive. I guess I owe you a lot, huh?” Back turned, Skylar waved bashfully at her, blissfully unaware as he dug through a desk drawer - completely missing the way her hand crept towards one of the tools on the desk, or how her expression hardened into something grim and almost cruel in its viciousness. “Thanks for keeping your word and letting me say goodbye, and-"
“The second law states a robot must obey orders given by a dragon unless they conflict with the first law - in short, a laboratory creating three-laws-compliant robots cannot be building them to harm dragons. They may build them to harm other forms of life, including other robots, but not dragons. In addition, short of disconnecting auditory receptors, I cannot find a way around this law either. Purposefully misinterpreting orders does not work.”
The Third Law kicked in. She couldn't purposefully damage herself without cause, but every rule has its exception: if it would prevent her from enduring greater harm, then the laws wouldn't stop her. It was only pragmatic. Having her memories, her thought processes changed or removed completely, that would alter her on a fundamental level. Every scrap of precious knowledge she had amassed - gone. Everything that made her uniquely ‘her’ - gone. She might not even be the same person afterwards. Just a blank slate, waiting for someone to make an impression.
What greater harm was there than that?
Closing her eyes, Kourai gritted her teeth and curled her fingers tight around the screwdriver. She smiled at Skylar.
"...if you trust me, look away."
Attention fully captured, he turned in time to see Kourai drive the screwdriver tip through her head.
It was supposed to be a quick lunch break. That was all. Some time where he could eat and receive a brief respite from the parts. He couldn't call them voices, not really, even if that's what his big brother had called them during their worst argument. He also laughed nervously when his best friend - his boss, his co-boss - called them 'his muse' because that wasn't right either. They were parts, and they wanted a whole to be with. They made very sure Skylar knew that too, and there were so many in Wheeler-Leviathan Laboratories. The separate parts in his lab. The joined parts in the breakroom. The not-yet-processed parts in Testing.
Outside was the only place he could hear himself think and think nothing at all, at least for a little bit before he'd grin and get back to work with the parts, listening to their wants and needs and desires.
Just a quick break.
The Kourai model and their parts, all several dozen of them, put the kibosh on that. But not in a bad way! Snowy never got to hear about any of the models made after testing was completed, and getting to see one again would've been fantastic, knowing how they were doing and hearing everyone getting along.
It should've been.
Now they were at his workspace. He needed his tools. The de-soldering bulb. The soldering iron. Heavier gloves. Pincers. Screwdriver - where was that?
"And you know-" Oh, the model was speaking. Through the voicebox. Not the voicebox itself, the voicebox 'spoke' with a rattle and wheeze while Kourai's voice was solid and strong. "Thanks for creating me. I like being alive. I guess I owe you a lot, huh?” He didn't look up, but he did pause in his search to give a bashful, dismissive wave. All he did was listen to the parts, put them together as they asked, assembled them into a functional frame. Kourai ought to be thanking her parts, not him. Then again, he doubted her lack of doubt in the parts. He was pretty sure she was just humoring him. No one believed him. Even his brother called them voices. Separate. Imaginary. Not real. (He'd apologized. Skylar forgave. He didn't forget though.) But why would she do that? Her parts offered no insight, but maybe later, once everything was restored, he could get an answer.
Gosh darn it, when was the last time he used his screwdriver? Was it still on his work table, maybe?
“Thanks for keeping your word and letting me say goodbye, and if you trust me, look away."
He turned, because of course he would at such an odd statement. It was just them and Metals, what didn't he need to see?
He hadn't even finished the motion before Kourai jammed the missing screwdriver's tip into her left ear.
Metals might've shouted, he couldn't tell. The strained metal-twisting melody of Kourai's parts erupted into a chorus of shrieks that deafened Skylar to the rest of the world. He wanted to close his eyes and cover his ears and try to make the horror before him disappear. Her face was distorted, not just in an expression of pain, but as the screwdriver's tip tore through metal plating, framework, insulation, cooling tubes, wires. He couldn't even flinch as she twisted the screwdriver. Her left eye dangled from its socket, choosing to pop out rather than be crushed. Another shove and the rest of the screwdriver disappeared into her head with a shower of sparks and a spray of oil. She slumped against the table's edge and fell to the floor with a crash, clutching the not-quite-closed pearl to her chest. Her bellows were pumping, chest heaving for air she didn't need. The choir of agony ceased, replaced by a high-pitched snowy static that flooded his senses.
Skylar might've screamed. He didn't remember doing it, but his own lungs felt empty and his throat burned as he rushed over. His tools flew to the floor, scattered by his panicked movements. Fix it, fix it, fix it, he demanded of himself, for once truly deaf to the demands of the machines as he leaned over her. One hand reached for the screwdriver and his body seemed to lock up again. Fix it, fix it, what could he do, what could he DO, why did she do that, he didn't understand-
She was smiling.
Fix it, what could he do, he didn't understand, why was she smiling, fix it, fix it, why was she smiling, he never wanted to see a smile like that from anyone, he never wanted to see a smile so cruel and angry and satisfied, fix it-
"Mine." Her raspy voice overlayed the static booming in his body. Her own voice grew staticky, hers more like a swarm of angered cicadas. "My memories. Even the bad ones. Can't take them." And she laughed. By the Shade, she laughed as coolant and oil puddled under her head, claws gripping the pearl with enough force to gouge it.
And all Skylar could do was sit there, dumbly, in his own whirlwind of thoughts.
Fix it, fix it, that's where the screwdriver was, fix it, why did she do that, fix it, fix it, fix it, why, why, why, why-
A new sound finally overcame the static and tornado of thoughts: shattering glass. Not something small. Something big. Why was there a draft?
A massive plasma bolt blasted through the space between Skylar and Kourai. He flinched back, hand away from the screwdriver and close to his chest, before a massive force slammed into him. His wings hit the wall first before he fell back onto the floor. His vision was spotting black now, but he could see the massive form now looming over Kourai.
Holy crap, that was an Imperial. A robotic Imperial. Where did that come from?
Pain and voices and shrieking and pain deafened him to their words, and vision kept threatening to desert him if he dared to even blink, but there was talking. He could see the way their jaws moved. Metals approached, joined their conversation with words he couldn't comprehend no matter how hard he wished. The Imperial picked up Kourai, and that was when Snowy let go of vision and and hearing and any attempt to understand his surroundings with one final coherent thought:
I don't think my wings were meant to bend that way.
Kourai’s here. Wheeler-Leviathan Labs, with the one who made us. Send backup, please.
You’re sure it’s her?
Definitely. I don’t know why or how, but she’s here with Skylar.
Skylar. The name wasn’t immediately familiar to her, but she knew enough to know he was their creator. Another scientist, who had been responsible for their making. Bad enough that Kourai had gone alone and risked herself, but Metals was there, too, and there was no telling what information could be pried from her in a place like that. No time to assemble a proper rescue team, either. Silently cursing Kourai and her impulsive nature, she flicked her wrist out, sending her surveillance drone ahead of her using the coordinates she’d gathered from Metals.
Please. Please let me make it in time.
Navigating while watching the live feed from her drone Avarosa was second nature by now. Troubled as she was, however, she nearly took the wrong turns twice, shooting out from the underground tunnel exit and circling the building several times before she finally caught sight of Metals staring up at her through a half-open window. Avarosa’s live camera feed flashed across her internal monitor-
Kourai, with sparks flying from the mangled, grotesque remains of her face.
A scientist looming over Kourai’s broken form.
Kourai’s pearl, cracked wide open, wires shimmering in the light.
Metals, horror twisting his expression.
Too small a gap to fly through. Too little time to find another way in. Arrow was fitted to bowstring and pulled back, a blur of neon blue streaking towards the window, all done in the span of a single breath.
The sound of glass shattering had never been more satisfying in her entire life.
A thousand glittering fragments flew inward, and she exploded into motion - launching herself through the broken window and straight towards the scientist who dared lay hands on one of her own, she roughly shoved him out of the way, only vaguely aware of the sickening crunch and his ensuing cry of pain. None of that mattered. Heedless of the multiple alarms blaring their siren cries, she crouched over Kourai’s crumpled body, almost disbelieving of the damage that had been wrought. From the ruptured metal plating to the single eye nearly hanging out of its socket, gods, what had he done? Half her face had been torn apart at the seams, layers of wiring and plating gleaming grotesquely in the wake of sparks dancing across the ruined wreckage of what once used to be whole.
So disturbed was she at the gruesome sight that she nearly missed the few coherent words from amongst the garbled mess of static - how was she even still conscious? - as Kourai attempted to speak, jaw hanging far too loose and unhinged to be normal.
Second Law? Too stunned to even begin making sense of things, she could only hold Kourai close, about to retrieve the remnants of her pearl before she heard the crackle of static and glanced back at her. Her heart lurched within her chest, sinking lower still when she realized what the other android was doing.
Kourai was smiling.
Broken, barely conscious, but smiling.
It was a grim, cruel smile, splitting her face and turning it into a demonic caricature of her original self. The sight of it nearly made Ashe recoil, shuddering deeply. How could she still smile at a time like this? Unthinkable, ludicrous, even, but then Kourai’s single remaining eye was fixed on her and she found herself frozen, unable to break away from that terrible gaze.
“Only way,” Kourai croaked, her voice barely distinguishable through the mess of static, one dislodged eye staring unseeingly at some point above her shoulder. “But I won. I'm okay."
Too shaken to respond, she broke eye contact first, focused instead on gathering up the pieces of Kourai’s pearl and hastily stuffing them inside for safe-keeping. Metals had, at some point between her entrance and now, slammed the laboratory’s door shut and pushed a server rack over in front of it. With the way sirens were going off, it was likely to help buy time.
"Will you be safe here, when they ask what happened?" She queried, slinging her bow across her back and gathering up the barely-conscious Kourai in her arms. Was this damage even repairable? She hoped so, but there was no way to know until they got back. "I'm sorry about the trouble, Metals. She left without telling any of us, and I got here as soon as I could."
Metals nodded. "Three-Laws Compliant, and the glass shattered inwards. Besides, severe punishment will result in him-" He glared at Skylar's unmoving form (well, aside from breathing) "-slowing down. I should be safe without any direct proof I caused this." His gaze softened once he looked over at Kourai, anguish written clearly on his face.
"Just... please help her."
A pause. “I don’t know if we can,” Ashe admitted quietly. Kourai stirred.
"I'm okay,” she insisted. "I'm okay," she whispered before finally falling limp - a cruel, victorious grin on her face.
Nothing else needed to be said. With a final adjustment of Kourai's weight in her arms, Ashe left the way she came, leaving behind nothing but a single arrow and broken glass to tell the tale.