Miles Above the World
So he let himself become the teddy bear, and listened to Yu, quiet and polite as you please. 'Isn't it supposed to be the drunk one that gets all emotional and huggy?' he mused, but refrained from comment. As Yu continued, he couldn't help but quip, only slurring a smidgen, "I'll have you know this isn't how I normally spend my Saturday nights." He let his hand be played with, rested his head on a convenient pillar behind him. "I'll also have you know I don't swing any of those ways. The only part of me that swings...are my arms. When I walk. It's very dangerous, they break a lot of sh...stuff. "
Four murmured words pierced through his inebriated veil, words that seemed to demand they be taken seriously. "Post-traumatic...Phase has PTSD?" he squinted down at the screen, then back to Yu. "Navis can get PTSD?"
"I don't know," the words rushed out of Phase all in one gusty breath. "I don't know I don't know I don't know Navis are supposed to be logical and this doesn't feel logical at all!" She was starting to gasp for air.
"No, it doesn't," Vincent agreed, struggling for thought. He often envisioned his 'science-brain' as an endless field of axles and pulleys and gears, which churned and chugged as he pitted his organic mind against Phase's cybernetic one to produce scientific progress. Right now, the field was struggling against an outbreak of alcoholic rust, grinding against the syrupy inhibition. "But...humans aren't logical at all. And when they...that is, now that your body's human...maybe your brain is human too? Didn't we figure out your emblem is the only piece of you that works like a Navi now?"
Unconsciously, Phase's hands came up to her ribbon, worrying the stitching of her emblem in her fingers. It chilled her to think of her old self preserved in something that felt so flimsy. Her breathing was still too much coming in not enough going out, like a dial was stuck in the red somewhere she couldn't see, only imagine. She shifted until Critias was out of her vision and stared glassily at the nearest wall, tried to think about nothing for just a moment, just one.
She took a breath. "It's funny to hear you talk about feeling the human world as a Navi, Yu," she murmured, just barely audible in Vincent's speakers. Her breathing was shaky but it was back in some kind of control. "To me, being a Navi was always being a being of pure logic. A creation of science, for science, right?" Her tone got a little stronger the more she was able to put her thoughts in order. "And then, I was...changed. Into this body. It's human, in every way we've been able to test."
"And...the human in you is reacting to Critias. From, well. From before," Vincent clarified without clarifying much of anything at all.
Phase didn't reply, just stared a thousand yards into the wall until she gusted the last of the shake from her lungs. "I see...I see what those old philosophers meant now, the ones that talked about humans thinking with their brains, but also their hearts and guts," she spoke to the wall more than to anyone in particular, though she knew everyone was listening. A void had formed in the crowd around them, which gave her a confusing blend of gratitude and despair. She worked with it, at any rate, and kept speaking, "And there was comfort in being just logical, without all the confusing stuff. I didn't know it 'til I didn't have it anymore. And sometimes it feels like all I get is the bad, confusing stuff, that just...pops into my head, until it's all I can think about."
Finally she turned to face Critias. She shivered a little despite herself, but the calm on her face didn't waver. "You're...big. And purple. Like...like a HeelNavi. That's all it is. I promise that's all it is." And, closing her eyes, she reached a hand out to Critias' velvety snout, knuckles down as though offering it to a dog.
"Hm. Well...true. Navis are logic driven beings. But that doesn't mean Navis are emotionless machines. Your body isn't human per-se, otherwise you'd be standing right here with us and I would very much be enjoying cuddling with a cute girl istead of a grown man chugging on beer on a Saturday night." Yusaku's response was analytical as usual.
"I know of a few highly experimental prototype software that allows for a more "human" navi to be created. One of wich is the core of Critias and many NSD created navis...but I've never seen it just transmitted to other navis before."
The big bat-wyvern slightly tilted his head at Phase's comment. He quietly observed how she slowly raised her hand with closed eyes, trying to pet him. She stopped short of his nose by a few inches, which prompted the purple navi to look up at his NetOp for consent before moving closer. Slowly, the hulking navi lowered his head down and gently rubbed his snout onto Phase's palm. Silky smooth and fluffy soft, Critias' fur tickled lightly as he nuzzled. A small muffled growl akin to purring escaped the bat-wyvern's throat. As Yusaku mentioned, his navi enjoyed being pet. He was certaily wagging his tail way more vigorously now.
Meanwhile, Yusaku was still deep in thought and still cuddled up to Vincent. If Phase's weird condition was NSD related, then Critias would have felt it. Hell, HE would have felt it. So it wasn't his father's company. But then...could any of competitor be the cause? No one of them produced Heel models. Either their facilities had been breached by the outside/inside or someone else unknown was trying to play God.
"Whatever thing you're doing tomorrow, postpone it." Yusaku told his friend. "If it's work and stuff I'll pay you triple your salary's worth but tomorrow morning you're in my lab by 8am while I work on things."
The bat costume wearing youngster seemed pretty adamant on this whole sphiel.
With her eyes closed, the Net fell away until all Phase knew was the microscopic space between cornea and eyelid. It was an unfamiliar darkness - she didn't remember needing to blink before. Certainly she might have done so as a cosmetic reflex, but her awareness of the world had been a perfect, unending stretch of memory. Part of her quailed at the self-imposed blindness, while the other relished the control it gave her over her own body, however slight. Control over her perceptions: a shutoff switch her eyes had once lacked, rather than another strange anomaly. It was easier to think along lines like that, lines that put her on the positive side of this eternal ambivalence.
When Critias bumped his nose into Phase's hand, at first all she felt was the solid, large mass behind the push, and she had to grit her teeth to avoid yelping and flailing backwards. The mass didn't advance on her, didn't move at all once it had made contact. She repeated that in her head like a mantra, eyes still wincing shut. Her hand felt..."Warm." The word slipped out mostly by accident. "Soft..." That one, as she flexed her fingers experimentally, was less accidental. The longer she spent listening to the great beast's breath (there was just so much weight to him), the more she was reminded of Vincent's cat, particularly of playing laser pointer on the floor with him. For all Vincent treated him like a furry little snuggle-nugget, Thomas could be intimidating if your hologram only came up to his shoulder, particularly if you were his favourite toy to pounce on - which of course, was the case for Phase on both counts. The same was true here, only without the sight of Critias driving her adrenal cortex into bedlam, she could also remember watching from high, high up on Vincent's shoulder, as her Operator skritched the cat into a purring black potato in his lap.
In her private darkness, she digested Yu's words. They rang true enough: even as a NormalNavi she hadn't been numb to feeling, but it had been a pale shadow of what was coursing through her now. "I remember..." she took a breath and composed her thoughts, fingers rasping up and down the crown of Critias' head, "When I felt, before. I was always happy with Vincent, and proud of hard working children and exasperated with students that don't apply themselves and sad when I saw stray dogs. But it was just one...bit of me, I guess you'd say." Her hands flexed open and closed in spasms as she tried to find the words. "Like, thinking and emoting in human speeds was just another sub-process, and I had room for so many more, and they could go as fast as they liked without being slowed down to your level...no offense."
"And now, this," she gestured blindly down at herself, "this is all there is. I can't interface with the Net as a Navi anymore, so I have to access everything manually, just like Vincent." She brought her hands up and waggled her fingers, mashing an imaginary keyboard. Slowly, almost unconsciously, her hands reached back towards Critias, this time with both hands. She probed forward with her palms up, fingers slowly swishing back and forth in a motion she remembered Vincent using to scratch Thomas' chin. "It was a syringe," she murmured almost as an afterthought. "I remember that. They injected me with something, and then everything got really hot and awful for a second and then I was. Ah." She shrugged. "I was this. It was so strange, I didn't even understand what had happened until..." she went very quiet. Her fingers caught in Critias' fur.
Beer #5(?) was tipped back and polished off as Yu made Vincent an offer, ability to refuse pending. There was a long moment where Vincent held his new friend's technicolour gaze with what he likely thought was great passion and vigour. Within about 0.25 seconds that red-shifted into immediate panic, and he whipped his head around just in time to spare Yu a tremendous belch right to the face. As it was, given the sheer volume of carbonation his lungs were capable of storing, the volume was impressive to say the least. "Pardomme," he said finally. "Well, I mean, tomorrow was...Sunday. So school's out, but... Phase, the, the schedule Phase! The Sunday shhedule! I *urp* need my Sunday shhedule Phase! You gotta, you gotta know what I'm doing Sunday, what've I got goin' onnnnn-"
"Sorry, Vince, all I've got for you is 'hangovers and steamship documentaries'," Phase quipped, at long last smiling a little.
"Oh right I'm a teacher and have no life!" Vincent cheered, pumping a fist in the air and promptly bashing it on a wrought-iron light fixture. "FFFRUGGIN'-" He shook his throbbing digits out, his lap heaving like a ship at sea and more than likely jostling his passenger a little. "Now youuuu," he waggled a finger in Yu's direction, "You an' I, Yu, I think we got a lot in common, Yu." He leaned back; a carelessly-placed arm looped around his torso meant Yu was more or less pulled along for the ride. "I got a lotta attention in school too I wasn't so hot about, and I'll give yeh three guesses why." He gave their whole situation, him more or less making a teddy bear of another grown-ass man, a very long look. "It...it really sucks, dunnit? When you get attenshun cuzza stuff you...you had no power over? Like you didn't ask to be filthy stinkin' rich, right, but that's all erryone sees, yeah, and then nobody cares about the stuff you wanna get weird and crazy about. Like science! And your suit! And your suit science! I LOVE SCIENCE!"
The last declaration was made just a little too loud, and the barkeep threw them the hairy eyeball across the ball. He gave Yu a loaded glance, as though asking 'You gonna deal with this?'
Meanwhile Yusaku was wriggling in Vincent's lap once again to find a comfortable position for both himself and his friend. He giggled lightly at Vincent's drunk antics, using his tail to grab and secure the last bit of beer before his friend really went badonkers. A thumbs up with his three fingered hand and a nod of understanding was all he gave the bartender as a "don't worry" before he turned his attention back to Vincent just in time for him to boop his mask's snout.
Crossing his legs around Vincent's waist, Yusaku made sure he was in between his friend and more booze. While he couldn't take it away from him he could divert the guy's attention on himself instead now that they were belly to belly and face to face.
"We created you, keep in mind. Our brains may be unable to multitask, but are one of the best think tanks in the universe." He replied to Phase. Taking in all the additional informations on her condition. Injection eh? Could be a new trojan virus then. He would have to investigate further."Buuuuuut...we shouldn't get our brain drunk to avoid bad headaches the next time we wake up. Drunk science is best done responsibly."
Full on hugging himself to the giant to enjoy more cuddles and make it night impossible for the guy to grab any more beer, Yusaku settled into a nice fuzzy cuddle. "Well...I wouldn't mind being the first smidge of your life." He stated lookung up, enjoying the warmth of Vincent's embrace.
"We could test your robot out tomorrow, maybe log into my private server and bust some viruses...or do lotsa science." He added, relaxing his muscles. "And if you don't mind I can also walk you home tonight. But not before I get my chocolate. I quite like this cuddle science and I kinda wanna know a bit more before we move."
And with that, the youngster abandoned himself to his friend's cuddling, partly to satisfy his navi's need for cuddles and partly because he himself had grown to like Vincent's company a great deal. Critias seemed to shudder as the connection with his netop allowed him to feel a hug he wasn't going to be able to get from Phase.
Sighing in satisfaction, he set the pitcher down with a resounding thunk. "We dolphinately have to come here again," he declared, straight-faced but for a doofus' grin, which was to say, not very straight-faced at all.
Phase, eyes still closed, snrked under her breath. "For sharks," she shot back, grin mirroring her Operator's for a moment before settling into something smaller and gentler. "I can't say I'd want to be you in the morning either, Vincent. You don't normally drink this much," she dug the slightest bit into Critias' scalp with her nails, enjoying the chance to feel something nice without any reservations. The thumping made her breath catch at first, but she soon relaxed, having known enough animals to know what was going on. "You're like a dog CrossFused with a cat," she marvelled quietly. "Maybe...maybe this can work. Can we go, Vincent? I still haven't ridden Dignity yet and...and that sounds like a lot of fun, maybe."
"Hrmm...HRRMMM..." Vincent was hamming it up, working his jaw and rubbing his chin and generally making a fool of himself. It dissembled into a fit of drunk giggles, and a wavering thumbs-up. "I approve! There'll be, why there'll be shhteampunk! An-an' zzcience! Shhteampunk shhienshhhshsh*urrp*, huhuhuhuh." He shook his head like a dog, and slowly cast his eyes skyward, cut through to clarity. "I'm gonna feel this tomorrow, aren't I?"
"If you don't, I'll be very impressed," Phase quipped, to which Vincent only chuckled,
"Righ' then, I propose...an eggs-purrimunt!" The man raised a finger to the sky, avoiding the chandelier this time. "So Critty, yeah, he's feeling everything Yu's suit feels, yeah?" Phase nodded, so he continued, "And Yu-boy here, he's feelin' the Net, right? So that's..." he did a quick bit of finger math, "four inputs, two bodies? So what happens when both bodies feel the same thing? Does the feeling double...or quadruple?"
"Like chin-scritches?" Phase was beginning to catch on, moving her hands to the soft scruff of Critias' chin.
"Like chin-scritches!" Vincent, in the real world, proceeded to do precisely the same to Yu, seizing him by the helmet and dragging his fingers across the soft plastic. He was precisely the right kind of drunk to find this perfectly acceptable behaviour; after all, if it was good enough for his cat, why not good enough for a man in a bat costume?
The bell on the door chimed, heralding the return of their curvaceous waitress. She bounced with glee (which a fair chunk of the room stopped to watch) and made her way to their table, only to stop dead in her tracks a few meters away. The professionalism of a true waitress kept her face straight through approaching the indisposed couple, handing them from her apron pocket a bar that crinkled just so when handled, wrapped in high-quality foil and labels oozing with poshness. "Compliments of the Mousehole, o' course," she winked at Yu.
A bell chimed somewhere in the back, followed by a distant chorus of 'Last call~!' from the kitchen. The waitress jumped in alarm, smiling sheepish as ewe please. "Ah, it's about that time, lads!" The kitchen will be open awhile yet, can I grab ye anything for the road?"
Critias on the other side was very much enjoying himself as well. Unable to resist annymore he curled himself around Phase, nuzzling his snout into her hand. "W-well...we can both feel both chin-scritches right now..." The bat wyvern replied. "So in our case the feeling doubles. You might want to be careful though. All this affection might make Yu explode."
"Shush you" The bat costume wearing human objected, clinging onto Vincent as tightly as he could. "I'm ejoying this. Don't ruin my fun."
The purple couple kept on squirming around as they enjoyed all the affection they were recieving. Then, Yusaku turned over to the waitress as she offered him his chocolate. He gladly took the bar of the sweet delicious food with his tail and gave yet another thumbs up to thank her for all the trouble she went though to get it. Considering he was in such a good mood thanks to Vincent's goofy yet fuzzy antics, he snapped his claws once. The lady's pet started screaming bloody murder as a fifty thousand zenny tip was promplty delivered to her. For someone like Yu, who had a bank account with nine zeroes in it, sharing some of his wealth to such nice people really great.
"We are fine, thank you. I don't think my friend here can take any more food." He replied. All things considered, they had allready eaten a fair share of food. "Or drink, for all that matters. I think we overworked you enough already. You should take a break."
Looking up at the clock, Yusaku noticed how much time had already gone by. "Vin, Vin..." He called to his friend, then pointed at the clock. "It's getting really late. We should probably go home soon. We need to be all well rested if we want to make our experimental data exact. You can come over to my place, I'm not that far away from home and I definitely have an empty bedroom I can spare for ya."
He was somewhat excited another person enjoyed his work. He was definitely really excited to share his work with others. Reaching for VIncent's PeT, he tried to interface with it and have Critias copy Dignity's schematics. Phase would notice the data transfer for sure, but a claw on her lips asked her to keep it a secret. It looked like the two bats were cooking up some sort of surprise for the professor.
The night was getting long in the tooth. Vincent's jaw cracked around a massive yawn, buzz transforming into languorous haze. "Mmmmyeah, time to go home, s'time to go," he murmured assent. "Thazz pree generous but I gotta get home, gotta lil' kitty needs his brrukfast," he started to stand up, gently tipping Yu out of his lap. Seeing him reach for his PET, he fumbled a moment before holding it out to Yu's palm. "Here's m'email, gimme a shout tomorrow wivv a time 'n place 'n I'll walk over," he offered. Assuming the suit's touch-casting worked in reverse, Vincent's email would show up in his contacts list. The schematic copying would go entirely unnoticed. "Phase!" he called into the window, "time t'go, bug."
"Mmkay," Phase lifted a hand from Critias' chin to stifle a yawn of her own. Scales hissed from every direction, setting her a-shiver with the sort of chills humans chalked up to primal instinct. "W-whoa, easy there," her voice wavered a little. Her shoulders hunched, her legs clenched together, her posture went small and rabbit-ish. A rogue tail caught the backs of her legs, took a moment to rub against her socks. "Wha-!" Balance gone, Phase pinwheeled, reaching blindly out to steady herself. Her eyes flew wide open by instinct.
A faceless mask. Leering yellow eyes full of dark promise. "Let's have a little fun."
"EEYAH!" She hit the ground scrambling, legs kicking and eyes full of blind panic. Her hands came up to cover her face, muffling a babble of, "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry," laced with fear and guilt and frustration alike. "I didn't, I can't, I, I," she babbled, trying and failing to look up from Critias' massive taloned feet.
"Hey. Phase." Vincent's voice cut through from their window, clear and sober. She looked up at him, shellshocked. The drunkenness was being held back by pure force of parenthood; she could see his brow creased with the effort of keeping his eyes and his voice level. "Time to come home, bug. We can give this anno...another shot tomorrow, a'ight?"
For a long moment, Phase was silent. She sat on the floor, gaze darting between her hands and Critias' feet some distance away. She didn't try to look up again. Finally she murmured, "Alright," picking herself back up, head low. There was an awkwardness to her that looked right at home at the teenager she was supposed to resemble, in the uncertainty of her knock-knees and the insecurity radiating from her flushed cheeks. "I'll...see you later," she murmured to Critias' toes, and melted into a turquoise stream of light.
With Phase safe and sound in her PET, preparing for an uneasy night's sleep, Vincent donned his tailcoat and hat, navigating the low doorway out of the Mousehole. "Take care on your way hooome!" he called goodbye, and strode off, cane clicking into the night.
She's not alone.
Being alone was, if not nice, at least better than the alternative. Being alone meant she could sit, and count time imperfectly in her new useless brain, and be numb. Nowhere to go. Body alive with hurt and wrongness. Just sit, and try not to think.
Try not to think about what's happening, to her, right now.
An expanse of purple scales, millimeters from your eyes. It's all there is to see. Sharp shifting shards reach out and wrap themselves around your eyes, crawling, looking for a way in to twist you, remake you, unmake you-
Phase woke up with a scream in her throat.
Slow and controlled, she pulled her breath deep into her lungs and settled it back into its rhythm. She was in the virtual control booth of her PET, which had been altered significantly from the usual faire since...well. Since. It was comfortable enough, and kept her new body in homeostasis as long as she stayed inside it. All in all, there were worse places to wake up, but like her Operator, Phase liked open spaces.
Pulling a hologram into Vincent's apartment was still an option to her, thankfully. The extended range nodes the consummate dork had built into his apartment were the same ones he used in the classroom, giving her floating sprite extra range and field of vision. It let her patrol the room for cheating, just as it let her flit down the hall to find her Operator in the kitchen, manning a soup pot from his cooking stool. She glanced past him to the dark windows. "Did you get all the grading done?" Phase yawned.
Vincent grinned, "And then went to get some more," he quipped, and reached for his pantry, coming out with two onions, a mammoth potato, a carrot, and a head of garlic piled in one hand. He continued as he got to chopping, "You missed a day, Yu's lab was yesterday. I was starting to get a bit worried, but according to the Internet, Navis and sleep can mix in strange ways." Into the pot went the potato and carrot, while the onions and garlic were minced and tossed into an pan. "You slept well, then?"
Deciding not to poke that particular bear, Phase just hummed and watched Vincent cook, letting the time tick imperfectly on by in the sizzle of oil, in warm familiar smiles. "Kept thinking about Dignity, really," she finally decided to say, which was true enough. She settled on the man's shoulder and fiddled with the controls until the hologram naturally linked to his movement, chewing on what to say next. "It was fun and all, driving it, but..." she pursed her lips, unable to find polite words for it, "it couldn't take much, as it was. I keep wondering how you'd make code like that stronger, without just making it so heavy it's architecture."
Something dawned on Vincent's face on hearing the little sprite talk, and he laughed a little. "I happened upon, that is to say, I rather solved that problem entirely by accident yesterday, I rather did! Turns out the answer is shelling out our hard earned cash for upgrades, like a good patron of the NetBattling art. Imagine being the one who came up with that cash cow!" he chortled, merry and silly enough that Phase couldn't help joining in. "Anyhoo, I found a shop and spent a little pocket money on giving Dignity a little extra oomph. You want to test it out?"
A science-flavoured light winked on in Phase's eyes. "It -would- be worth doing a control case without another Navi around to confuse things," she mused. Vincent smirked, knowing the battle was already won. "Obviously the Internet would be the best place to look for ways to make the big girl stronger. Is Dignity alright? She was pretty beat up last time I saw her."
Vincent was already getting up, striding to his bedroom to retrieve his PET and the laptop. Both were dragged back into the kitchen and set up as he reassured his Navi in patient tones, "Everything's ready to go, the folks at Vaccine had her to rights in minutes. Now, are you ready?" He waited for Phase's hologram to wink out and an excited, 'YEAH!' before tipping his hand and beaming the little Navi in. A couple of taps on the laptop, and Dignity was primed for takeoff right behind her.
<(Jacking into Electown Net)>
It was quiet, an awkward sort of quiet neither knew how to breach. "I," Phase started, and fell silent. Her Operator watched, so patient it was annoying. She wanted him to snap, she wanted him to be annoyed and ask what she was doing so she could be mad at him. That wasn't fair, though, she was too rational for that, and she was mad at herself for even thinking it. Ugh! Everything was annoying.
"Do - do you need to blow off some steam?" Vincent dared venture. He finished his disappointing supper, washed his plate and cutlery, and filled a glass of water. A stack of worksheets waited at his desk with baleful eyes and bad handwriting.
Phase was quiet for a long time, long enough he was halfway through the third page before she replied. "I want to break something." It was an unsettling sort of phrase from a Navi that, just a few short months ago, had been nothing but chipper. Vincent wondered at that - had she been happy being so one-dimensional? Was this better? Instead he just loaded up Dignity's docking bay and ran the pre-flight checklist. Every inch a tiny, disgruntled teenager, Phase threw her piloting jacket over her shoulder and snuffed out her hologram without a word. Vincent sighed, and went back to his grading.