Chapter 21: Deus Ex Machina


Taylor

A long time ago, Mom was at a conference for the university, and Dad couldn't get a babysitter, so I was stuck with him while he shadowed some dockworkers on a job.

I was pretty sure that Dad had gone above and beyond what he was supposed to with checking if there were any work conditions that weren't being adhered to on a contract. It was during a period when jobs for the dockworkers were few and far between, so maybe Dad just didn't have much else to do, or maybe he'd wanted to make sure the workers weren't being taken advantage of while Brockton Bay's job market plummeted.

That was how I'd found myself on a boat for a whole day, watching while workers scooped out litter floating in the bay.

That day had been one of the most boring I had ever experienced. The boat swayed just enough that I kept losing the line of the book I was trying to read. I wasn't allowed to help with the work, and the workers held their tongues to avoid any 'dock-talk' around the union rep's daughter, mostly because Dad's temper flared when the conversation dipped into anything too indecent for my 'delicate' ears.

Thus, I had watched the waters as the boat gently rocked. Up and down. Up and down. An endless view of murky blue waves.

Nothing to do, say, or even think. Not even a place to try and sleep.

Eventually, I had faded from the world, adrift in my head. A pseudo-sleep without dreams, concerns, or care.

Now, I found myself there again, staring out at nothing, like I had never left the boat. I found reprieve in the void.

But, even in the depths of that memory, immersed in its emptiness, the insidious whisper of guilt still pricked at the calm's edges.

Suddenly, the boat rocked wilder, tremors quaking the blank slate of my mind.

I blinked and the world was back.

"Yo, anyone home?" the person shaking my shoulder asked.

"Sorry, um..." I turned slowly. It was the blond boy who I met with Coco, one of the students from another academy participating in the Vytal Festival.

"C'mon, how could you forget this face?" He smiled and pointed a thumb at his grin.

"Something to do with the color... yellow?" I guessed.

He sagged but pepped right back up. "Sun Wukong, leader of Team SSSN (Sun), all-around awesome dude."

"Right... Can I help you?"

"Well, I saw you staring off in the distance, so I thought you were gonna watch the sunset—which has got nothing on the ones in Vacuo, by the way—but when I passed by again an hour later, you were facing the same way, and the sun's setting over there." He pointed to my right, where the sun had just dipped below the edge of the horizon, leaving trails of orange, red, and purple in its wake.

The cliffs outside of Beacon, along the rockface's edge from where the airships usually docked, made for a nice place to sit and admire the world. It was high up, open, and almost always free of people.

I had been staring at a blank patch of cloudless sky, not yet dark enough for stars to peek through.

"Ah, I was just... thinking," I lied.

"Cool, cool, not really my style, but I dig it."

A twilight aurora flowed after the sun. Emerald green grass painted the plains around me, and perfect blue waters crashed against stone and dirt along the cliff below.

So vibrant. I felt out of place.

"So… you just gonna sit here all day then?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"You wanna talk about it?"

"Not really."

"That's cool too," he said with a shrug and took a seat on a rock next to mine. I didn't care enough to ask him why.

Maybe this view was better than just watching the sunset. To my right, the day's dying light glistened off the waters and faded boldly in the sky. To my left, night devoured every shade with all-encompassing darkness. I faced the middle, an eerie twilight that mixed the two into a colorful scar cutting across the world—

Crinkle. Crinkle.

Sun paused at my glance, a chocolate bar half stuffed in his mouth while he fought with the wrapper denying him the rest. Unabashed, he inhaled the treat, leaving a small smudge on the corner of his mouth.

"Want one?" he asked between chewing, and he pulled out two more, offering me one.

"I'm fine, thanks." He shrugged and began fighting the second wrapper, redoubling the sound of crinkling plastic.

I took a deep breath, letting myself drift away. I didn't want to think of anything at the moment.

The wind caressed my face, a single gentle touch before fading away. Beacon was just far enough away to seem silent, while the Atlas ships had landed in the plains around Beacon for the night. The only sounds were crashing waves, rustling grass, and—

Ding, ding.

"Round one." A bass beat chorused with a sharp percussion played. "Fight."

Sun's Scroll lit up, and a figure in black with blue highlights faced off against a doppelganger in red against a background of turquoise and violet. Sun's tongue was clamped between his teeth at the corner of his mouth in concentration.

I stared blankly at him before he noticed, then he paused his game.

"It's two-player, if you wanna go for a couple of rounds," he offered.

"No thanks." Irritation bubbled for a moment, which was surprising considering that I wasn't doing anything, so Sun wasn't interrupting.

"You sure?"

"Shouldn't you be with your team?" I asked with a twinge of exasperation.

"Nah." He waved the question away with one hand. "They know I do my own thing. Besides, they don't need me right now."

Not a very inspiring type of leadership, but maybe it works for his team.

"Huh," was all I said.

The sounds of pixelated impacts and blows punched back whatever trance I was trying to achieve.

I almost smiled when the familiar beeping of a Scroll's low battery warning chimed.

"Man," Sun muttered, his tail winding around to grab his Scroll and shove it into a pocket. "Hey, you want to go check out the Atlas ships?"

I sighed heavily. I wasn't sure why, but ignoring or rejecting the offer felt like it would be more exhausting than just going along with this little escapade. It wasn't like saying no would get him to leave me alone. My peace was already ruined. All I could do was make sure my thoughts didn't focus on what I had discovered, and what it meant.

"Fine."

"Awesome." He jumped up, shoved his hands into his pockets, and casually began to stroll toward the Atlas ships.

I followed behind.

As much as I hated to admit it, Sun was growing on me like a fungus and wearing me down the same way a puppy tugging at your pant leg to play did. That didn't mean I liked him, but I couldn't really bring myself to dislike him.

The ships had spotlights to illuminate their landing pads and blinking lights on their roofs to mark their position for other aircraft. Some of the smaller ships hovered above the rest, at the ready. They had taken up an area halfway between Beacon's airship docks and the school itself, a patch of wasteland where the grass around the cliffs had long since died. My swarm's underground hive was a stone's throw away.

Two Atlesian soldiers noticed our approach and immediately moved to intercept, their gazes and sneers focused on Sun.

"State your business," one stated, giving me a once over before dismissing me. Sun's tail swished playfully, and the guard's frown deepened.

"We just wanted to see the ships up close. Never seen a big fancy military ship before—"

"If you don't have any official business, scram. We don't need troublemakers around official Atlas property."

"Oh, c'mon."

Something tugged at my senses, and I frowned.

Bugs were on the ship, hiding in vents and under various equipment. I hadn't even noticed.

Am I running on auto-pilot? Or was that you, passenger? What are you up to?

"Beat it."

"We don't even want to go aboard. I just wanna check—"

"Another step and we'll charge you for trespassing."

There was an armory filled with rifles, parts for their automaton soldiers, and other weapons. A hangar held at least eight… mechs? They were huge, at least twenty feet tall. Machine guns, rockets, and more were mounted on the bipedal mech. A cockpit fitted for a single pilot was surrounded by switches, a set of joysticks, and various electronic displays. Atlas had brought a new battlesuit to show off.

Deeper into the ship, beyond several closed security doors, my bugs caught a single, familiar voice. They moved en masse to better parse the words, only to find someone... recording a diary?

The room was some kind of science lab. A large pod filled one wall while various machines and screens covered the rest. Automaton soldiers guarded the doors to the secure room, but no other person besides the girl speaking was nearby.

A fly landed on her back and held on as the girl bobbed and jumped with her story of her day. All the new people, sights, experiences. How she was excited to participate in the Vytal Festival.

It was the peppy girl who had a personal Atlesian escort. She was staying on the flagship while the other Atlas students were in the visitors' dorms. Interesting.

She ended her 'diary' by telling her dad that she loved and missed him, wishing him well.

Her tone was so simple, filling the statement with care yet saying it casually, like it was normal. I envied how easy she made it seem, but wishing my relationship with my dad was similar was just another unfixable regret.

I had no idea who the girl was, but she was obviously important somehow. Atlas's dark horse for the Vytal Festival? Or maybe just a family member of someone high up in Atlas.

An automated voice played out within the lab: "Please proceed to maintenance positioning."

"Oh, is it that time again?" the girl said out loud to herself. Odd.

"Please proceed to maintenance positioning."

"Do I have to?" she asked, nervous but not afraid.

"Please proceed to maintenance positioning."

"Okay."

The peppy girl dutifully walked to the center of the room, and some kind of mechanism descended from the roof. Bugs found wires and mechanical arms of some kind but nothing that identified the device.

Then, the girl's back unfolded, revealing metal, thick cords running from her limbs, and what felt like circuits that went deep into her torso. Too deep to be prosthetics.

She was a robot.

Some kind of advanced automaton that Atlas was having participate in the tournament?

The range of emotion she displayed, and to no one's benefit other than her own...

"Aura test, engaging," the robotic voice stated.

Aura?

"That tickles!" the girl exclaimed.

"Aura levels, stable. Beginning routine tests."

Not only a robot, but one that produced an effect similar to Aura… Or it was Aura.

By Remnant's understanding, that meant she had a soul.

The girl fought against her giggles as the machine's arm poked and shifted in her torso.

A ticklish robot that had Aura. One that was apprehensive toward her maintenance because she was ticklish. One that loved her dad, was happy about school, excited about the Vytal Festival.

Not a robot, a full AI.

I accepted the idea faster than I thought I would.

Dragon had been one of the few people that I considered to be a truly good person. More human and caring than most others, including me. A true hero.

If Aura truly was a soul, then I knew Dragon would have been able to have one, and hers would have been a brilliant color.

If Dragon could, then why not this girl? An AI in a robotic body with a soul that shone like anyone else's.

I hadn't heard of any being like her being produced, and the amount of security between the workshop she was in and the rest of the ship indicated that not many others had either.

Was she the only one of her kind?

More importantly, what was I going to do with this? She wasn't a threat to be investigated or countered, she was just a girl sending a message to her dad—her creator? No, her dad.

Did anyone else know?

"Yo, uh, Taylor?" Sun said, his tail poking the back of my head from beside me.

"What?" Oh, there were six guards now, all looking annoyed. "Oh. Sorry, officers, we'll be on our way."

"What is so bad about us seeing the ship?!" Sun asked angrily.

"Miss, take your… friend"—the guard's lip curled on the word—"back to the school. Curfew is in a little while."

"Let's go, Sun." With that, we left the area.

"I knew everyone from Atlas had a rod up their butt, but man, they could try to not be jerks about everything."

"...I think it was more to do with who you were rather than what we were doing. Sorry." They had barely looked at me.

"Not your fault. I'm used to it. Still, I was hoping they would at least look away long enough for me to sneak by, not call more soldiers in."

"You were going to sneak around Atlas military personnel?"

"Well, yeah." It wasn't arrogance, but more just a part of the game for him. "Anyway, since that was a no-go, do you wanna spar? I want to see the drill sergeant in action." Smiling seemed to be his default expression, tinged with cockiness and eager energy.

"Maybe another…" I trailed off. What else did I have to do? If I left, it would just be me and my thoughts; thoughts of the robot girl, Ozpin and Ironwood's secret war, and Salem. I didn't want to get into any of those topics. I needed a distraction.

My heart and mind were battered and exhausted, but I could still move, still fight. Combat would be a welcome excuse not to think.

"Actually, sure. I wouldn't mind sparring."

"Sweet. Mind if I bring Neptune along? He won't admit it, but he wants to meet new people while he's here."

"Sure… who's Neptune?"

"The flirty guy I was with before?"

"Flirty?" I didn't remember seeing anyone being flirty with someone.

"Yeah, but don't think too much on it. He does it with everyone; thinks it helps with his cool demeanor."

"Okay." I doubted I had anything to worry about on that front, it wasn't like he'd flirt with me.

"Oh, want me to grab those girls you were with before?" he asked. "I could grab my team too, make a thing of it."

"Not really—I mean, maybe another time."

"Right on." If he was holding any judgments, he hid them well.


I tossed six small metal discs—devices that Weiss had once mentioned offhandedly as a waste of Dust, but which I found very useful—and three burst apart in a wave of ice that covered small sections of the arena. I started counting.

They weren't as explosive or powerful as grenades, but they were small and good for creating obstacles and quick surges of fire or electricity depending on what Dust was used.

One.

Neptune's confident smile vanished as he looked, unnaturally wary of the ice.

Two.

I leapt back, switching my magazine out for one filled with Lightning Dust rounds in a fluid, practiced motion before I landed.

Neptune still hadn't moved. I had expected him to follow so I could draw him into the middle of the blooms of ice, but where he was would work.

Three.

The discs of fire Dust erupted in a burst of heat that shattered each area of ice into frozen shrapnel, sent out a wave of steam, and created a puddle that covered the floor around Neptune.

My trap was ready, but as I raised my gun toward the puddle, the puddle itself rose toward Neptune.

A high-pitched "Eep!" was all I heard before Neptune bolted faster than anyone I had seen except for Ruby using her Semblance.

"That was a good move, ha ha," Neptune yelled from the top row of the audience bleachers on the other side of the room, trying to cover fear with fake confidence.

"Dude!" Sun shouted. "I've seen morning dew that was wetter than that puddle! Come on, man!"

Neptune's shoes were still in the puddle; he had somehow jumped out of them.

"Why'd you leave your shoes behind?" Sun asked.

"Didn't want to get my socks wet, no one likes wet socks!" Neptune stated quickly, obviously covering for nerves.

"If you bought them, then I know they're super water resistant! They aren't even wet anymore!"

"Always good to be safe!"

"Um, are we going to continue?" I asked hesitantly.

"What are you talking about? We never stopped, babe. Just, uh, changing my position, gaining higher ground… working the field? Yeah, those," Neptune said.

I turned to Sun. "I don't know what's going on."

"He's afraid of water," he said, straight-faced.

"I am not!"

I blinked slowly, looking at Neptune, to Sun, then to Neptune's empty shoes.

I couldn't help it, I laughed. He was named after a god of the ocean and had literally jumped out of his shoes in fear of a puddle.

"Neptune, I get it, but seriously—"

"I think we better stop for now, Taylor, Sun's spouting stories that are obviously crazy. Isn't. That. Right. Sun?" Neptune urged Sun to agree through gritted teeth.

Sun sighed and shrugged. "Eh, guess we'll pick this up later, sergeant," he said, while his smile said 'what can you do'.

"Well, thanks anyway. I needed"—I pointed between Neptune's shoes and him—"that."

We waved our goodbyes and I was left with a small smile that wouldn't leave. It was amazing how one bit of fun could hang on when the world was dragging everything down.

I went back to CFVY's room, nodded at Coco as she looked over a huge case of Dust ammo, hummed at Fox when he waved, and got ready for bed.

While Salem was an issue I immediately turned my mind away from, the peppy AI was one I thought I could focus on now for a bit. Not using any of the energy I finally had to be productive would be a waste.

My bugs spread throughout Beacon, focusing on any Atlas staff and on the dorms of the students coming in from other kingdoms, since I wasn't sure which teams were Atlas's, all to see if anyone talked about the robotic girl.

The chance was small since the girl's state was likely top-secret, but I hoped I would be lucky.

I found nothing when I searched for any news or research on the subject with my Scroll, so I set it aside.

For over an hour I lay there, eyes clamped shut to focus on what my bugs heard.

That's when I caught a team discussing a virus they had just received from someone named Watts—the same team that had searched their room in case it was bugged. I herded my swarm into their vents.

A woman, who I guessed was their leader, explained to the two other members of her team that they had what they needed to take over the Cross Continent Transmit System tower in Vale.

My eyes shot open, boggled at the idea.

If they did that… they could control all communications coming through Vale, and if they shut the system down, the other towers wouldn't have enough broadcasting power to reach each other.

They could completely isolate the kingdoms from each other. No way to call for help from allies and neighbors, or hear one either.

The team continued their talk, smug and assured in their plan. They needed to engineer a distraction to infiltrate the tower and download their virus into it, but it had to be after the CCTS's quarterly system scan had finished so they would have control during the tournament.

Ozpin and Ironwood must have been right about Salem having agents in the area, because I had just found them.

Chapter 21 End


Author Notes:

Praise be to Juff, Breakingamber, ccstat, Sigravig, Majigah, and TheBiggerFish.

And a thank you to Orbital Oracle for fixing some of my lore stuff.

Lots of revelations going around, but that's really just the consequence of Taylor's ability to hear/scout with her bugs and all these parties converging.

Anyway, Neptune's Semblance is hydrokinesis, but he almost drowned himself and his brother, thus the phobia.

Soooo, I wrote out the first part about Taylor remembering being on a boat, but loremaster Juff pointed out that Taylor specifically talks about not remembering being on a boat in Worm 12.2. That said, we both agreed that it wasn't really a big thing, so I decided to leave it. Maybe I'll come back and switch it up, but honestly… probably not.

Sorry for taking so long. Revive the fic then take almost a month to update. Well, work suddenly sent me around the country a bit to clean up some shit. So that was about 2 weeks of not writing. Then, I got sick, and I was like, "Did I fucking get Covid, again?!" Turns out, no, I was just regular sick, so I could still work if I confined myself to my office and only talk with others through email, which I did. Had no motivation to write during that time.

That all said, I've made like, zero progress on Chapter 22. I have the whole thing outlined, but haven't actually written any of the scenes. So, maybe expect a monthly release kinda thing, I don't know.

Shorter chapter, this time, but next one may or may not be long, so, yeah. Taylor mental state right now kinda stops her from going into a bunch of other things that are going on that will be brought later. So, her thoughts are rather terse and short. Also, I have the second ep of RoaW Chibi almost done, so expect that in the next little bit.