Feldt always dreamed in computer code. It informed her thought processes much better than the precarious reality of colors and people. With the proper expression and equation, a problem could be solved. It was much easier than when she needed speak to people and tell them of her feelings, or when she could go shopping, or when she could not go shopping because Christina was no longer here to take her and they were all too busy repairing and rebuilding, in any case.
In fact, Feldt often thought in computer code. It was only when she dreamed in it that she understood that there was a deeper reason for this than its mere convenience. When she dreamed, she was aware of that knot of wires buried at the base of her brain, ready to unravel when more skill and precision, more speed and strength, more processing power was needed. For a while, she begged it not to expand. She was enjoying being human too much.
Then loss hit her like a stray comet, the kind that once caused an extinction. She cracked, then, briefly, and in her dreams she asked the implants deep in her brain to take over for her. But there was no response. She was left to be human and in pain.
Now Feldt was better. It had only been a few days, but she had a new resolve. And when she dreamed, she no longer asked the implant to extend its wires through her, to reroute her love and her grief into perfect skill and machine precision. She was determined now to hold onto her humanity and make the very best of it. She had already shed too many tears and lost too much love to give it up now. For the sake of those who were gone, like Lockon and Christina, and for the sake of those who remained, like Tieria and, somewhere, Setsuna, she would keep going.
But for all her own resolve, Celestial Being was weakening. Tieria returned, but Sumeragi left. They had few resources and fewer people to make use of them. The proto-intelligence that guided the implant observed this. It observed that, should it make the necessary changes, Feldt could synchronize her originally biological brain with Tieria's, which had always been electronic and always would be, no matter how much he learned of being human. It observed that the ways in which it was built to augment its host would allow Feldt to manipulate GN particles in new and beneficial ways. It took action.
So no matter what her own decision was, one morning shortly after Tieria's return, Feldt awoke with her eyes shimmering silver from the quantum flow of information through the visual interface with her brain's new structure. She could do new things. She could help Celestial Being better this way.
She tried not to think of what she might be losing. Instead, she focused on the mission.
She only had to tell Ian, Lasse, and Tieria; they were the only ones left. Ian smiled and reassured her that she was still Feldt, and he'd still need her help repairing the Gundams. He seemed a little uncomfortable, though. Feldt would not have noticed this before, but the new dimensions to her brain fed her so much information that even she could pick up on subtle social cues. That didn't mean she understood them. Why was he uncomfortable? Was it because she was so strange now? Or--she hated to think this, because it would mean he'd been keeping secrets from her, and she didn't want to think that of her family--had he been one of the ones to fit the implant to her in the first place?
Even now, she didn't know how that had happened. She just knew now that it was there, and it was active. She found herself hoping that the ones who had done it to her were not here. It felt cold, and while she was grateful to be of more use to Celestial Being, she was irrationally scared of it.
Lasse left with Ian, clearly still digesting the information he'd learned, and then Feldt and Tieria were the only ones in the meeting room. That was good, because she had more to explain to Tieria. But first she wished she knew more about how he felt. He'd shown no reaction except faint surprise at her revelation, and now he watched her with solemn and earnest eyes. She realized that no matter what, she'd soon know a great deal more about how he felt.
"There's more to this," he guessed.
"Yes," she said. "I didn't want to say it in front of the others, but...Tieria, I know about you now."
Now he showed signs of what the new connections in her brain said was vulnerability. His mouth opened just so; he cast his eyes down. "I see. Then you realize I'm not...no, I am human. Lockon Stratos told me I am human." He was still reassuring himself, still exploring the idea. That was what that hesitation in his speech meant.
Lockon Stratos. The name still pulled a pang from Feldt's chest, and her brain puzzled at this. Surely she no longer needed these negative and painful emotions. But those parts of her had not been rerouted yet, and Feldt resisted the idea that they would be. She turned her razor-sharp thoughts instead to Tieria and what she needed to tell him now.
"My brain is now built to link with yours," she said.
His eyes widened. A human indication of shock. "Explain."
"I can link my superior information processing skills with your superior electronic senses and guide you," Feldt said. "Tieria, I'll feel what you feel." She felt as if she should apologize for that. It didn't seem right.
"What good will this do us?" Tieria said. He was stiff now. She took a strange comfort in that: they were both uncertain of this.
"I don't know yet," Feldt confessed. "But my first mission has been uploaded." She stopped the tremors in her voice; it was surprisingly easy with her new brain. "We have to find the bodies of the ones who died in battle. I might be able to revive them with the right use of GN particles."
Ordinarily it would have been quite impossible to find four human bodies scattered in space, in places that the remains of the Ptolemaios had long since left behind. But Feldt could perform the four-dimensional calculations necessary to determine their locations in seconds. She just couldn't explain to other people, normal people (and Tieria), how she could do it. Locating small objects in space was one of her purposes now. Explaining the details of it was not.
What was left of the Ptolemaios was not maneuverable enough to return to the places where the records and Feldt's calculations showed the bodies should be. But Nadleeh had been repaired enough that it could return to the scene, albeit with almost nonexistent weaponry. It was a risk. Feldt deemed it acceptable. So did Tieria.
"I see," he said. "That's why you need to link with me. The coordinates are far too precise to entrust to ordinary communications."
"Yes," Feldt said. "It isn't anything personal. I'll leave your thoughts alone." She hesitated, not sure she was being entirely honest. It was funny how she still couldn't tell that. So she added, "I don't know how much I can. But I'll try, Tieria."
He looked away for a moment, and when he turned to face her again, his eyes were bright. "I don't mind," he said. "My brain was designed to link with Veda. If any information in it could be useful to you, take it."
"I'm not Veda," she said. "I'm still Feldt. Aren't I...?"
"Of course," Tieria said. "We should test this link before employing it on the mission itself."
Feldt nodded. She didn't waste any more time; she simply reached for Tieria's forehead, the tips of her fingers resting at his temples.
Something arced between them. It was invisible--quantum tunneling happened on a level too minuscule even for Feldt's new eyes to see--but they both felt it. And then--
Feldt was looking out through Tieria's eyes, staring into her own silver ones, watching the newly inhuman irises scroll more and more rapidly with flashes of code. Her enhanced perception remained; she was simply using it from another person's eyes. But that wasn't all. Underneath it hummed thoughts she couldn't ignore. Gratitude, gratitude, thoughts that she could barely put into words, I was meant to link my brain to Veda, and then I was meant to protect Lockon, perhaps I can still come close enough, and hope, hope. That was there too.
Feldt released the connection. "I'm ready now," she said. "Tieria, will you be all right in Nadleeh?"
"So long as you guide me," he said.
Feldt sent Nadleeh to the site the Ptolemaios had occupied during the battle first. She had watched the video record from Dynames to determine where she should send Tieria next, but that could wait. First, they had to retrieve and study the bodies of Joyce Moreno, Lichtendal Tsery, and Christina Sierra.
Or at least, they had to study them. The moment Tieria focused Nadleeh's sensors on them, Feldt knew that there was no chance of revival in these cases. The bodily damage was irrelevant, as was the time that had passed--the vacuum of space preserved already-broken bodies well (too well, Feldt thought, because against all her new programming, this was hurting her). The problem was the concentration of GN particles; it wasn't nearly great enough.
Still, it was difficult for her to navigate Nadleeh away from where the bridge of the Ptolemaios had been. Logic and the demands of the mission told her that she should leave all the bodies where they were. They certainly didn't have the resources to arrange a proper burial, and as they were now, they were nothing but empty, meaningless husks. But still, she made Tieria's gaze linger on Christina, or just her shattered body. Feldt wondered, still confused despite all her processing power, why Christina had died that way. A part of her knew that right and wrong had nothing to do with life and death, but another part of her didn't care.
Feldt. It was Tieria. He was communicating with her, and she could feel flashes of fumbling sympathy in the words and the feelings beneath them. It would be all right for you to cry.
I promised not to cry, Feldt told him, and for a moment she was human again. Promises were a human thing. But in the process, she felt her connection with Tieria start to weaken, and she had to clutch at it hurriedly, and by the time she'd reestablished it, the threat of tears was gone. Tieria, let's continue to--
The connection fell painfully silent as far as spoken words went. But Feldt could make out a sea of emotions beneath it. The thought occurred to her: if she continued as necessary upon the path of her programming, one day she would only be able to feel those emotions by linking with Tieria. In her own mind, the neurons for creating such strong feelings would be remade so she could better serve the purpose of Celestial Being. But right now, she shared those feelings with him. No, not entirely--Lockon had meant different things to each of them. But they had been similar things.
She drew on the information she'd calculated based on the video records from Dynames, and she sent Nadleeh along its way to the next position. But as Tieria approached (his heart was pounding; Feldt could detect such things), she noticed something else.
Someone's disturbed the site. It happened almost immediately after the battle.
Tieria stilled. Explain.
I've sent you to an asteroid that I calculated captured the debris of the GN-Arms and Lockon's body, Feldt told him. But it should have captured some of the debris of Gundam Throne Zwei as well.
A sudden surge of new emotion came to her from Tieria. Hatred. It was new to him, too, she could tell from the shock that followed. And the body of that man as well?
That could have been captured by another nearby asteroid, Feldt sent. But... With Tieria's hands, she activated the best scanners Nadleeh currently had. She searched. She used her own enhanced perception. There was nothing of Throne Zwei or its last occupant--nothing at all.
Tieria filled in the blanks, although Feldt had already come to the conclusion herself. He survived.
A burst of emotion overtook Feldt despite everything. We'll fix that! We have to! Then she stopped herself. No, it's also possible someone else retrieved the body and was unable to do anything with it. But...
There was only grim determination from Tieria. Unlikely.
In any case, they had something more important to do. Feldt guided Nadleeh around the asteroid, until--
Tieria? What are you doing?
He'd spotted the body as soon as she had, even though with his lesser perceptions, it should have been impossible. Now he was opening his cockpit and launching himself out. Feldt hurried to control Nadleeh remotely, using one of its hands to scoop up Lockon's broken form. As soon as she did, Tieria landed next to it.
He sent nothing back along the link, at least not intentionally. But looking out through his eyes, she saw him touch the shattered visor of Lockon's helmet and shy away from the burned and fractured parts of his flight suit. She felt a resurgence of overwhelming grief, and then she was fighting it herself, and back where her physical body was, she knew she'd broken her promise. She was crying.
Her programming told her that it would be best to let the tears flow, then resume her work. So she did, and what was still human in her shivered at her conclusions. The GN particle concentration here is high enough.
Tieria froze. What does that mean? But he knew. She could feel it in the way his heart beat faster and his throat tightened up. She still had those reactions, too.
It means I can restore his body and brain to a pre-death state, Feldt said. It was the natural description of what she was going to do, but somehow it seemed an inadequate description. So she allowed herself to add a simpler one. I can bring him back.
Feldt released her hold on Tieria's mind as soon as Nadleeh was on its way back to the base. It was more accurate to call it that than to call it the Ptolemaios, her increasingly rational brain reminded her, as the Ptolemaios had been destroyed and this place had hardly been rebuilt enough to qualify as its successor yet. The fact that she wanted to keep calling it by the name of the place where she'd formed her first bonds of friendship and family was one of those things about her human brain she would eventually have to come to terms with giving up. She would be better, in the future. For now, she had work to do.
They still had a GN drive left from Dynames. That would do, to power what Feldt needed to do. With that energy and Feldt's new abilities, the makeshift sickbay they'd put together would be enough. Their current regeneration technology was subpar, but she would enhance it beyond anything they'd had before.
By the time Tieria returned in Nadleeh with Lockon's body, Feldt was ready. Tieria and Lasse both helped put Lockon's body into the spare regeneration pod, both of them moving stiffly, uncomfortable with the task. Or perhaps they were uncomfortable with Feldt's unseeing and all-seeing silver eyes. She hoped it wasn't that. She didn't want to scare people away from her. She'd put so much effort into becoming close to them, even when it hurt.
But she couldn't spare the time for thoughts like that, so with the help of the new connections in her brain, she pushed them away. "This will take a few weeks," she said.
"We'll be ready in the cafeteria when you need to take a break," Lasse said. Maybe it hadn't been her strange eyes making him uncomfortable after all. Feldt was more grateful for that than she needed to be.
But she still had to turn him down. "I'll be switching entirely to electronic mode for this," she said. "I'll get all the power I need from the GN drive."
"I wasn't aware you could do that," Tieria said. "Even I..." He trailed off. With Lasse in the room, he didn't want to say more.
"I'll provide updates," Feldt said softly. "I know this is important to you too. To all of you. Lockon Stratos was part of Celestial Being. Soon, he will be again."
Lockon was dead. He was not merely dormant in some way. Feldt had to perform what some people still considered a miracle: she had to bring him back to life.
It was the brain that was the problem. By extending the wires of her implant out through her hand and carefully rerouting the components of the stripped-bare regeneration pod, Feldt could easily restore Lockon's body. It would take time--that was why she'd told Tieria and Lasse that it would take weeks--but she could do it. But there was no point unless she could restore electrical activity to the brain--and not just any electrical activity, but the same activity that had once filled it. Otherwise, they would have only succeeded in reviving a blank slate with Lockon's face.
That was where the GN particles came in, along with Feldt's new abilities. This was one of the things she had been designed for (was it her who had been designed for this, or just the implant? What was the difference, now?): reviving lost members of the crew when this specific accident of physics allowed it.
The area Lockon had died in had been saturated with GN particles. They lingered on in the silent corridors of his brain, and as soon as she finished setting up the regeneration pod to heal his body, Feldt turned her attention to this. She plucked the memory of withered neurons from the particles, and she restored what they told her to. Bit by bit, she brought Lockon back. She had never been happier to be useful.
She continued to be happy, until she reached his visual cortex.
The GN particles had not fully penetrated there. Perhaps it was because of his existing eye injury. Perhaps it was only coincidence. But she would be able to restore dim, shadowy sight at best, no matter how hard she worked--and she was ready to work hard. But her programming stopped her. It would be pointless to revive a member of Celestial Being who had served as a sniper if he could no longer see. It was better to leave him dead.
But her programming did not have full hold on her yet. Feldt still remembered the feeling she and Tieria had shared when Nadleeh had scooped up Lockon's near-shattered body. She still remembered how it had felt when Lockon put one gloved hand on her head. He didn't need to be able to snipe to do that. He didn't need to be able to snipe to be Lockon Stratos, she decided. So she continued to work. No matter how little he saw, she still wanted Lockon back.
She was using her new abilities for purposes they were not approved for, she realized. But she thought it was okay, because Lockon had helped teach her that it was all right to open up to people and care about them. Maybe even without sight, he could teach them all more.
Nineteen days after she started the operation, Feldt finished the system restore of Lockon's brain. His good eye would see only faint patterns of light and dark, but he was alive again.
When the work was over, Feldt retreated from the sickbay. She was not exhausted in any physical sense; the GN drive had indeed supplied all her power needs over the past nearly three weeks. But the magnitude of what she had done still frightened her a little. She was just Feldt. She wasn't even a Gundam Meister. How had she become someone who could blur the line between the living and the dead? All she'd wanted was her family back.
Tieria found her as she was returning to her quarters. "Feldt Grace," he said stiffly.
She wondered if the name still fit her, or if she should be something else. But she responded anyway. "What is it, Tieria?"
"Are you done?"
She didn't need to link with his brain to tell that he was anxious. It was still strange, that perception the implant and its extensive rerouting of her brain gave her. She could observe things about people's emotional states that she'd never been able to figure out before. But she was starting to have trouble knowing why it mattered. For now, though, she was anxious as well. She nodded. "Lockon will wake up sometime tomorrow," she said. "But--"
"Something went wrong," Tieria said.
"He's blind," she said.
"A blind sniper," Tieria said. This time she couldn't read his expression.
"I wasn't supposed to," she said suddenly. The words rushed out of her. "My programming suggested that he was of no more use. But I did it anyway. I brought him back."
For a long moment, Tieria said nothing. Hesitantly, he reached out his hands. "Feldt."
She looked down at his hands, stretched out so strangely. After a moment, she realized he was offering them to her. She grabbed them a little too quickly and a little too hard, but even so, it made her feel better to touch him like that. He was struggling with all of this as well.
"Once," Tieria said, "my programming would also have told me to abandon Lockon Stratos if his vision was impaired. Now it's different. Thank you, Feldt." He squeezed her hands. She didn't think he knew what he was supposed to do with them. That was okay; she didn't really know, either. "Thank you for bringing him back, regardless of what he can or cannot see."
"I'm still scared," Feldt said. And it was still hard for her to say something like that. "I don't know how he'll react. Please be the first to go see him when he wakes up."
Feldt watched from a window above the sickbay as Tieria waited for Lockon to wake up. Temptation came to her again and again: it would be so easy to slip into Tieria's brain. Then she could watch and listen both as they greeted each other. She could be a part of what they had--something that was different and stranger and maybe more exciting than what she and Lockon had had. At these thoughts, her programming stirred. Jealousy, it identified the emotion she was feeling. She wasn't sure whether to be thankful for that identification or not. She was sure that, despite the potential she now had to simply shut it out, she wanted to keep it.
She was less sure that she could resist the temptation to link with Tieria, but somehow she did. When Lockon first stirred in his bed and sat up, blinking without comprehension, Feldt held herself back and only watched. She watched Tieria hesitate, then very slowly reach out for Lockon's face and turn it toward him. She watched their expressions intently--Tieria's stunned but grateful, Lockon's stunned and numb.
Strange sparks tugged at her brain. A sick feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. What was this?
She found the answer by consulting some of the new information buried in her changed mind. She'd rebuilt Lockon's brain with her own brain. She knew its patterns inside and out now, and she felt when they shifted and changed. She could read his emotions. She'd know when he was happy and when he was sad. He wouldn't be able to hide it from her when he needed something.
A small flare of triumph went up through her, beyond the bounds of her programming. She had something special of her own with Lockon now.
But it was strange, then, that she could sense very little in the way of brain activity from him now. She knew she'd properly repaired the limbic center and other areas of his brain responsible for emotion, so why were so few of them lighting up? She probably needed practice to read him properly. Right now, she focused--closing her eyes so that the sight of Tieria touching Lockon's face did not distract her. After a moment, she identified one emotion beyond the obvious shock: frustration.
But that was it. She clearly needed more practice.
After a while, Tieria emerged and came up to speak with her. "You should see him as well," he said. "You are the one responsible for his being here."
Feldt looked down. "Tomorrow," she whispered. "I'm not ready yet."
"Something's wrong," Tieria said, looking at her.
"I can sense his feelings," she said.
There was no mistaking the way Tieria looked at her now: with naked jealousy, the same thing she'd once felt of him. "Then can you tell if he is grateful to be back with us? I can't tell."
"Not yet," Feldt said. "I'm not very good at it right now." She looked up at Tieria, and too late, she realized that her own worry was evident on her face. She should have known better, she thought; she could control that sort of thing better now.
He looked down at her, and after a moment, he stepped forward very awkwardly and put his arms around her. It was a hug. She thought it was probably a hug. This was what they were supposed to be like, or at least it was close. "We'll discover how he feels together," Tieria said. "It is important."
"Yes," she agreed. Tieria felt warm to her. She wondered if she would still feel warm, when the implant had finished what it was doing to her brain and her body, or if in the end, he would be more human than she was. But for now, despite her fears, she was glad he was holding her.
In the end, Feldt could not wait as long as she had planned to. In the early hours of the ship's artificial morning, she found herself standing in the door of the sickbay where Lockon remained, staring at him. There were a few new scars on him, but for the most part, the regeneration technology, aided by her own abilities, had done its job. He looked as if there hadn't been a period of weeks, even months, where he'd simply ceased to be. He looked normal.
More normal than Feldt looked now, as she stared at him with distant silver eyes. She took a step forward, then another.
That was when he stirred and sat up. She was relieved to notice it; he must already be learning to rely on his hearing. That was good. It meant he was adapting, just as she was now adapting to her new mind and body.
"Tieria?" he called out. "It's all right, you don't need to come check on me all the time."
"Lockon," she said.
Something in him changed. His expression stayed the same, but the emotional centers of his brain flickered. It happened too fast for Feldt to identify just what it was, and then it was gone; he was blank again. No, no, she corrected herself; Lockon wasn't blank. He definitely had emotions. She just wasn't good at sensing them yet.
"Yo, Feldt," he said. "Tieria told me you're the one who brought me back."
She took a few steps closer. Now she was next to him. She could reach out and touch him if she wanted to. She didn't, not just yet. "It was a team effort," she said. "Tieria helped too."
"That's good," Lockon said. "You two make a pretty good team, you know."
"That's right." He smiled in her general direction. But what she could sense of his brain activity didn't match that smile. That was really strange. Didn't people only smile when they were happy? Or was that wrong? No, her new knowledge quickly answered her unspoken question: sometimes people smiled when they didn't mean it. Sometimes people lied with their faces as well as with their words. Feldt didn't want to think of Lockon being one of those people. Maybe he was just a little mixed up from being dead all this time.
"I'll keep working with him," she said. "I like it."
"Good," Lockon said. "So it sounds like I should thank you, huh?" A flash of some other emotion passed through his head. This time, she chased it down and identified it, but that didn't make it make any more sense. It was a strange mix of bitterness, resentment, and guilt.
"Lockon..." She tried to think of what to say. "Don't thank me." Then she blurted out, "I can tell something's wrong!"
His expression slackened, the smile fading. He'd been caught off guard for a moment. When he picked it up again, it was wearier. "Feldt, there wasn't a lot of point in bringing me back, was there? Like I said, you and Tieria make a great team. Even if Ms. Sumeragi's gone, and you can't find Allelujah and Setsuna--" There! A flash of emotion, more potent than what she'd felt in him before. Fear and loss, at the mention of Setsuna's name.
"I'll look for them," Feldt said quickly. "I'll look for Setsuna. I have the ability to do that, now."
Lockon shook his head. "I believe in him," he said. "You should, too."
There was a strange mingling of hope and fear in him now. Feldt took a moment to realize that he didn't want to risk finding out that Setsuna was gone. It was strange, to think of Lockon needing someone like that. So much of this was strange. So she only nodded and let him go on.
"Well, even if all that's true," he continued, "there are still people in Celestial Being. It's better to go forward with the new than try picking up the old pieces, right?"
Once, it would have made sense to hear Lockon say something like that. But now it jarred oddly with her perception of his brain. She didn't know why. She didn't know what the word for that jarring sensation was. Before she could tell it not to, one of her brain's new links reached for the information and found a word. Hypocrisy. That was it--
She pushed the thought away. Instead, she knelt down at the side of Lockon's bed. "It was still my directive to bring you back," she said.
He reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. But he missed, and instead his hand brushed against her cheek. Before he could draw it away, she found herself turning into it, pressing her face to his fingers. There was no need for her to do something like that, and she was grateful she still had the urge.
"Feldt," Lockon said softly, "why did you do it? I'm not a lot of use this way, and you know it."
"It was my mission," she said stubbornly. "Celestial Being always completes its missions."
He tried to look at her, but she knew he wouldn't be able to make out her expression--just the faint blur of her head before him. He smiled, and once again it didn't match up with what she could sense of his mind. "It's a good thing you're here, Feldt. Celestial Being will stick together just fine with you."
And with you, she wanted to say, but couldn't quite.
They all made arrangements to accommodate Lockon's new weaknesses. Feldt accessed information on Braille--it was more obscure now than it had once been, since most causes of blindness were now treatable, but not all. She gave the information she found to Lockon. Ian put up raised guides on the walls of the ship, and he came up with some ways to pass the time as well. He made a pack of old Earth cards, their surfaces also raised to allow for Lockon to use them, and started to explain the games one could play with them to Lasse and Lockon.
Lockon stopped him. "I know all about these games," he said. "You're right. They're a pretty good way to pass the time." He smiled as he said it, and he smiled as he played poker with Lasse. But Feldt could sense that beneath that smile, there was nothing.
There should have been something. Even if it wasn't the happiness that was supposed to accompany smiles, there should have been something. Even though it had been painful, Feldt had forced herself to watch the video records of Dynames' last battle to help determine from where Lockon's body needed to be retrieved. She'd heard the rage in his voice, seen it contort his face. Something like that didn't come out of nowhere and vanish into nowhere. She might have been unsure about that before, but she knew it now. Her new connections fed her helpful information about human emotional states.
She was grateful, then, that she had someone else who would notice this to whom she could turn. Tieria was there for her. He was there for Lockon, too. He would have seen it as well.
Feldt found him outside Lockon's quarters one night after Lockon had gone to sleep. That was where they both should be, she felt (even if such a feeling was irrational and would someday be eliminated by the increasing dominance of her implant). "Tieria," she said.
He looked at her.
"Something's wrong with Lockon," she said.
There were many things Tieria could have said in response to that. He could have pointed out the obvious--that Lockon was blind, and surely considering his previous profession that counted as something "wrong" with him--or asked her what she meant. But even without linking brains, they had come to be on the same wavelength about Lockon. "He's missing something," Tieria said.
"Yes," Feldt said. "I can't sense as much emotion from him as I should. And--the parts of his brain responsible for experiencing memories light up a lot. But not the parts responsible for reacting to the present. Did I get something wrong when I brought him back?" The words came out sounding more distraught than Feldt had intended.
Tieria lowered his gaze. "No," he said quietly. "I think...he lost it himself."
"Do you know what it is?"
Tieria said nothing.
"Please tell me, Tieria," Feldt said. Then she reached for his head, took hold if it, and initiated their link.
He stiffened under her hands, but there was nothing he could do. She touched his memories, even as he resisted--
--there was an island, and a conversation there, and a gun, why was Lockon pointing a gun at Setsuna--
--she released Tieria. "I'm starting to understand," she said.
After a tense moment and a numb stare that Feldt endured quietly, Tieria nodded. "He thinks he has no more reason to live," he said.
"That can't be," she said. Again she had to force down tears. "He can do much more than fight. I know it."
"He doesn't know it," Tieria said. He sounded puzzled, as they both were. How could Lockon not understand how much he was good for?
"We could tell him that Ali al-Saachez is probably still alive," Feldt said.
"We could," Tieria said dubiously.
"If he weren't human...if he were more like us..." Tieria flinched, and Feldt cast an apologetic glance at him. She'd forgotten. "It would make sense to tell him. A computer needs as much information as possible to make the right decision. Doesn't it?"
"But we shouldn't tell him," Tieria said. "Humans are different. Some information only hurts them." He paused. "It's true for us, too. I didn't want to know that Lockon doesn't want to live."
"Neither did I," said Feldt. "Does that mean I'm still human? For now?"
"I couldn't say," Tieria said.
"I don't understand it," Feldt said. "Does that mean I'm not human enough?"
This time, Tieria said nothing. He only reached for her hand, and he held it very awkwardly.
Computer code had begun to take over Feldt's thoughts even while she was awake. It was much easier to process information that way. But over the day following her troubling conversation with Tieria, a new thought that wasn't digital at all began to plague her. It wasn't the worry over Lockon--that was only growing dimmer as the implant converted more and more of her brain. It was something else: the image of Tieria staring at her in pained shock after she'd linked with him without his permission. Her programming approved of what she had done, even if she had done it for irrational reasons: she wanted the information, so she'd taken it. That was how a machine consciousness should operate.
But, after some thought (which Feldt struggled to keep analog), she decided it wasn't how a human being should operate. She was still human enough that such a thing mattered. Tieria had become human enough that such a thing mattered to him as well.
She could not bring it up around Lockon, and the two of them spent most of their time around him. She had the feeling she didn't want Lockon to know she'd violated Tieria's mind like that; she still faintly felt shame at the thought of him finding out. It was strange, though. For all the time they spent around Lockon, talking to him, they still couldn't reach past the surface he presented. Feldt still sensed his memories rather than his reactions activating as he smiled and listened to them. Feldt tried to describe how she'd kept going after his death, hoping to make him proud of her. That was still important to her. But she could sense nothing resembling pride in his mind when she spoke. She could still sense very little at all. She needed more practice, she told herself again, but more and more, the electronic portions of her brain were disinclined to believe that. She felt nothing from him because he felt nothing, too.
She hated that thought. After another day of it, she was almost glad to follow Tieria back to his quarters when they both finally left Lockon for the night. She still wasn't sure what she was going to say to him, but it was better than staying with Lockon and sensing that lack of sensation.
"Feldt," Tieria said, stopping well before reaching his quarters and turning to face her. "What do you need?"
"I don't need anything," she said. She made herself look directly at him, even though it was difficult. The human in her was a little scared to, and the machine in her thought it was irrelevant. But she owed it to him, somehow. This was what humans did, even if they weren't sure they were humans. They looked each other in the eyes. Lockon had been good at that; he still tried, when he could.
"Then what is it?" Tieria looked a little uncomfortable, and that was enough to push Feldt over the edge.
"I'm sorry," she blurted out. "I'm sorry, Tieria."
"What are you apologizing for?" he asked, his voice cautious but a little hopeful.
"The way I touched your mind last night," Feldt said. "It wasn't right, was it?"
"No," Tieria said. "It was not."
"I won't do it again," Feldt said.
Tieria hesitated. Then he nodded. "Thank you. I appreciate that."
She exhaled slowly with relief, and only then did she allow herself to look down. Her gaze fell on Tieria's hands, still stiff at his sides. She remembered what it had felt like for him to hold her hand in his, and she realized that she hadn't minded. She lifted a hand, then looked back up at his face. "Tieria, is it okay if I hold your hand again? I won't force you," she added hurriedly.
He blinked. "Why?" Then, a moment later, he held out his hand, as it occurred to him to actually answer the puzzling question. "It doesn't bother me," he said softly.
She clutched at his smooth pale fingers. "I'm scared," she said.
"About Lockon," Tieria said. He swallowed. "I am as well."
"Yes," Feldt said. "And no."
"What is it?"
"I'm worried about Lockon," she said. "That's true. But I'm also selfish, Tieria. I'm scared of what I'm becoming." Before she could stop herself, she'd asked, "What was it like?"
He looked at her, either not comprehending or not wanting to comprehend. She hated that she could think of the latter, that she could identify so easily when other people might be being weak at heart. They were supposed to be the strong ones, there to guide her.
"What was it like," she repeated, "when you didn't feel human? When Veda and the mission was all that mattered to you."
"Weren't you like that once, as well?" Tieria asked.
She shook her head. "I've always felt things," she said. "I just haven't had words for them." It was so easy to say that now, even though it summed up her entire life. Was that all she was? Someone who had lacked words for her feelings until Lockon, Christina, and the others had given them to her? No--was that all she had been, and was she something else entirely now?
"I always felt things," Tieria said, "but they weren't about people. People irritated me. They weren't important. Only the mission was important." He opened his mouth to say more, then closed it again.
She was hurting him by making him remembering these things, Feldt realized. "I'm sorry," she said again. "You don't have to talk about this." She wasn't sure she wanted to hear anymore, after all.
"It doesn't matter, in any case," he said abruptly. "What you are becoming is something different than what I was. I was a bioterminal made to access Veda. You have far greater abilities."
"I think..." Feldt hesitated. "I think they'll have more of a cost. It's already getting hard to remember to feel some things."
"Are they important things?"
"I don't know," Feldt said. "I can't tell what's important, sometimes."
"What if I remind you?" Tieria said. "I won't forget. Lockon is here. He will keep teaching me. Even if nothing is important to him anymore, he will keep teaching me."
"What did I want to be?" Feldt asked. "What did Lockon teach me?"
Tieria pulled his hand out of hers; the feeling left her with a jolt. "Link with me," he said. "I'll search for the answer."
"You don't mind?"
"No," he said. A tiny smile crept over his face. "I like the link. It's...a bit like Veda. But warmer."
Feldt reached for Tieria's face again. She brushed her fingertips against his temples and opened her mind to him. This time, instead of sorting through his memories, she drew him into hers. He fumbled with them, still unsteady. He followed the familiar trail of Lockon, Lockon, Lockon (it was even brighter in his mind than in hers, and she wondered at that) into places Feldt had started to forget. He found something.
She let go of him, took a step back, and looked at him again.
He took a deep breath. "You wanted to help us all," he said. "You wanted to be an important part of Celestial Being. Because we are your family, and you are one of us."
She smiled. It made sense. "Thank you, Tieria."
There were so many places Feldt could go from there, and she wasn't sure how to get to any of them. How could she best help Celestial Being in the state she was in now? She knew she could do much more than she had been able to in the past--that was some comfort, at least for as long as she retained such things as comforts. But her programming remained silent on what exactly she was supposed to do. There were too many contingencies, and the wiring in her brain was not fully developed yet. She knew that if she waited longer, it would be developed enough to decide for her. That was why she didn't want to wait.
Fortunately, a conversation with Ian sent her mind in the right direction. She passed him coming out of the hangar one day. He was in a good mood; he smiled and waved to her. "Nadleeh's almost fully operational again, Feldt! When we've got enough resources again, we can work on upgrading it so it's more than a match for whatever this new government they're making throws at us."
"Good," Feldt said. "I'm glad for Tieria."
"I don't know what to do about the other Gundams, though," he said.
"We will find Setsuna and Allelujah someday," Feldt said. "They'll return." She remembered discussing letters with Setsuna, and Haro's loneliness. He couldn't be gone for good, could he? But already, that memory was distant and no longer seemed to mean so much. But Setsuna was still important to Lockon. For that, Feldt would bring him back. "We'll have to find the technology for new versions of Kyrios and Exia. I can help now," she added. But she didn't quite think that was what she needed to do.
Ian slowed and started to frown. "What about Dynames?"
Feldt stopped. It came to her then and there. "We'll do the same for Dynames," she said. "Because I'm going to learn to pilot it."
"Are you sure?" Ian began, but by then it was already too late; Feldt had turned and was headed down the corridor to find Lockon. It all made sense now. Since she had brought him back, she would take on the responsibilities he could no longer handle. He would be able to do something by teaching her, and then he would be free to feel again. Everything would be all right.
"No," Lockon said firmly. It was jarring. He'd been so relaxed these days, so peaceful, with all those old memories floating through his head and nothing in the present to distract him. Feldt had only rarely felt the spike of anger from his brain, and never anything resembling determination. She'd begun to think maybe he didn't have the capacity for it anymore (something which should have worried her more and more, but instead worried her less and less as her brain rewired itself).
She wasn't sure how to feel know that she knew he did. It was good to see him feeling something, and she analyzed what she could sense of his brain more closely to get a better idea what it was. Determination, yes--like she hadn't felt out of him before, although she had a feeling it didn't compared to the fire he must have had before. Something else, something more complex...but she was getting better at identifying emotions. Protectiveness. That was it. And through it, the strangest wisp of gratitude--she almost managed to catch a full thought, a murmur of There's some innocence I can still protect. Then it was gone.
She looked at him. He no longer wore the eyepatch; instead, he brushed his hair over his ruined eye and gazed out with the remaining one, even though it was of little more use. Now he focused dimly on Feldt's face. She did her best to meet his distant gaze. "Lockon..." Even with her brain and its connections now able to provide her with a smooth understanding of human conversation, she couldn't find the words to tell him why his answer disappointed her. She couldn't explain why she wanted to do this.
"You've done plenty for Celestial Being, Feldt," Lockon said. "Don't worry about pushing yourself to do more. They'll find another Gundam Meister for Dynames. Besides, what do you think Haro would think of you going into combat with him? He'd get confused."
Feldt wanted to inform Lockon that she knew now that ascribing such silly emotions to Haro was ridiculous. Haro was a machine. She knew how machines felt, now. But Lockon still left her mute. That was confusing.
He smiled and reached out to pat her shoulder. He'd gotten the hang of it, now, and she had no excuse to press her face into the soft leather of his glove now. She still wanted to, but his hand was firm on her shoulder. "Keep being yourself, Feldt," he said. "Remember what I told you. Live on."
Feldt realized then that if she were still entirely herself, she would be angry. How could he tell her something like this, when he smiled so hollowly and refused to live on himself? But she didn't want to be angry at Lockon, so she yielded to temptation and turned off that part of her brain like a light. That was better than just feeling it, and it was also worse. "I understand," she finally said. This was a lie. She wouldn't have been able to lie before. It was good that she was learning, she told herself as she left Lockon behind.
She had grown used to confiding in Tieria. It had become so easy. He was the only one who understood the balance she struggled with between human and machine, supplied the more logical circuits of her brain, and naturally that was why. But she knew that wasn't entirely true. She liked holding his hand. Besides, he was more human than her, now, so he didn't understand. Not entirely. She still confided in him.
That was why she went to him now. "There are still things he won't do for me," she concluded, when she'd finished explaining how Lockon had denied her training. "I could train all the same, but it wouldn't be right. It would bother me for some reason."
"You want him to approve," Tieria said. He hesitated, then added, "You want him to be proud of you. Unless...that's only me."
"No," Feldt said. "It's me too. Even though I shouldn't need anyone to be proud of me. My abilities are superior to those of anyone else here." She didn't mean to say it that way, but it was true. "I want to mean something to him. But nothing means anything to him anymore. Maybe Setsuna, a little. I wish Setsuna still meant something to me," she added suddenly. "But I only want him to be alive for Lockon's sake."
Tieria's eyes widened at that confession. Then he looked down, and after a moment, he nodded. "I don't entirely understand it. But it's as if he isn't here anymore."
"There are things he won't tell us," Feldt said. But then she thought of her last conversation with Lockon. There's some innocence I can still protect. He wouldn't let her be a Gundam Meister. But someone who already was--
"What is it, Feldt?"
"There are things he won't tell me," she corrected herself. "Tieria, you're a Gundam Meister like him. Please find a way for him to tell someone. Even if it's you, and not me."
"I will do my best," Tieria said. Then his gaze grew intent on hers. "But you want to hear it too, correct? From him."
"Yes," she admitted.
He bowed his head to her, then tipped it back a little, exposing the soft spots on his temples that she needed to touch to initiate the link. "He doesn't need to know if we're linked while I ask him. And you were the one who brought him back. You deserve to know."
"Isn't that..." Feldt searched for the word. "A breach of trust?"
"He breached my trust by getting himself killed," Tieria said with sudden vehemence. "This is only fair. And--this will be difficult for me. I'd like your support."
Feldt blinked. Her body was at its normal heat, but she felt warm inside at those words. She didn't have to; she could turn off the feeling like she'd turned off her anger at Lockon. But this one, she wanted to keep. "All right." And she reached for him to begin to link their minds.
Lockon was alone by a window when Tieria found him. Ian was busy with the Gundams, and Lasse had just left to go help him. When Tieria approached him from behind, they were alone. "Lockon," he said.
Over the weeks, Lockon had learned to stop starting when he heard people's voices like that. Feldt still registered slight surprise in his brain and a momentary flicker of frustration at how easily he could be caught unawares, but that was all, and then he was smoothly turning to face Tieria. "Yo," he said. "What's up?"
"We all are," Tieria said very seriously. "We're all up and working to bring Celestial Being back to what it was, just as Feldt brought you back."
Lockon chuckled. There was only the dimmest of lights in his brain at this. He really did find Tieria's way of phrasing things pleasing--he sometimes felt it with Feldt around, too, and she was glad whenever that happened. But it wasn't enough. It was just a veil over emptiness. And then after that chuckle, he grew serious. Too serious. "You shouldn't put it that way, Tieria. When Celestial Being is restored, it'll be a lot better than I am."
"Don't say things like that," Tieria said.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to mope," Lockon said. "It's just true, after all."
Ask him why, Feldt sent. Ask him now. Why he says things like that!
Tieria obeyed. "Lockon, what do you mean? You have to know that even with your combat skills unusable, you're still a great asset to the team. You keep us together. You provide valuable support. You teach us things we would never have learned without you. Feldt and I will both attest to that."
Yes, she said. Yes.
The smile Lockon gave Tieria now was different. It was gentle and halfway genuine, and it hurt Feldt more than the hollow ones. "My memory would do the same things," he said. "It's not me you need."
"Even if that's true," Tieria said. "I'm still glad you have the chance to live again, Lockon Stratos. Why aren't you? Why don't you want to experience the world changing?"
"Tieria, you shouldn't call me that," Lockon said with sudden flatness.
Tieria hesitated. When he spoke, he almost stuttered. "Neil...Dylandy?"
"I don't know," Lockon said in that same toneless voice.
We're close to something, Feldt said. He's speaking real things now, even though... She searched her data from his brain. Even though he doesn't really want to say them to you. I think you've pushed him enough, Tieria.
"Please explain," Tieria said softly, carefully.
"I was done fighting," Lockon said. "I was done being Lockon Stratos and Neil Dylandy. I'd changed the world as much as I could. That wasn't enough, but I thought maybe Setsuna could do the rest. Now I'm in a world where Setsuna might be gone, I can't fight at all, and I have no more right to be Lockon Stratos." One of his hands curled into a fist.
Tieria reached out, very quickly, and in that moment Feldt wasn't sure whether it was his impulse, hers, or both of theirs in harmony. His hand folded around Lockon's fist. "You will always be Lockon Stratos to me."
Lockon looked abruptly up at him. Tieria was close enough now for Lockon to make out his face, Feldt realized, although just barely. That was very close indeed. She could feel Tieria's heart beating rapidly, and she knew hers was doing the same thing. What she didn't know was why.
"That's not enough," Lockon said. "I need to be Lockon Stratos for the world. For--" For him. It was a full thought this time that came Feldt's way, and an image came with it, so strong was the urge from Lockon. For a moment, the image confused her utterly. It was Lockon himself, and she knew he wasn't doing it for himself. But--
No. Her databanks supplied the obvious answer. It was an identical twin. Feldt though of what he had told her so long ago now, about his parents and the terrorist attack. Lockon had done all of this, had done everything, for the same reason Feldt strove to rebuild Celestial Being. For family.
But Tieria could not sense that thought from Lockon. In fact, he'd almost forgotten Feldt was there in his brain at all. "I'm not enough," he said. His expression would be little more than a blur to Lockon, but the ache in his voice was clear enough.
It was clear enough, in fact, that Lockon slipped back behind the mask (when had Feldt figured out it was a mask? She hadn't wanted to figure that out at all), and in an instant he was smiling ruefully but encouragingly. "Don't talk like that, Tieria. You're enough for what matters. For Celestial Being. You're enough to change the world with your own Gundam and your own will."
"You matter," Tieria said. Feldt would have spoken the same thing, had she been there; the words might as well have come from her own mouth, though Tieria paid her no heed now. It was just too bizarre. Lockon was the most human of them all, and he had taught them that humanity was precious. But here he was dismissing his own worth.
And right then, he did it again. He closed his remaining, nearly useless eye and smiled. "Not anymore. I'm a part of the past, Tieria. You and Feldt and the others will be part of the future."
"I'll take you with me," Tieria said fiercely. Not We'll take you with us. He'd entirely forgotten Feldt was there. He proved it an instant later, when he leaned forward and pressed his mouth tightly to Lockon's. Feldt reeled with the shock and nearly lost her connection, but now more than ever she wanted to hold onto it.
For a moment, Lockon was stiff, unresponsive. Then he pulled away. "Is that what you need me for?" he asked softly.
"No. Yes. I didn't mean--" Tieria stumbled over his words. "I wanted you. So I kissed you."
Lockon kissed him back. Base emotions lit up his brain, but Feldt was too overwhelmed with Tieria's feelings to analyze Lockon's too closely. She only noticed one odd anomaly: the sudden satisfaction Lockon felt for just a moment wasn't sexual or even romantic. It was something else. He was--relieved? Was that it?
She couldn't tell. She could only feel Tieria's pulse fluttering in his throat as Lockon's mouth moved on his, and it felt like Lockon's mouth was moving on hers, so her pulse fluttered helplessly, too.
Something calculating stirred in the electronic portions of her brain. It told her: You can use this. He wants to fill Tieria's need, because he can't do anything else. Let him fill yours, as well. Take advantage of him.
The thought was too tempting to bear.
The connections in Feldt's brain offered her endless information on how one person could seduce another. But none of it seemed to apply to Lockon. He was different, both now and before. She wouldn't have wanted him any other way. No, that wasn't true. She would have wanted him happier. But maybe this would help with that, she told herself. Another part of her scoffed at the idea. It was a rationalization. Her brain, changed as it was, knew this, and it told her that she shouldn't bother justifying herself. She should just manipulate Lockon as she needed to. After all, he wasn't good for much else anymore, especially if he wouldn't teach her about Dynames.
It was that kind of thought that made her flinch away from herself now. She wanted Lockon because he was important no matter what, didn't she?
Feldt made her way to Lockon's quarters after Tieria had gone to sleep, and she casually bypassed the security to let herself in. She would have been able to do that even before, but now it was easier than breathing. She stepped inside, and she turned on the lights.
In his bed, Lockon stirred. He could still tell when a room went from pitch dark to full of light, and now he sat up in bed. "Something happen?" he asked, and the double sensation that came to Feldt from him was a strange combination. It was both worry and hope. It made sense that he'd be worried, upon being woken up in the middle of the night, that something had gone wrong, that they were in danger or under attack. But what could he gain from such a situation?
Feldt pushed the thought away, because she had a feeling that if she tried analyzing it further, she'd find out more things she didn't want to know about Lockon. Instead, she said, "There's nothing wrong." She sat down on Lockon's bed and looked at him. He wasn't wearing a shirt, and while she'd seen him that way before in sickbay, now it made her want to blush. Now that she could do so, she suppressed it, even though he wouldn't have seen if she hadn't. "Lockon, I wanted to see you."
"Feldt," he said. His tone changed. It gentled. "Do you need help with something?"
She thought again of that time, in another era, when he'd confessed his past to her. Some of that man was still in him, she knew. It just wasn't enough to make a whole person, just as what was left of her without the implant wasn't enough to make a whole person. So it made sense for them to be together. "No," she said. "I was thinking of you." She thought of the touches she'd shared with Tieria, and the way Tieria had touched Lockon before kissing him. She reached out and grabbed his hand, trying not to apply too much force.
He stiffened, then stilled. "Hey, now. Let's not get carried away. You should--"
She didn't want him to say more. She kissed him.
But his mouth was flat and unresponsive against hers. Resistance splashed against her mind. An image flickered from his brain to hers: a young girl with a smiling face, a face that bore some of the same features as Lockon's. She wasn't Feldt, but somehow in Lockon's mind she was connected with her. A sister. He'd had a little sister as well as a twin brother. How much else about his past had he not told her?
He pulled away before she could think about it more. "Stop it," he said quietly.
"Lockon," she said. "You want people to want you. Now more than ever. I'm not wrong."
"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Feldt," he said. "Don't do this."
"I do want you!" she said. "Why--"
Inside her brain, without her asking for it, a reanalysis began. Some logic center had deemed it time to evaluate her actions. It studied her observation that Lockon needed to be needed, especially now that he could find no other purpose, and approved of that. It approved of her decision to take advantage of this. Weaknesses in human beings existed to be taken advantage of, for better or for worse. From there on, though, she couldn't stop herself, and yes, this was part of herself now that was thinking these things.
Lockon had looked at her as something like a sister. She had thought she loved him as something else, the few times she'd thought about those things. But in the end, she'd been mistaken. All she'd wanted all her life was family, and Lockon had been the one who'd taught her she could find that in Celestial Being. More than she wanted him to kiss her, she wanted him to hold her and tell her it would be all right. Even though, of course, that was absurd. Why should she need a blind human being to tell her things would be all right, when her own brain could analyze the situation far better?
Because he was Lockon. She couldn't let herself forget that.
Feldt stifled a sob and fell against Lockon's chest. It was enough to hear his heartbeat. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry."
She felt him relax, both physically and mentally. The next thing she knew, he was stroking her hair. It felt much more right than her attempt to kiss him. "It's all right," he said. "I'm still here for you, Feldt. You don't need to make yourself do anything you don't want to just to be sure of that." And there it was: the same satisfaction she'd sensed from him when Tieria had kissed him.
But the guilt of what she'd attempted still lay on her heavily, even though there were circuits in her that expressed nothing but impatience with such guilt. She tried to think of something else to say. "I'm sorry for more than that," was what came out. "Lockon, I lied to you."
"What?" He stopped stroking her hair.
She forced herself to pull away from him and sit up. "I told you it was my mission to bring you back," she said. "That was a lie." Why was she telling him this? Did she want his forgiveness, or just his understanding of how important he was to her? She didn't know. She refused to let her electronics give her the answer so easily.
"What do you mean?" His voice was quiet and even. It was getting dangerously close to that flat territory it had been in when he'd spoken with Tieria and she'd listened in.
"When I found out you would be blind," she said, "my programming told me to abandon the project. I ignored it. I wanted you to live. It was my decision. That's why you're here."
He was perfectly silent. She could sense the shock rippling out from him.
"I won't apologize for that!" Feldt said, even though her eyes were filling up with tears.
He tilted his head and almost looked at her. Hurriedly, she stilled her tears and her fears long enough to try to read what he was feeling. Places in his brain that had never lit up before when he paid attention to her were lighting up now. She wondered why, but could not tell, even with the help of the implant.
And then he smiled. "Looks like you can do more than I thought," he said. "That'll teach me to underestimate you." Beneath the smile, contradictory emotions had sparked in him. Resentment, even a hint of anger--she'd expected that, but it still hurt a little. But there was also something else. That thought she'd felt from him before--There's some innocence I can still protect--she felt it shatter. She'd made her own decision that had hurt him, so she was no longer an innocent girl to be protected. She wanted to ask him if it was all right to be proud, but of course she couldn't. So she asked herself, and she answered yes, but only with a little sadness.
"Lockon," she said, "will you teach me how to pilot Dynames?"
"You know you'll be in danger," he said, "piloting a Gundam. Promise me something, Feldt."
"Promise me you aren't doing it to impress me or prove that you're good enough."
"I promise," she said, although she wasn't sure what that would accomplish. Promises were a human thing. She wasn't even human enough for Lockon to want to shelter her anymore. "I want to help Celestial Being to the best of my abilities. Now I have greater abilities. Let me use them."
"We can start as soon as you're ready," he said.
Feldt wandered the corridors that night, trying to figure out how she should feel. She had failed to seduce Lockon, both because of him and because of herself. Tieria could succeed, if he really tried. But she had succeeded in convincing Lockon to teach her to pilot Dynames. Wasn't that what mattered? That she be able to help Celestial Being as a fighter. Her relationships with other people were irrelevant in the face of that.
When the night was finished, she had almost sufficiently convinced herself. She drew on her brain's wireless power receptors to make up for her lack of sleep, and she went about her day.
But Tieria was there wherever she was, because she followed Lockon wherever he went, and so did Tieria. He distracted her with feelings--jealousy and guilt. She suppressed them, but then she wondered if that was such a good idea.
He stopped her in a corridor outside the cafeteria as Lockon ate his lunch. "Feldt Grace," he said. "You're acting oddly."
"It's nothing," she said, looking him straight in the eyes, and her implant allowed her to lie convincingly. She was comforted. The feelings would vanish if she just suppressed them long enough. But a thought occurred to her: what about the other feelings Tieria brought out in her? The warmth she felt when he held her hand? Would that go away, too?
She didn't want to lose that. Sometime between when she had first linked with Tieria mind to mind and now, it had become important to her. She wondered if it was because Tieria was family to her, or if it was something else. She wondered if she would lose all of it: the warmth Tieria inspired in her, the sense of satisfaction she felt from working with him to watch over Lockon, the comfort she gained from confiding in him. When that happened, how much longer would she still care about Lockon himself?
Feldt ordered her brain to search for ways to maintain her humanity. She found the answer easily enough. She'd already been thinking of it, after all--just in the wrong way.
This time, she made her way to Tieria's quarters at night, after they'd seen Lockon off to sleep. She did another thing differently this time, too. She alerted him that she was waiting outside the door instead of simply slicing her way in past the locks.
He looked a little awkward when he opened it for her, and she quickly realized why. He was wearing a long nightshirt of strange design. It looked a little threadbare, as if it had been through many transformations. "What do you need, Feldt?"
"What are you wearing?" she asked, even though that hadn't been what she'd come here for. She had to know.
"It's a prototype," he said. "No, that's incorrect. Right now, it is a nightshirt that I wear to sleep. But it also serves as a template for working out the design of the uniform for Celestial Being."
She threw herself into the room; the door shut behind her. "Thank you for designing it, Tieria," she said.
"It's nothing," he said. "Merely an exercise in design and color coordination."
"But I'm glad that you're doing it, Tieria," she said. "You've become important to me."
He looked at her. "I...thank you, Feldt."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry I was jealous that you kissed Lockon. It doesn't matter if you kiss him. What matters is that we'll take care of him together." She smiled. "Right, Tieria?"
"You don't have to apologize," he said. "It's good to have human feelings."
"It's good for you to have human feelings," Feldt said. "It's good for Lockon to have human feelings, when he still can. But when I have them, they get all mixed up with my circuitry."
"My feelings get mixed up, too," Tieria said. "Perhaps it's something all combinations of humans and machines have to live with."
"Maybe even Lockon's feelings..." Feldt trailed off.
"Why did you come here tonight?" Tieria asked.
"I came because I wanted to be with you," Feldt said. "In a human way." She grasped the collar of Tieria's nightshirt, pulled him to her, and kissed him. She wasn't linked to his mind right then, but she could still feel it as he first tensed up and then relaxed against her and tried to kiss back.
Feldt realized that neither one of them knew how to kiss. They were pushing their mouths against each other awkwardly. She pulled back. "I'm sorry," she said. "I should have asked first."
"I would have said yes," Tieria said. But he looked surprised at himself. "I wanted to kiss Lockon, but I don't mind kissing you, either. Perhaps it's because we're not entirely human. In the stories I have researched, humans only have these feelings for one person at a time."
"But this makes me feel more human," Feldt said.
"Then we should do it," Tieria said. "In order to make you feel more human. I am ready." He began to pull off his nightshirt.
"Wait, Tieria!" She grabbed him by the arm. "Do you want to?"
He blinked at her. "Yes," he said. "I like to hold your hands. I like to hold you. I would like to kiss you if I could better understand how. It follows naturally that I would enjoy having sex with you. You are young, but you are physically adult. I trust your judgment if you believe you are ready."
"Good," Feldt said. "I think I'll enjoy it with you, too." She started to pull off her clothes. "I don't know if I'm ready," she confessed. "I wouldn't be with anyone else." She hadn't been with Lockon, after all. "But with you..."
"Technically," Tieria said, "I am younger than you are. It will be all right." He finished taking off his nightshirt. He was naked underneath, his body not quite as androgynous as his face, but close: flat chest and wide hips. "Let me assist you," he said, and he helped her out of her jumpsuit.
She took off the underclothes beneath it, then shivered a little. "I have an idea," she said tentatively.
"What is it?"
She reached for his face. "This will help us know when we're doing something right," she said.
"Go ahead," he said. "I'll need the help. I've never done this before."
She opened the link. "Tieria...!"
"What is it?"
"Your feelings," she said. "They're so much like mine." She smiled at him. "I make you feel warm. You make me feel warm."
"We make each other feel human," he said. "Help me learn how to be human, Feldt, and I will help you stay human."
"Yes," she said. "I like that."
She kissed him again, and this time she felt feelings rush between them: fumbling arousal, cautious happiness, gratitude. She wasn't sure which feelings were his and which were Tieria's, but she didn't mind. Even if it was the machinery in her brain that let her open up like this, it still made her feel human.
"We should move to the bed," Tieria said. "I want you to be comfortable."
"I want you to be comfortable, too," Feldt said.
"Of course," Tieria said. "That's how it works. We want each other to feel good."
She put her hands on his waist and, walking uncertainly with him, moved to the bed. He began to kiss her, moving his mouth methodically from place to place. She shivered, and they fell to their work on each other in silence.
After a while, when Feldt was full of lovely warm indescribable sensation, she finally spoke again. "I'm still a little jealous. I'm still very scared."
"That's acceptable," he said. "Keep feeling warm, too."
"I will," she said. She stroked his hair in a way that was very different from how Lockon had stroked hers. His pleasure flickered hot in her mind. "So long as I can feel your warmth. I'm glad, Tieria. I'm glad we have this link."
"Which link?" he breathed.
She felt him move inside her and she cried out. When she regained her breath, she said, "Both of them. Your body to my body, and my mind to your mind."
"Then let's keep doing them both," Tieria said. "For each other."
Just as she had enjoyed Tieria's touch, Feldt enjoyed Lockon's touch as he guided her hands on the controls of Gundam Dynames. But it was different. It wasn't the same as the fumbling, inexperienced touches and connections she and Tieria shared. It was more practiced, less intimate, and more useful--probably.
"I usually left navigation to Haro," Lockon explained. "But you can move the Gundam yourself with these controls. Haro will help run the targeting system, too."
"Haro's useful," Feldt said. "Even though he's only a machine."
"Not 'only,'" Lockon said. "That's a bad way to put it."
Every day, for the little while he taught her, Lockon felt more like his old self again. It was easier than Feldt wanted it to be to understand why. He had a purpose. But that meant that when it was over, he would go back to being numb again. She was afraid of how far that could go.
So she modified her own skill uptake. She set her learning abilities below what they could be. She dragged out the sessions with Lockon for as long as she could.
She told Tieria about this, too. "Good," he said. "Keep him occupied for as long as you can."
"It's different with you," she said. "I have my skill uptake set as high as it will go. I want to be able to learn more about how to have sex with another person. Is that all right?"
"Yes," he said. "That's all right."
But the implant continued to rewire her brain. Little by little, the touches of Tieria's hand on her thigh meant less. The smiles Lockon gave her as she completed her lessons meant less. She fought it all the way. She wanted to keep every scrap of feeling she still had. Tieria and Lockon deserved it.
She wondered if it was all right to keep fighting, and she kept fighting.
She could only fight for so long.
One night Feldt woke at Tieria's side with a start. Within her brain, now disconnected from Tieria's, questions were emerging.
Why am I here? Why am I at Tieria's side? Why have I been delaying my training? Why does it matter if Lockon feels anything or not?
She tried to be afraid, but it was hard to summon the feeling. It felt distant and artificial. She moved evenly and without any trembling as she pulled on her clothes and walked out of Tieria's quarters. She kept up that calm and steady pace as she made her way to the hangar. There she looked at Dynames, still half-broken, with bits and pieces of upgrades tacked on. This is my Gundam, she thought. Hadn't Setsuna always felt special when he looked at his Gundam? But Setsuna was a distant memory, and she felt nothing special as she stared at Dynames.
"Feldt." It was Tieria. He'd followed her. "What's wrong?"
She did not turn to face him. That was a human thing to do. "I think it's over," she said. "I think I'm not human anymore."
Tieria touched her face. "You're wrong," he said.
"We aren't linked," she said. "There's no way for you to tell."
"You retain other ways," he said. And he showed her his fingers. They were wet and shiny. "You're crying. I don't want to see you cry, but if it is what reminds you that you are human, then keep crying."
She stared at his hand. Then she touched her own face and felt the tears there. With a fierce sniffle, she stopped them. "I promised not to cry," she said. "And keeping promises is a human thing."
"So is breaking them," Tieria said. Hesitantly, still awkwardly even after all the nights they had shared, he put his arms around her.
"Tieria," she whispered. She remembered the way he had touched her, and she responded to the way he touched her now.
"What is it?"
Inside her head, she felt the implant retreat a little. Perhaps she didn't need to be taken over entirely. Maybe she was good enough with some humanity left in her. "Thank you."
"There's no need to thank me," Tieria said. "I believe there are some things the implant could never have changed in you."
"But I've changed so much," she said.
"We both have," he said. "It's all right to change. Lockon taught me that."
Tieria's hands were resting on Feldt's heart. She lifted her own hands to rest on them. "Tieria," she said. "Let's protect Lockon together."
"Yes," Tieria said. "We'll do that."
Feldt felt her heart beat hard, and she decided one thing. So long as she was with Tieria, protecting Lockon, she would be human enough.