Altar Girl - dj_salad - NieR: Automata (Video Game) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter Text

Her first feeling is of recognition.

The sounds are not muffled. They erupt against the absence of all other sensation, percussion tripping over smooth warm vibrations in some sequence meant to make meaning. The sounds do not frighten her. She knows they are voices before she knows what they say.

Sensation matches with cognition, and a consideration emerges. What if they have a source?

She opens her eyes and immediately blinks them shut again. Her eyelids are fighting the weight of some heavy cold gel which douses her, which slicks across her skin and falls away in great cold clumps. The air is cool where it hits her, which is everywhere, save the crown of her head and the few patches on her body that are tufted with soft white hair. Already she has a map of herself. She knows what she is.

With a lurching thrill she tries to take in her own shape, but it is impossible to keep her eyes open through the wet and the fluorescent brightness. Five-fingered hands splay on the metal floor in front of her, palms to gridded patterns in the steel. She catches sight of her arms—elongated, sinuous things as strong as a shipbuilding automaton’s and maybe stronger, but they are not wrought of oiled carbon and hydraulic tubing, at least not that she can see. It is all covered up by skin, fine and padded. Sensation fires through every square millimetre.

Human, her mind supplies.

White hair clings to her face. She can see it hanging from her bowed head and feel it sticking to her lip, thick with viscous fluid. She is warm. The steel abuts her knees and it doesn’t hurt.

I’m a human.

“too bee”

She’s still staring at her hands. They are efficient hands, for an animal’s. She clenches one against the floor and releases it. As though that first movement has sparked some motor inside of her, her lungs spasm, and she heaves in a shaking breath. More of the gel quivers inside her lungs. She sputters some of it onto the ground, and though it coats her trachea she feels no panic, only continues to hack up more of the substance until cold, electric-smelling air takes its place.

“Two B.”

She sucks in a second breath. It is unnecessary; she already knows that she can go a long time without breathing at this level of exertion. But her lungs inflate like a newborn’s and her eyes roll shut with the pleasure of it. She has no mind to answer the voice that calls to her, but she is primed to hear it again. It rings in her ears and makes her shiver.

“2B.”

2B?

Oh. YoRHa No. 2 Type B.

That’s her.

There is a smooth, metallic sound across the room, followed by an assured click. A door opening, she thinks, never mind that doors are still only theoretical. It’s one of those types made of solid titanium the whole way through, according to the layout of the Bunker already etched in her mind. Against the darkness of her eyelids she concentrates on a reel of processes that alerts her first to someone’s approach through the door, then to their identity. They have a signal, unique to them, which broadcasts to everyone in the vicinity their numeric designation and their role. These footsteps belong to an Operator—YoRHa No. 6 Type O, or simply 6O.

6O’s footfalls are light and hurried. Though they make a direct line for 2B’s position on the floor, they stutter uncertainly on the last few steps. Heeled boots slip in the gel— cryofluid, the word emerging in her mind alongside birth, suspension, life—as 6O balances into a crouch at 2B’s side. 6O has to put a hand down on the damp steel to steady herself.

“2B, you’ve just woken up. You’re on YoRHa’s primary orbital bunker. I’m YoRHa No. 6 Type O.”

She knows. But she nods to show that she understands. At some point her language processing achieves full functionality and she is supplied with several extant human languages, as well as another, full of melodic licks and curls, that she can already identify as the enemy’s.

“How are you feeling?” 6O’s voice is thin and tremulous. “Would you like to stand up?”

Yes.

2B draws her hands close across the ground until she’s crouching on the balls of her feet. She rises without struggle. Her body executes her desire, muscles firing in practised coordination as though this isn’t the first time she’s stood but the millionth.

6O follows her. She wobbles to her feet and stands artificially tall, taut and wide-eyed. “I’m your Operator. The date is January 7—your birthday.” She swallows heavily, but her eyes are so bright that it’s clear she’s smiling, even though a mask covers her mouth. “Happy birthday, 2B.”

6O is the first person 2B ever meets, and 6O is beautiful. She has disc-like eyes that seem to open wider than they should, and she has a smell that is not just of electricity but of some delicate, artificial perfume, the components of which 2B cannot identify without moving closer. She does so almost without meaning to. 6O flinches in response, drawing in slender long limbs self-protectively.

So 2B takes pause. Like 2B, 6O is an android. But she stands a little shorter than 2B, even with her heeled boots on. She’s small and light and would probably be good at evasion, only her stance is wildly inefficient, and she doesn’t bother to correct it or angle herself for retreat. That’s really not her job as an Operator though, 2B reasons. Fighting’s for frontline units—units built to predict enemy movement, to exploit the narrowest of openings, to strike with inhuman power and precision. 6O clasps her hands one over the other in quickening turns. Her smile is growing rigid.

Suddenly 2B bristles. If 6O is threatened, 2B must identify the source of the threat. She turns her head to confirm what she senses is behind her: a curved steel wall blistered with a fluid-filled plastic tank. There is an aperture in the bottom, open and dripping. Beneath it is the grated steel, and her. She sweeps her gaze across the brightly lit room. It is small, sized just for the two of them and the tank. There’s a tiny, gasping vent above them, and the door that 6O entered through. Nobody else is here.

2B swallows cryofluid and stares at 6O.

“Can you...” 6O blinks rapidly and glances behind her. There is a presence in the next room, out of sight. Two maintenance officers—a pair of Scanners—nestle watchfully behind a console, likely observing their meeting on a screen. 2B doesn’t follow her Operator’s gaze. She already knows the Scanners are there, can feel signals of life through the wall, and she’s starting to realise why. As though trying to keep the backwards glance hidden, 6O pats down her hair and turns back to 2B. “Can you speak?”

“I can speak.”

6O’s eyes bulge even bigger.

“Okay. That must mean your data integration is working. Um.” She seems to fumble with the next part of the process. “State your name.”

“I am YoRHa No. 2 Type B,” 2B replies, fumbling not at all.

“And your duties.” 6O leans forward expectantly. “Do you know your purpose?”

Her purpose. Though it’s a question she’s never considered in her two-and-a-half minutes of life, 2B knows the correct answer. It is YoRHa script, down to the binary, and it has been running since the moment she opened her eyes.

There is an instinct which is core to her, which, if her mind grows idle enough to default to, shows her all the ways she can kill 6O, maximising speed, analysing the environment and her available implements of violence and accessing 6O’s design specs, some of which are secret to everyone but 2B herself, to exploit 6O’s unique weaknesses. This function also tells her that killing 6O right now would very likely result in her own death at the hands of the Scanners. She simulates a few hundred variations on the assault, involuntarily, which flash through her mind’s eye in the space of a second. No simulation produces an outcome in which she and 6O are not terminated.

All of this she registers with the same clarity as the sight of 6O’s face, warm and watchful. Afraid.

2B blinks her vision clear. She may as well feel 6O’s blood slicking her hands as she replies, “I am an elite YoRHa unit. My purpose is the loyal service of humanity, the destruction of the machine scourge on Earth, and the elimination of all hindrance or opposition to YoRHa.”

6O gives a slow nod. For a second it seems she’s waiting for something. Her gloved hands scuff audibly in their wringing.

A compulsion tugs at her body, and 2B almost lays her palms across 6O’s hands to still them. But she thinks better of it. Her fingers only twitch at her side.

“It’s nice to meet you,” 2B says instead.

6O blinks her enormous eyes, and then her shoulders begin to shake. 2B swears she hears the other woman laugh.

“You too.”

The maintenance wing of the Bunker is a labyrinth of corridors and closed doors. 2B cannot see into the rooms they pass as 6O leads her by the hand, but she can feel the thrum of motors through her feet, and hear the gasps of new life around far corners. The chemical smell of cryofluid fills the walkways. In the dark steel cage of the corridor there are tracks of it, slicking the floor so badly in some places that 6O has to step around the puddles.

“Sorry for the mess,” she says.

“It’s no problem,” 2B answers dutifully. She skirts the cryofluid just like 6O, though for a second she wonders what it would feel like to sweep a foot through it. It might be satisfying, she thinks.

“There are a few test rollouts happening. Seriously though, I thought someone would have cleaned up by now.”

If 2B is meant to say something, she doesn’t know what it is. She gives 6O a blank look when the Operator glances back at her, friendly or apologetic—she’s not sure.

“Are we low on resources?” 2B asks.

“A little, if I’m being honest.”

“Why?”

6O blinks.

“Well, I’m not sure. I don’t have any authority over the creation of new units. The Commander is the one who does all that.” She gives a dainty shrug. “I’m just a chaperone. Don’t get me wrong, though. This is, like, the best day of my life.”

“Why?”

6O looks bashful then. She gives another shrug. “I’m pretty new here myself. I did some temporary operations for a unit that was—well, it wasn’t a permanent assignment. You and me?” She grins. “We’re the real thing.”

2B nods to show that she understands, sort of.

They come upon another titanium door. 6O has to input some elaborate code to make it open, which she does by approaching the door and standing still while her eyes glaze over. 2B watches on as 6O returns to baseline and the door pulls up for them.

“We call this maintenance bay the kitty pen,” 6O snickers. Before them is a corridor bathed in the same tungsten as the birthing room, and on the walls are rows and rows of humanoid genitals.

There are hundreds, most mapping onto typical male/female phenotypes and a few somewhere in between. Every one is encased in its own glass suspension chamber, in the same clear, dense fluid that 2B is still slicked with, the rows backlit by some soft light that matches the glow of 6O’s eyes.

“A few decisions are yours alone to make,” 6O says, “and this is one of them.”

2B gazes at the array without expression. Every experience of her life so far has been pre-empted by the library of reference data pocketed away in her brain (a network of nodules and data packs strewn throughout her entire nervous system, rather than localised to any one clump of easy-to-target circuitry). No matter how hard 6O tries to impress, this prescience keeps spoiling the surprise. 2B already knows what these are.

This is also the first she’s noticed that she currently has no genitals. She opens up the front of a sheet that 6O wrapped around her earlier and looks down at herself. Her shape could be typical of a human male or a human female, and it has little other adornment. All of it is still clammy with cryofluid. She hasn’t bothered to wipe it off between 6O dragging her out of the birthing room with a flushed grin and the two maintenance officers waving stiffly as they passed, giving 2B barely enough time to cast a look over her shoulder at their wary faces.

“You don’t have to install anything right now, or ever. Most people don’t straight away.” 2B is still gazing at her own body, holding out the sheet like a pair of wings. “You’re probably a bit uncomfortable. We’ll get you dry and clothed in a minute. I thought I may as well show you, since the showers are right through here, anyway.”

“I’m fine.” 2B turns her eyes pointedly on one of the glass cases. “I can have one of these?”

“Yep.”

“Now?”

“If you’d like to, but like I said, there’s no—”

2B’s fingertip makes a thunk on the glass as she points to a set of genitals.

“I want this.”

6O perks up, with excitement or politely muted surprise 2B can’t say.

“You can take your time choosing. There’s no rush.”

2B taps the glass again, this time more insistent— tap tap tap.

“I like this one.”

6O bustles over and inspects the case. “Okay, I’ve noted it down for you. You know, that’s what I started out with.” 2B stares at the glass case as it lights up, washing her torso in a watery glow. A bright hole has opened in the wall and the glass case retreats into it with a mechanical whir, taking her new body parts with it. The wall closes again. 2B stares at the now empty box, agitated and mesmerised as 6O babbles on. “There are also those of us who seek out—ahem— alternatives, mostly for fun, but YoRHa directive is to reflect the human physical experience as closely as reasonable without compromising combat functionality, so those kinds of attachments remain tragically unauthorised. I do know a guy, though, if you find yourself interested.”

2B drags herself from the empty box back to 6O sometime during her speech and fumbles silently with her gratitude. She finds herself fixating on the golden twist of 6O’s left braid while she tries to cling to any single idea, and then she has nothing to say.

“Sorry, that was kind of crass. I just keep sticking my foot in it today, don’t I! You’ve just woken up, there’s time for all of this.”

2B nods and wonders if the gesture is even appropriate. She doesn’t mean to signal agreement, but before she can piece together some kind of reassurance, 6O takes her gently by the upper arm.

The Operator’s hand is warmer than the temperature of the air, and even through the supple leather of her gloves it is shocking. A strange, sweet pressure sinks through 2B, inflicted by just this touch. She longs for more of it.

“I keep forgetting we don’t all come out delinquents!” 6O laughs. It isn’t meant to make her feel bad.

It isn’t, but 6O’s touch on her arm as she guides 2B to the next room has unmoored her somehow. She feels heady, drifting, like the steel grid floor passes under her and not the other way around. 6O’s words have already faded.

2B closes her eyes to limit her sensory input, thinking maybe that will be enough to soften the world. A pneumatic whoosh welcomes them into the next room, which is atmospherically identical to the one before, dry and buzzing with the warmth of electronics. She doesn’t open her eyes for it. Maybe that’s her mistake, she thinks, because against the blank darkness of her eyelids the first simulation has run already, like a waking dream, and she didn’t call it up.

Again there’s no-one else in this new room. 6O pulls her along by the arm, giving no thought to the clatter of their steps on the steel. She doesn’t react to 2B’s sharp breathing, although 2B has already noted the potential giveaway in situations of stealth. It stands to reason that she can temporarily switch breathing off, halt her lungs. She’s able to estimate just based on their time together what 6O’s hearing is like and how quickly her reflexes fire in the face of new stimuli, and she probably wouldn’t notice the change in 2B’s breathing one way or the other, but a real foe might.

6O expects no harm. She holds 2B with one arm while she turns her around, tucking a damp strand of hair behind 2B’s ear.

“2B?” she says. “What’s wrong? Can you open your eyes?”

The touch is electricity on her skin. There is energy bound inside her, which seems to leap and arc at 6O’s hands and compel her to lean closer, but it is dutiful, dormant. 2B is a switch, the moment hers to choose. She commands this urge utterly, like her hands, deft and precise, like her legs strong enough to launch her across chasms, like her eyes scrunched shut. Her body is a conduit for her every desire, and she doesn’t desire to hurt 6O.

She doesn’t.

A second simulation snaps through her. This time it’s a different vision of destruction. She balks silently as she watches herself crack open her Operator’s neck to snatch clean her OS chip in the time it takes to breathe once. 2B’s sinew is polymer cord anchoring titanium-reinforced joints. She will not be beaten back.

Another. 6O’s weight is pressed easily to the ground as 2B crushes her throat with one hand. She does not feel the blows to her carbonite sternum caging the black, cuboid thing that stands in for a soul. She will not be defeated.

Another. 6O attempts to leave via one of the room’s two entrances and the moment at which escape becomes possible is still four whole seconds away—four, integer. 2B moves faster. She will not be stopped.

Another. 6O tries to contact Command.

Another. 2B kills three Defenders and a Scanner before being neutralised.

Another. Her self-destruct is set to ‘off’ but it can be overridden.

Another.

She’s shaking with fear by the time 6O successfully coaxes her to open her eyes.

“2B, look at me please. You’re not to disobey, okay? Look at me.”

The blackness clears and 2B is staring into a pair of softly backlit pupils. Their afterimage follows her as she looks down at her naked lap.

“What’s happening?” 6O prompts.

“I don’t know.”

“Can you run a quick diagnostic for me?”

2B has a self-diagnostic function which can identify basic maintenance requirements and nervous system intrusions, many of which have cognitive effects. Logic viruses are the primary example. She already knows she is uninfected as she generates a diagnostic report, empty of adverse indicators, which she sends to 6O.

6O brings it up on a holoscreen which appears at her side as if by silent command. “Hm. That’s strange.” Her gaze runs back and forth across the strings of data, most of which are incomprehensible to 2B. “No abnormalities. Your systems all appear to be functioning perfectly. You’re pristine.”

2B says nothing. In her mind 6O is rent apart again and again and in the real world 6O rests her hands on 2B’s knees. At some point she must have gotten 2B to sit down.

“What’s up, 2B? I know waking up can be overwhelming, but everything’s going to be okay.”

2B hesitates. “I’m experiencing visions,” she decides.

6O pats her leg with slightly too much vim. “Sounds like data dump side effects. We can get a maintenance officer to take a look at you, if you’d like, or we can just go somewhere quiet and lie down while you absorb everything. How does that sound?”

2B begins to move her mouth, but nothing comes out.

“How about this. Interface with me directly. You can broadcast basic datasets and images, even sims, straight into my head. If you can’t put it into words, just show me.”

2B obeys. She doesn’t even think about it.

In an instant 6O’s eyes snap wide and she shudders. Her hands stay frozen on 2B’s legs. Another few simulations flit by but 2B is running out of ways to kill 6O, so they’re mercifully weaker now.

“Oh...” 6O gulps for air. Slowly, like someone defusing a bomb, she lifts her hands clear of 2B. The air is cold in their wake. “Oh. 2E,” she stammers, “I’ve never done operations for an E Unit. I’m sorry, I wasn’t prepared.”

2B shakes her head. “I’m a B Unit. A Battler.”

6O makes a sound that says she very much doubts that.

“Hang on,” 6O says. Still on her knees in front of 2B, she slides back over to the holoscreen with the diagnostic readout and taps an elaborate pattern. “I’m just going to convene with Commander White for a second. This should only take a bit.”

2B waits while 6O talks to the Commander, perhaps via hidden text or neurally, because 2B doesn’t hear or see the exchange. Instead, time fills itself with visions again, morphing and endless. Her hands are white with strain where she clutches the bench she sits on. It’s metal—no surprises. Everything is made of it, hard and cold or thinly concealed in rubber, or skin.

“Okay,” 6O says at last. Her voice is strangely flat. “Um. I may have to go.”

That brings 2B out of her fugue. “Go?”

“I’m not supposed to know your designation, as it turns out. It’s a secret.”

“Why would it be?”

“Great question,” 6O says. “Commander White asked me to pass on a message. ‘Meet me on the bridge. We can discuss your purpose.’ But your purpose. You must know what it is?”

2B blinks. “I thought I answered correctly.”

“You did. All that stuff still applies.” 6O’s hands have returned to 2B’s knees, a thumb moving gently over her skin and obliterating whatever 2B was going to say next. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Her voice is bright and level. 2B doesn’t miss the sadness in it.

“I can choose it,” 2B says. “Like my body parts. Can’t I?”

Slowly, 6O shakes her head.

“You can’t choose this. None of us can.” She looks for a long while at her hands while 2B sits in silence. “I should probably go now. I backed up just before you awoke. That should do it. Don’t want to make any new memories in the meantime, you know?”

Slowly, 2B shakes her head. “What do you mean?”

“How about you take a shower and go to maintenance. They can install the rest of your body.” 6O stands up and begins to shuffle to the door.

“What do you mean, ‘backup’?” 2B’s voice shakes.

The exit whooshes open, but 6O pauses at the sound of 2B’s voice. She casts a sorry look over her shoulder. “It’s not your fault, 2E. I shouldn’t have pressed.” She gives another of those raw smiles, bright though it is half hidden. “See a maintenance officer if you start to feel any weirder. Letting newborns know about the whole resetting thing tends to introduce processing errors. Can’t conceive of your own death when you’re just being born, you see?”

2B doesn’t.

“Are you going to die?” she asks.

6O shrugs a shoulder and turns back to the door.

“Go take a shower,” 6O says gently. “I’ll see you again soon.”

As 2B showers, an orientation video plays in the wall of the cubicle. It opens with an apology:

“You may have only just awoken, and you may still be preparing yourself for your first journey into the public areas of the Bunker. But, as a good YoRHa soldier, you already know well the importance of saving time.”

The voice is deep and reassuring, and 2B does her best to focus on it. She is a servant of humanity, the video explains, and a an ambassador for hope. She is engineered to eradicate enemies and bewitch allies. She is expensive, but not irreplaceable. She does not make mistakes.

Glory to Mankind, the Commander’s voice rings out. 2B lets it run over her, carrying away the last amniotic dregs of her birth, and tries not to think of 6O.

She meets a blunt-talking Scanner who installs her genitals, selects a uniform from a collection of tailored coats and black mourning dresses and then, not an hour later, is called to the bridge by Commander White.

In the long hall of the Bunker 2B passes a handful of androids like her—women in coal-black armour or mourning clothes, veiled or visored, some leaning nonchalant against windows full of stars and some eyeing her curiously. They do not broadcast their designations out here, like 6O did. They do not exchange messages or meaning through cognitive interface. Her own designation, she realises, is locked down, unavailable for her to broadcast of her own will. Nobody knows who she is. Nobody seems to mind.

The briefing room is cavernous and dark. It is filled with the clatter of typing and of clicking heels, but despite the legion of Operators working away at identical consoles, the voices are sparse. The silence strikes her as holy. She does not speak as she enters before a vast mural of screens flickering with geographic data and troop profiles, the word YoRHa emblazoned like a prayer above the pictures. She feels for the Commander’s signature and finds it with ease. It is one of the few being broadcast openly, and it dominates the current of information that courses through the Bunker.

2B strides onto a platform which hums as it takes her down to the Commander. Her pulse rate rises. This place is too grand for her. She has already lost her Operator. Has anyone noticed? 6O is gone.

The Commander stands with her back to the entrance of the room, like she might be oblivious to anything outside the data-laden screen. At first 2B wonders if the Commander has noticed her at all. Maybe 2B’s footsteps are masked by the hymn of operations; maybe she’s quieter than she thought. But 2B is built to scent out vulnerability. The Commander is not vulnerable merely because her back is turned. She must know 2B is here.

2B salutes the Commander’s back and announces herself just in case. “Commander,” she says. “This is—”

“2B.”

2B halts. The woman’s voice is not loud, but as if by programming 2B yields to it and falls quiet. The Commander turns to her. Her face, 2B registers with a controlled gasp, is bare of either blindfold or mask. Her eyes are frighteningly clear. “You’ve responded promptly to my calls. It is appreciated.”

2B gives a placid nod.

“I hear you haven’t been briefed, because your Operator has breached certain confidentialities and removed herself for the time being,” the Commander goes on, carefully subdued. “Nonetheless, you’ve managed to follow protocol and have arrived in reasonably short time. I thank you.”

It’s a generous compliment. What else could she have done? 2B bows her head. “Thank you, Commander.” She thinks of 6O and doesn’t ask the question. “Commander, if I may be so impertinent, my designation—”

A hand rests heavy on her shoulder. The warmth, the weight of it, shocks her into stillness. 2B wants to ask her to remove her hand but doesn’t, and she braces for the killing function to consume her mind again. “Your orientation did not go quite as expected, as you’ll have deduced by now,” the Commander says, oblivious or simply unbothered. “But rest assured there is no mistake. Some explanations are due. You’ll forgive me.”

2B shakes her head. Already the idea of her forgiving the Commander is absurd, but the Commander is right. She will forgive this woman anything. “I will answer to whatever name you like,” she says by way of vow, and the visions begin.

The Commander huffs a laugh, and her hand as it slides from 2B’s shoulder leaves a trail of heady sensation in its wake.

“Good girl. You learn quickly.”

They leave her hair on end as though coaxed by static. To feel the Commander’s gloved warmth is to ready herself. There it is—the imagined sensation, tenuous as a memory, of all the Commander’s engineering undone wetly in her hands. A scatter of simulations tells her that the only way to properly defeat the Commander is to self-destruct and destroy the Bunker. If anyone is left alive, they will rebuild the Commander and fill her with a backup of herself. Someone will kill 2B before cancelling her resuscitation by committee, and they will say that she was too unwieldy.

The Commander is too beloved to die. It is a kind of relief. The simulations can run their course without consequence.

2B licks her lips and tries to focus as the Commander continues her briefing. “New units usually take some time to orient themselves and join squadrons for training.” She gazes down at 2B with the detached peace of a saint. “Your Operator should have completed this already. I’m sorry you were deprived of a deeper explanation.”

In a simulation, 2B throws herself forward and is hammered to the ground by eighteen other units. There is a quickening in her chest, she does not know of what, but she sees 6O in her mind and feels an apology well in her before she can hold it back: “Commander, I didn’t think before I transmitted Unit 6O those sims. My mind was unfocused, I believe as a result of my recent awakening, and I didn’t bother to reflect on the correct way to proceed. I would like to offer my apology.”

The Commander says nothing. Then, slowly—as if processing the news for the first time—her eyes narrow in concern.

“You conducted a direct cognitive interface?”

2B swallows her nerves.

“Yes,” she admits, bowing her head, baring her nape. “That’s how she discovered my... secret. I now understand that direct transmission is frowned upon in proper company. I am sorry.”

She doesn’t say what the sims were, or that they’re running even now. She bites back the full truth just long enough for the moment to pass, and it’s the first secret she ever keeps from the Commander. Most importantly, this way, she can avoid any mention that it had been 6O’s idea.

“Please, be peaceful. Your duty as YoRHa is great. Minor mistakes pale in comparison. I was simply taken aback.”

The Commander draws silence from her like a breath.

“I called you down for a different reason, 2B. The truth is that you are a special unit, as you know, and I have need of you immediately.”

A silence passes between them while 2B gathers her doubts and her visions into a theory.

“Is this,” she says, “my purpose?”

The Commander smiles.

“It is indeed.”

2B doesn’t ask anything more about 6O. But she sees the Commander through a vision of the Bunker blowing apart and has no question about her true designation. She stands at attention. An Executioner is needed.

“Head to the surface,” the Commander says. “I’ll brief you on the way.”

The planet that will haunt 2B for the rest of her short life starts its record in her memory as a small, spherical map on a holoscreen.

It is blue and wrapped in whirling white cloud. On its continents are patches of fawn and dull green, but she has to squint to notice them between the unbelievable masses of ocean that dominate the surface. It’s like the sphere is a giant raindrop and the rest is an accident. How did so many disasters fit on such tiny islands?

She turns and turns the sphere while a real B Unit tours her through the craft she will take to the surface.

“Your navigational programs are all preloaded. The visualiser connects remotely to your cranial nerve here, and it looks like they’re both working well.” There’s a twinge of apprehension in the B Unit’s voice.

“But,” 2B says, enlarging the sphere on a golden, empty steppe. “There is a ‘but’?”

“Yeah,” 32B declares. “It’s INSANE for Commander White to be sending you down there when you’ve only been awake for—what, two hours? Is she f*cking nuts?”

“Shh!” Another B Unit, this one by the name of 10B, swats 32B on the arm. “Do we have to know every detail of every plan that goes through the Commander’s head?”

“Yeah, nah,” 32B grunts. “I’d rather keep my sanity, I guess.”

“Her head orbits the Sun a few hundred times a second. Best to just follow your orders and be done with it.” 10B swivels pointedly on 2B as she says this, a wry flicker on her lips. 2B can’t see her eyes because, like her own, they are blindfolded, but she imagines the coy glint in them just fine. “You got that, 2B? No f*cking around down there.”

“Yeah. No drinking.”

“No drugs.”

“No collecting useless archaic swords, alright?”

“And definitely no railing cute Resistance strangers.”

2B dismisses the holographic sphere with a flick. “You should write a guide.”

Their voices sound big in the huge space of the hangar. Black bladed flight units line the walls like bullets waiting to fire, each aimed at the exit into space some thousand metres away. The proportions here are different. Everything is deep and gaping; the lights on the ceiling are so far away that they lose some of their brightness. Steel and order seem to be the design principles, and darkness is not a problem. 2B takes note of this.

32B flings her arms at 10B in what may be an attempt to take her hands, the latter grappling with air. “Earth Etiquette.”

“No, that’s boring. What about: Errands for Terrans ?”

32B tilts her head thoughtfully and then shakes it, offering in return some amalgam of ‘errands’ and ‘ero’ that 2B tunes out as she steps into the flight unit.

“Hey!” 32B knocks the unit hard enough that 2B feels it vibrate. “I hope I don’t have to tell you not to activate it yet.”

“You don’t. Would you mind isolating the dock and opening the door?”

“God, you’re icy. What did they make you out of, refrigerator parts?”

“Don’t tease her,” 10B says. “She’s brand new. She gets off free for another six hours.”

“Not according to the Commander.” 32B folds her arms and doesn’t isolate the dock or retreat into the hangar proper to let the flight unit go. She stares at 2B. “What’s your take, newcomer? This some serious, important mission?”

“I’m told it’s urgent,” 2B levels.

A groan. “Good enough to strap you in and shoot you into space, but not good enough for you to spill your orders to, alright, alright.”

“You’re just jealous because the Commander keeps commissioning Battler units,” 10B says.

“Am f*cking not. Grab the door; let’s get out of here.”

“Yeap. Good luck, 2B.” 10B gives 2B a little wave of the fingers and turns to follow her companion. She gets almost to the door, finally leaving the dock empty enough for launch, when she stumbles over herself and whips back around. “I nearly forgot your Pod!”

2B runs through a mental check of the flight unit’s status and her own while she turns over this new information. “Pod? A tactical support unit?” E units generally don’t receive them, but it makes sense that she might, given that nobody seems to know what she is.

“Yeah. You’re assigned No. 42.” 10B races to the door and returns a minute later with a floating silver drone. It is rectangular and faceless and has an endearing scarlet receiver on its head.

2B isn’t one for idling—she already knows that—but she can’t help it. She gapes at the Pod and its dangling arms like little bird feet ( bird, Terran animal lifeform, estimated common ancestry 130 million years ago ) and she cannot look away.

There are no simulations. It seems this thing is not killable—at least, not that she can see.

“Cute, right?”

The desert is vast. Though she’s flying at well over 400 knots the ground appears still, the shadow of her flight unit stamped on sepia creosote that never gets darker or lighter. Beyond her front-facing camera it’s more of the same. The Earth’s curvature is just visible from her height, and no matter how far left or right she looks it’s all bruised horizons and flat sand so hot she can see it baking.

Earth is big.

She stares for so long that she nearly misses her destination coordinates rocketing towards her. Her companion is the one who points it out.

“Target area approaching. Proposal: scan for an appropriate touchdown point and engage landing mechanisms.”

“Everything looks like an appropriate touchdown point,” she says through the comms. “I think right here will be fine.”

Although the wind snatches her words from her mouth, she knows Pod 042 picks them up, because it replies: “An area scan when touching down in a flight unit is standard procedure.”

The program runs for what feels like ages while 2B surveys the ground, licking her wind-scorched lips. When it finishes, it shows her what she already knew, which is that the flight unit can touch down basically anywhere she chooses, and for a second she is sick with giddiness over it. Expression flat but heart hammering, she takes a moment to critically assess the options:

Sand. Sand. Slightly lower elevation sand.

More sand.

That will do.

She guides the flight unit to the steppe like its wings are her own, Pod feeding a stream of data into its automatic thrusters to balance it against the wind, gravity and 2B’s silent exuberance. Together their control of the unit is precise. When it touches down and 2B disconnects herself, and she contracts back into the shape of a human, it feels almost like loss.

And then she sees her hand in the dust of the Earth for the first time, and she barely notices the flight unit taking off. In its wake is silence. The wind. She stands on the face of a planet.

It occurs to her that she’s breathing Earth air. It tastes unlike anything she can compare it to. She flips through a couple million bytes of information to identify this taste but there is no olfactory data in the libraries she has been supplied. She sucks in a breath and holds it. The comforting plastic sweetness is gone. There is a roughness to this taste, battered and broad. She decides she likes it.

A minute later she shakes herself focused and takes to her feet. The Commander sent the execution order while 2B was mid-flight over the Pacific ocean. With it, she briefed 2B on the situation. She’s an Executioner—an E unit—in everything but name. For the Commander, she will be 2E. Sometimes she will work in teams and pretend she is 2B.

It makes sense. Some E units must stay a secret, or how else would they do their job?

It’s no great matter to 2B. This is her first mission, her first act of worship. She’s tasted the Earth, and if the memory of it is brilliant and hopeful then she owes that hope to the humans.

Poised on its zenith, the moon watches.

She can breathe later.

“Pod,” she says, “state the target’s last confirmed black box signal location.”

“The target’s black box signal shielding appeared to falter 12 minutes and 23 seconds ago at the most recent. Her last detected location has been marked on an area map.” 2B lets the GPS data settle in her like a lodestone and turns her head, steady and thoughtless, towards its call.

“So she’s had over 12 minutes to desert the last place her shielding failed. She knows we’ll be headed to that spot.”

“Affirmative.”

“The Commander told me this rogue has given us trouble.”

“Affirmative.”

“Then she can’t be stupid.”

“Probability is high that the target has acknowledged the shielding error and fled. The likeliest route of travel has been marked.”

2B swivels her head again, this time along a much narrower degree.

“She should be heading towards us,” she realises.

“Proposal: Unit 2B should attempt to intercept the target and terminate her immediately.”

She doesn’t mean to flinch, but it happens. The shadow of the drone, suspended by her own stretched silhouette on the ground, reveals no hesitation. There is no confusion in its emulated voice.

“You know that I’m not actually 2B, right?”

“Affirmative.”

2B stares at her shadow on the sand. She rolls her name over her tongue and doesn’t speak it aloud.

“Proposal: Unit 2B should commence data backup before estimated intercept time exceeds required backup time.”

This, too, is standard procedure. Regular data backups are best practice, especially for frontline units stationed on Earth, and doubly so for those who know they’re going into battle.

The hair on her neck bristles.

Yes. She is going into battle, and all those sims will find their meaning soon enough.

She answers to 2B and nods.

“Do it.”

2B awakens on the Bunker one Earth day later. The ceiling is white and curved overhead, with Pod a silver imprint against it. The desert sky and its Moon are gone.

“2B!” 6O shouts. Pod turns to track the approach of the woman scuffling across the bed with graceless hurry. A silky pigtail brushes 2B’s face as 6O leans over her, eyes engorged with worry.

“Alert: Unit 6O should exercise caution upon reawakening of frontline—”

“Two Bee,” she says, a deflective glare cast at the Pod between fretful huffs. “You’ve just woken up. You’re on YoRHa’s primary orbital bunker. I’m YoRHa No. 6 Type O.”

2B’s throat is dry. She swallows her questions, tongue heavy. “I know.”

The desert is gone. The taste of the Earth, the line in her GPS tracking the rogue’s approach, the Sun bathing her skin through the thin shield of the atmosphere—all of it is gone. In its place is the whirring dry Bunker air. Reality is adjusting too slowly to make sense.

“That Commander—! She says you’re exceptional and I believe her, and I know she means as well as she can sending you all to your deaths all the time—but really!” 6O ignores a tinny utterance from Pod and plants her hands so hard at 2B’s side that the mattress dimples. “Making you take out a major machine target right after you wake up! If I had any recourse to scold her...”

The desert is still everywhere and 2B swears she’s looking out over the sand towards the target. The image overlaps with her room. Her hands try to grip her sword but all she finds are sheets. “Did I complete my mission?”

6O averts her eyes. “Not quite. You got re-uploaded.”

Pod offers no comment. 2B fixes her gaze on it, slowly reaching out a hand to tap its casing. It’s real.

“Did I...” She can barely stand to say it. “Did I fail?”

Her Operator nods solemnly. “Most frontline units do, one time or another.” She sighs and pats 2B on the arm, sparking feverish visions for 2B to trip and mull over. “Anyway. It’s nice to meet you.” 6O holds up a hand to pre-empt the interjection. “I know, I know. We’ve already met. Well... you’ve met me.”

“I have.”

“Sorry. I almost never have severe enough processing errors that I need to run a backup, but I guess that makes two of us. You’re lucky, actually,” 6O says. “Getting reset like that right after being born, there’s always a risk your consciousness data will be fragile. Looks like you’re a very tough unit! But, well—innocence lost and all that.”

“Am I alive?”

“Yes, now.”

She narrows her eyes at 6O. “And you?”

6O nods, patting her sternum. “Pretty sure I am.”

Suddenly something clenches deep and cold in 2B’s chest. Already the voice inside her baying human is dying, because she’s an android, and her heart is figurative though it aches. If she brings a hand to her breast to nurse the feeling, it only gets stronger.

“Did I die?”

6O looks at her for a long time.

“Does it make a difference?”

Altar Girl - dj_salad - NieR: Automata (Video Game) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

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