Concrit and comments are treasured as always, as are any spelling/grammar corrections!
Hurts. It's the first thought, the only thought he has. Bright flashes of colour in the dim light of the room hurt his eyes. Needles piercing his skin burn and itch. The shackles chafe. Lonely. Hurts. Stop. Pain shudders through his small frame and the sussurus of the tubes connecting him to the blinking machinery sounds too loud in the small cell. His hiss of pain is weak from weeks of screaming and raging - the scratches on the floor from his unfamiliar talons criss-cross in too many layers to count. Its mesmerising pattern soon fades from memory as the rage rears and swamps his mind again. Stop. Please... make it stop.
Is it over? Is Cho Hakkai's first thought upon waking. The next is that he aches all over. The rest reel by in a kaleidoscope of images, thoughts, smells and feelings as his last few waking hours impress themselves on his consciousness. He's honestly quite surprised he's still breathing. Before he can analyse his feelings on surviving, however, a sharp bleep and a flash of red catch his attention. Turning his head slowly, he endures the cracking of each vertebra in his neck to follow the intrusion to its source.
Sitting in a very reclined chair - oh, that's terrible for your back, he thinks and almost giggles over how little the postures of strangers matters right now - is presumably a man. It's hard to tell past the glare of screens surrounding him and all the wires poking out from the ports in his... oh. Brief panic sets in when Hakkai realises the other individual is infected and he's back in the compound with those madmen. No, no, no, no carousels round his mind until the figure moves again, turning and hurriedly tapping on one of several keyboards at is workstation. He's shirtless, and the superb view of the man's - oh thank goodness, no labcoat - torso reveals the port connections embedded in otherwise normal flesh, a handsome face furrowed slightly in concentration and a shock of vibrant red hair. Through the haze of cigarette smoke the compound was on fire the screens surrounding the man were slowly scrolling lines of code. From his resting place Hakkai couldn't see the characters clearly; his right eye was covered in something, he noticed, and he couldn't focus very well past his headache either. I want to see. I don't want to see. Just let me OUT. Jerking in surprise at another stab of pain, Hakkai hissed. He felt out of place in his own head, like a stranger was trying to push him out and claim his body for his own.
When he could focus again, the stranger's eyes were intently fixed on him. He hadn't moved, just looked almost casually, but the stare itself was that of a shrewd man. Carefully, Hakkai unfroze muscles that had tensed up in shock. One by one. The code flickered on the screens. His captor? Rescuer? Enemy? Friend? Kill him? exhaled, a lazy cloud of smoke obscuring his face and haloing his head in the reflected glow of the screen.
"You feeling okay?" The question was both unexpected and completely natural. Hakkai considered his options - admit weakness and tell the truth or feign indifference? He supposed even in his weakened state the virus could fuel one more killing... How long was it since he had been infected? He remembered being kidnapped when the insurgents came, how they recognised Dr. Cho and threatened harm to his sister if he didn't do as he was told. The virus they had demanded he create for them - a way of creating super soldiers. Take a youkai with the standard parts and codes and give him inorganic compounds in his bones to make weapons, improved stamina, upgraded military codes in his DNA so he could hack high-security systems... the list was endless. The main virus was approximately 82% complete when they had insisted on early stage trials. His protests, apparently, had been disregarded when people with guns had entered the lab and taken the vials. Broken them. Infected him. Now the damn thing was in his body and couldn't be removed. Flesh made weapon. The ability to turn almost any electronic system he touched his own. Worse, the AI programme they had threatened to unleash on him should he disobey had hijacked his mind and taken his desire to escape and run with it. He remembered killing a lot of people. He also remembered how insane and dangerous all the test subjects had become before they had been slaughtered by the firing squad standing at the far end of each subject's room. Waiting for an excuse. Not all of them had been youkai.
"I've been better." He replied, throat dry. He might have escaped, but much of the lab, the compound, had been destroyed. The only living carrier of his code was himself. Any survivors from the compound must be close behind.
"I believe it," the redhead said. "I fixed up the worst of your injuries, but you've still been out for two weeks. Your body replaced most of it's own wiring, but your codes were seriously screwed up. I patched what I could, but I couldn't finish the job with you unconscious."
For the briefest moment, Hakkai's mind felt like it had seized up before revving up to ten times normal speed - He'd seen his code? Healed him? Two weeks? Was he an enemy? A friend? In danger? How much did he understand? He must have known that the code he carried was both military and highly dangerous - the equipment that surrounded him was not that of an amateur yet confusingly he didn't appear to be either youkai or human. A halfbreed, then? Generally, humans and youkai didn't produce children together. One of his parents must have been a carrier of a high-level tech virus, not one of the weaker ones occasionally found in nature. Perhaps the engineered virus terrorists released in Eastern Shangri-La thirty years ago? The military had stepped in and quarantined the infected, but as Hakkai now knew not everyone shows up on the radar.
"You okay?" The man's concern sounded genuine.
"I'm... feeling unusual." Hakkai admitted.
"Still got a bit of a programme hangover, huh?" Red smirked. "That's okay, I prepped a patch for you here." He pointed to the screen he'd been scrutinizing. "It'll get rid of the remaining AI influence - that ought to clear things up a bit."
"What?!?" The response was, embarassingly, instinctive. This... man had broken the code? What kind of code-engineer was he? Hakkai's sinking suspicion that he was in the clutches of a rogue and therefore dangerous hacker suddenly got much stronger. His captor held his hands up in a display of innocence.
"Dude, don't worry - whatever you got downloaded, it's incomplete. And this tech-virus you caught has made some... alterations to your code, but it helped you heal too. With my patch and some meds, you'll get on just fine. Don't worry - it won't kill you or anything."
"Who are you?"
The man gave him a cocky grin. "Me? I'm Sha Gojyo. One of the best tech-doctors out there in these parts." He flicked his shoulder-length hair in a proud bird-like display, some strands catching on the wires protruding from his neck.
"And you fixed the AI programme I'm carrying?"
"Sorta. The programme is still there in your implanted bio-link data chip, but I put in some new computer code to neutralise the dangerous bits and kept the useful stuff. Tell you what, you've gotta be from some seriously strong youkai stock - that's some great vDNA you've got there. With the strength of the AI programme you wouldn't have made it without strong enough neuron-repair genes to prevent serious brain damage."
Hakkai's heart sank. So the virus had integrated into his DNA. Only youkai carried such genes. Science called youkai genes vDNA; Humans carried hDNA and sometimes a little bit of natural vDNA which piggybacked on their cells' replication systems like a virus. Sometimes people carried artificial loops, manmade vDNA for useful traits like stronger bones, improved eyesight and better smell, but they were always distinguishable from the native hDNA of the host. If what Gojyo was telling him was true - and there was little doubt he was wrong if Hakkai was lying here alive and mostly sane - he now genetically appeared to be a naturalized youkai. Shit.
"Then I am indebted to you." Hakkai shoved the words out of his mouth with some effort. I should be dead. I want this to be over. No point in antagonising his keeper if he should choose to give him the end he craved. Strangely, Gojyo grimaced instead of adopting the contrite mask he expected. "Didn't do it for any debt, man." Cigarette. Those will kill you if I don't. "Just didn't want to walk away." Ah, he had passed out by the roadside then. Should have left me to die.
"Anyway," Gojyo continued. "I'll upload this last patch and that should be it - bye bye weirdness." If only, Hakkai thought before Gojyo turned to his display and typed the execution command that would start the upload. An old-fashioned loading bar appeared. Hakkai almost laughed. It probably shouldn't surprise him that the programs Gojyo was using were a mix of old and new - none of the screens matched one another, the keyboards were in different shapes, sizes and languages; even the wires Gojyo was hooked into were of varying quality. Some were an outright electrocution risk, for goodness sake.
Roasty toasty, the nasty voice in his head commented as the machinery started humming. Hakkai ignored it as best he could, focusing instead on the tangle of wires surrounding his sickbed. Most went into Gojyo, but a few thick cables snaked their way across the floor - carpet? Tile? Hard to tell in this light- and behind the headboard. A weight on the bed to his left proved to be one such cable, which he recognized as a biodata downloading cable, attached somewhere to his head on the left so it could be directly wired into his bio-link data chip. Hakkai tried no to think about the tech-ridden corpses back at the compound - how the machinery had spread across their faces with the spread of the virus, consuming flesh and nerves to transform into plates of metal, display screens, wires, ports and plugs. Brief panic seized him again when he remembered that Gojyo had said something about injuries and replaced wiring and oh God, I'm not human anymore.
Experimentally, Hakkai held up one hand. His fingers looked fairly normal, but were tipped with long and oddly shiny talons. Ports for various cable connections lined the outer edge of his forearm and the ones he had had implanted before looked more integrated into his flesh. A fine tracery of wiring caught the light on his skin; an oddly elegant pattern of cold mathematical angles connecting various ports and running up his arm and under his shirtsleeves.
"This might be a bit unnerving." Interrupted Gojyo. The question in Hakkai's throat died there as his left ear hummed viciously and he was almost thrown back into the pillow by the rush of computer code entering his brain. A digital scream tore through the current of information as the AI from the virus was locked down, three concentric silver rings surrounding the red burst of the enraged viral data before they clamped together, sealing it off from the rest of his mind.
It ended as suddenly as it began; Hakkai's vision calmed and cleared slowly as he lay panting against the sweaty sheets. Gojyo was moving again, but he felt too weak to turn his head and watch him. Happily, Gojyo soon hovered into view above him. He smelt of stale sweat and cigarettes.
"Better now?" Up close, his eyes were as red as his hair and glittered with gold wiring that would be harder to see from farther away. Weakly, Hakkai pushed sodden hair from his one uncovered eye. "I'm not human anymore." He said shakily. Almost immediately he wished he hadn't - saying it aloud made it more real somehow. Gojyo's expression softened to an almost kindly expression. "I know," he replied quietly. "I'm sorry." The gentle words followed Hakkai down into unconsciousness.
Wakefulness occurred in fits and starts over the next few days, Hakkai gradually learning how to move without aching and exist without thinking too much. It seemed Gojyo had some form of emotional radar on him; he was there without fail every time he awoke, often plugged in to his work station. Thus far, Hakkai had seen the bedroom, the bathroom and a kitchen/living room. He had no reason to suppose there was any more to Gojyo's house, apart from a weed-choked garden he'd glimpsed from the window on a trip to the bathroom and perhaps a basement; he was pretty sure he'd heard footsteps on a stairwell a few times.
It was a bit of a shock to realize just how far out from the cities Gojyo's house was; when he was well enough to move around himself, Hakkai often found himself sitting on the narrow terrace at the front of Gojyo's house, staring at the weeds in the garden, the lack of striplights at the edge of the track leading up to his house, the shabby fence instead of a lightbarrier and glass windows instead of translucent silicone displays. He was surprised there was indoor plumbing and Gojyo wasn't getting his water from a well. Rural locations were always so... untidy compared to even a modest village, where the roads would at least be metalled to prevent damage to vehicles.
The base where he was being held prisoner couldn't be too far away from here, but amongst the dense vegetation he could see why they hadn't been found. In the evenings, the distant bio-dome of the next nearest village glowed blue-white, obscuring the stars in that part of the sky. The next nearest city was a less intense glow over the horizon. Hakkai supposed it was the golden dome of Chang'an, but hadn't asked Gojyo yet. He knew he'd have to leave soon, but finishing his convalescence took priority for now. His injuries had largely healed; the faint tracery of wiring over his skin had faded, leaving his skin dotted with ports but more like a human with implants than a youkai. His injured eye had apparently been replaced by Gojyo with an artificial one, the shade of green matched almost perfectly to his uninjured eye. A survey in the bathroom mirror had revealed shorter hair, which Gojyo had cropped so he could wire up to the machines, and three silver dataclips on his left ear, which contained Gojyo's repressive codes. "If you need to," he had said "You can take one or two of them off to get the full benefits of your programme. They just keep the AI under control." Hakkai doubted he ever would. "Just keep a lookout for the AI parasite you're carrying - your protection from it will drop without the limiters." Gojyo had warned sternly, the smoke he puffed out with each word accentuating his point. He'd certainly not needed telling twice.
Gojyo himself had remained largely inscrutable, generally sleeping during the day and working at night and spending time with Hakkai in the overlap in their routines. Hakkai had learnt some card games - and a little about Gojyo - on those nights. Occasionally Gojyo would go out and invite him with, but Hakkai always declined. Those nights were lonely.
Surprisingly quickly, an easy friendship grew between them. Gojyo apparently had jobs involving either computer programming or editing outsourced vDNA for companies too cheap to employ decent coders, and increasingly allowed Hakkai to help him out with the work "to give you something to do." Gojyo had remarked wryly, something half serious in his eyes as he said it. It seemed to Hakkai that what he largely did was marvel at Gojyo's approach to vDNA coding - it was unorthodox, a mixture of instinct and careful crafting that was a world away from the formalised structures that Hakkai himself had learnt at university. Goyjo had ways of making the code bend around itself, upping the transcription times by exploiting technical loopholes in the ways that organic code worked, squeezing the best from biology almost effortlessly. Hakkai spent many of his first contributions to the process by suggesting a correction and then being shown why Gojyo's way was better. Very infrequently, he made a change that stuck. Sometimes, they would improve Hakkai's AI-suppressant code, uploading better, neater versions which would always make Hakkai need a lie-down after uploads.
Once or twice Hakkai had removed a limiter when Gojyo was out; perhaps out of morbid fascination, he supposed, or vanity. The sensation of strength was at once pleasant and disgusting. If only he'd had strength like this when he'd really needed it - but he pushed those thoughts away. His sister was gone. The rage and guilt he felt over what had happened in that compound would be ideal material for the crazed AI inhabiting his mind to latch on to. He wished he'd put an amnesia or anti-rage trait into the vDNA virus.
Cho Hakkai wished for a lot of things.