Anima Ex Machina
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In the darkness of his unmoving mind, a servo stirred in Cron Apostolou's head.

Just the one, though, and just enough to keep the basic functions working. He saw nothing - not since the moment his body had succumbed to hydraulic lock and he had collapsed to the ground. But his consciousness grasped at sounds, distant as they were. In the moments afterwards he had heard the roar of a crowd, as if through water, though that had faded. The hushed voices afterwards had faded as well, and then another jubilant eruption from the crowd, only this time further away. More hushed voices. An angry snarl. Pacing feet. Nothing.

There was a period of silence afterwards that may have very well lasted a century for as little as Cron could comprehend it. The single spinning servo sliding softly in his skull did little to maintain a sense of self, only keep the lights on. As its gentle hum wore on, Cron felt himself disassociate, and The Thing That Once Called Itself Cron Apostolou came apart from his body. It fell back into the darkness that surrounded it, watching its catatonic form getting further and further away, the dim light around it growing ever fainter until it might not have ever been there at all.

In the quiet black, free from the whispers of the world it had departed from, this spirit stretched and yawned, flexing and bending as if to shake loose the joints that had grown stiff over time. This continued for a short while, as it primped and preened like a cat in a sunbeam, until it noticed a presence that crept up quickly and immediately filled all of the space around it. The spirit turned, and found itself gazing into the confused eyes of Anantashesha.

"Hullo there," the spirit said idly.

The Eel's face pinched slightly. "What are you doing down here?"

The spirit leaned back slightly, trying and failing to take in the Eel in its entirety. "Relaxing. I think I've died."

Anantashesha sniffed. "You're not dead. I could tell if you're dead." It looked around behind the spirit, and seeing nothing, said, "You're not supposed to be hanging around down here, you know. Not good for you."

The spirit shrugged. "I don't know how I got here. I don't know how to get back where I came from."

The Eel nodded slowly, and then its eyes grew wide. "Hang on one second. Don't I know you? You smell familiar. Have we met?" The spirit shook its head, and Anantashesha's brow furrowed. "No, no, I would swear on it. Did you die once? Are you some kind of lich?"

The spirit shook its head again. "I don't know much about myself at all, honestly."

The Eel nodded again. "How much exactly?"

"Enough to be narratively interesting, I guess."

"That's an odd answer," Anantashesha said, seconds before clarity dawned over its features. "That's it! I remember where I know you from. I pulled you out from inside me in exchange for a back scratcher."

"That's gross."

"Yes, yes, that's it. There was that queer little man who came down here in a diving suit looking for a soul. You were that soul, I have no doubts." Anantashesha smiled, pleased at itself. "How have you been?"

"I mean, I'm here again," the spirit said, considering its words, "so I wouldn't say… super."

"There are worse places, trust me," the Eel said, waving him off. "What have you been up to?"

"Playing football."

"Oh!" The Eel nodded. "I don't know what that is, but that's really great. I'm happy for you! Look what you've accomplished! Back in the living world and doing football! That's not half bad for somebody who died once."

The spirit frowned. "You're a god, aren't you?"

The Eel grew quiet.

"Why can't I perform magic?"

"Pfft," Anantashesha said. "Why in the world would you worry yourself about that?"

"It's a thing humans can do, but I can't. Am I human? I feel human."

The Eel shrugged. "Your soul is human. I don't know if your body is human. Either way, that doesn't matter. Plenty of things can create magic that aren't human. Have you ever looked at light spilling through trees in the early morning, or seen fog dance across a lake at dusk? I might just be waxing poetic, but trust me when I say it's a little naive to imply that magic is a strictly human endeavor." It paused. "No, your disconnect from magic is because you died."

"I died?"

"You don't remember it? Hrm. Likely not. Yes, you died once. Your soul was torn from your body and you found yourself here, with me, and went the way all souls go, into that quiet oblivion. Once you pass the Screamers, the connection between your soul and the arcane was severed, and that's basically the ball game with that one."

The spirit's eyes grew dark, and its face downcast. Anantashesha grimaced.

"Look, I'm not the one to be giving life advice, you understand? My whole jam is the meaninglessness of life, how little any of this matters when compared to the never-ending nothing that you find yourself in currently. So take this with a grain of salt when I say that, if you think your not being able to do magic makes you any less alive, or any less… human, I don't know. It doesn't. Your existence isn't made more or less important because you can conjure fire or fling sparks or anything like that. Your abilities don't make you, you. Hell, the things you call yourselves don't make any of you who you are. It doesn't matter if you're made of meat, or made of metal, or jelly, or what color you end up, or anything like that. This idea of identity is such a silly concept, because you're trying to use words to describe something that can't be described. Your innate you-ness. You get it? You're you, because you're you."

The Eel leaned back and shrugged. "And yeah, someday you'll end up back down here and return to the Silence Beyond, but a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts."

The spirit looked up. "Is that a reference to something?"

Anantashesha waved it off. "Yeah, but you're going to miss that one. Look, just know that if you're getting caught up in some sort of emotional thing because you can't make magic happen, you shouldn't. Magic isn't something you do, it's something that happens to you. I imagine there are plenty of other souls out there that think that your very existence is pretty goddamn magical."

They sat in silence for a moment, and then the spirit nodded. "Thanks. I feel better."

The Eel nodded. "Good. Because I think you're about to wake up."

The spirit squinted up at Anantashesha. "Am I going to remember any of this?"

The Eel shrugged. "Probably not."

And with that, something sharp grabbed the spirit by its back, and it was whisked upwards, away from the encompassing darkness and towards some minute light a lifetime away.

"Bye! Have fun storming the castle!" The Eel snickered to itself. "Shit, he'll miss that one too."

Cron Apostolou heard the sound of idle chatter first, as his auditory sensors hummed back to life. He felt the heart in his chest resume beating unimpeded, and his lungs filled with air he didn't need. Light crept into the corners of his eyes, and suddenly his vision was flooded with color as his ocular cells woke up. He opened them, slowly, and as his sight adjusted to the light in the room, he made out several familiar faces. His friend Yuri, Coach Demopolous the Offensive Coordinator, JaMarcus Aurelius, and a peculiar man with silver hair and large, black glasses.

Cron blinked, and then blinked again. He stretched his arms and legs, feeling the hydraulic fluid coursing through his veins once again. He moved his jaw side to side, readjusting where it was supposed to sit on his face. Satisfied, he glanced around the room, where its various occupants stood staring at him, most of them white as a sheet.

"You," Yuri said, cautiously, "you see?"

Cron nodded, rubbing the back of his head. His hair was matted and he knew he looked filthy, but he felt good.

"What happened?" he said, his voice jumping out to greet him. "Did we win?"

JaMarcus smiled. "Yeah. Fake extra point. Coach Panagakos, Eldest and Most Revered, went for two. Walk off two-point conversion. The place is lit. They tore down the scoreboard. I heard they laid siege to Troy like, an hour ago."

Cron smiled weakly. Regardless of what was about to happen, that was a small comfort. "How long have I been out?"

"Three hours," a voice said from the back of the room, the energy in it crackling like lightning. Out of the shadows appeared Coach Panagakos, Eldest and Most Revered, his face frozen in a grimace and his eyes burning behind dark sunglasses. "Weren't sure you were going to wake up. Figured I'd have you sent to the dump in the morning with the other broken trash."

It was Cron's turn to grimace. He saw Yuri and JaMarcus' faces grow ashen, and Coach Demopolous nearly faint. Curiously, the man with the silver hair seemed bemused.

"I, uh, I guess, I should-" Cron began, but was immediately halted by a single crooked finger from the Head Ball Coach.

"What you should do, right now, is shut the fuck up." His glare turned towards the other three members of the team. "You three, out. Practice on Monday. If you're late you'll spend a century on the Planet of Hands."

With little more than a sharp gust of wind, the three men scampered out of the locker room, leaving only Cron, Coach Panagakos, and the man with the silver hair. Satisfied that the three were out of hearing range, the Head Coach turned to the silver haired man.

"Alright, time's up. What the fuck is this."

The man nodded curtly. "This is an Andersopolis Automatronics Saker Model 9, a first-of-its-kind humanoid cyborg. Extremely advanced."

Coach Panagakos, studied Cron for a moment. "What happened to it?"

"Hydraulic lock, seems like," the man said. "The spear it caught pinched a hydraulic line, and when it pulled the spear out it lost hydraulic pressure and collapsed. Curious thing, that," the man said, the faintest hint of the idea of a smile creeping across his lips, "it has self-preservation protocols in place to keep it from doing something like that. Odd that it would be so easily able to override them to win a football game."

Coach Panagakos sneered. "You're goddamn right." He turned back towards Cron, looking him up and down. "Who are you?"

Cron's voice was suddenly very hoarse. "C-Cron, Apostolou."

The Coach nodded. "Alright, Cron Apostolou. When were you going to tell me you were a robot?"

"Cyborg," the silver-haired man interjected, an actual smile flashing over his face now.

Cron shifted uncomfortably. "I, uh, well." Do you lie? Can you lie to a demigod? The goose is cooked, you need a way out of this. "I imagine it would've eventually… eventually come up."

"Like fuck it would've." The Head Coach's voice snapped like a chain being broken. "You're meaning to tell me that you were going to wager the best chance this team has had at winning a championship in nearly one-hundred years on something that might've come up, eventually?"

Yes. "Yes."

Coach Panagakos rubbed the bridge of his nose furiously. "Do you know why I'm so fucking pissed off at you right now, Cron?"

Cron flinched at the sound of his own name. "Because I'm a-"

Another finger, and more silence. "It's not because you're a goddamn fucking whirly-bird or wind-up or thingamajig or rooty-tooty-point-and-shooty. I don't care whether you're a robit or a troll or a lesbian dog or whatever the fuck you are. We have legitimate snake people in our secondary, Cron, you think for a minute that the thought of playing a robot-"

"-cyborg," the man interjected again,

"-what the fuck ever, you think that bothers me in the slightest?" Coach Panagakos sighed. "When I consigned my soul to the dark powers of the Hereafter and pledged allegiance to the Suffocating Horror, I did it with one goal in mind: win motherfucking football games at Alexylva. You think I gave two shits, while my soul was being shredded by the thousand-hooked arms of Malidramagiuan the Most High Horrific, of what it took to win those football games? You think that, when I was begging the Many-Eyed God of Punishment to be made whole again, the concern of putting a toy in at quarterback even so much as crossed my motherfucking mind?"

He spat on the ground. "Because it didn't. I'm here to do two things, Cron. Win football games, and win fucking football games. I don't care about what some shitty newspaper has to say about humans and robots, the same as I don't give a rat's ass about what he'd have to say about the subtle and discrete pleasures of fucking a pig in the ass. And I'm shitty at you because you were selfish, and you nearly lost me a goddamn football game. If you ever so much as consider, in the faintest and most ethereal daydream, of ever doing that kind of shit ever again, I swear to the Darkness Below and Beyond that I will turn your still-beating heart into a bedpan and shit into your soul for the rest of your miserable, gasping, fetid existence. Are we clear?"

Cron nodded. If he'd been capable, he would've pissed himself.

Coach Panagakos nodded. "Good." He turned to leave. "Hell of a play there at the end, though. Really was something else. Good work."

Cron coughed. "So… so are we good?"

The Coach turned back towards him and shrugged. "You and me? Sure. But after that stunt you pulled tonight, we're being investigated by the NSCPAA Ethics Committee for playing a non-approved individual at quarterback, since robits are technically still against regulation."

"Oh fuck," Cron said.

"Yep. Fuck. And if you can't figure this shit out, and you still end up costing me the season, the carnival of red delights that will come to pass upon you will be such that no man for a thousand years will dare to so much as speak of them. So you two fucking figure it out."

He left the room, leaving only Cron and the silver-haired man standing in the silent locker room. Cron blinked a few times for good measure, then turned to the man.

"Hey Vincenti."

"Hello again, Model 9," the man said, smiling eagerly now. His blue eyes peeked out from behind his glasses. "We've got a lot of work to do with you, and Homecoming is only a week away."

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