Hail! Hail!, to old Alexylva!
Bastion of the noble and the brave!
Glory be to proud Alexylva!
May her mighty banners raise!
Cron Apostolou sat on a bleacher near the back of the locker room, quietly waiting his turn. He turned the game ball over in his hands once, then twice, studying every fiber of its design. His eyes telescoped in until he could see each individual strand of hardened leather. The inner workings of his auditory receptors tightened and contracted, as they listened into the next room. He could hear the sound of a crowd of reporters piping questions at his teammates, his coaches. It was almost his turn.
Cron Apostolou hated postgame. As the thrill of the match wavered and washed away, he felt himself feeling alone in those echoing chambers beneath the stadium. His friends would revel in the camaraderie, the feeling of shared accomplishment, but he did not. Nor could he, not truly. His mental servos were designed for a number of very specific things, a vast number, but not an infinite number. Accomplishment was there, certainly, as was pride, but the feeling of togetherness one might experience after a match was lost on him.
Cron Apostolou particularly hated the interview. Every cog of his being was designed to be the perfect poster child of a resurgent football program; brash, brave, cool under pressure, easy on the eyes, with a keen wit and sharp intellect. But it was all too perfect. In early interviews, there had been questions raised, brows furrowed, suspicions roused. They could not know they could not know or it would be all over. Existential fear was there, as unkind as that was, and he felt it every time he had to retract a statement that was too accurate, or pull himself back from releasing a thorough answer too quickly. They could not know.
Finally, it was time. He looked up before the door had even opened, before the assistant coach had even walked across the room to the door, but he heard the footsteps nonetheless. Coach Ragada peeked into the locker room, grin wide on his face.
"Hey chief," he said. "You're up."
Cron stood, but not too quickly. His sharpened his gaze, but not too much. He strode across the room, but slouched slightly and limped ever so slightly with each step, remembering that he had been hit during the fifth minute of the second quarter just above the kneecap, a blow that would usually result in some kind of impediment and that he had calculated out to be a two centimeter bend of the knee every right step and-
Then he was in the press room, and the lights were on him. He squinted against the lights, although he didn't require it. He took his place behind the podium, adjusted his tie and folded back his sleeves. In front of him, Ragada explained that they would only be taking a few moments for questions, as the quarterback had an exam in the early morning and really needed to be getting some rest here soon. Cron's servos spun rapidly. The information on the exam was already there, already processed. Put a pen in his hand and he could've taken it at the podium. But now was not the time for exams. He took a pre-programmed breath.
"Alright, first let me say how excited I am that we were able to pull out a victory over those guys, you know, whenever you're playing a team like Macedonia State it's going to be tough. They're a tough team, but we're a tough team too and tonight really showed that. So, let's take some questions… yeah, over there."
A short student reporter in the second row stood up. "Mario Ivalyn from the Roman Quarterly. Your stat line tonight was impressive, as usual, but there's been some concern about your seemingly adamant stance on not using magic during your play. Any comment on this?"
The tips of Cron's fingers tingled ever so slightly, but not with any hint of the arcane. No matter how polished his inner workings, no matter how flawless the complexion of the skin wrapped around his metallic frame, no feat of engineering could put fire in those fingertips. He grinned slightly, and his artificial brain found the appropriate lie.
"I just like doing it the old fashioned way," he half-laughed. "Makes it more satisfying when it works."
Another man stood up. "Cron, Olivio Rallut from Alexylva Student Gazette. Any chance you could tell us about your immediate reaction to seeing Moa in the opposing backfield?"
Cron nodded. "I've seen Moa once before, during the Meso-American College game last year, and it's always a challenge, you know. He's got a couple of tells, but when you're face to face with world-ending dark powers, you're always going to be a little nervous. Just gotta buckle down, keep your eyes on the endzone, and slip around a corpse army or two."
This drew a bit of laughter from the crowd, and Cron smiled. So far, nothing too invasive, nothing too telling, no questions he couldn't answer. His eyes scanned the crowd, and then he saw somebody stand in the back of the room. His facial reactions were controlled by an automated system, but if he were capable of spontaneous outbursts, his eyes would've widened dramatically.
"Art Desto, Mediterranean Post. How's that leg doing, Cron? Took quite a hit out there."
Cron's memory servos began to flutter wildly. He went back to the moment of the impact, when the Macedonia State defensive end had sacked him in the backfield. He hadn't seen the hit, was it his left leg or right? He hadn't felt it, he didn't feel pain. The gripping sensation that had been so unfortunately ingrained into his mind began clutching its way back towards the surface. Beneath the flesh veneer, the metal was screaming, trying to remember, trying not to break the charade.
"Not too bad right now," he felt his vocal box say. "A little rough out on the field, but I shook it off. It'll take more than that to keep me down." His facial structures formed a smile, and the room laughed again, but the reporter only narrowed his eyes.
"Big hit, though. And by their five star defensive end, too. That guy has to outweigh you by nearly two hundred pounds." The corner of his mouth turned up. "It's almost like you've got legs of steel, Cron."
The room didn't noticeably hush, but in Cron's mind it might as well have been an echo chamber / it's an innocent comment, it doesn't mean anything / he knows how does he know / just ignore it play it off / it will ruin everything / don't react just do what you always do / with Cron sitting in the center, consumed with his thoughts. You're a robot, his mind shouted at him. There's no love for robots here, it shouted back. Then make them believe you're not.
"Good trainers, really." Cron smiled that devilish smile again. "Plus, I might've been warded. Can't remember much, in the heat of the moment like that."
The room murmured with the sounds of agreement, and Cron knew the danger had passed. He looked to the back of the room again, and the reporter was gone. A few more inquisitive souls asked their bit of the star quarterback, who faithfully answered and would smile and nod and talk about "teamwork" and "every down counts" and "making something out of nothing". At the end of the session, one last reporter stood up, the national reporter.
"So what do you say, Cron? Excited to get your hands on Yale next weekend?"
In his metallic heart, Cron was a disharmonious cacophony of preset fear and doubt, made only worse by the pressure put on his mental conduits after so much stress throughout the day. He eyed for a moment the door to the locker room, where an ice bath was waiting for him. A soak to cool his components, and to give him time to think.
But the coded grin of the quarterback was unwavering in its optimism. "I can't wait."