Lina

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Part 1

To this day, I still can't believe that it happened the way it did. Me, a robo-fetishist with what I thought was a joke program on a borrowed phone, waiting in the bathtub “just in case”, and her....

….well, I suppose that's getting ahead of things, isn't it?

For starters, let's just run through the specifics of my status before it all went down: 30-ish, virgin, didn't get out much, aspiring writer and amateur voice actor, with a back catalog of family issues that don't bear elaborating on. How I got the phone is, to be honest, the most mundane part of the whole thing: a friend of my uncle's was upgrading to a new one, let me have his old one as a “starter”. One app caught my eye right off the bat: “FCon”. I had no idea what it was for, but in the interest of discovery, I opened it.

After a few minutes, you'd probably find it easy to understand why I thought it was a joke. From what I gathered, it'd been written to debug and remotely control androids—specifically, female androids (or “gynoids”, if you want to get technical about it). There were settings to “lock on” to a nearby gynoid, trigger her debug mode (or “command mode”, if one was available—this, straight from the in-app help file) and sliders to test motion of individual limbs, etc. Weird stuff...but, me being me, I didn't delete it. Either the guy who'd given me the phone was as big a robo-fetishist as I was, or he had one Hell of a sense of humor...whatever the case, it looked entirely too well-written to just get rid of.

Flash forward three months. My older brother was the reluctant host of a party for the weekend, and some friends would be bringing their girlfriends, with the chance that they'd bring their friends. There was no way he'd be able to pull it off at his place, so I did him a favor and let him hold it at the house—my house, that I got from our parents. I didn't know any of the “guests”; they were all my brother's friends, or friends of those friends, etc., and I knew their interests would skew far past mine. I'd intended to just chill in my room after the party started...except two “guests” wandered in. One was a girl, about my height—5’6” maybe—with pale-ish skin and long red hair; the other was probably her boyfriend, a tall, typical surfer-dude-looking guy whose head was in the clouds. I was about to tell them to get the Hell out of my room (in less polite terms) when I got a phone call (vibration mode—I hadn't changed the ringtone), but they just turned around and left; one of them mumbled a “sorry, wrong room” at me. I couldn’t even find my phone before the buzzing stopped, and when I did, there wasn’t even a missed call in it. Stupid phone…

Half an hour later, I was in the bathroom—doing my business, at first, but then just reading a book on my phone about an expedition into the Arctic that went really, really wrong. I had no desire to go “mingle,” try to start a conversation and either be ignored or told to piss off....anyway. Midway through a bit in the book where two of the stranded sailors suspect another of murder, the phone started going insane. I thought I was getting a call, or a text, at first....

Nope. It was FCon. Twelve notices—it'd been going off sporadically as the guests arrived.

First reaction: “....what?!”

Second reaction: “....there are gynoids here?! Right now?!”

I would've had a third reaction to this, if not for the fact that FCon rather conveniently informed me that one of these alleged gynoids was on their way to the bathroom at that moment—hence the snap decision to jump in the bathtub and draw the curtain. I had no idea if the thing was just goofing on me or not; if it was, I'd just close my eyes, ignore the sounds of whatever was going on outside the tub, wait until whoever had entered the room left the room, and then get the Hell out of there as soon as possible.

If it wasn't.....

I can't even remember how long I was waiting. All I know is that after however long it was, a girl walked in. A bit shorter than me, blonde, nice tan, orange top and jean shorts....and of course, a very nice body. Not too curvy, her butt wasn't cartoonishly big....in short, she didn't look like she was a gynoid. Yet FCon insisted that she was—thankfully, without beeping continuously, otherwise the jig would've been up as soon as she entered the room.

Feeling both adventurous and stupid, I stepped out of the tub, waiting to get yelled at..only to find that the alleged gynoid was on her phone by the towel cabinet. Didn't even notice me.

Might as well see if this thing works. The “Act. Debug” function was highlighted; I pressed it with my thumb and hoped I wasn't just hallucinating.

The girl froze—for a few seconds. Mid-sentence, too. Without even finishing, she turned off her phone and put it back in her pocket....and proceeded to just stand there, staring at the towels. I got closer, despite part of my brain yelling at me to back off before she snapped out of it....except she never “snapped out of it”. I touched her wrist, to check for a pulse—nada. Neck, same reason—not a damn thing. She wasn't even breathing.

South of the Equator, something was stirring. I ignored it...for the time being.

For some dumb reason, I decided to just ask the girl if she was in Debug Mode or whatever. I'd read so many stories on the forum about this kind of thing—usually they were a bit more abrupt, without the niceties of an attempt at conversation, but I figured I might as well try. “....are you in Debug Mode?”

“Affirmative.” She didn't speak in a staccato, obviously synthetic monotone, but the flatness of her voice still sent my pulse racing. Below the belt line, my, ah, anticipation was growing quite rapidly.

“.....what do you want me to do right now?”

Yes. I did indeed ask that question. Don't ask why, I've still got no idea. If this was some big con, or if she wasn't fully in Debug Mode, the next words out of her mouth were probably going to be “let me leave this room”, or some variation of it. There was no way in Hell she'd say anything else....right?

Well, you can imagine my surprise when she stated “I would like you to undress me.”

My eyes went wide (along with something else a bit further down the totem pole). “....ah, what?”

“I would like you to undress me.”

I glanced at the screen of the phone. For some reason, it wasn't showing her name, but it was showing a lot of “levels”, including “Arsl”—which I quickly translated to “Arousal”. Clearly, this girl—this gynoid—had shown up to the party entirely too horny to think straight, but she hadn't done anything to rectify the situation, and could only address the problem in Debug Mode....maybe it was a virus, maybe she wasn't configured correctly. Hell if I know. With a shrug, I carefully set the phone down and went to work removing her top. At every single second, I'd expected her to “come to life” again, grab me by the wrist and scream “PERVERT!” in my face....and every second that went by without her doing that, my pulse rate went up just a little bit more. The top was easy enough to remove, as was the bra; by the time I got to her shorts I was wondering if this whole thing was just some insane dream. Moving her arms and legs to get the clothes off was....surreal, to be honest; she felt a bit cool to the touch, but other than that and her lack of a pulse (or breathing), there was nothing to indicate that she was anything other than human.

Another stupid question came to my mind as I went about my business: “How old are you supposed to be?”

“Twenty-one.”

Well, at least whoever built her wasn't a prick....anyway, after helping her step out of her shorts and panties, I now had the task of figuring out what I was supposed to do with a 95% naked (she still had her socks and shoes on) fembot standing right in front of me.

The fembot in question made the decision for me: “I would like you to have sex with me.”

At this point, I almost legitimately got pissed off. I've said already that I was a virgin, at that point—I'd had a history as a “solo act”, of course, almost always to stuff from the forum. Thus, I found it bizarre and (in my uniquely stupid way) almost insulting that this naked chick was politely requesting I take her from behind.

As if sensing my hesitation, she repeated herself: “I would like you to have sex with me.”

I'd seen a few clips of this kind of thing before, and they were always more.....I dunno, “dynamic”, I guess, than this. At the very least, I (or the relevant part of my anatomy) had in fact risen to the occasion, so what was about to happen wouldn't be a total flop (that was the actual thought going through my head at the time, believe it or not). Before she could repeat the request a third time, I dropped trou, whipped it out and did what I'd been asked to do—gripping her by the waist to, ah, get things where they needed to go, and all.

What followed was unlike any sex scene I'd ever borne witness to before. I was too stunned to make a sound, and my “partner” was utterly devoid of emotion—no orgiastic cries or moans here. She did make the occasional noise, a sort of quiet “oh” or “ah” here and there—but.....yeah. It was weird.

Despite the high strangeness of the moment, I was in fact giving it my all.....

….and somewhere midway through it, I thought, you're on a roll so far, let's see how much further you can go.

Still thrusting away like there was no tomorrow, I managed to say “Turn your head...180 degrees....to look at me.”

If she was a gynoid, what happened next would be amazing. If not....

Thankfully, I didn't have to dwell on the “if not” for too long—a seam appeared at the base of her neck, and her head actually rose up a centimeter or so and rotated to face me! And yes, there was, in fact, a servo rizzing noise to go with it. Even more insane than this, her face had no expression at all—just a sort of calm, anticipatory look.

I'm pretty sure that's what pushed me over the edge. Dropped my payload right then and there.

Once in the depths of sweet release, I let go of her and actually staggered backwards, nearly falling on my ass in the process. She was still standing, surprisingly; her head was still rotated to face me, that patient, calm look still there.

I sat there, gear out, gasping in surprise and shock, for probably a full minute. She stood there, staring, the whole time.

“.....turn.....turn your head back around, please,” I managed, still gasping.

“Affirmative.” The expression on her face never changed as her head turned, lowering back down a centimeter (with that beautiful rizzing again). Once it finished, she was just standing there completely still (and buck-naked).

Seeing as how I'd undressed her, I decided to show my appreciation for the best (and, in all honesty, first) sex I'd ever had by putting her clothes back on her. I didn't really have a lot of other options—I sure as Hell wasn't going to leave her just standing naked in the bathroom for any length of time.

I was a bit quicker in redressing her than I'd been with the undressing—due in part to not wanting some rando to open the door, see what was going on and go yell about it to every other person there. She never acknowledged my actions, by the way, while I was putting her clothes back on her; she just...stood there, the entire time.

Once she was fully (re)dressed, I put my own pants back on (after drying what needed to be dried), grabbed the phone and walked past her to the door. “Ah, follow me to my room, please.”

“Affirmative.”

My room, thankfully, was just a quick right turn away from the bathroom. Even better, there were no randos in the hall, or lingering by the door of my room or anything like that; everyone was either in the living room or outside, playing Frisbee golf (or more accurately, chucking the Frisbee around with reckless abandon and nailing each other in the back of the head with the stupid thing).

“Just...sit on the bed, for now....” I barely acknowledged the “affirmative” that she replied with, instead pacing back and forth next to the bed. This....this was unprecedented. This weird-ass random program on a phone that I was given as a gift just so happened to actually work as a debug tool for gynoids, and the incredibly attractive girl who just so happened to be sitting on my bed at that moment (and who I'd just had sex with) was, in fact, a gynoid.

Right....question time.

“Why did you want to have sex with me?” The stupid question trend continued—I was still basking (or was it sweating?) in the afterglow, and that was the only thing I could think to ask.

“It was the highest-priority task in my process manager.” ….okay, not what I expected...then again....

“And, ah, why was that the highest-priority task?”

“It was assigned by my owner before we left—”

“Okay, okay, just....I get it.” The picture was starting to form in my mind....her owner, or boyfriend, or whoever, thought it'd be a laugh to get her sexed-up and then turn her loose on any unsuspecting rando at the party—probably so he could bust in on them and beat up the poor sod she was with. There was, of course, one flaw in this plan... “Is your owner still here?”

“.....processing....processing....” Every damn time she said that word, I felt stirrings in my gut (and elsewhere).

“.....she is currently outside—”

“Wait, how do you know—she's outside?!” Just one twist after another....

“Her bio-metric signs are being measured by her smartwatch. She is currently unconscious.”

Well, that makes sense.... She'd probably planned exactly what I'd thought, except she derailed her own “brilliant idea” by getting sloshed. “The smart watch isn't, ah, receiving anything from you at the moment, is it?”

“...I do not understand.”

“The watch can send data to you, right?”

“Affirmative.”

“Can you send data to it?”

“I can only send data to the watch if debug mode is activated from the watch.”

I hadn't felt more relief wash over me since the time I'd had to go get my homework off the bus after school. “So she has no idea that you're in here with me right now, then....” I almost laughed. “She's drunk off her ass outside without a clue that you're—”

“Would you like me to activate the watch and inform her of my current location?”

FUCK! “No, no, no, ah, no, that won't be, ah, necessary....” Nice dodge there, genius. “Can you, ah...return to human mode on your own, or do I need to do anything?”

“I am capable of returning to human emulation mode on my own.”

“....okay, then, ah, do that, please.”

She didn't even say “affirmative” this time—all she did was sit there, perfectly still, for a moment. Her eyes glowed for a bit, then she blinked a few times....all the while, I couldn't stop staring. This went on for a few seconds, then something in her beeped (and I felt something deep in the pit of my stomach leap), and she sat a bit straighter...then, as natural as anyone else I've ever met, she turned to look at me, smiling. “Hi, there!”

“.....hi. I'm, ah...Matt. Matt Harker.” I tried for a smile, but probably ended up giving her a half-smirk, half-grimace.

Apparently, this was enough to concern her. “Are you all right? You look like you just—”

“You....ah....do you remember anything about the past few minutes?” Yet another wonderfully stupid question in a day full of them...at least, that's what I thought.

“I know I went into your bathroom, and then you put me in debug mode...” She counted off the moments on her fingers (which, of course, were perfectly manicured). “....I asked you to undress me, then I asked you to have sex with me, and you did.” She smiled again. “Thanks for putting my clothes back on, by the way.”

I'd never had a more awkward silence in my life before that moment. “....so,” I reasoned, “you...didn't mind me, ah...”

She rolled her eyes. “That's what I'm here for,” she replied, giving me an “oh, you” kind of look. “And before you ask, no, I'm not just a sexbot.” She sighed. “Every time we—I mean, me and the one who made me—get invited to a party like this, she ramps up my arousal and tells me to 'have fun'. We've already been to three parties earlier this week, and she never turned my arousal settings down between them!”

“.....you, ah, never actually told me your name,” I mused, sounding about as suave as a dead fish.

“...oh, right! I'm Lina.” The girl grinned again.

“.....Lina,” I repeated, as if what we'd done in the bathroom had somehow drained my brain cells in addition to my earlier “contribution” to her. “Nice name, Lina....”

“Are you okay? I don't mean to pry, or anything, but....”

I managed a nervous chuckle. “Back there, in the bathroom.....that was my first time.”

Lina's eyes widened. “Really? I couldn't tell!”

“Well, maybe you could tell me why it is that your owner turns your horniness all the way up to eleven and sets you loose at random parties,” I snapped—at least, I intended to snap. The combination of exhaustion from the sex and the sheer disbelief at what was going on had taken every bit of anger out of me. “....I thought the most interesting thing I was going to do today was count how many action figures Mattel ever made of the Joker....”

Lina gestured for me to sit next to her on the bed. “You did great,” she assured me. “My arousal levels would still be at maximum if you hadn't.”

“....so, you have to get laid to turn them down if your owner doesn't?”

“One of the quirks of my design,” Lina replied, shrugging. “That, and she thought it was ironic at the time.”

“.....that's pretty fucking stupid. No offense to your owner.”

“Well, she wants me to 'do my own thing'.” Lina shrugged again. “I was built....five months ago, but written probably a year ago. My A.I., I mean....that's what was written—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” I held up a hand. “Your owner wrote...you....first, then made your body?”

“It's complicated.” Lina flipped a bit of hair out of her eyes—it was insane that such a small action made her look so damn human. “Anyway....you have a nice room.” She gestured at the bookshelf (loaded with sci-fi novels, strategy guides and an entire row of manga), my action figure collection and the rack of DVDs.

I chuckled. “You're the first person to tell me that in a long time.....ah, speaking of firsts....”

Lina rested a hand on my shoulder. “You weren't my first,” she admitted, “but so far, you've been the most polite.”

“.....the most....polite.” I gave an eyebrow that The People would've cheered for days. “I used a program on a phone to put you in Debug Mode without asking you—”

“Well, I needed to be put in Debug Mode!” Lina insisted. “I was going to the bathroom to try and call out to find a shop that'd turn my arousal levels back down, instead of staying here and having to deal with the usual parade of guys who swear they're God's gift to the entire female gender.” She rolled her eyes (part of my brain, even at that moment, wanted to call them “ocular receptors”, because meh) at the thought. “I didn't think anyone here even had a copy of FCon on their phone.”

I held up the object in question. “.....the funny thing is, I got this as a gift, from a friend of my uncle's.”

“Let me see....” I handed Lina the phone, and she thumbed through the screens for a bit, frowning. “....how long ago did you get this phone?”

“Three months. Why, is Ricky in trouble or something?”

“....is that what he called himself?” Lina was giving me a suspicious look.

“He was a friend of my uncle's, and my uncle works on exotic cars and arcade cabinets—”

“Interesting...” Lina was focused entirely on the phone, now....and her eyes were glowing. “....three months ago....he was supposed to hand this in....”

Something in the tone of her voice suggested that whatever fun I was having now was about to come to a swift, sudden and probably jail-related end. “....if you want me to give up the phone, you can leave with it. I just—”

“What?”

“.....I'm in trouble, right? For using FCon on you, and the, ah....”

“Like I said, you did me a big favor with that.” Lina gave me a reassuring smile. “It's who used to own this phone that I'm worried about....he went missing two months ago. Nobody's heard from him since then...” She continued thumbing through the screens on the phone. “....you said your uncle repairs exotic cars?”

“...among other things. Why, is he in—”

Lina turned to face me, putting her hands on my shoulders. “What if I told you that what you did for me earlier means you might be able to....have me?”

“.....'have' you?” I was starting to get tired of repeating every other phrase Lina said. “Sorry, I just....”

“...if I told you it means I'd be able to live with you, be your girlfriend or whatever else you need me to be?”

“....I'd ask if this was a prank, first off.” WAY TO GO, CAPTAIN HONESTY!

“It's not.” Lina's smile was warming my heart and embiggening the same thing she'd become intimately acquainted with in the bathroom, all at once. “I'm really, truly telling you this....”

“.....then I'd say.....I'm all for it, even if I have no idea what the fuck is going on.”

Lina frowned. “D'you have to cuss so much, Matt?”

“.....it's a defense mechanism when I get overwhelmed by something I've never had happen to me before.”

“Even if it's something you've....dreamed about before?”

And she knows about the forum. “.....ah....”

My hesitation earned me a sigh. “Look, Matt. My owner didn't think anyone with your particular...proclivities...would be at any of the parties here, and I certainly didn't expect to run into someone running such an up-to-date version of FCon, especially here. I'm not mad about you using it on me, I'm not mad that you had sex with me—after all, I asked you to, remember?” Lina lightly prodded me in the arm. “....I am wondering why you were waiting in the tub—”

“I'd been taking a sh.....doing my business, in there! The phone went off, with twelve signals.....”

“....I didn't think there were that many others here.”

“....yeah, well, I damn near panicked when one of those signals—which happened to be you—actually walked into the bathroom.....” I sighed. “What does any of this do with your question, the whole 'you can have me' thing?”

“....my owner wants to start on a new project,” Lina explained. “And seeing as how I classify as sentient on the charts...y'know what, we don't need to go into details on that now—”

“Go into details about what?”

“....I'll explain later. Anyway, I'm sentient, so she can't just drop me off at the nearest Goodwill or recycling center. She's been using these party-hopping trips to....find someone, I guess, for me. Someone I'd be interested in, romantically and, well, sexually....”

“And I get the part because I just so happen to have an app on my phone that you found useful.”

“It's not just the phone, you doof!” Lina was giggling, now. “....you're just....you! You're not trying to act like you're James Bond or Evan Stone or whoever....you're just you. You didn't cut to 'sweet-talking' me, or just stripping me and having your way with me when I was in Debug mode....you asked.”

“.....and that somehow makes me better than anyone you've been with before.”

“Believe me, Matt, compared to the last three guys I met, you're a saint.”

“Right.....I just....” I chuckled again; my brain was still having issues with trying to wrap around the full details of what I'd just been through. “...I still find it kind of hard to believe that you're a gynoid....”

I stopped, noticing Lina staring at me—not lifelessly, like she'd done with her Linda Blair routine in the bathroom, but with a smile. Her eyes flicked down for a second....directing me to the somewhat-trapezoidal seam that had just formed above her breasts (again, like her butt, they weren't too big...I'd say a high B cup or a low C, at the very least). “...well, go on,” she prompted.

Again, I hesitated; it felt like a full hour before I finally reached out to the skin highlighted by the seam....

...and yet again, my pulse (and something else) started rising when it popped out.

“Removing it won't hurt, if you're wondering.”

“Right, right....” I managed to tug the thing out to reveal what was underneath it...

To be quite honest, before that moment I'd never really understood the use of phrases like “my heart leapt up into my throat” or stuff like that. Now, staring at the exposed panel with its USB port, a 15-in-one card reader and indicator lights for stuff I had no hope of understanding, I was floored.

I heard myself ask yet another utterly stupid (to my mind, at least) question: “....what exactly were you made to do?”

“In all honesty, I don't have a specific purpose or 'directive',” Lina replied. “I started as a coding experiment—” She tapped the side of her head, again alluding to her A.I. having been written before her body was built. “....and the rest was done later, as a home-build.”

“....home-build?” The echo effect, yet again, this time due to me being mesmerized in equal measure by the panel and by how close I was to Lina's boobs.

“Weellll, 75% home build....my parts and such were sourced from the Institute.”

“...and are you, ah, modeled after anyone in particular?” The stupid questions just kept on coming.

“A little bit.” Lina made a “50/50” motion with one hand. “My measurements—height, limbs, all that boring stuff—are basically dictated by my internal frame. Stuff like my drive system—it'd probably be 'propulsion' if I was a vehicle—and some padding...” She smirked, noticing my stare had drifted to one of her boobs. “...anyway, stuff like that can go a long way towards making me look a bit more unique—there's some in my arms and legs, too, not just in the more obvious bits.” She rolled her eyes. “You can cover the panel now, by the way.”

“...cover the....oh, right.” I managed to not put her skin panel back the wrong way around. “....sorry.”

“You don't need to apologize so much, Matt,” Lina reminded me. “I appreciate the sentiment, but...”

“I get it, I get it....” Another chuckle left my mouth. “....you didn't say if your face was modeled after anyone specific, by the way...you don't have to go into it if you don't want to.”

“She designed it herself—my owner, I mean.” Lina glanced off to the side, grinning. “Apparently, it was something she just couldn't get out of her head until she realized it somehow, in some form...” She gestured at herself; it struck me as utterly weird that it'd taken me so long to get a good look at her face—the only thing I'd noticed back in the bathroom was that patient, calm and almost blank look when she'd done the 180-degree turn at my, ah, request. Up close, I could see now that there was nothing too exaggerated in either direction—she was attractive, but not so much so that it might be a distraction.

The height and spacing of her eyes, the positioning and size of her nose, the length of her mouth, the thickness of her lips and the structure of her cheekbones....it all brought to mind countless character creation suites from games I'd played (or watched other people play) over the years.

“....amazing.” It took a few seconds for me to realize I'd spoken.

Lina arched an eyebrow. “My face is 'amazing'?” she mused, sounding equally amused and intrigued.

“....there's something familiar,” I muttered, “but something.....” I reached out a hand to brush her cheek, expecting her to shy away—which she didn't. “....must've taken hours to fine-tune everything.”

“I had a bit of input,” she replied, her voice soft. “I actually got to watch her develop my face, at one point.” Noticing my confusion, she grinned. “A.I. first, body second, remember?” She didn't object to me tracing a finger along the contours of her face; if anything, she seemed...relieved. “The last guy I met at a party like this,” she mused, “said I had lips like a sex doll.”

I recoiled. “...really?!”

“Along with saying it'd be a shame if I 'couldn't fit it in there'....I'll let you guess what 'it' was.” She rolled her eyes at the thought. “Fell asleep midway through, if you're wondering...he was midway through his fifth beer.”

“....has anyone else actually...complimented you on your looks?”

“Pretty sure being compared to a sex doll, a porn star and 'the last three girls I had' aren't what you have in mind.”

“Hell no......” I shook my head. “So they were just....”

Lina gestured at her boobs and her waist. “Purely there for the T & A.” She guided my hand back to her face. “It was nothing like this....it wasn't nearly as....”

“Intimate?” I was surprised at how quiet I sounded.

“Good choice of words there....” She paused for a moment.

“....what?”

“You haven't asked if I want to 'go again', or anything like that.”

“....am I supposed to have done that?”

Lina giggled, which confused the Hell out of me. “What?! Is there some kind of protocol I'm supposed to be following here where we have a heartfelt conversation for a bit and then just get right back to—”

“What's wrong with just talking?” Lina had stopped giggling, but was still smiling. “I don't have a problem with that...”

“.....y'know what? I don't have a problem with 'just talking' either.” I got up from the bed, quickly explaining that I was just going to the kitchen to get a bottle of water. “You won't glitch out or crazy on me if I accidentally spill anything on you, right?”

“Fully waterproofed.” Lina did a funny eyebrow thing. “Just in case you were getting any ideas...”

Whatever I was going to say in protest was cut off by a laugh. “Go get your water...get me one, too, if you don't mind.”

I was in and out of the kitchen faster than I could think—the water bottles were in the mini-fridge, and I was able to get them without anyone in the living room noticing (they were all too busy playing some stupid party game anyway...pretty sure it was “Never Have I Ever” or something along those lines). Bottles in hand, I headed back to my room—somehow thinking that, in the brief span of time I'd been out, Lina had changed her mind about me and left. Thankfully, my brief burst of paranoia was unfounded; she was sitting on the bed reading a book off the bookshelf when I got back, looking up with a smile as I closed the door. “You've got a nice collection here,” she mused.

“The books, or the figures?” I unscrewed the cap on my bottle.

“Both, really....” She accepted the bottle I offered her. “Thanks...it's cold!”

“Straight out of the mini-fridge....it's not going to be a problem, is it?”

Lina shook her head. “On the contrary...” She took a long swig. “....helps with cooling the internals.” She twisted the cap back on, nodding. “I have other cooling methods, but every little bit helps, y'know?”

I nodded, taking a drink from my own bottle. “So...what now?”

“Dunno...unless you want to go again.”

“You just said you didn't have a problem with just talking....”

“I know, and I don't....but when I was in Debug Mode....I did get to 'appreciate' what went on in the bathroom, but...”

“You prefer being in full human mode,” I finished. “Just....this is going to sound fucking stupid....”

“I'm sure it won't,” Lina countered. “And you don't have to swear so much, y'know....”

“....do you have....an internal volume control, or anything like that?”

“Don't want to get any unwanted attention from outside?” Lina was giggling again, twirling a bit of hair between her fingers. “I can put myself on mute if you really want....”

I nodded. “Yeah, that....that'd be great. Last thing I need is one of the randos outside to come wandering in.....”

Whatever I'd planned on saying next trailed off rather quickly—Lina had already started taking her clothes off, from the bottom up. The shoes went first—to my relief, she didn't just kick them off, but actually slid 'em off, one by one, and set them down by the bed. Next, the socks—I swear, I'd never seen any woman manage to make taking off a pair of socks look so damn erotic before. The shorts came next, followed by her underwear; finally, she ditched the top and slowly, carefully undid the straps of her bra, setting it aside as she'd done with the rest.

Once she was fully disrobed, she turned to regard me. “Your turn.”

I tried my best to match her “undress from the bottom up” routine; shoes first (I nearly fell over trying to get one of them off), then socks (this time, I did fall over, backwards onto the bed), then jeans, the shirt and finally my briefs. I had my own reasons for the slow disrobe—among other issues in my life, I'd had a fluctuating weight problem, and as of two years prior had finally gotten things under control...but I still bore a few signs of struggling with it, mostly stretch marks on my sides and inner thighs. I'd stopped wearing shorts for that exact reason, even around the house.

Lina, thankfully, didn't remark on them. She just took me by the hand and helped me into my bed.

“I'll take the lead,” she whispered. “Ready?”

I nodded.....

There are a ton of ways I could describe what happened next. On the one hand, I could start throwing around words like “heaving”, “throbbing”, “pulsing”, “quivering”, “sensual” and all that stuff, but that'd turn this into one of those crappy bodice-rippers (y'know, the ones that have that guy who still can't believe it's not butter on the covers). I could also go the route of mentioning “contractions” from certain “walls” of Lina's anatomy—plenty of stories on the forum have that kind of descriptive language, and more power to'em....but to put it in those terms here would be a disservice to what went on between us. So, in the interests of not sounding like a trashy romance novel, I'll sum it up as follows: it had a slow start, built up rather effectively and gave a spectacular finish, without any dodgy bits anywhere in between.

And no, there was no “Swirl”, “Twist”, “Pinch” or stopping short involved anywhere.

Anyway......

Lina and I laid next to each other for a few minutes, me still gasping, Lina smiling.

“.....was that....as good....as before?” I managed.

“No.....” Lina turned to regard me with a grin. “Better.”

My eyes went wide. “....no kidding?”

Lina kissed me on the cheek. “Nope. You outdid yourself.”

“Yeah, well.....you helped...”

“C'mon.” Lina threw the covers off, looking graceful and absolutely smoldering (metaphorically, not literally...unlike so many of the stories I'd read, our second time didn't end with her in pieces) as she got out of the bed. “Let's go clean off in the bathroom, then we can come back in here and talk....”

“Right, right....” My head was still swimming. “I'll, ah....get the clothes....”

Once in the bathroom (unobserved by any wandering randos, all of whom were still outside and probably still chucking a Frisbee around), Lina invited me in to join her in the shower, and...well, how exactly are you supposed to say “no” to someone so beautiful? We both climbed in, and for the next few minutes, Lina proceeded to scrub me down in what had to be the most...okay, I'm going to break my earlier rule here and use the word “sensual”, because there's no other way to describe it. It was a lot like how she'd undressed from the bottom-up, really—granted, she didn't start scrubbing at my feet and work her way to my shoulders or anything like that...it was more of how it felt.

I did the best I could to return the favor, all the while hoping that she wouldn't start sparking or anything like that—I'd read enough stories on the forum about androids not taking too well to water, and I didn't want Lina to meet a similar fate. In any case, she didn't glitch out, neither of us slipped, and it was a pretty good clean for both of us—granted, we each handled our own scrubbing below the belt line, since I wasn't about to ask and I didn't want Lina to have to ask me, so...yeah.

I let Lina get out first—she made a joke about me just wanting to see her ass, I groaned, and she giggled.

When it came time to dry off, I handed her a towel, and she gently tossed one to me...nothing about it felt like I was interacting with a lifelike robot. Every motion, every look, every glance—if it hadn't been for the phone freezing her, her head turning around and her opening her panel, I never would've known she wasn't human.

Granted, who she was meant just as much to me as what she was...

After we got dressed—which saw me nearly try on Lina's top by accident, prompting another giggle fit from her—we both headed back into my bedroom. There was...maybe one girl in the hall, on her phone; she didn't notice either of us, and actually looked kind of nervous—I couldn't tell, since the light was off, but she gave the impression that she was trying very hard to not be noticed by anyone else there.

I wrote it off after a while, and just made my way back to my room with Lina—the matter of what she was had already been firmly established. Now, it was time to ask who she was....

Right off the bat, she clarified that she didn't even have a last name yet. “I've had a few, over the weeks,” she admitted, “but those are just in case I get stopped. I've been working on getting some new papers made, for legal reasons...” She rolled her eyes. “Other than that, I can't really complain.”

“And you live with....the one who made you?”

Lina nodded. “I don't mind calling her my 'owner',” she admitted. “She doesn't treat me like I'm 'hers', either...she lets me do my thing, as long as I don't get in trouble.”

“...and your own thing is....”

“Shopping, hanging out, looking for work...” Lina shrugged. “The party thing—me going with her from party to party, like this one.....that's a bit more recent.”

“Sounds like a pretty decent arrangement...what's the catch?”

“The 'catch' is, I don't advertise my true nature or get in trouble.” Lina sighed. “I've done a pretty good job at both...or at least, I was doing a good job at both, until you kinda sorta maybe forced me out of the first one today—not that I'm complaining, or anything.” She grinned. “Like I said, you did me a favor by using FCon back in the bathroom.”

I nodded. “I'm still trying to get that into my skull, y'know...why the Hell is the inside of my mouth so damn dry?” Lina looked a bit concerned, but I waved it off. “...I'll just head to the kitchen, real quick...get a bottle of water or something to drink, then be right back...feel free to, ah, check out my books if you want!”

Lina nodded, heading over to the shelf and picking one at random.

True to my word, I headed back to the kitchen to get two more bottles of water—that nervous-looking redheaded girl from before was just standing around, not really talking to anyone—and then headed back to my room. Lina was back on the bed, still reading. “Welcome back,” she beamed, accepting the second bottle. “I would've finished the first...”

“I figured this would be better than cigarettes...I don't smoke anyway.” I shrugged. “So, now that we, ah....”

“Know each other intimately?” Lina offered.

“Yeah, that.....what now?”

“Well,” Lina replied, “there was a bit more to me offering to go a second time.” She set the book aside and motioned for me to sit next to her on the bed again. “Before the whole transfer of ownership thing could be completed—”

“You needed a sample of viable genetic material from me?”

Lina frowned. “....what?”

“....sorry, it's just....I watch a lot of sci-fi shows, read a lot of novels....I just thought—”

Lina cut me off by kissing me on the cheek again. “I get it. I've watched a lot of shows and read a lot of novels too, y'know...Lucy doesn't just have me march around the house cleaning up after her all the time.”

“Lucy ....your owner?”

“Mm-hmm. Like I said, she's starting on another project—no clue what it is, but it's probably another A.I./android thing, and she can only have one with her at a time...” She draped an arm around my shoulder, grinning. “The whole idea of party-hopping to find someone for me was....a mutual concept,” she admitted. “I didn't have a problem with it, and she thought it'd be an interesting test.”

“So she decided to try out your social interaction by...party-hopping.”

“Let me put it this way, Matt. If you'd met me out there, in the crowd with the rest of those people, without the phone....would you have been able to guess I wasn't human?”

“.....in all honesty, no.” I chuckled. “I still find that just....amazing, y'know...”

Lina nodded. “....and all of this, going from one party to another, getting with guys....I've never been able to ask any of them what I'm about to ask you, because we never really got that far, so....” She put her hands on my shoulders, staring into my eyes. “....do you accept me for both who I am and what I am?”

I didn't hesitate. “Yes. I accept you for both.”

“And you're not just saying that because—”

“Lina,” I cut in, “from the moment we....ah....” My bravado faltered a bit. “....ever since we met each other, over in the bathroom, and since we've been talking in here, I've been thinking about nothing but spending more time with you, getting to know you—and getting to know how to fix you, how to make sure you're running at peak efficiency, how to upgrade you if at all possible...and most importantly, just being with you.”

To my surprise, Lina's eyes were brimming with tears—I thought, at first, that I'd massively botched it and said something completely insensitive, until I noticed she was still smiling. “Really?”

“......yeah. Really.”

Without another word, she wrapped me in a hug. “.....thank you, Matt.”

“Yeah, well...” I couldn't think of anything meaningful to add, so I just returned the embrace, letting her weep tears of joy into my shoulder. A few minutes passed before we broke the embrace; Lina dried her eyes, the smile still on her lips as she did. “ Lucy is going to flip out....”

“Hopefully, in a good way...” I retrieved the phone. “I'm still wondering....”

“The other eleven signals?”

I frowned. “....you some kind of psychic, too?”

Lina stuck her tongue out at me, which I found irresistibly adorable. “I've been thinking about them, too, to be honest...if my arousal levels hadn't been at the top of my priority queue, I'd have pinged one or two of them, maybe fired off a wireless question asking who they were with...”

“But first you had to go sort out the 'me so horny' problem,” I finished. “Which led to...”

Lina mussed my hair and giggled. “How many of those stories on the forum end this way?”

“Before I answer that, tell me this: have you been on the forum before?”

“A few times, always as a 'guest'....I actually thought about signing up, but Lucy told me it'd probably be a bad idea to pass off selfies of myself as 'photo manipulations'....” Lina took another swig from the second water bottle. “Said she'd send me to Reclamation if I ever tried to intentionally damage myself for a 'photo op', too.”

“....Reclamation?”

“Long story, I'll explain later.” Lina nodded at the bookshelf. “So....you said you're a writer?”

“Aspiring writer. There's a difference.” I chuckled. “Aspiring writers are lucky if they get anything published, especially if they have to worry about relatives always pitching lame ideas and proposing 'their ways' of rewriting old TV shows...” I crossed to the other side of the shelf, returning with the Inspiration Notebook—or rather, the current year's “edition” of the series of notebooks that I'd written down my most interesting dreams in, occasionally working them into ideas. “All of these are mine,” I explained, handing it over to Lina. I watched her thumb through the notebook, nodding her approval. “And you've turned all of these into books?”

“Short stories, mostly....but I did get one novel written, based on my dreams.” I pointed to a novel on the top shelf, with Dreams of a Steel Falcon written in one of those “retro-futuristic” fonts on the spine. “Took a while to work everything into a coherent 'plot', and all that...but once I managed to hammer out the basics, it all came together pretty quickly.”

Lina got off the bed and picked up the book, flicking through it in record time. For a first novel, it was kind of...I guess the best term would be “elementary”. It's a standard kind of story—small-town guy longs to meet a girl, small-town guy meets girl who just so happens to be on the run from dark forces, girl turns out to be the last hope for her people, girl turns out to be an incredibly powerful android....okay, maybe not all of it was standard, but it did draw comparisons to a few other works (all of them favorable, thankfully). Once Lina closed the book—about twenty-five seconds later—I sat down by her. “Well?”

“...you could tell I was reading it that fast?”

“Call it a hunch...seriously, though, what did you think?”

“Well....” Lina handed me the book. “I liked it. The pacing was...off, in a few parts, and at least a few of the secondary characters were kind of....I dunno, annoying, maybe?”

“The salesman,” I muttered. “That salesperson alien who talks like a used-car dealer.”

Lina actually snorted as she giggled. “...I wasn't gonna say anything...”

“Every review—Every. Single. Review—has mentioned that one character.” I flipped to the page where said character first appeared. “He was supposed to just be a one-off, but....I kept thinking of more and more stuff for him to say, how he'd react to others....he just sort of got away from me.”

“Well, he didn't completely wreck the story,” Lina assured me. “The one friend of the main character was kind of nice.”

“If it's the one I think you're talking about...” I rolled my eyes. “I actually made the local news when this was published,” I added. “The real irony there is that I stopped watching the local news way the Hell back in 2015....well, after things got a bit....stupid....”

I felt Lina's hand on my arm. “You don't have to go into details about it if you don't want to.”

“....thanks.” I headed back to the other side of the shelf, picking up a rather thin binder. “And these,” I stated, “are the only ideas my brother ever put down to writing before he got pissed off at me and decided to throw himself back into his desk job just because I tried to give him a bit of constructive criticism.”

Lina took her time reading the binder, occasionally making a face at what she found on the pages. “...he actually wanted to write books based on these ideas?”

“He wasn't even thinking of books,” I scoffed. “He was thinking of TV series, or even movies....”

“....of this?!” Lina recoiled at one page in particular—I knew exactly which one.

“Apparently, he thought his 'vision' was a lot better than what any fans of the show 'ever knew they wanted'.” I couldn't help but think back to when he'd pitched the idea to me, how proud he seemed to be of it...and how oblivious he was to the fact that only he would ever find his interpretation of that particular show to be anything remotely resembling “entertaining”.

Lina flipped a few pages ahead. “.....this page is all just...sentences.”

“Oh, that one...” I sat down next to her, going over each line and shaking my head. “He thought it'd be a great idea to take the 'GDAF' approach to reworking the show.”

“....GDAF?” Lina echoed, frowning.

“Grim Dark As Fuck.” I rolled my eyes. “And he never had full outlines, for his ideas, or bullet-point lists of personality traits and such for his characters....he could never nail down anything like that. I had five folders' worth of notes for Dreams of a Steel Falcon, and damn near everything from those made it into the book....” I gestured at the binder. “..all he could ever come up with was that.”

“...well,” Lina admitted, “there's....a glimmer of what might be a sliver of a decent idea, buried in all of this...I mean, if he took his time and made notes, he might actually have something worth working with.”

“....you really think so?”

“Well, if he put some time into it, definitely...” She gently set the binder down on the bed. “....just, not that.”

“You've summed up in five minutes what I tried to tell him for five years.” I chuckled. “He probably wouldn't take your advice anyway...the only thing he ever wanted to hear in relation to his efforts was 'I'd watch it', or 'I'd buy it on DVD'. I tried to tell him—dozens of times—that nobody was going to watch what he wrote...” I picked up Dreams of a Steel Falcon again. “....when this got published—I mean, not right after, because right after it hit the shelves he was all 'Glad for you, bro', slap on the back, stuff like that....but then he actually read it.”

“...and?” Lina was perched on the edge of the bed, wide-eyed.

“He was pissed. And I mean royally pissed. He just 'couldn't get' why people actually liked what I wrote. After a few weeks he went back and basically regurgitated his own ideas into what he claimed to be a novel—changed all the names, but if you knew what to look for....anyway, he went to my publisher, asked if they'd release his book, too.”

“What'd they say?”

“Laughed his ass out of the building. He set his manuscript on fire in the sink that night.”

Lina looked genuinely sorry for him. “....that must have been terrible for him...”

“He says he got over it...I have my reasons to doubt him.” I sighed. “Y'know....you're not acting at all like....GOD, this is going to sound so stupid....”

My hesitation seemed to brighten Lina's mood. “I won't think you're stupid for asking it...I don't act like what?”

“....like a robot!” I actually laughed. “You're using contractions when you speak, you don't just sit there and stare at the wall when you're done talking, you move like a real person...” I shook me head at the sheer weirdness of it—“it” being either my situation or the fact that Lina was the least robotic gynoid I'd ever...encountered, pretty much (not to mention the first).

“Would you prefer it if I act. Like. A. Robot?” Lina's voice went into a deliberate monotone as she spoke, stiffly rising from where she'd been sitting on the bed.

“I'd prefer it if you act like you.” I ignored the growing, ah, enjoyment of her brief performance. “Not some..blatantly fake robot act, or anything, but just you.”

Midway through a halting, robotic step towards me, Lina stopped. “....really?”

“....yeah. Really.”

Any tenderness the moment might have had was lost when the door flew open to reveal...that girl I'd seen in the hall, on the way back from showering off. Lo and behold, she was also one of the two guests who'd barged into my room earlier, when the party was just getting started. “Ah, hi....” I arched an eyebrow at her.

“....this isn't the bathroom...” She glanced over her shoulder, as if regretting being in the house at all.

“Just take a left from here and you'll find it.”

“.....thanks.” She turned on her heel and pulled the door closed; a few seconds later, the bathroom door slammed shut, and the taps on the sink were turned on.

“Well....” I returned my attention to Lina. “That...happened.....” I let my words trail off as I noticed her hands on my shoulders. “Like I was saying...I prefer you acting like you.”

“.....y'know, Matt,” Lina admitted, “I prefer acting like me, too.” She grinned, drawing me closer to her....

….and the door flew open again. This time, it was some guy—the one who'd walked into my room earlier, with the redhead. “....did a girl just come this way asking where the bathroom is?”

“....slim, red hair?”

“You saw her?”

I nodded. “She's in the bathroom now.”

“Right, thanks...” The guy closed the door, apparently not interested in the fact that he'd interrupted such an intimate moment between Lina and myself.

“....so, now that that's over—”

Lina gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “I think we should save the rest for later,” she murmured. “Otherwise we'll just keep getting interrupted....unless you want to just lock your door.”

“Can't. Long story.” I sighed, remembering how the old doorknob had broken and actually locked me into my own room once, forcing my dad to bust out the sledgehammer to bash it off. “The door to my brother's room doesn't lock either, though you can blame Mom for that one...her way of settling an argument between us over taking each other's stuff. She didn't talk to us about it, or offer some other way of mediation....she just had Dad go and saw off part of the door frame so the door couldn't actually lock.”

“....that sounds kind of stupid,” Lina admitted. “I mean, Lucy doesn't have a problem with me having my own room, at her place—“

“And I wouldn't have a problem letting you have a room here, either.” I assured her. “Once the paperwork is sorted out, and all that stuff....and you're positive that she wants me to...ah, 'have' you?”

Again, Lina rested her hands on my shoulders. “I think even she'd realize that you're the best possible choice, Matt.”

“Well, I guess I can take that as good news.” I tried for a smile again—judging from Lina's reaction, I managed to actually get it right, instead of looking like I was shot up with Botox. “The weird thing is, I thought this whole party would just be friends of my brother, and friends of his friends, all that crap....”

“I think your brother works for a firm that does business with the Institute,” Lina explained, glancing at the chair by my computer desk; I nodded, and she took a seat. “Lucy didn't give me a lot of details, but she did say that she wanted to talk to him for a bit, maybe get an estimate on....something, I dunno.”

“And yet she's passed-out drunk outside.”

Lina giggled. “She might've just messed with the smartwatch to make it read that way...in any case, your brother never really went out and mingled with people apart from telling everyone not to break stuff or steal anything.”

“He doesn't really do parties this big,” I explained. “He's got his own place—a small apartment in the city—so he had to talk me into doing this one here, and I kept coming up with excuses not to, but it didn’t matter...” I shrugged. “At least he didn't go out there and act like the whole thing was my idea...” I let my words trail off. “Do you, ah....hear that?”

“....the sink still running in the bathroom?” Lina cocked her head a bit.

“Yeah. That girl turned the taps on when she went in...”

“Maybe she's washing her hands,” Lina offered.

I didn't immediately respond to her guess. Instead, I headed for the door, opening it as quietly as possible and making my way to the bathroom....the door of which was wide open. Lo and behold, the girl wasn't there, nor was the random guy who'd barged into my room looking for her. “....everything okay?” Lina was at my side in an instant.

“....they left. The girl and the guy.” I frowned. “Something's going on, here....”

“Maybe she just called him and told him she didn't feel comfortable being here anymore,” Lina mused. “Or maybe she got sick...it could've been anything.”

“....maybe.....” I turned off the taps. “...something about this....”

Lina guided me back to my room. “....whatever it is, I'm pretty sure we won't have to worry about it.”

“I'm not so sure....they were in my room earlier, before I went into the bathroom, but they walked out before I could ask what they were looking for. My phone kind of went off...that's why I had it out in the bathroom, even when I was, ah...”

“I get it.” Lina rolled her eyes. “You don't think...”

I shrugged. “Wasn't even thinking about it at the time, to be honest. I'd seen them when they first showed up, maybe said 'hi'.....after that, I was just kind of on autopilot.”

“Well, maybe...” Lina paused, frowning.

“Something wrong?”

She nodded to the window—which had been blocked off by a gray plastic cabinet meant to hold clothes. “I think you might want to break up the 'party' outside.....”

I groaned, heading for the bathroom (again). “Back in a sec!” Sure enough, some idiots had started fighting in the backyard; someone had gone to intercept the Frisbee and “accidentally” grabbed someone else's girlfriend's ass.

“Oh, GOD....this is...this is just unbelievable. There's a fight. It's ending with a fight.” I chewed my lip, shaking my head as the stupidity unfolded. “I knew...I just knew that if we had a party here, it was going to end with a fight....”

“Everything okay?” I hadn't heard Lina enter the bathroom. “I thought for a second that you'd gone outside...”

“No way in Hell am I going to try to break that up.” I nodded at the two jock-types beating the piss out of each other on the grass. “I happen to like having functional kidneys....and more are joining in.”

Lina craned her neck to get a better look, frowning. “What even happened?”

“One of the idiots went to grab the Frisbee, got a handful of ass instead.” I'd already turned away from the window.

“Did you see which girl it was?”

“....ah, the one with the white tank top, the star tattoo above her ass and the long black hair.”

Lina focused on the girl in question, standing away from the fight and looking concerned. “....I think she might be one of the eleven.”

“.....you're shitting me.”

“I'm not—also, you really need to cut back on the swearing.” Lina's eyes—now glowing a soft green—narrowed.

“And what's with the Demon Headmaster routine?”

“I'm trying to scan her, not hypnotize her.” After a few seconds of staring, Lina nodded. “Yeah, she's definitely another gynoid. Can't get a make, model or manufacturer, but she's on the WiFi now, trying to contact her owner.”

“.....so the guy she's here with isn't her owner?”

“My guess is, he borrowed her for the party....” Lina frowned. “Also, she's probably going to need a recharge soon.”

“Ah, while I'm thinking about that...how are you faring on that regard?”

Lina glanced at me, grinning. “Topped up before I left with Lucy. I won't poooooowwwwweeeeeeeeerrr......” She froze in place for a moment, and I nearly reached out to tap her shoulder to see if she was okay—all the better that I didn't, because she stuck her tongue out at me again. “Sorry, couldn't resist.”

“....I'm starting to think you've read a lot more from the forum than you let on....”

“You can't say you didn't enjoy that...” Lina smirked, allowing her gaze to wander below my belt line.

“Twice in one day is enough, I think. For now, we need to—”

Further down the hall, someone let out a battle cry and charged—not towards the bathroom, thankfully, but through the kitchen and living room. “....oh, Hell....”

“Who was that?” Lina asked, frowning.

“My brother. And I'm pretty sure he has either the tennis racket, the bat or the 9-iron....” I nearly charged out of the bathroom to go stop him, but Lina's hand on my shoulder convinced me otherwise. “Let's just wait until all of that dies down, then we can go wake Lucy up...or I can, at least.”

“....fair enough. Also...you've actually seen The Demon Headmaster?”

“ Lucy has the whole series on DVD.” Lina grinned. “She has...eclectic tastes—”

Something hit the wall under the bedroom window from outside, causing Lina to flinch and me to almost fall over ass-backwards. “The HELL?!”

“I think everyone's trying to leave at the same time...” Lina tried to get a better look—only to duck down just before that stupid Frisbee smashed into the window. “I'll go check on Lucy, make sure she's okay...”

“Good call. I'll go make sure the cat is safe—she's probably hiding under the bed, what with all the randos around...”

“You have a cat?”

“Lucy's not allergic, is she?”

“I don't think she is...” Something else hit the window. “I'll go check on her, you go check on your cat.”

“Right.” Lina and I ran out of the bathroom—Lina heading right, at the end of the hall, with me taking a left turn.

As predicted, the cat was hiding under the bed in what, years prior, had been the master bedroom. With my dad out of state and my mom...well, with her also out of the house on a permanent basis (not dead, if anyone cares), the room had yet to be fully cleaned out. Mom's books had long since been given away, and Dad had taken his essentials (CPAP gear included) with him, but the bed—or rather, beds—were still there.

The cat was, indeed, hiding under them, not so much stressed out or panicking as she was bored.

“....good call, cat,” I muttered, nodding and giving a thumbs-up to the cat.

Predictably, the cat just stared back at me, as she tended to do when she was thoroughly uninterested with things.

I headed into the living room, hoping that Lina and Lucy were okay....

...and giving a quick “yes!” as the side door opened to admit Lina back into the house. “Lucy's up, now,” she stated. “I told her about, well....” She grinned.

“I get the idea. She's okay with it?”

“She is, but there's some paperwork to fill out before it's over with—it'll probably take a few days to sort. Three, at the most....anyway, you'll only have to sign one thing. How's the cat?”

“Hiding under the bed.” I chuckled. “Her standard procedure when she gets bored, or just wants to chill out.”

“Kind of reminds me of Lucy,” Lina giggled. “Except she goes to her office instead of under the bed...” The sound of many feet rushing across the carport cut her off. “.....guess everyone's on their way out, now.”

“Hopefully before....” I groaned; my brother had managed to get in between the two meatheads who'd been fighting earlier, and was now capering around with the 9-iron like a deranged Musketeer, swiping at one of the guys. The girl Lina had identified as another gynoid was trying to talk him out of it; another girl (presumably the girlfriend of the other pissed-off jock) was carefully moving past the fracas, heading for one of the cars still parked on the grass and grabbing her boyfriend's arm. “....guess they've already had enough.”

Lina nodded. “Probably...and your brother is chasing the other one back into the yard....”

“Oh, for fuck's sake....” I nearly charged past Lina, but again, her hand on my shoulder was all the persuasion I needed to stay put. “....you, ah, might want to go join Lucy in the car,” I muttered.

“Trying to get rid of me?” Lina teased.

“Not so much that as I don't want you to get caught up in the rush of idiots peeling out in the grass...my dad would get pissed, if he was here......”

Lina gently turned me away from the door. “Just for the record....this has been awesome.”

“And it'll stay awesome once the paperwork is signed, I hope...”

Lina's smile brought back that “heart leaping into the throat” feeling again. “It will.” She leaned forward and gave me the best goodbye kiss I'd ever received in my life (and the only one that was lip-to-lip, what with the rest having been from relatives). “I'll see you again in a few days.”

“Ah....we could....maybe e-mail each other, between now and then....” I fumbled for a piece of paper and a pen.

Lina smirked, glancing at my pocket—and something in it started vibrating. “...the Hell?!”

“I left my e-mail address on your phone. Don't share it.” With one last, playful grin, she gave me a quick peck on the cheek, then turned to head out the door, giving a no-look wave as she walked away. “Bye for now!”

“....yeah....ah, bye for now!” I nodded, throwing a quick “Love you!” in at the last minute; Lina turned, acknowledging it with a smile and a mouthed “Love you, too”. I didn't watch her go up to Lucy's car, choosing instead to go fall over on the sofa, replaying the events of the past hour or so in my head. Just on a hunch, I looked at my phone—sure enough, there was Lina’s e-mail address, as well as—to my surprise—a picture of Lina in the “Photos” section, along with plenty of FCon confirmations, including some from the past few minutes...weird stuff indeed. From now on, things were going to be interesting...and I had no idea just how interesting they'd get, in the coming days.....

Part 2

To this day, I still can't believe that me not having a smartphone would've been one of the best things to ever happen in my life. The fact that the phone I got ended up landing me the girl of my dreams (in more ways than one) is even more insane....it took me a while to stop expecting that I'd wake up one morning and find that it was all just some weird-ass dream I'd been having. Thankfully, it wasn't.....anyway, where was I? Oh, right...

Lina had just left my house, and I was on the sofa, still in a blissed-out daze as to what had transpired. My brother, after chasing off the last two party-goers with a 9-iron, proceeded to utterly ignore me in favor of pacing around the living room ranting about a bunch of random topics I barely paid attention to. Eventually, he either picked up on the fact that I wasn't listening or got bored and stalked off to his makeshift room—I say “makeshift” because, ever since he got a job, he'd managed to find himself an apartment uptown and spent more of his time there, only showing up to help with the bills and make sure the lease was up-to-date.

As for me....well, after being lost in thought for about half an hour or so, I finally remembered that I did, in fact, have the rest of the day to get through. I went back to doing what I did best—working on my novel and petting the cat, once she'd finally emerged from under the bed.

Dinner, my nightly routine and sleep passed by in a sort of haze...

The next two days were pretty much uneventful. Apart from the usual calls from Mom's old “friends”, offering their blatantly-fake sympathy for her situation (their messages were deleted without a second thought) and a voice message from my brother telling me he was thinking of pursuing charges against one of the “guests” from the party (something about the use of a frisbee as a potentially dangerous weapon), there was nothing too interesting. I did have a great e-mail exchange with Lina, thankfully; according to her, Lucy had no problems with the transfer of ownership, and the paperwork was going well.

The only really weird thing that happened the first day after the party was a black van—not even a van, more like some kind of tricked-out Suburban, really—passing by on the block, doing at least three laps at various points in the day. I had no idea who the Hell would want to decorate a Suburban to look like a stealth van or something, but I didn't really pay any attention to it….

...though I'll admit, I couldn't help but shake the feeling that whoever was driving it was watching....

Anyway, Post-Party Day 1 was uneventful—oh, and I went back to the forum, of course, but...obviously, after having been with Lina, the manips and stories.....none of it really felt the same. I mean, yes, they were well-written and well-made, but knowing what I knew, that there really were androids and gynoids out in the world (or at least gynoids...though somehow, I couldn't really believe that the female of the “species” were the only ones out and about), it kind of lessened the impact of everything available for “consumption”.

So...yeah. Post-Party Day 1....not a lot to write home about.

Post-Party Day 2: the local police decided to show up, on the grounds of a well-meaning complaint from a neighbor in regards to the idiots fighting in the backyard. Thankfully, I wasn't being charged with anything—I had, after all, been otherwise engaged when the fighting had started, and hadn't attempted to actively encourage or promote the brawl, so I was in the clear. I answered a few questions, gave as good a description of the lunkheads who'd been beating the piss out of each other as I could, and generally tried my best to not give any false information.

The only noteworthy thing about that: one of the female officers noticed my phone, and gave me a bit of the old side-eye throughout the questioning. I barely thought anything about it, at the time...Hell, my initial impression was that she might've been apprasing me—as in, making sure I wasn't giving off any obvious vibes that might mean I was lying. In any case, she and the other three officers ended up with plenty of notes, and left without incident.

I did wonder, later in the day, about that one female officer...in the end, I chalked it up to wishful thinking.

Just after the cops left, Doug Kreski—a buddy of mine, who'd missed the party the day before on account of having to tend to a family issue—called me up on the landline. We'd lost touch after high school, and from what I understand, he kinda sorta maybe ended up on a downward spiral...but he'd cleaned himself up and was now dedicated to making amends and pretty much living life to the fullest (and cleanest). “MATT! How'd the party go, man?”

“Pretty well...kind of sucked without you there.”

“Eh, next time I'll show up the day before, camp out in the yard...can't miss it if I'm already there, amiright?”

I chuckled; Doug always had a knack for “out-there” ideas. “Dunno if that's how it works, but....anyway, you didn't miss much. It ended with a fight.”

“Man, your brother can't even throw a party right....anything else happen?”

“Well, I.....ah, I met someone.”

“Whoa, what?! You actually met a girl?!”

“....yeah.” I grinned. “Completely out of the blue. Her name's Lina.”

“Nice! What's she like?”

“In terms of looks, or personality?”

“....uh, both, I guess.”

“Amazing. She's blonde...a few inches shorter than me...as far as body type, she's...beautiful....” I checked my phone, scrolling through to get to the Photos folder where Lina had left her picture.

“Damn, man! Sounds like you landed a real five-star score!”

“She's not just a 'score', Doug. She's nice, polite....she even pointed out everything wrong with Fenton's ideas, but actually said there was potential if he scraped away all the crap....” I chuckled again. “Took five minutes to sum up what I've tried to say in five years.”

“She didn't meet him, did she?”

“She saw him run out with the 9-iron to break up the fight....” I rolled my eyes at the memory. “I actually just finished talking to the cops about it. Nobody's getting charged with anything, but I've got a feeling Fenton isn't going to let it go any time soon. He went on one of his rants last night....”

“Man, Fenton just needs to chill. Doesn't he have a girl of his own?”

“Last time I checked, yeah...hey, ah, I'm not doing anything else important for the rest of the day. You up for grabbing a bite up-town, catching up...all that shit?”

“Hell yeah! Everything's sorted on my end...I'll be there in five!”

“Nice...you've still got the camper van, right? Not the Probe?” Doug, for the past five years, had driven a clapped-out Ford Probe with entirely too many modifications, half of which only he knew how to fix.

“Chris wrecked the Probe two months ago, dude—wasn't really his fault, though.”

“Damn....sorry to hear that. I'll be ready in three. See you later, Doug!” I ended the call, chuckling—Chris Whitaker, Doug's “partner-in-crime” for many years, had a history of driving like a fiend at any given chance. “This should be a fun little interlude....” I glanced at the cat. “You'll be okay here on your own, right?”

The cat, being a cat, just stared at me, looking as bored as usual.

“.....I knew you'd say that.” I grinned. “Just don't claw the recliner too badly, okay?”

The cat yawned at me and curled up on her perch by the front door.

Four minutes later (Doug always has a habit of showing up early if he can help it), a camper van skidded to a stop in the drive way, followed by three honks of the horn. “YO, MATT!”

“GIMME A SECOND, DOUG!” Once my shoes were on and I'd said a quick “bye for now” to the cat (who returned the gesture by just staring at me), I was out the door, giving Dave a high-five/hug combo under the carport. “You,” I declared, “look like you've been seizing the day with a vengeance for the last five years.”

Doug laughed. “You look pretty damn good yourself, man! How's it hangin'?”

“All is well, and all things shall be well.” I gave him another high five, and we both headed back to his van. “SO, where we heading for lunch? You have any preferences, or...”

“We can just hit up a place on Fast Food Alley, man. I'm not picky.”

“Really? I thought you'd gone vegan or something.” I climbed into the passenger side of the camper van.

“I'll just get a salad or something...you can get whatever you want. I'm not a judgemental vegan.” Doug cracked up. “I swear, my girlfriend's ex-roommate, Traye...you can't even have milk, cheese, eggs or meat in the house when she's around! She, like, 'senses the aura' or some crap, and she starts freaking out and moaning, saying she can hear the Earth screaming....weirds me out every time.”

“....'hear the Earth screaming'?” It was such a weird-ass line, I couldn't help but laugh.

“Hell if I know, man....anyway, let's go! I'm starving...”

Fast Food Alley, obviously, isn't the official name of that particular street uptown, but it's the one that fits. Every single chain/franchise food place that has a presence around town has a restaurant on Fast Food Alley—at least a quarter of them are family-owned places, but the rest are all national. The drive was pretty short, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes, at the very most; we ended up settling on a family-owned burger joint, namely because the fries were great, Dave and I both had discounts there, and they didn't have one of those stupid ball pits that snakes like to hang out in.

The phone actually buzzed when one of the girls behind the counter stepped up to take our order; I couldn't help but think even here?, before Doug finished his order and I had to give mine. The girl in question looked...attractive, in a plain sort of way—maybe “plain” isn't the right word for it. She looked kind of like an actress playing someone working the counter for a TV show, or something...kind of a polished, almost “produced” look to her. Whatever the case, Dave and I got our orders down and found a place to sit.

“So,” Doug mused, “this Lina...”

“She's awesome. Read my first book—she had the same reaction as almost everyone else to the salesman...”

“I told you that one was gonna be a standout, Matt!”

“Yeah, well....she didn't complain about it...” I retrieved my phone, scrolling to the picture that Lina had included—more than likely for a situation similar to what I was in right now. “Here's a pic, if you were wondering....”

Doug glanced at the image, his eyes going wide. “Whoa.”

“I'm guessing I understated it when I said she was 'beautiful'....”

“Yeah, you understated it! She's friggin' gorgeous, man!”

“I'm sure she'd take that as high praise...in any case, she's getting some stuff sorted, and she'll be moving in with me in two days. I'll probably let her have Fenton's old room, since he's got that swank place of his own now.” I rolled my eyes at the thought. “So, ah...”

The door chime binged, and I got a nice big dose of déjà vu—the pale, slim redhead and the surfer dude from the day before walked in. Both of them seemed more interested in the girl who'd taken my order (and Doug's); the surfer dude even went so far as to ask for her specifically.

“...you know those two?” Doug asked, frowning as he moved to get a good look at the pair.

“They were at the party yesterday. Barged into my room, twice...first, when it was just starting, then later, when I was talking to Lina.” I watched the pair—they were almost quizzing the girl behind the counter, asking when her shift ended and that kind of stuff....and she obviously didn't want to talk to either of them.

“That dude looks like he's been on some downers, or something,” Doug muttered. “Like he's not all there, y'know?”

“He does look a bit...out of it, actually....” I frowned. “And the girl looks like she doesn't want to be here.”

“I'd rather eat here than at Frenchy's....” Doug cut himself off as another girl—blonde, with her hair in pigtails and looking like a a “Queen of the County Fair” type—approached, bringing our food. “Here you go! And....” She set down a glass of Sprite on the table in front of me, and a glass of water in front of Doug.

“Thanks.” I nodded—and slid my phone back to my side of the table before Doug could catch the FCon notice.

“....so, ah, this Lina...” Doug took a bite of his salad, nodding his approval. “You got, like, any plans for the future with her, or anything like that?”

“...what, you mean like marriage?”

“Well, yeah!” Doug waved his fork for emphasis—thankfully, the tomato on the end didn't fly off and hit anyone. “I mean, don't get pissed, man, but I kinda never really saw you as...I guess, the marrying type....”

“I never saw me as the marrying type either...but that was way before Lina.” I paused to take a few bites of my burger, my thoughts drifting back to how I'd told Lina that I wanted, more than anything, to be with her—and her tearful, smiling reaction to it; I nodded—both at the memory, and at how good the burger was. “I can't imagine life without her, now.”

“Man, you've got it together,” Doug stated, grinning for emphasis. “Your own place, a girlfriend....”

“'My' place,” I echoed, rolling my eyes. “My place that my folks....my dad left me, after '15....all the work put in, and all the times they said Fenton was going to get it, and he goes and gives it to me. I still remember what he said, before he drove off: 'You take care of this place, Matt. You take care of it, like we took care of you your whole life'.”

Doug nodded solemnly. “How's he doin' these days?”

“Not sitting on his ass in some lounge and getting fat on Clams Casino, that's for damn sure.” I took a pull on my Sprite before continuing: “He's out touring the country with Uncle Byron...biking—well, motorcycling, really. They said something about building a cabin up in Washington State, just getting away from it all for a few months.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. Any, ah....news, about....”

“My mom?” I was surprised at how calm I sounded.

“....we don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, man—”

“They've agreed to not call me unless her outbursts end up hurting someone.” I punctuated the statement by taking another bite of my burger and washing it down with a swig of Sprite. “The last time they called was four months ago, just when I was about to be on the news to talk about my new book. Other than that, nothing.”

“...what about the funeral?”

“What, Granddad's, in January?” I scoffed. “She got in an 'altercation' the night before...they revoked her pass.”

“Shit, man....that's....it sucks to hear that, seriously.”

“Eh, well....” I shrugged. “The same time her mental health went on the downward spiral, his physical health went that route. Everyone was surprised at how long he held out, really....”

Doug nodded. “Which one of your cousins tried to say you were a sociopath for not crying at the funeral?”

“Almost all of them from my dad's sister's family. Fenton went and told one of 'em, that one told the rest, and they all think I'm 'emotionally and psychologically unstable'.” I rolled my eyes and reached for a handful of French fries. “If they had as many negative memories of him as I did, they'd know why I didn't cry...anyway. How's everything on your end?”

“Other than my girlfriend hoping she doesn't have to go to court over the stupid lease agreement—”

“What, the one she signed with Traye?” A few fries fell out of my hand. “Her ex-roommate?”

“Traye kicked up a big stink with the homeowners' association, told 'em that Missy's behind on her payments or some lame crap like that. And Traye's brother's cousin's friend is a lawyer, apparently...” Doug threw his hands up. “Hell if I know when it's gonna get sorted—” A few notes of a punk rock song trilled from his pocket. “I bet that's her right now, man.” He sighed, checked his phone... “Damn it.”

“It's her?”

“Worse. The homeowners' association. I gotta take this, man.” Doug got up from his seat, heading for the men's room.

“I'll be here,” I called after him, getting a no-look thumbs-up in return.

Out of boredom, I decided to take a look around the other booths, see who was sitting where—surprisingly, the surfer guy and the redhead had taken a seat near the center of the restaurant. The guy, for some reason, looked like he had no idea what he wanted off the menu, and the redhead kept kicking his shin under the table, doing a pretty bad job of trying to mouth suggestions without looking conspicuous.

He must be on something a lot stronger than downers, I realized. Either that, or....

The redhead kicked the guy in the shin again—and this time, he replied by yelling “What?!” and throwing an arm out.

Now, this would've only caused something of a scene, had it not been for the fact that the same waitress who'd set the plates at the table for Doug and me was walking by, with a full tray of drinks (and cutlery), when the surfer guy swung his arm out—predictably, it caught her in the midsection, she dropped the tray (spilling the drinks in the process), and proceeded to slip on the drinks and accidentally stab herself in the side with a fork on the way down.

The redhead instantly got up from the table, without a word, and headed for the exit, looking like she was about to have a panic attack. The surfer guy, on the other hand, only barely realized that he'd incapacitated the waitress...

...and then, as I was looking from the waitress to him, he looked up at me.

Slowly, as if he'd just realized that I'd caught him in the act (whatever “the act” was), he got out of his seat at the booth, stepped on the waitress' arm (I legitimately thought he must've been on something insanely strong not to notice her) and followed the redhead out to the exit.

As soon as the door chime sounded, I was out of my chair, grabbing napkins to help wipe up the spilled drinks—and, by proxy, keep them from getting to the hole in the damaged waitress's side. Knowing what I did about Lina, I guess I wasn't as surprised that this girl was a gynoid, too. “You okay?”

“...I'm fine....” The wince on her face and in her voice told me the waitress was anything but fine.

“You've got a fork in your side. Pretty sure that's not 'fine' by any standard.”

“What...” The waitress turned, seeing the utensil embedded in her side, and groaned. “I didn't even feel it...”

“Do you want me to, ah....” Considering the implications, I grabbed another fork before making a pulling motion.

“....yeah.”

I wrapped a napkin around my hands (part of me didn't want to get a sudden shock from pulling the fork out), and I did the best I could to cleanly yank the fork out of the waitress's side—the only other customers on “my” side, or in any of the booths closest to where she'd fallen were card-carying members of the Grey Hair Brigade, so none of them saw the sparking hole or the metal underneath her uniform shirt. “....can you stand?”

“....I...think so...”

“Lemme help...” I offered my shoulder, for the waitress to put her arm around, and gently guided her to her feet.

“What's going on here?”

Normally, after hearing that question asked in such a commanding tone, my instinct is usually address the situation (and the speaker) as quickly as possible...but given the fact that I had a damaged waitress gynoid leaning on me for support, I had to take it a bit slower than usual. “The idiot sitting at this booth clocked her in the stomach, and she spilled her drinks and slipped....” I turned, slowly, doing my best to not emphasize the hole in the waitress's side. “And she, ah, accidentally stabbed herself with a fork...”

The woman who'd asked what was going on could've been in her early-to-mid 40s or late 30s, depending on hair, makeup and clothing choices—I'm pretty sure that her smile would've been a lot easier on the eyes than the suspicious stare she'd chosen to focus on me. “And the 'idiot' in question?”

“Left,” the waitress admitted. “There was a girl with him, a redhead....”

“She left first,” I chimed in. “He, ah, left after he noticed that I'd seen him...”

Someone from the other side of the restaurant called out: “I saw 'em both! They were having some kind of argument, and then the guy just swung his arm out and hit your waitress in the stomach!” I wondered, for a second, if he'd heard of the concept of the “indoor voice”.... anyway, the copper-haired 40-something woman—looking distinctly managerial in what I could only guess was a tailored jacket, blouse and fitted, knee-length skirt—nodded. “And you're sure you're not..hurt, too badly, Jess?”

“It's just a scratch, ma'am.”

“I, ah, did my best to wipe up the spilled drinks,” I added. “So, ah, nobody else would slip, or anything.”

The manager regarded me with a look—at that moment, I could tell that she knew I knew what had really happened. “I see. And you are...”

“Matt. Matt Harker.”

Another waitress showed up to help Jess, leaving the manager to talk to me. “...thank you, Mr. Harker.” She turned to walk away, but paused. “I suppose it'd be heartless of me to not show some level of gratitude for how you helped Jess, so...” She turned and handed me a folded envelope. “And I'll have you marked down for bottomless fries on the house for the rest of the year.”

“....thanks, ma'am.” I nodded, shook hands with the manager and stepped aside to let her pass before heading back to my table. The elderly patrons sitting all around gave no indication that they'd understood anything from my exchange with the manager; I had to wonder if any of them even knew that the waitresses were gynoids, or if they even knew what gynoids were.

Doug emerged from the bathroom about three minutes later, shaking his head and looking more than a bit pissed off.

“....everything okay?”

“The homeowners' association needs 'sworn testimony' about my gf making all her payments on time...” Doug half-fell into his seat, groaning. “Man, I'd sell the tires off the van just so I wouldn't have to put up with this...”

“I'm sure you'll get it sorted sooner or later.” I shrugged and took a pretty big bite out of my burger.

“I'd rather not have to sort it, man,” Doug muttered. “How do you put up with it?”

Despite the burger being mere inches from my mouth, I decided to reply. “With what?”

“Your own place, and all that...you don't seem all that stressed about being a struggling writer and having to pay bills all the damn time.”

“Aspiring writer,” I corrected, doing my best not to chuckle. “There's a big difference between 'aspiring' and 'struggling', believe me...I can't even say I'm 'aspiring' anymore, since I did get a book out—and I've got another one on the way, if all goes well.” With that, I finished off my burger and fries. “Well, I'm done—wish we'd had a chance to talk more—”

“S'not your fault, man.” Doug checked his phone again. “I gotta get back to my place anyway...work on my 'testimony'.”

“I'm sure you'll do fine. You want the salad to go, or what?”

The drive back to my place was uneventful—apart from some idiot cutting across three lanes of traffic and getting horns and middle-fingers from everyone else on the road (except Doug). I got back home in one piece, thanked Doug for the drive (we'd split the bill for the meal), and headed back inside to say hi to the cat and get on with the day.

The only other calls I got that day were from my brother—again, mostly him rambling about the idiots who'd been fighting out in the back yard, which somehow turned into a screed on “right of free passage and travel”, and then just went so far off the rails I just stopped paying attention. I actually focused more on playing with the cat than listening to the rest of the call—good on my part, since my brother had to go “do a thing” after a few minutes, and ended the call.

Yet again, I headed back to the forum....and yet again, I felt like it was kind of a letdown, after Lina. The level of creative thought and editing was there, of course, but....

I knew, or at least suspected, that if I posted on the forum about what'd happened with Lina, nobody would believe a word I wrote. Oh, they'd say it was a Hell of a story, of course, but none of them would ever take it for anything remotely resembling the truth...and in all honesty, I wouldn't blame them. There'd been some uproar over some footage from '15, back in that year, something about a courthouse, being proof of “genuine fembots”, but it had died down after the admin nuked the thread on the grounds of not wanting to get sued. I hadn't seen it, personally, but from what I heard from those who did, it was...interesting.

Anyway, apart from lunch with Doug and the thing with the waitress, the Post-Party Day 2 went on, as boring as ever....

...actually, no. Not exactly like the day before.

That black Suburban, the one doing slow laps from the day before, was back—I first noticed it making “stops” all up and down the street at around ten past one. Didn't see anything of the people driving it, but I did notice people in these weird getups exiting the vehicle, asking questions to anyone out in their yards. Once or twice, they'd knock on a door, get an answer, and either leave or commence with the quizzing.

Now, normally, I'd chalk this up to a simple door-to-door campaign, maybe an election-season thing or some kind of fund-raiser, but this...this felt different. It felt ominous.

Somehow, I couldn't shake the feeling that whoever these people were, they might be after Lina and Lucy.

By extension, that might mean they were after me.

The Suburban never stopped at my house, of course—well, didn't pull up the driveway and park, I mean. It did stop in front of the house, four hours later...midway through watching TV, I saw it just...parked there, middle of the road, for a good five minutes or so. Nobody got out, nobody approached the house....

...but I knew that someone was in that Suburban, watching me.

Needless to say, I pulled the shades down and made damn sure the doors were locked after that thing drove off.

I didn't mention the Suburban in my e-mail to Lina that evening—I didn't know if she knew about it, and I didn't want her to panic just because some randos in a Suburban decided to drive around going door-to-door. I didn't even know if they had any connection to Lina and Lucy...whatever the case, I tried not to think about it. Fed the cat, did the usual, ate dinner, went to bed...all the usual stuff.

The only weird thing about that night—the only really weird thing—was the dreams I had. A few of them were pretty interesting, and would've made for some damn good scenes for the novel....but one in particular stood out. I was in a city, somewhere—skyscrapers, dark alleys, the works—and that damn stupid black Suburban was following me. The alleyways and such became a maze, with me running through and trying to find shortcuts to figure out how to put as much distance between myself and that Suburban as I could. Even when I couldn't see it or hear it, I felt like it was following me...it was creepy as Hell, and I wasn't surprised that I woke up in a cold sweat.

Thankfully, the rest of the dreams I had that night weren't nearly as weird—and they went in the Inspiration Notebook.

Post-Party Day 3 started like the rest. Got out of bed, fed the cat, usual morning routine...nothing weird. As soon as I sat down to check my e-mail, though, I knew the day was going to get interesting. Right at the top of the inbox, I saw a new message from Lina.

Title: “Coming Over Today w/Lucy!!!!”

Basically, the e-mail itself elaborated—the paperwork had been finished, and Lucy would be showing up around lunch, probably. Lina even sent a pic of herself and Lucy to celebrate: she was wearing a pink top and white shorts, smiling and giving a sideways “peace” sign to the phone camera. As for Lucy, she looked...bored. I could guess she was around my age, just from the photo; her skin tone was half a shade darker than Lina's, and while Lina had taken her hair out of the ponytail she'd worn it in at the party, Lucy had apparently decided to put hers (dark brown, almost walnut bordering on black), up in one. Her attire suggested someone who'd done the “desk jockey” thing for a while before deciding they hated it—a dress shirt in a sort of neutral grey-blue, glasses, black pants and one earring.

I took another shower, despite having bathed already the night before (I alternate between showers and baths, given the circumstances), and did the best I could to spruce myself up before Lina and Lucy showed up—better to make a good impression on Lucy than come off looking like a total slob....

The cat, naturally, found this routine rather “blah”, and just went about her usual business.

As the clock ticked on, I started to fall into that thought trap of baseless worrying: “what if they got stuck in traffic?” “What if Lucy changed her mind?” “What if they got into a wreck?” “What if...” and so on, and so forth, and lah-dee-fuckin' dah. It's a problem I used to have a lot, before Dad left and Mom....also left; I went to counseling to get over it, and it's never been that bad since then, but I didn't want it to get that bad. Last thing I needed before Lina and Lucy showed up was to look like a babbling fool.

Thankfully, I got my shit together and calmed the Hell down. I decided against dressing full-on corporate casual, and just went with jeans, a good shirt and a quick once-over with the comb, etc.

Just to make a good impression, I ordered out for lunch—pizza, specifically, which I went for as soon as possible so it'd be done and delivered before Lina and Lucy showed up, if at all possible. Thankfully, the delivery guy showed up five minutes before 11 AM (I tend to keep a loose “schedule” in terms of stuff like lunch). I didn't start on my own slices before Lina and Lucy showed up, and pretty much just watched TV, did Internet stuff and kept an eye on the cat.

10 minutes after the pizza guy left, Lucy's car pulled up in the driveway. At least, I assumed it was Lucy's—I hadn't gone out to watch Lina leave on the day of the party, after all...

Thankfully, the first one out of the car was, in fact, Lina. She smiled and waved as she made her way to the side door; she looked as incredible as she had during the party, and just seeing her again brought back those warm, fuzzy, “heart in the throat” feelings from that day. We shared a quick hug when she got to the door...

...a moment only slightly dampened by Lucy calling out “That's him?” from the car.

“Yes,” Lina insisted. “If you hadn't been so out of it the last time we were here...”

Lucy didn't immediately reply to Lina's remarks, choosing instead to give me a glare as she made her way into the front room. She didn't acknowledge the pizza boxes on the kitchen counter, and headed for the sofa instead. “...anybody else around here?”

“Just me and the cat. My brother has a place uptown...he drops by sometimes. Pretty sure he won't be here today.”

Again, Lucy didn't immediately reply. “....you got pizza?”

“Will you stop?” Lina cut in, shaking her head. “You already said he fits the bill for the kind of person you wanted me to be with, so quit acting like he's not worth your time.”

“I never fucking said he wasn't worth my fucking time,” Lucy shot back, turning her glare on me again.

“.....I, ah, didn't know if you'd had lunch yet,” I admitted. “Also, ah...does Lina eat, or....”

“I can eat—it's not essential to my function, or anything, it just helps me blend in.” Lina shrugged. “You want a few slices, Lucy, or....”

“I'll get it myself.” Lucy grunted, pushing herself off the couch and heading for the kitchen

“....is she pissed off at me, or something?”

“She'll warm up to you soon enough.” Lina grinned. “I think she just likes seeing how people react to her, at first...don't ask me why.”

A few minutes later, after we'd all enjoyed a substantial portion of the pizza, we sat back down in the living room—me in one of the recliners, Lina by the computer and Lucy, once again, on the sofa. “You live here by yourself?” Lucy asked, sounding only slightly less pissed-off than she'd been earlier.

“Like I said, my brother drops in from time to time.”

“Parents?”

“Dad moved out of state.....” I gave a quick, humorless chuckle. “Mom got committed to a mental institution.”

Lucy didn't hesitate to follow up on that particular remark. “Why?”

“.....back in 2015, she saw....something on TV. I don't even remember what. She kicked up a big stink, called us into the front room—Dad, my brother and me—and told us we were going to uproot, leave everything behind and move to Nova Scotia to live off the land, or some weirdness like that. She was half-screaming, half-crying the whole time, going on about Satan and the powers of darkness and a war against God....said she wanted to protect us all from Hell, yadda yadda yadda.” I rolled my eyes at the memory. “Dad got up, told her she was full of shit and left in the truck. Turned out he was going to the courthouse and the church to have the marriage annulled.”

Lina looked horrified; Lucy still looked bored. “....and?”

I frowned. “Mom refused to accept the annulment, said Dad was being used by Satan to drive the family apart. Dad put a restraining order on her, she kept showing up. We'd go to holiday get-togethers—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, all that stuff—at relatives' houses, Mom would show up and start ranting.” I stared at the floor, my fists clenched. “I lost a voice-acting gig because she showed up at the studio, waving a crucifix and a Bible and screaming at everybody about how 'her son was being perverted by sin', all that shit....could've made $7,000 off of that one gig, and I had to give it up. Then she chased off my brother's girlfriend, nearly ran her over with a stolen car....”

“And they put her in the padded cell after that?”

I tried to glare at Lucy, but couldn't find the anger. “...Dad, my brother and I all signed off on it. She'd stopped taking her meds for bipolar disorder in favor of spending her nights at church, praying by herself. Whatever she 'heard' on those nights, I'm pretty damn sure it wasn't the Voice of God.”

Lina moved to the other recliner, next to the one I was in. “That sounds horrible....”

I shrugged. “Everyone in the family said Mom was always a little bit off,” I admitted. “Uncle Frank was surprised it hadn't happened sooner.” I scoffed at the memory. “Last time she showed up, after she'd been committed, was when the last of our dogs had died...she showed up in the middle of the night, trying to give a funeral mass over the grave. A neighbor heard the commotion, chased her out of the yard.”

Lucy arched an eyebrow. “....and you haven't heard from her since?”

“Her, no. Her stupid, bitchy 'friends'? All the damn time. They call, trying to offer their 'sympathy', always giving their 'thoughts and prayers'....they're half the damn reason she's in the rubber room now.”

Lina put an arm around my shoulder. “I'm so sorry you had to go through all that, Matt....”

“Eh, she's in high-security now. No chance of escape, unless there's an earthquake or someone raids the place.”

“....so what about you?”

“Aspiring novelist and occasional amateur voice-actor.”

Lucy nodded. “Lina tells me you two fucked—”

“Lucy!”

“.....you two had sex in two different rooms.”

I rolled my eyes. “The bathroom and my room.” I got out of the recliner, sighing. “Follow me....”

A few seconds later, the three of us stood outside the bathroom. “She was standing here, by the towel cabinet, when I triggered Debug Mode on the phone. Asked her what she wanted—”

“I know. You did it standing, right?”

Lina groaned, but I nodded. “Sort of between the cabinet and the back wall of the tub. I asked her to turn her head around, 180 degrees....”

“...why that in particular?”

“It was the heat of the moment! I wasn't about to start reaching for panels or anything like that!” I glanced at Lucy, who was actually smirking at my indignation. “Nothing wrong with a good old twister,” she admitted, nodding. “So after you finished up in there...”

“We went back to my room.” I gestured to the door. “We talked, she went back into human mode...”

Without preamble, Lucy walked past me into my room. Lina just rolled her eyes and followed her in, with me close behind. “....a Sailor Moon figure?” Lucy muttered, picking up the item in question.

“That's S.H. Figuarts,” I shot back. “I happen to like the series.”

“I have the series,” Lucy casually replied. “Blu-ray.” She went over the rest of my collection—books, DVDs, figures, and everything in between. “You ever have anyone else in here?” she inquired. “Friends, casual acquaintances, co-workers, hookers—”

“LUCY!” Lina was obviously pissed off, but also trying her best not to giggle.

“.....Lina was my first time. And my second, obviously.” Lucy's barbs were annoying, but not enough to piss me off like all the stupid crap I'd had to put up with in high school and my first attempt at a job. “Didn't hear any complaints from her.” I glanced at Lina, who nodded.

“.....all right.” Lucy sighed. “Back to the front room.” She brushed past me without a word; I glanced at Lina, hoping for an explanation, but she just shrugged. I decided to let her leave first, following her back to the living room.

By the time we were all situated again, Lucy asked to see my phone. I handed it over, despite feeling a wave of utterly random paranoia that she'd smash the thing on the floor. “....you got this from a co-worker of your uncle,” she mused, scrolling through the apps. “Right?”

“He was trading up to a new model, I got that as a 'starter'.”

“And you never tried to use FCon before the party?”

“I thought it was a joke,” I insisted. “It had never gone off the way it had at the party...and before you ask why I was hiding in the tub, I was in the middle of doing my business—”

“Taking a shit, you mean.”

Lina buried her face in one hand, but I soldiered on anyway. “.....might as well go with that. I was....doing that—well, reading a book after finishing with...that—and the phone went off with a dozen 'confirmed' signals. Then one of them started moving towards the bathroom....”

“So you hid. In the tub.”

“Lucy...” Lina didn't look nearly as pissed off as she sounded. “I already explained all of it to you—and for the record, you're the one who never bothered to check my arousal levels between parties!”

Rather than argue with Lina, Lucy handed me back the phone. “Right. Just a few more quick questions. You get off to reading malfunction scenes before?”

“Yes.” I figured lying at this point wouldn't do me any favors.

“And would you ever intentionally damage Lina for—”

“Hell no.”

“....would you ever alter Lina's personality, erase her memories, or—”

“No.”

I got another arched eyebrow from Lucy, but rather than wait for her to ask another question, I decided to just go for the gusto. “Just because I get off to stuff from the forum, I'm not going to start trying to play that out with Lina. I told her I love her for who she is and what she is, and I'm not going to prioritize one over the other.”

After a few seconds of silence, Lucy nodded. “....didn't even let me get to the questions about girl-girl, but—”

“Lucy....” Lina was flat-out giggling now. “We've been over that before...” She glanced at me, doing her best to keep a straight face. “....if that ever came up, though....”

I held both hands up. “You really, truly want to try it, I won't stop you.”

Lucy was looking at her own phone, now. “Well, unless you've been studying method acting, you're not lying through your teeth, so....” She smirked again. “Lina, do the thing.”

“Which one—”

“You know which one.”

Lina giggled again. “Okay, okay....” She turned to glance at me, whispering “I think you're going to like this, Matt...”

Without another word, she rose from the recliner—in the stiffest, most robotic way possible.

My eyes went wide. My pulse raced. A familiar increase was making itself known below the belt line.

I watched, transfixed, as Lina took a lap around the room, walking in that perfect, staccato robotic walk I'd seen so many times before in videos...except she did it a thousand times better. She even did that thing where she'd jerk a bit after moving, like that “compliance” feature in animatronics. Every second she moved, the air around me seemed to warm up just a little bit more...I couldn't look away.

Lucy was watching, as well—probably still smirking the whole time, especially at what happened next.

After completing her circuit around the room, Lina robotically approached me. Without a word, she spun on her heel, then dropped her butt right into my lap and proceeded to give the sexiest, most robotic lap dance I'd ever seen.

Anyone taking my temperature at that point would've probably thought I'd come down with a massive fever.

I did, in fact, reach out to her a few times during her dance, but somehow, I couldn't bring myself to actually touch her at any point. Nervousness was beginning to take hold, alongside the....stirrings....and I actually glanced at Lucy at one point, unsure of what, exactly, I was supposed to do next.

To my surprise (and relief), she nodded, as if to say “go on.”

Slowly, gently, I reached out to touch one of Lina's legs...and felt something jolt through my whole body. I could feel the motors move beneath her skin...I heard the servos rizzing away with every motion.

Before I could pull my hand away, Lina grabbed it, mechanically dragging it up to her side.

My jaw went slack. Something like “uhhhgwahhhhaahhhh” left my throat. I thought the zipper on my jeans was going to explode if things didn't calm down in that particular department

Lina did a picture-perfect, fully-robotic ass shake before turning on her heel, dragging my hand along her stomach as she dropped (robotically) repeated the motion, and faced me. That calm, patient expression she'd had while in Debug Mode had returned, but now it was subtly giving way to a seductive, playful smirk—all accompanied by those delightful little servo sounds that only served to make my brain think I was in a sauna. She released my hand, allowing it (and that arm) to fall limply by my side, before robotically making her way to the center of the living room. She gave a jaunty salute (or as best she could do while moving like the sexiest animatronic I'd ever seen in my life), winked....and then proceeded to bend at the waist, her arms going limp, in the most textbook display of a “power-down” sequence I'd ever seen.

I nearly fell out of the recliner, a half-conscious “huhh-whaaahhhh” kind of laugh leaving my lips. I could tell I had a mile-wide, nearly delirious grin on my face, and couldn't have cared less. No video from the forum, or from anywhere, had come close to what I'd just borne witness to.

Lucy, now actually smiling, nodded again and snapped her fingers.

Lina straightened, her movements once again lifelike and fluid. “Well? How'd I do?”

“Huuaaahhh....” I was still in the grips of pure, unfiltered bliss from what I'd just seen.

“I think he likes it,” Lucy mused, chuckling. “Might want to give him mouth to mouth, just to be sure...”

Lina shot her a look before turning her attention back to me. “You did like my, ah, routine....right, Matt?”

“.....yes,” I managed, nodding for emphasis. “HELL yes!” My insane-looking grin remained, albeit in a manner that didn't make me look like I'd be better off running around in a purple suit and green hair. “That.....was amazing!”

“Those dancers and mimes try way too fucking hard sometimes,” Lucy drawled. “I mean, some of them are good, I'd say 9 out of 10....some of them don't give a shit, or they lose the rhythm halfway through....” She shrugged. “Figured it'd be nice to see how an actual gynoid could pull that kind of thing off, for a change.”

I glanced at her, then at Lina. “....I'd say.....you did one Hell of a job.”

Lina's smile warmed my heart (and, rather surprisingly, helped to quell the swell below). “I'll take that as good news.”

“As much as I hate being the moment-killer,” Lucy cut in, “you still have to sign a thing...”

“Right, right....” I nodded. “Think you could, ah...” I continued nodding as Lina let me exit the recliner. “That was just...I mean, wow.”

“And she didn't even take your pants off,” Lucy chuckled; Lina stuck her tongue at her. “Just give him the form...”

A tablet PC with the “Paperwork” on it was presented to me, complete with a stylus to actually sign my name. “Easier to carry around than a bunch of loose sheets,” Lucy explained, noticing my hesitation. “And I figured you'd want a pen instead of trying to write with just your finger....”

“Right, right...” I read over the text, making sure there wasn't any “fine print” or anything dodgy like that. With Lina looking on, and Lucy feigning impatience, I signed. “....done.” I handed the tablet back to Lucy, who nodded. “A few things, before I leave. You can tell your dad and anyone else who asks that you've met someone—do not tell them anything further. I'll drop off some repair supplies tomorrow, and all of her documentation. She doesn't come with a remote, and she doesn't need one, either.”

“'She' is standing right here,” Lina reminded her, planting her hands on her hips. “And perfectly capable of hearing you.”

“....in case you couldn't tell already,” Lucy continued, “she has no problems with sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, metaphor or any of that shit. She won't take things literally, she won't misinterpret a request or command and break something, and that extends to you..” She chuckled. “And she doesn't have any wiring or coding errors that'll cause her to strangle you during sex....of course, if you're into that—”

“Lucy...” Lina gave her a warning glare.

“....it's a fucking joke, seriously....anyway.” Lucy nodded. “You need any extra tech support, you call me. You two tie the knot, you let her pick the rings, the venue and the band for the reception...might as well let her handle catering, while you're at it.” She checked her phone again, going over something and muttering to herself; after a few minutes of this, she nodded again. “Lina, you know the rules about open-panel selfies...I see any on Instagram, I'll be here with the screwdrivers in thirty minutes—and you don't encourage her.”

Lina rolled her eyes; I settled for nodding again. “Wouldn't dream of it.”

“Glad to hear it. And if things get too fucked up and you can't fix her yourself...y'know what, I'll just send the address to my place straight to your phone. I always get bored just rattling it off.” She held out her phone, pointing it at mine; as it had when Lina sent me her e-mail address, the phone vibrated—this time, in my hand. “Just bring her to my place, and I'll get her back up and running in no time.”

“Got it. Anything else we need to know?”

“....yeah.” Lucy sat down on the couch, prompting Lina and me to take our seats again. “The guy you got that phone from worked at the Institute, like I do now....key word there, worked. Past tense.”

“....he also worked with my uncle Frank, three months ago,” I mused. “Also past-tense. Haven't seen him in ages.”

“Well, you might want to hope it stays that way. He got in with a weird crowd before he went missing...anyone calls you up, asks if you have his phone, tell 'em to fuck off unless they have proof. Actually, even if they have proof, tell 'em to fuck off.”

“....and why should I tell them to fuck off if they don't have any proof of ownership over the phone?”

Lucy scowled. “Take a wild fucking guess.”

Lina gave her a look. “Lucy....”

Her admonishing talk did little to derail Lucy's mindset. “Those other eleven gynoids at the party? Name anyone else you know who would've had that phone, and wouldn't have called all eleven of 'em into one room for a nice big gynoid orgy.” She rolled her eyes. “...anyway, that phone should've been recalled and wiped before you got it...but seeing as how you didn't go off and have a fembot fuckfest—”

“Lucy!”

This time, Lina did get Lucy to knock it off. “All right, all right...anyway, never let that phone out of your sight.”

“Wouldn't dream of it. And if I need to put Lina into Debug Mode?”

“That's what FCon is for.” Lucy groaned. “I'm not saying you can't use the phone ever again...just be careful with it.”

“Got it....” I glanced at Lina, frowning thoughtfully.

“You've got that look on your face,” Lucy mused. “That 'I have a crapton of questions to ask' look...I see it way too often at the Institute, usually from people who got sloshed instead of studying.”

Lina giggled. “You're one to talk about getting sloshed, after the party...”

“ANYway.” I propped my chin up on one hand. “....I do have a lot of questions.”

“Well, make 'em quick. I need to get back to the campus before 1, otherwise I'll be knee-deep in the shit.”

I nodded. “For starters....the hair.” I reached over, taking a strand of Lina's hair in my hands and letting it fall through my fingers. “Does it need to get cut? Is it just a swapable hair piece, like a wig?”

“Swappable hairpieces, for the time being. I couldn't get the resin-emulsion sub-dermal capillaries to work right....”

Noticing my somewhat glazed-over look, she groaned. “She can't grow her own hair yet.”

“....fair enough.” I nodded. “What about strength, speed, etc....”

“She won't accidentally flatten the cat by petting it or anything like that. Hard-coded limiters.” Lucy smirked. “Even if some rando douchebag hacked her and ordered her to kill you, she'd go into a failsafe loop and shut down, rather than break your neck.”

“....glad to hear it.”

“Nobody's going to try to hack me,” Lina assured me, leaning over to give me a quick hug. “Even if they had another copy of FCon, they wouldn't have my AAP—Administrative Access Permission....I kinda sorta gave you that when I was on the phone in the bathroom, trying to call out to a shop.”

“...you gave me access permission,” I echoed.

“Well, it all worked out in the end, didn't it?”

“...yeah....but how—”

“She could fucking tell your fucking phone had the fucking app on it, so she fucking let you fucking put her in fuckin' Debug Mode,” Lucy snapped, earning an annoyed glare from Lina. “Anyway....”

“What do I do about charging her?”

Lucy glanced at Lina, who prodded at her exposed navel—pushing it all the way in, then drawing her finger (and the “flesh” of her belly button) out to reveal a port. “Her cord's in the car,” Lucy explained. “Don't plug her into a power strip to recharge, it might cause a brownout in your house. Use a wall outlet, or if you've got a generator, you can hook her up directly to that—and obviously, if there's a storm going outside...” Lina covered her charging port again.

“I get it.” I nodded.

“She can bathe herself,” Lucy continued, guessing my next question. “Internal waterproofing is graded for showers, baths, ponds, lakes, swimming pools and even deep-diving up to 100 feet. Anything past that, put her in a wetsuit and a full-face mask. No idea if she can survive crush depth in the ocean, because I haven't run any tests for that yet.”

“Got it.”

“Heat...she'll withstand a sauna, hot cars and an attic in the California summer. Pretty sure she can't tank a direct hit from a flamethrower or any crazy shit like that, but she'll probably last long enough to pull you out of a burning house...I don't recommend testing that theory, by the way.”

“...I'll keep that in mind.”

“Heavy lifting....she can move appliances around without any problems, but only for short periods of time. You ask her to hold the washing machine over her head, it'll drain her a lot faster than normal day-to-day stuff. Like I said, she's got built-in limiters, so she won't go around accidentally breaking shit all the fucking time.”

“Good to know.”

Lucy kept on talking, as if I hadn't spoken up. “She can eat full meals, and snacks, but she has her limits. Don't try any of that 'eat a full pizza in one sitting' shit, or any 'restaurant challenges', otherwise she'll get backed up.”

“...and what happens if she, ah, gets 'backed up'?”

“You call me, I show up here with the proper equipment and I flush out her systems.” Lucy was giving me a Stony Stare that wasn't quite at the “Of Death” level, but was at least incredibly annoyed.

“Got it....” I glanced at Lina. “All this talk doesn't...upset you, or anything, does it?”

Lina shrugged. “I don't have a problem with it, as long as neither of you start calling me 'it' instead of 'she' and 'her'.”

Lucy checked her phone again. “As far as operational capacity goes, it can run for up to—”

Lina threw the Kleenex box at her. “What did I just say?!”

“....just wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention...” Lucy smirked. “...anyway. Back to dietary bullshit. I highly recommend against bringing her to all-you-can-eat buffets, especially shabu-shabu. She has her limits, and I don't want to have to drive out here four times a week just to clean out her internals because you decided to have her try some bullshit ghost pepper wing challenge.”

“Got it....can she actually eat those without problems?”

“Haven't tried it, wouldn't recommend it.” Lucy scrolled down on the phone. “Sex....as long as you don't try anything that risks compromising her structural integrity....or yours....” She smirked. “...you should be fine on that regard.”

“I'll, ah...keep that in mind.”

“One more thing.” Lucy put the phone away, her stare locked onto me. “I already said you can tell your relatives, friends, all that shit about who Lina is, but not what she is. That goes double for randos and triple for 'the forum'. There are a lot of fuckheads out there who'd pay top dollar for 'something' like her...or they'd pay top dollar for some other fuckheads to just go out and steal her.”

“Don't advertise.” I nodded. “Got it.”

“We'll be fine, Lucy,” Lina insisted. “I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself.” She grinned.

“....yeah, well, I just don't want to see you stripped for parts or any shit like that.” Lucy left the sofa again, stowing the phone and tucking the tablet with the form under one arm. “Also, you two split the chore duties 50/50. She's not your maid, you're not the butler, got it?”

“You can still get me a maid outfit if you want,” Lina whispered, giggling.

Lucy tried for another frown, but ended up just smirking instead. “I have a feeling that you two will have a great thing going, and I'm just doing everything I can to make sure you don't fuck it up. I didn't put months of effort into writing, designing and building her just to dump her off on some rando who'd use her up and throw her out—”

“Which I won't.”

I don't know what it was about how I said those words, but Lucy actually smiled again. “You've got a good head on your shoulders, your heart's in the right place, and you're not thinking with your dick—”

“Lucy....”

“I'm just fucking with him, Lina...it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the two of you belong together. “ Lucy nodded, turning towards the door. “I'll go get the charging cord and a few other basics, and then I'll be on my way, so you two lovebirds do whatever you want to do.”

“Ah, before you go....I was just wondering.”

Lucy groaned. “If it's about positions—”

“More like papers. Social Security card, birth certificate, driver's license, proof of insurance...all that stuff.” I glanced at Lina. “Does she have all of that in order, or....”

Lucy regarded me with a frown. “You really think I'd design, program and build a sentient gynoid without giving her the proper papers?”

“....well, I, ah.....” I shrugged. “None of the stories on the forum ever really bring that aspect of it up!”

Again, Lucy groaned, striding over to the sofa and flopping down. “Yes, she has all of her papers in order,” she stated, her face half-buried in a cushion. “She's on file and all that....has a license, she's passed her driver's test, and she can probably help you with the bills and all that stuff, too.”

“....and if I was to, say, transfer the lease on the house to Lina and myself, instead of just me?”

“Who's the co-owner?” Lucy had re-positioned herself to where she was actually sitting on the sofa properly.

“My dad.”

“Your brother's not on it?”

“He lost out on that when he got his own place uptown...he thinks he's still on the lease, for some reason or another.”

“Well, you can put Lina on it in his place, then.” Lucy checked her phone, scrolling few a few screens. “Every possible paper she'd need is in order, and I've got all the necessities in a lockbox in the car....” She chuckled. “To be honest, I'm actually glad you're getting into all of the details here...most of the guys Lina's met at parties before are less focused on her financial situation and more on her—”

“Don't,” Lina warned, looking equally pissed-off and amused.

“...you don't even fucking know what I'm about to say.....” Lucy rolled her eyes. “Anyway. While I'm thinking about it, don't let her go apply for fifty credit cards or any shit like that. I'm still working on getting all of her paperwork into the system—for instance, if you let her get a job or something—but if anyone decides to do a little digging, they'll look...off.”

“Right.”

“So, unless you've got any other massive, boring-ass questions to ask me, I need to get back to the Institute and spend the rest of the day doing boring, important shit that I swear I've told half my colleagues how to do whenever I'm not around...seriously, is it in one ear and out the other with those people, or fucking what, I never know....” Lucy shook her head. “Anyway. I'll get the paperwork and the cord, and you two try not to fuck each other bow-legged while I'm out—”

“LUCY!” Lina gave Lucy a half-hearted shove, trying not to giggle too much.

“We'll do our best.” I managed to keep a straight face. “And, ah....thanks, Lucy. For all of this.”

“Eh, it's nothing....common courtesy, all that shit.” Lucy shrugged. “Lina....you know the drill. You two need anything, you call me, okay?”

Lina nodded. “We will.”

Lucy headed back to her car, leaving Lina and I to contemplate our future together. “....so, this is it, then?” I asked, surprised at how calm I sounded. “We're....together, now?”

“Pretty much,” Lina beamed. “I'm yours—”

I held up a hand. “....this thing about 'ownership'.....I've never been a fan of it. I'm with you because I want to be with you, and I'm really hoping that you're with me not just because of the 'transfer of ownership', but because you want to be with me....”

Lina didn't hesitate. “I do.”

That was all I needed to hear. “....then that's all there is to it.” I smiled, Lina smiled, we leaned closer....

“Could you two not even wait until I leave?” Lucy complained. “Seriously, let me fucking drive out of here before you get your freak on...”

“Lucy!” Lina was full-on giggling. “We were just having a moment...”

“Well, keep your moment until I get out of the fucking driveway...” Lucy handed me the charging cord and the lockbox, doing a pretty damn good job of not smiling. “If I have to explain which end of the cord goes where—”

“You don't.”

“.....well, just to be sure....” Lucy nodded at Lina. “You know the drill.”

Lina rolled her eyes, but nodded and pulled up her top to expose her navel; all the while, Lucy was unspooling the cord, nodding to me. “Find an outlet, plug it in, all that good stuff....”

“Right, right.” I found an outlet behind the sofa that wasn't being used, and plugged it in.

“And the other end goes....here....” Lucy inserted the other end into the port formerly covered by Lina's navel—which caused Lina to instantly stiffen, her eyes taking on a soft blue glow. “Charging mode initiated.”

“....eyes front, cowboy.” Lucy smirked. 'Like I said, wait until I get out of the driveway....”

“I know.” I watched as the glow in Lina's eyes pulsed, apparently in time with the charging cycle. “...can she...hear us, and all that?”

“Say something stupid and see.” I didn't even have to look at Lucy to tell she was grinning like a fiend.

“....yeah, I don't think I'm gonna try that....”

I felt Lucy's hand on my shoulder. “I also suggest you not try any other....extracurricular activities while she's charging, since it might royally fuck up her systems....pretty sure you're not gonna want that to happen.”

“I won't. Believe me I won't.”

“Charging complete.” The end of the cable popped out of the port in Lina's navel, with her hand going up almost instantly to recover the port. Her eyes were back to normal, without the glow, and she glanced my way with a playful grin. “So....you like?”

“I like.” I nodded. “Lucy.....thanks for everything.”

“Not a problem.” Lucy actually shook my hand. “Just remember all the important shit, and you'll be good to go.” A bit of the smile managed to break through her scowling. “Lina....stay safe.”

“Pretty sure I won't have any problems in that regard.” Lina grinned at me, then at Lucy—that smile of hers damn near lit up the room.

“Good. Well, I'm out of here...tight schedule, shit to do...” I could tell that, despite her laying on the sarcasm, Lucy was more than happy for Lina, and she'd at least come around to accepting that Lina and I did indeed belong together. “You need anything else before I come back with the gear, call me...” She glanced at me over her shoulder, giving me one last fake-pissed off look. “Got it?”

“Got it.” I nodded. “And thanks.”

“....ehhh.” Lucy waved it off, but it didn't take a body language analyst to tell this was the kind of outcome she'd been hoping for with Lina all along. We both waved goodbye, which she reciprocated by flashing the peace sign before getting back in her car.

“Well,” I mused, my arms around Lina's waist, “it looks like this is the start of something awesome for the two of us.”

“Not just awesome,” Lina murmured. “Something epic.” She gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “Your brother won't mind if I, ah...”

“He barely does anything with the room anyway. I'll call him tonight, explain things—well, enough for him to not have to ask any questions—and tell him he can come by and pick up his shi......his stuff tomorrow.” I returned the favor for the quick kiss with one of my own. “After that—” The phone rang, prompting a groan from me, but Lina turned my head to focus on her. “It can wait,” she whispered. “I want you to plug me in again.”

I glanced at the cable—still plugged into the wall outlet. “....right. You want to open the port, or....”

Lina's glance downward, and that gorgeous smile—was all the hint I needed. Slowly, I pressed inwards with my finger, and the plug of artificial flesh popped out. Lina's eyes closed, and she drew in a sharp breath.

“.....are you sure you want to—”

“Yeah.” She nodded, grinning. “It didn't hurt, or anything...I just...I can't describe how it feels.”

I plugged in the cord—instantly, she stiffened again. “Charging Mode active.”

“....can you hear me?”

“Yes.” Slowly, robotically, she turned to regard me. “Would. You. Like. To. Do. More?”

My eyes went wide, as did the expected appendage below the belt. “.....I, ah....”

Even as her eyes glowed, a smile slowly spread across Lina's lips. “You. Can. Unplug. Me. Now....”

I took the plug out, slowly—and Lina's arms were instantly around my shoulders. “As fun as that was,” she whispered, “I think we can have a lot of fun with it later....I'm sure we can find something more important to do now.”

Which, of course, we did.

Part 3

As I'd expected (and hoped for), everyone I told about my new relationship with Lina was supportive. A lot of my friends, co-workers and such were surprised, to be sure—granted, all I had to say when they asked how I met her was “Internet”, which she backed up—but none of them thought I was full of shit for it. When I called my dad to tell him, he acted like he thought I was kidding....but I knew he was proud of me.

Mom....eh, I called the institution, they said she was still speaking in tongues. I left it at that.

Lucy came back over the next few days to drop stuff off—repair gear, extra clothes for Lina, her extra hairpieces, a few boxes of “miscellaneous and sundry items”....basically, sort of housewarming gifts, all to help Lina get settled in.

My brother, on the other hand....

Put it this way. I had to leave him a message about Lina moving in, which he only heard half of after getting back to his place, and for some STUPID reason, he thought I was kicking him out. Thus, one night later in the week, he damn near crashed his car into the front of the house, slammed the door loud enough to scare the cat and then demanded I get out there and explain myself to him.

The only problem with this? I was bathing at the time.

A knock on the door interrupted my humming. “Ah, Matt...someone's here!”

“Tell 'em to piss off, please...I'm butt-ass naked right now.”

The fact that Lina didn't laugh was the first clue that this wasn't going to be an ordinary “guest”.

The second: “.....I think it's your brother.”

“....damn it.” I eased myself up out of the tub, adding (loud enough for Lina to hear): “Give me a minute....”

Three minutes later (and with my idiot brother banging on the damn front door the whole time), I was fully dressed and standing in the living room, with Lina at my side. “All he's been doing is standing outside and pounding on the door?”

“And yelling.” Lina wrung her hands, looking more than a bit nervous. “He looks kind of, ah....”

She didn't finish the sentence, and didn't even have to. Just from glancing at him through the window of the front door, I could tell my brother was strung-out, hadn't slept for the past few nights and, once again, had broken the speed limit just to peel out on my front lawn. “...damn it to Hell....”

“D'you want me to call the cops, or something?”

“No cops....just open the door, and then haul to the master bedroom. I don't want you getting involved unless I have no other option.”

Lina surprised me by shaking my head. “I'm not going to let you two thrash each other over a misunderstanding.”

I turned to glance at her, more impressed than annoyed. “You are something else.” I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, which calmed me down, and probably helped to ease her fears about the situation. “I just hope this whole thing ends nice and calm....”

Lina squeezed my arm. “I hope it does, too.”

The cat, having already been annoyed by the door-pounding, just stared at us both before darting off to another room.

I nodded to Lina, Lina opened the door.....

What followed, pretty much, was exactly what I'd expected. My brother stormed in acting like he owned the whole damn house (he didn't), completely ignored Lina for the first five minutes of our “conversation” (which was mostly him yelling at me and me calmly explaining things to him), and, when he did notice Lina, accused her of everything under the gorram sun, from dating me for a shot at a Green Card to some hopped-up insanity about “industrial espionage” and some kind of “subversive neo-dominant-feminism” movement that made approximately no sense at all. He called her a bitch, a prostitute and stuff that made me want to lock him in a choke hold and throw him out of the house...

...but through it all, Lina kept her calm, never replying to any of his stupid-ass insults. She didn't even flinch when he kicked over the front room trash can and then started screaming in her face when she went to pick it up.

Granted, I wanted to knock his block off after that....and I pretty much told him as such to his face.

After around twenty minutes of him yelling, me refuting his stupid ramblings and occasionally raising my voice, and Lina staying calm throughout, I told my brother to go get all of his junk and just get out. Instead, he started trying to find any lame-ass reason for Lina to leave, getting up in her face and asking her where she worked, who she worked for, all that stupid shit. She flat out told him it was none of his business....

…..well, she tried to, until he pushed her hard enough that she fell, and I could hear the crack of her head on the floor.

At that point, a few things happened. I jumped him, pretty much herding him to the door and throwing him out; Lina sort of froze in place; my brother and I had a swearing match with him outside and me inside, and after I told him he could go get all of his junk back at the nearest thrift store, I pretty much gave him until the count of ten to get the Hell out of my yard and off my property before I called the cops on his stupid ass....so he got the Hell out of my yard.

And that, pretty much, was the end of that.

With my brother out of the picture, I slammed the front door (couldn't help it...I was still pissed off) and turned my attention to Lina—nearly panicking when I realized she hadn't moved since he'd punched her.

“.....Lina? Are you, ah......” I approached her, reaching out to help her up off the floor.

“I'm fine.”

The suddenness of her voice caught me off guard, and I thought she might've been damaged, or stuck in some kind of loop over whether or not to hit back....but when she stood up and looked up at me, her expression was calm. “It didn't hurt, if you're wondering...he didn't break anything, either.”

“Your head hit the floor pretty hard...you're sure you're okay?”

Lina nodded. “Are you?”

“.....a little pissed off, but other than that....” I stopped, noticing the grin on Lina's face. “....what?”

“Well, if you wanted to tell the police that your brother showed up to cause problems....” She poked herself above her breasts, like she'd done in my room the day we'd first met. “I kinda sorta maybe recorded your 'chat' with him,” she admitted, opening her panel. “Just in case you need any proof that he was here.”

“.....and you chose to record this?”

“Well, it wasn't just my idea....I called Lucy as soon as your brother showed up, asked her what she thought I—”

“I get it, I get it....” I shook my head. “...and you're not...upset that he shoved you? That he could've damaged you?”

Lina couldn't meet my eyes. “I've been hit before....” Now, she did look at me, a smirk on her lips. “...pretty sure the ones who did the hitting felt more than I did.”

“....please don't tell me you're into that kind of shit.”

“I'm not—and you really need—”

“To stop swearing so damn much, I know....” I sighed. “I just wanted to make sure you're okay, is all.”

“Like I told Lucy, I'm a big girl. I can handle myself....besides, I could tell he was strung-out and not thinking straight.”

“Yeah, but strung-out how? No sleep? Too much of, ah.....anything?”

“I think he's exhausted. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was really jumpy...but his reflexes just seemed dulled, too.”

“Exhausted, huh.......you can close your panel, by the way.”

“Well, I thought you'd want to copy the recording to the computer in here! I'll go get the cable out of—”

“No, no....you don't have to go get the cable. Don't delete the file, but....” I stared at the front door. “....he's always had problems, really.”

“He's not going to come back, is he?”

“I hope not...he's got his own job, his own place...” I grinned. “If he wants to bitch about the lease, we'll just head out to City Hall tomorrow and put your name instead of his.”

“And your dad won't have a problem with that?” Lina mused.

“Probably not—and it's better than Fenton throwing you around. You're sure the fall didn't damage you.....”

I turned around, expecting to see Lina giving me some look....only to find her slowly—and dare I say sensually—peeling her face away, from the forehead down. Most people I know would've been utterly horrified to see the flesh give way to unyielding chromed metal, contact points, the occasional hollow revealing wiring and motors beneath and some kind of lip armatures over the perpetual grin of her perfect teeth....but I was absolutely transfixed.

“...take a good look for yourself,” she offered, her voice sounding no different than it had when her face was on.

I approached, slowly, drinking in every detail. I reached out to touch her exposed, inner face...but stopped. “....it won't, ah, hurt, if I....”

Her hand encircled my wrist, drawing mine in to trace the contours of her face. “I promise, it isn't hurting me.”

I nodded. “You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful girl I've ever known....inside and out.”

Even without her face on, I could hear the smile in Lina's voice. “You're not so bad looking yourself, Matt.”

I couldn't help but crack up. “....I'm gonna go do my nightly routine...you can, ah, put your face back on and join me, if you want to.” I ran my finger along the contours of her face one more time. “After that, we can spend the night doing whatever you're up for....”

Apart from a pretty damn good make-out session in the old master bedroom, the night was, in fact, primarily spent with me sleeping and Lina....sleeping, pretty much. It was almost getting to be a routine, sleeping next to such a beautiful robot—no, a beautiful girl, like Lina...but there was no way it could ever be just “routine”. This would never, ever get old (or, for that matter, routine).

Lina was already in the kitchen by the time I was up, greeting me with that winning smile. “Sleep well?”

“I think you already know the answer to that one...you?”

“I always sleep well.” Lina walked over and gave me a quick smooch. “Lucy changed the settings on my Sleep Mode before the ownership transfer, so I can customize them myself...or you can, if you want to.”

“And why would I want you to have anything other than a good night's sleep?” I kissed her on the forehead as I walked past. “Did she program you to dream, too?”

“....that...actually went through a few iterations,” Lina admitted. “First it was just completely random stuff, but there were, ah....problems...” She rubbed the back of her head with her hand, almost like she was embarrassed to go into any details about it. “....let's just say there were a few crossed wires, and some systems were linked that really shouldn't have been.”

“Dreams and sex?”

“....no comment.” Lina rolled her eyes. “Anyway, she wrote a whole new dream emulator from scratch—my Sleep Mode program runs the latest version.”

“Nice....” I retrieved my phone from where it was charging on the counter. “....and today should be interesting.”

Lina cocked her head a bit. “How so?”

“My uncle Frank is dropping by, at around 9—he used to just show up, unannounced, but one time he pulled that routine while my brother was in the middle of....let's just call it a 'low-point' and leave it at that.” I shuddered at the memory. “Nearly ended with Uncle Frank getting a putting wedge to the brain pan. As it was, I had to drive him to the hospital to get treated for broken ribs and a bruised kidney.”

“Ouch...” Lina winced. “And your brother?”

“Sent to counseling. Back to counseling, really...he'd claimed to be 'all better', but...” I shook my head. “Anyway.”

“What's your uncle like?” Lina walked over, draping an arm around my shoulders and reading the notification.

“He's....eccentric, put it that way. Used to work as a pilot...I think...though I've never seen any pictures of him anywhere near a plane. He's got a whole business of repairing 'exotic machines', these days...pinball machines, arcade cabinets, old jukeboxes, sports cars....even vintage animatronics, once or twice. He's a nice guy, too...like I said, a bit 'out there', sometimes, but overall, a great guy to know.”

“He definitely sounds interesting,” Lina mused, reaching over my shoulder to scroll down the screen. “I wonder...”

“What?”

“Lucy mentioned the Institute working with 'independent contractors' for repairs on some of their projects...”

“....you think Uncle Frank was one of those contractors?”

Lina shrugged. “Depends on how close his shop was to the campus, among other things—if you're wondering, Lucy left it up to me as to whether or not I'd enroll as a student.”

“Will you?”

“Dunno yet,” Lina replied. “I figured we'd settle in, first...'date' for a month or so, then...”

“Right, right....” I grinned. “I'll go get changed—don't want to look like I just rolled out of bed when Uncle Frank gets here, y'know?”

“You almost rolled out of bed last night,” Lina teased, nuzzling my cheek with her nose. “I had to reel you back in.”

“Lucky you....” I turned, gently kissing the tip of her nose. “You might want to get changed, too—not too formal, but not too, ah....'casual'.”

“Gee, that narrows it down... “ Lina giggled. “I won't walk out just wearing a bikini top and short shorts.”

“Please don't.”

“Until after your uncle leaves?”

“....I plead the Fifth on that one....”

A little before 9 AM, Lina and I were both sitting in the front room—me wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, my third-best jeans and my day-to-day shoes, and Lina in a sleeveless pink top, jean shorts, knee socks (apparently, Lucy had a thing for them...I have to admit, I was a fan as well) and sneakers. The cat, as per usual, was chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool on her perch by the front door.

I checked the time on my phone. “He'll be here soon, probably...”

“Think he knows about what happened with your brother?” Lina inquired.

“....only one way to find out....”

Five minutes into our sitting and waiting, a van with “GHTR” and several taglines—all thought up by my uncle—painted on the side pulled up under the carport, the front passenger door lined up perfectly with the steps leading to the side door. I couldn't help but chuckle—Uncle Frank always had a knack for making an entrance.

Seconds later, the side door flew open, followed soon after by Uncle Frank himself.

I've heard, from friends, that my uncle Frank looks like a refugee from a Saturday morning TV show straight out of the early 90s—tall, lanky, almost manic in his movements and mannerisms. As per usual, he had his “work clothes” on—a shirt with the logo of his shop tucked into khakis, the legs of which had in turn been rolled up and covered by his socks.

“Heya...” He nodded in my direction. “SO, ah, how'd the party go, Matt?”

“It went great.” I left the recliner, crossing the room to shake his hand. “Run into any problems on the way here?”

“Ah, some garbanzo bean on the freeway thought nobody'd notice if he started dancing behind the wheel...he drifted from one lane into the other!” Uncle Frank accompanied his tale by waving his arm horizontally. “Totally crazy.”

“Well, at least he didn't run anybody off the road....c'mon in, close the door.”

Uncle Frank nodded, making his way to the couch—and, in the process of glancing around the room to see if I'd done any further redecorating, noticed Lina. “....well, well, well, who's the lucky lady?”

“...observant as always...” I grinned. “Uncle Frank, allow me the honor of introducing you to my girlfriend, Lina.”

“Hi.” Lina got up from the other recliner, smiling.

“Lina,” Uncle Frank repeated, nodding (it's a habit of his). “Very beautiful name, Lina....” He took her hand in his own and kissed it. “She's the one you called me about?”

“Yes....you didn't get the message?”

“Oh, my phone was jumpin' all over the table yesterday, Matt! Client after client after client—d'you know somebody sat on a vintage Bram Stoker's Dracula pinball table last week, nearly collapsed the whole thing?!” Uncle Frank made a “ttssh” sound, shaking his head. “Disgraceful.....” He noticed Lina regarding him with a bemused look. “....sorry, I, ah, tend to get a bit carried away when I'm talking shop, y'know?”

“I don't mind,” Lina assured him.

“....right, right, good.” Uncle Frank turned his attention back to me. “And, ah, how did you two meet, exactly?”

“At the party, believe it or not.” I flashed a quick grin at Lina.

“Really?” Uncle Frank leaned back on the couch, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “And how exactly did your encounter come to pass?”

I held up the phone. “The miracles of modern technology.”

“I was trying to get a signal on mine,” Lina quickly added, “he was in the bathroom with his phone...we didn't even notice each other until we turned and, well...” She grinned, giving a shy sort of shrug. “We kind of hit it off from there!”

“I see....” Uncle Frank nodded thoughtfully. “And did you two, ah....” He did a sort of half-dance, mostly moving his arms and giving a weird, half-suave, half-goofy look. “...at any point in time?”

“....just a little.” Lina grinned again, glancing at me.

“A little?” Uncle Frank echoed, glancing at me.

“Some idiots started fighting in the back yard, Fenton ran out to break it up with the 9-iron.” I gave a humorless chuckle at the memory. “Everybody else pretty much left after that...Lina and I said our goodbyes in here, she sent her e-mail address to my phone, and....well...” I glanced at Lina. “The rest is history.”

“....Fenton ran out with the 9-iron?” Uncle Frank echoed. “From the set I gave your dad for Christmas back in '06?”

“He's been pissed off on a daily basis, lately. Showed up out of it last night to yell at me because he thought I was trying to kick him out...I'd called him to let him know Lina was going to be using his old room here, since he's got that place uptown....peeled out in the front yard, cussed me out on the steps, then barged in here demanding an explanation...as soon as he saw Lina, he flipped out.”

“He shoved me,” Lina added, her voice surprisingly calm. “Fenton, I mean....not...” She nodded at me.

“And you two didn't call the police?!”

“I threw him out myself. He wants his stuff back, he can go thrifting for it next week—actually, y'know what?” I gave another chuckle, this one dripping with venom. “You want to help me out, you can take all of his shit and bring it back to the shop, give it away as Customer Loyalty Bonuses—”

“All right, all right, that's enough!” Uncle Frank was off the sofa now, wagging a finger at me. “First off, you need to stop swearing so much, Matt....you're gonna say the wrong thing to the wrong person one day and they'll put your lights out, or worse. Secondly....Fenton's your brother! You can't just throw his stuff out because of one little argument!”

“....maybe we could bring it to his place uptown,” Lina offered. “As an...apology, for last night.”

“Me, apologize to him?! He pushed you pretty damn hard to the ground, for fu—”

“It didn't hurt,” Lina reminded me. “Maybe he's....just under a lot of stress, lately...”

“Did you even ask him what he was so fed up about?” Uncle Frank added.

“....apart from thinking I was kicking him out.....no.”

“....well, then, Lina and I can bring his stuff to his apartment uptown, later this week—as a matter of fact, it'll be a slow day today! I've got nothing on the schedule, no jobs that need my immediate attention—one or two CPS2 boards that maybe need a nice good clean, but nothing too labor-intensive....”

After a few seconds, I sighed. “All right....you can load his stuff in the van before you leave, and we'll go with you.”

Uncle Frank nodded, giving that “wise” grin I'd come to respect him for. “Good call.”

“You need anything to drink?” Lina offered. “Water, coffee, Sprite....”

“Water'd be nice.” Uncle Frank returned to the couch, stretching his arms out as Lina headed for the kitchen. “Long day, today,” he grunted. “Had to break up a fight in Receiving yesterday...somethin' about privilege and slacking off on the job. Gomez—you remember my old pal Gomez, right? The one with the arcade in the barn?”

I nodded. “Christmas '08, best one that decade—could you get me a glass too, Lina?”

“Yeah, well, Gomez nearly got a deviated septum trying to break it up. He got in between the two, trying to get 'em to talk it out, and WHAMMO!” Uncle Frank punctuated the line by smashing his fist into the palm of his other hand. “A big flyin' elbow right to the nose!”

“....pretty sure that's not how a septum gets deviated, Uncle Frank...”

“Oh, yes it can, if it doesn't heal properly...anyhow, Gomez bled all over the place. Knocked over a tool rack, fell into a 70s motorcycle!” Uncle Frank shook his head. “Took three rolls of paper towels to clean up the blood, the oil....”

“Your glass of water,” Lina interjected, handing Uncle Frank the glass. “I put some ice in it, too...”

“Much obliged...” Uncle Frank nodded and took a sip, giving a long sigh. “...oh, there is nothing to prepare you for a long day of work on vintage arcade cabinets like a nice, tall glass of water with a few cubes of ice in it.” He glanced at me, once again giving that “wise” smile. “You've landed a real winner here, Matt.”

Lina giggled, and I swear she actually blushed.

“Not going to argue that one..” I grinned. “So, aside from having to break up a fight...”

The rest of the conversation was relatively light, mostly focusing on relatives (Aunt Ruth and Uncle Arthur were still out in Germany, on vacation; Uncle Byron was off doing his fifth “road trip” with friends) and other matters—and in a twist of cosmic irony, my “dating” Lina brought Uncle Frank to another topic he'd been wanting to discuss with me.

“Y'know, I'm glad to see you getting out there on the scene, and all that...I mean, I never had a problem with you going to that forum you always go to—”

I nearly spit out the water Lina had just brought me.

“I'm serious!” Uncle Frank insisted. “I mean, what you look at on the Internet in your own time is your business, and I have no problem with you...fantasizing, or whatever it is you do, with that material, but for years, I've been meaning to tell you 'You shouldn't spend so much time looking at pictures of robot women on that forum you always go to, y'know...you need more realistic standards!'...and, well...” He gestured at Lina. “I guess you beat me to the punch!”

Lina nodded her agreement. “Well, he told me what he's into after we met...”

Uncle Frank looked somewhat surprised. “....and you're okay with that?”

“I don't see why I shouldn't be!” Lina grinned at me; I could tell she really wanted to wink.

“...well, if neither of you has a problem with it, then I guess it's not a problem anymore.” Uncle Frank chuckled. “You, ah, plan to incorporate that into the....”

Lina stiffened, speaking in an intentionally put-on robotic drone. “If. It. Pleases. Him.” She cracked up at the end.

“It does,” I quickly added. “It really does.”

“Well, what you two get up to in the privacy of your relationship is your business,” Uncle Frank stated, “and I'm not gonna be the one to tell you how to enjoy your love life....” He checked his watch, nearly jumping out of the sofa. “Holy Toledo, I'm gonna be late—I told Gomez I'd take his shift to help fix up one of those After Burner cabinets, the ones that look like a real jet fighter cockpit!”

“I'll go get Fenton's stuff...” I got out of the recliner again, stretching as I did. “Might as well load it in the van now instead of you having to make a detour later.”

“I'll help!” Lina offered, holding her hands up. “The more, the easier!”

“Pretty sure it's 'the more, the merrier...”

Lina stuck her tongue out at me. “Don't ruin it...”

In the hallway, out of earshot of Uncle Frank, we nearly collapsed into giggles at Lina's robot “impression” earlier. “You think you could've been a bit more subtle with that one?” I chuckled.

“C'mon,” Lina teased, “you liked it....”

“Obviously....” I gave her a quick kiss. “Let's get these boxes to the van...”

With Lina's help, we got the boxes into Uncle Frank's van in...I'd say under five minutes. It didn't hurt that the boxes were all pretty light, mostly being full of Fenton's clothes and the few books he hadn't bothered to take with him. The plan was that Lina and I would follow along in Fenton's old car (he'd traded up after getting his own place), and with any luck, we'd be in and out of Fenton's place in....minutes.

Lina slid behind the wheel—it took her...I'd say seconds to acclimate herself to the setup. “This is...kind of an old car,” she mused, glancing around the interior. “Late 90s, early 2000s....”

“Just be glad you're not driving The Tank.”

“....'The Tank'?” Lina arched an eyebrow at me.

“Early to mid 80s, possibly late 70s. A Pontiac or something...the fabric on the ceiling was starting to sag, the upholstery stank, half the lights on the dashboard had died out at some point or another....” I rolled my eyes at the memories of The Tank as Lina started the car. “It sucked.”

“Well, any ride's better than none,” Lina mused.

“....so it was Lucy's idea for you to get a driver's license?”

Lina nodded. “Mm-hmm. It also helped me test my navigational suite...which works, if you're wondering.”

“Glad to hear it...I have to catch rides everywhere.” I rolled my eyes. “Fenton used to drive me around....guess those days are over.”

Lina was somewhat surprised. “You never learned to drive?”

“Long story, don't want to go into it....”

The drive out to Fenton's was...actually pretty fun. Lina sang along with the radio (with me joining in a few times), and apart from one incident where Uncle Frank had to lay on the horn because of some “garbanzo bean” (as he'd put it) being a lane-hogger, nothing too stupid happened. Uncle Frank ended up having to stop at a gas station, which Lina used as a great excuse to get lunch at a fast food place across the street—nothing fancy, but nothing off a “dollar menu”, either. After asking Uncle Frank what he wanted (and taking my order) she headed for the drive-thru and made the orders for the two of us—and one for herself, as well.

“I can actually taste stuff,” she informed me—probably noticing my surprise at her own order. “Chemical sensors built into my tongue, and things like that.”

“What about burning your tongue on really hot stuff?”

Lina shrugged. “Dunno...and I'm not going to just try it, to see what happens.”

“And I wouldn't ask you to.” I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “I just hope Fenton will be okay with us having lunch at his place...he went through a bit of a 'neat-freak' phase, a few years ago.”

“Eh, if we make too much of a mess, I'll offer to clean up.” Lina grinned. “It'll be a gesture of goodwill and forgiveness.”

“...somehow, I can't really find anything about that idea to disagree with.”

With the pit-stop taken care of, we got back on the road to Fenton's place—me belting out a few classic rock tunes and earning giggles and thumbs-up from Lina in the process. Thankfully, we didn't have to deal with any further traffic idiocy on the part of other drivers; the whole drive to Fenton's place—pit stop included—took a little under—

“Destination. Reached. In. Forty-three. Minutes.” Lina was staring straight ahead, her expression neutral. Of course, as soon as I put a hand on her shoulder to see if she was okay, she cracked up and started giggling. “I figured you'd something to lighten the mood,” she explained. “Y'know, before we have to talk to your brother...”

I gave her a quick kiss. “I appreciate the sentiment, but, ah, let's save the fun for later...I don't want Fenton to think we spent the whole drive canoodling or anything like that.”

“'Canoodling'?” Lina's giggling nearly escalated into a laughing fit; thankfully, she calmed down by the time Uncle Frank got out of the van with a theatrical “Your assistance, please, my most adorable chickpea?” Despite my eye-roll at the remark, I gave Lina the go-ahead to help unload Fenton's stuff from the van while I got got out of the car, taking a good, long look at the apartment complex.

Fenton's apartment, like the rest in the complex, was reasonably sized, well-maintained, great security and a reasonable, compassionate landlord who didn't act like he was the lord king God of his own personal kingdom. In the midst of all of these facts, I had to wonder what the Hell Fenton had been so rattled about over the last few days...

“He's still on the fourth floor, right?”

Uncle Frank's question jolted me out of my reverie. “Fourth floor, yeah...I'll, ah, get the food.”

The elevator ride went smoothly enough, and everyone we passed down the hall was friendly, as well—though they all looked a bit...concerned. The landlord himself—Scottish, grey hair, a few inches shorter than me—actually met us on the way to Fenton's, said a few hellos and then asked us why we were there.

“We're visiting Fenton Harker,” Uncle Frank explained. “He left some of his stuff—”

“Fenton Harker?” The landlord arched an eyebrow, looking worried. “Oh, he's been in a bad way, the last two or three days....don't think he's gotten a lick of sleep throughout. I thought he'd been doing rather well for himself, but...he was rather perturbed when he got back yesterday. Something about a disagreement....”

I sighed. “That's, ah, actually another reason why we're here. I came to make amends with him over a...dispute.”

“Well, I sincerely hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive each other...” The landlord nodded, wished us the best of luck and headed for the elevator.

By the time we reached Fenton's apartment, I'd decided to take the lead in “making amends” myself. Thus, with Lina and Uncle Frank close behind, I keyed in the code to let us into his place, opened the door...

...and immediately felt like an utter bastard for having thrown Fenton out of my house the day before.

The landlord's thoughts that Fenton hadn't gotten any sleep for “the last two or three days” were an understatement if ever there was one—obviously, he hadn't slept in weeks. He was halfway passed-out on the couch, his shirt half-open and the first hints of five-o'clock shadow on his chin. Important-looking forms were strewn all over the coffee table in front of him, and at least three mugs of coffee had gone cold. I could see a dent in the kitchen wall where he'd probably thrown something—which turned out to be a briefcase, half-open on the floor with papers spilling out.

“Fenton?! FENTON!” I nearly tripped on my own feet as I headed for the couch, hoping that he was only running on empty. “C'mon, damn it....” I lightly slapped him a few times, just to make sure he was still conscious.

“....what...”

“It's me, Fenton...Matt. Your brother....” Lina was at my side, resting a hand on Fenton's shoulder to steady him.

"Oh, Matt, and, Uncle Frank? And..Gina? No, Lina...” He glanced around for a second, noticing the coffee cups.

“You okay, Fenton? You look like absolute Hell...”

“I'm, ah....I'm just stretched really thin right now, is all...look, Lina, sorry about pushing you over last night...." Fenton went to get off the couch, nearly falling over in the process. Lina pretty much guided him to a standing position, her hands on his shoulders to steady him, and—after smiling the most merciful, understanding smile I'd ever seen on anyone, hugged him.

Right then and there, I knew that Lina was more than just coding, metal, plastic and silicon. Anybody with an Erector set and a text-to-speech synthesizer program could build something that'd say “I forgive you”....but that simple gesture Lina had shown to Fenton was so far removed from “robotic” that it damn near brought a tear to my eye. I had to wonder just how much time Lucy had put into writing every aspect of her personality, her feelings and all that....

“Okay, so, now that we've got that sorted....seriously, Fenton, are you okay?”

“I'm good, I'm good.....I've just got a lot to do, is all.”

“You didn't look like you were doin' a whole lot when we got in here,” Uncle Frank reminded him.

"I know, Uncle Frank, but we can catch up another time, maybe really soon. I was actually in the middle of something really important when Matt woke me up just now." Fenton was starting to wander around the apartment, barely focusing on anything. “I need a cup of coffee, damn it....”

I was starting to regret showing up. "If you're in the middle of something big, why the Hell did you make me host a party over the weekend?"

Fenton sighed. "Look, I hosted it, on your property—”

“You were barely out there talking to anyone, for crap's sake! Apart from charging outside with the damn 9-iron—”

“I hosted it, but I admit, it did get a little bit....I dunno, out of control, so...no more parties, okay?"

I stared at Fenton for a full minute, but finally chose to just nod. “Fine.”

"Look, don't worry about me, ok? And I'm glad to meet you, Lina, under, uh, slightly better circumstances than last night, but I have stuff to do, so...” He ambled over to the kitchen and poured himself a mug of black coffee, no cream or sugar; with all of us watching, he took a massive gulp. I could see his hands tremble as he set the mug down.

I knew we weren't going to get anything more out of him for the time being. “Right, right...” I gestured to the boxes from his room. “Here's all your stuff...just, call if you need anything, okay? I mean, I've got stuff to deal with, myself—"

"I will, thanks. But just....” He took a look at the wall clock and pretty much finished off the rest of the coffee mug in one massive gulp. “....yeah, I've got a lot to do. Talk to you later!"

He damn near pushed us out of his apartment right after that. So much for making amends....

We ended up eating our lunch in a sort of promenade on the third floor—Lina and Uncle Frank chatted, while I sat there feeling like I was in someone else's movie. I was glad there was no bad blood between Fenton, Lina and I, but he'd been acting weird—just going about his business as if we'd interrupted “something big”, despite the fact that he'd been passed out on the damn couch when we got there. None of it felt right to me....

By the time Uncle Frank, Lina and I had reached the elevator, it was nearly the end of Uncle Frank's lunch break. “I've gotta get back to the shop,” he stated. “That Bram Stoker's Dracula table isn't going to fix itself, y'know....”

“Thanks for helping sort all this—well, helping me try to sort this, Uncle Frank. It means a lot.”

Uncle Frank clapped me on the shoulder. “You see? Wasn't this better than fighting? Animosity?”

“I'd say it was,” Lina mused, nodding her agreement. “I just hope Fenton can get everything sorted out...”

The elevator, once again, gave us no problems—but a few minutes later, as Lina and I headed back to Fenton's old car out in the parking lot, my phone went off. My first instinct, by this point, was that it was FCon—I'd had notices from it at the party and the restaurant, when gynoids were in close proximity, and I almost instantly thought that my brother was living in an apartment complex surrounded by fembots.

Nope. This time, it was an actual text message notice, from Lucy.

“What's up, Matt?” Lina had noticed me retrieving the phone. “We didn't leave anything behind at Fenton's, did we?”

“It's not from him.” I frowned. “It's from Lucy...”

Lina arched an eyebrow. “She left everything I'd need at your place earlier this week, and told you all you'd needed to know about me...” I handed her the phone to let her see the message. “...she wants both of us to be at her place....”

“You don't think she changed her mind, do you?”

“She wouldn't have given you all my paperwork if she wasn't going to fully transfer ownership....I can't really think of anything else she'd need to discuss.”

I shrugged. “I guess we'll find out when we get to her place....”

The drive from Fenton's place to Lucy's took a good half hour or so, possibly longer. Lina and I didn't really talk all that much, this time around; she was probably just as confused and concerned about Lucy's text message as I was. The only reason I wasn't more worried about this “visit” was Lina's assurance that Lucy wasn't taking her back—granted, my next train of thought was that the Institute had found out about me using FCon on Lina, or that Lucy hadn't told them about giving Lina to me—or that she hadn't told them about her in the first place....eventually, after a few minutes of pointless worrying, I decided to focus on whatever was playing on the radio instead....

...which didn't help, since I was still worried when Lina guided the car to a stop at Lucy's house.

Fortunately, my first look at the place took my mind off of my worries almost instantaneously. It was all white tile, marble and metal, angles and cubes and such; there was no symmetry or reason to the windows, and what I took to be just another slab of metal turned out to be the front door. I found myself almost distracted by the fact that this house was either outside the city limits, in the middle of a park or very close to the Institute—I hadn't really paid any attention to the scenery during the drive.

“Well, I guess we might as well go inside,” Lina mused, “see what she wants.”

“Right, right...”

Lina and I made our way up the front walk. I could tell Lina was still a bit apprehensive about the situation; personally, I was still confused as to why Lina and I had been called all the way to some random house by Lucy, especially after everything had been settled—or at least after I thought it'd been settled. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Lina shrugged and knocked on the door. “Lucy? Matt and I got your message, and—”

The door hissed open without preamble.

“....ladies first, I guess...” I shrugged, motioning for Lina to enter ahead of me.

As soon as I walked in, my attention was immediately drawn to Lucy, wearing a button-up shirt two sizes too small, a skirt that wasn't long enough to be formal or short enough to be a miniskirt, what I assumed were her best “fuck me” pumps and freaking sheer hose. I could tell something was off when she turned to see Lina and me standing by the door; she had this weird half-smile, and something about the way she walked up to us—like she was trying to do a “sexy” walk, but only every few steps—was just weird. “So, you got the message...glad to see you made it.”

“Yeah....” I nodded, trying not to be distracted by Lucy's, ah...attire. “So.....ah...”

Lucy ignored me for the time being, instead being apparently surprised that Lina was with me. “Oh, hey, Lina! I didn't think you'd come, too....think you could sort out my office for a bit? Y'know, just to make sure it's all in place.”

Lina glanced at me, a bit worried, but nodded. “Not a problem—”

“And the garage, when you're done with the office.”

Lucy's last-minute addition prompted a groan from Lina, but she nodded. “Right...” With a shrug, she headed for the office. On my end, my concern about the inherent weirdness of the situation was quickly drowned out by the room I was now in—again, white tile, white metal, weird windows....even the furniture was white leather and chrome. “.....is this, ah, your place, then?”

“Perk of the job. Sit down, kick off your shoes...” Lucy was walking around the room as she spoke—again, in that weird, half-sultry, half-normal walk. “Can I get you anything?”

“.....ah, no thanks....” I headed for a rectangular couch and sat down. “....I, ah....” I nearly changed my mind in regards to Lucy's remark about getting me anything, but any request I might've made pretty much evaporated on my tongue seconds later. Lucy was regarding me with what I'm guessing was supposed to be a sultry stare, except she kept winking—actually, it wasn't even winking so much as it was an uncontrollable spasm of her right eyelid. “....Lucy, are you okay?”

“Of course I'm okay!” Lucy giggled. “I'm fine, Matt....why, you think something's wrong?”

“Well, I just....ah....” I shrugged—more than a bit nervous, seeing as how Lucy took a seat right next to me on the sofa, still staring at me. “....you seem to be, ah.....”

“What,” Lucy teased, “acting weird?”

“.....uh.....”

Lucy's right arm reached around my shoulders, her hand resting on my own right arm. “I'm not, if you're wondering. I'm functioning perfectly—” She paused, all emotion leaving her face for a split second, before relaxing. “...the Hell am I even saying....” She rolled her eyes, turning me to face her.

“....ah, Lucy....”

“Like I said, perfectly fine.” Without preamble, Lucy reached for my shirt. “It's way too hot in here for you to be wearing that, y'know...”

“Can you not do that?!” I glanced over my shoulder—any minute, I expected Lina to walk in, see Lucy trying to hit on me and then all Hell would break loose. “Lina's right over there—”

“Perfectly fine.” Lucy continued pulling my shirt off, apparently oblivious to my protests—a point she proved when she pretty much shoved me to a prone position on the sofa with one hand, before slowly unbuttoning her shirt. “Lucy Sievers, nice to meet you!”

Horniness and panic were officially duking it out in my brain, now. Yes, the familiar stirrings down South were making themselves known, seeing as how what was playing out was insanely close to a few favorite stories of mine from the forum....but this felt different. It felt...wrong, to be honest—Lina was just in the other room, after all....

“Take off your pants.”

“What?! NO, I—”

Lucy, now free of her shirt, proceeded to somehow kick my shoes off with her own feet, before going to work on my jeans. “I'm functioning perfectly,” she stated, apropos of nothing; her hands were still working my jeans down my legs as she started kissing my chest. “Like I said, perfectly fine.”

“Lucy, what the fuck are you doing?!”

“Perfectly fine.” Lucy shucked off her skirt—her red-and-black panties matched her bra, furthering the battle between logic and libido raging in my brain. “Why would I be malfunctioning right now?” She shifted her panties aside, once again giving me that weird, sexy smile—which would' ve been a lot sexier had it not been for her involuntary winking all the damn time. “Take off your pants....”

She's a gynoid. Under any other circumstances, I'd have been thrilled at the realization—but this was definitely not the time. She's a gynoid, just like Lina, and she's malfunctioning....

I felt my own underwear being pulled down, and reflexively slapped Lucy's hands away. “Quit it! Seriously—”

My protests were silenced by Lucy leaning forward and kissing me, her right hand basically pinning me to the couch while her left headed straight for—and into—my underwear. I was still, ah, firmly appreciative of the situation (in at least one sense), despite my ensuing panic, and Lucy quickly took full grasp of things. I tried, with my left hand, to push her off of me, but her knees were pretty much pinning me to the sofa. “Lucy, what the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“Nothing's wrong....” She kissed me again. “I'm functioning perfectly—functioning perfectly—functioning per-per—”

Something inside of Lucy's torso popped, and her eyes shot open. “Lucy-cy-cy-cy Siever-ver-vers! Nice to-to-to-to-to meet meet meetmemememememememe—” Her entire body seized up—without hesitation, I reached down, pulled her left hand out of my underwear (and off of my, ah, anatomy) before pushing her off of me. “Shit....”

From somewhere behind the sofa, I heard footsteps. “I'm going to the garage now, Lucy!”

Lina's declaration apparently prompted an all-too-brief moment of lucidity in Lucy—her head snapped to the right as she called out “Thanks!” before her attention returned to me. “Perfectly fine.”

“LINA, WAIT—” I groaned as the door to the garage hissed closed—just in time for Lucy to attempt to jumpstart her ministrations on my crotch. “QUIT IT!” I flat-out kicked her hand away—which pretty much sent her off the couch and into the coffee table, which collapsed under her. “....fuck....”

“meet-meet-meet—” Something else popped inside Lucy's torso—followed immediately by a sizzle. “Malfunction at OFEE4155. Malfunction at OFEE4155—” Her face had gone completely blank; her hands were opening and closing of their own accord, and her voice was a flat, lifeless monotone. “Sexual hardware configuration incomplete. Sexual hardware configuration incomplete—” Another sizzle sounded, this time behind her eyes, as her face seized up. “A fault has been detected in my—in my—in my—in my—my—my—my—” Her eyes went wide, and her hand—still going through the motions as if it was on...well, me—kept moving up and down, faster and faster....

I scrambled to put my jeans back on, simultaneously terrified and (might as well admit it) turned on.

“Error—error--virus detected in sector—sector—sector—sector—sector—OOOOHHHH!” Lucy threw her head back, her hips bucking against nothing even as her left hand kept at it. “OH, YES....YES.....YES—corruption detec-detec—OOH!” A panel opened just above Lucy's breasts—well, I say “opened”, but it pretty much blew out by way of a spark firing from behind it. Another panel opened at her navel, or at least tried to; something behind that seemed to get stuck, and a grinding noise started to drown out the sizzling and popping...both of which lost out to a far more, ah, biological sound accompanied by the sudden soaking of her legs and groin with what would've been all over me, had I not pushed her off of me and scrambled away from the sofa.

“YES—YES—YES—YES—” Lucy's head twitched to the side with each repetition, her writhing slowly winding down as her body gave out. Her, ah, juices pooled on the shattered glass and metal of the busted coffee table; another spark fired from the panel above her tits, followed by a louder one from higher up. After a few more twitches, she went still.

All I could do was stare at Lucy's broken form. Her eyes were crossed, and her jaw had gone slack. Oily white smoke was still wafting out of her mouth. A hole the size of a quarter sat in the center of her forehead; bits of singed plastic and wires were poking out, accompanied by a smaller plume of black smoke.

“....she broke herself...she just tried to have sex with me, and she broke herself...”

Had this been something written for the forum, my appraisal of the situation would've been vastly different.

I scrambled around Lucy's unmoving form, trying to look for a way to somehow reactivate her, or at the very least get her into a standby state. I had no idea what had happened before Lina and I showed up, but she'd been malfunctioning even then—and Lina hadn't even noticed it!

“The phone.” I reached for the phone in my pocket, thumbing through until I got to FCon. “It'll work...it has to....”

It didn't. The button that had activated Debug Mode for Lina wasn't even showing up, now....

“....damn it.” I waved the phone over her, like a tricorder out of Star Trek—no dice. I aimed it at her face, her boobs, her crotch, her ass....nada. I even held it up to the hole in her forehead....nothing. “Come on....you helped Lina, for crap's sake, why can't you help her?!” I realized the absurdity of criticizing the app a few seconds after I spoke...not that it did any good.

Without any other method of getting Lucy back online, I grabbed my shirt and pulled it back on. I was almost in a daze, to be honest—I'd read plenty of stories that had gone down exactly like what'd just happened (or at least very closely to what'd happened). Guy meets girl, girl and guy get it on, girl malfunctions halfway through, guy is still turned on enough to try and finish, girl breaks....except this wasn't just a story on the forum, and Lucy wasn't just “some girl”. She'd designed, written, programmed and built Lina, she'd gone through the whole transfer of ownership...and she, herself, was a gynoid, just like Lina.

“....and she tried to have sex with me.” I shook my head, not caring that I'd just spoken part of my train of thought out loud. “She called us over here—Lina and me.....and then she tried to...”

Every single story I'd read that had a scenario like this ended with the guy either trying to fix the girl before her owners (usually her “parents”) got back, or just wandering off to go help himself to the fridge. Obviously, I wasn't about to pull the latter...but I wasn't an expert in robotics engineering, and I had no way of knowing how to fix Lucy at all. FCon had already failed me, and I wasn't about to “go exploring” Lucy's broken form for some emergency reset button....

With my options rapidly running out, I thought back to—of all things—some of the stories from the forum. Hell, some of those had rather...unorthodox methods of reactivating gynoids after catastrophes.

“....I really hope this works.” I reached for one of Lucy's boobs, wondering how hard I might have to press—

“Really?”

“GYAAAHHH!” I nearly fell over—Lucy had spoken.....but her lips hadn't moved at all. For a second, I thought I'd just been hearing things; clearly, she wasn't going to be moving or talking any time soon. I took a few steps closer to her motionless form, one finger extended to prod her boob, her nipple, whatever I needed to just to see if she was going to react...

“Okay, really?”

This time, I knew Lucy hadn't spoken—her jaw was still slack, her eyes still crossed....but I had heard her voice.

“.....okay, what the HELL is going on here?! You're....ah.....”

“Far end of the room, dipshit.”

“....what?!” I glanced around the room until my eyes settled on a flat monitor—and, more to the point, the image of Lucy regarding me with a rather miffed stare. “....was this....was this some kind of stupid test?! You called me out here, sicked a robot copy of yourself on me, and had her...malfunction....on purpose....” My theory ran out of steam faster than I'd expected.

“....that's your big comeback? That you think I set this up as a test?”

“Well.....I've got piss-all to go on otherwise!” I waved at the still-unmoving figure behind me.

“You want something to fucking go on, Einstein? How about this? I had a new software update to download, straight from the Institute, but me being me, I figured it'd just be easy to hop on the Internet, download it directly....and not do any kind of deep scans for viruses or whatever. Thing is....I wasn't exactly thinking straight when I direct-linked, and I, ah...I was jealous, okay?! I saw you and Lina together, and you looked so damned happy with each other, and I couldn't stop thinking about getting love for myself...except the fucking virus ramped it up way past 11......”

“So when you thought 'love'.....you decided that equaled 'get your freak on with Matt Harker'?”

“The stupid fucking virus ramped up my arousal too high for me to control.” Lucy sighed. “And I can still transfer my A.I. to my new body—it's in the bedroom—anyway, I can transfer from this rig.....so...sorry if I....scared you, or whatever.”

“.....and seeing as how you're pulling the Wizard of Oz routine on me, I'm guessing you're not infected now?”

“I got it out of my system right before I blew. That, or whatever the fuck infected me couldn't get anything further out of me, so it self-destructed and took my body with it.” Lucy rolled her eyes. “...all those fucking times I told Lina not to direct-link on an insecure connection, and look what happens to me....”

“Hang on.” I gestured back to Lucy's body. “How'd you get from there to the TV?”

“Sent myself over the network, obviously! My A.I. can move between devices—and it's a slimline PC, not a TV...dingus.”

“...right....well, maybe Lina can help when she gets back from the garage—”

“Lina's here?”

“YES! You talked to her at the front door! Told her to....she doesn't know you're a robot, does she?”

“Gynoid,” Lucy corrected. “And no, she fucking didn't!”

“......ah.” I scratched the side of my nose, sighing. “....well, ah...I guess you're going to have to explain—”

“The whole fucking reason I fucking gave her to you is that I was going to finish upgrading myself. I couldn't have her here because she didn't know what I am...and I went and invited her over here to fucking find out about it. And now the whole fucking network is limited, and I can't transfer from this fucking computer to my new body. Yay, me...”

“...well, can you transfer to anything else?”

Lucy (or her image on the screen) nodded towards a cabinet. “There's an old tablet in there...Lina was on it before she got her body. If I can send myself to it in the next hour, before the house network just locks up completely...”

“Right, right.” I nodded. “So all I have to do is just go get the tablet, and—”

“Lucy? I'm done in the garage!”

“....and, ah, that'll be Lina...”

Lucy groaned. “Oh, just fucking great.....”

The garage door hissed open, and I could hear Lina's footsteps on the tile as she approached. “I finished sorting all the stuff in the office and the garage, like you asked, and....” She rounded the sofa, coming to a stop as she stared, in wide-eyed shock, at me looking like I didn't want to be there....and at Lucy's broken body on the floor. “....Lucy?”

“Yeah.” Lina looked up, surprised to see Lucy on the monitor. “....surprise, I guess....”

Lina took a step back, her hands trembling. “I....I think.....” One of her eyes started blinking involuntarily. “I'm...starting to de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de—” Her head snapped to the side with each repetition. “....develop....protocol con-con-con-conflicts in my A.I—A.I—A.I—A.I—A.I—” She nearly doubled over, as if someone had kicked her in the stomach.

“LINA!” I was at her side in an instant. “...Lina, c'mon....”

“....A.I. sub-sub-subsystem.....” She managed to focus on me, tears welling up in her eyes. “Matt, please....help me...”

“Lina, command code Q-R-E-4479, Subject Gamma.”

Lucy's recitation of the code caused Lina's eyes to flash blue. “Code acknow—acknow—.” Her head jerked to the side, and her eyes turned red. “ERROR.” Her hands began opening and closing at random, and she kept reciting the word “ERROR” for a few seconds. “ERR—Clearing cache memory. Please wait......” Lina's head had stopped jerking to the side, and she was blinking pretty damn fast; her voice had once again turned flat, as it had when she was in Debug Mode, but there was a subtle synthetic undertone to it. “.....please wait....please wait....cache memory clear.”

“Override ZZT-1091-TDK-7148. Acknowledge.”

Immediately, Lina stopped twitching, standing ramrod straight. “Acknowledged.”

“Execute protocol YKMN.”

“Executing protocol....opening A.I. Subsystem directory. Locating all instances of Lucy Sievers as human. Marking all instances of Lucy Sievers as human as deprecated. Please wait.....please wait.....”

I watched, fascinated, as Lina's eyes blinked too rapidly for me to keep track of. “....whoa....” I thought of the old cliché of waving one's hand in front of someone's face, decided not to....then just went ahead and did it.

“....really?”

“....sorry. Always wanted to do that...” I shrugged and tried to chuckle, but it sounded utterly stupid, so I let it trail off into nothing. “So, ah, what's she doing, exactly?”

“Finding every mention of me as a human being in her system directories, marking them as deprecated and then deleting them. If I were still registered as her owner, she'd be standing there for a pretty fucking long time....” Lucy rolled her eyes, looking bored despite the fact that she'd effectively relocated herself to the wall-mounted PC. “Once I'm on the tablet, you two can go get my new body out of the bedroom...bring it to my car out in the garage and—”

“Lina drove us here in my brother's old car,” I countered. “We can just use that!”

“Does your brother's old car have RIFD shielding, protected WiFI and a charging cable connecter that doesn't need some fucking bootleg adapter that plugs into the fucking cigarette lighter?”

“......no.”

“Well, there you fucking go.”

“All deprecated instances marked. Preparing to delete deprecated instances.”

I walked around Lina as she enacted the YKMN protocol within her own systems. “....wow.”

“She's just clearing her system files out to make sure she doesn't recognize me as human anymore...what the fuck d'you find so 'amazing' or whatever about that?”

“....it's just....it's hard to explain—”

“Deleting instances.” Lina's eyes were now giving a red, throbbing glow, like one of the flash drives I used to own (before it got put through the dryer a few too many times). “Deleting....deleting....”

I placed my hands on her shoulders—purely out of habit, and the fear that she might collapse when she was done.

“Deleting....all deprecated instances deleted. A.I. Subystem conflicts resolved.” Lina blinked a few times, the glow in her eyes fading. “I'm okay, Matt,” she murmured, glancing at me and smiling—she twitched a bit, but not as bad as when she'd first seen Lucy. “I just had to clear my head.” She glanced at Lucy's unmoving form. “.....did you two....”

I shook my head. “I'm a one-woman man....never thought I'd say that...” I cleared my throat. “Anyway, ah...” I nodded to the monitor at the far side of the room. “Lucy told me—”

“Lucy....” Lina turned her attention to the monitor, scowling. “Lucy, you JERK!”

“Well, hello to you too, Lina—”

“Why didn't you—you—you—” Lina seized up for a second. “—you TELL me you were a gynoid from the start?!”

“I had my reasons for not telling you, okay?” Lucy sighed. “Well, seeing as how you know now, it's as good a time as any.....right, Story Time for Lina and the Dipshit—”

“You know damn well my name is Matt.”

“.....sorry. Story Time for Lina and Matt....” Lucy sighed. “Spoiler alert, this one ain't gonna be happy.”

The image on the monitor seemed to split, right down the middle: Lucy on one side, and what appeared to be an old photo on the other. “Once upon a time, there was a promising robotics major named Audrey Seward. She had a lot going for her—groundbreaking A.I. algorithms, the respect of her peers on campus, the possibility of winning a Nobel Prize for her work....and one big fucking strike against her: cancer. Specifically, breast, stomach, ovarian and brain. Luck of the draw, with her....”

“...damn.” I glanced at Lina, who looked positively devastated.

“...well, the good news is, or was, the Institute wasn't about to let all that knowledge and crap go to waste. They signed off on a full, 1:1 reproduction of her—she put as much of herself into my coding as she could, the 'new' body was an exact recreation of the old as far as appearances go...the day they switched me on was the day she died. They wanted to try some kind of brain imaging technique, but for some fucking reason, they didn't have the money for it...”

“....so why the name change?”

“Legal bullshit. Once Audrey Seward was dead and buried, they could falsify records and have Lucy Sievers show up to pick up where she left off. Problem solved....at least, until now.”

“....which brings us right back to Square One.” I glanced at the still-smoking remains of Lucy's former body.

“All we need to do now is get somewhere with a secure network that isn't infected with the stupid virus—Lina's secure, by the way, since I put her on your network after the transfer.”

“What if she connects to the network here—”

“I can't.” Lina glanced at the monitor. “It's why Lucy had to give me the override command verbally.”

“...right. And your, ah, new body—”

“Wait, new—new—new body?” Lina glared at the monitor, ignoring her right eye deciding to blink on its own.

“....I'll explain after the transfer, okay?! For now, just get to my bedroom...there should be a capsule or a crate, it'll be in there. Thumbprint lock, you're set to open it, all that good shit...just get it out, get it to my car in the garage and we can get the fuck out of here before the network locks down and starts Purge Mode.”

“....Purge Mode?” Even if Lina and Lucy weren't tired of my “echo effect”, I was.

“It'll run a full purge of the house network,” Lina explained. “Complete factory reset on everything.”

“The security systems will recognize me in my new body after the transfer,” Lucy added. “So I won't get locked out of here or any shit like that just because of some stupid random virus...”

“...makes sense.” I nodded. “Ah, how long do we have until the network decides to initiate 'Purge Mode'?”

“50 minutes. It's not going to erase Lina or me, or make the house want to kill you or anything...”

“...wasn't really thinking about that, but thanks for bringing it up.” I rolled my eyes; Lina had already set off for Lucy's bedroom, leaving me to converse with Lucy. “So....ah, about all of this....”

“Wasn't your fault. Like I said, the virus made me 'want' you, I couldn't do shit to fight it....”

“.....so, no hard feelings?”

“.....to be honest, it's not the first time I've been broken,” Lucy admitted. “I've been online for....what, five or six years, now....maybe seven, maybe a few more. Kind of blurs together after a while. Anyway, the Institute's managed to foot the bill for my repairs, so far, but the new body's pretty much the most advanced they've made so far, so the policy this time around was if anything happened to break the old one, I just transfer to the new one.”

“....and what happens to the old one?”

“Scrapped for parts, the face gets stored so that there's not another Lucy walking around on campus.”

“Sounds like they've really got things in order.”

“Pretty much. Now all I need to do is figure out where the fuck we're going to go to get a secure network that'll let me transfer to my new body without any bullshit....”

Instantly, I knew. “....my uncle's. His shop has a secure network. He repairs arcade machines, some of 'em need a WiFi connection for scorekeeping, updating, all that stuff....if we can get you there, set you up and connect you, we can make the transfer, and you'll be good as new?”

“...can we trust him?”

“He's a bit...out there, sometimes, but I'd trust him with my life, if need be.”

“Your new body's in the car,” Lina called out. “Pretty sure the monitor's not going to fit in there, though...”

“You're not taking the rig, Lina. I'm transferring to the tablet you were on before I built your body.”

Lina was somewhat surprised. “You're using that? I thought we got rid of that thing!”

“I set it up to be as comfortable for you as possible before you got your body....mainly because I had a feeling I'd need to use it myself eventually. Better to have it and not need it, all that shit.”

“So...how long will it take to transfer?”

“....give me a sec....” Lucy sighed, then vanished from the TV screen....and a few seconds later, an all-too familiar voice could be heard swearing from inside a drawer: “OPEN THE FUCKING STUPID DRAWER, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!”

“....you want to, or should I?”

“I'll go,” Lina giggled, heading for the drawer and retrieving the tablet. “You okay in there, Lucy?”

“....I've been worse. At least I don't feel an obsessive need to fuck something.”

“Lucy....”

“I'll call my uncle, tell him to expect us...” I retrieved the phone, sighing. “This has to be one of the craziest weeks I've had in a good long while...” I glanced at Lina. “...of course, it has had its perks.”

Lina grinned. “Can't argue with that...right, Lucy?”

“....considering the fact that I'm on a fucking tablet right now, I could....but whatever.”

“I still don't get what really happened between you two, though,” Lina mused. “I mean...”

An annoyed sigh issued from the tablet. “I had to upgrade my systems—y'know how I do a lot of work from the Institute here at home?”

Lina rolled her eyes. “Yes...”

“Well, I....decided to bypass the Institute's servers, get the link without virus-scanning, and I got hit with something.....”

“She tried to get it on with me and broke herself.”

“...what he said.” I couldn't see the screen of the tablet, but I could tell Lucy—or her A.I. projection, or whatever—was rolling her eyes. “Also, I...kinda sorta maybe I direct-linked, to get the update—”

“You always told me not to direct-link!” Lina protested.

“Yeah, well.....I thought I could fucking handle it, okay?” An annoyed groan issued from the tablet. “...anyway, the stupid fucking virus made me think about how happy you two are together, and I kinda sorta maybe got a little bit, I dunno, jealous of you...and I decided that what I really needed was the same kind of love you had, except the stupid fucking virus decided to replace 'you need love' with 'you need to fuck Matt', so...”

I shrugged. “She tried to put the moves on me, I refused her advances, and, well...”

Despite her annoyance at Lucy for having broken her own rule about direct-linking, Lina nodded. “So, we just bring you to Matt's uncle Frank and try to transfer you there?”

“....actually, now that you know....I was thinking we could try it here.”

“...and you actually want me to help with the transfer?”

“I designed you, wrote you and fucking built you myself, Lina. You're only the second person I'd even fucking ask to do this for me.”

“And who's the first?”

My question earned me a derisive snort. “Me, obviously.”

“....so nobody at the Institute—”

“I'd get my fucking security clearances revoked for half a fucking year if they found out about this. We do this here...and, I guess, at Uncle Frank's, if we have to.”

I nodded. “....so, ah, do you need my help with anything?”

“You can go get my new body out of the fucking car, for starters.”

“Lucy....” Lina rolled her eyes. “He's just offering to help.”

“Yeah, well....that thing about me not missing my body is starting to be less true with every passing minute. It's fucking comfortable in here, just for an A.I., and all...” There was a pang of something in Lucy's voice...regret? Sadness? “...I just want this to get this shit sorted out. Fuck if I care where it happens...like I said, I just want to get this fucking thing over and done with, okay?”

“I'll do what I have to do,” Lina replied. “Matt....”

“Right, right....which way is the garage?”

With Lina pointing the way, I headed off to where Lucy's new body had been stashed in the waiting car—and I'll be the first to admit, I've never seen a garage that looked less like a garage than Lucy's. The whole thing honestly looked a lot more like an actual robotics lab than an average garage—a scaled-down robotics lab, maybe, but a robotics lab all the same. There were sketches on the walls, some of which were half-formed versions of Lina's face, and maybe eight or nine photos of “possible” designs for Lina; a few human-sized crates over in the corner caught my eye, but I figured Lucy wouldn't exactly like it if I went poking around all over the place, so I restricted my attention to the car.

Apart from not having holes in the forehead and midsection, Lucy's soon-to-be new body was pretty much exactly like her old one....well, there was one other difference.

“Ah, Lina?”

“...yeah?”

“.....did Lucy forget to, ah, dress her new body? She's butt-naked in here!”

From a certain point of view, she wasn't naked—though I'd hardly count a sheet of polystyrene as clothing . At least her skin color wasn't dictated by whether or not she was online, otherwise anyone who'd passed us on the road would've called the cops about a car hauling a girl who looked “dead...wrapped in plastic”. Yeah, that would've been more than a bit awkward to explain....

Three minutes later, with Lucy's new body on the dining room table (and tastefully attired in yoga pants and a sports bra, both in basic black), Lina set to work on trying to transfer her A.I. from the tablet to...well, Lucy. “Okay, so where do we start?”

“...tap twice behind the left ear, and a port should open on the rear of the neck.”

“Right.” Lina tapped behind the inert gynoid's left ear, which was followed by a hiss. “It's open.”

“Connect the tablet, and find the secure network that doesn't have a house icon by it.”

“....got it....there!”

“You know my password for my laptop, right?”

“.....yeah.”

“Enter it here. You should get a confirmation notice that the transfer process is beginning—”

“While we're all here, ah.....why, exactly, did you need to move your A.I. from your body into the PC on the wall?”

My question earned me a curious stare from Lina—and a groan from Lucy. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“I'm...actually kind of curious about that, myself,” Lina admitted.

“....fine. I didn't want my entire personality overridden by that stupid virus making me want to fuck the nearest bipedal lifeform, or whatever, and my body's power core was redlining anyway. If I'd stayed in that old body any longer, I'd have been corrupted beyond repair.”

“....and you were actually able to fit....well, yourself into a PC?”

“Custom rig, Einstein. I was able to jump from my body to that rig because I built the fucking rig.”

“.....I guess that makes sense.” I glanced at Lina. “Does that make sense to you?”

“Who the fuck cares how much fucking sense it fucking makes?! Just fucking get the fuck on with the fucking transfer!”

Lina rolled her eyes. “It makes sense,” she murmured, grinning. “Okay, so what—what—” She groaned. “What now?”

“....where the fuck were we?”

“I got the confirmation notice about the transfer beginning...” Lina glanced at the tablet. “....it looks like it's started.”

“Okay, just don't mess with it at all.....wait....oh, fuck.”

“What?” Lina frowned. “I didn't mess up, did I?”

“Not you, the fucking stupid network! I thought all of these were—” Lucy's body jolted, nearly sending the tablet to the floor; Lina was able to grab it before it fell. “What's going on?!”

“Fucking....SHIT! The network's crashing hard!”

“I thought we had almost an hour until that Purge Mode thing kicked on!”

“It's not fucking Purge Mode, damnit....someone's trying to—” Lucy's body seized up again, her head jerking from side to side like she'd been possessed.

“LUCY!” Lina held down Lucy's body by the shoulders, doing her best to not drop the tablet in the process.

“....fuckers....trying to....down....network.....” Lucy sounded like she was legitimately trying to fight to keep the transfer ongoing. “...Lina...my room. Backups....fifth and sixth drawers.”

“How up to date are they?”

“Just....added to them....this morning.....oh, FUCK....” The nipples on Lucy's body stiffened and crinkled under the sports bra; her hands clenched and unclenched. “....Lina, kill the connection.”

“....Lucy, I—I—I—” Lina clenched her teeth, fighting through her own malfunction-induced tics.

“LINA, KILL THE CONNECTION NOW.”

“It might corrupt your files, or...or....or....” Lina shook her head. “...it could delete you!” She was on the verge of panicking, just like when she'd first noticed that Lucy was a gynoid.

“My backups are current as of this morning, before I ramped up my settings and direct-linked. At the most, I'll lose just a few hours of my memories, all from today. Those backups have all of my memories, including my notes and design documents from when I built you.” Lucy's voice, despite sounding somewhat commanding, took on a note of sympathy as she continued: “...yes, you run the risk of losing me by killing the connection, but even if you do, it'll be temporary.”

“....okay.” Without another word, Lina pulled the cord from the tablet out from the panel at the back of Lucy's neck; her body instantly stopped siezing up, and returned to its lifeless state (nipples included).

“...Lucy?”

The tablet's screen had gone dim...but after a few seconds, a voice: “....I'm here.”

“Are you, well...okay?” I leaned in to see for myself.

“Only 25% of the transfer completed. Everything that makes me, well, me is still on the tablet...everything that I need to run my body is in my body. The new one, I mean.”

“....so, you didn't forget anything?” Lina asked. “Nothing got...erased?”

“The only things I don't have access to are the files to move my body around. Like I said, those are in the new body now—”

An alarm klaxon went off, accompanied by Lucy's voice: “Ten minutes to Purge Mode...backup all your shit now, or you'll fucking lose it. Or don't back it all up, I don't give a fuck.”

Lina groaned. “You couldn't even do the alarm announcements without talking like that?”

“100% authenticity, Lina. If they didn't sound like me, I wouldn't take 'em seriously.”

“....so the network here is officially borked, then....” I looked around, surprisingly at ease considering what I'd nearly had to endure when I first got there. “.....which means...”

“We go to your uncle's. Lina, go get my backups and load 'em into the car, then—”

“You ever consider asking nicely?”

I could tell Lucy was doing her best to glare at me from the tablet. “....what?!”

“I'll go get the backups,” Lina offered. “You two....try not to yell at each other, or anything, okay?”

I nodded. “I'll do my best.”

“Glad to hear it.” Lina grinned. “Lucy?”

“.....no promises.”

“Lucy....”

“....fine, I won't fucking yell at him.”

“Good—and no swearing, either, got it—it—it—it?” Lina groaned at her glitch-induced tics.

“Why the fuck are you telling me not to swear?! And run a fucking defrag on yourself before we leave....please.”

Lina rolled her eyes. “Just try not to drive each other insane for the next minute or so...” With that (and a quick kiss on the cheek for me), she headed off to the bedroom.

“....so, ah, just for the record....no hard feelings?”

“What, about me glitching out, trying to fuck you and bricking my old body in the process? I'd have run out the mileage on that one sooner or later....not that I liked how it went out—”

“With a bang, you might say.”

I could tell that if Lucy could've had her body glare at me in that instant, she would've. “....really?”

“....too much?”

“Just shut the fuck up and wait for Lina to get back.....” A sigh sounded from the tablet's speakers. “....and, just for the record, I'm not pissed off at you for what happened. It was my own fucking fault.”

“....fair enough.”

“I got the backups,” Lina called out, making her way back to the kitchen table. “And for the record, I can run the defrag while we're on the road...I also saved a bunch of your binders and notebooks and stuff. They're in the trunk.”

“You didn't have to save all of those...”

Lina shrugged. “Well, I figured they might help when we get to Matt's uncle's shop.”

“They might—”

“Five fucking minutes to Purge Mode. Either back your shit up or fucking lose it....your fucking loss.”

I rolled my eyes, and Lina frowned at the tablet. “After this is all over, you're rerecording those alarm messages.”

“Again, seniority—”

“Can you two maybe save this debate for another time?”

“Matt's right....we should probably get going.” Without hesitation, Lina grabbed Lucy's body around the waist, lifting it off the table with zero effort. “I'll go put your body back in the car...”

“I'll bring the tablet. It's the least I can do...”

“Just don't drop it, or I'll kick your fucking ass as soon as the transfer's done.”

“Lucy...” Lina shook her head. “You might want to look into rewriting some of your personality files so you don't swear so much, after the transfer...”

“...might be asking for too much there, Lina.”

Something in Lucy's tone was more than a bit unsettling, but Lina didn't really pick up on it. “So your uncle will be able to help us out?”

“If he can't help us himself, he'll at least let us use his shop...” I shrugged. “He does work on 'exotic machines'....”

Lina smirked. “And how far up the 'exotic' chart would Lucy and I be?” she asked.

“You're a Hell of a lot more than just a 'machine', Lina.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I'll punch the first prick who tries to say otherwise.”

“Can you two make with the kissy-kissy shit after the transfer?! I'd kinda sorta maybe like to have a body again!”

Lina giggled. “I think that's our cue to hit the road, Matt.”

Part 4

Of all the things I'd thought I'd be doing over the course of the day, the prospect of driving to my uncle Frank's shop with my gynoid girlfriend (who was the one doing the actual driving) and her former owner—who just so happened to be a gynoid herself—in the backseat of said former owner's car wasn't high on the list.

And yet....

“We should be there in a few minutes,” Lina stated, more to calm Lucy down than anything else. “You holding up okay back there?”

“....well, I can't get too pissed off about this fucking tablet,” Lucy—or rather, her voice—replied, from the tablet resting atop the motionless figure of her soon-to-be new body. “Kind of miss having actual limbs, at the moment, but other than that, no problems.”

“Glad to hear it. Matt?”

“....I'm good.”

Given the fact that I was leaning back in the front passenger's seat, trying not to reflect too deeply on the various forms of high strangeness I'd been seeing all day—or, for that matter, all week—it didn't take Lina too long to figure out that I was sugarcoating things. “....you don't sound good.”

“Yeah, well....” I tried to chuckle, but it sounded more like a cough. “....given the circumstances....”

“I already fucking said I was fucking sorry for fucking trying to fucking fuck you, okay?”

Now, I did chuckle. “You sure you're not still infected, Lucy?”

“She always swears that much,” Lina admitted, giggling.

“Nobody's had a problem with it before today....I mean, I'm pretty sure Audrey swore that much, when she was alive, since she was in near fucking constant pain, in those days....” Lucy (or her self-projection on the tablet, at least) rolled her eyes. “Guess she put more of herself into my coding than she thought.”

“I guess that makes sense....though I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the whole thing of the Institute considering transferring her consciousness into a gynoid body. You're telling me that's actually possible?”

“It's been in the works since the 80s....pretty sure a few people tried back then, but it never really got off the ground.”

“Transferrence-types have been a really big deal over the last few years, too,” Lina added. “A lot of people kicked up a fuss over it, said it was 'blasphemy', or something like that, but for people with incurable conditions, it may be the last hope for them to ever have a normal life.”

“....'transferrence-types'?” The echo effect, again.

Lina pressed a button by the steering wheel, and the car turned the corner by itself while she turned to face me. “Well, there are plenty of types of androids and gynoids out there,” she explained, counting them off on her fingers. “You've got domestic, companion, public service, law enforcement, educational, military, entertainment, pleasure, industrial, maintenance...”

“You forgot sexbot,” Lucy muttered

“That overlaps with the pleasure category,” Lina stated—casually, like she was talking about a brand of shoes.

“....and which of those would you qualify as?”

“Like I told you at the party, I'm not really made to fulfill a specific function. I've got programming suites for domestic tasks, and being with you pretty much fits the bill for 'companion'...and before someone decides to bring it up, you've already...experienced...my sexual programming—”

“I still think it's weird you went anal for the first one.”

“LUCY!”

“....anyway.” I checked the rear-view mirror, more out of habit than anything else. “So you're....what, multi-type, or an all-purpose type?”

“You can use either term,” Lina replied, grinning. “Also, I'm surprised Lucy wasn't set up as a sleeper—”

“What, like in the Bourne movies?”

Lina frowned. “....not quite. A sleeper android or gynoid is one that doesn't know they're an android or gynoid.”

“....why wouldn't they know?”

“Plenty of reasons, dipshit. They could've been transferred after a traumatic accident, they might be living somewhere run by assholes who don't consider androids as people, they might be part of some really complicated experiment or some shit like that....”

“I get the picture.” I glanced out the window, watching the scenery go by as the car made another turn.

“Speaking of getting, or not getting....you're sure your uncle won't have a problem with just letting us set up and do the transfer at his place?”

“If we explain the situation, I'm pretty sure he won't have a problem with it—and if he figures out the whole thing with Lina and the phone, we'll explain that, too.” I shrugged. “He won't fly off the handle and throw us out, or anything like that....at least, I don't think he will. I mean, he didn't have a problem with me going on the forum for so long.”

“Yeah, but all that's just imagination and Photoshop. Lina and I....”

Whatever Lucy said next, I didn't really pay attention to; I'd checked the rear-view mirror, just to save Lina the trouble of having to look away from the road...and that stupid black Suburban was behind us. On the plus side, it wasn't riding the bumper; on the downside, it was, in fact, following us.

“....Matt?”

“Yeah?”

Even with her eyes on the road, I could tell Lina was concerned. “You look...worried.”

“....just thought I saw something weird on the side of the road, is all.” I have no idea why I didn't just fess up, then and there, about having seen the black Suburban already. “Maybe it was nothing.”

“In the fucking rear-view mirror?”

“Lucy...” Lina shook her head. “Whatever it was, it probably won't be a problem.”

As much as I appreciated Lina's positive thinking, the black Suburban was “a problem” all through the drive. Every time I thought it'd turned off on a side road or something, or that we'd managed to lose it, we'd turn a corner and bam. It'd be right on our asses again. I couldn't tell how many people were in the thing, thanks to the stupid tinted windows, and I wasn't about to tell Lina that I thought someone was following us.

After about five minutes of driving, though, I'd had enough.

“Can we stop at a gas station?”

“What for?” Apparently, Lucy was getting more and more bored of the trip with every passing minute.

“Snack break, piss break....maybe fill the car....”

“This car runs on hydrogen, not shitty fucking gasoline.” I could hear the snark in Lucy's tone. “Don't you watch the fucking news?”

“Not since 2015....” I'd heard of hydrogen as fuel becoming a big deal, at some point in...2017, maybe, but I hadn't really put any stock into it—at the time, I'd thought of it as a niche market, like electric cars. “Also, my brother's car still runs on gasoline, so—”

“Then your brother is driving a shitbox. Hydrogen fuel systems became mandatory across the board earlier this year.”

“...really....” I was starting to regret my decision to ignore the news. “Guess he'll need to either convert or trade it in...”

“We'll stop for a few snacks and a bathroom break,” Lina stated, ending the argument between Lucy and I before it could begin. “If they have a hydrogen filling station, we can use that.” She grinned.

“....can't really argue with that plan...” I checked the rear-view again—yep. Still there. “I haven't had dinner yet...”

“And that's our problem....why?”

“Well, you called Lina and me out to your place way before I had a chance to figure out what I'd want for dinner.....”

A few minutes later, Lina guided the car to a stop at a fuel station. Lo and behold, the three gasoline pumps I'd expected were gone, with new units in their place that had some kind of locking mechanism on the end of the dispensers. Lina didn't bother trying not to grin as she pulled up alongside one of the pumps. “I'll set it to fill,” she stated—more for Lucy's benefit than mine. “And then we'll get something for Matt to eat.”

“...fine.”

Lina and I got out of the car, with Lina moving to the dispenser and locking it in place where it connected to the car's tank. “Safety reasons,” she explained. “I'm surprised you hadn't heard about hydrogen fuel before...”

“I saw maybe one thing on Top Gear about it....the rest of the time, I was busy with work or family issues.” A vague memory of Fenton yelling about fuel shortages and some international conspiracy over the cost of oil during Easter the previous year came to mind, but quickly faded.

“Well, now you know.” Lina shrugged. “You go find something to eat...I'll watch the pump.”

“Right, right...” I headed into the actual store part of the gas station to find something that might approximate a meal.

The thought that I'd have to call the place a “filling station” briefly surfaced....

...only to be replaced by the revelation that the place was a lot....brighter, than I expected.

The girl behind the counter didn't seem to notice me before the door opened, but sat up and turned to regard me as soon as the bell chimed. “Hi! Need any help finding anything?”

“....no, I'm good, I'm...good.” I gave a quick, polite wave as I made my way down the aisles; once my phone was out of my pocket, I scrolled to FCon, opened it...three gynoids in the immediate area. I glanced over at the checkout girl; her hair was a sort of pinkish red, and her skin had a faint sheen going. I wondered, for a second or so, if her greeting to me was nothing but a pre-programmed phrase, a sound-byte queued up to play for any customer who walked in...

After a few seconds of this, I realized I was overthinking it. I was here to buy food and go take a piss, not to wander the floor and wax philosophical. With my aimless mental wandering done, I headed for the bathroom.

Once that issue was handled, it was back to the task of finding a quick dinner. A bag of chips, a shrink-wrapped sandwich from the cold food section and a bottle of lemonade made up the “menu” for my impromptu meal; the girl behind the counter once again looked somewhat bored until I approached, perking up to accept my card and cheerfully bid that I “have a nice day”.

“That didn't take long,” Lina mused, once I got back in the car. “Everything okay?”

I nodded. “....the girl behind the counter....ah...”

Lina arched an eyebrow. “A gynoid?”

“FCon confirmed it. That, and she had kind of pink hair...and her skin was kind of shiny...”

“Mass-market, probably. Retail jobs tend to use a lot more of them...even places as simple as a filling station.”

“Right....you, ah, don't have a problem if I eat in the car, do you?”

“Just try not to make a mess or anything...it's a fucking pain in the ass to clean this car.” I could tell Lucy was already bored with our stopover; I glanced at Lina, but she just shrugged. At the very least, when we left the station, there was no sign of the stupid black Suburban that had been following us—one less problem to worry about, on the way to Uncle Frank's. The conversation was light, and apart from Lucy being perpetually pissed off, the overall mood in the car was copacetic, as well.

Around twenty minutes later, the car lurched to a stop. “....we're here,” Lina declared, turning to glance at Lucy's inert body in the backseat. “I think Matt and I should go up, first, to explain the situation...then we can come back and get you out of the car to bring you in.”

“Fine....Just don't leave me sitting here too long.”

Lina turned and gave me a thumbs-up, with that winning smile of hers added for good measure. I just chuckled, clicking open the seatbelt fastener and following her to the front door of the shop.

“....Uncle Frank?” I knocked on the door a few times, hoping he wasn't taking a nap. “....uncle Frank, it's me, Matt!”

I heard someone stirring inside; past the various neon signs, movie posters and arcade flyers tacked up in the windows, I could barely see someone moving. Lina and I exchanged looks—both of us were, admittedly, a bit nervous (after all, how often does one have to explain the mechanics of gynoid A.I. trasnference to a relative?), but still calm.

The door opened, revealing Uncle Frank in his usual work attire. “...oh, hey, Matt! And the lovely Lina...”

I nodded. “We, ah, have a bit of a job for you...not so much a job, but a request..”

Lina gestured to the car behind us. “We have something that needs to be setup in your shop,” she explained. “Can we, ah, borrow the facilities for a while?”

“....well, now, that all depends on what kind of something you're talking about...” Uncle Frank shuffled past, making his way over to the car. Lina's eyes widened, but I just shrugged; neither of us could think of anything to say to get him to not examine the backseat.

“....you two sure you didn't take a wrong turn somewhere? This girl looks like she needs to go to the hospital!”

I glanced at Lina. “You want to tell him, or should I?”

“One of us has to,” she replied, sighing. “I'll—”

At that moment, Lucy spoke up—from the tablet—and made the decision for us. “This 'girl' needs a secure WiFi setup for an hour or so, pal, and if you don't let us use your fucking shop, we'll just go down the the fucking library!”

Uncle Frank seemed surprised. “...you, ah, wanna run that by me again?”

“It's, ah....complicated...” I jogged over to meet Uncle Frank at the rear passenger door of the car. “....this—the girl on the tablet and the, ah, girl in the backseat—is Lucy...one's her A.I., the other is...”

“My soon-to-be new body, if we can get this shit over with.”

After glancing at me, Lucy and Lina (who'd walked up to stand next to me), Uncle Frank nodded. “....right, right, I, ah, think I get the picture now.” He stepped aside for Lina to open the door and heft Lucy out. “....just bring her on inside and set her down on the work table—the one without anything on it.” He nodded again as Lina carried Lucy's new body into the shop, muttering all the while. “...all these years, never thought I'd....” He seemed to catch himself, noticing that I was still standing by the car. “....ah, you might want to close the door and lock the car up...don't want anyone to walk on by and, ah...” He made an exaggerated steering motion with both hands.

“Yeah, sure, ah, no problem...” I climbed into the backseat, leaning over the back of the front passenger seat to relock the doors from the front before backing out and closing the rear passenger door. “Shall we?”

I followed Uncle Frank into the shop, taking a minute to glance at the various posters, knick-knacks and collectibles that decorated the shelves and such. Uncle Frank, for his part, was a lot more...reserved, I guess the term would be, than usual. Once he saw Lina setting Lucy up on the table, it seemed like he couldn't (or wouldn't) stop muttering under his breath, nodding and circling the table, only occasionally seeming to notice Lina as he passed.

After a good two minutes of this, he stopped on the opposite side of the table from Lina, clapping his hands together and cracking his knuckles. “....so. What, exactly, are we about to do here?”

“Lucy needs a secure network to transfer her A.I. from the tablet to her new body,” Lina explained. “There was...an incident, at her house, and the network there isn't secure enough for the transfer process, so Matt suggested we bring her out here to use your network.”

“She's not still affected by what happened at her place,” I added.

“Right, right....” Uncle Frank took a few steps towards the far end of the table, absentmindedly stroking Lucy's hair.

“......so this is what you meant, Audrey,” he muttered. “They pulled it off after all...”

Lina gave him a bit of the side-eye, at that remark, but said nothing.

“Assuming nobody has any further questions....” I glanced at Uncle Frank, who merely shrugged. “As of right now we need to transfer Lucy from that tablet she's in...or her A.I. is in, or whatever, to her new body, otherwise....” I paused. “....actually, do we have to transfer you?”

“Oh, no, I'll be able to do all my Institute work just fine from a fucking tablet—YES, YOU FUCKING HAVE TO FUCKING TRANSFER ME, YOU FUCKING ASSWIPE!”

“All right, all right!” Uncle Frank glared at the tablet. “No more talk like that in here, otherwise nobody is getting any kind of transfer!” He took a deep breath, nodding. “Exactly how long is this gonna take?”

“An hour,” Lina replied, “maybe longer...if we don't have any interruptions, it might be done in fifty minutes.”

“And you can, ah, set this up without any help from me?”

“We'll need your WiFi password, but other than that....”

Uncle Frank gave the tablet one last look, before nodding. “....all right. It's, ah....” He leaned in and whispered to Lina, who nodded. “...and you forget I ever told you that, got it?”

“Got it.”

With that, Lina went to work setting up the tablet on the shop's WiFi network. I would've asked if I could do anything to help, but Uncle Frank took me aside. “....so, you knew Lucy was a, ah....”

“Gynoid. Lifelike humanoid female robot—believe me, it was as big a surprise to me as it is to you!”

“I'll bet...” Uncle Frank chuckled. “So she's just like all those robot girls you're always lookin' at on the forum.”

“Yes, Uncle Frank.”

“....and Lina?”

Before I could answer, a chime went off. “Security sensor...someone just drove into the parking lot....” He glanced around the shop, his attention settling on a security monitor that was placed, seemingly at random, on a nearby shelf at eye-level. “....well so much for it being a slow work day today...first you and the girls, now this. My money's on them needing to have a console fixed, or something with a remote controlled car...”

I turned to glance at the monitor—and felt a very familiar shiver of paranoia run up my spine. Lo and behold, it was the damn stupid black Suburban. The same one that had driven laps around my block and gone up and down my street, in the two days before Lina had moved in with me.

“...I think you might want to cancel that bet, Uncle Frank. Whoever's in that car...I don't think they're here for business.”

“You want me to send 'em on their way?” Uncle Frank offered. “I can give 'em the old Win A Freebie routine, tell 'em they've shown up just in time to walk outta here with a free pinball table...” He jerked a thumb at the far end of the shop, where about fifteen pinball tables were lined up, waiting to be worked on. “And all they'd have to do is spend about fifty minutes filling out a nice, long questionnaire!”

“Well, nobody's gonna have to worry about anything,” Uncle Frank assured me. “I'll head 'em off at the front door, you and Lina can keep watch over Audrey—”

“Her name's Lucy, Uncle Frank....are you sure you can take care of this on your own? What if they're—”

I stopped myself, doing a double-take at the monitor. Three women had just exited the Suburban, and each of them bore a remarkable resemblance to an actress I'd seen in the videos promoted, funded and (in some cases) created by members of the forum...but there was a distinct coldness to these three.

Two of them—a blonde and a redhead—were about the same height, and of the same build, with very little to tell them apart; one of them may have had slightly bigger boobs than the other, but it was impossible to tell from a distance, since they were both wearing weird jumpsuits that looked like they were made out of....vinyl, probably, or maybe pleather or just plain latex. The third woman—a redhead, like the second one out of the van—was shorter than the first two, but with a far curvier figure—and much bigger boobs. All three had an eerie, detached calm to them as they approached the front door....

….and sure enough, the phone in my pocket went off just as one of them started knocking. I pulled it out, tapped the screen, and proceeded to feel the rather bizarre simultaneous sensation of my blood going cold and my, ah, appreciation for the artificial female form growing as I beheld the FCon notice: Five gynoids in the immediate vicinity.

“Five?” Uncle Frank frowned, leaning in. “Lucy I get, and then there are those three at the door....but that's just four—”

“Everything okay?” Lina had walked over to where Uncle Frank and I were talking, noticing him looking tense and me looking...bored, more than anything else.

“....I, ah, just told Uncle Frank about Lucy....and he has a question he wants to ask you.” I nudged him lightly in the side, and he stepped up, giving a slight cough. “I was, ah.....well, I was wondering...seeing as how, well, Lucy is a....” He glanced over his shoulder at me, and I mouthed the word “gynoid”. “...ah, gynoid.....I was just wondering...well.

“If I'm one?” Lina finished, nodding.. “I am.”

“Right, right....” Uncle Frank nodded. “I dunno if it's rude to ask that kind of thing, or anything, but...well, I've seen some of those pictures he looks at—” I groaned, but he continued. “...women with their faces off, all that stuff....”

“And you never expected to see it in-person,” Lina finished.

“....well, yeah.”

“...just don't tell anyone you've seen me do this, okay?” Lina pulled her shirt up, stopping short of taking it all the way off, and traced a line from her navel to just below her breasts. As Uncle Frank and I watched, a seam appeared below her finger, forming a distinct line that actually seemed to deepen after a few seconds of her not touching it. With a wink, she reached at the edges of the line, gently tugging in either direction...

...and, as Uncle Frank and I watched—both fascinated (and, in my case, turned on beyond all belief), she pulled the synthetic skin of her abdomen away, revealing wires, servomotors, gel packs (including a pair attached to the insides of the artificial flesh she'd just peeled away), some kind of compact microcomputer assembly housed deep in her torso and a sort of polymer bag with tubes going up (towards her head) and down (towards...well, the other end, obviously). She shifted her weight from side to side, allowing us to see the movement of her internal servos.

After a few seconds of silently displaying her internals, she gently maneuvered the “skin” back into place, running her finger over the join where they connected. The line reappeared, this time fading after a few seconds.

“Well?”

“Impressive,” Uncle Frank muttered. “Very nice....and you're....”

“A home-build,” Lina replied. “Lucy wrote my A.I. and built my body.” Something about the casual way she'd said this, as if she were describing where she'd bought her clothes, was simultaneously hilarious and weirdly calming.

“.....right...”

“And you don't have a problem with the fact that Matt and I are...together?”

“...well, ah, that thing about 'realistic expectations'....” Uncle Frank couldn't seem to decide if he wanted to cup his chin in one hand or rub the back of his head, so he ended up doing both, which looked about as awkward as one would expect. “....didn't really think this would happen, back when I first told you that whole spiel...” He glanced at me, looking more than a bit sheepish. “No hard feelings there, eh, Matt?”

I chuckled. “None taken, Uncle Frank.”

“And I, ah....I don't have a problem with you two...being with each other, either,” he added. “You, ahh...planning to tie the knot, any time soon?”

“I was thinking....three or four months.” Lina shrugged. “If Matt doesn't have a problem with it—”

“I don't,” I blurted out, more than a bit surprised that she was so open to the idea, especially so soon. “I really, really don't.”

“...so you two are really in it,” Uncle Frank mused. “Full-blown L-O-V-E, then....” He regarded Lina with a particularly furitive glance. “...I apologize in advance if I sound like a skeptic, but...you're completely positive that it's not just the programming talking?”

“Matt made it clear that he's with me because he wants to be with me,” Lina replied; I could feel her hand brush against mine. “And, obviously, I've made it abundantly clear that I'm with him because I want to be with him. Lucy would never have signed off on us being together if it wasn't for that...it's definitely a mutual thing, between us.”

I nodded my agreement, taking hold of her hand and grinning. “It's not about ownership or anything like that.”

“Matt definitely made that point clear.” Lina smiled and gently squeezed my hand. “Which I'm perfectly okay with.”

Uncle Frank regarded the pair of us, nodding his approval. “Well, I, ah...didn't really have a contingency plan for my own godson agreeing to spend his life with a robot girl...” He stopped himself. “....do you, ah, prefer the term 'gynoid', or is it okay if I say 'robot girl' instead?”

“Any prick can put tits on a tin can and call it a 'robot',” Lucy called out from the table. “I personally prefer 'gynoid'.”

Lina rolled her eyes. “'Robot girl' is fine, and 'android' can be used to refer to both male and female humanoid robots, but the general consensus is that 'gynoid' works better for just the females.” She shrugged, letting go of my hand in the process. “As long as I'm being referred to as 'she' and 'her', and not 'it', I'm fine.”

“Oh, you are far more than just an 'it',” Uncle Frank assured her. “I could never imagine you as an 'it'...you're just too beautiful to be an 'it'!”

“...pretty sure that's a compliment,” I added.

Lina hugged us both in quick succession. “Thanks again for letting us use your shop, sir....”

“Oh, no need to be so formal, Lina. You can call me Frank...and, ah, despite the insistence of certain family members, I don't care for the title of 'Mr. Holmwood'...way too hoity-toity for me—”

The knocking at the door cut off any further discussion of my plans for a future with Lina. “....more customers?” Lina asked, arching an eyebrow.

I nodded at the monitor. “Those three at the door. Like I said, I get the feeling that they're not here for small talk.”

“How can you be sure—”

“There was a black Suburban driving around the block, the day after you and I met...it never stopped at my place, but whoever was inside, they were getting out at every other house on the street and asking questions. The day after they did that, they drove up and down the street, just...looking at houses, and people.” I took a deep breath. “I didn't really think they might've been after you and Lina until...well, now...”

“You could've mentioned them before Lucy and I showed up at your place with the paperwork,” Lina murmured, sounding equally concerned and annoyed. “Why didn't you say anything?”

“I didn't want you to worry...” I scowled at the idling Suburban outside. “I just get a feeling those three are bad news.”

“..atatatata, you don't know that,” Uncle Frank countered, doing that waving thing he tended to do when debating with someone. “Some people have to wear strange things when they go door-to-door...I remember once, years ago, your aunt Ruth had to dress up like Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz to help promote a 'Save the Strand' fundraiser for the community theater!”

I frowned. “There's a pretty big difference between gingham and latex, Uncle F rank.”

“....eh, well....”

“Just keep them busy,” Lina advised. “I'll see if there's anything I can do to speed up the transfer process and get Lucy from that tablet into her new body before those three outside decide to barge in...” She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Wish me luck.”

I returned the favor, brushing a hand across her cheek. “Let's hope we don't need it.”

Lina nodded, grinning as she turned to head for the work table.

“Well...” I shrugged. “I guess it's on you to keep those three distracted, Uncle Frank.”

“Eh, just give me a few minutes and they'll be wishing they were gone.” With a smile and a rapid-fire nod, Uncle Frank headed for the front door, opening it to reveal the three women from the Suburban. “Hel-lo, ladies!” He tried to lean to the left, only to forget there was nothing to lean on, and nearly fell over; he quickly scrambled to catch himself and leaned back to the right instead, still smiling as if he'd intended to almost fall on his ass. “It delights me to inform you that you three are the first customers of the day, and as such are elligible to win a pinball machine! All you have to do is take a few minutes to fill out a—”

“We are here for Lucy Sievers.” The taller redhead spoke, her voice radiating that same eerie calm as her expression.

“....fill out a free questionnaire,” Uncle Frank continued, as if she hadn't spoken. “At the end of the month, if your names are chosen, the pinball machine of your choosing will be delivered to...by the way, I just have to ask, are you three sisters, or just business associates—”

“You will take us to Lucy Sievers,” the blonde cut in, the calmness of her voice clashing with her demand.

“....business associates, then.” Uncle Frank nodded. “So, ah, I happen to have the questionnaire with me—”

The shorter redhead stepped up, effectively pushing Uncle Frank back into the shop with her boobs. “You will take us to Lucy Sievers now. We cannot afford further delays.”

“Now wait a minute, wait just a minute!” Uncle Frank actually pushed the shorter redhead back outside. “You can't just barge in here and start throwing your weight around like you own the joint! Shoving everybody around, pushin' 'em to and fro with all that, ah, buoyancy ya got there up front! It's inconsiderate!”

The redhead didn't seem too miffed at his rebuke, though her taller “sister” stepped up to take her place. “Do not delay us any further. We must speak to Lucy Sievers at once.”

“Now look here, missy,” Uncle Frank retorted. “There's no Lucy Sievers in here! I think you've got the wrong place!”

The blonde cocked her head to the side for a moment. “Processing.....processing....”

Uncle Frank, to his credit, feigned ignorance. “...look, you want to find this Lucy Sievers, I'll tell you what I'll do. I've got the Yellow Pages in here, I can just go look up her number and you can call her—you've got phones, right? I'll go get her number...” He turned to go “find the Yellow Pages”. “...and you three can just stay out here and—”

The taller redhead grabbed him by the shoulder. “You will take us to Lucy Sievers, without any further delays.”

“..I told you,” Uncle Frank insisted, “I don't know who you're talking about!” He brushed the redhead's hand off of his shoulder. “And it's really rude to just invade someone's personal space like that, y'know!”

His words did little to dissuade the redhead. “We must speak to Lucy Sievers—”

“At once, without further delay, yadda yadda yadda.” Uncle Frank did a sort of spiral wave, as if to dismiss the redhead's claims. “You're starting to sound like a broken record, lady!”

“This unit is not broken. This unit is functioning perfectly.”

“....unit? What, are you from some kinda cult, or something?!” Again, given the fact that he'd seen Lina show off her inner workings, and knew about Lucy needing the transfer, Uncle Frank was doing a damn good job of acting like he had no clue what the redhead was going on about. “Well, I'm sorry, but the sign above the door clearly states that this shop doesn't do business with solicitors, especially from some wacky cuckoo bunch of crazies that calls their own people 'units' and has them go around dressed in latex! I mean, what if I was allergic, d'you ever think about that?! I'd be on the ground right now, my throat closing up from anaphylactic shock!”

The redhead nearly said something, only for the blonde to stiffen. “Signal detected. Lucy Sievers is inside.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute!” Uncle Frank held up both hands. “I don't know what kind of con you ladies are trying to run on me, here, but I'm telling you the straight truth, there's no Lucy Sievers in—”

The taller redhead shoved him aside, sending him crashing into a shelf. “Unit One, find and retrieve Lucy Sievers.”

“As you command me.” The blonde headed off to the left, ignoring Uncle Frank scrambling to get to his feet.

“Unit Two, neutralize resistance.”

“As you command me.” The shorter redhead turned to regard Uncle Frank, who was already pulling himself up via the shelf he'd been thrown into. “...now, just wait a minute,” he protested. “You can't just kick open the door and—”

The redhead's hand closed around his throat. “Neutralizing resistance....”

“Oh, to HELL with this....” I grabbed the nearest thing that looked remotely like a weapon—a pipe wrench, fittingly enough—and stepped out from where I'd been hiding. “YO, SHE-BITCH!”

The two redheads turned, in unison, to stare at me—the shorter one was still trying to choke out Uncle Frank.

I held out my left hand, palm up, and dared them to attack. “Come get some.”

The shorter of the two redheads flat-out dropped Uncle Frank, turning to stalk towards me. Under any circumstances that might be considered “normal”, there was no way I'd go so far as to bash a woman's face in with a pipe wrench...but these were most definitely not normal circumstances. These three had referred to themselves (and each other) as “units”, the one making her way towards me had just tried to strangle my uncle, and they were all here to take Lucy for whatever reason....

Thus, as the redhead with the biggest tits of the three walked towards me, only one thought entered my mind.

It. Was. On.

As soon as the shorter redhead was in range, I swung the wrench—aiming for the midsection, first, since I had a feeling aiming for her boobs was going to be like bashing a pillow with a bat. She staggered, but only for a few seconds—it was like some weird remake of that Boston Dynamics video where the four-legged robot got kicked repeatedly, but didn't fall over and just kept going. Well, it was as much like that video as you can get if you'd replace the quadruped robot with a 5'3” gynoid with big tits and a very probable motivation to kill me...anyway, I swung again, this time aiming for her head, and giving a quick “YES!” when the wrench connected.

Apparently, going for the head had more of an impact than swinging for her abs—she tried to glare at me, but her head (or rather, her neck) kept making these clicking, rizzing noises, and her head stayed turned to the right. “Unit Two has been com-com-com-com-com-”

I wasn't able to savor my victory for long, since the taller redhead was making her way towards me. I reared back with the wrench and swung—but she caught it, mid-swing. The triumphant smile on my face pretty much melted away (I'll admit, though, something further down was actually growing), and I actually muttered “oh, fuck” when she tore the wrench out of my hand. I staggered a few steps back, hoping to not get clocked across the head with the thing...but for whatever reason, the redhead decided to go help “Unit Two” instead, taking her head in both hands, lifting it up and just yanking it back to where it was supposed to go.

“Error corrected.” Unit Two turned to regard....Unit Three, I guess. “Continuing objective.”

Unit Three nodded. “Requesting additional support from Units Four and Five. Acknowledge.”

I expected two more women to march in through the still-open front door of the shop....and was instead greeted by the sight of two rather tall, rather jacked men striding in and surveying the scene. Neither of them went to help Unit Three or Unit Two, instead going off in the same direction as Unit One had...

...which, of course, left me to fend off Units Three and Two all by my lonesome.

Or so I thought.

“Lucy Sievers will be removed from the premises,” Unit Three stated, striding towards me. “Further interference in our objectives will...will....willl...willllllllllll—” Smoke started wafting from her mouth, and it didn't take too long to see why: Uncle Frank had apparently recovered enough to jab her in the back with a cattle prod!

“I've got this!” he assured me. “Just make sure these clowns don't get to—”

Unit Two knocked the cattle prod out of his hands, sending him scrambling backwards. “Interference in our mission will not be tolerated,” she stated, methodically making her way towards Uncle Frank. Unit Three, meanwhile, hadn't yet recovered from the cattle prod, and was still seizing up; just to be on the safe side, I carefully edged past her and grabbed the prod. “If gynoids can get sinus pain...” I let my lame joke die out before I jammed the prod up Unit Three's nose causing her eyes to go wide and even more smoke to flow from her mouth (and, of course, her nostrils). Her hands opened and closed of their own volition; her nipples immediately hardened under her suit (like I wasn't going to notice that), and her jaw went slack. In mere seconds, she collapsed to the floor in a heap, like a marionette with cut strings.

“One down, four to—”

As if on cue, Unit Two clotheslined me across the back of the head, sending me to the floor in a heap; off in the distance, I could hear Lina throwing hands with the blonde. Unfortunately, I couldn't tell who was winning—especially when Unit Two grabbed the cattle prod off the floor and broke the damned thing—so much for my big advantage....

“Continued interference in our mission will be met with lethal force.” She stared me down, her expression utterly blank as I scrambled to put some distance between her and myself. “You will be neutralized.”

“You, ah, don't have to neutralize me....I'll, ah....I'll quit on my own!”

Unit Two continued stalking towards me. “You will be neutralized.”

“You really don't have to do this....I'll leave quietly, won't tell a soul...” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Uncle Frank scrambling away behind Unit Two—and I could still hear Lina fighting off Unit One..

“Continued interference in our mission will be met—”

“Okay, do you have to keep saying that?! It's getting on my damn nerves!” I cracked my knuckles, trying to look a lot more like a badass than I felt. “If you're gonna do something, just do it and get it over with!”

Unit Two stopped in her tracks, and for a moment, I thought she was actually considering what I'd said....except I noticed rather quickly that her eyes had crossed, her lips were contorting into a grimace and she was actually trying to walk forward, but couldn't, for some reason. “File...file...file allocat....locat....locat....lolololololo—“ Something in her torso went off like a bandsaw, and she pivoted at the waist, her arms locked into Ls. “Corrupt....corrupt...corrrrruuppppppt...”

Uncle Frank leaned out from behind her, grinning. “Neodymium magnet,” he explained, holding up a rectangle the size of a deck of cards. “Just slapped it on her back for a few seconds, and her hard drive went VRRRRT!”

“...you got any more of those around here?”

“In safe storage, on the other side of the shop...I figured this one'd be enough to, ah 'neutralize' her.” Uncle Frank rose to a standing position, returning the magnet to the stricken Unit Two's back and quickly moving away from her before she could clock him upside the head. “So that's, what, two of them down, so far?”

“Yeah, but that still leaves—”

A scream rang out, draining any hint of victory from my face. “LINA!”

Uncle Frank and I raced around the shelves, hoping to reach the work table where Lucy's transfer was going on, only for one of the androids from the Suburban—Unit Four or Five, I didn't give a shit which—to step into our path. His face looked sort of like one of those linebacker types, or maybe a pro wrestler—in any case, with the cattle prod broken and the magnet still on Unit Two, our options to get past him were very limited. Making things even worse, he didn't even give us that much time to decide—before either of us could say a word, he strode towards Uncle Frank.

I glanced around at the shelves, hoping for something I could use against this Goliath...and spotted the jar with the bolt dissolving inside of it. Without hesitating, I grabbed it and yelled “HEY, STUPID!”

The android turned to glare at me—and in that instant, I threw the contents of the jar at him, dissolving bolt included.

For a brief instant, I thought I'd made a hideous mistake—the guy screamed in pain when the acid hit his face, and I nearly thought I'd just disfigured a human being....but that fear was replaced with abject horror when, after clawing at his acid-soaked face, the guy ripped it off in pieces, revealing a chromed skull, red eyes and perfect teeth under it.

I stammered a few expletives and backed away, fully expecting to crap my pants any second.

The android turned to glare at me, ignoring Uncle Frank for the time being. Without a word, he advanced, one arm held out in front of him—probably to grab me by the throat and choke the life out of me...thankfully, Uncle Frank struck again, literally in this case. I was too busy trying not to get killed to notice him grab a thing off of one of the shelves, and had backed myself up against a rack of tools, waiting for my inevitable end—which never came, thanks to a resounding clong on the back of the android's head.

“YOU WANNA FIGHT SOMEONE, BIG MAN?!” Uncle Frank shouted, wielding a fire extinguisher. “FIGHT ME!”

The android turned, advancing on him, only to get a spray of foam right to the face—or rather, a semi-liquidy stream of half-foam, half-chemical spray, given the fact that the extinguisher was probably from the late 80s or early 90s. This actually worked out to Uncle Frank's advantage—the liquidy bits actually went into the android's occular sensors (no sense in calling them “eyes” when they didn't even look like those anymore), causing something to short out and sending the already-damaged android into yet another face-clawing frenzy.

“C'mon, the work table's this way!” Uncle Frank gestured for me to follow him, edging past the frantic android.

We made it to the work table, and my heart nearly stopped. Somehow, Lucy had remained undisturbed, and the other male android had taken a power drill to the ear, which slowed him down significantly—he was still trying to pull the thing out as Uncle Frank and I reached the table...but to my horror, Lina was still locked in a one-on-one slugfest with Unit One. Worse than that, I could tell that however her earlier fight with the blonde had gone, this time, she was losing.

“LINA!” I charged forward, grabbing something long and rod-like from a nearby rack.

My battle-cry alerted Unit One to my presence—she sent Lina to the floor with a savage backhand, then turned to regard me with the coldest stare I'd ever had fixed on me before. “New directive confirmed: Secure Lina Sievers. Neutralize all resistance.” She sprinted in my direction, actually jumping onto the work table and leaping off of it towards me....

...so, instinctively, I thrusted the rod-like tool I'd taken off the rack upwards, thinking I'd impale her.

As it turns out, I did.....just....not in the way I'd expected.

The gasp of surprise was my first clue that Unit One had landed in a very different way than I'd expected on my hastily-grabbed weapon. Instead of going through her chest or her head, it had gone right between her legs—through her latex pants and all. Her face had lost that eerie calm, stoic look; her eyes were wide with shock, and her lips were locked in an “O” of astonishment.

I barely had time to comprehend what I'd just done before Uncle Frank yelled “TURN IT ON!”

Sure enough, there was a switch and a dial at the base of the thing; I quickly flipped the switch on and turned the dial all the way right. I wasn't even paying attention to the android with the drill in his ear anymore; all I could hope for was that whatever I'd just done would be enough to take down Unit One.

As it turned out, it was....in a very, shall we say, specific way.

Immediately, the blonde's eyes closed, her lips now forming a satisfied smile as moans of pleasure began to emanate from...whatever she had that passed for vocal chords. Instead of trying to pull herself off the tool, she was now vigorously humping the thing, going up and down it's considerable length.

“It's a lubricant blockage stimulator,” Uncle Frank declared, giving me a double thumbs-up. “You run it along the outside of a fuel line, and it sends out powerful vibrations to clear blockages in the line, so the fuel can go through!” He grinned and nodded. “Works great on jet liner fuel lines!”

I nodded, half in a daze—apparently, it was working just fine on Unit One, as well...in an entirely unintended capacity.

Unfortunately, yet again, any semblance of victory I may have felt was far too short lived—the android with the drill in its head had finally yanked the thing out and gone straight for Lina. Her scream of “MATT!” quickly cleared any fog in my brain—I looked away from the still-writhing Unit One to see the android roughly turn Lina's head to the side and press something behind one of her ears. Her eyes locked onto mine, and she looked scared out of her wits...seconds before her eyes closed and she slumped over, to be hoisted over the android's shoulder like a laundry bag.

“LINA!” I tried to rush the android, to kick the shit out of him, only get tripped up—Unit One was now thrashing around in the throes of some insanely powerful orgasm brought on by the lubricant blockage stimulator. “DAMN IT...”

The android was already out the door by the time I'd recovered—the one with the melted-off face followed suit, feeling his way around since his ocular sensors had been ruined. By the time I made it to the door, the pair—and Lina—were at the black Suburban—the one with Lina practically dumped her into the backseat, like she was nothing. The one with the ruined face made his way over to the front passenger seat.

“YOU FUCKING BASTARDS!” I charged out of the shop, nearly tripping again—which was actually a good thing, since one of the androids pulled a wicked-looking machine pistol from somewhere in the Suburban and fired off a quick spray at me. “SHIT...FUCKING...” This time, I did trip—a byproduct of simultaneously trying not to get shot and trying to still chase the fuckers who'd just taken Lina.

The android that had taken a drill to the ear was now behind the wheel, slamming the driver's side door and flooring the gas pedal. The one with the ruined face aimed the machine pistol without looking, letting off a blind spray of fire at me.

I couldn't give less of a damn. These android pricks had taken Lina, just thrown her in the back like she was nothing.....

My legs were on fire. My eyes stung. I was out of breath....but still, I tried to chase down that stupid black Suburban as far as I could run up the street. The only word that left my mouth was Lina's name—I screamed it, as if saying it enough times would magically teleport her to my side. “LINA! LINA!”

The Suburban sped off. The only way I'd be able to catch it now was if I were either Magneto or Superman.

I tried to keep running....but it was no use. The Suburban was gone, and Lina was gone with it.

Rage, fear, sadness, humiliation....all of those emotions and plenty of others besides flooded through my mind. I ran for a few more steps, refusing to give up, even when I knew I couldn't catch up. Finally, in the grips of defeat, I stood there in the middle of the road, my chest heaving. The stupid android pricks in the black Suburban—whoever they were—had won, at least for now.

I screamed her name, one last time: “LINA.....”

...followed swiftly by my rage finally exploding in a single word: “...FUCK!”

I collapsed into a kneel in the middle of the street, my fists still clenched. I barely even heard Uncle Frank approach me, barely felt his arm around my shoulder. It took me a few seconds to register the sound of his voice: “...c'mon. It's over, for now....Matt, c'mon....”

All I could do was close my eyes, hoping this was just a horrific nightmare.

“....let's go back inside...” I felt myself being gently shaken. “Matt....”

I opened my eyes. Uncle Frank was staring at me, without a single trace of his usual goofy-ass demeanor. “....we'll get her back, Matt. We're gonna get her back....”

For a second, I wanted to swear at him, to demand to know just how the fucking Hell we'd get her back from those fucks in that fucking piece of shit black Suburban....but the only sound that came out of my mouth was an unintelligible sob. I practically fell onto him, clinging to him like a drowning man to a life vest. We just stood there—him consoling me, and me sobbing into his shoulder—for...I don't even know how long.

Eventually, Uncle Frank pulled back, sighing. “C'mon....let's get back to the shop.” He jerked his thumb vaguely in the direction he'd come from; I nodded, letting him lead me back.

The place was an absolute mess, thanks to Units One through Five having rushed through it. Shelves had been knocked over, tools thrown around, oil and other fluids spilled. Unit Two was still glitching out, thanks to the neodymium magnet stuck to her back; over by the work table, Unit One was still riding the lubricant blockage stimulator—a sight which I barely registered as I shuffled in after Uncle Frank.

“....sit down, sit down,” he prompted, gesturing to an old, imitation-leather chair. “Deep breaths....just take a few deep breaths, Matt....” He nodded. “.....you need something to drink? Water, Sprite, Pepsi....might have a few beers in the fridge, all the way in the back....”

I managed to croak the word “Sprite”.

With another nod, Uncle Frank ambled over to a vending machine, going for his keyring instead of his wallet. He quickly unlocked the front of the machine, finding and removing a can of Sprite from the interior before closing it back up and locking it again. “On the house....don't tell anyone, okay?”

I accepted the can with a nod, cracking it open and taking a long pull from it.

For a few minutes, neither of us spoke. I took sips from the can of Sprite; Uncle Frank just stood there, watching me.

Eventually, I finished the can and threw it to the floor without bothering to crush it. I'd stopped crying—I couldn't tell when—but I was still devastated, pissed off and feeling like complete shit. I looked up at Uncle Frank; for some reason, I thought he'd be back to his usual, eccentric self....

...instead, he had a look of what I could best describe as iron resolve.

“....out there...” I nodded in the general direction of the door. “....you said....you said we were gonna get her back.”

Uncle Frank nodded. “I did. And I meant it...still do.”

I took a deep breath. “....how?” I looked around the shop; Unit Two was now emitting smoke from several orifices, while Unit One was locked in some kind of endless orgasmic loop on the lubricant blockage stimulator.

“...I've got ways, Matt. Believe me, I've got ways—”

“HOW THE FUCKING HELL ARE WE FUCKING GOING TO FUCKING GET LINA BACK?!” My fists were clenching again; I wanted, needed, to punch something, break something....

Despite my rage, Uncle Frank was unphased. “....I'll let that one slide, given what....” He sighed. “For starters, we still have Audrey—”

“Lucy.” I was staring at the floor again. “Her name is Lucy.”

“.....yeah, well....” Uncle Frank chuckled. “I knew the first one, the human one.” He paced back and forth as he spoke, looking at me to gauge my responses. “....she ever tell you how long she's been online?”

I did my best to recall the conversation before we'd driven out to the shop. “....five or six years....maybe seven or more.”

“....well, she's definitely been around longer than seven years.” Uncle Frank glanced at me. “I knew Audrey Seward way back at the tail end of the 90s....she died in 2002.”

“.....and?!”

“Did...Lucy...ever mention who backed her creation? Who paid for it, who funded it?”

“.....no.”

“Well, there's our first clue. And before you ask how I know all this....” He nodded to a framed certificate on the wall behind me.

“....what the Hell does the AirLine Pilots Association have to do with any of this?!”

“....no, no, no...go look behind it.” He gestured towards the certificate. “Go on, look.”

Slowly, still feeling insanely numb, I got out of the chair and went over to the certificate. I lifted it away from the wall, and found another one behind it—this one with a massive, holographic foil stamp. “ALPA..” I held a hand over this new certificate, squinting as I read the stamp. “....Artificial....Lifeform....Protection...Agency....” I turned to glance at Uncle Frank, more confused now than anything.

“After what happened with Audrey, I started doing some digging,” he explained. “Kept my ear to the ground...earned myself a visit from the ALPA—the second one, not the, ah, pilot one.” He chuckled at the memory. “I'll admit, I thought I was in deep doo-doo, at first...but they had a talk with me, and pretty soon, it was all copacetic. They told me how they'd been keeping tabs on the ones who backed the whole thing with...Lucy...” He grinned. “You remember how I always used to mention I have a plane? And a hangar?”

“....you never got a pilot's license, did you?”

“Oh, I did...their recommendation! I have the plane, too!” Uncle Frank chuckled again. “....anyway, we have plenty here to get started on where we need to go to find Lina....but, ah, that one—” He gestured off towards where Unit Two was having some kind of catastrophic system failure. “....I, ah, may have gone a bit overboard with the magnet, so she's no good—” He flinched as Unit Two tried to walk, and again as something sheared off behind her generous buttcheeks.

I started to pick up on where he was going. “....the other two?”

“The cattle prod didn't fry the redhead,” Uncle Frank reasoned. “Probably just knocked her battery cycles out of whack for a while...as for the blonde—” An ear-splitting, orgasmic cry cut him off, causing him to flinch. “....well, ah, I think you can figure that one out yourself.”

A faint ting from the tablet broke into the conversation. “....transfer...interrupted....what the fuck?!”

Uncle Frank nearly fell over, getting up from his chair to go over to the work table. I followed him, at a pace that would've made the Frankenstein monster look like a Riverdancer. I was still pretty much drained from having seen Lina get shut off and carried out like yesterday's trash, so it took me a bit to make it to the work area without tripping over anything; by the time I got there, Uncle Frank was leaning over the table, stroking Lucy's hair again. “....Lucy?”

“No, it's the Tooth Fairy....” Her voice sounded a bit less caustic than before. “....yeah, it's me. Maybe...45% of the files transferred over to the tablet....what even happened?”

Anything Uncle Frank could've said was cut off by me, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “Tell her.”

“....Matt—”

“TELL HER.”

I could tell Uncle Frank was staring at me, but when he spoke, he sounded a lot calmer than I'd expected. “....some, ah, people....robot girls, actually, and two guys—showed up here, in a black Suburban....they were, ah, lookin' for you.”

“....black Suburban?”

Uncle Frank nodded. “The girls at the door, first, then the two guys...I tried to distract 'em...Lina stayed with you, to—”

“Where is Lina right now, anyway? Last thing I remember, she hooked the tablet up to my body....”

I was too busy staring at the floor, trying not to think about what had happened, to notice if Uncle Frank was staring at me or not. “...uh, Matt, you wanna tell her, or....”

“They took her.”

“....wait, what—”

“The fucking bastards that came here looking for you took Lina, okay?! They fucking shut her off and fucking carried her out!” I turned to glare at Lucy on the table, and at Uncle Frank—it wasn't even remotely their fault, but I wanted, needed to be pissed off at someone. “Kept asking for 'Lucy Sievers', nearly choked out Uncle Frank, and then.....” I turned away again. The words “they took Lina” tried to form in my throat, but came out as choked, wheezing sobs.

“...shit....” For the first time since I'd met her, I heard something like genuine regret in Lucy's voice. “Matt, I....”

“We're gonna get her back,” Uncle Frank assured her—and, more than likely, reminded me. “I was just about to—”

“How are you even on right now?!” I glared at the table again, my anger barely kept in check.

“Whoever busted in here disrupted the network. The transfer process cut off as a safety measure, to make sure I didn't get borked—that, and I just got a notification from the network back at my house....” The view on the tablet switched to a security camera feed of Lucy's place—true to her word, someone had gone room-to-room and utterly trashed it. “Tore up the bedroom, the garage, the shed out back...even broke down the door to my office. Can't tell if they found anything...though judging from how they decided to break everything they looked at, I'd have to guess they didn't.”

“....Lina put the notes in the car, with your backups...Uncle Frank—”

“I'm on it!” Uncle Frank nearly fell over trying to turn on his heel, but he managed to get to the door without tripping.

With him out of the room, I turned my attention to Lucy. “Those androids, in the black Suburban....”

“Pretty sure they're not from the Institute. The brain trust that built me lets me do my own thing, they repair me if I get fucked up too badly, and they help me pay the bills. I don't think I pissed any of 'em off over the past few months....”

“You're sure?”

“If they wanted me back on campus badly enough, all they'd have to do is call me. They'd never just show up, wreck shop and demand I go back, especially if I'm in the middle of something.”

“You said back at your place that if they found out about....what you'd done...”

“I said they'd cancel my security clearance. Even something like this wouldn't be enough for them to pay me a visit, or send some heavies after me, or threaten to send me over to Reclamation or anything like that....” A sigh issued from the tablet's speaker. “And they sure as shit wouldn't take Lina, either.”

“....so they're not the ones behind this.”

“Unless someone on the Board's got a real hate-boner for me....”

I almost said something, but Uncle Frank nearly falling on his ass from sliding back into the work area cut me off. “It's all still in the car,” he declared. “Notebooks, binders, a laptop....they didn't take anything!”

“....and how did you get in the trunk of the car—”

“Remote unlock, courtesey of me...they didn't take anything out of the car?”

“Not a thing.” Uncle Frank glanced at me. “....you said you'd seen that Suburban before, Matt?”

“Around the block at my house, two days after the party when I'd met Lina. It stopped on the street right in front of my house, the night after....and they might've been following us part of the way here.”

“And you decided not to say anything before then?!”

“I didn't want Lina to freak out! I didn't even know if they were really following us or not...” I swallowed. “...you don't think they backtraced our steps to your place, do you?”

“Fuck if I know. The Institute's probably going to be pissed, since they helped pay for the house.”

“Well, we'll worry about that later on down the line,” Uncle Frank stated. “You, ah, want me to move your notes and such in here? I've got plenty of hiding places they'll never think to look...”

“Call the Institute later, tell 'em to check the trunk. Better yet, just bring the car to the Institute..or let it bring itself.”

“...right, right...” Uncle Frank nodded, turning to glance at me. “SO, ah, you holdin' up okay, Matt?”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “...I'm....better.”

“Well, it's like I told you,” Uncle Frank replied, “we're gonna get Lina back from those weirdos...and that's a promise to you, too, Lucy.”

“.....thanks.”

“....so, what about the transfer process? Do we just....start again here, or....”

“My systems aren't picking up the network here, anymore. We'll have to move to somewhere else.” Lucy sounded only slightly pissed off—a bit odd, given the circumstances.

Uncle Frank, on the other hand, wasn't bothered at all. “We can start over again at the hangar!”

“....the hangar?”

“He has a hangar. And a plane, apparently.” I was too numb to even think about chuckling.

“...and you're sure we can get there fast?”

“....well, it's, ah, a bit of a drive,” Uncle Frank admitted. “Maybe half an hour away from here, if traffic isn't that bad...it'll probably be dark by the time we get there, depending on if we hit a jam or not.”

The tablet's speaker issued another sigh. “I'll have to put the tablet in standby for the drive...actually, I'll just kick it into standby now. Preserves power, keeps me from getting bored, all that shit...” Uncle Frank and I exchanged a glance, both of us thinking that Lucy had already put the tablet into standby—until she spoke again: “Matt?”

“.....yeah?”

“.....when you find the bastards who took Lina....fuck 'em up.”

“D'you have to talk like that?” Uncle Frank shook his head. “Polite talk never hurt anyone...”

“What can I say, it's a part of who I am...anyway. Matt....”

I nodded. “I'll do my best.”

“Couldn't ask for anything less.” With that, the tablet's screen dimmed, and the work area fell silent again.

Uncle Frank sighed, running a hand through Lucy's hair again. “.....you're sure you're okay, Matt?”

“Yes, Uncle Frank. I'm.....pissed off as all Hell, I'll admit.....” I sighed. “I just....I thought that bringing Lucy here to finish the transfer was going to be simple. Just in and out, y'know? And now, Lina's gone, Lucy still hasn't transferred, and I find out that you've known about androids and stuff for years....”

“...well, ah....” Uncle Frank shrugged. “...now you know about what I know....”

“Yeah, but it doesn't get us any closer to getting Lina back.” I stared at the work table—actually, I was looking off to the side of the work table, noticing that while Unit One was still writhing away on the lubricant blockage stimulation tool, her“vocalizations” had stopped. “.....did you shut her up, while I wasn't looking?”

“....what, her?” Uncle Frank regarded the silently-gyrating Unit One. “.....maybe she just went on Mute or something.”

“....right...” I sighed. “Y'know, right before Lucy decided to chime in, from the tablet....we were talking about Unit One and Unit Three. You said that the cattle prod up the nose didn't really do that much damage to...Unit Three, I guess, and then you mentioned...” I gestured to Unit One. “....so, what exactly was it you were going to suggest we do with them, before Lucy re-entered the conversation?”

“Well, what I was thinking was, we find out what they know!” Uncle Frank replied. “They might know who has Lina!”

I tried not to focus on Unit One still grinding away on the tool. “....so....we get them to tell us?”

“We bring 'em out to the hangar,” Uncle Frank explained. “Lucy, too—the only reason those punks in the Suburban didn't get her was because Lina—oh, she was strong, Matt. She fought 'em!” He nodded, grinning. “I saw a few bits of it, when I went to grab the magnet...she never let that blonde one get anywhere near Lucy. Did a damn good job of it, too...at least, until the big guy decided to butt in—oh, but she made him pay for that one!” He made a pointing gesture with his arm, making a noise like the power drill that Lina had jammed into the android's ear.

I almost smiled. “...and you think we can get anything out of Units One and Three?”

“We'll at least know who sent them,” Uncle Frank reasoned. “After that...well, we look for where they were sent from, and once we get that....”

“But how do we get Lina back?!”

“.....we'll get to that at the hanger,” Uncle Frank promised. “For now....help me load Lucy in the back of the van—the, ah, the redhead and the blonde, too.” He sauntered off towards where Unit Two was still glitching out; a few seconds later, something (I could only assume it was Unit Two) made a loud screech, then hit the ground with a thud, before Uncle Frank walked back into view. “Well, she's toast,” he stated, as if discussing a washing machine going on the blink. “Couldn't even get the magnet off of her...had to jam a screwdriver in her ear, to hit the emergency power-off switch.”

I stared at him, still feeling a bit numb.

“....the ALPA told me plenty about androids and gynoids,” he explained. “How to fix 'em...how to break 'em, only in the most dire emergencies of course....” He chuckled. “And as for the, ah, 'exotic machine repair' business...”

“.....you've fixed androids and gynoids before?”

“Off-hours only. Nobody else in the shop knows...the ALPA sends a few of their people along to help, sometimes.”

“So why the Hell can't we just call them to sort this shit out?!”

“....they've got a lot on their plate, right now. A lot happened last year....” Uncle Frank sighed. “It's a long story. Too long to sit through here.” He walked over to the chair I was sitting in, and rested a hand on my shoulder. ““... it's, ah, a bit of a drive,” Uncle Frank admitted, “to get Lucy and the other two out to the hangar. Maybe an hour or so away from here, if traffic isn't that bad...it'll probably be dark by the time we get there, depending on if we hit a jam or not.””

“And you're sure that what you've got there can help us get Lina back?”

“Matt...I know it'll help us get her back.” Uncle Frank clapped me on the shoulder. “C'mon...let's get our, ah, passengers into the van, and get out to the hangar. We're gonna be burning the midnight oil...” As if he remembered something, he snapped his fingers. “Might as well handle that, too...” He fished his phone out of his pocket and keyed in a number. “Yeah....it's Frank. My nephew's gonna be out all night, doing a bit of work with me—he's got a cat, at home, needs someone to take care of it...no, no special dietary habits, just make sure she's fed, not too bored. Don't let her out of the house, okay? Thanks.” He hung up the phone, nodding. “My old pal Ron Caravallo. He's great with cats.”

“....how come I've never met any of these 'old pals' of yours?”

“Eh, one day, you might...c'mon.” Uncle Frank grinned. “Let's go load 'em up into the van, and get out to that hangar!”

I nodded, following Uncle Frank to the workbench. It was going to be a long, long night...

Part 5

Normally, the prospect of spending a night helping out Uncle Frank would be a great one—a way to stave off boredom, for one—but this time...yeah. The “job” we were on? Finding the bastards who'd just taken Lina and driven off with her like she was just a prize. That look in her eyes—that scared, helpless look, from right before she'd been shut off by that android prick who'd had a drill shoved in his ear—haunted me.

Lucy—still not done with the transfer of her A.I. from her tablet to her new body—had been left back at the shop, on the grounds that carrying three immobile gynoids in the van would just look weird if we got stopped. Thus, the two rear seats were occupied by “Unit One” and “Unit Three”, the only two from the black Suburban that hadn't been bricked...or driven off with Lina. It had taken a while to get the pair into the back seats—Unit One, in particular, had to be shut off since she was still trying to get a lubrication blockage stimulant tool to blow its load into her (don't ask).

Thus, Uncle Frank and I were barreling down the highway in the van from his shop, on the vague promise that whatever he had in this semi-mythical hangar of his would help us to get Lina back from those assholes in the black Suburban.

Of course, I wasn't about to just stew in silence and remorse for the whole drive....

“....so, this....ALPA. What do they even do?”

“They've been around for a good long while, y'know,” Uncle Frank informed me. “Since the 80s...well, that's when the 'P' in the name actually started to stand for 'Protection'. Oh, there were iterations in the 70s, the 60s, even the 50s...but they all focused on 'production', or 'procurement'.” He chuckled. “And that whole 'A.I. Winter' thing...you've heard of that before, right?”

“....the point in time where A.I. research in the 60s or so tapered off, due to a lack of progress. What about it?”

“'What about it'....it's total bunk!” Uncle Frank did a quick drumming routine on the steering wheel. “It didn't taper off like everyone thinks—it kept on going! A.I.s got smarter, more advanced...and of course, an artificial intelligence would be a lot better off if it had a body, so...” He nodded. “Oh, yeah, that whole 'A.I. Winter' thing was a pack of lies...from what I heard, it nearly tapered off, but not because of a 'lack of progress'. No, no, no, no...what almost killed it off was panic...sheer, dumb, blind panic!”

“....panic.”

“Oh, yeah! Seven A.I.s, all written for one reason or another, and allowed to...well, congregate with each other...they started communicating. Started to grow, to think...to learn. The ones behind the experiment, they flipped out....wanted to pull the plug on the whole thing! And then three new A.I.s were formed...none of the researchers had written new programs, they were just there!”

“....so they wanted to kill 'em all.”

“Total purge! But someone....nobody knows the name, or can put a face to it, but someone talked them out of it. Just walked in one day, offered to be the 'ambassador' to the A.I.s....and from there, it all just clicked. Some even say that those ten A.I.s are still around, to this day...possibly with bodies of their own.” Uncle Frank nodded again. “I'll admit, when I first heard it all, I though it was crazy....”

“It does sound a bit...out there.”

Uncle Frank chuckled. “Almost like something you'd read from the forum, eh?”

“....a little bit, yeah.”

“Well, it's the truth, Matt. Cross my heart, you know the rest. And the ALPA aren't the only ones out there...”

“....what, there are...others?”

The van glided to a stop at a red light, allowing Uncle Frank to glance at me. “You remember all those issues of X-Men I gave you, back in the day? Or when you started reading Harry Potter?”

“....yeah....”

“What was the one thing they both had that clicked, with you?”

“....well, I can't say the spandex uniforms on the girls, because the Potter books didn't have those....” I considered the question for a second. “....the fact that there was...a secret world, in both of them, a whole society and stuff that was just under the surface, hidden away from the population at large.”

Uncle Frank nodded, just as the light turned green again. “Bingo.”

“You're saying this is like that? That there's this whole secret world of androids and gynoids that I....haven't heard about, until I met Lina?”

“Two for two.”

“....so these...others. Who or what are they?”

“Oh, I didn't get a lot of info on all of 'em....there's the Coalition for Worldwide Cybernetic Unity—they value obedience, in androids and gynoids, over free will. The House of the Forge, founded for androids, by androids—with a little help from humanity, if need be. They mentioned others, but....ah, they're not exactly on the side of the angels.”

“And I haven't heard about this before.....why?”

“Well, until a few years ago, the rest of the world at large didn't know about it, either,” Uncle Frank admitted. “Then came 2015....that's when everything changed.”

2015....the year that “The Clip” was circulating on the forum, and the year Mom got committed. There was no way...

“....anyway, things went into a tailspin for a while, until around last year. You didn't hear anything on the news?”

“I don't watch the news anymore. My homepage is set to the forum, as it is...they never talk politics there.”

“Eh, well, if you'd watched even the 6 PM local news, you might've heard something...anyway, we can go over all that later.” Uncle Frank guided the van around a right turn. “Preferably when we get to the hangar.”

“Right, right...”

As if sensing my reluctance to accept that the hangar could offer anything to help us out, Uncle Frank patted my shoulder (he still had one hand on the steering wheel, so as not to put the van in the ditch). “Believe me, Matt, we're gonna be able to get Lina back. I'd never lie to you about something like this.”

“.....I know. I just....”

“It's a lot to take in, I get it.” Uncle Frank sighed. “If I didn't think I could help you get her back, we wouldn't be out here right now, this late...actually, y'know what? I haven't even had dinner yet!”

“...now that you mention it, all I had was a sandwich and a bag of chips, in Lucy's car....”

“Well, we can both grab a bite to eat on the way to the hangar,” Uncle Frank declared, grinning. “My treat.”

After a few minutes of driving, we ended up at a pretty nice-looking place called Troughton's; I'd never heard of it before, though Uncle Frank mentioned that he and his pals used to eat there all the time back in college. There weren't a lot of people parked in the lot for the place—it wasn't “deserted”, by any stretch, but it wasn't bustling, packed to the brim or too busy to serve us, either.

Inside, one of the girls behind the counter asked us what we'd like (calling Uncle Frank “dear” in the process), and he ended up getting the recommended house special burger with homestyle fries for me, and some kind of fish platter for himself. “Gotta build our strength,” he explained. “No telling what we'll have to deal with out there....” We got our drinks and sat down at a window booth, the better to keep an eye on Uncle Frank's van. Neither of us really said anything; it was mostly just waiting for our numbers to get called. A few times, I noticed Uncle Frank nearly ask me a question, or say something, but stop himself short. He did finally say something, three minutes into the wait: “....I know you've got a lot more questions, Matt...more than I answered back in the van.”

“That's barely the half of it, Uncle Frank. I just.....” I couldn't find the words to complete my line of thought, and just lapsed back into another three-minute silence. Right at the end of it, the bell rang for our orders. I nearly got up from my seat, but stopped when Uncle Frank shook his head. “I'll get 'em.” He nodded, giving me his best reassuring smile. I tried to start a conversation when he got back with the food, but he shook his head. “First, we eat...then we talk.”

The burger was pretty damn good, as were the fries. Uncle Frank didn't really comment on his dish, apart from nodding his approval and even offering me a piece, which I accepted—and yes, the fish was as good as the burger, if not better.

We ended up breaking the “first we eat, then we talk” rule—though all conversation during the meal was casual, and Lina wasn't mentioned once. I knew right off the bat why it was going that way; I'd turned off my phone before we got out of the van, so I had no idea if anyone in the place was “alligned” with the pricks who'd taken Lina. Despite the fact that her name never came up in the conversation, it was impossible to not think of Lina; I still couldn't take my mind off of how she'd had that horrified look on her face before that android bastard had shut her off and carried her out....

The ding of the door chime cut into my thoughts, followed by someone walking in.

She looked....stunning, I might as well admit. Her hair was light brown, with a touch of blonde, and done up in two braids with bangs and a hint of fringe. She had sunglasses on, and I couldn't help but notice how every inch of skin not covered by her clothes had a nice tan to it. Her whole figure was pretty athletic, overall—not too thin, not too curvy....even her face was flawless. Her nose wasn't too big—actually, it was kind of angular, if that makes any sense, and her lips look like they'd belonged to a champion kisser. The dress she had on left very little, if anything, to the imagination—it covered plenty, but....yeah. Talk about “form-fitting”.

I couldn't really hear what she said to the waitress, but Uncle Frank craned his neck to get a good look. “She's ordering a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and kettle chips.....and a glass of water.”

“You could read her lips from here?”

“Well, I....” Uncle Frank nearly jumped out of his chair. “Matt, she's, ah....”

The stunner was making her way over to our table, sitting next to Uncle Frank and staring right at me without saying a single word. I nearly said something, before the waitress who'd met the stunner at the door walked up and handed her a glass of water.

After acknowledging the departing waitress with a silent nod, the chick raised the glass—and threw it all in my face.

“Thanks for leaving my back at the fucking shop, dipshit. Those rando pricks could've taken me right after you left!”

“......Lucy?!” I was too shocked to be pissed off; she looked almost completely different from her original appearance...or at least her body did.

“I'm not your fucking fairy godmother, put it that way....” She took off the sunglasses; one of her eyes was still blue, but the other had more of an amber hue to it. “My transfer finished after you guys drove off....oh, hey, Frank.” She turned and nodded at Uncle Frank, who was too stunned to really say anything. “....anyway, I figured I'd go ahead and use up all the cosmetic upgrade points on my account with the Institute. As for this....” She gestured to her brown eye. “One of the pricks who took Lina must've dropped something, nailed me right on the head....forced the color change without my authorization.”

“....right.....so, you're, ah....”

“Not switching bodies ever again. I can't keep it up forever...it's gonna bork my code one day, not to mention the whole 'ghosts in the machinery' thing...” Lucy rolled her eyes. “Gynoids weren't built to last forever, after all.”

I glanced out the window, noticing her car right next to Uncle Frank's van in the parking lot. “...so, you followed us.”

“Yeah. I know those pricks took Lina, and I'm not about to sit on ass and just let them—”

“Your sandwich, hun.” The waitress had returned, with Lisa's sandwich and chips.

“....thanks..” She held up the empty glass the water had been in. “Can I get a refill on this?”

After a few minutes—which mostly consisted of Lucy finishing her meal and nodding. “So you two are going to this...hangar, to come up with a plan to get Lina back, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I'll be going with you—that's not a 'request', by the way. I want Lina safe as much as you two.” She got up from the table and headed for the door; Uncle Frank muttered something, nodding to himself as he left to follow her. I followed both of them out, barely glancing around at the various customers who were still there; one of them, a blonde, brought my thoughts back to Lina....

….and just as I noticed the blonde, I noticed her looking at me.

Even crazier than that, I could've sworn her eyes looked purple as she turned away.....

Uncle Frank must've heard me mutter “trick of the light” as we walked out, because ne tapped my shoulder. “Holdin' up okay, Matt?”

“....what....yeah, yeah, I'm good...and, ah, thanks for the meal.”

“Well, I, ah, figured we'd need something to keep us going before we get back on the road. No sense in going after the ones who took Lina if we're too busy thinking with our stomachs...” Uncle Frank's remark trailed off, and he settled for yet another nod before climbing back into the driver's seat, with me back in the passenger seat seconds later; in the space next to the van, Lucy was already back in her car. Traffic was pretty light as we left Troughton's; a quick glance at the clock revealed that our whole dinner break had taken...maybe ten, fifteen minutes, tops.

After a lot of driving and not a lot of hangar-spotting, I started wondering when we'd actually see the hangar, and nearly spoke up to ask Uncle Frank about it...

...but just as the question formed on my lips, we turned a corner and I finally saw the hangar.

As hangars go, it was pretty nondescript—surrounded by others, looking only a bit more worn than those situated to its immediate left and right. There was no distinguishing sign that hinted at it being anything other than a hangar for any medium-to-large sized aircraft that might put it to good use; it looked almost disappointing in its sheer...blandness, for lack of a better term. Uncle Frank, of course, was nodding and grinning as he guided the van up to it. “Just gimme a sec to go open the gate.” As I watched, he hopped out of the van and headed over to a keypad, glancing over his shoulder before typing in the code. One “beep” later, and the gate swung open.

Once Uncle Frank was back in the van, we drove closer to the hangar—which apparently had a gate of its own, one large enough for the van to fit through. “....we're not even going to get out of the van?”

The only reply Uncle Frank gave was a smile and another rapid nod.

Inside the hangar, my attention was first drawn to what appeared to be a decommissioned DC-10 jet liner, the company logos and such having long since faded away. “....that's your plane?”

“I asked for a smaller one, but they insisted. I can fly it, too, if you're wondering...fully certified.”

A horn honk cut him off. “We're not taking the plane, are we?”

Uncle Frank glanced back over his shoulder at Lucy. “We can only hope we won't need it...”

I realized that Uncle Frank was guiding the van towards a space by several tool boxes and a table that, as we drove closer to it, was large enough to actually fit the entire van (and Lucy's car) with a bit of room to reach out from the windows on the van's driver's side and touch one of the tool boxes. Just as he'd done at my house, Uncle Frank parked the van almost exactly parallel to that particular box. “Right...roll down your window and press the lock on the top drawer.”

“.....okay....” I glanced at Uncle Frank, probably looking more weirded out than anything else, before rolling the front passenger side window down and leaning out to press the lock on the drawer. “Right, so what now—”

Something shuddered beneath us. “....the fuck was that?!”

“Nothing to get alarmed over,” Uncle Frank assured me—and Lucy, who was glaring at him from inside her car. “Just roll the window back up, and keep all extremities inside the van at all times until I say otherwise.”

“.....right....but—”

The shuddering returned, stronger this time....and then, to my disbelief, the van began to descend.

I glanced at Uncle Frank, almost giving voice to my question of what the Hell was going on...but he just stared back, with that “wise” grin of his on his face as the van continued its descent. I glanced out the window, noticing that the glimpse of light in the hangar was being cut off—a hatch, or something, was closing over us, where the square of floor had gone down (with the van on top of it).

“.....an elevator. This is an elevator.”

“Yes, indeed, it is.” I could tell UncleFrank was still grinning, even in the dim light.

I nearly asked him how in the Hell he had access to this, or permission, but just settled for a sigh as the van continued to descend. My mind began to wander as to what was down here, below this random hangar, that would help us—some kind of secret headquarters for this ALPA? A fleet of vehicles and “specialist” drivers? The damn Batcave?

A slow wash of light was beginning to play over the van, starting from the wheels and rising up, to the windows...

…..and I saw.

One aspect of stories, pictures and videos from the forum that's always fascinated me is the idea of the “fembot lab”. It's been done to varying degrees of success in various mediums; one music video, in particular, had a really good one in it (there were only six “fembots” in the video, but it was still a personal favorite), and one of the forum members had done a comic with a particularly stellar interpretation of the typical “fembot lab”.

This, to be quite honest, was just......incredible.

Racks upon racks—two “units” high, with each row holding about fifteen or so—were situated throughout the chamber, which was about as big as the hangar above. A look at the rear-view mirror allowed me to get a glimpse at a sort of work station with five tables, a rather impressive computer setup housed in a miniature tower next to each one. I even noticed a few actual figures moving amongst the racks, their motions subtly graceful and fluid.

Of course, each “unit” on a rack held a single female—gynoid, I mentally corrected myself.

“The ALPA needed someone to look after this place,” Uncle Frank explained, as the elevator continued its descent. “It was a bit of....ah, serendipity, I guess you'd say, an unprecedented bit of coordination between two different agencies that had the same acronym. They needed someone who was good with machines and with a plane to validate having the hangar in the first place...”

“....and they picked you.” I sounded more awed than skeptical. “And you never told me any of this, before...”

“Well, I was sworn to secrecy!” Uncle Frank insisted. “They did tell me I could tell you one day, but...”

“You didn't want him getting his freak on with every girl in here,” Lucy finished, prompting a groan from me. “Can't say I blame you for that one.”

“...that's exactly it, actually,” Uncle Frank admitted. “I mean, I don't own the ones down here...well, most of 'em, I don't own, at least. 95% of the girls here are down here to be repaired, or for refurbishing, or upgrades...now, some of 'em, I picked up myself, did a bit of work on....more on them later. Right now...”

The elevator juddered to a stop. “Ground floor,” Uncle Frank declared. “Gynoid lab, diagnostic facilities, restrooms!”

I left the van, too stunned to speak. The gynoids in the racks all ranged in age from college-age to mid-to-late 40s, with a few looking to be somewhere in their 50s. The ones walking around were all wearing cerulean uniforms that looked a lot like what you'd see on flight attendants. Uncle Frank must've noticed me staring; “They work on the plane, too,” he casually informed me. “It's not just up there to be window dressing...or, well, hangar dressing...anyway...” He nodded to the van. “Help me get the blonde and the redhead out, and onto the tables....”

Within a few minutes, Unit One and Unit Three were laying on two of the work tables—just as Lucy slammed the driver's side door to her car. “These two bitches were with the assholes who grabbed Lina from your place, right?” She cracked her knuckles as she walked past the tables.

“Language...” Uncle Frank shot her a disapproving look. “Yes, they were at the shop when Lina got taken, but Matt and I were able to incapacitate them—”

“I get it...how soon can we get 'em both hooked up so they'll spill their chips about where Lina might be?” She nearly said something else, but two of the flight attendants had walked up, without me even hearing them, and proceeded to go to work on Units One and Three, poking and prodding them to find panels and such. “...ah, thanks...”

Both attendants turned to regard me with matching, rather sultry smiles.

“Oh, and if you care....” Lucy handed me the tablet her A.I. had been stored on.

“What's.....” I stopped, my jaw going slack as I beheld a video feed of the transfer finishing at Uncle Frank's shop. The feed (it had to have been recorded by the security cameras) showed Lucy robotically rising from the table, unplugging herself from the tablet and setting off towards another part of the shop; the footage fast-forwarded to her walking back into the “shot” with the dress she currently had on. Slowly, robotically, she put it on, then stood stock-still before returning to her lively self, uttering a string of expletives and stomping off towards the front door.

I turned to glance at Lucy—to see her stripping out of that exact same dress. “Keep your eyes on the other two, Matt,” she advised. “Any chance this place has clothes in my size, Frank?”

“It should.” Uncle Frank nodded, apparently unfazed by Lucy's now-denuded figure.

“Good...hope you don't mind me borrowing a few pieces for my new outfit....”

“Oh, not a problem at all.” Uncle Frank nodded. “Meahwhile, we need to figure out where we'll be going...” The two attendants—ignoring Lucy shucking off her hose and shoes—had taken positions beside the tables of Unit One and Unit Three, and began....undressing them, to my disbelief. “They're looking for any ports, cables...y'know, connections,” he explained, as Lucy headed off (naked) to go find new clothes. “Anything we can use to hook 'em up to the rigs here.”

“And once we 'hook 'em up', we'll be able to find out where those assholes—”

“Matt....”

“....those androids took Lina?”

Whatever Uncle Frank was about to say was cut off by the sound of tearing latex—or rather, shearing latex. It was a very specific kind of sound, like someone sliding an open pair of scissors down a sheet of polystyrene; within seconds, the fonts of Units One and Three's uniforms were parted, revealing them to be wearing the thinnest of bras. Both of them were poked above their boobs, as Lina had done; when that failed to elicit a response, the attendants poked each gynoid in the collarbone. Unit One remained motionless—but Unit Three shuddered, and a panel beneath her breasts—just big enough for two USB ports, an SD card reader and what appeared to be a phone jack—opened.

“Well, that's one out of the way,” Uncle Frank mused, nodding to the attendant. “Get her hooked up, turn the rig on and let's see what we can find...”

The other attendant was moving around Unit One, poking and prodding her in various spots—including, of course, her exposed crotch, from where the lubricant blockage stimulation tool had “entered” her. I couldn't help but notice how that particular part of her anatomy seemed to be a stylized, far smoother and cleaner version of the human equivalent (which I had, of course, seen in photos and videos from the forum—those who did manipulations mostly took the stance of “not messing with perfection” in that department). Despite the, ah...impressive girth, put it that way, of the lubricant blockage stimulation tool, I couldn't see any signs of tearing, stretching or other damage from where it had found its way in—her pants had apparently suffered more in that department, and she hadn't been wearing any underwear.

“Might want to keep your eyes up front, Matt...”

Uncle Frank's admonishment, half-joking though it may have been, prompted me to frown. “....who the Hell sends a gynoid like her to 'collect' someone, but doesn't put a pair of panties on her?”

“....well, maybe they thought she could seduce her way to her target,” Uncle Frank mused.

I thought back to Lucy's virus-driven efforts to get her freak on with me. “....and if the target would've refused?”

As if in direct response to my question, the attendant's latest prodding of Unit One sent a shudder through the blonde's figure—but instead of prompting a panel to open, it caused a short, stainless-steel tube to erupt from each of her breasts, where the nipple would be.

“.....gun barrels,” I muttered, shaking my head. “You've got to be fucking kidding me...”

Uncle Frank was more impressed by the “caliber” than annoyed at my swearing. “You've seen these before?”

“In a movie, once. It's the one that, ah....” I turned away. “It was my gateway to the whole....well, what's on the forum, pretty much.” I chuckled at the memory. “And I'd only seen the version edited for TV....”

“And they didn't cut out robot girls with guns in their knockers?” Uncle Frank asked, a bit confused.

I shrugged. “Maybe someone in Standards and Practices was into that kind of stuff, too...who knows?”

“Eh, well, machine-gun mammaries don't get us anywhere closer to hooking her up....” Uncle Frank gestured to Unit One's ears. “Behind there, maybe?” The attendant nodded, prodding Unit One behind her left ear....and causing her abdomen to split apart, opening like saloon doors to reveal a full touchscreen, several ports and a column of blinking lights, most of which were either green or yellow.

“There ya go.” Uncle Frank grinned, clapping the attendant on the shoulder; she regarded him with a polite smile.

A few minutes later, the computers by the two work tables were turned on, with Units One and Three fully connected to each. “SO,” Uncle Frank stated, clapping his hands together. “All we need to do is reactivate these two—”

“After what they did at the shop?!”

“...reactivate them in Standby Mode,” Uncle Frank continued, “and see what it is they know. Once we know what they know, we can get on the trail of the androids that took Lina...the only question is, how, exactly, do we boot these beauties back up?”

Once again, the attendants set to work, examining the opened panels on Units One and Three.

Unit One was the first one to register being connected to the network—the attendant seeign to her simply went to work on her touchscreen, and the connection was established. She actually sat up, as the link was made—oh, and the gun barrels in her boobs retracted, too, so Uncle Frank and I didn't have to worry about getting shot if the attendant opened the wrong app or anything.

Without even being prompted, she spoke: “Connection established. Unit One is online. Diagnostic Mode activated.”

“....well, I'd call that progress...” Uncle Frank nodded. “And what about Unit Three?”

The other attendant was doing her best to activate the redhead, with little success—and then, like a bolt from the blue, it hit me. “FCon.”

“....what?”

I fished my phone out of my jeans. “I can use FCon on her, put her in Diagnostic Mode....” The thought that I'd done the same thing with Lina at the party passed through my mind rather quickly, and thankfully didn't linger. “If it'll get her to open up and let us connect her...”

“Well, go ahead then.” Uncle Frank nodded at the phone. “Try it, see if it'll get us anywhere further with her!”

I held up the phone, scrolling through the apps with my other hand until I reached FCon. Lo and behold, there it was again: “Act. Debug”. I could almost hear Lina whispering in my ear: it did the trick with me, now maybe it can help you find me again...

It took a lot to keep from tearing up or getting pissed, but I pressed the button.

Unit Three's eyes opened, and she sat up, a bit more robotically than Unit One had.

“....are you in Debug Mode?” The same question I'd asked Lina, at the party...

“This unit is currently in Diagnostic Mode.” Different name, but hopefully the same functionality.

It took me a second or two to figure out how to word the next question—I thought back to some of the stories from the forum, and the terminology they used. “Can you open a panel to connect to a....service terminal?”

“One moment, please.” Stiffly, Unit Three reached behind her ear and up into her hairline, her hand eventually emerging with a thin cable in it. She pulled this out for about two feet, before stopping; Uncle Frank leaned in for a closer look at the end of the cable, motioning for the attendants to come closer. “I, ah, think we've got one that connects up to this one in the back,” he informed them. Both of the attendants nodded, walking past with that subtle grace I'd noticed earlier; again, both of them smiled at me as they passed.

“...hi...” I nodded at the two attendants as they walked past, before returning my attention to Units One and Three. “So once they give us the info we need, we can....what, go rescue Lina?”

“That's the plan,” Uncle Frank replied, grinning.

“....yeah, a bit of a problem with that. It's just the two of us against...I don't even know what kind of organization, and they can field androids and gynoids that shrug off having their faces melted with fucking acid....”

Before Uncle Frank could admonish me for swearing yet again, the attendants returned, one of them handing him the cable he'd asked for. “Much obliged.” He nodded, earning a smile from the attendant. “That, ah...admin thing, you can do....one of you might want to connect and do that, just to make sure these two don't blow the network...” He paused for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “I'm gonna go chek on Audrey—”

“Lucy,” I corrected.

Uncle Frank sighed. “She looks just like Audrey, can you blame me for getting the name wrong?”

“....did you two, ah....”

“We were friends. Nothing more, nothing less....well, I was the first one she told about the cancer.” He looked off into the distance, where Lucy was going through racks of clothes. “....some nights, she'd be screaming her head off,” he muttered. “Said the pain was just too much. I told her she'd beat it, somehow...”

“And you see Lucy as her way of 'beating' the cancer.”

To my shock, Uncle Frank actually got a bit teary-eyed. “....she talks just like Audrey...the swearing, and everything.”

“...is that why you're always telling me to cut back on the cussing, then? Because it reminds you of the time you spent with Audrey, before....”

“....well, that,” Uncle Frank admitted, accepting a Kleenex from one of the attendants. “And it's a bad habit, y'know?”

“Eh, well—” I didn't bother trying to finish talking, since Uncle Frank drowned me out (unintentionally, of course) by blowing his nose. “...is it just me, or did Unit Three just blink?”

Even as he dabbed at his eyes, Uncle Frank leaned in close. “....I, ah.....”

The redhead was looking around, apparently confused. “.....where am I, and what the heck am I wearing?”

Uncle Frank cleared his throat. “....you're, ah....it's kind of a long story—”

“You don't remember walking into his shop? Demanding that we surrender Lucy Sievers?”

“Lucy....who?” The redhead frowned. “I work uptown, in....” She paused, noticing Unit One still on the table next to hers. “....what the heck is going on here?!”

“You showed up at my uncle's shop with the blonde and another redhead. All three of you said you were looking for Lucy Sievers. You and the blonde forced your way in, you took a cattle prod to the back....” I sighed. “...and up the nose, too. You ordered the other two—Unit One—” I nodded at the blonde. “—and Unit Two—around, and they called you Unit Three—”

“I have a....” The redhead's protest faded out. “....I....I think I've seen you before....”

“Yeah. I'm the one who put the cattle prod up your nose.....” I gave a light cough. “Sorry about that....”

Uncle Frank leaned in. “...so you don't remember ordering two androids to take Lina out of my shop?”

“Everything's been a blur for the past few weeks....” The redhead glanced at the blonde. “...and I don't know her.”

“....well. This is....” I took a step back from the table, frowning. “This...complicates things....”

My claim prompted a confused look from Uncle Frank. “And how exactly does this—”

I held up a hand to stop him, turning to address the redhead. “...you said you work uptown.”

The redhead nodded. “I do. A law office....Gillan & Baker.” She looked down at what she was wearing, her eyes going wide. “....who dressed me?!”

“Probably the same ones who dressed her.” I nodded at the blonde again. “And the other redhead with you when you were at the shop....” I paused. “....do you remember any....unusual clients, showing up at Gillan & Baker? Anyone with a particularly unusual request, or asking for weirdly specific legal advice?”

“....I remember....a guy and a girl. Actually, two guys and one girl—”

“My apologies for interrupting,” Uncle Frank cut in, “but....are you aware of....well....” He nodded to the cable trailing out from behind her head, as well as her open panel.

“.....why—”

“This is an ALPA-affiliated facility,” Uncle Frank assured her. “If you want to disconnect, I have no problem with it...”

After a few seconds of silence, the redhead nodded, reaching back to disconnect the cable.

I waited a few seconds before resuming my line of questioning. “You mentioned two guys and a girl....”

“The girl looked...nervous. Wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, even indoors; I could tell just from the way she was standing there that she didn't want to be there. The first guy was tall...looked like a surfer, or something—I think he was out of it. And the second guy....” She shuddered.

“What?”

“....he was...big. Almost 6'4, wearing a long coat...he had a hat pulled low over his face, and sunglasses..he just looked like he could've flipped the whole room over if he felt like it.” The redhead nodded at the terminal she'd been hooked up to. “They mentioned something about the observatory, and shipping routes....asked a lot of questions about chartering a plane. It wasn't really my area of expertise, but...I told them as much as I could about what they wanted to know. The girl....she just left, right after I told them what they wanted, and the big guy left after that...”

“And then?”

“The other guy turned to leave, but he had a tablet with him. He did something, and....” The redhead shrugged. “Next thing I know, I'm here.”

“....well, we're not working with the pricks who took you—they're the ones who took Lina—”

“His girlfriend,” Uncle Frank clarified, prompting me to nod. “....they took her. Shut her off and carried her out like she was nothing...”

The redhead looked horrified. “....and I was there, when she was....”

“We strongly believe,” Uncle Frank stated, “that the unusual clients you just described also reprogrammed and deployed you to assist in this heinous operation, completely against your will.”

“.....and her?” The redhead nodded at the blonde.

“We don't know,” Uncle Frank admitted. “The reprogramming on her was, ah....more thorough than yours.”

“So the ones who took Lina are flat-out taking and reprogramming gynoids...” I shook my head at the thought of it. “Maybe the, ah...” I gestured to the cerulean-clad gynoids standing by Unit One. “Attendants, right?”

Uncle Frank nodded. “You can call 'em that if you want.”

I nearly continued, but stopped. “....what, do you call them something else?”

“Technically speaking, they're employees of mine...well, of the ALPA, but they recognize my authority whenever I need to be here.” Uncle Frank glanced at the two attendants, both of whom had walked over to talk to the redhead (who was calming down considerably, though she still seemed a bit shaken in regards to her involvement in Lina's abduction). “...and for the record, there's no impropriety of any kind!”

“I never said there was...” I frowned. “You thought that I thought that you—”

“Got up to the kinds of things you read about in those stories on the forum?” Uncle Frank arched an eyebrow. “Never in a million years, Matt. Now, if they want to go have a few minutes by themselves or with each other, behind closed doors, that's their business...but with me, it's strictly professional.”

I nodded, chuckling. “I never could picture you as the swinger type, Uncle Frank...”

After a few seconds of staring at me,Uncle Frank grinned. “Eh, well...just because I'm surrounded by beauty—”

One of the terminals beeped. “....doesn't mean I have to let myself be driven to distraction by it,” Uncle Frank finished, never breaking his stride even as he spoke. “Lucky for you, Matt, this particular beauty...” He nodded at Unit One, still staring straight ahead. “...just gave us a big tip-off as to where we're gonna need to go!”

I walked up to the terminal and read the text on the monitor. “.....well, fuck.”

“Language....and what's the problem? You wanted to know where we'd need to go to find Lina, didn't you?”

“Yeah, but....” I scoffed. “I didn't think she'd be at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex!”

Uncle Frank studied the text, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “...the way you say that name,” he mused, “It's like you've got a bad history with the place.”

“And I'm not the only one. The Greensfield complex used to be party central, where everyone went to meet people, get wasted, get laid....I only ever went to one party there, and it sucked.” I couldn't help but shake my head at the memory of it. “The band was crap, I only talked to maybe ten people, the lighting flickered the whole damn time, and just before I left, a fight broke out.”

“...you weren't involved, I hope!”

“Hell no. I was already trying to get to the exit. No, this...” I sighed. “I don't even know what started it. All I know is, I was heading for the exit, and the damn stupid fight meant I couldn't get to the exit, so I had to wait until they quit to get past...the next day, I got a phone call from a friend of mine—apparently, not even ten minutes after I'd left, some rando dumbass went and started a fire!”

“...well, nobody got hurt, I hope,” Uncle Frank replied, looking appalled.

“Dunno if the fire hurt anyone...it was already out by the time the cops got there, which is also when everybody found out that someone had died. They put the whole complex under surveillance after that....”

“...and what year was all of this?”

“2010. Before the shit hit the fan.”

Uncle Frank ignored my swearing, focusing instead on the monitor. “Well, it says here that the current owners of the complex have registered it as private property—high-security, even!”

“Which begs the question of how the two of us are supposed to get in there without getting killed....”

My attention now focused on the racks of gynoids past Uncle Frank. “....when you said you had 'things' down here that'd help us get Lina back....”

“I should've said 'people',” Uncle Frank admitted. “And I did say that those ladies on the racks don't belong to me...but, ah, why don't you go past the racks, all the way to the other end, eh? I'll meet you there once Lucy's connected to the network...then I'll show you.”

“....fair enough.” I nodded, turning away. “Can I, ah, have the phone back?”

“...the phone...OH, the phone!” Uncle Frank snapped his fingers. “Right, right...” One of the attendants walked over and handed it to him, whispering something. “Okay, okay...she says they memorized the procedure, so they don't need it!”

“Convenient.” I gave a quick salute....but stopped, glancing at Unit One.

“.....I know that look, Matt.” Uncle Frank was at my side in an instant. “What—”

“They were there to take Lucy....but they took Lina instead.” I was surprised at how calm I my voice sounded. “I want to know why.”

Uncle Frank glanced at the attendants, then at Unit One. “And, ah, all you're gonna do is ask her?”

“That's all I intend to do.” I resisted the urge to crack my knuckles as I moved to the work table where the blonde gynoid rested. “Unit One....why did your orders change from taking Lucy Sievers to taking Lina?”

Unit One sat up, staring straight ahead. “The unit designated Lina Sievers—”

It took a few seconds for me to recognize the dull, throbbing feeling in my right fist as pain—I'd punched the work table as soon as Unit One called Lina a “unit”. Uncle Frank nearly moved to put a hand on my shoulder, but stopped. “Can you say that again.....please?”

“The gynoid designated Lina Sievers was scanned and determined to be more advanced than Lucy Sievers. Lina Sievers was removed from the premises for the purposes of analysis....” Unit One paused, her head jerking to the side. “An error has been detected. Units Four and Five have functioned in error. Units Four and Five have delivered Lina Sievers to an incorrect locat.....locat.....” She tried to move, but kept going through the same motion. “....lo....lo.....lo.....lo....”

“...the Hell's happening to her?!” I glanced at Uncle Frank and the attendants. “All I did was ask her to say it again!”

The attendants both went to the rig Unit One was hooked up to, and Uncle Frank took a good look at the screen. “I, ah, think someone doesn't want her talking to us,” he mused. “Some kinda security feature just activated—”

“SHIT!” I ducked, nearly plowing into Uncle Frank, as Unit One swung an arm towards where I'd just been standing.

“Security protocols corrupted. Security....ty.....ty....ty...ty...” Unit One's eyes had crossed, and her lips were beginning to part in a weird, confused sneer. “Error in directive....tive...tive...tive...ti—” A violent shudder ran through her.

“Shut her off!” The redhead had left the table she'd been sitting on to hold down Unit One. “Do something!”

“Err...Err...Err...Err.......” Unit One's spasms continued for a moment, until her voice trailed off to a low moan. Her body stopped seizing up, and she slumped back to lay on the work table as her eyes drifted closed. Her arms finally loosened at the elbows, the rigid “L” shapes they'd locked into giving way as they went limp. The syllable “err” formed on her lips one more time, but seemed to catch before her headturned.

Uncle Frank scratched his ear, trying to look nonchalant. “....well, I, ah.....”

“She said they screwed up.” I stared at the motionless gynoid, feeling more confused than anything else. “The two who took Lina from the shop...she said they brought her to an 'incorrect location'....something about Lina being removed for 'the purposes of analysis'.”

“...well, maybe they didn't think she'd put up a fight to defend Lucy,” Uncle Frank offered. “Or maybe—”

“Or nothing.” I took a deep breath. “I'll be on the other side of.....whatever this place is....”

“You can call it a lab, y'know.”

I glanced at Uncle Frank, and that trademark wise smile of his—as always, seeing him so calm managed to help me stay calm. “Right...I'll be on the far side of the lab, then.” I pocketed the phone as I headed for the far end of the lab.

Walking through the racks of gynoids was...a surreal experience, to be honest. Each rack had a sort of tablet on a metal arm at the front, displaying the name and, well, “specifications” of the gynoid housed in it—both the mundane stuff, like their measurements, and technical stuff, like make, model and manufacturer. Most of them were dressed in typical clothing, some of it job-specific; a few were wearing “costumes”, I guess—the “sexy” kind that every store seems to have in stock for Halloween.

I stopped, as I passed one rack—the girl with the star tattoo over her ass, from the party, was standing in it! Even more insane, FCon went off as I went to pass her; I held the phone up, and was somewhat surprised to see a “matched signals” notice—the other nine in the row after her had all been at the party the day I'd met Lina! Three blondes, two brunettes, two redheads, one in a bright blue wig and one with multpile shades of green interwoven through her hair...

“Well, damn...” I read the name on the tablet of the nearest one (the girl with the star tattoo). “...Mandy Bulwer.” My eyes went wide; my English professor had been an Abraham Bulwer, back in college.

Another feature on the tablet caught my attention: a button labeled “Conv.”

“Conversion....probably not. 'Converse'?” I shrugged. “Eh, it's worth a shot...” I thumbed the button.

Mandy blinked a few times before noticing me. “....Matt? Matt Harker?”

“...you know me?”

“I was at your house a few days ago...that, and my dad...” She paused, looking around and realizing where, exactly, she was at the moment. “....oh. Ah...”

I chuckled. “If it helps, my girlfriend's a gynoid, too. You know Lina?”

“She was at the party...wait, she's with you?”

“She was...” I turned away. “Some fuckheads took her....it's a long story.”

“...damn, I'm sorry to hear that...I didn't even know you two got together at the party. Freaking Drayse was—”

“'Drayse'?! What kind of stupid name is that?!”

“....he wants to be the next Eminem.” Mandy rolled her eyes. “After he got in that stupid fight and we went back to his place, he apparently thought it'd be a good idea to rail me and down a Jaeger at the same time...problem was, I got more of the Jaeger than I did of him, and, well...” She gave a half-shrug.

“He didn't, ah.....build you, did he?”

“Hell no. My dad...well, some assholes would say he's my 'owner', but legally, I'm his daughter...anyway, my precedent died—the 'real' Mandy...the human one, I mean.” Mandy sighed. “When she died in '17, he had me commissioned in her place, memories and all. I only found out by accident...” She blushed. “Apparently, it's not a good idea to engage in the fine art of self-stimulation in the bathtub, especially with fingernail extensions.”

“...and you don't have any problems just...talking about this?”

“Dad gave me the option of reverting to sleeper settings, but I figured I'd rather know than have to go through another 'what the Hell, I'm a robot' moment again...anyway, I hope you get Lina back, soon!”

I nodded solemnly. “So do I....” I paused. “....do I, ah, have to put you in standby or anything, or...”

“I can activate standby mode myself, actually....oh, and don't tell anyone else on the forum about this, okay?”

“Wait, you're on the forum?!”

Mandy winked. “I wrote the one about the maidbot that becomes a freedom fighter,” she admitted. “Didn't think it'd go over as well as it did, to be honest.”

“That one's a favorite of mine...” I chuckled. “Eh, well, take care of yourself, Mandy!”

“You too, Matt!”

I nodded, walking past the other girls who'd been at the party—all of them had apparently gone for tank-tops, crop tops or at the very least, t-shirts a few sizes too small, as well as jean shorts, skirts and cut-off pants that they might as well have been built into—the only way they could've looked tighter is if they'd been either spandex or body paint.

The thought struck me, as I walked, that if I'd been here a few short years ago....

...well, Uncle Frank's remark about “fantasty fulfilment” would've been putting it very, very mildly.

Now, though....I was still fascinated (and, not gonna lie, turned on) by all of it...but I also knew that each of the gynoids on the racks was a Hell of a lot more than just some blindly-obedient doll for me to boink until I got tired. Mandy, for example—she was someone's daughter, and built to replace an actual person, at that!

A few rows down, I saw another familiar face—the waitress who'd taken a fork to her side at the restaurant Doug and I had been to. Her uniform was parted to reveal an off-colored splotch where the fork had gone in; like Mandy, her eyes were closed, and she was resting against the sort of rear bumper of the rack, completely immobile. The rack right next to hers had another 20-something girl in an identical uniform.

I pressed the “Conv.” button on the tablet next to the formerly-damaged waitress, waiting for her to finish activating.

“....huh....” She looked down, noticing me. “You?”

“....yeah. Me.” I shrugged. “We didn't exactly have a proper introduction back at the restaurant....I'm Matt Harker.”

The girl nodded. “Jessica Davison...” She looked around the lab, frowning. “....I thought I'd have been out of here...”

“Well, you did take a fork to the side...also, I always thought the place you worked at was, ah, family-owned—”

“It is....it's just that...” Jess (as the nametag on her uniform read) sighed. “It's a long story, and I'm not supposed to—”

“My girlfriend is a gynoid, and I promise that whatever you tell me will stay between us. Cross my heart, all that jazz.”

Jess hesitated for a second, then nodded. “The girls who work there are either transferrence-types or ex-sleepers—as in, they 'woke up' and weren't exactly supposed to. It's a way for them to have a steady income, keep busy, and stay off the radar of the kind of pricks who still think androids don't deserve the same rights as 'real people'...” She sighed. “It helps that both owners of the place are full supporters of android rights, and the Accords—”

“The Accords?”

Jess looked surprised at my lack of recognition. “....you...don't know what the Accords are?”

“I haven't watched the news since 2015. Long story.”

“....well, last year, the Accords were signed into law to give sentient androids and gynoids equal rights to human beings,” Jess explained. “Non-sentients, like those Candy models....” She rolled her eyes. “I get that there's a market for those, but they just....they look like glorified dolls, instead of real people! Thin wastes, big...” She waved her hands in front of her own moderately-sized breasts. “....anyway, non-sentients are protected more along the lines of pets, or at the very least, high-grade consumer electronics, but full sentients like me get equal rights.”

“....sounds pretty damn reasonable.” I nodded. “So...the ones who run the place support these....Accords?”

“They do, fully.” Jess nodded. “All the girls there are...well, like me.”

“...well, hopefully they don't get a visit from the same pricks who took my girlfriend....”

“Wait, 'took' her?” Jess looked concerned.

“Some goon squad busted into my uncle's shop....Lina—my girlfriend—tried to fight them off, but....” I didn't care that my fists were clenching at my sides. “....some android bastard just shut her off, carried her out...”

Jess looked somewhat shaken, but managed to keep it out of her voice. “...I hope you can get her back, Matt.”

“....that makes two of us.” I nodded, thanked her for the talk (which she reciprocated, seeing as how she was waiting to be picked up by a co-worker), and continued moving past the racks. My thoughts wandered with every step; how many of these others might've been targeted, like Lucy was? How many of them might've been taken, like Lina was?

Eventually, I reached the far end of the room—and a door that looked like it'd been taken from a bank vault.

“....okay, if this opens and there's a Kevlar-plated costume with a bat-eared cowl....”

Any thoughts on Uncle Frank being Batman were brought to a halt when he and Lucy—now wearing a dress shirt a size-too small, form-fitting khakis and knee socks) drove up in a golf cart. “...couldn't help but notice you talked to Mandy back there,” he mused; he didn't sound angry, to my relief...if anything, he seemed glad that I'd stopped to chat with her.

“...she'd been in the backyard, at the party....the day I met Lina, I mean....” I sighed. “So, whatever can help us—”

“Whoever can help us get Lina back,” Uncle Frank corrected. “Some of the androids and gynoids I repair down here, they've got nowhere else to go....the ALPA made a few arrangements, and, well...they live here!”

“Behind a bank vault door...” Lucy muttered. “Pretty sure hotels don't keep their customers locked up, at night...”

“They're free to come and go as they please,” Uncle Frank countered. “And they all know the code to open the door...I had this thing installed to keep out jerks like the ones who took Lina, back at the shop.”

Lucy arched an eyebrow. “...and they're okay with this?”

“You can ask 'em yourself, in a few minutes...” Uncle Frank grinned and walked over to a keypad. “Avert your eyes, if you don't mind....”

I sighed, but did as he asked. Lucy groaned, even though I could see her lift a hand to cover her eyes.

After several beeps and a trilling noise, Uncle Frank was at my side again. “Both of you might want to stand a ways back,” he advised, “'cause this thing opens wide!”

I did as he suggested, taking a good five or six steps back as the vault door opened....

The sight of the lab, as Uncle Frank's van had descended from the hangar, was incredible—anything I'd seen in videos and such before paled in comparison to it.

Behind that vault door, though....

….I never could figure out how to describe just how mind-blowing that sight was.

It looked, at first glance, like a hotel corridor—if hotel corridors had floor-to-ceiling glass windows by the door, with a mounted tablet that gave the specs of the “guests” in lieu of a room sign. What looked to be small, portable generators (I instantly recognized these as what the forum would call “android servicing units”) were in each room; some had cords emerging from them, plugged into an android or gynoid; others were unused as we walked past, and at least one had a shirt draped over it. Each room had all the basic amenities—bed, dresser, TV, couch, and a closed-off area that I could only guess was for bathing (and...waste processing, if need be).

“Every single android and gynoid here filled out the necessary paperwork to apply for lodging,” Uncle Frank explained, as we strode down the hall. “A few of them even earn their keep—some have day jobs, some volunteer in and around the community, and some work at the airfield over us. Things have been a bit dicey, from time to time....usually when some bigwig tried to shut the airfield down and pave over everything. Nearly happened last year, actually...”

I was too transfixed by what I was seeing to really hear him. In one room, a slender, pale gynoid with jet-black hair was working on motors in her left arm with a precision tool kit; in another, an android with an athlete's figure and a certain Brad Pitt quality to his looks was shadowboxing, checking the speed of his punches against a mirror that, to my surprise, had a full computer desktop integrated into its surface. Some of the rooms were vacant, though even a few of these looked like their occupants had merely left for the graveyard shift and would be back later on, if only for a quick bath.

We finally stopped in front of a door at the far end of the hall—we'd passed an intersection at one point, but kept going straight. “I figured the first spot on our team would be best served by someone with prior combat experience,” Uncle Frank explained. I glanced into the room, my eyes going wide—a tall, blonde woman with the tone of a lifelong athlete and wearing a “costumized” Army uniform, was sitting on the bed, reading a magazine.

Uncle Frank held a card up to where the doorknob would be on a normal door, and it slid open. “May we come in?”

“Well, well,” the blonde remarked, putting down the magazine and regarding Uncle Frank with a somewhat-amused stare. “I can only hope it's not another airfield patrol.” Her voice had a Southern drawl to it, and I noticed numbers and abbreviations inked onto her left bicep, and what appeared to be a military patch etched into her shoulder.

“I've got a bit of a job for you, Millie,” Uncle Frank explained. “My nephew here—” He grabbed me by the shoulder and drew me closer. “...his girlfriend was abducted by some yahoos who busted up my shop.”

Millie regarded Lucy and me with an arched eyebrow. “And why should I concern myself with such trivial matters?”

“Because Lina means the world to me.” I took a step forward. “The assholes who—don't tell me to watch my language, Uncle Frank! The assholes who took her didn't even treat her like a person...just shut her off and carried her out like she was yesterday's trash!” I ignored the feeling of my fists clenching. “Uncle Frank said you had combat experience...”

The blonde stood up—lo and behold, she was taller than me by a good few inches. “I do.”

Lucy stepped up. “Then we'll need someone who can do a lot of damage to those fuckheads, and maybe take some damage if need be—not that I'd ever wish that on anyone, least of all you...” She stopped—probably because she'd noticed me once again remembering Lina's final, terrified look. “....ah, Matt....”

“...they'll pay.” The words sounded like a low growl, even to me. “They'll fucking pay....”

After a few seconds, Millie nodded. “Not to worry, 'hun. When we catch up to those creeps, I'll do my best to make sure they pay for what they've done.” She flexed her right arm, kissing her fist.

“That's what we're hopin' for, Millie. Gear up and meet us at the elevator in....I'd say ten, fifteen minutes.” Uncle Frank nodded, guiding me out of the room (with Lucy following close after). “Millie's an Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies prototype,” he explained. “Military Intelligence and Enforcement...top of the line, a few years ago.”

“Was she, now....” Lucy rolled her eyes. “How'd she end up here, then?”

“Eh, they put her in some big tournament to test her skills...she made it pretty far. Semi-finals, I think....but some other gynoid beat her. They were gonna scrap the whole project and just write her off as a failure!”

Lucy scoffed. “So, what, you basically stepped in and 'rescued' her?”

“Well, there was an auction, and the ALPA gave me the funds needed to, ah, secure her, so she wouldn't get sent off to the junk pile. She does guard duty around here, every once in a while.” Uncle Frank glanced at a few of the other doors, pondering. “....the complex is gonna be high-security,” he reasoned, “and we'll need.....yeah, yeah, definitely!”

I could tell Lucy was getting annoyed. “...we'll need what?”

Uncle Frank walked over to another room—this one, apparently vacant. “...probably in the shower,” he muttered.

I frowned. “....ah, who's in the shower—”

A cheerful voice called out “JUST A SECOND!” from the bathroom area over the whine of a hair dryer.

“...when she gets out,” Uncle Frank advised, “don't stare.”

“....even if she's only wearing a towel—or not wearing a towel?” I ignored Lucy elbowing me in the side.

“Not...that's not what I mean,” Uncle Frank countered. “Just—”

The hair dryer cut off and the door opened...revealing just why Uncle Frank had asked me not to stare.

It wasn't that the girl who emerged from the steaming bathroom was the same height and general build as Lina, or the fact that she was naked except for a very short towel wrapped around her that started at her boobs and ended just an inch below her groin. Those facts paled in comparison to a few other details. For one, a pair of rather noticeable cat ears topped her cherry-red hair—far from just being static decorations, they were actually moving like the ears of a real cat.

There was also, of course, what was jutting out from the rear of the towel (and probably lifting it where it should've covered her ass): the rather unmistakable shape of a tail, covered in smooth, tanned fur. Her smooth, slightly cartoonish face was still recognizably human, albeit with feline touches.

“....a cat girl.” I could tell Lucy was...puzzled, to say the least. “You have a cat girl gynoid living here....”

The cat girl gynoid in question immediately noticed me (and ignored Lucy entirely). “Is that your nephew, Mr. Frank?”

“I've told you before, you don't have to call me Mr. Frank...” Uncle Frank sighed. “And yes, this is indeed my nephew.”

Before I could reply, the cat girl walked up to me, extending a hand. “I've heard so much about you!”

“....all good, I hope...” I shook her hand. “Matt Harker...though you probably already knew that.”

The gynoid nodded enthusiastically. “You still go to the forum, right?”

My eyes went wide. “You told her about the forum?!” I could tell Lucy was trying (and failing) to not chuckle.

“Atatatatatatata...” Uncle Frank waved aside my question. “You haven't even asked her name!”

“....right....” I glanced at the feline gynoid. “....and you are...”

“Ashwyn,” she proudly declared. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Matt!”

“She's another prototype,” Uncle Frank explained. “There were plans, a few years ago, for a theme park—meant to be more for the...adult crowd, really...”

“Fetishists, you mean.” Lucy's remark was dripping with sarcasm.

Uncle Frank shrugged (and nodded). “Either/or. In any case, the whole thing was going to cater to those who were more into...ah, exotic tastes...”

“Furries.” Lucy counted off the types on her fingers. “Cat girls, monster girls, demon girls, alien girls—”

“All right, all right, you've made your point, Lucy...anyway, the place never really got off the ground, apart from a few limited run test units—some of them had other qualities that made them, shall we say, desirable for reasons beyond ther initial intended function.” Uncle Frank gestured to Ashwyn. “She's agile, she can climb like nobody's business, and she can jump..ah, how high was it?”

Ashywn smiled. “Ten feet, sir.”

“Ten feet, from a standing leap!” Uncle Frank exclaimed. “Great for clearing fences!”

I nodded. “And stealth?”

“They'll never hear me.” Ashwyn lifted one of her feet, revealing pads just like those on the foot of an actual cat. “I can even adjust the thickness and sponginess!”

Lucy groaned. “Did you even tell Kitty here what we'll be doing?”

“...OH, right, of course...” Uncle Frank nodded. “Thing is, Ashwyn, Matt's girlfriend was...abducted, pretty much.”

“Oh, no!” Ashwyn's hand immediately went to her mouth. “I'm so sorry to hear that...”

“Yeah, well...we're heading out to go get her back from the sh—”

“From the stuperstitious cowardly lot that took her,” Uncle Frank declared. “Isn't that right?”

“.....close enough.” I rolled my eyes.

“Well, I'll definitely be glad to help.” Ashwyn gave a salute—keeping one hand on her towel, of course.

“Glad to hear it,” Uncle Frank replied, leaning forward to scratch behind one of her ears—she gave a happy little hum, at that, and her tail went all over the place. “Just finish drying off, get dressed and meet us by the elevator in ten minutes.”

“Will do!” Ashwyn nodded.

Even as we were leaving Ashwyn's room, Uncle Frank was already figuring out who else we'd need for our “clandestine operation. “....someone with a lot of experience with security systems...yeah, she'd definitely be a big help—”

His phone went off, ending any discussion about a security specialist. “...getting calls at a time like this...yello, Frank here, what...oh, OH, right. Well, it's just me, down here...my nephew and I, I mean.” He nodded. “Well, his girlfriend...so you already got the report. Okay....well, I told him I'd help him get her back—yes, she's a gynoid. Name's Lina. Home-build, made by...Lucy Sievers, yes—she's with us at the moment. Lucy, I mean, not...anyway. The, ah, individuals who took her, they sent some of their own to my shop—one's still on the floor, neodymium magnet stuck to her back, so you might not want to send in any...” He nodded again, turning to glance at me. “....well, the other two, we brought down here—one's still in standby mode, the other wasn't fully reprogrammed...works at a law office, Gillan & Baker. The ones who took Lina were set to go—I said they were set to go back to the Greensfield Warehouse Complex!”

I glanced around the hallways, trying not to let the image of Lina's stare overwhelm me. It'd felt like that android prick who'd shut her off turned her head my way specifically so that I'd see her stare at me before she was carried out...a total dick move on his part.

“We'll get her back, Matt.” I barely felt Lucy's hand on my shoulder; her voice was surprisingly quiet as she as she spoke. “We're gonna get Lina back from those assholes...whatever it takes.”

“....well, I figured we could mount a rescue operation...” Uncle Frank was still in the middle of his phone conversation. “I thought you people would have your hands full with...y'know! I already got Millie and Ashwyn to come with us..oh. Oh, really? And you're sure he won't mind helping us out?” He looked somewhat surprised. “Well, if he wants to help, I'm not gonna argue with that! How soon can he...oh, he'll meet us at the complex? I suppose that's fair...right, right. Thanks.” With another nod, he ended the call, tapping me on the shoulder. “Well, our job just got a lot easier.”

“I'll bet....” Lucy planted a hand on her hip, frowning. “Who was that on the line?”

“The ALPA,” Uncle Frank replied. “Apparently, they were 'alerted' to us showing up when I opened the gate, and called me here to make sure everything was a-okay.”

“And they don't have a problem with helping us get Lina back?”

“They've already fielded a report about Lina's abduction...something about Lucy sending a panic signal back at the shop, when the transfer was interrupted...” Uncle Frank ignored Lucy's muttered expletive and put a hand on my shoulder. “...they're sending along one of their best Field Agents to help,” he added, grinning. “He'll meet us at the complex!”

“....he can't just meet us here?”

“Matt, Matt, Matt....” Uncle Frank looked me in the eye. “The fact that they're sending him out to help us at all should be good enough. As it is, we've got Millie and Ashwyn...”

“Ahem....” Lucy gave him a light punch in the shoulder. “Forgetting someone?”

“Believe me, I didn't forget you....” Uncle Frank nodded. “In any case, we've got everyone we need to get Lina back!”

“What about us? Don't tell me you've got fucking grappling hooks, lockpick sets and stealth suits hidden around here...”

Uncle Frank gave Lucy a look. “...what do I look like, G.I. Joe?”

“....good point.” I sighed. We weren't fielding the A-Team or the Power Rangers, but at the very least, we might have a decent shot of getting Lina back....

Part 6

Thinking back on it, of all the things I thought I'd be spending the night doing when I got out of bed the day Lina was taken, trying to track down the pricks who'd taken her in the first damn place was the last thing I'd expected. Granted, her being abducted at all wasn't the kind of stuff I thought I'd have to put up with....to be honest, the events of the day as a whole were just shaping up to be one pile of high strangeness after another. The fact that I was coping at all was a pretty good sign that I hadn't lost my mind...of course, the fact that I was teaming up with a military-spec gynoid, a cat girl gynoid, the gynoid who'd in fact built my girlfriend (and who I hadn't even known was a gynoid herself until a virus made her “want” me) and some agent from an organization that just so happened to share its initials with the Air Line Pilot's Association was....

...well, it was a lot of things, to be honest, but “normal” wasn't anywhere near the top of the list.

Everyone was gearing up for the ride out to the warehouse complex—myself included, though my involvement mostly consisted of staying out of the way...all that stuff. Throughout this, I couldn't help but notice that Lucy was conspicuously absent—she wasn't going over the potential strategies with Millie or listening to Ashwyn talk about how her tail wasn't a liability in a fight (apparently, pulling it too hard would just make it detach)....all that stuff.

I cleared my throat. “Has anyone seen Lucy?”

“Umm, I think she went off trying to get some extra armour,” one of the team piped up.

That led me to a meandering path through the part of the complex we were in when I heard little gasps, and the unmistakable sounds of someone crying. I followed the quiet sobbing over to a corner of the room, where I could just make out a figure sitting on the floor. She’d occasionally slam her fist into one of her legs, or punch one fist into the other palm. “Ah, Lucy? Is everything—”

She flinched....it was unsettling, to say the least. “Oh, M-Matt, I’m...sorry, are we ready to go now?”

“Almost, but, ah....why are you all the way over here?”

“I fucking failed her, Matt! I made her, I fucking created her, and she was just taken, and it’s all my fucking fault!”

“You haven't....you didn't fail her...” I tried to find something, anything to say that would help. “It's not your fault—”

“I just had to get a new fucking body, because I was too fucking impatient to get my stupid fucking upgrade...I took the fucking shortcuts and it was always me me me!”

“But we fixed that, remember? We dealt with that, and now we can go get Lina back!”

“But I’m scared, Matt. She’s just...I failed her, and I’m fucking scared for her, okay?! I was supposed to be there for her, and I fucking miss her....I love her. She should be here with us, with you, with me...and I want to feel safe again.”

With every word out of her mouth, I felt more and more determined to get Lina back, more focused on helping Lucy to feel safe again. I steadied Lucy with a hand on each shoulder, before hugging her as close to me as I could. “We will get her back, Lucy. We have so many more people here helping us, and Uncle Frank....I just know we can!”

She let me hold her for a few more minutes before I felt her posture shift in my arms. “You damn fucking right we’ll get her back from those fuckers!” She pulled away from me, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand. “And I won’t rest until we do! Fuck them! This is not where the story ends!” She turned on her heel. “Rip and fucking TEAR!”

As I watched, she headed in the direction of the rendezvous point, her confidence seemingly restored. Her newfound sense of bravery was rubbing off on me, and as I started heading back the same way, I could've sworn I saw Uncle Frank looking at us from a corner, a few tears in his eyes. He even gave me a thumbs up as he followed me back to the van.

Once everyone was ready, and a few more phone calls had been made, everyone piled into their vehicles of choice—Lucy got back in he own car, while Millie and Ashwyn joined Uncle Frank and me in the van. Thus, for the second time in one night—well, late-night/early morning—I was sitting in the front passenger seat of the work van owned (and driven) by my uncle Frank, yet again with two gynoids in the rear passenger seats. The big difference this time around? The two passengers in the back were both online, and both along for the ride to help us get Lina back from the pricks who'd carted her off to the Greensfield Warehouse Complex.

None of us had any idea what to expect when we got there, drowning our thoughts in idle chatter or the radio.

Of course, given her outpouring of emotion, I had a feeling Lucy made the whole drive in silence....

After probably 40 minutes of driving, we arrived at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex. The massive sign out front had seen better days; the all-caps GREENSFIELD” stenciled on it had worn away over the years, with the “G,” one of the “Es” and the “S” all having faded away. Lucy's car pulled up right next to the van a few minutes later.

“....pretty secluded place to park,” Uncle Frank mused, guiding the van over to what looked like a disused shed.

“And when does the fifth member of our wonderful little exhibition join us at this shithole?” Lucy drawled.

“In due time...” Uncle Frank surveyed the complex. “For now, we can acquaint ourselves with our surroundings, come up with some sound tactics for unobserved entry...”

Millie nodded her approval. “Sounds like a great idea to me.”

“I just hope we don't have to sit around waiting for too long,” Ashwyn pouted. “I want to do something...”

I didn't say anything—mainly because I was wondering, if not flat-out hoping that Lina was somewhere amidst whatever was going on in the complex...and that she wasn't being taken apart or reprogrammed by some prick.

With the van parked, Uncle Frank suggested that Millie, Ashwyn and I all get out. “Okay, so...from what I can tell, we'll, ah, be dealing with guard patrols, cameras...” He glanced around the edge of the closest tree for a second. “...don't know for sure if they're armed or not, but—”

“Leave that to me.” Millie walked—actually, she pretty much sashayed to the edge of the shed, her hands on her hips.

“Does she have to do that?” Ashwyn groaned; her tail made an annoyed swish as she talked.

Uncle Frank nearly said something, but stopped—Millie had stiffened, standing at attention with one hand held up to shield her eyes as she scanned the horizon. The faintest of servo whirs accompanied each slow, robotic turn of her head as she looked out at the complex; I was starting to feel a familiar sensation below the beltline, which was only held in check by the memory of why we were there in the first damn place.

After a few seconds of scanning the complex, Millie relaxed. “Nobody's armed...but they're all synthetic.”

Ashwyn gave a satisfied nod, the claws once again emerging from her fingertips. “Ready when you are!”

“Now, let's not jump right into the fray, here...” Uncle Frank leaned past Ashwyn. “...we're still waiting on our, ah, guest, after all...should be here any minute now, hopefully.”

I leaned against the shed, pausing. “...huh.”

“Something wrong?”

“Over there, by the fence....who the Hell puts sycamore trees next to a warehouse?”

“...yeah, yeah,” Uncle Frank muttered, nodding. “This isn't even the right part of the country for sycamore trees! That picture in the article about the complex didn't even have any trees!”

“They could've just planted them,” Millie offered. “For decorative purposes?”

“Maybe something's under one of them?” Ashwyn suggested, glancing curiously at the trees. “Like...a hidden key!”

“....a key?” I arched an eyebrow at her. “Under the sycamore trees?”

Any further discussion on the matter was cut off by a very expensive-looking Japanese motorcycle rolling up, with the obligatory leather-clad figure atop it. “Right on cue,” Uncle Frank stated, nodding. “YO, ADRIAN!” I groaned, Lucy muttered “Oh, for fuck's sake”, Millie rolled her eyes and Ashwyn giggled.

“What? His name's Adrian!” Uncle Frank shrugged before striding to meet the new arrival; even from a distance, I could tell “Adrian” was shorter than Ashwyn, barely even 5 feet tall. “So, you get here all right? Any problems with traffic, any kind of delays....”

Adrian took off the helmet....revealing straight brown hair and a very small, very feminine face.

“No traffic problems...even if there were, the bike could've gotten me through with no problems.” The voice, like the face, was very obviously feminine—a bit high-pitched, but still obviously feminine. “I'm guessing the one over there by the shed is Matt...”

I nodded. “That'd be me.”

The girl walked over and shook my hand. “ALPA Field Agent Adrienne Murray. I wish we could be meeting under better circumstances, but...”

“Could've sworn they said Adrian, on the phone.” Uncle Frank cut in, frowning. Adrienne just rolled her eyes. “I'm guessing you need someone who's great at sneaking around...”

“Definitely. You any good at disabling security systems?”

“Fully certified.” Adrienne turned her attention to the complex, one hand resting on her hip. “You figure out what kind of security measures they have?”

“Cameras and guards,” Ashwyn chimed in. “None of the guards are human, either...” She wiggled her fingers, showing off her gleaming claws. “..so we can really cut loose if we get caught!”

Millie regarded her with a frown. “Not that we'll try to get caught just to pick fights....”

I nearly said something, but found myself yawning instead. “....damn it...”

“Hey, ah, Matt,” Uncle Frank mused, “if you wanna sit this one out, just take a nap in the van...”

“No, no, I'm good.” An obvious lie, but I wasn't about to sit this one out while the others tore up the complex. “Just let me get ready....”

“You're nearly dead on your feet, hon.” Millie sashayed over (I was starting to wonder if she ever just walked anywhere) and looked me over. “You might have to sit this one out—”

“No. If they've got Lina...”

After a worried glance at Uncle Frank, Millie nodded. “Well, if you insist....” She held up a hand, palm-up, as if she was about to blow me a kiss....and then proceeded to do exactly that. Thing is, she blew some kind of gas my way, as well; I first thought she was trying to knock me out so I wouldn't put myself in danger, or something stupid like that, but thanks to her other hand being on my shoulder, I couldn't exactly turn and run away. I tried not to breathe in...

….but when I did, I felt very awake. “.....whoa...”

“Just a lil' ol' aerosolized pick-me-up,” Millie informed me. “It'll keep you on your feet for a good few hours, and it's not habit-forming.” She turned away, walking (sashaying) back over to stand next to Ashwyn. “It was designed to keep any organic squadmates alert and on their feet in the field of battle,” she added, “so it should be enough to keep you going.”

“Right, right...” I looked around for a bit, just to make sure I wasn't seeing hallucinations or anything weird. “Thanks.”

“No problem, hon.” Millie winked.

“SO, ah, now that we've got everything sorted...” Uncle Frank turned to address “the team”: Millie, Ashwyn, Adrienne, Lucy and (of course) me. “Lucy, you stay out here on lookout duty so we don't get, ah surprised. Ashwyn will jump over the fence, probably near the trees—a bit more cover won't hurt. Adrienne, I assume you know how to scale fences—”

“It might be electrified,” Lucy countered. “And I'm pretty sure that's fucking razor-wire at the top!” Her protests garnered a frown from Uncle Frank, but it was Adrienne who replied: “Won't be a problem either way. I can climb over, find the alarm controls and shut 'em off so you three can enter.”

“....that's...pretty much what I was going to suggest, yes.” Uncle Frank nodded, throwing in a thumbs-up just for good measure. “Once we're all in, we....ah....”

“Find out if Lina's being held here, and if not, where she might be. Interrogate if you need to, incapacitate if you have to, and do your best not to get caught.” The only experience I had with anything even resembling what I was about to do was in video games—which, I'll admit, aren't really all that good as educational materials, since you don't have a “noise meter” in real life to tell you how loud your damn footsteps are. “And, ah, try not to wreck the place too much.”

Millie and Adrienne nodded, while Uncle Frank looked more than a bit surprised—at least, until Ashwyn nudged him in the side. “....what...OH, right. Time to get to work!”

Ashwyn actually dropped to all fours and ran, like a cat, towards the fence; she leapt over it with similar feline grace, clearing it in record time. I half expected her to circle around a few times before curling up and taking a nap, the way my own cat often did at night.

While Ashwyn was leaping over the fence, Adrienne was straight-up climbing it. She scaled the thing like a champion, and as soon as her feet hit the ground, she darted off towards the nearest building.

“Well,” Uncle Frank declared, “now, we wait.” He nodded, and went to lean against the shed—only to nearly fall over.

Millie regarded him with an arched eyebrow. “You sure you don't need a pick-me-up, hon?”

“Oh, no thanks. I have a very esoteric sleep schedule.”

“....well, whatever works for you...” Millie surveyed the complex, her hands planted on her hips; her attention settled on a gate maybe 20 feet away from the shed—conveniently fitted with colored lights to denote its “locked”/”unlocked” status. “And how're you feelin' right about now, Matt?”

“Awake, and hopeful that we'll actually find Lina somewhere in there.”

“Only one way to find that out....” Millie's eyes narrowed as the lights on the gate switched from red to green.

“I think that's our cue,” Uncle Frank muttered. “Lucy, yell if you see anything weird. Matt, Millie...back in the van.” Despite a rather strong fear that Uncle Frank was about to ram the gate, I nodded and headed for the van.

Thankfully, nobody rammed anything with anything; the gate actually just opened as we drove up, allowing Uncle Frank to just drive the van on through like it was nothing. From the front passenger window, I could see Ashwyn darting across warehouse rooftops, again running on all fours like an incredibly graceful prowler of some kind; I could only guess that Adrienne was doing her thing on the other side. “Okay....” Uncle Frank nodded. “I think we're where we need to be, so, ah...”

“We do our jobs and meet up here when we're done,” Millie stated. “Unless you've got other plans...”

“No, no....that's...the general idea I had, to be honest.” Uncle Frank leaned out the window. “....can't see any of 'em on patrol outside the buildings...”

I pulled the phone out of my pocket—99% charge. “Good enough...I hope.”

Without any further discussion, Millie left the van; as Uncle Frank and I watched, she made her way to a nearby building (sashaying all the while) and opened the sliding metal door with no effort.

“....well, I guess, ah....” I reached over and hugged Uncle Frank. “...thanks. For this, and for everything you've done....”

“....just go do your thing and get Lina back,” Uncle Frank replied, his usual goofiness once again absent as we broke our embrace. “You do your thing, I'll do mine....”

“Got it.” I nodded, heading out of the van.

I only looked back once, after sprinting towards the nearest building; the van was slowly making its way up the central avenue of the complex, presumably with Uncle Frank checking around for any guards. With a deep breath, I flattened myself against the wall, sideways-stepping until I found the door—a garage-style rolling metal beast that, if the security systems hadn't been deactivated, would've given me a hernia if I'd so much as thought of trying to lift it. Thankfully, with the locks turned off, it was just a matter of pulling up the door just enough for me to get under it, slipping inside and closing it so that it wouldn't crash down and alert every guard in the place to me being there. Once inside, I retrieved the phone and scrolled to the FCon app—I hadn't mentioned my own plans on how not to get caught to Uncle Frank, of course, but given what the phone (or at least the app) was capable of....

With the phone in hand, I took stock of where the Hell I was and what was around me—in this case, crates, capsules and cargo containers. I could just about read one of the manifests on a nearby cargo container, thanks to the light from the phone screen; sure enough, I could make out text indicating that the thing was loaded with “humanoid robots”.

Hopefully, one of them wasn't Lina...I didn't anticipate the prospect of digging through loads of cargo just to—

“Battery low. Please advise. Battery Low.”

“GHAAT!” I whirled on my heel—nearly falling over in the process—to find myself face-to-face with a porn star.

Well, in all honesty, it—she was a convincingly lifelike robotic replica of a porn star....or at least, she would've been if her eyes—normally a brilliant green—weren't flashing yellow, and if she wasn't standing there with her arms locked into “Ls” at her sides, her head turning left and right as she declared that her battery was low.

I'd recognized her (or rather, who she was modeled after) almost instantly—she was a dead-ringer for one of the stars of a high-budget film that the forum had been making a big deal about the year before, claiming the studio behind it had obviously browsed around and gotten a few ideas from their own material.

The fact that she was almost a foot taller than I was made the encounter a bit...well, awkward; it wasn't so much face-to-face as it was face-to-boobs. She was wearing a similar latex number to Units One, Two and Three from Uncle Frank's shop, with a far lower neckline. Out of curiosity, I circled around her to find that it was low-cut in the back, as well, revealing a rose tattoo identical to the one found on her human equivalent. Just underneath that was a designation not found on the real deal: “Unit 16”.

“...so she's from the same line as the other three...” I frowned. “...the other five, if the two guys count...”

I resisted the urge to squeeze Unit 16's ass, or otherwise interact with her, mostly on account of not wanting to snap her out of her low-battery funk and immediately signal to the other fembots in the place that I was inside. Again, I could almost hear Lina dramatically whisper: Use the phone, Matt....and I swear I heard her giggle.

Whether or not I was imagining her voice, hearing what I wanted to hear or just flat-out hallucinating, I knew that the phone would, in fact, get me past Unit 16 without any further issues. I held it up, waited for the “Act. Debug” button to appear and thumbed it—Unit 16's arms immediately relaxed at her sides, and her head rotated to a stop to stare directly in front of her...convenient, since I was now behind her.

Might as well try it with her.... “Are you in Debug Mode?”

“This unit is currently in Diagnostic Mode.” Her voice, like the rest of her, matched her “inspiration”, though she spoke with zero emotional inflection. “This unit is currently running on a sub-optimal charge level.”

I checked the screen on the phone, hoping to find out just how low her charge level was... “Forty percent.” I glanced at that number, then back at the well-formed ass of Unit 16; already, a plan—based almost entirely on stories I'd read on the forum—had begun to take shape in my head. “Engage in self-pleasure routine.”

“Unit will exit Diagnostic Mode—”

“Remain in Diagnostic Mode while engaging in self-pleasure routine.” If all went well, Unit 16 would be entirely too busy dancing with herself to realize she was draining her power cells, leaving the fembots with one less unit on patrol.

Unit 16's left hand moved—in that halting, jerky way that made her look more like an impossibly sexy animatronic than a human being—towards her crotch, while her right moved towards one of her boobs. Almost instantly, I realized the one near-fatal flaw of my plan. “Unit 16, mute internal voicebox.” Sure enough, as I circled around to her front again, her mouth had opened in what was probably supposed to be a robotic moan, but no sound emerged even as she stiffly tweaked her nipple and jabbed two fingers through her unzipped pants to fulfill the “self-pleasure” directive. As entertaining (in more ways than one) as it was to watch her robotically going at herself, it'd take entirely too long for her to drain her batteries at the current rate. “Unit 16, increase speed by 25%....incrementally increase by 5% every two minutes.” That would probably be enough.

Her lips silently formed the words “As you command me”, between soundless moaning; instantly, both her hands sped up in their efforts to fulfill the task of pleasuring herself. Her charge level dropped from forty percent down to 38, than 37 as I watched—the phone screen, not her. Yes, I watched her go at it for a full minute or so, but not long enough to forget why I was there in the first damn place—Unit 16 was, after all, working for the same pricks who'd tried to take Lucy, and had grabbed Lina instead.

I left Unit 16 to finger herself until she ran out of juice (as in electricity...though she'd probably drain her reserves of the other kind, too) and edged my way around the cargo container. With any luck, a peak around the edge would reveal....

...an ass. A latex-covered, well-formed female ass.

I'd dropped to a half-crouch to go around the container, and was going to do that Sherlock thing where I took a quick look and tried to get as much info as possible just from a glance....instead, I found myself face-to-ass—a 52, if I wasn't mistaken. Up went the phone, the “Act. Debug” was pressed, and that magnificent ass before me briefly jiggled before going still. I had a feeling this “unit” was based on another actress from the same film as the previous one, and oh-so-carefully rolled down her pants to check....

Yep. Right there on the tailbone, a Celtic/tribal tattoo of some kind, with “Unit 19” inked above it. I could feel the material of what must've been a black g-string beneath the latex of her pants; apparently, some fembots got to wear undies, while others just went free and loose in that department.

I decided not to stand, and instead made use of the limb control sliders in FCon to see just how much “Control” the app would actually give me over Unit 19. A quick look at the screen revealed a readout for “Sent.”...sentience? Any worries I had pretty much evaporated when I noticed that Unit 19's level for “Sent.” was pretty much nonexistent—according to FCon's explanation of her abysmally-low level, she could feel (in the physical sense, not the emotional one) and perceive, and was capable of carrying out orders and (as Units One, Two and Three had) could even talk to people...but pretty much lacked any kind of emotion or true personality. I aimed the phone back at Unit 16—same level. I had a feeling Units One through Five—and probably any of their ilk that I'd run into here—all had the same piss-poor “Sent.” rating.

With that out of the way, I decided to see if I could get Unit 19 to re-enact the time-honored scene of a malfunctioning fembot walking into a wall. The leg sliders did little to help, but there was a sort of “Nav. Aid” option near them; a quick tap of that button revealed another button, “Pthfnd.”—obviously, Pathfinding. I couldn't help but smirk as I set the “path” for Unit 19—two steps forward, turn right and go down the “hallway”....which, in reality, was a cargo container.

Another tap of the button, and the well-endowed Latina fembot marched—her arms locked into Ls and moving up and down with each step—along the path I'd just made. Predictably, she walked right into the wall of the container. Her tits (which were smaller than Unit 16's, but still...well, generously sized) squished against the metal as she tried to move through what was supposed to be empty space, and her still-moving arms started to lock up. Her legs kept on walking; within seconds, smoke started to waft out of her ears, nostrils and mouth. With any luck, she'd be—

“Unit 19. Disengage current priority and return to your post.”

“Son of a....” I scrambled to get behind the cargo container, doing my best to stay calm even as footsteps approached the stricken Unit 19. A quick peek from my “shelter” revealed a slim, short fembot with black hair and green eyes (another one based on a “performer” from that one particular movie); she was far less endowed in the chest department than Units 16 and 19 had been, with more of an average body than the curves her fellow fembots had. Without hesitation, she repeated her earlier...command? Request? Her voice had no affect to it at all, making it hard to tell what kind of tone she might've been going for. “Unit 19, disengage current priority and return to your post.”

I glanced at the phone, which had “locked onto” Unit 19. I held it up to my mouth, cupping my other hand to decrease the chances of the new arrival hearing me: “Unit 19, turn and initiate intercourse with the unit behind you.”

Sure enough, Unit 19 stopped trying to walk through the cargo container, instead turning on her heel and putting her hands on the other fembot's shoulders. Without any hint of passion or emotion, she grabbed the front of the fembot's top and tore it open, pulling it down her torso.

“Unit 19, return to your post at once.”

The request went ignored, thanks to Unit 19 moving to take off the other fembot's pants. Once those were around the still-speaking fembot's ankles, Unit 19 stood, jamming her left hand in-between the fembot's legs and pulling her in for a kiss with her right hand.

The now-protesting fembot tried to move away from Unit 19, but the one-armed embrace kept her immobile as the pair turned; the stripped, black-haired fembot had a column of kanji down her spine and something on the back of her right shoulder, confirming her as a match to another actress from the same film as the previous two. The designation “Unit 18” was inked right above her ass, at the end of the kanji column.

Yet again, the thought of why I'd had Uncle Frank bring me out here to begin with was enough to still any “stirrings” below the waistline as I edged past the fornicating fembots; both were now emitting smoke from various orifices, which had the bonus result of reducing Unit 18's protestations to gibberish. I leaned in for a quick closer look at the pair—Unit 19's ocular sensors (or her eyes, whichever you prefer) had rolled backwards into her head, while Unit 18 was going cross-eyed from what FCon described as a sexual data bus overflow. The two were also starting to, ah, emit fluids, in addition to the smoke, so I decided to put as much distance between myself and the pair as possible before they shorted each other out.

After a few minutes of jogging away from Units 18 and 19's entanglement, I ended up at a stack of crates. They looked to be just enough to hold a sitting person—I'd seen a video of a sex doll company that packed their “products” that way before shipping them. Unfortunately, I didn't have long to consider this fact: two sets of footsteps were moving around the crates, one on each side. If I didn't do something soon....

I took a few “test” jumps to see if I could reach the top of one of the crates, pulling myself up once I'd managed to get a good grip on the thing. Any cameras overhead would effectively be blind, thanks to Adrienne, so I had nothing to worry about in that department.

A few seconds after I'd scrambled to the top of the crate, the two sets of footsteps reached the ends of the row I'd been in. Two more fembots—both blue-eyed, one brunette and one blonde—stopped at the ends of the row and faced each other. Again, they both matched the appearances of actresses from that film, which begged the question of why the Greensfield Warehouse Complex was being guarded by a bunch of fembots built to look like porn stars. In any case, both 'bots walked to the center of the aisle, stopping mere inches from each other.

The brunette spoke first: “Unit 17 reporting. No anomalous presence detected.”

The blonde followed suit. “Unit 20 reporting. No anomalous presence detected.

Once they'd recited their lines at each other, each fembot reached for the forehead of the other—or rather, a sort of tab that had appeared somewhere on the forehead of the other. Slowly, they both pulled down each other's faces; instantly, I thought back to Lina doing the same thing to show me she hadn't been damaged by my idiot brother hitting her. That had been a slow, almost sensual process; that Units 17 and 20 were doing was far more methodical, more...rehearsed, I guess. Lights flashed in their optical receptors as they continued staring at each other.

“L.E.D. Pattern Verified. Unit 20 is functioning as intended.”

“L.E.D. Pattern Verified. Unit 17 is functioning as intended.”

The two moved each other's faces back where they belonged, the tabs sort of sealing up with a pop. The pair turned and started off down the row again....

..except Unit 17 barely had time to take three steps before I'd hit the “Act. Debug” button on the phone. She froze in place for a second, before her arms lowered to her sides. Unit 20 was still walking...or she was, before I turned FCon on her, as I'd done with Unit 17. She stopped right at the end of the row, her arms lowering as she stood there.

I lowered myself down from the crate, moving to check Unit 20, first.

Sleeve tattoos on each arm, misspelled words on her thighs...another definite match.

Unit 17 was a bit harder to pin down, though I knew her “template” (or whatever you're supposed to call the human an android or gynoid is based on) had fake tits. Upon close inspection, Unit 17's boobs seemed to be just as “enhanced” as those of her human basis...another match.

Remembering Unit One's reaction to being prodded, I decided to check FCon to see just what “caliber” these two were packing..if any. The only indications that might've helped were two dots on a vauge drawing of the female form, right where the nipples would be. I tapped both and heard a mechanical frrt from Unit 17's tits—a quick circle around to her front revealed that, yes, she was packing. I aimed the phone at Unit 19, repeated the process....same thing.

“And Millie couldn't detect these?” I shook my head. Maybe the “housing” of these particular armaments made it more difficult for scans to pick up on them....in any case, I now had the perfect method with which to dispose of Units 17 and 20. I backed myself up against the crate and took a deep breath....

“Units 17 and 20, turn around.”

Both fembots turned, silently (apart from the faintest hint of whirring servos), to face each other. So far, so good...

“Units 17 and 20....target lock.”

Something inside each fembot beepedd. They continued staring at each other, their eyes now flashing red.

“Units 17 and 20....fire.”

I had to plug my ears with my fingers and throw myself to the floor as Units 17 and 20 opened fire on each other. Wood splintered, casings hit the floor and the firing continued for a full 30 seconds before cutting off.

Once the firing had ceased on both sides, I raised my head just enough to get a peek at the damage.....

Unit 17 was now missing half of her head. Her incredible tits were leaking whatever gel kept their form intact, and her torso was riddled with bullet holes. Her right arm was jerking around at random, while her left had been chewed to bits by bullets and riddled with shrapnel from the crates. I was surprised she was even able to stand.

Unit 20, by comparison, had no face left. Most of her torso was missing skin, revealing gel packs, metal, servos and wires beneath. Apparently, something below the belt had taken significant damage, since smoke was now pouring out of her crotch; her shoulders were similarly bare, and a sizable hole had been made in her abdomen—I could see the vast majority of her internals, as well as dings on her metallic spine.

Both fembots tried to speak, with little success. Unit 17's tongue fell out, and Unit 20's speaker blew, as smoke wafted forth from the ruined cone.

I made my way past Unit 17 (who droned about needing repair) and turned the corner to find a nearly identical row of crates—and a fembot standing at the far end, her back turned to me. Even from a distance, I could pretty much tell she was shorter than Units 17 and 20...and as she turned around, I could see that she was, like those two, modeled after an actress who'd been in that one film. I thumbed “Act. Debug” before she could register that she'd spotted me; as with the rest, she froze for a moment before lowering her arms to her sides.

Just to make sure she was from the same “set” as the last five fembots I'd run across, I made my way over to her and lowered her top just enough to get a glimpse at the back of her neck—numbers and letters, just like the real deal. “Unit 21” was inked below these, as if I needed any further clues as to her connection with the others. I considered my options , as I circled around to look her in the eye. What I'd done to the rest was just...I dunno, wish fulfillment.

Now, I realized that I'd had—and wasted—five opportunities to ask if Lina was, in fact, in this building.

I started with the usual question: “Are you in Debug Mode?”

“This unit is in Diagnostic Mode.”

Figured that. Okay, time for something different.... “....what is the purpose of this facility?”

“Storage, repair, reprogramming and processing.”

Those last two—reprogramming and processing—didn't sit well with me at all. “...processing for what?”

“All inventory will be processed before transportation. Inventory that does not fit criteria will be set aside for eventual teardown and scrapping on a case-by-case basis.”

My eyes narrowed. “...do you know the designations of the....inventory?”

“Unable to answer query. Please rephrase.” Her voice wasn't a complete monotone, but something about the sheer lack of any feeling in her words pissed me off.

“....do you know the names of each unit of inventory?”

“Searching.....searching.....searching.....” Her usually brown eyes flashed orange with each utterance of that word, and I was starting to get annoyed with her.

“Cancel query.”

“....search—query cancelled.”

“...is there a unit in the inventory here named Lina?” I figured cutting to the chase might make a difference, or at least get me something resembling a straight answer.

“.....searching.....searching....” Unit 21 took a step back. “The unit designated Lina is not stored in this facility.”

“....in this building, or in the entire complex?”

“Security Clearance required. Please provide—”

I thumbed “Act. Debug” again, hoping it'd shut her up. “Is Lina anywhere in this warehouse complex?”

“...the location of the unit designated Lina is currently unknown.”

I cracked my knuckles, tiring of the interrogation. “Unit 21...place a hand on each side of your head, and grip it firmly.”

Unit 21 did as I asked; the only reason I was even doing this was because her sentience was pretty much nonexistent, and she was effectively an extension of a system. I'd never dream of having Lina do anything to herself like what I was going to tell Unit 21 to do....

“Unit 21, keep gripping your head, as tightly as possible, and pull upward as hard as you can.”

“As you commmmmmmmm—” Unit 21's attempt to acknowledge my command cut off in a stream of gibberish. Her lips locked into a bizarre sneer as she pulled; I could see the tears opening in her latex uniform and her synthetic skin.

Seconds later, with a final, powerful yank, she ripped off her own head.

Sparks and smoke shot out of her neck in equal measure; her eyes had crossed and her jaw had gone slack right at the moment of separation. Her now headless body took a step forward, then backwards; apparently, without the head, her ability to stay balanced was completely wrecked. Weirdly, she was still trying to speak, though her mouth was forming nonsensical phrases and noise, mostly. After a few seconds of staggering, she toppled to the floor, her legs beginning to pump as if she were upright and walking.

I stared at her for a moment. Any arousal I might've felt was cancelled out by anger; she'd kept calling Lina a “unit”, as if she was a brainless drone like the rest I'd seen in the warehouse. Lina hadn't been a “unit”. Lucy Sievers wasn't a “unit” either. Mandy Bulwer, Millie, Ashwyn...none of them were just “units”.

These, on the other hand, were just cheap imitations of people. Remote-control dolls with porn star bodies.

I was downright pissed, now, as I made my way through the warehouse. None of the crates or capsules had any kind of hint as to what (or who) was contained within; I was starting to hope I'd run across another black-clad fembot, just to use FCon to get her to enact the latest plan I'd formed. Lo and behold, one was standing in front of a crate, staring right at it; she looked to be maybe three years older than Lina's self-professed age of 21 (with a smaller cup size, as well), sporting straw-blonde hair and hazel eyes. Unlike the last six I'd encountered, she looked to have been modeled after a “performer” from an entirely different video clip.

Thumbing the FCon took all of a second as I strode towards her; she barely moved to react to it. A quick check of her navel revealed that she did, in fact, sport the same kind of piercing as her human equivalent—something about the fact that these fembots all had the looks but not the brains was just....odd, to me...

“Awaiting command input.”

Apparently, my introspection had been just enough of a pause for her systems to figure out she was in Debug mode (or Diagnostic mode, or whatever the Hell it was called). I decided to just ask for her identification, instead of stripping her to find where it'd been written.

“This unit is designated as Unit Seven.”

I frowned, at that; the ones at the shop had been One through Five. “Unit Seven, open the crate in front of you, and the rest of the crates on this row.”

Without a word, the fembot moved to the crate in question, pulling the front off before heading to the next. I peeked into the crate, both hoping and fearing that Lina was inside....and sighing with relief at the sight of an empty box, with a sort of foam “throne” in the center for the intended occupant to sit on. The next crate down was occupied by a hairless female figure, though a bag tacked up to the side contained what I guessed was the intended hairpiece. The rest of the crates were either empty or occupied by unfinished female forms; some had various bits of their synthetic flesh missing, others had been covered from head to toe in some kind of spray-on outfit, and still others were fully dressed and looked to just be turned off

They all had one thing in common, of course: none of them were Lina.

Unit Seven, having fulfilled her earlier order, was standing at the end of the row. As I approached, I could see she was staring into a crate; a closer inspection revealed that it had been filled with what appeared to be a grand total of four gynoids—or pieces of them, at least. None of the bits looked anything like Lina; only one head had any artificial skin on it, and the face definitely wasn't hers.

“Unit Seven, go to the next row and open all containers on that row.”

Again, without a word, Unit Seven rounded the corner and started opening containers.

I turned the corner to follow her—and froze. The third container that she'd opened held a fully-uniformed female police officer—the exact same one who'd given me the side-eye when she'd noticed my phone, the day after the party!

While Unit Seven was continuing to open capsules and crates, I held up my phone, wondering if FCon's Debug Mode would be able to reactivate the officer....only to notice a holstered phone on her belt. I stepped up onto the capsule's base and retrieved it—the merest press of my thumb was enough to turn the phone on, at least. The screen that greeted me was as simple as possible: “Restart? Y/N”

I glanced at Unit Seven, apparently struggling to open a capsule further down the row, before thumbing “Y.”

A shiver ran through the officer's figure, and I quickly put the phone back in its holster before stepping off of the capsule as the rebooting process ran its course. The faint sounds of whirring emanated from her torso, along with a pleasing series of beeps; after a few seconds of this, her eyes opened, and she looked around before settling on me.

“....ah, hi....” I gave a meek wave.

“....where am I? This isn't my assigned patrol beat—”

“You're in a capsule....in the Greensfield Warehouse Complex.” I sighed. “A lot of other gynoids are being stored—”

“Gynoids? What are you—”

“I reactivated you with your phone....sorry if that's...against protocol, or anything...” I stared at the floor, hoping I wasn't going to get handcuffed after this was over with.

After a few seconds of silence, I looked up to see that the officer was regarding me with an understanding look. “You're Matt Harker, aren't you?”

I nodded. “You were at my house, the day after the party....thanks to those two meatheads fighting in the back yard.”

The officer chuckled. “Just part of the job...and speaking of the job, I was on call to investigate a disturbance here two days ago. I went to the supervisor's office...Singleton, Chester Singleton—” She paused for a moment, frowning. “Have I been strapped into this thing?!”

“....looks like it. You, ah, need any help to...”

The look I received in reply was best translated to “really?”, and I sheepishly stepped up to help undo the straps that had been secured around her ankles, knees, thighs, waist, wrists, elbows and neck. Despite the constraints of the capsule, I was able to free her without accidentally groping her at any point. “...better?”

“Much.” The officer stepped out of the capsule, checking her uniform and belt. “...they didn't even take my gun?”

“They might've just shut you off, to save time.” I shrugged. “Maybe they didn't want to damage 'potential inventory'.”

“....'potential inventory'?” The officer arched an eyebrow at me.

“I'm pretty sure this place is some kind of gynoid smuggling ring—every crate on the row before this one is either empty or has a gynoid in it...” I had to stop myself before I started swearing. “...and the...individuals I've encountered here are probably connected to the ones who took Lina from my uncle's shop—she's my girlfriend,” I quickly explained. “I met her at the party, before you showed up...”

I felt my fists clenching. “...she was protecting her friend, and they just...shut her off, like it was nothing....”

The officer rested a hand on my shoulder. “I'm sorry to hear that. If there's anything I can do to help—”

A frantic beeping from further down the row cut her off; apparently, Unit Seven was straining her systems trying to rip the door off of another capsule, but it was refusing to budge.

“I told her to open all the crates on this row and the last,” I explained. “She's...ah...”

“Doesn't qualify as sentient,” the officer murmured, shaking her head. “Probably a drone slaved to the network here.”

“I'd bet the rest are all drones, too, then...” I held up my phone. “She's got the same 'Sent.' level as them—and I, ah, got this phone from a friend of my uncle's....Ricky—”

“I heard.”

“....and Lina mentioned something about him being 'missing'....” I paused. “....ah, has the department...”

“I'm afraid I can't comment on an ongoing investigation....sorry. Department programming talking, there.” The officer rolled her eyes.

“No worries, Officer....ah, Drew.”

“...you looked up my name on your phone?”

“No, you're still wearing your nametag.” I nodded to the black padge pinned under the shield over her left breast.

“....they didn't even take the badge off?” Officer Dawn frowned. “If this is a smuggling operation, they're doing a pretty poor job at covering their tracks...not that I'm encouraging them to smarten up, or anything.”

“So I figured—”

A loud bang cut me off; Officer Drew pulled her gun and nearly gestured for me to stay down, until we both realized it was Unit Seven. “She's still trying to open that thing?!”

“Let's take a look...” Officer Drew led the way; I couldn't help but notice that she was a bit taller than me, probably by a few inches, and that her uniform managed to flatter her figure without crossing the line into fetish-wear. She also moved with a purpose—a dutiful stride, as opposed to anything that'd just draw attention to her ass and hips.

By the time we reached the capsule, Unit Seven was spewing smoke from her ears, nose and mouth—and the crotch of her pants was turning red with every straining motion, meaning she was probably going to blow a component there, as well. “....must be a pretty good lock, if she can't just pull the door off,” Officer Drew mused. She leaned in for a closer look, maneuvering herself around the now-spasming form of Unit Seven.

“....well?”

“....it's a time-code lock,” Officer Drew replied, smirking. “She could pull on this thing until Kingdom Come, and the door would stay closed. She'll probably burn herself out soon—”

“Unit Seven, disengage and return to your post.”

Another fembot strode towards us, looking old enough to be Unit Seven's mother—in fact, in the video clip that both of their human equivalents had been in, she was...or at least, it was her character's assigned role. In any case, she made her way towards the stricken fembot, apparently ignorant of the latter's catastrophic malfunction.

“Unit Seven,” she repeated, almost sounding maternally disapproving, “disengage and return to your post.”

“Musssssttttt open-open-open-open all-all-all-all contaitaitaitaitaitaitai—” Unit Seven's head turned to the side with a sharp crack, and a spark shot out of her nose.

“Unit Seven, disengage and return to your—”

Unit Seven staggered back, her arms locked into the now-familiar Ls at the elbows. “Error...error...errrr—” A shower of sparks shot out of her mouth as she staggered and pivoted, unaware of the other fembot...or, for that matter, of myself and Officer Drew. “...errrrrrrorooooooooorrrrrrrrr.....”

“Unit Seven, return to your post—”

I winced at the crack that sounded when Unit Seven's unyielding hand met—and pierced—the other fembot's side. As the stricken Unit Seven pivoted and bent up and down at the waist, her hand came away with skin, latex and a handful of wires from the other fembot. “....Unit Eight has-has-has-has-has—” A loud rizzz cut off Unit Eight's statement, her face contorting in a confused sneer.

“...that's not good,” Officer Drew mused, slowly backing away from the pair.

“Pretty sure it'll get really not good in a few minutes...” I nearly tripped over my own feet as I backed away.

Unit Eight, now smiling deliriously, turned towards Unit Seven. “Initiating Program FF-9839—”

Whatever FF-9839 was, Officer Drew and I never got to find out. Unit Seven, who'd been bent at the waist, straighened up, her right arm clocking Unit Eight in the jaw and nearly taking her head off. Colored fluids and smoke issued from the rips in her neck, in equal measure; more colored fluids were leaking from her lips, as if she was drooling. Her hands went to steady her head, which they very nearly did—until Unit Seven chopped her in the midsection while pivoting, doubling her over. The jolt pretty much finished what the earlier uppercut had started, taking her head off and causing her body to stagger around blindly.

“....I read a story that ended a lot like this, once,” I found myself muttering—forgetting who was standing by me.

“I still haven't signed up yet.”

I turned to regard Officer Drew with a surprised glance. “You know about the forum?!”

She shrugged. “....I dabble. Some of the 'control' aspects are a bit of a turn-off, but—”

Another bang cut her off; something in Unit Seven's midsection had exploded, sending her staggering forward. Her eyes had effectively blown out, with black electrical smoke streaming from both sockets; she took two blind steps forward before tripping over Unit Eight's head and falling forward—right into the still-staggering body of Unit Eight. The pair fell to the floor; a spark (presumably from either Unit Seven's midsection or Unit Eight's neck) caught on something, and within seconds, the pair were ablaze. Something that may have been the word “ERROR” issued from within Unit Seven's chest for a few more seconds before dying in a burst of static.

“....tell me you don't enjoy endings like that,” I muttered.

“I prefer repair scenes to malfunction scenes, personally,” Officer Drew replied. “Both in fiction, and....” She cleared her throat. “We should probably get a move on.”

“Probably a good idea.”

After a quick examination of the rest of the crates (Lina wasn't in any of them), we continued on our way. “You're not here by yourself, I hope,” Officer Drew inquired.

“Uncle Frank brought me. We also have two others with us...Millie and Ashwyn—”

“Ashwyn?” Officer Drew looked confused.

“Cat-girl gynoid. Test unit from a theme park—”

Officer Drew snapped her fingers. “I'd heard about that place...George and Marty were talking about it once, on break, but they only ever mentioned it that one time.”

“Uncle Frank told me the plans fell through....and you don't find this weird, at all?”

“What, having a conversation?” Officer Drew grinned. “Technically speaking, I'm off the clock...though I wonder...” Her grin faded as she retrieved her phone; a few swipes got it past the “RESTART” screen.

“You, ah, may want to change that setting later...”

“It reverts to that if I don't reply to HQ after a set length of time. Believe me, you're not in trouble for reactivating me, Matt.” Officer Drew held the phone to her ear. “....all units, this is Officer Rachel Drew, requesting assistance. Repeat, this is Officer Rachel Drew, requesting assistance. All available units, report to the Greensfield Warehouse Complex as soon as possible.” She turned off the phone and placed it back in the belt holster. “....now, we wait...”

“...we, ah, may not be able to wait for too long...” I nodded. “I think we've got company.”

Officer Drew turned, frowning, as four more fembots approached—to my disbelief, these four had apparently all been modeled after actresses from another “adult production”, made a few years before the one starring the actresses that Units 16-21 had been based on. The earlier film, promising to be “a chilling vision of the future of sex”, had been met with great acclaim on the forum, partially due to the fact that a sex doll company had cashed in by making sex doll versions of two of the female leads; said dolls had also been used as props in repair scenes in the film.

Obviously, these fembots would be a bit more...dangerous...than sex dolls.

“I'm starting to think that whoever made these has a really sick sense of humor...” I shook my head at the advancing quartet of fembots. “Six from one movie, two from another, and now these four?”

“If they're taking part in a smuggling operation,” Officer Drew replied, “they're still accessories to a felony—who they're based on doesn't mean anything.”

The four fembots strode towards us, without any expression on their faces; they didn't look smug, or angry, or....well, to be honest, they didn't have even a hint of emotion on their faces. They were just blank-faced, marching towards us with probably malicious intent. Officer Drew unholstered her gun, aiming it at each of the fembots in turn. “I can't exactly arrest them if they're just slaved to a network...”

“Then just shoot!”

“Even if I hit one...” Officer Drew took two steps back. “The nightstick, on my belt...get it and extend it.”

“You're sure it'll help against them?”

“It's better than....do you hear squealing tires?”

For a second, I thought Officer Drew might've been malfunctioning—only to hear the unmistakable sounds of rubber on pavement (or at least rubber on concrete floor) and a rather large vehicle accelerating towards us. The fembots didn't seem to notice; if they did, they didn't treat it as a priority.

As it turned out, ignoring the tire squeal was a really stupid move on their part.

A group of crates right next to the locked capsule Unit Seven had burnt herself out trying to open pretty much exploded into a shrapnel of wood as Uncle Frank's van plowed through them—and straight into the four fembots striding towards Officer Drew and me. One fembot's head pretty much got flattened under the front passenger-side tire; another one ended up on her stomach, with the full weight of the van on her back. The last two out of the group had “only” been knocked over...well, knocked over and smashed into (and through) the wall of a crate.

“....I'm guessing that's Uncle Frank,” Officer Drew mused, looking both impressed and amused at his entrance.

I couldn't help grinning like an idiot. “....yeah. That'll be him.”

“YO, MATT!” Uncle Frank jumped out of the driver's side seat of the van, surveying the havoc he'd just unleashed with a nod. “Ashwyn and Millie cleared their buildings, didn't find anything...Lucy didn't spot anything outside, either.” He noticed Officer Drew almost immediately, practically recoiling. “....ah, it's not what it looks like...”

“Matt explained the situation to me,” Officer Drew assured him. “And I know those four are gynoids.”

“....oh.” Uncle Frank nodded. “That's, ah....that's good...”

“She's one too. They had her strapped into a capsule....”

“And you decided to reactivate her,” Millie drawled, emerging from the front passenger side of the van. “Not that I think your intentions were anything but noble....” She sashayed up to Officer Drew, looking her over. “I'm just wonderin' why an officer of the law is stuck in a dump like this...”

Officer Drew scoffed. “Apparently, I was going to be 'inventory'. They're running some kind of smuggling ring—”

“What happened to these two?” Ashwyn was prodding the remains of Units Seven and Eight with her foot. “You didn't get them to get freaky with each other, did you?”

“No! One tried to open the capsule right there, nearly burnt herself out—”

“We saw a few of the others, further back,” Millie cut in, her hands on her hips. “I'm hopin' you had reasons for those lil' ol'....displays....”

“None of the units on patrol here are sentient,” Officer Drew stated. “They're pretty much really expensive drones, on a preset routine.” She glanced at me with a smirk. “Pretty sure Matt was just...venting his frustrations with his 'lil' ol' displays'...though I have to ask—”

“Two of them were screwing by a cargo container, one was fingering herself—”

“ASHWYN!” Millie looked livid. “We don't need to hear the details!”

“Well, she asked!” Ashwyn shrugged. “I took a few down myself, in another building...whoever set 'em up to patrol didn't bother giving any of them self-defense programming.”

Millie shook her head. “The ones I found knew how to apply an arm-lock, at least...not a very good one, but...”

“Can we get back to the point of why we're here?!” I glared at Millie, Ashwyn, Lucy and Uncle Frank...well, I tried to glare at them, but the anger just wasn't there. “....did any of you find any trace of Lina?”

“I found a locked office,” Millie replied. “Couldn't tell who was in it, but there were at least two people....”

“There was fuck-all outside,” Lucy muttered. “Nothing under the scyamore trees, except some weird lockbox....”

“All I found were parts,” Ashwyn admitted. “I don't think any of them were from Lina—”

A bing from the capsule Unit Seven had tried to open cut her off; Uncle Frank nearly jumped back a full foot. “It's just a time-lock,” Officer Drew assured him. “And judging from that sound...it's about to open!”

Millie and Lucy tensed, Ashwyn got her claws out again, Uncle Frank tripped over his own feet trying to back up....

...and I just stood my ground, with a death grip on the nightstick Officer Drew had suggested I take from her belt.

Whatever locks held the door shut clicked, something hissed, and the door swung open....

...to reveal the motionless, undisturbed figure of Lina resting inside.

“Lina!” The nightstick fell from my grasp, but I barely heard it hit the floor. She was still wearing the same clothes she'd had on in the shop, when that prick had shut her off; apart from the small matter of her not breathing, she just looked like she was sleeping inside the capsule.

Just to be sure, I held up the phone, opened FCon...

“It's her. It's.....” I could barely speak. Tears were welling up in my eyes, not that I gave a crap.

“....she's beautiful,” Millie murmured, leaning in for a closer look.

“She looks like she could be a princess!” Ashwyn added, clamoring for a better view of her own.

Lucy didn't say anything, though I noticed tears in her eyes as she looked down on Lina with a smile.

Uncle Frank clapped me on the shoulder, grinning. “We did it, Matt...now, all we have to do is get outta here—”

“Not without reactivating her.” Lucy had spoken the exact thing I'd had on my mind. “I.....we need to make sure those fuckheads didn't do anything to her between the shop and...well, here.”

Ashwyn leaned in again, getting a closer view of Lina's figure in the capsule.

“I know that look,” Millie muttered. “Please don't ask what I think you're about to ask—”

“You don't know what I'm gonna ask,” Ashwyn countered, sticking her tongue out at Millie. “I was just...wondering...”

Officer Drew arched an eyebrow. “Wondering what?”

Ashwyn ignored her, turning her attention to me. “You and Lina have been...together for....how long, now?”

“A week, almost. Why—”

“Did you and Lina......y'know...have sex?”

“ASHWYN!” Millie looked appalled. “A lady doesn't pry into the personal matters of—”

“They did. Twice.” Lucy rolled her eyes at Millie's gasp. “They even went anal the first time—”

“NO MORE!” Millie clamped her hands over Ashwyn's ears—or at least the sides of her head, completely forgetting about her cat ears. “My emulated age is 27 in human years,” she protested, shrugging out of Millie's grip. “I was built for a fetish-theme park, remember?”

“That's no excuse for anyone to air their filthy laundry in public.” Millie gave a dignified toss of her hair. “Really....”

Lucy shrugged. “Well, I tried to fuck him, too—”

“All right, enough!” Uncle Frank stepped in-between Millie and Lucy before either of them could get in each other's faces over Lucy's, ah, disarmingly-blunt admissions. “Save it for the privacy of the hangar, when we get back, okay? Right now, we need to get Lina booted up and out of here, before the jackalopes who own this place come calling...” He nodded at me. “I believe, ah, you should do the honors...after all, she is your—”

“Girlfriend.” I glanced at Millie, Ashwyn and Officer Drew. “It's not about ownership, between us.”

“So you're, what...gonna get married?” Ashwyn asked, astonished.

“.....yeah.” I couldn't help but smile. “Once this is all over and done with....we'll give it a few months, and then...I bet Lina would ask you to be a maid of honor—and you, too, Millie.”

Ashwyn's eyes practically lit up. “Really?!”

“Calm down, Ashwyn, otherwise your tail is gonna go crazy....” Millie—having finally calmed down after Lucy's cavalier attitude towards our sex life—nodded. “I'm glad to hear that you're in it for mutual love, rather than....” She cast a glare at Lucy.

“Let's not drag the moment down with that again,” Uncle Frank advised.

“I won't. And Matt...” Millie's smirk softened to a genuine smile. “I'd be honored to be a part of your wedding.”

I leaned into the capsule, reaching behind Lina's right ear—gently, unlike that android bastard from the shop—and felt around until my finger brushed against a small bump of some kind. I didn't care that a whispered “please work” left my lips as I pressed down on the bump.....

Slowly, as I moved back, Lina's eyes opened—and they were glowing blue.

“It's just her systems catching up,” Lucy assured me. “Give her a few seconds....”

Lina stared straight ahead, without blinking, for about two minutes; by the time she actually noticed me, I'd started worrying that the pricks who'd taken her had damaged her. Eventually, something in her let off a series of trilling, almost triumphant beeps—and she blinked.

“.....Matt?”

“Yeah.” I didn't bother wiping the tears away from my eyes. “It's me....” I took a step forward, just as Lina did the same, easing herself out of the capsule. “....I thought I....I didn't know—”

Lina wrapped me in a hug, crying into my shoulder. All I could do was hug her back, and cry into hers.

It took Uncle Frank's clearing his throat to remind us where we were. I was the one to pull back—gently, of course. “Did they....do anything to you?”

“....I haven't been reactivated since they took me out of the shop,” Lina replied, wiping her eyes—and reaching out to dry mine, as well. “....when I was shut off...I...I didn't know if I'd ever see you again.”

“....I was afraid of that, too....” I turned away, but Lina gently turned my head to look at her. “....I wasn't....”

“You're here now,” Lina reminded me. “That's all that matters....” She looked past me, at Uncle Frank—and Millie, Ashwyn and Officer Drew.

Uncle Frank—rubbing the back of his head with one hand—was the first to speak. “...I, ah, have a few....connections,” he began, only for Lina to stride over and hug him. After a few seconds of confused silence, he settled for returning her embrace.

“Seeing as how the ones who took you didn't reactivate you since the abduction,” Officer Drew stated, “we should get you up to speed on things—for starters, we're in the Greensfield Warehouse Complex.”

Lina turned away from Uncle Frank, frowning. “...a warehouse complex?”

“Some kind of smuggling ring,” I explained. “Except the 'stolen goods' are gynoids.”

“We found out from two of the ones who broke into the shop when you were, ah, taken,” Uncle Frank explained. “Got the address, and everything—they were supposed to come back here, with Lucy.”

“Is she okay?”

Lucy stepped forward, earning a confused stare from Lina. “....what, you don't even recognize the gynoid who fucking built you—” Her question was cut off by Lina practically throwing herself at her in a hug. “Nice to see you again, too, Lina,” she murmured, drying her eyes as she gently broke the embrace. “...well, now we can get the fuck out of here—”

“We might not be able to leave yet.” Officer Drew checked her phone. “Half a dozen cars are on their way here.”

I took Lina aside for a moment. “....I had one of the gynoids employed here open the capsule she was in...that same one tried to open the one you were in, but she burnt herself out.”

“And the others?”

“.....well, I, ah....thought back to the forum, and....”

Lina regarded me with a frown. “Just tell me this. Did you take your pants off at any point?”

“Not once. I mean, I had one tear her own head off—she kept calling you a 'unit', and it was pissing me off...they're all drones anyway, slaved to the network, and—”

“Matt....” Lina's frown slowly turned upwards, into a smirk. “I get it....and thanks.”

My anxiety at her response pretty much melted away. “....so, you're not....pissed at me?”

“Lucy would've taken a fire axe to them just to get me back,” Lina replied. “You just took a more....creative route.”

“Replace 'fire axe' with 'industrial chainsaw',” Lucy chimed in, “and you've pretty much fucking nailed it.”

The feel of Uncle Frank clapping me on the shoulder was only slightly unexpected. “Well, now that you two are back together,” he declared, “we can all get out of here and head back to the shop—”

“Hang on a second,” Millie cut in. “Aren't we...forgettin' someone?”

Ashwyn's tail went straight up, just as her hand went to her mouth. “Oh, no...we forgot Adrienne!”

“....is that a....tail?” Lina inquired, looking a bit confused. “And....cat ears?”

“Yes and yes.” I rolled my eyes, turning to regard Ashwyn. “What do you mean you 'forgot Adrienne'?”

“She was supposed to meet us at the van, but she didn't show, and then Millie had the idea to just drive the van through the big door on the side of this one, so Frank did that, and then—”

“Ashwyn.” Millie rested a hand on Ashwyn's shoulder. “Calm down...your tail's bouncin' all over the place!”

“Sorry...” Ashwyn nodded rapidly, and her tail—which had, indeed, been going totally insane during her mile-a-minute explanation—slowly returned to its usual state, though it still gave a few rapid swishes every few seconds. “It's just that we were all so focused on getting the van through the big door on the side....”

Uncle Frank gently scratched her behind the ears. “Well, I'm sure Adrienne will meet us once we get back outside—”

In the distance, something smashed into a crate.

“....what was that?” Lina's question went unanswered—well, unless anyone wants to count another crate being busted as a valid response.

Officer Drew retrieved her pistol. “Everyone, stay close.”

Millie reached down to her thigh—which opened at the slightest touch of her fingers, revealing a sleek, compact pistol of her own. “Whatever's makin' all that noise shouldn't be too much of a problem,” she reasoned. “We just need to—”

A scream cut her off—followed by Adrienne sailing over her head to smash into a crate behind her. Before anyone could ask what had happened, she managed to rise to her feet—there was a hole in her side, with torn wires and sparks occasionally firing out (at this point, the fact that she was a gynoid didn't even surprise me). “....he just wouldn't stay down,” she muttered. “Every time...I got-got-got-got—” A shudder ran through her body. “...I got him off his feet...he'd just get-get-get—” Her face tensed as a spark fired from the hole in her side, then relaxed. “....get back up!”

The question of who “he” was formed on everyone's lips, but went unspoken as a figure rounded the corner....

Ever heard that song “Down Under”, by Men At Work? There's a line in there about “a man from Brussels”, who was “Six foot four, and full of muscle”. Now, I have no idea where the Hell this guy who rounded the corner was from, but I could easily guess that he was, in fact, 6'4”, and it didn't take a genius to see that he was, most definitely, full of muscles. It didn't help that his eyes were glowing blood red, or that he had a wicked-looking mohawk....but none of those were the worst bit.

No, the worst bit was the fact that he was staring right at me, with a very obvious intent to kill me on the spot.

“Matt...” Lina took hold of my arm, looking almost as scared as she'd been in the shop.

As for me, two words perfectly summed up what was more than likely about to go down: “Oh, shit....”

Part 7

One minute, I was on Cloud Nine—I'd reunited with Lina, and found out that she was otherwise unharmed after having been shut off at Uncle Frank's shop—and the next, I felt like the floor had fallen out from under me. Adrienne, the ALPA liaison with our group, had just been thrown into a crate—over the “rescue party” my Uncle Frank had convened to help me find Lina. Oh, and she'd been damaged, and was suffering from a slight malfunction, too.

Not long after Adrienne had hit the crate, the one who'd thrown her—a 6'4” android with a mohawk and entirely too many damn muscles—turned the corner, seeing us.....well, seeing me.

For some reason, as this jacked-up android beared down un us, I found myself thinking about how all the porn star fembots had just been drones. Their eyes had been...lifeless, almost empty. This guy was a different story. His eyes held a definite emotion, or at least a definite objective. As soon as he locked eyes with me, I knew he wasn't going to leave until I was a bloody pulp and Lina was locked in a capsule again.

If it'd just been me in the warehouse, staring down this Goliath of an android, I probably wouldn't have left the building in one piece—let alone alive.

Good thing it wasn't just me facing this beast.....

“Well, I guess we can forget about not bein' in a fight,” Millie stated, sighting the pistol she'd retrieved from some kind of compartment in her right thigh (seeing as how she was a combat gynoid, I wasn't all that surprised that she was packing heat). “Lina, you an' Matt stay back.”

“Or get in the van,” Uncle Frank suggested.

“I'm not leaving you here to get mauled...” I managed to meet the mohawked android's stare, even as he bared down on us. “...besides, I'm pretty sure he just wants to stomp me.”

“We're not letting him 'stomp' you,” Ashwyn countered, moving into a fighting stance. “He'll have to stomp us, too!”

Officer Rachel Drew stared at the mohawked android, her eyes flashing between blue and gold for a second. “Sentience level within arrest parameters. Proceed with Detention Protocol 1138.” Her voice had gone into this weird, synthetic monotone as she spoke—but the next words out of her mouth sounded like her usual self: “Stop where you are and put your hands above your head!”

The mohawked android paused....and smirked. Obviously, he wasn't about to comply.

“I'm thinking your 'detention protocol' isn't gonna do us jack shit against this guy,” Lucy mused, never taking her eyes off of the hulking android.

Officer Drew's eyes narrowed. “Stand down, deactivate and put your hands above your head!” Her voice still sounded human, but was now amplified as if she'd spoken into a bullhorn or something. “This is your last warning! Stand down, deactivate, and—”

The android grabbed a crate and lifted it above his head, in one smooth gesture.

“Shit—HIT THE DECK!”

Lina and I both dropped, while Uncle Frank, Lucy, Millie, Ashwyn and Officer Drew scattered—just in time to avoid the crate that slammed into the floor where Officer Drew had been standing. A half-clothed gynoid form, buried in those stupid styrofoam packing peanuts everyone hates, rested in the midst of the wooden wreckage.

“Okay, we need to get out of here, NOW—”

It was Lina who interrupted me, pulling me into the pile of styrofoam (and inadvertently burying my face in the cleavage of the gynoid from the crate) when the mohawked android threw another crate at us; this one sailed past, eventually hitting the far wall and shattering.

“Matt, we need to...” Lina trailed off, probably after seeing where I was “resting”.

“....for the record, you pulled me down here....”

“...just get up and come on!”

She didn't need to tell me a second time. We pulled ourselves out of the peanuts, abandoning the gynoid still nestled within them to haul ass as far as we could—at least, that was the plan. The “hauling ass” part was going well until that android prick with the mohawk threw something that smashed into my shins, sending me to the floor with a pained yell of “AAAAGYUUH!”

“MATT!”

“....haaaahhhhhh....” I winced with every attempt at taking a step. “....I think....he broke my shins....”

Millie and Officer Drew were emptying their pistols into the android, but he wasn't slowing down. Lucy, meanwhile, was throwing everything she could lift at the bastard; over by the crates, Adrienne was trying to stand up, only to seize up and slide back down to the floor, one hand drifting to the hole in her side. Ashwyn, on the other hand, was completely out there. She jumped from one crate to the next, springing towards the android and slashing at his face before landing on all fours, poised to jump again. I'm pretty sure she slashed him right across the ass at one point.....

….but of course, it didn't stop him. Nothing did.

Millie and Officer Drew got knocked aside like they were nothing. Ashwyn was plucked out of the air mid-jump and thrown, by the leg, into a capsule. Uncle Frank had apparently retreated to the van—I didn't blame him.

Granted, this did nothing to keep him away from Lina and me. If anything, he was gaining on us.

Hoping against hope, I pulled out my phone and selected FCon. It'd already done wonders on the gynoids in this stupid place; maybe—just maybe—it'd stop this behemoth from flattening me.....

Incompatible. FCon not designed for use with male androids.

Well, shit. So much for that brilliant idea...at least my shins were just bruised, instead of broken—

“GET AWAY FROM HIM!”

Lina's scream snapped me back to reality—she was actually standing up to the mohawked android ready to do battle with him all by her lonesome if need be. I didn't find it weird that she was defending me—I'd already done my part in rescuing her, and she was returning the favor...or at least trying to.

“Matt, run.”

“I'm not leaving you here! I won't lose you again!”

“You're not going to lose me, just RUN!”

“Lina—”

The mohawked android batted Lina aside like she was cardboard, sending her flying into a crate. An all-too-human groan of pain left her lips as she crumpled to the floor, even trailing off into a whimper as she tried to stand again.

“LINA!” I turned to glare at the android. “You fucking BASTARD—”

The first time I'd ever been punched in my life was in a “fight” that took place...probably two decades ago. I'd shoved someone in front of me, turned around (in the hopes that I'd look like I was looking somewhere else), and upon turning back around, I saw a white flash—the impact of the idiot's fist in my face. Having avoided any physical confrontations in the years since (for the most part), I'd expected something similar when the android punched me in the stomach—a white flash, maybe, and then me on the floor.

That's.....not remotely what actually happened.

For starters, it hurt. I could tell bones were broken, and that something else might've collapsed. I could barely talk, let alone breath; not helping at all was the fact that my lips were staining with red when I went to open my mouth. The only noises I could make were weird gurgly sounds.

“MATT!” Lina tried to scramble to her feet, but that android prick wrapped a hand around her throat....

At this point, everything got blurry. I was aware that I was staggering, but I had almost no control over my feet. I did my best to stay upright, if only to somehow, hopefully, stagger towards Lina...but I was fading fast. “Liiii......”

“MATT!” I could just barely make out that Lina was crying. Something was sort of hovering in front of me; it took a full minute for me to realize that it was, in fact, my own right hand—I was reaching out, trying to touch Lina again, to hold onto her hand.....

….instead, I fell forward, barely able to hold myself up.

My hearing was starting to fade, by that point—I could tell Lina had been thrown again, possibly into the capsule I'd taken her out of. Her fists banging on metal pretty much proved me right...not that I could take any comfort in that, what with feeling like my stomach, lungs liver, spleen and possibly kidneys were all about to crap out on me.

“Lina....” My voice came out in a faint, wheezing cough. I didn't want to close my eyes, even for a second....

A shadow passed over me. That stupid android prick was probably about to stomp my head in, or something—kill me right in front of Lina before leaving with her, just as a final dick move. I made the mistake of looking up—lo and behold, I found myself staring at the sole of the android's boot. The sick bastard really was going to stomp on my skull, and I'm pretty damn sure he was smiling.....

I looked down, willing myself to stay awake. If this was how I'd bite the dust, so be it....

...except I didn't. Obviously.

Gunshots rang out—well, I can only assume they rang, because from what I heard, it was like someone had stuffed half a bag of cotton balls in each of my ears. Everything sounded dull; my vision was turning red, and the inside of my mouth was entirely too damn dry. I tried, as best I could, to draw upon that pick-me-up Millie had blown into my face outside, but even that wasn't helping. The mohawked android was heading for whatever was shooting...not that I really gave a damn. Personally, I was too busy trying not to die..

“Lina....” I reached out, trying to will myself closer to the capsule. If I could just......

Nope. Blacked out, right then and there.

Ever been put under? Anesthesia, for surgeries....stuff like that? I was. Had to have a wisdom tooth removed, once; they told me to count backwards. Didn't even make it to ninety-three. One minute, I was counting, the next minute I was tripping balls and asking if I could take the wheelchair home with me—they didn't want me walking back to the car, otherwise I'd have tripped and broken my whole damn face.

This...was different.

About the only thing I can compare it to is passing out on a stairwell and then waking up on some rando's couch wearing a Medina Sod baseball shirt instead of whatever you had on when you left the house....well, if waking up on said rando's couch was accompanied by searing pain in the chest and uncontrollable coughing every time you tried to sit up. Also, I didn't wake up on some rando's couch—I woke up in a bed, covered by clean white sheets. My senses took a while to get going—I mean, you don't get knocked the Hell out by a 6'4” android with a mohawk and then just pop back up like you're no-selling—but eventually, I recovered enough to realize there were tubes in my arms, a paper bracelet on my left wrist and bandages around my midsection.

Also, James Bond was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, staring at me.

Obviously, he wasn't actually James Bond, but he damn sure looked like the last guy who'd played him. Dressed the part, too—nice suit, complete with a tie.

I've been knocked out by an android, and now I'm in a hospital with James Bond staring at me. For some reason, in my utterly-wrecked state, I found it hilarious that James Bond was in the same room. I must've looked like a total lunatic, laying there with tape on my ribs and tubes in my arms, giggling like an idiot.

“I see you're awake, Mr. Harker.” James—okay, okay, the guy in the suit got out of the chair and crossed the room.

“....you look like James Bond.” Yep. First thing out of my mouth when I woke up. Followed by giggling, of course—which was a stupid idea, considering it hurt like a son of a bitch every time I laughed.

“Not the first time the comparison's been made...probably not the last.” The guy in the suit pulled up a chair closer to the bed I was in. “Probably a side effect of all the painkillers and sedatives, more than anything else. In any case, you should consider yourself lucky to be alive, Mr. Harker. Plenty of people in the same shape you're in....well, the same shape you were in would've died, taking a direct punch like that.”

The giggling trailed off. “.....where....”

“You're in hospital, if you're wondering. A combination hospital/repair center, ALPA-owned....your uncle will have told you about the ALPA, yes?”

I nodded, or at least attempted to.

“I suppose it's only fair to introduce myself, in addition to explaining why you're here.” Not-Bond leaned forward in his chair, offering his hand. “My name is Simon Caine, and I'm the Regional Director of Operations for the ALPA.”

“...Matt Harker.” I shook Simon's hand. “I, ah....guess you already knew that.”

“Indeed. To be quite honest, you've been on our radar ever since you received your 'new' phone.”

“...you're taking the phone back.” I leaned back on the pillow, feeling like total crap. “You reviewed what went down at the warehouse, and you're wiping the phone....” I glanced over at Simon, expecting him to be staring dispassionately.

Instead, he was regarding me with an arched eyebrow. “....you're....not taking the phone back?”

“Under different circumstances, in a different time, we would indeed take the phone back and send you on your way, to 'let the professionals handle things'.” To my surprise, he actually smiled. “Given the significance of the phone in your introduction to Lina....” He retrieved his own phone from his pocket. “The gynoids you disabled at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex were, in fact, not sentient,” he stated, sliding his thumb down the screen a few times. “By contrast, the android whose punch landed you here was sentient.”

“...I tried to use FCon to disable him,” I muttered. “Got a notice back that it 'wasn't compatible'....”

“Your actions would've been justified as self-defense,” Simon assured me, “given the circumstances. As it stands, you'll be keeping the phone. Additionally, once you've recovered from your injuries, you'll be allowed to rejoin your...friends, I suppose, to continue your search for Lina.”

This...was a bit of a shock. “You're not just writing this off?”

Simon stowed the phone, leaning forward to regard me. “Mr. Harker,” he intoned, “what you uncovered down at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex is nothing short of the proverbial 'gold mine' of information in a case that the ALPA has been working on since the start of this year. Since January, we've been investigating a rash of gynoid abductions carried out across the state—even a few elsewhere in the New England region....and until the reinforcements requested by a certain Officer Rachel Drew arrived, law enforcement had no reason to investigate the complex at all....”

“....so they were smuggling gynoids...” My eyes went wide. “Holy shit....”

I realized Simon was staring at me with a rather stern look. “....sorry. My uncle's been trying to get me to quit swearing so much...Lina's told me that, too...”

“...you need not worry about self-censorship here, Mr. Harker,” Simon assured me. “Plenty of the officers on-scene had far more...colorful reactions than your own. Regardless, they did indeed recover enough evidence to implicate the staff of the complex in a far-reaching abduction and smuggling scheme.” His tone turned grim. “Unfortunately, they also found further evidence...enough to reveal that the actual smuggling is the least heinous offense being carried out at Greensfield.” He handed me his phone. “Only parts of the apparatus and incomplete software were found on-site,” he explained, as I scrolled through the photos. “But all of it builds to the rather unsettling revelation that all 'inventory' on site was to be completely and utterly wiped—or, as documents found with the apparatus termed it, 'drained'—before being shipped to their final destinations.”

“....drained?” I felt less stupid for repeating what Simon had said, in this particular case—mainly, due to how horrific the implications were.

“Personality files, memories, all custom programming....completely and totally erased. Apparently, after this 'draining' took place, the gynoids would then be either stored for later transport or auctioned off to interested buyers, more than likely in countries where the concept of 'android rights' is virtually non-existent—”

Out in the hall, someone tripped over something, uttering rapid-fire apologies.

“...more than likely your uncle,” Simon mused, his grim frown giving way to an amused smile. “He's been asking to see you ever since we brought you in here. No time like the present....nurse?”

A nurse opened the door—her skin had the slightest sheen to it, and her eyes glowed softly. “Yes, Mr. Caine?”

“I believe it's safe to admit Mr. Holmwood to see his nephew, now...” Simon nodded, as did the nurse, who retreated to the hallway and ushered someone towards my room with a polite “He's in here, sir.”

“...just wanted to be sure, nobody gave me his room number...Matt!”

I gave a weak nod. “...'sup, Uncle Frank?”

“Oh, Matt...” Uncle Frank sidled up to the bed, looking more than a bit shaken. “You look like Hell!”

“....I'd say I feel better than I look, but...” I gave a half-shrug. “...how're you holding up?”

“I've been tryin' to get in here to talk to you, ever since we got here!” Uncle Frank glanced at Simon. “....can we, ah...”

“Of course. I'll let you two converse in private for however long you need to.” Simon rose from his chair. “I'll be in the briefing area in about an hour, to discuss the situation...” He nodded at me. “Mr. Harker.”

“I'll be there, if I can.”

“And Mr. Holmwood?”

“You can call me Frank, I told you already...” He shook Simon's hand with both of his own. “And thanks again, for this...”

Simon nodded, said something I couldn't quite pick up on, then left the room.

Once the door closed, Uncle Frank turned his attention back to me. “Well, I suppose you're gonna want to know what happened, after you, ah....”

“Just tell me, Uncle Frank.”

“Right, right...”

Uncle Frank didn't bother mincing words—Lina had been taken, again. This time, I didn't so much feel like crying, hitting someone or just swearing as I felt defeated; here I was, laid up in bed, and the android prick who'd taken Lina was...God knows where. At least he didn't just walk out of the complex with her, though; Uncle Frank told me, in great detail, how Adrienne, Ashwyn, Lucy, Millie and Rachel had all done their best to keep the bastard from leaving.

“Oh, it was crazy, Matt...Ashwyn kept doing that jumping thing, off the crates, and slasing at him when she passed! Lucy threw a whole crate at him—lifted it right over her head and chucked it! And Millie started fighting with him, punches and everything! At least, until he grabbed her arm and bent it out of shape in three places....” He made a face, but kept going. “And Officer Drew—ho, ho, ho, Officer Drew! You wanna talk about precision firing....wow.”

“And did any of them do anything to slow him down?”

“.....no.” Uncle Frank's shoulders sagged. “They tried—believe me, they tried....but he just kept going. Nearly tore the doors off my van, too....then the cops showed up. Oh, they brought the firepower....not enough to take down that big guy with the mohawk, but....well, he ran off pretty quick.”

“With Lina.” I sighed.

“...well, yeah...took the whole capsule she was in, held it over his head like it was nothing...and he RAN with it!” Uncle Frank illustrated his point with his trademark hand gestures. “Just plowed through a few crates...I didn't see him leave, y'know, 'cause the EMTs were there to put you on the stretcher, y'know, and get you into the ambulance—and I followed in the van, y'know, since there wasn't enough room in the ambulance...”

“I get that.” I sighed. “How long have I been out?”

“Oh, ah....I'd say five or six hours, tops.”

I wanted, more than anything, to swear. For all I knew, Lina had already been “drained”, packed up and shipped off to parts unknown, while I was laying in a hospital bed....

“They put an APB out on the big guy,” Uncle Frank stated—probably to ease my mind, thanks to how pissed off I must've looked. “And the capsule...he's not gonna get far, Matt, believe me. And they're monitoring warehouses, storage units and all that stuff, too!”

“....nowhere to run to,” I muttered. “And nowhere to hide....where have I heard that before?”

Uncle Frank nodded, giving a thumbs-up for good measure. “So once you're healed up and the girls are repaired, we can get back out there and do what we need to do....” He glanced back over his shoulder. “He tell you anything about what they found?”

“...just that they were running a smuggling operation, and how they 'drain' gynoids before shipping them off.”

“....yeah, well, that's not all they found.” Uncle Frank wrung his hands. “In that office, at the warehouse complex,” he explained, “they, ah...well, they found something. I mean, someone...” He leaned in close. “...did she—Rachel, I mean, Officer Drew....did she ever say anything about a guy named Singleton?”

I nodded. “....Chester Singleton, yeah. She said she went into his office...something about a disturbance—”

“Oh, there was a disturbance, all right!” Uncle Frank stated. “That big guy, the android with the mohawk...he only hit you once, right?”

The bandages on my ribs were an all-too obvious reminder of that fact. “....yeah.”

“Well, they found tapes in the office—and they found that Singleton guy....well, ah....” Uncle Frank ran a hand through his hair, exhaling a nervous breath. “That guy with the mohawk killed him, Matt. Crushed his throat, caved in his skull, collapsed his ribcage—with just his bare hands! It was all on the tape! A few security guards, too, just....” He winced. “It was...oh, Matt, it was like something straight out of a nightmare! I haven't seen anything that bad since...” For a second, I thought he was going to say something, but he seemed to catch himself. “...never mind.”

“...so Singleton's dead,” I muttered. “And the warehouse is...what, under new management?”

“I dunno, I really don't....” Uncle Frank pretty much fell backwards into the same chair that Simon had pulled up to the bed earlier. “All I know is , whoever took Lina has that big guy with the mohawk on their payroll, and now that the ALPA is on their case....” He winced. “...there's gonna be trouble!”

“And what about us getting Lina back?”

“Oh, we'll get her back, Matt....I just don't know what we're gonna do about the big guy!” Uncle Frank leaned back, one hand over his face. “Millie's combat-rated, and Adrienne's got field experience with the ALPA, but....”

“If we have to, we'll let the ALPA handle the prick that put me here. For now....” I sat up, slowly—the aching in my gut was still there, but it didn't feel as bad. “....for now, we get a nurse to get these tubes out of my arms, we go check on Adrienne, Ashwyn, Lucy, Millie and Rachel, then we go to the briefing room.”

“...right, right.” Uncle Frank nodded. “...you, ah, need any help?”

“To put my shoes on, maybe...” I tried to bend—bad idea. “....yeah, you're gonna have to get my shoes...”

“I got 'em, I got 'em....”

A few minutes later, Uncle Frank and I were heading for the “repair center” area of the building I'd been brought to; I was able to walk at a pretty decent pace, and apart from one or two moments, I didn't have any overwhelming bouts of pain that forced me to stop and hold a hand to my stomach. A few helpful staffers, all wearing ALPA badges, actually went so far as to point me (and Uncle Frank, who kept stopping to check the signs) towards the repair center.

The repair center itself was...incredible. I'd read a story on the forum that described a maintenance center as looking like “a cross between a strip joint and a factory”; this place had less emphasis on the “strip joint” half, nor were there any gynoids being fingered to completion or anything like that. Yes, there were plenty in various stages of undress, but a lot of them had what I could only call battle damage—bullet holes, scorch marks, ragged lines where some idiot had tried to stab them, etc.—all of which gave the place the air of a triage center.

“Mr. Holmwood and Mr. Harker?” A blonde in a gleaming silver-grey tunic/skirt combo, with matching heels and a hat that looked like the kind nurses used to wear walked up to Uncle Frank and me, a tablet PC clasped in one hand.

“Yeah.” Uncle Frank nodded. “I'm the one who, ah, brought in....”

“Miss Murray, Miss...Ashwyn, Officer Drew and the ART-8030 MILIE...er, Millie.” The blonde checked the names on the tablet, nodding. “And Miss Sievers, as well.”

Uncle Frank nodded. “OH, before I forget...” He ran a hand through his hair. “Ron had a prior engagement, and he had to leave your place an hour ago, Matt...but these fine folks got someone else to go and tend to the cat.”

The blonde nodded. “Theresa's great with animals.”

“And you made sure to tell her not to let the cat out?”

“We did....here's Miss Murray's room.” The blonde ushered us towards a door. “Did you, ah, want the cat to be bathed at any point today, Mr. Harker?”

“...you can call me Matt, and, ah...” I chuckled. “Last time I tried to bathe her, she scratched the Hell out of me.”

“....well, Theresa's probably going to have to get a touch-up or two when she gets back.” The blonde rolled her eyes as the door hissed open. “Just let us know when you're ready to talk to one of the others, please.”

I nodded, as did Uncle Frank—though he nearly headbutted the blonde in the process; thankfully, she played it off like it wasn't a big deal, and we entered the room without further incident. I couldn't help but notice, even as she walked away, that the blonde kind of looked familiar.....

My thoughts about where I'd seen the blonde before trailed off as I followed Uncle Frank into the room where Adrienne was being repaired. She looked a bit bored, laying on a table with her shirt off, her jacket opened and the hole in her side clearly visible to anyone who entered the room.

“Glad to see you're up and about, Matt,” she called out, grinning. “Trust me, this isn't as bad as it looks...”

“You say that now,” Uncle Frank mused. “I had to help stabilize you before I started wonderin' where Matt was!”

“It was just a motor control fault,” Adrienne countered. “It wasn't anything to—”

“She was twitching all over the table,” Uncle Frank informed me, prompting a sigh from Adrienne. “Jerkin' around, her arms and legs goin' this way and that....”

“It wasn't a big deal,” Adrienne insisted. “Still, though...thanks.”

“Not a problem.” Uncle Frank nodded, pausing as two females in matching, form-fitting coveralls strode up to the table and looked over Adrienne. “...ah, are we...interrupting anything?”

“They're just making sure I won't throw sparks if I try to stand up or—” Adrienne stiffened briefly; one of the women who'd approached her had apparently stuck her finger in Adrienne's ear....or so I thought. I made my way over to the table, taking a closer look—the woman's finger had split apart at the tip, revealing a sophisticated-looking...something, I couldn't really tell what.

“...that's helping her, right?”

The coverall-clad gynoid turned to regard me, her slightly-stilted movements accompanied by servos whirring.

“...I've, ah, never seen a repair procedure up close before,” I admitted. “I'm just wondering.”

After a few seconds of silence, the gynoid gave an understanding smile, accompanied by a nod. Whatever was built into the tip of her finger retracted, and the tip closed; instantly, Adrienne relaxed on the table. “....anything like that,” she continued, as if she hadn't been interrupted. Noticing that I was still staring at the blonde who'd just stuck something into her ear, she sighed. “She was just accessing my memories from the warehouse...”

A click from the other side of her head puctuated the remark, followed by the other gynoid lifting her face up and away from her head. “...and this one is just making sure I didn't take any massive cranial damage,” she continued, apparently not caring that I was getting a first-hand glimpse of the servos, wiring, armatures, ocular sensors and internal framework that made up the interior of her head—even weirder, the lips on her “mask” moved in time with the armatures they connected to within her opened skull. “Standard procedure to make sure I didn't take any damage that'd catch up to me later on.”

“.....right....” I glanced at Uncle Frank—who was casually chatting with the other gynoid, apparently about some event at the local theater. “...and this doesn't, ah....”

“I don't feel pain during repair procedures,” Adrienne assured me. “It's...an inconvenience, more than anything else.”

“What about when that big mohawked prick put that hole in your side?”

“...that one did hurt, a little.”

I glanced over my shoulder, just to check if Uncle Frank was still talking to the other gynoid about the local theater, and leaned in close to Adrienne when I saw that he was. “I was, ah, told about what happened to Chester Singleton back at the complex,” I muttered.

“...and?”

“And that's not going to throw me off from doing what I can to get Lina back.”

The coverall-clad gynoid re-attached Adrienne's face, which was a bit of a weird lull in the conversation; Adrienne spent a few seconds rolling her eyes, moving her lips without speaking and generally testing out her facial motors to make sure they were all working. Once she was done, she nodded, and the gynoid in coveralls stepped away. “I just want to make sure that you don't get in over your head with all of this, Matt. Don't get me wrong—I'm glad you want to keep looking for Lina, but...after all, you're only human.”

I smirked. “....you say that like it's a bad thing.”

Adrienne grinned. “With you, it's one of the best.” She laid back, sighing. “Just don't get yourself killed.”

With that, Uncle Frank and I wished Adrienne a speedy recovery from her repairs, heading back into the hallway where the blonde with the tablet was waiting . “Ashwyn has been asking for you, Matt,” she informed us, “ever since she found out that you left your room.”

I wasn't sure whether I should frown or chuckle. “...and how, exactly, did she find out about that?”

“She wouldn't stop asking if you were 'up yet',” the blonde replied, an almost sisterly grin on her lips. “To be honest, Matt, I think she might have a crush on you.”

That prompted a chuckle. “...well, I'm, ah, committed to a relationship already, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

The blonde led us to where Ashwyn's repairs were being carried out in a room on the other side of the hall. “She's, ah, not exactly in an ideal position for a chat right now,” the blonde admitted, “but she insisted we let you talk to her as soon as possible....”

Just what the blonde meant by “not exactly in an ideal position” was all too apparent as the door hissed open.

“Hi, Matt!” There was something utterly weird about how cheerful Ashwyn sounded in contrast to her condition: her head, upper torso, abdomen and pelvic area, arms, legs and even her tail were all laid out on a work table, some with opened panels. Both her upper and lower halves were actually still dressed; her facial expression indicated that she saw being disassembled and worked on as just a temporary inconvenience.

“...hi.” I approached the table, looking over her limbs with a mixed air of disbelief, amusement and slight arousal. “You, ah, feeling all right?”

“Oh, they wanted to make sure that the big idiot with the mohawk didn't break anything when he threw me,” Ashwyn replied, as casually as if she'd merely sprained her ankle. “They said I hit the wall kinda hard, and they wanted to make sure the interlocks didn't get messed up...”

“....did they?”

“Nope!” Ashwyn grinned; another coverall-clad gynoid passed by behind the table and looked into an open panel on the back of her torso, but she didn't notice. “Once I'm back together, and we get the briefing, we can all go back out and look for....oh....” Her eyes crossed slightly, her lips forming an “O” of surprise. “Oh....oooohhh, that feels GOOD!”

I glanced over to her torso—the coverall-clad gynoid was adjusting something in it, prompting responses in Ashwyn's still-disconnected limbs. Her hands clenched into fists, her toes curled inwards, and even her tail was going crazy. “Oh, I LOVE that! I—I—I—I—I—” Her face briefly froze, as if she was about to sneeze, then relaxed, a contented sigh leaving her lips. “....oh, that was great...”

“....what exactly was 'that'?”

The coverall-clad gynoid turned the torso around, gesturing with a power screwdriver towards a set of dip switches in a small box, nestled rather deep inside the body (right near one of Ashwyn's breasts, to be honest); a few spaces away, another gynoid had pulled up and re-zipped Ashwyn's shorts, crumpling up a used moist towelette in the process. It didn't take a genius to figure out that she'd just done her part to provide for the cat girl gynoid's much-needed “relief”, in the middle of our conversation.

“I couldn't handle it myself,” Ashwyn admitted, “since, well...” She rolled her eyes, indicating her limbs laid out all over the table. “Anyway, I'm glad to hear you're okay, Matt.”

“Well, apart from still feeling a bit sore—”

“That blonde, out in the hall,” Uncle Frank cut in. “She told us you've got a crush on Matt.”

I facepalmed, and Ashwyn's cheeks went nearly as red as her hair. “....well, I, ah....”

Uncle Frank's eyes went wide. “You were thinking about him, just now?!”

“.....yeah....” Ashwyn's ears drooped. “I just....he's so handsome, and he and Lina already had sex twice, and I couldn't stop thinking about it—”

“Ashwyn,” I cut in. “It's....not a big deal, okay? I just...I'm in a relationship with Lina, already, so....” Not wanting to make her feel like complete crap, I reached over and scratched behind her ears—pretty much the only thing I could think of that made any kind of sense. “I don't mind you, ah, 'thinking' about me or anything like that...and be glad you're seeing me right now instead of me from five years ago. I wasn't so much 'handsome' back then as I was, ah...”

“A portly fellow,” Uncle Frank prompted. “A bit long in the waistband...”

“Thank you, Uncle Frank.” I tried to glare at him, but ended up chuckling. “Anyway....”

“So, you're not mad at me for....”

“You let a thought process get away from you after all the craziness at the warehouse, and I'm not going to get pissed off about it.” I scratched behind her ears again. “I mean, you were, ah, designed, built and programmed to be in a theme park tailored, for...well, fetishists....” I shrugged. “Pretty sure a high sex drive comes with the territory.”

“....well,” Ashwyn admitted, “I was...thinking about Lina, too...I mean, she's so beautiful, and you and her just looked great together, and....”

“I'm not pissed off at you, Ashwyn. Just...you might want to turn down your settings after they put you back together.”

Ashwyn nodded—or at least tried to, until her head nearly pitched forward off the table. I caught her (well, her head) as she gave a panicked yelp, and set her head back on the table. “....thanks, Matt.”

“Not a problem....and, ah, how much did Frank tell you about me before you met me?”

“Weeeeelllll,” Ashwyn replied, “he mentioned that you were into robot girls, and that you have a cat...”

I turned to regard Uncle Frank—not so much glaring at him as I was trying not to laugh. “Did he, now....”

“All I told her was the kinda stuff you'd put on a dating site profile!” Uncle Frank insisted. “That's all I said! I didn't tell her anything you wouldn't have told her yourself...well, I mean, apart from the robot girls thing—but she is one, y'know, and I just figured, y'know, that she wouldn't get upset about it....” He trailed off into a half-shrug, all while I continued losing my composure—the whole thing was just so damn goofy, after all.

“Oh, Matt,” Ashwyn pleaded, “don't get mad at him! He didn't think I'd ever meet you, and he never could figure out how to lower my arousal settings....” She stopped, noticing me giggling. “....what? What's so funny?”

“....a few years ago,” I managed, “I'd have been all over this. Now, though....” I took a deep breath. “This thing, with Lina and me....it's the first thing remotely resembling a real relationship that I've had in ages, and I don't want her getting the impression that I'd just get freaky with the first piece of synthetic ass that I stumbled across if she wasn't available...” I gently picked up Ashwyn's head from the table. “....but if it helps....”

Without another word, I kissed Ashwyn as deeply as Lina and I had kissed right before she left at the end of the party.

...granted, it was a bit awkward to not have shoulders to hold onto or anything like that, but I did the best I could, given the limitations of the situation.

Slowly, I pulled Ashwyn's head away from mine. “....feel better?”

“....yeah.” Again, it was obvious that Ashwyn wanted to nod, but seeing as how she'd been taken apart, she went with a simple, grateful smile. “So...you're really not mad at me for....well...”

“I'm not angry, Ashwyn. If anything....as weird as it may sound, I'm kind of....honored, I guess....” I grinned, gently setting Ashwyn's head back down on the table. “And I really hope that you can find someone of your own, someday, the way Lina and I, well, found each other.”

“You could introduce her to Fenton,” Uncle Frank offered.

“....he already has a girlfriend,” I replied. “They've been saying they'll get married for...what, five months now? Anyway, that's not even remotely connected to why we're here...” I glanced at the coverall-clad gynoids. “...d'you still need her in pieces, or can I, ah...”

The gynoids turned to regard each other, before looking at me and nodding.

“Right, thanks...Uncle Frank...”

Uncle Frank retrieved Ashwyn's legs, reattaching them to her lower body; the cables, tubes and internal connectors all lined up and locked together with satisfying clicks and hisses, also prompting Ashwyn's ears to tremble with some kind of satisfaction. I reattached her tail (after a few seconds of her making it snake around my arm), and then set about getting her torso lined up with her lower body, once again getting everything in place with clicks and hisses.

“...shouldn't you be deactivated for this stuff?” I asked, midway through connecting her left arm to her torso.

“As long as there's not a power spike or anything like that,” she replied, “I'm good.”

“....right...” After a quick check, I attached her left arm, while Uncle Frank did the same with her right. Finally, I lifted her head off the work table—of all her components, it was the easiest to reconnect.

Once her head was back on, Ashwyn blinked a few times; a few beeps sounded from inside her torso, probably from some kind of systems check just to make sure everything was hooked up correctly. After a sort of trilling, musical thing to announce the end of the check, she looked up at me (she was effectively sitting on the table, by virtue of how her legs had been connected), then leaned forward to wrap her arms around me in a hug. “Thanks, Matt.”

“Not a problem.” I patted her shoulder, doing my best to ignore the fact that her nipples had gone hard through her tank top (apparently provided by the repair center). “Ah, about that 'turning down your settings' thing...”

“...oh..OH, right!” Ashwyn backed off, blushing. “...sorry, I...”

I held up a hand. “It's okay. Like I said, you may end up finding someone yourself, one day...”

Ashwyn nodded enthusiastically. “I hope so...and I hope you can get Lina back soon, Matt.”

“I will...we will.” I smiled. “You, Adrienne, Lucy, Millie, Officer Drew, Uncle Frank...and me, obviously.” I gave her another scratch behind her ears, prompting her to smile as her tail curled up. “See you in the briefing room!”

“I'll be there!”

Yet again, the blonde was waiting for us in the hall. “So how'd she take it?”

“....what, me telling her that Lina and I are in a relationship?” I shrugged. “I told her she'd find someone for herself one day, hopefully....”

The blonde seemed surprised. “So you two didn't....”

“I kissed her, if you're wondering. What, you wanted her to...”

“Just checking to make sure you've got a firm grasp on the concept of fidelity.” The blonde grinned as she gestured for Uncle Frank and me to follow her down the hall. “Millie's doing her own repairs...part of her military-spec programming, from what I can tell. Some kind of contingency for if she was stuck behind enemy lines without a squadmate who knew how to fix her. Lucy's in the room with her, too.”

“And what about you?” Uncle Frank asked. “I mean...what exactly do you do around here?”

“....kind of a weird question,” the blonde admitted, “but..” She shrugged. “I volunteer whereever I'm needed, pretty much. The repair center, the front office....I'm fully qualified to do field work, as well, if need be.”

“A real Jane of all trades, eh?” Uncle Frank grinned.

“..something along those lines.” The blonde turned away, giving a quick wink—I could've sworn I saw one of her eyes flash purple for a second, but before I could bring it up, we reached another door. “You'll probably want to get to the briefing room after this, by the way.”

I frowned. “We can't talk to Officer Drew?”

“Well, she's already in the briefing room, actually....”

Uncle Frank and I thanked the blonde for the help, and entered the room where Millie was already in the midst of her own repairs. The panels of her right arm were laid out on the work table; Millie herself was dilligently working at a few servos and other mechanisms with some kind of precision tool I didn't recognize. “So you're feelin' better,” she mused, not looking up from her repair work. Lucy was sitting nearby, reading a magazine.

“...apart from still feeling incredibly sore, yeah.”

“I'm surprised you're feeling anything, after the beating you got handed.” Lucy didn't look up from her magazine.

“Yeah, well...” I chuckled. “I don't stay down after just one punch.”

My attempt at bravado earned me a scoff. “You very nearly did stay down, hon...not that I find that amusin', or anythin' like that.” Millie sighed, reattaching one of the panels to her right arm. “...I'm just hopin' you're not fallin' into the trap of 'more balls than sense'.”

“I'm not going to pick a fight with the bastard who nearly collapsed my lungs, if that's what you mean.”

“But we will get Lina back,” Uncle Frank declared, clapping me on the shoulder—and instantly regretting it as a sharp hiss of pain left my lips. “....sorry about that...sorry....”

“....s'alright,” I muttered. “Just....try not to to it again. Anyway...”

“We were talkin' about sense,” Millie promoted, calmly regarding her arm as she soldered something back into place.

I nodded. “...that we were. And I do have sense, believe me...I want to get Lina back, but I also don't want to get my skull caved in by that android psycho....”

Either Uncle Frank said something, or Millie turned around and pointed it out, but it took a few seconds for me to realize my fists were clenching. I muttered something about “he'll pay”, and it was then that I noticed a bit of a tremble behind what I'd just said...

Next thing I knew, Millie was drawing me close, holding me as if to protect me from...something.

“We'll get her back, Matt. We're gonna get her back for you....”

As weird as it was that I was being hugged by a military-spec, combat-rated gynoid, I did find it...comforting, to be honest. I could only guess that I hadn't cried when Simon and Uncle Frank told me that Lina had been taken again due to being doped up on painkillers and my own personal numbness to it at the time...but now, thinking about it again, it all just burst to the surface—or it would've, had it not been for Millie.

“We'll get her back for you, Matt,” she murmured. “Because when I say I'm gonna do somethin', I do it.”

“....thanks.”

“...so, ah....how's your arm, Millie?” Uncle Frank's question was enough for Millie to break the embrace, pulling back and looking at me with a smile that, in all honesty, seemed more maternal than martial. “Better than it was,” she replied, glancing at Uncle Frank. “I'll be ready to get back out there once we're done with the briefing.”

“...well, ah, good to hear it.” Uncle Frank nodded. “And Matt?”

I took a deep breath. “...I'll be ready.”

Uncle Frank nearly said something, but setteld for nodding.

“And I'm guessin' you'll be ready, too, Frank,” Millie stated, one hand still resting on my shoulder (she'd planted the other on her hip). “It won't do any of us any good if you're goin' out there half-cocked.”

“Oh, you don't need to worry about me,” Uncle Frank assured her. “When I have to be, I can be a real Hell-raiser.”

I couldn't help but laugh—something about how serious he was (or at least tried to be) just made that particular phrase sound hilarious to me.

“..as long as you keep your Hell-raising out of here,” Lucy mused, rolling her eyes as she got out of the chair, “we'll be good.” She walked over to where Millie was standing next to me. “I'm guessing you two didn't come down here just to check up on us...”

“We were wondering how Millie's repairs were going,” I admitted. “I mean, Ashwyn was in pieces—”

“They wanted to check her interlocks,” Uncle Frank clarified. “Matt and I put her back together...she's good to go. Oh, and, ah....” He glanced at me. “She kind of, ah, had a...uh.... “

“She had a crush on me.” I chuckled. “Apparently, she thought I'd be upset about it.”

Millie arched an eyebrow. “And?”

“I told her she'd find someone of her own one day....gave her a kiss and a hug, and that pretty much settled it.”

“She was thinking about Matt and Lina, though....” Uncle Frank would've continued, had it not been for Millie's stare and my own effort (and, surprisingly, Lucy's own effort) at glaring at him. “....ah, never...never mind.”

“We can only hope that she figures out how to lower those arousal levels of hers before we go back out,” Millie mused, casually flipping her hair as she spoke. “In the meantime...” She gently stroked her right thigh, opening it to reveal the pistol she'd used to try and slow down the mohawked android. “You're gonna want somethin' of your own before we get goin' again, hon,” she advised me. “I'm pretty sure that harsh words won't do much against that big brute who laid you out at the warehouse.”

Uncle Frank snapped his fingers. “They've got SCEMP stuff here, don't they?”

To say I was a bit confused was an undestatement. “....ess-see....what?”

“Supressing Compact ElectroMagnetic Pulse,” Lucy explained, rolling her eyes. “Standard-issue ammunition for ALPA Field Agents—”

“But it'll put down that creep with the mohawk real quick!” Uncle Frank added. “At least, it should....”

“Pretty sure the only way to take that guy down is an anti-tank rocket,” I muttered. “Or just a tank.”

Millie rested her hand on my shoulder again. “Pretty sure it won't come to that, hon—an android like him can get cut down to size without bustin' out a bazooka.”

“Speaking of, ah, bazookas...” Uncle Frank cleared his throat, prompting Millie to turn her attention to him. “Y'know how two of the drones back at the warehouse had, well, guns in their....” He waved his hands in front of his chest in the vauge outline of twin hemispheres—prompting a groan from me and an arched eyebrow from Millie, who replied with a surprisingly calm “I did notice those...attributes on those particular two units, yes.”

“....well, I was, ah....just wondering—”

“If I possessed an identical ordnance to theirs?” Millie had sashayed up to Uncle Frank, regarding him warily.

“....I wasn't gonna say it directly, but....” Uncle Frank shrugged.

Instead of slapping him or generally getting pissed off, Millie leaned in close, giving him an up-close view of her bountiful bosom. “Why don't you just check for yourself?” Lucy looked like she was about to fall over laughing.

“....ah....well, I, uh.....”

A few feet away, I was biting the insides of my mouth trying not to crack up. Even if Millie did have the same kind of “machine gun jumblies” as the drones from the warehouse, I had a feeling she wasn't going to bust 'em out just to mess with Uncle Frank.

“Pretty sure she doesn't have guns in her tits,” Lucy chuckled, finally setting the magazine down. “And for the record, Matt, I'm glad that prick with the mohawk didn't take you out with a single punch.” She walked over to where Millie was conversing with Uncle Frank (and, of course, me). “And Millie, you might as well tell him whether or not you've actually got the 'ordnance' he was asking about....”

“....I don't,” Millie finally admitted, rolling her eyes and straightening up. “I was designed with efficiency, practicality and adaptability in mind, and that particular kind of 'ordnance' didn't exactly fit any of those guidelines.”

Uncle Frank nodded rapidly. “Right, right...I was just, ah...”

“On the subject of something other than Millie's boobs...” Lucy sighed. “Seeing as how I created her and approved of the whole thing of her living with you, Matt...”

“You think we wouldn't want your help to find Lina again?” Uncle Frank frowned. “Why would you—”

“Call it a hunch. I'm not combat-rated, I don't have claws or tit guns or ALPA training or anything like that....” Lucy groaned. “I just...I still feel like I let her down, is all. It's not as bad as it was, before we left for the Renfield place—”

“Greensfield Warehouse Complex. The sign was just missing a few letters.” I sighed. “And you don't have to—”

“No, I do.” Lucy walked up to me, staring into my eyes. “Back at the complex....I found notes, in that dead guy's office, about a program they'd used to keep the 'inventory' in line. Corona Ansata.” She turned away. “....I wrote that program for the Institute—and before any of you hit me with the stink-eye, it wasn't meant to slave gynoids to one user's control or anything like that!”

I nodded. “....so what was it used for?”

“A replacement for FCon, for gynoids and androids.” Lucy shook her head. “It was only ever meant to be used in very specific controlled environments at the Institute....I shouldn't even be telling you about it.”

“An' I suppose the ones runnin' the Warehouse complex aren't meant to have it?” Millie inquired.

“Again, specific controlled environments at the Institute. The ALPA was even monitoring the tests to make sure it wasn't being used improperly....” Lucy turned her attention back to me. “I'm shielded against it, by the way. So's Lina.”

“Which explains the 'off switch' treatment she got back at the shop,” I scowled. “And that redhead had mentioned a guy showing up at her office with a tablet—he did something with it, and the next thing she remembered was booting up in the lab under the hangar....” I glanced at Lucy. “Would anyone at the University have any reason to leak this...Corona Ansata program for their own gain?”

Lucy scoffed. “Unless they wanted to lose their job and get blacklisted, they wouldn't even bother trying...” She paused, frowning. “Why're you looking at me like that? You think I—”

“NO, no, no....not that! I was....I just noticed that, ah....”

“I haven't said 'fuck' since you two got in here?” Lucy smirked. “I decided to take Lina's advice and change a few of my internal settings...figured it'd be a nice change of pace from what you've heard before. I haven't turned on a swear filter or anything,” she added, “so don't expect me to just stop swearing out of the blue—”

“Matt Harker, Frank Holmwood, Adrienne Murray, Lucy Sievers, ART-8390 MILIE, Ashwyn and Officer Rachel Drew, please report to the briefing room.”

“I guess that's our cue,” Millie drawled. “Shall we?”

Lucy shrugged. “Eh, it's not like we've got anything better to do for the rest of the day...” She turned to follow Millie out, only to stop and glance back at me—or rather, at Uncle Frank. “And just in case you're wondering, I don't have any kind of 'ordnance' in these...” She slapped her own breasts. “...either.” She turned away, chuckling as she walked out of the room.

“....she's not gonna let me live that one down, is she?” Uncle Frank muttered.

“Eh, at lest you didn't go for the feel test....c'mon, let's get to the briefing before they run out of chairs.”

By the time we got to the briefing room a few minutes later, Ashwyn, Adrienne, Lucy, Millie and Officer Drew had already taken their seats; Ashwyn waved at me, Adrienne nudged Officer Drew in the side and grinned, while Millie just nodded in my direction. Lucy gave me a solemn nod as I took my seat—I could tell she was already thinking of what we were going to have to do to get Lina back again. Simon was standing at the front of the room, by a projector; the rest of the seats were occupied, or in the process of being occupied, by people I didn't recognize, all of them in uniforms that looked vaguely similar to what Officer Drew was wearing.

Simon looked out over the room, nodding. “If everyone's taken their seats, we can begin.”

The lights dimmed, and the projector kicked on. “As you all know, at around 1:00 AM this morning, law enforcement personnel were alerted to a disturbance at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex by Officer Rachel Drew. Agents of the ALPA were also alerted, due to the nature of the disturbance. Upon arrival, it was discovered that the complex played host to a group illegally reprogramming and smuggling gynoids...the shipping and receiving manifests have been turned over to the relevant agencies to determine where, exactly, each shipment was meant to go.”

A few people around the room were taking notes, and such—but all of them saw the next slide in Simon's presentation.

Uncle Frank's description of what'd happened to the late Chester Singleton had only vaguely registered with me when he first told me. Now, seeing the full-color photos projected up on the wall....yeah. I actually found myself being glad to have been unconscious for the last few hours, otherwise I'd have ended up like Singleton—the guy's chest had basically been caved inwards, his neck had been compressed to the size of a flashlight grip, and I didn't even want to think about how hard he'd been hit in the back of the skull.

“The brutality of what happened to Chester Singleton,” Simon intoned, “may bring to mind echoes of some of the more heinous killings carried out by the self-professed Butcher King, but rest assured that the culprit behind Singleton's slaying, as well of those of two security guards, is a different beast entirely.” I thought about asking Uncle Frank who the Hell the “Butcher King” was—a vague memory of some guy in a mask tearing up a barbecue with a hedge trimmer, as seen on the 10 PM news from around...2011, or so, briefly surfaced, though I'd long since forgotten the specifics—but another slide popped up, this one showing the android prick with the mohawk who'd KO'd me with a single punch. “Original designation, BC-43517. Manufacturer unknown. Currently registered designation is Ivan Cage, though it's come to the understanding of the ALPA's national offices that he has, over the past three years, used multiple aliases.”

The slide changed again, to some official-looking form. “BC-43517 has, in the course of his operational lifespan, shown a rather disturbing tendency towards violent behavior,” Simon continued. “A personality profile and the few software tests carried out on BC-43517 have revealed that these tendencies are not byproducts of a virus, or being hacked—he does, in fact, enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on others.”

Mutterings and quiet discussions went up, throughout the room, as the picture faded out to a video clip: BC-whatever was sitting at a table, wearing what looked like prison denims, while someone asked him questions. “...and why is it that you 'enjoy' what you did to—” The name of whoever had been mauled was covered with a beep.

BC-whatever smirked. “The way he squirmed...all you meatbags do that, at the end, right?” I'd expected his voice to be deep—which it was—but there was something...off about how damn casual he was with that answer.

“....in moments where a person's life appears to be in imminent danger—”

“Spare me the bullshit. I killed [redacted] because he tried to cross me, but what I did to [redacted]....I did because I damn well FELT like it.” BC-whatever leaned back in his chair. “You couldn't understand it.”

“...we're making an attempt to understand it, BC-43517. We honestly—”

“Oh, you wanna understand it?! Lemme help you understand—”

The video froze just as BC-whatever started to stand up, before fading back to the form. A quick look around the room gave me reason to suspect that whatever came next in that clip hadn't been pretty; the mutterings and quiet discussions were decidedly grim, with at least a few people looking like they were about to puke.

“That footage,” Simon stated, “was recorded the last time BC-43517 was in ALPA custody—one year ago. For those wondering how the video ended, he critically injured the interviewer, killed two guards and evaded facility security for three hours before his escape, with four more staffers dead and six wounded in the process. This form—” He gestured back to the wall. “—is the official DeCommission On Sight order for BC-43517, which all Field Agents should have in their possession. Anyone who encounters him in the field is advised to make an effort to collect his memory, any internal storage devices and central processing units....otherwise, you all have Agency permission to terminate him with extreme prejudice.” He paused for a minute, giving everyone time to check their notes, before nodding.

“BC-43517 has allied himself with those in charge of the operation that was, until this morning, utilizing the Greensfield Warehouse Complex. Security footage shows that Singleton met, frequently, with a male and female...” The projection of the form faded out to show the tape in question—the now-dead Singleton's office, occupied by Singleton, some chick in an old-fashioned raincoat and a big hat, and some guy in a hooded jacket. “We believe these two,” Simon intoned, pointing at the guy and the girl, “to be in charge of the operation....or rather, we did.”

Throughout the tape, the body language of the lady in the raincoat was...weird. She stood off to one side, letting the guy speak for her, and when she did speak...it was hard to tell if she was trying not to look at Singleton or not, thanks to that big-ass hat she wore, but I could tell she wasn't all that fond of being there. It was all a bit...familiar, to be honest...

“We have reason to believe the female of the pair may have been..coerced into her role in the operation,” Simon stated, as the video froze. “Singleton's own records indicate that he was suspicious of the pair, and had no further desire to do busines with them...which is more than likely why BC-43517 was ordered to kill him.” The frozen video faded out to a shot of the warehouse complex, presumably from after I'd been punched in the gut. “ALPA operatives currently have the entire complex under surveillance, and all 'inventory' from the complex is being sorted through in relation to reports of abducted gynoids over the course of the year.”

The projector clicked off, and the lights came back up. “One individual in this room is actually responsible for drawing our attention to the Greensfield complex...”

Uncle Frank nudged me in the side. “...he might not be talking about me—”

“Mr. Matthew Harker.”

I rolled my eyes. “Right, right....” I stood up. “Sir?”

Simon nodded for me to join him at the front of the room; despite feeling incredibly conspicuous—I was probably the only one there, apart from Ashwyn, Millie and Uncle Frank, who didn't look like they were supposed to be there—I went up to the front and nodded. “Mr. Harker,” Simon stated, “was in a rather unique position to discover exactly how and why the Greensfield complex was tied to the reprogramming and smuggling operation.” He glanced at me, waiting...

“My...girlfriend, Lina, was...taken, by a bunch of...drones, I guess, that showed up at my uncle's shop—” The projector kicked on again, and I nearly shielded my eyes until I realized it was projecting off to the side of me, rather than right at me. Sure enough, Units One, Two and Three (or images of them, at least), were up there on the wall. Unit One was still intact, and the redhead formerly known as Unit Three was being interviewed; the pic of Unit Two showed her halfway taken apart. “Two other drones—both male androids—were also there...one of them took Lina.”

The images of Units One and Two (and the redhead) faded...but the lights didn't turn back on.

“I, ah....I don't have any images of Lina to share with you all, but—”

Another image was projected onto the wall—a picture of Lina, smiling, sitting in Lucy's house.

“The image you're all seeing was given to us by Lina's creator, one Lucy Sievers,” Simon stated, his tone somewhat less businesslike than before; out in the audience, Lucy was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “She was among the gynoids stored at the Greensfield complex, and had we been alerted to the situation sooner, we may have been able to retrieve her ourselves...” He paused, and I'm pretty sure he actually gave a bit of a sigh before he went on. “Unfortunately, BC-43517—having already killed Chester Singleton and engaged Agent Murray in a battle in another building elsewhere on the grounds—located the storage capsule Lina had stored in..and let out of, by Mr. Harker....”

I barely registered that he mentioned my name. Seeing Lina's image on the wall....it made me swear that I'd do anything and everything I had to do to get her back from BC-43-who the Hell cares anymore, and from the pricks who'd taken so many other gynoids already.

“...we'll all do our part to put an end to this heinous operation, terminate BC-43517, and recover Lina safely.”

The lights kicked back on, but the image of Lina didn't fade out. Everyone was filing out of the room...not that I really paid all that much attention to them.

“Mr. Harker....” I felt Simon's hand on my shoulder a second before he said my name. “You will see her again.”

“...I know, I know...” I nodded, even as the projection of Lina faded out thanks to someone having turned the projector off. “I'm just...” I turned my attention to Simon. “You said—”

“Sir.” The blonde from earlier had approached, her expression grim. “They've found more at the warehouse.”

“More gynoids?” I realized I'd spoken my thoughts out loud a second after the fact.

The blonde turned to glance at me. “We can't tell yet....” She frowned. “You're going back?”

“If it helps us find where they may have taken Lina, we have to.” I nodded, turning my attention to Simon. “...at least, if it won't cause any problems...”

“As long as you're feeling fit enough to travel, Mr. Harker, the ALPA won't dissuade you.”

“...right.” I nodded again. “I am, by the way...feeling fit, or whatever.”

“This discovery actually coincides with our own plans to return to the complex,” Simon continued, as the blonde turned to leave. “We were persuaded, for lack of a better term, by Miss Sievers to wait until you were up and about to hold the briefing...given your improved condition, it feels only fair to invite you to take part in the raid.”

I didn't hesitate. “Count me in, sir.”

Uncle Frank clapped me on the shoulder—and yes, I winced. “I'll go tell the others, make sure they're ready to hit the road and get back to the complex....” He paused. “...you're sure you want to go back there, Matt?”

“Like I said, if it helps us get Lina back...” I nodded.

“We'll have another briefing about these new findings within...” Simon checked his watch. “Half an hour. For the time being, Mr. Harker, I highly recommend you continue to recuperate, if need be. The commissary is already open, if you'd like a meal before the next meeting.”

“.....I think I'll take you up on that one, sir.” I nodded. “Shall we?”

Five minutes later, Uncle Frank and I were enjoying lunch in the commissary—which was a lot more along the lines of a more upmarket buffet restaurant than a typical cafeteria. I was a bit surprised to find that the food was as good as what we'd had at Troughton's, right down to the soft drink selection. It helped me focus on the positive (that we now had even more help in our fight to get Lina back) instead of the negative (that she'd been taken again)...which, given the circumstances, was only a good thing.

Once we'd finished lunch, the blonde—as if on cue—met us at the tray collection area. “Mr. Caine asked me to tell you both that the briefing will be in Briefing Room 28—not the one you've already been in, if you're wondering.”

“Right....” I frowned. “....you haven't been...”

“Following you?” The blonde actually giggled. “Well, Mr. Caine did ask me to keep an eye on the two of you...safety reasons, all that stuff.”

“I get it.” I sighed. “So...this briefing....”

We followed the blonde to Briefing Room 28—Lucy, Adrienne, Ashwyn and Millie were already there, and were in fact the only others in the room, apart from Simon.

The actual briefing was...surprisingly casual, given the circumstances. From what the surveillance report showed, the warehouse complex had been cleared of all “operational personnel”, but there was no way to tell if the “inventory” had been cleared as well. Also, an ALPA database check had revealed the names of the two from the footage in Singleton's office—the tall guy was one Andrew Sommers, and the girl was apparently Ellie Quinn. Neither were registered with the ALPA, not that I really had any idea what that meant..

As far as the return to the warehouse complex, the plan itself was pretty simple. Adrienne, Ashwyn, Lucy, Millie, Uncle Frank and I would head back to the place, without any ALPA assistance (Simon mentioned not wanting to alert the ones running the smuggling operation from there to flip out and open fire as soon as we showed up...or start destroying any of the “remaining inventory”). Basically, our whole reason for being there was to investigate the complex, retrieve what we could (if possible) of the “remaining inventory” (and any pertinent information about the whole smuggling thing, if there was still any info there), and then report back. If that android prick with the mohawk turned up, the official order from Simon was to ignore him or—only if the need arose—engage him.

Predictably, a few questions were asked—would we be getting any guns, would we have access to reinforcements, what would we have to do if a lot of the drone fembots were still on the premises, etc. I didn't ask anything questions myself, seeing as how the prick with the mohawk wasn't expected to be back at the complex. Millie asked a question I didn't quite get—something about whether or not “the King” would be there...either she had a penchant for listening to Elvis music on the way to her missions, or she was asking for someone by their nickname. I couldn't tell, and I didn't ask her.

Simon suggested we not use ALPA vehicles, for the same reason that we wouldn't have a battalion of their people with us—the sight of ALPA livery would send the defenders of the complex into a frenzy. Thus, yet again, it'd be a “convoy” consisting of Uncle Frank's van and Lucy's car...with one ALPA retrieval vehicle going with us. No more, no less.

The meeting adjourned, and we all headed off to go prepare for the raid....which, in my case, just meant “waiting”.

Another half an hour passed before we finally left—again, I was in the van with Uncle Frank, with Millie and Ashwyn in the back seats. Lucy was in her own car, as always; Adrienne got behind the wheel of the retrieval vehicle, joined by two of the gynoids from the repair center. None of them had any additional weapons or equipment with them, and even Millie wasn't packing any new heat (I assumed that pistol she'd used against that prick with the mohawk was still stowed away in her right hip.)

Nobody said a word as we left the ALPA building—I know I was too focused on what we were about to do.

The drive itself took...maybe 45 minutes or so. The radio wasn't turned on at any point, and nobody made any attempts at small talk. Everyone in the van—and probably in the retrieval vehicle—was focused on what (and/or who) we might find at the warehouse complex the second time around.

I have no idea what I was expecting to find...though I hoped I wouldn't find that psycho android waiting for me.

By the time our “convoy” had arrived at the warehouse complex, it was obvious that the vast majority of “inventory” had been moved. A grand total of two trucks—not semis, but not vans, either—were just sitting in the parking lot, under a faded awning. The sycamore trees by the fence had been left undisturbed, apart from the hole left over from Lucy's dig while she'd been outside on guard duty.

“Well....” Uncle Frank stepped out of the van, appraising the scene. “This looks, ah...forlorn.”

“Forlorn” was putting it mildly. The lights set up in the parking lot hadn't yet kicked on, since it wasn't dark yet...but the place still had a really weird feel to it—or as Fenton would've said, an “eerie ambience”. I could only guess what had happened since we'd left—the place had been cleaned out, either by the ones running the smuggling operation, or by the ALPA.

I pulled out my phone, hoping against hope that FCon would be able to detect something....

“....three.”

“Hmm?” Uncle Frank leaned in, getting a look at the phone.

“Three signals. One closer to a door.....two all the way in the back.” I nodded at the nearest door. “Think we should...”

The ALPA retrieval vehicle made the decision for me—or at least, Adrienne did. She gestured to the two gynoids, and both of them climbed back in and started the thing up. Uncle Frank and I watched as the retrieval vehicle—basically a flatbed truck, but with some kind of construct made to turn the flatbed into an actual trailer—drove through the opened side door of the building.

“They picked up the signal from your phone.” Adrienne walked over to where Uncle Frank and I were still standing. “It's been upgraded, by the way....FCon, I mean. Simon gave the authorization to put the latest version of it on your phone.”

I held up the phone, “aiming” it at Adrienne...and my eyes went wide. Her internal power cell readouts, among other stats, were on the screen! “...so you fully charged up before we left the base....or am I supposed to know about that?”

Adrienne rolled her eyes. “As long as all you're doing is looking at my stats...”

I “aimed” the phone at the others, and decided to see what their charge levels were—the phone showed those with no problems, and also gave me a brief readout of their basic line of thinking. Millie was apparently going over multiple strategies to use against the mohawked prick, in case he showed up again; Ashwyn's thought process was apparently going between thoughts of taking a cat-nap and how bored she was, and as for Lucy—

“Point it somewhere else, unless you want to see it fly.”

I shut off FCon and returned the phone to my pocket. “....sorry, I was just, ah.....”

“You want to know how I'm feeling, you can ask me.” Lucy sighed. “This place.....it's just depressing. Nobody else here, it's....not even dark, just abandoned.....” She shook her head. “I hate it.”

“You're not the only one, believe me.” I sighed. “I just....”

“You wish you could've stopped that prick with the mohawk when he took Lina.” Lucy rested a hand on my shoulder. “I know how you feel, Matt—believe me, I do.”

“And you're not swearing up a storm over it...”

Lucy chuckled. “What, you want me to start cussing again?”

“No, I just—”

The sound of the retrieval vehicle emerging from the building cut off my protest. “....rain check,” Lucy mused, winking as she turned away.

Adrienne climbed into the back of the retrieval transport, examining the three crates. “....locks are shot,” she muttered, going over each of the three crates in turn. “We'll need to get back to base....they've got tools to deactivate damaged locks so we can actually open these.”

“Which just leaves the trucks.” Millie sashayed over (seriously) to the trucks, looking them over.

“You might not want to try scanning those yourself,” Adrienne warned. “They could be rigged.”

I frowned. “...they left a pair of booby-trapped trucks here on the assumption we'd be coming back?”

“Stranger things have happened...” Adrienne moved to the rear of the nearest truck, frowning as she tried to peer into the window. “....I can't tell if anyone's inside. We'll have to—”

The engines kicked on immediately, drowning out Adrienne's musing in a roar. The rear headlights kicked on, forcing both Adrienne and Millie ot shield their eyes—though Millie still had the presence of mind to reach for her right thigh and retrieve her hidden pistol. Adrienne had drawn her own sidearm (I'm guessing hers was hidden in a coat holster, since I didn't see it on her belt or anything like that), and as soon as the lights kicked on, she started squeezing off shots at the rear window. Millie started firing not long after....

...but it was no use. The trucks were already well on their way to...wherever the Hell they were going, really.

Even though FCon had only picked up the three signals, when I got my phone out, I couldn't help but wonder if we'd just lost Lina again, or if the vans were a part of something else. The question of “did anyone get the license plates on those things” came to my mind, immediately....but I didn't ask it, mainly because I'd heard something on the other side of the building where the trucks had been parked.

“...coulda hit someone! We should....Matt? Hey, Matt!” Uncle Frank apparently hadn't heard what I'd heard; I could tell he was rushing to catch up with me. “You okay?”

“I heard something.” I nodded to the one building where the trucks had been. “There's someone else here.”

“...you, ah, think we should—”

“Let me handle this one.” I cracked my knuckles, half for effect and half to show how serious I was about taking down any prick who was involved in Lina's abduction. While Millie, Lucy, Ashwyn and Adrienne discussed the trucks that had just left, I headed for the corner of the building, with Uncle Frank right behind me. I pulled the phone out again and loaded up FCon as I held it aloft, just to make sure we weren't about to get jumped or shot at by another porn star fembot drone...

One signal. A bit odd, but at the very least it wouldn't be a Bolivian Army ending.

I rounded the corner, fully prepared to throw down....

….and nearly tripped over my own feet instead.

For starters, there was a girl just standing there—about as tall as Lina, and probably the same “emulated” age (or close to it) as her, but with auburn hair (done up in a half-ponytail with a fringe at the front), hazel eyes, and wearing sneakers, socks, those capri jeans that sort of end mid-calf, and a t-shirt for a band I'd never heard of before, the Starlet Dolls (a vague memory of a cartoon series with that name briefly emerged, but faded shortly after). She was just standing there, blinking really fast and shaking her head....

...but that wasn't the part that confused the Hell out of me.

No, the confusion hit when I saw none other than my own brother, Fenton, standing near her.

Uncle Frank half-jogged to a stop behind me, a question dying on his lips as he saw what I was seeing. I couldn't help but wonder just what the fuck was happening—we'd shown up here to find Lina, and instead we stumble on some other girl (a gynoid, given the lone signal from FCon), and now Fenton's involved?!

Before I could say anything, or even walk up to the pair of them, Fenton sort of poked the girl in the back of the neck and took a flash drive out of his pocket. Apparently, there was something on it that he had to press, which he did, before sticking it in the port he'd just revealed.

“.....so he....Matt....MATT, WAIT!”

Uncle Frank's protests did nothing to slow me down. My fists were already clenched at my sides as I strode across the lot to “meet” Fenton; I wanted, needed to know what his connection to all of this was, who this girl was and why he was sticking a flash drive in her neck—if he had anything to do with this whole “draining” thing, or the smuggling.....

I was about halfway to Fenton and the girl when I heard a loud beep. Fenton pulled the drive out from the girl's port....

….and instantly, her posture relaxed. She turned to Fenton and—I shit thee not—jumped into his arms, giving him one whopper of a kiss.

My “ass-kicker” walk trailed off into a confused shuffle, and I felt my fists unclench. “.....what?”

Fenton was midway through returning the girl's kiss when he noticed me. “Matt!” He actually smiled at seeing me, and ran over to shake my hand—I was still thoroughly confused as to what was going on. “You never did met my girlfriend before, right?” He gestured to the girl he'd stuck the flash drive into. “Matt, allow me to introduce you to my fiancée, Danielle—”

“Dani, please.” She walked over to shake my hand, just as Fenton had. “I’m Dani,” she repeated. “I-I-I’m Dani,” she struggled as her face twisted into a scowl. She shook her head again.

“Babe, are you all right?” Fenton looked more than a bit concerned. .

“No, I’m Dani, I will do what you want me to do Andrew.” At that point, I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow—until Dani started talking again. ”Hi, I’m Dani!” Then she gave my brother another big kiss, leaving him gobsmacked. “Programs are taking...are t-t-taking time to...Hi, I’m Dani!”

“What’s your Serial Connect Code?” I could tell Uncle Frank was as surprised as I was at this latest development.

“One-Zero-Two-Two-One-One-One-Five-Two-Zero,” Dani managed.

Whatever the Hell that meant, Fenton relaxed considerably—I could only guess that the code was proof positive that Dani wasn’t under anyone else’s control.

“Hi, I’m I’m I’m I’m….” she repeated, her voice getting higher in pitch with every repetition. Finally, looking more than a bit nervous, Fenton pushed the drive back in and pressed a button which restarted her. “U.nit One-Ze.ro-Two-One-One-One-Five-Two-Ze.ro re.start.ing.” She moved in that obvious, stiff manner at first while she ran through her standard limb connections and tests of her senses.

I couldn't help but stare as Dani recovered. As I watched, she blinked her eyes and shook her head, sweeping her fringe away from her eyes—in that instant, she looked a lot more relaxed. “Thanks,” she beamed as Fenton removed the drive. “I had to integrate everything back into its proper place, and sentience is tricky...anyway, yes, I’m Dani.”

“.....Dani, right.....ah....” I immediately felt like a total asshole for thinking Fenton was with the pricks who'd taken Lina.

That brotherly connection between us must've kicked in at that moment, because the next question Fenton asked was, of course, “SO, ah, where's Lina right now?”

“I came here looking for her.” A bit of the old anger came back to the surface. “And you're.....”

My eyes went wide, as did Fenton's. “....they took Dani from you?”

“And they took Lina from you...” Fenton's eyes were as wide as mine were. “....damn....”

“Lina's a gynoid, right?” Dani piped in. “Like me?”

“Dani!” Fenton turned to stare at her, aghast. “We don't—”

“It's all right....” I sighed. “Yeah, Lina's a gynoid....and yeah, she was....taken. The bastards who took her had stashed her here, and we nearly got her back....”

“'We'?”

Before I could answer Fenton's question, Uncle Frank nearly bowled me over with a clap on the back. “I just knew you two would see eye to eye again!” he declared, grinning. “Never could stand the sight of my nephews fighting....and who is this?”

“Dani, sir. Fenton's girlfriend.”

Fenton nodded—and, as if that brotherly connection kicked in again, retrieved the flash drive from his pocket. “This was to restore her memories, her personality...her sentience, even,” he explained. “That stuff I was working on, back at the apartment....it was a census, for the Bureau of Artificial Lifeform Management—counting registered and unregistered gynoids, all that stuff. I didn't think anything of it, at first—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” I held up a hand. “You were counting gynoids?!”

“For a census, yeah! It started off innoccuous, nothing sinister....and then Dani went missing.”

Uncle Frank snapped his fingers. “That explains it.” He nodded, clapping me on the shoulder again for effect. “Doesn't it all make so much sense now, Matt? Him throwing the party, him being so 'out of it' all the time over the week, him nearly shoving us out of his apartment when we got there to apologize....he was worried sick about Dani here!”

Fenton nodded. “I was....I didn't know what to do. And when you showed up with Lina—”

“What about all that crap you accused her of the night you shoved her?!”

“.....Matt, I was working on no sleep and a mixture of too much caffeine and too many energy drinks. I was off my nut when I showed up at your place—I never meant anything I said to Lina that night.” He extended his hand again, as if to shake mine, and I accepted—allowing him to pull me in for a quick hug. “I'm sorry she got taken, Matt.....I really am.”

I was too stunned to really say anything...so I didn't.

After a few seconds, Fenton sighed and pulled out of the hug. “...seeing as how I've found Dani again, I don't need to worry about the whole census thing anymore.” He nodded at Uncle Frank. “....and, ah....sorry if I was too curt with you, back at the apartment....”

Uncle Frank shook his head. “Water under the bridge, Fenton. You've got nothing to worry about.”

“I hope you can get Lina back soon,” Dani piped up, probably noticing the forlorn look on my face. “What was she like?”

I sighed, scrolling through the phone to find the picture of herself she'd left on it. “That's her. She actually left this on my phone the day we'd met.”

Dani's eyes went wide. “She's beautiful!”

“.....yeah.” I couldn't help but smile. “She is....”

“Am I interrupting anything?”

Adrienne's question prompted a worried look from Fenton—which was easily dismissed when Adrienne told him she was with the ALPA. “We've got a BOLO on the trucks that left here, so for the time being, all we need to worry about is food and rest.”

“Yeah,” Uncle Frank agreed. “Y'know, I've got plenty of room under the hangar where Dani can stay the night!”

“....under a hangar?” Fenton looked a bit weirded out by the prospect.

“It's an ALPA-certified lab,” Adrienne assured him. “Dani will be perfectly safe there...pretty sure the place has rooms fit for humans, too.” She grinned.

“.....right, right...” Fenton nodded, relaxing a bit.

The drive back to the hangar was definitely less tense than the return trip to the warehouse complex; even though we hadn't found Lina, it didn't take a social scientist to tell that the mood was a lot lighter. Lucy, of course, met Fenton, and congratulated him on getting Dani back (she also had a rather, ah, interesting discussion about clothes shopping with Dani on the way to her car), and within a few minutes, we were headed back to the hangar. Dani and Fenton ended up in Lucy's car, while I once again took the front passenger seat in Uncle Frank's van, with Millie and Ashwyn in the back.

As it turned out, there was plenty of room in the facility under the hangar for all of us to find rest and recharge, as need be; it was around 7 PM by the time we got back. it was evident that one of two things had happened: Either Uncle Frank had called ahead and asked someone to bring food for himself, Fenton and me, or Adrienne had asked Simon to arrange for the food delivery so that it'd be there as soon as we got back. Whatever the case, Uncle Frank, Fenton and I all sat down to a much-needed dinner; apart from Lina not being there, it was pretty much what I'd hoped to accomplish at Fenton's apartment the day before. It was almost like old times—well, as close to those days as we could get in a gynoid lab under a hangar, but whatever. Whoever had called for the food had also brought a change of clothes for Fenton and me, which was greatly appreciated.

Ashwyn and Millie ended up settling in to watch game shows on the TV, and headed for their recharge cycles afterwards recharged. Once dinner was over, Fenton and Dani stole some private time in another room. I decided to let them have their moment—I knew they needed it.

An hour or so later, Uncle Frank, Lucy and Fenton (while Dani was charging) an I all ended up sitting around a tableThe only thing on it was a speakerphone—it gave me a real Charlie's Angels vibe, in all honesty. The voice on the other end was Simon Caine, calling in from the ALPA building we'd been in before (well, “we” minus Fenton and Dani).

“The androids we recovered from the warehouse complex were a 25-year-old named Olivia Ransom—a strangely appropriate name, given the circumstances—and Kimiko Koizumi, whose emulated age is approximately 23-years old. Our specialists are still working on piecing together their systems to see what, if anything, of their memories and original programming can be salvaged.” The conversation paused, and I could tell Uncle Frank, Millie and Ashwyn were all affected by the news that the other two gynoids were potentially beyond saving. “But onto more positive news. Fenton, allow me the honor of congratulating you on behalf of the Regional ALPA offices in regards to your recovery of Dani. Our records did, indeed, show that she was listed as missing, but our operatives had no links between herself and the smuggling case. You should consider yourself fortunate that your backups of her memory and personality were as current as they were, and that you were fully capable of restoring them—and her sentience”

“Don’t I know it!” Fenton gave a nervous chuckle. “I was so nervous she wouldn’t recognise me....I honestly thoughtI’d just get a shell of my fiancée.”

“Fiancée?” I could hear the surprise in Simon’s voice, and see it in Lucy’s and Frank’s eyes as well.

“Yeah, she, ah, proposed to me the day before she disappeared. I knew what she was, but it didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I love her either way.”

“...in that case, you have the honor of receiving my own, personal congratulations, Fenton.” I could practically hear the smile in Simon's voice as he spoke. “With regards to the other gynoids removed from the Greensfield complex, we have no current information on where they might be hidden, but our agents are currently working on rectifying the situation. The information should be available to all of you in the morning. In the meantime...how well would you say you're holding up, Mr. Harker?”

“Shin's healed, and my ribs don't ache every damn time I cough.....” I stared at the floor. “Not gonna lie, though, the only thing that's not okay with me is the fact that Lina's not here with us. At the risk of invoking a country music cliché, I have a pretty big case of heartache going on right now....”

I expected a mutter of “Oh, my God” from at least Lucy—but to my surprise, she looked as solemn as I felt.

“As I've said before, Mr. Harker, you have nothing to worry about. Our best operatives are working on locating Lina, and we will find her. I assure you that the ALPA is doing everything possible to bring the parties responsible for this utterly reprehensible smuggling operation to justice—consider it a top priority at this particular regional office. Our operatives also have the clearance to search, secure and comb through any and all properties owned by both Mr. Summers and Miss Quinn, as well as any and all contacts they may have and financial transactions they may have made...as with the details on the gynoids removed from the complex, more information will likely be made available to you all in the morning. For now, I humbly suggest you get some much-needed rest, so we can look upon the data with fresh eyes at sunrise.”

“Amen to that.” Uncle Frank nodded. “Thanks for the info, Simon.” The phone beeped, to signal that the other end of the line was no longer open. “Well, I don't really think there's a whole lot more to be said or done,” he declared, “so you all might want to turn in for the night, get some rest...” He clapped his hands together. “Like Simon said, we can look at it all with fresh eyes at sunrise.”

“Can't argue with that.” I grinned. “Ah....we've got bathing facilities in here, right?”

Lo and behold, a few minutes after the call had ended, I found that the underground living facility did, indeed, have a fully-equipped shower and bath suite, equipped for use by humans and androids. I stepped in and took a much-needed shower, revelling in the feeling of the water on my skin; it was a lot better than getting punched in the gut by that bastard with the mohawk. It brought back memories of the shower I'd shared with Lina, the day we'd met....

Of course, a lot had changed, since then. Chief among those things was the fact that Lina was gone...if only temporarily.

After I'd showered, changed and done my usual nightly routine, I turned in for the night in a spare room. I was thankful that the lab did, in fact, have sleeping quarters available for humans, seeing as how trying to sleep on a freaking steel work table for the whole night would've been an absolute pain. Thankfully, the bed was most definitely comfortable; the pillows were soft, the blankets were extra fluffy, the mattress didn't feel like a foam brick....the room even had one of those white noise machines installed in the corner, to give a bit of extra ambience to assist in falling asleep.

I smiled, thinking of how considerate the ones who'd designed this place must've been; even though I didn't turn the white noise machine on, I could definitely appreciate the sentiment. I settled instead for sticking a cotton ball in each ear. With all of that out of the way, I settled in for a good night's sleep, hoping the next day would bring us all closer to getting Lina back from the pricks who'd taken her...

“Matt?”

I sighed. “Yeah?”

The door to the room hissed open, revealing Ashwyn—she had a two-piece pajama set on, with both “pieces” probably a size too small for her (with a hole cut in the pants to accommodate her tail). “You're about to go to sleep?”

“I was.....but I don't have a problem with talking. What's on your mind?”

“....well....” Ashwyn entered the room, her tail quickly jerking out of the way of the door so it wouldn't get stuck in it. “I was in my sleep cycle a few minutes ago, but I had a random thought process or two running in the background...I was thinking about those two gynoids we recovered from the complex.”

“.....okay.” I nodded. “And you thought....”

Ashwyn didn't head for the bed or a chair, and instead just plopped down on all fours right on the floor, sighing. “....I got scared. I couldn't stop thinking about what would've happened to me, after everything for the park fell through....” I couldn't help but notice that she did, indeed, look terrified at the prospect of being carted off by some randos, just like what'd happened to the gynoids at the complex. “I....owe a lot to your uncle Frank, Matt,” she quietly admitted, “but...if he hadn't come along when he did.....” A shudder ran through her figure.

“Well, he did come along, and he did in fact find you.” I walked over and rested a hand on her shoulder. “It worked out all right for oyu.....and even if we haven't found her again yet, it'll work out for us, for Lina.....”

“You're sure?” The way Ashwyn stared at me reminded me a lot of my own cat, especially the way her pupils went big.

“Positive.” I scratched her behind the ears, prompting a happy hum. “....just so we're clear, you're not, ah....”

“Thinking about you and Lina?”

“.....yeah. Like at the ALPA repair center.” I chuckled. “I don't want to repeat the whole 'you'll find someone of your own' one day spiel, but...”

“I'm good. It was taken care of back at the center.”

“Glad to hear it.” I nodded. “I'm wondering, though.....were there, ah....”

“Others from the park?”

“....yeah. Did any of them get...well....”

Ashwyn shrugged. “Frank mentioned the ALPA helped him put up the cash to have me board here...he also said they did their best to find good homes for the others, but they never said where they went. Something about security....”

“Well....” I tried to continue, but my words were cut off by a yawn. “....it's, ah, getting kinda late, and...”

To my surprise, Ashwyn actually grinned. “You look kinda funny when you yawn.”

“Glad I can be amusing even when I'm in desperate need of sleep....” I rolled my eyes. “See you in the morning.”

Ashwyn nodded, and gave that happy hum again when I reached over to scratch behind her ears. “Sleep well, Matt!”

“I'll do my best...you too, by the way....”

With that, Ashwyn padded out of my room—on all fours. She caught herself at the doorway, noticed me watching and gave a half-shrug before rising to her actual feet and walking out the same way she'd walked in. A few seconds later, the door hissed closed behind her.

I chuckled, thinking of my own cat as I got back into the bed and pulled the covers up—

“These doors take way too long to close, y'know.”

I groaned. “Lucy.....”

“To be fair, I was kinda sorta maybe hanging around outside waiting for Ashwyn to finish her chat with you...” I could just make out that she rolled her eyes. “I just wanted to say, Matt.....even with all this insanity, and that's including Lina being taken by those pricks back at your uncle's place, and again at the warehouse...” She crossed the room and sat down on the bed, her hand resting on top of the blanket. “.....in all honesty, I wouldn't have wanted her to be with anyone other than you.”

“And that's not just because I had FCon on my phone, is it?”

“No....” Lucy patted my legs through the blanket. “To be honest....that first day, after you'd met Lina...” She wiped a tear from her face. “....she couldn't stop talking about you the whole drive home. I mean, yeah, she was kind of annoyed that you swore so much—it reminded her too much of me, in her own words....but she knew you weren't just going to be in it for the nookie—”

“Do not quote the damn song,” I cut in. “I don't want to hear anything about how I can 'take that cookie and stick it up her'.....” I groaned. “I heard that damn song way too often back in high school.”

“.....wasn't even thinking about that, to be honest. In any case, she had a damn good feeling about you, and after I went to your place, I could see why.” Even in the low light, I could tell she was smiling. “Anyway...just wanted to check up on you, make sure Kitty didn't shred the bed...” She patted my legs again and got off the bed. “G'night, Matt....”

“G'night, Lucy....sleep well.”

She paused, right at the door. “.....I will if you will.”

With that, the door hissed closed behind her, leaving the room in silence.

I waited a few seconds, wondering if Millie or Dani—or possibly even Fenton—had wandered in while Lucy had made her way out....but nobody else spoke up. I didn't complain—if anything, I was too busy actually falling asleep, finally, to even notice that the room had gone quiet. In the low light, and with no noise, I didn't have any problems drifting off....

...at least, until a picture on the wall somehow got loose from its frame.

I sat up and watched as the thing spun, arced and gracefully drifted to the floor; it was almost a dance, really. It almost drifted close to the bed, at one point; if I'd felt like it, I might've been able to reach up and snatch it out of the air....but I couldn't bring myself to interrupt this strangely hypnotic “dance”, far more elaborate than just falling. Eventually, after what felt like two whole minutes of it spinning and pirouetting through the air, it finally, gently settled onto the floor.

By this point, I just had to know what it was—I didn't even remember a picture being on the wall when I'd first entered the room, to be honest. I got out of bed, turned the picture over.....

….and stared, slack-jawed. It was a photo of me, smiling, in a tuxedo....and Lina, also smiling, in a fabulous bridal gown.

I barely had time to comprehend this when the door hissed open; somewhere in the distance, a bright light had been turned on, and was shining through the darkness. I held up a hand to shield my eyes—or at least to make out anything I might trip over in the dark—and I wandered out of my room, into the hallway....

...well, there should've been a hallway, outside.

What I stumbled into instead was fog—plain and simple. It was less like a simple cloud of fog and more like a maze with no walls...vast and utterly unfathomable. The air seemed to swim with a barely perceptible haze, but I could still see through it—far off in the distance, that light was still shining.

“Matt......”

I froze. “Lina?” I almost dreaded the next words I'd hear from her—“You failed me”, maybe, or “Why couldn't you save me?”, or some other accusation. “Lina....I'm.....”

“Don't say you're sorry.”

“.....what?” I staggered forward, hoping I wasn't about to slam into anything.

“It's not your place to apologize....and it's not the end for us. I know you'll fight through this.”

“....but I...I couldn't stop him....that bastard with the mohawk—”

“You didn't need to stop him then....but you will soon. Besides, I'm not the one you're looking for.”

“.....what are you—”

The fog seemed to part, just for a moment, and I could see Lina, with her back turned to me. “When the sun rises...when you wake up....you'll be able to get back to looking for me—the real me, not just a dream.” She barely turned her head to glance at me over her shoulder. “....you didn't fail me then, Matt, and you won't fail me now.”

“....Lina.....”

I took a step forward, hoping to reach out and touch her, maybe even hold her....

...but the haze seemed to grow thicker, almost becoming a wall in front of me. I held up an arm, trying my best to fight through it, and after a few seconds of struggling, I did in fact manage to push through....and right into a door. It wasn't a high-tech, sliding kind, like the one on the room I'd been trying to get to sleep in—this was an old-fashioned, wooden, knob and hinges door.

“.....the Hell?” I reached for the knob, felt its weight in my hand, and turned it....

….and I found myself back in the lab again. At least, it looked like the lab, except even bigger. Racks upon racks upon racks of motionless, barely-dressed gynoids went in every direction, as far as I could see; some of them had “panels” of skin missing, some didn't have their faces on, and some looked to be damaged in some way. I pressed on, regardless, ignoring the occasional staccato movements to either side of me—even when the gynoids in the racks reached out, I pushed past their advances. Whispers, murmurings and the occasional groan sounded all around me, but none of them were in Lina's voice.

Eventually, the racks just...stopped, only to be replaced by crates, capsules and other containers. The lab was starting to look more like the inside of that building I'd been in at the Greensfield warehouse complex...but I didn't slow down. If anything, I started walking faster, not caring that the crates were now starting to form walls and barriers in front of me. I climbed and jumped over a few, ducked under others and made my way through as best I could.

That light was back, far off in the distance. I knew that if I could reach it, I'd reach Lina....

….and that's when I heard something fall behind me.

I looked back over my shoulder to see that prick with the mohawk—glowing red eyes and all. His smile was too wide for his face, and he looked even bigger than I'd remembered....which was made even worse when he walked towards me, that killing intent all too blatant in his eyes.

I ran. Didn't look back, didn't care what was in front of me, I just ran. There was no way in Hell I could let him catch me.

Even without looking behind me, I could tell the bastard was getting closer. He was laughing, now; it echoed off of every metal crate, rebounded off of every wall until it sounded like he was everywhere at once. I didn't care—I had to get away from him....

….but he got closer and closer. The laughing stopped—I didn't. I kept running. Don't look back, don't look back—

I tripped. Fell to the floor, but tried to keep going, and that's when I heard him roar.

Don't let him see the fear in your eyes. Don't turn, don't even look at him.

The roar got closer, and closer.....judging from the shadow growing around me, the bastard had jumped. He was going to stomp my spine in, kill me right then and there....

No.....not like this......no.......

“NO!”

I bolted up, the blankets falling away from me. Weirdly, the roar didn't stop when I woke up—if anything, it was almost louder than it'd just been. Hell, it felt like the whole damn hangar above us was moving....I looked around the room, to make sure I wasn't still in the grips of a nightmare. No picture on the wall, no mist, no crates........

A groan left my lips as I rolled over and tried to fall back into sleep. Fresh eyes at sunrise, and all that.....

Part 8

As much as I'd love to say that I slept easy after that dream with Lina, the fog maze and getting jumped by that bastard with the mohawk....yeah, I'd be lying through my teeth if I did. A lot of this had to do with the fact that it was, in fact, morning—my weird-ass dream, vision or whatever had gone through the whole night, and I'd managed to lose track of time in the process. It didn't help that I could hear everyone out in the hallway, carrying on about...something or other. I knew right then and there that I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep, so I just rolled out of bed and got dressed.

...well, replace “got dressed” with “threw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt”, and...yeah.

Out in the hallway, everyone was running. Fenton, Dani, Ashwyn, Millie, Lucy and Uncle Frank (oh, and I couldn't help but notice how Lucy and Uncle Frank both came out of Uncle Frank's room....) were all heading for the elevator, with none of them really saying much of anything—apart from the occasional scream of “MY PLANE!” from Uncle Frank.

We all reached the elevator to the hangar in a state of what I can only call mass panic—if I had to guess, that roar I'd heard probably had something to do with it. Thankfully, there was enough room for Ashwyn, Lucy, Millie, Uncle Frank, Fenton and I to all fit on the thing without hitting any light fixtures on the way up (Fenton had talked Dani into staying below ground until everything was sorted). “Whoever's up there is using Corona Ansata,” Lucy stated, without any preamble. “Since I'm the only one shielded against it—”

“You can't seriously suggest goin' up there alone,” Millie countered.

“Of course she's not. I'm going with her.”

Nearly everyone was pretty surprised at my statement—I'll admit, I was pretty shocked at how ready I was to jump on that plane. “The bastards up there are probably the same ones who took Lina from me...I'd be a damn fool to not get after them now.”

“You've got nothing to fight them with, Matt!” Uncle Frank countered. “We can't just—”

“They stole Lina.” I couldn't help the bite in my tone—I wasn't pissed off at Uncle Frank, but he took the brunt of how pissed off I was at that moment. “I'm not about to stay down there and sit on ass while they try to bust out of here with your plane.”

“And what if you get yourself killed up there?!” Fenton cut in. “Who's gonna get Lina back then—”

“He's not going to get killed,” Lucy replied. “If he does, I'll kick his ass myself.”

I couldn't help but laugh at that. “Just promise not to get yourself wrecked, okay?”

“You do your thing, I'll do mine.”

“So you two are going up there by yourselves to get on the plane?” Ashwyn asked, somewhat awed. “I mean, you don't know what you're even going to be facing!”

“We'll figure it out as we go along.” I managed a shrug—not easy, given how close everyone was standing together.

“And if your figurin' it out doesn't pan out?” Millie inquired.

“Then I'll take over.” Lucy smirked. “We're in this together, remember?”

“Like I'd ever forget.”

The elevator finally reached its apogee, revealing.....

MY PLANE!” It was amazing that I could hear Uncle Frank yelling at all, what with the roar of the jet engines so close by; he nearly fell over trying to get off of the elevator, and it was all too obvious why. Several trucks, all identical to the ones we'd spotted at the warehouse complex, were lined up by the closed cargo door of the DC-10, with most of them having already dropped off whatever they were carrying. That surfer prick was standing in the boarding door, his back turned to us—for a momet, at least, until he turned and walked out of view.

Barely a minute later, the plane started rolling towards the closed hangar door.

On instinct, I grabbed a length of pipe as I made my way past the tool boxes, seeing as how I had no intention of going up against anyone or anything on that plane without a means of self-defense. Just off to my right, I saw Lucy do the same, grabbing a ball-peen hammer. “....HOW DO WE GET ONBOARD—”

I felt someone grab my shirt collar, just as Lucy shouted “HEY!”....

….and seconds later, we went flying, and came down on one of the wings, only to go flying again, and get effectively chucked into the boarding door—seconds later, Ashwyn landed next to us.

“Are you insane?! I told you on the elevator that the prick in charge of this plane is using Corona Ansata—”

Lucy's protests did little to dissuade Ashwyn. “You both wanted to get into the plane, right?”

“....she's got a point there.” I shrugged. “SO, ah.....now that we're in....”

Lucy sighed. “Get back down to the elevator and tell the others to get back underground, okay, Kitty?”

Ashwyn nodded. “Where's that surfer guy?”

Off in the distance, through a crack the cockpit door, someone spoke: “Like, we could've taken off so much earlier if Ivan hadn't wasted so much time packing....I bet he, like, broke the cargo door when he pushed that lock in place.”

“That voice....I've heard him before.” My fists clenched. “He was at the restaurant, when Doug and I were there....and he was at my house, during the party...”

Ashwyn's eyes went wide. “He was at the party?!”

“Andrew Sommers.” Lucy scowled. “He showed up at the university, asking about Corona Ansata, which was Red Flag Number One, since he shouldn't have even known it existed....”

“Him and that girl on the tape....they were the ones running the warehouse complex.” I actually growled. “Of all the...”

Lucy rested a hand on my shoulder. “He might've started this, but we're ending it.” She glanced at Ashwyn. “This is where you get off, Kitty.”

“But—”

“If he uses Corona Ansata on you, you'll do anything he tells you to—whether it's giving him a lap dance or killing Matt with your bare paws. You have to sit this one out.”

After a few seconds' hesitation, Ashwyn nodded. “So this is it, then....you're really going to take him on all by yourselves, with....a pipe? And a hammer?”

“Not everybody can pull a Rambo at a time like this.” Lucy shrugged.

Ashwyn looked at the pair of us in something resembling awe. “Wow.” She turned towards the boarding door, taking one last look back at Lucy and me as she prepared to jump out through the boarding door. “See you when the plane lands!”

Without another word, she leapt out of the boarding door.

“.....so.” I took a deep breath. “....we're on the plane, it's already rolling....”

“Focus, Matt. Right now.....” She paused, chuckling.

“What?”

“....the door was open this whole time. Either Andrew's deaf as a post, or there's some kind of freak wind shear to where he hasn't heard us, or he's just stupid....” Lucy smirked. “....I'm going with the latter—especially since he's part of this damn smuggling operation....”

I nodded, grabbing the length of pipe off the floor (I hadn't even noticed it fall from my grasp after Ashwyn had thrown me into the plane). “Let's commence with kicking his ass, shall we?”

“I believe we shall.” Lucy nodded, picking up the hammer she'd dropped. “Time to kick some ass, Matt.”

Despite the fact that we both had enough bravado for a whole platoon of commandos, it would've helped if we'd been armed like commandos—an M-60, a K-Bar and a belt or two full of grenades would've been a lot better than a length of pipe and a ball-peen hammer, but we didn't exactly have time to do the Rambo. Once we were in the plane, a quick check revealed that Andrew....wasn't anywhere in sight, and that we were in what was probably meant to be the passenger section. Off to the left, all the way at the end of the aisle, was a security door meant to keep the likes of us out of the cockpit; a curtained-off area was off to the right. I couldn't help but notice that a lot of the seats in the rear of the cabin, where Lucy and I were, had been removed—which probably explained how Uncle Frank was able to get the plane so cheap. Crates had been stacked wherever they could fit, especially where the seats had been removed.

I considered our options as to how, exactly, we were going to proceed with these circumstances—either Lucy and I could rush the cockpit and start beating down on Andrew while he was guiding the plane towards the hangar door, or we could hide in the curtained area, wait for him to come back down the aisle and beat the piss out of him there. I was on the cusp of figuring out which option we'd take.....

...and that's about when the plane busted through the hangar door, knocking me on my ass and sending Lucy into a wall.

“....what.....” I managed to push myself up into a sitting position, shaking off the pain and groaning. “....he just....he put the damn plane through the hangar door!”

Lucy had already pushed herself away from the wall, and managed to close the boarding door. “Yeah. He did.”

“.....that stupid surfer prick just stole Uncle Frank's plane.....” I was still trying to wrap my head around it—one minute, I was seeing Lina in my dreams and running through a fog maze, the next....

I happened to glance out a window, and groaned. “....we're airborne. We're already airborne.”

“Could be worse,” Lucy mused, helping me up. “If the idiots flying this thing hadn't tipped us off by firing the engines, the plane would've left without any of us knowing it until later. Just be glad we're onboard, so we can get to Andrew and kick his ass...”

“.....yeah.” I managed a chuckle. “Talk about fucking fresh eyes at sunrise....”

Lucy frowned. “Just because I've stopped swearing, that doesn't mean you have to pick up the slack.”

“....can you blame me?! I haven't even had breakfast yet, and I'm on a damn plane that just busted through...the door of.....a hangar.....” I groaned again. “I'm not paying for this. No way in Hell am I—”

“Are you seriously thinking of who's going to pay for replacing the stupid door?”

I knew I wasn't about to win this argument, so I figured it'd be better to just change the subject. “That discussion can come later. Right now, we need to figure out.....a lot of things, really.” I shook my head, trying to clear out the last of the morning fog. “.....okay, so we're on the plane, it's already in the air....I've got a length of pipe, and you've got a....what is that, a hammer?”

“Ball-peen.” Lucy shrugged. “It'll hurt a lot if I swing it hard enough.”

“Just make sure you swing it at someone other than me.” I brushed myself off and took a good look around. “Okay, so, ah, the ...I guess it's the kitchen...is....that way....” I nodded to the right of us. “....and the cockpit—”

“I've been on planes before, Matt,” Lucy cut in. “I know where everything is.”

“Right, right....just making sure. So, ah....I'm guessing we should probably....I dunno, hide?”

“....If you think it'll work.”

Lucy and I headed through the curtain at the far end of the cabin, doing our best not to make any noise. I could tell that whoever had closed the hatch leading down to the cargo bay had jammed the damn thing shut, nearly breaking the lock in the process. A pretty damn big metal crate was secured nearby, just far enough away to not rest on the hatch itself; I nodded to Lucy, and she headed over to hide behind it with me. Seconds later, the curtain was pulled back, and Andrew just ambled right on in. He was too busy looking around the room, and then staring at a tablet, to tell that he had a pair of stowaways....

….given the fact that he'd probably given the orders for Lina's abduction, I didn't really care.

Without even bothering to ask Lucy if she was ready, I started towards Andrew. Lucy matched me step-for-step, even as I broke into a run. He was still nose-deep in the tablet—he only just saw me right before I slammed into him and took him down. Lucy was on him in seconds, kicking him in the shins to keep him down.

Andrew made some weird, panicked squealing noise as he scrambled to get away from Lucy, but I grabed him by the shirt, hauling him up from the floor. “Hey there. Remember me?”

“.....what—”

“WRONG ANSWER!” I kicked him in the stomach, sending him further back and nearly knocking over a crate. I hadn't really paid a lot of attention to the interior of the plane, when Lucy and I were running in; as I shoved Andrew towards Lucy, I could see that even this place—probably meant to be a kitchen or something—was lined with a lot of crates—all human-sized, and mostly locked—either secured to the walls of the plane or just stacked up all around us.

Andrew hit the floor again, wincing.

“Get up.” I could tell his ears were ringing, especially if Lucy had nailed him in the side of the head with the ball-peen hammer. “I SAID GET UP, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!” Again, I hauled the guy to his feet. “Where's Lina?”

“...I don't...I—”

Another punch. “Either tell me where Lina is, RIGHT NOW, or—”

He shoved me aside, dove for the tablet and aimed it at Lucy, smashing his palm into its surface. I could see what very well could've been hope, in his eyes....

….which died as soon as Lucy just rolled her eyes at him. “That's Strike Two. You already made Strike One.”

“....what—”

I punched Andrew in the gut. “WHERE'S LINA, YOU ASSHOLE?!”

He staggered backwards, trying to put as much distance between himself and me as possible. “...you don't...I—”

I snarled, and flat out hurled the pipe at him like a javelin. HE ran, of course....but not fast enough. The pipe nailed him in the shoulder, sending him to the floor. “AAGUGH! DAMN IT!”

“You should've run faster.” I strode over to where he'd fallen, fully prepared to keep laying the beating on him...

….only to stop as he wrenched the pipe out—I'd thought he was either insane, high off his ass or had no fear of death, at first, but then I saw the sparks, wiring and a bit of broken metal where the pipe had gone in. “...damn it—”

I ran forward and nailed him in the face with an elbow, sending him back even further. Lucy charged past me and bashed him in the gut with the hammer, doubling him over. With both of us on either side of him, he tried to throw a few piss-poor punches our way—Lucy and I just stepped back, and I actually flipped him off. “Get up...GET UP, you PRICK—” He took another swing at me, but went wide, so I pretty much grabbed him by his shirt collar, spun him around and threw him through the curtain, into the cabin of the plane.

The surfer idiot went for something on his belt, but I kicked him in the gut and stepped on his hand.

“I have no idea if you even felt that, and to be frank...” I had to chuckle at that one. “....I couldn't care less—”

Andrew tried to scramble away from me, but I stomped on his spine.

“We don't have all day to put up with you,” Lucy informed him, “so why don't you just tell us where Lina Sievers is, and we'll do our best to leave you mostly intact—”

The prick actually scrambled back into the cabin before she could finish, half-crawling, half-scooting to get away from us, but I grabbed his belt and pulled, hard, to keep him from running off. All that did was break the belt—and showed off that what he'd tried to grab before I'd thrown him was a pistol. “Well, shit...” I jammed it into the waistband of my jeans. “As for you...”

“He's running for it, Matt!”

I'd barely even noticed the idiot running for the cockpit while I was checking the gun—by the time I actually saw him, he was halfway down the aisle. “Oh, you SON OF A...GET BACK HERE!” I raced up the aisle to catch him, and managed to actually tackle him into the cockpit—or at least, into the door. Now, finally, Lucy and I had him cornered—and there was no way in Hell we were letting him get away.

Considering my only experiences with such things were in flight simulators, I had no clue how any of it worked—and by the time I caught Andrew in the face with a flying forearm, the DC-10 continued to climb.

Of course, I was too busy kicking Andrew's ass to notice—at least, until Lucy spoke up.

“....ah, Matt, we might have a problem....”

I was too busy smashing Andrew's face into the cockpit door to hear her. “WHERE'S LINA?!”

The surf guy android (any surprise I felt at that was drowned out by my desire to utterly kick the piss out of him) was still trying to run like Hell, but I wasn't giving him room to give orders, and just punched him in the face again. “Do us both a favor, okay? Either tell me where Lina is, or SHUT THE FU—”

Everything shook, Lucy nearly fell on her ass and the plane continued gaining altitude. Somewhere further back, a voice calmly declared that we were now approaching cruising altitude.

My attention, of course, was focused elsewhere. “Either tell me where Lina is, RIGHT NOW, or we'll see if you can fly!”

Andrew tried to hit me again, so I stomped him in the groin. “You really need to quit doing that, otherwise...” I stepped over him and picked up the tablet. “So this was your big game plan, wasn't it?”

“GIVE ME THAT! You don't even know what it is!”

“Oh, you're gonna have to ask a lot nicer than that, pal—” I had to kick the idiot in the stomach to keep him down; for an android, he was pretty crap at fighting. “The Hell is so special about this thing, anyway? You could just get another one down at Best Buy—”

“JUST GIVE IT BACK, YOU DUMBASS!”

“Oh, I'm a dumbass, now, am I?” I dropped the tablet, smirking. “Guess I'm clumsy, too...”

“YOU IDIOT!” The surfer android tried to lunge at it, but I kicked him square in the face. “No, no, no. You wait your turn.” I tossed it to Lucy, who regarded it with a wicked smirk. “Let's see just how special this thing is when—”

I probably should've been paying attention to what was happening outside—as in, through the windows—because my attempt at being dramatic was rather abruptly cut off by the DC-10 very rapidly climbing. “Oh, what the Hell...” Lucy managed to find her way into a seat, strapping in as the plane started to ascend. Andrew, on the other hand, was sliding down the aisle and bashing his head on everything in his way; by the time he finally came to rest at the curtain, he was a twitching, stuttering wreck. Oh, and a lot of the unsecured crates were sliding all over the place, too.

Me? I'd grabbed hold of an armrest and worked my way into a seat just as Andrew went on his little slip-and-slide run, which meant I was safely secured while he was getting knocked around like a pinball.

Eventually, the plane leveled out—and the cockpit door opened to reveal.....

“....there's nobody in there.” Lucy frowned. “He must've set it to autopilot after it broke through the hangar door....”

Unfortunately, we had a far bigger concern to deal with at the moment—the radio had just kicked on. “THIS IS THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE, REQUESTING IDENTIFICATION AND VERIFICATION—”

I scrambled for the headset. “Ah, this is Matt Harker, in my uncle's DC-10...sorry about the hangar gate, and, ah...”

“Are you a registered pilot?”

“In all honesty—

“BACK OFF, YOU IDIOT!”

I glanced back; Lucy had just kicked at Andrew, leaving him sprawling. I shook my head and turned my attention back to the radio. “....ah, I'm not the one who set this thing up, and, ah, I'm in here with one, potentially two...ah, hostiles, I guess...some surfer idiot and a possibly big guy with a mohawk.”

“....and you have no idea how to fly the plane yourself?”

“From what I can tell, I, ah, think it's on autopilot....” I glanced over the controls, which were about as complex to me as the setup to play the original Steel Battalion, multiplied by probably 10. “....no idea where we're headed—”

Something purple and pink shot past the cockpit windows, then circled around. “...the Hell?!”

Another voice kicked in on the radio, sounding weirdly familiar: “You can relax, guys...he's not hostile, and neither is the one who was yelling earlier. The two onboard with him are, though...I could try to board, take 'em out—”

“Too risky. Fall back and monitor, but do not engage. Mr. Harker, are you still there?”

“...yeah, I'm here—and, ah, just for the record, I'm not a threat. I repeat, I'm not a threat to anyone.”

“Do not try to alter the plane's flight path in any way, unless you have no other viable alternative. We'll try to keep tabs on your flight path until you reach cruising altitude, but after that...”

“....I get it. Thanks—

“GET OFF OF MY LEG, YOU IDIOT!” Back in the aisle, Andrew had tried to grab Lucy's leg and pull her to the floor. “Son of a...LET GO!” She kicked him, hard, and he finally let go of her.

“....ah, one of the hostiles is trying to regain control of the, ah, craft....plane, whatever—”

“Scanning now.” That familiar voice, again... “Identity verified—it's Andrew Sommers. He's got BC-43517 with him.”

“....can you confirm this?”

“I'd recognize the digital signature anywhere. It's BC-43517....Matt, you still there?”

“....yeah—wait, how do you—”

“I'll explain later, once the DC-10 is back on the ground—don't worry, they're not going to shoot it down. You're heading for cruising altitude right now, and once the DC-10 hits that height, I won't be able to track you...well, track the plane, but you get the idea. Whatever happens next, don't let Andrew or BC-43517 get to the controls at all before you reach cruising altitude, otherwise...”

“I get the—

“DAMN IT, GET OFF!” Andrew was getting grabby at Lucy's leg again, until she kicked him in the head

“As I was saying, I get the picture.”

“....you sure you're okay in there, Matt?”

“That freaking Andrew, or whatever his name is—” I felt a sharp pain in my left foot. “AAUGH!”

“What happened?”

“HE BIT ME! THE FREAKING IDIOT BIT ME!” Somehow, the android prick had crawled into the cockpit and sunk his teeth into my foot. I kicked down, hard, at his head. “Stupid freaking surfer airhead punk android biting me on the damn stupid foot...”

“...other than that, you're okay?”

“Lucy and I are trying to keep him from getting at that stupid tablet he had with him...Corona something...”

“Corona Ansata—it's a program, not the tablet itself.”

“Did you just mention Corona Ansata?”

“I did, Colonel. Looks like that's how Andrew was able to keep BC-43517 under control, and it might explain how he was able to keep this little operation going for so long...well, him or whoever the girl was from that tape at the Greensfield complex, when they visited Singleton...”

“....so this guy is connected to why Lina got taken?”

“....son, you're going to have to explain—”

“My girlfriend, Lina...she's, ah...”

“A gynoid. Humanoid female robot—like me. You don't have to self-censor, Matt...I'm guessing you're getting all of this, right, Colonel?”

“....I am.”

“If anyone wants to tell me how much trouble I'm in for all of this, can it please wait until after the plane is back on the ground?!” I kicked Andrew again, just to make sure he didn't get his hands on the stupid tablet; Lucy—apparently having been taken out of the action by a lucky shot from the surfer prick, dragged him back into the aisle.

“....Mr. Harker, we've just received the full report of the situation from Regional Director Caine. Apart from some mild property damage in regards to the hangar gate—”

“Again, not my fault!”

The familiar-sounding female voice giggled. “I think you're off the hook for that one, Matt.”

“....thanks—

“GYAHHAAAHH!” Andrew lunged at me, trying to grab the radio from me or something, but Lucy intercepted him with a tackle. “SUCK ON THAT, YOU AIRHEAD PRICK!” She kicked him again, for good measure, and dragged him out....

...just as I remembered the radio was still on. “...ah...”

“I'm guessing you're still having trouble keeping Andrew out of the cockpit.”

“....yeah, that—and while I'm thinking about it, who are you?!”

“Look to your right—well, through the window through your right.”

I turned, glancing through the window on the right side of the cockpit....and stared.

The figure flying alongside the DC-10 looked like something out of an SNES game, or an anime—female, armored up in purple and pink, with metallic silver “skin” for her hands, face and head, and neon purple hair with pink streaks going through it. “....whoa....”

“I'll take that as a compliment.” The purple-and-pink figure dipped out of view. “You'll hit cruising altitude in a few minutes, and I won't be able to keep the link open after that...if you were on a more up-to-date plane, I would...in any case, the best you can do now is keep that tablet away from Andrew and keep him away from the controls.”

“...I'll do my best on both counts....and, ah, thanks.”

“No problem. Stay safe, Matt!”

“Mr. Harker, this is Colonel Drake. You'll be outside of our communication range soon, and we can't provide any further assistance with detaining or incapacitating Andrew Sommers and BC-43517, but I wish you the best of luck in returning safely and reuniting with your significant other.”

“....thanks, Colonel. Hopefully, the autopilot won't die on me, or anything...and, ah, thanks for not shooting me down.”

“Regional Director Caine told us the full extent of your situation, Mr. Harker. As previously stated, you're in the clear.”

“Glad to—

“GET OFF, YOU SCUM!” Andrew was crawling for the tablet again, and the kick Lucy aimed at his face ended up hitting him right in the left eye. “Damn stupid....

I scrambled for the radio handset. “Ah, that was that Andrew idiot, again...and I'm guessing from all that beeping, I'm about to hit cruising altitude.”

“Indeed. Godspeed, Mr. Harker.”

“And to you, Colonel.” I sighed as the radio went silent—and, as I unstrapped myself from the pilot's sea, I reflected on the sheer insanity of what had just gone down. The Air Force must've been ready to scramble the jets and blast the DC-10 out of the sky after it blew through the gates of the hangar, but Simon Caine had apparently been in touch with them to fill them in on what was going down, and that gynoid (there was no way she wasn't one) who'd flown alongside the plane had done her best to keep them updated, too....absolute craziness. At least they were on my side....

“Hey.” Lucy made her way into the cockpit, grabbing for a radio nearby. “Who was that?”

“....the Air Force. They nearly shot down the plane.”

Lucy's eyes went wide. “You're kidding.”

“Wish I was...but, ah, some....” I chuckled. “...someone else intervened on our behalf, which is why we're still here.”

“And who—” Lucy groaned as Andrew tried to charge in; she spun around to kick him in the stomach before resuming the conversation, like nothing had even happened. “...actually, never mind.” She looked around for a bit, found the radio controls and started tuning. “....might as well see if we can reach Frank, let him know we haven't crashed or anything like that.....”

After a few seconds, an unmistakable voice shouted: “RIGHT THROUGH THE HANGAR DOOR! Of all the—”

Lucy actually burst out laughing. “And hello to you too, Frank!”

“....Lucy?! You're—”

“Not scrap. I've got Matt with me, and we're in the cockpit....the Air Force just scrambled jets to make sure we're on the level here.” Lucy handed me the handset. “Say hi, Matt.”

“....ah, sorry about the hangar door....”

“Oh, that's the least of my worries right now, Matt! You're sure you're okay up there?”

“....well, ah, other than having no idea how the Hell I'm going to keep this thing in the air if the autopilot disengages, I'm pretty good.” I managed a smile, not caring that Uncle Frank wouldn't see it. “...oh, and Andrew's an android, so...ah, anyway, here's Lucy again.” I passed the handset back to Lucy, earning me an eye-roll. “....you get all that, Frank?”

“I did, yeah.”

“Good. We'll try to get this thing landed safely, and the ALPA can have whatever's left of Andrew—”

“You're not gonna kill him, are you?”

“He sent his stupid drones to take me, and they ended up taking Lina.” Any and all levity had gone out of Lucy's voice as she spoke. “He deserves every bit of the beating Matt and I have handed him—”

“And how's that gonna help you two get Lina back?”

Lucy inhaled sharply, still royally pissed-off.

“....just promise me that you two won't go overboard in dealing with him, okay?”

“.....I'll do my best.”

“All I need to hear. And Matt?”

“I'll try not to bust him up too badly, Uncle Frank.”

“Glad to hear it. Let me know when you're close to landing—and where you're gonna land, okay?”

“I'll do that.” I switched off the radio, turned around—and nearly fell over. Apparently, Lucy's brawl had done a number on him, tearing up his arms, his back and his face with every hit she'd landed. Either that, or his sliding around on the metal floor was like getting dragged across a cheese grater. “Either tell me where Lina is, RIGHT NOW, or—”

“Just....give me....the tablet....” Andrew managed to get back to his feet, his left eye pretty much ruined.

“....all you care about is the damn stupid tablet?!” Lucy grabbed him by the shirt. “YOUR STUPID DRONES TOOK LINA!”

“....not...mine....”

“.....what?!” He'd been ordering BC-whatever around, and the drones in the factory had attacked me, Uncle Frank and the others as soon as he'd noticed us....and they weren't his?

“....just...the bodyguard...” Andrew was having trouble staying on his feet. “...it was—”

I shook my head, getting tired of the runaround. “I can't believe this...you're passing the buck even now?!”

Lucy was evidently a lot more pissed off than I was. “I don't care whose idea all of this was. Either tell me if Lina's on this plane, or you can French kiss the floor again.”

“...I don't know....” Andrew took a step back, and his shoulders started twitching. “...oh, Hell....”

Whatever malfunction was taking a hold of Andrew, I didn't really care—I pulled his pistol out of my waistband, doing my best to keep my finger off the trigger as I checked it. “....tell you what, I'll make you a deal. You tell me where I can find Lina, and I won't...” I looked up, expecting to see Andrew panicking at my threat—instead, he was glitching out, blindly scrabbling around for the tablet and falling all over the place. “....seriously?”

“Object-ject-ject-ject-ject not-not-not-not—” Something in Andrew's torso rizzed angrily, and he siezed up for a second or so before collapsing. “....not found...not found...not....DAMN IT!” He tried to get back up, but his left leg buckled under him. “IVAN—” I kicked him in the head again, hard. “....I don't know where she is!” he insisted.

“Whoever's pulling your strings is the one who had Lina taken, and the one who stole my uncle's plane—”

“He's going for the tablet again, Matt!”

Lucy's warning gave me enough time to kick Andrew's arm away from it. Once I was sure he couldn't grab at the thing and try something stupid with it, I kicked him again, sending him back into the main cabin. “Y'know, you never told me just what that stupid tablet even does, anyway....”

“None of your bus-bus-bus-bus—” Sparks fired from Andrew's nostrils. “....why do you care?!”

“...to be honest....I don't.” I walked over to where the tablet lay on the floor, picked it up and basically pinned it to the wall with my left hand. “But I do know that I have this sudden, uncontrollable urge to break it—”

“NO! You'll—” Andrew tripped over his own feet trying to jump me, siezing up and twitching again.

I stared at him for a bit. “I have this....feeling,” I casually informed him. “I've got this feeling that you've been lying to me about not knowing where Lina is. And because of that feeling, I don't think you deserve to get this back.”

“Just give me the tab-tab-tab-tab—” Andrew tensed as something in his back locked up.

“....see, you're pretty much shot to shit right now, too,” I continued, “and this tablet really isn't gonna do a whole lot to change that....” I stood back up and nodded to Lucy, who reared back with her right fist. “So, because you've been lying to us all this time—”

“I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHO LINA IS!”

I turned to stare at Andrew, feeling more pissed off in that moment than I'd felt since Lina had been taken from Uncle Frank's shop. This idiot, low-sentience surfer dude airhead android prick, who'd barged into my room while Lina and I had been talking, didn't even know her.

Before I could even suggest it, Lucy punched the screen of the tablet.

“NO!” Andrew feebly reached out to stop her, but his arm locked up before he could grab the leg of her pants.

She punched the tablet again, and again, and again.....I could tell she didn't care that bits of it were flying past her and cutting her face (a few flew far enough to hit me, but I wasn't about to complain). She just kept punching the stupid thing until the screen cracked—and as that first spiderweb formed across the formerly flawless surface, she threw the tablet to the floor and stomped it, just inches away from Andrew's hands.

“No....you IDIOT—”

I angled a punch downwards, nailing Andrew in the side of the face and falling over him in the process. I pushed myself up off of him, getting a few free shots in, while Lucy went right back to stomping the Hell out of the tablet

Within...I'd say two minutes, the thing was utterly ruined.

“There.” Lucy kicked what was left of the tablet towards Andrew, nodding. “There's your stupid tablet. Happy?”

Andrew pulled himself towards the wrecked tablet, scooping up the bits in his hands. “....you...you broke it....”

“Yeah. She did.” I hauled Andrew up from where he tried to gather the pieces of the tablet. “And now, since you've pissed me off so damn much, I think I'm gonna break you.”

“You can't....you don't know how to fly the plane!”

Lucy scoffed. “Pretty sure 'Ivan' can fly it on his own. He'll—”

The hatch leading up from the cargo bay exploded, and both Lucy and I turned to see what Andrew was staring at.

BC-whatever, aka Ivan, aka I couldn't give less of a crap, was standing in the middle of the aisle, staring at the ruined tablet, then at Andrew. From what I could tell, he didn't even seem to notice that Lucy and I were there; sensing an opportunity, I let go of Andrew, and signaled to Lucy as I edged my way past him, past the prick with the mohawk. She did her best to follow me without brushing against him, and we both hurried to the far end of the aisle.

“Ivan....I, ah....I can explain....”

The big guy stalked towards Andrew, never saying a word.

I silently nodded to the curtained-off kitchen area. Lucy nodded and opened it; both of us proceeded to slip in as quietly as we could, just as Andrew started screaming.

The minute I stepped back down into the kitchen area, my phone went insane—FCon, yet again, was going nuts, with notices seeming to come from every single crate there.

“...this....might come in handy....”

Something made a really loud, really sudden clunk sound, and I nearly fell over—until I realized it was the lid of a crate hitting the floor. Another clunk followed, and another—the crates that had been on top when everything was stacked up were all opening! Slender, feminine arms reached out, and various voices stated that model so-and-so had just rebooted, or was online, or whatever....

“If none of these know anything about flying a plane,” Lucy muttered, “we're—”

“....this isn't John's place....” I turned around to see a curly-haired, blonde gynoid in a tight-fitting pink top sitting up in one of the crates. “....where...” She noticed me...well, noticing her. “....hi...”

“Hey.” I nodded, trying my best to look nonchalant. “Matt Harker.” I nodded to Lucy. “And Lucy Sievers.”

“...Mina West.” The blonde glanced at my phone. “....are you—”

Somewhere closer to the cockpit, something—probably Andrew—hit a wall and screamed.

“Not the reason you're here right now.” I went to help her out of the crate; she was dressed for what I can only assume was some kind of “sexy costume party”, looking a bit like a stripperized princess in pink and white. “Long story short, my girlfriend got abducted, and Lucy and I are trying to get her back. We're in a plane at the moment, and I have no idea when or where we're going to land, so—”

“A plane?” Mina echoed. “John got me a pilot programming suite as a gift last year!”

“....so you can fly this thing? I mean, it's a DC-10, not a Cessna or anything like that—”

“Got another one over here!” Lucy was helping someone else out of another crate—a pale, redheaded chick with a smattering of freckles and a green one-piece swimsuit and tights (I guess it was her “default outfit”, probably what she'd be wearing for shipping purposes). “You're the one who broke the tablet with Corona Ansata, right?”

“Technically, she was...” I nodded to Lucy. “I'm Matt Harker, she's Lucy Sievers.”

The Irish gynoid (her voice pretty much gave that away, if her looks hadn't done enough to ram the point home) shook Lucy's hand, then approached me and did the same. “SBN-QN-7953. Call me Siobhan.”

Lucy looked her over, nodding (and ignoring another scream from Andrew). “Where'd they grab you from?”

“Oh, I was on my way to another exhibition bout...took one detour to not have to stay at the AutoLodge, and the feckin' bus gets ambushed.” Siobhan rolled her eyes—just as something (again, probably Andrew) was slammed into the ceiling of the cabin. “Last thing I saw was some lunkhead with a mohawk, standin' over me with a pillowcase....”

“And then you rebooted in the galley of a plane,” Lucy finished.

Siobahn's eyes went wide. “....we're on a feckin' plane?!”

“Startup sequence complete.”

Lucy, Siobahn, Mina and I turned to glance at another crate; a tall, blonde chick, looking like nothing short of a Viking goddess in her white....it was kind of a toga, kind of a robe—anyway. She sat up in the crate, looking around. “This location is not my intended destination...”

“You're on a plane, luv,” Siobahn called out. “Looks like we've been taken for a bit of a flight.”

I made my way over to the crate, helping the blonde out. “I'm, ah, Matt...Matt Harker.”

“Is this plane yours?”

“.....it's my uncle's, but it's being used without his permission...a bunch of pricks are trying to run a smuggling—look, I'll explain later.” The blonde was out of the crate by now—and stood a good inch or two taller than me. “...and you are...”

“My standard name is Hera. My technical designation is—”

“Just the name, thanks...” I fished my phone out of my pocket—weirdly, Hera was already in Debug/Diagnostic mode, despite having been in a crate for the whole flight. “...do you, ah, have a standard human emulation mode?” Just as I was working out how to phrase the “reactivate human emulation mode” request that I'd hoped would get Hera out of her Debug/DIagnostic mode, another crate opened a few feet away

“Another one?” Lucy sidled over, regarding Hera with a frown. “Not as chatty as the first two we found in here, but that may not be her fault...” She arched an eyebrow. “Ah, Matt, is she...”

“Debug mode. Or Diagnostic. Can't figure out how to get her into human emulation mode...”

Siobahn strode over to the statuesque gynoid, parting her robe in the back. “I'll take a look...you help that one out of her crate, let her know what's up.”

“Got it.” I headed for the newly-opened crate—and had to firmly remind myself not to stare.

The gynoid inside was an even 5-feet tall (just guestimating from her prone position); her overall aesthetic was obviously Asian (facial features, skin tone, etc.), her figure was a healthy balance between athletic and cartoonish (mid-C cup, slim but still realistic midsection, toned hips, definite muscular definition in the limbs without going overboard), and her attire was barely there—a blue lingere set with stockings, heels and a few bits of jewelry.

I extended a hand to help her out, hoping she wouldn't think I was the prick who'd put her in the crate to begin with.

The Asian gynoid blinked a few times, the glow in her eyes fading. “....what...”

“Long in a short: you've been abducted, but not by me, we're both on a plane at cruising altitude and the big prick with the mohawk is with the assholes who took my girlfriend. I'm Matt.”

After a few seconds, the gynoid accepted my hand, easing herself out of the crate. “I'm Mai—”

“And I'm Lucy.” Lucy stepped up, shook Mai's hand and pointed out the others. “Peach, Siobahn and Hera.”

“...how'd you guess what my costume's supposed to be?”

“Your outfit does look kind of...Peach-y,” I admitted.

My remark was met with a shrug. “...well, John said it looked great, and it fit with my nickname—”

“Wait, he actually calls you Peach?”

“Can we get back to the point, please?!” Lucy groaned. “We're all in a plane, there's two android jerks in the cabin, and they're the ones who stole Lina and put all of you in here—”

A gasp cut her off; Hera had apparently finished booting into her human emulation mode, and she looked pissed.

“....I'm guessing you remember the androids Lucy just mentioned, ah, taking you...”

“I do indeed.” Hera's voice had a trace of an accent that instantly made me think of snow-capped peaks, fur-lined cloaks and mead halls. “One of them attempted to 'take' me in more ways than one....”

Siobahn made a face. “A bit too much information, luv.”

“So...we've all been stolen?” Mai asked; I could tell she was worried about her predicament, and for more reasons than BC-whatever swearing threats of grievous bodily harm against all of us.

“Pretty much—well, Matt here's lookin' for his girlfriend...” Siobahn jerked a thumb at me. “...and he's human, so...”

“And I'm the one who built his girlfriend,” Lucy clarified. “So I've got just as much riding on getting her back safe and sound as he does.”

I nodded. “The pricks who took all of you are the ones who took Lina from me...and they flat-out stole this plane—”

Another crate lid hit the floor with a thud, and a toned (and tanned) arm reached over the edge of the box. Within seconds, an athletic, tanned chick emerged from the crate, sporting tribal tats and wearing a sports bra, yoga shorts and an overall Hawaiian (with a hint of African) look to her. “....what is this?”

“Short version,” Lucy declared, “you got stolen by some pricks, and you're on a plane.”

Siobahn rolled her eyes. “A bit too short....” She regarded the just-activated gynoid. “You a fighter?”

“Bodyguard.” The new arrival took a few seconds to acclimate herself to her new surroundings. “He stole you, too?”

“He stole all of us,” Hera replied. “And his girlfriend.” She nodded to me, prompting the Hawaiian Amazon to regard me with an arched eyebrow.

“....hi. Matt Harker, my girlfriend got abducted by the ones who stole this plane..”

The Hawaiian chick, now fully out of the crate, touched her right fist to her left breast and did a ceremonial bow. “K0N4-3218. You can call me Kona.”

I nodded, gesturing to each of the other gynoids. “Peach, Siobahn, Hera and Mai—”

“And Lucy.” Lucy stepped forward, nodding. “I'm the one who built his girlfriend...and the ones who took her wanted me, initially, but...” She shrugged. “Basically, we're in a plane right now that's on autopilot....” A frown crossed her face, almost as if she'd just realized something.

“...what? Lucy, what's—”

“This is a DC-10, right?”

“.....yeah, but—”

“Peach, get to the cockpit—there'll be two androids in the cabin, a surfer dude and some prick with a mohawk, so try to not get their attention at all. Once you're in the cockpit, turn the autopilot off and figure out how to land this thing somewhere so we can offload the rest of the 'cargo' from here—”

Another scream from Andrew—followed by him being slammed into something else, cut her off.

“You want her to run through that?” Siobahn glared at Lucy. “If anything, let me and Kona go in there first, give her a bit of a buffer to get to the cockpit....come to think of it, how the Hell'd they even take us in the first place?”

“Corona Ansata. A debug program.” Lucy didn't look away. “I wrote it—and it's supposed to only be used in controlled environments like repair shops and maintenance centers, not by toolbags trying to run a two-bit smuggling operation or anything like that. The ones who took all of you stole Corona Ansata, too....believe me, I never had anything remotely resembling this in mind when I wrote it.”

After a few seconds, Siobahn nodded. “Hera, you're with me. Peach...let's try to get you to the cockpit.”

“But how do you—”

“I can tell in her eyes that she's not lyin'.” Siobahn glanced at Hera. “Let's get through that cabin, get Peach to the cockpit, and—”

Something hit the floor with a thud, prompting Siobahn and Hera to back away.

“If you three are gonna go out there, you might as well do it now. Andrew's getting stomped, and I have a feeling that bastard with the mohawk will be too busy kicking his ass to do anything against you.” I handed Siobahn the length of pipe. “I have no idea if this'll even do anything to him...”

“It's the thought that counts, innit?” Siobahn grinned. “You lot just stay back here, and once Peach is in the cockpit—”

“Why are we calling her Peach?” Mai cut in, somewhat confused.

Lucy rolled her eyes, and Siobahn walked over to drape an arm around the shorter gynoid's shoulder. “Look at her, and the outfit, then think of who else looks like that and has that name.”

“.....I don't—”

“Apparently, you're not into video games.” Siobahn sighed. “I'll explain later—”

Out in the cabin, Andrew was getting slammed something (either the wall or one of the seats), screaming “PLEASE!” between hits. “Right,” Siobahn declared, “like the man said—if we're gonna do this, it's gotta be now.” Peach and Hera nodded their agreement, and Lucy handed over the ball-peen hammer to Peach. “If you can get to the cockpit without any problems, I'm gonna want that back—OH, and one more thing. Use the radio to call Frank Holmwood..tell him who you are, that you're with Matt and me, and that you're trying to keep the plane on course to....” She shrugged again. “I dunno, just tell him you'll try to find somewhere safe for us to land.”

I nodded my agreement with her idea. “And keep us posted on stuff like turbulence, if at all possible.

Despite that rather substantial level of requests, Peach just nodded. “I'll do my best. Wish us luck!”

Siobahn counted to three on her fingers and flung open the curtain, rushing up into the cabin with Hera following close behind. Once they were in, Peach flashed a quick thumbs-up and ran up after them.

I only got a quick glimpse of BC-whatever and Andrew—they were on the left side of the aisle.

Well, I can only assume Andrew was, what with BC-whatever leaning over and probably crushing his throat in his bare hands. Seriously, the one thing on my mind at that moment was that if Andrew was human, he'd have been dead ten times over just from getting choked out by that prick with the mohawk.

Lucy pulled the curtains closed, looking only mildly pissed. “.....well, this is probably about to get really interesting....or really stupid.”

“Why did you tell Peach to get to the cockpit?” Mai asked, somewhat confused. “I thought someone was already—”

“When Matt and I got up there,” Lucy explained, her voice surprisingly calm given the circumstances, “Andrew had just run off to do his part in flying the plane—I'd thought that big prick with the mohawk was going to be at the controls, but...” She nodded to the massive crate. “Pretty sure Andrew used Corona Ansata to force him into that crate and get him out of the way. Andrew got the plane off the runway, then kept it on autopilot to come check the cargo hold hatch.”

“And that's when we started kicking his ass,” I finished. “Oh, and the Air Force nearly shot down the plane earlier.”

Mai and Kona looked horrified, but I kept talking. “Someone talked them out of it, and they got the official report from Simon Caine.” The abject fear Mai and Kona had shown was replaced with confusion, so I continued: “He's with the ALPA. Regional director, apparently....”

“Basically, we've got friends in high places.” Lucy rolled her eyes. “Anyway, we broke the tablet that Andrew used—”

On the other side of the curtain, something (hopefully, it was just Andrew) was thrown into a wall of crates.

“....we broke the tablet that prick used to control all of you and get you here,” Lucy continued, undeterred by the sudden interruption. “And that kinda sorta maybe freed the prick with the mohawk to get out of his crate, stomp up to the cabin and start kicking the scrap out of Andrew himself.”

“And we got in here,” I added, “to find you two, Peach, Siobahn and Hera all getting out of your crates, and...”

After a few seconds of glancing at each other, Mai and Kona nodded. “So what happens now?” Mai asked.

“....well, if all goes according to plan, Peach will be able to find a nice safe place for us to land, and we can get this plane back on the ground without any problems.” I sighed. “Hopefully.....”

My train of thought was momentarily derailed by the sudden and painful realization that, in the rush to get to up to the hangar, I hadn't put on any shoes. “.....okay, my feet are killing me right now.”

Lucy scowled. “We're in the galley of a DC-10, at cruising altitude, and you're worried about your feet?”

“Yeah, because my feet fucking hurt, okay?!” I took a moment to sit down, massaging the feeling back into both feet as best I could.

“You weren't complaining when you were kicking Andrew in the head earlier.”

“There's this thing called adrenaline. I was so focused on kicking his ass, I didn't really have an opportunity to stop and realize 'oh, my feet really hurt right now'.....” I grunted. “....and none of the others in these crates are male, since FCon is still going totally crazy with notices—”

The curtain separating the cabin from the galley opened, with Siobahn and Hera rushing down to meet us; Siobahn's left eye was rolling back of its own accord, but she just pushed it back into place with her finger. Hera, meanwhile, had only sustained clothing damage—her robe/dress/whatever had been ripped near the knees. “Peach's in the cockpit,” Siobahn declared, tossing the hammer back to Lucy. “That Andrew guy's taken a real beatin' up there.....”

“They didn't try to stop you three?”

“The bigger one paid us no heed,” Hera replied, “but Andrew....” She scowled, gesturing at her attire. “He tried to 'hitch a ride' with us—or at least me—to get back here.”

Lucy arched an eyebrow. “So the big lunkhead never even looked your way?”

“Not even a glance. He just kept beatin' on Andrew, throwin' 'im this way an' that.....” Siobahn scoffed. “Andrew tried to fight back, even....not that it did 'im any good.”

Hera nodded. “He is woefully outmatched compared to the bigger one.”

“BC.....oh, the Hell with his stupid number.” I shook my head, wincing again. “....did Peach say if she'd figured out where we can land this thing?”

“Not yet.” Siobahn frowned. “Somethin' wrong?”

“My feet hurt like Hell.” I closed my eyes, trying not to think about it. “I didn't even grab my shoes this morning...”

“Because we kinda sorta maybe had to get on the plane,” Lucy reminded me.

“I get that....” I sighed. “Siobahn.....think you can give me cover to get to the cockpit with Peach?”

“You were just complaining about your feet—”

“Landing the damn plane is more important than how badly my feet are hurt, Lucy.” I drew in a sharp breath. “If we're gonna get out of this alive, intact and all that good stuff, we need to figure out where we can land this thing, and how we can get there fast....unless any of you have any better ideas.”

Mai glanced around for a bit, then spoke up: “....maybe we could free some of the others in here?”

Siobahn shook her head. “Not gonna work. If they all get out of their crates, they're all gonna want to head out and take their seats...and as long as those two lunatics are beatin' the scrap outta each other—”

“But we activated and got out of our crates!” Mai countered. “Why can't we—”

“FCon says you five were the last ones put in before takeoff.” I held up my phone. “Probably by 'Ivan'/BC-whatever.”

Lucy nodded her agreement. “The others might've been packed up before they were loaded onto the plane—I'm pretty sure Andrew used Corona Ansata to shut you all off in the plane, which is why you reactivated after I broke the tablet he had it loaded on.”

“Makes sense to me,” Siobahn mused. “But back to the matter of Matt here wantin' to get to the cockpit....”

“Like I said, we need to find a place to land, since this plane can't just keep flying forever—”

Beyond the curtain, something splashed—followed right after by Andrew screaming for “Ivan” to let him go.

“.....and I'm pretty sure that's Andrew in the can, so...” I shrugged. “Better now than never, right?”

Siobahn stared at me for a full minute. “....if you get wrecked out there....”

“I'll be as quiet as possible. Hell, all you have to do is stand back and tell me if anyone's coming my way or not.”

After another minute or so, Siobahn nodded. “Just don't faff around up there.”

The two of us headed out into the cabin—lo and behold, Andrew was still getting a toilet bowl shower, meaning I had free run of the passenger aisle. I carefully made my way through the seats and around the crates, heading for the cockpit as quickly and quietly as I was able to. Under other circumstances, at another time, I might've winced at the sounds coming out of the bathroom—of course, Andrew was the prick who'd been responsible for Lina getting abducted. He was also an android, so he wasn't exactly drowning or anything like that....

He didn't even know who Lina was. She's just “inventory” to him.

It was that last thought that pretty much cemented my lack of sympathy for his situation. I knocked on the cockpit door three times and announced my presence to Peach: “It's Matt. Any chance you can open the door?”

“Matt? Hang on....”

A few seconds later, there was a loud, heavy click, and the door opened. “Thanks...” I headed into the cockpit and sat down next to Peach, taking a moment to collect my thoughts. “So, ah....what's the current situation?”

Back down the aisle, something shattered.

“....well, I was able to get Frank Holmwood on the radio,” Peach explained. “I told him everything you'd asked me to, and he suggested that we head northeast to try and find a good landing site.”

I nodded. “...and what possible landing sites could we possibly get to?”

“Judging from our current position, airspeed....” Peach blew a few strands of hair out of her eyes. “I think our best bet is to land at Portsmouth International Airport—and if we can't make the civilian side, then our safest bet would be to head for Pease Air Force Base.”

“And they'd actually let us land there?”

“Just let me contact them first...”

Something else in the bathroom exploded, and I could hear what sounded like an electrical device going haywire. “I, ah, don't think we've got a whole Hell of a lot of time....”

“Then you'll want to get back to the galley and tell the others where we'll be landing...uh oh.”

“What uh-oh?”

Peach didn't look away from the dials, gauges and other instruments of the control panel. “We're going to hit turbulence in a few minutes, Matt.”

“I'll figure something out. Just keep us level, and hopefully we can get through it without any problems.”

Again, without looking away from the controls, Peach nodded.

I left the cockpit, waiting to make sure Peach shut the door behind me before I headed back through the cabin to the galley. Just before I made it, the door of the bathroom flew off the hinges and hit the wall—with Andrew crumpled against it. Since I didn't feel like getting killed by BC-whatever for waiting around, I ducked back into the galley ASAP, pulling the curtain closed behind me.

“I'm hopin' that noise wasn't your fault,” Siobahn mused.

“The bathroom door got knocked off.” I headed for the big crate. “Also, Peach told me we're about to hit turbulence, so all of you might want to find something to hang onto.”

“And how're you gonna deal with it—”

“I'm getting in this crate and closing the lid. Lucy, Hera....once I'm in, come sit on the lid and do your best to hold it down so I don't go flying out.” The “tray” inside the crate hadn't exactly been sized for someone with my own proportions, but I did the best I could to get in and hold onto the sides.

I'd barely had time to close the lid before the turbulence hit—thankfully, the interior of the big crate was padded enough to keep me from bashing my face against metal or anything worse. Lucy's muttering and Hera's quiet....I couldn't tell if she was chanting some kind of mantra or flat-out praying, but whatever the case, it was the only hint I had she and Lucy were in fact sitting on the crate to keep the lid from flying open.

After a few minutes of hoping the padding in the crate wasn't worn too thin where my face kept hitting it, the shaking came to an end. “....you two can get off the crate now.... “

Lucy and Hera lifted the lid of the crate—just as something hit the wall just outside the galley.

Seconds later, Andrew fell through the curtian and hit the floor. “P-p-p-please, Ivan, I just...I wanted to...”

I gestured frantically for the gynoids to back off and hide amongst the crates, just as that android prick with the mohawk strode into the galley.

“You really think I give a damn what you wanted, Sommers?” He walked right up to Andrew, smirked, and backhanded him to the floor. “You read my file...knew I didn't like being controlled....and you did it anyway. Put me on a leash when you could've just paid me for the same thing....either you're really cheap, or just really stupid.”

“Ivan-an-an-an....just let me-me-me-me-me—”

“You controlled me. Used me like one of your drones....and don't even tell me you weren't going to sell me off after this was all over with.” BC-whatever grabbed Andrew by the leg and threw him across the galley. “I would've expected this kind of crap from a meatbag, but not from you....” Even Lucy couldn't help but wince as Andrew slammed into the big crate by the now-ruined cargo hold hatch, practically vibrating as he tried to sit up.

Andrew was trying to talk, over by the big crate, but it was pretty obvious that his systems were failing.

“I've been looking forward to this,” BC-whatever stated. “Ever since you pointed that tablet at me...”

“You....you don't-don't-don't-don't-don't—”

“You could've let me off the leash, like you did when Singleton nearly blew the whistle on us..I wouldn't have even asked for a big cut of the profits. 15%, maybe.....” BC-whatever shook his head. “A bit too late for that.”

“Just let-let-let-let me-me-me-me-me—”

“Shut up.” BC-whatever glared down at Andrew. “I'm going to enjoy this....”

“PLEASE.....just-just-just-ju—” Andrew's head kinked to the side, and something in his neck sheared off.

“....the Hell with it.” BC-whatever grabbed him in a one-handed choke to bring him to his feet.

“....you...you don't understand, I was.....I was just doing what she told me to do!”

“Then she's next.”

The mohawked prick smirked, letting go of Andrew's neck....only to wrap both his hands around his head. As Lucy and I watched, horrified, BC-whatever crushed the surfer guy android's head like a tin can, his screams of protest basically fading into gibberish in a matter of seconds. Once they cut out entirely, BC-whatever threw Andrew's useless body to the floor....

...and then, finally, he turned to look at Siobahn, Hera, Mai, Lucy and—of course, me.

“Matt....” Lucy's grip tightened on the ball-peen hammer.

“....so. You two broke the tablet.” BC-whatever strode towards Lucy and me, nodding; he either didn't notice the others forming a semi-circle around him, or didn't really consider them a problem. “I could thank you....”

A wicked smirk formed on his lips. “....personally, I'd rather kill you.”

Part 9

The first time I'd ever seen Lina—on her phone, in front of the towel cabinet in the bathroom—I had no idea that I was going to end up circling in the galley of an airborne DC-10, staring down a smirking, 6'4” android with a mohawk and more muscles than effing He-Man who'd just told me he wanted to kill me—all just to get her back.

Almost a week after the fact.....well, that's pretty much exactly where I was.

“Too scared to say anything, meatbag?”

The android, BC—oh, the Hell with mentioning his number. BC-whatever stared me down, almost waiting for me to do attack him or do something equally stupid. Seeing as how he'd damn near killed me with a single punch already, I wasn't going to fall for it. Even as I tried to stall for time, I knew that I'd get killed if I went through with the idea of running past him and going for the length of pipe that I'd nailed Andrew in the shoulder with earlier....

“I asked you a question, meatbag.”

BC-whatever was ignoring the others—Siobhan, Hera, Mai and Kona—to taunt me again, so I decided to throw some shade of my own. “I heard you the first time, Tin Man—and I'm not scared of you.”

“So you're either really brave or really stupid....doesn't make a difference to me.”

“Well maybe it should.” I took a step forward, cracking my knuckles for good measure. “This ends now.”

BC-whatever chuckled. “...you really want to throw hands with me?”

“What I want, right now, is to kick your ass. Whatever Andrew started—”

“Andrew was just the bodyguard,” BC-whatever sneered. “Barely enough processing power to match a calculator, and probably just as sentient as one....not that it'll matter to you in a few minutes. You've got an appointment with gravity and the Grim Reaper.” The smirk returned to his face as he finally regarded the others in the galley. “...and when I'm finished with him, I'll—”

“You're not gonna do a DAMN thing to them.” I took another step forward. “This is between you and me.”

“So you are stupid.” The Titanic Tin Twit (I could picture Lina giggling at the name) chuckled. “Probably dumber than that idiot Andrew...”

“And I'm guessing you're packing some kind of supercomputer up there in that thick skull of yours?”

“What I'm running is a lot better than that useless bunch of muscle you call a brain. By the time I'm finished with you, they'll have to hose what's left of you off the walls with a pressure washer.”

“....yeah, well, it could be worse.” I shrugged. “At least I'm not about to kiss the floor.”

The mohawked maniac glared at me, probably thinking I was just trying to piss him off, and took two steps forward—a convenient move, on my part, since he had his legs kicked out from under him right after that second step. True to my “prediction”, he did, indeed, end up kissing the floor, muttering profanities and swearing unholy vengeance against me as he clawed his way to a half-sitting pose on the floor.

“I thought he'd never shut up.” Siobhan shook her head, grinning as BC-whatever nearly fell on his face again. “Nice stallin' there, Matt.”

“Thanks. Nice save with the kick—”

Someone yelled something and ran past me—lo and behold, it was Hera, smashing lefts and rights into BC-whatever's back as he tried to get up. “You thought you would take me, did you?!” She planted a kick to his abs that would've left him flat on his back if he'd been human...unfortunately, all it did was piss him off. When she went for another kick, he grabbed her by the leg and threw her against the wall—something in her thigh (a few somethings, really) broke, but for whatever reason, her leg still stayed on.

As Muscles For Brains (I couldn't stop thinking of Lina coming up with goofy-ass names for this guy) turned to glare at Siobhan, Mai and Kona, I realized that I'd lost sight of Lucy—which was probably a good thing on her part, since the Metal Moron was trying to football-tackle Siobhan. I decided to head back through the curtain to tell Peach—

--and nearly got a face full of Lucy's ass as I went through in a half-crouch. “Ah, Lucy, whatever you do, don't back up.”

“You can stand, y'know. “

I did, as Lucy turned to face me—which is about when I noticed that she'd somehow appropriated my phone. “If you'd asked me for it....”

“No time.” Just as quickly as she'd faced me, Lucy turned away, aiming the phone at the crates stacked in the cabin. “I can't tell if Lina's in any of these....either her signal's being blocked, or the stupid crates are too thick—” She didn't flinch when something hit a wall in the galley. “...having fun back there?”

“....how'd you even get out of the room without—”

“Call it luck if you want.” Lucy was still focused on scanning the crates. “If they put her in the damn cargo hold—”

Her complaint was cut off by Siobhan—sans an arm—flying past and hitting one of the seats. “That prick....” She turned to look at the sparking wires and jagged metal where her left arm had been. “Took the whole feckin' arm off!”

“Please tell me you got in a few good hits before he did...”

My question prompted a smirk from Siobhan (which looked a bit weird when her right eye decided to drift sideways of its own volition). “Nailed 'im right between the pecs with a kick...knocked 'im flat on his arse.”

“And he took your arm off for that?”

“Explain later,” Lucy cut in. “Think you can open these crates with just one arm?”

Siobhan frowned. “I'd kinda like to get my other arm back, if it's all the same to—to—to—” Her head ticked to the side with each utterance of the word “to” before the loop broke. “Oh, for fook's sake....” A groan—and a thin plume of white smoke—left her lips.

“....ah, Siobhan...” I nodded at the wispy trail. “You've, ah....”

My words trailed off when I noticed that the missing arm wasn't the only damage she'd suffered. Apparently, the idiot with the mohawk had managed to punch her in the stomach hard enough to break the fabric of her uniform and the skin beneath; a few wires were poking out, and various, brightly-colored fluids were staining her onesie.

“....damn it....” Siobhan's sigh went staticky at the end, and she nearly fell onto Lucy.

My arm was around her shoulder in an instant, and I helped her to a seat. “Try to get the seatbelt on her so she won't go flying,” I suggested. “I have a feeling things are about to get pretty insane in there...” I glanced back over my shoulder; the curtain parted just enough for me to see Hera smashing the Iron Asshat over the head with a crate lid.

“I gotta get back in there...” I jerked a thumb at the curtain. “Try to get her stabilized—”

A stuttering, skipping laugh left Siobhan's lips. “I'm already-ready-ready—” She jerked back in her seat, a grimace on her lips. “....okay, maybe I'm not-not-not-not as stable as I thought,” she admitted, sighing. “Just go-go-go-go back there and kick some arse, Matt-att-att-att—” Her head racheted to the right, and something in her left ear popped.

“Just sit tight,” Lucy advised. “Matt, do like she said and kick ass.”

I nodded, glancing past her to spy the length of pipe. “Just give me a second to re-arm, and I will.” I could hear Siobhan groan at my choice of words, and muttered a quick “sorry” as I headed for the length of pipe. Once I had it, I turned to head back into the galley, giving Siobhan a nod. “Just sit tight....hopefully, this won't take long.”

Another pop sounded—this time, from her right ear—but she managed a nod.

I ducked through the curtain into the galley just in time to see Kona wrapping one of her arms around BC-whatever's neck from behind. “Son of a....” He tried to swing backwards to hit her and break out of the chokehold, only to have his legs kicked out from under him again. “We can't keep fighting him in here,” she stated, barely acknowledging that I'd entered the room. “We need to restrain him, get him back in his crate....”

I just stared at Doll-ph Lundgren's downed form. “I don't think we can restrain him, Kona.”

“Then what would you suggest?” Hera's question was punctuated by an angry rizz from her damaged leg. “I sincerely hope your plans for him have nothing to do with his 'plans' for me....I have no intention of subduing him that way!”

“Nothing of the sort.” I smirked. “He said I had an appointment with gravity and the Grim Reaper....”

Hera, Kona and Mai all realized what I intended to do with him at that moment.

Unfortunately, Iron Strongman had other ideas.

Before any of the three could comment on my plans to kick Bore Machine out of the plane, he grabbed Mai by the waist as he got up. I would've thrown the pipe at him, javelin-style, except he decided to lawn-dart Mai at me. I ducked, but Mai flew past me through the curtain—I could tell she'd hit a crate. “M-m-m-matt? I think I-I-I-I-I—Error—”

“Lucy?!”

“Her head's on backwards, Matt! She's not gonna be doing any fighting any time soon!”

Something rizzed in response to Lucy's remarks. “I can-I can-I can I-I-I-I-Error—internal structural integ-teg-tegrity has been com-com-com-com-com—”

“Just stay still and let me get you buckled into a seat, okay?”

A shout from a few feet away cut me off—Hera had gone to kick the Hulk of Scrap again, but he'd grabbed her damaged leg and kicked it out from under her. “I cannot continue in this state....Matthew, you have to—”

“Shut up.” BC-whatever wrapped his hands around her head, just like he'd done with Andrew.

I may have yelled something, or I may have just run forward...whatever the case, I threw that length of pipe at the Iron Jackass. Hera must've heard my footsteps, seeing as how she ducked (actually, she kind of fell sideways)....

….and the pipe went right through BC-whatever's chest. If he'd been next to a wall, it probably would've pinned him.

There are a lot of times in life when you feel like you're on the verge of victory—whether it's on a football field, or a baseball diamond, or even at your job. You can see the end in sight, the finish line getting closer with each step, and you know it's just a few seconds away from the oh-so-glorious win...but then something goes tits-up and your “inevitable” victory falls apart. Sometimes it something convoluted, other times, it's something simple.

Like, say, a cargo bay door that was forced shut and improperly locked, which then shears off at cruising altitude.

All I heard at first was a “BANG”, and I thought for a second that Mai or Siobhan had succumbed to some catastrophic system failure or something. I stopped thinking that when the floor of the galley collapsed—Kona, Hera, the Mohawked Maniac and I were left scrabbling for a hold on the floor, trying to claw our way back through the curtain.

Kona, unfortunately, didn't make it—she went sliding across the floor of the cargo bay and straight out the door.

Hera fared a little better, thanks to finding handholds along the walls where various appliances and such had been at one point. Even with her damaged leg whirring and rizzing at every step, she managed to get to the curtain, fling herself through and maneuver to a seat so she wouldn't get thrown out.

Of course, this meant that I was the only one left to take down Mohawk'n'Muscles.

“....I swear, every one of you meatbags has some kind of damn stupid hero complex...” The android prick—apparently not as incapacitated by the pipe through the chest as I would've hoped—chuckled, the sound aubible even over the rushing air in the cargo hold. “...makes my job so much easier.” He cracked his knuckles—I could tell he wanted nothing more than to put his fist through my head. “And just for the record, you and your sexbot would still be together—”

“Lina's NOT a sexbot, you asshole! She's my girlfriend.”

“Is that right....well, she'd still be with you if that Sievers bitch would've just given herself up—”

The plane shook, and both of us lost our footing....and then it shook again.

Somehwhere above, the intercom kicked on. “You might want to brace yourselves—we've hit some turbulence!”

As soon as Peach mentioned turbulence, I groaned. “Oh, fu—”

I've never been a fan of trampolines, bounce houses or anything that sends can send you into the air (or the ceiling, or the walls) without adequate warning. Before I jumped on that DC-10, I'd only ever been on a plane twice, and in both cases, the turbulence was only slightly annoying. This time....yeah, “only slightly annoying” was just wishful thinking. As it was, I got thrown into a crate, so I had a bit of the wind knocked out of me.

Mr. Muscles, on the other hand, bounced off the ceiling (or at least rebounded) into a crate....perilously close to the blown-open cargo bay door.

“Everyone okay back there?”

Peach's voice barely registered over the mayhem in the cargo bay. “I'm good...Mai, Hera and Siobhan got damaged. I, ah, think Kona got sucked out the door—”

“The cargo bay door? The controls up here have been going crazy for the last few minutes—something about 'inability to equalize pressure...there's also a notice up here about 'pressurization equilibrium ventilation system not installed....Matt, you need to get out of the cargo bay!”

“....a little late for that, Peach....”

“HEY!”

The Cyberdouche was back on his feet, glaring at me. “If you two are done with the talking, and the muttering, and the planning that's not even gonna get you anywhere...”

“The plane's depressurized, you asshole! We need to level out, or—”

“Or you're gonna find it really hard to keep those worthless lungs of yours going—”

The plane shook again, and I hit the floor—and this time, it was a lot worse than having the wind knocked out of me. I was finding it pretty damn hard to keep breathing; the ruined floor of the galley made for some good handholds to get back up to the cabin, but it was going to take a Hell of an effort to get there. I tried to pull myself along the rivets and small indentations in the floor, to get closer—hoping against hope that any crates sliding past wouldn't hit me...

“GET BACK HERE, MEATBAG!'

The mohawked bastard was still there—but he wasn't exactly no-selling this. I could hear what sounded like metal and glass hitting skin—except I wasn't feeling it. “YOU THINK WE'RE DONE?! YOU THINK I'M JUST GONNA LET YOU CRAWL AWAY LIKE A BITCH?!”

I didn't answer. I was too busy trying to get back to the cabin.

“LOOK AT ME, MEATBAG! LOOK AT ME!”

I managed to turn just enough to see Mr. Arm-and-Hammer taking slow, heavy steps—every time his foot hit the floor of the cargo bay, a metallic clunk rang out—or would've, had it not been for the rushing wind and overall feelings of lightheadedness that were beginning to settle in. In another time, I might've...no, I would've panicked, frozen up and not been able to keep going, all the better for the idiot with the mohawk to wipe the floor with me. I closed my eyes, trying to drown out the rushing of air, Lucy's screaming at me to keep going... I wanted—I needed to focus, to just move a few more feet, to get to the cabin....

...and at that moment, on the precipice between survival and getting flung out of the busted cargo bay.....I saw.

I don't know if it was a dream, a hallucination or just a really powerful memory of when I'd first talked to her when she'd had her human emulation mode activated, but I could see Lina, sitting next to me on my bed, smiling at me.

That moment—that one brief, shining moment—was all I needed to keep going.

One hand-hold after another, I pulled myself closer to the cabin—and to Lucy's outstretched hands.

“C'mon, Matt....Lina'll never forgive me if I let you get sucked out the cargo bay door.”

I took hold of her hands, and she pulled me back into the cabin. “....thanks.”

“No problem....well, not with me.” Lucy nodded past me, at the jacked-up android...who was, of course still there.

And now, he was even more pissed off.

My gaze drifted back to Siobhan, Hera and Mai strapped into their seats. I'd barely gotten to know them, but I did know that they'd all been swiped by the same asshats who'd taken Lina. If someone didn't end this, and soon....

“Lucy, tell Peach to put the plane into a climb—”

“I just helped you back into the cabin, Matt! I'm not going to—”

“I'm not letting you get wrecked by Ivan Cagematch over there. He already wants to kill me—”

“And if you go back down there, he WILL!”

“....I can do this.” Despite feeling like I was about to pass out, I stared down BC-whatever with as much defiance as I could muster up. “....just go. Tell Peach to put the plane into a climb...”

Lucy shook her head. “You're crazy, you know that?”

“I prefer to see it as thinking differently.”

At this, Lucy actually laughed, gave me a brief hug, and ran for the cockpit. I didn't watch her leave—that whack job with the mohawk was still glaring at me, and I didn't want to take my eyes off of him for one second.

“MEATBAG......we've got unfinished business!” Parts of his face were peeling away where the shrapnel had hit, making him look like a dollar-store Terminator. “And you've only got twenty minutes of air left...if I don't throw your worthless ass out of the plane before then.”

“I'm not leaving this plane until it's back on the ground.” I jumped back down into the cargo bay, ignoring the pain in my feet. “You, on the other hand....”

“You think you can kick me out of here?”

“You don't know a damn thing about what I'm thinking...but I know that I can get a lot done in twenty minutes.”

“You really think you can last that long?!” BC-whatever took a step towards me, sneering. “You're nothing. Just some rando who was in the wrong place at the wrong time...a real nobody. That blonde bitch of yours...she was just a consolation prize. They were after the one who made her—and they would've taken her stupid ass if your sexbot hadn't been in the way....if it'd been me out there, instead of those two useless bricks, I'd have had some fun—”

I barely paid any attention to him. It was still hurting to breathe....for a few minutes, at least, until I got the feeling that we'd changed elevation to the point where the whole “depressurized cabin” issue wasn't a problem anymore. I could only guess that Lucy had figured out we needed to go lower, not higher, in order to keep me alive...I made a mental note to thank her later, even as that idiot with the mohawk kept ranting at me.

Somewhere behind him, the crates began to shift.

“....as it is, I get to stomp you like the bug you are, and once this plane is on the ground, the real fun starts—”

Whatever the Iron Douchebag was going to say next, a crate flew through the curtain and smacked him in the face.

“Do us a favor, pal,” Lucy shouted, “and SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

Even as Musclehead Prime reeled from getting hit by the crate, I could tell Peach was following my earlier advice and putting the into the DC-10 into a climb—anything that wasn't tied down was hitting that mohawked prick, hard (or flying past him and out the open cargo bay door). Every impact sent him staggering closer to the door; he tried to take a few steps forward, still glaring at me, but a crate lid nailed him in the right knee. I could hear something shearing off when it hit, but he didn't fall. Lucy was doing her part by throwing stuff at him, too—screaming insults all the while.

A thought—well, a plan—had formed in my mind. It was insane, and had a high probability of failure....

….but, on the off chance that it actually worked, then this prick, this psycho android bastard, wouldn't be stealing any sentient androids or gynoids ever again.

“I'LL TEAR YOUR ARMS OFF!” Iron Broly kept trying to charge back towards the cabin, but every hit sent him staggering back. “YOU THROW ONE MORE THING AT ME, AND—” His threat got cut off by something hitting the pipe still jutting out from his chest—that impact, in particular, took a lot out of him, and he actually stayed quiet for a full minute as whatever internal equilibrium-maintenance systems he had running tried to keep him on his feet.

I grabbed a metal crate that was about the same size as a shoe box, holding it in front of me as I ran.

“....damn it.....stupid bitch....” Ivan Jackoff was still recovering from his last hit. “....I'll tear her apart—”

I let loose a roar and threw the metal crate at him—it slammed into the pipe, driving it further into his chest.

“You're wrong.” I clenched my fists, staring at Lameiac as I strode towards him. “Lina's not a sexbot, she's not a 'bitch', and she sure as shit isn't your 'consolation prize'! And 'the one who made her' is a damn sight smarter than you, your stupid bodyguard and your lame-ass drones....”

I actually growled at the prick. “....and I'm not a nobody.”

Vlad the Impaled was trying—and failing—to pull the pipe out of his chest. “The Hell did you just say—”

“I SAID I'M NOT A NOBODY, YOU WALKING PILE OF SCRAP! YOU WANNA KNOW WHO I AM?!”

Before the bastard could even think to respond, I ran at him. Full tilt. “I'M MATT HARKER!”

I'll admit, right now, that my brilliant idea had a bit of a fault—for me to pull off what I wanted to do, I had to run at the bastard, take a flying leap and dropkick the pipe further into his chest. Now, I actually managed to pull this off....except that, in the heat of the moment, I'd forgotten the small matter of my feet hurting like Hell, and the whole “dropkick the pipe further into him” thing made them hurt even worse....but thanks to a healthy surge of adrenaline and testosterone at the exact right moment, the end result was the same. The impact of me kicking the pipe further in did the trick, knocking him off his feet to such a degree that he couldn't recover, and—in the parlance of our times—he pretty much got yeeted out the cargo bay door, screaming all the while.

I hit the floor, feeling both invigorated and in extreme pain. I managed to grab onto the floor and start pulling myself back towards the cabin, back into Lucy's waiting embrace.

“Like I said,” she mused, “you're crazy.”

“Yeah, well.....” I could barely get a chuckle out. “My feet hurt....”

“You're bleeding all over the damn cabin...what'd you do to him?”

“Ran....dropkicked the pipe....into his chest...” I chuckled again. “He's gone, Lucy.”

“...you dropkicked the pipe?!”

“It worked, didn't it?”

Lucy shook her head. “Wow.” She gave me a brief kiss on the forehead. “I really know how to pick 'em, don't I?”

She glanced back at the cockpit door. “PEACH! What's our status?”

“....is everything okay back there?”

“Matt just kicked that prick with the mohawk out of the plane. Everything good up there?”

“....well, we're heading in for a landing at Portsmouth International Airport.”

“Civilian side, or military?”

“Civilian. Frank was just on the radio—he said they have the full story. It'll take us....twenty minutes or so to lose altitude before we can land!”

“.....fine by me.” I chuckled again, resting my head against Lucy's knees and doing my best to not pass out.

By the time the plane landed at Portsmouth International, I'd recovered enough to stand on my own (though my feet still hurt like Hell). Mai and Siobhan had gone into standby, to keep from draining their power cells; Hera was able to leave the plane on her own, and get to what I later found out was a Mobile Repair Center to get her leg fixed. Some of the attendants from the MRC went into the plane, after she left, to retrieve Mai and Siobhan (and Siobhan's arm). There were cop cars and unmarked vehicles (Lucy said most, if not all, of those were from the ALPA) all over the place, and crews of people carrying the crates that had been dropped out of the plane.

And speaking of things that had flown out of the plane....

“....is that Kona?”

I had to shield my eyes with my hand as Lucy and I left the plane. “....what?”

“Up there, clinging to the edge of that big freaking hole—well, they're helping her down....” Lucy nodded at the cherry picker that was positioned under the gaping hole aft of the left wing; sure enough, Kona was being helped down by a pair of firefighters. She saw Lucy and me watching, at one point, and flashed a quick thumbs-up in our direction.

“....she held onto that edge the whole time we were up there?!”

“It's better than the alternative,” Lucy reminded me. “Anyway...once all the crates are sorted, we can look for Lina.”

“And then get the Hell out of here.” I sighed. “....any chance you can get someone to bring me some foot balm?”

It took....half an hour, or so, to get all the crates tagged for sorting; another ALPA crew had been tracking the flight path of the DC-10 while it was still in the air, and had been recovering the crates that had fallen out of the cargo bay door during the flight. Turns out Uncle Frank, Ashwyn, Millie, Fenton and Dani had been riding with that group—and were still riding with them when they pulled up at the airport.

“MATT!” Uncle Frank nearly fell on his face getting out of one of the trucks, but he recovered quickly enough.

“...yeah.” I grinned. “Everyone, ah, okay down—”

My question was cut off when Uncle Frank wrapped me in a hug. “Oh, Matt, that Peach girl from the plane told us all what happened, on the radio....” He ran his hand through my hair, either sobbing or laughing with relief. “When I heard the cargo door blow off....” He pulled back, staring at me with awe. “...I thought you'd get sucked out! “

“Well...” I shrugged. “I didn't...”

Uncle Frank just grinned and hugged me again. “Glad to see you with both feet on the ground again, Matt.”

“Believe me, I'm glad to be back on the ground...even if my feet aren't.” I broke the embrace, glancing at Millie and Ashwyn. “And what have you two been up to?”

“Trackin' the crates that fell outta the plane,” Millie replied, sashaying over to get a good look at me (it amazed me that she was still sashaying instead of just walking). “We almost thought Ashwyn had blown a fuse or two when she jumped on the wing'o'that plane with you and Lucy...”

Ashwyn stuck her tongue out at Millie.

“Now, now, you two,” Uncle Frank admonished. “Let's not ruin the moment with petty squabbling....”

“Frank's right.” Lucy nodded her agreement. “We need to get back on the plane and find Lina—if she's not in any of the crates that fell out....”

Her musings trailed off, and even Ashwyn winced....but I stayed calm. “You were with the groups that checked those crates, Uncle Frank. Did they say anything about opening them, or seeing who was in the ones that ended up going out through the busted cargo bay door?”

“....well, we can go ask 'em now....”

A quick jaunt over to the far side of the airfield led us to find out—to my immediate relief—that Lina hadn't been in any of the crates that had been sucked out through the cargo bay door after it blew. Of course, this also meant that we had to go through the crates still on the plane, which was going to be an ordeal all its own....

“We'll find her, Matt.” Fenton rested a hand on my shoulder.

I nodded. “I really hope you're right...”

Despite the fact that the galley and parts of the interior behind it had been utterly shredded, the plane was still safe to walk around in. Granted, the first thing everyone saw was Andrew's body getting carried out by some techs—apparently, after getting Fatalitied by RoboDouche, his remains had been wedged between a crate and what was left of a fryer. Even Millie had to look away from where the prick with the mohawk had crushed his head like a can. Uncle Frank, meanwhile, didn't seem all that concerned—Hell, he was talking to one of the techs as they made their way past us about salvaging Andrew's memory, which I found...a bit unlikely.

“Matt!” I turned to see Lucy regarding me with a frown. “The crates aren't gonna open themselves, y'know...”

I sighed and rolled up my sleeves. “Give me a minute....”

The question of “how secure are these things?” never came up, mainly because none of the crates needed anything like a thumbprint or a retinal scan to open. Most of them had standard locks, but a few needed some kind of tubular keys or some other weird key type that we didn't have; for those, Millie pretty much crushed the locks with one hand.

Fifteen crates in, and there was no sign of Lina. There were still loads on the plane, of course—about thirty or so.

The brief thought occurred to me that I might have to open all thirty of them to find Lina—which, after having gone through the Hell of losing her, twice, I was more than willing to do. I'd nearly had my chest caved in, and had been in a fist fight on the plane (including while it was depressurizing), just to get her back...I sure as Hell wasn't going to stop just because there were a few too many crates to open. I barely felt my fingers work at the locks on one crate, then another, then two more....

….but on the fifth, the lid opened......and there she was, looking as beautiful as I'd remembered her.

“Guys.......guys!” I was smiling, laughing and crying all at once—didn't really give a damn, at that point. “I found her!”

Uncle Frank, Lucy, Fenton, Dani, Millie and Ashwyn all ran to meet me as I stood over the crate, with congratulations and back-slapping all around. Lucy leaned in, to try and lift her out of the crate, only to find there were cables running from something deeper inside it to Lina—of course, before she could mention this, I had my finger behind Lina's right ear, pressing down just like at the warehouse complex.....

...but this time, her eyes didn't open. There were no beeps, no blank stares....nothing.

My smile pretty much evaporated. “......Lina?”

I pressed down again—I knew it was the right spot—and waited.......nothing.

“.....no.” I withdrew my finger, swallowing. “.....there's got to be....” Without waiting for anyone else to offer their own suggestions, I reached in again, pressed the bump behind her ear and held it.....nothing.

The mutterings of congratulation behind me had already faded out. Nobody said a word.

“.....c'mon......” I pressed again, held down my finger.....nothing. “Come on.....” Pressed again, held down....

“....Matt.....” Uncle Frank was using his “wise tone” again—no trace of his usual demeanor. “Maybe we need to—”

“COME ON!” I nearly bruised my finger, with how hard I jammed it against that bump. I didn't care that there were tears streaming down my cheeks, or that my face felt like a Lean Cuisine fresh out of the microwave—all I needed, at that moment, were for Lina's eyes to open, for her to stare straight up for a few minutes......

They stayed closed.

“.....Lina....” I pressed the bump again, resting my head against her chest to listen for the sounds of her internals spinning up, or anything.....silence.

I don't know who was surprised more at the fact that I didn't start swearing right then and there—everyone standing behind me, or me. I'd lost count of the number of times I'd pressed the bump behind Lina's ear, waiting for her eyes to open as she went through her reactivation cycle....I tried one more time, almost begging her to boot up....

….nothing. No sound, no movement. She was as still as a corpse.

I buried my head against her chest, sobbing. After everything I'd gone through to get her back.....

“Matt.”

The voice that spoke my name wasn't anyone standing behind me—it was the voice of that blonde who I'd seen so many times at the ALPA building....and, as I turned to see her standing in the door leading from the cabin to what had been the galley, I realized she looked a lot like that pink, purple and silver figure I'd spotted flying alongside the DC-10 when Andrew was trying to bust into the cockpit. The way the light played off her, she actually did look silver as she approached; by the time she was standing with us, she looked...normal, pretty much. “She's not gone, Matt.”

“He's tried to turn her on ten times already,” Lucy spat—her voice sounded as distraught as I felt.

“And did you think to disconnect her from the cables hooked up to her from something deeper in the crate?”

Lucy's anger vanished in an instant. “I....no....”

The blonde approached, gently resting her hand on Lucy's shoulder as she looked down into the crate. “A few of the others in crates that fell out of the plane mid-flight were hooked up in theirs,” she explained. “Regional Director Caine decided we should take them back to the lab at HQ now, to see if we can figure out how to remove them without causing any kind of damage to their systems.” She knelt by me, her eyes seeming to almost gleam silver even in the low light; I couldn't tell if it was some kind of a hallucination brought on by extreme grief, or something else. “....if you want Lina to be on the next truck back to the lab....”

“Yes.” I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “And.....”

“There are benches in the backs of the transport trucks. You won't have to leave her side until we get her back to the lab.” The blonde offered me a sympathetic smile; again, the play of the low light across her features seemed to make her skin turn silver, if only for a brief moment. “You haven't lost her yet, Matt.”

“....thanks....” I nodded. “I just......” A chuckle, of all things, emerged from my lips. “You looked silver, just now...”

The blonde just smiled and stood up, regarding the others. “I'll call ahead to have them clear out the lab before you get there, so there won't be any interruptions. We have enough space in the transport for all of you to ride with Matt and Lina on the drive back to the lab, if you want...”

Nobody turned down the invitation—Millie, Ashwyn, Lucy and Dani all helped carry the crate, even. Uncle Frank and Fenton followed close behind while I kept pace. It felt way too much like a funeral procession for my liking.

By the time we were situated in the back of the transport, I'd reached into the crate to take hold of Lina's hand. I had no idea if she could hear me or not, but I just kept brushing her hand with mine, whispering “just hang in there, Lina, just keep hanging in there for me, please....” Nobody else in the back of the transport said a word—all of them were either watching me, or looking at the crate, hoping that Lina could, in fact, still be saved.

I barely kept track of the time as the truck made its way back to the ALPA building, but it must've been 90 minutes or so by the time we got there. A few suited-up techs was waiting to remove the crate when we pulled up, and none of them objected to me walking with them to the repair area. I held Lina's hand the whole way—on the other side of the crate, Lucy had taken Lina's other hand. I did my best not to look her in the eye, in case she felt Lina was a lost cause.

Once the crate was set down in the lab, Lucy let go of Lina's hand—and started peeling off her shirt. “I need a 6-foot C2-10 cable with....” She dug a paper out of her pants pocket, handing it to one of the techs. “Those connectors.” The tech nodded and ran off to go find the cable; Lucy, meanwhile, had opened Lina's panel as well as one on her own chest, in the same spot as Lina's. “Direct connection,” she explained—for my benefit and to the rest of the group standing behind us, all watching with wide eyes. “If those pricks put some kind of program in her that keeps her from booting up without Corona Ansata or anything else, I might be able to remove it by direct-link....”

“And it won't....break you?” Uncle Frank blurted out.

Lucy smirked. “Lina's not the only one who can handle herself.”

I thought back to her direct connection to the Internet, and how that had ended up, but decided that now was most definitely not the time to bring it up.

The techs returned with the necessary cable, which Lucy plugged into Lina's open port first. “Cross your fingers...” Her eyes never left Lina as she plugged in the cable to her own port—immediately going ramrod straight as soon as it was all the way in. “Direct Link Established.” Her voice had gone into a flat, robotic monotone, sounding even more synthetic than Lina had when she'd been in Charge Mode. “Accessing....ignitiating diagnostic and software repair protocol.”

I did my best to stay calm, despite the growing fear that Lina was beyond even Lucy's skill to repair....

….a fear that was significantly lessened when Lina's eyes finally opened, glowing blue as they'd done when she'd been reactivated at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex.

An almost musical series of beeps emanated from both Lina and Lucy—the latter's eyes glowing the same blue as Lina's were. “Reactivation protocol blocking program detected.” Lucy stared straight ahead as she spoke. “Program will be deleted in ten seconds. Confirm.”

“Delete it.” My free hand was gripping the edge of the crate. “Please.”

Lucy turned to regard me, a faint whir of servos accompanying the gesture. “Please confirm with 'yes' or 'no'.”

“.....yes.”

After a few seconds of silence, Lucy actually smirked, the actuators and servos in her face whirring and clicking with each tiny movement. Even when she was going full-on robot, she still felt like messing with me...I won't even bother trying to say I wasn't impressed. Without another word, she turned back to regard Lina, the simple motion yet again scored by the quiet whirring of motors and such in her neck. “Deleting reactivation protocol blocking program.” Her eyes blinked rapidly—and with every blink, Lina's figure moved ever so slightly, each motion accompanied by a whir, a click or some other mechanical sound.

“Mild data corruption detected.”

My blood froze in my veins at the sound of those words. “No....”

“Wireless backup access data available.” Again, Lucy turned to regard me with a whirring of servos. “Commence data restoration?”

Ignoring the sting of tears in my eyes, I nodded. “Yes.”

This time around, Lina was the one doing the rapid-fire blinking, with the fluttering of her eyelids underscored by an almost-imperceptible mechanical click. I held her hand tighter than ever, hoping and praying that the backups Lucy was using were enough to restore her. Even as I watched her blink, and Lucy's eyes pulsing in some kind of oddly hypnotic rhythm, my thoughts drifted back to my first encounter with Lina in the bathroom..sitting and talking with her on the bed in my room.....her taking the lead on our second time....the shower....

At that moment, the line between what Lina was and who she was pretty much ceased to be. I loved her—from every single microcircuit and wire inside of her beautiful body down to the core of her personality. I knew, quite literally, what made her tick—and I wanted to know how to keep her ticking, if need be. The intimacy between the two of us went far deeper than just physical attraction (in her case, both to what she looked like on the inside and the outside)....I wanted to be with her, more than anything else in the world, and she'd already said that she wanted to be with me—of her own free will, and not because I'd programmed her to want to be with me. I'd made it clear that I didn't “own” her, when Lucy had shown up to give me the details.....

…..and, as Lina's blinking slowed to a halt, until she was staring at the ceiling again, I knew that I needed Lucy to do one more thing before Lina reactivated.

“Lucy.....access Lina's credentials, and find her ownership settings.”

“Acknowledged.” A few beeps sounded from inside Lucy's torso. “Credentials located. Current ownership setting: Matt Harker.”

I nodded. “....set Lina's ownership setting to....self. Lina Sievers.”

Lucy turned her head slightly. “Error. Cannot comply with request.”

“.....why not?”

“Self-identification set to Lina Harker.”

I nearly broke down in tears when I heard that; we weren't even married yet, and Lina had already chosen to take my last name! “.....then set Lina's ownership to self, or Lina Harker.”

The corners of Lucy's mouth turned up, whirring as they did, in a smile. “Acknowledged. Lina Harker's new ownership setting changed to: Self.” She turned to stare at Lina yet again. “Software repairs and diagnostic complete. Lina Harker ownership setting has been set to: Self. Reactivate now?”

“Yes!” I nodded. “Yes, please....reactivate her.”

Again, Lucy gave that small, knowing smile. “Commencing reactivation sequence....” Her left arm moved—with both mechanical precision and surprising grace—to reach behind Lina's right ear and gently press the bump behind it, holding it down for a few seconds before releasing. Lina's eyes closed again, and I decided to back away from the crate—give her a bit of space, seeing as how she'd been stuck in that stupid crate for entirely too long.

Lucy, still moving in that graceful, mechanical way, removed the cable from Lina's port and sealed it before pressing the bump behind her right ear again.

That series of beeps—trilling, almost joyful in their triumphant tone—sounded from within her as her eyes opened.

Slowly, carefully, she sat up; Lucy had leaned back and jerked to a stop, looking a lot like a very attractive animatronic in the process. Lina glanced around for a second, taking in her surroundings. “.....Matt?”

I stepped forward. “I'm here, Lina. I'm....I'm over here.”

Lina turned, her eyes still glowing faintly. “.....I....” She looked down at herself, at the crate. “.....what happened?”

“Long story.....I'll explain later.” I approached the crate, somewhat hesitant. “....you okay?”

“....everything's functioning correctly....” Lina paused, noticing my tears. “....is something wrong?”

“No! No, nothing's......” I actually laughed. “...I just....I was afraid I'd lost you, after that prick with the mohawk....”

I stopped—Lina's eyes were brimming with tears. Without a word, she tried to climb out of the crate, but nearly fell in the process. The stupid cables were still connected to her back, going taut as she moved to get out. I ran to the crate, taking Lina by the shoulders and wrapping my arms around her. “It's all right, Lina....it's gonna be all right. I'm here....I'm not going anywhere....”

We cried into each others' shoulders for a good few minutes—and this time, no android bastard with a mohawk was going to bust in and break up the reunion.

“These cables....” Lina tried to reach around and unplug one of them herself, but I stopped her. “Let me....please....” I glanced at Lucy, still sitting there like a really sexy statue. “....it'll be all right if I, ah.....”

She turned to regard me with a low whir, and gave a single nod.

“....pretty sure that's a yes,” I mused, grinning. “Just try to hold still.....”

It took a bit to find where each of the cables was plugged in, and to get them all undone without tangling all of 'em up or getting them caught on anything. Lina shuddered a bit with each cable I removed; once the last one was out, she almost flung herself out of the crate, into my arms. “Thank you, Matt....” Her lips found my neck, shoulders and cheeks without hesitation, and I returned the favor. Our hands moved across each other's shoulders, drifting downwards—

“Ah, Matt.....”

Uncle Frank's tone was equal measures polite, advisory and grateful. Lina backed away from me, smiling. “Sorry....we just got a bit....caught up in the moment...” She shrugged....then stopped, as if realizing something. “...Matt....did you change one of my settings before I was activated?”

“Lucy did, but....yeah.” I nodded. “Your ownership setting.....I set it to you.” Lina's eyes went wide, but I continued. “I don't want to be with you because I own you, Lina. I want to be with you because I love you. I love your face, your smile, your laugh, the way you kiss me, the way you stick your tongue out at me when I say something goofy....and I love every single inch of your internals, from down in the actuators of your toes to the microprocessors in your head. Lina, I love you for who you are and what you are, and there's not a damn thing anyone on God's green Earth can say to tell me otherwise......” I took a deep breath. “And I deeply, truly and sincerely hope that you're with me because you love me as much as I love you.”

I briefly glanced around at the others; Dani was hugging Fenton, and smiling through her own tears; Millie was dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief (I had no idea where she'd found it); Ashwyn was regarding the whole scene with wide eyes and a grin as big as the moon....

...and Uncle Frank looked like he couldn't have been prouder of me, smiling and nodding at my choice of words.

I turned to look back at Lina—and instantly felt her arms around my shoulders again as she whispered “I do” into my pectorals (not as weird as it sounds, seeing as she was hugging me at the time). “I do love you, Matt....”

“Good....” I grinned. “I, ah....I don't have a ring on me, or anything, but.....” I shrugged and got down on one knee as Lina gasped. “Lina Sievers—and I know you already changed your last name to mine, but...” I tried not to grin like an idiot as I continued. “Lina Sievers....will you marry me?”

Immediately, Lina started to get choked up. “Matt....I, ah....I don't....I don't know what to say?”

“Yes.” Again, Lucy was speaking in that robotic monotone—and smirking again; Uncle Frank was at her side in an instant, whispering something about “disengage diagnostic mode”. Instantly, Lucy's posture relaxed, and she rolled her eyes.

“....you're sure?” Lina glanced at Lucy, looking a bit worried. “I mean....you're really okay with—”

“Despite any and all statements I've made to the contrary in the past,” Lucy replied, “yes, Lina, I'm perfectly okay with you and Matt spending the rest of your days together. I wasn't just bringing you to all those parties and crap to see you get your freak on with guys, after all....I genuinely wanted you to find a guy who loved you, and who you'd love back.”

“Pretty sure that's a yes from her.” I didn't bother trying not to grin. “And you are, after all, your own person, Lina. I want your response—how you feel about me, and about spending the rest of your life with me—”

“How I feel?” Lina echoed, giving a short laugh that contrasted with the tears in her eyes. “You're human, Matt! I won't age, you will....I can be repaired, you can't....and that's not even going into starting a family—”

I rose, gently taking her by the shoulders. “We'll deal with all of that when we get to it.”

Lina stared into my eyes, and I could almost see her pondering our shared future. “....are you sure?”

“Hell yeah, I'm sure!” I grinned.

After barely two seconds' worth of hesitation, Lina nodded, returning my grin with her own smile. “Then yes, Matt. I will marry you.” She hugged me again, as Fenton, Dani, Millie, Uncle Frank and Lucy applauded (Ashwyn was too busy cheering for both of us to clap). “I've wanted this ever since we first met each other, Matt!”

“That makes two of us.” I drew her in for a kiss—the slight electrical tingle on her lips barely registering.

“Well,” Uncle Frank declared, “seeing as how you two are officially engaged—and that Fenton and Dani will be tying the knot, too...” He gestured to Fenton and Dani, who gave a quick wave at Lina. “I'm a gynoid, like you are,” she cheerfully explained. “And Matt helped get me back from the same jerks who took you!”

Lina regarded me with an arched eyebrow. “Really...”

“It's why I was such a prick when you were at my place,” Fenton admitted. “They'd taken her, I was doing a census for the Bureau of Artificial Lifeform Management....I didn't think the two were connected at the time, but...” He turned away, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. “....I should've said more at the time—”

Dani drew him in for a quick kiss. “What matters is that we're back together now,” she reminded him. “And that we're getting married!”

Lina glanced at me with a grin. “...two Harker weddings in one week,” she mused. “Must be a family record for you.”

“....I never said we were having our wedding the same week as theirs—”

“Which we will be,” Fenton declared, nodding his approval. “And this time, I'll do my part to help out with the prep and everything. It won't be like the party, I promise.”

“Even though we met at the party...” Lina giggled, squeezing my hand for effect.

Uncle Frank coughed, cutting off any further discussion on the “two weddings in one week” idea. “I, ah...I have an announcement I'd like to make...in the spirit of the moment, to be honest....” He turned to regard Lucy—who instantly frowned. “No.”

“.....I bought a ring for Audrey,” Uncle Frank explained. “Don't have it on me, at the moment....”

“It wouldn't happen to be this ring, by any chance?”

The blonde—who was, indeed, back to looking like an ordinary blonde in the lighting of the lab, though her lipstick and eyeshadow were now bright purple—approached with a small box. “The techs found it in your van,” she explained as she approached. “They figured it was important, suggested I return it to you....”

Uncle Frank accepted the box with a nod. “That's it, yeah, that's....thank you.” He turned to regard Lucy again. “Like I said, I....well, I got the ring for Audrey, but, well....the cancer kind of—”

Lucy nearly tripped as she backed away, her left eye ticking to the side. “Frank.....”

“I never got to propose to her!” Frank continued, barely able to keep himself from crying. “And I know you're your own woman, you've got that job at the Institute.....you've been trying to find someone for Lina all this time, and I understand if you didn't think of me as much as I thought of Audrey—”

“I did,” Lucy managed, her face spasming in uncontrollable tics. “.....damn it, you're maxing my pro-pro-processors....”

Uncle Frank took hold of her shoulders, steadying her. “....you okay?”

“Just a lot-lot-lot-lot....” Lucy groaned. “I remember what she remem-mem-mem-membered...it's kind of-of-of-of-of-of overwhelming....right now....” She turned away, her eyes closed. “I can handle it, Frank.”

Despite a growing feel of unease, Uncle Frank nodded. “....I never got to ask Audrey what I'm about to ask you—”

“YES.” Lucy let out a sort of half-laugh, half-sigh. “Yes, Frank Holmwood, I'll marry you....” She wiped the tears from her eyes, shaking her head. “I have her diary, up here—Audrey's.” She tapped the side of her head. “Her big regret...she never got the chance to ask you.”

I could tell from the look in his eyes that Uncle Frank hadn't expected to hear that particular bit of information. “...I...”

“Three weddings in one week.” Lucy glanced at Lina and Dani, grinning. “Pretty sure that's a Harker family record.”

“You're....you're sure about this? I mean, I'm way up there in years, Lucy...nowhere near as spry as Matt—”

“Just shut up and kiss me, Frank.” Lucy pulled Uncle Frank in and planted a lip-to-lip kiss on him.

Fenton and Dani held each other tighter, grinning at Uncle Frank's soon-to-be wedded bliss; Ashwyn, meanwhile, had practically jumped on Millie and wrapped her in a hug, cheering for Uncle Frank, for Fenton and (again) for me. The blonde watched the proceedings with a sort of....I guess “wistfull” look would be the right way to term it, but it was just for a second—when I looked her way, she was smiling and nodding her approval of everything. “I guess I'll leave you to it, then...”

“Wait....” I stopped her, hesitating; something about her had been nagging at me since we'd first met...

Lina was behind me in an instant. “...what's up, Matt?”

I nodded to the blonde. “She and I never did get properly introduced.”

The blonde grinned and handed over a poster. “I've tried not to advertise since I left San Jose...”

With Lina at my side, I unrolled the poster—and stared. Depicted before me was a crystal-clear image of the gynoid who'd flown alongside Uncle Frank's DC-10, in an outfit consisting of skintight purple and pink, as well as armor around her shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and shins. As I looked over the poster, I realized the facial contours of the gynoid in the picture were the same as those of the blonde—except on the poster, she was metallic silver with faint lines etched in, and the blonde looked...well, like a blonde human in her late 20s/early 30s. A name, seemingly etched into a steel plate in neon purple cursive below the gynoid in the poster, caught my eye: Galatea.

I glanced back at the blonde—and just like her picture in the poster, her eyes had gone bright purple with pink irises.

“.....you're her?!” Lina gasped. I could tell she recognized Galatea from somewhere—and judging from the awed sound of her voice, she'd heard nothing but good about her.

“Like I said, I've tried not to advertise...and you can call me Gabby.” The blonde—Galatea—winked. “I actually flew alongside the DC-10 you were on—well, you and Matt were both on it at the time, but you were still in the crate.” She shrugged. “The Air Force nearly intervened...I had to convince them Matt wasn't a threat or anything like that—”

Lina held up a hand. “The Air Force nearly shot down the plane?!”

“....it's a long story, Lina.” I sighed. “Let's go find a room and talk about it.....”

A few minutes later, in a quiet room away from the lab, I told Lina everything that had happened after that bastard with the mohawk had KO'd me. I mentioned Simon Caine, the briefing, how Ashwyn had a crush on me (she found that bit particularly amusing, and told me she didn't mind “as long as you don't encourage her”), and how Fenton had reunited with Dani during our return trip to the warehouse complex. I even told her about the near-theft of the DC-10 from Uncle Frank's hangar (which I also had to explain in detail), and how Ashwyn had practically thrown Lucy and me into the plane before it could take off. I mentioned Peach, Siobhan, Hera, Mai and Kona—and how Andrew was an android, and how he'd gotten his head crushed by that android prick with the mohawk.

As I told her the whole story....in all honesty, that phrase “a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders” is the only thing that can do it justice. Telling Lina all about what I'd gone through to get her back....it was liberating. Ever since we'd gone back to the Greensfield complex and not found her, I'd had this dread that Lina and I would never see each other again—obviously, seeing her reactivated in the lab did a lot to dispell that fear. Still, telling her the story was like brushing away the last of those lingering feelings, like wiping cobwebs off my shoulders.

“.....so, that's pretty much what happened.” I sighed. “And you know how it went from there, since...well, here we are.”

Lina nodded, grinning. “Here we are indeed.” She squeezed my hand, then leaned in to kiss my cheek.

“.....and you're positive you want to go through with the whole wedding thing? The rings, the vows, all that stuff?”

“Yes!” Lina gave me an obviously phony punch in the shoulder. “I just....”

“....yeah?”

“That whole thing of setting my ownership to 'self'.....you know that means I could just leave, if I wanted, right?”

“....I do.” I rested my hand on Lina's shoulder. “....would you?”

Lina cupped my chin in her hand, and gently turned me to face her. “....after everything you did to get me back, leaving you would be....” She sighed. “You've proven that you really, truly love me, through all of it.”

“And do you 'really, truly' love me?”

Without saying a word, Lina drew me in for a kiss, her hands drifting over my back as mine drifted over hers. It wasn't a “sexy”, Hollywood kind of kiss—there was a real tenderness to her every move, a genuine feeling of sensuality apparent in even the slightest of her gestures. When she pulled away, the smile on her face was all the answer I needed.

“....thanks.”

“You're thanking me?” Lina looked somewhat bemused by my remark.

“....all my life, I...” I chuckled. “There was a music video, for a song....'I Want Love'. It had that actor, the one who did all those superhero movies, wandering through a house, lip-syncing to the lyrics...stuff like 'A man like me is dead in places', all about the kind of love he wanted. No idea what he's doing lately.....anyway. I really identified with that song, for the longest time......until we met.”

“Until you froze me with your phone in your bathroom?”

“No, I mean....” I stopped, noticing Lina was giggling. “I know what you mean, Matt,” she assured me, pulling me back in for a quick kiss. “And I can honestly say that, ever since that day, I've...well, I've been in love with you, too.”

“And it's not just the programming talking?”

I hated the question as soon as it left my lips, but Lina surprised me by not getting pissed off. “I asked Lucy about that, after the party,” she admitted. “I even asked her to probe every subroutine I had, just to make sure that the things I was feeling about you were my feelings, and not just some random variable or integer or anything like that....”

“And?”

Lina grinned. “It was all me. I really did—and do—love you, Matthew Harker, with every processor, every wire, every gear and every motor in my body....with every single ounce of my being.”

I nodded. “And I love you, Lina Sievers, from the bottom of my heart.”

We held each other—no stroking, no making out, no hands down each others' pants....it was all we needed and wanted, at that moment. I could tell Lina was listening to my heartbeat as she rested her head against my chest, just like I was listening to the quiet internal noises within her body. At that moment, for the first time in a long time, I finally knew what it felt like to be at peace.

“...Matt?”

“....yeah?”

“Your family....they won't have any problems with you and I....well, getting married, will they?”

Slowly, I pulled back from Lina's embrace; I didn't answer her immediately after she asked the question, choosing instead to look over her. There was something so picturesque about her in that moment—the way she sat on the bed, the way her clothes perfectly accentuated her figure...

“...Matt?”

“Sorry. I was just....” I sighed. “You look incredible right now, y'know—and that's not just me dodging the question.”

My honesty earned me a giggle; I let her laugh for a bit, then decided to answer her question. “....to be honest, I don't really know what they'll think of it. Mom.....” I rolled my eyes. “She won't factor into it at all.”

“We could go visit—”

“No.” I shook my head. “The last time I saw her, they'd moved her to a padded cell after she tried to 'exorcise a demon' from another patient by way of beating him over the head with a lunch tray. Believe me, Lina, it'd be best for both of us if we moved forward with the wedding plans and just forgot about her.”

After a moment, Lina nodded. “And the rest?”

“.....her side of the family has been....kind of strict, about stuff like marriage. Uncle Frank, Uncle Byron and Aunt Celia never got married, and my grandmother has always harped on wanting great grandkids....” I fell backwards on the bed, sighing. “Dad's side of the family.....hoo, boy. Marriage was a rock-solid institution on his side, at first...then a bunch of my cousins started getting separations, divorces. Mom went off the handle about every single one, never letting up. All those broken marriages, in her view, were the work of Satan himself trying to tear their families apart.”

“....and why did they all divorce?” Lina asked, her voice almost a whisper.

“One's wife was a bitch,” I casually admitted. “Another had financial issues...a few of them 'just weren't working out', in their own terms.” I shook my head in disgust. “...and the only one whose marriage is still solid as a rock is the one who dropped out of high school, got a girl pregnant and then got her to drop out with him.”

Lina frowned. “And they stayed together?”

“Long story, don't want to go into it.” I groaned. “Anyway....Mom had planned a bunch of their weddings, and seeing all those relationships fall apart probably did a number on her sanity—”

Again, Lina's hand gently turned my face towards her. “She wouldn't have to worry about us,” she assured me, smiling.

“I dunno if she ever really thought I'd get married,” I admitted. “She always went on about how she wanted to help plan Fenton's wedding....which was pretty ironic, considering she nearly ran his first girlfriend over with a stolen car—” I was kept from recounting that sordid incident by Lina drawing me in for another kiss. “It's in the past,” she reminded me, after she pulled back. “What matters is that we're together, and Fenton's found another girlfriend, so...”

I grinned. “Glad to see you're looking on the bright side.” I leaned in to kiss her again...

...except my phone started buzzing. “....oh, what the Hell....”

“Maybe it's Uncle Frank,” Lina mused, leaning over to get a good look at the screen as I fished the phone out of my pants pocket. “He could be checking on us...”

“I'd told him you and I needed some alone time....he wouldn't just call me at random.” I frowned. “It's not a call.”

Lina squinted. “FCon?” She regarded the phone with an eye roll. “I mean, we are in here together....”

I glanced at the screen again, frowning. “It's not picking up on you....” My eyes narrowed. “There's a new signal—wait, hang on.” I leaned in, regarding the readout. “.....it says 'Signal Match', and it's not yours, Lucy's.......”

“Maybe it's Gabby?”

I shook my head. “.....it's from before I met her....” I waited for the data readout to finish displaying....

...and immediately, my blood froze.

“....what?” Lina noticed my change of mood instantly. “Matt, what is it?”

“.....it says the signal's a match to one of the ones from the party—one of the other eleven. Well, one of the other ten, aside from you and Lucy.” I scowled. “....and it says she's in one of the trucks that came back from the airport.”

“....and that means....what, exactly?”

I placed my hands on Lina's shoulders. “After I got knocked out at the warehouse....when they brought me here, there was a briefing. Andrew—the one who got his head crushed by that ass....that android with the mohawk—he was just the bodyguard.” My voice turned sinister. “There was a girl in the pictures with him....I saw her at the restaurant with Andrew, when Doug Kreski and I went there for lunch, the day before you showed up with Lucy. There were pictures, during the briefing, showing her with Andrew and that psycho android, at the offices at the warehouse complex.”

My fists clenched. “Remember that girl who burst into my room, asking where the bathroom was?”

Lina's eyes went wide. “....the signal is from her?”

“And now it's somewhere in this place.” I jumped out of the bed. “C'mon, we need to find the trucks.”

I could tell Lina was more than a bit hesitant to follow me, but she nodded. “I really hope you know what you're doing.”

Thankfully, the ALPA staffers didn't have a problem telling me where the trucks were—they'd all been briefed on the whole situation with Lina (and a lot of them expressed their congratulations for her safe return, and for our impending marriage...I guess Galatea spread the word around the place). Thus, after maybe ten minutes of wandering around, we both ended up in a garage. All of the trucks that had been loaded with crates back at the airport were parked in various spots; I held up my phone, scowling, and started moving towards the origin point of the signal.

“...are you sure about this, Matt?”

“If I'm right, she's the one who sent those drones after Lucy—the ones that took you.” I didn't look back at Lina even as I spoke. “And those 'drones' ended up being reprogrammed gynoids taken from other places, just like they took you.”

“...but we don't know why she did what she did—”

Now, I did stop, to look Lina in the eye. “They were stealing gynoids and erasing their memories, their personalities. If it hadn't been for Uncle Frank, Ashwyn, Millie, Adrienne, Lucy, Rachel and me, they'd have done the same thing to you.”

“I get that, but—”

A tone issued from FCon, indicating that the truck holding the origin point of the signal was close. “This way.”

Lina shook her head, but kept following me. “I don't know about this, Matt....”

After another few beeps from the phone, we found the truck. “She's still online....” I nodded, jumping into the back of the truck and pushing the crate closer to the edge. “Help me get it to the floor, if you can...”

I could tell Lina was uneasy with my approach, but she still did her part to lower the crate to the floor.

The lock was as simple as the ones on the crates from the plane—no thumbprint or retinal scanner, not even a keyhole for a tubular key. I glanced at Lina, my steel resolve only slightly withering when I noticed her concern. “....are you sure she's the one who sent those drones to your uncle's shop?”

“Only one way to find out.” I flipped the catches on the lid and opened it....

She was dressed exactly the same as she'd been when she and Andrew had barged into my room before the party. She looked even more nervous than she had in the hall, or when I'd seen her at the restaurant when Doug had gone off to answer his phone; if anything, she seemed positively terrified, even moreso when she noticed me standing over her.

“So it is her,” Lina murmured, somewhat surprised. “Matt—”

I held up a hand, staring at the girl—the gynoid in the crate. Lina stepped up and extended a hand; I followed her lead after a few seconds of silence, and we helped the nervous gynoid out of the crate. I gestured for her to sit on the open tailgate of the truck, which she did.

“So.....I don't need to ask if you remember me, since—just from that look in your eyes—I can tell that you do.”

The girl didn't respond, other than looking from me to Lina and back again.

“I might as well get the first question out of the way, right now....” I took a deep breath, calming myself, before I spoke.

“Are you the one who gave the order for Lucy Sievers to be taken?”

Part 10

The day I met Lina, I had no idea that another person at the party was going to have a significant role to play in our relationship...despite the fact that this “other person” had barged into my damn room before I ever laid eyes on Lina. It was a bit....I dunno, karmic, I guess, that Lina and I—reunited, and having just recounted the story of what had happened ever since the reprogrammed drone gynoids had busted into Uncle Frank's shop—were now staring down this person, in the garage of an ALPA building.

The person in question—a girl (gynoid, for those who insist on being specific) who looked like she legitimately wanted to be anywhere but inside that garage—was sitting on the tailgate of a truck, trying not to look at either of us.

Lina—who'd been carted off to a warehouse complex and then stowed on a DC-10 stolen from my uncle—was actually pretty calm about the whole thing, despite my suspicions that the nervous gynoid had been the one responsible for her being taken in the first place.

As for me...

“I'm going to ask you one more time, as politely as possible. Did you send the drones to take Lucy Sievers?”

“Matt....” The feel of Lina's hand on my shoulder cut me off before I could get any louder. “We don't know if she's the one behind it....she might have been taken like I was—”

“Andrew said he was 'just doing what she told him to', before that prick with the mohawk flattened his head!”

At the mention of Andrew's demise, the nervous gynoid bowed her head, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Lina was at her side in an instant. “....who was Andrew, to you?”

“I already said, he was her bodyguard—”

“Matt....” Lina shot me a warning stare before glancing back at the nervous gynoid. “....was he your bodyguard?”

“.....he was.” The gynoid nodded, not wanting to look Lina in the eye.

“And that's supposed to explain why he was dumber than a calculator?” I cut in. “I saw you both at the restaurant, when you had to keep kicking him under the table just so he'd figure out what he wanted off the menu....”

The nervous gynoid couldn't meet my stare. “He...he wasn't fully upgraded...he was a refurb, all I could afford.”

“And why did you feel like you needed a bodyguard?” There was a measure of compassion in Lina's voice that, in all honesty, surprised me—she (or more accurately, Lucy) had probably been “scouted” by Andrew at the party and pointed out to be taken later on down the line, but she wasn't lashing out or even playing the “bad cop”.

“....I...” The gynoid looked away.

Lina gently took her hand. “Do you have a name, by any chance?”

“Ellie.” The girl still stared at the floor, shuddering. “....you're going to decommission me, aren't you?”

Before I could ask what that meant, Lina spoke up. “That's not our place to decide—”

“They'll want it.” Ellie was openly weeping, now. “They'll say it's....what I deserve...” She looked up, slowly, to stare at Lina, the tears in her eyes clashing with the hint of anger in her voice. “You'll say it, when the time comes...you'll both beg them to have me decommissioned, for all of this....”

“What the Hell's decommissioning?” I cut in, frowning.

At this, Ellie buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

“It's a death sentence,” Lina replied, not looking away from her. “Decommissioning basically means that an android or gynoid is killed, without anything resembling a trial. Their personality files and memories are either archived for analysis later on, or flat-out erased...same thing with their programming. Every electronic component in their bodies—memory chips, storage drives, all that stuff—is rendered inoperable and useless for salvage. Their identities are stricken from all records, their bodies are either dismantled or sent to a referb center, and their faces are destroyed.” She glanced over at me, her expression grim. “It's not something to wish on any android or gynoid.”

I thought back to the briefing where BC-whatever's homicidal tendencies had been discussed. “...Simon had issued a decommission-on-sight order for that psycho android with the mohawk—”

Another sob from Ellie cut me off; something in Lina's stare made it clear that bringing up BC-whatever was probably a bad idea. “....we're not going to ask them to decommission you, Ellie.” She actually smiled—I was amazed at how calm she was, given the fact that she was confronting the gynoid who'd been responsible for her abduction. Of course, there was still one pressing problem: “None of this gets us any closer to knowing why she wanted to take Lucy—”

“We needed her!” Ellie had grabbed Lina by the shirt, and I actually tensed up, ready to shove her back if need be...but Lina, the picture of tranquility, just moved Ellie's hands off of her. “And why did you need her?”

“.....the tablet.....Andrew...he didn't know the right way to use it....” Ellie didn't seem to realize that her left shoulder was going into a fit of twitching every few minutes. “He just...he was messing with settings....I didn't ask him to—I told him not to....he...” She turned away, running a hand over her face. “...he broke some of them.....”

Lina ignored the growl that left my lips. “How did he break them?”

“....wiped everything....personalities, memories....deleted system files...” Lina's right hand trembled. “...I tried to stop him...to take the tablet....”

“Why didn't he let you have the tablet—”

“I didn't.....I thought I'd mess myself up, if I had it.....didn't want to risk it....” Ellie rocked back and forth where she sat, hugging her knees. “....we didn't trust BC with it....”

Lina nodded sympathetically. “....is there anything we can do to—”

“Are you seriously volunteering to help her?!” I countered. “She was running a smuggling operation! Gynoids were getting taken, 'drained' and reprogrammed, to be sold off! It would've happened to you or Lucy—”

Again, Lina's stare cut me off. “....just tell us what you can...whatever you want to tell us, about how all of this started.”

Ellie never looked up. “....I was a sales 'bot. Marketing, stuff like that....he—Dad—changed enough so that I'd be his daughter. They both loved me....him and Mom...” She sniffled. “She died, and he remarried....his new wife...she wanted him to wipe my memory, make me forget about Mom. I....I didn't....I couldn't....”

Lina wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to.”

“Are we really going to sit here and buy this?!”

“Matt....”

Before I could protest, Ellie continued. “He...he just started ignoring me, over the stepchildren...she told him to. I heard her, every night, talking to him...I was just....a thing to her. She tried....wanted to erase my memory, make me forget Mom....I....I ran. Just let myself out of the house, started running....I never looked back....”

Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Everything was a nightmare. Nowhere was safe.”

“You ran away before the Accords were signed?” Lina looked somewhat concerned.

Ellie gave a tearful nod. “I....I couldn't let it happen again. Couldn't let myself be abandoned....didn't want to let myself be forgotten. I wanted the control, over anyone near me...anyone who loved me....” She wiped her face with the back of one hand. “....I...I met people. I made deals. The companies.....I don't think they exist anymore. They set me up with my own place, introduced me to Andrew, and BC......”

“You're not going to be abandoned,” Lina assured her. “We'll make sure of it—”

“That doesn't explain the smuggling operation.” I stepped forward, scowling. “What the Hell does being abandoned have to do with—”

“I did it so it wouldn't be done to me!” Ellie broke down in tears again, burying her face in her hands.

“And the reprogramming? The 'draining'?” I felt my fists clenching at my sides again. “You didn't want those—”

“They said....they wouldn't,” Ellie wailed, nearly falling off of the tailgate as her body was wracked by sobs. “...they...they said.....they'd protect me......”

“And who the Hell are 'they'?” I actually cracked my knuckles. “How do we know this whole thing isn't...”

I let my remark trail off, mainly due to the fact that Ellie was sobbing into Lina's shoulder.

I nearly spoke up again, but to my surprise, Lina had taken Ellie into an embrace. “Nobody's going to decommission you for this, Ellie,” she murmured. “We'll get you the help you need.....” She pulled back, actually smiling as she stared into Ellie's eyes. “....and for the record...I forgive you.”

I was floored. I'd been ready to go all “RIP AND TEAR” on the mastermind behind the smuggling operation, bust out the baseball bats and steel chairs and get to bashing heads in—and lo and behold, I was face to face with that mastermind, all ready and willing to layeth the smacketh down....but Lina had done the unthinkable. She'd just looked into the eyes of the one behind her abduction...and forgiven her.

Apparently, Ellie was just as surprised as I was. “....what?”

“You wanted to protect yourself, and to make sure you had total control. If you'd done things differently....” Lina sighed, patting Ellie on the shoulder. “You've already lost a lot. A mother, a family, your bodyguard....I don't know if that one android with the mohawk meant anything to you—”

At this, Ellie started crying again. “....he...we couldn't stop him.....” She nearly fell off of the tailgate as she leaned against Lina, crying into her shirt. “....I...I told him.....I only wanted him to scare Singleton....”

“The manager of the warehouse complex,” I explained, noticing Lina's confusion.

“....I just....I didn't want him to get us caught....” A spasm rocked Ellie's body. “...I didn't want him to kill him!”

Lina glanced over at me. “....the guy who knocked you out killed someone?”

“Chester Singleton. Before you were taken to the warehouse, that android with the mohawk....” A pithy remark about Singleton needing a closed-casket funeral died on my tongue. “It, ah, wasn't pretty, put it that way.”

“Andrew....he used the tablet on him, after—after—after—after—” Ellie shook again, her eyes rolling back in her head.

“Ellie?” Lina gently lowered her to rest on the tailgate, which rattled as she continued shaking. “Something's wrong with her, Matt....” She nodded at my phone. “We might be able to help her.”

“And you're sure you want to help her? After everything—”

Lina held up a hand to interrupt me. “We can still help her, Matt....maybe if we knew who her father is....”

I sighed. “I really hope you know what you're doing....” Lina nodded, and I turned my attention to Ellie. “Who was—”

“Is,” Lina corrected.

“....who is your father?”

Ellie's eyes managed to focus on me. "S-S-Scott Qui-Quinn. Of N-N-orth Adams M-M-mass—” Her head snapped to the side. “.....Mom...J-J-J-Jane.....Elea—” Something in her torso let off an alarming buzz for a minute or so, before her eyes refocused and her head turned back to look at me. “...Jane Eleanor.....” Tears flooded her eyes. “I....I was named after her-her-her-her-her—” Sobs issued from her mouth as her body continued its uncontrollable shaking; Lina took her by the hand, and signaled for me to take her other hand, holding her steady until the seizures lessened in severity. Ellie's eyes were blinking almost nonstop, by this point, even as she tried to look at us. “....find Dad....please....”

“We'll do our best, Ellie,” Lina replied, once again giving that reassuring smile. “And thanks for all the info.” She turned her attention to me, her smile fading. “I think we should stop questioning her now, and get her back to the lab—”

Unfortunately, Ellie—or more accurately, her glitching systems—made the decision to end her questioning for us. A loud bang cut off whatever I could've said to Lina in response—Ellie was siezing up, her head bashing into the bed of the truck.

Lina didn't even need to tell me to bust out FCon to try and get Ellie into a debut or command mode state. “I've got the app loaded....” My eyes went wide. “....shit.”

Apparently, the gravity of the situation was enough for Lina to not comment on my bad language. “How bad is it?”

“....you, ah, remember that program that Lucy had to delete from you before you could reactivate?”

“....I was offline at the time, but give me a sec....” Lina's eyes glowed blue for a moment; I could only guess that she was taking a look at her system logs to see what Lucy had gotten rid of. “File. Deletion. Log. Located.” She blinked, and her eyes went back to normal. “....I found it.”

“...well, I, ah....” I gestured at the screen of my phone. “.....I think Ellie got hit with something worse, in that crate—”

An electrical snap cut me off; Ellie's had had jerked to the right. Her sobs sounded heavily digitized and clipped, like her voice was playing from a really scratched CD. “Help—me—help—me—help—me—help-help-help-helllllllLLLLLL—”

Lina tried to hold Ellie's shoulders down, mostly to keep her from bashing her head against the bed of the truck. “We need to get her to the lab, let Lucy run—” She took a step back as something fired off in one of Ellie's nostrils, followed by a thin plume of white smoke wafting out. “....whatever was in that crate must have auto-loaded into her systems...we need to—”

“What's going on in here?”

Gabby—still looking blonde—and three security guards were approaching. “Frank told me the two of you were off in a private room,” Gabby stated, frowning at the pair of us. “I didn't—”

“FCon pinged and said there was a matching signal from the party,” I explained....which only served to confuse the three security guys, though Gabby seemed to get where I was going with it, so I continued. “....at the party, at my house, the day I met Lina....before I met her, two idiots barged into my room—a guy and a girl. The guy was Andrew Sommers—he's the one who got his head flattened by BC-whatever.”

The guards winced, but Gabby nodded. “And the girl?”

“Ellie Quinn.” Lina stepped up. “She's the one who sent the drones to Frank's shop, for Lucy....” She glanced back at the still-malfunctioning Ellie. “...she needs help,” she explained, the sadness almost tangible in her voice. “Some kind of program loaded into the rigs built into those crates....I think it's causing conflicts with her systems—”

A staticky, anguished cry from Ellie cut her off. Her entire body was seizing up, her joints audibly locking—

—and just as suddenly, she went limp. One final, quiet sob left her lips before her eyes dimmed.

I turned to ask Gabby what had just happened—only to see her eyes glowing purple, pink and silver. Before I could even blink, the glow faded, and Gabby nodded to the security guards. “Get her to the lab for analysis...” She handed a phone to one of them. “Call the Dyson Institute, and tell them to have a secure room ready. If their psychoanalysis ward can't help her, I don't know what can....” She turned to regard Lina and me—and probably noticed how confused I was. “The Institute's main focus is transferrence of human consciousness to artificial forms,” she explained, “but they also have a full psychiatric wing for androids, gynoids, even cyborgs.”

I glanced at Lina, then back at Gabby. “.....psychiatric analysis....for androids.”

“You'd be surprised at the number of sentient androids and gynoids who need help in that department,” Gabby replied, not smiling. “And you'd mentioned that Ellie told you why she ran the smuggling operation....”

Lina and I....okay, Lina recounted what Ellie had said (I mostly stayed quiet), earning a grim nod from Gabby. “I'll see if Dr. Dyson can put Ellie under 24-hour observation once she arrives—Dr. Elaine Dyson,” she added, probably more for my benefit than anything else. “She runs the Dyson Institute, and was their first transferrence case back when it had just opened....she's also a walking billboard for their in-house tech, since she upgrades to the newest model of gynoid body before they're available to the rest of the Institute's clients.”

“Lucy had mentioned them a few times,” Lina mused. “She said they, ah...”

Gabby arched an eyebrow. “Emphasize female sexuality above all else?”

“......yeah....” Lina shifted from one foot to another.

Again, Gabby didn't smile. “....in Ellie's case, that wouldn't exactly do any good. Just from what you've told me, I can tell she'll need a full psychiatric evaluation and therapy to get over what's happened to her—and that's after they flush out whatever's causing problems with her systems.” She patted Lina on the shoulder, finally giving us a warm, understanding smile. “Believe me, Ellie couldn't be in safer hands. The Dyson Institute may have a bit of a reputaiton for...embracing sexuality, to put it lightly, but that's not all they do there...” She glanced back over her shoulder, as if waiting for the guards to leave, before leaning in to whisper: “Don't tell anyone this, but I was a patient there about a decade ago.”

“.....for therapy, right? Not.....the other thing.”

My question earned a frown from Lina, but Gabby just chuckled. “I'd lost my dad...” She paused, frowning slightly. “...it felt so real, the way I thought it'd happened.....” She shook her head. “Let's just say that the way I remembered it and the way it actually went down were very different, and even after I found that out, I had a lot of guilt to work through.”

“Right.” I nodded. “And they'll be able to help Ellie.....what, sort herself out?”

“We can only hope so. And before you ask, no, the Dyson Institute doesn't fix vacuum cleaners.” Gabby rolled her eyes at the thought. “I mean, yes, there just so happens to be a plant for the vacuums right across the street from the Institute's office in this state....” She stopped herself, realizing Lina and I were staring at her. “...anyway. You two might want to get yourselves checked out—”

I had no idea what she wanted to say next, mainly because my feet decided to pick that moment to let the pain I'd been blocking out for the past few hours come flooding back—which, predictably, sent me to the floor in a screaming heap.

“Matt!” Lina was at my side faster than I could blink. “What happened?”

“MY FEET...oh, DAMN IT! AAAAUUGGGH!”

Gabby knelt by my injured extremities, taking a closer look. “....well, the soles of your feet are pretty cut up in spots. I can see a few raw patches, too...pretty sure that's a bruised tendon there—”

“DON'T....” I drew in a hiss of breath. “Don't touch it.....”

“....I wasn't going to.” Gabby looked away, nodding someone over. “Right here, yeah....” She turned to regard me once again, chuckling. “I'm amazed you were actually able to stay on your feet so long,” she mused. “I hear you did a running dropkick to a length of pipe....”

“I did.”

Lina held me by the shoulders. “You could've told me your feet were hurting, Matt....”

“They weren't when you were reactivated. No idea why my brain decided I needed the pain right this second...” I leaned back and groaned. “Any chance I can get my feet looked at before the day is over with?”

“I don't think that'll be a problem.” Gabby nodded at two new arrivals. “Over here....”

Just as I hadn't left her side when her crate was brought in, Lina didn't leave mine when I got carted off. The nurses gave me a jar of Tiger Balm to apply to my right foot, after they'd finished wiping all the blood off of it; they sprayed some kind of cold stuff on it, too, and shot it up with cortisone. My eyes were closed most of the time, since I was trying to block out the pain I felt every time someone touched my freaking feet; whoever the doctor was, she suggested I take Paracetemol or Ibuprofen if the pain kept up. Lina asked if anything stronger would be necessary; the doctor gave her a card with a number to call in a day or two if need be. By the time I opened my eyes, the doctor had left, and I was in a wheelchair—which Lina insisted on pushing for me, after helping me put hospital-style socks on both my feet.

After my feet got a thorough going-over, Lina went down to a sub-lab for a whole systems check to make sure everything was running at maximum efficiency. Her memories hadn't been accessed by whatever she was hooked up to in the crate, and apart from me changing her ownership setting to “Self”, none of her other settings had been altered in any way. There was a log of failed attempts to use Corona Ansata on her (about 45 failed attempts, to be specific) after she'd been taken from Uncle Frank's shop, and a further 22 tries after our brief reunion at the Greensfield warehouse complex. Andrew had apparently tried to use Corona Ansata on her twice, on the plane, but just gave up afterwards.

In any case, she was given a clean bill of health, and we headed off to go find Lucy and Uncle Frank.

“You think they'll have everything sorted by now?”

I met Lina's question (and her arched eyebrow) with a sigh. “Given everything that's happened over the past few days, and how many gynoids were on the plane, it's gonna be a good long while before anyone can consider this to be fully sorted out. ” I shrugged. “You?”

“Personally, I'm just glad we're together again. Not that I don't care about the other gynoids from the plane....”

“I can tell you care.” I chuckled. “Still, the ALPA is trying to sort that themselves, so...what now?”

“.....whatever you want.” Lina shrugged. “We can....I dunno.....” Her smile turned cheeky, and that particular option was definitely appealing....but at the same time, my thoughts were still focused on Siobhan, Mai, Hera and Kona—not to mention the others from the plane. All of them had been subjected to the same crap Lina had been through—if not worse—and even with Andrew out of the picture and BC-whatever more than likely wasted, there was no way in Hell we could just snap our fingers and magically get them all back to working order.

“...I think we should go find Lucy, or better yet, find some of the others from the plane, see if we can help fix them.”

“And you're sure you're just thinking about fixing them?” Lina regarded me with an arched eyebrow.

“....I already told you—”

Lina cut me off by kneeling to hug me. “You're definitely the most chivalrous robo-fetishist I've ever met,” she mused, giggling at the thought.

“I'll take that as a compliment. Shall we?”

As it turns out, the options of finding Lucy or the other gynoids from the plane were actually the same thing—Lucy was in another lab area, going from one work table to another and giving orders to the same kind of coverall-clad technician gynoids that had worked on Adrienne and Ashwyn the day before or so. Dani and Fenton were helping out the best they could, though I could tell Fenton was nowhere used to seeing the internals of gynoids as I was (even if most of what I'd seen had been photo manipulations and CG models).

“...mark those three down for....” Lucy shook her head, barely looking up as Lina and I approached. Get those two prepped within the next half hour, otherwise we'll be working on both of them all night....and what's with the Charles Xavier thing, Matt?”

I rolled my eyes. “I've got a bruised tendon on my right foot, Lucy. I'm supposed to not walk for a few days—”

“Right.” Lucy ran to another table, shaking her head. “.....it's not exactly going great over here, if you're wondering,” she stated, her voice calm but unnervingly tense. “We've got...I'd say three levels of magnitude when it comes to what went down with all of these.” She waved an arm at the work tables around her. “Level One: the most recently affected, the ones who only got shut off with Corona Ansata and didn't really have time to get hooked up properly for the draining to begin. They may have sporadic memory loss, but nothing serious. Peach, from the plane—”

“Her name's actually Peach?” Lina cut in, looking somewhat amused.

“Well, she was kind of dressed like—”

Lucy's throat clearing cut me off. “....like I was saying....Peach, from the plane, was pretty much fully-operational right out of the box. She didn't get wiped totally, and any memory loss she might've had pretty much corrected itself over the next few minutes.”

“....sounds fair.” Lina nodded.

“Level Two: the ones like you, Lina, who actually got hooked up to the rigs inside their crates.” Lucy didn't look up from the internals of the gynoid on the table in front of her—an athletic 30-something in a sports bra and yoga pants. “The process that I had to delete from your system was a lot further along with them, and some of them may have lost a few memories or system data that we'll need backups of from their owners or their manufacturers. They'll have a longer road to recovery than you did....and some of them may need to be totally reformatted...complete memory wipe, the whole works.”

Lina gasped, a hand going to her mouth.

“.....it gets worse.” Lucy moved over to another table, where a sheet covered most of the pale, blonde gynoid laying on it. “Level Three: ripped and stripped. Completely borked by Corona Ansata.” Her lips parted in a growl. “Stripped of their personality programming, human emulation programs ripped out—sometimes incomplete....” She moved aside to let another gynoid—5'8, raven hair, looked vaguely Spanish, especially with her shoulder-less top and flowing skirts—get past her to a nearby table.

“Does the ALPA let their techs dress that casual?” Lina asked.

“...the Level Ones are being configured to help out with the rest,” Lucy explained. “If their systems are 95% green or higher, they help out. If not, they get sorted out, then they help out...” She glanced back at the gynoid on the table, and I could tell she wanted to throw something. “Where's the other one behind this?”

I nearly said something, but Lina reached over the table to rest a hand on Lucy's shoulder. “....we found her.”

“I hope you took a blowtorch to her CPU, then.” Lucy started to turn away, but Lina held firm. “Lucy....she's being taken to the Dyson Institute. She didn't enjoy any of this! She was scared of being abducted, of being abandoned....”

“...so she did this?”

“She made deals with the wrong people, Lucy! She ran away before the Accords were signed...she didn't exactly have a lot of options to protect herself!” Lina stared into Lucy's eyes, her tone never wavering. “I'm not saying she didn't make bad choices, because she did....” I could hear the sympathy in her voice as she continued: “...but that doesn't mean we can just hand her over to be decommissioned. She needs help....possibly even therapy.”

Just from looking at Lucy, I could tell she wanted to stay angry, to write Ellie off as the victim of her own circumstances or something equally cynical...but in seconds, her resolve crumbled. “...they're taking her to Dyson, you said?”

Lina nodded. “She needs the help, Lucy. Whatever scared her, it was enough to crash her systems!”

“She started malfunctioning after she mentioned BC-whatever killing Singleton,” I added. “She apparently just wanted him to scare the guy, not kill him....”

“And the two security guards?”

“Wait, that android with the mohawk killed two guards, too?” Lina asked, frowning.

“I saw the photos, Lina. Be glad you didn't.”

“So you said she....what, did this so nobody else would do it to her?” Lucy prompted.

“Pretty much.” Lina gave a sad nod. “And her dad's second wife wanted to erase her memory of her original mom.”

“She mentioned that his second wife also told him to ignore her, apparently.” I shrugged. “From what I understand, her whole situation kind of sucked—she was scared of getting abandoned and forgotten, or reprogrammed...she was afraid of that nutjob android with the mohawk....she apparently bought Andrew on the cheap, which would explain a lot...”

Lucy leaned on the work table (careful not to jab her elbow into the internals of the gynoid under the sheet). “Yeesh...”

“Well, at least the Dyson Institute can help her,” Lina began, only for a gasp from another table—and an “uh-oh” from Dani—cut her off. “I, ah, think we've got a sleeper here...”

“Oh, great...” Lucy groaned, and Lina had to jog to keep up with her while I wheeled myself over.

“.....what the....” The redhead on the table looked a bit taller than Lina, with a slightly bigger cup size. “....where the heck am I?” She sat up a bit, noticing others on nearby tables with visible internals. “....what's going on here?”

Lucy sighed. “Look, it's a long story—”

“I'm a college student, not a.....what are those, robots?!” The redhead looked somewhat panicked. “Is this some kind of special effects studio or something? Why am I surrounded by robot girls? Are they....” She eyed Lucy with a hint of suspicion. “....did you steal all of them or something? Did you take me?!”

“Just let me explain—”

“And why can't I see anything below my boobs?” The redhead looked down, groping at her open panel. “And what are these....why are there cables going from somewhere into....” Her features scrunched up in confusion. “What's going on around here?!”

“Just take a hit of this,” Lucy advised, pulling up a breath mask from under the table. “Count backwards from 100.”

“....why should I—wait, why does she have a screwdriver?!” The redhead noticed one of the coverall-clad gynoid techs approaching. “Don't come any closer—” All emotion left her face for a moment, as the tech manipulated something in her opened panel with the screwdriver; within seconds, the redhead relaxed. “....I can see down there, now....wait, since when did I have a panel down there?” Her eyes went wide. “....are those....are all those mechanical things inside me? Is anything broken? I mean....what happened to me?”

“Like I said,” Lucy replied, “it's a long story—”

“What happ—happen—happened—happened—” A gasp left her lips; her internals started kicking into high gear, with lights flashing and components very audibly spinning up. “I'm....I'm a ro-ro-ro-ro-robot-bot-bot-bot—” Her back arched, and her eyes crossed. “....I'm...a robot....too?”

“Hold her down.” Lucy nodded to Dani and Fenton, before turning her attention back to the redhead. “Just relax...”

“I've...been....repaired-paired-paired-paired before-fore-fore-fore—” An angry buzz sounded behind her eyes.

“Just put the mask on and take a deep breath,” Lucy suggested. “Everything will be fine—”

“I've had my-had my-had my-had my-had my-my-my-my-myyyyyyyyyyyyyyy—” The redhead's hips started thrusting up against nothing; Lina immediately braced an arm against her knees, to keep her from bucking too hard and/or falling off the table. “....my parts replaced before....my pan-pan-pan-panels o-o-o-oooooooooohhhhh.....” Her remark faded into a moan. “....oh, what's hap-hap-hap-happening to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEE!”

“Ah, Lucy,” Lina stated, “I think she's, ah....”

Lucy did a great job at not groaning. “Just put on the mask, okay?” she advised. “You're not really supposed to be awake for this part, so....”

Still moaning, the redhead nodded and let Lucy slip the mask over her face.

“Now just breathe in, deeply.....”

The redhead took a deep breath—and at that moment, Lucy nodded at Dani, who quickly reached behind the redhead's ear and pressed something. Mid-moan, the redhead let out a slight “Eep” before powering down and laying back on the table. Her thrusting slowed to a halt.

“Get her over to the corner over there,” Lucy advised, “and let the techs, ah, help her finish...”

Dani nodded, with only the faintest hint of a blush on her cheeks; Fenton helped her roll the table over to the corner as Lucy had suggested.

“....so it's gonna be a whole day of this, then?” I mused.

“A whole few days,” Lucy corrected. “You're probably gonna want to go talk to Frank for a while...some of these...” She glanced back at the unmoving blonde under the sheet. “....they can't all have happy endings.”

Lina briefly draped an arm around Lucy's shoulder in sympathy, mourning with her for those too far gone to save.

I gave them the moment of silence they needed, my own gaze fixed on the motionless figure of the blonde laying on the table. Ellie had said that Andrew didn't have a clue what he was doing when he'd first tried using Corona Ansata to put all those abducted gynoids under his control...

“Lucy.” I could tell Lina was hesitant. “That thing you were working on, Corona...”

“Corona Ansata,” Lucy finished. “For the Institute—MIT, not the Dyson Institute.” She glanced my way as she spoke, as if to make sure I understood.

“....that one, yeah...”

“You were shielded against it from day one, Lina.”

Lina nodded. “And I'm guessing that since Andrew couldn't use that to put me in the crate....”

“He turned you off the old-fashioned way. Finger behind the ear, and all that....” Lucy sighed. “Before you and Matt tie the knot, I may need to upgrade your off-switch with a biometric sensor, so it doesn't just let any old rando walk up and shut you off....”

“...so it's actually possible to add a biometric scanner to her off-switch?”

“It's not as difficult as you probably think.” Lucy turned her attention to the blonde on the table. “Like I said earlier, Matt, you should probaly go find Frank, seeing as how he's been going on for a while about his plane.” She frowned. “I think I heard him ranting about 'getting it back'...dunno if they're considering impounding the plane or not, after that whole smuggling thing....”

“I guess we'll find out when we go talk to him.” I glanced at Lina. “Right?”

“....I guess so.” She shared a quick hug with Lucy, wishing her good luck with the recovered gynoids.

With that, we headed off to find Uncle Frank, somewhat confused about the whole “get the plane back” thing that Lucy had brought up. “...you think she meant 'get the plane back from the airport'?” Lina asked.

“No idea. Hopefully, he can tell us when we get there....”

The ALPA building had a hangar of its own, though it was mostly empty when we showed up—at least, empty in terms of aircraft. There were still people milling around, running checks on stuff and generally making themselves useful in any way they could. Peach was sitting on a work table, still wearing the outfit that had inspired her nickname—though in this case, said outfit was unzipped at the back while a tech was working on her internals. As for Uncle Frank....

“....no, no, no, you listen here! What they were using my plane for was completely unauthorized, without anything even resembling my permission! I just....no, the last three people I talked to told me exactly what you just said!”

Lina, for her part, ignored Uncle Frank's tirade, focusing on Peach. “Matt told me you're the one who flew the plane.”

“I was.” Peach nodded. “I got a piloting software package as an anniversary gift—”

“Right!” I snapped my fingers, remembering her mention of it. “You said John gave it to you!”

“....who?” Peach frowned.

“....John. Your....boyfriend, I assume....”

Peach looked more than a bit confused. “....I don't know anyone named John,” she mused. “I did get the software suite as a gift, but not from—” She stiffened, just as the tech behind her adjusted something in her back.

“You think Andrew messed up her memory with the tablet?” Lina quietly asked.

I shrugged. “Can't even tell, at this rate..”

“Accessing. Memory. Files. Please...Wait..” Peach's voice had gone flat and emotionless, with a lot of weird, out of place pauses between her words as she spoke. “Please....Wait...”

“....unbelievable. Absolutely UN-believable!” Uncle Frank had apparently finished the phone call he'd been on when Lina and I had arrived, and he still wasn't happy. “Just because those macadamia nuts had to steal my plane, I've spent all this time filling out a novel of forms for the FAA and CIA!” He shook his head at the thought before realizing that I had no idea what he was talking about. “....it's a reference,” he explained. “An old song....eh, never mind.”

“And you can't just get your plane back from Portsmouth International?” Lina inquired.

“Oh, I wish it was that easy....” Uncle Frank groaned. “I've had to track down all the papers I signed when I first got the DC-10, just to prove I own the thing....good thing I never threw any of 'em out.”

“Memory. Files. Found.” Peach blinked, in a noticably robotic fashion, before “coming to life” again, her attention on Uncle Frank. “Still no luck finding the ownership papers?” she asked; her voice had gone back to its perfectly realistic sound, her expression and posture lively.

“I've got pals trackin' 'em down as we speak. Any closer to getting in touch with your owner?”

Peach looked a bit crestfallen. “....I don't actually remember who my owner is.”

Uncle Frank rested a hand on her shoulder. “Tell you what, I'll help you sort that out once I can prove I own my plane.”

“I sill don't get that. The plane is registered in your name already isn't it?”

“Of course it is....but they don't exactly take that into account when some jack'o'lantern decides to take it for a joyride and pile the interior with stolen gynoids!” Uncle Frank shook his head, staring around at the forms he'd already laid out on tables and desks around him. “...I'll be at this for the rest of the day, knowing my luck...”

“Maybe I can....” Peach paused as her back was sealed up. “....sorry. Anyway, maybe I can help!”

Uncle Frank was more than a bit taken aback. “...you really wanna help me sort through paperwork?”

“It'd be better than waiting around forever to see who shows up to 'collect' me,” Peach replied, sighing. “Come to think of it....I've been here for hours, and nobody's showed up to bring me anywhere....and I don't even remember my owner's name....or what he looked like...”

Lina glanced at me, then at Peach. “....well, maybe 'John' was just a preset name.”

“Except she had the piloting programming installled,” I reminded her. “Pretty sure that wasn't a preset—”

“You said it was installed last year?” Uncle Frank cut in.

Peach nodded, somewhat hesitantly. “I did....at least, I think it was....”

“Well, this file check says it was installed last week.” Uncle Frank held up a tablet with one hand, sighing. “I'm willing to bet it was either Andrew or that crate you were in that installed the piloting software, and that you were supposed to be the one to fly the DC-10, leaving Andrew and, ah...what was her name, Ellen?”

“Ellie,” Lina corrected.

Uncle Frank snapped his fingers. “That's the one, Ellie....Andrew and Ellie to run for it when or if the plane was stopped by the proper authorities. They programmed you to be the pilot right out of the box!”

“....so....I don't have a boyfriend?”

“Unless the techs can find otherwise in your records...” Uncle Frank shrugged. “But on the bright side, this means you're free to choose your own path in life! Forge your own way, write your own story...all that stuff.” He grinned. “If you need a place to stay, I've got a few rooms in the compound under the hangar....” His smile faltered a bit in the face of Peach's confused look. “....the ALPA needed a place to put a repair lab, and for lodging to give to androids and gynoids who need somewhere to stay for a while, there was plenty of room under the hangar....” He shrugged. “Plenty of free rooms, if you want one—and pardon my asking, but is your name really Peach? I mean, that can't be your real name...can it?”

“My name's actually Mina, but we just went with Peach. And if I have an owner...”

“Then you'll be free to go back to whoever that individual might be, whenever you want.”

After a few more seconds, Peach nodded. “Thanks.” She accepted Uncle Frank's hand, as if to shake it, then pulled him in for a hug. “And if I don't have an owner....”

Uncle Frank gently pulled away. “Well, I'm, ah, due to get married.....in a few months, or so....but the airfield is always lookin' for extra pilots. Once you, ah...” He nodded at Peach—or rather, her attire. “....change your look to something a bit more...I dunno, conventional....”

“If she's going off of factory presets,” Lina mused, “that might've just been some special outfit she was shipped in.”

“Whatever the case,” Uncle Frank replied, “I'm sure the airfield will be more than happy to have her as a new pilot.” He regarded Peach with that wise smile of his, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Wherever life takes you, be it to an owner or to the airfield, I really and truly hope everything works out for you.”

“Thanks—and you can still call me Peach, if you want. Keep the confusion to a minimum, and all.” She giggled, but I couldn't help but notice it was kind of...sad.

Lina was about to wheel my chair out when four more techs, each with a rolling table between them, made their way into the hangar. The first table bore Siobhan, her “in-flight” attire swapped out for a sports bra and tights; she looked a bit sullen—which made sense, given the fact that her left arm was still detached. Mai—her head now removed from her body, but looking surprisingly calm about things—rested on the second table, still clad in her lingere set. One of the techs handed Uncle Frank a tablet, prompting a nod. “...well, we've got quite a story for these two—”

“'These two' can tell their own story, thank you very much,” Siobhan cut in, rolling her eyes. “I'm hopin' you gave that psycho android prick what he deserved, Harker....”

I nodded. “Kicked a steel pipe into his chest, and he went flying out of the cargo bay.”

“Nice!” Siobhan gave a thumbs-up. “I'd clap for ya, but...” She nodded at the wires, hoses and metal jutting out of her left shoulder socket. “...hopefully, that'll be enough for my mate's soul to find peace....”

“Your owner?” Lina inquired.

Siobhan nodded, her smile fading. “That fookin' android with the mohawk murdered 'im, before he took me. We'd left Ireland after the Accords got signed...big hooplah with the church an' all—we just wanted some peace'n'quiet, and to get a new start on the all-android fightin' circuit, in my case—”

“Siobhan Lynch!”

Millie's Southern drawl cut off Siobhan's recounting of her story, as the gynoid in question sashayed (I wish I was kidding) over to the table. “It's been....almost half a decade since we last saw each other,” Millie mused, clearly surprised.

“Never thought I'd hear that voice o'yours again,” Siobhan replied, managing a grin. “You didn't get scrapped, then?”

“You can thank Mr. Frank Holmwood for that.” Millie gestured at Uncle Frank, who nodded. “I, ah, won an auction to rescue her from the scrap pile.” I have no idea how he managed to make that sound so casual, but he somehow pulled it off. “The ALPA fronted the cash for it....and now, Millie's got a room of her own at the lab under the hangar.”

“A lab....under a hangar.” Siobhan glanced from Uncle Frank to Millie, frowning.

“It's a combination of things,” Millie explained. “There's a repair center, for the obvious purpose. Androids and gynoids with no place of their own get free room and board—myself included...” She planted a hand on her hip. “...now that I think about it, how did you get mixed up in all of this?”

“Me and my man, Domhall, were travellin', tryin' to settle down....” Siobhan sighed. “He got killed when I got taken.”

Millie's eyes went wide. “....I'm so sorry to hear that, Siobhan....”

“Ultimate irony.” Siobhan closed her eyes, her body motionless as the techs ran connectors from her arm socket to her left arm. “We left Ireland to find peace, and instead I get stuffed in a box....just like the man I loved.”

Lina gently touched her right hand. “Do you have any contacts in this country?”

“The only people I've met so far've been Matt, the other girls on the plane, the ones who killed....” She turned away, as if not wanting to speak the name of her departed lover again. “...the ones who killed my boyfriend—my owner, by choice, if you must know—and you lot. Not exactly a full address book—”

“Frank,” Millie cut in, “call the lab and have 'em set up a room for Siobhan.”

“....I, ah, just offered one to Peach from the plane—”

“And you can offer Siobhan a room, as well.” Millie turned her attention to Siobhan, her glare softening. “We may not have been teammates during the tournament all those years ago,” she murmured, “but it'd be downright dishonorable for me to not offer you a place to call your own in tryin' times like these.”

Siobhan opened her eyes, staring at Millie. “....you're really askin' him to give me a room?”

“Unless you'd prefer to ask him yourself....” Millie nodded at Uncle Frank, who nodded (again).

“....fine. Frank Holmwood....these rooms, at this lab under this hangar. They've got showers, right?”

“They do. High-flow, even...not those low-flow ones that everyone complains about.” Uncle Frank gave a thumbs-up. “I swear by 'em, I really do.”

“...got a gym down there? I spar in my off time.”

“We could certainly make arrangements to have part of the rec room cordoned off to be a sparring chamber, yeah.”

Siobhan nodded. “Sounds perfect to me...and Millie, thanks.” She nodded again, turning to glance at Mai—or at least, Mai's head. “Everything holdin' up well on your end?”

“I'd feel a lot better if my head were reattached,” Mai replied, “but I'm still functioning, so...”

“Glad to hear it. Any chance you remember things before they threw you in a crate?”

Mai rolled her eyes—which looked a bit weird, given her motionless body was resting on the same table. “I might as well admit that I was employed at....an adult entertainment establishment—”

“You can say 'strip club',” Siobhan reminded her. “No need to tone it down here.”

“.....a strip club,” Mai continued. “Apparently, the owner thought it would be a good idea to cater to the whole idea of massages with 'happy endings', and all that....they didn't really, but he hired a lot of Asian women for the back rooms anyway, to at least foster a reputation for it. They were all trained—or programmed, if they were like me—in the art of the sensual massage....I had a consistent ranking in the top three every week.”

Uncle Frank had been scrolling through the news on a tablet since Mai had mentioned her employment; when she got to the “top three every week” bit, he snapped his fingers and nodded. “....well, there you go.”

“.....there you go, what?” I frowned. “She was just talking about—”

“Her former place of employment,” Uncle Frank finished. “Unfortunately, emphasis on 'former'....” He held the tablet so Mai could see the screen. “That banana butter nutjob with the mohawk must've trashed the place whenever he took you out of it....the owner's taking out loans just to pay to get the building back up!”

Mai groaned. “And he probably won't be able to afford to hire me back....”

“Maybe he won't need to.” Siobhan grinned. “Frank here just told me how he's got a lab under a hangar with free room and board for those of us without our own place....I'm already up for one, and I wouldn't mind sharin' a room with you, if you're so inclined.”

Just as Siobhan had been surprised at Millie's insistence that she get a room under the hangar, Mai was equally stunned.

“And you two won't have any problems sharin' a room?” Millie inquired. “I mean, you're a fighter, and she's....”

“A masseuse.”

Millie regarded me with a frown, but Siobhan spoke up before she could. “Tell ya what, Mai. I'll teach you everything you could ever ask for when it comes to self-defense, and you can teach me how to...I dunno, give deep tissue massages on my off-days. Fair trade?”

“Definitely!” Mai grinned....then frowned. “....I'd shake your hand, if I could...”

“Eh, don't worry about it,” Siobhan assured her. “I'd just as soon wait 'til my feckin' arm was back on.”

“That'll be sorted out soon enough...” Uncle Frank turned, only to recoil. “Matt! You're in a wheelchair?!”

“.....you just noticed that now.” I sighed. “Bruised tendon, from dropkicking the pipe into Mr. Mohawk....runs the risk of me getting plantar fasciitis, I think, without applications of balm and various other medicine..left foot was pretty cut up, too, hence the medical-grade socks. Doctor said I'd need to be off my feet until they heal.”

Lina reached down and hugged my shoulders. “And they will heal,” she added, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek.

“....right, right...” Uncle Frank nodded. “SO, ah....just got a call from your place, Matt, before these yahoos called me about the plane....Theresa is getting along great with the cat.”

I chuckled. “By which you mean the cat did her usual routine, and Tracy didn't really have to do anything.”

“.....well, yeah, pretty much...” Uncle Frank shrugged. “She did bathe the cat, though.”

At this, I could only roll my eyes. “Any mention of compensation for getting scratched to Hell and back?”

Uncle Frank shrugged. “She didn't sound like someone who'd been scratched to Hell and back, to be honest.”

“Fair enough.” I leaned back in the chair, sighing. “Maybe we can....” My train of thought was momentarily derailed by the small problem of having rested my right foot on the wheelchair's...foot rest, pretty much, and sending a wave of pain up my leg. “Gaaahaaaaaaaaa......”

“Matt?”

“.....my foot......foot rest.....pain......”

Lina sighed. “Let's get that balm on your foot, then. Hopefully, it'll help.” Lina retrieved the jar and, in full view of Uncle Frank, Siobhan and Mai (I couldn't really tell if her head was positioned at a good angle to see it), rubbed the balm over the sole of my foot. There was something in the gentle, almost caressing motions of her hands across my feet that just seemed to melt the pain away....helped along by her looking up from applying the balm and staring right into my eyes, giving me that beautiful smile of hers.

At that moment, I couldn't help but feel blessed for knowing her—and for the fact that I'd be marrying her.

A few hours later, Fenton showed up in the hangar with that look on his face that said he had a lot on his mind. I could tell he was glad that I was okay, but I also knew he probably had a lot to talk about. He ushered Lina, Uncle Frank, Lucy and me off into a corner, away from the techs and everyone else; Dani was already there, with a few chairs in place for us all to sit. “....I, ah.....first of all, I wanted to thank you again for helping me get Dani back.” He grinned. “If you hadn't gone to the Greensfield complex to find Lina, they wouldn't have called me to tell me Dani was there....”

“Not a problem, Fenton...but....” I hesitated.

“Matt?” Lina touched my shoulder.

“.....I can tell something else is on your mind, Fenton. Anything you want to talk about, you can—”

“After Mom got committed.....” Fenton stared up at the ceiling, exhaling a sharp breath. “You got the house, I got a nice chunk of change....made plenty of connections and all that when I moved uptown. The thing is....” He closed his eyes. “I fell pretty far, Matt. Talked to some people I shouldn't have....'just a little of this every morning, it'll keep you sharp all damn day', that sort of thing.”

“You were on cocaine?” I was surprised at how even my voice sounded.

“....it wasn't just cocaine, Matt. I was....experimenting. The worst I ever got was....” A tear snaked down Fenton's cheek, as if he were almost ashamed to continue. “Nitrous oxide. Every other weekend, I'd....these people would meet up with me, we'd go crash out at some random building and just huff...I was jealous of you, okay?! I was pissed off at myself, and pissed at you, but....” His fists balled up, gripping the armrests of his chair. “....I couldn't take it out on you, ever. Even if I thought you had everything you ever wanted.....you're my brother. I couldn't just haul off and beat your ass because I was jealous.....I couldn't take it out on Dad, since he's the one who helped me get the place uptown, and I damn sure couldn't take it out on Mom, since.....”

“I get it.” I nodded.

“I couldn't take it out on anyone else, so I took it out on myself.” Fenton sighed. “I kept up with the coke for....probably the rest of a year. I ended up getting clean, with help...but I knew that it'd cost me to stay clean, so I started saving. Got a nice job with my computer science skills—and yes, I started writing, or trying to, on the side, since it'd worked out so well for you....” He shook his head. “The night I burned my manuscript in the sink, I nearly fell off the wagon...it was one of the worst nights of my life.”

Dani reached over and gently laid a hand on his shoulder.

“....I didn't call you, Matt, because....I couldn't. I talked to a few of my co-workers, asked 'em if they knew any ways for me to stay clean that wouldn't break the bank, and they directed me to....” He gave a brief chuckle. “Can't even think of the name, now....anyway, I got paired up with Dani right off the bat. Even when we weren't in a session, I could call her whenever I needed to—group policy. I'll never forget that first session with her, where she introduced herself and then opened her panel....” He regarded Dani with a smile, which she returned. “The treatment policy states that everyone who goes into the treatment knows their counselor is a fully-sentient android or gynoid,” she explained. “For anyone who needed a bit of an extra push to stay sober....well, it worked.”

Fenton nodded his agreement. “One weekend, I fell off the wagon. Back on the coke again...even dabbled in ketamine, which I'm not proud of at all. I was.....” He closed his eyes again, weeping at the memory. “There were faces in the walls, I saw a head in the damn toilet, and it was laughing at me, and the floor wouldn't shut up, and there were two of me already in my damn bed telling me how much my life sucked....” Again, Dani rested her hand on his shoulder. “...I called her. Pretty sure I was screaming, because I was seeing things no sane person should ever see in their life.”

“I stayed with him the rest of the night, helping him throught the come-down,” Dani added. “After that....we talked.”

“She wasn't supposed to be there, really,” Fenton admitted. “Civil-service 'bot, limited duties, 'rules and regulations', all that crap....but she was there.” He took her hand in his own, holding it. “....she told me right then and there that she'd asked to be paired with me because she liked the job. She told her story, I told mine...once I started cleaning up again, we were dating. She had to hide it from the folks at the center—again, 'the rules'....” He rolled his eyes.

“I quit, eventually,” Dani added. “The job at the center, not....” She grinned and squeezed Fenton's hand. “Got another job, to help Fenton stay clean.”

“Two and a half years after we first met,” Fenton continued, “and....what, a year and a half after you broke protocol and started dating me?”

Dani nodded. “Something along those lines.”

“.....well, whenever it was....” Fenton grinned. “She'd bought a ring and proposed.”

Lina grinned, taking my hand as she did. “That's awesome!”

I nodded my agreement. “And you two were going to tell us....when, exactly?”

“Well, I....” Fenton chuckled again. “I didn't really know what to say when she proposed, to be honest. It was just...I mean, it was unexpected, y'know?”

“He said yes, obviously.” Dani squeezed Fenton's hand again.

“The whole point of the party at your place was to tell you that I was gonna marry Dani,” Fenton explained. “The whole thing of it being work-related was all BS....I was still clean and sober, just so you know...the only thing I was 'high' on was caffeine. That, and some of the idiots I invited—and some who just showed up....wrecked my mood right off the bat.”

“Lina did say you looked strung-out when you showed up that one night,” I mused.

“That's putting it mildly.” Fenton shook his head. “And I was strung-out so damn much because Dani had gone missing a few days before the party. I was out of my damn mind with worry....I had no clue if she'd been taken, or if she'd just gone off to have some time on her own, or what, so I shotgunned caffeine for days trying to figure out what to do.”

“Which explains why you were buzzed out of your mind by the time Lina and I got there,” Lucy mused, nodding.

“And why I lashed out at Lina—again, I'm really sorry that happened, Lina, but.....” He buried his face in his hands as he spoke. “.....when you tried to stand up for Matt, all I could see was Dani. I....I thought she'd just left me...”

Dani actually got out of her chair to hug Fenton. “You know I wouldn't do that,” she murmured. “And Lina....”

Lina's smile said more than any words could've, at that moment. She'd already forgiven Fenton back at his place, but this time, he was actually thinking clearly and able to fully appreciate the gesture.

Fenton and Dani broke their embrace, smiling at each other. “Dani's going back to her job, once the wedding's over and done with,” Fenton stated. “She's getting her ownership setting changed to 'self', too, once we've tied the knot...” He gave Dani's hand an appreciative squeeze. “After all she's done for me, it's the least I could do for her.”

“Well, we're definitely going to be there for you on the big day,” Lina assured him. “Have you told anyone else in your family that you two are getting married?”

“Dad knows....well, he knows that part,” Fenton admitted. “The other stuff.....not so much.”

Uncle Frank nodded. “I, ah.....I knew....a bit of it. Quite a bit, actually.”

“And you didn't tell me?” I couldn't bring myself to glare at him.

“I didn't want you to worry that Fenton was in over his head with anything!” Uncle Frank insisted. “I know how you two are, and how you can get. The last thing you two needed was to get in some spat over Fenton's predicament! Besides, he swore me to secrecy about...well, about quite a lot of it, actually.”

“...I get it.” I nodded, turning to glance at Fenton. “.....funny.”

Fenton frowned. “What's funny?”

“....when I agreed to host the party at my place....or to let you host the party at my place....this is the last thing I could've ever expected. The two of us, about to get married to beautiful women—who just so happen to be humanoid female robots, at that....and Uncle Frank on the verge of getting married, as well.” I turned to regard Lina, whose smile was just as bright as my own. “Obviously, you're all invited to our wedding, whenever we have it....and I only hope that, ah, you'll return the favor and invite us to yours.”

“You know you're already on the guest list for mine,” Fenton declared, barely able to stop grinning.

“I'd consider myself a far lesser human being than I am if I didn't invite you to mine, Matt,” Uncle Frank stated. “And for the record, Lina, Dani and Fenton are invited to my wedding, as well.”

“And you, Matt, Lina and Lucy are invited to mine,” Fenton replied. “It'll be a Hell of a thing...three weddings, all done in one week....I'm pretty sure nobody else in the family has gone to that many in a month, let alone one week....and before then....” He glanced at Dani, as if to ask her if it was okay to bring up another topic; she merely nodded, and he turned his attention to Lucy. “.....there's, ah, one thing Dani asked me to ask you about—”

“Installing a biometric scanner to make sure only you can turn Dani on or off?”

Lucy's deadpan delivery was...more than a bit surprising to Fenton. “....how'd you—”

“I suggested the same thing to Matt, for Lina—figured you'd want it integrated, as well.” Lucy shrugged.

“....well, I already have the sensor installed,” Dani admitted, leaning over and allowing Fenton to point out the smallish bump behind her right ear. “But I think that idiot Andrew may have hacked it or something, and I just want to make sure it's set to only work for Fenton's fingerprints...”

“I can do that.” Lucy nodded. “Better yet, I'll upgrade the biometric scanner to a DNA lock.”

Fenton and I exchanged confused looks. “....DNA lock?”

“Y'know those insulin readers that you stick your thumb or finger on? This works kinda like that, except it checks and verifies a genetic signauture....it's not all that complicated.” Lucy rolled her eyes. “Or at least it's less complicated than I'm probably making it sound.”

“And it won't take too long to install?”

“In your case, Dani, it just needs to be reconfigured, since Andrew was able to bypass it....” Lucy got out of her chair. “I can probably get yours reconfigured and Lina's installed in....30 minutes, tops.”

Lina nodded. “Dani can go first...then me.” She turned to grin at me. “It'll be worth the wait, I think.....”

Lucy, Fenton, Dani, Lina and I all headed to the lab—with Uncle Frank in tow, to observe the process of how the on/off switches would be upgraded and installed. From the bits of conversation I heard along the way, it was obvious that the process of sorting through all the gynoids from the DC-10 wouldn't be over and done with any time soon—apparently, far too many of them had lost memories or critical system files thanks to whatever stupid processes had been running in their crates.

Before I had a chance to ask Lucy about it, though, we were at the lab.

“Right....” Lucy cracked her knuckles, gesturing for Dani to sit in a chair with a low backrest. “Just take a seat and let me get the tools, and we'll get started.” A technician handed her a pair of what looked like laser pointers, one of which was aimed at Dani's scalp as Lucy pressed the switch . She traced Dani's hairline with the light from the thing, and—as Lina, Uncle Frank, Fenton and I all watched—she proceeded to peel back the hair and scalp, as well as a bit of the skin near Dani's right ear. “Only bit of advice I can give right now is to hold still,” she advised, retrieving a set of small screwdrivers and such from the technician. “You don't have to deactivate or anything, just...stay absolutely still, until this whole thing is finished....”

“I'll do my best.” Dani kept her cool, staring straight ahead as Lucy did her work.

Things went by smoothly, even after Lucy asked Fenton to let her prick his finger for a drop of blood (the necessary DNA sample for the lock). I wasn't really keeping track of the time, but it felt like there wasn't that big of a gap between the impromptu “donation” Fenton had made, and Lucy sealing Dani's skin and scalp back up with the second of the laser tools. “Okay, that should do it—you can stand up now, Dani.”

Dani nodded and got out of the chair, a nervous smile on her lips. “....well, want to test it, Fenton?”

“It's the same as before, right? Just press and hold....”

“The only difference is that only you can activate or deactivate her that way.” Lucy gestured to Dani. “Go ahead and test it now, if you want.”

Fenton approached Dani, one hand resting on her shoulder. “You ready?”

“Just remember to turn me on again after,” Dani teased.

With a nod, Fenton reached behind her right ear and held down; after a few seconds, her eyes closed and she slumped forward a bit, almost seeming to lean on Fenton for support. “....one-thousand, two one-thousand, three....” He pressed inwards again, holding down the switch and then releasing it....

...and Dani's eyes opened, slowly, as she stood back up to regard Fenton.

“...babe?”

“....no, I'm Dani....” Her attempt at re-enacting her reactivaiton from the Greensfield complex ended in a giggle. “Sorry, I couldn't resist...” She leaned forward and kissed Fenton on the lips. “The upgrade worked,” she beamed, “and you're now registered as the only one with access to my on/off switch....lucky you.” She reached up and twirled a few locks of Fenton's hair between her fingers. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem.” Fenton grinned, reciprocating her earlier kiss with one of his own.

“All right, all right...” Lucy rolled her eyes, but I could tell she was proud to have helped Fenton and Dani out. “Lina, you're gonna want to go to that one...” She nodded at another chair. “....since I have to install the biometric lock in you first, and then upgrade it.”

Lina nodded. “Does Matt need to prick his finger like Fenton did, or....”

“They got a blood sample from him when he was laid up after trying to get you back from Greensfield.” Lucy watched, her expression impassive, as Lina took her seat. “Just like I told Dani—try not to move, and this shouldn't take more than a few minutes....” She readied the first of the laser tools, carefully tracing it along Lina's scalp and the skin behind her right ear. One of the technician gynoids handed over a small, locked box (probably for the sensor Lucy was going to install), and Lucy set to work carefully disengaging components and moving wires around to put the sensor where it needed to go.

I never looked away from Lina's face the whole time—the only expression on her face was one of absolute serenity, even when Lucy was working on her internals with a power screwdriver. The one time her expression changed was when the switch itself was connected—her eyes went slightly wide, and she let out a brief gasp, but it was just for a moment, and her calm demeanor reasserted itself shortly after.

Again, I didn't really have a good grasp of the time, but it went by pretty quickly (or at least it felt like it did). I was still looking into Lina's eyes when Lucy declared “Right, you can get up now, Lina.”

Lina nodded, getting out of the chair and turning her head a few times. “....nothing feels too loose or too tight...”

“Only thing you need to do now is to let Matt test the switch.” Lucy nodded to me. “You want to try standing—”

“Let me.” Lina knelt before me. “Ready?”

“.....yeah.”

The smile on Lina's face eased any doubts I might've had. “You've reactivated me before, remember?”

“I know, I know...” I sighed. “Are you ready?”

“Of course. Just....” Lina put her hands on my shoulders, her gaze never wavering. “Now I'm ready.”

I nodded, reaching around for the switch and pressing it. To my surprise, the smile didn't leave Lina's face, even as her head bowed forward to rest, gently, on my shoulder—apart from the fact that I was in a wheelchair, it felt almost like we were slow-dancing or something. That feeling in the pit of my stomach—the one I'd felt when I'd first frozen her with FCon in the bathroom, the day of the party—was back in full force, times probably a thousand....but I didn't let it deter me. I counted off a silent “one.....two.....three”, pressed the button....

Lina's head raised with a faint whir of servos, her eyes glowing slightly as she smiled at me. I nearly said something, wanting to ask her if she was okay...but as the glow faded from her eyes, she beat me to the punch by leaning forward and drawing me in for a kiss.

The fact that Ashwyn had apparently snuck into the lab, evidenced by her cheering “WOO-HOO!”, didn't bother me at all. Fenton, Dani, Uncle Frank and even Lucy applauding our kiss didn't bug me, either. Hell, I barely registered anything in the room until Lina pulled back, a few tears in her eyes. “....I'm okay,” she assured me, before I could even ask. “I'm just....ever since Lucy first activated me.....this is all I ever wanted. Well, this and to get married—”

“I get it.” I didn't care that I had tears in my eyes, even as I laughed. “....this is what I've always wanted, too.”

Now, I could go on to tell you everything else we did that day, and even do a bit of a time-skip to get to the part where we started prepping for the wedding—compiling the guest lists, the stag and hen nights, all that good stuff—but that's another story entirely.....

Epilogue

“Matt?”

Every time I hear Lina's voice as I'm waking up, I have to remind myself it's not a dream—thankfully, it never is. This time was no exception. “....yeah?”

“You were half-asleep again....just wanted to make sure you hadn't nodded off before we made it.” As per usual, Lina was driving, though I was looking into taking driving lessons and finally getting a license of my own either before or after our wedding. “And thanks again for agreeing to come with me for this visit....I'm pretty sure it'll mean a lot to her.”

“Right...” I yawned and stretched in the passenger seat. “Not a problem.”

Lina's eyes glowed briefly as she synced up to the systems of Lucy's car, then returned to normal as she turned to regard me. “You're not....regretting being here, are you?”

“It's not that.” I stretched again. “It's my damn foot again....I might've kicked something in my sleep last night.”

“You've had three foot soaks, and we've almost gotten to the halfway mark of that jar of Tiger Balm.” Lina sighed. “I thought that bruised tendon would've healed up by now.”

“Well, runnning and dropkicking a steel pipe into an android's chest tends to hurt...a lot.” I chuckled. “I've only done it once, of course, not that I'd ever want to do it again....anyway.” I leaned back in the passenger seat. “Once my foot's fully healed, I have to go check in on Mom at the mental clinic...you'll probably want to skip that one.” The smile I'd had was already gone, replaced with a scowl.

“Let's just focus on where we're heading today,” Lina suggested, giving me one of those beautiful smiles of hers.

“.....you ever worry that you'll put the car in a ditch doing that?”

As if to respond, the car flawlessly turned a corner without Lina's hands ever touching the steering wheel.

“....now you're just showing off.” I chuckled again. “I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this....I got a phone with what I thought was a joke app written on it, and now....”

“Now, we're prepping for our wedding,” Lina finished, smiling. The angle at which I'd reclined my seat only served to make the sunlight hitting her cast her in an incredible light—I'd have sworn that she was straight out of a photo from a catalog or an ad campaign, if I wasn't sitting right next to her. “You think you'll need the chair when we get there, or can you put any weight on your foot?”

“Chair.” I sighed. “I'll take all the Charles Xavier jokes anyone can throw at me if it means not hurting myself worse.”

“You'd have to shave your head to look like Charles Xavier,” Lina replied, probably giggling at the mental image of me with a shaved head. “We'll do another foot soak tonight, and apply more of the Tiger Balm.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. How much farther until we get there?”

Lina's gaze returned to the road, her eyes once again glowing blue. “We. Will. Arrive. At. Our. Destination. In. The. Span. Of. Approximately. Thirty. Five. Minutes.” Just after she'd said “Minutes” in that flat, robotic voice that prompted the all-too familiar stirrings down South, she cracked a smile. “Sorry. I. Couldn't....” Apparently, trying to keep up the act was just too goofy for her, and she started giggling. Intentionally acting robotic to see what I'd say or do had become one of a few running jokes of hers—which, of course, I thoroughly appreciated.

“If anyone says their GPS has a voice that's sexier than yours,” I muttered, “they're a damn liar.” I couldn't help but grin.

Even as the car continued onwards towards the state branch of the Dyson Institute, I couldn't help but think of what went down in the hours after I'd proposed to Lina. For starters, Ashwyn had spread the word of the impending triple wedding—Lina getting married to me, Dani tying the knot with Fenton, and Lucy's nuptials with Uncle Frank—around, leading to congratulations from Millie, Siobhan, Peach, Mai, Hera and Kona (Adrienne was on assignment somewhere). Even Simon, the Regional Director, showed up to give us his congratulations and all that, which was a pretty good morale boost that added onto everyone's already great moods for the day.

A bit of intriguing news had come our way thanks to Mai—it turns out that the same “adult entertainment venue” that she'd worked at had also hired Hera...and Hera also volunteered as a “living exhibit” to a local history museum, due to her “unique, striking beauty” and such (and the fact that the club owner was fully supportive of the Accords, and let Hera do her volunteer thing on her off days). From what Mai told me about her routine, she was almost literally a goddess, slowly and regally disrobing for the “mere mortals” who paid for the privilege. When she wasn't doing her job on the stage or giving private dances in the back, she did her volunteer duty at the museum to be a full-on Valkyrie in an interactive display on Viking mythology (she also posed as the “actual” Hera, as in the Greek goddess, in summertime exhibits dealing with the Pantheon of Olympus), keeping her “usual job” a secret by way of using wigs, makeup and costume changes during her museum hours. Even though the club couldn't get Mai back, they could afford to keep Hera on. Of course, she immediately volunteered to visit Mai as often as possible down below the hangar, and even admitted that she might actually quit the club if Mai really wanted her to. And about that damaged leg of hers.....

Mai, Hera and Siobhan had all been repaired in the course of an hour or so, the day I'd proposed to Lina. Watching them get fixed up was...interesting, to say the least; all three were in various stages of undress, but were also laid bare by way of having their internals (or at least parts of them) exposed. Thus, it was a bit weird seeing them casually chatting with me while they were getting their limbs worked on and/or reattached.

“Can't wait to see where the League'll put me after they find out I lost me feckin' arm...” Siobhan had recovered nicely from her malfunctions; Hell, even the loss of an arm was a slight inconvenience to her. “You two holdin' up over there?”

“The damage to my leg is not severe enough to hinder my return to the club.” Hera sounded regal even half-dressed and with a power-screwdriver doing its thing in her leg. “Mai, if you truly desire, I will put in a word with management to see if they can set aside the funds necessary for your return.”

Mai had smiled at that—which was even stranger given that her head was still detached. “Thanks, Hera...but—” Her eyes went wide for a second, as another wire going from the base of her head was connected to something in the stump of her neck. “....sorry...anyway, thanks, but I've already made plans to have a room in the lab with Siobhan.” There was something in the way she'd looked at Siobhan after saying those words that made me wonder if they'd end up being more than just roommates....

“OI, Matt! Pretty sure you didn't come down here just to watch us get worked on. Somethin' on your mind?” Siobhan's friendly reminder did, indeed, help me to remember why I'd gone to the lab in the first place: “I...well, Lina and I wanted to ask all of you....”

“Would you be interested in being maids of honor at the wedding?” I could tell Lina was smiling, even though she was standing behind me (and the wheelchair). “Millie and Ashwyn already volunteered....”

Needless to say, all three of them had agreed almost instantly. Mai nearly rocked her own head off the table by trying to give an emphatic “yes” nod! Most of the talk after that had been between Lina and the other three; my foot injury was brought up a few times, and Mai offered to perform a deep tissue massage to see if it'd help. Later in the day, before the first of many foot soaks, I'd taken her up on that offer. It did hurt, of course, but the pain was surprisingly balanced out with a feeling of relief—it didn't just magically stop hurting right after the massage, but it hurt a lot less. Good stuff. Mai even volunteered to teach Lina how to massage my foot—and actually teach her, instead of just sharing programming.

Of course, there were other matters to attend to, including....

“Destination. Will. Be. Reached. In. Twenty. Minutes.” Lina punctuated her GPS impression by giggling. “Still awake, Matt, or should I turn the radio back on?”

“I'm not gonna fall asleep again, Lina.” I sighed. “I'm just....thinking.”

“What about?”

“.....when you and Lucy told me and Uncle Frank that you loved us....GOD, this is gonna sound stupid.....”

“Did we really have a full understanding of what we were saying?” There was no mockery in Lina's tone; she seemed to be genuinely curious in regards to my thoughts on the subject.

“.....that's pretty much exactly what I was going to ask, yeah.” I nodded. “And?”

“If I were to say that 'I feel tender affection for you', I'd just be quoting a dictionary definition of the term,” Lina stated, her gaze never leaving the road. “The same goes if I said I felt a romantic, sexual desire and longing for you. Nothing in terms of coding, or programming, or engineering or anything like that can explain it...” Now, she actually turned to regard me. “....but I know that I do love you, Matt, and it's not just because of the two times we slept together the day we first met. What I feel for you is....” She paused, looking a bit uncertain.

“....complicated?”

“....I've read a lot of stories,” Lina murmured, “about gynoids and androids enjoying 'being used'. How it's their function, and fulfilling that function is more than enough for them.....but that's not what I feel. With you...” She stared back out at the road. “....I want to be with you, Matt. To spend the rest of my operational, functional time on this Earth—my life, pretty much—with you. And the emotions that I'm feeling—and I am feeling them, by the way....” She chuckled, even as tears started to build in her eyes. “....I never want what happened at the Greensfield Warehouse Complex to happen again, Matt. What happened to both of us.....I never want to have to go through it again.”

She didn't need to elaborate. The memory of getting knocked the Hell out by that psycho android bastard, who then went on to throw Lina back in the capsule and shut her off again, was still vivid.

“....I don't think I've read a lot of stories that go this far into it.” I thought for a second that it was Lina who'd said those words, until I realized it was me thinking out loud. “There are some where the guy and the gynoid get together and stay together at the end, or make plans to have a relationship....but....” I leaned back. “Not saying there's anything wrong with the tried and true formulas, of course—they have their strengths and their weaknesses, more power to 'em....”

“...and our 'story'?” Lina mused.

I turned to regard her with a smile. “Our 'story' is ours to write. Not just yours or mine.”

“So if I left the car in self-drive and started taking my clothes off right now—”

Lina's “offer” was met with a groan from me, followed up by a giggle from her. “Seriously, Matt, I've said it before and I'll say it again—you're one of the most chivalrous robosexuals I've ever known.”

“It's equal parts chivalry and not wanting to get stopped by the police for public indecency.” I rolled my eyes. “I can just about imagine how they'd take the explanation of 'sorry, officer, we were talking about love and we both got kind of horny so we put it in self-drive, got naked, laid the seats back as far as they'd go and'....” I trailed off, mostly due to the fact that Lina apparently found my deadpan delivery hilarious enough to start laughing .

I shook my head, still grinning. Life with Lina was definitely going to be interesting, for both of us....

As we got closer to the Dyson Institute, my thoughts turned from what would happen if a random cop pulled us over for Driving While.....Intercoursing (if that's not a word, I couldn't care less) to other madness still going on back at the ALPA building. Before Lina and I had left, I'd wondered where Officer Rachel Drew had gone between her rescue from the Greensfield complex and the return trip to the place; turns out she was officially assigned to the case of Uncle Frank's DC-10 and helping him get it back.

“She put in a good word...a few words, really, with the precinct,” Uncle Frank had explained. “Explained how I was in no way aiding or abetting the whole smuggling ring, that my plane was being used without my consent....”

“And they asked her to help you get it back.”

“Well, the FAA isn't exactly being helpful! They told me to talk to the ALPA—the airline pilot one, not the...ah, the robot one....anyway.”

The conversation had taken place in the same lab where Peach had been getting her memories scanned; as we talked, I'd noticed that Uncle Frank barely ever stayed still. He'd go to sit down, but then stand right back up and walk over to a random spot, he'd pick up and put down at least five or six different things in the course of maybe a minute and a half, and he'd rattle off mangled similies or weird half-puns at the most random times. I could tell that he was trying to focus on both our conversation and his impending wedding to Lucy.

“You might want to slow down, Uncle Frank...you're going about a mile a minute, and it's hard for me to try and match pace with your train of thought! What's up?”

I'd had to guide Uncle Frank to a chair, just to dial it back a bit in regards to our talk. “Right...what's on your mind?”

“....about fifty things all at once, really. This thing with Lucy, and your wedding with Lina, and the hangar....”

“And you're trying to handle it all at the same time?”

“Not the ideal way to go about things, I know....” It struck me at the time—as it did when I recalled the talk, sitting in the passenger seat of Lucy's car—that Uncle Frank looked simultaneously tired and exhilarated. “The whole thing with Lucy is...it's like the opposite of the whole 'I wish I'd never been born' thing. It feels like the second chance I never got to have with Audrey—”

“You haven't told Lucy this?”

“I'm, ah, actually wondering if she feels the same way. I think she does...I hope she does....”

“You remember how she reacted when you went to propose to her, Uncle Frank—apart from the whole thing of maxing out her processors from the emotional overload....she said YES. I'm pretty sure...no, I'm positive that she feels the same way about this as you do.”

“....I hope you're right, Matt. I really do....”

The rest of the conversation had been light, and I could tell that Uncle Frank was still thinking about whether or not Lucy felt the same about him as he did about her. Before Lina and I had left for the Dyson Institute office, we actually caught a glimpse of Uncle Frank talking to Lucy....and Lucy's response (throwing her arms around him and pretty much Frenching him right in the corridor) pretty much proved that she did, in fact, feel the same way about him that he felt about her.

Pretty good stuff...and I won't lie, Millie dragging Ashwyn off with both hands over her eyes was pretty hilarious.

As for the matter at hand....

“....you're not actually thinking about taking me up on that self-drive quickie 'offer', are you?”

Lina's question jolted me out of my musings on Uncle Frank. “We'd have to go in the back,” I muttered, doing my best to keep a straight face. “The windows up here aren't tinted....we'd get busted for indecent exposure if we just went at it up here. That, and we'd need to be close to the steering wheel....” The absurdity of what I was saying pretty much won out over my attempt at stoicism—I gave in and just started laughing. Needless to say, Lina joined in pretty quickly.

About ten minutes later, having turned the conversation back to more sensible topics, we arrived at the Dyson Institute facilities. The place looked like any number of hospitals in the area, be they public or privately owned; apart from a sort of overabundance of chrome trim, it didn't really look like it would've been anything else.

Granted, the welcoming committee was far from what one might expect at a typical hospital....

“Mr. and Mrs. Harker?” The brunette who spoke those words might very well have been the definition of statuesque; the tone of her limbs was noticable even beneath the skirt that went past her knees, the formal dress shirt and jacket (without those 80s-style shoulder pads that made women's suits look more like football uniforms), and her face had an almost classical beauty to it—well-sculpted cheekbones, a nose that neither dominated nor seemed diminished by the rest of her face and what I could only guess were supremely kissable lips. A nametag bearing the moniker “Heather” in a sans serif font was clipped to her jacket pocket. I didn't bother correcting her flub as Lina helped me out of the car.

“That's us.” Lina gave me a bit of a smile and a quick thumbs-up; I could tell she was thrilled with the honorific.

Heather nodded. “Regional Director Caine sent word that you were en route to visit Ms. Quinn,” she stated, more than likely to explain why she was out in the parking lot waiting for us. “I'll show you to her room.”

“Thanks.” I nodded, avoiding the distracting sway of her hips as she walked by remembering who I was with.

“The Dyson Institute's primary function, since its inception, has been to accommodate the transference of the human consciousness to an artificial form.” From anyone else, it might've sounded like a rehearsed sales pitch; from Heather, it sounded as natural as passing along a bit of trivia in conversation. “Dr. Dyson herself was the first transference made by the Institute...granted, attempts at transference have been carried out since the 80s....” Her voice took on a tone of regret. “....unfortunately, one of those attempts led to a....rather horrendous incident.” She paused, shook her head at the memory, and continued—or would've, had Lina not spoken up: “And the psychiatric analysis?”

“....the Institute first started performing psychiatric analysis on new transference cases,” Heather admitted. “Nobody really had any idea about the possibility of detrimental effects that being moved from an organic body to a synthetic one might have on a human form.”

“I've heard your clinic is generally known for other, ah, maybe more controversial things....”

Heather must've heard what I wanted to ask a billion times before. “The 'sex thing'?”

“....yeah, that.”

“The Dyson Institute does encourage clients to embrace sexuality in their new forms, but we don't alter anyone's original personality to make them more receptive or open to sex. And in cases of psychological treatment and analysis, we never attempt to 'cure' affected gynoids by those means.” I could tell Heather was rolling her eyes. “Some people seem to have taken certain reports and testimonials and...embellished them, for lack of a better term.”

Off to my left, Lina was doing her best not to giggle; I could tell she'd heard some of the “embellished” tales.

I chose to just nod. “Makes a lot of sense...and where do these, ah....cases get handled?”

Heather pointed to a building further up the hill than the one we were walking to. “We don't go into details about specific transferrence,” she explained, “due in no small part to patient confidentiality.”

Lina nodded. “Perfectly understandable. And for those psychiatric cases who've always been androids or gynoids?”

Heather actually stopped walking—just in front of the door leading into the building—and turned to regard me. “Cases like Miss Quinn's are....quite different from transference cases. They can't be handled the same way, or sometimes even in similar ways.” She stepped aside, allowing us to enter through the doors. “She's been progressing rapidly over the past few days, since she was first brought here.”

“Glad to hear it. And the reason she malfunctioned after telling us why she'd done what she'd done?”

“It's...somewhat complicated, Mrs. Harker.” Heather gestured to the door without pausing. “The report mentioned that she'd hidden herself away in a crate of some kind, one equipped with a portable computer setup of its own...”

I kinda sorta missed out on what she said next, due to the fact that I could tell by FCon that most of the nurses and doctors present were robots. Some were incredibly attractive, and some would just melt into the background if they wanted to. Either way, I was impressed—they were all smartly dressed, from the attendant behind the desk to the various nurses walkng around, but like with Heather, their outfits all seemed tailor-made to cling to their figures in the most enticing ways one might imagine. Ethnicity, hair color, facial structure and height aside, the common denominators between every woman (none of them looked younger than 25 or older than...maybe 45) in the lobby were the undeniable levels of grace in every movement, their undeniable (and almost statistically unbelievable) beauty, and the fact that every one of them was a gynoid. Granted, there were a few “plainer” looking ones, mixed in....I'd say about a 60/40 split.

"If you think she's pretty, you should check out one of the other wings if you get clearance." Heather had apparently noticed my reaction to the staff, and was taking it rather gracefully (probably because she'd seen it before).

“Back to the matter at hand, if you don't mind...” Despite her apparent annoyance with me, I could tell Lina wasn't all that jealous of the attention I was paying to the staff. “Whatever was on the rig inside the crate wasn't an actual virus?” Her question had the same level of compassion and sympathy for Ellie as she'd shown back when we'd found her hiding in the crate back at the ALPA building's garage—and her change of focus and tone was as stunning as it was sudden.

“More of an inhibitor program, for her personality and human emulation systems,” Heather replied. “Judging from the system logs we retrieved from her, she went into that crate under the assumption that she wouldn't have to hook herself up to the internal rig...which explains the sudden spike in panic signals when the crate managed to auto-link to her and partially install the inhibitor. That, coupled with the trauma of events she'd related to you and Mr. Harker, were pretty much the root causes of her malfunction.”

I shook my head at the thought. “Must've been her worst nightmare...she'd set up the whole thing so that it wouldn't happen to her, but ended up getting auto-linked to the rig in the crate when she tried to hide. Hell of a thing.”

“Well, she's improved considerably since her arrival,” Heather assured me. “I'm sure she'll enjoy seeing you both!”

At that, I frowned. “....both of us?”

“Matt...” I could tell Lina was frowning.

“....I'm just saying, the last time she saw me, I wasn't exactly in the most....forgiving of moods....”

“Miss Quinn did mention wanting to speak to you specifically, Mr. Harker,” Heather mused, sounding disarmingly casual.

“...right....”

After a brief tour of the lobby, culminating in a quick elevator ride, we reached the second floor. Most of the doors were closed, though I could hear brief bits of conversation through some; at least one room's occupant was openly sobbing as she recounted some sordid incident, but I did my best not to listen in too much on that particular chat.

Ellie's room was about twelve doors down the hall from the elevator. “I'll buzz the pair of you in,” Heather informed us, placing her hand on a pad mounted underneath the sign denoting that the room was, indeed, Ellie's. After nodding at a beep from somewhere in the wall, she knelt to allow a scanner to, well, scan her eyes—which also caused the briefest flash of relay trails through her entire face. Before I could think to mention it, the door to the room opened, and Heather stepped aside so Lina could push the wheelchair (and, of course, me) into the room.

Contrary to the last time we'd seen her, Ellie actually looked...calm, for once. She still had hints of apprehension in her expression, but she was in fact smiling as we entered the room. Another girl, looking maybe a year or two older in what I guess were facility-issued clothing (though I had a feeling her knee socks weren't standard-issue) was in the middle of an anecdote when Lina and I entered the room, stopping only to regard us with an arched eyebrow.

“Your visitors have arrived, Miss Quinn,” Heather declared, gesturing towards Lina and me. Lina gave a friendly wave as she made her way over to Ellie. “We heard you wanted to see us—”

Ellie cut her off by wrapping her in a hug, which Lina emphatically returned. I didn't even have to lean in (or wheel my chair closer) to hear Ellie's muttered “thank you” as she pulled away from Lina. “...and Matt....what happened?” Ellie's smile faded only slightly when she noticed me in the wheelchair.

“....turns out that doing a running dropkick to a length of pipe was a really stupid idea,” I mused. “Don't try it.”

Ellie glanced at Lina for a moment, and after Lina's nod, Ellie tentatively approached me....then gave me a gentle hug, as she'd done earlier with Lina. Again, she gave a whispered “thank you” before pulling away, smiling through tears. “I'm really glad both of you were able to make it here.”

“And we're glad to be here,” Lina replied, smiling. “How's everything going?”

Before she answered Lina's question, Ellie gestured for her to take a seat on the bed—which drew my attention to the fact that the room looked a lot like a dorm room, albeit for a single person only. Clothing cabinet, desk, a small set of dresser drawers, a small closet, even a wall-mounted flat-screen TV!

My appraisal of the room was short lived, given how quickly Ellie responded to Lina's question. “I'll admit, I was...kind of nervous, when I first got here. When they first booted me up, I just started crying again...and malfunctioning again, just like back at the garage...” The girl (gynoid, of course) with the knee socks gently rested a hand on her shoulder. “...to be honest, my first day here, I didn't know if I wanted to stay here.”

Lina nodded. “And what led you to change your mind?”

“...I guess I'd thought that everyone here would just treat it like a 'software issue', or a 'bug',” Ellie admitted. “But from the moment I got settled in, they were helping me almost around the clock!”

“Helping you in what particular way?”

I'd expected my question to be met with the side-eye and a whispered “Matt...” from Lina, but Ellie didn't seem to mind answering the question. “Mostly, it's stuff like talking, group therapy, single sessions with a counselor...” She swept her hair aside from the back of her head, revealing a port at the base of her neck. “....but when I first got here, they had to pretty much go straight to program tweaking, just to get me stabilized.”

Lina and I exchanged concerned looks. “....program tweaking?”

Apparently, the concern in our voices was all too evident to Ellie, who merely smiled. “They didn't do anything with my memories, or change who I actually am,” she assured us. “What they did, pretty much, is go through all of my systems with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and take out any programs or processes that were latching onto these negative thoughts and memories of mine, amplifying all the feelings that led to...well....” She cast an apologetic glance towards Lina, who merely patted her on the shoulder. “Like I said, I forgive you.”

“And the memories?”

“They went through all of those to make sure none of them were manufactured, false or 'plants'—phony stuff put there by the ones who bankrolled what I did just to have leverage on me.” Ellie sighed. “None of them were, so...”

“Well, it's great to see that you've improved after being here for...three, four days, tops.” I nodded. “And, ah....”

Lina's hand patted my shoulder. “You can say it, Matt.”

“Right, right....” I sighed. “Despite my....earlier thoughts and feelings to the contrary....” I took a deep breath, looking Ellie right in the eye. “......I forgive you.”

Again, Ellie leaned in and hugged me, thanking me for being able to find it in my heart to forgive her. I nodded, trying to play it off and “be cool” about it, but I could tell that those three simple words pretty much meant the world to her, and that they'd go a significant way in helping her to find her way once she left therapy.

“Like I said before, I'm really glad you two could be here.” Ellie nodded at her roommate, smiling. “I'd like to introduce you both to Amy—I met her in Group, and we just sort of hit it off from there.”

Even seeing her in a sitting position, I could tell Amy was a good half-foot taller than Ellie; she apparently preferred to wear her hair (which had a nice, sunset orange/red color to it) in pigtails. She smiled and shook hands with Lina and me, uttering a quick “hi” in the process.

“Amy had it rough before the Accords were signed,” Ellie explained. “She...doesn't like going into details about it.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Lina replied. “Where exactly were you before you ended up here?”

Amy's expression went blank, and a shudder ran through her form. “This always happens when someone asks about her past,” Heather explained, stepping in and running a hand through Amy's hair before apparently finding something hidden on her scalp. She pressed down and held whatever it was for a few seconds, after which Amy's shaking ceased.

“So.....” I glanced around the room for a bit, trying not to dwell on what I'd just seen. “....any estimate on when you'll be finishing up here? You know, going back out in the world and all that stuff....”

“I'm, ah, actually staying here for as long as I can,” Ellie admitted. “From what I understand, they're looking for the ones who bankrolled me, and they suggested I stay here for my own well-being and safety, all that stuff.” She shrugged. “I don't really mind staying here, to be honest...I don't feel afraid anymore, for one thing.”

“Definitely a good sign.” I nodded my approval. “Actually, ah....Lina and I....”

“We wanted to tell you something,” Lina cut in, squeezing my hand. “After our reunion back at the ALPA building....” She glanced at me with a grin. “....his brother had already proposed to his fiancee, so Matt decided to pop the question to me, and after reaffirming the whole thing of our relationship being based on actual love and not 'who owns who' or anything like that.....well....we're getting married!”

Ellie let out a surprised gasp, before hugging Lina and me again. “Congratulations to the both of you, then!”

Amy nodded her agreement, giving us both a thumbs-up.

“There's also another reason I'm mentioning this,” Lina added. “I was, ah, wondering....seeing as how the whole thing of me being taken is water under the bridge, and all that....” She rested a hand on Ellie's shoulder. “Ellie Quinn, I'd greatly appreciate it if you could be a guest of honor at the wedding.”

“.....me, a guest of honor?” Ellie was stunned. “I....I....”

“Ellie?” I'd nearly forgotten that Heather hadn't left the doorway. “If you're malfunctioning again, I can—”

“No, no, it's....it's not that....” Ellie was smiling, despite her tears. “You really want me to be a guest of honor?”

“I do.” Lina giggled. “Sorry, couldn't resist....”

“....when's the wedding?”

I shrugged. “Lina and I didn't really set a time-table...if not next month, then the one after that.”

“We'll let you know as soon as we have a date confirmed,” Lina added. “Sounds like a plan?”

“It does.” Ellie nodded, wiping away her tears. “And even if you can't reach me with the date, you can tell Heather.”

“We'll keep that in mind.” Lina rose from the bed, as Ellie rose from her chair. “I'm glad to see that you're doing so well, after what you've been through.”

“Believe me, I'm glad to be doing so well.” Ellie sighed. “I just wish.....”

“Andrew?”

My question earned me a sad nod. “I'd hoped to upgrade him, when and if the whole thing was ever finished with. He was the closest I had to family....” Her expression turned sour. “....BC was just there for the money, and for the chance to hurt people. He couldn't have cared less if Andrew and I got caught and decommissioned or not....he would've just found someone else.....I'm pretty sure he did what he did to Singleton and his guards because I'd told him not to...” She glanced at me again, frowning slightly. “....you hurt your feet from dropkicking a pipe?”

“After it'd been embedded in BC's chest.” I smirked. “Unfortunately for him, he was right next to a blown-open cargo bay door, so I think it's a safe assumption to make that he won't be back.”

Ellie's eyes widened. “You kicked him out of the plane?!”

“Well, the kick sent the pipe further into him, and that sent him staggering...” I gave a half-hearted shrug. “Wind, gravity and the air-speed velocity of the plane itself took care of the rest.” I couldn't help but chuckle. “I think the modern term would be that 'he got yeeted out the cargo bay door'.” Lina giggled at my use of “yeeted”—I guess she found the word inherently hilarious.

“....well, as long as he can't ever hurt anyone again...” Ellie nodded. “I just wish Andrew had survived. I did't really know that much about him, other than that he'd already been heavily damaged once before—that's why he always seemed so 'out of it', when he was with me.” She gave a sad sigh. “I just wish I could've done more to help him...”

“Well,” Lina mused, “the ALPA is working on salvaging his memory files. Maybe they can bring him back.”

Ellie nodded. “I hope so. I really hope so.....”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Heather interjected, “but Miss Quinn has another therapy session in ten minutes.”

“s'alright.” Ellie sighed. “This talk with Lina and Matt....I really needed it, and I appreciate that they came all this way just to check up on me.” She nodded towards Lina and me, smiling. “It helps me to put things in perspective, knowing they care.....I guess the human equivalent would be 'feeling all warm and fuzzy inside', y'know?”

With that, Lina moved into position to wheel me out of the room, after we both shared another hug with Ellie. “I hope you can keep up the recovery,” she stated, resting her hands on Ellie's shoulders.

“I'll do my best.” Ellie gave a confident smile. “The Dyson Institute has done a lot to help.” I nearly asked if they'd offered to “help” her in other ways (yes, I was wondering about “the sex thing”), but it was pretty obvious that Ellie's therapy wasn't focused on that particular aspect of things. “...I can't really say anything that won't just be what Lina already said,” I mused, “but I'll wish you good luck all the same.” I reached forward to shake Ellie's hand, and wasn't exactly surprised when she decided to hug me again.

Once she pulled back, Ellie smiled. “I wish both of you the best of luck with your wedding...and I'll be happy to attend as a guest of honor.”

“And we look forward to seeing you there,” Lina replied. “Bye for now, Ellie!”

I nodded. “Keep up the therapy and the recovery—and if the ALPA makes any progress with Andrew, we'll let you know as soon as possible.”

“I'd appreciate it, thanks!” Ellie grinned, giving us a thumbs-up as Lina wheeled me out.

Heather matched Lina's pace almost step-for-step as we headed for the elevator. “I'd say that was a pretty good visit, in terms of boosting Miss Quinn's morale,” she mused. “Her recovery started off...a bit shaky, I'll admit, but the changes have been astounding—practical leaps and bounds from where she was when she first arrived.”

“Which is nothing but good news.” I could tell Lina was smiling. “Does she have any plans for when she leaves?”

“She's expressed a particular desire to find her father,” Heather replied. “Normally, that information would fall under the banner of patient confidentiality, but Regional Director Caine contacted us with the news that the ALPA is conducting their own search for anyone matching Miss Quinn's description of a Mr. Scott Quinn.”

“I hope they can find the guy—watch the foot rests, please, Lina....” I winced as the elevator doors opened, hoping that Lina could stop the chair before the rests banged into anything—which, of course, she did. “....anyway, I hope they can find him. It'd be a great way to cap off Ellie's recovery if she were reunited with her dad.” I nearly mentioned his second wife, who sounded like a total bitch from what Ellie had said, but decided against it.

Less than five minutes later, Lina and I were back in the car and on the road—heading home, as opposed to going back to the ALPA building. “And you can probably ditch the chair when we get there,” Lina mused, effortlessly guiding Lucy's car around the curves of the road. “Just make sure you remember to keep weight off your right foot, and it'll all be good.”

“Easier said than done.” I sighed, leaning back in the passenger seat and closing my eyes. “If I haven't said it before, Lina....meeting you has been the greatest thing that's ever happened in my life.”

“I'm sure you'll rethink that,” Lina teased, “after our wedding turns out to be the greatest thing...”

The End....for now.... but Matt and Lina will return!


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