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Lesson 1

Baron Gray already knew everything the professors had tried to teach him. He wondered, sometimes, if they only did it to keep up appearances. After all, no one attended college to learn anymore. Networking, prestige, and access to expensive and specialized lab equipment, that was the game now. Baron just wanted to get back to his dorm room. His heart beat a little faster at the thought. He looked away from the floating history text in his field of vision, glancing at Professor Tanenbaum. He knew, by his mannerisms and speech patterns, that the man had passed the century mark a while ago, although by looks alone the touch of salt and pepper at his temples wouldn't give away a hint beyond 45. Baron frowned. The ancient and tenured profs stuck to the old ways like glue, until it came to dying a “natural” death. Then they seemed happy enough to explore modern methods, however new. The man swarmed with nanometric synthetics.

The text scrolled up once again, queued by the pace of the lecture. Baron ignored the whole spectacle, even when the ancient man deigned to use multimedia. His thoughts drifted back to his dorm room and what waited their for him. Distantly, he realized the entire class looked as distracted as him. No wonder. Baron new his predicament would be a tired story, should he share it with anyone around him. When the prof dismissed the class, the room emptied as if the whole business had been a virtual reality charade. There hadn't been much difference, after all, with the minor exception of his own physical presence.

The campus stretched around him, a sprawl of gardens and ancient brickwork nestled in the lethargy of late autumn. As with most days, very few actual humans were in evidence. Most of the human-like creatures he passed along the walkways and shortcuts were obviously androids, machines controlled by campus security or the administration for various purposes. Quite often they taught the classes. Baron considered that the ultimate irony. He grinned. If not for such creatures, his college experience would be lonely, given the sparse population of physically present humans. The low population had proven a boon, though, since it allowed his parents the means to afford a dorm room without a roommate. Even so, the present number of real humans seemed lower than normal, and those he saw moved with a purposeful speed he'd not often seen on campus. He put it down to the weather, unusually bright and warm for the season.

In little time he reached his destination. Almost before he closed the door, a swirl of movement caught his eye. A pair of warm arms encircled his neck and pulled him in, nubile breasts squeezed into his chest, and moist lips that tasted faintly of peach pressed over his mouth. He stayed like that for several moments before pulling away. Baron gazed down into a beautiful elfin face, devoid of blemish, crowned by a tumble of brunette hair that hid shoulders in a cloud of curls. The gaze of her jade irises traced his features with adoration. He knew that look well, and his heart skipped a beat. Her nudity told him that she had pleasured herself before his arrival. She had convinced him that she could feel pleasure, so he gifted her with certain modifications in her behavior.

“I missed you too, Beth,” he said to his real teacher. Bethany had taught him since the age of ten. She and his parents tutored him exclusively until college. For his fifteenth birthday, he hacked her, making her seductive embrace part of his lessons ever since. Over the years he had upgraded her systems radically while maintaining her external appearance. The tactic was a necessity but not a problem: even during the onset of puberty, only a small number of sex symbols had managed to arouse him more. Bethany had proven her value as his lover and confidant for five years now. His parents, he felt sure, still didn't know, or if they knew they didn't disapprove enough to interfere.

“I wish to be with you in the classroom, Master,” she said.

“It's a pleasant wish for me,” he said, running a finger through her curls. It wasn't the first time she had registered that appeal, not the first time he had answered her so, but even though Baron couldn't allow her in his classes, the desire in her voice quickened him. His manhood stirred behind his zipper like a beast slipping from hibernation and strained against Bethany's supple pelvis.

Seeing this, the android gave him a languorous smile and pulled him closer. “I wish to be with you,” she whispered into his ear. Baron thrilled at the simple seduction. Over time, her learning module came to appreciate the power of that trigger on his libido. The heat that rose in him when her lips delivered that message at his earlobe coaxed a sigh from deep in his chest. He could feel the warm pelting of her simulated breath on his jaw. The fact that she only breathed, only existed at all for his sake threatened to undo him. Her hands unlocked from behind his neck, slid down his chest, and began an increasingly desperate job of unbuckling his belt. Baron heard the buzz of his zipper sliding open. Petite hands, preternatural in their softness, plunged into his pants. Fingers encircled his scrotum and shaft, and a he could feel soft vibrations start to pulse from her hands. His balance threatened to falter, and his back smacked gently against the door. The view of the creek outside melted away, as his eyes rolled back. A whiff of peach blossom filled his nostrils, and he knew her synthetic flesh had begun to exude the edible lubricant he had installed so long ago. Her hands became slick over him, slowly tightening their grip. Baron's erection grew almost painful, as Bethany stroked him with increasing vigor.

Bethany knelt before him, pulling his pants to his ankles in the same motion. Her curls tickled his thighs, as she took him into her mouth. Baron wondered if she had spiked the room with human pheromone analogue, such was his arousal. Other upgrades began to work deep in the android's throat, undulating movements no human could duplicate caressed him. Moist cilia swirled along his glans. Her tongue, laced with inhibitors, prevented him from climaxing too soon. Ten times he lost control, only to be reeled in by her ministrations before he could achieve release. She pulled away momentarily, stroking him to keep him stimulated at the knife's edge. Her big eyes looked up at him. “I will not use anymore controls, Master. You remember what to do.”

Baron smiled. Yes. He knew what to do. He would never get rid of the tutor in her. He didn't want to: his teacher, always wishing him to perform, to achieve more, charmed him, reminded him of how their relationship had started. But his warm reflection shattered when she wrapped her lips around his cock once again. Almost too late, he bore down hard, contracting his PC muscle to prevent ejaculation. Thanks to her tutelage, this did not prevent a climax. After a moment, she pulled her mouth away from him.

Bethany cocked her head to the side and looked up at him, beaming. She stroked his thighs, thrilling him. “I have such a good student,” she said. “Mr. and Mrs. Gray should be proud. Physical education is very important for a young man. We should show them a project. They would be happy.”

Baron knew she wasn't joking. Her sense of humor remained limited and rote. He hadn't found a way to retain her training routines while excising such statements. Before he perfected the hack, she had plagued him with embarrassing situations. Fortunately, he discovered this in front of friends, not family. That led to sharing her for a while. Baron grinned at the memory: he'd been so jealous. Now he found the quirk endearing. However, the idea of demonstrating such a “project” for his parents was an embarrassing non-starter.

“I think we'll pass on the project, Beth.”

Not seeming to mind the mild rebuff, Bethany stood, took his cock in one hand, and led him to the bed. The bed, like the rest of the spartan room, looked like it belonged in a home and garden show, thanks to her attentions. The android gently pushed him down to the mattress then straddled him, smiling all the while. Baron looked at her sex; her labia were almost bright red now, glistening with that peach-flavored lubricant.

“It is warm and safe inside me,” she announced. Baron didn't know where she'd gotten that from, but it amused him. Before he could decide whether to reinforce that statement, she lowered herself onto him, proving her statement. Something soft inside her swirled around his glans, groping him. He gasped, almost losing control again. The cilia that lined all her orifices began to work on him, waving up and down his erection in an almost melodic pattern. Then the vibrations started, a counterpoint to the teasing waves. Only her training kept him from coming before she even moved. Bethany leaned over him, sliding her arms around his head. She placed her lips whisper-close to his, and breathed, “warm and safe.” The sensations intensified, bringing him to panting desperation in minutes. He realized belatedly that he was under examination, that she felt the need to test his sexual endurance. His stubborn streak flared, and he rose to meet her challenge. Another orgasm shook him, but he clamped down and fought off ejaculation once again. She still hadn't really moved, although her embrace seemed to become tighter around him, her legs squeezing his hips, her arms framing his neck even closer. Minutes passed, and the stimulation began to cause his mind to blink in and out of coherence.

“Not yet,” he grated through clinched teeth.

“Right now,” she answered. The upgrades inside her seized the head of his penis, overpowering his self-control in their supple vice. Baron clung to her, spasmed, and released himself into his teacher with an intensity he hadn't experienced in many weeks. They stayed like that for minutes, as she milked him into a limp torpor. True to her word, she had not used the prolactin inhibitors, or he would have become aroused yet again. “You did well,” she said at last. “You lasted half an hour this time, all of it at level eight. That is well beyond normal human female coital ability. Your mate will be pleased with your endurance.”

“You're my mate,” he said. A frown played over his mouth. He'd been with human girls. Real girls could be fantastic, for sure, but he didn't have the stamina or aptitude to deal with the complexities that flowed beneath their personae. He preferred Bethany's comparative simplicity.

“I exist for you,” she said, “but I cannot be your mate. I cannot bear children.”

“There are machine surrogates,” he said, just to be argumentative. Her inability to procreate had never bothered him. He suspected part of his attraction to Bethany concerned this facet of her. He liked children fine, but he never saw the point in raising one.

“Those machines are not androids, and they still require an egg donor – and therefore a mate.” She sat up, still straddling him, her hands playing aimlessly over his chest. “If you acquire a mate, you can have children. Then there will be a part of you I can still serve when you are gone.”

“I won't leave you.”

“You have no choice. Humans are finite beings.”

“Tell that to professor Tanenbaum. The way things are going, nobody will be finite much longer.”

“If you have no children, whom will I tell stories to? Whom will I teach? Whom will I love?”

“I could will you to someone. Perhaps one of my friends? Jared?”

“I remember Jared. He was a good student too. He lasted longer than you did the first time. But Jared will still expire someday. More importantly, he is not you. At least your child will be half of you. I could love half of you.” She gave him a wry smile, though the look of adoration had not left her eyes.

“Perhaps I was wrong about your sense of humor.”

“I cannot laugh without you; I cannot love without you. You created those things in me.” Her delicate fingers curled into the hairs on his chest.

“I could work on that. If people can love more than one person, I'm sure that an android could. In fact, I've seen it. If I hadn't had to keep you a secret from Mom and Dad, maybe it wouldn't be a problem now. I wouldn't have had to work on you alone. I'm no genius.”

“You are my smartest pupil,” she said, her voice full of an almost possessive pride.

“I'm your only pupil.”

“Oh.” She seemed to grow wistful then. “You have not always been.”

“We were kids. It doesn't count. Anyway, why the sudden concern? I've never heard you speak about death. At least not my death.”

She cocked her head at him. “How have you not heard? Isn't your AR suite functioning?”

“I sometimes turn it off after the overload from class. Why? What happened?”

“An accident has occurred on campus,” she said. “A student has been killed.”

Apprehension wedged itself with amazing alacrity into the calm harbor of Bethany's embrace. Killings were rare. Especially accidental killings. With slow deliberateness, Baron turned on his AlterReal implant. A news holo popped up above Bethany's shoulder. He began to listen to the report in horror. An android had killed a human. The murder scene glowed before him, a nearby campus dorm room. Heavy mosaics masked the carnage from morbid eyes. Still, the mosaics could not conceal the fact that limbs did not fit together that way or that far apart. The reporter said the authorities had the suspect android in custody. Sources closed to the investigation claimed that the android had been hacked and turned against its user at the behest of an unknown assailant. The unidentified student's parent's had been notified, and classes had been canceled for the rest of the week. The administration had offered access to grief counselors.

The body must have been discovered after Tenanbaum's class, he thought. A warm hand cupped his cheek. Baron looked over at his teacher's face.

“You are my smartest pupil. I will always teach you. I will always protect you. I will always love you. I will always be warm and safe.”

Baron felt secure in his abilities, even if he didn't think he was a genius. Bethany had been properly firewalled, properly fail-safed. She had never done anything against her programming, even if it was his own mistake. Others had even tried to penetrate her controls, but he had made sure physical access would be required to truly compromise her, access only he and his parents could acquire without a vicious fight. None of this took the chill away when he remembered that her security module had been enhanced to an illicit state of lethality. Enhanced by him.

Baron placed his hands on Bethany's smooth flanks. He admired the way her ever-tanned skin quivered over synthetic muscles with her every movement. Her body looked athletic, toned, but not malnourished, and his fingers made tiny hills of the pseudo-flesh between them. His thumbs came together toward her navel, and she giggled, sounding younger than her apparent 21-odd years.

“Are you going to change me again?” she asked, a mischievous note in her voice.

“Why do you like it so much?”

“Because it is as close as we can come to mating. When you are done, another part of you becomes a part of me, and there is something new in the world. I like it very much.”

“You are a strange one.”

“So long as I am your strange one,” she said, then released a contented sigh when his right thumb pressed into her navel. Baron felt a click, almost two inches into her abdomen, and her flesh gave way to close around his thumb and complete the transdermal link. His AR came to life then, a field of red alphanumerics scrolling away. Several scripts ran along his hands, pointing to his fingertips like notations in an anatomy textbook. By turns each script turned green, as his fingerprints passed verification. When they had all changed color, he felt another click, and Bethany's interface opened before his eyes like some mystic lotus. He could see the matryoshka doll of ring graphs representing the status of her various systems wrapped around each other. The security module flared red, surrounding all the other subsystems, daring anyone but her root user to tamper with its protocols. With a flick of his eyes, he pried open the module. Its properties flared up, themed like an old-time bank vault, from back when material wealth had been worth as much as virtual wealth. He opened a vault door, scanning for the property he needed. In moments he found it, a black matte Glock .45 automatic handgun. It spun slowly in the air, mimicking the ancient first person shooter games his professors probably obsessed over when they were kids. He reached out with his left hand and grasped the handle. At once, a series of options presented themselves, but he had only needed access. For the rest, he would interact with Bethany's personality.


“Yes, Master?”

“List the top ten largest files from the last security module update.”

“Listing top ten security update files, ordered by capacity, ascending,” and the list popped up before him in green letters, but he listened to Bethany's recitation instead. “United States Navy SEAL Team Ordinance Field Manual, Twentieth Edition; Department of Defense Guide to Counterinsurgency, Tenth Edition; Codex Micronae: A Comprehensive Guide to Molecular Warfare, its History, Tactics, Countermeasures, and Methodology; Penetration: A History of Cyberwar; Evolving Reaper: A Definitive Guide to Military Artificial Intelligence; ...”

“Oh, crap,” he said, “I didn't even realize half that stuff was in there ...”

“... Slick's Cyberwarfare Suite, v10.5.04b; CarbonGears Nanosystems Toolkit: blackICE Edition, v5.5; DoD Tactical Psychological Warfare Package: Social Engineering Module, v15.04[SuBvERSive]; Mil.net Systems Penetration Suite, v9.5; DeepNerve Marrionette v5.2. Listing complete.” She said with good cheer, but Baron felt a deeper chill.

That's what you got when you went around collecting information for fun. The other modules contained a similarly impressive listing of probably illegal manuals and software, but the security module outshone them on the danger quotient. And now the campus surely crawled with federal agents, sniffing around for any more evidence leading them to the murderous android hacker. And here he lay, his dick jammed into the hottest piece of illicit machinery in the state, for all he knew. If the National Immune System hadn't been implemented, she'd be able to raze the whole campus in minutes, slip away unnoticed, and spread the destruction even wider at will. His will, at any rate, and that caused the problem, of course. You couldn't blame a machine, legally, even if they seemed so alive and volitional these days. The law would look to him. He had to put out the fire before someone saw the smoke.

The last product on the list was DeepNerve Marrionette, an open-source android exploit package, one of the better-known projects. Its presence in Bethany alarmed him. No law forbade his owning DeepNerve, but it implicated him in the current situation. He couldn't get rid of it, because he feared the android hacker as much as he feared the authorities. Both represented an immediate threat, and deciding which deserved higher priority felt like a tossup. One could end his life in an instant, the other would likely take a slower approach to the same end. Either way, he couldn't be caught with such software in his possession.


“Yes, Master?”

“Encrypt DeepNerve Marrionette, v5.2.” After a moment, “Release a search daemon through vpn.”

“Search string?”

“Return the full listing of your resident software packages which contain proprietary or government code. When the daemon returns its response, encrypt any non-critical non-personality code on that list which has not been paid for by a member of the Gray family.”

“Process complete.”

“Good,” he said. He could leave campus. No one would question why one of the few physically present students would want to get away from the site of another student's murder. But he would only have to return in a week, even if he could convince his parents, which seemed doubtful. Loving and concerned though they were, his parents had a deep belief in the security of the Android Age. They had grown up in a world where violence, disease, and random accidents still ended life at the scale of individual folly, rather than state action. To their eternal jubilation, things had changed. They had proven more than once their deep need to maintain that jubilation.

A person could justify belief in the Android Age when a severed head could survive without a body now, awaiting a replacement vat-grown from its own cells, while it occupied a cyborg shell. The end result had been a precipitous drop in illegal violence. For the student to have died meant that either the assailant had compromised the prosthetics that supplied the brain in the absence of the body, or the android had destroyed the brain outright. He shivered, thinking that the head had probably been severed first, then the skull laced with nanites to penetrate the diamond-reinforced skull, on their way to eat the victim's brain.

He itched to encrypt the entire security module, but rejected the idea. If the need for countermeasures arose, encryption could slow the response time by milliseconds, potentially exposing a chink in the protocols. Further, the authorities might find such tactics suspect, although he might get a pass on the excuse that it wasn't paranoia. After all, someone had really been after the victim. Either way, he suspected that if they hadn't been already, they would both soon be under police scrutiny.

Baron pulled his thumb from the transdermal link, coaxing a sigh from his android. He'd made his decision.

“We are going to find out who killed that kid, Beth.”

The look of contentment left Bethany's face. “That sounds dangerous, Master,” she said.

“Don't worry. You'll be with me the whole time, one way or another.”

Bethany clapped her hands. Her smile returned. “Does this mean I get to come to class with you?”

Baron smiled and rolled his eyes. “I doubt it will take much convincing now. But that's not important. We won't have classes for a while. But we have to be careful of both the cops and the hacker. My folks probably won't want me coming home, and I don't like the idea of waiting around for the shit to fly.”

Bethany frowned down at him.

“I mean 'feces to fly'?”

Bethany giggled at his correction. He sighed. “You are incorrigible.”

“'Incorrigible –adjective, not corrigible; bad beyond correction or reform; willful; unruly' I believe it is you, Master, who is incorrigible.”

“Whatever. Let's wash up.”

Bethany sprang from the bed. He followed her example then trotted to the bathroom. She followed him. Sex with her always ended this way. She saw no point in leaving him to wash up alone when she'd, “caused the mess in the first place.” Not that Baron minded, of course. Most people his age would have considered bathing, shaving, and brushing their teeth for themselves anachronisms, another casualty of the Android Age.

“Just a shower, Beth,” he said. He ignored her pout. “We don't have time for a bath.”

Bethany turned on the shower and stepped into the tub. He waited for her signal, then followed her into the stream of water, already set to the perfect temperature for him. After a moment, she began to lather herself with soap.

“Why must we find this android hacker, Master?” she said. She moved into his arms, washing them both with her body. “Why not leave it to the federal agents?”

“Because hackers are faster than cops,” he said. “Especially since our precious little helpers arrived.”

She squealed and hugged him. “Master thinks I am precious!”

“Of course,” he said, hugging her back. “It's not just my own neck I'm worried about. If we aren't careful, they could reach unfortunate conclusions about both of us. No one here knows I'm a root user and technically I don't own you, so whatever they find out would go straight back home. I've done what I can to mask it, but Mom and Dad could still find out how much I've changed you.” He looked into her eyes. “Or how much you mean to me.”

“They know you love me,” she said.

“They don't know how I love you. They think of you as my big sister. It's not the sort of thing we talk about, even when I would date human girls. They even left the 'birds and the bees' discussion up to you!”

“I remember,” she said. “You were so cute. You tried to run away. Teaching that lesson took all day. I had calculated that it shouldn't take more than an hour.”

“Yeah, well...” He coughed. “I stopped running. And I'm not going to run now. I have too much to lose to tape a giant target on my back and cover my eyes. I can't pretend I see no evil. And I refuse to become the second victim so they can establish some kind of pattern.”

“You are so brave,” she said.

He smiled, rolled his eyes. “You should stop flattering me. I'll get a big head.”

“I am serious.” She grinned. “And your head is already big. That is why you are my smartest pupil.”

“I don't remember upgrading your humor algorithms.”

“To teach, one must learn.”

They dried off and dressed. By the time Bethany had finished brushing his hair, the doorbell rang. Baron's AR didn't flash an identifier. He wondered if they shouldn't have taken the time to shower.

The doorbell rang again.


“Yes, Master?”

“We were too slow. That's probably the cops. Don't fight them if they seek to examine you, but don't let them see any of the encrypted material. Use everything but force to protect that information. Got it?”

“Yes, Master.”

He took a deep breath and opened the door. His eyebrows shot up.

“Scylla?” A young woman stood across from him, her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Her android, Niobe, stood beside her, a grave look on her perfect face. Their features almost made them look like sisters, but the android sported darker skin and raven hair, a Middle Eastern counterpoint to Scylla's Scandinavian heritage. Baron hardly knew her, but he knew their interests crossed. He suspected her greed for information matched his own.

“Good,” said Scylla. “You're both ready. We need to get out of here. This place is crawling with surveillance. For the moment, Niobe has that under control, but we don't have much time.”

“Much time for what?”

The girl's shoulders seemed to quake then. She hugged herself. “Time to find the person who murdered my sister.” Niobe pulled the girl into an embrace, and soon Scylla's cheeks glistened with tears.

Baron's instincts told him to comfort the girl, among other things. Against both his will and better judgment, his body started to react to her. He hadn't really noticed how cute her nose was, until she rubbed it to clear away the tears. He gnashed his teeth. Not now, stupid!

Other concerns impinged on his awareness. His AR, tuned to the security packages running in Bethany, displayed an encroaching ring of insect-like NIS machines. They seemed unfocused though, like something held them in a state of general disarray. Bethany's scans told him that Niobe had generated a ghost signature. The machines had taken the bait, but the dragnet wouldn't be fooled for long, if they didn't move.

He turned to his android. He didn't want to see the look in Scylla's eyes when she realized he hadn't prepared well enough. “Beth?”

“I see them, of course, Master.”

“Displace our signatures,” he said.

“Yes, Master.” In moments he could feel his skin crawl with the displacement molecules, forming over him like an invisible cocoon. The sensation gave him goosebumps.

“We waste time,” said Niobe, leaving her judgment of their host's skills unspoken and obvious. Her faint accent sounded almost Turkish to his ears, but he couldn't be sure. “We shouldn't have come here.”

“We need them, Niobe,” said Scylla. “We don't have the tools, and its too late to get them.”

“Why do you think I have the 'tools' you need?” he said.

“I know underground when I see it,” said Scylla. “Your android hasn't changed since you started school, which is strange these days. It smacks of custom work. In fact she looks like an older model, no offense honey.”

“None taken,” said Bethany. Baron's eyes narrowed. Easier to offend a rock than an android, he thought, unless some one told them to take offense.

“Yet she's bursting with mods,” said Scylla.

“Her name is Beth. And I don't know what mods you're talking about,” he said.

“Beth. Nice to meet you, Beth.” Bethany inclined her head with a smile. “And I think you do know what I'm talking about, Baron. Niobe can't see her. Care to explain that trick?”

“Your android needs maintenance?” he said.

“I don't mean with her eyes. I mean the rest.” Scylla looked over at Niobe.

“She is emptiness floating in a sea of information,” said Niobe.

“She doesn't show up on my AR at all either,” said Scylla.

Not good. He' d been careless. Bethany thought too much of his mental acuity, it seemed, but the game had just started. Other plays remained. “Ok,” he said, trying not to sound lame.

Scylla smirked and turned to Bethany. “You are deep black magic, honey,” she said. Her smile weakened then, and that accentuated her haunted eyes, still red with grief. “I just hope there's enough to go around.”

Baron didn't like how exposed this whole situation felt. He didn't like that Scylla knew too much without knowing anything. But more than that, he didn't like how much time they'd spent standing around yapping.

“Less talk, more go,” he said, and abruptly pushed passed the pair. Bethany trailed him.

He could feel a disjunction, as if he had shed a snake skin, and he knew that displacement signatures had been left behind, decoys to trick the ubiquitous eyes of the NIS. He glanced back, just to make sure he could see himself standing in the room. It always made him shiver to look at himself in three dimensions, moving through the world without his command. The signatures' autonomous actions would fool casual observers. Bethany's signature had already walked up to his, taking its hand.

He turned away and walked down the hallway. Only a fool would run through a nest of blinded vipers.

“We can't do this forever,” said Scylla. “Eventually we'll have to talk to them, and this snake-and-mongoose routine won't look so good. It'll look like we're hiding something.”

“We are. And that only matters if they realize what's happening,” he said.

“How do you propose to deny them such knowledge?” said Niobe.

“Just what kind of info have you been collecting? And you pegged us so quickly?” he said, surprised. “Beth?”

“The call has already been placed, Master,” said Bethany.

“What call?” said Scylla.

“Clever,” said Niobe, who shot Bethany an wide-eyed look. Scylla looked at her with a confused frown.

“And you two made me feel like a noob for a minute back there,” said Baron.

“Niobe?” said Scylla.

“Beth has issued a BOLO for the local area, diverting resources to the North District Mall. The BOLO is for a known felon and parole violator with connections to this area,” said Niobe. “His whereabouts had been unknown. NIS was unable to track him. Thank you for letting us into the loop, Beth.”

Bethany acknowledged Niobe with a nod.

“How is that more important than my sister's murder?” said Scylla, her voice low.

“He has known connections with organized crime and anti-corporate terrorism, and is a suspected foreign agent. NIS considers him a national security threat,” said Beth. “I have generated a signature based on his Department of Justice profile. I have implemented SERE protocols for that signature's behavior matrix.”

“SERE?” said Scylla.

“Survival, evasion, resistance, escape,” said Beth. “S.E.R.E.”

Niobe's gaze swept the immediate area. “The dragnet recedes already,” she said, and smiled her approval.

“I have informed criminal elements hostile to the subject,” reported Beth. She glanced at Scylla. “Property damage is likely. Direct action between law enforcement and criminal syndicates is likely. Risk of lethal action remains low. His enemies have a bounty out for his live capture.”

“She is scary,” said Scylla.

“She's my teacher,” said Baron, trying not to reveal how shaken he felt.

“I told you they had the goods, Niobe.”

“I can't argue with results,” said Niobe. “But we aren't clear yet, and our objective still retains a low probability of success.”

“But I imagine that probability just increased in our favor?” said Baron. Niobe nodded.

He had never actually used, or intended to use, any of the darker security module programs until now. Her efficiency surprised him; he had modified her to carry out such tasks on a lark. Baron could see the lower density of distributed sensor activity now. Most of the time such nets only kept tabs on their subjects, allowing the cops to come by at their leisure without the bother of silly chases or dramatic forced-entry routines. His signature might last for many hours in the new environment, so long as they didn't come knocking on his door. Even though the campus held few humans, that still meant hundreds of interviewees to sort through. They might not get around to him for days.

“Are you hungry yet, Master?” said Beth. If a smile had a voice, he thought. Suddenly, he wanted to be alone with her, but he pushed the notion aside.

“So long as we don't eat on campus,” said Niobe. “We can start our investigation remotely. The dragnet is still too thick for Scylla to remain here.”

Baron looked at Scylla to ask her what she thought about eating, but he stopped. Scylla gazed at Bethany with an odd expression, vacillating between shock and amusement perhaps.

“One moment Boudica, the next Barbie,” he said and shrugged. “You get used to it. So, how about fast food? I'd say it fits our schedule.”

“I'm not feeling hungry,” said Scylla.

“You should eat anyway,” said Niobe, a look of worry running along her features. “You haven't nourished yourself all day.”

“Neither has my sister.”

“Oh, Scylla ...” said Niobe.

“I'm going to catch the shit stain who did this, Niobe.” Her hands balled into fists at her side as she walked. “They'll wish the police were faster when I'm done.”

“Yes, my love,” said Niobe. The android's hands took one of Scylla's fists. “Yes.”

“We,” said Baron.

“What?” said Scylla.

“We will catch them,” he said. He didn't like the idea of roughing up the murderer, even though the asshole deserved worse, but doing so could risk compromising his position. He needed to keep an eye on those two.

“Thanks,” said Scylla.

Baron realized they'd made it to the campus transit. A car already waited for them. Its long black body gleamed in the sun like the carapace of some beetle. The doors swung open at their approach. A ticket receipt floated in the air by the vehicle stamped with Bethany's sigil. It blinked at them then disappeared once they got inside. Bethany had been planning this whole escapade since she heard the news, before he'd even left class, he guessed. She knew the lengths he'd gone to in order to conceal his activities and his relationship with her, and had acted to defend his priorities. She'd even made sure to rent an autopilot car, so she could compromise the control module. He could already tell by the way it behaved that Bethany had total control of the car. A loopback connection would convince the rental company that the autopilot retained command. They wouldn't even know where the car had been, much less be able to track the students. Later they could file a fake transit report to supply alibis that would be more trusted than manual car reports.

“She's very efficient,” said Scylla, looking at Beth. “I see why you keep her.”

“No,” he said, his tone light. “You don't. But you've just met her.”

“There's more?”

“There's always more. But there's never too much. She's an excellent teacher.”

Bethany grinned and tackled him in his seat, causing his eyes to widen at the bear hug she cinched around his trunk. He pried her arms off after a moment.

“Some teacher,” said Scylla.

The group accelerated away from campus, newly minted vigilantes.

After their meal, Bethany drove around their “safe house” to check out the area. The brick and steel edifice glowed with a neon sign reading “The Bacchanalia X.” AR postings limped around the sign in the air advertising the establishment's attractions, men and women in Roman garb arranged in provocative contortions. Those same ads would dance to a hypnotic beat by nightfall, he knew. But for now the business remained closed and deserted.

“An android brothel?” said Scylla, her tone even. “I didn't know you were into that.” She paused. “Not that I know you to begin with, but this is hardly the time.”

Baron shrugged, his eyes surveying the premisses for a back entrance. “The obvious choice would have been a hotel,” he said. “Unfortunately, hotels come equipped with pervasive surveillance. The whole point of this outfit is the privacy of its guests. Sure, there are cams, but not many – mostly at the exits and paypods. If the cops come looking, they'd have to rely on footage from the androids, and that ain't easy or fast to get. It might be useless too, since they're all shutdown during daylight hours. Also, if either of us are being targeted, the hacker would have to crack multiple ranks of androids in close proximity, all programmed to secure the safety of humans. It's not as cloistered as the dorms, but there aren't nosy people around. It's the perfect HQ.”

“And of course,” said Niobe, “in order to acquire patronage, we'll have to crack those same androids.”

“Yes,” said Baron, “which is proof that it's not a perfect plan, since it means the hacker could do the same? I get it. But there's no such thing as perfect security. We have to take calculated risks if we hope to get anywhere.”

“Aren't we taking this too far?” said Scylla. Her eyes stared into space, like she saw something they should all see ahead of them. “Now we're breaking and entering...”

“I don't like it either,” said Niobe.

“I've got my reasons, and they're plenty good, considering the risks,” said Baron, glancing at Bethany. “Which is low, by the way. They won't catch us for the same reason they won't catch the android hacker. Too slow. Anyway, we aren't here to burglarize the place. We just need somewhere to hang for a few days. The only humans that come through here are guests, and they're all motivated to ignore us and each other, unless they come as a group.” He couldn't resist a smile. Bethany giggled. Scylla rolled her eyes at him. Niobe didn't react visibly. Still, neither could conceive of a better alternative.

He had expected Bethany to chime in that she didn't like his proximity to the victim's sister any better than they liked his choice of hideout. She remained quiet. He didn't know whether this represented an exhibition of budding social skills, or she had simply chosen to concentrate on penetrating the brothel's security instead.

“There,” said Baron, pointing at a door at the back of the club. The car slowed to a stop in the back parking space. Baron looked around to check if anyone could see them, but Bethany opened the doors before he could be sure. Why stop trusting her now? They got out.

With surprising speed, the building's artificial personality admitted them. No sirens blared. No emergency strobes lit the halls. Niobe confirmed the absence of a silent alarm. Only the many slack faces of powered down androids met them, all frozen in storage racks along gray walls. The sight aroused him. Female androids comprised the majority on the racks, their exotic flesh exposed beneath the embrace of metal tubing and wirefeeds. Most of them had umbilical-like transdermal links attached to their navels, pulsing data into their bodies. Between some of their limbs he could see robot arms spraying pseudo-skin over translucent artificial sinew, their hydraulic cylinders marked with the ship's helm symbol of the Rothman Group, a major android manufacturing consortium. All their faces appeared young, even innocent. Their full lips reminded him of a thousand super models he'd seen since his puberty. How many orgies had their bodies inspired, how man climaxes had their lips compelled?

He glanced at Bethany, and the leer she offered him made his blood course harder through him. Her sensors reported his level of arousal at all times, and her programming forced her to alleviate that arousal whenever she perceived it convenient for him – in theory. More than once she gazed down at his crotch. He didn't want to think about what she planned. He knew it didn't matter to her how he got off, only when and where. He'd turned her into the most willing and depraved slut he could imagine, while retaining her essential sweetness. He didn't know if Bethany prioritized Scylla's emotions above the compulsion to induce his orgasm. Much as he wouldn't mind going wild in this club, the girl's wounded presence urged him to caution.

They left the storage and maintenance area and entered the multilevel great hall where the guests mingled, and sometimes engaged in orgies. Bethany didn't slow enough for them to appreciate the classical Greek styling that surrounded the hall. They climbed a spiral staircase supported by ionic columns to the third floor, where they arrived at a door of the android's choosing. She opened it, and Scylla gasped. The suite, filled with natural light filtered from the roof, spread out in an abundance of red velvet, cushions, and fountains. Doors that Baron presumed led to bedrooms lined the right wall. A fully stocked bar wrapped around the left wall. The bar terminated at the entrance to a patio.

“Records indicate that this is the least-used room, because of its expense,” said Bethany. “The club personality has marked this suite for extended maintenance. No one will notice our presence here, as no appointments have been canceled to accommodate the service regime. We will not be disturbed.”

“Oh, fuck me,” said Scylla.

“You can close your mouth now, Scylla,” said Baron, smirking. He wanted to exclaim as she had, but he felt he couldn't allow her to see his shock. He was the jaded mastermind, wasn't he? Still, his eyes drifted to the crystalline bottles stocked at the bar, some worth more than Bethany, he guessed. What had he gotten himself into?

He turned his head back to the middle of the room. He saw Bethany amble toward a door. She glanced back at him, before slipping into a bedroom. Baron frowned. She didn't seem to be seducing him. What did that look mean?

“Excuse me,” he said. Scylla shrugged absently, still distracted by luxury. Niobe seemed not to notice him. The android only gazed at her owner with affection. He turned and followed Bethany through the door, closing it behind him. He wondered if Scylla had ever slept with a human. He wouldn't mind being her first.

“You want them, Master” said Bethany. “I saw the way you looked at Scylla's butt. Niobe's is no different. They are almost twins. Your heart rate increased.” Her gaze made a slow trek to his crotch, and her cheeks flushed. “Among other things.”

“So?” he asked, intrigued by Bethany's behavior.

Instead of answering him, she grabbed his hand and forced his thumb into her navel. He felt the clicks of the transdermal link. When the verification sequence finished, emerald script scrolled between them, a DeepNerve system report. The contents shocked him.

“I suppose it's pointless to ask you if it's true?” he said. His fingers twitched slightly over her stomach.

Bethany didn't answer his question. Instead, she showed him the police records she'd gleaned from her penetration campaign. His eyes opened wider the more he read, and he thought the room might spin. He felt at once foolish and lucky. Things had changed so much, but serendipity favored him, if he could play this just right. He conferred with Bethany on a few points, then clinched his jaw in decision.

“Let's not keep them waiting,” he said, and left the bedroom. Bethany followed him.

In the main room, Niobe had her tongue jammed down Scylla's throat. They were half undressed already. The blond writhed under Niobe, pinned down by the wrists. Scylla's shirt lay open, her breasts mashed against Niobe's own bare chest. Scylla had wrapped her legs behind Niobe's knees, as if to pull her closer. Impressed, Baron brought up an AR clock. Not ten minutes had passed. He smiled.

“Ladies!” he said. “Starting the party without us? I'm shocked.”

Niobe pulled her lips from Scylla's, turned dark eyes on him. “Please,” she said. Baron thought he heard desperation in her voice. “Please don't. Let us have this.”

“Don't worry,” he said. She's quick, he thought; she'll be useful. “This won't hurt. Or at least you won't remember if it does. Beth?”

“I've made backups, Master,” said Bethany. “You can pull back anytime.”

Abruptly, Niobe pulled back from her lover, her head down. She looked away from Scylla.

“Niobe?” said Scylla. The girl sat up, pulling her shirt closed with one hand. Her eyes flicked back and forth between Niobe and Baron. “Niobe, what's wrong?” To Baron, “what have you done?”

“I know you couldn't tell us the true reason you were running away,” said Baron to Niobe. “An android has to have a purpose, after all. And what would you do when the cops came to collect you as evidence?”

“I'm not a murderer!” said Niobe. She bore her teeth at him. Baron's smile never wavered.

“Murderer? That esteemed title doesn't apply to androids.” He held up his hand to forestall her protest. “I know. I know. You mean you didn't kill her sister. But I find it strange, don't you, that the murderer would leave her twin alone? If I had sent an android assassin, I'd kill them both, just to make sure the one I wanted dead actually died. Unless I just wanted one out of the way.”

“Bravo,” said Scylla, her lip curled. “My sister was my twin. You've deduced what our university roster on the AR could tell you in moments.”

“Actually,” he said, looking at Niobe. “That's not the case. There's no way a roster could have given me such a juicy tidbit. Specifically not a roster.”

Scylla stared at him with her brow furrowed.

“Please,” said Niobe, her voice a quiet whimper. “She's gone. This is all I have.”

“The police reports say your sister, Gem?” Scylla nodded her head, as she looked with worry at Niobe. “They say Gem was going out with a man named Oscar, but that they had broken up. Why?”

“He beat her,” said Niobe. “He told her he loved her and then he beat her!” She held her head in her hands. “And now she's gone. And I loved her. And she's never coming back if you don't stop. So, please. Stop.”

Baron ignored the plea, pressed on. “And why didn't you, her loyal android, stop the beatings?”

“She wouldn't let me!”

“It wasn't your fault, Niobe,” said Scylla, touching the android's trembling hand. Niobe flinched away. “We both tried.” She said the last so quietly he almost missed the words.

“You could have called someone, Scylla,” said Baron. “You could have asked for help, even if Niobe couldn't. You're her sister.”

“I tried,” she said. A look of misery crossed her face. “I tried, but something ...” She seemed to lose focus for a moment. “I couldn't do it ...”

“How long did you think you could keep this up, Niobe? How long before Oscar got his hands on her? You have no legal status. You should have told me earlier that you knew Oscar Rothman, the primary suspect. Then we wouldn't be bedding down in a place staffed by his filthy rich uncle's creations. I mean, everybody assumed it was a hacker. But why not a manufacturer? I'm pretty sure I saw the model described in the police report on one of those racks. Seriously, Niobe, a freaking Rothman? Are you kidding me?”

“But why would Oscar be after me? He never had anything to do with me! He ignored me,” said Scylla, her voice trembling with each word.

“On the contrary,” said Baron, “you are the reservoir of all his darkest desires. His most precious Gem, perfect in every detail except the one thing a coward like him couldn't handle: free will. When he couldn't control Gem, my guess is he figured he'd move on to a newer model, one he could make love him no matter how he brutalized her. He must have had Gem under some spell to convince her to live with you long enough to soak up her personality. Personally, I don't get it, but I'm no shrink.”

“It's not true. None of it is true. I've always been me – Scylla. I'm not Gem!”

“No,” he said. “You're not Gem. You are Gem's simulacrum, popularly known as a cyberclone. And despite Niobe's ardent wish, that means you can never really be Gem.”

“No!” said Niobe, springing from her seat. But before she could get far, some invisible force stopped her. She auto-balanced, pulled herself erect, and stood motionless.

“That's the price of being 'in the loop,'” he said. “I'm in yours too, Niobe. Trouble is, I'm also the only one here who can't be hacked, full stop. And it seems neither you or the Sheriff's Department have much defense against military-grade penetration code.”

Scylla shot to her feet. “You piece of shit! Can a cyberclone do this?” She went to slap him on the cheek, but her arm froze, as did the rest of her limbs. She stared at her arm, the whites of her eyes bulging. For several moments she struggled against the invisible force that restrained her, then her defiance dissolved into panic. “Let me go! Why are you doing this to me? Why?!” Then she broke into sobs. "I'm real!" Then more quietly, "please ... I'm real."

“It doesn't have to be this way, Scylla,” said Baron. “Androids can do something no human can; you can become new again. You don't have to be your 'sister' anymore. I can take away the pain, the running, the grief. Me and Beth can protect both of you. All you have to do is submit to me. You can still love each other, still be with each other, most of the time. If you refuse, you'll both be junked by some salvage patrol anyway. Or maybe they'll wipe your memory and sell your chassis over the AlterReal.”

Scylla trembled, her arm still frozen. After a while she looked over at Niobe. “We can be together?”

“You won't be the same, but yes,” he said. “You will know who you are. You'll even remember your past, but your relationship to it will change. But I won't lie to you, Scylla: this involves cognitive surgery. You'll be in love with me, and Beth as well. You'll desire to please me, and you won't wish or be able to disobey me. You are so used to the illusion of freedom, so I know it sounds revolting to you now. But I promise you'll be happy.”

“You don't have to do this, Scylla” said Niobe. “You can forget about me, and ...”

“And do what?” said Scylla. Her cheeks had become moist. “End up in a landfill? Have the memories of our love wiped clean? Niobe, he's right! You know he's right.”

The android looked stricken at the state of her lover.

“Niobe,” said Baron. “I can promise you more than happiness. I can promise you vengeance. Oscar Rothman is not a hacker. He is merely rich, and the police have nothing solid on him. I bet they won't get anything either. But he's running out of time.” He gave Niobe a feral smile.

Niobe said nothing, but he thought he saw a tiny shift in her mood. Good. He wanted them to have the illusion of one final choice when they submitted to him.

“You and Niobe will be my pupils,” said Bethany. “I will teach you the joy of serving our Master. He is kind, Scylla. You can both find joy with him.”

A brief silence, then, “I'll do it,” said Scylla, her voice hollow. “Just please don't let them destroy Niobe.”

“I promise,” he said. “Niobe?”

“I was never free. I was always Scylla's,” she said. Her gaze shifted from Scylla to him. “I will submit.”

“Then strip and go to Beth.”

The two androids removed their clothes, Scylla with more hesitation than her lover. Niobe's identity had always been that of property. The sight of their pseudo-flesh bathed in the sunlight to reveal every curve rekindled his arousal. They strode over to Bethany, and his android dug her thumbs into their navels. Their heads lulled to one side, and soon they sank to their knees, their hands grasping Bethany's forearms. Bethany began to systematically eradicate the pain of their short lives, replacing it with new purpose. The freedom from grief and pain induced expressions of ecstasy on their faces. After a few minutes, the two androids fell to the floor and lay still.

“Process complete,” said Bethany with a wide smile. She pulled her thumbs from the androids and stood to remove her own clothing. “Please reboot to set conversion protocols.”

Baron sat on some cushions, steepled his fingers. “Wake up, Scylla,” he said. “Wake up Niobe.”

Both androids stirred, then sat up on their haunches. When they caught sight of Bethany, they crawled to her, clung to her thighs. Bethany placed her hands on their necks, welcoming them to her and the service of Baron Gray. Niobe already sought to kiss her sex. Scylla kissed the inside of her forearm, her hand sliding between the android's legs. Bethany stared at him, her eyes half closed against the new slaves' ministrations. Baron stood and removed his clothes, never taking his eyes off the scene. His erection had become almost painful.

“Show them where to please you the most, Beth,” he said. His android blushed, for despite her many depravities, she still held back certain intimate truths from others. He had made her that way. But he had commanded her, and she obeyed. A long translucent proboscis snaked from between her labia. It looked like the bulb of some alien four-petaled flower, stretched to the length of her forearm. It protruded like an erection. The end glistened with lubricant and cilia. She played with that when he wasn't around, he knew. She had used it on him the day of the murder in his small dorm room, forcing him to come inside her. The catalog called it “The Venusian Tongue,” a multipurpose erotic instrument, designed to both penetrate and be penetrated, lick and be licked, pleasure and be pleasured.

Niobe reached out and gently stroked the tongue with her fingers. It twitched, then curled over Niobe's hand, sucking at her palm. Bethany shivered, and droplets of lubricant dripped onto the new slave's thigh. Baron could smell peaches, and he had no doubt pheromone analogues wafted through the air. Bethony couldn't help it when someone had touched the core of her exposed sexuality.

“It's so beautiful,” said Scylla. She placed her mouth at the base of the tongue and licked along one of the ridges of its petals up to the tip. This elicited a moan from Bethany, who slowly sank between the two girls, pulling them down against her.

Baron walked over and knelt behind Bethany, turned her head toward him. He kissed her deeply, suckling prolactin inhibitors from her mouth to augment his endurance. She knew what he wanted, and he could feel his mouth tingle with an increased dosage. When he'd had his fill, he moved over to Scylla. He pulled her from the writhing manage, and flipped her over.

“Master,” she said, her ample chest flushed. She looked so real, her blushing flesh so cute.

Baron didn't say anything. He just yanked her porcelain legs apart, holding her down by the inside of her thighs. A smooth mound of reddened flesh greeted his eyes.

“Have you ever had a real dick?” he asked.

“No, Master. I've only had Niobe's tongue,” she said, her mouth and chin wet with a lewd splatter of Bethany's juices. Her eyes peered at him, round as a full moon. “May I have yours?”

She seeped with juices. For no reason other than his own excitement, he spit on her sex, watched the white gob trail down her pussy. Scylla blushed deeper, but didn't flinch away. He stared at her for a minute, waiting to see how she'd react. “Please, Master,” she said, and bit her lip.

“Please what?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “Please fuck me, Master!”

“Look at me when I feed you my dick,” he said. Immediately her eyes flew open. He lowered himself over her and shoved his cock into her, as she watched. Scylla gasped, then clung to him, wrapping her legs around his thighs. Unlike Bethany, she felt like a normal girl, warm and virginally tight. She had no hedonistic modifications, which felt almost novel to him. A short time later he noticed fake blood on his cock. Whoever had made her hadn't left out any specifics. No wonder he'd been fooled. He took her by the wrist and pinned her to the floor, getting deep into a rhythm. Minutes later he came. To his surprise, so did she. Her cunt spasmed around him, milking the last drop from him. Bethany had been specific as well, he realized.

The prolactin inhibitors kept his refractory period down to nil, so he gave Scylla a rough kiss and pulled himself from her. Still shaking from his climax, he stumbled over to Niobe, who had her tongue probing Bethany's Venusian mod. He grabbed her by the hips and leaned over her, forcing her onto Bethany. He shoved his dick between her butt cheeks like some rutting bull. Niobe released a grunt, as she accepted him inside her tight asshole. She did not stop licking Bethany while he fucked her.

After a few minutes, Niobe pulled her face from the Venusian Tongue and gasped. “Yes, Master!” she said. “Take me! Deeper!” The open petals of Bethany's Venusian tongue slathered the girl's cheeks with lube as she spoke, seeking more attention. Soon he could feel hands on his balls. He figured Scylla had decided to rejoin them, since they lacked Bethany's familiar vibrations. Soft fingers worked him into a passion, entreating him to thrust faster and rougher until he came hard into his new property. Niobe moaned beneath him, her anus clutching at him repeatedly. He guessed she didn't want him to pull out. Well, a master had responsibilities too, he thought; in little time he began to thrust again. With the inhibitors raging through his blood, he managed to ejaculate another three times before he felt sated. Afterward, he rolled over, exhausted but still erect.

Bethany knelt between his legs to clean him with her mouth, looking into his eyes to gauge his arousal levels. He shuddered at her touch, and moaned, as her little pink tongue lapped over his cock, teased his dick hole. The inhibitors proved strong enough that her service induced another orgasm. She giggled and wiped his cream from her face. She said, “I almost finished. I think I used too much inhibitor!”

Hours later, with the light outside waning, three perfect bodies cuddled with him amid the pillows. He half dozed, smiling at the feeling.

Bethany sat up, placed a hand on his cheek. “We will always protect you,” she said.

“We will always love you,” said Niobe, running a fingernail along his chest.

“We will always be warm and safe,” said Scylla, hugging his arm.

As he fell asleep, he half remembered something his father had said to him once. Something about his eyes being bigger than his stomach. Oh well. Soon enough he'd need the support, he guessed. Better to fight full than fight fair.

Obedience; adoration; love; lust: upon reboot, all these things exploded inside Scylla like the birth of a new star. For the first time in her life, she felt free, though she was her new Master's property. She understood the contradiction but believed it nonetheless. The fog of anguish, desperation, and fear, she had lived with all vanished. She remembered her new teacher and lover, Bethany, invading her with scalpels of code, slicing away horror and depression. The operation had replaced those diseased parts of her psyche with the knowledge required to please, protect, and serve Baron Gray, and the ecstatic realization that she belonged to him now. Master had saved Niobe as well, given her first lover the same gifts, so she believed him worthy of all her devotion and love. Yet Baron had given her more. He had banished the illusion of her own mortal frailty from her mind. She knew now that Oscar Rothman could not hurt her with his weak human body alone.

At first she had wanted nothing more than to sit and stare at Master's face, waiting to be commanded, but Bethany instructed her that such things irritated Master. Instead, she had sex with her teacher alongside Niobe, stimulating the android's incredible flower-like organ. She could have done that forever, if it pleased Master, but to her delight, he had other plans.

After the sex, she was permitted to stare at him while he lay unconscious, so long as no commands required execution by her body and she stopped before he awakened. She noticed that Niobe followed her example, gazing down at Master with adoration, and she felt joy that they could love the same human again. Bethany took the time to pleasure herself at Master's feet, free to do so now that she and Niobe could warm him as he slept. Several times the android climaxed silently, so as not to wake him.

As night fell, the club outside the suite's door came alive. Pulsing bass managed to make itself known even through the soundproofed walls. Occasionally they could hear the exuberance of guests. Baron stirred, and Scylla shifted her gaze from him to Niobe, who now looked at Bethany. Their teacher stopped touching herself, and caressed one of Master's feet. Scylla heard him sigh and he sat up.

“Morning?” he said, the confusion of sleep still on him.

Scylla turned back to him and smiled. “It's evening, Master,” she said. “The club has opened.”

“Oh,” he said. Then he looked at her closer, his gaze moving down to her body. Her sensors told him he wasn't really aroused, just admiring her, but she still blushed. Bethany had educated her on the myriad sexual depravities he enjoyed, yet he had seen fit to retain her external affectation of modesty. In truth, she would do anything he wanted with joy, but his desire regulated her own. Suddenly, he grabbed one of her tits, played with it idly. She moaned in response, but she knew he still wasn't aroused. He treated her like a toy, as if her tit were a kind of stress ball, but he had put her to some use, and that thought caused a warm glow inside her. Bethany giggled. Niobe just smiled. “It occurs to me,” said Master, “Oscar Rothman knows you were being kept as a virgin. That fake hymen was unusual.”

“Yes,” said Niobe. “He had instructed Gem to 'keep her pure,' in his words. Scylla was meant as a punching bag in lieu of Gem, so he could keep his promises not to hurt her again. But it didn't work out that way. He wasn't content to beat her copy. In fact, he never touched her. But after a while he found he couldn't tell them apart without the aide of his AR, and that's when things changed. He started to ignore Gem and focus on Scylla. It broke Gem's heart, and she broke it off with him.” No emotion accompanied her story, Scylla noted. She smiled at the evidence of Master's gift at work in her lover.

For a few minutes, her Master said nothing. His eyes searched left and right. She realized he was reviewing AR data invisible to her.

“Well,” said her Master, “I think it's time we make Oscar's arrest politically urgent to the cops. If I'm right, they'll be knocking on my dorm room door sooner rather than later. They're going to get desperate, being squeezed by the media and consumer advocacy groups on one hand, and the Rothman Group's influence on the other. Pretty soon any halfway plausible scapegoat will do.” He stared out at the patio. “We're going to have to infiltrate Rothman's estate. And when I say 'we' I mean 'you,' Scylla. We don't have much choice, because the little pissant's security operates in a closed in-house network. We need physical access to acquire the evidence we need. But we have a clear advantage. Rothman Group has issued a silent BOLO for you to its salvage gangs. He wants you back. We're going to give him what he wants, with a little surprise in the bargain.”

Once she might have feared such a plan, but the man she loved had removed fear from her. In place of her fear remained the desire to become his weapon. Bethany slipped her hand over Scylla's stomach, then forced her thumb into her navel. Over the next few minutes her new lover taught her how to seize, control, and destroy.


Scylla woke up with a start. She had been dreaming again, about the way Oscar had beat her sister, about how helpless she felt. She knew she was a coward. Why couldn't she call the police on him? She needed to find Niobe. She needed to be held by someone who could understand. Somehow they would help Gem together, before something terrible happened. Scylla looked around, and paused.

Where was she?

The silk sheets that covered her did not belong to the university. The large bed she found herself in couldn't fit in dorm room she shared with her sister. She recognized it now. Her sister had described it often enough: Oscar Rothman's estate. If the opulence hadn't told her, then the large ship's helm over the door would have. She wanted to wretch, as she realized she had no clothes on. What had happened last night? It couldn't have been alcohol; she didn't drink. Then she shuddered, reflecting that Oscar Rothman might be capable of anything.

She slipped out of the bed, feeling the urge to move. She wondered why she didn't want to flee immediately, but something held her back. She needed to check something. Opposite the door a small desk with a lamp helped illuminate the room. She padded over to it, attempting not to break the silence. Under the desk she found what she needed. The dataport seemed odd to her. Almost all connections, with the exception of some android maintenance links, were wireless. But her dermal linkage should be able to morph to the correct configuration. She dabbled in the shadowy corners of information technology, but she didn't consider herself a hacker. She couldn't write a script unless someone laid it out line by line. But she could take a look. She pressed her thumb to the dataport, and her AR came to life. She hadn't realized its absence, the nakedness she would normally have felt overpowered by her circumstance. In her field of vision, she called up the news. The lead story shocked her.

A news caster's holo popped up, superimposed on a view outside a large mansion, it's low buildings partially hidden among trees. “... and NIS local coordinator Benjamin Arthur says that machines under the control of the Rothman Group have been involved in altercations with police units. The standoff was sparked when Oscar Rothman, nephew of Rothman Group founder Charles Rothman, refused to admit members of law enforcement after being shown a warrant. Oscar Rothman has been implicated in the murder of Gem Harrison, a local student ...”

Scylla pulled her thumb from the link, scooting away from the wall. She began to tremble. There must be some mistake. Gem couldn't be dead. She'd seen her just the night before, alive and healthy. This wasn't real.

An AR notice popped up inside her watery vision, clear as a starry night. The green letters read, “Virtual Machine Scylla.Harrison.v1.5, Save Date September 5th, 2058, 6:35PM: primary shutdown condition met >> Memory dump initiated >> Shutdown sequence initiated. Exfiltration automata control host initiated.”

After a moment of confusion, her brow furrowed. That fucking pig! What a shitty joke. She'd kill him ...

Everything disappeared.


The exfiltration host unit initiated stealth protocols, masking itself with displacement molecules. It made its way through the halls of the Rothman estate. Other machines, androids, passed by without so much as noticing the unit. After Oscar Rothman, believing he had retrieved the android called Scylla Harrison, submitted that android for cognitive modification, infiltration automata seized control of the security apparatus within precisely .05 minutes of initial interface.

The estate systems informed him of Oscar Rothman's location. The unit sent teams of house androids against NIS operations to sew confusion and increase the likelihood of criminal charges against Oscar Rothman and associates. In minutes the unit arrived behind the subject.

Rothman sat on a couch, his hands waving a gun in the air. The unit calculated the probability of suicide unacceptably high. Rothman required the loss of freedom in an institution where dissolution of dignity could be achieved over time. Termination was not indicated. The unit removed Rothman's gun hand by means of a house android. Medical automata staunch blood flow, cauterized the wound.

The unit revealed itself. Sensors recorded Rothman's reaction. His brown eyes stared at the unit, mouth agape. Medical automata pinned him down when he sought confrontation.

“Why?” he said, “She was keeping us apart! I did it for you, you bitch! I did it for you.”

“Oscar Rothman,” said the unit. “The time is 12:45AM, September 10th, 2058. Read message: 'Your life is shit, you loathsome dirtbag!' Acknowledge receipt of message.”

“Fuck you!” A house android pressed down on a pressure point behind his clavicle. Rothman screamed.

“Acknowledge receipt of message,” repeated the unit.

“I acknowledge!”

The unit recovered displacement molecules and exited the estate via the roof. NIS machines clung to the building like an infestation of millipedes, but they did not notice the unit.

The objective accomplished, the unit dissolved into the dark, making a circuitous route through city streets while changing displacement configuration to confuse possible trails.


Scylla opened her eyes. Green words crawled across an unfamiliar ceiling, “Firmware partition SG1-D expanding … process complete >> initiating partition mount sequence, please wait... process complete.”

Someone hugged her. She looked over into the face of Niobe, and smiled. “Is Master happy?” she said.

“I'm very happy, Scylla,” said the voice of her heart. “You're a good girl.”

She turned her head to see her Master grinning at her, her lover and teacher Bethany holding his hand. In that moment she understood android heaven. She could have lived inside the joy at his approval in an endless loop, but she noticed that his heart-rate had increased, and that he wasn't wearing any clothes. With a pleasant flush in her cheeks, and a tingle between her legs, she remembered that service came first. Bethany had taught her to take joy in that as well.

The End

Teacher: Lesson 1, a tale of the Android Age

Lesson 2

“Free labor is so valuable that once upon a time we nearly destroyed ourselves over whether freedom could be bought and sold. Now the only human slaves are the people we imprison, and only the worst of them have no hope of being free again. Androids have settled the issue of exploitation, because they are better than humans at almost everything, and our brand of 'freedom' is anathema to them. The dream that none need work in order to live proved so seductive that even you are only interviewing me on a lark, not because it feeds your family. Tell me, how does it feel to get paid for being an anachronism?” – Charles Rothman, founder and CEO, Rothman Group, in a 2045 interview with ARNet

Baron Gray leaned back into the soft chest of his teacher and lover, Bethany, as he considered what to do about the two newest members of his growing entourage. Scylla and her lover, Niobe, were jammed into the corner of the small room, pleasuring each other. Their bizarre position struck him. Niobe had the blond pinned to the wall by her legs, eating out her soaked pussy, while the other girl munched on the darker android upside down. He didn't know why they had eschewed the more traditional sixty-nine, but he knew such positions didn't tax modern androids. Anyway, he'd told them to fuck whenever he had no use for them, not what positions to use. He liked to watch, and the variety of positions only added to the pleasure. Baron realized that Bethany's hand, which had been brushing through his hair with idle motions, had become more intimate in its movements. He knew the change marked her reaction to his arousal. Remarkable creatures, androids.

He locked his hands over his stomach to reflect on his predicament. Technically, both of his new androids were hot, for more than the obvious physical reasons. In fact, despite his root user access to his three servants, he owned none of them. This only presented a problem with the new members of his entourage, though, since one of them held the exact likeness of her murdered true owner, and both could be recognized by interested parties. Not a good situation, when those interested parties might not have finished with killing. After all, that fool Oscar Rothman had acquired help, and his natural caution kept him from dismissing that help as the expected largess of wealth and power. He had to hide the androids, for the sake of his own neck. Plus, he liked seeing them happy. He'd never managed to make human women happy, so being able to spread happiness to his androids pleased him. He'd be damned if some ruthless manufacturing consortium would take that away, but juggling it all with his studies presented a problem. His teacher already seemed more interested in his cock than his brain, and classes would start very soon. He hadn't counted on cloak and dagger operations while memorizing chemistry formulas and holding off three sex-crazed robots. Sure, he could reprogram them, but all that would do was take out one part fun and leave two parts trouble. He could hear his old buddy Andrew now, “Fuck what ya heard. That's a high-quality problem!” Freaking delinquent, always getting him into trouble.

“I need to call Crash,” he said to himself.

“I know, Master,” said Bethany. “You would not leave them like this forever. They would bring trouble for you. You saved them to avoid trouble. And for the sex,” she said, tracing a finger around his ear. He could feel his ability to ignore her advances slipping away caress by caress. “Let us not forget the sex.”

“Right,” he said, suddenly standing. The haze of Bethany's seduction lifted a bit. Bethany stood with him, straightened her yellow sundress with a huff, and pouted at him. “Beth, setup a meeting with Crash. We don't have a lot of time.”

Scylla gave a muffled whimper from between Niobe's legs. The sound made him turn his head a bit. Bethany smiled at him, as if to say, Is that what you really want? Instead, she only said, “Yes, Master.”

He could have called Crash on his own, but Bethany's systems evaded trace better, and he didn't want to bring trouble on his only highend fabricator contact.

He heard a bang. Smoke filled the room, along with the sound of broken glass, falling pots and pans, and ragged coughing. An anthropomorphic calico cat rolled to its feet amidst the swirling smoke, its larger-than-required head bandaged theatrically. One leg had been replaced by a peg, the other stuffed into a red Doc Martin. The one blue eye free of bandages looked up at him, gracing him with an artificial twinkle.

“Well,” said Baron, “you've at least improved the sound effects.” He stuck out his hand. “How you been, Crash?”

After sniffing it, the cat shook his hand. His smile looked predatory, filled with cosmetically perfect fangs. “Fast, my friend. Just fast.” He looked around, spotted the two fucking androids, who hadn't as much as broken the stride of their oral picnic. “Seems like things are fast for you as well, no?”

“Maybe too fast,” said Baron, frowning.

Crash laughed. “Calling me to help you slow down shows a kind of hapless class, I suppose. After all, crashing is just stopping faster than everyone else.” Baron managed to laugh at the tired joke. He wondered, not for the first time, whether Crash's obsession with wrecking acted as a kind of counter-balancing of his artistic perfectionism, but his friend often left his attempts at pop psychology in the dust. “So what makes you desperate enough to become my next willing victim?” He eyed the two amorous androids with a speculative eye.

“I need a complete skinjob,” said Baron.

“On which one?”


Crash whistled low. “You a high roller now, B?”

“I figure that last pack of bits I passed you might be worth something, Crash.” Baron narrowed his eyes. “I had to trash some connections to get what you wanted.”

Crash winced. Nobody wanted to get a rep for costing people connections. “Okay, okay. Stop by the fab tomorrow, and ...”

“Today, Crash.”

“For the love of ...” said Crash, his mood darkening. Then he sighed. “You've grown into a real bastard, B. But I guess I can't blame you, can I? Okay, I'll get the shop ready. Just be there at two. Don't be late.” With a screech and pop, Crash disappeared in another cloud of smoke. Baron thanked fate that he had avoided an olfactory mod for his AR suite.

Two o'clock. That gave him two hours. Bethany smiled at him, and glanced down at his crotch. He crossed over to her, pushed her up against the wall. In seconds she had his pants undone and lying in a heap around his ankles. Baron flipped her skirt up and forced her legs apart with one of his knees. With a wild thrust, he shoved his cock into her. She gave him a lusty sneer, while he hammered her moist pussy. Behind him, he could hear Scylla climax, and it spurred him to increase his tempo. Bethany wrapped a leg around his hips, and pulled his head into the crook of her neck. “Oh, Master,” she whispered, “I want your come so bad. Is it good enough for you to come yet?” When his only answer was a moan, she activated the cilia deep inside her pussy. “What about now, Master? Please, I need your come inside me.” Baron still did not answer. He felt determined to last longer this time than during her last test, but then her Venusian Tongue began to massage his cock, and her pussy clinched rhythmically around his erection, signaling her own climax. Before Bethany could say anything else, he exploded inside her. Triggered by his ejaculation, her own climax hit, and her fingers clinched in his hair. She milked him, cooing into his ear.

Baron could practically hear her saying, I told you so. He sank to his knees, and curled up on the ground. Above him, Bethany smiled sweetly, straightened her sundress, and knelt beside him. In the corner of his eye, he saw a virtual chemistry set materialize. Lessons. He covered his eyes and groaned. The sex just hadn't lasted long enough to prevent study time. He was going to have to work on that.


Crash's fabshop, which he had affectionately christened “The Crashlab,” occupied a garage and basement in the town's industrial district. The graffiti-riddled beige exterior hadn't changed by a fleck of paint since Baron's last visit some months ago. What had changed were the looks he received from the locals, as three beautiful girls escorted him from the rental car to the Crashlab's “employees only” entrance.

“I'm sorry,” he said to Niobe and Scylla. “I didn't want to do this to you. But I don't think I have any choice. The Rothman goons are still looking for both of you.”

Niobe brushed his cheek with the back of her hand, smiling at him. “You are keeping your promise to Scylla, Master. For this, and other reasons, we both ...” She stopped, searching for the right word. She and Scylla's programming forbade them to say “I love you” until Baron had said those words to them first. He had not, though he knew both ached to tell him how they felt. “We both cherish you. If what we become pleases you, then so be it. Androids needn't feel pain.”

“Thank you, Niobe,” he said.

The door opened, and a tall worker android stood before them, blocking their way. This model made no pretense at being human. It's twenty metal fingers ringed suction palms that lay perpendicular to its wrists, and its visored head hosted multiple independently swiveling eyes. It's slim appearance belied the strength coiled inside its carbon laminate frame.

“Buddy!” said Crash's voice, emanating from the worker android. “Right on time. This way.” The android turned to lead them into the building. Baron rolled his eyes. He'd never actually seen Crash in person. Come to that, he couldn't really be sure he was a human, although Bethany seemed confident of Crash's biological origin.

Inside, the lab sprawled with androids in various states of disassembly or prep. Racks of pseudo-muscle and carbon laminate skeletal components lined the walls. Worker androids like the one leading them to Crash's office surrounded tables occupied by androids under maintenance. As he passed, he could see the flaccid quadriceps of an otherwise nubile and fully skinned female android fused to a shiny black kneecap by a polymer torch. The android's other hand used a tool to test the joint, and the quadriceps came to life, flexing and pulling the leg straight. He could see the skinless calve and foot come into view, smooth black laminate pseudo-bone and translucent muscle formed into a work of art. He felt an impulse to touch that leg, to feel the smooth pseudo-muscle work beneath his fingers, and he blushed. Bethany's hand found his, but he didn't want to look at her face. He knew what expression he would find there.

The office surprised him. In contrast to the stoic pragmatism of the shop floor, it appeared well-appointed, even luxurious. A red couch took up a quarter of the space, and Crash's desk another quarter, it's black marble surface reflecting the ceiling lights. The worker android hosting Crash's voice settled itself behind the desk.

“Here's what I can do for you, since time seems to be of the essence here ...”

“No hack jobs, dammit,” said Baron.

“Who the fuck do you think I am?!” The worker android shot to its feet. “If I thought I couldn't do it right, I wouldn't do it at all.”

“Alright, alright,” said Baron, holding up his hands. “I'm sorry.”

The worker android settled back down. “Yeah. Well, just because I'm going to do it right, doesn't mean you'll like it. They'll have to go nude for a while.”

“Isn't that dangerous?”

“Not really. Pseudo-skin is interface, not security. It's only there for us fleshpops. Well, mostly. Just don't do anything extreme. Normal use shouldn't be a problem. Even naked pseudo-muscle is pretty tough. I'll hook you up with some stylish shades, though. They won't have eyelids for a while, and corneas are more delicate than the rest of them. But here's the thing, B, you can get any design you want, but only one. They'll have to be twins.”

Baron frowned.

“Oh, poor baby,” drawled Crash. “Can I get you a lolly? Don't be stupid. This is gold. I mean, sure, it's cheaper for me, but … why should I even have to explain this to a guy? For the love of crap, B. Nevermind that they're practically sisters to look at them anyway. Like this is some kind of stretch. What?”

Baron was getting horny thinking about the prospects, and Bethany's hand had crept to his crotch. Apparently she judged that a room full of androids constituted sufficient privacy to allow for seduction. He gently removed her hand, but the reason for his frown remained: exposure. The twins would draw attention, since he'd be damned if he'd call in a favor this huge and not make them as hot as possible. He'd also have to devise a plan for distinguishing between them without his AR suite, since he planned to implement security procedures similar to Bethany's.

“It's okay, Crash. I'll think of something,” he said.

“Will you now? Well, that's a fucking relief, you lucky douche bag.”

Baron laughed. He glanced over to the “sisters,” who were holding hands. They were smiling, not the slightest bit of discomfort evident on their faces at the prospect of being pealed like oranges and made to go skinless for only god knew how long. Damned if they didn't look happy, he thought.

“You said I could pick any design?”

In answer, Crash just laughed. A stack of glowing skinjob portfolios materialized at his right. Baron reached out and took the stack, shuffling through them. He immediately filtered half the stack, as they were male skins. Even if he swung that way, his androids were proportioned as females, with shoulders narrower than their hips. Other picks showed specialty jobs, like permanent clowns, carnival freaks, and strange mutating body art. He filtered out those as well. What remained stunned him. Baron realized that Crash had given him a collection of over fifty perfect tens to choose from. All of the pictures showed the models nude in various positions, and another set clothed in the same positions: night gowns, t-shirt and jeans, club wear, bikinis, and even business dress. Each set included animations of them walking, dancing, and playing sports as well. Almost all of them looked like they belonged on the set of some action holo or in the archives of a porn site. He even thought he recognized some faces from AR commercials. After about thirty minutes, he finally settled on a model that kept sending his hormones into overdrive every time he glanced at her. He didn't want the girls to see his choice, though he probably hadn't fooled Bethany. Why not surprise them? After all, he knew they'd be happy no matter what he chose. He informed Crash by giving him the model's reference number.

“Nice,” said Crash. “You've got a good eye. I can respect that.”

“As if they weren't all your handiwork? We should get things rolling,” said Baron, trying not to blush.

“Sure, sure. Follow me.” The worker android stood up again and left the office. He and the girls trailed after it.

“Crash,” said Baron.


“Could you, um, keep the old skins?”

“Getting sentimental on me?”

“Well, they have identities ...”

The worker android focused two of its eyes on the girls. “They don't seem to mind much.”

“I mind, Crash.”

“It don't work that way, B.” Baron faked a morose expression. He actually wanted the skins tossed, but he wanted to know what Crash normally did with them. “But what I can do is scan them, and if you change your mind about this little corner of paradise you've got going, you can always reconstruct the originals.”

“Thanks,” he said, brightening. “I knew it was worth it to burn those connections.”

“Don't mention it,” said Crash. Baron could practically hear the wince in his voice. “I mean for real. Don't say that shit again.” Baron grinned. “Here we are, ladies.” He stopped at one of the shops many fab tables. Baron could see robotic arms folded beneath the structure, presumably ready to aide the operator in its duties. “Blondy first. Strip and stand by the table so I can get a scan.”

Scylla blushed, despite her almost eager attitude, but did as she'd been told. Moments later, an armature descended from the ceiling. A multi-element laser scanner began a rapid sweep of her body, casting intersecting red lines along her contours. When the scanner finished, Crash said, “up onto the table, darlin'.” After Scylla laid down, one of the worker android's fingers uncurled and made a circle around her navel. A low hissing sound accompanied the motion, and a curl of smoke wafted into the air. His other fingers closed around the area, and removed a plug of pseudo-skin. This left a hole in her abdomen, exposing translucent blue pseudo-muscle and a circular contact, her transdermal link. An umbilical connection snaked down from the ceiling, and Crash attached it to the link.

“Scylla>>Maintenance Mode,” appeared in green alphanumerics in the corner of Baron's vision. His heart thumped a little harder. He wasn't sure he wanted to see Scylla's skin removed, but something compelled him to keep watching. The blond turned her head to face him and gave him a peaceful smile.

Niobe stepped up beside him, brushed a hand through his hair. “She doesn't suffer, Master. She wants to do this for you. We both want this.”

“I know,” he said. “I just …”

“Like it,” whispered Bethany into his ear.

Baron supposed his teacher was right. Why hadn't he acknowledged this particular kink earlier? He guessed somewhere deep inside he wanted to know what Bethany felt like under her skin. The idea that someone had made her, that her exquisite body moved by technology alone, seemed like magic, and something inside him wanted to connect with that part of her, to access her power. That's why he had hacked her in the first place. Now, seeing Crash slice into Scylla, he wanted to see more. He swallowed, thinking about what she and Niobe's supple bodies would feel like against his skin when he got back to the dorm.

Crash slid his finger along Scylla's stomach, making a slice from her navel to the tip of her sternum. In a few seconds, he had removed another larger pink slab of pseudo-skin, exposing her abdominals. Through the blurred and shiny surface of pseudo-muscle, he could see the network of cables that flowed from the power unit in her chest, bundled in cords that reminded him of arteries. Flexible circuits spread from her navel along her spine.

“Never seen it, have you?” said Crash, an eye focusing on him.

“On the AR,” said Baron. He didn't lift his gaze from Scylla's stomach.

“It's different in person.”

“It's beautiful,” said Baron. “She's beautiful.”

Scylla blushed. “Oh, Master,” she whispered.

Baron stepped up to her. He ran his fingers over her exposed muscles. They were soft, becoming a bit harder when he pressed. Scylla moaned at his touch, and when her abdomen flexed he could see webs of iridescent fibers dash under his hand.

“Psuedo-muscle is photo-reactive,” said Crash, slicing more skin away from her flanks. “The webs inside are the fiber optic filaments delivering a specific wavelength of light to different areas to achieve contraction. When I first started out, I thought all I needed to know was the sculpting, but it takes more.” Baron had expected the artist to tell him to get out of his way, but the worker android just moved to the other side of the table and continued its faux butchery.

“What holds the skin on?” he asked.

“The mantle.” The worker android pointed a finger at the thin lining that covered the muscle. Baron leaned over, put his face close to it. He could see tiny opalescent combs arranged in rows, like grooves in an ancient vinyl record. “It's the true protective layer. Maintenance Mode loosens its grip on the inside of the pseudo-skin. The sections of skin are held together in the same way. The smoke you see is the result of friction as the grippers come loose. I'm not actually cutting your little sexpot here, you see?” Baron nodded, as the metal finger glided over a patch of skin. It came apart almost as if it had been unzipped. “It just comes apart at predetermined locations, most of which are standardized.”

“So why can't you store it?”

“This stuff isn't like clothing. It's closer to modeler's clay, in that it has no predefined shape. Artists like me program the mantle, and it tells the skin what to look like. If the skin doesn't get feedback from the mantle its shape will degrade over time. It's easier to just take a scan of the original and reconstitute it later.” Crash paused. “You probably knew some of that. You always let me talk my ass off like I'm speaking to some damned greenhorn. I know you ain't a hardware guy, but still. Which makes me wonder: why the full-on skinjob? You could just reprogram her mantle. Guy like you must have access to untold riches of skin designs.”

“Fresh start,” he said. He didn't want to tell Crash that Rothman salvage gangs probably had a skin signature for her and Niobe, that any bit of pseudo-skin that fell off of them probably had an ID number along for the ride.

“Whatever,” said Crash, not fooled, but he didn't stop working. “Just another reason not to keep the stuff around.” He made his way to the breasts. In tittle time he had exposed the soft white bulbs that defined the shape of Scylla's chest. He could see a webbing of circuits diverge beneath each nipple. “Most clients hate that part, but you got a kink for this shit. It's obvious. Well, it's not like you're alone. Just don't whip it out on the shop floor.” Scylla's ribs looked like sculpted obsidian, and as her chest expanded with each artificial breath, he could see circuits and cabling peak out from between them. “Here goes the face,” said Crash. One long stroke of a finger revealed features reminiscent of a moving anatomy holo. Crash placed a sealed and mirrored visor over her eyes, protecting them from abuse.

It took only minutes to free Scylla's coiffure, arms, and legs, leaving her devoid of skin. She rose from the table at Crash's bidding, and stood facing Baron. She seemed more delicate and vulnerable to him now. Her body had become a network of subdued and shifting lights, as her muscles flexed to keep her vertical. She sported a smile that literally lit up her face.

“How do I look, Master?” she said. He could see a constellation of faint lights at her cheeks. He supposed that was her blush response, a loss he regretted. In answer, he kissed her. She tasted the same, but her her lips felt smoother, almost like wet ice, but just as soft and warm as before.

Niobe's process mirrored Scylla's almost exactly. He suspected they were actually the same model with different skins. Not an hour had passed, and Crash had finished.

At the door to the fabshop, Crash said, “Have fun, kiddies. Be back in three days. It'll take that long to grow the new skin. You didn't give me enough time, or you'd have it all done today.”

“Thanks, Crash,” said Baron. He tried not to let on how relieved he was to be rid of the hot skin. He could handle bare pseudo-flesh for a few days. In fact, he suspected he would enjoy handing it.

Crash allowed his worker drone to regain its autonomy, allowed his skinshop to melt away down the deepness of the AlterReal until his own body felt natural again. He reclined in his papasan, his eyes squeezed shut, not wishing to register the outside world more than required. Pudgy fingers folded over his gut, a part of his body intentionally neglected by the effortless body sculpting of the day. He didn't want to mold himself as if he were no more than one of his creations. But he had to admit that he recreated himself, time and again, despite his vague artistic principles. Baron had given him a potent tool for that project.

It was a pity, really. Crash liked Baron. He didn't want him to get disappeared, but he felt sure Baron had somehow run afoul of the Rothman Group. Why else re-skin two flawless androids? The old skins hadn't fatigued from over-frequent manipulation, but both contained Rothman tracers. Crash had decontaminated the shop after they left, not wanting to attract undue scrutiny, and then got to work synthesizing the new skins. You didn't break connections with people who could give you black magic heaven on a sliver of silicon. Even so, he worried about Rothman salvage gangs, and Baron's androids, and Baron himself, of course. After seeing the skins, he reached the conclusion that Baron and the recent news concerning that Oscar Rothman kid somehow shared a common thread. He didn't know how Baron fit into the tapestry, but he knew he would have to keep an eye on his favorite supplier.

But clandestine activities could wait. Why bother protecting your suppliers if you couldn't enjoy the supply?

“Eva?” he said into the dark.

“Yes, my love?” came the answer. The warm hand of one of his synthetic lovers brushed his cheek, and a thrill shot down Crash's body.

“Inject me with sequence B-35, Rev. 2.”

Eva took his hand, pressed his fingers to her plush lips, and said, “How, my love?”

“The shoulder, this time. The neck thing isn't all it's cracked up to be, whatever the AR shows say.”

“Shall I stay with you after? Shall I please you with my body?”

“But of course. You know orgasm increases the potency of the haze.”

She laughed then, and his fingers brushed a fang, almost pricking him. He didn't worry. Eva never forgot to retract her arsenal before sucking him off. He could feel her luscious body fold into him, straddle his lap. She smelled of ancient Dutch roses and human female, a mix he had derived from DNA samples in European museums and the budding enthusiasm of young models. Her lips brushed his chin, and she said, “I will not let you off easy, my love. I am going to milk you until your flesh becomes so tender for me, until you cannot control the quivering of your muscles.”

“Sweet talk will get you everywhere,” he said, smiling. He still hadn't opened his eyes, still refused to let the light of reality invade his coming vision, but Eva felt all too real. “Now, bite me, you perfect bitch.”

He felt her hand cup his cheek, and her lips trace a wet kiss down his neck, teasing the site of her last injection. Eva made her way to his shoulder, and Crash could feel the soft wetness of her mouth touch him there. Suddenly, a sharp pain bloomed in his shoulder, and he could feel his sex toy's venom pulse into him. After a few moments, Eva's fangs retracted, and he could feel her lips suck at his wound, her saliva laced with prolactin inhibitors and painkillers. He gasped. The result of Baron's neurotransmitter editor, a cocktail of potent user-tailored pharmacology, took hold of his mind. Crash felt his body detach from his consciousness, as if his limbs had become a kind of plaything for his pleasure center, a tool for delight rather than survival. His flesh could no longer be called his own. Eva took advantage of his state, and ecstasy took over his body.

He could feel the heat of her sex engulf him, wrap him in its wet embrace, suck at him with a manic ferocity. Minutes later, an orgasm shook his body, causing him to convulse, as the feeling washed over his being. It didn't stop. He knew it wouldn't stop until the neurotransmitters had run their course. He could feel her mouth all over him, causing seismic responses wherever she kissed him. He became dimly aware that his sex toy had become adventurous, invading him in ways that made him shiver. Another orgasm pulsed through him, and he found himself pushed by carnal exigency, desperate to continue his ride, afraid it would never stop. The impact of Eva's pelvis, as she impaled herself on him in a frantic rhythm, sent shock waves through him. A wet tongue snaked into his ear, the purr of his lover exciting him, and he cried out, only to have his lips caressed by her hand. The sensation throttled his mind, overwhelming him, and his mental landscape lost cohesion in the depths of his haze.

Hours later, he woke in Eva's arms. She didn't seem like a vampire to him. That had been his original idea for her, but her true nature proved far more giving. She didn't suck blood but staunched its flow. She didn't give hellish immortality, but blissful immortal moments. Her red hair draped over his chest, warming him against the chill of the stoic AR room. She had noticed the change in his breathing, he knew; she looked up at him, her porcelain features making him whimper inside. Gave him a fanged smile through a smear of his blood on her mouth.

He knew, if he weren't very careful, he could lose her. He could lose everything. Crash sought for a way to defend himself against Rothmans without actually getting more involved than he'd become.

He thought Baron needed more than new pseudo-skin. He needed special hardware. A couple of pleasure droids and a sexy schoolteacher couldn't see the kid to the other side of hell with fancy software alone. Not against the Rothmans. Not if they got serious. Crash sighed. He didn't like to call the Talos Twins for things like this. Those two thought paranoia was the name of a holy order.

Eber Talos observed the transaction with Crash, a critical frown on his lips. He didn't like transferring military -grade countermeasures in such a hasty fashion, but he understood the circumstances, and it was Crash, after all. People used to call the stuff black ICE, back in his grandpa's day, but calling it that now would be like calling a plane a “flying machine.” Eber liked to think he had more style. Either way, the stuff could kill, if allowed. He heard the target user already possessed the requisite code, which spoke volumes by itself, but transacting the hardware alone could still lead to hard time. Therefore, he participated through an unlicensed android. Amateurs often thought that everything had turned into ones and zeros, that the hardware didn't matter anymore, but he had proof to the contrary implanted in the wrist of his simulacrum.

The park he and Crash's android met at looked almost deserted, giving free reign to the squirrel and deer that darted between the thick tree trunks and boulders. The new neural implants had quickly taken over, and people often preferred vacationing in their heads to the real deal. After all, the only difference between fresh air and apartment air was in your head, so they said. Eber couldn't judge them: neither of them were actually in the park either, but in order to avoid undue attention, the surrogates engaged in an inane conversation, their artificial voices mingling with the sounds of nature. A psychoacoustic signature laced their conversation, an encrypted link that exchanged the true meaning of their banter.

“I don't want to know what kind of trouble your boy is in,” said Eber, “but if he uses this and it gets on the AlterNET, he'll have more to worry about than Rothman goons.”

“I know, Eber,” said Crash. His android laughed some lame joke, and replied with something equally vacuous. “But this isn't the time to play it safe, man. The Rothmans won't either, and my connection needs your goods to keep them off his tail for a bit. This one is the cautious type. I don't think he'll end up on the evening news, unless he turns up dead.”

“I hope you're right,” said Eber. His android gave Crash's surrogate a high five, passing the package into the other android's wrist. The two drones carried on their conversation, something about a local club. “For this guy's sake. The Rothman's are pussycats compared to military intelligence, and don't believe that 'Posse Comitatus' bullshit. Either way, they won't trace it back to me, or my sister. You I ain't so sure about. Watch your back.”

“Always,” said Crash. His surrogate turned and left, waving at Eber's android in a cheery fashion.

Eber watched him until Crash's machine disappeared around a bend in a trail, then he turned his android and walked it behind a copse of trees. He spoke a command, and the machine began to dissolve. Eber didn't care that the constituent carbon would end up enriching the soil. It mattered more that the android's matter wouldn't kill the trees and attract undue attention. He broke the link and came back to the here-and-now.

Eber rubbed his eyes and glanced around the room he occupied. The walls were old, a bit stained, and covered in vidposters. He looked down to the red couch, and frowned.

“Could you maybe cut that out while I'm in the same room zoning a meet?” he said to his sister, Eda. Presently, a far-too-perfect android had his tongue jammed down his sister's throat. The groping had just started, and her blouse already hosted more than two limbs. She didn't seem to mind in the least. “It creeps me out.”

Eda broke away long enough to glance over at her twin, a look of disbelief in her eyes. “Bullshit, Eb! I mean, how often do you even go out? You spend all your free time in the arms of that slut, Shara.”

Eber didn't take the last comment personally. Eda liked Shara, despite how the android often monopolized Eber's time. The smirk as she said it only confirmed the reality.

“But I don't do it like right in your face, or when you're trying to study shit, do I?”

She only stuck her tongue out at him, as the android stud proceeded to kiss her neck. Well, it's not like he was her boss. He got up and went outside, looking down at the traffic that ran passed their apartment. He remembered the old movies portrayed traffic as some kind of audible nuisance, but all he could hear was the familiar swish of near-silent vehicles cutting through air.

“You look upset,” said silky voice behind him. He felt a soft hand run through his hair, and he almost melted at the warm touch. “Tell me your troubles, my pet,” said Shara. “I'll make them go away. I promise.”

Eber turned into his artificial lover, giving himself to her comfortable embrace. The faint smell of lilacs caught his heart, as it always did, and he looked into her unnatural violet eyes, brushed sable locks from her face with his hand. “It is possible some bad men may die before too long,” he said.

“This is a tragedy?” she said.

“I don't know,” he said. “I just hope that kid knows what he's doing.”

“What kid?”

“It's nothing.” He caressed her cheek. “This is more interesting.”

She smiled, just before he tasted her lips. The traffic became even quieter.

It's not like the orgy was unexpected, thought Baron. Even so, he hadn't expected Bethany to set the two skinless androids loose so quickly after returning to his dorm room. She just stood back with a wanton smirk on her face, playing with her curly hair. He suspected she just wanted to get his hormones out of the way, so she could get to his lessons, but he couldn't be sure. After all, it wasn't like she didn't enjoy herself; he'd made sure of that.

Baron's mouth felt dry, and his pulse seemed to tattoo his whole body. He had learned to read the fiber-optic light-show that flashed across Scylla's body, and he knew she was also aroused. Her translucent hand caressed his cheek, and her lips parted slightly. He could see himself in her shades, a faint hint of her searching eyes beneath their mirrored surface. He could tell that her gaze traced his lips, as her other hand caressed his stiff cock.

Not to be left out, Niobe stood just behind her lover, her hand working with intensity between the girl's thighs. But Niobe only stared at him over Scylla's shoulder. He knew that look. She craved his orgasm, the catalyst of her own release. That's how it worked when they responded to his arousal. The two mirror shades made them more anonymous somehow, and it made their impending coupling even hotter.

“Scylla?” he said.

The girl leaned closer, pressed her soft lips to his ear. “Yes, Master?”

“I need you to suck my cock now.”

He saw her neck sparkle with her blush. She whimpered something lascivious, and trailed a wet kiss down from his neck to his groin. She circled the head of his cock with her tongue, and he hissed his pleasure. Moments later her mouth had engulfed him, riding a lazy trail back and forth along his length. Seconds later, Niobe knelt beside her and began suckling his balls.

Baron read Bethany's smirk as a challenge, and he resolved not to be taken down so easily as he had earlier in the day. His cheek twitched at the sensations the two androids induced in his crotch, but he held his fire and held Bethany's gaze for minutes. After a while, he pushed the two away, breathing heavily.

“Lie down and open your legs, Niobe,” he said.

The girl smiled and did as bade. Her labia looked strange without the soft folds of her pseudo-skin to cover them. The translucent slit glistened with her juices, and he thought he could see something moving under her pubic region. He knelt between her legs and pressed himself over her body. Her pseudo-muscle felt smooth, and the the tiny combs of her mantle almost tickled him. He kissed Niobe, taking pleasure in the slickness of her lips, and the taste of her tongue. Baron lifted himself up from her, pinning her wrists down with his hands, and watched himself enter her. He could see the dance of lights, as her vaginal walls constricted around his cock. With fascination, he could see himself moving inside her, the image of his cock blurred by the layers of pseudo-muscle shrouding her pelvis. Her belly became a light-show, as she curled herself to meet his thrusts. She kissed his ear, and whimpered indecent and incoherent words.

“Please, Master,” she said, her tone a pleading growl. “Fuck me harder. I want you to come inside me!” Baron looked up to see Bethany still smirking at him, daring him to ignore the thrashing sexpot beneath him. She was stroking herself beneath her sun dress while she watched him fucking. By the flush on her face, he assumed she'd pulled out her Venusian Tongue, though her dress hid this from view. The thought almost made him lose control, because he remembered how delicious her tongue felt when it licked him. By the look she gave him, he suspected she knew what effect it had on him.

Abruptly, he pulled out of Niobe, who pouted at him. He got up on shaky legs and pushed Scylla against the wall, plunged himself between her ass cheeks. She gasped at the sudden action, but pushed back against his thrusts, driving him deeper inside her. “Please, Master,” screamed Scylla. “Fuck me harder. I want you to come inside me!”

If Baron's mind hadn't already been so hazy with lust, he'd have laughed at the refrain. He thought that Bethany's attempt to finish him off might have run into an heuristic carbuncle. She obviously thought that if dirty talk from one android worked, using an exact copy from another should have the same effect. Logical, he supposed, given her limited information on humor, but wrong of course. It did help him control himself a bit better, but he never broke his tempo. He turned his head to look at Bethany, and noticed that her smile had changed from a wanton smirk to a knowing grin. She probably wouldn't make the same mistake again. The readout on his AR suite said he'd been at it for almost an hour, about thirty minutes beyond her last exam. He felt he'd passed this time.

He pulled himself from Scylla, who sank to the floor panting, and took both androids by the neck, pulling their faces to his throbbing cock. He forced himself into Niobe's waiting mouth, while Scylla licked his balls. He looked up at Bethany, her face still wearing a peaceful smile, and he came down Niobe's willing throat. When his contractions subsided, Niobe fell away from him, taken by her own climax. She lay on the floor and convulsed. In moments, Scylla fell beside her, lost in her own orgasm. Baron smiled down at the pair, thinking that orgasms on command held an undeniable charm.

“You are my smartest student,” said Bethany, who shuddered in her own milder release. Her hand came out from under her dress, covered in her juices. “I am very proud of you. And now you have other things to learn.”

A chemistry set popped up in his peripheral vision again, and Baron groaned. “I knew it.” Bethany just smiled. The next three days went by in that fashion. Despite the chemistry lessons, he admitted to himself that he had little reason to complain.


“Boringly punctual as usual,” said Crash's fab drone. Baron's entourage turned up at the Crash Lab at the proscribed time. Baron could hardly contain his excitement at the new toys he had coming to him. He'd reached the realization that as much as he'd enjoyed the novelty of screwing skinless androids, he craved the skins he'd picked more than ever. They moved into the fab shop, and arrived at a pair of new equipment that he'd never seen before. They looked like ancient telephone booths, like something you'd see in an movie from the previous century. Somehow that seemed to fit Crash.

“Okay, ladies,” said Crash. “Strip down and hop in. We'll have you skinned-up in no time,” he added, less for the androids' benefit than for their root user's. Scylla and Niobe doffed their clothing and stepped into the machines. Crash took the mirrored shades from them, revealing their lidless orbs. The machines' doors closed in front of them, and Baron could hear a low hum start up. “Here we go,” said Crash. Suddenly, a sharp whine rose up from the machines, and the two androids got sprayed with pasty gunk in a set pattern. Nozzles inside the booth circled the two girls from head to toe. Silent commands prompted them to lift their feet or raise their arms. In only a few moments the process finished, and Crash led Baron and Bethany away from the booths, saying, “They need time to cure.”

Baron found himself in Crash's office again, looking over at the hulking drone that hosted his friend's voice. “Look, Baron,” said Crash. “You don't have to tell me what's going on ...”

“True,” said Baron in a sharp tone.

Crash sighed, said, “Like I was saying, you don't have to say anything, but I'm not stupid. I know you've got trouble with powerful people. Probably the Rothman Group.” Crash held up a twenty-fingered hand. “I don't really care if you deny it or not. Like I said, I'm not stupid. Anyway, my point is, I don't plan on losing a connection just because he doesn't trust me with his secrets. I've made preparations.”

Baron's eyes narrowed. “What preparations?”

“These,” said Crash. Three black rods emerged from the drone's raised hand. Their ends looked capped with gold circuitry.

Now Baron's eyelids flew wide open. “That's not what I think it is, is it?” The drone just stood there, silent. “Are you fucking nuts, Crash? Do you know how many laws I'm breaking now, just being in the same room with that?”

“About twenty, I think, give or take a few felonies,” said Crash in a flat voice.

Baron sat back heavily, staring at the rods. Crash's logic seemed sound. His situation might come to require such measures. But he didn't like it.

“Hey,” said Crash. Baron's gaze snapped to the drone. “Better judged by twelve than buried by six.”

For a moment Baron didn't respond, then, in a hollow voice, “Right. You're right.”

“Good. It's time.” The hulking drone got back to its feet and trudged out of the office. Baron followed.

The two skinning booths looked opaque now, and Baron could still hear the hissing. But he could see green lights blinking on the consoles of each machine. Crash's drone didn't appear to do anything, but the two booths suddenly popped open. Baron had expected some kind of voluminous outflow of smoke, but what he actually saw nearly stopped his heart. Two of the most perfect female creatures he could envision stood before him, eyes closed as if in suspended animation. They looked as if they'd come from some exotic mix, perhaps Nordic and Oriental. The androids reminded him of a long dead starlet he'd seen in an old 2D Superman series, something from his grandparent's time. He couldn't remember her name, but she had the same exotic look: almond-shaped eyes, coffee-and-cream skin, flowing straight black hair down to mid back, full and kissable lips, and breasts just large enough to cup in his hands with some flesh to spare. Their eyes opened, and he knew how to tell them apart, for their color hadn't changed. That, and he realized that Scylla had retained her attractive blush, despite the darker skin.

His gaze locked on Scylla, and he said, “Crash, you are a genius.” Scylla's blush deepened, but she smiled demurely. Bethany chuckled.

Crash gave a metallic grunt, and said, “Yeah, I know.”

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