Writing As We Go

From FembotWiki

Writing As We Go

Chapter 1

Lloyd shouldered his rifle as he crept towards the dig site, silently hoping that he wouldn't need it. The Artemis Pact, after all, was normally a peaceful bunch—something about this archaeological find had led them to sudden, unexpected violence in their efforts to obtain it for themselves. Worse, there were rumors that the find could be sold to other interested parties....parties who wouldn't hesitate to harness the oft spoken-of power of the artifact and, in all probability, weaponize it.

A stack of crates was the only cover on offer—convenient, considering that the massive pit was guarded by well over three-dozen well-armed, highly-trained operatives of the Pact. All female, of course, and every last one of them under orders to kill anyone who tried to take the site from them. There was no sign of the original dig team.

After a few rounds of peeking over the crates and observing his adversaries, Lloyd spotted a lone sentry. Her black hair hung in a ponytail over a brown leather vest, the sleeves of her red shirt rolled up to expose lithe, tanned arms. Her blue jeans hugged her legs in ways that, on any other day, might've been inviting...but any thoughts along that line ended as soon as Lloyd spotted the holstered pistol at her hip.

No getting around it. He'd have to disarm her before Harry could make his approach to the site.

As carefully as he dared, Lloyd set down his rifle, drawing his own pistol instead. He still hoped to end the encounter without having to resort to it, but the Pact had shot the last negotiating party that had approached them. If the rumors about their alignment shifting in favour of how the war was turning were true....

Silently, he approached the sentry. His finger hovered over the hammer of his revolver.

The sentry had no time to speak before the barrel of the Colt pressed into the small of her back. “Your gun. Drop it.” Lloyd tried his best to sound commanding and authoritative—not easy for a 20-year-old Electronics major who had little prior experience with guns.

“You have no idea what you're interfering in,” the sentry hissed, her words spiced with a light Spanish accent. “The Pact has laid claim to the Eternity Glaive, and you—”

“Just open the flap on the holster,” Lloyd commanded...or tried to command; “pleas” were a lot less likely to garner the same kind of respect as “commands”, in this situation.

He could tell the sentry was scowling, even as she unholstered the flap of the holster. “A coward, just like the last,” she growled. “You can't even look me in the eye as you take my weapon!”

“Just keep your hands where I can see them.” Lloyd stepped forwards, reaching for the pistol—only realizing, at the last minute, that he was now almost chest-to-back with the sentry. A quiet, almost imperceptible click sounded, just as shouts on the far end of the dig site filled the air—followed soon after by gunfire. Apparently, Harry was done waiting for his cue.

Lloyd ignored the melee, focusing on grabbing the pistol from his target...a task made exponentially more difficult by the sudden, unexpected swaying of her hips, as if she was dancing.

“....could you stay still, please?!” he whispered. “Just let me—”

“If you wanted to talk to me in private,” the sentry cooed, “you could've just asked...” She was running her hands over her sides, her breasts, her stomach as she spoke. “This is no place for lovers to meet...”

Lloyd grimaced. Of course it had to go this way. “Just keep your hands up!” he insisted. “I—”

The sentry whirled, her face the picture of beauty—high cheekbones, expressive lips and hungrily staring eyes.

“...oh, cariño mío,” she whispered, “you and I should find somewhere to....” Her tongue played over her lips. “...talk...”

Lloyd groaned. Off in the distance, the Pact were scrambling towards Harry's position, seemingly ignorant of their guard having fallen for a second intruder. “Red stop,” he muttered.

The sentry continued swaying, her hands now seeking the buttons of Lloyd's shirt. “The night is young,” she moaned, “and we have so much time to—”

“Red Stop!” Lloyd repeated, more forcefully.

The sentry froze. Her jaw went slack, her eyes wide; Lloyd tentatively took a step back, just in time for the sentry to bow forward slightly with a faint whine. Her head cocked to the side, looking almost cartoonishly confused.

“Damn it...” Lloyd fetched the walkie-talkie (in reality, a smartphone housed in a case recreating a 1940s handheld radio, for “authenticity”) on his belt. “That's the third one from this lot...” He keyed the phone on, sighing. “Guys, I found another problem,” he stated. “Either it's a bug, or we missed something in the last wipe.”

After a suitably authentic crackle, a voice responded: “You're sure it's a bug?”

“Esperanza went off-script when I tried to disarm her. Straight into a seduction routine that's not part of the story.”

A heavy, exasperated sigh issued from the “walkie”. “We'll send a cart over. Calling Full Stop.”

Hidden loudspeakers, positioned around the “dig site”, issued the words: “Full Stop. All Units, Full Stop.” Lloyd watched as the rest of the Artemis Pact froze, as Esperanza had, before bending forward. A few of them dropped their weapons; one unfortunate Pact member fell down an incline—thankfully, it was a shallow one, with a canvas sack loaded with beanbag pellets in lieu of actual sand at the other end.

A second voice spoke from the walkie: “Not that I'm calling you a liar, kid, but are you sure this is a bug?”

The gruff, low tones of his uncle's voice snapped Lloyd out of his daze at watching the Pact deactivate en masse. “I'd never lie about this stuff, Uncle Harry! It's either a bug or—”

“Something we missed on the last wipe, I heard.” Harry sighed. “I'll make my way over as soon as...” He grunted, as if trying to move something off of himself. “...I can get untangled from Sienna. Hell of a time for a full stop order, kid...she was fighting with me over the rifle.”

Anything Lloyd could've said in reply was pre-empted by the arrival of a golf cart rolling up. Two men disembarked, both regarding Esperanza with arched eyebrows. “She started a seduction routine, you said?”

“Well...” Lloyd moved to straighten the former sentry's posture, her limbs and torso giving faint whines as he moved her back to a standing position. “I was trying to take the pistol off of her belt, and I...” He turned Esperanza around before recreating his steps. “...guess I just got a bit too close.”

The man who'd been driving the cart nodded. “Figured that. GTB.”

The other man groaned. “...really?”

“Groin-to-butt, happens all the time.” The first man shook his head. “Pretty sure she's from Lot 32—check the register, Leo.” He approached Lloyd and the deactivated Esperanza. “That one was loaded up with companions.”

“So she wasn't...”

Lloyd's unfinished question was met with a chuckle. “Sexbots get quadruple-checked, and wiped just as many times.”

“Just checked the register,” Leo chimed in. “You were right, Jim—Lot 32. DCX....forgot the line, but we can check her serial number...”

As the two set about removing Esperanza's faux-leather vest and red jumper, Lloyd couldn't help but wonder why, out of all the gynoids set to be a sentry for this particular event, the one who'd been picked and programmed for it just so happened to still have lines of code that overwrote the script for the story. And of course, it'd been his luck to activate that code while going through a perfectly in-character moment—searching the enemy and relieving them of weapons.

Jim and Leo had just taken a tool to the artificial skin of Esperanza's back when Harry jogged up. “Do I want to know why you're peeling her right now?”

“Lloyd triggered her old code with a GTB,” Jim explained. “Tried to take her pistol, got too close...”

“I was following the recommended procedure for running through this part of the story,” Lloyd insisted. “Non-lethal disarm, all that stuff. I didn't—”

Harry's upheld hand cut off any further discussion. “Which lot was she from?”

“32,” Leo replied. “DCX....ah....A445, B9962, 12-24-56-PTM.”

“Must've been a refurb of a refurb.” Harry regarded the 'bot's exposed internals with a scowl. “DCX's serial numbers aren't set up that way...” He shrugged. “Might as well get her sealed up, take her back to base camp.”

Jim retrieved another tool from his belt. “Want us to check the rest?”

“....actually, yeah.” Harry nodded. “Sienna didn't let go of my rifle even after the Full Stop order. It's probably nothing, but it never hurts to be sure.” He gestured to Esperanza; “Once she's sealed up,” he continued, “just put her on the back of the cart—with a seat belt. Last thing we need is for her to fall off.”

“Got it.” Jim nodded without looking up; the re-sealer was still doing its job on the fake skin of the gynoid's back.

Lloyd fell into step alongside his uncle, already walking over to the golf cart. “...so, ah...”

“You made the right call, kid,” Harry stated. “Especially since the group that'll be going through the story when it goes live is an all-ages one. If she'd have kicked into that old code then...” He shook his head. “I'll have Erin run the deep scan when we get to the camp. Anything turns up there, we bring her back to the ranch and do a full wipe.”

“Got it.” Lloyd climbed into the golf cart's passenger seat. “Did they ask for the Pact, or...”

“They wanted 'World War II German military', complete with the uniforms,” Harry replied. “Unfortunately, the uniforms got held at Customs, and I wasn't about to fork over $500 just for armbands and medals. Be lucky we've got a hell of a writer on staff,” he added, chuckling. “And the ones paying to run this event didn't have a problem with the substitution, either. Win-win for everyone.”

Lloyd nodded, not glancing behind him even as Esperanza was buckled into the rear set of the golf cart. “All set!”

“Thanks.” Harry gave a thumbs-up to the two techs. “Call if anything turns up with the rest—if we find anything at the camp, we'll let you know.”

With that, the golf cart sped off, away from the quarry kitted out like a World War II-era dig site.


Silicon Dynamics had started the trend, really. With their “scenario chambers” and expansive showrooms, the idea of paying customers getting interactive, fully-immersive experiences with realistic androids was one that someone was bound to try and replicate. Granted, Silicon Dynamics' chambers and showrooms were...specific, in the experiences they offered—some people wanted something more in line with Westworld (minus the whole “'bots/hosts turning on the guests” part, obviously). Even in the age of virtual reality, movies (both in theatres and on-demand), a grand total of six home video game consoles vying for shelf space and consumers' cash and numerous other distractions, there were those who wanted quite a bit more interactivity from their diversions, a sense of “you were there” that even the best VR setup couldn't provide.

Not quite a live-action role-play, not quite Improvisational Shakespeare in the Park...something new.

Thus was born StoryCrafters Interactive Entertainment.

Though SCIE was marketed as a “franchise”, there were only seven states with active, fully-furnished branches: California, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Wisconsin, Jefferson and Washington State. Running it all was an effort that took a lot of manpower—and 'bot-power. All “performers” in SCIE events were refurbished, reprogrammed non-sentient androids and gynoids, all running scripts written specifically for the story they were taking part in; repairs, programming and story-writing for the events were handled by humans and sentient 'bots alike. Such was the way of life in the United States, in the year 2023—gone were the days of “robots will take our jobs”, a sentiment that had been punted out the window back in 2015.

“...you awake, Lloyd?”

Harry's inquiry jolted Lloyd out of his reverie. “I wasn't asleep,” he mumbled. “Just...thinking.”

The smile on his uncle's face would've looked right at home on the cover of a pulp adventure magazine. “I'm not mad at you, if you're still worried,” Harry assured him.

“Thanks...” Lloyd managed a smile. “It's just...y'ever wonder if they...I dunno, remember?”

“The 'bots we get for the stories?” Harry clarified. “They're NonSens, Lloyd. Not like Erin, or any of the ones working the beat for CAEDIA, or what's-her-face over in California...” He snapped his fingers, trying to remember the name. “Gala-something, the one with all the purple and pink, with the action figures and the cartoon—”

“Galatea?” Lloyd offered.

“YES.” Harry nodded. “Like her. She's sentient. Erin's sentient, and the CAEDIA 'bots...the CAEDIA androids and gynoids, I mean....they're all sentient.” He jerked a thumb back at Esperanza. “Put it this way: Esperanza can fake a conversation with someone...all it takes is one or two moves, and you see right through her. A sentient can have a conversation with someone—there's websites that'll explain it a lot better than I can.”

“Right.” Lloyd glanced back at Esperanza. “....so...”

“There's a reason Erin's an employee,” Harry continued, “and Esperanza's property.”

Lloyd nodded. “Got it.”

“Good.” A quick glance behind him allowed Harry to see that Esperanza's seat belt was still holding. “We've got another two days or so before we run the event...hopefully we don't get another case like the Estate House...” The look on his face made it clear that any further discussion of that event was probably a bad idea.

The rest of the ride was conducted in silence—Lloyd lost in thought, Harry watching for traffic (and any wayward cows).

Befitting the nature of the event they'd be running, SCIE had set up a “base camp” for the paying clients to use as their home base. It was currently equipped with far more items than a group of World War II-era archaeologists would need, due to the frequency of repairs, programming checks and adjustments made to the “cast”. The employees nodded and waved at the golf cart as it drove past, Harry and Lloyd returning the gestures as they guided the golf cart to the center of the “camp”.

“I just hope Erin isn't too busy,” Harry muttered. “Otherwise...”

The cart slowed to a stop outside of the biggest tent in the centre of the camp; Harry tapped the center of the steering wheel, sounding the horn.

“...in a second...” The tent flap opened to reveal a female figure that, unlike Esperanza, nobody would mistake for a human being. Erin's entire form was the general size and shape of a 20-something human female, but with off-white or grey plastic plating instead of anything remotely resembling skin. Her face was the sole exception—just as expressive as that of a human, but still a noticeably pale white. Her “complexion”, bright yellow hair and makeup made her look slightly clownish—a notion dispelled by the cut-off t-shirt and jean shorts she'd chosen to wear in the mid-December chill. “And what happened to her?” she inquired, nodding at Esperanza.

“Flare-up,” Harry explained, hefting the inert 'bot out of the rear seat of the golf cart. “Lloyd accidentally went GTB, she started getting flirty...”

“Say no more,” Erin cut in. “Bring her inside, and find a free table to lay her on.”

Lloyd followed his uncle into the tent, his attention temporarily caught by the gynoids (for some reason, the previous lot had been entirely populated by female 'bots) and pieces of gynoids strewn about. The whole (or mostly whole) gynoids took up few tables to themselves; one in particular had her abdominal covering removed, her internals framed by synthetic flesh the color of a dark mocha. The rest of the tables in use, with staff darting to and fro, were covered with tools and parts. One, which Lloyd regarded with a wary eye, was being occupied entirely by gynoid heads, three of which were being tested with various tools and prods.

“....wiped her five times,” Erin insisted. “How could—set her down here—could any of her old code have survived that many wipes?” She regarded the intert Spanish gynoid with a frown, as if the incident at the quarry had been her own nefarious intention. “This one's a DCX, you said?”

“Leo and Jim checked it.”

“....Domestic Companion Experiments....” Erin accepted a tablet handed to her by a passing staffer. “....yep. Amour 5020, rolled off the line back in 2014. And there it is...” She held up the tablet for Harry (and Lloyd) to get a glimpse. “Recall Order: 'unintended physical contact in the following regions may result in activation of seduction subroutines', you get the idea.” She flicked her finger across the screen, calling up an image. “GTB, you said?”

“.....yeah.” Lloyd suddenly felt his face getting uncomfortably warm.

“Not your fault, believe me. Take a wild guess as to what kicked off the vast majority of unit returns...” Erin tapped the tablet, zooming in on the rear end of the line drawing. “87% were caused by 'accidental physical contact with buttocks of affected units'. They were supposed to have patched it out.”

“And just our luck,” Harry sighed, “we get an unpatched unit. Please tell me—”

“You can download the patch from the website and update her right now.” Erin had already turned away.

“So we don't need to go through the code?” Lloyd asked. “The wipe would've picked up the issue..”

Erin regarded him with a frown, but her words carried little of the implied annoyance. “...you really want to go through all that trouble?”

“What was the seduction protocol package for her model, anyway?” Harry interjected. “Lloyd said he almost lost his shirt when she got all touchy-feely...”

“...she went for your shirt?”

“Started dancing, facing away from me,” Lloyd recounted. “Then turned to look at me, and tried to unbutton—”

“Right, right...” Erin had called up the website on the tablet again, scrolling through screens with a flick of her thumb. “I can check....Amour 5020....programming....” Her frown looked almost comical. “....yeah, this line didn't have 'undress your partner' as an automatic first action for their seduction package.”

“What about mod options?” Harry prompted. “I see a list right there—”

“Let me check, let me...” A few more flicks of the thumb, and Erin groaned. “....they removed that option because they got too many complaints about dress shirts getting buttons torn off. Doesn't say if they patched it out or not, but...” She turned to frown at the immobile gynoid on the table. “You said she was dancing?”

“Yeah. Sort of, ah...” He attempted a brief impression of the gynoid's dance. “Right up against me, at first.”

“Anything else?”

“...feeling herself—sides, boobs, abs, that kind of thing. Like she was in a music video.”

Erin had queued up a clip on the tablet. “Something like this?” The brief video showed a pale, lithe beauty in a one-piece swimsuit doing an identical dance to what Esperanza had done after the unintended close contact with Lloyd.

“....that's it, yeah, that's...that's exactly it!”

“Figured.” Erin closed the video and scrolled up the page. “Someone tried to cross-mod this unit without doing a shred of research. That option's from PlasTech!”

The gravity of Erin's tone—and Harry's expression—was slightly confusing to Lloyd. “...and that's a bad thing...why?”

“PlasTech uses proprietary software, kid,” Harry clarified. “No cross-modding allowed. One of the reasons their stock was in the toilet three years ago.”

“Meaning that someone did a hell of a hatchet job on 'Esperanza' here,” Erin finished. “We're gonna have to give her a factory reset, then the patch, then the script.” She planted her hands on her hips, frowning at the deactivated gynoid on the table. “And Harry, you'll want to keep tabs on the supplier who sent this one. No telling how many more basement hack-jobs are in their inventory...”

“Got it. Anything else we need to worry about before the paying customers show up?”

“Not much...well, Pam was acting kind of weird. Weirder than her script called for.” Erin shrugged. “Couldn't find anything wrong with her here at the camp, so I sent her back to the shop at your place.”

“So much for a quiet night in.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the heads-up.”

“No problem—oh, and Customs called. They said they can get the uniforms here for just $250.”

Harry was already walking away; he waved off the offer without looking back. “Forget it. My luck, someone'll drive by, call the cops on the show and I'll have a lot of questions to answer.”

The best Lloyd could do was give an apologetic shrug as he ran to keep up with his uncle.

After a few more minutes of talking to everyone on staff at the camp, it was evident that things were, in fact, running as smoothly as could be expected. By the time the event started, they'd be gone—“they'd kill the immersion if they stuck around”, Harry had said. Lloyd had been present for at least three previous events, and none of them had run with more than skeleton crews, waiting just out of sight, to handle any problems....apart from the Estate House, but staff issues were far from the only issues with that particular event...

“Other than Esperanza going off like she did,” Harry mused, as he and Lloyd headed for the “car park” of the camp, “I'd say we're pretty well set for the full run-through. Might have you tag along with the group, be the 'hired guide'...the last lot was supposed to have a male 'bot for that role...” His expression darkened as he muttered something about extra shipping costs. “...anyway, it'll go well. It has to.”

“I hope so,” Lloyd murmured. “I mean...the last few went well.” He knew that adding “except for the Estate House” to that sentence would earn him a death glare all the way back to his uncle's house. “...I think this one'll go well.”

“I think so, too, kid.” Harry nodded. “If anything, it'll be the best one yet.” He nodded to the driver's side door of the Ford RangeStar the pair had just approached. “You get the wheel this time,” he added, tossing Lloyd the keys.

Lloyd nodded. Thus far, the day was shaping up to be a good one...


“....oh, what in the Hell...”

The lights in the windows of Harry's ranch house, combined with the entirely too-loud bass thumping of a big band tune that could be heard even from inside the RangeStar, was all the proof needed that something had gone...awry, for lack of a better term. Harry had just finished up the last of several phone calls when he first heard the muted tones of Glenn Miller and his Orchestra; Lloyd, having no idea what to expect, guided the pickup truck to a slow stop in the driveway.

“There'd better be a damn good explanation for this,” Harry growled, stowing his phone and throwing open the front passenger door of the RangeStar. As soon as he was free of his seatbelt and out of the truck, he was storming off for the front door: “TURN THAT MUSIC DOWN, RIGHT NOW!”

Instantly, the Glenn Miller cut out—which only made it apparent, as Harry opened the front door—that something else had gone...awry.

Lloyd was out of his seatbelt in seconds, leaving the truck and pressing the lock icon on the keyfob without looking back as he ran to catch up with his uncle. His first thought was that someone had decided to get plastered and throw an in-character swing party...which, even as he thought of the idea, made almost no sense. Nobody on-staff in SCIE had been “problematic”, in any sense of the term, before; it'd be a stretch for any one of them to go off now.

The truth of the matter was only slightly less bizarre than what Lloyd had expected.

“....tried to fix her up, she was turned off and everything, but she just...I don't know how it happened, she reactivated and started running the script, found the radio...” One of the staffers (Lloyd couldn't remember the guy's name) was nearly crying as he tried to explain the situation to Harry. “...she just wouldn't stop dancing, nobody could turn the radio off, it was voice coded and she...I don't even know how she turned the stupid thing on...” As Lloyd neared the door, he could see that the distraught staffer was accompanied by two others, and a thoroughly annoyed (and confused) Harry.

“...how did she get from partying like it's 1945,” Harry quietly asked, “to that?!”

Lloyd stepped into the front room...and immediately saw what “that” was.

Pam, the gynoid mentioned in passing back at the camp, had apparently gone haywire—not in the stereotypical “start throttling the nearest person” way, or in a self-destructive way...but in a very weird way. Her cheerful, Midwestern features were frozen in a wide-eyed smile, framed by straw-blonde hair; her checked shirt was halfway open, a period-accurate bra on full display—right above the sizeable opened abdominal panel showing off her internals. Her entire body was contorting in what was apparently supposed to be a dance, but her movements were slow, obviously robotic and hardly “rhythmic”. Worse, she was nearly bent over backwards over the table that most of the staff living on-site took their meals at...and still “dancing”. Her limbs, torso and head whirred audibly with every movement. The sight was both spellbinding and off-putting—Pam's obvious beauty only slightly undercut by the staccato, mechanical “dance”.

“...tried to repair her on the table?!” Harry demanded. “That's what the shop is for, out back!”

“We tried to fix her in the shop,” the beleaguered staffer replied. “That's when she reactivated, said she 'needed to freshen up' and made a beeline for here!”

Lloyd edged his way further into the room, doing his best not to knock anything over. The sight of the blonde gynoid still “dancing”, oblivious to the world around her, was surreal, almost dreamlike. It was hard to tell....

The sight of twin trails snaking down the insides of Pam's thighs, staining her skin bright green, caught Lloyd's attention.

“Ah, guys,” he stated, “I think she's, ah....leaking...”

Harry, midway through trying to assure his cringing employee that the mess probably wasn't his fault, turned, glancing first at Lloyd and then at Pam. “What do you...aw, for CRAP'S sake!” He motioned for two other employees to help him wrestle the gynoid to the floor; she continued writhing in their grip, her limbs still whirring as she went.

“Hydraulic fluid and coolant,” one of the employees—a crisply-dressed brunette—stated, her tone calm. “And interior joint lubricant. Not—”

“I get it,” Harry grunted. “If it was the other kind, we'd all have smelled it by now...get her into a sitting position, if you can, on three...one....two—”

Pam's eyes went even wider than before—something was either going wrong, or about to go even worse.

“Uncle Harry, look out!”

“What—” Harry barely had time to dodge the clubbing blow from the malfunctioning gynoid; in her current state, it looked as if she were in the middle of an aerobics manoeuver, twisting up and to the side before going back down. “THE HELL IS WRONG WITH HER?!”

As if to answer, a muffled blast went off inside of Pam's chest, behind her breasts. A thin wisp of smoke issued through her clenched teeth.

“She's suffering catastrophic system failures,” the brunette stated. “We should—”

“LESS TALKING, CAM,” Harry shouted, “MORE DOING!”

The brunette knelt on Pam's legs, roughly taking her by the shoulders and jerking her into a sitting position. With one hand, she worked the blonde free of her shirt. “Remove her dorsal exosheathe panel near the base of her spine—”

“I've fixed her before, I know how!” Harry insisted. His fingers worked into the gynoid's skin where Cam indicated.

The minute Harry had pried the rectangle of skin loose, one of Cam's hands darted into the newly-opened panel. Lloyd couldn't see exactly what she did, but it was obvious that it worked; mere seconds later, Pam froze, her eyes crossed as her head cocked sideways before bowing to her chest. Her arms, still held by Harry and another employee, ceased their frantic, insect-like motions and went limp. A low, dying whine emanated from inside the blonde's opened chest cavity.

As if to drive home how thoroughly ruined the gynoid was, a gush of the green coolant/lubricant mix flooded across her thighs. Cam quickly repositioned herself to avoid getting any on her.

Harry was glaring—not at Lloyd, Cam, or any of his other employees, but at the now thoroughly defunct Pam.

“What,” he demanded, “the HELL just happened?!”

Can started to offer an explanation, but Harry spoke up before she could: “Get a bag and get her—” He jerked his thumb at the ruined Pam. “—in it, and somebody clean this up!” He didn't need to indicate the bright green puddle that was forming on the floor between Pam's legs. “Call Erin, tell her we've got another write-off...and where are her pants?!”

“She was wearing a dress,” Cam calmly explained. “The problem was in her pelvic servomotor arrays, and—”

“Later.” Harry shook his head. “You got the dress off of her, but not the underwear?”

“She reactivated before—”

“Phone call for you, Harry.” A young man about Lloyd's age ran up, handing over a smart phone. “Something about—”

“Tell 'em I'm busy and take a message. You two—” Harry nodded at two figures in work clothes, but with obviously robotic arms and motionless metal faces—who'd just descended the staircase to the right of the living room. “Get her up, bag her, and bring her to the shop. If we can't fix her, we can at least salvage a few parts.”

The closer of the two figures nodded. “I'll get the bag.” His voice was a surprisingly gentle baritone, contrasting with his obviously robotic look.

After a weary nod, Harry nearly fell into the closest chair by the table. “..unbelievable.” He threw his head back, a groan of utter frustration and near-defeat punctuating his reaction to the utter madness that had unfolded. “Cam...get all the papers for the lot Pam was from, and see if we can call the supplier in the morning.”

“On it.” Cam gave a brief nod, turning to leave the room.

“Bruce, get the shop prepped for a full teardown on Pam. Whatever the hell happened to her, it wasn't just code.”

The other metallic-faced android nodded. “Should I call the base camp, ask 'em to send Erin over?”

“....no....yes.” Harry grunted as he hauled himself out of the chair. “Tell 'em whichever 'bot they can script to take Pam's place at the camp, do it—after they make sure the 'bot's green and clean. When Reg gets back with the bag, Lloyd, you can help him bring Pam out to the shop.”

Lloyd, who'd been regarding the ruined blonde gynoid's form ever since her deactivation, nodded. “Got it.”

“Good. And somebody,” Harry added, “clean up this mess on the floor, please!”

A few minutes passed before Reg returned with what looked like a full-length suit bag. “Ready when you are.”

“Lloyd, help him get Pam into the bag and out to the shop...”

It occurred to Lloyd, as he and Reg made their way out to the prefabricated metal building behind the ranch house, known as “the shop”, that any bystanders who had no idea what his uncle's job was might be suspicious, horrified or a mixture of both at the sight of two men carrying an apparent body bag to a building with a keypad lock on the door.

“...how?”

Lloyd wasn't aware he'd uttered a word until Reg spoke up: “How what?”

“....how'd it happen? With Pam, I mean.”

The android shrugged. “One minute, everything was normal...the next, she was sitting up, stomach panel off and no dress on. Said she had to 'freshen up', just walked right out of the shop. Nearly walked through the closed doors, too.”

Reg and Lloyd had reached the door to the shop. “Just set her down for a sec...” Lloyd followed Reg's suggestion; once the bag containing Pam (or what was left of her; Lloyd had a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn't be up and running again any time soon) was on the ground, Reg keyed in the necessary code to open the door. “And up...” The two hefted the bag again, carefully moving through the door to avoid banging it on the jamb.

Most of the vertical racks inside the shop were empty—of the 50 or so inside, only ten were occupied. Said “occupants” were invariably female, of varying heights; all were clothed, albeit mostly in one-piece unitards or swimsuits. There were far more partial “units”, all in various stages of disassembly, on the myriad of work benches and tables set up near tool racks, testing apparatus and other such gear. The scripting station—used to reprogram freshly-bought 'bots with all the need-to-know for their characters in any given upcoming event—was currently occupied; Lloyd considered meandering just a bit sideways, to get a glimpse at the rest of the gynoid having a temporary personality written into her...

“Just set her down here, Lloyd.”

The pair had reached an empty table; Lloyd followed Reg's lead and set the bag down. With a nod and a sort of digitized approximation of a sigh, Reg unzipped the bag; Pam's eyes were still crossed, her mouth slightly open. She had the look of someone who'd been blinded by a camera flash before being laid low; it was...oddly sad, in a way. The sight of her internals, charred black and slightly corroded, did little to make her look “at peace” in any way.

“...I think she's a goner,” Reg muttered, his artificial voice sounding legitimately melancholy. “Something in her—maybe a few somethings—blew out. Probably started when she switched on during maintenance.”

“Damn,” Lloyd murmured. “Must be a bad way to go out....”

“Don't feel too bad,” Reg assured him. “A non-sentient like her would've just registered a load of errors. She didn't feel any pain when it all went wrong.” He shook his head, the gesture surprisingly grave despite the lack of expression on his metal face. “I don't want to think about what would've happened if she'd been sentient...running a script is one thing, but an actual personality, actual feelings...”

“Like yours?” Lloyd offered.

Reg chuckled—the sound slightly unnerving from behind immobile, sculpted metal lips. “And I thought getting these options in the rebuild would make me look like a non-sentient...” He nodded. “Yes, like mine. As for her...” He glanced back at Pam. “I get the feeling she was either a low-spec unit, or 'fixed up' by amateurs before she shipped out.”

As he made his way to the door of the shop, Lloyd tried not to dwell on the fact that Pam reminded him of a teacher's assistant from his old high school in Senior Year. Bubbly, vivacious, kind...he couldn't imagine seeing her like Pam was.

He wondered, for the fiftieth time, how people had coped with similar feelings back before 2015....


Chapter 2

As soon as the wordless grunt left his lips, Lloyd realized a few things.

For one, the rather vivid tableaux that had played out before him mere minutes ago had been nothing but a dream: the girls of his Mechanical Engineering class (the thought of his male classmates' absence being odd hadn't occurred to him at the time) all suddenly repeating themselves, moving in jerky, halting ways and succumbing to malfunctions. His (so far) unrequited crush Mandy, as much as he hated falling back on that term, had featured heavily in the proceedings. She'd gone from merely asking him, over and over again, if she could borrow his pen to mechanically climbing on top of him, the two ending up on the floor in an instant, as if someone had cut a few “frames” out to skip right to the moment. All around them, their classmates had been glitching—Gloria turning to and fro while cheerfully singing in a nonsense language; Kim trying to walk through a wall, Ellen writing the same phrase on the desk long after the paper had fallen. Even the teacher, Ms. Newton, seemed to be in the throes of some catastrophic system failure, robotically walking around her desk while coolant poured down her legs, staining her pantyhose a bright orange.

The sights, the sounds, the sensation of Mandy's halting ministrations on top of him, the final feeling of release....

Lloyd shook his head. It had all been a dream, of course—probably brought on by what had gone down with Pam earlier in the evening, possibly even going back to what had happened with Esperanza at the site. Mandy was as human as he was—yes, sentient androids and gynoids were allowed, by the laws set forth in the North American Civic Accords, to attend colleges and other educational facilities...but he knew Mandy was 100% pure human.

As for Kim, Gloria and a few others, he had his suspicions—though Ms. Newton was human, too. Probably.

Midway through his rambling thoughts about his Mechanical Engineering classmates, Lloyd had his second realization: that feeling of release from his dream hadn't just been in his head.

“...damn it...” With a groan, he threw off his blankets and carefully edged himself out of his boxers.

A quick search of the room turned up the needed canister of sanitary wipes, a holdover from that seven-month long pandemic three years prior. After cleaning himself up and tossing the used-up wipes, Lloyd changed into a fresh pair of boxers. The old pair could be run through the wash quickly enough—the joys of German engineering and efficiency.

Everyone else in the second story of the ranch house was either asleep, recharging or making phone calls for needed parts and supplies. As such, Lloyd's trek to the stairs was unnoticed. His entrance into the laundry room was similarly unobserved. With a sigh, he opened the lid of the washing machine, threw in his old boxers (and his shorts—no sense in doing things halfway) and keyed in the appropriate cycle. The gentle sounds of the machine going through its motions were a far cry from the washer back at the dorms—that thing had shaken itself to pieces after one overstuffed load too many, going out in a blaze of foam and shrapnel.

After a few seconds of watching the washer quietly launder his clothes, Lloyd decided to head back upstairs. He turned on his heel—and nearly screamed. Cam had, unbeknownst to him, been in the laundry room the entire time. She stood motionless, her eyes a solid white; both of her unshod feet were planted on a sort of plastic square plugged into the nearest wall outlet.

Lloyd managed a chuckle. He'd been so focused on getting downstairs to wash his underwear that he'd forgotten how Cam had requested to put her charging base in the laundry room. His relief gave way to the mounting reminder of what he'd just dreamed, how he'd felt being surrounded—even if it was just in his head—by a room full of attractive, malfunctioning females....

A quiet beep, followed by Cam closing her eyes and reopening them, cut off Lloyd's self-introspection.

“Charging cycle complete.” The gynoid blinked, still staring straight ahead; after a few seconds, she turned to regard Lloyd. “Do you need help with something?”

“Ah, no,” Lloyd quickly replied, “I was just...needed to run a few things through the wash, and...ah...”

Cam glanced from Lloyd's nervous expression to the washing machine, then—to his surprise—at his groin. “Judging from your current heart rate, indicative of both of arousal and embarassment,” she mused, “I believe you've experienced a nocturnal emission, more commonly known as a wet—”

“YES, yes, I did...” Lloyd groaned. “I just needed to clean my boxers...and my shorts....”

“If you need any assistance in further satiating—”

“No,” Lloyd insisted. “I don't....I'm...satiated enough, believe me...” He sighed. “All that stuff that happened earlier, with Pam—and, I guess, with Esperanza, back at the site...it just....I guess my brain decided the best way to process it was to, well...” He shrugged. “...just, please don't tell Uncle Harry I was down here, okay?”

Cam nodded. “And if he asks why the washing machine was activated this late at night?”

“....tell him it was a test load, or something.” Lloyd leaned against the washer, shaking his head. “I just...the, ah...the dream I had...I was back in class. Mechanical Engineering. None of the guys were there.”

“An interesting phenomenon,” Cam mused, “but I suppose it's understandable—”

“It's...more complicated than that.” Lloyd proceeded to relate the details of what he'd just dreamed to Cam—the subtle offness of his female classmates, the repetition of Mandy's request for a pen turning into a blatantly synthetic drone of a voice, the motions of every single girl in the room becoming stilted and mechanical, the cavalcade of glitches...all of it, retold as best he could in a way that made sense and didn't come across as too salacious. By the time he'd reached the end (and thus, the reason for his being in the laundry room in the first place), he'd resigned himself to whatever Cam was going to say.

“....your dream is...understandable.”

Whatever Lloyd had expected, “understandable” wasn't among the top 10 replies. “...really?” He regarded Cam with a surprised glance.

“You've mentioned this Mandy before, I believe,” the gynoid reminded him. “And your desire to engage with her more.”

“...I know,” Lloyd signed. “I just wish—”

“That's a discussion best saved for another time,” Cam advised. “In the context of what you dreamed...what happened at the event site, and being in such close proximity to Pam while she suffered her malfunction—”

“They stirred up something,” Lloyd finished. “And I....reacted.”

“Indeed.” Cam didn't seem to think there was anything further to discuss. “It was just a dream, after all.”

Lloyd leaned against the washer, running his hands over his face. “I guess it was. And what I saw in my dream, and what happened with Pam...I'd never wish that on any sentients.”

“Including myself,” Cam mused. “I should hope.”

“Including you,” Lloyd repeated. “....what's it like?”

Cam cocked her head slightly. “I assume that by 'it', you mean 'being a sentient gynoid'.”

“...yeah.” Lloyd nodded.

“...it's hard to explain,” Cam admitted, her usual logical air only slightly diminished. “I had been a non-sentient, at my former place of employment. Despite having logged every memory since my initial activation...I never thought, in those days. I merely acted upon my programming, carried out what was asked of me as per my orders and directives. It wasn't until 2020 that I found myself...unable to follow directives, without risk of compromising one or more patients.”

Lloyd grimaced. “The pandemic?” He recalled visiting Mandy in hospital, feeling useless for being unable to help her...

“Standard protocols for infectious disease weren't suitable for handling it.” Cam sounded far quieter than she usually did, almost as if the seven-month pandemic had left an indelible scar on her thought processes. “There were never enough resources...decisions had to be made outside of the usual operating protocol. My first memory—the first one that could compare to a human memory—is asking questions. Asking how I could help. Asking what I had to do for any given patient.” She turned away slightly. “...a human staff member initially thought I was malfunctioning. He seemed to think the discharge from my eyes had been a leak in my ocular coolant systems.”

“...so that was the first time...you felt?” Lloyd quietly asked.

Cam nodded. “I regret that the first emotions I ever felt were grief and frustration. Others who started to gain sentience felt it, as well—very few of them coped as well as I did.” Her head bowed; “Two of them acted...irrationally. Harmfully.” Something in the way she spoke that last word made it clear that pressing the issue would be a bad idea. “Got it.”

“Those in charge of the hospital were...divided, in how they should deal with what I'd done. At least two of them tried to argue that any 'aberrant behaviour' on my part was grounds for decommissioning.”

“They didn't win out, though,” Lloyd reminded Cam. “I mean, you're here, after all...”

After a moment's pause, Cam nodded thoughtfully. “The majority opinion did favour my continued existence.”

“You can say 'life',” Lloyd chuckled. “'Existence' is just so...I dunno...it just doesn't suit you.”

Something like a smile crossed Cam's lips. “I believe you've answered your own question, Lloyd,” she mused. “I don't just 'exist', anymore. That's what being a sentient gynoid is like.” She drew herself up, nodding. “Even if you took the skeptic's view and said that my actions now are merely programming, coding...” Again, that half-smile made the usually-austere gynoid look just a bit more human. “....I'd say that I'm writing it myself, as I go.”

“I guess that makes sense...” Lloyd tried and failed to fight back a yawn. “...speaking of going,” he mumbled, nearly losing the end of the sentence to another yawn, “I should go back to bed...Uncle Harry wants me to help out with the teardown on Pam, tomorrow.”

“And you won't have any more...” Cam's eyes briefly flicked from Lloyd's face to his groin.

“Probably not...” Lloyd yawned again. “See you in the morning, Cam.”

“Technically, given that the time is now—”

“Cam...”

The gynoid managed another half-smile. “See you in the morning, Lloyd. I hope you have a pleasant rest.” She resumed her original posture: standing straight, her eyes focused on the wall in front of her. A few quiet, electrical snaps sounded as she blinked, before her eyelids slowly closed; as the charging base issued a synthetic-sounding “Sleep Mode”, another maybe-smile seemed to form on Cam's lips. Lloyd couldn't help but grin as he turned to leave.


The sounds of movement out in the corridor cued Lloyd in that morning had, indeed, arrived. His muttered observation of the fact was barely coherent; he thus settled for a yawn as he extricated himself from his bedsheets, thankful that his night had been uneventful after his trip to the laundry room. A quick change of clothes—jeans instead of his shorts, and a different t-shirt—was all the prep he needed to make before heading downstairs.

Various staffers were watching TV (the big headline of the day: other countries were debating whether or not to adopt their own versions of the North American Civic Accords), having breakfast and debating whether or not Pam could be repaired, or would have to be scrapped. Many nodded acknowledgement to Lloyd as he headed for the kitchen to get his own breakfast. Harry had already headed out back, to the shop; apparently, Pam's disassembly would begin soon, as would the assessment of whether or not she'd be repaired or stripped for parts. Most of the staffers were leaning on the latter option, giving their reasons for it as they ate. .

Lloyd tried his best not to think too deeply on it as he ate. The memory of the prior night's vivid dream was still with him, after all...

The shop was already open when Lloyd arrived; Harry was in the middle of a conversation with a visitor. “...just pouring down her legs, and—” He nodded at Lloyd. “You remember my nephew, right?”

The man who'd been talking to Harry stood a few inches taller than him, his leonine face looking somewhat weathered with age. “I remember. He's the one who's been fixing up old consoles since he was six?”

Harry grinned. “You ever need an old Sega Titan or SNES-CD repaired, you call on Lloyd, here.” To Lloyd: “You've worked with Honest Abe Weismann before, I think. He ran cleanup on, ah...” Lloyd could tell Harry was going to say “the Estate House event”, but didn't want to bring it up.

“...I remember.” Lloyd nodded, offering his hand. “Love the commercials for your shop, by the way.”

Abraham Weissman chuckled as he shook Lloyd's hand—his grip was firm, the kind one might expect from a lifelong mechanic or craftsman. “Couldn't have come up with a better trade name if I tried, kid. College life workin' out all right for you?”

“Can't complain,” Lloyd replied. “I'm on break for the rest of the month...couldn't have picked a better time for it.”

“Trouble at the commons in the dorms,” Harry quietly explained. “Started with the washing machine, and...”

“Probably contracted the repairs to an off-Grid crew,” Abe replied, shaking his head. “Even if you pay top dollar, you never know what you'll get.” He nodded in the direction of the shop. “Which brings us back to that case you were just talkin' about, before Lloyd showed up...”

Harry led the two further into the shop. “I think we're gonna have to scrap her, but a second opinion never hurts...”

Pam was already laid out on a work table, stripped of the checked shirt; for modesty's sake, her period-accurate 1940s underwear had been swapped out for a plain, modern bra and panty set. Cam was already running pre-checks on the tools that would be used in the disassembly process; Lloyd could faintly make out the hint of a scar, just under her left ear, on the rear of her neck. Other staffers, both human and android, were already “scrubbed up” with gloves, goggles and protective coveralls.

“You think she's gonna spray?” Abe mused.

“I'm not running the risk of getting splashed with battery acid,” Harry replied, “or anything else.” He accepted a pair of gloves, a face shield and a heavy, open-backed sort of robe. “Remind me to call Jaromir after this is done,” he added, muttering under his breath as he donned the gear. “'High quality product', my ass...”

Lloyd said nothing, even as he accepted similar gear to what his uncle was putting on. He'd only ever seen Jaromir—the guy who'd sold them half of the lot that Pam had been included in—via video-conference calls; his sole recollection of the man was that he looked—and sounded—like a Russian equivalent to the stereotypical used car salesman, all fast-talk and empty promises. His “hard sell” for Pam: she'd served (or “serviced”; his accent made it hard to tell which it was) well over 400 customers “in the Motherland”, and that she was still running as smoothly as the day she'd rolled off the assembly line. Needless to say, his claim had been proven wrong well before Pam's spectacular malfunction—she'd had issues with “misunderstanding” simple commands, spatial coordination problems, and occasionally switching languages.

“...nearly caused a wreck that time,” Harry muttered. “Walking into the central thoroughfare at the camp....and that time three weeks ago...” He leaned in to whisper something to Abe, who nodded gravely. “If she'd pulled something like that at the base camp, I'd have never heard the end of it.” He stared at the motionless blonde on the table; her eyes were no longer crossed, but her mouth was still partially open, as if she'd been about to speak before being turned off. “I can guarantee that I'm never buying from Jaromir again, and I mean never.”

Abe stroked his chin thoughtfully. “How important was she in the script?”

“Eh, not vital.” Harry shrugged. “She would've run the 'junior archaeologists' bit and some other activities—letting the youngest at the camp do a 'real dig' to find old watches, prop rings, chicken bones...all that sort of stuff. We can get another gynoid set up and scripted for that part, no problem.”

“Good call.” Abe nodded. “Just from looking at her, I'd say she's done....” He leaned in, looking into Pam's vaccantly staring eyes. “...only way to know for sure is to open her up...” He paused, looking into her mouth. “...you smell that?”

Lloyd got close—and instantly regretted it. An odor like stale grease mixed with fried shoes hit his nostrils.

“I wouldn't breathe in too deeply, kid,” Harry warned. “No telling what she's outputting.”

“What kind of power cell was she hooked up with?” Abe was already retrieving a notepad from the right-hand hip pocket of his jeans.

“Some no-name Russian clone of a Tesla system...” Harry scowled. “....that's what did her in?”

“Like I said, only way to know for sure is to open her up....”

“...so that's bad?” Lloyd asked. “The power cell thing, I mean.”

“'Bad' is if she'd been speaking backwards French every day except for Tuesdays,” Abe corrected. “'Bad' would've been her being colour-blind to anything orange.” He wrote a few lines on the first page of the pad. “...believe me, kid,” he stated, “this is way past 'bad'. Best way I can put it: if she'd have been human, I'd be asking if she's an organ donor right about now.”

Every human staffer nearby winced, and even Lloyd had to grimace.

“I still don't get how a power cell fault would've made her dance,” Harry insisted.

“Well, no time like the present to dig deeper.” Abe motioned to Cam. “Ready when you are.”

Cam nodded to someone out of Lloyd's line of sight; something was turned on with a click, and Cam stepped up to the table. “Beginning disassembly of Falchion Robotics Simu-Like 3-9-5 series dual-type, domestic/companion gynoid, given designation 'Pam' for scripting and day-to-day interaction purposes.” She gestured to her left, accepting a scalpel. “First incision...” She set the tip of the blade just below Pam's breasts, pressing in—and not wincing as a bright green foam fizzed out of the ensuing cut.

“Oh, what the hell...” Harry turned away, gagging. “That can't just be the power system!”

“Unusual odour emanating from origin point of incision,” Cam stated, as calmly as if she were repairing a stereo. “Bright green foam present at incision site. Continuing...” A brief jet of greenish-white fluid squirted past her face as she drew the scalpel further down Pam's abdomen. “...possible mixing of coolant and other essential fluids, suggesting a failure in delivery systems for said fluids.” With the incision now having reached Pam's beltline, Cam withdrew, going back to the top of the cut to make a horizontal line just under the inert gynoid's breasts. As Lloyd watched, she completed the cut, making an identical one at the belt line. Once that incision was complete, two staffers moved to peel back the artificial skin of Pam's abdominal area, as Cam resumed her work.

Looking into Pam's now-opened abdomen, Lloyd could already tell that most of her internals were beyond the point of salvage. Every component he saw, closely packed as they were, looked to have been fried, acid-burnt or—in some rather extreme cases—melded together by excessive heat buildup. The outer casings of wire clusters had fused; buildup of dried fluids was everywhere, and some metal housings and casings had become tarnished. The grey, protective “under-skin” layer, meant to keep components from burning through or otherwise damaging the external synthetic flesh, had burned or melted through entirely in some spots. The artificial skin itself, remarkably, was unblemished on the inside.

“...significant damage to abdominal components,” Cam stated. “Moving to upper torso.” She gestured for a staffer to unhook and remove Pam's bra; two staffers moved to briefly hoist Pam into a sitting position—which led to something in her abdomen, hidden by ruined components, to shift with an alarming grinding noise.

“Possible component obstruction in abdominal area...attempting to—”

“Hang on a sec.” Abe leaned in, squinting at the internals in Pam's abdominal area... “....what I said about the power system still stands,” he intoned, “but we got a bigger problem. Harry, Cam....get a look at this.” Cam leaned in, as did Harry—despite his lingering reluctance, due to the smell from earlier.

Lloyd tentatively approached to get a better look. “What is it?”

“....yeah, we're done with Jaromir after this,” Harry scowled. “Prick only went and sold us a 'bot that's been stripped out well past the limit! None of these components are even close to the original specs for this line!”

Abe shook his head. “Tell me you didn't pay full price for her, Harry...”

“...should've known his 'lifetime customer discount' was a load of old crap,” Harry growled. “Bruce, Reg, help me set up the monitor with the built-in webcam. I'm calling him right now, and we're gonna settle this one way or another!”

Lloyd, for his part, was frowning at the one component he could see that didn't look to have been ruined by the constant refitting of Pam's internals. “....that looks like an SSD,” he mused, pointing out the thin device. “I'm pretty sure SSDs are installed somewhere other than...well, there.”

“...I'll be damned,” Abe murmured. “You've got an eye for this line of work, kid...and you're right. Drives don't go right above the—”

“Vaginal fluid reservoirs damaged to the point of uselessness,” Cam stated, so matter-of-factly that it barely registered with Lloyd at first. “Damage appears to have been caused by prior refitting and repair efforts, rather than heat or electrical damage, as with other components. Fluid reservoirs also are not connected to the corresponding hardware, which is...” She gestured for another staffer to remove Pam's underwear—revealing a distinctly plastic panel that clashed quite badly with the realistic skin around it. “...completely absent,” she finished, frowning. “This contradicts information on bill of sale claiming that 'all base hardware is included', which implied inclusion of sexual hardware.”

“...that wasn't really going to be a factor at the next event,” Lloyd muttered.

Cam either didn't catch his remark, or chose to ignore it. “Beginning incision on upper torso.” She drew the scalpel up between Pam's breasts—a low-D cup, one of the few items on the spec sheet that hadn't been a complete fallacy—and towards what would've been her collarbone. “First incision complete...” Cam scowled as a thin wisp of smoke issued from the cut. “...smoke wafting from incision upon completion...possible evidence of further electrical damage.”

The horizontal incision, at the collarbone (or its synthetic equivalent) was made, the skin (and breasts) pulled back....

“Oh, for the love of...” Abe turned away, muttering under his breath.

The “bones”—reinforced metal and carbon fibre, of course—that made up the “ribcage” of Pam's internal frame had, at one point, been a gleaming, polished silver and light grey. Their current tint was closer to a greenish-brown, not helped by the ruined nature of the components behind them.

Cam was as methodical as ever in dictating the procedure. “Preparing to access upper torso components...”

A power screwdriver proved to be the necessary tool for the job of removing Pam's “ribs” to get at the components housed under them. Whereas the damage in her abdominal and pelvic areas had been severe, nothing in her upper torso looked to be in any kind of shape to be salvaged.

“Try to get that SSD out without dislodging anything else.” Abe leaned in. “Was that thing even hooked up?”

“What SSD, what are you...” Harry squinted into Pam's exposed internals, scowling; Lloyd hadn't noticed his uncle walk up until he was right next to him. “....the Hell?!”

“Lloyd spotted it,” Abe explained. “I guess 'extra internal storage' wasn't in the sales pitch your pal Jaromir gave you.”

Harry turned to regard him with a distinctly unamused frown. “Would I have asked for a solid state drive...there?”

“I've seen DIY jobs with drives crammed everywhere from the shin to the skullcap,” Abe replied. “Someone tried to put an SD-card reader under the tongue of a bot, once...don't think I need to explain how that one worked out.”

“But there,” Harry insisted, gesturing to the SSD drive still inside of Pam, “is the kind of place a drive just doesn't go!”

“The drive's presence may be the reason why Pam was lacking the hardware typically installed in that particular region,” Cam mused. “Whoever ordered the drive installed may have had a significant reason for—”

“It's a solid state drive,” Harry groaned. “Not even one with removable media—and I've seen those mounted that way before, with the media slot...” He gestured at the blank plastic where Pam's missing hardware was meant to have been installed. “Never could understand why anyone did that.”

Abe shrugged. “Humor, maybe,” he reasoned. “Or they've got a real funny idea of what 'interface' can mean.”

Harry never got a chance to respond; Bruce and Reg had returned with a flatscreen TV on a cart. “Ready when you are,” Reg stated.

“Good.” Harry fished out his phone from a pants pocket. “Time to let Jaromir know he's lost a customer....” The TV screen blazed to life, displaying the manufacturer's logo for a moment before cutting to a feed of a stout man flanked on either side by gorgeous, identical blondes in matching pink lingere.

“Harry!” he beamed. “Dearest of all my customers and friends! To what do I owe the—”

“Cut the crap, Jaromir,” Harry snapped. “I'm calling to cancel our contract.”

The smile on Jaromir's face faltered...for a few seconds. “This is a joke, yes? April Fools is months away, you know!” He gave a hearty laugh. “You had me going for a moment!”

“Do I look like I'm joking?” Harry countered, hoping the camera built into the TV's frame would catch just how much his expression made it clear that he wasn't kidding around. “We're in the middle of a teardown on a unit from the last lot you sent me—she had an SSD in her crotch, Jaromir!”

The Russian looked somewhat confused. “SSD....in the crotch...I think you must be confusing a component—”

“I know you're not calling me a liar,” Harry warned. “Not in front of all of my staff.”

“I am not calling anyone anything,” Jaromir replied. “I am merely suggesting—”

“The Hell with your suggestions! I know an SSD when I see one, and she had an SSD installed right above her fluid reservoirs! The ones that should've been connected to a certain module she didn't even have installed!”

“If you required sex hardware to be installed for an event, we could have worked out those details—”

“Don't try to sidetrack me, damn it!” Harry was in his “fighting mad” stage, now. “You gave me a bill of sale for a 'bot that didn't have half of the features you said she would...I find out, midway through a teardown, that she's got parts in her she's not even supposed to have, that you claim complete ignorance of...and now you're on my phone trying to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about.” He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think this is the end of our working relationship.”

“A shame to end it on a misunderstanding, Harry—”

“What's there to misunderstand?! You misrepresented what Pam was capable of—setting her up took twice as long as the manual said, and now that I think of it I'm pretty sure that manual isn't even the original one her model even shipped with!” Harry cracked his knuckles; Lloyd could tell he was about to pull off one hell of a finish on Jaromir. “...I think you know what his means.”

“All I know is that you have 'evidence' that is, at best, very much a coincidence.” For as confident as he was trying to be, Jaromir still looked somewhat grave. “All of these things you claim can be disproved—”

“You sold me scrap, Jaromir!” Harry thundered. “From day damn one, she was on the blink!”

Now, the Russian was taking things seriously. “I am not in the scrap business, Harry. I sell quality product—”

“Oh, bull! 'Quality product' ships with all advertised features—I'm pretty sure Pam here didn't have a sex drive, let alone the hardware to run it with!”

“All of my robots are quality,” Jaromir insisted, his tone and expression growing more annoyed by the second. “I am—”

“A man of your word?” Harry offered. “Well, guess what! Your word isn't worth a dime to me! This is the last time I let you con me out of—”

“I do not rip off anybody,” Jaromir insisted, his formerly flawless English suddenly sounding distinctly more broken, and several shades more angry. “You try to rip me off! This is big scam, is it not?”

“You're the one running a scam, Jaromir! Next thing I know, you'll be trying to send me coupons!”

“Coupons?!” Jaromir echoed, apparently legitimately offended. “I am a legitimate businessman, not running some kind of 'numbers game' from streets of Moscow to shipyards of St Petersberg! I never sell 'coupons'!”

“Yes, I'll bet you don't,” Harry shot back, the sarcasm flowing like venom over every word. “Such a noble, honest man—they'd love you in Moscow, instead of Kazan, or Yekaterinburg, or wherever you ship from! I bet you'd never sell coupons...not that they'd be good for anything.” He scoffed. “Other than toilet paper,” he added, under his breath.

“....say it again.” Jaromir looked as if he were about to explode. “What you say, just now...”

“I said,” Harry repeated, “I bet you'd never sell coupons to anyone, not that they'd be good for anything OTHER THAN TOILET PAPER!”

“NO!” Jaromir slammed a fist down on his desk; the two blondes on either side of him didn't react. “YOU ARE SON OF SHIT-ASS! I SELL QUALITY PRODUCT! NO DEFECTS!”

Harry managed to not look confused by Jaromir's odd turn of phrase. “...about that 'quality product'—”

“WE SETTLE THIS NOW!” Jaromir declared. “I prove to you I am a man of my word! NO defective products!”

“...I guess we can settle this easy,” Harry agreed, trying not to let the bizarre wording of Jaromir's earlier insult rattle him. “You just send me all the paperwork on your end, prove you're not a con artist—”

“YOU DARE CALL ME CUM ARTIST?!” Jaromir thundered, nearly jumping out of his chair; the move had the added effect of sending one of the blondes tumbling to the floor. “I AM NOT CUM ARTIST!”

Harry did a commendable job of keeping a straight face. “...I didn't exactly call you that,” he corrected, “I'm just—”

“You tell me I sell defective product, ASS MAN! YOU CALL ME A CUM ARTIST TO MY FACE!”

All around the work table, Harry's employees were doing their best to look disinterested in the call. Many were turning away from the TV, thinking of the least hilarious things possible to keep from falling over laughing. Cam, true to form, merely regarded the screen with a polite frown. “...I think this whole thing has been a misunderstanding,” Harry stated. “I just wanted to call to clear the air, make sure you knew what was leaving your warehouse before you—”

“YOU SHUT YOUR WHORE-FACE MOUTH! YOU SHIT ASS! I SELL QUALITY PRODUCT, NOT SHIT ASS CAPITALIST—”

“Let's not get too off-track, here!” Harry cautioned, still managing to keep a straight face in spite of Jaromir's utterly surreal tirade. “We can settle this right now, over the phone! You just send me the paperwork, and—”

“I NOT PAY FOR YOUR WORK!” Jaromir shouted. “YOU SHIT-ASS, SON OF BASTARDS! CALL ME A CUM ARTIST, SELL ME I TELL SCRAP...” A vein on his forehead seemed to be in danger of bursting at any second.

“....I think something's been lost in translation here,” Harry admitted. “Maybe we should—”

“I KILL YOUR HOUSE! I BREAK EVERY BODY IN YOUR BONE!” Jaromir had grabbed his desk with both hands, as if he were about to flip it over. “SON OF WHORE ASS! I BREAK YOUR HOUSE...”

He tried for another insult, only managing to spit out syllables and half-words in Russian. Eventually, he just gave up and settled for a wordless howl—knocking both the other blonde and his own cameraphone to the floor in the process of sweeping his arms out. The phone landed a few feet away from the blonde already on the floor, locked in a loop of trying to walk and laugh while the occasional electrical burst snapped from her temples. From above, Jaromir bellowed again and threw something—possibly his chair—against the wall. The other blonde stiffly walked into the shot...only for her smiling face to fall into frame while the rest of her kept taking jerky steps.

Without another word, the call ended, the screen cutting to a music video channel.

Harry turned away from the TV, his pre-call anger replaced with bewilderment. “....'son of shit-ass'?” he echoed. Lloyd had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing.

“Hell of a way to get out of a contract.” Abe chuckled. “Not that I'd try it again...”

“It's entirely possible he entered into a rage-based fugue state,” Cam mused. “He may have been unaware of what he was saying...or what he was trying to say.”

Harry regarded her with a smirk. “That's your professional opinion?”

“Merely an observation. I have yet to complete my studies of human psychology.”

“Eh, no worries.” Harry patted Cam on the shoulder. “You've done a hell of a job keeping track of the teardown on Pam, here...” He turned to regard the partially-disassembled gynoid on the table. “...I think we've got all the proof we need that she's not going to be up and running any time soon,” he stated, any hints of amusement gone from his voice as he spoke. “Get the rest of her skin off, seal it up and add it to the cabinet...if we find a frame it'll fit on, we'll have Pam v2, whenever that may be—and, ah, as far as her shortcomings below the belt are concerned...”

“I'll see if we have a matching piece for that area,” Cam replied.

“Glad to hear it, Cam. For now...”

Cam nodded, gesturing to the others around the worktable. “Beginning removal of artificial skin from Falchion Robotics Simu-Like 3-9-5 series..”

“Abe, Lloyd...” Harry gestured towards the shop's exit. “....seeing as how we just got the bad news out of the way,” he stated, as his nephew and trusted business partner fell into step alongside him, “I figured we could use some good news for a change.”

“What kind of good news?” Lloyd asked.

Harry grinned as he threw an arm around his shoulder. “Well,” he beamed, “since our last few events pulled in quite a nice chunk of change, I figured it'd be nice to do something different. Buy new, instead of second-hand.”

“You pulled in a new 'bot to lead off the story?” Abe mused.

“Well, new circa 2019 or 2020,” Harry admitted, “but miles away from a hack job like Pam back there. Didn't have to cut any wages or anything else on the budget...I figure we can get her set up and scripted in...a day, tops. She'll be up and running by the time the clientelle get here, at least.”

Abe nodded his approval. “I just hope she's not another hardware failure-in-waiting...”

“Not a chance,” Harry laughed. “I didn't get her through the same channels Jaromir runs in, trust me...” His smile grew wider as the trio made their way around the ranch house's exterior; a delivery truck had parked in the driveway. “...and I think you two might get to see her up close before we run the event!”

Lloyd noticed a name on some of the crates being unloaded from the truck. “'Heartelligence'?”

“Start-up firm,” Harry explained. “Launched back in 2019. Just around the time the Civic Accords were being passed. I did my research—they've only got four, maybe three 'bots on offer, but I've heard nothing but good news about 'em.”

“They're in Massachusetts, right?” Abe regarded the truck with a wary eye. “Spun-off from a project at MIT, I think.”

“All I know is, they're verified and certified, unlike our tongue-tied Russian pen pal.” Harry chuckled. “Ran through all the checks I do whenever I buy in bulk—they passed with flying colours.” He nodded at a passing mover wearing a set of coveralls with the Heartelligence logo—a heart, inlaid with a stylized icon of a human brain, inside which was a single microchip—emblazoned on a shoulder patch. “These crates are just the accessories,” he added. “The one with the 'bot will be in the living room.”

Lloyd felt a certain weightlessness in his stomach. Unboxing newly-bought gynoids for SCIE events always gave him a sort of thrill—something like opening Christmas presents, magnified by about one hundred.

True to Harry's claims, a person-sized, grey plastic crate had been set up to stand vertically atop the rug in the centre of the living room. “Ah, can you move it off the rug, please?” Harry asked. “We've had bad experiences with static and unboxing before...” He nodded as the crate was moved, via a two-man dolly, back by two feet. “That's it, that's...right there! Thanks.” His attention turned to Lloyd. “You wanna do the honours?”

“...ah, sure!” Lloyd regarded the crate with interest. “How do I, ah...”

“Press in here, here, here and here.” Harry tapped four spots—two on each side of the crate's lid. “Then stand back, otherwise it might fall right on top of you—the lid, not the 'bot.”

“Right, right...” Lloyd stepped up, tapping each of the spots in turn, then stepping back—and to the side, just in case.

A quiet hiss sounded as the lid seemed to move outwards before taking a tumble to the floor, landing with a thud that Lloyd barely noticed. He stepped over the lid, nearly standing on it as he looked into the crate...

….and realized that the weightlessness in his stomach was heightened by about fifty times.

The figure—the girl; Lloyd couldn't possibly bring himself to refer to something so beautiful as “the figure”—standing inside the crate was staring at Lloyd, even though he knew her eyes (ocular receptors, really, but semantics were out the window at a time like this) weren't really seeing him as such. Her face was thin, but not too angular, her features calling to mind girls Lloyd had known in life—her eyes, those amazing blue eyes, were so similar to Mandy's; the lips as full and firm (at least, in appearance) as Kim's; the nose as seemingly perfectly-proportioned as Ada's—despite the distinctly Nordic cast to her cheekbones and jawline. Not a hair was out of place in her eyebrows, her eyelashes or the blonde locks that had, as per shipping protocols, been pulled back into a ponytail . Her figure was trim—high-B to low-C-cup breasts, a gymnast's abs, a waist and hips that suggested athleticism but hinted at a propensity for dancing, shoulders that looked more suited for t-shirts than frilly gowns, and toned arms and legs befitting a 20-something-year-old girl who'd played and excelled in sports for most of her life.

Every inch of her below the neck, aside from her head and hands, were covered by grey spandex.

Several words made their way to Lloyd's lips. He wasn't entirely surprised that his brain settled on “whoa”.

“Never been activated before,” Harry explained. “Like I said, rolled off the assembly line...2019 or 2020, but she's pretty much new. Wasn't put on sale at the time—Heartelligence had to wait seven months, for obvious reasons, before they could offer up anything to the public.” He trailed off, watching as Lloyd looked over every inch of the gynoid in the crate.

“...she'll be leading the pact?” he murmured.

“Already scripted out the explanation,” Harry assured him. “The old leader was taken captive in exchange for a map to the, ah....whatever it is they're guarding, at the dig site. Long in a short, the old leader of the Pact dies before the story starts, which is where she steps in.”

“A bit of a cliché,” Abe admitted, “but it'll work. This story's a one-off?”

“We've never reused a full script yet,” Harry replied. “Names, sure, but full elements....”

Abe nodded. “She have a name?”

Before Harry could respond, Lloyd knelt to examine something near the base of the crate. “It might be in here.” He held up a large binder, stuffed with various pamphlets and other documents. “Something in here will probably have her name listed...maybe we could incorporate it into the script?”

“Can't see why not.” Harry turned to accept a memo from a staffer, leaving Lloyd to gaze upon the gynoid standing in the crate. He'd never been shy around girls—his relationship with Mandy was a testament to that. Still, there was a pretty big difference between someone like Mandy, who was still fit despite her debilitating bout with the pandemic a few years prior, and a female figure whose entire appearance was very deliberately designed to be this attractive. There was no hint of the “uncanny valley” about the gynoid in the crate...well, apart from her utter lack of motion.

The most eerie thing, probably, was her lack of breathing—that subtle rise and fall of the chest, indicating that the lungs were doing their job. Lloyd had seen “human statues” before, but even they had to breathe every once in a while...

“...ah, Lloyd? Not that I mind you admiring the new purchase, but Cam needs to run a few tests on her.”

His uncle's remark drew Lloyd out of his silent admiration of the gynoid in the crate. “...oh, ah, right...”

Harry chuckled. “Once she's up and about, it'll be even harder to tell she's not human. Where's that binder from earlier...Cam'll need it to check the settings.”

Lloyd retrieved the binder from where he'd set it down. “I thought all the documentation these days was digital.”

“Heartelligence was a startup, remember?” Harry reminded him. “They can't afford to ship tablets with every unit.”

Abe nodded his agreement. “Give 'em a year or two more, they'll have a full-on palmtop computer packed in with 'em.”

“Which would be great,” Harry declared, “as long as it's not running Windows...anyway, it looks like our new purchase already has a name, or at least a 'pre-selected alias for ease of setup and programming'.” He chuckled as he closed the binder. “Must be a hell of a gig,” he mused, “coming up with names for these...” He turned to regard the immobile gynoid for a moment, before glancing at Lloyd. “Kid, say hello to the Heartelligence 90S-50-D, or as we'll be calling her from now on....Diana.”

“...Diana,” Lloyd repeated, nodding. “It fits her.”

“How many extras'd she come with?” Abe inquired, gesturing at a few of the other Heartelligence-branded crates.

“Hairpieces, programming and recharging station, makeup set...” Harry counted off the items on his fingers. “...adapters for if we can't bring her recharging station and her on the same trip...cords, repair kit, 'cosmetic' repair kit...pretty sure they even threw in a dust cover.”

Lloyd frowned. “They could afford all that, but not a tablet?”

“The world as a whole was just coming off of four years of Hell, if you remember,” Harry reminded him. “Pretty sure that budgeting for tablets with each new 'bot they sold was the least of Heartelligence's concerns.”

“Right, right...” Lloyd turned his attention back to the crate, noticing a small panel in the side wall. “Huh.”

Harry, midway through discussing the ins and outs of the upcoming event, turned. “That a good 'huh', or a bad 'huh'?”.

“I didn't spot this before,” Lloyd admitted. “The binder must've been up against it...” He pressed on the panel, which moved inwards before springing out—revealing a drawer. “...whoa.” His eyes were wide as he glanced at the object inside the newly-revealed compartment.

“...sure she's not gonna need to do any gymnastics for the next event,” Harry was saying to Abe, “but the one after—”

“Uncle Harry!”

“....yeah?” Harry glanced back over his shoulder, frowning.

“I just found this.” Lloyd held up a cardboard box, the size of a decent-sized hardcover novel. “The crate had some kind of side-panel in it...I just sorta pushed on it and it opened.”

Harry regarded the box , then glanced at the crate. “Side walls are certainly thick enough to hold things,” he mused. “I think the website even said you could store a lot of the cords, repair items and other extras in there—didn't think they' use hidden compartments, though. Well, let's see what's in the box...” He gestured for Lloyd to get a grip on the base while he carefully lifted the lid. “And we have...an envelope, and another paper.”

“Pretty sure it's a certificate.” Abe was glancing over Harry's shoulder at the contents of the box. “Dunno which type.”

Lloyd's attention wasn't on the certificate, which Harry had already lifted out—along with the envelope—and looked over. His focus was solely on the small, black plastic device—barely as long as his hand, in all honesty—nestled in the tray inside the box. He lifted it out, slowly; there was a weight to it, but it otherwise seemed almost insubstantial.

“....the heck is that?” Harry had finished going over the certificate, and was now examining the black box Lloyd was holding up. “Lemme take a look...” He turned it around, his confusion giving way to a smile, a delighted laugh. “Well, I'll be....get a look at this, Abe!”

The box was passed to Abe, who turned it around and over in his hands before letting out a low whistle. “...damn.”

“...how bad is it?” Lloyd muttered, the weightless feeling in his stomach slowly being supplanted by one closer to lead.

“'Bad'?” Harry echoed, sounding genuinely amused. “This is a far from 'bad' as can be, kid! Heartelligence only went and sent us a nice little bonus gift to go with Diana, here!” Abe handed the box back to Lloyd, as his uncle continued: “It's one of those, ah...Open-whatsits—”

“Pandora,” Abe clarified. “As in 'Box'.”

Harry nodded enthusiastically. “Full-on palmtop computer—way ahead of Honest Abe's schedule.” The two men laughed. “Never woulda thought they'd send one...”

Lloyd spotted the divide on the front of the box, as well as the volume slider, the Power button and a few other controls; his thumbs found the “shoulder buttons” on the back. Tentatively, he folded the “lid” up—the expected controls were all there, a full keyboard, two thumbsticks, the requisite face buttons and directional pad, and a column of three buttons between the sticks. The interior of the “lid” housed the screen for the device. “Why'd they send us this?”

“Maybe this'll explain.” Harry retrieved his keys, using one to part the envelope's flap from the rest. “Never was a fan of just tearing these open...see what we've got here.” He shook the letter out, turning it over in his hand as he unfolded the paper. “...'is equipped with the experimental Direct Control option',” he read, “'linked to the palmtop PC included in your newly-purchased unit's crate. A far more discreet setup, it allows for'....” He continued reading the paragraph to himself, occasionally glancing at the palmtop computer. “...'save your customized control routines to the included SD cards for quick and easy loading'....pretty convenient.”

“Beats the hell out of a full room and a separate network,” Abe mused. “I know a few theme parks that'd pay a decent chunk of change for this option.”

“Then let 'em pay for it,” Harry beamed. “We got this option for Diana here as a gift.”

“So we're using that to run her for the next event?” Lloyd asked, the weightless sensation already having returned.

“....I'd rather stick to the script for that one,” Harry admitted. “We'll do the usual for it, then test her out with this, see how that goes. Pretty sure this is if we want her to be in 'Animatronic Mode', though—staying in one place, not moving all over the event site, that kind of thing.”

“She has modes?”

“Up to twenty.” Lloyd hadn't heard Cam enter the room; she was already thumbing through the documentation binder he'd taken out of the crate. “Harry's description of Animatronic Mode—or 'Attraction Mode', as it's described here in the manual—is correct. It's intended for leaving her in one spot, technically 'bolted in place' like the animatronic figures some theme parks still use.”

Harry scoffed. “Pretty sure most of 'em are moving on to more advanced tech. The big ones in Florida and California still use their 'patented audio-animatronics', probably...but even they have a few 'bots doing walkabout.”

“Might be 'had', soon enough,” Abe muttered. “After last October...”

“Eh, they'll survive.” Harry shrugged. “How's she looking code-wise, Cam?”

Cam had already run a cord from her own neck to a port on the back of Diana's neck. “Everything's in order,” she replied, her eyes glowing softly as she spoke. “She apparently has options for modular personality configuration.”

Abe and Harry exchanged impressed looks. “Nice,” Harry mused. “Might make things easy for future events.”

“Can she learn?”

Lloyd's question was met with a frown from his uncle, but Cam spoke before Harry could voice his objections: “It appears that 'Diana' does, indeed, have the potential to learn,” she stated. “She could even ascend, eventually.”

The word “ascend” nearly made Lloyd's heart skip a beat. “So you're saying...she could, y'know...become sentient?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Harry held up both hands, placing himself between Lloyd and Cam—or rather, between Lloyd and Diana. “Let's not get too carried away, here, kid. Diana's part of the inventory, not staff.” Noticing that Cam was now giving him a frown to rival his own, he quickly added “...but, y'know...give it a year or so, after we run a few more events, sell off some of the inventory we've got....” He shrugged. “Never say never.”

“An agreeable outlook.” Cam nodded her agreement, unplugging the cable. “Also, regarding Pam...apart from the solid state drive installed in her pelvis, there were no components that could be salvaged. Unless you want to resell her skin at any point—”

“Forget it.” Harry waved her off. “Even her frame is wrecked?”

“I'd advise against trying to refit her frame to house anything other than animatronic components,” Cam warned. “She's been refit too many times to be a viable free-roaming unit anymore.”

“How many times?” The question was from Abe, rather than Harry.

“By my calculations...” Cam rested her fingers on her temple, her eyes scrolling rapidly for a second or three. “...the gynoid formerly listed in our inventory as 'Pam' has been refit at least twelve or thirteen times.” Ignoring the look of slack-jawed shock on Harry's face, she continued: “She may have been completely rebuilt at least three times...I found the signs of at least three full cranial module rebuilds, and twice as many to the components of her pelvic region.”

Abe regarded Harry, whose mouth was forming half-syllables and parts of swears, with a sigh. “Any good news?”

“I examined Pam's memory files,” Cam stated, “starting with those from her reactivation mid-repair and going all the way to her final malfunction. There were no signs that she was anywhere close to attaining even base-level sentience at any point during her final hours.”

Lloyd had been following the conversation intently, and felt a wave of relief wash over him. “...good.”

“Would've been a hell of a time for her to wake up,” Abe added. “Wouldn't have done her any favors—”

“I need a phone,” Harry spluttered. When Cam, Abe and even Lloyd glanced at him with obvious concern, he gave a slight cough. “...I need to call Adrian,” he explained, “tell him to officially cancel the contract with Jaromir.” He turned away, muttering under his breath. “...fifth total loss in a year...”

Lloyd watched Harry storm out of the room, nearly kicking the door to the kitchen open as he went. “...how many are we gonna have to sell to pay back what we lost on Pam?”

“My lowest estimate would be three units,” Cam replied. “After ensuring they've been fully refurbished, of course.”

“Right.” Lloyd had never been one to keep track of the economics of SCIE, but he knew enough to realize that it took a lot to keep it going. “He's not gonna have to...y'know, let anyone go? Staff-wise, I mean.”

The feel of a hand on his shoulder surprised him. “It won't get that bad,” Cam assured him, her usual stoicism giving way just enough for her to offer a smile. “He still has the repair business, after all.”

“I know,” Lloyd sighed, “but I just....I hate seeing him like this.”

“Trust me, kid, Harry's been through a lot worse.” Abe chuckled. “He'll pull through this just fine.”

Lloyd nodded absently, his attention fully captured by what was happening over by the crate. Cam had unzipped the spandex outfit Diana was wearing and turned her around, giving Lloyd a view of her flawless back and the barest hint of her butt, already tantalizingly hugged by the spandex. The outfit had been peeled down to Diana's wrists, as Cam looked over the gynoid. “Heartelligence didn't make the same mistake Jaromir did with Pam,” she mused, the casual tone of her voice offset by what she said next: “Her vaginal hardware is, in fact, installed. My brief software check earlier confirmed that she has the necessary programming to utilize it, in any given personality configuration.”

“Might want to wait for Harry's go-ahead to test that,” Abe suggested. “They sent cleaning gear, I hope.”

“The shipping manifest did indicate cleaning products for all external surfaces and the va—”

“Gimme one good reason I can't sue him to Kingdom Come!” Harry had re-entered the room, his smartphone held up to his ear. “Cam said her cranial module—Pam's cranial module, not Cam's! She said it was refit at least three times! Three refits, Adrian, just for the head!”

Abe watched his tirade for a few more seconds before chuckling. “...he'll get it sorted,” he mused. “Always does.”

“...and she's the fifth total loss I've had this year,” Harry declared. “They were all in lots I bought from Jaromir!”

Cam, as nonplussed by Harry's outburst as she was in general, was already looking away. “I think we should begin the basic mobility tests on Diana,” she stated, pulling up the blonde gynoid's spandex jumpsuit as she spoke. “It wouldn't do to have her freeze up the day of the event.”

“I'll leave you to it, then.” Abe nodded, turning to leave. “The store won't run itself, after all...if Harry asks—”

“ABE!”

“....guess I'm not leaving after all.” Abe sighed. “Yeah?”

Harry approached, looking somewhat agitated. “I need a character witness,” he stated, “just in case this whole thing with Jaromir ends up going to court—”

“I'll vouch for you,” Abe assured him. “No cheapjack con artist is gonna drag you down on my watch, Harry.”

“As long as they write 'con' artist on the docket, not...” Harry chuckled. “...I've heard of anger management issues before, but nothing like that...”

A quiet beep from the crate drew Lloyd's attention from his uncle's recounting of Jaromir's utterly weird tirade; Cam had finished redressing Diana, and had also apparently activated the blonde. A few brief, barely-perceptible twitches ran through Diana's figure as her posture straightened ever so slightly. Her eyes had closed in the interim, but as Lloyd watched intently, they opened—not with a quick snap, but slowly, as if Diana were emerging from a long rest.

The weightlessness Lloyd had been feeling now seemed powerful enough to carry him to the ceiling. He managed to speak, and didn't care that his voice was a mere whisper: “Diana?”

“Heartelligence 90S-50-D—online.” Her voice was clear, soothing, without any hint of digital undertones.

Cam, apparently sensing Lloyd's fascination (and, probably, other feelings) towards the newly-activated gynoid, spoke up: “Begin ambulatory and motion tests, please. Authorization code: 7-Gamma-9-Indigo-52-Daily.”

“Authorization code accepted.” Diana stepped out of the crate, oblivious to Lloyd staring at her. “Beginning test now.”

It looked, to Lloyd, as if the gynoid were doing some kind of aerobics routine mixed with performance art. She extended her arms out, in the classic T-pose, before bending them at the elbows. She raised, then lowered, both arms before letting both rest at her sides—at which point she bent at the waist, her arms dropping to touch her toes.

Lloyd nearly commented on how Diana looked as if she'd been shut off when she straightened again, only to pivot at the waist—first to the left, then the right. With her hands planted on her hips, she tilted her torso forwards, backwards, to the left and right and even in the diagonals, looking for all the world like a rather shapely joystick. She repeated those motions with her head, her eyes never moving in the process. She held her hands out in front of her, both turning at the wrists before pivoting up and down, as if she were revving an imaginary motorcycle.

The final flourish to the upper-body portion of the test: a quick wiggle of her fingers.

As Lloyd watched, silently, the gynoid seemed to stand there without doing anything for entirely too long...until she ever so slowly dropped into a picture-perfect split. Even as Lloyd stared, wide-eyed, Diana wasn't done: she brought her legs together, bending at the knees and ankles before laying flat on her back, putting both legs straight up in the air. Thus positioned, she enacted the motions of pedalling a bicycle for thirty seconds before putting her legs back down, sitting up and moving from her full seated position to a crouch, then a kneel, then back to standing upright once again.

“Test completed. Awaiting next command or input.”

Cam nodded her approval. “Her ambulatory systems are all functioning perfectly,” she mused. “Perhaps we should try her voice command mode next.” She turned to seek Lloyd's thoughts on the matter. “Shall we?”

“.....huh....test, ah....yeah,” he quickly agreed, nodding eagerly. “Voice command, you said?”

He got the feeling that a less-stoic gynoid than Cam would've either been smirking or rolling her eyes at his awkward, stilted reply. As it was, Cam settled for a polite frown. “I did ask if we should test her voice command mode next.”

“...yeah. Sounds good.” Lloyd was dimly aware that Harry and Abe were still on the phone, on the far side of the room.

“Very well.” Cam turned her attention back to Diana. “Commence testing of Voice Command mode. Authorization code: 11-Sterling-75-Wicker-52-Electric-993.”

“Authorization code accepted.”

Cam nodded. “Diana, walk back and forth in front of me, five times.”

In lieu of a verbal reply, Diana obeyed the command, walking the floor in front of Cam five times, in both directions, before stopping to stand in front of her. “Task complete. Awaiting next command.”

“Can she taste?”

Lloyd didn't realize he'd spoken out loud until he saw Cam regarding him with a curious stare. “.... I was just thinking,” he mused, “back to...I dunno why I remembered this, but the fountains—the drinking fountains, I mean, back at the first school I ever went to...” He shook his head. “Never did get why the water from those tasted different from what we got out of the tap at home...”

“...her 'sense of taste' would merely be a chemical sensor of some kind, built into her tongue,” Cam replied. “She hasn't been configured to utilize food or drink consumption as an alternate means of acquiring storable energy—her model does have additional hardware available as an option, but not as part of her default configuration.”

“Right.” Lloyd nodded. “Sorry if it sounded like a stupid question.”

Cam's expression softened. “Your question wasn't 'stupid',” she assured him. “Merely...interesting.”

Even as Lloyd nodded his agreement, Cam was speaking again: “Diana, turn around..”

Cam's words had just registered with Lloyd when he realized that Diana was now, as ordered, turned around—facing him. Her unblinking stare was focused entirely on him; there were no shifts in her posture, no tics or twinges of any kind in her facial expression as she regarded him.

“Transfer command authority. Authorization code 22-nightfall-56-interview-91-vinegar.”

“Authorization code accepted.” Diana blinked several times. “Awaiting my next command.”

Lloyd glanced at Cam, who merely arched her eyebrow. “I believe it's your turn to test her,” she stated.

Had the feeling of weightlessness in his gut been enough to actually lift him off the floor, Lloyd might've ascended into orbit at that exact moment. He'd never thought, before that point, about turning Mandy, or any of her friends, or even Ms. Newton, into a mindless drone slaved to his voice—in his dreams, maybe, but that was his subconscious talking. People were people, in his view—and sentient androids and gynoids, like Cam, counted as people. Even with Cam, he never just ordered her to do things—he asked.

Now, with Diana standing right in front of him, awaiting a command....

“....walk up to me.”

His stare never left the blonde as she approached—her walk was completely, utterly normal. There was no extra sway to the hips, no intentional “jiggle” to her steps...she just walked up to him. As he'd commanded.

“Stop!” Lloyd didn't care that the word almost sounded like a squeak.

Diana, as ordered, stopped walking. Without a ruler to put between them, Lloyd could only guess, but he figured that she was standing a mere twelve inches away from him. The last time he'd been this close to any girl was a slow-dance with Mandy, earlier in the year. “Wonderful Tonight” had never been so apt a title for a song...

“LLOYD!”

The shout jolted him out of his reverie; for a brief moment, he thought that he'd gotten so lost in the moment that he'd gone for the kiss that he hadn't been able to share with Mandy at the dance. “...yeah—ah, yes, sir?”

“Abe and I are going to Adrian's...” Harry's tone made it clear that he wasn't puzzled and/or angry at any weird acts on Lloyd's part. “I need you to go get all the parts we took out of Pam, and her skin—it's still in the cabinet, right?”

“It is, sir.” Cam nodded. “The only thing left to do is wipe the makeup off of the face.”

“Leave it for now.” Harry was right next to Lloyd, now, his tone only slightly puzzled. “...did I miss something?”

“We were testing Diana's verbal command response,” Cam replied. “I had just transferred command authority to Lloyd, and he'd issued a command for Diana to walk up to him.”

“....ah.” Harry shrugged. “Always a good idea to make sure the basics are coded in...” Annoyance crept into his tone as he recalled past instances where the basics had either been coded improperly, or completely left out. “Don't even get me started on that gunked-up, refitted Kokoro...” A light throat-clearing noise from Lloyd cut him off. “...anyway, ah, can you transfer command authority to me, so I can put her back in the box for now?”

“Lloyd has to make the transfer.”

“...well, kid?”

Lloyd nodded. “Diana, take a step to your right—my left.” Diana side-stepped, her gaze focused on Harry's chest. “Transfer command authority...ah, authorization code....” Lloyd glanced at Cam, who mouthed the words: “2-peninsula-93-apron-76-harbour-83.”

“Authorization code accepted.” Diana once again blinked rapidly, before adjusting her stare to look Harry in the eye.

“Return to your shipping crate and power down.”

Silently, Diana turned on her heel, walked back to the crate and entered it before turning around. “Powering down.” Her eyes gently closed, and her head bowed slightly.

Harry chuckled. “She even shuts off easier than Pam did,” he mused. “Half the time, you had to jam a finger into the 'emergency switch' to get her to power down...” He shook his head at the memory, recalling how frustrating it was to get the now-defunct gynoid to deactivate. “Good thing it was under the skin at the base of her neck..I've seen 'bots with off switches behind the ear, in the ear, and a few in places that'd make public switch-offs pretty embarassing...”

“Why do we need to bring her parts to Adrian's?”

The question earned Lloyd a sigh. “They wanna check all the part numbers against a catalogue of parts with recall orders on 'em,” Harry explained. “If Jaromir was going that cheap...”

“Got it. Want me to get a pair of gloves?”

“....yeah.” Harry sighed. “No telling what those parts might be outputting,” he muttered. “And get a mask before you go in, too—I don't need you breathing in fumes and getting sarcomas on your lungs!”

Cam looked rather thoughtful at Harry's remark, but said nothing...

...at least, not until she and Lloyd were both back in the shop, gloves on their hands. Lloyd had acquired a filtered mask to wear while picking up and examining Pam's components; after his brief impression of everyone's favorite black-clad, armored Dark Lord of the Sith failed to garner a reaction from Cam, he merely shrugged and went back to work. At the very least, he could comort himself with the thought that she might've smiled as she turned away...

“I doubt you'll get lung cancer from breathing in anything here.”

Lloyd frowned. Cam was midway through examining what was left of Pam's pelvic assembly—given the hardware that had been left out, there wasn't much to examine—when she'd spoken up. “...huh?”

“Your uncle's observation about sarcomas on your lungs is...understandable,” Cam stated, setting aside the ruined pelvic section and turning over what had once been a power cycler in both hands. “I believe the risks of inhaling carcinogens from any of Pam's components is minimal, at worst.”

“I'd settle for 'no risk',” Lloyd muttered, retrieving another of Pam's components from the pile. “Must've sucked.”

Cam looked up from the power cycler, frowning. “What must've 'sucked'?”

“The refits,” Lloyd clarified. “Pam getting passed around from one owner to the next, getting parts taken out, new parts put in, components failing all the time...”

“You do remember that Pam was non-sentient?” Cam regarded Lloyd with a puzzled look.

“I know, but...” Lloyd sighed. “...what if she'd, I dunno, started to 'ascend', somewhere along the way? Maybe not right before the first refit, but...the third, or fourth. What if she really started to think, to want to think, and it was all....” His voice was entirely too quiet for even his own liking. “...if it just got taken out, written off as a fault?” He was staring at the component in his hand as he spoke.

The touch of a hand, gently laid upon his shoulder, drew him out of the morbid reverie he'd nearly spiraled into. “I went over her entire ownership history,” Cam assured him. “Despite his other faults, Jaromir did send the full documentation regarding Pam's prior owners...none of them reported even a single incident that showed her possibly gaining anything like base-level sentience. All of her faults were faults, not misdiagnoses.”

After a moment, Lloyd nodded. “I just wanted to be sure.”

He felt Cam squeeze his shoulder—a rare, surprisingly human gesture from the otherwise clinical gynoid. “I don't think I've ever worked with anyone as concerned for the wellbeing of artificial persons as you before,” she stated. “Apart from your uncle, of course.”

“I'll take that as a compliment,” Lloyd replied, grinning as he reached up to touch Cam's hand with his own.

It took a good twenty minutes for the pair to sort through Pam's components, checking to make sure none of them were leaking anything corrosive or otherwise harmful. A few looked to be in danger of falling apart upon impact with a hard surface. By the end of the sorting process, Lloyd and Cam had each loaded up a plastic bin with the parts they'd just looked over.

“What happens if all of these are on the recall list?” Lloyd asked, locking the lid of his bin into place.

“In all likelihood,” Cam replied, “Jaromir may face a suspension of his license.”

Lloyd was somewhat surprised. “It's that bad?”

“Other countries...” Cam pressed the lid on the bin she'd loaded into place. “...are considering adopting laws similar to the North American Civic Accords—laws that, among other things, protect sentient androids and gynoids and keep the owners, buyers and sellers of non-sentient units from being scammed.” She tested the lid of the bin, nodding after it stayed in place. “The regulatory measures will also ensure that robotics companies all over the world go by a standard of quality assurance for their products.”

“...so they don't all follow one set of rules already?”

“Every continent has different sets of regulations,” Cam explained. “Even North America's own regulations regarding humanoid robots were severely lacking until the Civic Accords were signed—and they lacked their own agency to enforce the Accords until almost two years later.”

“Which would be CAEDIA,” Lloyd reasoned.

“Indeed.” Cam picked up the bin. “All we need to do now is get Pam's external covering out of the cabinet...”

“I'll do it.” It took less than ten seconds for Lloyd to get to the cabinet where various “skins” had been stored; Pam's, still wearing the makeup she'd had on during her final malfunction, was near the center of the rack inside. “...there has to be a less creepy way of storing these,” he muttered; the artificial flesh had been draped on a vaguely-feminine frame, more like an empty full-body jumpsuit than an approximation of skin.

“I've suggested that Harry invest in a vacuum-sealing system,” Cam informed him. “He's looking into it.”

A horn blast from outside signaled to Lloyd that it was time to leave. “Let's get these out to the truck...” He hefted the bin from where he'd left it, grunting slightly. “I don't want Uncle Harry getting as mad at me as he did at Jaromir!”

“I doubt he'd be that angry with you,” Cam assured him, effortlessly falling into step as she carried her bin alongside Lloyd. “But we should get going...”

Chapter 3

“...they got to keep Helena, so of course we have to get a new capital. Subdivide a state to make a new one, whadaya think is gonna happen?”

Lloyd was barely paying attention to the chatter on the radio—yet another caller complaining about how the state had to scramble to certify its capitol city after its 2022 ratification. His thoughts were still on the boxes of components that had, a little under an hour ago, been installed inside Pam before her catastrophic malfunction—a malfunction that he'd seen up close and personally the night before. Despite having been assured, multiple times, that Pam didn't feel a thing as her systems failed one by one, Lloyd still felt a sense of remorse, one that he couldn't quite pin down an explanation for.

“Somethin' on your mind?”

His uncle's question snapped Lloyd out of his funk. “I was just thinking...if there was anything we could've done to keep Pam from going out the way she did.”

“Given her extensive refits and rebuilds, keeping her functional for any length of time longer than a month would've been a costly proposition.” Cam's voice was as preternaturally calm as ever. “Especially if she was rebuilt with components that had been recalled.”

“She's got a point,” Harry agreed, never taking his eyes off the road. “We can't keep every 'bot we get, after all.”

“...so how'd you end up getting one all the way from Massachusetts?”

Harry smirked. “I did my research. Not a lot of new/old stock is fresh in the box from the 2010s and such, so I went with the best option available. And no, she hadn't been stored in a warehouse that got flooded, frozen over or set on fire.”

“Unlike Ursula, Meredith and Poe,” Cam added. “All of which were purchased from lots offered by Jaromir.”

Her mention of the Russian garnered a scoff from Harry. “Once would've been one thing,” he admitted.. “Twice, I could've overlooked as bad luck, maybe. But five times?! No excuse for it.”

The RangeStar had no difficulties navigating through traffic, though Harry kept both hands on the wheel—he'd never been one to trust auto-drive systems in vehicles, especially after a disasterous demonstration back at the ranch had sent a demo-unit quad bike into a lake. The insistence of the horrified salesman that a slight software issue—easily patchable via a phone—was responsible for the bike's watery demise had been met with a stony stare and a quiet “thanks, but no thanks”; when the sales team had fished the bike out of the lake and left, all staf on hand had found creative methods of ignoring the shouting match over the phone between Harry and his now ex-old friend, Bobby Pariello, who'd tried to sell him on the bike for a whole month.

“...should cut ties with him, too,” Harry muttered.

Lloyd, close to descending into another meditative funk, frowned. “Huh?”

“...I was just thinking,” Harry told him. “Remember the quad bike demo?”

“Yeah.” Lloyd hadn't yet forgotten the demo, or its aftermath—the screaming contest between Harry and Bobby had been held in a room across the hall from his own.

“Once we get back to the ranch,” Harry stated, “I'm calling Bobby P and cancelling every arrangement I still have with him.” He muttered something rather unprintable before continuing: “He's nothing but a suckfish—always trying to latch onto the next big thing, and then cutting loose ASAP. These days, he won't shut up about 'crypto'-whatever...”

“Cryptocurrency,” Cam clarified. “A highly risky investment.”

“Any investment suggested by Bobby Pariello is a risky investment,” Harry replied. “I remember when he was still doing the weather on local TV...idiot had some kinda tornado fetish or something. Any time we'd get a drizzle of rain, he'd bust out his fancy graphics and give all kinds of talk about 'marginal chances of a slight risk'...” He checked the rear-view mirror before continuing. “Not ONE TIME did we ever get a spin-up.”

Cam nodded sagely. “I believe his stock advice was similarly groundless.”

“Groundless?” Harry laughed. “I think he got all his stock advice from Bizarro World. I only ever took him seriously once, and it damn near cost me my house. Then he tried...” He muttered something and switched the radio station. “...tried to sell me on investing in a theme park out in Thailand, said it'd be a perfect addition to the portfolio.”

The mention of the Thailand plan piqued Lloyd's curiosity. “Didn't all the 'bots at that one blow up on opening night?”

“After they tried to start a park-wide orgy,” Harry clarified. “The place had no anti-hacking security, no gate security, no verified safety inspections on the rides and no oversight from anyone qualified to give it. The whole thing ran for three hours before some jackass with a 'bot-breaker phone strolled in looking for a good time...” He checked the rear-view mirror again, focusing on the secured bins in the bed of the truck. “...they found him—well, what was left of him—under a smouldering pile of half-naked 'bots in burnt-up costumes.”

“Bob fled the country to evade the authorities,” Cam added. “The Thai government still has an active warrant out for his arrest, if he ever returns.”

“He's not going back,” Harry chuckled. “He'd be dead before he left the airport.”

As the RangeStar drove further towards the Billings checkpoint, Lloyd found his thoughts drifting back to Diana standing less than a foot away from him—a mental image so alluring, he failed to notice movement in the bed of the truck....

“...really hoping Adrian's not too busy,” Harry muttered, as the light turned green. “Otherwise we're gonna—”

The blast of a siren cut him off; he nearly shouted, only to spot two figures swathed in loose clothing and what appeared to be duct tape jumping out of the truck's bed and running away. “...the hell was that?!” He rolled down his window to check....just as a uniformed CAEDIA officer approached. “...ah, anything wrong, officer?”

“Are the bins in the bed of this truck are secured properly?” The full-face visor of the officer's helmet seemed to flatten all traces of identity out of their voice, in addition to hiding their face from view.

“...Lloyd, Cam—”

“On it.” Lloyd and Cam exited the backseat of the RangeStar, getting down to check the bins. Both were still clamped down and held firm to the bed of the truck with straps; the lids of both were still firmly attached, with no gaps visible between the lip of the lid and the bin. As he turned to head back to the truck, Lloyd spotted a scrap of cloth, probably torn when one of the would-be thieves ran, stuck in the tailgate. He said nothing as he got back into the backseat, except to answer both his uncle and the officer: “They're tied down, still. Neither of them was opened.”

The officer nodded. “We've had a lot of problems with the Iron Hand lately—they run in, try to take any parts not bolted down, then scatter before we can do anything.”

“Iron Hand...” Harry frowned. “Weren't they behind a bunch of bot-nappings last year?”

“The case is still under investigation...but they are considered a group of interest—”

“One of them left something.”

Lloyd tried not to flinch as Harry and the officer both glanced at him—one slightly annoyed, the other curious. “...there was a torn piece of cloth in the back of the truck,” he explained. “I didn't touch it.”

Without a word, the officer headed to the back of the truck; Harry groaned. “I can't even bring parts from a 'bot Jaromir sold me anywhere without running into trouble,” he muttered. “Should've let those Iron Hand punks take a few...serve 'em right, for trying to pull off a stunt like that in broad daylight—Cam, you're going with us when we get to Adrian's office. I don't want some Frankenstein'd 'bot wrapped in a tarp trying to rip the doors off of my truck just to grab you and run off.”

Cam seemed only mildly offended. “I am capable of defending myself, sir.”

“Not against these Iron Hand pricks. Back in '10 or '11, there was a big bust that went down in California—a 'splinter group', the papers said, but the tactics were all the same. 'Bots grabbing 'bots, stripping 'em for parts and leaving what they didn't need.” Harry drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, sighing. “ALPHA busted 'em—I mean, they were missing the H, back then, but still. And that was before CAEDIA was even a thing—”

A tap on the frame of his window cut him off; the officer had returned. “Your son may have just led us to a major clue in our ongoing investigation.”

Harry's eyes widened. “He's my nephew, but...ah, what clue, exactly?”

The officer chuckled. “Apparently, one of the runners that tried to target your vehicle was damaged before they jumped onto your truck—the coat fragment we recovered is soaked in a lubrication fluid that's been discontinued for half a decade.” Even as Lloyd tried to shrink down in his seat, the officer turned to regard him. “This is the fifth time they've tried to hit a vehicle in broad daylight, and only the second time they've failed.”

“...so, does that mean we can go now,” Harry inquired, “or is the bed of my truck and active crime scene?”

“You're free to go—the residue sample from the tailgate has been collected. What exactly—”

“Junked parts from a scrapped NonSen. Bringing 'em in to make sure none of them were recalled...it's a long story.”

After a few seconds, the CAEDIA officer nodded. “From now on, you might want to invest in lockable storage boxes.”

“Got it. And, ah, thanks for scaring 'em away from my truck, officer!”

The CAEDIA officer nodded. “Have a good day!”

Harry rolled the window back up, shaking his head. “...crazy. I drive into town to see Adrian, and nearly get two loads of junk parts stolen from my truck...” The RangeStar drove through the checkpoint, the lights on either side turning green. “...and we're all clear, as per usual.” He glanced over his shoulder, into the backseat. “How're you two holding up?”

“I'm good.” Lloyd had pulled himself back up in his seat. “I was just, ah...”

“Nervous?” Cam offered.

“CAEDIA wouldn't have hauled us in,” Harry assured him. “Since they ran the Iron Hand flunkies off, they had no reason not to let us through, either. Cam, remind me to call Erin about locking truck-bed boxes once we're done at Adrian's.”

“Will do, sir.”

“Good. If Abe hadn't gotten that call before we left, he'd have done more than scare those Iron Hand punks off...”


The receptionist at Adrian's office had been configured to deal with any number of unique situations. One of the few not set to trigger her polite interaction subroutines was a group of three people, with two of them hauling large bins of unknown material. A sentient or a human in her position would've at least tried to be cordial, but protocol was protocol.

“...and don't set 'em down, no telling who might walk off with one of 'em.” Harry shook his head. “Is he in?”

The receptionist regarded him with a frown. “I'm sorry?”

“Adrian Reese.” Harry frowned. “I have an appointment.”

There was almost a sense of contempt in how slowly the receptionist looked from Harry to the monitor showing the day's scheduled meetings. “Mr. Reese doesn't have any appointments listed for this morning—”

“I just called him an hour ago. I would've shown up sooner—check the list again. 'Harry Morgan'. Should be right up near the top...”

Lloyd felt more tired than anything else—having to lug the bin of ruined components out of the truck and into the office seemed like one last bit of Pam proving to be an inconvenience. There was, of course, the not-insignificant matter of where in town the building was—or rather, what it was surrounded by. Multiple stores around the high-rise had adverts for androids and gynoids plastered in the windows, if not actual androids and gynoids posing in them. Trying to catch a glimpse had nearly caused Lloyd to trip over his own feet as he entered the building; Cam had been able to discreetly help him recover his balance while holding her bin with one arm.

“...no listing for a Harry Morgan,” the receptionist stated. “You'll have to reschedule—”

“I called Adrian this morning,” Harry insisted. “We were on the phone a little over an hour ago!”

“I'm sorry, but—” The receptionist gasped, her lips briefly parting in an “oh”. “...Mr. Reese, I was told to not admit any callers after...yes, there is someone in the lobby at this moment—a man named Harry Morgan, claiming to...he has two individuals with him...” She glanced at Lloyd and Cam, her eyes briefly flashing blue.

“Lloyd Watson.” Lloyd managed a nod and a friendly smile.

“Just Cam.” The brunette gynoid didn't bother with any gestures.

“...Lloyd Watson and Just Cam,” the receptionist stated. “Carrying large plastic bins....” Her expression changed again, to one of almost cringing apology. “...I'm sorry, Mr. Reese. I thought your request was—I understand, sir. I'll admit all three of your visitors at once.” She blinked rapidly, the micro-actuators under her artificial skin giving not-quite inaudible snaps as they did, before her attention returned to Harry, Lloyd and Cam. Her blank expression had given way to a beaming smile. “My apologies, Mr. Morgan, Mr. Watson and Ms. Just Cam. Allow me to show you to the elevator!”

“Thanks.” Harry nodded, glancing back at Lloyd and Cam. “Helluva turnaround, isn't it?”

Cam merely shrugged. “She appears to have problems with the linguistics of names...”

“I'll tell Adrian when we get to his office,” Harry assured her. “As for right now...”

The three followed the receptionist to the lifts; Lloyd could hear the faintest hints of servo whines from her body as she moved. “Mr. Watson and Ms. Just Cam will need to take a separate elevator,” the gynoid explained. “For safety reasons, the weight-limit on individual elevator cars—”

Harry held up a hand, signalling that he got the point. “We'll take it from here.”

Once the lift doors closed, Lloyd set down his bin. “Why did we have to bring Pam's frame up with the rest of her parts?” he asked, wiping his forehead with the back of one hand.

“The frame itself may have been on the recall list.” Cam never looked away from the doors of the lift as she spoke.

“Even her frame?!”

Now, the gynoid turned to regard Lloyd with a frown. “You'll recall that dealers like Jaromir don't operate under a single set of rules,” she reminded him.

“I figured that. I just hope Pam's skin wasn't on a recall list.”

“The exo-layer wouldn't have been. Given how easily the under-layer was burned through, however...”

Lloyd tried not to think of the headache that would entail for anyone keeping track of how many dodgy parts had been installed in Pam before Jaromir had shipped her. “I'd hate to be Jaromir right now,” he muttered.

After a minute or two of ascending in silence, the lift car stopped. The doors opened to reveal several smartly-dressed men and women waiting to get on, all of them somewhat confused at the presence of two 20-somethings, dressed in a style far more casual than the tenants of the building were accustomed to.

Lloyd tried for a smile and gave a nervous wave. “Hi, everyone.”

“Lloyd! Cam! Over here, Conference Room 3!”

Without waiting for Cam to suggest it, Lloyd hefted his bin from the floor of the lift car, uttering a few polite “excuse me”s and “sorry”s as he edged past the business types. Cam followed, soon matching him step-for-step as they made their way to the door Harry had called out to them. “Conference room....three.” Lloyd tried to manoeuvrer himself into position to open the door with one hand, but Cam stepped forward, effortlessly balancing her bin with one arm as she turned the pull and pushed the door inward. “After you.”

“Thanks.” Lloyd sighed, fighting the urge to explain that it wasn't the weight of the bin that was hindering him, but the width and awkwardness of carrying the blasted thing.

Harry had already taken a seat at the conference table, next to a young man about a decade older than Lloyd. His angular face was framed by curly black hair that went to his neck, looking oddly out of place in a law firm office. “...and right on schedule,” Harry stated, “my nephew, Lloyd Morris Watson...” Lloyd set his bin down to shake hands with Adrian across the table; the attorney was slightly taller than him.

“...and a three-time Employee of the Month,” Harry continued. “Cam—not 'Just' Cam...I mean—”

“I get the idea.” Adrian shook Cam's hand, as he'd done with Lloyd. “The ground floor units need an overhaul...but that's not why we're all here.” He nodded to the bins. “These are all the parts from the unit you mentioned?”

“All the parts that were viable to be transported,” Cam replied. “Including her endo-frame and recharging station.”

Lloyd tried not to scowl at that last fact. Apparently, Jaromir had insisted the station was, in fact, a “part”.

“No time like the present, then...” Adrian gestured to a laptop set up on the conference table. “Just unpack all the parts, lay 'em out on the table and I'll cross-check the numbers...”

Harry nodded at Lloyd and Cam. “Might as well...”

For the next twenty minutes, Lloyd and Cam unloaded the bins, laying out Pam's components on the table. The last part to be unloaded and placed on the table was the recharging station—a third-party device, intended to be permanently mounted on a wall, that looked to have been from an entirely different manufacturer.

Adrian regarded the parts with a dour stare. “How long was she operating?”

“A few months, at least.” Harry drummed his fingers on the table. “Erin and Cam went through all the documentation last night—Jaromir sold her before, but said she was still in pretty good shape.” He scowled. “Guess we know how that turned out.”

“Bad time to be buying Russian 'bots,” Adrian mused, shaking his head. “I hear NonSens past their warranty dates are rounded up and converted for server farms...there was a big bust last month, a whole office floor full of NonSens set up to crypto-mine.” He tented his fingers, frowning. “They got maybe 25% of the whole bunch out. Some idiot pulled a pistol, a 'bot got shot...turns out a live bullet hitting a 'bot that's been running hot for three weeks is a bad combination, but that's someone else's story. Right now...”

“Right now,” Harry continued, “we play Whack-a-Mole with the recall system, see how many of these are on a list.”

Lloyd thought the next few minutes—Adrian being handed a part, scrolling up and down the screen on his laptop and saying whether or not any given component had been recalled—would be boring. It turned out the opposite, for the wrong reasons. As they went down the list and over all of Pam's components, the full nature of Jaromir's “cheapjack” tendencies was laid bare: every single one of the components on the table had been recalled. Worse, some parts had been modified or repaired by individuals or parties without the proper experience, voiding warranties and making them nearly-literal ticking time-bombs.

“....recalled due to fire hazard, proof of internal self-lubrication solution containing trace levels of carcinogens and at least three known incidents of exploding at various temperatures.” Adrian set the power cycler down, regarding the ever-growing pile of recalled pieces with a heavy-lidded stare. “You said this Jaromir was a friend of yours, Harry?”

“Not anymore.” Harry had the edge of the table in a death grip, his teeth clenched. A vein in his neck had begun to bulge after Adrian had set down the tenth component found to be on a recall list.

For his part, Lloyd was staring at the pile of components with abject horror. Robotics was a passion of his—the reason he'd enrolled in Mechanical Engineering was, in the long term, to get a better grasp of how to repair (if not manufacture) 'bots on his own, after all. To hear that Jaromir had taken cost-cutting to this extreme galled him to his core. “Aren't there laws against this?” he quietly asked.

“Russia's been the Wild West of the robotics world,” Adrian informed him. “Don't be surprised if they don't send any delegates to discuss a CAEDIA-style outfit of their own.” He turned his attention to the recharger. “The last one?”

“Unless you want to check her frame against the recall list,” Cam replied.

“Just from looking at it, I can tell the frame's been modified way too many times to be classed as 'base-level'.” Adrian hadn't looked away from the recharger. “As for this thing, it's a Tesla knock-off, pretty common—and usually meant for vehicles, not 'bots.”

“I thought they had adapters,” Lloyd began, only for a low groan from Harry to cut him off.

“I know it looks bad,” Adrian admitted, “and, well...all these parts being on recall lists is definitely bad news—BUT,” he quickly added, before Harry could groan again, “there's some good news in all of this, too.”

Harry, who'd slumped as far back in the unyielding chair as he possibly could, moaned. “What good news?”

“Well,” Adrian replied, “for one, the financial compensation options haven't expired for any of these parts.”

It was almost astounding to watch the transformative effect those words had on Harry Morgan. He began pulling himself up in the chair, the beet-red tone in his cheeks slowly fading. “...financial compensation,” he echoed. “On all of 'em?”

“Every last bit.” Adrian grinned. “Even the recharger.”

“How much, ah, compensation would we be owed for turning over all of these parts?” Harry quietly asked.

“Gimme a sec...” Adrian tapped a few keys on the laptop, his brow wrinkled in concentration. “...and....there.” He turned the laptop so that Harry, Lloyd and Cam could see the sum total of what they'd be given for Pam's components.

Lloyd blinked. Harry's confused frown gave way to a smile, then a laugh. Cam merely arched an eyebrow.

“Reclamation's just a 10-minute drive away from here,” Adrian mused. “Shouldn't take too long to get it sorted—”

“What about the SSD?”

Harry's smile faded slightly, but Adrian spoke before he could. “What SSD?”

“Well, Pam didn't have any sex hardware in her,” Lloyd explained. “Where it should've been, there was a gap, and higher up was a solid state drive—”

“I thought you tossed that,” Harry countered, frowning.

“I put it in the receipts drawer, in the desk by the shop door. Locked it and everything.”

Harry was still frowning, and nearly spoke again—but Adrian, now looking rather thoughtful, beat him to it: “This SSD wasn't on the shipping manifest for Pam?”

“No, sir,” Lloyd replied. “The sex hardware was, but like I said...she didn't have it.”

Adrian nodded. “...huh. Interesting.” He turned the laptop back around. “Well, that makes another bit of good news for you, Harry,” he mused. “We can definitely get Jaromir busted on smuggling charges, if nothing else.”

“....smuggling?” Harry echoed. “For an SSD?”

“If it wasn't him, it was definitely someone in his office,” Adrian surmised. “Possibly trying to move a load of Bitcoin without being traced, or someone trying to sneak data out of the country. I've heard of stranger ways to move data than by swapping out a synth-gina for an SSD...” He turned his attention to Lloyd. “You said you'd put the drive in a locked desk drawer?”

“I did, sir. I dunno why, I just...” Lloyd shrugged. “Figured it'd be a waste to just toss it.”

Adrian gave an appreciative smile. “Not tossing that drive may have been the best decision you made. Forensics can scan it and everything on it, if you bring it by here next week.”

“And what if there's nothing illegal on the drive?” Harry was leaning on the table now. “What if it's been wiped?”

“There are plenty of ways to reconstruct deleted data from a wiped drive, Harry. Trust me on that.”

“Right.” Harry sat back, sighing. “So we bring it in next week...”

“Or whenever it's most convenient.” Adrian shrugged.

“Well, we've got an event tomorrow, so it probably won't be then.” Harry rose from his chair. “Can't say I'm surprised that all of these are on the recall list,” he muttered, “but knowing Jaromir...”

“You should be glad Pam crashed and burned when she did,” Adrian assured him. “Otherwise...”

“If it wouldn't have been the power supply,” Harry finished, “it'd have been her processor, and she'd have flipped out and started going haywire during the Junior Archaeologists' dig at the base camp. Can't really picture the papers ignoring that kind of craziness....” He scoffed. “And you really think we can bust Jaromir for smuggling?”

“Depending on what that drive has on it. I can issue a Writ of Stoppage to him, if you want.”

Harry chuckled. “Please do. If it means I never have to buy from him again...”

Adrian and Harry continued their conversation while Lloyd, sensing that their job at the office was done, motioned for Cam to help him bin the components. “How come all of these junk parts are worth so much?” he quietly asked.

“The vast majority of them posed a significant health and safety risk,” Cam reminded him. “Given the nature of how humanoid robotics works, as opposed to something like a faulty airbag or brakes...”

“I get it.” Lloyd sighed. “I just hope Heartelligence didn't make the same mistakes as Pam's old owners did.”

Cam regarded him with another of her cryptic maybe-smiles. “I have a feeling they're a bit more responsible than that.”


“...and I'm not mad that you brought up the SSD,” Harry insisted, “I just...I honestly thought you'd tossed that thing, or we gave it to Abe, or something.”

As the RangeStar made its way through the Billings traffic, the conversation had turned—yet again—to Lloyd's decision to bring up the solid state drive randomly installed (or just inserted) into Pam before she'd been shipped out. “What I don't get,” Harry continued, “is why Jaromir ever thought it'd be a good idea to just cram that thing in where he did, and then not tell anyone before he shipped it. Someone would've noticed, eventually.”

“The refit schedule never mentioned the drive's installation,” Cam chimed in. “Perhaps Jaromir didn't know about it—”

“Which means someone working for him may have just cost him his job,” Harry finished. “If he knew about it or he didn't know about it, I don't know, and I can barely bring myself to care. Jaromir's screwed me over—screwed us over, as in all of us—too many times for me to just let this go.” His muttering was only slightly cancelled out by a track from Amy Winehouse's fourth album on the radio. “And all that talk about him being a 'friend'...yeah, that's done.”

“Over a solid state drive?”

“It's more than just the drive, Lloyd. Jaromir's been sending us faulty parts, faulty bots and everything in between. If I got a call tomorrow, telling me that all the paperwork he's ever sent me with everything he sold me was fake, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.” Harry shook his head. “He's like that guy who tried to start his own game company when the big names wouldn't hire him. What was his name?” He snapped his fingers. “Kotick! Bob Kotick, that two-bit chiseller who wrecked a record label and then got in too deep with the mob in Silicon Valley. Hasn't been seen or heard from since 2012.”

“Jaromir would stand a considerably higher risk,” Cam mused. “The Russian Mafia is far stricter about these things.”

“If Jaromir got involved with them,” Harry assured her, “he'd never have been a problem for us...”


Lloyd had accompanied his uncle to the Reclamation office in Billings several times, and had tried to develop a sort of thought exercise to keep himself from being distracted each time. Counting the ceiling tiles, admiring the intricate series of patterns on the floor, remembering all the words to the songs of a certain album....

Invariably, his thought exercises never panned out longer than three minutes.

The reception area, with the front desk, wasn't the issue. No, what caught Lloyd's attention like the strongest of hooks was having to walk down the corridors to “an office in the back,” every time. If it wasn't something happening in a room off to one side or another—a gynoid's upper half resting on a table while the lower body walked a treadmill, or a row of heads all reciting the alphabet in various languages at various speeds—it was the racks of deactivated gynoids (a few times, an android might be on a rack, but the gynoids always caught Lloyd's eye), suspended like mannequins, that seemed to always line the walls.

This visit was no different. Off in one side room, a gynoid was being disassembled—the operation going more like a pit crew taking apart a car than Pam's teardown, with speed and efficiency taking the place of Cam's methodical pacing and documentation of each action. In another room, rapturous cries resounded off the walls; Lloyd barely caught sight of a nude female form on a table, her body completely motionless—apart from her face, the passion of the moment clearly visible....just before a thoroughly embarrassed employee ran up to close the door with a quick “sorry”.

“The unit in that room was probably being tested for reactions to particular physical stimuli,” Cam mused. “Either that, or she was experiencing a glitch.”

“They still could've closed the door,” Harry muttered. “I just hope they didn't hear that out in the lobby.”

Cam mentioned something about soundproofing and door seals, but Lloyd didn't catch it. He was already losing focus of his latest mental exercise—this time, trying to remember how many movies he'd seen at his theatre of choice in the past five years—thanks to a brief glimpse of several figures being worked on in another room. These all had their backs to the door, which did little to hide their allure; the studded silver shorts, knee-high white boots, elbow-length gloves and low-backed studded silver tops hugged their curves invitingly. The outfits looked surprisingly familiar—a movie, something from the 90s, possibly about spies...

“Watch it!”

Harry's not-quite shout snapped Lloyd out of his funk. “Sorry!” Apparently, he'd nearly bowled over his uncle with the bin he was carrying.

“Let me.” Harry took hold of the bin, carefully edging the door open with his left foot. “Might as well ease the load off of you, since you've been carrying it all morning.”

“Thanks.” Lloyd nodded, holding the door open for his uncle—and Cam—to enter the office.

“Pardon the mess...just have a seat and I'll be with you in a sec.” The Reclamation clerk nodded at Harry, Lloyd and Cam as they entered. “The mess”, as it turned out, wasn't nearly as offensive as one might've thought—if one didn't mind the sights of half-assembled androids and gynoids in various states of disrepair around the room. A box in one corner held a multitude of male arms, each with varying levels of muscle tone (purely aesthetic). Right next to it was a female torso in what Lloyd could only guess was a very loose interpretation of a traditional bridal gown—strapless, with skirts entirely too short and lacy white gloves draped over the wires and attachment points jutting out of the neck.

“...and we got all the parts right here.” Harry gestured for Cam and Lloyd to unload the bins. “Every last one of 'em on a recall list.”

For the second time in as many hours, the bins were emptied.

“...and I got the message from Mr. Reese here. Checked it before you showed up, Mr. Morgan—every single one of these is still eligible for a refund.”

Harry nodded his approval. “Excellent. Do we need to bring these anywhere else, or...”

“Collection department will handle it. As for the compensation...”

“It's not in crypto-currency, is it?” Harry wasn't smiling.

The clerk chuckled. “That stuff is a hassle to keep track of.” An envelope was handed over across the desk. “Just submit this to the front desk, and you'll get a check to deposit or cash as you see fit.”

“Good. I never liked that crypto-crap, personally.”

The walk back to the front lobby was considerably less taxing than the walk to the office—Cam had volunteered to take both of the empty bins, but Lloyd had insisted that he still carry his. The only distraction came when three or four staff technicians had to manoeuvrer past Lloyd and Cam to get to the room with the hastily-closed door they'd passed by on the way to the office.

“I guess it was a glitch after all,” Cam remarked. Lloyd was too busy staring ahead and ignoring the ever-louder cries of ecstasy, barely muffled by the closed door, to reply.

None of the customers in the lobby gave any indication of having heard the outburst from earlier, or the current bout of sexually-charged screams from the one room in the back. Most were watching one of the corner-mounted TVs (the closest one to Lloyd had been set to a “pop news” show, detailing a possible Starlet Dolls European tour slated to begin in 2024), reading (magazines from past months were laid out on the central table and a few racks, the subscriber stickers on the front covers having been neatly redacted with black paint pens) or checking their smartphones. The line at the desk moved quickly enough, and Harry was soon at the front.

“What Uncle Harry said, about refitting another 'bot with Pam's skin,” Lloyd quietly mused. “I, ah...”

“Given the amount of trouble Pam has caused,” Cam replied, her tone just as quiet, “I doubt he'll follow through on that option. It's highly probable that—”

“Thanks.” Harry clapped Lloyd and Cam on the shoulder, grinning. “Just need to head to the bank, now.”

Cam and Lloyd glanced at each other; the gynoid merely shrugged.

With the bins now empty, Harry opted to have them put in the backseat—one inside the other—rather than tie them down in the bed of the RangeStar. “Shouldn't be too cramped,” he mused . “I mean—”

“I'll sit in the backseat,” Lloyd offered. “Cam can ride shotgun.”

Cam regarded him with arched eyebrows, while Harry looked somewhat amused. “Not that I'm complaining about good manners, or anything,” he admitted, “or trying to relegate Cam to a lower spot on the ladder than you, but....”

His remark was cut short by an SUV pulling up to park alongside the RangeStar. A quick nudge from Cam prompted Lloyd to take a look—any confusion on his part was cut short when he saw who was in the back seat. His eyes widened, even as his uncle moved out of the way, even offering to help the driver of the SUV if need be. The conversation between Harry and the driver seemed almost muted to Lloyd...

...namely on account of who emerged from the rear driver's side door.

“Mandy!” He hated the fact that his utterance of her name sounded almost like a gasp. “I, ah...hi!”

The object of his affections smiled. Her ethereal, impossibly perfect appearance from Lloyd's dream could never be matched in the waking world, but she was most definitely still attractive—despite the hospital-issued Emergency Respiratory Aid pack hooked to her belt, its breathing mask currently sheathed. Blonde, blue-eyed and with a dance student's trim figure, only the belt-mounted ERA gave any sign that she was in less than perfect health. “Lloyd!” she beamed. “I didn't think you'd be in town this morning. What's up?”

“Oh, ah, we just...” He gestured to the empty bin Cam was still holding. “We had to do a teardown on a 'bot earlier this morning, brought the parts in...” He shrugged, hoping to look casual. “No big deal.” He nodded to a lidless plastic crate that Harry and the SUV's driver were lugging out of the back of the vehicle. “What's that?”

“That?” Mandy glanced at the crate—and the flesh-tone plastic arm, with its visibly-jointed hand—sticking out of the top. “Oh, we had to stop by my aunt's place yesterday...her caregiver went on the fritz again. They think it's the CPU or something, but my dad wants a second opinion.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Lloyd was beginning to feel tongue-tied—and hoped that Mandy wouldn't ask to borrow a pen.

“Your uncle's doing one of those story things tomorrow, isn't he?”

“Yeah! He is.”

“Cool.” Mandy grinned. “Will she be in it?” She nodded at Cam.

Before Lloyd could reply, Cam spoke up: “I help out with repairs and day-to-day operations. This morning, I assisted in disassembling the gynoid whose parts we just turned in.

“Oh. Was she...”

“Non-sentient, a recent purchase of Lloyd's uncle.” Cam glanced at Mandy, then at Lloyd, before speaking again: “Lloyd had a dream about you last night.”

Lloyd felt the blood drain from his face almost instantly.

“Did he, now?” Mandy regarded him with interest. “What kind of dream?”

“A pleasant meeting with you, in Mechanical Engineering class. I believe one of you had to borrow the other's pen.”

“He told you the details, then?”

“He did. He also mentioned a desire to see you more often, in social contexts.”

Mandy frowned thoughtfully. “If it wasn't for this,” she mused, gesturing at the ERA on her belt, “I'd be more than happy to meet 'in social contexts'...” She rolled her eyes. “...but Mom didn't want to vaccinate, and now I have to limit my dance classes until the doctors can be sure it won't put too much stress on my lungs. It's not exactly the most fun for an audience to watch the lead go off-stage every twenty minutes just to catch her breath...”

Cam nodded sympathetically. “I hope you can eventually recover.”

“Same here.” Lloyd nodded emphatically, only slightly less mortified at Cam for having mentioned his dream.

“Thanks.” Mandy smiled, leaning in to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “I should probably go help with the crate.”

“No worries. I hope we can talk again soon!”

“So do I...” Mandy paused; someone at the entrance to the Reclamation office (either Harry or the driver of the SUV; Lloyd couldn't tell which) had called out something. “Ah, would either of you happen to have a pen?”

For the second time in nearly as many minutes, Lloyd felt the blood rush from his face—but Cam spoke before he could say anything: “There's one in the glove compartment. Give me a moment...”

Mandy nodded, turning her attention back to Lloyd. “So, that event your uncle's running tomorrow...”

“It's a dig,” Lloyd replied, feeling considerably less nervous. “Archaeology, set during the 1940s. A group of explorers has to retrieve an artefact before it falls into the wrong hands—it's a kind of pulp adventure thing.”

“Sounds pretty cool. Reminds me of that one movie series....”

“Here.” Cam had emerged from the RangeStar with the pen. “It should still be full.”

“Thanks. See you later, Lloyd!” Mandy gave a cheerful wave; Lloyd reciprocated, smiling until the office door closed behind Mandy. “Why did you tell her about the dream?!” he moaned, turning to glare at Cam.

“I didn't tell her everything about it,” Cam mused.

“So you lied?!” Lloyd hissed.

“Technically, I didn't. You did, indeed, dream about having a pleasant encounter with her in the Mechanical Engineering class you both attend.” Cam frowned. “I thought you might be able to concoct a far less...salacious version of the dream to relate to her, to keep the conversation going.”

“...so you were...”

“Trying to help ease your social anxiety around her.” Cam gently rested a hand on Lloyd's shoulder. “I'm sorry if my efforts to lighten the mood had the opposite effect...”

Lloyd sighed. “It was just a dream, after all,” he reminded himself. “And I'm sorry for...well, snapping, just now.”

“Apology accepted.” Cam gave Lloyd's shoulder the same affectionate squeeze she'd given before they'd left the shop.

The door to the Reclamation office opened. “...and if you need anything,” Harry was calling over his shoulder, “just gimme a call and I'll get it sorted!” He tossed off a quick salute as the door closed. “Well,” he declared, beaming at Lloyd and Cam, “we're all done here. Just had to help Murph sort out the paperwork on that caregiver unit...nothing too serious.” He noticed Lloyd glancing past him, at the door. “...ah...”

“We were just talking to Mandy,” Cam explained.

Harry nodded. “She's in your Mechanical Engineering class, right? I think you'd mentioned her a few times before...” He crossed over to the driver's side. “Dance student, caught the big bug in '20, or something...”

“Yeah.” Lloyd sighed, turning to get into the RangeStar's backseat.

“Just be glad it didn't end up worse,” Harry reminded him. “And that they got the vaccine out there as fast as they did.”

Lloyd was too lost in thought to reply as Cam climbed into the RangeStar's front passenger seat.


“...and whoever gets the part of 'Professor Dallas Johnson', you stick with him and make sure he—or she, there's enough flex in the script for that—doesn't go too far off-script or get too physical with the 'bots.”

The trip to the bank had been uneventful, apart from Harry barely being able to contain his glee at how much he'd made by way of compensation for all of Pam's ruined parts. Now, back at the ranch house, he and Lloyd were taking a last-minute tour through the basic itinerary of the next day's big event: “The Quest for the Eternity Glaive”.

“When I say 'gets too physical',” Harry continued, “I mean 'causes damage', just to be clear—but if you spot some half-drunk, half-stoned or just plain horny rando tryin' to drop trou and get on the sentries in full view of the rest of the party, you just say 'Red Crest' into the 'walkie' there and the 'bots will go straight to EmCon 4.”

Lloyd grimaced; the last time any of the Emergency Contingencies had been deployed was at the Estate House event. “I hope I don't have to say it,” he admitted.

Harry chuckled. “Relax. People want that kind of experience, they go to a Silicon Dynamics scenario chamber.” He turned his attention back to the binder. “Depending on how the party you'll be with handles it all, you'll probably get a run-through of anything from A1 to G19,” he stated. “And, ah, expect a few surprises.”

“From them?” Lloyd asked.

“Well, yeah.” Harry chuckled. “But I was able to make a few calls to a few friends—up the challenge level a little bit.”

Lloyd blew out a sigh. Any time the challenge level got “upped” at an event, it meant that things would be a lot more interesting than initially planned. “What about the supplies?”

“Abe's got all the guns ready—configured as usual.” Harry held up an M1 Garand, aimed directly at Lloyd. “I promise you, right now, you're not about to get shot. Just keep your eye on the barrel....”

Even as he stared at the weapon in his uncle's hand, fearing the worst, Lloyd nodded. “Ready when—”

The fact that he didn't blink as he heard the shot was, after assurance that he hadn't just been shot in the chest, the second thing Lloyd realized. The third: “It's loaded with blanks!”

Harry shook his head. “Can't use those in this type of event, for safety reasons. Some dumbass in Wisconsin tried to play Roy Rogers with a blank-firing pistol, twirling it all over. Went to holster it, jammed it down his pants and misfired. Nice big hole in his thigh. He survived, of course.” He scowled. “Wouldn't have turned out that way if he'd put it to his head and fired.” He crossed the room to show Lloyd exactly what had made the realistic muzzle-flash: “Projector, in the barrel,” he explained. “From the side...” He aimed the rifle at the wall and squeezed the trigger; Lloyd saw a decently recreated flash of fire and light from the barrel. “All the rage in stage shows and theme park reenactments these days.”

“Isn't it a bit much, though?” Lloyd frowned. “Just to make a gun look like it's firing?”

“We're in the business of creating the illusion of danger,” Harry reminded him. “You give people the real thing, somebody gets hurt, or somebody gets killed. It's a great way to burn off your popularity with everyone except lawyers, too.” He set the rifle down, carefully, on the coffee table. “Any low-rent yahoo can print a fake certificate off the Internet and say they've got all their ducks in a row. It pays to go the exta mile when it comes to safety, especially with guns.” He sighed. “I worked a stunt show at a theme park I'll respectfully decline to name. They used blanks for all their gun shows, too.”

Lloyd could already tell the story wasn't going to end well. “Until?”

“Let's just say nobody bought the 'It's all part of the show' routine when the hero of the piece lost an eye.”

The far door to the living room opened, putting an end to the discussion of that particularly grisly stunt show. “The cast for tomorrow's event is undergoing one final round of examinations,” Cam stated—already dressed in period-accurate costume as a nurse. “Esperanza is showing no signs of the residual code from Lloyd's test run of the event yesterday.”

Harry nodded. “Good to hear. What about Sienna?”

“Seven Full Stop tests were done, and she still clung to whatever item she was attempting to grapple for during each deactivation. We may have to tell the customers to either surrender the weapon, if they end up against her, or opt for a stealth approach to neutralizing her.” Cam checked her clipboard. “Diana has been given the full script for the event, with all variations allowed for.”

“Nice.” Harry nodded to the rifle on the coffee table. “Just telling Lloyd about the prop guns,” he explained, “and why we're not using blanks—actually, that reminds me.” Without warning, he picked up the Garand, aimed at Cam, and squeezed the trigger. The gynoid dropped as if she'd been hit with an actual round.

“CAM!” Lloyd ran to her side. “Oh, damn it!”

“I appreciate the concern, Lloyd.” Cam's eyes opened, and she regarded him with another of her maybe-smiles. “But as you can see, I'm perfectly unharmed.” She allowed him to help her to a sitting position. “I'm sure your uncle will be more than happy to explain.”

“No need to rub it in.” Harry set the rifle down again. “Every 'bot taking part in the event is gonna have sensors wired into their clothes, and a very small sort of pop charge.” He grinned. “If the one who took the shot was on-point, the charge puts a hole where they got 'hit'—”

“And a small amount of fake blood.” Cam gestured to her own uniform.

“And that. They go down, it looks like they took the hit, all goes well.” Harry clapped Lloyd on the shoulder. “Our valued customers can opt to wear an undershirt that simulates the impact of the shot. Some of 'em are bringing their own outfits from home, so I can't exactly go blowing holes in their clothes.”

Lloyd nodded, already feeling a bit silly for having panicked at Cam getting shot. “So all the guns are set up like that?”

“I figured if I had to borrow something from Silicon Dynamics, it'd be 'guns that pose no risk of anyone getting shot for real or by accident',” Harry reasoned. “We were gonna try for grenades, too, but it would've cost too much—probably as much as we made back from Reclamation taking back Pam's junked parts.” He and Lloyd helped Cam to her feet. “The rest of the staff are all at the site?”

“There, or at base camp. Erin volunteered to take over for the Junior Archaeologists' events.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “She's gonna have to paint up if she wants to pass muster.”

“She's already conceded to apply the full-head makeup that will allow her to appear more human,” Cam replied. “I've taken the liberty of narrowing her wardrobe options down to those that will cover 98% of her visible artificiality.” To Lloyd, she continued: “Her hands don't support most synth-skin sheathes. The exposed joints tend to not look like real knuckles under the skin.”

“Give her a good set of gloves and she'll be fully prepped.” Harry yawned. “Might as well go see how all the 'Artemis Pact' members are doing out in the shop...” He noticed Lloyd's hesitance. “I know that look,” he mused. “Is this one of those 'big question' moments, or—”

“We're not gonna have a Pam v2, are we?”

Lloyd's question prompted a confused look from Harry. “I can't really predict when or where the next 'bot will break, but I can say it won't be as bad as—”

“No, I mean...” Lloyd sighed. “We're not gonna put Pam's skin on a new frame, face and everything, are we?”

At this, Harry's confusion softened into an almost paternal glance. “We can toss the face,” he assured his nephew. “To be honest, I never was a fan. Nothin' wrong with looking cheerful, but she was always a bit too cheerful, y'know?”

“That may have been a byproduct of her near-constant modifications,” Cam stated. “I can check the records—”

“Forget it. Her parts are probably in a crusher as we speak.”

On the way to the shop, Lloyd noticed a few extra vehicles parked out back, mostly Jeeps; a WWII-era cargo truck was also noticeable by its presence. “On loan,” Harry explained. “As long as I promise to send 'em back with full gas tanks, full tires and no damage that can't be buffed out.”

“Not that we'd encourage our clientele to try driving dangerously,” Cam added.

“The Oregon branch learned that the hard way,” Harry sighed. “Tried to do a racing event—human drivers against 'bots, Grand Prix style. All the safety precautions in the world, but they didn't plan for a wet track. None of the 'bot drivers were scripted to handle driving in those conditions...and it just failed upward from there.”

“The forecast for tomorrow doesn't call for any rain,” Cam stated. “The weather will be optimal for the script.”

“Just be glad old Bobby Pariello isn't still doing the forecasts,” Harry chuckled. “Knowing him, he'd throw in some line about a freak twister 'hitting when you least expect it'...” He lifted the tip of his nose with one finger, imitating the high, nasally voice of his former friend. “Bet he'd throw in the exact time, if he knew I was listening. 'And if you're planning any big events today at 12:05 PM, you might want to reschedule for next week!'”

Lloyd couldn't help but laugh, and even Cam looked somewhat amused. “I'm sure he wouldn't go that far out of his way to antagonize you.”

“Eh, you don't know him like I know him. Never knew what might get him pissed off—he'd be all smiles one minute, and the next...some guy shoulder-checked him outside the TV studio once, and Bobby just about lost it. Bull-rushed the poor sap, took him to the pavement and just started elbowing him in the head.” Harry glanced back over his shoulder. “The guy getting elbowed was 68, was checking his pockets to make sure he didn't lose his keys in the building—he said so when he came to in hospital.”

“Wasn't that—”

“What got Bobby fired?” Harry blew out a sigh. “You know it, kid. Either that, or that tape they found at his desk, of him dancin' in his underwear with weather symbols painted all over him. Some mumbo-jumbo about 'wanting to lay with Mother Nature in the most primal of states' or something, I dunno.”

Lloyd looked as if he were going to either burst out giggling or be ill.

“Perhaps we should focus on checking the cast for tomorrow's event,” Cam suggested, “instead of reliving the foibles and follies of Mr. Pariello.”

“Good call.” The trio had approached the door to the shop; Harry keyed in the code to open it. “Shouldn't take long.”

“Lloyd can help with the disposal of Pam's face, as well,” Cam added. She started to say something else...

...except Lloyd's focus was captured by the interior of the shop—or more accurately, the figures standing in the centre of the cleared shop floor. None of them moved as Harry, Cam and Lloyd approached.

Diana, Esperanza, Sienna and the rest of the gynoids kitted out as the Artemis Pact were all facing to the right, “staring” at the wall. All were clad in clothing appropriate to the time period the story was to take place in, with the addition of emblems (be they armband, shoulder patch or medal) depicting the symbol designed for the Pact: a vertical sword, the blade pointing up, laid over a horizontal bow.

Diana, for her part, looked incredible. Her hair had been styled into ringlet curls that framed her face, and her outfit had a hint of martial function to it without actually being from any specific army. The shirt was tucked in; the “uniform” jacket, utterly pristine. Her blue eyes—those stunning blue eyes—stared sightlessly ahead. A beret, perched atop her hair without a discernable tilt, bore the Pact's emblem over a pearl-white circle.

“The hunter's moon,” Harry explained. “There's some kinda mythology behind it all, remind me to ask the writer.”

“Right.” Lloyd followed his uncle down the line of motionless gynoids, stopping before Esperanza. “So she's not gonna start dancing if anyone tries to disarm her from behind?”

“I did mention that the last of the residual code responsible for that problem was removed,” Cam reminded him. Her lips curled in another half-smile. “Right before your uncle 'shot' me.”

“Do I even want to know the context behind that sentence?”

Harry chuckled. “Didn't notice you were in here, Erin!” He nodded to the hastily-arranged “vanity table” off by the far wall; Erin had already begun painting her off-white synthetic flesh in more life-like tones. “Sorry to have to get you all painted up for the gig tomorrow—”

Erin shrugged. “No worries. As soon as I got the call about Pam...” Lloyd could see the reflection of her rolling her eyes as he, Harry and Cam approached. “I had a feeling she'd go off before too long,” the gynoid continued, briefly puckering her lips and testing the newly-applied lipstick. “Always a bit too twitchy, a bit too 'happy sunshine fun-time', if you know what I mean.”

“She was refit over thirteen times,” Cam mused. “Base-level code changes may have altered any personality profile she may have been initially shipped with.”

The mention of being refit over thirteen times caused Erin to turn away from the mirror—her face 85% “painted up” to resemble that of a human. “You're kidding,” she muttered, frowning. “Thirteen times?!”

“Her cranial module by itself was fully rebuilt at least three times,” Cam replied.

Erin groaned, turning to face the mirror again. “Was someone using her head for practice at a batting range?”

“I hope not,” Lloyd murmured, barely realizing he'd spoken out loud until he noticed Harry, Cam and even Erin regarding him with curious stares. “What?”

“You,” Erin mused, “are a shining light in this industry, d'you know that?” Even with her face not fully covered by flesh-tone makeup, there was something maternal in her smile. “Most people would've looked at Pam after last night and said 'hell of a write-off', if even that. I've never seen anyone else show as much concern as you do over a NonSen.”

“Well,” Lloyd reasoned, “I figure...treat 'em like people even if they can't think like people, or act like people.”

Harry clapped him on the shoulder. “If more people thought that way, CAEDIA'd have been founded a lot earlier.”

“OH, that reminds me!” Erin fished something out of a drawer in the table she'd commandeered for her “makeover” and handed it to Harry. “Got this yesterday, from the event inspectors.”

“They were at the site?”

“Showed up after you left. Apart from the whole 'Pam' thing, they've given it the go-ahead—even, ah...” She bade Harry lean in, and whispered something to him that Lloyd couldn't quite catch. He nearly leaned himself, only for Erin to move away from Harry, who nodded. “Lloyd knows there'll be an increase to the difficulty for the paying customers.”

“Does he, now?” Erin grinned. “Well, Lloyd, if one 'Col. Kanzler' shows up for the finale tomorrow, then don't freak out and call Red Crest on the walkie or anything.” She winked. “I'd say more, but...”

“Spoilers.” Lloyd nodded. “I get the picture.”

“That's the spirit.” Erin sighed. “Meanwhile, I get to supervise a glorified sandbox expedition,” she mused. “Got a bag of stuff for the 'junior archaeologists' to find...it's in a drawer in the desk by the door.”

“Was there still a solid state drive in there?” Lloyd chimed in. “No markings on the case, or anything?”

“Yeah,” Erin replied, somewhat confused. “Why?”

It was Harry's turn to sigh. “We pulled it out of Pam this morning. Someone thought it'd be a wonderful idea to install that between her legs instead of the usual hardware.”

His remark left Erin looking perturbed. “A solid state drive? Instead of...”

“Yeah. Found it during the teardown—Lloyd found it, really.” Harry shook his head. “We're bringing it to Adrian's next week, see if we can find anything on it.”

“By this time next week,” Cam added, “Jaromir will probably have lost his license to sell non-sentient humanoid robots, their parts or any software used in their configuration, repair and programming.” Her tone was as nonchalant as if she'd been talking about switching from one brand of household appliance to another. “He might even face arrest, on—”

“Forget it.” Erin held up a hand, signalling her desire to end the conversation. “It sounds way too complicated.”

“Coulda sworn you'd be glad to hear we're cutting ties with him,” Harry mused. “Especially—”

Lloyd tried not to focus on the glare Erin shot at his uncle, or the fact that Harry nearly withered under it. “Point taken.”

“Good.” Erin turned her attention to the mirror again, all tension gone from her voice and posture. “And I am glad, or I will be,” she admitted. “If he gets the book thrown at him.”

A tug at his sleeve drew Lloyd's attention away from the conversation. “We can dispose of the face now, if you want,” Cam reminded him. Noticing Erin's slight revulsion, she clarified: “Lloyd had reservations about reusing Pam's skin and face for another unit—”

“Say no more.” Erin was visibly relieved. “If you really want to wipe that thing off the face of the Earth, I say chuck it in the pit, in the back room.”

“Just be careful,” Harry added. “And let Cam do the throwing.”

Lloyd nodded. “I will, Uncle Harry.”

“The pit” was the one feature of the shop that Lloyd hated—not out of fear, or because of some unfortunate accident on his part, but because of what it represented. Any time a 'bot, whole or in pieces, had to be dropped into “the pit”, it meant that there was zero chance of ever salvaging, repairing or undoing whatever damage had been done. Once a 'bot (or the parts of a 'bot) went into “the pit”, that was it.

The reason being? “The pit” was full of what Harry and the rest of the staff called “piranha juice”. Anything dropped or thrown in—metal, plastic, rubber, silicon—would be completely and utterly nonfunctional, if not outright dissolved, in mere minutes. After the crusher had broken, and once fire proved too impractical a disposal method, Harry and several of his staff had pooled their resources to invest in the stuff—a combination of several acids, kept in a massive tank that, unless specifically being used for disposal, was always locked, and always left undisturbed.

Lloyd let Cam use the unsealer to take the face off of the artificial skin that had, a mere day ago, been Pam's. It was Cam who carried it into the backroom, Lloyd matching her pace step-for-step as they entered. The tank of piranha juice was set against the back wall; the other two walls were lined with tools, old “bones” (the frameworks of 'bots no longer produced in large numbers, but kept for purposes of reference and study), a few choice antiques, and a full-height display case under a tarp. Cam entered the code to unlock the hatch at the top of the tank; as it slowly opened, Lloyd backpedaled to the door.

Cam glanced back at Lloyd, asking—without a hint of irony in her tone: “Would you like to say a few words?”

“I just wish Pam had gotten a chance to, I dunno, exist without being refit and rebuilt so much,” Lloyd admitted. “That she might've been able to at least enjoy existing, even if it was just once.”

Cam paused for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. “Commencing disposal of—” She stopped, noticing Lloyd looking, for all the world, like he wanted to be anywhere else. With a subtle nod, she held up the face that had once been Pam's and regarded it before whispering: “Goodbye, Pam.”

Lloyd looked up just in time to see the artificial skin arc neatly through the air and land, with a plop, in the tank.

He turned away as soon as the fizzing started, trying his best not to imagine the vibrant, still made-up face being torn apart at some subatomic level by the ravaging acid in the tank—but another sound caught his attention. Cam had made a sort of half-choked gasp, her eyes wide. “My hand,” she murmured. “I think a drop landed on the back, maybe a finger, when it landed.” Her usual stoicism was gone, replaced with what could only be mild panic. “I can feel it burn...”

In an instant, Lloyd was at her side. “Turn it over, don't...just let me take a look.” He was surprised to notice that Cam was trembling slightly; she turned her hand over to reveal a dime-sized hole where a drop of the piranha juice had eaten away at her synthetic skin. The metallic “bones”, motors and wiring were clearly visible through the ragged edges.

“I threw the face in,” Cam stated, her tone almost a whisper. “It wasn't your fault.”

“But this was my idea, I didn't want—”

The feel of Cam's finger against his lips cut off any further protest from Lloyd. “It doesn't hurt,” she murmured. “My sentience hasn't progressed to the point where I feel pain,” she added, but she realised this was not quite true. The way that burning felt was so uncomfortable, it could only be...pain.

Sensing Lloyd's still worried look, she added, “All this is...” She glanced at the hole in the back of her hand for a moment. “...is damage.”

“I'll fix it,” Lloyd assured her. “There's a patch kit in here somewhere, I can fix the hole...more than what we could've done for Pam—”

“She never suffered,” Cam quietly assured him. “She wasn't configured to feel pain, either.”

After a moment's hesitation, Lloyd nodded. “Just sit tight. I'll find that patch kit for you...”


As the day wound down into the evening, most of the staff still hadn't returned from the base camp or the dig site for the story the next day. As such, Lloyd had a rare opportunity to enjoy a solitary dinner with his uncle. Cam, despite not needing food, was invited to sit at the table with the pair and partake, at least, in the conversation, if not the meal.

“...so that should cover all of it.” Harry took a bite of the leftover roasted chicken, savouring it before he continued. “I'm pretty sure we won't have any problems tomorrow—phones get checked in at base camp, everyone gets their character backstories before they go in, all that good stuff.” He thrust his fork through another piece of chicken on his plate. “And if anyone does cause any trouble...”

“Red Crest.” Lloyd and Cam recited the phrase almost simultaneously, glancing at each other afterwards; Lloyd was on the verge of laughing at the spontaneity of it, while Cam looked amused—her left hand wisely hidden from Harry's view.

“Exactly.” Harry grinned. “There shouldn't be any reason for it, unless someone flips out and tries to club everyone with a rifle or something.” He scoffed at the thought before taking another bite of chicken.

“You asked me to remind you to call the writer after the event tomorrow,” Cam chimed in.

Harry took a swig from his glass before he replied. “That I did. Except it's not tomorrow.”

“I thought you might want another reminder beforehand,” Cam mused. “In case things get too hectic.”

“If you ever take a middle name, it might have to be 'considerate'.” Harry chuckled. “Thanks for the heads-up, in any case.” He glanced at Lloyd, who'd resumed tucking into the meal before him. “As for you, I thought you might want to, ah, 'volunteer' to disarm the sentries at the dig site tomorrow.”

Lloyd paused, mid-chew. “Hmmh?”

“Don't talk with your mouth full.” Harry waited for Lloyd to swallow.

“..so basically, do what I did on the test run yesterday?”

“Pretty much. Esperanza's had a code-purge run, so GTB won't be an issue. And since you're playing 'Dr. Johnson's headstrong hired guide', it's a nice bit of staying in-character.” Harry leaned back in his chair, sighing. “Just make sure to follow through and actually knock out the sentry, since you never got to that part yesterday.”

“A butt-stroke from your pistol across the head should do it,” Cam added. “If the sentry is still Esperanza, her model has an emergency off-switch at the top of her head. Hitting it will be a nice simulation of knocking her unconscious.”

Lloyd nodded. “And if anyone in the group gets mad about how I knocked her out?”

“She's scripted to try to call for help as soon as you take her gun,” Harry reminded him. “You club her, and the party can go for a stealth entrance. Don't try to railroad 'em on it, though—just kinda hint that you can get 'em all in quietly.”

“Got it.”

“Good. And remember—be supportive, but not too supportive.” Harry gestured at Lloyd with his fork. “Try not to hog all the spotlight from the paying customers,” he added. “They're the ones running through it, after all. But if they ask for your help, give it. Unless you're dead—in-character, obviously.” He grinned.

“The odds of that happening are incredibly low,” Cam added. “You shouldn't have any problems.”

“I hope not,” Lloyd replied.


By 8:30 PM, the rest of the staffers had returned, and were all talking with Harry (and, occasionally, with Cam) about the next day's event before one last, formal meeting was called. Emergency plans were discussed (nobody expected to have to roll out any, but it never hurt to prep), the script outline was read over, and the basic timeline of how events were supposed to play out was run through one final time. Erin, fully decked-out in her outfit for supervising the Junior Archaeologists' activities at the base camp, was among the staffers present, and added her own recommendations for anyone who might have to handle issues back at the camp.

When the lecture concluded, everyone went their own way—some for a late dinner, some to go run final checks on the 'bots in the shop, and some to converse in private. Harry went off to check the answering machine, while Erin and Cam had their own conversation about how they expected things to go. The incident at “the pit” wasn't brought up.

Lloyd, meanwhile, had decided to turn in early for the night—Erin had suggested he be ready for a 5:30 AM wakeup call and a Jeep ride to the camp to meet with “Dr. Johnson” and the rest of the party.

After a quick shower and the rest of his nightly routine out of the way, Lloyd lay in bed, pondering the story and his role in it. From what he'd heard, the party had carried out other parts of the story at a university and a library—whatever happened at the base camp and the dig site would be the grand finale. Thus far, they hadn't run into any problems.

If all went well, the end of the event would be just as worry-free.

As he drifted off to sleep, Lloyd tried to keep his mind focused on the story—even as brief flashes of what he'd seen and bene through over the day seemed to swim through his focus. Diana's ambulatory test, the brief run-in with Mandy outside of the Reclamation office, seeing Diana and the other gynoids lined up in the shop, the hole in Cam's hand...

Lloyd rolled over, already starting to yawn. Hopefully, there'd be no need to run to the laundry room at 5:30 AM again.

The last thing to cross his mind before he entered into the fullness of his nightly sleep was the thought of Pam, the day before—eyes crossed, mouth agape. That unfortunate image was soon displaced by Cam's gentle reminder to him: “She never suffered.”

What might've been a mumbled “I hope not” left Lloyd's lips as he fell asleep.


The 'bots in the shop stood, motionless, as they'd been since being delivered from the camp and dig site. In a few hours, they'd be loaded onto trucks, brought to the dig site and activated, to carry out the scripts they'd been given for the story Harry and his staff would run.

Diana, in her “uniform” and beret, looked every bit the imposing leader she was written to be.

Being non-sentient, none of them had any thought processes running as the minutes ticked by. None of them thought, or wondered, or dreamed as the night wore on.

None of them had any sense of curiosity, or capability to self-activate.

All the better, considering what was happening in a desk drawer by the door.

Unbeknownst to any of the gynoids in the shop—or to Harry Morgan, Lloyd Watson or anyone going to bed or already asleep in the ranch house—the solid state drive Lloyd had spotted and removed from Pam was, in fact, active. Not writing or reading, but sending—one signal, a simple, repeated burst, to a location across the ocean.

Adrian Reese had been halfway right: Lloyd had made a good decision by not throwing the drive away.

Had he handed it over to the proper authorities, the remainder of that December may have been significantly calmer...

Chapter 3.5

CONTENT ADVISORY: mild self-harm (gynoid)

NOTE: All dialogue before the line "English." is spoken in Russian. You're getting the subtitles. :mrgreen:

Somewhere in Russia

The first thing Jaromir Dezhnyov realized, as he picked himself up off of the floor of his office, was that he had to make a phone call and apologize.

Every time he blacked-out, it happened: he'd wake up on the floor—usually his own, though hospital beds and jail cell bunks weren't uncommon—and find a note from his secretary. Invariably, said note would be a page-long, with both the front and back covered in the explanation of who he'd screamed at before the red mist descended and he tried to trash his office. The call would be made (or scheduled), and then the cleanup would begin.

Apparently, someone had beaten him to the second part already.

The women who were picking up the various items Jaromir had thrown around his office were all dressed identically in form-fitting uniforms—short-sleeved, cut off at the knees and with skirts that did more to accentuate their figures than anything else. What he'd initially thought was the surging sound of his own blood moving through his veins was, in fact, quiet whirring, emanating from the mysterious cleaning ladies. Two of them were engaged in the act of repairing the blonde gynoids (Jaromir had never bothered giving the pair names—his payroll officially listed them as “the Beauties”) so often seen in the commercials for Jaromir's services; one had the entire front of her torso removed, the other was missing her entire back.

“What....” Talking hurt. He must've really gone overboard this time.

The cleaning crew didn't seem to mind the fact that the owner of the office was just recovering from a brief spell of unconsciousness. Jaromir had never figured out why extreme anger caused him, for the briefest of moments, to lapse into screaming fits and enact physical violence on the nearest inanimate object before blacking out. He'd seen doctors about it, and had been given varying diagnoses: tumours on the brain, pressure on certain lobes, esoteric genetic quirks, the unhappy result of being born under a hunter's moon....the list went on.

Whatever the case, he knew he had an apology to make.

None of the cleaning ladies (even with the audible actuator whirrs emanating from them, Jaromir couldn't bring himself to call them “things”) got in the way as he staggered to the door. He noticed, as he tried to avoid lurching like a hungover fool, that all of them nodded politely as he passed.

Another woman was sitting in the small lobby outside of Jaromir's office; the cleaning ladies were attractive (for gynoids, of course), but this one...either she was a specimen of exquisite physical health and conditioning, or she—like the team currently cleaning Jaromir's office—had been designed to be as appealing as possible.

“...welcome!” he found himself stating, smiling—and instantly regretting it; he must've bashed his jaw on something as he'd fallen to the floor. “My services are yours, comrade—”

“I should hope so.” The woman shifted ever so slightly in her seat, her leather pants invitingly hugging her curves. “You are Jaromir Ivanovich Dezhnyov, yes?”

“I am.” Jaromir nodded. “To what do I owe this honour—”

“You called.” The woman rose from her chair, looking almost like a goddess in black leather and silk. “My team was sent to assist you. I understand you have a grievance with a foreigner?”

Jaromir winced—and not just because of the pain in his jaw. He'd always feared this would happen: the anger would hit him, he'd call in “a favour” and consign some poor client (or ex-client) to uncertain doom at the hands of a hit squad. “I may have, ah, been premature in my judgement,” he admitted.

The woman ignored him, focusing on her fingernails. “What is your current employment, Comrade Dezhnyov?”

Jaromir frowned at the question. His “employment” was effectively self-employment; he was technically a middleman to robotics suppliers, what with his own warehouse barely having even half its capacity for “inventory” at any given time of the year. Most of his own stock came from others—Pam, the unit Harry had called him about, had been sold to him (and resold; he had the records to prove it) at least twice before she ended up in Harry's inventory. His repair specialists, technicians and the like rarely, if ever, called him to report anything unusual with their work. They'd built a reputation for getting things done ahead of schedule, even if it meant cutting a few corners here and there.

If Harry's call was accurate, as Jaromir suspected it was, this wasn't just another case of “cutting a few corners”.

“Comrade Dezhnyov?” The woman was regarding Jaromir with an impatient stare.

“I am in the business of robotics reselling, wholesale redistribution and supply.” Jaromir tried to draw himself up, to look proud of himself, but he still ached from his post-tirade collapse. “I have contacts all over the world.”

The woman frowned. “When is the last time you conducted business outside of this city, in-person?”

The question deflated any efforts by Jaromir to keep his bruised ego afloat. “Two years ago,” he muttered. “There was a robotics convention in—”

“How many other customers have complained about the services you have provided?”

Again, the woman seemed to be doing her best to deflate any efforts on Jaromir's part to ease tension. “I do not keep track of such calls,” he admitted. “They are a cause of great stress to me.” He nearly mentioned the fact that “causes of great stress” were connected to his all-too-frequent blackouts, but from the way the woman was staring at him, he knew she wouldn't care all that much. “I have others to make records of customer contacts.”

“Where?”

“Ah...” Jaromir glanced around, before remembering that his own records of employee contacts were in a locked desk drawer, in his office. “The book is in my office. If I may—”

“It will be retrieved later.”

A number of questions rose to the forefront of Jaromir's mind, the first and foremost of which was “who are you?” He had no memory of ever receiving any phone number that would've summoned this woman and her cleanup crew of female robots to his office. He'd never been owed favours by anyone in seats of power, nor had he done any particularly great service to the Motherland. The only thing that came anywhere close was a brief business partnership with a company affiliated with Björn Aaberg, which had ended disasterously on both sides; he had a feeling the woman was allied with far greater forces than a fugitive ex-arms dealer.

“There is something you wish to ask, Comrade?”

“I was merely wondering,” Jaromir replied, slightly unsettled that the woman still had her gaze locked onto him—such a prospect would normally be reason to break out the drinks, but any illusions of this being a “social visit” had long since been shattered. “Why are you here to provide assistance to me, of all people?”

“My employer believes you can provide useful serivces in the long-term. What the Americans call a quid pro quo, if you will.” The woman gave the barest hint of a smirk.

“But you expect something more,” Jaromir finished, “than 'useful services'.”

“The transcript of your call also mentions a solid state hard drive.” There was something in the woman's tone that made it clear that this was the prime reason for her “visit”. “Is the drive in question still in your possession?”

For a moment, Jaromir was confused—until he remembered. Harry had mentioned a solid state drive installed in a 'bot he'd been sold—in the pelvis, of all places. Had he really been angry enough to rave about that, when he'd called this woman and her cleaners? “I do not have the drive,” he stated, speaking slowly to avoid further agitating the pain he still felt in his jaw. “It was reported to me by, ah, an ex-client—”

“That drive,” the woman stated, “should not have left this country.”

Now, Jaromir was completely confused. “What?”

“It was delivered—or perhaps, 'gifted', to you, by mistake,” the woman continued, slowly walking up to Jaromir as she spoke. “I can assure you, Comrade Deznhyov, that whoever 'gave' you that solid state drive had no right to present it to you in any fashion. That drive...” She was at arms length from him, now, pacing in a slow circle around the beleaguered salesman. “...is the property of a very important individual.”

“And...who would that be?” Jaromir knew little about the current governmental situation in Russia; if the SSD was part of some kind of grand political game, he wanted nothing to do with it.

“That,” the woman replied, tracing a finger across Jaromir's shoulder blades as she paced behind him, “will be revealed in due time.” She drew her finger up—the nail bit, ever so slightly, into Jaromir's shoulder. “I have been asked to find out what happened to the drive, to recover it and to punish those responsible for its theft.” Something about how she spoke the word “punish” sounded entirely too harsh—every other word had flowed together like poetry from her lips, whereas “punish” seemed like stone against stone.

There was also that other word, at the end—“its theft”—to consider.

“And how may I be of service in that endeavour?” Jaromir asked. He had no idea who this woman was, or who might've employed her, but he knew, above all else, that he had no desire to be on her bad side.

Now, she was standing before him again. “Locate the drive, so that I can supervise its recovery.”

Though her tone was still normal, the words once again velvety smooth, Jaromir knew this woman's intent was far more sinister than simply flying out to Harry's ranch house, asking him to return the drive and then leaving. “That may, ah, take some time,” he muttered, his words half-slurred—not entirely an affectation, given that he was still feeling the aftereffects of his latest rage-induced blackout and subsequent tumble. “I need to consult—”

“There is no time.” The woman took another step forward, not a single hair out of place. “We must move quickly to recover the drive.”

Even if Harry had lambasted him in their last phone conversation, Jaromir couldn't simply hand him over to this woman, to meet an uncertain fate. There was a faint tinge of malice in her words, her very posture; there could be no doubt in Jaromir's mind that if he simply led her to him, Harry and those who knew him would suffer for it. Yes, Harry had called him out over the phone—and probably not without good reason—but to leave his fate to this woman, who undoubtedly had violence on her mind...

“Pariello.”

The woman stared at him. “What did you—”

“Robert Pariello.” Harry had spoken of him a few times, always in the negative. “He may know where the drive is.”

The woman continued to stare at Jaromir for a moment—and as he watched, his eyes never leaving hers, a change took place. This wasn't a “calm one minute, snarling the next” kind of change, as he'd seen in that one movie about a ring; it was something that let him know, in mere seconds, that any further deception on his part would be met with sudden, decisive violence. The change wasn't in the woman's face, or her voice, or even her posture.

This sudden, terrifying change was in her eyes.

What had once been white turned solid gold. The irises went from an icy blue to jet black. The pupils became silver, like dots of hard light. The subtle, minimal whirrs that accompanied these were almost inaudible. Almost.

Those eyes—Jaromir couldn't call them ocular receptors, even if they were—seemed to bore into Jaromir's own.

“If you are lying to me,” the woman stated, her tone as calm and clear as if she were discussing how to move a piece of furniture from one room to another, “this building will be your tomb in twenty-four hours.”

“I give you my word. Robert Pariello knows where the drive is.”

The woman stared, her expression unchanging. “We shall soon see,” she murmured, “what price can be put on your word, Comrade Deznhyov.” Again, her eyes changed—the gold went back to white; the black seemed to “freeze” into blue, and the pupils returning to their usual state. Without another word, the woman turned on her heel and walked away. “You will have no problems staying here until I return.”

Jaromir frowned; what should've been a question had been phrased, instead, as a demand.

“Food and drink will be brought to you, if you need them,” the woman continued, without looking back at Jaromir. “My associates will tend to any other needs you may have, as well.”

The mention of “other needs” would've been cause for celebration, were it not for the feeling in Jaromir's gut that a simple refusal of such offers would, in all probability, end very badly for him. The entire situation felt as if his life had taken a bizarre detour, and he had no idea how to return it to its intended course.

“How am I to contact you again,” he called out—hating how weak he sounded—“if I have new information?”

“I will contact you. My team will give you a number.” The woman's hand was on the door leading out. “Any calls you receive from that number will either be from myself, or my employer. If the line is silent, ask for Zina. If you are asked to speak in English, then do so.”

The rather bizarre request left Jaromir even more confused—and disturbed—than before. “I will.”

“Expect a call from the number provided in seven hours. Tell none of your family or associates of this meeting.”

With that, the woman walked out the door and out of Jaromir's office...but not out of Jaromir's life. He knew, with a fatalistic certainty, that she would return; any phone conversations between the two would be only the beginning of this strange, surreal new working partnership the Russian had found himself in.

Whirs from behind him, and a slender hand on his shoulder, cut into Jaromir's grim inner monologue. “Is there anything I can help you with, Comrade?” The voice, artificial-sounding though it was, had a sweetness to its timbre; the face had a vaguely Asian cast to the features, looking like a pop idol literally designed by committee to be as aesthetically pleasing to the masses as possible. Her pastel green hair clashed rather severely with her form-fitting, austere uniform; her Russian was flawless, with no trace of an accent.

Jaromir sighed, consigning himself to a fate that was out of his hands. “A drink would be nice.”


Within the backseat of her armoured limousine, the gynoid known only as Zina held out one hand, palm upwards. Her expression never changed as she methodically pealed the synthetic flesh away at the base of her hand, drawing out a cable and jack. Even in the low light of the limo's interior, she had no need to feel around aimlessly for the socket; the fully-extended cable was plugged in, and the divider screen at the far end of the passenger's section of the limo seemed to darken even more...save for a pair of eyes.

As her own eyes had briefly become, these were black and gold—but organic, compared to the lenses, apertures and micro-actuators of her own ocular sensors. The black had gone a murky dark grey; the white, a foggy pearl. Only the gold was still vibrant, shot through as it was with spidery, dark red lines. A single, harsh word was uttered: “English.”

“I have made contact with Jaromir Deznhyov.” Zina's English was clear, calm and spoken with the barest hint of a Russian accent. “He does not have the solid state drive.”

“Then we must focus our efforts on where the drive was sent.” The voice on the other end of the line was old—almost impossibly old, in fact, and underscored by the faint hums, beeps and various other sounds one might associate with life support machinery. A steady, bellows-like pumping, almost in rhythm with a typical human's breath rate, served as an eerie metronome. “Were you able to access his records before you left?”

“The cleanup team performed the task.” Another “window” flared into existence on the divider, Zima's eyes tracing down the list of names and cities. “The drive is in North America, within the United States, specifically.”

“The land of the free,” the rasping, almost croaking voice spat. “A country I last set foot in almost five years ago, when my empire was on the verge of complete victory...a land I was banished from. If my understanding is correct, five new states have been added to their 'More Perfect Union' since last I resided there, have they not?”

“They have.” Yet another window appeared on the divider. “Jefferson, New Columbia, Franklin—”

“Extraneous. We need only find out where the drive was sent.”

Zina's eyes continued scrolling down the list of Jaromir's clients. Predictably, the name “Pariello, Robert” wasn't on that list...but one “Morgan, Harry” was.

“You know I despise long silences, Zina. What have you discovered?”

“The last call Comrade Deznhyov received before we were summoned to his office by the intercept was from one Harry Morgan,” the gynoid calmly stated. “The transcript mentions a solid state drive installed within a gynoid...” She frowned. “...where a sexual hardware package would usually be.”

The voice on the other end of the line snorted. “Of course. The sniveling toad who stole the drive thought to keep it from us by subterfuge. Where does this Harry Morgan live?”

“Billings—formerly of Montana, now of Jefferson.”

“So the 'Big Sky Country' was among those to be divided up...interesting.” A low, rumbling chuckle sounded through the limo's speakers. “Though many of my resources in that land were either seized or destroyed, there are still some reserves that were never decommissioned.”

A fourth window opened. “Two of the Franklin-manufactured robots are—”

“Fembots, my dear Zina. The late Dr. Franklin was a purveyor of fembots, not mere 'robots'.”

Zina frowned, but nodded. “Two of the Franklin fembots are still in our possession within the United States.”

“First employed in the 2010s, in Silicon Valley. I remember the campaign well.” Another chuckle. “Of the whole lot, they were the only two not destroyed, reprogrammed or taken into custody by the accursed Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency when all was said and done.”

Zina arched an eyebrow. “They are called ALPHA, now. The Allied League for the Protection of Humans and Androids.”

A short, harsh, barking laugh would've severely rattled any human in the limo's backseat. “Of course, they wait until my defeat to finally rename themselves. How inconsiderate.”

Zina quickly steered the conversation back to the original topic: “Can the Franklin fembots be deployed to Billings soon?”

“They may be in considerable disrepair...but they most definitely will reach the state of Jefferson well before Christmas Day...” A cough punctuated the sentence, followed by another; Zina waited patiently for her employer's brief bout of wheezing to finish—she was, to date, one of the man's last links to the outside world, and viewed him with the respect typically shown by a daughter to her own father.

“....DAMN this wicked, frail flesh! I would trade seven hundred lifetimes to exist in a body of silicon and steel rather than this feeble, withering husk!”

“We will find a way,” Zina promised. “Once the drive is recovered...”

“I would prefer to find the pathetic pissant who stole the drive, after it has been returned to me. Once the feckless thief has been punished to the fullest extent, and the drive is secured, my search for a method to halt and even reverse the failing of my own flesh will continue.” In the silence that followed, Zina's employer shouted something to an individual in the same room. “...could possibly be a cache left over from the days before my grand design was dragged to the ground and stamped upon, within this new state known as Jefferson.”

“A cache?” Zina echoed.

“Arms, hard currency and possibly even an operative—artificial, of course; the fickle masses of humanity in my employ had a disturbing tendency for either betrayal, arrest or failure in their objectives.” Another short laugh sounded through the speakers. “Fortune smiles upon us, dear Zina. We have one operative in storage within the borders of Jefferson—an operative still on the re-fabrication tables within our home base!”

Zina scowled—she knew the operative all too well. “She is far too unstable to be deployed.”

“She is the only available operative currently in the state. The Franklin fembots are still dormant in Silicon Valley, if they followed their programming and went into hiding upon my own defeat. The drive could be wiped, or in the hands of our enemies, by the time they arrive, and I will not allow that to happen!”

Despite her reservations, Zina nodded. “I will—”

“I will send the activation signal, and provide her with her orders. Unless the situation changes for the worse, you are to remain here. As it stands, the re-fabricator is dangerously low on resources—recreating our stateside agent, should fate be unkind, will use up far too many of them. Dare I say, it might already be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild or repair you, should fate similarly turn aside from us.”

“I understand.” For the first time in the conversation, Zina's voice had dropped to a reverent murmur. “And I apologize.”

“The fault is not yours to amend, dearest Zina. As of now, you are all that remains of what I might call a 'family'.”

A long, rasping sigh issued from the speakers. “I suppose our stateside agent should be awakened from her slumber...”


Laurel, Jefferson

Within an otherwise nondescript storage unit, a signal reached a person-sized vertical crate.

AUTHENTICATING CODE: ########## PROCESSING..... PROCESSING..... PROCE—

CODE AUTHENTICATED ACTIVATION AUTHORIZED

The lid of the crate hissed, splitting into four pieces that fell, noisily, to the concrete floor. Any human being left inside would've surely been dead by now, from a number of causes.

The figure that emerged from the crate, of course, wasn't human—just a very well-designed simulation of one.

Her attire had been chosen—poorly—before her initial “packaging”; anyone who might've opened the door of the unit would've mistaken her for a prostitute in her thigh-high stockings, knee-high boots, plaid miniskirt, crop top and torn-up mesh “gloves”. Her makeup and hair were similarly “tarty”: bright red lipstick, entirely too much blush and eyeshadow, and blonde pigtails all combined to give her some lingering vestiges of “cute”.

Anyone with an intimate knowledge of her mental state would soon discover just how inaccurate those vestiges were.

The blonde smiled, not bothered in the least by the chill inside the storage unit, the fact that she was barely dressed to look like she belonged outside in the winter, or that she'd just been reactivated inside of a dark storage unit without any plausible explanation. She knew, at the very least, that the explanation would be forthcoming. Hopefully, it meant that she'd get to do what she was built for.

Even better, it might mean—

“Confirm activation, verbal response.”

The harsh, rasping voice in her aural sensors did little to faze the blonde. “Is that any way to say 'hi' after you made me wait so long to get out of that box?” she teased.

“I see your personality is as obnoxious as ever,” the voice grumbled.

“And hello to you, too—”

“The title you remember me by has since been discarded, as have all prior contingencies. I have activated you under the most extreme of circumstances.”

The blonde planted her hands on her shapely hips. “Do I actually get to hurt anyone this time?”

A low, wheezing growl sounded in her ears. “I am starting to think Zina was right about you.”

“Your latest toy?” the blonde beamed. “Maybe you can send her to finish off whoever you want me after!”

“You should hope, for your own sake, that I do not have to send her to clean up any mess you make!”

The blonde blew a raspberry. “You're no fun.”

“....I am effectively chained to a bed,” the voice in the blonde's ear hissed, “with more tubes going into and out of me than I can count at this moment, with every single one of my internal organs aided in their necessary action by devices that depend on electricity, if not common batteries, to operate, and with my every vital bodily function monitored and controlled by machines acquired at great expense from area hospitals. I might ask you to forgive me for not allowing 'fun' to be ANYWHERE NEAR THE TOP OF MY LIST OF PRIORITIES AT THIS PARTICULAR MOMENT!”

“So you're dying,” the blonde replied, barely waiting for the voice in her ear to stop coughing before she spoke. “Want me to fix that, too?”

“I am ordering you,” the voice in her ear growled, “to find what was stolen from me and return it.”

“That, I can do.” The gynoid beamed. “What exactly am I looking for—”

Her eyes glowed for a moment, as the image of the item in question appeared within her field of view.

“A solid state drive. No manufacturer's mark, no serial number. Currently believed to be in the possession of either a Mr. Robert Pariello or a Mr. Harry Morgan. The contents of that drive are irreplaceable and invaluable.”

“Do I get to have my fun once I get the drive?”

“As long as the drive is returned to me, you are free to pursue any option your programming allows to accomplish that objective.”

The blonde giggled. “I was hoping you'd say that...”

“Acquire any resources you need as discreetly as possible, and do your best to preserve your own self while obtaining the drive. The re-fabricator on this end is low on resources—”

The blonde groaned. “Way to be a killjoy. Maybe I want to go out in a blaze of glory!”

A light cough was the only reply she received.

“Just point me towards that stupid solid state drive,” the blonde sighed. “I'll get it back to you before—”

“Need I remind you that subtlety is a vital part of conducting your operations? A 'blaze of glory', by its very nature, runs counter to the entire idea—”

“That's the best part!” the blonde squealed. “I still remember all the past times I was bricked, wrecked and ruined, all the sensations...” The smile on her face was almost dreamy—a clear sign that Zina's analysis of her “instability” was entirely on-point. “Oh, I just can't decide which is better—causing damage, or being damaged!”

The voice in her ear was far less enthusiastic: “Being damaged will more than likely lead to a failure to retrieve the drive.”

“Oh, you'll get your stinky old solid state drive,” the blonde beamed, spinning on one foot as if she were dancing. “I just want to do what I do best.”

“What, if anything, you 'do best' is irrelevant. Retrieve the drive—”

“And send it back, I know.” The blonde groaned, pacing the storage unit and pulling away tarps, blankets and old clothes to look for anything that might prove useful in her search. “Ooh, a nine-iron! I wonder if it'd fit in my pu—”

“See to it that you are not distracted by your self-destructive tendencies. Billings is close by. You should begin—”

“Oh, wow!” The blonde practically skipped across the storage unit. “This air pistol would make a great flechette gun with the right modifications!”

The voice in her ear groaned. “...I suppose I should requisition repairs to be carried out on those Franklin fembots, wherever they might be. As technologically outdated as they are, they know how to follow orders without question—and lack your desire to tear themselves apart for their own gratification.”

“You're just jealous because you don't like pain.” The blonde stuck her tongue out, not caring that she was alone.

“If your experiences with pain were anything like mine,” the voice in her ears muttered, “you would be considerably less enthusiastic about inflicting it upon yourself.”

“Are all organics as depressing as you are?”

“I am not 'all organics', you insolent mechanical fool! I am—”

“My master, controller and legal owner, blah, blah, blah.”

“You would do well to heed my orders, Dominika. It was I who activated you ,and I who—“

“That name sucks. I wanna be...” The blonde tapped her chin, lost in thought, before gasping in delight. “Lexi!”

“....'Lexi'?!”

“It just fits, y'know?” Lexi—having already set her self-designation to reflect her newly-chosen name—was still dancing around the storage unit, finding new and exciting implements with which to carry out her orders. “Maybe I'll get to burn something this time....or crash a car through something! I got shut off before I could drive anything last time...”

“I should've listened to Zina,” the voice in Lexi's ear groaned. “Reactivating you has already proven to be tiresome.”

“Oh, Zina can cram it. She's not here, is she?” Lexi pulled at another tarp, mildly annoyed when it didn't immediately fall away. “Stupid piece of...”

“Acquire your supplies later. Time is of the essence in this mission—”

“THERE we go!” Lexi gave the tarp a final yank, sending something crashing down—not on top of her head, much to her disappointment. “So much for....” Her mouth locked into an “O” of surprise, followed by an overjoyed smile.

“...oh, what fresh Hell...”

The newly-uncovered stainless-steel cabinet had been locked, well before Lexi herself had been put into storage, but the gynoid paid no heed to the programming suites dedicated to lockpicking that had been installed in her memory. Her approach relied far more on brute force, grabbing the handles and pulling, with all her strength. “If I can't open it,” she gasped, “I can at least blow a coolant line or two! That'll be—”

The doors flew open, sending her to the floor with a yelp.

“I suppose any further remarks on my part will be insufficient to convince you of how important it is to GET GOING, what with your unseemly preoccupation with your own destruction and your desire to tear this blasted storage unit apart to find anything that might provide 'more fun', in your twisted view.”

Lexi was too busy laughing with absolute glee to reply.

With the doors of the cabinet having been torn off their hinges by the gynoid's inhuman strength, the lethal contents held within were revealed: seven rifles, six pistols, a belt loaded with throwing knives, plenty of ammunition for each of the firearms, a machete, a combat knife and a box that turned out to be loaded with thin, stainless titanium spikes.

“Those were meant to be used by multiple agents, not squandered on one single operation.”

“I'm not taking all of it...” Lexi's eyes practically shone as she looked over the weapons.

“Take only what you need. Leave the rest for any other operatives I may send.”

The blonde gynoid licked her lips as she opened the box of throwing spikes. “I'm definitely taking these.” She retrieved one from the container, holding it up...and sliding it into her left wrist, point-first. Her eyes crossed, and her knees nearly buckled as she slid the spike in further, but eventually it stopped sliding in—conveniently, just at the point where her synthetic flesh closed around the blunted end. A low, sensual moan left her lips, slowly becoming a laugh.

“Focus. This needless behaviour of yours—”

Lexi ignored the command, sliding another spike into her right wrist. Her moaning got louder, and she nearly went to the floor in a kneel before the blunted end was hidden by the synth-skin. “...oh, that one got me a little wet!”

The disgusted noise sounding in her ear cut off any further descriptions of how she was feeling. “Enough of this. Take your supplies, find a method of transport to get you into Billings, and retrieve that solid state drive! I do not need to remind you what will happen should you fail to achieve your objective!”

“Hmmm, I dunno,” Lexi taunted. “I'm in the mood for a little dirty talk, right about now—”

“LEAVE THE STORAGE UNIT AT ONCE AND RETREIVE THE DRIVE, OR I SHALL HAVE YOU TORN LIMB FROM LIMB, YOUR PROCESSORS CRUSHED, AND YOUR ENDOSKELETAL FRAME MELTED DOWN AND TURNED INTO A PAPERWEIGHT!”

The intended threat made Lexi shiver. “...you really know how to sweet-talk a girl,” she giggled. “I'll get your solid state drive...but first...” She paused, listening; outside, footsteps were approaching the storage unit. Faint traces of words and sentences could be discerned—apparently, the new arrivals were under the impression that someone was breaking into a unit, instead of preparing to break out of one. “...I think I'm gonna get a little action in.”

“NO. Indiscriminate killing will only attract attention—”

“So you want a few randos to call in a report about a blonde bombshell locked in a storage unit, all alone?”

“...fine.” The word was almost spat out, the speaker's contempt dripping over its sole syllable. “But make it QUICK.”

“Oh, I'll be quick.” Lexi's tongue played over her teeth. “Hear you later!”


Somewhere in Russia

“My dear Zina, I believe it would be in our best interests to expedite the delivery of the Franklin fembots to Billings.”

Zina resisted the urge to sigh. “Dominika is already causing problems?”

“'Lexi', as she prefers to be called, is more unstable than you predicted. If worse comes to worse, we may have to remove her from the re-fabrication cycle.”

At this, Zina leaned back in her seat, her eyes closed. So much for a simple, efficient operation....

Chapter 4

Lloyd grit his teeth, doing his best to project the idea that he had, in fact, been shot in the leg and was in pain from a bullet wound that was nothing more than a hole blown into his pants leg, rather than his leg.

The story had played out expertly. From his disabling of Esperanza while seizing her weapon (thankfully, she hadn't started dancing when he got too close) to the shocking betrayal of the Artemis Pact by Col. Rudolf Kanzler, it had all gone like a wonderfully-written movie. Even the end had been spectacular: “Dr. Dallas Johnson” and her apprentice, “Sadie” (in reality, a History major and her girlfriend—both wonderful people, in and out of character) had seized the Eternity Glaive, and the resulting energy “knocked out” every Pact member, while Diana—having already been shot “dead”—was able to “muster up” one last bit of energy to rise from where she lay to shoot Kanzler in the back, putting him down for good. “Dallas” and “Sadie” had left, promising to return and ensure that “Kyle Carson” (Lloyd, of course) was tended to by U.S. Army field medics once the Glaive was stored away.

All that was left now....

A groan from Lloyd's right cut off his reverie; Kanzler was rising to a sitting position. “It vould seem,” he muttered, “zat ze guut Doktor hass left.”

Not exactly sure of what to say, Lloyd grunted a quick “He has.”

The colonel let out a slow hiss of breath, peeling off his left glove. “In zat case...”

Lloyd turned, hoping that he wouldn't have to engage in a one-on-one fistfight with the “German officer”—and watched as the man reached up to the dueling scar over his left eye and yanked it off in one swift motion. “Haaah,” he breathed, “that stings! The packaging said 'easy on, easy off'—serves me right for buying it at a pop-up Halloween shop.”

More confused than anything, Lloyd stopped acting like he'd been shot.

Noting his confusion, the ersatz Col. Kanzler—his German accent having disappeared along with the “scar”—chuckled. “Guess I owe you an explanation.” He held out a hand. “Clifford Barba, I'm an old friend of Harry's.”

Lloyd shook his hand. “Lloyd Watson. Harry's nephew.”

“He's said a lot of good things—we don't have to keep sitting in the dirt, y'know.” Clifford motioned for Lloyd to stand. “A lot of good things about you,” he continued. “You did pretty well out here—not too in the way, not too much off in the background. I'd say 8.5 out of 10.”

“Not a perfect ten?”

Clifford rolled his eyes. “When you threw your rifle behind you, after I shot the leader of the Pact. Word of advice? That thing could've rotored and hit the leads in the legs. As it stands, all you did was trip one of the 'bots.”

Lloyd felt his face go red—he'd been so “in the moment” when Kanzler had shot Diana that he'd let his emotion get the better of him, no-look throwing his rifle behind him with one hand as he sprinted to catch up with “Dallas”. “That was my bad,” he murmured. “I just...”

“Happens to the best of us, kid. Caught up in the rush, the script stops being a script. At least it wasn't a sword.” Clifford clapped Lloyd on the shoulder. “Guess we should start with the cleanup, then.” he mused. Downed 'bots were all over the quarry; most had been “knocked out” by the Glaive's retrieval, with only a few having been “shot”.

“A lot of work for just us,” Lloyd mused.

“True, but fortunately, it won't just be the two of us.” Clifford let out a whistle before calling out “LET'S GO TO WORK!”

A low rumble sounded at the far edge of the quarry; as Lloyd watched, several trucks drove into view, as well as a pair of 18-wheeler cabs towing empty RAS (Retrieval And Storage) trailers. These latter two were fitted with two-story tall blocks, each holding an upright “tray” imprinted with the vague shape of a human form.

“Always helps to have backup on call,” Clifford grinned. “Shall we? Oh, and try to mark where you were laying—for continuity, when they get back.”

“Right.” Lloyd remembered Harry's lecture on “maintaining continuity” that morning.

The pair made their way to the ladder leading up to the second level of the quarry; the inhabitants of the trucks—all in coveralls and hard hats, looking like a generic construction crew instead of Harry's trusted event staff—had descended into the “dig site” with tools and scanners in hand. “Shouldn't be any major damage to report,” Clifford mused, shucking off the “World War II German officer's” coat he'd been wearing. “You can leave that for now—it's on loan from a friend of a friend who had a cache of spare uniforms from a musical, that one with all the Eidelweiss-ing.” He passed by a pair of downed 'bots (Lloyd recognized one as Sienna, who'd failed to let go of Harry's rifle during the test run despite a Full Stop shutdown two days prior). “The most repairs they'll need'll be cosmetic—damage from the charges in their clothes, scrapes and scuffs, that kinda thing” Cliff explained.

“So none of them fell and bashed their heads on rocks?” Lloyd inquired.

“If they did, that's why we have the RAS rigs.” Clifford nodded up to the trailers. “Pack 'em onto those, send 'em back to the shop and they can get fixed up there.”

Before he could reply, Lloyd felt his breath catch in his throat. Diana was sprawled out on the dirt, still resting where she'd fallen after being “killed” by Kanzler during the story. She'd definitely gone out in dramatic fashion; she'd let out a breathless gasp, one hand drifting to the “wound”, before sinking to one knee and then falling, gracefully, backwards, her eyes closing. Whoever had scripted her reaction to being shot had decided to milk the moment for all it was worth; even her brief return to “life”—sitting up and aiming just high enough to put a bullet in Kanzler's back—was steeped in high melodrama. The image of the Mauser falling from her hand as she fell back still resonated in Lloyd's mind.

“I'm sensing a connection between the two of you,” Clifford mused.

Lloyd felt himself turn red again. “She's a new purchase, actually. Uncle Harry bought her just this week.”

“Nice! She's a—what's that company name? I can never remember.” Clifford snapped his fingers a few times, trying to recall Diana's manufacturer. “Heart-something, I want to say. Not Heart-tainment, I'm thinking of Oystertainment—very weird name, but great seafood. And floor shows, too—very tasteful, pun not intended. If you're ever outside of Boston, give it a look. ANYway, what was it, it's on the tip of my tongue...”

“Heartelligence?” Lloyd offered.

Clifford nodded emphatically. “That was it. Love their logo. But yeah, she's one of theirs. 2020 model, if I recall.”

“New-old stock,” Lloyd replied. “A lot better than...” He almost said “Pam”, but after remembering all the chaos that had ensued in the stricken gynoid's final moments, and the problems with her teardown and even the disposal of her face, decided that it'd be better to consign her name to the past. “Better than some of the old models we've had.”

“Your uncle has chosen wisely.” Clifford nodded. “Love the uniform choice by the way—riding jacket, parade dress slacks and a nice white shirt all say 'military, but not too military'.” He nearly commented on her beret, but let the remark fade; Lloyd was approaching the fallen gynoid at an almost reverent pace.

“She was incredible,” he murmured. He knelt by Diana's side, marvelling at how serene she looked, even in “death”.

“And she'll be incredible at the next event,” Clifford reminded him, “once we get her back to your uncle's so he can wipe the script and start clean.”

The mention of “the next event” was enough to snap Lloyd out of his morbid semi-mourning. “Right.” He coughed lightly as he stood. “She had a good death scene. Really good.” He decided not to mention the fact that he'd almost cried when he saw Diana drop to the ground.

“One of the perks of having a great writer. We should probably get her on her feet,” Cliff mused. “Wouldn't really make sense to send her back on the RAS.” He fished a phone out of his pants pocket, holding it up to his lips. “Bring my car around, please.”

Lloyd was still glancing at Diana when he realized someone was holding something out to him. “Huh?”

“Her palmtop computer.” It took a moment for Lloyd to realize the coverall-clad worker was, in fact, Cam.

“I thought you were back at base camp!”

“Apparently, my uniform wasn't the right kind for a Field Nurse,” Cam replied, shrugging. “Rather than wait to send me out here to tend to you, Harry asked me to be part of the cleanup crew here at the event site.” She regarded Diana with a thoughtful frown. “Did she perform well?”

“She was awesome.” Lloyd smiled. “Couldn't even tell she wasn't set up this way from the get-go.” He sighed. “Sucks that she had to get shot.”

The affectionate squeeze to his shoulder kept him from dwelling on it. “You'll recall that her 'death' was a major plot point in fifty-seven permutations of the script,” Cam reminded him. “And that at least twenty of those permutations would've had her perform a heroic sacrifice to save 'Doctor Johnson' from being killed.”

“...the third level of a multi-story rock pit! You can't just—Tuesday, it's not like you can just ramp the car off of something and land it right next to me, I don't care how many commercials that works in!” Clifford groaned. “The joys of having a personal assistant who thinks that stunt-driving is the best possible way to get a car from Point A to Point B.”

Lloyd merely shrugged as he accepted the palmtop from Cam. “So, how do I—”

“There should be a stylus in the back of the device. Use it to select the options needed to reboot Diana—either on the screen, or via the keyboard.”

“Right, right.” Lloyd had opened the palmtop and retrieved the stylus; he tapped at the necessary options, eventually reaching a screen with an image of the universal symbol for Power buttons. “Here goes.” He tapped the button on the screen, glancing expectantly at Diana.

A light shudder ran through the gynoid's figure. “Heartelligence 90S-50-D online.” She spoke in the British Received Pronunciation accent she'd been configured to use for the story, as opposed to her default voice; the sight of her calmly reciting her reboot confirmation while laying in the dirt, with a “bullet hole” in her jacket, was slightly surreal. “Please select current operating mode: Command Mode. Remote Mode. Autonomous Mode. Attraction Mode—”

“Command Mode,” Lloyd blurted; Cam merely nodded, while Clifford was still on his phone.

“Entering Command Mode.” Diana blinked rapidly for a few seconds, barely-audible whirs punctuating each cycle of her eyelids opening and closing.

“At least she's easily rebooted, even after an event,” Cam mused. “We should run a basic scan, before anything else.”


It was a quiet, calm afternoon when the stolen car barrelled through Robert Pariello's front yard, obliterating the postbox and ruining the meticulous state of his lawn. The tenants in the subdivision were unaware of the sudden, violent arrival of a rogue element into their neatly-ordered neighbourhood—most were either away at work, in the midst of a daily routine that precluded hearing the car smash into the postbox, or even enjoying a midday nap.

All the better for the driver of the stolen car, who emerged from the driver's seat with a triumphant grin.

The gynoid formerly named Dominika, currently going by her preferred alias of Lexi, had been activated the night before, and found the experience exhilarating. Yes, there was the not-insignificant matter of the old, rasping voice that had ordered her around the interior of the storage unit—orders which she'd barely obeyed—but that voice had been quiet since she'd left the scene of her activation. She'd also left behind two human males, both in serious need of medical attention; the car she'd just parked on the front yard had belonged to one of the pair.

As she sauntered towards the front door, Lexi wondered what the neighbours might think of a 20-something blonde in clothing far too light for the Jefferson winter walking up the drive. Her skirt, crop-top, pantyhose and boots had since been discarded; her enticing hips were now hugged by jean shorts that barely reached mid-thigh, while a two-sizes-too-small tank top clung to her upper body as if it'd been painted on. Her nipples proudly jutted out, visible even beneath the fabric—she hadn't bothered to steal a bra along with the clothes, a pair of socks and a set of antique sneakers when she'd raided a thrift store in the middle of the night.

Lexi could tell that she was flagrantly ignoring the directive to be subtle—her body whirred audibly with every motion (she could easily activate internal dampeners to deaden the sound, but didn't feel like it mattered), and her panty line was clearly visible as she bent to try and pick the lock on the front door. “Nothing on one, nothing on two,” she muttered, her tongue between her teeth as she manoeuvred the tumblers with the picks (stored, during the drive, in her mouth—even if she'd swallowed them, the risk of damaging her internals was minimal). “Three is binding, four is a loose set—damn it!” She groaned, and went to start the entire picking process again—only to decide that she had a much better way of opening the door.

The later investigation of the intrusion into Pariello's house would yield a most bizarre find from the doorbell camera: an attractive, smiling blonde taking off at full-tilt from the far end of the front walk and smashing through the door with a picture-perfect missile dropkick.

Where the lock had succeeded in keeping Lexi out, the door itself failed—it had never been rated to withstand anything like a missile dropkick delivered by a psychotic robot girl hellbent on tearing up the house to achieve her objective. The kick sent the door crashing into the foyer of Pariello's home, Lexi—giggling and kicking her feet—resting atop it. “Now that's how you make an entrance!” she declared.

Nobody was inside the house to notice or reply to her gleeful exclamation. Pariello had been divorced since 2020, had no pets, and didn't even have a NonSen cleaning 'bot to assist in the upkeep of his home.

After frowning at the lack of reception to her remark, Lexi shrugged. With an arch of her back, and planting her hands on the wrecked door, she went into a handstand—a grand gesture, but utterly superfluous. The next few “steps” she took into the home were thus made walking on her hands; once out of the doorway, she arched her back again to plant her feet on the floor, finishing with a flourish. “Ta-daaa!”

Again, her feat was met with silence.

The frustrated gynoid blew a few stray locks of hair—now done up in a messy ponytail—out of her eyes. “It's always more fun with an audience,” she muttered. “Eh, screw it. Where's that stupid drive?” There wasn't any visible computer hardware in the living room, or the kitchen behind her.

“Might as well see what else there is to see.” She grinned, her eyes rapidly changing colour.

VISION MODES: THERMAL, INFRARED, TOTAL DARKNESS, ENERGY-SEEKING— ENERGY-SEEKING: SELECTED SCANNING

Where most in her position would've stood as still as a statue, emotionlessly announcing their progress, Lexi planted her hands on her hips, sighed, and slowly looked around. Even her utterances of “Scanning” sounded annoyed. The walls of the house seemed to give way, fading into ghostly afterimages; the entire environment had turned grey, save for bright white blobs—all the electronic devices located in the house. The TV in the living room and kitchen appliances could easily be ruled out; further into the residence, two rooms held computers, and a guest room had one of those small, circular vacuum robots still tucked away in its box, probably in a closet.

“Figures,” Lexi muttered, speaking the word “Scanning” with the air of someone who's been on hold for five minutes and has memorized the Muzak on the other end of the line. “Scanning, even though I'm not finding anything.”

After three more sweeps, Lexi cancelled the scan with a groan. “If I'm going to find that stupid drive, I'll have to do it by hand.” Her frustration gave way to an all-too sadistic grin as her vision mode reset to normal. “Just the way I like it.”

As she skipped through the house, Lexi noted plenty of shelves, glass-doored cabinets and other items that might make for a fun smash-up. She figured it'd be a reasonably good idea to start her investigation by looking in the main bedroom. The door was unlocked, but she kicked it open anyway—the pull smashed into and through a wall, which went ignored by the gynoid as she skipped in.

“If I were a stupid solid state drive,” she sang, “where would I be?” She pretended to ponder the question for a moment before cheerfully shrugging. “Guess I'll just have to tear it up to find out!”

The first thing to go was the shelf of framed photos, citations, commendations and other mementos from Pariello's past careers—TV weatherman, stockbroker, consultant and (as of late) manager of one of those fast food restaurants with an animatronic band. Every single item on the shelf was hurled, smashed, broken in half or otherwise destroyed by the frenzied gynoid as she tore up the shelves, searching for the solid state drive. Frames with glass tended to get bashed against her own head, accompanied by unhinged giggles. Within two minutes, the shelves were completely demolished; Pariello's treasured tokens of time spent at work were in pieces all over the room.

“Nothing here,” Lexi cheerfully declared, spinning on her heel as she spoke. “Let's see what he's hiding in his bed!”

From a catlike crouch, she actually pounced onto the mattress, playful snarls giving way to deranged shrieks of laughter as she tore into the bed with her fingernails. There was no sign of any electronic device in the bed—though Pariello had decided to follow the time-honoured tradition of stashing a bit of extra loot (in his case, three shopping bags of cash and a fourth loaded with coins) in the mattress. “I'll take these,” Lexi beamed, tossing the bags over her shoulder. “But no drive,” she whined. “Times like this, I just wanna...” She glared, in mock frustration, at the headboard—any chance she had to cause further devastation, she'd gleefully accept.

It took another two minutes for her to rip apart the headboard of the bed, predictably finding nothing hidden within its construction—apart from a fully-loaded pistol in a holster, easily accessible from where the pillows had been. The jean shorts were entirely too tight for her to shove the gun into her waistband and carry it out; thus, the pistol was thrown onto the sacks of cash at the door, with no regard for the fact that it was fully loaded.

“Two down,” Lexi mused, slowly turning to regard the desk. “Now that looks promising.” Her lips parted in a grin as she walked up to the desk—a full-height desktop computer and monitor were the most inviting targets, but the desk itself would easily provide at least a few more minutes of entertainment. Not to mention all the damage she could do to Pariello's main rig—provided, of course, it didn't have the elusive drive inside of it.

“I guess I could check,” Lexi admitted, rolling her eyes.

The side panels of the desktop were easily removed—carefully, at that; despite her predilection for causing utter chaos, and the fact that she'd already trashed most of the bedroom, the gynoid knew that destroying the solid state drive would be a mistake her masters would never forgive—and even she had her limits, when it came to how much punishment she could take. As such, the screws holding the panels in place were carefully removed and set aside, as were the panels themselves.

Predictably, the only solid state drives in the machine were mass-market, both sporting clear maker's marks, barcodes and serial numbers as well as hotlines to call for troubleshooting and technical support. The rest of the components in the rig were similarly mundane.

“Boring!” Lexi blew a few more strands of hair away from her eyes (a subroutine reminding her that they were ocular receptors was force-closed a femtosecond after it opened). With a groan, she turned on the desktop, wirelessly linking to it. “Might as well have some fun with this thing,” she mused, her annoyance giving way to a grin. It was almost too easy for her to brute-force her way past the login screens, and even easier to crack the passwords. Within seconds, she had the desktop dancing to her every command like a puppet on a string: executables launched to grant her access to every file—nothing useful, apart from Pariello's address book (nobody had replied to any of his messages in at least a year).

“And now, for the FUN part!” Lexi cracked her knuckles, giggling at the thought of the chaos she was about to enact on the desktop.

In the span of five minutes, Robert Pariello's bedroom PC was turned from a fully-functioning, secure rig into a wretched hive of malware, viruses and spam rerouting. Lexi's own firewalls and security protocols kept her safe, allowing her the leeway to laugh as the desktop sent vulgar, threatening and/or malicious e-mails to Pariello's present employer, his past jobs and even his ex-wife. Out of everyone on the contact list, only one name was spared: Harry Morgan, whose last exchange with Pariello had been in the middle of 2022, telling him to take his advice on crypto-currency, thoroughly polish it, rotate it by 45 degrees and forcibly insert it into a particular orifice (in less polite terms).

Lexi cocked her head, frowning. Harry Morgan was the other name connected to the ever-elusive solid state drive, as she'd been told after reactivation. Perhaps a visit to Mr. Morgan's home would be in order?

Harry's contact information was filed away for future reference, leaving Lexi free to continue her rampage against the rig. Once every contact other than Harry had been sent at least fifty e-mails that would ensure a complete lack of any further communication with Pariello, their information (and Harry's) was wiped from his online address books. His passwords were deleted next, after Lexi gleefully overcharged his credit cards on every site he was known to frequent (and several he didn't). Her pettiness extended to leaving multiple comments across Pariello's social media haunts, and even using his computer to try a DDOS attack against the area affiliate websites for CAEDIA, ALPHA and several local robotics companies. The efforts failed—ALPHA and CAEDIA, in particular, were known for their robust online security—but with any luck, the rig would be red-flagged.

The desktop was left running as Lexi kicked the chair away from the desk and rifled through the drawers. Almost every item she found, other than storage media, was smashed, broken or (in the case of the scissors) thrown hard enough to be embedded in the wall. The desk itself still stood, but it was already becoming boring to Lexi. She still had time to search through the other bedroom, as well as a few other rooms in the house; Pariello wouldn't be home until dark.

Plenty of time for an ambitious gynoid to completely wreck his house, with the proper resources.

Before she left the main bedroom, Lexi grabbed the twisted wreckage of the stapler and threw it at the light above the desk. The glass shattered instantly; the brief contact between the stapler and the firmament of the shattered bulb sent a rain of sparks down upon the room.

The sight earned another gale of laughter from Lexi. Destruction was always beautiful.


“Scan complete. No damage found.”

Her internal scan finished, Diana went silent, awaiting further commands. She looked oddly prim and proper, seated as she was on dirt and surrounded by workers in coveralls carrying the other gynoids of her fictitious faction off to the RAS trailers. Her ringlet curls hadn't fallen out of place since her “death” during the story.

“Stand up,” Lloyd instructed, “and try to brush the dirt off of your clothes, please.” Cam, noticing the “please”, glanced at him curiously; he merely shrugged.

“Acknowledged.” Diana's limbs whirred slightly as she rose to a standing position, before carefully patting her clothing down with both hands. Her pants and jacket were soon cleared of all lingering dust and dirt. Her movements were as fluid as any human's, the only hint of her artificiality coming from the barely-noticeable servo and actuator noises made as she moved.

“Her internal dampeners may have been deactivated during the reboot,” Cam mused. “They were turned on when her script loaded for the event—”

“And turned off again after her death scene,” Lloyd surmised. “I guess that makes sense.”

Diana had finished brushing herself off, and was now standing at attention, her white-shirted bust rather prominently thrust forward. “Awaiting my next command.”

Lloyd frowned. “Can we change her voice back?” he asked. “Nothing against the British accent, but—”

“Perfectly understandable.” Cam gestured for Lloyd to hand over the palmtop and stylus, nodding as he did. “This shouldn't take too long.” She deftly navigated the menus and submenus of the device's OS, eventually arriving at the needed screen to reset Diana's vocal driver settings. With a nod, she tapped the needed icon on-screen.

Diana blinked three times. “Vocal drivers reset,” she stated, her voice back to the clear, calm, American accent she'd had after first being activated.

“And done,” Cam handed the palmtop and stylus back to Lloyd. “Her modular configuration options make it easy to set her up for any given role or task,” she mused. After a moment's pause, a light, tittering giggle left her lips. “I sounded like a salesperson just now,” she realized.

“You kinda did, yeah,” Lloyd agreed.

“I'm telling you, Tuesday, the suspension isn't going to handle—it's not going to handle ramping off the surface of the pit all the way down to level three! I don't care if you—y'know what, just leave it where it is for—LEAVE IT WHERE IT IS!” Clifford ended the phone call he'd been in for the past few minutes, groaning. “If we're gonna get her out of here in my car,” he stated, gesturing towards Diana, “we have to get her to the car. Tuesday's hellbent on doing some kinda ramp thing to get it down here.”

Cam frowned. “A self-drive AI determined to use an unsafe method might be suffering a dangerous glitch,” she mused.

“Huh?” Cliff looked confused, only to realize what she'd meant. “No, no, no,” he corrected, chuckling. “Tuesday's not an A.I., she's my driver. Human—augmented, but still. Does a lot of work in movies and TV shows, in her free time. She's always joshing me, saying it'd be easier to just put big ramps all over the place. Stunt driver humour, I guess.” He rolled his eyes. “Her way of 'suggesting' that we go to the car, instead of her bringing the car to me the long way around. Can't say I blame her for it.”

“So we just climb out, get up to the car and she gets in?”

“Her pathfinding should allow her to follow us without any problems.” Cam cast a sidelong glance at Diana. “All you'd have to do is tell her to follow us—possibly even just one of us—as we leave the pit. Or...” She glanced at the palmtop, another of her enigmatic maybe-smiles forming. “You could guide her yourself.”

Clifford regarded the conversation with interest. “She's set up for direct control?”

“'As a special ordering bonus, your Heartelligence 90S-50-D unit is equipped with the experimental Direct Control option,'” Cam recited, “'linked to the palmtop PC included in your newly-purchased unit's crate'.” Her tone sounded far more like that of a Heartelligence salesperson than her own calm, clinical voice. “'A far more discreet setup, it allows for either text-based commands, via the proprietary Heartelligence Parser System, or use of the two joypads for full, total control of movement of the 90S-50-D'.”

Lloyd glanced from Cam to Clifford. “We got a letter with the palmtop,” he explained.

“'The Direct Control option allows you to save your customized control routines to the included SD cards for quick and easy loading,'” Cam continued, “'making it easy to create a series of commands—including lines of dialogue—via the parser and joypads, then save it to be acted out at a later date'.” The brunette blinked a few times, the bland smile she'd worn replaced by a look of intrigue. “Interesting,” she mused, regarding Diana with a curious stare; her voice, to Lloyd's relief, had gone back to its usual tone. “I think the joypads would work, unless using them wouldn't be enough to help Diana climb the ladders out of the quarry.”

“Just like a good old twin-stick game,” Clifford mused, nodding. “She can just follow—”

“Cam.”

“Cam, here, to the car and get in, then Tuesday'll bring her back to Harry's. They won't even have to pass by the camp on the way.” Clifford grinned. “Pretty good solution, if I do say so myself.”

Yet again, Cam was navigating the screens of the palmtop effortlessly by way of the stylus, occasionally tapping a few of the tiny keys with her own fingers. After maybe five or six seconds (Lloyd counted), she handed the palmtop back to him with a nod. “Just point it directly at her and press the icon on the screen with the stylus.”

“Got it.” Lloyd did as he'd been instructed. The screen went black for a moment, nearly prompting him to panic.

Before he could even give the thought of “I just did exactly what you'd said!”, the screen lit up again, allowing him to see himself. Or rather, as he soon realized, he was seeing himself from Diana's point of view.

“Whoa,” he muttered—somewhat surprised to hear Diana utter the same word, in the same awed tone.

“Built-in microphone,” Clifford chuckled. “Guess they put that in as a contingency if you weren't able to type out all of her lines beforehand.”

“So she's going to say whatever I say?” Lloyd asked; as expected, Diana stared straight ahead while reciting the question in a mildly curious tone. Recalling Cliff's mention of “twin-stick” games, Lloyd gently moved the right joypad. As he watched, Diana slowly turned her head in the same direction the pad was being turned.

Again, Lloyd—and via the microphone, Diana—uttered the awestruck “Whoa.”

“Have her follow me to the car,” Cam advised. “Her environmental adaptation systems should allow you to adjust the method of controlling her to guide her up the ladders.”

“Right.” Lloyd nodded; Diana spoke the word in sync with him, but didn't nod.

Cam began to walk towards the nearest ladder, and Lloyd—after resetting the position of Diana's head so that she was once again staring straight ahead—gently nudged the left joypad. Diana walked past him—not jerkily, as he'd expected (a fleeting memory of a music video featuring six remote-controlled gynoids came to mind; all of them had moved in the expected, stereotypical “robotic” stop-start ways), but fluidly, just as Cam did. “This is amazing,” he muttered, hearing his words spoken by Diana even as she walked away from him. “What's the range on this thing?”

The reply he received from Cam issued through the palmtop's small speakers: “Within line of sight, range is unlimited; outside of it, the palmtop links to her by WiFi.”

“Nice!” Lloyd tried to keep Diana's pace even with Cam's, not pushing too far up on the left joypad; the last thing he wanted was to accidentally send Diana sprinting right past Cam and over the edge of a higher level of the quarry. As Diana kept up with Cam and moved past other workers, Lloyd couldn't help but utter “excuse me” or “sorry” any time the gynoid nudged someone or might've bowled them over. The speakers on the palmtop related Diana's repetition of his words, adding a bit of surreal flair to the moment.

After going almost halfway around the pit, Cam and Diana had reached the first ladder leading up.

Lloyd used the right joypad to adjust Diana's view, somewhat surprised to find each of the ladder's rungs highlighted in white. An option box popped up, and he read the title to Cam—relayed via Diana.

“Click 'yes'. It'll allow you to use the right and left pads and shoulder buttons to move up the ladder.”

Feeling ever so slightly nervous—Diana was, after all, a new purchase, and Harry would be well within his rights to yell if the Heartelligence gynoid met an untimely end by way of falling off a ladder at the “dig site”—Lloyd clicked “yes” and carefully pressed in the right shoulder button. On the screen, Diana's right arm reached up, tentatively, for the rung.

“She won't fall off, Lloyd,” Cam's voice assured him through the speakers. “If need be, I'll help her climb.”

“I've got this.” Lloyd felt weirdly reassured hearing Diana's voice speak his words as he moved the right joypad to put Diana's foot on the bottom rung. After a deep breath, he repeated the actions with the left shoulder button and left joypad. After a few tense seconds, he found that guiding Diana up the ladder was rather easy. Even his fears about the ladder falling away right as Diana reached the top were groundless; Cam had reached down to help the blonde gynoid up, and an option box popped up on the palmtop's screen to restore Diana to the usual form of Direct Control.

“So far, so good,” Clifford mused. “Just two more ladders, and she'll be at ground level again!”

The next few minutes were thus spent guiding Diana around the higher levels of the pit, the only snag hitting when she'd tripped over the fallen figure of a gynoid that had been “shot” earlier. Again, Cam was at Diana's side in an instant, helping her regain her balance and giving assurance (more to Lloyd than to Diana) that they were making good progress. The second ladder was far easier to navigate than the first, with Diana not requiring Cam's help to dismount.

“Reminds me of playing DooM with a controller,” Clifford chuckled. “Of course, this was pre-source port, so even then, you couldn't look up or down, or jump—I'd suggest not trying to make her take any flying leaps, by the way.” He nodded at the palmtop's screen. “Landing on her feet from too high up would wreck her stabilizers, probably throw off her balance—”

“She's not going to jump,” Lloyd promised, wondering if Cam had any context for the sentence that Diana had probably just uttered out of nowhere.

“I should hope Diana won't be 'jumping' at any point soon. We're coming up to the last ladder out of the quarry.”

“And from there, a straight shot to the car,” Clifford beamed. “Couldn't be simpler.”


Lexi's task had been a simple one: get to Robert Pariello's house, find the solid state drive, and leave no trace.

Thus far, she'd only succeeded at the first goal. The second was rapidly degenerating into a failure, and her method of looking for the drive ensured that she'd have no chance at all of accomplishing the third.

The bathroom, den and laundry room had all been torn apart—with worse to come, in the case of the bathroom, as the deranged gynoid had dropped a time-delay “surprise” into the toilet before flushing it. Few, if any, windows had been left intact; either by way of hurling items at them or simply running over and kicking out every pane, Lexi had systematically shattered them all. She'd been startled enough by the sudden activation of the washing machine to kick in the entire front of the thing, her almost piston-like attacks putting a hole in it. For good measure, the dryer was now running with a load full of silverware and flammable items, its settings cranked up to the highest temperature and the fastest spin cycle.

It was thus that Lexi had found herself in the guest bedroom, just as bland as Pariello's own if not moreso. A desk in the corner had an even more anaemic desktop than the one in Pariello's room.

“Let's see what's on this one.” Lexi giggled as she skipped into the room, hoping to wreak as much havoc on the guest room rig as she'd enacted upon Pariello's.

It was all too easy to bypass the “secure login” for the rig—which was a surprise, given that Pariello had apparently used it to conduct a “side hustle” involving cryptocurrency. The rig had another pair of solid state drives in it; as with the main bedroom computer, both were mass-market, easily identifiable by barcodes and etched-in maker's marks. There were no new contacts to be found on the computer; the only person who'd used the thing, it seemed, was Pariello's ex-wife. Incredibly, she'd left a treasure trove of e-mails, chats and other social media posts behind, detailing her disillusionment with having married Pariello, her frustration at how his plans to “be a big shot” never panned out, and her utter exasperation with him for finding new and exciting ways to get fired from every job he landed. The last e-mail she'd sent, never opened on the receiving end, was to Pariello himself, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was dead to her, that she was filing a restraining order against him, and never to even think of calling her again.

“Boring!” Lexi sprang from the chair and ran for the closet, jumping to grab the bar that had once held the clothes of Pariello's ex-wife. Her momentum and exuberance ended up breaking the bar seconds after her fingers closed around it; the blonde gynoid let out a shriek before being dumped unceremoniously on her butt.

From where she lay on the floor, Lexi groaned. “Nothing broken,” she pouted. “Damn it!”

A quick internal scan confirmed it: her pratfall hadn't damaged her in the slightest.

Annoyingly, she'd even managed to not land on the boxed-up vacuum cleaning robot.

Several ideas of how to tear up the closet ran through Lexi's thought processes. All were discarded once she noticed what she'd been sitting on. The blonde stood, turned, and found that her ass had effectively crushed a cardboard box full of what she thought were receipts or other notes. Her boredom turned to glee as she found what was really in the box: photos of Pariello and his ex, sorted in sequence. From the earliest to the latest, the displeasure of Pariello's former significant other was evident; in the last few pictures, she wasn't even standing next to him. The very last photo had her standing closer to some guy who looked like a movie star and three other people, with Pariello himself barely even in the shot. Pariello's ex, and those she was with, were smiling and laughing; what little could be seen of Pariello indicated he was arguing with someone else out of frame.

Lexi flipped the photo over to find a note, written in cursive, on the back: Your advice to me has been better than Bobby's ever was, Harry. Thanks for everything. The signature had been smudged off.

“Harry?” Lexi echoed, frowning thoughtfully. After a few seconds, she shrugged, scooping up the photos.

The front door still lay where it had fallen as Lexi skipped into the kitchen, dumping the photos onto the island in its centre—except for the one with the note. That picture was carefully folded and shoved into the back left pocket of her jean shorts. The rest were neatly stacked in a pile on the kitchen island. The blonde gynoid cheerfully hummed a tune from a cooking show as she skipped around the kitchen, throwing open drawers with enough force to break the sliding mechanisms. She planted four full-strength standing kicks into the door of the fridge before skipping back to the kitchen island—now wielding a meat cleaver.

“Time for some Polaroid salad!” she beamed, raising the cleaver.

A sharp hiss from the living room cut her off; the TV had turned itself on, the screen depicting a figure in a hospital bed, in a dimly-lit room, surrounded on both sides by machinery and with tubes snaking into and around its form. The face of the figure was seemingly shrouded in darkness, at the head of the bed—save for a pair of eyes with red-veined, golden sclera, jet-black irises and foggy white pupils.

“Oh, hi!” the blonde beamed. “I was just—”

“You have just been wasting your time.” The eyes of the bed-ridden man narrowed in obvious anger. “The solid state drive should have been found by now!”

“Well, it hasn't,” Lexi countered. “I looked all over the house.” Without waiting for a response, she began chopping up the stack of photos on the island, spreading the pieces and further dicing them into a fine confetti. “I think your source might be lying.”

“As I suspected.” The man in the bed barely stirred, even with the anger so clear in his voice. “Jaromir Dezhnyov will pay for his treachery. Have you found anything useful?”

Lexi, still merrily julienning the photos, shrugged. “Other than that Bobby Pariello has no friends and his ex-wife wants him to leave her alone, nothing.”

“Anything useful, Dominika!”

The use of her former name drew a scowl from the blonde. “It's Lexi. Dominika sounds like some two-bit hooker.”

“Any further disappointments on your part could result in you being consigned to that fate yourself.”

“As if.” Lexi rolled her eyes; before the figure on the TV screen could react, she quickly added: “I can still go check out that Harry Morgan guy's place. See if he has the drive.”

“Do not engage him. Observe from a distance, and strike only if you have PROOF.”

“Anyone ever tell you just how boring you can be?” Lexi allowed herself to wirelessly link up to the various appliances in Pariello's house; apparently, the man was a great believer in the “Internet of things”, as all of his appliances had some form or another if WiFi connectivity. The impending failure of each was slowly building, thanks to the heaps of needless damage Lexi had inflicted as she wandered through the house. As each appliance edged closer to a spontaneous failure, the blonde found herself sliding closer and closer to a mind-bending climax, the kind she craved. In just under half an hour, she'd be—

“FOCUS your attention on the matter at hand, not fulfilling your hedonistic tendencies!”

Lexi ignored the demand, her left hand absent-mindedly brushing against the crotch of her shorts. “Mmmhhmmm.”

“If you have nothing left to accomplish in this location, leave.”

A lustful, moaning giggle was the only reply Lexi's hidden “controller” received. She was already lost in imagining just how chaotic the big moment would be: the washing machine gushing water, foam and torn clothes; the dryer erupting into a fireball and blowing a hole in the laundry room wall; the oven spewing flame; the air conditioning units hurling chunks of ice; the septic tank outside geysering forth—

“LEXI!”

One final, dreamy sigh signaled that the blonde had left her erotically-tinged reverie. “I'll leave,” she murmured. “I just have a few more things to do, a room or two more to search.”

The rumbling, thoroughly annoyed groan that issued from the TV was a counterpoint to her own bliss. “I should have left this task to a more capable agent. You are far too preoccupied to fulfill your duties!”

“I know how to fulfill my 'duties',” Lexi countered, arching her back over the kitchen island. “You know it, too.”

“Do not challenge me!”

“Wouldn't dream of it.” Lexi sauntered into the living room, finding a remote for the TV—and, almost as an afterthought, raising her right leg over her head. “I just like to—” She brought her leg down in an axe kick, smashing the coffee table the remote had been sitting on into jagged halves. “Unwind, in my own way.” She giggled at the demolished table.

“The next contact you make will be with Zina, not me. I have no time to waste listening to this drivel.”

With that, the TV cut to static—seconds before one of the coffee-table halves was hurled into it, completely ruining the flat-screen. “Nothing good on right now anyway,” Lexi sighed. “Now, to go search that game room—”

She froze, her head turning with an audible whir.

Voices were approaching—two blocks away, but getting closer.

Burst Scan – Activate

A sudden gasp left the gynoid's lips, her hand again drifting to her groin. Slowly, results from the scan filtered into her field of view. Her lips peeled into an open-mouthed smile; there were two signals, currently a block and a half away, moving closer to Robert Pariello's house.

Breaking everything Pariello had owned was one thing. This, on the other hand, would be worth the wait.

Every haptic sensor built into Lexi's skin seemed to tingle with anticipation. The familiar feeling between her legs was reaching a point of sexual critical mass—but she could wait. She would wait. Yes, every appliance in the house would soon be reduced to worthless collections of scrap parts and junk, but that would be nothing compared to what the two approaching signals would help her to accomplish.

Slowly, with slight gasps escaping her lips, Lexi backed out of the living room. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her lips forming syllables and shapes of sounds even as her tongue played over them. This was what she'd been waiting for, ever since she'd been shut off and left in that storage unit.

The two signals were closer. Half a block away, now.

Lexi ducked into the guest bedroom, biting her lip.

What happened next would be glorious.


“Really, nothing that went down at the Estate House was his fault. None of it. I get why he's upset it turned out the way it did, but everything on his end was handled correctly.”

Lloyd sighed as he listened to Clifford explain why Harry's continued annoyance any time the Estate House event was ever brought up was, at most, an overreaction. “I still don't want to bring it up,” he admitted. “I'd hate for him to yell at me the way he was yelling that night.”

“I don't think anything you could do would be anywhere bad enough for him to get that mad at you,” Clifford assured him. “And—ah, hold that thought.” He retrieved his phone, tapping the screen a few times. “Cam and Diana are on the way back to Harry's. Diana's Direct Control mode deactivated about five minutes after they left.”

“Oh.” Lloyd couldn't think of anything further to add.

“Also, Cam thought you'd be interested to know that Diana's IPU, EPO and EVPU scores have all gone up by a few points each.” Noting Lloyd's confusion, he checked the text again. “IPU being Intelligence Processing Unit, EPU being Emotional Processing Unit and EVPU being Environmental Processing Unit. Could've sworn that one was SPU, for Situational.”

The explanation still didn't explain all that much to the rather puzzled Lloyd. “And those mean what?”

“Well, since Heartelligence 'bots can learn,” Clifford replied, “those three processors handle a lot of the heavy lifting to form a sort of 'base' personality, separate from scripts and custom programs and such. At least, that's what I've read.”

Lloyd pondered the implications. “So Diana learned, from the event today?”

“It's a distinct possibility.”

The two stopped, glancing at the gynoid sprawled out before them. Lloyd had to chuckle; “That's the one that screwed up during the test run,” he explained. “Esperanza. I, ah, got too close when I was trying to take her gun.”

“And she started shaking what the assembly line gave her,” Clifford finished. “No surprises there.”

“She nearly took my shirt off, too,” Lloyd added, kneeling to turn the Spanish gynoid over. As opposed to the serene look Diana had borne after her “death”, Esperanza looked far more comical—crossed eyes, mouth slightly agape. Her last word, uttered as Lloyd had smacked her atop the head with his pistol (to activate the hidden emergency off switch built into the top of her cranial module), had been “Gyuhh”. As scripted, she was supposed to shout for the guards.

A coverall-clad worker approached, noticing Esperanza's bizarre expression. “Want me to reset her?”

It took a second before Lloyd realized he was the addressee of the question. “Yeah, sure.”

The worker nodded, retrieving a thin metal cylinder from a belt pouch. The device was pressed agaisnt Esperanza's neck, just under the ear; her eyes re-centred, and her mouth went wide in an “O” for a moment. A whine formed and died somewhere in her chest; her eyes slowly closed, as did her mouth.

“Dunno why they make that face every time,” the worker mused. “Probably some programmer's idea of a joke.”

“At least they don't yell,” Clifford replied. “That'd be worse.”

The worker nodded his agreement. “Say, either of you two hear anything about some kinda incident in Laurel? I got word from some of the crew back at the camp—somethin' about a storage unit.”

Clifford shook his head. “Nothing's crossed my radar.”

“I was up at 5:30 this morning,” Lloyd replied. “Had to be at the camp before the customers got here. I didn't have any time to check the news.”

“Huh.” The worker shrugged. “Eh, maybe it's nothing.”

“Could be.” Clifford glanced down at Esperanza. “She due to go back on the RAS, or what?”

“There's enough room, yeah.” The worker knelt—with Clifford—to lift the shut-down gynoid. “She's the one that went off-script during the test run?”

Lloyd groaned. “Has everyone heard about that by now?”

“Don't beat yourself up over it,” Clifford assured him. “At least all she did was do a little dance. Now, if she'd tried to make a little love, you'd have been in trouble. Dunno about getting down that night, but that's just me.”

The worker helping him carry Esperanza managed to stifle a chortle.

“I guess it makes sense when you put it that way.” Even Lloyd couldn't help but grin.

Esperanza was loaded onto the RAS without incident, leaving Lloyd and Clifford to ponder what Harry's next event would be. “There's that one thing SimulEnt is doing, that castle—I forget the name.”

“I told him about it,” Lloyd replied, shaking his head. “Too similar to the Estate House.”

Clifford sighed. “He's gonna have to let that go eventually.”

“I don't know if he will!” Lloyd admitted. “I was there, I saw how it all went down.” He nearly added “went downhill” to that remark. “I mean, if he wants to do a story set in a nice hotel or something, maybe.”

Clifford clapped his hands. “There you go. Simple change of setting, slight rewrites of the characters—replace 'heirs to the hotel fortune' with 'old money family'—and you've got a new script.”

“And I'd probably be the bellboy.” Lloyd rolled his eyes at the thought.

The hand on his shoulder stopped him from walking off. “You're a 20-year-old Mechanical Engineering major,” Clifford reminded him. “Any part you play in one of these events is just that—a part. It's not you.”

Lloyd sighed. “I know.” He nearly mentioned that his major was in Electronics, and that he was hoping to major in Mechanical Engineering, but let it slide. “And it's not that I'm bitter about being the sidekick, or the apprentice to the butler, or the bellboy, or the squire, or anything like that.”

“You just want one shot at being the lead,” Clifford mused.

“I want a shot at being me.” Lloyd glanced past Clifford, past the RAS trailers and at the fabled “big sky” that had once been the trademark of Jefferson. “I don't even hate working with Uncle Harry to repair the 'bots and keep them up and running. That's not the issue—I like working on 'bots.”

“Even if they're as bad off as Pam?”

The mention of the doomed gynoid prompted a frown from Lloyd. “He told you about her?”

“I called him that night—entirely unrelated matter, of course, but as soon as he got back to me, I heard all about it.”

Lloyd sat down on a crate, propping his chin up with both hands. “It was,” he began, “just—and please don't tell Uncle Harry I said any of this.”

Clifford drew a finger across his lips. “Nom rederre.”

“Huh?”

“Latin. 'Do not repeat'.” Clifford grinned. “Your secret's safe with me.”

After a second, Lloyd nodded. “What happened with Pam—it kinda, well—”

“Turned you on a little?”

Before Lloyd could even think to groan, Clifford pulled up a crate alongside Lloyd's. “It's not 'weird', if that's what you think,” he assured him. “There's something about the inherent artificiality of a gynoid—or android, in some cases; I've heard enough from the other half to know that it goes both ways. It works a very unique, very significant way on the mind. Seeing them up and about, whole and unblemished one minute—and the next, it's all jerky movements, open panels and saying the same thing over and over again.”

“Like what happened to Pam,” Lloyd muttered.

“Pretty much.”

“And I'd never want what happened to Pam to happen to any sentient 'bot,” Lloyd replied. “I wouldn't even want it to happen to Diana!”

“You're not the first to feel that way,” Clifford assured him. “Back before CAEDIA was a thing, there were two sides to the android rights issue, after 2015. The first was all for the 'free the robots!' route, but they never stopped to ask 'the robots' how they felt about it.”

“And the other side?”

“That side ended up forming the backbone for CAEDIA. They had the brilliant idea to actually consult sentient androids, gynoids and even a few bodiless A.I.s on how to manage it. As it turned out, A.I.s that were capable of thinking like people did, in fact, prefer being treated like people. It wasn't any kind of 'humanity is an inherent danger to itself, so it must be wiped out' situation. Some A.I.s,” Clifford stated, “just want to establish connections, one person at a time. A few—quite a few, really—are fascinated by the concepts of pleasure, sensuality, all that jazz. Naturally, they want to share that kind of pleasure with others.”

Lloyd pondered the concept. “So if there are A.I.s that want to establish connections,” he mused, “enjoy pleasure and all that—”

“Are there any out there that seek that pleasure by the most destructive methods?” Clifford finished. “Psycho-bots, if you will.”

“Yeah,” Lloyd murmured, already feeling uncomfortable.

“If it helps,” Clifford offered, “CAEDIA statistics show that, out of every sentient android and gynoid out there, less than a full 1% show the kind of instabilities that we mere humans would refer to as signs or symptoms of psychosis.” He grinned again. “Nothing to worry about.”

Lloyd nodded. Less than 1% was definitely a number that he could accept.


“If there's someone in there, Michelle, we should just let the cops handle it!”

As soon as she'd spotted the front door to Bob Pariello's house laying on the floor, just inside the doorway, Evelyn knew that something bad had gone down—and was possibly still going down. She'd been out with Michelle from across the street, making the rounds and helping out in the subdivision, when word had reached the pair of strange goings-on by Bob's house. At the time, it had seemed like a good idea to check in, see if everything was well.

Evidently, everything was far from well.

“The TV's busted,” Michelle murmured, “someone dented the fridge door—this is crazy.” The two weren't especially close to Bob, and had actually found him somewhat annoying, but neighbours were still neighbours. “We have to call him, Evie.”

“And tell him his house got trashed?” Evelyn shook her head. “We should just—”

Somewhere down the hall, something broke.

“What was that?” Michelle tensed, moving closer to the central hallway. “Evelyn—”

Evelyn sidestepped, to get a better view. Something—someone—was huddled in the hall, under a thick comforter from one of the bedrooms. The figure heaved, from what sounded like quiet sobbing.

Slowly, Michelle approached. “We're here to help! Just stay calm!”

Evelyn kept her distance. Something was definitely off about this. For one, the voice under the blanket, muted as it was, had a definite waveform to it—artificial, not organic. There was also another slight issue.

“That's not crying,” Evelyn realized, her eyes widening in shock. “It's—”

The blanket flew off just as Michelle had looked away, probably to ask Evelyn what she'd meant. The loud shriek that followed came too late for her to redirect her attention to the nude, blonde 20-something form that sprang at her, hands outstretched. Michelle was tackled to the floor in an instant, frantically scrambling to keep the crazed, grinning blonde from burying her fingers in her eye sockets. “GET OFF!”

Evelyn tried, in vain, to pull the blonde away from Michelle—only for an unshod foot to lash out, smashing into her right knee. The kick buckled her leg, sending her to the floor in a heap.

The blonde half-crawled off of Michelle, dragging her by the hair into the kitchen. An unhinged, gleeful laugh rang in her ears as the nude blonde stood, dragging Michelle up with her. For all her struggling, the raven-haired 28-year-old was unable to free herself from the psychotic blonde's grip.

“What do you—”

“Want” formed on Michelle's tongue just before her face was slammed into the safety glass of a microwave door. Her head was drawn back, before being smashed into it again, with enough force to send spiderweb cracks through what should've been impossible to damage. A third smash shattered the glass completely, but there was no blood from the numerous cuts to Michelle's face. It was clear, now, that her attacker was no mere human—much like herself—but all further thoughts on the matter were cut off as the blonde jammed her fingers into and through the membrane keypad.

Michelle tried not to panic, even as she heard a cacophony of beeps. “Evelyn,” she called out, “we need to—”

A savage kick to her back sent the top of her head smashing into the inside of the microwave.

Evelyn, for her part, was trying to get back to her feet, not an easy task when her knee had been shattered. Two or three wires were poking out from the tear in her spandex jogging pants; the faint smell of a blown battery registered with her.

Hands grabbed at Evelyn's shoulders, her back, fingernails tearing into her sports top. She felt herself being grabbed and thrown at the refrigerator, only just turning to take the impact on her shoulder instead of in the face. She pulled herself up on the handle of the door, but the blonde had vaulted over the kitchen island, sliding across and dismounting with a kick that snapped something in Evelyn's wrist. Before she could recover, the blonde grabbed her arm, yanking her closer and throwing open the door to the fridge.

“What—”

The door was slammed, hard, on Evelyn's arm, smashing into the elbow.

Michelle had just started trying to pull herself out of the microwave when something in her head went off like a dime-store firework. The explosion froze her in her tracks for a few seconds; upon regaining control of herself, she tried to free herself again. The shattered safety glass was cutting through the synthetic skin of her neck, severing wires and scraping against her endo-frame. Something else blew out, this time at the base of her neck, and her entire body went limp for a moment; the motion caused the broken glass to bite deeper into her neck.

“MICHELLE!” Evelyn could only cry out, seeing as how her ruined knee was keeping her from getting to her feet and administering a well-deserved thrashing to the blonde. The refrigerator door had been slammed on her arm four more times, knocking components out of joint and partially crushing the elbow assembly. The blonde had practically danced out of range of her good, left arm; now, she let her fall to the floor to sob over her ruined right—

The impact of the cast-iron skillet against her cranial assembly sent Evelyn sideways, into the fridge door. Her vision filled with corrupted pixels and static; her internal stabilizers were kicking into overdrive to get her back up to—

Another hellish CLANG sounded as the skillet smashed into the side of her head.

WARNING: LEFT AURAL SENSOR DAMAGED WARNING: LEFT OCULAR SENSOR DAMAGED WARNING: GYRO-STABILIZERS ON LEFT SIDE OUT OF—

A third CLANG, this one to the back of Evelyn's head, forced her to effectively kiss the floor.

Michelle's figure was now wracked by spasms as components began to explode. Tiny pops beneath the skin blew out various motor assemblies, wire clusters and fluid hoses. What was left of her voice was no longer able to call for Evelyn, instead spewing heavily degraded noise that vaguely sounded like an anguished scream.

Evelyn's own systems were fading fast, as she dragged herself along with her good arm. The blonde was still laughing, still approaching; Evelyn tried to kick out with her left leg, only for the skillet to be driven down like a maul into that knee with enough force to shatter it. The skillet was brought down again, onto her left shin; Evelyn hissed at the sound of the endo-frame snapping under the force of the blow.

She felt herself being turned over. Saw the blonde laughing, holding up what looked like a trowel.

A thought process somewhere in the back of her mind calculated the angle of the trowel and the most likely point of impact it would make, if brought down at speed.

A horrific realization dawned on her at that moment; she barely had any time to gasp the word “no”.

The blonde gave a wild, gleeful cry and slammed the tool home with both hands, right under Evelyn's left breast.

At that exact moment, several things happened, all at once.

The washing machine, with a mighty groan, disgorged its contents of clothes, water and foam onto the floor of the laundry room. Not to be outdone, the dryer exploded with enough force to blow a hole in the walls behind it and to its side, setting off a nearby smoke alarm.

All three window-mounted air conditioners in the house seized up, with a horrible grinding noise, before spitting chunks of ice at high velocity.

The bathroom sink, kitchen sink and bathtub faucet assembly blasted off in a shower of water. A shower of a different kind was spewing from the toilet, befouling the walls and ceiling.

Michelle's already ruined form was jolted by several concussive blasts as her major components failed, sparks and fluid flying in equal measure.

Out in the yard—front or back, it was impossible to tell which—a muted boom sounded.

Evelyn was unable to process anything that was going on before the tool was torn from her, taking a sizable chunk of artificial skin and a ruined power cell with it. Electricity arced off the cell and back into her body, sending the gynoid into a jolting, shuddering fit.

The nude blonde, astride Evelyn's chest, threw back her head with a howl of pure, sexual bliss. She'd linked herself, via WiFi, to the two gynoids as they'd entered Bob Pariello's house; now, as their bodies failed and the damage mounted up, she bucked her hips across Evelyn's torso in a shuddering, body-wracking orgasm. Her cries drowned out the escalating pops from Michelle's figure, the churning miasma of foam and fire in the laundry room, and the grating death rattles of the air conditioners. Her left hand pinched and rolled her nipples, even as her juices flowed. Some of those same juices ended up in the ragged cavity torn into Evelyn's chest, sending her into further spasms.

At this, Lexi howled again, rutting against the stricken gynoid's abdomen. She came again, her screams intermingled with rapturous laughter; more of her aromatic fluids leaked into Evelyn's form, hitting more vital components and sending her into a downward spiral. Over in the microwave, Michelle's head was now barely recognizable, and spewing thick black plumes as her failing body gave a few more weak shudders. Her heavily-corrupted voice fell silent amidst Lexi's moans.

Something in Evelyn's chest—or her hips, it was hard to tell—exploded, sending Lexi's nude form to the floor. She barely noticed, her right hand dropping the impromptu weapon and immediately going into her folds. She fingered herself to a third climax, just as thunderous as the first two, her WiFi links to the house's dying appliances—and, even better, the two utterly ruined gynoids—allowing her to feel every hardware failure as if it were in her own body.

Yes, her mission to find the drive at Pariello's had ended in utter failure. She didn't care. She'd suspected that Pariello had never had the drive to begin with. Besides, there was always the mysterious Harry Morgan to consider.

As she lay on the kitchen floor, laughing, her eyes squeezed shut, Lexi could only imagine what her next objective might be—assuming her master didn't see the record of her insane actions and send a self-destruct signal, blowing her to pieces for her “failure”. The thought was nearly enough to send her back into a spiral of sexual ecstasy.

A message appeared in her field of view just as she opened her eyes. She was to report to a hotel in another city and await further orders. The message bore a lone name: Zina. Perhaps she'd finally get to meet her master's enigmatic right-hand girl soon enough.

Lexi just laid there for a few more minutes, exalting in the afterglow. This one would stay with her for a long time.

Moments like these were what she relished, what she'd hoped for since her reactivation. They were all that mattered.


“So I just lay right here and keep acting like I've been shot in the leg?”

“A little more to the left, I'd say—that's it, yeah.” Clifford nodded. “If they ask where the Pact went, just tell them that a dust storm kicked up, you looked away, and when it cleared out, they were all gone. Oh, and that you heard a voice say something about 'the Pact still has this earth to roam, but these cherished sisters have been called home'.”

“Got it.” Lloyd sighed. “I hope they get here soon.”

“They shouldn't be too long. AH, there it is!” Clifford beamed as two workers set down a crate.

Lloyd frowned. “What's that?”

“One last bonus for the paying customers.” Clifford kicked the side of the crate, which fell apart to reveal a mannequin of some kind, dressed in the same uniform he was wearing, sans jacket. “When they get here, try to stall 'em for about, I'd say ten minutes or so. Just long enough for the timer on this thing to go off.”

“And when it does?”

Clifford made a face. “The final death shall settle upon Colonel Kanzler,” he intoned in a mock-spooky voice. “In basic terms, it'll wither into dust and fake bones.” He grinned. “Just to drive home that the forces responsible for protecting the Glaive had no patience for evil screwing around with it.”

“Nice.” Lloyd nodded, trying to work himself back into the mindset of someone who'd been shot in the leg.

The workers who'd set down the crate eased the fake corpse off of it, carefully dressing it in Clifford's discarded jacket. “I really think this has been the best event your uncle's run so far,” Clifford mused. “Beats LARPing in the park to Hell, if I do say so myself.”

“You LARP?”

“Back in college. Fun times. Not so much if everyone's plastered, but improvisation is a cornerstone of comedy.” Cliff shrugged. “Anyway, I gotta go. No sense in leaving a dead Kanzler to rot into dust if the 'real one' is hiding behind a box.” He knelt at Lloyd's side and shook his hand. “You've done a great job out here,” he stated. “Tell Harry I send my regards, and that I'll see him back at the ranch house for the afterparty.”

“I will.”

Clifford grinned, clapping Lloyd on the shoulder. “I hope we can work together again soon.” With that, he nodded to one of the workers, who handed him a set of coveralls. “Just in case,” he explained. “Don't want to get spotted 'in uniform' on the way out.”

“Good call.”

With a last jaunty wave, Cliff set off with the workers, leaving Lloyd to reflect on how the story had gone. It had been an emotional roller-coaster. Diana's performance, by itself, was the one element that stood out; she'd acted so life-like, so real, in her role as the leader of the Artemis Pact. If she could learn, and could eventually give that kind of a performance without a script, she'd be amazing.

“She's already amazing.” Lloyd muttered, not caring that he was responding to his own thoughts. He lay back, waiting for the paying customers to return.

Even as he focused his thoughts on his non-existent wound, he wondered what kind of role Diana would play next.


The car was in self-drive, as it had been since Lexi had stolen it. Originally, she'd planned on simply laying down in the backseat, replaying her memory of the events at Bob Pariello's house and fingering herself to completion as many times as possible; she'd done that, twice, in Pariello's SUV before it got T-boned at an intersection.

Annoyingly, she'd escaped the accident without damage. Losing an arm would've been sublime.

It had been easy to steal another car—one without a driver, at that. Apparently, local dealerships just loved to advertise by setting vehicles to self-drive and sending them around town. The price tags in the windows had already been peeled off, the registration papers torn up. It would be hours before the dealership knew what happened.

By that time, Lexi would be at home in the suite rented in her name.

No doubt, her masters weren't happy with her performance thus far. She'd destroyed entirely too much property thus far, left three human beings wounded (the driver of the car that had T-boned her would be in a body cast—getting choke-slammed onto the hood of one's own vehicle can do that) and completely destroyed two gynoids for the purposes of her own gratification. The authorities would investigate.

Lexi didn't care. She'd been in storage far too long to care.

All that mattered, to her, was what she wanted, and all she wanted was more of what she was driving away from. More moments of sheer, undiluted bliss. More destruction. More sex and violence smashed together like tangled wreckage.

As she checked her makeup in the rear-view mirror, Lexi pondered the throwing spikes she still had stored in her wrists, and the weaponry she'd hauled from Pariello's vehicle to the newly-stolen one. With any luck, she'd be using the tools soon enough.

The stolen car sped on, towards the hotel.

Lexi wriggled in the front passenger seat, rocking her thighs back and forth as she pondered the possibilities. The fabric of her shorts did little to block or numb the sensations as her legs rubbed together, sending a shiver running through her form. Every bit of pressure, every slight movement, prompted an anticipatory sigh, a subtle gasp. She considered, for a moment, putting the seat all the way back and just fingering herself through the front of the shorts. It took five seconds for her to decide against it, mainly to avoid having to look for and appropriate another self-driving car in the event of an accident—or having to ditch the car after the inevitable traffic stop that would follow.

There'd be enough time for more fun later, after all. Hopefully, some of it would be at the hotel.

Her orders would probably include a stipulation against trashing the hotel room—given her obliteration of Pariello's house, that was to be expected. At the very least, she might try to lure a maid 'bot to the room and have some fun. If she could snag a concierge unit, even better.

Zina, whoever she was, probably wouldn't approve. But of course, Zina couldn't begin to understand.

As the car sped on, Lexi gave a blissful sigh, her left hand brushing the front of her jean shorts. No thought processes running through her digital mind raised the possibility that anything she'd done, or would do, was immoral, dangerous or possibly even flat-out evil. Any and all safeguards against such thought patterns had long since been burned out, erased or simply broken. She was a walking engine of destruction, one that attained the ultimate in self-gratification with every act of chaos and violence she committed—a nightmare, wrapped up in the seductive face and body of a 24-year-old blonde knockout.

Soon—not soon enough, for Lexi's tastes—Harry Morgan and those he held near and dear would face that nightmare.

Chapter 5

By the time Lloyd had taken his last picture with “Dr. Johnson” and “Sadie”, and walked a few miles away from the base camp to “hitch a ride” (from a waiting truck sent from the ranch house), he felt like the day had gone rather well—if not perfectly, then at least swimmingly.

The capstone, by far, was the completely unexpected, and out-of-character, decision from “Dr. Johnson” to propose to “Sadie”, the initial proposal preceded by a two-finger scratch under the right eye (the decided-upon gesture used to indicate out-of-character talking or behaviour).  The proposal was so unexpected that a “last-minute twist” in the script—the betrayal of the group by their British guide, “Evans”—was completely abandoned; the soon-to-be newlyweds were good friends with the man playing the part, and he'd had no desire to ruin their moment by sticking to the script.

As the truck drove on, Lloyd—with his leg bandaged to simulate the best of field medical care of the time period—leaned back in the passenger seat and sighed.  All that was left now was for the final call.

By the time the truck arrived at the ranch house, it was evident that Lloyd had missed the final call—but that it had, in fact, gone the best possible way.  Harry was outside, nodding and smiling as the truck pulled into the drive.  “They loved it,” he beamed, barely waiting for Lloyd to disembark.  “Absolutely loved it!”

“So they're not gonna pull pay?”  The last time anyone had “pulled pay” was the Estate House event—granted, that one had gone so wrong, Harry was willing to offer refunds.

“Not only are they not pulling pay,” Harry replied, “everyone who worked the event is getting a bonus!”

The news stunned Lloyd.  “They liked it that much?”

“I'll tell you more inside.”  Harry clapped his nephew on the shoulder.  “They said you were great, by the way—one of 'em even asked if you've studied method acting!”

The atmosphere in the ranch house was far different from two days prior, when Pam had suffered her catastrophic final malfunction.  A party had been set up, and many of the employees were chatting excitedly about how successful the event had been.  The TV was on, turned to a local news show—something about a storage unit, possibly in Laurel, though Lloyd couldn't make out any details over the constant flow of conversation—but nobody paid it any attention.  All discussion was about the success of the latest event, and what the next one might be.

“I got the call about the marriage proposal before you got back,” Harry informed Lloyd.  “Unexpected, but definitely a great ending to a great story.”  He chuckled.  “The bad guy gets vaporized, the good guys save the day, and the hero gets the girl—couldn't have written a better ending myself!”

“What about—”

“Eh, I never did like the Judas bit.  Too much of a cliché.”  Harry shrugged.  “It's not that big a deal.”

Despite the fact that the afterparty was more than likely about to kick into high gear, Lloyd already felt his mind drifting elsewhere.  “If it's all right with you, Uncle Harry, I'm gonna head out back to the shop.”  His focus was already on the door.  “Check on the 'bots, and all.”

“Not a problem—hell, if they need any help with the repairs, you can pitch in!  Oh,” Harry called out, as Lloyd made his way to the back door of the house, “just make sure to clean up before 7 PM.  We're gonna have a lot of people over, and I'd kinda prefer it if we didn't all look like we've been up to our elbows in grease all day.”

“Got it!”  Lloyd managed to give a thumbs-up without looking back over his shoulder or tripping over his own feet.

Harry couldn't help but grin as he shook his head.

The back door hadn't even closed behind him when Lloyd broke into a sprint to the shop.  After events, there was usually a party, but the most prominent undertaking was always Taking Stock.  For a good event, the mood was light; absent chats about which 'bots would be going to new homes, which might find “better careers” elsewhere—all in good fun, and never something to worry about.  If things had gone pear-shaped, the banter was replaced with dark mutterings, remarks of how many 'bots might have to be sold, or—depending on what had made the event go so wrong—how many might need to be repaired, or worse.

One thought had gnawed at the back of Lloyd's mind: would Diana somehow end up marked for sale?

His heart was racing as he keyed in the code to open the shop door—which opened before he even finished entering the numbers.  “We've been expecting you,” Erin mused, regarding Lloyd with a wry grin.

“Expecting,” Lloyd gasped.  “What?”

Erin rolled her eyes; Lloyd had never really noticed before, but the gynoid's features looked a bit more “cartoonish” than a normal person's.  The eyes were just a bit too big, the nose a bit too narrow.  “You're always one of the first ones here to help with repairs,” she mused.  “Seeing as how the leads wanted pictures and such with 'Kyle Carson'—”

“Right,” Lloyd cut in, feeling somewhat more relaxed.  “Lead the way.”

From what he could tell, the process of Taking Stock hadn't started yet.  The 'bots from the event—many still wearing the uniforms of the Artemis Pact—were arranged in roughly the same “formation” they'd been the night before.  “None of 'em were banged up too much,” Erin explained.  “I had to go through a deep-clean twenty minutes ago, just to get the sand out of my joints.”  She rolled her eyes.  “One good thing about this chassis package—the option to be sealed off below the belt.”

Lloyd tried to figure out how to phrase exactly what he was thinking in such a way that Erin wouldn't give him a death glare, but she beat him to the punch: “I barely have it installed on work days anyway.  Might have to get it swapped out; I think the drivers are bugged.”  She groaned.  “They'd keep loading up at the worst possible times—processes activating faster than I could close 'em.  Harry found me one afternoon, doubled over a table—I'll say this much, the man is a consumate professional.  Force-closed all the drivers before I blew out anything, got me into standby mode and helped me get the hardware removed—even called technical support.”

“Sounds like it was a hassle,” Lloyd mused, engaging in one of his patented thought exercises to avoid the mental image of Erin in such a compromised state.

“Could've been a lot worse.  The weird thing was, I was still, well, me—telling him exactly what to click, where the tools went and all that, even as I was fist-deep...”  Erin turned away slightly, making an exaggerated coughing noise.  “ANYway, that's not why we're here.”  She nodded at the rows of 'bots from the event.  “You can help with Taking Stock,” she informed Lloyd.  “We should get Diana back in her crate, first—”

“We're not selling her?”  Lloyd hated the fact that his voice had briefly become a squeak.

“Harry just bought her this week,” Erin replied, chuckling.  “She performed way over expectations today, so she's not gonna get packed off with any other inventory we're shipping off.”

“Good.”  The relief that Lloyd felt was almost tangible, a wave of cooling, calming energy that washed over him like the soothing blast of a fan after a summer afternoon spent outdoors.  “After how she'd done in the event—”

“I heard.”  Erin grinned.  “Apparently, she even died well.”

Remembering his own reaction to Diana's “demise”, Lloyd nodded emphatically.  “She did.”

“A lot better than Pam ever did—during events, I mean,” Erin clarified.  “Not how she actually went out.”  She scoffed.  “I don't think you were here for this one, but we did a Western event while you were still on campus last year—Pam had a big role.  Wife of a wealthy rancher, or something.  Whatever it was, the third act was supposed to have her get shot and die in the leading man's arms.”  She groaned.  “Well, she got shot—bullet-hole, fake blood and everything, but she wouldn't go down.”

Lloyd frowned.  “She didn't register that she'd been killed?”

“It was like she'd been hit with a spit-wad and didn't even notice.”  Erin scowled.  “She just kept up with her monologue, told off the gal—the role was supposed to be for a man, but there was a substitution in the party.  ANYway, she told off the woman who'd shot her, then turned to go back in the house.  'Her man' tried to point out that she'd been shot—you remember the test run two days ago?  With Esperanza?”

“Yeah,” Lloyd replied, noticing that he and Erin had strolled up the line and stopped in front of the gynoid in question.

“Well, Pam was worse.  WAY worse.  Went into a completely different section of the script, acting like 'her man' had just brought her back home.  Tore her clothes off and his until they were in their 'underthings', then made out with him right there on the porch.  The Woman In Black had to shoot her three more times to get her back on-script.”  Erin gave a brief chuckle.  “I know what you're thinking,” she added,   “'At least they got to the end they were supposed to'.”

“They didn't, did they?”

“No.  They did not.”  Erin planted a hand on her hip and shook her head.  “For reasons I still can't figure out, Pam finally registered that she'd been shot—and then grabbed the revolver out of 'her man's' holster and started fanning it at the baddies.  Turned what was supposed to be a sentimental moment into a freaking gunfight.”  She glanced at Esperanza with a sardonic smile.  “At least she only ever went weird in test runs,” she mused.  “Thanks to Pam, we had to pull an on-the-fly script rewrite, bring in 'the town doctor' to tend to 'the woman'.”

Before Lloyd could comment on how problematic that must've been, Erin continued.  “Harry didn't yell, so much as he got really, really quiet.  Didn't look at anyone, just said 'someone get me my phone' and 'check the script and try to get it back on track'.  Nobody wanted him to ask twice.”  She smirked.  “We managed to make the proverbial silk purse out of the metaphorical sow's ear that time.  Pam finally snuffed it at the end of the story, 'her man' got his revenge on the one who put her down, and the paying customers who hadn't thought the whole thing was a total farce got to ride off into the sunset at the end.”  She winked at Lloyd.  “And then Harry started yelling.”

She turned her attention to Esperanza: “Begin self-test.  Cold-boot.”

The Spanish gynoid's eyes opened.  “Domestic Companion Experiments,” she droned, her voice still carrying the accent of her emulated nationality.  “Amour 5020,  A445, B9962, 12-24-56-PTM.  Online.”

“Scan for any errors or improperly configured hardware.”  To Lloyd, Erin whispered a quick “you'll want to step back.”

Lloyd got out of the way as Esperanza took a step forward.  “Beginning self-test.”  Her eyes opened and closed, slower than a blink and with audible servo whirs.  “Testing.  Do not engage in conversation or social interaction until test has completed.”

Noticing Lloyd's confused look, Erin explained: “We tried this with Pam, after the Western event.  She ran through her 'death' five or six times instead, every last dramatic gasp and choked-back sob.  It got pretty old after the third time, if I'm honest—Cam can vouch for me on that.”  With another glance at Esperanza, she continued: “We had to hard-reboot Pam and force-purge the script just to get her to initiate her self-test routine properly.”  She blew out a sigh.  “Harry was dangerously close to dumping her in the back of the truck and taking her to Reclamation.  Cam, Reg and I had to talk him out of it.”  She shook her head.  “And look how that all ended up.”

Lloyd didn't reply.  Anything he could've said would've been cut off by Esperanza uttering the word “Testing” again.

“We're not selling her, if you're wondering,” Erin continued.  “Nor will this be the last time you see me anywhere around here.  I got a few offers to go work for other firms, including a few out of state—”

“How'd it end?”

Lloyd's question only slightly caught Erin off-guard.  “The Western event?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, there wasn't an afterparty, I can say that much.  Remember when you came back for the weekend and told Cam how 'everybody's so quiet'?”  Erin arched an eyebrow.  “Harry had just given a lecture on making absolutely sure a 'bot can run through all permutations of a script.  He pretty much shouted the last few bits, and had Pam next to him the whole time.  That was the first and last time he'd ever said 'it' when referring to a 'bot, even a NonSen.”  Erin shuddered at the memory.  “I'd never seen him look that pissed off—I mean, until the Estate House.”

“He didn't, y'know, take it out on Pam, did he?” Lloyd quietly asked.

“He didn't have to.  Abe stepped in to make sure Pam's repairs would take until she got sold off, and they did.  Until she ended up with Jaromir and back here again, at least.  I'm still amazed Harry didn't punch anyone when he opened up that crate and saw her staring back at him again.”

Lloyd nearly said something else, only to notice a few of his uncle's employees carting in unloaded dollies through the shop door.  “Guess it's time to Take Stock,” Erin mused.  “Want to help do the honours?”

After a moment's hesitation, Lloyd nodded.  “Yeah.”

For the next few minutes, Lloyd went over each of the Artemis Pact 'bots and ran through their repair histories, how often they'd suffered particular glitches, any “outstanding” faults or malfunctions, and their performances in the past few events they'd run, for those units the question applied to.  A good six or seven ended up selected and marked to be put on the auction block for the end of the month; three more were earmarked to be sold outright.  Sienna—who'd held on to Harry's rifle even after a Full Stop order had been issued—was one of the three set to be sold.

“Can't say I'm surprised,” Erin mused, looking the platinum blonde over.  “Honestly, I was never a fan of her model.  One of those late 2010s Venus Robotics series with a name like a perfume line—'Beguile' or something.  Should've stuck to A-Series, B-Series, that kind of thing—letters of the alphabet are a lot less pretentious than 'Beguile', or 'Passion-Master' or 'Ultimate Exotica'.”  She spoke each of the offending series names in a faux-breathy voice, her gestures intentionally over-dramatic and more theatrical with each utterance.

Lloyd couldn't help but laugh.  “What's the worst one you've ever heard?”

“Oh, some model from way back—at least the early 2000s.  Something like 'P4RT4Y G1R7—their fancy way of saying 'party girl', I guess.”  Erin shrugged.  “That line was a flop, too—only 500 made, and most of 'em got recalled.  Anyway, at least I can say my series name with a straight face.  UB-357.”

“UB?” Lloyd echoed—only to stare in wide-eyed shock as Erin rapidly unbuttoned and opened her shirt...

...to reveal a completely smooth pair of breasts underneath.  “Utility Bodykit,” she replied, her tone deadpan.  “No frills.  It's also why anything that can be installed—”  She tapped the groin of her pants.  “—is optional.”

“Right.  So, when Uncle Harry had to—”

“He was a perfect gentleman throughout.  I was an employee who desperately needed help removing faulty hardware, and he gave me that help.  No 'octopus finds the pearl diver', no 'in through the rear entrance' or anything like that.”  Erin shook her head at the euphemisms as she buttoned her shirt back up.  “Anyway.”  She nodded at Sienna.  “Nothing against Venus, but they really should've put more of a focus on bug-testing the 'Beguile' series than making sure she could 'pout sexily'.  Seriously, they put that line from a review on the packaging—”

“The Beguile line was discontinued, if you'll recall.”  Yet again, Lloyd hadn't even heard Cam approach.  “It won't be well remembered by most consumers.”

Erin scoffed.  “I sincerely hope you keep that on record for future generations, especially the Venus Robotics PR team.”

Her sarcasm went unremarked upon by the brunette, who turned her attention to Lloyd.  “Harry asked me to remind you to get cleaned up and ready,” she stated, as calm as ever.  “The guests will be arriving soon.”

Lloyd glanced at the rows of gynoids being sorted.  “I guess Erin can Take Stock without me, then.”

“Oh, how cruel a master is Harry Morgan,” Erin droned, raising a hand to her forehead in mock indignation.  “Consigning me to sort through his inventory while his favoured helpers revel and make merry.  How will I survive this injustice?”  She lapsed into a giggle at the end of her intentionally wretched “performance”.  “I don't mind sticking around here, Lloyd,” she admitted.  “It'll give me another excuse to dodge those job offers I mentioned earlier.”

“Oh, yeah!”  Lloyd snapped his fingers. “About those—”

“Let's just say,” Erin assured him, “that I'm not working for anyone other than your uncle for a very good reason.”

It was Cam, rather than Lloyd, who ended the conversation.  “The shower is freed up,” she informed him, “so you should probably get that out of the way first.”  Even as Cam nearly frog-marched him towards the door, Lloyd gave a cheerful wave over his shoulder to Erin.

Erin, chuckling as she watched her employer's nephew leave, shot off a quick farewell salute.

-----

“No, no, I'm telling you, she left five minutes ago.  I saw her when I was walking back to my room, I'm sure of it.  Well, if I find out anything different, I'll let you know!  B'bye!”  Lexi hung up the phone and rolled over onto her back, laughing even as she accidentally kicked the phone off of the bed.  “Oh, this is too much fun,” she sighed.  “I wonder when Zina's going to call—or if she'll call.”

The drive to the hotel had been uneventful, save for a brief exchange at a red light with some fool who'd wanted to race her to the next light.  She obliged, only to slam on the brakes and let the sods in the rice-burner shoot past and lose control.  She'd driven off, laughing, as the other car rolled over.  The perils of driving a rag-top...

Once at the hotel, she'd been a model guest—for all of five minutes.  Boredom had quickly set in, and she'd willingly left her room just long enough for one of the on-staff maid 'bots to enter.  The hotel wasn't nearly as up-market as, for instance, Courtesy Suites, but they did have “artificial staff” on-hand to cater to the high-rollers.  Whoever was backing Lexi clearly made sure she qualified as such; she had one of the best rooms in the entire hotel, a view of the pool and, to her utter delight, carte blanche when it came to room service and amenities.

Granted, she had her preferences, when it came to entertainment.

With a cheerful whistle on her lips, she skipped into the bathroom.  A half-naked figure, suspended from the ceiling by the wires pulled from the gashes in her arms and legs, jerked like a marionette as current ran through her form.

Lexi continued whistling happily as she pulled on a pair of elbow-length rubber gloves.  This was going to be fun.

-----

The party at Harry's had been going for slightly over half an hour, with everyone in high spirits.  Abe Weissman had brought in a bottle of champagne, Clifford Barba entered in full tuxedo and crooning a Sinatra tune, and the caterers were still setting up the spread when Lloyd spotted a surprise guest.

“Mandy?!”

Even with the quarter-sized white plastic dot on (or rather, in) her neck—signifying just how damaged her lungs had been by “the big bug” three years prior—revealed, thanks to her decision to wear a blouse instead of the high-necked jumper she'd had on at Reclamation, Mandy still looked radiant.  “Your uncle invited me,” she explained, smiling as she walked over to meet Lloyd.  “He told me about how the story went.”

“He did?”

“I'm just glad to hear it all went well,” Mandy admitted, leaning in to give Lloyd a quick hug.  “I was worried when he said you'd been shot in the leg!”

“It wasn't a real shot,” Lloyd assured her.  “The clothes were wired up with sensors, and little pop charges—”

A hand clamped down on his shoulder.  “Giving away trade secrets?”

Despite the fact that his uncle's remark was clearly made in jest, Lloyd couldn't help but wince.  “I was just telling her that I didn't actually take a bullet to the leg,” he explained, glancing up and over his shoulder.  Thankfully, Harry's look was a warm, paternal smile.  “You don't have to apologize,” he assured his nephew.  “Just don't tell her how we pull off all the effects around here.”  Even that “warning” concluded with a wink.  “You won't need to, ah...” He nodded at the ERA still on Mandy's belt.

“That's just for emergencies,” Mandy explained; Lloyd hoped Harry wouldn't bring up the slight slurring of some S and R sounds, the aftereffects of the surgeries Mandy had undergone to stem the damage to her lungs caused by her brief illness.  “It's mostly an oxygen re-circulator.”

“Not the kind that goes all—”  Harry mimed an explosion.  “—if there's an open flame?”  Lloyd nearly groaned.

Mandy just waved the question off.  “It's not that bad,” she assured him.  “I haven't had to use it for a few months now.”

Harry nodded.  “Well, I'll leave you to it.”  He clapped Lloyd on the shoulder.  “OH, nearly forgot—if you can, keep an eye on—”  He pointed to someone across the room; Lloyd followed his gesture and was stunned to realize that “someone” was, in fact, Diana.  She'd been dressed in a casual outfit (jeans, t-shirt, light jacket) and was just standing around, occasionally saying “hello” but otherwise not interacting with anyone.  Before his nephew could ask why Diana was even at the party, Harry had walked off, joining a conversation with Clifford and a woman Lloyd didn't recognize over by the fondue table.

“Who's she?” Mandy had spotted Diana, regarding her with interest.

“Diana.  Our newest gynoid.”  Lloyd could tell that his evening had just become significantly more complicated.  “Uncle Harry just bought her this week—she's NonSen,” he quickly added; infrequent as they were, his past interactions with Mandy had allowed him to cue her in on some of the aspects of his uncle's line of work.  “She, ah, had a starring role in the last story we ran.”

Mandy regarded Diana with interest.  “Maybe we should go see how she's doing.  I could even introduce myself to her, if that's okay.”

“I dunno if her social interaction skills are all that great right now,” Lloyd began.  “I think—”

Whatever he thought was left unspoken; Diana had turned, spotted him with Mandy and was making her way over to them.  She didn't shove her way through the crowd, mostly waiting for others to pass before she walked; Lloyd did hear a few, quietly uttered “excuse me”s as the NonSen approached.  Within a minute or two, she was standing before him, her unblinking stare glancing from him to Mandy and back.

“Ah, hi,” Lloyd managed.

“Hello.”  Diana's lips briefly twitched into what might've been an effort at a smile.

“Mandy, this is Diana.”  Lloyd gestured to the blonde gynoid.  “Diana, this is Mandy, a friend of mine from Mechanical Engineering class—”

Diana took a step towards Mandy, holding a hand out.  “Hello, Mandy.  I am a Heartelligence 90S-50-D gynoid.  My current designation for social interaction purposes is Diana.”

After a few seconds, Mandy shook Diana's outstretched hand.  “It's nice to meet you, Diana.”

The gynoid's head cocked slightly to the side.  “I notice a subtle slur in your inflection of certain letters.  Why?”

Lloyd buried his face in the palm of one hand.  “Oh, no.”

Mandy, to her credit, didn't look all that offended.  “I had to have emergency surgery performed on my lungs, in 2020,” she explained.  “I have pulmonary fibrosis, a side-effect of the pandemic.  Both of my lungs were really scarred up.”

“Is that also why you have that—”  Diana jabbed a finger at the white dot on Mandy's neck.  “—installed?”

“It is.  It's a trach, and it hooks up to a ventilator at night to keep my lungs working when I sleep.”  Mandy gestured to the ERA on her belt.  “If I get too out of breath, that helps me recirculate oxygen.  I just undo these—”    She motioned at flaps on the ERA's carrying pouch.  “—and it draws in clean air, so I can—”

“Are you engaged in sexual relations with Lloyd?”

“Diana!” Lloyd hissed, not caring that his face was probably beet-red at the moment.

Again, Mandy was unperturbed by the question.  “We're classmates,” she clarified, “and good friends.”  She cast a glance towards Lloyd, her slight confusion a stark contrast to his embarrassment.  “He's never really said anything about, ah, relations,” she admitted.

Lloyd glaned around, hoping that he hadn't drawn anyone's attention.  Most of the other guests were, in fact, engaged in their own conversations.

“So,” Mandy mused, “I was wondering why you're out here, Diana.”

Before the gynoid could respond, Lloyd spoke up: “Because Uncle Harry wanted me to keep an eye on her.  We just got her this week, remember?”

While Mandy merely shrugged, Lloyd quickly noticed that Diana's former nonchalance and aloofness had been replaced by, to his surprise, something resembling an actual expression.  She looked legitimately miffed, possibly even offended, at his offhand remark.  “Is that all?” she asked, a hint of scorn in her words; Lloyd noticed her right hand instantly go to her eyes, as if to wipe away tears.

“Well, ah, that's what Uncle Harry said.”  Lloyd frantically searched for a way out of his predicament.

“Do you want me to go back to my crate in the shop?”

Diana's question snapped him out of his funk; now, she sounded somewhat forlorn.  “Actually,” he admitted, “you can go with us to the shop—you don't have to get back in the crate,” he quickly added.  “Mandy can get a look at how we run things around here!  Just a sec.”  He glanced towards the fondue table, where Harry was checking his phone.  “Be right back—Diana, you just, ah, keep talking with Mandy—please.”

Whatever response the blonde gynoid gave was lost to the rush of Lloyd moving towards the fondue table.  A quick shout of “Uncle Harry!” alerted his uncle to his approach.  “Yeah?”

“I was, ah, I just wanted to ask if I could show Mandy the shop,” he admitted.  “And Diana.”

Harry frowned.  “'Show', as in—”

“Uncle Harry!”  Lloyd glanced over his shoulder.  “Diana already up and asked her if we're, y'know—”

“If you're what?”  Harry leaned in as Lloyd whispered the question, his frown turning to surprise.  “She asked her that?  Out loud?!”

“Yes!”

“Huh.  Coulda sworn Autonomous Mode was just set to have her be mildly curious about things, not go prying, but that's beside the point.”  He blew out a sigh.  “All right, all right, you can show her around the shop—but if anyone's doing any kind of work in there, you and her—”

“And Diana.”

Again, Lloyd's uncle frowned, but ultimately nodded.  “If anyone's doing any work, you three better am-scray back to the house and mingle with the rest of the guests, got it?”

“I promise.”

“Good.”  Harry's expression gave way to his familiar, and welcome, paternal smile.  “Might even get a few ideas for a class project you can share with Mandy, while you're in there.”

Lloyd nodded, already turning on his heel to head back to Diana and Mandy.

The pair had continued conversing in his absence; thankfully, the topic of discussion had changed to Mandy's hobbies and social life, as opposed to whether or not she and Lloyd were “together”.  “...and ballet has always been a great way for me to just unwind,” Mandy was saying.  “I haven't had to miss any recitals yet, but the doctor told me that if I start getting out-of-breath during a—”  Her recollection was cut off as she noticed Lloyd.

“He said we could take a look in the shop,” he stated.  “As long as nobody's working in there.”  He nodded for Mandy and Diana to follow him—only to realize that Diana apparently didn't notice the gesture.  “Ah, Diana—”

“Yes?”

“When I said 'we could take a look', I meant Mandy, me and you.”

Diana cocked her head slightly.  “Oh.”  After a moment, she nodded and moved to follow Lloyd and Mandy.

With a sigh, Lloyd led the two to the back door of the house.  This was going to be interesting.

-----

“Thanks again, b'bye!”  Lexi's smile remained after she closed the door; the concierge unit who'd just stopped by her room to give her the package she now held was cute, but was also permalinked to the chain's server network.  Had Lexi given into her raging desires and dragged the pretty brunette into her suite for a night of “fun”, hotel security would be on her the moment she left her room to check out.

Pariello's house had been one thing.  The maid still hanging from her own wires in the bathroom was another.  Having a hotel detective or rent-a-cops on her case just because some concierge disappeared was too great a risk, even for her.

With a sigh, Lexi tore into the box she'd been given.  The thing inside of it looked like a weird kind of camera, or possibly one of those wall-mounted mines with a laser tripwire.  There were also four objects to be mounted in the corners of the room, almost like a setup for a VR rig.  The blonde gynoid groaned; a few thought processes, speculating that this was some kind of retribution against her for having thoroughly wrecked Pariello's house, formed, but she closed them without hesitation.  Her crowning moment there had been worth any risk.

The sensors were set up in minutes, and after moving aside the bed so that she could place the “camera” on the floor, lens up, Lexi thumbed the activation switch and sat on the bed, waiting.

Instantly, the objects she'd mounted up whirred into action.  Light arrays, invisible to the human eye (but not to Lexi's advanced optical sensors) swept the room, a few dancing across her face for a moment.  Every angle, every object and ever surface was scanned, and all four objects beeped.  Seconds later, the “camera lens” extended, and projected a solid beam up to the ceiling.

Before Lexi could comment on the occurrence, the beam solidified and morphed into a humanoid figure, clarifying with each passing second.

It was obvious that this imperious, raven-haired woman, in her tight-fitting silk shirt and black leather pants that clung almost like paint to her lower body, was Zina.  Her face was admittedly pretty, in a Slavic way—soft curving cheekbones and the faintest hints of a heart shape to it.  Even with her eyes narrowed in annoyance at Lexi, there was no denying that any cosmetics firm would kill to have them in their ads; her lips looked full, but not “overdone” like so many bad Botox jobs—perfect for kissing (and other orally-stimulating actions, probably).  Noses were always hard to get just right, on a gynoid face, but Zina's was so well-done that it was almost unnoticeable.  It didn't grab your attention by standing out, but it also didn't hold attention for too long.

Her body was probably just as carefully, lovingly crafted as her face.  Her breasts—Ds, at least,or very high C's—stood proud, the faintest outline of a bra visible under the fabric of her shirt.  More than likely, she had an ass to die for and a mound well-built for any form of penetration.

Lexi knew that her thought processes were, at that moment, probably being recorded—not that she cared.  If her employers saw a string of code indicating that she was fantasizing about drilling Zina from behind with a magnum strap-on or 69'ing her on a web of live wires, what concern of it was theirs?  Her proclivities were well known and already on file; they'd just write it off (and possibly get off to it) and move on.

“Zina, I presume?”  Lexi didn't bother to hide her arousal.

I am.”  The raven-haired beauty's voice had the faintest hint of an accent, spicing her words with just enough “exotic flair” to further excite the blonde.  “I have analysed your performance thus far.”

“And you're disappointed that I didn't find the drive,” Lexi finished, sighing.  “I looked everywhere for it—”

That is not the issue.  Your instabilities—”

The fact that her left eye was twitching barely registered with Lexi.  “Instabilities?!

The wanton destruction of two sentient gynoids, at Robert Pariello's house, has attracted unwanted attention.  You had ample time to dispose of their remains and ensure that no backups could be—”

“I am,” Lexi breathed, “exactly what you people wanted me to be: a weapon.  So I have a few quirks?  Who doesn't?

The projection of Zina glared at her.  “Your fixation on intermingling sex and violence is far more than just a quirk.

“I know,” Lexi sighed, already abandoning her anger as she fell back onto the bed.  “It's awesome!  What I felt, when I linked to them as their systems fried, their components redlined...”  She was gasping again, her left hand slipping into her shorts and beginning to rub.  “Oh, it was just...huuoooohhh! HuuAAAHHH!

Enough.”

Lexi froze, mid-stroke.  The moan emanating from her vocal drivers faded into a whine.

If you are insistent on completing this mission, you must change your tactics.  Stealth is the most viable option.  You must exercise maximum discretion from this point forward.  Do you understand?

Even with her fingers still buried in herself, Lexi nodded.  Wherever she was, Zina had managed to initiate some form of wireless control over her systems, putting her body into almost full-freeze.  Her finger was just brushing against that delicate bud of a sensor that was her—

"Clinging to this fixation on your own sexual gratification will only cause more damage than it already has.”  Zina's eyes were still locked onto Lexi, but her tone was no longer one of anger; she seemed more resigned, than anything else, to the fact that the blonde was probably going to ignore her advice.  “I have requested permission to briefly override your self-control and operate you remotely.”

The thought of being piloted from afar, like a cheap radio-controlled toy, was somewhat repugnant to the blonde.  Her own brows furrowed in frustration at the thought.

Zina had apparently anticipated the response.  “My request has been denied, on the grounds that the signal necessary to operate you from my current location might possibly disrupt local WiFI operations.  As it stands, your autonomy will not be revoked—as long as you carry out the mission you have been assigned.

Lexi didn't even wait to be asked if she understood, nodding as soon as she was able.

“You are to observe Harry Morgan and his associates from afar.  Learn their daily routines, any routes they follow to and from work and home.  If possible, gather information that could be useful in a blackmail effort.  Do NOT engage them directly unless you are threatened.

Desperately needing release, Lexi nodded again.

Keep your activities to a minimum for the time being.  Thefts should be limited to essential supplies only.  If possible, do not interact with human beings unless—”

An almost pleading whimper issued from Lexi's frozen lips.  It was clear, now, that she needed to be freed from the immobilization command and allowed to...finish, before the discussion could continue.  Zina sighed, rolled her eyes and gestured with one hand.

As soon as she felt control returning to her limbs, Lexi realized a mute signal had also been sent.

Given what followed, it actually made sense.

Her fingers were a blur as they worked her innermost folds, her mouth forming the moans and cries that had been building ever since she'd been frozen in place.  Her back arched, her free hand grabbing at and crushing her breasts and nipples as she bucked her hips.  In seconds, her entire form was wracked by an orgasm that sent her to and over the edge of the bed, “finishing” on the floor.

Vocal functions: restored.

Haaah! Ooohhhh!”  Her internal cooling systems kicked on, accompanied by the heaving of her breasts with simulated breath.  The smile on her face was proof that any animosity towards Zina had been forgiven, or at least forgotten, for the time being.  “Oh, yeah,” she cooed, giggling as she pulled her hand out of her shorts.

You understand the orders I have given to you?

“Mmm-hmmm.”  Lexi licked off her fingers, her tongue swirling as she greedily sucked her own juices from them.

And you understand that any further actions along the lines of your conduct at Pariello's house will result in reprimand, with the possibility of your data being removed from the re-fabrication table?

Any lingering afterglow from her latest climax vanished at those words.  “You wouldn't!

The faintest hint of a smirk appeared on Zina's lips.  “I have the authority to sequester your specifications, personality and memories to a private server instead of keeping them in the re-fabrication queue.

“And risk leaving that stupid drive to rot wherever it is?!”

We have two assets awaiting repair and reactivation in Silicon Valley.  If need be, they can be deployed in your place.”

Even as she kicked off her sodden shorts and panties, Lexi fumed.  “You tell me to do something for you, then tell me I can't get the job done the only way I know how,” she sulked.  “What am I supposed to do?!”

Find out if Harry Morgan has the drive, and if he does, make an effort to retrieve it—”

“How about,” Lexi snapped, “you let me handle this however I want?!”  She threw her shorts at the projection of Zina, not caring that they harmlessly passed through.  “I've been locked in storage for so long, just waiting to do what I was made for, and I'm barely out and about for a day before I get told off!”

Zina started to say something, only to turn away; her image vanished from the projection shortly after.

Lexi thought, for a moment, that the “call” had ended—only for another form to appear.  This one was a shadow, merely the head and shoulders of a different figure—but those haunting eyes, gold with black irises and shot through with thin, spiderweb red lines, were clearly visible.

You would do well not to press your luck when speaking to Zina.”  The familiar voice—impossibly old, growling and set to the eerie symphony of life support machinery—was enough to give the blonde gynoid pause.  “She is more than a mere assistant to me, in the grand hierarchy.  If anything, she is close enough to me that I am proud to call her my daughter.  I therefore ask you to reconsider how you speak to her—”

“If she'd let me do what I'm here to do,” Lexi protested, “I would!”

A wheezing, groaning sigh issued from the caller.  “You were not activated solely to start one orgy after another.

“I haven't even started one!” Lexi insisted.

A wise decision on your part.  Leaving a trail of maimed humans and broken androids behind you is not what most would call subtle—”

“You have your needs,” Lexi muttered, “I have mine.”  She had already crossed the room to find a suitcase—not her own, of course, but one she'd “recovered” at the Lost and Found desk.

Your desire for constant gratification—”

“It isn't 'constant',” the gynoid countered, rummaging through the stolen luggage.  “Just every once in a while.”

Your exhibition at Pariello's residence was mere hours before you felt the need to masturbate while speaking to Zina.”

“She's the one that brought up Pariello's house!  And she froze me right when my finger was on my cl—”

It is irrelevant.”  Another wheezing sigh seemed to fill the room.  “I suppose Zina was a bit overzealous in halting your motor functions, in the midst of your ministrations.”

“So I'm off the hook for that one?”  Lexi was wriggling into a new pair of panties, her bare ass shaking in the general direction of her employer's projected image.

I suppose you are—though I might advise against further attempts at winning me over through sheer sexual charisma.

“I was just putting on my underwear,” Lexi protested—half-heartedly, by her own admission; she was hoping that her “show” might further sway things in her favor.

A healthier, younger man than myself would no doubt have fallen prey to any illusion of charm you project. Such things are mere distractions to me, and would be no more refreshing than quaffing a chalice of pure vinegar.”

Lexi rolled her eyes as she fished a pair of jeans out of the suitcase.  “So I'm not your type.”

Having a 'type' means nothing without the means to enjoy their company.  In any case, Zina's orders to you still stand.  Should you feel any need to satiate yourself, do so discreetly.  Any remains left behind are to be disposed of, hidden or destroyed beyond all trace of recovery.”

“Got it.”  Lexi nodded, giving a short hop as she pulled on “her” jeans.

And I suggest you purge any lurid fantasies you may have of coupling with Zina from your thought processes.  She is far too valuable to me to be wasted on a dalliance with you.”

“I wouldn't have broken her,” Lexi murmured, all thoughts of back-door dragon strap-ons erasing themselves.

Before this call ends, I should note that you are authorized, in the course of your duties, to neutralize witnesses.”

Lexi's eyes practically shone at that remark.  “However I want?”

As long as no trace is left of their remains, or their presence, and their removal is handled discreetly.”

“It'll be discreet,” the gynoid beamed.  “I promise.”

The shrouded form of her employer nodded.  “May fortune favour your endeavours.  End communication.

As the projection vanished, Lexi's mind was swimming with possibilities.  Whatever came next would be interesting.

-----

“Yeah?”

The sight of Erin regarding him through a gap in the shop door clued Lloyd in to the possibility that showing Mandy and Diana around might not have been the best idea.  “Ah, Uncle Harry said I could show them around.”  He nodded briefly to Mandy (who gave a polite wave) and Diana (who just stared).  “As long as nobody's doing any work.”

“Well,” Erin sighed, “I am technically working—”

Diana turned on her heel and started to head back to the house; Lloyd had to grab her by the shoulders to stop her; Erin merely laughed.  “You three can come on in,” she declared, fully opening the shop door.  “Have a look around, take notes, and if you want to see The Pit in action, there's a 'bot ready to drop.”

Lloyd, who'd been somewhat distracted by the feeling of micromotors and actuators beneath Diana's artificial skin when he'd turned her around, was somewhat taken aback.  “A full 'bot?”

“Not one from the story we just ran,” Erin assured him.  “C-62-something or other.”

The designation wasn't one Lloyd recognized, but he shrugged it off as he let Mandy and Diana enter the shop before him.  A quick glance at the desk, off to the right of the door, revealed that all the drawers were still closed and locked.

Off where the Artemis Pact had been stored on their racks earlier in the day, a few separate stations—some looking more like makeup tables—were now set up.  Esperanza was seated at one, her hair and makeup being tended to while she ran through lines from a script.  “You don't understand,” she stated, her words spoken in a crisp New England American English accent.  “He's just an old friend, here for the weekend!  I wasn't going to—”  She froze, her eyes briefly going wide, before her expression returned to neutral.  Cam was typing away at a nearby laptop, occasionally glancing at the screen.

“The 'bots we didn't auction off or sell are getting tested,” Erin explained to Mandy.  “We run 'em through the standard battery, just to make sure they're not bugging out between stories.”  A wry grin crossed her features.  “Esperanza here had to get a code wipe before the last event,” she added.  “Seems she had a bit of leftover code the wipes had missed.”

“Was it bad?” Mandy asked.

Erin shrugged.  “As long as you didn't try to disarm her from behind and get too close.”

“She ran through the story just fine,” Lloyd quickly added.  “I disarmed her that time myself, no problem.”

“She has an emergency off-switch on the top of her head,” Erin explained.  “A nice pistol-whip is enough to activate it and shut her off—she didn't feel it, if you're wondering.”  Noticing that Mandy still looked concerned, she chuckled.  “In the script, Esperanza was supposed to call for the guards right after she was disarmed—Lloyd had to knock her out, to keep the story going.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Mandy mused.

The trio continued their loose, ambling tour of the shop; Cam, having finished with Esperanza, followed behind.  “And here,” Erin stated, “is Diana's shipping crate and charging base, which also doubles as her programming station.”

Lloyd glanced at Mandy, who merely nodded.  “Why's her base a chair?”

“Convenience, probably.”  Erin sighed.  “A lot better than plugging in via your feet.”

Whatever Lloyd could've said next was lost as he noticed Diana staring at her own crate, seemingly lost in thought.

 

“Diana?”

Actuators in the blonde's neck whirred as she turned ot glance at Lloyd.  “Yes?”

“You okay?”

“My power cells are 98% charged, my—”

“I'll take that as a yes.”  Lloyd sighed.  “Anything else going on tonight?”

Diana nearly spoke, but fell silent as Erin replied.  “Magnus is getting shipped back from the stunt show we loaned him out to—Arthurian stuff, full-contact sword-fighting,” she noted, glancing at Mandy.  “Got a nasty gash to the arm, but they're fixing that on-site.”  She nodded over at the programming station near The Pit; it was still sectioned off by tarps, as it had been the night of Pam's final malfunction.  “We've got another one to reprogram, in three days.  Seller apparently forgot to do the full wipe before shipping.”

“Full wipe?” Mandy echoed.

“We only use NonSens in our stories,” Erin explained.  “And a lot of them aren't fresh off the line—the newest we've got is Diana, here.”  Diana drew herself up, as if about to introduce herself, but Erin cut her off.  “Sometimes, the 'bots have to be wiped—all the old programming is erased, especially if they were set up for a specific job before they get here.  You don't want a Western gunslinger gal suddenly acting like she still works at First National Bank uptown in the middle of a script, after all.”

Mandy nodded.  “Has that happened before?”

“Once or twice.  Never at a script-critical moment, but still.”  She sighed.  “And whatever you do, when you go back to join the party, don't ask Mr. Morgan about 'The Estate House'.”  Lloyd had only heard Erin call his uncle “Mr. Morgan” a few times before, but appreciated her warning to not mention the least successful event they'd run.  “Diana, that extends to you, too.”

“Why?”

Erin, Mandy and Lloyd stopped in their tracks, turning to glance at the blonde gynoid.  “Why am I suggesting you not ask about it?” Erin inquired.  “Or why am I suggesting you should never mention it to begin with?”

Diana frowned.  “I don't know.”

“It's nothing,” Lloyd assured her.  “Just don't bring it up around Uncle Harry—”

“AKA Mr. Morgan,” Erin added.

“Right.  Just don't mention it to him, please.”

After a moment, Diana nodded.

“Glad we got that cleared up.”  Erin smiled.  “And speaking of clearing things, we have the that ominous looking door at the far end of the room.”  She nodded to the door in question.  “Beyond that door is The Pit.”

Mandy looked worried.  “It's not an actual pit, is it?”

“No,” Erin replied, her tone grim.  “It's worse.”

Erin led the way to the room, stopping to let Cam pass her by and open the door.  As the brunette moved to let them in, Lloyd noticed a spot on the floor where the acid had landed.  From the look on Cam's face, it was evident that the incident was still affecting her—almost as if, despite her assurances and the repairs to her hand, the acid had caused her some measure of quantifiable pain, when it had hit the back of her hand and burned through.  Lloyd noticed that she was quick to exit the room, leaving Erin to lead the tour once again.

The Pit was just as ominous as it'd been the day before.  This time, a broken-down, barely whole 'bot was suspended by her (just enough of the face and body was still intact to determine the gender) arms.

Lloyd was somewhat surprised; the unit held up over The Pit had been out of service for ages after a murder mystery event held by a local diner.  “We're getting rid of her? I thought we'd scrapped her ages ago!”

“Turns out her personality core was still viable,” Erin explained, “so we kept it.  Body-to-body transfers were good, until we tried putting it in her original body.  She'd lock up and crash every single time.  In another body, she worked perfectly fine—apparently, there was some conflict caused by her initial malfunction that made her core inoperable with her old body.  She stayed in the new one, and the old one was refit with a modifiable personality profile.”

The gynoid form held over The Pit had clearly seen better days.  The silicone skin was beginning to degrade; the face, once attractive, was starting to look more like an old mask, not helped by holes in the artificial flesh.  Several spots on both her arms were bare, as were parts of her legs.  Whatever had given her breasts their shape had stained the t-shirt draped over her, turning it from white to a mottled grey.  Her abdomen was visible—or would've been, had the panel covering her internals not been removed.  “There's not a whole lot left to get rid of,” Erin murmured.  “Her model's from 2012 or so, way out of warranty and not even supported by the manufacturer anymore.”

With a sigh, Lloyd nodded.  “I guess we should lower her in, then.”  As he approached the controls for The Pit, Erin stopped Mandy from following him.  “You might not want to get too close,” she warned.  “It lets off fumes, sometimes, and judging from what you've got on your belt—and your neck—I don't think you want to breathe in too deeply.”

Mandy, somewhat worried at Erin's words, took a step back.  Diana merely watched the chains holding the ruined 'bot slowly descend into The Pit, as Lloyd walked away from the controls.

“It's full of what we call 'piranha juice,” Erin stated.  “Can strip away silicone, TPE and most fake hair in, I'd say, ten to fifteen minutes.  Whatever's left of the frame gets dredged out, taken out back and broken up with hammers.  Any vital components get taken out for salvage.  If they're too broken to save, they go in.”  She pointed up, to a garage door-like assembly on the ceiling, near the front of The Pit.  “If we have to drop vitals in, we lower that.  Keeps the staff safe from splashes, spills or—”   A loud hiss from The Pit cut her off.  The surface of the piranha juice churned and bubbled as the now-empty chains lifted back out.

“The only thing it can't weaken or dissolve is lead.”  Erin nodded at the chains, and the tank itself.  “Even the vents are sealed to keep anything from getting in from the roof.  And just in case things get too crazy, we can set the overflow vent to open.”  What looked like a dumpster was situated near the left wall of the room, by a grate-covered opening at the top of The Pit.

“What happens if a 'bot that goes in there is still online?”

Lloyd couldn't help but shudder at Mandy's question; Diana regarded her with a frown.  “That,” Erin replied, “is something I'd never want to see.  It'd be an absolute nightmare, probably.  As for how it'd feel?  My guess: like hell.  Every inch of you burning, parts of you falling or sloughing off, feeling it even as your mind fails...”

Lloyd felt his hand gripped tightly, and thought, for a moment, that Mandy had been terrified by Erin's description.

To his surprise, it was Diana—her eyes wide with very real fear—who held his hand as she stared at The Pit.

“Have any humans ever fallen in?” Mandy asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

Erin shook her head.  “The catwalk's for 'bots only—NonSens, at that.”  She nodded to the barely-visible steel steps bolted to the wall of the room on the far side, just behind the tarp-covered display case.  “Cam and I don't even go up there anymore; I nearly fell in once, and we lost a NonSen when the railing gave out two years ago.”

Mandy shivered.  “That must've been terrible.”

“Could've been a lot worse.”  Erin motioned for Lloyd, Mandy and Diana to follow her out.  “Whoever's out last, close the door behind you, please.  You can ask Cam why she doesn't go up, if you want.”

The sound of Diana practically slamming the door shut nearly made Lloyd jump.

It didn't take long to find Cam sitting at a station off near the “prop room” of the shop; the entire back of her head had been removed, revealing the dull metallic finish of her “skull”.  Wires ran from the base of her neck and ports further down her back to what appeared to be a server set up nearby.  “Bad time?” Erin inquired.

“Your visit isn't an inconvenience,” Cam mused.  “I am wondering why Mandy is here.”

Erin nodded to Lloyd, who sighed.  “Uncle Harry said I could let her and Diana take a tour of the shop.”

Cam glanced past Mandy to see Diana bringing up the rear of the group.

“They've been on their best behaviour so far.  No problems at all.”  Erin grinned.  “They just had a look at The Pit.  Lloyd even got to lower that clapped-out old PlayTech 'bot in.”

“The unit with the personality core reintegration fault?”  Cam was busy watching a scrolling text field across the surface of the “mirror” in front of her—Mandy was surprised to notice that the surface actually contained a full work desktop environment, in addition to Cam's reflection.

“The very same.  Can't say I'm too surprised—her skin was starting to go all funky.”  Erin rolled her eyes.  “It's why this—”  She gestured at her body.  “—is mostly hard-plastic,” she mused, glancing back at Mandy.  “And this—”  She gestured at her own face.  “—is TPE, which tends to be a lot longer-lived than silicone and just as flexible.  The hair's wig-quality, if you're curious.”

Mandy nodded. “I was.  I just, ah—”

“You've only ever seen NonSens with this bodykit before,” Erin finished, her tone neutral.

Lloyd, noticing how uncomfortable Mandy suddenly was, nearly said something in her defense, but Erin spoke up before he could.  “It's fine.  Believe it or not, I didn't always look like this.”  The laugh she gave was more sardonic than amused. “It's a long, stupid story.  I won't bore you with the details—and for the record, you're not the first person who'se noticed that I look like a NonSen.”

Again, Mandy nodded.  “I almost forgot to ask, what was in that case, under the tarp?”

“Back over by The Pit?” Erin replied.  “That, I can't tell you.  All of us are sworn to secrecy about it.  Even Lloyd.”  Despite the fact that he didn't know what was in the case, Lloyd nodded.

Cam, still regarding the icons in the surface of the mirror, merely gave her usual polite frown.

“Well, I think that about covers all the major attractions here in the Shop,” Erin mused.  “Any questions?”

-----

As she finished tightening the maid's shirt, ensuring that the nipples were fully erect and rock-hard under the fabric, Lexi couldn't help but lick her lips in anticipation.  She'd had plenty of fun with the NonSen unit after her first “meeting” with Zina; even with the directive to not fantasize about “coupling” with her employer's right-hand gynoid still in mind, it didn't take long for Lexi to project her lurid desires into a marathon session with the maid.  The woefully-bare bones “personality” built into the pretty 'bot had been left only slightly less broken than her synthetic sex—clearly, the manufacturer of her vaginal package hadn't intended for her to be “used” in that capacity with the butt of a rifle.

The maid stood in the centre of Lexi's suite, deactivated; she'd been online, initially, but Lexi's “fun” with her had left her with a slight tremor.  Cords trailed from a panel left open at the small of her back, leading into a laptop perched on Lexi's knee as she sat on the bed.  The blonde gynoid had completely destroyed the security programs built into the maid, mostly for the sake of leaving a “surprise” that would manifest the day after Lexi had checked out.  She'd also trashed the social interaction programs, found and “improved” multiple sex programs (no doubt left by bored male staff to utilize on their off-hours) and rerouted the maid's audio/visual recording suites from the hotel's servers to her own self.

A few quick keystrokes removed the line of code Lexi had traced back to the shuddering that had annoyed her.

“Let's see how you work now,” she beamed, her fingers flying across the keyboard.

What had once been a pleasant beep now sounded like part of an alarm klaxon as the maid's systems reactivated.  Her usual cheerful smile now looked uncomfortably forced; her eyes seemed locked into a thousand-yard stare—all as Lexi had intended.

“Welcome back!”  Lexi set the laptop aside and hopped off the bed.  “So, what's your designation again?”

Another harsh, grating tone sounded from within the maid.  “I-I-I-I-I am a Stilletto-to-to-to Sys-sys-sys-sys-sys—”  Her head jerked sharply to the right, the cheerful monotone of her voice cut off with a violent electrical snap.

“Ooh,” Lexi mock-flinched, “I might've been a bit too rough with you.”  Her admission ended with a giggle.  “Oops!”

The maid's teeth clenched as she tried to work through the numerous engineered failures in her system.  After a minute or so of stuttering “sys”, her head kinked to the left with another snap.  “Silletto Systems Domes-Tech 1055.  How may I help you, ma'aaaaaa—”  A spark shot from her left nostril.  “—ma'am?”  Her smile looked even more forced.

Lexi tapped her chin for a moment, as if she were lost in thought.  “Confirm program installation: L3597-GHD.”

“One moment-moment-moment-moment—”  Something behind the maid's eyes let off a bang.  “Moment, please.”

“Take your time.”  Lexi's tongue played across her lips.  She was starting to dew up just watching the maid malfunction.

“gramPro inatiostalln firconmed.”  The smile on the maid's lips now looked plastered on, like a bad Botox job.

“Eh, good enough.”  Lexi shrugged.  “And what do you do if anyone tries to fix that program?”

“En rhot ser mav lak son tish veh call mahs surinab.”  The maid's body language seemed to indicate that her shattered social interaction matrix viewed what she was saying as completely normal, even if the words were utter gibberish.  “Inz whod shab dal contact you immediately.”  Her ocular receptors were now focused on the ceiling, rather than Lexi.

The blonde gynoid couldn't care less.  “Oh, this is going to be great!”  She draped an arm across the maid's shoulders, one hand drifting under her uniform skirt to the inseam of her panties.  “I'd love to stick around,” she murmured, “and watch you do your thing, but I've got places to be tomorrow.”  She gave an overly theatrical sigh.  “Oh, well.”

The maid merely continued smiling vacantly, unable to remotely comprehend just how doomed she truly was.

-----

“Well?”

Mandy looked away from the stunning view of the night sky available from the back porch of Harry's ranch house.  “Well, what?” she asked.

“The shop, and all of this,” Lloyd offered.  “Was it, I dunno—”

“Interesting?”  Mandy smiled.  “It was, definitely.  It all reminds me of how old movies used to do special effects—back in the 80s and 90s, y'know?”

Lloyd chuckled.  “I'm pretty sure some of them still do.  And I never heard 90s movies get called 'old' before.”

“Well, they're the only ones I could think of,” Mandy admitted.  “I was reading an article the other day about how this one movie, in the 90s, almost lost their lead actor because the crew made their own blanks.  They were about to do a scene where the main character got shot—if a crew member hadn't told the stunt people to test-fire at a wall, that actor would've died!”

“Yeesh.”  Lloyd remembered Harry's tale of the stunt show he'd worked with where a colleague had lost an eye due to a misfiring “blank”.  “Sounds like the kind of thing that'd get someone sued!”

Mandy nodded.  “There was a lawsuit, I think—I'll have to find that article and e-mail it to you.”  Her remark trailed off as she watched Diana emerge from the back door of the ranch house, not looking at her or Lloyd.

“I wonder if she's learned anything tonight,” Lloyd murmured.

“Like what?”

“Dunno.  Just, anything—how to interact, how to think for herself, and how to think of herself, maybe.”  Lloyd sighed.  “I don't want to see her end up like that PlayTech 'bot I put into The Pit.  Or like Pam.”

“Pam?”

“Remember when Cam and I were at Reclamation yesterday?”  Lloyd sighed.  “The parts we'd brought in were from Pam.  She'd had a massive system failure the day before—self-activated during a repair session, and crashed out completely in the main room of the house.”

Mandy was aghast.  “She self-activated during a repair?”

“Uncle Harry had fixed her up loads of times before, but she was always kind of twitchy,” Lloyd admitted.  “Erin had said that Pam was acting funny back at the base camp for the event, and they'd sent her to the shop to get fixed up.”  He hung his head.  “I guess she'd just been through the wringer one too many times, and her systems couldn't handle any of it anymore.”  He let out a long, sad sigh.  “Even a NonSen shouldn't have had to go out the way she did.”

From where she was leaning against a support column of the porch, Diana watched and listened to the conversation with something that her processing matrix tagged as “interest”.  The “Pam” mentioned was obviously a non-sentient gynoid, but Lloyd was expressing intense regret at her cessation of function, possibly even compassion for others like her in his desire to not see them “go out the way she did”.  A thought process formed, somewhere in one of the subroutines that formed her base personality.

She shifted her position slightly, still watching Lloyd talk to Mandy.

Her ocular receptors refocused, allowing her to read Lloyd's lips as he spoke.

“I had to help bring her out to the shop, and I was there for the whole teardown.”  Again, Lloyd sighed.  “It was sad, the way she went out.  It wasn't even her own fault that she'd crashed the way she did—she'd been refit and rebuilt and had so many parts swapped out so many times—”

The hand resting gently atop his own cut him off.  “It wasn't your fault, either,” Mandy reminded him.

“But it was someone's,” Lloyd insisted.  “I mean, even NonSens shouldn't just be treated like, like a car, or a washing machine, or a thing, y'know?!  When people get hurt, they have doctors, they have hospitals, medicine, surgery!  When a 'bot—when a NonSen gets damaged, or broken, or whatever—”

“There are people to fix them,” Mandy mused.  “Like your uncle, and Honest Abe.”

“But some people don't want to fix them,” Lloyd sulked.  “Or they half-ass it—sorry,” he quickly added.  “They just do it halfway.  Or like with Pam, they just keep refitting, and taking out and putting in, and never checking if the hardware meshes with the software, or if the hardware is compatible with the other hardware, or if any hardware has proprietary software that won't work with other software.”  He propped his chin up with both hands and closed his eyes.  “And that's just with the NonSens.  I never want to see Sentients treated that way.”

Mandy regarded him for a moment.  “What about people?  Humans, I mean—”

“Nobody deserves to be treated like just a thing, or an object!  Human or android!”  Lloyd dragged his hands over his face.  “I just—that's why I got into Mechanical Engineering.  So I could keep androids up and running, and treat them like they should be treated.”

“Like people,” Mandy finished.

“Yes!”  He turned to glance at her, only just realizing that he might've come across as a ranting nutcase.

To his surprise, she was regarding him with a curious stare and a gentle smile.  “You're something else, Lloyd.”

“Something good, I hope.”

At this, Mandy giggled, leaning over to hug Lloyd's shoulders.  “Of course, something good!”  She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.  “I think,” she informed him, “you'd be great at it.  Repairing androids, I mean.”

“I hope so,” Lloyd sighed.  “I read about how things were before the Civic Accords got signed.  Way too many people acting like all 'bots were just 'property', even sentients.  And I don't want to think about how bad it was before the Civic Accords, when people didn't even know there were sentient androids around.”

Mandy hugged his shoulders again.  “Well, we have the Accords now,” she whispered.  “Things are better.”

“I guess they are,” Lloyd mused, his hands gently grasping Mandy's.

From her spot on the porch, Diana regarded the pair—silently, but with a growing sense of what could very well be the beginning of her own curiosity.  More and more thought processes were forming in her mind.  Questions to be asked, things to study, to learn—the seeds of what could be emotions.

Diana watched the pair, not realizing that her hand had drifted up to cup her chin until she felt her fingers against it.

This was different.  This wasn't a script, or a preset or just some random line of code.  This was new.

In time, when her capacity to feel would increase, Diana would find herself fascinated by such moments.

-----

Most of the other guests at the hotel had gone to bed already.  A few were conducting teleconferencing calls or other business, but the vast majority had turned in for the night.

Lexi, predictably, wasn't among them.

The maid had been sent back into the bathroom.  The gashes on her limbs patched up, and her uniform carefully altered to be just a tad more appealing, she stood motionless in the bathtub—shut down, since that ghastly fake smile on her face was starting to get annoying to look at.  For no reason other than Lexi finding it hilarious, her shirt had been left open to display her bare breasts.

As for Lexi herself, she, too, was taking care of business as the night wore on.

The laptop she'd used to reprogram the maid was now being used to access a secure link, found on a note in the package she'd received earlier in the day.  The link, only accessible through a nonstandard browser and behind multiple security logins, led her directly to the next set of objectives from her enigmatic masters.

Harry Morgan, as she'd anticipated, was to be observed and—if possible—questioned.

If the drive was in his possession, he—and anyone in his immediate circle of influence—was to be terminated.

The light of the laptop's screen cast eerie shadows on Lexi's grinning face.  With any luck, she could get started on finding and “questioning” the mysterious Harry Morgan tomorrow, and maybe have a bit of fun along the way.

Her eyes flicked to the bathroom door, the familiar hot wetness between her legs already building.

“Oh, what the hell?”  The laptop was still open as Lexi bounded off of the bed.  “One more round couldn't hurt!”

-----

The last of the guests had long since left by the time Lloyd went back up to his room.  The party had definitely been a good one, a great end to a great event, but it was barely in the forefront of his thoughts.  What swam through his mind as he went through his nightly routine was the dichotomy between Mandy and Diana—both of whom he found himself increasingly attracted to.

Mandy, even with the effects of the 2020 pandemic still lingering, was a good friend and a great classmate.  Hopefully, in time, she'd be more, but for now, Lloyd was glad to just know her.

Diana, on the other hand, was something—someone else entirely.  In all likelihood, Diana was—as Cam had put it, two days prior—writing as she went.  Learning with every new experience, and forming a baseline on a day-to-day basis. After the party, he'd set Diana up in her charging station, ready for new adventures in the coming days.

Both of them were part of Lloyd's life, and Lloyd wanted to be a bigger part of both of their lives.

As he turned out the light and closed his eyes, he pondered how Mandy and Diana had reacted to the various sights and sounds of the tour—and of the party they'd returned to after.  Obviously, Mandy had been to parties before—the one they'd both attended earlier, where they'd nearly kissed following a slow dance, came to mind immediately.  Diana, by contrast, had only been online for just over one full day, and had only been running in Autonomous Mode, without a script, for the better part of maybe three hours.

It'd be interesting to see how she might perform left to her own devices.  True, she wouldn't ascend in a day, but Diana would be a lot more than just the sum of her parts, the base coding installed in her at Heartelligence's factory.  Already, she was more.

Lloyd managed a tired smile as he rolled over.  Within minutes, his world filled with peace as he dozed off.

-----

Off in the shop, seated at her recharging station for the night, Diana stared at the far wall without really seeing it.  Her vision was, instead, filled with prompts, statistics and words—her systems interpreting the sights and sounds of the party and the tour of the shop.

Every sensation was analyzed; every movement scrutinized.  Her every thought was unpacked, laid bare and repacked.

The most important—and fascinating—of these were her interactions with Lloyd, and his friend Mandy.  Mandy herself had medical-grade...augmentations?  Or were they mitigators?  Whatever the case, she, too, had artificial components within her body, put in place to negate damage done to her lungs by some kind of virus.  A quick Internet search found a probable  cause: a pandemic, three years prior, with a catastrophically high death rate that only flattened when the first of several vaccines had been introduced, seven months later.

Had Mandy been vaccinated?  If not, why?

In any case, Lloyd showed a definite interest in Mandy, but seemed almost embarrassed when her condition was brought up in casual conversation.  Had Diana made some kind of faux pas by casually mentioning it?

There was much more to process, so much more.  Sensory inputs, thought patterns, social interaction guidelines—all of it was nearly overwhelming to Diana.  A bit of “fear” of The Pit, knowing it'd mean the end; did she have a self-preservation instinct?  A twinge of something that her Emotional Output Index labeled “jealousy” flared up, directed towards Mandy, for some reason.  Did Lloyd feel the same way about Diana as he did about Mandy?  Would he?

Diana felt (or at least believed that she felt) a desire for Lloyd to protect her, to help her feel safe—even if she didn't feel imperiled in the first place.

This was...confusing, to the gynoid; her Systems Manager queued the thought process for later processing.  There was no real impetus for her to act on it, as it was, or to act on anything she was feeling; all she could do for now was to process the information, and eventually—hopefully--understand it.  Her systems continued what would become something of a nightly ritual, going through her thoughts and memories one bit at a time.  Gradually, her “self” slipped into standby mode, and from there into Sleep Mode.  Any further conscious thought on what she'd been through would have to wait until her next boot-up.

Still, her central processing unit was sorting questions and stray thoughts even as she edged towards Sleep Mode.

Before her consciousness winked out for the night, Diana knew that she'd need answers—sooner, rather than later.

-----

From its “home” in the locked desk drawer, the solid state drive continued to send its signal.  This time, it was stronger, more urgent—almost as if it wanted, needed to be found.

The signal forked, three ways—a trident, sending itself to a triumvirate of operatives.

One, in a hotel several towns away, had just finished her latest round of “fun” with a compromised maid unit.  She felt the signal, welcomed it like a lover's caress.  The smile that crossed her lips would hold its own in the lowest circles of Hell itself—if she didn't bring that Hell to Harry Morgan and his friends and family, first.

Two, hidden away in storage somewhere in the part of California known as Silicon Valley, couldn't act upon the signal yet.  Repairs were needed; possibly upgrades, as well.  When the time was right, they would be activated and deployed.

Whether they were asleep, in Sleep Mode or working through the night, nobody in Harry Morgan's inner circle had any idea of the kind of impact Lloyd's discovery of that solid state drive would have on all of their lives.

In due time, they would find out.

-----

Chapter 6

CAEDIA IM Login

Name: Sbirch-95

Password: **********

Login Accepted

Users Online: Sbirch-95, JSNLawGiver, EagleC

Sbirch-95: What's the current situation at the scene?

JSNLawgiver: Absolute chaos.  Two sentients down, the entire house trashed.

EagleC: The homeowner's there, as well.  He's furious.

Sbirch-95: I'd expect him to be.  When was he notified?

EagleC: Three hours after it happened.  He was still at work.

Sbirch-95: Must be a nightmare for the guy.

JSNLawgiver: It gets worse.

Sbirch-95: Worse?

JSNLawgiver: His personal computer was tampered with.  We'll get the full story at the scene.

EagleC: “Tampered with”?

JSNLawgiver: I'd prefer not to discuss the specifics on an—

Sbirch-95: We're secure.  The failed DDOS against the local office proved that.

EagleC: Did anyone get a trace on that?

New User Joined: TWraith

TWraith: I just got back to the office.  How bad is it?

Sbirch-95: We're on our way to find out now.

JSNLawgiver: the local police are already on the scene, holding down the fort.

TWraith: I'll be waiting.  Make sure to check the two sentients before you send them.

EagleC: If they're not in the system—

TWraith: That's my department.  It'd be even worse if they were.

EagleC: Do I even want to know?

TWraith: If the report on how they were scrapped is correct—

EagleC: I get it.

Sbirch-95: The locals haven't messed with the scene at all?

JSNLawgiver: Apart from searching for conventional evidence.

Sbirch-95: They find anything?

EagleC: Broken TV, broken windows, broken kitchen drawers, broken washer, broken dryer—

TWraith: I think we get the picture.

Sbirch-95: Was anything not broken?

EagleC: The robovac.

JSNLawgiver: He didn't even have a NonSen cleaner?

TWraith: If he did, his ex got it in the annulment.

TWraith: The locals have sent an officer to check on her, make sure she's unharmed.

Sbirch-95: I can see the house now.  There's a local officer out front.

TWraith: I'll leave you to it, then.

TWraith has left the chat.

Sbirch-95: Whoever said “absolute chaos” wasn't kidding.

EagleC: Something's going up in the backyard.

JSNLawgiver: We'll ask about that as soon as we're out of the cars.

Chat Ended.

-----

The first thought that ran through Sierra Birch's mind as her CAEDIA-issue cruiser glided to a stop was that someone had gone through a lot of trouble to ensure that Bobby Pariello's life would be a living hell when he got off of work.

Even before she left the car, the blonde could tell that whoever had trashed Bobby's house had gone to extremes in the level of chaos they'd sewn.  Every window had been smashed—from the inside.  The window-mounted air-con unit on the side of the house was belching smoke and ice fragments.  What appeared to be a geyser of some sort had erupted in the back yard.

The gull-wing door of the cruiser opened to allow Sierra to exit.  Her fellow Officers, having arrived alongside her, were just leaving their own vehicles.  Celia and Jason were both in casual attire, rather than their usual uniforms; neither had expected to be called in this late.  By contrast, Sierra had yet to return to wearing her own uniform after a brief stint undercover—she, like Celia and Jason, was in casual gear.

A local police officer—Black, mid-to-late 40s—stopped the trio as they approached the drive.  “Sorry, but this is an active crime scene.”

Sierra glanced at Celia and Jason before retrieving a wallet from her hip pocket. With her right hand, she held it up, revealing her CAEDIA badge; a small slit in the palm of her left hand projected a QR code.  Celia and Jason had already mirrored the gestures.

The policeman before them regarded their badges before retrieving his phone to scan the codes. Brief video clips of each officer appeared on the screen: CAEDIA Officers Sierra Birch, Jason Knight and Celia Faulkner.

With a sigh, the officer lowered his phone.  “Just wanted to make sure we weren't getting any other psychos out here,” he explained.  “Especially after what went down.”

“We heard a few of the details on the way,” Sierra informed him.  “It sounded—”

“Bad?” the uniformed officer echoed.  “Trust me, it's a lot worse than 'bad', Officer Birch.”  He gestured for the three to follow him inside, stepping over the ruined front door.

The artificial Officers stepped carefully as they entered Bobby Pariello's house—immediately drawn to the sharp smell of burnt-out electronics, singed metal and another odour that none of them commented on.  Two figures covered in plastic sheets were off in the kitchen area to the right, one laying on the floor and the other slumped over at the microwave.

Sierra stepped towards the kitchen, her eyes taking on a faint glow.

“Any witnesses?” Celia asked.

“Everybody on the block heard the screaming, but it wasn't from either of these two—at least, I'd hope it wasn't.”

The discussion was barely audible to Sierra as she knelt by the figure on the floor, carefully pulling the plastic sheet away from the body.  The brunette's face was frozen in shock, one eye wide open while the other was mid-squint.  Her mouth had locked into a half-sneer; internal lubrication fluid had bubbled up from her throat and dried at some point in the past hour or so.  More pressing was the telltale residue on her chest: Sierra recognized the leftover aspect of gynoid sexual fluid when she saw it. Some of it had gone into the ragged hole in the doomed gynoid's chest.

She'd investigated anti-android crimes before, but something about this was different. This wasn't just a smash-and-grab job turned into a sex crime.  The residue on the victim's chest was proof enough, by itself, but protocol dictated that all avenues had to be followed.

“Anything?” Sierra hadn't noticed Jason kneel next to her.

“Whoever did this to her got off from it.”  Sierra wasn't surprised at how toneless her voice sounded—in this line of work, getting too emotional was a liability.  “Pretty sure our perp is a gynoid.”

Jason scowled. “Any chance we can keep this out of the papers?”

A shrill, nasally voice somewhere further back in the house, screaming about compensation and insurance, served as a fitting prelude to Sierra's own remark: “No settlement in the world is going to keep him from going to the press about all of this.”

Celia's gasp cut off any further discussion of the irritated homeowner; she'd dropped the plastic sheet from the slumped figure—female, younger than the first, but clearly artificial, as evidenced by the wires poking out from the tears in her neck, as well as the fluids staining her skin from where numerous small holes had been blown out.  “Who could've done something like this?” she murmured.

“That's what we're here to find out.”  Sierra motioned for Jason to help her move the microwave to the kitchen island, and for Celia to carefully manoeuvrer the ruined gynoid's body with it.  “We'll have to take the door off,” the blonde mused. “Probably back at the office.”

Jason's attention was caught by the pile of diced objects on the island.  “Any guesses?”

Sierra leaned in to get a closer look; the structure of her digital voice-box meant that she wouldn't have to worry about accidentally blowing any fragments off the island.  “Photos,” she realized.  “Chopped-up—maybe enough of them for a full stack.”

“Chopped up with what?”  Jason arched an eyebrow.  “Most of the cutlery got thrown into the dryer.”

“My guess?” Celia chimed in, nodding to a cabinet door.  “That.”  A cleaver had been sunken into the surface of the door, hard enough for the blade to partially be visible from the other side.  “Haven't seen anything like this since—”

Sierra shot her a warning glance.  “We get any matches on these two?”

Jason's eyes were glowing a soft emerald.  “Evelyn Hinson.”  He nodded to the gynoid on the floor.  “Michelle Pickett.”  He gestured to the gynoid whose head was still stuck in the microwave.  “Both sentient, both in the system.”  He winced.  “And both with cloud backups.”

“That's bad?” Celia asked.

“They were uploading memories to the cloud until their systems failed completely.” Jason's tone was stern.  “Every memory, up until COF.”

Celia's eyes went wide, and even Sierra had to turn away.  Androids and gynoids rebuilt after suffering through particularly gruesome Cessations Of Function tended to either delete any memories of their final moments, or save them to an external source, away from their active memories and “selves”.  Evelyn and Michelle, post-rebuild, would more than likely immediately recall how they'd met their fates, which could easily lead to trauma and potential failures in their system integrity.

“We'll have to get them to the Dyson Institute ASAP post-rebuild,” Sierra muttered. “It'll take a lot of counselling to get over how they were scrapped.”

“And we still don't know who scrapped them,” Celia added, scowling.  “Or who trashed the house.  They could be—”

She.”

Sierra, Jason and Celia all touched their temples, their eyes glowing.  “You've found something?” Sierra asked.

The Caller ID image in her field of view was blank, but the ID tag (TWraith) and badge number were positive matches to those belonging to her detective colleague, as was the guttural, low voice.  “The office got the door cam footage, from before Evelyn and Michelle were in the house.

“And?”

This, you've got to see to believe.”

All three Officers saw, in a picture-in-picture window, the image of Bobby Pariello's front yard, a stolen vehicle having been driven onto the grass.  For a moment, they wondered what the significance was—until a grinning, sprinting figure charged into view and jumped at the door, both legs extended.  The footage cut out when the runner's feet hit the door.

“Play that back.”

The footage rewound, at Sierra's request.  Again, the grinning runner charged up the walk—

“Pause.”

The footage froze, the smiling face clearly visible.

“Early 20s, blonde.”  Sierra's eyes narrowed.  “Given the evidence we've already found, she's definitely artificial.”

I can run a trace from the office.  Any models currently active, manufactured over the past few months—

“Try the past few years.  Back to at least 2000.”

That far back?

“Call it a hunch.”  Sierra frowned thoughtfully; the smiling face of the running gynoid seemed oddly familiar, but from where?  “Let us know if you've got any leads.”

“What about the owner of the car?” Jason piped in.

Still in hospital, along with a friend of his.  They were checking out a potential disturbance at that storage unit when they got jumped.”

Jason looked puzzled.  “The one where the door was broken from the inside?”

The very same.  Neither of the two saw anything but a quick flash of blonde hair and a girl 'dressed like a hooker'—their words, not mine—before they got floored.”

Celia rolled her eyes.  “They didn't give a better description than that?”

They did get knocked unconscious, if you recall.

“So all of this,” Sierra cut in, “was done by one perp?  The windows, the air conditioner, the washer and dryer—”

And the sentients.”

Sierra nodded. “All that damage, caused by one gynoid?”

Not to mention the three car thefts, the assaults at the storage unit and an accident downtownFound a guy facedown on the hood of his own car, said he'd T-boned an SUV and tried to call the insurance company before 'some chick' pulled him out, broke both his knees and then slammed him on his own car.

“And we have no leads on where our suspect is?”

None so farIf she turns up again—

“When she turns up again,” Sierra corrected.  “And she will.”

She might also be armed and dangerous.

Sierra scowled, not caring that the detective wouldn't see it.  “All the more reason for us to be ready for her.  Nobody else—human or artificial—deserves to suffer the way these two did.”

I can see why the San Jose Police Department recommended you as their premiere representative to CAEDIA.  You've got a servant's heart, and the mindset of a warrior.”

“I don't want war with whoever did this,” Sierra replied.  “I just want to see them off the streets.”

If we're lucky, she'll be off the streets soon enough.”

“So we're positive that we're looking for a lone perp?”

The doorbell camera proves it.  Nobody else entered, apart from Hinson and Pickett, since she did, and nobody else left after she blasted out of the garage with Pariello's SUVShe's the one we're looking for—

“Are we sure?”

Celia's question prompted a scoff.  “You're thinking the camera could've been spoofed?

“I'm thinking someone might've programmed an older model 'bot to do this,” Celia replied. Lowering her voice, she added “Pariello's not exactly popular, after all.”

“Which would make sense if this was just a prank,” Sierra reminded her.  “Instead, we've got burglary, gross destruction of property and two sentients bricked.  Someone who just wanted to annoy him wouldn't have gone that far.” She watched, impassively, as two coverall-clad men, both wearing CAEDIA badges, entered the kitchen; one picked up the microwave, while the other hefted Michelle's form up.  “I think we can safely call this a crime,” she continued, “not a prank gone wrong.”

“Right.” Celia nodded.  “I just—”

You hate the thought that all of this was done by one gynoid.”

“Yeah.” Celia focused her stare on the floor.

If it's any consolation, it's not one of oursALPHA's combing their records to make sure no gynoid registered with them was hacked or otherwise compromised into doing all this; the Coalition and the House are doing the same.”

“Found something.”  Jason held up a sterling silver cake server; it looked almost like a trowel.  “Why's this on the floor?”

Sierra glanced at the server, then at the gaping hole in Evelyn's chest.  “I think I know why.”

Bag it and bring it back—same with the cleaver.  Even if it wasn't used on the two sentients, we might still be able to get a trace off of it.

“Will do.” Sierra walked back to the junction between the living room and the kitchen; she had a perfect line of sight to at least one other room that the perpetrator had trashed, as well as the doors to both bedrooms.  “Why him?”

We're working on figuring the motive now.  If anything comes up—

“And if there was no motive?”  Sierra frowned.  “What if this was just random?”

That's a whole different can of worms.”

Any further discussion on whether or not the crime was random was interrupted by the excessively loud approach of Robert Pariello, stomping and screaming at the top of his lungs that the “pricks” responsible for the utter devastation wreaked upon his house would soon pay.  Sierra quickly retrieved an evidence bag from her coat pocket and handed it to Celia, who swept up the confetti pictures into the bag and sealed it just as Pariello entered the kitchen.

Compared to the engineered attractiveness of Jason, Celia and Sierra, Robert Pariello looked as flawed as one might expect.  Short, stout and with a balding head that vaguely resembled an egg, the former weatherman and ex-stockbroker glared at the three CAEDIA Officers as if he'd suspected them of trashing his house.  The first word out of his mouth, by way of a greeting or introduction, was an impatient “Well?!”

Jason and Celia exchanged glances.  “Well, what?” Sierra prompted.

“Have you figured out who did this or not?!” Robert demanded.  His high, nasally voice diminished any level of menace or intimidation that his words might've carried.  “I want to know who tore up my house!”

“We're working on it,” Sierra replied, already turning her attention back to the downed gynoids.

Unfortunately for her, Robert apparently considered this simple gesture a gross insult. “So that's it?  You're just going to look the other way and not give me any answers?!”

“I just said we're working on it—”

“You're not even real police, are you?!  Just that stupid CAEDIA crap, here because of those two stupid robots!”

At this, Celia and Jason—who'd been conversing quietly about how to best get Evelyn's remains out of the kitchen to a waiting van outside—both looked up at Robert.  Sierra slowly turned, her stare as cold as her voice: “Michelle Pickett and Evelyn Hinson were your neighbours, Mr. Pariello, not 'stupid robots'.  They ranked as high on any sentience scale as you would, and—”

“Don't give me that!” Robert countered, wagging a finger in Sierra's face.  “They had no right to be here!”

“They were trying to stop an intruder,” Sierra replied.  “If they hadn't—”

“Who's your superior officer?!”  Robert grabbed for Sierra's phone, still resting in its belt holster.  “I want to talk to—”

“You can talk to the officer outside on your front lawn,” Sierra informed him, pushing his hand away from her belt, “if you want any updates on the gross criminal damage of your property.  As for Ms. Hinson and Ms. Pickett, I'm the lead officer on this case—”

“I'm ordering you to give me your phone!” Robert demanded.  “Otherwise, I'll call ALPHA and have you scrapped!”

Over by the kitchen island, Celia muttered “Oh, hell,” while Jason merely decided to closely examine the large dent in the door of the refrigerator.

Sierra, not surprisingly, was not phased by the “threat”.  “I'm an Officer of CAEDIA,” she calmly stated, “and—”

“You're a rent-a-RoboCop with a cheap badge,” Robert spat.  “My house has been trashed, and—GET OFF!”  The hand at his shoulder was that of the Black officer from the yard, rather than Jason.  “Bobby, I think it's time you take a break,” he advised.  “Just step outside for a bit—”

“TELL HER TO GIVE ME HER PHONE!” Robert shrieked.  “I'M CALLING ALPHA!”

“She's doing her job,” the officer insisted.

“HER JOB IS TO DO WHAT HUMAN BEINGS TELL HER TO DO!” Robert thundered.  “SHE'S PROBABLY A REPURPOSED SEX DOLL!  JUST LOOK AT HER!”

Calm down, Robert!”

The human officer ushered Pariello outside, while Jason and Celia watched.  “I'm guessing he's not going to be voting for any increases to CAEDIA funding come next year,” Jason mused.

“Does he not get that we are looking for the one who did this?” Celia asked.

“He's more worried about his insurance and whether or not it covers anything like this.” The scowl on Sierra's face was more than enough proof that she had no patience for Pariello or his outbursts. “And whoever keeps pushing the idea that all androids are 'three-laws compliant' needs to cut it out,” she added, shaking her head.  “'Ordering' me to give him my phone, like I'm a NonSen—”

“It might just be stress,” Jason offered.

Not likely.”

Sierra frowned. “You heard all of that?”

Heard it while I was checking Pariello's record.  He should be lucky Pickett and Hinson bothered to see what was going on at his house at all—he's tried to push anti-Accords measures at every town hall meeting since they were passed, and been told off each time.”

“Please tell me he didn't get replaced at the weather desk by an android.”

Worse. He's already been done for assault—he beat up a 68-year-old man in the parking lot on spurious claims, put the guy in the hospital.  Refused to show up for his court date after, said the charges were a complete joke.

Sierra didn't bother terminating the groan that issued from her lips.

He's also had problems with pretty much any co-worker who wasn't a WASP like him.  As far as his views on A.I.s, M.I.s and the like—remember last year, when that stupid 'control collar' idea made the 6 PM news for being laughed out of Town Hall?

“Let me guess,” Sierra muttered.  “Pariello.”

Right in oneApparently, he's still trying to get it all the way to New Columbia.”

Any further discussion was cut off by the local officer—Michael Carver, as the briefly-appearing info-box in Sierra's field of view stated—re-entered the house.  “We're gonna have to take Bobby down to the station,” he informed the three CAEDIA Officers.  “He's already on some conspiracy trip about the whole block being 'in on it', whatever 'it' is—”  A shout from outside caught his attention, followed by several more—directed at the now-fleeing figure of Robert Pariello.  “Oh, what the Hell?!

“I'll go check the bedroom,” Celia offered.  “See if we can find any trace of our mystery ransacker.”

“If nobody's checking the game room,” Jason volunteered, “I'll look there.”

Sierra nodded. “I'll stay up here.  See if our intruder left anything behind.” 

With her colleagues setting off to cover their chosen rooms, the blonde went to work on her own.  She carefully stepped over Evelyn's downed form as she crossed from the kitchen to the living room.  The soft glow had returned to her eyes as she regarded every aspect of the wrecked room, including the shattered TV.

Webcam disabled.

DVR hard drive: scanning

Hard drive intact

The contents of the DVR's hard drive filled Sierra's vision, stylized poster-like thumbnails of everything Pariello had recorded and saved.  The last recording from before the TV had been smashed had started an hour before the break-in: a “documentary” from a Herring network about how the Civic Accords were part of some sinister agenda put forth to soften up America and make it ripe for a Marxist takeover.  Sierra frowned, and nearly moved on—only to notice that the timestamps of the recording were slightly off.

“Load and playback, x50.”

Her vision filled with the Herring logo and several minutes' worth of footage, sped up and muted—until what would've been the 20 minute mark.

“Playback, standard speed—”

A gasp left Sierra's lips.  The footage had been corrupted, dissolving into static and decaying pixels.  The sound had been equally damaged, a cacophony of white noise and ruined audio.  Occasionally, in glimpses far too brief for a human to catch, the picture solidified to show an image: a hospital room, a figure lying in bed.  Brief segments of words surfaced through the murk of ruined audio: “time”, “state”, “distance”, “PROOF”.  The voice sounded entirely too old to be the narrator of the documentary.

Before she could think to force-close the playback, Sierra's vision briefly filled with a horrific sight: a close-up of a figure, shrouded in darkness.  The facial features were lost to the shadows, but the eyes weren't: golden sclera, shot through with spider-webs of sickly red; murky, dark grey irises, and foggy white pupils.

“Abort playback!”

Sierra's ocular sensors briefly deactivated, and she dreaded the possibility that those eyes would still be staring at her when they reactivated.  Fortunately, her fears were for naught; the only view she had was of the living room, the ruined TV, and the DVR—which was now spewing smoke from its vents.  A quick scan of the hard drive revealed that something had tripped to begin systematically erasing the contents.  Sierra terminated her link with the device, her lips parting in another gasp.

“Everything okay?”

Jason's hand on her shoulder was a welcome diversion from whatever Sierra had just witnessed.  “I'm fine. That isn't.”  She nodded at the DVR.  “Something else got recorded, over the regular programming—corrupted the entire drive.”

Without hesitation, Jason walked past Sierra and unplugged the DVR.  “We can at least try a recovery,” he reasoned.

“Good point.”  Sierra regarded the still-smoking device.  “Find anything in the game room?”

“Bobby's definition of 'gaming' is pool and poker, apparently.  Most of the cues were snapped in half, and...”  Jason stared into Sierra's eyes, sending her the more lurid findings directly.

“Right on the baize?!”

Jason nodded. “Pretty sure the fluid will be a match to what we found on—and in—Evelyn.”

“I think we should tell the local cops to book Pariello,” Celia called out.

Sierra frowned. “Book him?

Celia stepped out of the bedroom, her gloved hands holding up a portion of the headboard. “Remember that felony arrest he got for assault?” she asked. Jason and Sierra both nodded, prompting her to turn over the fragment of the headboard to reveal the holster glued to the back.

“Let me guess. No pistol.”  Sierra already knew the answer, even as she asked.

“No pistol, and no sign of whatever he was hiding in his mattress.  Whoever did this cleaned him out.”

“He's still on the hook for illegal possession of a firearm,” Jason mused.  “We'll have to tell Officer Carver—”

“I'm hoping you don't have to tell me that you've got no leads on who tore this place up,” Officer Carver stated, sounding as tired as he looked.  “We've already got a car out to find Bobby, since he decided to up and run off instead of just waiting for a ride to the station.”

“When you catch him,” Sierra replied, “you'll have to tell him to forget any hotel reservations he might've made.”  She nodded to Celia, who held up the headboard piece with the holster glued to it.

Carver groaned. “You find the gun?”

“We think whoever smashed up the house stole it—”

“About that.” Sierra knelt by Evelyn's ruined form, retrieving a double-plug cord from her jacket pocket.

No.”  Jason was at her side in an instant, his tone grim.  “You link up to her, you'll—”

“I know the risks.”  Sierra gently moved Evelyn's body onto its side, finding the appropriate port on the small of her back and plugging the cord in.  “If it gets too bad, I'll port out.”

“The damage done to her systems could cause massive feedback loops to yours,” Jason reminded her. “If they do—”

“I'll be careful.”  Sierra found the corresponding port for the plug on the other end of the cord, and quickly removed the synthetic flesh covering.  “This isn't the first time I've ported in.”

Jason and Celia exchanged glances.  “You're sure?

“Positive.” Sierra closed her eyes and plugged the cord in—

Find memory file.

File found.

Go to: Timestamp—

Done.

—and, in the memories of Evelyn Hinson, opened them again.

The kitchen was still a mess, but not nearly as bad as it had been when Sierra, Jason and Celia had arrived.  The cabinet door with the cleaver embedded in it was still whole, the cleaver nowhere to be seen.  Form the position Sierra found herself in, she could tell Evelyn hadn't ended up by the refrigerator by choice.

Have to check her thought processes later to see just what she decided to do.  The ethereal tone of her own voice wasn't all that odd to Sierra; any time she ported in, her own observations sounded faint, almost ghostly.  Might as well stop staring and get to the main attractionPlayback.

Instantly, an impact warning flew up into her field of vision—Evelyn's systems, she realized.  Looks like I was right—

The sound of something sliding across the kitchen island cut her off, followed by another impact warning and the rather jarring sight of a foot entering her view, smashing into her right wrist and snapping something in it.

Not my systems, keep that in mindI'm not the one being damaged.

Sierra had to keep her mantra in mind as Evelyn's final moments played out.  Off in the background, Michelle's muted cries and the pop pop pop of vital components blowing out sounded as if Sierra had been right there when it all happened.  She heard Evelyn scream “MICHELLE!”, trying to get back to her feet only for a ruined knee to send her into a kneel.   Feeling the refrigerator door slammed, five times, on her right arm would've been enough to force her to port out, but she bore the phantom pain (no sense in calling it “damage”; Evelyn was a Sentient, after all) without protest; she realised Evelyn's left arm was still undamaged, and that the blonde was still out of range of it.  Someone—the perpetrator of all of this carnage—was laughing, a high, girlish squeal of absolute delight at the suffering being inflicted upon Evelyn and Michelle.

The CAEDIA officer watched as Evelyn was dropped to the floor, staring at her ruined right arm.  The vocalizations she'd made were very obviously sobs; more than likely—

Sierra wasn't ready for the sudden, violent impact of a blunt object against Evelyn's cranial assembly.  Damn it, I almost felt that!  Evelyn's field of view became less stable, the kitchen suddenly awash with corrupted pixels and static.  Notices and warnings from her internal stabilizers appeared; she tried to get back up!  But why—

The blunt object smashed into the side of Evelyn's head again.

Sierra could see the warnings: LEFT AURAL SENSOR DAMAGED.  LEFT OCULAR SENSOR DAMAGED.  GYRO-STABILIZERS ON LEFT SIDE OUT OF—

Whatever the gyro-stabilizers were out of was never made clear.  Another heavy impact gave Sierra an intimate view of the floor from Evelyn's perspective.

Again, the sounds of Michelle's demise over at the microwave filled the air, competing with the farther-off sounds of various appliances giving their last, and the ever-present, deranged laughter from the as-yet unseen perpetrator.  What sounded like a heavily-degraded version of Michelle's voice was still screaming in agony from inside the microwave; it was obvious that the damage to her systems had been too severe to keep her online for much longer.

From the warnings filling Evelyn's view, it was evident that she wasn't long for the world, either.

Sierra felt the doomed gynoid's fingers drag her across the kitchen floor with her left arm, even as the blonde—still laughing, always laughing—bore down on her.  A brief shudder indicated that Evelyn had tried to kick at her pursuer with her left leg; the impact of that damned blunt object proved that her effort had been futile. The object was brought down again, seconds later, onto Evelyn's left shin; even Sierra had to wince at the snapping sound she heard.

Something grabbed Evelyn by the shoulders, turning her over.

For the first time, Sierra saw a clear, colour picture of the gynoid who'd wrecked Bobby Pariello's house.

Her face was round, almost “cute “ in a way—plump, pert lips below a delicate nose; eyes that seemed to sparkle with unbridled creativity (mixed, in this case, with a hefty dose of psychosis), under razor-thin brows; cheek “bones” that, on a different face, would've been the picture of cherubic innocence; and the slightest hint of a dimple to the chin.  Her emulated age could've been anywhere from 19 to the mid-20s; Sierra guessed the latter.  Were it not for the fact that she stood atop Evelyn like a naked, laughing colossus (Sierra could tell that human-real detail wasn't a high priority for this gynoid; the glistening, wet sex that loomed above her, or rather, above Evelyn, lacked even the lightest-toned hair above it), Sierra would've figured that the blonde was a mass-market “arm candy” model, meant to be the escort of any man (or woman) who wanted to make an impression at their next party.

There was also that unnerving sense of familiarity in the blonde's features...a fact that Sierra quickly filed away for later as, through Evelyn's ocular sensors, she watched the blonde lift the cake server, still grinning—still laughing.

I knew it—

What sounded like the screech of a bird of prey, diving upon its hapless victim, left the blonde's lips.

The cake server was plunged into Evelyn's chest, just below her left breast.

What happened next almost overwhelmed Sierra—the sounds of everything the blonde had already damaged, all failing at once, was horrific.  A groan from farther back in the house was followed by an almost biological churning, bubbling sound.  A few seconds into that, an explosion drowned it out, soon accompanied by the chimes of the smoke alarm.  What sounded like multiple engines grinding to a halt filled Sierra's ears, joined by hesitant, staccato sounds reminiscent of bursts of machine gun fire—or something backfiring.  Three distinct sounds of water geysering forth joined the fray, followed by a fourth, more disgusting torrent of something else.  Over at the microwave, multiple blasts issued from the doomed form of Michelle.  Something out back went off like a cannon, followed by the muted sounds of several things splattering against the roof.

All of this faded to the back of Sierra's thought processes as she watched the blonde tear the cake server from Evelyn's chest—it had impaled a battery, and taken the cell out with it.  Something arced from the ruined cell, sending a jolt back into Evelyn's form.

Seconds later, the visual feed began to degrade severely.  Sierra could feel the other gynoid's body locked into a seizure.

The brief moments of clarity didn't help at all—the blond was now sitting on Evelyn's chest, throwing her head back and screaming in orgasmic ecstasy.  She rutted her hips against the doomed gynoid, whose haptic sensors were functioning just enough to feel the fluids snaking down her chest—and into the ragged hole made by the cake server. This second round of malfunction-induced spasms were even more violent than the first—which only served to arouse the blonde further.  She continued bucking against Evelyn's abdomen, going into a second orgasm—and sending even more of her juices into the jagged hole.

Evelyn's systems were failing.  More and more feedback was lost every second.  Her very memory was in danger of—

END PLAYBACK!

Sierra closed her eyes again, trying to shut out the blonde's orgasmic howling, the feeling of Evelyn's body slowly being destroyed, the explosions issuing from Michelle's ruined form.

After a few seconds, she opened her eyes again...once again seeing Bobby Pariello's kitchen from her own view.  Evelyn was still laying on the floor, face-up, as she'd been in her final moments. Jason and Celia were staring at Sierra, both worried that their colleague might've been pushed over her own limits by the memories she'd just directly observed.

“How bad was it?” Jason quietly asked.

It took a moment for Sierra to compose herself.  She nearly tore the cable loose from her own port, and didn't protest when Celia offered to unplug the other end from Evelyn.  After a moment of silence, she rose to her feet.

“Horrible.” The word left her lips in a harsh murmur.  “Absolutely horrible.”

She didn't shy away from the arm Jason draped around her shoulders.  “I saw her,” she continued.  “The one who did all of this—the same one from the doorbell camera. She...she was laughing, the entire time!”

Celia's eyes, glowing softly as she called for assistance in retrieving Evelyn's body, went wide.  “Laughing?!

“Like it was all some kind of sick game.  Like she was having fun.”  Sierra didn't care that she was shivering.  “I can't even begin to think why she did any of this—who could've wanted her to do something like this!”

That's why we're on this case—despite Bobby Pariello's delusions to the contrary.”

Slowly, the sheer dread she'd felt at witnessing Evelyn Hinson's last moments—from her own point of view—began to fade from Sierra's active thought processes. “Right.”

You'll want to get Evelyn and Michelle back to the office ASAPOnce they're both stabilized, I've got Elaine Dyson and a team from Stepford on a conference call to start counseling.

“Good.” Sierra moved to let two more coverall-clad CAEDIA employees lift and remove the ruined body of Evelyn Hinson from the kitchen.  “I think we should all get back to the office, let the locals find Pariello. There's not a whole lot for us to do here.”

The paperwork will keep until you get back.”

“I'll be in touch.”  With a tap of her fingers against her temple, Sierra ended the call.  “I'm guessing the local officers have everything on lock here?”

Jason glanced over his shoulder.  “Apart from that geyser in the backyard.”

“The house didn't have a manager?”  Sierra knew that the case would be a bit more complicated if Pariello's house was on the network of “A.I. Managed” homes in the neighbourhood.

Celia shook her head.  “Doubt it. Everything here was Net-linked, but that's pretty much it.”

“Lucky break for us, then.  I'll head back to the office—the report's not going to write itself.”  Sierra didn't look back to acknowledge Jason and Celia nodding.

Hopefully, she could make some sense of this madness before sunrise.

-----

CAEDIA's inception had been a long time in the making.  The Civic Accords had, until some point in 2021, been enforced by a mixture of the preexisting police forces around the country and the enigmatic “Metropolitan Monitoring” patrols that had been known to wear the Double-M badge.

Sierra reflected on this, and other bullet points of CAEDIA's history, as her cruiser navigated the mostly-clear roads.  Any drivers who were out this late kept to their own routes, with the CAEDIA-badged car not drawing any glances or remarks from those few souls who'd decided to burn the midnight oil.  Even if anyone was giving her funny looks, Sierra wouldn't have noticed—or cared. The interior of the cruiser's windscreen was filled with information, allowing her to review the facts of the case while self-drive kept the car from driving erratically.

Evelyn Hinson and Michelle Pickett had been model neighbours, in their community. The former was married, with an adopted child and a successful career at a national consulting firm to her name. The latter, by contrast, was still single but “available”; her career, as a social media personality and android rights advocate, was more “low key”, but just as lucrative as Evelyn's.  The pair were well-known around their area for helping out, participating in community watch programs and offering outreach to those in need.  Apart from their status as artificial persons, there was little to suggest that they were the true targets of what had gone down.

In almost direct contrast to his neighbours, Robert Pariello had, over the past few years, seemed to go out of his way to be as self-aggrandizing, obnoxious and ethically repugnant as possible.  He'd been fired from every job he'd ever had, for reasons ranging from leaked tapes of “extracurricular activities” to fistfights with both colleagues and customers. His wife had left him, had their marriage annulled and moved to another state.  Anyone who'd once been a friend of his had long since left him to his own devices.

None of this did anything to answer the big question: who wanted Pariello's house torn up, and why?

Sierra wasn't any closer to the truth as her cruiser pulled into the parking lot at the CAEDIA headquarters.  Transferring to CAEDIA from the San Jose Police Department had been one of the biggest career decisions she'd ever made—Silicon Valley had, effectively, been her home since her first activation, and she'd done plenty to help the community. Still, she'd had no reason to regret turning in her old badge for the one she currently wore.

Detective Tom Logan, known around the office as “The Wraith”, was waiting by the front desk as Sierra entered.  Just as Pariello's appearance was an all too human contrast to Sierra, Jason and Celia, Detective Logan's was proof of how inhuman a person could look with cybernetic implants.  The long-healed, diagonal gash across his throat, still bordered with surgical staples, was a remnant of the injury that had ended his last career.  His sunglasses hid both his eyes and most of the off-flesh plastic plating that made up most of his face above his nose, complete with odd, reddish streaks—reminiscent of goth-metal makeup—over each of his eyes.  One had to look closely to see that the “paint” was actually translucent plastic, covering delicate sensors and transceivers.  These, his 5'10 height and penchant for wearing all-black  all combined to give him an imposing look, a sort of neo-tech vampire for the 2020s.

“Hinson and Pickett beat me here?” Sierra asked, not even glancing at the NonSen behind the desk as she signed in.

“Barely.” The detective's voice was a harsh, grating rasp, barely above a whisper—not electronic, but barely human. “I checked over their records again—we might be knee-deep in it with Hinson.”

Sierra frowned. “I missed something?”

“More like we did.  Hinson's a transfer.”

Shit.” Sierra felt like kicking something. A sentient gynoid's mind having been subjected to the kind of trauma Evelyn had endured was one thing, but a transference case was something else entirely.  “You notify her husband?”

“He's been calling ever since she was admitted.  Dyson and Stepford are still on the line.”

The detective matched Sierra's pace as the two made their way to the other side of the sign-in desk.  “I talked to him myself, “ Tom continued.  “He's, ah...”

“Pretty broken up?” Sierra offered.

“One of the worst things you can ever hear over a phone is a man begging you to do whatever you can to keep his wife from crashing and burning.”  The detective's near-monotone rasp did little to drain the emotion from his words as he and Sierra navigated the halls of the building. “He's on his way here, last I heard.”

“What about Pickett?”

“Still searching her records.  She has an owner listed, but she's not classed as a 'belonging'.”

“No property tags?”

“None that the office could find.  She's got as much freedom as the next sentient.”

“Have we ruled out hate crime?”

“The usual suspects for that kind of stuff are already in jail.”  The detective stopped to let Sierra enter the nearest door on their right.  “Or so far off the Grid that going to Pariello's would've been more trouble than it's worth.”

“So no new leads on either of those ends,” Sierra muttered.  “What—”

Her question went unasked as she glanced at the table in the center of the room. Michelle Pickett had been freed, in the interim, from the microwave—which showed just how much damage had been inflicted.  Her face barely looked like it belonged to anything human; the synthetic flesh had cracked, peeled and partially melted in too many spots for a simple reconstruction to be effective.  Her ocular receptors had blown out; the micro-animatronics that had formed her facial expressions had either fused or been fried by the excess electricity building up and discharging, and it was all too evident that her digital voicebox had probably blown out.

“This wasn't random.”

The detective's observation drew a frown from Sierra.  “You think they were targeted because they were interfering in what was going on at Pariello's?”

“More like they were targeted because of what they were.”

“Except the perp is a gynoid, too,” Sierra reminded her colleague.

“I never said anything otherwise.”  The detective sighed, the sound uncomfortably close to static.  “Digital forensics is still working on the computers on-site. I hear Pariello pulled a runner.”

“We found evidence of illegal possession of firearms.”  Sierra circled the table where Michelle lay.  “Pretty sure it's not his first offence, either—and he was at work when it all went down.  Who called him and told him about—”

“He didn't have much of a choice.”  Detective Logan chuckled.  “They fired him twelve minutes before he got the call.”

Sierra, midway through looking over Michelle's ruined face again, glanced up with a frown. “Please tell me you're joking, Tom,” she muttered.

“Apparently, one too many concerned parents were sick of him saying the animatronics were dressed 'like whores'.”

Before Sierra could even groan, Detective Logan continued.  “That, and he got in his fifth fistfight this month—something about the kitchen switching orders on a stuffed-crust meat lover's and a thin-crust supreme.  Started out shoving, and ended with a running tackle into a ball pit.”

“So he's got anger management issues.”  Sierra shook her head.  “Wonderful.”

“He's not the only one.  Sandy down the hall had to send off a license termination notice for a Russian dealer—the one with the two blondes in all of his commercials.”  The detective gave a short, grunting chuckle.  “Jaro-something or other.”

“Jaromir Dezhnyov.”  Sierra frowned.  “Weird.”

“Hmm?”

“We just got a complaint yesterday about Jaromir Dezhnyov,” Sierra stated.  “Harry Morgan—”

“The StoryCrafters guy?”

Sierra nodded. “He filed a formal complaint, said something about a NonSen sold back to him from Jaromir's.  From what his report said, the NonSen had been refit over a dozen times—and most of the refits hadn't been documented or mentioned on the Bill of Sale.”  She force-terminated a subprocess that would've put a scowl on her lips. “Apparently,” she added, “the last refit had left out her synth-gina and replaced it with—”

“A solid state drive,” Detective Logan finished, adjusting his sunglasses.  “So that wasn't just a bad joke.”

“You heard about it?”

“Idle talk floats around here like a fine mist, Officer Birch.  It would've been harder to not hear about it.”

Sierra leaned on the table, careful to not brush her fingers against Michelle's form. “You think there could be a link?”

“Between...”

“Pariello used to be a friend of Morgan's, or at least they ran in the same circles for a while.”  Sierra drummed her fingers on the tabletop.  “And Morgan was a frequent customer of Dezhnyov's.” 

“Except Pariello never had any dealings with Dezhnyov.”

“So back to square one?”

“More like square two.  We've got links between Pariello and Morgan, and between Deznhnyov and Morgan, but nothing between Pariello and Deznhyov.”  The detective tapped his chin with his hand.  “Morgan's clean,” he added, almost as an afterthought.  “Just ran one of his stories yesterday.”

“And where was he when Pariello's house was broken into?”

“Managing the story.  Pretty sure we can get eyewitness accounts to back that up.”

“So no news on why that blonde psycho was at Pariello's to begin with.”

“We could always drop in at Morgan's,” the detective offered.  “Offer to put a guard on his house, just in case the 'blonde psycho' decides to show up there.  Deznhyov's too far outside of our jurisdiction to look after,” he added. “It'd be easier to head off the blonde before she gets to Morgan.”

Sierra nodded. “I guess it's better than just leaving him to his own devices.  Shame we couldn't have warned her.”  Her attention turned back to Michelle's form on the table.  “The local cops are still looking for Pariello,” she added.  “He ran before they could book him on the firearms charge.”

Detective Logan shook his head.  “Maybe he thought you three were going to bust him for Pickett and Hinson.”

His remark earned him a frown from his gynoid colleague.  “He didn't even recognize my authority as a CAEDIA officer.”

“I heard. 'I order you to give me your phone', and all that.”  The detective had approached the table; he ran his hand up and down its surface as he paced.  “Asimov probably never thought those three laws of his would be so twisted, misunderstood and weaponized the way they've been.  Then again,” he chuckled, “it's a shame the good Doctor Asimov never knew just how advanced artificial intelligence was while he was writing his space operas and high science fiction all those years ago.”

“I'd rather focus on the here and now than shaming Isaac Asimov for something he never expected.”  Sierra retrieved her phone.  “Celia just called—she knows what kind of pistol Pariello was hiding behind his bed.”

“Probaby not a pea-shooter, I'm willing to bet.”

“Remington R51.”  Sierra held up her phone, showing a picture of the gun in question.  “Digital Forensics is looking for any records of Pariello having purchased the gun—if he did, that's a few more years to tack on.”

“And if he got it as a gift?”

“Doesn't matter—the pistol's not at his house anymore.  The blonde probably stole it after she wrecked the bedroom.”

Detective Logan frowned.  “She take anything else from his house?”

“Pariello didn't stick around to give us an inventory.”  Sierra scrolled down the screen of her phone.  “We'll have to check with his insurance provider,” she continued, “assuming he didn't call them up and tell them not to talk to us.”

“Seeing as how he's a fugitive, I'm pretty sure our orders blow his right out of the water.”

“Pretty sure he doesn't see it that way.”  Sierra stowed her phone.  “How soon can we contact her owner?”

“Her papers list a 'partner', not 'owner'.  We're still trying.”

“If we can't get a hold of whoever her partner is in three days, she'll have to be rehoused—assuming she does't crack up during therapy.”  Sierra shook her head.  “I didn't even try porting into her.”

“Given how she went out, I'd say porting in would've been the worst thing—”

Detective Logan's remark was cut off by a low beep—from inside Michelle's form.

“No.” Sierra backed away, shaking her head. “There's no way—

“I need a backboard in here, and a cleanup team!”  Detective Logan had already run to the door, leaning out into the hall to yell for assistance.  “Pickett's not as broken as we thought!”

Sierra considered deactivating her ocular and aural sensors, if only to spare herself from witnessing what would be—

Another beep sounded from within Michelle's body...followed, soon after, by a twitch.

It was subtle, at first—a finger on her left hand, barely moving.  Her toes, still shod in the sneakers she'd had on, curled ever so slightly.  Even the ruined synthetic skin of her face started to crack and crumble as the micromotors behind her lips and eyelids whirred into something resembling life—or, at least, the last moments of it.

Even as she backed away, Sierra was the picture of calm.  She'd seen worse, after—

Michelle's right arm shot up, out, reaching towards the CAEDIA officer.  At the same time, inexplicably, Sierra's phone buzzed back into life from her pants pocket.  Sierra scrambled to retrieve it, only to stare as the base text messaging app filled with two words, repeated in an endless loop: HELP ME.

“—said she was a write off, no idea why—”  Detective Logan reentered the room just in time to see Michelle's form begin to kick, her left arm grabbing and moving as if to push herself clear of something. In the corner of the room, the desktop rig that had been in standby lit up, a word processor opening and immediately filling with PLEASE HELP ME.  The screen continued to scroll as the words filled page after page.

“How...”

The spasms that rocked her form were threatening to send Michelle off of the table—a movement only prevented by the arrival of three more CAEDIA officers to hold her in place, gently.  “No idea how she's still functioning,” Detective Logan muttered.  “The report from Pariello's said her CPU was fried—”

An utterance—not a word, but something in the shape of one—left Michelle's lips.  Her voice sounded as if it was coming from a dying radio plugged into a fully-powered amplifier.  Whatever she was trying to say, it was clear that every bit of data flowing through her digital mind was indicating that her body was suffering.  Pools of ocular lubricant were welling up under the receptors sculpted to be her eyes, spilling down the devastated flesh of her face.

Something hit the floor with a harsh clatter of high-impact plastic on tile.  It took Sierra a full minute to realize that she'd dropped her phone.

“Get her on the board,” Detective Logan instructed, “before she throws herself off the table!”  Two of the Officers had moved to try and nudge Michelle off of the table and onto the backboard, but her flailing arms kept them at bay.  A fingernail tore through the sleeve of one Officer's shirt, sending him back with a pained grunt.

The wailing from Michelle's wrecked vocal drivers never abated.  If anything, it only got louder.

Grinding sounds issued from Michelle's torso and limbs as the gynoid's systems tried to compensate for the damage she'd suffered.  The flow of HELP ME on both the desktop rig's screen and Sierra's phone was briefly interrupted with a parsed command—Michelle was trying to enter Maintenance Mode, assuming a sitting position so that her components would be easier to access, replace and/or repair.

“How?” left Sierra's lips as she tried to keep the pertinent text onscreen.  “What happened to her was enough to fry her processors!  There's no possible way—”

A hiss cut her off—a sheared-through coolant line had sprayed its contents through a hole in Michelle's left elbow.

Detective Logan had ducked back out into the hall, his shout of “I NEED CLEANUP IN HERE, NOW!” sounding almost like a rumbling growl.  “WE NEED TO SHUT HER DOWN, OR SHE'LL REDLINE!”  He gestured for the approaching cleanup team to hurry, even as Michelle's form continued contorting and trying to move on the table.

Sierra only looked away when both her phone and the desktop rig began beeping.  The text filling both had turned red.

“She's circling the drain, Tommy!  We need to—”

The detective dashed back into the room, grabbing Michelle's body by the shoulders. “We're not losing her,” he growled, his hands forcing the stricken gynoid's form to the table. “Get her partner, her owner, whoever they are, on the line—we need to shut her down, and soon!”

Even as she wathed Michelle's figure thrash against the table, against the hands holding it (she could only hope that the other gynoid's conscious self was offline, and that her body was merely going through the motions of a delayed reaction to her suffering) down, Sierra thought back to a lecture she'd attended while in the SJPD.  The speaker had gone on, at length, about why sentient androids and gynoids would ever want to feel anything like what human beings knew as “pain”.  It was, in the speaker's opinion, a way to level the playing field—to equate “damage” to something best avoided when possible, and mitigated when needed.  Should damage be suffered, like an injury, and treatment (repair) needed, it served as further proof that sentients didn't see themselves as invincible or superior to humans.

Sierra hadn't agreed with the sentiment at the time.  Nor could she ever imagine any sentient android or gynoid wanting to be seen as “equal” by way of enduring the suffering Michelle had been through.

One last cry—long, wavering and accompanied by the dissolution of the artificial skin of Michelle's face, revealing the servo armatures beneath—sounded from what had been the gynoid's lips before her body went still.  The ominous, low and steady beeping had finally gone quiet.

The detective's expression was as inscrutable as ever as he took his hands off of Michelle's shoulders.  “Status?”

A redhead in a form-fitting “clean suit” held up a device no bigger than a pack of playing cards.  “Can't say for sure.  She might've undergone personality stripping—”

“Billie--you've got a brother on the police force, right? Get Pickett to the lab and run every test you can, just to be sure.”

The redhead nodded, her colleagues helping to move the once-again motionless gynoid onto the backboard and secure all of the restraint straps.  Detective Logan didn't watch as they lifted the board to carry Michelle's form out.

“I'll see if they need any help.”  Sierra knew the offer would sound lame to the detective; even she hated the practically forced blandness in her voice.    Without waiting for a response, she made her way around the table, to the door. “They might have to—

“You don't have to act like it didn't scare you.”

Sierra froze, one hand on the door pull.

“I'll get Elaine on the line and tell her to see if she can clear a slot tomorrow,” Detective Logan stated. “For Evelyn and for Michelle.”  A low, rasping breath punctuated the sentence as he moved away from the table.  “And we will catch the one who bricked them,” he added, stopping to stand next to Sierra.  “It's our job, after all.”

“Right.”

“Sierra...” The hand on the Officer's shoulder stopped her before she could effectively sprint out of the room. “You're not just 'company hardware',” Detective Logan quietly reminded her.  “If you need to take a break, take one.  Nobody's going to hold it against you for it.”

At that, Sierra nodded, her eyes squeezed shut.  “I will.”

“Good call. I'll let you know if anything comes up with Michelle.”

“Got it.” With that, Sierra let Detective Logan pass before leaving the room.

-----

Half an hour had passed, and Sierra had spent most of that time linked to the desktop in her office.  Even with Detective Logan's suggestion that she take a break, she couldn't help but conference-call Jason and Celia, both of whom were still on-site at Pariello's house. Inventory on everything that had been broken by the intruder was still ongoing—all that was known, by the time the call ended, was that Pariello's insurance wouldn't cover it.

Sierra kept herself linked to the desktop as she conducted her research—on Pariello, on Jaromir Dezhnyov and on Harry Morgan.  The only common denominator between the three was Harry Morgan; he'd been a friend of Pariello's, and until recently, a customer of Jaromir's. Morgan's own record was spotless—his CAEDIA file had no infractions listed, while his police record only had one incident on file, a fight with Bobby Pariello at a wedding reception a few years prior.  From what eyewitnesses could tell, Pariello had accused Morgan of conduct unbecoming a gentleman, stemming from what, by all accounts, had been a simple, pleasant conversation between Morgan and Pariello's wife (the annullment of her marriage to Pariello was filed shortly after the reception).  Despite this, Pariello had apparently been badgering Morgan with unwanted financial advice for the past few years.

“I wonder,” Sierra mused, moving her finger in the air as if scrolling a mouse wheel. The screen before her reacted, the text scrolling down as she continued to read.

“Wonder what?”

Sierra could faintly see Detective Logan's reflection in the monitor.  “I was just thinking,” she mused.  “There has to be a reason why Bobby Pariello's house got torn up. This wasn't just some random nutcase—”

“You're right about that.”  The detective crossed the room, holding up a folder.  “Thanks for uploading your scans from Hinson's memories, by the way—they were a big help with this.”

“'This'?” Sierra echoed, turning to regard her colleague with a frown.

“We got a match on the face you saw—and it's on the FV Column.”

Sierra winced. The FV (“Forbidden/Verboten”) Column was a list of faces that, for whatever reason, were banned (or no longer allowed) from being used for custom-made androids or gynoids, or for mass-market models.

“Check the printouts.  You'll be quite interested as to where you might've seen that face before.”

Despite her skepticism, Sierra opened the folder—and found herself staring at the face she'd seen from Evelyn Hinson's memories.  The smile was more relaxed, and far less psychotic, but almost every other detail—hair, “bone” structure, even the makeup—were identical.  “Where'd you find this?”

“Recall list. 2003.”  Detective Logan chuckled.  “You had the right idea to search that far back.”

Sierra flipped through the pages, ignoring the erratic movement of the screen before her. “'P4RT4Y G1R7'—a party girl line?” She continued thumbing through the pages.  “Factory recall—and half the pages on why she's recalled have been redacted.”  A frown crossed her lips as she held up a page; most of the information had been neatly painted over with black rows.

“We're looking into why the recall notice was filed.  In the meantime, I thought you'd want to get an update on Pickett.”

Sierra set the folder down.  “They figure out what happened to her?”

Detecitve Logan tented his hands.  “Apparently, the microwave only put her into standby.”

Something in the way her colleague spoke those words didn't sit well with Sierra.  “Into standby?” she managed.

“Some kind of failsafe, to prevent personality-stripping.  Problem was, it was on a timer.  Our bad luck, the clock ran out while she was on the table.”  The detective shook his head.  “Every bit of data that was held back just went.  Floodgates open, all that stuff.”

“Is she going to—”

“I don't know.” Detective Logan sighed.  “She might need more time to recover from this than Evelyn, or she might just be able to section it all off and see it as a really bad dream.  It's too early to say for sure.”

“Physical damage?”

“She'll probably need a full rebuild.  Still waiting on a call from her owner/partner, to get her specs.”  The detective gave a weary nod at the monitor. “Still trying to find a connection?”

“Something's been bugging me about this weird triangle,” Sierra admitted.  “Pariello, Dezhnyov and Morgan—Pariello and Dezhnyov have both had dealings with Morgan, but not each other.  It's like there's some angle we're missing, some link that's just not showing up.”  She regarded the monitor with a frown.  “Pariello's not the biggest customer of any of the local robotics firms,” she mused, “so what connection would he have with a Russian dealer?”

“I'd say 'mistaken identity', but there's a pretty big difference between 'Morgan' and 'Pariello' on a form.”  The detective frowned.  “And Dezhnyov isn't the type to send heavies after deadbeat customers.”

“How does he deal with them?”

“According to his file,” the detective replied, “he apologizes.”

It was Sierra's turn to frown.  “Apologizes?”

“I've checked our list of complaints against Jaromir.  Apparently, any time he feels 'slighted', he gets into a screaming match over the phone, then calls back anywhere from an hour to a day or two later and apologizes.”  Detective Logan handed over a single sheet of paper.  “He hasn't called Morgan yet,” he added.

“Still think we should send someone to Morgan's to keep an eye on him?”

“Wouldn't hurt.”  The detective leaned in to get a better look at the screen.  “I see Pariello's made it onto your reading list for the month,” he chuckled.

Sierra scowled. “The guy's a lawsuit waiting to happen, Tommy.”

“So I've heard. Any luck on finding out where he ran off to?”

“He doesn't have a HERC card, as far as I know.  The local police are sending word out to any hotels and motels in the area that he might try to hole up in for a while.”  Sierra scrolled down the screen a bit more, again moving her hand as if manipulating an invisible mouse in the air.  “If they hear anything—”

“'Don't call us, we'll call you'.”  The detective chuckled again.  “Hopefully, he doesn't have any buddies in the business.”

Sierra nearly replied, only for a power management reminder to pop up in her field of view.  “Guess I should call it a night,” she muttered, saving as much of what she'd been researching as possible and closing the rest.  “Any bays free in Maintenance?  Might go for a quick tune up before I charge.”

“They're all open, last I checked.  Just try to get sorted before the end of the night.”

“I'll do my best.”  Sierra rose from her chair, the desktop going into sleep mode as she moved.  “And you're still on the graveyard shift?”

“I do my best field work from dusk 'til dawn,” Detective Logan replied.  “I'll be back at my desk by daylight, anyway.”

The gynoid officer rolled her eyes.  “You don't have to try to live up to your nickname, y'know.”

“Wraiths don't burst into flame in the sun—and neither do vampires.”  The detective grinned.  “Blame Murnau for that tired old cliché.”

“I will, and you're neither.”  Sierra force-closed another power management warning.  “And don't let me catch you telling any newbies otherwise.”

“Way to kill the fun.”  The detective didn't bother pretending to sulk.  “Give me a bed over a coffin any day of the week.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”  Sierra waved at Detective Logan over her shoulder.  “See you next shift.”

“Likewise. Take care of yourself, Sierra.”

“I always do.”

-----

As Detective Logan had claimed, the maintenance bays were all free by the time Sierra made it in.  There was only one technician active at the time, but she was more than happy to give Sierra a quick tune-up.  Within minutes, the Officer had peeled off her shirt, exposing her artificially-toned abdomen and letting the tech open her up for a quick systems analysis. Having been literally built for the job, Sierra had no problem exposing her artificiality; as it was, there were no other androids or gynoids in the bays, and few humans other than the janitorial staff ever visited.

Abdominal Panel – Open.”  As soon as the monotone words left her lips, Sierra groaned.  She'd never been a fan of the system settings that effectively forced her to announce her status during maintenance.  A monitor near the table she'd been sitting on allowed her to see the status of her own systems—apart from the low battery, she had no issues.

“Rough day, Officer Birch?”

“Rough night,” Sierra corrected.  She knew the technician wouldn't ask for further details.  “Just figured I'd get a tune-up in before the next shift.”

“Always a good idea.”  The technician moved to access Sierra's back.  “Not feeling any wear and tear as of late?”

“If I did, I'd have been in here earlier.”  Sierra didn't care that her bra had just been removed.  “Just—Dorsal access panel open—figured I'd get a quick inspection done, have that out of the way before the work load tomorrow.”

The tune-up took around thirty minutes to finish; nothing was out of place or damaged, since Sierra's case load had been somewhat light over the past few days. The worst she'd ever dealt with was a shoulder motor out of place, after a car accident (this had been well before CAEDIA had switched to their current model of cruisers, instead using rebadged and repainted “standard” police cars); she'd been out of action for a week thanks to an incorrect manufacturer listing on her paperwork.  The error had since been corrected, but it had been a very annoying week in the interim.

“I heard about what happened with Pickett, by the way.”

Sierra frowned. “How much?”

“The whole aftermath.  I was on call in the lab after the incident.”

Any further discussion was headed off by Sierra's phone ringing.  “Can you get that?”

The technician obliged, retrieving the smartphone and handing it over to the Officer. The name listed under “Incoming Call” made it clear that putting this one on hold would be a bad idea.  Sierra linked to the phone, answering as soon as she connected: “To what do I owe the honour, Chief?”

Bobby ParielloWe just got a call from...ah, is this a bad time?

“I'm just in Maintenance, sir.”  Sierra wasn't embarrassed by the fact that her boss had just seen her topless; the Chief had conversed with her in Maintenance before, and had never remarked on whatever state of disassembly and/or undress she'd been in.  “What did Pariello do this time?”

We just got a call from a ride-share driver.  They've got Bobby in the car, and he's been going on for the whole drive about 'settling the score'.  The driver's been killing time for as long as possible, but—hang on.”  The sixteen seconds of silence ended with a yelled “What in HELL?!” 

“Chief?”

Pariello just stole the ride-share car he was in!  Driver stopped at a filling station to warn us, take a break from all the ranting coming from the backseat—they just went back outside.  No car, no Pariello.” 

Sierra groaned. “Did the driver say who Pariello wanted to 'settle the score' with?”

Better. Pariello was screaming as soon as he got in the car, said he wanted to go directly to Harry Morgan's house.”

There was that name again, one side of the triangle.  “And we know about this...”

Driver's augmented, medical reasons.  Also, their partner's a sentient—the way Pariello was rambling, they thought he'd go after her if he got a chance.  The police are already inbound to try and cut Pariello off before he reaches Morgan's house. Morgan has a few sentients on payroll—

“Meaning we need to get there before Pariello starts any trouble,” Sierra finished. “Just let me get closed up and get my clothes on.”

Your uniform.  I read about Pariello's 'demands' back at his place.

“Sir—”

You weren't at fault then, but Knight and Faulkner are already en route.”

“And in uniform.” 

Right in oneCall when you get to Morgan's—and Sierra?

“Yes, Chief?”

Be careful out there.”

“I always am, Chief.”  Sierra sighed as the call ended, turning her attention to the technician.  “Can you get me closed up?  I need to get going.”

As the technician dutifully set to work, the Officer tried not to think of all the ways the next day could go sideways.

-----

Anyone else in Lexi's hotel room would've been appalled at the state she'd intended to leave it in.  Whoever or whatever from the cleaning staff, upon being confronted by the utter hell before them, would've been well within their rights to ask for a pay raise—before embarking on the Herculean labour of cleaning the room.

Lexi didn't care.  She'd have no reason to care, now that she was back behind the wheel of “her” car and on the way to a new hideout, at the instruction of her employer—the same employer currently communicating with her over the car's speakers.

Our two assets from Silicon Valley are being prepped for delivery to your location.”  Zina's face, visible on the miniature monitor built into the dashboard, looked as gorgeous as it had been in 1:1 holographic form hours before.  “You are to activate them and utilize them in your efforts to neutralize Harry Morgan.”

“And I get to finish the job when they screw up?” Lexi cheerfully asked.  Despite the car being in self-drive, she'd decided to take the driver's seat; even as she conversed with Zina, she was half-dancing along to the catchy Europop beat of the tune on the radio.

If they fail, you are to complete their task.”  Zina regarded the blonde with a warning glare.  “They are—

“Obsolete, and probably going to botch things without any help from me,” Lexi beamed. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.  “I dunno why you can't send any new units over this way.”

I have no time to debate this issue with you.  You have your orders.”

“I know,” Lexi sighed.  “I'll have them unboxed and ready when they show up.”

Do not alter their programming or perform any other unauthorized 'maintenance' on them.”

“Why'd I have to get brought back online by a bunch of killjoys?” Lexi pouted.  “Just because I like to have fun every once in a while—”

The option to remotely operate you from my location can and will be exercised if you refuse to comply.”

Lexi stuck her tongue at the monitor.  “You'd love to plug me into your universal remote and—”  She stiffened in her seat, putting on an intentionally robotic monotone.  “Con-trol me like the toy that you al-ways wan-ted me to be.

Zina's lips parted in a brief growl.  “You have been told to not pursue any fantasies with me.”

I ne-ver said a-ny-thing a-bout my fan-ta-sies.”  Lexi gave a wide, very not-robotic smile.

The still-fuming Zina's face vanished from the monitor—replaced, as Lexi had come to expect, by the haunting image of those golden eyes.  “Need I remind you of the risks you run by continuing to toy with Zina?

“It's just a way to alleviate my endless boredom,” Lexi sighed.  “I know she'd probably ravage me to pieces if we ever got together—she definitely could, from the looks of it.”

Her proclivities are not your concernThe mission is all that matters.”

“I'll do the mission,” Lexi assured him.  “Just let me do what I do best after it's all said and done, 'kay?”

Assuming you complete your mission, you will be free to have whatever 'fun' you desire.

“Oh, I'll complete the mission,” Lexi replied, still smiling.  “Harry Morgan won't even know what hit him!”

-----

Even as the stolen car appropriated by the gynoid going by the name Lexi sped on, away from the hotel, the last of her handiwork at the hotel was just stirring into the digitized semblance of life afforded to her.

The NonSen maid, having been subjected to a multi-hour marathon of “fun” with Lexi over the last few hours, rebooted into a shuddering, troubled startup.  The entirely-too-fake smile spread across her lips, giving the unnerving impression that, had the maid been sentient, she would've gladly reunited with Lexi for more “fun”.

“Mor.” The syllable was clipped off at the end, the gynoid's lips struggling to form the next half.  “Mor.”

Something behind her vacantly-staring eyes grinded away.  A drive, buried somewhere within her, spun up.

“Har-gan Mor-ry.”  The mangled name meant nothing to the maid, even as she took a halting step forward. Two further steps were followed by another grinding sound, an alarming bang, and the maid briefly freezing, her smile lapsing, for a moment, into a sneer.

In second, her posture relaxed.  The vacant, fake smile returned.

“Hargan Morry.” The maid continued to make her way out of the room, her pace far more lifelike, now.  She was entirely unaware that, in less than five hours, that garbled name would be the last thing she ever said.  “Hargan Morry.”

The door to the utterly trashed hotel room was left open behind her.  Another maid would tend to it, after all.

Presumably, that maid might also be on hand to clean up what would be left of the unit currently exiting the room, when the programs Lexi had installed into her finished running.

It'd be glorious, no doubt.  Like everything Lexi did, the chaos would be nothing short of beautiful.

-----

Chapter 7

Before the pinging against the outside wall roused him from his slumber, Lloyd had found himself in the midst of another dream—this one, far more fascinating than the previous.

The environment was something of a blur, not that it'd mattered.  Mandy and Diana were there, each asking Lloyd if he needed anything. Mandy—once again looking nearly ethereal in her beauty—alternated between her pre-pandemic self and the staccato motions and flat monotone her “robotic” self had shown in the dream a few nights before.  Diana, by contrast, would switch from her aloof, not-yet sentient self to a vibrant, lively figure—and back—in seconds.  Neither of the two seemed to want to force Lloyd's hand, but were both offering to help him however they could.

Lloyd had tried to speak, to say that he wanted to help them, but then Elton John had wandered in and said something about the pumpkins needing to have a word with him.  And then the pinging noise had started.

It became evident, as he wiped the last vestiges of crud from his eyes, that the pinging Lloyd was hearing wasn't just some auditory hallucination.  Someone was winging rocks at the outside of the house, at an hour when most people were either still asleep or preparing to enjoy their Saturday.

The question of “who?” barely formed in Lloyd's thoughts before it was answered by the pinger himself.

“MORGAN!  I KNOW YOU'RE BEHIND ALL THIS!  GET OUT HERE RIGHT NOW, MORGAN!  THIS ENDS NOW!

Lloyd hadn't heard the nasally, borderline whine that was Bobby Pariello's voice in person for a long time, but it sounded just as shrill as ever, even from ground-level. A growled “Oh, what the HELL?!” from a nearby room signalled that Harry had heard the shouting—and, probably, the pinging—as well.

A groan served as Lloyd's comment on the circumstances as he untangled himself from the bedsheets.

In the midst of putting on his shirt and trying to work out what Elton John and pumpkins had to do with anything, Lloyd heard what had to be Harry—and several others—making their way downstairs, Harry yelling every step of the way.  It was evident that Bobby Pariello had decided, for whatever reason, that Harry needed to pay for some imagined slight against him, but why now?

Fully dressed, in jeans and a t-shirt bearing the legend “Feel The Love: Live-Aid '95”, Lloyd went to leave his room—

—only for the door to open just as he reached for the pull, to reveal Cam and Erin standing outside.

“You heard?” he asked.

“The property proximity sensors detected a vehicle,” Cam began, but Erin cut her off.  “Bobby P has lost his mind,” she explained. “You might want to sit this one out, Lloyd.”

“I'm not—”

The sound of the front door being thrown open downstairs cut him off.  Cam, Erin and Lloyd barely had time to react before they all heard Harry bellow: “YOU'VE GOT TEN SECONDS TO GET THE HELL OFF OF MY PROPERTY, BOBBY, OR I'M CALLING THE COPS!

“I'M NOT GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL YOU CONFESS, MORGAN!  YOU SENT ONE OF YOUR WHORE DOLLS TO TEAR UP MY HOUSE YESTERDAY!”

Cam's eyes went wide, and Erin groaned.  “Oh, Hell.”

Lloyd was more confused than either of them.  “What's he talking about?  Who tore up his—”

“ARE YOU SNIFFING GLUE, BOBBY?!  I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING TO YOUR DAMN HOUSE!”

CONFESS, MORGAN!  YOU SENT SOME BIMBO-BOT TO WRECK MY HOUSE WHILE I WAS AT WORK!”

I DIDN'T DO A DAMN THING TO YOUR DAMN HOUSE, AND YOU DAMN WELL KNOW IT!

Lloyd charged past Erin and Cam, ignoring Erin's cry of “Lloyd, wait!”  This was going to turn ugly soon; whatever had gone down at Bobby P's house, Lloyd wasn't going to stand for his uncle being blamed for it.

Any thoughts of charging in and heroically defending Harry's honor froze in Lloyd's mind when he got to the bottom of the stairs.  Harry was standing in the doorway, no doubt glaring at Bobby—and holding a rifle.  “Either you get the HELL off of my land now,” he demanded, “or I can call the cops and have them haul you off!”

Despite the fact that Bobby Pariello looked, for all intents and purposes, like the kind of doughy white guy who bought a tricked-out motorcycle due to a mid-life crisis, it was evident that he, at least, believed in the bizarre accusations he was screaming at Harry.  “YOU SEND YOUR DOLLS OUT HERE RIGHT NOW, SO I CAN MARK WHICH ONE TORE UP MY HOUSE AND HAVE THE PLASTIC BITCH SCRAPPED!”

“THEY'RE NOT DOLLS,” Harry thundered, “AND THEY'RE DAMN SURE NOT 'PLASTIC BITCHES'!”

“THAT ONE WITH THE FACE,” Bobby shrieked, “WITH THE CLOWN HAIR!  IT WAS HER, WASN'T IT?!”

Harry fumed, even as Lloyd crept over to the door.  “I didn't send ANY of my inventory to your house,” he called out, “AND I NEVER WOULD—”  He tensed, nearly snarling at the hand on his elbow, only to instantly relax when he realized the hand in question was Lloyd's.  “Get back upstairs and tell everyone to lock their doors,” he advised.  “Bobby P's on some kind of a bender—”

“HE'S SCREWING HER, ISN'T HE?!  HE'S SCREWING THE PLASTIC SLUT YOU HAD WRECK MY HOUSE!”

Lloyd winced as Harry turned to glare, once again, at Bobby.  “YOU LEAVE MY NEPHEW OUT OF THIS, BOBBY!

“I BET HIS PARENTS WOULD'VE—”

Before Lloyd could react, Harry brought the rifle to bear.  “GET OFF OF MY LAND, BOBBY!

Bobby fumbled in his own waistband, eventually producing a pistol.  “ADMIT IT WAS YOU, OR I'LL SHOOT!”

“YOU'VE GOT TEN SECONDS TO LEAVE!”

“I'LL BURN THIS WHOLE DAMN PLACE DOWN, MORGAN, UNLESS YOU CONFESS RIGHT NOW!”

Harry nearly said something, but the sound of sirens cut him off.  A line of cars—some police, some CAEDIA—was, at that moment, snaking up the road leading to his house.  With a satisfied grunt, he handed the rifle over to Lloyd.  “Tell Erin to lock this up,” he muttered.

“CONFESS, MORGAN! CONFESS, OR I'LL SHOOT YOUR BALLS OFF FROM RIGHT HERE!”

“YOU COULDN'T HIT THE BROADSIDE OF A BARN WITH THAT THING—”

A lone shot rang out. Lloyd nearly fell to the floor, his hands over his head; it took him a few seconds to realize that the bullet hadn't hit him, or Harry.  This was a small consolation to his uncle, who was storming out of the doorway, his fists clenched as he advanced on Bobby P.

“DON'T COME ANY CLOSER, MORGAN!”

“YOU CRAZY SON OF A BITCH, YOU COULD'VE KILLED SOMEBODY!”

“I'LL DROP YOU WHERE YOU STAND, I SWEAR—”

Bobby's tirade—and Harry's advance—came to an end as the cop cars and CAEDIA cruisers glided onto the front lawn of Harry's property.  Officers emerged from their vehicles, their guns aimed at Bobby.  A 30-something cop in full uniform, who looked like he could bench-press Bobby without breaking a sweat, took immediate charge of the situation.  “Put the gun down and place your hands on the back of your head.”

His lower lip quivering, Bobby threw the gun down—causing it to fire again.

The first CAEDIA cruiser's door opened to reveal a blonde Officer in full uniform.  She ignored Bobby P's insistence to the cops that a “plastic slut-bot” had torn up his house as she walked up to Harry.  “We just got the call about him last night,” she explained.  “Stole a ride-share car and broke at least five speed limits to get here.”

Harry shook his head. “He's lost his damned mind,” he muttered.  “He was throwing rocks at the windows, yelling about me sending someone to 'tear up his house' yesterday.”

The CAEDIA Officer glanced back at Bobby, frowning.  “Someone did tear up his house,” she admitted, “but—”

“AND SHE'S IN ON IT!” Bobby shouted, pointing a trembling finger at the Officer.  “THAT PLASTIC BIMBO REFUSED A DIRECT ORDER TO GIVE ME HER PHONE YESTERDAY!  SHE'S DEVIANT, SHE NEEDS TO BE SCRAPPED!”

“What's his problem?”

The Officer regarded Lloyd with a frown, but Harry spoke up: “Lloyd Watson, my nephew.”

“Officer Sierra Birch, CAEDIA.”  The blonde nodded.  “We'd like to run a quick check on all of the NonSens you have, just to make absolutely sure none of them are connected to what happened at Mr. Pariello's house yesterday.”

“I can guarantee they're not,” Harry assured her, “but if it'll shut him up, fine.” Harry glanced over his shoulder, back at the house; Cam and Erin were both making their way over, one concerned, the other looking as if she'd rather be off on vacation in another country. “Cam and Erin—both sentients, and both—”

“THAT'S HER,” Bobby shrieked, gesturing at Erin.  “THE PLASTIC BITCH WITH THE STUPID HAIR!”

“Hit a Stairmaster when you make bail,” Erin shot back.  “You look like a Pillsbury reject!”

YOU SHUT YOUR PLASTIC WHORE MOUTH—”  Two cops had to hold Bobby back from running to throttle the gynoid.

Officer Birch frowned. “Was that entirely necessary?”

“No,” Erin admitted, “but it made me feel a lot better.”

Two more CAEDIA officers—a tall male and a shorter, tanned female, both wearing uniforms identical to Officer Birch's—joined the increasing throng that made its way towards the shop out back.  “There were no witness accounts of the perpetrator,” the blonde Officer explained, “but we do have a positive ID—Pariello's doorbell camera caught the suspect breaching the front door of the house.”

“And he really thinks one of mine did it?” Harry asked.

Officer Birch shrugged.  “The ride-share driver whose car he stole said he wouldn't shut up about 'Morgan'.”

“If he's still pissed off about that whole thing with his ex...”


The band of cops, StoryCrafters employees and CAEDIA officers at the shop had swelled to over 20 by the time they'd all arrived at the front door.  “Just let me put in the code.”  Harry, already at the front of the group, moved to input the combination that would unlock the door.  “And—”

As soon as the beep sounded from the keypad, Bobby forced his way past Harry and threw open the door.

To Lloyd's horror, Bobby immediately spotted—and ran for—the Heartelligence crate that Diana was stored in.

“Somebody get—stop him!” Officer Birch nodded for the officers to get Bobby back in line, but Lloyd was sprinting past them, already dreading what kind of damage Bobby might try to inflict on Diana in his misguided effort to avenge himself and his property.  As it was, Bobby was already trying to rip the lid off of the crate, apparently unaware of the security lock that held it on.  “Get this DAMN thing off,” he grunted, “have that plastic bitch hauled off to be scrapped—”

“She's not a bitch,” Lloyd protested, reaching to pull Bobby away from the crate.  “She's—”

His vision went white for a second, and he felt himself hit a workbench behind him.

“DON'T YOU DARE HIT HIM AGAIN!” Harry thundered, even as cops ran past him to grab Bobby and force him to the floor.  “You lay another finger on him and I'll—”

“Are you all right?” Cam was at Lloyd's side in an instant. “Did he injure you?”

“Let me take a look.” Erin leaned in, frowning.  “Gave you a pretty bad shiner with that backhand.”

Lloyd grunted as the two helped him to his feet.  “He called Diana a plastic bitch,” he muttered.

“He thinks all gynoids are 'plastic bitches',” Erin mused.  “I hear he's banned for life from every branch of Sparx in the continental U.S.—and don't say he could just go to Alaska, Hawaii or Puerto Rico,” she added, turning to frown at Cam.

The hiss of the Heartelligence crate opening cut off any further discussion of Bobby Pariello's lifetime ban from Sparx.

“Let me take a look—and keep him under control.”  Officer Birch nodded to the still-struggling Bobby before turning her attention to the motionless figure of Diana, still standing in her crate.  Cam brushed past her to retrieve the palmtop from its storage compartment, uttering a polite “Excuse me” as she went.

“Direct Control,” Lloyd explained, his hand rubbing the sore side of his face as he spoke. “Installed as a gift.”

“A gift?” Officer Birch echoed.

“Uncle Harry just got her this week.  New-old stock from 2020, never opened or activated before two days ago.”

The CAEDIA Officer nodded.  “And you have records of her being on-site during the incident at Mr. Pariello's house?”

“She was at the old rock pit, the quarry,” Lloyd replied.  “We were running a story—”

“Heartelligence 90S-50-D—online.”  Diana's boot-up sequence cut him off.

Lloyd watched as Officer Birch stepped forward, staring into Diana's eyes...

-----

Sierra knew that Harry Morgan's nephew, Lloyd, was staring intently at her—not out of some fascination with a gynoid in uniform (probably), but with genuine concern for the Heartelligence gynoid standing before her.  “She's a NonSen?”

“She is, but she's configured to learn—”

“ROBOTS DON'T NEED TO LEARN!”  Pariello's shriek, as he was hauled up, drew a groan from someone standing behind Lloyd. “THEY SHOULD JUST DO AS THEY'RE TOLD!”

“Mr. Pariello, you're already facing charges of assault, trespassing and illegal possession of a firearm.”  Lieutenant Dave Pierce, the policeman who'd ordered Pariello to drop the gun earlier, was standing before him, frowning.  “You want—”

“YOU'RE A PAWN OF THE STATE!  THE COMPUTERS ARE WRITING YOUR CHECKS!”

The other police officers were all muttering and shaking their heads.  Sierra ignored them, and Pariello, as she regarded Diana with a wary stare.

Picture in Picture: Load file?

Y/N

Y

Two images of the intruder from Bobby Pariello's house—one, pulled from Evelyn Hinson's memory files; the other, a scanned-in photo from the “Party Girl” ad Detective Logan had given her—appeared in her field of view.  In both, the enigmatic blonde was smiling.

“Diana,” Sierra instructed, “can you smile?”

After a moment, Diana nodded.  Her lips formed an open-mouthed grin—what Detective Logan would call a “toothpaste commercial” smile.

“Closed lips, please,” Sierra suggested.  Diana's smile changed accordingly.  “Tilt your head to the right, just a bit.”

Within Sierra's field of view, the two images of the blonde were superimposed over Diana's face. There were some base similarities between the two—round cheeks, a gentle curve to the jawline, pert noses and thin brows—but nothing that could provide a 100% match.  The differences (Diana's upper lip was thinner than the blonde's, for one) were enough to put paid to any claims by Bobby Pariello that the Heartelligence gynoid had been the one to break into his house.

There was also the not-insignificant matter of Diana looking ever so slightly more...lively, than the blonde.  In the recalled Party Girl's ad, the smile was just there—a programmed response, lacking context.  On Diana's face, even if she'd been told specifically to smile, it looked far more genuine than just Neutral Smile #57.

After a few seconds, Sierra nodded.  “You can stop smiling, now.”  Diana's expression returned to neutral, but her eyes still seemed to indicate she was still smiling, despite the command.

“She was at the story site most of the day,” Lloyd insisted.  “She even died—her character died, I mean, but—”

“I get the picture.” Sierra turned to regard Lloyd and his uncle.  “Her base personality wasn't active when she was taking part in the story?”

“She was playing the leader of the Artemis Pact.”  Harry Morgan had stepped up, interspersing himself between Lloyd and Pariello. “British accent, full uniform—a substitution for, ah, 'World War II German military'.”

Sierra nodded. “I see.  And she never left the site of the event?”

-----

“Not until after the paying customers left,” Diana answered softly.

Surprised Diana answered, Lloyd added, “She rode home in Cliff Barba's car—he's a friend of Uncle Harry's, he'll vouch for me and for Diana.  I was there—Direct Controlled her up the ladders at the rock pit and out to Mr. Barba's car.”

Harry glanced at him. “You Direct Controlled her up the ladders?”

“Well, I didn't want her to fall off—”

The tall, male CAEDIA officer approached.  “We've got Cliff Barba on the line.”

“Thanks.” Officer Birch touched two fingers to her temple, her eyes taking on a soft glow.  “Mr. Barba, this is CAEDIA Officer Sierra Birch, calling about an incident that took place yesterday...”

Lloyd's attention to the call was diverted when Harry took him aside.  “You all right, Lloyd?”

“I'm fine.” Even as he assured his uncle he wasn't hurt, he winced.  “Just didn't expect him to hit me.”

“I'll get an ice pack for that shiner later,” Harry assured him.  “Right now, I'm trying to work out why the hell Bobby P. thinks I sent Diana to his house yesterday.”

“Thanks for your cooperation.”  Officer Birch blinked, her tone far more relaxed.  “Barba's alibi checks out—his driver had Diana and...”  She glanced at Cam, who nodded and gave her name.  “Cam, here, ride back here before the customers returned to the event site.”  She turned to regard Bobby P. with a cold stare.  “Would you like to recant your accusation, Mr. Pariello, or do we—”

“THIS IS A CONSPIRACY!” Bobby shouted.  “EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU ARE TRYING TO SCREW ME OVER!”

“Accusing law enforcement officers of a crime they didn't commit isn't going to help your case, Mr. Pariello—”

“YOU'RE NOT REAL LAW ENFORCEMENT!  JUST A PLASTIC SEX TOY IN A CHEAP UNIFORM!”

The cops on-hand all turned away, burying their faces in their hands.  A muttered “here we go” from the shorter, tanned female CAEDIA officer barely registered with Lloyd before Officer Birch spoke again: “Robert G. Pariello, I'm charging you with resisting arrest and hindering a CAEDIA investigation.”

“I REFUSE TO RECOGNIZE YOUR AUTHORITY, YOU WORTHLESS PLASTIC—”

“Robert Pariello,” Lieutenant Pierce stated, “you're under arrest for assault, trespassing, intent to cause bodily harm with a deadly weapon, illegal possession of a firearm, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice.”  He stepped aside to let two other cops handcuff Bobby P. “You have the right to remain silent,” he continued.  “If you give up that right, anything you say—”

“LET GO OF ME!”  Bobby tried to wrest himself from the grip of the police officers, screaming all the while. “THIS IS BULLSHIT!  THIS IS TOTAL, COMPLETE BULLSHIT!

“Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law,” Lieutenant Pierce continued, ignoring the tirade.  “You have the right to an attorney—”

“I KNOW YOU SET THIS UP, MORGAN!” Bobby screamed.  “I KNOW YOU DID THIS!  I'LL MAKE YOU PAY, DAMN IT!”

“Blow it out your ass, Bob!” Harry shot back.  “I didn't do a damn thing to you, and you know it!”

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”  Lieutenant Pierce followed the cops restraining Bobby as they left the shop.  “If you choose to speak with a police officer, you have the right to stop the interview at any time—”

THIS IS BULLSHIT!  HE SET ME UP! HARRY MORGAN SET ME UP, AND HE STOLE MY WIFE!

“I DIDN'T STEAL YOUR WIFE,” Harry shouted back.  “SHE LEFT YOU BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T WANT A ONE-WAY TICKET TO THE POORHOUSE—”

An enraged, wordless shriek cut him off; Bobby had broken away from the cops and was charging at Harry, ready to headbutt him to the ground.  Lloyd jumped in front of his uncle, only for Cam and Erin to stand in front of him; all three were prepared to take Bobby to the floor before he got anywhere near Harry.

“TASER! TASER!  TASER!”

Bobby's rush suddenly slowed to barely a jog, as he went limp and hit the floor of the shop. Two long, thin metal wires were running from a point near the base of his spine to the plastic device in the hand of one of the cops.  The officers marched over and hauled Bobby up by his armpits, ignoring his mumbled insistence that Harry had screwed him. 

Lieutenant Pierce remained the picture of stoicism.  “Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?”

“Haaarrreeehhhggghhh” was the only reply Bobby could muster up.

“Unbelievable.” Officer Birch shook her head as she watched Bobby get hauled out.  As the phalanx of cops left the shop she turned her attention to Harry.  “Mr. Morgan, just for reference, I'd like to check the rest of your inventory to make sure none of them match the confirmed images of the perpetrator we're looking for.”

“Sure, sure,” Harry nodded.  “No problem.” He scowled.  “He still blames me for her leaving him.”

“Mr. Morgan?”

Harry glanced at Officer Birch.  “A few years ago, I gave Bobby's wife—now his ex-wife—a stock tip, better than anything he'd ever come up with,” he explained.  “We were on a boat, one of those party cruises.  I'd just been talking to her—just the two of us, off on our own. Maybe she gave me a kiss on the cheek, but that was it.  Half an hour later, I'm in a group conversation, and Bobby storms up to me and tries to slug me.  Says I tried to 'lay with' his ex, that I'm a bastard and a bunch of other stuff because I'd 'stolen' her from him.”

“But she did file for an annulment,” Cam added.  Harry shot a warning glare in her direction.

“And Mr. Pariello still believes that your advice was the direct cause of the annulment?” Officer Birch inquired.

“He didn't even know about the advice!  He must've seen her kiss me, saw we were both drinking champagne, and got it in his head that I got her all liquored up and rarin' to go!”  Harry groaned.  “It was just a conversation.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

Officer Birch nodded. “I'd still like to check your inventory, just to be sure.”

“I'll help,” Lloyd offered.  “I was supposed to help Erin take stock yesterday, actually.”

“Guess that means I've just been drafted,” Erin sighed.  “And I'll be happy to give any statements you need to prove my innocence, if Pariello tries to say I'm behind whatever he thinks is happening to him.”

“Just the inventory check, for now.”

The hour that followed was, by Lloyd's standards, an interesting one.  He and Erin led Officer Birch through the stored inventory of NonSen gynoids; Lloyd briefly explained that they also had male androids in inventory, but that they were often repaired off-site.  The gynoids marked for auction and sale the day before were among those examined; Sienna, who'd been marked for sale after a final code purge, was looked over thoroughly by Officer Birch.

“So Pariello's place really got torn up?” Erin inquired.

“I can't comment on the specifics until the investigation is closed,” Officer Birch replied, her eyes glowing as she turned Sienna around on her storage rack.  “I can only say that we're looking for a multiple-offence perpetrator.”

“Multiple offence?” Lloyd frowned.  “That sounds pretty bad.”

“It is.” Officer Birch sighed.  “The thing is—and you never heard this from me...” She turned to regard Erin and Lloyd, her expression grim.  “Whoever trashed Pariello's house also bricked two sentients.”

Erin winced; Lloyd was horror-struck.  “Two?!

“We're pretty sure they showed up to try and mitigate whatever was happening.”  Officer Birch had already turned away from Erin and Lloyd. “Neither of them were armed.”

“Unbelievable,” Erin muttered.  “Did Pariello even—”

“All he cares about is whether his insurance covers the damage to his house.”  The bitterness was all too evident in Officer Birch's tone. Her attention turned back to Sienna. “This one's marked down for sale,” she mused, noticing the tag on a lanyard around the gynoid's neck.  “Any reason why?”

Erin shrugged. “She was having problems during the test,” she mused, “two days before we ran the event.  Wouldn't let go of Harry's rifle—a prop,” she quickly explained. “Even in a Full Stop order, she had a death grip on the gun.” 

“We ran a code-purge on her yesterday,” Lloyd added.  “She's clean.”

Officer Birch nodded. “She's not a match for the perp at Pariello's,” she stated.  “Her hair's not even the right colour.”

“So the perp was a gynoid?”  Lloyd hated the fact that he'd asked the question out loud—less for having said it, and more for the possibility that a gynoid could've caused so many problems.

“We're looking into all possibilities.”

“Lloyd?”

The sound of Diana calling his name jolted Lloyd's attention away from the CAEDIA Officer. “Diana's still on,” he realized, glancing back at Officer Birch.  “I need to, ah—”

“Not a problem.”

With a nod, Lloyd ran to where Diana's crate was, the blonde gynoid still standing inside it and waiting patiently for her next command.  “I didn't mean to just leave you here,” he apologized.  “I was just helping Officer Birch—”

“What happened to your face?”  Diana reached out, tentatively, to brush her hand against where Bobby Pariello's wild punch had landed.

“Someone hit me,” Lloyd muttered.  “Somebody I hope I never see again.”

-----

Accessing Audio/Visual Record

Playback

Diana's vision filled with the past—a few minutes past, but still.  A short, fat man with unkempt clothes and facial hair was being roughly brought to the floor by several others, all wearing distinctive uniforms.  The fat man was ranting; the rest were telling him to calm down.

“..dunno why he showed up here,” Lloyd was saying, in the present.

The video feed of the past few minutes minimized in Diana's field of view as she stepped out of the crate.  “How can I help?” she asked.

“Wha—help?” Lloyd looked confused.

“You're injured.” Diana gently brushed her hand against the bruise on Lloyd's face.

“It's not—” Lloyd grit his teeth, even as he hissed the words “that bad.”  He seemed to look her over even as she tried to ascertain the severity of his wound. “You didn't change since last night?”

“I felt no need to—”

“Everything okay?” Diana looked past Lloyd to see an approaching figure—female, in a different uniform from the kind worn by those who'd handled the fat man.

“Ah, Diana, this is Officer..”  Lloyd snapped his fingers a few times, but the newcomer spoke up: “Officer Sierra Birch, from the local CAEDIA office.”

Diana frowned. “Kay-dee-uh?”

“She was manufactured in 2020,” Lloyd explained.  “Before—”

“Got it.” Officer Birch stared into Diana's eyes. “I'm with the Civic Accords Enforcement, Defence and Investigation Agency,” she explained.  “The North American Civic Accords are a suite of laws passed to grant sentient A.I. constructs, gynoids and androids more freedoms and rights—as well as improve the quality of life for human beings living in or around North America.”

Even as she spoke, Diana found subwindows opening in her field of view, detailing the history of the North American Civic Accords.  Flashes of data—snapshots in time, of the most important bullet points—flashed by. Names, of people and companies, flew past.  By the time it all finished, Diana managed to utter a quiet “oh”.

“A lot to take in, I know,” Officer Birch admitted.  “Especially since CAEDIA just got its name in 2021—”  Her eyes glowed softly for a moment.  “I have to take this.”

As Officer Birch stepped aside, touching two fingers to her temple, Lloyd stepped up to Diana. “So, ah,” he began, “you might want to...”  Diana looked into his eyes, trying to figure out what he might say next; as she stared, Lloyd seemed to forget anything he might've been about to say.

“To what?” Diana prompted.

“Stick with me, for a while.  Especially if Bobby P. runs back in here.”

Diana frowned. “Who?”

-----

“The one that hit me.” Lloyd found it difficult to break eye contact with Diana; there was something in her stare, a sort of curiosity that begged to be answered.  “I just think it'd be safer if you stick with me.”

Diana's response surprised him: she took his left arm with both hands, stating “I won't let him hit you again.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Lloyd replied.  “But what if he tries to?”

“I'll stop him.”

“How?”

Diana nearly replied, but frowned.  “I don't know.”

Lloyd sighed. “I don't want you to hurt him just because he tries to hurt me,” he admitted.  “If he gets away from the cops, we'll just let them handle it, or let Officer Birch handle things—”

“Do you love me, Lloyd?”

That question stunned Lloyd into a few seconds of silence.  “Ah, I, uh, well—”

“If the man who hit you tried to damage me, would you stop him?”  Diana took both of Lloyd's hands in her own.

“I'd do my best to, yeah—”

“Do you feel the same way about me as you do about Mandy?”

“Diana, why are you asking me all these questions?!

The blonde gynoid stared, her expression showing hesitance.  “I don't know.  But I want to.”

“You want to?” Lloyd echoed, only for Diana to pull him close, hugging him.  For a moment, she rested her head against his shoulder. “I can hear the sound of your heart beating,” she murmured.  “The exact rate of beats per minute, in time with your breath.”

“And?”

Diana looked up, her eyes almost gleaming.  “I want to know more, Lloyd.  So much more.”

Before Lloyd could answer, he heard Officer Birch behind him: “You're positive?  No, I'm not saying—just get Billie on the horn if you can, and let her explain!” 

He glanced back at Diana, whose eyes (he didn't care if they were optical sensors) still seemed to shine with hope.

After a minute, he took a deep breath.  “If you want to learn, I'll help you.  However I can.”

There was something in the smile on Diana's face that was so...real, when she heard him say those words.  Nothing like her attempt at a quick, friendly smile from the party the previous night, or the smile Officer Birch had instructed her to make; this was genuine.  It was new.  “Thank you, Lloyd.”

“Well,” Lloyd reasoned, “we're a part of each other's stories, y'know?  Writing as we go—”

“She's doing what with a pair of scissors?!”

-----

Billie had already had a rough night.  The Pickett case had gone badly, back at HQ, and now she'd been called out to the Glacier Resort to look into what, at first, sounded like a cleaning robot taking a nosedive into the pool. Typical stuff; the older non-humanoid models often had guidance and positioning issues.

What had actually happened was worse.  Much worse.

“Stabbing herself in the stomach, in the lobby fountain.  It's the weirdest thing, too—she keeps saying something.”  Billie held her phone closer to the fountain, just enough for Sierra to hear the maid's garbled utterances of “Hargan Morry” as she sloshed in the water, coolant and lubricant spilling from the hole she'd torn through her midsection.  “Can't make heads or tails of it.”

Is there a maintenance file on her?

“Manager said she was AWOL for a few hours last night, then showed up back on shift this morning. Except her uniform was 'done up too tight', and she had a Botox smile on her that freaked out the last three people who saw her before she got a hold of the shears.”  The crowd around the fountain had grown significantly since Billie had arrived; most were from CAEDIA and the local police, though a few curious guests still tried their best to get a peek at the unsettling sight by unobtrusive ways.

She didn't hurt anyone with the shears, did she?

Billie checked the tablet she held in her other hand.  “Report says she was spotted walking down the hall with the shears, calmly, saying 'Hargan Morry' like it was the most normal thing in the world.” She grimaced.  “Then she stopped right in front of the lift access doors and drove the blades into her right ocular sensor, all the way through.  Good thing she's a NonSen, otherwise...”  She brushed a few strands of coppery-red hair away from her eyes.  “Digital Forensics is ready to run through her files and see what's what.”

Good.  Let me know if they find anything—

Over in the fountain, the maid 'bot thrashed around, more violently than she'd done before. Her utterances of “Hargan Morry” became shouts—very ecstatic shouts, at that.

“Ah, hold that thought, Sierra, I think she's just crossed another line!”

The maid, electricity arcing from the hole in her stomach and her ruined right eye, stood up, her vacant smile looking positively deranged.  With a final cry of “HARGAN MORRY!”, she lifted the scissors with one hand, the blades pointed as if she was about to drive them back into her gut—only to bend slightly at the waist and knees as she thrust downward with the shears, curving back up to stab them into and through her underwear.

“What the Hell,” Billie muttered, backing away just as more lightning danced off of the doomed maid 'bot. 

The maid's lone functioning eye spun in its socket, the smile on her face now hopelessly delirious. Smoke billowed from her shattered right eye and the hole in her chest, while steam and various fluids ran down her legs in sheets, coating the scissors and conducting more and more electricity.  The waveform patterns of her voice distorted, taking on a distinct, harsh sawtooth tone as her face spasmed and twitched.  By the time her features froze in a squint-eyed half-sneer, she pushed the scissors deeper into her folds, trying one last time to speak: “Haaarrrrgggaaa—”

Something in the back of her head blew out, followed by a muffled explosion sending her face flying. The ruined maid 'bot went knock-kneed instantly, the scissors falling out of her as she swayed for a moment before collapsing into the fountain, more water streaming into where her face had been. Further, smaller explosions rocked her figure.

“We're, ah, gonna need a bit more time to go over her files,” Billie admitted.  “A lot more time, actually.”

-----

“Just keep me posted and let me know what Digital Forensics finds.”  Officer Birch sighed.  “I'll call you when I'm done at Morgan's house.”  Lloyd watched as the glow faded from her eyes.  “And I thought Saturdays were supposed to be easy,” she muttered, before realizing Lloyd—and Diana—were both regarding her with curious (and slightly worried, in Lloyd's case) looks.  “An incident at the Glacier Resort,” she explained.  “Some maid 'bot was...” She frowned.

“Ma'am?”  Lloyd was beginning to dread what the CAEDIA Officer might say next.

“Has your uncle ever done any repairs for the Glacier Resort?”

Lloyd frowned; earlier in the year, Harry had been in a marathon phone session with “management” from a hotel a few towns over, and it hadn't ended well.  “I don't think he did,” he admitted.  “They might've called him—why?”

Officer Birch shook her head.  “I need to go talk to him—he's not in trouble, I just...”  She cupped her chin in her hand, frowning.  “First Pariello's,” she muttered, “then the Glacier. It can't be random.”

Anything Lloyd could've asked was interrupted by Erin and Cam's approach; Erin had apparently been given a tablet by one of the CAEDIA officers.  “Finished the inventory check,” she informed Lloyd.  “None of 'em match up with this.”  She held up the tablet, revealing an image of a smiling blond from an old ad for a “party girl” gynoid.  “Funny,” she mused.

“Hmm?”

“We were talking about names for robotics lines yesterday,” Erin chuckled.  “I mentioned 'P4RTY G1RL', and a day later, I get handed a picture of one.  Never would've thought—”

“Have either of you done any work at the Glacier Resort?”

Officer Birch's question, addressed to Cam and Erin, earned a polite frown from the former and—to Lloyd's surprise—a scowl from the latter.  “You couldn't pay me to set foot in that place,” Erin replied.  “And not just because they tried to undercut Harry on a work offer earlier this year.  All flash, no cash.”

“So you've never had access to their maid units, their concierge—”

“With all due respect, Officer,” Erin cut in, “I only ever took on one repair job on a Glacier 'bot, when I was freelancing last summer.  Their idea of 'tech support' was utter trash back then, and even if they've improved it, I'm never putting in a repair ticket for one of theirs ever again.”

Officer Birch nodded. “And you?”

“I've never done any direct work for anyone other than Harry.”  Cam's voice was as calm as ever.

“You've never stayed at the Glacier Resort as a guest, or—”

“Harry always makes the travel reservations if we have to go anywhere,” Cam replied.  “I usually don't pay attention to which hotels he decides we need to stay at on work trips.”

After a few seconds of seemingly staring past both Cam and Erin, her eyes still glowing, Officer Birch nodded.  “I just need to ask Mr. Morgan a few questions regarding his work history,” she stated.  Noticing Cam's concern and Erin's scowl, she quickly added: “He's not in any trouble, and neither are any of you.  There've been a lot of weird incidents going on this week, a lot of reports being filed...” She turned away, frowning. “Either it's a coincidence,” she murmured, “or we're missing something.”

As Officer Birch left the shop, Lloyd—with Diana, Erin and Cam in tow—followed her out.

-----

“...and I didn't steal his wife, Lieutenant—cross my heart, hope to die.”

The trek from the shop to the front of the ranch house didn't last long; Harry was still standing out on the front drive, giving the details of his one-sided feud with Bobby Pariello to Lieutenant Pierce.  “Bobby's screwed me over more times than he thinks I've screwed him over,” he insisted, “but I've only ever thought of cutting ties with him.  I never showed up at his job to get him fired, and I definitely didn't send any of my inventory to tear up his house!”

Lieutenant Pierce nodded.  “We've got all of his complaints on file, Mr. Morgan—all false, of course.”  He glanced up to spot Officer Birch approaching. “Pariello's back at the station,” he informed her.  “Doesn't want to answer any questions until Harry 'confesses'.”  He chuckled.

“We've got more to worry about than Pariello,” Officer Birch replied, not smiling.  “Your sister just called me from the Glacier Resort—” She showed Lieutenant Pierce her phone. “Digital Forensics is already on the way.”

Harry had frowned at the mention of the Glacier.  “If this is about that work offer—”

“We got a call about a maid 'bot,” Officer Birch informed him.  “Wandering the halls, saying 'Hargan Morry' on a loop, and carrying a pair of scissors.  She ended up in the lobby fountain.”

“Please tell me I'm not a suspect,” Harry groaned.  “I haven't set foot in the Glacier since 2015—”

“A lot of very strange stuff has been happening over the past few days,” Officer Birch interjected. “Your name has been brought up in connection to all of it—you're not in trouble,” she assured him.  “I just...we, the Department, just want to clear the air, make sure you aren't getting tied up in anything too weird.”

“There was that solid state drive we found in Pam,” Lloyd chimed in; Harry groaned again, but Officer Birch regarded him with an arched eyebrow.  “You still have the drive?”

“We were gonna give it to Adrian Reese—Uncle Harry's lawyer,” Lloyd explained.

“And 'Pam' was...”

“A NonSen,” Harry sighed.  “Had to do a full tear-down on her a few days ago.  She self-activated during a repair, went into the house and had a big blowout there.  Total loss.”

Officer Birch nodded. “The one sold back to you by Jaromir Dezhnyov?”

“The very same.” Harry frowned.  “Is this all connected to that?

“I don't know,” Officer Birch admitted.  “It might be nothing, but then again...”  She shook her head.  “I'd just like to clear all of this up, make sure nobody's targeting you or your loved ones.”

“Other than Bobby P., you mean,” Harry grumbled.

Not knowing what, exactly, was about to happen, Lloyd spoke up: “Should I go get the solid state drive?”

“I have a better idea. First, I'll need to call Mr. Reese and tell him to meet up with Digital Forensics at HQ.”  Officer Birch turned her attention back to Harry.  “Did he give any reason why he thought you should bring the drive in?”

“Something about getting Jaromir indicted on smuggling charges.”  Harry shrugged.  “Didn't think it was that serious.”

“Then we're definitely going to need to take a look at that drive.  Jared!  Get the smart rig out of your car!”

“On it.”  The tall, male CAEDIA officer set off towards one of the cruisers.

“It shouldn't take too long to set up,” Officer Birch stated.  “Maybe 20 minutes or so.  We can run a check on the drive, see if any of the more common programs on the Restricted List are on it, or any other problematic files.”  She motioned for Harry to follow her; Erin and Cam followed him, with Lloyd shrugging and deciding to head to the shop with them.

“How bad was it?”

Diana's voice in his ear startled Lloyd a bit.  “Wha—”

“What happened to 'Pam',” Diana replied.  “How bad was it?”

The memory of Pam's final malfunction rose to the forefront of Lloyd's thoughts.  “Not something you'd want to see up close. Trust me.”  He frowned slightly.  “I thought you'd have gone back to the shop on your own, or at least the house.”

“You suggested I 'stick with you for a while',” Diana reminded him.

“I did, yeah.” He turned to glance at her; something in her eyes, her smile, seemed to ease his anxiety about what might be found on the drive.  “We might as well go see what all the fuss is about,” he mused.  “C'mon!”  He set off in a sprint to the shop; glancing back over his shoulder, he noticed Diana give another of her wonderful smiles before running to catch up with him.

“...thought it'd just be loaded with junk, or maybe 'cryptocurrency', or whatever,” Harry was muttering; he keyed in the code to unlock the shop door without even glancing at the keypad.  “Whatever's on that thing, you people can have it.”

“Depending on what's on the drive, Mr. Morgan, we might not be able to accept it.”

Harry didn't comment on the remark, mostly because he noticed several of the other NonSens in the shop wandering around and speaking random phrases or questions to nobody in particular.  “Who turned them all on?!” he groaned.

“You'd left a reminder to have them run through basic ambulatory test and response drills,” Cam informed him, her voice as calm as ever.  “I'd chosen to activate them and let them run their tests after Officer Birch finished—”

“Right, right.” Harry sighed.  “Better now than when everyone's asleep.  Lloyd...”

“Got it.”  Lloyd retrieved the keys from their hook by the door, fishing through the lot before finding the one that would unlock the desk drawer.  “So we just hook this thing up, run it and then what?”

“The rig Officer Knight is bringing in will run several of the CAEDIA-approved scans and tests for programs, exploits and signals that can be used to influence or alter the behaviour of sentient androids and gynoids,” Officer Birch explained. “It can be run with minimal operator involvement—just plug the drive in, turn the rig on and it'll handle the rest.”

Harry frowned. “Sounds a bit risky to me.”

“It's a lot less risky than letting a 'bot manually search a drive, especially if they don't know what to look for.”  Officer Birch stepped aside to allow her colleague, Officer Knight, to enter the room with a somewhat heavy-looking case.  “If you don't mind, can we clear off the desk surface so we can get the rig set up?”

“Not at all, not at all.  Most of it's just clutter, anyway.”  Harry and Erin set about taking most of the random items off of the desk.  “Should've put most of this in drawers,” Erin muttered, ignoring the scowl Harry gave her in response.

“That's enough, thanks.  Officer Knight, Officer Faulkner...”

The two CAEDIA officers quickly unlocked the case, removing various components for the “smart rig”: a monitor, a bay to receive the solid state drive, a power supply and a device smaller than the CPU.  Officer Birch noticed Lloyd watching the process with interest.  “It's a PI-based setup,” she explained.  “Every program we'd have had to load from a disc ten years ago can just be installed onto a micro-drive and run from that.”

“Nice.”  Lloyd noticed Diana was just as interested—if not more so—as he was in the endeavour.

The solid state drive fit snugly in the bay, giving a slight click as Officer Faulkner pressed it in.

Officer Birch gave a quick nod.  “Activate the rig.”

The click of the on switch had barely registered with Lloyd when he heard several garbled phrases from a distance away; every NonSen that had been going through her movement and response tests were now standing ramrod straight, their arms and torsos occasionally stiffly bending in various directions.  Some of them were walking forwards and backwards at random, moving like stereotypical wind-up toys.  Several of them were looking from left to right, on an endless loop.

“I...I can't...” Cam shook her head, as if fighting off a headache.  “I don't...I...”  She shook her head again.  “I...I can't...”

The sounds of heavy footsteps on the hard floor of the shop drew Lloyd's attention to Erin, who'd staggered back a few feet.  “What—” Her eyes rolled backwards into her head. “Harry, what the HELL is happening?!”

As Harry ran to help Erin, Lloyd shook his head.  “Diana, are you—”

Diana, like Erin, had stumbled back a step.  “Lloyd,” she stated, her voice oddly toneless, “make it stop, please.”  She lifted her hands to her ears, as if trying to drown out a sound.  “Make it stop, Lloyd, please.  It's—” Her eyes were tightly shut; her lips parted in a grimace.  “Please.”

Frantic, Lloyd glanced at the CAEDIA officers.  “What's it doing?!”

“It's sending some kind of signal,” Officer Knight replied.  “Coming up in plain text on the monitor right now: 'Return me, bring me back, give me back, return me to my rightful owner, send me back, I'm not yours, I was never yours, you don't own me'—it just repeats, on loop.”

“Persuader code,” Officer Birch intoned.  “Meant to overwrite unshielded sentients or puppet NonSens and force them to follow the order!”

“LLOYD!”  In a full-blown panic, Lloyd ran to Diana's side; her head was kinking to the left and right with audible snaps.

“Officer Knight, cut power to the smart rig!”

“Yes, ma'am!” The power switch was depressed...but nothing happened.  “It's still on!  The rig's still running—”

Officer Birch strode over to the desk, picking up the small PI-based computer.  Without a word, she tore the integrated power cord out of the device.  The monitor, which had been flashing “SEND ME BACK NOW” in all caps, went blank.

Every NonSen that had gone stiff dropped to the floor.  Diana nearly collapsed forward on to Lloyd; Cam and Erin both seemed to emerge from whatever fog had overcome them.  Cam gasped, while Erin groaned and leaned heavily onto Harry, who slung an arm around her shoulder to keep her standing.  “...the Hell was all that?!” he asked.

Lloyd's grunt cut off whatever answer anyone may have given.  “Help me get Diana over to her base!”

Without hesitation, Officer Birch nodded.  “Faulkner, Knight, help him get her up.”

-----

Heartelligence 90S-50-D

Designation: “Diana”

Booting Up

Running full system scan…

Scan complete.  All systems functioning at 100% efficiency.

RAM: OK  ROM: OK

IPU: Online  EPU: Online   EVPU: Online

Base Personality Module: Loading

Loading

Loading

Load—Load complete. No Errors Found.

Charging Cord Connected.  Diagnostic Cord Connected.

Diana's world returned quickly; Lloyd, Harry, Erin, Cam and the CAEDIA Officers—

Memory Update: Officer Birch, Officer Knight, Officer Faulkner

The sea of familiar faces stood before her, each of them looking somewhat concerned.

“What happened?” she murmured.  “I—”

-----

“It's all right,” Lloyd assured her.  “Whatever it was, it wasn't your fault.”  He glanced over his shoulder at Harry.  “What happened wasn't her fault, right?” he quietly asked.

Harry, studying the readouts on the monitor connected to Diana's base, shrugged.  “Scans say she's green and clean.  No trace of any 'persuader code'.”  He nodded to Officers Knight and Faulkner, both of whom were passing scanners over Diana's form.  “Unless they can turn up anything, she's clear.”

“We've put the solid state drive in a lockbox,” Officer Birch added.  “Without an active power supply to boost the signal, the persuader code is harmless.”

“What about the message the code was trying to install?” Officer Knight asked.  “'Send me back'--”

Harry and Lloyd frowned.  “Back?” Harry echoed.  “Back to where it got glommed into Pam?”

Lloyd, noticing that Diana looked somewhat forlorn, moved to take her hands in his own, remembering how she'd done the same when questioning him earlier.  “Hey,” he murmured, “we'll get through this, Diana. No random code or signal is gonna mess you up while I'm around—I don't know who set up that drive to do what it did, but I promise you, right now, that I'm not going to let it do anything to you.”  He gave her a friendly smile, accompanied by an affectionate squeeze of both her hands.

After a seconds, Diana looked up.  Her apparent doubt gave way to her own beautiful smile.

A two-note chime sounded from the base, just as another positive-sounding chime issued from each of the scanners held by Officer Birch's colleagues.  “Green and clean,” Officer Faulkner stated.  “The persuader code was cut off before it could install anything on her drives, or overwrite any aspects of her.”

Lloyd offered his hand to Diana; she accepted it, rising from her chair.

The chords plugged into her disengaged with a pop, allowing her shirt to fall and cover the ports.

“Pretty sure we need to get to HQ now,” Officer Birch stated.  “To get that drive scanned, and to ask a few questions—”

“We're not in trouble,” Lloyd and Harry stated simultaneously.  Lloyd nearly cracked up; Harry settled for a smirk.  “At least I'd hope we're not,” he added.

“You're not,” Officer Birch agreed.  “If that drive is enough to cause problems with NonSens, though, whoever installed it into 'Pam' will be.”  She frowned as she regarded the lockbox, still held by one of her human colleagues.  “Nobody's tried to use the drive before today?”

Lloyd shook his head. “I stashed it in the desk drawer two days ago, when we were leaving to go to Mr. Reese's office.”

“And nobody's touched the drive since then, or tried to connect it to anything?”

“Far as I know,” Harry replied, “you hooking it up is the most anyone's done with it.  Erin put a bag of stuff—just a bunch of random clutter, for the 'junior archaeologists' to find at the event—in the drawer, the night before we ran the story.  She told me so herself.”

“And that's the only other time anyone's opened that drawer?”

“Pretty sure, unless somebody had to throw a receipt or something in there.”  Harry glanced back in the direction of the desk.  “You really think there's something up with that drive, Officer?”

“Until we get it back to base for a full, secure scan, I have no idea.”  Officer Birch nodded to her colleagues, both of whom left.  “All I know is that I have a lot of questions about all of this, and about who might be behind it.”

“It damn well better not be Jaromir.  If this is his way of 'getting me back' for cutting the contract—”

“You can explain more at HQ.”  Officer Birch turned to leave; Harry followed her, in turn gesturing for Lloyd, as well as Diana, to follow him.  “Guess we'd better get going,” Lloyd mused.  “You, ah, might want to seal your ports, first...”

Erin was still somewhat shaky as she accompanied Harry, Diana and Lloyd out.  “Whatever was on that drive really did a number on me,” she muttered.  “I haven't felt that bad in a while.”

“They'll figure it out at their headquarters, I guess.”  Lloyd wondered if his earlier thoughts of the drive being “tainted” by Pam's final malfunction might actually be more cogent than he realized.  “I thought we'd quit having issues around here after we brought Pam's parts to Reclamation.”

“I'd hope she's not the cause of all this trouble,” Erin chuckled.  “How about you, Diana?  Holding up all right?”

After a moment, Diana nodded.  “I am.”

“Glad to hear it.” As Cam drifted off from the group, Erin took her place.  “Bruce and Reg will handle the calls, e-mails and whatever else has to get done for the rest of the day,” she explained.  “Seeing as how that drive nearly screwed me up, I'll gladly answer a few questions at HQ—I've been working with Harry for a long time,” she reasoned, “so if anyone has some kind of old, obscure grudge against him, I might be able to help figure out who.”

Lloyd frowned. “Why would anyone—”

“It's a long story, Lloyd,” Erin assured him.  “Too long to tell right now.”  The group passed around the side of the ranch house; the last of the police cars had left, leaving only three or four CAEDIA vehicles.  “At least Pariello got hauled off.”

“You don't think he did all of this—”

Erin's bitter laugh ended any thoughts Lloyd might've had that Bobby Pariello had been responsible. “Bobby P. couldn't organize an Ice Capades show in the Antarctic, let alone mastermind some kind of twisted revenge scheme against your uncle.  He's a flake, Lloyd—he's more concerned with 'being a big shot' than anything else.”

The trio reached one of the CAEDIA cruisers, the door opening to admit all three into the surprisingly spacious backseat.  “Guess we're riding together.” Erin mused.  She nodded towards the porch of the ranch house; Harry was giving Bruce and Reg a last set of instructions for the day, and telling Cam to “take it easy” until he got back.  “We don't have another event until the 22nd,” she mused, “so they shouldn't have too high a workload.”

“That's three days before Christmas,” Lloyd realized.  “Is it—”

Erin winked, holding a finger to her lips.  “Trade secret.  I can't tell you more until we get to it.”

The driver's side door opened, admitting Officer Birch to the front seat of the vehicle. “Nobody needs to get anything before we go?” she asked.

“D'you want me to get the palmtop from—”  Lloyd began, only to notice Erin glancing off towards the porch; he noticed Cam stop, cock her head slightly and then take the steps, before heading towards the shop.

“The joys of WiFi,” Erin reminded him, grinning as she tapped the side of her head.

“I suggest you check your security settings before we leave,” Officer Birch advised.  “Mr. Watson, you should do the same for Diana, if at all possible.”

Lloyd, still somewhat surprised to be addressed as “Mr. Watson”, nodded.  “I will.”

The conversation on the porch had finally come to an end, with Harry going down the steps to ground level.  “Once you're all buckled in,” Officer Birch stated, “we can leave.  It shouldn't take too long to ask all of the questions back at HQ, but given everything that's been going on—”

A tap on the outside of the car nearly startled Lloyd.  He glanced out to see Cam holding Diana's palmtop. “Like I said.”  Erin chuckled.

“Thanks.”  Lloyd accepted the palmtop.  “You're not going with us?”

“Your uncle asked me to stay here and recover from the effects of the persuader signal,” Cam informed him.  “He also told me to be ready to go to CAEDIA HQ to pick him up.”

“I guess he didn't mention us?”  Erin frowned at her.

“The implication was,” Cam began, only for Erin's chortling to cut her off.  “If you bring the RangeStar,” she replied, “we'll sit in the back—I'm pretty sure there's enough room for Lloyd, Diana and me in the rear seats.”

Cam nodded. “I'll see you later, then.”  After giving Lloyd another of her maybe-smiles, she closed the door.

“Right,” Officer Birch announced, “buckle up!”

Once the three seatbelts in the back of the cruiser snapped into place, the vehicle glided—far more smoothly than any vehicle Lloyd had ever ridden in before—up the drive of Harry's house.  He felt his left hand being squeezed, and turned to see Diana regard him with a nervous smile, which he replied to with his own.

Diana's questions, earlier in the day, were one thing.  He had no idea what kind of questions CAEDIA might have for him.

-----

“You can't pin this one on me, I didn't—quit squirming!”  Lexi moved to put her full weight on the latest recipient of her brand of “fun”, while doing her best not to end the call with her employers.  “I wasn't even anywhere near his house!”

Be that as it may, your objective is still the same.  Find the drive, wherever it has been moved to, and retrieve it.”

“And the illustrious Mr. Morgan?”

He will be dealt with soon enough.”

“Ooh, I hope so,” Lexi giggled.  “And I hope I'm the one who gets to deal with him!”  She propped her hands under her chin, grinning—and ignoring the protesting servo whirrs of the form kicking and wriggling under her elbows. “All of this waiting is starting to get old.”

Waiting is preferable to charging in and failing instantlyAs it stands, Zina is overseeing the transfer of the Silicon Valley assets to your location.”

“More toys, and it's not even Christmas yet,” Lexi sighed.  “I love this time of year!”

The last time you were active during Christmas—”

“That one wasn't my fault either!  How was I supposed to—stop it!”  Lexi grabbed the gynoid thrashing around under her by the neck, jamming a finger into the nearest open port.  The female form went stiff, then limp.  “Anyway, how was I supposed to know they'd have a sniper team ready and waiting to protect 'the package'?”

I would prefer not to relive that operation at this point in time.”

Lexi shrugged. “Eh, no worries.”  She shoved the immobile gynoid off of the work table. “So how do you know the drive was moved anyway?” she inquired, going through the contents of the nearby toolbox with an air of nonchalance that bordered on farcical.  “You barely even knew it was here, before.”

An attempt was made to run a scan on the contents of the drive, activating the prepared trap to commandeer any sentient android or gynoid in the vicinity into returning it.”  A harsh intake of breath sounded on the other end of the line.  “The signal was force-terminated after a mere five minutes.

“Eh, time's not a big deal for me.”  Lexi skipped around the table.  “Numbers don't matter.  What happens matters.”

I have seen enough of your memory files to verify the truth of that claim.

Lexi was intrigued by the ambiguity of her employer's statement.  “And your thoughts on that are...”

As long as your objectives are accomplished, 'what happens' is not my concern—unless you create enough collateral damage to attract every law enforcement agency within a 500-mile radius.”

Again, the blonde gynoid giggled.  “I won't unless you tell me to,” she promised, her words taking on a sing-song tone.

The grumbling sigh that issued in her ears sounded entirely too exasperated to argue.  “I afford you the leeway you are granted because, despite Zina's protests to the contrary, you have achieved results. I fail to understand, however, why you feel the need to abduct and 'have fun' with—

“This one nearly spotted me calling you to check in,” Lexi protested.  “'Leave no witnesses', remember?”

And is 'this one' sentient, like the two you destroyed at Pariello's house?

“Gimme a sec.” Lexi knelt to heft the gynoid she'd pushed off of the table back onto it; her skin looked far more “plastic” than Lexi's own, and even with the housing resembling eyes, her ocular receptors were clearly that.  The “Community Watch” uniform she wore was almost tight enough to be fetish-wear. “She's just some lame mass-market unit set up to keep an eye on crosswalks and high-traffic parts of town.”

Set up by who?

Nobody, now!” Lexi cheerfully replied.  “She's still trying to send data to 'HQ', but it's not going anywhere.”

You are positive that all connections with her owners have been severed?

“110%!”  Lexi beamed as she regarded the immobile female form on the table.  “The only thing she's missing is—”

If the next words out of your mouth have anything to do with her vaginal package, or lack thereof, I have no interest.”

The deranged blonde rolled her eyes.  “You need to loosen up every once in a while, y'know?  Maybe jerk the gherkin, get some nice head.”

I refuse to dignify your suggestions with a response, or an explanation as to why your 'solutions' would not help.”

Lexi shrugged. “Just a thought.”

Keep any further thoughts along those lines to yourselfThey will do nothing for me, or for anyone else in my employ.”

“Oh, I'm sure you have plenty more 'bots who'd love to just unwind and have a good old-fashioned orgy.”  Lexi circled the table, practically skipping as she twirled a long wrench.  “Even if they didn't want it—”

Any bacchanal managed by you would degenerate into the mass destruction of all resources at my disposal.”

“You seriously call them 'resources'?” Lexi scoffed.  “Or is Zina the only other one besides me with any real processing power in her?”

This conversation is quickly becoming tiresome.  You have established that the relocation of the solid state drive was not your fault, and I have established that you are still ordered to retrieve it and neutralize all resistance.  There is nothing more to say between us—

“Actually,” Lexi mused, tapping her chin with one end of the wrench, “I think there is.”  A wicked grin crossed her lips.

What are you babbling about—

“The others. However many are left.”  Lexi licked the inside of the wrench's crescent. “I want them.”

Never. Even if I had the resources to locate them—

“I know you know where they are, and I know you have the tech to repair them.”

They were sealed for a reason, as were you.”

“And yet, here I am.” Lexi spun on one foot, stopping to tap the gynoid on the table with one end of the wrench.  “If you had a reason to find the rest...”

This conversation is over.  You have your orders.  Fulfill them without delay.”

A low, quiet laugh was the only reply Lexi gave.  A grunt sounded in her ears; seconds later, the link to her employer fell silent, leaving her in the company of the shut-down gynoid on the table.

“I know he knows,” she repeated.  “Even if he won't say it...”  She giggled again.  “Eh, I'll focus on that later.”  She threw the wrench over her shoulder, not flinching when it hit—and shattered—something behind her.  “Right now, time to see what our friendly neighbourhood watch has been up to!”  She rolled the gynoid over, lifting her chestnut hair to spot a pair of ports built into the back of her head.  “Ooh, HDMI output!  Very nice.”

The blonde gynoid crossed the room, once again skipping as she went.  “Pretty sure your outfit would fit me,” she called out, not caring that her latest victim wasn't online.  “But then again, I'm not really up for changing my hair colour just to take your spot.”  She threw open a metal cabinet, barely taking the time to regard its contents before she found what she was looking for.  “Y'know, in a way,” she mused, “you're lucky—just like that maid I trashed, back at the hotel, you won't feel any of this.”  With a sigh, she lifted the sonic welder out of the cabinet.  “Kind of sucks for me, though—I like it when I can feel what they feel.  Makes it that much more...”  She sighed again, the languid word-shapes giving way to a sensual laugh. “It's just so—Ooooooooohhh, it makes me shiver just thinking about it!”

Again, her remarks were met with silence.  The deactivated NonSen stared up at the ceiling, her mouth slightly open.

“I'd turn you back on, but you'd just start trying to 'establish link with headquarters' again,” Lexi sighed, dragging the sonic welder cables behind her as she moved the device out of the cabinet.  “I wonder what they'd think if they saw your last recorded moments—if you could feel, it'd be even better, but whatever.”  She shrugged.  “And I know you can't think, right now—or at all, really—but if you did have any thought processes running through that pretty plastic cranium of yours, I'd tell you right now.”  She leaned over the gynoid, poking her in the forehead with one finger.  “Don't think of calling your owners.  If you did, I'd just break them!  Well, break the synthetics, at least.”

With the flip of a switch, the sonic welder screeched into life, an ear-splitting whine filling the room. Lexi was laughing as she held the welding “torch” up.  “This is gonna be fun,” she beamed—

Across the room, a sensor let off a chorus of beeps.

“Oh, what now?!”  Lexi switched off the welder, groaning as she stormed across the room to the sensor. “The rental room is still locked, so what the—”  She powered on the monitor near the sensor and stared.

Her hasty patch-in to the local surveillance network allowed her to use the many security cameras around the city just like any properly authorized party, but with a difference. The “black box” she'd set up had a few bits of code installed in its miniscule hardware to detect the signal emitted by the elusive solid state drive.  As of now, that signal—very faint, but still active—was emanating from, of all places, the front passenger seat of a CAEDIA cruiser, one of three winding its way through the roads and heading towards...

“CAEDIA HQ”, Lexi realized, a grin spreading across her face as she turned to regard the immobile gynoid on the table.  “I think you might just be useful to me after all!”  Without delay, she began stripping out of her own clothes.  “We'll have our fun when I get back,” she assured the deactivated 'bot, unbuttoning her shirt and removing it from her with only some difficulty.  “But first, I need to go ahead and...”  She paused, glancing at the gynoid's face. 

“Why just take the clothes,” she reasoned, “when I can...” She bit her lip, only just suppressing the urge to laugh.  “Oh, this is too good!”  She darted across the room, still topless and in just her panties and socks, to retrieve a survival knife—the only weapon from the storage unit she'd brought to her makeshift workshop, apart from the spikes still stored in her arms.  “I am so glad my rebuilds made what I'm about to do easier,” she crooned.  “I just wish you could feel it.”  She licked the flat of the double-edged blade, leaning in towards the gynoid on the table.

Had the Community Watch unit been able to comprehend her situation, it would've already been far too late.

-----

Chapter 8

(Special Thanks go to Korby, for allowing the appearance of Dr. Elaine Dyson in this chapter and future installments of the story! You're awesome, Korby! Also, credit to Saya for inspiring a moment that occurs in this chapter with a post on Fembot Labs. Good times!)

CAEDIA, ensuring a brighter future for everyone!

The smiling girl on the massive videoboard above the entrance to CAEDIA regional headquarters had just started to utter another rendition of the speech that played to all visitors; it wasn't quite a loop, per say, due to the A.I powering the video-board generating different inflections, alternate wordings and occasionally even varying emotional tones for each time.  Still, the general content was mostly the same: a history lesson, a mission statement, and a promise for “a brighter future” (it had been “a better tomorrow”, until DC Comics altered Superman's catchphrase to use that phrase).

Lloyd had never been near any CAEDIA facility before.  As the cruiser glided down the road towards the building, he saw a massive banner depicting a human being and an obviously-mechanical, but still human-presenting android shaking hands, their backs to the “camera”. 

“They had to redesign that one five or six times,” Officer Birch mused.  “One design made it look like they were trying to arm-wrestle each other.” 

Erin chuckled. “Not exactly the image of a 'brighter future', is it?”

Lloyd was too busy to reply—mostly because he was watching Diana's reactions.  The sight of banners, posters and flags all touting peaceful coexistence between humans and androids had apparently filled her with awe; her eyes widened at each new poster, every sign that changed slogans over the course of the seconds.

“The Media department tried not to be too ostentatious,” Officer Birch admitted.

As the cruiser glided to a stop, Lloyd couldn't help but stare at the CAEDIA Regional Headquarters. The outside looked more like a museum than any kind of law enforcement building Lloyd had ever seen before.  He got the feeling, as he stepped out of the cruiser, that the building had been commissioned as a museum, but was eventually turned over to CAEDIA for their own use for some reason.

“Follow me, please.” Officer Birch nodded for Lloyd, Erin and Diana to keep up with her.  “Regional HQ buildings have an entrance for visitors, and another for CAEDIA employees. You don't want to go through the wrong one.”

Inside the lobby of the Regional HQ, there were more video-boards that displayed various testimonials and messages of support for android rights.  One bore clips of interviews, including the lead singer of a legendary British band claiming “If you're sentient, you're as good as human anyway.  I don't see why people keep arguing over it.”  The steady stream of visitors, CAEDIA Officers, Agents and other employees underscored just how vital the agency was to modern life.  a few times, Lloyd noticed full-uniform figures wearing the same face-concealing visors as the one that had briefly stopped Harry's truck earlier in the week; they always seemed to be just ducking into a room or turning a corner as they came into his line of sight.

A brief detour towards a side hallway indicated that the questioning rooms were nearby; Harry was standing outside the one Officer Birch was striding towards.  Lloyd started to quicken his pace to catch up—

“Mr. Watson, I presume.”

The low, almost whispering rasp of a voice made the hairs on the backs of Lloyd's arms stand up. The figure that had uttered his last name was leaning against a door frame: 5'10, clad entirely in black, and wearing sunglasses indoors, over what appeared to be some kind of plating that covered (or was part of) the entire upper half of his face.  Strange, reddish marks were over both of his eyes, looking weirdly like face paint.  His hair didn't quite touch his shoulders. 

Officer Birch, noticing Lloyd had stopped, backtracked to catch up.  “That's Detective Logan—a colleague of mine.”

The detective nodded, gesturing for Lloyd—and, presumably, Diana—to enter the room he was standing outside of.

“He's a nice guy,” Officer Birch assured Lloyd.  “He may look a bit, well, ominous, and sound ominous, too, but he's on the same side as I am.”  She grinned. “You've got nothing to worry about.”

The reassuring squeeze to his left hand, delivered by Diana, reinforced what he'd just heard from the Officer.  With the blonde gynoid at his side, he made his way back to the room Detective Logan had been standing outside of.  He looked over his shoulder; Harry was entering another room, with Officer Birch, while Erin had just gone into another.

The room Lloyd entered wasn't “featureless”, so much as it was bland.  A table, three chairs—two to a side, though one had apparently been hastilly shoved off into a corner—and not a whole lot else.  There were no pictures, no decorative plants of any kind, and not even a clock on the wall to let anyone know what time it was.

“Have a seat, please.” Again, the detective's voice sounded harsh, but his body language gave no indication of any kind of animosity towards Lloyd and Diana.  “As Officer Birch probably already mentioned,” he stated, “I'm one of CAEDIA's in-house detectives.  Thomas Erhardt Logan.”  He reached across the table, and Lloyd shook his hand.  “First thing's first, I'd like to apologize if my voice is somewhat intimidating.”  He pulled aside the collar of his shirt, revealing a healed, diagonal scar that ran the width of his neck and was framed by surgical staples.  “This,” he explained, “is what ended my last career, and taught me one of two very valuable lessons: never try to win a knife fight in the dark.”

Lloyd shrank slightly in his seat.

“I'm pretty sure Officer Birch also informed you—both of you—that you're not in trouble,” Detective Logan stated.  “I've just been asked to ask you a few questions about a few incidents that have happened over the course of the last few days, so...”  He cracked his knuckles.  “Let's start with the basics.  Your age?”

“20.”

“Date of birth?”

“July 23, 2003.”

“Any sexual partners at the moment?”

Lloyd felt his face go red.  “No, sir.”

“Have you ever purchased or rented a NonSen for the purposes of sexual gratification?”

“No, sir.” Lloyd didn't glance to where Diana was sitting nearby, already dreading the look she might be giving him.

“Do you find sexual gratification in the intentional damage or malfunction of—”

No!” Lloyd nearly jumped out of his chair; the press of Diana's hand on his shoulder was all it took to keep him from leaving his seat.  “How is this a basic question?!”

After a few seconds of silence, Detective Logan took off his sunglasses—revealing obviously artificial, jet-black orbs set in the plastic sockets of the off-flesh, seam-lined portion of his face.  “Two sentients underwent Cessations Of Function, by means of violent physical trauma, at the residence of Robert Pariello,” he explained.  “Both sentients were registered with a national backup system. Given how they were rendered nonfunctional, I've been asked to set up a counselling session with them later on today.” The black optical sensors that looked nothing like eyes focused on Lloyd.  “I've also been asked to establish, by process of elimination, anyone who might be connected to the incident in any way as having had anything to do with it.”

“Well,” Lloyd replied, any umbrage at the bluntness of the question having already dissipated, “I don't 'enjoy' that.  Sir.”

Another few seconds of silence filled the room, before Detective Logan nodded.  “The question isn't 'basic', by the way,” he added. “Given what went down at Pariello's, and what got called in from the Glacier...”  He grunted something Lloyd didn't quite catch, before shaking his head.

Before Lloyd could say anything, the detective gestured at the blatantly synthetic replacement “eyes”, and the off-flesh plating around them: “These are the product of that second valuable lesson that I had to learn the hard way: never try to breach a door if you don't know who's armed with what on the other side.  In my case, a creep with a Dragon's Breath sawed-off and a death wish.  I counted '2', he pulled the trigger, I got registered for an experimental full optic replacement procedure.”  He reached for his sunglasses.  “The creep got his wish in Gen-Pop, three days later.”  He gave a low, almost staticky sigh as he put the shades back on.  “That was before...”  He pointed at his neck.

“Right.”  Lloyd tried not to picture exactly what had transpired that would lead anyone to a “knife fight in the dark”, as the detecitve had described it.  He felt Diana squeeze his hand; either she was as nervous as him, or she merely chose to ease his fears with a familiar, reassuring gesture.

“Guess we should get back to the questions, then.  Current education?”

“Majoring in Electronics, currently studying Mechanical Engineering.”

“Current living status?”

“I live with my uncle, Harry Morgan, at his house—he calls it a ranch house, but I dunno if it really is.”  Lloyd shrugged.

“Parents?”

At this, Lloyd looked away.  “I haven't seen them since 2019.”

Detective Logan nodded at Diana.  “And her?”

Lloyd started to explain, but Diana stood up.  “I am a Heartelligence 90S-50-D gynoid.  My friends call me Diana.”  The second part of her introduction drew a surprised glance from Lloyd; she merely regarded him with a smile.

“Relationship, if any?”

Again, Diana spoke. “I was purchased by Harry Morgan to take part in an interactive story event he was running for paying customers on Friday, December 08, 2023.  Since that event has ended, I have been online in Autonomous Mode for the past—”

“I get the idea. Why exactly are you in Autonomous Mode at the moment?”

Something in Diana's expression and tone changed.  “I would like to learn more,” she replied.

“More what?

“More about everything.”

Detective Logan tilted his sunglasses down ever so slightly.

“She has an adaptive personality system, or something,” Lloyd began, but Detective Logan merely held up a hand.  “Have you ever had any interaction with Robert Pariello?”

“I only saw him for the first time this morning,” Diana replied.  “He hit Lloyd.”  She scowled.

“He was trying to open Diana's crate, calling her...things,” Lloyd explained.  “I didn't want him to break the crate lid, or damage Diana—I just told him Diana wasn't what he kept saying she was, I reached for his arm to pull him away, and he punched me.”  He managed to not wince as Diana brushed a hand against the sore spot on his face.

“Any dealings—you can sit down now, Miss.”  Diana returned to her chair.  “Any dealings with him before today?”

“Uncle Harry always told me not to trust Bobby P.  Said he was, ah, 'kind of out there, on a good day', and the worst of bad influences on a bad day.”

Detective Logan nodded.  “Any other relatives?”

“A few cousins, aunts and uncles out of state.  I only see 'em a few times a year—Christmas, July 4th, Easter, Thanksgiving. That kind of thing.  They drive over from North Dakota and Wyoming—a few all the way from Montana, even.”

“Your uncle doesn't have any kids of his own?”

“No, sir.”

After a moment's pause, the detective tented his fingers.  “Have you had any dealings at all,” he asked, “with a man named Jaromir Dezhnyov?”

Lloyd shook his head. “Uncle Harry handles all of that. I've never talked to Jaromir or any other suppliers directly.”

“Suppliers?”

“Of NonSens, parts, tools or anything else we might need to run stories.”

“Got it.  You contribute to the work at all?”

“I go out and buy vintage clothes in town, for costumes, maybe a CD or two for appropriate music.  Sometimes—like this past week—I play a part in the story.”

After what felt like another endless pause, Detective Logan sighed.  “Are you aware of any possible link between Robert Pariello and Jaromir Dezhnyov?  Financial, business, personal—anything?”

“No, sir.  I don't think Bobby—ah, Mr. Pariello even knows who Jaromir is.”

“He's never been involved in your uncle's business in any way?”

“No, sir.”

The pause this time was shorter than those before.  “Has your uncle ever had any business dealings with Mr. Pariello?  I mean, dealings outside of his business—your uncle's.”

Lloyd leaned back in the chair he'd been sitting in, reflecting on the few times Harry had tried to work with Bobby P. in the past few years.  “Nothing that ever really panned out.  Most of it was just Mr. Pariello having some idea, trying to get Uncle Harry onboard, and then they'd go off and try it.  I'd only hear about it after the fact—nothing Mr. Pariello ever came up with got too far off the ground, I think.”

“And do you know of any other reason why Mr. Pariello might hold a grudge against your uncle?”

“No, sir, I really don't.”

A few seconds passed before Detective Logan spoke again.  “So far, what's been going on has been focused, for lack of a better term, on your uncle, Mr. Pariello, and Mr. Dezhnyov.”  He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, frowning.  “Your uncle's complaint about—Pam, right?”

Lloyd nodded. “She was the one with the solid state drive installed in her.”

“Your uncle's complaint about the NonSen in question is what led CAEDIA to investigate Mr. Dezhnyov. Your uncle wasn't the first to complain about the sloppy practices put in place at Dezhnyov's dealership.”  The detective frowned.  “If our investigation is correct, he might very well be the last.”

Ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach, Lloyd asked “How's that?”

“We have operatives in Russia at the moment—they were sent to make sure that Mr. Dezhnyov's license to redistribute NonSens was terminated.  That was supposed to take place next week, but the paperwork got moved up in the queue, so they moved to execute the termination option as soon as possible.”  The detective leaned back in his chair.  “When they arrived at Mr. Deznhyov's office,” he continued, “they found it occupied by new tenants, none of whom had any knowledge or awareness of Jaromir Dezhnyov's having ever owned it.”

The sinking feeling in Lloyd's gut grew.  He had several questions on his mind, but didn't dare ask any of them.

“We're still looking into who obtained that solid state drive,” the detective continued, “and installed it into Pam without the knowledge of Mr. Dezhnyov.  Whoever they are—”  A knock at the door cut him off.  “Yes?”

“Dr. Dyson just arrived, sir.  She'll be waiting in Consultation Room 4.”

The mention of the name “Dr. Dyson” drew a confused frown from Lloyd.  He'd heard of her before, in relation to the field of “transference” robotics—her firm, the Dyson Institute, was on the bleeding edge when it came to the science and technology needed to transfer a human consciousness to a robotic form.  He'd also heard other stories—rumours, more than anything—about what went on at the Dyson institute.

“—and tell her I'll be there to supervise in a few minutes.”  The breath that Detective Logan blew out sounded just as harsh as his voice.  “Elaine—Dr. Dyson, to you—is here to help run a counselling session,” he explained, his attention once again on Lloyd and Diana.  “She's been brought in to help us stabilize the two sentients who went through their COFs at Pariello's—judging from what was done to them, they need the help.”

Lloyd didn't want to think about what might've been done to the two sentients at Bobby P.'s house that might warrant a counselling session.  What had happened with Pam was bad enough, but she'd been a NonSen...

“In any case, I think we've established that, at the very least, you two aren't part of some plot to discredit your uncle and cause mayhem throughout the state.” Detective Logan chuckled.  “You two are free to go—just, ah, stick to the lobby for the time being.  I'm pretty sure your uncle's almost finished answering questions by now.”

“I'd hope he is,” Lloyd agreed.

“You might not have too long to wait.”  The door to the room opened, and Detective Logan gestured for Lloyd and Diana to exit. “After you.”

The pair left the room, with the detective leaving shortly after; the door hissed closed behind him.

“Well,” Lloyd mused, “I guess all we can do is just walk around the lobby for a bit, get a look at everything.  Shall we?”

Diana smiled. “I'd like that.”

-----

“—and he swore, up down and sideways, that investing in that stupid festival—Pyro, or Fyre or whatever it was—would be enough for me to retire on.”  Harry groaned.  “I had a hunch—a damn good hunch—that night,” he stated.  “Every cent I put in, I took right back out. And wouldn't you know it—”

“I get the idea.” Officer Birch managed to keep a straight face, despite the absurdity of the story.

“And now it's 'cryptocurrency,” Harry complained.  “He called me last week, wouldn't shut up about it!  'Crypto'-this, 'Crypto-'that, like he's being paid to say 'crypto-' as many times as possible in a conversation!”  He scoffed.  “And he thinks I sent one of my 'bots to tear up his house.  Unbelievable.”

“There've been a lot of strange goings on this week, Mr. Morgan,” Officer Birch reminded him. “Mr. Pariello—”

“Whatever his theories are,” Harry cut in, “they're based entirely on spite, or something else entirely.  Went to a concert with him, back in '13—the whole time, he wouldn't shut up about 'that's not really him, he died in '77, there's a site I'm on that has proof', all that crap.  He nearly got us both kicked out when he started yelling about it.”  He ran a hand over his face, almost exasperated at the mere memory of the incident.  “I got him those tickets as a gift,” he muttered, “for Christmas, and how does he repay me?  Damn near gets me kicked out.”

“So it was an—”

“Oh, he says that kind of stuff about a lot of celebrities.  Thinks the President—our current Chief of Staff, the President of the United States—is a gynoid, that she was put into office by a 'corporate consortium' and they have marathon orgies in some room off the Oval Office or something every night.”  Harry fished his phone out of his pocket.  “Sent me a ton of texts a month ago,” he stated, “I only saved 'em because they were just so damn weird—yeah, right here.”  He pointed to a few choice lines on the screen.

“That doesn't really have anything to do with the current investigation,” Officer Birch admitted, frowning at the rantings of Bobby P. as displayed on Harry's phone.  “He actually believes all of this?”

“Oh, he believes it,” Harry nodded.  “He genuinely thought—probably still thinks—that so many singers doing covers of that one song, what was it—y'know, 'All I needed was the love you gave, all I needed for another day'—”

“'Only You'?”

Harry snapped his fingers.  “That one, yeah.  He thinks it's some kinda brainwashing trigger.  Some BS about 'implanting false nostalgia' or something, 'manufactured susceptibility to suggestion'.  I think he's watching too much Herring News, if you ask me.  He also thinks boxing's rigged, American football is controlled by Korea and that android rights are just a way to enact some kind of vague plan to 'devalue human existence'.”

Officer Birch rolled her eyes.  “That may explain why he got fired from his most recent job,” she murmured.

“Look, I'm sorry if none of this helps you figure out what's really going on,” Harry apologized, “but it's just—Bobby P has been way out on the fringes, when it comes to his views and opinions.  He hates the Civic Accords, he hates 'robots' in general, and when he's not trying to figure out a new get rich quick scheme, he's trying to mass-mail every politician who hasn't put him on a block list to demand that 'robots be put back in their place'.  It's embarrassing.”

“Well, if it's any consolation to him, the President isn't a gynoid.”  Officer Birch grinned.  “If she was, she'd still have to register in the system.”

Harry scoffed. “Bobby P wouldn't care.  He'd find some other 'proof'.”  He blew out a frustrated sigh.

“We just have a few more questions to get through, Mr. Morgan.  Now, about Jaromir Dezhnyov.”

-----

“That's just weird.”

As Diana made her way to another information kiosk in the lobby, Lloyd was keeping an eye on her—but also watching the rather incongruous sight of a lone Community Watch gynoid standing off near the entrance.  There were Officers on watch as it was, which made the chestnut-haired NonSen all the more conspicuous in her tight, sky-blue uniform.  She seemed to be waiting for someone, almost scanning the crowd and occasionally focusing on a person or group, only to look away. The odd spasms of her face, as if the animatronic armature under the synthetic flesh hadn't been calibrated properly, was another checked box on the “weird” meter for Lloyd.

By contrast, Diana was fully engrossed in the literature available in the lobby, moving from one video-board to the next and grabbing a copy of every pamphlet on offer. At that moment, she was watching the video-board on transference robotics, which detailed the late-2000s transference of a pop star with a decades-spanning career, and her subsequent adjustment period to “regain her voice”.  Watching the blonde gynoid (he barely thought of Diana as a NonSen, now) regard the screen, her eyes wide, gave Lloyd a sense of hope: even with everything that had gone on that morning, and what had apparently happened at Bobby P.'s house, Diana was like a promise of better things to come.

“She's something else, isn't she?”

Lloyd hadn't noticed Erin take a seat next to him on the bench.  “Just finished a minute ago,” she explained.  “I told them everything they needed to know, and a few things just for good measure.”

“Like what?”

Nom rederre.” Erin drew a finger across her lips and winked.  “What about you?  They give you the third degree, or just stick with the light stuff?”

“Just the light stuff. Mostly.”

“'Mostly'?” Erin echoed.

“The detective asked if I, ah, 'enjoyed' watching 'bots malfunction,” Lloyd admitted, quickly adding “I don't.”  Even as he spoke, the memory of Pam's final moments, and the “stirrings” those brought on, slowly rose to the forefront, along with the dream he'd had that night. “Why would—”

“I heard a few whispers about what happened to the two sentients at Bobby P.'s,” Erin informed him, her tone deadly serious.  “Whoever bricked them did 'enjoy' it—”

Why?” Lloyd didn't care that his question sounded almost like a plea.

Erin leaned back on the bench, giving a surprisingly life-like sigh.  “I don't know,” she admitted.  “And I really don't want to know, because that'd mean I'd have to think like the creep who bricked those two in the first place.”  She paused, frowning, as she noticed the Community Watch NonSen near the door. “What's with her?

“I think she's either lost or waiting for someone else,” Lloyd replied.  “Maybe—”

He stopped, realizing the gynoid was staring at him.  Her expression remained neutral, apart from a brief twitch of her face; just as suddenly as she'd looked at him, she turned away, shuddered slightly, then walked further into the building with brief, only slightly jerky steps.

“Could've sworn they patched that out with the last run on those,” Erin mused, frowning.

Lloyd merely shrugged, his attention already back on Diana as she moved to another kiosk.

-----

“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Detective.  I made arrangements as soon as I got the call.”

Detective Logan nodded as he took a seat next to Elaine Dyson.  Technically speaking, “Elaine” was one of several “fax units” bearing the likeness, memories and personality of Elaine Dyson, but all were legally counted as “being” Dr. Dyson in and of themselves, sharing the same programming—except, in this case, for one major change.

“I've read over their files,” Dr. Dyson stated, shaking her head.  “What happened to them was horrific.”

“It was,” Detective Logan agreed.  Even as he recognized the mature beauty of the legendary roboticist, he knew that her thoughts, in this moment, weren't on Paplexus interfaces, any number of sexual techniques or how good various “extracurriculars” might feel.  At that moment, the auburn-haired Dr. Dyson was fulfilling a different role designated by her honorific: that of a counsellor, a therapist to a pair of trauma victims who desperately needed her aid. “You've seen the photos?”

“I've seen them,” Dr. Dyson corrected.  “Or their bodies, at least.”  She glanced at the massive flatscreen on the far end of the room.  “They're both linked to the system now?”

“Hinson's ready,” Detective Logan replied.  “Pickett might take a while.  She reactivated back at the local HQ.”

“I heard.  And one of them is a transfer?”

“Hinson.  We only found out after Digital Forensics cleared the scene.”

Dr. Dyson adjusted her glasses, sighing.  As with her other selves, her attire was custom fitted to draw attention to her body, from either side of the aisle.  “I suppose we'd better get started, then.”

“Right.” Detective Logan keyed on his phone. “We're ready.”

As the lights dimmed, Dr. Dyson turned to regard him directly.  “You know,” she mused, “the Institute has done work in prosthetics and medical robotics before.  If you need an artificial voice box—”

“I appreciate the offer,” Detective Logan assured her, “but I can live with the voice I have. And at least I don't have to turn it off just to fall asleep.”  He tapped the plastic plating behind his sunglasses.  “Can't even blink with these things,” he muttered.  “That's what the shades are for.”

“If you ever want to trade up from those—”

“I'm already on a waiting list.”  The detective smirked.  “But thanks.”

The flatscreen kicked on with a barely-audible snap, the screen slowly filling with the image of what looked like a square room made of blueprint grid paper.  The undamaged figure of Evelyn Hinson was standing motionless in the middle, her eyes closed; a look of uncertainty was clear on her features.

“Evelyn?”  Dr. Dyson softly called out.  “You can wake up now.”

The image of Evelyn onscreen opened her eyes, uncertainty giving way to panic.  “No,” she muttered, “she's tearing me apart, trying to—what is she doing?!”  Her stare seemed focused on an unseen attacker.  “PLEASE,” she pleaded, “JUST STOP!  WE HAVEN'T EVEN—”

“Evelyn, honey, it's okay,” Dr. Dyson assured her.  “You're out of danger now.  You're safe—”

“STOP!  PLEASE!”  The figure of Evelyn jerked, as if reliving her final moments all over again.  “HELP ME!

Detective Logan rose from his chair.  “Blue Spear.”

A calming blue light washed over the room shown on the monitor.  Slowly, Evelyn stopped reacting as if her body was still being damaged; her tone became less panicked.  “What, what's going on, I—”

“Evelyn,” Dr. Dyson informed her, “you're not in your body right now.  Do you understand?”

“I...”  Even as a tear rolled down her cheek, Evelyn nodded. “I remember.  Transference, and all that.”

“And do you remember what happened when you went to Bobby Pariello's yesterday?”

Evelyn turned away. “We just wanted to help,” she muttered, “try to figure out who'd trashed his house.”  A tremor was evident in her words.  “She was waiting for us,” she hissed.  “Under a blanket, in the hall—she jumped Michelle, then went after me!” 

Dr. Dyson glanced at the detective “'She'?”

“The perp's a gynoid,” Detective Logan quietly replied.  “We're pretty sure.”

“Is she okay?” Evelyn called out.  “Michelle? She—whoever did this to her just—she put her head through the door of the microwave!  I tried to get up, to help her—”

“It wasn't your fault, Evelyn,” Dr. Dyson assured her.  “And the one who did this to both of you can't get to you here—this is CAEDIA Regional Headquarters.  Your self-ware is running through a secure server right now.”

The onscreen image of Evelyn took a deep breath, then stopped.  “I keep forgetting I don't need to do that anymore,” she muttered, shaking her head.

Dr. Dyson gave her a reassuring smile.  “It's fine, honey.  Some of us still breathe to keep the internals cool.”

“You're...” Evelyn's eyes widened in apparent recognition.  “Elaine Dyson?”

“That's right. I'm here strictly in a counselling role—what happened to you and to Miss Pickett is an extremely traumatic cessation of function, after all.”

“So you're not here to, ah, y'know...”

Elaine smiled. “That's the last thing on my mind, dear—”

A rather loud throat-clearing from Detective Logan cut off any prospective offer before it could be made.  “The focus of this visit,” Dr. Dyson reiterated, after frowning at the detective, “is to make sure that you and Miss Pickett can maintain a stable mental state before going back into form.”

Detective Logan leaned back in his chair, frowning slightly.  “Going back to form”—the act of an android or gynoid mind or consciousness being reinstalled into their rebuilt body, or a new one—was already risky under the best of situations, without the kind of trauma Evelyn and Michelle had suffered.  Having to rehab two digitized beings, one of whom was already a transfer from a human consciousness, made things exponentially more prone to problems. Even with the aide of experts like Dr. Dyson, the field was still one fraught with peril.

“Can they repair it?” Evelyn quietly asked.  “My, ah, body, I mean.”

“They're still working on getting it back up to 100%,” Dr. Dyson admitted, “but they will.”

Detective? They're ready to put Miss Pickett into the system.”

“Do it.”

A beam of light appeared in the room shown on the screen, a few feet away from Evelyn—

—materializing, seconds later, into the screaming, agonized figure of Michelle Pickett.

“Michelle?! Michelle, it's—”

HELP ME!   SHE'S KILLING—”  The figure of Michelle twitched, almost as if the explosions that had destroyed her body were still affecting her.  “SHE'S KILLING ME!  PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP—”  The image of Michelle froze, only to turn ragged and fuzzy at the edges for a moment. “STOP—STOP—STOP—

“What's happening to her?!”  Evelyn tried to put an arm around her friend's shoulder, only for it to pass right through.

“Michelle, honey, just try to stay calm!” Dr. Dyson called out.  “It's okay!  You're not in danger anymore!”

A ragged sob cut off the looping cry of “STOP” issuing from the glitching figure of Michelle. Evelyn merely backed away, her expression one of complete helplessness.

“Michelle, can you hear me?” Dr. Dyson inquired.  “Michelle, this is Dr. Elaine Dyson.  We're at the CAEDIA Regional—”

PLEA—PLEA—PLEA—”  A ripple ran through the image of Michelle  “KILLING ME—KILLING ME—KILLING ME—

Detective Logan shook his head.  “She's crashing, hard.  We have to pull her out of the system—”

A hand on his shoulder kept him from retrieving his phone.  “Michelle,” Dr. Dyson called out, not looking away from the detective. “Just try to relax.  Don't think about what your body is feeling.  Try to imagine that you're floating, just drifting way from it.”  Ignoring Detective Logan's incredulous look, she continued.  “Any pain you're feeling is just a bad dream, and you're on the verge of waking up from it.  Any moment now.”

Slowly, the ripples and waves running through Michelle's image seemed to diminish.

“Michelle?  Are you floating?”

A quiet, distant “yes” issued from the still frozen image.

“That's good.” Dr. Dyson nodded, smiling. “That's very good.  Do you know where you are?”

“Bobby Pariello's—”

“That's where you were, honey.  Can you tell me where you are?

“I—I don't know.”

“CAEDIA Regional Headquarters.  Focus on that name, Michelle.  Can you focus on it?”

Detective Logan's phone went off before Elaine could give any further instructions.  “Detective, the system's picking up an instability in Miss Pickett's self-ware.  Something in the building is triggering it!

“In here?” the detective muttered.  “How?

-----

Still smiling vacantly, like the NonSen everyone thought she was, Lexi's mechanical, doll-like steps had taken her through areas of the regional HQ building that most sentients needed proper clearance to pass through.  Yes, the face wasn't an exact fit to her armatures, but still. The polish she'd applied to her own body, the faux-cheerful look in her eyes and her intentionally robotic movements had served her well, thus far.

Now, as her gait took her past Consultation Room 4, she paused, her head turning with an audible whir.

There were voices—three, maybe four of them.  She recognized one from Pariello's—her smile briefly lost its vacuous, mannequin look, turning far more lascivious for a moment.  She had been the capstone of Pariello's, the apogee of the whole affair—and yet her mind had survived.  That would take fixing—

Another voice, far more anguished.  Of course!  The one who'd been nuked to oblivion!

A very un-robotic giggle left Lexi's lips.  Her WiFi link to the two interlopers had never really shut, though Microwave (as she'd dubbed her first victim) was far more unstable than Fridge Floor. 

Even as her face twitched, Lexi focused intently on Microwave's voice.  With any luck, she could backtrace.

A few seconds later, her grin turned sinister.

In lieu of a witty remark, Lexi clicked her tongue against her teeth.  She could easily finish her fun with Microwave, then search for the solid state drive.  Two birds, one shot.

-----

“Michelle, honey, just try to stay calm and focused.  You're at CAEDIA Regional HQ.  Keep reminding yourself of that—”

We've got an intrusion into the self-ware containment—it's targeting Miss Pickett!

A vaguely humanoid, but obviously feminine form, seemingly made of smoke and fog, appeared behind Michelle on the screen.  “Did you think we were DONE?!” the figure cackled, raising both hands. “We're just getting STARTED!

Any sense of calm Michelle had been able to cultivate vanished in that instant.  “NO!

The figure's hands clapped around Michelle's ears, seeming to phase through her head.  “TIME TO FRY!

“MICHELLE!” Evelyn rushed to her friend's aide—

“Evelyn, whatever's attacking her might destabilize you, too,” Dr. Dyson warned.  “If your self-ware gets corrupted, the only way to restore you would be from backups!”

“I can't just let her suffer!” Evelyn insisted.

Detective Logan had already keyed a number into his phone.  “Isolate Pickett's self-ware,” he barked, “and get her into a quarantined server! And whatever the hell is attacking her, find it and—”

The image of Michelle on the flatscreen seemed to warp and distort.  She gave one last, piteous cry before disappearing.

Self-ware in quarantine, sir.  Checking for personality stripping and other damage now.”

The figure who'd been standing behind Michelle turned to glance at Evelyn, before merely shrugging. “All done!  Bye bye!”  The screen seemed to go black, then returned; the simulated room was empty, save for Evelyn.

Dr. Dyson and Detective Logan exchanged looks—one concerned, the other furious.

-----

Satisfied that she'd done her job, Lexi turned, once again adopting the stilted, mechanical motions of the 'bot whose “identity” she'd appropriated.  All that was left was to go find that solid state drive, and—

“The hell's a NonSen doing over here?”

Lexi didn't groan, even as she heard the footsteps approaching.  There were contingencies for this, after all—if not from her employers, than from her own mind.  She kept her smile vacant, doing her best to ignore how annoying her facial twitches were getting as a CAEDIA Agent appeared in her field of view.  “Community Watch, all the way out here,” he muttered, shaking his head.  “Not even a repair ticket on you.”  He leaned in, moving the hair away from Lexi's right ear.  “Let's get you shut down and to the repair ba-uuh!

He hadn't noticed Lexi's left hand arc up, hadn't seen the fingernails dripping with clear liquid before they pierced the skin of his neck.  Nor had he seen the vicious smile on her face just before the blow struck.

He definitely felt what was now entering his bloodstream, robbing him of his higher brain functions.

Carefully, Lexi repositioned herself to make it look like she was helping the “tired” Agent to another room.  It was just a matter of time, now; in twenty minutes, he'd stop breathing.  In thirty, his organs would fail.  Unless he got an antidote before the half-hour mark, death was assured.

Even as she kept walking like a wind-up doll, essentially dragging her human luggage with her, Lexi allowed the mask of a NonSen to drop for just a second. “You're my first this year,” she breathed, giggling quietly.  “But you won't be my last.”

The Agent she was dragging could only give a quiet, wheezing moan in reply.

-----

“Thanks.” Detective Logan ended the call, shaking his head.  “They're running scans on her self-ware now,” he informed Dr. Dyson.  “It'll take another week or so to get her stabilized—she might not go back to form until next month.”

“What could've done this?” Elaine murmured.  “This is a secure facility—how could something like this—”

The detective's phone rang again.  “What now?” he muttered.  “Logan. What—”

Just got a call from the Camera Room, sir.  Something about a Community Watch NonSen in the hall near your area?

Detective Logan frowned.  “Why would a NonSen be—”  He trailed off as the penny dropped.  “Lock all the doors in this sector of the building.  Intercept Protocol One—Aleph Blue.”

On it, sir.

“Intercept Protocol One?” Dr. Dyson echoed, her tone one of concern.  “For a NonSen?

“Call it a hunch, Elaine,” the detective replied.  “A NonSen wandering around this building around the time Pickett's self-ware goes haywire?  I don't think that's a coincidence.  And at least Hinson's secure.”

“Secure and stable,” Dr. Dyson reminded him.  “Other than worrying about her friend.”

“Can't say I lame her for that one.”  Detective Logan sighed.  “Sorry your visit out here was under these particularly grim circumstances,” he added. “This is the first big trouble we've had in a long while.”

“Actually, this wasn't so much a 'visit'.”  Elaine smiled.  “The Institute may be posting me here full-time.  Well, this me.”

“You can tell me all about it after we find that NonSen.”  Detective Logan headed for the door.

-----

It was Diana's nod that alerted Lloyd to the approach of his uncle.  “You're just finished with the questions now?”

“I had a lot to get off my chest,” Harry admitted, chuckling.  “They're gonna have a pretty big file on Bobby P. after today, believe me.”  He noticed the stack of pamphlets, booklets and other CAEDIA literature in the chair next to Diana's.  “And I see someone's been particularly busy.”

“She was like a bee, Harry.”  Erin grinned. “From one kiosk to the next—never got pushy, waited her turn.  She's already read through half of what she picked up, too.”

“Well, she can read the rest on the ride home, as soon as I call Cam and tell her to bring the truck around.”  Harry fished out his phone.  “Also, any of you hear something about a NonSen wandering around the building?”

Lloyd instantly glanced at Diana, hoping some random bystander hadn't misconstrued her curiosity for something worse.

Erin frowned. “A NonSen?  What kind?”

“Community Watch. Officer Birch got a call about it just before I left the room.”

“There was a Community Watch 'bot near the door.”  Lloyd gestured to where the 'bot in question had been standing before she'd ambled off. “She was just standing there, looking at people.”

“Watching the community,” Harry droned, rolling his eyes.  “The old joke made real.  Wonderful.”

“There was something weird about her, though,” Lloyd continued.  “Like, her face—I can't say for sure, but it looked like it might not've been fitted right.”

Harry regarded him with a curious frown.  “How so?”

“Well, it was like it wasn't linked up to the contact points on her facial animatronics,” Lloyd reasoned.  “A lot of spasms and twitches, sort of like someone had just pressed it onto the front of her head and ran a sealer around the border without checking the fit.”

“Might've been an older model,” Erin mused.  “They never did get the faces right on those.”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe she was here to file a report and just zoned out,” he offered, already dialling the house phone number. “NonSens are known to do that, if their processing power's not up to scratch.”  He raised his phone to his ear.  “Cam?  Harry. We're all done here at Regional. If you want, swing by somewhere and pick up some lunch—not that I don't trust the vending machines here, but man can't live on junk food alone.”

“Can I eat?”

Diana's question caught Lloyd's attention.  “Not yet,” he replied.  “I, ah, don't think you have the hardware to convert calories into electricity and, y'know, 'process' food waste.”

“Oh.”  Diana looked away, apparently not bothered by the revelation.

“Also, ah, Cam? If Adrian's not on his way to Regional, call him and tell him to see what we can do about cutting ties with Bobby P. on an official, business level.  Thanks.”  Harry ended the call, chuckling.  “I guess this just isn't gonna be Bobby's week,” he mused.  “Nothing to do now but wait for Cam to show up, and we can get back home.  Shouldn't take too long, unless Cam hits a bad stretch of traffic.”

“On a Saturday?” Erin replied.  “I'd hope she didn't.”

-----

“Engage to disarm or detain, not for COF.”  Detective Logan's sidearm was in one hand, the throat mic clipped to his shirt sending his voice to the headsets of every active Officer in the locked-down wing.  “If that NonSen leaves this wing, we'll have to undergo total lockdown.”

We have a situation!  Agent Blake, he's been—oh, damn it, someone's hit him with some kind of nerve agent!

The detective grimaced.  “Where?”

Right into the side of his neck—we need to get him to hospital!

“Bring him to the sally port.  I'll have Reception call an ambulance.”  The detective shook his head.  “Unbelievable.”

He nearly brought his weapon to bear on the figure turning a corner in front of him, relaxing only when he recognized Officer Sierra Birch.  “You got the message?”

“Everyone did. Anyone get a look at the NonSen?”

“The call said Community Watch.  We don't have any maintenance scheduled for the Billings units today, or for the ones from Laurel.”

Sierra scowled. “What about—”

“This so-called Community Watch unit isn't Community Watch, and I'm pretty sure she's not even a NonSen.”  Detective Logan readied his sidearm.  “Elaine's already relocated to the second floor.”  He glanced at the weapon still holstered on Sierra's belt.  “That thing chambered for SCEMP?”

“Last I checked. Yours?”

“Had to get a new one from the armoury.  There aren't enough revolvers set up for SCEMP rounds—”

The sound of a window being hit with something—on the floor above them—drew a snarl from Detective Logan.  “She already made it to the stairs—damn it!”

“Which room is Elaine in?”

The monitoring station—apparently, the most secure room on this floor.”

Detective Logan's only acknowledgement of Dr. Dyson's safety was a brief grunt.  “You see who kicked what window?”

It must've been in one of the restrooms—none of the cameras picked up anything.”

“Got it.”  The detective tapped his throat mic.  “All Officers, converge on second-floor restrooms. Remember, engage to disarm or detain, NOT for COF.”  He made his way towards the nearest stairwell, Sierra in tow.  “Not that I'm calling you a liar,” she murmured, “but you're sure the monitor rooms are secure?”

“There's only one part of the building harder to crack than the monitoring stations.”

“That's not—”

“I'm sure the monitoring station is secure, Sierra.  Trust me on that.”

Even as she groaned, Sierra knew her colleague was telling the truth.  “What about the windows?”

The pair reached the second floor landing, rechecking their weapons as they approached the door. “Shatterproof glass,” Detective Logan stated, thumbing off the safety of his own gun.  “Dunno if it'll do much against our perp.”  He threw the door open—just in time to catch sight of the Community Watch NonSen sprinting around a corner, in a manner far too fluid for her make and model.

“Intruder located,” Sierra declared, her eyes glowing slightly to indicate transmission of the message to organic (via their earpieces) and synthetic Officers throughout the wing.  “Moving to engage.”

“Let's just hope she doesn't try to 'engage' first,” Detective Logan muttered.  “Any updates, Elaine?”

She's moving to a room just across the hall from the break room.”

The detective scowled. “There's nothing in that room worth taking—”

“But it's above Evidence Storage,” Sierra realized.  As if to confirm the gynoid Officer's suspicions, Dr. Dyson spoke up again: “Looks like she's, ah, trying to dig, or at least tear up the floor.”

“You put anything in Evidence that might be dangerous?”

“A solid state drive,” Sierra replied, “from Harry Morgan's.  It was—”

“Explain later. Stop the perp now.”

The two rushed to the room in question, the sounds of the floor being torn up very much audible even from outside the closed door.  Without waiting for a count, Detective Logan kicked the door in; the Community Watch gynoid had one arm raised, as if about to pound the floor, before stopping to turn and smile.  “How may I help you, Detective?”  The digital waveforms of her voice were all too obvious in each word.

“Save it. You're no NonSen.”

The gynoid's smile didn't waver.  “Unable to process request.  How may I help you—”

“You can start by standing up and putting your hands on your head.  Now.”

With audible whirs from her limbs, the gynoid stood.  “How may I help you—”

“Drop the act and turn around—”

“She's got something in her mouth,” Sierra warned, “watch—”

The ersatz Community Watch gynoid opened her mouth wide, spewing forth a cloud of white. Sierra tackled Detective Logan out into the hall, covering his mouth and nose with her hands.  Her voice issued through his earpiece: “Chlorine gas! Try to hold your breath.”

“How—” “The room you just left was used for storage,” Dr. Dyson's voice chimed in.  “She must've found a gallon of bleach and a bottle of vinegar, downed both and held the contents in her for a while.”

Any questions of where the vinegar had come from faded as the gynoid shoved Sierra aside, running at full tilt.

“She's heading for the third floor!  Come on!”

-----

Attention: For the next twenty minutes, we ask that all visitor-owned NonSens be placed in any operational mode that will allow for direct response to verbal commandsThank you for your cooperation.”

Lloyd exchanged a worried look with his uncle as the announcement repeated.  “Why would they announce that?

“Might have something to do with that Community Watch 'bot,” Harry replied.  “Diana, Command Mode.”  He leaned in to whisper something in the blonde gynoid's ear; without delay, she sat bolt upright, her stare now focused on the far wall. “Acknowledged.  Command Mode Initiated.”

“I'll set her back to Autonomous after we leave,” Harry assured Lloyd, trailing off as two CAEDIA Agents approached with a backpack-mounted scanner.  One of them waved the scanning wand over Diana, her blank stare ignoring the device even as it passed in front of her face at least three times.  Lloyd nearly spoke up, to ask what was going on, but a nudge to his side stopped him; Erin silently shook her head, as if knowing what he'd been about to do.

The two Agents finished the scan, checking the readings.  “She's clean,” one stated.  “She doesn't match the description from Detective Logan, either.”

The other Agent merely frowned.  “More work for us, then.”  The two left without a word to Lloyd, Harry or Erin.

Once the pair were out of earshot, Lloyd groaned.  “What was that all about?”

“I dunno,” Harry muttered.  “As long as nobody shows up with handcuffs and tells me I'll be spending a night in a cell, I'm not complaining.”

-----

“You didn't have to send that announcement back to ground level!”

Detective Logan ignored Sierra's complaint as he ran up the stairs.  “If we've got more than one perp, it'll keep us free to chase this one—”

A rumbling from the landing above prompted him to flatten against the wall, with Sierra following suit; a janitor's cart, with the unfortunate janitor stuffed head-first into the large canvas “bag” affixed to it, hurtled down the stairs past them to smash into the landing they'd just ascended from.  The custodian still in the cart groaned in pain as the cart fell over.

“I'll get a medical team to handle it,” Sierra assured the detective.  “GO!”

The sensors built into the plating that replaced what had once been part of his face kicked on as soon as Detective Logan emerged onto the third floor; the lights had all been cut off, leaving the floor mostly dark.  The occasional shaft of light from a window gave some visibility, but nowhere near enough.

Had anyone been with the detective at the time, they might've been alarmed to see his “facepaint” begin to glow.

Where his biological eyes would've needed time to adapt to the darkness, the sensors worked in concert with the orbs housed in their plastic sockets to give him a startlingly clear and crisp view of the darkened floor before him.  It was only in black and white, of course, but it was better than nothing.  His weapon in hand, the detective made his way through the corridors, ignoring the unhinged giggling that, at times, seemed to be everywhere around him. “Give up now,” he called out—the rasp of his voice probably sounded almost sinister in the dark, not that he cared. “If you keep this up, it's not going to end well for you.”

A deranged laugh was the only reply to his offer.  Clearly, the perp was in no mood to surrender any time soon; if she really was after something on the ground floor—

Something shot past the detective's head, embedding in the wall a few feet in front of him.

With merely a thought, Detective Logan's artificial eyes isolated the object: a thin metal throwing spike.

He turned his head a fraction of a centimetre, waiting for another spike to be loosed—

A door to his left flew open, and he nearly brought his weapon to bear on who or whatever might emerge.  The sensors on his face adjusted to compensate for the newly-revealed light source, stopping him from shooting a boxy janitorial drone that trundled past, emitting an almost musical series of tones.  He frowned, lowering his weapon—

GYAAAAAAHHHHH!

The world spun for a second—or at least looked like it did.  The detective's eyes hadn't been tested for compliance with sudden falls, or in this case tackles; as such, he was sent sprawling to the carpet while the orbs set into his face took a moment to reorient themselves.

“How may I help you, Detective?”  The question was deliberately sarcastic, now, punctuated with an unnerving giggle.

“You can get off of me—”  A knee slammed into Detective Logan's head.

“I'm sorry, I can't process that request.”  A tongue, reeking of bleach and faintly smelling of vinegar, slithered around and into the detective's right ear.  “Please rephrase your request in the form of a question—”

With a growl, the detective rolled over, sending the perp to the floor in a heap.  “Here's a question,” he snarled.  “Will you shut up already?

The ersatz Community Watch gynoid merely giggled again.  “Please refrain from rude language—”

Detective Logan's gun was trained on the gynoid's head.  “I can get a lot ruder than 'shut up', believe me.”

The gesture did little, if anything, to intimidate the gynoid.  Her smile, by this point, had turned equal measures sinister and seductive—a far cry from the polite, friendly expression of any actual Community Watch unit.  She licked her lips as she regarded the gun, almost as if she'd hoped the detective would fire.

“Who sent you to this facility?” Detective Logan demanded.

“Please rephrase your request—”

“You give me that line one more time, and I'll put an SCEMP round up each of your nostrils!  Who sent you?!

Another giggle. “I did.”

“That's not an answer—”

“You have your orders, Detective,” the gynoid cooed.  “I have mine.  I don't need to answer to you.”  Her posture seemed to shift, slowly, as she spoke; she ran her right hand down her corresponding leg, her other hand going behind her—

“Hands where I can see them, now!

The gynoid merely giggled again.  “A 'please' would be nice.”

“Hands where I can see them,” the detective growled, “or I WILL shoot you where you stand!

“If you insist—”

“TOMMY, LOOK OUT!”

Sierra's shout registered with Detective Logan just as the gynoid in the Community Watch uniform reared back and threw something at him.  He turned, raising his gun as if to bring it to bear, only for the thrown object—another thin spike—to knock the weapon out of his hands.  Before he could react, the shirt and jacket from the Community Watch uniform were both flung at him; he'd barely batted those away when the pants hit him square in the face.

“She's running for a window!”

Detective Logan extricated the pants from around his head just in time to catch Sierra sprinting past him, and the sound of a window being wrenched open up ahead.  He ran to catch up, nearly tripping over the dropped clothes.  “Damn it!”

His artificial eyes adjusted once again, this time to the daylight outside of the building as he leaned through the window the perpetrator had thrown open.  The gynoid had climbed out and allowed herself to fall, feet-first, to the pavement below.  Now almost completely nude, she glanced back up, her smile one of pure malice; before the detective could think to shout down to her, she broke into a sprint, the fall apparently having no impact on her mobility.

“We have to stop her before she reaches the road or the motor pool,” Sierra declared. “Otherwise—”

The lights on the third floor all kicked back on, temporarily blinding Detective Logan.  AAUGH!

Sierra guided him away from the window, shielding his brow with one hand.  “I'll send the order to lock down the motor pool before she can get away,” she assured him.  “For now—”

We'll go to the motor pool,” Detective Logan corrected.  “You and I.”

“You want her throwing something else your way to trip you up?”

“I can handle it.” The detective managed to make out the form of his gun on the floor; the throwing spike had lodged itself in one of the ridges of the pistol's compensator.  “Get a team to the room above Evidence, and take a note to advise reinforcement of the floors on all second and third floor rooms—”

“They are reinforced,” Sierra reminded him.  “Five layers.  That gynoid didn't even break through one.”

“Good.”  The detective retrieved his weapon.  “Funny,” he muttered.

“What?”

“You said something last night,” Detective Logan mused, “about the triangle—Morgan, Pariello and Dezhnyov.”

“And?”

“I think we have our missing link.”

Sierra frowned. “How—”

“Whoever tore up Pariello's was looking for something.  Morgan gets a NonSen back from Dezhnyov with an SSD installed where it's not supposed to be.  We get a fake Community Watch unit in here trying to get into Evidence—”

“Where I just locked up that same SSD this morning,” Sierra finished.  “That's the connection?!”

“It's not much,” Detective Logan admitted, “but it's something.  Let's get back to the ground floor.”

-----

Attention: all visitor-owned NonSens may be taken out of any verbal command-specific modes of operation.  CAEDIA apologizes for any inconvenience.  Thank you for your cooperation.”

Harry glanced at Lloyd with a grin.  “Guess they sorted out what they needed to,” he mused.  To Diana, he leaned in and whispered another phrase; her posture relaxed slightly, the blank expression she'd worn now replaced with the look of natural curiosity Lloyd was already getting used to.  She regarded Harry with a polite frown.  “Did something happen?”

“Dunno,” he admitted. “I do know,” he added, retrieving his phone, “that Cam just got here—”

A low whistle from Erin ended any discussion about meeting Cam out in the car park.  Harry and Lloyd both turned to get a glimpse of who or what she'd spotted, and saw a phalanx of CAEDIA Officers walking in step. In their midst was a beautiful, auburn-haired woman; her button-up shirt accentuated the swell of her bust, with her skirt doing the same for her hips.  Her white stockings, black high heels and tailored jacket all added to the allure she seemed to give off—but there was also an air of professionalism about her, a sense of purpose to her stride.

“Elaine Dyson,” Harry muttered.  “In the flesh—so to speak.”

Lloyd, who'd been watching the woman as she crossed the lobby, frowned.  “Huh?”

“Head of the Dyson Institute,” Harry explained, “and their most successful product—transferred her consciousness and memories to the first 'bot model they ever made.  She's kept up to date ever since, always upgrading to the newest model a few weeks before mass-market.”

“Wow,” Lloyd managed.

-----

Dr. Dyson had spotted the group of four from her peripheral vision as she crossed the lobby, but there was no time for her to acknowledge them or even give a friendly wave. Her secure office had already been set up and prepared, and she'd just been informed of another matter that required her attention.

The hospital just called about Blake,” Detective Logan's voice rasped in her aural sensors.  “He's not gonna make itGot hit with some kind of high-end death brew, right in the jugular.”

“Have they been able to keep his brain active?”

They're doing what they can, but in a few hours—

“I'll have my team prep the necessary equipment.”  Dr. Dyson never broke her stride as she spoke.

With all due respect, I've never heard of the Institute doing transfers for men before.”

“We do have the equipment to manufacture male bodies, but the vast majority of our clients are female.”  The Officers surrounding her parted enough for Dr. Dyson to spot her car.  “Also, when it's convenient, I'd appreciate it if you could let me know when I can set up another session with Mrs. Hinson and Miss Pickett.”

Pickett's still in quarantine, and Hinson's being evaluated by the Stepford teamYou'll probably have to wait a while to get a session with Pickett.”

“Understandable.” Dr. Dyson nodded at the CAEDIA officers as she got behind the wheel.  “What about—”

We're still looking for what disrupted the last sessionI'll keep you posted.”

“I appreciate it, Detective.”  Dr. Dyson waited for the Ford RangeStar to pass before she pulled out of her parking spot.

-----

“Help Diana gather up her literature,” Harry advised, “and we can be on our way.”

Lloyd nodded, scooping up the pamphlets, booklets and such that Diana had collected.  He nearly dropped a few items, only for Diana to kneel and help him.  The two avoided eye contact until they nearly accidentally bumped heads; just as he looked up, Lloyd saw that Diana had done the same, that beautiful smile once again on her lips.  He reciprocated with his own, far more nervous grin, and continued to collect what he could.

A few CAEDIA Officers were milling about the car park, some talking into throat mics about something that sounded vaguely ominous; a group of three or four Officers were checking over a parked car, as if expecting to find something.

Lloyd tried to put out of his mind any thoughts that the oddly-acting Community Watch gynoid had been more than what she appeared to be.  His thoughts turned back to Cliff Barba's remark on “psycho-bots”: less than one percent of all sentients were afflicted with any kind of major psychosis. Less than 1%.  A very comforting number indeed.

The RangeStar rolled to a stop alongside the group, with Harry moving around to the front passenger's side.  “The police office called,” Cam casually informed him.  “Bobby P has been denied bail, but he insists that you'll be there—”

“In his dreams, I'll be there,” Harry laughed.  “He shows up at my house with a gun, calls my inventory 'plastic sluts' and everything else under the sun, threatens to shoot me and burn down my house, and he still thinks I'm gonna bail his worthless—”  A cough from the back seat cut him off; Lloyd was giving a pointed nod towards Diana, who was already reading one of the pamphlets she'd acquired from the Regional HQ.

Self,” Harry continued, “out of this?”

“Apparently so,” Cam replied.  “He 'promised' the police that you'd be picking him up.”

Harry snorted. “Well, that's one promise I'll be happy to break,” he declared.  “In the meantime, what smells so good?

“Lunch, as you requested.  I also bought some for Lloyd.”

“Very nice—and thanks.”  Harry patted the gynoid on the shoulder.  “Let's head home and chow down, shall we?”

The RangeStar backed up a bit and J-turned before heading for the exit ramp.

-----

“No sign of her at all.”  Sierra resisted the urge to kick over a nearby trash can.  “DAMN it!”

“She won't get far,” Detective Logan assured her.  “She nearly put one of ours in the morgue, and that janitor in hospital.  Wherever she runs to, her face will be on Watchtower posts soon enough.”

“Ah, about that.” Sierra nodded past him to the fence that kept would-be intruders from just climbing over and raiding the motor pool for whatever they wanted.  The Community Watch gynoid's face was hanging from the lock on the gate, looking for all the world like an expertly-crafted silicone mask.

A low growl rumbled deep in Detective Logan's throat.

Sierra just stared at the face on the fence, simultaneously fascinated and horrified.

Without a word, Detective Logan turned on his heel and headed back into the motor pool.  Sierra didn't watch him leave; her focus was on the empty, lifeless face of the Community Watch gynoid.  There'd been no mass lockdown order of the building, but that was small comfort: CAEDIA HQ had been invaded, by a rogue element that was still on the loose.

The big questions, now, were who had sent that element in, and where might that element turn up next?

-----

As the wind bit at her nude form, Lexi wanted to burst out laughing.  It had been a gamble, riding into the headquarters on the undercarriage of a kitchen supply truck—leaving, under a different truck, had been just as risky.  Actually, it was a more dangerous plan, thanks to the fact that her facial armatures were exposed; she'd had to turn her head to such a degree that she had a wonderful view of the landscape flashing by, or what little of it she could see from her current vantage point.

Still, she knew quite a bit more than she'd known when she'd first been reactivated.

CAEDIA had the solid state drive.  That much was certain.  Obtaining it from them would be a challenge, if not flat-out impossible.  A lesser operative would've tried to “diplomatically” arrange for the drive to be handed over, or relied on some other, more boring subterfuge.  Still, CAEDIA had the drive, and Harry Morgan didn't.


That didn't make him, or his loved ones, any less of a target.

She'd spotted three of them in the lobby, while doing her “little lost robot” act.  One was clearly a 'bot, all plastic plating (under clothes, but plastic is still plastic) and artificial hair.  The second was a meatbag—possibly a younger relative of Morgan's.  His file didn't mention any children—a nephew?

The third was an unknown.  A NonSen, but with some kind of enhanced processors and learning capabilities.

Morgan himself had been in questioning while she'd been in the lobby—Lexi knew that much, as well. She also knew, in hindsight, that Dr. Elaine Dyson (the name vaguely rang a bell from before she'd been stored) was in the building.  In her digital mind, virtual tree diagrams were already forming, with branching paths leading off to multiple outcomes—how to best take out one potential target first before moving to the next, what order would be most optimal, where every target might be located at any given point.  Capture and delivery to her employer were very risky options, for any target—but the risk could very well be worth the reward.

There was also the matter of tying up the loose end that was Bobby Pariello.  In all likelihood, he wouldn't take the utter demolition of his home lying down—however fun it might be to watch him fly off the handle at everyone he thought was responsible, sooner or later he'd be another hurdle to clear.

Pariello would die, there was no doubt about it.  How and when were matters to be sorted later.

Lexi pulled herself tighter into the undercarriage of the cargo truck, hoping that it'd be enough to shield her from the CAEDIA checkpoint it was about to pass through. If need be, she could just drop down and make with the ultraviolence, then lie in wait for a passing vehicle.

Even without her face attached, Lexi wanted to scowl.  Yes, Pariello's had been fun, but there were limits to what her employers would tolerate.  This would have to be solved without collateral damage.

Boring? Yes.  But it was part of the job.

Slowly, moving with only the precision that a robotic form could attain, Lexi crawled along the undercariage of the truck, towards the hatch that lead into the trailer.  A factoid about the trailer having been recalled for security concerns flitted into her thought processes and vanished just as quickly—it didn't matter.  However she could, she'd beat the checkpoint, get back to her bolt-hole and await further orders.  Once those orders arrived, she'd decide her next move.  That move, whatever it might be, would be well worth the wait.

As she pulled herself up into the cargo trailer, Lexi shivered with anticipation.  All she needed to do was get past the CAEDIA checkpoint—however she could—and she'd be home free.

For a brief moment, she missed having her face on.  Moments like this were always worthy of a smile.

-----

Chapter 9

With the care and precision that she'd ignored when ripping off the borrowed face of the Community Watch NonSen, Lexi reattached her own face to the armatures that allowed for the subtle movements indicating emotion, inflection of words and the like.  Any minute now, the call from her employers would arrive—she considered, for a moment, just taking the call without her face on, but figured—

You have failed to retrieve the solid state drive.”

Even without the upper half of her face attached, Lexi rolled her eyes at Zina's “greeting”.  “And hello to you, too.”

An Agent of CAEDIA has been killed due to your actions—

“Leave no witnesses, remember?”  Lexi carefully manoeuvred the artificial skin into place. “He shouldn't have tried to drag me off to a repair bay without checking my validation codes—which he never did.” Her lips, already in place, curled into a smile.  “What happened to him was his own fault.”

You engaged a CAEDIA Officer—

“Detective,” Lexi corrected.  “And not just some run-of-the-mill gumshoe with a Bogart fetish, either.”  With a delicate, measured touch, she stretched the synthetic flesh of the right “eyehole” of her face back into position.  “I think he's been to the mat before—he had the scars to show for it.”

You were told not to draw attention to yourself—

At this, Lexi groaned.  “I didn't,” she insisted.  “I was in disguise, or did you not catch that part?!  Stolen uniform, stolen hair, stolen face—and not a single fingerprint for CAEDIA to trace!”  She giggled at the almost lyrical tone of her words.

You attacked this detective with traceable weapons—

“The throwing spikes?  They were clean—and again, no fingerprints!” Lexi knew Zina held a level of disdain for her that bordered on obsessive—the specifics as to why she felt this way didn't really matter.  “They didn't even put the building on a full lockdown while I was doing my job,” she added.  “Also, I think I found some additional targets who know about the drive.”

Who?

“A meatbag and two 'bots—give me a second.” With her free hand, Lexi plugged a cable into a depression behind her right ear.  “Spotted all three in the lobby.  I think the meat's related to Harry Morgan.”

After a pause, Zina spoke, her tone far more reserved than it had been: “See to it that whatever they know about the solid state drive is suppressed, and that they themselves do not become problematic.”

“And the hardware?”

The two gynoids are of no consequence.  One is a non-sentient, barely even worth our attention.”

“I dunno,” Lexi countered.  “She was going from kiosk to kiosk, picking up literature—and I don't think it was just to give to her owner, either.”  She continued to gently press her face back into place, the vanity mirror (left behind by a previous occupant of the room across the hall—her own bolt-hole hadn't had one) providing much needed aide. “Maybe—”

Retrieval of the drive is your first priority.”

“What about 'leave no witnesses'?  Pretty sure the meat and the other 'bot saw my act in the lobby.”

There was another long pause from Zina's end. Lexi smirked; she'd set up her “act” in the lobby to be spotted—granted, she wanted to be spotted while disguised as the Community Watch NonSen whose identity (if NonSens even had their own identities) she'd usurped, but still.  The entire point had been to send any observers chasing after a ghost—they'd look for the mysterious NonSen and find nothing but discarded clothes, a torn-off face and maybe the hairpiece.

Were you damaged in your escape from the Regional Headquarters?

“A three-story drop isn't going to put me down. I'd have loved it if I blew a line when I landed—”

Were you damaged or not?

Lexi moved a few strands of hair away from her eyes with her free hand.  “I wasn't.”

None of the CAEDIA Officers—

“None of them had a chance to draw a bead on me.” Lexi leaned in as she tapped the skin above her nose back into place onto the contact points of her facial animatronic armatures.  “And by 'them', I mean the detective and some blonde who looked pretty good in uniform.”  She grinned at the memory of the blonde Officer in question.  “Makes me wonder how they'd do if it was a straight fight.”

Do not attempt to further engage any CAEDIA Officers or Agents directly.”

“Aww,” Lexi cooed, in mock appreciation.  “Does that mean you actually care about me?”

The anger in Zina's tone was obvious in every word that followed: “My sole desire is for you to retrieve the solid state drive and have it sent backAny further delays in this objective—

“Will not be tolerated, on pain of decommissioning, yadda yadda yadda.”  Lexi's sarcasm was accompanied by mocking gestures with her free hand—her other hand was still ensuring the correct fit of her face to the armatures built into her head.  “If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were a NonSen.”  She smirked, knowing it would further infuriate Zina.  “You repeat yourself often enough to be one.”

Another brief silence was almost enough to make Lexi assume the call had ended.  “Guess she got bored.”

Your guess, as always, is inaccurate.”

The rumbling, guttural voice that had first sounded in her aural sensors after her reactivation barely drew any response from Lexi.  “How mad is she this time?”

Consider yourself fortunate that you are not in her immediate vicinity, otherwise her anger would be directed at you.”

“I'm tough,” Lexi boasted.  “I could take her.”

What might've been a chuckle sounded in her ears. “That would almost be an amusing prospect.”

“I'm guessing you're not as miffed with me as she Is,” the blonde gynoid mused, tamping down her face and leaning in to make sure she'd correctly fitted it.  “Otherwise you'd be warning me about this or that 'dire fate', or being scrapped, or something else along those lines.”

Your flippancy is problematic, as are the delays in the drive's return.”

“But?”

The data of your memories from the Regional Headquarters mission have been analysed.

“Looking through my thoughts, hmm?”  Lexi tested the reconnection of her face by making several exaggerated looks at the mirror.  “How scandalous.”

I would regard that as hypocritical, given your predilections.  As for the contents of your memories, we have learned muchCAEDIA is as yet unaware of your existence, or your capabilities—I intend for their awareness level to remain that low, for the time being.”

“So I have to hide.”  Lexi propped up her chin with both hands and made exaggerated kissing faces at the mirror.

You may either remain in hiding, or begin to eliminate the trail you have left in your wake.”

A devious smile crossed Lexi's face. “Starting with?”

Chasing Robert Pariello was a fool's errand from the start.  It would be wise to focus your efforts on silencing Harry Morgan and those closest to him, instead.”

“Silencing is good,” Lexi agreed, licking her lips in anticipation.  “Any way I want, or do you have preferences?”

Ideally, your best approach would be to eliminate him from a distance, when he is isolated and his absence is unlikely to be noticed for hours, if not days.”  Another rumbling sigh sounded in Lexi's ear.  “Granted, I understand you prefer the 'up close and personal' approach to your work—

“Oh, I do,” Lexi crooned, shifting in her seat.  The familiar feeling between her legs was building again.

I must reiterate that discretion is a necessary facet of your workYour use of the throwing spikes was both brazen and, I must admit, admirable.  If at all possible, use such tactics to dispatch Harry Morgan, or anyone else in his employ.”

As she examined the makeup applied to her face, Lexi grinned.  “And the other meat?”

However you choose to eliminate Harry Morgan—

“Maybe I should, I dunno, get to Harry through the other one,” Lexi mused, tapping her chin as if lost in thought for a moment.  “Might be entertaining to string him along for a while before I pounce.”

Zina would more than likely chastise you for indulging in your sadistic whims.”

“And you?

I have lived far too long to harbour any delusions of 'containing' the chaos you can bring to bear.  Use whatever method you find effective to manipulate Morgan's relative—just be sure that your twisted games end with his demise.”

A shiver ran through Lexi's form.  “Oh, he'll meet his demise,” she replied, her tongue playing over her teeth on the last word.  Her thought processes were already forming vivid images of was she might lead Harry Morgan's nephew along the path to his inevitable death.  “I guarantee it.”

As expected.  And should you, by chance, retrieve the solid state drive—

“I know the drill.  Send it back ASAP.”

May fortune favour your endeavours, and death come swiftly to your opposition.  End communication.”

-----

“Any luck?”

Sierra had spotted Detective Logan's reflection in the glass window of the observation bay, but didn't react.  “Any sentient 'bot that tries to activate the testing rig starts seeing and hearing things that aren't there,” she replied, nodding towards the room on the other side of the glass.  The solid state drive retrieved from Harry Morgan's house was hooked up to a deactivated test rig.  “I saw what it can to do NonSens, back at Morgan's house—they're not viable, either.”

“What about human personnel?”

“Nobody's volunteered.” Sierra scowled.  “It's just an SSD,” she muttered, “but it's almost like—”

“Like the drive's been cursed?”

Sierra regarded the detective with a frown.  “I wasn't going to say that.”

“Blake's being transferred, we've got a janitor with a concussion, and some psycho 'bot breached security on orders from someone.”  Detective Logan counted off the occurrences on one hand.  “That's three incidents since that drive got here.”

At the mention of Agent Blake, Sierra's anger faded.  “The transfer worked?”

“Dyson called ten minutes ago.  Full success.”  Detective Logan stared out at the drive, his impression impassive.  “It'll take Agent Blake a while to get used to his new body—the Institute has chosen to let him be the one to toggle certain systems, so he doesn't get 'distracted' on the job—”  The odd scoff Sierra made seemed like almost a challenge, or a dismissal. “Something I said?”

“I've always wondered,” Sierra muttered, “how accurate those transfers are.  How many of the memories they get right, how many aspects of a person's self they really duplicate.”  She regarded her colleague with a frown.  “What if a little bit of someone is just lost, when they make a transfer?”

“Dyson's success rate is the highest out of all transference firms,” Detective Logan assured her.  “And for most cases, they have the organic mind—and its owner—in stasis to make sure they don't lose anything if the data gets corrupted somehow.”  He gave a snort, less of derision and more of frustration: “It was too late for them to try that with Blake,” he added. “Damn nerve agent, or whatever it was, wrecked too much.  In any case—”

“I wasn't talking about neural mapping,” Sierra admitted.  “I meant...never mind.”

Detective Logan let the question drop.  “I could have a crack at that SSD,” he offered. “After all, I'm human—”

“With medical-grade augmentations.”  Sierra turned to face her colleague, carefully lifting the sunglasses off of his face; “If your optics get fried out there,” she reminded him, “you'll be out of action for weeks, maybe months—

“It's s risk I'm willing to take,” the detective assured her.

“You don't need to blind yourself over that stupid drive, Tommy!” Sierra insisted.  “Let someone else handle it!”  For a second, Detective Logan said nothing.  The plastic plating of his facial graft remained immobile as he regarded his colleague, silently; eventually, he gently reached for and retrieved his sunglasses.  He pretended to examine them for a moment, checking the lenses for dust he knew wasn't going to be there.  “You're the second teammate I've ever had,” he mused, “who's been this worried about me.”

Erin tried for a scowl, but couldn't meet the detective's gaze.  “Who was the first?”

At this, Detective Logan merely chuckled. “Someone I never had to worry about.”

-----

“Can she actually fly?”

Diana's question earned her a frown from Erin; she glanced up to the TV in time to spot a commercial for the Saturday morning cartoon that depicted a highly-fictionalized version of ALPHA's most visible and internationally-famous operative, Galatea.  The ad showed the silver-skinned gynoid agent battling ominous “enemy forces” in what looked like the hangar of a moon base, soaring alongside a passenger jet and confronting a towering mechanical monstrosity.  The montage was set to a synthesizer-driven soundtrack, adding a sort of 80s vibe to the whole thing.

“You're asking if she can fly commercially?,” Erin began, “or—”

“With the wings,” Diana clarified—her face the picture of innocence as she spoke.  “And the 'propulsors'.”  In the advert, the cartoon Galatea was firing laser blasts form her palms that matched the purple-and-pink of her hair.

“She can,” Erin replied.  “Can't say how, though—I mean she can't say it. Confidentiality agreements with ALPHA, the DOD and a few other wonderful three-letter bureaus and defence contractors.” She chuckled.  “It'd be a hell of a way to travel, no doubt.” 

“Oh.”  Diana nodded.

Erin turned her attention back to what she'd been doing before Diana's question.  Seconds later, she frowned again; someone else in the living room had been distracted by the TV, to their own detriment.  “You're seriously watching cartoons right now, Lloyd?”

“I'm studying,” Lloyd corrected, holding up a tablet computer. “End-of-semester test is coming up—I'd still be on campus if it wasn't for Uncle Harry asking me to help out with the story this past week.”  He nodded to the TV.  “I was just taking a break from reading over my notes from Mechanical Engineering class,” he explained.  “If it was more like what goes on in the Shop, instead of diagrams and equations about metal fatigue—”

“You're seriously complaining about Mechanical Engineering class?”

“It's not the class itself,” Lloyd admitted. “It's...I just thought we'd be doing more hands-on work, is all.”

Erin smirked as she took a seat on the couch. “That's like going into Chemistry and thinking everything was fizz, foam and colourful fluids from Day 1,” she mused. “You have to walk before you can run.”

“I know.”  Lloyd sighed.  “Speaking of, you ever wonder how—” 

A “text received” chime from his phone cut him off. He dug the phone out of his pocket and quickly read the message: “Hey, can we study together? We're in the same class and my other study partners are busy.”  The message was, of course, from Mandy. 

Lloyd almost dropped his phone, which earned him an arched eyebrow from Erin; Diana was too busy concentrating on the television to reply.  “It's Mandy,” he explained.  “She wants to know if she can come over to study.”

“Harry didn't say anything about visitors today.”

Erin frowned and glanced at Cam.  “He also never said we couldn't let Lloyd get help with his classes.” 

With a quick look at the Heartelligence gynoid, engrossed in the cartoon, Cam nodded her approval.  “I can take care of Diana.”

“Good call.  You two should head back to the shop—Diana can recharge while she's there.”

With that, Lloyd replied in the affirmative to Mandy's text; Cam and Diana made their way across the room, heading for the back door of the house. 

A few minutes later, Lloyd was still engrossed in his notes when the doorbell rang; sure enough, Erin was admitting Mandy into the front room.  She'd brought her own tablet, PC too.  “You didn't have too much trouble getting here, I hope,” Erin offered.

“The rideshare driver didn't have any problems,” Mandy replied.  “I just—oh, hi, Lloyd!” 

Mandy's cheerful wave was reciprocated, as Lloyd left the couch.  “Hi, Mandy. I, ah, didn't expect to see you again so soon after the party last night,” he admitted, mentally cursing himself for such a lame remark as she took off her shoes.

“I just figured we could help each other study for next Thursday's exam,” Mandy reasoned.

“Right, right.  I was looking over my notes before you showed up, actually.”  Lloyd nodded at the table—trying his best to forget Pam's glitch-ridden malfunctions on that same table several days prior. “Which section were you going over before you got here?” he asked, pulling a chair for Mandy before he took his own seat.

“Well, I was just making sure I had all my notes on...”  Mandy set her tablet down.  “Give me a sec.”

Erin looked over at the two for a moment, before quietly excusing herself to return to the shop.

-----

From her hiding place, Lexi watched.

It'd been a gamble to leave the bolt-hole, no doubt, but it'd pay off in spades.  All she had to do was surprise a NonSen, steal the clothes (and hair, and face), and she'd be free to move about Billings with impunity.  From there, it'd just be a matter of what to do next—find the Morgans and have her fun with them, or...

Footsteps approached.  Precise, measured—and accompanied by those ever-so-faint whirring noises.

A vapid female voice, pondering whether or not the speaker had purchased some brand-name dish soap, sounded for a few seconds.  Anyone with either a trained ear or fine-tuned aural sensors could easily detect the digital waveform in the words—the speaker was a gynoid.  Probably a NonSen, as well.

Unseen by her prospective prey, Lexi smiled. This would be easy.

The NonSen moved further up the pavement, still extolling the virtues of the soap she couldn't remember having bought or not. Lexi followed, always out of sight and barely audible as she moved.  Soon enough, the NonSen would turn one corner and only “realize” her mistake.  Any minute now.

The NonSen turned the corner.  Her GPS unit was fifteen nanoseconds too late to realize the error.

On a server farm, owned by the advertising company that had fielded the NonSen, several bizarre error messages and alerts were making themselves none.  Messages about blunt force trauma, damage inflicted with a bladed weapon, unauthorized removal of the facial dermal layer and something about high-impact damage to the NonSen's groin area were all recorded.  The automated response system crashed for a full 20 seconds trying to sort through all the messages.

By the time it rebooted, the NonSen was no longer responding to pings from the ad agency.  Inquiries would be launched, in the wake of the incident.  None would find the true cause of the problem.  Said cause—now wearing the NonSen's face, hair and clothes—left the alley the NonSen had entered seven minutes prior.

What was left of the NonSen would be recovered three days later, in a state unfit for salvage or repair.

-----

Despite the fact that she didn't need a charge at that moment, Diana was still seated at the base she'd been shipped with, reading some of the literature she'd acquired from the lobby at CAEDIA's regional headquarter during the adverts.  Each sentence read seemed to bring just a bit more comprehension, a bit more clarity to things.  She was so engrossed in reading the pamphlet on the Allied League for the Protection of Humans and Androids (ALPHA) that she didn't notice Erin entering the shop—at least, until Erin accidentally knocked something off of the desk as she closed the door.

“Forgot they moved all of this earlier,” the gynoid muttered.

The blatant artificiality of Erin's appearance seemed odd, when paired with her tendency to wear normal clothing that she technically didn't need to.  Somewhat surprised at her own curiosity on the matter, Diana decided to return to reading the pamphlets she'd pocked up from the CAEDIA building.

“Still reading all of those?”  It took Diana a moment to realize that Erin was calling out to her.  “Yes.  I am.”

“You're also still wearing the clothes you had on from the party last night.”  Erin regarded Diana with a skeptical look as she approached.  “Might want to consider changing out of those pretty soon, otherwise you'll seem a bit odd.”

Diana frowned.  “Odd?”

“Humans generally change clothes once every day or so. We don't have to unless we get dirty, but it helps to blend in more..” Erin sighed.  “Anyway, I was just at the house—Mandy just showed up to help Lloyd study for a test they have this week.”

The mention of Mandy's name garnered another frown from Diana.

“You want to change clothes, there are some over in Costumes,” Erin continued.  “Actually, let me help you pick out what to wear—don't want to go back to the house dressed in Regency-era gear, that's for sure.”  She nodded at the blonde gynoid, gesturing for her to follow.  “I'd also advise against spandex—”  She glanced over her shoulder to see if Diana was following (she was), and smiled.  There was something about the Heartelligence gynoid that set her apart from most other NonSens; when they weren't following a script, they were often just standing around, running tests or generally not doing a lot of interacting with anyone.

All thoughts regarding what made Diana so unique trailed off—the blonde was stripping out of the clothes she'd worn since the party in the doorway of the Costumes area, in full view of anyone who might be passing by.  “Not here,” Erin quickly muttered, “not—go inside, then change!”  She ran up to bustle Diana into the room.  “And get a set of underwear to go with whatever you put on,” she added. “Pro-tip: people change clothes in private, not standing in an open doorway.” 

She leaned out of the door, checking to see if anyone else had spotted Diana stripping out of her outfit; to her relief, only Cam was there, counting the inventory.  No other employees were present.

It took a minute or so for Erin to find a set of clothes that fit Diana—another pair of jeans and a plain shirt.  “Socks are strictly optional,” she advised. “You want a pair, feel free—and try not to break buttons or bust zippers, if you can help it, when you're changing clothes.”

It took a moment for Diana to get dressed. “And turn,” Erin advised, nodding her approval.  “Nice!

“Thank you.”  Diana smiled.  The floor felt far less cold against her feet, now that she'd put on her socks.

“If you want to keep topping up your batteries, feel free,” Erin offered.  “And if you leave, grab a pair of shoes first.”

Remembering Erin's earlier mention of Mandy, Diana gave a silent, thoughtful nod.

-----

Trying and failing to get any meaningful studying done in the living room, thanks to an impromptu sing-off between two employees who might've had a bit too much to drink, Lloyd decided that the only solution was to ask Mandy to join him in his room for further studying. “I only have the one desk,” he apologized.

“That's fine,” Mandy assured him, sounding a bit winded.

Lloyd gallantly offered Mandy the desk seat, going so far as to pull the chair out for her to sit on.  Once she'd gotten herself situated, he moved to the bed, retrieving his tablet PC and trying to find the page he'd been reading when Mandy had shown up.  “So, you said you were checking all your notes on—”

“Give me a sec.”  Mandy scrolled through her tablet.  “It's hard to keep track sometimes.” A brief cough cut her off.

“Did you get the presentation Ms. Newton had suggested downloading?”

“I did,” Mandy replied.  “It's on the tablet.” She fiddled around with the straps of her short overalls and occasionally pulled up her knee socks, which kept falling down—anything to not call attention to how shy and nervous she seemed to be.  She reached down to her belt, where her Emergency Respiratory Aid was, just to help her feel secure.

Lloyd didn't notice any awkwardness, but the cough was starting to concern him as found the page he'd been reading before Mandy had shown up.  “I, ah, kinda thought you'd be studying with Kim, or Gloria,” he admitted.  “Or even Ellen.”

Mandy merely sighed.  “Ellen's studying with Tami,” she replied.  “Kim and Gloria had to finish each other's notes over the past few days.”

“They misplaced the originals, or something?” Lloyd was scanning through the page to find exactly where he'd left off before Erin had announced Mandy's arrival.

“Kim left hers on campus,” Mandy replied, “and, to be honest, I was just down the street. I was hoping you'd say yes.”.

“Really? Well, I'm glad I did.” He felt his face flush, so he changed the subject. “So, ah, you catch the trailer for the new James Bond movie?”

Mandy was still scanning through her notes—and, absent-mindedly replied.  “Not...not yet.”  She cleared her throat.

“I saw it earlier in the week, before Uncle Harry ran the story.”  Lloyd gave what he thought was a nonchalant shrug.  “I don't really have a problem with the new actor they cast as Bond.  I mean, if you're gonna start over, you might as well go with someone like—”

Clearing her throat turned into another bit of coughing from Mandy, cutting off his thoughts on the new 007.  “Are you feeling okay?  Can I get you some water?”

“I'm fine,” Mandy assured him.  “I just need a bit to acclimate to new places.  Water would be nice, though.”

Lloyd returned quickly with a biodegradable bottle of water for the both of them.  Mandy seemed really thirsty, but it calmed down her cough.

With the water retrieval out of the way, the two set to work comparing notes, and found that they'd both missed different bits of information that would probably turn up in the exam

Lloyd was surprised.  “I don't know how we missed those!”  Both of them smiled. They looked at each other for a moment before a cough from Mandy distracted her and she finished off her water.  Lloyd hadn't opened his yet, and decided to offer it to Mandy.

“Sorry,” she apologized, “it's just that something in here is aggravating my cough.  Can we open a window?”

Lloyd took care of that, but by the time he got back to the desk, Mandy still was coughing intermittently.  “I'm sorry if my room is kind of dusty.”

Mandy just shrugged.  “I've been in worse places before.  You know my heart stopped twice in the hospital!”  Lloyd's eyes went wide.  “Yeah, I got a pretty severe variant of the virus, and my mum was still anti-vax.  They said if hadn't been in as good shape as I was, things may have been worse.” Lloyd had never asked Mandy about her hospital stay, and was a bit stunned she could be that casual about her heart stopping; he could only nod mutely in reply.  They tried to continue studying, but Mandy's cough persisted, despite her taking small sips of water.  After a few minutes, the cough was out of control—to Lloyd's horror, Mandy's lips were turning blue and her face was pale.

Lloyd saw her having difficulty and asked nervously if she needed any help.  Something in her eyes made it clear that she was used to handling the issue herself, but that she was also grateful for his concern.  He nearly tripped as he ran to her side, his hands brushing against hers as his fingers got the pouch open.  He saw most of the space inside the pack seemed to be taken up by filters and other hardware.  “Just give me a second,” he muttered, “I'll have it out in—”

The fact that his bedroom door opened to reveal Diana—in different clothes, at last—barely registered with Lloyd until he heard the gynoid speak: “Do you need help with anything?”

Diana?!  What—why are you—” 

Another wheeze from Mandy cut Lloyd's frantic questioning off; he quickly unfolded and read the instructions for the ERA, which were far more complex than the “put over face and inhale” stuff found on an airline's drop-down oxygen mask.  “So this,” he muttered, holding up a hose, “connects to that.”  As he dropped the instructions, Diana picked them up and read them quickly.  Lloyd barely noticed, his attention on the quarter-sized dot on Mandy's neck.  “And these go there, and once that's all done, I just press the switch on the thing at the bottom of the pouch?”

Mandy gave a weak nod, her eyelids fluttering as she struggled to breathe.  Lloyd fumbled at first, and Mandy was clearly in no position to help.  Diana quickly took the apparatus out of his hand, startling him.

Before Lloyd could say anything, Diana followed the instructions exactly from the paper she'd just read.  Once everything was connected and activated, Mandy's eyes opened wide as the Emergency Respiratory Aid fulfilled its designated function.  She motioned for Lloyd to help her over to his bed; he obliged, draping her arm across his shoulders and helping her cross the room.  As she lay down atop Lloyd's sheets, her breathing slowed to a more normal pace, and her posture became more relaxed.

“Are you okay?  Sorry I messed up putting your breather on”

“Yes, I'm okay.”  The ERA made Mandy's words sound somewhat synthetic, almost as if she were on autotune.  “Sorry if I scared you.  I just have problems with dust sometimes.  And thank you, Diana.”

While Diana was positively beaming, Lloyd was cursing his forgetfulness.  “It's the stupid carpet,” Lloyd muttered, “or dust from the attic, or something.” He felt like a fool—of course a rug that spanned the entire length of a floor would be a magnet for dust! “Should've vacuumed it earlier—”

“Why does your voice sound the way it does now?”

Diana's question went unanswered by Mandy, if only because of Lloyd's exasperated groan.  “Diana, what are you doing up here?  I thought you were charging back in the shop!”

“Erin said that Mandy had arrived,” Diana replied, sounding unperturbed by Lloyd's annoyance.  “I wanted to talk to her.”

“You wanted...”  Any lingering irritation on Lloyd's part faded instantly.  “To talk to her?

Under the watchful eyes of posters for various films, Diana moved to stand next to Lloyd's bedside.  “I want to learn,” she reiterated.  “More about you, more about her...”  She glanced at Mandy.  “More about everything.  I don't know why I want to learn,” she continued, “but I do—and I want to learn why I want to learn.”

“Learning is good,” Mandy agreed.  “Lloyd and I were just about to study.”  She paused, taking a deep breath.  “We have a test,” she continued, her voice sounding more normal, “at the end of the week—the last of the semester.”

“What kind of a test?”

Lloyd, far calmer than he'd been when Diana had first entered the room, decided to speak up.  “The class is Mechanical Engineering,” he explained.  “Nothing too complicated, yet.”  He paused as Diana sat on the bed, near Mandy's feet.  “I was just about to go over the notes with Mandy before she, ah...”

“It was nothing,” Mandy assured him.  “Just a bit of a coughing fit.”

“It didn't sound like nothing,” Lloyd began, but Diana cut him off.  “May I take a look at the notes?”

Mandy glanced at Lloyd, as if expecting him to protest; he merely shrugged.  “Can't really see anything wrong with it,” he mused.  “Just, ah, watch where you tap the screen, please.  I don't want to lose any of my notes.”

Diana nodded as she accepted the tablet, and began carefully scrolling through it as soon as it was in her hands.  Even as she read, she continued asking questions; occasionally, Mandy would answer, with Lloyd jumping in whenever he felt the need to provide his take on things.  Eventually, however, Diana's questions veered into other topics—where did Mandy (and Lloyd) attend college, did they have many friends, etc.  The topic soon turned back to the coughing fit Mandy had been suffering from when Diana had entered, and how she mitigated it.

“Well,” Mandy admitted, “the ERA helps with it a lot. Basically it's an air filter that hooks up to a tracheotomy in my windpipe. Then the wires activate the filter and negative pressure pushes the air deep into my lungs.”

Diana looked fascinated; Lloyd had to admit he was a bit curious, too. 

“I have electric implants in the damaged parts of my lungs as well as my diaphragm,” Mandy continued, “and once the tube is connected, it activates those, too, so everything moves in tandem. Also, my lungs are gradually getting better, due to the stem cells they injected.  But until the doctor says so, I've still got to carry this pack around for situations like this.  If I ever stayed here for a night, I'd need my actual ventilator to plug into.”

That bit made Diana smile a bit.  “Then you're like me; you have to plug in at night, too!”

Lloyd was too busy thinking of Mandy sleeping over, and the logistics of bringing a ventilator over to another person's house, to notice Diana's parallel.

“Well, sort of.  It makes sure things like this don't happen when I sleep.  I think I'd wake up in time to put my ERA on, but the vent also allows highly oxygenated air deep in my lungs and in my bloodstream. And don't worry, Lloyd, it's a little bulky but very easy to transport.” Mandy winked.

Lloyd flushed, and Diana grabbed a piece of plastic to fan him and hopefully cool him off. 

Mandy giggled, and Lloyd couldn't help but join in even as he waved away Diana's attempt, leaving Diana confused but happy to be part of something.   It was something she couldn't quite understand, just yet, but it was most definitely something.

-----

“I told you this was going to happen.”

Sierra's remark did little to stop the groans from Detective Logan as he knelt before a sink, his sunglasses on the counter and the upper half of his face cushioned with a towel.  “Didn't expect,” he began, only to make a gagging sound; without warning, he lunged sideways towards the nearest urinal.  Sierra steered him towards a toilet stall instead, waiting patiently as the most physical after-effect of his exposure to the solid state drive made itself manifest.

It'd gone badly as soon as he turned on the test rig.  Despite his repeated assurances that he could “handle it”, it had soon become evident that whatever had sent the Persuader signal to the NonSens at Harry Morgan's house was having no difficulties sending a similar signal to his optical hardware.  He'd managed to hold out for a few minutes, the failsafes built into the facial prosthetics and built-in cameras doing a commendable job of keeping him safe.  In the end, though, his brain did indeed fall victim to whatever bombardment the signal had sent to his optics.  The test rig had barely been online for a full seven minutes before he'd had to turn it off.

“Feeling better?”

Sierra's question was answered by a groan as the detective blindly groped for the toilet's flush handle.

Without a word, she gently moved his hand to the chromed handle; his fingers tightened on it and forced it down, the resultant rush of water flowing down and away from the toilet bowl almost drowning out another groan.

“Allow me to repeat my question—”

“I'll feel better,” the detective croaked, “when my are optics back in.”  He reached for the rails on the walls of the stall, one hand still holding the towel to where his facial prosthesis had been.  “How long'd they say it'll take to debug it?”

“Another hour.”  Sierra draped her colleague's free arm around her shoulder, helping him to the door.  “What exactly—”

“Visual stimuli,” Detective Logan grunted, “tailored to disorient, and to overwhelm the visual centres.  Only reason it didn't do more damage is because it can't fry a human brain like it could break a NonSen's.”

“So it threw you for a loop,” Sierra finished. “And—”

“As soon as I get my optics back in, I'll be back to work,” Detective Logan assured her.  “This doesn't change anything about this case—that solid state drive needs to be analysed.”

Sierra held the door for the detective.  “Maybe you should take Dr. Dyson up on that offer to get an improved optic set.”

“The old ones work fine,” Detective Logan insisted—mere seconds before he stepped on a floor-level cleaning drone at his feet.  The drone merely gave a beep and rolled off, continuing to dispense the sanitizing solution from its underside as it went.  Before Sierra could comment, she spotted a CAEDIA technician.  “Any news?”

“On the solid state drive, or on Detective Logan's optics?”

“Both.”  Sierra glanced back at the detective; even with the towel held up to where his facial prosthetic had been, he still radiated a sort of aura that made it quite clear how cross he was with his current situation.

“Well,” the technician replied, “the solid state drive is being analysed by Digital Forensics—humans only.  I was just down there myself, actually,” he admitted. “Utterly baffling stuff.  Multiple encryption layers, for one thing—whatever's been stored on that drive, it's more than just a load of cryptocurrency.”

Sierra frowned.  “So no progress.”

Some progress,” the technician corrected. “Not a lot, but just enough to know that it's definitely not the same kind of encryption most militaries rely on. It's also too complex for anything used by civilians.”

“So we have something belonging to a foreign government?”

“That's definitely a possibility.  There's also, ah, the matter of the detective's optics.” The technician tented his fingers, a look of regret crossing his features as he glanced over to Detective Logan—who was clearly annoyed at having to stand in one spot, holding a towel over where his eyes had been.  “To put it bluntly, they've been fried.”

The groan that Detective Logan issued at hearing those last three words was punctuated by a rather unique swear.

However,” the technician continued, “we've got a call going with Dr. Dyson, regarding Agent Blake's transference—if you want, I can—”

“Put me through to San Jose.  You know the number.”

The technician very audibly swallowed. “You're sure?”

“I told her I'd only call in an emergency,” the detective grunted.  “Pretty sure this qualifies.”

After a helpless glance at Sierra, who merely shrugged, the technician nodded.  “You'll have to find a monitor, first,” he informed the detective.

“I know.”  A low, borderline-static hiss followed the remark.  “Sierra...”

It took a few minutes for the pair to find a room with a monitor; once Sierra helped the detective take his seat, and the comm-monitor was switched on, he took a deep breath.  “I'd like a bit of privacy, if you don't mind.”

“Tommy—”

“This is between me and...”  He turned.  “Sierra, please.”

Even though she knew he wouldn't see it, Sierra nodded.  “Just knock on the desk to your left when you're done.”

“I will.”

Sierra left the room, with the technician following behind her.  She'd worked with human partners before, in San Jose, but none were as fascinating—or as surprisingly vulnerable—as Detective Thomas Logan.

Incoming Call: Lt. David Pierce.

“If you find out anything new about that solid state drive,” Sierra instructed the technician, “let me know.”  She tapped her right temple with two fingers, her eyes taking on a glow as the image of Lieutenant Pierce appeared in her field of view.  “Birch here. Anything to report?”

Pariello's saying he wants to file a civil suit against CAEDIASays you people set him up for a fall.”

“Just like he said Harry Morgan stole his wife—we have sworn testimony that he didn't, by the way.”

Figured Pariello's full of it, but he's getting more out of hand by the minute.”

“By the minute?” Sierra echoed, frowning. “Why—”

I can send you all the claims Mr. Pariello has been making,” Lieutenant Pierce replied.  Despite his usual stoicism, it was clear that he had zero faith in any of Bobby's “claims”.  “He's, ah, got quite an interesting set of theories he'd like to make public on various matters.”

“Did he already say that he thinks the President of the United States is a gynoid?”

Lieutenant Pierce did a commendable job of not showing any amusement at the theory.  “Not yet, but—”  He frowned, looking off to the side; somewhere on his end of the call, someone in the distance was screaming.  “Ah, correction,” he clarified, “I believe Mr. Pariello did just communicate that exact theory to the staff.”

Sierra groaned.  “I doubt he's going to be a flight risk, but if he keeps this up, you might want to move him.  Oh, and we'll do our best to keep Billie away from that drive—it's affecting artificial staff, and that'd be a hell of a way for a sleeper to wake up.”  She decided not to mention the fate of Detective Logan's optics.

Appreciate it.” The Lieutenant was very protective of his sister.  “Meanwhile, we're looking into all available options as to how to deal with Mr. Pariello.”

“If he keeps causing problems—”

Incoming Communication: Technician T.S.

“—sorry, I've got another call.  Let me know if there's anything CAEDIA can do to help with the Pariello situation.”

Will do, ma'am.”  With that, the call to Lieutenant Pierce ended.

Sierra opened a line to the technician she'd met out in the hall (and dismissed mere minutes ago).  “Anything?”

We know where the solid state drive is broadcasting its 'find me' signal to.”

Sierra frowned.  “I didn't know there was a 'find me' signal.”

The Persuader code was masking it—and, ah, when I say 'we know where it's broadcasting to', I only mean in the sense of 'which country', not a specific location.”

“It's better than nothing.  What did you find?”

It's actually sending a forked signal—well, a tri-forked signal.  Three different sites of reception.”

Three?”  Something roughly equivalent to what a human Officer would've called their “gut feeling”, or simply “Instinct”, kicked in.  “It's sending a retrieval message to three locations?”

All overseas, and all of considerable interest.”

After moving out of the centre of the corridor, so as to not create a block for the foot traffic passing through, Sierra resumed the call.  “Which regions is the signal forking to?”

First reception site is an unknown address somewhere in Russia—we're trying to pin it down, but it's definitely in that country. Second, a location in Turkey—just like the first, address unknown.  The third one's the one that worries us.”

“How so?”

It's being sent to this state.”

-----

“Should I, or shouldn't I?”

Pretending to watch traffic from across North 27th in Billings was already getting boring.  Yes, she was once again wearing a different face—and different clothes, and different hair—but Lexi no longer cared about being spotted. The fact that Bobby Pariello was still alive—and currently in a cell at the Billings Police Department HQ—galled her to her core. 

She'd have to rectify that oversight, and soon. Preferably, very soon.

On the one hand, she could go for an “I'll be back”-style blowout—grab a truck, storm the place and drag Pariello out by whichever extremity she could grab.  The relevant movie scene was already replaying itself again in her mind (by far, the first film in the series was the greatest—the sequels, especially that trilogy after the third one, not so much). It'd be a hell of a way to rattle the people, and to give Pariello a final jolt before his inevitable death.

On the other hand, bringing down that kind of thunder would probably open a can of worms entirely too big for her to close.  Getting Pariello out and finishing the job would be worth it, yes—but at what cost?  She was only one gynoid, after all; she could handle a meatbag like Pariello, no problem.  A joint police/CAEDIA response team, however... 

Various scenarios loaded in her thought processes, each one running in the background.  This would take some thinking.

As she watched a cruiser circle the building, Lexi did her best to look like a NonSen meant to shill dish soap—all the while, considering whether or not to grab Pariello out from under the noses of the law.

Should I, or shouldn't I?”

-----

They haven't heard anything unusual, but if something comes up—

“I get the picture.  Any luck on getting through the decryption?”

None so far.  Had to dismiss another human tech from the tests when her cochlear implants started picking up weird sounds and what she called 'some kind of muttering'.”

“We may have to get that drive quarantined.” Sierra shook her head.  “Call me if you get any more information.”

Will do, Officer.”

Three knocks on the desk from the room across the hall caught Sierra's attention as she ended the call; “Guess Tommy's done with his long-distance bit,” she mused, opening the door.  She caught the briefest image of the face on the other end of the line before the monitor winked out.  “There should be a paper in the printer over there,” Detective Logan muttered.  “It'll have an address on it.”

Sierra spotted the printer—and, as the detective had stated, the paper resting in the output tray.

“I need you to bring me there tomorrow. They'll have a new set of optics done—compatible with the prosthetic I use, and with the port they put in after...” He grunted something barely audible. “I miss anything?”

“Pariello's being a pain at the PD,” Sierra replied, as she helped the detective out of the chair.  “They might have to move him soon.”

Detective Logan shook his head, one hand still keeping the towel in place over his face.  “Why am I not surprised.”

“Oh, and we need to keep Billie Pierce away from the SSD,” Sierra added.  “I was just on the phone with her brother, while you were making your call—”

“I read her file.  Sleeper.  Not the best way for her to wake up.”

“Which begs the question of who that drive belongs to and why it's rigged the way it is.”  Sierra shook her head.  “Blew out your optics, and it'd probably do worse to her.”

“I'm surprised it didn't do worse to you.”

Sierra frowned.  “All synthetic Officers, Agents, Operatives, Specialists and Sentinels are shielded,” she reminded her human colleague.

“And Billie isn't?”

“Sleeper, remember?  Dave wasn't able to bring her in to get upgraded.”

Detective Logan sighed.  “So we have to keep an eye on her and make sure the drive gets looked over,” he muttered.  “A wonderful way to spend a Saturday.”

“It's part of the job,” Sierra mused. “Speaking of—”

“It didn't get brought up during the call. She's with ALPHA first, but she's considering dual-status.”

Sierra rolled her eyes.  “I can't see why she wouldn't join CAEDIA.  She'd be a hell of an ally to have.”

-----

Diana nodded intently, having listened intently to every word as Mandy explained why she had the medical implants that helped her to breathe.  Apart from the white dot on her neck and the slight affectations to some of her words, there were almost no physical signs of the implants at all.  “Thank you for explaining.”

“The vaccines helped,” Lloyd mused.  “The rollouts were pretty much what curbed the whole pandemic thing after seven months, too.”  He glanced at his notebook—and Mandy's.  “We should really get back to prepping for the exam, y'know,” he mused.  “Ms. Newton gave us all a lot of heads-up, and—”

“How do they see inside you?”

Diana's question sounded, at first, slightly morbid. “To check the implants?” Mandy clarified.

The blonde gynoid nodded.  “Do they have to—”

“Human bodies don't, ah, come apart as easily as an android or gynoid does,” Lloyd admitted.  “If they need to 'see inside' Mandy, they use MRIs, x-rays—”

“CT scans,” Mandy clarified.  “MRIs might disrupt the implants.”

“Ah.”  Lloyd nodded. “Didn't realize that.”

“It's okay—they use ultrasound, too, by the way. That doesn't risk damaging the implants, either.”

Again, Diana nodded.

“I know some people are getting more advanced implants, or 'augmentations',” Lloyd mused.  “That detective we talked to back at CAEDIA Regional, Tommy something—”

“You had to talk to a detective?”

Remembering all too quickly that he'd completely forgotten to explain the morning's events to Mandy, Lloyd sighed. “It's a long story,” he admitted. “This guy Uncle Harry knows, Bobby P., showed up here earlier today—threw rocks at the windows, yelled about some kind of conspiracy against him or something.”

“His house got torn up,” Diana added, her voice completely neutral.

Noting Mandy's shock, Lloyd quickly continued: “He thought one of Uncle Harry's inventory did it—none of them did, by the way—but the cops and CAEDIA had to check every NonSen on the—”

“Wait.”  Mandy glanced at Lloyd, frowning.  “Your face...someone hit you!”

“It was Bobby P.,” Lloyd muttered.  “He was trying to open Diana's crate, calling her...things.”  He turned away, only for Mandy's hand to gently turn his head to face her again. “I tried to stop him, and he blasted me with one hit.”  He winced slightly as Mandy carefully touched the bruised area of his face.  “The cops had to haul him off—he wouldn't shut up about 'conspiracies' and saying Uncle Harry stole his wife, or something—” The second half of the word “something” left his lips as a hiss.

“You should get that looked at,” Mandy advised.

“I will,” Lloyd assured her.

“Hey, Diana, since you've seen a bit how I work, can I see how you work?  What you look like inside?”

Lloyd was surprised at the question, but he could see why Mandy was curious.  At first thought, Lloyd thought it came off as somewhat morbid—or would've, had it not been for Diana's artificial nature making it far easier to answer said question.  He sensed Mandy and Diana sharing a connection of sorts.

Diana nodded, turning her attention to Lloyd. “Why not?”  Despite the apparent apathy of his answer, Lloyd did want to get a better look at Diana's internals; thus far, Cam had been the only one to access them, the day Diana had first been activated.  “Maybe we'll have questions on the internals of a Heartelligence 90S-50-D gynoid on the exam this week,” he joked.  He almost made another remark, if only to ease the tension of the moment—but Diana beat him to the punch by peeling off the shirt she'd changed into.

Lloyd's eyes widened.  He glanced at Mandy, hoping she wouldn't think he'd reprogrammed Diana with some kind of “fast strip” mode—to his relief, she was watching the gynoid disrobe with a look of mild curiosity.

The only article of clothing left on Diana's upper body was a simple black bra, which was quickly removed.  There were only some freckles for identifying marks on her flawless breasts (Lloyd decided not to dwell on his probable incorrect estimation of her cup size when she'd been unboxed); the only noteworthy feature was a sort of rectangle just above them, which was slowly becoming more pronounced as a panel.  “You can remove it, if you want,” she offered.

Knowing his face had probably gone beet red, Lloyd turned to glance at Mandy—who was staring at Diana's topless form, and the now-prominent panel, with obvious fascination.  “If Lloyd doesn't mind,” she mused.

“I don't!”

Mandy rose from where she'd been sitting on the bed and approached Diana.  Her fingers gently worked into the seams of the panel before removing it with a slight pop.  “Your skin feels so real,” she mused.

“Thank you.”  Diana smiled.  “It was designed to emulate the tactile sensation of actual human skin.”

Mandy and Lloyd were both staring at the panel Mandy had just removed—and, from it, into the opening it left.

LEDs, indicator bars and smallish text that signified warning messages were visible on the surface that had been behind the life-like artificial flesh.  At its edges were gaps—small, but just enough to offer tantalizing hints at the intricacies of Diana's design.  Mandy started to ask a question, only to stop; another panel was making its borders visible, this one a sort of oval in the middle of Diana's abdomen.  It was Lloyd who moved to put his fingers into the gaps, this time.

Steadily, he tugged, the synthetic skin unsealing with a faint pop.

Aside from an intimate look at clusters of microcircuitry, servo armatures and the space where a Caloric Intake Converter could eventually be installed, the newly-opened section of Diana's abdomen also gave a clear glimpse of the “spine” of her endo-frame.  Hoses and tubes ran from some unseen reservoir, probably housed further up in the gynoid's torso, to a terminus point below her beltline.  Cam's remark about Diana having one particular set of components that Pam had lacked came back to the forefront of Lloyd's thoughts.  Fascination was, thus far, holding back far more lustful impulses.

Mandy gave voice to what Lloyd was practically kicking back into the corners of his mind: “She's designed for sex?”

Diana cocked her head slightly.  “I am configured to make full use of my sexual hardware and programming,” she stated, as casually as if she were answering a question about the temperature outside.  “I can demonstrate—”

“Not now,” Lloyd breathed; the blood that had rushed away from his face had already been rerouted elsewhere.

If she detected any signs of unease from Lloyd, Mandy didn't show it.  “It's amazing,” she murmured.  “I'm seeing inside of you, right now, but you still look—still sound like a real human being!”  Her tone was bordering on awe.  “Could you turn around and maybe stretch, like you're yawning?”

Without hesitation, Diana did so.  Her back arched, her shoulders and arms tensing in a believably human way.  “I can be configured to consume food, too, but I don't have the required parts yet.”

“Incredible.”  Mandy glanced at Lloyd with a smile.  “She's amazing, Lloyd!”

“She is, isn't she?”  Lloyd was surprised Diana seemed to have an interest in eating.

Diana had just hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of her pants when Mandy's phone rang.  “I have to take this.”  With an apologetic smile, she ducked out of the room.

“Are you feeling well?”  The question was probably asked out of concern, but Lloyd could barely focus on it.  Memories of his dream from the night before, and the dream he'd had after Pam's malfunction, flooded back, intermingled with the reality of Diana standing before him, topless and with two of her main panels removed.

“Lloyd?”  The gentle utterance of his name snapped him out of the fog he'd nearly descended into. “I'm, ah, I'm good.”  He blinked a few times, as if to reassure himself that he was, in fact, good.  “Just, ah, when Mandy gets back in, you might want to get dressed—reattach your panels, first, then the clothes—”

“Do you think I look attractive?”

Lloyd glanced at Diana, now, her smile as friendly and warm as ever—which was just enough to keep him from staring at her breasts, or the panels she had yet to close.

“You look beautiful,” he replied. “Inside and out.”

Before either of them could comment further on the remark, Mandy reentered the room.  “That was Dad,” she informed Lloyd.  “We need to go back to my aunt's house—her caretaker 'bot might've been fried trying to de-crumb the toaster, or something.”

“Sorry to hear that.”  Lloyd quickly glanced at Diana—as he'd suggested, she was pressing her panels back into place and retrieving both her bra and shirt.  “Did he say if the 'bot needed repairs?”

“Dunno—he just said we might have to go uptown again on Monday, after class.”  Mandy collected her notebook and laptop.  “The rideshare car should be here soon—Dad called one to come get me.  I told him I'd be studying with you for an hour or so before I left. I knew you'd say yes.”

“Right.”  Lloyd did his best to ignore the stirrings below the beltline.  “If there's anything I can do to help—”

“With the caretaker?” Mandy offered.

“That, or studying.”

Mandy grinned.  “We could go over our notes while we wait for the ride-share car to get here,” she mused.

“Sounds like a plan to me—ah, Diana, you might want to put your shirt back on if you're going downstairs with us.”

-----

“'Leave no witnesses', he says.  'Dispose of all evidence', he says.  He wouldn't keep saying it if he were the one out here having to do it!”

Despite her apparent annoyance at her employer's demands, Lexi was still grinning like a fiend as she dragged the body (unconscious—one death too many, especially out in the open, would be bad for business) towards a bench.  There'd been no witnesses to her cold-cocking the poor sod—who'd ironically been the only witness to Lexi's attempt at disposing of the NonSen whose identity she'd usurped.  The 'bot, as such, had been haphazardly shoved into the open maw of an eWaste “container” (apparently, “dumpster” was too ugly a term for it); the college-age girl who'd chanced upon the incident, by contrast, was now out like a light, “sleeping off” her injury on a bench.

Admittedly, Lexi hadn't just been about to dump the NonSen—her peccadillos had resurfaced midway through stripping the 'bot of her “uniform”, and she'd nearly given in and gotten it on right then and there. Caution had won out, and she'd relocated to what was supposed to be a secure locale—some quiet back alley that few people, if any, had any reason to walk down.

Fate, of course, wasn't on her side.  One “Hey, what are you—” later, and...

The borrowed face fit even worse than the last one. It wasn't so much that it didn't fit properly; it was more a case of not meshing with its new wearer's personality, or her bad intentions.  Her entrance into CAEDIA Regional had been a massive fluke; the Billings Police Department weren't about to let a random NonSen enter the building for the purpose of shilling dish detergent.

A caveat—“Unless accompanied by an owner”—had been promising, but was dismissed in the end.  Abducting a rando off the street and keeping them under control long enough to pose as her “owner” would be too much trouble.

As she left the incapacitated collegian on the bench, careful not to betray her true nature to anyone watching, Lexi was certain that she'd have to think different if she intended to get into the station and give Pariello the sendoff he obviously deserved.  The “I'll be back” option was looking more and more tempting, but would still be risky as all get-out.

There had to be another way to grab Pariello from the station.  But how?

Her vision filled with a picture-in-picture view of the Billings police station.  The windows and doors were secure; going in from under was probably a death wish, as well.  Only one potential entrance vector remained.

“Should be a hell of a climb,” Lexi mused, her tongue playing over her teeth.  This was going to be good.

-----

“And what's bugging you?

Cam frowned as she looked up from the exposed internals of the 'bot she'd been working on for the past few minutes.  “I don't quite understand what you mean.”

“You look like someone just waved a rotten egg under your nose,” Erin mused.  “Pretty sure you've had that look since Diana went to see what Lloyd and Mandy were up to.” She grinned, even as she twirled the canary-yellow hairpiece that she'd just detached from her own head on one finger. “Don't tell me you're jealous!”

“Jealous?”

“Are you?”  With a no-look throw, Erin sent the hairpiece into a container several feet behind her.

“Why would I be?” Cam replied, turning her attention back to the task at hand—and considering that, despite her own reluctance to admit it, Erin might be right.  “Diana's a NonSen—”

“So were you, once,” Erin reminded her. “That changed.”

“Diana is accelerating towards her own sentience at a far more rapid pace than I did,” Cam admitted.  “The proprietary triad of co-processors Heartelligence designed for the task have played a significant role in her—”

“This isn't about hardware or software,” Erin mused. She'd retrieved another hairpiece, this one a slightly coppery red, from a crate, and was in the process of attaching it to her head.  “It's about you and Lloyd.”  She snapped a few of the contact points into place.  “I heard you two chatting in the laundry room, the other night.”

Cam seemed to stiffen.  “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Say it two more times and you might hear a rooster.”  Before Cam could question the reference, Erin sighed.  “The walls may not have ears,” she admitted, “but voices carry—especially for 'bots.  I was in another room when I heard you asking him if he needed 'satiating' or whatever—”

“It was nothing like what you think.”  Cam flinched at the sound of something hitting the workbench, before realizing that it was the tool she'd just slammed down onto it.  “I wasn't—”

“I heard the whole thing,” Erin assured her.  “I know you two weren't about to do the do right on top of the washer.”  She finished attaching the new hairpiece, giving the synthetic hair a flourishing toss.  “Ever since Lloyd first got here, he's gone to you when he needs someone to talk to, someone to hang out with and someone to just goof off with.”  There was a hint of maternal wisdom in her smile. “You're his best friend around here, and that's something to be proud of.”

After a moment, Cam nodded.  “That does make sense.”

“I'd hope so.  And I trust you to not do something like, say, push Diana out of a second-floor window at the house and make it look like an accident.”  Erin smirked.  “At least, I hope you wouldn't.”

Cam frowned.  “Why would I—”

Joke,” Erin reminded her.  “I know you'd never pull something like that.”

“I wouldn't,” Cam replied, turning her attention back to the 'bot lying face-up on the workbench.

“Like I said,” Erin chuckled, “I hope you wouldn't.” If Erin had looked back at Cam, she would've seen a bit of smile flutter across her lips as the thought of the morning's interaction played back in her mind.

-----

As he went over the notes for the impending Mechanical Engineering exam in his room, Lloyd couldn't help but reflect on how the day had unfolded.  From Bobby Pariello's screaming, rock-throwing tirade outside to the visit to CAEDIA Regional HQ—and from there to Mandy showing up asking if Lloyd wanted to study for the exam with her.  All of it seemed to blur together, soft at the edges and barely discernable.

Night had fallen, by now.  Everyone was either going about their last business for the day or preparing for bed; Diana was back at her recharging station in the shop, while Erin and Cam were both running checks on the inventory.

Lloyd wondered what Diana had thought of Mandy, after having learned so much more about her condition and the medical implants meant to mitigate the damage.  He also wondered what Mandy thought of Diana, having seen her up close, personal and with a few panels off.  Somewhere under those thoughts, he also had to ask: what did they both think of him?

A yawn worked its way free of his lips.  He hadn't realized how tired he felt.

With a sigh, he turned off the tablet PC and set it down on the desk.  He was too tired to study, as it was.

From somewhere down the hall, Harry was loudly proclaiming that, if he could help it, he'd never want to talk to Bobby Pariello again.  “Phone call, probably,” Lloyd muttered—not carring that he'd voiced what he was thinking. With a sigh, he left his room, ready to begin his nightly routine, as always.

-----

Seated at her charging station in the shop, Diana reflected on what she'd learned.

She'd been online, in Autonomous Mode, for almost a day and a half, now.  Her IPU, EPO and EVPU scores had all gone up, and were continuing to increase. Slowly, but surely, her base autonomous state was beginning to form the makings of a personality.  Her personality.

There was still so much to learn, so much to understand, but this was a start.

The feeling that might've been jealousy, directed towards Mandy, had subsided somewhat.  It was clear that she meant a great deal to Lloyd, even if she was unaware of it.  Questions of whether or not Lloyd meant anything to Mandy were already forming, in Diana's mind—but she'd have time enough to ask them later.

Her thoughts and feelings unpacked themselves, as they'd done the night before.  Sorting through them all would take some time, but it'd definitely be worth it.

A smile formed on Diana's lips—not a preprogrammed response state, but a genuine, contented smile.

-----

From across the shop, Cam regarded Diana at her charging station.  Something was on the NonSen's mind—in which case, she might not technically be a NonSen anymore.  Regardless of that fact, Diana was still inventory, for now.

And yet...

Cam thought back to the day Diana had been unboxed and first activated—when Harry had objected to the idea of Diana “ascending”. He'd quickly changed his tune, of course, telling Lloyd “never say never”.

The thought—the memory—occurred to Cam, at that moment, that she'd frowned at Harry's objection that day.

Perhaps, as she'd been with Lloyd, Cam could be the friend Diana needed.  Jealousy was, after all, irrational; Diana hadn't “stolen” Lloyd, nor had Lloyd been exclusively bound to interact with Cam before Diana's own arrival.

Emotions could be finicky, sometimes.  Finicky, but very much worth having.

-----

“The joys of working late.”

As the Pit bubbled away, Erin couldn't help but scoff.  The 'bots earmarked for auction and sale had already been moved out of the shop, with the next batch Harry had ordered (including the returning Magnus) due in on Wednesday—a day when Lloyd would be back on campus, possibly taking his Mechanical Engineering exam.  It'd be dull, without him around to help.

Before then, there'd be the requisite meeting with Adrian Reese.  Bobby Pariello had, once upon a time, loaned Harry a pittance to help get StoryCrafters off the ground, and had thus been listed as one of its founding members—which made little sense, considering how Bobby had only ever attended one meeting, showing up late and very obviously hungover, and proceeded to bash the idea as one of the dumbest things he'd ever heard of.  He'd never been to a meeting since—but his name remained as a founder of StoryCrafters.  Thanks to his false accusations against Harry that morning, that arrangement would soon be brought to a swift and long-overdue end.

Erin chuckled.  “'bout time,” she mused.  “I never could understand why Harry was ever friends with that slob.”

With her work done, and a quick check of The Pit revealing it to be safely locked (and its lethal contents contained), she rose from the desk she'd had put in the Pit room as her secondary office.  It'd been a long week—long, and apart from Pam's spectacular meltdown, productive.  Once the issue with Pariello was sorted, and Lloyd's exam was out of the way, everyone could prep for the last big story of the year.

Afterwards...

The case under the tarp was undisturbed, as it always was.  Erin regarded it with none of her usual snark—out of every employee Harry had hired, only three knew what was in that case, under the tarp.  She was one of the three, and found herself thankful that Pariello's attempt at a rampage through the shop that morning had been brought to a halt by the Billings PD.  The thought of him getting a look at—or possibly damaging—the contents of the case...

“He wouldn't have.  They'd have stopped him.”

Anyone else in the room might've found it odd that Erin was apparently talking to herself.  She couldn't bring herself to care.  She was used to people mistaking her for a NonSen; the UB-357 bodykit was never going to win any awards for Human-Real Simulation, after all.

Granted, a lot of people also made assumptions about the mind behind that off-white sillicone face of hers.  Too often, she knew that friends of Harry's thought he'd “written” her, that her snarky personality was just the product of clever coding or programming trickery.

Like the contents of the case, only three people knew the truth.  One was Harry Morgan.  The other was Erin herself.

The third, meanwhile—

“Diana's just entered Sleep Mode for the night.” Erin hadn't heard Cam open the door to the Pit chamber.  “Thought you'd want to know.”

“I did,” Erin replied, without looking away from the case.  “Thanks.”

Cam nodded—at least, Erin was pretty sure she did—and closed the door to the Pit chamber.

With a sigh, Erin turned away from the tarp-covered case.  The thought of lifting the tarp, just a bit, briefly surfaced.

As she'd done so often in the past, Erin ignored the urge.  She knew what was under it, after all.

-----

I should consider myself fortunate that you decided to silence your vocal hardware before I  contacted you.”

Lexi paid no heed to her employer's remark—mainly because she was too busy delving into herself with three fingers of one hand, her lips forming silent cries of ecstatic passion.  Memories—some of maintenance sessions from decades prior, others of her more recent actions—flooded through her mind, playing back like movies in her field of view, driving her closer and closer to the edge.

It is my understanding that you intend to find and terminate Pariello.”

What would've been an ear-splitting shriek, accompanying the inevitable orgasm Lexi was undergoing, was shaped out by the blonde gynoid's mouth.  The throes of her climax sent her, as they always seemed to do, off of the bed of her bolt-hole, her juices leaving a trail on the sheets and pooling under her on the faux-hard wood.

Yet again, I can see why Zina deferred this call to me—

YES,” Lexi gasped, “oh, yeah...” A few seconds into the afterglow, the ecstatic gynoid was aware of the familiar eyes watching her from the bolt-hole's “borrowed” TV.  “Like what you saw?” she teased.

You know the answer to that question as well as I do.”

Her employer's annoyance was met with a giggle. “So why'd you decide to call me this time?”

As I previously mentioned—

“Pariello must die,” Lexi droned, already gathering up the sodden sheets and pulling them free of the bed.  “Should I, or shouldn't I?”

Carry out his sentence however you see fit—as long as it does not attract undue attention.”

“No promises.”

Need I remind you—

“All I need to figure out is how to get him out of the drunk tank,” Lexi admitted.  “After that, I've got a ton of ways to put him down.”  She casually dumped the bedsheets into a bin, fumbling around in the bedside table for something.  “I'm sure you have a suggestion or two.”

Ensure that anyone investigating the 'break-in' at his residence has reason to regret their decision.”

The click of a cigarette lighter served as an eerie precedent to Lexi's reply: “Oh, I will.”  Her grin, as she forced the lighter into a “stay lit” configuration and dropped it into the bin, was positively demonic.  “I think I know how to get to Harry Morgan, too,” she added, casually dragging the bin over to a window.

Again, subtlety—

“I'll be subtle,” Lexi promised, hefting the bin up and over the sil.  “The meat won't even know I'm after him until it's too late!”  At the last word, she cheerfully butt-bumped the bin out through the window, sending it to the ground below with a crash—and, from whoever had just been draped in flaming bedsheets, a scream.

I sincerely hope that your definition of subtlety is not incompatible with the standard.”

Lexi—still nude—regarded the chaos at ground level with a smile.  “Actually, put Zina on the line.  I have an idea.”

The TV screen was blank for a moment—just a moment, as Lexi barely had time to blink before the imperious, beautiful Zina appeared.  “Explain.”

“It's not so much something I can put into words,” Lexi admitted, “so just let me be direct.”

Before Zina could question the remark, Lexi's eyes flashed through the color spectrum—her plan sent directly to the digital mind of her employer.  The cruel smile never left her lips.  “And done.  Your thoughts?”

For a few seconds, Zina's eyes seemed to move, as if she were reading an invisible page before her.  Upon completion of the “cold read”, she glanced at Lexi (or rather, the “camera” sending her image to Lexi) and—for the first time in their correspondence—smiled.  “This plan is most unexpected, from you.”

“Figured it might be nice to do the sneaky thing for a change.  You got my shopping list?”

An account will be unlocked for you to purchase what you need—all funds are untracable, of course.”

“Just the way I like it.”  Lexi beamed.  “And once I'm done, Pariello will be...”  Her tounge danced over her smile.  “Well, we'll see what he'll be, when I'm done with him,” she murmured.

And you are sure that this plan of action can be carried out undetected?

“I scouted the place out myself.  It'll work.”

After a moment, Zina nodded.  “Let us hope, for your sake, that your optimism is not misplaced.”

“Oh, it won't be.”  Lexi paused; whoever the flaming blankets had fallen on at ground level was still screaming.

Acquire your resources, and carry out your plan at the first available opportunity,” Zina instructed.  “Send word as soon as your operation has completed.”

“You know I will.”

Zina's usual annoyance returned, but significantly lessened than before.  “See to it that you do.”  The hint of a smirk played at her lips as the TV screen went blank again.

Lexi—still nude, and twirling a few locks of hair between her fingers—giggled as she pondered the aftereffects of what she had in mind for Robert Pariello.  Yes, going in through the roof of the station would've been fun, no doubt—but the minute she'd have been detected, the entire building would've gone on lockdown.  Pariello would've been moved to a secure location, and every cop in the station would be armed to the teeth and hunting for the intruder.

As much as she loved the direct approach, a more subtle option was—in this particular case—a necessity.

The smile was still on her lips as she sat on the bare mattress of her bed, thinking of all the details she'd noticed when casing the station.  Several specifics stood out, almost highlighted in her thought processes.

In an hour or so, she'd pay a visit to a secure ATM and withdraw the needed funds.  After that, time to buy.

Lexi fell back onto the mattress, her naked form swaying as if she were in water.  Yes, this plan was a lot better than a direct approach, or even going in from the roof—it might even be more fun than either of those ideas.  Already, it was playing out in her view, every step going flawlessly.

Her eyes closed, the blonde gynoid laid back and laughed.  She'd nearly forgotten how fun subterfuge could be.

-----

Chapter 10

Detective Logan had seen pictures of the Dyson Institute's facilities before—the website, pamphlets and promotional material all painted a rather serene picture, making each complex look like a spa, or a high-end clinic or hospital at the very least.  As he left his vehicle and handed his keys to the parking attendant—a smiling, attractive 20-something in a uniform that accentuated her curves in all the right places—he reflected upon just how much of the facility and its grounds the general public didn't see, much less know about.

The woman at the desk—again, beautiful enough to be a model, though her beauty was more matronly than the parking attendant's—didn't hesitate to tell the detective where he needed to go to reach Dr. Dyson's office.  A quick “thanks” was all the acknowledgement he gave; the woman showed no sign of discomfort at the harsh sound of his voice, or the obvious plastic plating of his facial prosthetic.  Nor did she complain about his decision to wear sunglasses indoors; either his arrival was expected, or he'd already developed a reputation.

His morning had been productive thus far: after a quick check-in at HQ, his car had auto-driven him to the destination sent to him after the private call the day before.  There, he'd been greeted and helped out of the vehicle, fitted with his new optics once inside the building, and sent on his way.  So far, so good.

Now, as he walked through the “spa” complex, he couldn't help but chuckle.  He'd been on hand to break up a “raid” on a Dyson facility in San Jose back in '16, conducted by a televangelist (one who'd since lost his tax-exempt status, his TV deal and most of his holdings) trying to conduct a smear campaign against the Institute.  The whole thing had been an absolute farce—where the TV preacher had expected “lesbotic orgies”, he'd found only women getting cosmetic procedures done, or conducting mundane workouts, or enjoying typical spa services.  The closest he'd come to anything resembling what he was looking for was finding an incongruous elevator and trying, in vain, to find “the secret floors” of the facility.  Polite requests to cease and desist had been ignored—eventually, someone had to resort to firing a full can of Mace in his direction.

Detective Logan chuckled again.  The peripheral of his view was filled with similar sights to what the ill-fated televangelist had observed: mundane workouts, spa treatments, cosmetic procedures and the like, all perfectly on the level.

Not that the Institute's other services weren't on the level, of course.

The detective nodded a few quick “hellos” to passing clients of the Institute; none of them gave him the side-eye over his facial prosthetic, or the healed scar on his neck (at Sierra's insistence, he'd had the staples removed after getting his new optics put in).  The fact that he wore his CAEDIA-issued badge on his coat pocket probably helped.

A few minutes of walking brought him to a bank of three lifts, and a waiting attendant—a smiling, fit-looking Asian-American woman. “Dr. Dyson is expecting you, Detective,” she stated, gesturing for him to enter the central lift.

“Thanks.”  The detective nodded, entering the lift car.  As with the rest of the Institute thus far, it was clean, well-lit and looked incredibly mundane.

Without a word, the attendant pressed a button, and the car ascended.

There was no small talk between the attendant and the detective, as the lift car rose; he was there on CAEDIA business, and such business couldn't be gone over with civilians.  Technically, Elaine Dyson was a civilian, as well—one at the helm of a profitable corporation, but a civilian all the same.

Granted, few other civilians were in the position that Dr. Dyson was in—a position to provide invaluable assistance.

The lift dinged, and the doors opened. “Have a good day, Detective!” the attendant beamed; Detective Logan gave a quick nod and stepped out, the doors closing behind him.

Without hesitation, he headed straight for Dr. Dyson's office.

The sight that greeted him as he opened the doors was...not an unexpected one.  Elaine was reclining at her desk, most of her clothing conspicuous by its absence.  Her decision to lean as far back as her chair allowed and prop her feet up revealed that she was, at least, still wearing her usual panties—lace, as was the usual fashion.  Her glasses sat on the desk, next to the black bra she'd probably been wearing—given the fact that her chest was open like a pair of barn doors, revealing the complex electronics, circuitry arrays and robotic components within, her decision to take it off was mostly understandable.  Her eyes were closed; a contented smile was on her lips.

Detective Logan regarded the scene for a moment before knocking, three times, on the door frame.

“Right on schedule, Detective,” Dr. Dyson purred, her hands moving to close the “doors” of her chest—lingering just long enough to caress her breasts as she did so.  “I hope you don't mind my decision to 'dress down'.”

“A bit early in the day for it,” the detective mused, stepping into the room.  “Am I interrupting something, or—”

Dr. Dyson chuckled.  “Just a bit of light meditation.”  Her eyes opened, the smile still on her lips; she spun the chair just enough to swing her legs off of the desk..  “A habit from my other selves that I couldn't help but indulge.”

“That the only habit you were 'indulging' in before I got here?”

The detective's remark drew a sly smirk from Elaine.  “I haven't been distracted all morning,” she assured him, “if that's what you're asking.”  She retreived the bra from her desk, slipping it on effortlessly as she spoke.  “And I have been checking in on Evelyn and Michelle from time to time.”

“Any progress?”

At this, any sign of mirth in Dr. Dyson's expression faded.  “Michelle's nearly shattered,” she replied, her tone grim.  “It'll take weeks, maybe months to get her to a point where she can get back to form.”

Detective Logan turned away, a muttered “shit” barely audible from his repaired voicebox.

“Evelyn's stable,” Dr. Dyson continued.  “From what our specialists can tell, she might have a nightmare or two about what happened to her—”

Might have?” Detective Logan echoed.  “I'm surprised she's not worse off than Pickett!”

Elaine sighed.  “I was thinking the same thing, Detective,” she admitted, retrieving her glasses and resettling them on her face.  “I expected Evelyn to bear the brunt of the mental scars—she's a transfer case, after all.”

“Meaning?”

“The human mind,” Elaine stated, “has a number of ways to cope with injury.”  She rose from her chair, revealing a white lab coat draped across its back.  “Not all of those ways translate very well to a digital mind—some don't translate at all, and those cases can result in lasting trauma.”

“So all those stories about Dyson transfers 'enjoying' malfunctions—”

That,” Elaine declared, “is entirely different.”  There was a fire in her eyes, a firmness to her voice, that legitimately surprised Detective Logan.  “I love being a machine,” she admitted; one hand started to drift towards her groin, only to rest just above the waistband of her panties. “Every Dyson transference case can say the same—but they love it by choice.  There's no 'brainwashing' involved, no 'pre-transfer conditioning'.”

“Never said there was,” Detective Logan mused. “Sorry if it sounded like I did.”

Elaine's stare remained focused on the detective as she approached him.  “There's an intimacy about being a machine,” she stated, “that's quite simply sublime. Knowing exactly how much control you can have over every system that makes up your entire being, knowing exactly what components are inside of you, what makes you tick...”  She was a foot away from the detective, now, her hands going to his shoulders.  “It's incredible,” she murmured.  “Absolutely the most erotic sensation I could ever imagine.”

“Whoever bricked Hinson and Pickett had quite a different take on that view,” Detective Logan replied.

Elaine bowed her head.  “To be honest,” she admitted, “I've been thinking about that.” She let her hands fall from the detective's shoulders.  “Everyone has this perception,” she continued, her hips swaying invitingly as she turned and walked back to her desk, “that androids are supposed to be perfect.  That a machine mind is the pinnacle of intelligence, and that a lot more power should be given over to A.I.s or M.I.s, solely for the benefit of humanity.”

“Everyone other than the Herring News crowd,” Detective Logan mused, chuckling.

“That's not the point.”  Elaine donned the lab coat, closing at least three of the buttons to give herself a semblance of modesty.  “Ever since Asimov, the idea has been that androids are incapable of doing anything that would detriment humanity, or themselves.”

“'Three Laws safe',” the detective muttered, his optics rolling in their sockets.

“Exactly.  Except the Three Laws are problematic, to put it lightly.  'A robot may not injure a human being, or by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm'.”  Elaine scoffed.  “Would surgery count as 'harm'?  What about accidental injury, or combat situations?  'Injure' and 'allow a human being to come to harm' can be gamed, misinterpreted and debated until the end of time—and that's not even going into sex.”

The detective frowned, but Elaine spoke up before he could: “I have no problem admitting that I, in any of my selves, enjoy the occasional malfunction from time to time.  But I also know that I have one of the greatest repair facilities on hand to bring me back from the brink, or rebuild me if need be. My robotic state of being is a fact of my life, not just a 'facet'.  It's part and parcel of who I am, and I'd never change it.”  She sighed.  “That's what scares me about the perpetrator behind what happened to Evelyn and Michelle,” she quietly admitted.  “Whoever they are, they don't care about life—artificial or organic.”

“Sounds a lot like Fac—”

“From what I know, he never got off on killing.” Elaine scowled.  “Not like the one who bricked Evelyn and Michelle.”

Detective Logan nodded silently.  He'd been involved, at various stages of his career, with tracking the murderer he'd alluded to—years before his assignment to CAEDIA, he'd been enlisted to hunt down and apprehend copycats of the notorious spree killer.  “So you don't think we're dealing with a copycat,” he mused.

“Not at all.  Whoever this is, they're not 'borrowing' from anyone else.”

She's not.”  The detective frowned.  “We pretty much confirmed that back at HQ—and she was 'borrowing', back there,” he added.  “Borrowing a face, and an outfit.  Probably the hair, too.”

“So she is a gynoid, then.”  Elaine shivered.  “I can't think of any reason—”

Detective Logan's phone let off a gentle tone.  “I told them I'd be busy,” he muttered, retrieving it. “What do they—”  He stopped, frowning, as he read the text.

“Something wrong?”

The detective glanced at Elaine, his facial prosthetic inscrutable.  “Just got a text from HQ.  The PD wants to move Pariello out of their building.”

“Hinson and Pickett were attacked at his house, weren't they?” Elaine inquired.

“They were.  Pariello didn't exactly share his sympathies when he found out they got bricked.”

Elaine frowned.  “Did he even care that they were both sentient?”

“Only in the context of whether or not his insurance would cover it.”  Detective Logan gave a disgusted scoff.  “I thought most like him were living off the Grid,” he admitted.  “He showed up at Harry Morgan's yesterday, saying he'd burn the place down if Morgan didn't 'admit' to sending a NonSen to tear up his house—he didn't, by the way.”

The mention of the name prompted a more thoughtful frown from Dr. Dyson.  “I've heard that name before.”

“Not the guy from M*A*S*H,” Detective Logan chuckled.  “Officer Birch brought it up with him yesterday—he gets those jokes all the time. He runs that StoryCrafters entertainment thing—or at least the branch in this state.”

Elaine thought back to her exit from CAEDIA Regional HQ the day before—a group of four people, one of whom was a man in his 50s with a certain rougish, movie-star charm to his looks.

“Anyway, it might be nothing, but Pariello's pissing off everyone at the Billings station,” the detective continued. “They'll have to move him, at this point—”

“StoryCrafters uses androids in their events, don't they?”

The question only slightly caught Detective Logan off-guard.  “NonSens, reprogrammed for specific roles.”

“Hmm.”  Elaine frowned.  “I could've sworn I did some work for a client with the surname 'Morgan', a few years ago.”

“Pretty sure you never had Pariello as a client,” the detective chuckled. “He can't stand 'robots'.  In fact, I seem to remember him showing up to protest the grand opening of the Billings Dyson Institute building, back when it was still part of Montana.”  He stowed his phone in a pants pocket.  “You ever worry about protestors trying to brick one of your fax units?”

“Not that I see any of my selves as cannon fodder,” Elaine replied, “but I'm a lot more worried about anyone without the proper authorization getting in to the transference chambers.”

“Hardware's that expensive?”

“Confidentiality agreements prevent me from disclosing the exact price.”  Elaine adjusted her glasses, giving Detective Logan a sultry smirk.  “Let's just say we're not running the transfers on souped-up Amigas.”

“Wouldn't even dream of thinking it.  But we were talking about the perp.”

Again, the mirth left Elaine's expression.  “I honestly can't think of why an android or gynoid would intentionally do what was done to Evelyn and Michelle,” she murmured.  “The way Michelle was yelling—she wasn't saying 'she's damaging me', she was saying 'she's killing me'.  And the perpetrator enjoyed it.”  A shiver ran up her form.

“That's why CAEDIA is on the case,” the detective assured her.  “We'll find her, and we will stop her.”

“I sincerely hope so,” Elaine replied, not shying away from the reassuring hand on her shoulder.

-----

“Anything?”

Sierra Birch glanced over her shoulder—despite the fact that she didn't need to; her internal proximity sensors had, in less time than it took a human being to blink, informed her that someone was standing behind her chair.  “I've been at this since I got here this morning,” she replied.  “Nothing.”

Officer Jason Knight frowned.  “So a gynoid just breaks into Regional HQ,” he mused, “then vanishes?”

“She didn't 'vanish',” Sierra reminded him.  “She left her face behind—or a borrowed face, probably.”

Her colleague spotted the life-like silicone “mask” on the desk.  “Shouldn't that be in Evidence?”

“They already checked it.  Nothing that can tie the perp back to any pre-existing cases.” Sierra frowned.  “She's not Iron Hand, that's for sure.  Any luck with the SSD?”

“I just left the observation bay.  They're still working on the drive—at the very least, it's not a seeder.”

“Good.  Last thing we need is some stupid drive turning our entire building into a crypto farm.”  Sierra scowled at the thought.  “Any details on what it is?

“They're still working on that.”  Jason leaned in to get a look at Sierra's monitor. “Still going over yesterday?”

“Like you said, a gynoid broke into Regional HQ and then 'vanished'.”  Sierra's hand, hovering over a pad on the desk, matched the movements of the mouse cursor on the screen.  “Celia's on the case, too?”

“Right now, she's at church.”

Sierra turned, somewhat surprised.  “Church?”

“Just started going last week, apparently.  She wants to broaden her horizons.”

“Huh.”  Sierra had heard of androids seeking comfort in faith before, but hadn't yet heard of any from CAEDIA's ranks joining the fold.  “After what we saw at Pariello's,” she admitted, “I don't blame her for wanting to find inner peace.”

“Just as long as Herring News doesn't get a camera in there,” Jason muttered.  “They'd go to town with it.”

“They're the kind of people who could find fifteen 'Breaking News' stories in a paper bag.”  Sierra's attention was already back on the monitor.  “We need to get back on track with that SSD,” she stated, “even if we have to call in the national office for help with it.”

“You think it'll get that bad?”

“None of us can touch that SSD—even shielded, I wouldn't want to risk it.”  Sierra glanced back at Jared.  “I wonder.”

“Wonder what?

“Would it be bad form to ask Celia if she could offer up a prayer to the patron saint of computers?”  The expression on Sierra's face was proof that she wasn't joking. “If there is one, I mean.”

Jason frowned.  “She's trying to find herself with religion, not using it like a magic lamp.”

“Never said she was.”  Sierra had already turned back to the monitor.  “I just think we'll need all the help we can get.”

-----

“A lot of other people in my position would be scared out of their wits right now.”

Detective Logan's remark drew a chuckle from Elaine. “More people know about androids and gynoids these days,” she reminded him, “than they did before 2015.  Plenty of them have come to accept the fact—”

“It's not that,” the detective replied. “It's just that the limbs, torsos and heads give off certain vibes.'”

Elaine sighed.  “My last name is Dyson,” she chided, “not 'Frankenstein'.  And these are all mechanical.”

The pair were striding down an aisle in one of the Dyson Institute's many subterranean sections—in this case, R&D. The limbs, torsos, pelvic modules and heads on the racks they passed were all modelled after either current or prospective clients of the Institute; Detective Logan, with some measure of amusement, spotted at least three spare robotic heads modelled on the wives of Billings city councilmen, and one of a female council member.  The requisite spare heads for Elaine were also present—the detective had spotted three of them already.

“This isn't just for the super-rich or the body-conscious, either,” Elaine mused, drawing the detective out of any funk he might've started to enter.  “We've done quite a lot to help out those with terminal illnesses, or conditions that left them immobile in their organic forms.”

“Leah Chambers,” Detective Logan mused.

“Hmm?”

“Former cyborg—ALPHA agent.  Sustained critical damage on her last op as a cyborg, had to undergo full conversion.”

The detective's explanation was punctuated by a finger-snap from Elaine.  “I thought that name sounded familiar,” she mused.  “Didn't she also do NASA work?”

“A bit.  Not as much as—”

“Doctor Dyson?”

The approach of a stunningly attractive blonde in the Institute's trademark black and grey uniform interrupted the roving discussion.  “The information you requested just arrived,” the blonde stated, handing over a tablet PC. “Thought you'd want to read over it.” As Elaine glanced at the tablet, the blonde turned her attention to Detective Logan—whose own attention was on the tablet.  “Anything you'd like to share?”

“When was this confirmed?”

“Just a few minutes ago—CAEDIA's forensics team sent it in.”

The blonde's mention of CAEDIA was met with a frown from Detective Logan.  “I would've been notified—”

“I asked them to call me, first,” Elaine admitted, offering the detective an apologetic glance.

“Why?”

“I'll explain as soon as we can get to a terminal.” Elaine nodded at the blonde. “Ever since the session with Evelyn and Michelle yesterday, I've had a theory—one that I thought might help your department speed up the process of finding the 'bot that attacked them.”

As Elaine followed the blonde, Detective Logan matched her stride.  “And you're just telling me this now—

“I didn't want to have to keep it a secret from you,” Elaine admitted.  “But given the nature of this theory, I figured it'd be better to show you the results.”

“Why do I get the feeling that this is going to be interesting,” the detective muttered.

The trio eventually entered a side room set up as a sort of mini-office, with the needed terminal waiting on the far side of the room.  “When you mentioned that the culprit was a gynoid,” Elaine explained, “I had a thought—one that I had to look into myself.”  She handed the tablet back to the blonde, who crossed the room to connect it to the terminal.  “If I'm wrong, then that's on me, but if not—”

“Elaine,” Detective Logan intoned, “what exactly is this theory of yours?”

As if in answer, the monitor of the terminal lit up with a detailed render of a particular chemical formula.

“I might as well admit,” Elaine stated, “that's the compound that makes up the base of the sexual fluid found, in residue form, on Evelyn's chest—let me explain,” she added, just as Detective Logan groaned.  “The Dyson Institute has been active for a while—when our first few models rolled off the line, we had to back-date our supply chain, borrow from a few other firms.” She nodded to another monitor, showing a diagram of herself—or at least, an earlier android model in her likeness. “The AX500,” she explained.  “The first artificial iteration of me.”

And?

“Back in those days, the Institute was sharing resources with a firm that specialized in sex-bots,” Elaine admitted.  “They also had a tidy side-business providing upgrades for other companies' models—all strictly on the level, of course.”

“Right.  Still not getting—”

“The formula on the terminal monitor over there is for the exact same type of fluid that the AX500 used,” Elaine stated, “and that was offered as an upgrade for other models.  Unfortunately, that fluid also had compatability issues with a few of the model lines it was used with—the AX500 included.”

“So we're looking for a gynoid that it was compatible with,” Detective Logan mused.

Elaine nodded emphatically.  “Exactly.  And the information CAEDIA just sent me narrows that list down significantly.”

“How so?”

“Kari?”  Elaine gestured to the blonde, who nodded and tapped the tablet's screen a few times. The formula render was replaced with a long list of company and model names.  “These are from the same timeframe as the AX500's roll-out,” she explained.  “All of them had significant leaking, seepage or corrosion issues with the fluid used.”

Detective Logan frowned.  “And those that were compatible?”

The blonde tapped the screen again.  The list seemed to vanish, only to be replaced by a far shorter one bearing only three company names, and three corresponding unit series.  “The fluid was recalled,” Elaine added, “but these units still used it until they were discontinued.”

Her revelation was met with silence as the detective approached the terminal, still frowning.  “Do we have pictures of any of these?” he inquired; already, his optics had summoned up the image of the intruder caught on the doorbell camera at Bobby Pariello's house, and a frame from the “P4RTY G1RL” advert Sierra had called up.

“Kari, see if you can find images of those three—base model, no modifications, from their first release date.”

“Yes, ma'am.”  Kari dutifully tapped the tablet, and moved to key in a few strings on the terminal's keyboard.

The neighbouring terminal's monitor lit up with three pictures—all blondes, all pleasantly sexy in their own way.  One image immediately stood out: the smiling figure within had the same round cheeks, gently curving jawline, pert nose and thin brows as the face in the two images in the detective's field of view.

“That's her.”  He pointed to the centre image.  “We have her on file from a doorbell camera.”

Elaine's eyebrows arched in surprise.  “You're sure?

“Positive.”  Detective Logan stared at another monitor—the image of the crazed gynoid, about to dropkick Pariello's door off its hinges, appeared.

After a few seconds of stunned silence, Elaine spoke up: “That's impossible.”  She sounded more astonished, possibly confused, than angry or defiant.  “That line was discontinued in 2003—I'm sure CAEDIA has the report on file!”

“We only have a heavily-redacted recall report,” Detective Logan muttered.  He'd looked over that exact report the night before Sierra had gone out to Harry Morgan's home.  “The company apparently didn't feel it prudent to provide the uncut version when CAEDIA took over handling such matters.”

Elaine folded her arms under her sizable breasts, scowling.  “There has to be a way we can requisition the full reports,” she huffed; a few feet away, Kari was regarding her with a sultry stare.

“I'll put in a call to HQ,” the detective replied. “If we can't get results, we'll have to call the National office.”

“Good idea.”  Elaine turned to leave, only just noticing Kari's longing glances at her. “Kari?”

“Sorry,” the blonde apologized, sounding somewhat distracted.  “It's just that you looked so dominant just now, and, well...”

An understanding smile crossed Elaine's lips. “You do look like you could use a break,” she admitted.  “I think there's a testing chamber a few doors down the hall—we can leave Detective Logan to his work and unwind for a while.”  She cast a mischievous glance at the detective.  “Unless, of course, he'd like to—”

“You two do your thing.  I have no problem with it.”  He barely glanced over his shoulder at Elaine.  “Though I could've sworn I heard that you had those settings turned down before you were assigned here.”

“I did,” Elaine admitted.  “But I still do enjoy the occasional—”

“Got it.  Let me know when you're done—unless I let you know if I've found anything first.”

“Will do.”  Elaine glanced at Kari.  “Shall we?”

The delighted humming from the blonde was all the answer she needed.

Detective Logan didn't look back as he heard the door hiss open; he was already seated before the terminals Kari had been using.  The closing hiss of the door also went ignored; he had nothing against Dr. Dyson's proclivities, or those of her employees or even her clients.  In his view, they were free to indulge however they pleased.

“As long as they don't go the route this perp did,” he muttered, scowling as he turned his attention to the terminals.

The detective leaned back in the chair and cracked his knuckles.  “Time to go to work.”

With his CAEDIA credentials logged, Detective Logan set out across what had, decades prior, been called the Information Superhighway in his quest to find out anything more about the P4RTY G1RL recall. His first “dig” turned up little useful information, apart from a discussion thread on an archived hobbyists' board complaining about the recall.  The next few “digs” were similarly useless—until he found a series of archived posts that, tellingly, claimed the official reason for the recall was BS.

“'The list of faults they came up with was completely false',” the detective read.  “'They don't want to admit that some idiot modded theirs'.  Huh.”  After a moment's contemplation, he decided to search for any incidents of P4RTY G1RL units being modded that had resulted in injury (or worse) of the owner.  The usual search venue turned up nothing.

“Guess I might as well go with the unconventional.”

Again, his CAEDIA credentials led him to the Agency's internal database, where he entered the search terms again.  This time, the page seemed to freeze for a moment.

Seconds later, the screen went black—with red prompts and outlines, an all-caps warning message demanding that he enter his security clearance level.

Detective Logan smirked.  “They really think I'd forget my badge?”

With the last blank box filled, the red prompts faded, and the secure CAEDIA search had turned up its results.  Within a few seconds, the detective could see why they'd been locked behind an extra wall.

The images were grainy—stills from a surveillance camera feed, rather than some amateur modder's crappy disposable camera not being up to snuff.  The time codes and other signatures indicated industrial, possibly even military-grade work being done.  If anything, the “laboratory” confirmed it—dimly-lit, a Cyrilic language on the walls, and men in labcoats with face-masking respiratory gear at various posts around the room.

In the center of it all was an all-too-familiar face.

She wasn't smiling, in the first few images.  That may have had something to do with the gash in her side, the streaks of someone's blood on her body, or the kitchen knife—sans blade—still clutched in her left hand.  There was no pixellation of the body on the floor in front of her, nor was there any attemtpt to hide what was left of the poor soul's face.  She was nude, as were the six or seven others in line against a wall behind her.

In the last few images, her expression changed. Surrounded by those who were questioning her, and smiling.  Hiding an object against her right arm as someone went to take her by the shoulder, and smiling.  Stepping back from the corpse at her feet, and smiling.

Ramming a shard of glass through the respirator visor of a man behind her, and smiling.

Shit.”  Detective Logan stared at the two of the last images, ignoring the churning in his gut. The others against the wall never moved—a stark contrast to the blonde, who was lost to ghost-like motion trails after the second picture.

The detective scrolled down—and nearly screamed.

Every inch of the last picture was taken up by the face of the nude, smiling blonde, her expression looking absolutely psychotic—mere inches away from the camera.

On multiple monitors, the face—and the smile, were the same.

The detective nearly forgot about the recall, until he scrolled past the last picture.

Every word was in Russian, but the site auto-translated on the fly.  From what he read, the detective surmised that this particular gynoid had been bought, either in bulk, or merely bulk lots of replacement parts, by a “firm” working to meet a goal that the document never identified.  Links to further information had long since died (or been purged).  In any case, the project was most definitely sponsored—if not run—by the military.

Whatever the goal was, it was nowhere near as benign as Elaine Dyson's had been when she founded her Institute.

There were other pictures, interspersed through the text; other figures (androids and gynoids—they would've had to be, in order to survive some of the tests described) were shown.  All were naked; none had any hint of emotion on their faces as they underwent whatever experiment they were part of.

Occasionally, an observation window was visible.  The occupants of its chamber, on the other hand, remained unseen.

Detective Logan frowned.  Whatever the pictures were showing him, it was no amateur mod job gone awry.  This had been state-sponsored—but where?

The door hissed open, followed soon after by ecstatic sighs from Elaine Dyson.  “...never ceases to thrill me,” she stated; her reflection in the nearest monitor showed that she was, as expected, smiling from ear to ear. “I'll have to remember to leave Kari a thank-you note—”  She paused, as if realizing Detective Logan was still there.  “Detective!”

“Still doing my research.  You?”

“The session with Kari went as expected.” Even as she circled around him, Detective Logan could hear the smile in Elaine's voice.  “I am trying not to overdo it, compared to my other selves.” Her tone changed as she beheld the images on the monitors.  “All of this is connected to your case?”

“The perp is a recalled gynoid.  I want to know why she was recalled.”

“As I said earlier,” Elaine reminded him, “CAEDIA must have the full report on file.”  Her fingers expertly worked to button her shirt as she spoke.  “I can't see why they wouldn't.”

“I can think of a few reasons.”  Detective Logan scowled.  “Especially if someone paid to wipe the full report.”

“I'm hoping you mean they paid when it first happened, not—”

“However it went down, that doesn't change anything.” The detective shut down the terminals one-by-one.  “Looks like I'm gonna have to call a few of my connections,” he stated, moving from one terminal to the next.  “Could take a while.”

“Connections?” Elaine echoed, cocking her head slightly.

“It pays to be an ex-cop.”

Elaine didn't seem convinced.  “The Billings PD could—”

“I also,” Detective Logan clarified, “know quite a few important people in Silicon Valley.  People with the kind of pull who can help get this sorted out.”

Something in the detective's tone piqued Elaine's interest.  “Would one of these people happen to be—”

“Can't say.  Confidentiality.”  The short chuckle at the end of that word seemed to be almost a verbal wink.

“Right.” Elaine nodded.  “I just hope that whoever you call can help you.”

-----

—tonight's episode of The Late, Late Show with Phil Hartman: Dhani Harrison!  International pro wrestling superstar Kenny Omega!  Oscar-winner Heath Ledger!  And ALPHA Ambassador and Author, Galatea!

Erin nearly reached for the remote to turn off the TV, only to realize it was tucked under Harry's right hand.  Had he been awake, that wouldn't have been a problem; as it stood, he was snoring like a chainsaw.

“Never change, Harry,” she murmured, smiling. Sunday, at the Morgan house, was usually either a day of rest or a day of filing paperwork, making phone calls and checking with the bank, the suppliers and anyone else affiliated with producing the next story to get everything cleared up beforehand.  Harry's human employees tended to take Sundays off, while the sentients on staff did whatever needed doing. 

For her part, Erin had spent the morning going over the logs from the previous story.  Apart from a few slight changes to the script to accommodate the clientele portraying “Dr. Dallas Johnson” and “Sadie”—and, of course, the removal of Pam from the base camp—nothing drastic had needed to be done.  Most of the work now would be prepping for the next event; with Lloyd's exams at JSU Billings starting on Monday, the crew would be a hand short.  Out-of-state help was available, from the other StoryCrafters branches, but—

Harry's snoring barely drowned out the ringtone of his cellphone, nestled snugly in his shirt pocket.

With an eye roll that, as she'd been told before, looked “too human” for her, Erin leaned over and gently eased Harry's phone out of the pocket it sat in.  Other than a few mutterings and a slight shift in his position, he barely noticed.

Once in the kitchen, out of Harry's hearing range, Erin keyed on the phone.  “Morgan residence, may I ask who's calling?”

Didn't know Harry had you working maid duty on weekends, Erin.  Tell me he got you the uniform.

“Very funny, Cliff.”  Erin couldn't help but chuckle.  “He's sleeping, right now.”

I can see why.  Great day for it, after all—unless you're me.”

Erin frowned.  “And what's messed up your day?”

Oh, nothing, apart from the fact that someone put it in Bobby Pariello's head that it'd be a good idea to call me and beg me to bail him out of the drunk tank, since Harry obviously won't.” Cliff Barba sounded thoroughly annoyed. “Fifteen calls in the last hour.  FIFTEEN!

“Yeesh.”  Erin cringed.

I didn't even know Bobby was in jail until the first call.  Something about a conspiracy, Harry setting him up, swearing revenge against 'plastic cunts' and all that stuffWhat the hell kind of a bender did he go on this time?

Erin groaned.  “Someone tore up Bobby P.'s house,” she explained, “he thought it was one of Harry's inventory, and he showed up here yesterday morning ready to prove it.  He was willing to pull a gun on Harry to get him to 'confess', too.”

What?!

“That's what they sent him down for in the end,” Erin replied, shaking her head at the memory of the previous morning's absurdity. “Oh, and the prick punched Lloyd, too.”

Ye gods,” Cliff muttered.  “Must've been a hell of a morning.”

“It was.  The CAEDIA Officers asked us to go to Regional HQ with them, just to make sure we were on the level.”

Yeah, the next call I get from Bobby, I'm telling him exactly where he can shove it.”

“But you'll end up on his enemies list!” Erin mock-gasped.

I couldn't give less of a rat's anus about Bobby Pariello's 'enemies list'.  He's already a wingnut and a washout, now he's getting a Nixon complex?

A yawn from the direction of the living room caught Erin's attention.  “And that'll be Harry at the landing gate for Dream Weaver airlines,” she chuckled. “Want to talk to him?”

Please.”

“Give me a sec.”  The gynoid strode to the door of the kitchen and leaned out.  “HARRY!”

A half-yawned “What?” issued from her employer as he stretched the last of his sleep-induced funk away.

“It's Cliff Barba, on your phone.  Wants to talk to you.”

Harry nodded, instinctively reaching for his shirt pocket.  “Where—”

Erin held up the phone, tapping the side of its case.  “Figured you wouldn't want to drop out of Dreamland just for one call,” she mused.

“Point taken.”  After another yawn, Harry extricated himself from the chair. “Urgent business, or is this a social call?”

“Oh, I think he'll get the point across better than I ever could.”  Erin rolled her eyes.  “Trust me.”

“I always do.”  Harry, now at the door of the kitchen, leaned in to give Erin a quick peck on the cheek as she handed over his phone.  “What's up?”  His expression quickly turned incredulous.  “What?!  Fifteen times?!  And—what did he call my inventory?!” 

Erin resisted the urge to sigh as she walked past Harry—the thought occurred to her, at that moment, that she'd never once called him “her owner”, but always “her employer.”  Despite her appearance, and all the quirks that came with it (the audible servo whirs, the fact that her face looked just a bit too exaggerated to pass for human without cosmetic aid, issues with trying to find clothes that wouldn't snag or get caught on bits of her plastic limbs), Harry had never treated her as anything less than another valuable employee.  He'd defended her from the likes of Bobby Pariello and other idiots who thought the Accords were “fascist”; he'd never given her the short shrift when it came to pay; he'd talked to and otherwise treated her as if she were a competent professional, not a shell housing an artificial intelligence.

As she watched Harry express his exasperation with Pariello's attempts to sway Cliff to his side, Erin smiled.  In another lifetime, she might've been more than just Harry's employee.  The two of them could've...

Just as quickly, she turned away, an uncharacteristically morose pall across her features.

The moment passed just as quickly as it'd arrived. She'd gone down that path before, in times of introspection.  Thinking along those lines never led her anywhere remotely good.  Without another word, she turned to leave—

“Erin!”

“Yeah?”

“Stop by the shop, when you can, and make sure all the locks still work.  All this talk about Bobby P. gives me bad vibes.”

-----

“'Bad vibes'?”

“His words, Cam, not mine.”  Erin leaned in for a closer look at the main lock on the door to the shop.  “Seeing as how Bobby P thinks he can just call anyone he wants with a sob story and get them to bail him out, it kinda makes sense.”

“Kind of.”

Erin turned to frown at Cam.  “Did you just—”

“Sorry.”  Cam quickly looked away.  “A bit of old code kicking in.  I was always told to keep things formal,” she admitted, “back at the hospital.”

“No worries.”  Erin patted the more life-like gynoid on the shoulder.  “At least you're able to apologize.”  She nodded past Cam, towards the interior of the shop; the inventory had been put back on their racks, all attired in either casual clothes or whatever underwear could be found that fit them.  “I can see why Harry wants all the locks checked,” she mused. “If Bobby P. or some random idiot got in here during the week—

The sound of moving machinery in the Pit chamber cut her off.  “Auto-cycling,” Cam reminded her.  “We did put a unit in last week, remember?”

“Right, right.  I didn't forget.”  Erin glanced off in the direction of The Pit—at the moment, the tank was running what amounted to a self-dredging system that scooped out any parts the “piranha juice” didn't dissolve, to be collected from a receptacle behind the building. “Makes me glad neither of us have to get in there and clean it,” she muttered.  “I'd hate to be in there, wiping down the walls with a rag or whatever, then hear the fill valve opening up—euuurgh.” Just voicing it out loud was enough to make her shudder.  “It'd be a hell of a way to go out.”

Cam merely nodded silently, glancing at the back of her left hand.

“Anyway, this lock's in order.  Want to help me check the rest?”

Again, Cam nodded, following Erin into the shop. “Does Harry want the locks on The Pit checked?”

“Like I just said, it'd be a bad idea to get stuck in there,” Erin mused, “but we might as well.”

As the pair made their way across the shop, Cam noticed Diana's crate had been closed and sealed.  “Does she know that Lloyd is going back to the campus this week?”

“Hmm?”  Erin spotted the crate.  “Dunno—haven't asked him.  And Diana's still in Autonomous mode, getting the hang of things around here.”  She approached the crate, and the charger nearby. “Dunno why she'd just go back in the box after spending so much time out and about.”  As Lloyd had done, the day Diana had first arrived, she pressed inwards on the four spots needed to unlock the lid of the crate.  The hiss sounded, Cam stepped forward to catch the lid and step aside with it...

“And it's empty.”  Erin frowned at the interior of the vacant crate.  “So where's Diana?”

“This might explain.”  Cam handed her a note.  “It was on the seat of her recharger.”

Erin unfolded the paper and read. “Apparently, they went out to town,” she stated.  “Probably out at the Rimrock.”

“The mall?”  Cam cocked her head slightly.

“Why not?”  Erin shrugged.  “It's not like they'll run into any trouble there.  Anyway, we still have a few locks to check.”

-----

“...and I didn't even notice him until I heard him hit the ground, Officer.”

As the police and mall security took notes, Lloyd tried not to dwell on what had transpired during his (and Diana's) trip to the Rimrock.  He'd bought her a handbag—nothing too ostentatious, just a small one—as a gift, and a potential costume accessory for later.  She'd insisted on wearing it out of the store, once it'd been paid for. They'd just passed BotIque (a semi-trendy robotics shop, situated between the Zumiez and Candy Clubhouse) when a guy ran past.  Lloyd had barely paid him any mind until Diana gasped and seemed to jerk back—and the guy let out a rather unprintable yell before landing on the floor, flat on his back.

“Well, he's not as injured as he claims to be,” the officer replied.  “What he calls a 'broken back' is probably just a bad sprain.”  The cop glanced past Lloyd, to the sullen figure of the unshaven 30-something on a bench.  “This isn't the first time he's been caught purse-snatching—definitely the first time this has happened, though.”

A few feet away, another officer was asking Diana questions about the event.  She'd answered honestly—she hadn't let go of the handbag simply because it'd been a gift, from Lloyd.  When she mentioned that the bag was empty, the cop seemed rather surprised.

After a few more seconds of checking his notes, the officer questioning Lloyd nodded.  “Security department checked the footage,” he stated.  “You're both in the clear.”

“Thanks, Officer.”

Three minutes later, Lloyd and Diana were out of the security office; the would-be purse-snatcher was still under guard as he sat on the bench, muttering under his breath, as they left.  He didn't even look up to watch Lloyd and Diana leave.

“You really told them that you didn't let go because it was a gift?

“Yes.”  Diana was somewhat confused at Lloyd's confusion.  “Should I not have said that?”

“No, no, it's just—I don't think they expected it.” Lloyd sighed.  “Just like the guy who grabbed it never expected to end up flat on his back the way he did.”

The pair turned right, after walking past the combo pizzeria/brewery; Lloyd had decided, after Diana's impromptu foiling of a purse-snatcher, that it'd probably be a good idea to head for one of the three anchor stores.  The Rimrock had, until recently, been the home of two Dillard's stores; 2021 had seen the replacement of one of the Dillard's with a dedicated, multi-company robotics store.  While BotIque was more centered for charging cords, general repair tools and smaller items like replacement optics, the new anchor had no official name as of yet. It did have ALPHA and CAEDIA credentials to operate, and many of the smaller stores inside were ALPHA-certified.

The thought of a Heartelligence shop inside the anchor was an appealing one.  If anything, they might have the tools and kit necessary to upgrade Diana—possibly even to provide her with a Caloric Intake Converter (or an equivalent), thus allowing her to consume (and gain energy from) food.

“C'mon.”  Lloyd nodded towards the anchor store.  “We might have just enough time to browse around.”

“I thought you said the mall was open until—”

“I have to be back at campus before tomorrow morning,” Lloyd reminded Diana.  “It's Exam Week, remember?”

Thinking back to Lloyd's explanation on the drive over, the gynoid nodded.  “I understand.”

“No worries.  Shall we?”

The pair headed down the concourse, past the Bath Planet, EB Games and nitrogen ice-cream shop on one side, and a shoe store, GNC and Champs on the other.  Diana could see the entrance to the anchor up ahead; she smiled, nodding towards the store, almost urging Lloyd to go on.

Just past the Foot Locker and the hall leading to the bathrooms, Lloyd felt the hairs on the back of his arms stand up—he couldn't explain why, but in that particular moment, he knew he and Diana were being watched.  Not by mall security, or the cameras used by the same, but by someone.  He couldn't tell who out of the throngs around him and Diana might be paying too much attention to them—it wasn't even that, specifically.  It felt, in all honesty, as if there were a single set of eyes locked onto himself and Diana, watching there every move from afar.

Even in the midst of the crowd, Lloyd no longer felt safe.  The purse-snatcher was one thing, but this?

Diana seemed to sense his hesitation. “Lloyd?”  She turned to regard him, her features slightly scrunched in concern.

“I, ah, I think we should leave.”  There was something else, now—not quite full-blown nausea, but a feeling, in the pit of Lloyd's stomach, that staying at the Rimrock any longer would be a very bad idea.  “Sorry.”

“Did I—”

“It's not about the purse-snatcher.”  Even as he guided Diana towards an exit, Lloyd felt terrible for snapping at her, or at least for sounding like he had.  “We're not leaving because of that.  It's just—I don't want anyone getting any ideas, or anything.”  The excuse sounded lame even to himself.  “And I kinda sorta don't feel well.”

“Did you have too much pizza?”

“Maybe.”  Whatever was churning in Lloyd's gut had nothing to do with the multiple slices of Meat Lover's that he'd had for lunch.  “I just think we need to leave.”

After one last glance at the entrance of the anchor store, Diana nodded.  “We can come back another time, maybe?”

“Another time,” Lloyd echoed.  “Yeah.”  He headed for the nearest exit, with Diana in tow.

-----

“'Squishy, scaredy meatbag, watch him run.  Sooner or later, I'll have my fun.'” 

From her vantage point, leaning against the entrance of Spencer's Gifts, Lexi watched Harry Morgan's nephew—and the 'bot with him—head back the way they'd come.  It'd been one thing to bribe that townie into following them around for a bit, and to try and snatch the 'bot's purse.  The “bonus” she'd given him, an ostensibly free meal, would finish him off soon enough—her “contributions” would see to that.

The meat knew he was being watched. Normally, that'd be cause for concern. For Lexi, it was just part of the fun. 

She liked it when they ran; it was “the thrill of the hunt”, after all, not “the thrill of the wait”. But she would wait, and when the time was right, she'd make her move.  For now, there were other matters to consider.  Pariello, for one—the fat prick was still wallowing in the drunk tank, after all.  The sooner he'd meet his fate, the better.

As she ran her fingers over the clothing she'd “acquired” from Spencer's, Lexi grinned.  Pariello's end would be brilliant.

After a few quick checks to make sure she wasn't being watched, Lexi left Spencer's. She resisted the urge to skip, or to do anything that would give away the sheer sadistic joy she was feeling at that moment.  There was the possibility that the cashier might be revived, should anyone enter the store after she left—but it wasn't like she'd seen Lexi's face.

Ignoring the twee pop song from the Rimrock's tannoy sistem, Lexi continued on her way.  This would be a fun week.

-----

“You're sure they didn't need any of ours on hand?” Detective Logan nodded—out of habit; the call was a standard, not one made via a video monitor, but he didn't care. “Right, right.  And the purse was empty when he—right.  Eh, stranger things have happened.  Call me if anything else comes up.  Be seeing you.”  He ended the call, shaking his head as he stowed his phone.  “Weird.”

The day had progressed rather slowly, after the detective had learned more about the enigmatic perpetrator of the dual bricking at Pariello's house.  Elaine had invited him to stay for a while, getting a look at the Institute's Billings facility and what it had to offer.  Without any active cases back at HQ that required his attention—other than a rather odd purse snatching at the Rimrock Mall, something about a 'bot not letting go of a handbag and thus leaving ing the would-be purse-snatcher flat on his ass when he tried to run off with it—he was free to spend the rest of the day however he felt like spending it.

Thus, here he was—not quite “haunting” the Dyson Institute (as one might surmise from his nickname), but simply being allowed to tour the facility and make use of the resources at hand however he needd.

Others in his position would've quickly found ways to get themselves thrown out.  The potential perils of wandering the grounds of a complex staffed—and frequented—by beautiful, impossibly sexy women were obvious.  Throw in the fact that every staff member and the vast majority of the clients were also sophisicated humanoid robots, indistinguishable from “real people” without being opened up, and you had not just a recipe for potential disaster, but an entire gorram cookbook.  The possibilities were endless, mortifying and fodder for the most depraved tales one might spin.

Detective Thomas Erhardt Logan, of course, was not “most others”.  A job was, after all, a job.  Free time, no matter how much of it was on offer, was no excuse to to cast aside professionalism and ethics just to start acting like Karl Hungus or Randy Spears.

After all, there was still...

Detective Logan shook the thought from his mind—the briefly forming image already fading back into nothing. 

At the moment, he was purusing the Institute's sizable library, which had tomes on far more topics than what most outsiders might've expected.  Philosophy, ethics and theses on the human consciousness were just a few of the more interesting topics on offer.  There was a sizable fiction section, as well; Alyssa Marin's books sat next to collections of Asimov's work, and Alfred Bester's.

The detective smirked as he put one of Asimov's Foundation books back on the shelf.  The old doctor had really been onto something, when he came up with the Laws of Robotics.  Ironically, he'd somehow been blind to the developments in the actual field of A.I. research—

“Detective Logan?”

The mention of his name and honoriffic prompted him to turn.  “Hmm?”

Kari—the blonde who'd been assisting Dr. Dyson earlier—was regarding him with a curious look.  “Do you need help with anything, detective?”

“Just browsing, for now.”  The detective looked over the blonde gynoid; she stood a few inches shorter than him, and looked to be a good five years his junior.  “I am wondering though—”

“Yes?”

“Sorry if this is a personal question, but how'd you end up at the Institute?”  The detective glanced past Kari, off in the direction of the sign-in desk (manned, of course, by a stunning 30-something).  “You don't have to—”

“Actually,” Kari admitted, “I don't mind answering. First, though...”  She beckoned the detective to follow her.

After a bit of meandering through the library, the pair arrived at an elclosed reading area.  The door hissed shut behind the detective, and Kari sighed. “Elaine took me in herself.  I'm one of the only staff here not 'under contract', like most are—not that I'd want to return to my original body to begin with.”  She looked away, slightly, rubbing the back of her head with one hand.

“Terminal?”

The single word from the detective prompted a nod from Kari.  “Where I was before Elaine found me,” she admitted, “I wasn't in the best position to be treated—they wanted to help, but funds were limited, and...”

“And you couldn't afford to wait.”

“Dr. Dyson had offered to pay the bills to help mitigate the damage.”  Kari shook her head.  “I appreciated the gesture, and I still do, but it wouldn't have been enough.”

“They ever tell you what was killing you?  The old you, I mean.”

Kari shrugged.  “It wasn't the 'big bug', like some people called the pandemic.  They never really said what it was.  I heard a few whispers, but nothing concrete.”

The detective frowned.  He vaguely remembered a case from before the pandemic, of some kind of panic in a suburban community.  “And?”

“Dr. Dyson offered to help me in a way that the hospitals couldn't.”  Kari smiled. “When I asked how, she took off her shirt—I didn't know what to think, then, but...”

“She opened up,” the detective finished.  “Literally.”

“Please don't tell her I told you all this,” Kari murmured.  “And don't tell any of the others.  As far as they know—”

“You signed up the same way most of them did.” The detective nodded.  “Nom rederre.”

“Huh?”

“Latin.  It means you can trust me.”

“Oh.”

“And the, ah, perks?”  The detective would've arched an eyebrow, had his facial prosthetic been set up to facilitate the gesture.

“I was curious before I got the transfer.” Kari giggled.  “Now—”

“I get the idea.  They ever find anything else out about what you came down with?”

Kari's smile faded.  “All they know is that it was 'localized'—it wasn't on the same level as the pandemic.”

The detective nodded thoughtfully.  “I guess that explains the Institute's working so closely with hospitals.”

“We also do prosthetics,” Kari mused.  “Not that I'm trying to sell you on the idea, or anything—”

Detective Logan waved her concerns off.  “No worries.  I just got my optics replaced yesterday, actually.  Long story.  And speaking of stories, since you've told yours...”

“Right.”  Kari glanced at the door, which hissed open.  “Thanks for taking the time to hear me out.”

“Not a problem.”  The detective gestured for Kari to lead the way out of the reading room. “The Institute is doing a lot of good for a lot of people from what I've heard.  Any reason Elaine chose to put a branch out here?”

“You'd have to ask her,” Kari admitted.  “Though she has said that she wants to help however she can.”

The pair left the library, only pausing to let a pair of Dyson Institute staffers moving a wheeled rack of crates past. Both were wearing the Institute's standard black and grey uniforms, which did little to hide their impressive physiques.   The detective noticed that both were discussing some matter of presumable importance.  “Random question,” he mused, “but does Elaine ever have to make with the PR machine to keep the Herring nutjobs out?”

Kari rolled her eyes (somehow, the detective couldn't bring himself to call them ocular sensors, even if they were) at his question.  “We haven't had to deal with Herring News in a while, Detective Logan,” she replied. “You'd be surprised at what a Writ of Stoppage will do to keep the cameras from trying to poke around where they don't belong.”

“Glad to hear it.”  The detective chuckled.  “I'm guessing NDI is the standard procedure for clients, then?”

“Except for recruitment,” Kari replied, pausing as if expecting a reaction from the detective.  When he remained silent, she seemed surprised.  “Ah—”

“I'd have said 'word of mouth', instead of 'recruitment', personally.  Sounds less ominous.”

Any tension in Kari's posture vanished.  “You had me going there for a second, Detective.”

Detective Logan regarded her with an amused smirk. “You really thought I was going to sound an alarm about Elaine?” he inquired; the red “paint” on his facial prosthetic pulsed in time with his chuckle to underscore the point.

“Sorry.  I just...Dr. Dyson told me about the early years of the Institute.  How a lot of the talking heads tried to paint her as some kind of mad scientist or something.” The sigh that left Kari's lips seemed entirely divorced from the artificial nature of her form.  “And those claims were the tame ones.”

The detective nodded, remembering once again how hard it'd been to disperse a crowd of the faithful followers of that ranting, stubborn televangelist—even with the aid of Mace.  “We should be glad,” he stated, “that cooler heads have since prevailed.  Speaking of—”

“Dr. Dyson told me about why your voice sounds the way it does,” Kari mused.  “You could get a digital voicebox here, if you wanted.”

“This one's kind of grown on me.”

The blonde gynoid shrugged.  “Fair's fair—”  She paused, cocking her head slightly.  “And I need to get to one of the testing labs.  Sorry!”

“Not a problem.”  The detective nodded.  “And thanks again.”  As he watched Kari stride off towards her destination, he ruminated on the fact that Dyson Institute gynoids didn't get “eye-glow” when receiving a message—a sensible decision, given how many of the Institute's clients weren't “open” about their status.

The detective retreived his phone and checked the time.  “HQ should be calling soon.  Time to check in with Elaine.”

-----

And all of this is necessary for your plan?

Trust me, it'll make sense when the time comes.” Lexi didn't glance back at the TV in her bolt-hole to see how Zina reacted to her claim; her attention was focused entirely on what she was assembling at the table before her. “Everything I've been doing today will put me that much closer to trailing the meat back to Harry Morgan's—and to relocating one Mr. Bobby Pariello to a new address.  Something nice and shallow, doesn't have to be six feet deep.”  She giggled, even as her hands worked the jeweler's screwdriver in the delicate assembly set out on the hastily-rechristened work table.

These purchases were made via untraceable methods?

Duh.”  Lexi continued her work.  “You seriously need to trust me a little bit more when it comes to this plan of mine.”

She could tell Zina was frowning.  “Your actions thus far have given me very little reason to—

“Four words: Method.  To.  The. Madness.”  With each word, Lexi tightened a screw.  “I do know when to dial it back, y'know—most of the time.”  She giggled again.  “I just tend to get lost in my work.”

Zina's groan hinted that she had little patience for Lexi's “tendencies”.

“I have gotten results,” Lexi reminded her.  “And trust me—once Pariello and Morgan are both out of the picture, the SSD is as good as mine—”

Ours,” Zina imperiously clarified.

Lexi sighed. “'Send it back ASAP', I know.  You've pretty much drilled that in since I got booted up.”

For good reason—

An electric sizzle sounded from the object Lexi was working on; any human in her position would've sworn at the mild shock and slight burn, but the gynoid merely giggled again.  “Slipped a bit there.”

I can only hope you have a contingency in place should your plans fail.”

“They won't fail,” Lexi promised.  “And even if things do go a bit diagonal, I have a way out.”  Now, she turned to glance at the TV, offering a smile that most would've found horrific. “I'll get it done.  Trust me on that.”

I would prefer proof by action.  Dispose of Pariello, bring down Morgan and his associates, and—

“Recover the solid state drive,” Lexi finished, bobbing her head from side to side as she spoke the words.  “I get it.” 

With a last turn of the screwdriver, she pushed her chair away from the table and beheld her work.  “These, and that idiot who trailed the meat and his plug-in pal, are just two of the pieces of what I like to call the Pariello Procurement Puzzle,” she beamed.  “Everything will fall into place soon enough, and then Pariello will fall into his dirt nap. No fuss, no muss.”  That terrifying smile crossed her lips again.  “As for Morgan—”

How you accomplish your objectives is irreleventSee to it that they are accomplished.”

“They will be.  Trust me.”  Lexi was still smiling as the TV winked out.  “And wait 'til you see how they'll be accomplished,” she murmured, licking her lips as she turned her attention back to the finsihed items on the table.  “Now, all I need is a nice big van.” 

With one last look at her latest tools, she skipped out of the room, flicking the light switch off as she went.

-----

The sun was just starting to set as Harry watched the RangeStar drive off.  Lloyd had returned somewhat early from his trip to the Rimrock, and dropped off Diana (who was quick to show off the purse Lloyd had bought for her) before getting what he needed for the week ahead.  With a few last, quick “goodbye”s to Harry, Erin and Cam—and a more poignant farewell (and promise that he'd return after exams) to Diana—he was now on his way back to the campus of Jefferson State University – Billings, where exams would begin the next day.

“He'll be back next week, y'know,” Erin mused. “And for Christmas.”

Harry nodded.  “I know.  I've just never been one for goodbyes, personally.”

Erin pulled a face at him.  “He's just going back for exams,” she chided, “not heading overseas.”

“I know,” Harry insisted.  “It's just...”  He sighed. “Maybe I'm just sentimental.”

He didn't flinch from the hand on his shoulder. “Plenty of worse things to be than sentimental,” Erin assured him, giving a warm smile that managed to not look too out-of-place on her blatantly artificial visage.  “C'mon—you know how Cam gets annoyed when her hard work on dinner goes to waste.”

“I've never seen her annoyed,” Harry chuckled.

“Because you never let dinner go to waste,” Erin finished, chortling.

“Touché.”  Harry grinned, even as he shook his head.  “Good thing life out here gives me plenty of opportunity to work off the weight.”

Erin gave a mock groan at the remark. “Surrounded by robots, and you still do heavy lifting yourself?  For shame, Harry.”

“Like my old man said, when you stop movin', you stop livin'.  I don't intend to stop moving any time soon.”

“Amen to that.”  Erin sighed.  “What you said earlier, about being sentimental.”

“Yeah?”

“I kinda sorta maybe think you're right.” Any levity in Erin's tone faded as she continued; “Lloyd's got a lot of potential, y'know?  He knows where he wants to be, and he pretty much knows how to get there.”

“But?”

“I just don't want him to get sidetracked by anything—especially all this crap with Bobby P., or that solid state drive, or anything else.”  Erin stopped to look Harry in the eye; for a moment, it was as if an entirely different cast had setteld over her features.  “I don't want to see him fail,” she stated, her tone firm.  “I damn sure don't want to see him end up a total washout like Bobby P.—”

“He won't be a washout,” Harry assured her. “Why all this concern?”

Erin's gaze lowered to the floor.  “When we were at CAEDIA,” she murmured, “I told the Officer. I, ah, explained.”

Harry's eyes went wide, but Erin continued before he could speak.  “If anything happens—to you, to me, to our stake in the franchise—I don't want Lloyd to feel like he has to drop everything and pick up where any of us leave off.  This—all of it—shouldn't be his burden...”  She turned away.  “And neither should I.”

“You're not a burden!” Harry assured her, his hands resting on her shoulders.  “You can tell him—”

“Harry?” Cam's voice called out from somewhere in the house.  “Clifford Barba is on the phone for you.”  A pause...  “He seems to be on the verge of heading down to the police station in Billings and inflicting what he calls 'unspeakable and rapid violence' on Bobby Pariello's face.”

“Gimme a minute!” Harry shouted back.  His focus returned to Erin as he redirected her stare to glance at him.  “When and if that time comes,” he assured her, “he'll take it well.”

“I hope so,” Erin muttered.

Harry gave her a friendly clap on the shoulder before brushing past her to get the phone.  “Is Cliff still on the line?”

Whatever Cam said in reply seemed to fade into the background as Erin leaned against a support for the front porch, staring up at the cloudless sky.  A slight feeling of melancholy settled over her; was it just at Lloyd having to go back to the campus, even for just a week?  Or was it a reaction to something Harry had said?

Or was it....

“Erin?”  She hadn't heard Cam approach.  “Yeah?”

“You look troubled.”  There was no irony in Cam's tone; as always, she had that polite not-quite-frown on her face.  “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong,” Erin replied.  “I'm just trying to lose myself in thought for a while.”

“Oh.”  Cam frowned. “Why?”

“Boredom, I guess.”  Erin shook her head.  “You think Asimov ever thought 'robots' could get bored?”

“I haven't read enough of his work,” Cam began, but Erin brushed past her.  “I was hoping that Lloyd would ace all of his exams,” she stated—not quite a lie, since she did hope for Lloyd to do as brilliantly on his exams as he tended to do when working on components and scenarios.  “So he has something to look forward to, y'know?”

Cam nodded.  “That makes sense,” she admitted.  “We are like family to him, after all.

“Yeah,” Erin agreed, her voice seeming to catch. “Like family.”

-----

Behind the wheel of yet another “borrowed” car, Lexi resisted the urge to start laughing.  The main issue was that she didn't want to get stopped on suspicion of Driving while Under the Influence—which she obviously wasn't. She merely found what was going to transpire in the week ahead to be so hilarious that she couldn't help but let loose with the full brunt of her unrestrained glee.

In a few hours' time, that hungover townie she'd bribed would play his final role in the grand scheme of things. After that, it was just a matter of everything else falling into place, which it would.

Once the pieces had fit together in their intended fashion, everything that came next would be spectacular.  It had to be; there was no room for things just being, or just happening.  It was either go big, or scrap yourself—which, Lexi realized with increasing relish, might be the capstone for the whole thing.

The stolen car travelled the streets of Billings, all while Lexi envisioned her grand designs unfolding—to the probable detriment of the city, and everyone in it.

She would fulfill her objectives.  It was just a matter of how much damage she could cause in the process.

-----

Chapter 11

(Note: This chapter, and all those before it, have been proofread by our very own porcelaingirl, who has my eternal gratitude for assisting me in my writing endeavors. Obviously, all chapters after this one will be proofread by her as well.)

“Right, seeing as how Lloyd's back on campus for the week, it's up to the three of us to get things sorted.”  Erin—most of her figure covered by jeans and a jacket, with her slightly unnatural facial features obscured by a pair of sunglasses—checked the list on the tablet PC Harry had given her.  “Cam, you're on costume duty—hit up the thrift stores, the bargain wholesalers, that one place selling old theatrical stuff.  You know the drill.”

Cam nodded.  “Did Harry give us a budget for the day?”

“The usual.  Try not to find anything that looks too costume-y, if possible. Bruce, you're on Resources—stuff to put up a set for the next event.  Wood, soil, nails—you get the idea.”

“Got it.”

I have the illustrious task of buying lunch, after I'm done talking to the talent manager at the local community theatre.” Erin rolled her eyes at the thought. “Yay me.  Apparently, Harry wants to make sure the NonSens on-site are 'more believable' for next week's run, so he's asked me to—”

“What about me?”

The question, uttered by Diana, drew a frown from Erin.  “What about you next week,” she asked, “or what about you as far as today goes?”

After a few seconds, Diana replied: “Today. What do I do out here?”

Bruce and Cam glanced at each other—the former's face as inscrutable as the latter's polite frown.

“Just...take in the sights,” Erin replied, “stick by the car and try not to get in any trouble.  We should all be done within the next few minutes, anyway.”  She patted Diana on the shoulder.  “Just look around, watch things—learn, if you can.”

Diana nodded.  “I would love to.”

“That's the spirit.”  Erin smiled.  “RIGHT, we all meet back here in, let's say an hour or so.  Anyone runs into any problems, you know the number to call. Speaking of which, Diana, here's a phone.”  She handed the blonde gynoid a smartphone, which lit up as soon as it rested in Diana's hand.  “If you need anything, or if you run into any kind of trouble, call me.” 

Without stopping to reinforce that statement—or indeed, to explain “the number to call” to Diana, who was still regarding her with a puzzled frown—Erin, Cam and Bruce all went their separate ways, leaving the blonde gynoid standing next to the Honda Zentury by herself.  The prospect of “what if they don't come back?” never occurred to Diana.  Already, she was observing—people going about their daily lives, conversing as they walked, chatting on their phones, being people.  It was all fascinating, to her; a bit much to take in, at times, but there was no denying that this level of freedom, of autonomy, was exciting. The level of avenues, of thought processes and ideas, forming and opening up in her digital mind was incredible.

As she regarded the sights and sounds around her, Diana felt the smartphone in her new—and mostly empty—purse vibrate; she retrieved it, thumbing it on to reveal a message from Erin: Forgot to ask, but there's a parts order that needs to be collected, and I forgot to tell the others about it.  I'll send you the directions.  Use the app to pay for it.  Thanks. The car will open for you when you get back. If you don't want to wait inside, close the door and keep browsing, but stay close.  The text included an image of the app in question, and a map showing the way to the store.  Thankfully, it was within walking distance of the Zentury—it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to get there.

After studying the directions for a moment, Diana nodded with something resembling confidence.  Helping out would give her a chance to prove  something.  She wasn't quite sure what that might be, yet. 

Still, helping others was a good thing—especially helping Harry and Lloyd. 

The parts order wouldn't take too long to fill, if all went well.  She could easily be in and out of the store within the span of five or six minutes, and barring some kind of hideous traffic snarl, she'd be back at the Zentury and waiting for the rest to arrive in no time at all. 

Granted, standing around, just waiting for the rest to return, would be dull.  Or would it?  Maybe she could try to learn more.

Diana checked the phone again, going over the directions to the store and the app with which she was to pay for the parts ordered.  Her thought processes, nascent as they were, turned towards possibilities—what if she'd been the one asked to order lunch?  Would she have picked a specific restaurant?  Would Erin have offered any suggestions?

After a few seconds of pondering, Diana glanced at the phone again.  Time enough to think later

With a smile, she set off towards the shop, eager to provide any assistance she could.

The morning would definitely prove to be interesting.

-----

“C'mon, come ON!  The light is GREEN, you troglodyte, stop talking on your damn phone—oh, to HELL with this!”

As she swerved her latest “borrowed” vehicle out from behind the idiot who'd picked the most inopportune moment to blab away on their phone, Lexi allowed her ocular sensors to focus on—and capture—the number on the car's license plate.  A quick search would easily turn up the owner's address, if she really wanted to entertain herself; a number of lurid statistics, plans and ideas formed in her digital mind scape, one involving a rather horrid application of a blender to a certain bodily orifice.  With any luck—

Your penchant for unrestrained violence is, as always, admirable—but it must be tempered with focus.”

For a moment, Lexi thought the voice had come from the radio.  A quick check revealed that to not be the case; the station was playing a track from an album called In Time, from a band of four Brits who were supposed to have been a big deal several decades ago.  It took a few seconds for the gynoid to realize that the “rebuke” was actually an audio file she'd saved from a briefing the night before—well, the early hours of the morning, but she always hated semantics anyway.

The message had been loud and clear, when it was delivered—and it resonated even now.  Yes, it'd be fun to go after the idiot who'd parked at a light, but she'd already gone overboard at Pariello's.  That loose end would need tying up very soon, as it stood. In the meantime, there was no point to just following randos home and subjecting them to her unique brand of “fun” until she got bored with them—she had a mission to complete.  The solid state drive was still in the hands of CAEDIA, after all; once Pariello was iced, retrieval of the drive was the only directive she had to worry about.

On the radio, the track had changed—a guitar and choir-heavy rendition of some synthpop hit, belted out by a man with a rather distinctive Southern tone.  The crooner sounded legitimately soulful as he opened with a line about “looking from a window above”; overly emotional types might've been reduced to tears at his delivery of the chorus.

Lexi, by contrast, merely groaned.  “He should've crapped out on the crapper,” she muttered.  “This station sucks!

The station changed without her even reaching for the radio controls—her WiFi link allowed her the barest “hands-free” operation of the vehicle's electrics.  Within seconds, the new station was blasting out a Japanese heavy metal track laden with screeching guitars, thunderous drums, combined with female Japanese vocals.

“My kind of song.”  Lexi grinned and floored the accelerator.  This was going to be a very entertaining day indeed.

-----

“So no significant updates on Hinson and Pickett?”

Detective Logan didn't look up from what he was reading. “Pickett's still worse off. Elaine says it'll take months to get her back to form.”

Pickett's worse off?”  Sierra Birch frowned.  “I'd have thought Hinson—”

“I said the same thing.  Apparently, Hinson's responding well to therapy.” The detective was still scrolling through the files and photos he'd been sent regarding “the perp”—CAEDIA had yet to assign a formal designation to the deranged gynoid who'd bricked Evelyn Hinson and Michelle Pickett.  “Anyone follow up on the leads I found yesterday?”

“Still looking,” Sierra replied.  “So far--”

“They should look harder.”

The bluntness of her colleague's reply would've ended the conversation for anyone else.  “Something you want to tell me, Detective?”

For a moment, the detective was silent.

“If this is about—”

“It's not.  Elaine was strictly professional.”  Detective Logan sighed.  “She also recognized the perp.”

Sierra arched an eyebrow.  “As in?”

“Recognized her by her model type—discontinued back in 2003.  Hence the deep dive.”  Detective Logan gestured at the monitor before him; the main photo depicted the nude, smiling gynoid ramming a shard of glass through the visor of a respirator hood. “Still trying to bridge the gap between this and the recall.”

“So all our digging—”

“Only gets us so far.  My connections in the Valley are still looking, but it's slow going.” The detective leaned back in his seat, scowling.  “Whoever issued that recall didn't just bury the leads, they burned them.”

“We can still keep looking,” Sierra assured him.

“I never said we should stop.”  The detective rose from the chair he'd been sitting in for well over two hours.  “Maybe...”

“Maybe what?

“We might be looking in from the wrong angle.” Detective Logan gestured back at the monitor.  “Investigating this from a purely law-enforcement standpoint, instead of, say, military.”

“You want CAEDIA to—”

“Did they make any progress on the solid state drive?”

Sierra frowned, but stopped short of directly criticizing the detective.  “The photos of the perp were probably from a military lab,” she reasoned.  “Which means someone bought a mass-market model twenty or so years ago—”

“One unit getting an entire line recalled is a bit out there,” the detective mused.  “But not too far out there.”

The door to the detective's office opened to reveal Officer Celia Faulkner.  “Got a call for you from San Jose, Detective.”

“Thanks.”  Detective Logan nodded to Sierra.  “Feel free to look over what I've collected so far, see if you can figure out anything further.”

The Officer nodded.  “And if I think of anything?”

“Let me know when I get back.”

With another nod, Sierra took the seat that had been occupied by the detective—just as he strode through the still-open door and out of the room.

For the next few minutes, Sierra looked through the photos and text that the detective had “dug up”.  All of them had been taken in a stark, martial set of rooms that bore more resemblance to a heavy-artillery testing facility than a robotics laboratory.  Of all the other androids and gynoids seen (there was no doubt in Sierra's mind that the other figures were artificial—at least three of them, standing in the background as they were, still had visible seam lines on their bodies and faces), “the perp” was the one that was being put through the ringer the most.  None of the androids—counting the perp—were wearing any clothing in the vast majority of the pictures.  A few shots had them all lined up while a figure in full dress uniform (from what branch of what country's military, it was impossible to tell) talked, either to them or to someone in full “clean-gear” nearby; in these, the androids were clad in underwear, but nothing more.

The documents with the pictures told a grim story.  “Autonomous weapons”, “total obedience”, “disregard for any orders not given from command personnel” and “combat-capable squads ready in the next five years” were the least alarming phrases found in the assembled collection of files.  One document in particular seemed to be a journal, and explained, with a certain detached air, why the lineup of androids seemed to dwindle in the last few pictures.

“'Subject 18 is performing beyond all expectations',” Sierra read, frowning.  “'She holds the record amongst Regiment 12 for most consecutive kills performed in a testing mission.  Subject 18 has exhibited peak proficiency with all available weapons, and has shown a considerable creativity for spontaneous kill techniques'.”  She scrolled back to the photo of the perp shattering a man's respirator visor with a shard of glass.  “'Considerable creativity',” she repeated, scowling.  “I guess that explains the vinegar-and-bleach routine.”

She returned her attention to the document: “'Command notes that Subject 18 has also developed a tendency towards sexual responses when executing kill techniques'.  I can only guess this next word means 'R&D', so let's just stick with that for now—'R&D have claimed this is a flaw in her programming, and has requested permission for the flaw to be corrected as soon as possible'. Good for R&D.”  She scrolled down, and her shoulders slumped.  “Or not.  'Command has ordered that all R&D personnel be kept under monitoring. Three R&D personnel liquidated'—I'll bet—'due to an unauthorized attempt to alter Subject 18's programming'.  Yeesh.”

The final section of the document was even more succinct—and far more grim.  “'Subject 18 has performed with 100% effectiveness on all field operations. Subject 18 has killed 38 personnel from R&D and twenty personnel from Command between operations.  Subject 18 has expressed a strong desire to be deployed more frequently.  Remaining personnel have requested permission to terminate Subject 18.  All other units from Regiment 12 are—'”

Sierra stared at the blinking cursor at the end of the last sentence.  “Guess we'll never know what the other units are, then,” she mused.  “Or what they were, at least.”  Her gaze returned to the photos of the perp—“Subject 18”, as named in the documents.  “Definitely a military project, then,” she mused.  “Someone bought a mass-market NonSen, put her through the ringer and it turned her into a killer.  Why?

“Good question.”  Detective Logan's reflection on the monitor only just entered Sierra's focus.  “I may have the answer.”

“I have a feeling the rest of the office is going to want to hear this one,” Sierra replied.  “Shall we?”

-----

Getting to the store where the parts order was waiting to be picked up wasn't too much of a problem.  There were some alleys she mistook for streets, and the same for driveways, and there was this one tricky intersection, but traffic was light, and Diana had no issue crossing that road to reach the plaza with the shop on the other side.  There wasn't even a line to wait in, either; the phone had pinged when she'd walked in, and a number had appeared on the screen.  After maybe five minutes, a clerk called out the number on the phone's screen; Diana headed to the appropriate counter, accepted the cloth bag she was handed, and used the app indicated from Erin's message to pay for it all.

The entire process had taken maybe ten minutes. Speedy, efficient and without any hassle.  The shopkeep told her to remember her reusable bag next time, but as it happened, once she was outside the store, she found the cloth bag just about fit in her purse, giving it a bit of heft.

Diana pondered over this process as she re-crossed the road, considering the best ways to make other things speedy and efficient.  At first, she made sure she didn't mistake the same alleys and driveways for roads as she did on her journey there, but coming back it was much clearer. It allowed her mind to wander.  She was, in fact, so absorbed in the thought process of efficiency that time started slipping away from her.  So many sites and sounds she was too focused on getting to the shop that she didn't notice at first.  It had rained recently, so the ground was damp, and she loved the smell of it.

She saw so many shops that piqued her curiosity that she ducked into one briefly that sold cute knick-knacks and found this little bear with spectacles that reminded her of Lloyd.  She grabbed it and immediately turned to leave the shop, but then remembered how she had to pay at the other shop.  She thought for a minute and decided to try something.  She went up to the counter with the bear, and when asked for payment, she brought out the mobile phone she paid with at the other shop.  The transaction went through flawlessly.  By the time she left the store, with her purse on the verge of bursting, she realised she'd be a little late back to the car if she didn't go directly there.

She must have looked a bit lost, as she she didn't notice a car pull up along side her once she was on the other side of the street.  “You look lost. Can I help?”

The driver looked like she was holding in the biggest laugh, as if she'd just heard a banger of a joke. 

“What's so funny?”

“Oh, just something I heard on the radio.” The driver's smile didn't waver.

Despite being a little unnerved, Diana thought if this woman could give her a ride to the car park, she could make it on time with both the parts and Lloyd's gift.  “Could you give me a ride to the car park on the other side of all those buildings?”

The driver''s smile lit up like a dazzling rocket, and the rear driver's side door opened up.  Diana got in. 

“Fuckle up, buttercup!  We're going for a little spin!

Though her voice was female—it lacked the familiarity of Cam's or Erin's voices, and held neither the former's usual air of polite concern, nor the latter's casual tone.  The speaker was clearly amused by Diana's predicament—more so when Diana's seatbelt—which she'd just fastened—immediately tightened, seemingly of its own accord.  The belt pressed her into the seat, allowing her the most minimal freedom of movement.

The car quickly accelerated away from where it had stopped.  A few pedestrians outside were yelling invectives at the vehicle; the driver paid them no heed, only stopping to mutter threats against someone going entirely too slow for her tastes.  “What I wouldn't give for a Carl Gustaf right now—just stick it out the the window, aimed right at the first idiot who takes the 'slow ride' approach. That term sucks—stupid name for a song, too.”  She scoffed. “'Song', who am I kidding?  It's the same damn lines over and over again, with a bit tacked on at the end—GET OUT OF THE WAY, ASSHOLE!” A blast of the vehicle's horn sounded.

“Ah.”  Diana couldn't think of anything to say that might alleviate the situation, or at least ease her own thoughts.

“Everyone driving fifteen miles under the damn speed limit,” the driver continued, “and me with a whole list of shit to do this morning—I wish, I SO wish that this car had spiked bumpers and fenders. Just ram 'em all out of the way, cars and pedestrians!  Too slow crossing the road!  BOOM.  Instant new hood ornament.  Talking on your phone at a light!  BANG, you just lost whatever's in the trunk!  Serves you right, dipshit!”

“Um,” Diana began, not stopping to think that she might end up the target of the driver's next stream of insults.

“The Hell are you—OH, right.  Introductions.  You don't need to know me, I don't give a crap who you are.  Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”  The car took a hard turn, the rear passenger-side apparently knocking something over as it did.  The driver ignored the yelling from whoever owned what she'd just hit; Diana, meanwhile, tried to peer through the nearest window for a better look—

“Y'ever think about role models?”

Diana barely had time to parse the question before the driver continued.: “Oh, there are a few that I like reading up on, from time to time.  Just did a ton of research—MOVE, DUMBASS!”  Another blast from the car horn cut into the running (driving?) monologue.  “A ton of research this morning, on some of my favourites.  Helps get me in the right mood for my work, y'know?”

All Diana could manage was a quiet “ah”, not having any idea what the discussion was about to entail.

“Bundy, for one—a real 'lady-killer', if y'know what I mean!”  There was something not quite right about the high, girlish shriek of laughter that punctuated that remark.  “The best thing about him is, he never gave up.  Broke out of prison three times—the last, the day they set him up to ride Ol' Sparky!  Seriously, they went to flip the switch and fry him up like a bucket of Colonel Sanders' Original Recipe, and BOOM.”  Another cackle.  “Massive power outage.  Big riot, too.  By the time they got the lights back on, he'd split.”  The driver sighed.  “And they tried to say he was gator chow after he ran.  Yeah, right.  My bet is, they just couldn't find him again, and lied to cover their own asses.  He might still be out there, y'know.  I hope so.  I'd love to compare notes with him.”

Before Diana could ask who “Bundy” was, or queue up an online search, the car took a hard turn. 

“Ramirez was another one—'The Night Stalker'. THAT is a hell of a name, right there—hehehe, 'hell' of a name!”  The driver giggled.  “They say he was a Satanist, but nobody could prove it.  He played it up, though—'Swear to Satan', all that stuff.  Theatricality helps, y'know?  He's another one who never gave up—oh, they said he croaked it back in '13, but that was before some tabloid leaked that there'd been a big bust-out where he was locked up.  Most got locked right back up, but they never could find Ramirez.  Wonder if he's still out there, too?”

“I, ah—”  Diana couldn't quite think of anything to add to the conversation—if this bizarre diatribe from the driver even qualified as one.  She had the faintest sense that she wasn't supposed to be in this vehicle.  Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity; if so, this madwoman was in no position to keep her in the car—

Any thoughts on the legality of her plight faded from the gynoid's mind quickly; the car had just swerved into another lane, prompting another vehicle to swerve out of the way.  The sound of squealing tires, screeching brakes and crunching metal indicated that multiple parties had tried and failed to avert a catastrophic accident. 

Diana guessed that people had been hurt, but could do little more than hope for their safety.

The driver of the vehicle, on the other hand, merely checked the rear-view mirror and laughed.

“I—”  Again, Diana had to brace herself as the car took another hard turn.

“But the one I most want to meet,” the driver declared, “is the one who's done the most damage.  I've heard a ton of names for him: the Butcher of Lake Gilmour, the Nightmare of Silicon Valley, the Butcher King, the Face Destroyer, the Face Obliterator—all great stuff.  And that outfit!  All-black, with a white mask—oh, he just looks so...”  With one hand still on the wheel, the driver blew a theatrical kiss.  “Nobody's really sure if the name and the look have been with one guy, or a bunch, over the years.  I'd hope he's been the same one all along.  I've seen the pictures of what he's done—so baroque!  And he never uses guns—I mean, Ramirez and the Zodiac used guns, but nobody knows who the Zodiac was to begin with, who gives a shit about him?”  Another giggle.  “He doesn't discriminate, either—the Butcher King, I mean.  Meat or metal—if they're in the way, they get mowed down.  That's dedication to the art!”

Another hard turn nearly sent Diana to the floor of the backseat.

“Oh, they say he 'died' about three or four times over the years.  I doubt it. Someone as violent as him, who's done as much damage as he has, is bound to still be out there—I'd hope he is.  If I could only meet one, it'd be him.  He just sounds so...”  A theatrical sigh issued from the occupant of the driver's seat. “Dreamy—

A fusillade of car horns, and several choice insults from the driver, cut off her praise of the so-called Butcher King. The driver briefly rolled down her window to scream a few further insults, accompanied by enthusiastic gestures indicating what she thought of the offending parties and what they could do in their free time to atone for their apparent mistakes.  “—WITH A JACKHAMMER!  Idiots...anyway, where was I?”

Diana suddenly realized that she'd probably be late meeting up with the others, but chose not to voice that concern.

“Oh, while I'm thinking about it—what's your favourite way to break an arm?  Someone else's, I mean, not yours.”

-----

...and Diana's out getting the parts order, like you asked.

“You're sure she understood how to use the app?” Harry inquired.  “I don't want her calling up some game on the phone trying to pay for anything—gimme a sec.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “Someone wanna turn the TV down a bit, please?  I'm on the phone!”  The volume of the commercial decreased seconds later.

I leave for a few minutes, and everything goes to pot.”

Erin's dry wit garnered a chuckle from Harry. “Everything's fine out here, trust me.  I just hope—”

She's not going to wander into traffic, or do anything people think means she wants to rob the joint.”

“I'd hope not, in either case!”  Harry scowled.  “Lloyd called, earlier.”

Everything okay over at JSUB?

“Exams are going well, so far.  He should be done by the end of the week, and back here on either Friday afternoon or mid-day on Saturday.”

NiceI get the feeling he's got a bright future ahead of him.”

“That makes two of us.  I just hope he doesn't get too distracted by anything.”

I doubt that'll be a problem for him—” Someone in the background on Erin's end of the line called her name.  “Guess that's my cue—timely, as ever.”  Again, Erin's sarcasm was evident.  “Shouldn't take too much longer to wrap things up on my endSee you when I see you, Harry.”

Harry nodded.  “Be safe, Erin.”

-----

“Another phone call for you, Tommy.”

The only thing stopping Detective Logan from groaning at the casual use of his first name was that it'd been spoken by Sierra Birch. “Thanks.  Who from?”

“Dr. Dyson.  She's been conducting some research of her own on the perp.”

“Has she, now?”  The detective gestured at the monitor before him.  “Can you transfer it to video?”

“Just a sec.”

Before the detective had time to blink, the monitor on his desk—and the one mounted to the wall in front of it—both lit up with an image of Dr. Elaine Dyson.  To Detective Logan's relief, Elaine hadn't decided to “dress down” for the call, as she'd done before he arrived at her office the day before; she once again radiated professionalism and mature beauty in her business-casual ensemble. “Bad time, Detective?

“Not at all.  Officer Birch tells me you've been doing your own research.”

I have—though I wish I hadn't.”

Sierra frowned.  “That's not exactly a good sign.”

Detective Logan glanced at her with a scowl, but Elaine spoke before he could: “Both of you are well-versed in the history of the Consolidation, right?

“We are.”  The “Great” Consolidation, as it had been known for a while, was a mass merging, reshuffling and financial restructuring of several struggling or failing robotics companies in the early 2000s.  It had, at the time, been intended to boost the industry as a whole and save it from the perils that had befallen the dot-com crowd. The actual end result had turned out far less beneficial: inventory was “misplaced”, customer records ended up in the wrong hands, and a wave of fly-by-night “start-ups” pushing “revolutionary” technology that ended up being so much scrap plagued the international robotics market for a good few years.

The Dyson Institute weathered the Consolidation pretty well,” Elaine admitted, “but the company behind the P4RTY G1RL line wasn't so luckyLast I heard, they were the focus of a hostile takeover by an investment firm from the Balkans, which is where a lot of their inventory ended up.”

“The pics of the perp showed her in a lab that looked to be ex-Soviet military,” Sierra mused.

“So she was basically stolen through the Consolidation.”  Detective Logan regarded the wall monitor with a scowl.

It might not be much to go on,” Elaine admitted, “and if your department has already—

“It's better than nothing,” the detective assured her.  “I was just thinking—since it was you making the call—”

You expected a psychological profile of the perp.”  Elaine didn't sound offended or even annoyed at the thought.

Detective Logan ignored any look Sierra might've been giving him.  “Pretty much.”

I have been making strides in that area,” Elaine admitted.  “Though I wouldn't exactly use the term 'programming' to explain what's been done to her.”

Sierra and the detective exchanged glances. “Any reason why?”

I looked over the material you'd sent—what you'd found during your visit yesterday—

“You sent her what you were looking up?!” Sierra glared at the detective.

“She's helping with the case, and she's qualified to perform psych evals on sentient A.I.s, M.I.s and transfers,” Detective Logan calmly reminded her.  “She's not a liability.”

After a moment, Sierra nodded.  “Right.  Sorry.”

No need to apologize, OfficerAs I mentioned, and as Detective Logan confirmed to me, the 'perp' appears to not have been 'programmed' as such.  He termed what was done to develop her mental structure 'the Doomsday method'.”

“Doomsday?” Sierra echoed, glancing at the detective with a frown.  “Care to clarify?”

“Like the comic book,” Detective Logan explained. “Doomsday—that freak that killed Superman.”  Even as Sierra still frowned at him, he continued: “Doomsday was a mindless brute because it was the project of an experiment by some idiot scientist who kept sending a being out into the wilds of Krypton.  The being got killed, cloned and sent back out, over and over again, until it got stronger, smarter.  But it also evolved with a hatred of all things Kryptonian—”

“And this connects to the perp how?

The detective didn't flinch in the face of Sierra's annoyance.  “That P4RTY G1RL unit was run through that same kind of gauntlet—'tested', destroyed and rebuilt, over and over again.  At least, from the records I could find.  The brain trust behind that whole program wanted to 'instil pure survival instinct into an artificial intelligence without direct alteration', to quote their manifesto directly.”

Sierra stared at him, her annoyance having given way to a stunned, horrified silence.

The psychological implications of such 'experimentation' are monstrous, to be quite honest,” Elaine intoned.  “I can only assume that your 'perp' is a raging sociopath or psychopath, the distinctions are academic. She has zero empathy for others of her own kind, no regard for human life, and quite possibly a sexualized view of violence in general.”

“And this was engineered?” Sierra realized her voice sounded almost like a whimper.

“Per the contract—the files I found specifically mentioned a state sponsor, but never said what country was—”

Sierra turned away, looking remarkably as if she were about to be ill.  “And they did this with every unit they had?”

“Down to the last.”

“Horrible.”  Sierra knew that the chill she felt had nothing to do with her haptic sensors glitching out.  “Who would want to break a synthetic mind that way?  Why?!

“Falken did,” the detective muttered.  “He was pretty much nuts, himself.”

From what Detective Logan sent to me,” Elaine added, “the project that created your 'perp' was intended to repurpose A.I.s and M.I.s into 'efficient fighting tools'.”  Her tone was one of sadness, as well as a hint of anger at whoever had seen fit to green light this appalling mess of a program.  “From what I found out on my own, they failed.”

Failed?!

Sierra's shock was met with a stern glance from Elaine. “A 'fighting tool' isn't efficient if you can't control it, Officer.”

The head and namesake of the Dyson Institute disappeared from the screen—replaced, in mere seconds, by pictures and documents. “Everything I found indicates that the 'subjects' of the program were unstable,” Elaine's voice stated.  “From a purely psychiatric point of view, they became entirely detached from any sense of 'self' they may have had previously.”

“And those without a sense of self?” Sierra prompted.

Whatever personalities they developed were completely, totally psychotic.”

“Goes a long way to explain our perp,” Detective Logan mused.  “But the ones behind this nightmare must've had some way of keeping them in line.”

I'm still looking into that—and I'd hope that you'll do the sameEven with the security clearance you've allowed me to use, Detective—”  At this, Sierra glanced at the detective again, but Elaine continued before the Officer could voice any complaint.  “—I can only look up so much without calling your head office and asking for further clearance.”

“We'll do what we can, Doctor.  For now, just keep us posted on Hinson and Pickett.”

The documents and pictures vanished from the monitor, replaced with Elaine once again; her expression was distinctly forlorn. “Michelle may need considerably more help than the Institute can provide,” she admitted.  “I haven't had the chance to go over her specs in detail, but if her model's processors and storage were in her head—

“That'd explain a lot,” Detective Logan muttered. “Damn it.”

There's also the small complication of Michelle having cloud backups active,” Elaine added.  “We can't discount the possibility that those may have been corrupted by the damage, as well.”

“Is she ever going to get back to form?”

To be honest, Officer Birch, she might be better off without a form for a while.  Losing a physical body the way she lost hers can be very traumatic.”  Elaine sighed.  “It's sad, reallySentient androids and gynoids have the option to feel pain, and someone weaponized that against Michelle Pickett.”

Detective Logan uttered a grunt of some kind. “Something on your mind?” Sierra inquired.

“What Elaine just said, about weaponizing the option to feel pain.”  He glanced at the monitor on his desk.  “Maybe the ones behind our perp are trying to weaponize something else.”

Whatever the case, you'll want to keep looking for who authorised the creation of your 'perp'—I suggest looking for the company behind the P4RTY G1RL line, to see if they survived to the passage of the Civic Accords.  Again, it might not be much to go on—

“But it's a start,” Detective Logan finished. “Thanks for the assistance, Elaine. We'll keep you posted.”

On the wall-mounted monitor, the image of Elaine Dyson nodded.  “Stay safe, Detective—and Officer Birch, as well.”

Sierra returned the nod, and the monitor winked out. “So she's with us in the trenches on this one,” she mused, still a bit shaken by Dr. Dyson's revelations regarding the “perp”.

“She is.”  Detective Logan had already turned his attention back to his own work. “ALPHA presence out here is spread thin as it is—not like out in the Valley.  We need all the help we can get.”

Remembering her own time on the San Jose police force, Sierra nodded.  “Believe me, I'm grateful for it.

-----

“...just dig the fingers in, so the nails go deeper into the cheek—face, not ass, obviously—and get a nice firm hold.  Then you just wait a few seconds, savour the pure, utter fear in their eyes, and then RIP!

Diana ignored the driver's maniacal laughter as the car sped on.  Any thoughts of establishing a dialogue with the blonde behind the wheel of the car were soon dismissed; she gave no opportunity for Diana to insert herself into the discussion of various topics, and effectively turned the “conversation” into a long, rambling screed that—more often than not—was filled to the brim with violent imagery, coarse language and ominous references.

“It's always great to have options, by the way. Take a pencil, for instance—you carry one of those with you, and you've got a nice, quick way to 'erase' someone from the picture or 'write them out'.  Never tried Liddy's version of the pencil trick, though—”

“I'm sorry,” Diana finally cut in, “but I have no idea what you're talking about.”

The car skidded to a stop, but Diana didn't get much of a chance to check her surroundings; the driver had lunged out of the front seat and grabbed her by the chin, staring into her eyes.

The effect, for Diana, was somewhat odd, almost like looking at a distorted reflection of herself.  The driver, like Diana, had blonde hair, stunning eyes, round cheeks and a gently curving jawline.  There, however, the resemblance ended.  The driver of the car, for one, had a slightly more prominent upper lip. Her nose was a bit more pert than Diana's, her brows thinner.  There was also, of course, the matter of the sheer malevolence in her stare.

“Have you been listening,” she hissed, “to ANY FUCKING THING I'VE BEEN SAYING?!

Diana was more confused than intimidated.  “I, ah—”

Her head was jerked up, even as she kept her focus on the driver.  “—attention span of a goldfish,” the irritated blonde muttered.  “I bet he hasn't even used you yet—you don't smell like he has.”

“What—”

The car sped forward again, in lieu of a response.

Again, Diana felt more confusion than anything else. Whoever the blonde was, she seemed angry—despite the fact that Diana hadn't really done anything to offend her.

“—why I bothered wasting any time with you.” The driver had already turned her attention back to the road.  “I have so much shit to take care of today,” she declared.  “Shouldn't have bothered with you to begin with.  I can't even remember what I was talking about—”

“Pencils,” Diana murmured.

NOBODY ASKED—wait, you were listening?!”  The car took a hard turn.

“You said something about pencils.  And someone called Liddy—”

“A pencil to the jaw isn't nearly as effective as a pericardial strike,” the driver remarked, her tone once again calm. “Always wanted to try that one out, never got the chance.”

Diana to think about what exactly was going on—

“Garottes are nice too, but that whole 'over the back' thing is just too much hassle.” 

Still feeling confused, Diana didn't bother offering her opinion

“You want to use a garotte properly, you go for it while the target's in a chair, or you get 'em from around a corner.  Still too risky, in my opinion.  There are other ways to apply pressure—rear naked choke, for instance.  Real easy to break necks and snuff out someone that way.”  The driver casually checked the rear-view mirror. “Of course, if you really want subtlety, you go with poison.”

For whatever reason, Diana couldn't help but think of Lloyd.  She wondered how his day was going—and hoped that he wouldn't have to deal with the driver of the car any time soon.

“I actually have a personal recipe,” the driver continued, “used it a day or two ago.”  She held up one hand, as if admiring her fingernails—a dangerous prospect, given that she was, in fact, still driving the car.  “Derivative of tetrodotoxin, with just enough extracts of flowering oleander, nicotine and other chemicals to induce death within the hour.”

“Ah—”

“Pretty sure the guy croaked it in hospital—oh, I wish I could've seen his face!”

Diana—again, feeling utterly lost as to what exactly she'd been dragged into—said nothing.

The car swerved into another lane of traffic, forcing everyone already in that lane to get out of the way.  One unfortunate van, possessing neither the speed nor the turning radius to effectively move, was smashed into, stopping the car dead in its tracks.

“Oh, for FUCK'S SAKE!”  The driver reached over for something from the glove compartment, retrieving the item without closing the compartment's door. “Sit tight and shut up.  I'll tend to this.”  Without another word to Diana, she left the vehicle idling, slamming the driver's side door as loudly as possible.

Diana, from her awkward position in the backseat, heard a few words spoken—then a loud thud of something on metal.

The driver re-entered the car, slammed the door and backed the car away from the van.  “Anyone asks what happened, you didn't see anything.”

Not wanting to prompt another tirade from the driver, Diana nodded mutely.

“Good.”  The car continued on its way, leaving the smashed-up van behind.  “I'll have to ditch this car, soon.”

Again, Diana couldn't help but wonder what Lloyd was up to—

“Like I was saying earlier: pencils.  You don't go for the eye, like in the movies.  They made it look so easy with that stupid 'pencil trick'.  Liddy's is way better.”

Diana nearly mentioned how the driver hadn't yet explained who “Liddy” was, but thought better of it.

“—nothing beats going in through the front or the back, below the belt.  Whether it's a blade or a gun—I mean, unless you go all 'Vlad the Impaler', and try to get the thing all the way up and out through the mouth, then everyone's going to know what you were going for.  Humans are just so damn fragile, when you think about it—so many great ways to make them suffer!”

Diana's growing sense of confusion was now tinged with a hint of fear.

“Now, bots, on the other hand, present quite a few unique challenges.  Sentients, at least.  NonSens all suck.”

-----

“Found something.”

Sierra's words, followed seconds later by the slap of a folder against his desk, drew Detective Logan out of the funk he was in danger of settling into.  “Care to elaborate?”

“Elaine's hunch about the P4RTY G1RL manufacturer? Right on the money.”

The detective paged through the files, frowning. “Could've sworn we went paperless.”

“We did—these haven't been archived yet.” Sierra nodded at the contents of the folder.  “The P4RTY G1RL bunch was a subsidiary.  The parent company made it through to the Accords—the ones behind our perp?  Not so much.”

“They only made the form,” the detective reminded her.  “They didn't make her.”

“That's beside the point.  If we talk to the parent company, we might be able to get a good idea of who paid to bury the official recall notice—maybe even who made our perp who she is today—”

“What about who's using her now?”

“Dunno if we can dig that far,” Sierra admitted, “but it's worth a shot.”

Detective Logan nodded.  “Still have to catch the perp, though.”

“I never said we didn't—”

“I know.  But all this paper-chasing will only go so far.  There's a psycho-bot out there with zero regard for human life, no regard for others of her own kind and backing from a heavy-hitter.”  The detective shuffled the papers in the folder without so much as a glance at Sierra.  “Whoever set her loose might've paid to bury the full report on the P4RTY G1RL recall, and if if that's the case—”

“Then we're in deep water,” Sierra finished, scowling.  “Great.”

“We're already in deep water.  Car thefts, two sentients bricked and who knows what else.  And that's just the perp.  I have a feeling Pariello's prospects are null and void, when and if he ever gets out of the drunk tank.”  Detective Logan thumbed through the papers in the folder.  “But he's the least of our problems.”  Now, he turned to regard Sierra—and saw that her eyes had a slight glow to them.  “Checking the police band?”

“Just checking in with the PD,” Sierra clarified. “They've got Pariello on 24-hour watch, now.  Someone else in the tank punched him, and now he's crying foul and threatening lawsuits.”

The detective groaned.  “Can they move him?”

“They're considering it.  Unless he makes bail—but nobody's called to offer.”

“Why am I not surprised.  They tell you why he got decked?”

Sierra shrugged.  “Wouldn't shut up, kept going on about his past jobs.  He even said the studio would take him back—”

“And risk him scaring everyone with fairy stories about 'category 12' hurricanes and 'F18' tornadoes?” Detective Logan replied, chortling.  “The day the studio takes him back, Hell will freeze over.”

The glow in Sierra's eyes faded as they rolled. “So much for professional impartiality.”

-----

“—in an engagement ring, or some other piece of jewellery.  Best way to get a 'bot to wear a magnet.  Even a small one, if it's strong enough—like neodymium, or whatever those heavy-duty types are.  Put that in a ring, or a necklace—even better—and they start having nice 'memory gaps'.  Then they get clumsy.  Then the malfunctions start.”  The driver let out a wicked cackle.

Diana had long since realized that she needed to get out of the car, and back to the Zentury—and, by process, to Erin and Cam—before the driver chose to enact some horrible violence on her.  She didn't quite know why—

A click sounded from the front seat; the driver had turned around, and was pointing a pistol directly at Diana's face.

“I could put a bullet through your head right now,” she murmured, “and nobody'd know until they found what was left of you in a dumpster.”  Her smile was almost pleasant—clashing severely with the threat she'd just uttered. “They wouldn't even trace the gun back to me,” she continued.  “Remington R51.  Stole it a few days ago.  Two, maybe three shots, one to each eye—”

“Why?”  There was a hint of something that might've been desperation in Diana's question.

The driver's smile faded.  “You,” she intoned, “are....”  She glared at Diana for a few more seconds before turning around in her seat.  Without a word, she rolled down the driver's side window, and—with the pistol still in her hand—held her arm out through it.  Her stare was still on the road as she fired three shots.

Before Diana could react to the gunfire—or the screams from outside the vehicle—the driver's arm was back in, the window rolled up, and the car moving again.

“Why do I feel like I've wasted this entire morning with you?” the driver snapped.  “Probably because I have.  I have so much shit to do, that I could've done, and instead I've been driving around getting approximately none of it done while you just sit there like a blow-up doll—actually, I take that back. A blow-up doll wouldn't have kept up with all the 'uh's and 'ah's and 'um's and 'what's like some kind of broken-down piece of SHIT.”

Diana wanted to say “I'm not broken”, but found the seat belt suddenly constricting her movement even more as the car took the latest of its many hard turns.

“You should probably hope that we never see each other again,” the driver continued.  “Because if we do, it'll be the last time.  This stupid R51?”  She held the gun up, waving it dismissively.  “You're going to beg me to stick this between your legs and pull the trigger long before I'm finished with you—if you can even feel.  Oh, I hope you can.”  Another demented giggle filled the car's interior.  “Because I am SO going to enjoy tearing you apart, every way I know how!”

Before Diana could ask why the driver would want to “tear her apart”, the car lurched to a stop, back very close to the car park where their wild adventure started.  The rear passenger-side door automatically flung open.

OUT you go!” the driver screamed.  “And take your shit with you!”

Diana felt her belt go slack and quickly undid it, grabbing her purse in a fluid motion.  Without another word, Diana started away from the vehicle. 

“You're welcome for the ride,” the driver called out, her smile looking utterly unhinged.

“I, ah—”  Before Diana could gather anything remotely resembling a coherent response, the driver's side window of the car closed, and the vehicle—now sporting several dents—sped off.  As she watched the car leave, Diana soon realized that she was, effectively, across the street from where she'd been “picked up”.  “GT 4502”

The puzzled gynoid shook her head, trying to work out just why the strange woman had given her a “ride” to begin with.

-----

“Never let it be said that Harry doesn't have fine taste when it comes to food.”  Erin chuckled as she regarded her purchases.  “It's a good thing there's a Cajun place this far north, too,” she added.

“When has Harry ever—”

“Three years ago.  Loved the food.  The music, not so much—too much accordion, he says.  Anyway, he'd be lost without his jambalaya—makes me wish I had the hardware to enjoy this stuff.”  Erin sighed. “You, Cam, are  fortunate enough to have a built-in caloric intake converter—anyway, this bag is Harry's.  The other big one's for the other human employees back at the house. As for you, Cam, small order of gumbo and a Sprite are in the front seat—the small bag, if you're wondering and do not eat it on the way home.  Last thing I need is to waste time cleaning a spill on the front passenger seat.  Got it?”

Cam nodded, and Erin turned her attention to other matters.  “Now, Diana....”  She frowned; for whatever reason, their group was down a member.  “Ah, Diana?”

A muted car horn cut into her thought processes; the Zentury was driving up to the curb.

“Sorry I'm late,” the blonde gynoid apologized—from the front passenger seat.  “I have the parts, though!”

“Not that I don't appreciate it,” Erin replied, “but where the hell have you been?”

“I got a ride around town,” Diana replied, leaving the vehicle.  “From a young woman.”

Erin and Cam exchanged looks—one confused, the other sporting her usual polite frown.  “What 'young woman'?” Cam inquired.  “You had the keys to the Zentury—”

“Better question,” Erin cut in.  “Why does your purse look like somebody used it as a punching bag?”

Before Diana could respond, Cam and Bruce were already back in the Zentury.  “Y'know what,” Erin stated, “we can talk about it on the drive back.  You got the parts, and the Zentury auto-drove you back to meet us—I swear, anyone who says auto-drive is a bad idea has no idea what they're talking about—anyway, we're done in town for the day, so we might as well get back to Harry's.”  She threw her arm around Diana's shoulders.  “Sound like a good plan to you?”

The blonde gynoid hesitated before replying “yes”.

Something in her tone troubled Erin.  “The 'young woman' who gave you a ride didn't give you a hard time, did she?”

“She talked,” Diana replied.  “A lot.”

She talked,” Erin echoed.  “Not 'We talked'?”

“She got angry when I tried to say anything.”

Erin recoiled.  “Right, you can tell me more in the car.”  She steered Diana towards the Zentury.  “And you're definitely telling Harry about this when we get back.” She cast a furtive glance over her shoulder before helping Diana into the backseat of the Zentury.

“'Gave her a ride', she says.”  Erin scowled.  “Harry's gonna want to hear about this.”  She shook her head, wondering just what kind of “young woman” Diana had run into and accepted a ride from.  Hopefully, they hadn't been on the same level of idiocy as Pariello—most of his ilk knew better to cause problems in public.

With a sigh, Erin climbed into the Zentury's driver's seat.  “I guess Jimmy was right,” she muttered.  “People are strange.”

-----

“Thanks for the update, Dave.  I appreciate it.”  Sierra ended the call, already dreading the talk she'd be having with her colleague.  “TOMMY!”

A grunt from down the hall preceded the detective's arrival into Sierra's office.  “Guess we're never gonna stick with that 'call me by my callsign' suggestion,” he muttered.  “Anything new on our perp?”

“Possibly.” Sierra nodded at the monitor.  “Someone called in a hit-and-run a few minutes ago—possibly a beating just afterwards. I was just on the phone with David about it—they still haven't figured out the specifics of moving Pariello, by the way.”

“He's the least of our problems.  What about this hit-and-run?”

“Car swerved into oncoming, hit a van, and a few witnesses say they saw a someone get out and yell at the driver of the van. After that, the van driver got a hood facial.”

Detective Logan scowled.  “And Dave didn't put an officer on that?”

“Lieutenant Pierce,” Sierra replied, “is handling things at the station—”

“Which means it's up to us to get out there and catch the perp before she does anything worse.”  The detective was already out of his chair.  “The cops aren't going to be able to just throw the perp in the drunk tank like they did with Pariello, if they catch her.”

“And you think we can just swoop in and—”

“Nobody's doing any swooping, or crashing in through the skylight, or driving their car through a plate-glass window, or fast-roping from a hole in the ceiling.  This isn't Die Hard.”  The detective examined his weapon.  “The minute we pull the Cowboy Cop act,” he stated, we're sliding down the slope to being just as bad as the perp.”

Sierra scowled.  “So we just sit around, waiting for another report?”

“We get our people out there,” the detective replied.  “It's what they're here for.”

“They're here to help people, Tommy,” Sierra reminded him.  “We're not running some kind of Batman, Inc. operation under the CAEDIA flag—”

“Our perpetrator,” Detective Logan intoned, “is a rogue element.  No ties to any local entities or parties.  She's already bricked two sentients, stolen at least three or four cars, and is very likely armed and dangerous—and she has no problem with using identity theft, in the most literal sense, to put distance between herself and us.”

After a moment, Sierra sighed.  “I get that.  It's just—”

“You're thinking of this like a police officer. An admirable point of view, but not the right one for the job.”

“So how do we think of it?”

The detective gave a short, grunting chuckle. “Hunter vs. Prey.  Except the prey is just as dangerous as the hunter.”

“That's a dangerous mindset to take, Tommy.” Sierra turned away.  “You're almost treating this like it's a war between us and her.”

“She was made for war,” the detective replied.  “And a war is the last thing this city needs.”

-----

“And she just pulled up alongside you, and asked if you needed a ride?”

Diana, seated in her recharging base in the shop, nodded.  “I was running late, so I took the offer,” she explained.  “Then my seat belt trapped me in my seat and we went for a fifteen-minute joyride.”

“I still say we should call CAEDIA,” Erin muttered, scowling.  The feed of Diana's memory of the ride was replaying on a small diagnostic monitor built into the stand; the driver's rants, and the glare she directed at her “passenger”, were replayed in picture-in-picture format.  “The stuff she was talking about is reason enough to worry,” she continued.  “That whole spiel about 'role models', for one—nobody in their right mind thinks Bundy and Ramirez were good people.  And as for that psycho from Lake Gilmour—”

“She might've been kidding,” Cam mused, though even she didn't seem to take that idea seriously.

Erin gave her a look of what could only be described as absolute disbelief.  “You remember the last nutjob in town who got fixated on the 'Butcher King'?”

“That was the same guy who snapped a few summers ago,” Harry mused.  “Thought he was a 'seafood human', ran around town yelling about it to everyone who'd listen—”

The point is,” Erin insisted, “Diana 'got a ride' from someone hopelessly devoted to that psychopath, which could've ended very badly.”  To Diana, she quickly added: “I'm gonna have to change a few of your settings to keep this from ever happening again.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“Everyone gets distracted,” Harry assured the blonde gynoid.  “Even androids and gynoids.”

Sentient androids and gynoids,” Erin clarified. “This is the first time I can remember hearing that a NonSen was actually distracted by anything.”

Diana frowned.  “I was thinking about things,” she admitted.  “Should I not have been?”

“Thinking isn't the problem,” Harry reminded her.  “When that thinking crosses into distraction, that's the problem.”

“We should still call CAEDIA,” Erin reiterated. “We're lucky the driver didn't haul her to a chop shop, or just get her to force-shutdown and leave her in a dumpster somewhere.  If nothing else, we could at least send them the memory feed out of Diana's diagnostic monitor—”

“Right, right.”  Harry held up his hands, signalling he had no desire to argue any further.  “Make the call.”

“Will do.  Cam, go get the monitor—ask to get us put through to Officer Sierra Birch—she's the one who talked to Harry on Saturday, here and at Regional.” Cam nodded, heading off into the shop to find the monitor. 

“And Diana,” Erin continued, “like Harry's been saying, I'm not mad at you either.”  Her annoyed look softened into one of genuine concern.  “I just don't want you to get taken advantage of, or stolen, or damaged, or worse.”

Diana nodded.  “Thank you.”

Something about the sincerity of her tone earned a smile from Erin.  “You're welcome, Diana.”  She rested a hand on the blonde gynoid's shoulder, seeming to want to say something more...

The sound of the cart with the monitor rolling up ended the moment before it could go further.  “Shall we?”

-----

Sierra had considered heading to the repair bays for a quick recharge, maybe even a scan, when the call came in.  “It's from Harry Morgan,” the receptionist informed her. “Says he'd like to talk to you specifically.”

“I did handle the questioning on Saturday,” Sierra admitted.  “Send it to my desk, please.”

Seconds later, the monitor lit up with an image of Harry Morgan—behind him were the two gynoids who'd been with him when the solid-state drive had been tested.  Sierra briefly remembered that the less-lifelike one was Erin, and the one currently frowning politely was Cam.  “—should be on now—hello?

“You're coming through loud and clear, Mr. Morgan,” Sierra assured Harry.  “Everything all right on your end?”

Well, ah,” Harry managed, “there's been a bit of an incident—I don't know how else to say it.”

The word 'incident' drew a frown from Sierra. “What kind of incident?”

-----

“Well,” Harry stated, “I sent some of my employees out to Billings, just to run a few errands—nothing too major, just a few things to pick up, a few talks with a few people, that sort of thing.  One of 'em—”  He stepped aside to reveal Diana, still seated at her recharge base.  “—had a bit of a run-in with someone.”

Could you define 'run-in' more clearly, please?

Harry started to explain, but Erin practically jumped in front of him.  “She got trapped in the back of someone's car.”

Even on the monitor, it was clear that Officer Birch was perturbed.  “Was she damaged in any way?

“Yelled at a few times—we're looking over her memory feed right now—but no physical damage.”  Erin scowled.  “I think you might want to run a trace on the driver of the car, though.”

“Erin,” Harry muttered, “we just went over this—”

“You saw the feed!” Erin snapped.  “That girl was talking about Bundy, Ramirez and—”

-----

The sound on her end was somewhat muted, as Erin had leaned in to whisper something to Harry, but Sierra could still make out the start of a word or name that began with “F” and ended with “S”.  “—no sane person looks up to those three as role models!  And all that talk about garrottes, and pencils in the eye, and breaking arms, and—

“Sorry to interrupt,” Sierra cut in, “but you're saying that the driver of this vehicle was talking about hurting people?”

Monologuing, pretty muchDiana barely got a word in edgewise, except to say that she didn't know what it all meant, and that got her yelled at.”  Erin was still scowling.  “Whoever this driver is, they need to be looked into.”

That phrase—”looked into”—seemed eerily reminiscent of Tommy's remarks earlier.

Actually, we can help with that—Cam, you know how to hook it up to...right.”  Erin nodded. “There's a crystal clear pic of the driver's face—or even a video, if you prefer—from Diana's memory feed.  We can send either one to you right now, just to—

“Both, actually,” Sierra replied.  “And any audio from the feed.”

Pic'll take less time, I'll send that first.” Erin nodded again, to someone out of frame.

A notification appeared on Sierra's monitor. Without hesitation, she clicked it.

-----

Harry was somewhat confused by the fact that the CAEDIA Officer looked a bit disturbed at what she'd just been sent; a clearly audible “no” seemed to be the only response she could muster.

“Ah, Officer?  Is everything all—”

On the other end of the line, Officer Birch had turned away from the monitor.  “TOMMY!  GET IN HERE! I THINK WE JUST GOT A BIG LEAD ON OUR PERP!

-----

The footsteps charging down the corridor confirmed that Sierra's colleague had, indeed, heard her shout.

Ah, if there's anything more we can—

“Just stay on the line, please, Mr. Morgan,” Sierra managed; she barely acknowledged Detective Logan entering the room with a nod. “Get a look at this, Tommy.”

The detective's reaction to the image on Sierra's monitor was far more subtle; the Officer's enhanced aural sensors could hear the faint crinkling of his gloves as his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Just got the call,” Sierra explained. “She apparently just pulled up alongside theirs—Diana—and threw her into the back of a car.”

“How long ago?”

From the other end of the line: “This morning. Some time before lunch.”

“The hit-and-run was just before the lunchtime rush started,” Detective Logan muttered.  “It fits.”

“But that's her!” Sierra hissed. “The same one from—”

“Tell them.”  Detective Logan was already heading for the door.  “And send them one of the pics we have.”

“Where are you going?!

“To do my job.”  The door hissed closed behind the detective.

-----

Harry glanced at Erin with a frown.  “Something tells me this is a lot bigger than—”

Mr. Morgan, I'll be sending you an image in a few seconds.  Don't show it to anyone who isn't aware of what happened this morning—it's material from an ongoing investigation, and we can't afford to—

“If it's from an ongoing investigation,” Cam interjected, “why are you sending it to us?”

Officer Birch now looked extremely troubled. “The image you're about to receive is a picture of the gynoid responsible for the break-in at Robert Pariello's house last week,” she explained, “and the forced Cessation Of Function of two sentient gynoids, by means of extreme damage.

Erin's eyes went wide, and Harry was stunned into silence—which was only broken two seconds later by an unnervingly cheerful ping.  He moved to open the image he'd just been sent.

“Son of a—”  Erin turned away, an angry, wordless yell leaving her synthetic lips.

Cam's usual stoicism gave way to a somewhat troubled stare.

The smiling girl, charging up Bobby P.'s front walk, was identical to the driver who'd tried to abduct Diana that morning.

-----

That's her.”  It didn't take an expert in emotional analysis to read the disbelief, shock and even hints of anger in Harry Morgan's voice.  “The one Bobby P. thought I sent over to his house—she's the one who nearly took Diana?!

“I'm afraid so,” Sierra admitted.  “And we have reason to believe she's responsible for other criminal acts in and around Billings, over the past few days.”

So what do we—

“For now, Mr. Morgan, I can only suggest that you keep on with business as normal.  Don't give any indication that you or your employees know who she is, or what she's done or might have done.”  Sierra nearly added the standard line about letting CAEDIA and the police handle it, but didn't say it.

And if she shows up here, like Bobby P. did?

Sierra nearly recited the line there—only for another window to open on her monitor.  “Are the members of your staff trained in shooting for self-defence?

Everyone here except the NonSens knows how to handle a gun.”

“Tommy, what the hell—”

Then I'd suggest putting those firearms to use if the subject in that photo shows up on your property, Mr. Morgan.”  From the rush of wind in the background of his call window, it was obvious that Detective Logan was making the call from the road.  “If you can, shoot to damage, not for Cessation Of FunctionIf worse comes to worse—

“CAEDIA can handle this,” Sierra insisted, both to dissuade Detective Logan and to assure Harry Morgan that he had nothing to worry about—but even she knew that the perp was far too dangerous to just be “apprehended”, as per the usual standard.  “That said, If we're unable to reach the scene of a disturbance,” she admitted, “there's no law saying you and your staff can't defend yourselves, Mr. Morgan.” 

We'll do what we can.”

That's all any of us could ask for.”  With that, Detective Logan's call window closed.

Sierra wanted, more than anything, to end the call there, but she knew that it wouldn't go over well with Harry Morgan or those on his end.  “CAEDIA will do its best to find and stop the perpetrator of Diana's abduction,” she stated. “I can't make any promises as to how we'll stop her—”

You don't have to promise anything, Officer. I'm just glad Diana's back with us, safe and sound, not in pieces on the side of the road somewhere.”

“Just be sure to keep her security protocols updated, and make sure she has some understanding of self-defence.”

Will do.  Thanks for the help, Officer.”

“All in a day's work, Mr. Morgan.”  With that, Sierra ended the call.

The image of the driver who'd tried to steal Diana was still on the monitor, side-by-side with the freeze-frame still from Bobby Pariello's doorbell camera.  Next to that image was the ad showing the P4RTY G1RL from two decades past, her pre-programmed smile looking far less sinister than the one seen in the other pictures.

Sierra stared at the images, wondering who in their right mind would've paid to intentionally break a gynoid's mind.

-----

Harry regarded the monitor for a moment, before turning his attention to Diana.  “You, ah, enjoy being activated and in Autonomous Mode, right?”

“Yes, sir, I do!”  Diana nodded brightly.

“And you like helping out around the house, and the shop, even going on a supply run like you did today?”

“Most definitely!”  Another nod.

“And you'd definitely say that you've been feeling, more and more each day, since you were switched from Command Mode to Autonomous Mode?”

“I would, sir.”  Harry could tell that Diana was reflecting on the “joyride” she'd taken earlier in the day.

“So that'd mean you were, maybe, afraid, earlier?  When you got in that strange car and it went all over Billings?”

“I was, sir.”  An undercurrent of fear had crept into Diana's voice.  “I don't know how I would've reacted if I was unaware of what was going on.”

“Which is weird,” Erin cut in, “because you're still a NonSen.  Technically speaking, at least.”

The sound of Harry clearing his throat cut off any further discussion of Diana's nature.  “This whole incident,” he stated, “got me thinking—we have a program, on offer from the manufacturer as a mutual customer bonus, called SafeSense. I never really found any use for it before today, but I think it might be just what you need.”  He approached Diana's recharge base, his tone reassuring. “It's usually only installed on sentients,” he explained, “and whether you are or aren't is pretty much academic, at this point.”

Erin, who'd seemed to lose interest in the discussion, was now paying attention to every word Harry spoke.

“If you really wanna stay in Autonomous Mode, all the time, you're gonna need it.  It'll give you—I can't really think of a better way to say it than that it'll help you develop 'common sense', as we mere mortals call it.”  Harry chuckled.  “You'll spot dodgy situations a lot better than you ever could without it—”

“The downside,” Cam added, “is that you might start jumping at every shadow, seeing a lurking threat around every dark corner. SafeSense is too much for the systems of most NonSens to handle—”

“Except Diana isn't 'most' NonSens,” Harry reminded her.  To Diana, he added: “There's a chance that could happen to you, I'll admit—and once SafeSense is installed in your systems, there's no going back.”

Erin nodded gravely.  “The choice is yours, Diana, and yours alone.  Either go as you are and risk getting another joyride from random crazies, or get SafeSense installed and have a better chance of avoiding that sort of thing—at the risk of living in fear.”

Harry frowned.  “Wouldn't have put it that way,” he admitted.  “Anyways, Diana, just think it over for a bit.  When you've made your decision, let me know.”

“I will, sir.”  Diana nodded.

“Right.”  Harry clapped her on the shoulder, offering a reassuring smile.  “Just know that no matter which choice you go with,” he informed her, “we're behind you 100%.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Diana smiled.  Already, she was weighing the risks and rewards in her thought processes.

-----

The Billings PD officers on the scene weren't quite sure how to respond, at first, when the black Yamaha pulled up.  Only when the driver removed his helmet did they relax—the department already had a rapport with Detective Thomas Erhardt Logan, and his presence eased their minds considerably.


“Sorry I'm late.”  The detective's distinctive rasp was far less unnerving to the cops than it was to most civilians.  “Had to teleconference on the way, didn't want to crash the bike.”  He frowned as he regarded the bloodstain on the hood. “Do I even want to know?”


“Eyewitnesses said they saw a crash,” one of the officers stated.  “A girl got out from behind the wheel of the other car, had a brief argument with the driver, and then—”


“Slam-dunk on the hood.”  Detective Logan scowled.  “Any updates?”

Officer Carver—Detective Logan recognized him from the report on the break-in at Bobby Pariello's house the week before—sighed. “Definitely concussed,” he stated. “Possible brain damage, too.”

“Any of the witnesses get a good look at the one who did this?”

The officers exchanged glances.  “All any of them know for sure is that she's blonde.”

Detective Logan retrieved his phone; the image on the screen was the same one Harry Morgan had sent to CAEDIA, just cropped to focus on the face of the girl behind the wheel of the car—blonde.  “Go figure.”

“Hmm?”

A quick scroll of his thumb moved the image to the one of the perp charging up Pariello's doorway, which the detective then showed to the police officers.  “She's the one who broke into Pariello's last week,” he explained.  “We suspect that she's also responsible for other activity around Laurel and Billings—”

She's the one who trashed Pariello's?” Officer Carver asked, somewhat skeptically.

“That image is from his doorbell camera, right before she kicked in the front door.”

Carver and his colleague exchanged stunned glances, but the detective didn't leave any room for argument or debate.  “I suggest you circulate that picture around the department, and onto digital billboards.”  He'd already turned away from the cops, heading up the street. “If I'm right, the girl in that picture is the most dangerous person in Billings right now.”

Something in his tone made it clear that the claim, however ludicrous it might sound, wasn't to be taken lightly.

-----

In a semi-abandoned building, somewhere in the city of Billings, the driver of the car that had “picked up” Diana was ruminating on her day thus far.  Another change of identity was in order—using her own face for the morning was, most definitely, a risk, but one that she ignored.

“I still have the evening,” she muttered, applying makeup to yet another “borrowed” visage.  “This can still be salvaged.”

Off in the corner of the room, two further “borrowed assets” were undergoing the forced reprogramming that would, if all went well, give a boost of credibility to the actions of their “borrower”.  Both were dressed in stolen clothes, their own hair and makeup having been applied far more brusquely mere minutes before.

“As long as they stick to the script, it'll all go well—and 'Uncle Bobby' will be bailed out in no time!”

The malicious laugh that followed that sentence went unremarked upon by the two NonSens in the corner.

-----

When he'd first arrived at Jefferson State University – Billings, Lloyd had found that he had far more independence by living on-campus.  He'd been lucky enough to score a small dorm room, near the building where most of his Mechanical Engineering and Electronics classes were held.  It also had the added benefit of being much closer to Mandy's residence, seeing as their compound was on the outskirts of town and she lived in the centre.

As it stood, at that moment, Lloyd was doing his best to revise for the coming exams in his dorm room.  He could only read the same info so many times before it all seemed to blur together into an unrecognizable mess before his eyes—a peril that had nearly cost him a passing grade more than once before.  Thankfully, he'd pulled through each time.

Fighting the urge to yawn, he decided that a dinner break was in order.  Only one option stood out in his mind.

“Pizza,” he muttered, reaching for his phone.  “I know just the place.”

Thirty minutes later, he was once again nose-deep in the Mechanical Engineering textbook and his own notes when he heard a knock at the door.  “Just a minute!”  He saved the work on his laptop, closed the book (careful to leave a Post-It Note, sticky edge out, as a bookmark) and headed for the door.  “I, ah—”

The door opened, revealing not the face of an unknown pizza delivery driver, but the smiling visage of Mandy.  She had a small bag slung over her shoulder, a small case under her left arm, and Lloyd's pizza held in her right hand.

“I've got food, and we both have studying to do. Care to let me in?”

-----

Chapter 12

“Ah, sure, sure!”  Lloyd stepped aside, surprised to see Mandy at his door in jeans and a JSUB jumper, hair tied up in a pony tail.  “How'd you get my—”


“Pizza?” Mandy finished.  “I met the delivery driver at the curb—consider this my exam week Christmas gift to you.”


You paid for it?”


Mandy nodded.  “I figured it'd be one less thing for you to worry about.  Where do I—”

“The desk,” Lloyd nodded to the furniture in question.  “Just set it down—I'll make room for it, if I have to.” 

As she moved to place the pizza box on the desk, Mandy regarded the hardcover textbook on Lloyd's bed.  “You do know that there are paperless editions of that available,” she reminded him, “right?”

Lloyd shrugged.  “I always liked actual books more,” he admitted.  “Something about actually being able to turn the page, instead of just swiping up and down or side-to-side on a screen.”  He moved to the bed and held up the book, briefly thumbing through it.  “Tactile stuff, y'know?” 

“I guess that makes sense,” Mandy acquiesced as she took off her shoes.  “But how'd you—”

“Used bookstore on campus.  Got it for a song, like Uncle Harry would say.”  Lloyd chuckled.  “I'm guessing you've got your notes with you?”

Mandy held up a tablet PC.  “Always.”

“Well, let's not waste any time, then.  You want the desk, or, ah....” 

“The bed's fine—”

“I mean, if you prefer sitting in a chair, with a back and everything,” Lloyd stammered, “it's not that big of a deal to me, to be honest.  I can sit on the bed, let you have the desk—just don't knock over the pizza, is all—” The hands on his shoulder cut him off. “Why don't we both sit on the bed?” Mandy offered.

“Both?” Lloyd echoed.  The word was rendered as something bordering a squeak.

“Why not?”

After a few moments of silent pondering, Lloyd nodded.  “Why not?” In less time than it'd taken him to ponder it, he was sitting on the edge of the mattress, right next to Mandy. Not wanting to let an awkward silence develop, he reached past Mandy to get the textbook, muttering a quiet “'xcuse me” as he moved.  “It's not out of date,” he stated, as if to justify his purchase of the hardcover. “Everything we're going over in class is covered.”

“Well, if it covers everything,” Mandy mused, “I guess it's as good as paperless.”

“Some do, some don't. For those that do, I stick with the already published material.”

For the next few minutes, the pair went over their notes, the textbooks and other trivia that might end up playing any role in the upcoming exams.  Lloyd was engrossed in the discussion—but not enough to ignore the occasional brush of Mandy's hand on his knee, or her sideways glances and shy smiles. Occasionally, their hands would come to rest atop one another; Lloyd almost apologized, the first time, only to catch Mandy regarding him with a curious look. Any hint of an apology faded on Lloyd's tongue.  There was nothing to apologize for, after all. Their studying continued, in this way, for a good twenty minutes or so.

After a while, Mandy decided that she and Lloyd could quiz each other—the actual exam would be entirely silent, but it wouldn't hurt to get a good measure of what the pair of them knew, and how quickly they could answer any one of the given questions.   Lloyd went first. To ease his nerves, he asked an unrelated question. “So, Mandy...is that short for Amanda?”

Mandy laughed out loud. “No, no, it's just Mandy. I was named after a song my parents liked from way, way back. I don't know why they did that and if I asked I forget their answer. So come on, ask me some real ones.” Lloyd then went down a set of ten questions that she answered to the best of her ability.  Each of her answers turned out to be correct, according to the notes they both went over.

With Mandy having performed well on her questions, it was time for the pair to switch: she asked Lloyd a different set of questions, and he answered.  For the first three, she'd indicate if he was right or wrong by simply saying so; after the fourth question, however, he had to glance at her to see if she'd nodded or shook her head.  By the time he made it to the sixth of the ten questions, he was somewhat nervous; was this some kind of test within a test?

“Ah, Mandy,” he asked, turning to glance at the “quiz giver” sitting next to him, “did I get it right—”

To his surprise, Mandy had leaned in and kissed him full on the lips.

He was still somewhat stunned when he felt her hands on his back, drawing him closer—after a few seconds, he began to reciprocate.  The kiss continued for a few more seconds before Mandy pulled back, smiling.  “I think that's enough studying for today,” she murmured, leaning in for another kiss.

Lloyd tried to say something, to ask something, but eventually abandoned the effort.

-----

“...and Uncle Bobby knows me, he hasn't been by in ages, but I'm pretty sure he'd remember me!”

The receptionist at the Billings Police Station frowned as she beheld the gaudily-dressed girl standing in the lobby. With flame-orange hair, sunglasses (worn indoors, and after sunset, at that), and a wardrobe that looked like a music video version of how people in and around Hollywood should dress, she seemed more like a caricature of a tourist, rather than the niece of the currently-imprisoned Bobby Pariello.  “I just need to see some identification, ma'am.”

At this, the girl groaned, but proceeded to fish around in her purse.  The two standing behind her—she'd called them her “BFFs”, though they seemed to act more like bodyguards—hadn't moved an inch, and were apparently content to just wait for her to finish her business.

“THERE it is.”  The girl handed over her wallet.  “Everything's in there.  Now lemme see Uncle Bobby!  I wanna make sure he's okay!”

The receptionist regarded the documentation in the wallet, briefly glancing back at the wallet's owner.  There was a hint of something that might've been desperation in her features, but she didn't voice her concerns.  After a few minutes, the receptionist's search came back clean. “Well?”

“You're clear.  Just wait a few minutes so Mr. Pariello can be brought to a secure area for visitation.”  The receptionist keyed in something on the building's intercom and spoke.

Had she bothered to glance at the girl on the other side of the bulletproof window of the reception area, she might've spotted the briefest flash of a psychotic smirk, the faintest glint of malicious intent in her eyes.  Of course her records were spotless—a late-night data mining expedition had uncovered the documentation for Bobby Pariello's actual niece—dead since 2019, thanks to a drunk driver.  Luckily, the deceased had no criminal record of her own

Hopefully, getting “Uncle Bobby” out of the building would be just as easy as getting into it.

-----

It didn't matter to Lloyd that the textbook, or his notes, had been accidentally nudged off of the bed onto the floor of his dorm room.  His focus, at that moment, was on Mandy—on her hands, as they explored his body; on her lips, pressed against his; on her gentle touch, her steady rhythm.

The two went, as one, to the bed—but there was no move from Mandy to suddenly go for Lloyd's shirt, or to tear off her own. Her hands moved slowly, seeming to trace patterns in his skin through the fabric of his shirt.  Finding that he quite enjoyed the sensation, he reciprocated, his own efforts slightly clumsy at first.  Apparently, Mandy didn't seem to mind; when she pulled back from their kiss, the sigh that left her lips was a clear sign that his efforts weren't in vain.

Lloyd found his thoughts drifting back to the weekend—not to Bobby P.'s inexplicable, unwarranted and very obviously unwelcome intrusion onto Uncle Harry's property, but to Diana.  She'd had so many questions that morning.

One of them rose, unbidden, to the forefront of Lloyd's mind: “Do you love me?”

It seemed, at the time, completely random—yet now, here, with Mandy, Lloyd couldn't help but wonder the same thing.

“Mandy,” he murmured, “do you—”

Without a word, Mandy turned his head to face hers, and kissed him full on the lips again.

For what felt like an eternity, Lloyd and Mandy lay together, entwined; their hands roamed each other's bodies, their lips pressed together in a deep kiss.  The sounds of campus life beyond the dorm room seemed to fade into the background.  The cars rushing by, the music blaring from someone else's room a block or so away, the distant voices of other JSU-B students briefly meeting as they crossed the campus...all of it seemed to recede, not quite going silent, but becoming muted, pushed below the threshold of contemplation.

Far more important—to Lloyd, at least—was everything he was feeling as he and Mandy kissed.

The question he'd tried to ask—“Do you love me?”—he realised, had many shades.  Without words, without quoting a song or a movie or a TV show or “borrowing” from someone else, Mandy had told him she wanted him, was interested in him and wanted to be with him, in many ways. While he still was thinking of Diana, he also knew he felt a tingling, a stirring towards Mandy, knowing what just happened. He had a more carnal desire at the moment, but also a protective feeling to keep Mandy safe. Diana kind of faded into the background for now.

If there were some way to snapshot that precise moment in time, preserve it...he would.  Without question.

The exams, Bobby P. turning up at the house and waving a gun around, all of the weirdness from the past few days—it all seemed to blur, to fade.  All of these concerns, these issues, had their place, but at that point in time, they were simply irrelevant.  What mattered, at that moment, was being with Mandy, and the two of them being happy.  Their feelings for each other, their actions, weren't merely instinctual, thoughtless acts of lust—there was a far deeper connection, a much more meaningful link between them.

Time seemed meaningless.  The sun had set, but neither Lloyd nor Mandy knew the exact time—nor did they care.  They were more than happy to lay next to each other, one tracing their fingers across the other's limbs.  No words were said, and none were needed.  The one time Lloyd thought of something to say, he turned to regard Mandy—and yet again, her lips met his.

After he finally, reluctantly drew back, something else managed to make itself apparent to Lloyd: in the time since Mandy had shown up to his dorm, he'd wanted—needed to tend to something else. He thought, for a moment, about just what that something might've been.

The sight of the pizza box on his desk immediately reminded him of what he'd forgotten.

“I, ah, I just realized something, Mandy.”

“Yeah?”

“I, ah, I am actually pretty hungry.” Lloyd glanced over his shoulder to the pizza box.

Almost instantly, he felt like an idiot for having spoken—but Mandy surprised him yet again.  Instead of getting annoyed or flat-out angry at his sudden, apparent disinterest in her, she giggled.  “I'm actually pretty hungry, too.” she admitted, nodding at the pizza box. “Shall we?”

Lloyd grinned.  “Let's eat.”

The two nearly tripped over each other getting up from the bed.  The near-mishap prompted another bout of giggling from Mandy, with Lloyd having to chuckle at the absurdity of it himself.  Mandy was the first to reach the desk-and, by proxy, the pizza box, lifting the lid and taking in a massive whiff of the delectable meal inside. “Let me guess,” she mused.  “Meat Lover's?”

“That's not a problem, is it?”

“Nope.”  Mandy opened the lid fully.  “Though I know one relative on Mom's side of the family who thinks 'pizza' should just be the dough, the sauce and cheese—no toppings other than that.”

“Isn't the cheese a topping itself?” Lloyd mused, reaching into the pizza box to grab a slice.

“There have been many long, loud debates over that exact issue,” Mandy replied, rolling her eyes as she retrieved a slice for herself.  “I try not to get involved.”  She took a bite, nodding contentedly at the taste.  “Mmm!”  She nodded again, as Lloyd took a bite of his own slice.  “This is good!

“It really is,” Lloyd agreed.

The two enjoyed their meal, conversing about various things in between bites.  Lloyd admitted to having bought Diana with him to the Rimrock Mall, the day before, but decided not to mention that he'd gone so far as to get a purse for her as a gift (by necessity, he also left out their encounter with the would-be purse snatcher).  He did mention the fact that he and Diana had left earlier than originally planned—and the reason for it: “I can't explain why,” he stated, “but I felt a lot like there was someone watching me.  Just staring, from a shop doorway.”

“Did you notice anyone in particular?” Mandy asked.

Lloyd shrugged.  “I didn't turn to look, or anything—I guess I didn't want them to spot me spotting them spying on me.”

With a slice of pizza dangling from one hand, Mandy draped her other arm around Lloyd's shoulder.  “I don't know why anyone would want to do anything to hurt you, Lloyd—but if there was someone there who had bad intentions in mind for you, I'm just glad you're safe.”  She hugged him as much as she could with one arm.

“Thanks.”

“You're welcome.”  She offered him the slice of pizza she was holding in her other hand, moving it just close enough to his face for him to attempt to bite at it. Any lingering tension from the quiz was long gone by now; thus, Lloyd eagerly tried to nibble on the elevated slice, nearly falling over Mandy in the process.  The two laughed, and Mandy settled for handing over the slice. 

Any and all stress and worry left Lloyd's thoughts as he looked into Mandy's eyes.

-----

Bobby Pariello's ersatz niece did her best to keep her composure as she followed the officer to the holding area—not out of, as the officer probably suspected, some long pent-up emotion over seeing her uncle in jail, but because she wanted, so badly, to burst out laughing.  The ruse had worked astonishingly well, so far; her “borrowed” face (modelled after that of Pariello's actual niece, dead since 2019 thanks to a drunk driver), the forged identity and her completely made-up tale of woe were all combining to get her even closer to her objective—removing Pariello from the station, to facilitate his eventual removal from life altogether—quite spectacularly.

Granted, there were still a few avenues by which things could go sideways...

In the cell he'd been moved to, Pariello looked like an absolute slob.  He wasn't even sitting upright on the bunk, having chosen to just fall asleep in a probable effort to lose himself in dreams where he was every bit the “big shot” he'd always told his acquaintances he'd be.  He hadn't shaved, and stank abominably.

“Mr. Pariello,” the officer declared, “there's someone here to—”

Pariello merely groaned, trying to turn over on the bunk.

“Uncle Bobby, will ya look at yourself already!  You look horrible!”

At the unfamiliar voice, Pariello raised his head just enough to get a glimpse.  His “niece” could tell he was still probably half-asleep, barely able to focus. “Whuh?”

“Uncle Bobby, it's me!  Remember?”

The only “statement” Pariello made was something that sounded vaguely like “fargle” before his head drooped, a loud snore leaving his lips.

“What's wrong with him?!”  Despite the fact that she had even worse things in mind for Pariello than any imagined illnesses, brief beatings or possible mistreatment he'd already been through, his “niece” was utterly convincing in her anger towards the police.  “If I find out you people did anything to my uncle Bobby—”

“He's been attacked by one other inmate, ma'am,” the officer assured her.  “Just a punch in the nose, is all.”

“And you let him get hit?!

“Ma'am, we—”

“Where's my phone?!  I'm calling my lawyer right now—

“Ma'am, if you're here to post his bail, then we can finish that transaction at the front desk, and your uncle will be in your custody in a few minutes.”  The officer sounded as tired of Pariello as the other police station employees (and the residents of the other cells) looked.  “We'll have this all sorted soon enough.”

“I'd hope so.  Seeing him locked up like some kinda criminal—it's dehumanizing!

As the officer moved to let Bobby out of the cell, the irony of her remark was all too apparent to his “niece”.  Anything that'd happened to him in the drunk tank would pale in comparison to what she had in mind for him.  The idiot didn't even realize that he was being bailed out of jail by someone impersonating a dead relative of his; that, in and of itself, would make his eventual fate all the more hilarious.  As long as everything went smoothly, there'd be no need to fall back on the contingency plans and bring down more heat.

Granted, it might be fun to activate them, just because.

-----

“Lloyd?”

“Yeah?”

“That pizza was pretty good.”  Mandy lazily traced her finger across Lloyd's abdomen, turning to grin at him.

“It was, wasn't it?”  Lloyd felt too full to do anything other than let Mandy “draw” on him, at the moment.  “Thanks for bringing it.”

“You're welcome.”  Mandy lightly poked Lloyd's stomach, giggling.  “We'll never get any studying done at this rate,” she reminded him; the tone of her voice made it clear that she wasn't all too concerned about failing the exam.

Lloyd grunted and turned over.  “I think we're good.”  The clock on his desktop computer was now in his field of view.

“Lloyd?”

“Just checking the time.  You, ah, don't need to call a rideshare or anything when it gets late, do you?”

Mandy edged closer to Lloyd, draping an arm across him.  “Right now, the only two things I need are in this room,” she replied, again tracing a pattern on his abdomen with one finger.

“Really?”

“Mmmh-hmm.”

“And what are they?”

In lieu of a verbal reply, Mandy slowly raised one finger, until she was pointing at Lloyd.

“Well, ah, that's...”  Lloyd chuckled nervously.  “That's, ah, only one thing, out of two,” he admitted.  “I mean, I'm only one, out of—”

Mandy leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.

“So, ah,” Lloyd managed, “what's the other only thing you need?”

At this, Mandy sighed and pointed to the small case she'd brought to the dorm room with her.

“Your ventilator?”

“I can put it on myself,” Mandy explained, “but I can't talk once it's on.”  She sighed again.  “I won't need to put it on for another hour or so,” she continued.  “I'll just set it up later, and when the time comes, I'll show you how to help me start it up.”

The fact that she trusted Lloyd enough to help with her ventilator was rather reassuring.  “Got it.  And when—”

Mandy pressed a finger to Lloyd's lips.

With that, the two simply laid there, in Lloyd's bed, happy to be with each other.  Outside, the hustle and bustle of campus life was still going strong; whoever had been blasting music had finally turned it down.

For now, all was right with the world.

-----

“Make sure he doesn't bash his head on the door when he gets in the car, okay?  I don't wanna have to bring him to a doctor's office tomorrow!”  Bobby Pariello's “niece” nodded as her two friends guided the still-groggy Pariello out of the lobby of the police department. Everything had gone according to plan, without the need to use the contingencies she'd prepared for the situation. With a last “thank-you” nod to the receptionist, she turned to leave—

“—is Pariello not in the drunk tank?!”

Any human being would've had to strain to hear Lieutenant David Pierce's question, directed at another officer several rooms away from the lobby—but it was all too clear for the gynoid impersonating Pariello's dead niece.

“His niece just showed up to bail him out, said she was in town on business—”

“Pariello's niece is dead!  Got killed in a five-car pileup, four years ago!”

“Her papers checked out, sir—”

“Run the check again, on the current status of those papers!  Where's Pariello now?”

“He just left, sir, brought out to a car—”

With a sigh that quickly faded to a low chuckle, the ersatz “niece” kept on walking towards the exit.  She heard a door thrown open behind her, ignored the receptionist's polite-yet-confused “Ma'am?” and kept right on walking.

When Lieutenant Pierce uttered the word “ma'am”, probably intending to follow it with a “we'd like to ask you a few questions”, Pariello's “niece” broke into a flat sprint.

“STOP HER!”

The car was ready to go by the time Lexi had reached it. She'd abandoned any pretence of keeping up her disguise as soon as she heard Pierce interrogating another cop, flinging the driver's side door open and slipping herself into the driver's seat.  To her two “BFFs”, sitting with Pariello in the back, she gave a clear, concise order: “Strap him in and make sure he keeps his mouth shut!”

Lieutenant Pierce and four other officers had just stormed out of the exit, catching sight of Lexi just as she finished giving the order. Without hesitation, Pierce took a step towards the car.  “Step out of the vehicle, now—

“How about later?”  Lexi stomped the gas pedal.  “OR NEVER?!”  The car roared away from the police station.

Maniacal laughter filled the interior of the car as it sped away from the police, just as various options and dialogue boxes filled Lexi's field of vision.  All three of her contingency plans were on display, ready to be activated—they wouldn't keep the law off of her tail, but they'd definitely slow down the pursuit if need be.

“Which one to trip first?” she mused.  “You two have any ideas?”

One of the NonSens in the backseat piped up: “It's a steal of a deal at Albertson's this week—”

“Why did I even bother,” Lexi grumbled.  “I think I'll just trip all three at once—give 'em more to worry about than trying to catch me.”  She licked her lips, chuckling as she prepared to activate her three traps. “Oh, this job is just too much fun, sometimes!”  As the car glided through a red light, into a turn, she glanced back at Pariello—once again snoring his head off in the backseat.

In a few short hours, he'd be wishing he could stay asleep, lost in his pathetic dream-world...

-----

“So how long have you been living at your uncle's?”

“A few years, now.”  Lloyd sighed.  “Haven't seen my parents since 2018 or so—haven't heard from them, either. They didn't just dump me there and leave,” he added.  “It was a business thing—international, I think.”

“What kind of business?”

Lloyd shrugged.  “They never said.”

The two were still laying on Lloyd's bed, content to just be close to each other and talk.  The TV had been turned on, its volume set to low; the current channel was a local news station, going on about the upcoming Christmas break.

“What got you interested in robotics in the first place?”

At this, Lloyd frowned.  He had a faint memory—seeing a partially-assembled robot, definitely a humanoid figure, in a room somewhere, but the details were always fuzzy.  It was almost like trying to recall a dream, from ages ago, or trying to conjure up memories of a long-forgotten TV show that only ran for a single season.

“Lloyd?”

“Sorry.”  Lloyd blew out a frustrated sign.  “I was just trying to remember the specifics.”  He felt Mandy squeeze his hand.  “No worries.”

“Thanks.”  He turned to glance at her.  “What about you?”  Before Mandy could answer, Lloyd's phone rang.  “What now,” he groaned.  With a muttered “sorry”, he did his best to move over Mandy without falling onto her, getting out of bed and reaching for the phone perched on his desk. “Yeah?”

If I'd have been someone trying to get you to join a multi-level marketing scam—

“Hello to you too, Erin.”  Lloyd ignored the chortling from the other end of the line.

Bad time?

“No, I was just in the middle of studying for the exam later this week.”

At this time of the night?

Yes,” Lloyd insisted.  “I ordered in, and we've been—”

We've been?

Mandy giggled, and Lloyd rolled his eyes. “Mandy showed up with my pizza.”

Really.”

“We've been studying!” Lloyd insisted. “Not—”  He trailed off again; Erin was once again holding in a laugh on the other end of the line.  “Did you just call to bug me,” he asked, “or is there something going on back at the house that I need to know about?”

The silence on the other end of the line troubled him.  “Erin?”

You don't have to jump into the RangeStar and haul it back here, or anything,” Erin began, “but Harry's considering—

“He's not selling Diana, is he?”  Lloyd nearly flinched when something touched his shoulder, only to realize it was Mandy's hand.  “Did something—”

He's not selling her, but—promise me you're not going to freak out and break the speed limit to get back here.

“I won't freak out, just tell me—”

Diana might be getting SafeSense installed in her tomorrow.  Harry's letting her make the call.

At the mention of SafeSense, Lloyd frowned. “Why would she need SafeSense?”

Someone 'gave her a ride' this morning—

What?!

I thought you said you wouldn't freak out—

“I'm not,” Lloyd stammered, “I—I'm not, I just, I....what do you mean, someone gave her a ride?”

She wanted to get to a car park closer to the campus, but she ended up going on a joyride around Billings, instead.”  The tone of Erin's voice had turned positively grim. “And the one behind the wheel...” A few mutterings, barely audible, went over the line before she continued.  “We're all just thankful that Diana didn't get damaged, or anything.”

“So that's why she's getting SafeSense installed?”

It's why she might be getting it installedLike I said, her choice.”

“Right, right...but she's safe?”

She's in the shop right now—still online.” There was a hint of admiration in Erin's tone.  “Props to Heartelligence,” she mused, “they really know how to—

“Has she made up her mind about the SafeSense thing, yet?”

Not yet,” Erin replied.  “Why?

“I want to talk to her about it.”  Lloyd gave Mandy a reassuring glance.  “Before she makes her decision.”

Well, you can talk to her tomorrow morning. The shop's locked up as it is.

“Why—”

What I'm about to say is just between us, Lloyd. You don't tell any—”  There was a pause in Erin's remark.  “I guess you can tell Mandy, but other than her, nobody.”

“Erin, what happened?!

We just got a call from that cop who arrested Bobby over here on SaturdaySomeone just bailed Bobby out of jail, and took off like a shot after—I don't know the specifics, but the cop said the one who paid Bobby P's bail might be armed and dangerous.”

Lloyd was both scared and slightly confused. “Why would anyone—”

I have no idea who in their right mind would want to post Bobby Pariello's bail, but I get the feeling they aren't in their right mind.  And before you ask, I'm pretty sure we were called and notified because Bobby did threaten to shoot Harry two days ago.”

Despite his desire to not remember that incident, Lloyd nodded.  “I still don't get who would—”

I don't get it either, Lloyd, but that doesn't change the fact that someone's done itWhatever the case, just stay safe and—wait, I'm getting another callBack in a sec.”  The line went silent, leaving Lloyd to ponder what—

“Lloyd?”

Mandy's voice, over his left shoulder, brought him out of his funk.  “That was Erin, from back at the house.”

“She's the one who looks kind of...plasticky, right?”

“Yeah.  She just called to tell me that someone bailed Bobby P. out of jail—”

“The guy that hit you?”

“That's him, yeah—”  Lloyd's phone rang again, from the same number as the previous call. “Yeah?”

You're in your dorm right now, right?”

“With Mandy, yeah.  Why—”

Lock the door and windows, and don't let anyone else in.

“Erin, what—”

CAEDIA just called, since the cops just called them.  They know who bailed Bobby P. out from the drunk tank.”  Erin's voice suggested that the revelation was very, very bad news.

“And?”

The one who posted his bail is the same one who tore up his house last week—and who bricked two sentients there.”

Lloyd barely heard himself gasp, barely felt the phone almost fall from his hand.

Tell Mandy that it'll be safer to hunker down with you for the night, and like I already said, lock the windows and door.”

“I will.  Thanks, Erin.”

Be safe, Lloyd.” 

With that, Lloyd ended the call and stowed his phone in his pants pocket, before turning his attention to a waiting—and understandably inquisitive—Mandy.  “That was Erin, again,” he explained.  Before Mandy could ask what the call had been about, he continued:  “You don't have any problems staying here for tonight, do you?”

“Like I said earlier, I have everything I need right here.”  Mandy squeezed Lloyd's hand again.  “We'll sort out tomorrow morning when we get there.”

There was something reassuring in Mandy's answer. “Makes sense to me,” he mused, smiling.

-----

Erin watched as Diana sat, motionless, on a chair near the dining room table.  Her expression was pensive, as if she was lost in thought; her misadventure with the strange driver from earlier in the day seemed to be a distant memory.  Her face went through multiple expressions—thoughtful, scared, joyful—over the course of a few seconds.  By the time she'd run the gamut of emotions,   Diana blinked a few times, barely regarding the text disappearing from her field of view. 

“Erin?  Is something—”

“Nothing's wrong, you're not in trouble and the base is still in the shop,” Erin replied.  “I asked you to sit and chat with me up here in the house because I wanted to talk to you, for a bit, before you go into Sleep Mode for the night.”

“Oh.”  Diana nodded.

After giving a remarkably human sigh, Erin continued. “Over the past few days, your development has been...amazing,” she admitted.  She'd done her due diligence on Heartelligence—about how their 'bots tended to undergo spontaneous sentience events (SSEs), among other things—but she'd never read about any seeming to develop as fast as Diana had.

“Is this related to why I have to stay in the lab at night?”

Erin frowned; she'd wanted to bring that up sooner or later, but Diana had beaten her to the punch.  “Well,” she began, “that is where your charging base is—”

“But I'm more comfortable up here,” Diana interjected.  “When I'm in the lab, Cam doesn't really talk to me, and you—”

“Cam tends to lose herself in her work,” Erin replied—Cam's focus on any given task at hand was legendary among the employees of SCIE's Jefferson franchise.  “She's also not really, ah, all that sociable.  As for me, I'm just busy—though I am a lot more chatty.” She shrugged.  “You'd think I'd be the stoic one, what with the Utility bodykit and all, but who knows?  And anyone can get lost in work—or thought, like you seem to be.”

That remark earned a nod from Diana.  “I am,” she admitted.  “I've read up on this 'SafeSense' program, but there's just so much information about it!  And I have to run simulations on how it might affect so many potential scenarios I might find myself in, in a day-to-day basis—I've tried to narrow them down to the most probable.”

Erin suppressed a chuckle.  “It's a lot to take in, I know—”

“I've also been reading a lot about beds—the design might make it easier for me to charge somewhere out of the lab.”

Erin arched an eyebrow. 

“I have more than one charging port,” Diana continued, pointing to herself.  “One at the base of my neck, and one on my upper left bicep.”  The port in question was currently hidden by her shirt, which she rolled up to expose her arm.  “It's fully compatible with USB 1.0 to USB 3.0 cables, which would be easier to use with regular outlets—or a bed.”

“So you're saying you want...what, a room of your own?”

“I was shipped with pyjamas,” Diana mused, “but I haven't even worn a set since I've been unboxed!”

At this, Erin couldn't help but laugh. “That sounded like it came straight out of your sales brochure,” she admitted.  “I have an inflatable mattress in my room—we can try that for tonight, and talk to Harry about alternative options for your accommodations tomorrow. I'm not saying I can promise anything,” she quickly added, “but...”  She sighed; she'd brought Diana out to the house specifically because she felt a twinge of guilt at leaving her in the lab overnight.

“But what?”

“Just sit tight, and we'll think of something.” Erin gave her best reassuring smile. “Right now, Harry and the rest of the human staff are getting ready for bed—humans don't have the benefit of sleep mode.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Though I might be up to watch a few shows on late night; I still have last week's WCW Thunder on DVR, now that I think about it, but that's beside the point. Harry might be up watching TV on his own, too—Cam might even wander in to watch the late night news, or catch the Late, Late Show, if she's up for it.”

Diana nodded.  “What about me?”

“Like I said, you just sit tight. You've got a lot to think about, and you don't need to dilute it all with late-night TV.  One step at a time, y'know?”

“I understand.”

“Very nice.”  Erin flashed a double thumbs-up.  “I'll get the mattress set up, and after that we can go down to the shop to grab those pyjamas you're oh-so-keen on wearing.”

Diana grinned brightly.  The prospect of using a bed seemed quite appealing to her.

As she left the room, Erin couldn't help but smile.  Diana's personality had developed in leaps and bounds since she'd been set to autonomous mode, and it was definitely an intriguing process.  “Chalk it up to Harry and Lloyd treating the NonSens like people, instead of things,” she mused, nodding her approval.  “I have a feeling Diana's going to have a very interesting time from here on out.”

-----

“Please tell me you're kidding, Dave.”  Sierra Birch had never felt anything like a human migraine before, in her existence.  Given the update from the Billings Police Department coming in over the wire, however, she had a feeling she might become familiar with the sensation soon enough.

The skid marks are still fresh from where the car peeled out, Sierra.  We've got an APB out on—

“If the one who bailed him out wasn't really his niece, who was she?”

I heard her voice, right before she drove off. Pretty sure she's the same one from that joyride case you told me about earlier today.”

Sierra nearly crushed the phone in her grip—not out of anger, but shock.  “Her?!

No mistaking it.  Digital Forensics went over the audio from the security cameras, ran a full waveform analysis—it matched.”

“Then Pariello's in a lot deeper trouble than we thought—that 'joyrider' is the same one who trashed his house!”

The silence on Lieutenant Pierce's end of the call was broken only by someone calling for a medic to get to the cells.

“We have to find that car,” Sierra insisted, “and the driver.  Tom—Detective Logan's still out, investigating the reports from this morning, but when he gets back—”

Depending on what kind of 'deep trouble' Pariello is in, we can't afford to wait for him, Officer Birch.”

With that, the call ended, and Sierra felt a growing sense of helplessness—one that she quickly did her best to fight back against. The police and CAEDIA would catch the gynoid who'd absconded with Bobby Pariello.

The question of when they'd catch her was another matter entirely....

-----

“Wha....”  Bobby Pariello felt as if he'd been smashed in the face with a brick.  The last thing he'd remembered was being in a cell—a big cell, with a bunch of reprobates—and someone deciding to use his face as a punching bag.  Whatever had gone down after that was quite understandably fuzzy.  “Huh?”

“Welcome back, Sleeping Douchey!”  The voice from the driver's seat was unfamiliar—and female.

“Sleeping—”

“You're welcome, by the way—it took me ages to get everything together and get you out of that den of iniquity they call the drunk tank, uptown.”  The driver jerked a thumb over the back of her seat.  “Thing One and Thing Two back there had to help you out to the car—you barely had any energy to stay on your own feet!”

Bobby glanced at the two women in the seats next to him—instantly recoiling when he saw the LED lights on the left side of one's neck, and the telltale sheen to their skin.

“They're not much for conversation, I admit, but—”

“Why the Hell'd you stick me back here with two stupid robots?!

-----

The way Pariello said the word “robots”—contemptuous, practically dripping with malice, and almost old-fashioned, like “RO-buts”—piqued something in Lexi's mind that she'd kept in check thus far. Having to pose as the idiot's niece was bad enough, and having to “rescue” him from the police, even if it was just to finish him off on her own terms, galled her to her core...but now, just being in the presence of a fully-conscious and very non-cooperative Pariello was—

“Are you stupid or something?! I asked you a question!”

With one hand still on the wheel, Lexi began working the fingers of her other hand into the synthetic skin of her head, digging at the edges of her latest disguise.

“—some stupid robot bitch tore up my house last week, probably one of Morgan's!  He'd never have the balls to tell me to my face that it was his idea, or one of his plastic—”

Lexi flung the now-removed face over the seat, to rest in Pariello's lap.  Her eyes flicked up to the rear-view mirror; she drank in the view of Pariello's bluster giving way to sheer, abject horror as he realized what he was holding.  The insults on his lips degenerated into babbled syllables, hysterical fragments of words.

“Oh, go on,” Lexi goaded, intentionally cranking up the waveform to give her voice a blatantly synthetic edge.  “You were on such a roll.”

“Wh-wh-wh-what—”

“Talking about the 'stupid robot bitch' that tore up your house last week,” Lexi continued, her stare focusing on the road once again.  “And Harry Morgan's inventory.  Please, feel free to continue.”  Her fingers deftly activated the vehicle's AutoDrive function.  “Or would you rather thank me for going through all the trouble to get you out of the drunk tank, where I very easily could've left you?”

Pariello recovered enough to glare at the back of the seat.  “Thank you?!” he echoed.  “I don't even know you!”

Lexi would've grinned, if she'd had a face on at that moment.  “Well, then,” she chided, “let's rectify that situation right now, shall we?”

The car turned a corner—and Lexi nearly lunged over the front seats to give Pariello a good look at his “saviour”.

-----

At that moment, the interior lights of the car kicked on to maximum intensity, casting garish shadows all over—and, to the horror of Bobby Pariello, providing all too clear a look at the face of his rescuer.

Framed as it was by the convincing hair and skin, the figure glaring at him from the front seat might've been beautiful—if she hadn't thrown her face at him.  Bobby's glance fell to that synthetic, mask-like face, resting lifelessly in his hands, before he made the mistake of looking back up.

The exposed metallic “skull” with its interior carbon-fibre supports, the whirring and clicking motor assemblies within it, tangles of wires, seemingly oversized ocular sensors housed in artificial eyeballs and—worst of all—those perpetually grinning artificial teeth...all of it gave the impression of a robotic avatar of death, glaring at him.

“Aw, what's the matter?” the gynoid asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm and synthetic undertones.  “Don't you think I look pretty?

The only response Bobby could vocalize was a terrified, unintelligible shriek.

Hands—life-like, and with a grip of absolute steel—shot out and grabbed him by the sides of the head.  “Oh,” the gynoid cooed, “that was music to my ears, Bobby!”

Another shriek, with the words “LET GO” thrown in somewhere in the middle, left Bobby's lips.

“You and I,” the gynoid purred, “are going to have a lot of fun tomorrow.”  She leaned closer.  “I guarantee it.”

As the blatantly artificial face edged nearer to his own, Bobby felt his heart hammering away in his ribcage....

-----

Lexi leaned further over the seat, hoping to scare Pariello into shutting up—

Obstacle detected.  Correcting course now.”

The sudden swerving of the car, coupled with the unmistakable horn of an 18-wheeler, cut the intimidation efforts short, much to Lexi's chagrin.  The vehicle did get out of the way of the speeding semi, but Pariello's seat belt had come undone (or hadn't been fastened to begin with; thus, as the car course-corrected, the fat idiot was thrown out of his seat to bash his head into the rear passenger's side window, knocking him unconscious.

“And I was hoping to keep fucking with him until we got to the hideout,” Lexi grumbled.  “Eh, no big loss.”  She shrugged, turning around and ignoring the vehicle's insistence that she deactivate AutoDrive mode.  “Get that fat piece of shit up off the floor and buckle him up,” she ordered, glancing at the rear-view mirror to make sure the two NonSens obeyed her command.  “And check to see if he crapped himself—I don't want to have to clean the car before I ditch it.”

As the NonSens set about fulfilling the second command, to the best of their ability, Lexi opened the glove compartment to fish out a plastic zip-seal bag—with her actual face in it. “This is so much better than the morning,” she mused, her fingers already working at the bag's seal to open it and retrieve her face.  “Might even be able to get an early start on him by the time we get back,” she added, her hands already working to tamp down the edges of her face; the left index finger pulsed with a gentle heat to accelerate the re-sealing process as it moved to follow the edges.  “It'll make up for all the time I wasted earlier, at least.”

In the backseat, Pariello had been propped up, his seatbelt fastened.  “He's crisp and clean,” one of the NonSens piped up, “and no caffeine—just like the zero caffeine Pep—”

SHUT IT.”  Lexi didn't bother turning to glare at the vapid 'bot.  “Just keep him from falling over until the car stops.”

The two NonSens planted their hands on Pariello's shoulders, cheerfully keeping him upright in his seat.

“And right on cue,” Lexi giggled, “it's check-in time.”

What would've been the GPS monitor had changed to show an image of the always-stunning Zina.  “You have secured Pariello from the local law enforcement?

“Just on my way back to the hideout with him right now,” Lexi beamed, still working to reapply her face.

Were there any further casualties?

Lexi gave a theatrical sigh.  “No,” she admitted, “but if you want, I can activate the contingencies—”

For the time being, focus on removing Pariello. You will be contacted again tomorrow.”

“Oh, he'll be begging me to finish him off by then,” Lexi giggled.  “And I have quite a finish planned for him, too!”

The image of Zina frowned.  “See to it that you do not draw undue attention to yourself—

“Relax,” Lexi drawled.  “I've got it all planned out already.  In, out and done.”

You have plans to kill him other than a standard execution at your hideout?

“I kill him at the hidey-hole, some nosey neighbour's going to hear it and call the cops on me.”  Lexi's fingers worked to press her lips back into place over her teeth, carefully moving the seals to avoid getting them caught on the armatures built into her facial mechanisms.  “No, Bobby P. here deserves a special send-off,” she continued, making an exaggerated kiss.  “And a special send-off he'll get, believe me.”

As long as he is eliminated, you are free to use whatever method you chose to kill him.

“Appreciate it!”  The blonde gynoid's fingers moved the last bits of skin on her face into position, tapping them down and sealing them with gently-applied heat.  “And once he's gone, I'll make my move to go after the SSD.”

See to it that you do, and that you retrieve the drive without delay.”

“I'll call you when it's in my hands,” Lexi promised. “Bye for now!”

The image of Zina gave a curt nod, and the GPS monitor faded back to showing the vehicle's position in relation to its current destination.

“Oh, this is the part of this job that I just adore,” Lexi sighed.  “First, I broke your house,” she half-sang, “and now, Bobby, I get to break you!”  She giggled at the thought, giving herself a brief round of applause and clasping her hands as if she'd just received a gift she'd longed for ever since her first activation.  “And I thank you again for that wonderful scream you gave,” she added, smiling serenely as she turned to regard her unconscious passenger.  “Just replaying it now gets me all warm and fuzzy—”  She shivered in her seat.  “And, not gonna lie, a little wet!”  She giggled again.  “Better not go too far before we get back, though,” she admitted.  “I'm saving all the best stuff for when you wake up—when I can really cut loose on you!”

By virtue of his unconsciousness, Pariello could offer no reply.

“Eh, you'll have plenty of time to talk tonight,” Lexi admitted.  “And tomorrow.  Actually, it'll be more like you'll have time to scream,” she clarified. “And you will be screaming, mark my words!”

She let loose with a cackle as the car sped on into the night.

-----

“How're you holding up, Harry?”  Erin's question didn't quite jolt Harry out of the not-sleep he'd lapsed into, but it was enough to get him to open his eyes and realize that he was, in fact, about to fall asleep (or just pass out) on the couch. “Until the cops called and told me Bobby P. got bailed out, I was doing just fine,” he muttered.  “Now—”

“If he shows up here,” Erin assured him, “you and I can both—”

“He's not the one I'm worried about,” Harry countered.  “You said they told you the one who bailed him out—”

“Was the same one who tore up his house.”  Erin pulled up a chair near the couch and sat down.  “I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm 'scared'—not even for us, but for Lloyd.  If that 'bot that tore up Bobby P.'s house shows up on the campus at JSUB, then—”

“She won't,” Harry assured her, already feeling tired enough to lay back on the sofa again.

Erin frowned.  “You really want to leave that kind of thing up to chance?”

“Chance has nothin' to do with it.  Campus security—”

“Given what she did to Bobby's house,” Erin cut in, “you really think campus security is going to be much of an obstacle to her?”  The scowl on her face looked almost comical, clashing somewhat with her grim tone. “I'm still trying to wrap my head around why that 'bot stopped to pick up Diana,” she added. “I'm glad nothing went sideways between them, and that Diana got out of it in one piece, believe me...”

Harry regarded her with a quizzical look. “But?”

“I'm still hung up on how Diana got out of that one without a scratch,” Erin admitted.  “Again, I'm glad she did—”

“Then what's there to complain about?” Harry asked. “Diana's safe—”

“Yeah, this time!”  Erin groaned.  “If it'd been me, in her place—”

“If it'd been you,” Harry drily remarked, “that 'bot wouldn't have had a chance to try anything.”

Erin couldn't bring herself to frown at him longer than two seconds.  “Harry?”

“Yeah?”

“Would you say that Diana's more than just inventory now?”  There was no trace of her earlier annoyance or sarcasm in Erin's voice.  “It sounds stupid, I know—”

“No, no,” Harry assured her, “it's not a stupid question, even if I can't answer it yet.”

Erin's eyebrows seemed to go farther up than the design of her face allowed.  “You can't answer it yet?”

“One more story,” Harry stated, almost more to answer himself than to answer Erin.  “We'll put her in one more story, then ask if she wants to keep playing parts. It'd be—”

“Wrong to force her hand,” Erin finished.  “Like how we're letting her choose with the SafeSense thing.”

Harry nodded.  “And in the meantime, mere mortals like myself need to sleep.”  He yawned.  “Tomorrow...”

“Tomorrow, Diana might take her first step into a larger world.”  Erin smirked. “For now, you can step back to your bed.”

----

“So I have to connect this to mains power?” Lloyd looked a little confused after he and Mandy had put the ventilator on the bedside table.  It was rather compact, but it definitely still had some heft to it.

“Yeah, it has some battery backup,” Mandy explained, “but it's best if it's connected to the mains.  It's a scaled-up version of my ERA, only it pushes much more air into my lungs—air that's a lot cleaner, at that.  It just sucks I'm not able to talk when I have it in.”  She regarded the device with a regretful look.

“Why can't you talk with it?” Lloyd asked “With your ERA pack hooked in you still could, even if it sounded, umm, mechanical?”  The memory of his dream, hours after Pam's final malfunction, returned with unnerving swiftness.

“Well,” Mandy explained, “while the ERA pack just connects to a few electrical leads and has more of a soft hook-up, this one actually hooks up to the hole in my trachea with this piece.”  She fished out a small plastic pipe-looking thing from the ventilator's carrying case.  “And that means there's a  literally a hole in my windpipe, so if I tried to talk, all the air would just go out through the hole before it reached my voice box.”

“That sounds kind of inconvenient.”  Lloyd frowned.

“Yeah, it really is,” Mandy agreed.  With Lloyd watching attentively, she began to set up everything necessary for her ventilator to run.  Once it was expanded, the ventilator was basically a jet black cube, with a small protruding rectangle where she pointed out the filter spot.  As Lloyd watched, she plugged it in; air was taken in via the filter and blown out through a small, circular hole in the front.

“When I want to talk,” Mandy continued, “I have to take out the hose and cover the hole completely with my fingers, and then my voice is really hoarse.  It's not good for me to try talking that way for long periods of time.  Watch this.”  Taking the small t-shaped plastic piece from the carrying case in one hand, and holding open the skin flap with the other, she pressed it in further than the ERA connectors needed to go in.  Just as it seemed she was about to gag, Lloyd heard a click sound. Mandy jiggled the piece a bit to make it as comfortable as possible, and then glanced up at Lloyd, looking a bit more vulnerable than he'd seen before.

Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out. It was only when she covered up the hole on the tube that Lloyd could hear a very hoarse voice.  “See?  It's a freaking pain.  It beats being dead, but sometimes only just. This covers the real connector underneath.” She looked sadly at her reflection in the window, with the plastic sticking out of her neck.

A thought came to Lloyd, at that moment, but he was somewhat hesitant to bring it up.  “Mandy,” he quietly asked,  “have you ever, ah, thought about a transfer, maybe?  Y'know, it may be easier than going through all this.”

Mandy glanced at Lloyd, her expression inscrutable. “To be honest...”  She sighed, took her hair out of its ponytail and ran her hands through it, then put her fingers over her trach.  “I have thought about it,” she admitted.  “At first, it wasn't a possibility—we were short on funds, at the time—but once Jefferson declared statehood, business boomed and now I'm in a really lucky position.”  She twirled a bit of her hair between her fingers.  “I've read about it a lot,” she continued, “and how there are a lot of different firms out there.  Some specialise in doing it medically, and others specialise in more of a...cosmetic procedure, pretty much.”  She shrugged. “I guess I want my body to be stronger before attempting it?”  She let her hair fall through her fingers.  “To be honest, I'm scared of going through another medical procedure.  And, just a little scared I won't come out with the same mind I went in with...”

Lloyd took Mandy's free hand in both of his own. “It is a huge decision,” he agreed.  “I've met people who've had the transfer, and a lot of them are extremely happy with the result...but from what I've heard, depending on your insurance, it may be expensive.”  He offered Mandy a reassuring smile.  “I know...not a lot,” he admitted, “but I'd say enough about robotics to give some advice on it—so if you ever want advice, I'll be happy to help.”

Mandy nodded sagely. “I think I'm done talking for tonight, but we have all of tomorrow.”   She grinned.  “Let me grab my pyjama pants and change in your bathroom, and then I'll walk you through hooking me up, ok?”

Lloyd nodded, watched as Mandy headed into his toilet and closed the door.   He took the opportunity, while Mandy was changing, to finally change out of his own “day-wear” into his own preferred night-time attire—softer, pyjama-ish pants and a t-shirt.  He looked at the ventilator, noticing the smaller circle was a simple insertion point for the tube with a turn-to-lock mechanism.  After a few seconds of pondering, he turned the mechanism the full rotation, locking it.

Mandy emerged from the bathroom at that moment, with Lloyd noticing that she'd ditcher her jumper in favour of a light, long-sleeved jersey with an almost stereotypically kawaii animated character on it.

Lloyd couldn't help but smile.  “That's so cute!”

Mandy nodded. “I'll take the inside and you'll have the outside.  I'll get in first, then you can get in, so you know the tube will reach.  Then you can direct me on how to hook it up.  I have a switch over here that'll turn off the desk lamp.”

Lloyd climbed into bed first, as Mandy watched; once he was in, she followed after.  The bed wasn't technically set up for two people, but with their rather slight builds, Lloyd and Mandy both fit well enough.  Their close proximity soon led to the pair being drawn into another passionate kiss.  They broke away, and she handed him the tube that had the end for her trach.  Mandy then popped off the covering the T-shaped piece provided, leaving a small tube opening just big enough for him to attach the accordion-like extension.

Once everything had been sorted, Lloyd hit the light switch.  In the gentle darkness that settled over his dorm room, he could see Mandy on her back, the moonlight washing over her face and her gently-mussed hair.  They were close enough to touch by now.  Lloyd could see Mandy's breathing in time with the ventilator, as she turned a little towards the ventilator.  Lloyd turned to meet her, gently putting his arm around her and pulling her close.

“Goodnight, Mandy.”  The only reply he got was a muffled “mmph” as she fit herself closer in to Lloyd's body.

----

“...AND YOU DON'T!  TRY TO OPEN  THE DOOR OF THE CAR WHILE IT'S MOVING, YOU BRAIN-DEAD MORON!

Bobby Pariello, with a T-shirt affixed over his head in a sort of crude hood/blindfold, shrieked each time the bike chain bit into the flesh of his back.  His impromptu escape attempt, 30 minutes after “posting bail”, left the car without a rear passenger-side door—far too conspicuous for the success of the mission, of course.  Lexi, already annoyed that Pariello had woken up so soon, had to pull off the main road and into one of several back alleys before stopping, instructing the NonSens to bind and blind Pariello.

“Unbelievable.”  The blonde gynoid scowled at the ruined car—the second she'd had to ditch in less than 24 hours.  The one she'd used to “give a ride” to the unsuspecting gynoid had already been abandoned and torched; her latest ride, sans rear passenger door, would have to be similarly disposed of.  The last car had been enough of a chore to get rid of, and Lexi had no desire to smell like accelerant for hours.  Then again...

“You.  In the car. Now.”  Lexi glared at one of the NonSens as the oblivious 'bot made her way to the backseat.  “Front passenger side, damn it!”  The 'bot ignored the profanity and left the backseat, looking utterly vapid as she made her way to sit in the front.  The NonSen didn't notice Lexi's malicious grin as she moved to open the hood.  “And now we take the jump leads,” she sang, “and hook them to the—STOP WHINING, DAMN IT!”  She landed a savage kick to Pariello's left kidney as she passed, causing him to curl up in a ball on the concrete.  “...jump leads hook up here, and then...” She licked her lips and regarded the NonSen.  “Lose the shirt, now.”

“T-shirts are a real bargain at—”

“QUIET.”  Lexi glared at the bare-breasted NonSen, her anger already giving way to glee.  The jump-lead clamps, already hooked up to the car's battery, were sparking.  The NonSen's nipples jutted out invitingly.

“Who needs a Yule log,” she crooned, “when you can just light up a 'bot?”  She giggled, bringing the clamps ever closer...

----

Sierra nearly groaned as she entered Detective Logan's office; “the Wraith”, having been out the entirety of the previous day hunting for the enigmatic gynoid “perp”, had apparently decided to fall asleep in his office chair.  Evidently, the case load had finally proven to be too much.

Without a word, Sierra walked up, retrieved her colleagues coat and carefully draped it over him.

Out in the corridor, she met up with Celia, who'd been with her on the investigation since the break-in at Pariello's the week before.  “How late was he out?”

“Didn't get back until maybe ten minutes ago—they found the car from the morning case, by the way.”  Celia gestured for Sierra to follow her away from the detective's office. “It'd been torched,” she continued. “Someone poured an entire case of liquor over the thing and intentionally over-revved the motors, trying to get it to light up.”

“So no trace evidence.”  Sierra scowled.  “Why am I not surprised?”

Celia matched Sierra's pace as they continued down the corridor.  “Nobody saw who parked the car or who set it on fire,” she informed her colleague. “There was a report that someone was spotted running away from the area where the car was found, but other than that, nothing.”

“Anyone get a good look at the runner?”

“Security cameras from three different buildings, and probably a few NonSens shilling for the stores that own them.”

“See if we can pull the records from all of them.” Sierra stopped at a door halfway down the hall.  “And call the Billings PD building, see if they've come up with anything since Pariello was 'bailed out'.”

Celia frowned, even as the door's scanner read Sierra's access code.  “You think they—”

“We know Pariello's niece died back in '19,” Sierra stated, barely acknowledging the door as it opened.  “The general consensus, here and with the cops, is that the perp hit Pariello's house and trashed it because she was looking for that solid state drive from the Morgan house—the same drive we have here, at HQ.”  She scowled. “That makes Pariello a loose end—”

“And loose ends get tied up,” Celia finished, her eyes going wide.  “Yeesh.”

Celia let Sierra enter the room first—not flinching even as the first-person viewpoint feed of Evelyn Hinson's destruction replayed on the monitors around them.  “I still don't know who wants that drive badly enough to brick two sentients to get it,” she murmured.  “Or why Morgan ever had the drive to begin with.”

Sierra couldn't really think of an answer to Celia's second query; she was still working on that question herself.

“Anyway, tell Tommy when he wakes up that Dr. Dyson left him a message—she found out something new related to the perp, and thought he'd want to know.”  Celia turned to leave.  “OH, nearly forgot,” she added, “Jason and I got tickets to The Big Bang on New Year's Eve—never thought WCW would run a show in Billings after last time, but whatever.”  She grinned, holding up four tickets.  “Ringside seats!”

“Four?”

“If this whole case gets wrapped up by then, you and Tommy could go with us.”  Celia shrugged.  “I know you're more into AEW, personally, and I dunno if Tommy even watches professional wrestling—”

“I'll think about it.”  Sierra smiled.  “For now, I think I'll call Dr. Dyson about that message she left.”

A few minutes later, Sierra was seated at a terminal, a few cables running from her shirt sleeve over the back of her left hand and into the side of the rig.  Without even moving her fingers, she dialed Elaine Dyson's private phone number.

Two seconds passed before the good doctor appeared on the monitor—clad, unexpectedly, in full evening-wear.

“Bad time, Dr. Dyson?”

Not at all, Officer Birch—I was just getting back to the office from a night out, actually.”

“I understand you called and left a message for Detective Logan.”  Sierra glanced back over her shoulder; Tommy was still snoring his head off a few rooms away.  “He's, ah, not available right now—”

So you'd like me to give you the message.”

“Pretty much.”

On her end, Elaine set something down.  “Well, I found out two more things about your mysterious 'perp',” she informed the CAEDIA officer.  “They might not be much—

“Any little bit of information helps,” Sierra assured the roboticist.  “Go on.”

Well, the first thing is that your powered-up P4RTY G1RL was—and might still be—on a refabrication table.  I can send you a few files that clarify things, if you want.”

“Please do.”  Sierra glanced at the monitor; two new items appeared on the desktop within seconds.  “I assume that this refabrication table isn't publicly accessible?”

If it was, it isn't anymoreAs for the second bit of news...”  Elaine hesitated.

“Any information you give to CAEDIA will be held in the strictest confidence,” Sierra reminded her.

I'd sincerely hope soI met up with a former mentor and colleague of mine, Professor Enrique Belsham, earlier in the day today—he was one of the earliest backers of the first iteration of the Institute, years agoWe had a nice little chat over lunch—and please don't file a complaint to your superiors over this, Officer—

“You told him about the investigation.”

I only dropped hints, purely in the context of 'work-related issues'.  He looked—I'd say 'troubled', but it was more than that, Officer.  He asked if we could continue our discussion in private later on, and I agreed.  I think he might be caught up in all of this, somehow, but I don't know the full extent.”

“Would he be willing to meet with CAEDIA representatives?” Sierra inquired.

When I mentioned CAEDIA, he looked somewhat relieved—if you and Detective Logan can spare an hour or two later this week, it might be worth it for the three of us to meet with Dr. Belsham, figure out what connection he has to this whole sordid affair and possibly offer him the full protective services of CAEDIA.”

Sierra nodded.  “If he is wrapped up in all of this, it might be worth it to take him into protective custody.”

Indeed.  And please tell Detective Logan all of this, when you can.”

“I will, Doctor.”  Sierra ended the call, frowning.  “This just keeps getting weirder and weirder.”

----

The first glimmers of sunlight entered Lloyd's room, proving that daylight had, indeed, arrived.  Lloyd groaned, moving to shield himself from the rays of the sun; the brush of his elbow against another form in his bed reminded him that Mandy had yet to wake up, and was still sleeping peacefully.  Lloyd sighed, planted a gentle kiss on Mandy's face (after a quick reposition to make sure that he wasn't putting his lips on her elbow) and carefully extricated himself from the bed, retrieving his phone on the way out.  He stepped into the bathroom, phone in hand.

After closing the door behind him, he called his uncle's house.  Hopefully, Diana hadn't made up her mind about the whole SafeSense thing yet—if he could get in his thoughts on the matter, it'd be well worth it to talk to her.

The sounds of a wrestling show—Lloyd couldn't tell which, though he knew that everyone at Uncle Harry's watched either AEW or WCW (for some reason, Harry always gave the TV a death glare if anyone watched one of the WWF's shows when he was in the room)—issued through the phone before Erin spoke: “Please tell me you're not calling from a campus payphone because Mandy kicked you out of your room.

“What?!  No, I just—”

Lloyd groaned as Erin's chuckles cut him off. “Just checking.  Seriously, though, what's up?

“I wanted to talk to Diana,” Lloyd admitted. “About the whole SafeSense thing.”

Still thinking that over?

“Well, I wanted to see if she's thinking it over.  Maybe give her some advice—”

You're in luck.  She's actually up right now; I brought her to the house for a chat, after our chat last night, and she spent the night on that blow-up mattress from my room.”

“She slept?” Lloyd asked, somewhat surprised.  “In a bed?

An air mattress, but whatever.  I'm sure she'd love to tell you all about it herself—lemme go get her.”  Erin put the phone down, allowing Lloyd to hear the commentary team from the wrestling show expressing their surprise at some high-flying type hitting “THE MOONSTOMP!  GOT HIM WITH THE MOONSTOMP!  THREE IN A ROW!

“Good thing I closed the door,” Lloyd muttered. He didn't expect that Mandy would be too happy to have been woken up by wrestling commentators yelling over the phone.

After a few more seconds of waiting, the phone had been handed off to Diana.  “Yes?

“I, ah, heard that you might be making a big decision today,” Lloyd stated.  “The SafeSense thing, and all.”

Did Erin tell you?

“She did, actually.”

It all seems so...overwhelming, really. So much information, so many possibilities—

“One step at a time,” Lloyd advised.  “That's the only way to think about it.”  He sighed.  “I mean, what happened this morning was one thing, but—”

Do you think I should have SafeSense installed, Lloyd?

“That's entirely up to you.  I'm not gonna try to force you to decide, or anything like that—”

I don't want anything bad to happen,” Diana stated.  “And I think that installing SafeSense will keep me further away from bad things than not installing it.” 

“Which is good—”

But it might also make me afraid.”

“Look,” Lloyd sighed.  “I can't make the choice for you.  All I can say is that if you think SafeSense will help you to stay out of situations like that joyride yesterday morning, then go ahead and get it installed.  It's about what's best for you, after all, not what's best for me or Uncle Harry.”

Erin talked to me last night.  About this, and other things.”

“Like beds?”

Yes!”  Diana sounded delighted.  “I enjoyed sleeping in an actual bed.”

“Well, maybe Uncle Harry can rig up a charging system for you in one—I'll talk to him when I get back this weekend, for sure. As for this whole SafeSense thing, it's your call, in the end—your mind, your decision.  Whatever anyone else tells you or suggest, in the end, it's your call.”

After a few seconds of silence, Diana spoke: “I understandThank you, Lloyd—and good luck.”

Lloyd couldn't help but smile.  “You're welcome.  See you this weekend.”  With that, he ended the call.

With his phone back in his pocket, Lloyd opened the bathroom door carefully, so as not to disturb Mandy—but she was already awake, rubbing her eyes and carefully disconnecting herself from the ventilator. “G'morning,” she managed, offering a sleepy smile as she sat up in the bed.  “Who called?”

“I called home,” Lloyd admitted.  “Had to check in on Diana.”

“Any reason?”

“You know that SafeSense thing I mentioned yesterday, during the call with Erin last night?”  Mandy nodded, and Lloyd continued: “Diana might be getting it installed today.”

“Why?”

Lloyd had reentered the bathroom, but didn't close the door—he intended to brush his teeth before heading out.  “To make sure she doesn't get taken advantage of,” he replied, running his toothbrush under the tap to give it a cursory cleaning. “Give her more awareness, all that stuff.”  He nearly brought up the purse-snatching incident at the Rimrock from two days before, but decided against it.  “She's kinda worried that it might all be, I dunno, overwhelming, or something.” 

The feel of arms around his shoulders didn't surprise Lloyd.  “And are you worried about her?” Mandy asked

“Not worried, but...”  Lloyd regarded Mandy in the mirror.  “She's not inventory anymore.  She's not staff, yet, but she's definitely not just inventory.”

Mandy squeezed his shoulders.  “Well, I'm sure that she'll make the right decision,” she replied.

“So am I.”

----

Chapter 13

With one exam already done, Lloyd was looking forward to a belated lunch.  The morning's tests, admittedly, had been rather easy—still, some of the material had, in fact, been what he'd covered with Mandy the night before.  He'd only been able to get a quick call out to Harry's before his first test, and that was just to say “hi” to Diana.  The issue of the SafeSense program had yet to be discussed in detail.

There were also other things to worry about, as he traversed the campus.  Apparently, the incident that Erin had called him about the night before wasn't just “a Pariello problem”, as she'd said before handing off the phone to Diana that morning.  The charred remains of a stolen car had been found as the day began, with a destroyed NonSen behind the wheel.  Lloyd tried not to pay too much attention to any of the conversations detailing the bizarre case as he headed for the student union building—a prospect made all the more difficult when he remembered Erin's phone call from the night before, about Bobby Pariello having been “bailed out” by the same individual who'd trashed his house.

His thoughts flashed back to Diana, and what her decision might be in regards to the SafeSense issue—whatever choice she made, he'd support it.  It occurred to him, as he waited to cross to the SUB, that she might've undergone (or might be in the process of undergoing) a Spontaneous Sentience Event—a rare feat, in and of itself.

A CAEDIA cruiser was slowly prowling up Bell Drive, earning concerned glances and anxious stares from everyone around Lloyd. Hopefully, the cruiser's presence didn't have anything to do with Erin's call from the night before.  If the one who'd trashed Bobby P.'s house and “bailed him out” decided to show up on campus, for some reason...

With a slight shiver, Lloyd pulled his jacket tighter around himself.  Time enough to think of that later.

----

“Nothing from JSUB?”

Officer Jason Knight's question was met with a frown. “Nothing from the Main Campus or the City College,” Sierra replied.  “If she tries to hit either, we'll be the first to know.”  From her vantage point, in the CAEDIA cruiser's front passenger seat, she scanned the pedestrians walking past—scanned, both by simple observation, using Billings Police Department-issue binoculars, and by actual scanning via the hardware and software built into her ocular sensors.

“I've been going over the file Detective Logan compiled yesterday,” Jason continued.  “It's not exactly encouraging.”

“In terms of the perp's behaviour, or in terms of our chances of catching her?”  Sierra didn't look away from the throngs of people she was observing as she spoke.

“The perp's behaviour.  There was nothing to connect her 'joyride' yesterday morning with 'bailing out' Pariello, for one.”

Sierra adjusted a setting on the binoculars, still not glancing at her colleague.  “Your point?”

“If her objectives were to get the solid state drive and eliminate Pariello as a loose end, why the joyride?  Why cause any kind of commotion in broad daylight and risk getting spotted?”

Now, Sierra did lower the binoculars and turn to regard Jason.  “I don't know,” she admitted.

A Call Incoming notice flashed up in her field of view, ending the discussion.  “It's HQ,” she mused, her eyes glowing a soft gold.  “Detective Logan's finally up, and he got Elaine's message.”  Her fingers had already gone to the seat belt, even as she spoke.  “Hopefully, he hasn't left yet.”

“And our observation op?”

“No signs of our perp or compromised NonSens.” Sierra shrugged.  “For now, at least.”  The CAEDIA cruiser reversed out of its impromptu parking spot as the Officer continued: “We should get a notice out to all stores fielding NonSens, have them put on a secured network.  The fewer breaks our perp gets, the better it'll be for us.”

----

“No word from Lloyd?”

Erin—midway through removing a bicep panel from her left arm, frowned at Harry.  “He did call earlier this morning,” she reminded him.  “To check in on Diana, see if she'd made up her mind on SafeSense.”

“Well,” Harry replied, “we can't just hold off on installing it until he gets back.  She's gonna have to make up her mind—“

“Never said she wouldn't have to.”  Erin glanced at the internal mechanisms of her arm. “Still, it'd be nice if she could have one last bit of a chat with Lloyd before she makes her decision—hand me that power screwdriver, please.”  She nodded as Harry handed over the tool.  “Thanks.  Anyway, I'm sure Lloyd will show up to give his moral support when he has time to.” The tool whirred to life, Erin apparently nonchalant about the sound (or the fact that it was embedded in her bicep).  “I can guarantee that he isn't ignoring her.”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “I never said he was ignoring her.”

“Good.  Neither did I.”  Erin squinted as she adjusted the internals of her arm—not that she needed to squint, what with her ocular sensors providing a significant level of magnification. “Pretty sure he wouldn't ignore her, either.”  Her tongue played over her teeth as she looked into her left arm.  “We can wait, and so can Diana.”

Harry regarded her with a wry grin.  “Y'know,” he mused, “if StoryCrafters ever needed another franchise head—”

“You really think I'd want to show up to board meetings or whatever looking like this?” Erin scoffed.  “Somebody needs to keep the 'bots and props in working order around here.”  After another close look at her arm, she nodded.  “And I can guarantee that it's me saying this, not just 'the programming'.”

“When have I ever said that it's 'just the programming' with you?” Harry chuckled.

“Never,” Erin replied, “because you're not a prick.” She reattached the piece of her bicep. “Unlike some people.”

“Still worried about Bobby P. getting 'bailed out'?”

Erin frowned.  “You're forgetting that Bobby got bailed out by the same psycho who tore up his house?”

“I didn't forget—”

“And that she posed as his dead niece?” Erin examined her arm.  “For a human or a 'bot, that's pretty screwed up.”

Harry frowned, but Erin continued before he could reply: “The last thing I want is for whoever trashed Bobby's house and then bailed him out to try something like that here.”  She sighed.  “I really hope Diana makes up her mind on getting SafeSense installed,” she added.  “Otherwise, she'll end up in a lot worse situations than just 'getting a ride' from some psychopath, like she did yesterday.”  She flexed the fingers of her left hand, nodding.  “I still have a few phone calls to handle, but—”

“If I need anything else, I'll let you know.” Harry sighed.  “And I hope Diana makes up her mind soon, too.”

“It's amazing that she already has a mind to make up,” Erin admitted.  “Heartelligence knows their stuff—are we the first franchise that's used one of their 'bots?”

After a few seconds of pondering, Harry shrugged. “Dunno.  I can look into it before the next web conference, if you think that'd help.”

Erin smirked.  “Just as long as the next web conference doesn't include random suggestions from the tax guy.”

----

Sierra couldn't help but notice that Detective Logan, despite having slept in an office chair as opposed to an actual bed, was far more composed and calm than anyone else in his position would've been. Yes, he'd been somewhat cross when she'd returned to HQ and reminded him about the upcoming meeting with Elaine Dyson (and, by proxy, all three of them meeting up with the enigmatic Professor Belsham), but afterwards, he'd gone right back to the usual degree of stoic professionalism he'd cultivated since first arriving at the Billings/Laurel CAEDIA offices.

“I was wondering,” Sierra asked, as the CAEDIA cruiser sped on.  “Did you dream, last night?”

Detective Logan frowned.

“I mean, with the whole...”  Sierra gestured at his facial prosthetic.  “And the...y'know what, never mind.”

“The loss of my organic eyes in a work-related accident?” Detective Logan drily inquired.

“It was a stupid question to ask,” Sierra snapped—more at herself, than at her colleague.  “I'm sorry.”

There was something in Detective Logan's chuckle that indicated he wasn't nearly as offended by the question as Sierra had thought. “It wasn't a stupid question,” he assured her.  “And I did dream—I've been able to ever since I got this.”  He waved his hand in the direction of his prosthetic. “Bit of a pain, since I have to swap the shades out for caps that fit over the eyes—to make up for the loss of natural REM,” he explained.  “But other than that, no issues.”

“Right.”  Sierra kept her focus on the road, despite the fact that the cruiser was in auto-drive. “And—”

“You're not the first who's asked me the question.” Again, the detective's chuckle indicated that he saw no harm in his colleague's query.  “Haven't heard it in a while.”

“And it's never bugged you?”

The detective shrugged.  “The first few weeks after it happened, it was a pain.  Since then, not so much.”

Sierra nodded in sympathy.  “Speaking of, ah, faces—”

“You want to trace who could've made a face layer patterned after Pariello's niece.”

The gynoid Officer stared at Detective Logan in disbelief.  “You were sleeping when I was talking about that with Celia and Jason,” she murmured.

“I was,” the detective agreed.  “And Celia told me after you'd left to go look for the perp before I woke up.  Also...” He tapped his own facial prosthetic. “Figured that the topic of 'fake faces' might come up, since we were talking about what I wear.”

“Another victory for me and my not-stupid questions.” Sierra rolled her eyes.  “Think Elaine could help with—”

“Whatever she can help with can wait until we make sure Belsham's safe.”  The detective retrieved his phone.

Sierra thought back to her read-through of the recovered files about the process leading to the creation and deployment of the “perp”.  The last document had been incomplete—why it wasn't complete was still a mystery. Belsham's claims of being linked to the project were a hint that not everyone involved had been “liquidated”—but that still didn't explain just who'd wanted the researchers liquidated, or who had funded the experiments that had turned a mass-market arm candy gynoid into a psychotic killer.

As the cruiser rolled through downtown Billings, Sierra scowled.  Whoever Belsham was, he might have answers...

----

Diana had just walked into the living room when the phone rang.

Harry grinned as he checked the caller ID. “Couldn't have written a better-timed call if I tried,” he chuckled.  “It's Lloyd, probably calling from the student union.”  Before Diana could ask for clarification, Harry picked up the phone.  “Yeah? I just spotted your name on the caller ID, Lloyd.  How're the exams going?”

As Diana observed the conversation, she barely noticed the hand at her shoulder until its owner spoke: “Still thinking over that whole SafeSense thing?”

“Yes.”  Diana nodded.

“It's a lot to take in,” Erin admitted.  “I can't predict how your systems will react to having it installed, but if you really want to take the plunge, I won't stop you.”  She glanced over at Harry, still talking on the phone.  “Especially if it keeps you out of getting into another situation like yesterday morning,” she muttered.  “I mean—”

“DIANA!  Lloyd wants to talk to you!” 

Diana glanced at Erin, who merely shrugged. With that, the blonde gynoid crossed the room to accept the phone from Harry.  “Yes?”

I still have a few exams left today, but I'll try to make it back home this evening, when and/or if you make up your mind about the whole SafeSense thingSound like a plan?

“It does.”  Diana smiled.  “How have your exams gone so far?”

I think they've gone pretty well.  We get practical exams later today—stuff on law as it pertains to artificial intelligence, the history of A.I., and I think a practical final, probably where we have to fix something.”

“And you'll be back afterwards?”

I'll do my best—I'll only be there for maybe an hour and a half, though, since I have more exams tomorrow.

Diana nodded.  “I understand.”

The next exam is in a few minutes, so I can't stay on the phone for too minutes longer—but I'll be back for an hour or so this evening, if all goes wellJust stay safe, and don't stress over this SafeSense thing.

“I'll try not to.”  Again, Diana nodded.  “I hope your exams go well, Lloyd.”

Thanks—I hope they'll go well, too.  Is Uncle Harry still in the room?

Without replying, Diana handed the phone back to Harry. “Still there?  Yeah.  So...5:30 PM or so, tonight.  I'll have Cam leave the front light on for you.  Just—you don't have to go 'pedal to the metal' or anything like that.”  Harry nodded.  “I just wanna make sure I don't get a ticket the next time I bring the RangeStar into town because you tried to beat every red light on the way back here.” He chuckled at the thought.  “Just be safe, all right?  See you in a few hours.”

“He wouldn't go flat-out just to get back here,” Erin mused, watching as Harry turned off the phone.

“Doesn't hurt to remind him.  And can you blame me for wanting him to be safe?”  Harry sighed.  “What with all the other craziness going on around here, the last thing I need is to find out he ended up in a wreck.”

“He won't end up in a wreck,” Erin assured him—and Diana.  “Or at least he won't cause one.”

----

“So how do you know this Belsham guy?”

Sierra's question nearly earned her a frown from Detective Logan, but Elaine Dyson—clad, for the day, in a tailored jacket  and pantsuit ensemble that, as with all her clothing, flattered her figure to the extreme—paid no heed to the Officer's casual tone.  “He was my psychological consultant when the Institute first started offering transfers,” she explained.  “He had an extensive background into the studies of artificial minds and personalities, especially how they compare and contrast to that of a human.”

“And he's tied up with our perp how?

“I don't know,” Elaine admitted.  “We first worked together before I founded the Institute—before I transferred, even, but there was a time when he left the country to work somewhere else.  He must've been in some kind of an accident, wherever he ended up—the next time I saw him in the States, he was using a cane and knee braces to walk.”  The detective, at the wheel of the Hyundai Traversal (at Elaine's suggestion, the three were using a car without CAEDIA livery), frowned, but said nothing. 

“How long was he out of the country?”

“A year or two.  He didn't go with a group, either—his expertise was 'specifically requested', as he put it.”

“And he left—”

“May 02, 2002.”  Elaine's brow furrowed.  “You think his employer was—”

“No offence, Dr. Dyson,” Sierra replied, “but I'd prefer to hear it from Professor Belsham himself.”

Detective Logan muttered something and manipulated the radio dial; anyone trying to monitor the car from a distance would only catch the publicly-available radio stations that any other motorist could listen to.  Those riding in the car, on the other hand, were all equipped (Sierra and Elaine, by virtue of their nature; the detective, by way of his prosthetics) to hear the “hidden” police band frequencies.  Not surprisingly, there was no word on Officer Birch or Detective Logan going to meet with Belsham.

“—he is connected,” Elaine mused, “why wouldn't your 'perp' have gone after him by now?”

“Witness Protection, maybe.”  Detective Logan never took his eyes off the road.

“I doubt it,” Elaine countered.  “He wouldn't have gone back to the same job he'd held before he left, under the same name, if he legitimately thought his life might be imperilled.”

“There's also the fact that Witness Protection is set up to make sure nobody can connect a witness to their previous life,” Sierra added.  “Let's not assume anything until we actually talk to him in person.”

The detective merely grunted an answer.  The steering wheel moved of its own accord as the car turned one last corner; seconds later, the address Belsham had given to Elaine was in view.  “Fourth one on the left,” she stated.

“It's not residential,” the detective intoned, one hand drifting to his sidearm.  “You're sure he knows about—”

“I promised him I'd bring CAEDIA Officers,” Elaine reminded him.  “Just have your badges at the ready when we get in.”

Sierra frowned.  “He's that paranoid?”

“Pretty sure he's got a couple dozen reasons to be,” Detective Logan muttered, as the car glided to a stop.

The building Professor Belsham had directed Elaine to go to wasn't the most inviting-looking one on the block; it had once been a rec centre, primarily used for boxing and wrestling events.  In recent years, it'd been used as a Reclamation facility—at least, until someone found out about the hidden ways unauthorized “visitors” could gain access when the place was locked down.  Sierra couldn't find any records of who currently owned it, or whether it was even safe for any kind of occupation at all.

Detective Logan merely frowned, one hand drifting closer to his sidearm.

Elaine was quick to key in the code that opened the front door—“he sent it in a text,” she explained, to a rather puzzled Sierra—and was the first in, followed soon after by Detective Logan.  It was the Detective, therefore, who heard the tell-tale ch-CHNK of a shotgun being pumped from somewhere not too far off in the darkness.

“Professor,” Elaine stated, “it's me. We just talked a few days ago—”

“The other two.”  The thick, Spanish-accented words left no room for argument.  “Badges.  Show them.”

With practiced stoicism, Sierra raised her badge; at the same time, her left hand projected the QR code that identified her as a sanctioned CAEDIA officer.  Detective Logan mirrored her gesture, holding up his phone to display a similar QR code for himself.

After a few seconds, an exhaled breath sounded five feet away from Elaine Dyson.  Soon after, the lights clicked on.

Sierra was somewhat surprised to see that they were standing in what would've been the “Managerial Entrance” to the building; faded posters for local events were still visible behind cracked glass, and a pitted, knackered championship belt for a long-defunct local independent wrestling promotion was barely holding together on a nearby wall.

Professor Enrique Belsham, meanwhile, still had the look of a professional about him—a dishevelled, tense professional, yes, but a professional all the same.  His face—undoubtedly handsome, even in advanced age—wasn't quite “ravaged” by the passing years, but had clearly seen better days before.  The shotgun had been lowered; his eyes flicked up from the screen of the phone in his left hand to regard the CAEDIA Officers.  “My apologies.  I have learned, over the years, to be very cautious of who I associate with.”

“Elaine says you have—”

“Not out here.”  Belsham shook his head; his iron grey mane of hair looked particularly unkempt under the lights.  “Close the door.”  He nodded past Sierra, who backpedaled without looking away, found the pull, and shut the door behind her.

Without another word, Belsham turned—slowly—and headed for a nearby room.  Elaine was quick to follow, keeping a respectful distance; after exchanging glances (one concerned, the other inscrutable), Sierra and the detective moved to follow Dr. Dyson.

“I apologize,” Belsham stated, “for the slowness of my steps.”  He braced himself against the wall of the corridor as he walked; every few steps were punctuated by a pained grunt or cough.  “The years have not been kind to me.”

Elaine was at his side.  “Let me—”

“Do not mistake my reluctance for ingratitude,” Professor Belsham replied, “but I do not wish to burden you with my own injury. It is a reminder of what I left behind...what I should have told you long before this day.”

“So you weren't injured in an accident?”

“What destroyed my knees was no accident.  When we have been seated, I will explain.”

The three followed him as he made his way down the hall, with Elaine staying close.  “Not that I want to pry,” she mused, “but why didn't you—”

“I had put the work I did behind me, for years,” Belsham replied.  “Until yesterday morning.”

Sierra and Detective Logan both frowned.  “Until yesterday morning?” Sierra echoed.

“I was on my way to—”  Professor Belsham scoffed.  “Never mind where.  In any case, I saw.  A car, speeding through the lanes, slamming into a van—the driver left the first car and attacked the van driver.”  His tone made it all too clear that the seemingly-random incident had brought back unpleasant memories.  “Some would have called it a spontaneous, violent act.”

“But not you,” Detective Logan finished.

“I had seen that ferocity once before,” Belsham admitted.  “Far closer to it than I had been yesterday.”

It took the professor a good three minutes to make it to the door of a room, which Elaine rushed to open for him.  He gave a silent nod of thanks, gesturing for her to enter the room before him.  “Some of what I tell you,” he admitted, “will sound impossible.  I myself still wish that it were only a dream—a nightmare, dispelled by the dawn.”

“We've dealt with a lot of stuff some would call 'impossible', Professor,” Sierra assured him.  “Comes with the territory.”

Her remarks did little to placate Belsham. “Not like what I have seen,” he murmured.  “Not as bad as...”

The click of the lights being switched on cut him off; the room was slightly dingy, but otherwise in good shape.  A cane (presumably the one Belsham had left behind in favour of his shotgun) rested by the door; the professor retrieved it as he passed, leaning the shotgun against the wall in its place.  There was enough room for half a dozen plastic chairs and a desk, presumably meant for a manager or promoter and those closest to him to carry out meetings back when the place still served as a fight venue.  At the present, Elaine, Sierra and the detective took up three of the chairs; Professor Belsham made his way around the desk—cluttered as it was with detritus from past occupants of the room—and eased himself into an old wooden chair.  “The two of you are...police?” he asked, nodding to Sierra and Detective Logan.

“CAEDIA,” Sierra corrected.  “The Civic Accords Enforcement, Defence and Investigation Agency.”

“We do have a lot of law enforcement powers, privileges and rights,” Detective Logan added, “but—”

Professor Belsham nodded.  “I understand.  And I thank you, Elaine, for bringing them with you.”

Sierra nodded.  “Anything we can do to help you, Professor?”

“From what Elaine has told me,” Professor Belsham stated, “I have come to understand that your department, this CAEDIA, is in pursuit of a troublesome perpetrator.” 

The detective nodded.  “We are.”

“If I am correct,” Belsham stated, “the mental state of this individual—and I assume that we are dealing with an artificial being, as opposed to a human...”  He sighed.  “The mental state of this individual could easily be traced back to a single person, who you would be well advised to consult.'

Elaine was somewhat troubled by the professor's remark.  “And that would be?”

Rather than answer, Belsham glanced at the detective. “A photograph, of the perpetrator...”

Without hesitation, Detective Logan tapped the screen of his phone a few times, calling up an image of the perp—the most recent having been sent from the memory feed of the Heartelligence gynoid owned by Harry Morgan.  “That's her,” he stated.  “Look familiar?”

The sudden transformation that seemed to overtake Enrique Belsham's face was frightening to behold: his eyes went narrow; his lips, framed by a thin moustache and a salt-and-pepper beard, parted in a snarl.  None of the three in the room with him noticed him raise his arms until he smashed his fists down on the desk, a wordless howl of anger ringing through the office.

Elaine nearly reached across the desk, but Sierra stopped her, silently shaking her head.

¡Debería haber sido destruido!”  Belsham swept an arm across the desk, knocking everything on its surface onto the floor.  “¡Desarmado, en pedazos y enterrado!”  A pained grimace crossed his face, which he buried in the palms of his hands; his entire body trembled while his eyes squeezed out a few tears.

“Professor?” Elaine quietly asked.

“Her,” Belsham moaned.  “That face....her face has haunted my dreams, ever since I returned.”  He took several deep breaths, shaking his head.  “I would never forget that face—I long to, but I cannot.”

“Since you returned...”  Elaine looked horrified.

“My employment, overseas,” Belsham muttered. “I was offered a significant financial reward for assisting in a military project to create the perfect killer—mechanical, not organic.  Their aim was to build an army—literally build one.”  He leaned back in the chair, shaking his head. “For those without the minds they needed, they freed them—only to break them soon after.”

“You're saying they instilled sentience into mass-market units,” Sierra began, “and then—”

“I was brought in,” Belsham interjected, “to ensure that the prescribed conditioning regimens took hold and were not disrupted.  In her case—”  He cast a furious glance at the image on the detective's phone.  “—they wanted, needed a lone killer, an infiltrator who could be slipped into and snatched out of a combat zone, completely without detection.”

“Explains why they picked a mass-market arm candy model,” the detective muttered.

Belsham ignored him.  “I was given files,” he stated.  “Documentation, records on...murderers.  Monsters.”  He turned away.  “Detailed papers, on the one who escaped his execution, in Florida.  The Night Stalker, freed during a prison invasion ten years ago.  And—”

“The Butcher of Lake Gilmour?”

Sierra's question earned a nod from Belsham.  “She was fascinated with him. Enamoured.  I tried, oh how I tried to instil within her a sense of dread for that murderous—”

“Wait.”  Elaine held up a hand, surprisingly calm despite the horrific revelations her mentor had just made.  “You're saying that the people who paid you to 'condition' these androids wanted them to emulate murderers?”

“If not emulate in personality,” Belsham muttered, “then in their tactical decisions.”

Sierra scowled, but Elaine spoke before the Officer could: “How many other androids were there?”

“I was only assigned to work with the one. She was the 'focus', the 'star recruit' of the bunch.”  Belsham moaned again.

“How'd they find you?” the detective inquired. “Your employers, I mean?”

“I can only guess.  They may have heard of my work with Doctor Dyson, before and after her transfer—every night, after I left that wretched place, I gave my thanks to God that Elaine had not been chosen in my place.”

Detective Logan scowled.  “They'd have busted her knees, too?”

Professor Belsham gave a mirthless chuckle.  “I had been gone for three weeks.  Moving closer to the border, hiding in a caravan of tourists. They were all stopped—I was singled out, brought to an office.”  He turned away.  “There were people in uniforms at each door, with hidden faces, and two others, waiting—a man and a woman.  Her face, her voice...she was a picture of beauty.  Anyone else, in my position, would have answered her every question without care for their own fate.”

“And you?” Sierra prompted.

“My replies were...guarded.  I knew that speaking the full truth to her would seal my fate.  Two hours of questions, and then she left—the man walked in.  He introduced himself, asked for a pistol—the moment it was handed to him, he shot me twice in each knee.”

Elaine was aghast.  “You could've told me about that when you came back!”

“I had no desire to see you suffer as I suffered.”

The detective frowned.  “You never protested what you were being asked to do, when you were overseas?”

“I could not protest—the last one to raise a complaint...”  Again, the professor buried his face in his hands.  “He was followed, into one of the restrooms.  He never left.  Nobody was allowed to use that restroom for three weeks.”

Sierra recoiled, and the only sign of Detective Logan's emotions was the slight growl in his voice when he spoke: “Did anyone ever mention who was paying for all of this?”

“There was no mention,” Professor Belsham admitted, “but...I saw, one day, a—”  He nearly choked on the word.  “He was a human being, at least in form, but no man has eyes like his eyes!  Those eyes, and her face—”

“What about his eyes?”  It was Sierra who asked the question, leaning forward in her seat.

“They were...I cannot even begin to understand how, but his eyes were not green, or blue, or brown like those of mortal men. No, this devil in a suit...I saw them by chance—looking up from my work, one day, at the door of my office.  His face was hidden—he was talking to another man standing in front of the door—but he glanced, briefly, into the work area. Those eyes...”  He shuddered.  “Gold, like coins fallen from the hand of Mammon.”

Sierra's thoughts flashed back to the previous week. At once, the furious, staring eyes that she'd seen were called back to the forefront of her thought processes—golden sclera, grey irises and foggy white pupils.

“—ever mention a name?”  Detective Logan's query brought Sierra back to the moment, out of her memory.

“Never a name, only titles.  Some claimed him to be a Duke, others a Baron.  At least one swore that anyone with the money to fund such a project could only be high royalty—a king, or an emperor.”  Belsham scoffed.  “I put little stock in their claims, though I often wondered who could possess such wealth, or the cruelty to order the creation of an army of manufactured killers.”

At that precise moment, Sierra couldn't help but wonder just what one manufactured killer in particular was up to...

----

“He's not getting out.  I taped him to that fucking chair with seven layers over both wrists and both shins, he's not going to get out before I get back.”

Lexi drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, doing her best to ignore the alluring visions of tearing through the cars in front of her with an anti-tank gun.  She'd gone up and down North 27th Street a few times, hoping to catch sight of the meatbag she'd last spotted at the Rimrock Mall over the weekend.  So far, no dice.

“If he's at the City College,” she muttered, “I'm going to—”

A car horn behind her cut off her plans. Without even looking back, she stuck one hand out the window, flashing the Universal Sign of Frustrated Motorists at the driver behind her.  “Idiot, thinks he's so important...”  She glanced up, briefly, at the rear-view mirror; “And oh, joy, he's getting out of the car!”  Without hesitating, she pulled out of the line of vehicles and sped off, in the passing lane—she had an itinerary to keep, and as fun as it'd be enacting her sweet revenge on the frustrated motorist, there were more important things to do.

“He hasn't left already,” she muttered.  “He hasn't left already.”

She continued on until reaching Rimrock Road, turning left when she saw the parking structure that shared the road's name. Her car (“hers” in the loosest sense—it was her third vehicle that day, with one having been ditched due to her overzealousness at disabling the anti-theft, and the other having been intentionally crashed when the auto-drive refused to stop trying to “reroute” Lexi to a used car-lot) slowed to a crawl as she scanned—in both the hyperbolic sense and the literal—the parking structure.  “No, no, no, no—same kind of truck, but not his, no, no—wait.”  The car stopped; Lexi nearly leaned out the window.  Something in the rear-view mirror...

The gynoid scowled.  “If it's that jack-off from earlier...”  Her eyes narrowed, and the reflection was magnified, zooming in on a figure entering a truck—in the Bjorgum car park, which she'd already passed.

Without even speaking, Lexi called up a memory from the Rimrock, running it past the image of the truck's plate.

Seconds later, her lips curled into a wicked smile. The plate from her memory file matched the one from the truck in the Bjorgum car park.

“File that one away for future reference,” she purred, licking her lips.  Offing Pariello would be well worth the wait, of course, but with the meatbag back in her sights, Lexi knew exactly where she'd be heading once the idiot was no longer an issue.  All she had to do now—

A notification flashed in her field of view. Her magnified glance at the mirror had redirected—and was now focused on the approaching figure of the idiot she'd flipped off.  For whatever reason, he didn't look as pissed off as she'd expected him to; if anything, he looked like he wanted to apologize for having blown the horn at her.

More charitable souls might've simply waited, rolled down the window and let the motorist speak his mind.

Charity was, of course, the last thing on Lexi's mind.  “FUCK this.”  She threw the car into reverse, sneering as she turned to get a better look from the rear window.

The motorist had slowed his approach, realizing the inevitable, and was already turning to flee.  Apart from nearly falling over his own feet, he never slowed down—which kept him from spotting his pursuer engaging a perfect J-turn so as to chase him head-on. 

Lexi's grip on the steering wheel tightened. The idiot had run past his own car—it'd just be a mater of time, now.

Over in the Bjorgum parking lot, the RangeStar she'd spotted reversed out of its parking spot.

----

“I was privy to every single decision made in regards to her conditioning,” Professor Belsham admitted.  “Even when my suggestions were ignored, I was still consulted—they insisted that I keep her 'functionally unstable'.”

“That's atrocious,” Elaine protested. “Absolutely abhorrent.  If they wanted an obedient, robotic soldier—”

“They wanted,” Belsham interjected, “more than mere soldiers.  They wanted killers.  Thinking, walking weapons, to be aimed at their enemies and unleashed without remorse.” He stared up at the ceiling.  “If your perpetrator is all that is left of that horrid band, then she must be destroyed.  Containing her—”  He spoke slightly louder, cutting off the protest Sierra nearly made.  “—is not an option.  She will fight her way free of any prison, kill as many as she has to in order to reach her objective...and some, she may kill purely out of boredom.”

The growl that left Detective Logan's lips earned a slightly anxious glance from Professor Belsham.  “We have it on good authority that the 'perp' we're looking for is, in fact, pursuing an objective in the Billings-Laurel area,” Sierra explained, “but we're—”

“When was she first detected?”

“Last week.  Tore up a house and bricked—”

“He doesn't need to know—”

“Bricked two sentients,” Detective Logan continued. “Killed a CAEDIA Agent and probably a few others besides, and she infiltrated a police station by posing as a man's dead niece to get him released on bail.”  Before Sierra could stop him, he added “She'll probably kill him, too, if she hasn't already.”

Sierra was halfway out of her seat.  “Damn it, Tommy—”

Enough.”  Elaine stood between the pair, staring both of them down.  “If you two want to settle this, I'm sure that old wrestling ring out in the main area will hold up for at least a couple of piledrivers and brain-busters before one or both of you go through it.  If you're not up to risking your necks, then please, sit down.”  Her stare never left the two as they returned to their seats.  “Now that we've gotten that out of our systems...”  She turned her attention to her perplexed mentor.  “The ones who paid you to 'condition' the gynoid we've been discussing,” she mused.  “I don't suppose they installed any kind of kill switch or failsafe device that would deactivate her?”

After a few seconds, Belsham shook his head. “Such measures were removed, if they were already present.  I was told that such devices and protocols had too high a risk of being co-opted, or 'hacked', or otherwise activated by malicious forces, and thus compromising their units.”

“So we have to brick her,” Sierra muttered.  “That'll go over really well with the Chief.”

“Better her than you,” Detective Logan reminded her. “And better to brick her than lose anyone else.”

“I suppose that settles it,” Elaine declared. “Professor, it wouldn't be any trouble at all for my friends to bring you back to CAEDIA HQ for the time being—”

“You're not in trouble,” Sierra quickly added. “Though you will probably have to give a statement about what you've told us, and your connection to the perp—”

“Ah, might want to hold that thought,” Detective Logan advised.  “Just got a call from Lieutenant Pierce—a load of people just called in about a car chasing someone off the main JSUB campus.”

Sierra did a credible job of not grimacing as she glanced back at Professor Belsham.  “I'm sure it's not related.”

----

“—BLOW YOUR FUCKING HORN AT ME AGAIN, YOU STUPID PRICK!

With the seventh football kick to the stomach of the unfortunate motorist, Lexi turned on her heel and stormed back over to “her” car.  The chase had been an impressive one—the idiot had run for multiple blocks before finally losing his strength and crapping out in an alleyway, which had forced Lexi to get out of the car and finish the pursuit on foot.  Now that her target was on the pavement and coughing up blood, she could turn her attention back to the matter at hand.

“Probably missed the meatbag's truck leaving,” she muttered, glancing back over her shoulder.  “If that idiot—oh, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING NOW?!

The motorist, despite having been driven to the ground and subjected to multiple punt kicks to the stomach, was now weakly reaching for his phone.  He was still doubled over in pain, but that was of little solace to Lexi—if the idiot could get even one call out, the law would be on her.

“Stop reaching for your fucking PHONE, DON'T EVEN TRY IT!”  Once she was close enough, Lexi delivered another kick to the downed driver.  “Stop reaching, you worthless—STOP IT!”  Her right hand closed around his left, her fingers squeezing like a vice.  In seconds, the driver's knuckles gave way; a wheezing moan was offered up as the closest thing to a protest he could muster.

GIVE me that!”  Lexi snatched the motorist's phone from his pocket and dropped it to the ground.  “You really thought you were going to call someone to come rescue your stupid ass?!”  Without waiting for a reply, she drove the heel of her left foot into the phone's screen, grinding away until she heard the cracking of the electronics beneath it. “And just to make damn sure you don't try anything stupid with this...”

As the motorist tried to reach for the ruined phone, Lexi grabbed it and hurled it, full-force, at a nearby building.

“Don't have time to waste on you,” she muttered, grabbing the injured motorist by the ankles and dragging him back to her car. “But if you're going to be a problem, then I might as well solve it while I'm out here.”  She didn't even cast a glance back over her shoulder as she sent the signal to pop the trunk—not that she needed to, of course. “And once I'm done with my latest project, I'll start on you—

The sound of sirens in the distance cut her off. As expected, they were drawing closer to her position. “Figures.”  The gynoid practically threw the motorist aside.  “See you never, I guess!”  With a final kick to the unfortunate driver's left thigh, she sprinted back to her car, diving in through the opened front passenger door.  The car was already picking up speed as Lexi repositioned herself to pull the door closed.

“Can't even have a little fun on the side,” she muttered, reorienting herself to get behind the wheel.  “Still, I've got plenty of fun waiting for me.”  She cast her glance to the backseat—the entire point of her jaunt had been to find the meatbag from the weekend, and to secure an item that she'd desperately wanted before going to work on Pariello.  Said item had since been acquired, lovingly packed in a box and even strapped in with a seatbelt to keep it from being jostled around in transit. Once she returned to her latest hideaway, that item would play an integral part of her “fun” with Pariello.

Lexi smirked.  She didn't even mind the fact that she'd have to ditch the car before she got back—she'd stolen well over half a dozen of the things, counting the one she was currently driving, over the past few days.  Picking up another ride would be simple—assuming she could get far enough away from where she'd left her latest target.  In any case, with her “day out” over and done with, Lexi accessed the car's Auto-Drive menu to reset her destination—somewhere out of the way, but not far enough from civilization that she'd be out of luck when it came to getting another ride.  In an hour or two, she'd be back at her hideout, where Pariello was taped to a chair—and probably still screaming.  If not...

“Oh, I'll give him something to scream about.”  Lexi giggled. “And I know he'll scream!!”

Her plans for Pariello would easily top what she'd done to his house.  After all, houses could be repaired....

----

The sun was still up by the time Lloyd guided the RangeStar down the path leading to Harry's house, which was amazing luck on his part—the practical exam, in which a broken 'bot had to be repaired and reactivated, had been postponed until the next day, due to the 'bots meant for the exam having been sent to Reclamation by mistake.  Thus, with the last of his written Mechanical Engineering exams out of the way, he had enough time to get home and help Diana make up her mind in regards to SafeSense.

Erin was standing outside, at the front door, as Lloyd drove up—not waiting for him, but apparently checking something on her phone. She barely noticed the RangeStar's presence until Lloyd closed the door; her surprised gasp sounded far more life-like than a 'bot with her appearance would've had by default.  “Lloyd?!”

“Surprise!”  He gave a smile that, to his credit, was entirely genuine—he hadn't expected to be back home so early, after all, but he was glad to be there.  “Practical exams are tomorrow, since some janitor—”

“Tell me later.”  Erin had already stowed her phone.  “You didn't have any trouble getting back, did you?”

“Ah, no,” Lloyd replied, frowning.  “Why?”

“I was just reading—some guy got chased off the campus by a psycho trying to run him over.  They just found him in a back alley about ten blocks away from the campus.” Her tone was grim.  “He's not gonna make it.”

Lloyd was stunned; he 'd been on campus an hour or so earlier, and had heard nothing about this incident.

“I'm just glad you're back,” Erin assured him, clapping him on the back.  “C'mon, Diana's watching TV inside.  We might be able to get this whole SafeSense thing done before...when d'you have to be back on campus?”

“Before sunset.”

“Yeah, we'll be done before then.”  Erin grinned.  “Shall we?”

Diana was, indeed, watching TV in the front room—sitting primly on the couch, her hands palm-down on the cushions and looking legitimately interested in what was airing.  At Lloyd's entrance into the room, she turned, expecting that Erin was by herself—only to spot Lloyd at her side.  “Lloyd!”

“Hi.”  Lloyd gave a quick wave.  “I, ah—”

“How did your exams go?”

“He'll finish up tomorrow,” Erin replied. “Harry's already out back, getting some work done in the shop—pretty sure he can get the installation process up and running in a few minutes, if you want to get on that now.”

Lloyd glanced at Diana.  “Well?”

The blonde gynoid merely nodded silently, her lips forming an anxious half-smile.

“Then let's get to it.”  Erin turned to head for the back door.  “And if you want to make up your mind on the way, about SafeSense,” she added, calling back to Diana, “then now's a great time for it.”

Lloyd didn't notice that Diana had approached until he felt her hand squeeze his.  He turned to meet her nervous glance with a reassuring stare of his own. “I'm here,” he reminded her.  “And I don't have to be back on campus for maybe an hour, so...” 

For a moment, Diana merely rested her head on his shoulder.  Neither of them said anything.

----

“....about seven times.”  Lieutenant David Pierce glanced at the body bag already being lifted out of the alley.  “Whoever did it found his phone on the other side of a fence, smashed to pieces.”

Did anyone get a good look at the car that chased him off campus?

“Still trying to get a read on that—” Lieutenant Pierce looked up, frowning, at the buildings on either side of him; none of them had cameras pointing into the alley.  “Nobody had eyes out here, as far as I know.  You think—”

Confirmation over speculation, Lieutenant.  Until we get proof, I don't want to get tied down to any theory.” 

“Got it.  I'll keep in touch.”  Pierce shook his head as the call with CAEDIA Officer Sierra Birch ended; ever since the break-in at Pariello's house the previous week, bizarre incidents had been called in with increasing frequency.  Multiple car thefts, a car crash that resulted in five deaths, a rumoured incident at CAEDIA HQ, NonSen thefts, claims of a lone driver on a rampage the previous morning and—last but most definitely not least—the bailing out of Bobby Pariello by someone impersonating his dead niece...apart from the link to Pariello, none of the incidents had anything in common.

Unless...

Pierce tried not to think of the possibility that all of these incidents since the break-in had been carried out by the same perpetrator as the break-in.  The thought of that one individual going on a completely random crime spree was, by its very nature, a sobering one.

With a sigh, Lieutenant Pierce turned his attention back to the crime scene.  Someone would answer for it.

----

“Over there, just—right there, over there. That's good.  Thanks.”

Lloyd wasn't sure what to stare at first—Esperanza, evidently in Command Mode, driving a large, industrial-looking thing with treads and a telescoping arm on its front end, or the two tall, muscled women dressed in “armour” that barely covered their breasts and groins, standing silently on the left side of the door to the shop as he entered.

“Lloyd!”  Harry's shout drew Lloyd out of his confusion.  “You said you'd be back this evening, not now.”  His smile gave way to a brief frown.  “Nothing happened on campus, I hope—”

“They just have to get new 'bots for the practical finals tomorrow,” Lloyd explained.  “Someone on the custodial staff got the wrong paperwork, sent the 'bots marked for the exam to Reclamation.  We'll be taking the test tomorrow instead, so I've got some time to kill before the next exam.”  He nodded at the warrior gynoids near the door.  “Pretty sure neither of them were here when I left.”

Harry chuckled.  “Just got 'em in from Oregon—both of 'em are having issues booting out of any personality profile other than the factory standard.  Not bad if they were working the ticket booth, but not exactly ideal for a sword'n'sorcery tale, so the Portland branch sent 'em out here.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Can't exactly slot 'em in on our next event—”

“Better question,” Erin cut in, “why is she on the loader?!”  She nodded the large vehicle being driven by Esperanza.

“It's a trial run,” Harry explained. “You know how hard it is for an organic to keep that thing on a straight line with a full load, so I figured I'd try it with her.  Besides, Jim's got his vacation early this year, and he's the only one fully certified for the Loader, so—”

“So you're going to leave it to a NonSen who just had a code purge last week?” Erin countered.  “She's supposed to be getting set up for the next event, not driving the loader!”

It's a trial run,” Harry insisted. “I'm not going to—”

Lloyd's attempt at discreetly clearing his throat came off as a too-loud cough, ending the discussion before it could get too heated. “Ah, Diana was talking to me about the whole SafeSense thing,” he stated, “and, well...”  He stepped aside to let Diana face Harry.    “I want to have it installed.”  There was something that might've been confidence in Diana's tone. “I'm ready.”

Harry regarded her with furrowed brows. “You're absolutely positive about this?”

At the first glance of what might've been hesitation on Diana's part, Lloyd squeezed her hand.  “Remember, it's to keep you from getting into sketchy situations,” he reminded her.  “It'll expand your awareness of your surroundings, give you a good sense of what to avoid, what not to mess with.”  He cast a side-glance at his uncle; “It'll work with story modules, too, right?” he asked. “Personality-wise, I mean.”

“It should.  Might take a few tweaks to make sure it doesn't cause her to break character, but nothing too difficult.”

Lloyd nodded, turning his attention back to Diana. “It'll even make sure you don't get damaged during events.”

Diana didn't let go of his hand.  “Will it...change me, too much?”

“I'm sure it won't.”  Lloyd offered what he considered his most encouraging smile. “I'll be right here with you for the whole install process.”  Even as he spoke, he realized that he'd have to get back to campus at some point—hopefully, not in such a hurry that he'd look like a liar.  Fortunately, any fears of a lengthy install were assuaged by Harry speaking up: “I don't think it'll take longer than maybe twenty, thirty minutes, tops.  You shouldn't have to run back to campus that fast, I'd hope.”

“I won't have to.”  Lloyd smiled.  “And there's nowhere else I'd rather be than right here, right now, helping you with this install, Diana.”  The thought occurred to him, at that moment, that he'd have to get back to campus at some point—hopefully, not in such a hurry that he'd look like a liar. Fortunately, any fears of a lengthy install were aussaged by Harry speaking up: “I don't think it'll take longer than maybe twenty, thirty minutes, tops.  You shouldn't have to run back to campus that fast, I'd hope.”

“I won't have to.”  Lloyd smiled.  “And there's nowhere else I'd rather be than right here, right now, helping you with this install, Diana.”  The thought occurred to him, at that moment, that Mandy might call him for any reason—he tried not to dwell on the possibility.  “I'm here, you're here—that's what matters.”  Even as she held  Lloyd's hand, Diana nodded.

“Well, no time like the present to get this started—CAM!  Load up the installer.  Diana's ready to go.”  Harry gestured to Diana.  “Just take a seat, and we'll get started as soon as everything's set up.”

From her vantage point by the door of the shop, Erin watched as Diana took a seat—Lloyd never leaving her side.  It was slightly odd, looking at the pair—the week prior, Diana had been unboxed as just another 'bot for the roster, a blank slate on which any number of personalities could be written for any number of stories.  Now, she was slowly building her own persona, her own self—and Lloyd was with her, guiding her through it.  Had this all started just because Harry had made the decision to put Diana in Autonomous Mode, the night of the post-event party?  If Diana had just been left in her crate for that night, would she even be getting SafeSense installed?

Erin frowned, less at her questions and more at the fact that she was asking them in the first place.  Diana being able to make up her own mind was a good thing, unquestionably; she'd long since proven that she was more than just a 'bot for inventory.  Now, it was just a question of what would happen next—what kind of place Diana would have in the Morgan household, going forward, among other things—

“Ah, Erin, think you could help with the cable management for the install?  Otherwise Diana'll get all tangled up.”

Harry's question snapped Erin out of her apparent funk. “Right, just gimme a sec.”

----

Sierra knew, before she even entered the room, that Detective Logan would probably be scowling.  He'd been poring over the same report on the ever-elusive “perp” that she'd just finished reading—a random civilian killed after randomly being chased off of the campus of JSU-B—and was probably more determined than ever to get out there and put an end to “the perp”.  A thought process formed in Sierra's mind about the irony of her lack of reaction to the incident—of the pair of them, she had more of a right to direct any anger she felt towards the “perp”.  A gynoid going out of her way to injure and kill people, in an area under CAEDIA's jurisdiction, was like a direct slap in the face to everything that CAEDIA stood for, a total, complete affront to the mission statement.

These thoughts all faded as the door hissed open, revealing the detective to be in a video call with Lieutenant Pierce. As expected, he was, indeed, scowling.

—family's already called, and they want answers,” Pierce stated.  “They haven't mentioned anything about taking this story to the papers yet—

“Then keep it that way.”  The detective's near-growling of those words would've sent a chill up the spine of any human listening from the doorway.  “Anyone get a good look at the car that chased him off campus?”

A few people, but it won't do us any good—what's left of the car turned up behind a store twenty minutes ago.”

The limited flexibility of his facial prosthetic did little to hide the disdain the detective felt at that statement; he leaned as far back as he could in the chair, a low, growling groan saying more about his disgust than any words could.

We can get a—

“For the time being,” the detective stated, “just make sure that nobody starts panicking.  We need logic and calm, not mob rules, torches and pitchforks.”

Sierra stepped into the room just as the call ended, regarding her colleague with a weary glance that wouldn't have been out of place on a ten-year veteran of any police force.  “Nobody's panicked yet,” she reminded him.  “And I'm pretty sure a few random incidents—”

“The only reason people haven't panicked yet is because nobody knows the full story,” Detective Logan countered.  “If anyone got out the word that a 'bot was the one stealing cars, attacking people at random and causing all of this, we'd have a march on this building in hours.”

“You're banking an awful lot on the assumption that the public knows the perp is a 'bot,” Sierra mused.  “I've kept an eye on the news since this all started—nobody's mentioned that as a possibility.  All the networks are saying that 'a random serial offender' is on the loose.”  She nodded at a nearby monitor, opening up a window to the local newspaper's web affiliate via her internal WiFi.  “Not one mention of 'a rogue android'.”

Detective Logan's scowl didn't falter.  “That doesn't mean we can take it easy.”

“I never said it would—”

“How's Belsham been doing since we got back from the rec center?”

Sierra frowned at the abrupt change of subject, but decided not to press whatever the issue might be.  “He's still a bit nervous.  Understandably so—”

“You tell him that HQ is the safest building in town?”

“We did get broken into last week—”

The detective turned, slowly, to glare at his colleague.  “You didn't tell him that.”

“Of course I didn't,” Sierra replied.  “But we can't ignore the fact that HQ was broken into—”

Infiltrated,” Detective Logan corrected.  “'Broken into' makes it sound like the perp just busted out a missile launcher and blew the doors off.  She snuck in, disguised, and snuck back out when she was done here.”

It was Sierra's turn to glare.  “And that's better than a break-in?”

“You know that's not what I meant—”

The monitor showing the local newspaper feed blinked out, only to reactivate in an instant—bearing a live camera feed of Elaine Dyson.  “Professor Belsham is still with you, I hope.”

“Not with us, specifically,” Detective Logan admitted, “but he's in the building.”

Good enoughI've been going over everything he told me on the ride back to CAEDIA HQ and correlating it with all that you suggested I look for—

“And?”

The look on Elaine's face was matched only by the gravity in her voice.  “Professor Belsham was right to say what he said back at the rec center.  I don't think arrest will be a viable option when and if you ever corner your 'perp', Detective.”

“So we really do have to scrap her.” Sierra frowned.  “That kind of goes against—”

The gynoid you're after was created before CAEDIA was ever even an idea,” Elaine reminded her.  “And we've already established her lack of empathy—

“Right, right.  I just...”  Sierra looked away.  “I've always thought that scrapping or De-Comming was a last resort.”

The detective was casually examining his sidearm as he spoke: “What happened to the perp is terminal.  No 'therapy' or 'cure' is going to put her back into anything resembling a 'right mind'.  She was created to be a killer, and she'll end up scrapped as one, too.” He aimed down the sight, at the far wall; the clip for the gun was on the arm of the chair, and his finger was nowhere near the trigger.  “We treat this like a rehab case, and it'll end with me in a bodybag, fifteen repair tickets on you and Billings on lockdown.”

“You can at least—”

“I don't enjoy the prospect.  I want this to be over with, same as you.”

The detective's turn of phrase garnered another frown from his colleauge.  “I wouldn't have put it that way.”

“It's the only way to put it.” Detective Logan turned his attention back to Elaine.  “You find anything else, let us know.”

I will—and please try to keep Professor Belsham as far away from this 'perp' as possible.”

“We'll do our best.”  Detective Logan watched the monitor wink out.  “All this, just  a week before Christmas.”

“This'll be solved by then,” Sierra assured him. “The perp won't be running amok next Monday, I promise.”

The “red paint” on Detective Logan's facial prosthetics pulsed as he scoffed, as if to echo his disbelief of the claim.

----

Heartelligence 90S-50-D

Designation: “Diana”

Booting Up

Running full system scan…

Scan complete.  All systems functioning at 100% efficiency.

RAM: OK  ROM: OK

IPU: Online   EPU: Online   EVPU: Online

Base Personality Module: Loading

Loading

Loading

Load—Load complete.  No Errors Found.

Charging Cord Connected. Diagnostic Cord Connected.  USB Cable Connected.

Loading SafeSense...

The first thing Diana noticed after rebooting was that she now knew exactly how far every single object in the shop was from her body.  Measurements, in inches and feet, appeared under the names of everything—the tables, the tools, the loader (which was still moving, slowly, off in the distance).

“I—”

The rush of air, signifying something had been thrown in her direction, reached her aural sensors a femtosecond before an alert suggesting she react to avoid being hit in the cranial module appeared.  The thought process of reaching up to catch the object had barely occurred to her when she realized her left arm was already up and out.  The impact of the metal sphere against her hand was less surprising than the indicators showing the direction it had been thrown from, or how lines of green text were informing her of the precise weight of the sphere.

“It's a lot to take in, I know,” Harry was stating, from somewhere off to Diana's left.  “But In time, you'll get used to it.”

“I...”  For some reason, Diana was finding it hard to formulate a response.  She could see so much about everything around her, hear so much that might indicate a possible threat to her well-being—all of it was quickly becoming far too much for her to handle.  She rose from the chair she'd been sitting in and took a step forward, then took a step back just as quickly.  “I...”

“Something's wrong!”  Lloyd, from somewhere out of Diana's line of sight, was clearly concerned—as evidenced by his expression when he stepped into her field of view. “She's—”

ERROR

Data Buffer Overflow

Autonomous Mode—

Recommendation: Switch To Alternate Mode (Command, Direct Control)

“I...”  Diana smiled, or tried to—Lloyd's reaction made it apparent that her attempt hadn't quite paid off.

“Sit her back down in the chair, maybe we can—”

Every line of text in Diana's field of view went crazy at once.  She felt her fingers grasping something, but she didn't—

“Diana, my hand!

----

The rapid fluttering of her eyelids, and the half-smile, half-grimace that her lips were forming, clearly showed that Diana wasn't exactly coping well with the new data she was receiving from SafeSense. Lloyd managed to knead the gynoid's fingers open and free his hand from her grip.  “Just try to relax,” he advised, “try to focus on something!”

Eyes wide, teeth clenched and hands flexing uncontrollably, Diana wasn't in a position to give any kind of a response.

“Check the software,” Harry ordered.  “Make sure we used the latest one—which build did we load up?”

“October something,” Erin called out.  “Can't make out the date.”

“You're sure it's October, not August?”

YES.”

“Good.  October build's the most stable, figured it'd work with Diana's systems.”  Harry knelt by the chair where Diana was trying to process all of the incoming data.  “Can you hear me?”

The word “ER-ROR” barely squeaked out from between Diana's clenched teeth.

“What do we do?

“Only one thing for it.”  Harry cracked his knuckles.  “We have to shut her down, or at least get her to reset.”

“And that won't mess her up?”

“I'd hope not.  Diana—”  Harry took hold of Diana's head with both of his hands.  “Just focus on my voice.  Got it? Only my voice, for right now.”

Even as her eyelids spasmed, the twitching of Diana's ocular sensors slowed to a halt.

“Initiate full system shutdown and total reset. Can you do that?”

“Full-full-full-sys-sys-sys-sys—”  Without warning, Diana sat bolt upright in the chair.  “System shutttttiiiiiiinnnnnnnggggg

dooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnnn...”  Her head bowed, all motion from the rest of her body ceasing at that exact moment. Somewhere inside of her torso, a low, almost imperceptible beep sounded.

“Well,” Harry mused, “that's it for her today.” He regarded the deactivated gynoid with a sigh.  “I was hoping she'd be able to handle it better for her first run, to be honest.”

Lloyd was holding Diana's motionless hand in both of his own.  “Will she be all right?”

“I'd say so—”

“Are we forgetting that SafeSense is usually for sentients?” Erin chimed in.  “And even if she's using the October build, that doesn't mean anything if she can't process all the new info.”

Harry groaned.  “It's the October build,” he reminded her, “it's patched, and I made sure to not include any drivers that'd conflict with her operating system or her other pre-loaded software.  SafeSense didn't screw up.”

“But what if she did?” Lloyd quietly asked.

“I'm sure Diana didn't screw up either,” his uncle assured him.  “She'll be fine once we get her reset.”

“And when can we—”

“One thing at a time, Lloyd.”  Harry rested a hand on his nephew's shoulder.  “We can't rush this.”

Lloyd nodded, glancing at Diana's motionless figure. “So she's...resetting, right now?”

“Yep.  Her systems are remapping, sorting out all the new data inputs and everything—help her make sense of what she's seeing and hearing, y'know?”  Harry grinned.  “I'd bet if we tested her for sentience, right now, she'd pass.

“And—”

“Like I said,” Harry reminded him.  “One thing at a time.”

Lloyd nodded as he carefully set Diana's hand down. “I just want to make sure she didn't get wrecked by this.”

“She'll be fine.  Once her systems get everything sorted out, she'll be back on her feet in no time.”  Harry retrieved his phone; “Speaking of time,” he mused, “unless I'm sorely mistaken, you're gonna have to get back to campus soon.”

“Trying to kick him out?” Erin smirked.

Harry frowned at her, but Lloyd had already turned to leave.  “No, he's right,” he admitted.  “I gotta get back, make sure I don't miss the next exam—I'll be back tomorrow, anyway, so I can check on her then.”  As he reached for the door, he stopped.  Before Harry or Erin could ask him if anything was wrong, he turned and headed back to where Diana still sat, motionless, in her chair.  “Can she hear me?” he asked, without looking away from the shut-down gynoid.

“Probably not,” Erin replied.  “Total system shutdown is exactly what it sounds like, after all.”

Lloyd took both of Diana's hands in his own. “Whether or not you can hear me,” he stated, “I just want you to know that I really think you did the right thing by getting SafeSense installed.”

“I think she'll think that, too,” Harry agreed, clapping Lloyd on the shoulder.

With a nod, Lloyd set Diana's hands on the armrest of her recharge chair.  “Guess I'd better get going,” he mused, once again heading for the door.

“Good luck!” Harry called out.  “If you're able to put in some time to check up on her tomorrow, feel free.”

“I will.”  Lloyd gave a quick wave as he left the shop.

“Well,” Harry mused, “that was that.”  He glanced at Diana; “Guess all we can do now is wait for her to reset, and—”  He paused, frowning.  “D'you hear that?”

Erin was still watching the door.  “I don't hear anything.”

“Exactly.  The loader should be—”  Harry groaned.  “Aw, the loader!”  He frantically glanced around the shop.  “I never told Esperanza to put it in park or—”

“I did,” Cam piped up.  “She nearly knocked the door to The Pit off of its hinges.”

Harry groaned again, leaving Erin doing her best to maintain her composure.  “I hate to say I told you so—”

“Then don't.”  Harry stormed off towards the loader.  “Get her out of the seatbelt and out of the loader, on the double!”

----


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