Writing As We Go

From FembotWiki

Writing As We Go

Chapter 1

Presenting for your delectations...

Inspired by the wonderfully mad subconscious of yours truly, another tale from the 'verse in which Lloyd (our 20-year-old protagonist), his uncle Harry (think Ford, mid-1990s) and a host of employees of Harry's rather unique entertainment venture have a rather chaotic December. Should be fun.

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.


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—”


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—”


“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—”


“....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...


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...

Forgot to post this part for the last two chapters, but comments, compliments and the like are anticipated and appreciated!

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