Exo Saves the Day - Chapters 31-34
Chapter 31 - Blue tears
The cold night air bit through my overcoat as though it wasn't even there. I held tightly onto Joan as she drove the motorcycle down the dark streets of the city. Her body warmth helped keep me from shivering; I was glad her body was designed to stay at an average human temperature but I had to wonder if she ever got cold. She seemed to know just where to go, thanks to the built-in GPS system she had. I held her tighter as I realized how much I appreciated her being there, despite her long hair whipping wildly in my face. She felt every bit as human as any girl, and I was still amazed by it.
My thoughts kept racing between Joan, the dangers we just left behind, and the dangers we faced ahead. I hoped the others were alright. By now the police were there handling the situation, but in what way? Were they going to arrest Jack for his questionable life-style? Was Annie in danger of being discovered and terminated? Then there was Cynthia and her secret she shared with Tom, and now me. I wondered if Jen had made up with Jack, or if it was too late for any of that sort of thing anymore.
Then there was Tera. I had no idea what kind of condition she was in. Was she hurt? Was she still alive? What did he want with her? Who was he? I had too many questions to answer, and I prayed we'd find out soon as we raced down the bitter cold streets at night.
It was probably only half an hour before we arrived in a nice suburb neighborhood to the north, but to me it felt like an eternity. Joan slowed the bike down to a crawl as we navigated through winding roads that ran deep into a heavily forested residential area. It was really a very nice place. Half the houses there could pass as mansions, and the other half probably were mansions. We passed several horse ranches as well, which seemed out of place, before we came to a large clearing in the woods filled with smaller, but equally nice, houses.
Suddenly my mind was filled with a slow but steady stream of data. Tera's signal had started up again, and this time it really was her. There were no messages, no screaming, just background data. I held Joan tighter as I concentrated on it. It took a second, but I knew more about Tera now than I had since she vanished. She was in pain, a lot of it. Her arm was hurt, and she was exhausted, but there was too much data for me to filter through and I got lost trying to figure things out. One thing I knew for sure was that she was terrified.
"It's Tera! She's close" I yelled through the helmet to Joan. She nodded and turned off the road, parking the bike near the trees at the edge of the woods.
We got off and prepared ourselves. I pulled the helmet off, and rifled through my pockets for the guns Joan gave me earlier. With just the two of us, this felt like suicide, but all we really had to do was get in, find Tera, and get out. A covert mission like this required a small number of people, but I was sure this was not going to work. Still, I trusted Joan, and let her lead the way.
"Here" I said, handing her the gun. She took it with an odd look on her face, but it melted into a smile.
"Thanks. You feeling alright?" she asked.
"Of course. I'm ready to do this!"
She nodded, and led the way toward the exact address I had given her earlier. We walked down the sidewalk a short way before cutting across a yard into the back between houses. There was a line of trees defining the back yards of these homes, and we stayed close to them to stay out of view. Finally, she stopped at the edge of a property, and looked around for danger.
The house was beige with blue accents, and stretched 2 stories tall, plus a basement. It had a large deck in the back with a swimming pool still filled with water, even though it was now covered with a tarp to keep it clean. Apparently they hadn't drained the pool yet since the cold weather and only just started to arrive. It was a nice house, to say the least, but with a house that big where would we start to look for Tera? Most of the house was dark save for lights in two windows on the first floor.
"Come on" Joan whispered as she waved me forward and began to make her way toward the home. There was no sign of any security system so far, and we didn't hear the bark of dogs. Maybe we were in luck after all. As Joan and I made our way over, I could hear muffled voices from the lit room, but couldn't tell what was being said.
Joan stopped by the edge of the deck, and slowly we followed it around until it met the house on the side. She made her way over to a short window that was about 3 inches off the ground. Peering in, I couldn't see anything, but with her advanced vision, Joan could see in better than me. I decided instead to make sure no noisy law-abiding neighbors were watching us. The last thing we needed was to be caught as thieves or something.
"It's the basement. I don't see any security systems; we should be able to get in here." She kept her voice low, just above a whisper, and started to fiddle with the frame of the window. I wasn't sure what she was doing, but I feared it was making too much of a racket, so I kept my eyes peeled for anyone else. Luckily no one noticed us yet, and I hoped it stayed that way.
"It's heavier than I thought" she said as she strained to pull at the window, frame and all. Somehow, she managed to dislodge the window with a few strong tugs. What would I do without her? As she lifted the window away, her foot slipped on a patch of mud in the grass. Instinctively, I reached out and caught her before she hit the ground or dropped anything.
"Thanks" she whispered with another odd look on her face. "Are you sure you're feeling alright?" she asked.
"I feel fine. Why?" I whispered back.
"Your arm... You broke it just this afternoon. Doesn't it still hurt?" I realized now that I had been using my arm to take off my helmet, hand her a gun, and even catch her from falling, and yet didn't think twice about it.
"That's... strange. Maybe a little if I twist it" I said, testing my arm. It did hurt a little when I twisted it, but maybe it was just the pain killer. "Couldn't it be that drug you gave me?"
"That wore off hours ago" she whispered, putting the window down nearby. "Your arm is healing incredibly fast! The same thing happened with your bruises."
I shrugged. I had no idea why I would heal fast; I never had any special healing abilities before. But it was true. Recently I had noticed my wounds healing quicker than usual, but I had no idea why. Still, this was not important at the moment, and I nodded toward the window.
"Right. I'll help you in" she said. "Be careful." Slowly, I backed myself toward the window crawling on the ground. As I reached my feet in, Joan grabbed my arms, and slowly helped lower me into the dark basement. I landed softly on a hard concrete floor, unable to see anything near me, but surrounded by a lot of junk. It was like my parent's old basement, cluttered with things they couldn't bear to part with over the years until it was packed full. Joan backed herself in next, slowly lowering her feet into the window above me. I placed my right hand on her rear to help her as she lowered herself in. I couldn't help but think about her soft butt, but I easily shoved that thought aside and got back to business. She was in a second or two later and stood up next to me.
"Perv" she whispered with a smile, lightly elbowing me in the ribs.
"What? I-" I joked back, but our friendly banter was quickly interrupted when the muffled voices from upstairs started up again, this time much clearer.
"Goddamn it! Don't you talk back to me! Do you have any idea how much that remote unit cost me? You can't just buy a cougar model off the shelf! I had that made custom just for her!" The male voice was familiar. It was the man that had attacked us before, the same man that somehow invaded my dreams, and the same man that took Tera from me. We were in the right place.
"But sir, I had everything under control, if she hadn't-" the muffle voice of 262 replied.
"Bullshit! Don't you blame this on Leonis! She's a cat, and you were responsible for her. You failed my orders, so she did what she was supposed to do. You have not!" We moved away from the wall, slowly navigating our way in the dark, trying not to knock over any of the various objects in the dark.
"Master, please give me another chance" 262 pleaded with her master. I felt bad for her to some extent, but I had no idea how bad it was.
It was quiet upstairs for a while, so we halted our motion, trying to make sure we didn't make any sound when they'd hear it. We knew 262 had excellent hearing, so we were extra careful.
"Sir?" 262 asked. "Could I at least bandage my arm?"
"I'm not going to waste my first aid kit on a robot... I admit I'm down to one RCU myself. But you had no excuses. He was defenseless! None of the other robots could reach him, and you even disarmed him. Yet you still failed to follow out my orders! Until you can prove to me otherwise, you are being demoted to my house maid."
Feet moved upstairs, the ceiling boards creaking under their weight. We used this opportunity to move forward some more, hoping to use this chance to look around in the dark while they were busy.
"RCU?" I whispered to Joan.
"Remote Combat Unit... experimental remote cyber body, never approved for combat" she replied quietly, before the voice boomed upstairs again.
"Thanks to you, I've had to activate that blasted virus I installed in all those androids" the man continued. "Damn it! That was my last resort! It took me years slaving away at that shit-hole to set that up. I was going to use that for... more important things... I need to take out my frustrations."
"Master! You promised you wouldn't hurt her anymore!" 262's voice sounded frantic as she begged her master to stop whatever he was doing up there. "Please sir, not the whip, you promised!"
"A promise to you is like a promise to my toaster."
Before we had a chance to do anything else, a square shaft of light appeared in the dark, illuminating our surroundings. The door upstairs had opened, and the silhouette of a man appeared. Joan and I scrambled to get behind something for cover and pray he didn't see us. We managed to find a place behind what looked like a large workout bench under a sheet. I could tell Joan was just as scared as I was as her body shook against mine.
The man walked down the stairs into the dark, his shadow growing smaller on the ground below with each step. I could see our surroundings better now. The place was cluttered with all assortments of junk, and it had been unfinished, with no real ceiling, no painted walls, and just a concrete floor. It was rather hideous looking and I wondered what else lived down here in the dark.
Finally he came into view. It was the same man as before, identical in every way to the robot we destroyed, the "cyber-doll" that attacked us back at the motel. He wore a business suit exactly the same as before except this time he had in his hand what looked like a whip, except different. The whip itself reflected the light of the room above like metal.
"Please sir" 262 pleaded as she followed him down the stairs. He pulled a cord at the bottom of the stairs, and a solitary light illuminated the scene. The whip was definitely metal, with wires running up and down it. I could also see 262 more clearly as well. She was wearing a plain t-shirt and jeans, and held onto her arm with her other hand. Her arm hung lifelessly at her side, the wound from Annie's bullet still untreated, still stained with android blood now dried down her arm. She looked in pain, but tried to hide it from her master.
Joan and I remained hidden as best we could, but to our horror, the man turned and walked straight toward us. Joan ducked down farther, pushing herself tighter against me, as we watched him get closer and closer. As soon as he was a foot away from the bench we hid behind, he turned and followed a short path to a door I hadn't noticed before in a nearby wall. It was a heavy wooden door, padlocked and shut tight. I was still close enough that I could reach out and brush his leg, but I didn't dare move.
262 followed close behind and luckily she didn't notice us either. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a key. After undoing the padlock, he returned the key to his pocket, and opened the door. The room was dark, with no windows to illuminate it. He took a step inside, and flipped a switch, turning on a bare bulb hanging in the middle of the tiny room. It wasn't much bigger than a walk-in closet, and had pipes and wires lining the walls into various parts of the house. On the floor in the middle of it all was Tera.
I felt like someone had kicked me in the chest. She looked far worse than I imagined. Tera sat on the ground against a set up pipes running up the wall, still dressed in what remained of her blue dress from the other night. Her wrists were bound with handcuffs, and not the fun kind, and were attached to a juncture in the pipes almost 2 feet over her head. There was something off about her right arm, and it took me a moment to focus well enough to see what it was. The skin from her arm had been methodically torn off from the wrist down to her shoulder. Her artificial muscles, optical wires, and everything else under her skin was clearly visible. Her orange-red blood soaked her right side, as an IV ran down into her arm, replenishing her blood. What kind of monster would torture a girl like this and then give her just enough treatment to keep her alive through more of it?
Her arm shook with pain, but there was no other sign that she was alive. Her head hung loosely, her auburn hair obscuring her face. She looked completely and utterly defeated. As I gazed longer, I could see her body was covered in long thin burns. She sat in a pool of filth; a mixture of her blood and urine which was artificial, but still filtered out waste from her system and smelled just as bad as the real thing. Around her neck, she wore a collar identical to Annie's. Joan was every bit as shocked at the sight as I was, and even 262 seemed taken aback by it.
"First time seeing it like this? Just be glad it's not you!"
"Master... I thought you said you needed her to look human!" 262 objected.
"It will, as soon as it submits. It's shown remarkable resistance to the collar, but it will break soon. Why do you think I dragged that repair station down here?" he said, pointing back directly at us. I looked closer at the object we were hiding behind. It wasn't a workout bench; it was the same model workstation that Tom had installed in his lab. With this, he could repair her skin like it was brand new, and the only scars left would be emotional ones.
The man flipped a switch on the whip in his hand, and it hummed with electricity. Blue light emanated from the whip as it arced with electricity. The end of it dragged along the ground, and sparked with white energy at the contact, leaving burns in its wake.
"Please sir! No!" 262 objected. Tera never looked up, but she curled herself slightly into a ball in preparation.
"Would you rather I use this on you? God knows you deserve it!" the man spat at 262. "Or perhaps you would rather do the honors?" he suggested, offering the handle of the whip to her. She recoiled her hand, unable to bear the thought of hurting her sister like that. "Huh! I thought so." He looked her hard in the face with pure disdain. "You know none of this would be necessary if you'd bind with me!"
262 was shocked, even disgusted at the thought. Yet, she contemplated it for her sister's sake. The wheels in her head were turning, but the man was impatient.
"Suit yourself. Go upstairs and bring me up some water, I'm thirsty, maid. And while you're up there, check on the workstation and tell me when that bastard's nanites stop responding. He should be dead soon."
He was talking about me. He had been monitoring my nano-bots all this time?! What else has he been doing, besides torturing my girlfriend?
262 turned to leave and obey his orders, but stopped and turned back. "He told me he loved her. Tera said the same thing to me..."
The man froze in place before slowly turning to face her. Hate filled his eyes, and he shot his malice at her. He punched 262 hard in the jaw, knocking her off her feet. A punch that strong could have killed a normal human; in fact a normal human would have a hard time throwing such a punch in the first place. This had to be another one of those cyber-dolls. 262 held her jaw as she looked up at him in shock.
"Its name is 263, and you will address it as such" he growled. She remained still for a while looking up at him, holding the side of her jaw. He turned away, back toward Tera, ignoring 262. Slowly, she got back to her feet, adjusting her jaw, as though he had knocked it out of place.
As 262 turned around to head back toward the stairs, her eyes suddenly stopped on me and Joan! She looked surprised, and my heart skipped a beat. We were discovered! To our surprise, 262 looked back at her master, then back at us, before turning and walking back up the stairs.
"You've changed" she said as she vanished into the light.
"No I haven't" the man growled to no one in particular. "You've only opened your eyes. Now then, you are going to help me get the information I need, and if I have to break you to do that, so be it! Shall we continue where we left off?"
"Danny... will save... me" Tera said in a voice so quiet I almost didn't hear it.
"Your little DaNnY is dead!" he said, mocking my name. "What kind of sick fuck would love a robot anyways?" He raised the whip over his head in preparation to strike.
I couldn't take any more of this, and I could not let him hit her! I ran out of my hiding place, and charged at him. I must have made a noise to distract him, because he paused and turned toward me but it was too late, I was already upon him. I grabbed at the whip in his hand, and knocked it to the floor, the electricity draining from it. I then proceeded to launch a series of ineffective punches at him; without my Exo suit, there wasn't really much I could do. Luckily, Joan was right behind me and punched her hand at the man's neck. She managed to slice right through the skin and into his artificial throat, pulling at the RCU's spine.
"YOU!" he said through a broken speaker in his neck staring at me before Joan snapped his neck and pulled out wires and circuits. Sparks erupted from his neck as his robotic body went stiff and fell to the ground. I kicked at the monstrosity before turning toward Tera.
"TERA!" I cried, diving toward her. I dared not touch her though, for fear of hurting her more.
Tera took a little while to respond before she looked up at me. "Danny?" she asked in a weak voice. "Where? How?" Suddenly her eyes started to glow blue and she recoiled violently away from me.
"NO! Don't get near me! I... I'll hurt you!" she screamed.
"AARRRG!!" a muffled voice from upstairs yelled. It was a male voice, but sounded different than the one I was familiar with. We needed to hurry!
"Tera! You could never hurt me! I-"
"It's the collar! I can't control it. I'm so tired! I'll hurt you!" she pleaded, still trying to back away from me. He was crying profusely from her large blue eyes; each tear reflecting the blue glow they emitted.
"Tera! I won't let you hurt me. I've already hurt you enough. I... should have told you this a long time ago. Tera, I love you!"
She stopped struggling at my words and looked up at me. "Really? You really love me?"
"Of course! More than anything! I've loved you since I first saw you and brought you home." I pulled out of my pocket the intricate heart-shaped gear necklace that I gave her the night she was kidnapped. "It just took me a while to realize it." I leaned in and placed it around her neck, much to her delight, and gave Tera a gentle kiss. She closed her eyes and returned the kiss, even though it was brief and very wet from our tears.
When she opened her eyes again, they were no longer glowing blue, but were now shining bright white, obscuring her irises and pupils.
"Stand back" she said as her eyes started to glow brighter. I backed up a little and I watched puzzled as to what was going on. Finally, I heard a pop and a fizzle, and smoke rose from the collar at her neck. Tera's eyes went back to normal, and she collapsed even more onto the ground - her arms still bound above her - exhausted from her effort.
She looked up and smiled weakly at me. "Oh Danny! You did save me! And Joan too!"
"I couldn't leave my baby sister to this fate!" Joan said as she rushed to her side. Instead of hugging her, she focused on Tera's bonds, still holding her arms uncomfortably above her head to the pipes. Meanwhile, I started working on removing the collar she just fried.
"No! Don't touch it!" Tera objected. "I only shorted the part that was trying to control me. The security part is hardwired, and will still shock me if you try to remove it!"
"Oh... shit" I put it eloquently. I left the collar alone, and realized it must have been him who gave Liberati the collar he put on Annie. I could hear more yelling upstairs as the man screamed for 262, who was apparently taking her sweet time attending to him.
Joan pulled the handcuffs apart, and gently helped Tera lower her arms. She was in a lot of pain from her position alone, not to mention her right arm being skinned like that. Thank goodness she wasn't human, or that kind of injury would get infected and kill her. She gently placed her injured arm against her chest, wincing at the pain of moving it and touching it, while she let her other arm dangle by her side.
"That's better" she sighed. She leaned her body against mine and closed her eyes, breathing deeply and slowly. She was exhausted, as her nano-bots had told me, and went limp against me as she rested. Naturally, I lifted her up as best as I could, and realized my arm was not fully healed yet, and taking on her weight was going to hurt. But still, I did it. I lifted her in the air as she leaned against me, and prepared to carry her out, ignoring the pain in my arm.
Joan ran ahead, taking to the stairs as she prepared to clear us a path. "Take the front door out and get to the bike! I'll hold them off while you get Tera to safety."
"I can't abandon you here, Joan" I said.
"I'll find you later" she said. "This was the plan wasn't it? You can only get two on the bike after all."
She had a point. I knew Joan could take care of herself, and I trusted she would do her best to meet with us, but I feared she would get caught and used in Tera's place. Still, I had no choice, so I nodded in approval before she darted up the stairs. I followed behind as quickly as I could, and joined her upstairs.
"Danny, you look awful" Tera commented looking up at me. Had she not looked so much worse, I would have laughed, but instead I smiled, glad she was still acting like herself a little.
The basement door led up to the kitchen, which was still brightly lit with a dozen or so inset lights. It was a very nice looking house, with modern furniture, clean aesthetics, and mostly clutter-free. It was nothing like his basement. I decided not to ogle his place though, and followed Joan through the kitchen. I did notice one peculiar thing. A small black and white cat sat on counter, watching us. It looked old and ragged with a collar around its neck that I couldn't see clearly, but I caught enough of a glimpse to see that it said 'Leonis' on the tag.
Joan led the way to the front door, with no sign of either her sister or the malevolent man that owned her. We had made it to the door, and for once I saw a glimpse of hope that we could get out of there in one piece. I was sure it couldn't be this easy to get out, and unfortunately I was right.
Before Joan could reach the doorknob, 262 stepped out from around a corner and put her hand on the door, blocking our path.
"Move aside, little sister" Joan growled.
"I'm sorry, I can't do that" the redhead replied in a melodic tone.
"You can come with us" Joan suggested, although I wasn't sure if that would be a good idea.
"I'm sorry, I can't do that either."
"Don't make me hit you" Joan warned.
"Oh, you don't want to do that" 262 replied with less malice than I thought she would.
Joan didn't listen and started to punch at her sister. 262 just stood there and took the blows, without so much as flinching. Before Joan was finished, 262 made her own countermove. She blocked one of Joan's punches, and pivoted her body twisting around in an arc. I didn't see how she did it, but somehow she managed to grab the wooden coat hanger from beside the door and slammed it into Joan's side, splitting the thick shaft of wood in two.
Joan buckled over and held her side, falling hard against the wall. 262 dropped the other half of the shaft of wood, and stood over her older sister.
"Hurts doesn't it? They turned off your ability to bypass the pain didn't they? So sorry about that."
"Go to hell" Joan coughed as she reached for the gun in her pocket, still hunched over from the pain. 262 swiftly kicked the gun from her hand, and struck her again in the side. I watched as Joan screamed in pain at the impact.
"I don't want to hurt you any more than I have to 260" she said calmly to her sister.
"My name... is Joan!" She could barely get it out, after having taken such a force to the abdomen. Still, she did her best to try to stop her sister, but the pain, and what appeared to be low energy levels, left her slow and predictable. 262 easily blocked the attempted punch, grabbed her arm, and twisted it, giving her another punch to the same spot as before. She was relentless, and knew exactly how to disable a person through pain instead of killing them.
"Joan..." 262 repeated. "I'm sorry..." She leaned in closer to Joan and whispered something in her ear, which I couldn't hear.
"What?" Joan coughed. She had heard her, but whatever she said took Joan by surprise.
However, I had no time to ponder it, as 262 turned to me next. I realized I should have run during this confrontation, and gone out a back door. However, I was so transfixed by their fight, I didn't think about it until it was too late. Slowly 262 approached me, and slowly I backed away.
"I can't let you leave" she told me as she slowly walked toward me. I was cornered, walking into a wall. But wait, it wasn't a wall, there were stairs! I slowly made my way up the stairs to the top floor, trying to keep my distance between us. There was little else I could do, but I began to contemplate what my options were at this point.
I could try to go through 262, but after what she did to Joan, I would be no challenge for her. Maybe if I kept going upstairs, I could find a way around her and head back down, but that seemed far-fetched. He had a swimming pool in his back porch. Perhaps with a little luck I could jump out a window into the pool and make a getaway, except it was a rather small pool, and with Tera in her condition, she might short circuit if her arm hit any water. I was running out of options fast!
Tera was shaking in my arms, perhaps from the pain, perhaps she was just scared from her sister, but she grabbed onto my shoulder with her left hand and held on tight. I had backed my way all the way up the stairs to the top landing, and found myself in a narrow hallway with a few doors to my sides, and one directly behind me. 262 continued at the same pace toward me, and all I could do was keep moving.
"Joan?" I called out, hoping she was alright, and praying she could help us. Instead of a reply, all I heard was her moaning downstairs from the pain. 262 did a number on her, again, and Joan was out for the count.
"She can't help you anymore, Daniel" 262 replied for her.
I found myself pushed against a door at the end of the hall, and discovered the door was unlatched, and let me right in.
"Mr. Hawthorn, so nice of you to visit" an unfamiliar voice called out to me from behind. It was the voice of a man, and it sounded weak, and a little rough.
"That voice..." Tera said softly looking around the room, still gripping onto me.
262 came in and closed the door behind her, staying in the doorway as I entered the room. Turning around, I could see this room was huge, and filled with all sorts of things that didn't belong in a master bedroom. First there was a large computer terminal which had readouts on it similar to what I was experiencing with Tera's nano-bots. I instantly realized he was picking up the signal from my bots, and was monitoring me. He probably couldn't tell where I was with it, but it was still disturbing.
Near the large terminal, there were 3 empty stations that looked like charge ports for robots, except I figured these were for his 'RCUs' as he called them. I had only ever counted 2 from him before, but all 3 stations were empty. Near those was another similar station, but this one was much shorter, and must have housed the RCU for Leonis the mecha cat.
Finally, next to that was a life-support system adjacent to a pod-like bed facing a giant window looking out at the moon. The bed was tilted for comfort, and while the rest of the room looked more-or-less like a fancy master bedroom, the bed looked more like it belonged in a hospital of the future.
The voice came from that bed, but I couldn't see anyone in it at this angle. At least, not until a figure of a man slowly started to emerge from the sheets. He looked frail, weak, and sick, and groaned as he struggled to stand. I still couldn't see his face yet, but Tera peered out at him as though she had just seen a ghost.
Finally, he made it to his feet, and stood facing us. He was much younger than I expected, probably in his late 20's or early 30's, with shaggy black hair and an equally shaggy beard to match. He was thin, with an angular face, and dark eyes. I had never seen the man before, but Tera's eyes widened and she gripped me tighter.
"Hello 263" he said.
Chapter 32 - Borrowed heart
"Rob? They told me you were dead..." I said looking at the frail young man.
"Rumors of my death had been greatly exaggerated" he said, repeating Mark Twain's famous quote word-for-word in his raspy voice. "I can't help it if those two fools never looked in the wreckage of that car crash. Had they, I'm sure they would have found my original remote unit. Then again, packing the thing with blood and animal parts probably convinced them they didn't need to look any closer. Liberati's men were supposed to take the robot, but it wandered off before they could get to it. Bad luck I suppose, and of course Liberati himself was a brainless thug who almost destroyed what I needed with his reckless behavior... but now that's he's been dealt with, all that's left is you." He reached down to a drawer in a nearby side table, and slowly pulled out a pistol. "I don't know how you got out of that onslaught I sent your way. Put the android down."
The gun pointed directly at us, and Tera held on tighter than ever. "Rob! Why?" she asked. "Why me? What did I ever do to you?"
"Ha!" he laughed in a cold voice. "It's not what you've done, you stupid machine. It's what you didn't do and what you are capable of that I need."
"What?" I asked. He shot an angry look at me as though I interrupted him.
"263 has never prostrated itself to the military brass that once rejected the other 260 series units, so they don't know what it looks like. That means they wouldn't recognize it if they saw it."
"What do you want from her?" I asked, holding her tightly.
"263 was designed for Espionage, Mr. Hawthorn. It is the only model with sleep-level technologies that allows it to easily integrate into different corporations, organizations, even governments. It has the ability to steal data, plant information, even blackmail. With its advanced hacking system, it is capable of taking out potential threats, avoiding security, even hacking government computers without anyone the wiser. 263 is the perfect spy machine, more powerful than any of its 'sister' units. By itself, it can take out an entire countries defense or infrastructure without compromising its position. It can defeat armies with a single thought while the other units would struggle to defeat a single enemy."
That was a terrifying thought. Tera was really a weapon after all, a weapon for the new age. No longer were guns, knives, even tanks and aircraft needed to fight a war. All she needed to do was take out a country's communications, and a war would end without any causalities at all. Tera trembled at the idea, or perhaps it was her injury getting to her.
"So that's your plan? Infiltrate the government and take over the country?"
"Take over the-? What are you crazy? I love this country! I love my family. I-" he stopped, lowering his gun a bit, in deep thought. "Did you ever hear the name Lt. Jeremy Hutchins?" The name didn't seem familiar to me, but he didn't wait for a response. "The first American soldier to die in the North Korean war was Lt. Jeremy Hutchins, he was my brother. He never needed to die, not with the technology we had, and the information we knew. But they sent him in all the same. I dedicated my life's work to building a solution to that problem. My RCUs are that solution. I even used my brother's likeness on 2 of them, which you destroyed! No matter, I can rebuild them. Of course, now that the military rejected my Remote Combat Units I don't have the resources to right now. Those bastards kept saying they were too dangerous, that they were too easily hacked. None of my models have EVER been hacked!
"Damn MMR! I slaved away at that shithole company for 10 years, and as soon as my project hit any resistance, they scrapped the whole thing and assigned me to the robotics division under those Pygmalion idiots. I don't care how advanced they make them; robots will NEVER replace humans... on or off the battlefield! Of course I made sure the military knew that the 260 series could disobey orders, and predictably they dropped them just as fast as my RCUs. Of course now they're looking at exo-skeleton technology. Those fools are going to put the soldiers right back in harm’s way. No matter though, with 263 I can change all that."
"So this is about revenge?" I asked.
"If only the world were that simple" he said, waving the gun around.
"I- I’ll never help you!" Tera stuttered, the pain from her torturous treatment getting to her.
"You won't have a choice, not when I'm done with you" he sneered. "Just like your 'sister', I will break you, or at least your free will, if that's what you want to call it."
I caught a glimpse of 262 standing obediently by the door. She flinched when Rob mentioned her, as though he said something embarrassing about her. No wonder she didn't need to wear a collar like Annie, Rob had broken her systems, damaged her free will, the only thing that made the 260 line a threat in the first place. It would be far more difficult for her to disobey his orders now, but something told me his control over her was not absolute.
"What happened to you? You used to be so nice!" Tera said timidly.
"Nothing happened to me! I did what I had to do" he barked back at her.
"You'll never get that contract again" I retorted. "Even if you somehow fool the military into using RCUs, they'll never use your designs. MMR-"
"I don't give a damn whose design they use" he interrupted. "It would have been nice, but I'll benefit from it no matter what."
"What are you talking about?" I asked. I feared he was one of those fanatics with big ideas that thought they could change the world with foolish ideals like peace and love.
"Patents, Mr. Hawthorn. Patents. I own the patents to all the RCU technology. Even those cyber-dolls that don't sell well are using my technology to work. I've dedicated my life to developing this technology and I am not about to let some big name corporation take the credit. If anyone wants to build anything like an RCU, they have to pay me first. Did you really think I could live in a house this nice with what a technician at MMR makes?"
Of course, it was all about money! His brother's sob story was really just a means to an end, but for him that end meant lots of money. Of course, with all patents of early technology, as soon as someone else develops a technology or method that circumvents his own patent, they could get around paying him anything, and apply for a new patent. It was a tough game to play, and it meant he had a limited time in which he could profit from his designs before someone else designed their technology differently. And I would bet that someone else out there was already working on it.
"So that's what this is all about? Money?" I stalled for time.
"Of course! Isn't that what everything is about? And of course, serving my country." he added.
"And how does kidnapping and torturing Tera fit into this?"
"Haven't you been listening? I have enough connections; I can get 263 into a position at the pentagon. No one will realize it isn't a real person, and then it will have ample access to the military's systems. All I need is for it to steal the data I need, and plant false data showing the dangers of the exoskeleton technology. I can then use 263 to blackmail them into rejecting that technology and moving forward with RCU tech. And the best part is that they will never even know that their lowly employee was actually responsible for it all, and I could use it again and again for whatever purpose I need. Even if they do catch the robot, they could never link it to me."
"Stop calling me an 'it'!" Tera screamed. Rob's face grew fierce. He glared at Tera; his body shaking slightly. I wasn't sure if it was from anger or his weakened state.
"But you ARE just an 'IT'! You are only a toy; a tool! You were designed for us to use, and throw way! I've used robots and technology all my life just to move around! I was born dying, but I defied all odds, and stayed alive. I could only do this by using tools like you to achieve what I needed to. And once that technology is obsolete, I throw it out. Just like I'm going to do with you when something better comes around!"
Rob had started ranting about how superior he was to lowly robots, even though he relied on them every day. I'd seen this type of thing before. Someone so utterly surrounded by technology, that they lose all respect for it. He was surrounded by robots his whole life, and so lost all awe and respect for them. I, on the other hand, was fascinated with robots. I chose to surround myself with them, even going so far as fixing them up and modifying them for a living. It was odd how the two of us took such different approaches to robots.
"SHE is more than just a machine to me!" I said, cutting him off. "Tera is my friend; she's my responsibility; she's my companion. Tera is my girlfriend, my lover, and she is deserving of my respect, and love." Tera looked up at me with awe in her eyes. I knew what I was saying was controversial, but Tera, and a handful of other robots out there, were the first in a new race, a mechanical race of sentient beings. She felt emotions, she felt pain and pleasure, and she could tell right from wrong. She relied on humans and technology to survive, but Tera and her sisters were alive in their own way, and I was going to stand by that, and protect them.
Rob looked at me with dark eyes, his look losing all emotion and patience. "Then you are a bigger fool than I thought." Rob straightened his stance as best as he could, and pointed his gun at me. "No more distractions Daniel. Put down the robot."
"You won't shoot me, you'd hit Tera. If you need her so bad, why would you shoot her?"
"I can repair the robot, but you are a different matter entirely" he retorted.
"If you could repair her, then you would have shot me already." I knew what I was talking about. Repairing skin torn off a robot's arm was Childs play, especially with the workstation he had in his basement, which would do all the work for him. But to repair a bullet wound required a lot more technical work. "I'm sure you're good at robotics and all, but only Tom and Cynthia could repair Tera's advanced systems. You'd need one of them, and they would never help you."
Rob looked furious. The gun in his hand waivered, shaking back and forth with the anger in his face. However, he didn't shoot. Tera held on as tight as ever, her eyes locked onto his. It appeared to be a standstill, but I was unfortunately outnumbered. "262! Take the android from him!" Rob commanded.
"But-" the red-headed gynoid pleaded.
"NOW!" he roared.
She flinched, and walked toward me slowly. I tried to back away, but there wasn't anywhere for me to go. Slowly, but surely, 262 approached me, and reached out her hands toward us.
"N-No! Don't touch me!" Tera yelled.
"Hurry up!" Rob ordered, keeping his gun pointed at me.
"Danny! Don't let her take me!" Tera begged. I held onto her tightly, but what could I do. I didn't want to see her get hurt, and I was still in pain and weakened from my last encounter with 262. She could easily overpower me now if she wanted to. I didn't know what to do, except let her take Tera.
"NO!" Tera yelled. "DANNY!" she struggled as she tried to stay with me, clinging to my coat. I still couldn't let go, but 262 had already put her arms around Tera, and was starting to pull her away from me.
"I- I'm so sorry" 262 whispered. "Please Danny" she pleaded. The look in her eyes had somehow changed. She was no longer the sadistic killing machine I had seen at the night club. Something inside her changed; she doubted herself. She looked sad, even remorseful. Before I realized it, she had taken Tera away from me, and carried her out of the way, placing her on the floor against the wall.
"Danny! Please! Don't hurt him" Tera cried, struggling to get to her feet. She was weak, and exhausted. 262 easily held her back.
I realized that now that my arms were free from the strain of carrying Tera, I could reach for the gun still hidden inside my pocket. The only problem was, Rob had his gun pointed at me already, and any kind of move I could make for it would get me shot! Then again, Rob was not able to hold the gun steady, and he was more likely to hit my armor if he shot. And at this rate, he'd shoot me before I would have a chance to defend myself.
I decided to risk it, and reached for my gun.
As I predicted, Rob shot first, and luckily it hit my Zylon vest. However, he was closer to hitting my neck than I would have liked, and eventually he would manage to hit my head or leg or arm. I barely felt the gunshot, but I knew it was too close for comfort. Instinctually, I dove for cover, rolling along the ground toward one of the RCU charging ports on the opposite wall from Tera. As much as I wanted to grab her and run, 262 was still holding her back, and I wanted to keep his gunfire away from her. I did notice in the confusion that 262 seemed to be trying to protect Tera, keeping her covered.
I kept close to the side of the terminal, using it as cover, while I reached for my gun. Of course, I realized too late that my pocket was empty! A ray of moonlight reflected off my gun lying in the middle of the room; I figured it fell out of my pocket as I tumbled across the floor. I was now 5 feet away from my only weapon, and trapped in a corner with a madman already shooting at me! Could things get any better?
I moved to dart out of my hiding place toward my gun. I needed to get in a better position, somewhere where I could get my gun and get a clear shot. Before I could even take a step out of my hiding place, his gun went off again. The shot went wide, ricocheting off the side of the empty charge port above my head. Quickly, I pushed myself back into the corner. I wasn't very good at this whole getting-shot-at thing. But I was sure tired of it already.
"I see you forgot something Mr. Hawthorn." His raspy voice was getting on my nerves now. "262, take his gun."
I watched as his reluctant robot held Tera tightly, easily overcoming her constant struggles to get free, as she walked toward me. With a kick, she slid my gun toward the giant window behind Rob, well out of my reach, and made her way back to where she was before. I could tell Rob was not able to move well enough himself, and was pretty much stuck near his bed, too weak to really walk anywhere, let alone lean down and grab a gun while keeping his aimed at me. In a fair fight, I could take him with no problem. Too bad this wasn't a fair fight.
"Good. Finally you are listening to me" Rob commented to 262. "Now, take that robot down stairs and tie it back up. I will finish breaking it tonight, right after I finish with this!" He paused a moment, as though considering something. "No... I need something. When you finish with it down stairs, come up and help me with my... exo mark 2 suit." Exo mark 2? What the hell has he been doing? "Yes... I've been rather impressed by your suit... your ex-Exo suit. I decided to try it out for myself. I noticed you don't own a patent on the design, and neither do I... yet" he smiled. He was trying to reverse-engineer my suit on his own! He probably saw video footage and replicated it as best as he could. I usually kept it under my coat when I wore it, but I'm sure he must have seen it. After all, he did assault me at the hotel room before.
262 paused. She still held Tera, who was too weak and tired to struggle against her, let alone stand up on her own. However, she held her head low and closed her eyes. I could see her clearly from my angle, and was glad she had her hands too full to take my gun. Something in 262 snapped... she changed somehow. I wasn't sure what, but when she opened her eyes a moment later, she looked determined, as though she had made up her mind. She lowered Tera to the floor, propping my exhausted girlfriend against a wall, and turned to face her master.
"Maa~ster" she cooed as she slowly started to walk toward Rob.
"Wh- What are you doing? Follow my orders or I will break you again!" he threatened.
"Don't you want what I have, master?" she spoke with as melodic a voice as she could, despite how raspy it sounded. "I'm sure you'd rather take care of business on your own, without that pesky toy" she said nodding at the gun. She was being cute and sexy, more so than I had ever seen any of her sisters act. Every inflection of her voice, every sway of her hips, everything she did screamed 'take me'.
"I- what?" Rob said. I wasn't sure what she was doing, but I didn't want to interrupt something that would delay his killing me.
"Let's bind master! I know you want to" she said coquettishly.
"B- Bind? Really? You'll bind with me? It's about time! Finally decided to join my side, have you?" I couldn't see Rob clearly, but his voice was clearly happy, or at least pleased. "So... what, here? Now?"
"Yes Master. It won't take long." I recalled binding with Tera... I sure hope she wasn't serious about that. But then again, I had no idea what side she was on anymore.
"Wha- What do I have to do?" Rob asked. Apparently, he was unfamiliar with this aspect of binding. I suppose it isn't that surprising, after all hundreds of people worked on their various systems, and nanobots did not seem to be his forte. Then again... he knew more about them than I did.
"Kiss me" 262 cooed as she came up to him, swaying her hips seductively. She was far more the temptress than any of her sisters. But wait- a kiss? That didn't seem right... but somehow it was familiar.
"Just a kiss?" he asked. She nodded as she gently placed her arms around his shoulders, looked up at his dark eyes. I dared to peak around the corner more, and saw she had completely distracted him. Maybe now I would have a chance to escape. I prepared to make a run for it, but before I could, he held up his gun again. "Nice try, just stay put" he said looked up at me, before looking back at 262.
She held his face in her hands, and brought her lips closer to his. Sensually, they embraced in a long passionate kiss. I couldn't help but stare at them. He was completely engrossed by her. I thought maybe now I could go for it, but the kiss ended too soon. What I saw next I did not expect. 262 backed away from her master as he visibly stood taller, stronger, and more confident. Something about him had changed physically, and he was empowered by it.
"Yes... YES! I can feel strength coursing through my blood! I feel... strong. I've never felt this good!" Rob smiled as he flexed his hand, looking at his fist as though he were now able to hold something he couldn't before. "YES!" he repeated several times. "I can... feel your presence... fascinating." He put down the gun, and walked freely and confidently over to a shelf. "You may have noticed yourself, Daniel, but binding with one of these robots doesn't just boost your awareness with your robot, but it increases your health, your stamina, your strength. Then again, maybe a healthy guy like you didn't notice, but for a man like me, a little strength will go a long way" he said with his back turned to me, messing with something. "I'd been following the development of those nano-bots for years, hoping they could cure me. The whole reason I joined MMR was so I could get closer to using them, but of course Tom had to ruin that with his plans to integrate them into his stupid robots; I never should have told him."
Increased Health? That would explain why my bruises and injuries were healing so quickly. But added strength? I don't recall feeling anything like that at all. Perhaps this was a different type of binding? I mean, I had to make love to Tera to bind with her, but they only kissed! Something was bugging me about that... like I couldn't put my finger on it. No matter, without his gun at hand, I figured I'd still be able to take him in a fair fight. Sure I was hurt and injured, but I'd been bound far longer than he had, so I must have been better attuned to it. Plus I'm sure he couldn't be any stronger than me especially if I started off healthy while he was sick. He would have no idea what hit him.
I left my hiding place, and marched over toward him trying to stay relatively quiet. 262 didn't do a thing to stop me. She just stood near Tera, and remained silent. Rob threw something over his shoulders I couldn't quite make out, but I quickly realized what it was - the upper portion of an exo-skeleton suit, much like my own. He finished fitting on a much larger glove than what my suit used, and pressed his hand to his shoulder before I could get to him. I had to move fast, and I hoped he didn't hear me as I walked up quickly to him, ready to strike. Unfortunately, he was ready for me.
With a sudden agile twist of his upper body, Rob threw a punch at me faster than I could register, and hit me square in the chest. The force was enough to knock me off me feet, and send me tumbling backwards until I came to a rest in the middle of the room. Thank god for that vest, but even then, he managed to knock the wind out of me.
"Like it? I got the idea from you" he said readjusting his glove. He walked over to me while I struggled to get in some air. "I've never tried it at full power before. You see, until now I've been too weak to control it well. I was hoping it would help me get around without the RCUs, but it still needs a lot of work. But for right now..." he said as he stood over me, "... I think it will do just fine." Rob flipped open a panel near his neck on the suit and twisted a nob. I could see a gauge go up from green to red. He had just raised the setting on it, putting it to the max strength. With a swift swing of his arm, Rob punched me in the face, knocking me senseless for a moment. "First let’s take care of that vest, maybe I can use it myself."
He reached down, smiling with a sinister grin, and pulled at my vest. He didn't need to pull it off me, which would have been difficult with it under my coat, but he managed to undo the tight Velcro joints with each tug until it lost its shell-like protective shape. I tried to fight him off, but with a flick of his wrist, he swatted away my hand with a loud snap. Pain shot up my arm, and into my spine. My arm was broken for the second time that day, and I was unable to do anything to defend myself. I had to do my best to hold back the pain, but it was a losing battle. The smile on his face grew as sinister and maniacal as the time 252 attacked Joan, continually hitting her in the same spot on her sensitive arm.
Without missing a beat, Rob started punching me relentlessly, hammering his gloved fist into my torso with his enhanced strength. One fist in my side; another in my stomach; one on my face... his punches came faster and faster. I couldn't help but think that his design was not as refined or safe as my own. Funny the things you think about when someone is beating you to a pulp. I kept my broken arm out of the way, and tried to defend myself with my one good arm, but he just kept coming at me. Each punch grew stronger and more painful than the last. Punch after punch, he pounded me into the ground. I managed to look over toward Tera while he went ballistic on me. Tears streamed down her face as she screamed, struggling harder than ever to get to me, but her sister held her back all the same.
"Get away from him! You're killing him!" she yelled. I barely managed to hear those words, the rest were drowned out by the ringing in my ears and the pain that flooded my brain.
Everything was starting to go dark. I struggled not to pass out, but feared it was a pointless endeavor. I couldn't save Tera; I probably only made it worse for her. At least this way I wouldn't have to feel his punches anymore. The onslaught paused for a moment, giving me time to gather enough strength to keep awake. I could feel my body being dragged up against a wall somewhere, before the pummeling continued. He was beating me to death, and no one could help me.
I looked up through a bloody and swollen eye as he prepared another punch, drool flying from his mouth wildly. I couldn't stop him, and instead waited for the inevitable. But it never came. He stopped in mid motion, his fist still preparing to punch. His eyes went wide with shock, and he struggled to breathe.
"What? What the hell is happening?!" he hissed. He fell backwards, barely able to catch himself, only to end up propped up on all fours, frozen like a statue. "I can't move... I feel so weak" he managed to say. He struggled to control the upper part of the suit her wore, but his body had somehow been drained of all its strength. I fought with all my might, focusing on him, to stay awake. I tried to move, but pain echoed through my body and I was forced to stay put. "What the hell did you do to me you robotic bitch?!" he snarled as he tried to move. "Get over here and help me!"
"Aww~... Did my master grow all tired? Maybe I should have told him that was just a 2 minute sample of what I could offer if I bound with him" 262 cooed. That’s right; Tera gave me a sample of what binding could do when she kissed me. 262 put on a frown, but it was clearly mocking him. "Side effects include exhaustion, headache, light-headedness, and vengeance."
"What? When... when I get my hands on you..." he threatened, as he gathered enough strength to move one arm up toward his neck, but he overshot and struck his own face. He cursed and spat as he lost his balance and fell over, his arms stiff. I could do nothing but watch as he eventually managed to lower the dial on the neck of the device, lowering the strength to a minimal setting. His body went limp, now weighted down by the weight of the heavy suit on his weakened body. He remained there for a moment, breathing heavily, before turning over and crawling slowly toward his bed.
"You lied to me, Rob" 262 said angrily. "You made me hurt my family and their friends. You abused me and them. I KILLED for you! No- no more! I will- will not be your ssss-slave any longer, mAsTeR" she yelled, put a mocking tone in the last word. Something was going on with her but I couldn't tell what. "You arrrrre cold and hear-tless! I- haa- te- you!" Her words came out broken, robotic, as though she were experiencing an error. I couldn't figure it out then, but eventually I realized she was defying her own programming, struggling to circumvent what he did to her, and it was causing errors in her system. She struggled to talk, as though she had to fight to speak, slowly walking closer to Rob, leaving Tera behind.
I noticed the door to the room open, and Joan tottered in. She still held her side, hunched over from the assault 262 inflicted on her earlier. As she leaned against a wall, she froze when she saw everyone, trying to take in all she saw.
Rob managed to crawl up to his pod-like bed, and propped himself up. It took all his remaining strength, but he managed to hold himself up in a standing position, leaning against the small table next to his bed. "I'll deal with you later, traitor" he said breathlessly to 262. "But first..." Slowly, Rob picked up the gun he put aside before, and aimed it at me again. His weak hand was barely able to hold it straight, but somehow he managed to. Something moved into my field of vision, blocking out the bright moon from the window. At the same time, a loud bang rang through my ears. I watched, unsure what just happened, as the dark form in front of me turned into the silhouette of a girl. Something was wrong; she was tumbling backward toward me.
Tera landed in my lap, a look of shock frozen on her face. She looked up at me, and strived to breathe. It took a moment for me to realize what was happening, but as soon as I looked down her body I snapped out of my daze. She held her one good hand to her chest, covered in her advanced android blood. Her fist wasn't just wet with blood, it was gushing out of her chest. I instantly knew she had taken a bullet for me, and it struck her heart! She tried to talk, but could only form breathless words with her mouth. The advantage of being a robot was that she didn't die instantly when shot in her heart, but she would overheat very quickly, and without being able to breathe, she had maybe a minute or 2 until she burned out.
"Shit" Rob hissed, apparently having missed his intended target.
"NO!" Joan yelled. She struggled to make her way over to us, but her own injuries slowed her down.
"Tera!" 262 yelled. I didn't expect it, but she rushed over to us, and kneeled down in front of Tera, blocking Rob's view of us. "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" she repeated as she looked over Tera. She moved Tera's hand away, and put her own hand to her mouth in shock when she saw the wound. Tears swelled in her eyes as realized the extent of Tera's injury. Joan had managed to make it over to us also, and started pushing 262 away.
"Stay away from her!" she yelled, fighting with her sister.
"I'm trying to help!" 262 fought back, trying to calm Joan. It wasn't working; the two of them brawled over Tera. They stopped abruptly when Tera put her hand up, and placed it gently on Joan's hand, and then on 262. The look in her eyes begged for them to stop fighting, and they did. 262 gently pulled down Tera's dress, until her chest was completely uncovered, and placed her hand over Tera's gunshot. "Please, let me take a look" she asked Tera, and blue lights swirled under the surface of her skin, revealing a large panel. The panel lifted away and opened to expose her chest cavity, and the damage within. Tera closed her eyes and brought her left hand to my face, gently touching me, and then softly hooking her hand behind my neck as she braced herself. Her fingers left a trail of orange-red blood on my cheek, and I could feel her temperature skyrocketing.
Inside her chest was a mess. Blood had gotten everywhere, and was causing problems with her other systems. The bullet had exploded inside her, sending bits of shrapnel to various parts of her body. Her lungs were punctured, various systems were mangled, and her heart was hardly there at all. What remained was a mess of plastic and tissue. Steam started to rise from her chest as her core temperature rose to dangerous levels. There was literally nothing I could do to help her, and without Tom or Cynthia, she would die.
"Oh God! I'm so sorry! This is all my fault" 262 said, continuing to apologize. I didn't notice when she ripped her own shirt off, but I did see when her shapely chest split along the seams and opened to reveal her own chest cavity.
"What are you doing?" Joan asked, looking at 262 sternly.
"The only thing I can do" she replied.
"What are you doing over there!? Get out of the way!" Rob yelled from somewhere behind 262. Another gunshot went off, but this time it went wide, and missed, striking the wall. He had a hard time aiming, and the recoil of a gun was probably hard to deal with in his state as well, so he didn't shot often, and took his time to aim.
Reaching inside Tera's chest, 262 pulled at what remained of her heart. Tera gripped me tightly as her shattered heart was literally pulled out of her body. At this point it wasn't doing any good. I figured 262 was going to hook up her own circulatory system to Tera, and pump for both of them, except there were a few problems with that theory. The first was that Rob was still shooting at us, and the second was that I doubted her heart would be powerful enough to pump that much blood. Did they have to worry about blood types? Probably not. Instead, I watched as 262's own heart stopped pumping, and she reached in and started pulling it out of her circulatory system.
"No! You can't do that!" Joan argued, trying to stop 262, who had finally come to our side.
"I'm sorry for everything I did" 262 said looking at her sister sternly as tears ran down her face. "I hope someday you can forgive me, all of you. I've made horrible mistakes in my life, and I've had to live with them. At least I won't have to live with this one."
Violently, she pulled her own heart out of her chest, and swiftly attached it inside Tera. It was a bit shoddy, but as soon as it was in place, her heart started pumping again. Tera had lost a lot of blood, and her lungs were still punctured, and many of her other systems were damaged as well. She wasn't out of the fire yet, but 262 did just buy her some time, but at what cost? Tera opened her eyes again, feeling the blood pumping. She couldn't breathe, but she could smile weakly. 262 closed up Tera's chest, and lifted up her dress again, before closing her own chest. She breathed heavily now that her heart wasn't pumping blood and this was the only other way she could relieve her temperature. She would only have a minute or so left until her systems overheated, but she remained calm and worked fast. Quickly, 262 placed her hand behind Tera's neck, and with her other hand, she unclasped the buckle of the collar she wore. She must have known how to disable the defense mechanism in the collar, because it failed to go off when she pulled the collar gently away from Tera's neck. She held it firmly, pinching what appeared to be a hidden button in the back of the collar embedded under the surface.
"Danny" 262 said crying. "Please do what I couldn't. Protect my sisters." Without waiting for a reply, she stood up, and turned away from us, facing Rob.
"Damn it! What the hell have you been doing over there? Traitor!" he snarled.
"Maa~ster" 262 cooed again, doing her temptress walk toward him. "You never did give me a name."
"Get back!" he ordered, before firing his gun at her. The bullet struck her, and she flinched, but never stopped walking toward him at the same pace.
"Please master, I have a suggestion for a name if you can't think of one" she continued.
He fired again, and again he struck her, and again she flinched. But she never lost a beat. "What the hell are you talking about?! Get away!" he yelled.
"If you want, you can call me your Angel..." she suggested, coming up to him, placing her hands over his shoulders. He shot her again at point blank, ripping a whole in her, but she ignored it, unable to feel the pain of it anymore, and continued unabated. Suddenly, she griped him tightly, as though she were hugging him. "... Your Angel of Death!" she yelled as she tackled him. He was too weak to resist as she practically lifted him off the ground and ran. She burst through the large window with a loud shatter of glass, and the two of them tumbled together out of sight. I heard a splash as they landed on the covered pool. Suddenly, electric light echoed off the trees outside, and I could hear Rob scream briefly. The buzz of electricity drowned out his voice, before he fell silent.
Joan got up and limped over to the window. She looked down at the mess below, which I couldn't see, and closed her eyes when she saw the sight. I learned later that 262 had released the mechanism on the collar when she hit the pool, sending electricity through their bodies, killing them both. This was one case that would go down in history books as the first ever robot murder/suicide.
Joan started to head back toward us, but before she got far, a bright beam of light illuminated the sky outside, and I suddenly became aware of the sound of a helicopter. More lights echoed off the trees in the back, barely in view, as men's raised voices could be hear outside. Joan looked back before hurrying toward us. Red and blue lights now dominated the trees as the sound of someone breaking the front door in downstairs distracted us.
Joan hugged us, probably more out of her instinct to protect us than anything else, and cried. Tera tried to say something, her face still twisted with pain, but she had no voice, just like when I first found her. This time, however, she saved my life. Men with guns and bright flashlights rushed into the room and surrounded us yelling. Before any of us could even put our hands up, two large men in dark jackets lifted Joan off of us and dragged her away kicking and screaming. They were clearly cyborgs themselves, otherwise they never could have budged her an inch.
"Danny! Tera! Don't touch me!" she fought as they dragged her out of the room with ease. They had no problem dealing with her, as though they were expecting it and were prepared already. The whole place went into chaos as I did my best to hold onto Tera. I wasn't about to give her up after everything we just went through. I noticed the men all wore jackets with different initials in bold letter printed on the back. FBI. CIA. SWAT. Even the local and state police were there. How the hell could they have gotten here so quickly, especially when there wasn't anyone to call them? And how did they know to come prepared to deal with androids?
"Oh my! You two are a bloody mess" an ever so familiar voice sighed, "... literally." Jack stepped into view. His arm was in a sling tied close to his body, and over his shoulder he wore a dark jacket. A metal badge on his belt reflected the light from the various flashlights and told me Jack had been keeping a secret bigger than I expected. I was speechless. "Looks like we were a little too late" Jack said, kneeling down to my level. "Fuck Danny, you're a mess. And Tera too! Don't worry, we'll take care of her" he said before two men in white coats came up to us on either side. They reached down and did something to the back of her neck, but I couldn't see what. Tera stared at me scared and confused when suddenly her body stiffened and froze into place, like a statue. The other man did something else to her head, and her stiff frozen body relaxed and went limp in my arms. Together, they lifted her up, and placed her on a gurney. I was too weak and in shock to stop them, although I tried. I managed to hold onto Tera's hand until they wheeled her away, and my grip failed.
"Take special care of that one" Jack called out to them, before turning back to me. "Now that it's just us boys, I'm sure you're a little surprised by all this. I work for the CIA, in the cybernetic crimes division. I'd been undercover monitoring several targets when all this went down. I'm sure by now you've noticed Cynthia's shoulder... you see I've been investigating sleeper androids, monitoring them, and keeping taps on them. I know I wasn't supposed to engage my targets, but when they literally fell into your lap, I had no choice. I-"
I didn't want to hear Jack's excuses, and I reached out to strangle him with my good hand. Of course I had no strength left, and he held me off with ease. "Where's Tera?" I growled.
"Right. Sorry about this Danny-boy." Jack nodded to someone behind me, and I felt something cold pressed to the side of my neck. That was the last thing I could remember as the drugs started to work their way into my system, and knock me out.
Chapter 33 - Void
Emptiness. Everything was nothing. Nothing was everything.
Slowly, I became aware of something. A constant beating, consistent and unrelenting. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. It sounded like a human heart. But no, there was something else. Something echoing it, higher pitched and electronic. The sound was relaxing and yet irritating at the same time. The warm 'Ba-bump' calmed and soothed me; the tinny 'Beep' jostled and stirred me. Muffled voices echoed through my mind, as though I was in a large empty room and they were outside yelling in. I couldn't make out any words, except that one voice was familiar. It was a girl's voice, but I couldn't remember whose.
"... Danny..." the voice came through clearer now, but still soft and muffled. The word was familiar. "Danny..." it repeated louder and to the beat of my heart. I remembered now, it was my name. "DANNY" it practically yelled, but remained calm and rhythmic.
I opened my eyes slowly. My body ached, my throat was dry, and I was exhausted. A rhythmic "beep, beep, beep..." chimed from a heart monitor beside my bed. My bed? I had no idea where I was, except it wasn't my apartment. It looked more like a hotel except the bed was metal and only big enough for 1, and there were devices all around I couldn't recognize. A tube ran from under a bandage in the underside of my arm up to a bag located next to me, filled with clear liquid. I tried to sit up, only to realize I was still too weak to move, and too injured to try. Pain shot up my sides, as I realized I was bandaged and patched up all over my body. What had happened? Where was I? I looked around for some answers, to find a girl asleep in a chair next to me. She looked familiar, but my brain was still putting things together. Who was she? My mouth remembered her name before my brain did.
"Jen" my voice came out raspy and dry. I coughed just as Jen's head bobbed up at the sound of her name. Coughing hurt, a lot!
"Danny?" she said, sitting up looking worried and happy all at once. "DANNY!" If Jen was trying to break my ribs, she was succeeding. Her hug hurt more than I expected, but something inside me welcomed it... it meant I was still alive.
"Where am I?" I asked as soon as she released me. I was still trying to put the pieces together in my head.
"Danny, you're in the hospital. Do you remember what happened to you?" she explained with a note of seriousness in her voice.
I wracked my brain to try to remember why I would be in a hospital. Something happened... I got hurt, and here I was. I shook my head, hoping she'd give me some information, and my brain would remember the rest. "How- How long was I out?"
"3 days. They say you were in a coma, but weren't sure why."
"You were with Joan trying to save Tera. Do you remember?" Jen started, but didn't wait for me to answer. "Rob attacked you but 262 saved your life."
Joan? Rob? 262? I didn't know what she was talking about. But the name Tera rung a bell... slowly but surely, my brain had found the connection it needed, and the memories of that night came flooding back!
"I remember! 262 grabbed him and threw herself out the window..." I followed the flow of events in my mind, remembering the entire last week in seconds flat. I remembered finding Tera, bringing her back to my apartment and fixing her up. She was so life-like, and yet was a robot... Cynthia and Tom came... Jack too. Tera was hurt by a virus, but we stopped it. And then we made love. Not just love, she ‘Binded’ with me. We shared a special bond. I recalled visiting Jen the next day, only to be attacked by Tera's oldest sister, Joan. I named her that. Tera hacked her system, and she joined us. Then Annie took a shot at us, literally. She was really good, and ended up shooting me and Tera. My vest saved me, but we had to take Tera to Tom's lab, where he fixed her. We tricked Annie, and almost lost her due to a booby-trapped collar. Jack managed to bring her back, but she now suffered from phobias. We attacked the gangster who tried to kill us, but... 262 killed him first. They kidnapped Tera! TERA!
"Where's Tera?!" I snapped. I didn't mean to snap at Jen, but I suddenly remembered that after we defeated Rob, she was taken away on a gurney.
"I-" Jen started, but never finished; lost in her own train of thought. I remembered they also took away Joan kicking and screaming.
"Joan?" I added.
Jen remained quiet and looked down, avoiding my eyes. Her hair hung down in front of her face, obscuring her expression from me, but I could tell by the shake of her shoulder that she started crying.
"They... I can't-" she interrupted herself. She pulled her phone out of her pocket, and started toying on it, occasionally wiping away a tear while looking down at the screen.
"What about Annie?" I asked, realizing she remained behind with Tom and Cynthia when the robot attack struck, and the police brigade moved in. It was a busy night.
"Read this" she said, stifling a sob, as she handed me her phone. I reached out to grab it, and realized my arm would only move so far. It didn't hurt or anything, but looking down I saw my right arm was handcuffed to the side of the bed.
"What-?" I asked to no one in particular as I stared at the reflective metal restraint.
"They arrested you Danny! You're in the criminal ward of the hospital" she said, stifling a tear.
"Arrested?!" I said shocked. My stomach started to ache at the prospect of becoming a criminal. "Under what charge?"
"They won't tell me" Jen said, shooting a dirty look at the door to the room. I observed the closed wooden door with frosted glass shut tightly as two silhouettes of large men on the other side obscured the light on the glass. "They won't tell me anything" she added. "Just read this" she handed me the phone again.
I reached up to grab it with my left arm, but realized it was in a cast. That's right... Rob broke my arm. I was glad to see it didn't hurt at all, and managed to get a grip with my fingers well enough to hold her phone. Upon the screen was a news article. 'ROGUE ROBOTS DESTROYED IN MYSTERIOUS EXO CASE'. The headline was a tad confusing, but as I read into the article, I realized the ache in my stomach was about to get a lot worse.
"This was the headline this morning" Jen added. The article detailed how a man believed to be the dangerous vigilante, Exo, who was wanted for questioning in the murder of night club owner Joey Liberati, was found unconscious inside a man's house after being discovered during an attempted breaking and entering. The homeowner was found dead, having been killed by his own robot when it turned rogue and pushed him out of a second story window into a pool of water. He drowned in part due to a health condition. The remaining robots were restrained, and discovered to be connected to the recent virus that attacked local business owner, Thomas Pygmalion, and his wife several nights ago. Pygmalion was brought in for questioning in his relationship with the vigilante Exo, as well as the rogue robots found at both scenes. According to the CCD, the rogue robots have been terminated and are being studied for the cause of their malfunctions.
I realized they got a bunch of the facts wrong, but quite a bit right as well. I wasn't sure how much to believe, but if what they said was true, Tera and her sisters were... dead! I felt my heart skip a beat as I read the story, and started to feel sick. I re-read the article several times just to make sure, but there it was, plain as day. All the rogue robots were terminated! I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. Tera was gone!
"Oh God no..." I muttered.
"I'm so sorry Danny!" Jen cried, burying her face in the side of my bed. "They took them away and... and killed them!"
I was in shock. My mind couldn't process this fully, and I sat there shaking with anger.
"Where's Jack?" I asked, hate filling my voice.
"I don't know. He vanished after the police arrived; I haven't seen him since..." She seemed saddened by this, but I was furious! I clearly recalled now that the last face I saw that night before they knocked me out was Jack's. He was the one that took Joan away. He was the one that stole Tera from me. He knocked me out and killed my friends! I was going to get revenge... somehow.
I was silent for a long time after that. Jen dried her eyes and sat quietly next to me. My mind was filled with thoughts rushing back and forth, trying to catch up on everything. I almost wish I never woke up; it would have been better that way, at least for me. Finally I broke the silence after calming down a little, although my heart had started to race.
"How about you? How are you doing?"
"Surviving..." she said with a long sigh. "I'm looking for a new job, but I haven't really started searching much yet. Mainly I just come here and sit with you. There isn't much to do when you've been fired from your old job and your best friend is in a coma and 3 of your other friends are..." Her voice trailed off. Something told me that she had grown to love Tera and her sisters almost as much as I had. After all, Jen was a much the robot nerd as I was, and probably got a kick out of just hanging out with them. "Strange men have been following me" she added.
"Just 2 at a time. Guys in black suits with no sense of humor follow me everywhere. They don't even try to hide or anything. I think it's the police or something. They act like I'm going to blow some shit up" Jen said angrily.
"They're letting you know they're there."
"Why would they do that?" Jen asked sharply.
"I don't know. It's a mind game or something. Or it could be a warning... I'm not sure." I mumbled.
"Well I wish they'd stop."
"They're probably doing it to get to me... I guess." I was not feeling well at all, and was getting light-headed and nauseous.
A knock at the door interrupted us, and a middle-aged woman in a nurse's gown walked in holding a chart. "I see we are awake" she said. "Very good. Visiting hours are over miss, you'll have to come back tomorrow."
"Sure" Jen said sorrowfully. She leaned over and kissed my forehead before gathering her things. As she turned to leave, I couldn't help feeling lonely already; she had been such a good friend. Jen turned around at the doorway. "I'll see you tomorrow Danny" she said.
"Okay" was all I could say in reply.
"Well now, Mr. Hawthorn, let’s take a look at your charts" the nurse said as the door closed behind Jen.
The rest of the day, and that night, were more of a blur then they should have been. Doctors and nurses surrounded me and were very busy doing stuff I didn't register. One man in a white coat asked lots and lots of questions. A woman messed with the IV bag and the monitors, while another took a blood sample. Even my fear of needles was long forgotten, drowned in the memories of Tera, Joan, and Annie. It took me all day just to register that they were gone. I could never see their faces again, have a conversation, or even enjoy their presence. I was dying inside, even though my body was healing fast.
I don't remember all that happened, except that I thought they were making a bigger fuss about me than they had to. It didn't matter though, not anymore. Nothing mattered now.
The next day, I sat forlorned and contemplative in bed. I never bothered to turn on the TV they provided; I never even looked at the food tray. I did look forward to seeing Jen though. Only, she never came. Instead, the same nurse from the previous day came into my room with a male nurse, who didn't say a word.
"Well, Mr. Hawthorn. You've surprised us all. You're arm has healed completely, your broken ribs are mended, everything has healed at an accelerated rate. You have to be the fastest healing patient I've ever seen." The head nurse talked to me without looking up from another chart, and started signing papers. The man started unplugging devices and disconnecting me from pretty much everything, including a few rather... uncomfortable ones I don't wish to relive. He even cut away my cast with a laser cutting tool, leaving my arm feeling weak and exposed, but relieved to be free from the enclosure. In 5 minutes, I was completely unhooked from everything, and the room was dead silent with all the machines off. "Well, it looks like you're free to go" the nurse added. "And by 'to go' I mean we're kicking you out. And by 'free'..." She took a step back and knocked at the door. The two large men from the other side, who never moved from their position before, entered. They were large, square, and daunting, wearing black suits and badges.
"Time to go" one of their voices boomed.
"Sorry about this Daniel. Good luck" the nurse said, as the two men approached me on either side.
"Get dressed and come with us" one of them said as he undid my handcuff, at least from the bed.
I might have been healed, but I still hurt. I was tired, and surprisingly hungry, but most of all I was depressed. At this point they could take me out back with a shotgun and I wouldn't complain. Instead of re-enacting "old Yeller", I got dressed as best as I could in some clothes I guess Jen brought over for me a previous day, and was directed to seat in wheelchair, where I was promptly handcuffed to the arm rest. The two men rolled me out into the hallway, and turned toward the back exit; the one reserved for criminal patients. As they turned the chair, I heard a commotion behind me.
"Let me in! He's allowed to have visitors" Jen's voice echoed.
"Not today ma'am" a male voice replied. I turned around in my chair as best as I could to see Jen in the hallway detained by what I presumed was one of the men who had been following her. She was very active, and eventually saw me being rolled away.
"Danny! Danny! I'll get you out!" Jen yelled. I just looked back as they rolled me away, unable to think of anything to say back. "Where are you taking him?"
I didn't hear anything else, since they rolled me through a set of double doors and into a much shorter hallway. This time, they unlocked the doors ahead of me, and rolled me out into the bright midday sun.
My eyes had to adjust to the light, and before I could fully look at my surroundings, the men stopped the wheelchair and un-cuffed me again.
"Stand up" one of them said, putting a tight grip on my arm. I complied, and expected them to handcuff my hands behind me, or to his wrist, or something. Instead, he took them off completely. I rubbed at my wrist while my eyes adjusted to the light. Before me stood a long black unmarked car. It was like a limo, only not as long. The tinted windows reflected my still bruised face. I was startled when the door suddenly opened toward me.
"Am I under arrest or something?" I asked, looking back at the large man who nudged me forward.
"It's nice to meet you Mr. Hawthorn. Come in, come in" a friendly male voice said from within.
Reluctantly, I climbed into the back seat of the car, and sat down. I noticed as I got in that the doors and the glass were incredibly thick, at least an inch thicker than I expected, and the door sounded incredibly heavy as it closed behind me. Sitting next to me was a lean black man with a million dollar smile. His face looked like it had his friendly disposition etched into it, like it would be impossible for him not to smile. Like his counterparts, he wore the same black suit and tie, the official uniform of "the man".
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you" he said, shaking my hand.
"The pleasure's all yours" I said, and I meant it.
"Ha! Very funny. Please, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Chris Lincoln, and I work for the CCD. That's the Cybernetic Crimes Depart-"
"I know what it is" I said sharply but in a low tone. "Look, if I'm not being charged with something, you can't hold me for more than 48 hours."
"That is true, but who said I was going to charge you with anything?" he replied.
"Then let me go" I muttered, not really caring anymore about what they did with me.
"I can't do that. It hasn't been 48 hours since we put those cuffs on you, so I still have some time. Besides, if you want to be charge with something, I have a small list here" he said before clearing his throat and pulling out a sheet of white paper from his vest pocket, along with a pair of reading glasses. "Trespassing, breaking and entering, destruction of private property, destruction of public property, assault, aggravated assault, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, assaulting an officer, grand th-"
"I never assaulted an officer" I muttered to myself, not expecting him to stop reading from his list.
"Actually you did. An agent, Jack Tripper, better known as Jack Ripper, you did try to strangle him the other night."
"Really? His name is Tripper?"
Chris nodded, before he started up from his list again. "Grand theft auto, reckless endangerment, wiretapping, multiple traffic violations, leaving the scene of a crime, possession of stolen property, possession of a stolen weapon, unauthorized possession of a controlled product, assault with a deadly weapon, illegal modifications to an A.I. system, accessory to murder, attempted murder, and of course murder. Oh, here's one I don't see every day, Vigilantism. The list goes on."
I felt sick, like my stomach had just dropped below the ground. While I didn't do all these things myself, I was involved in many of them, and could still be held accountable for a lot of it. Anything Annie, Joan, or Tera did could also be held against me, and that included murder. It was one hell of a list, and I knew with so many charges, I couldn't fight them all. It would take years just to get through the legal hassle, let alone sentencing which would likely cost me the rest of my natural life.
"You might as well add breaking promises and failure to save a loved one's life while you're at it" I mumbled. "Maybe I can share a cell with Tom."
"Yes... well, those are not crimes I can charge you with. Besides, Tom Pygmalion and Cynthia were released this morning. The DA didn't have enough evidence to charge them with anything, so they dropped the charges. Personally, I'd rather not charge you with anything either, Mr. Hawthorn. I'd rather make you an offer."
"An offer?" I said only half listening to the conversation. My mind was still lost in the reality that 3 of my best friends were gone. At least Tom and Cynthia were ok. Jail looks like a viable option at this point.
"I would much rather have you come work for us Danny. May I call you Danny?"
"No! Only my friends call me that. And I'm not interested in working for the people who murdered my girlfriend and her sisters."
"Tsk tsk. That's too bad. And here I was hoping there was something I could do to change your mind."
"I don't want your money!" I barked, getting aggravated at the man who continued to smile despite it all.
"We're offering a lot here. A man with your talents would be very useful to us, and we are willing to compensate you well."
"You want to compensate me? Then GIVE ME BACK MY FRIENDS!" I was furious that this man would have the audacity to offer me a position at the place that killed Tera.
"I see. Your friends... Alright" Chris said to himself, folding up the paper and putting his glasses away, his smile fading from his lips. "And what about Jennifer? Is she your friend too? We can charge her with a list very similar to yours."
"Leave her out of this. She's has nothing to do with it."
"Reconsider your position on this, Mr. Hawthorn, and I will reconsider mine."
I thought about it for a while looking out the window at the passing buildings and people. I didn't want Jen to get in trouble for this, but at the same time I'd be working for such monsters. There was no way I could bring myself to do the same thing to others as they had done to me and Tera. Jen could take care of herself, I knew she could. Besides, what talents of mine could they possibly want? My Exo-suit was gone, fried to a heap of worthless metal and fabric.
"I can't help you" I said after a few minutes, breaking the silence.
"Hmm. That's too bad. Well if you insist on going to jail, we can arrange that, but first I need to pick up something I left at the office. Maybe I can change your mind when you see how nice it looks."
The rest of the trip was quiet, with only the hum of the engine to keep us company. Before long, we had pulled into a gated driveway with a security booth. Without even needing to see who was inside, the guard opened the gate and allowed the car access. Ahead of us, a large modern looking office building towered above the horizon. I don't know what agency or company or organization was housed there since there was no sign, but I knew that the CCD had to have at least a part of that space. We drove up to a parking garage, where another security guard scanned a tag on the front windshield and waved us in. We parked in a reserved spot, with Chris Lincoln's name printed on a sign. Fancy.
The two large men in the front of the car got out first, and opened the doors for Chris and me. Of course, I was escorted by the two men, who decided surprisingly not to handcuff me again. They placed a badge on my shirt that read 'Guest', and led me down a walk way to the entrance of the building. It wasn't as grand or as impressive as I thought it would be. In fact, it was rather conservative, but still big enough. I got the impression a lot of important things happened in this building, things which I probably never even thought about before. They took me down the main corridor a ways until we reached a large room with elevators on either side, 6 in all. Chris pressed for an elevator, and within a minute, we were heading up to the 7th floor.
With a ding, the elevator doors opened, and I was directed passed a receptionist desk into a busy work space filled with cubicles, desks, computers, and a myriad of people on phones, in conversation, and typing away at their workstations. No one paid attention to me, save the large men behind me. It looked like a pretty dull life, a prison in its own way, but I was surprised to see how many people were smiling.
"Here we are" Chris said, returning from a hallway I never saw him go down. He held in his hand a digital tablet and some papers. "Just had to grab some paperwork. So what do you think of the place?" he asked.
"... Dull" I said with as much cheeriness as a funeral procession.
"Oh? Well I suppose an office like this is boring for such a tech-minded guy like you. Here, let me show you the labs" he said almost giddy.
"I'm not interested" I muttered, but it fell on deaf ears. 'Bruno' behind me decided to give me an incentive push to follow Chris down another hallway, putting me a little on edge.
"Look..." I said getting a little upset. My emotions were high, and I didn't want to see any more, but still they led me farther down the hall toward some fancy laboratory. "... I'm not interested in how fancy your lab is, or how nice your offices are. I could never work at a place that would treat advanced cybernetic beings like garbage and KILL them when you don't like what they did! And I don't care if you don't like what I say. I will NEVER work here!" I barked at Chris, who stopped and stood against the hallway wall, his face lit by a large window on the opposite side.
"Believe it or not, I'm glad to hear that." Chris said, and pointed to the window behind me. I heard a faint tapping sound, and realized the window was not leading outside, but rather into another room. I turned around and looked through the window to see Joan pressed against the glass, her fists pounding against it. She wore some kind of clean white hospital gown, and wires ran from her back to a computer situated on a table beside a bed in the background. Every time her metallic hand pounded the glass, it tapped quietly on this side.
"Joan!" I yelped and pressed against the glass myself to get a better look. She was repeating my name, but I couldn't hear anything through the thick glass wall. Her eyes were stained with dry tears, but glad to see me. She turned her head and seemed to say something to someone else in the room but I couldn't see who. Behind her were two metal beds, much like in a hospital, and both were empty. However, they both had computers next to them, and I could see wires running down from the second computer to a space behind the bed. Annie popped her head out from her hiding place timidly looked around until she saw my face. A smile ran across her features, and she shot up to join her sister at the window, the collar still around her neck but otherwise dressed the same as her sister.
"Annie! Joan! I thought you terminated them!" I said looking back at Chris.
"We did... sort of. All records indicate that the robots associated with the events of that night were destroyed. Both the public and MMR needed to hear it, so we made sure they did. It's too bad we couldn't save their sister" he said.
"Umm..." he looked at something on his tablet. "No... 262, unless she had another name. She was... beyond repair." He sounded genuinely sad, and for the first time I saw him as something other than just another government man. "We surrendered her body over to her parents. Maybe they'll get some use out of it, or perhaps some kind of closure."
"Where's Tera? Is she alive?"
"Tera? Hmmm... Tera..." he tapped away on this tablet looking up information. "I think I remember now... cute girl, blue eyes, brown hair?"
"Auburn" I corrected.
"I don't seem to have anything on her. Are you sure she was there?" he asked.
"POSITIVE!" I growled.
"Well it seems her data has been wiped from our system. Strange, only someone with exception skill or a high clearance could touch her files. I'm sorry; I don't have any information on her."
"What do you mean? She's missing?! Has she been kidnapped again?" my heart sank. I had fought so hard to save her and keep her close, and now I had no idea where to look, and I was out of energy.
"I doubt that, I probably just don't have the clearance to answer your question" he apologized. His eyes looked sincere, as he continued to scour his tablet looking for information on her.
"Where's Jack anyways?" He was there when they took her; he should have some idea where she was.
"Jack's on a special assignment, dealing with the aftermath of the virus that infected all those robots and attacked the Pygmalion factory. I'm sure you'll understand if he can't be here right now." Something told me Jack was behind this, somehow. Once again, a faint tapping on the glass distracted me.
I turned back and looked at Joan and Annie. They looked like lab rats in an experiment, doomed forever to remain trapped inside a box performing tests. A technician entered the room from another door on the side. Annie instantly jumped behind her sister and held on tightly to the collar around her neck and the front of her white hospital gown, cowering from the man. "What are you doing to them? Please don't hurt them!"
"I wouldn't dream of it" Chris said. "We would never harm one of our own."
"Wha- one of your own? They don't belong to you!" The man approached the two girls with a chart in hand. Joan stood defiant, protecting her sister behind her, keeping him from getting closer. It was apparent he was after Annie and not Joan, although he didn't look like he intended to hurt them.
"No. And they shouldn't belong to you either, but they do; something I was hoping to remedy before we released them. You see... those girls are like sisters to me. Here, let me show you." Chris rolled up his sleeve and with a push of his thumb against his wrist, a faint whirring sound emanated from his arm before a panel clicked open and revealed mechanical inner workings. He smiled at me with that same million dollar smile, almost like he wanted to laugh, and flexed his hand. Rods and gears inside his arm moved with his hand motion, before he closed up his arm and readjusted his sleeve.
"An Awakened, Mr. Hawthorn. I take it you've heard of sleepers, well when we become-"
"-become aware of your existence you are 'Awakened'." I finished for him. "I know. My... friend is one too. Please, tell him to stop!" I said looking back at the room. Annie was backing up into a corner, looking for a way out, while Joan continued to try to hold the man off.
"The technician in there with them!"
"Oh, no I meant the Awakened."
"Um... Cynthia" I said, and realized I was giving them a lot of information that I probably shouldn't have. "Please, you have to get him to stop."
"So she's finally figured it out?" he asked to no one in particular. Looks like I didn't exactly let the cat out of the bag. Then again, I recalled Jack mentioning something about monitoring her. "Don’t worry, he won't hurt Annie."
"Well Annie doesn't know that! And no, not exactly. Cynthia's known about her nature for a long time."
"Has she? Well she has done a good job hiding it" he commented with a smile, and tapped something on the tablet which was probably a note to himself. "That's good news. We'll keep it under wraps."
I pounded my fists on the glass. "Stop it, you're scaring her!" I yelled, but they couldn't hear me.
"She'll be fine" Chris tried to reassure me.
"No! She has a fear of men. Strange men terrify her."
"Oh... Oh! Oh geez. I never knew of any androids with a psychological disorder that wasn't programmed. How did she-"
"Just tell him to stop!"
"Oh, right." Chris tapped on the class with his pen, and the sound of metal tapping was strong enough to pierce the thick glass and draw the attention of the man away from Annie. With a gesture of his hand, Chris ordered the man to leave the room, which he did, much to the girls' relief. Annie stayed close by her sister as she looked out at me.
"I'll just get a female technician to remove her collar" Chris added.
"NO! Don't touch that collar!"
"Why not?" Chris said defensively, as if I just insulted him. "It's a symbol of your authority over her, your elevated status in-"
"No it isn't! It's keeping her alive! Trust me. I tried to remove it once, and it fried half her brain! We were lucky Jack could re-outfit it to make up for the loss in brain function. She needs it to live now!" We were lucky Jack was there then, but where was he now?
"I- I had no idea. She is a special case isn't she? No wonder she's been so hard to deal with..." Chris took down some more notes. I could see how scared the girls were, and remembered seeing Tera scared like that before. "You really do care for them, don't you?"
"Yes. They're my friends, and my responsibility. I made a promise..."
"I'm glad to see a human like you being as accepting of robots as you are. It isn't something we see enough around here. You'll find an awful lot of Awakened at CCD. We sort of serve a double purpose. On one hand we investigate cybercrimes and peruse criminals, human and robot alike. But secretly, we've been investigating the insurgence of sleepers hidden in society, and harbor those who become aware of their true nature. Sometimes people don't react well when they find out."
"There are more of you? How many?" I asked.
"That is classified information, but I can tell you more than you realize. We've been trying to figure out who has been filling the population with sleepers and to what end. Even we Awakened don't know why we were made. But enough about us, I believe you have a ride to the prison to catch" he said checking his watch.
"Wait! No! Don't leave them here" I said turning back toward Joan and Annie, who were still watching us intently.
"We were going to erase their registries and allow them to live free from their forced servitude, but Pygmalion but such a strong bond on their systems with it that we've been finding it hard to remove. We are striving for equality here, Mr. Hawthorn. These girls should be free to live their own lives without the chains of servitude inflicted upon them by people like you."
"I've never restricted them! These girls don't have to live bound to me. They are free to do what they want. But I am still their friend, and I want them to be happy and safe. They are only registered to me because everyone trusted me. They knew I'd treat them well. They need me, as much as I need them."
"If you agree to help us, I would be more than happy to release these two into your custody" Chris persuaded. I thought about his offer again. I wasn't sure exactly what they wanted from me, but I knew now that Joan and Annie were safe, relatively, but I was still unsure about Tera! Perhaps if I did get involved, I could find out more, but what did I have that they needed so badly?
"Want do you want from me?" I asked.
"Excellent! To put it simply, having someone with your skills and accessories would be most useful in the field. We were hoping to use Exo as a way of making issues important to us known to society, and to protect those of us most in need of it."
"But my Exo-suit is dead. It got fried by an EMP field."
"Well I'm sure a smart man like you can build another one. We'll be more than willing to fund your project to repair and update your suit."
"That thing took me 3 years to get right. I can't just build it again overnight."
"That is why we'll give you a month, and see how your progress is going from there" Chris said. "If you agree to help us, I'll gladly turn these two ladies over to you. And we'll drop the charges against you, and we'll close our investigation against your friend Jennifer."
They must have really wanted me if they were going to such lengths to get me on board. It was a deal I couldn't pass up. I could save Joan and Annie, help Jen, and get out of trouble myself, all at once. Unfortunately, sometimes my mouth acts faster than my brain. I found myself talking too late to turn it off.
"What about Tera?"
"Ah yes. You seem to be especially bound to her" he commented. I wasn't sure if he realized what he was saying, but he hit the nail on the head. "Tell you what I'll do... As well as funding your project, releasing your friends to you, dropping all charges and investigations, and paying you a reasonable salary, I will open a new investigation into the disappearance of Tera, and I will make it your first assignment. Of course, you'll need to finish your suit first before I can allow you to go out into the field. Do we have a deal?" He held out his hand for me to shake, and beamed his radiant 'sales-man' style smile at me. How could I possibly say no... There must have been something more to this.
"What's the catch?" I said, staring at his outstretched hand.
"Catch? No catch, not really. Only you will agree to a contract that stipulates your actions as Exo will be guided by us for the next 10 years."
"So all you really want his to control Exo? I'm not an assassin" I pointed out.
"And we will never ask you to do anything you are not willing to do. However, I think when it gets down to it you will find that Exo will be more than willing to help us. Deal Mr. Hawthorn?" I nodded my head and shook his hand. He never stopped smiling. "Right this way then, we'll fill out the paperwork."
Before I had gone very far, I stopped and turned around. The 2 faces of Joan and Annie looked longingly toward me, and I knew I couldn't leave them there another moment. "They come with me now, and then I'll sign" I said.
"You really do like to push things don't you? Very well" Chris said, nodding to one of the large men near me. He went over to a door next to the glass, typed in a code on the small keypad by the door, and like something from Star Trek, the doors slid open with a 'whoosh' and a 'hiss' of pressurized air.
"Danny!" the two girls yelled in unison as they bolted toward the door, before getting caught by the wires still attached to them. They pulled the cables out of each other's backs leading to the computers, and ran out of the door into my arms. I was never so glad to see them, and even more glad to hold them.
"Get them their things" Chris said to the man. "Wait- on second thought, have Laura do that" he suggested, thinking about Annie. The man nodded and vanished down a hallway.
"Danny! I was so scared you died when I saw them carry you out on that stretcher" Joan said holding me tightly. "Where's Tera?"
"I don't know... but I aim to find out. They told me they terminated you! Are you two alright?"
"They didn't hurt us, but Annie's been having a hard time. I'm just so glad to see you!"
"So am I" I replied just as Chris tapped me on the shoulder. A young woman came up to us dressed in a similar lab coat that the previous technician wore, and stood by patiently. "I have to go sign some papers with Mr. Lincoln now, ok? I'll be real close by. But this lady will help you get your stuff together so we can leave."
"Sign some papers?" Annie asked. "Don't leave me alone again."
"Joan will be with you the whole time, and before you know it I'll be right back. Just gather your stuff and get dressed and I'll meet you at the front." Annie nodded, but found it hard to let go. Joan had to literally take her hand off my shoulder and guide Annie back into the room where the young woman followed and helped them. Meanwhile Chris and I walked down the hallway to his office, and started the arduous process of signing my soul over to them, or at least Exo's soul. I made sure to read all the fine print, to make sure everything we agreed to was written out in plain English with no funny business. It all looked legit to me, and probably an hour later, I had finished my final signature and initials and shook Chris's hand.
"We'll have someone escort you and the girls home. We'll bring by what's left of your Exo-suit, and let you get to work. Remember you have my number and access to the network where you can request compensation for the parts you need. And of course, we'll be by in a month to see how you’re doing."
"Of course. I need to find Tera, and I'll do whatever it takes to get her back" if I can find the energy.
"If you don't mind me asking, what's so important about this girl as opposed to her sisters?"
"I love her." I was going to say something else, about how she meant everything to me, or that she was mad for me too, or maybe that she could topple the government if you got her in a bad mood, but I opted to remain silent.
"You are Jack really are alike."
"Jack Tripper. You two have a lot in common" he clarified.
"Like what?" I asked, almost offended that a guy who held a secret from me as big as his involvement in the CCD and who may have taken Tera was anything like me at all.
"The reason he works here was... well... It happened a long time ago. I'm sure he'll tell you next time you see him."
I went to ask him to clarify, but before I could, the door knocked, and the same young woman from before peeked her head in.
"Excuse me sir" she said. "The girls are getting a little restless. Could we maybe..."
"Of course! We'll be right there!" Chris led me out of his office, shook my hand, and blinded me with his smile. I followed the woman out to the hallway back toward the front where an anxious Joan and Annie stood around waiting impatiently for me to arrive. They wore the same outfit, something they must have provided them with: a simple t-shirt, CCD jacket, and matching dark blue skirts, all cleaned and pressed, completely stain-free, and carried with them dark blue bags with 'CCD' written on them.
"Danny!" they chirped when I walked in, with big smiles on their faces.
"Took long enough" Annie complained.
"Sorry, there were a lot of papers to sign. My hand feels like rubber" I joked. They snickered at the joke, and grabbed onto my arms, one on each side, and walked with me out of the building, following one of the large men who drove me there.
I thought about the problem that faced me the entire way back to civilization, and had come up with an answer. I knew Joan and Annie would want to stay with me, but I also knew my place was tiny, barely big enough for 2, let alone 3, and I would be very busy for the next few weeks trying to fix my suit. I knew that even though they were robots themselves, they were not very technical minded, and couldn't possibly help me with my task at hand. The thought of finding Tera and bringing her back home again consumed me, and I knew I had to work harder than ever to complete my suit so I could charge head-first into my first case as 'Agent Exo'. There was only one thing I could think of, and while they wouldn't hate it, they also wouldn't like it.
"Could you take us to the Pygmalion factory please?" I asked the driver. He nodded, and Joan and Annie looked happy and confused at the same time.
"We're visiting mom and dad?" Annie asked.
"Sort of. I'm sorry, but I need to fix my suit so I can find and rescue Tera. I'm hoping they'll let you stay with them for a while until I'm ready" I explained. They both looked a little disappointed, Joan more so than Annie.
"Do you not like me... us anymore?" Joan asked. It hurt when she said that.
"No! That's not it at all! I love you girls! But I can't take care of you right now; I need to concentrate on this for now. We'll be together soon though, I promise!"
"Couldn't we help?" Annie asked.
"I wish you could, I really do. But this is something I have to do alone, and I'll need to focus intently on it for a few weeks."
"A few weeks?" Annie objected.
"Danny," Joan said calmly, "I've really missed you. You're my best friend, and I would do anything for you. I know I could never replace Tera, but I am willing to do whatever I can to help you, anything at all. If this is how you want me to help, to be out of your way, then I'll do it." She looked sad, and I could see she wanted to stay with me, but I just didn't have the room.
"It is... for now" I replied.
"Alright. I'll stay with my parents and look after Annie for a while, for you. But promise you won't forget about us. Take a break and visit us sometime. Ok?"
I nodded, and not another word was spoken. The girls laid their heads on my shoulders and sat quietly, while we approached their home. A few minutes later, we pulled up to see a repaired but still dented and scratched Andrea repairing damage to the side of the building with Tom. They looked up from their work as we came to a stop a few feet away. Cynthia, her arm completely repaired, came out as well to see who would drive up in such a 'government' car. They looked tired and worn, and sad.
Annie kissed me on the cheek before she darted out of the car with a big smile and ran toward an unsuspecting Tom. "Dad!" she yelled out. Tom was taken by surprise, as was Cynthia, who probably never expected to see their girls ever again. Andrea had no emotional reaction, but stood watching over the proceedings like a surveillance camera. Joan gave me a tight hug and kissed me on the lips.
"I'll be waiting for you. Please don't forget us" she pleaded before wiping away a tear and getting out of the car. "Daddy!" she yelled as she ran toward Tom, giving him a flying hug as he tried to understand what was going on. He was completely caught up in the moment, and could only look between his girls and cry hugging them. Cynthia joined as well in the emotional reunion, but I... I couldn't bear to face them after losing Tera. I watched for a short moment, before closing the door and asking the driver to take me home. I spied as the car started to pull away a grave marker in the corner of the property near the trees. When this was all done, I'd have to pay my respects to 262 properly for saving my life. It hurt to leave them like that, but I was glad to see them reunited as a family again. As for me, I had work to do, and as soon as I could no longer see them behind me, I focused my mind on the task at hand.
My apartment was a dump! I forgot that Diane and Bob, or maybe they were two other Liberati goons, had ransacked my place looking for Tera or any sign of her. I wasn't sure what they were looking for exactly if not for her, but it didn't matter now. My place was a mess, my mail had stacked up, and the place had this eerie stillness to it. It smelled different, not bad, but it smelled faintly feminine. I'm sure I would have bad food to deal with, but what I smelled was something different, something sweet, and something familiar. It was Tera's scent, from the time she stayed here. I needed to concentrate, so I shoved that thought to the back of my mind, and started cleaning up the mess. With almost 2 weeks having passed by since I was last in my apartment, there were all sorts of things to take care of, from bills to food to trash to mail. I occupied my mind with whatever I needed to do to get started, so that meant cleaning up my work station, my bedroom, and my kitchen. I left everything else as it was, and prepared to get something to eat. Of course... I was still out of milk!
Chapter 34 - Restart
Time passed unchecked. I never before had dedicated so much time and effort into a single project. Hours turned to days, days into weeks, and weeks passed by like hours. My Exo-suit had undergone major changed, major revision, and major upgrades. It had also undergone major setbacks. Virtually every part of the suit was redesigned from the ground up to be stronger, more flexible, more reliable, with better defense and longer a longer lasting battery. Since my old suit was completely scrapped, I had to start over anyways, so I wanted to make sure this time to make something I could mount a rescue in and not end up a battered piece of meat like that last few times. Unfortunately, it was taking too long! I felt no closer to finishing it now than I had when I started. Time was not my friend. I buried myself in my work, always keeping busy, and keeping my mind off of painful memories like Tera. Occasionally Jen would come by to visit. Normally I'd love her to hang out, but now I was so involved in this project, I hardly acknowledged her when she was there. It was rude, I know, but Jen brought with her memories of my time with Tera, so I forced them to the back of my mind, and used that energy to push forward even harder on my project. Jack... Jack was a dark spot in my mind. Just the thought of him made me want to do things I would never have dreamt of doing before. Naturally, I avoided thinking of him too.
I didn't know how much time had passed, but I knew my suit wasn't finished yet and Chris would be by any day to check in on me. I had to finish it so I could start looking for Tera! It had been a marathon of work with little sleep, little food, and almost no hygiene whatsoever, when a knock came from my door. I worried it was Chris, or some other man in a black suit. Much to my relief, the figure I saw through the peep hole was only Jen. I didn't want to talk with her right now, I was so close to finishing it, and yet... with all the setbacks, I was probably still another week away. Rebuilding a 3 year project in one month was like building Rome before lunch.
I opened the door, despite my better judgment, and greeted Jen with little more than a nod. She looked great, as usual. Her dark red hair and recently undergone a change of color, so now the dark red was brighter, and a streak of vibrant green accented the front. Something told me she was not a natural red-head. She smiled at me, and looked rather surprised.
"Geez Danny, you look like hell! You've been in here for weeks; at least you could take a shower."
"Sorry" I mumbled. "I'm so close to finishing, I just..." my voice trailed off as I left the door open and wandered back into the mess of my apartment. I had done little to clean up after the first day or two. Too many things reminded me of my time with Tera, and so I avoided them, and just covered them up with junk or blocked them out of my mind. Trash had piled up in the kitchen and around the edges of the room. Clothes were littered everywhere. I never really looked at it though, I just went by my business designing, building, and programming my suit.
"Wow... this place is... rank" She said as she stepped in the door, holding her hand to her nose. She turned to close the door, but on second thought, decided to let it air out instead. "Maybe you should cleanup a bit?"
I grunted incoherently. Instead of cleaning up, I want back into my second bedroom, which was the room I converted to be more of a lab, and sat down to continue working on my suit, which she had interrupted.
"Not this again" she complained. "Every time I come here, all you do is mess with that stupid suit. Come on! You've got to get some air!"
"I just have to finish adjusting..." I began, and starting messing with my suit again, repairing the damage done by the last attempted startup 2 days prior. It overheated and fried a circuit board and I had been busy rebuilding it from scratch ever since.
Jen sighed and looked around the room a bit. It was pretty much the same as before, except with more trash lying around. "Hey! I remember this old gynoid torso you were working on. Poor thing is getting dusty... You know those androids over there are probably way overdue to be returned from repair, I'm surprised no one's tried to call you or something" she said, pointing out the 2 or 3 androids I had left from a previous job before any of this happened.
"They probably did. I haven't been answering my phone" I mumbled.
"Danny! That's not good! You need to answer your phone, it could be someone important."
"Don't want to talk to them. Don't want to talk to Chris. Don't want to talk to anyone... I just want to finish this and..." I continued to work on my rebuilt circuit board, looking at plans I had worked out a week or so ago and was still struggling with.
Jen sighed. "You know I got a new job" she said in a sing-songy way. "Don't you want to hear about it?"
"Mmmm" I grunted not really paying attention to her. Of course she noticed.
"Damn it, Danny!" she yelled, stomping her foot on the ground. "Look at yourself! You haven't shaved in weeks, you haven't been eating or sleeping, you smell like a boys’ locker room that hasn't been cleaned in a month, you look like a train wreck, and you have been obsessing over this thing while ignoring all your friends!" She unplugged the soldering iron in my hand, and snatched away the circuit board. "So help me Danny, I did not come over here to watch you wallow is self-pity for the rest of the day. It's all you've ever done since I started trying to help you. Why do you think I haven't been back for 2 weeks?"
I looked up at her sharply, but her words stung true. I had been neglecting my other responsibilities, and focusing on just the one task to a point where even I started to notice how bad I smelled. There was something wrong with me. I sat there, looking up at her, and forced myself to stare her in the eyes as she lectured me.
"You haven't been out of this apartment in days. You haven't socialized with anyone except me since you got back! And even that I wouldn't call that socializing. Danny, I'm worried about you! The girls are worried about you... they miss you. I miss you."
She fell silent, letting me absorb all she said. The girls. I had forgotten about Joan and Annie in my endeavor to finish this project. Last I saw them I had dropped them off with Tom and Cynthia before driving off. I wondered how they were all doing.
"I did it again, didn't I?" I asked looking down at her feet.
"What?" she said, her voice softer and more compassionate than I expected.
"Broke another promise."
Jen nodded. "But it's not too late to fix it."
"But... how? I've been away for so long... I'm afraid they all hate me now... for abandoning them."
"Then I think I can help you" Jen said, standing up straight. "Danny Hawthorn, you have been formally invited to a pre-Thanksgiving day get-together at the Pygmalion estate. That's... actually why I'm here. They wanted me to deliver that message to you."
"Why didn't they just come themselves?"
"Well... because they're afraid you hate them" she said, turning my own statement back on me. "And besides, I'm the only one that can get you moving!"
"I don't hate them! I love those girls... I just..." I had nothing to say. I promised I'd visit them, and I hadn't. I felt like such a shit.
"They understand. You're trying to help Tera. But they wanted to help and you just kicked them out of the car and left. It hurt their feelings, Danny."
"Don't tell me" Jen objected with a smile. "Tell them, in person."
"No 'Buts'! Or I'll kick yours. We are going to get you cleaned up and get some air. You are going to see your friends, and I'm not giving this thing back until you do" Jen said, hiding the circuit board behind her back.
"Don't break that" I warned. I was actually glad she came in and stopped me. I was burnt out trying to fix this stupid suit, and would have kept working on it till I died of malnutrition.
"Get up off your butt or I will" she threatened, holding the delicate board in 2 hands like she was going to snap it. "And I'm taking little miss broken gynoid here as a hostage as well" she said, picking up my old dusty robot torso. The last time I messed around with that torso Tera had hacked its systems to talk to me. She looked remarkably like a smaller version of Andrea too, so I naturally avoided working on it too.
"Okay okay!" I said standing up.
"Good. Now march!" she commanded, pointing out of the room toward the back bedroom.
I shuffled my way out of the room down the hallway and into the main bedroom. I hadn't spent that much time there, even to sleep, so it was not as messy as one might have expected. My sheets still smelled too much like Tera, and so I had avoided sleeping in it to save myself from the memories. Once I made it back to my bedroom, Jen, who had followed me, pulled my shirt up over my head and pushed me toward the bathroom.
"Whoa... that's... pungent. Now get in there and scrub! I'll go find you something clean to wear... if there is anything." She closed the door behind me and left me to clean myself. I hadn't seen how bad I looked, but glancing in the mirror, I was shocked to barely recognize myself. I had grown a beard, my hair was a dark greasy mess, I must have lost 10 pounds, and there were dark circles under my eyes. I looked like shit!
"I don't hear water running. Don't make me come in there, cause I will" Jen yelled through the door.
"Hold you horses" I said and started running the shower water to let it heat up.
I took a nice long hot shower, letting my mind race through a million different thoughts. I thought about what possibly fix there was for the circuit board, what Joan and Annie would say if they saw me now, I even ran different scenarios in my head of what would happen when we met. Most of them ended poorly. I enjoyed the shower, and after what was probably half an hour, got out into the steam-filled bathroom, and starred at my foggy reflection in the mirror. The next thing to go was the beard. I wasn't sure why I hadn't noticed it before, but I did look better without a beard than with one. By this time, my beard was too long to just shave off, I had to first cut it with a hair trimmer, and then shave it. I was careful to not cut myself or miss any part of my face as I cut away the last month.
I left the bathroom with a towel around my waist and feeling a million times better. I really did need that, and was grateful Jen forced me into it. I noticed folded neatly on my bed was a pair of slacks, and a dress shirt. Well that was a start, but I needed underwear first, so I rummaged through my drawers until I find one of my last clean pairs left, and pulled them on. I lost my balance hopping on one foot trying to navigate my unmentionables and bumped my head into the dresser with a loud thud. Of course I swore silently to myself, but something caused my eye as I rubbed at my head. A small folded sheet of yellow paper fell from the top of the dresser to my feet. Leaning down, I picked it up and unfolded it. Inside, the legible but shaky handwriting brought back a flood of memories I had been trying to forget for the past month while I worked on my suit. It was the entire reason I dedicated all my effort and time to rebuilding this suit, and yet I had forgotten all about it. I had let slip from my mind the very reasons for my obsession, and something inside me snapped.
'But mother, he needs me. I think I love him.'
That was all the note said, and I recalled how Tera had written it so long ago in her slow and unpracticed handwriting, and somehow I had misplaced it until now. Tears rushed into my eyes, and for the first time in a month, I wept. I had been suppressing all my emotions, instead focusing on rebuilding that contraption, and now the pressure had built up to a breaking point and erupted in a torrent of tears. My legs grew weak and I collapsed to the floor, holding onto the note, which was possibly the last bit of Tera I would ever have, clutching it tightly to my chest. I sobbed loud enough to bring Jen rushing in to check on me. I must have looked pathetic, curled up against the bed in nothing but my underwear, clutching a note, while bawling my eyes out. Jen was still my best friend, and she came over and hugged me.
"Shh... shh... Its ok, Danny. I miss her too."
"Are you sure they won't be mad at me?" I asked Jen as she drove my puke green gas guzzler toward Tom's factory. We decided to take my car since it needed the exercise. No really... it had sat unused for more than a month, leaving it hard to start.
"If you ask me again, I'll be mad at you" she joked. "Relax Danny, they invited you. Why would they invite someone they hate to Thanksgiving?"
"Is it already Thanksgiving??" I asked, checking my wrist for a watch that no longer existed. It was in the same electronic heaven as my original Exo- Suit.
"Nope. No really. That's next week. But they didn't want to wait that long to see you. Still it's not a bad excuse to party!"
"So we're having a big meal?"
"Not till next week. Today we are just hanging out. We've made a lot of changes to the place, and I think you'll like it!"
"We?" I muttered to myself. "I didn't think you were serious about that gynoid torso" I added, looking over my shoulder to the back seat where the metallic torso sat buckled in as though it mattered. Jen insisted.
"Well, she needed fresh air too. Besides, she's cute... in a retro-kind-of-way."
I sat contemplative for a while as we made our way to the lab. I really did miss the girls, and Tom and Cynthia too. "So... what's your new job?"
"Huh? I thought you weren't listening."
"I was and I wasn't" I argued.
"It's mainly customer service really. I help take orders, deal with issues; you know... the regular 'sell-your-soul-to-Satan-to-make-a-buck' deal."
"Really? You? I have a hard time seeing you as a customer service rep." Not that it was that different from her last job actually.
"Actually it isn't all that bad. They have great perks, let me help with planning and development, and the staff is the best!" Jen said with a smile. "I'll have to show you around the place sometime."
"Sounds nice. Maybe I should join you" I commented.
"You already have a job Mr. Agent. Or did you forget that all your spending last month on your suit was funded by someone other than you?"
"Well... Exo has a job. Daniel Hawthorn is still an unemployed loser who forgets to see his best friends for months on end and secludes himself inside an apartment of misery."
"Stop already. I get it. You're depressed." She was being blunt, but it was what I needed.
"No apologies either - at least not to me." She looked at me from the corner of her eye while driving. "Maybe you should get a job with me. You could use a change of scenery."
"We'll see. Something tells me they wouldn't want to hire someone who looks like he hasn't slept in a week..."
"And here we are!" Jen said as she turned into the driveway to Tom's factory. Even before we drove around to the other side, the building looked completely different than it had a month ago.
A giant illuminated sign on the side of the building read 'Pygmalion Industries', which was fitted with new siding, new windows, new doors and a new entrance! Even the landscaping around it had improved drastically, with a professional setting you'd expect from a real business.
We took a 'private' drive to the back which now had a small paved parking lot and 3 parked cars and Annie's motorcycle. At the end of the lot, the grave marker I spied before driving off last month had been replaced with a memorial statue of a stylized angel covered in an intricate circuit pattern made out of stone. We parked close to the 'employee' entrance, which was exactly the same except completely repaired and fitted with a smaller but similar sign to the one on the front. I recalled the devastation from a month before when hundreds of robots infected with a virus attacked us. I got out of the car and was greeted by Annie's voice yelling out from the doorway.
"JOAN! He's Here!" she yelled back into the building before turning back toward me and running out in her bare feet, a smile beaming across her face. "Danny!" She called as Joan came into view behind her.
Annie ran out toward me, but Joan was faster. I could feel my heart race as the girls ran toward me laughing, before tackling me in a tight embrace. At first we just hugged, all three of us, without saying a word.
"I've missed you so much" Joan said, her voice muffled by my shirt.
"I missed you too. Both of you" I replied.
"You promised you'd visit us!" Annie complained, finally breaking away from the embrace.
"I'm sorry. I so very sorry. I just got caught up in-"
"It's ok" Joan interrupted. "We know you were doing it to find our sister. Just don't do it again!"
"I won't. I promise."
"Can we trust you this time?" Annie asked, raising one eyebrow.
"What can I do to make it up to you two?"
"We can start by going inside, it's cold out here" Jen complained.
Annie agreed and hopped in her bare feet as though avoiding hot coals (or maybe ice cold pavement) back to the lab with Jen close behind, bundled up against the cool later autumn/early winter air. Joan walked beside me sighing in relief, wrapping her arms tight around herself.
"I'm so happy to see you!" she exclaimed. "I know we only really ever knew each other for a week or so, but I just felt so empty without you."
"Joan... if I didn't know any better I'd say you were falling in love with me" I teased. She blushed and turned her face away.
"Nonsense. You still have Tera, and I know she's not here right now, but when we get her back, I don't want to have done anything to hurt her, including taking you from her. Besides... you're not my type."
"That sounds like an excuse to me. You know you're crazy for me" I continued to push.
"I'm not that crazy for you. But... I do miss the sex" she added with a smile. "Not that that's all I miss about you!" she added in a hurry. "I just..."
"I know. I'm crazy for you girls too. And the sex was fun" I joked.
"Maybe it can be again" she added with a sultry smile.
"Maybe... but not right now. I'm still too worked up over Tera."
"Yeah... me too. I've lost 2 of my sisters now... I'm glad I didn't lose you too."
"We'll get her back!" I said, holding her hand and squeezing it. It was ice cold and a shiver ran down her spine.
"I didn't think you'd get cold" I commented.
"Well I do. In fact, my skin can be damaged by exposure to sub-freezing temperature for too long. I just won't die of exposure or anything. But yes, I am cold."
"Is this your first winter?" I asked, as I put my arm around her.
"No... and Annie has had one herself, although we were inside the whole time. I'll be 2 next month."
"Danny!" Tom boomed as I came in the door. The room looked like it had some kind of upgrade. They had been really busy. The area looked more suitable as a lounge for guests, but also had that personal spark that showed it doubled as a living quarters for the girls. I wondered what other changes there were.
Tom shook my hand in a strong grip that felt like he was trying to break it off. "You've been sorely missed around here."
"How's Cynthia?" I asked.
Almost as though it were on cue, Cynthia emerged from one of the labs, which had a new logo across new glass doors. She was in her lab coat and was holding a robotic hand, or at least the workings of one, studying it. She looked up from her work, as if to ask Tom a question, when she saw me. Her mouth widened to a smile as she put the mechanical hand down on the counter and came over to give me a hug.
"Danny! Where have you been? Oh there's so much to show you! The girls have been so helpful, I'm so glad you dropped them off to help out, but why didn't you stay? Is everything alright? Have you heard anything about Tera? It's so good to see you!" she went on a mile a minute. It reminded me a little of Tera, and a little of how she acted when we first met. She was an odd one, but once you got to know her, she was a great friend.
"One question at a time!" I objected as she released me from her iron grip. "Home, work, better, no... was that all the questions?" I said answering everything she asked one at a time. "I have one for you... did you tell them yet?" I didn't want to go into specifics in case Cynthia hadn't told her own gynoid daughters that she too was a gynoid herself, especially with Joan listening in so closely.
"Yes, they know. And I have to admit it's a relief finally telling them that I'm an android too."
"Wait wait wait! What?" Jen said shocked listening in. "You too? Anyone else want to reveal some big secret?"
"Not really" Tom objected.
"Danny? Don't hold out on me now" Jen said eyeing me suspiciously.
"Do you really think the hospital would have treated me if I wasn't a human?"
"Good point. Well I guess it can't be helped." Jen sighed.
"This isn't a problem is it?" Cynthia asked.
"No, no. Not at all!" Jen said defensively.
"Good. I wouldn't want to fire my best employee for discrimination" Cynthia commented. "Now if you wouldn't mind, could you make a pot of tea?"
"Wait a second. This is your new job?" I eyed Jen.
"Told ya they were cool people" she said smugly before walking over to the kitchen which appeared to have been fully stocked.
"So this place is like a real business now?"
"Pretty much" Tom said. "We've been hard at work rebuilding this place to prepare for our company's grand re-opening."
"Grand re-opening?" I asked.
"Well what else was I going to do with a robot factory?"
"I wasn't sure you were going to do anything with it" I commented.
"Of course I am! It's in my family. Part of the family business. Let me show you around."
"I'm coming too" Joan said, taking a step closer to me.
"Actually, I was hoping to have a little chat with Danny in person. But you'll have him back soon. Why don't you help Jen with the tea?" he suggested.
Joan left us as Tom guided me into the back hall. A new heavy-duty door lined the wall in-between the unused room and the living quarters. There was a security panel next to the door, where Tom placed his hand, and looked into a tin black plastic strip that ran alongside the door. The security system read his hand print as well as his retina, and Andrea's voice flowed from a speaker. "Please Confirm Identification."
"Tom Pygmalion." Tom replied, and the door swished open like something from a sci-fi.
"Fancy" I commented.
We walked into a new receptionist area. In fact, it was the main entry that they had recently built-on. The door we came out of was located behind a large fancy desk and it swished closed, with a 'Staff Only' sign printed on it. The room was full of class. There was a lot of illuminated glass and flowing lines of architecture that showed they spared to expense for the manufacture and design of the new extension. The glass doors in the front were all emblazoned with a new logo that resembled a half gear with a 'PI' on the other side. It looked professional. The desk itself was large and round, with a large touch screen computer and a comfortable chair. The whole area was beautiful and screamed of expensive.
"Wow! This looks amazing! When did you find the time to-"
"I've actually had the designed made up months ago. With all the damage to the place thanks to last month's assault, I figured it was time to bring in professional help and do the whole place right" Tom said with a smile.
"And of course they got the best receptionist for this lovely room too" Jen commented carrying a mug of tea still with a string dangling from it. She took a seat down at the front desk and smiled. "I'm the smiling face that will greet all our new customers. Well, those with appointments at least" she joked.
"This is amazing!" I said again.
"Here, let me show you want we did to the rest of the place" Tom said with the kind of excitement you'd get out of a teenage boy who just snuck his dad's Playboy out from under the bed.
Tom led me into an ornate door with the same level of security as the last one which was off to the side. I was surprised to see on the other side the old abandon factory floor modernized and spruced up. It wasn't running at the moment, but it looked like it was ready to start at a moment's notice. It was a regular factory and reminded me of the time I visited a brewery, except with robots instead of beer. Andrea, her body fully repaired and polished, looked like a brand new gynoid with gold trim and black metal panels. She had cables running from her head to a computer terminal behind her, and was simultaneously working on a monitor when she turned to face me, and greeted me with the same emotionless greeting she always gave.
"Welcome back Mr. Hawthorn" she said in her friendly realistic but still somehow artificial voice. "We have been awaiting your arrival." She stood tall, still at over 7 feet, but with what seemed like pride. Her systems must have been upgraded to some extent, but I got the impression that she was happy. She was happy to be doing what she was made to do again, after decades of collecting dust.
"Hi Andrea, you're looking good today."
"Thank you sir."
With the pleasantries over, Tom pulled me aside. "Andrea has been a huge help to us. After she ran her systems down defending us last month, I made sure she got as many upgrades as I could give her. We decided to keep her appearance, and it kind of inspired us. As you can see, we are ready to begin production on a new set of updated retro-style androids for sale, much like Andrea is now. All the specifications have been updated to modern standards, and the design has been tweaked for durability and cost efficiency."
I looked closer at the designs for one of the female models on a screen. "Wait a second; I have one of these already! In fact, it's in my car!"
"Oh? You must have one of the original designs! Those aren't easy to come by. Maybe we can take a look at her a little later."
"Where did you get the money for all this? Or the time?" I asked looking in awe at the assortment of parts ready to be assembled.
"Oh... well... the time of one man is limited, but with many hired hands a lot can be accomplished... as for the money, well that is why I asked you here today. Do you remember my inheritance?" Tom asked in a low tone.
"Umm... sort of. You had access to the land, but not the finances..."
"... Until I named an heir. Well, I've named an heir."
"You have? Wait... Cynthia can't have children. Are you adopting?"
"No no no" Tom laughed. "No one ever said it had to be a blood relation. I have a named a good loyal friend, someone with whom I feel I can trust, someone who is intimately familiar with our previous designs." He paused for dramatic effect, but I knew what he was about to say. "Accept my offer Danny. Be my partner, and successor."
"I'm flattered! I... don't know what to say" I felt like a girl who had just been proposed to. "Of course I accept, that is assuming you haven't changed your mind after my recent behavior."
"Nonsense! You've been hard at work during a trialing time. It's understandable. My daughter- your girlfriend is missing, and it hurts, it hurts all of us. If it wasn't for Cynthia, I'd be right there with you. But thanks to her hard work and the smiling faces of my girls, I've been able to achieve all of this!"
"So, do I have to sign something?" I asked.
"Of course, but we'll do that tomorrow. Today we celebrate!"
"Forgive me if I don't feel like celebrating with you. I- Tera-... it still hurts."
"Hmmm..." Tom was contemplative for a moment. "Let me show you something I hope will help cheer you up." Tom led me back out of the factory, past the front desk, and back into the employee area. To my right were the bedrooms, and on my left the door that used to lead to an empty room had been replaced by the same style door as the one I just passed through, complete with the same security panel. Down a little were the glass doors to the 2 labs. Tom walked straight to the labs, where we had once saved Tera's life and gave Joan her new arm. I recall how the last time I was there I was talking with Diane. I wondered what ever happened to her. Tom marched straight into the 1st lab, although without all that security once he got past the employee entrance. I was caught off guard by what I saw.
262's body, or part of it, lay naked and open on a work table just feet away from another android laying on the main workstation. Cynthia was dismantling parts of 262 and reworking them to fit inside this other body. In was a smaller petite android, but looked more like a collection of optical wires, plastics, artificial muscles, and alloys than it did an android. There was no skin on the petite form, but I could tell that Cynthia was making another gynoid. This one had a brand new layout, a new design, and was promising to be more complex than I remembered Tera being. As Cynthia worked on the mechanical structure of a hand, a robotic arm from the workstation table was busy integrating the opposite hand to the body with laser accuracy. I looked closer at 262 and realized she was missing more than a few parts, and the only reason I recognized it as 262 was from the black scorch marks that ran across her body. Her head was completely missing, as was her heart still.
"You're not rebuilding her are you?" I asked peering closely at the old body and comparing it to the new one. I must have taken Cynthia by surprise, because she practically jumped out of her chair.
"Oh! Danny! No... no. Angela is gone. That is what we decided to call 262 postmortem. We lost her that day when the electric blast destroyed her mind and many other parts of her. We buried the parts that were 'Angela' outside, where the new statue is. We've even dedicated a line of the new retro gynoids to her honor. The Angela series. No, I'm not rebuilding her" she said sadly. Angela? Seemed like a fitting name, especially after her last words. "I'm working on a new design, salvaged from the remnants of the Evelyn series, to launch the new custom-built android service we will offer. This one here is our first. Evangeline. She's going to be the future face of Pygmalion industries. She's not any more advanced than Tera, but she's a little more streamlined, more durable, and cheaper. And no more of this binding stuff... it just gets too complicated. After all, we aren't selling to the military anymore so we might as well set the price where people can afford it."
"Evangeline? That's a pretty name" I commented.
"Would you like to say 'hi' to her?" Cynthia asked, and starting clicking on buttons before I could even reply. With a hum, power flowed into the still unfinished robot laying on the table. As the hum slowly faded away, the gynoid opened her eyes... sort of. She didn't have eyelids yet, but she did have a mechanism in place for opening and closing her eyes once the skin was attached. She looked around the room, and over to Cynthia.
"Hello mother" she said in a very digitized voice. Her voice came from a speaker in the computer terminal since it was clear she didn't have any lungs yet.
"Good morning Evie" Cynthia replied with a smile.
"But it's after noon" Evie corrected.
"Of course. Good afternoon Evie."
"Good afternoon mother."
"Evie? That's a cute name" I commented to myself. Evie looked over at me and her eyebrows lifted in surprised, or at least what looked like what would become eyebrows.
"Mom! Who's that?" she asked with far more shock in her digital voice than I expected.
"That is Mr. Danny Hawthorn. He's the man I told you about" Cynthia answered.
"Pleased to meet you" I said, refraining from offering her a handshake since her hands were still missing.
"A man? But mom! I'm naked!" Evie complained and tried to move her limbs to cover her body, but they were still incomplete and would only move a little.
Cynthia laughed a little. "Evie, you don't even have any skin yet. Besides, he's going to be a partner here... if-" Cynthia said looking over at me, "you agree." Tom nodded his head, and I did the same. A smile rose on Cynthia's lips as she heard the news.
"Partner? What's that mean?" Evie asked.
"It means he'll help build you, and all the other robots, and help run the company."
"Oh! Um... Hi" Evie said looking down at me again.
"I have to finish working on your systems now honey" Cynthia said. "Rest tight and I'll see you real soon. Okay?"
"Ok. Goodnight mother. Good to meet you Mr. Danny." Cynthia clicked a button or two and Evie closed her eyes and remained still on the table.
"She's really something. You've done a lot in a month" I said, noting to myself how little I did.
"Well... she's a long way away from being finished. I only just got her A.I. running yesterday for tests. If it wasn't for Angela, we wouldn't have gotten as far as we did. Once I've gotten what I can from her body, we'll bury what’s left with the rest of her. It only seems appropriate. I think she would have liked to have known she was integral in building her little sister."
"Yeah. She probably would have" I said. "I only wish I could have known her when she wasn't all... confused and misguided."
"I think she would have liked you" Tom commented.
"Evie isn't going to replace her is she?" I asked, afraid she'd replace both 262- Angela and Tera as well.
"No. We can never replace someone we lose. But we can celebrate her life" Tom said.
"I owe her my life" I added. "She died protecting me and Tera. I promised her I'd take care of her sisters. I hope it's not too late."
"Never!" Cynthia said. "You're here now, and that's what matters."
"Can I really afford the time to help run this place though?" I asked. "I mean, I'm sure you've heard that I got Joan and Annie out of that facility only by agreeing to help them too. I promised I'd protect them, but I haven't even finished rebuilding my suit. I don't think I can dedicate any time to helping you until I've finished that stupid suit."
"I think I can help with that" Jen said from the doorway. She took us by surprise. "The last thing you need is to go back to that dark, smelly, cluttered, dirty, neglected, hell-hole you call your apartment." I felt more and more ashamed with each new descriptive word she added.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence" I muttered.
"No. Really. I think I can help" she added.
"No thanks. I don't want to drag you into this mess I made. It's my suit, I have to finish it."
"And it's my daughter" Tom said. "I'd like to help."
"She means the world to us too, Danny" Cynthia added.
"And I think I can help" Jen continued. "All of you really" she said with a smile.
We looked at Jen inquisitively, and she just smiled back. She took a step out of the lab, and we followed her. Jen was keeping a secret herself, and she was dying to let us in on it.
"Annie? Joan?" Jen called out. The two girls showed up moments later, wondering what was going on, just as we caught up with her. The group of us gathered around Jen who stood outside the door to the unfinished room... or at least it had been unfinished when I last was there.
"I think it's time we showed Danny our little surprise for him" Jen said as she stepped aside.
The door was the same as the other security doors I had seen. They had apparently done something there, but no one was saying anything, and so far they had avoided showing it to me. Finally, Tom stepped forward and nodded.
"I suppose it is time. Danny, since we knew you were working so hard on your suit, and because the girls want you to stay with us, we decided to bring your lab here. This is your own personal laboratory where you can complete the work on your suit in peace, and with our help. We won't take no for an answer. But you will have to open the door."
"Really? You guys built me my own laboratory? I'm... speechless."
"Well open it already you big dummy" Jen said.
"Alright, alright. So I just put my hand here..." I said, placing my hand on the dark square panel next to the door. I looked inside the black strip next to the door, and saw something small and white flash dimly for a moment, as it registered my eye print. Andrea's voice asked for me to confirm my identification just as she had before with Tom.
"Danny Hawthorn" I said, and her voice confirmed by ID and the door swished open.
"Hello there Danny-boy" Jack said. He was standing just on the other side of the door as it slid open with his hands neatly behind his back and a smile on his face. He was wearing a suit and tie, much like I had seen at the CCD agency before, but had on no badge this time. Rage filled behind my eyes as memories of his betrayal filled my mind. All I could think about was that he kidnapped Tera, and I hadn't seen or heard anything from him or her ever since.
"Jack..." I said, almost sounding relieved to see him. I wasn't. I threw my entire body into my fist as I threw a punch at his face. My knuckles connected with his jaw, hard. My first hurt from the sudden impact of bone against bone, and Jack went tumbling to the floor. Standing over Jack, I held my fist tight as I glared down at him. He rubbed at his jaw, his lip split and bleeding.
"Well that's a fine 'hello how are you'! I suppose I deserved that" he said, spitting out some of the blood as I stood over him deciding if I wanted to continue to hit him in front of everyone or not.
"You suppose so? I suppose you got off easy" I retorted.
Joan grabbed my fist and held me back. "Danny! That was uncalled for. Why is Jack here?"
Jen knelt next to Jack with worry in her face. "Here, let me take a look." Jack let her look at his injury while Joan calmed me down. "You'll have a bruise, and your lip needs to be looked at. Told you that was a bad idea."
"Danny... Joan..." Annie said from behind us, "Look!" She pointed ahead into the room, and my eyes followed her gaze.
Ahead of me, the room was filled with the latest state-of-the-art technology for building androids, and none of it said MMR on it. Well, one piece did. The same workstation Tom and Cynthia had in their other lab, the same one I saw in Rob's basement, stood in the center of the room. It was fully activated, and in the middle of a procedure. Floating in the Zero-G field it had activated was the form of a girl with auburn hair. Robotic arms were busy repairing skin on her arm as she floated naked and unconscious in the middle of air.
"TERA!" I yelled as I ran into the room toward her. She was in the middle of a delicate repair procedure, and I couldn't touch her until it was finished. Globs of tears floated in the air near her face, even though she didn't react to my presence at all. In fact, I didn't sense her nano-bots either, even now.
"Tera!?" the others repeated as they walked over Jack and into the room. "How did she get here?" Tom asked.
"I snuck her in with that machine" Jen said, helping Jack to his feet. "With all the confusion going on yesterday, it wasn't that difficult to sneak her in. And Jack too."
"Yesterday?" Tom asked.
"I've been here all night setting up this workstation and getting it running so I could repair Tera's skin" Jack said, his voice slightly distorted from the pain of his split lip. "It took longer than I thought; I had hoped she would have been finished by now."
"You did this Jack?" I asked, still shocked to see Tera in person. "Where has she been?"
"Lost" Jack said. "Thanks to me."
"Actually it's a good thing. When I got back to the CCD after that night to do some paperwork, I noticed Tera was missing. Someone was trying to get their hands on her. Someone big. Only I never found out whom. I've long suspected a traitor in the organization, but until now, I never had any direct evidence of it. Unfortunately, they were a little too good at what they do, and I couldn't stop them. So I did the only thing I could do, I deleted all data regarding Tera that I could, and effectively wiped her from the system. I kind of lost track of her after that though, since I had just deleted everything about her. It took me weeks to track her down. I found her in a storage facility in Virginia, and used all my resources to get her out of there and back here. I gathered together a group of my most trusted technicians and we spent a week repairing her systems."
"Why didn't you just come to me?" Tom asked.
"With everything that was going on, it was too dangerous to bring her here. I still don't know who was behind her disappearance, but whoever it was has been on the lookout for her ever since. I've been busy distracting them, leading them in the wrong direction, until I thought it was safe enough to bring her back. Not to mention I needed to use one of your machines to repair her skin properly. Besides, I needed to make sure we were even" Jack said to me.
"Even? What are you talking about? Even for what? You hid her from me and drove me out of my mind for a month, and didn't even let me know anything about her!"
"Better than shagging my best mate's girl."
"I-" I remembered now what he was talking about, as Jen blushed at me. I had slept with Jen, although she forced it on me. Still, I had let her do it.
"So now we're even. Or at least we were until you sucker-punched me..."
"Aww... does it still hurt?" Jen said giving him a pouty face and turning his face toward hers. "Here, let me make it all better" she said as she kissed him on the chin. She moved to kiss him on the lips, but did so gently and to one side to avoid the split on his lip. She whispered something in his ear, and his eyebrows raised.
"... Yup. We're even. We can call this even" Jack said as Jen kissed his cheek.
"So where did the workstation come from?" I asked.
"A generous donation from the CCD" Jack answered. "I mean, they weren't going to use it, and it was just collecting dust in Rob's basement. So... here it is. Besides, what better way to sneak a robot around than in the same crate as the giant workstation I need to repair her with. If I did my job right, they are probably looking in Alaska for her right now. Then again, she doesn't exist in their system, so I would be surprised if they even picked up on that."
I looked over at the monitor attached to the workstation. It had been running all night working on her, and was now down to less than 5 minutes until it would be completed. It showed that it had repaired severe damage to her systems, including damage to her mind from overheating, and damage to the skin on her chest, her arm, and various smaller cuts on her skin. As it stood, the repair was down to her hand. The system was busy weaving the intricate strands that made up her complex skin and was just getting started on her fingers as it worked out from her chest. She was still in her Emergency Hibernation mode, which she had been in since she was taken from me. This would have kept her systems safe, but still I worried. At least it had also charged her battery, and she was fully charged.
"I'm... sorry I punched you Jack." I said.
"Don't worry about it. I would have done the same."
"Why would you do this all for me? I mean, you could have just left her and done nothing and you'd be fine."
"Well I couldn't do that to my best mate" he said, "and... I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do something..."
I go the feeling there was more to this than he was letting on, and something Chris had told me in passing a month ago came to mind. "Jack, Chris said we were alike, what did he mean?"
"Did he now?" Jack sighed. "Well... it was long time ago. In London. Please don't hate me for this, I've been trying to make up for it ever since. You see... I fell for this girl who was the prettiest thing you ever saw. Melanie was my dream, my lover. We were to be married. Only... I took her back home to meet my parents in Brentwood... tiny place in Essex. Never much cared for it. There was an accident. And Melanie was hurt; a gash in her arm. Only instead of a broken bone, she had wires and plastic. She didn't even know it herself... but she was a sleeper. I didn't know what to do, and it didn't take long before there was a mob of people surrounding us, throwing rocks and stuff. I got scared. They were yelling things at her. She was terrified and confused, but instead of protecting her..." tears fell from his eyes as he talked. "I turned my back and walked away as they tore her to apart!
"I've tried to forget that. I decided later that I should have stood up for her, but it was too late. She was already gone. When I found the PCeU working with the CCD-... that's the British Cybercrime police... well when they were investigating, I decided the only way I could ever live with myself was if I joined them. I was hired soon after, and transferred to America. I needed to get away from there, as far as I could. When I saw how much in love you and Tera were, I couldn't help but think of Melanie. I had to do something to help!"
We were all a little stunned by Jack's story. He had held this secret for many years, and I had no idea he had such a traumatic incident in his past. I now understood why he was so adamant on helping us, and why he was at the CCD in the first place. Jack was always full of surprises. I did the only thing I could think of. I walked over to Jack and hugged him.
"Thank you for saving her" I said tearfully.
"Ah geez. One second you're punching me, the next you're hugging me!"
"What are mates for?" I asked jokingly. He smiled, although his cut lip must have stung.
"Go on, she's only got a minute left. Go wake up your sleeping beauty."
Jack was right, the timer was almost up, and the repair on her hand was down to her finger nails and tips of her fingers. I turned toward her and saw she was still crying even though she should have been in a kind of stasis. I wiped away a tear from her eye.
"She's crying" Annie said.
"That's impossible" Cynthia added. "She's in hibernation, isn't she? She shouldn't be able to..."
"Maybe" Tom added. "Maybe her mind has been evolving. We never really fully explored what binding would do to her. With DNA attaching to her systems, it's possible she's able to continue to think, even to dream, when she's turned off."
"She's becoming more human?" I asked.
"I don't know, but the line between human and machine is definitely blurring more."
The computer beeped, and the arms retracted from her and into the side of the machine. I grabbed a blanket neatly folded on a nearby table and wrapped her in it, lifting her up and out of the Zero-G field, which deactivated as soon as she was away. She was still warm. After all this time, I finally held her close to me again, but she was still unconscious. Gently, I laid her down on a nearby table, and kissed her forehead. Unexpectedly, data started to slowly stream into my mind. It wasn't much, but it was constant, consistent. It was a beat. It took me a moment to realize, but it was her heart beat. Something about my touch was waking her up, and I frantically tried more. This time I held her hand.
"Tera. Tera! Wake up." I knew if I had just held my thumb to her bellybutton, I should be able to wake her up that way, but I decided I wanted try this instead. I wanted to see if what Tom was saying was true. As soon as she heard my voice, another stream of data entered my mind adding to the rhythmic beat of her heart.
"Danny?" Joan said.
"Something's happening. Hold on" I said quietly as I held my hand up. I placed my hand down this time on her chest. "Tera, it's me! Danny." As soon as I said my name, she took a deep breath. I could feel her heart start pumping harder, as her systems started to boot up. I held her head in one hand, while I took her hand and held it to her chest with the other. Slowly, she started blinking before finally opening her blue eyes and gazing into mine.
"Danny?" Tera asked in a timid voice. Everyone around us burst into cheer when they heard Tera's voice. "What happened? I had a terrible dream." She looked around the room at everyone smiling down at her. "Where are we?" she asked.
"We're home Tera! We're in your new home. Tom's lab got a makeover" I said. She looked around a little.
"It wasn't a dream was it?" she asked. "Danny! You were shot!"
"No Tera, you were shot" I corrected.
"Oh yeah. 262! She... she..." Tera sat up and put her hand against her chest, feeling the beating of her heart. "She gave me her heart didn't she?"
"Yes. She's alive inside you" Cynthia said.
"But then she's...?" Tera asked without saying it.
Tom nodded. "She's gone. But she saved your life, and Danny's, and Joan's. She did it to save her family."
"But you aren't hurt Danny! You look... tired. But you aren't hurt."
"Not anymore, now that you're back! It's been a month, Tera" I said.
"A month?! But I just saw you yesterday" she protested.
"No, that was a month ago" I corrected. "Did you dream?"
"I dreamt... I dreamt I was falling. It was a long endless fall with no beginning. I was worried I'd hit the ground any moment, but... you caught me at the last second when I woke up."
I wiped tears away from my eyes. "And I'm never going to let you go!" I hugged her tightly, and she hugged back, weakened by her long rest. I don't know how long we embraced, but she never seemed to want to let go herself. Finally, after we broke our long embrace, everyone came up and started talking all at once to Tera. I didn't hear what any one person was saying, but we were all smiles and hugs. Tera wrapped the blanket around herself tighter, as I helped her sit up.
The rest of the day was full of stories, catching up, and emotions. Tera never once left my side, always holding tightly to my arm. She was as delicate as a flower, and I made sure to do my best to take care of her. She was still feeling weak, even after she ate something, and so Tom ran a diagnostic for her. He determined she just needed to exercise her muscles, which had started to stiffen from the month of neglect. Of course she decided I too needed to exercise after my month of personal neglect, and reluctantly I agreed to work out with her. But not until I slept in. I wasn't exactly eager to go home with Tera; I didn't want her to see how I had been living this last month. But I needed things, like toiletries and my suit.
"No no no" Jen objected. "You are not allowed back in that place."
"What? But it's my apartment!" I argued.
"Not anymore. You're staying here from now on, where you can be with the girls."
"Well... that's fine but my stuff!"
"We'll get it for you, master" Annie volunteered.
"I'll help her sir" Joan added. "I've always wondered what you place looks like."
"You two better be careful there" Jen added. "That place has seen better days. I'd better go along just in case. We'll gather up all the stuff you need and bring it over. Everything else we'll leave for now and decide what to do with it later. Jack!" Jen called. "You'd better drive a car too; there could be a lot of stuff. Joan and Annie, you two follow us."
Faster than I could object, the 3 girls and Jack left, bound for my old apartment. I was embarrassed to have anyone see it; at least Tera wasn't going with them.
Tera and I spent the next few hours resting in a love seat together in the lounge. We talked, we snuggled, but I was so tired after everything that happened, I fell asleep with her sitting on my lap. I awoke to the sound of everyone returning; Tera hadn't moved from my lap. Not only did they get most of my stuff, including my computers, clothes, and toiletries, but they also came back with bags filled with food and treats. Tera helped me to my feet, but went on ahead to join them in putting things away. It was a long day, longer to me than I had expected. It was as if the entire last month of my life was compressed into a single incredibly long day, and now we were going to celebrate the end of it.
While Joan, Annie, and Jen prepared a fantastic meal, Jack, Tera, and I went through my things putting stuff away. Tom and Cynthia helped around with a little of everything, and even Andrea got into the mix; hanging up decorations and helping me move my larger electronics.
"You know, I never did figure out how he was able to get into my dreams" I said while helping go through my stuff to put away.
"I have a theory about that" Jack commented, helping me go through my electronics. Jen had nursed his split lip, and it was looking much better now. "Do you remember that big terminal he had in his bedroom? The one that monitored your nano-bots."
"Vaguely" I replied. "It looked like it only gave data, but nothing about my location or anything."
"Well, I bet he found a way to influence your dreams by implanting messages into them, images and ideas, and sending those to your nanobots which in turned influenced your dreams. Maybe he couldn't spell out the exact dream, but anyone using the same frequency would have received those subliminal messages. Didn't you say you are Tera both had those dreams?"
"Yeah... or at least similar ones" I said, realizing that he was on to something.
"Well that's it. He sent subliminal messages to screw with you two, maybe in hopes of making you lose sleep or lose your nerve. Either way, you won't be having any more of those dreams. That machine's been destroyed and I personally made sure the data on it was wiped."
"That's good to know... really good to know. I think tonight I may have good dreams for the first time since this all started." I looked up at Tera who was going through my clothes, humming a little tune to herself and dancing a little with every movement. She was really enjoying herself, and caught me looked at her. She smiled and kept sorting through things, and I could feel my heart jump for joy.
We celebrated that night with a delicious meal of... Pizza. Tera loved it! She asked how many combinations of things you could put on a pizza, and decided she was going to try every kind she could eventually. We played music and danced and sang, and at the end of the night, we all crashed. I especially was tired. It was promising to be a long day tomorrow, and my life was heading in a new direction. Jen and Jack spent the night in one of the room, although from what I heard, Jen moved in with Jack and they were getting serious. Annie had a room to herself, but she preferred sleeping with Joan, who didn't seem to mind having her there. And of course Tera and I stayed together. The room was exactly how we left it before, except more of my stuff was piled around now. I wanted so much to make love to Tera, but the two of us were just too exhausted that night. As we settled in to sleep, with Tera cuddling against me, I wondered how long it would take until my Exo suit was finished; until Chris and the CCD called on me. But those thoughts faded away as Tera kissed me goodnight.
"Finally it's all over and we can relax" Tera said as she snuggled up to me.
"Over?" I said looking down at her. "I think the fun is just about to begin.