*




Real Boys

Chapter One: A Chip Off the Old Blog


"Skeeze!" Ray whispered hoarsely. Nothin. Not a damn thing. Skeeze the Sleaze. "Jimbo Jimmy Sczewinszky, show your sorry, sorry self." He leaned down slowly, keeping one eye on the sharp angle of shadow in the doorway under the fire escape and, with the muzzle of his gun, lifted the edge of a crumpled tarp. Still nothin. Well, a couple of rats bellied up to a dead cat buffet, but no Skeeze. "You are so not gettin your bonus, Kowalski," he told himself as he edged around the end of the dumpster and toward the mouth of the alley.

Up in the wedge of sky visible between the 'scrapers, a 'liner was wallowing along, overballasted with the rich and artificially enhanced, the whole boat leaking music and coloured light and probably some kind of funky radiation, because that's what the rich and artificially enhanced liked to do, which was to shit on the grounders.

Ray was just starting to think about what if 'liner radiation was responsible for Skeezer's brand of ugly when a fist connected with his cheekbone and he ended up spread-eagled on his back in a greasy puddle looking up at the mean end of a two-twenty pulse pistol--with a scope, too. Nice, but kind of overkill at a distance of a half- meter--and then past it at the shadowed face of the guy who owned the both the fist and the pistol. Above them, the 'liner's belly flashed the writhing image of some kind of hot girl-on-girl-bot action, and a screamer strip inviting the Rays of the world to CALL NOW!

"Huh," Ray said to the shadow behind the gun, and lifted his empty hand--his own gun was gone, spun off under the dumpster--to point at the 'liner. "First two minutes free."

He couldn't see it in the sickly, slithery light rippling down the Œscrapers blank glass faces, but he knew from the scrape of a foot on cracked asphalt that the guy was thinking about looking. That was all the chance Ray needed to get his boot planted hard like a piston, right there on the side of the guy's knee.

So he didn't get a new hole in his head convenient for holding pencils, not from the first shot, anyway. The second shot, though, that one fried his jacket--which sucked, because his mom had shipped the damn thing all the way from Cyprian by special packet and he'd only had it for three days--and the third shot would've left him a corpse with the rakish good looks intact but a pretty humiliating barn door in the middle of his back, except, that is, for divine intervention. Or something.

Ray was too busy scrambling toward the dumpster to see it all clearly, but he was pretty sure the minister of grace or whatever came straight down--from the fire escape, maybe? Hell, maybe from the 'liner or from God herself-- and flattened Ray's attacker like a freebin pile driver. And, when the thug hauled himself up and started to stumble away, the newcomer sort of resolved out of the lurid sex-show-glow into the shape of a low creature making a low sound like Ray remembered from that time at the fair, when he'd wasted a month's allowance to see something he ended up being too scared to actually look at.

Mr. Thug was pretty impressed, too, jerking to a stop in front of Ray, and maybe he'd've turned the pistol on the growling creature except that someone said what sounded like Deef and the creature wound up like a spring and let go, leaping right through the air, planting four feet in the thug's chest and tackling him into the puddle Ray had just vacated.

Ray covered his eyes and expected bloodsplat, sticky down his ruined coat, but the voice said Deef again and it went real quiet in the alley, nothing but the fading thrum of the 'liner and the sound of the thug making little kiddie noises like maybe he was crying.

Ray looked out from between his fingers. The creature was there, on the other side of Mr. Thug, and it had lots of silvery fur and teeth that would be gleaming really nicely if the 'liner hadn't gone and taken most of the light with it. Between Mr. Thug and Ray, there was a pair of tall boots. Tilting his head back, Ray looked up, up past the red jacket all the way to the head, which was wearing a wide-brimmed hat. On the face under the hat there was a small smile.

"What the," Ray said. "Who the."

"Constable Benton Fraser," the guy said, and held out a hand like he was going to help Ray up. Mr. Thug was still crying and the creature was still showing all three hundred of its pearly whites. Ray decided to play nice.

"Constable?" he said.

"Royal Colonial Mounted Police."

Ray declined the hand and instead rolled onto his belly and fished around blindly under the dumpster for his pistol while keeping the circus in the alley in sight. "You're yankin me, right?"

"No, I don't think so."

Ray had to shoo the rats away to get at his gun, which wasn't half so disgusting as what the gun was lying in, which was sticky and warm and just wrong. He pushed himself to his feet and used the gun to point obliquely at the helpful creature with the teeth. "And what's that. Your mount?"

"No. That's Deef. He's a dog."

Ray tried not to let his eyes go wide, but he was pretty sure he didn't succeed, if the Unlikely Constable's quirked-up mouth was any indication.

"A dog? No kiddin." His grin reminded him he'd recently been clocked in the face by the guy currently groveling for his life at their feet, and Ray kicked him in the ribs to even things up a little, and to give them a little quiet because that wailing was pretty grating on the nerves and pain was webbing out from Ray's bruised face and into his brain. The kicking didn't seem to be helping with the wailing, though, which made Ray wonder if maybe he should maybe widen his repertoire a little. He tried ignoration instead and squinted at the dog. "I seen one. A dog, I mean. This one time, at the fair." He shrugged, then, admitting, "Well, I didn't see it, see it on account of how it was... I was.... Never mind. Does it bite?"

The constable now known as Benton Fraser of the no-yankin-me Royal Colonial Mounted Police shook his head once. "Not generally. Unless you've committed a crime." He tugged at his earlobe. "Or you've been impolite."

Note to self, Ray thought: Please and thank you. "Shut up," he said to the Wailer, cuffed him, and stepped closer to the mouth of the alley to see if there were any Blues nearby. There weren't, of course, because hey, it's only gunfire, so he keyed his comm and subvocalized his call code to bring in a mop-up crew.

When he turned back, the constable and the dog were gone.

^^^

The Wailer was not a follow-through kind of guy. He left off wailing and got lock-jaw the second his butt hit the seat of the blue-and-white, and then lawyered up faster than Zip Halloway pulled a 180 on a skinny orbit (Ray took a half-second to be pissed about the Zip Halloway thing, because Ray kinda needed the cash he lost on that race for his mom's birthday present and now he was gonna have to come up with something creative and personal like a macaroni sculpture or something, and all because Zip Halloway was an artificially enhanced freakazoid who could stand up to a gazillion g's hard thrust without his guts oozing out his nose). "There oughtta be a law," Ray said to nobody in particular and nobody in particular paid him any mind.

He was reading the Wailer's file and no-look sidestepping because he didn't need to see where he was going. There was always a wino slouched on the bench outside Interview Two with his legs sticking out into traffic. There was always some rumpled, bruised guy gripping the edge of the high intake counter talking a streak about how he got rolled half a block from his hotel, and there were always at least two girl-bots and maybe a real live girl leaning against the wall next to the break room door like it was the corner of Massey and Fitch on Welfare Wednesday. The winos and the rumpled guys and the hookers changed faces (the girl-bots literally) but they were always winos and rumpled guys and hookers. His feet knew their way around the obstacles.

That's why it was a bit of a surprise when he tripped over something low and furry and ended up head-first in the trash-can by his desk.

"I'm terribly sorry," a voice said from outside the trash-can. The voice went on but Ray didn't hear it because as he rolled over to avoid the helping hands on his shoulders he whacked the trash-can into the metal side of the desk so that his skull, which was already not so good, rang like the bells of St. Mary's in the old flick only without the Bing Crosby.

"--deaf."

Ray yanked the can off his head, sending it ricocheting off of a tech-bot and through the Lieutenant's open office door. "What?"

"Deaf," Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Colonial Mounted Police said again, speaking loudly like maybe he thought Ray was. Deaf, that is.

"Who?"

"Deef."

"Deef?"

The Mountie aimed his hat at the dog, who was currently engaged in a felonious act, namely very skillfully sliding a Little May Coconut Cake out of Dewey's take-out bag.

Ray sat on the corner of his desk and gave his head a shake. Then he regretted that a lot, and blinked his eyes hard to clear the spots. "Deef's deaf?"

"Yes. He didn't hear you coming, and I was, well, unforgivably inattentive myself, and so I feel it's really my fault and on behalf of both of us I offer sincere--" The Mountie stopped talking, apparently taking it as a bad sign that Ray had his hands over his ears and his eyes screwed shut against the assault of politeness. He waited patiently until Ray lowered his hands and then added, mostly under his breath, "--apologies."

"Yeah, whatever."

There were a lot of people looking at them now, not for the hijinx with the trash-can, which was pretty much situation normal, but because of the dog, who had polished off the Coconut Cake and was eating the protein out of Dewey's sandwich. Dewey was hitched up in his chair with his feet on the seat and not looking too tough just then. , and Ray decided to accept the Mountie's apology and maybe buy him a beer for good measure.

"It's only a dog, Dewey," Ray said with a small, superior sneer as he got up and went around his desk to boot up the dino. "What, you never seen a dog before?"

"Sure," Dewey said. He put one toe gingerly down on the floor and then snatched it up again when Deef looked at him, because, you never know, maybe protein was protein and maybe Deweys were delicious, on account of how they came marinated in yesterday's eau de bacon. "Sure, I saw them, when I was a kid. There was one next door. Only it was... it was, you know, smaller. Like this big." He held his hands up to illustrate. Ray'd seen rats twice that size.

"Yeah, whatever." The dino's screen flickered and wavered in the space over Ray's desk as he unrolled the keypad and started typing. "So Constable Mountie, good thing you decided to materialize here because my Lieutenant's got a bet going with the Cap that you were in fact quote the hallucinatory product of my mild-to-moderate concussion unquote, and also I need your particulars for the report." Ray scanned the floor around his desk for the Wailer's file which he'd dropped during that little demonstration of his superior agility and reflexes and said, "Oh, yeah, thanks," when the Mountie handed it to him. The screen was still flickering, so he had to bend down to jiggle a few connections. When he straightened, the Mountie was sitting in the chair across from him, looking at him through the data flow.

"You don't have an implant?" the Mountie asked. He shifted in his seat a little to look around the room. Pretty much everyone else was sitting at a desk with the near-stare of implant data retrieval. Even some of the perps were cruising the net behind their eyeballs, which was a definite against-regs but it was hard to jam the feed and perps were good at finding leaks. Ray's was the only external in the room, a dinosaur clicking and whirring and loading data-packs like each one was a thirty-tonne weight on the end of a slow-swinging boom.

Ray drummed his fingers on the mouse and clicked his way into the Wailer's file. "Nope. No implants. I'm queer."

"I'm sorry?"

"You know, funky physiology." He waved his free hand beside his temple. "Implants don't take."

The Mountie nodded, his mouth going sort of soft and downturned in that way that made Ray want to simultaneously kick someone in the head and disappear under his desk. "I'm sorry," the Mountie said.

Ray shrugged and bounced his knee to dissipate the kicking-in-the-head energy. "I'm not. I got enough voices in my head as it is."

"Ah. I understand." He actually looked like he did.

Ray scrubbed at the prickle on the back of his neck and then started filling in the boxes on the display. "So, what were you doing in that alley, anyway? Besides saving my ass, I mean."

"I was looking for a man named Skeezer."

His fingers stumbling to a stop, Ray looked up sharply and squinted through the data flow. "Skeezer? What do you want with Skeezer?"

"He was going to sell me some information regarding the murder of my father."

The Mountie's face was as placid as his tone was mild, but there was something under that surface, something dark, like a bruise that hadn't quite bloomed in the flesh. The prickle got worse. "Your dad was murdered."

"Yes."

With a low whistle, Ray backed out of the Wailer's file and opened a new, blank one. "Okay," he said as he started filling in the new form. "Name: Benton Fraser, Constable, RCMP."

"Registry number 02212955BetaFRA2Abbot."

Again, Ray stopped typing and looked at the registry code floating between them. "Abbot."

"Yes."

Things in Ray's head went sideways in that way that made his stomach roll over. He stared at the Mountie for a long moment, then shifted his gaze over his shoulder to pick out the tech-bot coming out of the Lieutenant's office, and then the girl-bots over by Huey's desk. One of them caught him looking and winked at him, long lashes falling over a blue glass eye. It was sexy in an airbrushed way, and when it laughed it sounded like a real laugh except with all the warmth and edges filed off of it. When it looked at him, Ray knew there was something mechanical behind that blank stare taking his measure--height, weight, core body temp--turning him into data. He swallowed hard and shifted his attention back to the Mountie across the desk.

"You're yankin me."

"No."

Ray licked his lips. "You're a bot."

"Yes."

The information slid around on Ray's brain like an egg on teflon. "But. Okay. Hold the parade." The bot was looking at him like he--it--was actually seeing him. Not even Stella looked at Ray like that, with that kind of presence, not even when she was coming or when she was leaving, the two times when Ray was trying hardest to hang on to her and she was trying hardest to kill him with her eyes, first with the beauty and then with the rage. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again to watch his fingers twitching over the keys. "But, you said 'father.'"

"Yes."

Okay, okay, so it was just some kind of word thing. He could still feel the bot seeing him and it made all the hairs on his arms stand up. "You mean Geppetto. You're talking about your Geppetto, right?"

The bot frowned and tugged an earlobe. "I'm sorry, ŒGeppetto¹?"

"You know, Geppetto. Your Geppetto. The guy who pulls your strings."

Ray watched the bot putting it together. It nodded and the small smile put fine crinkles around his--its--eyes, like it found the slang amusing. "Ah, yes, I see. Well, my--" It opened a hand and gestured graciously toward Ray and his amusing slang. "--Geppetto is Robert Fraser, Registry number 99994221AlphaFRA2Ab--"

"Okay, hold it!" Again, Ray stopped typing and glared through the screen. "You're tellin me--you're gonnaing to sit there and tell me that your Geppetto is an AI?"

"Yes."

"That's not possible. AIs don't make bots--"

The bot tilted its head in some precisely measured imitation of bemusement. "Well, Detective Kowalski, I exist, so it stands to reason--"

"--because it's against regs, big time against big-time regs, like Armistice--"

"Armistice Statute 15: no artificial intelligence shall conceive, design or manufacture--"

"-- a bot."

"--an artificial life- form."

"Right!" Ray shoved his chair away from the desk. He needed a little space. But the distance didn't change much. The bot was still watching him with that... thing, that seeing-ness, and his expression was like a real expression, some mix of apprehension and understanding and stoic resignation and even sympathy, for Jee's sake, sympathy for Ray's discomfort, and it was queer. It was just queer to the power of eleven. "So, they wiped it, the Geppetto, for playing God. That's what they do." Like it was a demonstration, he leaned forward and wiped the screen, which was a mistake, because now there was nothing between him and the bot but air. "Mystery solved."

"My father was wiped, but not by any official regulatory body."

"The penalty for violation of Armistice Statute 15 is erasure. The AI violated and it was wiped. Gone is gone. Wiped is wiped. Makes no difference by who."

"It makes a difference to me." The bot's voice was low and even, but Ray could practically see that bruise now, a real bruise in real skin, and it made things swim a little again, a seasickness that felt a lot like sympathy. The bot lifted his--its--gaze over Ray's head and seemed to collect himself. Then he went on, "And I think it should make a difference to you. Unless the CPD supports the concept of vigilantism."

"No, no the CPD does not support vigilantism. We do not." Ray leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Look, here's the deal of the thing. I'm homicide. This, what you're talking about, it's property crime. That's downstairs, level 37."

The Mountie's expression went shuttered, and for a second he actually looked like a bot, but weirdly that wasn't him at all and the change sent Ray's stomach rolling again, this time with guilt, which was like a side order of weird. Then the Mountie studied his boots for awhile and rubbed his thumb across his eyebrow. When he looked up that politely unreadable expression was back in place. "Understood," he said briskly and swiped his hat off of the desk as he got up.

Ray stood up too and hooked a finger in his epaulet. "Whoa, hang on there. You're a bot without a Geppetto. I can't just let you go. There's regs about that. Don't they got retasking stations in the colonies?"

"I'm aware I'm in violation of the regulations governing--" The botHe narrowed his eyes like he was looking at something ugly and practically spat out the word, "--bots. I came here in the spirit of professional cooperation because I knew you would be questioned about the incident in the alley and that you would need my particulars. I've given them." He concluded in an even more formal tone, "I know that I'm required to report for retasking, and I fully intend to do so."

Ray felt a stabbing pain somewhere under his ribs, but he said, "Good. Alright then."

"As soon as I find the person or persons responsible for the death of my father." When Ray slumped in frustration and opened his mouth to point out the twenty-five ways that was not going to do at all, the bot continued, "We both know that the death of an AI, especially one from the colonies, isn't going to be a priority case. If I want answers, I'll have to find them myself."

Knowing what was waiting at the retasking station, Ray wondered why a bot would want answers at all. Two minutes in the door and answers would mean squat.

As if he'd heard his thoughts, the Mountie said, "And, there's the question of Deef." They both turned to look at the dog, who was snoring on his back amid the debris of Dewey's lunch. "Once I'm retasked, I won't remember him." Turning the hat around and around in his hands, the Mountie clamped his mouth shut and those under-the-surface bruises started to show a little again before he stood even straighter, as if that were possible, nodded, and spoke. "He won't be allowed to remain with me, and I have to get him situated, somewhere, with someone who understands him." The look in his eyes when he met Ray's made Ray wince, and Ray thought about the fair, and the grimy cage at the back of the grimier tent, and the low, miserable sound that came out of the shadows.

As the bot was turning away, Ray said, "How do I know you'll do it? Go to the station?"

"Because I give you my word."

And damnit if Ray didn't believe him, and he knew somehow it wasn't a bot anti-duplicity programming thing, but a Mountie thing. So he stood there and watched it—no, him ­ watched an AWOL bot walk away in the uniform of a police officer, a deaf dog trailing along behind him, and even though the squad room was packed, they looked alone.

"Crap."

Ray had to dodge the Lieutenant, who stepped out of his office holding Ray's trash-can, the wino, the mark, Dewey returning with a second lunch and finally Huey and two girl-bots before he caught up with the Mountie in the squad room doorway.

"Look, here's the thing."

Turning, the Mountie waited politely while Ray chased his thoughts around and tried to get them into something like a straight line.

"Okay, the thing is, those guys down on 37, they couldn't find their asses with both hands and an ass-detector, and then there's the dog and who knows what'll happen to him if they decide just to print your cortex and shelve you until they finish eating donuts or until it starts raining pennies, whichever comes first, and that's not going to--" Ray made the mistake of looking at the Mountie's face and the guarded expression of hope there almost knocked his thoughts out of line again, so he aimed his eyes at the middle brass button on the Mountie's tunic and went on. "And you did save my life back there in the alley and, look--"

"The regulations--"

"Screw the regulations. Because... because--" He jabbed the button with a stiff finger and went on a little defensively, "--maybe I got some kind of nostalgic kink left over from my childhood romance with tin soldiers or something and if I were you I wouldn't start trying to guess at motivations here because you guessing leads to me second-guessing and that leads to indecision which leads to re-decision and that is not good for you so let's go before I come to my senses." Ray pushed his way past him and out into the hallway.

"Detective--"

"Don't mention it." At the end of the hall, Ray did an about-face and aimed his best tough-guy look at him. "I mean it, don't mention it. To anybody. And while you're at it, you might want to try a little low-profile on for size, you know? I mean, the red jacket is bad enough, but maybe you can try not telling everyone you meet that you're a b--." He stopped and closed his eyes, "I mean an artificial life-form."

"But--"

"Just act normal. Can you do that?"

The Mountie blinked at him. "I am acting normal."

"I mean normal for a human being."

"Ah. Understood." Neither his expression nor his bizarrely straight posture changed.

Ray rolled his eyes and pushed him toward the elevator.

While they waited and watched the numbers above the doors, Ray said, "What's 123, 920 times 435?"

"Ten million, four hundred and five thousand, two hundred," the Mountie answered immediately.

Ray screwed his eyes up like he was checking. "Yeah, okay." The elevator seemed to be stopping at all the floors. "So, how far could you throw me?"

Without hesitating, the Mountie wrapped his arms around Ray's waist, lifted him off his feet and then put him down. "Between nine and 9.8 meters."

Ray frowned. "Nine and 9.8? That's not very accurate. I thought b-- I mean, I thought artificial life-forms were accurate with that kind of thing."

"We are. In this case the answer depends on whether you land in a heap or splayed out."

"Ah, okay. Okay." Ray said. "Good to know."

He leaned against the wall and watched a lawyer in a shiny suit leading the Wailer down the hall toward them. The Wailer made a kissy face at him and laughed a laugh that showed all of his blackened back teeth.

"Could you break that guy in half?" Ray asked out of the corner of his mouth.

The Mountie sized him up. "Yes. But not without cause."

"Right." Ray aimed a shark grin at the Wailer and followed up with a slightly crazed lunge. "Woof!" he barked, and grinned again when the Wailer jumped behind his lawyer. Deef growled low and scary until the Wailer and his lawyer edged toward the stairwell doors. "Have a nice walk," Ray shouted after them, then turned to the Mountie again. "What if the cause was that this character, who we'll refer to as the Wailer, is the bad-guy accomplice of a badder guy who is currently doing time in the water mines on Europa, except that being ten klicks under the ice-crust don't stop him from reaching out and attempting to make a certain cop, namely me, dead?"

"Oh, well, in that case I would most certainly break him in half," the Mountie answered affably.

"Also good to know." Ray waved his new bodyguard into the elevator and thumbed the button for ground level.

"So," Ray said as the car fell like a dead weight 60 stories from the world of law and order to one of rats and dumpsters and real life, "What exactly do you Mounties mount, anyway?"

"Mostly each other." When Ray snorted a startled laugh, the Mountie added, deadpan, "Well, it is the colonies, Detective."

In the dull chrome of the doors, Ray could see him looking askance. "Waitaminite. Did you just make a joke?"

"If you prefer." After the doors opened directly on to the stench and noise of ground level, the Mountie stepped out and looked both ways along the pedstrip. "Where are we going?"

"We're going to find Skeezer and find out what, if anything, a Europan water-digger has to do with a dead colonial AI."

"Ah, good."

Ray was ten paces away before he realized the Mountie wasn't with him. "What's the hold up?" When the Mountie stood looking at his hat, Ray blew out a resigned breath and came back. "What?"

Again, the Mountie looked at him with that real there-ness. "I--well, we--Deef and myself--we want to thank you, Detective Kowalski. For helping us."

Ray snorted and looked away down the pedstrip toward the stroll. Girl-bots were lined up in micro-skirts and stilettos, and somewhere in an alley somebody was getting rolled, and life crawled along picking through the garbage, and above it all, 'liners full of beautiful people lumbered along, oblivious. He was going to make some smart-assed remark, but somehow when he opened his mouth, he said, "Fraser--can I call you Fraser? Yeah? You can call me Ray."

"Thank you. Ray." Even in the sick light of ground level, Ray could see Fraser smiling, and maybe it was just circuits and gears but it looked realer than anything Ray had seen in a long time.



Chapter two: Zing Went the Strings

"So you got actual circuits and gears in there or is it bio-tech? You know, like vat-grown?"

Ray was hanging off the safety bar in the B-T, swinging a little as the train writhed through the S-curve between the triple towers of Allied Infotronica and The Billybong's fungus-sproud domes. There was no way to actually see any Billies getting bonged--not at the speed the bullet train whipped by--but Ray leaned down and craned his neck anyway, just like everybody else on that side of the car. Trying to cop a peek into the exclusive low-g sexletics romp-pad was practically a sport in itself. Someday Ray was going to get the tap to solve some kind of hinky-kinky mass homicide-by-edible-lube incident and he'd drink free on the stories for the rest of his career.

Fraser bent down to peer under Ray's arm, said, "Oh dear," and stood up abruptly, turning away from the window with his hand held up beside his eyes. "Is that legal?"

Ray swung around to stare at him, at first with irritation, and then with amusement. "There's no way you could see anything."

"Yes," Fraser said, still hiding his eyes even though the Bong was already ten klicks away. "Yes there is a way and I did see something and I wish that I hadn't."

Ray snorted and pinged for their stop, chuckling. "So what? Old dad slipped you some anti-venery code along with the legal statutes?"

Fraser tugged at his collar and followed him out onto the platform. "I'm not a prude, Ray," he protested mildly. "But I do think that some things don't need to be performed in front of thousands."

"Yeah? Like what things? Feel free to share. No? Prude." Ray aimed a brief shark-grin at Fraser and flipped a fifty-credit coin at the heap of laundry near the exit. A hand emerged and the coin disappeared. "I bet they got stims. Not these old chunk-feeds, either. Finessed stuff. So." Ray waved his hand at Fraser's head as Fraser held open the door for him to pass. "Gears and circuits or vat-grown?"

"Mostly vat-grown," Fraser said.

Ray whistled. "High end."

"Yes, I suppose it is, or, rather, that I am. Er, stims?"

"You'll see."

Skeeze wasn't dumb enough to be seen on the stroll after letting Ray walk into that little ambush in the alley, but he wasn't smart enough--or strong enough--to lay off all his bad habits, even with a righteously annoyed cop on his case. So Ray didn't bother with noodle house or the peep, and led Fraser and Deef down past street-level and into the service tunnels under the station. The walls were dripping and it smelled like ass, but down here was the stairway to heaven, depending on your definition of heaven, and what direction you wanted the stairs to go.

The stim-shack wasn't exactly legal. It wasn't exactly illegal either, since putting the slam on the ground-level action made waves up 'liner-level, and 'liner-level clients knew how to use those manicured fingers to tap and tug the right people into making damn sure no government interference got between their pleasure centres and their jacks. Upshot was that the lowborn got the same right to fry their brains as their betters, and wasn't that the delicate bloom of democracy, God save the kingdom and the colonies.

Only about half the rigs were in use when Ray muscled past the gatekeeper and into the shack. He rolled his eyes at Fraser's, "I'm sorry. Please excuse me. Thank you kindly," and checked out the clientele. Four were women, or what you might call women if you were generous. Mostly they were bone racks hanging from the rigs with identical vapid smiles on their faces. Whatever they were stimming, it was worth skipping a month of suppers for. He was glad he couldn't see their eyes behind the visors.

The other two were men. One of them looked fresh and plump and clean and was clearly some rube on an outbound stopover on the way to the farside colonies. Credits to burn and looking for something wild to tell the guys back home. If he made it home. The other guy was Skeeze.

"They don't look at all well, Ray," Fraser observed, and Deef groaned an agreement.

"Junkies never do." Ray drummed his fingers on the Skeezer's visor. "In here, though, they all look like flick stars, and the air is clean and the food tastes like actual food." He caught the gatekeeper's eye and drew his finger across his own throat, ordering him to cut the feed.

"He's paid up for another six hours," the gatekeeper objected. He had a voice like heavy machinery in a bucket and arms bigger around than Ray's legs.

Ray flashed his badge and pointed to the unit in the corner, the one where the rube was dangling, hands swinging like they were held on with string. "See that? That is a Butterfly Jack, 200 Series. Those are outlawed in the core. You want we should shut down this whole operation and you can explain your case up at the station? Or maybe I should just kick your ass until you cry. I wore my pointy-toed boots."

"Ray--" Fraser put a hand on Ray's shoulder, but Ray shook him off.

"Your choice. Cut the feed or try the boots."

At first the guy looked like he was going to laugh in Ray's face, except that he'd have to go to the trouble of bending down to do it. But Ray took a step closer and stared up at him and thought about that story he read about this rodent called a mongoose and tried to get in touch with his inner mongoose and channeled angry mongoose energy and damnit if the guy's grin didn't falter. Score one for the rodents.

"Sure," the guy said. "I already been paid, anyway." He tapped a code into the console beside the Skeezer's rig and cut the feed.

Skeeze emerged howling, skinny arms and legs flailing. Fraser took an elbow in the face and stepped back blinking, then came in again to hold him still while Ray lifted the visor and unclipped the jack from the base of his neck. Another Butterfly, for Jee's sake. Ray shot the gatekeeper a poisonous look over his shoulder and made a mental note to send a squad down here to clean house. Not even junkies deserved what a Butterfly would do to their brains. Somehow Fraser didn't get any puke on him when Skeezer doubled over his restraining arm and let loose.

"Fucking Kowalski," Skeeze blubbed while Fraser put him down and held him steady. "Fucking cop. I was--" He lifted his head and gripped the front of the Mountie's tunic. "You have no idea. There was water. Water. Forever, with waves, and you could see the bottom and--it was sweet." He swiped tears off his face with his sleeve and aimed his glazed eyes at Ray. "Whatcha have to do that for, huh? You can't just ease me out of it? Fuck, I hate that."

"You know what I hate, Skeeze?" Ray said, his face close enough to kiss, in spite of the puke breath. "I hate it when I get called to a meet and instead some guy tries to ventilate my head with a pulse pistol."

At that, Skeezer's expression went from pissed to scared to pleading. He didn't even resist when Ray grabbed him by the collar and dragged toward street level. The whole way up the stairs and along the service tunnel, he whined and wailed and kicked up echoes so that the whining and the wailing seemed to come from all directions at once. Finally, at the mouth of the tunnel he dug in his heels and wriggled out of Ray's grip. "C'mon, Kowalski! I didn't know the guy was gonna try to take you! He wasn't even there for you, anyways!"

"You don't say? I got a concussion and a fried jacket that says different."

"Who was he there for?" Fraser asked, more civilly than a guy like Skeeze probably deserved, given the way the scenario was starting to stink.

Skeeze rolled his eyes in the Mountie's direction. "Oh shit," he said flatly. He patted the front of Fraser's tunic, fingered a couple buttons nervously. His hands were all bones and skittish motion. It made Ray itchy. "He came after you called. He said he just wanted to talk. To talk, that's all. And, and--" Skeeze's thin lips turned up in a wheedling smile.

"And he paid you six-hours stim time," Ray finished for him. "Nice, Skeeze. Sell a guy for six freebin hours--"

"Nine! Nine hours! With water, Kowalski, and sand, miles and miles of sand with no glass in it and you can, in the water, you can see the bottom, so sweet." Skeeze's fingers left off Fraser and started fidgeting with Ray's buttons. Ray batted them away.

"So what'd ya call me for, huh? He offer you extra for me?"

"No! No, Kowalski, I swear! On my mother--"

"You don't got a mother--"

"I seen this one--" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Fraser. "--and I thought he looked like a cop and I thought maybe a cop should know about another cop maybe, and maybe I could, I mean, save a cop, right? That's gotta be worth somethin."

Ray snorted in disgust, but Fraser nodded and smiled that polite smile. "I appreciate the consideration."

Skeezer stopped shaking for two whole seconds. "Oh. Yeah. You're welcome." He tucked his stringy curls behind his ears and straightened his shirt. "Don't mention it."

"Perhaps, now that we've finally met in person, you can pass on the information you were going to give--"

"Sell."

"--sell me, of course--before the unfortunate incident in the alley."

"And tell us what Gump Worsley's got to do with it," Ray added.

Skeezer's mouth dropped open. "Guh... Gump Worsley? He--he's inside. Europa. I heard Europa."

"He's got real long arms, apparently."

Swallowing hard so his adam's apple bounced under his stubble, Skeeze looked left and right like he was thinking of bolting. The Mountie smiled and stepped not-quite between him and the mouth of the tunnel, a half-threat. Skeeze tittered and straightened his shirt again before pointing at Deef. "That really a dog?"

"Yes."

"Wanna sell? I know a guy give you seventy-thou for a real dog."

"No thank you."

"Ninety."

"Skeeze." Ray scrubbed his hand through his hair so he wouldn't bitch-slap the guy.

Holding his hands up in front of his face like Ray'd actually tried the slapping, Skeezer said, "Okay! Okayokayokay! I don't know nothing about that guy who burned you. All's I know is what I picked up delivering the girls--just girl-bots, Kowalski, totally legit, I swear, and a couple boy-bots, real nice ones with the--" He waggled his fingers and tittered again. "Anyway, it don't matter except that I was there to deliver these bots to, ah, to... to... Margaret--" Skeezer stopped talking and looked down at his chest. He poked at the spreading stain there. "What--?" Then he folded up like a cheap suit without a hanger and faceplanted at Fraser's feet.

They could hear the needle buzz its way out of him, rattling against the asphalt under his body. The entry wound in his back was the size of a ten credit coin.

"Shit!" Ray said, even as he was flying through the air, because, apparently, the Mountie could easily throw him a measly five meters, and he said it again when he collided with the side of the tunnel and Fraser crushed up against him, shielding him with his body.

Fraser said, "Oh dear, " when a second needle hit him in the back.

"Fras--" Ray stopped trying to see through him into the darkness of the service tunnel and looked at him instead. "Fraser!"

Fraser's eyes rolled up in his head.

Half a second later, the needle burst out of his chest, just above the brass button of his right pocket, and slammed into the wall beside Ray's face.

Blinking dust out of his eyes, Ray groped blindly for the front of Fraser's tunic, but he couldn't get a grip in time to keep him from falling over backward. Ray hunched low over his body and aimed his gun down the tunnel but he could see nothing except a the brief flash of Deef's fur as he passed under one of the few bare diodes hanging from the ceiling. He was running flat out.

"Deef!" Ray hollered, remembering too late that the stupid dog couldn't hear him.

"He'll come back," Fraser said, his voice a strained whisper. "Help me up."

Ray looked down at him. There was a hole in the tunic, and a spreading stain around it, dark red on red. "Are you unhinged? You're bleeding." He put his hand to his ear to squeal for back up and an ambulance but Fraser hooked two fingers in his sleeve to stop him.

"It just seems that way." Fraser tugged Ray's hand away from his comm. "No hospital." He had an elbow under him now. By reflex, Ray tensed and leaned back so Fraser could use his arm for leverage. Behind Ray, the needle whined as it continued to twist itself into the wall.

When Fraser was sitting up and they were face to face, Ray pointed out, not even shouting, much, "I don't know if you noticed, just now, right here, right here next to my head, there's a needle still trying to fuck its way into this solid concrete wall and twenty seconds ago that needle passed through your body, like, right through your actual body, Fraser, so no hospital is kinda stupid--"

"Ray--"

"--or a lot stupid--"

"Ray--"

"--or maybe--"

"Ray!"

"--totally stupid." he finished, a little lamely.

Fraser closed his eyes for a second and breathed in, bit his bottom lip and then narrowed his eyes at Ray. "You said to act normal."

"Yeah. Normal guys go to the hospital--"

"I'm not a normal guy, Ray."

Ray stared at him for a long moment, then down the service tunnel where Deef was loping back toward them. "Yeah, I know," he conceded and ran his hand across his mouth.

"And how normal am I going to seem once a doctor gets a look inside me?"

"Fuck." Ray ducked his head, rested his forehead on his raised knee. "Like dying's better?"

"Than a retasking station? Maybe not, but the difference won't matter much to me, will it?" Fraser's tone softened. "It's going to be okay."

Ray glared at him. "How do you know?"

His eyes going a little hazy like he was daydreaming, Fraser tilted his head. "Diagnostics." Then he came back and held out his hand. "Will you please help me up?"

With a grunt of irritation, Ray stood up and pulled him to his feet. "That hurt?" he asked as Fraser swayed toward him and hung on until he steadied.

"Yes, Ray," he answered matter-of-factly, and pushed off toward Skeezer, who was curled up in a puddle of his own blood. The needle had finally stopped trying to tunnel its way to China.

They only had a couple minutes to do a quick look-see before the sirens started wailing overhead. Some helpful pain in the ass in the train station must've sent out the squeal Ray himself hadn't made, or maybe today was the day for miracles and there really was a cop around, whether you wanted one or not.

At the entrance to the tunnel, Ray was yanking off his coat and watching the blue-and-white circling down toward them, so he just barely caught it out of the corner of his eye when Fraser lifted Skeezer's shoe and licked the sole. Stopping with one arm still in his sleeve, Ray screwed up his face in disgust. "Okay, I'm going to pretend I didn't see that until you can tell me--later, tell me later--why you're licking shoes. You know where that shoe's been, don't you?"

"Actually, Ray, I do. You see, this residue here," Fraser pointed. "It's an enzyme-based detergent used to clean--"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Ray tugged him to his feet and thrust the bunched trench coat into his arms. "Just put this on, and if they ask, you didn't see nothin, okay? I already took your statement." With one eye on the police prowler hovering over the gathering crowd on the pedway, Ray pushed him toward the staircase up to the station. "Make like a gawker. And keep the dog out of sight."

Fraser was doing a not-bad job of blending in with the rubberneckers watching over the pedway rail when the prowler finally settled in the open space at the mouth of the tunnel and two Blues strolled over to Ray, their thumbs in their gunbelts. "Got a report there was an animal in the service tunnel," the taller one said as he got closer.

Flashing his badge, Ray shrugged. "Nobody here but us humans." He aimed his chin at the remains of one Jimbo Skeezer. "And ex-humans."

^^^

It took way too long to clean up the mess in the tunnel, and by the time Ray let himself into his deluxe, palatial one-room squat on Racine (ten floors closer to heaven than the sewer), the sun was turning the sky over the city the colour of dried blood. He ran up the stairs two at a time and blew out a breath of relief when he found Fraser sitting on his sofa.

"You made it."

Turning to look at him over his shoulder, Fraser nodded. "Yes, I did. There are some very good city schematics on the net. I managed the entire trip without leaving the service tunnels."

Ray didn't miss the way Fraser's eyes winced up as he twisted around more to watch when Ray kicked the door shut and leaned on it. He also didn't miss the fact that Fraser wasn't wearing a shirt. After hanging his holster on the doorknob and dragging his own sweater off over his head, Ray toed off one boot and stumbled toward the kitchenette. He gave up on the other boot and poured a cup of two-day-old coffee,carefully counted five Smartos into his palm from a box on top of the fridge--all blue, because it was just that kind of day--and dumped them in, trying his best to ignore the way his fingers were shaking. He could feel Fraser's gaze on him as he swallowed the whole cup and crunched the candies.

"You gonna live, then, I guess, huh?" He dropped the cup into the sink with the rest of them and leaned back on the counter, curling his fingers under the faux-marble lip and hanging on tight. The floor seemed to sway gently as passing 'liner-light made the shadows of the blinds move across the apartment like the sweep of hands on an antique clock.

Fraser sat at the centre of it all and nodded. At his feet, Deef grumbled in his sleep.

"No more needles?"

"No."

"Wailer?"

"No. Deef took good care of me."

Ray swallowed hard and ground his knuckles into his eyesockets until he saw stars, then dropped his hands with a slap against his thighs. "Lemme see." He clomped over, edged around Deef, and slumped down onto the coffee table in front of Fraser.

Obligingly, Fraser sat up straighter and angled a little into the light. On his right pec, just above his nipple, the exit wound was a tender-looking puckered scar a third the size of Ray's palm. Without thinking, Ray reached out to touch it, then snatched his fingers back with a hiss of pain.

"It's hot," he said, and stuck his fingers in his mouth.

"Yes. Nanites, I suspect."

Ray took his fingers out of his mouth and, after looking around for something like a tissue and finding none, wiped his tongue on the back of his wrist. "Nanites?"

"I'd have to do some research to know for sure. I don't think they can hurt you if that's what you're worried about."

"Yeah. Yeah, I knew that." Just in case, he wiped his hand on Fraser's trousers. The 'liner drifted on and the room settled in the ruddy light. Fraser sat patiently while Ray looked at him. Other than the scar, Fraser's skin was unblemished, hairless except for his forearms, where fine hairs picked up the light and glowed a little. Ray wondered if the hairs were there for the same reason he had them himself, or if they did something else. When he finally raised his head to meet Fraser's gaze, Fraser's eyes were pale, almost colourless, but he was definitely in there, paying attention. "You're perfect," Ray said suddenly, startling himself.

Fraser's watchful expression twitched into a frown of bemusement. "I'm sorry?"

Shoving the table back a little as he stood up, Ray clutched at his hair and stepped over Deef. "I don't get it." He waved one arm backward in Fraser's general direction as he shuffled in his one boot over to the window. "You're like something I used to fail tests about in history class." Down in the alley, Crazy Bathrobe Guy from 223 was chasing a wino out of the dumpster with his broom. Ray leaned on the window frame and shook his head. "A lot of people died in those wars to make sure you couldn't ever exist again. Perfect bots, I mean, more human than human. Second gen bots." In his head, the girl-bot winked her soulless blue eye at him and laughed her canned laugh. He didn't know what to do with the heavy feeling in his chest. It seemed a lot like sadness. Or regret. "But there you are, anyway. Your Gepetto--I mean the AI--broke the God laws to make you. That's heavy. I mean, what's the motivation? I don't get it."

"Neither do I."

Fraser's voice came from just over Ray's shoulder, and Ray turned to find him standing close, looking down into the alley. It was all Ray could do not to lean in and smell his hair. Just to see. Fraser's face was lit up warm in the light that knifed between the towers of the building across the alleyway, no shadows to clarify his expression, so Ray didn't know if it was just his own indefinable sadness reflecting there or what.

"Look, Fraser, I didn't--I mean, I don't--"

With a small nod, and a small smile, Fraser met his eyes. "I know."

They stood there watching Crazy Bathrobe Guy rooting around in the dumpster until the sun moved behind the tower and the scar on Fraser's chest stopped radiating heat through Ray's t-shirt into his skin. Just barely catching himself before letting his head wearily fall back on Fraser's shoulder, Ray shook himself. "I'm hungry," he said, squeezing past Fraser and going to rummage in his dresser for a shirt big enough for him. He tossed it at him and looked around for his boot. "You hungry? I know a place." He paused and pointed at him. "Do you get hungry?"

"Not really, but Deef does."

On cue, Deef went from dead zonked to alive and impatiently dancing in front of the door in 1.6 seconds.

As they stepped into the hall and Ray punched his lock code into the door panel, he asked, "What kind of name is 'Deef,' anyway?"

"It's short for Diefenbaker." When Ray winced up an eye, Fraser spelled it for him.

Ray winced up the other eye. "Diefenbaker? What's that sposed to mean?"

"I don't know. You'll have to ask him. He chose it."

^^^

It might have been only six in the morning, but as usual The Bijou was jumping like it was prime time. Didn't matter, though, because Ray showed his teeth at the guy on the door and shouted, "Hey, Nayna!" over his shoulder. The blond miracle at the reception console looked up and waved them in past the line-up.

"Hey there, Raymond Kowalski of the Dangerous Vibe, how high you livin?" she asked, all sparkle and a wicked smile.

"Not high enough for you, Nayna of the Long Long Legs." Ray rapped his knuckles on the counter and leaned over to look at the table schematic on her console. "Got a booth? A booth for two."

The smile disappeared as Nayna made a pout. "Oh Ray, I..." She shifted her weight and patted his hand. "Honey, the booths, they're gone."

Ray stopped thumping his heel and frowned at her. "Whaddya mean gone?"

Nayna tilted her perfect pyramid of hair toward the room. The tables were almost all full, lots of hands waving at nothing he could see, lots of brittle laughter at jokes he couldn't hear. Pretty much everyone had a near-stare. Ray clamped his teeth down on a curse.

"The boss refitted. It's all stims now." She patted his hand again. The sympathetic look made Ray want to stomp something. "The booths were old, Ray, and he couldn't keep repairing them. Nobody wants booths anymore. They all want stims. Implants--"

"Yeah, okay, whatever." Ray shoved his way back down the line and out into the hazy morning. Without waiting to see if Fraser and Dief were following, he dodged a guy on a bike, slipped sideways between a couple of delivery trucks and out onto the pedway across the street. "C'mon, already. I'm hungry," he said when they caught up. He held the door open for them and waved them inside.

The Po Zing was crowded too, but they found a table near the steamed-up windows looking out over the indistinct shimmer of early-morning traffic. Dief slunk in under the greasy tablecloth as Fraser sat down and took off his hat. Ray sat across from him and ordered noodles and fried eggs for himself and, after raising his eyebrows at Fraser, the same for Dief. He dispensed himself a cup of coffee from the tap at the edge of the table, fished another six blue Smartos out of his jacket pocket and dropped them in.

"What was that place?" Fraser asked, his voice low, but carrying anyway over the background wash of russese and chinglish, and the sound of Po and Zing shrieking at each other in the kitchen.

Ray shrugged, stared at his hands gripping each other on the table. He opened them up, but they wouldn't stay relaxed and twisted together again. There was a buzzing in his ears that sounded like a needle in concrete. His heel drummed against the floor, making Dief shift away. "The Bijou." Buzz, buzz "It's just a place I go when--They have--they used to have the holobooths. You don't need no implants for them and it's great. It's like you're right there, in a flick." He flattened his hands out again but they didn't stay that way. "I pick the oldies, right? The ones with the dancing. Fred and Ginger or Gene and Judy or Coop Cooper and Libby LaMer." Thinking about them, hearing the ghost of music there under the chatter and the yelling in the kitchen, made his fingers loosen their grip on each other. He swayed a little to the remembered beat. "Foxtrot, Cha-cha, Rumba. Yeah, and tango. Like, from back in the day, right? When people used to touch each other." He shrugged again. "It made me feel better, you know? 'Cause sometimes--sometimes like this morning with the needle and Skeeze, and watching you disappear down that tunnel with no back-up and a hole through you and me stuck there with those Blues and the gawkers and then the reports and the Lieu on my back and--I dunno--sometimes I just get this--" He smacked his fist into his palm but the energy just looped back through him again. He stopped drumming his heels and bounced his knee instead. Dief grumbled. "I feel like... like--"

"A ricochet," Fraser said.

Ray's head snapped up. Fraser was watching him closely, like he was looking right into him. "Yeah, yeah like that." Ray hunkered down again and rested his forehead on his fists. "Anyway, I'm glad you're okay, no thanks to me," he said into the table. Quiet, though, so Fraser wouldn't hear.

"You protected me from discovery. I'm grateful."

Note to self, Ray thought. Bots have good ears.

He sat up again when Po jabbed him in the neck. The eggs slid off one of the plates when she dropped it in front of him, but, once she was gone, Fraser carefully put them back on and surreptitiously lowered the plate down onto the floor. Before Ray could say "bon eats," Dief had polished it clean.

Happy for the distraction, Ray stabbed his chopsticks into his noodles and asked, "How does a guy like you end up in the Mounties, anyway? I mean, how is that possible?"

Fraser sighed and looked over Ray's head, or maybe into his own. "I'm not entirely sure. Clementine is the most remote detachment in the far-side colonies. There's not a lot of oversight there." He scratched his eyebrow and squinted into the past. "As far as I can ascertain, I arrived at my post with my credentials in order. I patrolled my territory for thirteen years without incident."

Ray chewed his way up a tangle of noodles and washed them down with more coffee. "Hang on. Hang on. What do you mean 'ascertain'?"

"Well, to ascertain is to--"

"I know what ascertain means, Fraser. I'm asking how come you had to ascertain. Don't you remember how you got there?"

"I thought I did. But--" Fraser rubbed his eyebrow again and stared at the table like he was expecting the answer to be written between the coffee stains on the cloth.

"But."

"What I thought I knew about myself turned out not to be the case."

The chopsticks dropped out of Ray's hand and rolled off the edge of the table onto the floor. "You didn't know."

"No. It was only after my father died that I discovered the truth of what I am."

Less than a day in Benton Fraser's company and Ray was already getting way too familiar with stuff that made his brain go sideways. It was like he was in a permanent skid; only the direction changed. Fraser didn't look anywhere near as freaked as he had a right to be. But then again, he'd had a couple weeks to get used to the idea. Ray narrowed his eyes at him. "C'mon. How can a guy walk around for thirteen years and not know what he is?"

Fraser sat back and folded his hands like he was contemplating something mildly interesting, like the taste of the average boot sole. "Do you ever ask what Ray Kowalski is?"

"Yeah. Yeah, Fraser, I ask myself that every day."

"Who you are, perhaps, but not what you are."

Ray bobbed his head, conceding. "Okay, maybe. But sometime in all those years you had to cut your thumb and notice that it turned red hot and healed itself in five seconds."

Fraser's hand drifted up to his chest and away again. "I remember injuries. I even remember convalescences." That look of detached interest faltered and this time the sadness Ray saw there was unmistakable. Ray felt something in his own chest get heavy and hollow in response. Fraser ducked his head and swiped at his eyebrow again. "I remember a lot of things."

Ray leaned closer, like he was edging up to a sheer drop. "Like what?"

"Like a childhood," Fraser answered to his hands. Then he looked up and Ray almost winced at what he saw in his eyes. "Like a mother."

Unable to take it, that look, Ray blew out a breath and slouched back in his chair, scrubbed at the back of his neck. "For Jee's sake."

"She died when I was--" Fraser cut himself off with a rueful laugh, closed his eyes for a second, regrouping. "I remember that she died when I was six. I remember asking why she had to die." There was a long pause filled with noise and emptiness. "Now I know."

They sat there, Ray staring out the window and Fraser staring at Ray, until Po came back and cleared the plates. Ray pressed his thumb to the bill pad and counted out 150 credits in coins for an under-the-table tip. Outside the window, a prowler hovered over the intersection directing traffic. All the regular traffic signals were blinking red, in time with the pulsing behind Ray's eyes.

He put his elbows on the table and rubbed his temples. "Okay." Time to make some sense of things around here. "You said you didn't know until after the AI was wiped, right?"

"Correct."

"Then how'd you find out?"

Fraser opened his mouth and then closed it. Finally, he answered, reluctantly, "My father left something of himself behind." He pointed at the middle of his forehead. "In here."

"What, you mean like a diary?

"In a manner of speaking."

Cool."

"Frustrating, actually." He let his hands drop to the table top.

Nodding, Ray took Fraser's hand and turned it up into the light. "I bet," he said vaguely as he bowed closer and examined it. There were calluses there, the kind a guy got from doing the same job for a long time. Ray had his own. He wondered if Fraser's were real or if it was all part of the design. Then he wondered how an AI could come up with something like that, a whole history in the flesh like that. What did an AI know about flesh? Fraser's hand was warm. Not weirdly warm, but warm like a regular hand. Which was weird. He curled Fraser's hand into a fist and opened it again to peer at the lines in his palm, saying, "So, I don't suppose he left an entry that says, I dunno, 'Dear Diary, today I broke every God law in the book and made me the most perfect bot in the Six Systems, and, oh, also, below are the details of my nefarious plans.'"

Fraser's soft chuckle made Ray grin. "Unfortunately no." When he looked up, Fraser was smiling at him. That introduced a whole nother kind of weird in Ray's brain--not a totally bad weird, but one he didn't quite know what to do with, so Ray lifted his own hand up between them and inspected it. That was a mistake, though, because now he couldn't tell if it was real. He put it in his pocket.

"My father and I always had a rather oblique relationship," Fraser concluded.

"You're not kiddin." Ray pushed back his chair and led the way out of the diner. "So, he give you any clue as to what we should do next?"

"No, but Skeezer did." Fraser turned left down the pedway, Dief right behind him.

Ray, who had gone right, had to jog to catch up. "Margaret."

"Yes, and the residue on his shoe."

"Detergent."

"Yes. The kind they use to strip landing struts."

"Right." Ray ducked into an alleyway and headed for the 2-7 at the other end. "And you know this because you tasted it."

"It's not a common product, and it's manufactured only on a few planets, one of which is--"

"Clementine."

Whatever Fraser's answer was, Ray didn't hear it because of the needle that hit him in the shoulder, lifting him off his feet and pinning him to the wall of the alley. After a second he realized that the howling sound that was drowning out the needle's whine was coming from him. He clawed at the needle with his left hand.

"Dief, don't."

Fraser's voice made Ray's world expand a little. The alleyway. Dief showing the full three-hundred. Fraser looking a little rumpled in Ray's shirt, standing perfectly still. A pulse pistol aimed at Fraser's forehead, and a needle launcher at Ray's. The Wailer laughing, all his rotten teeth showing. Ray howled again and tried to make himself let go of the needle so he could touch his comm to set up a squeal, but his fingers had ideas of their own.

"You're coming with me," the Wailer said.

"And if I refuse?" Fraser sounded calm and mildly curious.

"Then your pointy-haired friend over there gets a needle through the brain."

"I could break your arms instead."

Ray thought that was a fantastic plan.

"And my friend up there will turn him to plasma."

Ray thought that was a terrible plan.

Their shadows twisted around them as a transport circled into position and started to sink down toward them. It was a Merc, silver and streamlined and way too upscale for a guy with the Wailer's dental-work. The side door winged open with a hiss. Ray could see the gleam from the scope of a pulse cannon inside.

The Wailer smiled again. "It's up to you. Come with us and get all the answers you want. Refuse and spend the next week soaking your friend off the bricks with a sponge."

Fraser met Ray's eyes, then nodded. "Alright."

"Fraser!" Ray ground out through clenched teeth. "Don't you--"

Ray yanked on the needle, flailed a little, kicking at the wall with his heels, then let it go. It was no use. He needed another plan. All he had to do was to let the needle work its way out of him. No problem. Let it go. The brick was old. It would give way under his weight and then he'd get his feet on the ground and kick the Wailer's head in. There. New plan. Simple. Simple was best. The needle whined. Ray fumbled his fingers to his ear and whispered his distress code. Around him the alleyway narrowed like the walls were falling in, like it was all going down the drain. Except Fraser, who was in the door of the transport, going up and up and up and looking down at Ray way down down down at the bottom of the well where everything was getting darker.

"Stay with him, Dief," Fraser called.


Chapter Three: I Can See You're Out of Aces

Ray remembered somebody trying to take his boots. And then there was a lot of growling and screaming and when that stopped, his boots were still on his feet. He managed to get his toes on the ground, just his toes, and he felt a wet nose on his fingers, and then it was all white lights and low voices and a prick in the arm that spread a black sort of emptiness through his veins. He struggled but there was nothing to struggle against, so it wasn't a fair fight.

And that really pissed him off.

Which is why he woke up cursing and tearing the I.V. needle out of his arm. No more fucking needles.

It wasn't so hard sneaking out of the hospital, since, with only basic cop insurance, he was only one step up from the freeloader floor, and the hallways were crowded with the sick and injured waiting to get called in to see a medbot, or if they were lucky a real human doctor. All Ray had to do was to keep his head down, look decrepit and like he was in a lot of pain, and he blended right in. Since he felt decrepit and in a lot of pain, it wasn't exactly a stretch. It wasn't really possible but when he hit the street the hole in his shoulder seemed to catch the wind and howl a little on its own. Ray told it to shut up. It was possible he was still a tiny bit loopy from whatever the medbot shot him up with.

He was feeling sharper by the time he made it to the precinct, with the downside that the more with it he got the more his shoulder hurt. It was okay, though, because that made him mad and mad made him move.

He leaned on the wall beside the Lieu's office door and rapped on the window.

"You look like crap, Detective," Welsh said flatly when he snatched open the door. Ray almost fell through it into his not-so-welcoming arms. "Who let you out of the hospital?"

"Me."

"That's stupid."

"Yeah, probably."

Welsh gave him the once-over and aimed his chin at Ray's shoulder. "How is it?"

"Good. Great. Terrific. I always wanted to learn how to shoot left-handed." Ray's holster was wadded up in the pocket of his coat, his gun stuffed in his waistband where he could get at it. His other pocket was weighed down with a needle, the one from the service tunnel. The one Fraser took for him. His own needle was probably in an evidence bag somewhere.

He was about to ask about Dief when he noticed they weren't alone.

She would've been a real hot number except that she looked like she was trying to ice the whole place with her big, brown eyes. Under her blue overcoat there was the flash of red uniform. Ray slouched wearily against the filing cabinet next to the door and rubbed his eyes. "Good, great, terrific," he mumbled.

"Detective Kowalski, meet Inspector Margaret Thatcher of the Royal Colonial Mounted Police."

Ray cocked his head. "Margaret, huh?"

"Inspector Thatcher," she answered, ice in the voice, too.

"I been looking for a Margaret. I don't suppose you took delivery of a bunch of bots lately. Girls and boys."

The look she gave him made a needle hit feel like a kiss. "No, Detective, but we know that you have been in the company of a particular bot, lately, and we would like you to take us to it."

"Can't do that."

"Why not?"

"'Cause somebody got to him first." He watched her closely and decided that whoever it was who did the job in the alley, she was as pissed about it as he was, if for different reasons.

"Who?" she demanded. When Ray didn't answer, Thatcher came over and aimed the eyebeams at him from up close. "Detective, I don't need to remind you that, in aiding and abetting this bot, you are in contravention of the Armistice Statutes and are subject to disciplinary action."

Welsh stepped in. "Look, Inspector, he's my guy. Any disciplinary action is my department, not yours." His glare managed to flay a layer of skin off of Ray while simultaneously offering enough sympathy to take a bit of the sting out of it. Not all the sting, though, because he continued, "Detective Kowalski, you're off the case. Give everything you got to Inspector Thatcher and her aide. And get the hell back to the hospital before you fall down and I have you carried there and kept under guard."

Ray pushed himself away from the filing cabinet and tried his best to loom over Thatcher. It didn't work as well as he hoped, though, since standing up straight made his shoulder shriek in twenty shades of red and because it seemed like Thatcher had read the same story Ray had and was clearly in touch with her inner mongoose.

"He just wants justice," Ray said to her.

"It's a bot, Detective. It doesn't really want anything. And if it did, it wouldn't have a right to it. Its existence is a crime. It's our duty to uphold the law."

Ray sneered. "The law. Right." He made a show of peering closely at her face. "Tell me somethin. How do you know you're not one yourself?"

"Kowalski," Welsh warned.

Again, Thatcher looked about as insulted as it was possible to get. "I'm not, Detective Kowalski."

"Yeah? How do you know?"

"I know."

"Really. Because Fraser didn't. You want to investigate a crime? Investigate that."

Before Ray could get out the door, Welsh barked his name. "Leave your badge and your gun, Detective."

Ray came back and dropped both on Welsh's desk. "Am I suspended?"

Welsh's expression softened. "We'll call it med leave."

"Call it what you want."

Ray slammed the door on the way out, making the windows rattle. He heard Welsh shouting after him, "And you're locked out of the Police Net, so no freelancing!"

Ray made a "yak yak" sign over his shoulder and headed for the elevator.

Out on the street, he stood on the pedway and tried to decide whether to head to his squat or back to the alley. He decided to try the alley first, and then loop back to his place. He wasn't sure exactly how to let a deaf dog know somebody was calling him, so he settled for pacing the alley and looking into every shadow big enough to conceal somebody Dief's size. In the end it was a waste of time. Dief was waiting for him beside his apartment door.

"I do not even wanna know how you got into this building," Ray said as he awkwardly thumbed his code onto the lock pad. Inside the apartment, he sat on the edge of the couch and looked Dief over, running his hand through his thick, soft fur. "No worse for wear, huh? That makes one of us." With a snuffling moan, Dief rested his head on Ray's knee. "Yeah, I know. We'll go. We'll find him."

^^^

Smartos were not cutting it, so Ray swallowed whatever miscellaneous pain meds he had in the apartment and tried to pretend that the screaming in his shoulder was just that, noise. He was good at tuning out noise.

Welsh hadn't been bluffing for the Inspector about locking him out of the Police Network, so Ray took the train across town to try out his other option. The neighbourhood was once the waterfront back before the lake went underground, and it still had that feeling even though the last actual water-faring ship had been dry-docked a hundred years ago. With the warehouses and the low, clinging fog, though, it was a place where pirates would be at home. Over beyond the uneven line of warehouse rooftops, the sky glowed blue and red with reflected light from the new docks, 'liners and planet-hoppers moored in rows like party balloons, and bigger skips and jumpers way up on the pylons, just ghost shapes above the clouds.

Picking out a row house in a line of identically dilapidated row houses, Ray rang the bell and stepped back to show his face to the camera.

"Yes?" The tinny voice that came from the speaker was maybe human, maybe not.

"I'm here to see Frannie."

"Who's here to see Frannie?"

"Kowalski."

"Keystroke?"

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Free the feed."

With a pop, the lock released and the door swung open. The girl-bot on the other side was one Ray hadn't seen before, outside of the flicks, anyway. It had platinum blond hair and a beauty mark on its lip. It leaned a hip provocatively on the door and smiled wickedly at him. "Free the feed," it said and slowly stepped aside to let him in.

Ray pushed his way past it into the musty hallway and on into the kitchen. No food here. The place looked abandoned. But Frannie's places always did. He was lucky the whole show hadn't moved on since the last time he was here. He yanked open the basement door and, leaving Dief in the kitchen, felt his way down the stairs, following the cool glow of terminal light.

In the low-ceilinged room, a couple guys were jacked in directly, leads snaking away from the back of their heads into the panel on the wall. They were near-staring and didn't pay him any mind. One of them was wearing a stim glove and was building something in virtual space. Ray didn't want to know what that might be. He hooked a chair over and pulled up a terminal, strapping on a mic while waiting for the screen to settle in the air in front of the brick.

Fran had had a make-over since Ray'd seen her last. Now, instead of tiger stripes and yellow eyes, she looked like a Mom-and-apple-pie good-Italian-girl-next-door with a pert little nose and long-lashed brown eyes. She was wearing a version of a police civilian aide uniform that, given the amount of cleavage, could only have been designed by a pimply teenager. If there was a human behind the AI--and the debate among the feed-demons raged on that score--it was a sure bet the guy lived with his mother. At least he had a good sense of humour, anyway.

"Free the feed," Fran said. For a few seconds, her image was replaced with a rotating icon, a rip-off of the Royal Bureau of Investigation crest only with Freebyte Rebel Access Network cycling around the eagle and the flag. When Fran came back she tsk-tsked and wagged a finger at him. "Raymond Kowalski, did you get locked out of Police Net again? What did you do? Sleep with Welsh's wife?"

He grinned. "Naw, she's too busy sleeping with Dewey."

Fran blinked, adding this tidbit to the feed.

"I'm kidding."

"Maybe you are, but external corroboration puts probability at better than 60%."

Ray blinked, adding this tidbit to the file in his head. He waved Dewey out of the way and hunkered close to the screen, not that it made a difference with the mic against his larynx. "Forget it, I need info on a Margaret. String for: jump ship, docks, sex-bots, Skeezer, Royal Colonial Mounted Police."

"Okay, okay." The avatar made a show of typing. "Hold your herpes."

"Horses, Fran. It's 'hold your horses.'"

Fran stopped 'typing' to give him a pitying look. "That's stupid, Ray. Horses you let go. Viruses, you hold." She rolled her eyes. Then, her face was replaced suddenly by a cascade of images: women crying, broken bodies of boys, bombs, flames against the night sky, tombstones, and finally a satellite shot of the mouth of the service tunnel and a familiar shape under a police tarp, Ray's own face turned up, his eyes narrowed, looking for something on the pedway above him. "We're sorry to hear about Skeeze," Fran said, and "sorry sorry sorrysorrysorrysorry" fugued over the images on the screen until Ray had to close his eyes.

"Yeah, me too."

The montage faded back to Fran again. "Results: two probables pinging for all string terms, 2204 possibles, 63,600 peripherals."

"Probables."

"Inbound from Midway Station, Margaret Thatcher, arrived this morning--"

"Yeah, met her already. Next."

"The Margaret Trudeau, jump ship, Pylon 33, deck 19. Took delivery of six sex-bots from James Sczewinszky a.k.a. Jimmy Skeezer two days ago. Outbound 23:30 today."

"Outbound where?"

"Clementine."

"What's the RCMP connection?"

Fran shrugged, and her breasts jiggled more than humanly possible. "It's a sidewise ping. No official corroboration. I can bloodhound it, if you want, but it'll take a little time."

"Yeah, okay. And gimme a print-out on Thatcher, too."

Again with the pitying look. "Ray, when are you going to gear up with an implant like a normal human being?"

"I told you, Fran, I'm queer."

"That's an understatement."

The chit scrolled out of the printer and Ray folded it up and put it in his pocket.

He was getting up when Fran said, "And speaking of queer." He sat back down. "The Margaret Trudeau is flying under diplomatic seal."

"Carrying what?"

"I don't know, Ray, it's under diplomatic seal. The queer thing is this: the ship is registered to Armando Langoustini."

Ray rubbed his hand across his mouth. "Yeah, that's queer. Since when does the Iguana family get dip-privilege?"

"Since The Margaret Trudeau started her loop inbound, with stopovers on two planets in the Diamond Necklace, and on Pixie and Europa."

Ray nodded. He wasn't happy with the way the cast of characters was lining up here. "Can you hack the seal on the manifest?"

Fran gave him a smug smile. "Does a pear sit in the woods?"

"It's 'does a bear'--Never mind." He shoved back his chair. At the top of the stairs, Dief was looking down at him. The dog tossed his head, disappeared for a second and came back with a little, impatient yelp. "Yeah, I'm coming. Fran, what's the damage?"

Fran smiled sweetly. "Air-tight external corroboration on Dewey and Welsh's wife."

"Ouch."

"We free the feed, Ray, but the feed ain't free."

He hunkered close again. "Look, Frannie, what do you know about AI-Robert Fraser?"

The cascade of images was practically enough to give Ray a seizure. All he really could pick up was a general theme of fear and mourning--churches and the Wailing Wall, paintings of saints and sinners and devils. "We're sorry for the death of AI-Robert Fraser."

"He broke the God laws. You know why?"

This time Fran's pitying expression had the unnerving softness of real sympathy in it. "That's the problem with you humans, Ray. You figure you're the only ones who ever discovered love. Everything would make sense if you weren't so narrow-minded."

^^^

Pylon 33 was swank territory, ringed ground level with restaurants, high-end shopping centres and "stim emporia" where the junkies were called "clientèle." Ray stalked along the mezzanine like he was worth diamonds and just happened to be slumming in those boots and battered pleather jacket--his last jacket, by the way, and somebody with bad teeth and too many guns was gonna pay for that, and soon. He leaned over the elevator¹s rail and watched the world get small, composing a letter to his mom about how great the new jacket was and leaving out how half of it was melted. At the back of his mind, though, the needle buzz-buzzed. "The way you wear your hat," he murmured, "The way you sip your tea," around and around, but it didn't help. Dief looked up toward deck 19, tail thumping the floor. "Soon, buddy. Hold your horses."

They passed through the cloud cover at deck 12, a sudden chill, water beading on the glass walls and in Ray's hair. He pulled his head in as the window slid up and into place. They leaped out and Ray followed Dief's lead, and the jump ships loomed into view. The cargo haulers were massive, bulbous shadows tethered to the uppermost decks. Below them, deck 19 was for the private system ships, sleek sideways raindrops ranged in a spiral around the central pylon, each ship connected to it by a slim straight gangway. The Margaret Trudeau was middling size, a shimmering bronze. Her jump drive, on the end of its spindles, looked like a ball of mercury spinning down three thin fountains of water. Of course, the spindles weren't water and the drive wasn't really a ball of anything. It was a ball of nothing, just a knot in space where the impossible met the improbable. Looking at it made Ray queasy.

The main gangway four stories up was retracted, but the service one was moored fast, service hatch standing open. Ray ambled toward it, Dief at his heels. There didn't seem to be anybody around, but he'd been reminded in the last couple of days that looks were deceiving. He leaned his back against the smooth skin of the ship and waited. Before too long, footsteps inside came clanging on the deck. Ray was ready to make like the Wailer and sucker-punch whoever stuck his head past the door, but Dief had his own ideas and slithered around the corner before Ray could stop him. Two seconds later there was a broken yell and Ray slipped around and into the airlock. Dief was standing on a guy's chest looking over his shoulder at Ray with what had to be the dog equivalent of "So there," on his face.

"Yeah, yeah, pretty smooth." Ray crouched down and looked at the guy. Paunchy and grey-haired, he was wearing a dockworker's uniform with the Port Authority crest on the pocket. The embroidered name under the crest was HAL. "Hey Hal," Ray said, showing about as many teeth as Dief. "How much you get paid a year?"

Rolling his eyes from Dief to Ray, and not looking any too comforted, Hal stammered, "Two mil five and change."

Ray snorted. "I make 1.2 mil. That's before tax. You think we get paid enough to mess up our pretty faces fighting over some rich stim junkie in a suit that costs more'n we take home in a month?"

Hal let out a thin laugh, shook his head and kept on shaking it. "No. No way, mister."

Ray nodded and twitched his fingers. Dief hopped off, but stayed close. "How 'bout you go get yourself a drink. Maybe go home and tell your wife how you met a real live dog at work today, huh?"

Hal didn't bother saying good-bye. He just got up and bolted for the gangway. Before he got too far, Ray said, "Don't make me come find you, Hal. The dog can follow a trail a long way."

Tossing a mock salute, Hal backed into the elevator and stabbed at the buttons.

Ray chucked Dief under the chin and headed into the ship.

There wasn't much to it down on the cargo level. A few cryo-storage units and one door he supposed led into the main hold. The door was locked. Figures.

After idly tapping a few random sequences into the touch pad, he keyed his comm and set out a ping for Fran. She answered right away like she was just waiting by the phone.

"What is it, Ray? And why don't you have vid? Oh, right, queer. What do you want?"

"How's the hack going?"

"It's going. Slowly. They've got some kind of spider at the gate. Real ugly mother, too."

Ray groaned and let his forehead fall against the bulkhead.

"Where are you?"

"I'm in the ship, Fran. I am in the actual ship standing in front of the actual door, and on the other side of it is my case, and maybe my friend possibly in trouble, so do you think you could open the door?" He tried banging his head on it.

"I'm trying! Whoever made this system, well, let's just say --" Her voice went syrupy with nudge-nudge, wink-wink. "--I'd trade the sexual favour of his, hers or its choice for a chance to see the code."

Ray stopped knocking his head against the door and paused to listen instead. Down the corridor, a red light was flashing. There was the unmistakable hiss of the hatch closing.

"Um, Ray?"

Ray closed his eyes.

"The ship is outbound."

"I know that, Fran."

"Two minutes. I need two minutes."

"Open the door, Frannie."

"Once they spin up I'm going to lose the feed."

"Open the door, Frannie."

"I'm almost--"

"Frannie, I am asking you very politely to please open the door."

Ray felt a shiver across his skin as the drive started to spin up.

"Frannie!"

Nothing but static.

The door slid open. A hand reached through the hatch, grabbed Ray by his collar, and yanked him through.

"Fraser."

"Hello Ray."

"You're okay."

"Yes, Ray."

"Good." They looked at each other, Fraser's hand still twisted in Ray's collar and Ray's feet only mostly on the deck. "Uh, Fraser," Ray said, finally. "This is a jump ship."

"Yes, Ray."

"It's going to jump."

"That seems likely."

Ray's good hand came up and twisted into his hair. "Fraser, do you know what happens to a human being who jumps without a jump pod?"

"Ray--"

Fraser was dragging him deeper into the cargo hold, between rows of identical crates.

"Their brains turn inside out!"

"Ray--"

"Is that what I get? I get a needle in the shoulder and two wrecked jackets and a suspension and now I get my brains turned inside out? What's the point? I'm asking you, Fraser." Ray let himself be dragged along, because what was the point, anyway?

"Ray--"

Another shiver and all the hairs on Ray's body stood on end. Somewhere a siren started to wail. A voice said, "ONE MINUTE TO JUMP." Then it started counting backward. That was not one bit comforting.

"I'm asking you, Fraser, how a guy does his job and keeps gettin up day after day and wading through the scum and dodging needles and not dodging needles, and pulls in a lousy 1.2 mil and for what? So his brains can get turned--"

"Please get in the pod, Ray." Fraser tucked a foot behind Ray's ankle and not-so gently tripped him into the emergency jump pod. Then he waved at Dief. "Get in. Well, you can stay here, but I don't think you want your brains turned inside out."

Grumbling, Dief jumped in, managing to plant all four of his feet one after another on Ray's testicles before settling down with his head on Ray's shoulder.

"His breath stinks," Ray complained.

"I could get him to turn around."

Ray glared at Fraser and then let his head fall back against the padding. He started to laugh the wheezy, helpless laughter of a guy whose brains maybe turned inside out two days ago. "This is what it comes down to, a choice between dog breath and dog butt. My life is a joke, Fraser."

Fraser smiled down at him. "I suppose that is true of all of us." He closed the canopy.

"Wait!" Ray smacked at the polyglass but Fraser locked it from the outside. "Wait! What about you?"

Out on the end of the spindles, the impossible collided with the improbable. Through the polyglass, Ray watched as the world was smeared sideways like someone had swiped at it with a wet rag. Fraser's face was the last thing he saw before space collapsed.

Chapter Four: You Were Lost and Gone Forever

"Jump complete," the pod said. Something sharp poked him at the base of his skull, releasing sizzle into his veins.

"Aw," Ray said. "Crap." For a long time, like, maybe two weeks or a minute or ten seconds, there was just a swirl of twisted space behind his eyeballs as the sizzle worked its way down his arms and legs.

Then someone pressed what felt suspiciously like the muzzle of a pulse pistol to the middle of his forehead.

Ray didn't bother to open his eyes. "Hello, Wailer. Worked your way up from shooting junkies in the back to takin on the semi-conscious, huh?"

"Get out."

"Make me."

The Wailer did. Still not quite connected to his brain, Ray's arms and legs didn't work too good. So much for Ray's plans for heroic resistance. The Wailer hauled him out of the pod and dropped him onto the deck. Ray grunted when his shoulder connected with the edge of the pod on the way down. Everything sort of greyed out at that point and when it came back, it was like he was looking down the wrong end of a telescope. With his face pressed to the deck at the Wailer's feet, Ray scanned as much of the bay as he could see, stopping at the sight of a familiar pair of tall boots.

"Fraser?"

"Yes, Ray."

"You okay?"

"Yes."

"Brains?"

"Not inside out, if that's what you mean."

"Good. Dief?"

Fraser didn't answer, but the silence had enough crackle in it to make Ray heave himself up so he could get a look into the pod. Dief was out cold. Breathing, but out.

"They sedated him before he could recover from jump shock." Fraser's voice was matter-of-fact on the surface and vibrating underneath. For a whole half-second Ray considered feeling sorry for the Wailer.

"They?" Ray let himself slide back down the pod so he could lean on it and get a read on the situation.

"That would be us." The guy was a tall string-bean with hair slicked back from a receding hairline and a skinny mustache under a big nose. Ray had been right before: the suit he wore was worth at least a month's salary. His eyes were the bright blue of artificial enhancement.

While Ray slouched against the pod, the other thug--a shifty little guy with a 330 pistol that was clearly making up for a deep-seated sense of sexual inadequacy--patted him down, but he missed the needle that, fortunately, had bitten through Ray's pocket and slipped into the lining of his coat. Ray kept his hand away from it, just in case their boss's eyes weren't just standard aesthetics and could actually see through his clothes.

"Langoustini," he said to the string bean. "I hear you're a diplomat now."

"Today I'm a diplomat. Tomorrow, who knows?" Langoustini looked smug and mean. "Bring 'em," he ordered as turned and headed down the row of crates. His voice was low and smooth, like he never had to shout or give an order twice.

The Wailer lifted Ray by his bad shoulder and shoved him after his boss. Fraser moved ahead of them, his hands held out from his sides; the pistol settled nice and cosy at the back of Ray's neck was enough of a threat to keep Fraser in line. Ray's hands closed into fists. He'd have to talk to Fraser about this guardian angel complex he had. As they moved past the first of the crates, a fourth guy fell into step with them. Ray recognized him from his mug shot. He looked like a grampa. One of those grampas who drank a lot and threw the empties at kids in the street.

"Worsley."

"Detective Kowalski, right?" He had more grey hair now after a couple years water-digging on Europa, and a stoop that said he'd spent most of that time in a waldo, mining way, way down where the dark was darkest and the pressure highest. Ray could see the ugly concentric rings of the rig implant gleaming at the base of his skull. When he turned and raised an eyebrow at Ray, his eyes flicked to the right, following the ghost, probably. Two years in a waldo rig and guys started seeing themselves, ghost reflections floating around in their peripheral vision. Alienation effect, the doc called it when he was pointing out all the ways Ray was so lucky for being too queer for implants. After a second Worsley focused on Ray. "Still walking around, huh? A smart man would've taken the hint and laid down by now."

Ray shrugged. "I guess I'm not a smart man." The pain in his shoulder lanced down into this fingers and up into his head, leaving a sharpness behind. He showed some teeth. "Smart enough to find you, though."

Worsley chuckled, a sound like gravel on sheet metal. "Got us right where you want us."

Before Ray could come up with a witty response, Langoustini stopped at the end of the row and tapped a code into the pad on the side of the first crate. There was a shimmer and the face of the crate dissolved. Inside was a man.

"Holy Jee on a pony," Ray said.

For the first time since he'd known him, Fraser looked surprised.

Langoustini tapped his comm. "Nero, the rest, please."

A second later the faces of all the crates dissolved and Ray was standing between rows and rows of bots. All standing still, eyes closed, not a breath, not a twitch. Hundreds of them.

"Fraser. It's you."

Fraser's expression hardened. "It's an army."

Maybe it was the lifeless stillness of the Frasers, or maybe it was Worsley's self-satisfied laugh. Either way, Ray's hair stood up on his neck.

"That's right, Constable. An army of colonial emancipation. Your AI-Robert Fraser knows how to make a good bot." Worsley slapped the side of the nearest crate. "Damn good bot."

Fraser's eyes narrowed. "No," was all he said.

"Oh, yes." Worsley leaned on the crate and folded his arms. "You were the prototype. The buyer wanted something smart and durable. From that template came these. Problem was, AI-Robert Fraser was a bit too good at his job. Like him, you have too much autonomy for our purposes." He hooked his thumb at the bot in the box. "These ones won't have that drawback." He chuckled again. "Dumbed them down a little."

"My father would not have--"

"Your father followed orders. What else could he do?" Pushing himself away from the crate, Worsley aimed a finger at Fraser. "Like you, though, he was a little too slippery. Had this tricky way about him. Learned how to follow orders without following orders." He stepped up close to Fraser. "He embedded an activation code into their programming."

Fraser smiled. "And he wouldn't give it to you."

"No."

"So you killed him."

Fraser didn't even blink when Worsley barked a laugh right in his face. Ray's hand twitched against the hem of his coat. "No." Worsley wagged a finger at Fraser and turned away to inspect the bot. "No. Not quite. You know, Fraser, these colonists, they're the children and grandchildren of terraformers. If there's one thing you can say for terraformers it's that they're a patient bunch. Your Governor Metcalfe's waited thirteen years for her army. The design, the manufacture--that's my specialty--components farmed out to five different planets, assembled on Pixie in a sex-bot factory, all the right people greased, diplomatic seals for transport. A pretty plan. Elegant. The bitch built her revolutionary army right in the heart of the Empire." He shrugged and reached up to run a finger along the bot's cheek, almost lovingly. Ray's fingers flexed and his vision narrowed again, seething red. "We would have extracted the code eventually. Patience. Except the damn AI self-terminated before we could crack the encryption."

Langoustini snorted. "AIs can't self-terminate."

"I think AIs can do a lot of things."

"So what do you need us for?" Ray asked.

"You? We'll see. Him?" Worsley came back to peer closely at Fraser again. "AI-Robert Fraser launched a data squirt right before the system blanked. That could only have gone to you."

"Dear Diary," Ray muttered and clamped his mouth shut when Fraser shot him a look.

"We want the activation code, Fraser. Give us the code and you can go. Both of you. The dog, too."

Fraser raised his chin. "I can't do that."

Worsley decided to go for folksy grampa, chummy pal, good ol' guy. "Come on, Fraser. This is your destiny. You're a colonial man. And if you won't do it for the colony, do it for them." He took in the whole cargo hold with a sweep of his arm. "These are your brethren. You can give them life."

Taking a deep breath, Fraser stared at the bot across from him, then turned to look down the long row of crates. Ray didn't even want to imagine what it must be like to see himself like that, dead and crated up, over and over and over again.

"Mr. Worsley," Fraser said, "if these are indeed, as you say, my brethren, then you also know that I must decline."

Worsley cursed and stepped closer to Ray, hands in his pockets, shaking his head like he was disappointed his grandson had decided to be a flick star instead of going into the family business.

"You see," Fraser continued, "I would rather that these 'brethren' never awoke than that they should live their lives in servitude to the base ambitions of the corrupt."

Worsley turned on him, a bad storm waiting to break. "Your father--"

"My father never wanted to wage war on humanity."

"Your father made an army!"

Fraser shook his head. "You made an army. My father made a son."

Worsley chuckled at his shoes, like he was indulging the charmingly dim-witted. "I could kill you."

"Yes, you could, but you'd be no further ahead, and I suspect that you'd kill me anyway, once I gave you what you want."

"Alright. If you won't do it for the colony and you won't do it for the cause of bot fellowship, maybe you'll do it for him."

Gramps was fast for an old guy with rig palsy, or maybe Ray's reflexes were still sludgy from his time in that piece-of-crap cheap-ass emergency jump pod. Whatever. Before Ray could move, he'd kicked Ray behind the knee, dropping him to the deck, heaved him upright again and rammed a pistol against his temple.

"Give me the goddamn code," Worsley growled.

Fraser shifted his weight; the Wailer shifted his aim. The little weasel thug let out a high-pitched giggle and stepped back, pistol wavering between Fraser and Ray.

"Fraser! Don't you do it. Don't you give it to them." Ray forced himself not to shout when Worsley reached down and ground his fingers into the wound on his shoulder.

"Ray--" Ray couldn't tell if Fraser was asking for something or apologizing or what.

"Don't."

Worsley shoved the pulse pistol harder against Ray's temple. "Give me the code or I will show you the inside of his head."

Again, Ray's vision narrowed, everything gone but Fraser standing there in Ray's wrinkled shirt, his face blank but his eyes dark and maybe even a little wild, shiny. Anger. Sorrow. Tears. "Don't let them use me against you, Fraser," Ray said evenly, suddenly calm, like he'd already stepped out of himself, ready to go... wherever he was gonna go. "Don't let them use you. Nobody gets used. Not anymore."

"Last chance," Worsley said and Ray could practically feel the muscles in his fingers tensing on the trigger.

"Ray."

"It's okay." As last words went, they didn't suck too bad, he figured.

Still, he had something better, and Ray opened his mouth, but he never got a chance to say it because Langoustini pulled his own swank little piece and tucked it in behind Worsley's ear.

"I say who dies on my boat." Langoustini plucked the gun from his hand. He looked at the Wailer and the Weasel. "If you don't want your boss ventilated, you'd better drop your weapons and kick 'em over here."

Big surprise, the Wailer was not the brightest bulb in the marquee. He didn't drop his gun. Instead he swung around and aimed it at Langoustini.

And then everybody moved at once. There was probably a lot of heroics going on, but Ray was focused on slapping his hand down on the needle to force it through the lining of his coat, then scooping it up, twisting on his knees, and ramming the needle as hard as he could into the Wailer's thigh. "That's for Skeezer!" Ray snarled as he hooked the Wailer's ankle and toppled him. Fraser was a blur in the corner of Ray's eye, and a pulse shot melted the side of crate where he'd been standing. Then Ray was scrambling up the Wailer's body and bringing the needle down so that it rang against the deck a hair's breadth from the Wailer's right ear. He yanked the needle out of the deck plating and brought it down again, through the fabric of the Wailer's coat, pinning him at the shoulder but missing the flesh. He reared up again, and this time he wasn't playing. But before he could bring the needle down to skewer the Wailer through the eye, a hand gripped his wrist and stopped him.

"Ray."

Panting, Ray shook his head, leaned hard against Fraser's resistance, but it was no use. The guy was made of steel. Finally he opened his fingers and let the needle fall. Beneath him, the Wailer had his eyes closed, lips moving like he was praying. Ray shoved himself off of him and sat on the deck with his back against Fraser's legs and hung his head. "Sometimes it sucks being the good guy."

"Tell me about it," Langoustini said with a chuckle as he keyed his comm. "But some days, it's sweet. No, not you," he sneered at whoever was on the other end. "This is 327, like you didn't know. Your pigeons are in the basket. You guys want to get over here and take them off my hands?" He was sitting on Worsley's sprawled body grinning and rubbing his knuckles. Leaning forward toward Ray, he held out the unbruised hand. "Vecchio. Royal Bureau of Investigation. Welcome to my triumphant retirement."

^^^

Within two minutes The Margaret Trudeau was crawling with Royal agents, all in identical black suits and dark lenses, all muscling around and posing while subvocalizing into their comms.

Standing in the middle with his hands on his hips, a satisfied grin on his face, Vecchio was saying, "First thing, I get my own eyes back. You know what it's like looking through a gangster's eyes for two and a half years? Sure, the retinal scan gets you into any exclusive club you can name, but knowing where they came from--" He shuddered. "It messes with your head." Then he remembered that he was ticked off and frowned. "Of course, now I don't get into any exclusive clubs. No more Billybong. No more top-floor anything."

"Billybong, huh?" Ray was interested, but Fraser interrupted before Vecchio could spill.

"Agent Vecchio, what will happen now?"

Vecchio shrugged. "Depends. Now we know you're not in on it, and we've confirmed the Governor's involvement, I say we make the rendezvous down here on Clementine and see who shows up to collect the goods. If it's Metcalfe herself, or somebody we can flip to get to her, then I go home and have linguine with my mother."

"And the bots?"

Vecchio shrugged again. "Demo'd, prob'ly. Turn 'em into toasters." The way he couldn't meet Fraser's eyes confirmed what Ray suspected: maybe a couple would go in the masher to make a show for the press, but on the whole, the bots would be disappeared.

"I see," Fraser said, his face betraying nothing.

Ray followed him over to the melted crate where Dief was swaying a little woozily and staring up at the bot inside. It was undamaged, almost peaceful there with its eyes closed except that it was too still, too empty. Ray leaned to the side a little so that the back of his hand brushed Fraser's. Fraser's hand turned out and his fingers curled for just a second around Ray's.

"How's your shoulder?"

Ray rolled it a little and didn't bother to hide his wince this time. "Sucks, but it'll be okay." He nudged Fraser with his good elbow. "Maybe you can spare a couple million of those nanite thingmies, fix me up."

Fraser nodded. "I would if I could."

"Prob'ly wouldn't take to me anyway."

"Because you're queer."

Ray laughed. "Yeah."

Behind them, medbots were hauling Worsley and the Wailer and the Weasel out on stretchers. The agents were gathering in a knot, murmuring like distant machines.

"They believe I have the code," Fraser said softly.

"Do you?"

Fraser reached into the crate and lifted the bot's hand, turned it up to the light. It was seamless. No lines, no calluses. "My father knew, as I know, that we have no right to the contents of our minds. Would it have been wise of him to send me the code?"

The bot in the box wasn't sleeping. It wasn't anything yet. Ray wondered what he'd see in its eyes if they opened. He shifted uncomfortably and winced again against the pain. "Love makes people do weird things."

"Very true." Again, a brief entanglement of fingers. The murmur from the agents got louder. "They're coming." They turned to face them.

The blandest, blankest of the agents stepped forward. Ray noticed that Vecchio hung back, his face clouded.

"Artificial life-form Benton Fraser, you are in contravention of Armistice Statute 15. Please come with us."

As the rest of the agents came forward, Dief growled and Ray stepped in front of Fraser. "Whoa, hang on! He just stopped a fucking war. This is what he gets?"

"Ray, please." Fraser held firm when Ray tried to shrug his restraining hand off of his shoulder. "We knew this would be the outcome. I gave you my word, remember?"

"Shut up, Fraser." Dief's growl was vibrating against Ray's legs.

He could feel Fraser crouching down, and turned to watch him take Dief's head in his hands. "Stand down," Fraser said distinctly. "Stay with Ray."

Dief whined, but lowered his head. Doggy resignation. Ray didn't feel so much like following orders.

"Fraser--"

Fraser straightened, came a step closer. His hand came up and brushed the side of Ray's face, then fell away. "It's okay."

It was not okay.

The agents closed around him, and then Fraser was walking away.

It was absolutely not in any way okay.

Ray launched himself after him, but two more agents materialized out of nowhere and yanked him back, lifting him right off his feet. As he struggled against them--catching one of them real good with a boot-heel to the instep--two more jumped in. Then Vecchio was there, shoving them aside and at least getting Ray's feet on the ground again, shouting, "Hey! He's one of us, you morons! Let him go!"

They did, but they didn't move aside, and neither did Vecchio.

"Get out of my way, Vecchio," Ray said, low and dangerous as Armando Langoustini on his worst day.

"You can't help him like this," Vecchio said. It was hard to read his freakish blue eyes, but Ray thought he saw something there, something like a promise. Vecchio pulled open Ray's jacket. "And you're bleeding."

Yeah, because that's what happened when you ripped a guy open down the middle.

"Don't just stand there, knucklehead," Vecchio said to the nearest agent. "Go find a medbot."

Over Vecchio's shoulder, Ray could see Fraser way down at the end of the row near the door. Softly, because he knew bots had good ears, Ray said, "Fraser."

In the doorway, Fraser turned, flanked by his escort.

"You're a good man."

Ray couldn't make out Fraser's expression, but he saw him nod before turning away and following the agents out the door. If he said anything in reply, Ray's ears weren't sharp enough to catch it.

At his feet, Dief tipped back his head and howled. The sound rose up and rolled around and around the cargo hold until the agents lifted their hands to their ears. Ray didn't tell him to stop.


Chapter Five: The Memory of All That

The transport kicked up its own snowstorm as Ray spiraled down in front of the Quonset hut that passed for a space port in these parts. Above him, the sky was a blue so deep he had to be careful not to look at it too much because it made him feel like he was falling upward. A jump ship hung like a shard of glass in the centre of the view through his canopy, reflecting the sunlight in a skinny orbit. On the ground, a hopper hunkered down, a shiny-backed bug twice the size of the hut. Beside the hut a woman was gazing up at him. Her dark hair whipped around her face, and she held up a gloved hand to catch it and to protect her eyes from the blowing snow.

She waited until his transport dropped with an ungraceful lurch the last couple of meters, then turned and headed for the door, kicking her boots against the doorjamb before going inside. Ray sat in the pilot's seat and breathed through his nose until his blood stopped throbbing so hard in his neck. In his gloves his hands were clammy with sweat. "Okay," he said, closed his eyes, and counted to ten and back. "Okay."

Sunblind, he stumbled at the doorstep and Thatcher caught him by the shoulder of his jacket, then let him go.

"I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"

"Nah." A month ago he'd've felt it. Today there wasn't much pain. Just stiffness, a hinky reluctance like his brain was willing but the body rebelled. He tried not to read too much into that.

"Alright, then." She stepped over to the counter and talked to Sven, who turned and headed into the back where Ibtihail and Wolf were offloading the cargo from Thatcher's hopper.

Ray drummed his fingers against his thighs.

"I thought maybe you'd ask for a medal," Thatcher said after awhile.

"Already got a medal."

"Or maybe a place in a 'liner."

"Already got a place."

She huffed out a not-quite-derisive laugh and shook her head. "If you can call it that."

"I can." Ray deliberately kept his eyes on the scuffed surface of the counter. He didn't want to see the crate when it came off the hopper.

"I give you six months," Thatcher said, not too unkindly. "If the weather doesn't kill you, the boredom will." She paced from one side of the room to the other, clapped her gloved hands in front of her and then behind her back, impatient to be going. This was, Ray knew, her last task to complete in the colonies before taking up her cushy job at the consulate. "Believe me, I know. All that emptiness. It creeps into you. And before you know it, you're hollow."

Ray could go for a little hollow just then. Anything but the heaviness he was dragging around inside him. "I suppose I should thank you," he said with a slight jerk of his chin toward the back room and the cargo he wouldn't let himself look at. There was a hiss as the crate opened.

Thatcher shook her head. "Not me. It's Agent Vecchio who has the long arms and the friends in high places. Thank him." She paused on her way to the door to look up at him. "If I had my way you'd be in prison." Then she smiled brightly, all white teeth and sparkling eyes. "Good luck, Mr. Kowalski. We'll be watching."

If that was true, Ray resolved to spend more time walking around in his underwear.

Then she was gone and Sven was calling his name, and there was no avoiding the moment anymore. He kept his head down, though, only raising it to let Sven confirm receipt of the cargo with a retinal scan.

"02212955BetaFRA2Abbot," Sven recited from the manifest, and squinted up at the shadow beside Ray's elbow like there was any chance the cargo could be mixed up with, say, a case of dried veg flakes. "S'all yours."

Ray finally turned and looked at him. It. "Um," he said.

"Hello," the bot responded. Its pale grey eyes stared at him, interested but not curious, something mechanical in there taking his measure.

With a sound like an avalanche, the certainty hit him, knocked him over, and buried him: he'd just made the biggest fucking mistake of his life.

"Let's go." He turned and practically ran out of the hut. The bot paced after him, its little silver case dangling from its hand. Ray tried not to think about what it would have in there. Screwdrivers? Spare parts? User's manual?

Outside there was a mini-blizzard as the hopper lunged up into the blue. No going back now. Ray ducked his head and hunched his shoulders as he slipped on his sunglasses and headed through the whirling white to his transport. The bot got in on the passenger side, buckled up and looked at him, waiting.

Ray concentrated on getting them airborne and turning them away from the sun. Their shadow ran ahead of them like a dog, getting lost in the dark green of the forest and then scurrying across the folds of the glacier before sliding up the face of Angle Mountain. Staying as close to the black rock and ancient snow as he could, following the blade of the ridge, Ray turned them north. Way down in the valley, a river was a silver ribbon or maybe a snake writhing between the Angles and the Bright Range, racing them home. The bot looked out the window like he was mapping the route on a graph, then went back to watching Ray.

"Mr. Kowalski," it said.

For half a second, Ray thought the bot was talking to Ray's dad. Then he remembered that was him, now. "Yeah."

"Would you detail for me the nature of my duties?"

The familiar voice, the not-quite-right politeness made Ray's fingers tighten on the stick and the transport slipped sideways on a sudden updraft. He corrected before answering. "Basically, what I know about surviving in the colonies is about--" He squinted into the blue like he was calculating. "--three-quarters of nothing. So you're here to make sure I don't kill myself by accident."

The bot nodded, once. "I'm well-versed in wilderness survival."

"Yeah. Also." Ray stopped, wondering why he felt embarrassed to talk about this part. A bot wouldn't pass any judgment on Ray's stupid aspirations. It would just do as it was told. "Also, I thought maybe I'd get into sheep."

"Sheep?"

"Yeah. You know, start with a couple and breed 'em and then you can take off the hair, or the fur or whatever--"

"Wool."

"Yeah, the wool. You can take off the wool and...."

The bot waited patiently.

"And you don't have to kill anything."

"I see. So we'll be shepherds."

Ray laughed at the image that brought to mind. "Yeah. So maybe I'll call you Bo Peep."

"Understood."

"No. No Fra--" Ray slipped between The Two Sisters, dropped the transport low into the shadow of the mountain and followed the river down into the wide, flat-bottomed valley. Tucked in against the rocky ridge on the sunny side of the river was the homestead, smoke twisting up from the chimney. "That's a joke. The Bo Peep thing."

"I see."

"I doubt it." He set the transport down next the barn. "Anyway, sheep. We got a barn here. And I got a partner who thinks he's pretty good with herding and stuff." They got out and Ray led them across the yard toward the cabin. No Dief in sight, though. Probably out chasing moosibou.* Or was that carimoose? He could never keep them straight.

Inside the door, they stomped snow off of their boots and Ray hung his coat up. The bot didn't have a coat. It stood on the braided rug with its little silver case in its hand and waited for instructions. Ray edged past him and pointed to the cot against the back wall.

"That's you, for now, anyway. I, uh--" He scrubbed at the back of his head. "I got you some clothes. Warm clothes. Because. Anyway."

Now that he looked at them--the thick jeans, the red flannel shirt--the clothes folded on the cot brought that feeling of embarrassment back in spades, and he wanted to scoop them up and hide them, maybe throw them out the window. But the bot had just a jumpsuit on, like it was straight from the factory, and somehow that was worse than the thought of seeing it wear Mountie red.

"Thank you," it said and went directly to the cot, tucked the case under it, and stripped off the jumpsuit.

In the silvery light through the window, Ray could see the circle of shiny, puckered skin on the bot's chest, the matching entrance wound on its back, and that's when his legs went watery and he sat down hard on the foot-stool in front of the stove. He pressed the back of his wrist to his mouth and closed his eyes, willing his stomach to stop heaving. "Nobody gets used," he muttered, and he supposed the bitter, broken sound that he made was something like a laugh. "Kowalski, you chump. You goddamn stupid fuck."

"Are you all right?"

Ray opened his eyes to find the bot standing close, its feet bare, the red shirt on and only partly buttoned. It twisted one of the buttons with its fingers. Ray looked away and opened the stove, started feeding kindling onto the coals. "I'm good," he answered. "I'm great."

"If there's a problem, perhaps together we can--"

"No. Perhaps together we can not." In the silence the fire crackled and ate more kindling, even though it was already raging, now, and there was nothing more substantial for it to eat once the kindling was gone. Ray fed in another stick and thought about crawling in after it.

"This is an effective house."

"What?"

The bot was still standing there, twisting the button and checking out the single room, the bookshelves, the ladder up to Ray's loft. "Your home. You've made a pleasant home."

"I didn't make it. I belongs--belonged--to a friend of mine." Ray slammed the stove door shut and latched it. He needed to go out to the woodshed and bring in some bigger stuff or they'd be freezing in half an hour.

"I see." The bot adjusted the flue and the fire settled from a roar to a mumble. "Where is he now?"

"Who?" With the heels of his hands pressed to his eyes, Ray didn't have to see him. It.

"Your friend."

Ray opened his mouth and then closed it. Finally he didn't have the energy to talk around it. "He's gone. He's just gone." He wondered how long it would take him to go from being unstrung about the bot--what it was and what it wasn't--to just hating it. Too long, probably. He got up and hooked his jacket from the rack by the door. "Gotta get--for the stove. I'll be back."

When he came back into the house half an hour later, the bot was still standing in exactly the same spot on the rug. Ray dropped the wood he was carrying into the box and shrugged out of his coat before stuffing a log into the stove. The bot stood there looking at him with that flat, empty gaze. "What are you doing?" Ray demanded.

"Waiting."

"For what?"

"Instructions."

"For Jee's sake!" This was it. This was his life. He thought of Worsley's snaky smile. Dumbed down, he'd said, smacking the side of the crate with the pride of ownership. Don't want any of that tricky autonomy. Ray's fingers knotted into fists so tight his shoulder twinged. The bot waited. Ray relaxed his fingers one by one until his hands were hanging empty and useless at his sides. "For Jee's sake," he said again, wearily, and rubbed his forehead. "Can you split wood? We need more wood."

"Yes." The bot turned, put on its boots and headed for the door.

"Take your coat," Ray reminded it, pointing to the one hanging next to Ray's on the rack. He didn't know if the bot would get cold like a regular person or not. Either option made his stomach lurch again.

"Thank you."

When it opened the door, Dief was on he porch. The bot stepped back, his face showing a shadow of uncertainty.

"It's okay. This is the partner I was telling you about. His name's Dief."

"Dief," the bot repeated. It held out its fingers for Dief to sniff.

Just the tip of his tail twitching, Dief looked at Ray, then back at the bot. He whined and looked at Ray again and then back at the bot, who had crouched to get down to his level. It took the dog's head between its hands and stared into his eyes.

"What does 'Dief' mean?" it asked.

"Short for Diefenbaker." Ray spelled it out. "I dunno what it means. You'll have to ask him."

"He chose it," the bot finished with him.

"What did you say?"

The bot looked up at Ray. "I said, who chose it?"

"Oh. He did. Dief did. That's what I heard, anyway."

"I see."

When the bot left, Dief went with it, following in its footsteps, but keeping his distance. He stopped once on the way to the woodshed to look at Ray over his shoulder. Ray nodded. "Yeah, I know."

Ray closed the door and lit the burner on the hotplate to make coffee. He pulled a chair out from the dinner table and straddled it while he drank. He got up and did a circuit of the single room, then did one in the opposite direction. "The way you wear your hat," he recited tonelessly. "The way you sip your tea." On the third lap, he stopped by the desk in the corner and with his arm swept the photographs off the top of it and into the middle drawer. Three of Dief, one of the members of the Clementine RCMP detachment (All four of them. For a whole planet, for Jee's sake), Fraser in his red tunic at the far right, looking at something out-of-frame. After a few moments, Ray took one of the Dief pics out again and set it up carefully in the middle of the desk. Then he closed the drawer and wished he'd asked for a lifetime's supply of Smartos when he was choosing his reward for helping to avert an interplanetary war. Smartos were like gold out here. Somewhere in the core somebody was eating Smartos right now. Blue ones, too. Ray could go for a few blue Smartos. It was that kind of day.

He didn't realize he'd been staring out the frost-painted window until he saw the bot coming back along the path, carrying an armload of split wood. Dief was still behind it, like a security escort or something. It took Ray a second longer to realize something was queer.

The bot had stopped walking and was staring at the cabin. It took a step, but when it put its foot down, its knee folded and it fell. Wood tumbled out around it, the logs disappearing into the softer banks beside the path, leaving holes in the snow. Ray had one boot on and his arm in the sleeve of his coat before the bot got back to its feet, tried to walk and fell again. It crawled a little way and then collapsed, face-down. It was still like that when Ray got out there.

He could hear it talking before he got it rolled onto its back. It was saying, "System--system--system--" Its eyes were open, but so far as Ray could tell, it wasn't seeing anything.

"What system?" Ray said, first to himself, then to the bot, and then to anybody who might be listening and interested in helping. But there was nobody, not for five hundred klicks in any direction. "What?" Dief tilted his head and whined. "You're no help."

The bot had a little motor control, so Ray was able to get it back on its feet so he could half-carry it back to the cabin. "System--system--system--" it droned in Ray's ear, and each time Ray replied, "System what? System what? System what?" until it became some kind of nursery rhyme they chanted in time with their stumbling steps. When Ray finally dropped it less gently than he'd meant to onto the cot, the bot wrapped up that song and started to recite numbers. It seemed completely random to Ray's ears, but it probably meant something in bot-ese.

Pushing Dief out of the way, Ray knelt beside the cot and reached under it for the silver case. Inside there was only another jumpsuit. No manual. No spare parts.

Dief sat down and put his chin on the pillow next to the bot's head.

Ray jogged out to the transport.

"Well," Sven said. His voice was a scratchy ghost against static. Ray tried to adjust the frequency on the transport's comm and managed to lose Sven entirely. When he got him back, he was saying, "--techbot due over at The Soo next month. The fifteenth, I think. Otherwise, you'd have to arrange a special packet, send the thing inbound to Midway Station for repairs."

Ray smacked the console. "Okay. Yeah, okay. When could I send a packet?"

"Next jumper's not scheduled until the 21st." Static filled the cockpit of the transport like snow. "Listen, Ray, if you need a hand, I got an ox you can use. It's mostly just a toolbox on feet, but it's got enough brain to keep basic systems going. It's actually pretty good with solar panels."

"Nah. Thanks." Ray signed off and sat in the pilot's seat, one foot on the snow, and watched the sun go down behind the barn.

Inside, Dief still had his head on the bot's pillow and the bot was still reciting numbers. Ray paced and chewed his thumbnail. After awhile, he wrestled the bot out of his coat and managed to lie him flat under the covers on the cot. After midnight, Ray climbed the ladder to his loft and crawled into his bed. He pulled the blankets over his head, but he could still hear the bot's voice. It followed him into his dreams, counting backward and never getting to zero.

So, it was probably the silence that woke him. He lurched into the early morning darkness, his heart pounding like he'd taken a near miss from a needle. His shoulder throbbed in time. Dief was at the bottom of the ladder looking up at him. "What?" Ray skipped the last four rungs, landing in his bare feet on the rug. The stove was out and he could see his breath.

The bot wasn't talking anymore. Its eyes were still open and still blank. Standing as far away as he could, Ray reached out and laid his fingers against the side of its neck. It didn't have pulse, but Ray had no idea whether it had one before so that was not useful information. Its skin was cool, but so was Ray's. He wrapped his arms around himself and stared at the bot for a long time. Then, he leaned down and closed its eyes.

The light filled up the room eventually. Ray stoked up the stove, made coffee and eggs. He went up to the loft and made his bed. He fed Dief and let him out. The shadows of the Two Sisters crept across the valley bottom, from dawn to noon to suppertime. After dinner, he dropped his plate in the basin of water warming beside the stove and went to stand over the cot again. He started to lift the sheet up to cover the bot's face, but found he couldn't do it. It wasn't dead. But it wasn't sleeping, either.

"Broken" he said out loud, and jumped at the sound of his own voice. Behind him, the sky in the square of the window was darkening, the cabin floating between day and night. Ray floated too, suspended. He stood there until all the light drained away, leaving just the glow through the window in the stove. Dief crawled in under the cot and wouldn't come out for his late-night trip outside to see a man about a horse.

Finally, Ray pulled the rocking chair over and sat down. "Fraser," he said into the dark. "Constable Benton Fraser of the no-yankin-me Royal Colonial Mounted Police." Even he didn't know if he was apologizing or cursing or what he was asking for. Either way, the name tasted like a eulogy. He knew then he wouldn't be sending the bot by special packet to Midway Station. He came unspun for real then, and when it was over, he felt hollow and tired and weirdly peaceful and ready for sleep.

He woke at the sound of his name. Swearing at the crick in his neck, he leaned forward with his elbow on his knee and rubbed at the knotted muscles. They got like that a lot now, after the needle, and it served him right for sleeping in the freebin rocking chair half the night. Giving up the massage as fruitless, he let his hands hang between his knees and almost drifted off again right there... following someone... a shadow turning the corner at the end of the alley... a footprint left behind and filling with silver rainwater... 'liner light slithering on the blank faces of the 'scrapers...

"Ray."

Ray lifted his head and looked at Dief, who was peering out from under the cot. "What?" It took way too long for Ray to wonder when Dief learned to talk like a human, but when the penny dropped, all the hairs stood up on his body, like the jump drive in his head was spinning up. He gripped the arms of the chair and slowly raised his eyes to the cot.

The bot was looking at him, eyes gleaming in the dim light of the fire. "Are you okay?"

"What?"

The bot sat up, and Ray leaned way back in the rocking chair until it started to tip over and then he rolled out over the arm and stood. He pointed. He couldn't make his mouth say anything so he pointed again, more emphatically.

The bot got out of bed and stepped toward him. In its eyes was a real-ness, a seeing-ness. It stopped at the end of Ray's pointing finger. "Really, Ray, you don't look well."

"What the," Ray said. "Who the."

"It's me." It held its hands out like it was trying to soothe a skittish animal, which made some sense, because Ray felt pretty fucking skittish.

"You."

"Yes."

"Fraser."

"Yes."

"How?"

Fraser tilted his head and tugged at his earlobe, squinting a little as he thought about it. "I guess dad knew a few tricks the technicians haven't seen before." He gave up with a helpless opening of his hands. "I don't really understand it myself, except that--" He grinned, the corner of his mouth curving up and making crinkles around his eyes. "--I was in the snow with my father and I saw Dief, and then I heard you say my name." He shook his head, looking baffled. "I don't know. All I can say for certain is that I'm me."

Ray narrowed his eyes at him. "How do you know?"

Seemed like that was a stumper because he cocked his head again and gave it some thought. "I remember--"

"A childhood. A mother."

"You." Somehow he was closer than before and Ray's hand wasn't warding off now. It was spread out on his chest. Ray's fingers slipped across Fraser's skin--it was warm; not weirdly warm but just regular warm--to touch the scar. "You're a good man, too, Ray."

Jump complete, Ray thought, and a sizzle started in his brain and coursed down his arms and legs and out of his mouth like a laugh, disbelief and belief colliding in a single bark of surprise.

Fraser smiled at him again and his expression was somehow both fierce and gentle.

And it was too much. So Ray did what he always did when he was squaring off against someone with a longer reach: he got inside it. Stepping in, he grabbed Fraser's head and kissed him, and Fraser kissed him back, and it was fierce and gentle, and in Ray's head there was a sound like something snapping into place, jacking-in, a direct feed.

At some point Ray's sense of self-preservation kicked in, because maybe Fraser could survive a month without air, but Ray couldn't. He leaned back, but didn't let go. Fraser was grinning at him, looking a little smug.

"Crap," Ray said.

The smile faltered. "I'm sorry?"

"They're watching."

Fraser's eyes went left then right. "They are?"

"Well, not here. I don't think." Ray had to let go of him to wave at the world outside the cabin. "Out there."

"Ah." Fraser's fingers were working their way under the hem of Ray's sweater.

"They can't know you didn't get retasked. They'll make you into a toaster."

"Well, Ray, I'm sure they were speaking figuratively," Fraser said, his mouth against Ray's ear.

"Figure--? What difference does it make? Toast is toast. Out there, you got to act normal. Can you do that?"

The grin came back as Fraser's fingers drifted up Ray's back and Fraser's lips drifted away from Ray's ear to his neck. "I am acting normal."

Ray leaned back and looked Fraser in the eye. "I mean normal for a bot."

"Ah. Understood." Fraser's smile didn't change one bit.




--the end--


Notes: First, I dedicate this to [info]cofax7 belatedly for her birthday. I know you asked for "apocofic" but this is sort of like that, right? Second, to [info]raucousraven, any thanks I offer for the lightning beta on this thing will be too little. I mean, if someone comes up to you and says, "I have a 340KB story I need betaed and, oh, also, I need it tomorrow" and you say "Okay" and then you actually do it, you are either an inveterate masochist or a really wonderful human being. RR? Both, I suspect. Thank you for letting me exploit you. All I can offer is the correct spelling of your username (this once). Any errors that remain are my own.

Finally: This is the continuation of "Real Boys (A Chip Off the Old Blog)," the short piece originally posted under the "genre" challenge as a riff on Philip K. Dick's dystopia.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

Home |  Stargate |  Atlantis |  Pegasus B |  Firefly |  Starsky & Hutch |  Due South |  Hard Core Logo |  Slings and Arrows |  Torchwood |  Misc |  Artwork |