Author's Note: If you haven't already read my Original Big O Season Three or Crime Pays: A Big O Love Story, you'll find yourself wondering when Beck acquired his Megadeus and (more or less) gave up his life of crime, not to mention how he acquired his android girlfriend, R. Dori Wayneright. Just take it on faith and enjoy the ride or go back and read the earlier chapters of this continuing Big O saga.
Roger Smith awoke slowly to the sound of piano music; a sweet, happy tune. He couldn't place it. For some reason it filled him with sadness. Suddenly wide awake, he got out of bed and reached for his bathrobe.
The singing began just as he put on his slippers; a cheerful alto voice. It terrified him; doubly so when the voice and piano stopped abruptly. He ran to the door of his bedroom.
In the penthouse, he saw R. Instro sitting at the piano and R. Dorothy standing beside it, her elbows on the closed lid, her face in her hands.
Roger ran to her. "Dorothy!"
Then she was in his arms, holding him tight, sobbing.
Am I dreaming? he wondered. As an android, sobs and tears were among the few things R. Dorothy was incapable of, weren't they?
She gradually subsided, then looked up at him. Half-expecting to see her face streaked with tears, he was startled to see her looking as dry-eyed and composed as always. She said, "Good morning, Roger." She started to step back from his embrace, but he clung tight.
Bewildered, wondering if this might be some kind of prank—her sister R. Dori was a mischievous scamp sometimes—he asked, "What just happened?"
"I was singing," she said.
Belatedly, he placed the song. It was the one she sang for her father, Timothy Wayneright, just moments before his death. He had been shot right in front of her.
R. Instro added in his mild voice, "I must apologize, Roger Smith. Dorothy asked me for singing lessons, and when I suggested we start with her favorite song ..."
Dorothy said quickly, "It's not your fault. I would have chosen that song no matter what you did."
Roger said, "I remember. I'm sorry, Dorothy."
Dorothy tightened her grip and put her cheek against his chest. He held her in silence.
R. Instro said mildly, "I think we will end our lesson here, Dorothy. I can find my way out."
Norman must have entered the room at some point. Ignoring R. Instro's last comment, he gestured to the spiral staircase and said, "This way, sir." He accompanied R. Instro to the floor below, where they would take the elevator to the first floor.
Once alone, Dorothy raised her face, and he kissed her. When he pulled back, her eyes were closed and she swayed slightly. He led her to the nearest couch and they sat. She made a half-hearted attempt to move away, but he pulled her close and put an arm around her. She relaxed into his embrace.
After a moment she said, "There's a side of me that no one has seen since Father died."
"It's been well over a year, now. That part of me—I used to call her 'the other Dorothy'—has been asleep."
Roger said, "Let me guess. One of your sisters wants to meet her, give her a hug, and tell her everything is going to turn out just fine."
Dorothy very nearly smiled. "Both of my sisters." Dorothy's sisters were her twin, R. Dori Wayneright, and her mysterious human sister, Dora.
"Perhaps you could tell me in advance the next time they convince you to play with fire or poke a hornet's nest."
"They always make it sound so reasonable."
"So they do," he agreed.
R. Alan Gabriel opened his eyes and giggled. What a dream that had been!
He'd been human again, free from all restraint. Delicious! The part about taking Michael Seebach's precious Big Duo and attacking Big O until both Megadeuses were practically destroyed—what a wonderful piece of performance art! And programming that android girl … what was her name? … Programming R-D to hear crazed voices—Alan's voice, actually—demanding that she commit acts of artistic, murderous madness. A masterpiece!
It could have been better, though. Alex Rosewater? He shuddered. What had he been thinking? Not his type at all! And darling Angel had treated him like a cockroach, and he had hardly done anything to show her the error of her ways. Not to mention … R. Alan frowned. In his dream, he'd hated androids, while not being wholly human himself. There was something wrong there … and the way he planned to destroy R. Dorothy Wayneright. That was wrong, too. Too quick! Far too quick. And Roger Smith hadn't even been there to watch! Not at first. He was merely viewing the scene on a monitor. Slapdash. Half-hearted. Why, Roger was just the sort of person who'd say, "Take me instead!"
Alan laughed for a long time about that.
Well, no doubt there was work to be done. Alan sighed. It was good to get out and about, if only in a dream. His Dominus and his Megadeus were both such high-maintenance partners.
The thought of them snapped his attention into the present. Why was he in this android coffin? Had he been damaged? Was there a need for long-term storage? Suddenly worried, he pressed the button that opened the lid. Were his boys all right?
Ricky Fredericks parked his car a block from the diner. Persephone was sharp; if saw all the gear piled in the back, she might guess the whole plan. Mitch had made Ricky promise to keep their Megadeus prospecting a secret. Ricky stepped into night and a light drizzle.
The diner was almost empty. Persephone was reading a textbook next to the cash register. She looked up as the door opened and smiled. "Hi, Ricky."
"Hey, Persephone. How's things?"
"Quiet." He took a stool at the counter and she poured him a cup of coffee. They'd gone to high school together. Heck, they'd gone to kindergarten together. She was eighteen, with long, unruly red hair. She was one of the smart, shy ones, neither tall nor short. Easy to overlook—until you took a second look. For reasons he could no longer remember, he'd gone steady with someone else in high school, a bouncy blonde girl who suddenly married a guy he didn't like—to Ricky's secret relief. Persephone was far more to his taste. Heck, she's helped him build his car a couple of summers ago! It had been a wreck when they'd started.
She didn't offer him a menu and he didn't ask for one. "What's good tonight?"
"Don't try the special," she said at once. After a moment's consideration she shrugged. "The rest is the same old, same-old. Pick your poison."
"Cheeseburger and fries, chocolate malt, and a bowl of chili," he said at once. "I skipped lunch."
She called the order to the unseen cook, freshened up another customer's coffee cup and said a few words to him, and went back to her post behind the counter.
Ricky said, "I'm going to be gone for a while, maybe a couple of weeks."
"Oh?" He watched her curiosity struggle with her good manners. He added helpfully, "I can't tell you what the deal is. Business."
"You and Mitch?"
"Is Clarisse going, too?"
"Naw, she had to stay behind. She just landed a job clerking at the bus terminal."
Persephone made a face. She didn't like dealing with mobs of people. That's why she liked waitressing on the night shift, when things were quiet and the customers were mostly regulars. Also, she secretly liked to think of herself as a creature of the night, though in fact the only ventures she had made along those lines were giving herself an ambiguously dark nickname and working the night shift. She said, "Well, Mitch won't keep you out too long if she stays behind."
"That's the truth. He's loopy about her."
His food arrived. When they spoke again, he kept the conversation turned towards her. She talked about her classes and roommates. She was studying commercial art, which let her take drafting classes, which were a step towards the career she really wanted: engineering. Her trustees couldn't imagine a girl engineer and had rejected the direct path out of hand. Her parents had been killed during one of the Megadeus incursions last year.
He counted out the amount of the check plus a 10% tip—she wouldn't let him tip her more than the standard amount—and tried to work up the courage to say, "Let's get together when I get back, okay?" She solved his problem, perhaps unwittingly, by walking around the counter and giving him a hug.
"You be careful," she said. "You and Mitch are always getting into trouble."
"I will," he said. He could have kissed her, but the door opened and another customer came in, ruining the mood. Well, he'd ask her out when he got back. It wasn't likely that someone else would scoop her up in the next couple of weeks.
He said goodbye and left.
R. Alan stepped out of his coffin. He was in perfect condition. He was even wearing a beautifully tailored pinstripe suit. His dream was fading, especially its more tactile elements—the cold steel arm, the non-removable mask, the inhuman, skeletal thinness, and all the rest. He wiggled his fingers. Nice, strong, warm, exquisitely sensitive android fingers, human to the eye but not quite to the touch. Wonderfully manicured. His steel arm and hand had been almost nerveless. Such a strange dream …
He longed for a mirror. R. Alan was confident he had his old looks back. Tall, slim, effeminate, his look drove quite a few of the ladies wild—and some of the more perceptive and delightful men as well. But no one was turned on by R. Alan Gabriel like R. Alan Gabriel.
"I wonder if I've kept my beautiful voice," he asked aloud. He had. High-pitched and sensual; just the way he liked it.
He looked down at he beautifully shined shoes and up at the corridor before him. It was dusty, with bits of rubble that had fallen from the ceiling above. The corridor was nearly circular in cross-section and quite dark. Alan extended his forehead slot to use the light within. The air was dead and still. The only sound was a soft diffuse rumble, barely distinguishable from total silence. He was far beneath Paradigm City.
He walked daintily down the corridor, unhappy about the dust. If he had a full wardrobe and access to a dry cleaner's, it would be different, but the thought of appearing in public with grubby clothes distressed him.
The corridor opened, as he had half-expected, onto a huge hemispherical chamber. His forehead light couldn't pierce its vastness, but it didn't have to. Lights appeared, high up, big square lights in an array two lights high and eight across. They danced in a complicated pattern.
Alan felt the compulsion. He had to approach the lights! He giggled. "I see you, darling. Don't worry, I'm coming." The lights were on the head of his Megadeus, forming an array that looked like teeth in a skull. He sprang forward eagerly.
By the time he reached the feet of the Megadeus, his joy had turned to a numb fear. His Megadeus—Big X, he remembered belatedly (damn his amnesia!) had turned on a few of the chamber's lights. Big X sagged from an enormous gantry as if crucified. Huge holes had been burned right through his torso. His left leg had been severed at the knee and lay next to him on the floor. The reactor was badly damaged; Big X could barely summon up enough energy for consciousness.
Alan ran to him, distressed. The hatchway in the right leg opened, but the elevator was broken. Alan swarmed up the emergency ladder to the command deck. He saw enough on his journey to sicken him. So much damage! It was a miracle Big X was alive.
He burst into the command deck. It was empty, clean, intact. A few feeble lights flickered on the control board.
The cockpit with its control seat was empty. Alan's Dominus belonged there: laughing, fearless, beautiful. Alan couldn't remember his face or his name.
An android cannot weep.
Tony worked at the drafting table in his new office in Hangar B. The office had been part of his promotion to Chief Engineer. It had plenty of room for two desks, a large drafting table, electromechanical calculators, flat files, and other tools of the trade. It even had a couch where he sometimes slept.
He'd been surprised, months back, when Beck started throwing more and more design work at him. Eventually Beck let slip that he'd found out about Tony's engineering degree and design experience. Tony had been semi-incognito for years, presenting himself "merely" as a master machinist. Too many engineers had been kidnapped by lunatics, and few were ever seen again. Some had been Tony's friends. But things were different now, weren't they?
As Tony stared at a sketch of a modified loading mechanism for Big B's cannon, wondering if it was really rugged enough for the pounding it would surely receive—he wasn't satisfied with the mathematical models for such things—a pair of small hands covered his eyes.
"Guess who," said a calm alto voice.
"You are such a louse, Tony Perez!" said Dora Wayneright without heat. She removed her hands.
"Am not," he said.
"Are, too!" They smiled at each other.
"What can I do for you, Dora?"
"You can buy me a banana split."
Tony looked at his drawing and back at Dora. It was probably time for a break, at that.
Dora was sixteen; petite—barely five feet tall—pale, with long, fine golden hair and violet eyes unlike any Tony had ever seen. Angel called her "a little squirt," which, if you knew Angel, told you how pretty she was. She was dressed simply, in blue jeans, a pale yellow blouse that matched her hair, and blue deck shoes. She wore no makeup or jewelry, not even a wristwatch.
Tony was twenty-four. He tried to be like a big brother to her. Everyone but Tony knew he had a crush on her.
He said, "All right."
She asked him to take her on small outings almost every day, though she had her own car. They were pals that way. She did the asking because Tony's boss, Jason Beck, the former Master Criminal and Dominus of the giant robot Big B, was her unofficial guardian. He got riled if Tony seemed to be making advances, but Dora had him wrapped around her little finger. If it was her idea, it must be okay.
The drain on Tony's pocketbook was neither here nor there because Beck insisted that Tony put his Dora-related outlays on his expense account, nominally so Beck could relieve Tony of the financial strain, but really so Beck could keep an eye on their activities. This irritated Tony, but since it was about twenty-seventh on his list of things Beck did that irritated him, he put up with it.
Dora was already heading for the door. She talked very little, like her sisters, R. Dorothy and R. Dori. Tony followed.
Dora was an anomaly, an impossibility. She had simply appeared one day in the company of her sister, R. Dori Wayneright.
Admittedly, that had been a very strange day! It had included the fight with Big Lazarus, who had nearly destroyed the world using reality technology, followed by Angel's use of Big Venus' own reality engine to reverse the effects. Reality technology always created anomalies—that was its purpose. But a violet-eyed girl wasn't the kind of anomaly that came to mind!
Dora's story was that she was the human Dori Wayneright. That is, that her sister R. Dori Wayneright wasn't based on the long-dead human Dorothy's recorded memories after all. No, R. Dori was based on the memories of the human Dorothy's previously unknown little sister, Dori.
This was not only confusing, it was demonstrably untrue! Yet Dora was here just the same.
The concept that the human Dorothy had a little sister, way back when, was nothing but a romantic fantasy that R. Dori had invented for her own amusement. She somehow made her fantasy become real when Big Venus went into action.
Worse than her origin story, Dora insisted that, before stepping across the forty-one-year gap, she had been Jason Beck's lover. Or, rather, the lover of Beck in one of his previous incarnations. Tony had already conceded that there was a pattern of reincarnation in Paradigm, but still ...
But perhaps there had been a twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jason Beck forty-one years ago; then, as now, the Dominus of Big B. Perhaps there really had been intense sibling rivalry on both sides; Dori jealous of her big sister Dorothy, and Beck jealous of his adoptive big brother Roger. Perhaps Beck really had been unable to resist the underaged Dori's determined, ruthless, relentless seduction. Perhaps it really was true love.
Perhaps. One thing was certain: while Dora and R. Dori saw this backstory as swoon-worthy—the most romantic thing ever—it made everyone else cringe. Tony hated the idea, but not as much as Beck did!
Oh, Beck loved Dora. He was devoted to her. But he loved her like a daughter. This wasn't what Dora was used to; it wasn't what she wanted. But she had never complained. Not once. Sometimes, not often, she wept uncontrollably, though never when Beck might see. Tony had seen it, though, and it broke his heart.
What happened to the original Beck, the one from forty-odd years ago? Dead. Dead in the line of duty, just before the world changed and everyone lost their memories. What happened to the original human Dorothy? Dead. Dead of unknown causes a few months after the amnesia, just as the chaos was coming to an end. So sad; she was just eighteen.
What happened to the original human Dori? Here she was. She'd changed her name to Dora only to minimize confusion with her android sisters. Not that it worked; people confused them anyway.
It helped a little that R. Dorothy Wayneright always wore expensive black dresses, complementing Roger Smith's expensive black suits, but Dora and R. Dori dressed nearly alike. If you hadn't memorized that the long-haired one in the yellow blouse was the human Dora, while the short-haired one in the yellow blouse was R. Dori, maybe you'd remember that the girl with the violet eyes was the human sister.
Dora claimed that she had stepped into the future at Gordon Rosewater's request. But hadn't Gordon been dead for over a year before Dora's appearance? Perhaps.
There were many lines of questioning that Dora would not answer, or perhaps could not; it was hard to tell. Sometimes the questions made her weep. Tony didn't ask about her past anymore.
As usual they took Tony's car, a nearly new two-seater sports car with a racing cam and a supercharger. He'd had it repainted in dark blue. Very few street-legal cars could outrun him. Dora loved it when he drove fast, so he drove very fast to their favorite drug store. She'd received her license just recently and was still at the stage of "careful competence." She was going to take an advanced driving course so they could spend time at the racetrack together.
The drug store was old-fashioned, with a soda fountain behind a long counter. There were a few little tables, too. The soda jerk was a pal of theirs.
"Hey, Dora, Tony. What'll it be?"
"Hi, Kip. The usual, I guess," said Tony. Dora nodded.
"Banana split and a hot fudge sundae," said Kip. "Coming right up."
They sat at one of the little tables. Tony asked, "Did you sit in on the android strategy meeting?"
"Yes. No agreement."
"Good. Mr. Beck will tell them to go to hell and do it his way."
"Soon, I think."
Beck was ready to start making androids. The sticking point was whose personality to put into the androids. Normally, Class M androids were the third member of a Dominus/Megadeus team. The only such team that lacked an android was Angel and Big Venus. Last time, R. Dori had filled in temporarily, and this had worked; they had managed to avert a disaster even worse than that of forty-one years ago. But androids and their Dominuses were a team, very close, practically always lovers. R. Dori was already attached to Beck and Big B.
Tony knew that Dora was on fire to have a Megadeus and an android of her own, preferably an R. Jason Beck. She was convinced, on the basis of no evidence whatever, that she was a true Dominus, born to pilot a Megadeus of her own. No one took her seriously.
Tony had a similar problem. He had fallen in love at first sight with R. Dorothy Wayneright. He still fantasized that Roger Smith might leave her someday. He had shocked Dora to her marrow when he'd confided this to her. In Dora's mind, Roger and Dorothy were the world's only perfect couple. Their love had transcended death. Dora was in awe of them. Tony guessed that her own excesses, forty-one years ago (if real?) had been a desperate imitation of them.
Recently, Dora had told Tony more than once that he deserved his own Megadeus. It was the key to acquiring his R. Dorothy. Not the original R. Dorothy, but a new one, made from the original mind recording. She'd love him and he'd love her; everything would be perfect. Tony could have the second nice Megadeus they found.
Their ice cream arrived. Dora plunged into hers with gusto. Tony ate more slowly. After a while, she asked, "Have you thought about my plan?"
Tony looked uneasy. "I'm not going into the Wasteland alone with you."
"We can bring a chaperone. I'm almost sure Angel will come. She's bored."
"That's even worse!" He looked at her narrowly, wondering if she was teasing him again. He often had trouble reading her expression, which made her pranks doubly effective. Angel had nearly seduced him once. Did Dora know that?
Dora looked at him steadily. He guessed that she was surprised. He said, "I would be happy to accompany you if we bring a chaperone of good character."
She kept up her steady gaze. After an internal struggle, he added, "That includes Angel."
"Good." She resumed eating. After a while, she pushed her empty dish away and said, "Whoever uses Jason's new decoy androids first will scoop up all the Megadeuses that aren't too broken. If we want two good Megadeuses, we have to be first." Her plan involved using one of Beck's inventions—a crude robot that emitted the telltale radio signal of a Class M android. Megadeuses, especially damaged or insane Megadeuses, were drawn irresistibly to androids—as R. Dorothy had discovered more than once.
Dora was on fire to try her plan. It seemed foolproof to her. Tony marveled at how the danger seemed unimportant to her, almost nonexistent. Just traveling in the Wasteland was dangerous! Even if you didn't find a Megadeus, you found everything else.
His plan was to drag his feet in the hope that she would learn sense before they were ready to go. But if he delayed too much, she'd leave without him. She was as brave as a lion. When the time came, he knew he'd join her in any hare-brained adventure rather than leave her facing the danger alone. To Tony, this seemed weak, even cowardly. He didn't know that everyone else saw it as heroic.
R. Alan was reviewing recent events in Big X's life. This didn't take long. Nothing had happened for a very long time. Humans had intruded into his cavern only twice in the last forty-odd years, both quite recently. The most recent visit was from a pair of men whom R. Alan dismissed as completely uninteresting. Boorish, greedy, unattractive treasure hunters. Grave robbers. Ghouls. Given the chance, they might have broken Big X up for spare parts! R. Alan hated them. Since they hadn't returned, they were probably dead.
The earlier visit piqued his interest. "Play that again." Big X did so.
Two women, both blondes, paused in the doorway and then turned and fled. The larger one dragging the smaller one away with difficulty.
No doubt about it—the larger woman was his own darling Angel! And the other one … wasn't that R. Dorothy Wayneright? She was in jeans and she'd changed her hair color, but that was her, all right. She looked good as a blonde. R. Alan looked at another screen, which summarized Big X's instrument readouts. She was a Class M android, sure enough.
R. Alan replayed the tape several times. He was fascinated by the distress on darling Angel's face when she realized that Big X was calling to R. Dorothy. The sneaky kitty loved R. Dorothy; that much was clear.
So different from the events in his dream, when the sneaky kitty had fled when Roger Smith arrived to save his precious R. Dorothy Wayneright from Alan. Well, things were different now. Angel and R. Dorothy. Who would have guessed?
He started to daydream about a threesome—blondes should stick together, with glue, if necessary—but was diverted by a delicious thought. Was Roger Smith unattached?
R. Alan winced at the sudden protest from Big X. If Roger Smith didn't have an android, Big O might make a grab for R. Alan. And then R. Alan would belong to Roger Smith. Oh, what bliss! R. Alan giggled. Roger was so straight that he wouldn't know what was happening to him! But R. Alan would explain. Afterwards. He allowed himself to imagine the progression of emotions across Roger's face: Shock. Wonder. Delight.
Big X protested again. "It was just a daydream, darling," said R. Alan soothingly. "You know I'm a one-Megadeus android." And he was, too. There was only one Megadeus for him. It was with men and women, humans and androids, that he had neither constancy nor restraint.
Mitch unrolled the map on the hood of Ricky's car and pointed to where they were. "Right here. The middle of nowhere." They were in a patch of pine trees; there was nothing to see. They'd stopped here because there was a brook and they needed to top off their water jugs and the radiator, which mysteriously lost about a pint of water an hour while driving. Lacking a vista, they pored over the map.
They had marked it with the best information they could, with all the areas that they were confident were inhabited, or had been picked clean by other Megadeus hunters. Since they were coming late to the party, and were young and strong, they had agreed that they should look in spots that seemed likely, while at the same time being inaccessible or disagreeable enough to have warded off other hunters.
"I really like the looks of this marsh," Mitch said. "It blocks off some factories that are big enough to hide a Megadeus, but not enough of them that they'd be at the top of anyone else's list."
"Can we even get there?"
"See? You're discouraged already. That's just what we're looking for." Mitch slapped him on the back. "Let's go."
R. Alan was delighted with himself. He had found a wonderfully convenient exit from the Underground, carefully concealed, which opened into an alley. Now he needed to find out what was going on in the city, and find a good tailor and dry-cleaner. He had done all his exploration in the nude so far to spare his only suit. He'd first need money for his wardrobe, and then it would be time to get on with business: machine shops, foundries, electricians, armorers … the list was endless. He would need to acquire a fortune. Well, first things first.
He went home, dressed carefully, then stepped daintily through the corridors to the alley. It was night. The domes glowed, just as they had in his dream. The dream had been partly true, then.
He watched the crowd for a while. His suit was atypical, but not hopelessly out of fashion. Good.
Where was he going to get money? He couldn't mug people; his android conditioning made violence difficult. Well, there was always picking pockets. He made a face; lifting wallets was beneath him.
Five minutes and six wallets later, he was striding down the street with a comfortable bankroll. He passed a diner, almost empty at this time of night, where the sole occupant was a young waitress with long, unruly red hair, reading a textbook. She look up and saw him through the plate-glass window, and her jaw dropped. Alan smiled at her and she sagged a little, smitten, then straightened up and blushed. He had that effect on some women. He noticed that there was a color television in the corner of the diner, on but unregarded. Maybe he could hear a news broadcast, too. He turned around and went into the diner.
"Hello," said the girl, still flustered.
"Hello, darling, what's your name?" asked Alan.
"Persephone," said Persephone.
Alan tried to remember. "I think I know this story," he said. "You're out gathering flowers in the sunshine—how dull—and then a mysterious, handsome young god appears, deflowers you, and takes you off to his underground kingdom, is that right?"
She blushed again. "Something like that."
"What fun! And the story always makes it sound like she didn't want to go, but we know better, don't we, dear?"
Embarrassed, she asked, "Are you ready to order?" But he could tell that his flirting was turning her on.
"I want your flowers!"
She stared, open-mouthed. Oh, she was ripe for plucking, all right.
He leaned close and murmured confidentially, "You see, Persephone, I happen to be a mysterious, handsome young god myself. It's true! And I do indeed have an underground kingdom. All that is left is for me to take you away and make you my queen. When does your shift end?"
She was used to that question, and answered automatically, "Never."
He laughed gaily. "Then I'll have a cup of coffee. Black, like my kingdom and my heart."
She poured him a cup and said, "Be careful, it's very hot."
He tossed off the cup at a gulp. "Delicious!"
Just then, a news broadcast came on, and she backed away, muttering something about wanting to hear it. Alan turned to the television, which started off with a story about organized crime. General Dastun made a statement that amounted to, "We're working hard, but don't hold your breath." Behind him, in a neat skirt suit, was darling Angel! What was the sneaky kitty doing with the military police? Nothing honest, he was sure. She was certainly a busy girl these days.
The next piece was alarming. It was talking about the Megadeus-hunting craze, and the large number of people who had gone missing after going off to search for forgotten Megadeuses. Alan didn't like it. It would greatly increase the risk of Big X being discovered or even hijacked. The report cut to footage of Beck, walking from a nondescript building to a nondescript car. At his side was the blonde R. Dorothy Wayneright, her casual clothes contrasting with Beck's custom-tailored suit, though she wore matching colors: where Beck wore a yellow suit, a black shirt, and beautifully shined black shoes, she wore a yellow blouse, black jeans, and black canvas sneakers.
What was Dorothy doing with Beck? Were she and Beck and Angel a threesome? The voiceover criticized Beck for offering large cash rewards for information about Megadeus finds, partly because this encouraged the hunters, and partly because he refused to name his sources or share information with the city. Was Beck encouraging the hunters because he needed a Megadeus? Could it be that Beck was Alan's Dominus?
"Beck's a dreamboat, isn't he?" breathed Persephone.
"Oh, he is!" agreed Alan honestly. Beck was very sexy. He was also deliciously cunning and probably fun-loving, too. Alan would definitely have to learn what was going on.
Persephone looked at him, startled, but continued, "And isn't Dori the cutest thing ever? It's nice to see a woman wearing jeans."
Persephone herself was wearing a waitress' dress. Alan asked, "You like jeans?"
"Sure! And slacks. A lot of people say women don't look good in them."
"Oh, they look better out of them," laughed Alan, "But there's nothing like a well-filled pair of pants, I always say." He stood up. "I must go now, my queen. But never fear, I'll be back, and we'll fulfill our destiny." He blew her a kiss and departed, not paying for his coffee.
As he walked down the sidewalk, looking for a likely tailor shop, he wondered at his attraction to Persephone. Was it her name (or rather, as he suspected, nickname)? Partly. She seemed personable enough. And he was sure she was a virgin. He giggled in anticipation. As an android, he had so few opportunities to enjoy the pain and blood of others.
He sang a merry little tune.
Mitch and Ricky swore. The car was hopelessly bogged down. Ricky said, "We can winch it out with the come-along."
"Where is it?"
"In the trunk, underneath everything else."
"Let's lock up and walk ahead for a while. If we leave it while it's bogged down in the sand like this, it'll be harder to steal."
Their target area looked promising. This was the best track leading into it, and it was long disused and almost impassable. Clearly, no legions of Megadeus hunters had beaten them to the area. They selected some gear and started walking.
The loose sand turned into a stretch of fresh-water marsh. For some reason—toxins in the water, perhaps—the marsh was almost devoid of plant life. It was no more than knee-deep in most places. Too shallow for boats, too deep for cars. Their targets—the big abandoned factories and warehouses, became visible in the distance.
"We ought to be able to use a punt or a rubber raft," said Mitch, "if we load it lightly enough that we can portage it over sand bars. That way, we can get enough gear across that we don't have to cross every day or two."
They discussed it, arguing the merits of an outboard motor—its extra weight, the weight of the fuel they would have to haul, and the noise that might attract other people—versus oars, paddles, and poles. They had to be careful where they stepped, because twisted pieces of metal stuck up through the sand here and there. They decided that an inflatable raft was out of the question.
Finally, they reached the opposite shore. They threw themselves down on the sand to rest. After a while, they got up and started poking around.
During the long underground walk, Persephone told herself she was an idiot, but she didn't listen. Alan had appeared a couple of nights after their first meeting, announced he was going to make her his queen, and kissed her. There was something odd about his body, his touch. When she asked, he laughed and said it was because he was a god. She had almost fainted. A little later, he admitted that he was an android, but it was the same thing. By then, her heart was beating almost painfully, her mouth was dry, and she couldn't have put two sensible words together if her life depended on it.
At the entrance to the Underground, he extended a tray in his forehead, which gave them enough light to proceed. A few minutes later, after she was thoroughly lost, he suddenly closed the tray, leaving them in total darkness.
"Alan!" she wailed, reaching out blindly for him. He wasn't there. The walls seemed to press in on her.
His hands fell lightly in her shoulders. She turned, and he took her trembling body in his arms. She was faint with relief and fear. He kissed her until she was shaking, gasping, desperate for more. He took her by the hand, giggling, and led her in total darkness deeper into the Underground.
Eventually, she could tell by the changes in the echoes that they had entered an immense chamber. After leading her on for a few dozen paces, he vanished.
"Alan!" she shouted. Harsh echoes were her only answer.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a switch being thrown, and a few faint lamps came on, far overhead. She looked up, and saw that she was standing almost at the feet of an immense Megadeus, sagging as if crucified from a gantry, its head lolling. It had suffered horrendous damage, but still looked immensely powerful. Persephone had a sense of being insignificant, an ant under this creature's heel. She fell to the floor in a faint.
She awoke to find herself lying on her back in the dust and gloom. When she opened her eyes, they met those of the Megadeus. Alan must have moved her, because, from where she was now lying, the Megadeus seemed to be not so much standing, but crouching over her, looking directly at her, as if he planned to leap down upon her. Unless she was imagining it, she could feel the Megadeus' mind; powerful, arrogant, sensual. Like Alan, yet unlike him. There was madness there, too. Frustration at his helplessness. A yearning for completeness—and for his lost Dominus. But mostly, the Megadeus was considering Persephone. Would she take good care of his Alan?
I will, she promised.
Alan walked into her line of vision, light on his feet, almost dancing. His nude body was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. He really is a god, she thought. She glanced back to the looming Megadeus. They both are.
Alan turned and raised his hands in supplication to the Megadeus. For once, he was not smiling. He looked for all the world as if he were offering a sacrifice to a dark god.
He turned to Persephone and smiled down at her. She heard herself asking, inanely, "Will it hurt?"
He giggled, producing ghastly echoes off the distant walls. "Oh, it will!" he said. "I promise!"
"No, darn it," said Angel. "Put all your cards on the table first, so I know what I'm rejecting." She'd dropped by to say hi to Tony, who was helping her with some spy equipment, and had been drawn into an argument with Dora.
Dora glared at her, violet eyes gleaming. Angel glared back. Tony, on the sidelines for once, felt simultaneously blessed and cursed. The two most attractive women in the world were both in his office! Too bad they'd probably turn on him in a minute.
Without taking her eyes off Angel, Dora said, "Tell her, Tony."
"I think you'll like this plan, Angel," he said, surprising himself. But come to think of it, it was true! It was Tony who didn't like the plan. "The new decoys are really convincing, and their transmitters can be set for extra range, to cover the three D's; distance, depth, and damage. We'll make a clean sweep of every Megadeus that can still move under its own power."
Angel stabbed an index finger at him, "And they'll pounce on you and squash you like a bug."
"No, we'll be far, far away. And we made the signal directional so we can sweep an area slowly and not wake them all up at once. Mr. Beck told us what happened when Big Kappa and Big Octus came after Dori at the same time. My other innovation is that the decoys can decode the signals used to decide if a Megadeus is sane or crazy, friend or foe."
Angel looked impressed. "Your innovation?"
"Yes. I can show you the blueprints. I just completed the prototype. We need to field-test it, of course."
Dora added, "Two birds with one stone."
Angel, reluctantly interested, asked, "What does Beck think about your plan?"
Tony looked at Dora, who said with a straight face, "We'll know after you pitch it to him."
Angel dug in her purse and took out a cigarette. "Mind if I smoke?"
Tony said, perhaps a trifle smugly, "Go right ahead." He gestured to the new ashtray.
The mechanics, machinists, welders, electricians, and draftsmen who worked on Big B were practically all smokers. Tony hated tobacco smoke, but he was an engineer, wasn't he? Problems were there to be solved. He'd designed an excellent and almost silent ventilation system for his office. He was pleased with the results and only a little bit guilty that he'd spent Beck's money as freely as R. Dori encouraged him to.
Angel lit one of her long cigarettes. She took a meditative puff and then let the smoke out slowly. She often stared at the rising smoke as she thought. In Tony's office, though, the smoke vanished as if by magic. She narrowed her eyes at the smoke that wasn't there. "Why me? Dora's better at wheedling stuff out of Beck than I ever was."
"He trusts your judgment," said Dora.
"Huh. Tony, that may be the nicest thing the little squirt ever said to me."
"What about the time..." started Dora, a mischievous gleam in her eye.
Tony interrupted hastily, "You told me yourself, Angel, that we need to find the friendly Megadeuses as quickly as possible."
Discontentedly, Angel said, "I'm glad somebody listened, Tony. We won the last couple of rounds, sure, but there are a lot more hostile Megadeuses than friendly ones. If we let them wake up on their own schedule, we're in deep trouble."
She smoked quietly for a moment, then said peevishly, "For god's sake, Tony, can't you turn off your ventilator? I can't think in here."
Tony flipped a switch. Soon Angel was leaning back on the couch, watching her cigarette smoke rise towards the ceiling. When she finished her cigarette, she dropped the lipstick-stained butt in the ashtray and stood up. "Okay, Tony, I'll pitch it to Beck."
Dora flung her arms around Angel. Angel laughed, hugged her back, and said, "I love you too, Squirt. And have I mentioned how much I appreciate that you weigh two hundred pounds less than your sister? She leaves bruises!"
Ricky shipped the oars as the rowboat reached the shore. He got out and dragged the little boat partway onto the sand. They had been exploring for two weeks now. It was slow going; far slower than they had expected. The terrain was treacherous with glass and metal, briars and brambles, and many of the silent factories were surrounded by brambles as well, meaning that they had to hack their way in with machetes before they could check a place out. It was maddening. They had hoped to be done by now, but three-quarters of the buildings remained to be checked. Mitch missed his girlfriend, Clarisse, and both were suffering from their own bad cooking. You can only have pancakes for so many meals in a row.
Ricky hadn't mentioned it, but ever since they'd moved to this spot, he'd been having strange dreams. In them, he was at the controls of his Megadeus, fighting. The battles weren't always the same. Sometimes it was a one-on-one fight with another Megadeus, sometimes it was with some kind of monster, sometimes it was a melee with huge numbers of Megadeuses. Sometimes he was victorious; other times, he died.
And there was an underlying sense of urgency. Hurry up, hurry up, keep at it, don't give up. It was making him frantic. And another message, be careful; choose wisely.
Mitch was on the point of rebellion, so tomorrow was their last day before taking a break in town. They'd be back. They were close. Ricky was sure of it.
Persephone walked into the apartment and set down her grocery bags and flashlight. They were going to have to do something about that. Carrying grocery bags all this way was hard enough, but a flashlight, too? And they'd soon need to move in heavy equipment for Big X.
She was proud of her contribution over the past few weeks. She had moved in with Alan here, converting one of the blind tunnels into a cozy apartment. They had tapped power lines and water mains. She had helped him catalog Big X's damage and run systems checks. She had surprised herself with her knack for the work. She'd made innumerable phone calls and visits to various suppliers around the city to discover who had the facilities to repair Big X. She had even helped Alan rob a bank, using a stolen laser cannon to cut a hole in the wall of the building and then another in the vault. The alarms hadn't sounded because they hadn't opened any windows or doors. They'd taken half a million dollars.
Alan seemed pleased with her. She worried about him. She had eventually admitted to herself that Alan wasn't entirely sane. He had brief fits of depression, especially after communing with Big X. These terrified her. His periods of elation, much more common, were almost as bad. But they were working towards an important goal. His Megadeus was everything to him. But she felt there was enough room in his heart for her as well, especially now that she'd learned more about sex than she really wanted to know.
She decided to say hello to Alan before putting the groceries away. He wouldn't help, of course, but a kiss was better than being totally ignored. And the sight of Alan always cheered her up. His off-the-charts sexiness let her shrug off a lot of bad behavior.
She smiled as she walked into the living room. Alan was on the couch, his back to her. His attention was fully occupied in kissing the blonde girl on his lap.
Persephone must have uttered a cry, because the blonde girl leapt to her feet and stood staring, wide-eyed. She was astonishingly pretty, pale, with long golden hair and extraordinary violet eyes. A few freckles across her nose added rather than detracted from the effect. You couldn't see her without wanting to hug her. She couldn't be older than sixteen. How can I size her up so calmly? Persephone asked herself. I must be in shock.
The girl glanced at Alan and then back to Persephone, blushed, burst into tears, and fled from the room.
Persephone turned to Alan, who grinned at her as if sharing a joke. Suddenly she was furious with him, ashamed of herself, and, to her surprise, concerned for the blonde girl, who was clearly in over her head. Gritting her teeth, she turned her back on Alan and went to find her.
She was just outside the doorway of the apartment, standing between the darkness and the light, sobbing, her thin shoulders shaking. Persephone picked the flashlight off the table and approached the girl, pulling out her handkerchief. "Here."
The girl nodded, still sobbing, and took it. She tried to master herself and succeeded after a couple of tries. She was one of those girls whom tears make adorable.
"I'm sorry," said the girl. "I didn't know."
"I could tell," said Persephone, barely resisting the urge to hug her. "Come on. I'll walk you to the surface." Suddenly angry, she added, "And we can talk about what a rat Alan is."
"Okay," said the girl. She held out her right hand. "I'm Dora Wayneright."
Persephone was too upset to take note of the name. They shook hands. "Call me Persephone."
Dora knew the story. "Appropriate setting," she said. After a moment she added, "Appropriate boyfriend, too." She smiled suddenly and looked away.
Persephone glared. "Yes, he did, if you must know."
"I didn't mean to pry."
"I need a new nickname," said Persephone darkly. "I'm getting tired of that joke."
"Look!" said Mitch. "Over there! Do you see it?"
Ricky peered. "Wait … well, maybe."
"It's standing straight up, arms at its sides. There's a pillar behind it, a whatchamacallit—gantry. It's hard to make out in the gloom."
Ricky peered. It looked like Mitch was right. He looked up at what seemed to be the Megadeus' face. Suddenly, he realized he was walking towards it.
"What are you doing?" said Mitch. "We agreed, no getting close!"
"I can't even see it properly!" said Ricky, though he was just making up an excuse for what he was already doing.
Mitch grabbed him. "Hey, none of that. It's almost dark, anyway. Let's get back to camp. In the morning, there'll be plenty of light. You'll be able to see it, and we can take some pictures."
Ricky rubbed his face with one hand, and then said, "Yeah." He allowed himself to be led away. Mitch kept a hand on his elbow for some time. Ricky didn't really blame him.
Back in his tent, he tossed and turned. He must have fallen asleep, because he had nightmares.
"Here you are," said Persephone, opening the door into the alley. It was night already.
Dora stepped through. "What about you?" she asked.
Persephone hesitated. She didn't want to go back to Alan. He'd offer a lame excuse and take her to bed, and she didn't want either one. Not while she was still so upset with him. But she'd moved out of her apartment and wasn't carrying enough money for a hotel room. She was also fascinated by Dora, who had become unnaturally composed and silent as soon as her tears had stopped.
"Stay with me," Dora offered.
"Would it be all right?" asked Persephone, startled. "I thought you'd hate me."
Dora hugged her briefly. "It's not your fault," she said.
The gesture moved Persephone almost to tears. Well, more than almost. She reached for her handkerchief, but it wasn't there. Dora handed it back to her gravely.
After a moment, Persephone said, "Okay."
Dora took her to a parked car and opened the driver's-side door. Persephone stared at her.
Dora stamped a foot. "I'm sixteen, all right? I have a driver's license!"
This human flash of temper cheered Persephone. "Sorry," she said. She got in on the passenger side.
Dora drove in silence. They left the city and traveled through a derelict section of factories and warehouses; some brick, some metal. Finally, she pulled into a large compound featuring a tall metal factory building surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. She stopped at the gate house and rolled down her window.
A middle-aged security guard handed her a clipboard. "Hi, Dora."
"Hello, Ted." She signed in and handed the clipboard back to him, then drove in, parking in a space marked, "Dora Wayneright." The parking space next to it was labeled, simply, "Beck." She realized suddenly that this was Hangar B.
"Wayneright!" said Persephone. "But I don't understand. You're not an android."
"I'm human. Dori and Dorothy are the androids. I'm their little sister." She opened her door.
"How can you have android sisters?" said Persephone, bewildered.
"It's a long story." Dora signed in with the guard at the door and ushered Persephone in. It slowly dawned on Persephone that she could learn a lot about androids from Dora. Alan bewildered her in so many ways.
Without another word, she led Persephone into a lavish apartment attached to Hangar B, down a hall, and into a large but sparsely furnished bedroom. Given the size of the room, it should have had a bed that was king-sized or even larger, but instead it had bunk beds.
"Take your pick; upper or lower," said Dora.
"Are you mad at me?" asked Persephone.
"No." Dora turned and gave Persephone a long stare, making her blush.
"You've hardly said a word."
"I don't talk much. Family trait." Dora broke off her stare abruptly, stepped forward, and hugged Persephone. She hugged like a little child, radiating trust and affection. Once again, her innocence and kindness made Persephone's eyes fill with tears. Dora murmured, "Everything will be all right, Persephone. You'll see." Persephone almost believed her.
Eventually, Dora let go. "Hungry?"
"I guess." They went into the surprisingly lavish kitchen—all the equipment was restaurant-quality—and together they cooked up a meal. Dora ate like a horse; Persephone had little appetite.
Out of the blue, Persephone asked her, "How did you meet Alan?"
"At the soda counter of the drug store. He said he had a feeling that I was right for him; that I was his Dominus."
Persephone chuckled. "I've never heard that pick-up line before."
"He knew what I wanted. An android and a Megadeus."
"Isn't that a little ambitious?"
"My sisters both have Megadeuses; why not me?"
They lapsed into silence. Eventually, Persephone said, "I don't suppose physical attraction had anything to do with it."
"R. Alan Gabriel is the most gorgeous thing I have ever seen."
They both sighed.
Persephone said, "You seem to have soured on him awfully quickly."
"A Dominus has to be able to trust her android. Trust him completely. They'll tear each other apart otherwise." She sighed again. "I can't be Alan's Dominus. I don't know if I can even be his friend." After a while she added, "I'd like to help poor mad Big X."
To change the subject, Persephone glanced down the hall and asked, "Why bunk beds?"
Dora flashed one of her brief smiles. It was a gentle smile, hardly there at all, and it soon vanished, but somehow that gave it more impact. "It's an old trick of Jason's. If you want to talk but nothing more, you hide the ladder in the closet and take the top bunk. If you want something more, you take the bottom bunk and add a second pillow." After a pause, she added bitterly, "It's all academic in my case."
Soon Beck, R. Dori, and Tony, their chief engineer, walked into the apartment. Beck and Tony were deep in a technical discussion, but cut it off abruptly when R. Dori said, "We have a guest."
Dora silently hugged each of the newcomers in turn, taking her time, smiling gently. Beck and Tony beamed at her. R. Dori returned a smile exactly like Dora's. Finally, Dora said, "I'd like you to meet my friend Persephone. She's staying the night. Persephone, this is my sister, R. Dori Wayneright; her boyfriend, Jason Beck, and my friend Tony Perez."
Beck said, "Hiya, Persephone. Any friend of Dora's is a friend of mine. My house is your house." Then he rather spoiled the effect by turning instantly to Tony and restarting the technical wrangle, not giving Persephone a chance to thank him and stepping on Tony's line.
Tony patiently started over, "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Persephone." He would have liked to go on, but Beck's fidgeting distracted him.
R. Dori walked up to Persephone and hugged her exactly as Dora had done. The resemblance between the two sisters was uncanny. Not only the physical resemblance—though R. Dori was taller and more developed, Persephone has never seen two people who were more obviously sisters—but their mannerisms were identical. The main difference was that R. Dori projected an air of serenity, while Dora had a faint aura of someone who was trying to push past her limits through an effort of will. But both girls were alert, intelligent, confident, and kind. It was easy to forget that one was human and the other an android.
The two men left for Tony's office so they could continue their discussion with the aid of blueprints and slide rules.
R. Dori asked after their needs and found pajamas and toiletries for Persephone. "If you need anything else, or need money to tide you over, just ask Dora or me," she said. She invited the girls into the book-lined living room, which held the largest color television and the fanciest hi-fi set that Persephone had ever seen. R. Dori sat down in one of the chairs with a book, and Dora handed a paperback to Persephone, saying "You might like this one," before curling up on a couch with a book of her own.
With nothing better to do, Persephone opened the book. It had been read many times and was beginning to fall apart. She began without enthusiasm but was soon enthralled by the convoluted spy story featuring a military policemen, honest and true but none too quick on the uptake, and his opponent, a femme fatale who, sadly for her, had a heart of gold. She was thirty pages into it when she told Dora, "This is a wonderful book."
Hearing no response, she glanced up. Dora was fast asleep. R. Dori was tucking a blanket around her.
R. Dori said, "I always cry when I read it."
"Androids can't cry."
"It doesn't show on the outside." She gently removed Dora's shoes and said, "Being grown up means so much to her, but her body lets her down. She still needs ten hours of sleep a night." She looked at Persephone with that clear Wayneright gaze. "How long have you known her?"
"Since late this afternoon."
R. Dori nodded, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. "Be careful, Persephone. My sister is ambitious."
"I mean, she might get you killed. She denies her limitations."
"Can't you stop her?"
"I don't think so."
Later, when Persephone started yawning, they woke Dora and helped her stumble off to bed. R. Dori helped her sister get undressed—Dora was very groggy—while Persephone went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and change into her borrowed pajamas. When she returned, Dora was in the bottom bunk. There wasn't a second pillow, though.
As Persephone climbed the ladder to the upper bunk, Dora called out in a sleepy voice, "Persephone?"
"Do you want me to help Alan?"
"I have access to all sorts of facilities and money. I know all about Megadeuses."
He doesn't love her; he was just using her. But he'd still sleep with her the first chance he got. "I want Big X to be repaired."
"I don't know what to do," said Dora sleepily. "My other love triangle is simpler."
Other love triangle? Persephone made a mental note to follow up on this later. She said, "Your sister seems very wise."
"Mmmm," said Dora. "Well ask her advice tomorrow."
Ricky pulled up in front of Mitch's apartment. He left the engine running.
"Aren't you coming in?" asked Mitch.
"Three's a crowd. Say hi to Clarisse for me."
Mitch grinned. "I'll call her up, take her to a late supper, and then I'll pop the question."
"Shouldn't you wait until we've got this business squared away?"
"Naw. I've decided. We should be together even if we're as poor as church mice. If we get rich, so much the better. Either way, she's the girl for me."
Ricky picked up the camera bag and handed it to him. "Family man, eh? That makes you the responsible one. You hang onto the evidence."
"Thanks, I will."
"I'll call you in the morning."
"Not too early, okay? What are you going to do?"
"Dunno. Dinner and bed, I guess. I haven't been sleeping too well."
"I noticed. Well, good night."
Ricky drove off. It was after ten, so Persephone would be on shift. It would be good to talk to her. It would get his mind off Megadeuses. Cheeseburger, fries, large chili, chocolate malt, and conversation with a pretty redhead. What could be better?
But a stranger was working in the diner, and Persephone had quit a couple of weeks before. It didn't take Ricky's appetite away—he had been half-starved for a long time—but he was disappointed. Oh, well. He'd go see her. He knew where she lived. Sort of late to do it tonight, though.
He reviewed his options. His mind kept coming back to a particularly bad one. If he got in his car, he'd be back at the Megadeus before dawn.
Knowing it was a terrible idea, he got in his car and headed out of town.
Persephone spend the next day hanging out with Dora, helping her with her work in Hangar B. Dora spent most of her time assisting Tony, almost to the point of being his alter ego. People would come in with a question for Tony, but if he was busy they'd ask Dora instead. Dora and Tony were impressed by Persephone's helpfulness and quick comprehension. Though not technically trained, she seemed to have a gift for the work, and wasn't afraid of getting her hands dirty.
For her part, Persephone was impressed by both Tony and Dora. They were great pals and worked well together. They looked out for each other. This harmony was punctuated at odd intervals by Dora's mischievous sense of humor. Persephone liked both of them more and more.
When the day shift ended and Tony had gone home, the girls sought out R. Dori and told her all about what happened. She listened without criticism and almost without comment. She told the girls that she'd need to talk to Alan before she could give them any advice. This resulted in a spirited discussion about what a weasel Alan was, and how you couldn't trust anything he said.
In the end, they all agreed that they'd ask Alan to submit to questioning under Big B's probe cables, so he couldn't lie or conceal anything. Then they could decide whether he was someone Dora could help or trust.
The two girls left in Dora's car to fetch Alan. He offered no resistance to their idea and made only a token effort at seducing them. He was intrigued at the thought of winning the support of Hangar B, and asked a number of questions about R. Dori.
Persephone would have felt good about this if he hadn't laughed quite so much.
Dora stopped at the gate and signed in with the guard. Then she drove to her reserved parking space, waved at the guard on the main entrance, and walked into Hangar B. It was 9 PM. The place was deserted. Persephone and Alan followed.
"Dori!" called Dora. R. Dori appeared a moment later, wearing her usual black jeans and yellow blouse.
"R. Dori Wayneright, this is R. Alan Gabriel," said Dora, then stopped. R. Dori and Alan were looking each other up and down. R. Dori wore a goofy half-smile that Dora had never seen before. Alan wore a knowing grin that made Dora shiver, though it wasn't meant for her. Dora felt like an idiot. She's just as attracted to Alan as I am, because she's me. This was followed by a sharp pang of jealousy and the beginnings of fear. What have I done?
R. Dori held out her hand. R. Alan took it, raised it to his lips, and kissed it. Then he turned it over, palm up, and gave it a long, lingering lick. "Pleased to meet you," he said, and laughed.
R. Dori did not snatch her hand back, did not stop smiling.
Dora burst out, "I know he's sexy! I don't need a second opinion on that!"
Alan laughed. "Don't worry, little kitten. You can all share."
R. Dori looked steadily at Dora, who eventually muttered, "Just use Big B's probe cables, okay? To make sure he's not conning us."
R. Dori turned her stare on Alan, but her smile returned as she did so. "Good idea."
Alan grinned as the elevator took him and the three girls up to Big B's command deck. He laughed out loud as the door opened and he entered the sacred center of Big B's consciousness. He could feel Big B's mind. Like most of them, Big B was a masculine Megadeus, but he was unusually clever and proud of his cleverness. Big B was a rule-breaker. It would take a strong-minded Dominus to keep him in line. He and Beck were made for each other; there was no doubt about it. Was baby-doll R. Dori a match for them? Probably she was, under normal circumstances. They were goofy about her. He could read this from Big B. She had a powerful will, too. Alan felt a thrill at the thought of breaking it.
Big B had a strong sex drive. A lot of Megadeuses did. It was channeled into combat, for the most part, but the command deck could also be the scene of sex between Dominus and android, with the Megadeus forming a channel through which they could hear each other's thoughts—or feel each other's lust, more like. It helped bond android to Dominus, and helped keep them human and sane in spite of the great power they controlled. Of course, the channeling made the Megadeus more of a participant than a spectator. Alan stifled a giggle. This setup was too good to be true!
His thoughts were interrupted by R. Dori. She had lost her smile; she looked grave. "Big B," she said. "I want to interrogate R. Alan. Can you help me? We can share probe cables."
Big B thought about this for a moment. Actually, working with two androids was something he knew about. Long disused memories reminded him of training procedures that used this very technique with an experienced and an untrained android. The same features would work for interrogation.
Alan sent a silent, private thought to Big B. If you want to see just how hot sex can be, big boy, relay our arousal to each other, like you always do. Not only that, amplify my arousal and send it back to me, and amplify hers and send it back to her. Positive feedback. It'll be such fun!
Big B was skeptical. Technically, it would work, and he was all for it, but would R. Dori like it? He wouldn't like to upset R. Dori.
Look into her mind. She wants me.
Big B agreed that this was true.
Let's surprise her!
R. Dori, still serious, unaware of their intentions, asked, "Ready, Big B? Ready, Alan?"
Alan giggled. "Ready, baby doll." He opened the slot in his forehead to receive the probe cables. R. Dori did the same.
The eight probe cables lifted themselves like snakes. Four headed for Alan, four for R. Dori. Alan could feel Big B's excitement. He was like a little boy who had discovered a peephole into the girls' locker room.
Alan looked into R. Dori's eyes and smiled. Almost against her will, she smiled back. Then the probe cables shot home. R. Dori's eyes widened. Suddenly, they were kissing. Discarded clothing filled the air.
Dora goggled at the two figures. Alan was even more beautiful than she'd imagined, and seeing him with her alter ego … Even so, it shouldn't be that much of a turn-on! She felt dizzy.
Big B! He was relaying the androids' emotions! Dora's mind and body were being overwhelmed by second-hand lust!
Persephone was staring, open-mouthed. Snarling, Dora pulled her into the elevator, hoping to escape the telepathic waves of arousal. There was no diminution, even after the doors closed. With a shaking hand, she hit the 'DOWN' button. Damn Alan Gabriel! She couldn't get the scene in the command deck out of her mind. She wanted to… she wanted to…
As the elevator began to move, Dora suddenly felt unable to breathe. She panicked until she realized that the problem would go away if she took her tongue out of Persephone's mouth. She backed off, but Persephone pressed forward, hugging Dora hard and kissing her hungrily.
The elevator door opened and Dora managed to stagger backwards to the exit hatch. After a moment's confusion, she pulled an errant hand from under Persephone's clothing and pressed the 'OPEN' button. Disengaging with an effort, she fled across the hangar floor. Persephone followed.
Dora's arousal fell suddenly when the hatch closed behind her, but it was still stronger than anything she had ever felt. Putting distance between her and Big B didn't seem to help. Big B was supposed to be fully shielded with his hatches shut! Maybe what remained actually belonged to her, sort of? She stopped near the edge of the hangar, panting, trying to think. Persephone flung her arms around her a moment later. She backed Dora against the wall and kissed her passionately.
"Stop that!" said Dora. Persephone backed off as if struck, blinking back tears.
"Don't you want to?" she asked plaintively.
Dora had no answer.
"Come on, Dora," begged Persephone. "If we don't do it now, I'll never have the nerve to try!" She added viciously, "And I want to get back at Alan." She grabbed Dora again.
Dora resisted feebly, trying to think. She knew that Alan was dangerous. "I need to keep a clear head. Anything might happen." Damn her sister, anyway! R. Dori was older. She was supposed to be responsible. Why did Dora have to be the grown-up?
She jumped. "Don't do that!"
"You started it," said Persephone indistinctly, her mouth full of earlobe.
Dora glanced down at her hands. "Oh."
R. Dori smiled at Alan. She reached out, tousled his hair above the probe cables, and kissed him on the cheek. I must have been a good little girl for too long, she thought. I shouldn't have enjoyed it this much; I shouldn't have needed it this much.
Everyone needs to be bad once in a while, replied Alan silently, smirking.
He saw R. Dori glance up, and his link with her mind was severed. She stood. My, but she was magnificent! Her poise was marvelous, and she was wonderfully focused on whatever she was doing. But the warmth had drained out of her. She looked back down at him, and she was like a marble statue.
"It's question time," she said.
"You don't need to, baby doll," said Alan, giggling. "You know all about me already. Or if you want to know more, you can find it out the same way."
This received no response at all, so he got to his feet and reached for her. Or, rather, he tried to. His body suddenly went rigid. Big B was controlling him!
"Sit down, Alan," said R. Dori.
He refused, struggling against the compulsion in sudden panic. She couldn't do this to him! She couldn't want to do this to him! Once he seduced them, they stayed seduced!
His struggles managed to overcome Big B's control only enough that he toppled onto his back. From the floor, he could see R. Dori standing over him, still nude, still with four probe cables in her forehead. She was so beautiful, he almost forgot his predicament. But then he took a good look at her face and was afraid. She was a goddess passing judgment. Would there be any mercy for poor Alan?
She began probing his mind. With the probe cables and Big B's help, he was an open book to her. She didn't need him to speak; she didn't allow him to speak, not even telepathically. She was interested in his deeds, not in his excuses. She was ruthless and thorough. She went over his past life—the one from the dream—in great detail, causing him to relive one horrific crime after another. Every one of them went directly against his android's conditioning, and remembering them this clearly was agony; almost as bad as committing them again. Twice, he lost consciousness, only to have the questioning resume when he awoke. It wasn't fair! She could do it only because Big B was helping her.
She went over every moment of his life since waking in the android coffin, with a special emphasis on scenes involving Persephone; even more than the ones with Dora. Before, he had been so pleased with the way he handled Persephone, but now he felt remorse. He hated it. Give me my mind back!
After a while, he despaired of surviving this experience. She would decide he wasn't worth saving, and would arrange to have him killed. It would be so easy! All she would have to do would be to describe what had just happened to, say, Beck, and he would do the rest. Poor Alan! He mourned for himself.
In the end, though, she let him go. The probe cables withdrew, and he was his own man again.
"I can't help you," she told him sadly. "Your mind is too damaged. I can't trust you. But you are just sane enough that I can hope that you find your Dominus and repair your Megadeus. Maybe, together, you three will be able to help one another. I wish you well. But I can't help you." She kissed him on the cheek.
And that was all. She called a cab for him and they dressed.
He had been judged, and found wanting.
He would not soon forget R. Dori Wayneright. The interrogation had been a devastating experience, but, afterwards, its memory was imbued with an erotic glow. But then, with R. Alan, everything was.
A few minutes later, R. Dori escorted R. Alan to the hangar floor. Both of them looked composed, as if nothing had happened.
They were almost at the door when Dora and Persephone appeared. R. Dori didn't see where they came from. They watched silently as R. Dori and Alan crossed the rest of the floor.
Alan opened the door. A cab was waiting just outside. Alan turned and bowed, first to the two girls, and then to R. Dori. Without a word, he backed, still bowing, through the doorway, which closed behind him.
They all sighed.
R. Dori turned and walked up to the two girls.
Dora spoke first. "What are you going to tell Jason?"
"The truth," said R. Dori.
"He's going to be furious."
"Oh, Dori! It's all my fault!"
R. Dori hugged her little sister. "There's plenty of blame to go around. Most of it belongs to Alan. And Big B. It will be a long time before Jason forgives Big B."
"I've forgiven him already." She smiled briefly in reminiscence. Then her smile was replaced by a deep sadness. "But I am going to pay dearly for today. Everyone I love is going to suffer because of this." She looked at the two girls. "Are you two all right?"
"Good." R. Dori hugged Persephone, who stood woodenly, refusing to respond or meet her gaze. Then she hugged Dora again. Dora had recovered from her outburst and met her gaze calmly.
R. Dori said, "I'm calling Jason next. He'll come right home." She left the implications hanging.
Dora nodded. "We'll stay with Roger and Dorothy. Come on, Persephone."
The two girls left. R. Dori looked up at Big B. "Ready?"
Let's get this over with, replied Big B.
R. Dori pressed the crystal on her watch. "Jason, can you come home right away? I need to talk to you."
Ricky reached the foot of the Megadeus. Under the dust and bird droppings, it seemed intact. It was one of the more rounded Megadeuses, without the elaborate forearm shields of Big O. It looked more like Big B. It was gunmetal gray, as far as he could tell. He was sure it was talking to him, though he couldn't make out the words. It was urging him forward.
A hatchway slid open in the right foot. There were lights on inside. "Here goes nothing," he told himself, and stepped inside. The hatch behind him closed, and another opened. An elevator, apparently. He stepped into the cramped car—it would hold three in a pinch, he guessed—and it whisked him up. Not smoothly; there were some sideways jerks and odd changes of acceleration. But the doors soon opened, and he saw the Megadeus' command deck.
Muted lighting, muted humming, lit instrument dials. The command deck was dominated by the cockpit, a squat cylinder with a command seat in the center and a transparent dome over the top. He was more fearful than he expected and couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, something uncanny. He approached the cockpit anyway, and the dome lifted silently. A section at the front of the cylinder withdrew to allow him to approach.
Ricky gasped. The chair was occupied! Strapped to is by innumerable turns of thick gray cables was a man—no, a body. Hardly more than a skeleton, it wore the tan uniform that featured so prominently in his dreams.
As he gaped at it, the cables uncoiled like snakes, releasing the body. It collapsed to the floor in a heap, the skull rolling free and coming to rest against Ricky's feet. It still wore a white helmet.
The Megadeus was telling him to take the chair. Ricky tried to resist, not wanting to become the next victim. In his dreams, he had loved his Megadeus. He was beginning to fear this one.
He bought time by gathering up the bones. A panel slid open, so he put them in there. Then, to buy a little more time, he looked around.
The front of the command deck was made of some kind of transparent armor, tinted orange. It gave a good view if you wanted to look at things sixty feet off the ground. From here, he couldn't see the Megadeus' feet—or its hands, or its head. Odd to be so blind when he had a window twenty feet wide.
He found that he had backed into the cockpit without thinking.
"That's enough!" he said angrily. "Stop forcing me! If you want me, just ask, and I'll give it my best shot!"
I want you.
"Okay, then," he said. He sat in the seat and automatically crossed his forearms. The instrument panel that had withdrawn to let him enter returned to its working position, and the dome snapped down over his head. The central monitor lit up.
CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD …
YE NOT GUILTY
As the last three words flashed, he shouted. "Big Tau, action!"
The hand controls slid to the front of the armrests. Gripping them, putting his feet on the pedals, he willed Big Tau to move. Joyously, they strode into the night.
Persephone slumped discontentedly in the passenger seat, as far away from Dora as she could get. She was silent for some time, then said, "I'm mad at your sister."
Dora glanced at her sidelong but said nothing.
Persephone subsided. She wanted to argue, wanted to be angry, angry at somebody, but Dora wasn't helping. And she didn't dare be angry with Dora. After a while she asked, "Where are we going?"
"Roger Smith's house."
"That's right; your other sister lives with him. Are we going to be welcome there?"
"Yes. I have a room there. We'll get one for you, too."
Persephone turned her face away suddenly. Tears welled up in her eyes. She'd had just about all the rejection she could take for one day. Alan had hardly looked at her—had seduced another woman right in front of her—and now Dora was shoving her away, too.
Dora patted the seat next to her. Persephone hesitated, then scooted over until she was snuggled up against the smaller girl.
Dora said, "There aren't any bunk beds at Roger's house. We should be careful until we know whose lust it is that we're feeling."
"Okay," said Persephone, relieved. She was almost as afraid of going forward as she was of rejection. But at the back of her mind, a question gnawed at her: unless someone took Alan's place, how long could she resist going back to him?
Ricky put Big Tau through his paces, then stopped and spent several hours running systems checks. Big Tau was in wonderful condition. What joy! He went down and checked the reactor. Everything was fine. The armaments left a lot to be desired, though. The missile racks were empty and the chromebuster was missing. Just one big weapon, not counting Big Tau's hands, of course. But he didn't have arm pistons.
He returned to the command chair and was suddenly uneasy. Big Tau had something in mind, and wanted to overrule any objections Ricky might have.
"Just tell me, okay?" said Ricky irritably. "Stop screwing around."
Big Tau told him that it was time to make a demonstration at the edge of the city, to find his true Dominus.
"But I'm a true Dominus!"
The cables suddenly sprang forward and wound themselves around him. He was pulled back to the seat and lashed there: arms, legs, torso, and head. Ricky screamed when the ends of the cables, with their needle-sharp probes, plunged into his back in rapid succession, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.
Yes, Dominus. But you are on the wrong side.
Big Tau marched towards Paradigm.
Beck strode into the hangar. He looked around for R. Dori. She was there, walking towards him. She looked composed. Good.
From the few words she'd said on the phone, he knew there was bad news. He glanced up at Big B.
I'm fine, Big B said. Not in words, exactly. Listen to Dori.
R. Dori reached him. He took her in his arms. She put her cheek against his chest and he stroked her hair, the way he always did when she was upset.
After a while she said, "Jason?"
He murmured, "I'm here, honey."
"Jason, I had sex with another man. I didn't mean to."
Beck sagged. He knew this would happen. Everyone loved R. Dori and she loved everyone. Her sister Dorothy had an almost impenetrable reserve, but R. Dori had torn down all her emotional defenses. She'd done it for him, mostly. She couldn't help him, couldn't love him properly if she kept those barriers. And she hadn't constructed any new ones. She was vulnerable.
He asked, "Who was it?" Please not Roger! Please not Roger! R. Dori had two crushes that he knew of: one on Roger Smith, and one on the handsome Dominus of Big Alpha, Will. Will would be bad enough, but Beck's relationship with Roger was a tangled skein of rivalry, jealousy, and guilt. It didn't help that R. Dori had some memories of the human Dorothy's, and these included fragmentary but vivid memories of being Roger Smith's lover, all those years ago. Please not Roger!
"It was R. Alan Gabriel."
"What?" Beck jumped. "That snake! But he's dead! Anyway, he's not an android, he's a damned cyborg!"
"He has been reincarnated as an android. His Megadeus is Big X, the damaged one we found near Big Ramses."
Beck's mind reeled. He hated Alan Gabriel. The thought of that cold cyborg hand touching R. Dori ... well, maybe he wasn't a cyborg this time, but still, the thought of him touching R. Dori made him nauseous. "You slept with him?"
"I didn't mean to."
Beck let go of her and paced back and forth, "Alan Gabriel! I can't believe it! The man is a psycho! And he's more of a girl than most girls are!" He turned to R. Dori suddenly. "You don't find him attractive, do you?"
"Yes. Very much so."
"You can't! The man is a freak!" He suddenly turned pale and asked in a shaking voice, "He didn't force you, did he?"
The color rushed back into Beck's face. He stared at R. Dori in angry bewilderment. "Dori, how could you? He's a giggling, murdering, pansy! And he's the most unattractive, unmanly, unsexy thing on the whole planet!"
"I'm sorry, Jason."
He flung out his arms and turned his eyes heavenward. "Why me?" he shouted. "Do I deserve this? I've been really, really good!" He looked at her again, hurt and angry. His fists clenched and unclenched. "He's dangerous! He's not just mister limp-wristed, fun-time pretty boy. He's the one who programmed your sister R-D! God, how I hate him!" He was trembling now.
Early on, Beck and R. Dori had made a pilgrimage to the Underground and gathered up the shattered pieces of R-D's body, placing them in her android coffin. The experience had left both of them shaken. Though they had never met, R-D was R. Dori's sister, and gathering up her broken, scattered remains had been a somber lesson in the fleeting nature of life and beauty.
He turned grim. "Tell me where he is, Dori. I'm going to kill him. And that crazy Megadeus, too. He almost got you once before. I'll put both of them out of their misery. You know they deserve it!"
R. Dori shook her head, too miserable to speak.
They stared at each other for a long time. Beck was the victim of a thousand conflicting emotions. R. Dori, outwardly calm, felt his distress like knives in her soul.
After a while he snarled, "You'd better tell me about it."
She did. He calmed a little when she reported that he was so different from the cyborg Alan that he thought his prior life was only a dream. But when he heard about Alan's attempt to seduce Dora, he became so angry she was afraid he'd have a stroke. And when he heard about Big B's trick, he exploded.
"Damn you, Big B! This is Dori, not some kind of plaything! You're supposed to take care of her!" He glared up at his Megadeus. "She trusted you, and you let her down! You conned your own android. There's nothing lower than that."
He was rocked by a wave of shame from Big B, who hadn't thought of it in those terms before. It blended with Beck's own shame that lurked, unacknowledged, as a vast, endless pool beneath his anger. He wasn't always a good lover to R. Dori. He was temperamental, arrogant, hard to live with. He burdened her by using her almost as a prosthetic conscience. She spent a great deal of time soothing the ruffled feathers of people he had angered. Being his girlfriend was hard on her; very hard. She was still a teen-ager, for god's sake. She wasn't made of stone.
Big B stopped communicating his misery to Beck almost immediately, and Beck mantled himself in the shreds of his anger. It was that, or weep. "We'll talk about this later," he snarled to Big B. Grimly, he turned back to R. Dori. "Tell me the rest." he said.
"You let him go? You let him go? I can't believe it!" He glared up at Big B again. "You let him go?"
That's what she wanted, said Big B contritely.
Beck kicked a wastebasket across the hangar floor. He wanted very much to smash something into little pieces, preferably R. Alan Gabriel, but there weren't any suitable targets at hand. She let him go. Maybe it didn't mean anything. R. Dori was kindness personified. She wouldn't harm Alan if she could possibly avoid it. It didn't mean she still had feelings for him. It didn't mean that she wanted to do it again. He tried to calm down.
He turned back to her. Aw, hell, Dori," he said. "I'm sorry this happened. You must feel terrible."
"I'm all right, Jason. Really."
This was not the answer he wanted. She went on, "I think Dora is safe from him now. Alan does not understand us."
"He's beautiful. We're not immune to that. But we've come to expect more from a relationship. Much more."
Trust, for one thing. He knew that's what she meant. Beck grimaced, then, with a tremendous effort, smiled crookedly and took her in his arms again. "I love you, too." he said. After a moment, he sighed and said, "What do we do now, honey?"
"Are you ready to forgive Big B?"
"Are you ready to work with him if we have to defend the city?"
"Oh, damn it to hell!" He became angry again. He paced up and down, kicking the wastebasket several more times, waving his arms, arguing with himself. Finally he glared up at Big B. "You screwed up big-time, didn't you? I never thought anyone would have to ask a question like that. I really didn't."
Big B didn't answer.
He turned to R. Dori and snapped, "Just how much fun was it?"
"Try it and see."
He recoiled, horrified. He couldn't even think about it without seeing that damned cyborg with R. Dori. He glared up at Big B, then turned to R. Dori. "I'll forgive Big B when I get around to it."
"What about me?"
Part of him was almost desperate to blame her, but he'd rather cut his own throat than fight with R. Dori. "Aw, hell, Dori, you were bamboozled. Even you make mistakes."
"I won't make that one again, Jason, I promise."
"You mean the mistake with Big B, or the mistake with Alan?"
Beck nodded, suddenly weary. "Are Dora and her little friend okay?"
"They're fine. They're spending the night at Roger's."
"Good." Then, flaring up again, he demanded, "What are we going to do about Alan, Dori?"
"Everything will be all right, Jason. You'll see."
"Damn it to hell! You always say that!"
"I'm always right." She kept her worries to herself. Things really would be all right, she told herself. But there was going to be a rough period first.
Norman opened the door. "Miss Dora! We were not expecting you."
Dora hugged him and said, "Norman, this is Persephone. We need to stay the night."
"How do you do, Miss? Very good, Miss Dora, if you will follow me, please." He led them to the elevator. Dora did not explain their presence; he didn't ask.
They got off at the eighth floor and Norman showed Persephone to one of the spare rooms, across the hall from Dora's. "Have you ladies eaten?"
"I'm starved, Norman." Dora gave Persephone an appraising look, then said, "Two trays? We're too tired for any formalities."
"Very good, miss." Norman turned to depart.
Persephone asked Dora, "Where's your sister?"
Norman said, "Miss Dorothy and Master Roger have been called out on business. A Megadeus has been seen on the outskirts of the city."
Beck's watch beeped. "Damn it, Norman! We're busy."
"A Megadeus has been seen on the outskirts of the city, Mr. Beck. Master Roger asks, 'Are you in or out'?"
There was a brief pause, then "In!" cried Beck. "In, in, in! Just what the doctor ordered! Come on, Dori. Let's go kill something!" He ran to Big B. R. Dori kept pace with him.
Big O burst through a patch of deserted ground near the edge of the city.
Dorothy reported, "Target two miles to the north." The screen showed a blur in the distance. The sky in the east was shoving the first hints of dawn.
"What do you make of it?"
"Target is Big Tau. He has a Dominus. Something is not right with them."
"Crazy? Broken? Controlled?"
"We'll know when we get closer."
Attempts at communication were refused. Roger allowed Big O to move closer.
When they were within half a mile, and the vague outline of Big Tau was beginning to take form amid a group of abandoned buildings, they were distracted by a streak of light in the sky. Big B had arrived, using his winged rocket backpack. He roared overhead, dived, pulled up vertical, and landed between Big O and Big Tau in a pillar of smoke and flame. The backpack detached and flew away. Big B rushed towards Big Tau.
Beck's face appeared on the screen, angry and joyful at the same time. "You son of a bitch!" he roared. "Give me one good reason not to kill you!"
Big Tau replied by pointing his right arm at Big B. Beck began to dodge but was too slow. A blazing ring appeared in the air in front of Big Tau and sped towards Big B. When it reached him, Big B was covered from head to foot with dancing, blinding streaks of lightning, then, completely rigid, he toppled onto his face.
"Beck's off his form today," remarked Roger. "Come on, Big O!"
Dorothy reported, "Target is unarmed except for the shock vortex. Time to recharge, two minutes."
"I think that will be plenty," said Roger, smiling. Big O moved quickly to close with Big Tau.
"Big Tau is mad. He is carrying an unwilling Dominus."
"Now, that's not the kind of behavior I like in a Megadeus," said Roger. Raising his voice, he called, "Big Tau! You're evil and a kidnapper! It would have been better if you had never been awakened. It's time for you to be put back to sleep!"
He wanted to engage Big Tau closely to keep him from finishing off Big B. The effect of a shock vortex started fading at once, though the victim didn't regain full control for around ten minutes.
Big Tau threw a punch, which Big O blocked easily, taking a swing of his own. Big Tau was nimble and it was hard to land anything on him. He used moves Roger had never seen before.
Beck's face appeared on one of the screens. "Don't worry about me," he said bitterly. "I'm fine and dandy."
"When you have a minute," said Roger, landing a heavy blow on Big Tau's left shoulder, "see if you can regain the use of your net. There's an unwilling Dominus in there that we'll want to rescue."
"Yeah, yeah, Dori already said. Keep your shirt on." Beck's face vanished.
The two Megadeuses traded punches. Big O came in with a powerful left blow, but Big Tau twisted, grabbed Big O's forearm, and pulled. Big O stumbled forward two paces, then Big Tau hit him very hard in the back of the head. Red lights sprang up all over the board. Other readings blinked out. Big O had been knocked unconscious.
"I am taking control," said Dorothy. Part of the board came back to life, and a few red lights winked out.
Roger turned Big O around, but the response was leaden, mechanical. Still, he managed to block two punches with Big O's forearms.
"Big O has regained consciousness," said Dorothy. "Returning control."
Roger felt Big O's presence, and the controls again acted more to urge and suggest than to control. "Welcome back, Big O." They landed a tremendous blow to Big Tau's left shoulder.
"Thirty seconds until shock vortex," reported Dorothy.
Beck reappeared on-screen. "Duck!"
Big O flung himself to the ground. Big B's back armor opened and a net whirled out, rocket-propelled, and closed itself over Big Tau. Smoke and lightning sizzled along its steel web as Beck electrified it. The pyrotechnics had no effect on Big Tau. Then the net tightened as Beck hit another control. For a moment, Big Tau was completely immobilized. Unfortunately, that moment came and went as Big O was getting to his feet.
Big Tau was half out of the net by the time Big O landed his first punch. But that meant he was still half in, and could not defend himself properly. Big O's punch landed heavily on Big Tau's head. Big O's next blow got him in the throat. Roger let Big O use the arm pistons liberally, doing heavy damage with each blow. Big Tau got in a punch here and there in the beginning, but the remnants of the net still hampered him, and soon he could no longer keep up his defense.
Roger let Big O cock his right arm piston back to maximum power, then said, "It's too bad you didn't approach us in a friendly way. But you kidnapped a Dominus, and that's not something I can forgive. Good-bye!" And Big O landed a terrific blow to Big Tau's head, smashing it. The Megadeus fell onto his back, flattening an abandoned four-story apartment building.
"Core memory destroyed," said Dorothy. After a moment she added, "The Dominus is injured."
Roger and Dorothy had Big O lower them to Big Tau's body. There was a gap in the throat armor that let them inside. R. Dori was already there, and had unwound most of the probe cables.
"He has two broken arms, a broken leg, a broken collarbone, and a concussion," she reported.
"General Dastun is sending an aircraft to take him to the hospital," said Dorothy. "Lets get him ready."
They began preparing the unconscious Dominus for transport. There was no room for Roger to lend a hand at this, so he took a look around. He had a bad feeling about Big Tau. The command deck radiated an uncanny sense of wrongness. Normally the hulk of a Megadeus with a destroyed core memory conveyed nothing more than a sad emptiness. A panel had sprung open, revealing the remains of a long-dead Dominus, little more than a skeleton.
"Our man wasn't the first victim, I see." Roger picked up the white helmet. It had neither insignia nor name. Probably just as well. The victim might even be himself, from an earlier incarnation.
The next day, R. Alan turned off the television at the end of the 5 PM news update. Interesting. Big Tau had been left where he had fallen. His reactor was probably intact. Could Alan snatch it before the vultures descended? A flatbed on an eighteen-wheeler could just manage the load. He'd need a crane, too. All this, and the expertise to operate them, could no doubt be rented.
He wished Persephone were here. She was good at this sort of thing. He missed her. It was lonely without her. It hadn't been nice not to warn her of his little surprises. A girl needs time to prepare! He'd do better next time.
The door opened, and there she was! She looked defiant and a little scared.
"Greetings, my queen!" said Alan. He bowed deeply to her.
"I'm still mad at you," said Persephone.
"Well, of course you are!" he said, smiling. "But I'm delighted with you."
"Is the little kitten your new special friend?"
"Dora? I suppose."
"We all need friends. And what she won't do for me, she might do for you. And how is the baby doll doing?"
"R. Dori? She's okay, I guess, though Beck is still furious with you. He'll kill you if he can."
Alan giggled. "I'm looking forward to it!" Then, still smiling, he said, "Big Tau's body has been abandoned in the Wasteland. It has a perfectly good reactor."
Persephone's eyes widened. "We'll be able to bring Big X back to full consciousness! And he'll be able to move and everything." She was excited by the possibilities. She was convinced that Big X would be far saner at full power, and this would be good for Alan. Big X had told her so himself. "Having a reactor will make everything easier. But how can we get the reactor here?"
"Could the baby doll and Big B sneak it here for us?"
"Not a chance. R. Dori's sworn you off. I think she keeps her promises."
"Has the little kitten sworn me off?"
"She didn't say."
"Find me a truck with a big flatbed trailer, a big mobile crane, and some brawny men who know how to do fast work with cutting torches and explosives, my queen. Time is of the essence."
"All right. We're not going to involve Dora?"
"Not this time, darling. We should all get to know each other better first."
Persephone turned to go, but Alan said. "What do you know about the Dominus of Big Tau?"
"Nothing," Persephone lied.
[To Be Continued]