TITLE: "Cash on the Barrelhead"

AUTHOR:  "Matrix Refugee"

RATING: PG-13 (subject matter, angst)

ARCHIVE: Permission granted

FEEDBACK: Pleasepleasepleaseplease!

DISCLAIMER: Nope, I don't own "A.I.", which belongs to DreamWorks, Steve, Stan, Warner Brothers, et al. If I had any right to the film, there would be a spin-off TV series of it now.

NOTES: This is a rather experimental fic consisting mostly of journal fragments, IM transcripts, newspaper clippings, all sorts of stuff like that. I noticed my fics have been getting long-winded, so in order to avoid this error, I decided to write this cap-off to the series in this very bare-bones format. It's not quite as comic as the first three installments, which might have something to do with the fact that I was reading the novelization of the movie "Road to Perdition" about the same time I was drafting this, which could explain the angst-laden quality to this fic. But there again this is the beta-version of another fic, intended to be the cap-off, which would have, like this version, rooted Cecie's story into the film. But the original had such a downer ending that I just couldn't bear to inflict it on you folks.

SUMMARY: When Joe is resold, Cecie does everything she can to stay close to him.

I: Notice for private auction, Rouge City Broadsheet, 5 November 2165

For sale by owner through private auction, 11 November 2165:

Four Lover-Model Mechas

2 Female 2 Male

--Simulate City JN-8523 "Jane" Five feet, six inches tall, violet black chin-length hair, sapphire blue eyes. Age appearance, about 21

--Simulate City C-8491 "Callie" Four feet, three inches tall, blonde hair, brown eyes. Age appearance, 19 Bubbly personality

--Belladerma R-06251 "Ruggiero" Six feet even, black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. Age appearance, about 40. Default Italian accent

--Companionates JO-4672 "Joe" Five feet ten inches tall, default black hair, green eyes. Default south London accent. Age appearance, about 25. Expert dancer all styles.

By appointment only. Sex traders ONLY. Contact Raymond Flyte at Sapphire Enterprises.

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II: Transcript of an IM, Frank Sweitz ("HeroicReporter23") to Cecie Martin ("RougeCityCecie") 6 November

HeroicReporter23: you read the business section of the Broadsheet?

RougeCityCecie: No, too R-rated to say the least. Why?

HeroicReporter23: there's an ad I'm not sure you want to see.

RougeCityCecie: What? …Where?

HeroicReporter23: page 26

RougeCityCecie: AFK ::getting newspaper::

HeroicReporter23: find it?

HeroicReporter23: talk to me.

HeroicReporter23: Cecie?

RougeCityCecie: here

HeroicReporter23: whatcha find?

RougeCityCecie: It's horrible; it's absolutely bloody horrible. I'll have to have a talk with Mr. Flyte.

HeroicReporter23: I doubt that alone would do much good. He hasn't been in the best of health this year.

RougeCityCecie: First Bernie dying, now this.

HeroicReporter23: I hear yah, Cecie. I'm with you.

HeroicReporter23: think you can convince him otherwise?

RougeCityCecie: I hope I can.

HeroicReporter23: yah got money for it?

RougeCityCecie: I'll figure it out.

HeroicReporter23: You know he won't come cheap. Things like him start at around 40,000 NB

RougeCityCecie: He's more than five years old; he's depreciated.

HeroicReporter23: well, I don't know the black book value, but he can't have dropped below more than 30,000.

RougeCityCecie: This is horrible. This is exactly what the CRF has been talking about.

HeroicReporter23: I know, I don't like it one bit either.

RougeCityCecie: I better go, it's late. I got work to do.

HeroicReporter23: na-night, Cecie.

RougeCityCecie: Take care, Frank.

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III: Bank statement, East Pennsylvania Savings Bank. Cecilia K. Martin. Account#: 6587121-1229

10 November 2165 WDL 15,000 NB

12 November 2165 DEP 15,000 NB

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IV: Transcript of an IM, Cecie Martin to Father Nick Crawford ("FaddahNick") December 6

FaddahNick: You seemed to have something on your mind after Mass today. Is that why you were hanging about the vestibule?

RougeCityCecie: That's why I'm IM'ing you. I decided I couldn't talk to you about it in public.

FaddahNick: I see. Go on.

RougeCityCecie: It's about Joe. They sold him.

FaddahNick: I thought that when I didn't see him hanging about the street in front of the chapel…and that's why you're upset?

RougeCityCecie: Yes. My-life-is-over and all that kind of self-serving crud.

FaddahNick: Maybe you really need to feel the pain; it isn't a sin, you know. Or am I reading it wrong?

RougeCityCecie: I should, but I can't let myself do it. It's like he died, but he didn't, so it just doesn't seem like the right thing to do, to mourn him.

FaddahNick: I think there's a little too much of the Mecha that's got into you. That's not meant to be a criticism, mind you.

RougeCityCecie: I won't deny that. My father used to say 'You lie down with the dogs, you get fleas.'

RougeCityCecie: Got a flea collar for me, faddah?

FaddahNick: laughs No, you have to find that out for yourself. You have to decide what you want to do with these feelings.

FaddahNick: I know what Joe meant to you and your love for him is beautiful.

RougeCityCecie: WAS beautiful.

FaddahNick: You admitted you chose to take it to another level, although there's questions about how culpable you were, given the circumstances.

RougeCityCecie: He offered himself to me. I accepted him. And my life has been hell ever since.

FaddahNick: What do you want to do now?

RougeCityCecie: I want to be with him whom my heart longs for.

FaddahNick: Are you sure that's what you really want? Are you sure that's what God wants for you?

RougeCityCecie: He's given me these feelings and they're eating me up inside.

FaddahNick: Are you sure it's the right thing?

RougeCityCecie: I'm not sure of anything.

FaddahNick: I can't tell you what to choose. I can help you avoid making mistakes, but I can't tell you what to decide. You have to take counsel with the Spirit.

RougeCityCecie: I have. And it seems I'm supposed to find Joe.

FaddahNick: But is that what you really want?

RougeCityCecie: I don't know how else to get any closure on this.

FaddahNick: So who do you think can help you look for Joe?

RougeCityCecie: I asked Vautrin; he said he'd see if he could find the bill of sale, but he said it might not be so simple. If not, I guess I have to go it on my own.

RougeCityCecie: This is what I deserve. I screwed up the relationship with Joe.

FaddahNick: Don't punish yourself, Cecie.

RougeCityCecie: I've made up my mind, and you know how stubborn I am.

FaddahNick: All right, but remember Rodrigo's choice in Claudel's "The Satin Slipper": the indirect way to God is the more arduous.

RougeCityCecie: It's also more interesting. And arguably more meritorious.

FaddahNick: gently chiding smile You always find theological ways to justify your ideas.

RougeCityCecie: It wouldn't be me if I didn't.

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V: CRF website, Articles. 12 December

"Boy for Sale" by Cecilia K. Martin

My best friend Joe was sold recently. He wasn't a beloved pet I had to sacrifice because of allergies or because I couldn't afford to keep him. Joe is a male lover-Mecha. I met him when I first moved to Rouge City a few years back when I had then recently finished college. Since I grew up in the still-puritanical Western Massachusetts, well-meaning adults warned me time and again about the dangers of sex Mechas, that the males were more predatory than the worst of Orga men. But Joe, an utterly irresistible black-haired charmer, quick-witted and light on his feet, adequately dispelled this myth for me.

I never viewed him as a mere machine; often he seemed poised on the line that separates Orga from Mecha, at the verge of transcending his programming and stepping across the gulf. To me, he was a cynically sprightly young man about my own age (minus twenty years); the only difference between our natures was constitution. Turing's test worked so well that I fell in love with him two years after I met him, and I had never made use of his more intimate capabilities, probably a rare occurrence. He found this quirk of mine unusual, but he respected it. Still, he used to test me a little from time to time, given his nature and the way I triggered his pursuit centers. But even I am not made of stone: one night when I was ill and he sat beside me, keeping me company, I let myself loose and let him draw me into his embrace.

I can understand people's reaction, why they speak of lover Mechas in bated whispers, view them as predators. But in Joe's case, this simply isn't so. He knew, either from programming or from cross-referencing, the meaning of the word "no!", that I had boundaries I did not want crossed until the night I lowered them. Lest you think all my experiences with male lover-Mechas has never presented danger, I've encountered my share of pushy and even aggressive Mechas and lived to tell the tale. But this did not "cure" me of my fondness for Joe. It only reinforced it since he was the different one, the gentle one.

A friend of mine, another writer, lost his wife recently, killed when an anti-Mecha terrorist cell bombed a hotel in Vrilitaria where he and his wife were enjoying a second honeymoon. I couldn't imagine the sense of loss Harley (not his real name) must be feeling in the wake of this tragedy, but then I lost Joe, a comparable if not entirely similar case. Something like this carries the same dynamics as the loss of a spouse, but in my case, I don't have the luxury of closure, of having at least a gravesite to visit. I can only wonder where Joe is now, who owns him, what kind of place it is. An upscale agency? A low-scale club? Or is he a street prostitute? Does his owner maintain him carefully? Or has he suffered as I have seen other Mecha suffer: beatings, confinement, burned with cigarettes, even deliberately damaged beyond repair and tossed out into the woods, marginally functioning.

I was ready to pay cash on the barrelhead, most of my life's savings, to pay for Joe's freedom when his previous owner put him up for sale. It was a "by appointment only" private auction, but I slipped in before to convince his owner to let me buy Joe.

He refused. He admired my determination, but he needed the money to pay for his medical bills. I lingered, watching the proceedings from the safety of the shadows at the back of the dining room where the auction, a silent one, was being held.

I endured watching the potential buyers examine Joe, quiz him on the number of clients he'd served and the rate of satisfaction. One female buyer wanted to engage him then and there, but thankfully she was not allowed to. They even ordered him to disrobe, a perfect sight for sore eyes (and mine were!) but it only scalded my eyes to see him naked before a group of well-dressed, prosperous businesspeople. The slave markets of the Deep South in the first half of the 1800s came to mind, or perhaps more appropriately, the slave markets of the Roman Empire, where a male slave might be bought as a laborer or as a kept lover.

Security detected my presence and tried to put me out, but true to my headstrong Irish nature, I went out by my own foot power. I didn't even get a chance to exchange a last loving glance with him, from across the room; partings like that only happen in movies. I never found out who bought Joe. Harley likes to joke saying some bosomy old dowager posing as a procuress bought Joe and now keeps him as a kind of human lapdog, but we both realize that's doubtlessly not the case.

I asked a friend of mine lucky enough to have access to records for the sex trade commission in Rouge City, but he wasn't allowed to see the bill of sale himself. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't help me at all.

These brick walls only make my desire to find Joe more fervent. The longing for just the mere innocent pleasure of his company has grown more ardent. I wonder if, in the U.S. South during the first half of the 1800s, a young white woman ever felt the same way as I feel for Joe, for an African slave whom she had practically grown up alongside, but whom her father or some other insensitive figure of authority sold, tearing them away from each other. I wonder if, like me, she went on her own quest through the South, searching for her friend, in slave markets and on other plantations. Perhaps her pain inspired her to join the abolition movement emerging. I only hope she, and I, would be lucky and blessed enough to find her beloved alive and intact.

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VI: IM Frank to Cecie, 26 December

RougeCityCecie: So how are you holding up?

HeroicReporter23: Not too, thinking about Bern. I swear sometimes she's just in the next room reading and that she'll come in, hug me around the neck, call me to help with supper…

RougeCityCecie: I know a little what you're feeling. Some days I'm out walking and I spot a guy (usually but now always a Mecha) who looks a lot like Joe. But then I get closer and I realize it isn't him.

HeroicReporter23: Green eyes? Black hair?

RougeCityCecie: Yeah. 8'^(

HeroicReporter23: who was it wrote the haiku about the guy finding his wife's comb in the bedroom?

RougeCityCecie: Lemme get my book

RougeCityCecie: Buson:

"The piercing chill I feel

My dead wife's comb, in our bedroom

Under my heel."

HeroicReporter23: Bernie's perfume, the stuff I gave her for Christmas last year. It was me she really wanted it for, but she didn't let on. Found a blouse of hers that still had some on it.

HeroicReporter23: a soft silken blouse

From its folds a rose scented mist

HeroicReporter23: stuck on the last line. Damn.

RougeCityCecie: It's okay; I see where you want to go.

HeroicReporter23: anyone since Joe?

RougeCityCecie: No.

HeroicReporter23: Alex…?

RougeCityCecie: NO!!

RougeCityCecie: 8'^P

HeroicReporter23: ???

RougeCityCecie: Too feisty!

HeroicReporter23: and Joe wasn't?

RougeCityCecie: Not the same way.

RougeCityCecie: What about you?

HeroicReporter23: what?

RougeCityCecie: Any special someone?

HeroicReporter23: nah.

HeroicReporter23: met up with this girl Mecha that looked like the one You Know Who had his eye on.

HeroicReporter23: Forget that! I hit the send button too fast.

RougeCityCecie: No, go on if you need to talk.

HeroicReporter23: so…we found us a little dark corner.

HeroicReporter23: CENSORED!!!

RougeCityCecie: ;8'^)

HeroicReporter23: wasn't the same as it used to be. Bernie's always gonna be my gal.

RougeCityCecie: Just as Joe's always gonna be my fella.

HeroicReporter23: so I went to confession the very next day. Felt like I cheated on Bernie.

RougeCityCecie: She'd understand either way.

HeroicReporter23: I hope

HeroicReporter23: can't get myself off here.

RougeCityCecie: I know.

HeroicReporter23: stalling. Don't want to go to sleep. Bed's too big and it's a twin.

RougeCityCecie: Go on, stay with me, Frank.

HeroicReporter23: slept on the couch; that's too big. Slept on the floor for a while. Trouble is…we had that nice Berber carpet in the den…

HeroicReporter23: CENSORED!!!

HeroicReporter23: you hear about Kip and Phila?

RougeCityCecie: Yeah, terrible shame. Phila is devastated.

HeroicReporter23: Bern and me qualified, but they didn't. I'm still eligible, I just have to find a woman who's qualified.

RougeCityCecie: They don't exactly grow on trees these days. Most of 'em give up on marriage.

HeroicReporter23: tell me about it! Most of the guys at the paper want to get married and have a kid, but there's only two girls out of a couple dozen who do.

RougeCityCecie: I imagine.

RougeCityCecie: Any news on Hal?

HeroicReporter23: he got taken off the VR simulator. I saw him two weeks ago: looked terrible.

RougeCityCecie: Did he ever look all right?

HeroicReporter23: he looked bad even in his baby pictures/

HeroicReporter23: you all right, Cecie?

RougeCityCecie: Yeah, I've been looking at old picture Hal took at the wedding, Joe and me.

HeroicReporter23: me see?

Picture Upload: tango.jpg bridge.jpg waltz.jpg

HeroicReporter23: you look great there, both of you.

RougeCityCecie: Thanks

HeroicReporter23: that when you started falling for him?

RougeCityCecie: No, not that I noticed. That came later, when he got messed up with Allison Diocletian, and I got really mad at Joe.

HeroicReporter23: ouch. Who could blame you? That must have made you jealous.

RougeCityCecie: It did.

HeroicReporter23: Talk to me.

HeroicReporter23: wake up, Cecie

HeroicReporter23: knock, knock, Cecie

HeroicReporter23: I guess the Matrix has her.

Auto-response from RougeCityCecie: ::Has peanut butter in her ears::

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VII: Extracts from Cecie's journal

31 December: Frank came over, cooked, chatted. Reminisced. Went for a walk. It's snowing like crazy, but that's hardly put a damper on the festivities outside. Some idiot with a water blaster was blasting people on Harlot Square, us among them, so we ran back to my hotel room, drenched. Let him borrow an old robe of my dad's while his clothes dried.

I don't know how it got started, but we ended up on my couch, him on top of me, cuddling, kissing, deep. It was just about to get out of hand, I'd slid my hand inside the front of the robe he had on, when I came to my senses. I guess I mistook him for Joe. I pushed him away. I was startled. He looked at me a little puzzled, then I explained what had happened. He let it go. His stuff had dried by then, so, in his own words, he did the gentlemanly thing to do and went away.

3 January 2166: Could hardly sleep last night. I kept running one hand over my skin, imagining it was Joe's hand, so softer, almost as soft as or softer than my own.

Oh, Joey, where are you?

9 January: It's burning me alive. I can't think, can't write. I'm of a mind to pack my things and go. But where? I'm a pariah in Westhillston. I no longer belong here in Rouge City. Too much here to remind me of Joe.

10 January: Dreamt of Joe, simple innocent things at first, almost a replay of our meeting, then more ardent. We both seemed to meld together, like two drops of mercury.

12 January: Half-awake dream vision. Joe lying beside me, arms folded under his perfectly molded chin, not blunt, not pointed, elegantly in between, his eyes cocked at me. 'Care for some?' they seem to ask. I reached out. And I woke up....alone.

15 January: My rent is due. Work to finish. Thank God for the digital age, post-paper (mostly) or I'd be sending tear-stained work to Dreyfus, the new agent, and he wouldn't be amused.

22 January: I haven't written in this in a week since I had a fever of unknown origin. The doctors at Saints Memorial in Camden have no idea what this is since they couldn't find any traces of viruses or anything else. They think it's psychosomatic, brought on by stress. They have me in therapy now.

23 January: Dr. Montay Quivar. He? She? …Both? Pick one to make it easier: she. At least she's Catholic and she recognizes where I'm coming from, but I get the feeling she wants me to move on to another Mecha.

24 January: Relapse. Phila wants me to move in with her and Kip so she can keep an eye on me, but that's impossible since Frank is living with them and there's no room for me. I'm glad I won't be living there: seeing Frank day after day would kill me.

25 January: I'm on meds now, nasty little green pill things. Just one look into Joe's green eyes would do me more good than any number of pills.

27 January: Sleep, sleep, sleep. My best friend and my worst enemy. I'm working again, but I look forward to bedtime, slip between the sheets warm, soft, inviting; fabric caressing my skin. I haven't thought of Joe all day, but at night, when my eyelids close, I dream he's there: lying across the covers, keeping watch; nestled beside me, sometimes entwined with me. No one can fault me for dreaming of him.

28 January: another relapse: this one moral. I returned to the bad habits of my youth. It doesn't work any more. Moral considerations aside, the pleasure of the flesh is something you really have to share with your beloved one. You get more out of it that way, and you have something to give of yourself as well.

Went to confession. I confess my longings for Joe a thousand times, and still I keep doing it.

30 January: Frank found an apartment in Haddonfield, over the line in New Jersey. For the moment, I'm living with Kip and Phila. I keep out of their way. I've limited myself to two small meals a day: I've found that keeps my hormones in check. Leave me too hungry to think of anything else.

Phila wants me to leave Rouge City all together. I'm almost too tired to object…bad sign if Cecie Martin does not feel like fighting. Bad trouble indeed!

1 February: I'm half awake, half asleep this morning, remembering that first painfully blissful night with Joe, he lying on his side, carefully holding me locked to himself, waves of pleasure washing over and through my being, even as twinges prick my side where Jay had stabbed me.

I shouldn't think this way, even when I'm drowsy.

14 Feb. St. Valentine's Day: Went to Frank's "St. Valentine's Day Massacre Party" at his apartment. He'd invited a lot of his crazy friends at the Broadsheet, amongst others, so his living room looked like the greenroom of a theatre during a production of Guys and Dolls. I went dressed as an Irish girl gangster (fedora, man's suit with loud vest, water gun painted black); Frank was an unheroic-looking photographer (he hadn't shaved and I think he had Hal's hat on), complete with antique camera. I had a great time, but when I took the bullet train home, my heart started to break.

Joe may as well be dead. St. Valentine's Day…I think I remember Vautrin telling me this day is Joe's inception day. This info only makes my pain worse.

Consider this:

I hated dolls as a kid. I could never abide them, especially the Supertoy ones that you could almost mistake for someone's little sister. (I've heard from several sources that supposedly Allen Hobby, the director of Cybertronics in Manhattan and New Jersey, has been trying to build a kid-sized Mecha, but nothing's been conclusive). My mom tried to get me interested in dolls, but I was more of a stuffed animal kid. The quiet, cuddly little thing variety; the Supertoy variety spooked me a little.

Service droids. I never though about them, any more than you think about street sweepers. Receptionist Mechas in doctor's offices used to spook me as kid, but I got used to them. Serving men and maids in a few people's homes: I saw them as no different than flesh and blood servants.

Some people argue that lover-Mechas are just adult versions of the classic "Barbie and Ken" dolls. I don't argue their point; in some cases, it's true. But Joe—though he fit the mold—was much more than that to me.

So considering the above facts, why am I bent out of shape over Joe?

The simplest explanation is that he's not just a Mecha to me. He is my beloved, and if it were possible, I am his. We know each other inside and out, he and I. We have comforted each other, even though he doesn't "need" comfort. There's times when I wish I had the same hold of my emotions, not that he really has any in the broadest sense.

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VIII: IM Frank to Cecie, 16 February

HeroicReporter23: EXTRA! EXTRA!! READ ALL ABOUT IT!!!

RougeCityCecie: ::deafened:: WHAAAATT???

HeroicReporter23: you'll never guess who I spotted last night when I was in the rough part of Haddonfield covering s breaking story.

RougeCityCecie: Who?

HeroicReporter23: I didn't get a chance to really find out if that's who it really was, but…

RougeCityCecie: But what?

HeroicReporter23: … … …

RougeCityCecie: You're killing me, Frank.

HeroicReporter23: I spotted this Mecha who looked an awful lot like Joe.

RougeCityCecie: Really?

HeroicReporter23: yeah.

RougeCityCecie: How did he look?

HeroicReporter23: about the same. You show know by now that Mechas don't change.

RougeCityCecie: I know that, but I didn't know but his new owners didn't reset his defaults.

HeroicReporter23: nope, he looked about the same as always does: like me.

RougeCityCecie: Did you get a chance to speak to him?

HeroicReporter23: didn't, sorry.

RougeCityCecie: 'Sallight.

RougeCityCecie: Could you find out who's got him?

HeroicReporter23: Hey, I thought Vautrin was helping you out on that.

RougeCityCecie: He isn't allowed to access the record.

HeroicReporter23: well, that bites. Hal could help you on that one, but he's can't get to the technology for that. I could help you, but that would mean making a lot of weird phone calls. There's gotta be five escort services working out of this town, and I'd feel weird doing it. I ain't Hal.

RougeCityCecie: I'LL do it. You don't have to get your hands dirty, Frank.

HeroicReporter23: I don't want you to, either.

RougeCityCecie: I understand, but this is something I have to do, or else I'll never have closure.

HeroicReporter23: is it closure or is it starting over?

RougeCityCecie: I'm taking the Fifth.

HeroicReporter23: you're incriminating yourself anyway. Hal taught me that much. "No one takes the Fifth unless they got something to hide."

RougeCityCecie: Dang reporters.

HeroicReporter23: heh, heh, heh, heh.

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IX: Extract from Cecie's journal, 19 February 2166

I started logging onto escort service websites for the Haddonfield area. I won't go into detail: these have to be the most embarrassing kinds of sites to log onto, even after I've lived in a sleazy city for four years. But I finally found the one, Blue Diamond, operating out of a hotel, the Mirrored Room. After a little rummaging about the Yellow Pages, I found the mailing address. I can barely bring myself to call them and send for Joe like anyone else hiring his services. So I'm going to proceed with caution, break the ice carefully. I'll do the old-fashioned thing and write to him. Yes, actually use a pen to write words on a real piece of paper.

To be continued…