"An individual whose death is not otherwise established under this section but who is absent for a continuous period of five years is presumed to be dead if the person has made no contact with another person during the five-year period and the absence of the person cannot be satisfactorily explained after diligent search or inquiry. A person presumed dead under this subsection is presumed to have died at the end of the five-year period unless it is proved by a preponderance of the evidence that death occurred at a different time-"

"Hold on, wait, wait... I thought it was seven years, right? Federal statute is seven years."

"Oregon law states five years."

"Now, that doesn't make any sense to me. There needs to be a unified seven years across the board for the nation."

"State's rights should always prevail over Federal."

"Now, normally I'd agree with you, but in this case, we're not talking legalized marijuana. We're talking the fact that someone could lose all their personal assets."

"John, what we're not talking about here is someone leaving and running off to join the circus. These people aren't spending those assets, they haven't touched them for five years. We're talking about people who are missing and presumed dead."

Radio tuned into the discussion, the car slumped along the winding back road, echoing its driver's exhaustion. Long hours on the road were now dragging themselves into an even longer evening. Unfortunately, it hadn't began at the crack of dawn with a desperately needed cup of coffee - nor would it end with a stiff drink and a comfortable bed. The weather wasn't helping either; it was a typical November night down in the Portland area, driving rain and windy gusts that made the motorist alternate between taps of the brake and surges of gas in an effort to keep the nose-heavy vehicle from hydroplaning. Even though the heater was cranked up as high as it would go, the sharp slope of the rear window had long fogged over completely. Long streaks of condensation raced down the curve and dripped down into the cargo compartment. They pooled into a damp spot that stained the grey nylon carpeting with concentric rings of rust.

As the car rounded a corner, high-beams blazed brightly into the center of the windshield and strobed along the inside of the passenger compartment.

Disorientated and partially blinded by the bright flash of the oncoming vehicle, the driver yanked the steering wheel and overcompensated to the right. Immediately, the sports car skittered and hopped as it began to fish-tail on the wet pavement, and then the rear tires bounced off the abrupt edge of the roadway and caught gravel. Rock sprayed out from underneath the car and rattled against the muffler and undercarriage. The driver yelped and desperately tried to snap the car back onto the roadway before yelping again at the fact that the oncoming truck's front bumper was way over the double yellow line and closing in fast on their left rear quarter panel.

The word 'dead' seemed to be lingering way too long within the dim interior, but the two cars managed to squeak by each other without incident. Swerving erratically over the line again, the truck continued slithering down the road as the sports car shuddered to a stop. Steam curled up out from between the hood gaps and trailed out from underneath the hubs as the front tires shimmed back and forth, mirroring the nervous twist of the steering wheel.

Heaving a heavy sigh of relief that could be heard over the tick-a-tick of the car's rattling engine, the driver tweaked the rear-view mirror, adjusting it to eye the other vehicle's departure worriedly until the dull glow of the red running lights evaporated into the smear of the rain.

It was probably a drunk, thinking they were safe from being pulled over by the clever combination of back road, time of night, and bad weather. Luckily, the sports car hadn't passed anyone else in this area of the suburbs for ten minutes, so hopefully no one else was in danger of getting run off the road. Wait, no, there were those two State Patrol officers parked on the merge of Highway 99 a few miles back, apparently discussing their shift change.

The driver hesitated, watching the rain sheet across the low-slung nose of the black vehicle, and then chuckled faintly. Sometimes, the cops were exactly where you needed them.

When no other headlights appeared, the car rolled forward through the pool of water gathered in the low curve of asphalt. Sucked from the gravel, mud spattered from underneath the wheel wells. Layers of road dirt interspersed with tar and oil and left streamers of silt swirling across the surface of the standing water beneath it.

Pulling carefully back onto the road, the driver looked left and right as the steering wheel thrummed uncomfortably from side to side, tires tugged by the drag of the gravel. The radio knob echoed the wobble, but the tiny orange indicator bar didn't slip too far from the station. Instead, it crept aside just enough to turn the discussion between the two men on the airwaves into rattling static, then inched nervously back in time to capture the next sentence.

"What I don't get is why is the insurance company is fighting this poor family tooth and nail? I mean, the guy's been missing for ten years, that's way over both state and federal mandates..."

"Technically, it's because of the way the policy's worded."

"Worded? Seriously?"

"Yes, because the policy states it will pay out for accidental death or murder, but not for suicides."

"Suicide? There's no proof that he committed suicide."

"No, there isn't. However, they've bricked the family up in court, holding off on a five hundred thousand dollar settlement because there's no proof the other way, either. Okay, time to give our listeners a chance to sound off tonight, so let's go to the phones and take a call. KXL 750 - Deborah from Salem, you're on the air."

"Hi, John, thank you for taking my call. I'm a long time listener, first time caller, and what I want to know is-"

Speakers hissed into an audio tantrum as the radio's reception hit a dead zone. Even twiddling the tuner dial from side to side didn't capture the program back; the crackle got worse and worse. Here and there a word managed to work itself free and escape the airwaves. The driver wasn't too surprised though; this area had never gotten great AM reception, residing as it did in the low landscape between the Dalles and Portland. As they coasted the car to a stop, they finally gave up and clicked the radio off. Instantly, the void of sound was filled by the staccato drumbeat of the rain. It bounced off the steel of the car's roof and hood, rolling down the peak to stream over the dented blue and gold licence plate.

Crouched over the puddles in the roadway, the vehicle waited patiently for direction, its only motion a rhythmic swish-slap of stiff windshield wipers. The pop-up headlights dimmed and brightened slightly as the yellow directional blinker flicked on and off, expressing the driver's intent to turn right and enter the cul-de-sac.

This late at night, no glow from within lit the windows of the houses. Only the filmy pink haze of a dim street light shone down as the bitter November air slashed through the row of neat hedges and shuffled the waxy leaves of the laurels back, exposing the brown skeletons of the branches. It was a middle-class neighborhood, neat and trim; the yards were short and the leaves raked into bulging black trash bags that were mounded next to the mailboxes. Plastic waste cans leaned against them, awaiting the garbage men that would mobilize to do their duty at the crack of dawn.

Every Thursday. Like clockwork.

Funny, how some things never seemed to change, the driver realized as they slowed down to eye the names on the mailboxes before rolling slowly forward. For fifteen years, they'd been picking up the trash on that day of the week in this neighborhood. Heck, for probably twenty more years after this, the trucks would thunder down into the quiet little suburb; the bang and pop of the metal lids would set the escort of ancient, waddling Labradors barking furiously as they charged the chain link and picket fences, valiantly sallying forth to protect their property.

Headlights flashed up the gentle slope of the last concrete driveway , drawing the low-slung vehicle after them. Three taps of the brakes coasted the car to a stop; there was a hard thunk as the transmission disengaged; and then the engine rumbled down in idle. Lifters chattered, but the sound was swallowed by the tinny pater of water dripping down off of the bare limbs of the huge oak that towered next to the open-sided carport. It was a massive, solid tree; the roots were actually pushing up the left corner of the driveway and had crumbled pieces off of the thick concrete slab.

Underneath the dry awning of the carport, illuminated by the twin beams of the car, stacks of boxes and black garbage bags were piled on and around a simple white table. Next to that, a floral patterned sofa rested, stacked with a brass lamp and half of a broken dresser.

The click and tick of the car's cooling engine became even more prominent as the lights slowly closed; folding down into the sleek nose of the dark vehicle.

Sitting quietly for a moment, the driver took a deep, rattling breath, as if gathering the courage to open the car door and step out into the darkness.

Then the car lurched awkwardly, as if they'd forgotten to keep their foot on the brake.

It folded in on itself like someone was practicing a turn at metal origami. The sweep of the hood jumped into the air as the trunk swivelled and snapped back on itself, twisting the beam of its spoiler up and around. Tires uninflated, rims quartered and slid within each piece, then vanished, tucked away underneath the curve of shoulder and back. Extraneous bits and pieces disappeared, stuffed within pockets of plating: door handles, tail lights, side mirrors, the short, upright whip of the antenna.

Crouched in the wet driveway, angling her weight on fingertip and toe like a hundred-yard sprinter tucked into the starting blocks, Dart warily lifted her head and blew a long stream of air out of her intakes.

Then again, some things literally had changed... er, no car to robot pun intended.

Slowly, she pushed off with her fingertips and stood upright, turning her head from side to side, trying to spot if anyone had seen her arrival or subsequent transformation. No, the neighborhood was completely silent; this wasn't a night fit for man, beast, or even a car parked outside of a snug garage.

Rain slapped itself against her plating. The courier turned her head and briefly leaned her chin against her shoulder, listening to the hush of the water and the wind.

Once Dart knew she would have complained about the bad fall weather, only thinking of how it disrupted and ruined her daily routine. Now, she welcomed it; rainy days and nights often found many of the other Decepticons staying inside the ship, preferring to rattle some dice or play a hard-betting game of cards unless they were ordered out somewhere. Actually, it kept a lot of the Autobots inside the Ark as well, which was kind of nice; less chance of a random encounter on the highway or while running through the passes.

Apparently, back on Cybertron, rain or water wasn't something the mechs had much friendly exposure to. There were always stories floating around of red-tinged acid streaking from the sky, pitting the walkways and the plating of those unable to duck under shelter. Usually, they were followed up by tales about pools of stagnating chemicals that had collected in the lower levels of the planet and how they were great places to hide a body or two.

It wasn't that the Decepticons didn't know that the rain here on Earth was nothing more than a nuisance. It seemed to be merely an ingrained response that some of them just couldn't shake. Not that she had anywhere to talk; she sniffed everything before she drank it.

A creaking sound brittled through the rush of the rain. Immediately, the courier stiffened, her spoiler rattling across her narrow shoulders. She spun quickly to face the noise, expecting to see the neighbor's front porch door fling open, lashing out a beam of light between the houses. Flexing her knees, she shoved her toe back behind her and tensed, prepared to bolt off. These past years had hammered home one thing; the best chance of avoiding what could end up as a bad situation was... well, running away, in the opposite direction.

Swinging her nose left and right, she sucked in only the familiar waft of a sleeping neighborhood. It wasn't the sound of a door after all. Slowly, she lowered her heels back to the pavement and peered across up the driveway where a metal yard sign's thin chain links twisted in the wind. Stark black letters on white signboard slashed out a sharp diagonal explanation as to why their presence was now anchored deep into the sodden lawn.

The courier drew back a step, trying to find a position where she could read it better. Slowly, she scanned the board again, then a third time, as if the words might change the longer she squinted at them.

Government Auction. Saturday, eleven to three.

Emotion crept up quietly into her throat; it was one that had been buried deep, rusty and abandoned as an old silo. She frowned for a second, and then shook her head.

Well, what else did you expect? Seriously, you knew this was going to happen.

Sure, the house was paid for completely, thanks to the settlements from the life insurance and airline, but of course, the yearly property taxes weren't. Those built up, along with the electric bill and the sewer bill and heck, the mail and the newspapers on the porch; she figured that someone would have realized that she hadn't been heard from or seen and then...

With no living relatives and no will, the house passed onto the state to deal with. She guessed that how it worked was that they would probably take what was owed in taxes and then put the rest into an account. If the leftovers weren't claimed in the time allotted, the money would be sucked into the bottomless depths of the state's coffers.

Maybe it's used to repair the roads or put up traffic lights.

She had to allow herself a pained grin at the irony of that thought. Well, a few less potholes never hurt. Especially when she now had six inches of clearance on her underside.

Dart settled her left hand on her hip and pressed her thumb against the magnetic lock on her pannier, clicking it open and shut. Her fingers started to slip within as if she was tucking her hand into a pocket. They were halfway in when she caught herself. Guiltily, she ducked her head and removed them, snapping the carrier closed as she went back to looking at the Bi-level.

Five years was already too much time for a house to sit abandoned and empty. The lack of care proclaimed itself in the weeds that were forcing their way up through the porch steps, painted along the gutters with the strings of green algae bearding down from the rain spouts. A pile of newspapers kicked to one side of the porch had dissolved into a gelling lump of half-transparent fiber. Fish-belly, sickly white mushrooms slumped over the mess, barely holding on to the remains of words with grasping, skeletal fingers.

Rotten leaves were plastered against the river rock chimney, and branches were on the roof, including a massive limb from the oak itself. It had probably been knocked down by the terrible ice storm they'd gotten in the area last year.

Those sorts of storms happened every few years or so down in Portland. Moist warm air drifting in from the south and the southwest met the colder air coming down the Gorge. Often, it just resulted in sleet that melted away as it hit the warmer ground, but sometimes, it roared in and accumulated. Everything became so thick with ice that it appeared to be dipped in glass.

She'd had to trot through one once and it had been more unnerving than she would have expected. Her vehicle mode had been completely useless; her geared rear wheel drive had spun her tailpipe to hood all up the interstate. Even at a slow crawl, she'd slid out of control around even the gentlest of corners. There had been no city lights due to the widespread power outage, and the ice waged a battle with the trees all night long.

Eerie silence had reigned, broken only by the bone-crack of limbs and branches crashing to the ground. The explosions were the worst, booming retorts that had sent her scrabbling for cover, eyeing the abandoned cars on the roadways with trepidation before she realized, no, no not Autobots... that it was because the trees were literally exploding from their cores, unable to support the immense weight of four to five inches of glaze ice.

Dart glanced up at the roof again and sighed. If they'd taken the time to cut the lawn and trim the hedge before the auction, they should have taken that branch down as well; it had probably ruined the shingles. She had this urge to trot over and do it herself; if she stood on her tiptoes, she could probably lean at least partially over the peak and slide it free.

Unfortunately, there was also a chance she'd punch herself or it through the roof. Not a good idea.

Stepping carefully forward on the rain-slicked concrete driveway, the courier walked towards the carport, stopping briefly at one of the support beams to offer the house an affectionate, gentle pat. White paint peeled off in birch-bark strips and stuck to her wet metal. She eyed it, then apologetically reached up and touched the beam once more before she wiped the flaking color off on her thigh and ducked under the eave into the open garage.

Water dripped off her plating and puddled on the smooth concrete beneath her. She couldn't stand at her full height here; she had to hunker down and pad forward. The tips of her spoiler nearly got caught on one of the cross-beams, but she finally was able to ease her way to where she was standing in front of the junk piled at the end of the carport.

Carefully, she crouched down, set her hands against the top of the closest trash bag and tugged. The plastic shredded immediately, popping at the seams like a bag of theater candy. Clothing tumbled out, knotted and rumpled; everything from a shirt that was so neon green it could be seen from a mile away to well worn and rather holed undergarments. The courier ducked her head to hide her embarrassment as she quickly sorted the fabric aside into a pile - great, yeah, someone who'd been stuck cleaning the house out had their hands on her underwear. Well, at least there was one good thing about sporting a die-cast bikini of sorts; she'd never have to worry about some stranger touching anything that had been on her crotch ever, ever again.

A man's sweater came out of the pile. Once a rich cocoa brown, it had been washed so many times now that it had faded into mottled coffee with cream, patched with denim on both elbows. She picked it up in her hand, glanced apprehensively around, and then shoved her nose into it, pulling the scent into her sensors. It smelled of musty wood, lanolin, and then the smell she'd been hoping for drifted through and caused her optics to shutter tight. Molecules of odor were snatched and held up and measured to memory; the musky warmth of Old Spice and the sharp astringency of wood shellac and pine shavings from the workshop in the basement.

She held the scent in her nose for a long moment, and then finally let it slowly hiss out of her intakes. Gently, she set the sweater aside on the arm of the sofa and dug back into the bag.

Bouncing toe over heel, a lone purple, sparkly jelly shoe came to rest on the concrete beside her, next to a balled handful of paper scraps and cover-less magazines. Pawing through the slick print, Dart scattered pages across the carport floor as she kept picking through the bag. Something rattled, and then out spilled an interlocked jumble of two plastic horses. The galloping model had three legs; the other was a scratched and mangled Breyer Man O' War that had obviously been attacked with nail polish remover in an effort to make him into a pinto. It also had melted his left eye and ear into a deformed stub, poor toy. She pushed them aside with the back of her hand, letting them continue their decades old battle on top of a jean jacket and turned to the next trash bag.

Three bags later, the corner of the garage looked like a gang of raccoons had been on a quest to discover the Holy Grail. Dart squatted uncomfortably on her haunches, rubbed her nose with the side of her left hand and eyed the mess.

Well, someone had finally managed to clean out the basement.

The rain pattered dully on the roof of the carport as the courier rose halfway to her feet and stretched out as far as she was able under the confines of the roof. Her spoiler chattered out a sigh as it lifted up and over her shoulders, then settled itself back with a creak and was still. Carefully, she extended one foot behind her and then the other, attempting to work out the uncomfortable twinge in her knees before she huddled back down again, pushing the broken lamp and the table aside so she could get to the boxes underneath it.

Old supermarket apple boxes. She knew it even before she glanced at the logo on the side, just by the faint scent of over-ripe fruit still clinging to the cardboard. They were damp and moldy. Obviously, they'd been out here a while; she was surprised she could still smell the apples that had once been in them. She bent her head to sniff lightly at it again, and snorted as she sucked in a good whiff of decaying cardboard and slime. Instantly, she jerked back and pawed at her nose with the backs of her hands; trying to wipe the foul odor back out of her olfactory sensors. The side of the box collapsed in a slow motion, soggy souffle.

A cassette tape dodged out of the mess and skipped across the carport. Dart stopped snorting and clapped one hand down on it, swiftly pinning it down before it could bounce out and onto the wet driveway. Gingerly, she worked her thumb and forefinger around it until she could lift it into her palm to see what band it was.

Duran Duran. Big hair, men with eye shadow, and of course who could forget Simon Le Bon... Finally, something that she could listen to that didn't have commercial breaks. She didn't mind radio, really, but she didn't like advertising blaring in her audios every five minutes. Whatever study it was that insisted stations never played commercials any louder than regular programming were liars, for sure. Reaching back, she thumbed her hip-carrier open and dropped the tape inside.

She wondered how the tape had ended up in this incredibly random box of stuff - twine, paperbacks with the covers torn off, pens, pencils, a tangled mess of track and field ribbons mixed around a crushed handful of Pepsi cans. It was surprising that none of the people going through the contents of the house had snagged the flattened aluminum to redeem the five cent deposit.

A mangled college-rule spiral notebook rested in there as well. Easing it flat on the floor, she smoothed the chewed cover bit to try and read the blurred ink on the pages. Her own handwriting seemed so messy.

Wait, had she handwritten anything since she'd - no. Weird. She hadn't even realized it, but everything around Decepticon headquarters was keyboarded, typed in and loaded from one computer to another or to the handheld datapads. She hesitated, then extended her finger again and quickly scrawled her name in the grime on the cement, looked at it, and then scrubbed it out with her palm, grinding her neat cursive back into the concrete. At least she still remembered how it went, round out the d, loop the a, peak the r...

Writing by hand seemed to be one more archaic skill. Similar to knocking when she waited outside of someone's door back at base. She'd tried to remember to push the touch pads to chime her arrival, but any time she was nervous about a forthcoming meeting, she forgot completely and rapped her knuckles on the solid metal slabs.

She nudged the box aside with the back of her arm and reached for the next one. It was stacked haphazardly with hardbacks books. They'd sat on the built in shelves for years; she didn't think any of them had ever actually read many of them. It had been a standing joke at the house that they got to stay no matter how much dusting they required simply because they complimented the decor in the family room. Elegant leather bindings, gold lettering on the spine, stacked neatly on the cases with their ostentatious titles proudly facing out for company to read. Volumes such as The Great American Forest and The Voyage of the Beagle.

Dart had to blink in surprise and laugh a little when she realized the Darwin book she'd been thinking of was the one on top. Quickly, she scooped that up too and tucked it into her hip carrier. Something to read never hurt. It was hard to find text that she liked reading that she didn't have to dig out of the dumpsters behind the UofW campus after the school year was over.

Her mouth quirked as she stacked more of the books aside - they were so small in her hands now they reminded her of Disney pocket comics. Megatron would have a fit and fall in it if he realized that the phrase 'survival of the fittest' was also used for finches and iguanas and not just for his elite shock troops...

There was a tinny clink that didn't come from a book.

Puzzled, she glanced down. Then her throat rattled out a noise; the grinding shock of an automatic transmission jammed from drive into reverse.

Quickly, Dart pushed aside the last of the World Book Encyclopedias that were left within the wilting box. Chin pressed to her throat guard, the courier stopped and was perfectly still except for a slight lift and angle of her spoiler as the shift of the volumes revealed the lines of an inexpensive picture frame. Her optics shone down, creating a pale blue light that reflected off of the dusty corners of the aluminum.

She reached cautiously forward and tweezered it out with her fingertips.

Behind the dingy, grime smeared glass sat a family in one of those perfectly predictable poses. Mother, father, daughter and dog, seated together in front of a slightly wavy department store backdrop. The setting was as bland and cookie cutter as every other photo shoot that cost less than twenty five dollars, done on a Sunday afternoon when everyone involved had things they'd rather be doing: track practice, gardening, watching football, or chewing up that big stick they'd found under the tree in the front yard.

Then you started to see the subtle gestures, and those were what Dart's attention was riveted on, her head tilted, chest-plate rising and falling as her intakes heaved softly.

Middle aged couple, yes, the thin blond man greying badly at the temples, his horn-rim glasses catching the flash's reflection. Across his mouth leaned a patient smile. It failed to disguise his desire to be back at home and working in his yard, raking up the grass he'd cut earlier that morning. He never left grass to thatch. It was bad for it, he always said.

Dart glanced over and winced as she realized that the grass had crept away from the lawn and now was forcing itself in patches through the gravel walkway, fringing the stepping stones.

The woman's hand was resting on the girl's shoulder. In the way of mothers, she was fidgeting with the collar of her daughter's blouse, or maybe flipping a few stray strands of hair of the teenager's ponytail forward to neaten it up. Caught in the act, one pale, manicured nail was a perfect rose-colored oval against the stiff, white fabric.

She hadn't been too happy when her whole bottle of nail polish remover got slathered on the plastic horse. Especially because it had been done in her bathroom sink, and the whole house reeked of caustic roses.

Between the girl's knees sat a prick-eared, shaggy coated black and tan dog. A German Shepherd, his muzzle His tongue fluttered through his teeth as if it were a pink satin ribbon. Over each eye, a tiny daub of brown marked his eyebrows, giving the animal an inquisitive, comical look.

Both of the girl's arms were wrapped around the dog's neck and her cheek was pressed against the rough, sable tufts of fur next to his ear. The smile on her face was open, genuine, and not at all camera shy. It was as if her and the dog were secretly laughing at the joke that had passed between them about the photographer.

A low whine escaped the courier, as confused, tremulous, and canine as the dog in the photo had sounded when he was booted outside to think about chewing up a feather pillow. The robot cupped the photo warily in one hand and stared at the woman, the man, and the dog in turn, gathering up the tiniest of details from each one of their faces. However, every time her focus even touched on the girl, her spoiler flexed and rattled nervously and she jerked her head to the side and found something else to view instead: the drenched hedges, the garbage-strewn garage, the sofa with its one broken spring poking out from the frame, twirling up through the mauled upholstery on the corner...

Finally, Dart reached down into the remnants of the torn trash bags and snatched out an old blanket. She shook it out onto the floor of the carport and quickly placed the picture face down onto it, then folded the fabric up around it, tying off the ends before she turned and tucked it carefully into her hip carrier, shuffling the books around with her fingertips so they protected it from direct contact with any of the hard angles of metal. Her thumb wavered over the magnetic lock as she looked around the garage one final time.

Drawn to the bright blue shine of her optics, a large Hawkmoth uncurled itself from the overhead beams in the carport and shivered its wings against its body before lunging into the air. Droning as loudly as a hummingbird, it shot forward across the darkness and hurled itself against her eye, hammering the glass as hard as it could.

Startled, the courier reared back with a ringing yelp, battering her hands at the air as she flung herself upright. There was a horrible crunching noise as the top of her helm cracked into the carport roof. The screws holding the boards together shrieked in outrage, popping free as chunks of tar-board and wood rained down on both her and the frantic, erratically looping moth. She yelped again as pain shot through her neural relays, and immediately curled over and pressed her hands to the back of her head, clutching her fingers around the curve of her solid ponytail.

"Ow ow ow..." she moaned.

Battered and ragged on the edges of its wingtips now, the moth whirled and dipped, having narrowly avoided being crushed or smashed out of the air. It weaved drunkenly back up into the rafters, mirroring the courier's own lurch out of the confines of the carport.

Legs scissoring unsteadily, Dart squelched deep divots onto the flowerbeds and lawn as she staggered out into the rain. Finally, she stopped and bent over, resting her palms flat on her thighs, shoulders heaving as she tried to shake off the blow. Okay, that hurt. Not as much as it did when she'd popped up from car mode to robot in that concrete parking garage but pretty darn close. At least this time none of the Stunticons had seen her do it and weren't clutching their mid-sections, knotted in on themselves in hysterical laughter. Little favors, she supposed.

She snorted out a puff of steam and slowly turned her head, white spots of light dancing and swirling in front of her eyes. Blinking against the splatter of the rain, she scrubbed her forehead hard with her knuckles, willing her vision to return to normal. It didn't, and she realized that the neighbor's porch lights were blasting into the yard.

Oh. Er, wait this wasn't her yard.

This realization was punctuated by a loud bang as the neighbor's wooden-framed porch door - now right in front of her - flew open and slammed into the wall.

"Get it, Ruffles! Get it!"

Dart reared back in time to see the dog roar out a challenge and launch itself off the porch, legs flailing in a run before it even hit the patio. White teeth framed a saliva-flecked cavern as staccato, vicious barks rolled out of the animal's throat. It hit the ground and charged towards her, bounding across the wet grass of the yard, long ears flapping behind it in its rush. The courier attempted to spin, but only succeeded in digging out a huge muddy trench in the middle of the yard, her leg sliding back behind her.

"That'll teach you to get into our trash, you racoon!" rose the triumphant cackle from the porch.

With a leap that nearly seemed to send it out of its furry skin, the dog slammed itself into the side of her ankle and chomped down as hard as it could.

If she'd been an honest to goodness postman, Dart would have been hopping, screaming, cursing, and kicking. Lawsuit time, for sure.

Since she was merely a giant robot courier, she just froze and gaped down at the very angry Dachshund trying its darndest to bite through plate steel. The dog twisted, slamming back and forth like a hooked perch against her metal, venting its fury in snarls and horrible growls as its claws scraped across her heel. It frothed, piggish eyes bulging out of its head as it yammered through its teeth, hanging from a gap in her plating.

The last time she'd seen Ruffles, he had been this old toothless beast, fat as a sausage... and equally as smelly if you sat anywhere near him for long periods of time. Oh, wait, hang on. This must be Ruffles number six or something.

Glaring at her balefully, the dog continued to try and gnaw its way into her body. She winced, and was pretty sure she heard one of his fangs break off even over the sound of the rain.

Apparently, being named Ruffles and forced to wear little pink coats and booties on a semi-daily basis made them all crazy.

Resplendent and as composed as the Queen Mother in her equally pink housecoat, Florence Cluff proudly listened to the blood-curdling, metallic squeals coming from the shadows in the yard. That raccoon had been saucily meandering through the neighborhood for weeks now, tipping every garbage can it could find without so much as a thank you, the fat thief. In her opinion, it deserved everything Ruffles could dish out. The noise rose to a fever pitch. It abruptly died in one long, drawn out scraping shriek. Concern for the dog knit her white brows as she blinked her eyes and wished she'd remembered to grab her glasses off the nightstand before she'd run downstairs.

She used the flat of her spindly hand to shade her brow from the rain and peered out over her lawn, seeing a flash of grey metal and the dog grimly shaking itself back and forth.

Her jaw set and she seethed, grinding her teeth with the same pitched growl as her dog. The ring-tailed vermin had apparently knocked her can into the yard again. If she had to go out and pick splintered chicken bones out of her birdbath one more time...

Reaching around her to the windowsill, she picked up the flashlight she used to take Ruffles out for his evening walk and flicked it on, sweeping the beam through the shadows. It bounced off the driving rain and then found Ruffles, snarling and stiff legged on the lawn, his fur blazing an angry ridge down his skinny back.

"Good dog! You get that- "

It took the elderly woman a moment to realize that her garbage can had somehow transformed itself into a large foot. It appeared it was wearing some sort of futuristic metal running shoe, oddly enough. Her gaze followed her flashlight beam up. Interestingly enough, it was connected to an ankle, connected to a knee, connected to...

A giant robot in the middle of her lawn.