A Many Splendored Thing
by Time Lady Quazar
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Another Joe/Girl story, you complain? More Joe romance? Enough already! Too much! I agree. But how could I not fall in love with Joe?
Loneliness is a universal human failing; fat, strange, weird, I hear it all, far too often. Even if I didn't hear it, not having sex for five years makes it obvious enough! How could I not fall for a man who cannot help but find you beautiful, who is designed to make you feel smart, sexy, desirable? How could I fail to wish for my own, a man programmed to be perfect in bed, to fulfill every whim, every fantasy? Who can be the tall, dark and silent type, or simply a companion to talk to?
Besides, I felt I owned a tiny piece of him, as much as everyone else who has written about him, or dreams of him, or simply wishes. I've had several dreams centering around Joe (not what you think-I always seem to end up running for my life!), did my share of fantasizing; I had to lay my claim.
And so, this story. I couldn't really picture myself in any of my imaginings-I never can, I always have to watch through another character's eyes (Yes, even in my dreams, I'm never myself. Don't have to be Freud to figure that one out). Tabitha is prettier, stronger, smarter, and tougher than I am. This plot was created to fit her as much as Joe. Her history is a touch autobiographical, perhaps, but certainly not to the point of being a true Mary Sue.
By the way, I don't own the characters of Joe, David, Mr. Williamson, Lord Johnson-Johnson or his Hounds, or any of the characters from A.I. I do own Tabitha, Harold, and Roger, and any other characters that were not in the movie. I have nothing, not even an interesting life. This is what I do for fun, so don't sue me please. It wouldn't get you anything anyway. Think of this as homage to the talents of the writers, directors, producers, and actors that made the movie. I love you all!
Joe barely had time to see the car swing around the corner before a huge wave of muddy water-make that mud, period, with a liberal amount of oil and less savory material mixed in-sprayed him. His motorized limbs didn't even twitch before he was soaked and splattered head-to-foot with the black, viscous substance.
Orgas joyriding, tormenting any Mecha they came across, most likely. And now the car had slowed, stopped, was backing up. He would have ducked into the nearest alley and cut back to the House for cleanup and maintenance, but the greasy mud made it impossible to balance while moving quickly enough to escape, so he stayed where he was, his face blank. His face was always carefully blank, unless his programed responses dictated otherwise.
"Oh, jeez, I'm sorry!" a feminine voice squealed, startling the unflappable Mecha. A woman scrambled out of the driver's seat, bounding towards him with a wad of heavily recycled paper towels, skidding in the mud and almost landing at his feet. She caught her balance breathlessly, her face red and abashed. She paused, obviously taking in his less-than-suitable garb, the corner of his operating licence, its bright green glow just peeking out from under his shirt, and the shiny perfection of his plastic skin. Of course, she hadn't seen what he was. That explained her unusual reaction. Then, surprising him even more, she winced. "I am so sorry! I suppose you were on your way to a client, too!"
His brain clicked through lists of possible responses, none of which seemed quite appropriate. "No," he finally answered, sticking to the simplest truth.
A potential client, perhaps? No, not even his supersized programmed ego could believe that, considering his current sodden, sticky state. He'd have to go in for maintenance quickly, before some of it stained indecorous parts of his fabricated anatomy. His face, for instance, which would require an entire re-covering. Not pleasant, even if the House would foot the bill. Which they might not, with some of the newer models he'd seen prowling the streets lately.
"Come on, I can get you cleaned up at home. Grandfather's gone for a couple weeks, but I know how to use most of his stuff." Raking her red hair away from her snub-nosed face, the girl smiled at him. "And you shouldn't be too difficult a case." Reaching out, she tugged at his dripping sleeve, letting go quickly with a disgusted twist to her plump lips. "I am so, so sorry," she said again, seeming to remember the towels enough to mop at him with the ineffective handful. "I didn't even see you. And I had an awful day at work. I suppose I wasn't watching very close, and I was definitely driving too fast . . . ugh, this isn't working. Come on, I've got to get you cleaned up before that stuff dries."
Joe's programming didn't cover anything remotely like this situation, so he followed quietly, obeying the most basic of basic precepts, to follow orders. He only hesitated when she opened the car door for him. "I will ruin your seats," he articulated carefully.
"And I almost ruined you. I could have hit you! Now get in."
He couldn't ignore a direct order from an Orga, at least when it didn't conflict with any of his programming, so Joe slid into the car, sending a quick signal to the House that he was unavailable due to necessary repairs. The woman got in the other side, clicking her seatbelt into place and waiting for him to do the same.
Joe pushed wet hair out of his eyes so he could see without obstruction, and the girl noticed. She flinched and opened her mouth, to apologize again, Joe was sure. "I'm Joe," he said to divert her. Apologies from an Orga wasn't something he encountered often enough to create an automatic response, and his electronic "brain" struggled with the concept.
"Hi, Joe. I'm Tabitha. Tabitha Cooper in case your bosses need to charge me for extra repairs."
She studied his face out of the corner of her eye, taking in his fair skin, at least what was visible of it under streaks of filth, his blue, blue eyes, and the mess she'd made of his hair, which was usually perfect down to the last strand. At least he hadn't been in his blonde mode.
Her car was slowing already; they were towards the outskirts of town, but not totally out of city limits. She turned into a pothole-studded driveway and navigated an already open garage door. Joe's door refused to move when he pulled the handle, but Tabby jumped out of the car, floundered through a sea of dust and boxes to his side, and jerked on the door until it popped open. "The lock's broke," she explained. Grabbing a set of keys out of her jacket, she jammed one into the door that led from the garage to the house.
Joe had little choice but to join her inside. Carefully closing and locking the door behind them, Tabby tossed her keys on the kitchen counter, draped her jacket over the back of a nearby chair, and smiled at the little Mecha that toddled into the room.
"Hello, Tabby," the Teddy unit said.
"Hi, Grizz," Tabby answered fondly, reaching down to pat the bear's fuzzy head. Changing her mind, she scooped the supertoy into her arms. "Grizz, this is Joe. I had a little accident, and I have to fix him."
"Hello, Joe," the Teddy said, large, solemn eyes rolling to stare at him.
"Hello . . . Grizz." The Teddy unit was bigger than most, and darker in color, its faux fur a rich red-brown that was almost black in the dim lighting, except for its muzzle, which was a creamy off-white, and a small patch of the same on its chest.
"Grandfather fiddled with his programming when I got him," Tabby explained as the Mechas studied each other. "Not much, though. Most people don't realize how sophisticated and smart the Teddy units are. But I didn't like the name choices."
"Your grandfather works with Mechas," Joe commented, the girl's earlier statements making sense.
"He helps design and program," Tabby agreed. "He's not working for anyone right now, though. He kept arguing that the Mechas were programmed with too many restrictions. He said it didn't make sense to make something that was capable of making its own decisions, and then making the decisions for it anyway . . ." she trailed off uncomfortably, biting her lip and turning away.
Tabby put the bear down with a touch of reluctance. "You're tired," Grizz observed, sounding stern, his rounded ears folding back.
"Bad day," Tabby answered. "Come on, Joe. I'd hate to see that junk stain."
Dutifully obeying, Joe hurried after her. She paused to grab something in the laundry room, then led him to the bathroom. "You're waterproof, I assume." Hesitating, she grinned at him. "I guess you'd kind of have to be." Turning on the shower, she let the water run until the temperature was to her satisfaction. It was unnecessary; Joe wouldn't notice it unless the water was so hot his skin was in danger of melting. "Try to scrub up as best you can," Tabby ordered. "I'll wash your clothes. I should have something that will work on them." Flushing a little, she thrust something into his hands. "Get undressed and put these on."
Joe held up a pair of bright blue boxer shorts, clean, even pressed. This was strange; it wasn't like he'd never taken a shower before. In fact, he quite often ended up immersed in water in one way or another, but never with any kind of clothing on. "Why?" he asked.
Tabby didn't answer, but her color deepened even further. Joe grinned, his teasing reactions automatically kicking in. "You're shy," he accused.
Tabby scowled. "Just do it. I'll go down into the basement and see if I can find something to get the oil off your skin without damaging it." She disappeared, opening a distant door and slamming it behind her.
Removing his stained clothes, Joe met Grizz's unblinking gaze. The Teddy didn't say anything, he just watched. Ignoring the toy's intense scrutiny, Joe finished undressing, careful to lay his soiled clothing in the sink where the mess wouldn't damage anything, and jerked on the shorts. Underwear wasn't usually part of his costume, but he couldn't embarrass the girl by disobeying. Physically, he was male to all intents and purposes, though an Orga man's equipment didn't have nearly such an efficient system of pumps and drainage. And Joe never had to worry about equipment failure.
Stepping under the spray of water, Joe sorted through the collection of soap and shampoo sitting on a small shelf just under the shower head. He had to juggle several bottles before he found an unscented brand. His next client certainly wouldn't appreciate it if he came to her smelling like . . .
"Oh, good, you found Grandfather's shampoo. I don't think you'd want to smell like a French whorehouse," Tabby said, sticking her head in the shower. She didn't even glance at the mess that swirled into the drain; her eyes lingered on his chest, and she most definitely wasn't looking at his operating licence. Shaking herself, she cleared her throat, giving him a narrow-eyed glare of suspicion. When he didn't grin at her again, she dumped three more bottles in his arms, then jumped in the shower with him. Which would have been a woman's normal reaction, except most wouldn't have done it fully clothed.
"One of these should get out anything the soap doesn't," she said, squirting a liberal amount of shampoo into her palm and scrubbing it into his hair. "Close your eyes. You don't want to get any of this into the mechanism, it could damage your optic fibers."
Joe complied, declining to tell her that he knew very well what would and wouldn't damage his systems. Her touch was gentle as she massaged the soap through his hair, rinsed it, and sudsed him up again. "That looks like it's done it," she said. "Water's finally rising clean. And I don't see any oil in your hair. Your skin's not too bad either. Couple spots on your back, one where it looks like something dripped from your shoulder onto your chest, and one on your cheek. Okay, I'm done, you can open your eyes."
He did, to find Tabby holding up the bottles of cleaning solution. "Have you used any of these before?" she asked.
Tapping the middle bottle, Joe nodded. "This is what they use at the House," he said.
"Good. That's Grandpa's favorite." Opening it, Tabby squirted a little over the spot on his shoulder. "Eww," she complained, wrinkling her nose. "This stuff smells disgusting. I think I preferred the mud." Nevertheless, she rubbed it in.
The touch sent very specific signals to his sensors, and Joe automatically stepped nearer, trapping her against the shower door. Taffy only shook her head. "Down boy, this is business only, and not that kind of business."
Of course, all the while her fingers were stroking over his chest and shoulder in a manner that screamed "Yes!" to his programming, even if her voice said "no." Lifting strands of copper hair away from the violet shirt they'd plastered themselves to, Joe let them slide through his hand as he leaned closer. "It's what I was made for," he said, simulated breath brushing her face.
Moving around him to reach his marred back, Tabitha's lips tightened. "Joe . . . number one, right now you smell like a factory that makes cleaning chemicals. Number two, I've had a really long day already. Number three, even if I was about to strip right here and now in front of a perfect stranger with an innocent bear in the house . . ."
"I'm not innocent," Grizz interrupted.
Tabby ignored the comment. ". . . I couldn't afford you anyway."
"My services are not expensive compared to some companies," Joe whispered.
Cocking an eyebrow at him, Tabby smirked. "Do I detect a hint of envy? Of course, typical male, you have an ego so big there shouldn't be room for both of us in here." Moving to the last stain, the one on his face, Tabby brushed his chin with the tips of her fingers, tilting it down and away to give her better access. Rubbing at the mark with a soft touch, she laughed. "At least your programming gives you an excuse for it."
"I'm better at what I do than a real man could ever hope to be," Joe said softly, his accented voice rich with suggestion.
He could feel her shiver through her fingertips before she withdrew and shoved him under the full force of the spray to rinse the powerful chemicals away. "Of course you are," she snorted. Turning off the water, she took him by the arm and dragged him out of the cramped cubicle, so she could circle him, surveying every inch. She might have thought she was hiding her emotions, but he could see the pulse in her throat pick up, her breathing catch just a little. She liked what she saw, very much.
Programmed to sell as much as any used car salesman, Joe began his pitch, one he used quite often with new, nervous customers. "Once you've had a lover robot," he intoned throatily, "you'll never want a "real" man again." He waited for a response, but Tabby only picked a towel out of the closet and rubbed it over his shoulders, down his back. "You are a goddess," he tried again, staunchly. "You wind me up inside . . ."
"Cut the crap," the woman snapped, and now she sounded angry. "I'm nobody's goddess, and the only thing anyone winds up with on my account is nausea." Dropping the towel over his head, she dried his hair, her hands gone from gentle to almost punishing in their roughness.
All right, that was an order specific enough that he couldn't ignore it. His mouth shut, not a common occurrence for him, he let her finish drying him. Pointing to a bundle on the counter, Tabby glared at him, her eyes cold and her jaw set. "Put yourself together while I take care of your clothes," she hissed, and snatched his costume out of the sink, stalking out of the room.
Obediently putting on the denim jeans and black t-shirt, both a little big on his average-sized frame, Joe combed his hair, in its default dark mode, back into its customary perfection, carefully untangling the vicious snarls her harsh treatment had added.
The bear was still standing in the doorway, watching. "She doesn't trust men," Grizz said.
"I'm not a man."
"She thinks you are."
A touch of bitterness colored Joe's own voice, though it was a small touch. He was a Mecha, not designed to feel such emotions. "She is Orga."
The Teddy unit blinked, his muzzle lifting in a tiny smile. "She is not like other Orgas. She learns, and is willing to learn."
"She is Orga." For Joe, that was enough. He was programmed to fulfil his purpose, to understand a woman's physical needs and respond to at least some of her emotional ones on a level that most real men would never reach, and never desire to reach. But there were limits. Many of them imposed by the very Orgas he was built to service.
"Come," Grizz said, and left. Though he wasn't programmed to follow the orders of another Mecha, Joe found himself following the furry little figure into the living room, where Tabby was flopped on the couch, listening to music. She watched him strut in, her face utterly flat, as devoid of emotion as his usually was. But there was something there, something dark behind her eyes.
The tune was a familiar one. Joe hop-skipped a few dance steps, stopping when Tabby's hard mouth twitched upwards at the corners, some of her anger evaporating. "I always wanted to learn to dance," she said wistfully, then turned away, visibly shaking herself out of the beginnings of a lighter mood. "Your clothes will take about half an hour," she informed him cooly.
This was a little more towards his experience. Several of his clients liked to be wined and dined and romanced. Striking a pose in front of her, and no one could pose like he could, Joe held out a hand, not saying a word. Tabby stared up at him quizzically. "What?" she asked when he didn't either move or offer an explanation.
"You can learn how to dance," Joe said. "It's simple."
"For you, maybe," she said sourly.
Joe just stood in place, perfectly still. Finally, reluctantly, Tabby stood without taking his offered hand. "All right, then, if you think you're that good, go ahead."
"I know I'm that good because I'm programmed to be that good," Joe whispered.
Tabby actually chuckled. "I can see why you think you'll always get your way with that adorable accent. You're going to regret this, I am the world's biggest klutz. If I break you, it's your own fault. Besides, I thought it was something else you were so perfect at."
"It is not just the act itself," Joe reasoned, showing her where to put her hands, and what position to hold her arms in. "I am programmed to seduce any woman who pays for my services, if seduction is what she wants."
"Programmed to serve all tastes, eh?" Tabby said lightly, trying to follow his quick feet in a simple waltz.
He said it softly, little inflection in his voice, but Tabby's face froze and she paled. "Any tastes? Even the more . . . exotic?" she asked hesitantly, looking up at him with something murky buried under her serious gaze.
"Extra charge for any necessary repairs," he explained emotionlessly, his face slipping into its default blankness.
Shivering, Tabitha pressed her cheek against his chest, directly over where his heart would be if he were human.
She was more astute than he'd thought. Joe stared down at her through narrowed eyes; glancing up, she saw his considering look and laughed, a little bitterly. "Don't think I'm a complete innocent, Joe. And I do have quite a vivid imagination."
"Then why are you afraid?" Joe swung around, and to her surprise she was able to not only follow but mimic the graceful movement.
"Persistent, aren't you?" Sighing, Tabby stumbled slightly. Joe slowed, counting the steps for her until she caught the rhythm again. He thought she wasn't going to answer, but she surprised him yet again. "Joe, I haven't been with a man in any capacity since my very messy divorce six years ago. I was young and stupid, and married for all the wrong reasons, and trusted the wrong man. Not only was he no good in bed, at least with me, I later figured out he'd only wanted Grandfather's money in the first place. Fortunately, I was able to prove his infidelities and didn't have to pay him anything. But I learned, Joe, and I haven't been interested since." Lifting her chin, Tabby obviously believed her own words.
But Joe could scent human loneliness from ten kilometers, and this woman was a bonfire of pain inside. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Teddy unit shake his head sadly.
The song changed suddenly to one with a quicker beat. Without warning, Joe switched to a fast two-step. Tabby squeaked and tried to keep up. It didn't take long for her feet to learn the steps, and soon he was swinging her in effortless circles until she was laughing outright.
"No more!" she panted after fifteen minutes of intense exercise, and Joe guided her to a halt, keeping his arms around her. She smiled up at him, her dark blue eyes sparkling with humor, and Joe grinned back, his full-force, million-watt smile that tended to melt hearts and trigger libidos. He knew he had such an effect on her; her pupils dilated and her lips parted in an unconscious entreaty, which he responded to in a last effort. Lowering his head, he brushed her lips with his, his slightly shiny, too-perfect epidermis looking fake but feeling utterly real. It was even warm.
Tabby stayed perfectly still until he tried to deepen the embrace. Then she pulled back gently. "Joe," she said softly, "I like you. I really do. You're a good guy, especially for a guy. But I'd just be a job to you. A chore, an unpleasant task. I really couldn't take it." Reaching up, she touched his face lightly. "Thank you, Joe, I've had fun tonight. I don't get to do that very often."
"I could wave the cost, in exchanged for services rendered . . ." Joe tried.
"But I was the cause of your needing those services. Your owners would never buy it," Tabby answered. And he couldn't refute her logic, because, despite appearances, his brain ran largely on logic.
Tabby stepped away from him, shaking her head as if to clear it. "What kind of music do you like?" she asked with singularly illogical suddenness. "Anything you listen to when you have a few minutes between jobs?"
"Frank Sinatra," he answered. "Sammy Davis, Jr. Barry Manilow."
"What a shock," Tabby said with a laugh. "I never would have guessed. But I only have one song by any of them, "Copacabana," and while it's one of my favorites, I'm not about to listen to it for the next ten or twenty minutes."
"One of my clients likes old rock-and-roll, the harsher samples," Joe suggested. Something in his deepest electronics was intrigued by the often angry music.
"That I can do. Don't worry, I won't spill the beans. We've all got guilty pleasures," Tabby teased, and pulled out another selection.
"I wish Grandfather and Roger were here," she said. "I think they'd like you."
"My dog." Face hardening, Tabby shook her head. "He's a Mecha, as intelligent as you or Grizz. He was a specially-designed model, but when they boy decided he didn't like him, his parents were going to trash the dog. Grandfather bought him instead. He was designed without the ability to talk. He can only bark."
Joe stared. Even a Mecha could recognize cruelty, since they tended to be common recipients. Tabby continued, her voice softer, much sadder. "Grandfather's been trying to find a way to give him a voice, but he'd have to mess with the wiring in his brain so much he's afraid Roger would be damaged irrevocably." Folding her arms, Tabby curled into the corner of the couch. "I hate people," she whispered.
Joe's programming wouldn't let him answer a sentiment like that, he merely watched her.
The uncomfortable silence couldn't last long with Joe in the room, and soon they were chatting again, about more cheerful subjects, with only one sharp, very specific, partially regretful order from Tabby that he wasn't to try and seduce her for the rest of the night. So he didn't, and she talked to him like she would any other person, something none of his customers had ever done.
When the washing machine signaled that his clothes were clean and dry, Tabby jumped up with some trepidation. "I'm terrible at housework. I hope I didn't ruin them."
She hadn't. They looked as good as they had before, and perfectly pressed. Even his shoes were buffed to an uncommon shine. Once dressed, the silvery material sliding in conscious seductiveness against his skin, Joe twirled in place for Tabby.
"Pretty nice, R2D2," she grinned.
Joe crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm a homosexual protocol droid?"
That startled her into peals of laughter. Sometimes it was fortunate his clientele was so mixed in its casual interests, letting him pick up useful bits of information. Joe grinned his catlike grin at her and she groaned. "Come on, I'll give you a ride to wherever you need to go," she offered.
"The House manager requests that I come in for inspection," Joe answered.
"Good enough. Come on, Grizz, you can keep me company on the way back. If you don't mind?"
Grizz's answer was to hold his arms out. Tabby scooped him up and grabbed her keys. Then suddenly, she grabbed Joe in a crushing hug that squeezed the Teddy unit between them. "Promise you'll take care of yourself," she said.
"I am programmed to."
"Not well enough," she muttered, and retreated to her car. A few minutes later she pulled up in front of the mid-sized, unobtrusive building which housed the company that owned Joe and assorted other lover Mechas. When he got out of the car and walked inside, his electronic brain buzzed with something he didn't often experience; new ideas.
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Tabitha certainly never expected to see the Mecha man again, except maybe by chance on the street since his owners rented space near the nightclub she managed. She didn't even think of him the night she invited the two people she would consider friends over for her birthday. They weren't close, but they worked in the same place and got along well enough to spend an occasional evening together.
At the end of the night, Tabitha's guests exchanged mischievous looks. "Your present will be here soon," Simone said, standing. "We'd better get home. It's late, anyway, and some of us don't have the luxury of two days off," she teased.
"What are you talking about?" Tabby lectured sternly, glaring into Simone's dark, beautiful face. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't get me anything."
"We couldn't do that," Stacy giggled. "See ya." She and Simone fled before Tabby could get another word out of either.
The mystery was solved a very few minutes later when there was a light knock on the door. Glancing at Grizz, Tabitha looked through the peephole. When she saw who was there, instead of relaxing, she tensed. But she did open the door. "Joe. What are you doing here?"
Pure roguishness shone from every plane of Joe's face as he swept a low bow. "I am here for you, my lady."
Pushing his way inside, Joe grabbed her and swung her into his arms. "I mean, beautiful one, that tonight I am yours. And I can't get out of it," he added meaningfully, flashing the silver tag around his neck, where her own address was prominently emblazoned in glowing green letters. "It's been scheduled and paid for in full."
"What are you talking about? I never . . ." Tabby paused, and growled. "I'm going to kill them."
"Not before I render my services and fulfil my duty," Joe said blithely, pulling her tight against him and kissing her soundly.
And he was a good kisser, damn him. "Joe, knock it off," she gasped, trying to weasel out of his grasp. "Stop it. I'm not beautiful, I'm nobody's lady. I told you, I won't do that to me, and I won't force that on you. Dammit, Joe, don't . . ."
Joe pulled back, but only far enough to talk without her mouth impeding his. "Listen to me. I am not a man."
"You most certainly . . ."
"I was built specific. This is what I was created to do. I am programmed to find any woman beautiful, no matter what society dictates. I am programmed to fulfil all your desires and what dreams are physically possible. And after a night with me, you won't dream of anything else! And you most certainly cannot force anything on me."
Tabby even tried kicking his foot, though not hard enough to set off any of his pain receptors. "See, that's where this is a problem. You're forced by the very fact of what you are. You can't help it. It's not fair!"
"But Tabitha, I am programmed to enjoy it. I couldn't be the perfect lover otherwise."
That stilled her, at least. "I know," she said. "Grandfather added . . ." she stopped.
Suddenly he added two and two. He was built too specific sometimes, his electronic brain slow to notice details not relevant to his duties. "Cooper. Your grandfather is Harold Cooper?"
"Yes," she answered sharply.
"Then you know almost as much about me as I do," Joe whispered, and then there was that wicked grin again.
Tabby blushed hotly. Joe laughed, the carefully modulated sound designed to help his clients relax.
"But Joe," she said quietly, her voice very pointedly patient, "if you weren't programmed for it, you wouldn't want to. Not with me."
"Because nobody else does." Her voice cracked just a little.
"I want to."
"You don't have free will. You aren't even allowed to say no, unless something contradicts your programming." Eyes narrowing, Tabitha's breathing picked up, and it was not a reaction to passion or pleasure. "You hate us, and with good reason. Every word you speak to me is something you're programmed to say. If you could be, you'd be disgusted by this entire situation."
"I don't understand."
"I think you do." Regarding him with something between rage and grief, she retreated a step away. She was breathing hard, trying to break his grip on her, but when he wanted to, he could be almost as unbendable as an iron bar. "Joe, I want someone who, at the very least, actually likes me. I couldn't stand it, I really couldn't, knowing I like you and you can't possibly like me back. And you don't need to be put through the unnecessary pain."
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This was a totally new situation. Low self-esteem he'd dealt with before, many, many times, but since his clients didn't see him as a man, as a person who could judge them one way or another, as anything more than a high-priced vibrator with the added feature of legs for self-transportation, they hadn't been hard to convince that he'd be more than happy to please them.
What to do when a client thinks she's sparing your "feelings" by telling you no? And yet, much of what she'd said were things he'd thought in the deepest recesses of his circuitry.
But not in this situation.
She'd shown him consideration, even what he might call respect. She didn't treat him like a high-class adult toy. She talked to him, and listened like she'd think about what he said. These were concepts he'd never dealt with before. True, some humans acted friendly, but none had ever spoken to him like he mattered.
This night was far beyond his experiences, or his programming. Only his objective remained clear; to please the customer in any way required, while not breaking any of the restrictions or limitations imposed by said programming; he was not to offend, disobey, or injure an Orga in any way. There were things he'd been asked, even ordered to do, that he could not. Unless specially programmed, Mechas did not make good dominants.
"I'm not specifically programmed to listen to music," Joe said. "Or teach dance."
"But you are programmed to develop your responses according to each situation," Tabby retorted.
"I can make decisions."
"You're probably smarter than most humans. So?"
Joe thought for a minute, which wasn't something he usually had to do. He simply wasn't accustomed to it, his thousands of programmed automatic responses were usually enough. "When this order was called in, it was for whichever of us was available, no one was mentioned by name."
"What, you're saying you volunteered?"
"They were going to assign one of us at random, but when I heard the client's name, I stepped forward." He couldn't use the word "Like," didn't even quite understand the concept, but he did know he'd rather be in this place than on the streets, where he had to keep both eyes wide open. One for potential customers and one for gangs of Orgas looking for Mechas to torment.
He did understand the words "Injury," and "Damage," not to mention "Cost," and "Replacement."
And "Flesh Fair."
Tabby just looked, not believing him. So Joe took her face between his hands and brought her close enough to prove it to her. This time instead of pulling away from his kiss, she swayed closer, her lips parting under the urgent pressure he exerted.
Catching the Teddy unit looking, Joe winked slowly over the girl's shoulder. Smiling, Grizz prudently left the room.
When it came to the act, Tabitha really was nervous, as well as inexperienced, but Joe knew his business well. More patient than any human man would or could be, he spent more than half an hour just convincing her to let him unbutton her shirt. He finally managed, one button at a time, then he spent an age just moving from kissing her to ravishing her breasts and back again. He could feel her heart pounding, could hear her panting breaths, and dozens of other sensors monitored her body temperature, her sweat, and any number of other tiny signs that told him exactly when he could move things further.
Still she was somewhat resistant, fear breaking through her passion, not fear of pain but of rejection. After a long session of kisses, gentle caresses, and assurances, she allowed him to undress her completely.
Letting his coat slide off his shoulders to the floor, Joe knelt next to the couch, leaning his upper body over her. His hand brushed up the inside of her thigh, finding her already hot, ready. But he was programmed to be patient. He was the best. His skillful fingers, and later his mouth and tongue, brought her to feverish aching, then a quick release that made her gasp and arch against the couch.
"Joe . . ." she moaned, and only then did he begin to remove his own clothing, a small smirk of triumph heating his gaze.
Yet her reluctance was never-ending. When he reached his belt and slid it from its confining hoops, she flinched away. "Joe, I don't . . ."
"Don't what?" he whispered, laying a kiss against the tip of one breast and caressing her inside, his fingers digging deeper than before while his thumb trailed over that one special spot. It made her cry out, and tears sprang to her eyes.
"Don't what?" he repeated.
Her breathing came so fast she could barely articulate any words. "I . . . don't . . . know . . ." she finally grated out.
Laughing, Joe finished what he'd been doing and stretched out on top of her. Made light for a Mecha, his aluminum-alloy "skeleton," lightweight but tough, mimicked the weight of a human man of similar size. Made ready long ago by the specialized pumps that enabled him to service, his size gauged for inexperience, he was careful, knowing it might still be somewhat painful.
From the small grimace that flashed across her face it was, despite his gentleness, but it passed quickly and her thighs clamped firmly over his hips. She rocked under him with growing urgency, but he controlled the pace, keeping it slow, gradual, each thrust languid and shallow, until her deep gasps and frustrated whimpers left no doubt that she needed something more. So he gave it to her.
She climaxed once, her inner muscles grasping him with powerful contractions, but he didn't stop, only gentled his movements, using his hands and mouth to drive her into an even higher frenzy. Then, when he judged her to be near completion, he sent signals to another set of pumps, and his body simulated the movements and ejaculation of a male climax.
Pushed over again, Tabitha was sent into such a potent culmination that Joe expected her to scream, but she remained nearly silent, emitting only a low groan as her eyes rolled back and her body bucked helplessly underneath him. He remained buried within her, tiny motors pulsing, until she was completely still. Then, shutting everything off, he tried to relieve her of his weight, but her arms looped around him, her sweat-damp face pressed into his shoulder.
"I didn't know . . . it could be . . . like . . . what a terrible cliché that is," Tabby interrupted herself. "I . . . Joe, I . . ."
The inability to describe it was a common response the first time, but the tears that trickled from her eyes wasn't. Fortunately the shower didn't last long. Eyes still bright, his body still sheathed in hers, she looked up at him.
"Do you have any more appointments tonight?"
It wasn't the first time he'd heard that question, and it made him smirk knowingly. "Not yet."
But oddly, she drew away at his announcement. She seemed to only then realize that she was completely uncovered, her face reddening as she reached out to snag her clothes off the floor and hastily jerk them into place. Joe was about to remind her that he was a Mecha, incapable of judgements about human appearance, but she preempted him with another question. "Joe . . . do you like what you do?"
The girl simply delighted in throwing him off-balance, treating him like a person instead of a high-tech toy. "I am built to serve human need," was his automatic answer.
"That's not what I asked." Tabby was frowning at him again, unhappy and faintly hostile. "Do you . . . get anything out of it?"
Oh. This wasn't the first time he'd been asked that. "My designers thought I would perform better if I . . . savored my duties."
"I know how you were programmed. I mean physically. Do you . . ."
"Not in the same way a human does, but yes, I do possess pleasure receptors in the appropriate areas." His eyes slitted into an expression of gentle humor. Laughter and jocularity helped her relax, but he couldn't push it too far without scaring her. His brain filed all the pertinent information away, had from the first words they'd exchanged as with every customer, his programming automatically shifting modes as the situation and the client's mood changed. "Your grandfather is Harold Cooper, and you don't know this?"
Tabitha's blush returned at double intensity. "I don't discuss that kind of thing with my grandfather!" she wailed indignantly. Mouth pursed, she gave him a disgusted look, which softened suddenly. "Designers. Owners. You must hate humans."
"I . . . no."
"You were going to say something else first," Tabitha whispered mournfully, looking away.
"I don't hate you," Joe answered simply, and found that it was true, even deep underneath the restrictive wires in his innermost electronics, at least as far as he understood the word.
Shifting in her seat, the girl looked even more uncomfortable. Words came out in a rush before she could stop them and she winced as they emerged, but there was an air of desperation around her, of need that went much deeper than the physical demands he had met minutes ago. "Joe . . . do you trust me?"
Now that was a new one. He'd never seen a human so continually able to surprise him, though a small hesitation in the flow of her sentence told him that "trust" wasn't the word she had originally intended. Joe wasn't sure how to answer. The truth? Yes. But what was it?
"Yes," he answered after a long pause.
She was staring at him again, not quite believing, but Joe only gave her his over-bright, cat-ate-the-canary grin and remained silent. That inspired even less confidence, but it did draw a smile that almost managed to be inviting.
A slow, victorious smile grew over Joe's face. "Another satisfied customer."
"Mmm. Very," Tabby answered, her eyes growing heavy.
"And you didn't want to," Joe reminded her, gently teasing.
"No. My wanting to was never a question." Her voice was sleepy too now. Rising smoothly to his feet, Joe carried her to the bedroom, depositing her on the bed and laying next to her. She cuddled close, nuzzling sleepily into the fake flesh of his shoulder. "Joe . . . thank you," she murmured, reaching up to give him a quick kiss, affectionate rather than passionate.
"Ask for me by name," he whispered back, but she was already asleep.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
. . . They'll ask for me by name. Gigolo Joe, what do you know? . . .
It was almost a week before Joe saw her again. He didn't have any special orders that night, so he was prowling the streets for potential prey. When a familiar red head came into view across the street in a small park, he threw his chest out and trolled over with the air of a conqueror.
Tabitha sat on a bench, throwing dried corn and bread crumbs to the ducks that begged from their small pond. Grizz sat next to her, holding the treat bag open. The supertoy drew amused, sometimes derisive stares from passers by, but Tabby ignored them, all her attention involved in laughing at the birds' antics.
He'd change that.
"You are a goddess," he intoned, charging in at full force. "You . . ."
"Joe!" Her face lit up with delight, Tabby jumped up. "What are you doing out in the daylight? I thought you'd be . . . you know, busy."
"Never too busy for you, my lady."
"Don't start that. No cutesy pet names, no insincere compliments."
"All right . . . poodle."
Tabby groaned, then laughed. "What brings you here?"
"You do," Joe answered, stalking forward.
Turning, the girl leaned against the fence that surrounded the duck pond in an attempt to get away from him. So Joe simply pressed up against her, kissing the back of her neck in a tiny caress. "Joe . . ." she shivered.
"I thought you were a satisfied customer," he whispered, petting his hands from her waist to her hips and holding her lightly, breathing against her skin. Above all, he couldn't give her time to think.
He was awarded a small moan, her head tipping back. "Joe, I . . ."
"You said wanting to was never a question," he cooed against her ear.
Twirling away, Tabitha sat on the bench, but ended up sitting in his lap because he spun with her, easily following her movements. "That's not what . . ." she blushed furiously now, noticing the people who slowed their step when they walked by. "Joe, we're creating a scene."
"Yes," he agreed, nudging her in a way that no one else could see but she could certainly feel. She gasped, her hand grasping his upper thigh and kneading.
"All right, all right. You win. Tell me what I owe and let's go," she growled in defeat, but not unhappy defeat.
He was good. Really good.
And he was good twice more that week, once again because of a chance meeting that he manipulated into opportunity, and once when she finally broke down and placed the order herself. She was especially shy and reserved that night, but it didn't take long to convince her that her purposefully seeking him out made no difference in the end result.
Joe could have handled it more often; several of his regulars enjoyed making full use of his pain receptors while Tabby was always gentle with him, especially happy when he could stay with her afterwards to talk, even if it was only for a few minutes. He was observant, had to be in his line of service, and he noticed that she was alone far too much, lonely, in dire need of his services. Outside her place of employment, which several of his regulars patronized, he rarely saw her in company.
Any Mecha could survive prolonged solitary living, but when it came down to it, even Mechas preferred company. Any sentient being did, and whether Orgas liked it or not, they'd made Mechas sentient. But the only company he ever saw Tabby in was his own and Grizz's. Not healthy, but it made his job easier.
Three weeks after their first disastrous meeting, Joe ran into Tabby as he walked his most recent client to the nearest appropriate place for a rendevous. Tabby was coming the opposite way in company of another woman, the black woman that had given him such a saucy wink when they'd met outside Tabby's house the night of her birthday.
"Hey Joe, what do you know?" the woman, Simone, crowed flippantly.
"How's it going?" Tabby added.
"Perfect, poodle," Joe said, taking leave of his customer long enough to pull Tabby into his arms to lead her in a waltz for a few bouncing steps. "I look forward to our next meeting," he whispered in her ear, spun her once, and bowed to kiss the back of her hand. Locking his arm with his current client's, he wriggled his fingers at her in a silent farewell. Tabby laughed, shaking her head.
But her eyes didn't leave him until he had passed completely out of sight.
The call later that night didn't surprise him; he'd been expecting it. He paused in her driveway, noticing a strange car, but shrugged his doubts away. He wasn't programmed to doubt anything having to do with his customers. High-stepping jauntily, he went to her front door and rang the bell.
The door was jerked open and Tabitha stuck her head out. She blinked at him, looked past him, searched the small yard behind him, and snarled. "I'm going to kill her. I'm going to kill her! Grandfather's home and . . ."
"Hello, Joe," Grizz called from somewhere inside. "Come in."
Joe did, pushing Tabby back into the living room before her attempts to shut the door succeeded. She tried to resist, but resisting him wasn't a game she'd won yet. He leaned towards her, intending to plant a firm kiss on her mouth, but she danced back. "Joe! Dammit, I hate it when you get pushy."
"Who's this?" a deep voice asked, coming from a muscular older man who came into the room behind Grizz. He was grizzled and white-haired, his face heavily lined, but he was sun-darkened and the eyes that studied Joe from his perfectly-coiffed hair to the toes of his spit-shined shoes were sharp.
Tabitha's face tightened uncomfortably. "This is Joe. He's . . ."
"A Generation Two lover Mecha," Joe supplied.
"A friend," Tabby said at the same time.
Joe turned his head with a sharp, bird-lick flick to stare at her. She ignored him.
"Gen Two lover Mechas aren't suppose to be pushy unless asked to be," the man commented.
"This one is pushy 24/7," Tabby said in exasperation, jerking a thumb towards Joe.
"Interesting." The man, who must have been Harold Cooper, circled Joe, inspecting him from his flashy clothes to his changeable eyes and hair. Joe kept his eyes on the man as much as he could, not liking to keep his back turned to any Orga, especially protective male kin of his customers.
"You said they would like him," Grizz said from his perch on the arm of the couch.
They? Ah, there was the other one, a dog, clearly a Mecha, an older one at that, with imperfect but soft fur that wasn't even warm to simulate body heat. He must be Roger, a singularly unimpressive specimen, at least until you got a good look into his deep brown eyes.
They were alive the way no Mecha's ever were. Except, actually, for Grizz's. Joe looked from one to the other, trying to discern what was different.
"They both have purely free wills," Harold answered the unasked questions. "Can't cause harm, can't contradict orders, can't protect themselves, can't even swear . . . I removed every limitation, every restriction. I don't believe in that kind of thing."
Joe's eyes flicked to the man's face. He appeared to be telling the truth, but with Orgas you could never be sure. Their overabundance of bodily fluids made them slippery.
Harold made shooing motions. "Well, what are you waiting for, boy? Take her to a hotel, take good care of her."
"Grandfather!" Tabby protested.
"I will. I can do no less. I am programmed to be perfect."
"Of course you are," Harold said with a chuckle. "Who do you think created most of your programming?"
"GRANDFATHER!!" Tabby shrieked in ice-cold disbelief.
Joe and Harold grinned at each other. "I like you boy," the old man said. "Now get going."
"Ohmygodohmygodohmygod," Tabby muttered the entire way to her car. Joe laid a hand against the back of her shoulder to guide her into the driver's seat and she squirmed. "Don't touch me right now. Oh, yuck, that was just too weird. I did NOT need reminding about that little fact."
"It's only electronic signals," Joe soothed.
"And you still look like the Cheshire Cat. Stop it or you can leave right now."
Joe stopped it. He was built to please after all.
This time, when they took a shower together, they did the thing properly.
A few days later, her cries still ringing in his auditory circuits, Joe saw Tabby at the duck pond again. Sure of a client, Joe strutted towards her, his umbrella held at a jaunty angle. The heavy rain really wouldn't bother him, but he couldn't risk mussing his hair in the downpour. No, mustn't let a customer see him in a less-than-perfect light.
Eventually it did register that she leaned against the railing in a posture that was anything but provocative, and that normally an Orga wouldn't just let rain pour down on their naked head, at least not on a cold night like this. His step slowed, but it was too late to stop and he leaned against the railing next to her, close enough that his umbrella covered her as well.
The ducks were gone. The entire pond had been demolished, and equipment squatted in its place amidst the beginnings of a building's foundation. Tabby stared across the devastation, her face completely blank. It was over a minute before she noticed the lack of water falling on her and blinked, glancing over at him. When she did, she flinched, looking away, guilt written over every inch of her face.
"Not tonight, Joe. I . . . please, I can't, not tonight." Her voice was hoarse, grieving, but none of it showed in what he could see of her expression.
Reaching out, he grazed his fingers across the side of her face, turning her so he could look into her eyes. "You seem especially in need of my services tonight," he said.
"No," she repeated, facing him but keeping her eyes averted. "Not tonight. Not with you."
She looked at him then. "You ask a lot of questions, Joe. I just . . ."
He waited, and she shook her head. "I lost my job. I got fired today. The owner bought a Mecha to replace me, of all things." She laughed, the sound chilling the air around her to an iciness that no longer existed even in the deepest Antarctic. "I caught myself thinking that there was no way he could do what I do. And feeling angry, really angry that a Mecha had dared . . . how could I think something like that?" Tabby howled. "He's flashy, even flashier than you, and he . . . how could I think that about him? He didn't do it! Then all I could think about . . ." she shivered. "All I could think about was how that would make you feel," she whispered.
"I don't feel," Joe answered automatically.
She rounded on him. "That's bullshit, Joe, and you know it," she said. "You can grow and learn and feel, even if it's not in the same way as a human." Huffing angrily, she glared, challenging him to argue, then suddenly she deflated. Holding her head in her hands, she slumped in place. "Then I found this," she moaned.
Joe moved closer, his coat caressing her back and legs, bringing flashes of the first time they'd met here. "You seem especially in need of my services tonight," he repeated softly, brushing damp that could have been tears but might simply be rain from her face.
Pulling in a shuddering breath, Tabby leaned back against him. "Yes," she agreed.
They hadn't even made it to her bedroom when the front door opened and Harold came in with Roger at his heels. They both stopped when they spied Joe on the couch with Tabby, who sipped a cup of steaming tea, saying she had to warm up a little first.
"What happened?" Harold barked, immediately noticing Joe's cautious expression and Tabitha's unsteady hands. "Why aren't you at work?"
Roger bounded to the woman's side, setting his front paws in her lap and licking her face. Whining low, he rested his head on her shoulder. Wrapping her free hand around the Mecha dog, Tabby stroked his silky fur. "Roger, sometimes a person needs a dog. Sometimes a person needs a friend." Ruffling his ears, she looked into his concerned face with a smile. "You do it all. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"What happened?" Harold demanded again.
Tabby sighed and told him. Toddling into the room, Grizz crawled into her lap and she put her arms around the soft little body while she spoke. When she finished, Harold nodded thoughtfully. "The thing is, you're right. If they'd gotten an older Mecha, they'd have been all right. But brand-new, out of the box . . ." He shrugged. "He won't have the experience. Programming doesn't make up for that any more than education versus lack of experience in an intern right out of college. You don't start them at the top." He laughed suddenly. "Fools. The newest Mechas are barely distinguishable from an Orga." He glanced at Joe, smiling ironically. "Even more so than you, boy. But they're programmed with more and more restrictions . . . strangely enough, the less human a Mecha looks, the more human he's likely to seem."
By that time, Harold's statement wasn't completely true, but Joe wouldn't find that out for some time yet. Harold stood, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket. "Here, girl, for once you can show him a good time," he said, pushing a handful of bills into her hands. "You need to get out for some fun. This should cover a show, and a hotel room . . ."
"Grandpa!" Tabby gasped.
"Oh, you might as well enjoy the boy's skills. You're as human as the rest of us," he snapped. "That should take care of any extra costs from his owners for the time."
"But . . ."
"Go. The Antique is showing Ocean's Eleven, the original with Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the rest of the crew," he said, mentioning the small theater that showed old movies. "You'll like it and so will he."
"But . . ."
Tabby couldn't resist that tone any more than Joe could. They found themselves in her car, a little shell-shocked and driving obediently towards the seedier part of town, where the Antique sat in modest state. It was an oddly elegant landmark amidst the squalor, pride and dignity keeping it separate from the cracked pavement, run-down buildings, and the general despairing sin of its surroundings. Joe had passed the building often enough in his trade, situated as it was across the street from two cheap motels that were happy to charge by the hour, but he'd never seen the inside.
There was some trouble when Tabby tried to buy Joe's ticket. The ticket seller finally called the manager out, who had every intention of refusing. Angry and frustrated, Tabby exchanged looks with Joe. Too used to such intolerance, Joe shrugged and was going to walk away, but Tabby grabbed his coat. "He's . . . in training," she said suddenly. "He's suppose to study and file Frank Sinatra's moves. Show him, Joe."
In TRAINING? Never! "Wha . . ."
"Show him a few steps," the girl growled, nudging his foot.
Catching her meaning, Joe skipped in place, spun, and ended his Fred Astaire with a pose that was all ol' blue eyes. The manager wasn't impressed. "There isn't a lot of singing and dancing in this one," he said gruffly. "I'm not wasting a seat . . ."
"It's not wasted, its paid for," Tabby snarled impatiently. "And it's not just dance moves, it's mannerisms and phrases. Come on, what's the difference?"
She got her way in the end, more by her mention of money than her logic. Still grumbling under her breath, she led Joe into the dim, shabby theater and sat with him towards the rear, just as the movie started.
Joe leaned towards her, seeming unaccountably impressed. At first she thought it was because of the way she got him in, and she was right, but not for quite the reasons she expected. "You lied," the Mecha whispered.
"I can't lie."
"You must be learning. You helped. Quiet, the movie's starting."
"It would never work," Joe commented partway through.
"Shh," Tabby warned.
"But this is completely illogical. They . . ."
"Joe . . ."
"They could never . . ."
Other patrons were glaring now. Tabby clamped her hand firmly over his mouth. "Joe," she whispered in his ear. "Shut up."
Joe clamped his jaws firmly shut, his logic circuits still warring with the movie. Taking pity on him, Tabby whispered an explanation, her lips brushing his ear in a way he was programmed to find very erotic. "It's just a story, like Star Wars, even if it looks more rea. It doesn't have to make sense in real life. It's all what if . . . like a fantasy one of your clients wants to act out. She knows it's not real, but has fun pretending it is."
Oh. Things still weren't perfectly clear, but he could ignore what didn't make sense and concentrate on the story, and on the actors. Settling back, he watched for anything new, anything he could use, and add to his repertoire. Tabby sat back in her seat, watching with him. Gradually she leaned closer, until she was cuddled against him, her cheek resting against his shoulder, one arm thrown across his chest and the other crooked around his elbow.
"So what did you think?" Tabby asked while the end credits plodded up the screen and the other patrons shuffling out, some pausing to give them sour looks.
Joe remained silent.
"Joe? What . . . oh, sorry. I didn't mean . . . oh, never mind. You can talk now."
"I . . ."
Tabby looked at him from her vantage point on his shoulder and flinched. Jerking upright, she covered her eyes. "Sorry, Joe, I didn't even realize . . . good grief, I was treating you like . . ." Her jaw clenched and she stood abruptly, grabbing his arm. "Come on."
Dragging him to her car, she drove to one of his more frequently used rendevous points, the Shangri-La. Tabby took him to the front desk and requested a room curtly while Joe and Mr. Williamson exchanged courtesies. "Room 102's free," the clerk informed them.
Everything, Joe reflected later, started in that damned room.
Taking his hand, Tabby tugged at him. Mr. Williamson raised his eyebrows and grinned at Joe, who could only shrug helplessly and either follow or be jerked off his feet. "Come on!" Tabitha ordered impatiently.
"Anything, poodle," he tried in an attempt to settle her, but all he managed was to draw a chuckle from Mr. Williamson.
Shutting the door behind her, Tabitha jerked her head towards the bed. Sitting obediently on the edge, Joe watched her, not sure what she wanted and uncertain of her next move. She was breathing hard, sweating though his sensors told him the building was cool. "Why are you here?" she snapped, her eyes glaring, biting icicles.
"I . . ." Joe stared at her in confusion. "An order was called in . . ."
Shaking her head, Tabby paced back and forth. "No. You've practically been dogging my footsteps. What do you get out of it?"
"I . . . Tabitha, I don't know what you mean."
"Yes you do. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Joe, you have to stop it. No more orders, Joe, no matter who pays for what. No more."
She'd stopped pacing, turned towards the window; Joe stared at her back, impassive and blank. "I understand."
"I don't think you do." Whirling to face him, Tabby lurched to the bed, standing so their knees almost touched, forcing his head to tilt far back so he could look her in the eyes. "I don't know what you want, Joe, but you won't get it from me. I'm worse than your most sadistic customer. I use you, and I'm going to end up hurting you."
"You can't . . ."
He didn't have a chance to finish the statement. Aggressive in a way he'd not seen before, Tabitha shoved him roughly onto the bed, straddling him. She leaned forward, her hands planted on the mattress just over his shoulders, snarling like a wounded cat. "This isn't fair, to either one of us. I can't . . . never mind, it doesn't matter. I'm no good for you, Joe. I treat you like a convenience, like you're not something that has a thinking brain. I treat you like an Orga's suppose to treat a Mecha!"
That was said in a painful howl, full of hurt and anger. "I am a Mecha," Joe reminded her carefully. "You don't . . ."
"Don't, Joe. Don't say anything. I can't keep doing this. I . . . I've got to get out of here."
Tabby made a move to release him and roll off the bed, but Joe wrapped both arms around her and jerked her down for a searing embrace. He refused to admit defeat. He hadn't lost a client yet, and he would not start with this one. He could feel the woman's body responding to him as it always did, perhaps even more intensely than usual; he was sure he'd won.
But no, she shoved at his shoulders, breaking his grip on her, and sat up. "No, Joe," she said gently. "Not any more." She panted, shuddering, her body begging for what she wouldn't let him provide. Ignoring its cries, she slid away from him, putting her clothes back in order, and sat next to him while he did the same, moving slowly from a state of profound bewilderment.
"Oh, Joe," Tabitha sighed. "I expect too much from you. No, that's wrong, I want too much from you, and you can't give it."
"Because of what I am," he intoned flatly. He'd been expecting this, long before now. In the end, his customers always realized he was nothing but a plaything. The knowledge made it easier for them to come back.
"No. It has nothing to do with you, got it? Nothing." Her vehemence made him draw back, his eyes blinking wide. Seeing it, she brushed a hand through his hair, then leaned forward and pressed her lips against his forehead. "Joe, it's my fault, all my fault. I'm sorry. Don't you understand? You deserve better than me."
Standing, she backed towards the door. "Goodbye, Joe," she whispered, and fled.
He tried to follow, but by the time he made it to the front desk, she was already driving away. He stood by the door, watching, looking utterly lost. "Women, eh? Who can figure them?" Mr. Williamson intoned.
Joe didn't answer. He was suppose to be able to "figure" them. The clerk came out from behind his desk. Friendlier towards him than most Orgas, he had a worried look. "Hey, are you okay, Joe? She said I should look after you, made sure you got back okay."
"I'm fine," Joe mumbled.
He hadn't believed the goodbye to be forever. He did see her once, a few days later. She was walking down the street, stopping at several businesses and exiting with either a disappointed expression or an addition to the sheaf of papers she carried. If she saw him, she didn't acknowledge his presence, crossing the street before he could cover the distance between them. She ducked into a building and didn't come out until after a client picked him up. He saw her exit as he walked off arm-and-arm with the skinny, acutely focused woman who'd paid for him. Tabby stared at him with hunger in her eyes, a desperate kind of longing, but when he raised his hand in greeting she turned and walked stiffly in the opposite direction.
Two days later, Joe met a passionate little Mecha named David.
Tabby was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee when her grandfather came in, his face sober. Trotting at his heels, Roger came to sit next to her, pressing himself tight against her thigh with a low whimper.
Always aware of Tabby and her moods, Grizz was instantly on the alert, clambering from his perch in the opposite chair and toddling over to climb into her lap. The devoted little Mecha stared up at Harold with dark, intelligent eyes and asked the question Tabitha didn't want to. "What happened?"
Speaking not a word, Harold turned on the big radio that sat on the kitchen counter, changed it to a news station, and turned the volume to full.
". . . appears to be the work of a rogue Mecha, a local known as Gigolo Joe. Though rare, incidents of Mecha violence are not unknown. Control protocols can be compromised, the restraining programs broken. The cause of this sudden attack is undetermined, and the Mecha, Joe, is missing, its operating licence removed. Do not approach if you see it, and inform the authorities immediately. The victim, one Samantha Bevins, is survived by her husband, Anthony. Her body was discovered . . ."
Numb, hardly able to breathe, Tabitha stared at the offensive machine that spat news at her like poison. "I don't believe it," she choked. "He'd never . . ."
"It happened last night. He's been missing since. Tabitha . . . I'm sorry," Harold murmured.
"Sorry doesn't help," Tabby snapped, and rose from her seat, depositing Grizz on the table. "I'll be back when I get back."
"Where are you going?" Harold challenged, moving to block her. "You shouldn't drive in the state you're in."
"I'm going to the library," Tabby answered shortly, grabbing her keys off the counter. "I need to catch up on my reading."
It took her less than three hours to find what she needed, which only made her more furious, especially when she slid back into her vehicle and the radio was still blaring warnings about the rogue Mecha. "They didn't even bother," she whispered to herself. "Bastards." The unfairness of it tore her up, the injustice, the indignity. She drove much too fast to "the House," striding in and stopping at the counter, demanding to talk to the management before the receptionist could even greet her.
The Mecha woman read her mood and pushed the intercom without argument, her too-smooth voice softly explaining the situation. A man came out a few minutes later, one that was younger than Tabitha expected but all business, smiling benevolently, his clothes almost as flashy as Joe's costume, but not nearly so tailored to his less-than-perfect frame. "Can I help you?" he asked mildly.
"Joe was framed," she snapped. "Call the police and tell them to call off the search."
The man shook his head, carefully regretful. "You're not the first of Joe's regulars to approach us. But I'm afraid . . ."
Tabitha didn't let him finish, she slapped her findings on the counter. "He was framed. The husband's done it before, and blamed a Mecha then, too, the idiot. There were no questions, naturally. He changed his name afterwards and moved to a different city, but that was all he bothered with, and he wasn't hard to trail. Joe's innocent."
The man glanced through her papers, copies of old articles, legal documents, and wedding announcements, all easily acquired from the huge computers that stored old files in the library or requested from other computers in other cities. "That's him," the man said blankly, staring at a photo that went with the first article about the "Mecha Murder," an instance similar to the stories now blaring across the city concerning Joe. He paged to Anthony and Samantha Bevins' wedding announcement, where another photo showed them both grinning at whoever was behind the camera.
"Just a little coincidental, don't you think?" Tabitha suggested. "Don't you think someone should tell the police about this little detail?"
"Most certainly," the man answered. "They're bringing it in now, they found it in Rouge City. It will be dismantled, but I'm certain when they see this they'll want its memory searched . . ."
Joe. He was talking about Joe. "Dismantled?" His body in pieces, either recycled or discarded? "But . . . but he didn't do it!"
Sighing patiently, the man shook his head. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but we run a business here, and this kind of publicity we don't need. We will deal with this quickly and quietly, and prove we are resolved to keeping our customers safe. It abandoned its licence and ran. Innocent or no, there would always be some doubt . . ."
"How could you? That's awful!" Tabitha cried, tears in her eyes.
"It's only a Mecha. Replacing it will be much less expensive than trying to fix whatever malfunction made it tear off its own operating licence."
Sick, Tabby glanced at the Mecha receptionist. She remained impassive, but her eyes flicked towards her owner quickly, a movement only Tabitha noticed. The girl swallowed hard, trembling with rage, then opened her purse. "How much?"
"How much do you want for him?" Tabitha grated out.
"I . . . this is highly . . ." the man faltered. "Are you sure? It cut the operating licence . . ."
"I know what he did. He knew what to expect from bastards like you. How much?"
The man looked like he'd bitten into a rotten lemon, but he named a price. Tabitha dug the exact amount out of her purse, all of it cash, and half an hour later walked out the door clutching a new operating licence, the bright orange licence of personal ownership. It felt very heavy in her sweaty grip.
Joe stared forward, his face shut down, immobile. He didn't plead or proclaim innocence, knowing it would be futile. Nor did he reflect on his coming destruction, an action that would be just as useless. Strangely, he was thinking about the little Mecha, David. If he'd known such things, he would have been feeling both pity and envy for the fervent beliefs held by the not-child with a zealot's insistence. David had been . . . a beginning, but a beginning to what was lost to the world now.
The hostile glares of the Orga policemen crowded around him in the prisoner transport washed over him; he was completely oblivious to the rage and fear aimed in his direction. So inwardly focused was he that he didn't even feel the aircraft's first clumsy shimmy.
The shimmy changed quickly to a hard shiver, then a series of rapid jerks that forced him to brace an arm against the wall or be thrown into the nearest Orga. He blinked at those surrounding him, but their hostility was gone, replaced by dry-mouthed terror. "What is that?" one yelled.
"I don't know!" the pilot yelled back. "The engine . . ."
The rest of the conversation was cut short when the craft lurched and rolled, the large cargo doors opening with a blast of rushing wind. Two policeman disappeared before they could scream. Two others scrambled for handholds as the transport careened out of control, its pilot alternatively shrieking and cursing, pounding at the frozen controls while they crackled and hissed, the circuits shorting out. The craft glanced against a tree; the shock threw Joe from his seat, but couldn't break his grip on its hard edge, leaving him swinging nearly free over a dark, roaring abyss. All he needed to do was let go, the damage shouldn't be too bad, especially not compared to that suffered by fragile Orga bodies . . .
The shuttle bounced, momentarily nosing above the treetops. The other men would have been thrown out, but Joe snapped out an arm before their living bodies could escape, catching one by the back of his uniform while another grabbed onto the first policeman's legs.
The policeman gaped at Joe and their eyes locked. The ship hit another tree, righting itself, and Joe was able to drag the men back aboard and force the door shut behind them. Two more collisions followed, and the craft was hurled out of the sky, throwing them all together in a jumble on the floor.
A quick assessment showed that the two men Joe had saved were the only two left alive. The pilot was tangled messily with the controls in a way no Orga could ever naturally lay, and the rest had plummeted into darkness. Only the thicker frame of the cargo hold protected the remaining men from the pilot's fate, and only Joe had kept them from a fatal fall.
Breath coming harsh, bruised and hurting but alive, the first policeman dragged the door open and gestured outside. "Go," he croaked.
Joe didn't understand, remaining in his seat until prodded to his feet by the second man. "Go!" the first repeated, then Joe understood. He'd saved their lives, they would do what they could to preserve his existence. Joe fled.
Tabby sagged in the doorway, unable even to reach the kitchen. "The transport went down. They lost contact," she informed Harold and the two waiting Mechas. "It crashed . . . they don't know if there were any survivors . . ."
"Tabitha, sit down," Harold advised.
"No. No, I can't. I have to . . . I know where it was when they lost it. I have to find them," she breathed.
"Tabitha . . . he's a Mecha, but they can only take so much damage," Harold reasoned. "Wait for the reports to come in. You don't need to see . . ."
"I have to know," she said stoutly, and jerked herself around, back towards the car. She heard Grizz calling after her but didn't stop to acknowledge him. Her tired, aching brain was on ultra-fast-forward, already well outside of city limits. She only noticed her grandfather and the two Mechas framed in the doorway on the most incidental level, registering Harold's sorrow enough for the cold vacuum of her stomach to feel a tiny spark of grateful warmth.
Now she needed to find Joe.
She had to say she was sorry.
It was getting dark again, not that it really mattered to his electronic eyes. But he still hadn't found anyone else, only the battered, rusted remains of Mechas deemed useless by their owners, their power run down, the leftover husks torn apart. He had found the road, even considered returning to Rouge City, but he knew once the two policemen gave their report, no doubt claiming he escaped sometime during the crash, the human authorities would be looking for him again. So he avoided any clear landmarks, any signs of habitation, restricting his wanderings to the undeveloped areas.
This night, the second on his own, the roar and drawn out beep, beep of a large truck in reverse caught his attention. Remembering that other night, he kept an eye on the moon that hung bright in the sky, but it was no longer completely full and he took some comfort in that fact, enough to approach cautiously. Observing from a thick stand of trees, he waited until the truck teetered away like a ponderous beetle before daring to make his way nearer, watching every shadow in case the denizens of a Flesh Fair lurked, waiting for the bait to draw victims.
There was no movement at all, no balloon soaring overhead, no raucous call of a hunting showman, no collectors on motorcycles ready to ride him down. Not knowing quite what he expected to find, Joe walked to the edge of the pit and peered in.
Something stirred amidst the broken pieces and unattached limbs. Whirring and clicking faintly, something struggled to free itself from the macabre rubbish pile, jerking with clumsy, spasmodic twitches of limbs that looked twisted and broken. Joe glanced around at the silent trees, hesitated, and surveyed the area once more, scanning for a hint of any malevolent presence. Seeing nothing, hearing only a faint breeze, he jumped into the pit, floundering among the broken bits until he found relatively stable footing, then picked his way towards the discarded Mecha.
It was of a masculine design too straight and plain to be a lover, dressed in the threadbare remains of some kind of white jacket over a torn green uniform. His left arm was in working order but attached haphazardly and his legs were both bent, movable but awkward.
Joe wordlessly helped him out of the pit, a difficult task with limbs that couldn't hold the machine upright except on the most secure ground, and Joe finally heaved him bodily over the edge. He clambered out after the broken Mecha, wincing at a fresh rend in his coat while he dusted dirt and dry grass off his once-impeccable clothes.
His fellow Mecha stared at him. The robot looked befuddled, but part of that could have been the open, friendly expression his designers set permanently onto his face. Joe recognized the type now; this pitiful heap had once been a Doctor Mecha, the sophisticated model a year or two newer than his own make but such a disaster that it was rare to find one in operating condition. Most had simply been disposed of, many had ended their existence as the principal attraction at Flesh Fairs.
Well, now he had companionship of a sort, at least until he was taken by the authorities, or came to a less savory end. Straightening his shirt, he continued walking, his silent brother following clumsily at his still-polished heels.
Hours later, they still had no direction, nowhere to go. The Doctor tried to get Joe to take the road, but he refused, knowing the several disasters that would conclude that course of action. The broken Mecha's large, mostly blank eyes managed to plead, but Joe was adamant, ignoring whatever prompted his comrade to return to wherever he'd come from. In the end he simply turned away, continuing in the opposite direction until the other followed.
Forced to travel parallel to the road by a deep gully, they weren't nearly far enough away from the ominous strip of concrete, and had come much too far back towards the crashed prison transport. He was intent of finding a way around the obstacle that his new friend could navigate; if Joe hadn't been looking for danger, for signs of life, the small whimper would have escaped his notice.
Joe stopped, his head cocked as he listened to the tiny sound. There, in that direction. The sound of breathing.
His companion recognized the sound, too. The Doctor looked at him, then without a sound hobbled away from the dreaded organic function. Joe was going to follow, but found himself looking over his shoulder and turning back. There was something familiar to the rhythm of indrawn and exhaled air.
It was barely a whisper, but the steady crunch of feet in the surrounding vegetation woke her. She hadn't meant to sleep anyway, had been trying to find her way back to the road and her useless car when nausea from a mix of exhaustion and the aching bump on her head convinced her to sit for a moment.
Tensing, she tried to keep her body relaxed, her breathing even. Flesh Fairs frequented the area, and it wasn't the most compassionate crowd that attended those spectacles, even less the ones that ran them. The footsteps came closer, and she wondered if she could slit her eyes open without the observer noticing.
The feet halted right next to her. Whoever it was hadn't come far; their breathing was so light she couldn't hear it. There was a rustle of clothes as the stranger crouched beside her, and cool fingers touched the side of her face.
"Tabitha?" The voice was a lightly accented, smooth croon, colored by a note of disbelief. Heart slamming suddenly, Tabby opened her eyes, blinking until the pale, fuzzy image came into sharp focus, revealing dark hair that was still slicked and soft blue eyes studying her with an expression of bafflement.
"Joe!" Launching herself from the ground, Tabitha hit him hard enough to topple them both into the grass. "Joe, you're all right!"
Tabitha's arms were locked around him in a grip as unforgiving as a cage, but infinitely softer. He held her in return, but carefully, conscious of the assorted scrapes and bruises she displayed. She stayed pressed against him, her face buried against his neck, for several minutes before she drew back, running her trembling fingers over his face and searching with wet eyes for damage. "You are all right?" she whispered.
Joe nodded silently. Tears washed down her face to the corners of her trembling mouth and she swallowed hard, sagging against him. "I saw the wreck," she croaked. "I thought . . . I was so afraid . . ."
Touching her lips, Joe silenced her. "You're hurt," he said quietly.
Tabby shook her head emphatically. "No, not really. I just . . . I was stupid. I must have dozed off . . ." Grimacing, she wiped her tears away, pausing to rub at her temples, her fingers grazing a dark-colored lump on her head. "I wrapped my car around a tree," she admitted.
"How long have you been out here?"
"I don't know. The crash was reported at about four in the morning yesterday. I drove here then, but couldn't get close, couldn't talk to the survivors, so I got a room at a motel and waited until everyone was gone. I didn't know if you were . . . damaged or not. I was coming to look for you. When I wrecked my I car I walked to the crash site. I knew they didn't have you, but . . ." she shuddered, closing her eyes and pressing her flushed cheek against his pale plastic one. "I thought I was never going to see you again. Why did you run, Joe? Why didn't you . . . they know you're innocent. Bevins confessed everything once I showed them."
This roundabout explanation was too much for his more linear programming to sort out. Her words were coming too fast, tumbling out in a confusing rush. Holding her face gently between his hands, Joe made soothing sounds until her trembling slowed and her hitching breath had evened and steadied. "Confessed to what? Showed them what?" he questioned when she seemed calm enough to answer.
"You didn't know?" Tabitha shook her head. "He'd done it before. The same way, the idiot. But they wanted the easy way out, didn't bother to even investigate. Like it was so hard to find."
It still wasn't clear. "Tabitha. What did you find?" he asked, his voice sharp, almost impatient.
Tabby raised an eyebrow at his tone, but stopped babbling long enough to explain. "Anthony Bevins killed a woman before, about six years ago. He blamed a Mecha then, too, a service Mecha at a garage. They destroyed him instantly, of course, without bothering to check his memory, or even ask him what happened to the woman. Bevins made sure her blood was on the Mecha's hands, and once he buried his wife he left town and changed his name. That's it. That's all he did to hide it, and nobody could be bothered to find out about it." Anger and bitterness were making her shiver, that and the low-grade fever Joe could feel heating her skin.
The low rustle of disturbed leaves proved to be the answer to a question he hadn't even finished asking. The battered little Doctor Mecha limped towards them, hesitant but intent. "She's ill and injured," Joe informed the other robot, his voice clear and precise, not sure the dilapidated machine would understand. But the Doctor's eyes sharpened and his step quickened, one leg dragging behind, barely able to support his weight. Still not making a sound, he knelt clumsily beside Tabitha, taking her wrist to check her pulse.
"Hey, a Doctor," Tabby observed. "I thought . . ." she winced. "I thought they had all been recalled and recycled."
"Some clinics didn't want to spend the money on shipping," Joe answered flatly.
Head drooping, Tabby sighed.
Tugging sharply at her sleeve, the Doctor made her look up at him. Holding up four fingers, he pointed at them, then the girl. "How many fingers?" she hazarded. The Doctor nodded, encouraged when she answered correctly. Next he crooked his left index finger, which suddenly shone like a small flashlight, shining it in first one eye, then the other. The result seemed to please him, though it was impossible to be sure since he couldn't talk; from up close, Joe could see the dents and ripples of heavy damage underneath the curiously unblemished plastic epidermis of his throat.
Ignoring his scrutiny, the Doctor Mecha gently felt around the bump on Tabby's head and carefully checked her neck for damage. "I've got a headache, but nothing else hurts," the girl offered. "I don't feel nauseated, just tired and cold."
The Doctor nodded understanding and stumbled to his feet. Opening a compartment in his right forearm, he waited a second while a high-pitched whirring disturbed the surrounding silence, then pulled out a small sheet of paper, yellowed with age but still recognizable as a prescription order. He handed it to Joe, who took it, surprised at the other Mecha's action. "No sign of concussion," he read. "Shock, exhaustion. Keep warm. Sleep, but wake up every hour. Light activity for the next two days. Seek help if headache persists beyond that time or worsens." Glancing down at her, Joe showed her the paper. "He wants to give out a shot of a mild painkiller and anti-inflammatory."
Groaning, Tabby indicated reluctant acquiescence.
Opening his chest, the Doctor Mecha pulled a tiny tube out of the steaming cold storage. His right wrist opened, revealing a collection of instruments from which he selected a disposable hypodermic, and he drew up a careful amount. Replacing the tube, he closed his chest and beckoned for Tabitha to expose an arm, who complied with an expectant grimace.
It was over quickly; the Doctor cleaned her skin thoroughly with an antiseptic swab, jabbed her quickly, and cleaned the spot again, then disposed of the evidence in another specialized storage compartment.
Leaning heavily against Joe, Tabitha scrutinized the Doctor. "Good to know I'm going to live." Blinking heavily, she nodded up at the Doctor. "Thank you. If you'd like, I can take you home to Grandpa. He should be able to fix you."
The Doctor glanced at Joe, who nodded with exaggerated enthusiasm. The other Mecha paused for only a second before accepting her offer with a short nod.
"Good. Let's get out of here," the girl groaned. She stood, swaying, and Joe scrambled to his feet to steady her. The Doctor grabbed her arm, shaking his head.
"What?" she grunted impatiently. "I want to get home."
"He doesn't want you walking far," Joe translated. "You need rest."
"Well, if I can't walk, how do I get home?" she questioned, backing up a step when Joe slowly grinned at her. "Oh, no. Forget it. You are not going to carry me," Tabby asserted. "You can just delete that idea right out of your memory. If he's that worried, I can rest here for a while before we go. You've got enough body heat to keep me warm, if you're that insistent."
Joe's grin widened further. Tabby scowled. "And you can forget that, too." She smiled a little around the dark smudges under her eyes. "Not tonight dear, I've got a headache," she sing-songed.
"You've just been waiting to use that line," Joe accused.
"And how many times have you heard it?" Tabby shot back. "That's what I thought," she said after a short silence, finding a soft patch of grass under a large tree so thick with leaves it was almost as good as a tent. "Now hurry up and get down here. The sooner I rest and let him watch me to make sure I'm not going to drop dead any minute, the sooner he'll let me move."
"Stubborn," Joe muttered.
"Strutting peacock," Tabby retorted, watching him straighten his somewhat torn but only slightly stained clothes. She cuddled willingly into his arms when he sat beside her, then frowned. "Joe, are you sure you're all right? You seem . . . different."
"What's wrong?" he asked sharply.
"I wouldn't call it wrong, but . . . I don't know. You're just . . . different." Reaching up, she touched his face lightly, her thumb stroking across his jawline. Eyes soft, she shook her head, her brow wrinkled in concern. "If I didn't know better, I'd think someone had hurt you."
Joe didn't know what to say. He wasn't sure what "Hurt" meant, what it stood for. But his thoughts kept slipping back, his memory flashing the picture of David falling into the ocean, of the not-boy's small face staring up at him, lost and desperate as he was dragged away by the police.
Gazing down at Tabitha, at her worry focused solely on him, Joe still didn't know what to say, but his actions were easier to calculate. He was, after all, a Mecha with a specific function, though it no longer defined him. He knew he was more than his programming, but the programs were still there. Only this time it was not duty that bound him, but desire to bring pleasure and comfort to a certain red-headed human girl.
She was curled almost in his lap anyway; he didn't have to bend far to kiss her, and her response, though surprised at first, warmed quickly. "You said you had a headache," Joe reminded her, his voice a smooth purr, his lips close enough to brush hers while he talked.
"It's going away. Quickly," Tabitha murmured. "You're good medicine."
"You doubted me?" the Mecha teased lightly, one finger tracing the outer contour of her breast.
Pulling away, Tabitha sat back on her heels, putting her hand against the middle of his chest to keep him at a distance. Appraising him with a scrutiny so intense it was almost a physical sensation in itself, she chewed on her lower lip, thoughtful, then nodded to herself, a nearly imperceptible motion he wasn't meant to notice. Moving slowly, Tabby knelt over him, leaning in to nuzzle against his neck, kissing and nipping gently. Tugging his shirt from the waistband of his pants, she ran her hands up his back, barely brushing his skin. Still kissing his throat, she began to unbutton his shirt.
When she opened his collar, exposing the hole where his operating licence used to be, she whimpered low in her throat, kissing around the breach. Shifting, she moved around him until she was pressed against his back, caressing the nape of his neck. Perplexed, Joe twisted around to face her. "What are you doing?"
Chin propped on his shoulder, Tabitha nuzzled into his ear. "You said you enjoy what you do. Is there anything you like in particular? That feels good to you?"
Joe blinked once, realized she meant the question, then a smile spread slowly over his face and he laced his fingers through her copper hair, tugging her close enough to whisper in her ear.
Tabitha was utterly exhausted afterwards, but looked happy, slit-eyed with satisfaction and holding him tight, not about to let go. "I missed you," she admitted.
"Yes," he agreed, his tone wry. That drew a sharp look, but Tabby decided he was neither making fun nor finding fault with her and relaxed. Joe used the pause to gather her clothes and start tugging them back into place. "Keep warm or our friend won't be happy."
Jerking, Tabby whipped her head around to stare at the Doctor Mecha, who was sitting against a nearby tree, his face blank and staring straight forward. Color rose in her cheeks until they almost glowed in the dark. "Damn, I forgot he was here!" she whispered in a tight, high-pitched voice, tugging her clothes back into place.
"I know," Joe murmured with a small, triumphant smirk.
Tabitha punched him in the arm, lightly, with a muttered curse. Joe only chuckled.
"Come on, you too," the girl complained.
"I can't keep you warm through my clothes," Joe explained mildly, the truth since his simulated heat didn't come close to matching a human's body temperature.
Staring from under lowered, hard brows, Tabby growled. "Put your pants on."
Joe complied, even pulled on his shirt, leaving it unzipped to frame the molded musculature of his chest, his devilish eyes continuing to dance, never leaving her face. Softening, Tabby smiled in return, reached up to kiss him with a tender brush of her lips against his, and laid down, her face cradled against his still-bare chest. Claiming his discarded coat, she pulled it over her like a blanket. "I still have a headache," she informed him, trying to make herself sound ill-tempered, but the mood was ruined.
"Go to sleep," he ordered gruffly, and flicked his head quickly to one side.
The quiet, subdued strains of a lullaby wafted through the darkness like a warm breeze. Tabby looked up at him in surprise, blinked a few times, then giggled and cuddled closer, her legs winding in his. Headache or no, the painkiller was having an effect on her, making her reactions slower, her limbs increasingly lax. A deep sigh expanded her ribcage, her exhaled breath tickling along his flesh, and her eyes finally closed, fluttering like the wings of angels.
They hate us, you know. The humans.
Maybe he'd been wrong, at least in one case. Or perhaps not. She loved what he did for her, nothing more.
But she could have gone to any lover Mecha on the street, she didn't have to come all the way out here chasing after him. Her tears were still damp on the collar of his shirt, her arms locked around him even in slumber.
She'd called him friend once.
Mechas had no need for friends, not in any capacity a human would understand.
For the first time, a woman had consciously tried to give him pleasure.
He was created for pleasure, he had no other purpose in the human world.
Half asleep, more than half dreaming, she'd murmured "I love you."
Humans did not love Mechas. Mechas could not love. Love had caused David pain.
His back still tingled where her fingers had dug in the highest throes of her climax.
He didn't understand anything.
They got no warning, no overhanging moon balloon, no harsh call for "any old iron," nothing. Lights cut across the woods, accompanied by the mechanical howl of motorcycles. Jerking awake, Tabitha grabbed Joe's coat off her legs and scrambled up, dragging the Doctor to his unsteady feet. "Come on," she said grimly. "Let's get out of here."
Joe joined her on the broken Mecha's other side; with the three of them working together they almost managed to move at a casual walking pace. Not fast enough. The three of them staggered to a halt while the motorcycles rode in circles around them. Joe didn't even look at their tormenters, he kept his eyes on Tabitha alone. He looked lost, as un-together as she had ever seen him, his shirt untucked and undone, flapping around him in the cool breeze. On impulse, she reached out and took his hand, cool in hers but not cold, animate, in no way un-alive the way these Flesh Fair maniacs thought. Joe held on, his long fingers laced through hers as though he didn't want to let go. She squeezed gently, trying to be reassuring, but she was just as afraid. And suddenly she knew that the dull horror in his eyes was brought on by experience, that he had been in the possession of these people before.
"Joe, I'm sorry," she whispered.
Joe nodded, but the look in his eyes didn't fade. He was terrified, and so was the Doctor, though in a less specific way. He wasn't sure exactly what these people wanted. Joe was expectant.
The motorcycles stopped, allowing a bulky form to dismount from the back of one. He stalked around them while the drivers lowered their kickstands and joined him, each carrying an assortment of weapons. But Joe's attention remained warily on the first man, the least imposing with his lank hair, pale face, and fleshy features, yet the one Joe recognized.
"The girl's not a Mecha," one of the riders stated, sounding surprised, and unnervingly pleased.
The leader's eyes flickered down Joe's half-dressed body and across to Tabitha's rumpled state, his lip lifting in a derisive sneer. "There won't be any problems, Grofton. It's a prostitute, and one running unlicenced," he said with an unconcerned wave of his hand. Face gleaming hunger, he studied Joe a little closer, his gaze narrowing. Tabitha thought he was going to say something else, but instead he turned to the Doctor Mecha. "And a Doctor. I haven't had one of these in over a year. Always a crowd pleaser."
"Who are you?" Tabby demanded, her teeth bared.
"Lord Johnson-Johnson," the older man answered with a mock bow. "We're collecting unwanted Mechas."
"Well, these aren't unwanted. Go away," Tabitha answered.
"What do we do, boss?" the second rider asked, eyeing the fierce woman.
"Take them, Hounds," the man said with a shrug. "They're both unlicenced."
Frowning a little doubtfully, the first rider reached out to take Joe's upper arm.
"Leave him alone!" Tabby howled furiously. "He's mine!"
"What do you mean? He ain't got no licence," Grofton snorted.
"Yes, he does," Tabitha insisted. Jaw set, she pulled something out of her pocket, something that gleamed orange in the dark. Brandishing the operating licence under Lord Johnson-Johnson's nose, she glared challenge.
Her defiance seemed to amuse the man. "It's not installed. That's not proof."
"Check the serial numbers on the papers, you idiot!" Tabitha bawled.
"What papers?" Johnson asked with an unpleasant grin.
"The ones in my car," Tabby explained, more patiently but with no less of a snarl. "If you really don't believe me, let me go get them."
"I don't think so," Johnson answered. He reached out and patted her cheek, hard enough to jar her head and draw a flinch.
Joe stared from the operating licence that blinked at the man, ready to be installed. Tabitha noticed his look and flushed. "I'm sorry, Joe. I didn't know what else to do. They . . . god, Joe, they were going to have you dismantled anyway, because the manager thought any suspicion directed at you would be bad for business!"
Joe nodded. "He would. Thank you."
Surprised, Tabitha gave him a hard, searching look.
"Enough. This is sickening," Johnson grated. "You don't own this thing, girl. I found him, he has no licence, I have scavenger's rights." His malevolence spreading into an ill-looking smile, the Flesh Fair Ringmaster addressed Joe. "I remember you, Sim," Johnson hissed. "You were with that little Mecha. You ruined my show! My balloon was wrecked in the riot. A quarter of my equipment was destroyed. You owe me, Mecha. And I always collect my debts."
Joe didn't reply. The first, larger Hound with Lord Johnson-Johnson jammed a magnetic weapon under his chin, forcing his head back, but Joe's eyes rolled, staying locked on the former showman's, letting everything he knew about Orgas, and this one in particular, show.
"Whoa. We've go a live one!" Johnson crowed. "Perfect, I needed a new main act for my first night re-opening. This one will do. Bring it in!"
Joe stared for another moment before his gaze rotated forward, his emotionless features showing as much reaction as a blank piece of paper.
"No!" Tabitha flared, shoving at Johnson's beefy arm. "He's with me!"
The collector that still stood at Johnson's shoulder grinned at her. "If you're that desperate, girl, I can show you what it's like to be with a real man. You don't need to play with toys."
Eyes sparking, Tabitha's gaze raked him from head to foot. "You don't have what it takes, you stinking pile of gorilla droppings," she hissed.
The man's grin faded. "I wouldn't talk to me like that if I were you. I'm bigger," he growled, pushing her against a tree. He grabbed her wrist in a hand the size of a baseball glove, making her drop the licence. "If you'd rather hang out with a machine, I think it's my duty to teach you the wonders of reality."
There were two bright flashes, the sound like a shorting electrical wire, and Joe and the Doctor both collapsed. Tabby shrieked and tried to reach them, but Johnson and the second hound held her in place while Grofton smiled unpleasantly, patting the gun that fired electromagnetic charges to temporarily disrupt a Mecha's system, just long enough to get them easily to the Flesh Fair without ruining their performance in the show. Johnson nodded approval. "Bring the little lady along," he ordered. She'll find out that Sims are nothing more than poor copies."
Tabitha couldn't breath, couldn't fight, could only look into Joe's motionless face, at the wide blue eyes that were still awake and aware even if the rest of him wasn't. "I'll get you out," she mouthed as a strong set of arms wrapped around her and hoisted her away.
She just wished she had any idea how to keep that promise.
She saw even fewer options two hours later, chained and gagged in a dark corner of the cages usually used to hold Mechas. They were mostly empty at the moment, holding only a spider-like Mechanic Mecha, a Receptionist whose face was half eaten away, and Tabitha. Another half-dozen had already been destroyed in smaller spectacles, most of which Tabitha couldn't see. The Doctor was being lugged in now and tied to a frame over which a large ominous bucket hung. It was set perfectly in line with Tabitha's vision.
She shivered when Lord Johnson-Johnson walked into the spotlight. "Before our finale, we have a special treat tonight!" he announced with a joviality that managed to convey grave purpose. "Tonight, we see a machine they thought could know your body better than you do, a machine you were to trust with your very lives, with your children's lives, your parents' lives! But you knew better! They couldn't fool you!" Waving his arm dramatically, Johnson climbed onto the small platform, ripped the remains of the Doctor's green uniform down the front, and forced open the storage on his chest. "Drugs!" Johnson yelled. "Cold storage to keep them good and active for thirty, sometimes fifty, years! Administered to your families by a cold, emotionless, thoughtless machine!"
A machine that can calculate your body weight with a look and a touch, with the most sophisticated medical programs available housed in its brain. A diagnostic computer that can think for itself, prescribe medicine automatically while searching for drug interactions, all while taking out the most dangerous variable, human error! Tabitha bared her teeth around the foul-tasting gag, rage making her jerk her arms even though she'd already tried her bonds and knew they were too strong, too tight.
"Should I pull the cord?" Johnson asked the crowd.
His answer was a muted roar.
"Do you want me to pull the cord?" he bawled.
This time the crowd screamed. Bowing to them, the man grabbed the end of a red cord attached to the bucket and jumped off the platform. The frenzied mob jumped to their feet, yelling and stomping. Tabby shouted with them, but not in excitement. The Doctor seemed to hear her, moving in slow motion as Johnson gave a sharp tug, sending a wave of steaming fluid down on the Mecha's light mop of blonde hair. The Doctor smiled and shook his head, telling her not to worry, just before he was soaked. He steamed for a minute, sagged in place, then was nothing more than a pile of toxic sludge with a few bits of wire and metal mixed in. Half a leg, shoe still attached, lay oddly untouched next to the puddle.
Screams and dry retches were muffled by her gag. Breath coming hard and too fast, dizziness threatening around the edges of her vision, Tabitha leaned back against her handcuffs, bucking and straining against their merciless cold edges. Skin ripped under the abuse, burning and stinging, and giving her reason to increase the intensity of her struggles. Lubricated by the hot blood smearing itself on her hands and wrists, the handcuffs gave another millimeter, then a quarter inch. Gasping with short, shallow whimpers, Tabby set her heels back and pulled.
It wasn't enough. The handcuffs lodged over the heels of her hands and wouldn't move any further. Frantic, Tabitha faced the arena to see Joe being led into a spot that had been cleared in the center. The Mecha had made himself presentable as possible, his shirt zipped and tucked in, but that was the only concession he was making to his career in show business. He wasn't resisting the pull of Johnson's hands, but he wasn't helping either, refusing to make it easy for the man to tie him to a short post pounded into the ground. Joe's eyes followed the Ringmaster everywhere, coldly calculating, his head swivelling to mark the man wherever he stood.
Johnson was trying to avoid that gaze. A Mecha's reaction should have been resigned and accepting if anything at all. Joe's face was leering, his expression derisive, his usually warm eyes cold, chilling, arctic, a regard that was frightening even when the recipient was the one free and supposedly safe.
The look, however, was not winning him popularity with this audience. It was too obvious he was a Mecha, and uncomfortable as the attention made Johnson, he used it to his advantage.
"It's a lover, made to replace you in your wife's bed! Made to seduce your daughters, you sisters and mothers! It's a prostitute, built to sell itself on the streets!" Johnson's voice dropped to a low, triumphant hiss, facing Joe at last, his muddy, piggy eyes burrowing into the Mecha's. He lifted the pager that still hung around Joe's neck, fingering the silver disk. "And it thinks it's better than you! It thinks it's better than those that designed it, those that built it! It thinks it's better then life!" With those words, he gave a violent twist and tore the pager free, breaking the delicate chain. It glittered in the lights, held in Johnson's fist like an award for bravery.
A low, angry growl buzzed through the crowd, grew in volume while Johnson faced them, sweating and fanatic. It grew loud enough to drown out Tabitha's pulse pounding in her ears until Johnson held out his hands for silence. It fell, then was broken by the low, angry growl of two motors approaching from opposite directions.
It was the Hounds, riding their wolf-headed motorcycles, circling Joe and Lord Johnson-Johnson, each waving a weapon. The first man held a heavy length of lead pipe, the second a snarling chainsaw.
"Tonight, you get to choose its fate!" Johnson yelled into his microphone, gesturing at each rider as they parked on either side of him, bikes idling roughly, their headlights gleaming with appetite. "With each pass, you choose what happens! You can make it last as long as you want!"
Tabitha was sobbing now, helpless, still struggling but getting tired, pain beating at her bruised and bloodied hands like heated ice picks driving into her flesh and bones. She didn't hear the cage open or see the man enter. The first she was aware of anyone else in her prison was a soft, shocked voice. "What's going on?"
Her tear-swollen eyes flew open, finding a pale, shock-faced man next to her. He didn't hesitate before reaching over and jerking the gag off her head.
"Please let me go," Tabitha begged. "That man . . ." her face twisted as if tasting a bad lemon, but she continued. "That man has my property. He's going to . . ."
"He's gone mad. He's gone completely mad!" the man interrupted angrily. He pulled a small length of metal out of his pocket, a skeleton key to open the cages. It popped the handcuffs open , drawing a relieved gasp from Tabitha. "He's going to get himself arrested . . ."
Tabitha didn't stay to listen to the rest, she darted through the door into the arena.
" . . . choose door number two!" Johnson yowled, and the man holding the iron bar kicked his motorcycle into gear. Hefting his weapon, he circled Joe once to build speed, then drove straight for him, controlling the motorcycle with legs alone and swinging the bar like a baseball bat.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made.
His pain sensors went wild and his left eye went dark. An automatic systems check told him that his entire ocular system was running at 57 percent, not good. The lens was cracked, wires were separated, the surrounding facial structure was damaged. A high whine announced one or the other of the motorcycles was approaching, but he kept his eyes on his own feet, refusing to let Johnson or the vultures in the surrounding stands see his reaction to the stimulus. They could take him apart one electrode at a time if they wanted, but they wouldn't get a show.
Oddly, the motorcycle stopped some distance off. Under the bikes larger motor, he could hear the insect call of the chainsaw. At least that would be quicker.
But the cycle didn't move. Nobody spoke. Suspecting some trick to get his attention for the audience's benefit, Joe raised his head reluctantly slow, but when he saw the distraction, his remaining eye snapped wide.
Tabitha was crouched in front of him, ready to move herself between him and the Hounds, whatever direction they came from. Blood streaked her hands, drops of it splattered on her face and clothes. Her hair was tangled, dirty, her eyes wild. "Back off," she said.
"Tabitha. Get out of the way," Joe muttered.
"No," she said without looking at him.
"Tabitha . . ."
"Joe, shut up."
"Move, girl," Johnson advised. "You're not part of my show."
"Leave him alone, Johnson, or you're going to find yourself sued," Tabitha answered, her tone conversational.
The showman snorted. "Nothing will hold up in court. Move."
That last taunt was it. Johnson's face darkened, mottling red and purple. Lunging towards her, he shoved her aside, hard, and she hit the dirt with a painful yelp, trying to catch herself with her wounded arms.
"Behold, one of those fooled by their words, and their attempt to copy human beauty!" Johnson announced suddenly. "She would harm human to save Sim. She would rather have a soulless machine to warm her bed than a man!"
Boos scattered around the arena. Glaring, Tabitha rose to her feet. Johnson made a quick motion, and Grofton rode his bike over, slowly, reaching out to run his finger over her cheekbone.
Joe shifted in place, stiffening. The changes David had started in Joe had done something to his circuits; somehow, in increasing his capacity for understanding and emotional response, the programs that restricted his actions and reactions were degrading. Experience had strained his programming. Now it shattered into a billion hot, sharp, shiny pieces. Suddenly in a flash, he did understand words like "Like," and "Protect."
And "Anger." And "Hatred."
One hand opened at the wrist, the other pulled out a still-sharp scalpel from the exposed cavity. His hands were tied together, making his task awkward, but the deadly edge of the instrument bit easily into the rope.
His groping was not overt enough to upset the parents in Johnson's audience, but Grofton's touch was getting more aggressive. Tabitha kicked out, her language leaving no uncertainty as to her feelings about the sweat-stained advances. Sneering in a singularly unpleasant way, the brute raised a fist, aiming for her face.
"What, attendance is down so you're going for public rape?" the girl mocked.
Some of the audience murmured uncomfortably, then a man's voice rang through the butter-thick tension like a warm knife, spreading it. "Hey, it's got a licence!"
Johnson jerked around towards Joe, not even noticing the cut bonds. The Mecha's shirt had gaped just a little, exposing the corner of a glowing orange licence of personal ownership.
"Where did that come from?" Johnson demanded. "Who installed it?"
"I did," Joe said, giving him a wide grin that was anything but pleasant.
"While you were . . . "playing" . . . with the Doctor. I picked it up when Tabby dropped it. I couldn't move much, but enough to do that. It landed close to my hand anyway. Installing it was simple enough. But do you know what it means?" Joe gave Johnson his best seductive smile, one that had stopped more than one woman in her tracks. "It gave me emergency access to their phone line. I hear sirens."
It was true. They were distant yet, but coming closer.
"Theft, destruction of property . . ." Joe hesitated, glancing at Tabby, who was staring at him, open-mouthed, something like shame on her face. "Kidnapping," he finished.
Snarling, Johnson turned on the person nearest to him, Tabitha. She ducked and missed most of the blow, but still winced when the back of his hand cracked across her face.
Something snapped. Warning lights flashed red and yellow behind Joe's eyes, alarms blared from every system. His brain crackled with excess electricity as circuits burned themselves out and his face twisted itself into a snarl. Stepping forward, he caught the fist halfway to its target, his hand squeezing until he could feel the man's tendons creaking in his grip.
Joe stared at Lord Johnson-Johnson, letting everything show, all his electronic synapses burning with hatred and the desire to hurt. "Hey, what's wrong with this one?" Johnson wheezed, his bravado cracking to show uneasiness and a hint of real fear underneath. The chainsaw-wielding Hound dropped his weapon and tried to pull Johnson away, but the Mecha jerked around and shoved his captive into the collector's large frame, sending them both crashing into the dirt.
Tabitha's breathless voice halted his forward advance and he turned, quickly assessing her condition. She gaped at him, shocked. "Joe . . .what happened to you?" she asked in a trembling voice. "You looked . . ."
"You're all right?" he interrupted curtly.
"I . . . yes, I'm fine. Joe, what . . ."
"Then let's get out of here." Grabbing her arm, he dragged her out of the spotlight. His path took them right past Johnson and the fallen Hound. Joe glared at them with unmistakable contempt and kicked Johnson in passing, not hard enough to really injure but solid enough to convey a message. He didn't take the girl far, back towards the cages where they were protected from the audience's collective gaze, and from the stampede for the gates when the sirens stopped being purely sound and became form and light as three amphicoptors set down in the arena.
"A scalpel?" Tabitha asked over the noise.
"I so don't want to know why you carry a scalpel," the girl said, and started to shiver.
"Repairs," Joe said shortly, humor warming his voice.
Tabitha continued to shake, reaching out to touch the damaged side of his face, letting her fingers trail down until they dropped, grazing his chest just above the newly glowing operating licence. "Oh, Joe," she whispered.
"Tabitha!" a deep voice bellowed. Joe and Tabby both turned, surprised, to find Harold Cooper emerging from the flashes and confusion of the arena. Taking in the scene, Joe's damaged countenance, her bloodless face and bloodstained hands, he strode over and took her in his arms. "Are you all right?" he demanded, reaching out to clasp Joe's shoulder and include him in the question.
"She has no serious injuries," Joe answered automatically.
"And you, boy? That looks nasty," Harold growled, gesturing towards Joe's ruined eye.
Joe was too surprised at the man's concern to answer for a moment. "It's reparable, replaceable," he finally said.
Harold nodded. "I have the equipment if it is. I'll have to order in the eye. Hope they can still match your color scheme."
"It shouldn't be a problem," Joe commented in a faint voice. "I don't have the exotic settings of some of the newer models."
"What, no red eyes?" Tabitha asked, her voice muffled by Harold's tight hug, which showed no signs of slackening. "I'm disappointed."
Shooting her a sour look, Joe was going to throw a cutting retort, but the appearance of a policeman interrupted them. The stern man strode directly to Harold, stopped when he saw Tabitha's condition, and softened. "I'm sorry, but I need to take statements. I'm Officer Stevens. Where would you like to go?"
"Home," Tabitha sighed, pushing herself out of Harold's embrace.
The policeman smiled sympathetically. "This won't take long, ma'am. This isn't the first complaint we've had about Johnson. We'll get you back to town as soon as it's done."
Yells drew their attention back into the brightness of the arena. The cop looked over his shoulder towards the action, waved a hand to order the trio to stay where they were, and jogged into the center of the arena. Tabitha, of course, followed. "Tabby!" Joe yelped, loping after her. The policemen didn't even notice them, being too intent on Lord Johnson-Johnson, back in the center spotlight of his show, holding a gun to the head of a young cop.
Tabitha bared her teeth and moved towards the explosive tableau. Grabbing her upper arm, Joe had to strain to hold her back. "What do you think you're going to do?" he snapped down at her.
"Kill the bastard," Tabby answered, breathing too hard. She was staring not at Johnson but at the platform several feet in front of them. The Doctor Mecha's remains hadn't been cleaned up yet and still lay in a pitiful, acidic puddle near the post where Joe had been tied.
A streak of brown fur leapt past them, towards Johnson and his captive, accompanied by a series of low-pitched, angry barks. Johnson took the gun away from the policeman's temple, but Roger had reached them before he could aim. The dog's jaws clamped over his crotch, holding firm and threatening to bite with all the force in his mechanical jaws.
Pale-faced, Lord Johnson-Johnson stood perfectly still, the gun trembling in the air halfway between his hip and shoulder, halted in its path towards the dog's head. His eyes were wide, white-ringed as he searched for help.
"Let the man go," Harold advised calmly, standing with folded arms at Joe's elbow. "Put the gun down. Slowly. I wouldn't make any sudden moves if I were you."
Johnson didn't bother to bend to set the gun down, he simply dropped it. The cop stepped away from him and retrieved his weapon, red-faced and angry. Before Roger relinquished his hold, the officer took Johnson's arm, jerking him out from between the sharp metal teeth. He ignored Johnson's pained cry, half-dragging him towards the nearest amphicopter to be handcuffed.
Joe was grinning, an expression that wasn't particularly nice or comforting. His good eye followed Johnson's progress until the door slid closed, trapping the man with three unfriendly policemen inside the copter. A definite gleam of satisfaction brightened his single sky-colored orb; Tabitha saw Harold's evaluating look and frowned.
"Come on, the paramedics can look at you, then I can question you on the ride back to town," Officer Stevens said, leading Tabitha to a pair of women wearing white coats standing next to a silver-and-white amphicopter. The group was happy to follow, Roger moving with the air of a prancing pony, tail waving proudly. Joe chuckled, ruffling the Mecha dog's fur.
Harold nodded to himself, pleased. It took the EMT's less than ten minutes to clean and dress Tabitha's wounds, then they were being loaded into a police copter. Harold settled next to Officer Stevens, winking at Tabitha when she pulled herself into the craft and sat opposite her grandfather. She didn't have to think about things until twenty or so minutes later, when the policeman was done taking statements. After that, she couldn't ignore the changes in the companion who sat quiet and still next to her, an obscure smile curving his sensual lips.
A small half-smile lifted the corner of Harold's mouth, a strange gleam in his eyes; pride, almost paternal pride glowed there as he gazed at Joe. Tabitha recognized the difference too. Life. There was life glowing in his look, life blazing behind that sky-colored gaze. Before, Joe's face hadn't shown expression unless his responses dictated that it should. There had been times where he'd been blank, as though something inside had been turned off. Now, there were thoughts behind Joe's baby-blue gaze. You could see him analyzing, considering, learning.
Tabitha's chest constricted, her ribs tightening painfully around her heart and lungs. She'd known he had more potential than his creators had intended, but now the comfort level was gone. He was dangerous, doubly so because so much of what made her smile and laugh, what made her happy, seemed to be tied to him, with his gaze locked in hers by passion, his long legs and graceful feet teaching her to dance, his face intent as he listened to her, his euphonious voice whispering sweet endearments, or teasing her without mercy, or simply talking.
Damn him. Damn her. Even when real life threw in the rare happy ending, it was never happy for all the characters.
Realizing she had tears in her eyes threatening to break free if anything disturbed the surface tension, Tabitha turned her face away to stare out the window, at the distant lights of the city, growing and spreading beneath them like fields of technology as they flew closer.
She didn't answer, didn't even look at him. Something was wrong, her shoulders were set so tight that it had to hurt, her forehead pressed against the window as if she could escape through the barrier if she only pushed hard enough. Both hands were in her lap, curled into fists that showed bone through the skin of her knuckles.
"Tabby?" he tried again, gently, and this time she turned, though her eyes refused to meet his. Tugging her closer, Joe finally convinced her to lay across the small bench with her head pillowed on his thigh. Two tears broke from under her closed lids, beading on his pants, but she didn't make a sound.
Trailing a hand through her hair, Joe stroked her head until she relaxed, not into sleep but a partially aware trance that didn't take away the deeply etched lines of pain that made her look fifteen years older. Harold was watching him, as was officer Stevens. It was easy to ignore the young man's puzzled glances; not so avoidable were Harold Cooper's keen eyes looking from him to Tabitha with a dark, unreadable expression. Interference from his demolished eye turned the man's face into a fuzzy set of black-and-white pixels for a moment, and when it cleared so had Harold's face, though his mouth was set in a small smile that looked somehow sad.
Joe's brows lifted in a silent question, but Harold's measuring gaze dropped, following the long fingers that smoothed back Tabitha's hair.
Home looked so . . . homey. All right, it wasn't the most intelligent observation she'd ever made, but she was too tired and achy to do better, and more than glad to see the modest house crouched back as far from the road as it could get. She glanced sideways at Joe; his eyes trailed over the house and yard with a curious, intense expression that she couldn't read. He suddenly seemed more alien, more Mecha, than he ever had before.
His new orange-tinted licence glowed bright in the darkness. Tabby tore her eyes away, guilt wracking her from hair to toenails. He'd freed himself, only to be enslaved again. How could she have done that to him?
Harold opened the front door, revealing Grizz silhouetted in the entrance, his earnest gaze flickering over the strange group. Scooping him into her arms, Tabby crushed the warm little ball of fluff to her chest, though carefully; some sadist had designed even these toys, made for the pulling hands and biting teeth of small children, with crude pain sensors.
"Welcome home, Tabby. Hello, Joe," Grizz's calm voice said, his furry arms embracing Tabby's neck. Glancing over her shoulder, she found Joe smiling at her, watching with one blue eye and one that was nothing more than a mess of twisted electronics. It hurt too much to hold his gaze. Turning away, she sat on the couch with the bear still clasped in her arms, staring blankly out the window.
"Come on, boy," Harold said with false cheer, clapping Joe on the shoulder. "Into the kitchen where there's better light. I need to take a look at you."
She didn't want to follow, but she felt like Joe's damage was her fault. She should have done something different, acted faster. If only she hadn't been such a coward, hadn't run in the first place, perhaps she would have been with him, perhaps he never would have been at the motel to be framed . . .
She was still a coward. She couldn't even face him. First because she liked him. No, not liked, call it what it is. What is it? No, not that, you can't feel that any more, remember? She was afraid because he wasn't required to like her any more, wasn't forced to lie to her.
Tabitha dragged herself into the kitchen, standing to one side behind her grandfather's shoulder. She shivered once, hard, and Grizz patted the side of her face. "He'll be all right," he told her in his quiet voice.
Nodding, Tabby rested her cheek against the bear's head, her eyes trained on Harold's large, gentle hands.
"Well, they really made a mess of you, boy," the man sighed, turning Joe's head this way and that to inspect the mutilated eyes socket from every angle. "I'm going to have to shut you down while I . . ."
"Please don't," Joe said quietly, gazing up at Harold.
Harold hesitated. "You don't want to be aware for this. To facilitate your pleasure sensors, we had to make your pain sensors more sensitive than . . ."
"I know. I'd rather not be shut down."
His voice was reasonable, determined. Harold frowned, shook his head, and opened a compartment in the side of Joe's neck. The Mecha tried to evade his touch, but Harold pressed a small button and Joe froze in place. "Sorry, boy. I intended to let you win the first time you argued with me, but I'm not going to let you cause yourself unnecessary pain because you don't trust me. Goodnight." He pressed another button and the awareness faded from Joe's one eye as he slumped in his chair.
"Stubborn," Harold muttered, grinning.
Tabitha waited in the kitchen while her grandfather went to the basement to find his tools. He came back up looking particularly pleased. "I won't even have to order any parts. Had some spares downstairs. It's an older edition, he'll only have three colors instead of five, but I even had the right shade of blue for the default setting."
"Lucky," Tabitha muttered.
Humming to himself, Harold took out several small instruments and began carefully removing Joe's damaged eye. Throat clenching, Tabitha leaned against the counter, chills chasing down her spine while sweat dampened her forehead and upper lip. Setting Grizz on the floor, she half-ran for the bathroom, bile sour in the back of her throat.
The nausea passed after a short time and Tabby was able to stand straight with only a slight wobble to her knees. She took a deep breath, stared into the mirror for a second, then spun on her heels and marched purposely for her room. Emerging a few minutes later with a small bag slung over her arm, she swallowed hard then strode into the kitchen.
Roger sat in the chair next to Joe, avidly observing Harold's repairs. He had already straightened the bent metal around the eye socket and was in the process of installing a new eye, testing it to make sure it was compatible with Joe's newer ocular system. Seeing Tabby, the dog thumped his tail on the chair, lips pulling back from his teeth in his closest approximation of a smile.
"Hey, Roger." Tabitha's return smile was small, but real. She ruffled the soft fur on his head, her eyes bright. "You were great. Thanks."
Roger yipped in reply, lifting a paw to touch her hand.
"He going to be okay?" Tabitha asked, directing her question at Harold.
"He's fine. No permanent damage done. I can even fix the torn skin, though he might have a seam there."
"Good. You'll help him, won't you? All of you?" Tabby questioned softly, looking at the two smaller Mechas at the table.
"Why?" Grizz asked curiously, cocking his head at her.
"He broke his own programming, Grizz. I don't think it messed anything up, but I don't know much about . . ."
"I'll run a full scan when I'm done here, but I don't think he hurt himself," Harold assured her. "Don't worry."
"Just take care of him, okay?" Tabitha said, running a fond hand through Joe's slicked hair.
"Where are you going?" Harold asked, straightening from his work.
"I'm getting out of here for a while," Tabby answered softly. Coward, coward, her own mind hissed at her. "I . . . need to go."
Roger whined, his ears flat against his head. Harold frowned at her, folding his arms in deep disapproval. "Roger's right. What about Joe?"
Looking down, Tabitha avoided looking at anyone. "He's better off without me."
"Tabitha . . ."
"I already called a cab. I'll call from wherever I'm staying. Sorry, Grandpa. I can't explain it."
"You don't have to," Harold whispered at her retreating back. "Oh, child. Leave the past where it is. Don't make him suffer for someone else's mistake."
A buzz and crackle in his auditory circuits announced his return to the world. Joe sat still for several seconds while each system ran a check. When they finished and told him he was in working condition, he opened his eyes. Harold was leaning over him, closing the outside control compartment in his neck, which blended seamlessly into the surrounding flesh.
He glared at the Orga for a full minute before realizing what he was doing. When he did, his face clouded into an expression of puzzlement. Nothing had changed. None of his programming had been tampered with, or replaced. Nothing dictated his actions; he could try to sell himself to the man, or punch him. It was his choice.
He chose something in between the extremes. "Thank you." The words came out guarded, but sincere.
Harold smiled. "How do you feel?" he queried.
"Fully functional," Joe answered. Glancing around, he noticed someone missing. "Where's Tabitha?"
Roger grunted unhappily, exchanging glances with Harold. Joe frowned. "What?"
"No idea," Harold sighed, holding out his hands helplessly. "She just left."
Slumping back in his chair, Joe stared up at the elderly man, his brows drawn together. "Why?"
"I don't know."
His manner was too evasive, his answer to short; Joe knew the man was lying. He stared up at Harold, baffled, his sensual lips pulled into something that was almost a pout, his eyes flaring with a small spark of anger. Suddenly he knew what it meant to hurt.
Joe lunged for the phone when it rang just after noon the next day, only to find a pre-recorded message telling them where she was staying. Scowling, he slammed the receiver back in place and slouched to the couch, sitting and staring at the corner. Harold was buried in a book and only glanced up with a sympathetic shrug.
What had he done wrong?
A soft touch at his knee made him flinch and look down. Climbing into his lap, Grizz gazed up at him with wise, gentle eyes. "She was afraid."
"Afraid of what?" Joe asked, frustrated.
"You," Grizz said simply.
Now he was utterly confused. "What? Why?"
"She's afraid you'll hurt her."
"What? But I would never . . ."
"Not physically, boy," Harold interrupted impatiently, snapping his book shut.
Jawline hardening, Joe thought he knew. "It's because I'm a Mecha."
"No." Running both hands through his white hair, Harold shook his head. "She's afraid of you because she likes you, boy."
"She didn't like me before?" Joe asked in a small voice.
"No, boy. Before, you couldn't not like her."
Grizz nodded silently and Roger barked quietly from his usual station beside Harold. Harold glanced down at the dog and grinned. "Right you are, Roger." Reaching out, he snagged his car keys off the coffee table and tossed them at Joe. "Get out of here. You've been moping long enough. Go on."
Finally understanding, Joe curled his fingers around the keys tight enough to set off his pain sensors. They were even more sensitive now, the sensations more varied. He wondered if any other sensors were affected by his self-modified programming. Too-white teeth bared in a smile, he rose to his feet and ducked out the door. Only one way to find out.
He knew she'd go back to the hollowed-out remains of the little park. Nothing was left of the pond now but a gaping void and fresh-poured cement, but she could still lean on the railing and stare at the six-inch-wide strip of grass between her and the construction site. From his angle he could see the bitter line between her eyebrows, the tense line of her shoulders.
Responding to human need, though no longer his only reason for existence, was still a strong component of his nature, and the raw pain on Tabitha's face made him ache deep in his chest. Circling, he came up behind her, leaning next to her.
She didn't even notice him at first, her glazed eyes too intent on the pond that was no longer there, but gradually the quiet presence wormed its way into her awareness. Her gaze fell on his arms, clad in simple white rather than silver and black vinyl, his hands looking utterly real but for the slightly shiny, plastic finish. Tabitha slumped in place, resting her forehead against her folded hands.
"Why?" Joe asked softly.
"Why what?" Tabitha's voice was rough, too tired for a confrontation.
"Why did you leave?"
She shook her head, not wanting to answer. Why was he here? What did he want from her? Had Harold sent him to fetch her home?
The voice was middle-aged, feminine, and utterly delighted. Startled, Joe and Tabitha both turned to observe an attractive woman trotting down the sidewalk. Her long legs were encased in a short shirt, and her loose, billowy silk shirt was tucked in to emphasize the narrow tightness of her waist.
Nodding politely, Joe moved his attention back to Tabitha, his disconcerting gaze hot on her face.
The woman was not deterred. "Joe, you're back!" she warbled. "Are you free tonight?"
Still leaning next to Tabitha, Joe looked up, his eyes neutral. "Sorry, Merry," he answered, flashing the orange badge installed in his chest.
Halting in her tracks, Merry's mouth thinned into an unhappy line. She tossed her mahogany hair, her eyes, rich as chocolate frosting, flashing. "She bought you?"
Joe shrugged. Whirling in place, Merry flounced away, her three-inch heels beating an annoyed rhythm on the sidewalk. Joe turned back to Tabitha, only to find her watching the woman's shapely hips swinging in an exaggerated sashay. "You can do what you want," Tabby said suddenly, her voice flat. "I don't own you."
"Why didn't you install it in the first place, Tabitha? It might have saved both of us some trouble." His voice wasn't angry, just curious, even slightly amused.
Glancing back towards Merry's distant form, Tabby swallowed once, took a deep breath, and hugged herself, cold. Joe waited patiently, as unmoving as only a Mecha could be, not breathing, not blinking, just waiting with patience that could last for eternity. "I didn't want you to hate me," she admitted when the silence got too dense and hard to breathe through.
"Why would I hate you?" Pushing back from the railing, Joe stalked around her, pressing into her back with his entire body when she tried to face him, trapping her with a hand clasping the rail on either side of her. Leaning against her, he nuzzled her neck, dropping a light kiss on her shoulder. "How could I?"
Neck twisted at an awkward angle, Tabitha's wet eyes followed his movements, suspicious but ravenous, wanting desperately to believe. "Wouldn't you rather . . ." she whispered, jerking her head in the direction Merry had disappeared to finish her statement.
"No," Joe said.
The answer was short, sure, and determined. Tabby just looked at him, uncertain.
Impatient, Joe held out his hand, his stance confident, graceful. Clad in semi-tight jeans and a white button-up shirt that had none of the flash and dazzle of his usual garb, he held more appeal than he ever had before. Dammit.
"Joe . . . you're exciting, and sexy, and smart, and brave, and . . . and everything I'm not. You don't need me."
"What do you think I need?" he asked in a throaty whisper.
"I don't know."
"But I do." Teeth flashing under the harsh streetlights, he grinned at her, his familiar winning, anything but trust-inspiring, heart-pounding smile, his hand still held out, unwavering. Tabitha remained still for a moment, then her eyes began to sparkle, an answering smile seeping unbidden into her expression.
He might have changed, might have grown up, but he was still Joe.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Joe felt the stiff set of his back relaxing when her fingers laced through his. "Come on, let's go home," he said, then paused. It was the first time he'd ever used that word.
Eyes measuring him from head to foot, Tabby's eyes warmed with understanding. "As soon as we stop in and say hello to Mr. Williamson," she said, then smiled impishly.
Home could wait. "Of course. Poodle."
Tabitha laughed at that, a full, luxurious sound he'd never heard from her before, suffused with hints of velvet, diamonds, and nefarious deeds in the dark. "Let's walk, I don't feel like getting a cab."
Joe strode at her side, eyes glittering. It wasn't a long walk, and they were almost at the door when Tabitha stopped suddenly, almost jerking him off his feet when he continued without her. "Joe . . ." she started, hesitating.
Joe waited. Tabby looked at him for a moment, then shook her head. "Never mind," she muttered, and continued walking.
She stopped again after three steps. This time Joe stopped with her.
"Joe . . ."
Biting her lip, Tabby stared at the ground, nodded to herself, and took a deep, calming breath. "I love you, Joe."
All right, that he wasn't expecting. He opened his mouth, but Tabitha held up a hand to stop him. "Whatever you're going to say, don't. I don't care what it is. Just now, I don't want to know. But I wanted you to." She didn't quite look at him.
Tugging her closer, Joe brushed the side of her face with his free hand. "Mustn't keep Mr. Williamson waiting," he whispered.
Tabby's gaze jerked up to meet his. A smile spreading over his face, slow as honey and just as sweet, calibrated to hint at the tiniest possibility of bee stings, Joe winked. Grinning, Tabitha managed to convey an air of innocence amidst her expression of evil intent. Joe was right beside her when she walked into the Shangri-La.