Title: Ghost In The Machine
Series: TF2
Character/pairing: Scout bot/Miss Pauling, Scout/Miss Pauling
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Miss Pauling does some reconnaissance work, runs into a Scout robot, finds a flaw in the works which just might turn the tide of the war, and realizes some things about Scout in the process.
Author's note: cottoncandy_bingo: shouldn't work, but does. Fun fact: this was supposed to be 2k of pwp. It turned into plot. No, I don't know, either. It's set after Shadowboxers.

Thanks to Jana for helping me find some errors I missed the first time around.

.

The windows of Coal Town were boarded up, but through the cracks, she could just see smoke in the air, and stray bullets through the sound of the commotion.

She didn't leave the facilities much without a guard, but this was close to the base, and the blip of information had intrigued her enough to risk it. Whatever the blip had been, it was gone now. Another dead end. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and they were quickly being pushed into a corner. Risks had to be taken, or they would just keep being pushed into a corner of superior numbers and superior enemies who didn't tire, who didn't bleed. There were only nine mercenaries, but hundreds of robots, and at this rate, they would fall.

Miss Pauling checked her shotgun again. Necessity called she update her skill set, and her armory. It wasn't merely disposing of directors and other troublesome employees any longer. A small pistol simply wouldn't do, not with the robot hoards going about. She was still getting the hang of firing a shotgun, though, and the kickback was proving hard to deal with on her small frame.

There was a sound from up over the hill. She looked up in alarm, to find that she wasn't alone any longer. A Scout robot had appeared, and those usually came in waves. This one must have pushed beyond the mercenaries and escaped. It wasn't carrying the bomb, and that was about the only good news. This one had a Scatterun, no less. She backed towards the building, holding the gun level. If she could get a couple good shots off, she might be able to take it down. They were built for speed, and fell apart easily, just like the person they were based on. However, the robot might reach her before she even got one hit.

Her finger was on the trigger, ready to fire when the robot leapt up and covered the distance until it was right in her face. She hadn't seen the robots up close—hadn't known just how fast they could cover ground.

She stepped back, trying to get out of range, but the robot just kept coming closer and closer. It lifted up its scattergun, then tilted its head. The eyes flashed twice, and it lowered its gun.

"Error. Error. Operation 351 override. Look at me!"

He started to make some sort of movement, what she guessed was supposed to be a robotic version of an arm flex. She could only blink at the turn of events. The robot had completely stopped in its attack and was now...attempting to hit on her?

"Ain't I great? Go out with me!" The robot said. Surprisingly, even its voice resembled Scout's, though thoroughly mechanized.

"How would that even be possible?" She said.

"Error, command not understood. Reloading operation 351. Go out with me?"

Well, they certainly were accurate in rendering the personality.

An explosion in the distance diverted both her and the robot's attention. A Soldier robot appeared over the hill, coming closer with every second. Unlike the Scout robot, her shotgun would be next to useless against one of these, who could simply fire away at long range and cause lots of damage with the explosions.

"Don't even think about it, buddy!" called the Scout robot.

The first rocket hit the building, she scrambled away, as pieces of metal flew outwards from the explosion.

"Oh, I don't think so, pally! Operation 351 override, I saw her first!"

The Scout robot leapt into the air, avoiding one rocket, then another in a double jump. The moment the Soldier robot had to reload, the Scout robot was close enough to fire an entire clip of scattergun into the Soldier Robot's face. The Solider robot fell back, its head several feet away, with sparks still flickering off from it.

"What is your major malfunction, brother? Ain't no other class gonna do that!"

The robot turned back, and all too quickly was close again. "Look at me!"

Well, this was certainly a change of events. She inched away, and the Scout robot kept getting closer to her.

"Erorr. Error. Overriding hailing mechanism. Reloading Operation 351. Italics on IMiss Pauling/i Italics off?" the robot said.

"Yes...?" she said.

The Scout robot jumped up and down several times in what was apparently happiness, or some coding malfunctioning. "Beep boop, baby!"

She tilted her head at the robot. This was some coding.

More of them came just over the dunes. Pyro robots, Demoman robots, and a higher class Demoknight. The Scout robot might have been able to take down the other due to some strange malfunction, but he wouldn't stand a chance against this group. The alarms at the main building of coal town started to go off, and the interior clamped down, effectively cutting off her escape into the safety of the base.

The Scout robot shone greenish. She hadn't realized this one had Bonk as well.

"Override 351. Let's go, let's go!"

With little other choice, she laced her hands about the robot's neck and allowed herself to be lifted up on his back.

"Eat my dust!" it called back to the rest.

She'd never experienced speed like this. The rockets and grenades missed them every time as they charged through the countryside. Scout robot dodged and swerved, he jumped, seemingly losing very little speed, even with the weight of her on his back. Her head was feeling light, her stomach queasy, and it took every bit of her strength to hold on. She shut her eyes tight as a cloud of dust kicked up from the robot's speed. It obscured the vision of the group behind them just enough to make the sound of gunfire lessen, to make the weapons miss. And it was a good thing, too. The Bonk wouldn't protect her, and there was no Respawn to save her, should she get hit.

The sounds of gunfire lessened, but she didn't dare open her eyes. The robot kept running, and the metal grew hot. It burnt against her skin, but she didn't dare let go.

"Beep boop. Beep boop."

She didn't so much get off as fall off, and lay back in the sand, trying not to heave. She never was good with speeds; even her first date at the local fair in middle school had her laying down after one ride on the mechanized swings.

Her throat was dry, and her head was spinning, but there was nothing in sight. Just a turning sky and a lot of desert. The Scout robot stood over her, just enough to provide a bit of shade. The malfunction hadn't fixed itself yet; for all purposes, she might as well have pulled a mission with the actual Scout, considering the amount of time this robot spent flexing and attempting to ask her out.

Somehow, her glasses had made it intact, though she didn't even want to think what the trip must have done to her hair and clothes. A quick check found that her handgun and PDA were both in working order. There had been no time to grab her shotgun, and her clipboard was also missing. A moment of mental searching placed it as being beside her, set beside the building before the attack. It hadn't had anything much of importance written on the paper, and it was surely burnt to ash by now, so there would be little chance of it falling into the wrong hands.

She had no clue where she was, but wherever it was, it was far from the base in Coal Town, in a desert wasteland with no provisions, and most of her equipment gone. However, she was far from helpless or completely gone, at this rate, especially with her unexpected ally. She turned back to the Scout robot, who had been looking to the distance, and occasionally letting out a beep boop, no intruders found, beep boop, over here note.

At this point, she couldn't tell if the intruders the robot referred to meant the mercenaries or more robots. She supposed it didn't matter either way. She slowly stood up, still somewhat unsteady. She held to the Scout robot—the only thing around for miles except cliffs and stones and sand. The metal was hot to the touch, and pulsing with the power of whatever motors Gray Mann had installed within him.

She came a little closer and inspected him. The robot tilted its head and seemed to consider her as well.

"You like what you see? I'm the handsomest around!"

It really certainly was a remarkable mold of Scout's personality, right down to his mannerisms and feelings for her. A little too complete for a robot. If she could just open him up, she might be able to get intelligence on Gray Mann's doings, and perhaps more importantly, sever the connection to Gray Mann, so that more robots wouldn't be coming her way.

And she thought, perhaps this was it—this was what had shown up on the radar, the one thing which might save them all. But no, that was just her mind being dizzy.

In Sci-Fi stories and movies, hacking always went as though a person could simply have an epiphany and suddenly realize that because there was a starfish picture above the desk in one obscure picture, that meant that the password was obviously starfish. In real life–especially when dealing with Gray Mann–this was not the case. She suspected that Gray Mann would only choose a bunch of meaningless symbols and numbers to be changed daily–if not hourly.

There was a very good chance that if the password was wrong, the Scout robot might self destruct, or Gray Mann might be alerted to her presence. And yet, she had to try.

She began to search for an outlet. All the robots had to have them, places to be upgraded and for new data to be implemented. She found the Scout robot's outlet near the left side of his head, where an ear would've been on a human.

She'd witnessed with her own two eyes the hailing mechanism, and how Gray Mann controlled the robots. Even if the Scout robot had malfunctioned to the point of aiding her, there was a high chance it'd turn right back into a killing machine if she lead it to the base at Coal Town. At the same time, she needed to get this information back, and night was falling fast, and without him, she was as good as dead if she was caught alone with a wave of robots.

"Scout," she said.

The robot turned around to face her.

"You deal in information and reconnaissance. You can access the mainframe of Gray Mann's computer, can't you? Please, Scout. Get every single bit of data you can access. I need it, Scout."

For a moment, the robot seemed to shudder, the hailing mechanism at war with whatever was causing the glitch, and the real Scout's personality trying to push out, and take over.

"Scout. I need you to do this," she said.

The robot shuddered more violently. "Error. Error. Hailing— "

She looked Scout dead in the eye. "Scout, I need you. Please, let me in."

For a tense moment, she wondered if this is when the Scout robot would turn. The shuddering stopped, and the robot spoke again.

"Error. Error. Hailing mechanism failure, rebooting with override. Override 351 successful. Italics on Anything Italics off for you, Miss Pauling."

She let out a relieved breath.

She attached her PDA to the outlet and began to download the information–and there was reams of it. Thankfully, the Scout robot was as quick at downloading information as he was in running. White letters on a greenish black background, so much information she had barely caught the beginning before yet another section was revealed. Plans, schematics, coding, maps, his source code. The Scout robot had given her everything she could've possibly wanted and more.
Her eyes widened, and she allowed herself one satisfied—even smug–smile. She'd found the chink in the armor of Gray Mann, it seemed. These robots he claimed were so infallible had far more weaknesses than he guessed.

"If you weren't a hunk of lifeless metal, I'd kiss you," she said.

"Oh, I'm a hunk all right," the Scout robot said. He was doing something with his eye lights which she supposed must have been the robotic form of waggling his eyebrows.

"The resemblance is uncanny," she said dryly.

The Scout robot did another arm flex for her with its spindly metal arms.

"Now, Scout. I have one more request for you. Sever the hailing mechanism and the connection with Gray Mann."

The robot shuddered, as if a war were going on within himself. She tried to think deeper. She'd already technically faked flirted with him—or at least, implied vulnerability and caring towards him. This would take more, something he really wanted. Something like...

Of course.

"Sever the connection to the mainframe and delete the hailing mechanism and I promise I'll go on a date with you!" she said, as desperate energy rose up in her. "You pick the place and I'll find a time I'm free, just please, Scout!"

The shuddering stopped, and she saw lines of code through the Scout robot's eyes.

"Overide 351. Deleting Hailing mechanism. Hailing mechanism deleted. Severing connection. Connection severed."

Oddly enough, the voice sounded less mechanized and more like Scout himself.

"We sure taught those chucklenuts, huh? Huh?"

"Yes, Scout. We sure did," she said.

.

They kept walking. Hours passed, and she supposed they were making some progress of sorts. She could've gotten by faster if she rode the Scout robot again, but she had already noticed some wear and tear on the little robot. Like the real Scout, the Scout robot had taken some damage to the motherboard with its use of Bonk. However, unlike the real Scout, the robot wouldn't simply reset itself with a trip to Respawn. Gray Mann worked in numbers, not quality. Broken robots would be little more than the materials to make a new set of robots.

But there was no telling if any more Scout robots she met would be malfunctioning like this. They might very well kill her on sight, before she could even draw her gun.

As of now, the Scout robot and her little pistol was all that was standing between them and possible robot hordes—to say nothing of the wild creatures and the impending night. She had no extra food, no water, and Coal Town wasn't exactly overflowing with resources.

For once, she cursed how hard the bases were to find. The Scout robot couldn't even get a reading, and maps were nigh useless with the deserts and canyons around Coal Town.

The Scout robot kept chattering away as they walked. She hadn't yet found an off switch, but she didn't entirely mind the company, given that it distracted her from the seriousness of the situation she'd landed herself into.

The robot was doing a bunny hop across the sand, and did a handstand, apparently meant for her, as it called her name.

"Look at meeeeee, Miss Pauling!" The robot said with a petulant, even pleading tone to its mechanized voice.

"You are the strangest little robot I've ever come across, or you're malfunctioning like crazy," she said.

"I'm the best! The best! Beep boop!"

"If you say so," she said.

The Scout robot waved his arms and jumped ahead of her.

The joviality of the moment was broken as a sound from the sky made her and the robot look up to see one of Gray Mann's ships landing down, the landing board steaming as it opened to reveal a whole wave of robots. Apparently she hadn't severed the connection fast enough. Somehow, he'd tracked them down.

There were so many of them, more than they could ever take down with chance. As they filtered out, she began to move back, but there were no cliffs here, just more sand which provided no cover. One of them carried a bomb, so they must be close to the base. She'd come so close, too. She held close to her gun. She'd at least try and take some out in her final stand.

"You'll remember me, won't you, Miss Pauling?"

She had never thought she'd see vulnerability in a machine, but the voice actually seemed to have some sort of tremor. Or perhaps this was just another aspect of Scout's personality malfunctioning into the robot again.

"Of course I will, Scout," she said.

For all of the two seconds she lived longer than the robot, that was.

"Beep boop! Time to make some mincemeat of these chucklenuts!"

The Scout robot took off at a run to cut through the crowd. The robots didn't pay any heed to him as they came closer. Soldier robots began to send rockets her way, and she sunk back, trying to score a few hits with her pistol, but it was no use. It was too short range. She ducked as sand and shrapnel exploded with each rocket that hit the ground.

The robot fired a clip right in the face of the Soldier robot that was carrying the bomb. Before any of the robots took notice of his treachery, it plucked up the bomb and began running towards the ship.

"Hey, hey, it's this way! Get going!" The robot kept blaring this, and he was quite loud. The Robots looked to each other, to him, and then began to follow back to the ship.

As the door closed, she heard the beeping. The little robot was waving at her. In a few seconds, the entire ship was engulfed in a huge explosion. She ducked down, covering her head as the air was filled with shrapnel and fire. The smoke burned her eyes as she stood up.

Scattered metal and burning debris littered the area. She came closer, weaving through the remains to what was left of the ship. As of yet, there was nothing that could yield any good data, given that the bomb had done a number on it all. Through it all, she kept hearing a sound, familiar and—

She dug through a steaming pile of robot bodies until she found a Scout robot's head. It had sustained some serious damage, with a large dent in the side, and the metal had blackened, yet the eyes were still lit up. She couldn't tell if it was her malfunctioned one, but she still held it up in an oddly sentimental move on her part.

"Beep boop!" it said cheerfully to her.

"It is you. How on earth did you survive?" she said.

"Punched in the face," the robot said.

"You were really brave," she said. "Thank you."

"M-M-Miss Pauling–error, emergency shut down in wrooorh...psshh..."

The eyes flickered down green, until the light was gone entirely. She picked up the head, the last remains of the Scout robot, other than the scattered twisted metal of the bodies and ship, and kept walking.

There was no telling if she'd make it by morning, but to stay still would mean certain death.

.

She didn't know how long she had been walking, only that it had almost gotten dark. Her legs ached–scratch that, every part of her ached. She could be walking in circles without the internal navigation system of the Scout robot, but to stay still was to be cold. Every so often, she found herself almost-dozing, her eyelids growing heavy, each step growing more blurry.

She'd catch herself and keep moving on. It wasn't just her life that depended on this mission.

The head of the Scout robot was a dead weight, but she couldn't bring herself to dump it. Not just yet. She kept telling herself it was because she might be able to get more data out of it—and she very well might–But the truth was, she missed the little chirpy bastard, now more than ever with the sound of coyotes in the distance and the chill of night far too much for her standard short sleeved purple blouse and knee-length skirt.

She shivered and forced herself to keep walking. She couldn't die this near to home, not with everyone depending on her, not when she was this close to uncovering Gray Mann's secrets and turning this war in their favor.

When a person was hungry, cold and dead tired, the thoughts of possible raises did little to improve morale.

The blackened head of the robot caught a hint of light, and she stared down at it. It wasn't a freak power up, but a reflection. She remembered its voice, Scout's voice, and she smiled to herself. In her mind, she couldn't tell the voices apart from the robot Scout and the real Scout. She was almost sure she'd seen the same behavior, the bunny hop and desperation for her attention, the strength and the final devotion which had made him defect and destroy himself for her sake.

And it wasn't just the metal ghost of Scout she wanted to see, but Scout. She wanted to see him again in all his loudmouth glory, in all his distracting ways, even if he interrupted her work. She heard a loud, familiar voice. For a moment she tilted her head, as she thought it had only been in her mind, but when she heard it again, it had come closer.

"I'm tellin' you, I'm not going back!"

"Give it up already, lad. We found the remains of the building, we found her gun. She'd have never left without that, and Gray Mann takes no prisoners."

"She can't be gone—all right? She just can't be, and I ain't givin' up until I find her."

"We should just kill him," Spy said.

"We tried that already, he jus' went out and ran straight out again. He even found a way past the sentries Engineer put up," Demoman said.

She heard a roar of frustration from Heavy and several choice swear words from the other mercenaries. Scout appeared over the hill, and came to an abrupt stop when he saw her.

"Miss...Miss Pauling? That really you?!"

"Yes, Scout. It's really me," she said. Her voice sounded hoarse. She tried to clear her throat and speak again, but her mouth was so dry that only a squeak came out. She barely had time to catch her breath before she found herself wrapped up tight in his arms. She hadn't even seen him move, let alone cover the ground, but he had done it. He buried his face in her hair and tightened his grip on her. She let her forehead rest against his chest, let him pull her as close as was physically possible. His heartbeat was pulsing fast against her, and it was a comfort just to feel him there, alive and well. His fingers were desperately clutched through the remains of the bun at the nape of her neck—probably making her even more of a mess–but she let him.

"Miss Pauling," he said hoarsely, his voice filled with unspoken feeling. "I really thought we lost you, but I couldn't accept that, so I–It just wasn't happenin'. I wasn't goin' to just take it."

He pulled back to inspect her, with one arm still about her waist. She was so tired, and it felt so good against the warmth of his body. Her eyelids began to droop.

"You okay? You ain't hurt or nothin'?"

"...Thirsty, and a little tired, that's all," she said. Her voice was a hoarse croak.

He dug in his duffel bag and pulled out a can. "Want some?"

"No... My body can't handle that much atomic energy."

"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I keep forgetting. Uhh, we'll get you back, and then you'll have tons of water–oh, and tea—you dig tea, right?"

"Scout, get your scrawny—Miss Pauling!"

The mercenaries who were there quickly descended the hill. One of them was talking into a radio. Scout still had his arm draped about her, and only reluctantly let her go when Heavy lifted her up into the waiting jeep.

She sat in the back of the Mann co jeep, and Scout climbed in and scooted in the back until he was by her side as much as space would allow. She glanced up at him. When he looked at her, it was with tender concern—an expression she'd never seen on him before now. But when he looked back up at his teammates and the road ahead, it was with a fierce, protective determination. He tightened his grip on his pistol, which he'd kept out even as he clung to her.

Without a doubt, he'd kill anyone to protect her, whether that person be friend or foe, it didn't matter.

She rested her head against him. For once he wasn't talking—none of them were—and the only sound was the motor running. She let her eyes close, safe in the knowledge that despite the odds, she'd managed to survive.

.

She was startled awake when the jeep came to a stop. She hadn't even realized she'd fallen asleep on Scout's shoulder, but she soon groggily came to as Heavy lifted her out of the car.

"I can get her, big guy," Scout protested.

Heavy ignored him. Nothing irritated Scout so much as people ignoring him. Not even his favorite team losing, or people talking about That Team Which Must Not Be Named. Spy had never particularly liked baseball, but taken a liking for that team, presumably just to irritate Scout.

"Thank you," she murmured. This only made Scout stew even more, as he began to turn from mercenary to mercenary in desperation.

"Are any of you even listenin' to me?!"

"No," Heavy said in his deep voice.

"Well, screw you! I'm not leaving her side!" Scout said. "If it wasn't for me, you would've all left her behind to die!"

"It's all right, Scout," she said.

He calmed, somewhat, returning close to her side instead of looking like his might attempt to take down Heavy and Demoman with his bare fists alone.

"Heavy, Demoman, you go on ahead. I have to take this to the Engineer," she said, as she dug her PDA out of her pack.

Heavy nodded. "Take care, Miss Pauling."

"See you, wee lassie," Demoman said.

Scout, however, stayed near, hovering about her in constant motion.

"Miss P!" Scout said desperately. "You gotta go to the doc, get rest, somethin'!"

"I don't have time to relax right now, Scout. I have important data to work out, then...other things," she said. She sighed, dusty, dead tired and dirty and she still couldn't even rest her weary bones.

He kept looking at her. "But, you're—"

"I know I'm a mess. I must smell horrible, but I don't have time," she said.

"You look just as gorgeous as always," Scout said.

She gave him a cynical glare. "I should obviously schedule an eye exam for you," she said.

"Well, I ain't blind yet, so I'm pretty sure what they say about that is a lie," Scout shrugged.

"Eh?" She said.

"Never mind. The important part is you need a break," Scout said.

"I don't even have time for a shower, one which I greatly need, mind you. I've got to get this..."

Scout interrupted her. "Okay, listen up. I will personally beat a guy's skull in just for you if it will make you take a break. Just tell me who, and you will get one bashed in skull, sent express mail to you," Scout said. "And if more people say you can't stop, then I'll beat their heads in too!"

"Charming suggestion, but..."

She looked down at the PDA. The weariness and determination had obviously gotten to her, obscuring the obvious. Scout knew all these ways by heart, one of his main jobs was stealing and delivering intel. He was built for speed, and could even get it there for her faster than she could.

"Can I trust you to take this to the Engineer to be scanned?" she said.

"Can you? Can you ever! Didn't you hear? I'm the best damn information carrier around. In fact, you're in luck, I'll get that intel in so quick you won't believe it. You'll be going who is that incredibly handsome fast man? And I will say, why it's Scout your future dream man!"

"Uh-huh. If you do that, I promise I'll take off enough time to get showered and changed," she said.

"And eat somethin', you'll eat somethin', right?" Scout said.

Honestly, he was fussing like a mother hen. However, she supposed the war wouldn't be lost in the half hour it would take to actually take care of herself, and it'd take longer to get him to stop fussing over her.

"All right, I'll get showered, changed, and get something to eat and drink. Is that better?"

"Deal," Scout said. He took the PDA and raced off down the halls. "Seeya later, beautiful!" he called, his voice echoing through the halls as he went. He hadn't even made much of a pass at her, and she'd openly talked about showering. It had to be a new record.

.

She arrived thirty minutes later, newly showered, dressed, and with a cup of coffee and some food in her system. Engineer had already attached her PDA to the larger mainframe and was uploading the data. It had just finished as she strode in, feeling a bit more alive and ready to get back to work.

"That was a good find, Miss Pauling," Engineer said.

"As you know, memories and personality are part of the Respawn complex, and it is constantly updated with new memories and skills to keep the data current. It looks like the computing data is directly extracted from the Respawn data. Their behavior is largely based on the actions and memories and personalities of the mercenaries themselves. If you look here, you'll see that Gray Mann edited the Respawn data so that all robots view any of the mercenaries as members of the opposing team, thus rendering any attachments null and void. He did not, however, bother with what he deemed civilians, or other attachments," she said.

"You think it was that blasted Spy who gave him that data?" Engineer said. His brow was furrowed.

"No. Gray Mann is the type to work alone. Besides, Spy would get nothing out of it," Miss Pauling said. "I think it's more likely that he was able to breech our defenses at some point by himself—he might've gotten it when he took out Redmond and Blutarch, there was some sensitive data stored in their manors. It's likely he will try and fix this error, but this could just turn the tides of the war in our favor."

She began to filter through the files, passing the coding until she reached the part marked 351. As she brought up the data, images appeared on the video screen, not just coding.

First it was Scout's mother that came up on the screen. She wore a faded blue dress, and was putting a band-aid on a young boy in a baseball cap. Another flip through, and she saw images of herself. A smile caught unaware, bent over her desk as she ate lunch. She remembered that moment when Scout had interrupted her. She'd never seen herself through the eyes of another. She expected to find pictures of other girls, other friends, but only his family and her had survived whatever editing Gray Mann had processed the Respawn data through.

She cleared her throat. "I think this is ample proof of my, er, hypothesis."

She closed the file as an image of her threatened to turn pornographic in nature.

"The rest should contain large amounts of details of Gray Mann's computer mainframe. I have no idea how they will be valid, so we'll have to hurry."

"Gotcha," Engineer said.

She stepped back and let him work through the data.

She ran her thumb over the side of the Scout robot's head. She'd brought it in ostensibly for searching purposes, but in truth, she wasn't quite ready to have it thrown away like rubbish. He'd only been some twisted machine, and yet, Scout had somehow saved her–saved them all. His personality and memories had been impossible to control, so that he'd broken free of coding and Gray Mann, by sheer force of will.

"I think there's a chance the other robots may be programmed similarly," she said. "It will take more intelligence to find out, but we don't have time."

Although after what had happened with the clean up of the promotional videos, she hardly thought the mercenaries would willingly give up who was their weaknesses, their most precious people. If only they could capture a few robots and run tests, but that would require time, and that was what they didn't have.

"Miss Pauling? You're being summoned to deal with a hearing."

She turned, and an orderly handed her a report as she left the mainframe. She scanned her eyes quickly across it and frowned. This wasn't about robots or impending attacks by Gray Mann, no, it

"A disciplinary hearing? Now?" Miss Pauling said.

The orderly gave her a I don't make the rules shrug and kept walking. The newer ones were far more discreet and reserved around her—possibly piecing together that Miss Pauling was always the one who arranged the severance pay and firing of employees who didn't match up to the standards of Mann Co and TF Industries.

The surveillance room—or at least a surveillance room wasn't far from the mainframe. It wasn't the Administrator's office of many computer screens, but a smaller one used by the various security guards on the compound. Miss Pauling pulled up a black leather chair, and pushed in the video tape that was waiting for her as she reviewed the papers.

Mercenary #351 began to act erratic after returning from mission #5840-224 at 15:00 hours, and mercenaries #352, #355 and #354 were forced to try and subdue him. Mercenary #351 escaped from the compound after Mercenary #357 attempted to tranquilize him.

In the surveillance video, she watched as Scout began to unravel. First the return, where he cockily came back, covered in blood and scars. There was the moment of the report, and she could clearly see Scout's face fall, his expression of shock, then settling on pure determination.

There was no audio for the video, but she could see Scout yelling and gesturing animatedly with his hands about something as Demoman and Heavy moved to pull him back. He was shaking his head as he was forcibly dragged towards the infirmary.

The tape was spliced together from several tapes, so now it shifted ahead, to where Demoman were off camera, and Scout was fastened to a gurney. The moment Medic turned his back to prepare the serum, Scout fought against the bonds just enough to grab ahold of Medic's bonesaw and cut through the first strap. Heavy and Demoman appeared in the side of the screen, but Scout was too fast, and cut through the rest of the bonds and flipped the gurney and metallic table of medical instruments beside him as he left.

Mercenaries #352, #355 and #354 were forced to pursue Mercenary #351, who left the compound without proper notice and verification repeatedly between 15:00 and 19:00 hours, even after Mercenary #359 put up defensive mechanisms, Mercenary #351 still attempted to leave the compound, causing unverified respawn usage 3.

In the video, Engineer had filled the path to the gate outside with sentries. The first time Scout was caught unaware and gunned down. The second, however, he drank a can of Bonk and raced past them, jumping past Sniper and Soldier, and then jumping a second time in mid-air until he could just grip the topmost gate. He dragged himself up, even as the circles of barbed wire dragged across his chest and rockets whizzed by him.

There was no surveillance footage after Scout activated the outer Respawn, though several deaths were in the memory, and not just of Scout himself, as an errant wave of robots had taken out a few of the mercenaries who had attempted to recapture Scout.

Overall, Mercenary #351 made 36 unauthorized uses of the Respawn system, repeatedly left the compound between 15:00 and 19:00 hours, ignored direct orders from superiors, attacked his teammates during off hours when they attempted to restrain him, and refused all attempts to be subdued.

Something very important was being left out. Of the mercenaries, he was one of them more in control of his sanity, and this had not seemed to change over the period, which was more than could be said about Medic and Soldier.

Miss Pauling flipped through the pages and then closed them. She still needed more data, and quickly, given that the hearing was in less than an hour.

.

Usually, TF Industries interviewed the mercenaries alone. However, this time she brought five mercenaries in—time had taught her that trying to interview Pyro would be a waste of time, even with Engineer there to translate, and Soldier was still in the infirmary being bandaged by the Medic for injuries he had sustained earlier in that day.

"I've been reviewing the surveillance tapes, however something seems to be missing. Scout simply lost control today, and I need to know why."

"It isn't like you to interview us all at once. Usually you pit us against each other." There was a bitterness to Spy's voice. She didn't respond, but then, he didn't seem to expect an answer. He snorted, and went on. "You expect us to remember half of what he says? Most of us have tuned him out permanently."

"You must have a pretty slippery mind if you could forget," Engineer said under his breath. "Then again, you always were a slimy little varmint, so it wouldn't surprise me."

"Cool it, you two," Miss Pauling warned.

"He isn't worth the trouble," Spy said.

"And for once we agree on somethin'," Engineer said.

"I gotta agree with the Engineer on this one. Ye must be going senile, considerin' how many times he repeated it," Demoman said. His arms were crossed across his chest, and he nodded.

"Repeated it?" Miss Pauling said.

"I do not blame him," Heavy said in his deep, rumbling voice. "I would do same if need be."

"It was all about you," Sniper said. "Over and over and over..."

"'We gotta go find her,'" Spy mimicked in a falsetto voice. "'Miss Pauling can't be dead, she just can't. If you won't go, then I'll go alone. She's done so much for us, I can't believe you'd just leave her to die.'"

He'd died thirty-six times for her. The ghost of him in the robot had betrayed every fiber of its being for her, and at the same time, the real Scout had been turning against his compatriots and company to singlehandedly fight the waves if it meant he might find her. This was the data which had been right in front of her all along.

"I...see. Thank you for your time, men."

She rose and collected the papers she had near. Usually she would've made more closing statements, but right now there just wasn't time.

.

She came in three seconds late, and quietly closed the door, hoping the Administrator wouldn't hold it against her. The room was made to feel uncomfortable—she'd seen the building plans for it. It was too cold, metal and dark, made to prey on a man's fears and leave him unnerved. Scout sat slumped at the chair, his hands resting on the metal table that sat between them. He sullenly looked up at the Administrator, which already was a warning sign that he might just blow this hearing. His expression brightened a bit when he looked at her, but only a bit.

"What do you have to for yourself?" The Administrator said. Her face was partly obscured by the dark and the smoke of her cigarette wafting up. This too was calculated to unnerve and unsettle.

"Nothin'," Scout said sullenly. "I'd do it all again in a heartbeat if it'd bring her back. Who knows what would've happened if she was left out there. I don't even see why I'm here."

"You're here because you flagrantly opposed the rules," Administrator said coldly.

Scout shrugged. "So, I broke the rules. So what? She's back and she got the information she needed. That's all that matters."

The Administrator narrowed her eyes at him. "The rules exist for a reason, and when they are broken, there are far reaching consequences. Do you understand?"

"If I didn't do that, she might've died, you ever think of that?" Scout said.

"And that warranted you attacking your teammates, leaving, and thirty-six uses of the Respawn system? This on top of your repeated scandal-causing behavior whenever you leave the base?"

"Yes!" He slammed his fist on the table. "I'd do it again and again, I don't give a damn. You're wastin' your time."

Miss Pauling had kept quiet all along as she watched from the shadows. If Scout hadn't been affected by the unease, she certainly was. The hearing wasn't going well, as she could tell from the twitching at Administrator's jaw. She looked over the paper again. Disciplinary hearing #356289. Hearings themselves weren't all that uncommon or noteworthy in themselves, though rarely were they brought up this quickly. Spy's disciplinary hearing for his relationship with Scout's mother hadn't even come up until three months after the incriminating photos had been collected. Usually they could be finished with little more than threats or implementation of a pay dock, or restriction of free time. It was the last few notes at the end which left a tightness in her chest as she fought for calm.

Should Mercenary 351 be found to be too chaotic or unstable for use by TF Industries, then implementation of operation 786 will be started.

She'd never had to preform an Operation 786 on a mercenary, though she'd done it on plenty of other workers, including the Director. And now, if this went any worse, she'd be preforming a one on Scout.

She had to get him out of here. He was only aggravating the Administrator, which never was a good idea in any sense of the word. Miss Pauling cleared her throat and leaned over to whisper something in her ear.

The Administrator narrowed her eyes at Miss Pauling. She hated to be interrupted. Miss Pauling kept her eyes down. She didn't look at Scout, and hoped deep down that for once, he'd keep his wits about him and not try and make a pass at her right in the middle of a disciplinary hearing. For once, he kept his mouth shut.

The Administrator organized her papers together and handed them to Miss Pauling.

"As per Miss Pauling's suggestion, the verdict of this disciplinary hearing will be rescheduled until after the robotic menace is eradicated. You are dismissed."

"Wait, whoa, really? Thanks, Miss P!"

"You are dismissed," Administrator said, with a steely, dangerous edge that usually meant someone was about to die.

"Oh, yeah. I'll be goin' now. See you later, Miss Pauling."

They waited as his footsteps receded, until the door closed behind him.

"Now, what was it you wanted to say without him here?" The Administrator said.

Miss Pauling cleared her throat. "I believe Scout is an integral part of the team, and this outweighs his, er, shortcomings. At this point in time there is no valid replacement, and the team would suffer without his talents. Furthermore, it would take far too much time to find a replacement, and our resources are already spread very thin."

"If a weapon cannot be controlled, then it must be dismantled, no matter how powerful it is," The Administrator said. "Today we spent several hours wasting resources, and the robots got even further because of his little outbursts."

The Administrator took a long drag out of her cigarette.

"For as long as he's been here, he's gotten into more trouble than all the other mercenaries combined. TF Industries could overlook these little blips as long as they were insignificant things like harassing you or causing a scandal at a Smissmass display. But turning against his teammates and ignoring direct orders show a disturbing pattern. Instability is only good if it can be controlled, and Scout has shown himself time and time again to be beyond our control."

"And because of his outbursts, I was able to bring back the data," Miss Pauling said.

"A foolish action on your part," The Administrator said.

"I realize this. I acted recklessly. I misjudged the distance and assumed that I could make it and the robots wouldn't reach that area and that whatever had come up on the radar was worth risking. However, it resulted in one of the biggest breakthroughs we've had," Miss Pauling said.

"Which is why he's under disciplinary action, and you're not," The Administrator said.

"Further more, I've reviewed the tapes and interviewed his teammates. I've pinpointed the issue. It isn't a mental breakdown. It's..."

She had tried to think of a way to phrase this in a way that the Administrator wouldn't find it utterly repulsive. Considering her stance on friendship, Miss Pauling couldn't imagine the way she'd react to hear one of her mercenaries had dared to fall in love.

Miss Pauling rifled through her papers and handed some to The Administrator. She hadn't had time to prepare a formal proposal of what she was intending, but she'd written up a rough draft.

"If you give me just a little more time, I'll submit a request detailing my plan, which I hope to put into effect as soon as possible."

The Administrator looked over the paper, and stubbed a cigarette into the ashtray. "Summarize, Miss Pauling."

Miss Pauling pulled out another paper with the proposal and handed it. She didn't trust her voice, which had gone hoarse from the day's excursions, to stay steady.

The Administrator glanced over the paper. She lifted her gaze back up to Miss Pauling, and lifted one highly plucked critical brow. "Repealing the no fraternization clause? Don't tell me you subscribe to the power of love?" The Administrator visibly recoiled as she said the word as if it personally disgusted and offended her.

"No...but all evidence points to the fact that he is attached to me. I interviewed his teammates, and they all agreed I was the cause of his outburst. Today, I had a Scout robot continually override the hailing mechanism to become my ally, simply because the personality matrix kept malfunctioning. It was such a complete override that the Scout robot was willing to disobey his master and turn on his teammates to protect me, to the point of completely deleting the hailing mechanism and severing his connection with Gray Mann just because I requested it."

She cleared her throat and continued. "At the moment, Scout shows a lot of promise, yet is one of the more troublesome of the mercenaries. I don't have to remind you of what happened at the school, and the local store, and the single mom convention. He is all too willing to turn those attentions onto me as well. You said that his instability isn't the problem, only that he cannot be controlled. I believe I can fix that."

"I don't believe in the power of love, but I do believe in the power of stupidity, and Scout is very stupid. If I give him any encouragement, if I listen to him, he will be entirely loyal to me...and the company's interests, of course. With my influence, I hope to control those chaotic elements of his personality and make him a more model employee of TF Industries...at least, as much as I can manage."

The Administrator didn't reply at first. The moments passed, and Miss Pauling counted every breath. If she showed any weakness, the Administrator would pounce on it, like a cat, and tear her plan—and her—apart.

"And you? What do you think about it?" The Administrator said. She'd known the Administrator long enough that the predatory gaze did not faze her.

She couldn't put into words I think I see in him promise that no one else does, or somehow, he's making me smile not around the Administrator. She couldn't say I saw something within him I didn't expect, and he grew on me. Any weakness, and the Administrator could shut this entire plan down and destroy his Respawn data just out of spite.

"I am not opposed to it," she said. "I believe I can keep him in line and make him a more effective worker for Mann co and TF Industries, and I desire some companionship. It beats having to preform an operation 786 on my would be date because they inadvertently stumbled into some classified info and now are a liability."

"You do understand that this means should another breech like this happen, you will be suffering the disciplinary action as well for failing to keep him in line? That every action and mistake of his will also reflect on you?" Administrator said.

So if they drowned, they drowned together. It was all right. She knew she could keep them from falling.

"I understand," she said.

"And that the company's interests must always come first?"

"Of course," Miss Pauling said. She kept her back ramrod straight, even through her tiredness. Weakness would only make her vulnerable to the Administrator.

"Let me tell you about men, Miss Pauling. They're profoundly stupid, and want nothing more to run off and wrestle with each other, wrestle with bears..." The Administrator gestured in irritation, flicking her cigarette ashes as she did. "I can guarantee that Scout is no different. In fact, he's even more of an idiot than the average man, and one day you'll question why you did this at all."

"True...but I rather prefer my men on the stupid side. They, are ah, easier to order around. Give them what they want, threaten to take that away, and they fall right into line."

The Administrator laughed. "A good answer. Fine. It's your career. If you want to hitch it to an idiot, then it's your choice. But remember, don't let your loyalty sway. If I believe for a moment that you're putting his interests above the company's, I'll force you to do an Operation 786 while I watch. Do you understand?" The Administrator said.

"Yes...I'll file the papers immediately," Miss Pauling said.

It was only when she was free from the claustrophobic, smoke-filled room that she could breathe again.

.

He was waiting outside in the hall, tapping his foot and looking about restlessly. He broke into a wide grin when she came out.

"Miss Pauling! The dragon lady didn't eat you after all!"

"Shh, keep it down. She isn't deaf," Miss Pauling said. She looked quickly behind her, but the door had swung shut, and it was quite thick to keep sounds in—and out.

"You okay? You haven't even seen the doc yet. You aren't overworking yourself again, are you?" Scout said. He looked concernedly down at her, his gray eyes very intensely focused on her.

"No, Scout. I'll be okay," she said. "I just need to rest when this is all over."

"You sure you're okay? I mean, you were out with the robots, and—"

"I can't talk about that information; it's classified. ...but you don't have to worry. As I already told you, I wasn't hurt."

Scout took off his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. "Aw, yeah. I remember that, I was just worried, was all. I mean, all us guys really rely on you. We'd be lost without you orderin' us around and stuff —but I rely on you more. Way more. In fact, screw the other guys. I rely on you, and that's all that matters."

She smiled despite herself. He wasn't that bad once you got to know him—as could be said by quite a few members of TF Industries. He was actually quite charming in his own bizarre way.

"Thanks for standing up for me in there. I really owe you one," Scout said.

"Thank you for saving my life today," she said.

"Aw, that was nothin', just my usual everyday super hero action. I'd do it again. And again, and again, you know that, right?" Scout said.

"Yes," she said. "I know. ...your disciplinary hearing has been fixed. I was able to convince the Administrator that no punishment was needed...and I'm your new handler."

"Really? Thanks a ton, Miss P! I really owe you one."

"I suppose we're even now," she said. He had no clue that she'd returned the favor and saved his life; he never would.

"Yeah, I guess we are," he said with a big grin revealing his prominent buck teeth.

She flipped through her papers once more. Reporting done, data sent in...she mentally checked off the boxes of her to-do list. Just one more thing to finish.
"– And Scout, once the robot menace is completely cleared away, I'll go on a date with you," she said.

Scout froze as the words sank in. He jumped straight up and punched the air, a look of pure exultation on his face. "Oh yeah!"

"Really? Seriously? Oh man, I'll take down all those robots with my bare hands! Send them all my way, ain't none of them can stop me. I think I could push that tank right up Gray Mann's ass!"

He grabbed her hand and pulled her into one of the empty rooms. In a second she was pushed against the wall, and reaching up to keep her hands steady on him. His hands roamed as he kissed her, and she let him. She moaned into the kiss, into his lips as he touched her, his hands pushing up her skirts and balancing her against the wall for bolstering. Sensation rushed through her, tingling and warm as her body responded to his touches. When he finally pushed away, he rested his forehead against hers, cupping her chin, their lips only a breath apart.

"Oh, god, you're so soft. I just wanna never leave."

Leave it to him to stop kissing her just so he could talk. Though that didn't mean he'd stopped with his hands, one which was now feeling up her butt.

"Now, Scout..." she said warningly.

"I know, I know...I just wanted to do that for so long. You got no idea. Been dreamin' and wishin' and just...wow."

"I think I have an inkling," she said dryly.

He kissed her neck light enough to leave no marks and closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of her. "Oh man, you smell so damn good. I could just stay here for hours. Just smellin' you. Not even kiddin'. Holy shit."

The alarm began to sound. Wave approaching. All men to the station.

Scout glared up at the speaker in the wall. She half expected him to shoot it with the sort of murderous look he was giving it. "You have got to be kiddin' me. No! I just got here after waitin' for years!"

"I'll still be here when you get back," she said.

"Well, yeah, you better be. I mean, it really killed me to think that you were a goner, I couldn't take it, but there were times when my chest would just close up. Couldn't breathe like that, so all I could do was keep searchin' for you, because I couldn't take the alternative."

She knew very well the depth of Scout's devotion to her; she'd seen it firsthand time and time again today. She gave one last caress down the back of his neck with the back of her hand.

"Go on and fight, Scout. Do it for me. Make me proud," she said.

"I am going to kick so much robot ass, I'll make you a frickin' castle out of their frickin' bodies."

She smiled. "I'll be looking forward to it."

He rushed off with one last glance to her before he disappeared past the metal sliding doors.

She couldn't say the exact moment his attention had turned from crush and to devotion, nor the point where he wasn't a bother to her anymore, but it was there. His egotism, which had once been an annoyance, now simply made her smile. His habit of breaking in, of following her, well it was no bother any longer.

Even now with more long hours of manning the base for another attack, she felt buoyed, lighter somehow in her happiness. The Administrator had always insisted that love was a weakness, a distraction, and she'd been inclined to agree...but she wasn't sure she saw that anymore. She'd seen Scout—both the ghost in the machine and Scout himself—achieve amazing feats today, and even now she was stronger with this knowledge, this caring.

Weary as she was, she took her place at the station. She caught him on the screen, yelling out This is for Miss Pauling! as he fired a clip full of scattergun shells into a Medic robot's chest.

And she'd keep on fighting, not just for him, but for all of them.

.

She'd count that night a victory, though not a major one. They had defended their base from yet another wave, and more of Coal Town was safe for another day. Even better, on her request, a capture had been made. She looked into the room from the thick glass as the robot kept driving into the wall.

"This one was mighty hard to catch," Engineer said.

"I suspect so. The men are accustomed to destroying them on sight," she said.

She pressed play, and a video of a white dove being caught by a cat, and then being systematically played with and killed in that cruelty only cats were capable of. It was stock footage from some documentary, but the dove bore just enough resemblance to Archimedes to be indiscernible.

The Medic robot shuddered, driving from side to side, slamming into the sides of the compound harder and harder until its circuits began to shoot sparks.

"Archimedes? Archimedes, no!"

It made a series of sounds, popping and clicking as the head began to shake, as if he were shaking his head no again and again. In a flash, the robot exploded into smoking pieces and circuitry.

Gray Mann thought robots were stronger than flesh, and perhaps he was right, considering how well the war was going. However, he'd made the big mistake of adapting them from humans—humans with wants and needs, humans with attachments and affections. Even the circuitry and coding couldn't contain this force. Not even nine hardened mercenaries who killed every day of their lives were immune.

.

The next skirmish, she came prepared.

A group of Scout robots gathered in the distance. It was a giant Scout robot that carried the bomb, moving towards the base with blinding speed. Miss Pauling wasn't alone in the jeep this time, with several Mercenaries by her side with guns drawn.

"Miss Pauling has no need to fear little robot," Heavy said. He hoisted his gun and aimed.

"Error. Error. Override 351. Miss Pauling?" Said one of the robots. Suddenly a whole wave of Scout robots were looking straight at her, even the largest one.

Sparks began to fly between them as one by one the machines began to break down. A war between the Hailing mechanism and the Respawn data started as the robots fought for control. Somewhere, Gray Mann must have been trying to regain control and get his perfect little machine soldiers back in line.

"Come on, come on..." she said under her breath.

"Error—error—!"

One by one, they began to burst into pieces, torn apart from the pull of two very different forces at work inside them. When the dust had cleared, the wave was completely obliterated.

So Gray Mann had attempted to make some changes after all, yet he still hadn't managed to control Scout. She couldn't help but smile to herself at this new revelation. Scout might just singlehandedly win them the war simply by being himself.

.

"You free, Miss Pauling?" Scout said. He was covered in bandages about his arms, bloodstains over his red shirt, but he didn't seem tired out, despite the smudges of dirt and hints of a rough battle. He'd taken to waiting around wherever she was. Well, truth be told, he'd done that before, he'd just gotten a lot better at it as of late, and she didn't mind or try and lose him anymore, until it was more of a surprise not to see him than to see him.

"I can spare a few minutes—you did make a huge effort against the war, after all," she said.

He followed after her as she walked, ever-present papers in tow. It actually took some effort to slow himself down enough that he didn't outpace her with his long legs.

"I did?" He sputtered a moment, then puffed himself up. "I mean, Of course I did."

She leaned up to brush against his cheek. "Thank you for that."

"You are always very welcome— So, you gonna tell me how I saved the world?" Scout said.

"I told you, it's classified," she said.

"Does this mean...I really am secretly a super hero?" Scout said. He had a look of childish glee on his face. "Oh man! I'm a super hero!"

"More or less. It's still classified, though

"You know what isn't classified? What an amazin' lover man you got." He grinned stupidly and got ahead of her, only to cover the distance and drape his arm about her shoulders as she walked.

"Or that your ego is likely visible from space," she said.

"Damn straight. One day, luckier Monkeynauts will look down and see a big damn deal. There's the great wall of frickin' China, and what is that great, handsome monument? Why, that's Scout, and his gorgeous best girl!"

"I'm part of your ego now?" she said.

"Hey, we already went through this. I'm the amazin' and incredibly handsome super hero, and you're my gorgeous best girl. Together, we fight crime."

Well, that was news to her. But his enthusiasm was contagious. She found her mood lightened after a hard day's work of relentless paperwork and watching over the premises of the base.

"Together, no damn robots can take us down. Bonk Boy and the Paperwork Girl will totally save the world!" He punched his fist in the air for emphasis.

"The Paperwork Girl...?" she said.

"Yep. You make a mean contract. Literally, man. I couldn't even make heads nor tails of that thing. The Paperwork Girl, she'll dock your pay if you annoy her! The Paperwork Girl, she's as gorgeous as she is efficient!"

She tried to keep calm, but it slipped over her, the happiness that had snuck in when Scout came close to her and lifted her spirits. Laughter bubbled out until she was shuddering with it.

Completely unprofessional conduct. But she didn't have to worry about it anymore. As long as he didn't make her tarry too long.

"You got the cutest laugh," he said. He nuzzled against her neck, and she didn't even mind that he was probably leaving a trail of dirt over her.

Didn't mind too much, at least. After all, it was well worth it.