For as long has Ro had known the synthetic, no matter what the hologram, Zee always wore either a perpetually bemused or stoic expression while he examined the world around him. Yes, him. Ro knew it was a pronoun many scientists or other people who had never met Zee would never think of using, but somewhere Zee had transformed from an it to a he. Perhaps it was his apparent preference to a male hologram, or maybe it was because it was as she had first seen him, or that his voice was too deep to be considered female. Whatever the reason, Ro thought of Zee as a male, but she digressed. Zee's two expressions were so expected on his face that anything else set Ro into reels of panic and concern. If someone jumped out from behind the corner with a laser trained on them, panic, fear, or surprise rarely ran across his holographic face. Sometimes Ro wondered if it was because he didn't know how to register the emotions—Ro just knew he had to feel emotions in some way, perhaps simplified to the basic necessities—or if he didn't know which face to put with each emotion. Perhaps they flitted across his face so fast that she had missed them, gone so fast that by the time she registered, she could only assume it was her imagination or hope.
Zee attempted to make the proper visage when the time called for it, but they were usually wrong, either improper or off in some small way that ruined the sincerity. It was always too much effort with Zeta, always thinking things out, forgetting that the whole thing was the spontaneous reaction. But Zeta couldn't work like that, could he? He had fallen from a great height, so he should seem like it hurt him, correct? Someone had given him a gift, so he should smile and be polite, no matter what it was, yes, that was correct, correct? It was a sense of humanity . . . something Zeta could imitate but never duplicate. Or could he?
Ro hoped so.
But back to the matter at hand . . .
"Zee, forget it. You don't look happy. You look . . . creepy." She mock shivered, knowing he wouldn't know the difference. Zee's overly bright smile with too many teeth showing disappeared.
"I'm sorry, Ro. I'll make a note not to use that expression again so I don't appear creepy." He sounded disappointed, in a vaguely hurt way .
"Don't sweat it." She took his arm, feeling the metal instead of the cloth his appearance promised, and led him down the walk. "Hey, you can try again later, okay?"
"Okay." His lips quirked into a bemused little smile, saying that he would try later and perhaps get it right, but that now it was of no consequence. Or so Ro figured.
Riverden was a small community, one stop out of many off the train. Ro figured that they had probably ventured into this town once before, but couldn't quite recall. Zee could tell her if she asked. He would describe the exact happenstance that had brought them to this city last time (if there was a last time) if she asked. Ro didn't really want to rehash old chase scenes, so she settled for eying the community's buildings.
They had just left café where Zee had treated Ro to a soda and burger, as usual. According to Ro's mental tally, the only way she was ever going to pay Zee back was to . . . let's face it, she could never pay him back, financially or spiritually. When she thought about it, Ro sometimes felt guilty. The only reason she had ever joined Zee was because of him unlimited cred and out of a gratification for the meal and clothes. Of course, Zee didn't understand. Money didn't mean anything to him, nor the benefits that came with having a lot of it. He didn't need clothes, food, or hotel rooms. If anything, he only needed the creds to get transportation, and, well, Zee would be just as happy walking. In fact, he'd probably be happier . . .
Mental note to self: A happy Zee could be dangerous and exhausting. Oh, wait, I've already got that notice.
"Oh, look, Ro, flowers. May we go smell them?"
Ro rolled her eyes and smiled, spying the botanical garden around the corner. "Sure, go ahead, Zee. I think I'll just look at these shops. No creds," she added, seeing the question on his face. "Just looking, for once. Go have fun."
She watched him walk off, aware of the stir he was going to cause as he sniffed the flowers with the top of his head and trying not to find too much humor in it. Whatever happened, Zee could probably get himself out of it by finding something in his vast resource of excuses Ro had presented over the years.
Over the years . . . She eyed a few jackets as the words mulled in her brain. Hmm, they hadn't met with the best of circumstances, of that there was no question. Over a year spent trying to evade capture with the dogmatic and persistent Agent Bennet, trying to find the elusive Dr. Selig, and meeting all sort of weird characters.
Despite finding and meeting Dr. Selig, their problems had not ended quite like Ro would have thought. So now they knew was the unknown module was, that Dr. Selig had implanted it, but since his death, there was no way they could prove it. As terrible as that sounded, it was the first thought Ro had. Yet, as it turned out, Agent Bennet, of all people, had overheard. Ro doubted whether he fully believed his own ears, but Bennet had contacted them. It wasn't an apology so much as a parting of ways. Bennet would no longer be tracking them. Some new agent was.
Hardly anyone believed Bennet without the backing of Selig, so a new NSA agent had been assigned. Compared to what Bennet had put them thought, Agent Dawson was a joke. Bennet knew it as well, and Ro could tell it ruffled his feathers that they replaced him with that. It was probably for a bit of revenge that the agent was even helping them. Ro doubted if Bennet even liked them; they had been a poor spot on his resume, after all. Of course, perhaps Bennet didn't want to see Zee changed back to what he had been. Since the superiors now knew why the synthoid didn't "work", the new order was to have the module removed and again wipe Zeta's memory. She still remembered when Bennet had pulled her aside for a moment.
"You make sure Zeta toes the line, Ms. Rowan."
Ro rolled her eyes. "Bennet, you know Zee'll not going to do anything."
"I don't know that. You may dislike me, but I'm just doing my job. Zeta is still a machine, still able to be reprogrammed. Don't forget that." Ro had been shocked. She had forgotten, in a way, and Bennet continued. "I know you're probably going to continue to travel with Zeta under the guise that he's your guardian, but as far as I'm concerned, you're his guardian."
"Zee can take care of himself." Yeah, right.
Bennet's expression said he had the same thought, and he straightened to his full intimidating height. "You just make sure of that, Rosalie. I'm holding you accountable."
She heeded his words, amused by this "threat." And he was right. Zee still needed someone to make sure he didn't draw too much attention to himself. He was still naiveté and trusting. He once allowed a professional pickpocket to "preformed magic tricks" on him, and if Ro had reappeared, that could have gotten sticky. Zee had still been impressed. So Ro now had the pleasure and pain of watching a toddler-like synthoid grow and try to be human in every way, sometimes falling short in his own expectations, but still human, in a synthoidy, first time out of the padded-wall scene way.
"Do you need any help finding anything, Miss?"
"So do you know what time it is?" asked a wry voice beside him as he looked at the floral clock. "I can't tell."
Zeta looked to his side and saw the speaker, an auburn-haired, tan woman in green slacks and yellow top and a stroller holding an inquisitive blond girl, all looking critically at the arrangement and instructions as to how to find the time. The garden had many other visitors, though this was the first to speak to him. Ro had once said not to speak to strangers, then later after a day of silence towards those they had met said she had been kidding.
He turned his attention back to the flowerbed. It wasn't very accurate. His internal clock told him it was 14:37:87. The nearest the floral clock said was 14:30-15:00, hardly accurate. Impressive, perhaps, but not accurate. "It is approximately 2:45," he said carefully, feigning the lack of scientific knowledge he possessed. Ro said it was better if he didn't give such long explanations to strangers. They tended to be overwhelmed. Zeta didn't quite know about overwhelmed, but usually they were quite speechless.
The woman checked her watch. "Hey, that's pretty close!" She seemed pleased, although it had been he who had ascertained the time from the flora.
Zeta smiled. He had noticed over time that humans liked rough estimates and room for error than exact, precise, crisp responses, although exactly why was still a mystery. This was just another addition to the file, proving its validity. "You have a lovely daughter."
"Oh, she's not mine. I stole her." The woman missed Zeta's alarmed looked. "My sister needed the day off, so I'm just taking my little niece to view the sights."
Making a mental note to refresh up on What Humans Say But They Don't Mean, he replied, "That's nice."
She nodded and scooped up the giggling girl. "I figured she'd like to smell the flowers, being cooped up in that hospital for so long. Better than hospital smell."
"Smelling flowers is nice," Zee said politely. He had never actually bothered to concentrate on the scent of hospitals, for humans smell flowers for pleasure, not buildings, so he couldn't agree on the aunt's statement. "Your niece is better, then?" At the woman's quizzical look, he clarified. "You mentioned she stayed at a hospital." There were no hospitals in Riverden, and Zeta wondered at which hospital the child resided at, but his his best not to ask. Finding out information such as home addresses and other personal areas was a task for an Infiltration Unit for reasons he wished he could erase, so he was never being polite or making pleasant chitchat by asking, but fulfilling his programming. the memory hurt.
It was also "nosy," Ro said. He didn't know what his nose had to do with finding information though.
"Oh, oh, yes. She's getting better all the time, aren't you, Ashley? Hmm, yes." The two rubbed noses and Zeta made a note to ask Ro about it later, since he couldn't experience it himself. He had no nose of which to rub, only a holographic projection of one. He found the thought disconcerting, but he couldn't place why. Perhaps he thought it to be an experience that could greatly increase his understanding of humans, one that he was unable to obtain. Yes, that was probably it. The realization caused a momentary spasm in his hand, causing it to clench. He looked at it and the appendage relaxed, but Zeta continued to stare at it. It wasn't the first time this had happened, the hand closing spontaneously. It wasn't often, but it happened without any cause or reason he could detect. It puzzled him.
Finally Zeta drew his attention away. "May I ask why she was in the hospital?"
The aunt looked back at Zeta, seeing only a young man. If based solely on his appearance, she probably would have told him it was none of his business. Yet he had asked so innocently, perhaps even with a touch of concern. "She had some complications with her heart. I know, a surprise in this day and age, but she fell into relapse, so she was put on a new treatment. It's done wonders."
"Zee! There you are!" Both turned to see Ro waving from a bridge some distance away. "Come on!"
"I think your girlfriend is paging you," the aunt smirked, shifting Ashley into another hold.
Zee smiled slightly. "Have a nice day."
"You too. Say good bye, Ashley." The girl merely ducked her head away shyly.
"Good bye, Ashley." With that, Zeta started over towards where Ro was waiting, leaning against the rail with her arms crossed.
"About time," she grinned.
"I thought you said you weren't going to buy anything," Zee said as she fingered the cuff of her new jacket.
"Changed my mind," Ro said flippantly, pulling at the lapels. "Schway, huh? Last one on the shelf." And she made a resolution she wasn't going to buy anything for the next month.
"It's very nice."
"Thanks." Aside from the reply, Ro ignored the compliment. Zeta's fashion sense was still lacking, and he only said it to be polite. "Guess what? I found out that there's a fair here." She figured he'd have more fun at the fair than she, and it would be an experience. Ro liked to give Zee new things to experience, just so he understood and knew about them. It was easier than explaining about things.
Zeta's memory flashed for a moment. "A fair? I thought you said they were 'too early 21st Century.'" His voice has switched over to a imitate Ro's during the finish as he flashed a teasing smile for her.
She rolled her eyes at him and started to walk. "Very funny, Zee. And I told you not to do that."
"Then why do you do it?"
"Why do you do the things many people have told you not to?"
Ro grinned at him, then shrugged. "Hey, with logic like that, can't argue."
"I knew hanging around me would be a bad influence."
Despite Ro's claim that fairs were too 21st Century, this fair had decided to forgo the classical mechanisms and go towards the present century. Ninety percent of the games and attractions were VR or remote control, as it was far cheaper to have a virtual raging roller coaster than to set up and tear down a real one. There was a small set machines from the past: a wooden carousel that Ro had to drag an interested Zee away from, a Ferris wheel that left Ro unimpressed with its 200-foot height, a whirligig which Ro thought would break if anyone older than a five-year-old rode, and an ancient anti-grav, a "lawsuit waiting to happen," Ro had said.
"Ro, if you don't like this fair, why are we here?" Zeta asked as she prepared to knock down the three milk canisters.
"Because, Zee, it's fun."
Confused, Zee pressed, "But all you have done is complain and say the rides are passe."
"That's what's so fun!" She threw the ball, sailing over and nicking the top, but the metal canister didn't fall.
"Oh." File Data Topic Fun Expressing To Complain Incessantly Zee watched casually behind her, studying her technique. "If you throw with five percent more force, and lower your angle about 3-degrees, you should be able to knock down the canister."
Ro sighed like an exhausted parent as she took aim. "Thanks, Zee." She threw but missed again.
"Unless the point of the game is to not knock down the target. In that case, you are doing very well." He smiled encouragingly. Under his logic, since he had given her the proper modifications, Ro would have been able to knock down the target. It was quite simple.
"No, Zee, the point is to knock down those things. I just can't aim."
"Oh." Sometimes the limitations of humans eluded him. It wasn't that he forgot. It was just that Zeta would simply analyze the data and give a report of what should be done to improve the situation. Human limitations didn't enter into the equation for the machine, not until he realized the limitations of said human. "Perhaps if you don't aim you will hit them?" he suggested helpfully.
"Ha, ha, very funny, Zee. Getting a sense of humor there?"
He frowned slightly. "Apparently." File Data Topic Humor Give Advice (?) With the information stored, Zeta stood watching Ro intently, avoiding giving any more advice.
Ro pouted after she threw her last ball, glaring at the canisters. "What a waste of creds."
It sounded like she needed cheering up. "I think you did quite well."
"And how's that, Zee?"
"Well, despite the force of your throw and how close you managed to get to the targets, not one fell. It takes very good aim to get so close and not knock down the target." Zeta was quite proud of the thought process. It was quite true. Humans often mistook missing with inaccuracy. But it was even more difficult to get so close without harming any of the parties. Forced inaccuracy was surrounded with accuracy.
"Don't mock me, Zee." She still sounded upset.
Not the intended result. "I was not intending to." File Data Topic Support Do Not State Why Action Was Better Than Perferred Action
Ro sighed and smiled, taking his arm. "I know you weren't."
The vendor started slightly, seeing that his (only) customers were leaving. "Wouldn't the young gentleman like to try to win a prize for his lady?" he weaseled.
"Would I? It looks quite si—"
Ro smiled, then looked at the vendor, interrupting. "Trust me, you don't want him to."
"Surely you'd like one of our—"
"Come on, Zee, let's go look at the animals."
Zee continued to look over his shoulder at the booth. "Did you not want a prize?"
"That's why I played the game."
"Then why did you not let me attempt to play? I could have won the prize for you."
Ro shook her head. "Zee, that would have been the same as buying the prize for me. You would have won. I wanted to win the prize."
He missed the emphasis. "But if you wanted the prize, why did you not let me try?"
On the inside, Ro groaned and wondered why some concepts were so hard to explain to Zeta. Those scientist guys should have programmed him better. Not even knowing the rules to Knock Down the Canisters? She hoped they hadn't been paid a lot, for they obviously hadn't done a very good job. "Zee, it's not the prize. It's the act of winning and working for it. I wanted to do that. It makes the prize more special because it was hard getting it."
"And it would not have been very difficult for me to win the prize," Zee finished quietly.
She smiled softly, sometimes wishing some concepts didn't have to sound so harsh. "Exactly. With you, it'd be like buying something. A sure thing, you know you're going to win."
"Hey, you can't help it. It's how you're built. And don't worry about it. The prizes were dorky."
Zee was quiet, processing the information, and then became unclear at one point. "Ro?"
"Did you want one of the prizes?"
"That's why I played the game."
"Even if they were 'dorky'?"
"Yeah, Zee, even if they were dorky." Ro decided to change the topic, as Zee was reading too much into it. "And speaking of dorky, look at that goat."
"It's a robot."
"I know! They don't even have live animals!"
"Is that bad?"
Warning bells in her head rang, and Ro knew she had to tread carefully in this area otherwise Zee would drag out some of his impossible questions. "It's a carnival, Zee. They should have real animals for people to look at and pet. It's a new experience. People don't see live animals enough."
"Ah." Zeta looked around. "The ponies and horses are real."
"The goats are fake, but the horses are real? Am I missing something here?"
"Come on, let's go pet them," Ro said, pulling at his arm. "Horses are some of the friendliest creatures around."
"Most animals don't like me," Zee said carefully as he stood a small distance away from the equine while Ro petted her nose. It was true. Due to his lack of scent, many animals felt uneasy around him.
"Don't tell me you're scare of horses, Zee," she teased.
"Ro . . ."
With a final pat on the nose, Ro moved away. Sometimes it was better to trust Zee on some issues, especially animals. They didn't need a panic or stampede. "All right, Zee. So what do you want to do?"
He ran through his database on information of fairs and the map he had looked at earlier. "They said they had a Fun House. Can we go there? It should be very fun."
Ro laughed. "Don't believe that propaganda, Zee. All it'll probably be is cheesy. But hey, let's go."
"Ro, the Fun House is this way."
"I knew that." She ignored Zeta's holographic smile. She swore he got it from her, and nothing was worse than your own smile smirking at you.
The Fun House actually turned out to be sort of a maze. Ro blocked Zeta's hand as he reached for a map. "No, we don't need one, thanks." She gripped his hand and dragged him into the start. Well, she knew she didn't drag Zeta anywhere. It would have been impossible to move him if he didn't want to move, but he let her guide him around with little complaint.
"Why didn't you want a map?"
"I want to get lost. That's half the fun."
Zee looked at her blankly. "You are full contradictory information, do you know that, Ro?"
"When we are 'lost' in the countryside or outskirts of cities, you don't speak of it as if it's fun."
"This is different, Zee. We're still in civilization. This is a Fun House. Getting lost here is supposed to be fun. "
He nodded slightly. "Okay." He looked around at the high walls. "Would you like me to—"
"Zee, you misunderstand the point of getting lost. We're going to get lost. So turn off your Global Tracker or whatever so we can get lost and have fun, okay." She rolled her eyes at his skeptical stare, then at their path. "Which way do you want to go? Right or straight?"
"The exit is towards the left, so it would make more sense to go straight, then left as soon as possible."
"Right it is! Come on!"
"But Ro . . ." He followed, somewhat reluctantly. Wasn't the point to get out of the maze, to not get lost? "I thought we wanted to get out of the maze? And why does the floor have so many dips?"
"It's supposed to be fun, don't ask me how. And the reason we're getting lost, Zee, is because this is a Fun House. You want to see as much as you can, not just fly through it. That's not fun."
That made sense. Zee walked, extending his legs so that he remained level through the area. Ro rolled her eyes at him and hid a smile.
"Zee, don't do that." At his look, she elaborated. "Don't stretch out. You're talking away the experience."
"All right, Ro." He looked at the choice of passages: left or right. Going right would be foolish, for they had not gone very far and that way did not have any outlets as his sight detected. "Which way would you like to go?"
The left proved uneventful, a long straight path, until they stepped on a panel. An anti-grav turned on, floating them up several feet in the air. Ro laughed.
"See, Zee! Fun Houses are full of surprises," she laughed towards his back
"Yes, apparently they are!" Part of him scolded and chided himself. He should have seen that. The wiring was so obvious, out in the open and everything. "Should I be looking for these traps?"
"Ye—No," Ro said, changing her mind in mid-word. If she told Zee yes, then there'd be no surprises like this for the rest of the tour. He'd constantly be on the lookout, and he'd spot them all. Of course, right now there was another problem. "So . . . how do we get down?"
"The power will turn off in 12.3 more seconds," Zee said promptly.
"Okay." Ro floated backwards for a moment, then swam up, keeping her feet towards the ground. Some anti-gravs dropped you like a rock.
Exactly when Zee had predicted, the anti-gravs turned off and lowered them gently to the ground. Ro could tell Zee had enjoyed that a bit, even if he didn't show it. For some reason he liked anti-grav units. Probably because he didn't feel the weight of his body, she decided as they strolled on . . .
. . . Into a web of cords.
"Don't you dare cut through them," she laughed as Zee made the motion with his left arm. "You'll weave through them like the rest of us."
Zee frowned with confusion, watching as she ducked and bended and bobbed. It was impractical to go through such difficulties when he could just saw through them. Even still, he studied the web, calculated the easiest, simplest, and quickest route, then set out, bending in ways no human could ever hope to achieve. Ro glared at him, tugging her foot free as he straightened up next to her.
"That was fun," he said, as it seemed like the thing to say.
"Sure, if you can bend like a contortionist," Ro smirked. Then she added, seeing the look, "Yes, Zee, it was fun."
Smiling brightly, Zeta continued on the path, on the lookout (but not) for more traps. Instead of choosing, he let Ro pick their course. He pretended to be surprised when the floor vanished into a slide beneath them, skidding them down a flight, didn't mention that they had already gone several of the paths, and basically didn't tell that he had managed to compute the correct path. Ro seemed to be having fun, so logically he should be too.
"Let's crawl though there," Ro suggested, knowing for a fact they had traveled the only other choice, and that way was a dead end. She sighed, reluctant to crawl, which was why she tried every other path. And Ro knew Zee was being polite by not saying anything.
"I think that is a good idea," Zee said simply, although pleased that they weren't going to continue traveling the same paths.
"Finally! I don't think we've been here before!" Ro exclaimed as she stood up.
She gave him a look, then looked around. The walls were oozing something, and she touched it. "What is this stuff?"
"My scan says it's a kind of adhesive or glue."
Belated in warning, Ro yanked her hand off. "Eh! You could have warned me."
"I thought you didn't want me to warn of possible surprises?"
"Well, I didn't mean to not tell me about being possibly glued to a wall."
"You would not have stuck. It's a very mild adhesive."
"It's still going to ruin my new jacket."
"Only if you rub against the wall," Zeta said simply. "Do you want to continue to lead, or should I lead the way out?"
With that one comment, she knew Zee had figured out how to get out and was subtly hinting that if she was bored, they could leave. "I'll lead, Zee," Ro smiled. Avoiding hitting any of the walls, she started off, again randomly picking turns that presented themselves. Zee followed without comment, maintaining their exact location in comparison to the exit, pleased to see that his conjecture as to what this side of the maze looked like was correct.
"Well, at least we haven't run into any clowns," Ro commented as Zee held back a dummy that was situated to jump out.
He frowned. "Aren't clowns funny?"
"They wish." Ro lead them up a twirling staircase, or it appeared to. After about climbing three feet into the air, she could tell they weren't going up or down, but she continued walking, counting silently in her head.
Fifteen seconds. "Yes, Zee?" she said pleasantly, turning to walk backwards.
"We are not moving anywhere."
Bewilderment dotted his face like freckles. "And this is fun?"
"Not really, but I wanted to see how long it would take for you to tell me. Fifteen seconds," she teased.
"Oh. Can we stop walking then?"
"Zee, are you tired?"
He checked his energy and power supply. "I do not require recharging yet, but thank you for asking."
Ro grinned and leaped over the railing while Zee walked down. "Just wanted to know if I could expect sleeping tonight," she shrugged, walking again.
A small smile returned. "Ro, I think you should not walk straight any further."
"Why not?" Even ask she spoke, she felt why. There was a wall of glass, showing the other side of the window. Ro waved at the people, who ignored her. "Jerks."
"Perhaps it is only one-way."
"Zee, some people are just jerks," Ro argued, turning left onto a bridge, or a mockery of one. "Oh, look, rollers. Watch, Zee, this is how you get by these things." Zeta watched as Ro placed her hands on the rails and pushed herself forward on the rollers. "Whee!"
Zeta tilted his head slightly as he watched, then attempted to follow suit. Ro stood on the other side, amused, as he pushed himself gently. Zee was unsure of using his feet for anything other than walking. When they tried Blading, he had fallen quite hard when he had stood up, surprised that the wheels were so rolly. (Ro had laughed so hard at his surprised face that she couldn't stand and fell next to him, still pointing and laughing.) Skiing had been almost as amusing, except he had a small inkling of programming under it. Zeta was used to the floor being quite solid under his feet, and when he tried Blading, Boarding, or Skiing, it was like he was actually learning something for the first time. It was as close Ro could watch him take his first steps, and they didn't last very long. Once Zee found out the basics, his reflexes and balance ruined any chance of him falling on his butt. Which only felt him to watch her fall on her butt.
Which wasn't nearly as fun or funny.
"Good job, Zee," Ro laughed as he moved off and eyed them warily, probably making a new file for them.
Still giving the rollers a parting look, Zee followed. Then he stopped, suddenly finding himself surrounded by . . . himself. "Ro?"
Ro, or her reflection, peaked around a corner. "House of Mirrors, Zee."
"Most of these mirrors are faulty," he stated after checking to make sure his hologram was still working properly.
"They're supposed to be, Zee." Five Ro walked towards him, and computing the angles of reflection and refraction, deduced which one was real. That one grabbed his arm. "People like it's funny to see themselves short and fat. Do not ask me why."
As they walked, Ro admired her reflection from some of the more complimenting mirrors and Zee studied his own visage. His holographic appearance didn't matter to him; it was hardly permanent. He changed it like most people changed clothes and thought of his morphic field as such. He only "wore" this one so much because it was one Ro found visibly pleasing and one she recognized in a crowd. Before Zeta found himself traveling with Ro, he made a point to change his appearance as often as possible. It had kept NSA, unlike now, from being able to pinpoint him in a favorite morph.
He had not told Ro this.
So he looked at himself in the mirror and saw nothing that he didn't see in any other human. He did not look like a Infiltration Unit or dangerous. He tried his smile from earlier, then released it. And he did not think he looked creepy.
"The mirrors were near the end of the maze," he informed Ro.
"Darn. I was just starting to have fun," she said as she looked at the tall and wavy version of herself. "Weren't you?"
"Yes, I think so," he said dutifully.
The exit appeared as Zee had said it would. "And there's the light at the end of the tunnel. And we made it out alive."
Yet the fun house had one more surprise in store for them. As they stepped out, a set of sprinklers went off over their heads. While Zeta looked up to study the mechanics, Ro rushed out.
"My new jacket!" she cried, then looked at her friend. "Zee, get out from under there!" He stepped out looking perfectly dry for a moment in time, then a slight film of water covered his clothes.
"Would you like to get a new jacket?"
Ro rolled her eyes. "Zee, the jacket's fine. Come on, let's go get a room. I got to call Troy."
Zeta stood, hands clasped behind his back, looking out the window and the humming streets below them, listening with half an ear as Ro spoke with her boyfriend and to the news about the newest inorganic-converting formula now used in health professions. Troy Handle was a boy they had befriended seven months, seventeen days, 14 hours, and 12 minutes ago, by Zeta's internal clock. It was hardly romantic. (At least Zeta thought so, by comparing the encounter to old movies and romance novels. There had been no spotting each other through thick crowds, flowers, or other such things.) They had literally run into each other, and then Zeta, on Ro's insistence, had treated them on a meal and movie. The time had been safe, so they stayed for a two weeks, in which Troy and Ro were usually together. Zeta wasn't disturbed or upset by the arrangement. It left him to his own devices, and he went to several museums and historical areas Ro would not have been interested in.
The two humans now had a very steady correspondence of calls, mostly on Zeta's tab. Again he didn't mind. His sight drifted down towards the stores.
"Ro, may I go out for a walk?"
"Hmm, oh, sure, Zee, go ahead," Ro said distractedly, then went back to listening to Troy.
Zeta heard Troy ask with disbelief, "He asks you if he can go for a walk?" Again his hand clenched shut, and Zeta made a mental note to have it checked over the next time he did a self-inspection. The door closed before he could hear Ro's response.
Inside the elevator, he morphed his visage to that of an older man with cropped blond hair with a small beard on a sharp chin, and was taller. His clothes were set to a more conservative, straight look, one that could blend and hardly draw attention in the average crowd. He stepped out and headed towards the park to sit and look at the scenery. It was always nice to just sit and watch.
It was late afternoon, near sundown, so the park was almost deserted. Only a few couples and parents making a last ditched attempt at bonding with their kids were out. Zeta sat down on the bench and looked around for possible threats. Once assured he was safe, he "relaxed" and watched at the group of children playing. Zeta made a point not to stare, or at least look like he was staring, for it worried people, and that would lead to confrontations and perhaps police involvement.
Zeta liked to sit and observe, make notes about the wide variety of human behavior and actions. Not only was it peaceful, the new data would allow him to become more human-like in his actions and responses. Well, theoretically.
Once darkness approached, many of the children and families left, and the couples retired to somewhere more private. Zeta stood up and looked at the playground equipment. After a long thought process and calculations to make sure his bulk would not break anything, he sat down on a swing, trying to ponder out and understand the fight he had seen two children have over it. There was nothing special about it, his sensors said. It was a simple machine.
After several seconds of merely sitting, Zeta started to swing gently, always careful not to exceed the weight-limit. He made sure that the wind blew back his holographic appearance, but nothing seemed to be very amusing. In fact, it was very monotone. He sighed, submitting his will and resolve to the fact that perhaps he wouldn't understand.
"Going through your second childhood a little early, aren't you?"
Zeta started a bit, looking up to see a smiling old man walking a little white dog, a terrier of some sorts, that was looking warily at him. "I beg your pardon?" he asked politely, confused at the terminology.
The old man grinned. "I asked if you were going through your second childhood. May I sit down?"
The synthoid nodded, then considered the question. "I don't believe I'm going through my second childhood. I never went through my first." Zeta did not think a childhood considered being put together by several scientists, so obviously he hadn't gone through one.
"Bad childhood?" The man set the dog loose.
"Lack of one, perhaps." Perhaps that was why he didn't understand most things humans did. Without the adjustment period humans went through for the first few years of their lives, it was no small wonder he didn't understand some of the complexities of society. "And I believe this city has a leash ordinance, sir."
"Never got in trouble before." The man swung gently with far more daring that Zeta had done. "I used to take my children here when they were younger, and my grandchildren."
Zeta watched him. "That was nice of you."
The man smiled. "What's your name, son?"
Zeta paused, then said, "Zee."
"Well, swing with me, Zee. No point sitting in a swing if you're not going to swing." Zeta complied, and the two spent several minutes swinging quietly while the man's dog did its business.
"I always liked swinging."
The man kicked harder, swinging quicker and higher. "When I was younger and my father used to take me to the park, I always thought I was flying."
Zeta tilted his head. "But that would be highly impossible. You were merely moving back on forth on a fixed length of chain. You were not flying."
"I did say I was pretending, didn't I?" the man smiled.
He reviewed the conversation. "No, you did not."
The other looked at him as he swung back, then released himself. And, for a brief time, flew through the air. The landing caused him to wince as the joints protested, but the man was unharmed. "Of course, you can fly. Children have imaginations like that."
The dog trotted back to its master and sat down, glaring at Zee. "Hmm, thanks for sitting with me, Zee," he said as he reattached the dog to the leash.
"Enjoy the rest of your evening."
"You too." And with a smile and nod, the man started to walk down the path.
Zeta sat for a few more minutes, then started to swing again. Once he got to a suitable height, he let go. His robotic reflexes acted quickly and cushioned his fall. Pondering the experience, the short moment of flight and weightlessness, Zeta stood up and watched as the swing slowly moved to a still, unsure as to how he should process his new experience. Finally, he settled on saying, "Perhaps that was fun . . ."
He turned and started to walk down the path. Since he ended up on top of a large hill, it allowed Zeta to see a speck of police lights in the distance, and, fine-tuning his hearing, pick up their siren, as they got closer chasing a van at high-speeds. A projecting the route the van would take, Zeta noticed it would meet a group of teenagers lounging next to a storefront, and the man and his little terrier walking the path parallel.
Without a thought, Zeta started to run.
Ro sat back on her bed, idling flipping through channels to see what was on at ten. Apparently, nothing. She was waiting up for Zee, making sure nothing went wrong during his outing that she had to be worried about. Sometimes she felt like a nervous parent, always worrying after she let Zee out of her sight, regretting giving him her consent. She was sure he could get in trouble anywhere.
Well, maybe not in a crate being shipped to the Amazon . . .. Tempting . . .
Part of Ro hoped Zee hadn't heard Troy's comment as he left. Ro knew for a fact Zee didn't ask her for permission. When he "asked" for anything, it was more like he was seeing if Ro had any plans or to let her know what he was doing. He was too polite to actually say he was doing, or to leave without telling. If she had told him she didn't think it was a good idea, Zee would have probably accepted it better than a flat no, trusting her wisdom in such trivial, everyday matters. At a no, he would have asked why not, and been very toddler in his questioning, persistent and very difficult to convince.
The problem was though, Zee was a machine, and even at a "no" towards his idea for a walk he would very likely obey, despite his objections. Troy didn't understand that. Heck, he didn't even know what Zee was! He just thought Zee was her big brother or something. Whatever.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, Ro ended up crushing Zee. Well, she wasn't quite sure if it was his hologram or the robot. Personally, Ro hoped she wasn't so vain as to fall for the hologram and not the machine . . . and did she just slaughter a cliché or what? But part of her knew (or was it feared?) Zee couldn't feel the same way. He could care about her, and worry about her, and take care of her, but she didn't think he could love her. Whatever he felt, could she honestly say it was Love? Could even he? And how weird could this get? Was it selfish to want some shred of normality, to love someone human?
Could Zee even fall in love, or was it the simple obeying of, for a lack of a better word, orders? They were friends, of course, good friends, that Zee understood . . . theoretically. Ro groaned at the heavy thoughts. God, was she being Humanistic or Realistic, thinking robots couldn't fall in love? She accepted Zee felt emotions, so why not love? Why not? Because she didn't want to look like a fool? No, that was not it! Whatever it was, that was not the reason!
She had wanted something simple, a simple relationship, not the questions a relationship with Zee would bring. Was that wrong? She didn't want to hurt Zee, not by pushing himself into something he wouldn't understand. And Ro knew he would be studying the whole relationship, researching it, putting it under a microscope and trying to understand the mechanics of it. And she couldn't explain to him the mechanics of love like she knew the answers herself. She could barely answer some of his other questions, and then to explain Love and everything? It would have been impossible.
Ro could imagine it. Zee would walk up to her and ask, "How do you know if you're in love, Ro?" And what could she say to that? Did she even know herself? Probably not, and it was too precarious for her to give a trivial, flippant reply. It was a very serious question that deserved a serious response. And Ro spent a lot of time thinking of difficult questions and rehearsing her answers, ready for when he dropped any bomb. "What are souls and do I have one" and "What and is there a Heaven and Hell" and "Do all dogs go to heaven" were a few questions that had rough-drafts and outlines for answers. Of course, she tried not to just cover her opinions, but all of them, and then hopefully let Zee make his own conjecture. And Ro knew it wasn't going to be that easy. Zee would probably ask her what she thought, and then agree with that. So her pre-planned scripts have to avoid phrases like "I think" and "I believe."
Fortunately, his question-dropping hadn't forced her to dip into this reserve, but Ro knew it was only a matter of time. He'd overhear something or read it somewhere and ask. Hopefully, though, the L-word question would be a long way off until she figured out the answer for herself.
So like half the other women in the world, to get over a crush, she fell in love with another guy, or several. Most didn't last long, as communications were sometimes difficult, and Troy was only the most recent. And, oddly, lasting the longest. And she liked Troy, she did, but he was always dissing (as Ro understood) Zee, and then Ro found herself torn between sticking up for Zee or agreeing with an obvious truth. Whatever she did, she felt like she was betraying one of them.
First crushes really sucked, especially when they were of (not with, Ro thought bitterly,) synthoids.
Frustrated, Ro lifted her thumb and settled with turning on the news. If Zee did get in trouble, he was bound to make it big and be on all the stations. And almost on cue . . .
" . . . although the hospital cylinders were destroyed during the crash, no one was luckily injured," the shadowed face announced, showing the picture of a turned over van and spilled liquid on the pavement. Several people covered in blankets were talking with officers, and a dog was drinking some of the liquid.
"The vehicle had been high jacked, and after a high speed chase with police, for an unknown reason the van was over-turned and the offenders captured by officers as they tried to flee on foot. Eyewitnesses would most likely have been injured or worse if this mishap had not occurred, although they did get a sprinkle of the new formula created by Dr. Joshua Markets of Spring City. You may recall one of our previous story of young Ashley Hangington," a picture of a blond toddler appeared in the corner, "one of the first in what is sure to be a long line of successes . . ."
The door opened, and Ro jumped up on the bed. "All right, Zee, what happened?" she demanded, arms crossed and trying to hide the smile.
"What happened where, Ro?" he asked innocently, looking slightly misted with water.
Ro wondered if he was playing with her. "The trucks and spillage that was on the news."
He raised a brow at her. "And why do you think I had anything to do with it?"
She laughed out loud and jumped off the bed, pushing him on the chest gently. "Because I know you, Zee. So what happened?"
"I merely stopped the van from fleeing any further. It would have collided with several people if I hadn't. Unfortunately, the truck overturned instead of halting, and many of the canisters exploded, getting most of the street quite wet with the new medicine."
Worry overtook her features, and she watched some droplets hit the ground. "Is it dangerous?"
Zee shook his head. "No. The hospital said there would be no adverse affects on anyone. It has to be treated with another substance, but we are asked to wash everything the liquid came in contact with to remain safe as soon as possible to remain sure. The shippers mentioned that the clothes we wore might be ruined though." Zee looked down at his holographic illusion of clothes as if to ponder ruining them.
Ro paused, studying the use. "What's it do?"
"The hospital would not tell me. I believe it is mostly it is used for surgeries requiring replacements in the body: new heart valves, replacement lungs, broken legs, things like that. It is for those against cloning or unable to use such methods for healing. But it is very quick drying. Most of us were entirely covered with the liquid because of the accident. And I believe it tastes quite good. Mr. Marmalade kept drinking it."
"Mr. Charles' dog. I spoke with him at length after the incident and at the park. We swung on swings." He seemed quite pleased at the experience.
Ro gave him a hug and felt the drying mists. "Well, I'm glad you saved a few lives and enjoyed yourself, Zee."
"I'm glad too."
"Now go get in the shower."
Ro sat in the booth on the train eating a small sundae, Zeta looking around and watching the other passengers, arms crossed at the wrists resting on the table.
"Mm, I love chocolate," Ro said, licking the spoon contently.
"So you have said many times," Zeta said simply, suddenly staring intently at his right forearm. A curious expression dotted his features.
"What's wrong?" she asked, noticing his change.
Zee looked up quickly. "Nothing important. I think one of my wires in my right arm needs replacing soon. I am feeling an uncomfortable surge of voltage, and my hand has been closing spontaneously as of late."
"Does it hurt?" Ro asked setting down her spoon and leaning forward with concern.
Zeta carefully processed the question. It was an unpleasant sensation, but hardly worth noticing. He compared it to a small cut a human might experience, at least to his observations. It was only a minor annoyance, one soon remedied. Ro didn't have to worry. He was actually more concerned about the closing hand. He could easily crush something to injury or, worse, death if it happened at an inopportune time. "I do not believe particularly. I will tend to it later."
Ro gave him a look. "Zee, you're not going all-male on me now, are you?"
"How do you mean, Ro?"
She smirked, setting her chin on her hand and blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Men don't say anything if they're in pain, even if something was chewing of their leg. They try to act all tough and macho and don't say anything."
"Ah. Should I act like that?"
"No." Ro squeezed his forearm. "I want to know if something's wrong, okay?"
"Okay. I will inform you if either problem turns out to be worse than I believe it is. Is that better?"
She smiled at him, slightly nodding her head. "Yes, Zee, it is."
Zee smiled back, and as Ro went back to finishing her sundae his attention stole back to his arm as another tingle erupted, spreading itself further up the appendage. He frowned slightly, eyeing the center. Perhaps it was a wire, but the current felt more surface-based. It did not feel like it followed the bloodline of wiring under the titanium alloy. But what else could it be? He flexed his fingers, but no change erupted to single which wire was faulty.
Perhaps the problem wasn't going to be as easily remedied as he originally thought. This might involve an in-depth inspection, perhaps several replacements instead of the one he had believed.
"Ro, once we get off the train, may we go pick up some wires?"
"Of course, Zee. But why 'wires'? I thought it was just one. It's not worse than you thought, is it?"
"Perhaps, but I believe it would also be a wise idea to check my whole arm to avoid future problems. The shortages might have weakened some of the circuits, and they may need replacing as well."
"I get the point, Zee. We'll get you everything to make you all better. And you'll have some chicken soup for good measure."
He looked at her in confusion, ignoring the twinge in his arm. "But I don't eat, Ro."
"I know. You can smell it. It'll probably be the same affect for you."
"Do you think so?"
Ro shrugged. "Can't hurt to try it. You can't go getting sick on my watch, Zee."
Zeta carefully closed the cover, mentally frowning, as his Zee visage was down. The wiring appeared to be in perfect order, but he replaced them anyway to play it safe. He had checked over his wrist blades, and they had not cut through or trapped any wires, and they were still sharp. The gun was also in fine working order, although the power cells were unusually low for some reason. Perhaps the wiring was getting the excess charge from this, he thought.
He stared at his metal covering. Yet something was off. He couldn't place it, but he studied anyway. The twinge had disappeared for the time, maybe forever, and perhaps he was fretting over nothing. He stood up and gathered the old wires, throwing them away, and put on his morph. Ro said to come down to the commissary once he was done and tell her what he had found, so he headed down that way.
She was on the vid-phone, updating Troy. He stood in front of the device, arms behind his back, and waited patiently for her to look up.
"Zee!" she exclaimed, jumping up from surprise when she noticed his arrival. "Fix everything?"
"Everything that I could detect that needed fixing," he said quietly, truthful. He had fixed everything that needed fixing, but he still felt like something was off. But unless Ro asked directly, he'd keep it to himself until he could ascertain what was wrong, if anything. There was no need for her to worry on his behalf.
"Hey, you sick, Zee-man?" Troy asked.
"He did something to his arm, twinged a muscle or something," Ro explained quickly, sitting back down. "Did you want to do anything, Zee?"
Zeta looked at her carefully. "I think I will simply rest in the room for an hour or so. You can continue talking with Troy." Then he decided to try a stab at humor, something he had overheard a father say to his daughter. "But not too long. I'd hate to end up broke." He gave a wan, hopeful smile, raising his eyebrows.
Ro stared at him, dumbstruck, then started to laugh hysterically. "You made a joke, Zee!" She laughed even harder at how pleased he looked. "Yeah, sure, go power up. I'll let you sleep."
"Thanks. I'll come back down later. You're probably going to still be on the phone." His smile broadened at the face Ro made.
"You're turning into a real comedian, Zee. Sleep tight, and I hope the robot bed bugs bite."
He didn't take the comment to heart, for she said that when he was being "difficult," as Ro said. "Good bye, Troy."
"Have a good nap, Zee," he said, slightly bewildered at the two. Then he turned his attention to Ro. "What was so funny?"
"Zee's sense of humor," Ro responded dryly, but a smile twitched. "He's finally developing one."
"Was he serious about not talking too long? I could pay for this one."
Ro started laughing again.
Ro went up to the room an hour later. Despite her assurances that Zee didn't mind and he didn't have to worry about Zee screaming at her for the cost of the call, Troy insisted on paying for the call, and he ran out of creds very quickly.
Zee was snoring away in the chair, blinds drawn and hologram down. Ro wondered why he didn't recharge lying down on the bed, as it would be more comfortable, but then she remembered Zee didn't understand the whole concept of comfort. He didn't feel how uncomfortable seats were when they were grinding the butt-bone, or the sharpness if he laid down on a rock. He could tell the surface was difference, but he didn't actually feel the softness or fluffiness of toys or fabrics.
Even still, Ro covered him in a blanket and patted his chrome head. She felt him twitch under her hand, sensing an "intruder," and Ro stepped back to study him. She didn't want to wake him if he needed to recharge.
His snores pitched quickly, then subsided to a more ear-friendly tone. Ro winced, then wrote a quick note on a pad, setting it next to him so he'd see it when he woke up before she got back. Then she grabbed her jacket, checked her cred card to see if Zee had recharged it—Ro had her own card that was supposed to be used for times when they got separated, but she mostly used it for when Zee wasn't around to shop or eat—and left to get something to eat.
A few hours, a full belly, and a doggy bag later, Ro returned to the room, bobbing her head to the memory of music she had heard in the hall.
"Doo doo DOooo," she hummed, twirling on spot. "Hey, Zee! Let's go—oh, you're still asleep." Ro stared at her still snoring friend in confusion. She hadn't thought his power cells were so low that he'd need over three hours to recharge them. If that was the case, she was going to have a serious talk about him taking better care of himself.
And Ro thought he was the responsible one.
Ro put her leftovers in the mini-frig and looked at her sleeping companion again slouched over in a position that would have killed any normal back. His snores were quieter, and that was a plus. After a moment of pondering whether or not she should wake Zee up, she shrugged and shook his shoulder. "Hey, Zee, wake up. Zee?"
Zeta's eyes flickered for a moment, and he raised his head to look at Ro. "Ro, is something wrong?"
"I was going to ask you that, Zee," she said crossing her arms and trying to look reproving. "I didn't think you'd be napping so long. I mean, you are in serious reprimand city you didn't recharge regularly and got so low." His mechanical face looked blank, and he blinked as he processed his power readings and internal clock. She continued the tease. "Well, what do you have to say for yourself, young man?"
"I do not understand," he said after a moment, his holographic features coming up and showing confusion. "My power levels should be back up to full capacity by now."
"They weren't really low?" Ro asked, leaning back and blinking in surprise. Zee hadn't thought it should have taken long either . . .
Zee shook his head. "No, they weren't. And I could find nothing amiss when I performed my self-inspection, except that my arm laser was low on power. I thought perhaps I had used more power last night than I believed, or that was were the excess current was coming from."
"You're not feeling any of that pain on your arm, are you?"
"No, not now."
Ro looked him over, genuinely worried. Zee had never been damaged beyond his ability to repair himself. "Did you pick up a computer virus?"
"I do not believe so."
"Any ideas, then?"
Zee shrugged. "Perhaps there was a misreading on my power readings." he said simply, although the idea truly worried him.
"Misread your readings?" Ro repeated in disbelief.
His mind stroll over other options. "Or perhaps my hardware is degrading."
"Many synthoids had a built-in lifetime. Once they have reached a certain age, they break or cease to function."
Ro's eyes bulged. "What?!"
Zee nodded gravely. "It is to prevent them from being used by terrorists for any indeterminate length of time, or to be replaced by newer, better models. I was not aware that I had a built-in lifetime, though," he added, frowning.
"So you could be dying!" Ro screeched. "Why didn't you tell me!"
"I didn't know, Ro," he said calmly. "And it is only one possibility. Perhaps I do have a virus, as you suggested."
Ro gripped her hair. "And that's better?"
"Zee, don't you get it? You could be dying!"
Zeta studied her panic. "And that's bad?" he asked, growing slightly worried.
"Don't you get it? You'll cease to exist! You'll be dead! It'll be like you never existed! Your memories and everything will be gone like when they tried to erased you!"
He was quiet. Zeta never pondered his death. He was aware that he could be damaged to the point where he couldn't repair himself, but it didn't bother him. He didn't think about it. All he did was systematically plot his course and try not to damage himself too much. The fact that he could cease to exist had not quite entered his mind, much like a small child who never thought about death until circumstances made him. And now he actually thought about it. Everything that he was, gone? He couldn't grasp that point, work his processes around it. He didn't want to be erased—was it the same as being erased, this dying?—not with everything he had learned, the people he had met. What would happen to them, to Ro and Bucky and Agent Bennet and the rest? Would they forget about him, as he no longer held their memories? Zeta tried to imagine death, but there was nothing in his banks. Was that because death was nothing?
Where do erased programs go?
Ro stared at Zee. He was so silent, his face blank . . . -er than normal. Oh, God, she shouldn't have let him see her panic. Now he was actually thinking about it, questioning it, tasting the foreign concoction. Synthoids weren't programmed to worry about their deaths, she berated herself, and now that's exactly what Zee was doing. She set a careful, trying-not-to-tremble hand on his shoulder. "Zee?"
He looked up into her face, then said in a quiet, tiny voice, "Ro, I don't think I want to die."
Ro was certain she heard the fear in it. "It'll be okay, Zee. We'll figure this out. Don't worry, you just back to sleep and get those power cells back up. Maybe we're over-reacting, hmm?" She tried to put on a brave smile, trying to calm him even if he didn't look worried. Ro knew he was. He was afraid of being erased, and Death certainly was a big eraser.
"What are you going to do?" he asked when she stepped away.
"Call the Twer—I mean, Bucky. See if he knows anything about this or something you might have picked up. I mean, he is good for something."
There was a small smile. "Ro, that's not nice," he reprimanded.
"Zee, you sleep while I call the twerp." Ro grimaced. "I'm sure it'll be fun."
Zee tilted his head and raised his brows. "I'm sure Bucky will be happy to hear from you, Ro."
Don't bet on it. "Go to sleep, Zee."
Once the comforting—well, there's a word Ro thought she'd never use to describe Zee's snores—sounds started, Ro felt her smile flee her face as she looked at her friend. Her eyes watered, but she brushed them away quickly with a rough cuff. Zee was going to be all right. They were probably getting worked up for nothing. Hopefully.
Ro rubbed her eyes again and took a deep shuddering breath. And now the day just got worse. She steeled herself, opened the door and headed downstairs. How much worse could the day get, how low could she go?
She was going to go call Bucky.
"Well, what have you done to honor me with this call?" the spiked redhead drawled, eyes narrowed dangerously at her.
Ro growled, knowing she had made the right move by getting into a soundproof room. They were going to need it. "Can it, Twerp. This is important."
"Oh, I'm sure you think it is. And don't call me 'Twerp,' Twat," he spat. Ro glared. "So why're you calling me? Get sick of talking to your lame-o boy toy, Trojan horse?"
Her teeth gritted. "His name is Troy."
"Whatever." The fifteen-year-old glared at her, a malice and hurt rolling off him. "So after half a year, you decide to call and check up on me. How sweet of you."
"Would you grow up!" Ro snapped. She knew Bucky always had a bit of a crush on her, and he had not taken the news of Troy well at all when Zee had innocently mentioned it. (Ro had almost straggled the synthoid, despite the fact that it would have had no effect.) And Bucky had the audacity to look hurt, to act like she betrayed him! He had been totally unreasonable, and dissed Troy beyond belief. When they had left the Twerp's casa, Zee said he thought Bucky had he had become better friends, for the teenager had spent a lot of time with him. When Ro asked what they had talked about, Zee put on a perplexed look and said that was a funny thing. Bucky told him not to tell Ro. At that, Ro had gotten on the vid-phone and argued loudly with Bucky to get out of her life and not to call Troy otherwise she'd kill him. Bucky dared her to try, and it was at that moment Zee decided he should stop the call and say good-bye to Bucky.
And so Ro and Bucky hadn't talked for a bit.
"You know, I met a girl named Clara," he said slyly, haughtily.
The twerp was trying to make her jealous! "You pay her?" she asked caustically. Bucky's cheeks rose to a tomato sheen, whether of anger or embarrassment, Ro didn't know, but she bitterly hoped it was the latter.
"Well, you must pay Troy." He crossed his arms and looked away from her. "Where's Zee? Let me talk to him. I like him."
Suddenly the fight drained from her, and Ro's eyes started to water. But she was not going to cry in front of Bucky. "Something's wrong with him, Bucky." She really hoped her voice hadn't trembled.
Bucky's eyes shot back to her. "What are you talking about?" he demanded.
She took a deep breath, controlling her nerves. "Well, there might be," she amended.
"What's going on, Ro!"
"Don't yell at me! Zee could be dying!" she yelled back, tears biting her eyes.
Disbelief was written on his face. "What are you taking about? He's a machine! He'll out-live all of us!" Bucky knew something was wrong now, with Ro crying, and was in instant Denial-mode. And loudly.
"Are you sure! Zee said he could have a limited lifetime programmed in!"
"You're basing this on a hunch that he said he might have one! You're getting me all worried because he said that!"
"You think I'd call if he just said it!" Ro yelled back, standing up. Bucky leaned back as if she was getting in his face, which, in theory, she was. "Listen to me! He's getting electrical surges for no reason, his hand's closing spontaneously, and he's not recharging properly! He doesn't even know what's wrong!"
"Calm down, Ro, calm down," Bucky said quietly, looking over his shoulder and using his hands as if to push her away, and Ro sat down and held her head. "Look, maybe he has a virus or something. He's not going to die."
"How do you know?" Ro snapped, looking up and not caring if he saw her crying.
Bucky turned sideways and started to type on a keyboard. "Don't get worked up. He's not going to die. He's not going to die," he repeated quietly, as if to himself. Ro watched as he bit his thumbnail and tapped his fingers, waiting. "Come on, come on . . ." His eyes narrowed and he attacked the board again, biting his bottom lip.
After what seemed an eternity passed, Ro couldn't wait any longer. "Well?"
"Hold on," Bucky scolded, reading and scrolling. "They moved all his files to other terminals and blocks. And I never seen a file that what you said he has, a lifetime. I'd have to look through them all."
"Well, you're the evil genius! Get to it!"
Bucky slammed his hands down and glared at her. "Look, I'm not doing this for you! I'm doing it for Zee! And I'm going as fast as I can. If you think you can do better and faster, be my guest! You break into NSA files and find what you want!" His hands beat the keys and he turned fully away from her.
"Bucky!" Ro looked wild for a moment, panic setting that he might actually mean it. "I'm sorry! I'm just worried about Zee!"
He looked back at her. "And I'm not, is that it? Since you travel with him, you're the only one who can worry about him, huh?"
"I didn't say that!"
"You act like it!" Bucky pushed away and ranted. "You act like he's just your friend, no one else can do anything with you, that you're better than everyone else because you're friends with a synthoid! And why the hell did you even join up with him? Oh wait, I forgot, his cred card!"
That bit, because it was partly true. "You take that back, you little twerp!"
"What, it's true! Admit it! The only reason you helped him was because he paid you! He bought you clothes, he bought you something to eat! He lines your purse!"
"Well, how did you meet him, huh? You kidnapped him and made him a slave! For what, to save wounded pride! You used him and made NSA worried about him even more with that little stunt!"
"And I'm sorry! I thought he was just some loose toy!"
Bucky ignored her. "I didn't know what he was! But you knew! You knew he had that card! And you're using him still to take you all over the world, buying stuff!"
Ro's jaw dropped. "How dare you, you snot-nosed weasel! Don't you dare tell me I'm using Zee! Who's the one who always call us up with the Feds or police come up to kick your butt! You!"
"Because you're the only ones who'll help me!"
"I could care less if you fried! But not Zee! No. He's saves your bug-faced self because he thinks you're his friend!"
"And he let's you spend his money because he thinks you're his!"
Ro leaned into the screen. "I am his friend!"
"And so am I!" They were nose-to-nose and cross-eyed.
"Then help him!"
Suddenly the absurdity of their actions hit them, and Bucky backed away. "I am," he said lowly.
Ro gave a weak chuckle, half a sob, and collapsed into her seat, her legs unable to support her. "I know, I know."
Bucky ran a hand through his shorn hair. "Look, just get here and I'll run a diagnostic on him. In the meantime, I'll keep checking files. Keep him from accessing the computers, in case the government has a locater file and that's what's attacking them." At her stare, he elaborated, drawing his hands down his face. "It's a stupid attack method, out-dated and useless, but not much protection if you don't know about it. Basically someone sends out a virus on the Net, and when whomever or whatever it's programmed to infest go on-line and the file locates, it attacks. The problem is that it could be months before the person gets it because they had to access the net, and it's usually poorly written. A decent Catcher can usually spot it before they cause trouble, but Zeta might not have been programmed to defend against them since no one uses really it. And since it acts like typical Net information, he wouldn't have noticed it piggybacking." He sighed. "Hey, a long shot, but it could be what happened. And we'd better hope that's the worst it is, because I really don't know if I can . . ." He stopped, then took a deep breath. "Depending on how long the program's, even if even is that is lifetime program, been running . . ." Bucky didn't finish, shaking his head and avoiding Ro's gaze. She understood.
"Just tell me, Bucky, if it is the lifetime program . . .?"
Bucky licked his lips. "It'd depend on how long the program's been active, I think." He looked away again, typing frantically. "If what Zee is experiencing is the last effects, his program may already be beyond repair and he's going into his death throws." He looked back. "Or, if we're lucky, it's the beginning and we can stop it. In any case, if you bring him here, we can download his memory and reprogram it into another synthoid . . . if he wanted to, that is." Bucky looked away nervously.
"Bucky, he's scared," Ro whispered.
"I'd be, too," he said with false-lightness. Then he looked at Ro. "Don't worry. We'll figure it out. He'll be okay." Ro smiled. It was mirror of her own words to Zee to sooth him. Now they were being played on her. She wondered who would say them to Bucky, then decided she would.
"Yeah, we will."
Bucky smiled. "The earliest train out is tomorrow at ten-twenty in the morning," he said typing, then rolled his eyes. "Of course, if you guys would actually stay in bigger cities, you could be out tonight."
Ro grinned back. "Quiet, Twerp."
"Yeah, yeah. Anyway, you'll have to get off and board another train in San Marla. That's about a twelve-hour ride from where you are right now. The problem with San Marla though is that no trains run through again until eight the next morning. Aren't small towns just wonderful? Get on the 515 Carlson and get off in Everton about three and a half hours later. I'll pick you up there."
She studied the instructions. "Isn't there a quicker way?"
"Yeah, but that'd involve getting on more trains. But if something happens to his cred card, there's no way you can get here those ways. This way if something does go wrong, you can rely on yours." Bucky smiled wanly. "Just hope nothing happens to his hologram emitter."
Ro let out a weak chuckle. "Yeah. Thanks, Bucky."
Bucky shook his head. "Just keep him safe, Ro."
Her lips twitched. "I will." Her finger hung over the Call Off button. "And, Bucky, I'm sure Clara's really proud to have you."
Bucky's soft, happy smile enveloped and faded into the black screen, and Ro left the booth, instructions in hand.
Zeta was standing, hologram up, looking out the window when Ro entered. "Zee! What are you doing up? I thought you were going to sleep."
He looked at her. "I did."
"So you're better?" She tried to keep the excitement and hope out of her voice.
"No." His attention was drawn back to the window. "I wanted to obtain my recharge rate, so I monitored what my power level was before I fell asleep, and then monitored it when I woke up a few minutes later. There was a slight negative balance to it, showing that I was dispensing energy instead of gaining it. So I believe it would be wise if I did not attempt to recharge until a time as to when I know the nature of my problem." Ro's eyes were wide, but he turned with a bright smile. "So what did Bucky have to say?"
She jolted at his happy tone. "Oh, he's fine. He's . . . he's checking your files to see if he can, um, you know, find something." Zee nodded. "And he gave me directions so we can meet him and he can check you over, to see if it's a problem you can't . . find."
"Ahh." He looked disappointed for a moment, then ventured carefully, "He didn't say hi to me, or want to?"
Ro laughed, coming up to give him a comfort hug. "Of course he did, Zee! He wanted to talk to you and not me, but I thought you were sleeping. But I said hi for you."
He smiled down at her. "Thank you. I was debating whether or not I should go down and talk to him, but I figured you'd be mad at me for not sleeping and recharging."
"And I would have been," Ro agreed, poking him stoutly. "But trust me, you wouldn't have wanted to be there. It was a bit like a war zone."
"A war zone?"
Ro nodded, sitting on the bed. "You know, I yelled at him, he yelled at me. A big scream-fest."
"But you made up?" Zee asked, concerned.
"As much as we can." Ro wrapped her arms around her legs. "He says he has a girlfriend, Clara. If you believe him," she added lightly.
"He told me of Clara when we last visited," he replied standing and looking at her, missing the meaning of the comment about Bucky's honesty. It was probably a good thing.
She jolted, for Ro had been sure Bucky had been making his girlfriend up. "And what's she like?"
Zee tilted his head, remembering the conversation he'd had with Bucky. "I believe Bucky said she was a worker of his uncle's, someone who had just started. He said they usually fought. She is fifteen. Her picture showed her with long black hair, blue eyes. I could show you."
"No, no!" Ro said quickly, not wanting Zee to use up his energy on frivolity. "I'll be surprised. But what'd he say she was like?" What kind of girl would put up with Bucky? Ro thought.
He tilted his lips in thought. "I thought that when he described her she sounded a lot like you."
Her brows went up. "Really?" Zee nodded.
"Yes. I found it most astonishing, and when I said that she sounded like you, Bucky was very defensive and said Clara was nothing like you. Is being like you bad, Ro?"
She shrugged. "I never thought so."
"Neither did I, and I said that to Bucky, hoping I wasn't in error. I'm happy to know that I wasn't."
Ro laughed, falling sideways onto the bed. "I think Bucky just meant that he really likes Clara and that she's one-of-a-kind. People get like that in a relationship, possessive and protective. They've got a treasure and they're never going to let go and do everything in their power to make sure everything turns out right."
"Ah." He blinked his eyes innocently. "Am I one-of-a-kind, Ro?"
"Thank God, yes, Zee, you are." She pushed herself up. "And Bucky and I are going to make sure nothing happens to you."
"I know you are," Zee said simply, trusting, and then looked back out the window, smiling at the people below that went about on their everyday, boring lives. He found it fascinating.
Ro suddenly had the gut-wrenching cold hope that they had better make sure nothing happened to their friend. "One-of-a-kind" didn't even begin to cover Zeta.
The train ride to San Marla was long and uneventful, although Ro's eyes probably got whiplash due to the amount of times she checked Zee. Zee spent much of the time calmly stating that he was fine, perhaps only a brief fib in passing, he supposed. Whenever she had asked, he had been quite fine. It was those moments when she hadn't asked that the twinges happened. He actually found the timing quite remarkable.
They had spent much of the time in the compartment. Ro fitfully slept on the couch for some of it, only to wake abruptly with a sort of chill and locking her eyes on Zee as he stood across from her watching the scenery go by. He seemed so detached, but he always looked detached. Ro wondered what was going though that thick titanium skull. Was he still wondering about this possible dilemma, or had he put it to the back of his mind and was just dealing with the trivial?
"Are you done napping, Ro?" Zee asked, turning his head and looking at her.
Ro rolled and stared at the ceiling. "I guess so. I couldn't sleep anyway," she said. "And shouldn't you be sitting? Won't standing use more energy?"
"No. As long as I remain still, either position will have the same energy drop," he said calmly, but sat down across from her. "And Ro, you do know that even without recharging, circumstances barring, I do have enough power for at least two weeks before I'll become incapacitated."
"That long?" she asked as she sat up.
Zee nodded. "So there is no need for you to worry right now. In two weeks, yes, but not now."
"So you're not worried?"
"On the contrary, I am worried, Ro."
"Well, you just don't look it," she said lamely. "And if you're worried, I am, too."
He smiled at her, then looked back out the window. "Isn't it beautiful?"
Ro looked out the window. "Not one for cows, Zee, but yeah, I guess it is."
They were both quiet as they looked out the window at the fast-moving cows. It could have been like any other time when they looked out the window, with Ro gagging silently at whatever Zee was looking at with breath-taking interest. Now, however, Ro wasn't gagging. If Zee wanted to look at cows, so be it. She was not going to complain.
"Ro, is something wrong?"
Aside from the obvious? "No. Why?"
"Usually you would have made some comment by now."
She flashed a smile. "Hey, if you want to look at cows, I'll look at them with you."
Zee looked at her skeptically. Ro briefly thought, perhaps hoped, he was going to ask where the real Ro was, but he merely asked, "Are you feeling well, then?"
"I'm fine, Zee. I just thought you wouldn't want to hear me complaining for once."
"I'm used to you complaining," Zee stated. "And I know by complaining you are having fun."
A disbelieving smile threatened to explode. "What?"
"Whenever you complain about a certain situation, you also say that you are having fun." He paused, then looked at her questioningly. "That is right, isn't it? I filed it on several different situations."
I'll bet. "Yeah, sometimes, but sometimes not," Ro smiled, moving to sit next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "I think I just like complaining."
"Oh." He still looked confused.
"It's hard to explain."
"Yes. Most things about you are."
Ro frowned, wondering if she had just been insulted, then waved it away. "I like it that way. Keeps you guessing."
"Yes, it does," Zee sighed in defeat as he shook his head. He looked back out the window to see that the cows had dissolved into Carta Magenta buildings and citizens. Unconcerned, Zee reached into his body and pulled out a watch. Ro recognized it as Dr. Selig's and thought of it as like a mother's earrings, something you hold onto because they were your mother's, and even after your mum was gone, you were still able to touch a part of her. Ro briefly wondered why Zee even looked at it at all, as he had a very precise internal clock, then berated herself. It wasn't the looking, it was the having and holding. Of course Zee would want something of Selig's. Selig had been his last hope, his chance at freedom, a mystic god-like being, a parent that was never there. Ro knew how that felt.
Zee opened it and looked at the time in a manner reminiscent of his creator, then said, "For the simple mechanics of this watch, it is very accurate."
"Well, I guess Dr. Selig liked to be on time," Ro said, remembering that every time they had seen him, Dr. Selig had been looking at his watch. "Or he was chronically late and wanted to know by how much."
"I don't think Dr. Selig was always late, Ro," Zee said reproachfully. "If ever late."
Ooh, he had ideals about his creator. Ro had to smile at that. "Geniuses are always late because their always thinking of something else."
Zeta put the watch back. "Ro, that is a generalization."
"Yeah, it is," she grinned, feeling the jerk as the train slowed. People filed around, entering and leaving the train. The next stop would be San Marla. "Hey, Zee, put your head on my lap."
He tilted his head in confusion. "Why?"
"Because I want you to."
Ro barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes, hoping this wasn't going to become a dreaded "why" run. "It's something humans do. Or at least my mom did. One of the few things I remember her doing. I think." She wished she could have had the conviction stay, but Ro sometimes wondered if her faded memories were nothing more than old dreams.
"Oh." Zee knew better than to question the ending, of which Ro was quietly thankful. He looked at her skeptically, then laid down, looking up into her face. Ro grinned down at him.
"Is that feel better?"
Zeta thought this was one of Ro's trick questions, where expected one answer but hoped for a different one. "Ro, you know I would be just as comfortable sitting up."
She smiled wanly, and ran her hand over his head. "I know," she sighed.
"However, I feel happy that you are sharing something that you have done with your mother. Could you tell me why she did this with you?"
Ro looked down at his hopeful, innocent look, startled by his question. Zee merely looked up at her with only intense interest in his blue eyes. Holographic blue eyes, she corrected, eyes that were always blank, emotionless, and deep, just a well. Not ones to fall into, no, but ones to be filled as they studied the world through wires and trick lightning, that felt nothing as liquidized information was filled or taken up because it didn't matter. Was there a soul reflected on that incomprehensible incandescent darkness that ended in wiring and microchips? They were just staring, an abyss that was supposed to be nothing, feeling nothing, showing nothing, just . . . nothing. A lonely nothing, but still . . . nothing. Her hand trembled.
When you look into an abyss, it's supposed to look back, but is it really looking at you, or through you?
"Ro?" Zee asked after several long moments. "Was I not supposed to ask that?"
She sighed and closed her eyes. It wasn't right to ask such things, to study Zee like that. He didn't deserve it.
Opening her eyes, she looked into those same dark pools. There wasn't worry reflected in them. There wasn't even her own reflection, her own worry. She'd have to talk to him about that. And what was that nonsense, souls reflected, windowed in the eyes? Souls couldn't be reflected, they were emitted. You didn't peak at them. They burned their presence at you until they exploded free. And that was Zee. Satisfied, or at least momentarily contented, Ro smiled reassuringly. "It's okay, Zee. it's just that when I was little my mom used to hold me when I got scared or just wanted to be held." She paused, wondering if he was going to question anything. "And she did it for the same reason I'm doing it with you, because she wanted to. I remember curling up into her lap, or being curled, and her just running her fingers through my hair, over and over until a fell asleep, just knowing she was there, feeling her, breathing her." Ro watched as her own hand hovered over Zee's hair. She could see all the silky dark strands, the roots going into the scalp like a fine fabric, but when she made to brush it all her fingers touched was the warm, smooth metal of his head.
"You smell of chamomile," Zee smiled.
Ro jolted, then laughed hard. "Oh, jeez!" she wheezed, trying to cover her mouth and keep the giggles in.
"What's wrong?" Zee asked alarmed and ready to sit up. Ro held him down.
"It just occurred to me," she snickered, running a finger down his cheek and locking eyes with his puzzled ones, "that I was running my fingers through what's basically your nose!" Her fingers slide through the holographic bridge of his nose, and Ro laughed again.
Zee smiled, relieved that it was just a bit of the odd human humor. "Basically, Ro," he said simply, deadpan and not quite seeing the humor in it.
Forcing her giggles to fade, Ro grinned down at him. "People don't normally pet one another's noses, Zee. That's all," she explained quietly, watching her hand disappear into the illusion of hair.
"I saw two people rub noses," he argued. "An aunt and her niece."
"Those are called Eskimo kisses."
"Were they Eskimos? They did not look like it."
"No, no, that's what the kiss is called. When you rub noses, it's called an Eskimo kiss. Probably because the Eskimo's could get to the lips under all that fur, so they rubbed noses."
Zee nodded. "What other kind of kisses are there, Ro?" he asked innocently.
Ro's eyes bulged, and she felt a blush coming up. "Don't you have a file with all this stuff?"
His head shook in her lap. "No. I was only programmed that kissing was when two people met their lips together. They did not go into details of the different types. I was not even aware there were different types of kisses."
"And how much did these scientists get paid? You'd think they could have programmed you a little better," Ro groaned.
"Ro, they only needed to program me with the basics. It was not necessary for me to be programmed with all the intricacies of Human culture. But I agree, I think they could have programmed a lot more."
"I'll say," Ro agreed. "By not programming you with all the simple stuff, no offense Zee, but you just stand out and look weird."
"None taken, Ro. But what are some other kind of kisses?"
She had been hoping to distract him, but ever persistent Zee did not get distracted. Damn. "Umm . . . well, there's butterfly kisses. That's when someone blinks and their eyelashes rubbed against your cheek. It's really delicate and soft, like when a butterfly lands on you." Zee nodded and Ro pondered some of the lesser known kisses. "Angel kisses are light kisses on someone's eyelids or next to their eyes, I think. People kiss almost everywhere on the body., but kisses on cheeks are friendly, hands are some sort of ancient custom that men used to do to show respect to women, and on the forehead is like a motherly gesture, I think." She took a deep breath. "French kisses involve tongue, and a kiss is just meeting lips." Zee showed no change in expression, and Ro decided to end on a lighter note. "And a Hershey's Kiss is made of chocolate."
"And you like chocolate." He grinned like a Cheshire cat, or put the hologram of one up.
"Yep." Ro sighed and leaned back, glancing between Zee and the window. "It's funny the things I can remember," she said after a moment. "I couldn't have been any older than three and I still remember my mom doing this to me."
"It's association," Zee supplied. "Or perhaps a defining moment in your life. I have read many articles where people can remember numerous things by a scent or another sense, or in moments when their life seemingly changed, like at weddings or events like political assassination."
She shook her head. "I was just saying it was interesting, Zee."
With a sigh, Ro kept running her hands over Zee's head. "Do you know that you are essentially bald?"
"And you're only how old?"
"I can only gauge that from when I was first brought on-line," Zee offered, approximating the date, as Ro told him it was less strange if he didn't report it down to the exact second. "In almost six months I will be five years old!" Part of Ro thought he sounded proud.
"And how old is that in robot years?"
Zee's face was blank. "Five?" he ventured.
Ro laughed. "Yeah, Zee, I guess so," she smiled, rubbing his head.
"Is that not right?"
"Right as any other answer."
Again the silence, but a different silence. Ro kept running her fingers over Zee's chrome top. It was a distant coldness, but warm, an unusual feeling. Zeta's body temperature was below human's, but it wasn't ice cold metal like someone would expect. His circuits gave certain areas a warm feeling. His hands were the closest to matching human body heat due to their complexities and amount of circuitries, a good thing because shaking with a freezing hand would probably tip someone off that he was a bit different. His head was also like that, due to the computer brain that it housed. The metal there was smooth, but with small indents. She could feel the fine edges where his head was joined together. Sighing, she leaned back and let her fingers do the walking.
Zeta looked up at her, watching her face in interest. He understood this was more for her comfort than his, and he allowed it. There was no harm . . . except part of it wasn't right. Zeta knew he did not match the sensory probes human skin had everywhere, save for the hands. Technically, he should not be able to feel Ro's hands. Well, he could feel them, for his sensors would detect them, but not in the same sense as what was happening now. Something wasn't right. It was like an electric current was following Ro's fingers. It wasn't unpleasant, but, due to the nature and possible threat of it, Zeta couldn't classify it as pleasant. Yet it was relaxing and he closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of Ro's hand and tingling charge. He could feel himself stretch slightly, his hands opening slowly.
The twinge traveling up his arm brought his senses back momentarily, and it traveled up the shoulder, across his chest, and down the side of his right leg. The overloads were traveling further each time, and more were erupting in different places. His left knee was spreading a field across the front of that leg as well. His neck would have a circle of current like a collar, traveling up his cheek and blending with his right eye. It didn't ruin his sight outright, but Zeta could tell that the focus was worse than what it had originally been. Eventually his right eye would become useless, he hypothesized.
He opened his eyes and looked back up at Ro. There was no point in telling her something she had no control over. Zeta merely resided himself to the fact that once they reached Bucky's, she was going to kill him. Metaphorically, he rather hoped. And she would forgive him, once he explained his reasoning. Theoretically. Eventually.
Zeta frowned at the difficulty of forecasting Ro's reactions. He did not like that. Still, he remained still, letting her run her hand over his scalp.
Eventually her hand and breathing slowed, and Zeta could see that she had fallen asleep. He remained where he was and stared at her and the ceiling until their stop at San Marla, processing nothing except that the currents were getting longer and closer together.
"Zee, I'm just saying that you should have woken me up!" Ro exclaimed once they reached their room.
"But you seemed very tired," Zee protested logically. "You did not sleep well last night. I thought you would have liked to sleep longer."
"Not if you were going to carry me. Zee, what part of conserve your strength do you not understand?" Ro scowled at his hopelessly sorry, I meant well face and felt her anger evaporate. Why couldn't she stay mad at this guy? Did he have his holographic expressions marked like Ro doesn't kill me if I use this one and My kicked puppy face? "Zee, I know you meant well, but as of right now, your well-being comes before mine. Understand?"
She didn't buy it. It was firmly ingrained in Zee to protect her, that he was the one who did the providing. If it wasn't had been programmed that way, she'd call him chauvinistic, last-century, and stupid. What the hell, she'd call him that anyway. "So is there anything you'd like to tell me?"
Her arms were crossed again. "Zee . . ."
Zeta paused, then shook his head. "If you are referring to those currents, Ro, I can only report that they are stronger, closer together, and spreading."
"Over the course of the entire day. I didn't tell you because I did not want you to worry."
Ro grasped her hair. "Zee, will you let me worry? I let you worry about me! Just let me worry and tell me these things! Okay?"
"I do, when you ask," he argued quietly to her loudly, still reasonable. "You just ask at the wrong moments. Your timing is really quite interesting."
"Argh!" Ro growled. "You are impossible!"
"You are so lying. I can tell."
Zeta said nothing in his defense, standing with his hands behind his back and watching Ro fume.
Ro watched up to him and poked him in the chest. "When Bucky looks you over and you're all fixed up, you are so dead, Infiltration Unit Zeta."
She had used his full title, which she only did when she was extremely upset or tired. If Zeta had been human, he would have been shuffling his feet nervously. But as he wasn't human, he stood there with rigid stoniness and acceptance. "Okay."
She rolled her eyes and turned around. "Just so you understand that. Unzip me."
It was a small ritual, and Zeta closed his eyes and unzipped her shirt. He didn't understand why he had to close his eyes, but Ro insisted. Once he heard the bathroom door close, he opened his eyes. "Ro?"
"Yeah, Zee?" she asked, muffled by the door.
Zeta paused, wondering how to question the strange ritual. Ro would probably find it strange that he decided to question it now, when they had been during it since Ro started to carry a bag around to change clothes. Ro stuck her head out, now wearing a long T-shirt and flouncing her hair.
He decided to be blunt. "Why do I have to close my eyes?"
"Because you do."
"Why?" He decided a comparison would help explain the situation. "Bucky did not ask me to close my eyes when he undressed. Nor did Casey."
Ro rolled her eyes and grabbed a brush. "Because, Zee, they're guys," she explained, brushing.
He looked at her blankly. "Yes?"
"And that's why."
"So males can undress with an audience, but females can't?" he hypothesized.
"What? No, that's not it." Ro sighed. "Guys undress in front of guys, and girls undress in front of girls."
"And why is that?" he asked, perplexed.
"Oh. But Ro, I'm not male or female."
"Zee, you take the guise of the guy," Ro said, rolling her eyes and keeping the blush away.
"But I could be female." Instantly, his hologram shifted into a slim, dark-haired girl Ro's height in Zee's wardrobe. He—she spread her arms. "See?"
"Zee! Change back this instant!" Ro ordered, and Zee complied, perplexed at her behavior.
"But Ro, I was just —"
Ro shield her eyes, shaking her head. "I know, Zee, I know. It's just hard to explain." She sighed at his face, collapsing to the bed and biting her lip. "It's because you're always Zee, a guy, Zee. So that's how we all see you, you know. Bucky and Casey don't mind because of that, for the same reason that I do. I know it doesn't mean anything to you, but it just makes me feel more comfortable, okay."
Zee blinked. "Okay. If you had just told me that you felt more comfortable that way, Ro, I would have understood."
She fell back into the bed. "Well, now you know why. Some people don't mind undressing with an audience, and some do. And I do."
He nodded as he sat on the other bed. "I understand. Good night, Ro."
Yawning, she repeated. "Night, Zee. Train, eight, must sleep if I'll be awake to get on it." Ro burrowed under the covers.
"I'll wake you," he promised, reaching inside to withdraw the watch. He looked the time, then set it on the bedside table, only to watch the hands move at their petty, everyday pace. Within ten minutes, by Ro's breathing, he could tell she had fallen asleep.
So Zeta sat, listening to the ticking watch and Ro's breathing, and feeling the current cover his metal body again at odd, but increasingly closer, intervals.
Several hours passed, almost four in the morning. The current was almost constant, with only brief moments of peace. And it had grown painful, if Zeta could classify the term, at times. He had held his wrist and was most alarmed to discover that the metal was becoming pliable. Even pressing into his own covering caused indents that smoothed out once he removed the pressure. It was as if something was eating away his body.
Zeta stood up and went to looked out the window, resuming his hologram lest someone looked into the room, trying to displace the alarm with a more calming activity. It didn't quite work, as he could process several things at once, but it was a nice try at a distraction, he thought. Pushing back the curtains, he saw cars still zooming down the ways even this early, and it was raining.
A sudden motion drew his attention across the street, and he saw a hunched shadow under a stand. His eyes magnified, and he saw that it was a small cat, distressed at the water. He could make out the license and saw that the animal was many streets from home, if his maps were correct.
After a brief debate, he stood up and wrote a small message, in case Ro woke up. He did not expect to be gone long, surely being back before she awoke, but it wouldn't do any good for her to worry in case she did beat him. His gaze fell onto the watch and, after a moment of indecision, decided to leave it. It would act as further proof that he would return.
He took his key card and left, crossing the street to where the cat was hiding. The rain hit his body, of no consequence and he paid it little mind. Once at the cart, he bent down and looked. The tiny feline drew back.
The honey-colored feline was hardly full-grown, and she eyed him warily. "Here, kitty," he cooed softly, reaching out a hand, imitating what he had seen other humans do. "Let's get you home. Here, Kitty." The cat did not react as he thought she would, and Zeta tried to find a new option as the cat pressed herself into the wall, growling quietly. Coming to a choice he knew the cat would not like, Zeta quickly extended a hand and grabbed her. The cat meowed and hissed wildly, clawing, but Zeta held fast.
"Shh, shh, calm down . . . Honey," he said eyeing the name and petting the cat. Protecting her from the rain, he stood up and started to walk towards her home. The cat continued to growl, but knew she couldn't escape and settled for trying to claw his hands. The claws were sharp, but he didn't notice. The currents were stronger, and seemed to cover his entire frame, seeping deeper towards his core.
It was almost twenty minutes before he reached the front of her home, and the cat recognized it, sprung from his arms and rushing through her door without a backward glance. Zeta stood in the rain for a moment, so transfixed on the animal's happiness at being home that he did not mind the pain. The rain had started to be heavier, and he dripped.
He started back towards the hotel, perhaps minutely slower because of the pains. For now they were pains, constant and pulsing. Now his sight in his right eye faded or fuzzed momentarily with each pulse. Zeta tried to ignore it, apparently walking calmly and silently.
It wasn't until he happened to looked at his hands that he stopped dead, shocked. Through his hologram he could see marks where Honey had clawed him, open marks. He dropped the hologram, transfixed at the small cuts that crisscrossed his metal skin and leaking and seeping rainwater. The cuts traveled up his forearms, just where the cat had sliced him. But how? How? He touched them, then drew his hand away quickly as his vision darkened and the pain flew though his appendage, overlapping the other currents.
"What?" he asked aloud. They were such small cuts that he shouldn't even be worried (except for the fact that he had them). They shouldn't cause him to turn off! What was wrong? How was this possible?
Quite frankly, it wasn't possible! There was no way this could happen. Zeta was at a loss, then started to move again, putting his hologram up. He had to get back to the hotel.
It was raining harder. It was almost like a relationship. The harder it rained, the stronger the pains were. He leaned against a wall for support, his eyesight skewing uncontrollably in both eyes, although reasonably worse in the right. Zeta pushed himself off the wall and staggered to a walk, but his legs were weak and not obeying his commands, seemingly unable to read his signals, and his back collapsed into the wall again.
And it hurt! Worse than the current, hitting the wall hurt! His vision disintegrated into black.
"What's wrong?" he whispered, clutching his right forearm and hugging it against his chest as if to stop this source. All it did was bring more pain.
Gritting his teeth, metaphorically speaking, Zeta forced himself to lean on his shoulder against the wall and walk on. His left knee gave away though, and he fell to the ground fully. The pain was mind-boggling and not understandable to the synthoid. He pushed himself up, and the synthoid could feel his frame scream in protest. His back threatened to break in half if he continued.
"Hey, are you all right?" A hand touched his shoulder, and Zeta rolled away in pain, pressing against the wall such as Honey had done. Electric fires burned where whomever had touched him had touched him.
"Whoa, you don't look so good," said another voice.
He forced his sight to work, bringing in a sight of painfully bright headlights level with him and three humans—there was no way he could make out their features, his eyesight was gone so far—next to him, watching him with morbid interest. "Help . . .," he got out in a pitiful, weak voice. "Please."
"Easy there, fella, we'll get you to a hospital," one of them soothingly.
"No. Ro . . .," he said, suddenly aware that his power cells were emptying exponentially. If Zeta could have breathed, he would have been hyperventilating. "No."
"Shh, shh, come up, we'll get you to where you need to go." Someone grabbed under his arm, and he spasmed, and the fire burned again.
"Hurts . . . Ro . . ."
Someone else grabbed his other arm and held tight against the spasm, pulling him up. "Uh, he's heavy. Get the van open."
"What's wrong with him?"
His power cells were fighting a losing battle. Two weeks reserve down to minutes in seconds . . . impossible, even under the most extreme fighting situations . . . "Ro . . . hotel . . ."
They weren't listening to him, or they couldn't hear him. Whatever it was, they laid him the floor after one had pushed everything away. He was shaking uncontrollably, vision gone again. He tried to move his hand to reach into his compartment and get the key card, to tell them where he wanted to go, but one of them grabbed his wrist. He couldn't pull it away, only writhe in the pain it caused.
"You just stay still, okay, mister, okay. We'll get—WHOA!" The person jumped back, as did the companions, as Zee's form shifted and skewed as the holographic emitter started to succumb.
"What are you?!"
He didn't hear the words, this world shutting down piece by piece. The pain was stopping only because he could no longer process it. " . . . Ro . . ."
The hologram fell and Infiltration Unit Zeta shut down.
With a groan, Ro buried her head under the pillow as a constant ringing filled the room. She just fell asleep, give her a break. The pillow did nothing to muffle the sounds, and with a growl Ro tossed it against the wall and sat up. "Zee! Would you please answer that!"
Yet the room was noticeably empty, save for her. Ro rubbed the sleep away, looking around the room intently. "Zee?" Her eyes fell onto the watch, bringing a soft sigh of relief, and she spied the message. The phone was still ringing, so Ro growled, grabbing the pad and slamming her hand on the Receive Message. "What!"
"Why the hell aren't you guys here?!" Bucky's voice screamed at her.
Ro reeled back. "Why are you calling us?" she demanded.
"Because you're not here!" Bucky called back. "I got worried, so I spent the past fifteen minutes trying to trace you guys! Why weren't you on the train?!"
"What?" Confusion blanked Ro's mind, and she looked at the digital clock, as she couldn't quite read the mechanical hands of Doctor Selig's watch. It blinked 12:53 at her. "We missed the train!"
"No duh! What happened?"
"Zee was supposed to wake me up! Where is he?"
"Haven't you ever heard of alarm clocks?" Bucky asked.
"Zee is my alarm clock," Ro countered, then started to read the note. Her mouth dropped as she read. "Idiot!"
"Not you! Zee! He went out last night to take some cat home!"
"You let him leave? He could be seriously malfunctioning!"
"I didn't let him leave! Listen: '3:48 AM, Ro, I'm quite sure I'm be back before you awake, but in case I'm not, don't worry. I am just returning a lost cat to 2353 Drive Road. I should be back within an hour. Love, Zee'. Does that sound like I let him!"
"'Love'?" Bucky repeated.
"Trust me, it's better than 'With Deepest Sympathies,' which he thought was a good way to end a message," Ro snapped, remembering when she finally confronted him with the closing. Zee had explained that he was sad to end the message, hence "With Deepest Sympathies."
"You guys have a weird relationship." At Ro's glare, he asked, "Well, so where is he?"
"I don't know! I'm going to go look for him, see if he even came back." Suddenly Ro's mind froze. "Bucky, what if he didn't come back! What if he's lying out there hurt and dying and scared!"
"I'm sure he's fine, Ro," Bucky said, but the lack of conviction and worry showed he was being plagued by the same thoughts. "Look, I'll catch a train over in case something is wrong. If you find him, just stay in the room! If not, meet me at the station at four-thirty."
"And if I don't?" Ro whispered.
"You'll find him, Ro. I know you." The screen blinked black and Ro dashed down to the desk, neglecting to change or to bring her key card. It only made it worse when she found out Zee hadn't returned.
"What are we going to do with it?" Maggie hissed, waving at the back of their van as they stood in the garage.
"Take it apart?" Andy joked, and then was rewarded with two sets of glares. "Okay. Not of the funny."
Toby waved his hands, trying to calm everyone, including himself, down. "Look, obviously it's government."
"Obviously?" Andy asked smirking.
"Well, I don't have the money to build that!" Toby whispered, pointing dramatically.
"We're messing with government property!" Maggie squealed, grabbing her red hair and pulling hard. "They send people to prison for that!"
"We were helping it!"
"Quiet, both of you!" Toby snapped. "No one's going to prison. I'm not telling anyone, neither of you aren't going to tell anyone, so it's okay."
"And what are we going to do with it, oh Wise One?" Andy asked. "Put it back where we found it? Yeah, no one will notice that. And the government's gonna notice it's gone missing, and they'll find us," he said logically.
"Do you two practice being paranoid? We'll take it to the dump and dump it."
"We could barely lift it last night!" Maggie countered. "How are we going to get it out?"
"We'll bring a winch," Toby supplied, looking at his two housemates. "Well?"
"Tobs, think! You know this stuff. Our prints are all over it! They probably have a tracker on it! They'll find it and we'll be blamed!" Andy argued. "We have to give it to someone."
"Like who? You want to drop it off in front of the cop-shop? That is definitely top-secret government work! They'd probably bomb the whole city," Maggie stated.
Toby turned, crossing his arms. "First you want to get rid of it, to give it to someone. Make up your mind, since my opinion isn't as lawful and legitimate as yours."
"Oh, come on, Tobs. You know what I mean!" Andy said carefully.
"No I don't."
"We helped it last night! It did look like it was in serious pain."
"It's a robot, Andy. No pain is felt."
Maggie grinned. "Actually, my toaster oven's been feeling the heat. Swear, it knows not to burn anything after it ruined Rae's meal."
"Ahh, Boyfriend Failure #6,421, I remember him well," Andy intoned. "See, if the Toaster Oven From Hell knows not to meet a bat, obviously some piece of government shit is gonna be all smart."
"Look, this wasn't some little kitten you helped last night," Toby sighed shaking his head. "This is a piece of high-tech crap. And what is the only thing the government spends money on? Weapons. So that toaster oven is probably ready to blow us all up and arrest out miserable pieces of charred flesh."
"But he's a cute kitten," Andy smirked, then nudged Maggie. "Wasn't he, huh? Admit it, you were thinking possible BF #6,562. And he couldn't have been poisoned by your cooking."
"'He'?" Toby repeated. "It's a machine. Not a kitten. Machine. Small difference. You're missing the point."
"Can we keep it?"
The other two both started and looked at Andy. "I thought you wanted to get rid of it," Toby groaned.
"No. I wanted to take it apart, but you'd be after my hide if I did."
"Because you can't put anything back together," Maggie reminded. "Remember the car?"
"The cred reader."
"The clock. And I liked that clock."
"It was the only one that worked. I actually kind of hated it. And what about the late Gusto?"
Andy laughed. "All right, I get it. I can't put things back together right."
"You put Gusto's put his feet on the wrong arms!"
"But we shouldn't dump him because, A) the government would kill us, B) we are obligated to help him, and C) you know you don't really want to."
"You don't want to," Maggie corrected.
"And how are we obligated?"
"We were going to help him. We promised."
"I never said—"
"Tut, tut! If he had been an old woman who ended up dying in the van, we wouldn't have thrown her body into the river, would have we?"
Tony gritted his teeth at the choice of situation. "You cannot parallel that with this. And we didn't get an old woman; we got Project Omega, the end of our lack of government spies in our life."
"But maybe he's Project Alpha, the beginning," Andy replied passionately. "More robots could be coming, the first in a big wave!"
"And why isn't that reassuring?" Toby growled.
Andy stood and crossed his arms. "Look, all we have to do is recharge him. Unlike the dead woman, we can bring him back to life. Recharge the circuits and send him on his merry way."
The information processed. "He does have a point," Maggie agreed.
"So we can keep him?" Andy asked gleefully.
Toby rubbed his forehead. "No, that'd be stealing federal property; we'll recharge him."
"And I can read his files, that way if I do have to fix something—"
"You won't be fixing anything," Toby snapped. "We'll recharge the little batteries and send it bye-bye. No removing little parts, no removing heads." He shuddered at the thought. "Okay? Nothing that could be considered a breach in national security."
Maggie said carefully, "Actually, I don't think those batteries are going to be little . . ."
Andy sighed. "When will the world change to solar-powered, hmm?"
"Then we'll just do the best we can. And," Toby knew he was going to regret this, "see if you can figure out who to contact that wouldn't throw us in jail if it doesn't work."
"And you wanted to dump him into the river," Andy grinned.
It'd probably be more humane than letting you at it. "Dump, Andy. I wanted to dump hi—it in the dump." He sighed. "Maggie, see if you can plug it in to anything. And stay away from it in case it has any automatic lasers or something. I know you're wearing my shirt." Maggie tried to look offended. "It cost me 75 creds, Maggie, a lot more than you're worth."
"I pay rent!"
Andy smirked and he dug for some electrical things he honestly had no idea how to work correctly, but knew how to make them make sparks. It was close enough. "Look on the bright side. At least he warned you. Fav shirt or not, for me Tobs would have been, 'And make sure to lean right into the fist, Andy. Right into the fist.'"
"Andy, you plug it in," Toby said deadpan.
"See?" he sighed. "Feel the love."
Ro bit her bottom lip worried. The people whose cat Zee returned didn't say anything about a man returning their cat, although the animal was there. It either meant Zee brought it back, or the cat brought herself back. The son did mention that the cat crawled on his face around 4:30 dripping wet, so Ro was leaning towards Zee bringing the feline home.
Okay, that meant he was probably heading back. Ro glanced around, as if he would suddenly emerge from the alleys or buildings. There was no such luck, but Ro kept looking. What if his hologram failed? What if he was unconscious? What if someone had found him and was already taking him to NSA, where they'd throw him away or reprogram him? The questions blew circles in her mind, and Ro tried not to cry. She looked at her watch and figured she had time for one more search before she had to meet Bucky.
"Get a grip, Rowan. Just follow Zee's path. He's bound to be on it, one way or another. Hey, who could move that synthoid if he didn't want to, aside from me?"
Toby was firm. "I am not moving it."
Andy frowned. "Look, it's either the station or the robot. Your choice."
"Where the heck would you put the robot? I don't think our couch could hold him," Maggie asked looking over Zeta's body. "And where exactly is the outlet?"
"Last time I moved the computer it stayed there for three months. It's still there!"
"Hey, a computer in my room is good. And hey man, I was sick. I can't access his memory without a computer."
"You shouldn't have blown the lap."
"Power surge, power surge, buy me a new one." Andy bobbed on his feet. "Come on. The faster you get the station here, the sooner he's gone. Look at it that way."
Toby growled. "The station is not staying in the garage forever," he stated as he turned and entered the house.
Andy grinned and looked at Maggie perched over the synthoid. "If it were up to him, we'd be throwing a tablecloth over this guy and using him as a table."
Maggie grinned, making sure Toby was out of earshot. "Nah, he'd tie a brick and throw him in the river. Good old days and all."
"Don't need a brick. See you're recharging him. Good, good." He rubbed his hands together. "Do you think we could get a reward for helping him?"
"You do need a few new laps," Maggie smirked, then checked the gauges. "There isn't any way we can totally recharge him. That'll take months at this rate."
"Ten-percent should be enough for him to be mobile," Andy said dismissively, guessing randomly and not caring. He poked Zeta's chest. "This must be some new metal. See how pliable and soft it is, like skin. Man, eventually I bet skin could be metal! Totally cool, no cuts, no bleeding."
"Hold up, Robo. You get cut. See his arms." Maggie frowned. "Look what you're doing! I'm calling it 'him' now!"
Andy stuck out his tongue and examined the arms. "Maybe he self-repairs. Computers should do that."
"Even when they're itty-bitty pieces?"
"All right! Where do you want it?" Toby grunted, holding a large mainframe in his arms.
"Just put it on the ground."
"Think again, and think quickly before I drop it!"
Maggie jumped up and grabbed a table cart. Situating it close to the van, she nodded, "There, Toby, right there." Toby set the computer down and rubbed his arms.
"Ancient piece of crap."
"How dare you say that!" Andy asked, aghast. "He didn't mean it, baby."
"I know I'm not going to want to see the electric bill this month," Toby sighed, eyeing the charging process. "Well, hook him up and find someone to ship him to."
Andy rubbed his hands and picked up the connectors. "Look out, profiles, here I come!"
Toby grabbed Maggie's arm and dragged her away. "If he causes that thing to blow up, you'll thank me later," he explained at her questioning glance.
Maggie looked back at their friend and remembered Andy's track record. "I think I'll just thank you now, if you don't mind."
"I can hear you, you know!" Andy called out. "Nice to know you guys have such faith in me! Great friends."
"Sensible friends. We know him," Toby whispered to Maggie, who laughed.
When Bucky saw Ro standing there at the station, his worry quota exploded. He hefted his supplies and rushed over. "You didn't find him?"
"I looked everywhere! Back alleys, back yards, Dumpsters."
"I'm smelling the last one," he put in helpfully.
Ro grabbed him. "Bucky, I can't find him!" She shook him with each word.
"Take it easy, Ro!" he exclaimed, pulling away. "We'll find him. He's bound to be somewhere in town."
"No, he might not! What if he accidentally boarded a truck or something? What if someone picked him up?"
Bucky held up his hands. "Look, we'll go back to your room and I'll try to pick up his power frequency, see if he used his cred card recently. So don't worry just yet. You'll get worry wrinkles. So not you."
Ro tried not to let him lighten her mood. "You let me worry. Come on, let's get back to the room." She fished in her pocket. "I even remembered the key this time."
They walked on, and Bucky said, "Ro, I'm sure he's fine. He can take care of himself. He took care of himself before he met you."
"You so don't want to go there. When we met, he had to go repair himself. And right now he's battling some virus, so it's even worse. His hologram could be down, lasers dead. I so don't want to think about it."
"If his hologram is down, he might have went under, to the sewers," Bucky suggested.
"Oh, great," Ro moaned.
"I'll let you look."
"You know it."
Andy sat typing one-fingered, leaning his head against his hand and looking through the fingers. Maggie walked in with a cup of coffee. "How's it going?"
"I'm going to get those Self-Help books for Hackers," Andy vowed.
"Toby won't let you."
"Screw Toby. If I knew how to break into system files, I could be figuring this guy out. But noooo, I'm just meeting wall after wall after wall after wall . . . . I don't like this guy anymore. Let's go dump him in the river." He gulped the coffee down and shuddered. "You made the coffee, didn't you?"
Maggie playfully swatted his head. "Well, what have you found in it?"
"Supposedly he has lasers, guns, yadda yadda, et cetera, et cetera. Don't tell Toby, he won't let me continue."
"I'm tempted to not let you continue! Lasers!"
Andy frowned. "Ha ha, not funny. Look, I can't access those files if I wanted to. They're buried too deep in technical jargon. This isn't like recovering a deleted file, which, I admit, was what I thought this was going to be like. This guy has protection."
"Don't go there," Andy said. "Look, unless my skills improve dramatically, I don't know what to do to get a name out of this guy."
Maggie rubbed her head. "Couldn't you search names? Okay, you're not going to get government names. Why don't you go for the trivial mainframe, not the basic hardware?" Andy looked at her, confused. "Don't go for what he was programmed with, I mean. Look under the day-to-day-type files. Even I can read those files most of the time. Well, not read, but access."
"All that's going to have is his missions and such," Andy sighed, but obliged by typing away. "Probably the name of who he's supposed to kill or whatever. And we can't send the guy to him."
Maggie leaned forward. "No, see what names or words that come up most often. Well, not the word 'the'. You'd be here all day. Obviously unless he was merely trailing someone, his mission files would contain different names except for whomever he was supposed to report to."
"Makes sense," Andy said begrudgingly.
"Don't worry," Maggie grinned, setting a hand on his shoulder. "I'll tell Toby you thought of it all by yourself."
"Don't patronize me." He winced as the results of the search parameters came up. "Looks like you were right." He scrolled. "The one with most entries is someone called 'Ro'. No last name, though. Probably the one he's supposed to report to, so of course there wouldn't be a last name," he said sarcastically. "'Bucky' comes up a bit. 'Agent Dawson' recently. He replaced 'Agent Bennet,' and that guy was up quite a bit. 'Casey' is up, a 'Troy'. Man, doesn't this guy believe in last names."
"Probably for protection. And you can't call those agents. Sounds government, and we don't know which agency anyway."
"Hmm. 'Zeta' mean anything to you? That's meshing with 'Zee' for some reason, maybe an alias." Andy sighed. "A bunch of store names, I think this is his preferred shopping places. Wonder why he prefers Regales."
"Oh, that's a good store!" Maggie stated. "Expensive, but good! Bought my coat there."
"Whatever. 'NSA' . . . what's that?" His partner shrugged.
"Initials of someone?"
Andy frowned, typing, then whooped. "Whoo, a name! Some guy named 'Selig, Eli.' He's actually a big name, going back quite a while into the memory, even before 'Ro', though not as frequent as it is later on."
Maggie stood up and thought for a moment. "'Selig' is only moderately popular, as well 'Eli'. I'll check the world registries during my free-time at work and see if anyone looks like they could have any connection with him. Money, smarts, that sort of thing. Better than 'Northbrook Comms, how may we help you?'" she asked in a perky, cheery voice, then made a face. "I'm going to quit that job."
"Is Toby gone?"
"Duh. Management waits for no one, even the management. Why?"
"I wanted him to do a donut run." He leaned back. "I love vacations, except that no one can wait on me hand and foot."
"So kind. I'll look up your guy. Give a ring if you find any other last names, and I can see if they cross-check by being naughty and looking up their call records."
"All right. And I'll see if I can get this guy to give up any up any more secrets."
"As long as secrets don't include using the laser to poke holes in our ceiling. Have fun."
"I will! And I hope I do figure out how to get the laser to work! I want a skylight in my room!"
"You're on the first floor, Andy. The first floor."
Bucky held his head and sighed. "Bad news, Ro."
Ro groaned. "What is it?"
"I can't find his frequency he puts out for me. He's either not in the area, or he's turned off."
"Zee said he had enough power for two weeks though. So he must have gone out of range." She tried to sound certain.
"Unless the virus used his power to work." And Ro's glare, he back-tracked. "I'm just covering the options, Ro. I know it's not pleasant to think about, but we have to think about it. If he is turned off, he could still in this city."
"What kind of virus is this?"
Bucky shook his head. "Never heard of anything like it. It could be that lifetime programming, Ro. It could make him think he has two weeks supply when he doesn't. His own programming could be turning against him."
Ro's teeth gnawed her lip. "But he could not in the area?"
"I haven't found any activity with his cred card," Bucky pointed out carefully. "I think we should walk around the area showing his picture, hoping he didn't go by a different hologram, checking places you didn't check. Yes, the sewers. I'm looking forward to it too." He rubbed his forehead. "Who knows? By the time we come back, he might have used his card or called."
"Well, I'm not one for waiting. Let's go," Ro said standing up and rubbing her arms. "I'm sure he'll call or something."
Bucky stood up and put his stuff in a pack, then swung it on. "In case we find him. Let's go."
Andy ran his hands through his read hair. He eyes were strained and he looked at his only companion. "Well, who ever made you, I have decided I hate them, sir."
Zeta remained, unsurprisingly, silent.
"I mean," Andy continued. "I am thankful that I haven't managed to give myself a surprise with your weapon arsenal, but there is such a thing as overkill when it comes to walls and blocks. I mean, could your creators made it easier for a non-computer hacker to see your programming. Just a little peak, that's all I'm asking. Just a smidge. Is that too much to ask? I think not, so be a sport and give me a gander, hmm?"
"You government types are all the same," he sighed and started to click various things open. "All secrets and silent-type. No wonder we all hate you.
"Toby doesn't like you. He thinks you could get him in trouble. He used to be in trouble a lot as a kid, and wants to move past it. Course, he dodged all that prison crap promising he'd be good, so I guess he has a reason why not to get in trouble. One more strike and they'd probably throw away the key. That's probably why he let's Mags and me rent, so he has a reason no to go all criminal if something happens and to show he is being a good little boy by not killing us. He has a fall-back plan and an anchor, not that he'd admit it. I think we're his only friends that aren't rotting away behind walls.
"Maggie doesn't know if she likes you, of course. She wants to make sure I don't blow you—and hence all of us—up. Of course, she did want to ask you for a date. She talked Toby into stopping. Tobs doesn't normally pick up strays. Don't trust 'em."
He twirled the chair. "Now me, I like you because I like machines, taking them apart, figuring how they work, and attempting to put them back together. Key word is attempting, as Toby would point out. I've ruined so much junk that I'm not allowed to even look at certain things, mostly Toby's stuff. He doesn't trust me. It doesn't hurt, I cost him a lot of creds when he has to replace stuff I can't put back together properly. But I can't put your together because I can't take you apart. Feel lucky. Poor Gusto didn't get that privilege."
Andy sighed and continued tossing glances at the downed Zeta. The power readings were hardly one-percent, but the synthoid was turned on.
"What are you even doing in San Marla? Were you following someone and he found out? Transporting something? Hiding something, like money or data or something? Are you a body guard? Jump in and answer at any time you like." Andy grinned, then tilted his head. "Yep, you can—" The phone rang and interrupted him. He threw a ball to hit the button.
"Hallo, you have reach the multi-millionaire Andy Forschner. If you are lovely, tall, blond, please hit 1 now. If you are a chatty, redheaded, and annoying, named Maggie, press 2 now. If you are the studious and boring, yet mysterious and secretive Tobias, press 3 now. If you're creditors, you have the wrong number. If you are Grandsea Motors, I am on vacation mentally, spiritually, and physically. If this is my mother, I love you. If this is someone I do not know, Hello, you have reached the multi-millionaire Andy—"
"If you're so rich, you could pay the rent on time," Maggie laughed. "Get on screen."
"You didn't press 2. Sorry, I must disconnect from you now."
"Fine, then I won't tell you about Mr. Eli Selig, or the fifteen I found," Maggie sighed. "And after listening to that message, what a waste of my break."
"Whatcha got?" Andy asked, leaning forward.
"Grab a pen and paper. It would have been nice to have a middle initial. There are quite a few Eli Selig's in the world. I dropped out anyone under 21 and anyone as rich as us. Got the pen and paper?"
"Yep," Andy popped, pen ready to write on his hand.
"Andy, if you're writing on your hand, you won't have enough room. Get paper."
"Don't insult me."
Andy grinned, then pushed himself and the chair to the screen. "Miss me?" He dug into the drawer, "Got the paper. Well, tell me."
"Number one, Mr. Eli Thomas Selig, Maine, widow, old, rich due to family wealth. Has a daughter named Cassandra, three grandchildren. Calls constantly. Degree in Languages."
"Not thinking this is the guy," Andy stating, shaking his head and crossing it out.
"Number two. Eli Marie Selig, married three years ago to George Selig. French-based. Degree in mirco-biology and medicine. Husband is a producer for the news."
"Nah. Wrong area of expertise."
Maggie sighed. "Number three, Eli Calvin Selig, neurologist. Best in England. Calls mother twice a day."
"I don't even call my once a month. She wonders if I'd even go to her funeral," Andy smirked, shaking his head. "Next?"
"Four, Eli Rembrandt Selig, head of Traps Port Industries, currently located in South Africa."
"The hunting supplies?"
"One and the same. Behind on his payments though, company threatened with bankruptcy, again. Read it in Hot Gossip."
"Possible, I think." He made a notation.
"Not going to even ask why. Number five, Eli Whitney Selig. MIA from South Border conflict. Presumed dead."
Andy raised an eyebrow. "Why did you include him if he's dead?"
"Excuse me for thinking your little toy could have been trying to find the guy. Besides, he's accounts still open. Dead, but open."
"Get your point."
"Good. Anyway, six, Eli George Selig. My boss' cousin by some power." Maggie grinned. "He changed his name to that, by the way. He's a dork, according to Mr. Rogers, but rich. Won the lottery, invested it well, and now doesn't work. "
"My kind of guy."
"Yeah, you would like him. Number seven, Dr. Eli No-Middle-Name Selig. No location is specified. Work takes him places. Involved in many projects, none listed, apparently rich. Hasn't used his phone in a few weeks."
"Oooh, I think we have a winner! Lucky seven!" Andy twirled in his seat and starred the name.
"I thought you'd like him. Shall I continue?"
"Might as well, just to be safe. Eight?"
Maggie smiled slyly. "Dr. Eli Whitney Selig, of no relation to the missing soldier. Expert in robotics."
"You did that on purpose," Andy growled. "What else about him?"
"Also travels around the world, no specifics in work or jobs. Also rich."
Andy frowned and starred the name. "If the rest are all good leads, I'll kill you."
She ignored him. "Nine, Eli James Selig, of Nigeria, college professor in robotics and micro-programming. Has been funded and hired by government on several occasions."
"Not funny. But not seeing a teacher as the designer."
"Ten, Eli Garrett Selig, imprisoned drug lord. Was into extorting for protection mon—"
"Skip." He scribbled the name out.
Maggie raised her eyes. "Protection money, Andy. Your little friend is a little weapon."
"Government-funded little weapon."
"All right, if you say so. Skipping. Eleven, Eli Clyde Selig, England. Retired robotic repairer. Living off savings."
Andy yawned. "Nah. Twelve?"
"Eli Martin Selig, in Japan. Another old money. No kids and funds projects spontaneously."
"Thirteen, Captain Eli Alan Selig. Runs a nuclear sub, employed by the government. Recently changed vid-phone companies, so we hate him."
Andy gave a short laugh. "Don't think a sub captain is what's in the boat."
"Two more. Fourteen, Eli Yang Selig, New York. Runs a robotic museum. Grossly over-priced, I've heard."
"And last but not least, Eli Brett Selig, number fifteen, of Canada. Usually calls in the middle of forests and volcanoes and hurricanes and tornadoes, then complains out the reception. We don't like him." Maggie set down her papers and looked at Andy. "So who are your lucky winners?"
"Number seven and eight."
"Not the Traps Port Industries?" Maggie questioned.
"These are the best bet, I think. Eli Whitney Selig, expert of robotics and travels around the world, or Eli Selig, no specifics, but also rich and travels around the world."
"Which one are you leaning for?"
Andy smiled. "Got their addresses?"
"Can I have them?"
"You want me to get fired, don't you?"
"You want to get fired, so give me the addresses. I'll mail both of them with a heading with, I don't know, 'Agent Bennet' and 'Zeta' or something that was in the banks, and which ever one bites and checks out, that's out winner."
Maggie smiled. "Fine, sending their addresses. You didn't get them from me if you caught."
The address came up and Andy wrote them down. "Thanks, Mags."
"You have fun. Got to get back to work after wasting my time with this."
"You know you liked it. Have fun, see you tonight."
"Bye." Maggie clicked the screen off, and Andy kicked the chair towards his mystery guest and petted the metal head.
"Well, sir, we are one step closer to getting you to where you belong, a pity for me, lucky break for you. So let's get working on that note." He pushed himself towards the computer, but his chair toppled over some wires sending him to the fall.
Bucky and Ro collapsed into the room, stinking and sweating. "I call the showers," Ro moaned, trying to push herself up.
"Thanks." Bucky swung off the backpack as Ro moved towards the heaven of warm water. The door shut and he groaned. "Ro?"
"I think we should call anyone Zee might know, to let them know he's missing," he said as he pulled off his shoes. "Your brother, Agent Bennet, your boyfriend."
Ro hit her head against the shower wall. That was like admitting defeat. "Yeah. Call away," she responded, wiping her eyes.
Bucky sighed. It was the straw. Ro was worried, near panic, at wit's end, to allow that. He agreed and moved towards the phone.
Toby walked it easing off his tie, and smiled at the sleeping Andy. He shook his head and walked over, tapping the younger's shoulder. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty."
"Gimme a kiss and maybe I will. And I mean chocolate."
"Guess you weren't asleep. So what's you find out?"
Andy rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Maggie got about fifteen names of good Eli Selig leads by checking the Northbrook Comms database. We narrowed it down to two, well, I did. I was going to mail them a teaser, see if one bites."
"And if no one does?" Toby asked, smiling down.
"Can I keep him?"
Toby laughed. "Let me read your teaser." Andy scrounged for a moment before a retrieved a pad. Toby cleared his throat. "'To: Dr. Eli Selig, Sender: Andy Forschner. Topic: If Agent Bennet, Ro, Zeta, and/or Synthoids Mean Anything to You, Please Reply.'" Toby smirked. "Subtle. Nice. You think having your name on is a good idea?"
"What are they going to do to me? The government isn't going to be checking personal mail, and I need a return for him to take me seriously. What do you think of the rest?"
"'My associates and I have come into the possession of a synthoid that has ceased to function properly and are interested in returning it to correct party. Due to our combined research, we believe that you may be beneficial to our task. Please reply as soon as possible, giving all the information you deem necessary to prove you are involved with either a synthoid, Zeta, Ro, or an Agent Bennet, such as a description of said synthoid, as we would like to reclaim the back of our van as soon as possible. I await your reply and ask that you forgive the intrusion of your time. I am sure you are very busy. Sincerely, Mr. Andy Forschner.' Very professional. Didn't think you had it in you."
"It was work."
"But, you know," Toby smiled as he handed the pad back. "I didn't think I had anything to do with the so-called 'combined research' you say happened."
"You drove, you got him in the van, you got the computer in the garage. Research to your ability."
He rolled his eyes. "Thanks. Well, send it out to your Seligs and I hope you get a damn reply. I want my van back."
"Already did. Yep, any minute now they'll reply."
Toby shook his head. "I'll go get you something to eat, which you will eat in the kitchen."
"No complaints here. Just let me wheel myself up the stairs." As he spoke, Andy pushed the chair in the direction of the door, but again tripped over the wires.
"Knew we shouldn't have gotten you that chair," Toby said, laughing.
"Shut up and help me up."
Dr. Selig sat behind his computer and opened his mail. With a frown he clicked on one message, shook his head as he read it, and deleted it.
"You have a message, Dr. Selig."
Dr. Selig turned away from his designs and smiled. "Who's it from?"
Andrea tapped the pad. "A man by the name of Andy Forschner. Do you know of him?"
"No." Confusion dotted his face for a moment. "What does it say?"
"Dr. Selig, it is your message," the blond woman smiled, handing over the pad. "But it does look interesting."
He looked curiously at his smile and took the pad. The heading solved his curiosity. "Oh, my. This is interesting."
"I thought you would think so."
He opened the message and read it carefully. "Hmm. Very interesting, to say the least." He didn't satisfy Andrea's obvious interest. "I think I'll reply, if you don't mind, Andrea."
"Will you need anything?"
"I think I'll manage."
"I want my van back!" Toby yelled suddenly a few mornings later. Maggie and Andy jumped and looked at him.
"What? Why?" Maggie asked.
"Do you know how hard it is to get groceries when you ride that little thing of a car I've been forced to use!" Toby explained. "Did you get any reply yet?"
Andy squirmed. "No. But you should wait a month, like with payments. I don't check my mail until anything is already past due."
Toby exhaled loudly, clearly controlling his balance, barely. "And how is the recharging coming?"
"One-and-a-half percent," Andy grinned charmingly. Toby glared, and he tried to explain. "I don't get it myself! He's using the power almost as fast as it's coming it, which doesn't make any sense, since he's turned off. Something is using the power, Toby."
"I don't know. I'm not a computer genius."
"We know that," Maggie grinned, trying to defuse the situation.
"I want my van back. We're running on cans here," Toby growled. "I don't care if you have to dismantle that thing—"
"You told me no messing with federal property!"
He ignored the interruption. "—it's out of my van tomorrow afternoon so I can go get some real food."
"You miss donuts," Maggie sighed. "We all do." Suddenly she thought about something Andy said. "Andy, when did you last check your mail?"
He shrugged. "I walk by on the hour but I never have mail."
Maggie and Toby looked at each other, and Toby groaned, holding his head and wondering why he had the village idiot. "Andy, Maggie and I have been checking our mail as well. You weren't checking your mail. You were checking our mail."
"You took off my mail window!" Andy accused.
"We weren't aware we had to keep your mailbox open!" Maggie sighed looking at the roommate in disbelief.
"Dr. Selig could have written me back any time ago!" he exclaimed and rushed away to check. Maggie and Toby both rolled their eyes and followed, only to be deafened by his call. "HE WROTE BACK!"
"Two feet away, man, two feet away," Toby said.
"Man, look at this! We found the guy! Look at this!" Andy was jumping up and down, indicating the screen. "Look, look, look! That's Bob!"
Maggie pushed him away and skimmed the material. "Apparently, its name is Zeta, an Infiltration Unit Selig built and designed a few years ago."
Andy was affronted. "Zeta! What kind of name is that. His name is Bob!"
"Whatever. Just write the guy and tell him to take Zeta or Bob or whatever," Toby said.
"Zeta. That is so Greek," Andy pouted as Maggie wrote.
"Do you know this had been on since last night, Andy?"
"Zeta! Puh! It's not even the first letter of the alphabet. It's like . . . alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon . . . 'F'. An 'F'! You don't pass anything with an 'F'! What an insult."
"Andy," Toby warned.
Maggie finished typing and sent the letter, then turned. "Now we just wait." She smiled at Toby. "Well, looks like you might be getting your van back if Selig takes Zet—Bob back." Andy smiled at her, then frowned.
"Did you tell him about Bob's problems?"
"No, I only said yeah, that's the robot."
"Ahh! You got to tell the guy what's wrong with Bob!" Andy exclaimed, pushing her out of the seat. "Otherwise he'll think we did something to him!" He was typing a mile a minute. "I mean, you borrow a car, you tell if someone hit it while you were gone, you know!"
"You never do."
"Andy, it's not his robot. He just designed it. We're giving it to Selig so he can give it to Agent Bennet or whomever," Toby said rolling his eyes. "You are getting way too attached to it . . . Zeta . . . Bob." He shook his head at the name.
"He's very nice company," Andy explained, pausing as to how to properly phrase this problem and question how Selig did it without sounding too curios. Finally he just thought screw it and typed. Then he signed it with a flourish and sent the letter on its merry way. "Do you really think Selig will want Bob back?"
"Yes," Maggie and Toby said without hesitation.
"Doctor, your little correspondence replied," Andrea smiled.
"Ah, finally. I was wondering what happened to them." Dr. Selig held out his hand and took the pad. "Two messages, hmm, interesting." Andrea stood, attempting to look bored while Selig read. Selig chuckled quietly. "It appeared our friend's roommates are anxious to remove Zeta from their company. I probably can't blame them." He set the pad on the table and read the next message. "Oh, and one from Andy as well." His eyes strolled over the words, but slowly the cheerfulness dissolved.
"What's wrong, Dr. Selig?" Andrea asked.
"Apparently many things are wrong, if Andy is correct, which I am quite sure he is. Apparently Zeta is experiencing several . . . malfunctions, design and otherwise."
"Of what nature?"
"I've never seen anything like it," Selig murmured, intrigued. Part of him was against helping Zeta, a created weapon, one by his own hand, but another part still hoped the module would eventually work. Perhaps it already was working. He was always on the move, and no one would ever bother telling the scientists who built the synthoid of any problems. And Zeta always held a special part in his heart, no doubt due to the amount of time he spent designing both machine and module. He had been heart-broken when Zeta followed its orders systematically, heartlessly. The module didn't work, he had thought. But perhaps it had needed time, more time for Zeta to assess what was wrong. After all, children needed to be told right from wrong. Who was to tell Zeta what it was doing was wrong, other than the vague commands the module sent out, which was subtly acting against Zeta's very own programming?
Yet with these problems Selig doubted his module was responsible, but he didn't want to try to return a weapon to its former original glory. Yet it was his responsibility to see that his creations were brought to their fullest potential. In the least he could examine the problems and read Zeta's memory, to see if the module had worked. His other work could wait a few days.
He nodded and finished reading the letter, smiling widely at the name Andy had given Zeta. "Andrea, trace this address. We're going to get a shipment from them." Selig wrote a brief reply.
"Right, Dr. Selig."
Andy sniffed and finished covering up Zeta. "I feel like I hardly know him. Bob. Don't even know if he had a last name."
"You don't know him," Toby said from his spot in the doorframe, obviously unimpressed with the melodrama. "And his last name is Infiltration Unit, first name, Ima. He kills people, Andy, for a living. Don't make me employ him."
"Well, it's no different—you're grossly over-price and Maggie's rude and entirely too chipper. It's his job! I don't even know if he liked it."
"I think he was working for the retirement plan," Maggie suggested.
"I didn't even get to take him apart," Andy finished as he collapsed into a sit, pouting.
"Of which Zeta is grateful." Andy didn't bother replying.
Toby sighed and refilled his coffee cup. "Look, Andy, if it makes you feel any better, I'll miss him too, a bit. And I can't believe I just called it a him."
"Maybe when he gets all fixed up he'll come back for a visit," Maggie suggested.
"Yeah, to kill us," Toby finished smiling. Maggie glared at him. "All right, all right, not helping. Look, as soon as I get some extra creds, I'll buy you a new lap."
"Whatever works. And if you don't take a bribe, I'll save it for Christmas and let Santa give it to you."
"Not everyone worships the fat man, Toby."
Toby rolled his eyes as he sipped the coffee, reminded of the conflicting religions housed in the building. "Fine. I'll buy it for me. And you can't touch it." He gulped deeply.
The doorbell rang, and Toby looked into the house. "Try not to make a scene, man. A man can only go so low." Even still, he gave a little smile towards Andy that contradicted the message, that he was a bit sorry, and went to the door.
Maggie and Andy sat alone in the garage, hearing Toby's quiet, professional voice as he spoke with whomever was at the door. Within a few moments Toby returned and opened the garage door. Andy and Maggie both turned in their respective spot to see a shipping crate and crew there, and their neighbors standing curiously.
"So that's why Selig wanted Zeta covered," Maggie murmured.
"I'm sure he's smart enough to understand human character," Andy stated.
"But to remember about it, ahh, that's a clincher."
With utmost professionalism and efficiency they crated Zeta and carried the box to their van. Finally one walked up to Toby. "Your signature, Sir?"
Toby pressed his print against the icon, then reached for his wallet. "How much is all this?"
"Already paid for by Dr. Selig. And we are to give you this for your troubles." The shipping master pulled out an envelope and headed it over. "Please sign under 'Package Received', Sir."
He pressed his thumb against the icon again, eyeing the envelope. "Thanks."
"Just doing our job, Sir. Have a nice day, all of you."
The trio watched them disappear, as did the rest of the neighborhood. And once the van disappeared, the neighbors turned their attention back to them. Toby gave a small wave and closed the garage.
"Nosy buggers," Andy smirked.
"What is it?" Maggie asked, eyeing the envelope.
Toby grinned slightly and opened it, shaking the contents out onto his palm. Three cred cards and a handwritten note laid there. He, after a moment of surprise, gave Maggie and Andy a card each, then looked at the note. "'I appreciate the trouble you have gone through in holding Zeta and locating me. It means more than even perhaps I as of yet realize. Please consider this gratitude. Sincerely, Eli Selig.'" Toby shook his head and looked at his card. "I really don't want to know how much is on this card."
"I do!" Maggie exclaimed, rushing towards the cred reader in the house.
"Me first, me first!" Andy yelled, following suit.
Toby watched them go and tucked his card in his back pocket. He walked over to the van door and looked at the now empty spot, sighed, and shut the door. Then he unplugged the computer, picked it up, and took one look around the garage, eyes once again falling on the van. He shook his head and turned walk, then left the garage, kicking the door closed behind him.
The lights shifted off.
Once the computer was back in its original location, prior to Andy's room, Maggie screamed up the stairs. "Toby! Andy broke the cred reader!"
"We need to go to the mall, NOW!"
Toby shook his head at his way his friends were coping at the departure of their old houseguest. He knew they'd go to the mall, so their separate ways for five hours, meet up, and no one would have bought anything. They probably would meet in the robotics department, staring the little miniatures. Andy would try building one, Maggie would support him, he would ridicule.
Their lives would go on, as would Zeta's, such as it was.
"Toby, we need you to drive!"
Tobias sighed, always the wheel man, and noticed they were in the mini-car.
Their lives would go on. He turned off the light and headed towards his roommates, all impatient and heart-broken over a robot that wasn't even conscious when he was here. Funny how things get under your skin.
"Come on!" Andy ordered, honking the horn.
For example, over-grown children. He wondered who else was plagued with such a dilemma and pitied them entirely.
"TOBY!" Maggie honked.
But he pitied himself more, for dealing with two of them.
The condition of his synthoid shocked Selig. He remembered the long hours and constant contact of shimmering silver-grey metal, of smooth slopes, and distinct feeling that this was a creation worthy of his time. He remembered that fateful day once they had finished, Zeta in all its full glory and Selig's secret hopes and aspirations. Selig had never seen Zeta truly operational, as on the field—it was perhaps the one area where he hadn't submerged himself, with the weapons and tactical information—but he remembered the quicksilver movements of the first steps and information-seeking optical receptors during those early months. At the time it had reminded him of young Dr. Drandle's young toddler who had come to visit his father, perhaps not so wide-eyed, but just as innocent.
Perhaps he was over-romanticizing the occasion, but Selig had been quite proud of Zeta at the time. It was his finest work, holding its small secret. During the creation and building, Selig never dwelled on the bitter truth that his dream was going to be used as a weapon; it would have been too painful. Parents did not raise their children to become killers, nor did Selig want his work used as such. But was it his fault that the government seemed only interested in his work for the military aspect? No. But, truth be told, it gave him childish delight to be slipping a wrench into their works. Oh, would they believe it that their beloved assassin Zeta didn't want to kill? Selig would have gladly laughed in their faces if they had confronted him with the fact. It didn't occur to him until some time later that they wouldn't tell him of his creation's progress, nor that he wouldn't want to know of it. Reality sinks in when the dream is finished, and once Zeta had been finished, Selig knew what he had created: a near-perfect killing machine. Near-perfect, only because of his module. It was a small hope, and one that was ultimately dashed. He could hardly blame Zeta for the fact. He had built the module, and it hadn't worked. His own failing ruined that chance for Zeta to become better than what it had been built for.
Yet now, staring at his synthoid, Dr. Selig was at a loss.
"Not quite your best work, Doctor," Andrea said lightly, trying to return the scientist to the present. She recalled the Zeta project, dimly, but remembered Dr. Selig had been quite interested and proud of it at the time. Yet despite her comment, she was just as surprised as her employer. This was hardly worthy of being called Selig's work. Selig was an artist in his own way, and something wrong had happened to Zeta's paint. When Andrea had watched the unloading of the synthoid into the small workroom/lab, she knew instantly that Selig was going to be horrified at the condition. She had been right, but it gave her no pleasure to find her employer so predictable.
"What has happened to you, Zeta?" Selig murmured. He had not quite believed Mr. Forschner's account of Zeta, as it seemed too radical. Unless Zeta had been completely refitted since his time on the project—which was against the contract Selig had agreed to, as he was to be notified of all changes to Zeta's design and the ramifications therein—there was no way the titanium alloy would be pliable and yielding. There was also no reason for the change in color Selig's eyes detected. No longer silver-grey, but grey-red as if Zeta was slowly being heated. But a simple touch confirmed the fact that its temperature was within reasonable limits to a working synthoid.
Yet not for a charging synthoid. Zeta should be far cooler than this. Selig pressed the metal—was it even metal anymore? He had not seen anything like it before, otherwise he would have used it for his synthoids. It was far more realistic as skin, save for the color, which put Selig into the mind of a corpse, than rubber or the other synthetics he had been using. Where his hand was resting, he could feel the metal grow warmer and tingle, like acid bubbles corroding just a layer under. Selig quickly removed his hand and watch the metal flatten.
"Will you need anything, Dr. Selig?" Andrea asked watching the confusion and worry litter across his face.
"Time, Andrea. I believe I will need much time to sort this out."
"I'll clear your calendar."
"Please do so." He listened, uninterested, as his assistant left. Selig rubbed his head, curious as to where to start, then sat down in his chair. He knew Andrea would leave him to his work, and he studied the readings Zeta was giving off. They themselves were a puzzlement, especially the rate of recharge. Selig had briefly pondered before his synthoid's arrival whether or not to continue recharging Zeta, then decided there could be no true harm. Zeta, if it had been on a mission, would not consider him a threat, but a minor annoyance. And Selig could always feed him a small ring of a check-up if his life did become in danger. He did carry the credentials and clearance.
At any case, Zeta, under normal circumstances with the power supply Selig was providing, would be able to recharge to full capacity in under twelve hours. At this incomprehensible rate, Zeta would perhaps be at full power by the year 2048. If Selig was lucky. But what was going on? According to all readings and indications, nothing in Zeta was running at the rate it would need to devalue the rate of recharge. Even under normal running, nothing could beat the rate of recharge. Something was seriously wrong.
Selig started to type. The answer would obviously lie in Zeta's memory banks, as distasteful as it sounded and hurt his conscience. To look upon all the faces his creation had killed. Selig could be considered partly responsible in the eyes of any judge, but he set back and started to go through the back channels most hackers would have no chance of uncovering, the back files of all cases that even Zeta couldn't remember, the ones that would be safest from being erased. The module was everything a mini conscience could be: a direct memory of every action. The only problem was that it worked linearly, from past to present.
The first face filled the screen, stamped out with the red eliminated along the bottom. Selig tried not to study the face and ignored the Review Case option. Although Zeta was programmed to be quick, even merciful (as much as his programming would allow), there was no delight in seeing dead faces or their last moments.
Face after face after face after face blinked on the screen, seemingly no end in sight. Selig didn't allow himself to get attached to the faces. If he did, there was no way to continue. And then, suddenly, something happened. A face appeared, and in blue, the words: Innocent—Unable to Comply with Elimination
Selig blinked in surprise at the word. Zeta has not been programmed—officially—to care whether or not the subject was innocent. It was just to infiltrate and dispose of the subjects if the facts pointed that way. There was no reason for Zeta to literally write in his files that Dolan was innocent, let alone unable to comply. That would hint that Zeta found out too late or was under orders to dispose of the man in either case. Selig clicked the Review Case option, interested.
(Eugene) Dolan's profile, what Zeta had been downloaded with, came up. Intelligence believed the accountant to be working for Brothers' Day, and Selig groaned at the terrorist group. It was their fault he was staying in his own home, waiting for the never-finishing repairs on the Nosis. Selig had a theory that his lab would never be finished, that he would forever be in limbo during the forced vacation. Yes, he could work at other labs, but there was always the feeling that this wasn't his lab. There were none of his works around the corner, nothing that spoke of his space. He'd feel like an intruder, never the best working conditions.
In information on Dolan meant nothing to Selig, except that Zeta had found him to be innocent. Selig brought a hand up to his chin and considered the implications, then selected Visual. Silent imagines moved across the screen and Selig watched.
In his mind's eye, Selig could imagine Zeta's standoffishness as it watched Dolan's wife and daughter laughing, and he smiled slightly. He became even more interested and surprised when Zeta willingly helped Dolan's daughter Becca ride her bike for the first time. It was beyond belief that Infiltration Unit Zeta would allow anything to deter itself from the mission, anything frivolous. Perhaps it deemed it necessary.
The visual showed Zeta studying the bike's mechanics, and Selig noticed it was deeming how to make the bike sturdier and safer for the girl. The girl said something, and then Selig watched as Zeta removed its hand and let the bike move away and Zeta stopped running, staring. Selig paused the memory and rewound it, adding the audio.
"Do you trust me?" Selig jumped in surprise at the question Zeta was asking in Dolan's voice.
"Of course, Daddy," Becca agreed, totally secure, and Zeta again released the bike, halting in his run. Pure joy radiated in the girl's voice that even Selig smiled. "I'm doing it! Daddy, look!"
And Zeta's soft reply, "I'm looking . . ."
Selig paused the frame again, checking the readings the module had recorded. Zeta had apparently been confused at something at this point, but shrugged it away. Selig smiled to himself and continued the memory, audio off again. He watched as Zeta checked the home computers and did a standard search, and then went to work. And then Titus Sweete seemingly confirmed intelligence's belief that Dolan was a terrorist.
The NSA agent didn't seem to mind, but by checking the module readings, Selig saw with twisted glee that Zeta was. He added audio again, rewinding after he saw the agent look surprised. "How is Dolan's family?"
"They're . . . lovely." Selig raised an eyebrow. Lovely? Hardly a word Infiltration Unit Zeta would use, at least without the module. It was working, slowly, carefully. Selig was in happy disbelief. All it had needed was a reason to question the orders, and mixing with Dolan's family had started it.
The agent didn't take it as Selig had. "'Lovely'? Bring yourself in for a systems check after this mission."
Selig glared at the man, for it was no way to treat an upcoming and blooming conscience Zeta was experiencing and he snapped the audio off in disgust. Selig watched in a some-what foul mood, upset that Zeta was going to end up tested and probably erased, left to start over, and watched as Zeta listened to Titus Sweete. And then words flashed, and Selig snapped on the audio.
" . . . innocent pencil-pusher . . ." The audio suddenly failed with the words, and Selig watched amazed as Zeta began processing all his other hits with lightening speed, their faces a blur to him, but not to Zeta's computer mind. The red words, blinking with their succession, flashed. eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated eliminated-eliminated-eliminated-eliminated-eliminated-eliminated-eliminated.
And so it kept going, repeating the faces into a meshing blur that left Selig sick. And finally a Eugene Dolan's picture appeared, frozen. The family appeared. Elimination in Process . . . Innocent . . . Elimination in Progress . . . Innocent . . . Elimination . . . Innocent . . . Unable to Comply
Remarkable. Zeta was finally going against his orders, because Dolan was innocent. That's all it took, a target's innocence. Perhaps even a target's family . . . Selig was impressed, and that grew to speechless when the sickening mesh of faces appeared, but this time, where eliminated was typed became Innocent?
Was this doubt? Selig wondered, and he could see Zeta's logic as it was processed through the module. If one of his targets had been innocent, then perhaps there had been others as well. Was it worth the risk?
Selig looked back at the screen and watched in shock as Dolan met Zeta. That in itself was cause for Zeta to kill the accountant, to protect its identity and secrecy.
"Who are you?" Dolan demanded.
Zeta stood staring at the accountant, turned, and said, "Your daughter rode a bicycle for the first time yesterday. She needs her . . . daddy." Selig had watched as the word had been filed into Zeta's banks when Becca had called the synthoid the title, but he was surprised to Zeta so readily use it.
And so Zeta ran, on August 5th, 2041, hardly a year into its service. Selig was shocked at the date. He thought he would have been told, that he would have at least heard. Zeta had been his creation! Why hadn't he been told that it had run? Did NSA believe he couldn't be trusted? (Ignoring the whole point that he was responsible for Zeta's moral growth, Selig was insulted and upset.) He frowned and banged his fist in frustration at being kept in the dark. Surely they would have contacted if they thought Zeta's processes were faulty . . . unless they hadn't thought that. NSA was paranoid, suspicious. They wouldn't have the imagination or patience for "faulty" synthoids, but they had it within them to believe in renegade or reprogrammed synthoids.
Selig growled in frustration, drawing his attention away from the downloaded memories to the real thing. He pinched the bridge of his nose wearily, then jolted. Zeta had run over three years ago. To escape detection for so long, to blend in with everyday life? Selig sighed. Zeta was a fine Infiltration Unit, but he knew asking any synthoid to pass as "normal" in everyday life was next to impossible. Human cultures were just to difficult to program everything. That in itself would take years, and, whatever Selig wished, he did not have years to program any one synthoid. Aside from the fact that it would have been impossible, the government would never allow it.
With nothing more to do, Selig turned wearily towards the screen and studied the new options the module created, once Zeta was no longer working under orders. Under the same format, faces appeared on data sheets, but with less data. It was more of being a date and brief synopsis of how Zeta met the person or what actions they had taken together, with the option of visual. Young Max Gibson, Batman—Batman! Oh my!—Agent Bennet, faces without names, just people Zeta had spoken to.
And then suddenly a scraggily blond girl appeared on the banks. Rosalie "Ro" Rowan with data that continued all the way to the present, last contact ending a little over a week ago. Why ever would Zeta have spent so much time with this girl, this Ro?
"Have you made a friend?" Selig asked the synthoid, both curious and amused as he set out to find the answers. Realistically, it would have been quite impossible for a synthoid to make a friend; instead a sort of high program command would have been created, something to follow orders and report to. And yet, that was a synthoid without his module . . . Selig chuckled. He was giving his module a bit too much credit in breaking all normal synthoid boundaries.
He watched as Zeta studied the girl, helped her, and repaid her for her services. The scientist had smiled when Zeta had studied the cockroach, interested in all life, but couldn't quite shake the feeling, once Zeta's holographic visage of "Zee" was reflected back, that he had seen the face before.
Clicking out of Ro's visual option, Selig read the other Procedures (smiling at the lack of change in that particular format) Ro and Zeta had compiled together, and then suddenly thanked his lucky stars. The data was linked to each time and/or person the two had met and completed. Finally a way to bypass the linear time. Selig's eyes scrolled down the pictures, surprised to see Dr. Aroyu almost instantly. Why would Zeta have met Dr. Arroyo?
The synopsis of Dr. Arroyo's data file answered that question. Mission Objective: Find creator to confirm unwillingness to destroy. Meet with Dr. Arroyo. Optional: to apologize to Dr. Arroyo for Ro for kidnapping him
Selig couldn't help himself. He laughed at the last one until the reality of the objective sank in. To find his creator to prove it didn't want to kill anymore. That would be difficult for Zeta to meet, considering Selig was the only one who could prove it. And apparently Arroyo knew that. Mission Outcome: Follow Dr. Arroyo's advice to find Dr. Eli Selig, Head of Zeta Project. (Chance of Success: Unable to Compute due to lack of information and Dr. Selig's new work) . . . Continuing to avoid capture by NSA (Chance of Success: Variable, depending on if NSA continues to keep Agent West and/or Agent Bennet on) . . . Make sure Ro does not place herself in too much danger, despite willingness (Chance of Success: "Nada" No meaning on file)
"So you were looking for me, huh, Zeta? Pity you couldn't find me. It would have been nice to meet you under better circumstances."
"So how is the research going, Dr. Selig?" Andrea asked from behind, carrying in a small tray food and tea.
"Remarkable. Lunch already?"
She set down the tray. "I suppose three hours does travel quickly. And I have managed to clear your schedule for the next three days. If you want it to be longer, I'll get right to it."
"No, leave it be for now. It'll give you something to do tomorrow." Selig stirred his tea while looking back at the data files.
"Ah, Dr. Arroyo," Andrea recognized. "I trust Zeta didn't end up targeting him?"
Selig smiled. "In a manner of speaking, it did. As well as me."
Andrea blinked. "Really?" Selig merely continued to smile at the private joke. "Bad manners to target your own creators," she said stiffly.
"That'll be all, Andrea. I think you can go have the rest of the day off."
"I'll be fine, Ms. Donosso. Go on now."
"Yes, Dr. Selig."
Selig watched her go, then went back to Ms. Rowan's Procedure files, watching as more faces went by. He was willing to bet that whatever happened to Zeta would have been within the last month, so he had quite awhile to wait and set to eating his meal while he waited for the appropriate time.
He was in the midst of drinking his tea when a familiar picture caused him to almost choke. Selig quickly stopped the forward and stared wide-eyed at himself, first—first?—dated meeting May 21st, 2042, at Cyrobin. Uncertain as to why Zeta hadn't confronted him, Selig opened his own file and read. Mission Objective: Infiltrate as Dr. Wilhelm after downloading correct retinal scan. Meet Dr. Selig and convince him of unwillingness to destroy
Selig remembered Dr. Wilhelm, a young man who had been on the Zeta Project, or so the man had claimed at the time. But the details were fuzzy. He had been so busy trying to complete his work in the amount of time he had the lab, and then with the accident that almost took his life. If Zeta had been there, as Dr. Wilhelm, it would have been quite likely that he had been too busy to spare his time.
Mission Outcome: Unable to speak with Dr. Selig due to accident threatening his life and secrecy compromised. Saved Dr. Selig's life. Take Ro's belated advice about deciding what to say to Dr. Selig when we meet again.Selig jolted and dropped the cup, dimly remembering being carried out. At the time, he only thought it personnel. Zeta had saved his life?!
Selig turned to stare at the synthoid. He created Zeta, who in return saved his life. And so the cycle would go again, for Selig vowed to save the synthoid's life.
Up until her arrival, Casey never realized how much high-maintenance his sister was. She was ever stubborn and impossible to get to do anything. It probably did require a government IU to manage her, and she was only lucky she had found patient and forgiving Zee. But, unfortunately, Zee was gone, and it was all Casey could do to now care for his sister and not throw her out of the nearest window.
"Ro, please, it wasn't your fault," Casey spoke to his sister, who was laying on his couch and staring at the watch on the table. "You have to eat something. And sleep."
Ro looked at him blearily. After her and Bucky had forced themselves to call it quits, they had gone to Casey's. For some reason Bucky had decided to make sure she ended up with her brother, and then headed home. She probably needed the supervision, and Ro dimly remembered that she never thanks him or said good bye. "Don't act like Zee."
"I'm not. I'm acting like your brother. You haven't moved since you arrived."
"He's gone, Casey, and it's all my fault. If I had noticed sooner . . ."
"If, Ro. That's a big word. Please, you know it wasn't your fault, Bucky knows it, I know it, Zee probably knew it. You did everything you could."
"He could still be out there."
"Agent Bennet said he'd call if he heard of anything. But Ro, you can't just wallow. Zee wouldn't want to. You know that."
Ro curled up more. Zee wouldn't, that was the problem. She could be going against his last wishes, as it were. Well, damn Zee! She was going to grieve!
"Ro, you're not grieving. You're killing yourself."
Damn, she spoke that last part out loud. She bit her lips closed.
Casey sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Still a little bulldozer. After he heard the story, he wondered if Zee had perhaps left, knowing it was too late, so Ro didn't have to deal with his body. Perhaps the synthoid had thought it the best way to part. It was unlike Zee to lie, but to protect Ro Casey knew Zee would do almost anything.
"I was thinking about doing a piece on Zee, a sort of memorial. I could use your help."
Ro blinked rapidly. "Maybe later?"
"Yeah. Troy called again." His sister groaned. "You'd better call him back."
Casey covered her up with an afghan, then looked at the hand watch on the table, now serving as a memory for two people.
As intriguing and tempting as it was to continue to watch every single file on memory, Selig knew he was merely wasting time. As far as his analysis of Zeta's systematics and hardware went, there was nothing to be found wrong. Yet the power drain signaled otherwise. Something was running that Selig didn't know about, or something undetected was using the energy through Zeta, like a parasite. Selig was leaning towards the latter, although that wouldn't explain the molecular change of Zeta's body armor, unless . . .
Unless the change in the molecules was being driven by the extra energy.
It made sense, Selig supposed, but what would have started the change? Titanium alloy was nothing if not stable. Well, stable wasn't even the right word. It wouldn't change: rust, corrode, chip, crack, break without some unusual, unnatural external influence.
So theoretically Zeta would have had to come into contact with an unusual substance. Nuclear, despite its romantic past of being the source of every known problem, wasn't a promising option. Acids or bases would eat away the metal, not change it in this sort of reaction. So scientifically it must be a relatively new, man-made concoction. Yet by studying Ro's list, it was obvious the two hadn't made it a practice of tipping back a few new chemicals chemists had managed to create.
Part of Selig just asked why not restrip Zeta with a new armor of alloy. If something was eating the old layers, then logically it would make sense to have it refitted. But that idea held its share of problems. One, he did not have any alloy lying around, conveniently in Zeta-style. No doubt he could buy it, but that would take time and bring NSA attentions to him. Ever-suspicious and paranoid, they would demand to know why he wanted the alloy and if he was making synthoids were a rival government or organization. And, heaven help him, Selig did not want to deal with the bureaucrats. He was scientist, and could not stand the meaningless formalities and dribbles they would profess. Another reason as to wait in refitting Zeta would be that he did not know how his assumed chemical was working. For all he knew it would overcome the new metals.
No, the first step was to find the source of the problem. And, as it was not Zeta's programming, the answer would be in the banks as to what trouble the synthoid had found itself in.
Selig read the last mission log, sipping his tea. Mission Objective: Wake Ro tomorrow at 7:00:00 to travel to Everton by train, departure scheduled at 8:00:00. Meet Bucky (scheduled 11:30:00) and have him to run a virus scan through systems and/or correct uncontrolled electrical surges. Calm Ro about option that it is not a lifetime program. Return cat to home.
Mission Outcome: Cat (Honey) returned home at 4:21:35. Discovery of what Pain is. Electrical surges during journey increased 325%. Armor damaged by cat claws. Likelihood of returning to hotel under own power: 1.5%. Power cells emptied. Three humans co—
The files ended abruptly there, and Selig could only theorize that's when Zeta turned off. Zeta didn't understand what was going on either, but Selig made note that it believed the cause to be a virus or lifetime program. Both were out of the question at this point in time; no virus could do this sort of damage, and Zeta had never been programmed with a lifetime program. But the file told Selig that Zeta's armor had already started to decay at this time, as well as that Zeta experienced surges of power, probably to feed the transformation.
"'Discovery of what Pain is'," Selig repeated, puzzled at the notation. Synthoids didn't have the correct filters or sensors to feel pain, let alone understand it. Zeta had must probably been commenting on the lack of ease it was experiencing. Maybe . . .
Selig hopped back a day, and a brief glance showed that Zeta was still experiencing technical difficulties, and then hopped another. There was no mention of over-loads, but, AHA! Zeta had caused an accident while stopping a hijacked van. (Selig momentarily wished that the synthoids could be used for a more public version of defense, not secretive. Zeta obviously proved that it could be done.) The chemical spilled was Dr. Markets' Novo. Selig frowned, unfamiliar with the newest medical advancement.
He dialed Andrea's number, and by the third ring, she answered. "Ah, Dr. Selig. Do you need another sandwich on my day off?" she asked brightly.
With a laugh, Selig said, "No. I was wondering is you heard of Novo, the new formula made my Dr. Markets. It was in Zeta's banks.
"Doctor, I think you are the only one who hasn't heard of it, if even your synthoid knows of it," his assistant said deadpan. "Since its release and falling into public knowledge, Dr. Markets had been almost abducted twice, all shipments to hospitals are under armed guard, and only the best hospitals are allowed to hold the stuff. It's all that's been in the news, but since you've been so busy I decided not to keep you updated."
Selig had little time to keep grounded with the day-to-day news, and sometimes, like now, it caught up with him. "And what's so special about Novo?"
She sighed. "It's the newest wonder-drug since Penicillin, if you go by reviews. Instead of using plastics or other materials when a patient needs a replacement in the body, a lung or heart valve, for example, and having a chance of complications, i.e., rejection by the body, Novo actually takes surrounding DNA samples and converts the inorganic substance to the body's own tissue. So far there have been no complications."
The scientist was speechless for a moment. "Really?" It was all starting to fall into place.
Andrea nodded. "Yes, Doctor. The problem is that only Dr. Markets knows the complete formula, hence the abductions. Luckily he has no family, dedicating his life to the formula since his wife died back in 2006. Huh, beats you there." Selig rolled his eyes at his meddling assistant. "Anyway, the formula itself has proven interesting to the lower area of law-abiding citizens. If the solution if placed on something like a vault, theoretically the organic contact would transform the metal into whatever the organic substance was. Luckily there is more to it than that, like supply oxygen to said area. It has been greatly debated whether or not Novo is actually worth the risk of continued manufacturing."
He steepled his fingers and reclined back. "And what happens to the metal once a DNA sample is achieved?"
"The metal is altered on a molecular and subatomic level. But most of it is classified. I could get the exact files for you if you would like."
"If possible. What about the patients, their conditions?"
"Complete bed rest, I've heard. It is a exhausting ordeal, not because of stress, but of the energy needed for the transformation draws the patient into exhaustion until the process is complete, which is when the non-organic is transformed into the organic. Why the sudden interest?"
Selig ignored the question. "Andrea, what happens if more DNA samples are introduced to the treated substance?"
"Unlikely, since the solution is administered once the replacement is in the patient's body. However, I would assume total and complete rejection by the body."
"I meant on a safe or similar. Would the solution continue to work?"
Andrea paused. "I would assume so, Doctor. I'd hazard to guess that the different DNA would either conflict against each other until one succumbed, merge to create a new DNA structure, or be confined to their own areas on the metal."
"Yes, I'd suppose that as well."
Andrea sighed. "Now, Dr. Selig, why the interest?"
"Let me answer that with another question, Andrea. Did you touch Zeta?"
"What? Of course. I had to . . . Oh!" Her eyes grew wide as the implications set in. "You don't mean that Zeta has been . . ." Selig nodded. "How?"
"A small accident Zeta was trying to avoid." Selig leaned forward. "And, if one were to assume that the only contact Zeta would have had would be with humans, that can only mean one thing, and it would explain a lot. Zeta's titanium alloy is turning into skin."
"But—it's a machine. There's no why that skin could continue to survive on its frame."
"Actually, it appears to be quite possible. From what you just stated, I would have assumed Zeta's covering would merely turn into epidermis or dead skin cells, as that was what it had come into contact with. However, scans show that the process has progressed into creating the entire skin system, save for glands and hair. I think the chemical is using Zeta's power supply to both transform and maintain and keep the skin alive it whatever means necessary." Selig sighed.
"What's wrong then, Doctor?"
"As far as I can reckon, at least ten people have come into direct contact with it, as well as a cat."
"How do you kn—?"
He cut her off. "Andrea, what do you propose I should do with Zeta?"
Andrea paused. "Return it to the government. He's their problem."
Selig smiled, somewhat proudly. "Not since he went rogue." He waved off Andrea's question. "And I don't want to give him back to NSA, not with what I read on his files."
"That could be considered stealing federal property," she warned, then sighed at her employers lack of interest. Yeah, like they'd arrest one of their prized synthoid experts. "I'll try and get you the files as soon as possible, Doctor, and you can work from there." When Selig gave a day off, there was no guarantee it'd stay off.
"Thank you, Andrea."
In his office, Selig read the files while Andrea hovered nearby, waiting for whatever Selig was looking for and casting eyes towards the wall from where Zeta was behind. It had her DNA floating on its surface.
Selig sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Well, that was enlightening."
"What did you find out?" Although Dr. Selig had no practical reason to share what he had learned, Andrea had found out the only way to keep her in the circle was to ask, and by asking, it gave Dr. Selig a way to summarize it in what could be called "simply" or, more aptly, "with the simplest terms that even the stupidest person or assistant could understand."
"A refit is completely out of the question, at least with titanium alloy. Scans show the metal is at least 85% converted, and Novo will continue to eat through all substances of similar make-up which it first came into contact with. If there is any chance that the solution got to any areas besides the armor, it wouldn't solve the problem. And as of last night, I believe I found evidence that Zeta's wires were also exposed or are being damaged because of the exposure, so I would need to rewire as well. And I fear any large shipments would cause some attention."
"Well, then what do you propose to do?"
"I don't know."
"Then it's the end of Zeta," Andrea said lightly.
"No." Selig removed his glasses. "Zeta saved my life at the Cyrobin. Remember Dr. Wilhelm?"
"Yes, well, I am in the memory banks." He shook his head.
"There's another reason, isn't there?" Andrea asked shrewdly.
He smiled at her acuteness. "I might as well tell you. Zeta is equipted with a sort of conscience-module, to make him rethink his programming about killing."
Andrea suddenly understood his reluctance. "You didn't want this one to be a weapon."
"You know me too well, I suppose, Andrea. I always thought the module never activated, but when I went through the files, I found out it had. That's why Zeta ran, so he didn't have to continue killing. And apparently he has been trying to find me for some time to prove it to NSA."
"Oh." It was all that could be said. "Then what can you do? Download his memory into another synthoid."
"One without the module. There is no telling what would happen then. The module itself would take months to design and create. Time Zeta does not have, apparently."
"You don't want to put the memory into another synthoid."
Selig smiled at Andrea. "It would be like placing the mind and brain patterns of comatose victim into another person, a clone."
Andrea shook her head, not daring to fall into this argument. "Well, Doctor, the only way Zeta could continue in this form would be if you installed oxygen carriers to his skin, or even lungs. And his frame will need new supports, otherwise the skin will merely collapse and lay flat on the under workings."
"Yes, that much I ascertained. It would also need new optical receptors, the laser and blades would have to be removed, already damaged beyond repair."
"Or . . ." She stopped. Don't say it, he'll want to try it.
"Or what, Andrea?" He grinned at her, knowing she was stopping because whatever she thought would instantly attract his attention.
She made a face. "You could continue the process. Turn Zeta, completely inorganic, to organic. Make him alive, as it were. Human."
Selig laughed. "I'm not God, Andrea."
"It probably thinks you are." She smirked. "Or at least father."
"Over-hauling like that is decades down the line, but perhaps I could upgrade him into semi-organic." Yes, he did have the knowledge for that, and supplies would be easy to come by with no questions. There was no way he could ever duplicate the blood vessel pathways, but that wasn't necessary.
Selig quickly took out a diagram of Zeta, and the "hotspots" of transformation. There would be much replacement, at least months of work. Thank heaven's he was on "vacation". He took a pen and started to make notations, Andrea watching over his shoulder. Mechanical lungs perhaps to set out oxygen to the skin, although that would require several pathways (he was going to need to rewire anyway to add a new support frame) to the skin as well as a way to retrieve wastes the cells would produce . . . Damn, he was going to have to read his bio books again.
And Andrea wasn't being helpful. "At least give it toes and an actual nose."
"And what else would you suggest, since you seem to be the expert in synthoids?" There was a reason why toes hadn't been in the original design.
Andrea made a face.
Selig shook his head at her and continued to make notes. This was becoming more difficult that it originally sounded. He'd have to created a network to the skin, Zeta would have to have a means to get rid of cellular wastes (Selig was willing to bet that's why the wiring was going faulty, as the wastes were building up there), a way to get oxygen to the skin in a manner the skin cells would recognize and respond to, since the current method was draining Zeta. Also, how would he get the oxygen into the synthoid? Zeta was designed to be air and water tight. Also, the skin would need nutrients to keep it alive and healthy. How in the world was he going to manage all this? The semi-organic synthoids didn't give him this much trouble, if only because he chose which organs were going to be the organic ones. And Selig would never pick skin.
Andrea noticed Selig's growing amounts of notes and problems. "Doctor, I think your best bet is just to follow the best machine ever made and don't get creative until later."
"And what machine that?"
"The human body."
Selig smiled at her. "I fear I'm going to end up doing just that. Unfortunately, it doesn't promise to be a quick recovery for Zeta, but all good things come to those who wait." He settled back and started to dredge up ancient Biology lessons of vascular and other bodily systems as he made notes. "Could you get me a cup of tea, please."
. . . . 5.243 Months later . . . .
Zeta felt his processes come on one at a time, allowing himself to become aware of his surroundings. He was lying down on a flat, smooth, fabric surface, not a table. He had been lying there for some time, for his joints felt rusted (an improbability, as titanium alloy does not rust), and, aside from being made of metal, his body felt heavy. His hearing, unusually dimmed but getting stronger, heard a gentle whirling of machines and beeping around him, and birds in the distance. Birds? Zeta stored the puzzlement for later and decided to work on getting his optical receptors working before he attempted moving.
In then end he only managed to get his left working, and Zeta recalled that his right eye had been acting faulty to his last memory. Which was . . . awhile ago. He must have shut off and Ro found him. . She must have gotten him to Bucky's, or Bucky had come to them. Zeta was glad he had such good friends, although disappointed that they weren't there when he woke up.
He stared up at the ceiling going over the last memory. Honey had been returned. Although unimportant, it had been raining. He'd fallen, there had been pain. Three humans had appeared. Zeta frowned wondering who they were. Perhaps Ro and Bucky had not found him, but then where was he?
Looking around he found himself in a bedroom cum lab, the curtains drawn but letting in a sliver of sunlight. He sat up, the thin blanket Ro had obviously put on him although he constantly told her he didn't need one falling to pool at his waist. It was quite confusing about the lack of fluidity in the movement and how his frame seemed to creak and rub against each of the internal frames, and then even more surprised at his form. His holographic emitter was obviously up, but an internal scan—which seemed faulty, as it was missing diagnosing several key components—showed that it was unavailable. He tilted his head in confusion as he looked at the bare human chest, studying it and pondering if it was going to go away, that perhaps this was an external hologram projection, or that his hologram was working but unable to be checked by the diagnostic.
His gaze moved to his hands and arms, and Zeta ran his hands over each other. It was an unusual sensation, like little charges, but impossible. His right hand moved over his left forearm, which was heavily bandaged. Pressing on it, no feeling erupted, like the appendage wasn't even there. That didn't worry Zeta; that's how it should "feel," but he pondered removing the wrappings. Deciding that it was probably protecting his wiring, Zeta decided to leave it until he was better prepared.
Attached to his body were wires, and Zeta picked them off, wincing—why was he wincing? He had never winced before—at the feeling but giving it no mind. His hearing for some time had been picking up a low thumping. Zeta had dismissed it up until this point, and now he listened to it with growing worry. It was rhythmic and constant, a metronome beating 1.3 times on the second. But where was it coming from? It was almost internal . . . Zeta looked down at his chest, then brought his hand up to feel it. He couldn't feel the thumping, but he felt a study rise and fall of his chest . . . he felt his hand there on his chest . . .
He brought the hand up to his mouth and nose, holographic (?) eye growing wide as he felt the exhale of warm air on the surface. Was he breathing? He didn't have to breathe! Zeta's fingers started touring his face. The planes were all wrong, his head wasn't shaped like this! It was cylindrical and smooth and hard, not pliable and soft and was that a nose? Zeta squeezed the feature, feeling the protruding triangle and trying to go cross-eyed to see it, and then gasped, dropping his mouth open to continue "breathing".
His mouth . . . he let go of his nose and squeezed a fleshy portion at the edge, then let it go to make a small plop sound. He opened his mouth again felt a sharp semi-circle top and bottom with his finger. And what was that lump pressed against his bottom semi-circle of sharp edges? He continued to feel his head, picking off more of the attacked wires that lined his forehead, and was surprised to feel long fur. Zeta grabbed the strands and pulled, trying to see it but it was too short. But it covered his whole head. Hair? He had hair?
Zeta blinked and brought his hand down to eyelevel, looking as if he was trying to see through it to the metal that was always there, had always been there, that always would be there.
Perhaps now would be a good time to get up and find some answers. Ro or Bucky could tell him. All he had to do was find them, and that shouldn't be to difficult. They were bound to be on the premises.
He turned to let his legs dangle, pulled the blanket off and folded the fabric, and was surprised to see what sight greeted him. Whatever was . . . his banks provided the correct name. Zeta studied it for a moment, then stood up. It didn't impress him nearly as much as the nose. He was momentarily surprised to find his legs shook, but he stabilized them. And then something else caught his attention. He wiggled them.
He had toes! Actual toes, for he had told his systems to wiggle them. But why would he have toes? Who would put toes on him? Zeta touched his face again, feeling the nose. And why did he have a nose as well? Zeta continued to stare down at his nose and feel his nose. He had always wanted toes and a nose, because of things he had seen humans do with them. Ro always wiggled her toes in the sand and now he could try it too! He could rub noses and dip it into cream! Perhaps he had other unusual attachments other than these three. He would have to do a complete systems scan later on.
He started to walk, but stopped quickly to feel—to feel?—the carpet strands between his toes. Remarkable. Zeta stood engrossed for several moments, then pulled his attention away. Ro and Bucky must have done this. His systems must have had more problems than he had thought, hence the length of time he had been offline.
He opened the door and looked down into the hall. It was reasonably lit and empty, and Zeta stepped outside the room, the door closing behind him. "Ro?"
Ro did not materialize, and he couldn't hear her, so Zeta picked a way and started to walk. "Ro, are you here? Bucky?" At every door, he knocked, in case they were sleeping. They were, after all, human, and Zeta had learned that they needed sleep. Although Ro had been forced to live by an unconventional sleep-schedule as compared to other humans, Zeta had noticed she was far more alert after at least twelve hours. The programmed informational amount of eight hours was either wrong or did not apply to Ro. He didn't know which.
Zeta ended up leaving the hall to enter a large main entrance. There were large windows at the doors on one side and two sets of stairs on the other. He tilted his head. Perhaps Ro and Bucky were outside. Zeta went to the door and started to open it, but his attention was diverted when he heard footsteps from behind. He turned to see a woman going through files as she walked towards the way he had come, not noticing him.
"Excuse me?" he said hesitantly, as she seemed very busy and he would eventually find Ro or Bucky on his own. It seemed to be a very empty hotel.
The blond woman jerked and whirled. "Who ar—oh, my!" The files fell from her hands and cluttered around her feet, and she covered her mouth, eyes wide behind her glasses as she stared and studied him. Zeta took a step forward to help clean up the mess, but the woman—she seemed oddly familiar—held up a hand. "Don't move!" her voice stuttered. And she turned and started to run back to where she had come.
Zeta stood puzzled watching her go, then went over to gather the files. He didn't read them as he placed them into the correct folders. It was rude and he didn't have to know everything (according to Ro). He straightened it into a neat pile and stood holding them, deciding whether or not to follow the woman. She had told him to not to move, although technically he had broken that order by clearing up her mess he had caused her to make. Maybe she meant not to leave the room. Surely she would come back to get her files. Zeta turned to look at the door. But he really should try and find Ro so she could explain what was going on.
Within a few moments, Zeta picked up two sets of running footsteps and the woman stating, "—standing there as naked as the day he was born, and don't you dare say anything about being born! If I had known he was—"
He turned back and continued to hold the files as the two rushed his way. "You dropped these. And could you tell me where Ro is?" The faces came into view and Zeta blinked. If he had been human, he had no doubt that he would have dropped the files. As it was, his body was shaking for some reason.
When Andrea had rushed into his office gibbering in a manner totally unlike her, Selig had jumped up and tried to calm her. Even still, all he got was a hysterical yanking at his arm and, "He's up, he's up! Standing in the hall!"
That got his attention and he had rushed out, Andrea rattling on and on, although he really didn't register any of it. Zeta was supposed to be offline at least another week to finish system diagnostic. How could he have forgotten about Zeta's normal operating systems? It would automatically activate once the self-diagnostic proved that it was possible.
And just as Andrea had stated, Zeta was standing naked and staring at the door as if deciding whether or not to leave. It was probably a good thing Andrea had seen the synthoid when she had. If Zeta had gone outside, there was probably no way to retrieve it.
Zeta'd turned and held Andrea's papers. "You dropped these. And could you tell me where Ro is?"
Ro? Oh, his friend. Selig watched as recognition dawned in Zeta's eye. "Dr. Selig?"
It—he was shivering, Selig noted as he took off his jacket and took Andrea's files, giving them to the stunned assistant. "Yes, Zeta, it's me. Put this on, you're shivering."
Blank bewilderment was written on Zeta's face, and he continued to stare at the two of them.
Selig repeated the order. "Put this on, Zeta."
Zeta made no motion to obey. "I thought you were dead."
Rolling his eyes, Selig put the jacket and set it on Zeta's shoulders, silently wondering why he didn't make Zeta shorter and less broad of shoulder and if the module was making a disobedient streak in Zeta. "Well, the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
"Samuel Clemens, also know as Mark Twain, said that."
"Yes, yes, he did." Well, he didn't remember programming that into Zeta. "What are you doing up?"
"Looking for Ro. Is she here? Or Bucky?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Andrea, go get some tea or something warm. We'll be in my office."
Andrea was still staring at Zeta, but she shook herself. "Yes, Doctor."
Selig took his arm. "Come on, Zeta. I believe we have a lot to talk about."
"Yes. I think we do as well."
Zeta sat in the chair looking around the room. The sunlight was streaming in and there were two plants in their respective corners. There was a large wooden desk in front of him, which was covered in neat stacks of paper and a computer. Selig sat down carefully, and Zeta watched him. They were both quiet until Selig cleared his throat.
"So . . . you thought I was dead."
"Yes. Ro and I both saw your escape pod get shot down when the Nosis was bombed. I'm glad to know that you weren't. Would you like your jacket back?"
"No, no, you keep it for now." Otherwise I don't think Andrea will be able to speak properly or get rid of that perpetual blush.
So that's why the visage looked familiar. Selig had merely picked the hologram that was most frequent in Zeta's banks, hoping that there was one. The last thing he needed was Andrea commenting on making a younger version of himself. The biblical implications from her would have been too much for him.
"Dr. Selig, how did I get here?"
Selig knew Zeta was going through a mental check-list of questions, methodic and thorough. "That, Zeta, is a long story involving three young people playing detective. They came across you after you had shut down and tracked me down through the phone company."
"Oh. Then Ro is not here?"
"No. I'm afraid I never thought to contact her. Nor . . . Bucky?"
"I will have to call her later to inform her that I am well. She would have been very worried."
Forget about asking permission for use of the phone, Selig thought and smiled, but part of him was against letting Zeta call his friend. Call it jealousy or worry, but he didn't want to give Zeta back to his former caretaker just yet. "I'm sure she was." Zeta smiled briefly, but failed to notice Selig's surprised reaction. Already smiling?
"How did you survive once your escape pod went down, Dr. Selig?"
Andrea chose at that moment to appear with three cups of tea and a teapot, and both she and Selig took one, leaving the last to steam on the tray. "Believe it or not, I'm not a feeble old man without my surprises. Many escape pods have breathing apparatus or extra oxygen canisters. Half of any crisis is to keep your head."
"Ah. Then how come I did not hear about your survival?"
"Because no one knew I or Andrea was in danger," Selig smiled. "We merely swam back to the Nosis' remains and waited for someone to pick us up."
"It was quite a swim," Andrea added, drinking deeply as if the memory chilled her.
"And neither of you were wounded?"
"Wounded is a relative term," Selig said lightly and sipped his tea. Zeta looked at him blankly, waiting for him to clarify, and Selig waited for him to say something else. Andrea stood waiting and wondering why Dr. Selig wasn't telling Zeta about the experience. She herself remembered it only dimly after receiving a minor concussion.
"Don't you want to drink your tea, Zeta?" Selig said once he realized Zeta was waiting for him to continue.
"I don't need to drink or eat. You know that."
"You used to not need to eat or drink," Selig corrected. "Try it."
Zeta blinked carefully, then picked up the cup. The warmth seeped into his fingers, a curious feeling, but he didn't drink. It was, after all, never necessary before. Selig smiled at his hesitation.
"Go on, try it. The tea is quite good. Chamomile."
Basing his actions on observations he had made over the course of time and imitating what he had seen, usually of Ro first thing in the morning, Zeta gulped the tea down. Which goes to show imitation is not the wisest form of survival, or at least of Ro when she needs her morning caffeine rush. Temperature meant nothing to her in amidst of the drive for caffeine, but for Zeta it was an over-whelming experience.
"Are you okay?" Andrea asked concerned as Selig took the cup away.
"I believe so," he replied, hand covering his mouth and blinking rapidly.
"I think you just burned your lips," Selig explained carefully setting the cup further away. "Should have told you it was hot."
"Isn't tea supposed to be hot?" Zeta asked, touching his lip gingerly.
"We should have told you to be careful."
"How is it possible that I can drink now? And have a nose and toes? And . . . feel?"
Selig smiled. "I'll tell you while I check you eye and Andrea goes to get you some clothes. We were expecting you to still be . . ." He paused. Offline no longer seemed to be an appropriate word to use. "Resting."
"Why do I need clothes?" Zeta asked innocently looking down at himself. Essentially he never wore clothes and couldn't quite understand why humans did. In some recreations, locations, or ages, no or little clothing were perfectly acceptable. It seemed like a perfect time to ask.
"Have fun, Doctor," Andrea smiled and made her exit. Selig merely gave her a look and sighed once his attention turned back to Zeta, sitting innocent in human skin.
"Let's have a look at that eye, shall we?"
" . . . keep the skin alive. The water acts like blood, transporting all the needed nutrients and removing the wastes. So you'll need to drink some form of liquid every day," Selig explained, checking the progress of the organic eye and watching the pupil dilate from the light of the penlight. He had tried replacing it with an optical receptor, but the wiring kept falling prey to the skin and water vessels. So far the real eye was working. The left receptor would be better than the real eye; Selig bet it would be unusual for Zeta but the former IU would manage. He was designed to be, if anything, adaptable.
Zeta laid still, staring up ahead and blinking away tears that had congregated in the eye once Selig turned away.
"Anyway," Selig said returning over, "look to the left so I can check the muscles—my left, sorry—you will also need to take a few nutrient tablets a day as well, or a few light meals, I'll tell you which would be good to start, I can make more adjusts as the years go on, if you would like."
"If you would like," Zeta corrected dutifully.
"Hmm, yes, yes. To my right now. There's also the manner of disposing of the old water with wastes, we'll discuss that later, of course. Very good. It's coming along nicely, Zeta. A few more days with the patch for safety's sake, since we don't want it get it infected. I suggest avoiding getting any wounds until I can get a disinfectant in your system, as well as that fact that you won't have any natural clotting to seal the wound."
When Selig moved away again, Zeta sat up and brushed his cheek where the lingering tears set, studying the moisture on his finger tips. "Will I bleed?"
"Not blood. Water."
Zeta touched the bandaged left forearm. "And what is wrong with my arm?"
"I removed your laser, cred card, and internal hook-up cable just last week and finished that portion of the waterways." He returned with a lab coat and set it down, taking Zeta's arm and pressing gently through the wrapping. "Do you feel that?"
Selig nodded. "It'll be numb for a while until I turn on the wiring sensors in a few weeks. Trust me, you want them off until it's healed," he added, seeing Zeta's question.
"It's going to hurt?" There was a slight tremor, or Selig was humoring himself.
"A lot," he said solemnly, then picked up the coat. "You can wear this for now. None of my clothes will fit you, an apparently disastrous error on my part."
Zeta stood and dressed awkwardly. "Why?"
"Because right now you have nothing to wear." Selig fixed the buttoning and stood back. "You look like a flasher, but it'll do until Andrea gets back, I suppose."
"Okay." He paused, pondering. "What happened to my holographic emitter, Dr. Selig?"
"It was eaten away by the Novo solution."
"So I don't have it anymore." Zeta sounded disappointed, as it was his first line of defense.
Selig patted his shoulder, albeit rather awkwardly. "You don't need it anymore, Zeta. If anyone were to run a holo-view scan on you, they couldn't tell you from any number of people."
"What else was removed or lost?" He looked down at his feet and wiggled his toes. The floor was cooler and smoother than the carpeting.
It was merely a silent itinerary to check systems. "You lost your wrist blades and lasers, and you'll have to join the rest of the population by having to type to access a computer. You can no longer extend your arms or legs either. I removed your voice modulator, as I believed you wouldn't need it anymore. Your cred card is still intact, though, in my desk. Your olfactory sensors, I'm sure you've noticed, has been moved to your nose so I could allow the eye to have the necessary muscles and tear ducts."
Zeta nodded, still looking down fascinated by his toes and rocking on his heels. "When did you get your hand replaced with a synthetic one, Dr. Selig?"
Selig shook his head and looked over his shoulder from where he was placing his equipment away. "Years ago, Zeta. There was a small accident in a lab. However I've found that with a synthetic hand I can do better work. For example, I don't succumb to muscle spasms and it gives me extra strength. And since I looked into aquatic regeneration, most cuts heal relatively quickly instead of having to replace the whole synthetic hand coating. How did you notice?"
"It was obvious." It was true. Zeta had watched and Selig's hand had not moved with typical human tremors, and the skin was for too regular to be natural.
"Hmm. I always thought it made me a step away from being a Jedi knight. Sorry, wrong era."
Zeta merely smiled politely, recalling watching the video with Bucky, who then snuck out and proceeded to get chased by is uncle's robotic dogs, which Zeta had previously reactivated. Bucky hadn't quite believed his apologies and threw the video to the dogs as a distraction. "Which one?"
The scientist missed the question. "Is there anything else you'd like to know?"
"No, not at the moment." Zeta looked around the room. "May I use your phone to call Ro?"
Never driven to distraction. "Do you know her number?"
"I am going to call her brother, Casey. He will get me in contact with Ro."
Selig shook his head and reside himself to the fact that Zeta was going to use his phone. "There's a phone in my office. Would you like me to—"
"There's no need for you to bother. I can find the way, Dr. Selig. Thank you."
It took him a few moments to realized that he couldn't access the phone line with his internal cable, because he didn't have the internal cable anymore. Zeta then spent a few moments studying the phone, found it no different than any other he'd come in contact with, and dialed. "Hello, you've reached the home of Casey McCormick. I'm not home at the moment, but please leave your message and I'll try to get back to you."
It was disappointing that no one was home, but Zeta had to remember that Casey did have an important job and could only hope that he wasn't on location. "Hello, Casey. This is Zee. I was wondering if you could tell Ro that I am fine at the moment. My malfunctions were caused by my contact with the medical solution Novo. She might not remember, but please tell her that I am fine now. And, if possible, could you tell Bucky as well. His number is usually blocked and I don't have time to break his defenses. Right now I am in Dr. Selig's home. I hope you all are well. Thank you and good bye."
Zeta turned off the phone and sat for a moment, wondering what was to be done now. Calling Ro had been high on his priorities list, and now that it was done he was left to his own devices. He stood up and walked to the window, drawing back the curtain to look outside. There weren't any other buildings in sight, but a field of trees and trimmed grass around a solitary driveway. The sun was still shining in early afternoon height, and Zeta tried to use his peripheral vision. Surely he could go outside.
He made sure the lab coat was still buttoned closed since everyone had made such a big deal about it and headed towards the main door.
The sun was bright and warm in summer-fall blend and Zeta stood on the warm cement. He leaned on his heels for a moment, just because he'd seen Ro and Bucky do it and thought it was a good way to not seem like a synthoid, then started down the steps. Yet almost instantly he stepped on a loose rock.
"Ohh!" he yelped, jumping back and looking at the tiny rock. He had never hurt his feet before by stepping on rocks. Normally they crushed under his bulk. His eye checked the rest of the path and saw many loose stones, so Zeta, thinking it was wiser, stepped onto the grass. The blades slipped between his toes like the carpeting, and he shuffled his feet along while he looked around.
There were neat little trees bordering the building, but Zeta didn't bother to continue studying the architecture or landscape other than to look for possible threats or hidden dangers. The home was moderately large with grand windows, all the curtains drawn so he couldn't see inside. Continuing his shuffling walk because he liked it, he rounded the corner and started for the backyard.
This side of the building had flowering vines crawling up the sides, morning glories, and Zeta leaned forward to smell them. He paused in bewilderment when he smelt nothing from the top of his head, then remembered his olfactory system was now located in his nose. A grin splashed across his face and he leaned in to breath deeply, burying his nose into the center. Then Zeta straightened up, sidled over and smelled the next flower at nose level in the same fashion. He continued as such, enjoying the feeling and knowledge that no one would even give him a second glance for smelling the flowers for once.
Smelling flowers was nice.
Andrea sighed in frustration and shook her head. Okay, where was he? She'd been over the entire mansion from top to bottom and still no elusive synthoid.
She knocked on the office door and walked in. "Dr. Selig?"
He look up from his files and system reports. "Yes, Andrea?"
Andrea looked around the room, seeing no sign of the missing person. "Where did you stash Zeta, Doctor? I brought him some clothes and I thought Zeta might like to change into them."
Selig set down his pen. "Isn't he in his room?"
Suppressing the urge to roll her eyes, Andrea said, "No, he isn't. I've looked everywhere for him. Do you have him in a MRI or something?"
"No. He said he wanted to call his friend and when I came here, he was gone. I assumed he went to his room." He tried to suppress the sudden flare of worry.
"You didn't tell him to go anywhere?"
Selig stood up with forced calmness. "No, I didn't. I thought he'd go back to where he woke up, like most synthoids do. I keep forgetting Zeta seems to have a mind of his own."
"He's your creation," Andrea sighed. "Do you think he left to go find his friends? Does he even have friends?"
"He sees them as such," Selig said with a smile, then rubbed his head. "I just hope he hasn't left. There's still things he doesn't know about himself."
"Like hot tea burns?"
Selig ignored her, putting on his jacket and stepping past her. "You searched the mansion?"
"Top to bottom. Even under the beds and in the closets."
"Then he went outside." He was already walking towards the main doors.
Andrea said as she jogged away, "I'll see if he walked over to the roads and is walking to wherever. You check the backyard."
"I'm pretty sure I'm capable of checking my own driveway!" Selig called after her laughing and shaking his head. He tucked his hands into his pockets and started walking, looking around for any sign of the wayward synthoid.
"Zeta?" he called quietly, for Zeta's audio receivers would hear it just as well as if he were to yell, a fact Andrea was apparently unaware of. "Zeta? Where are you?"
The front yard was empty, so he started towards the backyard looking up at the winding vines. He always meant to have those uprooted, for they blocked the windows upstairs. Selig cupped one of the purple-blue flowers and picked it, feeling the light-velvet smoothness. He sniffed the flower lightly and continued on his trek. Perhaps next year he'd have the plants removed.
Once the backyard appeared fully, Selig sighed when he saw the semi-clad figure walking among the tall sunflowers near the edge of the property. He stopped and watched as Zeta paused at each flower and sniff deeply. Oh, the lung filters were going to be killer after this. It had been a wise move to make them self-cleaning. Just after today Selig would have had to replace them if he hadn't.
Selig started moving again and watched as Zeta bent to cup the lilies and smell them as well. "So there you are."
Zeta turned and smiled. "Hello, Dr. Selig. Have you come to smell the flowers as well?"
He chuckled. "No. I was looking for you."
"Oh. Okay." Zeta turned back to the flowers and smiled at the rose tree, touching the flowers lightly.
"And aren't you curious as to why, Zeta?" Selig asked, quietly pondering where Zeta could have gotten such manners from, a cross between an inquisitive toddler and annoying teenager. He could have sworn the programming called for being polite. This was blatant ignoring.
Selig was thrilled.
"Because you wanted to find me?" Zeta asked innocently as he smelled a flower, then turned his head slightly.
"Yes." Selig shook his head. "Andrea brought you some clothes." He looked down at Zeta's dirt-covered feet. "And shoes, I hope."
"Thank you, but I'm fine. Do you like to smell flowers, Dr. Selig?"
He sighed and rolled his eyes, smiling at the flower in his hand. "When I have the time, I suppose. Never enough time."
Zeta turned and smiled. "You said that before. On the Nosis, before you told Ro and I about the module."
Selig just matched the smile, recalling the encounter dimly. He remembered not acting surprised to see the two—that must have been Ms. Rowan with him—looking at the hologram, perhaps subconsciously remembering Zeta as Dr. Wilhelm. More likely though he only saw the two as techs that had worked on the project as well, in the building and manufacturing. Telling them his secret would have caused no stir. Now he recalled Zeta's question, or he had interpreted it as such. "So you never told them." It hadn't been a question so much as an eureka-statement, as it were, one that allowed all the pieces to fall into place. Why Zeta hadn't revealed himself at that moment, Selig would no doubt never know unless he asked.
Come to think about it, how did Zeta find out about the module? Selig had made a point of not writing it in the original diagrams, lest it be questioned. The only way Zeta would have found out was if he had had a complete networking and system check, and that could only be done in certain, mostly government, locations. Selig thought about it for a moment. There was no saying Zeta hadn't been captured, at least briefly. That would mean that the NSA found the module, and probably thought it caused by terrorists . . . Selig gritted his teeth and groaned internally, crushing the fragile morning glory flower as the implications set it. They thought that because of his module Zeta had stopped following orders, and that didn't come out right. They thought the module was put in by terrorists! Of all the idiotic, paranoid . . . and it was his own fault. He should have put it on the diagrams after it was all done. No one would have even noticed.
Zeta hadn't noticed his internal thoughts, and Selig uncupped his hand to look at the crushed flower. It was symbolic, in a way, of Zeta's situation. A beautiful thing destroyed because he had thought it best at the time, destroyed because of his own folly. He tucked it into his pocket and smiled softly. "I think you should come inside now and change. Get some shoes on."
He went for the simplest and most practical answer. "So you don't step on sticks and rocks."
Zeta appeared to ponder this. "I stepped on a rock already. It didn't hurt that much."
Whomever decided to put the debate chip in deserved to be shot. Wait, did he . . . no, someone else surely. "Zeta, trust me, you want to wear shoes."
The synthoid turned his attention back to the rose tree. "What kind of shoes?"
"What kind?" Selig paused, then shrugged. "Regular kind." He didn't bother with shoe-shopping.
"Is that loafers, sandals, flip-flops, clogs, sneakers, tennies, slip-ons, boots, slippers, suede, dress, heeled, low tops, high tops, hiking boots, army boots, rubber, water shoes, wheeled shoes, golf shoes, bowling shoes, or other?"
Selig's eyebrows were raised, impressed and surprised. They definitely hadn't programmed all that. "Are you a shoe-horse, Zeta?" he asked lightly, briefly toying with the idea that there was a shoe locker with Zeta's name on it somewhere.
Zeta's smiled brightly and smelled deeply. "Ro liked to shoe shop. And shop for anything else. But she always said you could never have enough shoes. I would have thought one pair would have been enough."
"Ah, so would have I." Selig put a hand on Zeta's shoulder. "Come inside, Zeta, and get cleaned up." The synthoid turned away from the flowers, disappointed. "And next time you want to come outside, tell one of us."
Washing hands, taking baths, wearing socks and shoes, wearing clothes, brushing hair . . . Zeta hadn't thought being semi-organic would be such high-maintenance. Humans seemed to manage with little difficulty, and yet he was finding the transition compellingly odd and rather unwanted. Especially the clothes portion.
They irritated his skin and made him want to "scratch" incessantly, but he recalled seeing a vid-cast that scratching wounds was bad. Zeta wasn't sure if his skin was being wounded, he'd ask later, but he attempted not to scratch in case it was. And he decided he didn't care for shoes. They scrunched up his toes painfully and added a minor difficulty in walking. And he couldn't feel the floor. Socks, he had found, were almost as bad. They made him slip on tiles a few times.
After he had washed and dressed—Look! His fingers were all wrinkly! Was that bad?—Dr. Selig had asked if he wanted to stay and follow him around. Zeta had said no thank you. While he wouldn't have minded shadowing Dr. Selig, Zeta didn't want to burden him with the "lost puppy" act, which Ro said was where he followed her around everywhere and got on her nerves in a silent, unobtrusive way. Also, he had found (or had been found by) Dr. Selig and was quite sure the scientist wasn't going to disappear again. There would be plenty of opportune times to bask in his creator's presence, and while Zeta regarded him in a certain sense of awe, he felt no need or desire to shadow if it meant possibly annoying him.
He had noted Selig's surprise but calm acceptance of his decline, and once he was alone, Zeta sat on the bed and removed the shoes and socks. Since he wasn't outside, and there weren't any sticks or stones inside, there was no need to wear them. Zeta put them neatly on the floor next to the bed, left sock (it had been on his left foot) in left shoe and right sock in right shoe. He had a feeling it was going to be difficult to figure out which sock went on which foot. The shoes he got, but the socks, a bit more practice and in-depth study was going to be necessary.
Back in the room he had awoke in—Selig had called it "his" room, so this was probably where he was expected to recharge—Zeta looked around. The closet was open and he could see the many clothes Andrea had retrieved hanging up. (Why did humans have so many clothes?) There was also a dresser and when Zeta inspected it he found more socks and underwear, then even more clothes. No wonder it took Ro so long to get ready in the morning! Humans had to put all this on every morning! A small part of Zeta registered that he was going to miss his holograph emitter.
On the dresser was a brush, but Zeta refrained from trying to brush his hair. He thought he preferred being bald to having tangles, for it hurt to get the brush through. After one decidedly hair yank Dr. Selig had taken the brush away from him and given it to Andrea to finish the task. Zeta made no comment when she breezed through the knots and yanked, albeit far more gently than he had.
Zeta brushed his bangs away with a hand. He had never had a problem seeing through the holographic image of it, but real hair was another story.
Deciding he was done examining the room, Zeta left. Obviously he could leave, because neither Dr. Selig or Andrea told him he couldn't—Ro had always made a point to tell him if he wasn't supposed to leave so she could find him later—although he was quite sure he couldn't go outside again. Not only would he have to tell Dr. Selig or Andrea, he'd have to put his shoes back on. That in itself was reason enough to stay inside for the time being.
A brief tour of the layout would pass the time sufficiently, Zeta figured, and he set out to study the home. There was hardly anyone here, his hearing detected. Robotic devices completed many of the daily tasks such as cleaning—he stepped aside to left the vacuum move by—so Zeta felt reasonably confident that he wasn't going to run into anyone who would demand to know why he was here.
There were prints on the walls and Zeta, shuffling his feet again as he walked, paused to study each one. They varied from flowers to water scenes to landscape to animals to portraits, all in matching wooden frames. There was also an occasional table with a plant on the way.
Back in the main hall, where plush carpet gave way to cool white tiles, Zeta started to climb the stairs, sliding his hand along the smooth banister. Once he reached the top landing, where carpeting returned, Zeta leaned down over the banister to look at the floor below, his hair hanging down. Bucky would have made some comment about water balloons and spitting, no doubt. Straightening and brushing his bangs back, Zeta looked down at his options. Both halls ended in a dead end and he briefly pondered whether to spend the time walking down each. Decision made, Zeta started to move.
Andrea dug her keys out of her pocket and headed towards the door, briefcase in hand. She was definitely not getting paid enough to act as two babysitters.
"Hello, Ms. Donosso."
Andrea jumped and looked up to see Zeta looking down from walkway, messy haired, bare footed, bare chested, eye patched, and looking the world like a young, fresh faced pirate. "What are you doing up there?"
Zeta had a blank look for a moment, then responded, "Looking."
"Weren't you supposed to stay in the room?"
"No. No one told me to."
She blinked. Apparently gone are the days when one didn't have to tell synthoids not to move instead of begging them to move. "Well, okay then. Just . . . don't touch anything," she finished lamely. Definitely not getting paid enough.
Andrea continued to look up while he looked down, and she finally asked, "Why aren't you wearing that shirt?" He was holding it in his hands.
Zeta looked down at the article—was that guiltily?—and said, "It . . . itches, Ms. Donosso."
She couldn't argue the outcome too much, or she really didn't have the heart to. Selig did fine work. "All right, then," she sighed, then shook her head as she removed her glasses. The last thing she needed was getting called on a search party for him again five miles down the road. "Come down from there right now, Zeta."
"Okay." And before she could protest his actions, Zeta moved over, sat on the banister, held out his arms for balance, and slide down, landing nimbly on his feet and fixing his pants once he stood.
"Zeta!" she scolded sharply at the pirate synthoid.
"Yes, Ms. Donosso?" he asked, trying to relieve the unpleasant sensation on his backside.
"Don't do that!"
He looked at her innocently. "Do wha—?"
"Slide down the banister! You know better than that!"
Zeta stared at her blankly, holding the shirt with both hands and wringing it because the shirt was soft and it gave him something to do. He had gotten down rather quickly, he thought, and Ro never bothered correcting the habit. Although he knew technically banisters were not to slide down, Ro and he usually used them to get down quickly to escape capture (NSA agents usually ignored this method of escape), or to race because Ro declared that it was fun.
Andrea sagged. "You do know better, right?" she asked tentatively. If Zeta had been sliding down banisters all this time . . .!
He dug into his inventory of excuses. Strangely enough, he had excuses for this kind of situation thanks to when Casey invited him and Ro to go on location with him. Andrea was acting like the security guard had done. "The banister looked very slide-able."
Okay, that one didn't work. "The only good banister is one you can slide down on?"
This one covered all of them. "If I'm going to do it, don't get caught?""
Her lips twitched into a smile. "Where are you getting this?" she asked, the harsh tone colored on the edges with amusement.
"A list of excuses I've complied."
A laugh escaped and Andrea rubbed her head. "Listen to the last one, then. And why don't you do tour the . . . the library. That way." She pointed.
Zeta smiled brightly. "Okay. Thank you, Ms. Donosso."
"Your welcome, Zeta." She watched as he started towards the library. "Oh, and Zeta?"
He stopped and turned. "Yes, Ms. Donosso?"
"Don't slide down the banisters anymore."
Zeta pondered the order. "Do you mean don't do it at all, or don't get caught doing it?"
This ought to confuse him. "Take your pick."
He nodded looking only vaguely confused. Ro usually said that when she present him an option of getting her a drink, and he took it as meaning the equivalent of "surprise me." "Okay, Ms. Donosso." Then he continued he trek, holding the shirt like a blanket.
Andrea shook her head and gave a little laugh, turning back the way she had come. She knocked on the door and opened it.
"I thought you were leaving, Andrea," Dr. Selig smiled, looking at her confused as he put his files into their correct folders.
She crossed her arms and leaned against the frame, grinning widely. "I was, and, well, you'll never guess what I caught your little protege doing, Doctor."
Ro collapsed onto the couch and through half an eye glared at her brother. "I hate you."
"That is my couch you're sullying," Casey grinned. "And you liked it."
"Carrying your equipment and watching you attempt to flirt." She rolled over and stretched her worn muscles. "Yeah, it was a real riot. Next time you go to some ancient tribe memorial, I'm staying home."
"Ro, it wasn't that bad."
"They didn't have showers or bathrooms," she said lowly standing up. "I don't know what that is in your book, but in mine that is not a happy place when I'm there."
"It's called being part of the experience. A tourist stop."
"On the way to Hell!" Ro finished with her head out of the bathroom door, then let it whoosh with a snap closed. "A shower! I love you!"
Casey shook his head at his sister's melodrama, giving a brief thought as to how Zeta ever survived with Ro, and how Ro survived with him. Casey sighed. The subject of Zeta was a careful, tentative area of conversation and memory. Ro still blamed herself for his disappearance, and she was only pulling through it because Casey had commented that therapy might help. Ro wasn't afraid of therapy—she seemed quite found of destructive therapy after that suggestion—but of seemingly tainting Zeta's memory. Her and Bucky had a casual correspondence just to make sure the other was still alive, sometimes drifting apart because of the lack of similarities in their respective lives, and then sometimes tight because of their joint memory of Zeta and feelings of failure.
It was a weird friendship. Even weirder than one with a synthoid, Casey thought with a smile. The two youngers hated each other, because they couldn't not fight in each other's presence. They were the epitome of petulant, fractious siblings. Or an old married couple, but Casey'd keep that one to himself. He valued breathing.
After getting something to eat, Casey looked over to his message machine had saw that he had quite a few. Tell everyone you're going to be gone a few days and they have to call on those days. It was remarkable. "Ro, we got messages!"
"You know how to make them play!"
Casey smiled and leaned back as he tapped the button.
"Hey, Casey!" George, Casey shook his head, wasting memory. "Just wishing you and Ro a pleasant trip!"
Bucky's face appeared next. "Oh, sorry, forgot you were gone," he muttered and clicked off.
"Bucky called, Ro!" Casey yelled, pausing to check the date.
"What'd the Twerp want!"
"To talk, I guess! Call him back!"
"McCormick, I want your piece on my desk the second you get back for Friday's edition."
"Thanks for letting me write it, Mr. Jones," Casey groused good-naturedly.
"And don't give me crap about needing time to write it!" Jones' face appeared on the next message.
Casey waved his hand and questioned the sky. "How's he do that?"
"Hello, Casey. This is Zee. I was wondering—"
Ro was out of the bathroom faster than Casey could even acknowledge the shock at the caller.
"ZEE!" she squealed in shock and clutched the towel around her.
Zee of course, carried on. "—I am fine at the moment. My malfunctions were caused by my contact with the medical solution Novo. She might not remember—"
"He's alive, he's alive, he's alive! Wait, did he diss me? Ohh!"
"Ro, settle down!"
"—tell Bucky as well. His number is usually blocked and I don't have time to break his defenses. Right now I am in Dr. Selig's home. I hope you all are well. Thank you and good bye."
Ro was positively trembling with excitement and she whirled on Casey. "He's alive!" Her eyes were wide and bright, and her face was probably going to split in two due to that grin. "He's all right," she whispered, water trickles rushing down her face, shower water or tears, her brother couldn't tell.
It was hard not to join into the excitement that Ro was emitting. "Ro, Ro, calm down!" he smiled, standing up and grabbing her arms. "Calm down!"
"He's all right! Ooh!" She hugged him tightly and Casey could only hug back.
He sighed and decided to rain on her parade a little later. "Don't you think you should call Bucky and share the good news?"
"Yes! Oh, god, he'll never believe it!" Ro rushed by and ducked into her room. Then suddenly something hit her. "Dr. Selig's home?!"
"Ro! This is either the best imitation call and worst possible joke, or it's the real thing!" Bucky hissed, leaning forward into the screen.
"That's what Casey said!" Ro whispered back, then straightened up. "Why are we whispering?"
"Because if this is a dream, I don't want to wake up! You told me Selig was dead!"
Ro waved her hands. "He was, or we thought he was! The guy's a synthoid expert. Maybe it was a fake Selig."
"Is Zeta even with Selig, and what's with the eye patch?"
Ro had been wondering that as well, but had put it to the back of her mind at the excitement of seeing Zee again. "He's trying to be a pirate." She bit her lip. "Can you hack into Agent Bennet's phone line so we can talk?"
Bucky sputtered. "Don't insult me! And why would I want to talk with him? He doesn't even like me."
"Well, neither do I." Bucky stuck his tongue at her. "Oh, grow up, Twerp"
"Speak for yourself. Now why Bennet?"
"Bennet would know whether Selig is really dead, although I'm sure he thought the guy was as dead as we thought," Ro explained.
"Don't you have his number?" Bucky asked, looking around himself at the empty room.
"I want a secure channel. If they find out Zeta's back online and with Selig, if Selig is alive, they'd get a posse and just grab him before we could even blink."
Bucky nodded while he typed, then grinned. "Ohh, he's already talking to somebody. Should we break in?" He waggled his eyebrows at her.
She snorted. "No. The second he's done."
He made a face and rested his chin on his hand. "That could be a while. Bureaucrats talk and talk and talk."
"Like you." They were quiet waiting for Bennet to stop talking, and Ro bit her lip. "Do you think it's real?"
"We'll find out soon enough. He's done." Ro's screen spilt in half to show both Bucky and Bennet over some information pads. "Agent Bennet, how you doing?" Bucky greeted and Ro took perverse pleasure in seeing their former tracker jump.
"What are you two doing?" he growled, shaking his head and looking around.
"Relax, it's secure. We just got a few questions." Bucky, trying to sound tough. Ro rolled her eyes. It would have been comical if it wasn't so pathetic.
"Like how long are you going to go in prison for this, Mr. Buenaventura," Bennet said coolly. Bucky made a face and Ro butted in before the two butted heads even more.
"I got a message from Zee, Agent Bennet."
Agent Bennet instantly straightened. "You told me he was missing and presumably offline." Only Bennet would say "presumably" even after how she told him.
"And you told us Selig was dead!"
He looked affronted. "I never told you that!"
"So he's not?" Bucky asked.
"Of course not. Trust me, all the papers in the world would cover his death. Where did you get that information, Ms. Rowan?"
Ro flushed. "Zee and I saw his escape pod get shot down on the Nosis!" she defended. "And you said no one in the agency was going to believe you without Selig's backing, that you couldn't get it for obvious reasons, and I quote that!"
"Because they weren't going to ask for his opinion." Bennet looked over his shoulder and set down his pen. "I wasn't even aware his pod was shot down. His assistant and he were found waiting on the wreckage."
"So he's been alive! You could have told us that! Zee and I could have been trying to find him!"
"I didn't think you two thought he was dead."
"The lines of communication certainly are clear here," the third said sarcastically.
"Shut up, Bucky."
Bucky recoiled. "Ehh, you two are thinking alike."
"So you got a message from Zeta? From where and why after so long?"
Ro shook her head. "Yes. He said the malfunctions were caused by Novo and he probably just came back online." She certainly wasn't going to tell him where Zee was.
"It makes sense," Bucky butted in. "His frame would end up deteriorating because of human contact as the solution started to take effect."
"He stopped a hijacking the day before everything hit the fan, and got covered in the stuff," Ro explained to Bennet. So partly all the problems with Zee were her fault. With her contact, the solution started to alter Zee's body. The second she saw Zee, she was going to apologize for everything, even if he never held her responsible.
Bennet looked at Ro. "Why didn't you tell me this? We could have known what was going on!" he scolded.
"Excuse me! I didn't ask him what he spilled. I just found out about it today!" Bennet didn't look convinced, but her word counted only marginally higher than Bucky's on his scale. "So Selig is alive? It's for real?"
"Yes, Selig is alive. Why Zeta didn't check the News banks is beyond me."
"We saw it happen, big boom!" Ro defended, remembering the days after where they merely traveled indiscriminately and away from news stations. "And it wasn't like he was ever the most easy to locate in the first place anyway. The guy could pick up a bit of a social life."
Bucky laughed while Agent Bennet merely shook his head. "Selig's been on forced vacation until his lab is finished with repairs. The government's already planning a new contract for him."
"Why would they hire him again if you told them he sabotaged the Zeta project with his module?" Bucky asked suddenly.
The agent grinned at the question Bucky presented, as if amused that it was the redhead who said it. "I only assume that Selig will be on a tighter leash. Normally he is given free reign. And the Zeta project was singular in most respects. Years spent building one synthoid instead of a line, which is the usual trend. And remember that Selig is one of the world's most respected synthoid experts. Better to have our government holding him and his . . . unconventional creations than some other that would snatch him up the second he was let go. Interesting point though, Mr. Buenaventura."
Bucky glared at him, and Ro hid her smile.
"Where does Selig live?" she asked.
"That's privileged information, Ms. Rowan."
"Okay, I'll just hack into it," Bucky snipped, as if proving he was still trouble and trying to unshine himself in Bennet's eyes.
"And I'll warn the department heads to be on the look-out for you."
"I'll love the challenge." His tone clearly said he doubted that's what the encounter was going to be. "We done, Ro?"
Ro smiled at Bennet. "Yeah, I guess. Thanks."
"Anytime, Ms. Rowan. I'm . . . pleased to find that Zeta's . . ." He was looking for the right words that would keep his stature as government agent against renegade synthoids secure.
"We know what you mean."
"Bye!" Bucky ended the message. "I don't like him."
"And no one likes you," Ro laughed and watched as Bucky started typing. "What are you doing?"
"Getting Selig's address and number."
"Or I could just redial and ask him," Ro said slyly, leaning forward. Bucky snapped his head at her and glared.
Bennet sat back and pondered the enlightening call. Zeta had been exposed to Novo? Hmm . . . if that were to get to certain people, it would possibly, if not certainly, destroy the reason for continued search for Zeta. After all, Novo was very fast acting and Zeta would be victim to its effects just like any other machine. Zeta's "threat" would have been eliminated the second the solution started to work.
The agent shuffled his papers and thought of the next course of action. Of course, he couldn't simply go tell his superiors. Zeta was a dangerous synthoid . . . if the need ever arose. The lack of remains would pose a question, but that was a small detail if it meant Zeta was no longer "active," one that could be ironed out efficiently if it meant freeing up funds and men.
Bennet paused for a moment. How did Selig get the synthoid? (Despite the fact that neither Ms. Rown or Mr. Buenaventura hadn't stated it in such, Bennet was willing to theorize that was what had happened. How else would she have been confronted with her false belief that the scientist was deceased if Zeta had not mentioned it?) Now that was a small matter, but it wasn't one he was going to question the luck over. Zeta had saved his son, and now he was going to find out how to save the synthoid . . . anonymously, of course. He had a career to worry about, after all, and no one would believe if Agent James Bennet, who said Infiltration Unit Zeta had a conscience module, said the synthoid was no longer a threat.
Agent Dawson would be easy to mislead. A little untraceable tip, a few synthoid parts in a dump, a connection to any Novo spillage . . . Agent Bennet smiled.
"I'm spending too much time in contact with Ms. Rowan and Mr. Buenaventura," he sighed. Thank lord his son didn't follow their footsteps. He picked up his phone and started to dial.
"Agent Lee, Agent Bennet, how are you doing? Still in the recon?"
Selig blinked out of his reverie and world of diagrams and system requirements. With a careless hand and not bothering to look up, he turned the vid-phone on. "Dr. Selig speaking."
"You are alive!"
He jumped at the exclamation and looked at the split screen and two young people staring at him. "Excuse me?"
"You're alive!" she repeated accusingly and angry.
"Obviously, Ro!" Bucky snapped. "We want to talk to Zee."
Selig blinked at the screen. "How did you get this number?"
Zee . . . ah, Zeta! Selig smiled. "I assume I'm speaking to a Ms. Rowan and a . . ." He looked over at a list of names and pictures, "Mr. Buenaventura."
The two jolted, and Bucky said warily, "Yeah, that's us."
"We're Zee's friends," Ro added. "Where is he?"
"I have no idea," Selig said offhandedly, then noted their shocked expressions. "Oh, I'm sure he's somewhere on the property."
"So he's okay?"
"There were slight complications due to the Novo solution, but I believe they've been taken care of."
"Can we talk to him?" Ro asked excitedly. "Please!"
"We looked everywhere for him! How did you get him?" Bucky demanded.
"I want to know! We searched the sewers, Ro! The sewers."
Selig smiled listening to the argument. They were genuinely worried about Zeta's—Zee's well-being, even after all this time. "Would you rather talk to him on the vid-phone or meet Zeta in person?"
They were instantly quiet until Bucky drawled, "You provide the jet."
"Bucky!" She was not going to let the Twerp ruin this! She'd walk if she had to.
He waved a hand slightly. "Complete transportation, of course, for friends of Zeta. A surprise I'm sure he'd enjoy immensely."
"Where's the plane, then?"
"Ro!" Bucky scolded, imitating her. "So what's in it for you?" he asked suspiciously. There was always a catch
Selig chuckled. "I just wanted to talk with Zeta's friends, and I figured you'd like to know what happened to him since you last saw him."
"Like how you got him," Ro suggested.
"And how you counteracted the Novo, since there isn't a way," Bucky added.
"And I'd like to know about yourselves and your relationship to Zeta. And why I am apparently dead." He smiled at Ro, eyes twinkling.
"If Zee and I had even known you weren't dead, we would have found you," Ro stated boldly. "And how come you aren't dead?"
Selig merely smiled. He could probably learn to like Zeta's young, impetuous friends. "So where and whom should begin?"
Bucky whistled at the house where both he and Ro were plastered looking out the car's windows. "I think I should start hacking into personal accounts."
"Bucky," Casey reprimanded, foot tapping. His editor had given his some time off after screaming himself red in the face. Of course, the time off was only because Ro had yelled that Selig's ride was there and that they had to go right now! At Selig's name and a brief clarification of as to who Dr. Eli Selig was, Mr. Jones had instantly given Casey the time, hinting in his own subtle fashion that Casey was to try and get an interview. Well, by subtle, Mr. Jones demanded, but politely. Casey barely had time to say that it was a social call and unlikely to turn into an interview before Ro dragged him away from the phone.
"Look at this place! It's huge!"
"He is an expert in synthoids," Casey reminded. "If you suddenly started rolling in the dough, I think Agent Bennet might make it his own personal agenda to make you poor again."
"That's because he'd be jealous."
"Do you see Zee yet?" Bucky rejoined her at the window, and Casey briefly wished he could take a picture from the outside. The both look ridiculous from this unflattering perspective, so the other end was probably just as ridiculous.
"Ro, this is supposed to be a surprise visit. I doubt if he's waiting for us at the front gate. And would you two stop making nose prints."
Once the car stopped at the front, Ro and Bucky practically well out of the car when they opened the door. The two disentangled themselves and ran up the steps towards the waiting amused Dr. Selig and Andrea, and Casey only rolled his eyes and shrugged.
"Welcome," Selig smiled. "This is my assistant, Ms. Andrea Donosso. Andrea, this is Rosalie Rowan, her brother, Casey McCormick, and their friend, Bucky Buenaventura."
"A pleasure," Andrea smiled and took Casey's hand, as it was the only one that had been offered.
"It's all ours, I'm sure."
"You got your hair cut," Ro said after a moment of studying the blond woman.
Andrea smiled and touched her hair self-consciously. "Zeta noticed that as well."
"Where is Zee?" Bucky asked trying to look around the two and through the doors. Ro followed suit as well.
"I believe the backyard." Casey barely had time to grab the arms.
"Don't you two have any manners?" he hissed at them then yelped when both Ro and Bucky slammed on hard on each foot—Bucky a second behind his unscrupulous sister—and took off.
"Make sure he's wearing shoes!" Selig called after them and he and Andrea went to help the wounded.
"One bulldozer was bad enough," Casey gritted.
"Come on," Andrea smiled. "We'll take the back way."
Zeta had been smelling flowers when his hearing had picked up the visitors. There seemed to be yelling so he left the garden and started to go to the front yard by going around the house, as his bare feet would end up making a mess. Yes, he had been told to wear shoes, but Zeta figured that if he didn't get caught, it wouldn't matter. Shoes were uncomfortable, only marginally worse than actual clothes. He had been actually ordered—different than told—to at least wear shorts by an exasperated Dr. Selig next to a very red Ms. Donosso. So that was all he was wearing at the moment.
He stopped when he saw the running figures, then blinked his eyes—the patch had been removed this morning—when both attacked him. "Ro? Bucky?"
Ro had gripped his neck in a death-choke. "Zee! You're alive! You're okay! You're okay!"
After the initial hug, Bucky's manly pride came back full force and he let go. "What she said," he said, clearing his throat and blinking back tears. Zeta and Ro were his first true friends, and one of them had actually come back from the grave and was standing in front of him.
Zeta had his arms around Ro to keep her from hanging, as it appeared that she wasn't going to let go any time soon and smiled at him. "Thank you, Bucky."
"I'm so sorry, Zee. I mean, if I had known it was Novo you got drenched with, I would never have touched you!"
"Actually, I had already been in human contact, so it wouldn't have mattered," Zeta said simply.
Ro slid down and gave him a look, then laughed and hugged him again. Her eyes snapped open. "Get in the hug, Twerp."
He shifted on his feet and looked away. "No, thanks."
"Bucky, you can hear his heart!"
He instantly smiled at the excuse and joined in. "A heart for the Tinman," he grinned, listening to the steady thumping and hugging tighter.
"Hey, that's my line!" Ro laughed, tears down her cheeks. "I'm so glad you're all better, Zee!"
"I am as well, Ro. But I didn't know you were coming here."
"That's because it was a surprise, Zeta," Selig smiled walking over, Andrea helping a half-scowling, half-pleased Casey. He eyed the trio, cleared his throat, then said, "Now, Zeta, where are your shoes?"
"Ooh! You have real hair!" Ro squealed again, brushing it while Zee sat uncomfortably on the floor, eyes closed and enjoying the sensations.
Bucky turned over in the chair and grinned. "Man, you're gonna end up with braids."
Zee opened his eyes. "Is that bad?"
"Ro, I don't want braids."
She smacked the top of his head. "Ignore him. He wouldn't know good fashion sense if it bit him on the butt."
"She wouldn't know it if it bit her on the nose."
He interrupted before it got worse. "I have a nose." Ro had stated on many occasions he didn't have any fashion sense, so he went with the next.
"Yes, you do! And ears and hair and toes!" Ro was positively delighted and giggled.
"You've lost your mind, Ro!" Bucky laughed.
"And you never had one to start with!"
"Sort of like your fashion sense."
"I asked Ms. Donosso for an Eskimo kiss," Zee stated, hoping to stopped the continued playful argument before it turned serious. It worked, and both of his friends looked at him in stunned and speechless shock. He looked at them innocently, worried about the silence. "Was that the wrong thing to say?"
"Did she give you one?" Bucky asked, interested.
"No. She actually turned redder—that's called blushing—and said no."
"Turned redder?" Bucky repeated, smirking at Ro, who looked ready to pounce
"Ms. Donosso was red because of my state of undress."
"She saw you naked?!" Ro yelled.
Zee looked up at her and her upset face. "Ro, many people have seen me naked. Even though my holographic emitter made the illusion of clothes, technically I was naked."
Bucky snickered. "Because right now you have a little something even Ro would—da-AHH!" he yelled and Ro dived towards him.
"Don't you even think it, you little worm!" she exclaimed pinning him to the floor and twisting his arm back.
He laughed. "Me, Ro? Think what? Just because Zee ha—owowowowowowowow!"
"Don't even say it!" she hissed.
"Ro, I think you're hurting him," Zee stated, alarmed and standing up to go over to them.
"Good!" She twisted the arm higher, and Bucky tried to control his laughter as he attempted to escape.
"Ro, it's not my fault Zee ow ow OW!"
"Don't say it!"
"What was he going to say?" Zee asked, interested.
Bucky half smirked and winced, laughing. "Ears! I was going to say ears! Ow ow!"
"I'll bet!" Ro gritted, pressing down. "Are you ticklish, Twerp?"
Bucky's eyes went wide and his struggles redoubled. "Get her off me! Get her off me, Zee!" Ro's fingers danced over his ribs and he gave a choking laugh, twisting. "And what about you!"
Zee stared wide-eyed at the twisting, laughing, and tickling two. "I think you both should stop," he said hesitantly. The two were fighting, theoretically, but not in their usual methods.
Exhausted, the two separated with little giggles (not that Bucky ever giggled). "Are you ticklish, Zee?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Zee said skeptically, suddenly alarmed at the dual, almost identical smirks his shorter friends wore. "Why?"
Ro and Bucky nodded towards each other and attacked.
"It's just a phase. My grandparents said even I went through it," Casey laughed.
Selig nodded. "Although naked toddlers don't cause quite the same stir as naked adults. He'll get used to it, though."
Casey listened for a moment. "It got quiet, suddenly."
"It did, didn't it?" Selig agreed, unperturbed.
"You've never watched kids before, have you?"
He gave an amused smile. "No, I haven't."
"If all's quiet, it means something's broken, dead, or they're planning something," Casey stated still eyeing towards the direction the youngers had disappeared towards.
"I'm sure everything is fine. Enjoy the quiet while it lasts. Now, you wanted to ask me something?"
Casey put his worry on the backburner for the time being and attempted to find a reasonable way to asked for an interview.
Ro stretched as she walked down the late-night hallway. Now, where was the bathroom again?
Groaning and resided to the fact that she probably wasn't going to be able to go to the bathroom for another twenty years, Ro started to look around.
Part of her found it absolutely hysterical that Zee had a bedtime. Other than the fact that it was so early (nine o'clock) that it was pathetic, the fact that Zee had never actually slept just made the concept even more ludicrous. It was only until Zee's body was up at full power, Selig said, but Ro still found it hilarious, especially since Zee was going to have to rest at least two hours a day when he managed to maintain full power.
After walking vaguely for a few minutes, Ro grinned when she entered the kitchen. "The stomach will always find the frig. And who am I to argue with a late night snack."
Five minutes later, Ro left the kitchen disgusted with a stick of celery. There was nothing remotely edible in that frig. Vegetables and fruits, who cares? Where was the chocolate or the soda or potato chips or something edible! Her celery made a loud crunch when she bit into it.
The halls were dark and Ro looked around from the entrance, chewing and decided that she really wasn't quite tired enough to go back to bed, provided she could find it again. Then near the end of middle hall was giving off a faint twinge of light and she walked down.
The light was creeping out from under a door, and Ro knocked and stuck her head in. (There were no bedrooms down this way.) She grinned. "You give Zee a bedtime and you don't even sleep?"
Selig looked up from his semantics. "Ah, Ms. Rowan, what are you doing up? Hungry?"
"Was looking for the bathroom and I got lost. But I found the kitchen." She waved the bit of celery and walked in. "Whatcha doing up?"
"I was struck with a bit of inspiration," he smiled as she looked blankly at the wiring diagrams. "I usually get up to write out ideas before I forget them in the morning."
"Okay. It's very . . . nice." Ro crunched her celery and hoped her opinion didn't have to go further than that.
"It's all right, Ms. Rowan."
"Call me Ro."
"All right, Ro."
"So what's all this for?" she asked as she sat down, ignoring the fact that she hadn't been invited. "New synthoid?"
"Possibly. I go through several diagrams and drafts before I settle on one."
"How many did it take for Zee?"
"I should say about forty-five, fifty total of my own."
Her jaw dropped. "Forty-five?"
Selig smiled at her. "Yes. Several were made for the hands, for example. You don't just draw out a synthoid, Ro. You plan each system or appendage with the basic requirements and make sure they all join together. If they don't on paper, you'll never get a working model. And without a working model, you don't get the real one."
"And how long does it take to figure out everything?"
He shrugged. "It depends on the synthoid. I could draw up a very simple one in one day. It would only be able to walk and record, but it would work. Zeta took several years with many different drafts when the government decided they wanted something else."
"Wow. Years on one synthoid?"
"Sometimes. Zeta was . . . special."
Ro leaned on the desk. "You always said you had plans for him. Were you talking about the module, or was there something else?"
Selig shook his head at her humorously. "You and your brother do have a lot in common, Ro." He continued drawing the wiring.
Ro waited a bit, watching, then grew impatient. "Well? You didn't answer the question. Was that all, just the module?"
He raised his eyes to look at her over the frames of his glasses, shaking his head again at her persistence. "I think I have you to blame for all of Zeta's bad habits."
She grinned winningly, unabashed. "Sliding down banisters is fun. You should try it. I mean, those are some great banisters." She beat Bucky four times out of five, and he only won the fifth because he cheated.
"So I've heard," he said dryly.
"Now why was Zeta is important?"
He shook his head at her, wondering if she had always been this persistent, or if Zeta had taught her that. "Zeta was a pet project of sorts, Ro. The government owed me complete resources on my next project, and I took them up on it."
"You're too young to understand, but if you spend as much time as I do in areas, you try and create something to be proud of. The module for example. I know it would hardly be accepted by the public, let alone the government, if synthoids suddenly developed personalities and consciences, but it becomes a unique challenge to undertake. It's not for the fame, but when you just sit back and say yeah, I did something important. Took a lot of failures and back-tracks, but it works."
"Ah." Ro nodded, but she wasn't quite sure she understood. "So does Zeta measure up?"
Selig smiled. "I don't quite know, but I think so. Maybe if he manages to stay dressed I'll be sure."
Ro laughed. "He'll get it eventually. You have no idea how long it took me to get it into his thick skull not to change his hologram in the middle of airports or mimic voices. He did does, or did, to annoy me, I think." She grinned. "I bet he's really missing that holographic emitter."
"Very likely," he agreed, tapping his chin as he mental calculated the necessary capacitor. "Dr. Edmunds did excellent work."
"You know what I meant. Personally, if it wasn't for the fact I'd never visit him, you should just send him to a nudist colony."
The scientist laughed at the suggestion. "Perhaps as a last resort." He looked over the work he had made, smiling.
Ro looked around swinging her legs. "Sooo, what else about Zee can you tell me? Any embarrassing baby stories, such as they are?"
He looked up at her. "I'm afraid not. You could tell me far more amusing stories than I could tell you."
"Well, then since it's too late for the flowers, don't let him at snow globes. I met my brother that way, over snow globes and fortune cookies."
"Forgive me, but I suddenly don't want to know."
Ro almost believed him, but caught the twinkle. "Long story anyway. The cookie said he had a sharp edged sense of humor."
Hmm, that wiring would interfere with this circuit. "So sharp-edged that we fail to see it."
"Yeah." Digging stuff out of Selig was as difficult as digging it out of Zee. "So there aren't any hidden surprises about Zee that you put in him?"
He smiled and didn't look up from the cross-section. "If I told you there were, then they wouldn't be surprises, would they?"
"I won't tell him if there are," she weaseled hopefully. "Hmm?" Selig was silent, holding up a different diagram to check possible reroutes. Her lips scrunched together into patterns, then she popped them. "Okay, maybe later."
"He picked that up from you, I see," Selig said without looking over.
"The lip-popping. And probably the rocking on heels and rolling eyes." Ro was attempting to look innocent. "I'd blame the limited attention span on you as well, but I think that's giving you a bit too much credit."
"Hey—oh, yeah . . . probably." She glared at his fleeting smirk, then decided to back up her friend. "It's not that he not paying attention, he is, he just doesn't look it. He can recite the whole conversation. I called him on it once."
"No doubt he could, but originally he was programmed to look at the person speaking."
"There was a that minor eraser attempt by the NSA a few years back," she said innocently. "He must have not moved it in time. Darn."
Selig moved the comp-pad away and looked at her, and Ro cleared her throat and found the corner of the desk interesting. "A great loss, I'm sure," he said deadpan.
"Yep." She popped the word and winced internally. You're doing great, Rowan. "So . . ."
"Is there anything else?"
Anything else I could totally introduce my foot to my mouth, do you mean? "I don't think I ever did thank you for helping Zee out, Dr. Selig. So, um, thanks."
Selig smiled at her. "And thank you for taking care of him. You've been a unique influence on Zeta. Not my first choice for a watcher, but you did well in a pinch." His smile widened as he teased her.
"Thanks. And, although not my first choice as a creator, you did well too." She grinned cheekily.
He drew his attention back at her. "And what would you have looked for in someone to create Zeta, Ms. Rowan?"
"What would you have looked for in a babysitter?" she countered with humor. "Mary Poppins?"
He was impressed with her knowledge of last century movie icons. "Second choice, I suppose. Now what would you have looked for?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"Someone you can actually find when you need to. Like Bigfoot."
"Yes, Dr. Elusive." Ro leaned back in the chair and stifled a yawn. "So exactly how real is Zee?"
"I thought I already told you."
"On a scale of one to ten, ten being highest, I mean."
"Well, then, how do you define 'real'?"
Ro paused and tried not to let her thoughts be totally transparent. "How much of a synthoid is he?"
"Zeta will always be a synthoid, Ro, no matter what. His managing to have skin does not change that. There's no way I can duplicate an organic human body 100%, and then there would be the whole, let's use the terms 'spiritually' and 'emotionally,' if we may, aspect. Although theoretically possible, it is probably out of my lifetime to ever create such programming, although that term does contradict what those essentially are. Those are human traits, which Zeta might imitate quite aptly, but there would be much speculation as to whether or not he is actually feeling the concepts. Of course, that could just be centuries of inbred superiority humans have speaking, for how can we ever be sure of what anything other then ourselves is feeling, if they are feeling? After all, it took many years for animal rights to be accepted. But I digress. Also, despite what tabloids say, transferring his programming, databases, and memory into a human body, so Zeta could theoretically feel emotions, could not be done at this time or by me, if it even could be possible. And even if it could be done, there is still much speculations of how human brains even work, and then there's the whole problem of whether or not synthoid programming is even compatible, if you'll excuse, again, the term, with the human brain. Even with the fact that electrical impulses and activity and the nerve endings could be compared to . . ."
She stared and smiled blankly as he continued on and on and on. Too much information, brain hurts, not understanding, change topic if you want to get out of here without brain leaking through your ears, and you wondered where Zee got his ability to ramble . . . "Okay!" she interrupted brightly, causing Dr. Selig to jump out of his musing, his pen etching a rather long wire long. "Let's rephrase the question."
Dr. Selig looked at her, then set to fixing his mistake. "All right then."
Ro paused, trying to find a why that wouldn't let Dr. Selig ramble on into the nitty-gritty details. "Okay, hypothetically, if Zee were to end up, and he probably would, too, getting himself caught by some synthoid-hating nuts, could he actually pass as a human? Ignore the mentality aspect for now."
He grinned slightly, then sighed. "Unfortunately, Zeta is less than 10% organic: the skin, right eye, and hair. Most humans would still be about 70% organic after any serious accident, barring the eccentrics, of course. And Zeta's blood, excuse the term again, please, system is just a water system."
"Is there anyway you could bring that percentage up?" Ro asked hopefully.
"Not to that height, I'm afraid," Selig said, regretfully puncturing that bubble of hope. "Ms. Rowan, do you understand how complicated the human body is?" She shook her head. "Most people don't. Any living body is a masterpiece, one people such as myself fall drastically short in meeting when we create synthoids, unfortunately."
Ro paused for a moment. "I was just wondering, did the Novo combine the DNA, or are there little patches of me all over him?"
Selig chuckled. Andrea had asked the exact same thing. "The DNA actually ended up combining to form a new strand. That's why it was so painful for Zeta after each human contact while the solution was taking effect."
"It hurt?" she squeaked.
"I would assume very much so," he said solemnly, actually pausing in his work. "Since the skin was starting to become sensitive, converting the wiring into something like small nerves. It's actually fascinating. Also it formed the base layer of the skin, not what you would see as skin, which is actually dead cells. The first layer was actually made, and it is quite tender. But since you asked, I believe that since there was no actual organic substances on him, the Novo solution had nothing to inform the nanonites as to which was the superior strand. Due with each subsequent contact, the DNA would end up conflicting and merging, half way rejecting the new samples, half trying to overcome. Luckily Zeta's Novo doesn't work on animals, otherwise there'd be at least cat DNA swimming around." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "Zeta was probably lucky that Novo worked the way it did."
"Thank heavens for small miracles," Ro muttered. "And what about the eye and hair? Or did you just have some extra lying around like Frankenstein?"
"Hair grafts are easy enough to do, and with a bit of genetics and some more areas that I'm sure would bore you to death, I attempted to create the eye using the same dominate DNA strand."
"Oh. So you could make him more human?" She shrugged helplessly at the word.
"If you mean more organic, there is many things I could add on later. Of course, it will be a bit difficult because of the changes I made for Zeta already."
"What do you mean?"
"Zeta's frame is now supported by a strong by thin plastic layers, since the titanium alloy was destroyed. Any additions would involve me having to force Zeta offline, cut through the skin and plastic frames, bypass the 'blood' system, install it in the proper location and run through a system's check. That in itself could take longer than any human operation."
She had ears that picked up any danger to Zee. "Why did you say 'force Zeta offline'?"
He smiled at her noting his slip. "Right now Zeta is forced to breathe and have a heartbeat. Unlike normal synthoids, I can't just turn him off because that could cause the skin to start to die. So I'd have hook him up into an alternate power source, then slip off the main processes. The outlet is located in his left arm, which I would have to cut through the skin to get to."
"So that's why it's bandaged up, because you just took him off alternate power."
Dr. Selig looked at her impressed. Where Zeta's concerns were, she picked them out like rotten plums. "Yes, as well as removed the government additions."
"He said that part."
"That's what I told him. I didn't think it was necessary for him to know he has a power outlet."
"Maybe," Ro agreed reluctantly.
"Well, you can tell him if you think it'd be better for him to know. I'll bow to your superior knowledge." He nodded his head at her and started to work again.
It was a few moments before Ro spoke again. "So are you going to make any Zee any more life-like?"
"If Zeta decides to, and if I can. It would depend on which areas or parts became more life-like." He looked up at her almost knowingly, or Ro's imagination running away with her. Don't blush, whatever you do, don't blush.
There was a silence, and then Selig cleared his throat and smiled. "Anyway, currently I believe Zeta is more interested in growing more spiritually and, as you said, mentally."
"That's take a while," Ro said, rolling her eyes.
"And he has time. He's almost immortal. He's not going to age physically."
Ro looked down slightly. She always knew Zee was probably going to outlive her, provided he didn't get his head blown off. "Yeah, and who's going to take care of him then?"
"I think you underestimate him. He'll manage. And I don't think we're all going to drop dead tomorrow." Selig smiled at a small, private joke. He had a few more years in him.
Ro sighed. "How old is Zee, anyway?"
"Since when, the design stage or the activation?"
Ro snapped her head up, recalling a small memory. "Other than the ability to ramble, I see Zee also managed to pick that up from you." He looked amused, but curious as to what she meant, and Ro didn't keep the good doctor waiting. "He said the roughly the same thing when I asked him." She leaned forward. "Both."
"I think the first design I penciled for Zeta came about twelve years ago," Selig murmured trying to remember. "I don't know the exact date. The government hired me to build him about eight years ago, on March 18th, 2037, and we started work. Zeta came online September 30th, 2040. It was one of the proudest and saddest days of my life."
She didn't ask why, knowing that Selig didn't care for weapons and that after three years of work, that's all that he had made, not the difference he'd been hoping for. Instead, she blinked at the information and smiled broadly. "Doctor Selig, can I ask you something?"
He looked up from the diagrams. "Should I be worried that now you ask that question?"
Ro leaned forward and grinned deviously.
Zee studied Casey as he helped write the article, or so Casey said he was doing. "Why am I helping you write your article?"
"Because you've known Dr. Selig longer," Casey grinned.
"But why don't you just ask him these questions?"
"It's called getting a different perspective, Zee. It helps the reader connect with the person."
He sat silently, picking at his pants and pulling at his collar and jacket cuffs. Ro had decided on his wardrobe this morning, after she and Andrea had gone shopping. It turned out that she presented him with his old holographic wardrobe, grinning. He couldn't stop the thought that ran through his head when he saw them, that he was going hate this outfit. But he had promised Ro the night before that he would wear whatever she picked out. Mentally he made a note never to promise anything to Ro without first knowing what it was. The outfit was hot and itchy. Luckily she said he didn't have to wear shoes.
"What do you think of this?" Casey asked, looking at him and holding out the pad.
Zee took it and started to read, missing as Casey leaned to the left to look out behind him at the window, then straighten up.
"It is very good."
"My editor doesn't take very good. What else do you think it needs?"
He looked at Casey blankly. "I don't know. What do you think?"
"Do you think it's too long?"
"It has the average number of words a column by you usually has."
Casey looked puzzled for a moment. "Well, if you had written it, what would you have done differently?"
Zee reread the article. "I would not have had your flourishes."
"Do you think I should keep them?"
"It's your article."
"Zee, this is called a second opinion. What else?"
Zee looked lost as he continued to study the article, unsure of as to what Casey wanted. It was a very nice article, telling the facts and truthful. "I think it's . . . fine the way it is. Don't you?"
Casey shook his head. "That's why I—yes, yes! I think it's fine! Thank you, Zee, for your help," he said taking the pad away.
"But I didn't do anything," Zee protested, confused. "I thought you didn't like your article?"
"I didn't say that," Casey grinned standing up.
"But you asked me all those questions. You sounded displeased with it."
Casey took his arm and pulled him up. "Well, you changed my mind, Zee. You're a master at the art of persuasion."
"Yes. You probably got it from Ro."
Zee looked at him from corner of his eye. "Yes, probably." Casey was acting strange. "Are you feeling all right, Casey?"
"I'm fine. Where do you think everyone is?"
"I don't know," Zee said blankly.
"Well, let's find them." Casey patted his back. "You go that way—"
"We just came from that way," Zee protested.
The reporter ignored him. "And I'll check this way. And we'll meet in the dining room if neither of us finds any of them."
"Someone could be upstairs," Zee suggested. "And if I do find them, how will you know?"
Casey paused, then smiled widely. "If you don't meet me, I'll know you found someone and go that way. Same thing for you. Okay, Zee?"
There were far better hunting methods, but Zee nodded. "Okay."
"Good, well, get going then," he grinned and started going towards his hunting grounds.
Zee watched him leave, then started back the same way he had come. Sometimes human behavior left him confused beyond reason or possibility.
As to his belief, he didn't find anyone after a quick but thorough search, and Zee headed towards the dining room. He opened the door and jumped at the loud:
Zee's eyes were wide as he took in the decorations and his friends. "Wha—!"
Ro rushed over and hugged him. "Happy birthday, Zee! Here, put this on!" She snapped a paper hat on his and giggled.
He touched the cone carefully and disliked the elastic string cutting into his chin. "Why aren't any of you wearing hats?" It seemed fair that they should all suffer together by wearing these . . . cone hats.
"You're the birthday boy, man," Bucky grinned.
"My birthday?" His processes fired to review the concept. "Oh, this was the day when I was first brought online!" He grinned.
"Five years old, Zeta," Dr. Selig smiled as he sat down.
"That's a whole hand," Ro stated childishly.
"It was Ro's idea," Selig explained, sensing the question. "We were chatting a few nights ago."
Casey chuckled. "I was the one who was supposed to get you out of the way while they set up."
Realization dawned in his head. "Ah, yes, that's why you were acting so strange."
"Well, stranger than usual," Ro corrected.
"Well, it was a surprise." He looked around, then looked disappointed. "Aren't there supposed to be cakes and presents?" His memory banks said there should be.
Bucky laughed first. "You taught him well, Ro!" He gave her a push.
"Lay off! Of course there's presents. What kind of friends do you think we are?"
"Good friends, hopefully." He meant it at face value, but the group laughed at the statement and the meaning in context.
"Very funny, Zee."
Casey and Andrea opened some cupboards and took out the gifts and small cake, where they had been hidden. Zeta watched as they were set down in front of him, eyes not budging once from the pile. He had never actually had presents. A present—singular, note—from Ro, but it was usually hastily wrapped or put into a bag with tissues. He never actually had boxes wrapped in papers, and he briefly wondered if anything was in them. Boxes under department store Christmas trees were usually empty, he found. Everyone else smiled at each other.
"Now, Tinman, which one are you going to open first?" Ro grinned, leaning over.
"Open mine," Bucky laughed and pointed out the yellow box, instantly going impatient when Zee actually pondered the question. Zee smiled and picked up the box.
"What is it?" he asked Bucky
"You open it to find out, Zee," Casey smiled.
"I know. I just wanted to know if Bucky knew."
"Hey! I bought that for you! Make one mistake and you never live it down," the boy genius grouched good-naturedly.
"Last year Bucky bought me something he grabbed off the shelf," Ro explained to the others.
"Hey, it was last minute notice. And I gave you the doll on purpose."
"Sure you did. Zee, rip the paper. We've done this before."
A little dubious, as this was a very nice wrapping, Zee did just that and opened the box. Inside was an old video, Bicentennial man, and Zee smiled at the similarities. "This must have been very difficult to find, Bucky."
"You have no idea. Well?" He seemed antsy, waiting for approval.
"Can we watch it?" Zee looked around at the table for permission.
"Well watch it tonight and stay up late!" Ro exclaimed. "Forget bedtimes." She ignored Zee's surprised face at her going against Dr. Selig's order. "We'll have popcorn and soda and everything."
He would ask whether he actually could stay up later, Zee decided, and retreated to safer ground. "Thank you, Bucky." He looked at the pile again, setting the video on his lap. "How about this one?" He pulled out a book that was tied shut with a ribbon.
"That's mine," Casey said helpfully. "Well, we all chipped in."
Zee was ignoring him, or his equivalent, when he opened the book Page after page were articles and pictures of him, Ro, of old friends they had met in passing, all there without having to process his memory. He shifted through the pages until the silence got his attention, He looked up to see them all staring at him. "Oh, thank you, Casey."
"No problem, Zee. Take a look at the third to last page."
Curious, Zee did just that then smiled brightly. Ro looked over his shoulder, then glared at her brother. "Where did you get that picture?"
"What, let me see," Bucky demanded gleefully as he grabbed the book corner and leaned, seeing Ro's embarrassment and wanting to know why. His jaw dropped. "No, not funny. Not funny, man. I thought you were my friend."
"You both were very exhausted," Zee said helpfully, smiling at the picture of the collapsed teenagers covered in feathers.
Casey took a sip of his drink. "Ruining a few dozen pillows would do that to you."
"Evil brother," Ro hissed, then looked at Zee. "You could have told us he took a picture."
"You didn't ask," he smiled innocently. He put the album on the table (purposely, both Ro and Bucky thought,) with the picture in question up.
"We'll pay for the pillows, Dr. Selig," Bucky muttered.
"He started it," Ro added.
"Who is this from?" Zee asked, holding up a small box.
Andrea answered. "Agent Bennet."
"Bennet?" Ro questioned. "I didn't tell him about the party."
"I wrapped it for him," the assistant smiled as Zee opened the box and pulled out a news pad. "It was for Zeta anyway."
Bucky frowned at it. "Run it, Zee."
Everyone was curious and watched as he opened the files it had been programmed with. "This is a NSA notice," Zee said, startled.
"That—" Ro started angrily.
"What a—" Bucky put in.
"It says my remains were found buried in a dump and that my threat has been eliminated." He grinned broadly.
"—wonderful man!" she finished, covering her mouth.
"—he's not that bad," Bucky finished, unable to continue his track as well as Ro, as his contained several idioms higher than PG-13.
"You're free, Zee!
"How'd he do it? Man, am I gonna have to start liking him now?"
It was possibly the best present yet. He wasn't going to be hunted anymore. He was going to have to thank Agent Bennet, if at all possible in person.
"Congratulations, Zeta. You're a free synthoid," Selig smiled, bringing him back to the present.
"Yes." He looked at the presents, then drew another out. Written on it was Andrea's name, so he smiled at her. "Thank you for the present."
"Don't thank me just yet," she advised, and Ro snickered into her hand, but managed to looked innocent when he looked at her questioningly.
"What are you looking at me for? Open it up!"
He should have taken Ms. Donosso's advice, because he ended up pulling out a shirt and matching socks. Emblazed on the side was a picture of the Tinman and a heart. "Oh . . . you shouldn't have," he said, trying not to show his distaste.
Andrea laughed, along with everyone else. "Told you."
"And you're wearing it tomorrow, even the socks," Ro grinned, poking him teasingly.
"Okay." Everyone noticed and grinned another smile when they saw him put the offending articles as far away as he could reach. Zee didn't notice though and grabbed a small box.
"This really isn't a present," Ro explained when he started to open it. "More like I'm returning it to you."
And inside, nestled on tissue paper, was Dr. Selig's old watch. He picked it up and looked at her. "You kept it?"
"Well, you kept it!" Ro countered.
"Do I know that from somewhere?" Dr. Selig asked.
"It is yours. You dropped it on the Nosis. Would you like it back?" Zee asked, already holding it out.
"And you kept it all this time?" He waved his hand in decline. "No, no, you keep it, Zeta."
"Thank you. And thank you, Ro." He checked the time, pleased to see that it was still running, then tried to slip it into his chest. After a moment of confusion when the watch didn't go in its old location, Zee remembered and put it into his jacket pocket.
Ro's other gift, or actual gift, was wrapped in bright purple paper with curling tassels and ribbon. He ripped the paper gently and opened the box, and then pulled out a fully white teddy bear with blue eyes holding a light blue rose. His fingers got lost in the long soft fur and Zee smiled as he hugged it to feel the fluffiness, then quickly grabbed Bucky's present as it slipped off his knees. "Thank you, Ro."
"I thought you'd like it. His eyes reminded me of yours."
Ro frowned at him. "Not funny, Zee. Friendly and caring and blue. And see, he's got a rose! You can sleep with him. So what's his name?"
"Doesn't he already have one?"
"Rule of teddy bears, Zee. They have no name until the owner gives it to him. Ignore the tag." She accented the order by ripping the paper off before he could read it. "Give him a real name!"
Selig smiled, seeing Zeta's answers and mannerisms at their source.
His memory went through teddy bear names. "Teddy?"
"Zee, be creative!"
"How about . . . Tam?"
Okay, don't tell Zee to be creative. "Okay, Tam it is!" she exclaimed holding out her arms.
"Why Tam?" Andrea asked, speaking everyone's question
"After the people that found me after I turned offline. Toby, Andy, and Maggie, T-A-M. That is okay, isn't it?" He sounded hopeful.
"It's perfect, Zee," Ro smiled.
"I'm sure Mr. Forschner would be enthusiastic," Selig agreed. "Well, I guess the last present's from me."
Zee eyed the box as he set Tam on his lap as well, wondering if Dr. Selig had followed Andrea's example of getting his clothes. It was a big enough box. He opened the top and peaked inside, then blinked as he pulled out some flip-flops.
"Ro's idea," Selig said smoothly.
"I figured that since you didn't like normal shoes since they confined your feet, you'd like flip-flops better," she explained.
"Oh. Thank you. I'll try them."
The scientist nodded, sensing the lack of pleasure at the gift and laughing quietly at it. "There's something else in there as well, Zeta."
"Oh." Like the clothes before them, Zeta put the flip-flips as far away from him as possible and peaked back into the box, lest it was more clothes. He pulled out a flat, square object wrapped in tissue paper. He unwrapped it carefully and blinked when he held it out. It was a photograph of all of them smiling. He didn't remember someone taking a picture for this. "How did you get this?"
Zee lips smiled and he looked back at the picture, then jolted when the lights turned off and the candles on the cake lit up in front of him.
"Make a wish and blow out the candles, Zee," Casey smiled.
"But don't tell anyone, otherwise it won't come true," Andrea added.
But what if it already came true? Zee wondered, but blew out the candles after a moment's pause.
Ro hugged him tightly and Bucky squeezed his forearm. "Happy birthday, Zee!" she whispered.
"So, who wants cake?" Selig asked rhetorically.
Selig peeked and stepped into the room and smiled at the sleeping occupants. They had stayed up late last night and had succumbed to the necessity of sleep only after a mild and groggy lunch. Andrea had wished him luck after she had eaten her share of cake and headed home the night before, and Casey had gone off to send in his column.
The room was a mess of plates and leftover food and drinks, of videos out of their boxes, and books off the shelves. Pillows were set on the floors still showing the indents and the drapes had been drawn.
The three were crowded asleep on the bed. Zeta had probably only fallen asleep after tucking his friends on the bed because his friends had done so, and decided that now was a fine time to recharge. Bucky was on the far end curled on his right side with a hand draped over the side. Ro slept in the middle on her left side curled against Zeta, arm around a pillow and hair a mess. And the last was sleeping on his left side shirtless—Selig only prayed he wasn't bottomless as well—and hugging Tam tightly, breathing through his mouth. (Selig had removed the snoring device. That had not been his idea.)
Silently he stepped over the mess and set the picture he had given Zeta up on the bedside table so it would be the first thing the synthoid saw when he woke up. Then he carefully rearranged the blankets over the three, making sure the Zeta was covered up to his neck. Dr. Selig brushed the dark bangs out of the way and smiled softly at the slumbering synthoid.
Just as carefully he slipped out, turned to turn off the light and take one last look at the three.
"Welcome home, Zeta." He flicked off the light, shut the door, and walked quietly to his office, hands tucked into his pockets.
Disclaimer: The Zeta Project and all adjoining characters are copyright to the respected individuals and companies (WB, creators, etc), no disrespect was meant in the writing of this story, and no copyright infringement was intended. Any coincidence to any event, real or fictional, was unintentional.
If you plan on suing, I'm an a college student who watches cartoons. I'm poor and can plea insanity. Enough said.
A/N: Although it carries of where Hologram Man left off, I did take some artistic licenses in the interpretation.
For one, I think nine chances out of ten, if a top-secret government weapons (synthoid) lab was destroyed, it would not be on the news, and they would only report Dr. Selig's dead if they recovered his body, making up an absurd story to cover their butts. There would not have been a news cast to say Dr. Selig had survived the bombing, because there would be no mention of the bombing. As to my theory as to his survival, he's leaving stuff out. I've got my own ideas on him, but I don't want to back myself into a corner if Zeta comes back on. (Please, please please! I woke up at seven in the morning, that's how much I loved the show.)
Two, just a general question. Why does Dr. Selig attend/speak/ect genetics talks, cyrogenetics, and aquatic regeneration if he's a synthoid expert? He's very well-rounded, is all I can say.
Three, as to Andrea Donosso, also my own theories which are conflicting terribly in my mind. All I'm willing to agree on is that she thinks she's human. Whether or not she is is something I haven't been able to agree on with myself.
Four, I think Agent Bennet is a man of honor and doing what's in his job. If he heard Dr. Selig himself say that Zeta had been programmed to be harmless, he would have doubts and at least bring it to his superiors. Whether or not he'd be replaced depends on his boss. But I firmly believe that his superiors would still hunt down Zeta and attempt to remove the module. Synthoids can't be cheap.
Five, in case you're wondering about Zee's spontaneous hand-closing, (which was not caused by exposure to Novo,) it was actually his subconscious (sub-programming?) way of expressing anger or jealousy. So nothing was wrong with him at that point, unless responding to human emotion is wrong for a synthoid.
Six, although I love ZeeRo and all the implications, there are some problems realistically (look, I'm talking about a cartoon realistically! Read that, lawyers!) with the whole relationship. This story is more of a pre-relationship, if anything, until Zee can truly understand everything and Ro can answer her own questions and confront her own worries.
Lastly, I finished the story! Yeah, started it after I saw Hologram Man and got the general idea, on August 9th, 2002. Finished (baring all rewrites or additions) on August 28th, 2002. (It took less than a month! Haha!) 100 pages if you count the author notes, which is why I am rambling. I want 100 pages, dang it!
Achieve: Feel free to place this story on any webpage, or link to it, or print it up. Just drop me an e-mail so that I know. Or just drop a line to say you read it! It strokes my ego. Yeah, I know that was shameless. Thanks
Novo: (Latin)to make anew, refresh, revive, change, alter, invent
: The Greek symbol for Zeta.