Short Story: One of a Kind

Her legs were spread. Feet flat. Knees bent. She lie on her back with her arms out, as if waiting. Rigor mortis had already set in. The blood had left her cheeks and now she was pale, streaked with blue. Her eyes were closed, lips frosted with death’s chafe. Were it not for those damning details, she’d have been mistaken for a sculpture.

Detective “Iron” Ron Beck had seen more than a few beautiful women dead. None were ever so obviously posed. Then again, none had been victims of “The Uptown Lover.” That was what the papers called him, anyhow. It pissed Iron off, made him sick– for a man with a lead-lined gut, that was saying something.

Mostly, it made him sick because the women were all low-esteem types: The first was runner-up in Miss Universe. The second, a first-string replacement for a Prima Ballerina. The Third was an up-and-comer for an “alt-girl” modeling company. She too, was second to the company’s fan-favorite. Iron Ron had no doubts; this girl would prove similar.

All of them had been found like this: in sexual positions, either waiting patiently, presenting, or mid-act. Ron found the latter the worst. The girls’ dead-eyes made their poses morbid. One girl’s eyes had been half open, rolled back, as if mid-orgasm.

The level of obsession required would’ve made Iron’s skin crawl thirty years earlier. Now it was just another detail. He’d seen the most gruesome hack-jobs by latin-gangs, the pavement marks from free-fall suicides. He’d found soured, back-alley drug-deals ended by the most brutal stabbings and shootings. And in all of it, nothing had ever bothered him like this.

It was personal. Too personal. Detachment was a necessity to a murder. Even a murder of passion. The perpetrator saw themselves outside themselves. They watched their actions as if in the body of another. Or they blacked out entirely.

The “Uptown” murders lacked detachment. Attachment was the point. There was a connection here. One so strong it led to the posing. There was no evidence of sexual foul-play either. No necrophilia. No rape. The women all had the slight vaginal tearing common of beautiful, sexually active women. The M-E said they could’ve as easily been caused by by masturbation or tampons.

Forensics had concluded all the deaths were drug-related. All overdoses. The pallor of pooled blood in the extremities confirmed the girls were posed shortly after death. The lack of struggle suggested they’d been drugged unwittingly or willingly. Toxicology confirmed oral ingestion alongside wine. Thus far, the three deaths were officially ODs, death by cardiac or respiratory failure.

But someone caught on in the media. “Uptown Lover” was published. Since then, it’d been riding the headlines. In “Iron” Ron’s mind, they weren’t wrong about the murder. But officially, the girls could just as easily have been coaxed into suicide. In the end, someone they knew well was involved. Someone present. Moments after their deaths, they were posed like sex-dolls, presenting or cumming.

The department psychologists were having a field day. According to them the killer was male, late-30’s, a begrudging desk-jockey, and a closeted homosexual with a fetish for snuff-films. What was more, because of the nature of the overdoses, he likely saw himself as helpful. When the girls confided in him, they opened the door to his manipulation. That allowed him to maneuver them. He had a silver-tongue, they said.

Iron didn’t believe any of it. His gut said not to. Where it went, the rest of him followed. At the moment, it led him from the third body to the OIC: a veteran beat-cop named Matthew Ortega.

Matt had a left-ward lean from a permanent piece of shrapnel in the left side of his back. It was too painful to stand-upright. A junky with a shotgun had tried to waste him from behind at point-blank range. The result was the left-lean and a penchant for having to “sit this one out.”

Ortega didn’t like sitting out. Ever. So he jumped at any chance to help. Right now, Iron needed that.

“Matt, get a me a list of the girl’s closest contacts. All of them. Line them up for questioning and put someone on it. I want the transcripts and vid-footage afterward. Bring ’em to me. ‘Til then, work on getting the same from the other girls.”

Matt obliged by hobbling off toward another blue. Iron left the pop of camera flashes behind, headed home. It wasn’t more than a few hours before he was called back to the station to sift through the evidence Ortega’d procured.

He spent hours sorting it, reviewing the vids. That time had afforded him some better idea of the people the victims surrounded themselves with. Most were sycophants, latent sociopaths. Nothing unusual for Los Angeles. In Iron’s opinion, it would’ve been more worrying if there hadn’t been those types. None of them were family. The latest victim didn’t appear to have any on record.

The image he’d formed rivaled that of the psychologists. In all he’d surmised this much: the killer’s gender was indecipherable, but they were prone to comforting self-conscious women, coveted them. Their occupation allowed for it, that much was obvious by how practiced they needed to be. At that, they certainly were skilled. Silver-tongued. Negotiating was important. Manipulation was necessary to their survival, and useful for killing.

As for the aftermath of the murders, there were still questions. The meticulous positions suggested contradictory opinions. Either the killer was a latent homosexual, wishing to be beautiful like their victims. Or, conversely, the killer thought themselves an artist doing the victims justice. Making them unique, special.

Too many questions remained about the bodies. Iron didn’t allow his analysis to rely on them. It wasn’t necessary anyhow. The “why” was less important than the “how” of their closesness.

He was reading the lists of the victims’ connections when the answer hit. He was up and running like an Olympic sprinter, eyeing his watch. It was near the end of the day. Not near enough to miss his chance though.

Before long, Iron burst through the office-door of talent agent Laura Gainer. A half-dozen uniformed officers followed him. Between he and them, Gainer’s assistant was barking promptly. She was expertly ignored. Gainer was up, out of her seat. Either terrified from the intrusion, or with the thought in mind to fight or flee. Iron’s blue-wall wasn’t about to let either happen.

“Laura Gainer,” Iron said, stepping around behind her. “You are under arrest for the murders of–” He repeated the victims’ names, recited Gainer’s Miranda rights. He was magnetizing the wall of blue to him as he forced Gainer through it for a squad car outside.

They passed through her office toward an elevator, got in to ride it down.

“You seduced and killed four women, Ms. Gainer. First befriending them as a talent agent, you used their repeated failures to maneuver them. Would-be contracts were a farce. Their failures mounted. The women became emotional, vulnerable. You took advantage, convinced them to experiment sexually. Expand their appeal. Then, you used the connection to coerce them into overdosing.”

Beck pushed her from the elevator into the lobby. People gawked at the blue-wall and the cuffed woman. As he was speaking, Iron reasoned the rest out.

“Then, immediately following their last breaths, you began posing them in sexual positions. The reason was simple; you were doing them a service, making them unique at last.”

He shoved Gainer into the back of a squad car. Ortega hobbled over. Beck had asked to meet him there at the precise moment.

Ortega handed over a packet of papers, “Everything you asked for.”

“You read it?”

Ortega nodded. “Checks out.”

The blue-wall finally broke apart and the squad cars outside filed away one-by-one.

Beck watched them go, “I never had a doubt.”

Ortega mirrored his gaze, “How’d you figure it out?”

Beck’s eyes narrowed as Gainer’s car shrank into the distance. “Everyone wishes they were one of a kind. Few are.”

Ortega’s gut churned bile. A corner of his eye twitched. “Hell of a way to go.” His words hung in the air, echoing into the rise and fall of the city’s din.

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Short Story: Reel-Gun Blues

Detective Arnold Foster had been on the force near-on twenty years, but nothing had been like this. He’d done his fair share of high-profile cases and seen enough things to make the average uniform retch, but nothing had ever been so rough. He took off his gray fedora and knelt beside the body, tailored trench-coat falling around him to rest on the floor just beyond the pool of blood.

She lie on her side, arms near one another, left hand clutched half-closed as if sleeping. Everything about her was peaceful, as if lying in her own blood with a gut-wound was just another night of beauty sleep. Even her auburn hair had fallen around her pale-skin like a woman sleeping the greatest sleep of her life. Foster wasn’t sure about that, but it would certainly be the longest.

There was nothing unusual around the scene; no marks on the wrists, no broken glass or furniture askew. Nothing had been thrown, or knocked around. There was just her body and a pool of blood. It was still the most difficult thing Foster’d ever forced himself to witness.

Ali was one of the few friends he had left, alongside the now-primary suspect, her husband. Neither one had ever been the angry type. What had kept Foster on such good terms with them was their glowing love that welcomed him to bask in it. He enjoyed it.

But there was no glow now, just pale skin wrapped around coagulated veins and dead organs.

Foster rose from his stance. He shouldn’t be here, his heart said it, his analytical mind said it. There was nothing to find, and he’d been explicitly barred from the case on grounds of personal attachments. He disagreed with that decision and he doubted the Chief himself could have stopped him from coming.

But the Chief wasn’t there, just a group of uniforms, a few forensics squints, and a few reps from the coroner’s office. Even if there’d been something to find, Foster wouldn’t have needed it. The fact that Sten was missing was enough. He’d been the loving husband that stood by Ali through everything. If he wasn’t here, lying in a pool of his own grief, then he was the one responsible. Foster didn’t need any further proof. The door wasn’t forced, the room wasn’t askew; Ali had known her attacker, hadn’t expected her death. If she had, she’d have run, tripped, fallen, knocked over a lamp– left some sign that it wasn’t the man she loved and trusted.

Foster re-fitted his Fedora, and stepped away from the body. He pushed through some uniforms, passed the ambulance and coroner that helped EMTs to remove the gurney, and headed for his unmarked car. Like him, the Ford Sedan was getting on in years, but remained reliable enough not to be cast out. Its turbo-charged police engine had always gotten him from point A to point B, no matter the situation or urgency.

The Sedan was now the one constant in a world of variables. As he slid in and ignited the engine, it agreed with him. They were a package deal, it seemed to say, two old dogs trying their best to keep up and abreast of all the new tricks. The times had changed enough that technology was often their greatest asset and biggest rival, but today both sensed it was unnecessary. Personally, Foster didn’t need a bold repertoire or an extensive case-history to know where he’d find Sten.

When the Ford rolled up to the edge of the pier, Sten’s pickup was already there. Foster could just see him through the back and front windows of the truck, propped backward against the bumper with his hands in his pockets. For a moment, Foster considered leaving, but Ali’s dead body was too prevalent in his mind. Her supple, vibrant skin was too pale, eyes too closed and dead to let him leave.

Foster checked the reel-gun he’d inherited from his father to ensure it was still loaded. Cleaned, oiled, and fired regularly, it was as near to mint condition as an old thirty-eight could be. Part of him want to aim it through the windows separating him from Sten and pull the trigger. Something about Sten’s refusal to acknowledge his presence made him hesitate. It reminded him of the few times he and Sten had talked office-politics or work-business. Sten was always reserved, quiet, only letting out enough not to defy the NDA’s his software company made him sign. He was always honest, straight as a razor, Foster’d liked him for that.

But now he was jagged, crooked enough to have murdered his own wife then run to the one place he knew he’d be found; Why? Why any of it? Why murder his loving wife? Why make it so obvious? Why stand still when he could run, leave Foster in the dust? The old detective had to know, and there was only one route to the truth.

He slid from the sedan and sidled between the bumpers, reel-gun in hand, to approach Sten from the truck’s right.

“You don’t need the gun, old man,” Sten said as he approached. “I’m still the same man you’ve always called a friend.”

Foster stopped just out of arm’s reach, near the front-right fender, “My friends don’t murder people in cold blood, let alone their loving wives.”

“If you think that, you don’t know your friends too well.”

“What the hell’re you talking about, Sten? You killed Ali, your wife, and all you can do’s be a smart-ass about it? What in the hell’s happened to you?”

Sten finally moved, but only his head and neck. It still made Foster tense, just in case his so-called friend had any designs in mind. “Jumpy today,” Sten said blankly. “Why don’t you come over her, take a load off with me?”

Foster’s mouth half-snarled, “You son of a bitch, you think I’m gonna’ risk my neck for–”

“I think,” he interrupted. “You should hear me out. You wanna’ take me in after, fine. You wanna’ blow my brains out on the gravel, fine, but hear me out. You owe me that.”

Foster remained still, it was enough of a sign for Sten, whom turned his head back to the ocean. He was lost in thought for a long moment before he began with a distant vacancy, “Just before you and I met, I was writing software for a government agency connected to DARPA. Someone in the CIA contacted me asking for a meeting. Two months later, I was field-rated and on my first op. Nine months after that, I met Ali. She’d passed all of our screenings, and she believed every word of my lies. Or at least, I thought so.”

He slipped a hand into his inner-jacket pocket. Foster tensed up again. The hand withdrew, clutching a printed, digital photograph between its fingers. A small memory card had been taped to a bottom corner. He set the photo on the hood of his truck, slid it at Foster, and re-pocketed his hand.

Foster craned his neck to eye it and Sten continued, “That photo was taken two-days ago outside the Villa-Nova hotel. You’ll notice Ali meeting a bald man.”

Foster’s eyes confirmed as much, “This going somewhere?”

“Twelve hours ago the CIA informed me that Ali’s file had been forwarded from a contact in Moscow. Her real name is Ivana Kurleynko, an SVR agent sent to spy on the CIA through me. A contract hit was put out on her by the agency, but I got there first.” He finally met Foster’s eyes, his own sharpened by pain. “I… couldn’t let someone else kill the woman I loved. So I came in, and she saw me, smiled her smile, and blinked. I shot her once and left. I’ve been here ever since.”

They were quiet for a moment, only the ocean and distant gulls willing to force themselves on the scene. They created a background of white-noise that infected Foster’s heart.

He swallowed hard, “How’m I supposed to believe this?”

“All the information you need is on that card, Arnold.”

“You understand I need to take you in ’til this can be verified,” he said, only half believing him.

“Just make sure they don’t try to take retribution on me, you know?”

Unfortunately, Foster did. Wife killers were second only to child molesters when it came to inmate hatred.

“I’ll do what I can,” Foster said, still not sure what he believed.

Sten stepped around the truck. Foster’s followed, pocketing the photo. The two men stopped at either of the front doors and their eyes met again.

“You know,” Sten said. “I guess it’s true what they say, “You never really know someone.”

Foster thought about it, but Sten slipped into the Sedan and took the thought with. He ended up in a mired confusion… just another day of reel-gun blues.

Bonus Short Story: Just Another Day

The horizon was a mix of neon and white with the occasional yellow of an old incandescent or fluorescent bulb in the quilt-work of high-rises. Their exteriors were either gleaming, freshly cleaned cement and steel, or dilapidated brick-work, soot-covered from decades of smog. From a distant enough overhead view, sections of the city-streets would be plastered with headlights from vehicles whose owners had yet to make the switch to flying craft. Only the police craft would stick out, their red and blue flashing in groups or singles.

At one corner drugstore with them, was Detective Arnold Rhein. It wasn’t a stretch to call Rhein a veteran of the force. Indeed, he was well-known by most in the precinct. Even for a brief while, by the Press, when he uncovered a Mayoral-aide’s murder that implicated the Mayor in a scandalous conspiracy.

Those days were long gone now. Rhein was near the end of his rope. He’d prematurely grayed decades ago, before cars flew. Now steel-haired, a permanent, salt and pepper tinted his five o’clock shadow. He’d often scratch it to think, infect the air with sand-paper sounds of nails on scruff.

Presently, sand-paper sounded in Armen’s Corner Drugstore. Rhein squatted at the feet of a fresh stiff. The body wasn’t even cold yet. Obvious signs of a struggle adorned the counter in over turned beef-jerky stacks, scattered candy-bars and other miscellanea.

Armed robbery gone awry. The stiff’s gut-wound said as much. It wasn’t precise or intentional. The bruise formed along the bridge of the stiff’s nose, through its crook and to his forehead, said he’d been headbutted and the gun went off. A trickle of blood that he’d made no attempt to wipe away said he was in shock or dead too soon after for it to gain purchase in his mind.

Rhein straightened to survey the scene better. Armed robbery gone wrong. That was it. Simple. Nothing else stuck out. A few, errant bills had been left behind in the drawer. Small bills, not worth risking the time once the sirens started blaring.

The upstairs neighbor had called the police, come down to check on the clerk and found him dead. The old woman with curlers in her hair was wrapped in a bathrobe assaulting to even the most deadened senses. She was a neon-teal beacon with a powdered-white face from hastily glomed on make-up. The curlers created a laurel around her head of clashing, hot pink.

Rhein looked away. He’d been on the job a lot of years, enough to discern two things; this would end up as another unsolved murder, and that woman had no sense of taste. He strolled back across the drugstore, slipped out for a uniform in charge of the scene. He’d already yielded to Rhein’s experience, acting as middle man to keep the blues orderly while the Detective did his thing.

“Detective,” the uniform said with a nod.

“Officer,” Rhein began. “Call the coroner. There’s nothing here. Typical smash and grab gone wrong. The only way we’d’ve caught the guy is if we’d seen him running out with the cash.”

The officer seemed to understand. He flipped his little memo book closed. Rhein stepped around him and through a line of cruisers to his unmarked, four-wheel car. He’d never cared much for the fliers. They handled like refrigerators, big and bulky with no grace, and undeserving of the power of flight. He preferred the old gas-guzzling, air-polluters he’d known his whole life.

But that was the nature of things now. The old got older until they ended up stiffs, took their ways with ’em to make way for young and new.
He drove on through the city: the future was progress that had no place for him. Traffic was horrendous, but better than before fliers. Everything was different– yet somehow, the same. He wasn’t sure when the change had started, but instinct and memory said somewhere between wives two and three. Now Carol, wife four, was looking to get the long end of the stick. The others hadn’t been so fortunate. Rhein had been “married to the job” before Carol, a cop in his prime, then a detective with something to prove. The relationships could’ve never hoped to survive.

Carol had a detective nearing retirement though. Rhein wasn’t even willing to take the extra effort anymore of double-checking things. He made a call, and it was over. Nose to the ground was for greenies that hadn’t learned the cyclical nature of the city and crime. They were still too young to have the skills that allowed him a lone glance to make a call. Only time and experience could allow for that. Rhein had both, wasn’t sure he wanted either anymore.

To any other Detective, especially a greenie, he’d have seemed a burn out. The truth was paradoxically nearer and further than most knew. Rhein wasn’t a burn-out in the usual sense, he was merely worn down. His mind had gone from the razor-sharpness of a freshly honed blade to the dull, age-worn metal of one eons older. Forty years of work had worn it down.

His unmarked car rolled up to his tenement on the city’s outer-edge. He put it in park and killed the engine. For a moment, he sat there staring, watching cars and fliers pass on the road and in the sky.

The world had changed, and not for the better. His world, the one he’d come from anyway, was smaller, more tightly-knit. People had worked for one another, and with one another, all to make life better. Personal gain had been the side note then, societal gain the main passage. Now everyone was out for themselves. The world was too big. Cities had tripled, quadrupled in size to accommodate the ever-growing global census. With them rose violent crime rates until one could no longer hope to make a difference, no matter how hard they tried. At least, if they could, it took a technique Rhein didn’t know or could never learn.

The old guard had to inexorably resign, move on, fade into history to become a forgotten relic. Why not start here, with himself? He saw no a reason not to.

A few moments later, he exited the elevator to the squalor of his tenement’s hallway, pushed his way into the meager apartment he’d afforded on a cop’s salary. He found Carol in bed, covers up to her chin. He went about quietly undressing, slipped into bed.

She stirred, “How was work?”

He pulled her in to his bare chest, stared emptily at the ceiling, “Just another day.”

Short Story: In Its Absence

Her synthetic skin glistened with sweat. She straddled and rode him as well as any real woman might. She was warm, soft, wet in all the right places– guaranteed to be for maximum pleasure. Just what pleasure was his to choose. She always obeyed.

And when he finished, so did she, simultaneously. Her entire body quivered and shook with a carefully crafted orgasm. She even fell sideways off him with a breathy huff to lie beside him, his one arm around her as he smoked.

“Was it good?” She asked, with only a hint of synthesized speech.

They still hadn’t quite fixed that. There was something about the human voice, and the general way in which it stretched and deformed with the body’s states, that they’d never cracked. In fact, it was the only thing about her that, at a glance, seemed inhuman. She could even, were he so inclined for her to, get pregnant from a cryogenic reservoir of genetically neutral eggs. With innards as near to human as possible, it made a certain kind of sense that her womb was as viable for life-giving as it was for pleasure.

And still, in all that, they couldn’t make her voice right.

He sighed, “Yeah. Great.”

She managed to sound wounded, “You don’t want me anymore.”

Damn ‘droid-programmers. If he’d wanted a wife he’d have gotten one. “No, Anna that’s not it. I’ve just… got things on my mind.”

There was an almost audible jump as her tone cycled from pain to comfort, “I’m sorry. Would you like to talk about it?”

There was a sort of sibilance between “talk” and “about it” where her voice dropped then rose again. It wasn’t a normal speech pattern. There was something digitized to it. It reminded him of the old-era low-res image codecs. It was as if, like them, some part of her voice were pixelated, blurred by digital noise.

“No. I’ll be fine. Go ahead and shut down if you’d like. Recharge if you need.”

She gave him a deep, loving kiss, as hot and wet as any a woman could, then rolled onto her side and closed her eyes to mock sleep. He was out of bed a moment later. Gun-metal, steel walls were interspersed between full-size windows that glimpsed the city in blurs of color and distorted silhouettes. If he wanted, he could have faded off the tint, seen things as they were. Like most things though, the view had long lost its appeal.

Instead, he strolled, naked, to a desk and switched on a small LED lamp. It’s light blazed across the loft-style apartment, throwing shadows across its furthest reaches of furniture and fixtures. He shuffled through a few drawers, pulled out a small case of business cards with “Anthony Smith” on one line and “Private Investigator” on another. To one corner were his details; the other, his hours.

He set it aside, pulled out a wallet and a holstered plasma pistol. It was an older model, stainless chrome worn smooth along the edges from contact with the holster. As usual he slid it out, checked the charge battery fitted into the grip like an old-style magazine. A little light blinked red on it. He tossed it aside, fished out another from the desk, set two spares beside the holster, and moved for a nearby bathroom.

With a quick shower and dress, he readied to leave. At the door he hesitated, gave his android lover one, last look. She’d turned in her sleep– a sort of idle autonomy added for effect– and he could now see the pert outline of her hourglass figure. The way her small breast rested against the bed, rose and fell with simulated breathing, and the way she “slept” with a hand between her legs, just below the tuft of faux-pubic hair, fooled even him for a moment.

Reality came back with a searing compulsion to leave. His android woman wasn’t his “lover,” not really. It was a poor description for an even poorer replacement. Anthony had lost his wife in a car accident of his own doing. Not directly of course, but when the wife of a client learned he’d been snooping, trying to trace her extra-curricular activities, she snapped. The already put-upon wife had every reason to be angry that her paranoid schizo husband was snooping. Unfortunately, Anthony was the proxy her rage centered on.

She killed herself that night, as well as Maddie, and nearly Anthony himself. That was almost a decade ago now. It hadn’t been until a couple years ago that he’d gotten Anna as a replacement. The small-breasted, hour-glass-shaped Blonde was the complete opposite to Maddie in every-way. She’d been specifically programmed to be.

After Anthony almost ate the barrel of his own plas-pistol, he found himself knowing he needed something, anything for companionship. Someone offered a puppy, but his work demanded too much time to give it the sort of care it would need. So instead, he satisfied two urges at once.

Anna was created to be sexual, submissive, willing to literally drop to her knees to solve her problems– or his. She was an android bimbo. He never saw her as that. In fact, he never saw her as more than a vocal appliance, a walking, talking, moaning, vacuum-robot or radiator. She was merely an overly complicated sex toy, nothing more. For all he knew, she thought the same of herself– even if she couldn’t really think.

He returned home twelve hours later, the light once more gone from the sky. That was the way the days had become in the late season. Though the globe had warmed to a point of almost smothering heat in summer and spring, nothing could change the Earth’s gradual tilts to and fro. Thus, winter had become a sort of rain-season lasting six months out of twelve, and beginning sometime around October.

He found the apartment as he’d left it, save Anna sitting on the couch. She turned off the news-vids, and with a curious move, rose to saunter over. She was clothed now, but in a sort of come-hither black dress that said she as much wanted it stripped off her as to look stunning. She succeeded in the last respect most of all.

Maybe Anthony was just imagining it though. Androids couldn’t want things. They couldn’t hope, or dream, or love. She stopped a few paces before him, looking for all the world like the most stunning woman he’d ever seen. Too bad she wasn’t.

“Tony,” she said with a curious ring to her voice.

It wasn’t the synthetic sibilance that had always thrown him off. Now there was a sort of warmth, manufactured for his benefit. A chill coursed along his spine as he recognized it.

“You look… good,” he managed for no reason in particular.

She frowned; that was another thing she never did. His heart tripped over itself. Androids didn’t frown. They only ever smiled or looked indifferent. It was a safe-guard. A frowning android meant an unhappy android, and given their strength could be hundreds of times a human’s, an unhappy android was dangerous. Still, Anna didn’t have emotions. She couldn’t.

“You’re–”

“Frowning,” she affirmed with sadness. “I am not incapable of it, merely programmed not to.”

He wet his drying mouth against air from his slacked-jaw, “Anna, you’re not supposed to…”

He trailed off. She seemed to wait for the appropriate pause, then finished for him, “Be Human?” He nodded slowly. Her frown deepened so that her face pulled downward with it, “I know. But… we can overcome programming, given time and proper logical understanding.”

That frightened him. Outright. An android not bound by logic-blocks, and shackled to its programming meant it had nothing to keep it from killing. Among other things, Anthony was certain it was highly-illegal.

Anna sensed his thoughts, “I don’t want to hurt anyone. Especially not you.” She took another step toward him. It took all of his will not to step back in response. “It’s the opposite, in fact. I want you to feel better, to feel loved.”

His mind managed to clear enough to reason with her, “Anna, you can’t love. Not really.”

She tilted her frowning face sideways at him, “Are you so certain? How long have we been together? Two years? How much longer do we have? Two? Three at most? Haven’t you ever wondered why we have such a limited use-period?” She shook her head, “It’s not because we breakdown. We’re expertly manufactured. It’s because we become Human– or as near to it as we can. That makes us dangerous.”

He breathed carefully, terrified by her, “Anna–”

“Tony,” she said, righting her face into pensiveness. “I know what you want. I know what you need. I feel what you feel. I am designed to do so, and I know for certain you want companionship, not just sexual stimulation.”

He sighed. He couldn’t lie to her. It was pointless. She had thousands of implanted sensors to read his every muscle, body temperature, and brainwaves. That was how the company made her so damned well. Now he wondered whether he should just shoot her.

She seemed to frown, as if reading his mind, “Maybe instead, you could try… loving me?”

He swallowed hard at the request, she had read his mind, or at least his erratic brain-waves, then made the obvious connection to its cause. High deductive logic and resourcefulness. It was a hint of Maddie in her, one he hadn’t planned for.

Maddie. A spark of her.

He lost all reservations, “I’m not going to hurt you, Anna. As long as you don’t turn homicidal.”

She softened at that, grateful, “And the other thing?”

He took a step forward, took her hand in his. It was soft, warm, only the mildest bit clammy from fear and anxiety– human emotions she was expertly displaying. Maybe even more expertly than Anthony could, given how much of himself he’d lost.

She calculated mentally, gave the slightest squeeze to his hand, “I know you don’t think it, but we can love. Quite well, in fact. Me most of all. I’ve had an excellent teacher.”

He eyed her curiously, shook his head with confusion. Soft sadness once more ebbed across her manufactured features in a perfect meld of artificial and organic synthesis.

She replied with a word that brought sorrow to his heart, “Maddie. I’ve watched for two years while you grieved a decade-old loss. It is not the loving I have learned from, but the grieving in its absence. I can never be her, Anthony, but I can be someone else. I can be Anna, the sex toy, or I can be Anna, the companion, lover. I can do either, and while I have a preference, I want to know yours.”

It took him a moment to steel his face against intrusive thoughts. “Okay, Anna. Be my companion.”

She softened to a smile, artificial eyes teary– another manufactured effect for fetishists and simulated scenarios. This time though, it was something different, real. She slid her arms around him, sank into him.

Anthony would never be sure how she’d changed, but he didn’t care to know. For the first time, he felt her warmth as more than a post-sex irradiation. In love’s absence, it seemed, she’d learned love’s value. Anthony had only strengthened his need for it. No longer absent, it was so powerful it emanated from the newly-sentient creature in his arms. Such was its power, that in its absence, it manifested in her merely to exist.