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Paradise Shifts

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“I don’t know why you won’t just let me move in with you. You’d never tinker in my head without me knowing,” Dorian said. “I’d be the ideal roommate. I won’t eat your food. I won’t make a mess in the bathroom. I don’t even need air, John.”

“For the last time, no,” John replied. He hated it when Dorian cornered him in the squad car about stuff like that. “Stop asking.” He tried to concentrate on the road, but it was hard with Dorian in the seat beside him, sulking.

“Why?”

“Because I’m not sharing my living space with someone who’s not even technically alive!” John snapped. “You’re not human, and you’re not a hot woman, and that’s pretty much my litmus test for a roommate.”

Dorian frowned, but before he could say anything else a call came over the radio that nearby store had reported a burglary in progress.

“Let’s hit it,” John said, shelving the conversation—for good, he hoped.

The suspect had last been seen fleeing south, and when they spotted him running down an alley, Dorian leapt out of the car while it was still in motion and ran the guy down. John had to admit that was a pretty good trick. He blocked the mouth of the alley and watched Dorian tackle the man from behind. John got out to help him—not that he needed it.

After Dorian had snapped the handcuffs on and as he was pushing the man into the cruiser he remarked, “What a waste.”

“What is?” the suspect grunted.

“You’re very handsome. It’s just such a pity that your morals don’t match your face. Why don’t you just settle down and find a nice woman—or man? Forget this crime business. You still have time to turn things around, have a family, find some real values.”

Everyone paused for a moment. Dorian, the suspect, and even Kennex froze, replaying this in their heads.

The suspect . . . who John supposed was kind of handsome, in a rather tough, unshaven kind of way, looked wary. “Thanks. I’ll take that under consideration,” he said slowly.

“Well, that was awkward for all of us,” John muttered. He and Dorian got into the cruiser. He glanced at Dorian, who looked embarrassed and confused. “Think we oughta go see your debugger?”

Dorian frowned. “It upsets me when you phrase things that way.”

“What way?” John pulled into traffic and headed back to the station.

“Debugger. It makes me feel alientated. You could have worded it more tactfully. You know—‘How are you feeling? Is there something wrong?’ Humans don’t have debuggers. Humans visit the doctor.”

“Dorian,” John said. “You are not human.”

Another call came in over the radio. “Kennex,” John grunted in response.

“John, I’d like you to come back to headquarters,” Maldonado told him.

“I was just headed in to process a suspect. Why? What’s up?”

“There was a break-in at headquarters.”

“At headquarters?” John repeated, horrified. “Is everyone all right?”

“We’re all fine. Just dandy,” Maldonado told him with just a hint of bitterness. “We never even noticed. We might never have found out about it except Rudy noticed a glitch in the time log of the surveillance videos.”

“Do we know what they were there for?”

Maldonado sighed. “See Rudy about it.”

oOoOoOo

They met Rudy in his labs, where Valerie was trying to calm him down.

“They took my iphone—which was vintage, by the way, vintage—it was my grandfather’s and it was very special to me—and a bunch of chips from some discontinued watch drones, some V10 earpieces, and some DRN parts, and—”

“Sounds like a load of junk to me,” John remarked.

Rudy drew himself up. “I feel violated.”

Dorian and John exchanged a glance. Dorian sighed. “We should at least humor him, John, even though he’s being somewhat overdramatic. After all, someone did manage to break into headquarters.”

John blinked. “What—what did he say?” Rudy asked.

John groaned. “He’s been like this all day. I don’t know what his problem is. He keeps saying . . . things. He’s acting even screwier than usual. You wanna have a look at him—Doc?” he asked, giving Dorian a sarcastic glance.

“Get in the chair, get in the chair,” Rudy said promptly. Dorian glanced despondently around the lab before slipping into the chair.

Valarie patted his shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”

Rudy opened Dorian up and began poking around. “I see . . . yes, it’s just as I suspected. His ExpresSync chip has burned right out. Look at this.” He held something small and blackened up with a small pair of pliers and John winced. There was something revolting about seeing his partner’s malfunctioning innards.

“What’s that do?”

“It’s a clever electronic device with an advanced ALESU microprocessor which regulates the interface between the 25-I unit and the—”

“Less Greek, more caveman,” John instructed tiredly as Rudy closed Dorian’s head and the synth sat up.

Rudy sighed. He began to wave his hands around like he was doing charades. “Caveman. Okay. Caveman. Him talk. Him feelings big. Him talk feelings—”

“Jesus Christ, Rudy, I didn’t mean actualcaveman. Just break it down for me!” Kennex glared while Valerie giggled. When he turned his scowl on her, she shrugged.

“I thought it was funny. You know, they say that an excellent way of dealing with a difficult, demanding person is to do exactly what you’re asked to do in an over-the-top way that makes your tormentor look silly.” She smiled at Rudy, who looked like he would have dropped something or tripped over something if he hadn’t been standing still.

“I wasn’t tormenting him,” Kennex protested, growing increasingly aggravated. “Something is wrong with my partner, and I’m just trying to—”

“I like it when you call me your partner,” Dorian interrupted with a dreamy look on his face. Kennex glanced at him and had to do a double-take. “Um. I mean.” Dorian straightened and looked away, blinking hard. “I mean. I feel pleasure when you call me your partner instead of a synthetic. It makes me feel closer to you, and like you value me not just as a machine, but as a person.” Dorian’s forehead wrinkled. “Did I say all that out loud?”

Rudy wrung his hands. “You see, as I was trying to explain, Dorian has simulated feelings—er, or well, feelings, at any rate, just like you or I. But Dorian also has this chip. It interfaces with his speech—er, that is,” Rudy flinched as John got that look in his eye again—“it allows him to consider what he feels and evaluate whether to express those feelings based on past experiences. It runs an algorithm that sorts through all of Dorian’s past interactions and the personalities and behaviors of the group of people around him, as well as internal programming which—” Rudy heaved a sigh. “It’s—it’s what you and I would call using our common sense. Dorian hasn’t got a common sense. Instead he’s got basically what you might call a giant filter that sorts through past data at lightning speed and helps him decide whether it’s appropriate to share his feelings, and in what setting.”

“So it’s sort of like an inhibition unit,” John put in.

“No. Well. No. Perhaps? A little,” Rudy agreed. “More like . . . well, yes, that or even a tact unit. And it’s burnt out. He needs a new one.”

“Okay, I’ll stop by Radio Shack on my way into work tomorrow.”

Rudy looked offended. “It’s hardly a—”

“I was joking. Are you gonna whip us up a new one or what?”

“Would that it were that easy. You do know they were originally invented by Vaughn, and whatever else the man is, he is a sort of genius. . . . and I never thought I’d have to, because I had a whole box full of them. And they’ve just been stolen.”

John met Valarie’s eyes and blew out a long, long breath. Nigel Vaughn, Dorian’s creator . . . and the creator of other, much more dangerous androids. An enigma and a problem, and currently missing, to boot. “Well, where else can we get one?”

The long silence was an answer in itself.

John leaned forward. “Are you telling me you’re the only person in the world who has any of these—these inhibition unit thingies?”

“Was. And no. Not entirely.” Rudy squirmed. “You can requisition them through the government as well.” Everyone groaned. The red tape involved could take months to unravel. “Practically nobody needs them,” Rudy explained. “Only androids with Synthetic Souls, and there aren’t a great deal of them around.” He threw up his hands. “Let’s face it—it’s outdated tech!”

John stared at him. “Like practically everything else around here,” he said slowly.

Rudy looked defensive. “Well, yes. But you must understand, I operate on a shoestring budget compared to actual commercial enterprises—”

“And after the debacle with the Danica model, the higher ups are more vigilant than ever, and all tech has to go through rigorous testing before it’s integrated into the force,” Valerie pointed out. “Sometimes that takes time.”

John nodded hard. “Yeah. Right, exactly, but what I’m saying is, everything here is outdated tech. Everything that was stolen. It’s not cutting edge. It’s not valuable. It’s not especially powerful or adaptable or anything. Insyndicate wouldn’t steal obsolete tech. So why would anyone break into a police lab and steal a bunch of old junk?”

Rudy huffed. “It’s not junk. As we’ve already demonstrated, Dorian needs it very much, so it’s worth something to someone.”

Dorian’s eyes lit up. “John, that must be it. It is rare. It is valuable to someone.”

John nodded. “Because it’s backwards compatible,” he said. Then he shrugged. “But who would want old tech?”

“Someone who couldn’t keep up with new tech,” Valerie suggested, face pale. “Maybe someone on the other side of the Wall?”

John let out a long breath, looking at Dorian speculatively. He’d had a drug dealer in just last week, and his information . . . well, maybe the intel was good after all. “Then we ask Captain Maldonado for permission to go over the Wall.”

oOoOoOo

Maldonado denied their request.

John gave in somewhat more quickly than Dorian expected, and asked for a couple of days off. “Why?” Maldonado demanded.

John shrugged. “I have lots of vacation saved up. I’d like to go fishing. Or maybe hunting. Or maybe I’ll take up knitting,” he said sarcastically as he trudged out of the Captain’s office.

Maldonado scowled at him suspiciously. “John, I’d better not hear about you going over the Wall against my orders.”

John gave her a salute. “I promise that you will hear nothing of the sort. Come on,” he added to Dorian, who followed him downstairs feeling bemused.

“I understand it is traditional among human partners to engage in activities like ‘hanging out’ or going fishing together, but I didn’t expect you to want me to tag along. And I’m pretty sure that if you’re going to take up knitting, having me around won’t add much to the experience. But I appreciate being included anyway.”

John ignored the teasing look on his face. “We’re not going fishing,” he grunted, leading the way to the labs. Once they were safely in the elevator he added, “We’re going over the Wall.”

“But you just promised the Captain you wouldn’t—”

“I promised no such thing. I promised her she wouldn’t hear about it. It’s what we humans call an unspoken agreement, Dorian.”

Dorian looked put out. “There you go again.”

“What?”

“Humans. Purposely excluding me.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that you’re not human?” John exclaimed as they stepped into the dim lab.

“I know I’m not human! It’s not kind to keep reminding me. You only use it to push me away,” Dorian complained.

John gave him a look of alarm and quickly changed the subject. “Rudy, we need your help,” he said. “We’re going over the Wall.”

The technician straightened up from where he’d been bent over a project, his face lighting. “Well then, I’m your man! It’s good you came to me. I am—I have all the qualifications necessary for such a dangerous task.” He spread his hands expressively. “And I’m—you know—this is—I’m more than up for it. You won’t be sorry.”

John huffed and rolled his eyes. “You’re not going over the Wall. Dorian and I are going over the Wall. You need to stay here. We’ll need to be able to communicate with someone on the outside, and that’s you. We need to get his . . . inhibition doohickey back.”

Dorian looked at him with large, soft eyes. “John, it means the world to me that you’d do this for me, but it’s much too big a risk. I can’t ask you—”

“Shut up. It’s not just about you. We need to get that missing tech back.”

“Why?” Rudy asked.

“For starters, I had an interview a couple of days ago with a drug dealer who was being detoxed . . . one who was desperate to give us information in exchange for a recommendation of a lighter sentence.”

“And?”

“He went over the Wall. And guess who he saw while he was there?”

Rudy shook his head, eyebrows high, but Dorian knew. “Nigel Vaughn,” he guessed in a grim voice.

“Nigel Vaughn,” Kennex agreed.

Rudy gave a twitchy shrug. “Yes, but, well, drug dealers—they’ll say anything.”

“I trust my informant.”

“So now we know there is someone on the other side of the Wall who would require a whole bunch of outdated tech, some of which is compatible with synthetics that use the Synthetic Soul program,” Dorian said with a sigh.

Rudy looked stunned. “This could be very bad.”

“Yes. And if he gets his hands on it, who knows what his plans are?”

“An army of XRNs?” Rudy suggested. “Breaching the Wall, causing chaos and destruction, murdering us all in our beds, sweeping across the city, raping and pillaging and causing havoc the likes of which has never been seen by mankind?”

“Exactly. Or worse. Who knows? All I know is, we can’t let those units fall into the wrong hands. We have to get them back.”

Rudy sighed. “I can start you on the anti-radiation pills, but you’re still risking a lot.”

“I know.”

“You do realize that you risk more going over the wall with Dorian than with me?” Rudy pointed out.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean that there’s no law out there. It’s like a demilitarized zone. We know precious little about what it’s like out there, but we do know it’s dangerous, violent, chaotic—and poor. If these people realize they’ve got a synthetic in their midst, they’ll cannibalize him for parts. They’ll rip him to pieces, John.”

Dorian was looking a little sick, so John gave him a hearty thump on the shoulder. “So we don’t let them know he’s a synthetic,” he said. He turned to Rudy. “You can do that, right?”

Rudy shrugged. “With a little stage rubber and makeup I suppose he might pass, but anyone familiar with the DRN model would see through that straightaway.”

John made a ‘who cares’ sort of face. “They’re a bunch of drugged out savages out there. They wouldn’t know a DRN from a hot dog.” He gave Dorian a look

Dorian heaved a sigh. Then he plopped down on a chair so Rudy could start giving him a makeover. “I hope you’re right,” he told John. “I sure hope you’re right.”

oOoOoOo

They went at night, because they figured it was just safer that way, between John’s leg and Dorian’s everything. The darkness would hide Dorian’s features. The streets were well-lit outside the wall, but John knew once they were over they’d be plunged into blackness. It was nearly three in the morning, as dark as it was going to get. John had bought some high-tech mountain climbing gear to get over the Wall, but Dorian just gave him a look and opened a compartment on his stomach. He attached this to something or other John couldn’t see in the dark, then pointed upward. John thought he meant for him to look, so he didn’t see the grappling hook jettison from Dorian’s hand; it was too dark to see much of anything in any case. All he heard was the thwip of line shooting up.

“Shall we?” Dorian said.

“I think I’m set, but thanks,” John answered dryly.

Dorian gave him that look that always annoyed John so much—the one where Dorian hardly moved his face at all yet still somehow seemed to shout that John was being an idiot and Dorian was disappointed in his lack of faith, logic, and hygiene. “John. I know it doesn’t look like much, but my cord is quite strong. It has a UIAA fall rating of 50, if that eases your mind. Also, the winching system is really quite genius. I’ll have us at the top of the Wall in no time.”

“I’d rather do this the old fashioned way,” John said.

“Suit yourself.” By all rights Dorian should have just told John he’d meet him at the top, but he hung around, watching.

First, John got his rope tangled. Then he dropped it. After he finally got everything where it was supposed to be he realized there wasn’t any way he was going to be able to get a grappling hook up that far. Not unless Dorian offered to throw it for him, but Dorian wasn’t offering. He was just standing there, one eyebrow raised, waiting.

And any moment, the officers on duty checking Wall perimeter would spot them.

“Shit,” John swore.

Dorian smiled blandly. “Ready?”

John stuffed his rope back in his bag. “Yeah, okay. How are we gonna do this?”

“It’s easy enough. I can hold onto you with one arm.”

“Oh, God.”

Dorian looked puzzled. John saw lights some distance away. If he got caught out here like this, Maldonado would . . . would nail him to the Wall. “Fine,” he grunted. Let’s go.”

“For your comfort, please put your arms around my neck.”

“That’s not what I would call comfortable,” John grumbled, but did as he was told, face hot. Dorian put one arm around his waist and up they shot. John would not have liked to admit that he was glad Dorian suggested he hold on, too, because once they were about a hundred feet off the ground he found clutching the synth pretty comforting. It was a good thing he wasn’t human, or John would have been cutting off his air, or possibly his circulation. It would have helped, though, if Dorian hadn’t been smiling smugly the entire time.

Once they were at the top they looked down into a world of darkness and destruction. Ruined buildings lurked like black ghouls, skulking low to the ground, their tops mostly charred or missing from the controversial and untested MF Bomb (colloquially referred to as the ‘Mother Fucker’) that had detonated thirty years ago. It looked like a dystopia, and that was just the stuff that was near enough to see. Everything in the distance faded into the blackness of night. They had only the sketchiest of ideas of what went on behind the Wall, because once someone left, they almost never came back. The rumors of what happened out there had reached levels of urban myth. The police only knew, really knew, what went on close to the Wall, where some activity could be observed. There was no law out there, on the other side. The people on the other side—if you could call them that—wanted it that way.

“You ready?” Dorian asked.

John cleared his throat. “Ready for anything.”

oOoOoOo

They weren’t.

The minute they landed on the still-blackened street, they were surrounded by men. Mostly men, anyway. The men clamored, demanding to know who they were, what they thought they were doing, and whether they had tech or drugs. But there was one question everyone seemed to want answered.

John and Dorian stood with their backs against the Wall, wondering if they’d even get any further. The ground beneath them felt like gravel; the asphalt had been in disrepair so long that it had crumbled.

“Who’s your sponsor?” a voice in the crowd demanded.

“Go on, then. You got a sponsor?”

“Give us a name!”

“They ain’t got a sponsor! Look at them. Lost like little lambs.” The men were close now, roughly pushing, surrounding them, much too close. John could smell them, goatish and stale, body odor and alcohol and desperation sweating through their pores. The street had been absolutely deserted when they started their descent; Dorian had scanned and found no one nearby. These guys must have been able to sense them the way a shark smells blood in the water.

“Always loved lamb chops,” one man growled. He grabbed John’s arm, yanked it hard, and John punched him.

Everything exploded into chaos and confusion, a mad, scrabbling mass of unwashed thugs. John was battered this way and that. Dorian was holding back, he knew, trying to decide whether to unleash his superhuman synth strength. Was it worth it? Caught out, right as they arrived? John drew his gun but it was promptly snagged from his hand and whipped into the crowd—an old school magnetic ripper. John hadn’t seen one of those in ten years, at least. He cursed himself for not expecting it.

Then, suddenly, there was an almighty crash—John felt hot air beside him, and looked down to see everyone to his left had been scrubbed right off the payment. The sleeve of his shirt was shot to hell, too.

There were a bunch of yells, a mad scramble, and John and Dorian found themselves abruptly alone beside the wall. There was a large vehicle, squat and dark, facing them, and a group of what seemed like soldiers—seven or eight of them, men and women.

One woman stepped forward. “This is your lucky night, boys. We hardly ever patrol down this way.” She looked somehow different than most women John had met, but he couldn’t put a finger on how or why. Harder, perhaps, or colder. Her even gaze met John’s for what seemed like a long time. “You like tech?” she asked.

“I hate tech,” he grumped. He was about to add that he had some to trade if she wanted, but she rode roughshod over his attempt.

“Good. You found the right people. Pro-techers quickly fall to the druggies and night lords and Scrappers. Only way to survive beyond the Wall is to stick with us Naturals.”

“Naturals?” Dorian raised his eyebrows.

“Humans. Real humans, like we were meant to be. No chromes, no artificial additives. One hundred percent all natural human fucking beings.”

Dorian swallowed and exchanged a glance with John. They’d heard fragments of rumors about this—about a people who went primitive, who lived over the Wall, who didn’t vaccinate or allow prosthetics or enhancements of any kind, who lived in self-imposed savagery.

“But what about that air blast, back there?”

“The equivalent of a child’s potato gun,” the woman told him. She smiled at John. “We don’t like tech, but sometimes we have to make exceptions.”

“Well, I’m glad you did,” he said, coming forward to shake her hand. Her face was interesting in a severe way, somehow plain, but striking in her plainness. Her nose was sharp, her eyes were sharp, her cheekbones were sharp. Her hair was dark and short and danced about her face as the wind played through it. She was dressed, like her comrades, in a simple grey outfit with a lot of armor.

“We’ll take you back to the compound and on the way, you can tell us why you’re here,” she said.

John couldn’t say no. Helplessly, he and Dorian boarded the vehicle—a sort of giant, archaic tank—and were driven into the Old City. The inside of the tank was spartan and there were no windows. John counted on Dorian to be paying attention to how many turns they made and where they were going. They’d need to know their way back, and he was already feeling disoriented.

In the meantime, he tried to think of a good cover story. What would a Natural want to hear? They certainly couldn’t say they were looking for stolen tech. But at the same time, he had to know if they’d heard anything about that tech or where it might have gone.

The ride back to the compound was bumpy. John watched the woman, noting how she kept her posture and kept her seat better than he did. As if she could read his mind she smiled and said, “Did a lot of horseback riding.”

“Ah.”

“Name’s Leila,” she told him with a grin.

“Leila. No last name?”

“Not where I come from. My parents were tools of the technogarchy. After me they had two chromes, wasted all their time and money on things and improvements. Couldn’t live in the now. Couldn’t be happy with what they had. Nothing was ever good enough,” she said bitterly. “I want no reminder or link to ‘em now.”

“Understood. No Last Name Leila,” he said, making it sound like a mob nickname or something.

She laughed. “What’s your story? You and your friend’s?” She asked with a curious glance at Dorian.

John shrugged. He thought quickly. “I think it’s similar to yours. Just couldn’t take it anymore. You know. Tech let me down. Left me and a friend to die, said we weren’t acceptable risks. I watched my best friend die in front of my eyes because an MX didn’t want to bother. You can’t trust ‘em, you know. Never turn your back on a synth.” Leila was nodding sympathetically, but from the side eye Dorian was giving him, he’d pay for it later. “Plus they’re creepy. They have no sense of boundaries or propriety. And they’re all pretty ugly too, I noticed.”

Now Dorian was really fuming.

Unfortunately, Leila noticed. “What’s wrong?”

Dorian blinked. “It’s nothing. The turn of the discussion is bringing up some unpleasant memories. Plus, sometimes John treats me like a robot and acts like he doesn’t value me, and it hurts my feelings.”

John was beginning to sweat—he’d have to watch himself as long as Dorian was malfunctioning, but Leila just gave Dorian a warm smile and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “I understand. But try to keep in mind what our pastor says—that some of us come from the Other World a little bit damaged. We’re working hard to regain our humanity, but have patience.”

Dorian smiled. “I do try.”

“Good. That kind of empathy is highly regarded in Newtopia.” John sporfled. Leila just smiled blandly. “I didn’t name the place, but trust me, it’s fitting.”

“What’s a sponsor?” John asked when the conversation lapsed.

Leila blinked at him. She had very thick eyelashes, her eyes dark and warm. John had fallen for warm eyes like that more than once. He told himself he wasn’t going to be that stupid this time. “No one comes over the Wall without a sponsor unless they’re desperate. Usually people come because they have contacts, someone who can help them survive. Sometimes . . . sometimes they don’t. Then they’re fair game for the Scrappers and anyone else who wants a piece. We try to keep an eye out . . . we put up posters,” she added with an expansive gesture. “Ask for us, tell them you’re sponsored by Newtopians or Naturals. Then they’ll leave you alone. And we’ll come get you.” She smiled brightly, and her smile reminded John of Valerie’s smile.

“And what’ll you do to them?” he asked wryly.

“Nothing like that. We detox ‘em, usually put ‘em in storage for just a little while until they get their bearings, give them food and whatever they ask for . . . we just help them to see that life doesn’t have to be a struggle. Life doesn’t have to be all about tech. We show them they can live a good, clean, natural life.”

“Sounds pretty good,” John admitted.

“What happens if the . . . Scrappers, as you call them, don’t want to give them up?” Dorian inquired.

“We come and take them, fight for them. Or if we can do nothing else, we avenge them.” At the look on Dorian’s face, her smile turned sad. “I know. But might makes right out here, and it’s all those machines respect.”

John exchanged a look with Dorian. Machines. Not animals, machines. The Naturals didn’t just dislike tech, they hated and feared it, and John and Dorian would have to be cautious.

Dorian scooted across his seat, getting quite close to John, who stiffened. Dorian had never thought anything of invading John’s personal space. He leaned in quite close. “Your leg will need to be recalibrated,” he breathed into John’s ear.

John swallowed. “How long do I have?”

“Forty-eight hours at most.”

The vehicle lurched to a stop and Leila stood. “We’re here. Come on.” A hatch in the back slid open and Leila jumped down. John followed, blinking a little. It was growing light and the sunrise was red and strong, and John had to hold his hand up against it in order to see.

“Holy shit.”

“Not what you were expecting?” Leila looked amused.

It was a compound, of sorts. That is, it was fenced in. But beyond the fence was a sparkling green jewel of a park with small trees and buildings that looked like barns and cabins. The blackened buildings still towered all around the perimeter, enclosing the place like a circle of watchful witches, lurking above a cauldron as they waited for it to boil. Even so, the Naturals had managed to carve out a little patch of, well, nature, and had nurtured it into something fresh and vibrant.

John looked around in shock. “How—how did you—?”

Leila laughed, tossing her hair back. “You mean with the lingering effects from the bomb?” The bomb had originally been an experiment; scientists were attempting to duplicate some of the effects of a solar flare. Unfortunately, terrorists had infiltrated the building and had set off a terrible chain reaction, the effects of which still lingered—bursts of radiation, geomagnetic discharges and damaging protons made the area unsafe still for both human and machine. With some of the current advances in technology, John and Dorian would be able to withstand the effects, but only for a handful of days. This—this place—this was beyond anything John could have imagined.

Leila’s eyes shone. “We put up an advanced barrier. I know, I know—tech, and high tech at that. But it’s not forever. When the radiation levels go down and the other effects are more manageable . . . it’s ironic that the only tech-free paradise is possible because of the groundbreaking technology we’ve developed.”

“Who? How?”

“A scientist who took a look at his life one day and decided to make a change,” Leila explained evasively.

John stared at her. He wondered. One of the scientists working on the solar experiment, Hans Grodel, had been at his dying father’s bedside in Austria when the terrorists attacked. He was the only one who survived and had become a recluse, disappearing from the world. Was it possible he had decided to come here? Not that it mattered. He hadn’t committed a crime, so far as John knew, and he had his hands full with actual criminals.

John shook his head a little. “Not what I was expecting at all,” he admitted. “How come we’ve never seen it from outside?”

“We’re a good ways off from the Wall, and it’s a no-fly zone, as you know. The lingering magnetic pulses from the MF bomb still make it iffy for drones. Come on and get scanned and I can introduce you to everyone.”

John, who had been following her toward a large, rusted metal gate, found his feet slowing. “Scanned?”

“It just scans for unwanted tech,” Leila told him with a flip of her hair. “We have to be vigilant. Tech is like a disease; once it has a hold on you it’s hard to loosen its grip.”

John looked over his shoulder, exchanging a look with Dorian. The armored vehicle stood between them and the alley they’d come down, cutting off their only route. And they were surrounded by Naturals in armor. Panicked thoughts flitted through John’s mind like a bunch of moths around a naked light bulb; what kind of scanner was it? What kind of tech could it pick up? If it was old enough, would it miss his leg? If it was new enough, would it miss a DRN? What about a gun or com or a phone? What counted as tech? The thoughts happened so quickly that he was just turning away from Dorian when he heard a beep in his ear.

There was a man standing not a foot away, holding a forked antenna near John’s face. John jumped about a foot. “Hey! Give a guy some warning!”

The man merely grinned. “Didn’t mean to startle ya. Just gotta be careful.” He ran the scanner up and down and John’s heart leapt into his throat. He could kick the guy, yeah, and run, and Dorian might be able to take the others—if they could make it back to the vehicle, they might be able to— “Clean,” the guy announced with another grin. “Next patient!”

The man went around John, who was still frozen, mind racing, trying to process what had just happened. It didn’t catch his leg. It must be old tech, then. But surely older tech would have been programmed to recognize a DRN and the jig would be up anyway.

“Clean!” John heard him bark again. He swiveled slowly on his good leg to stare at Dorian. The synth looked just as clueless as he felt. Maybe the device was so old it was broken, and they didn’t know it. Or had it just had a glitch? He could tell, from the way Dorian’s eyes narrowed, that he was running program after program trying to figure out what had just happened, what kind of device that thing was and why it had missed them, but he was obviously coming up empty. Maybe it had something to do with the burnt out chip, or maybe he had some other malfunction.

“You gonna stand there all day?” Leila called over her shoulder.

“Just waiting for lazybones to catch up,” John said with a quick shrug at Dorian. “I swear, he’s the slowest guy I ever met.” Dorian, still looking wary, caught up with John and they joined Leila at the gate.

“Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses,” she told John. She gave Dorian a smile and added, “It’s only human.”

Dorian smiled back. John could tell he liked the sound of that.

As they passed through the gate, a man with a wild black beard looked at them fiercely. “The Purifier is to your left,” he told them.

John looked uncertainly at Leila. “They don’t need it,” she told him. “They came to us, and they’re clean. I’d swear it, Pastor.”

The man’s brows lowered, but then the redhead with the antenna joined them. “Clean as a bell!” he said cheerfully. He gave John a grin. “Name’s Jason.”

“John,” John replied.

“And Dorian,” Dorian broke in, shaking Jason’s hand. “John was raised by wolves, so I knew he would forget to introduce me. He also has the table manners of a feral pig.”

“Thanks,” Kennex said.

The bearded man still looked agitated, until Leila put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Pastor.” She smiled at John. “This is Pastor Pat, our spiritual guide.”

“Give me the dowser,” the pastor said, reaching out for the antenna eagerly. When Jason handed it over, he stroked it absently. “Good, good. I’ll just put it where it belongs.” John watched as the man brought it into a clearing where there was a small shelter, like a little pagoda. The others followed, with Dorian and Kennex bringing up the rear. The pastor slid the antenna into a bracket on the wall, almost like a flag. There were fresh flowers all over the floor of the little shelter.

John exchanged a look with Dorian. He sidled closer and murmured from the side of his mouth, “They hate tech, but it looks like they worship that thing. Should you tell them, or should I?”

“I just wish you treated me with the same reverence,” Dorian replied wryly.

John rolled his eyes. “Now you want me to worship you? Bring you flowers?”

“Sounds like a fun evening to me,” Dorian replied. John decided not to rise to the bait. Instead he turned to Leila.

“So what’s a guy got to do to get a meal around here?” he asked.

She grinned. “Earn it,” she told him.

oOoOoOo

Leila took him fishing. “Gotta earn your keep,” she joked.

John was absolutely amazed. Back in the city, surrounded by all manner of tech to make life easier, he spent every day of his life working his hardest, and some months he barely made rent. Here, in the goddamn middle of a nightmarish pit of broken everything, they motherfucking fished every day. Where was the justice in that?

“What do you think of us so far?”

“Very nice. A little Amish for my tastes, but . . .” John shrugged.

Leila smiled. “Without the religion, though.”

John didn’t say anything about that. As far as he could tell, their pathological fear of tech was a sort of religion, a cornerstone of their culture. On top of that, the way they seemed to worship the tech-finder, itself a piece of sophisticated technology, if an unworking one, struck John as religious. They didn’t even have fish finders or Intellihooks. Still, they seemed to do well without any of that, catching several trout. “How did you even get these?”

“Trades. We still have some contacts with the outside world. These fish were part of a wildlife conservation site. We started a breeding program a couple of years ago and it’s doing well.”

John shook his head in amazement. “Yeah. I mean, yeah. Everything seems like it’s doing well.”

Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, Leila studied him. “It can be a good life. It doesn’t have to be hard. Tech creates more problems than it solves, every time.”

“Yeah, but what about . . . you know, diseases and stuff?” John shifted his rod, looking at Leila from the corner of his eye.

“Diseases are natural. Most of them, at least. Besides, if you’re living a healthy life, the way we do, you rarely encounter problems like that. Tech only creates problems down the way, even if it seems to be solving them in the short term.”

John wanted to tell her that it wasn’t true, that his leg had kept him on the force—that Dorian had kept him on the force. Sure, sometimes you had a problem with something malfunctioning, but most of the time tech problems came down to user error—or willful misuse. John decided tactful silence was the best he’d be able to offer, so he held his tongue. And while it was a happy daydream to think about floating around and fishing every day, there were a lot of things about tech John would miss if he’d had to give it up. Even Dorian. As big a pain in the ass as Dorian could be, the idea of no Dorian was disquieting.

That afternoon when they docked the boat, John spotted the synth carrying a redheaded kid around on his shoulders, while a bunch of other kids ran after them, laughing and trying to catch him.

“Shouldn’t he be doing something useful?”

This time Leila’s smile was absolutely radiant. “Do you know that back in the days when we were hunter-gatherers, we only had to work around two and a half days a week? That’s it. For all our so-called advancements, we’ve done nothing but make our own lives harder. Here we work hard, we do, but not that hard. It doesn’t take too much to keep a person alive. It’s when you want more and more and can’t be satisfied that you find yourself in an endless cycle of running as fast as you can just to keep up with the guy next door.”

Dorian came over, smiling. “Hey, guys. Catch anything?”

“Yeah. How ‘bout you?”

“We’re playing, ‘kill the robot,’” one little girl piped up. “Dorian’s the robot, so we have to find him and stop him before he destroys us.”

At John’s glance, Dorian shrugged uncomfortably.

“But I’m on Dorian’s side,” said the little boy on Dorian’s shoulders. “He’s nice, so I don’t think we should kill him.”

“Thank you, Jeff,” Dorian told him. Jeff smiled at Dorian, front tooth conspicuously absent.

But Leila was frowning. “Don’t go soft, Jeff. Some machines seem nice, but they’re just programmed to act that way. Their niceness isn’t real; remember that.”

Both Jeff and Dorian’s faces fell.

“Well! After all that fishing, I sure am hungry!” John interrupted before Dorian could blurt something that could get them in trouble.

“I’ll go drop these off and have them prepared.” As Leila headed off to find someone to take the fish off her hands, John and Dorian walked along the shore, marveling at the dichotomy of the green grass beneath their feet and the blackened, broken buildings above.

“You two looked good together out there,” Dorian remarked quietly.

John looked at him in surprise. Dorian sounded sad, and there was no way he wanted to deal with a histrionic, defective DRN. “I always look good,” he replied in a curt voice.

Dorian smiled. “Yes. You do.” He blinked.

They stared at each other for a moment in mortification. John really wished they’d get the bug sorted out soon. He couldn’t handle his partner doing this stuff. Having—having a crush on him or whatever. Jesus.

John tried to play it off, hoping it would calm them both down, grumbling, “Really? You’re always talking about how my face is so fucking lopsided, just because no one sat down and crafted me the perfect fucking body like yours.”

Dorian stood a little straighter and smiled. Good, maybe they were past the weird bits. “You think I have the perfect body?”

“Oh, my God. Is your ego unit malfunctioning too, now? What happens if your head gets too big—does it literally explode?”

“Don’t worry, John. I like your body as well. I feel that your imperfections are what make you unique.” John shook his head, grimacing, feeling his face flush. “In fact, I once wrote a sonnet about you. Would you like to hear it?”

John just scowled at the DRN. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I need,” he said sarcastically. “Will you just shut off or whatever?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to hear it?” Dorian teased. “It’s not a mushy sonnet. I knew you wouldn’t like that. I call it, ‘An Ode to Kennex Watching a Soccer Match and Drinking Beer.’ In it, I laud your elegant description of what you’d like to do to the ref, I wax lyrical on the way you belch, and I use the word ‘motherfucker’ no less than seventeen times.”

John couldn’t help but laugh. “That referee deserved every last swear word.” He looked at Dorian out of the corner of his eye. “Does it bother you?”

“When you scream and call the poor referee a useless motherfucker who is patently unable to function as he is and should immediately proceed to acquire genetic enhancements of various kinds, especially focusing on repairing his vision and his doubtlessly insufficient sexual organ?”

John laughed again. “That’s not exactly what I said. But anyway, no. I meant . . . you know, does it bother you, being around these people?”

They walked back toward the Naturals and the small town they’d been building. Dorian shrugged. “Not much.”

“Really? Even when they play ‘kill the robot’ and stuff like that?”

“They don’t know any better. They’re just children.”

“Children being raised to hate you and everything you stand for,” John murmured.

“I stand for the law,” Dorian replied, willfully misinterpreting John’s remark. “Besides, like I said, they don’t know any better. Any of them. They’re blinded by ignorance, envy and fear. Envy and fear stem from ignorance. If they sat down with me, like they’re doing, and gave me the same chance they’re giving me right now, but with the knowledge that I was a synth, they’d come to see that I’m not something to fear or hate.”

John thought this over. He smiled a little. “You know, I do believe some of them actually would.” Dorian smiled too.

A woman walked down to meet them. “Thanks for watching them,” she told Dorian. “I don’t know where you get your energy, but I can barely keep up with mine, let alone all of them.” She smiled at John and offered her hand. “Alex,” she said. “Jeff’s mom.”

“I guessed.” She had the same red hair, but long, and freckles across every inch of skin.

She led them into the town, such as it was, where a small, new barn had been raised. “Dorian was a big help,” one man told John. “Wish you’d brought him here years ago.”

“He’s so strong,” another woman added, giving the DRN an adoring look.

“Nothing tires him out. It was really great to have him,” said Jake, the man who had scanned them coming in. “He sure was a big help.”

Dorian smiled shyly at all the praise. “Thank you. It’s nice to be appreciated,” he added, shooting John a look.

John wrinkled his nose. If they knew what Dorian was, the wouldn’t be so generous with their praise.

“I’m glad we found you,” said Leila. “It sounds like you’ll both fit right in.”

oOoOoOo

As evening fell, some people gathered wood for a bonfire. They roasted the fish over the fire and ate vegetables they’d grown themselves, laughing and talking. Dorian slipped away for a few minutes to update Rudy.

John tried to think about how to approach getting out of the compound to find Vaughn. Part of him didn’t want to leave. This was the best vacation he’d had in years.

“What are you thinking about?” Leila asked, sitting next to him.

John heaved a sigh. “Nothing much. Just how much I’ve enjoyed being here.”

“And we’ve enjoyed having you,” she said, her eyes warm. Was it John’s imagination or was she attracted to him? She was a beautiful woman, it was true, but he had a bad track record with beautiful women. But maybe it would work to his advantage.

“Listen, Leila, I was wondering if you could help me out with something?” He made sure to be as charming as possible. He leaned in and looked at her earnestly, and briefly reached out to rest a hand on her knee. “It’s real important.”

“I’m sure I’ll do what I can.” Over her shoulder, John saw Dorian return. The synth gave him a nod to indicate all had gone well with the check in.

“I actually came over the Wall looking for someone. A man. His name is Doctor Nigel Vaughn. Does the name ring a bell?” He could tell, right away, that it had. Leila’s whole demeanor changed. She stiffened, her face tightening.

“I’ve heard of him. He makes synths, John. The worst kind of tech. Synths that could almost pass for human.” She sounded sick, she was so upset. “Why, John? What do you want with a monster like that?”

Dorian swiftly came forward and knelt in front of Leila, taking her hand. “He’s my father,” he told her. John held his breath. It was brilliant. It wasn’t even a lie, not exactly. “I know—I know he’s done some terrible things, but he is human. And humans make mistakes, right?”

Leila blinked a little.

“I’m the reason John’s here. He came over the Wall for me. I just have to find my father. I just want to offer him one last chance to turn away from the choices he’s made.” Leila’s expression still held a tinge of disgust.

John leaned in again. “If he could only see what I’ve seen, what you’ve built here, I’m sure he’d realize he made a mistake. No one could be here, like this, and not feel like this is how people were meant to live.”

Leila sighed so heavily it was as though she was being deflated. She was shaking a little. “Your father,” she repeated weakly. “Your father. Dorian, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your father is responsible for some of the worst crime beyond the Wall. He’s engineering footsoliders, synthetic gang bangers, machines for the Scrappers and anyone else who will give him money and protection.”

John sat back. “Yeah, that sounds like good old Dad, all right,” he said cynically.

Dorian gave him a look. “I just want a chance to talk to him.”

Leila turned to John and grabbed his shoulders. It took him by surprise. Her hands were shaking, but strong, her fingers digging in painfully. “Are you spies? Were you sent by the Scrappers? Or someone else?”

John blinked. “No, Leila, we’re not spies. I promise.”

After a minute of studying his expression, she abruptly let go. Leila rubbed her forehead, pushing her dark hair out of her face. “I just don’t know what to think. But I trust you. Not completely, but for some reason I really do believe you aren’t out to hurt us—and that you didn’t know about the operation.”

John and Dorian glanced at each other. “What operation?” they said in unison.

Leila turned away. Her beautiful face was very hard in the firelight, her eyes fierce. “We discovered where Vaughn is holed up, making his weapons. We have plans to go in and shut the whole thing down, destroy the weapons, and stop Vaughn.”

John stared at her, speechless. “When?” he said, thinking about his leg. “When are you going in?”

She turned to him with a weak smile. “Tomorrow,” she said. “At dawn.”

Dorian grabbed her arm. “Take us with you.”

“I can’t—”

Please. I need to see him. And I can help. I’ll tell you what I know about him. I’ll make sure not to interfere. I just want to see him.”

Slowly, Leila nodded, her dark eyes sympathetic. “I’ll see what I can do.”

oOoOoOo

“This armor is uncomfortable. And the pants are way too tight,” John complained. They were getting ready for the operation, but outside the Wall you had to make due with castoffs and whatever else you could find.

“They make your ass look great, though,” Dorian observed.

John flushed. Was that Dorian’s idea of a joke or worse, the result of his unit being fried? A glance at Dorian’s embarrassed face gave John the answer. For a moment he was exasperated—that was all he needed, to go into combat with a malfunctioning and horny DRN (if DRNs got horny—he made a mental note to ask at a less horrible time), but then the humor of the situation struck him. “Yeah, I always knew you wanted to get into my pants,” he said with a smirk.

Dorian looked like he might choke.

“I have that effect on people,” John added with a sigh.

Dorian was still blushing, but he looked like he felt better about things.

“Mind you, I’m never going to let you live that remark down,” John added casually, and Dorian scowled.

“This is neither the time nor place for humor,” he said rather primly, all things considered. “And anyway, my database of embarrassing things you’ve said is chock full, so anytime you want to go head to head, I’m ready.”

“No, no, sorry, you won’t win that way; I never said anything about your ass,” John told him with a laugh.

“As I recall, you were greatly impressed by my genitals, though.” John’s eyes bugged out. “I’d be very interested in what Richard had to say about that.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Wouldn’t I?”

“Ready to go, boys?” Leila interrupted, sticking her head in the door.

John shrugged. “Ready as we’ll ever be.”

The ride in the armored vehicle was much shorter than John expected, but no less bumpy. The streets were in terrible shape, guttered with potholes. John held a PN-500—Leila’s air gun—but he also had his standard issue concealed. He wondered again, vaguely, why the scanner hadn’t picked it up. But before he could get too deep into his thoughts the vehicle lurched to a stop.

“We’re here,” Jason said cheerfully.

“You wait here,” Leila told him. “Keep the vehicle secure at all times and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”

He raised a hand to his red hair like he was tipping an invisible hat. “Yes, ma’am! Your driver will be at your beck and call.”

Despite Jason, the mood in the cab was tense. Several others were with them, all carrying weapons.

“Several months ago a man calling himself ‘Dr. Vaughn’ came over the wall,” Leila told them. “He set himself up in abandoned factory he calls the Warehouse. He brought with him some cutting edge technology. He immediately began collecting other tech—old tech, new tech, whatever Scrappers brought him, he put to use. He made weapons for the Scrappers and Drug Lords. The only payment he ever asked for was more tech. We don’t know what he’s planning but it’s clear that he’s amassed a stockpile of technology that could threaten us all. After months of planning, today we’re prepared to infiltrate the Warehouse, find out what he’s got, burn it all down, if it comes to that. As for Vaughn himself . . .” Leila took a deep breath. “Don’t engage him directly until Dorian has had a chance to approach him. If he doesn’t cooperate we’ll take him out.” She didn’t elaborate on what this meant, but John didn’t really need an explanation. “Are we all ready to go in?”

Everyone nodded. Despite their anti-tech stance, they had acquired cutting edge gas masks, advanced armor, stuff soldiers would have. John idly wondered where they’d found it all. Trade, probably. When he got back he was going to have to look into it. Some of the stuff was definitely military-grade, and probably stolen.

He was broken out of his thoughts by the pastor, somewhat less peace-pushing than John’s experience of most men of the cloth. “Destroy everything you can,” he said. His eyes did burn with religious zeal though, John would give him that. “Let’s go.”

They hurried out of the vehicle and found themselves right in front of an actual warehouse. They entered cautiously, encountering no resistance. There were crates everywhere. “Burn it all,” the pastor instructed.

John was about to intervene, thinking the whole place would go up in flames with them in it, but Jason pointed a gun with a sort of nozzle at the end toward one crate, and the whole thing gave a shiver. Jason knocked the top off the crate to double-check and sure enough, whatever had been in there was one big blob.

“Where the hell did you get your hands on a HydroViberr?” John demanded. “You know those are very illegal . . . not to mention immoral,” he added for the benefit of the Naturals.

“They are not immoral in the right hands,” the pastor told him. “And the law has not protected us thus far from the evils of tech; we must be our own law.”

John stepped close to Dorian. “Shit. What if he melts the stolen tech?”

With the rubber sealant, John couldn’t see the blue lights on Dorian’s face that signaled he was processing, but he could see the distant look in Dorian’s eyes as he scanned their immediate area.

“The tech we are pursuing is not in this immediate area,” Dorian told him. “It must be in another room.”

“Oh, great. This place is enormous. How do we even know where to start?”

Dorian seemed to think this over. “The tech we are after is outdated. Some of it is obsolete. A few components contain indium, a natural resource so scarce that it has not been used in several years. I am scanning for it now.”

John nodded. “Sometimes I’m really happy with what technology brings to my life,” he joked gruffly as Dorian slowly turned his face from side to side.

“There. Approximately three floors up.”

“Let’s go.” They left the Naturals behind as they methodically destroyed the contents of every container. “Hypocrites,” John muttered once they were on the stairs. “Did you see some of those weapons? Advanced doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

Dorian nodded once. “I noted, among the munitions, an MM-5000—a magnetic magnum stolen from an army base last year.”

“I don’t recall investigating anything like that,” John said.

“No. It was on the news. It would have been a military investigation. Not our jurisdiction.”

“Our jurisdiction now,” John said grimly.

“It was speculated that a defector, or possibly a spy, sold the weapon overseas.” He paused outside a door. “This way,” Dorian said.

They entered with guns drawn, but didn’t see anyone. The place seemed to be deserted. “What do you want to bet our oh-so-pure Naturals used a Suppressant Pulser and knocked everyone out?”

Dorian shook his head. “At this point, nothing would surprise me. But you have to admit, they are well-organized.”

“Sure, yeah. Bright, too. And well-equipped. If they weren’t crazy, hypocritical anti-tech fanatics, we could use ‘em on the force.” They stopped in front of a metal door. “This the place?”

“Yes. It’s secured by a plasma trigger, DNA lock and breath scan, but that’s all conveniently offline.”

John frowned. “I’m starting to feel like I’m walking into a trap.”

Cautiously, Dorian uncapped one fingertip and drilled a hole in the door. “That’s nifty,” John noted.

Dorian’s smile was smug. “You should see what else my fingers can do.” As John flushed, Dorian flipped the middle one, then flipped again, revealing two thin pieces of metal. “Lockpicks, John,” he said. “What on earth were you thinking?” John ignored him, face still hot, as Dorian worked on the door. “Not that I blame you. I mean, some of them do vibrate.”

Dorian,” John snapped in rebuke.

Dorian laughed. “I’m one big, walking sex toy.”

“Oh, my God. Shut up.” Luckily, before things got any worse, Dorian popped the door open. There were several metal boxes. “Which one?” John asked.

Dorian went over to one. It looked like it weighed a ton. Dorian picked it up like it was nothing. “Let’s go.”

They heard gunfire somewhere below.

“Let’s hurry,” John urged. “Vaughn could be down there.” They took the stairs two at a time, Dorian managing to maintain speed despite the weight. “I don’t know whether to bet on Vaughn or the Naturals at this point,” John panted as they ran. “Vaughn’s clever, but these guys have everything money can buy.”

Dorian flipped him a half smile. “Vaughn made me,” he said. “He may or may not be evil, but he’s pretty crafty.”

As they entered the lower floor they saw an army of synths attacking the Naturals. To John’s surprise, the Naturals seemed to have the upper hand. They’d set up an impenetrable magnetobarrier and were mowing the synths down with the HydroViberr. The synths were not as upscale as Danica, or even Dorian. They seemed half-finished, works in progress.

“John.” John felt Dorian touch his arm. He glanced at the synth, then turned his head to see what Dorian was looking at. Nigel Vaughn stood in the doorway, glowering at the Naturals. They approached the man cautiously. John unholstered his service weapon.

“Nigel Vaughn, you are under arrest,” he called out.

The man turned, looking at them dismissively before turning back to the destruction in front of him. “Such a waste,” he groaned.

“Please, Dr. Vaughn. Surrender and come with us,” Dorian urged.

The man turned again, and John could see he was holding a mysterious device in his arms. It looked like a small satellite dish, but matte black, and red lights played over its surface. “Dorian,” Vaughn said quietly. “You survived Danica.” He didn’t seem terribly surprised. He smiled a little. “You always were . . . special.”

John held his weapon a little higher, to draw Vaughn’s attention to it. “Surrender,” he repeated.

Vaughn sighed. “You don’t want to do that.”

John raised an eyebrow. “I actually really do.”

“This is a Z rated Scrambler. Do you know what that means? That means if I press this little switch, all technology of any kind within a mile radius goes bye-bye.” John sucked in a breath. A Scrambler that powerful—no, he had to be bluffing.

John could feel Dorian stiffen.

“Vaughn!” John heard a yell. He turned to find Leila marching up, face obscured by her mask, but her eyes dark with anger. “Put it down or I’ll put it down for you.”

“Ah-ah-ah,” Vaughn said. “Would you do that? Do you want me to hurt your friend, here?” he asked, gesturing to Dorian.

John could see she didn’t believe a word Vaughn said. “Why would you do that to your own son? Are you that far gone?”

John expected Vaughn to laugh at the lie, but to his surprise, the man looked uncertain. “You told her you were my son?” he said. He looked at Dorian, his expression puzzled. “Why would you do that?”

“Are you not my father, then?” Dorian replied in a soft, unthreatening voice. “Did you not make me?” He stepped forward, but Vaughn stepped sharply back.

“I’m afraid you’re under a misapprehension, Miss Hart.” As Leila blanched, Vaughn smiled. “Yes. I know much more about you than you know about me. For starters, I’m sterile. No kids, I promise.”

She raised her weapon.

“But you. The family resemblance is strong. You’re just like your father,” Vaughn told her. “He tried to shut me down, too. He bankrupted me. He was behind the recall of the DRN—but you wouldn’t know about that, would you? You’d already run away from home when that happened.”

Leila lowered her weapon. She seemed sluggish, shocked.

Before she could gather herself Vaughn added, with a broad smile, “You have tech-cooties in your ranks, Miss Hart.” He gestured to John and Dorian and wiggled his eyebrows. “That’s a DRN. My son, the DRN,” he added sarcastically.

“That’s not possible. We scanned them. We have the very latest—”

“You scanned them—you ‘scanned’ them,” Vaughn repeated with disgust dripping from every syllable. He shook his head sadly, his white hair showing up in the darkness of the Warehouse. “Who do you think built that scanner, Miss Hart? Who do you think invented your little toy? I did. It’s not your scanner, it’s my scanner. It doesn’t work for you. It works for me. It’s bugged. It sends me recordings of every word you say in its presence, takes video, sees everything, knows everything. I control it. It scans when I want it to work. It doesn’t say a thing when I don’t want it to work.”

John frowned. If Vaughn controlled the device, then why hadn’t he let it find them?

“I don’t believe you.” Leila’s voice shook. She cleared her throat, and when she continued, it was stronger. “I don’t believe one word of it.” She raised her weapon again, and Vaughn flipped the switch.

Dorian collapsed to the floor—and so did John, his leg now useless. He struggled to get back on his feet.

Leila looked at him in horror. “What—what are—”

“It’s just a synthetic leg,” John told her, hands up, trying to placate her. “It can’t hurt you.” He reached out, but she fell back in revulsion.

“My God! Every word was a lie!” She gazed at his leg with disgust, like it was abhorrent and vile and terrifying.

“It’s okay, Leila, I promise you.”

“Why should I believe you? You’re one of them. You’re a machine, John. You’re a walking lie.” She raised her weapon again and tried to shoot him, but it had been disabled by Vaughn’s scrambler. Frustrated, she threw it to the floor. “See? See?” she exclaimed, nearly hysterical. “It always lets you down. It’s never worth it, John.”

“Have a nice day,” Vaughn said. “I’ll enable the tech once I’m well away.”

“Why?” John barked.

“Why?”

“Why enable Dorian again? Why didn’t you let them kill us? Why are you here?”

Vaughn shrugged a little. He gazed around the Warehouse, taking in all the destroyed synths and disabled tech. “I don’t know,” he said. He gave a short, bitter laugh. “I suppose I wanted to be a father again.” He disappeared through the doorway. John tried to follow, dragging his useless leg.

“Shit. Help me,” he pleaded with Leila. “Please. It’s not going to hurt you, I swear. It’s just like a cane or a walker. It’s a tool, that’s all.”

She took her gas mask off. Her face was streaked with tears, her expression a picture of misery. “Then why wouldn’t you just use a cane or a walker?” she said desperately. “You don’t have to be one of them, John. Why, John? Why?”

John looked at her for a long moment. “Because it makes my life better,” he said quietly. “Because this way I can stay on the force and still be an effective cop.” He looked down at Dorian, whose eyes were black, his body lifeless until Vaughn flipped the switch again. “Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, but other times I’m grateful for technology. It’s made my life bearable.”

She shook her head. Looking down at Dorian with loathing she demanded, “How can you go around with a thing like that, treating it like it’s a person?”

John laughed dryly. “I don’t much like tech, but sometimes we have to make exceptions,” he told her. She flinched, stung by having her own words thrown back in her face.

Before she could respond, John heard someone scream, “Fire!” He turned to see smoke billowing from the doorway where Vaughn had fled. One last thing to keep them from following, he assumed.

John bent and tried to heave Dorian up, but the synth was just too heavy for a guy with only one leg. “You!” he called, pointing to Jason. “Help me get him out of here.”

Him?” Leila repeated sneeringly. “Don’t you mean it?”

John ignored her. He drew on all of his training as a cop in order to project an image of authority. “Put your arm here,” he said. “I’ll hold onto Dorian like this; just help us get out the door.”

“You’re going to help him?” Leila said in disbelief.

Jason kept his head down; John couldn’t see his expression, only his red hair. “Dorian helped us,” he mumbled. The pastor started screaming then, for everyone to leave, for them to leave John and Dorian behind.

The Naturals milled about uncertainly, unable to decide what to do. “John may have a—a fake leg, but he’s still a person,” one woman noted. “We can’t leave a person.”

“Yes, we can! He’s a person who chooses to be unnatural! He’s already half synth—that we know of. He could have all kinds of modifications.”

Ignoring all of this, Jason helped John and Dorian outside. The Naturals straggled away from the Warehouse, dazed. Some were yelling at each other. One of the soldiers was shouting that it was a judgment of God because they had used the weapons of the enemy, while the pastor countered that it was inevitable.

John glanced over his shoulder at Leila, who was following slowly. “Sounds like your little cult is falling apart,” he observed. She shot him a poisonous look.

Just then there was a buzzing, and John found his leg supporting his weight once more. Dorian began to stir, blinking. John watched as his black eyes closed, opening to reveal blue. Dorian gave him a dazzling smile. “I like waking up to you,” the synth said.

John’s face warmed, but he couldn’t help smiling a little. “Well . . . I’m glad you’re awake,” was the most he’d admit. “You chose a hell of a time to take a nap.”

Dorian looked around. “This place looks like a bomb hit it. I mean, recently.” John glanced around at the shell-shocked expressions around him and nodded grimly.

“And we lost the tech.”

“What? Where is it?”

“Back in there—with the fire.”

Dorian shrugged off John’s arm and went running back in the building. John sighed and found a busted concrete pillar to lean against. The synth probably knew what he could take—the fire wouldn’t do much. Sure enough, in another couple of minutes Dorian returned at high speed. His hair was smoking a little and there were black, smoldering patches in his shirt, which he absently patted until the embers went out. He had the metal box under one arm.

“You all right?” John asked.

“Never better,” Dorian said cheerfully.

“We should head back to the base,” Jason told them. “We’re exposed here. Vaughn was protected, but now that he’s gone it won’t take long for the Scrappers to move in.”

“Do you think they’ll even let us through the door?” John asked as they followed.

Jason shrugged. “It’s hard to know what will happen next. This has exposed a deep division among the people. Some of them have always hated the idea of weapons. Some of us just wanted a chance to get away from the government, live a healthy life, not be bound to their rules. It wasn’t about the tech. Not for everyone.”

Dorian studied him closely. “Will you splinter?”

“We can’t afford to. The bottom line is, we need each other out here. We can’t survive unless we’re willing to work together. Those who didn’t hate tech had to compromise.”

“Maybe you’ll reach a different compromise this time,” Kennex told him. It didn’t escape him that Jason still had the HydroViber on him. It would be a major bargaining chip.

They trudged along the broken streets, the Naturals bickering, fearful, angry. Dorian held up a hand and pointed. “There’s someone coming.”

A woman was stumbling down the street, carrying something. She appeared to be hurt or tired. “Could be a trap,” John said.

Jason shook his head. “No. That’s Alex. She looks like she’s hurt or something.

As she got closer, they could see she was carrying a young boy. “That’s Jeff,” Dorian said, frowning.

When Alex spotted Jason, she pushed herself to a trot. “Jason,” she cried. “Help.” The men ran to her, hurrying to find out what was wrong. “He fell,” she was sobbing. “He fell and didn’t get up.”

Jason lifted Jeff’s eyelid. “How did he fall?”

“He was climbing a tree. He fell straight down. He didn’t get up. Please. Please.” Alex looked helplessly from one man to the other.

Dorian reached out and touched the boy. The fire had burned away the rubber that had concealed the lights that played across his face when he was processing, and they came to life now as he scanned the hurt boy. “He has a spinal fracture. He needs immediate medical treatment.”

Alex looked at him in horror, whether from the diagnosis or the realization that Dorian was a hated machine, John couldn’t tell.

“We need to take him over the Wall.”

“Absolutely not!” the pastor roared.

Alex opened and shut her mouth. “But he’s hurt,” she said weakly. “We can’t fix him.”

“Perhaps he wasn’t meant to be fixed.”

The woman drew back as if she’d been slapped. She looked to Jason. “You know, they will take him from you,” he said gently. “But if you want to try . . .”

Alex nodded slowly. “Yes. Please. I don’t care. Just help him.”

This set off a new round of shouting within the ranks of the Naturals.

John ignored them. He took Jeff from Alex’s arms. He barely weighed a thing. “Can you lead us to the Wall?”

Jason nodded. “This way.” Alex stumbled, and Dorian picked her up. He carried the woman in one arm and the box in the other. Jason kept both hands on the HydroViber.

“Please hurry,” Alex kept begging. “Please save my son.” The hurried away from the Naturals, leaving them to their infighting. “Please hurry,” Alex murmured.

“I know a shortcut.” Jason popped open a sewer grate. They dropped down one by one, Dorian making two trips for Alex and the tech.

The air was dank, a thin stream of what John hoped was water trickling around their feet. They trudged along the underground tunnel in silence, following Jason and trying to be as quiet as possible. Dorian supplied a light, but it didn’t allow them to see very far ahead. John’s heart seemed to squeeze every time they rounded a corner. He wanted to be up front, with a weapon, but he’d never used a HydroViber—hell, who had—and Jason had demonstrated considerable expertise. Still, it was difficult to be carrying a helpless child, knowing there would be danger ahead, aware that it would be hard to get to his weapon.

John called Rudy, telling him they got the tech, but they’d need an ambulance waiting on the other side. Rudy agreed, stammering, and John disconnected before he could be hit with any questions. They rounded a corner and John saw Jason stiffen, halting.

“We got some visitors.” The voice in the darkness sounded like sickness, a wheezing, wheedling, thin little piss of a voice. John hated it immediately. Dorian carefully let Alex down and set the tech on the ground. John came forward and leaned over Jason’s shoulder, looking ahead. There was a small group of people blocking the mouth of the passage. They were thin, dirty and ragged. John couldn’t even tell their genders for certain.

“Just talk big,” he breathed in Jason’s ear. “Tell them about the weapon, tell them to clear out, and say it with authority.”

He heard Jason swallow hard, but he nodded and stepped forward. “Clear out,” he snapped. “I’m carrying a state of the art HydroViber that’s been converted for civilian use, and if you don’t back up and scurry down a different hole, I’m going to use it to melt your faces off.”

“Bluffing,” someone grunted. There was nervous shuffling in the dim light. The druggies were reconsidering. “They don’t look like much use.” John could see the druggies peering at them. They had a couple of sick people, a synth and a box of tech, and a high powered weapon. It would be a good score for Scrappers, but not a small band of weak druggies. Jason raised the weapon in a threatening manner. They gave.

John breathed out as the group dispersed. “Will they give us more trouble?”

“Doubt it,” Jason replied. “Only the real dregs end up down here. If they had balls or ambition they’d be up top. Come on, not much further.”

Soon they came to another ladder. “We go up?” John asked.

Jason nodded. “We’re just outside the Wall. It’s dangerous territory because predators hang around, waiting for new fish. Keep your eyes open.”

But when they climbed up the ladder there was no one around. There was noise though—John could hear the steady thud of helicopter rotors above. “Sound like the cavalry have arrived,” he sighed.

Jason’s mouth was thin. When John first met him, he’d seemed much younger, boyish and carefree. “I’m not going with you.” John arched an eyebrow. “People are still looking for me over there. I’d rather stay and disappear again.”

John shrugged. “Well, I’m not really in a position to do much about that at the moment.”

“I’ll keep guard until you’re over, though.”

Alex whimpered. “How will we all get up there?”

Dorian gave her a reassuring smile. “I’ll carry you,” he said, discharging his line up over the wall. She stared after it. “That—?”

“It’s very strong,” Dorian said. “Trust in the technology.” He opened his chest cavity, to her morbid fascination, where he’d stored a rope. “I’m going to fashion harnesses for you and John and Jeff, and the box as well.”

Alex shook her head. “How can you manage all of that?”

John grinned at her. “I’ve seen him flip a truck. His strength is unbelievable. Don’t worry about it. Just hold on, okay?”

Dorian fashioned harnesses, tied a rope around the box and attached the end to his ankle. It would give him more maneuverability. Alex cried quietly as they began to ascend. “I’ll be all right,” he murmured. Jeff was still unconscious. John hoped the boy would make it.

“It’s all my fault,” Alex murmured. “Poor Jeffey. It’s all my fault.” John watched her upturned face. Tears dripped down her neck. “I was an addict. I couldn’t get clean, no matter what I tried. I was high on Paradise when I got pregnant with Jeff. It makes you feel so good, but it isn’t real. The state took Jeff away. I couldn’t stand it. I loved him so much. One day when I was visiting I grabbed him and stole him. They didn’t think I would, but I was crazy then. I kidnapped my own son and took him over the Wall.” She shook her head. “Maybe I wanted to die. Maybe I wanted both of us to die. But the Naturals found us and took us in. They forced me to get clean. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that it took going over the Wall, where unpoliced drugs flow like water, to get me clean. And the Naturals—they were so good to me. I just don’t understand it. How could they turn on us? I thought they cared about us.”

John and Dorian exchanged a glance. Newtopia hadn’t been what it appeared, not for any of them. John wondered if the Naturals would survive the schism, if they’d be able to adapt or take a less hardline stance.

Alex looked at John, her blue eyes tired. “What will happen to us on the other side?” she whispered.

He did his best to smile. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you some help. And you’re clean now, right?”

She nodded hard. John believed her. He really believed she wouldn’t go back to the drugs. She might actually make it. They reached the top of the Wall.

Dorian nudged him. “What are you going to do about Maldonado?” he asked.

John shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”

“Let me know if I can help,” Dorian said with a smile. “After all, I’m here to make your life easier.”

John felt his face grow warm. When most synths said that, it was just an observation of fact. So why was it that when Dorian said it, it sounded like flirting?

oOoOoOo

John glanced at the clock, then checked his hair again. It looked fine. He didn’t know why he was feeling so edgy; maybe it was just all the time away from the office.

Finally, there was a knock on the door, and John let out a long breath and went to open it. “Took you long enough,” he grunted.

“John, your apartment is precisely five point eight miles from the precinct. Traveling at the speed limit, there is no way I could have—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” John cut him off. “You gonna stand there all day or what?” He was aware that he sounded even gruffer than usual, but he was stepping outside his comfort zone. “Come on in. I’d offer you a drink, but . . . hey, maybe I could get you a glass of motor oil or something.”

“Very funny,” Dorian replied dryly.

They made their way to the living room. “Sit down.” Dorian sat on the couch, and John followed suit. There was a long moment of awkward silence. “So. Uh. You look good tonight.” Dorian was wearing a suit—God only knew where he’d got it. The synth raised his eyebrows and John swallowed. “I mean. Ah. I’m not saying you’re good-looking. In fact, I find you odd-looking. Ugly, in fact, but the suit is nice. I mean.”

Dorian smiled broadly. “You look good tonight, too,” he said. “I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

John gaped at him. He ran a hand nervously over his head, swearing at himself mentally. He knew he shouldn’t have fussed with it. Now he looked like an idiot. “I’m gonna get a beer,” he said, standing abruptly. “You want a—no, of course you don’t want a beer. Christ.” Dorian just watched him, smiling with good humor, as John walked stiffly out of the room and grabbed a beer out of the fridge. He’d prefer something harder, but that would only loosen his tongue more.

He came back into the living room to discover Dorian lounging—was that the word? Looking all suave and at ease, his leg crossed over his knee, arm flung across the back of the couch. He swallowed hard. “So. Did Rudy get you all fixed up?”

“Yes. Thank you for asking. No more embarrassing admissions or blurting out things I don’t want to share.” He shuddered a little.

John reflected that even though Dorian had gone a few days without a filter, he still had never said anything that bad, really. He was a genuinely kind person who didn’t have a cruel bone in his body. Well, bone might not be the right word. But, synth or not, he wasn’t the sort of person to befriend you and then turn his back just because you weren’t completely perfect.

“John?” John startled. Dorian smiled. “I’m sorry. I am enjoying . . . this . . . but you were staring into the distance, and I have plans.”

“Plans?” John repeated blankly. He stared at Dorian in his suit. “Do you have a date?” he said, completely aghast. He hadn’t had a date in months—a synth couldn’t be dating when even John couldn’t get a hook up! Besides, what would Dorian do with a date? Not that he didn’t have the equipment.

John realized Dorian was laughing at him. “In a manner of speaking. I’m escorting Captain Maldonado to the Policemans’ Ball tonight.”

“Huh. How come she didn’t ask me?” John grumped.

Dorian looked down. “I think she wants to impress upon the movers and shakers of the city that I am a well-behaved, gracious and charming android who is very unlikely to go crazy and start killing innocent bystanders. Besides, your table manners are atrocious. She couldn’t possibly take you out in public.”

John snorted. “She decided to take you because you’re all charming and likeable,” he said in a tone that implied this was a real character failing.

“More like non-threatening,” Dorian replied bitterly.

“Nah, likeable. Even the Naturals liked you. You made them rethink some of their assumptions, you know.” Dorian was very good at that.

“Maybe.” The synth gave him a look that John couldn’t interpret. “I know you’ve been out of touch for a while—”

“Yeah! Hey, yeah, catch me up. I’m going crazy with nothing to do!” The Wall incident had forced Maldonado to put John on paid leave—not really a punishment, Dorian pointed out, since he’d saved a child and it was really a paid vacation—but John would always rather be at work.

Dorian smiled. “I’m not supposed to tell you—but!” He held up a hand at John’s move to protest. “We can just say I had a little glitch and couldn’t help myself. Vaughn disappeared again. He seems to have gone deeper into hiding than ever. Most of what he was working with seems to have been destroyed, but I’m sure he’ll rebuild bigger and better.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for him.”

“Yeah. I’m sure he’ll pop up eventually. Alex and Jeff are doing fine. She’s in custody, but she’s determined to turn things around. With a recommendation from Maldonado, I think she’ll be in good shape when everything is said and done. Also, with a little work I was able to discover this tidbit of information.” Dorian motioned to John’s television, where a file popped up. There was a picture of a young man with red hair, but the name beside the picture didn’t say Jason anything.

“Douglas James Johnson, Second Lieutenant, United States Army,” Kennex read. “Tell me more.”

“There isn’t any more. His files have all been erased. He’s listed as missing in action, but his last assignment was on a highly confidential experiment of some kind.”

John looked from the screen to Dorian and back. “What the hell does that mean?” Had he gone AWOL? Was he a spy? Did he defect? Or was he merely undercover? “Was Newtopia part of the experiment?” John wondered aloud.

“I don’t know. All signs point to his desertion, but—well.”

“What?”

Dorian shrugged. “It’s just . . . a feeling. You ever just get a feeling?”

John smiled at the synth. “All the time.”

“When you’re back on duty, we can pursue the matter,” Dorian promised. He smiled, and John had to look away.

“Everything normal at headquarters?”

“As normal as it ever gets around there,” Dorian replied. “Richard talks shit about you, but I think deep down he actually misses you.”

“Yeah, right.” John had jocularly told everyone about Dorian’s comment about John’s ass, but Dorian had retaliated as promised, repeating John’s comment about his . . . equipment. John had thought they were even, and they were, except afterward the whole office wouldn’t let go. It didn’t end up as funny as John thought it would, with everyone joking about them being such a happy couple, and Richard needling John about his Build-A-Boyfriend™. He’d only shut the guy up in the end by telling him that Dorian had ‘special settings.’ After following Richard around and bragging about Dorian being ‘built to specifications,’ Richard had pleaded with him to let the subject drop. Score one for John Kennex.

Dorian broke through John’s reverie. “I should go.”

“Sure! Yeah, sure. I’ll walk you to the door.”

“Why did you invite me up here, anyway?” Dorian asked. “You softening on the idea of me moving in?”

John laughed. “No way. But, uh, I thought it couldn’t hurt. You know. Just . . . hanging out. Maybe we could do it again sometime.”

At John’s door, Dorian turned to him and smiled. “I’d like that. Thank you. I thought you only invited humans up here.”

John shrugged. “Yeah, well, you’re more human than a lot of people I know.”

For a moment, Dorian looked absolutely stunned. John laughed, ducking his head and feeling—weird. But it was kind of nice to know for all Dorian’s talents and ability to calculate just about anything, John could still surprise him. Then Dorian smiled, and John had to smile back. It was nice, hanging out, just the two of them. Dorian’s eyes were full of warmth. Maybe blue eyes were somehow more trustworthy than brown ones. People with brown eyes seemed to bring John nothing but trouble.

Dorian shook his hand and headed down the hallway. Casually, over his shoulder, the synth said, “We made good progress tonight. You know it won’t be long until we’re sleeping together.”

John flushed in shock. “You—you—very funny,” he spluttered.

Dorian pressed the button for the elevator. “I wasn’t joking.” He got on the elevator and turned to face his partner. “And you know what else? I know why Maldonado assigned me to you instead of giving you an MX.”

“Yeah? Why?” John couldn’t help asking.

Dorian grinned broadly. “You just can’t work with the latest tech—but that’s okay, because I’m backwards compatible.”

John couldn’t help but laugh.

Dorian gave him a wink as the elevator doors slid closed.