Dori the Criminal
by A Clockwork Tomato
Dori climbed the brick wall, holding on with fingers and toes. Her hands and feet were bare. She wore a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit. She wished she'd chosen something else, as it brought out surprisingly unprofessional behavior in her boyfriend, Jason Beck. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. A large black leather purse was slung over her back.
The climb had gone well. Dori was an android, very strong, though she looked just like a petite, frail teen-ager. She never got tired. On the other hand, she weighed almost 300 pounds, and it was a long way down. Six stories.
She reached the seventh-floor window and examined it carefully by the artificial starlight of the dome, far overhead. No one had ever gotten around to hooking the seventh floor up to the alarm system, Jason said, except for the fire escapes and the windows on either side. The windows were barred, though. An ornamental iron grille, all in one piece, was bolted to the brickwork. Dori climbed until she could stand on the window sill - the gaps in the grille were wide enough to put a foot through. She clipped her belt to the grille and pulled out a brace and bit. She quickly drilled a hole in the wall above the grille and installed an anchor attached to a large metal ring. She used a short length of rope to secure her belt to the ring, unclipped herself from the grille, then installed a second anchor above the grille. She the this ring to the grille with another length of rope. Then, one corner at a time, she pulled the wrought-iron grille's bolts straight out of the wall. Superhuman strength was very convenient. The bolts groaned a little, except for one whose head popped off suddenly, almost causing Dori to overbalance.
The grille still looked as if it were attached, though it was merely dangling from its ring. Not that anyone on the ground could get a good look at it, but people might look out from the building across the alley. There wasn't enough weather inside the dome to make the grille rattle on stormy nights, so her work might go undetected for years.
Dori swung the grille aside. The double-hung window wasn't even latched. She opened it and stepped into the darkened room.
All was quiet. This was a luxury apartment, and the occupants had were spending the week at the resort dome. Dori used a flashlight briefly, until she found the light switch. She turned the lights on - room lights were less suspicious to any outside observers than a dancing flashlight beam - and looked around. She was in a wealthy man's office, with expensive books on the wall, a huge polished wooden desk, and several excellent paintings and sculptures.
The painting behind the desk concealed the wall safe, Jason had told her. Dori checked. It was hinged on the left side, as if the owner used the safe too often to wish to constantly re-hang the picture. The safe was recessed into the wall so the combination lock and the door handle would not stick out. As Jason had predicted, it was a Burleigh wall safe.
Jason had discovered a flaw in the Burleigh lock design that made it unusually easy to pick, though its reputation was that it was totally uncrackable. A feature that was supposed to make it impossible to open by feel really did work - but only for the first number of the combination. Once you had the first number, you felt a faint thunk as you passed the second one, provided you were putting pressure very gently on the door handle. Too much pressure, and you jammed the lock. Most of the trick was in getting the pressure just right. So you started by assuming that the first number was zero, and spun the dial all the way around. If you didn't feel the thunk, you went on to the next number. It was a very good lock otherwise, and wouldn't open unless you aligned the numbers just right, so dialing a 97 when the combination called for 98 meant the safe wouldn't open. Most safes gave you a margin of plus or minus two - if the right number was 97, anything between 95 and 99 would work. Not the Burleigh.
But first, Dori tried several common combinations; ones used by fools. The Burleigh factory had shipped all locks with the combination 10-20-30. No dice. She tried pi: 31-41-59. Then the ever-popular 36-24-36. The owner's birthday was next, and that of the previous owner. No luck.
She then started going through the combinations. She wasn't particularly fast, not with work this delicate, but she didn't have to be. She only had 100 combinations to try. Try 1 as the first number and spin the dial in the reverse direction. Nothing. Now 2. Now 3.
She felt the tumbler fall when the first number was 44. Because she had spun the dial quickly, she wasn't sure when the second number had been. No matter. She tried again. First number 44. Now go for the second number, very slowly - there! 54.
Now for the third number. Still with very gentle pressure on the door handle, she turned the dial, and felt a distinct change when she reached the right number - 64. She released the handle, then turned it firmly.
The safe opened.
There were a few file folders and a jewelry box. She opened the box.
"Ooh," she said. There it was, just as Beck had promised. A diamond necklace with matching earrings. It was worth two million dollars.
Dori had never thought much about jewelry before. There was something fascinating, hypnotic, about this piece. She turned it this way and that in the light, and felt a strong temptation to put it on. For a minute or two, she was mesmerized by the masterpiece in her hands.
Abruptly remembering the task in hand, she extended the tray in her forehead and pulled out a tiny parcel from the storage compartment Beck had installed there. It contained replicas in artificial stones. Side by side, the real necklace was clearly superior, but perhaps it would pass muster when viewed by itself. Dori made the switch and closed her forehead tray with the real stones inside.
Next, she flipped through the file folders. Beck was fussy about the things he took from safes. He didn't like registered securities or other hard-to-fence items. He loved incriminating photographs and other evidence of hanky-panky; the victims were unlikely to involve the police. Beck especially loved blackmailing a blackmailer.
What in the world? One slim file folder held three ghastly photographs and a few sheets of paper. The photographs were of the gruesome surgical type. Were those boxes and cables medical, or was she looking at the creation of a cyborg? No matter. She stepped into the light and ran her eye over all the pages. She had a photographic memory. Then she put the pages and file folders back into the safe. Satisfied that it looked just as it had when she had arrived, the closed the door, spun the lock back to zero, and returned the picture. All done.
Go back the way she came, or out the front door? Rappelling down would likely go unnoticed, but if she were seen, the alarm would be raised, and that would be bad. Going out the front door meant she'd likely be seen, but it was unlikely that she would be identified with the crime, assuming it was ever discovered at all.
She carefully rearranged the contents of her purse. Then she pulled out a lipstick and a compact and did herself up with a reptilian green eye shadow and cherry-red lipstick. She put a pair of spike-heeled sandals on her feet and examined her fingernails. The scarlet color was built right in, since Beck hadn't wanted nail polish to spall off onto the scene of the crime. They were a little abraded from the climb, but would pass muster. Then she made sure the window was closed and wiped up a little dirt tracked inside when she had entered.
She left through the front door of the apartment, turning out the light behind her, and entering the plush corridor beyond. It was empty. She went down two flights of stairs, then used the elevator.
In the lobby, a security man, half asleep, woke up with a start when she walked past.
"Hey!" he called after her. Dori kept on walking. He hesitated a moment, then got up and ran to cut her off.
Dori stopped, turned to face him, and put her hands on her hips. "What?" she demanded.
"I didn't see you come in here," he said. After a moment, he added, "Miss."
Dori smiled, "That was the idea, sweetie. My client would have been embarrassed. If I have to call him down to vouch for me, he won't like it."
The guard hesitated. Among other things, this gave him more time to look her up and down. Finally he said, "Show me what's in your purse."
Dori sighed and opened it. She pulled out items one at a time. "Panties," she said. "Handcuffs. Diaphragm …"
"Stop!" said the guard, embarrassed. He hesitated.
Dori pulled out a business card and handed it to him. It contained nothing but a phone number. "Special discount for understanding guys," she said. "Gotta run, sweetie. Bye-bye!" And she walked out. He made no move to stop her.
She was leaning against a lamp post two blocks away when Beck pulled up in his car. She looked at him in a bored way and asked, "Need a date, honey?"
"Yeah," said Beck, "But don't tell my girlfriend." She got into the car and they drove off.
When they were a few blocks away, he asked, "How did it go?"
He glanced at her. As usual, her face looked calm and composed, her posture, perfect. "Did you enjoy it?"
"Are you upset?"
Dori felt a flash of irritation; personal questions annoyed her. She had recently decided that this was a character flaw, and was trying to become open, even innocent, in her outlook. She waited for her irritation to fade, then considered Beck's question. "Lying was hard," she said at last.
"Hell, I'm sorry, Dori. I thought the role-playing would make it easier."
"It … I … but …" Dori stopped and took control of herself. "It's easy when it's a game. But not if the other person doesn't know the rules." She was silent for a long moment, then added. "Don't worry, Jason. I'm fine."
"Yeah," he said, noncommittally. Then, "You're sure it's okay when the other person knows it's a game?"
She scooted over next to him and put a hand on his knee. "Drive faster, sweetie!" she squealed. "I can't wait until you get me home!"
Beck laughed his horrible, cackling laugh and stepped on the accelerator.
* * *
Agent 103, known to his friends as Mitchell Renfrew, stopped his motorcycle at the top of a dune and looked around. Satisfied, he raised his goggle, swung out of the saddle, and walked around to the sidecar. He unfastened the tanneau and extended a large directional antenna, then pulled out the control box and turned it on. After waiting for a minute to allow it to warm up, he turned the antenna very slowly in a circle. At 305 degrees, he got a faint reading.
He tried the other band. He got another reading, also at 305 degrees.
His hands shook as he got out the map. This was it! He drew a line on the map very carefully, using a ruler. Then he put his equipment away and selected a dune in the distance. He would triangulate from there. Where the lines on his map crossed, he would find a Megadeus.
* * *
Roger half-woke as the clock struck eleven. Was it morning already? Still groggy, he opened one eye and quickly shut it again. Dorothy had opened the curtains while he slept.
Piano music filtered softly into the bedroom. Dorothy would not switch to jangling, crashing music for a while yet.
He and Dorothy had quickly settled on a routine, once they had become lovers. Since she did not sleep, it would be tedious for her to spend the night with him. She stayed with him, cuddling close, until he was sound asleep, then left quietly. In the morning, she left him alone, except for her piano playing, until, grumpy and disheveled, he emerged from the bedroom - as he was doing now. He supposed that part might sound a little cold to an outsider - not that they ever discussed their relationship with outsiders. But that could hardly be further from the truth.
Roger smiled in recollection. When they had returned home at the end of that terrible day, where they had fought Big Fau and talked Angel around, they both knew they would become lovers that night. Roger had expected certain difficulties, since Dorothy was an android and presumably inexperienced as well. But he thought of himself as a suave, skilled lover and no doubt everything would work out in time.
So he had been unprepared when their first kiss behind closed doors had stripped his condescension away, and almost his consciousness as well. They both had been seized by a mad, frenzied urgency; a passion so intense that he had few connected memories of it. Just odd recollections of touch, cries, motion, and the rending of cloth. In the morning he had been amazed to discover the tatters that had been their clothes.
And it had been just the same the next night. And the next. Dorothy's wardrobe was becoming sadly depleted. Roger suspected that his role as the suave lover was gone forever. Dorothy began avoiding the bedroom in the morning after he had missed an important appointment, and she now changed into sleepwear after midnight, which she hadn't done previously. It saved wear and tear on her custom-tailored dresses. But if he kissed her twice in the morning instead of once, all bets were off. Characteristically, they hadn't discussed any of this. They never discussed their relationship at all.
Roger emerged from his bedroom, walking a little unsteadily, still sleepy.
Dorothy stopped playing and crossed the penthouse to greet him. She looked trim and controlled and absolutely adorable in her black dress. He smiled as they embraced. Dorothy wasn't smiling - she rarely smiled - but she was happy. He was almost sure she was. In his arms, she felt warm and very much alive - when had he started thinking of her as being more alive than human women? She smelled wonderful, too, in a way that bypassed the thinking part of his brain entirely and made his heart race. He suspected she had borrowed perfume from Angel.
Dorothy raised her face to be kissed. Roger, still smiling, kissed her. Her lips were soft and warm. A moment later he was breathless and dizzy. Dorothy swayed a little. They steadied each other. He smiled down at her. "Good morning."
"Good morning, Roger." They gazed into each others' eyes for a minute, then looked away.
Norman appeared with the coffee. "Good morning, Master Roger."
Roger drifted towards the balcony. He wouldn't feel like real conversation until he'd finished his first cup of coffee, maybe his second. Twenty minutes of quiet, or a little inconsequential talk, and then he'd breakfast, shower, and dress, and be ready for whatever the day threw at him.
Angel was on the balcony, pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. Roger groaned inwardly. Dorothy had insisted that Angel move into the mansion, for reasons she could not explain. Mostly Roger didn't mind, since he was fond of Angel and usually liked having her around. Norman had assigned Angel a spacious bedroom on the eighth floor.
Roger had half-expected Angel to make a play for him, but she never had, beyond a baseline level of flirtation that seemed as much a part of her as breathing. He'd fully expected the two women to be at each other's throats night and day, but this hadn't happened, either. Angel treated Dorothy like an unexploded bomb, and Dorothy was kind to Angel, but remote. Angel had needed kindness after that horrible day when the world had changed, because the eight puncture wounds in her back had needed tending, and Angel had been a wreck emotionally, too.
But she seemed incapable of grasping Roger's desire for routine, especially in the morning. Sometimes she respected his rules, and sometimes she ignored them. Angel was volatile, and when she was in one of her moods, other people's steadiness annoyed her.
Angel looked up, startled. "Is it lunchtime already?" She crossed to Roger and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Sorry, Roger, I'll leave you to your meditations." She stalked out.
"What was that all about?" asked Roger.
Norman replied, "General Dastun asked Miss Angel to review some reports. Their contents upset her. She is trying to calm down before she meets him for lunch."
Roger decided not to pursue this line of questioning until after breakfast. He leaned on the parapet and looked out over the city, sipping his coffee. Another fine day, with only a high overcast. Dorothy hopped up onto the parapet and gazed out, too.
"Anything interesting in the news?" he asked. Dorothy had taken to reading every word of the paper before he awoke.
Without turning her head, Dorothy said, "Crime is down sharply."
"What?" Roger was swamped with cases involving negotiations for the return of stolen property.
"All categories showed marked declines," she said.
"Then why am I so busy?" he asked.
"Have your clients reported their property stolen?"
"No." The thieves were more interested in ransoming the stolen goods than fencing them. It was more lucrative and less risky. The owners and their insurance companies kept things quite and played by the rules if the thieves weren't too greedy. He saw her point. "They're not participating in the statistics."
He drained his cup and Norman appeared at his elbow to refill it. Roger said, "Still, we're having quite a crime wave in our little neck of the woods."
* * *
Dori sat at a workbench, replacing last night's red fingernails. They were not ordinary artificial fingernails, but had been custom-made for her. They were a strong, high-temperature composite that looked just like the real thing. They were also held on with an annoyingly strong glue. Removing them was one of the few things that caused her actual pain, so far. Not much pain, but some. The pain made her feel human. As a Class M android, Dori rarely felt pain. It wasn't that her sense of pain was impaired, it was just that, as a very strong and tough android, her pain responses didn't peak until she was withstanding forces that would kill a human instantly.
She smiled to herself as she worked. Jason had really outdone himself when they got home. That ridiculous jumpsuit and their silly role-playing had unleashed something primal in both of them. She suspected that they had been taking things too seriously, before; had been too careful of one another's feelings; had held themselves back. Last night, she had just barely gotten out of the tough leather jumpsuit without ripping it.
Dori was beginning to see the pattern in how things were working out. As a Class M android, she was strong and tough and knew just about everything about how Megadeuses were put together. She could repair Big B in the middle of combat, where the ability to withstand minor explosions and other inconveniences would be important. She was partly telepathic with her Megadeus, which helped her take care of him, physically and emotionally. A Megadeus was a person, not just a machine. Dori was also very human, and could connect on every level with her Dominus. She wondered if every Class M android was lovers with her Dominus. Probably. It was the most natural thing in the world.
Jason claimed that Dorothy had lived all those months in the same house with Roger Smith and Big O, but that nothing had happened until recently. It was hard to believe. Jason probably had his facts wrong.
Jason had been surprised that Dori had taken to a life of crime. He had gained the impression that she was an extremely moral person. She wasn't sure he was right. She was a very loyal person. And she wanted to help keep Jason safe and make sure he didn't cause more damage than necessary. Helping him was her best way of preventing excessive violence and keeping him sane. Was that her human self talking or her android conditioning? Either way, she told herself firmly, it was the truth.
Beck walked in just as Dori was finishing. "You're wearing the black dress again," he said.
"The dress and the jumpsuit are the only clothes I have. You really are such a louse, Jason Beck!"
Beck smiled and held out his arms. She stood up and embraced him.
"What do you think about the next job?" he asked as he stroked her hair.
"I don't know," she said.
"Do you know anything about cats?"
"I don't think so," she said. Her amnesia made it hard to be sure.
"You don't mind kidnapping one?"
"Will it be very sad, do you think?"
"I doubt it," he said. "It's only eight weeks old. It probably can't tell one person from another."
* * *
Agent 103 had the Megadeus pinpointed to within a hundred yards or so. It was underground, in an area consisting of abandoned commercial buildings - small, flimsy offices and light manufacturing establishments. Nothing that could conceal a Megadeus. He had marked his map carefully and had noted local landmarks. It was time to report his find.
He sighed. It wasn't like the old days. Things had gone wrong. They'd gone wrong even before Vera had died. In the privacy of his own mind, Agent 103 felt that things had started going downhill fast the day Alan Gabriel had been allowed to join. Vera had turned the movement into a freak show. And now, with Gordon and Alex Rosewater dead, a lot of the fire had gone out of the surviving members.
Things were so bad that Jason Beck had been welcomed with open arms as their new robotics genius. Admittedly, Beck was good, but he wasn't really interested in the Union and barely pretended otherwise. Beck's assistance would be needed in getting this new Megadeus under control.
Well, there was no help for it.
Agent 103 packed the gear back into his sidecar, started his motorcycle on the third kick, and rode off.
* * *
Roger drove towards the foundry at the edge of town. Dorothy was in the passenger seat, looking straight ahead. Their architects recommended this foundry as the source for the new armored steel doors for Smith Manor - doors that would allow Big O to exit directly into the street. Roger wanted to see their factory and talk to their engineers. These doors were going to be expensive. He also intended to armor-plate various parts of the mansion, and wanted to discuss this with experts. Armor plate was more than just big slabs of sheet metal.
He glanced over at Dorothy and smiled. She had taken a strong interest in architecture and architectural drawing. His Dorothy had hidden depths.
He said, "Does Norman have any new secret weapons up his sleeve?"
"No, the force screen was the only one." They had used the force screen - a very peculiar device whose method of operation Roger couldn't even guess at - against Big Lazarus the week before. It had saved Big O from certain destruction from Big Lazarus' fusion beam. But the force screen had been completely used up by this. Big O had a huge empty space in his chest where the Final Stage was supposed to be, and where the force screen had been installed in its place. He needed to do something about that.
They arrived at the foundry and walked in through the main doors. Once inside they stopped and gaped. A huge retort of molten steel had come partly unmoored from an overhead trolley system, and was swinging crazily from its remaining cables, with sloshes of molten steel pouring down crazily, tons of it per slosh. Workmen were running in all directions. As they watched, they saw a cascade of white-hot steel fall onto a running man, who died not quite instantly.
A huddle of four men were trapped on a metal platform a few feet off the floor, cut off by a sea of white-hot molten steel. They had their jackets over their heads to try to protect their lungs from the searing heat, but they couldn't last long.
Roger ran towards them, keeping an eye overhead. The metal wasn't raining down here; not anymore. Near the edge of the puddle he fired his wrist grapnel at an overhead girder that was a short distance past the platform. Just before he started reeling it in he felt Dorothy fling her arms around his neck. He placed his right wrist over his left, triggered the grapnel, and soon the two of them were swinging through the air. Dorothy's weight was almost unbearable, and the two of them hit the deck of the platform with a bone-jarring thud.
"One at a time!" called Roger. One of the men seemed almost unconscious. Roger hoisted him to his feet. The man found the strength to get his arms firmly around Roger's neck, and Roger continued his interrupted swing. He'd put the grapnel in just the right place, beyond the platform, and they swung beyond the edge of the puddle on the far side.
Now came the tricky part. Because the grapnel was almost directly overhead, Roger couldn't use it easily to swing the thirty feet back to the platform. But if he released it and rewound it, it might fall into the molten metal and be destroyed.
He glanced at the platform. It had a single large, unclimbable pillar at one edge; just a big girder that went up to the web of girders overhead. Dorothy had already climbed it and was running over the top of a handy horizontal girder. She reached the grapnel and unfastened it. Roger hastily gave her a lot of slack, and she hurled it at a distant girder, where it caught on the first try. Roger could now swing back to the platform and beyond.
He did so, trying not to think about the penalty of missing. Landing on the platform, he was surprised to feel it lurch under his weight. It was decked with expanded steel sheet, but its structure was wooden beams, and they were burning! He took a second man back to safety. His back was really going to kill him in the morning.
Dorothy moved the grapnel again, and Roger rescued a third man, who was mercifully small and light. Roger was becoming weak and light-headed from the fumes and the exertion. He wasn't sure he could manage the last man. He nerved himself up to try anyway.
Dorothy didn't move the grapnel.
Roger looked up and didn't see her. She was racing to the pillar next to the platform, then slid down it. As she descended, the platform rocked, and the supports next to the pillar gave way, splashing that side with molten metal and almost sinking it. Dorothy somehow managed to break her fall and not enter the molten metal, but it was a close thing. She sprang over the gap, where the air was so hot her clothing burst into flames.
Roger suddenly realized that he could repeat his swing by running around the periphery of the puddle and starting over. The way looked blocked by equipment at first glance, but it could be done. He threaded his way through the maze of equipment and managed to get around to his starting point without snagging the grapnel cord on anything.
Dorothy was holding the man over her head, where the air was presumably cooler. Her clothing was no longer in flames. The man was not moving. Roger made his swing. When he hit the platform, he thought he was a goner, because it swayed drunkenly and almost plunged beneath the molten surface. Dorothy reached up, wrapped the grapnel cord around one wrist, and took hold of it. She clutched the unconscious man to her with one hand. Roger put his right arm around her neck, and they pushed off. With Dorothy supporting most of the weight, it wasn't too bad. They managed a clumsy landing inches beyond the edge of the glowing puddle and quickly moved away.
Suddenly, Roger felt something flailing at him. Dorothy was beating at his back and sleeves. He turned to her, startled.
"Your clothes were on fire," she said.
"So were yours." In fact, they had burned almost completely away. Mere scraps were all that stood between her and nudity. She was sooty and her hair was disheveled - but not singed, he noticed. The effect was startling. Standing there, calm, poised, sooty, wreathed in smoke, backlit from the hellish glow of the molten steel, she looked like a goddess. He stared, awestruck, for several seconds before he suddenly took off his coat and offered it to her.
"Thank you." She took it from him, careful not to let their fingers touch or to meet his gaze. This was not the time or place.
People started arriving and taking the injured men away. They looked at Roger and Dorothy curiously. Not as the heroes of the hour, but as people who didn't belong there; who were in the way. Roger realized that their little drama had not been visible to very many people, most of whom had been occupied with troubles of their own.
"Let's get out of here," he said.
* * *
When they reached the car, Dorothy could hear sirens in the distance. She opened her door and got in, not meeting Roger's gaze, trying not to think of his recent heroism, his disheveled hair, his sooty face, his ripped shirt, the roomy back seat. She did not want their love to become a public spectacle.
Roger put the car in gear and drove off quickly, without saying a word. He got through the gate just before the first fire truck arrived. Dorothy glanced back a little later, and the fire trucks were setting up right where Roger's car had been parked.
After a while, Roger asked, "Why weren't you burned?"
Dorothy felt a flash of irritation; personal questions annoyed her. Roger knew that. But it was a practical question, too. Practical questions were allowed. Roger needed to understand her physical limits; it might save both their lives someday. After a moment she said, "I seem to be fireproof."
"Did your father do that for a reason?"
Roger was really pushing his luck by bringing her father into it, didn't he know that? She let it go, this time. "I think my design is very old. Father must have used old plans to create me. He had no special need for a fireproof android."
"I wonder why the design called for such strength and endurance."
Wasn't it obvious? It was obvious even to her, and she was still uncomfortable with the way her body and mind were, in so many ways, designed to support Megadeuses. She was not really her own person; not completely. She felt trapped, sometimes. Frightened. Even now, after these same abilities had given her so much - including Roger, Big O, and, she supposed, herself. "It must all be tied in with Megadeuses."
"It makes me glad I have one." He looked at her sidelong and smiled encouragingly. She saw this out of the corner of her eye, but continued to look straight ahead.
He wished she would talk more, she knew. She envied Angel, who could chatter so effortlessly with Roger. Words didn't come easily to Dorothy. She didn't understand why her father had insisted that she be Little Miss Chatterbox; he was almost as close-mouthed as she. But she wanted to please her father more than anything, almost more than life, and she had tried so hard. It had taken a lot out of her. Had she reverted to normal now, or was she still overcompensating? The latter, she supposed. Even now, it was hard to think clearly about her father. He had been her whole world, the light and the darkness. She tried not to think about the darkness. A whole group of R. Dorothies, fully assembled - she never knew exactly how many - ready to be activated in case she was deemed defective and ended up on the scrap heap. He had never threatened - indeed he had never mentioned them. Did he know that she had made her way into the locked room where they lay?
Roger said, "We're almost home."
She glanced at him. Thank goodness for Roger! And Big O, and Norman. She had the best family in the world, now. It could hardly be better. She wasn't even afraid of Angel anymore. At least, not much. Dorothy's bond with Roger was as strong as his bond with Big O - even death could not separate them. Angel could not remove Dorothy from Roger's life or from his bed. Still, Angel was attracted to Roger, and vice versa. That was an accident waiting to happen. Could Dorothy assist Dastun's romantic interest in Angel? She doubted it; her talents didn't lie that way.
Big O had told her that Angel was important; that they needed to take good care of Angel. Well, Dorothy wasn't averse to this. Not much. As long as Angel stayed out of Roger's bed. Dorothy was not willing to share; she wanted it all for herself, and then some.
The car pulled into the open garage and came to rest on the turntable, which immediately spun through 180 degrees, ready to leave at a moment's notice.
"Here we are," said Roger. She glanced at him. He was smiling. She reached over and flipped a switch. The doors locked. She flipped a second switch. Armored shutters slid over all of the windows. She flipped a third. With a subdued whirring, the front and back seat flattened and moved together, forming a large bed.
Roger raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think you knew about that third switch." It was a relic of the time before he had met Dorothy.
"Norman showed me all the car's features. You really are such a louse, Roger Smith."
As he opened his mouth to defend himself, she pinned him against the mattress, her mouth covering his. She had the last word, as usual.
* * *
Some hours later, showered and in a new suit, Roger was working his left shoulder painfully as Angel walked into the penthouse.
"What happened to you?" she asked cheerfully.
"I had to use my wrist grapnel, and my shoulder hurts. Tomorrow my whole back is going to be one big ache."
"Does it always take you like this?" she asked, interested. Angel loved gadgets and secretly longed for a wrist grapnel.
"It does when I have to carry Dorothy. Or you. Why can't I get involved with lightweight women?"
"Lightweight women wouldn't hold up to your adventures. You need the rugged type," opined Angel. "Take your shirt off and I'll give you a massage."
"Don't be such a baby," said Angel. "It'll be good for you." She looked around. "Your furniture is all wrong for this." She took a candelabra off a long side table, then pulled the table away from the wall. "Just a sec."
She left and returned a moment later with a pillow and a sheet from the linen closet. She tossed the sheet over the table, put the pillow down, and said. "Up on the table."
"I'm not sure Dorothy is going to like this."
"Pffft! What's a massage? And if she gets her little android butt up here in time, I'll show her how to do it." She glared at Roger, who glared back. In two seconds they were smiling at each other.
Roger took off his tie, and then his shirt.
"My, you do strip well," said Angel. She'd never seen him without his shirt before. His broad shoulders and chiseled muscles were breathtaking. Her mouth went dry, and it was a moment before she could say, "I see I'm not the only one with interesting scars."
"You like 'em?" He had several, including a fairly recent one through his left bicep; a gunshot wound, she thought. None of them were as noticeable as her own scars.
"Where'd you get this one?" She just managed to refrain from touching a long, well-healed scar that skipped up his rib cage. Then she broke down and ran a finger over it anyway. She felt light-headed. Touching him should not affect her like this! She wanted to do it again.
Roger smiled. Damn him! He showed no sign of minding her closeness or her touch.
He said, "That was from when I was a cop. A crazy drunk with a knife. I forgot all my training and rushed in with my hands instead of backing off and using my gun."
"That sounds like you."
"You never told me about yours, Angel."
"Are we talking, or am I giving you a massage? Get up on the table."
Roger did so. He stretched out on his stomach and closed his eyes.
Angel ran her hands over his back. The feel of Roger's flesh under her hands was driving her wild. Why were all the sexy men taken? He really had wrenched his back, though. All the muscles were stiff as boards, especially around the shoulder. It was like kneading a marble statue. Well, a warm, yielding, faintly sweaty marble statue with a masculine aroma set off by a well-chosen cologne. He occasionally made "Mmmmmm" noises in pleasure. It was dizzying.
How long had it been? A long time. She hadn't been with anyone since that wild reunion with Beck all those months ago.
Keeping her voice steady with an effort, she said, "You know perfectly well that those scars are where Big Venus jabbed me with her cables."
"Yeah, but I wasn't sure you admitted it to yourself yet," he said.
"You really are in a sad way," she reported. "It's not just the shoulder. You're all in knots." She kneaded his muscles vigorously. "Doesn't Norman know how to do this?"
"I don't think so."
"The man's not perfect after all." She kept working on him. He gradually relaxed. At least Beck was still single. She resolved to look him up at the first opportunity. Or sooner. Enough was enough.
"Where'd you learn how to do this?" he murmured.
"From a friend." Beck had taught her. She'd learned a lot from Beck. He was a terrific lover when he was in the mood - and maddeningly unresponsive the rest of the time. They had driven each other crazy, when they'd stopped dating and tried living together. In the end, she had smacked him on the head with a length of pipe and left him. But there had been a wild reconciliation a few weeks later, and fairly regular reunions after that, lasting a night or two, when both of them were in the right mood. Or one of several right moods. There had been times when she just needed someone to hold her, and Beck -- of all people! -- understood that sort of thing. When had they stopped seeking each other out? When she'd fallen for Roger.
Roger seemed completely relaxed. Probably for the first time ever, she thought uncharitably.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
Roger snored gently.
"Men," said Angel. She half-turned. Dorothy was standing a few feet away, watching her. Angel had seen her approach out of the corner of her eye, but had pretended not to notice.
"You're next, if you want," she said to Dorothy.
"No, thank you."
"You could stand to relax."
"I don't think it would work on me."
"I bet it would. I know your muscles are totally different, but it's not really about muscles. It's about brain. You've got nerves and stuff in your back, don't you?"
"It'd probably work."
"No, thank you."
"Suit yourself." Angel draped a towel over Roger's back, picked up her purse, and headed out to the balcony for a smoke.
She wondered where Beck was. Well, it wouldn't take long to find him.
* * *
Dori picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"I need to talk to Beck." A woman's voice.
"He's not available right now. Can I take a message?"
"Just tell him Angel called. I'll call back."
"Well?" said Angel.
"Just … Jason wants to talk to you, too."
"'Jason'? I thought everyone called him Beck."
"Try again at 6 PM. He'll be here."
"Who is this?"
"Good-bye." Dori hung up the phone, almost mad with anticipation and jealousy. Angel was Beck's best friend - which wasn't hard; he didn't have many friends. Mostly he had business acquaintances. Dori had been fascinated by what little she had learned about the woman. She couldn't decide whether she wanted to drown Angel in the river or be her best pal. And Angel was living in the same house as Dorothy and Roger! Dori couldn't stop thinking about them - her identical sister and the man whom, against all probability, Dori half-remembered as being her lover when she had been human, over forty years ago. Beck had wronged them terribly. Could they forgive him? Could they accept her? In a strange way, they were her family. Maybe Angel was, too. Dori yearned for them all.
* * *
The phone rang at 6 PM on the dot. Beck picked it up, grinning. He winked at Dori. "Angel!" he said. "It's good to hear from you!"
His grin faded almost at once. "No, I thought you were something else. What? None of your damned business. Oh, yeah? Go to hell!" He slammed down the receiver and looked around restlessly. Dori tossed him a cushion from one of the couches. He drop-kicked it across the room.
"Damn, I hate that!" he said. "The guy actually …"
"I heard, Jason," said Dori, who could listen in on phone conversations.
"I mean, so what if Angel quit their outfit? She hasn't sold 'em down the river. At least, I don't think she has."
The phone rang again. Dori held up a warning hand, crossed the room, and picked it up. "Hello?"
"Hi, it's me again," said Angel, in what Dori thought was a passable imitation of cheerfulness. "Is Beck there?"
"One moment," said Dori. She put her hand over the receiver. "It's Angel."
"Okay." He reached for the receiver. "Hey, Angel. What's up?"
Dori heard Angel say, "Who's the girl, Beck?"
"Geez, Beck, not you, too!"
"Angel, how secure is this line?"
Dori gave Beck a thumbs-up.
Angel said, "Perfectly secure. You can talk about her all you want."
"I can't. Anyway, you start."
Angel sighed. "I'm going crazy here, Beck. You know I'm staying at Roger's house?"
"Yeah. Not working out?"
"Oh, it's great," she said bitterly. "I'm Roger's best friend. He and Dorothy are like a couple of honeymooners. It's disgusting."
"Hard to believe," said Beck.
"Oh, they don't … I mean, they're not all over each other in public the way a lot of couples are, but every time they kiss, their knees go wobbly. Honest to god. And Roger's so goofy about Dorothy, she can't even be bothered to be jealous of me!"
"So you've still got the hots for old Crowboy," said Beck unsympathetically.
"Is it really okay for me to come over? I'd like to cry on your shoulder."
Beck looked at Dori again. She'd practically ordered him to get Angel over here as soon as possible, but he wasn't sure she meant it. She nodded.
"Yeah. Do that. She wants to meet you. She read your favorite paperback and got all weepy at the end, just like you always do."
"Well, that sounds promising. Thanks. How's tonight?"
"You need directions?"
Angel laughed. "Beck, why aren't you in jail? I can always find you."
Beck rolled his eyes. He said, "By the way, Angel, your pals at the Union don't have much of an opinion of you."
"My god, are you doing a job with them?"
"Can't tell you," he said smugly.
"Damn it, Beck!" She stopped abruptly and was silent for some time. The only sound that came over the wire was her flicking a lighter into life. "I'd better not, then. No. No, I can't. I really can't. You'd better watch yourself with them, Beck. I think the people in charge now are even crazier than Vera."
"I never met Vera."
"They're even crazier than Alan Gabriel."
"Him, I met. Nobody's crazier than Alan Gabriel."
"Well, almost as crazy, then. You take care of yourself, Beck, okay?"
"Yeah. Don't worry, Angel. I've got no illusions about those guys. And let's get together as soon as this blows over, okay? And give Crowboy my love."
"Ha. I'll do you a favor and not mention you to him at all."
"That'll do. Bye, Angel."
She sighed heavily. "See you around, Beck."
She hung up.
Almost as soon as Beck replaced the receiver, the phone rang again. Beck picked it up. "Yeah?"
He listened for a while. "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?" He listened some more. "Yeah, yeah. I'll be there. Keep your shirt on." He slammed the phone down. "Jerks."
Dori said, "They found a Megadeus?"
"So they say."
"I'm coming with you."
He hesitated, then said, "Pay really close attention to me, okay? The Megadeus is gonna try to affect your mind. Don't go wandering off or take the initiative, okay? Oh, and watch my back. I think Angel's right. These Union guys are snakes."
Dori didn't point out that Beck had joined them with an eye towards selling them down the river later, to become a hero in the eyes of Paradigm and buy himself a pardon. This struck her as sort of snaky, too. But Beck didn't need to hear that sort of thing. He was already off-balance. Talk of Roger and Dorothy always upset him, and, for different reasons, so did Angel.
Beck paced rapidly up and down the living room, thinking. He turned to her suddenly and said, "Screw the attenuator. You don't need it. Let's use the cloaker."
"Are you sure?" The last time she had visited Big B, she had heard his mind so loudly that it had almost submerged hers.
"We'll bring 'em both, to be on the safe side. Come on!" He strode out of the room. Dori ran to keep up.
In the workshop, he pulled out a new false hairband out of a drawer. She opened the tray in her forehead. Beck replaced her current hairband with the new one. "Turn it on," he ordered, looking at an instrument on the bench. She did so. The needle on the instrument dropped to zero. "Turn it off." The needle went back up to 100. "Leave it off for now," he said. "I don't want to surprise Big B with this; it might upset him."
"Don't I need the old one to keep it from taking me over?" she asked.
"I don't think it can, not unless it gets a lock on your mind first. Anyway, you're shielded inside Big B. The attenuators keep you from talking clearly to Big B, and we might need your contribution. This could turn into a real slugfest, not the sort of half-assed fight we had last time." He looked at the old hairband. "I need to combine these functions. Damn it! My schedule's too busy. I don't have enough time to do anything right. Come on." He left the room.
Dori followed him wordlessly to the car. It was almost dark out. As they sped down the road, Beck said, "I think you won't have any trouble with Big B this time. You should have the hang of it now."
Dori glanced at him. She had only been in Big B's presence once, and if it hadn't been for the attenuators, she wouldn't have had control of her own body. Big B's mind had been that overwhelming. But she said nothing. They'd find out soon enough.
About half a mile from Hangar B, she became aware of Big B's mind, and vice versa. Big B had been asleep, but he was now alert, questioning. She picked up his emotions best; his words formed very slowly in her mind. He was interested, eager for action, and welcoming. Big B loved her; he loved her with a devoted, tender, protective love. Dori loved Big B right back. She knew perfectly well that she didn't have much choice in the matter; she was conditioned to love her Megadeus, just as she was conditioned to love Beck. But she had chosen to fling herself into her role wholeheartedly; to let go of the reserve and detachment that, she suspected, was part of being a Wayneright.
As they got closer, she could feel Big B's mind more clearly, but Beck had been right; she no longer had any confusion about whose mind belonged to whom. Big B's explanation formed slowly in her consciousness: before, she had been alone in her mind, and she didn't need to tell whose thoughts were whose. It was confusing the first time she had shared thoughts with Big B, but the confusion was very brief. It was easy to tell who was thinking, once you knew that you needed to.
About the time they drove into Hangar B, Dori started picking up Beck's thoughts. She couldn't do this directly, but Big B could. Beck's mind was flicking from topic to topic at high speed, too fast to follow. Big B's mental presence had a calming effect on him, though, and his quicksilver thoughts became more focused, more penetrating, more deadly. Dori could feel Beck reflecting Big B's powerful desire to win, to prove himself, to achieve the goal, to humiliate his enemies, and to glorify himself. Big B didn't give a damn about the big picture.
As they walked from the car to Big B, Dori could hear Beck daydreaming about how Roger would have to accept him as an equal after he pulled off his big scam, and how Dorothy would forgive him and maybe even … but no. His mind skittered away from that topic and landed on Angel. Good old Angel. Big B interjected a comment that Angel was more than a good pal; she was very, very important. Important to their mission. They needed to take good care of Angel. Big B also said something about another Megadeus, but Dori didn't catch that part because Beck was speaking to her.
"You okay, Dori?"
"I'm fine, Jason."
"You seemed withdrawn."
"I was listening to Big B."
"Good." They passed through the hatch in Big B's foot and got into the elevator. Soon they were in the cockpit. Big B's mind was much easier to read here, and Dori could pick up Beck's' more sharply, as well.
Beck sat down in the command chair and crossed his arms. The display lit up and scrolled the message:
CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD …
There was a flurry of mental activity from Beck and Big B. Their minds suddenly synchronized and the display flashed:
YE NOT GUILTY
Beck and Big B called out "Big B, action!" together, and they strode out into the darkness, one person, a hundred feet high.
Dori felt it as a surge of masculine power, intensely focused, masterful, looking forward eagerly to danger, battle, victory, celebration. She felt it, but it wasn't hers. Her job was to keep her men safe, to keep a cool head, and not let the heat of battle affect her thinking.
Beck's mind did not stay merged with Big B's for long. It wasn't clear to Dori that he realized that it had happened at all. "Any sign of watchers, Dori?" he asked. He spared her a glance and a smile.
"Everything's quiet, Jason." Beck didn't have his underground transport system working yet, and was making do with a series of hangars, all called Hangar B, at various isolated locations. Dori was helping Big B monitor radio traffic and keep an eye on cars on the road, trying to pick up signs of being spotted or followed.
Dori cast her mind along the possible routes to their destination. They would have to cross the river soon. Big B hadn't seen a recent map, but Dori had. He looked over her shoulder, as it were, and they figured out a course. Dori reported their conclusions to Beck, and he allowed them to guide him.
The trudged on for an hour and a half, backtracking at times. Crossing the pine barrens was a problem, since going through the forest would break so many trees that their path would be visible for years. Beck eventually found a path that had been created by Union robots a few months before, and used that. He figure that the old damage would hide the new.
After the pine barrens, they emerged in an area of rolling sand dunes. Here, their footprints would be erased in a few days of dry, windy weather. Beck increased their pace.
Eventually, they approached their destination. Dori spotted a cluster of vehicles on a sand dune ahead. Almost immediately they were hailed over the radio. They gave the right password, and were directed to move up to where the vehicles were parked. They did so.
When Big B stopped, Beck didn't relax. Without turning his head, he asked, "What do you think, Dori?"
"It's not a trap, Jason," she reported for Big B. "There's a Megadeus about half a mile further on, buried in the ground, not very deep. I can't make out many details."
"You can't, or Big B can't?"
"I, we, I …" Dori stopped, confused.
"Never mind," said Beck. "Dori, honey, are you okay?" The front monitor retracted to let him step out of the cockpit and cross to where she was standing.
"I'm fine, Jason," she said.
He looked sharply at her, then tenderly. He brushed her cheek with his hand, then said softly, "Let's go down and talk to our pals. Turn your cloaker on."
They took the elevator down and exited through Big B's foot hatch. The further they went from the cockpit, the fuzzier Dori's communication with Big B, and the sharper her impression of the distant Megadeus. She hoped her cloaking device worked. She didn't like the idea of being Megadeus bait.
A group of Union people was about thirty yards away, but Beck didn't approach them. Instead, he leaned against the looming bulk of Big B's foot and crossed his arms, a crooked smile on his face.
After a minute, with bad grace, the Union people approached. They were all men.
One, apparently the leader, was a middle-aged man in a neat blue suit. He seemed angry but was trying to hide it. "Beck! You know better than to bring outsiders! Who is this girl?"
"Why, Agent Six! Nice to see you, old buddy," said Beck, smiling in a particularly infuriating way. "Rumor has it that you've got a couple of odd jobs for me."
Agent Six glared at Beck for a moment, then said, "There's a Megadeus up ahead, there. At least, your instruments say there is."
Beck nodded casually. "Well, let's take a look, shall we?" He straightened up. "Come on, Dori." He began strolling towards the site.
The Union people did not follow them. "Is this wise, Jason?" asked Dori.
"Dunno about the Megadeus. Being snotty and confident's good box office with the Union, though. What can you make out?"
Dori focused her attention on the buried Megadeus. "I think … we need to help him, Jason."
Beck looked troubled. "I don't know how we can make that fit into the game plan, honey. Is its core memory intact?"
Dori reached out to the Megadeus. Something odd here … it was as if she was looking at two minds at once. Confusing. And there was something else, too. A sudden feeling that everything around her was fake, and that the details could be rearranged to suit herself if she just wished hard enough. It was terrifying. A moment later, her hairband writhed on her forehead and became distinctly lighter. She clapped a hand to it. This wasn't the right hairband! It had no circuitry in it at all! What happened to her cloaking device?
The Megadeus burst through the sand. It looked a lot like Big O, but was orange with black trim.
"Run!" cried Beck.
Dori didn't move. Beck grabbed her hand and tried to drag her back to Big B. "Big B!" he called desperately. "It's showtime!" Big B started walking towards him.
Dori shook Beck off and began running towards the Megadeus, her mind a blank. All she knew was that she needed to get into the cockpit. Beck ran a few steps after her, but realized it was hopeless. She was faster than he. He spun around and pelted towards Big B.
Dori's mind began reasserting itself after just a few seconds, but she could not regain control of her body. Soon she reached the Megadeus and jumped into his outstretched palm. He raised her up to the throat hatch and she leapt inside. She flung herself into the control seat. Behind her, eight probe cables raised themselves up like snakes, but then fell back, defeated, when the Megadeus realized that her probe-cable sockets were completely masked by other hardware in her skull. He was unwilling to harm her.
CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD …
Dori felt her vision expand to include all of the Megadeus' senses. The boundary between her mind and his became ill-defined.
YE NOT GUILTY
"Big Kappa, action!" they called. Then, suddenly, the rapport faded. She was her own person again. She looked around in confusion. Where were the hand controls?
Beck's face appeared on the monitor. "Dori!"
"I'm fine, Jason," she said. "Wait." She communed with Big Kappa. "Oh, my."
Barely a hundred yards away, a second Megadeus burst through the sand. It had an odd, angular design, all planes and facets. Its colors were white and orange. Its only visible weaponry was a set of arm pistons; not round like Big O's, but octagonal in cross-section. Even his fingers were not round, but had an octagonal cross-section.
"Target the newcomer," said Dori, in a strange, flat voice. "He is our ancient enemy, Big Octus." Then, in her normal voice, she added, "I think so, too, Jason."
Big Kappa was not well-armed. His missiles were expended. His chromebuster was broken, his reality cannon could not be charged beyond 1%, and he didn't have enough power for counter-measures. He had little more than his fists and arm pistons.
Dori tried to give the order to attack. Big Kappa could not take the offensive without orders. If Dori could just whisper the word, Big Kappa would do the rest. She tried and tried. Nothing happened. Her android's conditioning was too strong. If she'd had any tears, she would have wept. She wept anyway.
Big Octus took up a chromebuster firing stance. A feeble jet of plasma played over Big B, then died.
Big B extended his plasma lance and waved it around menacingly, hoping to draw attention from his left hand as it transformed into a big-bore cannon.
Big Octus' torso snapped open, revealing banks of missiles. There was a pause, then six of the twenty-four launched. Three went whizzing off in random directions. Three buried themselves in Big B's torso armor, doing no apparent damage. Big Octus' torso shut itself again.
In the meantime, Big B bent almost double. His back armor lifted, and a huge net came whirling out of the gap. Before it could reach Big Octus, a hemispherical force shield, partly transparent, coruscated out of Big Octus. The net hit the shield and shattered into a million fragments.
Big B walked deliberately towards Big Octus, brandishing the plasma lance. Just outside Big Octus' reach, he leveled his left-hand cannon and fired it at the Megadeus' head. Big Octus raised one arm quickly to intercept the shell, and Big B lunged under the arm with the plasma lance, burying it in a shower of sparks and molten metal deep in Big Octus' lower torso, hoping to destroy the reactor.
Big Octus tried to back way, but Beck had engaged the magnetic grapples in Big B's hand, locking the two Megadeuses together. Big B worked his hand this way and that, tearing at Big Octus' vitals. Explosions began to burst from the wound and from the joints in Big Octus' torso.
Big Octus hit Big B hard in the throat with his right hand, pile-driving it with the arm piston. The throat held the cockpit, and a hard enough blow would knock Beck unconscious. Big B staggered theatrically backwards three steps, then suddenly became perfectly still and fired his cannon into the wound in Big Octus' torso.
For a long second nothing happened. The Big Octus exploded. Big B was blown backwards and landed heavily on his back. Big Kappa, much further away, had to take two paces backwards. Several of the Union vehicles, two sand dunes away, were blown over, and one person was killed.
"Core memory destroyed," said Dori unnecessarily.
Beck's face reappeared on the screen. He looked mussed, and had a slight nosebleed, but was in good spirits. "Well, that was interesting. Come on down, Dori."
"All right." She tried to stand up, but couldn't. Her body was not responding. "Let me go!" she demanded. Big Kappa told her that she wasn't going anywhere. She was his now. Big B could try to take her away. Let him try! Big Kappa might not be able to attack, but he could defend.
Dori tried to speak, but her mouth wouldn't obey. Don't do this,she said silently. It's wrong. You know it is. You could be our friend. We could help you find a Dominus and an android of your own.
But Big Kappa was having none of it. Without a Dominus or an android, he was barely alive. It was hellish; it was unbearable. He had her; he couldn't bear to part with her. It was as simple as that.
Dori wept silently. Please, please, she begged. I want to live! I want you to live. You can trust us. We can help you. Don't make Jason hurt you. I don't think I could bear it!
Big Kappa didn't weaken. He was touched by Dori's distress, but his fear of loneliness amounted to madness. Dori tried to warn Beck not to attack, but she still couldn't speak. The cockpit shielding prevented her from talking to Big B unless Big Kappa let her.
Beck was watching her with growing alarm. "Dori! Say something!"
Dori couldn't move anything but her eyes. She looked pleadingly at him, willing him to understand. Then, suddenly, she decided that this was not a silly romance story - she was Dori and he was Jason, and they did things their own way. She winked at him, very slowly. Big Kappa was not paying attention to her and didn't notice.
Beck looked startled and then stared at her, his face a blank, for several seconds. Then he said, "Would it help if I joined you?"
Big Kappa's heart leapt. If he and Beck were compatible, Beck could be Big Kappa's Dominus, and Big B could do nothing about it. If he and Beck weren't compatible, Big Kappa could declare "YE GUILTY" and kill him out of hand. Just let him sit in the control seat.
Dori closed both eyes and held them closed for a full second. It was as good a gesture of negation as she could come up with.
"Oh, sure," said Beck in disgust. "Don't answer me. Bitch. I'll be there in a minute."
He left the cockpit and in a moment was out of camera range. A moment later they could hear Big B's elevator door open and close.
Big Kappa's attention focused on the hatchway in Big B's foot. Soon it opened. Time passed. No Beck.
Just as the first faint suspicion rose in Big Kappa, Big B suddenly extended his left arm and fired his cannon into Big Kappa's head. Big Kappa stumbled backwards. Big B lunged with the plasma lance, forcing Big Kappa to continue his retreat. By the time Big Kappa was ready to go onto the offensive, Big B had another round in his cannon, and fired again into Big Kappa's head. Once more, the shell went home.
Big Kappa suddenly became still.
Dori, suddenly free, said, "Oh, Jason!" and buried her face in her hands.
"Are you okay, Dori?"
Dori, not looking up, shook her head.
"Talk to me, Dori," he said sternly. "I need to know what to do next."
"He's dead, Jason. I felt him die."
"I can come across, then? It's safe?"
Dori looked up suddenly. Was it safe? What if something happened to Jason? Big Kappa was standing like a statue. What if he toppled over? As if in a nightmare, she checked Big Kappa's systems, made sure that his positioning system was on automatic. There. He wouldn't fall over now, and she could walk him around if she had to.
"It's safe now, Jason." Then, after a moment, she added, "Where are you?"
"Damn, I forgot to stop the tape loop." The picture on the monitor jumped, and suddenly, instead of seeing Big B's empty cockpit, there was Beck. "I'll be right over," he said.
"Jason? Would it be okay if we met in Big B?"
Very gently, he said, "Sure honey, whatever you want."
He met her at the hatchway. She flung herself upon him, forcing him back against the bulkhead, and hugged him so hard his ribs creaked. He half-dragged her into the elevator and they went up to the cockpit. Big B kept up a steady, soothing murmur the entire time.
"Jason?" Her voice was muffled against his chest.
"I don't want to be an android anymore."
"I wish we were normal."
She said nothing for a while, then, "What would we be doing right now if we were normal people?"
"We'd either be making love or watching television."
She glanced up at the monitors. The Union people were milling around uncertainly.
"There's never anything good on."
Beck pressed a button and a low bunk slid out from the bulkhead behind the cockpit. It had black sheets and a yellow blanket, and on top was a pair if yellow silk pajamas and a yellow negligee. He expected her to call him a louse, but she was done with words.
He managed to save his suit, but the black dress was a write-off. He'd have sworn she tore it on purpose.
It was a long time before they answered the increasingly agitated calls from the Union. Telepathy, they discovered, was useful for more than combat.
* * *
Dori wafted through the sleeping house like a ghost. The kitten's basket was in a small sitting room near the proud owners' bedroom. Dori found it and peered inside.
Oh, aren't you adorable!she said silently. In the gloom, she couldn't make out the kitten's color, though it - he -- was listed on the insurance forms as gray. She reached out very gently and stroked his fur. It was wonderfully soft.
The kitten awoke, yawned - a curious, high-pitched sound that sent shivers up Dori's spine - and stretched. Then he looked up at Dori. Hello, he said. She could have sworn she really heard it.
Hesitantly, Dori stroked it again. He leaned into the caress, so she repeated it. After a moment, the kitten began to purr. Dori was entranced.
Do you want to go away with me? she asked it silently. We could have such fun!
Sure, the kitten replied. Or maybe she was supplying both sides of the conversation. What did it matter, anyway? Very carefully, she picked up the kitten and held him close. He purred even louder. It was wonderful. Dori was in love.
What shall I call you? she asked as she moved silently towards the exit. The kitten did not reply.
After a moment, a name floated into her mind. I will call you 'Pero.' She tickled Pero under the chin.
[To Be Continued]