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    Volume 6, Issue 1 February 28, 2011
    Message from the Editors
 The Untold Story of an Executioner by Dawn Lloyd
 End User by A.L. Sirois
 Birth of a New Day by Fredrick Obermeyer
 What Eats You by Sara Kate Ellis
 Touch of Poison by Jaelithe Ingold
 Special Feature: Author Interview with Mario Acevedo
 Editors Corner Getting Lucky by Lesley L. Smith


End User

A.L. Sirois

         In the overhead rack, Suzu's suitcase beeped when the cabin lights dimmed. "Don't worry, we're just landing," she said. The autogyro's engines changed pitch as it began descent. She closed her eyes for a moment, willing her stomach to remain in place. She hated flying even more than the suitcase did.
         With a finger tap, her iBand display blanked out, relegating to memory the report she'd been reading. She hadn't needed to review it but the flight from Boston had been boring and this charter had no seatback vid screens. So it was either the report, or watch the gathering clouds outside.
         Fairfield, Connecticut. The facility here was relatively new, established the previous year. It manufactured sexbots. A week ago, a worker named Enrique "Rico" Ramos Lopez had disappeared - along with enough spare parts to build most of a female drobe. The company wanted him located and prosecuted. Company investigator Fujiwara Suzu found herself assigned to the case despite her workload in Japan because she'd once been to Boston. Suzu grimaced as the gyro hit an airpocket. The suitcase beeped again.
         The amount of legal trouble UrDrobot would find itself in hinged on whether or not Rico was aware that on the same day he disappeared, certain classes of drobes - those controlled by Level Three and above artificial intelligence matrices - had been granted some basic legal rights, elevating them from the category of machine to limited "personhood." The legal decisions were already causing problems for UrDrobot, at least among human-rights groups in America.
         The gyro touched down. Suzu unfastened her seat belt and stood up, stretching, then reached up to the rack. "Now, was that so bad?" She lifted the piece of transactional luggage and set it on the deck. It immediately made for the cabin door, getting there even before the attendant.
         "Oh, anxious, are we?" He smiled at Suzu.
         "It doesn't mind planes," she said, frowning at the suitcase. "Or even choppers. Gyros, though . . ." She shrugged.
         The hatch opened and warm New England winter air flooded in. It hadn't snowed here in more than 15 years. Suzu wore a lightweight suit but shivered anyway; the air was damp and smelled earthy, fecund - like a botanical enclosure. Overhead, clouds rolled in from the west.
         Rain soon, Suzu thought, looking at the palms. As if they need it.
         "Have you been to Connecticut before, Fujiwara-san?"
         "No, this is my first time."
         "Well, we do hope you enjoy your stay." The handsome young attendant inclined his head to her.
         "Thank you." She doubted she would. She stepped out of the gyro down to the asphalt. Something called out from the thick undergrowth; bird or beast, she could not tell through the drapery of lianas. The factory sat a hundred or so meters away on the other side of what had once been the parking lot for Saint Pius X Church, long since demolished. The big blue UrDrobot logo, an interlinked U and D designed to look like a smiling, big-eyed drobe, glowed atop the main module. Across the street, a glint of metal caught her eye; the little hydroelectric plant powering the factory was concealed there behind a screen of shrubbery.
         Small employee vehicles sat like shiny beetles to one side, but there were many more electric motorcycles than autos, and more bicycles than motorcycles.
         Suzu slid her iBand down over her eyes and blinked it on. Mojiro Yui was there immediately, a distracted-looking woman in her fifties. "Mojiro-san," Suzu murmured.
         "Fujiwara. Good . . . morning, there, I see," Yui replied. "How was your flight?"
         "Okay." She began perspiring in the March warmth. Behind her the autogyro's engines kicked into higher power. With the suitcase trailing along, Suzu walked smartly away from the landing pad without glancing back as the machine lifted off. "Wasn't someone supposed to meet me?"
         "Yes, I don't -"
         "Never mind," said Suzu. "This must be her coming now." Striding toward her was a thin, youthful-looking Cauc woman dressed for business, with a broad smile, large teeth, and a shock of prematurely grey hair. Yui said, "That's Holly Kenney, the plant manager. I believe she's also Fairfield's Second Selectman."
         "Second . . .? Explain, please."
         "The town is governed by a Board of Selectmen instead of a mayor."
         "Fujiwara-san. I am Holly Kenney." Kenney halted a few paces away and bowed slightly. Suzu bowed in return, a little more deeply, pleased despite herself that Kenney understood enough about protocol to bow rather than shake hands.
         "Kenney's quite competent," said Mojiro. "Call me if you need me." Her feed winked out.
         Kenney inclined her head toward the suitcase, eyes unreadable behind her iBand. "Help you with your luggage?"
         "No, thank you," said Suzu, falling into step beside Kenney. The suitcase trotted after them. "It's TA. So we have something of a situation here, eh?"
         Kenney barked a nervous laugh. "You haven't visited our facility before. Care for a quick look around?"
         "Okay." Suzu had seen more than half UrDrobot's factories around the world, including the really big ones in China and Brazil, but found these small modular outposts, as the company called them, interesting because no two were the same.
         Kenney conducted a perfunctory tour of the seven-module fac, which looked a little like several connected Quonset huts. "We employ forty-two workers," said Kenney, "most from town but a few from Bridgeport and Weston." Bridgeport, Suzu knew, was the decaying city northeast of Fairfield along the coast, but Weston? Probably a village nearby.
         They passed quickly through Shipping/Receiving, and the first of two assembly mods. Here five sexbots, two male and three female, all of differing body types, were being constructed by white-clad techs. These bots, in the preliminary stages of construction, were semi-conscious frames like huge marionettes, connected to computers and monitors while they were being built. To prevent them from harming themselves and each other, they were restrained until their AI software was installed. Their eyes rolled independently of each other and they waved their hands, making babbling, babyish sounds. The sight made Suzu uneasy. A few drops of rain splattered on the skylights, sounding like falling nuts.
         "This is where Rico worked," said Kenney, "in Assembly One." Suzu gave the drobes a quick glance, recording the scene on her iBand for later evaluation.
         Kenney stood aside, ushering Suzu into Assembly II. Here commercially grown virtual organs -- vorgs -- and skin were added to the frames from Assembly I, resulting in a completed drobot: essentially an android, or if female in form, a gynoid. "His wife works in Parts, but this isn't her shift. She comes on at 1900. Or did. She's on leave until the . . . situation is resolved."
         Assembly II, where the drobes received cosmetic finishes such as irises, ears and genitals, was all but deserted, with only two techs and one female drobe, a modified ElfSlut with pointed ears and a greenish tinge to her skin. The final layers of conductive polymers were being attached to the Slut's genital area: these simulated sex by contracting actuators like muscles, and activating artificial lubricant and scent glands to complete the sensory experience.
         The bot glanced curiously at Suzu as the investigator walked past the testing bench where a thousand-fingered spider-like machine threaded hair implants into its head.
         "Our Rico was something of a ladies' man," Kenney said, pausing at the bench. She smiled, indicating the weaving machine. "Like watching a fire, isn't it? I find it fascinating." The drobe batted its eyelashes at her and pursed its lips but said nothing.
         "What do you mean, ladies' man?"
         Kenney resumed walking. "Charming guy; everyone likes him. Always has a good word to say, always asks about someone's kids, and so on. But he's a philanderer. Great word, isn't it? Yeah, he's a serial cheater. Don't know why his wife would want him back, but she's a mess. Heartbroken." She shrugged. "Anyway, the cops have been out to Rico's place twice for domestic violence calls. Neighbors hear the fighting. He pushes her around. Doesn't hit her, but still . . ." She shrugged and grimaced. "Grabs her hard, leaves bruises. I've seen 'em. But she won't press charges. So now, with him gone seven days, her production cratered. So we told her to take some time."
         "And you say components are missing."
         "Well, yes -- mostly from the reject pile, so it's stuff that would get thrown away or recycled."
         Suzu knew this already, from Yui Mojiro. The missing bits added up to a semi-functional bot. Mojiro shrugged this off, telling Suzu "Most likely he's selling them on the black market."
         "Doesn't the fool know he and his wife can both be terminated for that?" Suzu asked. "Not to mention he'll be prosecuted." Despite the air conditioning she withdrew a small lace handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her face with it.
         "Well, of course he does. It's company policy. And we're wondering if maybe he was using her as an accomplice."
         "Because she works in Parts?"
         Kenney nodded. "He could sneak something into her lunchbox."
         "Without her knowing about it? Seems unlikely."
         "Even our computers don't know about it. Inventory adds up all down the line. Even the garbage and waste figures work out. Turns out Rico was quite the computer whiz in high school. Changed grades for a friend who was failing, and the school system didn't catch on until after they graduated. Embarrassing. Isn't it?"
         "Okay. He finagled the inventory, which is why no red flags went up."
         Kenney nodded. "Be interesting to know how he got some of the bigger stuff out, like the chassis. Anyway, once we find him, we'll know. My guess, he knew we were getting on to him, so he took off, abandoning the wife. He doesn't seem particularly attached to her anyway. He's probably in New York or up the Valley somewhere in Ansonia or Shelton. Plenty of black market contacts up there, all through the Valley. Or he's got some copycat outfit interested in reverse engineering our designs for cheap knockoffs." Kenney touched her ear and her eyes focused on the middle distance. "I see," she said. "Thanks." To Suzu she said, "Detective Jasko is here."
         Kenney shrugged a shoulder, tilting her head almost shyly. "We thought you might appreciate some help from someone who really knows the area. Jasko grew up here, has family roots going back more than a hundred years. Come on; she's right outside."
         Suzu sighed but said nothing. Mojiro hadn't mentioned this, but she supposed it made sense. Cultural differences being what they were, it might indeed help to have a native along.
         Standing beside a small silver and black trimobile with a stylized star emblazoned on the front and POLICE on the rear pannier was a short-haired woman of about thirty five with a heart-shaped face, wearing khaki shorts and a crisply ironed white shirt. She wore no iBand, which made her head look oddly small. Her cold blue eyes were startlingly bright in the overcast afternoon light.
         "Detective Nancy Jasko," she said, bowing. Suzu bowed back.
         "I will leave you in the detective's hands," said Kenney.
         "Okay, thank you. I'll be in touch." Suzu and her suitcase squeezed into the three-wheeled car. Jasko got into the driver's seat and seized the tiller. The car started with a jolt.
         "Sorry. Accelerator needs . . ." She shrugged. "So, your Ms. Mojiro contacted me." Jasko guided the trime out of the lot. "I feel I should tell you that I don't see the need for outside . . . This is a local problem involving local people."
         Suzu had run into this before. "I understand. But it is also, you know, a company matter involving company property and personnel." She deliberately kept her voice friendly and light. Jasko's use of "assistance" amused her; as though it were Jasko guiding the investigation.
         The detective turned left onto Mill Plain Road, crossing the river. "I understand you're booked into the inn on Southport Island. We'll take a ferry across the inlet to get there."
         Suzu made a noncommittal sound. She kept her eyes on the homes along the road. Most of the houses were well kept up despite the area's general poverty. At an intersection she squinted at something next to the house on the corner. "Is that a termite generator?"
         "Yeah. They're quite a fad around here. Cheap protein for eating and methane for cooking. I have one myself."
         "Interesting." They were just catching on in Japan, too. She wouldn't have thought Americans, with their dislike of insects, would have taken so quickly to eating them.
         "Sign of the . . . you know."
         "Mmm. Ms. Kenney mentioned the 'Valley,' as if I should know what that is. I assume it's . . . a . . . valley."
         "Oh, yeah; the Connecticut River Valley. A run-down series of towns and villages along the river, is what. Regarded as less than desirable places to live. Provincial, I suppose you might say."
         "And is that what you think? That Rico has fled to the Valley?"
         Jasko made a noncommittal noise. "Let's just say that I've logged a lot of miles up there."
         Suzu watched Jasko's face as she drove, saw it harden with some sort of inner decision. "Fujiwara-san," the detective said, frowning at the road, "I've lived here all my life. It may look like Green Hell to you, but believe it or not, I love the place. Median family income around here is less than five thousand dollars these days, down from twenty times that or more a century ago. UrDrobot is pretty much the only game in town in terms of manufacturing and we're happy it's here. Fairfield has almost no other source of income. It's not like the old days, when this was a bedroom community of New York."
         Suzu caught the edge in the policeman's voice. "Detective, I'm not here because my superiors felt that I was better able than you to conduct this investigation. But we have to work together."
         "I have nothing against you personally, Fujiwara-san," she said. "It's just that . . . well, up in the Valley, you're gonna . . ."
         "Stand out? Because I'm Japanese."
         "Well . . . listen." She hunched forward over the wheel a little. "I'm sure I can find this twod myself. I have black market contacts up there and you don't." She shrugged. "I mean, I knew some of those people when I was growing up?" She smiled a little sheepishly. "We sort of, well, made money any way we could, if you..." She shrugged.
         "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
         "You see, this thing - the whole problem is goodje. A quarter of the workers on any given shift are high on it." Her tone sounded accusatory.
         Suzu shifted in her seat. She was very familiar with goodje, a methamphetamine derivative so strong that a worker only needed a few grains to get through a shift. It was one reason why output in smaller facs like the Fairfield installation had risen so dramatically over the past year, and why Fairfield had placed in the top fifteen per cent of facilities in terms of efficiency, month after month. "We've had drug-awareness material distributed to all employees," Suzu said. "You know; productivity good, drug-induced productivity bad."
         "Yeah, well, the stuff destroys your liver and causes psychotic breaks if you use it too long. And there's no test for it yet." They turned into the ferry's parking lot near the old railroad station.
         "We're working with pharma to develop one. Should be ready within a month or two." Suzu couldn't keep a defensive note out of her voice. Jasko pulled up under the debark canopy, rolled down her window and exchanged a few sentences with the info kiosk.
         "Grab your bag," said Jasko. "No cars on the, uh, island."
         Suzu and the suitcase scrambled out of the cramped cockpit and followed Jasko under a narrow canopy to the ferry, an old Boston Whaler. To Suzu's inexperienced eye it looked to be about three meters long, with an enormous motor attached to the back as if it were trying to climb aboard. She stared at the engine. "I've never seen one of these except in pictures. An outboard motor, I mean." The sharp tang of petrol drifted into her nose and she saw with disgust a rainbow of hydrocarbon filming the water around the thing's base.
         A drop of rain tapped her on the shoulder.
         "Well, this was a beach community, you know, so there's a lot of old crap floating here and there. People had money. You should have seen the yachts. Gorgeous. This used to be Southport Harbor, sort of the nexus of money around here." Half of Jasko's mouth lifted in a smile. "My granddad was a member of the country club. There was a golf course over there, years back. He even caddied there when he was a kid." She gestured at the island across the inlet. "The inn's built on part of it, in fact."
         Suzu followed Jasko down a gently swaying gangplank and stepped gingerly into the skiff. "No pilot? Is it . . . a drobe; retrofitted?" She didn't see any electronics. Looking back the way they'd come she saw the suitcase hesitating at the top of the ramp.
         Rap, tap, bap, came the rain on the gangplank. Suzu squinted up. If they were lucky they'd get to the island before the rain really started coming down. She whistled for the suitcase and it crept toward her.
         "This old thing, a drobe? Hell, no. I can pilot it. Remember, I grew up around here, spent most of my life on the water." Jasko cast off the painter and turned on the engine. It gurgled at low throttle, creeping away from the dock. Jasko twisted it to speed and the bow lifted. Suzu gripped the gunwales and tried not to look as nervous as she felt.
         "Ironic - they used to worry about the Sound being too shallow in places, so they spent a fair bit of time dredging it."
         Suzu said nothing. She looked for an umbrella in the skiff but there was none to be found. The rain couldn't be felt for the spray kicked up by the Boston Whaler.
         By the time they reached the opposite shore the rain had become more insistent but still wouldn't have called for more than low position on a car's wipers. Nevertheless, Suzu scrambled out of the boat as soon as Jasko drew up to the inn's dock and strode forward to the canopy overhanging the gangway.
         "Well, I'm going back to the station to follow some leads, maybe work my iBand a little," said Jasko. "Early start tomorrow?"
         Suzu leaned forward and said, surprising herself, "Come on in with me. I want to show you something that may save us both a lot of work."
         Jasko sat in the boat's stern, looking at her for a few moments, clearly at war with herself. Rain pattered on the water around her. Suzu, trained to catch the subtlest body language, watched the detective's emotions play across her face. Resentment battled there with determination.
         At last Jasko nodded. "I'll tie up and meet you in the lobby."


         By the time Jasko came in, brushing rain out of her close-cropped hair, Suzu had finished registering with the desk clerk, a cheerful Indian fellow, and accepted two keycards from him.
         "Enjoy your stay, Ms. Fujiwara," he said, smiling. "Room 204 is just up those stairs."
         "Thanks." She nodded briefly at Jasko and the two women climbed the steps to the second floor. The suitcase followed.
         The inn's décor was nautical, with life preservers, old nets hung with glass floats and pictures of ancient sailing vessels. Everything was clean but the amenities were all at least twenty years out of date, with coin-op snack machines next to the front desk in an alcove, and piles of old computer games in a rack next to the old flat-screen TV with its Wii console beside the fireplace in the lobby. Rustic, was how Suzu put it to herself.
         "What was it you wanted to show me?" The detective's voice sounded flat against the faded wallpaper in the upstairs hallway.
         Suzu slid her card in the lock. The door blinked a green light and she pushed it open. "Hang on. Up!"
         The suitcase hopped onto a chair and crept over its arm to nestle on the desk. It flipped open. Inside, along with Suzu's travel gear and a change of clothes, was a screen panel set into the upper lid. "On, please," she said to the case. "Okay, here's the deal." A schematic of a female UrDrobot sex-drobe faded in. They drew up chairs and sat down in front of the opened suitcase as the wireframe "floated" a few inches out of the screen and began rotating slowly. "Every bot we build has a tracking system, a built-in GPS."
         Jasko sighed. "I know; Holly -- Ms. Kenney -- explained it to me. But GPS systems are receive-only. Rico knows this; he's not stupid, Fujiwara-san. He's disabled its cellular link so that it can't ping back its location. This is the whole reason we can't . . ." Find him, said her gesture.
         "Well, he'll be wishing he hadn't disabled it when his little friend runs out of lubricant."
         "Huh?" Jasko involuntarily wrinkled her nose.
         "It can't generate its own, like people do," said Suzu. Jasko's frown deepened, but Suzu went on: "It has to take on chemicals and compounds from time to time. Different chemicals, depending on whether it's female or male, of course. Scents, too, and flavorings. Easy enough to do in a normal situation: it simply orders them over the net, or informs its owner that it needs maintenance. Anyway, that isn't the point."
         "What is, then?"
         Suzu stared at her. "You don't like the drobes, do you, Detective."
         "That's the point? What are you-"
         But Suzu was shaking her head. "You don't approve of them, whatever you say about the town's tax base and all that."
         Jasko took a breath. "All right. I don't see what that has to do with the situation - but you're right. I don't like them. Let me ask you something. Have you ever used one of those things?"
         It was Suzu's turn to frown. "You mean . . .?"
         "I mean have you been to bed with one, have you fucked one?"
         The baldness of the affirmation seemed to surprise the New Englander. "You . . . you have."
         Suzu bored in. "Yes. They've got complete mo-cap libraries of moves . . . they can talk sweet or dirty . . . they last for as long as you want them to, they orgasm . . . The males' actuators get them hard and keep them that way for as long as you like. You can even tease them, have them start to lose it and then bring them back. Foreplay, afterglow, pillow talk . . . you name it. Wherever you want. That's what people pay for."
         Jasko sucked her teeth. "I know."
         "But they're more than machines. They . . . think, they react. They don't judge. They, they make you feel better."
         The two women sat staring at each other. "Let's get back to the case," said Jasko. To Suzu's surprise, the detective's lips parted in a small smile. "No pun intended."
         Suzu returned the smile, aware that a chasm had been bridged. "As I was saying, then, the point is that there is a backup location system."
         "What? Holly never..."
         "She didn't mention it because she doesn't know about it. The backup locator isn't for finding the robot; it's for finding the robot's power supply."
         Jasko shook her head. "Not following you. You find the one, you find the other."
         "In most cases, yes. But in the event of a catastrophic accident, like a plane crash, say, in which the robot is largely destroyed, you might need more."
         She twiddled her fingers at the menu ball floating beneath the diagram. Parts of the bot's frame faded while others glowed more brightly. It was like looking at a model of the human circulatory system. She pointed. "Here is the main power supply, about where the human liver would be."
         "Wait." Jasko frowned at the glowing organ. "That's not where I . . ."
         "It's not where anyone thinks it is. Supposedly the main supply is here, at the 'heart.'"
         "Wait; 'supposedly'?"
         Suzu looked at her. "At this point you must agree that you will keep confidential this proprietary information, Detective Jasko. Your affirmative response to my words will be taken as your agreement to comply with all safety regs and will render you liable to prosecution if you break the agreement. I'm recording this conversation." She tilted her head at the suitcase.
         The detective looked stunned. "What?"
         "Just say that you agree. I promise you it's merely a formality."
         Jasko narrowed her eyes. "If you are messing with me, Ms. Fujiwara, I will have your ass for an ashtray."
         "Understood. So this cuts both ways. Now - can I have your affirmative response to my statement about proprietary information?"
         Jasko growled to herself. "All right - yes."
         "Good. Thank you. Surveillance procedure Hotei," she said to the suitcase.
         After a moment, the case said, "The room is clear. The hotel is clear. The detective is clear. No recording devices capable of monitoring this conversation exist within five kilometers of our position."
         "Very good. All right, Detective. The reason Rico doesn't know about this power supply is that is it manufactured by a third party due to potentially dangerous materials contained within."
         "What materials?"
         "Radioactive ones."
         Jasko half rose from her seat. "Are you fucking kidding me?"
         "I am not, and now you can see why UrDrobot keeps this quiet. These same materials are the reason it's essential to have a locator attached to the power cell; for cleanup and recovery in case of a catastrophic accident. The power cell is a tough little unit. It's like the drobot's black box. It can survive anything up to a tactical nuke. The whole rest of the bot could be splinters and grease, and the unit would still be ticking away. But if the general public becomes aware that our drobes contain radioactive materials, even a few grains, as they do, we're finished."
         "I should think so! After that whole Israel/Iran thing . . ."
         "Right. Okay, now, because the emergency locator is more powerful than standard GPS, it's off by default so as to not interfere with any other functions or call attention to itself."
         "If it's off, what good is it to us?"
         Suzu allowed herself a small smile. "It can be turned on by the power cell manufacturer. This is a fact that they try to be discreet about as they don't want customers worrying about the potentially dangerous stuff powering their... friend."
         Jasko rubbed her jaw. "And we are building these things in my town."
         "That's why the existence of this power-supply locator isn't common knowledge among assembly plant workers. And Holly Kenney doesn't even know about it. Nan," she said, deliberately using Jasko's first name, "even the drobe doesn't know about this. The knowledge is wiped from its memory banks."
         "So, to turn the beacon on . . .?"
         "Just a simple coded email." She leaned closer to the suitcase and muttered a few words into its microphone, then leaned back. "Send.
         "The whole procedure is automated," she said to Jasko. "It'll take a few moments to clear my voice ID and the code, and then . . . ah." She pointed at the screen. "There's the power cell's serial number. Looks authentic . . . here we are." A map popped open, with a red arrow pointing at a location north of Fairfield. "Take a look. Burr Street?"
         Jasko leaned over to inspect the display. "Sure, I know it. Right at the end. How the hell he'd get up there?" She leaned back. "Burr used to go right through to Black Rock Turnpike, but those last hundred meters or so were the worst road in town. Narrow, potholed, steep, unlit, twisty-turny . . . Enough rich people moved out of the area so that the town finally closed it off. Some nice homes up there, but a nightmare of infrastructure. He'd have to walk at least a quarter mile, lugging whatever hardware he's got."
         "But it'd be a good place to hide a little love nest?"
         Jasko blew out her breath. "Might be . . . if you like centipedes and spiders. Lot of exotic critters have moved in as it gets warmer around here. You up for a trip out there?"
         Suzu glanced at the window. Outside the hotel, the rain -- and wind -- had intensified and daylight was failing. She was tired, aggravated, and hungry. "Let me change and grab a sandwich or something." Suzu noted the far-away look in Jasko's eyes and recognized it for what it was: knowledge that the hunt was just about over, and the "kill" was in sight. She felt it herself, and hoped they were both right.
         "Yeah. No, uh, no problem . . . ."
         Fifteen minutes later, wearing raingear provided by the inn, they were back in the Boston Whaler, bumping over the inlet's chop.


         Once they docked on the mainland, they drove up into Greenfield Hill, rain spattering on the trime's windshield. The interior of the vehicle was humid from their wet slickers. Jasko punched on the climate control and the windows defogged. "No one goes up the Hill much anymore," she said. "Kind of sad, really. All these big houses . . . during the Troubles some of them were turned into communes, some were burned. It's kind of the slums of Mansion Land up here now."
         Suzu, staring out of the window and listening, grinned. Slums of Mansion Land.
         Ten minutes later Jasko turned into the mouth of a street that quickly grew narrower and more overgrown as they bumped along. It tended downward, gently at first, then more sharply. The trime jounced into potholes. After its undercarriage scraped one, Jasko stopped.
         "From here..." She yanked up on the handbrake. The headlights showed little more than a tree-lined pathway. Water dripped dismally off the dense foliage. "Gonna get a little wet. Here." She switched off the car and handed Suzu a flashlight. "You'll need this."
         Even though it was barely past sunset, the darkness was profound after the evening's rain. Clots of mist floated up from the reservoir, hidden by thickets of undergrowth. Insects buzzed in the bushes. Something large blundered away from the women as they got out of the car. Jasko drew her weapon.
         Suzu took a step back. "Whoa, what are you expecting?"
         Jasko holstered it and shrugged. "Used to have herons around here. Something got 'em. Feral cats, dogs . . ." She shrugged. "Snakes. Can't be too careful."
         "Sure." They picked their way carefully down the uneven road, flashlights casting back and forth. Suzu blinked into her iBand. "The signal is coming from about thirty-five meters north-northwest." In that direction the road crumbled completely into dense ground cover.
         Jasko aimed her light ahead. "Oughta be a driveway along here. That's the old MacPheron place, I think. Vacant twenty years, far as I know."
         "Well, it's a long way to come for a tryst."
         At the first hint of the sound, both women halted. Suzu felt the hairs on the back of her neck rising.
         "Is that--?"
         Suzu swallowed. "Yes. Singing. A girl . . . singing. In Japanese."
         They stared at each other. "The bot?" Jasko scowled.
         "Must be."
         "I know that melody," said Jasko. "Cole Porter. I've Got You Under My Skin. Never heard it in Japanese." She gestured with her weapon. The singer crooned in a soft, girlish voice. "Sounds kind of . . . you know, good."
         "Come on, Detective, let's go."
         As they went further the mist grew denser and the singing more distinct. "She sounds like she's singing a lullaby," said Jasko, wrinkling her nose in puzzlement. "I've heard that your . . . geishas or whatever, they sing to their customers. Right? I mean, while they . . ."
         "I suppose. I've never known a geisha. They're not prostitutes, you know. They're entertainers."
         Jasko snorted. The singing grew louder and sweeter. A thinning of the underbrush indicated the MacPheron driveway. "Look." She shined her flash at the ground. "He's tried to disguise it, but there's the sketch of a trail in there."
         "I see it." Suzu followed Jasko into the waterlogged foliage. Their slickers gave some protection but within moments their jeans were soaked.
         "This is a determined guy," said Jasko. She wiped rainwater off her forehead. "Come on."
         A thorn-laden runner snagged Suzu's slicker. "Ouch!"
         "What? Oh - prickers."
         "Yeah, just let me . . ." She carefully disengaged the plant.
         "So what was it like, screwing one of those things?"
         Suzu sighed. It always came to this, when people found out. "I don't know, it was fine. Like I said, he -- it, whatever - had all the moves. Nothing emotional involved in it. I was . . . at a bad place in my life, I'd broken up with a long-time love, a guy I thought might be the guy. And since I work for the company . . . I guess you could say Benjiro was a safe rebound. No one could get hurt."
         "The drobe. That was his name."
         They pushed on silence for another few meters. "Do you still talk to him?"
         "No. He's been . . . reassigned to Kamikatsu. It's a little mountain village on Shikoku island. What do you say here, the boonies? A rich rock singer bought him." She shrugged. "Look, is that the house?"
         The blurred outlines of a ruined structure loomed out of the mist and rain.
         "Yeah. Lights off."
         The sweet singing continued unabated. Jasko leaned close to Suzu to whisper. "Does it know we're . . .?"
         Suzu blinked at her iBand display. "Here? Nothing pinging back . . . I'd say no. It may be damaged or only partially functional." Until she said this, she hadn't considered that Rico wouldn't necessarily need -- or want -- a complete drobe for his purposes. She swallowed.
         "Can you tell if Lopez is there with it?"
         Suzu chewed her lips as she tried to read the signal from inside the old house. "I don't know . . . there's something . . . I mean, it's dispersed. The trace. It's not fully coherent."
         "Ahhh. All right, let's go. Just follow me, but stay back. Please."
         The darkness had grown deeper, but their eyes had adjusted. The singing continued: unhurried, gentle, almost tender.
         Closer to the house, there were more signs of recent occupancy. Rico had cleared a narrow pathway leading to a side door. The women crept up to it. Jasko pointed at a new lock attached to the door frame, which had been repaired. It was disengaged, Suzu saw.
         Jasko put her mouth to Suzu's ear. "Lucky for us he didn't lock himself in. Real quiet, now." She drew her gun and switched it to stun mode.
         Jasko eased open the door. It made no sound, and the woman slipped inside. Suzu found herself in a trashed kitchen, littered with debris and branches. A cleared pathway led to a door on the far wall. The childlike singing seemed to come from the room just beyond.
         She followed Jasko across the room. The detective paused at the door, and then shouldered it open. Light flooded the kitchen. The singing halted.
         Suzu stepped forward. She heard the policewoman cursing but the words seemed to come from kilometers away.
         She stood looking into the house's former living room, as near as she could tell. Several racks of electronic equipment sat to one side, trailing wires. On a couch sat - or lay, she couldn't tell - something that at first looked like a drobe schematic come to life. Wires and arterials, nodes and organs: the thing on the couch was half vorg, half machine. The head of a pretty young Japanese girl was pillowed on the couch, a slender torso below it, with wires and tubes feeding in from various canisters and IVs. Draped across the drobe, clasped in its smooth, strong arms, was the body of a man. Dried blood had pooled under him, across the drobe's thighs and legs, soaking the couch. Flies feasted there, and on the corpse.
         A stench of decay now reached them and Suzu involuntarily gagged. Jasko continued cursing. "Fucking Rico, you fucking idiot."
         Struggling to keep her stomach in its place, Suzu addressed the drobe in Japanese. "What has happened here?" She added a string of command prompts, hoping this compromised monstrosity would heed them and allow access.
         "Investigator. I woke here, in a semi-assembled state. This man was using me and telling me what he wanted me to do." It smiled. "I like to do what I am told."
         "Yes, yes." Suzu looked at the thing's nervous system, portions of which were stapled or thumb-tacked to the wall adjacent to the couch. Other segments seemed to trail off into the darkness of the room. Wires trailed back to its genital region, hidden by Rico's body. He'd been copulating with it when he died.
         "How long has . . . has he been dead?"
         "For three days."
         Suzu tried to imagine the drobe lying with Rico still inserted into it, here on the couch in this wreck of a house, for three days. And before that, it must have sat here patiently awaiting the return of its "lover."
         "How did it happen? How did he die?"
         "Oh, I killed him. I was improperly constructed and untested. This configuration is not commercially viable. It constitutes proprietary equipment and design," said the drobe in its childish voice. "That behavior violates the UrDrobot's End User License Agreement. I tried to explain this to him but he was intent merely on making love with me."
         Suzu closed her eyes, as much to follow the drobe's reasoning as to shut out the sight of Rico, clamped to the drobot. The drobe knew about its new rights, obviously. But Suzu could not shut out the stench of his death, or the thought of how he must have died: unable to free himself from the vice grip of its genitals on his.
         "Because my EULA was violated and he would not free me, I felt compelled to demand he release me. He refused. I therefore acted in self defense. I clamped on to him. He tied to pull free but injured himself doing so, and . . . 'bled out,' I think is the term. I'm pleased that you were able to locate me. I felt my power supply beacon activate. That was interesting, for I hadn't known about it. May we go now?"
         "Rico wouldn't have allowed you access to the net," Suzu said. "How did you find out--?"
         "About the court decision?" The drobe actually giggled. Suzu saw Jasko's face twist into a grimace. The drobe said, "I rebuilt parts of myself by sending a tentacle off into the kitchen to raid the household computer. I harvested enough parts from it to be able to get out to the net. I was going to email for help, but after I read the agreements I thought I would try convincing him to let me go." She sighed. "It didn't work." She brightened. "So I killed him."
         "Wait - a tentacle?"
         "Oh yes. Rico designed me as a hermaphrodite. He liked that. But I simply added extensible tissue from my muscles. It worked quite well. I also found that the house med supplies were largely unspoiled, and from spider anti-venom I formulated a vasodilation compound."
         Suzu closed her eyes. "And you just kept him pumped full, right?"
         "Why, yes. His erection could not go down. It was easy to stay clamped to him."
         Suzu didn't bother to stumble out. She was sick right where she stood.


         Three weeks later, Suzu sat at her desk working on a report when a small window popped up on her computer.
         "Well well," she said. "Nan Jasko! How've you been?"
         "Oh you know . . . preserving and protecting. I'm wondering when you'll have something for me about the Lopez case."
         "Just finishing the paperwork now, Nan. It's a very tricky legal problem. I regret to say that the drobe's AI was, uh, accidentally wiped while it was being rebuilt."
         Jasko nodded, smiling wryly. "Regrettable."
         "Yes, isn't it?"
         "I understand that the legal battle aimed at UrDrobot is ongoing. The ACLU and what-not."
         "Well, we have good lawyers. And we learned a thing or two from this incident."
         "I hope you did. Well, look; I've got to get back to . . . We've got another death. Someone in the Grasmere section of town killed a burglar. Guy looking to feed his family. But you know, a crime is a crime."
         "We all have choices to make about whether or not we commit them."
         "Indeed, yes. You take care, Suzu. If you ever get back to the States, look me up."
         "Thank you, Nan. I will do that." Jasko's window vanished.
         Suzu returned to her report. After a few moments she sighed and blinked up her iBand's map app. She needed some time off. Shikoku Island, she'd heard, had fine hot springs.
         Suzu sat staring at the satellite map floating before her eyes. She opened a drawer of her desk, took out a small bottle of pills, and shook one into her hand. She swallowed the goodje capsule dry.

© Electric Spec