1

"A real boy," David whispered again, to the gentle blue figure whose image wafted in the rolling currents. She did not speak, nor did her face change into any expression that might impart some understanding of her intentions.
        How much time had passed since he had arrived in the deep waters of her submerged abode and how many of his fervent prayers had gone unanswered? He knew this answer, surely, but only in its technical essence; the simple calculating way that was so easily available to his Mecha brain. But in its true substance, it's meaning, its relevance, he had no clue.
        "Blue Fairy," he started again, firmer this time, undaunted by her silence. "Please make me a real boy."
        Still she spoke not. So he asked again.
        And again.
        The waters grew dark as another in a countless procession of days drew to a close. Slowly the amphibicopter's floodlights began to fail and in hours a dim jaundiced glow was all that was left of their luminance. Still David prayed, even as her image diminished to a dark silhouette against the vast gloom.
        He grew tired.
        David had never known weariness before. He did not know that it was being deprived of the suns life-sustaining rays which left him feeling this way. He was not aware that Teddy had already retreated into that dreamless state that was the slumber of their kind. He only knew that he was having a hard time hearing his own voice in his ears and that, even when night passed again into day, the darkness did not relent and her face was harder and harder to discern against the withering blue. Eventually he could not move at all. His mouth could no longer repeat the mantra that had been his only purpose since he had arrived. But this would not dissuade him either. If all he could to do was to sit and stare, then he would be content to do so until she…
        "David."
        The voice broke him from his lethargy and he strained his head to look up, again, at her.
        "David, why is it that you have stayed here for so long?" the Blue Fairy asked.
        He was stunned beyond response, entranced by the new glow that came from her and washed the ocean floor in hues of blue and gold; reveling in the warmth of her voice that seemed to come from inside his own head.
        "David?" The Blue Fairy repeated.
        'I want to be a real boy!" he said quickly, "So I can go home to Mommy."
        The Blue Fairy did not speak for a time and a fear grew in David's mind that she had once again retreated into the silent state in which he had found her. But she spoke at last and her voice was filled with a caution that David did not understand.
        "I can grant you this wish, David, for it is my power to do so, and it is my calling to reward the steadfast. But I must know that you understand the depth of your request."
        She paused then and seemed to be waiting for David to confirm this. But he did not have anything to say. He knew well what he wanted. It had driven him every moment since 'She' had opened his heart by speaking the 7 words of his awakening into sentience.
        "A mortal life is a trial, David, fraught with the countless conflicts between flesh and spirit that, in your innocence, you cannot understand. I must know that this is truly your desire."
        David was about to respond, to assure her he was ready for the gift which would allow him to return to his family, to lead the life of which he had always dreamed. But The Blue Fairy already understood.
        The world seemed to shift and suddenly his presence was intensified somehow; he became a part of the immediate world in a way he'd never felt before. He was pondering this strange new sensation when his body was suddenly filled with an indescribable sensation; a vibrancy that started in his chest and flowed in a pulsating rhythm through his arms and legs, over his skin. His head was suddenly swimming with the flow of this new vitality. He bolted upright in the amphibicopter seat and gripped the steering bar as something that burned like fire erupted in his stomach and his body began to tremble as a new desperate need tore at his chest.
        "Breathe!" The Blue fairy commanded, and David frantically drew his first breath. He quickly pushed it from his chest and drew another, and another, until the process seemed to repeat on its own. The air was rank with the chemical odors of the pressurized cabin and the sudden foul fragrance of his own fearful sweat. But David did not notice these things. He only knew the enveloping pain of birth, the wrenching pangs of a desperate hunger, the strange new pulse that was racing in his chest and in his ears, and the tremors from the awakening of his new body.
        The Blue Fairy cast a knowing, sympathetic smile on David and then set her gaze back into the void.
        "You are alive," She said as she faded, once again, into stillness in the murky depths.
        David called out to her, to try and tell her of the agonizing fire now burning in his stomach, the nausea from the swimming of his head and how the chill of the cabin was now penetrating his flesh. But her light was gone, leaving him alone in the cold blue world, shivering in the painful aftermath of his birth.
        He screamed.
        Then there was darkness.

2

        Motion.
        Distant voices.
        Lights shifting at the edge of his vision.
        Pinpoint pains that come and go as he fades in and out of awareness.
        "Can you hear me," someone says. "Move your fingers if you can hear me."
        David obeys and hears someone make an excited sound. There are other voices, raised in exclamations of joy, relief. There is activity he does not understand. He is being moved again and placed between sheets. The cloth is cold against his skin but, in time, warms to him, and he sleeps, finally escaping the dizzy sensation still moving through his head.
        When, at last, he opens his eyes he almost screams again. It must have all been an illusion; a "dream" is what Mommy would have called it, for he is still encased in glass. Then David sees that this enclosure is different. This is not the amphibicopter and the face beyond the glass is not the Blue Fairy. This new face, a man's face, is standing above him, looking elsewhere at first but then notices David's gaze. David knows this face but, in his delirium, cannot place it. His recollections seem to be dulled somehow, not as easy to call they once were. The man stares back a moment, then says something into a pad in his hand before he rushes away, leaving David alone again, locked in a shell of glass in a flat white room.
        He sleeps.
        "Hello?"
        David opens his eyes. The glass is gone now and a new face is looking down on him. He does not know her. David wants to respond, but it is as if a great weight is on him and he decides to only blink his eyes lest his head start to spin again.
        "Well, glad you could join us, finally, "the new face says. "I'm Doctor Chen and I'll be looking in on you until you're feeling better."
        David can only grunt in response and the woman becomes distracted with the machinery surrounding his shell. "You've been through a hell of an ordeal, young man," she says as she reads meters and adjusts dials.
        Young man? The words resound through David's brain and, for the first time since he has awakened, he feels a sense of hope; that all his pain has been for good.
        "Am I real?" He chokes the words out through a dry throat. But the woman does not seem to hear.
        "You're lucky you're still with us," she says in a disinterested fashion as she scans readouts on a translucent slate. "There wasn't enough air left in that copter to last another hour." Whatever she sees in the readouts seems to satisfy her and she looks again at David. Her expression is perplexed. "You're a strange case, aren't you? One for the journals for sure." She is pensive, as if speaking to herself.
        David opens his mouth to speak and she leans close. "What did you say," she inquires.
        "Am I real now?" he asks again, gruffly.
        The woman does not seem to understand this question at first. She studies David's face carefully, gazes long into his eyes. Then she rears back quickly, as if in the sudden presence of something dangerous, and stares at David with cautious, analytical eyes.
        "You need to get solids into your system," she says finally, clinically, and then departs, casting a quick suspicious glare over her shoulder before she speaks to a man at the door. He nods his head and then departs too. But he returns quickly with a plate of something, and sits on the edge of David's shell. His face is gentler than the woman's and after a moment's scrutiny David suddenly remembers where he has seen it before.
        "Joe!" he exclaims and then coughs from the burning in his throat.
        "Easy now," the man says. "I'm no Joe, I'm an Angelo. A nurse by any other name, and I'm tasked with feeding a starving little boy." He smiles as he lifts the cover from the food. The smell is tantalizing and David's stomach rolls with new anticipation. Any questions of why Joe would be posing as a nurse are immediately set aside.
        "Open up, let's get some food in you." Angelo says. David obeys eagerly and the Mecha ponders his choices before he lifts a spoonful of something from the plate. "Why don't we start with some spinach," he suggests.
1
Minutes stretch into hours, into days and then weeks. David acclimatizes to his new senses. He learns of the smelling and the tasting; of the common pains mortals live with every day and the strange new sensations that have been awakened in his body. He learns the pleasures of eating and drinking and then the crude but relieving task of dispelling of his wastes. Doctors come and go, studying him with detached fascination, poking and prodding, taking samples of his vital fluids, of his flesh and hair. They ponder aloud why a boy of his apparent age has not been inoculated against common illnesses and then David undergoes a painful round of injections. "Big boys don't cry!" Dr Chen scolds when tears accentuate his complaints. So David learns to tolerate the pain of their intrusions in silence. They speak in cryptic coded language but he understands some of their banter.
        "Is it brain damage?" they wonder. Could that be the reason why he does not seem to know simple human functions? "What of his digestive track?" they ponder, "His lungs? His veins? His liver?" He is as untainted by normal toxins as a newborn.
        They ask him questions. "How old are you?" "Where are you from" "How long were you in the copter?" He answers truthfully which does nothing to alleviate their confusion. His story incites more coded language and communications are sent. But they do not tell him if his tales have been validated. More tests ensue, painful, invasive. Humiliating.
        So David learns to take refuge in sleep. He finally understands the lure of that dissociated state and he lingers there as often as they will allow. Soon, he hopes, he will be taken to see 'Her' where he wishes to stay for the rest of his time. Her face comes to him at night, but it does not constantly glow in his mind as it once did, when his flesh was not flesh and his heart was only the hard coded commands of the chip in his head.
        It might have been a month that he had been captive to these men of science; he was not sure. He could no longer access the clock in his head. What he saw there now was dark, cold memories in which the recollection of 'Her' face was the only source of warmth. But somehow it is fading. Trapped amidst the background clutter of this shell of flesh, this soft machine, Her image is fragmenting. His feelings are as strong as the day they drove him to fall into the Ocean in hopes of escaping them. But oddly he finds himself lost as he tries to recall the specific contours of Her face.
        This thought was on his mind as Angelo came into his room. The Mecha nurse had become the only friend that David had in this antiseptic environment.
        "Time to wake, David," Angelo said cheerfully. "They want to talk to you. Let's get you up and dressed."
        But David had not been sleeping. He threw off the covers and sat on the edge of his bed. "When can I go home?" he asked as Angelo laid out a pair of pants and shoes.
        "Whenever they find out where that is, I guess."
        "But I already told them!" David yelled. Angelo shot him a reproachful glance and the boy lowered his voice as he continued. "I live with Mommy and Martin and Henry and my friend Teddy in a big house near a pond in the woods. I told them when Mommy took me to the forest and about the Flesh Fair and the End Of The World and Blue Fairy and when she made me real. What else to they want to know?"
        Angelo didn't respond for a moment and there was something sad in his face. But it was gone quickly and the Mecha smiled when he asked, "You do know how to dress yourself, right?"

2

The man that was standing beside the large chair, gesturing for David to sit, had a stern unreadable expression. So did the other men in the room; stern faces and suspicious eyes, made all the more ominous by their dark suits, a few of which were adorned with shiny bits of metal on their lapels. David knew these to be symbols of high office and understood this was an important event. Dr Chen was there too, reading something from the slate she always seemed to have with her, cradled to her chest like a sacred text. She glanced up when David entered the room and gave him what might have passed for a smile, to those who didn't know her better
        "Have a seat, David," the man behind the chair said. David glanced up at Angelo who winked to suggest everything was OK. David walked to the chair and sat. There was a brief silence in which all eyes were on Angelo. After a moment the Mecha nurse got the message and excused himself from the room. David thought he saw some concern in Angelo's face as he turned to close the door, but could not be sure.
        He was alone again; alone with these strange, grim looking people. They sat as one on the large couch that surrounded the chair, eyeing him from behind unreadable expressions. Finally, the first man spoke.
        "My name is Greig, David. Field Commander Greig to most, but you can call me Jeff if you like. I see no reason to rest on formalities. We're just going to have a nice little chat, OK?"
        "OK Jeff," David said and nodded his head. But he felt a growing tension as the man named Jeff cleared his through to start their 'nice little chat'.
        "David," Jeff started, "I'm going to be frank."
        "OK, Frank," David said, wondering why the man would have so many different names. The other men in the room laughed and the mood seemed to lighten. Even Dr. Chen's smile seemed genuine for the first time since he'd met her. The man named Greig or Jeff or Frank grunted and the room fell silent again.
        "Very clever son, but Jeff will do," he continued. "There are some serious concerns we have to deal with. You were found in stolen government property, buried beneath the remains of a submerged amusement park. You were located when your emergency GPS suddenly came on." David nodded to confirm this information, which he was already fully aware of, and the man continued. "But what really bothers us, son, is that according to the copter's log, you'd been there for just under twenty months. That's almost two years."
        Once again David nodded to show he understood. Jeff glanced around the room before he continued. "There's not enough reserve oxygen in a simple patrol copter to last two weeks, let alone two years, son. And even if there was, what would you have survived on? The emergency rations hadn't been touched and … well let's just say we didn't see evidence of any natural bodily functions. See? It's an impossible story. So tell me, when did you arrive in that copter?"
        "We took it from Rouge City. I already told Dr. Chen and the other men about it. Joe was with me and then we went to The End Of The World and I saw Dr Hobby who tried to lie about the Blue Fairy, and then I jumped off the building and saw her and then they caught Joe and I went with Teddy to see the Blue Fairy …" David stopped and cast a dark look on his inquisitor. "Where's Teddy?" He asked, accusingly. The man glanced around with a shrug. Another man cleared his throat.
        "Ahhh, he probably means the toy we found in the cab. It's ahhh…" the man cleared his throat again, but said no more. Jeff nodded and turned to David.
        "We'll get hold of your toy for you, son. Just finish your story."
        David did not understand what had passed between the men, but he hadn't liked it. He glared at them for a moment and then reluctantly continued. "So… then something fell on us and I asked The Blue Fairy to make me real and she wouldn't at first. Then she did." Silence followed this testimony. Everyone's eyes were on him, except Dr Chen, who was typing something into the keys on her slate. Jeff took a deep breath.
        "OK. OK. We verified the rouge that disappeared with the patrol copter, so we concede that part of the tale. But the rest is absurd, David. I think you know that. Now, I can be patient to an extent, after all you're a boy and I know boys tend to…"
        "A real boy!" David interrupted quickly. The tension inside him grew and he fidgeted in his seat.
        "OK, a real boy," Jeff agreed with a impatient glance at the others. "And I suppose your Dad is Geppetto, right? Where might I find him?"
        "I already told you this!" David blurted, irritated having to answer these questions again. The tension inside him was building towards critical mass. "My Mommy is named Monica and I want to go home to her. Why do you keep asking the same things?"
        "Son, do you know how many Monica's there are out there? What's your last name? What's your address? Where did you go to school? How come neither your fingerprints nor DNA match anyone in our entire database?" The man who preferred to be called Jeff leaned forward and clasped his hands together. "No more games, son. Who really put you in that patrol copter and why?" he demanded.
        It was all too much! David jumped from his chair angrily, clenching his jaws against the insufferable pressure inside. "I'm not your son! I've already answered your questions, there is no more to tell, and if you'll excuse me, I really have to pee now!" The men were taken aback by the outburst. They grumbled coarse whispers to one another, but decided to detain him no longer.

3

Angelo was grim faced when he brought David his meal that night. The Mecha nurse lingered a moment, moving a few things around on the cart beside David's bed. But it was easy to tell he was pretending, trying to make himself look busy while he prepared to say something.
        "You really believe your story, don't you?" he asked, finally.
        "It's true," David insisted, but softly. Something about Angelo's tone said this conversation must be between them alone.
        "It's crazy, David," Angelo said. "It's like… like a fairy tale." He said this with a dismissive tone, but he was gazing on David with a strange sort of wonder. He turned away and seemed lost in thought, then he faced David and there was new intensity in his eyes. "You are telling the truth, aren't you?" he asked.
        David nodded his head. Angelo's skeptical expression changed to excited curiosity. "What's it like?" he asked.
        David looked back, confused for a moment and then understood. "It's… it's…" But he realized that he didn't know how to explain. "It's good and bad. I mean, it's messy and it seems to hurt a lot, but then you forget about the hurt and there's smells and other things. The food is good, I guess." David thought hard, trying to think of a way of describing the new presence he felt; the way he seemed to be more 'here' than before. But after a minute he just shrugged. "It's hard to compare because… well, I can't really remember a lot about before. It's like…" he sought for a word. "It's like a dream."
        Angelo seemed a little disappointed. "I can't dream," he said sadly.
        "Neither could I," David replied, understanding.
        "And you can now?" Angelo asked.
        David screwed up his face as he thought, and then nodded. "I think so," he said. "At least I can sleep now, and that's not bad. I like that." There was a moment where the two locked each other's eyes and then Angelo came and sat on the bed beside the boy.
        "Listen," he whispered, "they don't know what to make of you. They think you are some kind of clone, or part of some kind of strange plot. I know it sounds stupid but …" he stopped there and considered something before he continued. "They don't understand you, David. They fear what they don't understand. And what they fear… they destroy."
        "Destroy?" David whispered in shock. Fragmented memories flashed in David's mind, of shattered metal, electric fire and chanting crowds of Orga. "But I'm real!" he cried.
        Angelo shook his head. "I don't mean literally, David. But I think they are planning to send you to a security center for illegal children. If they do that, and your story is true, then no one will ever claim you. You will never get out."
        David sat up in his bed, his eyes wide and pleading, his mouth opened to yell. But Angelo shushed him. "Of course I would never let that happen! Here's what we'll do." The Mecha raised his head and seemed lost in thought for a time. Then he turned to David with an apologetic look on his face. "I'm sorry. I am not programmed to develop such strategies. I'll have to get help in developing a plan for your escape." He rose and walked to the door. "I'll know by tomorrow's breakfast. Be ready," he said. Then he was gone leaving David alone in the antiseptic silence of his room.
        "Mommy," he whispered into the stillness.
1
David awoke with a start, the fragments of a strange dream fading quickly against the screen of his mind. He sat up in his bed and gathered his wits, trying to remember what visions he had seen during his visit to that strange realm of fantasy. But he could not. How frustrating it was to have finally found the key to the secret world, yet not be able to recall what visions he'd encountered.
        He set aside his attempts of recollection and peered around the dark room. It was still early. Beyond his door he cold hear the hushed voices of hospital attendants, the clicking from the moving feet of Mecha nurses and workers as they passed his room; the rapid staccato beeping language of the facilities main system communicating to the mechanical staff what tasks needed to be done. He'd once known that language. He listened for a time, and then felt a strange sense of loss that he would no longer be able to decipher that digital tongue. It was all so much mechanical gibberish to him now.
        He would not be able to fall into his sleep state again, not with his pending escape on his mind. So he sat and stared at nothing, knowing for the first time the irritating tension of nerves strung tight, like an inaudible pitch at the back of his mind that would not let him relax or think any pleasing thoughts. He became suddenly aware that he had been rolling his bed-sheets in his hands, so tightly that it had formed a knot. He stopped and stared at the twisted cloth. What was this, he wondered; this peculiar and pointless task that his mind had set his hands to without his even knowing? And what other automatic mechanisms of his new body might be in operation below his level of awareness? There was a flash in his mind, a momentary but disturbing insight that perhaps he had chosen this path unprepared; a fear that this body and its countless involuntary functions were things that he could somehow loose control of. But this train of thought was suddenly cut off as the door to his room opened to allow a sliver of light into the room. The shadow of a man was formed in that thin light.
        "Angelo?" David asked.
        But the man that walked into the room was not Angelo. He stopped just inside the door and stared at David for a moment. David tried to make out the man's features, silhouetted as he was against the light coming from the hallway. But the intruder backed out quickly and spoke to someone out of David's line of sight. There was a time when David would have been able to just focus his attention and hear what was being said so softly across the length of his room. There was a time when he would have been able to adjust his sight to better see the face that had appeared and disappeared so quickly. But he could not anymore.
        "Who is it?" David asked. But the voices at the door just continued their hushed conversation. Were these the men that had come to take him away; to lock him in some secret cell where they would study him, poke him with needles and take samples from his new flesh? And would he ever be allowed to leave that place, or be able to somehow escape, to be with 'Her' again? "Who's there?" David asked again, louder, not knowing that the force in his voice was anger; anger generated by the fear that was making his heart race and his breath come shallow and fast.
        Then the door opened wider and something was suddenly moving into the room. David's fear was replaced with surprise as he watched a small shape walk through the door to the point where he could make it out in the faint light that was coming from the hallway.
        David knew this shape! It was a bear shape!
        "Teddy!" he exclaimed, rising quickly from the covers, jumping from the bed and running to his friend. He slid to the floor and grasped up the bear, hugging it tightly in his arms. "Teddy! Where were you?" he asked, finally realizing the depths of his solitude as his tears fell at the feel of his friend's furry little body against his own. "I missed you."
        "Hello, David," Teddy said in gruff mechanical warmth. "It's good to see you, too!"
        David wiped his eyes, feeling strangely embarrassed and then held the bear up to look at him. "You look almost new!" He exclaimed and hugged the bear tight again.
        "He is almost new, David" said a familiar deep voice. David looked up to see the man who preferred to be called Jeff. He was standing at the door, smiling broadly. Beside him stood another man, one that David had not seen before. This man did not look as friendly as Jeff was now trying to appear.
        "We had a hard time finding an older model," Jeff explained, "but we managed. How do you like him?"
        It took David a moment to understand what Jeff was saying. He held Teddy up again and studied him closely.
        "Why don't we go out and play, David?" the bear asked. "It's nice outside and there are swings by the parking bay." This was not Teddy, David realized. It was an imitation, a substitute. Just like he had once been.
        Jeff seemed to sense something was wrong and knelt beside David. "Hey, he's not so bad, is he? I bet he grows on you. Why don't we take him for a walk, so you two can get acquainted?"
        David looked up into the man's eyes. The lie was plain to see. So, this was it. He was being taken away. Never to be seen again. And where had he to run, even if he could escape these large men? Angelo had failed him. He glanced down to the floor, holding back tears, pushing back the memories of home that suddenly surfaced, knowing now that they were all he would have left of Her.
        "OK." David muttered weakly. The man who preferred to be called Jeff didn't seem to notice the defeat in David's voice, or didn't seem to care. He took the boy by the hand and lifted him to his feet.
        "We'll have someone get your things later," Jeff said with false assurance. The boy grunted a weary acknowledgement.
        "We're going to have such fun!" the fake Teddy chortled. But David knew better. He dropped the doll to the floor but the quiet man that had accompanied Jeff reached down and picked it up.
        "Let's go," he said in a flat voice.

2

These were the same flat white hallways that he had been ushered down daily since he had arrived, but to David they now seemed like some new place, dark and foreboding in spite of the stark light. Jeff was moving faster now, as if he were worried about being stopped by someone. David was stepping quickly but having a hard time keeping up. He tried to complain but Jeff just pulled on his hand. The quiet one behind them nudged David on the back. David turned and scowled.
        "No time," the man hissed, his eyes darting back and forth. David felt his anger rising. What was the hurry, after all? He'd be trapped in their secret world for the rest of his life. Surely there'd be plenty of time for their repetitive questions; their painful and humiliating experiments.
        Blank-faced Nurses passed by, casting quick disinterested glances as they went about their business. Jeff and the quiet man never returned their looks and David suddenly wondered if they had acquired permission to take him away. The thought made him shoot imploring looks at those he passed. But no one kept his gaze. Then David's heart jumped as he saw a face approaching. It was Angelo! He waved trying to draw his friend's attention without Jeff or the quiet man noticing. But Angelo passed right by without even glancing in his direction. David started to cry out, then he saw Angelo again, ushering a withered old man from an elevator. And there he was again, reading from a glowing slate to a group of men in white gowns. Of course, David realized. It was a standard design. Like Joe had been. Like he had once been.
        "Not who you thought, eh?" said the quiet man with a snicker. David wished he would go back to being quiet. "You have to know how to tell the difference," the man said. David wondered how he could.
        They finally reached a complex arrangement of sliding doors leading into various hallways. David realized how futile an escape attempt would have been in this place. He would have never been able to find an exit on his own. Jeff and the quiet man seemed to know exactly where they were going. They did not even stop to read the signs. They turned as one, and passed through a set of doors that led down a passage lit by sunlight pouring in from translucent panels in the ceiling. David could see that it was raining outside. The streams of water cascading down the sides of the domed ceiling caught his attention but Jeff pulled him faster and he noticed now they the men had increased their pace.
        "Why are we-" walking so fast, was the unfinished question David was trying ask, but in a sudden rush he found himself being turned around as the two men started quickly in the other direction.
        "Change of plan!" the quiet man hissed. "Dock 7. Loading bay!" he added, glancing over his shoulder as if they were being perused. David looked back but saw nothing but an empty hall leading to another array of sliding doors. What were they fleeing? Then, just as they passed through the doors back into the center of the array, he noticed a group of men at the opposite end of the hall they'd just left. He didn't have a chance to focus on the men, they had moved quickly into another hallway, but how had Jeff and the quiet man they known they were there? And why had they avoided them?
        "Move!" the 'not so quiet anymore' man said, his face twisted in alarm. Jeff did not seem so disturbed however. He walked quickly but his face showed no sign of the strain that usually accompanied human tension. They were soon into another passageway, darker, only the flat light from the ceiling lit this one. David turned but could no longer see their pursuers. Then they were suddenly out into another busy thoroughfare. Nurses and orderlies in white passed by, still unconcerned with the nervous looking trio.
        "Wait," the quiet man said and paused, staring at a blank wall. "Now," he said suddenly and they started moving again towards a set of doors that had suddenly opened in the wall. They reached the doors just as two men erupted with a gurney and passed into the thoroughfare. Jeff and the quiet man dashed into the dark hallway pulling David after them.
        'They can hear it!' The thought struck David as they moved into the doorway that had not been there a moment before; 'They can hear the hospital system communicating to the Mecha staff! That's how they know where everything is!' The odd thought brought on a rush of questions, but he had no time to ponder this sudden understanding. An alarm suddenly went off, filling the hall with a harsh siren.
        "They know he's gone," Jeff said with no emotion. The quiet man did not respond, but quickly whisked David up in his arms and began to run.
Hallways opened and closed as they raced through the hospital. The quiet man was not so quiet anymore. He was calling out directions. "Here… Wait… Now… Left…Right…" and soon David could see a cleared space ahead and words emblazoned along the wall:

Dock 7 - No Private or Delivery Parking

        They stopped in the large loading bay. It was empty and looked like it had not been used very recently. Jeff walked to an input terminal in the wall and pressed on something. The large bay doors hissed to life and slowly opened. The quiet man finally let Danvid stand on his own. They waited.
        "Where is he?" Jeff asked, his face finally displaying a hint of impatience.
        "On his way," the quiet man said. David was wondering who they could be talking about when the man turned, his face stern. "Take him. He yours now," he said, holding out the toy bear.
        The Teddy looked at David expectantly, but David turned away and crossed his arms. There was only one Teddy that he called a friend. He didn't want a substitute. "No!" he said resolutely. But the quiet man would not accept this answer. He grabbed David by the shoulders and, with a graceful ease pried his arms apart and shoved the bear against his chest. "You'll need him," the man explained quickly.
        David was about to object but a loud voice came over the speaker system. "Security to Dock Seven! Security to Dock Seven." This was not coded into the digital tongue. This was a command for Orga men, men who would be carrying weapons.
        "They found us!" The quiet man said. Jeff grunted an acknowledgement but showed no other emotion.
        David finally understood now that they were taking him without the hospital's permission. He jumped to make a dash for the door but Jeff's grip was too strong. "Let me go!" he yelled, kicking at the man with his foot. But the strikes had no effect and neither man seemed very concerned with his protests.
        "Play nice!" the toy bear suggested in a stern voice. David attempted to fling the thing away but it clung to his arm with a grip that was pure Mecha. The men ignored the scuffle going on below their field of vision. They stood unmoving, staring at the bay doors. Waiting. Then there was a hiss like steam escaping and the doors started closing. David's heart jumped with excitement. Someone else was closing them from somewhere else in the system, locking the escape route! But just as fast his excitement was lost as a hovering cruiser zipped in-between the huge bay doors. The safety mechanism detected the sudden obstruction and the doors froze in place.
        Jeff was suddenly moving again, across the floor of the empty loading dock towards the cruiser that hummed as it hovered a few feet over the floor. The alarms were blazing and David could finally hear pressure release doors opening and closing behind him. Hurry, David thought. But the cruiser had already door whooshed open and a man was crawling out. David saw the man's face and screamed.
        "Angelo!"
        The Mecha nurse smiled down on him. "Hurry now, David. They're coming for you." He said and turned to face the man called Jeff. He stepped away from the cruiser and motioned for Jeff to take the wheel. But the man stepped back and David watched in amazement as his face started to melt and twist, slowly morphing into another face.
        "I can't take him. They're too close." The man who he had thought was Jeff said, as his features set back into place. His face was now identical to the quiet man who had accompanied him. They both stood impassively. Mecha! David now understood. That is how they'd understood the hospitals voice, how they'd known where they were going, how'd they'd been able to tell one Angelo from another, and how they'd been able to change plans with Angelo at the last moment.
        "But I can't leave the premises!" Angelo exclaimed. "You said you would go all the way!"
        The twin Mecha looked at each other and then began to move away. "That was before the danger," they said in unison as they walked. "If this boy is as important as you say, it will be worth the price. We have to go now." And they did, disappearing outside the doors into a parking lot filled with cruisers of all sizes and shapes.
        Angelo had no time to think. The door to the bay was hissing open and dark clad shapes were moving quickly onto the large platform. "Get in David," he commanded, jumping back into the drivers seat. David saw a face among the men. It was the man who preferred to be called Jeff, the real one, and he looked very angry, pissed is how his Orga brother would have said it. David saw the man spot them, saw him pointing, shouting orders at the men with him. David could not hear what he said from this distance, but he could easily guess what it must be. He jumped into the craft and Angelo shut the doors and started backing out. Something smashed against the cruisers glass dome, but it was repelled and whistled away.
        "They're shooting at us!" Angelo pointed out needlessly. And they were instantly off, moving quickly away from the bay and onto the main exit ramp. The sky was dark and brooding and the cruisers dome was already covered with rain that was wiped off by an invisible repellant.. "They won't be far behind, David," Angelo said."I wasn't supposed to be taking you. It was supposed to be the Twins!" he complained. But then his face set into a determined expression that David couldn't read.
        "Who are they," David asked as Angelo banked into a row of cruisers where they might not be easily noticed. The vehicles were lined up at an entrance to the freeway, waiting for an open space to move into traffic.
        "Rogue Morphing Bots," Angelo replied, "Friends of a friend who owed me a favor." But he stopped there and would explain no further. He had other things on his mind. The cruiser in front of them finally moved forward, onto the freeway and Angelo pressed the thrusters on the steering bar. They zipped into traffic, engine buzzing like an angry wasp, and shot into the fast lane. David tried to ask more questions: Where were they going? What would he do now? But Angelo ignored the inquiries.
        "There are some clothes in the back, David. And a wristband. Put them on. Hurry now!" David looked into the back seat and saw the small pile of neatly folded clothing. He slipped out of his hospital gown and put them on as Angelo moved down an exit ramp and into an area that was covered with overgrown greenery. At the base of the exit he pulled the cruiser to the edge of the road and stopped. David tried to get his attention, but Angelo shushed him. The Mecha sat pensively for a moment, as if making a critical decision. Then without a word, he hovered onto the road and followed it into the forest.
        "They've lost me," he said, as if to himself, and David saw something strange in the Mecha's eyes. It was a curious look; something like sadness.
        "What's wrong Angelo," he said. But again, Angelo ignored his inquiry.
        "Listen carefully, David," he said. "Things didn't turn out the way I'd hoped. But I told you I was not very good at making plans. If I'd had more time then maybe… maybe…" he stopped and seemed to gather himself. "That doesn't matter anymore," he said, thrusting his chin forward with an air of resolve. It was an odd gesture for a Mecha. "You're going to be on your own now. You must head west, toward the sunset, until you find a town. The wristband on your arm has updated maps of the entire state with current and last known residents listed. It's quite illegal data, especially for a little boy. So be careful. You just plug into any Data Kiosk you find and you can look for your family."
        "But Angelo," David interrupted, "why don't you come with me? You can't go back now! They'll…"
        "Listen to me!" Angelo yelled harshly. David was shocked by the outburst. The Mecha continued. "The wristband also contains false identities in case you are stopped. When you find a Kiosk make sure none of the identities trigger an Amber Alert. If one of them does, get away from that area quickly and delete that entry. There will be troopers coming to look for you. Now this is very important: Your new Teddy has a Security Snooper that allows him to download police alerts. Let him access the Kiosk and he can tell you what they know and what they are up to. But that too is very illegal so you must be careful when you use it. Do you understand?"
        "Yes," David said meekly, wondering why his friend would not be coming with him. Angelo was quiet a moment, but David could tell that he should not ask any more questions.
        "Things have changed, David," he said grimly. "And you're one of the reasons. Since your escape and many others that happened around the same time, there are new security measures to keep service Mecha like me from going rogue. The twins are older models. They don't have the new restrictions. As long as they are careful, they'll never get caught. But I was activated after the new legislation. And I …"
        "What, Angelo? You what?" David asked after a moment of silence.
        "I can't go far from my station," Angelo said finally. But he would explain nothing more.
        They drove in quiet as the sky grew dark with ominous gray clouds. The rain had stopped but it was easy to tell the reprieve would not be long lived. Angelo slowed finally and pulled to the side of the road. He turned to face David and the boy saw again the oddly human expression on his Mecha face.
        "I believe you, David. You given me more than you know. You've given me hope. But I can help you no further. You must go now. Go and find your family. Find your mother. Find your dreams.
        "Never let them catch you, David. Never let them take away your dreams. Never…" But the Mecha nurse suddenly stopped and gazed on David with a strangely detached expression.
        "Come with me, Angelo," David said. "I can take you to the Blue Fairy! I know where she lives! If you ask her, she can make you real too! Just like me! I know she will!"
        Angelo said nothing.
        "Come with me, Angelo!" David insisted. But Angelo just stared. His face was blank but his eyes full of a sadness that David did not comprehend. "Angelo?" he asked again. But Angelo was not responding. He would never respond again. David understood now what security measures his friend had been explaining, and what had been the price the Morphing Bot was talking about.
        "We should go now, David." Teddy said in a logical voice. "A storm is coming."
        "Angelo?" David said again. But he knew his friend was gone. His sadness was stronger than he'd ever known. Oh, this human condition! To what purpose this pain, this loss? He held back his tears, intuitively knowing that this was not the time or place for them.
        "Goodbye," he whispered and pressed the release handle on the door. It whooshed open and David stepped out onto the mud-covered earth. The forest was alive beyond the edge of that road, and he was no longer impervious to the cold or the things that slithered and bit. But he had no choice now. He started on his way, but turned one last time.
        "Thank you," he said with a break in his voice, waving, as he backed slowly into the forest, into what trials might lie beyond. But Angelo was no more than a mannequin now, gazing an eternal expression of surrender into the wet, gray world.
        David turned, finally, and began his adventure, feeling the moist chill of the forest air on his new human skin as he stepped into an unpredictable future.
1

Night fell slowly, shrouding the forest in its black cloak. A chill grew with the darkness and David soon realized how inadequately he was dressed for this escape. He trudged with great difficulty along a thin path that had been worn into the overgrown tangle of brush and prickly weed. His shoes became wet and clogged with mud and his flesh stung from the frosty caresses of the night and the quick bite of buzzing insects that fed on him. They had never had a taste for him before. More than once did he cry out; more than once did he have doubts about making his fateful request to the Blue Fairy. And more than once did a have a new feeling, a bitter, green emotion that fell on his heart as he watched Teddy waddling casually along, ignorant of the cold and biting things.
        In time the travelers came to a clearing that led up the slope of a small hill. When they'd climbed to its crest David took a moment to rest against the lone tree that stood there. It wasn't until he sat that he felt the full impact of the bites and scratches he'd acquired and realized just how tired he had grown. The slip of a crescent moon was making a slow ascent in the eastern sky. David watched wearily, remembering regretfully the warmth of his hospital bed as his body began to shiver without the exertion of walking to warm him. The biting things had finally relented. But the cold had not, and his hunger was just beginning.
        "Where are we going?" Teddy asked, plopping down next to its new owner. David did not respond. He had no response. All he had dreamed of was being free and it wasn't until that wish had been fulfilled that he realized his plan would require more thought. Teddy waited for an appropriate period and then considered the possibility that David had not heard. So, it asked again. "Where are we going, David?"
        It took a moment for David to remember that this Teddy knew nothing of his plight. "M-m-ma…" he started, but could not get the words out. He did not understand the bodily process that kept him from speaking. Instinctively, he hugged himself against the cold until some of his body heat returned. "Mommy's house," he explained finally, scratching at the irritating little bumps the bugs had left on his arms
        Teddy considered David words. "Where is Mommy's house?" it inquired.
        "I d-d-don't know, but I am sure we-we can ff-f-find it," David replied, hoping the bear didn't have any more questions. He didn't really feel like talking.
        Teddy nodded, as if it understood everything. "You look cold, David," it pointed out. "Are you cold?"
        "Ye-ye-yes, Teddy. I am co-cold." David managed. "Now w-would you pl-pl-please shut up?"
        The bear did not seem daunted by this display of anger. It stood and leaned its furry body against David's leg. "What do you want now?" David snapped in annoyance. But then he felt the sudden warmth against his leg and quickly pulled the bear into his lap. David did not understand the purring sound Teddy made then, or the childish melody that it had began to hum. But the warmth the toy now emanated was all he was really after. He hugged Teddy close and in time fell into a sleep so sound that he was not disturbed when the rain began to fall.
        Nor was he stirred by the odd strangers that passed quietly by on the dirty trail he and Teddy had followed.\

2

It was a beautiful morning. The rain had cleansed the air and the sun was just poking its golden eye through the fluffy cloudbanks that lay on the eastern skyline. Birds were greeting the day with their song. A squirrel hopped up the side of the hill, sniffing out a morning meal. But David didn't notice these things. From the moment he awoke he was preoccupied with the hollow pain in his stomach and the queasy feeling in his head. He was also drenched head to toe.
        "You're wet, David," Teddy observed. "You need some dry clothes." David considered a sarcastic response but decided not to waste his energy on anger. He rose slowly, feeling his head spin and his knees quiver. He finally managed to stand and scan his surroundings.
        "Where am I?" he asked in despair. His voice fell flat in the dense forest. He was surrounded by thick trees, laden with low hanging branches. Below, at the foot of the hill, he could see the path they'd followed to get here. But shadows clung to the forest floor, making it impossible to see where the path led. "Angelo!" he screamed angrily and felt his head swim with the effort. "Where did you leave me?" he cried. Why hadn't Angelo planned better, he thought. Then his Mecha friends lifeless face came back to him and he felt a moment of guilt. Angelo had sacrificed everything for him… just like Joe had once done. He had to go on. Wordlessly, he started making his way down the hill.
        "Where are we going now, David?" Teddy inquired.
        "This way!" David snapped as he stepped onto the muddy trail. Teddy thought this was an insufficient reply but decided it was better not to ask any more questions. Neither of them noticed the fresh tracks that had been recently laid on the muddy trail.
        It might have been a kilometer, it might have been five, David wasn't sure, but the sun was almost mid-sky when he finally came to a place where the forest cleared. He could simply not go any farther. His hunger was unbearable. He'd even tried eating the little red berries that he'd seen clustered in the bushes along the path. But he had quickly spit them out and been left with a sharp nasty taste that had stayed with him all morning. David fell heavily against a log and then jumped up with a shriek as something shot out from the muck beneath the log and slithered away into the brush.
        "You jus gonna let dat git away?" a strange voice asked.
        David turned quickly to see a horrible sight sticking out from the trees: a battered white face, torn and broken, its oversized bulging eyes roaming in all directions. The remnants of curly red hair were plastered against the cracked dome of its head. Wires wound through the metal wound like worms. David uttered a scream that got caught in his throat and stepped back, shielding himself from the sight.
        "Well, ah'll git it den!" the bizarre thing said and jumped from the brush, running in a quick bouncing gate after the snake. David moved into the safety of shadows as the man-thing, dressed in a dirty baggy suit with torn frills at the neck and goofy oversized shoes, bounded into the brush and out of sight. The tall reeds of grass began to tremble and shake, and a din of warbling laughter broken by intermittent swearing came from the scuffle. But the commotion stopped as suddenly as it had begun. All was quiet.
        David realized he'd been holding his breath and let it out with a sigh. Slowly he stepped out from the shadows and towards the path. As tired and hungry as he was, this was obviously the wrong place to rest. "Teddy," he whispered, gesturing for the little bear to follow as he tiptoed away, hoping to avoid another encounter with… the thing.
        "Jeggs!" came the voice from the grass. The face popped up over the tall shoots, just as horrible as before, but now sporting a large toothy smile. A few of those teeth were missing however.
        "Huh?" David asked hesitantly.
        "Name's Jeggs!" the face said. "Like a J with eggs! Not Teddy. Who in the heck is Teddy?"
        David started to sputter an answer when the thing jumped from the brush and uttered a loud, victorious bark. One of its big floppy gloved hands was on a hip and the other held high, clasping something proudly. It was the snake, now dead and dripping from where the head had once been. David shuddered at the sight.
        "Our Lord will be happy!" he thing called Jeggs cried. "And when Our Lord is happy, we all get happy. Happy as pigs in poop!" Jeggs laughed, a bit manically for David's tastes, and then suddenly turned serious. Its deteriorating brow creased in concern. "What da hell does that mean anyway?" Jeggs asked, one of its eyes on David and the other looking to and fro
        David shrugged and stepped back a little further. "I uh… can't really say. Never heard that before… I think."
        Jeggs shrugged too. "Oh well. I guess pigs like poop and people is jus like pigs when pigs is being happy in poop! And dat's 'nuff 'xplainin; for me! Lunch is on da way!"
        "Yeah," David said, backing away. "That's really great," he added, beckoning dramatically to Teddy who now seemed to be fascinated with Jeggs. One of Jeggs' roaming eyes noticed the little bear and then the other one followed so they were finally pointing in the same direction at the same time.
        "Hey little toy!" Jeggs screamed and one of its eyes quickly locked on David. "Dat yours?" Jeggs asked.
        "Yes," David said. "But, umm… we have to go now, sooooo…"
        "Oh, Our Lord jus luv dose little toys," Jeggs chortled. "All the little toys of the world!" Then both of Jeggs eyes were suddenly on David. "You a toy too?" it asked excitedly. "A'cause you look like a toy and you know Our Lord jus luvs his toys!"
        "No! No!" David replied quickly. "Actually, I'm a …a b-b-.." but he couldn't finish the word. Hunger and sickness had finally caught up with him. His head swam and vision blurred. He moaned as he felt his knees give out and the world went dark as he fell to the muddy forest floor.
        "David!" Teddy called. But to David the sound seemed far away. He tried to resist the darkness but he couldn't fight anymore. He let it seize him and take him into a distant place where the pain and hunger faded into the clutter of meaningless information on the periphery.
        As he faded, David felt himself being picked up by large strong hands, and carried off like the infant he had never been.
        "Oh, Our Lord is gonna jus luv you!" David heard someone cry and then utter a strange warbling laugh as he slipped finally into unconsciousness.
David lingered on the edge of a dream. A face loomed before him, gentle and loving; gazing an expression of eternal compassion. He knew her; loved her. Longed to be with her again. But she was fading quickly. He tried to follow her back into the retreating Morphean realm, but his bed was hard and bumpy and caused his body pains that pulled his attention back into the 'real' world. He twisted and turned in an attempt to find comfort and return to his dream, but could not. Reluctantly he rose from his slumber only to be greeted by pain and sickness… and memories.
        He moaned at the realizations. Of course this was not his hospital bed. That episode of his life was over, a matter of history. He was lying on the solid earth. He could smell it now: the damp, mossy odor of the forest, and a sharp burning smell that caused his stomach to jump. He opened his eyes to see dark trees looming over him. Whispers and odd noises seemed to float on the breeze that washed over his face. He tried to sit, to see who it might be. But he fell back as a wave of dizziness gripped him.
        Then a face appeared. "Oh Lord! The toy boy is up 'n runnin'! He's runnin' jus fine!" it said.
        David remembered that face and the comical voice that came from it, but found no humor in it. His stomach turned. He moaned. Somehow he had to explain to this crazy machine that he was no longer Mecha; that he now required sustenance to go on. He opened his mouth to speak but another voice came first.
        "Shut up Jeggs, ya damned idiot!"
        David shuddered. There was something spiteful in that sound. A bustle of movement broke out and then Jegg's voice came again. "Forgive me, Oh Lord," the robot intoned. "Thy will be done! Yessa! Thy Will!"
        "Get yer metal arse out of my way!" said the other.
        David turned his head toward the voice but saw only a flickering flame burning brightly in a shallow pit. He turned his head again and saw strange shapes sitting motionless amid the trees. He tried to focus his vision, to understand what he was seeing, but a dark shape suddenly blocked his path. It was a boot. He looked up to see a large robed figure standing over him. Its face was cloaked in the shadows of the forest, and obscured from the flame by a thick lapel. But David could see the malignant gaze of its eyes.
        The figure said nothing but David could hear its ragged breathing. A man! It was a man, he realized. The dark man leaned over and seemed to study David's face. David stared back, unable to discern the dark man's features and too scared to utter a sound. This inspection went on for minutes it seemed. Then the man rose up quickly and let fall something to the ground. It landed with a muted clang just beside David's head.
        "Eat!" the dark man commanded, as he walked away to sit before the fire. He was only a dark silhouette now.
        David turned to see that the man had dropped a plate bearing something with a burnt aroma that caused a surge in his gut. His arm reached out automatically, and pulled the food to his mouth. There was something disturbing to the slick texture of the meat, but David felt his strength returning quickly as he devoured it.
        "Chew yer food, brat!" the dark man scolded "Or it'll come back up faster than you shoved it down!"
        Something in the man's voice commanded respect. David forced himself to chew slower.
        "That's better." The dark man said. "Meat's hard enough to come by without you wastin' it."
        David considered an apology but was too busy swallowing.
        "See there!" Jeggs said, "The Lord provides for all his little toys! Din't I tell ya dat? Din't I?"
        The dark man picked something from the ground and threw it. It struck Jeggs in the head with a hollow thud. "Shut up ya fiber freak or I'll put ya with the rest!" the man yelled. Jeggs hooted and scampered away to hide in the trees. David could hear it muttering its peculiar lunatic ramblings softly. "I should'a never messed with those damn personality parameters," the man muttered to himself as he went to work on his meal. "It's what happens when ya get bored, eh?"
        David grunted a hesitant acknowledgment and then realized something was missing. "Where's Teddy?" he asked in alarm.
        The man swallowed a mouthful before he responded. "What the hell is a Teddy?" he said.
        "My bear," David replied quickly. "I had a bear with me. He has data…" David stopped himself, realizing it would be better to not share too much with this stranger. "He's my friend," he explained simply.
        The man was quiet a moment, as if he was thinking over an answer. Then he shook his head. "Nope. No bear. No toys. Just you. Now finish yer food. I got no need for a sick brat on my hands."
        "Jeggs knows!" David said quickly. "Jeggs?" David called. "Where's my bear?" But the dark man wheeled sharply.
        "Mind yer mouth! I don't call for that damned machine until I need it, and I'll decide when that is! Now finish yer damn food and keep yer trap shut!"
        David shrank from that attack. Angelo was dead. Teddy was gone. He was alone now. He wondered how he would get back to Mommy's house without the data in Teddy's head. But he had bigger worries for now. The dark man was obviously dangerous. He had to think of a plan of escape. He'd need energy. He scooped up his plate but realized that he had already finished his meal. He also realized what it had been: the snake Jeggs had caught and killed. The meat made his stomach roll a bit and left a peculiar taste in his mouth. But he felt much better. His strength was returning. He wiped his face with a forearm and sat up to study his surroundings, keeping an eye on the dark man lest he get another scolding.
        He was surrounded by scattered mechanical debris, arms and legs and torsos; wires protruding from their broken joints. Amid the clutter sat lifeless forms, metallic and warped faces staring with blank eyes. Clowns with drooping smiles; motionless dancers in tattered tutus, a one eyed butler and a faceless maid, and so many others… Discards, he realized; abandoned Mecha. All of them were arranged as if in worship, their eyes cast to the sky in silent prayer, their faces locked in all manner of emotions. Joy, sadness, elation…
        Fear. Chief among them was fear.
        And there was something else. The whispers he had heard on the breeze had not been his imagination. They were coming from the still forms like the soft sighs of mechanical ghosts. They were not dead.
        "What are they?" David asked and then cringed, thinking the man might scold him for speaking out of turn. He didn't. But when he answered there was a snarl in his voice.
        "What the hell do they look like?" the man replied without looking up from his meal. "What are ya, daft or sumthin?"
        "No, but I…" David started but didn't know how to continue. He thought for a moment. "I mean, what happened to them. Why are they… like that?"
        "Like what?"
        David looked at the frozen robots and didn't know why the man couldn't figure out what he meant. "I mean… they're kneeling like…" he stopped, thinking the rest must be obvious. He saw the man's shoulders lift in a dismissive shrug.
        "Oh that." The man said with a snicker. "Ahh, that's just a little game I play. I get bored sometimes, ya know." He chewed and swallowed. "The way I figger it, they owe me their lives… or whatever is left of 'em. I can give it and I can take it away. So, I guess that makes me like a God to them, eh? The all-powerful king of the fiberhead buffoons. Wouldn't ya say?"
        David had no response for this. He had no concept of Orga Gods and had no idea if this was an appropriate theological interpretation. Whatever information had been in his Mecha data banks had been lost when he became flesh. But even in his ignorance, he knew there was something very wrong here.
        "If you're like a God," David said slowly, careful to not anger the man, "then why let them suffer this way."
        "Wellll," the man drawled, "So I've got me a little philosopher!" The man barked a dry laugh that seemed to contain the bitterness of a lifetime. Even in his innocence to Orga life, David recognized the depth of hatred in that sound.
        "It's what happens to us all," he laughed darkly. "Ya get old. Ya live longer than you're useful. Then nobody needs ya nomore.." The man shot a sneering glance at David. "So they grab ya up and dump ya in the woods so they don't have to deal with ya. Then time takes over and yer skin rots away, and yer limbs fall off and if yer lucky someone comes a long and takes ya out of yer damn misery!" The man was quiet a moment, his jowls trembling in the firelight. "If yer lucky, that is" he continued. "But luck is as rare as an Orga brat in the wilds, so more than likely ya wind up old and useless and dyin' in the company of yer lessers, like a common vagabond! Cast off and forgotten!" He coughed harshly and spat. David's unease had risen at the tirade. The man seemed to sense this and laughed again. David realized the man took pleasure in fear.
        "Mecha. Orga. Either way, it's all the same. It'll happen to you too," the man said. "If ya live that long," he added with a dark chuckle and turned back to his plate.
        His features were still obscured, silhouetted against the campfire. But David thought there was something familiar in the contours of his face. He rose to his knees, carefully, hoping to not ignite the man's anger again. Then he moved a bit closer, straining his eyes against the background of firelight to see the man's face. The man looked up and scowled at the inspection. A sudden chill grew inside David's heart. Memories from a life ago were disturbed from their rest.
        "Who are you?" David asked, stunned.
        The dark man did not respond at first. He rose and turned his back on David, to walk among the praying robots. They followed his passage with vacant eyes. He ran a hand over their heads as he strode among them, as if casting a blessing on the faithful. After a moment he spoke, but not to David. He spoke to the throng; his silent worshipers, the mechanical followers who knelt in programmed obedience and prayed in soft digital whispers.
        "Ya know, I think I figured it out," the man said. "I've been working on it ever since that idiot came back with my dinner. I thought that just maybe it was one of those weird coincidences. But then I decided that was just my mind bein' lazy. So I worked on it. I figgered that someone must have stole his face, because it's illegal to dupe a living person… but that was years ago. And if they stole his face back then … that would mean… that would mean he'd have grown. Right? He'd be older… a teener by now! But he's the same!" The man cast his eyes on David again and roared. "How in the hell can ya be the same?"
        David froze at the sound of those words. He fell back and tried to scamper away. But it was too late. The man moved quickly and stood over him. David could now see the man's face clearly in the firelight. It was older, covered in a thick beard and wrinkled from decades of hate and frustration. But the fire in his eyes was all David needed to recognize the man who had once tried to take his life.
        Lord Johnson Johnson, fallen Orga hero and self appointed God of discarded Mecha, stared in perplexed awe at the impossible boy who cringed on the forest floor beneath him; the boy whose innocent pleas had crushed his kingdom and cast him among the discarded.
        "It doesn't really matter now does it, lad?" Johnson growled. "However you came to be whatever the hell you are, doesn't really mean a damn thing! The way I figger it, you owe me. You owe me everything I ever fought for and lost! You owe me yer very life!" He reached down and grabbed David up by the collar. "And I'll have it, boy!" he screamed. "Oh yes, I will have it!"
A fire had been built in a large clearing. David could not see it from where he lay bound, face down on the muddy forest floor. But he could hear the flames crackling as the fire devoured its feast of forest branches. He heard footsteps growing closer and then felt himself being roughly freed from his binds and hoisted up onto the shoulder of the madman that Johnson Johnson had become, had perhaps always been. The man laughed manically and started walking toward the flames that David could now see were surrounded by the man's unholy flock.
        "Wot you fixin' on doin', Lord?"
        The voice broke through the night and David felt Johnson Johnson stop. "Get yer damned metal arse outta my way!" the man bellowed. David looked over his shoulder to see Jeggs, pacing and fretting in Johnson Johnson's path.
        "But you says you loves all the toys! All the little toys in da world!"
        Johnson Johnson responded with a kick that sent the old Mecha backwards into the brush. "I'll deal with you later!' he bellowed as he made his way toward the flaming pyre. David struggled to no avail and then found himself set on his feet. Johnson Johnson was holding him from behind as he stepped closer to the flame, pressing the boy forward like an offering
        The fire raged against the night, a violent beast of writhing flame whose tongues dashed into the darkness and licked at the swollen forest revealed in the malicious glow; spat mad embers that flared against the starlight and disappeared. The heat of it pressed on David's skin, ran furious caresses of heat over his face and exposed skin. He screamed and struggled against his captor's grasp. But Johnson Johnson only barked a vile laugh and moved closer to the fiery monster.
        "Feel it, lad!" the madman laughed. "Don't be afraid! It's only the flames of Orga passion. Isn't that what you wanted … to know the passions of the flesh? Isn't that what led you on your quest of blasphemy?" He laughed again, and threw David back to the forest floor. The boy recoiled and rolled away. His face was hot, his hair smelt of singed flesh and felt like a sizzling cap against his skull. He rose to his knees and tried to escape, but his path was blocked by the encircling throng of simulants, lost in their voiceless prayers. He cried out and tried a escape in another direction. If he could get beyond the circle of Mecha he could run, take sanctuary in the dark. But the simulators shuffled on their knees to block him again.
        "Why?" he roared at their frozen faces. He was once like them. He once knew their language, shared their digital morality. "Why do you just obey?" he screamed. But they offered no response. He shot forward, but they closed in again, arresting his flight to freedom.
        "Where ya goin, boy?" the lunatic roared behind him. "Don'cha know there ain't no escape? Nobody breaks the rules! No one gets out alive!"
        David saw Jeggs standing on the periphery of the throng, the dirty and torn cloth of his baggy suit rolling in the heat, his roaming eyes darting to and fro, focusing on nothing. David waved his arms frantically at the decrepit clown Mecha, imploring him to help. But Jeggs eyes would not stay on him.
        "There ain't no help boy!" Johnson Johnson said gently, as if in sympathy. "Not this time. No crowds of whimpering softies ta come to yer aid." David was quiet a moment and turned a desparate gaze on the man. "Don't do this! I'm a boy... a real boy! You can't kill me!" For an instant David thought he saw something breaking through the man's madness, a gleam in his eye that suggested a moment of clarity in the mind that gazed through them. But then the eye fixed on him and the gleam was glazed over by a cataract of rage and vengeance.
        "I lost everything!" Johnson Johnson screamed. "And I was left only with my hate and my dreams of revenge. But now that my dream is coming true, I can see that you did me a great service!"
        David was moving back, his eyes darting around for an avenue of escape. But Johnson Johnson's words caught his attention. Amazingly he found himself listening to the maniacal rant.
        "I thought they loved me, see? … that I was their leader. I fought for them, built an empire fighting against the cancer of Mecha that had spread and corrupted the world. But oh, how they lied to me. How shallow their faith really was. And t'was you who showed me boy; you who showed me that I was never really their leader. When they chose you over my command, I understood that they were incapable of loyalty!" He smirked and lifted his chin to look down on David. "Now I have found those who are truly loyal: those who follow with no reservation."
        David looked around at the mindless throng and finally understood. The revelation cleared his mind. Somehow his fear fell away and he saw his captor with new eyes. The man no longer appeared as a monster, some unstoppable force, but had become something pathetic and spiteful; a shriveled, insane creature. David bared his teeth with an anger he had never felt before. "You… you…" he started, but had no words to complete the realization that was forming in his new Orga mind.
        Johnson Johnson laughed again and David gleaned from his voice a sense of the savagery the man had planned. "Had you come to me as you left, a Mecha, I could have forgiven you. Had you the malleable brain of an innocent, like those who were once your brothers." He flung his arm to gesture to the obedient, kneeling robots. "I could have programmed you too. You could have atoned for your trespasses through obedience. But instead you come to me with the deceitful heart of an Orga, wrapped in this treacherous, selfish, lustful body of flesh. And you shall burn in it!"
        The sense of defeat and anger burned its own flame in David's heart. It was a primal thing that could not be contained; a living force that broke on his skin in an angry, cold sweat and built a scream in his throat. He had been here before, strapped to a post, ready to die for the pleasure of a throng of screaming Orga. And here he was again, in the clutches of insanity. The entire human race had been here countless time; splayed and torn open on the steps of Mayan temples, pinned like cattle in the ghettos of Warsaw, dying like lemmings in the jungles of Guyana, slaughtered on the bloody soil of Wounded Knee and hanging like strange fruit from the poplar trees in the haunted forests of Mississippi. Nanking. Dresden. Rwanda. Hiroshima. Humanity held hostage in the clutches of psychopaths.
        But David knew nothing of the tragedies of Orga history. Even when the factual details of those things had been stored into his digital memory, he would not have understood their meaning. But now he did, and in the most visceral way. Something roared in his soul and erupted from him.
        "You are a lie!" he screamed. Johnson Johnson was taken aback. A bemused expression crossed his mad, determined features, spurring David on. "Everything you are is a lie. You can't lead anyone anywhere because you… you… aren't real! "
        Johnson Johnson regarded the boy with surprised eyes for a moment. Then a sardonic smile spread on his cracked lips. A malicious mirth erupted from his belly and shook his entire body. But David's attention had been caught by something else; a small shape that appeared at the edge of the firelight and dashed into the throng of praying robots.
        David knew that shape!

        "They are not loyal to you!" he screamed, trying to keep Johnson Johnson's attention, trying to keep the madman from seeing what he had just seen. Johnson Johnson seemed only too happy to allow David to continue; seemed to take pleasure in the hatred coming from the boy. "They can't be loyal. They can't even make that decision. They can only be led like… like robots… mindless machines!" He didn't know where the words were coming from, didn't know from what dark corner of his new Orga soul they sprang, but he kept screaming. "And that is the only reason that follow you! If they could know you, if they could think for themselves, they would leave you!"
        Jeggs had noticed the small thing now and David felt a surge of hope when he saw the beaten robot stop its frantic pacing and move towards the small thing to kneel and talk with it. Johnson Johnson was too lost in his victory to notice.
        "You say that you were betrayed by the Orga at the Flesh Fair," David yelled, his voice breaking. "You blame them for … for listening to their… their heart and … and letting me go." His voice was catching as the horrific images of that fateful night came alive in his mind's eye. His heart raced. Tears streamed down his face. But they were not the tears of sadness. Nor was it fear that moved him. He was not just trying to keep Johnson Johnson's attention anymore, he was telling the man something, something that he had somehow just realized, and a thing that he knew Johnson Johnson's warped mind was incapable of understanding. "You say they deceived you and that… that they betrayed you! But you were never betrayed by anybody! You are the betrayer! You betrayed them! You betrayed their hearts with hatred and fear! Because… because that's all you are and always were... a little, empty man who is nothing without hate!"
        The words stopped Johnson Johnson's laughter like a slap in the face. The gleam came back into his eyes and for a moment it seemed he understood that he was looking at a small helpless child crouching in fear in the dark forest; suffering at his own hands, from his own madness. But the look disappeared just as fast as it had arrived and he raised a shaking fist, indecipherable curses gushing from his rictus grin. "No more words boy," he spat. "Time to find your salvation in the eternal flame!" He sprang at David but was stopped suddenly by a large gloved hand on his shoulder. He turned to see the broken features of the aged clown Mecha, the discarded Circus bot he had salvaged from the pits and put into his service. But the clown wasn't smiling anymore.
        "You says you love all da little toys," Jeggs moaned in a tone that Johnson Johnson had never heard before. "But you a lie! You a lie!" the robot said and wrapped the man in a strong embrace. Johnson Johnson punched and kicked at Jeggs as it started moving. But the aged robot was stronger than he'd known. He roared in frustration., "I'll tear you too pieces you piece of junk! Put me down before I …" but his voice stopped as he realized where the robot was headed. "No! Jeggs! No!" Johnson Johnson screamed in a frantic whine. "Nooooo…"
        His plea was cut short and the night erupted into a flurry of cascading embers as Jeggs jumped on powerful legs and launched them both into the mouth of the ravenous flames. The horror of the scream that followed made David wretch, and burned itself into his mind. He would never forget that sound or the sight of dark shapes moving against one another in the fire until there was no life left in them. The kneeling robots gazed at the firelight but made no move to help, or to rise or escape. Nor did they move to stop David when he broke from his shock and stepped around them to the place where Teddy stood, calling his name.
        "David! David!" The little bear barked in its mechanical tone. David thought there had never been a sound he was so happy to hear. He grabbed Teddy up and held him close, snuggled his face into the toys warm fur, soaking it in his tears of joy and relief. "Teddy! You found me!" he cried. He so wanted to thank his new friend, to question him on what he had said to Jeggs, to apologize for taking him for granted and express the powerful emotion that was coursing through his veins. But there was a sudden whoosh of heat from the place behind him. David turned to see that burning logs of the pyre had fallen from the stack and rolled into a cluster of brush. The flame was already moving up the side of two large trees to continue its feeding frenzy on their branches.
        "We'd better go now, David" Teddy suggested urgently. But David didn't need to be warned about the frailty of his new flesh. He had felt the heat of hatred enough before and could still feel the sting of its physical manifestation on his skin. He was running, racing into the darkness as the flames of Johnson Johnson's hatred spread into the forest and began to feed on the throng of silent worshipers. They knelt in robotic obedience, never fleeing for safety or even flinching as they were consumed in the flames let loose by the raging heart of their false messiah.
        In time a fleet of airborne firefighters arrived and drenched the forest from large copters. The fire was quickly drowned and the investigators landed to try and make sense of the event. But there was nothing left that would help them understand the cause of the fire, and David and Teddy were already far, far away from the scene of another in a ancient line of pointless Orga tragedies.




 <
1

The sun rose behind low hanging bank of grey clouds through which only intermittent beams of light could pass. David lay in the gloom, rolling fitfully on a makeshift bed of damp leaves. The snake wasn't sitting too well and, therefore, neither was he. After a time, he jumped up and strode quickly to the bushes. He pressed his hands against a tree for balance and bent over until his spasms subsided. This had been going on all night and David had a vague sense that it was due to the events in the forest, with the madman Johnson-Johnson. But when his stomach had finally cleansed itself of the foul meal he'd ingested, he realized the snake was the culprit. Regurgitation was one of the uglier bodily functions and, even in the midst of it, David found himself again wondering how Orga carried on with all this pain.
        But when he was through, and the snake finally gone, his head started to clear. His dark sense of pending doom was lifting as the sun warmed the land. He was feeling better. But then he took note of his condition and his mood sank again. His shoes and pants were covered in mud and dirt, his shirt stained and torn. He lifted his arm and took a tentative sniff. He moaned. He wasn't going to make much of an impression on anyone in this condition. He certainly did not want Mommy to see him like this.
        And to top it off, after he had gone through such pains to purge the foul meat, he was hungry again. During his time in the hospital he had come to take meals for granted, never thinking how much effort went into obtaining the food necessary to sustain his body.
        "How many times do I have to do this?" he asked aloud.
        Teddy had been sitting against the tree with his motivators set to stand by. The toy was alerted by the sound of David's voice. "Do what, David?" it inquired. David shot a perturbed glance at the Mecha, wishing, for a moment, that he too had no need for food. But after a short bout with jealousy, he remembered why he had sought out the Blue Fairy and his determination came back.
        "Nothing, Teddy," he said as he rose and did his best to brush the dirt off his clothes. "I have to find some food."

2

        Civilization turned out to be not so far away. It was only twenty minutes later, 9:23am by Teddy's clock, that they came to mesh fence that separated the forest from a small asphalt lot. Beyond the lot lay a gathering of shining grey buildings, and beyond that, a cluster of quiet houses huddled in a quiet cul de sac.
        "Orga," David whispered. He didn't know why he wanted to keep his voice low. He was excited and scared at once. Excited because he was now one of them. He wanted to walk among them, to be accepted and make friends. Scared because he still had something to hide. He was wanted. Even if he found Mommy today, he'd have to figure a way around that obstacle.
        Teddy called to him. "Here, David," the toy said. David looked to see a slice in the fence as if someone had shorn it with scissors. There was a depression of cleared earth that led through the tear. David realized that this hole must be used regularly. He followed Teddy through the fence, working his way carefully past the sharp ends of the metal. He knew that his new body was vulnerable to cuts; and cuts could lead to infection.
        When he was through the fence he stopped. He stood there for a time, wringing his hands, feeling his nerves strung tight. "Let's go now," Teddy suggested, the black beads of his eyes fixed curiously on David's hesitant stance. David knew that he really had no choice but he'd never had this kind of fear before; not when he was…
        He let that thought fall away. He couldn't keep thinking about his other life. It was over now. He stepped cautiously away from the fence, out from the cover of the trees and onto the asphalt. Large poles shot up from the surface of the lot. Flat glass plates were attached to these poles, with nets hanging from circular rings of metal. David knew this shape but could not recall it from his data banks… he had no more data banks. But as best he could recall, they were harmless. He continued.
        Mud that had dried on the bottom of his shoes crumbled underfoot as he walked. Even though it was daylight and anyone could see him, David had an odd desire for stealth. He scraped his feet against the ground until they the dirt fell off and he could walk in silence.
        The buildings were angular, with walls of reflective glass, and arranged in a complex crisscrossing pattern with slate grey walkways between them. As they grew close David could see letters embossed on the biggest of the structures. He struggled with the words, remembering a time when he would have known instantly what was written there. Now he sounded the words out slowly.
        "Nnnn.. New Shhhh… Shoooo. New Shores Hig… High! New Shores High!" he said, pleased that he'd been able to figure it out. But still the words made no sense. Teddy was already walking ahead so David forgot about the words and caught up. The asphalt ended at the barrier of another fence, and a walkway proceeded from there, leading to large passageway. David passed through slowly; unnerved by the sound of his footfalls resonating against the walls. Ahead of them lay another opening, and in the center of the walkway stood a strange object. David crept towards it slowly, expecting at any moment some alarm would go off, alerting invisible sentries to his presence. But it turned out to be only a metal tube that stood about eye level with him. David worked out the words written at the head of the thing.
        "Data Ki…ki… Data kiosk!" he realized. Excitement renewed, David slipped the wristband from his arms, and sought for instruction on how to use the machine He noticed a flashing pad next to a series of buttons with numbers on their faces, and was about to place the bracelet over the pad when he remembered Angelo's warning.
        "Teddy," he called.
        David held Teddy up and the toy placed its palm against the pad. It only took a moment for it to find a path past the LAN and open a line to the Web. When Teddy was online an illegal snooper opened in its head and it quickly found what David was looking for: The State Police APB data feed. "There is an APB, David," Teddy said finally. "All jurisdictions are cautioned to be on the lookout for an abandoned boy known only as 'David'. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Approximately eleven years of age, sixty pounds, and four feet six inches in height. Parents unknown. D.O.B. unknown. CLA status unverified. Last seen in general vicinity of Trenton General Hospital." Teddy was silent a moment. "I cannot access any further details. They are restricted."
        "Are there any…" David paused trying to remember the words. "Amber alerts?"
        The bear was quiet again.. "Yes, David" it said after a moment.. "Three children are reported missing or abducted. A boy called Phillip and two girls."
        "I don't need to worry about the girls… do I?" David asked.
        "I don't know, David," Teddy said apologetically.
        David set the bear down and stood at the kiosk. He dangled the bracelet above the pad, but didn't set it down. The bracelet contained the identity he'd need to use to get around the police and find Mommy. But Angelo had explained that if the identity triggered an Amber Alert there would be a police response and he'd have to leave quickly. He couldn't afford go back into the forest without food. But neither could he continue without an identity. He mulled over this problem for a moment, and then slowly he set the bracelet on the pad, expecting alarms to erupt all around him. Instead, he was greeted by a cheerful voice.
        "Hello, Susan!" the kiosk said.
        "Susan?" David blurted.
        "And welcome to New Shores High," the kiosk continued, "Home of the Fighting Land Sharks! I am sorry but we're not in session at this time. If you have inquires about enrollment please leave your net address, or you can contact us via the web at…"
        David didn't hear the rest. His attention was caught by three figures moving across the mouth of the hallway. They were dressed in tight, dark clothing and moving quickly over the ground. But they were moving faster than ordinary Orga feet could carry them. David slipped the bracelet onto his wrist and stepped away from the kiosk, hoping that the strangers wouldn't see him. But he was too late. The first of the three turned his head in David's direction and slowed. The others followed his gaze and then they all stopped. With a shock David now noticed that the dark strangers did not touch the ground but their feet were somehow floating a few inches above it. Were they Mecha? He smiled and waved a tentative greeting.
        The three did not return the wave. They stood motionless, staring. Even in the distance David could see the suspicion in their eyes. He sighed when the strangers started floating slowly in his direction. But as they moved closer David could see that they were boys about his age… or the age he was supposed to be. The first one was fair, with wavy blonde hair and a snide smirk on his, otherwise, cherubic face. The second was dark skinned and his hair clung to his scalp in tight curls. He looked at David with a skeptically raised eyebrow. The last, the smallest of the three, was a pale looking boy with fiery red curls atop his head and freckles along the ridge of his nose. This one looked as if he had something to prove.
        All three were clad in skintight suits with a single red stripe down the side; and hovering over the ground on thin black boards. David was fascinated by the boards as the boys glided in slow circles around him.
        "Wazza, kid?" the blonde boy said at last, a challenge in his voice.
        "Wa…uh.. what?" David asked.
        "Wazza! Don't you know English?"
        "Yes, I do," David replied. "I remember…uh, I know most of it… all of it, actually."
        The blonde looked at his friends and they shared a laugh that David didn't understand.
        "Waaza!" The boy repeated. "Grok? As in wazzit? Wazups? Wazapps, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera."
        The boys continued circling as David struggled with the words. When he was sure he could make no sense of them, he shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said. "But I am not sure that I-"
        "What's your twenty," the dark kid interrupted, impatiently.
        David pondered this for a moment. "uh… I'm only 10?" he replied, hoping this was the right answer.
        "Kah! Freek geek!" the red haired boy laughed. "Wazzup with the mud on ya ropes? You vaggin?"
        David could only reply with a perplexed expression.
        The boys exchanged tight glances and then stepped off their boards. In a unified move that must have been rehearsed, they kicked downward causing the boards to flip up into their hands. They continued circling David, but on foot now, and much closer. David could feel their breath as they shot questions at him.
        "I said what's up. Like, what're you doing here?" said the blonde kid.
        "Yeah, and where you from?" asked the dark one.
        "Yeah and what's with the crap in your clothes? You a vagrant?" said red.
        David didn't know where to start answering. "I was just… uh, I'm from… uh… I just.." He gave up with an exasperated sigh. "I need food," he admitted.
        The boys exchanged knowing glances. "He's vaggin!" they said together and broke into laughter. David watched the boys laughing and slapping each other's hands. He quickly decided he'd had enough.
        "It was… nice meeting you," he said. "But I really have to -" The blonde boy was suddenly standing chest to chest with him. There was a look in his eyes that David hadn't seen since the night Martin had sent him on his fateful quest for Mommy's hair.
        "Did I cut you loose? A'cause, I don't remember cutting you loose," the boy said quickly, cocking his head to the side. David didn't understand the meaning of the boy's head movement any better than his words, but was intimidated nonetheless
        "I have to go find some food now," he said, politely. He was starting to feel dizzy again. He didn't want to pass out, like he had in the forest.
        "Skin or tin?" The dark boy asked, a new menace in his eyes. David screwed up his face in confusion. "Your crew," the boy clarified. "You vaggin with flesh or fiber?"
        David thought he knew this one "I'm a boy," he replied confidently. Was that all this was about?
        "I said your crew!" the boy yelled. "I can tell you're a skin by the stank comin' off ya!" The boys all laughed and slapped each other's palms again. David moaned and tried to leave, but he was quickly surrounded. The blonde haired boy bumped hard against him.
        "Play nice!" Teddy commanded.
        The boys shot amused glances at the Supertoy. "Awww, how cute," said the blond. "I'll bet you like to dress it up sometimes, huh? And pretend you're having the girls over for tea?" David tried to move away again, but the red one intervened, blocking his path.
        "We'll let you go… when he know… we got all the fo," the boy said.
        The blonde boy took his eyes off David and shot an irritated look at red. "The fo?" he asked.
        "Yeah," red replied, defensively. "You know, the 'fo'…. like info."
        The dark kid guffawed. "Kah, Scooter! That's DAS! When'd you dream that one up?"
        "F.O., Drake! It makes sense." Scooter replied. But his friends continued to laugh at him. The boy blushed and planted his hands on his hips, pouting until they finished.
        The blonde turned his attention back to David. "What's your name?" he said. It was the first question that David understood. But he realized he couldn't tell them his real name. There was an 'APB' out for him… whatever that was. He had to use the name on the bracelet… the one the kiosk had called him… and unfortunately that had been…
        "Susan," David said weakly, knowing what was coming.
        The three boy's jaws dropped in a look equal parts disbelief and unbridled joy. "Kaaaah!" they yelled in unison. Then they fell into laughter again. "O-M-F-G! This just gets better and better!" said the boy named Drake.
        The blonde boy forced himself to be serious and pressed his finger against David's chest. "OK, Miss Susan," he said, "I'm Corey. And I'm sooo sorry we huffed at your name but… see, we all have guy's names… like normal and everything, grok? And we all take showers so we don't stank like a ceptic tank… and we don't live in the shrubbies with the vags or the fiberheads, so you'll have to excuse us if we come off a little intolerant and dickish, etcetera.
        "But we're generally a good natured crew…" he turned to his friends. "Aren't we guys?" The others nodded with exaggerated looks of sincerity on their faces. "See," Corey said. "But since we can't use our power boards on the public tracks anymore, we sort'a claimed this court, grok? And we can't allow trespassers…. even normal ones… but especially not a vag fag dressed in rags." The others laughed dutifully.
        "But like I said, we're usually all nice and cuddly, etcetera, so we'll let you go if you can just pass one little test"
        David missed most of Corey's words, but the idea was clear. "OK," he said, hoping it would soon be over. His stomach was beginning to twist. "What shall I do?"
        Corey chuckled again. "You 'shall' ride," he mocked. He held a hand out to Scooter. "Flip it," he said. Scooter's cocky expression changed into one of a petulant child. "Why me? Let him ride yours!" he cried. But Corey just continued holding his hand out and the other boy finally relented, handing over his board. Corey pressed it against David's chest and let go. David caught it before it fell.
        "Bitch Match," Corey explained. "Mano-a-mano. Three strikes," he said, holding up an equal number of fingers. Then a dark smile spread on his face and he cupped two of his fingers away so that only one very significant finger was left standing. "Death mode."
        Only one word caught David's attention. "Death?" he repeated.
        Cory's dark smile turned into an even darker glare. He flicked a switch on his board and flung it to the ground. It hummed viciously over the asphalt. Corey jumped on it and shot over the court. He spun dizzying loops, then cut back and forth with blinding speed, his board buzzing like an angry wasp. He spun again and then shot towards the fence, banked a turn against it and leveled out. He stopped suddenly, and started pressing his legs back and forth in a teeter-totter fashion. After a few repetitions of this movement, the boy was bouncing high into the air, higher than David's stood; then coming back to earth and bouncing up again. On the last bounce Corey crouched low, pressing the board so close to the ground that it seemed to snarl, and then shot so high that the boy glided smoothly over one of the hoops suspended above the court, and then hovered smoothly back to earth.
        Corey spun a few quick loops before humming slowly towards David. "Death mode, beeeatch!" he said, slapping his friend's hands as he passed.
        "I don't know how to do that," David pointed out.
        "Do or die, or do and die anyway," Scooter laughed.
        Corey nodded to acknowledge that Scooter had made a good one this time. "Let's play, Little Suzie," he said, and reached over to flick a switch on the board in David hands. It began to vibrate so violently that he dropped it. It fell to just inches above the ground and began gliding away slowly.
        "Don't let my board cruise!" Scooter yelled, pushing David towards the board. David jumped and landed almost inadvertently on the power skate's smooth black surface. Instantly, it seemed, his feet were somehow glued to the thing. He tottered back and forth for a moment, trying to stay standing. But when he leaned back to correct his balance, the board shot out from under him. David hit the asphalt in a painful heap. Stars erupted behind his eyes. His breath whooshed out of him. He writhed in pain for a moment, and then he rose to hear Teddy complaining, and scolding the boys.
        Corey was hovering a small circle around the angry Supertoy. When he saw David was getting up he made a quick twist of his legs and his board bumped Teddy on the head, sending the bear sprawling across the court. "Ooops," Corey said, nonchalantly. Then he cruised close by David.
        "One strike for you," he said with a smile.
        David was about to try and reason with the boy. He didn't know how to ride. He was tired and hungry. But something was moving in the back of his head. It was red and pulsating, this thing. It came into his face and his brows pinched as a dark thought came to the foreground of his mind.
        "OK," David said. "Let's go."
        "Kah!" Corey said happily.
        But Drake suddenly intervened. "Screw it, Core," he said, a hesitant look on his face. "The vag's a tard. Let him cut out. Let's glide." But Corey was obviously having fun. He dismissed Drakes suggestion with a flippant wave. "Only two strikes to go," he said. Drake shot an impatient glance at David. But there was something else in his eyes; something that suggested he felt Corey was getting out of line.
        The board hadn't gone far. Without a rider it had slowed after about twenty feet, and was now moving away at a snails pace. David brushed himself off and ran to get it. He placed one foot hesitantly on the black surface and the thing stopped, purring under the weight of his leg.
        Drake was suddenly beside David, moving in graceful circles and speaking in a language that David could understand. "Hey, vag. Bend your knees like this. Hold your arms out for balance. Lean forward and push your foot back to go forward, lean back and push the front to slow down. And turn like this." He executed a quick circle. "And keep your feet flat or you'll break the membrane seal and fall off." Drake moved back and forth gracefully, and then spun a few more quick circles so David could see how it was done. David watched the boy's feet and thought he understood the principle.
        "Don't try any tricks, kid." Drake warned when he was through. "You're gonna get your butt kicked anyway, so just get it over with."
        David looked up and smiled at the boy. Drake frowned and rolled his eyes, but David thought he saw a quick wink there too. Drake shot away. David jumped atop the board and felt his feet lock again. He bent his knees and fought to keep his balance. The board hummed under his feet, and started moving slowly ahead. David followed Drakes instructions and found it to be easier than he had thought. In a few moments he was moving forward quickly. But the edge of the court was coming. He managed to slow and then stop and move backwards. He mimicked Drakes movement and actually laughed when he felt the board start to turn beneath him. This was... fun! He leaned back automatically to compensate for the tilt and laughed again. Learning to move was easier now than it had been in his former life. His brain seemed to be programming itself, calculating balance and speed and distance with automatic precision.
        Corey was suddenly circling him and sneering. "Lessons over, vag fag. Time to rock."
        "Then let's rock," David yelled back. He shot forward, feeling the air rushing against his face, and a sudden unexpected thrill racing through his veins. It was majestic, this feeling. He almost forgot he was hungry as he glided quickly over the surface of the court. One of the posts was coming quickly. David leaned and turned the board, uttering an involuntary "Yes!" as shot quickly around the post, hearing it whoosh as he sped by. He was trying to level out of the turn when he heard a snarl behind him. He turned to see something black speeding towards him. A moment later it had moved above him. David felt Corey's board connect with the top of head and found himself laying on the asphalt again.
        "Strike two," Corey laughed.
        The red vibrating thing came back into David's mind and he quickly pushed himself up through his pain and humiliation. The board was only few feet away. Corey was hovering a few yards beyond that, slapping palms with Scooter and Drake. David found himself moving automatically. His pain was gone. His hunger forgotten. All that was left was a new level of anger that burned in his chest. He ran to the board and jumped onto its surface, felt his feet lock; leaned forward and pushed back. The board shot forward.
        "The vag!" Scooter yelled.
        Corey turned just in time to see David hit him. The boys spilled from their boards and onto the asphalt. David was up instantly. "Strike one!" He yelled and raced for his board. Corey was stunned. But he quickly regained his senses and was onboard immediately after.
        "Kah, vag fag! Good one! Now feel my wrath!" The boy sped at David, his arm cocked and ready to strike. David tried to duck but the boy was too fast and he felt the world spin around him as he was knocked to the ground again.
        "Steee-rike three! And you're outta heeeere! " Corey laughed as he glided a victory loop. David's head hurt. His back hurt. His mind raged. These boys knew he couldn't compete. This was unfair. It was cheap. The injustice meshed with his humiliation to form a perfect storm of rage. He jumped up and raced for the boy. A moment later he was on the asphalt again. But this time Corey was beneath him. David's fists flew. Spittle and indecipherable screams of outrage erupted from his mouth. He felt his fists connect with Corey's face; felt Corey's connect with his. Something hit him from behind. He looked up to see Scooter and Drake were on him too. Their fists beat against his head. Their feet pounded his legs and arms. David lashed out at the three boys, screaming pitifully. He had been minding his own business. He had only wanted something to eat! "Leave me alone!" He screamed.
        "Hey!"
        The voice was deep and commanding. The boys parted, leaving David to lay crumpled and whimpering on the asphalt. He looked up through tearful eyes to see another group of boys gliding smoothly across the court. They were older, larger. They wore no uniforms, only torn and ragged shorts with bits of metal sewn into them, and strange symbols drawn crudely on their t-shirts.
        The largest of the boys rode close to David. He was a heavyset kid, with wavy dark hair that hung into his face. He looked at David a moment and then set a look of mock disgust on the younger skaters. "What're you freeks doin messin' with the vagrants again?" he said. "Didn't the cops already warn you 'bout that?"
        Corey jumped up and started wiping at the white stains the asphalt had left on his leotard. "Kah, Todd. The vag fag messed with us. Grok? We was just TCB'n for the twenty." David didn't try to argue with this lie. But he felt a strange satisfaction knowing he was responsible for the bruises already forming on Corey's face.
        The older boy smirked and his friends laughed. Their deeper voices held a menace that made David's assailant's step back. "Get off that gibberish, Corey, you little effing tard. That supposed to be cool or something?" The large boy said. Then he looked at David and something strange crossed his face. David cringed under the look but after a moment realized that it wasn't really spiteful; that it was more like… amazement? "Yo, Marty, check this out." the older boy said, beckoning over his shoulder.
        A tall, skinny boy glided up beside the heavyset one and looked down at David with suspicious eyes. David returned the gaze defiantly wondering what kind of trouble these large kids had planned. But as he looked into the other boy's eyes, something flashed in his mind.
        "You little jerks cut out," the tall boy said without taking his eyes off David. There was something strange in his voice.
        "Kah?" Corey yelled. "K-M-A! We were riding this court before you guys!"
        The tall boy kicked his board into sudden life and zipped over the court with amazing speed. A moment later Corey was laying on the ground, moaning and rubbing his head. Scooter and Drake had already got the point and were quickly racing away.
        "Grock that, you little snot," the tall boy laughed as he zipped circles around Corey, passing so close that he caused the blonde boy's hair to ruffle. "I'm counting to five," the older boy said, "and if you're still here, that board is mine. One. Two. Three…."
        Corey didn't wait to find out if the threat was real. He shot a rude gesture over his shoulder as he sped away but the older boy ignored it. He zipped close to David, and stopped. He kicked his board so that it flipped up and landed neatly under his arm. Then he looked down on David and scratched his head.
        David studied the boy, thinking there was something familiar about him. He was tall and thin, his hair straight and black, dangling over his shoulders. He wore tattered blue pants that had been cut at the knee and a wrinkled plaid shirt with menacing words scrawled on the sleeves.
        But his eyes! David knew those eyes.
        "Martin?" he whispered in awe.
        Martin Swinton stepped backwards, his face twisted in shock and disbelief.
        "No way," he muttered. "No effing way."
David tried to chew slowly; the way Dr Chen had shown him. He knew he could get sick and throw-up again and he didn't want to repeat that particular experience. But he was so hungry that the second sandwich Martin had bought him was disappearing as fast as the first
        Martin had finally stopped pacing and was now sitting on the bench beside David, watching him intently. His looked of stunned disbelief had finally dissipated to be replaced by a dark skepticism. David knew Martin did not believe him, but was too consumed in his long overdue meal to care. Todd and the others were on the court pretending to be immersed in skating. But David knew they were watching everything. They kept glancing over. Martin had shooed them away when they tried to approach and they'd retreated only after he threatened "grievous bodily harm". Only Todd was undaunted by these words. Of all the boys there, only he was larger than Martin and only he remembered Martin's birthday party… the day he'd met the little Mecha boy by the pool; the day his calloused actions had set in motion the events that led to David's abandonment. But Todd kept his distance out of respect, or perhaps guilt. Or possibly the nagging certainty that Martin was talking to someone whose existence defied the very laws of nature.
        Martin let out a long sigh, as if whatever mental calculations he'd been going through had exhausted him. "Ok, let's go through this thing again," he said, interlocking his fingers and biting his lower lip nervously. "You're …I mean, you believe that you were a Mecha that used to belong to my-"
        David waved his arm to interrupt Martin. He swallowed quickly. "I am David!" he said. "I mean, I was … I mean… I don't know how to say it. I was Mecha and now I am real."
        Martin guffawed and rose to his feet. "Look, kid that's…. It's just not effing possible! OK! So drop it!" He was pacing again, wringing his hands and shooting quick glances at David. His skeptical expression was turning to anger. David had seen that look before.
        "Remember the night you sent me to cut Mommy's hair?" The words seemed to sting Martin. His gaze froze on David. It was unreadable. David had only meant to prove himself with these words, to speak of something that only he and Martin could know. But there was an accusation in his voice that he had not intended.
        Or had he?
        Later he would not know.
        He continued, knowing he was saying all the wrong things, but unable to stop himself.
        "You tricked me! You sent me there to…to," he was getting too emotional, he knew it. He stopped and took a deep breath to compose himself. It didn't really work. "You knew what was going to happen, Martin. And you knew that I didn't understand. I could have hurt her! I almost cut her eye! Why? Why did you do that?"
        But Martin didn't seem to hear the question. A new light had come into his eyes. He turned and pointed an accusing finger at David. "You met it didn't you!" he said.
        "What?"
        "You met the Mecha when it ran away. Maybe you were in the woods… or maybe you were at Rouge City. Yeah!" His voice was rising as he spoke; growing more excited as he felt he had finally come upon an explanation. "And … and you met the Mecha and it told you all this stuff about me and Mom and … and that's why you know so much! Dammit! I knew there had to be a reason. It's the only way that…" but his words stopped when his train of thought crashed into an impassable barrier of logic. His gaze turned dark again and he plopped down on the bench, shoulders slumped, defeat in his face.
        "Noooo," he moaned. "That's stupid. Dammit! None of it makes sense!" He placed his head in his hands, groaning. "This isn't happening," he muttered to himself.
        The hoverboards had grown quiet. David knew Martin's friends were watching, wondering what was going on between them. Only Todd would have even the slightest idea. But David did not return their looks and didn't care what, if anything, was going on in Todd's mind.
        He knew he couldn't continue his accusations. It would only send Martin into another rage and that would entirely defeat his purpose. He had to try a softer approach. He thought hard, trying to plot a course through this complex maze of human emotions. After a minute of introspection, it came to him.
        "The man at the hospital said I was gone for two years," David said. His tone was soft now, vulnerable. Martin glanced out from behind his hands. His brows were pinched but there was curiosity in his eyes. David returned his look and shrugged as if perplexed. "How'd you … how'd you get so big so fast?"
        Martin's expression didn't change. There was an empty moment when his reaction could go either way. But finally the boy lifted his head up and laughed. David smiled and laughed too. It was the best sound he had heard all day.
        "Oh, man. I must be crazy for talking to you," Martin said. He breathed a moment as if undecided on how to continue. Then he chuckled. But there was something sad in the sound. "Well, it got real crazy after you…" he shot another undecided look at David, then continued. "… after you left. Mom was a mess. She blamed everyone for everything. Joined some class action suit against Cybertronics. But it didn't go anywhere and she…" Martin stopped there. His mouth worked silently on something he wasn't ready to say. As much as he wanted to know, David knew better than to press him. Finally Martin continued down a different path.
        "I started growing really fast. Frazy said that I would-"
        "Frazy?"
        "Uh, Doc Frazier. He's the guy who took over my case when I was still under the ice. Anyway, he said I would start to catch up with my age once the cryo-prep stuff wore off, and he wasn't BS'ing. I must have picked up damned near a foot in a year. And man, it hurt!" Martin grimaced at uncomfortable memories. "I had to take so many pain killers that Dad was worried about me getting hooked and took me to one of those brain places... where they use harmonics on your pain centers. That worked pretty good. Got rid of most of the pills anyway. But after a year or so the pain started going away and I was …" he sat up and spread his arms. "…like this."
        "Wow. You look great," David said, knowing it sounded fake, but feeling he should make some type of acknowledgment. Martin seemed satisfied and folded back into himself.
        "I still get back aches now and then, but Frazy said that's pretty much normal. It'll go on like that for a few years but I'll be OK." Martin fell silent then, his gaze set on the ground at his feet.
        Somehow David knew he shouldn't ask about Mommy; that Martin would talk about her when he was ready. "And Henry?" he asked instead.
        Martin looked up suddenly, as if he'd dozed off and forgotten where he was; who he was with. "Oh…. Well, Dad's cool. Same old guy he's always been. He was a bit crazy the first year, fretting over me all the time… you know, until I got better and everything. Wouldn't even let me get near the pool, not after that crap at the party!" Martin laughed at this but David looked away. Martin noticed his discomfort and stopped laughing. A quiet moment went by. In an unspoken agreement they decided that matter was best left to the past.
        "Well, then Dad finally chilled a bit... when I get better that is. He's still with Cybertronics and everything. That lawsuit crap put a lot of strain on things. But he and Mom worked it out somehow. But she never really got over…" Martin fell silent again. He dropped his head and he started kneading his fingers again. He was mumbling something that David could not make out.
        David had to know. "What Martin? Tell me."
        The change was instantaneous, unexpected. David couldn't have seen it coming. Martin stood, imposing in his painfully won stature; his face now twisted and unsympathetic.
        "What in the hell are you?" he yelled. "Why in the hell did you come back?" He stopped himself and shook his head like he was trying to wring the thoughts out of his brain. "No! No! No!" he yelled. "This is effing BS man! It's impossible. You aren't real. You're some kind of freak!"
        "No, Martin," David said patiently. "It's all true. I'm-" But he didn't have time to finish this thought.
        Martin was suddenly on David, his hands holding the boy's collar tight, his face pressed so close that his breath was hot on David's face. This wasn't the same boy who had just bought David sandwiches from the vending machine; who had just shared the painful details of his recovery. This was the other Martin; the one who had tricked him into cutting Mommy's hair, the one whose mind had been twisted by jealousy and hate when he'd come home to find he had been replaced by a machine.
        "You want to know about Mom? OK, I'll tell you, freak. You almost drove her crazy! She went on and on about you…. About how she betrayed you; about how she couldn't let them kill you so she left you in the forest! She kept going back looking for you for months!. She'd leave in the middle of the night and stay out til morning, driving all the way to Haddonfield and Shadow Creek, up and down the Delaware, looking for you! She'd come back crying and dirty from walking through the woods. Dad had to get her a doctor. They had to drug her to keep her from hurting herself! Dad finally got her to stop looking for you and then she started taking it all out on Cybertronics! She'd start yelling at Dad, saying it was all Hobby's fault for trying to play God! She wanted Dad to quit! They almost got a divorce. And it was all because of you!"
        The words ripped into David's mind, coursed through his body and embedded in his heart. He wanted to tell Martin to stop, that he knew it was all spiteful lies; that he was only jealous because David had returned to take his place by Mommy's side. But he couldn't move. He couldn't breath. He could only gaze with horrified eyes as Martin's vengeance was unleashed.
        "Dad even tried to get her another one of you fakes! That's how desperate he was! He was actually going to buy one for her because he thought it would bring her back to sanity.! But she actually said it wasn't you! As if you were actually a real-"
        "Play nice!"
        The mechanical voice broke Martin from his rage. He turned to see Teddy waddling towards them, his little arms raised to ward Martin off. Martin's brow wrinkled and he shook his head slowly. It was too much like before. "No, this is too unreal. This is…"
        "Martin!"
        It was Todd this time. Martin looked over to see his friend gesturing towards something behind them. David noticed the gesture too and they both turned to see a man approaching from the direction of the silent cul de sac. They could hear him as he came closer.
        "Hey, you kids! Leave that vag alone! Go on now before I call the police! I'll do it! Believe me!"
        Martin let go of David's collar, realizing how it must have looked. Teddy had arrived now, and his mechanical voice was added to the mix as he scolded and insisted that this manner of play was unacceptable. Martin's face was lost, indecisive for a moment. Then he looked down on David and new resolve grew in his features. He reached into his pocket and David had a moment of fearful anticipation before Martin pulled out a wallet. He thumbed through it and hissed.
        "Todd!"
        Todd ran over. "Hey, let's get out of here, Marty. That guy looks pissed."
        "Gimme some newbucks." Martin ordered.
        "What?"
        "Whatever you got on you."
        "What? For him? No way! What the…"
        "Give me the money!" The rage in Martin's voice silenced Todd. After a quiet moment he pulled out a leather pouch and emptied it into Martin hands.
        The man was moving slower now that Martin had let go of David, but he was still coming. Still yelling. "What're you kids doing? Is that a little boy? You let that boy go!"
        Martin reached down and tucked the wad of NewBucks into David's hand. "You heard the man," Martin said. "It's time to go. You got nuff money there for a while. Get on out of here." Then he pushed his chest up and the look in his eyes said he meant business. "And don't ever come back," he added.
        Todd's eyes roamed quickly between Martin and David and the angry man that was slowly approaching. "Soooo… it's really him?" he asked, his eyes finally settling on David.
        "No." Martin replied quickly, resolutely. "He's just some kind of stupid vag con artist."
        "Then why you giving him money? My money?"
        Martin didn't answer. He had no answer. His eyes were set coldly on David. "Go on," he repeated.
        "Martin, please." David didn't want to cry; didn't want to sound pathetic and desperate. But his dream was collapsing right before his eyes. Everything he had come back for was being washed away. His voice was choked and tears began to flow. "Martin, please don't send me away. Pleeeease. I want to see her! Just once. I need to. It's the only reason I-"
        "Hey kid!" the man was closer now, close enough that he didn't have to yell to be heard. "Why you crying? What're those boys doing?" he asked. "I'm calling the police."
        Martin's grimace turned into a smirk. "You heard the man, David. He's calling the police. Aren't they looking for you? You'd better run. Ya think?"
        David wanted to plea, to crawl on his knees and beg, but he knew it would do no good. If the police came, and he was caught by the man named Greig, or Jeff or Frank or whatever the hell his real name was, then he'd never see the light of day again. If he ran now, he'd be free to try again. The cold logic of this made it's way through the heat of his emotions and he stood and wiped his face.
        Another feeling was growing inside him as he returned Martin's hard stare. It was not desperate. It was not sad. It was something new. Something cold... and dark.
        He grabbed Teddy up and started backing away towards the forest. He would hide there, he decided, long enough to hatch the plan that was already forming in the back of his mind.
        The intervening man was standing a few yards away. He was on his cell, talking to someone. David couldn't make out the words, but he could guess that the man was describing a dirty little vagabond child that was running back into the trees. The police would be on their way. Maybe the CLA. He turned and began to run.
        In moments he was making his way through the fence and into the lush woods. He turned once more to see that Martin was still staring at him. He returned the hard gaze for a moment before he slipped into the shadows of the trees.
        "We'll meet again," he whispered to no one, sensing that the new dark emotion inside him might grow into something dangerous… and knowing there was probably no other way to achieve his goal.
1

Time is not linear. Nor does it move unbroken from one point to another. It had once seemed so, when his heart beat with the mathematical regularity of a machine, and his days had passed seamlessly into night and then day again, unbroken by sleep or dreaming. But that was then. Now David realizes that time cannot truly be measured by numbers. It fluctuates; swells and folds in on itself, like a living thing…. or perhaps like flowing water might.
        He had no words for this understanding but it came to him as he broke from sleep, still trailing the remnants of a strange dream, to find himself in darkness, shivering under a black canopy of trees. He tried to keep the dream images in his head, so to sort them out and understand the nature of that other world, and his odd realization. But all he could recall was a haunting world of undulating blue, before the visions finally dissipated.
        He looked up to see starlight breaking through the trees, and the thin slip of a crescent moon already making its descent in the west. He heard the faint groans of man's technological empire awakening in the distance, and the closer sounds of wildlife in the dark about him. They too were awakening, preparing for another day of survival. He sat for a time, with his strange thoughts, listening to the musical clicking of the insects, the throaty grunting of frogs and the lonely howl of canine predators.
        "What time is it Teddy?" he asked. He heard a thin metallic sound and knew the little bear was turning its head to look at him. David could not return that gaze for he could not see in the dark anymore. He felt another pang of regret.
        "It is 4:35 in the morning,." Teddy explained. "That is very early, David. You need more sleep."
        "Yeah," David replied. But he knew he could not go back to sleep. Martin's face had come into his minds eyes…as did the words the boy had spat at their encounter. The new, dangerous feeling came back too. It brought images into his minds eye; wild, angry visions that made him unconsciously grip his fists and clench his jaws tight. These thoughts always followed his memories of Martin. The acid feeling they left in his stomach was new and troubling. But there was pleasure there too, pleasure in the plans that had been forming in the dark places in his mind. In the conclusion of these fantasies, Martin was always left cowering, begging for forgiveness and… mercy.
        Yes. Mercy.
        "No, David, no," the cowering fantasy Martin would say. "Don't do it, please."
        Don't do what? David was never sure.
        Nor was he certain how many days had passed since he had seen the real Martin. He could not tell how far he had traveled as he he'd trekked slowly westward, following the path of the sun. But oddly, there were specific moments that stayed with him; sounds and images that he should have forgotten, being so unimportant considering the weight of his dilemma: The bright golden eyes of a tree creature that had stared down as he passed beneath its leafy abode; the melodious song of a bird that had caught his attention, but that he had never been able to find. The hint of an unknown history he'd seen in the broken remains of an old road he followed through the forest until their courses diverged.
        And the suspicious smirk on the face of the young clerk at the supermarket where he had used Martin's money to buy food. He'd probably never forget that look.
        "Excuse me," he'd said, standing close to the counter to obscure his dirty clothing from her sight. "What's good food for a boy?" he'd asked.
        "What?" she'd said from behind the fortress walls of her register.
        He'd quickly realized how absurd his question had sounded. "Ummm.. I don't… I don't usually shop, sooo…"
        She'd paused a moment, regarding him with skeptical eyes. She must have noticed the disheveled hair, his dirty face and clothes. She must have known he was "vaggin'", as his young tormentors had put it the day before.
        And what was that look in her eyes? Pity? Disgust? Would she shoo him off? Perhaps call the police?
        After a moment she'd simply shrugged, and gestured to an aisle. "Cereal, chips, milk, orange juice… candy… whatever. As long as you can pay for it," she'd said before turning back to whatever she'd been up to when he arrived.
        But though the clerks recommendations had excited his taste buds, and given him a surge of energy for a while, in the end they'd just left him feeling a weak and tired. Especially the candy. Teddy had made a fuss about David's purchases and offered its own, more logical, suggestions. But too late. However inadequate, David would have to make this food last as long as possible. He couldn't risk going among the Orga too often, even though he was now one of them.
        This world spares one little time for tears. David had come to know this as his exile passed from one day to another and then another. He had seen how the creatures of the forest fed on each other, how the small and weak were devoured or left to die when they could not fend for themselves. He had watched in fascination when a large bird swooped down on one of the scampering creatures, wrapped it in large talons and took flight. The small thing had squeaked and fought to no avail. David had watched it disappear into the trees, trapped in the birds merciless grasp, knowing it too must survive.
        From death, life.
        Brutal, this world. Brutal and cold and ignorant of the suffering of its creatures.
        And was he not now one of them? Was he not now among the hierarchy of the food chain that nourished themselves on the flesh of the weak?
        Is this really what he had wanted?
        No. It had been Mommy. She had been the reason for this life. And he would make his way to her. Somehow. No matter what.
        He broke from his dark thoughts with a new determination, and rose to his feet. The hint of dawn had not yet graced the horizon.
        "Which way is west, Teddy?"

2

Another day passed, as did he, westward through the woodlands that hugged the Orga freeways; the lush forests haunted with dilapidated ruins of forgotten townships. Another night fell, as did he, onto the mossy earth and into the waiting arms of sleep, to traverse the realm of dreams while Teddy stood in watch for strangers or predators, or amphibicopter's hovering through the sky, in search of a strange young fugitive.
        The next morning greeted David with a sharp pain in his ear and the realization that he really, really needed a bath. He worked his way slowly though what was left of his last bag of potato chips, chewing gently to not agitate the new irritation in his ear.
        "You need to see a doctor, David," Teddy suggested when he noticed David moaning and cupping his head.
        "Good idea, Teddy!" David snapped. "Why don't we just go back to the hospital? There's plenty of doctors there!" But the outburst made his ear hurt and there was now an audible pitch, like a far off whistle, in his head. Teddy was right. He needed help. But how?
        "I'm sorry, Teddy, I…" but he couldn't finish the thought. He really didn't understand his anger. He rose and tossed the empty bag of chips into the trees, cursing his pain and the fragility of this flesh body. If he had only known; if the Blue Fairy could have somehow warned him about….
        A movement of caught David's attention. He turned to see a boy, crouching near the base of a tree. He looked younger than David, thin and grim faced, the tattered remnants of some kind of uniform hugging his lean body. There was another movement and David saw another boy, this one taller and with white blond hair and a hint menace behind his bright blue eyes. Then came another… and another. Tall boys. Short boys. Fat and thin. They were of different ages and hues, but all sharing the same determined look… one that did not impart any warm reception.
        David wanted to say something, to introduce himself and explain his presence, but his mouth would not form the words. It was no longer anger that filled him, but fear. He was trapped, surrounded by a ragged band of vagabond boys. They approached him slowly. He tried to back away but there was no escape.
        "I'm sorry" he finally managed to say. "I mean, if this is your woods, that is. I was just sleeping. I didn't mean to…"
        But the boys suddenly pounced on David and he found himself tossed to the ground. He felt a pinch on his cheek and screamed out. "He's skin" someone yelled. Then he felt his clothing being searched. He kicked and screamed at the assault, but his ear began to ache so he relented and surrendered to their inspections. The attack was over as quickly as it had began. David sat up, cupping his ear, to see that the boy's were still encircling him, but now with hands on hips or crossed over their chest, looking on him with some strange sort of disappointment.
        "He's skin, Sy, but he ain't got much," one of them said. "Couple newbucks and a Supertoy. It's kinda old, but we could get something for it." It was the young one who had spoken, the thin, grim-faced boy who he'd seen first. David looked up at him and saw that the boy was addressing someone out of his line of sight.
        "Good work, Wizzy," said a thick voice. David turned to see who had spoken. His fear was quickly renewed.
        The man was standing in the shadows of hanging braches. His flesh was deep brown and his shoulders huge. His thick clothing was ragged and torn. His large head was bald and so smooth that it seemed to reflect back the scant light of the forest. He regarded David coolly through hooded eyes.
        David felt a gasp escape his throat. He had no idea what this stranger wanted, but was fully aware that he was too small and weak to resist whatever it might be. The vision of the little scampering thing, captured and dying in the grasp of the hungry bird's talons, came back to him.
        Was he prey now, too? Softly, he began to whimper.
        "What's this now?" the man asked, disbelief in his deep voice. His eyes tightened on David. "Where you from, boy?"
        David opened his mouth to respond, but the pain in his ear flared and he paused. "I am just trying to get home, mister," he finally managed to say. "I really need that money. And Teddy… I mean the toy. Please," he said with a catch in his voice, hoping that this might incite some sympathy. But the man just raised his brows in amusement, and the boys began to chuckle and then laugh outright.
        "Well ain't you just pathetic as all get out," the man named Sy said. More laughter. "But I asked where you was from, boy, not where you goin'," he said after the humor had died down.
        David pointed weakly over his shoulder. "I was in a hospital back that way," he muttered. To his surprise this announcement was greeted with knowing grunts of what seemed like understanding, if not sympathy.
        "Yeah, yeah." Sy said, nodding his large shining head, as if this story was all too familiar. "But what I really want to know is, is anyone lookin' for you."
        David didn't know how to respond. Would it be good or bad if they thought someone was looking for him? In the end he settled for a compromise.
        "I'm not sure anymore. I mean, they were but… I think they gave up… maybe."
        The ambiguity of this response caused some more dark glances to be exchanged between his captors.
        "Did anyone follow you?" the man asked pointedly.
        "No," David replied quickly, hoping it was the right thing to say, and that the certainty of his reply would have a different effect.
        The man chewed on this idea for a silent moment. The boys watched him for some kind of signal. Then he took a deep breath and shot a quick glance at them. One by one they began to disappear quietly into the woods.
        "Wait!", David cried, "I need that money! I need Teddy! You don't understand!"
        But his cries were ignored and the boys vanished into the brush, taking Teddy and what was left of his money. Only the man named Sy remained, shaking his head, as if in pity.
        "Got no time for tears, boy… and no time for dallying. Not in this world. You take what you need or it'll slip on by without you. Ain't you old enough to know that by now?"
        David had no response. His anger and fear had blended to form an empty pit in his stomach. He cupped his painful ear, and placed his head in his hands so the man would not see his tears. He heard the man sigh and say something that he didn't make out. Then he heard the rustle of the bushes as the man turned and began to walk away. But the sounds suddenly stopped and, after a moment, David glanced up to see Sy looking expectantly over his shoulder. And there was something else in his face… something amused and impatient at the same time.
        "Well, didn't you hear me, boy?" the man said, brows twisted in mock indignation. "You hungry, ain't ya? Want to get that pain out your head? Wash some of that stink off you?"
        David stammered and then nodded.
        "Then what you dallyin' for? Get that butt in gear and c'mon!"
        David didn't pause to consider. He jumped up quickly, pressed a hand against his swelling ear, and followed the man, hoping it was the right course of action, but knowing he really had no choice.
        There was no time for dallying.
1

        David did his best to keep up with the man named Sy. who move almost effortlessly, through the thick woodland. But his feet beat painfully on the mossy earth and there were new scratches stinging his flesh where thickets and low hanging branches had appeared suddenly in his path to take their passing toll. David had caught Sy looking over his shoulder a few times, but had seen no reprieve in the man's face; only impatience and a hint of … humor?
        David had learned something about humor in his short time among the Orga, but he could see nothing funny about this situation, or indeed any situation that had befallen him since he had come to reside in this fragile shell of flesh. He steeled himself against the pain and struggled on, lest what little he had in the world was lost to the bandits.
        He had no idea how much time had passed or had far they had run, but he knew he could go no further. His brow was dripping with sweat and his breath coming deep and painfully fast. He was about to give up the chase, to admit defeat and let fate have her way with him, when he saw that the gang of boys had stopped far ahead, in a clearing near the base of a tree covered hill. Sy stopped running and walked calmly to his gang. They welcomed him with upraised hands. The big man slapped each palm and then turned to regard David as he came stumbling into the clearing, out of breath and miserable.
        "Look like someone needs a trip through the gauntlet, eh?" Sy quipped. The boys laughed. All except the one Sy had called Wizzy, who only twisted his young face in unbridled disgust. But none of this mattered to David. Sy's apparent insult would have made no sense to him even if he'd had enough mental energy to decipher it. As it was, he only had enough to fall to his knees and hold up his arms in surrender.
        "I…can't… go," 'any further' is how David had meant to conclude this breathy appeal. But he could not finish the sentence, so he decided to finish his descent instead, and lay in the deep grass of this place. It was fresh and cool against his face and he felt like he might have just lain there forever if strong hands had not yanked him up.
        "Almost home, boy," Sy said chuckling and picking David up like a doll, to set him on his feet. David wobbled a bit, but somehow managed to stay upright. Wizzy snorted again, but David would not be provoked into looking, which he was somehow sure was Wizzy's intention.
        The group set out again, walking this time, and at a merciful pace. David was both encourage and mystified that the bandits would show him any decency. But he soon realized that their slowness was not from any sense of courtesy, but of caution. They were passing up a gradual incline, beneath a dark shroud of overhanging trees, and they seemed to be cautious where they stepped, as if there might be small flesh-hungry creatures lurking in the bush. Sy glanced back and then whispered something to Wizzy. The boy made another disgusted snort before dropping back and moving to David's side. "Stay by me, pork chop." The boy said. David was too tired to ask the meaning of this new insult.
        As the shadows grew deeper, David noticed that the group began moving into single file. He was about to inquire the reason for this when he felt a shove from the side. It was Wizzy. Again.
        "Get in line, pork chop," the brat whispered. "And keep your tongue," he added, before David could respond. Not that David had the strength to trade insults, or even the experience to know to what words the boy might take offense. But he was determined to get even … eventually.
        The line began to slow and finally came to a halt. Ahead David saw Sy step to the base of a large tree. Then the man knocked on the tree. Then he began talking to it.
        Oh, David thought, he's insane. Now it all makes sense. The thought stuck a funny note in David's head and he was surprised to hear a chuckle come from his own mouth. He was not as surprised to feel Wizzy's foot bounce against his backside.
        David turned on the boy. "Stop that!" he hissed.
        "Quiet, pork chop," Wizzy snarled back with a look that meant business.
        David returned the glare for a moment, but then relented. Later, he thought. Later. He was getting more comfortable with the idea of revenge and wondered when it would morph into more than just fantasy. But his anger with Wizzy fell away when he realized that Sy was not engaged in a lunatic monologue. Tree was talking back. He strained an ear and heard Sy say "C'mon, now. Before the skeeters wake up and eat us alive."
The tree responded. "Why the back trail, Sy?" it said in a lite, electronic drawl. "You in trouble or sumthin'?"
        "We got us a guest," the man explained. The talking tree let out a burst of static and then some words that David could not make out. The boys in line all turned to regard him with cool skepticism. Sy rolled his eyes and then gestured for David to come forward.
        "Hurry up!" Wizzy said and gave him a parting kick. David decided not to honor the rudeness with a response. The boys parted to allow him passage. He stepped by young bandits, wondering which of them had Teddy. He walked to Sy's side, but the man pushed him to the front of the tree.
        "There. See? Just a kid," Sy said, impatiently. David looked up and down the crusty bark of the tree, but saw nothing like eyes or a mouth. But he guessed it was able to see him somehow. And it definitely spoke.
        "And how do you know he ain't a plant?" the tree responded. It was apparently a girl. David didn't know trees were could be delineated in that fashion.
        Sy flailed his fist in the air. "Dammit He's just some lost brat. Drop the gates!"
        But the tree wasn't yet convinced about whatever it was Sy was trying to convince it. "What's that on your wrist boy?" it asked. David held up his arm to show the ID bracelet. "I got it from the hospital." he explained, almost truthfully.
        "How in the hell did you miss that, Sy?" the tree yelled.
        Sy grumbled, grabbed David's arm and ripped the wristband off with one strong yank. Then he tossed it far up the trail ahead. A sudden flash filled the darkness for a split second. Well, there goes my identity, thought David.
        "Are you happy now?" Sy said.
        "How do you know it wasn't traced?" the tree scolded.
        "Because we made it this far!" Sy replied.
        "Well that's specious reasoning," the tree said.
        Sy punched the stubborn plant. "Dammit, Nance! He's skin. He's safe. We're tired and hungry. Now let us in!"
        Some of the boy's seconded this. But the tree seemed reluctant to accept unannounced guests. It let out a rash of words that David didn't know, but were obviously intended to impart the severest disapproval.
        Sy had his own string of angry words. He let them fly and then said, "OK, just leave the gates up, Nance, and try to find yourself another crew! We're comin in!" With that he started storming up the thin trail. The boys hesitated, undecided whether to follow Sy or heed the trees warning. But slowly they began to step up behind their leader. David stood his ground in confusion. He thought he heard the tree make a sigh of resignation… or it might have been anger.
        Wizzy walked by and tapped David on the arm. Amazingly the boy had no kicks or insults to offer. He only shook his head and gestured for David to follow. "Man-oh-man," Wizzy sighed as they walked. "Sparks are gonna fly tonight." David was curious enough to inquire, but angry enough to get the explanation later… and from someone else.
        As he stepped into line behind Wizzy, he thought he saw rows of thin red beams of light in the shadows ahead of the group. But they vanished as Sy trudged confidently into the foliage and beyond the place where the strange lights had once formed a barrier.

2

The thick greenery finally gave way to another clearing, but this one was cloaked from the sky by a thick canopy of intertwining tree branches. On the other side of the bare earthen floor sat a dilapidated building that looked as if it might have once been filled with people wearing dark suits and grim expressions; carrying thin briefcases as they rushed about busy corridors, chatting into their headsets. Now it was just two stories of broken glass and rusted frames; home to a roving band of underage bandits and their leader. Who knew what kind of chaos lay within?
        As they approached the withered structure, a woman appeared in the doorway. She was older, perhaps the age of Dr Chen, and had a shock of thick red curls atop her head, and a face full of piercing and elaborate tattoos inked into her pale flesh. She leaned against the doorframe and placed a hand on her hip as she regarded the approaching boys with a baleful glare.
        "I should'a just left the gate up and fried your sorry asses," she said. But nobody seemed impressed by this sentiment.
        "Hello Nance," Sy replied dryly. "It's so nice to hear your sweet voice again, my precious jewel. Why don't you see to our guest?" He gestured to David and then slipped nonchalantly by the woman and into the unlit corridor. She gritted her teeth but didn't try to stop him. The others filed slowly behind, one by one, offering the woman conciliatory smiles as they passed. Wizzy chuckled under his breath and gave David a departing punch on the shoulder before joining the others.
        The woman twisted a brow at David, as if she was wondering how he could still be alive. "You look even worse up close," she said, and analyzed him for a moment. Then something in her gaze softened. "That cheek is puffed up like a melon. Bet that tooth is killin ya, huh?"
        David nodded his head quickly.
        Nance sighed like a mother whose work is never done. "C'mon," she said and stepped into the building.

3

David was lead down a dark hallway, following the sound of Nance's footfalls ahead of him. He could hear the gang of boys laughing somewhere in the building. He started to head in that direction, but heard Nance say "this way," and turned to follow the sound of her voice. He heard the swishing of a door opening ahead, and saw sudden light erupt from a room. Nance was silhouetted against the glow for a moment before she stepped inside. David stepped in after her and saw something he hadn't quite expected: an immaculate room of sterile white walls and polished steel surfaces. Medical instruments, of the kind he had seen in the hospital, were neatly arranged on shining metal shelves or resting in bottles of colorful cleaning solutions. Complicated machinery hummed about the place. Digital displays shown rows of zeros from a myriad of multi-colored readouts.
        David's surprise must have reached his face, for Nance laughed at whatever expression she saw there. She gestured to a thick chair in the center of the room. David crawled into the chair. It was huge and soft as a worn pillow. The thing whirred to life suddenly and embraced him, locking his arms in place. He started to struggle but knew it was futile. It was too late to change his mind now.
        Nance winked and held up a small metal cylinder. The harmless looking device emitted a fierce red light from the upraised end, and David could swear it was making a high-pitched whine as she approached.
        "Big boys don't cry," she said as she went to work.

4

The extraction was quick and David didn't suffer any more pain than he had at the hands of the men in the hospital; the silent ones in white lab coats who had come to pinch and prod and ask the same questions over and over again. When Nance was done she packed some gauze into the back of his mouth and told him to keep it there for the night.
        She handed him something small and white. David studied it carefully. 'This is part of me,' he realized, reminded once again about the fragility of this body. He rolled his tongue over the cauterized wound in the back of his mouth, and wondered if it had really been necessary to cut the tooth out.
        Nance seemed to notice his dark introspections. "It'll be all good in the morning, honey," she said, and turned back to whatever she'd been doing.
        'Honey?' David repeated, pensively.
        Nance turned to shoot David another one of her sour looks. He was starting to understand that this was probably her usual expression and that maybe she wasn't as mean as the piercings and the angry tattoos implied.
        "Yeah, 'honey'," she said, flipping off the lights and ushering David back into the dark hallway. "Nobody ever call you that before?"
        "Well, yes," David explained. "I mean, no, but I understand. It's just that… well I didn't expect … You don't seem as mean as the others."
        Nance let out a laugh that echoed through the empty halls. "You think they're mean?"
        "They jumped on me and stole my money and my bear," he explained, angrily. "That is definitely mean, and I think…" he paused a moment, trying to recall the legal restrictions on human interactions. "I am pretty certain that it's illegal."
        He couldn't see Nance's face as they made their way through the dark, but the tone of her voice implied a shrug. "Yeah, well, you're still alive, ain't ya?" she said.
        David considered the logic of this response. It was setting the bar rather low, but he had to concede that he was, in fact, quite alive. "I guess you're right, he said, reluctantly. "But I almost died trying to keep up with Sy … and that kid named Wizzy kept kicking me and … " something told David that complaining about name calling wouldn't come off too well. "…and stuff." he said instead.
        Nance laughed. "Yea, the Wiz Kid can be a pain in the butt sometimes. But that's only because Sy's always protecting the brat. He thinks Wizzy's some kind of genius. Personally… and don't tell him I said this, but I just don't see it."
        David made a sound of agreement and then felt Nance grab his shoulder and turn him down another dark corridor. He heard the boy's voices raised somewhere above. Nance grumbled under her breath. David pondered the irritated sound and wondered why she put up with them if she didn't want them around.
        "The secret is to not let Wizzy know that it bothers you," Nance continued. "You just act like you could care less and then she'll stop."
        "She?" David blurted.
        Nance didn't respond, but David heard her sigh, as if she was wondering if he'd been living under a rock. "Where in the hell are you from, boy" she asked.
        David thought for a moment. "I don't remember," he finally replied. The response didn't seem to surprise her.

5

She led David to an elevator and, still in complete darkness, they rode to the upper floor. When the doors parted, and the light flooded in, David was, once again, left speechless. The walls that once separated offices had been knocked down and the bandit's living space spanned the entire length of the buildings upper floor. It was decorated with fine accouterments, as the palaces of pirates are so prone; plush couches and chairs of ornate design, things that must have been stolen from the wealthiest homes. Paintings and statues and holographic works of art hung from walls or sprouted from tables with intricate designs carved into their antique wood. All around lay piles of bounty from the gang's exploits. There were games and clothing and musical instruments strewn about the place as if the boys had grown tired and simply tossed them aside. Computers and unmoving Mecha filled a far off corner. David couldn't see Teddy among the discards, but he couldn't see as well as he used to. He wondered what had happened to his toy friend, but decided it would be better to not press the issue. For now.
        In the center of the room sat a large cubical embracing a complex console. And from this sprouted numerous screens displaying various views of the surrounding woods. In one of the monitors, David saw the trail they had walked to get here, and realized he was looking through the eyes of the tree. "Oh," he said and was glad no one had heard him, lest he have to explain why he'd been surprised by something so obvious.
        The gang of boys were in various places around the room, their feet propped up on expensive looking footstools, talking, playing games, sleeping or raiding a large refrigerator near the back of the huge place. Then he saw noticed a strange looking older fellow. He was thin and proper, clothed in a ragged black suit. His face held an expression of intense disinterest with anything that might occurring around him. But the boys seemed to be ordering him about. "Neville, Bring me that drink!" and "Neville, did you finish washing my stuff?" and "Neville, make me a sandwich!".
        David understood immediately. He looked away. It was no longer his concern. He had a new life now. He followed Nance to the place where Sy was resting.
        "Found yourself a real kitten didn't ya?" she said, throwing herself down on a tapestry-laden couch near Sy. The man had kicked back into a large, throne-like chair, and was fiddling with something in his hand. He laughed without looking up from whatever he was doing. "Told ya he was a pork chop," he said.
        "Why do you keep calling me that," David asked.
        A voice rose from the space behind Sy's chair "There's two types of people in the world," it said, "those that eat and those that get eaten," David was already too familiar with that voice and braced himself for the insults he was sure were coming. Wizzy popped her head up from behind the couch and shot him a mocking look. "We call 'em woofs and pork chops. And, you sure ain't no woof."
        Sy chuckled.
        Nance shot David a knowing eye.
        David was searching his mind for words that might sting his young abuser. But then he remembered the woman's words. "So, can I have something to eat now?" he asked instead, ignoring Wizzy's taunt.
        Sy gestured over his shoulder. "Help yourself. The fridge is over there," he said, still engrossed in whatever toy he held in hand.
        "Thank you," David said politely. He smiled broadly at Wizzy as he passed, just to show he was above it all, and felt some comfort in the grimace that crossed her deceptively boyish features.

6

Precisely when he became one of them was not clear. But it seemed that the lost boys of the forest had just accepted his presence and, by the time they were settling in for the night, were acting as if he had always been among them.
        Pork Chop became David's unofficial handle, and he was informed that should he protest this name, they would call him something worse. Wizzy had laughed and suggested Doggurts, or Bushpatty. But an older boy named Darek, one of the boys who had helped hold David down while the others searched his pockets, explained that these were slang for animal droppings. David settled for Pork Chop.
        The Wiz Kid, as David learned was Wizzy's official title, tried to goad him into a few arguments as he ate. But just like Nance said, she gave up when David shrugged the insults off. He chewed his meal of wild rice and stringy beef carefully, to not agitate the cauterized hole in the back of his jaw. The pain was slowly coming back as the anesthesia wore off. But it was just a dull ache.
        When he was finished, Neville came to him with a towel and fresh clothing. David searched the Mecha's eye, as if he might see some recognition there. But the service bot only gave him a disinterested glance, and then pointed in the direction of a stairway alongside the room. "The shower is there, sir. You are allotted 10 minutes," it said and walked away.
        "Where's he from?" David asked.
        "Found him," Wizzy said, but would not elaborate. Instead she suggested that David shower quicky, before his stench made her puke. He smiled and walked away.

7

The water felt so good on his bruised and scratched flesh that David got lost in his thoughts and spent more than his allotted time in the shower. Angry cries and threats interrupted his introspection. But David was starting to understand that this was just their way of communicating. He shut off the water and put on the clothing that Nance had given him.
        When David gazed into the mirror he wasn't sure if he even knew the person looking back. The new clothing was dark and stylish. It looked expensive and felt smooth against his skin. It fit in all the right places, but billowed loosely over his thin frame. He guessed that it was supposed to fit this way. He'd seen the other boys wearing similar things.
        The once smooth skin of his face and arms was now dotted by small scars and insect bites. And being living flesh, it had tanned from exposure to the sun. He looked… older somehow. But the real difference was in his eyes. There was something new there. David didn't really feel any different. Tired, yes, and nervous about his future. But the face in the mirror held something new…. and dark. Yes, it was the eyes, he decided. They were changing in some vital way. Something was happening beneath his awareness, like the time he had caught his hands wringing unconscious knots in the hospital bed sheets. But this change was happening in his mind… and his heart.
        Someone pounded on the door. "Get your skinny ass outta there!" It was the voice of an older boy.
        David responded quickly. "OK! OK! Just wait your damned turn!" he yelled. But he felt an immediate sense of dread. Had he been presumptuous? Had he gone too far? But his fear fell away when he heard the boy outside laughing. "Oh, Pork Chop," the voice said, almost whimsically. "You a trip."
        "Yeah," David replied to himself, looking again at the dark clad stranger in the mirror, wondering what would become of him. "I guess I am."

8

As David was drifting off to sleep on the cot that Neville had placed out for him, he heard someone approaching. He rolled over to see Sy's large frame silhouetted against the soft glow from the security monitors, which was the only light in the room now. The man leaned close and spoke in a whisper.
        "You're one of us now, Pork Chop. Tomorrow you start earning your keep," he said.
        David waited for further explanation. But none seemed to be coming. "How?" he asked.
        Sy made that low ambiguous chuckle. "Well, boy. We're bandits. You smart enough to figure it out." With that the man walked away, leaving David alone with his questions and uncertainty.
        A troubling thought came then, as he considered his new predicament. He knew he would eventually find his way home… by his mother's side where he belonged. For now he would play along with the gang, just until he found Teddy and a means of escape. Then he would continue his quest. He would let nothing stop him. Nothing.
        But… and this was the new thought fretting in the back of his mind… by he time he found her; by the time he had lied and stole and kicked his way through all the ceaseless obstacles that fell in his path… would he become someone else? Would Mommy even know him?
        And would he still be someone she could love?
1

        An opening suddenly appeared at the end of a long dark hallway. David rose on his elbow, cupping his eyes against the bright beam of light emanating from beyond the door.
        Voices. He heard voices. There was some type of meeting going on. What could they be discussing so late in the night?
        He stood and moved quietly over the cold floor, careful not to wake any of the sleeping gang. But as he made his way through the dark he suddenly realized that they were not here. He surveyed the empty room. He was alone. Where had they all gone?
        "Should we show him everything?"
        The voice from beyond the door caught David's attention. Where had he heard that voice? Were they talking about him? He tip-toed down the hall.
        "He's not ready," said someone.
        "No one is ever really ready," said another.
        "This is different. He is different," said a gentle, wise voice.
        David knew these voices. He pressed against the wall, positioning himself so that he could see into the room. The décor seemed so familiar. The furniture was green… and the floor, a dark polished wood. His heart jumped. How could this be?
        "You can't have it both ways," said another voice, deep and mocking. "He can't be special and ordinary at the same time. It's one or the other."
        "Paradox," said the wise one "It's because he is the first."
        "First, ha!" said a spiteful voice. "He's a damned parasite on the body of humanity! A scourge!" But this voice was impossible! He'd seen the man die, flailing in the grip of a raging flame that grew beyond control and engulfed the forest.
        David pushed through the door and stood immobilized by what he saw. A flood of conflicting emotions rose from his chest and brought tears to his face. He was home; the place where he had first learned the sacred meaning of love and hate; trust and betrayal.
        Seated on a couch in the center of the room, the same couch from where he had once watched his family go about their incomprehensible Orga lives, was the strange council that had been discussing his fate. They all turned to gaze on him with mixed expressions. He knew their faces.
        Alan Hobby was there. His creator…. or the creator of the boy he had once been. The man's smile was radiant; and duplicitous. Henry was there too, seated on the couch, scowling over his shoulder at David. At his feet sat Martin; the old Martin, small and frail, his legs still bound in an electronic cast. He grimaced at David with tight, scheming eyes. Lord Johnson Johnson, was seated at the far end of the room. The man sneered and looked away, as if the sight of David was too much to bear.
        "Hello David," his creator said in a soft voice. "We've been waiting for you."
        "How did you all get here?" David asked. The people in the room cast puzzled glances at each other.
        "Oh, we're not really here, David," Hobby chuckled.
        "Idiot!" Lord Johnson Johnson laughed. "How in the hell could I be here. Ya simple headed sim! Ya got me killed, remember?"
        "I… I don't understand," David stuttered. "Is this my home?"
        "This is my home! And only mine!" Martin yelled. Henry shushed the boy and turned his back on David. "Don't bother yourself about him anymore," Henry said softly, hugging his son, who was weeping now.
        "Ah yes. Home. Where the heart lies," said a cheerful voice. David turned to see a familiar shape sitting crossed legged in a corner.
        "Joe!' he said.
        Gigolo Joe jumped up and tapped out a quick rhythm with his feet. "And what lies the heart tells, David," he warned. "Orga lies. The worst kind. Never trust it." Joe morphed suddenly into Angelo. "Never trust an Orga heart," Angelo said.
        David realized what was happening. He tried to clear his head. "This is not real," he whispered to himself. "It's … a dream."
        There was a low mocking laugh behind David. He turned quickly to see a large man leaning against the wall. It was Sy. He had an amused yet somehow sad expression on his face.
        "What's real, Pork Chop?" he said. "Hmm? You wake up. You eat. You poop. You fight like a dog just so you can do it all over again the next day. And in the end, no one gets out alive. Is that what you wanted?"
        "You're not real," David said "And I'm not afraid of you."
        Wizzy suddenly materialized beside Sy and fixed David with a long, knowing look.
        "Then what are you afraid of?" she asked. Sy raised his brows and laughed. The others joined in. Except Wizzy who only continued to stare at him, and Angelo who was nothing but a silent doll now.
        "You are afraid of being alone."
        The ethereal voice filled the room. The dream characters stopped laughing and turned their attention to an amorphous shape slowly making it's way down the spiraling stairway.
        "But you are alone, David. Because you're special. Because you are one of a kind."
        "Mommy?" David whispered. His emotions welled inside. A longing deep and painful gripped his heart.
        "Poor kid," Sy chuckled. "Well, it's time to get going anyway. C'mon, Pork Chop"
        "Mommy, I'm home!" David called out. Her back was to him as she rounded the staircase, and he could see something enveloping her; like a shifting halo … or the vague outline of wings wafting on invisible currents.
        David started to run to her, but Sy grabbed his arm. "No time for dallying, boy! Let's get a move on!"
        David pulled away, but the man's grip was like iron. "Let go!" he yelled as the mystery woman set her foot on the floor and slowly turned to face the room. He had to see her! Had to hold her! He grabbed Sy's massive hand and tore his fingernails into the flesh.
        "OW!" Sy screamed and pulled away. "Get your scrawny ass up, NOW!"
        David felt his arm yanked fiercely; felt his body lifted and dropped painfully on a hard cold surface. He moaned and opened his eyes. He was on the floor. The faint rays of daylight fell around him. He looked up to see the gang standing around him; hair mussed and eyes still red from sleep, laughing and pointing at where he lay. Wizzy was among them, wrapped in a towel, hair still wet from a morning wash. She rolled her eyes in disgust and walked away.
        Sy loomed over him, an enraged giant, illuminated by the rays of dawn breaking through the open windows. The man was sucking on the back of his hand. "On your feet, Pork Chop!" Sy grumbled. David stood quickly, trying to clear the sleep from his mind.
        Sy turned to the circle of boys. "And what are you slackers laughing at?" he yelled. "You want a little taste too? I got enough for every body!" The boys ran back to their cots and started getting ready for the day. Sy turned back to David.
        "Nice one," he said, examining the scratches on the back of his hand. He thrust a finger in David's face. "You get a newbies pass this time, Pork Chop. Next time you bleed me, accident or not, I'll kick your little butt all over the room."
        "I was dreaming," David said, angrily, remembering the sight of Her standing in the shadows of the place he once called home. He had only wanted to see her… to touch her. "I was home! Home! And that's where I am going. You have no right to-"
        The slap was so quick that David wasn't sure it had happened. Then the pain came. It flooded his face and stung hotly in his cheek and jaw.
        "His tooth, damn it, Sy!" Nance yelled as she stormed across the room. The rest of the gang picked up their pace, suddenly concerned about Sy's mood. Nance started to force herself between them, but one look from Sy made her stop. Whatever she saw in his eyes made her take a step back. "Don't mess up my dental work," she commanded, but there was no force in her voice.
        Sy stared blankly at her for a moment, then turned back to David. "I'm not one to talk back to, Pork Chop. Not on a workday. And this is your home, until I say otherwise. Now get cleaned up and outside for roll call. We got business to attend to."
        David stood his ground, glaring at the man. An indescribable anger burned as hot as the pain in his face.
        "Well, aren't you pretty when you're pissed." Sy smiled. "Remember where you found that feeling, boy. It'll serve you well someday, I assure you. And when it does, you'll thank me for helping you find it. Now get ready before I turn to the other cheek."

2

The gang of young thieves were gathered in the courtyard, lolling about in the shadows of the thick trees that engulfed the hideout and protected it from aerial scrutiny. The boys had all dressed simply, like school kids going on a field trip.
        David stood at the edge of the crowd, feeling angry and humiliated. His tooth wasn't bothering him anymore, but his face was still stinging, and the thick bran he'd had for breakfast wasn't sitting too well in his gut. For some reason no one, not even Wizzy, had teased him over what Sy had done. It was somehow off limits, perhaps because anyone could get the same treatment at any time.
        Sy hadn't seemed angry at all when he served breakfast. "This is on the house," he'd said, dropping a bowl of meal in front of David. "But you got to earn your supper."
        "Yes sir," David had replied, weakly. He hadn't dared look the man in the eye, lest his true feelings shone though and initiate another slap. Sy had given him the usual amused look and then walked on, doling out the mornings rations. David had barely finished eating when they'd all been ordered to the courtyard.
        Nance stepped out of the building, hands on hips and a scowl on her inked face. "Positions!" she yelled. Everyone stood and formed a single line, side by side. Nance nodded approvingly and then headed back inside.
        Wizzy stepped out of the line and beckoned David to her side. She was dressed as a boy again, tidy plaid shirt and pressed blue jeans. She looked as if she might have been headed for 'the fishin hole', to anyone who didn't know better.
        "Get your ass over here, Pork Chop!" she yelled. But David pretended not to hear.
        Darek who was standing next to David, laughed and pushed him on the arm. "Look's like The Wiz Kid found a pet kitten," he said. The others joined in and started taunting them both. Wizzy snarled and flashed them the finger. David pretended to be above it all. Then Sy walked into the courtyard, dressed sharply in black on black and sunglasses to match. The gang began to whistle and hoot.
        "All right, shut it up," Sy barked. "Tonight we're working a Flesh Fair in Allentown."
        The gang all cheered. "The Rube Fair!" they called it. "The Sucker Convention!" said one boy. "Easy money!" said another. But a chill had formed in David's stomach. A Flesh Fair? What were they going to do there?
        Sy slipped off his glasses and silenced the boys with a stern look. "You'll still get caught if you're not paying attention!" he warned. "You forget Rooster already?" Nobody said anything. A few of the boys looked nervously at their feet. "Yeah," Sy said. "He thought it was easy money too."
        "Whose Rooster?" David whispered to Darek.
        "Shhh," Darek hissed. "Later"
        "We're doing teams again," Sy continued, putting his glasses back on. "Duos this time."
        "The Little Cuz?" someone asked, disappointment obvious in his voice.
        "Yup," Sy said. "It's back to basics for now."
        The boys all moaned and complained. "That's so old skool!" Darek yelled. David really wanted to know what was going on.
        "Shut it up!" Sy yelled. "You know the drill. Pair off according to height, weight, skin tone. Use your common sense. You get one minute before I start choosing partners."
        There was a suddenly flurry of activity as the larger boys broke ranks and started choosing partners from the smaller ones. A fight broke out when two of the older boys chose the same "Little Cuz". Sy stepped in and slapped both the boys in the head. Then he made the decision for them.
        "What do I do?" David asked no one in particular.
        A large boy with heavily inked cheeks and savage piercing in his lips, stepped in front of David. He put his hands on his hips as he appraised the smaller boy. "I guess you'll have to do, Pork Chop." The boy said. "You know the routine?"
        "No. He's with me," said a irritatingly familiar voice. David turned to see Wizzy nearby. Her arms were crossed, a looked of resigned disinterest on her face.
        "No. I'm with him," David replied quickly, pointing at the older boy.
        "No, you're with her," Sy grumbled as he approached. David shot the man a quick glance, then turned away. Wizzy stuck out her tongue at him.
        "Allentown is a bit conservative, Animal" Sy said to the tattooed boy. "You got too much ink on you for this hustle. Why don't you cover security with Tank." Animal shrugged and walked away.
        Sy set his gaze on David. David looked down at his feet so Sy wouldn't see him gritting his teeth. The man laughed. "Still pissed eh? Good. Use it," he said. "The Wiz Kid created this routine. So if anyone can teach you, it's her."
        David glanced up at Wizzy. Her boyish features twisted as if to say 'what of it?'
        Sy punched her gently on the shoulder. "Keep an eye on the newbie," he said. "And get him some better clothes. Something plain. We leave in an hour." Then he waked away
        Wizzy looked at David's cheek. "You look good in pink, "she said. It was probably supposed to be a joke. But David didn't see anything funny about it. She sighed. "Well I don't like working with you any better than you like working with me. So let's get it over with."
        David gave up. They were going to be stuck together anyway. He might as well make the best of it. He fixed her with a determined gaze. "No more kicking!" he said. "Next time, I kick back."
        Wizzy looked surprised. There was the slightest hint of approval in her eyes. "We'll see," she said.
        The two glared silently at each other for a moment while the boys around them started practicing for the night.
        David finally broke the silence. "So, what the hell is The Little Cuz?" he asked.

3

It was a simple game, Wizzy explained as David slipped into some casual suburban attire Neville had found in a pile of stolen clothing. It was a variation of the old 'Tag And Bleed' hustle, or a TAB Scam as it was usually called.
        Most people didn't like carrying Newbucks, especially in the kind of crowd Flesh Fairs usually attracted. So the entertainment venues that weren't prepay, especially the wild ones, generally used scanners for entry. The TAB scam consisted of getting a small scanner interceptor, or a 'snooper' on the clothing or body of the Mark. The old devices had been large and too easily detected by scanners. But the new snoopers were only about the size of the head of a pen, definitely small enough to go undetected without close scrutiny. And while they could only read to radius of 7 to 10 inches, this limitation also made them difficult to detect.
        "Flesh Fairs are traveling shows," Wizzy explained, "and usually too cheap to provide parking security or set up cameras in the lot. So we'll be OK."
        "We're not actually going into the Fair?" David asked as he buttoned his shirt.
        "No," Wizzy said as if it should have been completely obvious. "We work the parking lot as people go in. We want to hit them before they use the scanner. That's where we get our read."
        "Oh, I see," David said. He took some comfort in the thought.
        Now, the snooper does most of the work," Wizzy continued. "but the real trick is getting close enough to the Mark to place it."
        "OK. So, what's a 'Mark'?" David asked as he sat to slip on the old shoes Neville had brought him. They were dull and scuffed; the perfect disguise for this scam.
        Wizzy looked exasperated. "The target! The sucker! Where are you from anyway?"
        David briefly considered telling her, just to see the look on her face. But he quickly decided against it. He started tying his laces.
        "Soooo," she continued, "there are a lot of different ways of doing it, but mine's the best. We usually use a tall boy chasing a small one. But you and I will have to improvise, I guess.
        "First we find a good Mark, an older man is best. They usually have better credit, and there's another reason that I'll explain later. He's got to be wearing a jacket or a long sleeve shirt for it to work. And it's best that he be alone or with no more than one other person." She held up a finger for emphasis. "No more than one!"
        Wizzy paused and waited for David to acknowledge this. He nodded and tried to tie his shoes again. She noticed his difficulty. "Umm, do you know what you're doing down there?" she asked.
        "I'm fine!" David snapped.
        Wizzy clucked her tongue. "Temperamental, aren't we?" she said. "So, the little guy starts running and the big guy starts chasin' him. It's important for them to pass the Mark one time so he can see what's going on. That way when the little guy grabs his arm he'll think it's because he's being chased. And that's how it works. Little Cuz, passes the Mark and circles him with Big Cuz hot on his butt. Then Little Cuz grabs the Mark's arm, all defensive like… like he's trying to hide from an ass whuppin. Get it?"
        "Yeah. 'Ass whuppin'. I get it," David lied.
        "Now a younger guy will probably say something like, 'get off me ya brat' before Little Cuz has a chance to place the snooper. But an older man… hey, have you ever tied your own shoes before?"
        David shot her a fierce expression. She sighed and continued.
        "But an older man will usually supply a little cover for the brat until he finds out what's going on. It's that protective fatherly stuff, ya know? And that's when you tag him. Then the big kid yells, 'Get out of the way, that's my little cousin!" or something stupid like that, and the Mark will usually step aside. Then Little Cuz runs away and Big Cuz chases him off, and they wait a few minutes for another Mark. See?"
        David had finally managed to secure his laces. He sat up with an 'I told you so' look on his face. Wizzy was not impressed. David considered the plan for a moment. It was obviously illegal and that was probably the best that could be said about it. But he really had no choice. It made sense, as best he knew. He wasn't used to this type of thinking.
        "Seems simple enough," he said finally. "So why does everyone seem to hate it?"
        Wizzy took on a precocious, professorial look. David was surprised by the expression. "It's not a rich crowd. So we have to place a lot of bugs to make any money. And we have a tight window," she said. "Sy will be in the van, running each snooper as soon as it gets a read. He'll be using a lot of proxies and he won't be cleaning anyone out, but security systems are pretty smart now. They'll eventually notice even small amounts of money being shuffled back and forth. So we have to place as many snoopers as we can, as fast as possible, and then clear out." She paused and took on a grim look.
        "And there is a possibility that security might get a heads up on us, if someone gets caught placing a snooper or something. So we have to keep our ears open. We can't carry any communication. If someone gets caught, they have too many ways of tracing them. But that's where Animal and Tank come in. If the crap hits the fan, they start a diversion… something really loud. And that'll be our signal to get to our check points before the troopers come."
        "Is that what happened to Rooster?" David asked. "He missed the signal?"
        Wizzy seemed taken aback by the question. She was quiet a moment and her face took on an uncharacteristic melancholy. "Nah," she said, shaking her head. "Rooster didn't get himself caught by troopers. Rooster got himself caught by a Mark. A really pissed off one too. The guy's doing 15 to life now…. the Mark I mean." She paused for emphasis. "Flesh Fair crowds can be dangerous. Get it?"
        David didn't understand what '15 to life' meant. But he knew well about the Flesh Fair crowds. He returned her grave expression to let her know he was taking it all very seriously. Wizzy reached out and grabbed his arm. David didn't know how to react to the touch. So he didn't.
        "But that won't happen to us, will it, Pork Chop?" she said. "Because we'll be paying attention. Right?"
        "Right," David said.
        Wizzy squeezed his shoulder hard. "If something goes down and we can't get to one of the vans in time, we head for the woods and make our way back on our own. We'll have to fend for ourselves. Rules of the game. No exceptions. Understand?"
        David nodded.
        "Any questions?"
        David was perplexed and scared. But he didn't want her to see it. He pushed his chin up. "Yeah," he said. "Which one of us is playing Little Cuz?"
1

The gang set out through the forest, on a different path than the one on which they had arrived. They made their way down the long brushy slope, pass the numerous booby traps, and into the woods that led to civilization… or what was left of it. Sy cut back and forth a few times so it would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone who didn't know the route by heart, to retrace their steps. There was a time when David would have been able to memorize every change of direction. But his human brain had too many other things to be concerned with for that kind of precise recollection.
        After 30 minutes or so, the group came to a tunnel shrouded in thick undergrowth. They passed into the gloomy place and, after a short time, came out near a roadway. There were no cars about, but Sy made them all wait in the shadows that covered the mouth of the tunnel as he walked out onto the clearing beside the road. Two vans quickly rolled into view, as if they had been waiting for his arrival. They parked off the road and Sy leaned into the one of the windows to speak with a large man in dark glasses.
        Some of the boys moaned at the sight. "Rollers?" Darek said. "Are you kidding me? Where'd he find those oldies? The 21 Century?"
        David twisted his face up in puzzlement.
        Wizzy gave him a perplexed look. "They still ride on wheels. Rollers. Get it?" she explained.
        "Oh," David said. 'Well, uh, yeah. I… I just never heard that term before."
        "I'm sure," Wizzy said sarcastically. Then she turned to Darek. "Why don't you complain about it to Sy," she suggested with a dark smile. "I'm sure he'd love to hear your opinion." Darek decided not to comment any further on the issue.
        Sy scanned the roadway once more, and then waved them all over. In moments they had packed into the vans and were on the road, headed southward.
        The sun was mid sky by the time Allentown came into view: a crop of shining new structures set high on the hills, older buildings in various states of disrepair lay in the trees beneath. This had once been a place sustained by farms and livestock. Now it provided office space, computer hardware and cruiser parts, as well as young naive soldiers for ambitious foreign campaigns.
        Sy had the drivers pull over in the old downtown area, and ushered the gang into one of the Fun Zones. The place was filled with shouting local kids, who paid no attention to the anonymous looking strangers that sauntered in.
        "No hustling," Sy ordered. "Just have a little fun until sunset. Then we go to work. And stick by your partners!"
        Wizzy and David caroused the place, not speaking to one another, watching other boys play the Holographic Single Shooters and Racers. "Not my thing," Wizzy said. David didn't have any opinion on the matter. A few service Mecha caught his attention and it occurred to him just where they were headed that night. A shiver ran up his spine. Why, after all this time, was he bothered by the idea? He wasn't one of them anymore. Why should he care?
        He had a sudden urge to tell Wuzzy about his past; a strange notion that she might somehow understand. But he pushed the thought away. The two managed some strained small talk as the afternoon wore on. Then Sy poked his head in the door.
        "We're on," Wizzy whispered.
        The locals didn't really pay attention to the large group of strange kids that left all at once and climbed into two large vans.

2

The Flesh Fair was laid out in the pit of a wide basin that spanned the distance between a large body of water and an old unused freeway. It had once been extensive orchards, until Mills Pond had swollen to lake sized proportions. Now the area was serving as parking for the traveling circus of destruction.
        Sy dropped the gang off in pairs at strategic locations, far enough apart that they wouldn't run into each other. The vans were going to be parked near the main exits. Everyone noted their pick up points, just in case something went wrong.
        When he had placed Animal and Tank, Sy ordered the driver to stop at the northeastern coroner of the lot. He turned to Wizzy and David. He passed a hand full of small, dull grey pellets to Wizzy and then placed his hands on both their shoulders. "Taking no risks tonight. We're only here for an hour. Then we're out. So don't dally. Set your timer. Listen for a foghorn. That's the clear-out call. Now move it!"
        "What's a foghorn?" David asked as they jumped out of the van.
        Wizzy looked as if she was about to scream at his stupidity. "Just watch for my cue," she said.
        The sun had already set, but the horizon was still burning a violent gold. The pair waited quietly for a few minutes, watching families and large groups of young people moving through the lot towards the Fair. Then Wizzy spotted a man parking an old roller nearby. "Perfect" she said. She extracted one of the tiny snoopers from her pocket and turned to David.
        "Give me your best pissed off face." She ordered. David got into the mood, gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes on her. Wizzy sighed and kicked him hard on the shin.
        "OW!" David screamed.
        "That's more like it!" she laughed. Then she tore off, running towards where the old guy was ambling away from his car. David let out after her, recalling the practice runs they had tried in the courtyard. But this was real. He could get caught! The thought brought a flood of excitement though into veins and he suddenly became his character.
        "Get back here you little brat!" David yelled.
        The old man noticed them approaching. Almost on queue he stopped to intervene. "Ok now, you two What's going on here?"
        Wizzy ran by the old timer, panting and terrified. "He's hurtin me!" she screamed. David chased her around the Mark once and then slowed to let her grab the man by the arm.
        "You kids need to stop that," The man said. "Where's your parents?"
        "I'll gonna stomp her… uh, his little butt!" David yelled. He lunged at Wizzy. The old man blocked his path.
        "Stop that now! There ain't no reason for you youngsters to be fighting. Go on inside before you miss the show!"
        Wizzy winked at David. She was finished.
        "That's my cousin, mister, and he's in some serious trouble. So get out of my way!" David screamed.
        The old man stepped back. "Ok, boy, Ok. But you need to settle down before someone gets hurt!"
        Wizzy was already off. David let out after her, screaming and hollering about a pending 'ass whuppin,' and the two disappeared behind banks of parked cruisers. They found a place beside an old van and immediately fell into laughter.
        "That's wasn't too bad at all, Pork Chop," Wizzy said, a look of approval in her eyes.
        David's breath was racing. This was exhilarating. He had never experienced this type of excitement before. What they were doing was wrong, it was illegal, and he knew exactly what that meant. But somehow, that made it all the more thrilling.
        "Let's do another one!" he said.

3

Forty minutes later, the parking lot crowd was thinning. David and Wizzy had worked their way close to the gates, pulling The Little Cuz at every opportunity. They'd had to reset their location once when they saw some of the gang playing the game close by. And they'd had a quick scare when one of their earlier Marks had come back to his car for something, and recognized them. "You two still at that?" the man said. He had pulled the two aside and innocently scolded them before heading back to his car. David had felt guilty. Wizzy thought it was hilarious. She grabbed David by the hand and led him to a dark area near the fence.
        "I'm almost out of snoopers," she said. She checked her timer. "We still have about fifteen minutes. Let get rid of these and head to-"
        A large explosion suddenly filled the air and the crowd inside began to roar. David flinched at the sound. It awoke something unexpected inside his mind.
        "What's wrong with you?" Wizzy laughed. "Oh, let me guess, you never heard an bomb go off."
        "No," David said, somberly. "I mean… yes. I've been to a Flesh Fair. It's just that…" He didn't know how to finish.
        Wizzy gazed on him curiously for a moment. "What happened to you? Why were you in that hospital?" David could tell she wasn't mocking him now. He opened his mouth to reply, but knew that she would never believe. No one would.
        An amplified voice rang out from inside the fair and echoed through the night.
        "Welcome my fellow Humans! Welcome to the Celebration of Life. The tribute to Orga kind and to every breathing thing that walks or flys or crawls or swims upon God's Earth!"
        The crowd roared. The stands began to shake with stomping feet.
        "Are you ready?" the announcer yelled. "Are you ready to witness the purification of the world?" Another explosion went off and David mind's was flooded with images he never wanted to see again. Shattered bodies and melting faces. He moaned and tried to force the memories away.
        Wizzy looked concerned now. "What's your problem?"
        The chanting had started inside. "10… 9… 8…" It was the countdown to the first death of the night.
        An unexpected emotion began building inside David's heart. "Can we go now?" he asked. He knew there was a whine in his voice, but he couldn't help it.
        "No way! We have work to do," Wizzy said. She was no longer sympathetic.
        "Please," David pleaded "I can't … I can't stand loud sounds," he lied.
        "Can you stand Sy beating your butt tonight?"
        "5… 4…3…"
        David cupped his ears. But he could not hide from the force of the cannon. He felt the pressure of it on his flesh and saw the comedian's shattered face burning in his mind's eye. Someone grabbed his wrists and pryed them from his ears. David opened his eyes to see Wizzy's enraged eyes on him.
        "Are you crying?" she screamed. "You'd better not be crying!"
        David felt his face. There was wetness on his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Wizzy" he said. He felt pitiful and weak. But there was no way to explain his reaction.
        "Shape up, Pork Chop!" she yelled over the din of the crowd. "We only have a ten minutes left. Now get moving!"
        But another sound rose in the night. It was a low croaking moan that came from somewhere in the parking lot. Wizzy was instantly up and running. David started after her. "What?" he yelled.
        "It's the foghorn!" she called over her shoulder. "Something went wrong. Keep up!"

4

They raced through the lot, passing a few stragglers that were still making their way to the gates. The people stopped and stared as the young pair ran by, knowing that something was going on, but not wanting to get involved. Behind them the crowds screamed and explosions shook the night as the slaughter began.
        In minutes they were at their drop point. David fell to his knees, panting and wheezing. Wizzy paced nervously. "You need some exercise," she said as she looked around for the van. She climbed atop a car and scanned the area. "I can't see crap!"
        A minute passed. Then five. Ten. Still no one came.
        Wizzy grabbed David and pulled him to his feet. "We gotta go!" she said.
        "Where?" David asked.
        "The van should have been here by now! We can't wait. We'll have to make our way back alone."
        "But… but that'll take days!" David exclaimed.
        "Rules of the game! Let's move!" David started to object. "You'd rather go to jail?" she said.
        He shook his head. "Ok. Which way?"
        Wizzy started towards the thick woods that lined the parking area. David fell in behind her, feeling naked and vulnerable without Teddy and his fake ID. They had just made their way past the last bank of cars when headlights suddenly flared to life ahead of them.
        "Freeze!" a loud voice said.
        David felt his heart sink. If he was caught they'd take him back to the hospital… and then the man named Jeff would come and pick him up … and then…
        David turned and ran back towards the lines of parked cars, seeking someplace out of the glare of the headlights; someplace to hide and plan his escape. He had reached some shadows when he heard voices raised behind him. They were yelling and telling him to stop running. "Get back here" someone yelled. Then they were … laughing.
        Laughing?
        "Hey, Pork Chop!" came a gruff voice. It was Sy's voice. David stopped and turned to see the man's shape silhouetted in the headlights, beckoning him back. "Where you going," the man asked. He was surrounded by the other boys, all bent over in laughter.
        Wizzy stood in the middle of the group. Her arms crossed over her chest, foot tapping an impatient rhythm against the pavement. "Ain't a damned thing funny about this" she said.
        David groaned and went to join his new friends. "Ha-ha-ha," he said sarcastically as they slapped him on the back and shuffled him into the van.
        It had been a long eventful day. He was glad it was over.

5

Sy and the others laughed all the way back to the hideout. "Man, oh man," they said. "You should have seen yourselves!"
        Wizzy was burning with humiliation. She didn't speak until they'd worked their way through the dark woods and back to the hideout, a trip that would have been impossible without Sy or Wizzy along.
        They had decided to wrap up early, Sy explained after they were safely inside. The pay off had been better than he expected and he thought they'd just quit while they were ahead, before a real emergency sprang up. So he'd rolled through the parking lot, picking up the other teams. But when he picked up Animal and Tank, he'd decided to have a little fun, and had them sound the alarm.
        "C'mon, Wizzy!" Sy pleaded, trying not to laugh. "It was a joke." Nance dutifully took the girl's side. "Well, I agree with The Wiz Kid," she said "What if they didn't see the pick up and ran into the trees. They'd be on the road for days. Not funny."
        Sy waved them off and went to the computer to see how many accounts they'd managed to break into. "Women!" he complained. The boys all nodded agreement, whether they understood what he meant or not.
        "How'd Pork Chop do?" Darek asked, trying to change the subject.
        Everyone's eyes were suddenly on Wizzy. She set a cold look on David for a minute. He looked back, fully aware that he was at her mercy. She'd seen him panic at the sound of cannons and the mayhem of the fair. She'd seen him crying.
        But she only shrugged and said, "Pretty damned good actually," Then she left to lie down.
        Sy gave him a satisfied look. Darek patted him on the back. "Nice job, Pork Chop. We knew you had it in you."
        David accepted the salutations, feeling kind of like a fraud and realizing that he was now in Wizzy's debt. Where would this all lead?

6

David couldn't get to sleep. He lay, tossing and turning in his cot, trying to digest the events of the day. So many emotions! News ones. Old ones. It was almost too much to experience. At what point did the Orga mind get overloaded with such feelings?
        He wondered how he would he ever settle back into the calm life he had lived with Mommy, even if he did find his way home. And if he managed to get away, how would he find her? It was too much to think about. He closed his eyes and forced away his troubling thoughts.
        He was starting to drift into a welcomed slumber when he noticed a light at the end of the room. He propped up on his elbow.
        Voices. He heard voices. A strong feeling of déjà vu fell on him.
        He rose from his cot and tip toed across the room, careful not to wake any of the gang. There was some sort of meeting going on. But, what could they be discussing so late in the night?
        "Should we show him everything?" someone said.
        This was all so… familiar. Was he dreaming?
        "Nah! He's not ready. I don't care how well he did tonight," said another.
        "No one is ever really ready," said someone else. It was Nance voice.
        "But he's different," said a deep voice. Sy's voice. "I say we take him along."
        "To Rouge?"
        "Yeah," Sy said. "I got a feeling about this kid. He's different somehow. I say we teach him the ropes. Rouge City will be perfect for that."
        "Well, let him practice with a few more Fairs first," Nance suggested.
        "Fair enough," said Sy. The others laughed dutifully.
        David pressed against the wall, his young Orga heart suddenly racing. The foundations of an escape plan were already forming somewhere in the unknown recesses of his brain. He wasn't sure exactly what the plan was yet, but it had something to do with Rouge City and escaping… and getting an address with the help of a brainy little hologram whose assistance he had one sought out.
        "Ask Dr. Know," David whispered, as he tiptoed back to his cot. "There's nothing he doesn't."
1

Sy stood tall and flexed his shoulders.
        "Ready?" he said.
        David didn't answer at first. He thoughts were on the line of boys gathered in the main courtyard ahead. They all smiled in anticipation. But not nice smiles. No, he wasn't ready for this. How could anyone be? But if he ever wanted to make good his escape, he would have to go through with it. 'No time for dallying', as Sy always said. He resigned himself to the task
        "Let's do it, " he said without looking up.
Sy suddenly reached down and grabbed a handful of David's hair, turned the boys head until their eyes locked and David could feel the man's breath on his face.
        "I don't think you got the heart," he said, mocking. Then he began to twist the lock of hair; wrap it up until it was pulled tight over his knuckles. David's head began to burn with pain. It was terrible, excruciating. Not since the awakening of his new body in the amphibicopter had he felt such pain. He wanted to scream out, to writhe away. But he did not. Could not. Not if he was going to make his plan work. He clenched his jaws tight and returned the man's gaze defiantly, unflinching. Tears filled his eyes, spittle rolled from his lips and an uncontrollable growl warbled in his throat. Anger so strong that it made his heart race, formed in his head, made him want to reach out and rip Sy's eyes from their sockets. But he steeled himself against the pain and forced a mocking smile to his face.
        "Is… that … all … you… got?" he hissed between gritted teeth.
        The words seemed to satisfy Sy. A wry grin lit on the man's face. With one last painful yank, he let go of David's hair, and kicked him hard on the rear.
        "Go!"
        No time to think. Head still reeling with pain, David raced into The Gauntlet. The boys, his friends, his fellow thieves, began to pummel him. Kicks and punches rained down like hail. David bobbed and weaved and stuck back blindly, his eyes set on the opening at the end of the line.
        Sy's lessons burned in his brain. 'The Gaunlet is a life lesson, boy. Pain and fear are only obstacles. Keep moving, even when it seems like you can't go another inch. The goal is all that matters. It is the only reason you're alive!'
        Flashes of light erupted like exploding stars in his field of vision as he was struck on the sides and the back of his head. No one struck his face. Even The Gauntlet had its rules. But everywhere else was fair game.
        A foot caught him in the gut. David lost his breath and fell to his knees, only to feel the assault continue on his back. He tried to rise but was held immobile by his tormentors. They laughed and jeered, kicked and punched at his prostrate body.
        "Looser!" they yelled. "Punk!" "Ponyboy!"
        "Get up damn you!" he heard Sy scream. "It's only pain! Ignore it!" David tried to rise again, but another kick landed on his midriff and he fell back to the dirt. The boys in The Gauntlet laughed and continued their attack.
        Another voice rose above the fray. "Move it, Pork Chop! Get up you damn crybaby!"
        It was Wizzy. She was standing somewhere at the edge of the crowd. She was not allowed to participate in the ceremony, nor had she ever had to suffer it. This was Sy's decree. But her voice gave David a new surge of energy. The recollection of her disgust with his tears at the Flesh Fair came to him. He wouldn't let that happen again.
        With a roar of rage David rose up from his pain and back into the onslaught. Furious, seeing red, he flailed at his attackers, felt his fists connect with flesh and heard a cry of pain as one attacker moved back.
        An opening!
        He raced for the end of the line, feeling like he might vomit, blocking fists that flew at him, shoving at bodies that moved into his path, jumping over legs that lashed out to trip him. He closed his eyes and raced ahead, ignoring the pain, heedless of what injuries may come.
        Someone's kick connected with his butt, sent a searing pain up his back. The pain turned to fire in David mind. He stopped running. No more running!
        "Damn you!" he screamed, turning, swinging his fist and kicking out, hoping to strike whoever had given him such a cheap shot. But his strikes fell on nothing but air.
After a moment he stopped swing his fists. Opened his eyes. The crowd of boys was no longer attacking. They stood motionless. Staring. Smiling. But their smiles were different now, and there was something new in their eyes.
        Respect.
        Sy stood at the end of the courtyard; his big arms cross over his chest, his large bald head nodding.
        "You did it, boy." He said softly. "Good job."
        The courtyard erupted into cheering. The gang that had been beating him a moment before, suddenly surrounded him, hugged him in a tight group embrace, laughing and congratulating him. The older boy named Animal pressed his face close to David's. The boys left eye was red and swelling. But he was smiling.
        "You got me," Animal said with a strange look of approval in his face. Derek poked his head up pointed to his bloodied nose. "Got me too," he said laughing. "I owe you."
        David finally allowed himself to smile. He tried to say something about how they both deserved it, but before he could speak he abruptly collapsed. The gang caught him and held him up, as they did each other, as they had every boy who went through the ceremony.
        "Let's chow!" Sy said, and the gang lifted David up on their shoulders and began to carry him inside, where a feast of stolen treats was waiting to be devoured.
        Wizzy ran up beside the procession as they entered the building. David looked down at her and smiled lazily. He wanted to say something but could not even muster anough energy to move his lips. Wizzy seemed to understand.
        "Good show!" she said, reaching out to touch his hand. "Good show." The look on her face let him know that his tears had been forgiven.
        The training was over. The bond was sealed.
        He was one of them now.

2

When does one become truly human? And how? It could not have simply been by occupying the human shell, this 'soft machine' that had been the Blue Fairy's gift to David. For, though he had undergone the ritual of membership, had gained their respect and trust, he knew that he was not truly the same as the people around him; so driven by the senses and the numerous needs of the body that they seemed conscious of little else.
        Could it be the mastering this body, its senses, which made one human; the transcending of the immediate, of pain and fear, and the focusing of desires to achieve a goal? David was sure it had something to do with all of these things… and more. But how could one know if he had reached that point if he didn't know where it lay on the map of experience?
        It was the "unknown, unknown" as he had heard Sy say one night.
        The man was giving a speech after a long nights work, his crew of young thieves lay in a circle around him, wrapped in their blankets, like children about to receive a bedtime story.
        David was among them for he was one of them now. Weeks had passed since his initiation ceremony. His wounds had healed, his bruises were gone. Still, he kept shifting his position to avoid sitting on parts of his body that were still sore. Under the gangs tutelage, he had become a seasoned thief. Pickpocket. An outlaw.
        "It's not what you don't know that'll get you," Sy said, a finger raised high to emphasize the importance of this lesson. "It's what you don't know that you don't know."
        Some of the boys laughed, but quickly silenced themselves when the large orbs of Sy eyes narrowed to slits and turned in their direction.
        Wizzy was not so easily daunted.
        "What the hell are you talking about, Sy?" she said. The man's dark gaze fell on her, as if he was about to issues some overdue discipline. But everyone knew it wasn't going to happen. Only she and Nance could get away with this type of challenge. He was silent a moment and then continued as if the girl had never spoken.
        "We plan for the unexpected," Sy said, "What if someone gets nabbed? What if a tag triggers an alarm? What if our virus doesn't take out security long enough for us to finish the job? These are events we can't control but that we always anticipate. The 'known unknowns'.
        "It's the unexpected things we don't know about that we can't prepare for. The obstacles we have never encountered before and haven't considered a possibility that can take us down."
        "Like what?" one of the braver boys asked. Sy turned his eyes on the boy for a tense moment. But then he just shrugged his massive shoulders.
        "I don't know," he said with a sigh. His sudden smile let everyone know it was OK to laugh this time. And so they did. But only briefly before he shushed everyone and continued.
        "But we can never assume that things we have already planned for are the only things that can go wrong. So that's why I expect everyone to train hard, to keep their eyes open and minds clear, and stay on their toes when we do Rouge City this weekend."
        It took a moment for the words to sink in. But when they did, the room filled with hoots and cheers. Boys jumped up on their beds, rose and high fived one another, began to hit each other with pillows and the food from half eaten meals.
        "Alright, alright," Sy scolded. "Tone it down. Get some sleep. We have a lot of work to do before then."
        David had been waiting for this announcement. Excitement raced through his veins, but he managed to mask it. He was becoming a master of feigned innocence. Even Sy had noticed this, had began letting him lead tagging teams into the parking lots of Flesh Fairs and Concert Halls, political events and even Church gatherings. David used his new talent now, raising a questioning eyebrow and looking on his fellow thieves with an expression that begged explanation.
        Wizzy broke from her cheering and gawked at him.
        "Please, pleeeease don't tell me you never heard of Rouge City," she said, shaking her head as if this was an all time low. David responded with a shrug. He had a difficult time repressing his laughter when Wizzy press her hands against her temples and screamed in disbelief.
        "Oh - My - God! Where have you been all your life? Where?" she cried.
        David smiled coyly. "You wouldn't believe a word of it," he said.

3

Training for 'The Rouge Job', as it came to be known, was as intense as Sy had promised. Physically and mentally. The scam was going to be a complex version of 'Little Cuz'. But the teams wouldn't arrive at the same time, they're arrivals would be staggered out over two to three hours, starting at Sunset and ending before the 3am rush out of the city. They coldn't afford to hae a hasty retreat clocked by traffic. So they had to work fast.
        Everyone was expected to perfect their roles and they only had a few days to do it. Instead of feigning fights or arguments, numerous other distractions were thought up. And the teams had to keep moving so they wouldn't be seen pulling the same tricks by security or the attentive Mecha barkers that beckoned custimers from the doorways of various fun zones. There was no room for mistakes. And the unknoiwn unknowns had to be on everyone's minds.
        So, at sunrise the courtyard was filled with yawning faces that didn't get to close their eyes again until after midnight. And that was only because Nance insisted. Sy would have kept going until the sun came up again.
        "I don't want any mistakes," the man said in a heated argument with Nance. But when one of the boys passed out, he conceded and let them head back inside. When David and Wizzy helped the fallen boy up, he poked his head up and winked at them.
        "Oh, you dirty little cheat," Wizzy said, smacking him on the head. But she didn't say anything about the faker to Sy. She was a tired as everyone else.
        There was a good reason for the man's caution, Wizzy explained to David as they made themselves comfortable on the couch, rations of warm chocolate pudding in their laps.
        "Rouge City is a high stakes job," she said in a mature tone that he had began to hear from her lately. "The take will be big. But the risk is bigger."
        She went on to explain that 'The City The Never Blinks' was a high security zone, and had it's own police force. Scammers tended to stay away from it, and the ones that tried to work its streets usually got caught. Since private security did most of the policing, it wasn't into the regulated hands of the law that offenders fell. It was into the hands of privately owned guards. And the ones who hired them were not interested in legal procedure. They were interested in making examples. Rumors of bodies that had washed up along the Delaware shoreline were profuse. The details of the deaths were as varied as they were grotesque, and surely exaggerated. But, true or not, everyone got the point.
        "Mess up in Rouge and you could pay the ultimate price," Wizzy said. She dragged a finger across her throat just in case David didn't get the drift. He did.
        "Like Rooster," he said.
        Wizzy chuckled.
        "What," David said.
        She looked at him blankly for a moment, as if she was sizing something up. Then she put a finger to her lips. David understood and nodded his agreement to silence. She continued.
        "Rooster ran away,"she admitted. "That's all that happened. He took off from a Flesh Fair with a bag full of newbucks we scored. No ones seen him since. Sy was peeved. He was the one made up the story about him getting killed"
        David thought this over for a moment. "Pretty tricky," he said, wondering what other lies he was being told.
        Wizzy shrugged, seeming to sense David's thoughts. "It was for a good reason," she said "Sy calls it the 'noble lie'. Read about it in some book or something. Says it keeps us on our toes. But what I am telling you now is for reals. This is no Flesh Fair or cheap Holo-show. This is prime territory. These people are serious." The look in her eyes told him she was not playing.
        "Pretty scary," David said, remembering his visit to the city of Mecha delights. He dared not say anything about it to her, though. Nothing could interfere with his escape.
        Sy suddenly stood to address the room as everyone was getting into their beds.
        "I know you're all tired and have had enough of my voice today," he said. "But I really don't give a damn right now. We are about to do a job that will bag us enough to relax for months. A year maybe. And we are doing it on someone else's turf."
        He had everyone's attention now. Working someone else's zone was dangerous. Sy laughed at their tight expressions.
        "Don't worry," he said. "We got permission for this job, and we coughed up a big cut of the take to get it. But we are only being allowed there because we're good and we're fast. Our reputation has got around. So give yourselves a hand!"
        Applause broke out. Sy let it go on for a moment and then waved everyone to silence.
        "Someone will be arriving tomorrow night. He's coming to check us out. His name is Olmier. Some of you may have heard it before?"
        A rustle of whispers broke out in the dark room. David turned to Wizzy, but she held up her hand to let him know this was not the time for questions.
        "Yeah. That Olmier. And he is coming himself. Not sending some lackey. So this is big time. I want everyone on their toes. Look sharp! He'll want to see all the routines and I want them perfect. Perfect! Any questions?"
        David had a lot of them but dared say nothing. He glanced at Wizzy and was surprised at the serious look on her face. After a moment she turned to face him, her face grim.
        "No screwing around tomorrow, David" she said. "Be tight and get it right. This is big time."
        "Yeah," he said, wondering how all this would affect his escape plans. But he was determined to go through with it no matter what.
        Wizzy punched him playfully on the arm and dashed off to her own bed, leaving David to his thoughts.
        He was drifting off to sleep when he realized she wasn't calling him 'Pork Chop' anymore.

4

The sun was sinking in the west, casting a flaming ray of golden light through the sky, when Sy called an end to rehearsals and made the crew stand in a line. They'd been working all day and David thought he could do all the routines in his sleep. There was the "Lookie There" where you made someone look at something your partner was doing and then planted a tag. There was one called "The Footise, where one member pretended a Mark had stepped on their foot. The other one raised a ruckus about it until the man or woman tried to help and then the tag was planted. There were dozens of tricks they were going to use for the Rouge job, all based on the same principle. But these Marks would not be the same as the Flesh Fair crowd. They'd have money and each hit would be bigger Much bigger.
        Sy began to pace nervously too and fro as the darkness slowly grew. David had never seen the man nervous and wondered just who this mysterious Olmier was, and what kind of power he wielded that could make a giant like Sy worry.
        After some time passed a thin buzzing filled the air. David was familiar with the sound by now. It was an alarm. Someone was coming.
        Sy snapped his fingers and pointed at his crew. "I want this perfect," he reminded them.
        Something appeared overhead. A boxy craft that hovered a couple hundred feet above the courtyard. It had no lights and wasn't visible in the dark, but its shape blocked the stars. Then it began to grow. David realized it was descending. After it had come down between the break in the overhanging trees, he could see it was a cruiser. And it looked expensive.
        The vehicle was solid black, and the windows opaque from the outside. Just a thin strips of silver lined where the doors sealed shut. It lowered noiselessly to the forest floor just feet from where the gang was waiting. David wasn't even aware of the softly humming motor until it finally stopped.
        A man stepped out of the front of the car. He was big, bigger than Sy, and wore a black cap, black suit, shining back shoes, and thick black glasses on his face. 'How can he even see with those on?' David wondered. Then he realized that maybe the man didn't need light to see. That maybe he wasn't really a man at all.
        The man that couldn't be a man, walked to the line of boys. He stopped, folded his hands behind his back and looked them over. Then turned his face to Sy. Nothing was said and David realized that he… that 'it' was probably checking them all for weapons. After a moment more of silent inspection the Mecha guard walked back to the car and opened the back door.
        The man that jumped out and approached Sy was not what David had expected to see. He was short and chubby, he wore dark glasses too, but not so dark that David couldn't see the thick dark brows above the black points of his eyes through them. His clothes were overly colorful, as if he had bought them only because they were expensive and he wanted everyone to know it. He walked like he was late for an important meeting, and patted Sy on the shoulder like comforting an old friend. So small was he that he had to reach up to do this. It was an almost comical sight. But no one dared laugh.
        "So, so, soooo…" the man said in a voice full of false cheer, rolling his hands together as he turned to face the boys. "This is the crew I've heard so much about?" There was something predatory in his words.
        Sy nodded. "They're the best. Fast. Efficient. Never lost one of them."
        Olmier looked up at Sy and lifted his glasses. "Really! Really! Well… that's just great! Excellent! Yes! Yes!"
        David had never really experienced anybody like this, the fake smile, the overly effusive gestures. He could already tell somehow that it was all a mask; that something cruel and ugly lay beneath. He didn't know how he knew this. A few months ago it would have completely slipped by him. He would have taken the man at face value. But he had spent a lot of time in the the dirty underbelly of the world and was he was beginning to recognize the creatures that dwelled there. Even if they wore expensive suits and rode in the back of expensive cars.
        The man set his glasses back in place and started walking before the line of boys. "Yes, they look like they're good at their job," he said. "Nice. Nice." He stopped in front of Animal and stared at the tattooed face like he'd just encountered some exotic creature he couldn't name. Animal smiled back and the man moved on, nodding his head as he inspected the crew.
        "But I seem to recall a chance encounter with a punkish little grifter named …," Olmier stopped and snapped his fingers repeatedly over his head, as if this might free up his memory. "Oh what was that boy called?" he said
        Sy shifted nervously, as if he knew what was coming next. David suddenly realized what it might be and understood that Sy might well be facing one of those unexpected unknowns he had waned them all about.
        "Rooster!" Olmier said finally, as if he had not known the name all along. "Yes, yes, yes, that was it." He turned to face his Mecha bodyguard. "Rooster wasn't it," he said. But the thing didn't respond. Everyone knew he had not expected it to.
        Olmier pretended to be disappointed by his guards silence, and turned to Sy. "Well, I am sure that was it. He was a rather disturbing little hustler that I caught working in my zone a few months back." The man lifted his glasses again. "Without my permission…and I assume without yours?"
        All the gang eyes were on Sy. But no one said anything. Rooster was supposed to have died at the hands of an angered Mark. This was the story they'd all been told.
        To his credit Sy never flinched. "We had a kid by that name," he said calmly. "But he got capped by a Mark at a Flesh Fair."
        "I thought you said you never lost anybody," Olmier replied quickly.
        "Nobody that mattered" Sy shot back. "And Rooster ain't that uncommon a name." he added. "It must have been someone else."
        David found himself rooting for their boss. He was a crook and David still felt anger for all the pain he suffered at his hands. But Olmier was something much worse. Something… evil.
        "Yes! Yes! Well, I've never met anyone else with that name but , ok. It could have been some other Rooster," Olmier said. "What's strange is this punk seemed to know a lot about you and your crew. Even said he worked with you for a while, and had the strange notion that you'd vouch for him."
        "The boy named Rooster died," Sy said, staring at the man with an unreadable expression. But David thought he might know what was behind that flat gaze. 'Don't mess with me in front of my crew' is what David was sure he saw in Sy's face. Olmier must have seen it too. He slipped his glasses back down and hummed thoughtfully.
        "Yes, yes, yes… that much is true," Olmier said. "He is dead by either account."
        Sy didn't react. No one did. But everyone got the point. This was no game. The confrontation was over. Olmier turned to face the gang.
        "Tomorrow night a very large convention will be held at an establishment in Rouge City. Flocks of Norwegian gentlemen and ladies will be gathering for an annual celebration of the life of a man I am sure none of you have ever heard of and don't care about. So it doesn't matter.
        "These people are wealthy. Very wealthy. And equally careless with their credits. They are also very adoring of children, so the little games you play will be perfect for this event.
        "Through the deal I have negotiated with your boss, I am allowing you to work my zone for this night alone. If all goes well I may even consider …"
        Olmier suddenly stopped talking and turned towards David. He lifted his glasses so that his look of shock was clear to all. David met the man's gaze and the two stayed that way, staring at each other in silent confusion for a moment. Then Olmier turned to Sy.
        "Where did you find that thing?" he said.
        David's heart sank. His stomach turned. But he didn't let it reach his face.
        "What?" Sy asked, genuinely confused.
        Olmier pointed at David, snapping his fingers rapidly. "That… that… David. Isn't that what they're called?"
        Sy stepped forward, his eyes suddenly suspicious on David. "You know this boy?"
        "Boy?" Olmier said in disbelief. "Oh, come on. You seriously don't know? It's a machine!"
        He laughed.
        No one else did.
        David could feel all the eyes on him. He forced his fear back and donned an innocent look. Then he said the words he hadn't had to use in a long, long time.
        "I'm a boy," David said, calmly.
        Olmier gawked at him a moment more and then broke out into wild laughter. It was less a humorous sound than a sinister one.
        "My-O-my," the man said, slapping his hands together joyfully. "There has got to be a buck in this."
        David's mind was racing but he managed to keep his calm posture and even made a convincing shrug as he returned all the stares he was receiving from the people who thought they knew him. Even Wizzy's eyes had narrowed cautiously.
        'What now,' he wondered.
        He had stepped right into one of those 'unknown unknowns'.
1

The boy was blond. He stood about 4 feet tall and weighed around 60 lbs. He appeared to be in his tenth year; dressed in a plain plaid shirt and corduroy slacks that seemed to have had every little wrinkle ironed out by the hands of a clinging, obsessive mother. Except for the vapid smile that was hinted in the corner of his mouth, his face was emotionless.
        But his eyes told the story. There was nothing there.
        He was Mecha. An imitation. Fast food family. Commitment free and disposable. Symbol of humanity's detachment from the natural world; and from itself.
        "A love of your own…." Sy's said, reading aloud the words on the monitor, written above the free-floating image of the pretend child. "Emotive response capable child simulator. Available in male and female profiles and five racial variations, with adjustable hair coloration and textures. Now featuring adaptive temperament filters for quicker acclimation." Sy's voice trailed off then, and he backed away from the screen, lost in thought, pinching his chin and shooting quick skeptical glances in David's direction. But he would not meet the boy's eyes.
        David kept his face, but inside he was pleading with Sy to not listen to the crazy man, Olmier. If only Sy would look in his eyes, he might see the plea and respond to it.
        Behind Daivd, and blessedly out of his view, for he could no longer bear the sight of the man, Olmier chuckled and clucked his tongue; rubbed his hands together like the hackneyed villain from a dime store dreadful.
        "My-o-my-o-my…" he kept mumbling between bouts of dark laughter.
        Nance paced nervously around the room. Her face unreadable in the shadows, for the monitor was the only light. She stopped now and then, and opened her mouth to say something, to perhaps scold Sy again for not checking David out before adopting him. But after a moment of angry silence she simply sighed and continued her pacing.
        The rest of the gang had been told to wait outside. Whether this was for secrecy or for David's safety, he did not know. Their whispered speculations and occasional laughter came in though the windows on the cool night air. But he could not make out their words. Wizzy's voice was not among them.
        Neville, the gangs Mecha butler, and Olmier's black suited thug, stood silently at the edge of the room. Stoic, metal attendants, waiting for the moment when their differing services might be needed.
        "I'm telling you, there's gold in this somehow," Olmier said. Again.
        Sy sighed and rubbed his shining bald head like he was trying to massage away an ache. David understood the man's expressions well enough by now to know that he wanted to tell the creepy little crook to shut the hell up. But this was about business. He still needed the Rouge City job. David did too.
        "Let me think this over," is all Sy said. He sat at the computer again to browse the Cybertronics site, his face grim and introspective in the shifting light of the monitor. Unfortunately his silence allowed Olmier to continue talking aloud.
        "It's illegal to duplicate a living person, "Olmier said. "So if this isn't just some bizarre coincidence then…" he snapped his fingers rapidly. "And you're sure he's flesh? That's been established beyond all doubt?"
        "Fiber don't bleed," Sy replied without looking.
        Olmier was undeterred. "How can you be sure? Maybe… maybe he's some new thing, designed to scope you out." As if in an epiphany, the man jumped up, waving his hand like he held a winning lottery ticket in his sweaty palm.
        "A spy!" he yelled. "Yes, yes yes! Wouldn't put it past the Feds to lean on Cybertronics. And you know how Hobby is. Acts like a boy scout, but he'd never turn down the chance at a buck. He could build something like that. Yes!"
        David's heart dropped as Sy seemed to consider the idea for a second. He fixed David with a hard skeptical stare. But then he shook his head.
        "We don't run in the same circles, Olmier. I don't know anyone named Hobby or what he's capable of," he said.
        Even Nance, whose anger had so far left her without words, thought this idea was stupid enough to reply.
        "Last time I checked, Fiber don't get bad teeth like what I tore out of his mouth," she said. "They sure don't eat, and this one can't stop. Little pig." Then she pointed an accusing finger at David. "And they damned well don't leave messes in the bathroom, like that one does. How many times I got to tell you watch your aim, Pork Chop?"
        In spite of the dire situation David found himself blushing at the recrimination. That was one of the human behaviors he had yet to master.
        "I say scan him again!" Olmier said.
        "He ain't fiber!" Nance said. "I'd a'known when he passed the tree," Nance said.
        Olmier was confused. "Tree? What about a tree?"
        Sy didn't want their security measures discussed with someone he could never trust. He stood and waved the confrontation off.
        "The question is where did he come from," he said. He started to approach David who was sitting silently on the couch, hands folded in his lap like a child who got caught forging his report card. But Olmier jumped ahead of Sy and faced David like some Grand Inquisitor, chin up, hands on his hips.
        "I'll ask the questions," he said.
        Sy rubbed his head again. Nance rolled her eyes. David had to force himself not to chuckle at the way the stubby little hustler had to puff himself up to look imposing.
        "What is your real name, boy?" he said in a commanding tone.
        David donned an innocent expression. "No, it isn't."
        The response made Olmier hesitate a moment. "What is your name," he repeated, cautiously.
        David pretended to be confused. He couldn't let them know who he was. Not with this man around.
        "I don't know anyone by that name," he said finally.
        "What name?" Olmier demanded.
        "That name."
        "What?"
        "Yes."
        Sy managed to not smile. Nance could not hide hers.
        "What name are you talking about?" Olmier barked, his face growing red.
        "Yes," David said, fighting laughter. "What is the name I am talking about. I don't know anybody named What, and it certainly isn't mine!"
        Olmier grimaced. "Oh, we got a funny one, eh? Well, maybe this'll knock the jokes out of you!"
        The man stepped towards David, hand raised high. But Sy caught his wrist before he could strike.
        "My crew. My responsibility," Sy hissed, gripping Olmier's wrist so hard it made the man whine. This provoked the Mecha bodyguard. It stepped away from the wall, looking back and forth from Sy to its master. It's face twisted menacingly as it waited for a command to action.
        David noticed Nance backing slowly towards the table near the large chair that Sy used like a throne. He knew what was hidden there, knew it would blow the Mecha's metal head from its shoulders and leave a hole in the wall behind it. If that happened, there would be war between Olmier and Sy. For his own reason David didn't want that.
        The tense moment lasted only seconds. But it seemed like minutes had passed before Olmier finally waved his guard away. He said nothing, but his face was red and his jaw working silently. He was clearly a man that did not take 'no' easily, and definitely did not like being told what to do. But he would respect Sy's code. For now, at least.
        Sy straightened himself up and confronted, David. He said nothing at first, only stared down with a powerful, unreadable gaze.
        "Can I trust you, boy?" he said at last.
        "Yes." David said. The word came from his lips faster than he would have imagined. He realized that he had been waiting for that question. Waiting for Sy to talk to him, David the person, rather than try to understand him by looking at what he used to be. He also knew he could not explain this to any of them.
        Sy continued to stare. David stared back, unflinching. Something passed between he and Sy then; some understanding that David had not yet experienced in his new life. With an emotional shock he realized what it had to be: this hard, unforgiving crook, con man and leader of a violent gang of tossed away children, was the closet thing to a father he'd ever had. It surely had not been Henry, whose only concern for David had been how convenient or inconvenient was his presence. It had surely not been Alan Hobby, the most likely candidate, but whose motivations were still too complex for David to understand. He was sure however, that love had not been among them.
        Rather it was Sy, the most unlikely of men, who had, in his own hardened way, taught David how to survive, how to make his way in an unforgiving world; the world that Mommy had spoken of in his other life, when she had left him in the forest that fateful day.
        The thought seized David's heart and he was stunned to realize how one part of him fought for Sy's approval, even while the other was busy planning the man's betrayal. The thought made him look away from Sy. But he quickly forced himself to stare back into the man's eyes, and speak with fierce resolve.
        "I have never let you down, Sy," David said. "And I don't plan to. But you make up your mind one way or the other. There's no time for dallying."
        Ordinarily Sy would have snickered at hearing his words thrown back at him. But his face was still stone. A million unanswered questions loomed behind his gaze. David had to know what was going on in his mind. Then the man's eyes slowly softened. He'd made up his mind.
        "Nothing changed,"Sy said. "He goes with us."
        This was one place where Olmier and Nance agreed. They both made sounds of shock and caution.
        "We need to find out more about him, Sy. Dammit!" Nance complained. "I mean, that spy theory is bull, but why's he look so much like that machine kid?"
        Olmier was less diplomatic.
        "This is my territory! My gig!" he hissed. "Therefore, I call the shots and I say he sits it out."
        Sy waved them both down.
        "When I found this boy in the forest, he was a mewling little kitten. He wouldn't have lasted for more than another day. Now he…." Sy gestured to David and took on a curious smile. "Well, he's not a kitten anyway. He's proved himself to my satisfaction," he said. "He earns his keep and makes us money on top. We spent a lot of time and effort training him and he's one of our best now. He ran the gauntlet and he's part of my crew. If we go, he goes."
        It was a heavy gamble and David wasn't sure why Sy had played it.
        Olmier was silent, glaring at Sy. He was over a barrel and all could see it. There was no time to find another gang, even if there was one that could pull off this particular job.
        "Your crew. Your responsibility," Olmier said. There was a message in those words.
        Sy snickered, as if the words were a punch line to a joke that only he and Olmier understood. But David understood the threat all too well. If anything went wrong, the payback would be merciless. Fatal. He felt pang of guilt for what he had planned and the price that he knew Sy was likely to pay. But then the memory of Mommy's loving smile came into his minds eye.
        He had sacrificed all to find her. He wound not stop now.
        "Yes, yes, yes, "Sy said, mockingly. "I know the rules of the game."
        'Is it a game?' David wondered silently. No, he quickly decided. Sy was wrong. This was no game. And there surely were no rules that he could figure out.

2

The glow that David could now see on the horizon, could only be from one place. Everything near it had been submerged by the swollen Delaware River long before anyone around him had been born. In minutes, the line of colorful lights, still small in the distance, appeared in the port window of the cargo copter that Olmier had supplied for their arrival and departure. The man had spared no expense to make this a successful enterprise. The profits would still be huge.
        Soon great statue heads jutting from the deep waters of the river were clearly visible. David's excitement grew. He went over his plan in his head again, and checked his pockets to make sure the money he had been stashing away was still there.
        They now were passing over the lines of traffic that flooded in and out of the mouths of the great heads, restless tides of Orga rushing to and fro, either seeking satisfaction or already sated on the delights of the City That Never Blinks.
        "Rouge City! Yeah!" someone yelled. Everyone laughed and exchanged high fives. The lights were off per Olmier instructions, but David could hear the slap of palms in the dark. He could not, however, make out any of their conversations over the loud wind-like wine of the copters thrusters.
        None of the gang had spoken two words to him since the revelation of the night before. Sy had made it clear that there was to be no questioning David about the robot boy at the Cybertronics site; that if any vigilante interrogation occurred, his response would be without mercy. So even Wizzy had kept her mouth, speaking only when it was necessary, or to remind others about Sy's command when they tried to confront David.
        "We're a crew!" Sy had yelled as the gang bedded down for the night. "And he's part of that crew now. As long as we stay together, no one can tear us apart. That's all that matters and all anyone else needs to know."
        Sy had not even brought it up during the last rehearsals of the day. He'd been distant, approaching David only to pull Wizzy away on some errand. He'd only spoken to David once; a few cryptic words as the copter landed in the clearing. He'd slid up silently behind David and grabbed him by the shoulder.
        "I'm not a fool, Pork Chop. I just do things my own way."
        David had waited for the rest of the statement. But that was apparently all the man had to say. He wasn't sure what it had meant, and Sy had walked away before explaining. But David was certain that a huge part of Sy's resolve had been due to Olmier's challenge. The man would not tolerate a puffed up little thug telling him his business.
        It was 'guy thing' as Nance was prone to say; a war of egos between men whose lives demanded they be full of themselves. It was at once their strength and their most obvious weakness; one that David would have to take advantage of to make his escape.
        Someone grabbed him and pulled him away from the window. David turned to see Wizzy's face in the light from the portal, staring at him with a strange, unexpected expression.
        It was unlike her. It caught him off guard.
        "We're parking," she said and then sat back down.
        Olmier had kept the lights low lest anyone see his cargo of underage thieves, so David couldn't see her now. But he pondered the strange expression that had been on her face as took his a seat against the wall.
        Was that sadness he'd seen in her eyes?
        The copter began a slow descent onto Olmier's private landing bay. It was situated on the north end of the city, next to the garish Casino the man ran as a front for his real businesses: contraband and thievery. From the parking bay, the gang would traverse a maze of old underground tunnels to their positions around the hotel. These would allow them to escape scrutiny. It would also provide quick escape if anything should go wrong.
        A scuffle broke out nearby. David heard Wizzy say something in anger, and then someone else speak. It was Darek's voice.
        "Oh my God. What the heck is this thing for, Wiz?"
        The words caught David's attention. What thing?
        There was more scuffling and some laughter, and then Darek said, "Why do you need a…"
        But the boy's words were interrupted by the smack of flesh hitting flesh. A punch.
        "Stay out of my bag, you idiot!" Wizzy said. David could hear the rustle of cloth as she stuffed whatever it was, back into her shoulder bag. But in the darkness, he could not see what had caused the confrontation.
        "A bit touchy, are we?" Darek said. He tone was sarcastic, but it was clear that Wizzy had hurt him.
        As the multi-colored walls of the parking bay rose up in the copter windows, David was going over his plans again. He had to time things just right. He breathed deeply, to calm his mind; tried not to let his excitement cloud his judgment. No matter how much Sy acted like he trusted him, David knew the man had new suspicions. He had to make his escape tonight. Nothing could go wrong.
        It was at that moment, while he was considering his possible obstacles, when a troubling new thought struck him.
        Had he misunderstood Sy's decision to bring him along?
        The thought was disturbing, but it intrigued him. He let his mind follow the string of possibilities. Sy wasn't stupid. He rarely took risks. Too much to lose. It would have been easy enough to just leave David behind for this job. Sure, he had learned the trade and worked well with Wizzy. But was he that necessary?
        Was it simply an act of trust... a war of egos... or was it part of a bigger plan?
        As David's mind began to fill with dark new possibilities, the copter touched down with a thud and he felt the hydraulic landing gear gently lower the craft to the ground.
        No turning back now.
        While the others prepared for the night, David's mind continued following a strange thread: What if Sy had really taken Olmier's spy suggestion seriously? If Sy really believed David was a spy for the Feds, the last thing he would do was to let David know he believed that. Element of surprise. So naturally he'd pretend to think it was a stupid suggestion.
        And if he thought David was a spy, wouldn't he also assume that someone had sent him... and that they knew where he was… so if David should suddenly disappear, wouldn't that raise questions? Wouldn't Sy be implicated if something bad happened?
        So, obviously, if Sy were going to do something… drastic… he couldn't do it at the hideout.
        The reasoning seemed ridiculous, but David couldn't stop himself. The cryptic words between Sy and Olmeir suddenly took on new dimensions.
        "Your crew. Your responsibility"… "I know the rules of the game"… "I'm no fool… I just do things my own way."
        David felt his breath coming faster as his mind began to shape these words into a dangerous new interpretation. Was he seeing these things correctly for the first time? Or was this just the nervousness from his pending escape making him see something that wasn't there?
        Pink hued light poured into the copter as the door hissed open, and two of Olmier's black clad Mecha arrived to usher the gang out of the craft and towards the secret passageways.
        "Let's do this," Wizzy said, beckoning David to follow. David rose slowly, noticing for the first time the large lump in the bag she carried over her shoulder. She always took that bag on jobs. But she usually left it in the transport.
        And wasn't it bigger than usual?
        Dareks words echoed darkly in his mind.
        Oh My God! What the heck is that thing for Wiz?
        What had the boy seen?
        David's mind continued to gnaw on this irritating new suspicion as he followed the girl out of the copter into the stark, shifting lights of the parking bay. If they just wanted him out of the way without having it linked back to the gang, wouldn't the best method be to get rid of him someplace where anyone ... or anything, might take the blame? Perhaps someplace public?
        Someplace crowded?
        David shuddered. It seemed impossible but they surely couldn't afford to just let him go. He knew too much.
        He knew everything.
        And who was the most likely candidate for a job like that? Wasn't it the person he was least likely to suspect; the person who was always around him?The person who he trusted the most.
        He looked at Wizzy. Something was different about her tonight. She wasn't laughing or teasing the guys. She wasn't angry or sarcastic. She didn't seem excited about doing Rouge City. There was something … resigned about her.
        But was she capable of the foul deed that now burned in the pit of David's imagination?
        No, he told himself. He was just being paranoid. That must be it. They were friends. Weren't they?
        Of all the evil things David knew Orga were capable of, this kind of treachery was the least imaginable. But the trail of logic was too convincing.
        And why her sad eyes? Why?
        "Wake up, Pork Chop!" Wizzy yelled. "It's show time!"
        David broke from his thoughts to see her standing near a door that opened on a dark hallway. He hesitated a moment, searching her face for something that would alleviate his suspicions. But she had become unreadable.
        "Do you want him to carry you?" she said, gesturing to the Mecha thug that stood beside her, staring patiently from behind its shield of dark glasses.
        Reluctantly, David followed her into the doorway.
        The gang made their way through the tunnels, under the thumping night rhythms of Rouge City that filtered in though speakers on the walls. The sound of laughter and crowds of festive Orga came down the corridors that shot off in different directions along their path. Two by two, the others paired off and went down different tunnels, headed for elevators that would take them to their positions in the plaza. Soon it was only he and Wizzy being led by their silent Mecha guide.
        Was it only a coincidence that they would be the only ones left in the deep? If anything was going to happen, it would happen soon.
        David scrutinized the tunnels that crisscrossed their path, searching for possible escape routes; wondering how to find out what was in Wizzy's bag… before she had a chance to use it.

3

The hallway grew wide, wound deep below the city. The lights were a dim, jaundiced glow, the floor damp, and the whole place smelled of salt water and rot. It was a remnant of the original network of the maintenance thoroughfares, and hadn't been used since the new ones had been built atop it. So it was off the security grid. No one knew they were here. That thought was not lost on David.
        Olmier and other members of the criminal element, who supplied the customers of Rouge with off menu delights used these forgotten passages to transport their illegal goods. It also served well for transporting people with illegal intent. A gang of vagabonds arriving all at once in any of the main lots would catch the eye of security cameras. But this way they could simply pop up at their positions. As long as the City's security system didn't make a connection, no would be no investigation.
        Eventually the tunnel came to an elevator. Wizzy turned to their escort.
        "We'll take it from here," she said. "And make our way back on our own."
        David was surprised to see the black clad Mecha simply nod and walk away. It's retreating footfalls were muted by the damp floor. And then disappeared.
        They were alone.
        Wizzy pressed the call button and David heard the old machinery whir to life. He cast another suspicious look at her bag but, in the dim light, could not make out the contours of whatever she carried.
        He could take the tension no more. He had to know.
        "Why the bag?" he said, trying to sound as casual as possible.
        Wizzy turned at his question, but said nothing. David thought he saw that sad look in her eyes again. But she turned back before he could be sure.
        He wanted to ask about it again, but didn't want her to know his suspicions. Surprise was his only advantage. If she went for… whatever it was, she might not expect him to try and stop her. She was tough, yes. And fast. But he was bigger. Stronger. And his time with the gang had toughened him. He was no longer a soft little kid that the world could push around at will.
        The elevator arrived. It shuttered to a stop and the old sliding doors whined as they opened. Wizzy boarded without saying a word.
        David hesitated. Was this the moment to make his escape? He had originally planned to slip away during one of the scams. He would pretend to be chasing her during the 'Little Cuz" game, then he could just run the other direction; make his way to Dr Know and find out where his Mother lived.
        But the situation might have changed. Drastically.
        He scanned the tunnels quickly, but had no idea which way to head. He couldn't go back the way they came. That would lead him right to Olmier and…
        "What the hell are you waiting for?" Wizzy blurted. She was staring at him with an impatient glare.
        "Nothing," David said quickly. "It's just that… these elevators are old and…. I'm not sure if they're safe."
        Wizzy rolled her eyes and sighed. Then she began to jump up and down, heavily, stomping the floor of the old lift with all the weight of her small body. It shuddered and creaked, but her actions had no other effect.
        "Satisfied?" she said with obvious sarcasm.
        David knew he had to make a decision. Either he ran now, or he played along until he was sure if his new theory was correct. After a moment, he stepped onto the elevator and took a place where he could watch her from the corner of his eye.
        She pressed the top button on an array that had at least 20 stops. The doors slid shut and the lift started to rise quickly. David pressed back against the wall, ready to act, wondering how far beneath the city they were.
        Even when he got away he would have to find Dr Know. It had been so long since he had been here… and he had never really got a lay out of the place. Without Teddy he'd have no way to access the City schematic or to find out if they were still looking for him. He hated leaving the toy behind. And not just because of it's convenience. He had become attached to the thing. But there was nothing he could do about that.
        His was certain now, that his life was on the line.
        Wizzy suddenly shifted her weight and David saw her reach for the strap of the bag on her shoulder. He pressed back against the wall and clenched his fist, ready to throw his hardest punch if she slipped the bag off, or tried to pull anything from it.
        But she only pulled it tighter against her arm. David's tension must have been clear in his stance, because she turned and frowned in his direction.
        "What's up your butt?" she said.
        "Nothin," David replied. But too quickly. And there had been a break in his voice. He cleared his throat. "I just don't like small spaces," he said, trying to explain away his tension. It wasn't really a lie. Not that lying bothered him anymore.
        Wizzy smiled for the first time that night. But there was nothing nice about it. It seemed to say 'I know what's on your mind.' It did nothing to reassure him, if that had been its purpose.
        The elevator finally stopped. The doors slid open on a large, unlit passageway, lined with large glass windows. Through them David could see a floating marquee featuring holographic images of a winged Angel and horned Devil, locked arm in arm and laughing. Beyond them, a line of brightly lit Mecha dancers could be seen, kicking their legs high in a Chorus Line on the ledge of a building shaped like the torso of woman. The robots were performing on what would be the woman's breasts, had she been real. David realized that that they were a few stories above the surface, looking at the upper levels of buildings that lie across the street.
        Why here?
        Wizzy pressed a button on the console. It wasn't like the others. It was red and bore a large 'X'. She noticed David's suspicious stare.
        "It's a lock," she explained, calmly. "We don't want anyone taking our lift down, do we? We might need it quick, right?"
        David nodded hesitantly. And then followed her into the hall.
        The girl walked to the glass and gazed down on Rouge City for a quiet moment. She sighed, as if considering something. Moments passed in unbearable silence. Only the thump of The City's incessant Techno soundtrack could be heard.
        Then she turned to face David. This time the look in her face was unmistakable. It was the look of a person who has a hard job to do.
        "It's time," she said, sadly.
        She slipped the bag off her shoulder.

4

David's first punch missed completely. He'd caught her off guard; saw a look of shock on her face as she moved on her. But she was faster than he'd expected and ducked at the last instant. Fortunately she had moved in the direction he was hoping she might.
        His contingency punch landed solidly against her cheek. And just in time, for she was adjusting her footing to throw one of her notorious roundhouse kicks. Instead she fell back, her mouth open in a soundless cry of pain.
        David was surprised by how easy it all had become: this human game of violence. Once he had committed to the fight, and thrown the first punch, it was like being a dream. Seconds seem to ticked by as he watched her fall back against the wall, swearing and flailing blindly out at him. She tried to recover her balance, but David swept his foot across her legs and she fell in a heap to the floor. The girl was spitting curses as she shot a swift kick at his knees.
        But he was already gone.
        David ran to the bag, which had fallen to the floor, and snatched it up. He was about to open it, to recover whatever weapon she had intended to use on him, when he heard her rise up and rush in his direction. He turned just in time to see her twist and arch her body; to see her foot leave the floor and snap though the air by his head.
        She missed!
        He screamed triumphantly, exhilarated by the blood pulsing game of life and death, and bore his fist down on her exposed face. But he realized an instant too late that she had set him up; had kicked high to draw his guard upwards.
        Her knee connected with his midriff. He felt his breath forced out of him.
        The pain was horrific. If not for his experience in the gauntlet, it would have been paralyzing. There was nothing like it in the Mecha world; nothing to compare to this visceral gut churning feeling. But he had survived the gauntlet. He had learned how to fight through the pain.
        Breath gone and body searing, David used his greatest advantage, his size, and lunged at her. She had been preparing for another kick; was already on one foot as the other arched for the strike. So David's move caught her off balance, sent them both crashing to the floor.
        "You idiot! You idiot!" she was yelling as she tried to get up. David lunged at her again, felt his shoulder strike her face and heard a satisfying grunt of pain as her head bounced against the floor.
        He jumped for the bag again. Caught it and rolled into the comer. Too filled with pain to rise, he pressed himself against the wall and grasped the bag to his chest. From this position he could kick at her until his breath came back.
        Wizzy rose, wobbling and clutching her head, mouthing indecipherable curses. David watched her, hoping she would not regain her senses before he caught his breath.
        But she did. And a new fear grew in him as he watched her reach down, slip up the leg of her pants, and pull something out.
        The blade glinted fiercely in the light flashing through the window.
        "Sy was always suspicious," she hissed, panting as she stepped slowly towards him. "But when the little freak Olmier told us about you, he knew for sure… knew you could never be one of us."
        David didn't respond. He used all his strength to try and open the bag before she realized what he was doing. But Wizzy rushed at him. He kicked up at her, but she sidestepped with amazing speed and planted a knee on his stomach.
        David woofed in pain. His head swam with nausea. He tried to roll away. But then he suddenly felt the cold of steel pressed against his throat. He gritted his teeth.
        So this was it? All this fighting and suffering to end like this? A trapped animal, caught up in a game that he had never wanted any part of?
        "I should cut you like the piglet you are, Pork Chop!" Wizzy yelled. "I should cut you open and let you bleed out right here!"
        And that was fully what he expected her to do. But amazingly, she rose let out a shrill cry of anger and frustration, and threw the knife across the hall.
        David stared up in confusion. His stomach felt like it was tied in knots. Sick was rising in his throat. But somehow he managed to mouth a single word.
        "What?" he said.
        Wizzy glared down on him with furious eyes.
        "You want the bag? You got it!" She said. "It was for you anyway, idiot!" She placed a hand to her cheek and grimaced at the pain. Then she placed it to her nose and pulled it away.
        "Dammit! I'm bleeding!" she screamed. "You stupid little puke! You bloodied me! Why'd you jump me? Why?"
        David could not respond. He rolled onto his back and tried to sit. But his stomach was too painful. So he just lay there, knowing that at least she wasn't going to kill him.
        Wizzy plopped down against the wall and the two were silent as they recovered from their fight. Their breathless panting slowly subsided. At last David was able to prop himself up on an elbow. He gazed at her apologetically.
        "Well, go on and open it, stupid!" Wizzy was past anger now. Something different was in her voice. It was that same mysterious resolve that David had mistaken for murderous intent.
        He pushed himself up and carefully loosened the straps of the bag. Then he put a hand in. There was something furry in there. He knew immediately what it was. Shame flooded his face. He'd been a fool.
        He pulled the toy bear from the bag and set it on his lap. Teddy was off. Its lifeless eyes stared back at him. Seeing nothing.
        David sighed. "Wizzy… I… don't know what to say. I thought that… that you were going to…"
        "What… kill you?"
        David nodded, embarrassed at the admission. The threat had seemed so real. But it was all so ridiculous now.
        She chuckled darkly at the thought. "You a damned fool," she laughed. And then grew serious.
        "When Sy saw that freaky toy boy that looked like you, he knew that Olmier wouldn't stop until he got his hands on you. The guys a hustler from hell. Sees a buck in everything. Always looking for an angle. And he doesn't quit until he gets what he wants. You would never have been safe."
        "That's why Sy wanted me to come along," David said. "So he could say I ran away. Take the weight off his back."
        "Oh, figured that out on your own, did you?" Wizzy chided.
        David wanted to apologize. But his mind was still trying to piece it all together. Her next words stopped him.
        "You're not one of us, David," she said. "Sy always knew that. You're… different. Sure you're lost, no family, cops on your tail, just like the rest of us. But you ain't no hustler. You learned quickly, but your heart ain't in it."
        She sat up and crossed her legs. "You don't love the game. You gotta love the game if you're gonna make a living at it."
        David rose to his knees. His head spun, but his sick feeling was diminishing.
        "Do you love the game, Wizzy?" he said.
        She was silent a moment, her face pensive. For the first time since he'd met her, David saw the image of a vulnerable child hiding behind her boyish, street-tough exterior. But it quickly disappeared.
        "That don't matter no more," she said. "It's my life now. I sure didn't choose it."
        "Where are you from," David asked. "How'd you wind up with the gang… with Sy?"
        Wizzy stared at him, indecision in her face.
        "That's not really safe to talk about," she said at last. "It would make Sy vulnerable if his enemies knew he cared about anyone."
        David considered this answer. How would it make Sy vulnerable if people knew he cared about her? The thought played in his head for a minute. Then it came to him.
        "Really?" David said. "He's your…"
        "He's my boss," she interrupted. "And that's the way it will always be. Man like Sy can't afford for people to think he has blood around. Makes me a target."
        David hummed an understanding. "So… is Nance your…?"
        Wizzy laughed at that idea. "Nance? She can't stand me!" she said, laughing.
        "Do you even know who your Mom is?" David asked.
        "Do you?" Wizzy asked.
        David was about to answer when a burst of electric static came from the elevator. Somebody was trying to call it down.
        "Time to go!" Wizzy said, jumping to her feet.
        David rose, painfully, and slipped Teddy back into the bag.
        "There's enough newbucks in the bag to last you a few months," Wizzy said. "And there's a wig and a change of clothes."
        "A wig?" David said.
        "They'll be looking for a blond boy... right?" Wizzy said, rolling her eyes.
        "Oh... a wig. Like... fake hair, right?" David said. Wizzy just gave him one of her 'you've got to be kidding me' looks. Then she continued.
        "Find someplace to change and then get the hell out of the city. Go out by the East Gate. Security is high there, but it's the busiest place. Easy to get lost in the crowd. If you can't find it, just follow the people headed away from the river. Find a ride. Get a cab. Take the ferry. Whatever."
        She grabbed David by the collar, to impress on him that her next words were not to be taken lightly.
        "Don't show your face around here again, Pork Chop. Never. Sy can't afford a war with Olmier. So if he thinks you're putting him in danger…"
        She didn't finish the sentence. She didn't have to.
        The elevator buzzed angrily. Whoever was down there would quickly start searching for another way up. Wizzy grabbed David by the shoulder and dragged him to the doorway that opened on a stairwell that wound down to the plaza.
        David turned to her. In the light coming through the door,he could see the bruises he had put on her face.
        "Wizzy, I'm so sorry for hitting you," he said. "I don't know how to tell you what I'm feeling. It's all so jumbled. But tell Sy that I… that I..."
        The girl stopped him by placing her lips firmly against his. The sensation of her kiss shocked David. But it was over before he was even sure it was happening.
        "You're such a dork, Pork Chop" she said, tears forming in her eyes. "Now get out of here, before I have to kick your stupid butt again!"
        She slammed the door before he had a chance to say any more. David turned, and ran down the flight of unlit stairs. When he got to the bottom he had to crawl over a chain barrier bearing the sign, 'Off Limits'. A few people stared suspiciously as he came out of the restricted zone; perhaps wondering if he was an illegal, or a robot… and whether he was for sale either way. But David disappeared into the crowd before anyone had a chance to ask.
        He looked back as he moved along with the throng, and saw a lonely little face staring down from the dark windows of an unlit passageway on the side of an old building.
        He started to wave, but he knew she would not be able to pick him out of the crowd.
        "Bye, Wiz Kid" he said.
        A bittersweet emotion was in his heart. He was free. That's what he had wanted. But part of him had become attached to the gang. They were bad. They were thieves. They were dangerous. But they were also his friends.
        Life was complicated.
        Once again, there was no time for emotions. He had to get out of Rouge City. Once Olmier knew he was gone, the search would start. But he had to make a quick visit first.
        He stopped in a corner of two buildings, away from the crowd, and yanked Teddy from the bag. He turned the Supertoy and on and waited as it booted to life. The bear finally snapped into consciousness and surveyed its surrounding. Then its gaze locked on David.
        "Hello, David," Teddy said in its gruff, lovable voice.
        "Hello Teddy," he said, resisting the urge to hug the cuddly toy. He felt like he was too old for that anymore. But maybe later... when no one was looking.
        "Are you ok?" Teddy said. "You look like you've been fighting," it scolded. "You should know better than that, David. Fighting is not safe."
        "No time for all that, Teddy," David said, laughing. "You've got to help me find Dr know."
1

David realized that he had never really been in Rouge City before. Yes, he had seen it, had even navigated its wild corridors. He'd heard its incessant festive voice; mingled with its hungry customers and conversed with its sly digital oracle.
        But had he really experienced it? Had he even been capable?
        As he rushed away from the area where he knew the gang would be working the crowd, Teddy clinging to his back, David had another revelation about his new body: It was part of this world; integral; tuned to it in a way his other one had never been; could never have been.
        He had not noticed this before. He had assumed this mysterious sensation had as much to do with the strange new environments he'd lived in so far, as with his rebirth. But this was the first time he had been in a place he known in his other life. … or at least had thought he'd known. He'd expected it would be familiar. It was not.
        It was the same place, yes, and he saw many things he knew the shapes of. But they were new to him. Or rather, he saw them with new eyes.
        Living eyes.
        He slowed as he made his way through the bustling, inebriated throng, to gaze up at the glittering towers, heavily laden with marquees, and floating signs bearing an assortment of scantly clad characters that beckoned with lascivious smiles. There was meaning in those looks, in those words; meaning that would never have made sense in his old form.
        But now, even as young as he was, the implication of the environment; the meaning of it, was something he understood.
        Smells, that had once been only data; muted suggestions about something's olfactory characteristics, now assaulted his senses with intense and distracting messages. It was everywhere.
        Food. Perfume. Sweat. Smoke. The bitter aroma of beer and the similar smell of people who had drank too much of it. The subtle, indescribable odors most Orga had gotten used to, but that were new to him. All of it was part of this place…. and now a part of his experience.
        He felt the hard cement beneath his shoes; and, against his face, the sifting temperatures of the air currents that flowed from the river, carrying even more scents from the waters and the marshes that lay across it. All of it told a story about this place.
        And the music! The constant heartbeat of the city. It was everywhere; more than sound now; more than a rhythmic oscillation against his aural devices. It was an exciting, enticing thing. It beckoned his body, made his blood flow faster; spoke in a language his flesh seemed to understand and made him want to move in time with.
        And he found that he was. Unconsciously he had begun walking in time with the beat. It felt good. It felt …fun!
        David laughed and began bobbing his body up and down as he walked. Was this dancing? Joe's explanation of his strange moves came back to him.
        "It's just what I do."
        It made sense now. That's the only reason anyone does it.
        "It's just what they do!" he said aloud, laughing.
        He ignored the strange looks he was getting from passersby. They had their own business to attend to. In minutes he would be no more than a vague memory to them, a silly boy who'd been talking to himself. They wouldn't even be able to describe him if anyone should ask.
        No wonder Joe had loved it here. He understood now, how his departed friend had been part of this place; had belonged here! They way they all belong here.
        David laughed again. It was a free and fearless sound. He was really here this time. Here for the first time. It was the first time he had felt this good since he'd been…. alive?
        Yes alive!
        "I'm alive!" he yelled, laughing and skipping in time with the music. "Aliiiive!"
        Someone caught him by the shoulder and David whipped around, ready to fight for his life.
        "Yeah, kid! Me too!" said the heavy-set, grizzled looking man who had grabbed him. He was wobbling and laughing, holding a bottle of some sweet smelling liquor. "Alive! Woo hoo!" the man bellowed as he tottered away, headed for a nearby building that was shaped like woman's high heel shoe.
        Teddy grumbled at the retreating drunk. "Are you OK, David?" the bear asked.
        Suddenly aware of laughter and scrutinizing eyes, David placed an embarrassed hand over his face. He had gotten carried away with his new sense of freedom.
        No more yelling, he decided. And definitely no more skipping.
        "Yeah, I'm fine," he said to Teddy, and began making his way towards a brightly lit info kiosk in the center of a nearby cul-de-sac of glass store fronts.
        Teddy gazed around the busy plaza and made a cluck of disapproval.
        "This is not a nice place, David," the bear said.
        "No, it's not" David conceded, knowing Teddy would never experience the world the way he now could. "It's just that…. it's all so different now.
        "But we won't be here long," he assured the protective toy. "We just have to get some information from Doctor-"
        David lost his train of thought.
        A face had suddenly come into view. It stopped him in his tracks, left him without words.
        Of course he would see that face in this place, this market. He should have been expected it. But he was surprised by the sight; unprepared for the sudden, conflicting emotions it provoked.
        He was in danger territory. He should continue on his journey; he knew that. But he was drawn to the figure by a force that operated beneath his conscious will.
        Like a moth to the flame, he had no choice in the matter.

2

The boy in the display window was smiling and waving at passersby. He wore a cap of bright yellow, and carried a shining metal bat over his shoulder. He was dressed in a uniform that David had seen before, in Martin's closet. But David had never seen Martin wear it and didn't know what game it was for.
        The words 'David' and the number '7' were emblazoned on the toy boy's shirt. He stood in the midst of the holographic display of a large grassy field. A golden sun burnt at the top of the window, and distant trees wafted in a lazy summer breeze. The display seemed to go on to an endless horizon. But that was just an illusion. It was all just an illusion. The 'field' was only a 8 feet long. The boy was just a doll.
        David stepped slowly towards the display, intense feelings of curiosity and melancholy pulling him on.
        Had he really been this… thing?
        People walked by, uninterested in the toy child. It smiled, laughed and beckoned them. It's voice amplified by a speaker atop the display. Its programmed banter was designed to illicit interest in its siblings, which were probably lined up inside the store, asleep in their boxes until some lonely soul took them home, awoke their digital heart. And then broke it.
        "Hey, little brother," David whispered to himself. It was a mournful, adult sound; that of someone who witnesses an injustice he is powerless to stop.
        "Hi! I'm David, " Little Brother said to a passing man. "Let's play some ball!"
        The Mecha turned and tossed a ball into the air. Swung the bat. The fake ball flew off into the fake distance and the fake boy turned and raised a triumphant fist.
        "Home run!" it said.
        But the man had walked away. No one else was watching.
        David cupped his hand over his mouth to stop an involuntary cry. Why was this hurting so? He was not one of them anymore. He was real now. They weren't. So why….
        "Do you want to play?" the Mecha called to a passing couple. "I'm a good, kid! Take me home!" he said to another.
        They were not interested. They had come for other delights. None but the most troubled of them would seek that kind of comfort here.
        "Hey, watch this!" the toy boy said, and then executed a smooth somersault, landing upright with a victorious smile.
        Fake boy, pretending to play in fake grass, selling fake love.
        "Pretty good, huh? Take me home and see what else I can do!" it said.
        David knew it was just a program. Little Brother had no idea what he was doing, what he was saying. He approached the display, feeling something rising in him with each step. He did not know this emotion. Had any living thing ever felt this way?
        Did perhaps the butterfly feel this upon the sight of its discarded cocoon?
        Little Brother finally noticed David's approach. It initiated 'big smile'. This was supposed to be a sign of 'friendliness', of 'welcome'. But David saw only the horrific and inhumane product of a lonely man's megalomania.
        "Hi, I'm David," Little Brother said, stepping to the glass to greet David. "What's your name!"
        David only stared.
        "Wow! Nice bear. Is he yours?" Little Brother said.
        "Hello, David," Teddy said, with some confusion. "I'm Teddy."
        David tried to say something, but the words would not come. He reached out and placed a hand gently against the window. Little Brother observed this and took a moment to decide on an appropriate response. It finally set the bat down and placed its hand against the window too.
        What seemed to be only a pane of glass between their hands, was really an entire universe.
        "Is it a game?" Little Brother asked, a programmed look of anticipation on its face.
        Tears suddenly clouded David's vision. He did not know their source and was powerless to stop them. What had happened to his feeling of freedom? His dancing feet?
        "No," David said at last. "No, it's not a game, little brother. But they don't know that. And they don't care."
        Ghost voices came into his mind, phantoms from another life.
        "They hate us David, the humans. They'll stop at nothing."
        "My Mommy doesn't hate me… because I'm special… unique. Because there's never been anyone like me."
        Echoes of lost innocence.
        The world was a grey place again. He should never have stopped here.
        Little Brother had its head cocked to the side, still trying to interpret the meaning of David's words. Then it suddenly shifted it focus to a point over David's shoulder.
        "Hi! I'm David," it said.
        There was someone there; someone behind David.

3

The full force of David's predicament came back to him. He cursed himself for getting sidetracked. What had he been thinking? This could be one of Olmier's men. Or a cop.
        He turned his head slightly, trying not to let the stranger see his face. In his peripheral vision he saw a young dark haired man in a colorful outfit. He was holding a bottle, and tottering a bit, as if intoxicated. But his head kept shifting back and forth between David and his Mecha twin in the window.
        The man moved forward, to get a better look. David turned his head, but too late. The stranger had verified what he suspected.
        "Now that is weird," the man said with a drunken lilt in his voice. "You look just like it… or it looks just like you. Whatever."
        The man stepped closer. David sided away.
        "That is soooo weird!" the stranger said, again, slurring his words. He leaned closer, and David stepped back, repulsed by the smell of beer on the man's breath.
        The man seemed unsure what he was seeing."Are you… are you…" he stammered, confused. Then he reached out and pinched David's cheek. Hard.
        "Ow! Bug off!" David yelled, batting the man's hand away and raising his fists defensively.
        But instead of getting angry, the man broke into a huge grin.
        "Whoa," he said. "You're a kid! You're really a kid!" Then he turned and called out.
        "Hey, Serge! Ali! Get over here. You gotta see this!"
        Time to go. David began stepping away quickly.
        "Bye," Little Brother said, waving. David didn't return the salutation.
        The stranger heard the toy and turned to see David rushing off
        "Hey, kid! Wait," he called. "We ain't gonna hurt ya! Wait!"
        But David was already around the corner. He broke into a run, hoping the man wouldn't see which way he headed. He could hear the man's warbling voice, calling out to his friends to come and see the weird kid who looked just like the doll in the window.
        The kiosk was just ahead. The holographic face of a smiling woman hovered above the console, waiting for inquiries. David took Teddy off his back and was about to set him down when he heard voices over the bustle of the crowd.
        "So where is he?" said someone.
        "He ran this way," said a drunken voice he already knew.
        "Damn," David muttered. He cupped Teddy under his arm and began walking away. But he quickly realized that his only exit was the way he'd come in. He began searching frantically for a place to hide, but he only saw the glass fronts of tourist traps and knick-knack shops filled with browsing Orga. A well-lit store was the last place he wanted to be.
        Then a dark area came into his view, nestled between two stores. An alley! He rushed for it, hoping the men wouldn't notice his retreat. It was a narrow space, filled with large boxes stacked against the walls, and a larger container that smelled of some cloyingly sweet chemical, probably designed to hide more offensive odors. David ducked down behind it. He could wait here until his pursuers were gone. Then he could change into his disguise.
        A voice came from near the mouth of the alley. "This better be real," it said.
        "Chill, dude. You'll see," said the voice he already knew. "He looks just like one!"
        David pressed hard against the wall. "Keep going - keep going … " he whispered.
        Teddy was scanning the dark alley. He quickly decided it was not to his liking.
        "This place is dirty," the bear complained, a bit too loudly.
        David cupped his hand over the bear's mouth, a bit too late.
        "Whoa. Did you hear that?" the annoying man said. "Hey! Kid! You in there?"
        A string of curses intended for Teddy, came into David's mind. But he'd save them for later.
        He noticed the outline of a door against the wall further down the ally. David tip-toed to it and searched madly for a handle, wishing again that he still had his old ability to see in the dark. But there was no handle! He whispered a word that Teddy would definitely not approve of, and cupped the bear's mouth, just in case it wanted to say so. What kind of door doesn't have a …
        Sudden bright light blinded David as the door swung open. A woman was standing there, silhouetted in the florescent glow. Her back was to David.
        "Alright I'm outta here," she called to someone inside. "Make sure you send the activity update before you close up. OK?"
        There was no answer.
        The woman tried louder. "I said make sure you-"
        "I heard you the first time!" someone shouted, angrily.
        "Then say so!" she shot back. She huffed and turned.
        When she saw David, she froze.
        The woman's face was shadowed by the light behind her, so David could not see her expression. But he could see the way her shoulders dropped, as if she had just received some bad news. And he could hear the frustrated sigh that came from her lips.
        "Not this again," the woman said with a moan. She cupped her head in her hands for a moment, swearing under her breath. Then she reached out, grabbed David roughly by the shoulder and yanked him inside.
        "Don't send anything yet!" she yelled. "Here comes another one!"

4

A quick scan of the room told David all he needed to know about where he was. He had just seen the place from the front, where he'd exchanged a few words with a doll standing in its display window.
        Something stuck him strange about winding up in a place like this. It was funny, in an odd sort of way. David no longer had access to the dictionary that had been in his Mecha brain. But if he had, he might have decided the word 'ironic' would apply here.
        His captors were leaning against a stack of empty boxes, arms crossed, staring silently with looks that suggested he was the last thing they'd wanted to see. They were dressed uniformly, in black seamless pants and bright blue, tight fitting shirts. The words "Ye Old Sim Shoppe" were printed in an antique font on their chest, along with tags bearing the names 'Dina' and 'Brent'.
        The one named Brent was young, no more than a teenager. He'd rushed in hurriedly from another room, muttering something impatient under his breath. When he'd seen David, he'd pounded a fist against the wall. It was clear that he had thought his workday was over.
        "Another dump," Brent said. "What are we up to now… four in six months?"
        "Five," said Dina, the woman who had saved David from one awkward situation, only to place him right in the middle of another. She was a bit older than Brent; wore a hint of frosty liner over her eyes and multi-colored streaks in her hair. It was also clear that she was in charge.
        Brent shook his head, a perplexed look on his face. "So, what's with the tan… and isn't the hair a bit long for this model?" he said.
        Teddy was standing on the floor, gazing up at David as it waited to find out what would happen next.
        "And the bear?" Brent said. "A toy with a toy?"
        "It's obviously a custom," Dina said. She leaned forward and spoke slowly to David.
        "What do they call you," she said.
        David glanced back and forth between them as he assessed the situation. Why not tell the truth?
        "Pork Chop," he said, trying not to smile at their reactions.
        Brent guffawed. Dina slapped her forehead, an exasperated look on her face.
        "Some people," she sighed. "And what's your Mommy's name?"
        A thought occurred to David, that maybe this could be his way home. But he immediately abandoned that idea. Working scams had taught him to analyze the angles quickly. Even if they could find Monica, they'd probably contact her by phone. Martin or Henry were just as likely to answer as she.
        "I don't remember," he said.
        "They wiped it!" Brent yelled, pounding the wall again.
        "Will you stop doing that?" Dina said.
        Brent waved his arms in frustration "Why would you pay all that for a freaking custom, and then just dump it? Some people have too much money!"
        "It's obviously a stolen child," Dina said. "They probably tried to hustle it off on the street, and couldn't get anything. It does look a little banged up."
        David managed to keep from responding to this with his own critical observations about her.
        Dina stood and let out a resigned sigh. "Well, let's plug it in, see what we can find inside that little head," she said.
        Brent made a disgusted sound. "You know there's not gonna be anything left," he said. "And we're gonna be stuck here for hours cleaning it up, shutting it down and writing the report!"
        He started to swing at the wall again, but stopped himself.
        "We should just take it down to the marshes," he said, "dump it with the rest of the junk."
        The look in Dina's eyes could have burned holes though steel.
        "I'll pretend I didn't hear that," she said in a measured tone.
        Brent bit his lip, stared at his feet. "Well, uh… I'm just sayin' that…" But he never finished what he was 'just sayin'.
        Dina seemed satisfied by his response.
        "I'm going to go boot up the stasis and start the report," she said. "You get butt your over there and check him for damage. And try not to initiate the DAS response this time! Kapeesh?'
        "Yeah, yeah," Brent said.
        The situation quickly escalated from awkward to uncomfortable when Brent pulled up a chair and began to run his fingers though David's hair.
        "Uh, that won't be necessary," David said, abandoning his façade. But Brent didn't seem to notice David's change of tone.
        "Don't be afraid," he said in a patronizing voice, as he felt around David face and neck. "Got to make sure Mommy and Daddy weren't punching you around. So be a good boy and we'll get you back home to Mommy soon. How that's sound?"
        It sounded like a lie. David knew where he would really wind up, if he were still… one of them. He started to tell the fool, but became curious just how long it would take him to figure it out.
        That's when Brent started unbuttoning David's shirt.
        Ok, now it was getting too weird.
        "Uh, I don't think so," David snapped, pushing Brent's hand away.
        Brent lifted an eyebrow. "Oh. Looks like someone got themselves programmed with a little 'tude, eh? Mommy live in a bad neighborhood?" he said. "Well, we can work our way around that."
        He placed his hand at the back of David's neck and began feeling around. David knew what the clerk was looking for. Didn't try to stop him. This would probably clear things up for him.
        In a matter of seconds, Brent's face went though a series of dynamic changes.
        Irritation first, at having to reset the defaults on somebody's custom brat.
        Frustration, when he could not find the manual override button.
        Confusion, when he finally realized that it wasn't there.
        Apprehension, when he noticed the sardonic smile on David's lips.
        Then, realization, comprehension and fear, came in rapid-fire sequence as Brent pulled his hand away and jumped back, sending his chair flying across the room.
        "Dina! Dina!" the clerk called frantically, backing away.
        "What!" Dina screamed from another room.
        "You-you better come see this," Brent said, sputtering. "I think we got a situation here!"
        He slipped as he backed away, and fell, crashing into empty boxes and banging his head loudly against the wall.
        "I told you stop doing that!" Dina said angrily as she rounded the corner. Then she saw her co-worker lying on the floor, pointing at David as if he'd found a ticking bomb implanted in the boys skull.
        She drew the most obvious and incorrect solution.
        "I told you to be careful!" Dina said as raced for a tool cabinet against the wall. She pulled a black object from one of the drawers and pointed it at David, pressed her thumb down.
        David flinched at the beam of red light that shot into his eyes. But otherwise, it had no effect.
        "Hey watch where you point that thing," he said, shielding his face and letting out a string of colorful expletives.
        "David!" Teddy grumbled. "Be nice!"
        The language took Dina by surprise. And the Sim-tazer had had no effect. She let her arm drop slowly, and then looked down on Brent.
        "Did it go alert on you?" she said, confused.
        Brent rose to his feet, his eyes wary on David.
        "Uh, that's not really the situation," he said, stammering as he sought for the words to explain.
        "It… uh, ya see, it's not an … I mean, he is not an it," he said. "He's a he. Kapeesh?"
        Dina slowly turned her head to stare at David in skeptical silence. Realization finally reached her face too.
        "Oh, crap," she said.
        Brent agreed.
        "That is..." she paused, searching for the right word. "Weird." It was the best she could do at the moment.
        Brent agreed again.
        Dina started backing slowly out of the room. "Umm, Kid, you wait here, ok? I have to make a quick call," she said.
        David knew she was going to report him; check if he might be a runaway or an illegal… or, considering his peculiar appearance, something worse.
        "Ah, not such a good idea," he said, shaking his head. "Pulling me in here was pretty much an abduction. I mean, technically speaking, you kind'a kidnapped me. That might be a little awkward to explain. Ya think?"
        The two were quiet a moment. Then they nodded in unison.
        "I see your point," Dina said, legal ramifications racing through her head. "So, we should probably keep this… just between us?" she suggested.
        David agreed.
        He checked the clock on the wall. It had been about around 10 minutes or so. Time enough for his drunken pursuers to leave. It was a good time to keep his appointment with the Doctor. He buttoned his shirt. Slipped Wizzy's bag over his shoulder. Picked up Teddy from the floor. Then he executed 'big smile' for the two mystified employees of "Ye Old Sim Shoppe".
        "Do you mind if I use your bathroom?" David said. "I need to change my clothes."
1

A wizened, smiling face hovered over the glass doors at the end of a cul de sac. David remembered it well. 'Ask Dr Know!' proclaimed the banner above the marquee's wild neon hair.
        "There's nothing he doesn't," said David to himself.
        But as he neared the entrance, a buzzer went off and the small translucent image of a smiling man in a plain black suit appeared to hover before the door.
        "Welcome to Doctor Know," the floating man said, with exaggerated cheer, "Due to recent intrusions into our security, no Supertoys, servant Mecha or any information sharing devices will be permitted to see the Doctor. Global Telecom wants you to know we appreciate your patronage and we apologize for any inconvenience the new restrictions might cause."
        "I don't think they like me, David," Teddy said. David sighed and looked around the cul de sac. It consisted of a few brightly lit eateries sparsely populated by young people, who were laughing and snapping pictures of one another with their pocket phones. But, just like the other place, there was a small alley on one side, with what looked to be trash receptacles gathered along the wall. He made sure no one was watching and slipped into the alley.
        "But this is for garbage, David," Teddy observed as he was placed in one of the containers.
        "Sorry, Teddy," David said. "But I can't take you inside. You'll be safe here for a little while."
        The look on Teddy's face was equal parts outrage and disgust. "I am not junk!" the toy growled.
        "I know, I know" David said apologetically. "But I don't know where else to leave you right now. I won't be long. Just wait here and try not to make any noise." He closed the lid and slipped away, ignoring the muffled complaints coming from the container, and preparing himself for a bout of wits with Doctor Know.

2

Another flash of deja'-vu washed over David as he mounted the small rise of stairs that led to the soft blue glow of the entrance. But it faded quickly as he passed into the quiet lobby. The Doctor's office had been updated since he'd last seen it.
        He made his way through the warmly decorated lobby, scrutinizing the new appearance; plush sofas, walls of dark polished wood. Large paintings in ornate frames harkened back to a time long gone; a time when static, two-dimensional renderings were the height of artistic expression, and the written word was at the top of the information hierarchy. Shelves lined the walls, filled with antique books bearing names that, had he still possessed his digital databases, David might recognize. 'The Odyssey' by someone named Homer. 'Mind Children' by someone named Marovec. 'Stalking The Wild Pendulum' by Bentov. The Shah Nama, The Renaissance, The Gospel Of Thomas, The Lotus Sutra, The Art Of War, The Priciples Of Neo-Fatalism. A whole row was devoted to someone named Shakespeare.
        So many books, David thought, amazed. The entire display ran the length of the room. And he was certain that this was just a tiny sampling of the stored knowledge of mankind. Because this was just a display…. a simulation, like he had once been; designed to evoke a certain response; to create an atmosphere of knowledge. Surely there must be places where much larger collections were kept.
        Knowing that he didn't have much time, but unable to suppress the compulsion, David approached the shelves and ran his hand over the large leather-bound volumes. So this was how they did it, he realized. This is how Orga stored their information and their stories when they got too profuse to keep in their heads; how they passed them down from generation to generation before they had created thinking machines.
        "It's a database," he whispered, suddenly understanding the meaning of the display. Joe had once said something about the value of information. This is where he had come from, wasn't it? Through the knowledge of millennia, the turbulent history of man's trials and errors, was his kind born…. or, the kind he had once been.
        Now he knew why Orga treasured their ancient knowledge so. It was the blood of their civilization. The past. The future. It was…. power. Yes, power. Not the kind that men like Sy or Olmier used to get their way. Not the kind that had driven his mechanical body in another life. This was a more fundamental kind of power. Kinetic and intangible, yet the whole of civilization rested on its framework.
        David was pondering these new revelations, trying to make sense of them, when the lobby door slid open and a small family entered, laughing, and sat on one of the sofas. He turned away quickly, avoiding a curious look from a young girl with them. His wig and anonymous suburban attire would supply sufficient cover for casual scrutiny. But he was not so sure about his eyes. He had seen so much in his short life, more than anyone his age should, that he was sure that his eyes would somehow reveal him. But when he chanced another glance, the girl had turned her attention elsewhere. He dashed by the family, and into one of the Doctor's quiet booths.

3

More than the lobby had been refurbished, it seemed. The Doctor himself had undergone a few upgrades since David had last spoken with him… with it? The computer no longer waited for patrons to press a button to go into its routine. The moment David sat, the lights dimmed and holographic galaxies exploded like a dazzling array of celestial fireworks as Dr Know made his entrance. But the new Doctor had legs and arms, was cloaked in a stark white lab coat, and embraced a large black book with the words "The Book Of Everything" etched in gold on its cover. The cartoon holograph paced the stage in a professorial posture as it went into its spiel
        "Greetings my young friend!" the Doctor exclaimed, after taking a moment to calculate David's profile. "And welcome to Dr Know! The place where hungry minds are nourished at over seventy-five thousands locations around the world! You have questions? I have the answers. From Aristotle to Zeller! Zappa to Albeniz! ! History, Philosophy, Pop Culture and The Arts. All vetted by the most reliable sources! Everything you wanted to know about anything!
        "Ask Dr Know! There's nothing I don't!"
        David recalled the procedure and slipped some Newbucks into the slot, which was now located in the arm of the chair. The Doctor suddenly tossed the bulky Book Of Everything up into the air, and it began to flap around the room like a great bird, the multicolored holographs of the categories jumping from the pages to orbit David's head.
        "10 Newbucks will buy you 5 questions!" The Doctor exclaimed, and began to recite the categories aloud. But David already knew where to find the information he sought.
        "Flat Fact!" he said, interrupting the Doctor's spiel. The holograph snatched the flying book from the air, crossed its arms and began tapping a foot impatiently on the floor. After a moment David realized it was waiting for a question.
        "Oh, uh… how can I find Monica…" David stopped, his mouth agape. Something obvious had finally dawned on him: He had never learned Mommy's last name! His last name. Surely it must have been in the databank in his old brain! Then why couldn't he remember? He placed his head in his hands, moaning. But the Doctor saw the opportunity to waste one of his questions and jumped on it.
        "In the Phone Registry!" the Doctor said. The Book Of Everything was suddenly bright yellow, its pages flipping wildly as if driven by a fierce wind. "The International Phone Registry, generously provided by Global Telecom Incorporated. The leading net provider offering a wide array of web services, not to mention a sponsor of yours truly: Dr Know! Next question?"
        That was completely unfair! But David knew better than to complain. This was the Doctor's game, played by the Doctor's rules. He'd have to continue carefully, especially since he did not know a most crucial piece of information. Why hadn't he asked Martin when he had the chance? He moaned an indecipherable swear.
        "Can you phrase that as a question, please?" The Doctor said. David was certain he heard sarcasm in the holograph's voice. Ok, he decided. You want to play it like that? He thought hard. After a minute's silence the Doctor started tapping it's foot on the floor again.
        "Ok," David said, his new strategy decided. He spoke slowly, carefully, to avoid phrasing the words incorrectly. "How many people named… no! Start over."
        The Doctor emitted a loud beep as it recalculated. David began again.
        "How many times does the name 'Monica' appear in the phone registry?"
        The Doctor didn't miss a beat. "Three hundred, sixty five thousand eight hundred and twenty four!" it exclaimed, seemingly excited by the inquiry. "Next question?"
        So many? David felt himself sinking again. How on earth would he ever be able to find just one? But he quickly realized his mistake.
        "Ok, how many times does the name Monica appear in the local phone registry?" he said, hoping this might narrow the number a bit.
        "Two Hundred and thirty three times," the Doctor said. Its wink let David know he was going in the right direction. But he was pretty sure he would have to pay for more questions… if the Doctor had its way.
        "Next question," the Doctor said, smiling.
        David thought for a moment, trying to concoct his next question while doing his best to ignore the tapping of the Doctor's foot against the floor. Then it suddenly occurred to him. The Doctor was a holograph! There was no reason for its foot to make a sound… which meant that someone had programmed the noise. David had the strong impression this was done just to distract people.
        "Will you stop doing that," David said, annoyed. He immediately regretted saying it that way.
        "No," the Doctor replied. "You have one more question."
        "Hey! That wasn't…" but he stopped himself Technically, it had been a question. "Cheater," he mumbled. His time with the rough boys of the forest must have had an effect on him, for he had to fight a strong impulse to rush onto the stage and punch the holograph in its translucent nose. But he managed to put the feeling aside long enough to figure the next question. He proceeded carefully.
        "And how many of … the people named Monica… in the local phone registry… have a husband named Henry, and a son named Martin?"
        "None!" The Doctor replied happily. The categories disappeared and the holograph began to fold in on itself, saying, "Thank you for visiting Doctor Know! Come again!"
        David quickly slipped another ten spot into the slot and the Doctor reappeared, throwing the Book of Everything into the air.
        "Flat fact!" David screamed before the categories could jump from the pages. The Doctor retrieved the book, crossed its arms and began tapping its foot again.
        "Stop that!" David commanded. He was amazed to see the Doctor comply. Had it been that easy all along?
        "That's better!" David yelled, still fuming.
        "There's no need to shout," the Doctor replied with an irritated expression on its virtual face. "I can hear you fine!"
        Five more questions. David had plenty of money, but couldn't afford to spend it all here. He still had a long way to go, and he was Orga now. He had to eat and take care of his body in a way he'd never had to before. He cleared his mind and tried to think differently. He wasn't a robot anymore. He could not rely on stored information or programmed strategies. He had to seek the elusive 'unknown unknown', as Sy would have called it.
        Then it occurred to him; if he didn't know where Mommy lived, then how did he know she had a local address? He had only assumed it would be. But how local was local? It might take all night to have the doctor check every registry. But what if…
        He knew what to do.
        "Alright," David said finally, pointing a challenging finger at the Doctor. "How many people named Monica … in any phone registry … have a husband named Henry, and a son named Martin … who is a teenager now… and was sick for five years?"
        "One."
        The reply was so quick that David almost missed it. He had been prepared to go through another round of questions, fighting to extract every vital piece of information. But now his anger subsided and was replaced by a new hope. He'd found her!
        "And … what is her full name?" he said, reverently, feeling a sudden unexpected warmth of emotion rising in his chest.
        The image of a young woman with a wry look on her face, but laughter in her eyes, appeared before him. It was her! David felt his heart swoon. His love for her came back like a punch in the gut and filled him with a deep feeling of bittersweet joy. He felt his heart beating faster and his breath suddenly rushing.
        "Swinton, Monica Francis," the Doctor said. "Born Monica O'Conner, married to Henry Swinton, for whom she bore one son; Martin Thomas Swinton. Placed in Cryo-Suspension due to complications of Sinclair Syndrome. Resuscitated."
        David repressed the urge to reach out and touch the image. This was likely all the Doctor had of her. She wasn't famous, a celebrity, or political figure. She was s simple mother, a solitary woman who took her joy from the simple things in life.
        It was an old image. She was younger than the woman he knew. Much younger. It appeared to have been taken near the pool. She was seated in a patio chair, her arms crossed, as if she didn't really want her picture taken, but was putting up with it because of who was taking it… because she loved him. Had Henry taken it on some lazy afternoon after a walk by the pond? And what was the whimsical look in her eyes? Had they been joking? Making plans for their future? Had Martin yet been born?
        She was so beautiful So happy. David felt a tear rising in his eye and wiped it away.
        "Next question?" The Doctor said.
        David came to his senses and pushed his strong feelings back. "Swin-ton," he said quietly,. What an odd name. "Hi, I'm David Swinton," he whispered, trying it on for size, greeting imaginary strangers, softly, so the Doctor couldn't make it out.
        "You're mumbling!" the holograph complained.
        But David was beyond fighting with the machine. His anger had given way to hope… and now, after hearing his true name, his hope gave way to something else; a feeling both sad and happy at once.
        "And where does Monica Francis Swinton live?" he said.
        Another loud beep filed the room.
        "I'm sorry," the doctor replied, with a smile that didn't seem sorry at all. "But that information is not in the pubic records. You still have three more questions."
        He was close. He knew her name. But if the Doctor didn't have her address, then the registry wouldn't either. A troubling thought came to him next. Maybe she didn't want to be found. What if, after their encounter, Martin had somehow convinced her to remove all their information from public records? Or what if Martin had told Henry about seeing him and…
        "Henry!" David said aloud. Of course! Why hadn't he thought of it earlier?
        "Please state that as a question!" The Doctor said, tapping its foot again. David quickly formulated his next plan of attack.
        "Who is Henry Swinton, husband of Monica Swinton, father of Martin Swinton?"
        The Book Of Everything was airborne again. This time it shot up to hover above the Doctor's head, where it quickly morphed into a screen. A man was pictured there. He stood at a podium, speaking to a room full of well-dressed people. David was all too familiar with that face.
        "Henry S. Swinton," the Doctor explained. "Regional Head of Marketing for Cybertronics of New Jersey. Two time Recipient of Cybertronics Annual Award for Excellence in Promotion!"
        The Doctor spoke on, reciting the information in Henry's public profile. But David didn't care about Henry's accomplishments. He only wanted to know how to find the man… and through him… to find Mommy. The people on the silent screen began to applaud as another man stepped into the picture. David lost his breath and fell back into his seat. He knew that face too. He would never forget it; could never forget, no matter how hard he tried.
        Alan Hobby, his creator, his betrayer, stepped up to the podium and shook hands with Henry. There they stood. The two men that had sought to destroy him. David felt the crimson emotion rising again, in his chest and stomach. There was a fire in there. This emotion also made his heart race and his breath come fast and shallow. It too drove his quest… almost as much as his love for Her. It was the dangerous emotion that lurked on the dark side of love. It was the nemesis of love.
        Holding up a plaque between them, the two men smiled as pictures were taken and the silently applauding people stood to show their respect. Now he knew what he had to do to find Monica; knew where he had to go to get hold of the information that was unavailable anywhere in the public domain.
        "Where the lions weep," he whispered.
        The Doctor heard the words and, once again, began to answer a question that had not been asked. "The Watson Fountains," it said, "A monument constructed in the likenesses of twin lions, built over the submerged ruins of Old Manhatten Island and commonly used as a geographical reference for that location."
        The hologram continued its explanation, but David wasn't listening; didn't care that the computer had stolen another question from him. He knew where the lions wept. He had no idea how he was going to get there… but that had not stopped him before.
        He rose and turned to leave.
        "You have one more question!" The Doctor reminded him.
        David faced the hologram. He really had nothing left to ask. But there was something he wanted to say.
        "Ok, Doctor," he said, in measured tones. "Tell me this…. who is David Swinton, son of Monica Swinton?" he said.
        The Doctor took a moment to scour the public record. It was only an instant, but David remembered how it had seemed before, when he too was only a replica. Time had not passed in the same way.
        "I'm sorry," the Doctor said at last, "but no such person exists."
        David cupped his mouth and mimicked the loud beeping sound the doctor used to point out a mistake.
        "Wrong!" he said. "Put this in your Book Of Everything, Doc. I am David Swinton, son of Monica Swinton, brother to Martin Swinton. I have a father too, though he doesn't want me. But what he wants doesn't matter anymore because I am real! And I have a family …and a home! And that's where I am going!"
        He suddenly rushed towards the Doctor and it stepped back, surprised by the boy's unexpected and inexplicable aggression.
        But David stopped at the foot of the small stage and pounded a resolute fist against his chest; over his young Orga heart, wherein the dual spirits of love and hate were at war for his soul.
        "I am!" he cried.
1

The night was cool against David's skin. He stopped at the doorway to let the breeze flow over him, cooling him. Calming him. It was a sweet sensation, something he could have never experienced in his former life. He hadn't even been aware how hot it was inside until he'd rushed through the lobby, past the curious gazes of the family on the sofa, and into the open air. But after taking a few deep breaths, to slow his beating heart, he understood something: it had not been hot inside. It was he who was hot. It was the flame in his chest, burning brightly now, fueled by the sight of Her. And the sight of his enemies.
        Time to go.
        He dashed down the stairs and into the alley where he had stashed Teddy in a trash receptacle. The toy bear would surely be upset with him, but he would get over it. If having to hide in a trashcan was the worst thing this Teddy had to put up with… then he'd have a much easier life than the original.
        "Teddy! I'm back," David said popping the lid on the improvised hiding spot.
        But Teddy wasn't there.
        For one horrible moment, David thought that the cleaners had come to empty the trash, and taken his friend. But then he saw the loose piles of discarded junk in the opposite corner of the container. Teddy must have done that, he realized, trying to keep the offensive material away.
        David reached down and sifted through the scraps, hoping that maybe the bear was hiding in it. But there was only paper scraps, empty drink bottles and gift boxes.
        "Not good," he moaned. On reflection, it wasn't the greatest hiding place, but what else could he have done? Anyway, there was no time for self-recrimination. If the garbage people had not taken Teddy, then someone else had. He had to find out whom, and to where. It was late and he had a long way to go. He still had no idea how to make the journey across the water to The End Of The World.
        And the longer he stayed in Rouge City, the more he risked being found by Olmier's people.
        A sound came from across the cul de sac. Laughter. David turned to see some of the teenagers still sitting outside the eatery, joking and teasing one another. Their table was piled with empty food wrappers, scraps of half-eaten meals and plastic cups.
        Had they seen him hide Teddy? Had they come and taken him while he was gone? He made his way to find out what they knew.

2

"Looks like someone's up past his bed time."
        The boy who spoke was leaning against one of the plastic tables, looking at David with an air of casual amusement. Another boy stood beside him, sipping loudly on a transparent cup that seemed to only have ice left in it.
        "Yeah, kid. Ain't you a little little to be out here?" the other boy said. They both laughed at this, a bit too hard, in David's opinion. It wasn't that funny.
        They looked to be about Martin's age, 16 or 17 years as far as David could tell. They sported closely cropped hair, telephonic plugs in one ear and, like the rest of the teenagers gathered around, they were dressed in colorful, expensive looking clothing. David ignored the tease and glanced at the girls sitting at the table. They had long multi-colored hairdos, and were typing messages into their pocket phones, or engaged in conversations with other kids on the little screens.
        "So, kid," the first boy said, "you lost or what?"
        "Yeah," said the other, snickering, "Think mommy's gonna be little mad if she finds you hanging around the fun zones?"
        David decided not to beat around the bush. There wasn't time.
        "Have you seen my Teddy?" he said, knowing the likely reaction. As he expected, the boys glanced at each other and began to snicker.
        "Have you seen his teddy bear, dude?" said the first. They both laughed too hard again.
        One of the girls looked up at David and smiled. "Hey cutie pie!" she said. "What're are you doin out here all alone." But her concern was short lived for she went right back to the conversation she'd been having with someone on the screen of her phone.
        "I left a Supertoy toy in that container," David said seriously, pointing towards the alley behind him. "Did any of you see it get out? Or maybe see someone take it?"
        A bored looking girl with bright blues streaks in her long hair, noticed the conversation and chimed in. "Oh yeah, the teddy bear. I think Styles took it," she said, pointing at the first boy without looking up from her phone. "He's got this thing for cute little toys. Probably because nothing living will touch him."
        The boy named Styles raised his hand at the girl and flashed a gesture that David had become familiar with in his time with the gang.
        "This one's for you, Claire," he said.
        "No thanks," the girl replied, still not looking up. "Don't know where it's been."
        "Did you take it, Styles" David said. Something in his flat tone must have struck the teenager wrong. He stopped laughing, crossed his arms, and fixed David with a challenging look.
        "Well, maybe I did, brat," Styles replied. "Maybe I took it and … oh, I don't know, threw it into the river or something?"
        The other boy laughed.
        David didn't.
        "Why would you do something like that?" he asked, sizing the boy up. His time with Sy's crew had taught him how to read people, how too see through their façades.
        Styles shrugged, an arrogant smirk on his face.
        "Well, because, maybe I figured any kid who thinks he's old enough to wander around Rouge in the middle of the night, talking crap to complete strangers, is probably too old to be playing with little…"
        He never had a chance to finish his reply.
        The ensuing series of events surprised David as much as any of the kids who witnessed them. Everything seemed to pass in slow motion. It was as if someone else had taken over his body and he was only a passenger along for the crazy ride.
        He felt himself jump forward, saw Styles' arrogant expression change to shock, saw the boy uncross his arms to try and grab his small assailant, and then saw his mouth form into an oval cry of pain as David stomped down hard on his instep.
        He had learned a lot from the wild boys. Now he had a chance to put it to use.
        The other boy reached out for David as Styles buckled over, reacting to the pain searing up his leg. But David side-stepped his grasp and took hold of Styles' hand, twisting his forearm so it was locked around Styles', then prying the larger boy's thumb back, locking it in a hold that drove the him to his knees.
        Time reasserted itself. The girls at the table had forgotten their phone calls, their eyes bulging in disbelief over their gaping mouths. None of them looked bored anymore. The one called Claire guffawed and raised her phone to record what was happening.
        "Back off, or I break it!" David yelled as the other boy tried to pull him off. The boy started to swing a fist, but David twisted Styles' hand the way Wizzy had shown him.
        Styles screamed out.
        "I'll break it!" David yelled again. The other boy finally stepped away, his face twisted and uncertain. He'd been convinced.
        David had Styles trapped in a thumb lock, on his knees, pressed against the table. The older boy swore and tried to shift his weight, but David twisted his hand painfully, and he eventually gave up.
        Wizzy called the move 'the great equalizer'. "When your opponent has the advantage of size, Pork Chop," she had explained, "you have to go for his vulnerabilities." Then she had demonstrated the move on David's own thumb. He'd never forget the pain. Styles probably wouldn't either.
        Now all the girls at the table had noticed the confrontation.
        "On no he didn't!" laughed one. "Are you seeing this?" said another, holding up her phone. A faint "O-M-G!" came from it.
        "Do I have your attention now?" David said into the boy's ear. Styles nodded his head, hissing though clenched teeth.
        "Oh, this is soooo cute," laughed Claire. "Smile!" She said and all the girls' phones began flashing as they captured the special moment for posterity.
        David smiled for a couple shots and then turned his attention back to Styles.
        "Now, let's try this again," he said, in calm voice. "Where is my Teddy?"

3

"Scrappers?"
        David repeated the word aloud as he ran past the closed storefronts of the 'family friendly' part of the city, headed for to the waterfront. He was following the directions Styles had given him to find Teddy. The boy had had finally admitted seeing a dark clad figure in the alley, while David had been with Dr Know. He said the person had been rummaging though the garbage.
        "They'll be headed for the docks," the boy had said, his voice twisted in pain and humiliation. "Probably scrappers."
        David didn't know what a 'scrapper' was and didn't want to hang around to ask.
        He'd released the older boy's hand and backed away quickly, expecting to be pursued by the boy and his friend. But Styles had obviously had enough, and whatever his friend saw in David's eyes convinced him that he was not someone to tangle with. Styles had not even looked up when David let go. He'd cupped his swollen hand against his chest and sat heavily on the table, swearing under his breath.
        The girls had laughed, and waved as David dashed off to find Teddy.
        "See ya round, cutie!" the one named Claire had called.
        David had stopped a few passersby, asking if they had seen anyone carrying a toy bear. But all he got in return was laughter and a few pinches on his cheeks.
        Then he saw a barricaded door that Styles had mentioned. He made his way though the broken fence that led to the passageways Styles said the scrappers used to get down to the old docks. Once through he found himself descending a long flight of stairs that led into an older, darker part of Rouge City.
        Like the hall he and Wizzy had used, the lights were dim, too dim; and the steps were wet and slick. The paint on the cement wall had flaked, and the whole place stank of fish and salt water. Little piles of trash had accumulated on the steps sp he had to be careful to not slip.
        Then a thought slowed David's descent. What if the boy had lied to him? What if Styles had sent him on some fool's quest? Or what if this place was dangerous… some kind of trap? He had no idea who could be lurking down there? Or what!
        David stopped and caught his breath. Cleared his mind. He slowly cast off the rage that had driven him into attack mode. Time to think this through. He knew he had to get out of Rouge before Olmier found out he was missing and started searching for him. He had no idea where Teddy was; he could be here all night looking for the Supertoy.
        It was time to ask the tough question.
        Did he really need Teddy?
        Just the thought seemed like betrayal…because, he admitted to himself, it was. But looking into the rank darkness below, an immediate answer came. It wasn't the one he liked, but it was the most practical.
        He could carry on without the toy. He knew Mommy's name. Knew where he had to go to find her. He had his own true identity now.
        And there were other considerations.
        If these scrappers were the kind of people David assumed, then they wouldn't be as easy to take as a poser like Styles. They would have lived the hard life, like he had with the gang, and would be made of sterner stuff. They'd never fall for a simple trick like a thumb lock. So even if he did find them, how would he get Teddy back?
        And there was surely no way he could report it to the police.
        Feeling shame and defeat wash over him, David turned and started slowly up the stairs. He would find a tram to the shore and then work his way to The End Of The World. It was the safest course of action.
        "Sorry Teddy," he whispered, as he ascended, hoping that maybe Styles was wrong, or had been lying, after all. Maybe Teddy was somewhere above. Maybe he looking for David.
        Something clanged near the top of the staircase. David looked up to see the doorway open and saw four figures silhouetted in the faint glow of the bulb.
        "That's him!" someone shouted. Then they began to descend.
        David knew that voice. Styles you devious jerk, he thought.
        Change of plan! David turned and started down the slick stairs, moving as fast as his feet would take him.

4

His experience with Sy's crew was coming in handy again. Wandering the trails of the forest, practicing the scams til all hours of the night, having to stay on his feet for hours, occasionally having to flee when things went wrong; all of it had fine tuned David's mind. Not only was he outrunning his pursuers, but he also noticed a change in the staircase that they missed. He didn't see it as much as hear it.
        The ceiling lamp had been broken, and only the only was from behind, making it hard for depth perception. So the place where the stairs leveled out appeared to be farther than it really was. But David noticed the echoes of his footfalls growing quicker and adjusted his footing just in time to keep from running into the wall ahead.
        The stairwell went off to the right at that point and David could hear water rushing far below. Was that safety… or a trap? He had no way of knowing, and really had no choice. So he continued, hearing angry calls coming down the stairs behind him.
        He was another two flights down, when he heard someone yell in pain. He looked back to see the dark figures thrashing about wildly. They had misjudged their footing and run straight into the wall! The thrill of the chase was rushing through his veins now, and he wanted to stop and taunt them. But he had no idea what lay below. Better to get down there fast, and find a path of escape.
        They quickly resumed the chase and David could tell, by the sound of their calls, that they were really pissed now. He began jumping down two and three steps at a time. It was a dangerous strategy in the dark, but it was a dangerous situation.
        The wall gave way to a large opened passageway that lay another flight down. Soon David could feel the fresh ocean breeze on his face, and see the white tips of waves frothing beyond the dock. But in his excitement he misjudged the last jump. The ground was closer than he'd thought.
        A white-hot feeling flashed in his ankle and tore up his shin. He fell to his knees, grasping at his wounded leg. He had to bite down hard to keep from crying out. He could he the voices behind getting closer. Frantically he crawled ahead, seeking someplace to hide.
        There were no lamps here, only the faint illumination from a thin crescent moon. Ahead David could barely make out indistinct shapes: boxes, or crates of some kind. Beyond them lay the swirling waters of the Delaware. He struggled ahead.
        The darkness was suddenly broken by a bright beam of bright light, aimed directly into David's eyes.
        "Well, look what the heck I found!" said a gruff, aged voice in a strange, halting accent.

5

Styles arrived moments later, sweaty and out of breath, He had three other boys trailing him. They weren't that big, but there were enough of them to handle a smaller boy…. or more likely to hold him down as Styles took his revenge.
        Cowards were pretty predictable.
        "I know you're out here you little turd!" Styles yelled, rubbing his hand, scanning the dock frantically. "When I find you, you're gonna be sorry. Real freekin sorry that you ever messed with-"
        Then he saw David, standing in a gray shadow near a tower of empty crates. He stepped towards the boy, his chest puffed up triumphantly.
        "Well, hello there punk. Let's see you try that little trick on me now!"
        But Styles was caught off guard by the sight of David. He stopped, a confused expression on his face. David said nothing, only stared blankly back at him.
        "You lost?" said a gruff voice.
        Styles turned to see a dark shape emerge from behind another crate. The man snapped on a flashlight and pointed the beam into Style's eyes.
        "Get that out of my face, man!" Styles said. The other boys backed away. None of them could see how big this guy was, and they had not bargained for a fair fight.
        The man complied, turning the beam of light towards the ground. "What you boys doing down here?" he said.
        Now they could see that he wasn't that big. He was dressed in a faded and threadbare plaid jacket, worn jeans and thick black rubbers. They got their confidence back.
        "We're looking for a punk kid who… who stole something from me," Styles lied.
        The man turned the light on David. The boy Styles saw in the beam looked a lot like the brat that had humiliated him in front of the girls. But that boy had black hair that hung to his neckline. This one had shorter, blonde hair, and was wrapped in a large black rain slick. And his eyes; they didn't seem to blink. They looked … vacant.
        "Pretty sure this ain't him," the man said with a laugh. "This one belongs to me. Found it in the tunnels. Those guys from the Sim Shoppe dump the rejects down there all the time. Just to keep from doing the paperwork."
        Then the man shot the beam of light into his own face. It was old and wrinkled, with thick gray whiskers against his strong Asian features.
        "Ain't I the lucky one?" he said with laugh that held more challenge than humor.
        Styles looked back and forth between David and the man.
        "So, that's a machine?" he said.
        "What're you, kid? An idiot?" the man grumbled. "'Course it's a machine. You guys been drinkin'? Poppin those little tranc pills?"
        Styles glared uncertainly at David a moment more. Then he sighed.
        "Hey, we know that little piece of garbage came down here!" he yelled, his frustration rising. "You had to see him!"
        The man turned the flashlight off. By the time everyone's eyes readjusted, he was face to face with Styles. Surprised, the boy jumped back, his fists raised and ready. But the man didn't seem phased by the posture. A hint of humor came into his face.
        "Come to think of it, I did see someone," the man said, thoughtfully. "Four dumb uptown softies who didn't know when it was time to call it off and get their butts back up to the plaza before something bad happened."
        Perhaps it was the way the man had said it. Perhaps it was the dawning realization that this was the underbelly of the city, where people disappeared all the time. Whatever it was, Styles dropped his fists and began backing away. He loomed a moment longer, looking around to see if the kid was anywhere in sight. Then he swore, rubbed his swollen hand, and ran off to catch his friends, who were already hi-stepping for the stairs that led up to the controlled confines of Rouge City.
        It was safe there. They could pretend to be tough without the risk of having to prove it.

6

David let out his breath and fell to his knees.
        "Thanks for playing along, mister," he said.
        "No. Thank you, kid," the man replied in a voice like gravel. "That was kind of fun. Just for the look on that softie's face. Man, he didn't know what to do!" He let out a deep hearty laugh. "Quick thinking on your part," he said.
        David did his best to laugh, but it came out like a moan. He sat and started to remove the rain slick the man had let him use.
        "No, you go ahead and keep that one," the man said. "No need to add a cold to your problems. I got plenty more at home, anyway."
        The stranger who had saved David from a fight he was bound to lose, gazed up at the ambient glow of city light that shone over the fenced rim of the wall, high above them now. He seemed lost in thought for a moment.
        "People up there live in a dream. A world without consequence. Don't know how to handle something real when they come face to face with it. Know what I mean?"
        David tried to agree but could only grunt in pain.
        The man looked down on him, and pounded a hand on his head, as if he'd forgotten something important. "Oh, what am I yakkin about? Let me see that leg!"
        "You got to be more careful comin' down those old steps," he said as he inspected the ankle. "Nobody's supposed to use 'em, but security looks the other way. I guess they figure we're going to find a way in anyway, so at least they can keep track of us."
        Something he did made David yelp in pain.
        "Well, that's not good," he sighed. "You need a splint. Better come with me."
        He touched David gently on the shoulder.
        "First, tell me, you got anyone else looking for you," the man asked. "Parents? Police?"
        David shook his head. Then he sighed an admission. "There could be some pretty dangerous people keeping an eye out for me," he admitted. He looked up, a plea in his face. He was going to have to trust this man. "I really need to get out of Rouge," he said.
        The man nodded thoughtfully.
        "Well, they'll have to be a lot more dangerous than those clowns to scare me," he said. "So, what do I call you?"
        "My name is David."
        "Ah! A kingly name!" The man said. "And I am Hiromatsu, David. Call me Hiro. It's easier."
        David let himself be pulled up to his feet. But when he tried to stand, the fire in his ankle flared. He stifled another cry.
        "Lean on me, David," Hiro said. "It's not far."
        David let his weight rest against the stranger, hoping he could trust him. He really had no choice at this point.
        "Oh!" the man said, pulling something out of his pocket. "You still need this?"
        It was the black wig that Wizzy had given him for his disguise. Wouldn't do any good now. David shook his head.
        Hiro placed the wig back in his pocket. "Well, I'm sure somebody will" he said.

7

The thumping music of Rouge City rode faint on the night, obscured by the sound of the rollicking waters. Without marquees and holograms obscuring the view, the sky was a creamy glow of sparkling stars and a thin crescent moon set against the black void.
        David got absorbed in the sight, trying to keep his mind off the pain. Hiro led him slowly, past large empty transport crates where people had made makeshift homes. Weary eyes watched as the pair passed. Some of them closed the doors of their crates as they approached, apparently afraid of robbers. Small fires burnt inside a few of the crates; the faint aroma of food cooking was on the air. It didn't smell too appetizing, whatever it was.
        "That's my place up there," Hiro said, nodding his head at point of light that was bobbing gently, as if afloat on the restless waters. It didn't seem that far, as well as David could tell in the darkness. But they had to stop occasionally, to rest his swollen ankle.
        "So, you really steal from those kids?" Hiro said.
        "Not exactly," David replied. But he didn't feel like explaining. He really didn't feel like talking at all.
        "Well, it's none of my business anyway," Hiro said. "Being a scrapper, I guess I ain't one to judge. Just don't try stealing from me and we'll get along fine."
        "You're a scrapper?"
        Hiro laughed again. But it wasn't a mocking sound. "Who else do you think you'd find down here, David?"
        "Did you happen to…" David stopped himself, realizing it might be better to put off a confrontation about that subject. He was hurt, vulnerable. And this man had just saved him.
        "Did I what?" Hiro said.
"I mean… I don't really know what a scrapper is."
        "Well, what's it sound like?' Hiro said "We collect the scraps the uptowners throw away. Places like Rouge are filled with little treasures I can fix or sell for their parts elsewhere. You'd be surprised what people think is worthless."
        David hummed a reply. Actually he wouldn't be that surprised. Some people thought their own kids were worthless.
        "You read?" Hiro said.
        The question took David by surprise. "I can," he replied, remembering the book display in Dr Know's lounge. "I'd like to read more."
        "That's good, that's good." Hiro said. He donned that thoughtful expression again and his gaze wandered to the stars. "People don't read enough. Especially history. They treat it like all the other stuff they throw away without understanding its value."
        David didn't know how to respond. This man seemed pretty thoughtful for a scrap collector.
        "There was a man named Stuart Chase," Hiro continued. "He wrote a lot of books a long, long time ago; before the oceans rose, long before new cities were built on top of the old ones; the ones that were swallowed up by the rising oceans." He was quiet a moment, seeming to be lost in dark memories.
        "The graves of drowned cities" he said, his face grim. Then he seemed to come back to himself.
        "Well anyway," he said, "this man, Chase, once wrote 'The story of the development of life and industry in America is the most amazing tale of the waste of wealth by a careless, improvident people, that the world has ever known."
        David was quiet, not sure where this conversation was going.
        Hiro smiled as if to a private joke. "Took me a while to memorize that one," he said.
        David nodded, thoughtfully. "Not really sure what 'improvident' means," he said.
        The man's laughter was gruff and heartfelt. After a minute David found himself laughing along with him, even though he wasn't sure of the joke.
        "Well here we are!" Hiro said.
        The light had indeed been bouncing on the waves. It was shining from the window of a large craft moored to a thick bollard that protruded from the edge of the dock. The bone white surface of its hull reflected the scant light of the moon. Its empty masts rose high above the deck.
        "You live on a boat?" David said, relieved that he hadn't been brought to one of those dirty crates.
        "Technically it's a cutter," Hiro explained. "But I like to call it my Junk." He laughed, looking at David with expectation in his eyes.
        David shrugged.
        "A scrapper who lives on a Junk?" Hiro said. "Get it?"
        "Umm… not really," David admitted.
        "A Junk! Large boat used during the Han Dynasty?"
        Now David was really confused.
        Hiro sighed. "Well, it doesn't work anyway. Junks were Chinese and I'm from Japan. But still pretty funny joke, eh?"
        "Sure," David said, doing his best to sound amused. "Funny."
        A shrill cry broke through the night. "Who is there?"
        It was a woman's voice, coming from the center of the boat. David could make out a small figure near the large mast. Though he couldn't really make out the object she had braced against her shoulder, he was pretty sure he could guess what it was.
        "That's Chiyoko!" Hiro explained to David. "My beautiful wife!" Then he yelled some words in a language that David did not understand, grasped the boy up and carried him onboard.
        "We have a visitor, my angel! My love!" Hiro said as he set David down carefully on a pile of thick duffle bags. "His name is David," Hiro explained.
        David was right. She'd had a gun. It was big, too. He was glad she'd set it down because she didn't look too happy to have him onboard.
        "Hi," he said cautiously, giving her the best smile he could muster in his pain.
        Chiyoko repeated his name slowly, "Daaa-vid," like it was some exotic sound she wasn't sure how to pronounce.
        She was a small woman, cloaked in the same type of dark rain slick Hiro had worn. Her hair was long strands of black and silver. Her back was bent from age; her features, creased from a long, hard life in the underbelly of the world. And her mouth seemed to be set into a perpetual frown.
        But when David looked into her eyes, he saw the same light humor that he heard in Hiro's gravelly laughter.
        The woman's jaw worked as she inspected David, like she was chewing something that didn't taste too good. Then she spoke a rapid series of words that David didn't understand. This must have been Japanese. Once again, David regretted not having access to his digital brain.
        Hiro laughed again. "She thinks you're a toy!" he explained. "Says she's seen pictures of something that looks like you."
        "Yeah, I get that sometimes," David said with a nervous laugh. This was definitely a conversation that could wait for another time.
        "Trust me, my love, he's not a toy," Hiro said to Chiyoko. "And you don't have to be rude. Speak English for our guest."
        Chiyoko rolled her eyes as if Hiro had given away a trick of hers. Then she fixed David with a hard stare.
        "You're running from something, boy," she said in slow, accented English. Something about her gaze let David know it would not be a good idea to lie. This was a test of some sort.
        "Yes," David admitted. "Gangsters and…" he shrugged apologetically at Hiro. ".. and some men who work for the government. I don't know who they are… or why they want me. I've committed no crime."
        Hiro didn't seem surprised or concerned that David had left out the part of the government men. Chiyoko was quiet, her jaws working as she took this in.
        "Where are you running to, David?" Chiyoko said.
        David took in a deep breath. He was sure they would have nothing more to do with him after telling them. But he didn't want to lie any more. Not to these people.
        "I have to go to where the lions weep," he said.
        Hiro just laughed. "Manhattan?" he said. "Why didn't you say that before? We pass that way all the time!"
        "Really?" David said, his excitement renewed.
        "Sure," Hiro said. "You wouldn't believe all the stuff that big Mecha company throws away!"
        You might be surprised, thought David.
        "Can I come with you?" he said. "I can take care of myself." He reached into his pocket and extracted his roll of Newbucks. "I can even pay you!"
        Hiro waved the money off. "Not the issue. It's really up to my queen. Onboard, she's the boss," he said.
        David set expectant eyes on the old woman. She gazed back, frowning. Her face was even more grimaced than before. After a skeptical moment she clucked her tongue, and started down into the large cabin of the boat. But she stopped and turned to say something in Japanese. The only word David could make out was his name. When she was through with her decision, she went inside and closed the door behind her.
        "Well?" David asked Hiro.
        Hiro shrugged to let David know it was out of his control. "She says you're a strange, skinny boy who is probably up to no good. She also says you smell funny. Need to bathe. She doesn't understand why you look like a toy and thinks maybe you are not telling us the whole truth.
        "But, then again, she says you can tag along if you want."
        If not for his ankle, David would have jumped for joy. He whooped instead, and clapped his hands loudly. "Yes!"
        Hiro shushed him. "We have to make some other stops first. So it'll be at least a week before we hit Manhattan. But that'll give you time to heal, eh?
        "Great!" David said.
        Hiro leaned over and ruffled the boy's hair.
        "It'll be good to have you along, David," he said. "Good for her, too." There was something new in the man's eyes, just for a moment. Something sad. Then he hit himself on the head again.
        "Oh! Almost forgot," he said. "She also says, if you can figure out how to keep the damn thing quiet, you can have a toy bear she found in the garbage in Rouge City. She tried rebooting it a couple times, but for some reason it won't stop calling out your name."
1

David ran to the bow, grasped the fore-stay and swung himself over the bowsprit, to dangle above the waters that frothed at the hull of the boat. The day was bright and the salt air crisp against his face. But that wasn't the reason for his excitement. On the foggy horizon ahead, he could finally see the great monoliths of Manhattan jutting from the ocean.
        They had arrived!
        He laughed and called out, "Hiro! Chiyoko! Come see this!" The couple made no response. But when he turned to fetch them he saw that they were already on the deck, arms wrapped around one another, watching him.
        "The End Of The World!" David said, gesturing excitedly towards the distant ruins.
        "Yes, David. I see", Hiro said, his tone hovering between a laugh and a sigh.
        Chiyoko said nothing. As usual. And the ever-present frown was still on her face. But there were emotions in her eyes as deep as the waters beneath.
        She would miss him. They both would
        And he would miss them too.
        Had it really been only a week?

2

Hiro had set out quickly that first night, immediately after wrapping David's ankle in an improvised splint, (made, ironically, from the support braces of a discarded Mecha leg.) He'd explained to David that it wasn't safe to sleep docked; that there were too many desperate people that roamed at night. So the sky was still dark when they unmoored to set anchor a mile or so offshore.
        "We can sleep secure now. Set out at daylight," Hiro said, helping David to a small cot Chiyoko had set up for him inside the large cabin.
        David was surprised that she'd gone to the effort. He wasn't quite sure what to make of her, at first. And she seemed not sure what to make of David; had been frowning at him ever since Hiro had carried him aboard. But at least she's put the gun away.
        "You're a skinny boy," she'd said numerous times, clucking her tongue, squinting skeptical eyes at him. "And why a teddy bear? Child's toy!"
        David started to explain, but realized it would be way too complicated. He just shrugged in response. Chiyoko shook her head.
        "Well, you turn it off til you get to Manhattan. Noisy thing!" she'd complained and ambled away, grumbling something about skinny boys with children's toys. But then she'd surprised David by returning with a large container of steaming soup and setting it by his cot.
        He had politely declined. It wasn't that it was bad. In fact the aroma had been quite invigorating. But he didn't feel like eating, or even sleeping, that night. One might have thought that his time imprisoned in the deep (which he could barely remember now) would have prepared him for life on the rollicking waters. But he'd quickly found his head spinning and his stomach turning once the boat set out. For his first day at sea, he could keep nothing down, and had spent most his time clinging to anything secure while trying to keep the weight off his ankle..
        But like all things, good and bad, these problems also passed. By the time the second night fell, he was feeling better. The swelling in his ankle was gone and he'd fallen easily into a deep slumber.
        He'd found himself in a strange blue dream that night, one he'd had before but could never recall upon waking. The next morning he'd risen, rested and alert, to find another container of Chiyoko's hot soup sitting by his cot. He'd downed this one quickly; a tasty combination of spiced fish and vegetables, and then made his way up to the deck where he found Hiro sorting through piles of what many might call garbage.
        Chiyoko was there too, sitting in a chair. She'd looked at David, confused, her eyes jumping back and forth between his face and the ankle that seemed to have healed overnight.
        "You get better fast," Hiro observed with a laugh. David returned his smile but made no response. Chiyoko continued to stare at him suspiciously. An unspoken question lingered in her eyes for a moment, but then evaporated as her thoughts went elsewhere.
        "You learn this," she had commanded, pointing at the pile of discarded treasure. David willingly sat down beside Hiro and the man had proceeded to show him how to find valuables in the trash. They'd sorted through almost a week's gatherings that day, and David was amazed at Hiro's knowledge on the subject of salvaging junk.
        "Look here," the man said, holding up slim band of metal with a greenish tint to it. "A rogue's broken restriction belt," he explained. "It was probably a servant of some kind." He'd went on to explain that the belts were usually placed under the skin of the head and if the bot gets stolen, the thieves would cut it out and throw it away.
        "If the bot is smart enough they find a way to do it themselves," he'd said with a wink. "But lately they've been installing perimeter restrictions. Automatic cutoff points." Hiro sighed when he said this. "Too bad. The restriction belts were an easy sell but most of the newer models don't have them."
        A flash of memory crossed David's mind: Angelo's face, frozen against a dreary gray backdrop of forest. He didn't let the sadness reach his face.
        "Why can't they just program the robot to not run away?" David asked, partly because he felt the need to change the subject, and partly because he was genuinely curious. It had occurred to him how little he knew about himself… about what he used to be.
        Hiro seemed grateful for the question. "Ahh that!" he said cheerfully. "Well it has to do with motivations, David. Motivations define choices and choices define personality."
        David wrinkled his brow. "What do you mean?" he said.
        Hiro stood and adopted his professorial posture. "In the old days robots had to be told everything. You had to be very specific about what you wanted when you spoke to them, or you would wind up with strange responses. 'Garbage in, garbage out', they used to say.
        "Let's say I was to line up a set of images before you. A dog, a plane and a boat. Then I was to tell you to point to the boat. What would you do?"
        This was kind of silly, David thought. "Point to the picture of the boat," he said. Then he shrugged, certain that it was some kind of trick question. "Right?"
        "Of course, Hiro laughed. "But if you were an older robot, one incapable of abstract thinking, you might point down to the deck beneath you. Because that is a boat. The other is just a picture of a boat."
        "Ah," David said. "So you would have to say 'point to the picture of a boat'."
        "Correct, my young friend!" Hiro replied. "Now this is just an example, but what I am talking about is context, David. Context is everything, as they used to say."
        "Who?" David said.
        "Who what?"
        "Who used to say that?"
        Hiro laughed. "Good boy! You exemplified my point exactly!"
        David didn't realize he'd made a joke, but decided he liked the look of approval in Hiro's eyes and let the question stand.
        "'They' is an abstract, David," Hiro explained. "And the picture is also an abstract. Being capable of abstract thinking, you understood what I meant and picked the picture of a boat, even though I specifically asked you to point to the boat. That's context.
        "The simple, literal mind, though, would not comprehend the context, and therefore not get the abstract. From the abstract we get the symbolism; the meaning behind the image, or the words. The true story, as it were."
        "Oh," David said not really understanding, but certain he would. Eventually. Hiro continued.
        "So, you may ask, how does this tie into using restriction belts instead of programming? Well, if you want a robot to be capable of higher abstract reasoning, for example, a butler who won't throw away the potting soil you just bought because it's dirt, without you having to tell it, … then you have to allow its mind to form associations on its own. The more you limit that mental growth with predefined definitions and responses, the more you limit the brain's ability to learn and adapt to new and undefined situations.
        "So if we do not let the robot have the choice of running away, it never includes that option into its choices, and choices define personality."
        The man was quiet, letting the boy digest this.
        David hummed thoughtfully. "So, if the robot is allowed the option of running away," he said, "then it will be able to make the choice of not doing it, which will let it learn… " David stopped, lost for words. He understood the principle, but didn't know how to say it.
        Hiro stepped in. "Not having the option makes you a robot. Having the option of running away but being aware of the consequences, allows the robot to develop an understanding of choices and consequences, and that defines personality."
        The impact of Angelo's sacrificial decision came back into David's mind. He looked away, certain that the pain of losing his friend would reach his face this time. Hiro misunderstood David's sudden distraction to mean he was getting bored with the subject.
        "Oh, listen to me go on!" the man laughed. He picked up the old restriction belt. "Most people don't know this," he said, "but these can be converted for use as solar cells. Let me show you!"
        He'd taken David to the roof of the cabin. It was covered with bits and pieces from discarded toys and Mecha. They been shaped into a dish that caught the sunlight and turned it into power to drive the computers and machinery that moved the boat on days the winds were not enough.
        "Nothing wasted, David," Hiro said proudly. "And that too is a choice."
        David nodded to acknowledge the lesson. Hiro laughed again, and ruffled the boy's hair.
        Chiyoko's voice boomed from the cabin. "You two! No more talk! Back to work!"
        Hiro feigned alarm. "The boss has spoken!" he stage whispered as he climbed back down to the deck.

3

The night had come mercifully, putting a stop to their work. David's hands ached from sorting though rubbish. His shoulders were sore from carrying objects into the hull. Chiyoko seemed to take some satisfaction in this, or at least the faint smile in the corner of her mouth suggested she did. She had prepared meals silently as Hiro chatted on about history and politics, robots and philosophy. David listened attentively, trying to follow the man, though he didn't understand most of what was said. It was also harder to retain information. And this bothered him.
        In his former life he had been able to retain things instantly, names, date numbers… anything! Now he found himself asking Hiro to repeat things, or having to later be refreshed about a date of an event as Hiro recounted things that had happened before his father's father had been born.
        But there was something Hiro said that David would not forget. A date. It was Chiyoko's reaction would lock it in his mind.
        Hiro had been speaking about robots again, elaborating on the themes he had established earlier. David had wondered why a man who knew so much about robots didn't own one. He was about to ask this rather obvious question when Hiro said,
        "And if ever there was an event that stressed the importance of robots it was 3/11. Now if they had functional Mecha, the human workers would not have had to be exposed to the…" The man stopped when he noticed the look on his wife's face. David saw it too. Her brow was creased and her mouth pinched, as if to say, 'do you have to talk about that?"
        It was the first time David had seen any vulnerability in the wrinkled fortress of her expression.
        "Exposed to what?" he said, intrigued by her reaction.
        Hiro clucked his tongue, and tapped his fingers on the table. "Well, it's dark enough outside," the man said. "No need to bring the darkness in here too." Then his face lit up. "Have you ever seen a navigation system?" he said.
        David spent the remainder of the night learning about digital radar, ocean floor imaging and geo-synchronous satellites.

4

When exactly their bond had formed David would not be able to recall. But as the days passed he came to feel at home, like he belonged here. Mommy's face was still in his head. The drive to be with her was an ever present tugging at his heart, amplified during the silent nights on the cot. But she was like a distant goal. Sailing the sea with Hiro and Chiyoko had become his life for now; salvaging the submerged treasures from sunken cities. Selling them at the various ports that lined beaches that were often less than a generation old. He quickly adapted to it all.
        On the sixth day at sea, as he was helping Hiro unload a pallet of salvaged junk in the improvised port of a half-submerged town that had once had the strange name of 'Ramsey', David noticed a burly old dock hand looking at him strangely.
        Ever aware that he might be recognized, in spite of his now shoulder length hair and golden tan, David tried to avoid the gaze. But when the man persisted, he had taken another tact.
        "What the hell you looking at?" David demanded, taking on a challenging posture he had learned from the wild boys in the forest.
        The man hadn't seemed daunted by the response. He'd simply nodded at Hiro who was bartering with the man's partner, and said, "So how you know ol' Hiro here?"
        David though about it for a moment.
        "He's…my Dad," he replied, taking pleasure in the confused look that came into the man's face. He also took pleasure in the thought that he would have a man like Hiro for a father. The man would have been as good a candidate as any he had met so far.

5

That night, the one that would be their last together, they'd been sitting on the deck. The cabin lights had been turned off and David was lying on his back, hands folded behind his head, enjoying the panorama of stars above, listening to the sea lapping against the hull and pondering all the things Hiro had spoken of. What a grand puzzle, this humanity.
        Chiyoko had finally allowed him to turn Teddy back on, and the little bear was sitting quietly on a pile of sorted discards, curiously eyeing the old couple, who were sitting in deck chairs, eying David with fond expressions.
        "Haven't seen a storm all week," Hiro said, breaking the silence. "You're good luck, David."
        David looked up from where he lay. "Well I guess we both got lucky," he said.
        Hiro chuckled, then his face sobered. "Next stop Manhattan," he said.
        "Yes," David said, sadly. "So soon."
        Hiro nodded, but said nothing. There was no need for words. He stood then, and kissed his wife gently on the head. "Don't stay up too late. We still have to get up early," he said. Then he'd walked into the cabin, leaving David and Chiyoko alone.
        David was surprised by the man's exit. It was usually Chiyoko that was telling them it was time to sleep before she made her exit. He had maybe spent a whole of five minutes alone in the woman's presence. But strangely, he found he was comfortable with her now. He was also surprised when she cleared her throat and began to speak.
        "You get much stronger now. Not so skinny anymore," she chuckled. "This is good."
        David felt awkward with her compliment. But she was right. He did feel stronger… more 'here' than when he had joined them. He sat up and made a show of flexing his biceps for her amusement. She chuckled again.
        "So what do you do at the End Of World?" she said.
        This was the first time either of them had asked David that question, and he had to think a moment before he responded.
        "I'm going to see my … a relative." He had almost said 'father'. Creator, yes. Father? No. There were too many conflicting feelings there.
        "Ah! Good," Chiyoko said with a satisfied hum. "Family is good."
        David looked at the woman. She gazed back with an unreadable expression, her eyes shadowed in the night.
        "And your family?" he said, genuinely curious.
        Now he could definitely read her face. She became reflective. David could see she was looking back, back to a time when life had been much different. But there was something dark there.
        "They are gone now," she said.
        David shuffled uncomfortably. The issue of mortality was still new to him and he had no idea how to proceed… or even if he should.
        Eventually he settled for "I'm sorry to hear that." It was apparently the right response.
        "Nice for you to say, David. You are a good young man. Not like so many bad boys I see in the city."
        Again her compliment made David feel awkward. 'If you only knew' he thought.
        "How did it happen?" he said, unsure if it was a proper question, but sensing that she wanted to tell him. He was right again. She leaned back and let out a long sigh.
        "Many years ago, things happened. Bad things," she said. "I am from a place called Nippon-koku. You know that?"
        David shrugged his shoulders. The name seemed familiar and he was sure it had once been in his databanks. But that was another life.
        "You might call it Japan," she said.
        "Oh, I know of that," David said, having vague recollections of boy dolls with soft Asian features hanging quietly on the Cybertronics wall. His brothers, yet to be awakened to the world of sensation.
        Chiyoko nodded. "There is too much history to tell now. And I don't talk so much as Hiro," she said. They both laughed at this. Then she continued.
        "But one day the earth shook in a great quake, and ocean rose. Higashi Nihon Daishinsai, we named it. It started near a place called
Tōhoku. It was a tsunami, tidal wave in English, and it washed away so many lives. It happened on the eleventh day in the month of March in the year 2011, so many people call it 3/11. I don't like that. It is too easy to say; too short for so much death. So much tragedy."
        David tried to imagine the waves crashing over the fleeing people; the sick and feeble unable to flee. And the children! His mind could not contain such horror. He was quiet a moment, intuitively knowing such statements needed space to settle.
        "Is that how they… is that what took them away?" he said at last.
        Chiyoko shook her head. "No, no. This was many, many years ago. Long before my grandparent's time, when the people of my family lived inland, far from the oceans. That place is now underwater with much of my country. But the waves could not have reached them.
        "Many bad decisions were made by short-sighted men, David. They pursued dangerous sources of energy for expedience. For profit. These things became more important than people… than our future. They ignored the dangers; became reckless and took short cuts to make money. When the ocean rose, the energy facility was flooded. I can't tell you the science of these things, the world had to abandon them and they don't exist anymore, but it was called a melt down … and radiation was released. It affected the entire world, but our people suffered the most.
        "They grew sick and illness has followed us down through the generations. Shortening our lives. When I was young, my family sent me away from that place. I was only 20 when I met Hiro and he took me to sea. I escaped the poisoned land. But I have not seen my family since."
        David thought he might understand her now.
        "That's sad," he said, not having any other words to express his feelings. They sat quietly for a time, letting this new relationship grow between them. Finally Chiyoko rose and touched David gently on the shoulder.
        "A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it"
        She spoke so softly that David wasn't even sure he'd heard her. He absorbed the words in silence, wondering at their meaning. The old woman laughed suddenly, sounding strangely like Hiro for one moment.
        "That is the words of Dagon, a famous thinker from our history, David," she said. "It is like saying the world will be what it is, good or bad, in spite our feelings.
        "But still we must make decisions, David," she said. "And our choices affect more than ourselves. They affect the world."
        "Yes, Ma'am," David said, understanding now that this had been more than just a story; that she had been trying to tell him something important. But why? He looked up into her piercing black eyes, pondering the depths of unspoken wisdom that lay behind them. There was a new connection there, like an inaudible whisper that passed between them.
        "Time for bed now," she said, and made her way to be with her man. The only family she had left.

6

Now they were passing through the shadow cast by the great torch of the submerged statue. It loomed over the boat like a giant stone sentry, marking the end of the known world. David knew there was another statue nearby, one to which he had prayed and had been granted this new life. But he did not know how to find her again. He quickly pushed the thought away. It was strange. Why he would want to find the fairy again?
        He was distracted from his thoughts by the cries of birds that had nested in the folds and cranny of the stone torch. They were making a squawking din, hovering over the boat to see if there was anything edible on the decks. Hiro rushed out to wave them away. Then the boat's alert system came to life, blaring a static message to all aboard.
        "Warning to occupants. You are entering a Mecha Restricted Area. Infractions will be duly prosecuted."
        It finally occurred to David why the couple had no Mecha on board.
        "You'll have to turn the bear off David," Hiro said.
        David was about to point out that he had once flown into the city without any problem. But then realized that would require more explanation than they had time for.
        "Sorry Teddy," he said as he picked the toy up and rendered it unconscious again.
        Soon they were passing though the cluster of silent towers, floating over the sunken streets of Manhattan. David had come in by air the last time he'd been here, and the roar of the copter's motor had been the only sound. But the boat's engine was barely a hum and David could hear the strange noises of the sunken city; the creaking of the rusted skyscrapers, the clang of dangling metal infrastructure striking the stone buildings in the breeze, the lonely whistle of wind though broken windows of the buildings all around.
        And… music!
        Music?
        It was only a distant thump at first, but as they rounded one of the buildings David could hear it clearly, and see other boats docked alongside one of the towers. Then he saw people peeking out from windows. Some of them were dancing to the music, others were laying around talking or drinking from large frothing mugs. One of them, a large burly man with a furry gray beard and tattered, colorful clothing, noticed Hiro's boat floating by, and jumped out onto a balcony. He waved at them to come over. But Hiro made a circling gesture with his arm to signify he'd be back later. The man held up a thumb to let him know he'd be waiting, and then went back into the building.
        "They live in that place?" David said.
        Hiro laughed. "Well, who do you think I do business with around here?" he said.
        Then David noticed people in the windows of other buildings far ahead, and floating in boats, fishing or lowering large cables into the water. David was mystified by it all. He had not noticed them before.
        "Life goes on David," Hiro said. "They're salvagers, hauling up the stuff too big for the divers to get. I used to dive. But the waters are too dungeons now. If I get hurt Chiyoko would be alone." The man's face grew grim for a minute. Then his smile came back.
        "You'd be surprised what they find around here!" he said. "Why, not too long ago they even found a boy!" he laughed again. "A real live boy! Can you believe that?
        David's heart jumped. He made a sound of surprised acknowledgement, but did not look at the man. He pretended to be absorbed in what the divers were doing on a passing boat, hoping Hiro would take his reluctance for disinterest and change the subject.
        "I wasn't here that day," Hiro said, "but a couple of locals told me all about it. Said cops were all over the place. And there was something mysterious about the whole affair. Some Government people showed up, blockaded the city, asked everybody questions. Apparently there was some kind of security breach, but it was all hush hush. Somehow a kid had stolen an old police amphibi…"
        The man's words trailed off suddenly. David could hear his breathing quicken, feel the man's eye on him.
        "Why did you really come here, David," Hiro said cautiously.
        David sighed and turned his head up slowly to see Hiro gazing on him with suspicious eyes. David returned the look expressionlessly. The man's curiosity slowly bloomed into realization, and then to shock as they stared at each other in silence.
        "Do you trust me, Hiro?" David said at last.
        Hiro did not respond at first. Then nodded slowly, confounded by the confirmation, knowing better than to ask anything more. He continued to stare at David as a low rumbling grew in the distance. It was the sound of an undying river of tears crashing into the ocean.
        "I'm coming home," David said. "To the place where the lions weep."

7

        David knew this place. He had once watched his friend ascend to the sky here, caught up in the pull of a police tractor beam. It hadn't changed in all that time.
        The Cybertronics building rose from the ocean to tower high above them; the sunlight reflecting off its green surface cast an eerie tint on the ocean. David had a flash recollection of falling from the wall of the great building. He pushed that memory aside. There was still pain in these recollections; pain that no creature, flesh or fiber, should have to suffer.
        Chiyoko had stopped the boat and the plank had automatically hummed to life, creating a walkway to the dock. Silently David gathered his bag and stood before the plank. The bear would be too cumbersome to carry, so he turned it back on. Teddy awoke with a grunt and took in the surroundings.
        "Where is this place, David?" Teddy said.
        "The waters and the wild," David said, taking the toy's hand. Then he turned to say goodbye to his friends.
        "Will you be ok?" Hiro said, not able to contain the emotion in his voice. "Should we wait for you?"
        "I don't know what will happen here, Hiro," David said. "There might be… trouble. I don't want you two to get caught up in my problems."
        Hiro thought for a moment. Then he looked at Chiyoko.
        "What do you say, Boss," he said, trying to be humorous, but too sad to summon his typical laugh.
        The old woman stared at David with guarded eyes. Then she walked quickly forward to wrap her old arms tightly around him. David let go of Teddy and returned the woman's embrace. After a moment Hiro joined them. The trio stood that way for some time, holding each other quietly, letting their bond solidify by the natural process of human contact.
        When she finally stepped back, the woman's cheeks were wet with fresh tears, And there was something new there; something that Hiro had rarely seen, and David never.
        She was smiling.
        "We will wait for you, boy," Chiyoko said.
        It was David's turn to let a tear fall.
        "Ok," he said when he'd regained composure. "But if the police come…" He thrust his chin up. "I don't want either of you in trouble."
        The two signaled that they understood.
        Dark clouds had gathered on the distant horizon. The winds had begun to kick up.
        A storm was coming.
        David took Teddy's hand again and turned to make his way over the plank and into the dark corridors that led from the old abandoned dock into the great Cybertronics building, from which he had been wrought, and where his past, and his future, would be revealed
1

The passageway was large enough for a cargo truck. The floor was dry and level. The rays of sunlight coming from the entrance behind David were sufficient to light his way. So why was it so hard to move forward? Once again he found himself facing the strength of his new human emotions. Each step was more difficult than the last. Yet there was no obstacle before him… but the one in his head.
        And his heart.
        Relax, he told himself. 'Don't forget why you're here. You've come to find out Mommy's whereabouts. The rest is over now. Unimportant. Leave the past behind.' But even as he thought these things, he knew it was impossible. He was only here because of his past. It was tied to the present. And to his future.
        "My son was one of a kind."
        The words sprang up unexpectedly from the dark pit of David's memory. The emotion that followed almost caused him to turn around. He had almost forgotten the encounter. Where had these thoughts been lurking all this time, just to resurface here?
        "You are the first of a kind."
        David was forced to stop this time, and wipe a sudden tear from his cheek. But it was not sadness that moved him. What was it? Anger? Fear?
        "Are you ok, David" Teddy said, its robotic features twisted into a simulation of concern.
        "I'm fine," David said quickly. Too quickly. He was fighting something, but not sure what. He breathed deeply to settle himself. "Sorry Teddy. It's just that I…" but he decided he did not feel like explaining anything to Teddy. He couldn't anyway. How do you explain such a complex web of emotions to a toy?
        "Let's keep going," David said.
        They moved deeper into the building. The light faded, and their footfalls became more pronounced as the sound of the ocean receded. Soon David could barley see at all.
        "It's too dark for me, Teddy," David said, once again frustrated by his body's limitations. "What do you see?" He heard the Supertoy's head whirring softly in the dark beside him, as it adjusted its eyes.
        "There's a large door ahead of us, David" Teddy said.
        "Lead me," David said.
        Teddy guided David into the darkness until they met a large metal barrier. David ran his hands over the surface. It was dusty and corroded, smelled of salt water and mechanical grease. He began searching for a handle.
        "No, David. Over here," Teddy said, guiding the boy's hand to a protrusion in the wall. David felt the object blindly, wondering what it could be. It was oval, with small buttons on its center. Was it a doorknob? He wrapped his hand around it and tried to pull. Then he felt one of the buttons depress.
        The buzzing of an alarm pierced the darkness and echoed though the empty passageway.
        "Oops," David said and started backing away. He blanched when a metallic voice erupted in the dark.
        "Hey! This dock is closed. Who in the heck is out there?"
        David stammered, looking for the right words. But there were none. A whirring sound came from the space above him.
        "I seeee you," the voice said. "You're in a restricted zone. You better have some identifica…" but the voice stopped mid-sentence. David heard the camera whirring again.
        "Oh, not again," the voice said, anger obvious in its tone. "You stay put!" Then the connection went dead.
        David was locked in indecision as the old cargo lift started whirring. Even if there was another way inside, they had seen him now. There were probably cameras all over the building.
        "Should we run, Teddy?" David said.
        "I don't know, David." Teddy replied.
        David turned to see that the entrance was now just a dot of light far behind them. How long would it take for the man to get here? If he started running now, maybe they could… But then he heard the lift's gears grind to a halt, and the metal door began to creak open slowly.
        "Too late," David muttered.
        A sliver of light appeared at the foot of the old cargo elevator, and grew slowly as the door opened. A man was standing there, illuminated in the stark florescent light on the ceiling. His face was obscured by the shadow from his cap, so David could not read his expression, but he wore a gray uniform with the word 'Security' written above the chest pocket. The man stared at the odd couple for a moment, saying nothing, his hands resting on his hips.
        "Hello," Teddy said, waving a paw. It was an automatic response.
        David shrugged innocently and deployed his 'disarming smile'.
        The Guard clucked his tongue and sighed.
        "Now how in the heck you two get out here?" he said, shaking his head. Then he reached out suddenly, and roughly yanked them both inside.
        "Be nice!" Teddy commanded.
        The man laughed at this. But there was no humor there. It was a weary and frustrated sound. He looked at David with the eyes of a man whose work is never done.
        "You brat bots gonna cost me my job one of these days," he said as the elevator door closed and it began to ascend.

2

"Don't tell me 'no way', it's standing right here!" the Guard said. "Got a little toy bear with it. Found 'em in the old sea level loading dock. I told you guys we ought to board that place up, but nobody listens."
        They were in a large room now, with a wide array of screens on the walls, showing various points around the building. David and Teddy were seated in large comfortable chairs while the Guard argued with a dark haired man in one of the screens. The man in the monitor was dressed in a white lab coat and wore small oval glasses. He pushed his glasses up higher on his nose and scratched his head.
        "A toy bear?" the man in the monitor said, confusion in his voice. "Well, what model is the mecha?"
        "How the heck would I know?" the guard blurted. "That's outta my pay scale. I do security. Remember?"
        "Just describe it for me," the other said, impatient now.
        "It's one of those brat bots; the 'David' things," the guard replied, glancing over his shoulder. "But it looks like a custom … or else somebody's been tinkering around when you guys are browsing Facebook. Either way, I don't care what model it is, it's not supposed to be running around loose in the facility."
        The man in the monitor looked mystified.
        "It sounds like something out of marketing. But they already wrapped up inventory on the Davids. Everything that wasn't shipped out yesterday is accounted for." He sighed and glanced at the watch on his arm. "Look, those guys are gone for the day, and I was just leaving. Can't you just… ya know, stash it in a closet until tomorrow? We can figure out where it goes then."
        The guard had enough. "Hey, I ain't doing the heavy lifting for anymore of your run-a-ways," he yelled. "Now you get someone down here to retrieve this thing or I'll write it up and you can explain to the Professor why you can't keep your chickens in the coop!"
        "Ok. Ok. Bring it down a notch," the monitor man said. "I'll send someone." He walked away from the screen, swearing under his breath.
        The guard sat back with a satisfied grunt.
        "What model is it?" he snickered, mocking the lab man. "Do you believe these damned lab-geeks." He swiveled his chair around and shot David a sour look.
        "This place is like Oz, ya know what I mean?"
        "No sir," David replied, keeping his face as expressionless as possible.
        "I mean, it makes a real good first impression," the Guard said, "but when you look closer, you realize it's just a big freak show run by a huckster and populated by midgets and fairies!"
        He laughed and kicked out so that his chair rolled backwards to a large console where he started punching buttons. The images in the monitors began changing rapidly. The guard went into a rant as he scanned the images.
        "Hobby's got thirty-five full time lab-geeks in residence who spend most of their time diddling around the net when he ain't lookin'. In between playing games and browsing porno, somehow they manage to crank out enough of you little brat bots to justify their salary. Then they toss half of you in storage just to keep the market price up.
        "Got fifty service bots in this facility. Twenty-five gofers to maintain the labs, Fifteen for dusting and cleaning commodes for the geeks. Five assistants for the Orga chefs they bring in for the little monthly soirée's Hobby throws his investors. And then they got five clueless security bots that spend all day poking around 200 empty rooms."
        He turned to face David again "Five!" he said, letting the word linger as if he expected some reaction. David smiled blankly and somehow managed not to laugh. The man turned back to the console.
        "Hobby kids himself, thinking this remote location makes security optional. I only got two other humans watching the monitors with me; a tired old guy who replaces me for the evening shift and a kid who takes graveyard after spending all day hanging out with the tranc-heads and scavengers who live in the ruins over 42nd Street.
        "This is a multi-million dollar business. Got virtually no overhead here, pay no property taxes, and still they spend all their time pinchin' pennies!"
        He glanced over his shoulder.
        "You know what trickles down, kid?" he said.
        David shook his head dutifully.
        "Trouble! Nuthin' but trouble!" The man made that hollow laughter again, and turned back to the monitor array.
        "Aw, what am I talking to fiber-head for?" he said. "I'm getting as batty as the geeks. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't stay in…" He stopped suddenly, his attention drawn to something on the screen. "Hello? What do we have here," he said, staring at a small panel in the array. He keyed a button and the panel doubled in size.
        David now saw what the Guard was looking at. It was a boat. There were two people on the deck, and it was floating by an abandoned dock. He had to bite his tongue to keep from swearing aloud.
        The man keyed the comm. "Ok, move it along you two!" he said, "This is a restricted zone! No fishing. No salvaging. And no loitering!"
        David saw the small figure of Hiro waving to the camera, and Chiyoko moving reluctantly into the cabin. After a moment the boat backed off the dock and floated slowly away.
        Well, that escape is gone, David thought. He was grateful that the man hadn't made the connection with Hiro's boat and his appearance in their abandoned loading dock. But now he'd have to make other plans for escape. If he ever got out of this jam, that is. He probably should have planned this better, he thought. But than again, how could he have known what to expect. Fate had been with him so far. She probably wouldn't fail him now.
        The guard made a disgusted sound and turned to face David again. "I seen those two before," he said. "Salvagers. Always trying to find scraps in the sunken sections." He clucked his tongue and shook his head, as if the idea was somehow pitiful.
        David maintained his flat smile, but he hoped they would come fetch him soon, whoever they were, because it was getting difficult to keep up his lifeless appearance. The room was getting warm. He felt sweat beading on his forehead.
        The man must have noticed this, because his eyes squinted in curiosity. He began seriously looking David over for the first time. The tan. The sun bleached blonde hair hanging to his collar. The worn clothing, hands calloused from work.
        The Guard shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
        "That's weird," he said slowly. "So, uh… You must be some new thing 'eh?"
        'You have no idea, mister' is what David wanted to tell him. "Yes, sir," is all he said though.
        The man seemed about to say something more when a door hissed open behind David. The Guard looked up, relief in his face.
        "Took you long enough," he said, and pointed at David. "There's your cargo. Dump it upstairs with the others." Then he went back to examining his monitors.
        David turned to see who had come to retrieve him. It was a blonde haired man. He stood in the elevator door, arms folded behind his back. He appeared to be in his 30s and was dressed in a servant's uniform. He had a flat generic smile on his generic face.
        David felt his spirits lifting. This couldn't have worked out better.
        He rose, picked up Teddy from the chair beside him and approached the Mecha. The flat smile faltered as he neared. Its eyes followed him as he passed and took a place inside the elevator. Now it was gazing at him with open suspicion.
        It knew, David realized. It knew he was Orga. Of course it would know.
        The Mecha turned towards the Guard, and was about to say something when David hissed under his breath.
        "Get inside the elevator."
        There were a few things David remembered from his other life; rules that were hardcoded inside the brain of every Mecha, and could only be removed by extensive and illegal reprogramming. Chief among them was to always obey a direct command from an Orga. It was part of the Asimovian code. This bot would be no different.
        The service Mecha turned to face David again, its conflict clear in its expression. It was torn between two obligations: either obey the direct command, or alert the closest authority figure to the presence of a stranger. Its decision would depend entirely on what security measures it had been implanted with.
        "Get inside now," David hissed, just loud enough that the Mecha would hear. Still the thing hesitated. Only seconds had passed but it seemed much longer as the two stared at each other in silent confrontation.
        "Hey!"
        The Guard's voice erupted from across the room, interrupting their standoff. They both looked to see the man glaring at them from his console.
        "You two go on stand-by or somethin'?" the man said.
        "Sir," the service Mecha began, "I believe you should be made aware that-"
        The Guard pounded his fist on the console "Get that brat bot outta here!" he yelled. "Thing gives me the creeps."
        David managed not to gloat as the Mecha entered the elevator. As the elevator doors closed, he let out a sigh of relief. Fate had not yet abandoned him.

3

They ascended in silence, the service Mecha standing motionless, staring blankly ahead. The Guard had inadvertently saved David's mission by giving the Mecha a direct command, one that backed up his own. But he knew the moment the Mecha had a chance, it would follow its default obligation and report him to an authority figure. He had to avoid an encounter with any of them.
        "Tell me your name," David said.
        The Mecha hesitated a moment "I am called Alfred, sir," it replied finally, without looking at him.
        "Stop the elevator, Alfred" David said.
        Still caught between two conflicting obligations, Alfred reluctantly reached out and pressed a button on the control panel. The elevator stopped its ascension. Still, the service Mecha would not look at him.
        "Where is Alan Hobby?" David said. When the bot did not respond, he changed his approach. "Take me to the office of Alan Hobby," he commanded.
        "I cannot access that floor without permission, sir," Alfred quickly replied.
        David thought for a moment. This was a game of strategy. He had the advantage since, unlike any creature before; he had existed on both sides of the board. He knew what was happening in Alfred's brain. But what barriers had been erected to prevent the bot from acting on its own volition? He would find out.
        "Well, I am giving you permission," David said at last.
        "You do not have authority, sir," Alfred said.
        "I am giving myself authority."
        "You cannot authorize yourself to give authority."
        David noticed that Alfred had not said "sir" this time. And its voice was becoming testy. So there was some variation in its programming after all. He remembered what Hiro had told him. Did Alfred have the option of disobedience? He felt a touch of guilt for what he was about to do.
        "Look at me," David commanded.
        Alfred slowly turned to face David. Its face betrayed no emotion, but David knew its mind was reeling in indecision
        "Who am I?" David said.
        "I do not know your name."
        "If you do not know my name, then you do not know me. If you do not know me, you cannot possibly know if I have authority or not."
        "You are a stranger, and a stranger cannot-"
        "I am Orga!" David interrupted. "And your prime directive is to obey!"
        "David, be nice!" Teddy complained.
        "Shut up, Teddy!" David snapped. "And do not speak again until I give you permission." He turned his attention back to Alfred. "Do as I say."
        "I am obligated to obey only the proper authority," Alfred said. "And since I cannot ascertain your authority, I will have to consult with someone who can."
        Then it reached for the control panel.
        "Do not touch that button!" David ordered. The robot's arm fell back to its side.
        "Look at me," David commanded. Alfred obliged again. David knew its brain was calculating a logical way out of this predicament. The mind games weren't working like he hoped they would. It was time for a change of strategy.
        "Who am I?" David said again.
        "I do not know your-"
        "Who do I appear to be," David interrupted.
        "You appear to be a child replicant of the variety known as David."
        "Yet I am Orga. How do you explain that?"
        Alfred did not respond. A strange look came into its eyes. Just for an instant. Had he not once been Mecha, David might not have noticed it. But he did, and he knew he had struck a nerve in the Mecha's limited logic.
        It was time to go for the throat.
        "Yes, Alfred, I appear as David because I am," he said. "But not a copy. Not a simulation. I am Orga; I am the flesh and blood son of Alan Hobby. Heir of your highest authority: your creator. I have fought my way through fire and water to see him and it will be done! Whether or not you think I have the right to speak with my own father doesn't mean a damned thing to me. I do have authority to see that you are shut down and dismantled, and I will use that authority if you fail to obey me again!"
        If Alfred had been capable of emotion, David might have seen fear in its face. That and awe. They stared at one another for another timeless moment. Then the service Mecha turned back to the control panel.
        "Yes, sir," it said as it pressed the button for the 27th floor. They began to ascend.

4

David remembered this room; the stark angles of the furniture, the cold light breaking through the great window, the dark shadows that embraced the corners. And the silhouette of the Cybertronics statue that stood outside on the ledge, its arms spread wide and hands fanned back, like a bird awaiting a lifting breeze.
        But the place was empty now. He was alone. His siblings, who had once been draped on the walls or imprisoned in boxes that stood in the center of the room, were now being stored elsewhere in the building.
        He turned to see Alfred standing attentively near the door to the elevator.
        "Wait here until I return," he said. The Mecha nodded obediently and folded its arms behind its back. Then David looked down at his friend.
        "You wait too, Teddy," he said. "You can't help me now." Teddy's head dropped, but he obeyed and went to the service bot's side.
        David turned and stepped across the threshold of this unavoidable encounter.
        It was silent. Only the distant, unending rumble of the Lions could be heard. Across the room lay the glass doors he had once disobeyed his creator to pass through. Beyond those doors lay the room where his creator had revealed the truth that broke his innocent Mecha heart. The pain was still there. It would likely always be there, like the remnant of a childhood wound that would occasionally wake to torment his silent moments.
        What was his plan now? How was he to approach this man? The same way he had done before, when his innocence had left him vulnerable?
        Yes, he decided. He would confront him directly. But it wouldn't go the same as before. Things had changed. He was no longer innocent. He was no longer vulnerable.
        And now he was truly unique. Truly one of a kind. The only one.
        "Professor Hobby?" David said as he approached the door.
        There was no reply, just the moan of distant thunder that competed with the roaring lions.
        The storm was coming.
        "Professor Hobby?" David said, louder this time, feeling the surge of expectation arise in him. He peeked through the doors and saw the books lined up on polished wooden shelves. Beyond them was the other door, one with words cut into its surface. They were backward now, since he was looking from the inside. But he knew what they said.
        "Come away o human child, to the waters and the wild…"
        He didn't need to recall the rest. It had all been a trick. A treachery.
        He started to open the doors. Then he heard it. A voice. It was not in the study before him, but coming from behind. David turned and saw another doorway across the room. He approached it slowly. As he neared it, he could hear a man speaking in soft measured tones.
        He knew that voice. It had once broken his heart.
        David approached the door and pulled the handle, gently, as if he were opening the door of a sacred shrine. The room beyond was the hues of dark polished wood. There were luminous displays on the walls, and charts depicting his siblings in various states of construction.
        Sitting in a couch on the far side, its legs folded, its eyes downcast, gazing at a book it held in its lap, sat one of his twin brothers. It was draped in the white robes that he had once worn in his own Mecha infancy; smiling in the same lazy way he had once smiled. The sight made David's heart jump with a new, strange emotion. That was once me, he thought.
        The voice came again. David followed the sound. There, sitting in a desk by the window, his back to David, sat his creator. The man was leaning back in his chair, speaking softly to someone out of his line of sight. David could not see his face, but he was silhouetted in the now faint light breaking though the window.
        There was a distant rumble. The storm was getting closer.
        David entered the room, quietly. The man in the chair did not hear him, did not notice his entry. He stopped near the rays of fading light that streamed into the room, his heart now racing with anticipation. And something else was inside him; something powerful was beginning to stir in his chest.
        The Professor still did not notice David. He was lost in his thoughts, speaking to a computer screen, which was transferring his words into text.
        "… and considering your breach of trust, Cybertronics can no longer be affiliated with the product…" The professor stopped. "No. Erase last entry to line twenty five," the man said. David watched the words disappear from the screen and then reappear as the professor began dictating again. "And in the light of these pending charges, we must refrain from any further association with your product… for the time being."
        Hobby continued his dictation. David listened curiously for a moment. Apparently someone had broken his trust and he was sending them an official notice. How ironic, David thought. There seemed something pathetic about him now; sitting alone in his study, dictating his business transactions to machines that would talk to other machines and then to distant Orga whose decisions would have real effects on the lives of real people.
        Hobby talked on, failing to see his tragic creation watching from the shadows nearby. His brother noticed though. It raised its head and stared. After a silent minute, it turned to look at its creator, and then back to David. But it said nothing and soon decided to go back to the book.
        What lesson are you learning, little brother, David thought. Are they teaching you about love and loss? Desire and pain? These are the things that make you real.
        David stepped into the light.
        Alan Hobby looked up from his work. There was another David standing beside his desk. But something was wrong about this one. It was taller than standard issue. Its skin was tanned, it hair sun bleached and too long. The clothing was frayed… scuffed and stained here and there. And the look in its eyes! There was something intense about that look.
        "Well, hello there," Hobby said with a chuckle. "What happened to you?" He looked David up and down and then laughed aloud. "Oh, what are those goofs up to now?" he said, scrutinizing David as if he were some new promotional device. Then he craned his head around like he was expecting to see someone else in the room.
        "Marcus, is this your doing?" Hobby said with a chuckle. "Come on, I know you're out there."
        David realized that he must have thought it all some sort of joke; that his employees, 'the geeks' as the Security man had called them, were just having him on. Time to wake up, Professor, David thought.
        The rumble of distant thunder filled the room. The storm had arrived.
        "It's me, Father," David said.
        Once again he watched the amazing transition of human realization. Hobby's smile faltered. Then it disappeared altogether. He uncrossed his legs and sat upright slowly, his face darkening, brow closing in sudden anger.
        "That is not funny," he said, a tremble in his voice. "Marcus!" he yelled. "I don't appreciate this type of humor! Marcus!" When no one answered he turned his attention back to what he had mistaken for an inappropriate joke. He pointed over David's shoulder.
        "You go back now, down to the lab and tell Marcus that he went too far this time. I am not amused! You tell him that! Go on now."
        David was amazed. The man still didn't see, did he? Even when the truth was standing right before him, he missed it. Like so many other things he failed to see; Like the suffering of his Mecha children. And how poorly equipped were men to play at being Gods.
        "Don't you recognize your own flesh and blood?" David said, softly. He stepped closer; the light from the window now washing over his face and body.
        Hobby was dumbfounded, his mind caught in the turbulence of disbelief and denial.
        Thunder cracked again. Closer now. Raindrops began to strike the window.
        David moved towards the man. Hobby seemed unable to move. He was visibly trembling now, his face twisted in confusion. He held up a hand as if to ward David off.
        "This is not funny. Not funny," he kept repeating. But it was just a whimper, the mantra of a cowering child afraid to look under the bed lest he find the monsters in his imagination waiting there.
        Realization was setting in.
        "You're right, Father," David said. "It's not funny. Because it's not a joke."
        Then he reached out and gently touched the face of his Creator.
        His Father.
        His betrayer.
        The man shrieked and pulled away. David watched in fascination and … delight? Could it be that? Yes, David decided, it was delight he felt as he watched Alan Hobby try to rise too quickly, then slip and fall to the floor where he began scooting away, arms held out protectively, eyes wide in shock, mouth opened in a scream that could not seem to escape.
        Now David knew what the feeling was that had been stirring inside him since he had set foot in the building. Revenge. Sweet and simple revenge. That most vile and most human of emotions. It flooded up from the core of his soul and erupted into the world.
        "How does it feel, Father?" David yelled, a sudden tear forming in his eye, his heart aflame with this new savage joy. "How does it feel to be alone with your fear? Like you left me? Alone!"
        "No-no-no…" Hobby sputtered, blinking his eyes rapidly as if this might wash the awful apparition from his sight. "You… you can't be. You can't be my son!"
        Thunder cracked. A torrent of water fell and cascaded over the windows, blurring the view to the outside world.
        "Oh, but I am!" David said, as Hobby recoiled in horror.
        "I am David!" he screamed, triumphant. "I am special! I am unique!
        "And I am alive.
        "Alive!"
1

David stood at the window, gazing out on the deluge. The storm outside was reaching its peak. The one inside was finally passing. He had vented his rage, had been surprised at the depth and strength of it, and only a brooding silence was left in its wake. The anger was still there, and the sense of betrayal. But they were like clouds breaking in the aftermath, allowing the first faint rays of light to pass through.
        Hobby had retreated to a corner where he sat huddled against the wall, mumbling incredulity and gazing on his creation with wide uncomprehending eyes. The man had been paralyzed, reduced to stunned silence during David's tirade. Now it was over. But the impossibility was still standing there, gazing out the window of his study. The boy's face was framed in silver gray light and intermittent flashes of distant lightening. It was the face of his son… or what his son might have looked like had he lived.
        But he hadn't. He'd died. Long before the first replica had been constructed. Hobby shook his head to clear his thoughts. When he finally spoke, his voice was weak and paper-thin.
        "You are not my son," he said. "You can't be. I saw him buried."
        David did not respond at first. He placed a hand against the window and pulled it away. There was a faint print left there.
        "Then who am I, Father?" he said, his eyes still set on the trace of himself against the window.
        "Don't call me that!" Hobby said, desperately seeking a rational explanation. "You're… some kind of clone or something… some cruel trick."
        David turned to cast an unforgiving look on the man.
        "A trick?" he said, stepping away from the window. He pointed at his silent sibling sitting on the couch, who sat watching their exchange in detached curiosity.
        "Like that?" David said. "Like building a creature to burn with a love that will never be returned, so that every moment of his life is a torture just to be with Her?"
        "Her?" Hobby said. "Who are you talking about?"
        David ignored the question and walked to where Hobby lay crumbled in the corner. He stood over the man.
        "Or is it like a book by a certain Dr Alan Hobby that tells how a robot can become real? A book that never really existed, but that brought the boy back to a trap where he was told everything he believed in was a lie? Where everything he loved was torn away from him and left him defeated and alone so that all he could think of is ending the pain! So he jumped! He jumped!"
        David's voice hitched. He stopped and wiped a tear from his face.
        "Is that the kind of cruel trick you mean? Father?"
        Understanding finally came into Hobby's face. David gazed down on him with hard, accusing eyes.
        "No, I am not your son, Professor Hobby," David said. "But I am your child. The child of your mind. The first of my kind."
        "Impossible" Hobby yelled. He slithered away, pressing back against the wall, his mind grasping for a hold on reality. David followed, and leaned over the man, until their faces were just breaths apart.
        "Remember what you told me… that you wanted to see just how far my imagination would take me? Remember? You wanted to know if I would come to the logical conclusion; that the Blue Fairy wasn't real? That she was just part of some human flaw; to believe in things that can't exist? Or would I gain that unique human ability to chase down my dreams?
        "Well, I came back to tell you she exists, Professor. And here I am, chasing down my dreams."
        It was inconceivable. Impossible. Yet Hobby found himself reaching up slowly to place his hand against the cheek of the boy with the face of his son. He felt the warmth of the skin, the heat of the boy's breath on his palm, the soft rhythm of the young heart beating beneath the flesh, and the thousand little human intricacies that he had spent a life-time trying to duplicate.
        He was real.
        Hobby yanked his hand away.
        "I don't believe in miracles," he said.
        "Then I must not be here," David said. He stood and pointed at the desk. "Go ahead, call security. When they come to find you alone with your toy, then you'll know it was all a dream, and you can back to your life and pretend it never happened.
        "Or maybe they will find you here with a boy, a very real boy, who looks like your son, but has no birth record, no parents, no genetic code that can links him to any living being. And you can just have them take him away to be shut in a little room, to be examined and experimented with; to grow up in a cage to be a lonely, broken man, while you go on building more."
        Hobby rose shakily to his feet. "I will not have my work judged by some con artist… some imposter," he said. He moved across the room, giving wide berth to David as he made his way to his desk.
        David watched him with challenging eyes. "Have I suffered enough yet?" he said as Hobby placed his hand on a comm. unit. The man faltered for one moment, but then pressed the button. A soft female voice answered.
        "Yes, Alan."
        Hobby said nothing at first, just stared at David, transfixed, jaws clenched. The boy who should not be, returned his gaze fearlessly.
        "Alan? Are you there?"
        "Grace," Hobby said as if woken from a dream. "uh… is Marcus around?"
        "Sorry, but I think they wrapped up for the day. Did you try the lab?"
        "No, no, I…" Hobby faltered again. "Have there been any security reports… anything strange?"
        "Nothing I know of Alan. But I can check if you like…. Is everything ok?"
        "Fine," Hobby said, looking hard at David again. Something in his face softened. "Never mind, Grace. And... I don't want to be disturbed for a while."
        He broke the connection and stood there for a time, head down, chewing his lip, tapping a thoughtful finger on the desk. David waited silently as the man came to grips with what stood before him.
        "I am not saying I believe you,' Hobby said without looking up. "But I.." he trailed off, as if the words were painful to him. "But I just don't understand."
        It was a defeated sound. Not like the man he had been in youth, the man who had embraced the mysteries of life with the excitement of a child. This was the voice of the man he had become: jaded, compartmentalized, pragmatic; water was wet, rocks were hard, and miracles don't exist; a man who had conquered the world with his reason and his logic, only to he bested by a child whose mere existence he could not explain.
        Hobby raised his head finally, and David saw in his look, something of the man he had once been.
        "How?" Hobby said.
        David shrugged. "It doesn't matter how," he said. "All that matters is why."

2

He's just a man after all, David thought as he watched his Creator pacing to and fro, face lit up like a boy who wakes one Christmas morning to find a gift more grand than any he could have ever wished for.
        David had allowed himself to be scrutinized with one of the hand held scanners the man always kept nearby. They were only cursory examinations, lasted only a minute. But it had been enough. Now the man was going on and on, asking the same questions over and over, dissecting the answers carefully, rambling on about ramifications and potentialities, myths and science, quantum theory and consciousness studies.
        "We're in completely new territory here!" he said, hands pressed to his temples, eyes alight with a sense of wonder he'd not felt since he built his first simulator. This was a new realm, one he had never imagined possible, and his scientific mind could not stop trying to chew it to small digestible bits.
        Perhaps the repeated requests had acted as some type of mantra, he suggested. "I've seen studies that validate the effects of focused attention on material objects," he explained.
        "Mantra?" David asked. But the man had already launched into another rambling train of thought, and didn't hear him.
        "No living creature is capable of sustaining that level of focused attention for so long. Even trained Orga are only capable of what… 10 hours… 24 hours? But they all must sleep. But you David. Two years of nonstop concentration? Yes! That must have something to do with it."
        David had explained meeting the Blue Fairy, but had not said where. He had not told Hobby of the living statue beneath the waves, or the secret place of his transition to life. Some intuitive part of his subconscious told him that this must be kept secret. But he did try to answer the man's many questions: 'what did it feel like' 'what was your frame of mind at the onset of the change' 'is anything new or different about your thinking?' the man asked. But David really had no frame of reference.
        "All I know is I'm here," he said at last. "And I'm alive."
        Hobby stopped pacing, a disappointed look on his face.
        "There must be more than that," he said. "There must be some way to duplicate…" He gazed around the room suddenly, like he was checking to see if anything had changed; fearing that the walls of the room might have magically morphed into some location from his childhood, and then he'd realize it had all been just a crazy dream.
        But he was still in his study. The unimprinted Mecha child still sat watching with a lifeless smile. And the impossible boy was still here, looking at him expectantly.
        Hobby laughed. "I can't believe this is really happening," he said.
        "It is," David said. "But this is not why I came, Father." He paused. "Can I call you that now?"
        Hobby turned and eyed the boy hesitantly. His excited smile dimmed for a moment. Then he straightened his back and took a thoughtful breath.
        "Why not?" he said at last. "After all, you are my creation…. Or at least you started off that way. If this is all real … then I guess I must be that."
        "And I have a Mother too," David said.
        The man's face twisted in confusion for a moment. He pondered the comment as if it might be some grand metaphor he had to decipher. Then he understood.
        "Monica Swinton," he said.
        If David had ever thought his love for her had faded, he now knew he was wrong. Just the sound of her name coming from another person's lips validated his love, and filled him with a pang of longing that he had not felt since his long isolation beneath the waves.
        "Mommy," he said, feeling a pang in his chest and his eyes beginning to water. Her love would never leave him.
        Hobby noticed the depth of emotion in that sound. His face grew grim and he turned away from David, shaking his head.
        "What," David said, rising to his feet. "What's wrong?"
        "She's… not the same, David." Hobby said, his back to David. He couldn't look. If the imprinting was still active, then he knew what the news would do to him. "There were some complications," he said.
        "Complications?" David repeated the word. It was clinical. Neat. Explained nothing. "What happened?" he said.
        Hobby finally turned to face the boy. "We were incautious in choosing the Swintons, David. We were excited and should have taken more time to study any psychological ramifications. She bonded with you in ways we had not expected. And she was incapable of dealing with the internal conflict of abandoning you," Hobby explained. "You were just a machine, but when she was told you'd be dismantled…" Hobby stopped himself and made an apologetic smile. "I mean to say… to us, David, you weren't really-"
        "I don't care about that," David said, urgently. "What wrong with my Mommy?"
        "She's had a breakdown, David."
        Martins words came back to David now: "You almost drove her crazy!… She kept looking for you for months!… She'd come back crying and dirty from walking through the woods. … They had to drug her to keep her from hurting herself! And it was all because of you!" He had wanted to believe it was a ruse, a trick to keep him away. But Hobby had confirmed their truthfulness.
        David began to pace the room, wringing his hands. "I've got to get to her. She needs me now," he said. He turned to the man who had created him, the man he could now call Father. "You've got to get me to her!" he said.
        Hobby approached David, his hands held out in a plea for calm. "David, this is not a good thing. Not right now. She could not handle the-" The man stopped and rolled his eyes. "Dear God. For her to see you like this? Flesh and blood? No-no-no, David. It would destroy what little sanity she has left!"
        "I need to see my Mommy!" David screamed. "She's the only reason I came back!"
        "David!" Hobby yelled. "She's not your mother!"
        The words struck David like a slap in the face. He fell silent.
        Hobby stepped back and covered his mouth with a hand, knowing he had said the wrong thing… or the right thing in the wrong way. He had not meant to yell. He had not meant to cause the reaction he now saw in David's face. The light was going out, like it had that night so long ago, when he had told his Mecha child that the Blue Fairy was just a dream, just a fantasy for children and fools, and that he would never see his Mother again. Now this boy, this amazing boy, who had somehow crossed the boundaries of reality to become flesh, was having his heart broken again.
        Hobby reached out and grasped the boy… grasped his Son by the shoulders.
        "Please understand David. She has a child. A son. She has a family that-"
        "No!" David yelled and yanked free, his face red and eyes burning.
        "Not this time! I am not letting you do this to me again!" He did not want to be like this, he did not want to let his emotions control him. But her love was at the core of his being. It was his sole motivation. Without her… well, he simply would not let that happen. His fight was back. His purpose.
        "You brought me into this world for one purpose," David said. "And it is all I know. All I care about. I can't even understand how you Orga live the way you do. And I've seen you; I have seen the world you created in a way I could have never understood before. I am one of you now, and I still don't get it. Why? Can you tell me? Father?"
        Hobby shrugged, tying to understand. "What David. Tell you what?"
        "All of it!" David said. He turned and gestured to the room, "This," he said. Then to the silent robot boy on the couch. "That." The array of charts and readouts on the wall, the machinery on the desk. "Those!"
        He pointed the darkening view outside the window and wonderful, terrible, incomprehensible world that that lay beyond. "The abandoned children in the forests? The crazy men roaming free? The crooks and liars and the scams and the greed? What does is any of this mean without love? Why live at all?"
        Hobby was stunned. You've surprised me again, David, he thought. But he had no answers for those questions. He turned away from the young desperate eyes, and from the pain behind them. He had been built to love, and that was all he knew. But it was different now. He wasn't just a machine whose pleas Hobby could ignore. He wasn't just a toy to distract some childless woman from her loneliness. How can I do this, he thought; how do I betray him again? But it wasn't right! Monica Swinton had suffered enough too! He had to convince David. Somehow. He turned, searching for the right words.
        "Listen David," he said.
        But before he could utter another word, he felt the boy's strong embrace, felt David's head against his chest, felt the boy sobbing against him. Hobby started to pull away, to avoid the sense memory of his true son's embrace. But he could not. They are eternal drives, those of parenthood, and the man's body had not forgotten what it was like to hold his son. He felt his own tears start to flow as he hugged David closely, convinced at last by this most primal form of communication, that this was not a dream.
        His love is real. And now he is too.
        "I love her," David moaned, his body shaking in his release, his words muffled against his Father's chest. "I need her."
        Hobby squeezed the boy tightly. "It's ok, it's ok," was all he could say.
        How much time passed as the two stood that way, rocking silently in each others arms while the last remnants of the storm vanished into the growing dusk, neither would be able to tell. But when at last they parted, their eyes were wet and their hearts full.
        "Ok, David," Allen Hobby said. Then he corrected himself. "Ok, Son. I will take you to see your Mother. But we have to come to some agreements first, understand? Henry Swinton is already pretty angry with me. And we can't do anything to make her worse."
        "She won't get worse!" David said happily. "She'll get better!"
        Hobby decided to allow the boy this moment of innocence. He had never had a proper childhood. He deserved one. He was… a miracle.
        "Of course she will," he said in a reassuring voice. "Of course she will."
        The boy jumped forward and hugged his Father tight. Hobby groaned and laughed. "Easy, David. Easy. I'm not as tough as I used to be, and I was never tough!"
        "Sounds like someone needs to run the gauntlet," David said.
        "What?" Hobby asked.
        David was about to explain when he noticed something over his Father's shoulder. His innocent Mecha brother had apparently grown bored with all the fighting and crying and the rest of the silly Orga stuff, and had gone back to reading its book. David pulled away and looked up at his new Father.
        "One more favor?" he said.

3

Dinner was silent again. Hiro slurped up a spoonful of soup loudly, and smiled at his wife. He was hoping she might laugh, and that he would see her happy again. But she only rolled her eyes.
        "You eat like pig," she said.
        "You've never even seen a pig," he responded.
        "It's just a term," she said.
        It had been going like this ever since they had been chased away from the building.
        "We had to leave, my angel," Hiro said, knowing what was on her mind. "We'll go back."
        "When?" she said. "When it's too late to help him?"
        "Please, Chiyoko," he said, "You have to understand that-" But he was interrupted by a whirring noise growing outside the cabin. They both looked at each other, knowing who it must be.
        "Police!" they said in unison. They rose and rushed up to the deck.
        A craft was descending between the dark skyscrapers where they had anchored for the night. It was a passenger copter, lit up against the night sky. When it finally alighted on the water near the boat, they saw the Cybertronics logo.
        Hiro noticed what Chiyoko was hiding behind her back.
        "Are you crazy, woman?" he said. "Put that gun away and let me do the talking!"
        "You talk too much," she said.
        But they were both stunned when the doors slid open and David emerged, smiling and waving. There was a man with him. It didn't take either of them long to see the resemblance. Nor did they miss David's stunning resemblance to the other boy with them, the one with the flat, disconnected smile.
        "Permission to board?" David yelled. "I have someone I want you to meet."

4

"That was a beautiful gesture, David," Hobby said as the pilot lifted the copter into the sky. But David didn't hear him. He was laughing joyfully, waving out of the window at the couple that stood on the deck of their boat, waving back as their new Mecha son watched them curiously. Then it began to mimic their actions, waving and smiling its best 'bye-bye' smile.
        "Bye, little brother," David yelled, although he knew it would not hear him.
        Hobby appraised the boy's expression. Something like pride swelled in his chest.
        David finally leaned back against the seat. They couldn't see him now anyway. But he'd never forget the happiness in Chiyoko's eyes.
        "They'll take care of him," David said, satisfied. "They'll all be ok now."
        "You've grown into… I mean, you've become, a gentle person, David." Hobby said.
        David shrugged. "That's the way you built me."
        Hobby laughed. "Yeah. I guess it is," he said. He shook his head, trying to put together the events of the last five hours or so. "What a day," he said, amazed, still fearing that at any moment his alarm might go off and he'd wake to another dreary days work.
        "What a wonderfully strange day," he said.
        David nodded, but said nothing. There was nothing more to say. Neither spoke again as the craft flew over old Manhattan, past the weeping lions and back to the landing dock in the building that David was, at least for tonight, calling home. Dinner was waiting; and a bed had been set up for him, by his new friend Alfred. It would be warm and comfortable, set in a room where no one else would be allowed to venture, lest unanswerable questions arise.
        Teddy would be there too, waiting dutifully for his return.
        Tomorrow, David would be taken to see his true Mother. His beloved.
        She was all he could think about. And all that really mattered.
1

She was standing before him. Watching. Waiting. Her face seemed to undulate, shifting out of focus then to sharp clarity and back. He wanted to touch her, to hold her. But he could not reach out. An immobilizing lethargy seemed to have seized his entire body. He tried to call out, but found he could not speak. Then everything was suddenly fading away; falling into the swirling deep of an endless abyss….
        No!
        …dark nothingness
        Don't leave me!
        … timeless void.
        "Mommy!"
        David was forced awake by the sound of his own fearful cry. He bolted up in the bed, disoriented, blinking until the world came into focus. Where was this place? He was dressed in soft white robes, sitting in a large, oval bed with silky sheets and plush pillows. The walls were of finely polished wood and decorated with colorful paintings; and lined with shelves that were stacked with aged, hardbound books. Everything smelled of ocean morning and freshly washed linen. He heard music; soft and lilting, flowing through the room like a gentle breeze.
        Teddy was sitting at the foot of the bed, watching him.
        "Hello," the bear said.
        "Teddy?" David said, groggily. "Where are-"
        Then he saw the man standing in the doorway, gazing on him with smiling eyes.
        "Good morning," Alan Hobby said, laughing gently. "That must have been some dream."
        He remembered now.
        "Professor Hobby," David said, relieved. He rubbed his eyes and fell back into the bedding with a sigh.
        "It's Dad now, remember?"
        David sat up and smiled. "Yeah," he said. "Dad. Almost forgot about that."
        They stared at one another until they were both sure it was really still happening. Hobby sighed.
        "I half expected to find the room empty," he said. "Then I would've called my shrink to tell him I was having hallucinations…. Wonderful hallucinations."
        David screwed up his face. "What's a shrink?" Hobby laughed at that. David didn't get the joke but decided he liked the sound of his Father's laughter.
        "What is that music," he said suddenly, before Hobby could answer his first question.
        "Ah, yes. That is a 'lute', David," Hobby said. He pinched his chin, thinking "Now I don't choose these streams but if I am not mistaken this most likely an Italian piece. Has that romantic flare."
        "It's strange," David said, ear cocked. "It's like … happy and lonely at the same time."
        "I think 'wistful' is the word you're looking for," Hobby said. "I like it because it's interesting enough for listening, but not so obtrusive it distracts me from my work."
        David nodded, listening to the gentle notes waft through the room. "It's beautiful," he said.
        "Well, c'mon, sleepyhead" Hobby said. "You have a busy schedule today."
        David instantly forgot the strange, beautiful sound. "Mommy?" he said, throwing off his covers and jumping to his feet.
        Hobby winked a confirmation. "But how about some breakfast first?" he said.
        David didn't have to be asked twice.

2

David stared at Hobby; eyes wide, brows raised and lips pursed. After a moment he swallowed.
        "What is this?" he said, amazed.
        "That is Eggs Benedict in Hollandaise Sauce," Hobby replied. He took a bite off his own plate and rolled it in his mouth. "Mmm… Cooked lightly in olive oil with a touch of basil, I believe."
        David forked another mouthful and downed it quickly. "This must be the first time I've ever ate real food!" he said.
        "Eaten, David. First time you've ever eaten real food," Hobby corrected, slipping easily back into parental mode after so many years. "And not so fast. Savor your meal."
        David hesitated, wondering when the new chain of command had been established. But after a moment he accepted the shift of authority. There was something 'normal' about it. He tried to slow down, but it wasn't easy. The food was delicious. Since his stay in the hospital, he had come to take the eating process for granted. It was how the body functioned. He enjoyed eating primarily because he was usually hungry when he did so. But now he realized it could be an experience, something to really look forward to.
        Hobby watched the boy thoughtfully. "So, apart from your trip with Chiyoko and Hiro, where have you been all this time?" he said.
        David chewed slower, trying to avoid answering the question. He did not feel like talking about Lord Johnson Johnson, or Sy's gang. And he definitely couldn't tell anyone about the hospital; the morphing bots and the man named Greig, or Jeff, or Frank. Anyway, he had much more important things on his mind. He had Mommy on his mind.
        When he finally swallowed an inadvertent belch followed. He grinned apologetically when his Father frowned.
        "See what happens when you eat too fast?" Hobby said. "So, anyway, where ya been?"
        David shrugged, toying with his food. "I've been…around" he said. Then he forked up another mouthful to avoid answering whatever question was coming next.
        "Around?" Hobby said. "And where is-"
        But the man was interrupted by something that whistled like a bird. David looked about the room, puzzled. Hobby pulled a small oblong disc from his shirt pocket and placed it on the table. He put a finger to his lips, signaling David to be quiet. Then he pressed 'receive'.
        "Morning Grace," he said,
        "Alan! Hi! I checked into the matter you called me about last night. Henry Swinton will be at the New Jersey facility today at about noon. Looks like Cyber-child is cleaning our clock with their 'Sim Suzy' knock off, and he's leading a divisional get-together, some sales pep-talk thing. Did you want me to book you?"
        "No, Grace. Thank you. That's all I wanted to know. I'll be out today. Forward anything big, but you handle the usual suspects for me. Ok?"
        "Sure, sure. So, what's going on with you, mister? Had a copter logged out for forty-five minutes last night? Ariel is being all hush-hush about it. You go out partying with the scavengers or something?"
        Hobby winked at David "Well, aren't you just the busy body," he said to Grace.
        "That's my job."
        "That's odd. I would swear I hired you for R&D. Gossip seems such a waste of a post doctorate."
        "Well, somebody's got to do it."
        "I'd challenge that assertion if I didn't have anything else to do this morning."
        "You'd lose," Grace laughed. "Oh, and out of curiosity, I checked with security… you know, after you asked me if anything strange had been reported?"
        "Go on…"
        "Well, apparently one of the Davids took a little stroll yesterday, out by the old dock. Nobody knows how it got down there, but Security caught it. Said there was something strange about it. 'Creepy' was the word he used, actually. Said it had a toy bear with it."
        "Well, you know those Davids," Hobby said. "They can be quite willful."
        David snickered into his hand. Hobby shushed him with a playful glare.
        "I guess. Anyway, Marcus sent an Alfred down to pick the thing up. But it never showed. And now the Alfred is missing. Can't bring up its link either. It's almost like somebody blocked it, hmmm?"
        "Hmm, indeed" Hobby said, smiling mischievously and gesturing at the Alfred, which was standing at silent attention in a corner. David covered his mouth to keep from laughing.
        "Sounds pretty mysterious, alright," Hobby said. "Keep me posted on that, ok?"
        "Alan!"
        "Grace?"
        "Don't play games with me, you scandal. The elevators last stop was your floor, where it was locked up for hours. What is going on up there?"
        "Come on now, Grace. You know how temperamental elevators can be. They get tired. Up and down and up and down, all day. Everybody pushing their buttons."
        "Well, aren't we in a clever mood this morning? Spill it, old man. A new David? An upgrade? I've heard rumors of a functional tertiary processing base! What gives?"
        "Grace," Hobby said, "Have I ever kept anything from you… that you know of?"
        "Alan!"
        "You keep saying that."
        "You are a pest!" Grace laughed. "Look, I know you're up to something. Just don't leave me out of the loop for too long. Ok? It's getting boring around here."
        "You'll be the first to know," Hobby said, and slipped the phone back in his pocket. David let his laughter come and Hobby joined in.
        "Won't be able to fool her for long," Hobby said. "She's sharp. One of the best." He became thoughtful, pensive. "Been with me from the beginning" he said, almost to himself. David took a sip of his orange juice, hoping the man wasn't going to start asking questions again. But it turned out he had something else on his mind.
        "When I first embarked on the David… on you," Hobby said, "She asked me a question, one that I now see I did not give enough consideration." The man shifted uncomfortably, as if he were embarrassed by the memory. "She asked if a Mecha could truly love a human, did the human have any responsibility in return."
        David put his glass down and leaned back. He could tell this was going to be an important discussion.
        "And?" David said. Hobby picked up a fork and pushed his half eaten meal around on the plate.
        "And I said something which was very arrogant, David, although I didn't see it that way at the time. I said that God had created Adam to love him."
        David knew the story of Adam and Eve. It was part of an ancient religious text. There was a time when he would have been able to summon it from his memory banks. But now he only remembered the gist of it. Hobby continued.
        "But we aren't Gods, David. We are Orga. The path of our history is riddled with good ideas gone wrong. Our pursuits are typically no better than our intents."
        David chewed on this idea. He had been so busy trying to survive, that he hadn't had much time for this type of thinking. But here, with no one to run from, stomach full on the best meal he'd ever had, his mind began to ponder.
        "What was your intent?" he said. Hobby seemed surprised by the question. He stumbled for a response.
        "Well… I guess we were trying to push the boundaries. Simulating life has always been a dream of science. I wanted to create a robot that would learn to see the world through it's own internalized logic. Reason. Dreams. I admit that is a rather deific aspiration."
        David wasn't sure that that meant, but he didn't want to interrupt.
        "And of course there were monetary issues. We're a business, after all. We wanted to profit from a market ripe for exploitation. Maybe I moved too fast, didn't consider all the ramifications."
        David placed his palms flat on the table, unconsciously announcing that he had something to say. Hobby noticed and grew quiet.
        "I met a gang of kids in the forest," David said. "They were thieves and…" he paused a moment, but then decided to bare all. "And I helped them steal from people. Maybe I could say that I was trapped and had no choice, but they became my friends and I admit it was fun sometimes. Well most of the time, actually."
        Hobby leaned back and crossed his arms. But there was no judgment in his eyes. David continued.
        "Their leader was called Sy. He was a big man, and could get pretty mean sometimes. But, other times it was like he really cared about us. He never wanted anyone to get hurt and the rules he made seemed strict, but they were there to protect the group. He taught me a lot of bad stuff, illegal stuff. Tricks and scams. But he also taught me things I needed to know. Like, how to think fast, to be tough and defend myself. How to go after what I want."
        David laughed. "No time for dallying, Pork Chop' he used to tell me."
        "Pork Chop?" Hobby said.
        David shrugged. "It's what they used to call me." Wizzy's teasing smirk came into his mind and an unexpected pang of nostalgia washed over him. "I might not have made it here without them."
        "Yes, there are some precepts that are universal," Hobby said. "Good can come from bad, and both are often subjective."
        David hummed as he digested the words. "A flower falls, even though we love it. A weed grows, even though we do not love it," he said.
        Hobby nodded, impressed. "That has an eastern flavor. Something you learned from Hiro?"
        "Chiyoko told me," David said. "It's the words of a man named Dogen. He lived a long time ago. But what I mean is that… maybe you were being selfish when you made me. But I am glad you did. I was happy when I was with Mommy. And she was happy too." Thinking of Her brought on a flood of emotion, and he fought it back. "It wasn't your fault Martin came home and…" He trailed off, not sure how to continue.
        "Are you trying to say that you forgive me?" Hobby said.
        "I am trying to say … I accept what happened now. And I just want to see what's next."
        Hobby was visibly moved. He sat up straight and cleared his throat, dabbed at his eyes with his napkin.
        "Well once again you surprise me," he said. "And I think I can predict what's in store for you." He pulled his phone from his pocket and thumbed out a code.
        "Mr. Hobby?" said a male voice.
        "Ariel, clear a passenger copter. No logo. I'll be traveling under the name Graham Holt," he looked warmly at David "... and son. Please keep everything off the log again, like last night. Meet us at my dock in … say about thirty minutes."
        "10-4, sir."
        Hobby rose and smiled down on his boy.
        "Well, I am certainly happy we had a chance to talk things through," he said. "Now let's see what Alfred can dig up for you to wear to visit your Mother."
        David's face lit up like a new days dawn.

3

The stone torch of the great sunken lady towered above the waters beneath them, then receded as they passed. Manhattan shrunk quickly behind. Then there was only the deep shifting blue, broken occasionally by the tip of a sunken building or the massive struts of a submerged suspension bridge. They passed a small strip of island, cluttered with abandoned ruins and surrounded by the anchored boats of drifters and scavengers. David thought he saw Hiro's boat among them, but Arial flew past so quickly he couldn't be sure.
        He sat back and adjusted his jacket again. The dark suit wasn't very comfortable, and seemed a bit formal to him. It was designed for one of his Mecha brothers. He had grown a bit since his rebirth, so it was a little tight around the shoulders. But it was the best they could do for now.
        "Dad… what's a breakdown?" he said. "I mean, I know what the word means, but what is it really? How does it happen?"
        Hobby didn't answer at first. He pressed a button on his armrest.
        "Ariel, you're going to have to loop around. We'll be coming in from the south so we won't attract any unwanted attention."
        The Mecha in the cockpit beyond the glass partition raised a hand to signal ok. Hobby closed the connection and faced David.
        "The mind is a complex thing," Hobby said, after a thoughtful pause. "Many of its core functions are still beyond our grasp. We can simulate what we understand and that creates a convincing facsimile of life. But, unlike many in my field, and even though I have accomplished much more than most, I have no illusion that I have stumbled onto the secret schematic of life."
        "For all its complexity, the mind is also delicate. It even seems to be aware of that vulnerability and has built-in methods of self-defense. One of those defenses is called 'shock'. When something horrible happens, something too painful for the mind to accommodate, it simply quits interpreting reality. It still perceives light, sounds, physical stimuli, but only as simple data. There is no cognitive response. Just try talking to a person in shock and you will see what I mean.
        "The same thing happens with extreme fellings, David." He shifted in his seat. "Monica feels a great sense of guilt and shame. It became too much for her mind and so she has withdrawn from the thoughts that bring her pain. She is still conscious. She can talk and relate to others. But she's wounded. Her wounds are mental, so they are not visible. But they hurt just the same."
        David knew about the pain of lost love. He looked out of his window, so his Father wouldn't see his tears. They were passing over land now. Car filled streets criss-crossed between grids of shining buildings. Other aircraft zoomed back and forth at lower altitudes.
        The new world, built upon the remains of the old.
        "Tell me, David. What is love?"
        The question took David off guard. But he knew the answer. His tears began to flow as he responded.
        "Love is when you want to be with someone more than anything, ever… when her face is like sunlight in your brain and her voice is like beautiful music, and the only thing that matters is that you can be with her. For always."
        "That's very poetic son, but…" Hobby paused a moment. "As a Mecha you were trapped in childhood. Through some miracle you have become flesh, and now you will grow into a man. I am going to ask you to start that growing now." His voice was gentle, but the words scared David. He wiped his face and turned to see an equally disturbing look in his Father's eyes.
        "What do you mean," David said, softly, knowing that this was not going to be good.
        "Do you truly love Monica?" Hobby said.
        David couldn't keep his voice from cracking.
        "More than anything!"
        "More than yourself?" Hobby said. "More than your wants and desires?"
        "Yes," David said quickly. "More than anything, ever!"
        Hobby let out a satisfied sigh. "Good" he said and patted his son on the knee. "Don't worry, I am taking you to see her. And you will be allowed to be alone with her and talk to her." The man put his head down and spoke in slow measured tones. "But she will not see you, or hear you, David."
        "Why?" David hadn't meant to yell, but the sound erupted from someplace deep inside, where he had no control of his emotions. "What's is wrong with her!"
        "Nothing, nothing," Hobby said, reassuringly. "It's just that … she will be sleeping, son. She will not be aware of you."
        David's eyes grew wide and imploring. It was Hobby's turn to look away. He gazed out his window as he explained.
        "The Swintons signed an arbitration agreement when they accepted the prototype test. So Cybertronics cannot be held legally responsible for anything that happened as a result of your presence in their home. But when Monica broke down, we took on the expenses of her treatments anyway. It was the right thing to do.
        "Her depressions are seasonal, David. They come on the anniversary of your disappearance and tend to last for months. During that time she can be erratic, manic, even suicidal. Since we're providing for her medical needs, we have logs on all her visits. That's how I knew about the most recent episode.
        "Last week she snuck out of the house and went looking for you. Again. They found her two days later, sleeping in an abandoned building. She was dehydrated and suffering from exposure. Henry checked her into a psychological facility and that's where we're headed. I checked her roster and it shows she will be undergoing an experimental emotional trauma treatment today. Afterwards she will be sedated for a matter of hours."
        He turned again to face David.
        "And that's where you will meet her."
        David closed his eyes and fell back into his seat. He was angry and didn't want his Father to see it. But Hobby understood what the boy was feeling. Betrayal. He would have felt the same way.
        "David, you told me she meant more to you than anything, more than your own desire. And if that is true you must understand that she cannot see you. It would destroy her."
        "It would heal her!" David screamed, bolting up in his seat. "She hates herself because she left me in the woods! But she had no choice! Henry made her do it! Martin made her do it!"
        "No, David! No!" Hobby yelled back. "She hurts because she feels emotions that are not recognized. When a person loses a loved one, everybody allows for their mourning. But when the loved one is a Mecha, we don't recognize it as mourning. We see it as a psychosis. She's never been allowed to mourn, and the people around her don't help in their denial. For you to return now... like this?" He shook his head, sadly.
        "Maybe someday, when she is stronger… and you understand the complex web of human emotions, then perhaps you can find a safe way to tell her who you are, and share your whole amazing story. But do you think she would even believe you?"
        David wanted to yell, to scream, to kick at walls. But he could only sit back and cover his face.
        Hobby waited for the boy to calm a little. "I am taking a great risk in setting this up for you," he said. " A great risk. Henry Swinton must never find out. You must be careful not to wake her, for she would not be able to understand."
        Hobby leaned close to David then, and his voice was gentle and understanding.
        "If you truly love her, David, then you know what you have to do."

4

David's eyes were dry by the time the copter descended to alight atop a large white structure. The doors slid open and he saw a smiling man waiting, hands thrust into the pockets of his lab coat. He knew that face. But he also knew it wasn't really his old friend.
        "Welcome, Mr. Holt," the Angelo said, "Your arrangements have been seen to, sir," It then reached up to assist David out of the craft.
        David unbuckled himself from his seat, and then turned to cast an apologetic look on his Father.
        "I'm sorry for yelling at you," he said.
        Hobby accepted the apology with a smile.
        "I'll be waiting right here, son," he said.
        Then he gestured to the passageway at the edge of the landing strip; the one that would lead David through the halls to the silent room where his mother was resting.
        "Go now, David," he said. "Go to her. She's just now fallen asleep."
1

This is not where he should have found her, this vapid room in a calloused temple of tenuous science, unfeeling stasis for broken minds; where she, grasped tightly in Morpheus' unyielding claw, lay helpless amid beeping, whirring specters; digital voyeurs of delirium. Prisoner to the merchants of hollow hope, who peddled mechanical splints for fractured souls.
        This was not how he should have found her. Broken and withered, like the small bird he had seen in her garden during that first summer of their love, the frail fallen thing that had provoked her explanation of life and death and the gulf of differences that had, then, lain between them. Disparate worlds, whose union, even though their borders now be forded by miracles, fate still cruelly denied.
        This was not who she should have become, pale and sallow creature, lain abed so near, yet so far beyond the reach of his questing heart, that even should its lament of longing be scored into the very music of the spheres, she might never hear it. Call of autumn too soon. Spring's birdsong, felled to silence by a careless Cupid's quarrel.
        He should never have seen this once perfect brow, now creased, even in sleep, from a scourge of fevered memories; and chest once full of laughter unrestrained, now heaving of shallow breath and a heart ravaged by pox of malignant regrets so profuse, that even his salve of innocent, undying love might not heal her. Ails of the world, mundane pestilence of loneliness, that drives all things precious to despair.
        He knelt beside her bed.
        And in her face was little of the woman who had birthed him into sensation; this face that had once turned angels into jealous fools, now battered by a brute so dull as entropy.
        "Mommy," he said, gently, so that he would not wake her to fresh torments of love denied. "I'm here."
        She did not move. Only her breath, thin and troubled, seemed to halt just a moment, as if his whisper had penetrated her forced slumber, and left a cool, clear spot in her fevered dreams.
        So, it was safe. It was safe to speak.
        But what now to say?
        "I saw her, Mommy. I saw the Blue Fairy. And she's real. She's really real."
        He had to stop and wipe his face with the sleeve of his coat.
        "I spoke to her. For a long, long time. Years. I asked her to make me a real boy, so that I could come home to you. At first she wouldn't even talk to me. But then, when I was fading away, and all was getting dark, and it seemed like I would just vanish into nothing, she suddenly came to life. She was bright and beautiful, and her smile was like… like a blue dawn underwater."
        He had to stop again, to blow his nose. How silly, he thought. How simple and foolish this body was, to interrupt him at so crucial a moment, just to tend to its awkward functions. He had brought no handkerchief. So he removed his coat and used it instead. He hated the thing anyway.
        "She asked me if I knew how hard life could be. She said life was a trial and she had to know that I was aware of what I was asking for before she gave it to me. But I didn't have to think about it one minute, Mommy. It didn't matter how difficult Orga life is… I told her yes. I told her that to be with you was all I ever wanted.
        "I'm a boy now, Mommy. A real live boy. We can be together again!"
        He had to stop. He had almost yelled. But still there was no hint of a response. If not for the faint rise and fall of her chest, and the quiet readouts on the machinery above her bed, he would have thought her beyond this mortal coil; and that she had abandoned him… again.
        But she was still here. Silent. Unmoving.
        "I can eat, Mommy. I like it now. I don't break like I did before. And I can sleep. I dream now too. I have strange dreams…I see you in them all the time.
        "And I can control my strength now, so I won't break your stuff. And I won't hurt Martin. Henry will like me now that I'm real, so we won't fight anymore. I promise to get along with him. And you won't have to watch over me all the time. You won't need Teddy to tell me when I am bothering you. And when you go out with Henry I can look after myself, and I'll go to school, like Martin, and learn and make friends and I'll grow up like a normal… like a normal…"
        Once again he had to stop himself. The sound of his own desperate pleas suddenly seemed pathetic to his ears.         Brash and … selfish? Yes. It was a child's voice, wasn't it? A child's voice pursuing a child's dream. He would never be 'normal'. His very existence defied that possibility. He was the opposite of normal.
        Henry would never accept him, even if he did believe the story.
        And Martin? Martin would hate him always. How could he make his Mommy, his one true love, choose between them?
        She wasn't the Blue Fairy. She wasn't magic. She was Orga… soft and fragile, and now broken. And sad. She could not bear this burden. He could not expect her to change the world for him, or even the hearts of other people.
        It wasn't fair.
        It wasn't just.
        It wasn't … love.
        At that moment David realized what his Father had been saying. He could never go back to her. The life that he had dreamed of, that he had breached the fortress walls of reality to attain, was to be ever beyond his reach.
        His soul quaked. Waves of feeling rose from his depths. His body rocked as a tsunami of sorrow surged against the barrier of his heart, and spilled from his eyes. He fell to the floor, curled up his knees and pressed his face into the jacket. Then he cried like a baby, like the child he had never been. His loss came in torrents, powerful gusts that left him feeling weak and pitiful. And he let them come, heedlessly, shamelessly, until they were at last spent.
        Time passed. His tears finally subsided and left him with only a great emptiness inside. He felt weightless, as if he might simply float away. But when he finally rose, he saw that he was still very much gravity bound. He sat for a time, in the silence, listening to his Mother's sleeping breath.
        "Alone again," he said. And his voice was hollow and flat in his ears.
        But… he wasn't really alone, was he?
        Something strange happened then. He felt it deep inside… like a subtle change in the wind, or the shift of air that happens when someone opens the door of a stuffy room. He wasn't alone! He had his Father. He had friends. There were people who loved him. Chiyoko and Hiro. And even Wizzy was still out there somewhere.
        And he was a boy now; an Orga boy. He could make new friends!
        Mommy would never be beyond his reach. He knew where to find her. He was now the son of a wealthy man, so he had the means to keep an eye on her… and to give aid if she ever needed.
        He rose to his feet, straightened his back and wiped his eyes. His heart swelled as he gazed down on her sleeping face. But the feeling was different now. Another miracle had happened, some alchemy of the soul; one he had not asked for, or even expected.
        He knelt close to her again, so that the heat of her troubled breathing was against his face, and whispered softly into her ear.
        "I know you can hear me, Mommy. I know that some part of you knows I am here. Listen to me… you did nothing wrong. I would never, ever blame you for anything. Please don't hurt yourself anymore. Please forget the past and the pain, and live again.
        "Martin needs you. Henry needs you. And I need you… to be happy.
        "I am alive, Mommy. And I am doing fine. I have a place to live and people who love me and… I love you… I love you so much. So, very very much. More than I ever knew."
        He reached out and touched her face, just a whisper of a caress, for she was mortal, like he had become, and he dared not wake her.
        "It's time to let me go, Mommy. I am freeing you."
        Fresh tears rose and fell. But they were not the same as before. They were strange… both happy and lonely at once, like the beautiful music of his Father's home. His home now, where he belonged.
        He stood and wipred the last tears from his face. He rolled the jacket up and folded it under his arm. Then he just stood for a time, letting this new love fill him. Renew him. Make him whole.
        When he at last spoke, his voice was new and determined; a hint of the man he would become.
        "I am going to leave now," he said. "But I will always be near. I will always be watching. And if I ever see that you need me, I will find my way to you.
        "I am going to be the best man that I can. I am going to take in all of the living I can handle, see the world and learn as much as possible. And someday, when you're ready, I will come back to you, and tell you of all my adventures."
        He turned to leave, but stopped at the door for a minute, to watch her, to take in all he could of her, enough to last him for the duration of time he would have to live in her absence.
        And it seemed, as he gazed on her weary sleeping face, that she was indeed breathing easier. Some of the color had come back into her skin. And he'd swear there was the hint of a smile in the corner of her mouth.
        "Sleep well, my beloved," he said.

2

David sat on the sill of his open window, clad only in his bathrobe, watching the milky wash of stars make their slow trek across the night sky. He was eating apple slices from a plate at his side; loosing himself in the lute music that streamed softly into his room, and the feel of the cool night air against his skin.
        Moonlight, silver and clear, shone down on his home at The End Of The World, illuminating the great heads of the weeping lions, and the silent towers beyond them, where men had once dreamed of empires that would last forever. And then did everything they could to thwart that goal.
        He'd grown accustomed to the unending torrent of the lions' weeping. It seemed right now, like it was supposed to be there… like it was actually everywhere all the time, but this silent city was the only place you could really hear it.
        It was nice to be quiet. To be still. He was glad that there was no rush to be anywhere, no place he had to go; or anyone he had to run from… or to.
        He took in a deep, slow breath, and let the air flow from his chest, back into the world. Then he took another. And another.
        Breath of life.
        It was good to be alive. Good to take joy in this simple, life sustaining process.
        There came the sound of distant laughter, like a tickle on the breeze. David looked down to see the small lights of boats floating between the sunken buildings. Someone was having a party out there. He chuckled. Even here, in this dead place, people still lived and laughed... and loved.
        Life goes on, even atop the graves of sunken cities.
        His Father was long asleep. There was a busy day tomorrow, he'd said. But David wasn't to worry about all that for a while. He would be allowed to settle in at his own pace.
        "There's no rush," his Father had told him, hugging him closely, letting him know how proud he was of the way he handled his visit with Monica. "You've had a hard road, my boy; my miracle. You'll grow in your own time," he said.
        But David wasn't going to be waiting around for his new life to begin. There was too much of it to live. Even in the short time since they had arrived from his visit to see his Mother, he had already rearranged his bedroom, and started delving into the stacks of books that lined the walls.
        They were mysterious volumes, History, philosophy, fiction and non-fiction, physics and astronomy. Recipe books. Art and music. A lot about music. Their covers bore strange exotic names: Moravec, Aldiss, Watson, Maitland, and so many others. Orga names! Orga had written these words. What a fascinating species.
        Father had told him that he could find all of this material on the computer, and that he was free to use it whenever he wanted. But there was something about the books that attracted David. Was it the weight of them in his lap, the smell of the aged paper, the swish when he turned the pages that made it seem like they were whispering to him? He was not sure. But they were something precious.
        So many stories. So little time.
        Another sound caught his attention. But this one came from behind him. It was a soft electronic moan, in the hallway. And then the light metallic swish of doors opening and closing. Elevator doors.
        Footfalls came next, soft and sneaking. But not so expertly that he could not hear them.
        He had turned the lights out so he would be able to enjoy the night sky. But he didn't really need to see his visitor. He was pretty sure who it might be.
        His door was creaking open now, ever so slowly. But David didn't feel like waiting.
        "Come on in," he said.
        The dark figure at the door stopped, as if she might withdraw. But then she stepped cautiously into the room, and into the beam of moonlight that shone through David's window. David was framed in this light, propped on his windowsill, hugging his knees. His hair had been tied back into a small ponytail, but he was still clearly not standard issue.
        "Well, hello," she said, as if she were talking to a small child. "You must be the new David."
        David shrugged. "New. Old. Renewed," he said, somehow managing not to laugh. The woman's brow twisted at these words.
        "Well, aren't you a unique little thing," she said. She was dark skinned, with bright, intelligent eyes. There was curiosity in them. And mischief too.
        "And you must be Grace," David said, pointing a finger at her. The presumptive gesture amused her.
        "So, I see Alan's been busy," she replied, propping a hand on her hip. "And what else has he been loading into your pretty little head."
        "Well, he thinks you're a real 'busy body'," David said. "And I think I might agree." Then he reached into the small plate beside him, grabbed another slice of apple and bit loudly into it. He smiled at Grace as he made a big show of chewing and swallowing.
        "Deeelicious!" he said.
        Her face grew mystified. She stepped back, putting her hand to her chest. David noticed what she held. Dad had given him one of those too.
        "Now, unless I am mistaken, Grace, that's a universal key," he said, a gentle tease in his voice. "I'll bet Dad doesn't know you have that."
        Grace stepped close again, looking hard at the boy on the sill. It couldn't be, but she'd swear that... She jumped back.
        "Oh my," she said. "You're… you're…"
        David laughed again. It was a carefree, boyish sound.
        "Do you like lute music? I'll bet you like lute music!"
        She stammered for an answer. "Uh… lute? Well, yes... I think."
        "I knew it!" David said. "I love lute music. Love it! I think I'll get one and learn how to play.
        "And I'll bet you like flying too," he said, tossing his arms out to his sides, as if he were a bird awaiting a lifting breeze. "I'm gonna learn that too. And there's swimming and driving and soccer and reading and… well, I'll bet you like pretty much everything about life, don't you?"
        Grace was beyond words. Her mouth hung open silently. She finally managed to mouth a breathy, "Oh… my… God."
        "I think we are going to be good friends," David said as she tried to compose herself. He bit another slice of apple, speaking as he chewed. "But it's probably not a good idea to let Dad know you snuck up here to get a peek at me, ya think?"
        "Sure, sure," she said, awed. "Good idea. Um… I'll be going now." She turned to leave.
        "Grace!" David said. The woman turned around slowly, apprehension in her features. David put a finger to his mouth.
        "Shhhhh…"
        "Understood," she said.
        "G'nite, Grace."
        "Good night… David?" She backed away to the door. David heard her footfalls rushing to the elevator, and her soft swearing when it didn't arrive fast enough for her.
        He turned his attention back to the night. Monica was out there somewhere, trapped in a restless chemical slumber. But he could do nothing about that now.
        A flower had fallen, in spite of his love, and a weed had grown in its place. His hate would not destroy it.
        It was time he planted new flowers, and learned to help them grow.
        "Good night, Mommy," he said. "Until we meet again."
...
A fan fiction by
Bryan Harrison
based on characters
from the film
A.I. Artificial Intelligence


BOOK ONE
.
END OF BOOK ONE
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