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Dividing By Five

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I’d been out of the Vault for three whole days and I thought I was ready for anything.  I had paid such careful attention to all the Overseer’s lessons.  Such as, for instance, the one about mutants, which I had reason to think about right at this very moment.  A series of stark line drawings paraded through my memory:  small-headed, broad-shouldered beasts, covered in pustules that were marked with radiating lines to demonstrate their toxicity.  The creatures on the slides always towered above brave little Vault-Boy, who was armed only with his BB gun.  The captions relentlessly repeated their warnings of contamination, pestilence, corruption both physical and moral.  I’d dutifully absorbed the modules and correctly answered all the questions on the tests that followed.  When I left, I’d brought a wrench, a pistol, and a litre of water with me.  I was prepared.

But this thing!  The monster that stood before me didn’t look like any of the slides.  It didn’t seem like it could ever have been human.  It wasn’t much taller than me, and it didn’t have the strange tiny head from the pictures, but it was fearsome enough.  Its skin was a muddy brown, pitted and cracked like the wasteland itself.  Where men and women have hair, it had a ridge of bright orange horns bisecting its scalp front to back.  Even its eyes, the most human part of it, were cold and soulless.  The creature was plated in a patchwork of skins, probably belonging to the half-dozen other wastelanders that it had killed, eaten, and regrown from within.  It was weirdly backlit by the sun, whose beauty had transfixed me and (I admit it) distracted me from the beast’s approach.

I was frozen in place, expecting the thing to raise its assault rifle to my chest and paint a line of red holes across my body:  these were tool-using creatures, and I could tell that the gun was in good repair.  I wondered, for the first time since I’d left the Vault behind, whether I’d made a mistake.  Everything I’d encountered in the wasteland before this moment was lovely in its way — broken, yes, and diseased, but lovely.  I was enthralled by it all, but the monster frightened me.

It didn’t attack.  It just watched me, something like curiosity alight in those alien eyes.  The rifle remained slung loosely over its shoulder.  Minutes seemed to pass in silence.  The weapon swayed slightly, its muzzle pointed at the dusty ground.

I couldn’t remember from my lessons whether these things could speak, but this one didn’t look inclined to kill me right away so there seemed to be nothing to lose by trying to reason with it.  “Are you—”  I croaked.  I realized that I didn’t really know how to form any of the questions that raced through my mind.

“... are you a mutant?” I said at last.

Of all the millions of things I half-expected to happen, this was not one of them:  The creature laughed.  And it kept laughing.  It laughed so hard the rifle slid from its shoulder;  the weapon balanced impossibly on its tip for an instant before teetering leftward and then falling to the ground in a puff of dust.  The creature paid the gun no mind;  it wrapped its arms around its belly, doubled over, and laughed some more.  Or was I misinterpreting the noises coming from its gut, I wondered crazily — was this booming roar the war-cry of the wasteland carrion-eater?  Was the monster threatening me in its own freakish language?  But the look on its face I could interpret only as mirth.

“They warned me that V-dwellers were idiots,” the creature gasped in a startlingly ordinary man’s voice, before collapsing into another laughing fit.  It wiped its face with its forearm, tracking a clean streak through the grime.  Its skin was not quite as rough-looking as I’d thought at first, once the dirt was gone, and it was in fact a rather fresh-looking pink colour.  “But man, you’re a piece’a work.”

I tried to process this reaction, but no answers presented themselves.  “So... so you’re a... a ghoul?” I ventured.

“No, shit-for-brains, I’m not a ghoul either,” it — he, I guess — he replied, reaching down to retrieve the gun.  “If you’d ever seen a ghoul you wouldn’t even be asking me that.  Jesus.”

I was out of ideas.  My silence seemed to make the man suspicious, because now he aimed the rifle at me, tucking the butt of it casually under his armpit.  But still he didn’t squeeze the trigger.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m, uh... I’m new here.”

He smirked.  “I gathered.”

“I didn’t mean any offense.”

He performed some mental calculation, watching me carefully, then finally came to a decision and slung the weapon over his shoulder again.  “Tourists don’t last long out here,” he said, holding out a hand.

I wasn’t really sure what to do with it.  Seeing my puzzled expression, the man took a step toward me, wiggling his fingers.  I accepted his invitation and immediately regretted doing so;  his palm was greasy and unnaturally warm.  But when I tried to draw back, he tightened his grip, pulling my arm up so that he could get a better look at my Pip-Boy.  He wasn’t wearing one, which I suddenly realized was one of the reasons he didn’t register as human at first.  I squirmed.

He lowered my hand, frowning, but did not let go of it.  “Is there anything you know how to do?  Is there anything left in that skull of yours after the lobotomy?”

“Lobotomy?” I repeated vacantly.

“Or whatever the fuck it is they do to you in those vaults.  Do you have any marketable skills, is what I’m asking.”

“Oh.  Well, my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. score is significantly above average—”

He started laughing again, but I wasn’t sure why.  What sort of answer had he been expecting?  He cleared his throat and waved at me to continue with his free hand.

“I’m pretty good at computers.  I was in charge of water filtration back home.”  I wasn’t actually in charge of anything but staring at a never-changing diagnostics screen, but he didn’t need to know that.  The next sentence was the truth, though:  “I kind of prefer programming robots.”

“Yeah?”   He jerked my hand and I stumbled after him.  “That’s pretty cool.”  The compliment, bland as it was, gave me a glimmer of pride as he led me away from the rancid little pond where we’d met.  We picked our way along chunks of broken concrete that may have been a road once.  “You might not be completely useless after all.”

* * *

“Guys!  Look what I found!”

The man had taken me to the hideout he shared, or so he told me, with three friends.  It was its own Vault of sorts, made out of corrugated iron, road signs, old doors, tabletops.  The building was about as sturdy as the raw materials would allow, and made a room roughly the size of our cafeteria back home.  Three other monsters were sitting around a foul-smelling fire, cooking tins of beans whose friendly logos I recognized from the Vault refrigerators.

Except they weren’t monsters, of course.  They were women, and they’d arranged their hair into shapes just as ridiculous as the one I’d mistaken for horns on the man’s head earlier.  Two of the women were black-skinned like me, while the third was pinky-pale like the man who brought me here.  All of them were dressed in rags and caked in filth.  The more I looked at them, the more human they seemed;  I felt sheepish for assuming they were mutants.

“What the fuck, Anton?” the pale woman boomed.  “What the fuck is that?”

“I thought we could maybe keep her as a pet,” the man said.  “She says the funniest shit.  Just listen to her.  Ask her anything.”

“A pet?” another of the women snarled.  The spikes on her head went in all directions, rather than in a neat line, and they had been dyed a cancerous-looking green.  I was mesmerized by a scar that ran the length of her cheek.  “You really think we can afford to water that thing?”

“Oh, shut up, Denise,” the pale woman said, rounding on the green-haired one.  “We let you keep that fucking hyena for, like, a year, so Anton can bring a pet if he fucking well wants.  We’ll let her drink the irradiated shit, and if she dies of the flux then Anton can fucking bury her.”

“It was a wolf,” Denise protested, “and her name was Betsy.”

“I’m serious, man,” Anton insisted, ignoring the argument entirely.  “Go on, talk to her.  She’s like a robot who’s programmed to say, like, comedy.”

I’d only understood about two-thirds of this conversation so far;  the obscenities obscured so many of the surrounding words that the actual meaning of the sentences was mostly lost to me.  I could tell from the raised voices that my presence didn’t please the women who were talking, though the one who had been silent so far looked as intrigued by me as I was by her group.  She was the only one here with undyed hair;  it made twisting black ropes, thick as my thumb, whose ends reached nearly to her elbows.

The quiet one spoke in a low-pitched purr that reminded me of the machinery that kept the Vault running.  “She useful?” she asked Anton, her shining dark eyes still focused on me.

“Claims to be a patcher,” Anton said.  “Says she builds robots.”

“I don’t build them from scratch,” I interjected hastily.  “But I can find my way around the insides of a Mr. Handy—”

Everybody in the group suddenly burst into laughter, which echoed dizzyingly off the metal walls of the bunker.  “Fuck,” said the one called Denise, gasping for air, “you’re not kidding about the comedy.”

The quiet one, who was the first to recover from her laughing fit, said, “What’s your name, child?  Do you have one?”

The question was beyond insulting — I’m twenty-two and of course I have a name — but it seemed unwise to express my indignance given how catastrophically I’d misstepped in identifying Anton’s species less than an hour earlier.  “My name is Alice,” I said, bracing myself for more mocking laughter.  But nobody laughed this time;  they simply cocked their heads, watching me with genuine interest.  “I was born in Vault 93.”

“We could tell,” the pale woman said.  “Or did you assume that a bunch of savage wastelanders don’t know how to read?”

My jumpsuit!  I’d forgotten that it advertised to everyone that I was an ignorant vaultdweller, blinking in the light of the poisonous sky, waiting to be eaten by radiation-crazed dogs or mutated insects or whatever other terrifying creatures skittered from ruin to ruin in the night.  No wonder everyone thought I was brain-damaged.  Looking down at myself, I was struck by how new and crisp the fabric seemed out here, even though I’d been wearing this same outfit for several years inside the Vault and had always thought of it as worn-out.

“Where’d you find her?” The question was addressed to Anton.

“It was hilarious,” Anton said, scarcely able to contain his glee.  Clearly he’d been looking forward to telling this story for our entire walk back.  “She was standing by the edge of the sludgepuddle, staring up at the sky.   She was there so fucking long she was fit to get cancer, right then and there.  Like, this far from shore.”  He held his hands maybe two feet apart, though in actual fact I was much further away from the water than that.

“You know you shouldn’t be near that stuff, right?” the quiet woman said to me.  “You know the surface water is toxic?”

Despite her gentle tone, I couldn’t restrain my indignance this time.  “Of course I know that.”

Anton went on.   “I watched her through my scope for a while, then went up to her to... uh, to ask her if she was lost.” 

This elicited yet another round of laughter that I didn’t understand, though I suspected it had something to do with how vulnerable I must have seemed, my face turned blankly upward with nothing but wasteland all around me.

“She didn’t do shit.  She stopped gawking at the sky after a while, and then she started gawking at me with that same glazed expre—yeah, that one, that one right there.”

I looked away an instant too late.  While he was talking, I’d been trying to imagine Anton as the monster who’d approached me by the pool, but he had so thoroughly transformed into a human in the meanwhile that I couldn’t understand how he’d ever struck me as anything else.

“It’s like she was a fucking... a fucking hypnotist or something, because I just zoned right there along with her.  We stood there staring at each other for ages.  I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I swear, she could have taken advantage so hard.  If she’d pulled heat I’da been void.”

I saw, and seized, an opportunity to defend myself.  “I’ll say.  He was so surprised, he dropped his gun.”  I was instantly rewarded with a round of laughs to claim as my own, though it came at the cost of a withering look from Anton.

“What the fuck were you staring at before he got there, anyway?” Denise asked.  “I’m damned if I’ve ever seen anything worth a second glance in these godforsaken wastes.  Did Tenpenny come and shit a giant diamond in the sky, or what?”

Her last question was filled with yet another string of foreign words, so I decided to ignore it.  “Everything out here is beautiful,” I said.  My voice sounded very tiny.  “I love the wasteland.”

There was a silence, interrupted only by the bubbly pops of the food in the cans over the fire pit and the weak groaning of the gas-powered generator outside.  I couldn’t tell what anyone was thinking;  their expressions seemed to range from contempt to pity to curiosity, sometimes all three on the same face.  But between the bad light and the dirt on everyone’s skin, I couldn’t be sure.  I cast my eyes around the room, and even that little dump seemed beautiful to me then — the asymmetrical shelves loaded with rusted boxes, the empty soda bottles littering the floor, the grungy mattresses, the soiled books, the upturned filing cabinets, the astonishing variety of weapons leaning against the walls.  The Vault felt so sterile and ugly by comparison.  The confidence that I’d made the right choice returned.

That confidence gave me the courage to press on.  “The sun was a colour I’d never seen before.  I mean, I’d never seen the sun at all until a few days ago.”  I took some pleasure in the shock that crossed people’s faces as I said that.  “But tonight, when Anton found me, it was going down under the hills, and it was this amazing colour... uh... this...”  I drifted off, partially because I didn’t know the word, but mostly because I was starting to lose myself in the memory of that uncanny sunset.

“Pink?” the quiet woman prompted.

“Orange?”  Denise suggested.

“Purple?” Anton chimed in.

“Oh, for fuck sake,” the pale one muttered.  “We’re teaching this simpleton colours now?  Can we charge her fucking college tuition if that’s what we’re doing?”

“Quit whining, Claire,” Anton said.  “At least this is way more entertaining than conversations with that hyena ever were.”

“Wolf,” Denise said automatically.  Everyone laughed, and I joined in this time.  Though I still only understood about half of what anybody in this group of monsters was saying, I was starting to get a feel for the rhythm of their conversations, and even with all the cuss-words, it felt affectionate and homey in a way I never felt back in the Vault.

“So you saw the colours,” the quiet woman said, nodding for me to continue.

“Sort of pink, sort of orange,” I said.  “But not like paint, right?   Not like the colour of Cram or Blamco Mac.  Or even Anton’s hair, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“It was shining.  It was lighting everything up, making everything around me the same colours as itself.  I’d never seen that before.  The lights in the Vault are all... are all...”  I had run out of words again, so I gestured limply at the broken hood of an industrial fluorescent light that was being used to prop up one of the doors.  “Like that.”

“So you sat there staring at it?” Denise asked, reaching for one of the cans with a makeshift set of tongs made, so far as I could tell, from Eyebot parts.   She brought it expertly toward herself without spilling or burning anything;  it made me uneasy just to look at her.  “Is that really what those overseers teach you to do?  Stand around admiring shit, even when there’s raiders and ghouls and mutants crawling the countryside?”

“We’re raiders,” Anton explained slyly.  Turning to his companions, he added, “Alice here thought I was a ghoul.”

“I don’t blame her,” said Denise, stirring the contents of her can with her tongs.  “You’re fugly like one.”

“Hey, hey, lay off the sarcasm.  How will she ever learn if you keep filling her head with lies?”

“I cannot fucking believe we are still talking about this,” Claire growled.   “Gimme a hit of those fucking beans.  You want some, V-dweller?”

I was oddly touched that the most abrasive member of the group had offered me some of her food.  There couldn’t have been much of it to spare, not around here.  “Thank you,” I said.  I was ravenous but I needed to remember my manners;  I’d already made enough mistakes tonight.  “I don’t want to impose...”

“You won’t be imposing if you can build us a robot,” Anton said lightly.  “One of those big fucking Protectionators.”  He spread his fingers, shooting imaginary lasers all around the room.  “Biz!  Biz!  Biz!”

“Protectrons,” I said, unable to resist the correction.  “Like I said before, I can’t build one from scratch, but if you bring me a deactivated one I might be able to reprogram it.”

“Reprogram it how?” Claire said, her grimy pink face creasing with excitement.

“You know,” I said lamely.  “Um.  Make it identify specific targets that you choose—”

The rest of my answer was drowned out by the triumphant whooping of my hosts. 

* * *

Apparently they were serious about being “raiders.”  Early the next morning, Anton, Claire, and the quiet one, whose name turned out to be Toya, went out into the wastes, strapping so many guns and knives to themselves that I feared for their safety just walking from place to place.  They swore “on the President’s balls” that they’d bring me back the corpse of a Protectron, along with whatever food and salvage they could find.  This is what a different group of three did each day, while the last one, whoever it was, stayed behind to watch the stash.  When I asked whether they were worried about the security of the shack and its sole guard, Anton gestured wordlessly toward maybe two dozen tiny blinking red dots on the footpath.  The place was littered with enough frag mines to blow the door off a Vault, and yet everyone in the group wandered in and out without so much as looking at their feet.  I shuddered at the thought that I’d crossed that minefield with Anton last night without even noticing the lights.  So much for my focused awareness of the beauties of the wasteland.

My Pip-Boy said it was about 09:00, and I’d been alone with Denise for a few hours.  I’d found the rest of the Eyebot whose antennae she had used for chopsticks the night before, and was trying to prise the sensor module out of its belly.  Denise had spent the morning reading a book whose pages were mostly missing (“I like it better this way,” she said, “’cause then I can decide who dies”). I snuck looks at her when I could get away with it. She was a striking woman, taller and broader even than Anton. Her scar moved hypnotically whenever she talked or chewed. I tried to imagine her with a pet wolf, but that was hard because I wasn't entirely sure what a wolf looked like.

But now she seemed to be getting restless.  She dropped the book suddenly, and started rifling noisily through a tin box.

“D’you want some Med-X?” she said.

“Pardon?”

She brought out a syringe and held it up to the light, squinting, before diving back into the box for another search.  “I think we’ve got enough,” she said.

“Are you... are you going to beat me up?” I asked weakly.  I’d thought we were getting along so well.

“What?”  She looked up.  After a moment’s confusion, she laughed.  “Oh, no, no, honey, no.  Sorry if I scared you.  So you’ve only ever used Med-X in a fight before now, huh.”

I’d actually never used it at all;  the chems were locked up pretty tightly in the Vault’s hospital lockers.

“You really ought to try it sometime when you’re not getting the shit kicked out of you,” she continued, shaking the box until it clattered.  “For one thing, the sex is amaaaaaaaazing.”

I blinked at the sudden descent into carnal topics.  “Oh,” was all I could say.

“Come to think of it, you seem more like a Mentat-eater,” she said, pulling a foil package out of the box.  She ran a fingernail expertly along the plastic bubbles to see if any of them were still unpopped.

“So, uh, Anton’s your... boyfriend then?”

“‘Boyfriend,’” she repeated with a chuckle.  “Veeder, you never fail to bring the comedy.”  I was starting to get used to the numerous nicknames the gang had developed for me:  “Vault-dweller” had turned into “V-dweller” or “Veeder” or sometimes just “Vee.”  I was starting to doubt that anyone here remembered my real name, which bothered me less than I thought it might.

“I guess he’s my ‘boyfriend’ sometimes.  When he can get it up, anyway.  But I spend a lot more time with the others.  So which’ll it be, Mentats or X?”

“Mentats, please,” I said, partially because that was something I had tried before, but mostly because I was having an immense amount of trouble untangling the wires in the Eyebot and figured I could use the boost.  Denise tossed me the package and I caught it, thanking her with a nod.  “So you’re saying there’s other guys around here?” I asked as I removed the last pill from its foil bubble.

She just chuckled again, shaking her head.

I swallowed the oversized red slug, acutely regretting the absence of a nearby drinking fountain.  But that regret didn’t last long because suddenly the arrangement of wires in the Eyebot head resolved into sense.  Simultaneously, I understood who exactly Denise meant by the others.  “Ah,” I said to both revelations.

But she was in no state to congratulate me;  her attention was focused entirely on the clear liquid that was being dumped from the needle into the crook of her elbow.  She threw her head back.  “Nnnnnngggh, that’s good.”

“What, you two are at it already?” came Anton’s voice from the doorway.  “I swear, I leave you alone for an hour...”

“Nope!” I chirped.  “We’re not having sex!  Did you get a robot?”

“Hey, guys,” he called behind him.  “Veeder’s fucked up on Mentats.  We’re in for a treat.”

“Shut your gash and help me with this thing,” Claire grunted.

The scuffling noises at the doorway were amplified by the chems, and I had already mentally reprogrammed the bot six times over by the time they’d wrestled it inside.  It was gorgeous.  Besides a couple of suspiciously frag-mine-shaped dents on its right leg, it was in perfect condition;  it must have been preserved in a pod since before the war.  Or a Vault maybe.  Did they rob a Vault?  Did they rob my Vault?  Whatever the case, I imagined that the gang had rigged the room with explosives before inviting it out from its cocoon by way of a remote terminal somewhere, and it seemed like they’d planted the explosives in such a way as to cause as little damage to the—

“Veeder.  Veeder.  Alice.  I need to talk to you.”  I didn’t remember Anton approaching me, but he had pulled me up roughly to my feet and was leaning in with a worried expression.

“Hi, Anton,” I said, my thoughts effortlessly realigning themselves with this new task.

“Look, I like you.  We all like you.”

“I like you too, Anton.”

“Which is why I’ve got to be honest with you.  I’ve got a lot riding on this, okay?”  He had steered me into a corner of the shack behind some shelves, and lowered his voice to a whisper.  It sounded loud to me, of course, but I imagined that the other women couldn’t hear us;  they were too busy arguing about what to name the Protectron anyway.

“What can I do for you?” I asked brightly.

“We can’t afford a fifth who doesn’t pull her own weight,” he said, glancing anxiously over his shoulder at the rest of the group.  “And, let’s face it, you’re funny and you’re sweet and all, but you’re just not that good at the wasteland thing.”

“I can learn!”

“I know, Vee, I know.  But... look, it probably wasn’t like this back in your Vault, but we kinda live hand to mouth around here.  And dividing everything by five rather than four is hard.  Even for the while it’ll take you to learn, we’re really going to have to scrape.”

I was briefly distracted by the idea of dividing numbers by five, and tried to find some numbers to do it to.  I’d gotten up to 115 when I was snapped back to attention by a hissed, “Alice!  Focus.  This is important.”

“Sorry.”

“You can stay if you do something cool with the robot.  That was the deal I cut with Claire and Toya.”

“Okay.”

“Do you understand me?  You have to figure out how to make that thing useful by this time tomorrow or else you’re out on your ass.”

“Okay.”

“And if you lied about being able to program bots, then not only are you sorely fucked, I’m fucked too.  Are you listening?”

“I get it, I get it.  Let me at it.  Quick, while I’m still hopped up.”

“Attagirl.”  He let go of my arm and I bolted for the Protectron. 

“Hah, look at her go,” Denise said, but after Anton’s warning I could see that the group was less jovial than before.  They were all watching me with the same kind of wary amusement I’d seen on Anton’s face when I first met him by the radioactive pond.  Was it only a day ago?

This really was a test.  But that was all right, since the Vault had trained me to excel at tests about the wasteland, if not the wasteland itself.

* * *

The Mentats wore off soon afterward, and I had to rely on my own skill, such as it was.  The work was harder than I thought;  I was used to having a user manual easily to hand, to say nothing of the luxury of a water fountain, a clean toilet, and featureless days to fill with tinkering.

But with the head start granted me by the chems, along with a few educated guesses, I was able to break into the mind of the bot.  Scavenging parts from other broken machines around the building — a brainless Robobrain that was suffering the indignity of serving as a rifle rack, the keyboard of a clunky terminal whose screen had been shot out long ago, and two more Eyebots which had apparently also been disassembled for the purpose of making tongs — I was able to hack into the facial recognition panel and rejig it.

The raider gang was fascinated, and would sit and watch me work for hours, munching on dodgy-looking mutfruits as they did so.  They respected my request for silence, interrupting only to offer me some vodka (I declined) and, a few hours later, a quarter-box of InstaMash (I accepted).  I liked that they were treating me civilly during my test, but I missed the casual affection and laughter of the previous day;  its absence made me twitchy.

“Which of you wants to be the first volunteer?” I said at last, wiping my hands on my jumpsuit.  I was only half-sure of my success but it was 08:42 and I had slept for only an hour out of the previous twenty-four.  If the machine didn’t work now, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be done by nine.

Toya must have noticed some hesitation in my voice, because she said, “If you need a couple more hours, it’s okay, you know.  We’re not going to execute you or anything.”

“Toya’s a fucking pussy,” said Claire, rising to her feet.  “Here, I’ll do it.  I’ll also execute you if it doesn’t work.”

I was so bad at telling when any of these people were kidding, and there were no gales of laughter like before to help me figure out where the jokes were.  So I had no choice but to assume that Claire was serious, especially since she loaded a shotgun as soon as she’d finished talking.  She snapped the barrel shut smoothly, one-handed. I coughed.

“Stand here while it scans you.”

“HELLO EMPLOYEE NUMBER ONE,” said the robot. “PLEASE ENTER DATABASE MANAGEMENT PASSCODE.”

The force of Vault habit had led me to design a very complicated password involving three separate permutations of my birthday, but the awed expressions that greeted my quick typing assured me that even the simplest password in the world wouldn’t be cracked by this group.

“I can’t teach it to say names,” I said with an apologetic shrug.  “You’re all going to be EMPLOYEES, I’m afraid.  Stand still, Claire.”

Anton sniggered.  Toya pursed her lips thoughtfully.  Denise was frowning.  Claire blinked hard, three or four times in quick succession, tightening her grip on the gun.

“SCAN COMPLETE.  DATABASE UPDATED.  HAVE A NICE DAY, EMPLOYEE NUMBER ONE.”

Claire let out a breath.

“So the idea is that if you’re not in the system, it’ll attack you,” I explained.  “Anton, come here and I’ll demonstrate.”

“What the fu—”

“Yeah, c’mere, Anton,” Claire said with a wicked grin, grabbing her so-called friend by the elbow and yanking him toward her.

“USER NOT RECOGNIZED.  PROVIDE IDENTIFICATION IN TEN SECONDS.”

“Jesus Christ, Vee—”

“It’s cool.  Just wait.”

Anton glanced nervously between Claire, the ’Tron, and me.  The other two women moved instinctively toward the walls, reaching for weapons.

“FIVE.”

I couldn’t help but giggle.  I hoped it would be reassuring that I found humour in this situation, but then I wondered if maybe the giggling just made me look psychotic. Claire raised the shotgun to waist height; though she aimed it at the bot, I knew that if things were to go poorly, I'd be the recipient of the next shell.

“IDENTIFICATION INCOMPLETE.  HAVE A TERRIBLE DAY, FRAUDULENT EMPLOYEE.”

“Vee!”

The bot raised an arm to fire, and would have turned Anton to a pile of glowing cinders had there been any ammo in it.  Instead, it made a faint little pvvvv noise and adopted a patriotic stance.

I held up the microfusion cell with a smile.  “I guess it works?”

“Fuck!” Anton yelled, forcefully separating himself from Claire and stomping to the opposite side of the room to rattle one of the metal shelves in a burst of nervous energy.  “Fuck!”

And there, there was the laughter I was waiting for.  Even Anton joined in after a minute, and a minute after that, he was laughing the hardest of all, harder than any of the women who were now loudly imitating his bellowed “Fuck!”s, harder even than he had when I asked him if he was a mutant all those days ago.