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Functions test. Left hand – fingers: curl, grab, release. Right hand. Elbows, lock and bend. Twist at the waist. Touch toes: one, two, three. Bend knees and straighten. Lift and lower – left foot; right foot. Inhale – hold. Voice.

"Beta-testing Android Angeles prototype C. Unit 5284-C-S-T-L. Database accessible. Ready for deployment."


"Sir, if it's alright, I'd like to open this discussion by stating, just for the record, that even though Corporal Bass was out of line, no matter what he may have already said to you, I didn't actually try to behead him—"

Captain Rufus Turner stares at Dean, his head propped in his hand, wearing the expression of a man who spends his days counting down until his retirement. "Winchester."

"I mean, sure, I shoved him – I admit to that, and it was wrong – but I didn't know he was gonna trip and I didn't know he was gonna fall against the airlock – and then, see, it was Harvelle who accidentally pushed the—"


Dean shuts up. He raises his eyebrows and looks at Captain Turner with a look of perfect innocence. "Sir?"

"That's not why I called you in here," he says wearily.

"Oh." Dean sits back in his chair. "In that case, sir, with all due respect, I have no idea what happened to Corporal Ba—"

"I called you in here," Rufus says, raising his voice over Dean's, "because you've been reassigned, sergeant."

While Dean sits in stupefied silence, Rufus clears his throat and tries to begin again. He meshes his fingers together and sets both hands on the desk in a gesture that looks awkwardly authoritative, as though he's seen someone else do it and thought it seemed like a nice idea.

"Winchester, you're one of a select few from Fox company being moved to become part of a specialised task force by the name of Blue October that will be operating on Earth in two months' time or so," he says, and he unclasps his hands to flick through some papers at the side of his desk. "I got a memo here says there'll be a briefing on your new training tomorrow morning, in the main training hall at oh-seven-hundred hours – just stuff to get you up to speed on what you'll be doing and how it'll be organised, etcetera, etcetera – you know how it goes."

"Yes, sir, I do."

"Right. Main training hall – oh-seven-hundred. Got that? Good. That'll be all, then." Rufus rocks onto the back legs of his chair, mouth stretching into a cavernous yawn, and he flaps a hand in the direction of the door. "You're dismissed."

Dean goes to leave and then, half-seated and half-hovering awkwardly in the air, he adds, "Actually – one question, sir – I was just wondering if you knew who else has been picked?"

Rufus slams the chair back down and narrows his eyes at Dean.

"I mean, I was just wondering if maybe there was anyone else I knew who was assigned—"

"Does it look like I've got a list of all your friends, Winchester?" Rufus says. "This ain't a goddamn slumber party – get out of my office."

Dean has known Captain Turner long enough to be able to identify the warning signs when he's T-minus-twenty to a minor explosion, and so Dean recognises now that it's time to go. He quickly rattles off the expected, "Yes, sir – sorry, sir – thank you – I'll see you later," and then hurries out before Rufus can throw anything at him.

There are a couple of young first-year recruits waiting uncertainly outside the door, probably there to be yelled at, and where Dean would usually at least offer them a reassuring smile, today he is preoccupied. A specialised Earth task force definitely beats his current assignment, which was officially titled Base Administration, but which actually boils down to scrubbing toilets and cleaning weapons for all the forces who are off to do real work somewhere else. It's an assignment Dean has been on for the best part of a month, and he's already taken to discussing with the rest of his team whether they think it would be possible to commit seppuku using the end of a mop. He'll be glad for a change, although he had never expected anything quite like this.

He heads for the elevator, down the two floors to the cafeteria, and upon entering the latter, Dean is met with the cacophony of some several hundred soldiers all talking, eating, and clattering their cutlery at the same time. There are five hundred-men companies in the 2nd Battalion of the Rifles Regiment to which Dean belongs, and a grand total of about four other battalions alongside his own, so feeding time at the waterhole is always chaotic, even when meal-times are divided up into several slots to keep the cafeteria from getting gridlocked with hungry troops.

As Dean joins the long dinner queue where it curves around the perimeter of the room, he scans the cafeteria for any sight of his usual meal-time companions. It's not too difficult, seeing as his brother is an easy six inches taller than most other people, and Charlie's hair means she can also be spotted a mile off. With his tray in hand, carefully balanced to avoid slopping his lasagne all over the linoleum, he finds them at the far edge of the room, deeply engaged in what seems to be a conversation about the finer points of having sex in a sink.

"I'm telling you, it can't be done!" Adam repeats, over and over like a mantra. "It just cannot be done!"

"It can!" Charlie argues, and she points a finger right into his face. "Okay. Let's say there's a dick and a hoohaha—"

"Am I the only one who feels like a lesbian should probably be able to say the word 'vagina' without blushing like a third-grader?" Jo says, and she grins at Dean as he sits down opposite her. "Hey, trouble-maker."

"No, come on - bear with me here. Dick and hooha!" Charlie insists, louder now so that some guys at the next table over turn to shoot her a weird look. "If the person with the dick sits inside the sink—"

"Don't even ask," Sam says as he sees Dean's bewildered reaction to Charlie and Adam's debate. "So how'd the meeting go?"

Dean puffs out his cheeks in an exaggerated sigh. "Well," he starts, "turns out it wasn't actually about knocking Aaron out with the airlock, so that's some good news!" He grimaces. "The bad news is that I might still get a meeting about knocking Aaron out with the airlock, since I accidentally brought it up."

Sam rolls his eyes. "You're an idiot."

"Wait, so what did he actually want, then?" Andy asks around a mouthful of pasta.

Dean hesitates, and he glances over his shoulder to see if any of the officers are nearby, unsure whether or not he's actually allowed to tell anyone else. "I've, uh, been taken out of the company?" he says in an undertone, and when the others inevitably kick off into noisy protest and exclamations of what the fuck, he hurriedly shushes them all. "Not permanently, or anything. But apparently me and some other people are being reassigned to some secret task force?"

"What?" Andy says incredulously, drawing the word out long and slow like taffy for added effect. "Why? What are you doing?"

"Hey, I got called for that, as well," Sam cuts in, a frown cutting a deep crease in his brow.

"Same here, only I thought we weren't meant to tell everyone," Jo says, and she sticks her tongue out at Dean.

The parallel conversation between Adam and Charlie, now discussing the dynamics of whether a boner in a sink would have enough height from the body for someone to ride it, is abruptly put on hold as they realise that a more interesting discussion is happening next to them, and they both turn to lean in towards Dean. "Hang on, what's going on?" Adam asks.

"Some special secret mission Dean's been put on," Andy tells him, with a sourness to his tone that indicates exactly what he thinks of this latest development.

Adam raises his eyebrows. "Whoa, what is it?"

Dean jerks his shoulders in a close approximation to a shrug. "Beats me, man."

Adam glances around between them all. "That's not fair! Why haven't I been reassigned? I can slam junior officers' heads into airlock doors too, if they want."

"Dude, it's nothing to do with Aaron," Dean tells him.

Andy huffs and spears another chunk of loose pasta. "Whatever," he says. "We probably didn't want to be on your special stinkin' assignment anyway."

"Maybe you were too short for it," Jo suggests, drumming her empty yoghurt spoon against her bottom lip, and she smirks.

Andy tips her yoghurt over.

As far as wars go, this one's a little unusual. No-one's sure who exactly came up with the moniker of the Last War - clearly someone with a taste for the theatrical - but it's stuck. It started with the usual business of the Allied Forces getting involved in other people's wars – the American and the British went to the aid of the Egyptian people after a military coup escalated wildly out of control, at which point the Egyptian Air Forces attempted to take out Washington D.C. War was declared on Egypt, which in turn took its own international allies with Libya and Israel, as the Chileans, Canadians, and Australians took the defensive side. North Korea saw an opportunity against the United States and broke the stalemate on nuclear weapons between them, taking out half of the eastern seaboard, and the Allied Forces retaliated. The rest is history.

Dean Winchester doesn't know a great deal of what happened in the early years; it began before he was born, and he only recalls that when he was growing up, half of the country was concerned with radiation poisoning and major cities were being decimated day by day. He remembers his mother with an oxygen mask, and his brother with a plastic stethoscope telling her that everything was going to be okay.

When the Last War was declared, no nation was exempt, because the collateral damage was enormous – try telling radiation poisoning and fifty-mile blast radiuses to take heed of international borders. Those same borders were shifting near constantly until it reached a point where it seemed as though every army was trying to take as much of the earth as they could hold onto. The Russians were the first to evacuate into privatised space stations; China followed, then Japan, and as such, the Allied Forces weren't far behind. If Dean had to hazard a definition as to when a World War becomes the Last, he'd guess that the line is probably drawn right about when the majority of the Earth's population escapes off the surface into shuttles and stations.

Dean was thirteen when a space station that his family could actually afford opened, and so he left the rubble of his old life behind, with only Sam to keep him grounded, and his father in tow. Since he joined the military, he's done a few Earth tours, fought a few battles, but he's never been back to Kansas. He doesn't know what this latest task force will require him to do – whether it'll be Korea or eastern Europe or south America – but whatever it is, if it brings him back to Earth again, then he's ready for it.

Dean and Sam rise early for their appointment the next, washed and dressed by oh-six-thirty – in Dean's case at least, although Sam still has to carefully brush his hair for another million years or so – and they head down together towards the main training hall. On the way, they bump into Charlie.

"Hey guys," she exclaims, beaming sunnily. "Guess who got dragged into Major Moseley's office this morning on the way to the gym to talk about her reassignment?"

"No way," Dean says, and he scrunches up his nose at her. "I thought they were only picking the best and brightest?"

Charlie goes to smack him in the arm, except she catches the eye of a senior officer wandering past and hurriedly pulls some of the force out of the movement so that instead she lovingly caresses his bicep, and Dean snickers. As soon as the officer is out of eyesight down the hall, however, she whacks him hard.

When they reach the training hall, a few others are already there, luckily all people he knows – Sergeant Victor Henriksen, from Dean's own platoon; Gordon Walker, who Dean has seen around but never really spoken to; Sergeant Talbot, again – seen, spoken to once and she revealed herself to be kind of an asshole; some goofy guy called Garth with whom Dean once had to share the longest, most agonising sentry position of his life. There are a handful of others, some whom Dean knows and some who he doesn't, and they stand in a loose almost-parade formation until the senior officers come striding down the hallway, count their numbers, and send them into the hall. Even then, their new squad still only stands at ten.

They file in past a squad of soldiers already on parade, stood neatly at attention. Dean glances over his shoulder at them as he passes them, and in spite of the perfect rigidity of their formation, their carefully blank faces as they concentrate on their positions, he manages to catch the eye of one of the men in the front of row – blue-eyed, a jaw that's glass-sharp. Dean winks at him.

There is no visible reaction, and then Dean can no longer see him as his own squad is lead to the far side of the training room and formed up into their own parade. It's informal, though; they aren't stood to attention, but just made to wait as the senior officers come in to address them.

"Listen in," Major Singer says as he settles in front of them. "I figure you're probably all wondering what in the hell's going on here, so I won't waste any time sugar-coating for you." He clears his throat and clasps his hands behind his back to signify that Official Business has just begun – the time for fun and familiarity is over. "You've each been chosen for your particular skill sets in a variety of fields for a specialised mission. While the rest of your company is on tour, you'll remain here to train, and then when they return in two months' time, you'll replace them in the field. It will be, for all intents and purposes, a typical campaign, except that you'll be testing some new military equipment that has not yet been released for ordinary use. We need to know first that they're safe – and that they work, mainly."

They? Dean frowns, and he glances over at Jo, to his left, who he is relieved to find looks similarly perplexed.

Major Singer takes a deep breath and seems for a moment as though he wants to say more, but then he deflates and looks away towards the rest of his officers. "I figure I should give the professionals the chance to let you in on the details," he says, almost as an afterthought. "Doctor Niehammer?"

Dean notices for the first time a woman he doesn't know, standing beside the officers. She wears a crisp white shell-suit, like a surgeon, instead of the military uniform he's used to seeing, and her brown hair is pulled back loosely off her face. She takes a few collected steps towards them. "Thank you, Major Singer. Now, then. Ladies – gentlemen – soldiers," she says, and bestows of them all a benevolent smile which is unsettlingly devoid of any real warmth. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Doctor Naomi Niehammer, and I am both the founder of Niehammer Corporation and the creator of Android Angeles, to which you will be shortly introduced. A little about the programme first, though, I think."

Her smile slides away to be replaced instead by an air of cool professionalism, and with her hands clasped neatly behind her back, she paces back and forth in front of them. With her shoes clacking sharply on the metal floor, she goes on: "We're at war. Doubtless you already know this. What you may not have realised, however, is that we're losing." She lets her eyes flit across each one of soldiers lined up before her as she speaks. "The Israelis have better equipment. The Russians have more fighting power. The Japanese have a higher standard of training – no offense." She flashes a hollow smile over her shoulders at the officers behind her, and then returns her attention to the front. "If this were simply a question of meeting force for force on the battlefield, our Allied Forces would have been destroyed a long time ago. Thankfully, it isn't, but that doesn't change the fact that we have to evolve where the war has evolved – we have to match it. That's where the Niehammer Corporation comes in."

She swivels to face them head-on with a resounding crack of her heels, reminiscent of a World War Two socialist goosestep that Dean has seen in too many cheesy propaganda videos warning them of what would happen if Earth falls into the wrong hands. A shiver traces its fingers the length of his spine.

"Android Angeles are the latest in sentient military technology. What we aim to do here has never before been achieved, but here we are, and does that not say something for our prospects?" Again the empty smile. "We believe that if these prototypes work well in the field, then in the future we could completely replace all other inferior military forces with this new equipment. Android Angeles is a series of humanoid machines programmed to fight enemy forces with superior speed, strength, and resilience, with greater capacity for knowledge and adaptation, while being free of such human hindrances as empathy and doubt. If they work, they will be the perfect soldiers. Our vulnerable human infantry could, in time, be completely removed in favour of these mechanical warriors, and then there would be no questioning our success." She raises an eyebrow. "If they work, of course."

Dean risks a sideways peek at Jo, and she glances back at him with an impressed raise of her eyebrows. He knows how she feels; his brain is currently an incoherent swirl of excitement and curiosity.

"Your role in this plan is the task of ensuring that the Androids function smoothly, and to then report any errors back to us," Naomi continues. "You'll be training with them for the next month or so, to ensure that you know how to work with them, and what to do if any should malfunction. After that point, you'll be going into the field with them, just like you would with any other new equipment. Treat them as you would treat, say, a new armoured vehicle. A sentient armoured vehicle resembling a human being that respond to voice commands, that is, but a vehicle all the same. A means to an end."

As she looks over her shoulder at the senior officers again, as though prompting one to take over from her, Dean's brain snags onto one phrase from the end of Naomi's speech: resembling a human being. He lifts his chin then and tries to peer past the row in front of him, to see towards the other side of the training room, where the parade that they passed on the way in is still stood, perfectly motionless. In fact, if Dean didn't know any better, he would say that none of them have moved at all in the past fifteen minutes.

Major Moseley steps forwards. "You'll all be briefed of the details of your landing mission, referred to here on in as Blue October, nearer to the time, so don't you worry about that for the time being," she says warmly. "Y'all just focus on your training for the next month. All the infantry and intelligence corps here will be assigned their own Android to work with, to learn how to use – those of you who are from the support corps, you won't have one specific assignment but will rather look after the welfare of the entire landing party, and you'll have your own task-specific training. Any questions?"

There are no questions asked. This is the point at which usually Dean would twist in his spot to look back towards Sam and pull a face or laugh at him for not being assigned his own robot, but he's still staring, transfixed, past the officers at the squad on the far side of the hall. There's no way that parade of soldiers can be what he thinks they might be.

Major Moseley calls on Captain Turner to come up to the front, then, with a list of names and serial numbers for which Android is assigned to which soldier. "Listen in," he calls, and then pauses for a second, glancing up from his sheet of paper, and adds, "and you might want to write these down. So – Lance Corporal Bradbury – Unit 8456-G-B-R-L." As they all rustle in their pockets for something to write with, he returns to the paper and continues reading. "Private Fitzgerald – Unit 4401-H-S-T-R. Corporal Harvelle – Unit 1558-A-N-N-A. Sergeant Henriksen – no unit assigned."

Captain Turner's voice washes over them, and since Dean knows that there are several more people still to go before his name is called, he takes the time to let his eyes move over each of the soldiers lined up some hundred feet away, in perfectly precise ranks. Men, women, of all shapes, sizes, and colours, all dressed in neat matching combats, a pale green colour beyond the usual colour system for soldiers of the U.S. Army – brown for infantry; navy for air corps; pewter grey for intelligence; sand for support units – and more than anything, it's the sight of that new green uniform which cements in Dean's mind the realisation that the squad are not human.

Dean tunes back into what's being said by Captain Turner as he catches him calling out, "Private Robinson – Unit 0797-V-R-G-L. Sergeant Talbot – Unit 2499-U-R-I-L. Private Tran – Unit 2392-I-N-I-S. Corporal Walker – no unit assigned." Dean gets his pen ready against his notepad. "Sergeant Winchester, D – Unit 5284-C-S-T-L. Doctor Winchester – no unit assigned." Captain Turner looks up at them all, and then across at Naomi Niehammer. "They gonna dress over and familiarise themselves with their assignments now, or what?"

Naomi nods, and with one more precise little smile, she leads them across the hall to the other squad. As they approach, whispers go up amongst the soldiers, growing into excited chatter as they get closer, and Dean feels Jo poke him between the shoulder-blades as they walk.

"I think I'm gonna name mine Humperdink," she whispers gleefully.

As they reach the second squad, the soldiers scatter to find their respective Android prototype. Dean starts in the first row and walks slowly along the ranks, his eyes on their chests to read the eight-digit serial numbers fixed to their chests, stamped on small metal plates which attach to their shirts.

Finally, Dean stops in front of his assignment. He lets his eyes flick up from the number-plate to the face above it, and finds himself face-to-face with the man – no – machine he'd made eye-contact with on the way in. He'd made eye-contact with a machine – there was no way any of this made sense, but somehow he was expected to believe it. Here is an android, roughly similar to Dean in height and weight, with neat dark hair, and wearing lazy stubble like he's in a dire need of a shave, except he isn't. He's designed like that, and Dean is unsettled by his own contemplation of whether or not it would feel real.

Unsure how to progress, Dean glances around at the rest of his company to try and see what they're doing. He can hear Garth chattering away excitedly, and somewhere beyond that, Victor's low, cautious tones, so he guesses that talking to him seems to be the way forwards.

He looks back at his own assignment, and clears his throat awkwardly. "Uh," he starts uncertainly. "Hello?"

The Android blinks.

Dean jerks back. He whips quickly sideways to see how the other androids are reacting to being addressed, and to his surprise, sees the majority of them interacting like human beings. Speaking when spoken to, using facial expressions and mannerisms that are weirdly normal – like people. Dean looks back and finds his own looking at him. Not staring vacantly in space, as he was before, but watching him carefully.

"Can you hear me?" Dean tries.

"I can hear you." His voice is low and rough, all unpolished edges.

Dean swallows. "Hey," he says. "My name's Sergeant Dean Winchester. You're gonna be training with me for the next few months, and then we'll be working together in the field after that."

"I'm aware."

"Oh, are you?" Dean exclaims, somewhere between sarcasm and genuine alarm, and he plasters a wide grin across his face as he tries to work out exactly how this task force is going to function, exactly, and how he's supposed to work with a robot which is more person than machine, and which, frankly, gives him all manner of heebie-jeebies. "That's good to know."

5284's eyes narrow. "You're uncomfortable," he states.

Dean laughs at that, and he glances away again briefly, partly to see how everyone else is dealing with their Android assignments, and partly as a cry for help because this isn't at all how he imagined robots would be and he's not sure what to do with it. "Uh," he says. "A little bit, yeah. Just – okay. How do you even work? Like, how much of you is machine and how much is a person?"

5284 stares at him. "I don't know." He pauses, mouth slightly open, and then he presses his lips together. "I could find out for you. If it would set you at ease."

Dean's face screws up a little as he considers the offer, but then he feels guilty, like he's forcing the Android to go to huge lengths just to help him get over himself. "No, it's okay, but thanks anyway," he says eventually, and it's only once the words have left his mouth that he realises how ridiculous this whole exchange is. He's talking to a machine. He might as well be thanking his goddamn stereo for doing its job, next. He glances away at the others one last time, and then back the Android almost immediately, irrationally paranoid that it will somehow have changed or moved – although it wouldn't be so crazy if it did change or move, since it's basically sentient, but it creeps him out all the same.

As he peers at the Android, contemplating its facial features and how they can possibly be constructed to so closely mimic those of a real human being, he is surprised by the Android sticking out one hand.

Dean stares at it like he expects it to bite. Then, idiotically, he just says, "What?"

The Android shifts the hand a little in mid-air, and moves it closer to Dean as he does so. His eyes flicker down to his hand, and then back up to Dean, as though prompting him.

Dean hesitantly reaches out and takes the Android's hand – and then they shake hands.

"Nice to meet you," the Android says, in that same dull, toneless voice in which all of his speech is delivered, but the handshake is firm, decisive. His hand lingers a little while longer in Dean's than is strictly necessary, but while their palms are pressed together, Dean's fingers curve over the back of the Android's hand, over his fingers and knuckle, and settle lightly at the heel of his hand, just before the sharp, bony juncture of his wrist. There is a fleeting drum there like a heartbeat, even if it's only vibrations.

They begin training immediately – they don't even get to break for lunch that day, much to Garth's disappointment – and from that point onwards, their entire schedule is re-organised to allow for their new mission.

They have to learn basic mechanics, in case something goes wrong with the Androids in the field when Gordon isn't nearby to fix it for them; they re-take their first aid class, but this time with the Androids sitting quietly beside them to make sure that they have all the same information; they take basic flight classes, so that in case of an emergency, they all have some fundamental knowledge of how to operate a simple transport ship, which is an opportunity that Dean enjoys, even if he's not particularly good at it, and Charlie laughs at him every time he crashes the simulator into the side of a mountain. The difficulty of their physical training is increased two-fold, as they will now have to carry the weight of the necessary equipment needed to maintain their Android; they have rigorous training sessions in a field simulator, where they spend days at a time going through hyper-realistic survival situations, wherein they could be under attack from an international enemy landing party, rebel Earth bands, or even just the natural challenges of existing on a planet that is now two-thirds barren wasteland.

Within a few days, the rest of their company is moved out to patrol on the planet's surface, and Dean's small squad is left behind; they have no time to complain or reminiscence, however, since they barely have time in their schedule to eat and sleep, between all their regular classes and their new training.

What Dean finds the weirdest of all, though, is simply the fact that in order to supposedly become accustomed to the presence of their new equipment, the Androids are around constantly. They accompany Dean's squad to every briefing, every class, every training session, even to the cafeteria and the rec room whenever they have any free time, although then they just stand around awkwardly, watching human interaction and waiting for the next movement. Thankfully, they don't share their partners' cabins, but instead they are shut away in a storage cupboard at the end of the hallway and turned onto standby, which Dean thinks is possibly even creepier than just having them in the same room. They sit with them while they eat, while they hang out; it's only by outright instruction that Kevin stops his from accompanying him to the bathroom. He 'wanted to learn about all parts of human behaviour', apparently. Right. Catch a sneaky glimpse of his dick, more like.

In the cafeteria, however, they are able to provide some entertainment, as they provide an outlet into deep philosophical thinking. One day, at lunchtime, Dean holds up his fork, complete with meatball impaled on the end, and waves it in front of 5284's face. "If you ate this," he asks, "what would happen?"

5284 stares at him. "Nothing."

Charlie snorts.

"But I mean, you can't digest it, right?" Dean crams the meatball whole into his mouth, and continues to talk around it. "So where does it go?"

"Where does anything ever go?" Kevin says in a low, solemn tone in mockery of deep contemplation. "We must all one day return to the abyss."

Jo elbows him in the stomach, and in turn, Sam throws the bitchiest look in his arsenal in Dean's direction. "Dean, if you don't stop talking with food in your mouth, I'm gonna stitch it closed," he tells him.

Dean makes a theatrical scene of chewing the meatball and swallowing it, and then focuses on 5284 again to press, "Well?"

5284 frowns a little, and after a moment's consideration, says, "I suppose it would go to the incinerator."

Dean's eyes widen. "Oh – right. Of course. Silly me – you don't have a stomach, you just have a freakin' furnace."

5284 squints at him. "Incinerator," he corrects.

"Yeah, Dean, get it right," Sam says.

Dean flips him off.

"Wait, so you guys can actually eat?" Jo asks her own Android, a willowy white woman with long red hair.

The redhead blinks placidly. "We don't need nutritional sustenance."

"So?" Victor exclaims. "Hell, I don't strictly need my own body weight in waffles, but sure as hell I wouldn't say no!"

"Victor," Cassie places a hand over Victor's and says with teasing solemnity, "you have a problem."

"They're just so goddamn fluffy—"

"Can you taste food, then?" Sam cuts in, looking across the table at where Jo and Kevin's Androids are sat.

Kevin's, one 2392-I-N-I-S, according to the serial number stamped on his chest, says, "We lack taste receptors."

"We are equipped with touch sensors, however" the redhead chips in again. "We do feel – textures, solidity – so we have some understanding of your food."

"Huh." Dean pulls a face. "Sounds delicious. More for me, I guess."

"More for you," 5284 agrees tonelessly, and he gives a curt nod to support the sentiment.

Dean eats another meatball.

On Tuesdays. lunch is immediately followed by weapons training – which the Androids are all irritatingly good at, even though Dean figures it's not really a surprise, since they are mechanically engineered super-soldiers, after all, who don't need to worry about stupid distracting things like breathe or balance or focus. With the exception of Cassie's prototype, whose aim is consistently a few degrees off to the left, there isn't a single Android who doesn't drop every target with a succession of bulls-eye shots.

At one point, though, 5284's pistol jams, and Dean can't help himself from saying gravely, "It happens to the best of us."

5284 doesn't grasp the condescension, and he simply thanks Dean for his concern, although he does also express in no uncertain terms that the fault lay with his weapon, and not with his handling of it.

Day after day, the squad is put through vivid field simulations in all conditions – rain, snow, blistering heat and sandstorms, and the occasional acidic thunderstorm which sends them all sprinting for cover as they battle with their gas masks. Sometimes the simulations last for several days, so that they have to dig into their programmed computer reality for the full experience of survival in the field.

This time, they've been inside the seemingly endless labyrinth of the simulator for two days already, traipsing across dry dirt and wheat grass as open and unforgiving as a blank page. A few hours ago, they had a brief run-in with a small reconnaissance patrol of Yemeni tanks, but have since found a small cluster of outlying suburban buildings as bare and dirty as broken teeth, through which they move slowly, carefully, in search of life, friendly or otherwise. They have drawn numbers for point, and as Cassie picked the number furthest from Kevin's decided fifty-three, she leads them through the dust. It's place like these where the stink of this war is strongest – where buildings and family homes are physically untouched by destruction, but abandoned for left-behind survivors to raid after the inhabitants escaped into space stations.

"Spread out," Victor urges in low tones as they scan through the first few houses, and they scatter into different rooms, garages, and one hollowed-out store across the road. They reunite in the town hall past the small mosque, and push swiftly through, room by room. As Cassie heads into one of the last meetings rooms on the lower floor, there is a sound like glass shattering, and then a deafening bang. Thick dark smoke and brightly-rushing flame roars up, and it swallows Cassie whole.

"Ah, shit," Cassie says, as a shrill noise is emitted from her simulator headset to let her know that she's dead.

The rest of the squad are already crashing in, swerving around her to clear the room with rifles pulled into their shoulders. Two men on the far side of the room, tucked behind an upturned conference table with the muzzle of a heavy machine-gun resting on the table edge in place of a tripod– someone takes them out cleanly, two sharp cracks of a round – one woman scrabbling on the floor for a fallen grease gun – Garth barks an order in Arabic, and she freezes where she is, hands lifted above her head – and one girl, maybe ten or eleven years old, who huddles low in the corner.

Victor glances around them all. "Everyone okay?"

"I think I got shot in the knee," Kevin says, and he looks down at where a bright red spot is frantically flashing on the leg of the simulator suit.

"Okay – Doc, see to him. Sergeant Talbot, take Bradbury and Walker up to check the attic. Fitzgerald, radio our coordinates in to the S-1 for prisoner transferral. The Androids can—" Victor hesitates and he frowns. "Uh. Check the bodies for survivors or intel. Harvelle! I want you with me to clear the back of the building."

"Yes, Sergeant."

They head out together. Sam carefully runs through his medical routine, even though there is nothing wrong with Kevin, and above them all are the sounds of Bela's footsteps on the floor above, and the danger is gone. Aside from Cassie's death, which was due to her own unfortunate negligence of a tripwire, the clearing was textbook. Dean heads over with the Androids to check the bodies of the men, and is just considering his rations pack and whether they'll be taking lunch in this simulated Yemeni village or actually going to the cafeteria upstairs, when he sees 5284 grab a fistful of the little girl's shirt, haul her upwards so that the tips of her toes barely scrape the ground, and level his pistol into her face.

"Stop!" Dean yells. "Don't – C- - C-S – for Christ's sake, stop!"

5284 slowly lifts his head and turns slowly to look at Dean. He doesn't relinquish his grip on the girl, and he doesn't lower his weapon. "Sergeant," he says. As ever, his voice is low, calm, and respectful.

"Put her down," Dean tells him. He becomes distantly aware that the rest of his team has also frozen in place, and are now staring at him.

5284 makes no move to do as he's told.

"Now," Dean says.

5284's eyes flash from Dean to the team behind him – to the rest of Dean's squad, and to the other Androids. "I have contradictory orders," he says at last.

"Contradictory orders?" Dean repeats incredulously. "Bullshit. These are your orders: put her the fuck down." 5284 doesn't, and with a rush of anger, Dean notes to himself one malfunction of the Androids – they don't fucking listen. "What, are you deaf? Let her go. She's a civilian."

"She's enemy," 5284 states bluntly, as though reading from a manifesto.

Dean exhales sharply. "She's like twelve years old, dude. She's not the enemy here."

"Twelve-year-olds will age. She'll know anger, later."

"You're gonna know anger in a second if you don't let her go," Dean threatens, and as the last of his patience snaps, he lifts his own pistol and aims it at 5284's head. He knows that it's not a real weapon, and that it won't actually do anything, but the implication that he would act similarly in the field, in a real battle scenario, is there as well, and he's not fucking around anymore. "Do I have to call a time-out here, or are you gonna put her down?"

5284 turns back to face the girl, who hangs limp from his hand, as it seems that the possibility of the civilian casualty being attacked was not something that the simulator had programmed its character to expect, and he slowly lowers his pistol. Then he releases her unceremoniously. When her feet hit the ground, she stumbles and nearly falls, but then she jolts back into her normal programme and skitters away around a corner, crying as she goes.

"Thank you," Dean says in the bitchiest tone he can muster, and they proceed.

Once the town hall is empty, the bodies searched, weapons commandeered, and all other trip-wires disabled, and once the surrounding area has been cleared by Victor and Jo, the squad moves out along the main road again. It's a long dusty thing cut straight through the dry grass and decaying old farmhouses, until the hard yellow of the baked dirt slowly gives way to an aching red sand like brick dust. They haven't reached the aching sands, however – haven't even reached the last of the farmhouses at the town's edge – when from around the corner of a lopsided old barn comes two small trucks, decorated with impromptu armour in the form of thick slabs of wood, accompanied by a small group of ragged men and women toting rifles. At their forefront is the little girl that Dean had demanded 5284 release. She points at them and chatters in rapid Arabic.

"Well, great," Jo says flatly.

Garth calls something across to them but he hasn't even finished his sentence before a chatter of rounds tears towards them and they're forced back into cover.

From behind a low stone wall Victor gives his orders – Bela to set up light artillery launchers with her Android, the rest of them giving suppressive fire from wherever they can – as the thunder of gunfire continues to rumble over their heads and all around them. However, it seems that the Androids have alternate ideas about how best to take cover; 5284 stands up, braced against the wall with one hand and the hand-guard of his rifle locked into the stone for support, and Garth's Android, one tall blonde female identified by her badge as 4401-H-S-T-R, kneels in the middle of the road, wide open to the incoming rounds as she fires back. They fire in short, clean bursts that neatly take out one rebel at a time, without hesitation.

Bela and her prototype work together to swiftly assemble the folding mortar stands. Once it's complete, she drops a shell in each. There's a hollow clank of metal on metal, and the launchers spit out their shells, and she screams out a warning for them all to take cover. The Androids don't flinch.

As Dean hauls himself up to his feet from the base of the narrow doorway into which he'd thrown himself, he catches sight of the Androids moving dimly through the smoke as silhouettes. Even as there are still a handful of bullets cutting persistently through the dust and fire, they stride calmly forwards, weapons raised.

There are three sharp cracks, and then there is silence.

Dean emerges from cover tentatively, knees loosely bent so that he can duck out of sight at a moment's notice, but at the moment there is no need. The smoke clears, moving upwards in a thick, lazy spiral, and the sun falls faintly orange over the crumpled bodies of the Yemeni survival militia – all dead except one man who gasps for air as blood spurts feebly out of a hole in his chest – just the one man, and the little girl.

Dean says nothing as the Androids approach the survivors, nor does he speak up as 5284 walks calmly up to the bleeding man, pulls up his rifle, and puts a round clean in the centre of the man's forehead. The rest of the squad seem to be in a similar state of shock; they have all risen to their feet, their weapons forgotten in their hands and at their sides as they watch the Androids work. This is the first simulation that they've been put through where there has been any question of personal morality, and where the NCOs would've come together to debate and discuss and at long last decide what was to be done, the Androids have moved straight ahead without a moment's thought as to what they were doing. Dean doesn't know how to respond.

5284 crosses to the girl, then, and in an instant, Dean knows what's going to happen. 5284 lifts his rifle again, and Dean yells, "Don't—"

The shot rings out with an echo, and the girl slumps into the dust.

5284 turns and meets Dean's eyes.

The simulator cuts out.

Dean takes a deep, slow breath to steady himself. "What the fuck was that?"

5284's voice comes emotionlessly through a darkness that is only broken by the infrequent red flashing mitted by Kevin and Cassie's simulator suit casualties. "You disapprove, still."

"Of course I disapprove," Dean starts angrily. "That girl was just—"

"An enemy informant," 5284 says.

"A child," Victor interrupts. The lights flicker on in long, fluorescent strips, revealing not the Yemeni savannah, but an enormous, sterile training room. "I'm sorry. You all seem to be under the impression that you're following someone else's orders – someone whose orders over-ride mine. Let me clear that up for you." He takes three steps forwards to where the majority of the Androids are gathered, addressing them all, but it is 5284 he approaches directly. "I am squad IC. Sergeant Winchester is squad 2IC. All decisions go through me, and before that, through Winchester, and if you're still not quite sure, through the other NCOs first. You have no authority here. You are the lowest common denominators of this force," he snaps out through gritted teeth, and he glares around at each of them individually. "To summarise: if you aren't certain? Youdon't make a decision. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

5284's eyes move slowly across the squad as they stand, sweaty and tired with matching disgruntled expressions, and then at last he comes to rest on Dean.

For a moment, there is silence. Then 4401-H-S-T-R speaks up. "We were certain."

The troops of the Blue October task force are put through several sessions working on dummies to ensure that the troops of the Blue October task force have enough basic understanding of how the Androids work to be able to perform small repairs without damaging them. The dummies are also products of Niehammer Corporations, dimly sentient enough that they fidget and move like a person, and to be honest, it's getting on Dean's last nerve.

"Will you fucking sit still?" Dean snaps at it, and beside him, Sam snickers into the back of his hand before swallowing his laughter down and hastily composing his face into something very solemn when Dean shoots a glare at him.

As part of the force's support team, Sam doesn't have his own Android, and so doesn't really need to attend these sessions, but he had figured that he might as well come along just in case something went drastically wrong and he ended up needing to help somehow. "Uh, you need a hand?" he offers, unhelpfully, since he knows that Dean won't accept his help and that the offer itself is a form of mockery.

"No," Dean retorts. "I'm fine. It's just – Jesus Christ, why is this—" the dummy jerks violently in his hands and the screwdriver gets knocked out of his hand to be sent flying across the floor of the training hall. Dean swears under his breath some more, just for good measure, and glances over his shoulder to see if anyone else saw that before he sneaks off to surreptitiously retrieve his screwdriver.

"You okay there, Winchester?" Jo asks cheerfully.

"Fine," Dean barks, flushing red up from the colour, and stomps back to his own desk. He sits heavily back onto his stool and points the screwdriver threateningly at Sam. "You laugh again, and this is going in your eye."

Sam holds his hands up in surrender. "I'd never dream of it."

Still grumbling to himself, Dean gets back to work. "When they said we were gonna learn to fix robots, I thought it'd be a little more like working on an engine… not changing a goddamn diaper," he mutters. "Alright – done. What's next on the list?"

Sam snorts. "When's the last time you changed a diaper, anyway?" He reaches over to the other side of the desk for the laminated sheet of paper everyone had been given, which details all the tests they should be running through with their dummies to ensure optimum operating, and he trails the tip of his finger over what they've done so far. "Uh… tracking chip. We gotta check it's still feeding back to wherever. Tracking, and stuff."

"Okay." Dean stares down at the dummy. "And where is that? And trust me, you don't want to know the last time I had to deal with diapers." With his eyes still fixed on the dummy and his expression set in a kind of distracted state of dismay, he goes on, "There was this girl, and I swear to God, she was into some—"

"You're right, I don't want to know," Sam cuts across him loudly. He lifts his eyebrows high like he's already seen something traumatising, and huffs his breath out in a short burst as though to dispel the memory. "Right. Tracking chip – Gordon said it was inside the elbow, I think? On the left arm."

Dean pulls a face. "Ew." He gets down to work, though – finding the near-invisible seam of the dummy's synthesised skin and carefully peeling it back to expose the smooth metal and translucent black plastic underneath, where under the surface there are a series of dimly flashing lights. Still grimacing a little, Dean peels the skin back far enough that he can peek down towards the crook of the dummy's elbow. "Yeah, that baby's really in there."

"Is it lit up, though?" Sam asks.

"I dunno. It's flashing. Is that what it's meant to do?"

"No, it doesn't flash, it just – dude, are you sure you're even looking at the right thing?"

"Of course I'm sure, dickwad, it's—"

"Inside of the elbow, like in the meaty part – not on the hinge?"

"Oh. Huh. Then what the fuck is this?"

Together Sam and Dean peer into the dark space underneath the dummy's fake skin, in equal bewilderment, as they try to work out whether they're seeing what they're supposed to be seeing.

"Maybe try poking it?"

"You poke it, then."

"No way, you're the one who's meant to be—"

"It's not gonna bite, Sam, it's just a chunk of—"

"Then why don't you—"

A long shadow falls over them, and there is the sound of someone clearing their throat. "Is there a problem, boys?" Captain Singer asks.

Sam and Dean's heads snap up with identical expressions of perfect innocence as they exclaim their no no sir of course not everything is going just fine's, and then, in spite of still being buried wrist-deep in a loose flap of synthesised skin, Dean beams up at Captain Singer to prove that everything is going according to plan.

Captain Singer eyes them suspiciously as though waiting for either of them to do something that will give him an excuse to tell them off for being idiots, but before he has the opportunity, one of the other officers – a tall, sharp-boned woman from the engineer's department, named Second Lieutenant Barnes – calls out to the rest of them that their time is up.

"Everyone pack up your dummies into their carry bags and leave them in orderly stacks along the wall, and bring your filled-out checklists to me," she tells them all, and Dean doesn't waste any time giving up on trying to find the tracking chip.

They stow all their equipment, hand back in their paperwork, and as they file out into the hallway, once dismissed, they all break into muttering all the complaints they hadn't been able to voice during the session for fear of getting their asses kicked by Lieutenant Barnes.

"What the fuck just happened?" Dean exclaims. "What was that – did anyone get anything from that? Am I the only who feels like they just spent an hour molesting a human fleshlight?"

Charlie snorts derisively.

"You would know how that feels, wouldn't you?" Bela says, and she arches her eyebrows at him.

"Shut up – you know what I mean."

"Maybe if you'd actually been paying attention during the original briefing, you'd have had more luck," Gordon tells Dean.

"Bullshit," Jo says, and she jabs an index finger at him, one fist balanced on her hip. "I was paying attention – took notes and everything – and I felt like I was trying to birth a goddamned baby cow half the time. Those dummies are weird as shit."

"So on one hand, we have fleshlights, and on the other, birthing a calf," Cassie says slowly, and she puts both her hands out flat in front of her and tips them up and down as though weighing something up on a pair of scales. "There's a joke in there somewhere about lesbians but I… I just can't find it."

"You're clearly not trying hard enough," Charlie grins.

Dean laughs, rocking back on his heels with it, but as he does, he catches sight of movement at the end of the hall, and as he turns to look, his smile slides into a grimace. He twists back to the face others and mutters a warning: "Heads up – here comes the A-Team."

From the other end of the hall come the Androids, striding out with their usual stiff grace while almost in step, like they're a few slow-motion frames away from a cinematic entrance with explosions at their backs. 5284 is just back of the forefront, behind the redheaded woman and Bela's bald one, and when he catches Dean's eyes he inclines his chin a little to acknowledge having seen him.

"Hey, my man, how's it hanging?" Dean asks 5284 when he comes to a halt in front of him – partly just to fuck with him, because the Android never seems to know how to respond – and he grins when 5284 just squints at him. "Never mind."

The rest of the Androids slowly filter into the group to find their own partners, their voices lifted in their usual empty greetings - including Cassie's, a tall man with slicked-back dark hair and a permanently unhappy face, whose metal name-plate identifies him as 0797-V-R-G-L, and who is for some reason currently speaking to her in a foreign language. "Entschuldigen Sie," he says tonelessly, over and over. "Ich scheine nicht ganz richtig zu funktionieren, aber das sollte gleich behoben sein. Bitte warten Sie."

Cassie glances around wildly. "What the hell is –Garth? What's he saying?"

"Bitte warten Sie. Bitte warten Sie." The Android blinks fast, eyes unfocused on anything in front of him as he speaks, and repeats the same unfamiliar words until Gordon comes pushing through the group.

"Excuse me – coming through, get out of the way," he grunts, and once he reaches the Android he runs an irritated look over everyone still watching the scene unfold, so the others all obediently turn away and return their own conversations while Gordon works his magic on the faulty equipment.

Dean swivels back to face the other way. "What's up with that?" he asks.

"Linguistics malfunction," 5284 replies, still watching Gordon and the Android with detached interest. "He's just going through Android protocol to inform your colleague of a problem – wherein the problem lies, because unfortunately, it's in German."

Sam frowns. "Weird," he says. "Where'd you all go, anyway?"

"Yeah, you should've stuck around," Dean tells him, and his mouth splits into a shit-eating grin. "It was just awesome - I spent an hour learning how to most effectively fist your elbow."

While Sam makes a sound like he's trying not to choke on his own spit, Charlie raises her eyebrows and deadpans, "Fun for all the family."

5284 looks at them through suspiciously narrowed eyes, but either he doesn't have an appropriate response handy in his database or he doesn't know what's been said to him, because he stays silent, and instead Charlie's Android, a short, stocky male stamped with 8456-G-B-R-L, opts to answer Sam, saying, "We were down in the engineer's transport bay for fuel replenishment, and then Doctor Niehammer wanted us in her office to check our progress."

Sam's mouth turns downwards and he bobs his head in a satisfied kind of way. "Fair enough."

However, Dean is still staring at them. "Fuel replenishment?" he repeats incredulously. "Why the hell did you need fuel replenishment?"

5284 blinks at him. "We were low on fuel," he says, slowly, as though he's worried that there's something wrong with Dean's hearing or ability to understanding English.

"Low on fuel – Jesus." Dean snorts. "I thought you were meant to be more like a tank, not a freakin' Ford Fiesta."

"I don't—" 5284 frowns. "What — I don't—"

Dean slaps him on the shoulder. "Don't hurt yourself, champ," he says, his voice a warm, condescending mockery of reassurance. "You might run out of fuel or something."

The time to move out comes faster than any of them anticipated. Just five weeks after they were first briefed, the squad is being called into Major Moseley's office to be detailed on their landing mission. It's just coming up to midnight when they're summoned; Sam arrives with his undershirt on backwards and Charlie stands unabashedly barefoot in her pyjamas. Luckily Dean had been in the gym rather than in bed – he's painfully aware that the weight of their equipment on this mission will be roughly double their usual, and that as 2IC, he will be expected to shoulder more than everyone else.

Now they all stand in front of Missouri's desk, a mismatched band of soldiers, both human and machine, without an officer between them. The Androids are, as always, immaculately presented in their starched green dress uniform, solemn as a threnody. And early, of course – when Dean had come jogging in, still damp from the shower, and just thirty seconds past the official meeting time, 5284 had turned to watch him with that typically cool, lofty look which just flirts with being outright disdainful. Dean knows it would be inappropriate to tell him to fuck off in front of Major Moseley, especially when he hasn't technically done anything wrong, but it doesn't stop him from thinking it.

Luckily, Major Moseley is still working through her paperwork, her pen a dull scratch against the desktop, and so the squad stands waiting. In the lull, Dean glances around the rest of his team, checking out of bored curiosity to see if everyone is here – and he spots someone he's never met before: some skinny blonde kid who doesn't even look old enough to qualify for the Allied Armed Forces, except he's dressed in the same green combats as the rest of the Androids, and his chest is stamped with 3737-S-M-D-L.

Dean frowns, and he lets his eyes flit across the rest of his team, just to check that there aren't any more surprises, or even to see if he can source where this new addition has come from. Bela catches his eye and raises one eyebrow, and when he casts her a bewildered look and jerks his head in the direction of the newcomer, she mouths at him, Cassie's new Android. Dean looks around again and realises that Cassie's old Android – the tall, unhappy-looking one who spontaneously devolved into German the other day – is gone. Huh.

Major Moseley clears her throat loudly, and Dean snaps back around to face the front. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you," she begins, popping her pen back into a small plastic pot on her desk. She clasps her hands together on top of her desk and surveys them all with a warm, sympathetic look. "As you must already know by now, the rest of your company have returned from tour as of this afternoon, and surely you understand the need for secrecy regarding Blue October. I trust none of you have discussed your task with your peers?"

They all shake their heads, except for Bela's, one 2499-U-R-I-L, who helpfully contributes, "I have no peers."

Dean rolls his eyes, and he hears Jo stifle a laugh behind him. Then he sees a strange expression cross 5284's face – something impatient, his eyebrows pulling together, like irritation. Major Moseley ignores the interruption anyway, and she continues before Dean has time to think about what that expression means.

"You've been working with your Android prototypes for over a month now, and acclimatising to simulated earth conditions more recently, so all you should have to do now to be ready is pack," she says firmly, "and you'll be packing tonight. Reveille will be at oh-six-hundred, with breakfast at oh-seven-thirty – so there's plenty of time for admin in between the two. Down at the armoury for weapons collection at oh-eight-hundred. Oh-nine-hundred for a pre-departure briefing in the docking bay, and then you'll be setting out immediately afterwards. Estimated travel time is ten hours, so you should be arriving just before sundown." She turns to address Victor directly. "Make sure they all synchronise their watches and test the functions of their combat suits – tonight."

"Yes, ma'am," Victor says.

"You'll be landing on American soil—"

Dean's eyes open wide, and he glances quickly over his shoulder in search of Sam; they make fleeting eye contact, a split-second of holy shit, and then Dean swivels back to face the front as Missouri goes on.

"—in Utah – longitude approximately thirty-eight degrees north, latitude one-hundred and eleven degrees west – some seventy miles west of the border with Colorado, at the south-eastern tip of the Colorado Plateau." Spread out across her desk is a map of the former United States of America. Thick red lines in permanent marker sketch out where land has been taken from them. There are a lot of red lines. "Since the hit on Detroit, there's been this on-going international free-for-all for the mid-western states. At the moment, everything from Illinois to the radiation line is controlled by China, and we've got Mexicans pushing up to take back any land they can. You know the deal – value of money's dropping, and what sells now is the physical: land, crops, natural resources." She ticks them off her fingers, and with a short sigh, flicks her hands out as though dispelling all of the above as far from her as she can. "In short, it's bedlam, and with most of our troops occupying the Middle East and northern Africa, we don't have the strength to push them back. The Chinese have been trying to push into Colorado for the past six months and will be trying to get through it into Utah. Now I'm not expecting y'all to defend the whole damn state or hold the mountains – you'll be a recon patrol, measuring their forces, testing their limits – and you'll also be taking with you some small, high-tech field cameras to be set up so that we can monitor the area in the future." She claps her hands together over the map. "Bear in mind that a considerable part of your task is just field-testing the Android Angeles. Don't get them destroyed, and you sure as hell better not let the enemy get them." She pauses for a beat and then adds, as an afterthought, "Don't get killed, either. Because then Doctor Niehammer won't get any feedback. You look after them, Winchester."

Sam gives a short laugh. "Will do, ma'am."

Major Moseley sits up straighter, rubbing her hands together, and she opens her mouth to dismiss them, only Charlie raises her hand. Missouri nods at her. "Corporal?"

"If there was a problem with one of the Androids, what would we do?"

"Radio it in to the nearest Allied ship or satellite, with your coordinates, and wait to be met," Missouri says.

"And…" Charlie hesitates. "What would happen to them, once they'd been reported?"

Major Moseley looks at Gordon. "Corporal Walker?"

"The faulty machine would be taken back to the labs and reset, probably," he tells them all. "Worst case scenario, the Android would have to be shut down."

Charlie's face falls. "Oh. Okay." She flashes a quick, uneasy smile at Major Moseley to thank her for her answers, and then looks down at her feet.

Dean guesses he knows in no uncertain terms what happened to Cassie's old Android now.

"Alright. Any other questions?" Missouri prompts.

With a few exchanged glances, the squad responds in the negative, and even though half of them are in various states of undress, they stand to attention to be dismissed. "I'll see you in the morning." Missouri tilts her chin upwards to look each one of them in the face, in turn, and wishes them good luck before she lets them head out.

As soon as they break out into the hallway, they turn to each other with all whispers running over each other until their voices all jumble together into one quiet cacophony of excitement, while the Androids hover awkwardly behind them and wait for their next move.

"When's the last time we even went back to America?" Victor exclaims.

"Me? Never," Charlie says, but her face is a bright slash of a grin. "You wanna talk to me about Israel and Russia, go for it – but America, jeez – remind me what that's even like, again?"

"One word, y'all," Garth cuts across them all, and he holds his hands up in front of him to indicate to all that what he's about to say is very, very important: "Burger King."

Dean bursts out laughing. "Yes."

"Dude, McDonald's," Jo reprimands him with a shove to his shoulder. "You heathen."

"They won't even be open anymore," Bela says flatly. "Trust me, they'll be all locked up and dusty. No burgers, even if—"

"I've never even been back to Earth," Kevin says, a little breathless with the anticipation of it. "I only even qualified for landing missions three months ago – since I got up here I've never been back."

Charlie gapes at him. "No way."

Kevin shrugs, his teeth bared in an awkward almost-smile. "Yup – never. Until now, I guess!"

Dean claps him hard on the shoulder with a broad, easy grin. "Hold onto your pants, kid," he tells him. "You're gonna be back there in a whole big way soon."

There comes a clattering sound from inside Major Moseley's office, followed by the indistinct outline of a small fist rapping hard on the fogged-glass window. "Y'all best not be loitering outside my office in the middle of the night," she calls irritably from within, and the squad hurry away down the hall before they can get their asses properly handed to them.

The hallways are long and sterile, both the floor and walls a dull, dark metal that squeaks plaintively under contact, while the ceiling is entirely covered with harsh fluorescent lights that run in thick strips like runway lamps, and which occasionally flicker, casting witchy shadows that run abstractly the length of the hall like a fleeing form until the next corner or pair of sliding doors. Dean and Sam walk in step, already deep in a discussion about whether or not the weather in Utah at this time of year would totally suck; 5284 walks a little behind.

"America," 5284 says, out of nowhere, his voice echoing against all the hard spaces, and the low timbre of his speech, reverberating along the hallway, cuts straight through their conversation, so Dean and Sam shut up abruptly and twist back to look at him. His brow is furrowed into deep lines. "It's… important to you."

Dean and Sam exchange a look of confusion. Dean lifts his eyebrows at Sam, then, to indicate that Sam should take this one. Sam frowns – no way, man, he's your stupid Android – and Dean narrows his eyes - do it or I swear to god – and Sam opens his eyes wide – look, man, I'm not fucking doing it – and so Dean rolls his eyes, shoots Sam a death-glare, and answers.

"Well, yeah," he starts. "I mean… aside from Bela, America was home for us all. It was kind of a part of us, and – then it wasn't. You know?" He looks across at 5284 uncertainly, not sure that he can express himself any better than that if 5284 doesn't understand yet.

5284's frown has relaxed a little, although there are still traces of it scrunched into dim lines at the tip of his nose. "You feel that part of you is missing, now," he says – phrases it like a statement, but then looks at Dean for confirmation.

Dean shrugs. "Yeah, I guess." He reaches to the wall beside him as they round a corner and drums his fingertips idly on it, an uneven rhythm that vibrates faintly through the whole space and then grows still. He glances at 5284 again. "You ever feel like that?"

"No," 5284 says bluntly, and his eyes narrow as though he's considering the prospect. Then he hesitates, his mouth falling slightly open in the lapse between words, and goes on, "What's Earth like?"

Sam just grins at him. "Wait and see."

Daybreak. Sam's already awake, early bird that he is, and he tosses a pillow at Dean's head to get him moving. "Rise and shine, princess," he sings in an obnoxious falsetto as he stands in front of the mirror to pill his ridiculous hair back into the stubby ponytail demanded of him by the medical profession.

"I hate you," Dean grumbles, but he does drag himself into action. His pack is waiting ready at the foot of his bed, his black synthetic combat suit slung over the back of a chair; his boots are open-mouthed and unlaced by the wardrobe.

The rest of their old company are already busy at the day's duties, so Dean and Sam head unseen from their barracks towards the elevator down to drop off their packs. They go via the storage cupboard at the end of the wing where the Androids are being kept on stand-by during the night, Dean rapping out an obnoxious tattoo on the metal door with both fists as Sam opens the door with the obligatory, "Android Angeles – power up for duty!" to get them all conscious again for action.

The morning is chaos – zeroing and re-zeroing their weapons, checking that they have all their equipment, Garth practicing his Spanish loudly and constantly, Charlie and Gordon chatting to the pilots and ship maintenance workers about the transport ship they'll be going on; there comes the loading of the ship, and of course the essential squabbling fights between Dean and Sam to each try and get the other beyond the barriers restricting access to the sonic engines, where the fumes will turn their voices to a high-pitched, unintelligible squeak and possibly also get them high. By this stage, it's almost tradition – Dean and Sam have never been on separate missions and take the opportunity every time it is presented to them before take-off – but it doesn't mean that Bela doesn't yell at them for it. Their fun and games come to a halt, though, when the transport ship they'll be loaded onto suddenly punches its rear loading lights on – four individual lamps each as harsh and dazzling as a floodlight, bright enough to temporarily burn a hole into each of Dean's retinas, and definitely enough to stop him and Sam from fucking around, in order to preserve their eyesight at very least.

From then on, seemingly out of nowhere, there is an abrupt shift to organised troop movement.

The sun is a blinding yellow glint across the surface of the glass in the airlock, its rays distorted by the two doors so that it creates a soft, romantic glow all across the hard steel of the hangar, and then they're silhouettes against it as they mount the metal-grille steps up into the low passenger underbelly of the ship. They take their seats; strap in, over the belly and across the chest, legs temporarily strapped into soft Velcro braces to keep them steady at take-off.

As they sit and wait for the doors to be sealed, Kevin pipes up with, "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with—"

"Space," everyone else answers.

Kevin giggles to himself, and while Bela relates out loud her concern as to whether Kevin will ever get bored of that joke, Dean glances over to his left, past Jo, to look out of the series of narrow windows which for now only reveal the landing bay. Instead, he finds 5284 staring at him curiously from the seat on the far side of Jo. "What—?" he starts.

"Huh? You mean I Spy? It's a game," Dean tells him, as he guesses the reason for his confusion. "For human kids. You start with 'I spy with my little eye…' and then you say the first letter of the thing that you're looking at, and everyone else has to look around and guess what it is."

"Oh." 5284 frowns. "And – space?"

Dean laughs. "There's a hell of a lot of space out here, dude. Check your database."

5284 doesn't answer that. There's a screech of metal as the steps up to the ship drop away, and then the engine comes to life with a roar that rattles every bone in Dean's body, and 5284 looks away out the window. As the ship cruises lazily into the airlock, the sun chases them from window to window, flickering off and on their faces unevenly. The light catches on their skin to give them all a golden hue – turning 5284's eyelashes brassy where they lighten at the ends, emphasising the solemn crease of his brow, the moue of his quiet mouth. Dean looks away, past 5284, to the window again, waiting for that split-second thrill when the ship drops into stomach-crushing free-fall in order to break out of the gravity field, before the absolute nothingness of space catches them. In that yellow light, the entire squad is for once silent, and they wait and hold their breath and then, at last, they fall into darkness.