Actions

Work Header

Into the Robot Wild

Chapter Text

“Down to the warehouse. Now.”

Waverly Earp snapped to attention as her sister Wynonna swept past her desk making a beeline for the third-floor elevator, all a blur of long, dark hair and white lab coat. Waverly grabbed her tablet, her heartbeat picking up as she rose to follow.

Jeremy Chetri met them both at the elevator, holding out a latte to Wynonna, who accepted it with excited and grateful eyes.

“Man, I love delivery day!” he squirmed. He straightened his ID badge on the breast pocket of his lab coat, and the three of them lined up in front of the elevator, watching the lights above count out the elevator’s slow progression down from floor 6.

“Delivery Day” was a complete understatement, of course. This was no normal mail drop. All of Revenance Corporation had been waiting many months for this day. They’d been setting up internal systems, preparing a berth for their precious new inventory and working out detailed program plans and timelines for the company’s latest Artificial Intelligence project. But for security reasons, the company’s 950 employees had been purposely kept in the dark on most of the details about this project. Each department had been fed only as much information as they needed in order to complete their part. Security was of utmost importance. If the work of Revenance Corporation were to fall into the hands of certain foreign governments, it would be Very, Very Bad.

“Word from Receiving is there are two units,” Wynonna breathed quietly, so that no one might overhear them.

“Two?” Waverly repeated, thinking about the extensive spreadsheets and databases the operations team had set up. “I thought there’d be four.”

“Two,” Wynonna repeated, nodding surreptitiously into her latte cup. More than a dozen others worked in the Floor 3 Product Management Department. But only Wynonna, Waverly and Jeremy had been on the Delivery Day email list. The email had come from CEO Robert Svane himself. It was the first time in over two years working at Revenance Corporation that Waverly had received a personal email from the CEO. She’d been shocked to even think that in a company as large as Revenance he knew who she was at all.

The elevator pinged and Waverly’s heart gave a kick. They all seemed to take a collective deep breath.

“Here we go!” Jeremy chirped, equal parts exuberance and anxiety. Their jobs were about to change…big time.

The elevator doors closed on them, and Wynonna swept her badge across the sensor and entered W3, headed to the 3rd floor underground warehouse, the lowest level in the building. None of them had ever had access lower than W1… and they personally didn’t know anyone else at the company who had. A barrage of questions popped through Waverly’s mind as the elevator made its momentous descent, but she knew it was pointless to ask. At Revenance, curiosity wasn’t encouraged outside of one’s prescribed area. And she knew they were about to be briefed on as much as Robert Svane thought they needed to know.

At the bottom, the elevator doors rolled back to reveal a small, plain elevator bay, its cinder-block walls painted Pepto Bismol pink. A black arrow had been hastily printed out on an office printer and taped to the wall in front of them. It was the only wayfinding visible, so they followed it.

The corridor they found themselves in was hot and tight and pink. “Like a vagina,” Wynonna remarked inappropriately. Which she tended to do when nervous.

“Ah! Ixnay…,” Jeremy gently chastised, shaking the bad pictures from his head.

Waverly brushed aside the hair-prickling claustrophobia she felt in the tunnel, focusing instead on the curiosity she had about what lay at the end of it. Presently, they came to a set of double doors with another laser-printed sheet taped to it. It was blank, except for their three names.

“Apparently, this is the place,” Wynonna said.

Jeremy spotted the large sensor pad to the right of the door. He unclipped his badge and ran it over the sensor. Nothing happened. Second swipe. Nothing. He stepped back and Wynonna tried hers. No dice. Waverly noticed that the size and shape of the sensor was different from the ones they were used to upstairs. She stepped up to the black surface and placed the palm of her hand on it.

A green light appeared, along with a bright chirping noise that made the three of them jump.

“Waverly clearly passed the IQ test,” Wynonna muttered, presenting the palm of her hand to the sensor. Another green light and chirp. Jeremy repeated the motion for a third green light, wondering aloud as he did it: “When did they get our hand prints?” Waverly tried to think back to her on-boarding, when she’d first been hired with the company. She couldn’t recall fingerprinting being part of the process when she’d filled out forms, but it most certainly must have been.

The heavy metal door gave a deep click, and Wynonna pushed it open. A gust of air swept them as they stepped out of the hot corridor and into a huge, hangar-sized space. It was dimly lit, so Waverly couldn’t see the ceiling or far walls, but she could feel the immensity of the space. In the middle, about a dozen people in white lab coats congregated under a set of flood lights that illuminated a makeshift work area. Tables had been set up with an array of digital equipment. Waverly assumed these were some of the other employees whose names had been on Robert Svane’s “Delivery Day” email. And there was Robert Svane himself, in quiet conversation with a couple of probable mucky-mucks. She recognized his face from news stories she’d read about the company.

The CEO brightened as he spotted the three of them approaching the group. The light reflected off round glasses that made him look bookish. “Ah, good, good. Product Management Group is here,” he said. “We can go ahead and get started.”

Waverly was surprised he knew them by face, but then chalked it up to the fact that this was a Very Important Project and the CEO had done his planning carefully. He greeted her by name and shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Waverly Earp,” he smiled, then turned to greet Wynonna and Jeremy.

“Wynonna Earp—Waverly’s sister. So good to have you both here,” he said. “And Jeremy Chetri… I’m Robert. Nice to meet you.”

He took a couple of paces back and raised his arms, addressing the full group. “Now that everyone’s here, let’s get started.”

The team gathered around.

“I’ve brought you all here for the start of Phase 2 – project codename Purgatory—essentially the biggest and most important endeavor this company has ever undertaken. It’s a monumental step forward in technology, representing a level of sophistication that heretofore had been only a distant dream. The research & development team at our Los Alamos lab has done some amazing, amazing work. And now it’s time to bring it here for testing, training and deployment.”

“You have each been selected for this job not only because of your outstanding work history with our company, but also because of your discretion. As this is perhaps the most sophisticated artificial intelligence project in the world, it is vital that information not be shared outside of this company. Everyone at Revenance Corporation who touches this project in any way will be required to wear one of these…”

He held up what looked like a medic-alert bracelet. “Yes, it’s a tracking device. I know, I know… a complete invasion of your privacy. But I assure you, I don’t care about where you buy groceries. I don’t care what movies you watch on Netflix, or if you’re having an adulterous affair. I care only about this project and its secrets. For the next six months, the secrets stay here. And these bracelets are just a little precaution—and a gentle reminder—that they do. You’ll wear them until we get past the formal launch.”

He slipped the bracelet on his own wrist. “It’s simple, unobtrusive. It has GPS as well as voice and data-transmitting capabilities. It’s tied into your phones, email, browser history. Six months. I know it’s a bit over-the-top in terms of security, but, well… this project is over-the-top, too. And it’s entirely voluntary. If this level of security bothers you, that’s fine. I respect that, and I am not going to hold that against you in any way. You are welcome to take the elevator back upstairs and continue your current projects with no downgrade in pay or status. Just keep doing the excellent work that you do….”

He turned and met the gaze of each of them in turn. “But. If, like me, you want a life- and career-changing experience… actually, a history-changing experience… then, by all means, stay here, take the bracelet… and get ready to meet the next frontier of artificial intelligence. Imagine this…”

He paused, for effect. “Bio-identical.”

Another pause. “… Sentient.”

“And fully optimized…. I’m talking optimal physical and mental capabilities. As close to human as technology has ever taken us. A whole new frontier…

“Imagine the possible applications for such a technology, from military and law enforcement, to medical organizations carrying out programs in hostile environments: in space, at high altitudes, under water. This technology will save hundreds of thousands of lives; it will revolutionize how humans manage certain arduous tasks… and that’s only the beginning. The potential of this technology is huge, and your place in its future can be huge, too.”

He held up his hand. “Bracelets?”

There was a pause as the group absorbed what Robert had said. Waverly met Wynonna’s hesitant gaze. Her sister’s eyebrows raised and she shrugged. Waverly knew Wynonna was hungry for adventure. Neither of them relished being slaves to a desk job. They’d taken jobs at Revenance because they believed artificial intelligence was the way of the future, and they’d been satisfied helping to develop and market artificial intelligence software for the medical market. But this… this was something much, much bigger. In fact, Waverly would not have thought it possible. She held Wynonna’s gaze a moment longer and then gave her a small nod and smile. They took the bracelets.

Jeremy did as well. The three of them clasped them on. “We’re part of the chain gang now,” Wynonna said, shaking her braceleted wrist. Waverly tried not to think about how hard it was going to be to joke about the company with Wynonna now that their every word was probably being transmitted to a security monitoring team. Who were also probably wearing bracelets. That were also being monitored. By another team… Boggled the mind a bit, actually.

The lights in the room came up. “Now, I’d like to present to you… our two prototype units,” Robert Svane said, gesturing to two people, naked as Adam and Eve, standing off to the side and now suddenly illuminated. The pair stood still, eyes closed, seemingly sleeping. “They’re currently in resting mode. Didn’t want to overwhelm them. You’ll all get to meet them individually soon.”

“Grrrr. I should hope so,” Wynonna mumbled admiringly under her breath. Waverly elbowed her good naturedly and then also took an appreciative look at the pair. A male and a female. Tall, broad shouldered and perfectly sculpted head-to-toe. Flawless. Lovely. Perfect. Works of art.

“Meet Haught and Dolls,” Robert was saying.

“No way,” Wynonna whispered. “Those are their robot names?”

“’Hot’ and ‘Dolls’… Of course,” Waverly smirked. Someone on the Los Alamos team had a sense of humor.

Robert was gesturing for the group to follow him forward. “Come on. Go ahead and get a good look at them.” Waverly and Wynonna stepped forward a little shyly. After all, it’s impolite to stare at naked people. At work. Probably.

“They won’t bite,” Robert laughed, reaching out and running his hand over the gleaming dark skin of the male robot’s shoulder. “At least not while in resting mode.”

He patted the male robot’s chest. “Their bodies are made of bio material, so their skin feels like real skin. Their framework is made of bonelike bioplastic. Lightweight and stronger than our own. They convert energy from food like we do. They’re programmed with bio-rhythms like our own. Sleep cycle lets them defrag and repair their memory … and saves energy. And because they’re made up of synthesized bio-materials, they’re not susceptible to the same diseases we are. Imagine sending a group of medically trained units into an Ebola-stricken zone! No worries!”

Robert turned and lightly touched the hip of the female robot. Waverly could swear a chill ran across the unit’s pale skin, raising gooseflesh there. She focused her attention more closely and was mesmerized by the faintest changes she saw, a soft sigh, the chest’s gentle rise and fall as the unit softly breathed. The hands and feet were lovely, so perfectly formed. For all intents and purposes they were standing here staring at a naked woman.

“Their lung capacity is superior to ours, and their bodies are balanced for traveling long distances by foot,” Robert was saying. “That makes them well-suited to search & rescue operations… military operations… anything requiring stamina and physical exertion. In time, as we build more of them and production costs decrease, these units could become our front-line soldiers. Smart, solid, dependable… Expendable.”

Waverly frowned. “You said they’re sentient. What about their memories? Their personalities?” The longer she admired the units Haught and Dolls something wasn’t settling quite right.

Robert turned to her, smiling. “Excellent question, Waverly. Thank you for asking. You want to know if these two are so human, are they human?”

Waverly hadn’t completed the thought in her mind, so she appreciated that it was a question Robert had already tackled in his own.

“They are incredible replicas,” he told the group. “They’re built to ‘pass’ among us. They can laugh, cry, shout. They feel pain. They feel fear. They make memories.”

He let that sink in a moment before continuing. “The difference is they’re simply not human. They’re the most incredible machines that mankind has ever made. They feel and behave like us, but through programming we control them.”

That answer somehow didn’t pass muster with Waverly. “But as sentient beings, they have the ability to make subjective decisions,” she pressed.

Robert smiled at her again. It was clear he saw her as someone smart. She hoped he didn’t see her as someone who was a big smartass. “Yes, exactly. They’re free to make many decisions for themselves. In fact, that’s what we want them to do. The achievement here is that we’re creating something autonomous. Of course, they’re still machines. So, we have the ability to power down the units if we absolutely have to. But our preference is to let them run free. Limited only by this.”

He held an egg-shaped object in his hand. It was smooth and pink and looked soft. “This is a reward center. It’s implanted in the units, and it emits negative signals when the units exceed their bounds. Nothing super-intrusive, nothing super-painful or damaging. Think of it as more like firm redirection. In our initial tests, it’s worked very well.”

He handed the pink egg to Waverly. It felt wet and squishy in her palm and vaguely made her feel queasy.

“That’s where you come in, Waverly… and Wynonna and Jeremy,” Robert was saying. “You’re our Product Management leads, and these are now your products. All your other projects are being delegated to others on Floor 3. For the next six months, you will only manage these two units. Your job is to maintain, monitor and prepare them for deployment.”

Waverly’s head swam a bit at that. She and Wynonna would be ultimately responsible for everything having to do with the well-being and success of this project. With so much on the line, she hoped she was up to the task. Wynonna gave her hand a gentle squeeze of reassurance, making her feel a little better. The sisters knew how to support and take care of each other. Jeremy clapped a hand over their shoulders and gave them both a big grin. It was clear he was very excited about the opportunity they’d been given.

“I picked you three for a reason,” Robert said, warmly, smiling at the trio. “It’s a big job, but I think you’ll do just fine.”

//

The show was over, and the rest of the group broke up and went about its business. The Earp sisters and Jeremy had been asked to sit at one of the makeshift tables and wait while the units were whisked away and prepared for them. It was taking a while.

“So,” Wynonna said, sipping her latte. “Yin and yang?”

Waverly glanced up, waiting for her sister to elaborate.

“Light and dark? Ebony and ivory? Vanilla and dark chocolate?” The skin of the male robot was dark and highly-sheened, the light had seemed to reflect off of every curve and plane and ab. His body was stocky and well-built. Its cells were probably grown in a gymnasium, not a lab. In contrast, the female was fair-skinned… red-headed, slender, leggy and toned.

“Think anyone will mind if we fuck ‘em?” Wynonna said.

Two sets of eyebrows shot up.

“Just kidding,” she added, not kidding.

“Why don’t you ask the bracelet?” Waverly smirked. She held it up, pantomiming as if it were a telephone.

“Shit! They’re going to know everything we think and do for the next six months!” Wynonna hissed. “Our job is to babysit two oversized sex dolls!”

“At this moment, I’m kind of just hoping for pants,” Jeremy said. It was clear he was not thinking about pants.

Waverly took a deep breath, urging her own mind out of the gutter. “Ok, just because they’re robots does not mean they’re pleasure models like that skank company Pussywillows makes.”

“Those are so cool!” Jeremy squeaked. “So expensive, though… which I mostly just know from online, uh, research.”

Wynonna arched a brow. “Yeah, right. Name of ‘Hot’ and ‘Dolls’?”

Waverly persisted. “You heard the man. These two units are being groomed for service work in hostile environments. Definitely not skank… unless maybe skank in hostile environments.” The thought fizzled. “Just—just think of them like they’re our new coworkers for the next six months. It’s our job to train them, teach them robot manners and robot skills and get them ready to release into the robot wild.”

“I’m up for some robot wild,” Wynonna smirked. “Maybe that boy doll would be up for some, too… at least a girl can dream.”

Jeremy shuddered and pretended to ignore her, checking his phone. Waverly checked her email on her tablet. Robert Svane had said he’d be sending them detailed instructions on next steps. The email hadn’t appeared yet.

Another 20 minutes later and Wynonna’s coffee cup was empty, Waverly was up-to-date on world events and heavy doors popped open. The robots were coming back to them.

Robert Svane led what appeared to be two regular, everyday, very attractive people to them: the male and female robots… now looking like just an incredibly beautiful man and woman. Waverly felt her own mouth sag, staring agape, and willed herself to stop and be professional. She didn’t dare look at her sister.

“Ah, my Project Management Team!” Robert called out with apparent affection. “I want to introduce you to someone!”

Waverly, Wynonna and Jeremy climbed to their feet ready to do whatever the company CEO asked of them, like the perfect company yes-men they were about to become. The robot pair were now dressed in matching black track suits. They were smiling and animatedly sharing quiet words with each other, looking comfortable. As they approached, Waverly locked eyes on the female robot. She was met with kind brown eyes and a stunning, dimpled smile. She felt her heart drop, and she grinned back. The woman was devastatingly beautiful. Never in a million years would Waverly have imagined that she was a machine.

“Waverly, may I introduce you to Nicole Haught? She’s a cyclo-cross athlete from Atlanta. Robert’s voice was light, and he was encouraging them to shake hands. “Nicole, Waverly is going to be your handler.” Nicole took Waverly’s hand into her own for a quick, professional handshake, and Waverly marveled at how it ended up feeling anything but quick… or professional. And definitely not robotic. The softest brown eyes locked with hers and the effect was … physical…

“And Wynonna,” Robert was saying. “May I introduce you to Xavier Dolls. He spent two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is now preparing for a career in law enforcement.” Wynonna took Dolls’s large hand in her own and flashed him her own dimpled smile. Waverly almost feared her sister would start purring. Instead, she was impressed by how mature and put-together Wynonna sounded. She took the man’s hand in her own and said with utmost seriousness. “The pleasure is all mine.”

The man grinned a charming grin down at her, his dark eyes laughing.

Waverly had a brief and odd thought: This assignment was either going to prove to be… fun… or terrifying. Possibly both.

“Anyway,” Robert was saying, pointedly, “Welcome, Nicole and Xavier to Revenance Corporation’s Alberta office. We’re so glad to have you here… I think you’ll find our team to be most welcoming and supportive. After all, they want nothing more than to make you both feel right at home.” He turned to Waverly and Wynonna. “Am I right?” They nodded. “Good, good.”

//

Robert pulled Waverly aside for a brief tete a tete. “Your team should get these two up to W2 for a workout and some monitoring. You know…get their vital ranges… both at rest and at play. Work out their baseline ranges so we have the data. I just emailed you a set of stats to record. What your team is monitoring them for at all times is how lifelike they are. We need to know any physical or mental statistics that seem to fall outside the range of what would be considered normal. Remember, the success of this project means they’re ready to pass—at least to the untrained eye—as human.”

He paused. “After you get initial stats, take them out for a nice dinner. Treat ‘em like you would any new co-worker.” He slipped her a company credit card. It felt weird and wrong, but she accepted. She’d never been trusted with a company card before…. But now her role was changing. And she was curious what that meant. She slipped the card into her pocket, wondering where they should take a couple of new team members. She glanced up at Wynonna, whose expression said it was clear she wanted to take them both home, probably for something totally not bracelet-friendly. A phone call interrupted Robert Svane, and he answered it, pantomiming to Waverly that he’d catch up with her later for further instructions.

Waverly sighed deeply and tried to put the grownup pants on.

She addressed the robots with her best professional voice. “Okay! Will you two accompany us up to Basement 2 so we can get some initial physical stats on you?” Waverly asked. “After that, we’ll show you a bit of the town.”

Dolls and Haught smiled at each other and shrugged, looking like the regular out-of-town guests they were not.

//

Waverly had never been to W2, so she was surprised to find the floor had an extensive fitness center. She wondered what seniority level you had to be to gain access to it… and then realized with a grin that as of right now she had access to it. They all did.

They passed an office door that had Jeremy’s name on it posted on a laser-print page and taped to the door. They all stopped, and Jeremy tried the door handle, which swung in easily. He flipped on the lights and regarded the bank of medical equipment before him. He snapped into action mode, cuffing first Dolls, then Haught, to record basic blood pressure and cardio stats. With each test, he discovered more equipment in the room. He took samples for blood testing. He tested their resting breath capacity. He took their weight, physical measurements (giggling a bit as he did) … and then left the office space to see what other exercises they could do and that he could record: stationary bikes, treadmill, elliptical machine, etc., etc. Waverly and Wynonna helped Jeremy tape up the robots with sensors so they could record the whole dog-and-pony show.

The sisters sat side-by-side admiring the pair as they took to a bar and began to do pull-ups. This was an exercise Dolls would no-doubt excel at, as men were built for this type of physical feat. But Waverly was surprised to see Nicole pull off 10 reps, her abs tight and defined and her skin glowing with a thin sheen of sweat. Was that a natural glow, or actual glowing? Waverly blinked and looked again. While apparently a man-made creation, closer inspection revealed that the female unit’s glow did look like normal sweat caught under the artificial lights of the gym. She resisted the urge to reach out and touch the skin. Even though that would have been appropriate, more or less… maybe.

Instead, she handed Nicole a towel, congratulating her. Nicole accepted it with a dazzling smile. “Extra audience is good for the motivation,” she breathed lightly, and Waverly could swear that was a flirt. Nicole mopped her chest and her brow and Waverly bit her lip, thinking.

Dolls threw his towel at Wynonna. “Watch this, Earp,” he grinned at her, then looked quickly at Waverly. “Earps,” he corrected… and promptly crushed out 25+ reps, his back and shoulders flexing as if he were a superhero in a latex suit. Was that even remotely real? Waverly lost count, hesitating about whether to record the unit’s performance as abnormal in the spreadsheet on her tablet. She chanced a glance at Wynonna and Jeremy, who stood slack-jawed.

“Are you two even counting?” she whispered—equal parts gentle admonishment and professional curiosity. She didn’t want to leave holes in the team’s report, which she knew Robert Svane himself would read.

“Sexy three,” Wynonna mumbled. “Sixty, I mean… Sixty three.”

“It was 58,” Jeremy corrected her. “And I totally don’t know how I …” his voice trailed off. He shook cobwebs from his head and entered the number in his tablet.

Nicole had been standing behind them, watching as well. She leaned over Waverly’s shoulder and chuckled. “Now you’ve seen what we can do. How about you guys?” It was a friendly challenge.

Jeremy stammered out an awkward protest: “Ah, no can do. I have a medical disability. Was in an accident years ago. Pretty much broke every bone in my body, so, ah, I get a permanent hall pass on arm hangs and chest stuff… and painful physical testing. I’m just here to record. And by that, I don’t mean video recordings that I will be watching on a loop, no… not… that…” His eye darted to a camera near the ceiling. He was a terrible liar.

Waverly met Wynonna’s eyes. They smiled. The two of them actually were quite fit. Waverly both did yoga, worked out, did some running. Wynonna did some martial arts and had a fast metabolism. They were not slouchy by a long shot. Wynonna shrugged off her lab coat and wrapped her hands around the pull-up bar. “Do not laugh at me,” she growled to Jeremy and Waverly. She got in three pull-ups before her muscles gave out and she started laughing at herself. She dropped to the ground and took a moment to recover.

“Waverly, over here! Do your thing… you little Amazon!” she called.

Waverly removed her lab coat, laying it on the back of a chair. Nicole’s eyes were dark as she watched Waverly saunter over and roll up the cuffs of her sleeves. Waverly tried to ignore the attention. She knew she was no slouch. Her frame was small and light and she’d trained at a rock climbing gym. She was built for this.

She looked up at the bar and measured it with her eyes before easily hopping up to the height of it, grasping the bar in her hands and hefting herself skyward. The first pull-up was no big deal.

She dropped to the ground and, holding Nicole’s eyes, she stripped off her tight button-up shirt to just a tank top underneath.

She resumed her pullups, managing to complete nine reps. The burn was too much; she couldn’t quite squeeze out the tenth one, even though she really, really wanted to. She dropped to the ground and rubbed the ache out of her sore arms and shoulders.

“Impressive,” Nicole commented with a smile. Waverly could not help her own shy smile in return.

Wynonna handed Waverly her shirt back with a wry smirk. “Showoff.”

A blonde woman with a clipboard found them. Waverly noticed the medic-alert bracelet on her wrist. Which meant she was part of the Project Purgatory in-crowd. She introduced herself as Chrissy Nedley, the team nutritionist. She was there to bring them to the W2 dining area for lunch. Waverly found herself intensely curious what food Revenance Corporation fed to robots, but more than that, she was curious to know what her sister made of the morning’s events.

While Jeremy, Dolls and Haught got seated, Wynonna and Waverly headed for the restroom.

“I don’t know, dude,” Wynonna was saying, staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Do you think they even know they’re robots? I mean Robert Svane introduced them as teammates… and they clearly programmed them with their own little back-stories.”

Waverly shrugged at Wynonna in the mirror. “If they don’t know, that must be part of the testing. If Robert Svane introduced them as ‘team members,’ let’s just stick to that. Marketing’s probably working on some other cool thing to call them anyway.”

“What kind of lunchtime small-talk do we make with them?” Wynonna wondered aloud. “’So, what do you guys like to do in your down time?’” She smirked at her own funny line. “Or how about, ‘What’s your favorite robot movie?’”

It was frustrating that the CEO’s instruction email had still not come to them. Which, frankly was how a lot of things tended to go at Revenance Corporation. Part of working in a big, secretive company was that actual communication tended to be slow and often incomplete. So for now, they were improvising. Waverly sighed and rubbed her hands over her face in exasperation. “I don’t know. Maybe let’s ask them a few questions. Just treat them like someone who’s new to the company? See what they say? Robert Svane asked us to watch and record any behavior that didn’t seem… human enough.”

Wynonna pointed at Waverly. “I got it. Trick question: ‘I got a case of WD-40 in the back. Wanna get drunk?’”

“Save that one for happyhour.”

They returned to the table to find the robots politely making small talk with Jeremy and Chrissy. The group was waiting for their lunch to arrive.

“So how long have you worked here?” Dolls was asking Jeremy.

“Oh, I’ve been here about four years,” he replied. “I worked for two years at Los Alamos – doing the R&D thing—before coming over here. Been working with Wynonna and Waverly in Product Management ever since. Good gig. No complaints.” He smiled at the sisters. They were a close-knit team.

“Los Alamos is really beautiful,” Nicole said, and Waverly’s ears perked up. The robots were conscious during Phase 1?

“You’ve got the mountains on one side and the Rio Grande river valley on the other. Nothing for miles and miles,” Nicole continued. “I spent a lot of hours on a road bike out there. Blue sky for days.”

“Did you bike with other team members?” Wynonna asked. “What’s the elevation there, like 7,000 feet?”

Nicole’s hand went to her bracelet, giving it a mindless twist. “Yeah, Los Alamos is pretty high up. I think the valley was more like 5,500. So not really. I think I might have been too hardcore for most of the others. It was usually just me and my blue pony. That’s what I called my bike.”

“Did you bring your bike with you?” Waverly asked. “There’s a lot of open road out here, too... The riding’s nice.”

Wynonna kicked her under the table and made her that’s-what-she-said face. It was like working with a 12-year-old.

Dolls answered for Nicole: “Our stuff is in transit. The company’s packing up our things and shipping them up here.”

Chrissy nodded her head. “Yeah, I heard that. I have a friend in Logistics. Sounds like it may take a week… or more…” Dolls and Haught frowned at that news but stayed quiet. A tray of food was being delivered to them now: an assortment of sandwiches wrapped in white paper. Chrissy made some notations on her tablet as the team divided them up.

“Beverages?” she asked when her notes were complete.

“Coffee,” Wynonna said, adding, “please.”

“Unsweetened iced tea,” Dolls said. Nicole indicated she’d take the same.

“Herbal tea for me… Peppermint? Or something with ginger?” Waverly requested. She often had an upset stomach and so she often went with tummy-settling herbs just to be safe.

Wynonna had turned to Dolls again. “So, we haven’t received a formal briefing yet on the projects we’re supposed to be supporting you on. Can you give us a few details about what your focus is while you’re here?”

“Training,” Dolls replied. “We’re awaiting our final deployment instructions, but our understanding is we’ll be sent to an elite law enforcement tactical unit when we’re done here.”

“So. Important stuff,” Wynonna commented. “And dangerous.”

Dolls looked around the table and shrugged. “What we all do is important. And dangerous.

//

The rest of the afternoon was filled with more physical testing down in the gym. Jeremy was a rock star when it came to lining up tasks and recording the results. The robots were good-natured about the gentle prodding, as if they were humoring the Product Managers, like the tasks were somehow mysterious, possibly superfluous. But that’s the way it likely went in any company, the tension between product design and marketing.

“Bingo!” Wynonna chirped. She was lounging on a weight bench while Waverly sat in the chair of the leg press machine. “Robert Svane’s instructions just arrived.”

They both scrambled to get to the email. It was addressed to Waverly, Wynonna and Jeremy.

“Product Management Team,

Thank you for taking on the proper care, monitoring and training of our most precious assets. It’s a really important job, and I could not be more thrilled to have your team on it. I know you will do well.

You’ll get notes in a few days on the training requirements. In the meantime, continue focusing on monitoring. I gave Waverly specific instructions on what to look for, so please consult with her about that. Please submit reports to me daily. Post them to the shared server and ping me to personally review. In addition to statistical data, I look forward to your personal observations as well.

If anything concerns you or you encounter any issues, please phone me immediately.

Thank you again. More to come soon.

Robert”

 

Waverly let out a deep breath. “No, dammit… That’s no help.”

“What kind of issues does he worry might come up?” Wynonna wondered aloud. “What’s he not saying?”

“Maybe he’s being brief because he doesn’t want to color our observations. You know, maybe he wants us to keep an open mind.”

“Maybe he’s just keeping it off the Internet,” Wynonna said. “You know, top-secret secrecy.”

Either way, they had only the information at hand to go on. And now it was time to take the robots to dinner. Waverly clutched the company credit card in her pocket, wondering what they were supposed to do with the robots after dinner. She hoped there would be another email… that another team member who was tasked with storing the robots overnight would pipe up and ask where the hell they were.

She looked up Chrissy Nedley’s phone number on the Intranet and called her. Chrissy answered right away. “Why, hello, Waverly! You guys ready to head out to dinner?”

Waverly casually turned her wrist, jingling her medic-alert bracelet. “Yes, we sure are. I think everybody’s getting hungry by now. You planning on joining us?”

“No, no. I’m fine. You guys go on ahead and enjoy yourselves.”

“Ok, will do. Just wanted to touch base with you first and see if you had any special instructions for us on that?”

“Why don’t you ask them what they’d like?” Chrissy suggested. It was not a particularly satisfying answer.

“Well, yes, of course. We can take a poll and see who wants Mexican and who wants Sushi… But I mean, is there anything we should make sure they get—or not get—or anything we should watch out for? I mean are they prone to choking? And would the Heimlich Maneuver be the proper thing to do?” She felt her cheeks flush with how stupid that sounded, but she didn’t want to lose one of the Extremely Valuable Assets on her first day’s watch.

Chrissy was laughing. “No, no. It should all be fine. Their digestive and respiratory tracts are designed to work like ours do. Los Alamos did some really amazing work from what I can see in the charts… at least the ones I have access to. Just do what you’d do with anybody else…. And, of course, keep track of what they eat and report anything unusual.”

“Give me an example of what something unusual might be.”

“I don’t know. If they get sick, maybe.”

“Tummy ache?”

“Yes, exactly,” Chrissy laughed. “Or if they eat the flower arrangement on the table.”

Waverly wrinkled her nose with a giggle. “If that happens I promise to text you a photo.”

//

The gang had voted for sushi, so they were now sitting at the very fine Yuumura Sushi downtown, the five of them in a large padded booth in a quiet corner of the restaurant. Jeremy had adorably taken charge and was ordering appetizers for the table, asking first if anyone had seafood allergies. The robots were shaking their heads no.

“Shit!” Waverly dove behind her menu and hissed at Wynonna.

“What?” Her sister shot her an equally alarmed look from behind her own menu.

“I totally wasn’t thinking!” Waverly panicked. “What if they don’t know how to use chopsticks!”

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “They’re robots, not savages.” When Waverly didn’t look reassured by that, Wynonna elaborated: “Look, they managed to tear the paper off their sandwiches just fine earlier…. And they’ve clearly mastered the skill of drinking iced tea through a straw. I bet Los Alamos programmed them to use chopsticks. It’s a pretty important skill for a human to have.” Was it? A pause, then: “And if they don’t know how, then we’ll teach them, so in six months we can release them into the robot wild and be proud of all we’ve helped them accomplish.”

Waverly dropped her menu back to the table in a huff, her cheeks still hot. She looked up to see Dolls and Jeremy joking around … and Nicole staring back at her, all warm brown eyes and soft smile, dammit! She looked like she was pondering something… or calculating, or whatever an advanced computer mind would do. It somehow made Waverly’s cheeks burn even hotter. So she straightened up and put a professional smile on for the rest of the table.

“Shall we order a few rolls to share … you know… family-style?” she asked, looking from Jeremy to Dolls to Wynonna… and to Nicole, last. The robot was smiling as if she were amused by Waverly’s efforts to control her own fluster.

Not helping.

Jeremy and Dolls were nodding their agreement. Jeremy suggested the dragon roll to Dolls. “It’s my favorite… I think you’d really like it,” he was saying bashfully.

“Let’s pick a veggie roll, too,” Waverly added.

“You don’t eat meat?” Nicole asked, her voice light, her eyes way too soft and sparkly to even be real. Was the robot testing its memory banks for the definition of the word “vegetarian?” Or was she asking because she was curious to know more about Waverly Earp? Waverly got lost in those gentle eyes a moment longer and almost lost the conversational thread altogether.

“Uh, I’m a pescatarian, actually. No meat. Just fish.” Ok, she managed to get that out of her mouth right… and then remembered her manners. “You?”

“Oh, I eat meat,” Nicole replied playfully. “I like a lot of things.”

Was the robot trying to kill her?

Wynonna sensed her sister’s panic and kicked her under the table while somehow managing to keep her face impassive. The waiter had returned. Wynonna leaned over and asked him to bring two large hot sakes for the table.

She shot a pointed look at Waverly. “I need a drink… and you do, too,” she said.

Waverly nodded and kept her mouth shut.

“And Robert Svane’s buying, so…”

Somehow, they managed to successfully order the food and drinks. Wynonna was right. Sake helped. Waverly was interested to learn that the robots were in fact programmed to use chopsticks. Nice attention to detail, Los Alamos. And they also were programmed to be social drinkers. She watched Dolls and Nicole closely to see if alcohol had the same social-lubrication effect on them as it did for the humans at the table.

Dolls indicated he usually kept drinking to a minimum “to stay in top form.” Nicole, on the other hand, seemed to warm right up after her first sake.

But now, they were several sakes in, and she’d become a bit more playful and talkative… and she was into touching. As in, she was touching Waverly right now. As in, the hot female robot was holding Waverly’s hands across the table. Waverly’s cheeks had been bright pink for the past ten minutes. She’d agreed to take Nicole up to the mountains this weekend (work permitting), knowing how much Nicole had mentioned loving the outdoors.

“That would be amazing,” Nicole had enthused. “I’d love that so much!”

Waverly had grinned. “It’s nothing, really. Just glad to show you around. This place is different from Los Alamos… It’s colder here, but it’s still quite beautiful and wild.”

“I bet it is. An all-new frontier,” Nicole said with head cock and a wink. “Can’t wait to find out.”

Waverly blushed, somehow wondering again if the robot was flirting with her… or if Waverly was just being a big dork. Or both. It had been a long time since she’d been with someone. She’d thrown herself into her work the past couple of years. Part of her was hungry for connection -- that certainly had to explain all this … awkwardness.

She looked up to find Nicole saying almost the exact same thing:

“They keep us cooped up so much. We’re always indoors, in these black boxes with no sunlight. No fresh air. Just tests—day in, day out. I know it’s important. And I’m not complaining….” Nicole reached to the medic-alert bracelet on her wrist and gave it a twist that said she was aware she was, in fact, complaining. “But the sun! I live for every minute I can get outside and soak it all in. Pure joy.”

Without thinking, Waverly had reached across the table and taken Nicole’s hands in her own. Huh, yeah, she’d done that. “We will get you some sunshine right away,” Waverly had promised.

That was ten minutes ago, and Nicole still had not released her hands. Well, truth be told, Waverly hadn’t, either. Stupid alcohol. They both seemed to studiously ignore the fact that they were physically touching and instead focused on the conversation. Nicole asked Waverly if she owned a road bike (she did not), but she did have a Jeep, which was good for getting to the hiking trails, and she just happened to know a handful of gorgeous ones within a couple hours’ drive.

“Then it’s all set,” Nicole grinned. “We’ll do that this weekend.”

Wynonna interrupted, looking intently at her phone. “Shit, it’s late,” she said. She went to her email and scrolled through, shooting glances to Waverly and Jeremy. “Nothing. You?”

They both pulled out their phones to scan for messages about what they were supposed to do next. After dinner.

Nothing.

Waverly sought Wynonna’s eyes and shook her head in concern. Wynonna patted her hand. “No worries, baby girl. We’ll get this figured out.” Wynonna had always called her “baby girl” when she’d been drinking, which wasn’t super-professional in this context… but then after several orders of sake all around, they were suddenly finding themselves in a less-than-professional spot.

Wynonna punched numbers into her phone. She caught Waverly’s eye and mouthed “Chrissy Nedley.” She was the only one on the special secret-secret team that either of them knew by name so far, so they could find her contact info on the company intranet.

“Chrissy! It’s Wynonna. Sorry to call so late. We’re just finishing up dinner… and, uh, I wonder if you might know where we’re supposed to drop off the keys to the rental cars?”

Waverly clapped a hand over her own mouth trying not to laugh at the euphemism. She passed it off as a stifled yawn. Or at least she hoped she did.

But Chrissy did not know. So, Waverly and Wynonna exchanged a nonverbal conversation in the way only sisters can do. The robots were standing over by one of the big exotic fish tanks conversing quietly. Jeremy was in the restroom.

“Ok. Dolls. Haught. Tell us where we’re supposed to take you for the evening,” Wynonna asked.

Dolls looked back, shooting first Wynonna then Waverly a look. “You don’t know?”

Waverly and Wynonna slowly shook their heads. Nope. “You?”

Dolls and Nicole exchanged glances, a non-verbal conversation apparently only robots can do. Nicole’s dimples came out and struck everybody down where they stood. Or at least Waverly. Her sister leant her a steadying arm.

“We have no idea,” Dolls said, looking at the ground and slowly shaking his head.

Right.

Wynonna stepped into take-charge mode. “You mean they brought you here without letting you know what your accommodations would be once you got here? What about your bags? Your personal effects and shit?”

Nicole spread out her hands. “All we have is right here.” Just the black tracksuits they had on.

Great.

“The rest is in transit,” Dolls elaborated. It was cute how they completed each other’s robot-sentences.

Wynonna sighed. “Did they tell you you’d be getting your own apartments? Staying in on-campus housing? Sleeping in a box in the lab?”

Nicole and Dolls exchanged nervous glances. They didn’t like that last one. Cutting a little too close to home, robots?

Dolls reached for the pocket of his track suit. He pulled out a wallet (!)

“I have a company card,” he said, and it seemed to really take him some effort to get the words out. “Please … take us to a hotel. Nicole and I… We’re done with staying on campus.” Sweat gathered on his brow. Nicole reached out and grabbed his hand in her own, squeezing as she whispered something to him. He shot her the sweetest smile in return, grabbing her by the neck and pulling their foreheads together.

No way. The robots were in love?

Wynonna and Waverly stood slack-jawed, both having come to the same thought and both choking as they processed it.

Jeremy walked back from the restroom just then. He glanced from Dolls and Nicole to Wynonna and Waverly and helplessly shrugged. “What’d I miss?”

Wynonna glared at him. “Start looking up nearby hotels. We’re getting our new teammates a place to stay.”

“Oh, no. We’re supposed to take them back to the pod on W3…” he started to say… and then thought better of it when he saw the anger in four sets of eyes. “… Which, uh, is terrible and so not happening,” he finished.

“Put it on my company card,” Waverly said, handing the card to Jeremy. “I’ll explain it to Robert Svane tomorrow.” That’d the right thing to do.

Wynonna and Jeremy started frantically looking up hotels on their phones. Waverly suddenly felt ill and turned to find the nearest exit. She headed back toward the hallway where the restrooms were and kept walking until she saw an exit sign. She pushed open the door and swallowed some fresh air. What’s the right thing to do?

A moment later the door sprung open again, and there was Nicole Haught.

Of course.

“Just wanted to make sure you’re ok?” Nicole said, part statement, part question.

Waverly looked helplessly up to the black sky, completely not understanding the sick feeling she was feeling.

“I’m ok,” she said, bending over to catch her breath and steady herself. “Just need a minute.”

“Take your time. I’m here for you,” Nicole said softly, and Waverly felt the woman’s hand come down onto the middle of her back and begin to draw slow circles there. Waverly found herself focusing on the simple comforting motion. Was this one a hypnotist, too?

“Thank you, Nicole,” she said at last. “But that should be my job. We should be here for you. And for Dolls. We should be making you feel comfortable. And instead, I feel like we’re fucking everything up right and left.”

“If something doesn’t feel right, why don’t you just fix it?” Nicole asked.

It was a beautiful question… disarming in its simplicity, barely suggesting the mountains of layers of meaning that truly lay beneath.

Bravo, Revenance Corporation, on creating a fricking robot that knows how to play the concerned friend.

Waverly felt like she might be ill. She didn’t want the robots to suffer. She was already weary (at least for today) with testing and poking and prodding them. She had two sentient machines on her hands that didn’t want to go back to some lab and be hooked up to some intrusive machine. They didn’t want to be put on “resting mode” and stuffed into some monitoring coffin. They were ready and hungry to be their own people. She could see it plain as day. They had learned to support each other and offer each other comfort. Of course, the robots would have a deeply profound bond with each other… a bond that she and Jeremy and Wynonna needed to support. We humans have each other; surely robots deserved one another, too.

Her head swam with the thought of defying Robert Svane’s orders and going AWOL with his Very Important Assets. But her sense of decency won out over professional fear. “I get it,” she said finally. “You need to be with him. I get it.”

“Yes,” Nicole said, slowly, slowly drawing Waverly up from where she was doubled-over. “I need him. And I need you, too.”

Waverly sorely wished she weren’t so nervous, that she hadn’t drunk so much. And that Nicole’s eyes weren’t so beautiful. And the dimples. Psshhh. Nicole pushed a lock of hair behind Waverly’s ear. “I wonder if you feel it, too?” she asked. “I can tell, Waverly Earp. We’re going to be good together.”

It was odd how true the words sounded, and it wasn’t just the sake. Good together. Nicole caught Waverly’s eyes, and she felt herself melt. How is this even happening?

With that, the robot pulled Waverly into a hug. Waverly smashed into Nicole’s body, wrapping her arms tightly around her, against crushing waves of nausea. The robot felt impossibly soft and warm. Waverly marveled at Nicole’s breath, the slow rise and fall of it inside her chest, audible where her ear was pressed up against the robot’s sternum. Waverly felt instantly calmer in Nicole’s arms. She took her own long, slow breath and let loose the tension that had been building. This seemed right. It felt right. And she felt grounded by it.

Whatever Nicole’s ultimate purpose, (which would be revealed when Robert Svane’s training notes finally came), it was clear Nicole had been programmed to be a Waverly whisperer. Not really, of course. But still….

“Dolls can get a room,” Nicole breathed into Waverly’s hair. Her breath was warm and sweet. Waverly wrapped her arms even tighter and sent them both swaying back and forth. Waverly held her tongue, curious to hear more of what Nicole Haught wanted.

There was a long silence, and then: “I want to be with you,” the robot said, her voice the barest whisper. “If you’ll have me.” So soft that Waverly could have chosen to ignore the statement. But she didn’t want to. She wanted more… unabashed, unbridled, unmonitored and unscrutinized. She squeezed Nicole’s middle even tighter, urging her to continue.

Nicole took a deep breath and it filled Waverly with a bodily knowledge of the complete contour of Nicole’s being. She sighed softly. She couldn’t help it. And Nicole kissed the top of her head. They swayed together.

“You’re drunk,” Waverly muttered into Nicole’s chest.

Nicole chuckled, a deep, rich and satisfying sound. “Well, maybe…” she acknowledged. “But that doesn’t mean what I said isn’t true.”

She paused and Waverly could feel her swallow down feelings that threatened to choke her. “And it doesn’t change the facts: I don’t know what it is, but I am drawn to you. I feel it, and I can tell you feel it, too.”

Waverly nuzzled deeper into Nicole’s chest. “I do. I felt it from the first moment.”

“I don’t understand it, but I think somehow we understand each other… So…”

Waverly waited for Nicole to complete her thought. She ran a hand up the woman’s back, rubbing long, slow, soothing circles there.

“Anyway, it’s nice and it’s enough,” Nicole finished. “At least for me.”

Waverly tilted her head up to see Nicole’s face. The woman’s dark eyes fairly glittered. Waverly didn’t know if it was from the streetlights out here or from some inner power source that Nicole possessed. Or both.

“So…” Nicole repeated, leaving a long pause for Waverly to contemplate.

She did.

“Nicole,” she finally said, mumbling into the taller woman’s chest. “I want you to come home with me.”

God, she hoped she wasn’t making a big ass of herself. They both swayed together a while longer.

“I- I am not saying that in any inappropriate way,” Waverly blurted. It was a lie, but she willed herself to believe it was true. “I… I have extra space. My apartment is big. Uh, big enough. It’s comfortable. I think you’ll be comfortable. At least till … we can make more formal arrangements for you…”

Nicole’s breath came slow and heavy and warm again against the top of her head. A perfect hand reached up and drew the hair away from Waverly’s ear, and she planted a soft kiss there. Her lips were so, so soft, and her breath sent shivers down Waverly’s spine that sent her belly into flip-flops. Her body kicked. It was ready to respond with a deep and passionate kiss on the lips …but her mind won out. This time. For now.

Nicole chuckled, seeming to understand and accept Waverly’s reluctance with comfort and grace. “No expectations,” she whispered into Waverly’s ear. “I got you.”

That just about did it. Every square inch of Waverly’s body – possibly inside and out – tingled as Nicole’s lips tickled her ear.

Why were they not already kissing?

Oh, right. Waverly was feeling self-conscious… probably about a lot of things: the just-met-you thing, the job thing, the you’re-not-real thing, the why-can’t-I-just-have-relationships-with-normal-people thing.

And the alcohol thing. While it was so easy to want to fall into bed with someone when she’d been drinking… it was another thing to feel good about it the next morning. And if she invited this woman—her coworker, the Very Important Asset—home tonight and something happened, she didn’t want to wake up to an awkward six months ahead.

Nicole was possibly a bit drunker. She leaned down, whispering in Waverly’s ear. “Call a cab?”

Waverly pulled out her cell phone, wondering for a moment whether Wynonna would be concerned if she and Nicole ditched the others. She quickly composed a text to her sister:

Waverly: Nicole and I are headed to my place.

Wynonna: WTF!

Waverly: Don’t judge me... She doesn’t deserve to be kept in some awful box.

Wynonna: Your box, tho?

Waverly huffed and broke the text chain. Sometimes it was impossible to win when it came to Wynonna. She pulled up her Lyft app and ordered a ride. And not a ride in the sense Wynonna was probably imagining…

… though Nicole was definitely making very naughty eyes at her… sending sparks flying north and south.

Bad robot!

Something told her she was already in deep trouble.

//

 

 

 

Thanks so much for reading! Leave a comment or kudo, if you can. Feedback is so valuable… and so appreciated. I promise to reply to every comment!

Chapter Text

The 3rd floor elevators opened, and Waverly ducked, jaw tightly set, and marched a straight line to her desk. The normal chatter of the crowded Product Development office swirled around her. She blocked it all out. Her sister and Jeremy were already at their desks, engrossed in their morning emails. She was grateful for that much as she rounded the corner to her own desk and slipped silently into her office chair. The intranet chimed as it accepted her hastily-typed password and she fidgeted while she waited for the system to boot up. The smell of coffee caught her attention, and she noticed Jeremy had left her a cup of coffee on the corner of her desk. It was in his Terminator 2 coffee mug, the one with the metal robot hand wrapped around it.

Of course.

She took a grateful sip, enjoying the taste … though the liquid had long cooled off. What time was it, anyway? Her email launched and she looked at the clock.

9:32 a.m.

Shit. Later than she thought. Finally, her new emails loaded--all 50 of them--including three from Robert Svane.

Double-shit!

“Soooooooooo….” Wynonna said, her voice purring in that big-sister someone’s-in-trouble voice.

Waverly kept her head down. “Zip it, Wynonna.”

“… How’s Nicole…?” Wynonna asked, drawing out the question.

Waverly fumed silently, punching at one email after another. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

“… Does she come with any fun bells and whistles?”

Waverly’s cheeks flushed scarlet.

“… Any non-standard equipment?”

“ZIP IT, Wynonna.”

Jeremy popped his head up over her computer monitor. “Oh! Robert Svane came by looking for you a little bit ago.”

Yes. She just got the memo. As in, the 7:58 a.m. email from Robert Svane looking for a status update on his Very Important Asset. Who had not reported to the pod on W3 last night. Waverly’s head swam as she realized that only the second personal conversation she will have ever had with the CEO was one in which she was going to have to talk her way out of the hot seat.

Wynonna was on the phone with Accounting. “Ah, yeah, Margaret. Wynonna here. Say, the Product Management Team needs to know how much the company’s spent to-date on the two Project Purgatory assets? You know how it is… Gotta plug that into our big old profitability spreadsheet or the math just comes out all stupid.” A pause. “Oh, really.” Another pause. “Was that ‘million’ with a ‘b’?”

Waverly’s ears burned and her stomach started to hurt again. The coffee wasn’t helping.

Jeremy popped into her space again. “Oh! And he wanted to know why you and your asset were unaccounted for … and why there were hotel charges on your company credit card…”

Waverly let out an exasperated breath. “I DID NOT FUCK NICOLE.”

Jeremy slid back into his chair.

“Ope… Margaret. Gotta go!” Wynonna quickly got off her call.

The sound of someone clearing their throat came from behind Waverly.

Shit!

She swiveled her chair to find Robert Svane himself standing there. His face was red, and she didn’t know him well enough to guess whether it was from anger or embarrassment. Probably both.

Suddenly, the busy floor seemed eerily quiet. Blood pounded in her ears. Wynonna and Jeremy seemed to have disappeared under their desks.

When Robert Svane finally spoke, his voice was quiet and measured. “Conference Room. Two minutes. Just you, Waverly.”

//

 

The conference room on Floor 3 had always been a cheery place. They’d celebrated co-worker birthdays with cake and ginger ale there. They’d plotted Secret Santa gifts (that’s where the Terminator 2 mug had first shown up). They’d endured so many hours of torturous powerpoint presentations, cracking silly jokes at each other. Sometimes the meetings were so boring that the timer went out on the room’s motion-sensor lights, reminding them to stop sitting in a stupid meeting and go get on with actual living. The philodendron in the corner was plastic, but Wynonna always watered it anyway. Maybe she didn’t know…

Here, at 9:45 a.m. on a Wednesday in late September… this was the moment when one of her stupid happy places was going to become a decidedly not-happy place.

Robert Svane burst into the conference room in a huff, closing the door behind him. He took a seat at the far end of the table, in the one chair nobody ever sat in. He removed his glasses… the small round ones that made him look bookish … and set them on the table. He steepled his fingers together, deep in red-faced thought for a long hot moment, regarding her silently. Letting her sweat.

She held her breath, willing herself not to pass out, ignoring her queasiness.

Her heart furiously pounded out the long seconds.

He drew a deep breath and finally spoke. “I could shut your whole department down, you know.” He paused, letting the threat register in her imagination. “You… Jeremy… Your sister… I could shut you down... Bye, bye, Product Management Group.”

Waverly fingered the bracelet on her wrist, fidgeting uncomfortably. She was willing to take responsibility for her own actions, her own decisions. But she had never wanted Jeremy and Wynonna to suffer for them.

“The others … they had nothing to do with it,” she said. “… with me… taking Nicole … uh, home last night.”

“Unit 2 was supposed to go back to the pod.”

She nodded her understanding of that fact.

He pressed. “She was supposed to go to sleep mode. To defrag and recharge.”

Waverly nodded, her jaw clenching and unclenching with uncomfortable energy she could not release.

“She’s a Very Important Asset to this company,” he said. “… a very expensive asset to this company... It’s critical her existence remain invisible to the outside world… And yet none of us who are responsible for her and relying on her—no one on her team—knew where she was. Or why you took her.”

Waverly nodded again, gravely.

“And she’s *not* a pleasure model.” His words were pointed.

Waverly’s eyebrows shot up and her jaw dropped in indignation.

He took another deep breath, leaning forward on his elbows and waving a hand, saying, simply: “Explain.”

There were 150 different things Waverly wanted to say in her own defense. She wanted to complain that nobody had given her clear instructions. That no one had explained what the robots needed. That nobody had identified themselves as resources to help her make decisions. That Robert Svane himself hadn’t delivered any sort of leadership that might have guided her path. That she’d had too much to drink. And so had Unit 2. So maybe, yes, she’d learned at least that lesson the hard way. And didn’t they have tracking bracelets on everybody anyway, so what the fuck…?

Instead, she set her jaw and leaned forward in her chair, elbows on the table and anger flashing. She answered in the only way she could, pulling straight from the heart.

“Nicole has feelings. She does not belong in a box… or a pod… or a lab… or whatever.”

He said nothing. His face was impassive. But she had his attention; he was listening, so she pressed forward.

“Nicole…”

“Unit 2,” he corrected.

“Yes. Nicole has her own ideas and wants and preferences…. She wants to get out into the world, see things, experience things, meet people. She wants to connect. She wants to make friends. She’s been so patient and done so much for Revenance Corporation. She has much, much more she’s willing to give to this company.” Waverly paused, gathering her words. “But most of all, she’s ready to be her own person.”

She stopped there, absorbing the truth of her own words. Her eyes flashed challenge across the table at Robert Svane. His expression was impassible, though he regarded her warily.

“All of this you gathered from one day with Unit 2.”

Waverly shrugged and covered her eyes with her hands. “We got drunk.”

That didn’t seem like the right thing to say professionally… but it was the right thing to say honestly. Her job was on the line. And so much more than that. This was important. Robert Svane wanted to hear the truth.

“I like her,” she said. “And, for the record, I really did want to, uh, have sex with her.”

He glowered for a moment… and then broke down into amused chuckling. He was laughing at her. And then it all changed… and he was suddenly laughing with her.

“My dear, sweet Waverly...” he said… and there was some part of her that thought she would never tire of him saying her name out loud. She met his eyes with equal parts defiance and curiosity.

He stopped a moment, composing what he wanted to say. “You have given me the lightest gift.”

That was not the response she was expecting.

He elaborated. “I knew choosing you was not a mistake. I knew you were the right person for the job.”

Ok, she’d accept that. Suddenly the conversation was going better than she’d expected.

“What you’re telling me… is that Unit 2—Nicole—not only passes for human… but she excels at being human. You feel her heart, her sincerity, her emotions in your heart. You want to befriend her, protect her, care for her as … a companion, a friend, or something like that.”

Waverly cautiously nodded.

He laughed even harder. “You see? Even now, you’re feeling protective of her… against me! You think I don’t understand. Oh, but I do!”

Waverly chewed on his words, realizing now was the moment to press further. “Sir… I am committed to being her handler… fully committed. And I am so ready to prepare her for the job that lies ahead of her.” She shot him a pointed glance. “But you need to trust me. She is not your Asset. She is not my Asset. She is her own girl. And I am her new best friend. Genuinely so… In the same way that I would never let harm come to Jeremy or Wynonna … I won’t let harm come to her.”

Robert Svane sobered, considering her. “I believe you, Waverly.” He picked his next words very carefully. “I know the pain and loss you’ve experienced in your life… both you and your sister. And, honestly, that’s part of why I picked you both for this job.”

He continued: “Wynonna… she coped with the death of your father and older sister by turning to sex, alcohol, and inappropriate humor. She can be a real fuckup and a royal mess of a human being. Her love for you is the only thing that grounds her.”

Waverly bridled against his characterization of Wynonna—on principle—though she knew in her heart it was mostly true.

“But because Wynonna is so raw, so tortured…. so human—and because she has you to help balance her—she is also perfect for this mission. You are two perfect angels… and you’re just what Xavier and Nicole need right now to complete their training. They each have you now hanging in the balance. They have something worth fighting for.”

He stood up, moving to the door… then turned to her once more. “Follow your heart, Waverly Earp. Other people have the luxury of uneventful lives, and it makes them soft and secretive—most especially to themselves. You? You’ve walked through fire, and you carry the burns on your skin every day. Be thankful you’ve finally met someone who is not scared away by that.”

Waverly was unclear whether he was talking about himself or Nicole just then. But it didn’t really matter.

“Last thing,” Robert Svane added. “Where is Nicole right now?”

Waverly bit her lip. “Short answer?” She met him square in the eye. “I don’t know.”

He regarded her carefully a moment more, then: “I see.”

He swung the conference room door open and stepped through, turning back at the last moment. “Keep me posted as you can.”

The door shut.

Waverly buried her face in her hands and focused on breathing.

What the hell just happened?

//

 

Waverly took a seat again at her desk, calling up her email, but she didn’t really see any of it. Her mind was still reeling from the conversation with Robert Svane. Wynonna clapped a soft hand on her shoulder, invading her space. “You ok, baby girl? Need me to go kick the shit out of him?”

Waverly laughed and pulled Wynonna into a tight hug. “No. He’s fine. We… we came to… a meeting of the minds. I think.”

Wynonna seemed shocked and taken aback by that, bristling in Waverly’s arms. Waverly sat up straight and addressed her sister and Jeremy: “We’re doing the right thing. They may be robots. But they are not just robots. They are our teammates… and they’re becoming our friends. And all we have to do is show them the kindness and friendship we show each other and all will be right.”

Jeremy fidgeted. “That’s fine. I get it. But, uh, is it ok if I feel different about *him* than I do about the two of you…?”

The sisters flashed each other alarmed looks and then mellowed. Wynonna addressed him: “Yes. It’s ok, Jeremy. Totally get that. Would never ask you to be something you’re not.”

“And you!” she addressed Waverly, poking her in the chest with her finger. “How are you doing? You may not have banged a hot redheaded robot, but you’re an Earp and I know you wanted to.”

Waverly looked up at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. “Yeah, I’ve never exactly been with a woman before. Or a robot. But, apparently, part of me is really, really, uh… ready to try… both…”

Wynonna hugged her sister. “It’s ok, baby girl. If it helps, I’ll be there with you. To hold your hand. Or Nicole’s. And I bet I could get Dolls to join us.”

“Ew. Stop.” Waverly protested.

Jeremy looked like he’d just been hit with gay tear gas. He drifted back over to his desk and sank down behind his monitor and out of sight.

Wynonna changed the subject. “So, Federal Emergency, where’s Unit Haughtstuff?”

Waverly beamed smugly. “I dropped her off this morning at a downtown bike shop. She’s getting herself a new pony.”

Wynonna looked at her like she wanted to say something inappropriate about that. But since Waverly had walked the gauntlet of Robert Svane’s ire and lived to tell, she let it pass.

Jeremy piped up from over in his office. “I just set them both up with cell phones. It’s time to introduce our proteges to the world of Internet memes and sexting. Texting. Totally meant to say texting. But mostly GPS… so we can, you know, track their every move. Which I am already doing, because… job… and also....” He was talking about Dolls. Jeremy had already been down to W3 twice this morning.

Wynonna pursed her lips, seeming to type something at her computer. “So a lesbian, a gay and a bisexual walked into a bar…”

Waverly glared at her.

“Fine!” Wynonna began again: “What's the difference between a bowling ball and a lesbian?”

Still glaring.

“You can only get 3 fingers in a bowling ball.”

Waverly’s jaw dropped and she swatted her sister.

Wynonna stopped, pulling Waverly in for a tight hug. “I love you, baby girl. Please don’t ever leave me.”

Waverly squeezed her back. “No way. I’m gum on your shoe.”

Wynonna rested her head on Waverly’s shoulder, thankful. Like some things in life, it sounded gross, but was actually pretty nice.

 

//

So what the hell happened?

Waverly had awoken that morning in a strange place. Well, not exactly strange, considering she woke up in her apartment, in her own bed. That much was normal. What wasn’t normal was that she wasn’t alone. She found herself spooned up against the backside of someone else, her face nuzzling another person’s neck, breathing in the comforting scent of vanilla. Her arm was wrapped around the person’s middle, her hand riding up beneath T-shirt fabric to claim warm, soft skin. It took only the barest moment to realize that this was Unit 2.

Shit! This was her co-worker, her teammate, her professional responsibility. And here they were half-naked in bed together. Do you notify HR if you make sexual advances toward a robot? Had she made sexual advances? She furiously wracked her brain, finally remembering they had just curled up together. They were clothed in T-shirts and underwear. They’d fallen asleep together.

Of course, falling into bed (even just to sleep) wasn’t normal co-worker behavior, was it? She struggled to piece together her recollections of last night. They’d stumbled back to Waverly’s apartment, three sheets to the wind, after sharing a couple more drinks at a local place called Shorty’s after parting company with Wynonna, Jeremy and Dolls.

They’d been giggling. Waverly had kicked open the apartment door, Nicole wrapped around her like a big, cute puppy. “Robert Svane is going to have an aneurysm,” she’d laughed into Nicole’s shirt as they slumped up against the wall. “We should not be here.”

“Fuck Robert Svane,” Nicole mumbled in reply.

“We should be at the lab.”

“Fuck the lab,” Nicole mumbled.

“Do I detect a theme here?”

“Fuck me.”

Waverly laughed, impressed with Los Alamos’s handiwork. Had they fashioned Drunk Nicole after a typical frat boy? No, not typical. She was female, of course, and she was sweet and funny, not boorish.

“Is that what you want, baby?” Waverly asked, playfully patting Nicole’s cheek as if trying to resuscitate her. “You want me to fuck you?”

“Mmm… Might be nice.”

Waverly laughed at the understatement. “Yes,” she said, emphatically, grabbing Nicole’s chin so she could catch her eye. “More than nice. It would be beautiful.”

Drunk Nicole straightened at that, focusing her full attention on Waverly. Her eyes were soft and her smile dazzling.

“It would be beautiful,” Waverly repeated. Her brain tried to chase the thought, but it slipped away, lost in Nicole’s eyes. She started again: “We should not be here.”

Nicole shrugged, “Where should we be? We’ve got the bracelets on. They know where we are.”

“And what we’re doing.” Waverly suddenly felt self-conscious.

“Fuck them.”

“That’s what I’m afraid would happen if we… you know…”

“Fucked?”

“Yes.”

“You’re afraid of them knowing what we’re doing? You and me?”

Waverly pushed herself away from Nicole, suddenly sobered. “Yes,” she said. “I- I don’t do things like this with just anybody.”

Nicole pulled her back into her arms. “Waverly,” she breathed into her hair. “I am not just anybody.”

Waverly nodded.

“And this… this isn’t just some *thing*. This is us. You and me. Waverly and Nicole.” She said it and the words felt deeply, intrinsically true, despite the giggles and the inebriation. Their eyes locked and Waverly’s belly did little flip-flops. She cupped Nicole’s face in her hands and drew her down into a soft kiss, one that started feather-light and then blossomed open into a honey-sweet invitation to come inside. Given access, Nicole met her tenderly, slowly, teasing. Waverly’s knees turned to jelly and she moaned.

“Holy Hell, Nicole,” she breathed, breaking the kiss even though every fiber of her being begged for more.

“Holy Hell,” Nicole agreed, with a breathless grin.

“This isn’t right,” squeaked. It was her left brain that said that. The right brain was telling her something else.

Nicole stopped, cocked her head and smiled. “You want me to call HR?”

“Is that a joke about consent?”

Nicole took Waverly’s face in her hands. “Not a joke. My consent? It’s yours. I give it to you.”

Waverly nuzzled into her neck, feeling warm and happy and tingling from head to toe. “You’re drunk.”

“Yes, and that doesn’t change the way I feel. Or what I want. I swear to God, Waverly Earp, ask me again in the morning and you’ll get the same answer.”

“How can you say that? You don’t even know me.”

“I don’t know you… But I feel like I know you. And I know me,” Nicole said, shyly. “I don’t respond this way with everyone. Or anyone. I don’t know why this is happening, but it feels right… to me, anyway. It feels good. You feel good.”

Waverly had had plenty of guys tell her she was pretty. She’d heard it plenty of times out with Wynonna when dudes had tried to pick her up, and the words had always rung hollow. The words Nicole was saying, for not being much different, nevertheless felt different… profound, heartfelt. It could be the alcohol, but even a little fuzzy-headed, Waverly felt the sparks.

“You feel good to me, too,” she breathed, nuzzling deeper into Nicole, wrapping her hands into the woman’s hair, into her jacket, clutching both, dragging Nicole closer. “I want you. No doubt. I want you right here, right now. On the couch, on the table, the floor…”

“The bed?” Nicole asked, her cheeks flushing scarlet as she said it. Waverly’s body throbbed in response, suddenly wanting nothing more than to make Nicole her own private play structure. Which would be a very good use for a robot, come to think of it…

“I do. I want you,” she said. “But I think we should wait.” Her own body bucked and burned in unhappy response as her rational mind again took the wheel.

If Nicole were disappointed, she didn’t show it. She smiled sweetly, her eyes dark, but her voice light: “No pressure, no rush, no expectation. I’m happy just being with you.”

At that, Waverly was infused with a profound sense of calm and joy, even while half of her cried out for more. She wasn’t entirely sure she’d made the right decision, watching the robot as she glided across the room to the couch and pulling off her shoes. Nicole was beautiful, all tawny hair and tawny eyes, lithe and long-limbed, gentle, soft and strong. Waverly’s body sung out for want of knowing the beautiful being before her.

But while her body was clearly Team Nicole, Waverly’s mind had some catching up to do. This was a robot. Is this what robots were for? Was Nicole programmed to be enchanting to others? Is she this beguiling to everybody? Will everyone want –and get—a piece of Nicole?

Despite the fact that Nicole was ultimately a machine, having sex with this robot was not a simple thing. She worried about hurting robot feelings, of course. (There was no way a creature as doe-eyed and soft as Nicole was without feeling). And she worried about hurting her own. What if she developed feelings for Unit 2/Nicole/Svane’s Very Important Asset? Was Nicole merely following programming? Or did she really feel the same intimate connection between them that Waverly did?

Unit2/Nicole was arranging decorative pillows on the couch and reaching for the throw blanket. She swung her long legs up.

“Not there,” Waverly found herself saying. Nicole looked up in confusion.

“My bed…” Waverly said. “Please take it.”

“Couch is fine by me.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t feel right to me. You should take the bed. You’re my… guest.”

“It’s really no trouble. I’m so tired I’ll be out in 10 seconds flat.”

Waverly’s half-drunk mind couldn’t make out why, but she just felt like Nicole belonged in her bed… not relegated to some couch. She liked the thought of Nicole there. It made her tingle in a good way.

“Please.”

Nicole smiled her charming smile and chuckled. “Okay… I’m sure your bed is really fine, too,” she drawled, dragging herself up from the couch and giving Waverly a kiss on the cheek and a wink before heading down the hall in the direction Waverly was pointing. Waverly gazed after her, cheeks burning and body buzzing with unspent energy.

“There’s T-shirts in the top drawer… if you’d like something to sleep in.”

With that, Waverly took a deep sigh, kicked off her own shoes and settled into the couch, listening to the sounds of Nicole padding around the apartment.

“There’s a fresh toothbrush in the bathroom drawer, too,” she called out, remembering.

“Kitten?”

What? Waverly sat bolt upright, surprised by the endearment. Nicole stood in the hallway, toothbrush in her mouth, pointing at the T-shirt she was wearing. It was too small and hugged her tightly in all the right places. And it had a photo of a kitten on it. Either Robot Nicole was testing her memory banks… or she was asking Waverly’s opinion.

Waverly’s mouth was dry. She really wanted to pet the kitten. “That shirt’s my favorite,” she smiled. “Looks really nice on you.”

That seemed to amuse Nicole, who playfully smirked and turned back to the bathroom.

Damn, this was hard.

A few minutes later, Kitten Nicole reappeared once more, to say goodnight. “You know, you’re welcome to join me,” she said shyly. “The bed is plenty big enough and… I don’t bite.” She thought about it. “…At least I don’t think I do...”

Waverly sucked in a deep breath, twisting the damn bracelet on her wrist and wondering.

//

She was supposed to have left Nicole to the bed while she took the sofa. That was the boundary Waverly herself had placed. But as she turned to face the couch, she balked, finding herself just standing there for a long while, still buzzing with energy. This wasn’t right, either. It wasn’t right to lie down here, to cover herself up with a throw blanket on some lumpy couch. No. The only right answer she could come up with –the only one her heart would accept—was to crawl into bed beside Nicole, grab her up tightly and never let go.

Waverly padded down the hallway, gently opened the door and slipped into the darkened room, shedding clothes on her way to the bed and slipping beneath the covers, coming up against Nicole’s long body, her half-sleeping form half-clothed, warm, soft, sexy. She drew Nicole up in her arms, embracing her from behind, her hand gliding slowly, deliberately from shoulder to hip, from hip to thigh to belly. She roved, her brain shooting sparks with each piece of knowledge she acquired, with each map coordinate and mile-marker. Nicole sighed deeply, finally giving over completely to sleep so that Waverly’s hand could wander a little, not much, not too much, just a light and tender loving exploration…and most definitely an HR disaster.

Later this morning she’d awakened in much the same way, happily wrapped around Nicole as the first blush of daybreak illuminated the bedroom. She propped herself up on one elbow and gazed down upon the woman beneath her. Nicole was beautiful. Waverly knew that. But she was unprepared for how lovely she felt to the touch, how smooth, how silky, warm and velvet-skinned.

“Are you defragging and restoring?” she mused, trying not to disturb her sleeping companion, happy just to lay beside her. “Holy shit, Revenance could make a fortune selling snuggle models!” She wondered for a moment at what it might feel like if this lovely creature, who stirred at her touch, belonged to her. Would it be like having a super-soft and three-dimensional Siri?

Of course, Waverly could find a human partner, if she wanted. It wasn’t like she lacked human social skills. But what if Robot Nicole was somehow something even better? What if she somehow possessed the best parts of human nature without the bad stuff? What if she were perfect? Could she be perfect? Whatever she was, Waverly’s whole being felt calm in her presence and gave herself up to the feeling, savoring it. She didn’t look at the clock. She didn’t worry about being late to work. Her job right now was just this.

//

 

Now here she was, fresh from her meeting with Robert Svane. He thought she was doing a good job. She was on the right path. He hadn’t called her an HR disaster. All of this—everything—was part of the robot testing and training. Everything was ok. She was ok. Waverly stood outside the door to her own apartment, pausing a moment to collect her thoughts.

When Nicole didn’t answer the door, Waverly let herself in with the spare key. After all, it was her apartment. The door swung inward and she stepped inside, acclimating to the brightness of the room, midday sunshine blazing through the windows.

“Nicole?” No answer.

She popped open the door to the bedroom. Sunlight streamed in through the windows here, too, and onto the bed, illuminating it as if it were a platform for performance.

Waverly felt her body tingle. Her mind suddenly flashed with the notion of laying Nicole out flat before her on this bed-shaped square of light. She imagined herself dragging her teeth and lips and tongue over alabaster skin, down, down, down from the apex of her throat, across her perfectly shaped breasts begging to be nipped, licked and tugged… to the curve of her hips, and then to the open gateway of her thighs, thrown wide and inviting, soft, wet.

Waverly’s body gave a kick. She stood there a moment, soaking in the imagination of it all.

Wow. What was all that?

And where was Nicole?

Her new blue pony (this one red) was leaned up against the wall of the living room. Its seat was high up, so much higher than Waverly would ever ride.

She traced a finger idly over the saddle, her insides clenching as she thought about the leather seat in most delicate contact with...

Yep. Super gay mess.

She noticed now the sound of the shower. She stood in the middle of the living room a moment, just breathing and thinking certain wet and handsy thoughts… ones that made her body throb and her breathing hitch as she imagined swiftly ducking her head and trailing open-mouthed kisses across so much wet and beautiful skin…

So. Gay.

The bathroom was full of fog.

She walked in unannounced, drawing up to the glass-enclosed shower, watching the beautiful body before her: all long limbs, broad shoulders, long legs, muscular arms, smooth stomach, pale skin. She hardly knew where she wanted to grab hold first. Where she wanted to apply herself, her own muscular body, her own sweet mouth.

She announced herself with a soft, “Hey, you…”

Nicole was clearly surprised to see her there, but not in a bad way. “Well, hey there.”

She leaned out of the shower, extending a beautiful, well-shaped hand, catching Waverly’s and drawing her closer. Waverly relaxed and smiled … and was rewarded with the lightest, most tantalizing kiss… warm, wet and definitely not shy.

Okay. This is happening.

//

 

Moments later, Waverly found herself flat on her back, lying naked beneath the most magnificent creature, beautiful and rare, like a unicorn. The bed was alight from the hot sun streaming in the window, and it gave Nicole a magical and burnished golden sheen.

“Not a pleasure model?” Waverly mumbled into Nicole’s chest.

“What?”

“What?”

Nicole chuckled, shaking her head, thankfully mis-hearing her. “No, Waverly, I am not a model… though you’re very kind for saying that.”

Waverly softly groaned, silently kicking herself.

“But…” Nicole added huskily, “I must say you are pretty magnificent yourself…”

Waverly’s awkwardness quickly passed, swiftly subdued by gentle brown eyes that had captured hers so fearlessly, so playfully. Nicole looked at her like she loved her. Waverly had never experienced that before with anyone, except Wynonna, and that was weird to think of just now, so…

Nicole touched her skin like it was the most sacred, holy thing… She traced the outline of Waverly’s collarbone in soft kisses, employing that impossibly soft mouth, setting off tiny depth charges in her wake.

Seriously, who were the perverts at Los Alamos who programmed all of this? And what were their email addresses, so Waverly could personally thank them?

Waverly weaved her fingers through the hair at the nape of Nicole’s neck, drawing her down into a sweet and gentle kiss. So gentle. So sweet. Flutters ran through her, flashing simultaneously through her core and out to her extremities, as if her body were merely a conduit for so much electricity.

“Hey,” Nicole breathed, pulling her chin up with her beautiful hand, so that Waverly met her eyes, at once completely committed and completely impatient and needy.

“We don’t have to do this. We can stop and just hold each other…”

Waverly shut her up with her arms and her legs, which she encircled around Nicole’s shoulders and hips, drawing the woman impossibly tighter upon her. Followed by a rain of passionate kisses.

“Nicole,” she breathed in between them. “I want you.”

It was a simple enough statement. The words were not entirely new to her… but they felt monumental, like she’d never said them aloud before, like she’d never understood the shape of them until this moment.

She looked up into the eyes of this beautiful unicorn of a creature, who held her so surely and securely, and she felt safe giving up a piece of her heart. She opened herself, feeling her body relax, welcoming, not needy. Accepting, though not desperately so. She relaxed and unfurled herself for Nicole and it felt at once like the most natural and the most sacred thing in the world.

In reply, Nicole’s hand traced the shape of her, warm, tender, worshipful, soft fingers teasing a slow, deliberate path from her collarbone to her breasts… to her belly… and then lower. Waverly’s breath hitched as Nicole’s hand eventually came to rest between her legs. Their eyes met, Nicole’s in silent question, asking permission. Waverly’s in silent need, begging her to keep going.

Please.

The word was unspoken between them, but perfectly understood.

Nicole ducked her head and captured Waverly’s mouth with her own. Their kiss was deep, passionate and tender. Nicole’s tongue told Waverly everything she intended to do to her. It teased a whole sonnet of physical poetry… and Waverly absorbed and confirmed it with her whole body, her hips gathering Nicole in and acknowledging her sweet, sweet promises with a rocking pulse-beat of pure, insistent need.

Please.

Nicole teased, her fingers softly flicking. Waverly threw her head back and moaned.

Holy hell, this woman was hot. Waverly’s body was suddenly on fire. She sought to wrestle Nicole for control, to flip her onto her back so Waverly could take gravity into her hips … and grind. Nicole seemed to sense Waverly’s impulse, and she resisted all the same, holding her firmly in place, not at all about to acquiesce. Waverly growled against Nicole’s throat, nipping at the tender flesh there. Nicole caught her breath, wincing at the pain, but held her ground.

“Don’t make me bite you,” she warned, whispering the words into Waverly’s ear.

I guess you are a biter, after all…

Waverly’s eyes flashed challenge, and Nicole’s mouth dropped to her neck, biting and sucking hard as she gently slipped her fingers inside.

Fuck.

Waverly’s mind went offline, completely nonverbal. She absorbed the welcome intrusion, processing the entirety of it, the shock of the initial penetration, the sensational fullness of it, the tease and kick at Nicole’s initial stroking, the clench of her body around Nicole’s beautiful hand. Waverly could well have come instantly, she was so ready and waiting to be touched. But she willed herself to last, to join Nicole’s steady rhythm with her own, to draw her as impossibly deep inside as she could, to make her feel this furious and insistent rhythm, this beat that Waverly was helpless but to obey.

Nicole’s eyes locked on Waverly’s and she met the challenge, her hand rocking, in and out, in and out. Waverly threw her head back and moaned. Nicole’s eyes went feral at the sound, at the response she wrought, at the delicious power, and bent her lips and teeth to Waverly’s throat again, pumping mercilessly. Waverly writhed beneath her, struggling against Nicole’s insistent, beautiful hand and its mad stroking. Fingers dipped wetly inside, and Waverly arched her back seeking to direct them to exactly the spot of her most desperate need. Nicole understood and pressed into Waverly, setting the rhythm she knew would carry her lover over, the pulse-beat she knew would make Waverly come.

As she climbed impossibly higher, Waverly caught Nicole’s gaze, urgent and speechless.

Please.

Nicole’s smile said she knew; it said she felt everything Waverly felt. Waverly let herself unfurl the tiniest bit more, relaxing into Nicole’s deft and insistent stroking, giving up that last bit of control she’d sought to hold onto. And that small, muscular change undid everything. Waverly came with a ferocious howl, her muscles clenching so tightly around Nicole’s hand she never thought she would let it go. Nicole belonged here now, deep inside her, gently teasing, stroking, tickling.

She came hard, all fireworks and free-falling, drifting slowly into delicious oblivion, and wanting nothing more than to climb this free-fly ride and come again.

She let the pressure mount again. She threw her hips into it, greedy, muscular, rutting. She flipped the larger woman over so that she was now on top and could grind out her most precious need. Nicole met her desire head-on, not missing a beat, using the new gravity to find exquisite purchase inside. Her eyes darkened. “Give it to me, baby.”

Really, Los Alamos!

“Nicole…” she breathed.

“Yes, baby?”

“I – I could do this for hours.”

“Mmm. Please do.”

“I- I love the feeling of you inside me.”

“Yes.”

“I – God, I love the feeling of you inside me.”

“I fucking love it, too.”

“Please… fuck me.”

Nicole leaned in hard, intent on driving Waverly home. Waverly felt her hips take on a rhythm of their own, bucking into Nicole, drawing her up in side, squeezing her tightly… and then slowly, ever so slowly, like tumbling over a cliff… releasing. She came hard, so impossibly hard. It shook everything loose, she came crazy, messy, completely undone, still pumping herself against Nicole’s impossibly beautiful fingers.

That hand belonged to her, it was quite possibly the most beautiful thing she’d ever held inside her. She gazed down into Nicole’s soft brown eyes, so full of their own need, and rocked her hips, drawing that beautiful hand in and out of her still, feeling her own heartbeat pounding out between her legs. Begging. Not done. Wanting more. She gave herself up to it deliciously, pounding, stroking, tickling deep. Nicole curled her fingers and Waverly came again, hard, so hard. She cried out her pleasure, wanting Nicole to know exactly the power she wrought over her, until finally she collapsed against Nicole’s body, entirely spent.

Nicole licked her way from Waverly’s breasts to her throat to her mouth. They kissed tenderly. “God, baby,” she marveled.

“That’s all you, Nicole.”

“Thank you for giving that to me.”

“All. You.”

“I loved every second.”

“Me, too.”

Waverly lay her head on Nicole’s chest, wondering at the sound of a non-human beating heart and the powerful rise and fall of her breath. The pale skin beneath her hands felt warm and impossibly soft and life-like. She marveled at the attention to detail and fine mannerisms. What an extraordinary creation.

“How do you even know how to do that?” she whispered, somewhat in awe and somewhat embarrassed, into Nicole’s skin.

“How do I know how to do that?” Nicole repeated, as if truly wondering. “I don’t know. Imagination, I guess. It helps that we share the same anatomy. I just tried to think about what I might like and I tried to give that to you… and I may have watched some videos.”

“Videos, huh?” Waverly chuckled. The Los Alamos office’s video library must be a lot more comprehensive than the one here. She wondered what kind of porn they played for robots.

Nicole caught her eye. “So, is this the first time you…” She waved her hand in vague gesture. “… with…?”

Waverly laughed. “God, yes,” she said, self-consciously. “That must seem quite obvious.”

“Not at all.”

Waverly was suddenly filled with the desire to give Nicole pleasure, to test her physical responses, to see just how well put together she really was, to see if she could make her fall completely apart. Her fingers traced a path from Nicole’s perfectly-formed collarbone to the tender bud of her breast. She cupped her breast in her hand, caressing the warmth and softness she found there. And with inquisitive lips she teased the pink nipple to a hard peak, relishing the sensation of it on her tongue.

God, she could kiss this robot for hours.

Nicole seemed to approve of what Waverly was doing. Her breathing had picked up and her head fell back. Waverly licked and kissed her way to Nicole’s other breast, lavishing it with the same attention. She shifted her weight off of Nicole’s hips to draw her thigh between Nicole’s legs. Nicole’s breathing caught for a moment and she grasped Waverly’s hip, deepening the pressure.

Wow, so wet. Waverly’s mind almost exploded with the knowledge that Nicole was so turned on. She ran her palm across the long, smooth expanse of Nicole’s belly, then lower, intent on learning the source of all this. Her belly did flip-flops as her hand tenderly parted the folds between Nicole’s legs and discovered her, hot and wet. So ready, so open. She had thoughts about teasing, about moving slowly, but all of that was abandoned now that she understood how badly she was needed.

She slid her fingers inside (trying not to think of Wynonna’s earlier joke about the bowling ball) and Nicole welcomed them with a deep groan of pleasure and a rock of her hips. She felt so smooth and soft and wet inside… and then Nicole’s body set a rhythm that Waverly was only too ready to follow, and she felt the muscles tighten around her hand.

God, she knew exactly what that felt like. She knew exactly what Nicole was feeling; she could tell how good it felt to her because the intense pleasure of it all was written plainly across her face, the flush of her pink cheeks, her swollen lips, the little crinkle of concentration written across her brow.

Waverly shifted and felt Nicole’s thigh come up between her own, giving her something to move against, an invitation to join and move with her, together. Waverly happily climbed aboard, finding that this angle gave her own hand more satisfying leverage in her determination to make the amazing creature beneath her climb high, go crazy and leap off the cliff to robot oblivion.

Nicole must have read the raw lust written across Waverly’s face because she snaked a hand up into Waverly’s hair, grabbing a fist-full of it in and giving a firm pull. Waverly growled, leaning down to bite, but ended up nuzzling Nicole instead.

At the slight shift in position, Nicole’s hand came up between Waverly’s legs and pressed inside, giving her something even better to grind against than that lovely thigh.

Waverly groaned and leaned back fully into it. “Tell me if I’m gonna break your wrist,” she husked in total fucking bliss. “Because I fully intend to…”

She hoped Revenance wouldn’t ask too many questions when she returned this Very Important Asset a little abused. Nicole’s eyes were laughing in reply, but she’d clearly lost her words, loving as much as Waverly was the feeling of their bodies working in concert toward some complete and mutual dissolution.

It felt like swimming in the deep ocean, far, far from shore.

And Waverly was a strong swimmer, indeed.

Nicole’s breath became more ragged, and that adorable crinkle came across her brow again. She was drawing nearer the edge, Waverly could tell. She determined to ride that wave together with Nicole, watching as a lovely shadow of ecstasy came over her beautiful and expressive face and Nicole’s body began to tighten and seize beneath her. Waverly tuned her own hips to match that insistent throb and felt exquisite tightness coil up inside her, tightly wound, tightly wound, tightly wound… until finally they met and crashed into the staggering deep, together.

Their cries twined as they tumbled in the waves, holding each other close, breaths shallow and hot until finally they lay quietly in each other’s arms, Waverly draped over Nicole and Nicole’s fingers tracing soft circles along the small of her back. Waverly idly eyed the medic-alert bracelet on her wrist wondering if the Project Purgatory tracking department had gotten all that. She kind of wouldn’t mind getting a copy for herself, a little remembrance for later. Her mind drifted off to thinking about the report she would need to give Robert Svane:

Yep, she fucks like a human. I think. Since I’ve never fucked a girl before. But I would definitely give her a pass in my book.

Yeah, right. She rolled her eyes. She would just tell him to listen to the medic-alert files from about 12:30 p.m. … to whenever they decided they were done.

God, what a job she had. She just had crazy-hot robot sex with a super-hot “teammate.” She thought about marking her calendar out for more tomorrow. She kind of hoped that Nicole’s training instructions didn’t come for at least another week, because Waverly was pretty darn sure this is all she wanted to do for the next several days.

She popped her head up. “Oh, my God, Nicole. Have you even eaten anything today?”

“Mmmm. I had that in mind for our second course, actually.”

Waverly had no doubt Nicole’s mouth would feel heavenly. She had no doubt it would render her speechless and ruin her, and she couldn’t wait to experience it. But she was glad and grateful Nicole had used only her hands this first time… so that Nicole was able to hold her gaze as Waverly came. It was somehow perfect. It was everything Waverly might have fantasized. Nicole’s eyes said that she loved her. That was enough. It was everything.

“We need to keep your energy up, baby,” Waverly said. “Not good skipping meals. Robert Svane told me to take good care of you.”

“That you certainly did.”

Waverly couldn’t believe she was saying this: “Nicole, let’s go out for a little while. Get some lunch? Stretch our legs?”

Nicole looked at her so indulgently. She looked… happy. “Mmm-kay, Waves.”

“I promise to bring you back here for more of… this.” Waverly kissed her lips. “A lot more.” Nicole sighed and drew her into a gentle hug.

Waverly could not believe any of this was happening. She couldn’t believe she was here. She couldn’t believe this was her life. Nicole was like a beautiful dream. How did the nerds at Los Alamos do it? What pact with the Devil (or the Gods) did they make that granted them the ability to create this beautiful woman? To craft her so well? To make her so gentle and kind and funny and sexy? How many test versions came before this final, perfect specimen? And, if they didn’t mind, she’d gladly like to take any of the robot rejects, too.

They reluctantly rose and got dressed, their eyes hot on each other as they pulled on pants and shirts. Waverly realized Nicole still only had the one black tracksuit. “Let’s get you some more clothes while we’re out, too.”

Nicole shrugged happily enough. It was clear she was content with whatever Waverly suggested. Waverly smiled realizing it would be fun to dress Nicole… and wondering what preferences Nicole might have, as well.

She picked up her cell phone and checked for messages. There were a dozen unread text messages from Wynonna and Jeremy. She frowned and tapped the message app open.

 

Wynonna: Wanna make it another double-date night? I’m thinking Italian. Thots?

Wynonna: You still have the company card, right? They didn’t take it away yet?

Wynonna: I just watched Dolls run 50 laps around the track. My butt hurts from sitting here. Good thing he’s pretty.

Wynonna: Hope you and Nicole are getting in some laps, too ;)

 

Jeremy: Hey, Waverly, just wanted to give you a heads-up they’re picking up some pretty crazy readings from Nicole’s medic-alert bracelet. Everything ok?

Jeremy: From yours, too…

Jeremy: OH

Jeremy: sry!!

Jeremy: nvm!!

Jeremy: fml

 

Wynonna: DUDE they’re posting Nicole’s STATS to the Intranet WTF!!!!

Wynonna: Better get off her before Svane pops a gasket!!!!

Wynonna: Hope u GET OFF first, tho … LOL

 

Waverly slapped a hand to her forehead. Guess there was no need to file a report with Robert Svane today. And that recording she’d kind of wanted? Sounds like the whole Project Purgatory team was getting a copy of that, too.

Yeah.

 

//

 

So. The robot definitely had her own idea about clothes. They’d passed a downtown boutique on their way to lunch, and Nicole had done a double-take at the shop window. She hadn’t said a word, just ducked inside, leaving Waverly to follow her.

“Just a sec. I saw something I like,” Nicole said once they were inside.

“By all means!” Waverly smiled and turned her attention to her cell phone, taking a few minutes to catch up with her work emails. She’d sent Robert Svane a note requesting permission to take Nicole on a hike this weekend… in case he didn’t want his Very Expensive Robot that far from home.

His two-word reply: “Have fun.”

She sighed, once again noting the lack of instruction from “leadership” and then quickly typed Wynonna an update on Svane’s approval:

Waverly: RS ok’d me taking Nicole for some off-campus adventure to the mountains this weekend. You should take Dolls somewhere, too.

Wynonna: Why? So Unit 1 doesn’t get jealous of all the hot off-campus banging Unit 2 is getting?

Waverly: SRSLY???

Was robot jealousy even a thing, Waverly wondered? Or was this sister jealousy? Or sisterly something else?

Wynonna: His plan is we go to the shooting range and blow off steam. Sexy?

Waverly: IDK… He’s hard to read.

Wynonna: Unlike *your* oversized sex toy.

Waverly: . . .

Wynonna: In other news, we have some pretty new wallpaper for our desktops. Check yr email from Jerm.

 

She checked email and Jeremy had just emailed her Nicole’s physical stats from this afternoon, along with the simple note: “Adding this to Unit 2’s baseline stats. She had some pretty dramatic readings, so I turned the data into a polar chart. Turned out cool. Thought you’d like a copy.” She opened the attachment to see a spectacular color rainbow. He’d removed the north and south axes and just left the readings in swirling colors that formed a beautiful flower. “Wow. I did that,” she thought, at once admiring this piece of art she’d helped create (as in the chart—or at least the readings that informed the chart), as well as admiring yet again the piece of art that was Nicole. And, of course, she couldn’t help but be wowed by the infinite beauty of math.

Nicole popped up in front of her again. She was wearing a pink satin jacket.

“What do you think?”

It was actually pretty terrible. Waverly shut off her phone and stuffed it in her pocket and grinned, taking a quick breath before answering.

“It’s perfect,” she replied, and she was surprised to realize that the words were sweet and true.

//

 

“So tell me more about Los Alamos. What was it like for you there?” Waverly chose her words carefully. She wanted to hear Nicole’s story in her own words, not some charts or files.

“Revenance has been pretty okay to work for. I sometimes wish they didn’t keep such a tight leash on me, though.”

“Did you live on campus?”

Nicole nodded. “Hmm-hmm. They’re into pretty immersive experiences… as I’m sure you know.”

Waverly chuckled. She did know. She kept an apartment 10 blocks from the campus, but there were definitely long days here when it felt like her apartment was 100 miles away and she ended up curled up on one of the couches in the first-floor fitness center. “Yeah, Revenance is kind of intense.”

“That’s a diplomatic way of saying it,” Nicole chuckled, and they both grinned and jingled their medic-alert bracelets.

“What was your on-campus housing like?”

“It was pretty Spartan, actually. Pretty much just a place to park my bike and sleep. I ate meals in the cafeteria. Spent most of my time in the gym training. Dolls and I… that’s pretty much been our focus. We’re gearing up to join an elite tactical unit. Big mission we’re waiting to hear about.”

“Are you worried about what it might entail?” Waverly asked, shyly. “I think I would be.”

“I actually think you’d be ok.” Nicole regarded her thoughtfully. “We’re capable of so much more than we think we are. It’s just that most of us are never tested. You just might be surprised.”

Waverly considered that a moment. “So it’s like mind over matter, then?”

“That’s pretty much life, isn’t it?”

 

//

 

It was late in the evening, and Waverly was sitting naked at the kitchen table in her apartment scanning emails, deep in thought. Nicole pulled a couple of beers out of the refrigerator and turned to rifle the drawers for a bottle opener.

“To the left of the sink,” Waverly said absentmindedly as she opened and skimmed the next email. The thing that had pulled her out of bed was the only thing that could have, short of fire: She needed to know what the robots’ assignments were going to be and wanted to assure herself that the somehow-now-dreaded email had not come. Waverly had found herself feeling flashes of fear at the thought of this beautiful creature leaving. She knew she was getting ahead of herself, considering they had six months before that happened, and it wasn’t like she and the robot were dating. Wait. Were they?

But plans often changed without warning at Revenance… and even if things stayed the course, she had a bad feeling about what that course might exactly prove to be. After all, the units were designed to withstand things no mortal human could stand, which meant that’s certainly what they would be used for: things no mortal human could stand.

Nicole found the bottle opener, popped the caps and brought one to Waverly, holding the cold bottle out to her. Waverly looked up, noticing that attached to the beer was a stunningly beautiful, naked woman. She let her eyes feast for a moment, feeling both sated and starved. Nicole dropped into the chair across the table from her.

“Any news?” Nicole asked. She knew Waverly was checking on their fate.

“Not yet,” Waverly sighed, not sure whether that made her heart glad or anxious.

Nicole took a long pull from her beer.

Glad, she decided. That meant this night belonged to her and Nicole, without any news to complicate things.

She took a sip of beer, savoring the bitterness and the warmth that spread through her, smoothing out her nerves in its wake. She reached across the table and took Nicole’s hand in her own.

“So did you grow up thinking one day you’d have a career like this?” Waverly asked, and then almost kicked herself for forgetting Nicole didn’t really have a childhood. What would she say?

Nicole wrinkled her nose. “No… though I suppose I always did want to be a cop.”

“Why do you think Revenance…” she was going to say “hired” but instead went with … “picked you?”

“I guess they saw my potential. I didn’t… but they did.”

“And you think they’re right?”

“Yeah, I do… What about you?” Nicole asked, lightly. “How did you come to find yourself here?”

Waverly grinned. “My sister. They’d recruited her first, and she just seemed so happy here. It was such a huge departure from before…”

Nicole raised her eyebrows.

Waverly sighed, not really sure she wanted to go into the whole story, but she’d left the door open. After Nicole’s disclosures, it didn’t seem fair to clam up about her own. “A long time ago. We lost our dad… and our older sister. They died in a car accident. It was hard on us both to lose everything. But it was especially hard on Wynonna.”

Waverly straightened in her chair. “Anyway, she was aimless for a long time, but then she came here, and I saw what this place did for her. She really blossomed having a purpose, helping save the world, one medical advancement at a time…” She caught Nicole’s eyes. “When there was an opening in the same department, I didn’t hesitate. I knew this was where I was meant to be… and I haven’t regretted a minute of it.”

She squeezed Nicole’s hand. “Especially right now. I feel like we’re about to do something really big and profound. Together. I feel like this is what everything—my whole life, all the pain, all the joy—has been adding up to. It’s because you’re here. And we’re sharing this. My life has never felt more right.”

Nicole’s face broke out into the most beautiful smile. “I agree. I feel it, too.”

“I know, right? What the hell?”

“Seriously.”

Nicole reached across the table and snapped Waverly’s laptop closed.

 

//

 

Nicole Haught’s breasts were perhaps the most perfect of all God’s creations. At least as far as Waverly Earp was concerned. She had memorized everything about them. How they looked when she was standing naked, lying down naked, riding on top of her naked, being ridden naked. She’d measured them with her hands, cupped from above and cupped from behind. She’s licked them with Nicole’s cum still salty on her tongue, and she’d licked them dry, drawing Nicole out of deep sleep and teasing her back to life. She’d admired them in that stupid black tracksuit, as she’d slowly dragged the zipper down with her teeth. She’d admired them in an oversized button-up shirt, bra-less, her nipples taut against the fabric on a cool September morning. She’d rolled them hard and painful under the insistent palming of her hand. She’d bitten them mercilessly because Waverly hadn’t known what to do with all the crazy energy coursing inside herself. She’d laid down heavily upon Nicole, pressing her own breasts into Nicole’s as their bodies slammed and rocked into each other, riding the intense pressure of each other’s beautifully-shaped hand.

“Boobs,” Wynonna said.

“What?”

“Nicole’s boobs are perfect.” Wynonna elaborated, adding, “And you’re drooling.”

Waverly wiped her lip.

 

//

 

Waverly’s Jeep wound its way up the mountain roads as if it were a billy goat. She downshifted, coaxing the motor into working harder for her. She reached across the seat and grabbed Nicole’s hand. The woman gazed back at her in surprise, her eyes a deep liquid brown that lit a fire between Waverly’s legs.

“Please don’t look at me like that,” she begged.

“Like what?”

“Please don’t look at me like you want to fuck me. I’m driving.”

“I wouldn’t dream of distracting you,” Nicole said.

“Oh, really? That orgasm I had at milepost 50 was all in my head?”

“No, I was definitely there for that one, and it definitely was not all in your head. But that was when we were still down on the prairie. I know better than to distract you while you’re driving up here in these hills. I want you so bad. I want to crawl on top of you and fuck you silly. But safety’s important. I can be good. For now.”

Waverly flashed her a grin. “My baby is so patient.”

“Not so much,” Nicole smirked. “But I can be, for you.”

They drove on a while longer in companionable silence, Waverly focusing on the road as best she could with her skin prickling under Nicole’s hot gaze.

“Nicole. Stop staring at me. You’re making me nervous.” She gestured to the front window. “Look at the view. It’s fucking gorgeous.”

“It sure is,” Nicole drawled, clearly not looking out the window.

Just then, the jeep rounded a bend in the highway and they came upon a breathtaking vista of snow-covered mountaintops. They were getting close to their trailhead destination, and with every passing mile the mountains rose larger and larger before them.

“Wow,” Nicole said softly, finally taking in the natural scenery.

“Wow is right,” Waverly smiled … but somehow “Wow” was wrong, too...

She suddenly felt lightheaded, her head swimming with an unbidden déjà vu of this exact same vista, this precise stretch of road … except snowy … She’s in the backseat. Country music playing on the radio; Wynonna shouting in alarm, and their dad lunging across to grab the steering wheel, reflexively shielding her from the impossibly huge front grille of an impossibly huge 18-wheeler suddenly rushing up at them at full-speed and head-on, the sight of it eclipsing the front window as the out-of-control behemoth slammed into them. There was the smacking sensation of all forward-momentum halted… of her sense of hearing gone sick and muffled and silent, ears ringing. Everything still and numb. A rain of hard candies strewn across her lap and sister Willa’s lap, glittering like jewels. And blood, so much blood.

Wow.

She felt like she was going to be sick. She pulled the jeep over to the side of the road and killed the motor. The sensation of forward momentum stopped and everything went silent, except the blood pounding in her ears. Her hands held a death grip on the steering wheel as her chest heaved and she fought to catch her breath, unable to speak. She probably just scared the shit out of Nicole.

The woman’s eyes were huge. “Waverly – baby -- What just happened?”

“There… there was an accident.”

 

//

 

She’d given Nicole the barest facts, not really prepared to interrupt what was meant to be a lovely day together with some dark emotional processing. It was a long time ago in what seemed like a universe far, far away.

Nicole listened with compassionate eyes and a calming hand firmly on Waverly’s thigh. Her touch—and her physical presence—was so perfectly grounding.

For now, Waverly left out the details about the emotional aftermath. That when their father and sister had died, Waverly and Wynonna’s lives fundamentally changed forever. Wynonna had blamed herself. Of course, she had. If only she’d been watching the road more closely. If only she’d done as their father had suggested and pulled over sooner to chain up the car. If only they’d gotten an earlier start. If only she hadn’t insisted on driving. Wynonna had wished for many things since that day. She wished she had never taken the wheel at all. Wynonna had this huge albatross of intense guilt ever since. Waverly had only to grieve, heal and try to forget as much about the accident as possible. No albatross. That was Wynonna’s alone to carry.

Standing finally at the trailhead, high up in the mountains, with the larch forests turned their spectacular yellow, practically glittering against the clear blue sky, today was just about as different a day as you could get. No snow on the roads. No overcast. No swirling snowstorm gathering all around them. Instead of losing people she loved, she had perhaps just gained a new one. She glanced shyly at Nicole who had offered to shoulder Waverly’s daypack and was smiling, taking in the beauty all around them, and Waverly felt her heart pound with a kind of joy and wonder.

And also a small notice: that they’d apparently programmed the robots to appreciate scenic beauty. Which was lovely because Waverly could see the same wonder in Nicole’s eyes whenever she caught Nicole looking at her. Which she was doing right now. And it took Waverly’s breath away.

Nicole grinned. “If you keep looking at me like that, I’m going to have to fuck you in the woods.”

“Why do you think I packed a blanket?” It was cold out, but after hiking for a while it might not seem so.

“Did you also pack your bed? Because this pack feels kinda heavy.”

Funny robot.

… “Or maybe you packed something else? Something with straps?” Nicole purred, part joke, part hopeful, and completely game.

Sexy robot.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Waverly said. “I promise it will be worth it.” Then added, “And I’m happy to carry the pack for a while, too. You don’t have to carry it the whole way.”

“Not a chance. I could use the extra cardio workout,” Nicole said, then leaned down and teased Waverly with a kiss. “But… you can reward me later.”

“My pleasure,” Waverly murmured against Nicole’s lips, then sought out Nicole’s tongue with her own, and, finding it, softly stroked it, while sparks shimmered from her core out to her fingers and toes. Her head felt buzzy and her legs a bit weak, and whether it was from the power of Nicole Haught or from the disturbing memory of a certain snowy mountain day she couldn’t say. And in this moment, she didn’t really care.

Nicole broke the kiss with a gasp. “Ok, we gotta go now or I’m going to fuck you in that car.”

Tempting. But as there were other cars parked along the trailhead, she thought better of it. With what she intended to do to Nicole, she knew it was going to get loud.

//

 

Later, Waverly would have no recollection of it: the moment when a piece of the trail gave way and she found herself pitching backward, far--impossibly far--out over the emptiness of wide-open space, nothing but blue sky above and black gravel below. One moment she was laughing at something Nicole had said… the next she’d hit some 20 feet down from the top. Her feet had gone first. They struck hard and sent her into somersaults as momentum carried her down, down, through the coarse gravel and rock, down through the saplings, until she reached the very bottom.

Somewhere midway between her initial fall and her eventual rest, Waverly had lost consciousness. She had no concept of time… only of Nicole. She presently came back to awareness to find her lover perched over the top of her, leaning down close, gently patting her cheeks, a stricken and frantic look on her face.

“Waves! Stay with me!”

Nicole’s voice was thick with worry and fear. Waverly had never heard that tone come from her, and it sent dread coursing all through her. She struggled to regain consciousness, but felt herself drifting in and out. Fear coursed through her like an electric current. Something was wrong.

“Let’s get you back to the lab,” Nicole said.

“You mean hospital… hospital,” Waverly corrected. Of course, Nicole’s programming was freaking out right now. She was probably blowing a gasket, or an electrode, or something. Waverly spelled it out for her: “Don’t take me back to Revenance, Nicole. Call a doctor. I- I need a doctor.”

Nicole just looked back at her as if, of course, Waverly wouldn’t understand. Her eyes held concern, affection… and something else … pity?

Wait. WHAT THE HELL!

Nicole’s voice was gentle and certain. “We need to get you to the lab. I got you, baby.”

Gasket blown.

“What? No!” Waverly whimpered, her head swimming again. She reached up and grabbed Nicole by the collar of her stupid pink satin jacket, clutching her desperately with both hands. She gave Nicole a rough shake. “NO!”

“Sshh. We’ll fix it. It’s gonna be all right.” Nicole tried to placate her with her smooth words and her smooth voice and her smooth hands.

Waverly fought her. “NO!” Her head swam and she felt sick, like she was falling again from great heights.

“I’m NOT… I AM NOT”…

Her own hands began glowing from within, great tiger stripes of electricity curling just beneath the surface of her, and she gasped, recoiling in horror and anger. The stripes reacted with her, morphing into radiating ripples from her core out to her fingertips.

“What the HELL!”

She lashed out blindly in panic and horror, wanting nothing more than to climb to her feet and run. Just fucking run. And maybe bash something in. Anger unfurled hot and dark and desperate within her. She riled with pain she had no way to release, except in violence. She lashed out without thought. Nicole wrapped strong arms around her, pulling her to her chest, cradling her and whispering soft shushes, rocking her until the desperate energy spent and Waverly slumped heavily, her head buzzing, skin prickling… and a dull, hard ache in her heart. She watched the glow from beneath the skin of her hands and wrists slowly fade away back to normal.

WHAT THE FUCK?

“Nicole…” Her voice quavered… “What am I?”

//

Chapter Text

It’s crazy how the day can be perfect one moment, all blue sky, endless vistas and full hearts, and then devastated the next, crumbled to dust and tossed to the wind. Which is exactly what had happened when Waverly’s foot caught on a rock and she’d fallen mid-sentence, vanishing from sight faster than it was possible to reach her.

Nicole Haught’s heart lurched and an icy flush swept over her in the nanosecond it took to race to the edge of the ravine. She had half a mind to follow, to throw herself into the void. Adrenaline’s pure impulse nearly swayed her. But good sense prevailed and she paused a moment to figure out what was the best way to save Waverly.

She listened to her girlfriend’s descent, the sound of loose rocks and gravel sliding, of brush bending and crackling like brittle bones, and just as painful. The hillside was steep and long, but there were no sheer drop-offs, which was good. At least something was good. She reached in the pack and retrieved a red bandana and wrapped it around her left hand to protect it, then she stepped over the side and after her girl, sliding down feet-first, trailing her wrapped left hand against the gravel hillside for balance. She slid a long way and then hopped to pick her way over some larger rocks. Ducking through the brush, she followed the dusty path of disruption that led to where Waverly rested some 100 feet or so from the top of the ridge.

At least it wasn’t a 100-foot freefall, Nicole thought. She willed her mind to stay focused and not to cry. At least Waverly’s downward momentum had been slowed—by the horrible abrasive of the hillside gravels—but slowed, nonetheless. That might have made all the difference.

Waverly lay face-up in a dry sand-and-gravel stream bed. Her eyes were closed and she was scraped up. Nicole dashed to her side and checked to make sure she was breathing. Thank God she was. She scrambled for her cell phone with shaking hands, clumsily unlocking the thing so she could call for help. It took a moment to realize there was no cell service here.

No!

Helplessness washed over her. She looked up at the ridgeline, which now seemed impossibly high above them. Would she even be able to hear if another hiker passed by?

Dammit! Nicole Haught did not like feeling helpless.

The hillside was loose and steep, but Nicole knew she could carry Waverly to the top of it if she had to. First, though, she needed to check the extent of her injuries. She lay a soft kiss on Waverly’s forehead, taking her hand in her own and gingerly checking the woman’s arms, trying to feel whether anything was obviously broken. She did the same with her legs… and then gingerly felt her head. Good so far as she could tell.

Nicole unwrapped the bandana from her hand and used it to wipe the grime from Waverly’s face. She was covered in scrapes, but none bleeding badly. She checked Waverly’s hands. That’s when she remembered she was still wearing the medic-alert bracelet.

She bolted to her feet and held up her wrist, regarding the bracelet closely and giving it a shake.

“Jeremy,” she said firmly to the stupid thing.

It felt dumb to do, but she knew Revenance’s tracking system would definitely reach them even here. And she knew Jeremy was the person who’d been watching their stats like a hawk for the past week. She hoped he might have detected that something bad had just happened to Waverly.

It took a moment to realize that even if Jeremy could hear her, the bracelet was not going to talk back. “Jeremy, if you can hear me, there’s been an accident. Waverly slipped and fell over an embankment. She fell pretty far. I need you to send a helicopter to my GPS coordinates. She has no obvious fractures, but she’s unconscious, so I can’t determine whether there are other injuries.”

She paused a moment, not sure what else to say, but feeling like there was more she needed to do.

“I am uninjured, and I’m prepared to do whatever I can to help her. If it helps for the helicopter, I can carry her back up to the ridgeline, if her injuries permit it.”

She dropped back to her knees beside Waverly, leaning in close, looking for signs of stirring.

“Also, please let Robert Svane know there’s been an incident with Waverly, so he has a heads-up. And Wynonna, too.” For some reason, her throat stung as she said the last part. She knew Wynonna was going to be upset.

She shrugged out of the daypack and opened it up to retrieve the blanket, which she carefully used to cover Waverly to keep her warm. She was sure that Waverly hadn’t imagined them using the blanket for this when she’d packed it earlier. She whispered soothing words of encouragement and comfort as she gently tucked the edges around her girl and then leaned in and gave her one more kiss, this one soft upon the lips, nuzzling Waverly’s nose and cheeks for warmth and circulation.

Finally, Waverly started to stir. Nicole spotted the slightest flutter of eyelids.

“Come on, baby,” Nicole urged.

Another stir.

Nicole leaned back and gently rubbed Waverly’s arms, watching her face intently, silently willing her to wake up. “You can do it. Please come back to me.”

She watched a strange struggle play out over Waverly’s lovely face, one eye, then the other opening, mouth curling up on one side and slack on the other, neurons misfiring, twitching, as if she were suffering a stroke. Nicole almost burst into tears.

“Nooo, baby,” she keened, frightened for the worst and sick with the physical struggle taking place before her. She cupped Waverly’s face trying to steady herself and Waverly, too.

Then it got weird.

Nicole would have sworn it was a trick of the light, but the eyes that finally opened, one and then the other, glowed a terrifying electric blue. Nowhere remotely human. She had never seen anything like it… and despite her complete and utter adoration for this woman, she recoiled, gasping for breath as her brain tried to make sense of this.

She knew Waverly was an Artificial (damn, but Revenance needed to come up with a less horrible name asap!). But she had never seen an Artificial do that.

As Nicole fought to get her thundering heart under control, electric blue eyes locked on her, cold and curious, and Waverly’s hands clutched Nicole’s forearms, locking her in a vise grip.

Shit!

This is Waverly, Nicole reminded herself, willing herself not to take a hot 10 steps backward. My Waverly. She clamped her own eyes closed to block out that disturbing stare. The two of them had laid themselves out vulnerable to each other so many times, each time tender and shy and reverent. This didn’t feel anything like that. It felt like an assault.

Where’s my Waverly?

When Nicole opened her eyes again, the Artificial had tightened her grip. Nicole was shocked by a sudden play of light rippling out under Waverly’s skin, across her hands and throat and face, fanning like flame, cooler at the edges and hot toward the center and pulsing in some kind of biological rhythm. In four years with Revenance Nicole had never seen an Artificial do that. Either Waverly’s system was broken, overwhelmed … or Waverly had been secretly designed for much more—and probably worse—than she and Dolls had been told. If Robert Svane were standing here right now, she would have decked the bastard.

Nicole’s whole body tingled, and she felt her skin prickle with static electricity. It raised all the fine hairs on her body. She’d only felt this sensation once before, years ago, when she was in the mountains during a thunderstorm, when the heavy sunset air around her had filled with electric charge. This was that same sensation of lightning gathering, and as it became more intense, it tickled Nicole’s ears and making her hearing go all strange and muffled. Waverly’s body was stiff in her arms, thrumming with electricity. Nicole could feel her own body being drawn into Waverly’s like a magnet’s pull steadily growing tighter and tighter…

… Until Waverly shook and let out an animal howl that pierced Nicole’s ears and sent echoes bouncing off the hills. Her hands still clutched Nicole tight. Flames beneath her skin fanned in concert with her energy release. Nicole clamped her eyes shut, fully expecting to be torn apart.

But explosive violence never came. The electric charge dissipated, and Waverly’s body grew heavy and limp. Instead of explosion, came words:

“STOP YELLING at me!” It was Waverly’s voice, growling, plaintive, peeved… and making zero sense.

Nicole looked again, and Waverly’s eyes had softened. The scary blue was gone. The flames were fading. The eyes that met Nicole’s were 100% Waverly.

“Oh, my God, Waves, you had me so scared,” she breathed. “I’m not sure what even happened there… But please, baby, tell me you’re ok?”

Waverly squirmed a little, shaking her head, stretching against the soreness of having body surfed down a glacier of cinder blocks. “What happened?” she whimpered, clutching at Nicole’s arms, but this time like a girlfriend and not like some killer machine. Nicole squeezed her back fiercely.

“You took a pretty bad tumble from the trail up there,” she gestured with her head. “I couldn’t catch you in time to stop it. I- I’m sorry.”

Waverly’s eyes were a little woozy. “Hell, what kind of robot are you?” she quipped, as if Nicole had been a dumb slacker. And Nicole would have chuckled in relief, except it was the first time she’d had heard her say it: Waverly Earp thought Nicole Haught was an Artificial. Of course, Svane would have fed her that line of bullshit. All this time Waverly thought she was being seduced by a machine. A fucking toy. Literally.

Awesome day.

Waverly struggled to sit up. “Woah, there, take it easy,” Nicole said. The rattle of helicopter blades approached from the distance, and a wave of relief washed over her. At least she was going to get Waverly out of here and end of this chapter of their little nightmare. She was worried what the next would entail. Something was wrong with Waverly and she didn’t know what. But it was big. Something big had changed.

“Let’s get you back to the lab.”

“You mean hospital… hospital,” Waverly corrected. “Don’t take me back to Revenance, Nicole. Call a doctor. I- I need a doctor.”

The helicopter was drawing closer. Nicole turned to see if she could spot it. She needed to ascertain if Waverly was ok to carry back up the hill. “We need to get you to the lab. We’ll fix it. It’s gonna be all right,” she said. “I got you, baby.”

Nicole had meant the words to be comforting, and her attention had been distracted when she said them.

“No!” Waverly whimpered unhappily and a bit dazed.

Then Nicole felt Waverly’s hands grab the collar of her jacket and give her a rough shake. “NO!” Waverly cried… obviously confused and trying to get Nicole’s attention back. Nicole reached out with calm hands and as steady a voice as she could manage.

“Sshh. It’s ok, Waves. We’ll fix it. It’s gonna be all right.”

The words did not help.

Waverly fought her. “NO!” she yelled, thrashing out of Nicole’s grasp in…what? Panic? Dismay?

“I’m NOT… I AM NOT…”

Nicole tried to calm her down, but Waverly was having none of it.

That’s when her hands began glowing from within again. They pulsed fiery red and gold beneath the skin, and Waverly gasped in horror, staring at them as if she had just discovered something consuming her from within. She shot Nicole a look of complete and utter horror. Nicole’s mouth went dry and her stomach dropped. Waverly clearly processed the emotions playing across Nicole’s face, because her own changed from panic… to devastation.

SHIT.

This was not how it was supposed to go. Nicole wanted to cry. Waverly was suffering. It was all going very, very wrong. She fought her own alarm, her face and hands growing numb and tingling. She was watching Waverly – her Waverly – transform second-by-second as she warred with new and terrible knowledge of herself. Knowledge that never should have fucking come down this way.

Pure panic. Waverly flailed, throwing first an elbow and then an open-handed slap at Nicole, followed by a rain of scared slaps and kicks. Nicole just ducked her head and absorbed those golden-glowing fists. She took a solid smack to the jaw and saw stars. But Waverly’s panicked burst eventually abated, and Nicole was finally able to snake strong arms around Waverly, pulling her to her chest, cradling her and whispering soft shushes, rocking her until her energy spent and she slumped heavily into Nicole’s arms. The glowing beneath the skin of her hands and wrists faded, and Waverly’s cries turned into crying. Nicole held her firmly, her jaw aching where she’d gotten socked.

Yep. I probably deserved that.

She ignored the pain and tried to shove away her own worries about what would come next for Waverly… and just focused now on holding her as the helicopter sounds grew louder, signaling its arrival. She was about to ask if she thought she could walk when Waverly’s voice came small and muffled against Nicole’s chest.

“Nicole. What am I?”

Oh, baby. I so do not want to go into all of this right now.

She knew she’d have to. Someone would have to explain the truth: That she’s not human. That she’s so much more than human. She’s the most advanced machine ever built. The most amazing human creation. Something wholly new. The future. Grand possibility. Waverly was important to the world…

And she was important to Nicole.

That had been a surprise. Nicole hadn’t anticipated this deep bond, this fierce and beautiful thing that had developed so quickly between them. It left her feeling as if a hole had been ripped through her chest and filled with pure and liquid joy. Until she met Waverly she hadn’t realized how empty she’d felt. All of that now replaced by all the warmth and light of the noonday sun. When Nicole replied to Waverly’s question, she answered not with cold facts, which were so completely insufficient. When Waverly asked, “What am I?” Nicole answered from the depths of her sun-filled heart:

“You are extraordinary.”

Waverly’s eyes flashed disturbing blue again, and she climbed to her feet as if she hadn’t just rolled a hundred feet over broken rocks.

“Don’t give me that frickin HORSESHIT!” Waverly huffed. “I deserve better than that from you!”

The words stung. The rough shove that followed stung, too. Waverly was not in a place to accept such a declaration—at least not now, and, while it hurt, Nicole couldn’t blame her.

Nicole stood motionless, accepting, choosing to remain quiet.

Yep, probably deserved that, too.

Suddenly, Waverly spun, touching a hand to the side of her head and squinting in confusion. “Jeremy? What are you doing in my head?”

//

 

It was loud—so loud—inside Waverly’s head right now. Her own thoughts were racing. So much to process right now. None of it good. And then there were voices, a whole conversation happening as if people were standing all around her. Everyone was upset and yelling. She recognized Jeremy’s voice among the crowd.

“Jeremy! Stop the yelling!”

Jeremy’s voice came back, distracted, speaking to unknown others. “Guys! She can hear us. Keep it down!” A moment later, as the group quieted, he continued. “Waverly, you’re there. That’s good.”

“Nothing’s good,” she spat, realizing she sounded like an angry toddler. She didn’t give a shit. She glanced at Nicole who was standing still, looking down at the ground like a scolded puppy. Damn her.

“Ok, ok,” Jeremy replied, as if he were a hostage negotiator trying to keep her on the line. Actually, was that analogy sort of accurate?

“Waverly, we understand you’ve had an accident…” The word made Waverly think of that other accident. The real one, from that snowy day. The only accident that mattered. The one that killed her family, broke Wynonna … and broke Waverly, too.

“Is Wynonna there?” Waverly needed her sister.

God, was Wynonna even her sister? What was even real? The world threatened to tilt again. She fought the spins and the nausea that came with them and stayed standing.

“No, she’s not here,” Jeremy answered. “It’s Dolls and Chrissy and me… and Robert Svane’s on speakerphone with us.” All of this really just made Waverly feel tired and annoyed. She kept her mouth shut.

So Jeremy continued. “I’ve been following your readings here, and all I can say is… wow. I’ve never seen anything like this…” He was about to ramble on, and his ramblings somehow made Waverly even angrier. She bit back her tongue, but it took effort.

“… uh, we’ve seen nothing like this. Your vitals all look good. I’m not getting any major, uh, injury readings… But all of your highs are super off-the-charts right now. You’re freaked out… and… I can see Nicole is pretty freaked out, too, right now… and not in the way you guys, uh, usually are.” His voice was strained.

“Cut to the chase, Jeremy,” she interrupted. She didn’t look at Nicole, who couldn’t hear this conversation anyway.

“Right. So the helicopter is coming to get you. It should just about be there. Do you have a visual on it?”

“Yes,” she replied. It was hovering above the ridge, sending wind and dust swirling around them.

“We- we’re going to land it up on the ridge. There’s… there’s a small meadow about 150 yards to the north. Uh, can you tell Nicole to take you there?”

“You want me to carry her up there?” Waverly realized that was a bitchy remark… and that it was true: She felt physically powerful enough to throw stupid Nicole Haught over her shoulder and haul her to the top of the hill. And maybe throw her off it when she got there.

Waverly shot a glance at Nicole, who thankfully could not hear the voices in Waverly’s head, or her thoughts. Nicole looked spooked. And chagrined.

Good.

Jeremy again: “Uh, you and Nicole need to get up to the meadow…” It was clear he had taken her remark as sarcasm, because he ignored it. “Can- can you please tell Nicole?”

She heaved a sigh, rolling her eyes. “Nicole, you need to take me to the dumb helicopter.”

Nicole nodded mutely.

Waverly reported back: “Nicole says the plan sounds amazing.”

There was a long pause as the voices in her head started chattering again, and in the white noise all around a deep uneasiness settled over her. A sinking feeling. That if she couldn’t trust any of this (her so-called reality) then she couldn’t trust any of them (Revenance). They had her microphoned; they knew exactly how to get to her in minutes even though she was on a remote trail somewhere in the Rocky Mountains; they were monitoring her every motion, taking exacting measurements and flagging anything unusual. The only thing they didn’t have right now was her body (whatever that was). Her corporeal self was the only thing of value she had right now. Robert Svane had told her that robots could be shut down “if necessary.” What if they went to the lab and Svane shut her down? What if she never woke up? Why should she trust him, when everything he’d led her to believe was a complete and stupid fiction?

She had been about to tell them they were going to the helicopter. But she froze, feeling sick at the thought of giving herself over so easily. She needed time to figure out what was going on and to confront it on her own terms.

“One thing before we go,” she yelled over the noise at Jeremy.

“What’s that, Waves?” he asked.

“I need to talk to Nicole,” she said. “Privately.”

“Go ahead.”

“NOT until you all get out of my frickin head,” she growled. “I mean it.”

“Um, ok, Waves. Let me get everybody out of here,” Jeremy said. They’d worked together a long time. They were friends. He’d do that for her, wouldn’t he? He’d find a way to give her some space, right?

“And you get out of there, too,” she said, softly. “Please?”

“I promise,” he replied. And the noises finally abated. It took a couple of moments, but then her head felt quieter… and a little more like her own. She took a deep breath, relishing the quiet… and then:

“You,” Waverly pointed squarely at Nicole’s chest. “You are in trouble.”

//

 

The sun had sunk low in the west. The mountains were in shadow, but there was still enough daylight to make out Nicole Haught’s facial expressions. This next conversation would be the most important one of Waverly Earp’s life. (Whatever that was). She needed to be able to see Nicole’s face.

“You lied to me.”

Nicole stared at her a moment, clearly trying to find words to explain.

“About everything,” Waverly added. With that last word, bitter tears clung to her lashes. She wanted to ask “why,” but she knew why. She wanted to ask “how,” but from first-hand experience, she knew how. Still, the anger inside her needed to vent.

“Waverly, I know this hurts, and it’s confusing. It’s totally fucked-up! But believe me when I say I never wanted to hurt you. Far from it. I wanted to be here for you. I care about you.”

“You care about me. Huh.” Waverly huffed, folding her arms across her chest. “Did you know?”

“Yes.”

“So how was it?”

“How was what?”

“Fucking a robot.”

Nicole’s cheeks went scarlet and her eyes darkened. “That’s not fair.”

“Answer the question, Nicole. Was it hot? Was it everything you hoped for? Am I enough of a pleasure model for you? Did you and Dolls and Robert Svane draw straws to see who’d get to fuck the robot first? Wanna do it again? Oh. Maybe I have a switch inside that makes me vibrate. Maybe I come with attachments… sort of like the one you and I bought at that little boutique on Kennsington because you wanted to fu--”

“Waverly!” Nicole raised her voice, then softened. “That’s not what this was.” She took a steadying breath and looked Waverly square in the eyes. “And, baby, if you search in your heart you know it, too.”

Still angry.

“I am a frickin robot. What the hell!”

“The working term is Artificial.”

Not helping.

“Are you… Artificial?” Waverly watched Nicole’s face intently.

Nicole chuckled. “What? Ha. Yes, I’m sure that’s what you were told. But, no, I’m not.”

Waverly raised her eyebrows.

“I’m definitely not,” Nicole said with a patient smile.

Waverly picked her words carefully. “I thought you were one, you know.” She paused as Nicole nodded her head indulgently. She pressed. “Robert Svane told me you were one, and that I’m the one who’s supposed to be taking care of you.”

“You’re one-of-a-kind, Waverly Earp,” Nicole smiled, lighting up like Waverly were something divine and sacred. “And Robert Svane is a gaslighting sociopath,” she added. “… and a dickhead.”

“Why keep the truth from me?”

“It’s … It’s his game. It’s his philosophy--or whatever—when it comes to artificial intelligence. He believes life would be easier for you if no one knew… and that you’d be happier, too, not knowing you’re… different.”

Waverly had a thousand different arguments for that logic, but now wasn’t the time for that.

“What do I do now? Now that I know?”

Nicole buried her face in her hands. Her eyes were red, and she was obviously fighting tears. Not a good sign. “I don’t know,” Nicole said, her voice strained. “I fucking don’t know. I don’t know if he’ll just adapt the program to you knowing. Or… if you’ll be… wiped.”

“Wiped?”

“Your memories.”

Waverly definitely did not like the sound of that. “Some of them? Or- or all of them?”

“I don’t know.”

But Waverly believed that Nicole knew something. “Nicole, what’s the worst thing that could happen to me?”

Nicole’s jaw was tight and her face was grim. “There’s a kill switch. Remote shut-down and reset.”

“Reset?”

“Full roll-back to, uh, factory settings.”

“Wiped.”

“Yes.”

“And he could do it now. Or at any time he wants. Just like that!”

“Unfortunately.”

Honestly, the thought of having her memories erased was the worst thing she could possibly think of… losing the memories of her family, her whole life (whatever that was), her love for Wynonna.

“Oh, god, Nicole!” She was filled with a fresh panic. “What about Wynonna?”

//

 

The Revenance Corporation campus was always a bit quiet on Saturdays, but today it was especially quiet, Wynonna thought. She’d just left her truck in the parking lot and was balancing two coffee to-go cups as she headed for the main building. Jeremy had texted her that there was a problem with one of the units and that Svane needed them to come in and help troubleshoot. Wynonna assumed that the trouble was with Unit 2, Waverly’s cool new redheaded toy. She’d texted Waverly to get the scoop, but got no answer. Wynonna remembered she and Nicole were out of cell phone range today, so she wasn’t surprised. The info about Unit 2 had probably come in from her bracelet.

Wynonna glanced at the one on her own wrist and knew that Jeremy would already know she was here, the little stalker. Oh, but could the bracelet smell the delicious coffee she was bringing him? She bet there were a few things Robert Svane’s paranoid tracking system could not detect. She was intent on figuring them out.

As she came to the front door of the building, she juggled the cups and swiped her badge. The door clicked and she bumped it open with her hip, stepping into the broad foyer of the Revenance Tower and strolling toward the elevators. She hoped this wouldn’t take long. She’d convinced Dolls to meet her out at a local bar for drinks later. Since he was staying on campus, maybe she could convince him to meet her a little earlier, for dinner, maybe.

Unlike Unit 2, who’d glommed onto her sister like she was the fudge to her sundae, Unit 1 had preferred to keep things more … professional. Wynonna thought that was probably for the best. She’d never been one for relationships. She preferred her encounters to be a bit more anonymous. But, damn, they had to go and make the fucking robots so fucking sweet and gorgeous. It was hard not to want to have some fun… and there definitely was a current of attraction between her and Dolls. Just enough to make it all a bit more… sporting. And with so much of Waverly’s time taken up with Nicole, Wynonna needed something to amuse herself with.

Which is also why she and Dolls were headed to the shooting range tomorrow. For training.

Yeah, right.

The bell rung, and Elevator 2 opened to reveal … Dolls standing there, son of a gun.

“Oh, hey, you’re here,” he said, surprised to see her.

“Oh, you know. Married to my work and all…” That was far from the truth.

He held the elevator door open for her, smiling. “Going up?” He knew she worked on Floor 3.

“Yeah, got a text from Jeremy.”

“Jeremy’s down on W3,” Dolls said, still holding the elevator. “I just came from there. Why don’t I take you down?”

“What? And waste your perfectly awesome Saturday?” she asked, even though she knew this robot didn’t have a life outside of the gym on W2.

“It’s no problem, really,” he smiled that sexy robot smile, like he had all the time in the world. Or maybe just all the time for her.

She joined him in the elevator and he swiped his badge and punched W3. He smelled really good. Was he wearing cologne? Do robots wear cologne?

At the bottom, in the tight pink vagina corridor, outside of the doors to the big hangar room, he paused and turned to her. They were standing so close that she realized it would be really, really easy to kiss him. There was a funny look in his eyes that said maybe he felt it, too. But she hesitated. Drunk Wynonna would not have hesitated. But it wasn’t happy hour yet. And so she wasn’t her happy hour self yet, either.

She held up her hands, indicating they were occupied with the carrying of coffee cups. “Can you please do the hand thing?” she asked with her best pretty-please eyes. “Um, to the door, I mean…” Though she bet there were a few other hand things he would do, too, if she said pretty-please.

He grinned and applied his sexy hand to the scanner. Green light came on and the door chimed as usual. When the doors opened, Robert Svane and Jeremy were standing there, in conversation.

“Hey, you brought coffee!” Jeremy grinned. “Awesome! Thanks!” He gladly accepted the cup from her with a big grin.

Robert Svane’s face was boss-serious and kinda haggard, like he hadn’t slept in days. He turned his intense boss-gaze at her a moment, hand on hip, as if composing what he was going to say.

“Thank you for coming in,” he said and then cut right to the chase. “There’s been a problem with Waverly, and we need you here.”

“Waverly?” Wynonna asked, her heart dropped. “Is she okay?” If that Haught robot hurt her, she’d personally knock her red-headed block off.

Robert nodded. “She’s okay, Wynonna,” he assured her, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We just wanted you here with us.”

With that he brought his other hand up to her neck and jabbed her with a hypodermic needle. Whatever was in it felt hot and stinging as he injected the contents into her neck. She immediately felt woozy.

“What? Roofied?” she cried, but it came out more of a whiny mumble. She handed the second coffee cup to Jeremy as blackness gathered around her.

Her last thoughts, before she slid heavily to the ground, were that there wasn’t going to be any happy hour today… and that something very bad must be wrong with Waverly.

//

 

Climbing the loose gravel back up the steep hillside was tougher than Nicole expected. She was frankly glad that she hadn’t needed to carry Waverly, not that Waverly exactly wanted to climb back up it herself, so she’d almost had to. Waverly had agreed to go to the helicopter, but it took a little coaxing, and it was clear she was not happy about it.

Nicole wanted to talk to Dolls. She needed advice. She thought again about the phone in her back pocket, how they were far out of cell phone range, and she had no one she could talk to about what was happening. Waverly was never supposed to know. That was the plan and the program. No human – or human-like – creature wants to know that they’re completely owned, controlled, ultimately expendable and about-to-be commoditized.

“Please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you, Nicole. I’m mad. I’ll get over it.”

Waverly was quiet. It was clear she was working things over in her mind. She was trying to figure a way to preserve herself. Nicole desperately did not want Waverly to receive a reset. If she acted up, she most certainly would. If she were reset, the connection they shared, what would happen to that? Waverly was clearly much better off with Nicole than without her. They were meant to work as a team, to be together. And she intended to prove that to Waverly. She hoped Waverly would fight for her. She knew she would certainly fight for Waverly.

It took a while, but they finally crested the ridge, stopping for breath and gazing out over the valley below. The last pale lavender of sunset reflected down there and off across the distance. Out there was civilization. Up here was the wild.

But they were not free.

She and Waverly stood shoulder-to-shoulder, taking in the immensity before them, silently, as if they’d just walked into the grandest cathedral. They stood a moment, not daring to breathe… and then she felt Waverly’s hand shyly slip into her own as they stared into the valley’s impossible abyss. Waverly’s hand felt unspeakably good, small, soft, warm, sexy… their fingers carrying on a complete conversation that had nothing to do with words, and everything to do with the magic of chemical and electrical impulses. They stood like that for a long minute. Silence was good. Robert Svane might be monitoring everything, but he didn’t know how to read minds. Yet. This small bliss belonged to them and them alone.

Presently, Nicole turned to Waverly. “We should get going,” she said softly, loathe to end this moment, but not wanting to give Revenance the impression of resistance. Waverly gave her a curious and pained gaze, like she was trying to figure Nicole out, like she was struggling to decide whether Nicole could be trusted.

Yes, dammit!

And then Waverly softened, leaning into Nicole’s embrace, and kissed her softly, tentatively.

Sparks flew, just like every time they kissed. Nicole Haught’s body felt so perfectly in tune with this. She craved it. How had she ever gone without it? And for a long moment they relaxed into each other, seeking and receiving comfort and reassurance. Words… words were hard. They were not private. But this communication said everything Nicole needed to know about how Waverly Earp felt about her. Her kiss was sweet and loving and kind. It was hungry and possessive. It was healing and affirming. Those lips had a lot going on.

When they finally pulled back from the kiss, Waverly’s skin was shimmering and she was gazing up at Nicole with her face full of surprise and wonder.

“Wow,” Waverly said softly and gave her the most beautiful smile.

“Wow,” Nicole grinned in return.

Waverly hugged her tightly, heaving a big sigh. “I don’t hate you, Nicole, and I can’t stay mad. I’m just really feeling lost and freaked out…And, I mean, I am mad. But not at you. This... helps. You help. A lot.” They swayed together a few moments, Nicole supplying steady arms and warm breath and staying quiet… until Waverly settled some more, and finally said, “Okay. I will go back to Revenance with you, Nicole. I will. But I don’t want to go in the helicopter. I’m not broken. There’s no rush. I- I want to drive back to town together, just you and me. I want to have the rest of our day together.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get checked out? You know, to make sure everything’s ok?” Nicole said it less for Waverly and more for the bracelet.

The look on Waverly’s face said she understood. “I do want to get checked out. But I’m not seriously hurt. I- I feel fine. And you know what would be the best medicine?”

Waverly’s voice had become playful.

“What?” Nicole asked.

“You.”

Smoothie. That earned Waverly another kiss.

“Ok,” Nicole agreed. “Let’s just go check in with the chopper and make sure everybody’s ok with that.”

Nicole took Waverly by the hand and they weaved their way along the ridgeline path toward the meadow Jeremy had told Waverly about. The chopper was there, a big black hull of a thing, looking out of place here in the beautiful natural world.

There were two Revenance technicians as its crew. Nicole knew there was no need to introduce herself. They would have been briefed before they’d embarked on their rescue mission.

“Hey, there. Thanks for coming for us. Mind if we use the radio to check in with Robert Svane?”

The Techs shook their head no. The pilot pulled up Robert on the radio, handing Nicole the mic.

She shot Waverly a glance? You or me?

Waverly’s nod said she wanted to talk to Robert. Given the circumstances, Nicole agreed that was the right thing to do.

“Hi Robert, it’s Waverly,” she said into the microphone.

“Waverly!” Svane’s voice sounded relieved. And possessive, always possessive. “We heard you took a fall. Sounded pretty serious. How is my #1 Product Manager?”

More like your #1 Product, Nicole thought, but she kept that to herself.

“I’m actually okay,” Waverly said, her voice light. “I don’t actually remember the falling part. Just the waking up at the bottom part. My elbow is sore. And my shoulder. And my knee…” she seemed to be taking personal inventory finally. “But nothing bad. Nothing broken.”

“You seemed pretty upset,” Robert said carefully. “You know, the readings from the bracelet…”

“It was quite a surprising tumble, I guess,” Waverly replied, clearly trying to minimize this, to pacify him. “I was pretty shaken up.”

“Nicole, too,” Robert said, carefully. “her readings were pretty out there, too.”

“Thank God we don’t fall over a cliff every day,” Waverly said.

At least not in the literal sense.

Robert seemed to be accepting that his prized creation at least sounded like her normal self and not some haywire, spark-spitting mess. “Are you ready to come back? The helicopter can take you.”

“I- I wonder if we might, you know, drive back,” she said shyly. “Nicole and I… we were enjoying our day together before… and I’d like to finish that.”

“Nicole’s pretty good medicine, eh?” Robert said with a smile in his voice. It was not lost on either of them that he used the exact same words Waverly had told Nicole in private.

Waverly took Nicole’s hand and steadied herself in Nicole’s eyes. “The best, honestly.” Nicole felt warmth spread all through her and couldn’t help but smile in return.

“I believe it,” Robert said.

And he has the charts to prove it, LOL.

After a long pause, Robert asked to talk to the pilot. “You two have a safe trip back here. And just so nobody worries about you, can you please shoot me a text when you’re home and let me know right away if you feel sick or dizzy or hurt… or otherwise not yourself?”

“You bet,” Waverly said, though no text was, strictly speaking, necessary, since he would know where they were at all times, what they said at all times and how fast they made each other’s heart beat at all times.

//

 

“Got any chewing gum?” Nicole asked, lightly. Waverly didn’t know Nicole was a gum-chewer.

“Uh, yeah. Here in the glove box.” Waverly opened it and felt around until she found an old pack of gum Wynonna left there ages ago. “Cinnamon okay?”

“My favorite,” Nicole grinned, though Waverly got the impression she would have said that about whatever flavor she’d happened to pull out. This was a performance.

Waverly handed Nicole the gum, and watched as she unwrapped a piece. It looked pretty sorry and dry. She could tell Nicole wasn’t wild about putting it in her mouth, but she did and worked her jaw at it for a few long seconds before she got it softened up.

“You want one?” Nicole asked, mirth in her eyes. Waverly could tell it was awful.

“Uh, sure,” she grinned, accepting a dry rectangle.

Nicole grabbed a pen from the console and began jotting something down on the inside of the wrapper. “How about some tunes?” she asked, while writing.

Waverly reached and turned on the radio. “What we were listening to before ok? Or do you want me to put something else on?”

“Surprise me,” Nicole grinned and handed Waverly her gum wrapper scribblings.

As the music came on, Waverly read the note. It was short and simple: I am going to get you out of here.

Waverly looked up to find Nicole Haught gazing at her with complete love and certainty. They sat like that a moment, their hearts beating. Then Nicole leaned over and brushed their lips together, the taste of cinnamon gum hot on her tongue.

“Trust me?” she said, her eyes sparkling in the gathering darkness. Those words were so big, so loaded.

Waverly didn’t hesitate. “With all my heart.”

//

 

Darkness had fallen upon them like one too many blankets. It felt heavy, oppressive, suffocating almost. They’d been driving for an hour trying to ignore the helicopter that was flying above them, as if they were in a presidential motorcade. Waverly understood that Robert Svane’s surveillance was going to be a bit more heavy-handed right now, but she didn’t like it. She was acutely aware of not only the ever-presence of the helicopter (on top of the ever-presence of the tracking bracelet), but also the absence of messages between Wynonna and her.

They were back in cell phone range now, and Wynonna’s last message had been sent mid-afternoon. It wasn’t unusual for the sisters to go a day without texting, but today was no normal day. She composed a quick (and fairly innocuous) text just to see if she could get a reply.

Waverly: Mountains were beautiful. Like a total klutz, I fell off the trail, and Nicole had to save me. But I’m fine.

She knew that was just enough of a message to pique Wynonna’s curiosity. Unless she was naked and having sex with a certain sexy … what (robot? teammate?) … she’d most certainly text back – or call – to get the details.

But the long minutes dragged on with no message, and her heart grew more worried. She tried to calm herself, to keep her monitored readings as level as possible. To cover, she reached over to Nicole and squeezed the woman’s thigh, leaving her hand resting there, fingers gently brushing her inner thigh. Nicole’s attention came off the highway. She locked eyes with Waverly, her gaze pure lust, and that made Waverly’s heart pound.

“Are you hungry, baby?” Waverly teased.

Nicole’s eyes said she was very hungry indeed. “Yes,” the word came out low and almost a whisper. God, Nicole’s voice alone could do unspeakable things to Waverly. It was all honey and whiskey and soft as a sigh, and it tickled Waverly in the most curiously sexy places.

“You want me to pull over?” Nicole purred.

God, yes!

Waverly felt a jolt of electricity beat out from her core to her fingertips, which kept up their light stroking of Nicole’s inner thigh. When she again met Nicole’s gaze, there was something else there, something naked, wanting and also … surprised. It took Waverly a moment to realize that Nicole was reacting to the sight of Waverly glowing again. That strange fire beneath her skin that had scared her shitless when she woke up after her fall… it was back, softer this time. In the dark of the car, she could see it faintly illuminating Nicole’s beautiful face, her mouth slack.

A thought came to her. Waverly reached for Nicole’s hand and slowly brought it to her lips, watching Nicole’s eyes as she did. Nicole caught her breath, flashing a glance at the road to make sure they were still driving inside the lines, and then looking back, her eyes dark with desire. Waverly took one of Nicole’s long, slender (and clever) finger between her lips and touched it with the delicate tip of her tongue. The look of raw anticipation was written plain across Nicole’s features. Waverly flashed her a teasing look and gave a little nip. Nicole let out a small gasp … and then an even bigger gasp, as Waverly took her whole finger into her mouth, with a warm, soft stroke of the tongue and a suck.

Nicole struggled to watch the road while having her mind blown.

“You want me to pull over?” she asked again, this time breathless and urgent. Waverly liked the teasing, but there was a specific reaction she was after. She took Nicole the rest of the way into her mouth, encircling her fully, and teasing the length of her with her tongue.

There it was! Just the faintest pulsing of light beneath the skin. Waverly might have missed it entirely had she not been looking for it. She might have passed it off as a trick of the dashboard lights, because certainly that’s not a thing people do. But, Waverly saw it. There was no denying it. Nicole Haught glowed from within when she was turned on.

They both did.

Waverly had her answer. Nicole might think that she’s human. That’s what Robert Svane had led Nicole and most everyone else to believe. And Nicole was invested in that story. That was the story of her life. That was her reality. But it wasn’t reality. Nicole was right. She and Waverly really did share a connection, and it was more than just the romantic one Nicole told herself.

The knowledge made Waverly feel better. She was not alone.

For now, she would honor Nicole’s belief that she was human, because that’s what Nicole believed and that’s what Robert obviously wanted Nicole to believe. And she would continue to monitor Nicole as a robot… or Artificial or whatever stupid term… because that’s what Robert wanted Waverly to do. She would play the game. And she would learn it. And then with Nicole’s help she would rip it all apart.

“Baby?” Nicole’s voice was desperate, heavy with her need. Waverly realized she hadn’t yet answered her question.

She reluctantly withdrew that beautiful finger and kissed it, with a quick and wicked, “Sorry, had my mouth full there…”

Nicole caught her breath again, tiger-stripes of light faintly pulsing just beneath her skin. She was magnificent, radiant, and Waverly’s heart felt full even while suddenly craving to be filled in other ways. It was almost painful not having Nicole’s hand inside her now.

Waverly took a steadying breath and replied with a plan she barely knew she’d been forming. “There’s a town up ahead. Restaurants are probably closed by now, but there’s a bar that’s still open and they serve food.”

Nicole nodded pragmatically, though it was clear it took some doing on her part to switch gears. “Sure, baby.”

Waverly teased out the rest of her plan. “I- I think they rent out rooms upstairs. We could, you know, maybe get out that toy I packed… and maybe you could… fuck me with it?” She honestly blushed with such a brazen request; it’s not the sort of thing she was used to confessing out loud, but it was true. She really, really needed Nicole inside her. She needed to feel their connection. She needed release. She needed Nicole to know Waverly belonged to her completely. When they made it back to Revenance, she needed Nicole’s absolute trust. She was determined that nothing would undermine it. She also wanted to get Nicole someplace loud, where the bracelets would have a harder time picking up their conversation.

Nicole’s eyes said she was completely on board. “Sure you don’t want me to just pull over? I can fuck you right here.”

God, please.

Waverly smiled. “I want you naked. And I want to be able to watch you while you’re fucking me.”

The words were completely true.

Nicole’s eyes went dark with desire. “All right, then,” she said, and slammed on the gas.

//

 

To be completely obvious for their trackers, Waverly had looked up the bar’s address, even though she already knew how to get there. And she even read off the address aloud, just for good measure. She wanted Robert Svane to know where they were and that they were not trying to run away or hide. She wanted him to leave her alone for now. She needed to prove herself trustworthy. As much as she needed Nicole’s trust, she needed Robert’s even more.

Just as Waverly predicted, the place was loud. It was a full crowd tonight. The jukebox was blaring. Guys were whooping it up over a game of pool.

“How do you know about this place?” Nicole asked as they took their first sips of beer. She had to lean close to Waverly’s ear in order to be heard over the noise. Waverly liked the way Nicole’s breath tickled her ear.

“It’s one of Wynonna’s favorite places,” Waverly said. “We grew up near here.” She almost cringed with unfamiliar doubt that the words were even true. But Nicole absorbed the statement like it was an ordinary conversation, and Waverly was grateful for that.

“We don’t get out here very often anymore. I just remembered it because I didn’t think I could last another hour until we got home.”

“And I fully intend to help you with that.”

They laughed at the double-entendre.

“So we both need to keep our strength up,” Waverly said, followed by, “You know what I want to do to you?”

Nicole leaned closer, and Waverly bent to her ear, to whisper softly, so the monitor bracelet couldn’t pick it up. “Please listen to me… When we get back I am going to be on best behavior. But I also need to know that Wynonna is all right. She’s not texting me back. Can you help me with that?”

“I can absolutely do that,” Nicole drawled.

“Wait, there’s more,” Waverly stage-whispered, then leaned in close again so only Nicole could hear. “We need to find someone who’s willing to tell us what the frick is going on! I can’t be Robert Svane’s toy. We need information.” She grabbed the collar of Nicole’s jacket for emphasis. “But the most important thing is we need to figure out how to keep me from being reset… at all costs. I want to keep my memories, Nicole. I don’t want to lose this…I don’t want to lose you… or my sister.”

Nicole nodded, her eyes sober and a little scared.

“Because they’re monitoring us, we need to continue giving them readings like the ones they’re used to seeing. We need to put on a very good show. But I want to make completely clear. Me wanting you is not a show. Ok? What I feel for you is very, very real.”

Nicole’s reply was loud, for the monitors. “Damn. I can’t wait for you to show me, baby.”

 

//

 

Dolls swung into the control booth on W3 to see the monitors lit up like Christmas and Jeremy slumped with his head in his hands.

“Jeremy,” he said, announcing himself and holding up a take-out bag of Chinese food from the restaurant down the street. Jeremy accepted the food with a grateful smile, diving into the bag to discover its contents.

“Oh, my God! Thank you, Dolls. Lunch was like seven hours ago. Or possibly eight. And my eyes are crossing from, duh, numbers. And also my ears are burning from, like, TMI. And I’m totally starving. Oh, wow, Kung Pao Chicken. Are you like a mind-reader? Because, man, that’s some serious telepathy we must have going on…”

Dolls heavily took a seat in the chair beside Jeremy’s, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his lips. Jeremy’s chatter was interrupted by the sound of a loud gasp, and Dolls spun to see who was behind him.

There was no one. They were alone in the booth.

“Relax,” Jeremy said glumly. “That’s…” He screwed up his face in concentration as he listened intently. “…Nicole…. I think.”

A few moments later the gasp was followed by a deep sigh. “And that’s… Nicole, too. I think.”

Dolls felt his face flush as he pieced together the situation. “Can you turn the volume down, at least?”

Jeremy shook his head unhappily. “I so wish I could, but Robert Svane told me I have to monitor… and he made sure I left the volume set at 32… He’s worried about Waverly.”

There was a loud moan.

“She sounds fine to me,” Dolls said as lightly as possible, but he knew that this was clearly hell for Jeremy.

“I would think this is payback for being in her head earlier,” Jeremy said glumly. “Except I know they’re not torturing me on purpose. This is just pretty much all they do when they’re together.”

Dolls’s eyebrows shot up.

“I mean, it seems like that’s all they do. They do this a lot. I mean, not exactly this. Sometimes Waverly’s the one who—“

“No need to elaborate,” Dolls interrupted.

“Ah, yeah. Anyway, usually I don’t have to sit here… I kinda wish… I wasn’t … uh, sitting here.”

Dolls gestured with his head toward the door. “Let’s leave them to it, then.”

Jeremy was about to protest about orders from the boss, but then nodded and followed Dolls out of the room, only too glad to give Waverly some privacy… and himself a reprieve.

//

Nicole hit the hotel room wall with a thud as Waverly’s lips crashed into hers. Waverly kicked the door closed behind her, running insistent hands up Nicole’s waist to her chest, stopping to palm and squeeze her lovely breasts, drawing a gasp and a moan from Nicole’s beautiful mouth. Nicole’s head tipped back against the wall, exposing her throat, and Waverly went in for the bite, answering with sharp teeth and applying just enough pressure to elicit a cry from Nicole, hungry and needy, though not nearly as much pressure as Waverly really wanted to give. She wanted to tear her lover apart, fuck her silly and leave her devastated. Her own desire was running hot.

She licked the length of Nicole’s exposed throat and bit her again, this time higher. Nicole’s knees buckled, and her hands tangled in Waverly’s shirt, squeezing her breasts roughly as the smaller woman pressed into her. When Nicole’s eyes returned to Waverly’s they were dark and dangerous.

Yes, please.

Exactly what Waverly wanted. She wanted Nicole wild. She needed her… hard.

There was nothing more that Waverly wanted than to be possessed and bent and controlled and fucked by this woman, this beautiful, powerful woman. Her fingers squeezed tightly around Nicole’s breasts at the mere thought of it. But then this was a difficult day, one in which her worldview slid first this way and then another… And more than anything else, she truly wished to tether and be tethered. This moment, when they were wrapped viscerally and urgently around each other… It was a beautiful launching-off point. It was the start of a non-verbal conversation that so, so needed to happen.

It was funny. Now that Waverly had proof that Nicole was, in fact, a machine, all she wanted was to humor her in her worldview that she was human. As Waverly’s tongue sought out Nicole’s and found both comfort and desire there, she realized it was the human in Nicole that Waverly connected with. In this moment, it didn’t matter what she was or what Nicole was. The biology was irrelevant. What mattered was this connection they shared. So tender, so urgent. So complete.

Even though Nicole already knew Waverly was a robot (or Artificial, or whatever), Waverly had never, for one minute, felt like Nicole treated her differently because of it. In fact, quite the opposite. Every time Nicole – robot Nicole – had looked at her, Waverly could distinguish nothing about their connection that was anything remotely different from human.

Waverly traced her fingers along Nicole’s jawline, taking a moment to appreciate the beauty, strength and softness she found there. Nicole broke their kiss to lick Waverly’s fingers; then with a growl and eyes flashing, she lifted Waverly off her feet and swept her over onto the bed, laying her out in one gentle motion and then bending to remove Waverly’s shoes, while Waverly worked to be rid of her own pants. Their eyes never left each other’s.

Waverly kind of felt like a dork for awkwardly tossing her pants somewhere across the room, but then she didn’t really care. And it was clear Nicole was too transfixed by her half-naked lover to be keeping track of style points here, either. Nicole kicked off her own shoes and climbed up onto the bed to straddle Waverly, stopping to hover over her hips, gazing down in utter want and adoration.

But while Waverly certainly loved looking at Nicole, too, what she really wanted right now was to feel her. She sat up and grabbed a fistful of red hair, an adamant command for Nicole to come a little closer. Nicole’s cheeks colored in a way that said she wasn’t used to being coerced with a little hair-pulling… but that she definitely liked it. Waverly fell back onto the bed tugging her sexy robot lover down on top of her and capturing her mouth in a fiery kiss.

Their legs became tangled together as they both sought to pull the other impossibly closer. Their tongues made explicit promises—teasing and receiving, each in turn. Stroking, sucking and then being stroked and sucked. Nicole’s mouth hummed with a deep moan that Waverly hungrily lapped up. Their hips joined the delicious dance as well, and Waverly gathered up the heat generated as Nicole slowly rolled into her. She ran hands across Nicole’s back and hips, pulling her body closer. Nicole groaned, her voice dripping with need, and Waverly wrapped her leg around Nicole and squeezed, riding Nicole’s answering rhythm, until so much energy had drawn low in their bellies that it began to look for release.

Too many clothes.

Waverly wrestled her hands under Nicole’s shirt and fought to tear it off without breaking their urgent slow dance. Nicole raised her arms, and Waverly pulled away the unnecessary garment. Purring as her hands now had access to so much soft, smooth skin, she pinched the clasp of Nicole’s bra, popping the hooks apart like a pro, and Nicole shrugged out of that as well, only to then shove Waverly’s shirt up over her head in return, biting and sucking her way across Waverly’s skin, setting off jolts of electricity as she went.

… There was only one thing missing.

Waverly really, really wanted Nicole to fuck her. She brought her hands to Nicole’s face, drawing her eyes, which had gone lust-drunk, back to her own. “Baby,” Waverly said, and then fumbled for words, because words were hard right now. “Do you think you could… grab that thing we bought … that we didn’t get to try yet because I had to go fall down a hill and almost ruin everything…” Nicole rolled into her again, and she almost lost her use of language completely. “Please? Oh, God… you know?”

Nicole’s naughty look said she did know, that she liked to see and feel Waverly struggle… and that whatever her lover needed she was only too happy to oblige her. Nicole moved cat-like up off the bed, across the pile of discarded clothing… and over to Waverly’s daypack, where she retrieved a jar of coconut oil and the new toys. Waverly watched with patience, love and bemusement as Nicole adjusted the straps on their new black leather harness … and inserted their new dildo… which just happened to be a spectacular neon orange. “Easier to find in the dark,” Nicole had joked with a laugh when they’d spotted it at the store, as if the thing might roll off under the bed somewhere… or otherwise go missing. Its silly orangeness somehow suited them. Waverly immediately dubbed it, “The Ridiculous Wang.”

Nicole warmed the coconut oil in her hands and then applied it liberally to the length of the orange shaft. “Just warming this up for you,” she said with a whisper and a grin.

“Oh, I am definitely going to be warming that up for you,” Waverly smirked. Eyeing Nicole sporting an erect phallus, squeezing and rubbing the length of it, was definitely making her hot. In fact, it didn’t seem so ridiculous now. Waverly wanted this—all of this—so badly her body was aching for it.

And then Nicole was moving toward her, climbing up onto the bed as if in slo-mo. Every second ticked by an eternity with Waverly’s impatient inner pulsing matching time with her own heartbeat. She became aware that her sense of her whole body had become heightened. A shiver ran across her skin, raising hairs and making her nipples tingle, with the anticipation of what this would feel like – what Nicole—would feel like as their bodies joined. Nicole’s eyes were dark, but tender now. She gazed down at Waverly in a way that let Waverly know she was about to be taken care of… and that she was in very, very good hands.

“So… I suppose you’ve, ah, done this before?” The words (and the insecurities behind them) were out of Waverly’s mouth before she could stop them.

Nicole didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, don’t you worry, baby,” she drawled. “I know how to drive.”

Waverly smiled, grateful for Nicole’s calm and confidence… when all Waverly felt was exquisite fire and madness. “Show me,” she breathed, her eyes locked on Nicole’s, daring her.

Nicole’s smile dropped, her gentlewomanly air replaced by something more akin to animal determination. “Oh yeah?” she said, teasing the tip of the phallus against Waverly’s wet and aching opening.

“Please,” Waverly gasped, moving her hips forward, seeking deeper contact.

“I don’t know,” Nicole teased. “Are you ready for this?”

“Are you fucking kidding?” Waverly ground out, her eyes, her mouth, her hands imploring Nicole to fill her.

Nicole ran her finger along Waverly’s wetness, her eyes closing as she groaned, “Damn, yes, so ready…” She bit her lip. Waverly fought the urge to pull her hair again. Shit. What the hell. Waverly grabbed a fistful of Nicole’s hair, yanking hard, drawing Nicole’s lips down to hers in a searing kiss.

Nicole answered with a gentle thrust, delicately—but oh, so deliberately—slipping the head of the phallus inside. The change in sensations and stretching fullness caught Waverly by surprise, even though she was fully expecting it. Her head tilted back and she caught her breath, relaxing… relaxing to invite her lover in … deeper.

Her eyes locked on Nicole’s once more. It was clear that the woman knew exactly what she was doing, and that doing it was driving her wild.

“More, baby?” she breathed, taking Waverly’s hips in her hands and softly, surely pulling them across her lap toward her body, slowly, so slowly sinking the shaft inside, giving Waverly the power to control how much, how fast. Seeing Nicole was letting her lead, deferring to her comfort and pleasure, Waverly relaxed even further, her next breath a contented sigh, as Nicole pushed the rest of the way inside, burying herself to the ridiculous orange hilt.

Kaleidoscope. The burst of sensations manifested as colors behind Waverly’s closed eyelids. Skyrockets. A fountain of sparks and tingles, filling her head-to-toe, completely. Nicole was whole and wet and full and tugging inside her, and Waverly fucking thought she might just come on the spot, she wanted this so bad.

And then Nicole shifted, bending her body softly over Waverly’s, their breasts just brushing together and her breath so warm and soft at Waverly’s ear, and she was only too happy to wrap her arms around that strong back, those sturdy shoulders and to tilt her hips up to receive whatever Nicole had in mind to give her.

“Please,” Waverly whispered into her lover’s ear, grabbing Nicole’s earlobe between her lips and teeth and giving a gentle tug, her arms slipping lower and her legs higher, to wrap around Nicole’s hips, urging her to move, drawing her deeper. As much as she loved this slow dance, she also really wanted to be rent open and savaged.

Nicole answered by withdrawing slowly, almost to the tip, and Waverly’s body clenched against the emptiness, sad, so sad at the lack of contact, and so, so needy. Nicole brushed their cheeks together, whispering softly, delicately, “I want to fuck you so hard, it is so, so hard to restrain myself.” Waverly answered with a hard clench, which Nicole clearly understood, because with that, she slowly pushed back all the way inside again, and Waverly gasped, lifting her hips to offer her a satisfying landing. Nicole met the resistance point, flexing and straining to push even deeper, and Waverly writhed beneath her, stretching, accepting, accommodating with a dark, hot moan. Nicole clutched her hips and drew her hard once, twice, three times, threatening to fuck her silly… and then changed to long, smooth strokes that told Waverly she was safe and loved, strokes that rubbed high inside her, pressing deep and setting off a series of sparks and flutters in their wake. All the world became small, focused on just this, the rolling of Nicole’s hips, the delicious pounding into Waverly’s slick and needy core, their breaths hot and mingling, their lips brushing, their bodies twined, pulsing, gliding and riding.

Nicole was too good at this. Waverly didn’t want to come just yet, but it was hard, so hard with how good her baby was fucking her, with how deep she was being fucked, with how full her baby was making her feel. Every stroke, in and back, threw stars across her vision. Every stroke made her impossibly wetter, impossibly more open, more thrumming with electricity.

“God, Nicole, I want to come,” she managed to utter with some difficulty.

A stroke, two, three…

“Baby?” Nicole purred.

“Yes?”

… God, it was getting hard to resist the gathering tightness low in her belly.

“You want me to stop?” Nicole teased.

“Don’t … or I’ll kill you.”

Again, again, again, again… She was stroking in all the best possible ways. Waverly’s body sparked and tingled, threatening to fall apart… shudder and release. Waverly focused on relaxing, on letting the tension build back even higher. She looked up at Nicole and saw the golden glow from her own body reflected off of Nicole’s skin, burnishing her broad shoulders, her strong arms, her soft breasts. Nicole’s eyes lifted to meet Waverly’s. They were so soft, so intoxicated… so surprised and aroused by the glowing of Waverly’s skin that she shifted her body (without breaking rhythm, like a pro), so that she could look down upon the beautiful light show radiating out from Waverly’s body. Waverly marveled at it, too, the way the tiger stripes of light seemed to ripple across her arms and breasts, down to her thighs, pulsing in time with her heartbeat, with the throb-and-pull of unspent release coiling deep within her… right… where … Nicole… was … pressing… again… again… again… again…

Nicole clearly was feasting on the visual feedback, her hips instantly understanding how the pulses beneath Waverly’s skin corresponded to her steady stroking. Waverly felt Nicole test the depths of her, shoving deeper… and then shallower… faster, and then slower, watching Waverly’s response written large across her body.

“I am going to watch you come,” Nicole said, breathlessly, marveling.

I’m going to watch me come, too.

But then Waverly saw it: Nicole’s skin had taken on its own soft sheen… its own glow, fainter than Waverly’s… perhaps sympathetic to it. Nicole’s skin radiated its own tiger-stripes of energy, radiating out from her heart to pool low in her abdomen. Waverly wondered if her own body was doing the same (it was hard to see from this position). She imagined the light beneath their skin radiating out like ripples on a pool, each wave lapping at their skin as it moved, delivering the smallest, most delicious tingle between the legs, setting off sparks.

“I’m trying so hard,” Waverly breathed, trying to explain to Nicole how important it felt that she not come right now, that she prolong the beauty, the electricity, the delicious tug-and-release of this moment. If she could just ride this feeling a bit farther… to the distant shore. God, she just wanted to ride, to ride, to ride, to ride… She wanted that, but she knew how close, how agonizingly close she was to release. It would take next to nothing to push her over, to gently shove her off that sparkling cliff and let her fall.

“Why?” Nicole dropped close and whispered into her ear.

Fucking good question.

Waverly locked eyes with her robot lover, this beautiful creature who could only have been built for her. And suddenly, she wanted to see what the power of her own orgasm did to this beautiful creature. She wanted to ring Nicole’s bell… and then, she determined, she would roll Nicole over and fuck her hard… just as… soon as she…

“Come,” Nicole commanded in a whisper pressed against Waverly’s ear and drilled hard into her core.

Stroking, two, three, four…

“Make me.”

Nicole growled and dug herself deeper, intent on driving Waverly over the edge. Waverly had always been one to respect authority… so if Nicole was pushing her to do something, something her body was only too ready to do anyway… she was fuck-all going to do it.

Nicole’s hips buried deep in Waverly’s core, tight and hot inside her, and set off an explosion that radiated backward from Waverly’s center out to her extremities. Waverly answered the release with a roar, clutching Nicole’s phallus with the sheath of muscles encircling her inner walls, grabbing, milking, releasing… and then grabbing again.

The sparks before her eyes gradually dissipated, and she looked up to see her own orgasm writ large across Nicole’s body, shockwaves of light pulsing through her.

She cupped Nicole’s cheek, and held her tightly as her climax shook her, then slowly released into a light-show of sparkles and small spasms. Waverly felt each one in her clit and her core, as Nicole’s body wrung out the last of her orgasm inside Waverly.

Nicole collapsed heavily upon Waverly, her breath ragged and hitched in time with her own body’s clenching. With each clench, she experienced the beautiful fullness of Nicole’s cock buried deep, deep, deliciously deep inside her. She could so easily climb and come again… but in this moment, she wanted something different…

“Baby, I so want to fuck you,” Waverly breathed, wanting to give Nicole everything beautiful that Nicole had just given her. She wanted to experience everything that had just happened… from her lover’s perspective. She wanted to be the driver, and she wanted Nicole to writhe and submit beneath her, to receive whatever Waverly wanted to give her, like a good girl.

Clearly, they were on a wavelength, because Nicole chuckled against Waverly’s light-glowing chest: “God, baby, I so want you to fuck me until you make me cry. Think you can do that?”

Waverly captured Nicole’s lips in a tender kiss. “Baby, I will take good care of you.” She chuckled, “and I will absolutely make you come.” Waverly didn’t know until that moment, as she said those words, that they were true. But once out of her mouth, she knew she had the power to rip Nicole Haught to tender shreds. Yes, she could make her cry. Not because she was a sadist… but because she loved this woman with all her heart… and wanted to fuck her with every inch of her being… and make her feel it, and understand that it was so.

//

Somehow, Nicole Haught, who usually was the one in charge, found herself on all fours, bent down before her neon-orange-dicked lover Waverly, who was driving the bus for the first time maybe ever. And Nicole had willingly given her the keys.

Nicole dropped her forehead to the bed, inviting whatever Waverly managed to think up. The woman was behind her, squeezing warm coconut oil onto her ridiculous dick and readying to stick it to Nicole, who, frankly, really needed some sticking. Her insides tickled, begging. Nicole really wished she could be a fly on the wall watching Waverly fuck her. But there was no mirror in here. Maybe next time.

She felt the soft probing of Waverly’s orange cock teasing her entrance. Waverly drew the thing along the slick channel there, making Nicole wince with pleasure. Ok, Waverly’s a fast learner, she thought. Nicole was not used to being teased. She bridled against it.

“God, Waves, just shove it in. Please,” she choked out, sending her hips back into Waverly, demandingly.

She received a sharp spank. “Don’t make me hurt you,” Waverly growled, all kitten-like. Nicole told herself not to smile or laugh at this. Her ass was still in the air. She wondered what kitten-Waverly would do about that… Nicole was tingling, wanting to be fucked, waited patiently to see what the game would be.

Waverly’s fingers touched Nicole’s opening, eliciting a deep sigh and some muscle spasms from Nicole.

“Put your- your hand inside and you’ll feel how much I want you,” Nicole said, spreading her legs so that the soft opening she presented to Waverly was… open…

“Oh, God, Nicole. Stop doing these things. Just let me figure this all out at my own speed,” Waverly answered, her voice tight, like her desire was wrapped up in all this already… and she didn’t know what to do with it…

Nicole bowed her head to the bed once more in submission. “I’m yours,” she said without irony. But what she really wanted was Waverly’s fingers inside her. Stat. She took a deep breath and relaxed, opening herself to her lover.

“Wow, I’ve never been in this position very often,” Nicole offered, hoping it would put Waverly at ease. She relaxed everything… even her breathing … so that Waverly felt emboldened to touch her. God, please.

“I find that hard to believe,” Waverly replied.

“You find it hard to believe that I’ve never been fucked like this?” Nicole asked, probably knowing damn well what that would do to Waverly.

“…”

Nicole waited.

“…Yes. I find it hard to believe that someone as beautiful as you hasn’t given herself up to a hundred different lovers.”

“I could have…” Nicole replied. “Revenance is kind of sex-positive, if you know what I mean.”

Waverly pushed her cock against Nicole’s opening, another tantalizing tease. “Why didn’t you?”

Nicole shoved her body back against Waverly’s hard cock, gasping as the head of the toy dug into her entrance and buried itself there. “Uhhh,” she said, as all rational thought left her head.

But she knew Waverly wanted an answer, so she fought to keep her wits about her a moment more. “It just didn’t… feel right,” Nicole said. “No one … felt right.”

Waverly’s answering tone was playful. “How does this feel?”

Nicole growled. God, she wanted to be fucked right now. ““Definitely right,” she ground out with some effort. Waverly hovered behind her still, refraining from taking the full plunge, and it was driving Nicole crazy. “Know what else would feel right?” Nicole said, keeping her voice as breathy and light as possible. She squirmed.

The words sent a million sensations through Waverly all at once. All she wanted right now was to ride Nicole, ride her desires, ride her lust, ride her will…. All the way to orgasm… and beyond, if she were lucky. She wanted to fuck Nicole silly. She looked down between her legs and admired how her own cock, the Ridiculous Wang, was buried inside Nicole’s lovely pink opening, quivering just there, just barely introduced inside, to the place where Nicole could either swat Waverly away or accept her fully, drawing her deep inside.

“This,” Waverly said with complete conviction, and drove the cock home.

Nicole couldn’t help the cry of pleasure that escaped her lips as she felt herself filled completely. “God, yes!” She slid herself along the cock that was penetrating her, arching herself into the fuck, sighing as Waverly sunk herself deeper. She groaned heavily, accepting even more of the length inside her. Waverly answered by leaning in, burying herself deep … and Nicole suddenly understood the ecstasy of being buried to the hilt and slapped and fucked into domination.

Nicole liked being on top. No doubt. But Waverly inside her like this – wet, hungry, aching, and so, so impatient -- was enough to make her go put a dress on, let down her hair and let her girlfriend fuck her until the sun came up. Nicole drew a deep breath, raw with the unexpected knowledge that she wanted this woman to fucking pound her. And with the confidence (and patience) that Waverly was about to do just that.

Waverly didn’t leave her waiting.

 

//

 

“… I mean it’s not like Waverly wanted to know she’s an Artificial,” Jeremy was saying as he and Dolls sat at one of the makeshift tables in the middle of W3. The room was huge, and their voices carried away into the blackness without coming back. It was late, the place was eerily quiet and dead, except for the warm pool of light cast from a spotlight above, illuminating empty Chinese take-out containers and a couple of beers. The monitoring room door was closed, though they could still hear soft murmurs from the recording equipment inside.

“It’s gonna be ok. This isn’t punishment,” Dolls said. “She’s not under house arrest. Yes, she’s being watched closely. But you know your girl. This is all going to be back to normal in a couple of days.” Dolls wasn’t so certain, but he would do anything in his power to help make it so. He didn’t want to rollback Waverly. He didn’t want to rollback Nicole.

“Speaking of house arrest, how’s Wynonna?” Jeremy asked, delicately.

“She’s fine. She’s sleeping.”

Jeremy ran his hands over his face in distress. “This is messed up. She and Waverly are so close. What’s going to happen?”

“That’s up to Waverly,” Dolls said. “It all depends on what she does next.”

“What about Nicole?”

Dolls’ jaw was grim. “That all depends on Robert Svane.”

He turned to Jeremy and patted his arm. “They’re smart. They care about each other.” He wasn’t sure they’d be ok, but he knew Jeremy would be worrying about Wynonna and Waverly. “I do have one question, though.”

“What’s that?”

“You ever heard of the Gardner Corporation?”

Jeremy nodded. “Uh, yeah. Who hasn’t? They have their hands in a lot of stuff. Special Ops military contracts, pharmaceuticals, weapons, communications infrastructure. Don’t they also own Pussywillows?”

“The AI companion bots?” A fancy euphemism.

“Yeah. Their, uh, holdings are pretty diverse.”

“Well, I overheard on W2 a little earlier that Revenance is just inking a deal with them… and it sounds like Project Purgatory may be headed to Gardner Corporation.”

“Noooo!” Jeremy wailed in disbelief. He let that sink in a moment, slumped heavily over his last sip of beer. “For which division?”

“Unknown.”

Jeremy rubbed his jaw. “This is bad. Our bots are going to wish they could do a rollback.”

//

Chapter Text

“So, Nicole. I believe your words were ‘Svane’s a gaslighting sociopath.’ Does that about sum it up?”

Nicole’s jaw was set firmly and she kept a level gaze with the boss, who was definitely not happy with her right now. She’d gotten Waverly home eventually last night, and he’d texted her at 8 a.m. this morning requesting her presence. Morning sun was streaming in his office window, blinding her eyes with its glare.

And a dickhead.

“Waverly was pretty upset. It’s upsetting news,” Nicole explained. “I don’t know how well I’d have taken it if I were in her shoes.”

Svane pointed a finger at her. “Good thing you’re not in her shoes, right?”

I’m in her everything.

He leaned across the desk. “You understand why it has to be this way, right? You understand why she should never have known. The machines must never know.” His eyes were pained, searching, testing.

But he didn’t wait for an answer. He was on a tirade. “You fucked up. You told her. You broke her heart. She’s not really an Earp. That bond between the sisters? That is some fucking magic. And now, thanks to you, the balance is changed. Possibly forever. And what’s worse? Now I don’t even know if we can ever trust Waverly again. Sweet, wonderful Waverly. Perfect angel. She’s probably thinking some pretty dark thoughts right now.”

He let that sink in for a moment. “Despite your best efforts, of course.”

Dickhead.

Something in Nicole’s face must have told him his words had hit their mark, because he softened for a moment.

“We will get through this,” Svane said. “We will make lemons out of this fucking lemonade. This is some deep shit we need to wade through together. All of us.”

Shit and lemonade. Really?

“I care about Waverly,” Nicole said, finally rising to her own defense. She did the only thing she could do. She spoke from the heart. “I would never knowingly hurt her. God, you have to believe that. I don’t treat her like a machine. I don’t treat her like she’s not human. She’s- she’s Waverly.”

“She’s special,” Svane agreed. He sighed. “I know you didn’t mean to fuck things up. But I just gotta say it: Thanks a lot, Haught. Because you did fuck things up. And now I’m the one standing here having to make the hard decisions and having to think about how to deal with a fucking machine that just learned that she’s a fucking machine.”

He stood up from his desk and paced to the windows, eager to expend pent-up frustration. “I could roll her back. Do a full reset,” he said, part brainstorming and part threat. “But that would be a pretty drastic thing to do at such a critical time. We don’t have time to retrain and re-educate. We don’t have time to teach her how to be human again. We need her to keep her shit together, understand?”

Nicole nodded. She really did understand. But he spelled it out for her anyway.

Svane pointed at her, his face coloring. “If she does one thing wrong… if she starts asking too many questions. If she even so much as looks conspiratorially at a toaster or a TV remote… if she can’t be trusted, for any reason, I am putting her down. In a heartbeat, Nicole. I will put her down so fast… you won’t have a chance to kiss her goodbye. Because if she goes sideways on us, it is very, very bad. That kind of problem will drag this whole company and over 10 years’ worth of work all to hell.”

Her face felt hot and her left eye twitched from trying so hard to keep her face impassive. Svane could tell he was getting to her. She didn’t like being dressed down. He knew that, of course. She was good at her job.

Svane took a deep breath, changing conversational course. “Now, I’m keeping you on your current assignment—perhaps against my better judgment—because I truly think she cares about you. She cares about you, and I need her to be happy. I need her to be happy and to not go sideways on us. Nobody can know she’s a machine, nobody treats her like a machine. We contain this damage. Got it?”

Nicole nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Deployment instructions will be coming very soon. The deal is nearly complete. In the meantime, let’s just say over the course of the next two weeks… let’s see if you can go two full weeks without fucking up, and I won’t put her down. How’s that?”

It was Nicole’s turn to color. He was threatening to kill the woman she cared about. No, not woman…. machine. As in property. His property. He was bluffing, of course, but his words lit a new fire within her chest, and she stifled an impulse to fucking punch him.

“And, Nicole? If she does anything or you see anything that’s a reason for concern, you call me. Day or night.”

He didn’t say the words “or else,” but they hung in the air between them just the same. Waverly wasn’t the only person he was worried about going sideways.

Nicole didn’t dare tell him that what had really given Waverly away as a machine was not Nicole. Despite what she’d said on that hillside, Nicole knew she could have convinced Waverly she hadn’t, that she’d bonked her head and misheard when Nicole had said she needed to get Waverly to the “lab” instead of to the hospital. The human mind is all-too-happy to not comprehend things it’s simply not prepared to.

No, what had really sealed it for Waverly was the glowing.

If Nicole told Svane about that, he’d shut Waverly down for sure, take her apart and study her. And the worst part is he’d probably make Nicole watch.

Nicole needed help to figure out what the glowing meant. And she needed to figure out how to help Waverly control it.

//

 

What the hell?

Wynonna woke to a splitting headache. That was one thing that confused her because she’d been on steady dating terms with alcohol for years and as far as she knew it rarely bit her like this anymore. The fact that she couldn’t exactly remember the details of last night wasn’t super-unusual in and of itself. No, what confused her was the sensation of a warm body wrapped around her. In her own bed. And she had her clothes on.

“Good morning,” came a man’s voice from behind her.

Huh. Hello, sexy robot. Hot damn.

Now she was curious.

Dolls gave her a sleepy squeeze. He had his clothes on, too. Odd.

“Definitely not complaining,” she said. “But how exactly did we end up here… like this?”

Dolls chuckled. “Accidental over-sedation is I think what Robert Svane put in his report to HR.”

“What?” Wynonna demanded, sitting up and willing the room to stop spinning.

“It was Waverly. She had an accident yesterday, and he thought you’d be upset.”

“Waverly!” Something foggy was starting to come back to her, a little panic rising up inside. She grabbed her phone from the nightstand and checked her messages. There were two. One from 8:30 p.m. and the other from 11 p.m.

Waverly: Mountains were beautiful. Like a total dumbass, I fell off the trail, and Nicole had to save me. But I’m fine.

Waverly: I love you.

Wynonna quickly texted back: I love you, too… ends up you’re not the only one waking up beside a hot robot this morning.

Waverly texted back a gif of syrup sliding down a tall stack of pancakes. Damn her.

Wynonna: Devil.

She turned to Dolls. “What the hell happened?”

“Waverly’s fine. She and Nicole got in late last night, they’re both fine. Waverly took a fall off a hiking trail and it scared them both. I guess nobody had seen monitor readings like that before and everybody over-reacted. It all got sorted out, and the good news is everybody’s fine and back in one piece.”

“So, care to tell me why we’re here in my bed, fully clothed?” Wynonna asked, quirking up an eyebrow and shooting her bedmate a pointed look.

Dolls gave her a pointed smile in return. “I wanted you to be fully present for … the unveiling.”

Wynonna’s mouth fell open, caught uncharacteristically surprised by his candor.

 

//

 

Waverly smirked at Wynonna’s text exchange, feeling immense relief. She’d really needed to connect with her sister, and having Wynonna out of communication for so many hours on such a crazy day had had her worried.

She was sitting outside Robert Svane’s office on the top floor of the Revenance Building. She’d never been to the top floor before. And certainly never on a Sunday. The place was deserted, and the lighting was on “weekend mode.” It gave Waverly even more uneasiness than she might have otherwise felt. She knew he’d called Nicole in first, and she worried about what he said to her.

Svane was on a phone call right now, and he was making her wait. On purpose. She was sure of that. She whiled away the minutes.

When he at last appeared, “I want you to get checked out,” was the first thing Svane said to her. Probably to make sure his financial investment was protected.

“I feel okay. Honestly,” Waverly said. She shoved up her sleeve to show him her bruised elbow. “I tend to heal from bruises pretty quickly. Otherwise, nothing that a little Neosporin can’t fix.”

He contemplated her from across the desk. “How’s your head?” he said, finally.

There it was. They were going to have to talk about this. She looked at her hands, which were clasped tightly in her lap. She decided to start with the literal answer:

“I was unconscious, briefly. I was out of it at first. I suppose I could have a concussion or something…”

He didn’t reply. He let her continue. So she proceeded with a more expressive answer.

“I’m sad.”

That was it. She said the two simple words and felt the weight of them nearly crush her.

“I understand,” Robert said softly, his eyes glittering with compassion. “Anybody would be. You’ve been lied to.”

“Yes, that,” Waverly agreed, “But it’s more than that, of course.” She paused, worried to even say it. “I can get over the lying part. I- I understand why you wouldn’t want me to know. I can forgive all of that and adjust.” As soon as she said them, she knew the words were true. Having her look after Nicole, a robot who didn’t know she was a robot, that gave her everything she needed to know about the proper care and feeding of… well, robots.

“But Wynonna…” she started, and then couldn’t come up with the words.

“Yes,” Robert nodded, encouraging her to take her own time.

“Please don’t tell her I- I’m a robot,” Waverly said, her eyes stinging as she said it.

Robert looked at her in surprise. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he assured her.

“I- I couldn’t take it if she looked at me differently.” Waverly continued. “We’re sisters,” she said, more emphatically than she felt. She said it as if speaking the words aloud could make them more true. “She’s my sister. I love her. We need each other.” Unspoken was the plea to not take Wynonna away from her … or vice versa.

“I agree. You and Wynonna need each other,” Robert said. “That’s why I am not rolling you back.”

She breathed a sigh of relief, though she didn’t put it past him to change his mind.

“What about Nicole?” Waverly asked.

“What about Nicole?”

“You said she’s a robot. But she thinks she’s a human. Which is it?”

“You really want to ask me that question?” There was a little humor and a little menace in his tone. It wasn’t Revenance’s culture to ask questions. But Waverly had now passed over to the category of unique unicorn creature, and she was playing nice, so she wanted to know what Robert wanted with Nicole… and she wanted him to think she didn’t already know the answer about whether her lover was a robot.

“Nicole’s been with us for a long time—longer than you. You’re doing a good job with her.
What you two have is special, I can see that. And it makes you both happy. The world is too hard and complicated not to have something that brings us happiness. You deserve to be happy.”

He didn’t say the words you were made for each other, but that’s what Waverly felt. She felt the tears again. She didn’t trust him. There were plenty of situations in which he would take both Wynonna and Nicole away from her without a second thought.

He mistook her tears for heart-swelling, instead of abject fear. “You’re very, very special, Waverly,” he said. “Everyone around you sees it and feels it. You deserve good things in this life.”

Just don’t fuck it up.

“Now, I know it feels like a lot has changed since yesterday, but the important thing is that we continue to go about our lives like before. Think you can do that? You keep monitoring and training Nicole – spend time together, like you do. Wynonna is in charge of Dolls. You two are my Product Managers, and Jeremy is your support person. Everybody on Project Purgatory wears the bracelets. And they’re monitored at all times.”

“Got it. Thank you, Robert.”

“One last thing: Report to the medical offices on W2. I’m emailing the doctor down there that I want you to have a complete checkup. Be down there in 10.”

//

After the Robert Svane meeting, Waverly needed coffee... and fresh air. She hit Floor 1 in the elevators, which opened up onto the lobby. She walked as quickly as her stupid robot legs could carry her out into the sunshine. Almost as soon as she got outside, Nicole was there, holding two coffee cups. Wynonna must have taken her on a coffee run the other day, so she now knew the drill. Waverly smiled.

“Will this make it better?” Nicole asked, holding up one of the cups to her.

“A latte? Probably.” Waverly accepted it with a kiss. “You? Most definitely.”

They stood sipping coffee and grinning at each other for a moment.

“Robert Svane wants me to go for a physical down on W2,” Waverly said. “You wanna come?”

“You had me at physical,” Nicole grinned. “Lead away.”

Somewhere nearby there was certainly someone in a monitoring center rolling their eyes. Waverly was sure of it, and it amused her. She jingled her bracelet at Nicole, who jingled hers back.

 

//

 

W2 on a Sunday was quiet and rather dark. Waverly looked around, half expecting to see Dolls there, and then she remembered his whereabouts right now was with Wynonna. The place was like a ghost town. Robert Svane must have brought in the doctor for a special appointment just to see Waverly. She heaved a great sigh and knew she could do nothing more than just go with it.

She took Nicole’s hand in her own as they strolled through the empty fitness center area, looking for the doctor’s office. It took a couple of minutes, but they finally found a small lobby area with a door that said “Physicians.” Waverly gave a light rap.

“I was thinking,” Nicole said softly, still holding her hand. “After we’re done here, maybe you might like to do something special? It’s Sunday, and I’d like to spend the rest of the weekend getting to know each other better... If that sounds good to you, too?”

It did. It was more than good. It was fantastic. “Yes,” Waverly said, nearly squirming at the notion of what something special might mean to Nicole Haught, considering pretty much everything they’d done together so far seemed special.

Nicole kissed Waverly lightly as a door opened behind them. They both turned their attention to the doctor, an attractive woman with dark hair and dark eyes who regarded the two of them with surprise.

Waverly stuck out her hand. “I’m Waverly Earp,” she said. “Robert Svane asked me to come down to see you.”

“Yes, of course. Robert filled me in. Pleased to meet you,” the woman said, accepting Waverly’s hand in greeting. But her eyes were on Nicole. Waverly couldn’t help but notice.

“And this is Nicole,” Waverly said, thinking perhaps the doctor was surprised to see two people when she was expecting one. “She volunteered to come along for … moral support.”

“Nicole Haught,” the woman said.

“We’ve met before?” Nicole asked, booking bashful.

The doctor smiled at Nicole. “It was a long time ago.”

Both women’s cheeks were pink. Hell, Waverly’s cheeks were suddenly burning, too.

“You were a doctor at Los Alamos,” Nicole said with a curious head-cock, and it sounded less-than-certain, more of a guess.

“Yes,” the woman chuckled. “But there was a lot going on at the time. I’d be shocked if you remembered me.”

Waverly thought the way this gorgeous lady doctor was looking at Nicole she’d be pretty hard to forget.

“Why don’t you both come on back?” the doctor said, finally stepping back into her comfort zone. “Nicole? Why don’t you take a seat here?” She gestured to a small seating area just inside the main clinic doors. But as she said it she looked like she was sad to leave her there.

Nicole took a seat and reached for a cycling magazine that was resting on the coffee table. The doctor seemed to take special notice and smiled at that, too. Nicole held up her coffee cup. Her eyes were only on Waverly. “Got plenty to keep me busy. Holler if you need me.”

Waverly smiled. God, she was cute. No wonder the lady doctor noticed Nicole. She followed the woman back to an examination room, kind of sad to leave Nicole there, too.

“Sorry, doctor…uh…”

“Pressman. Shae Pressman,” the doctor said.

“Sorry, Dr. Pressman. It’s just that I’m sorry you had to come in on a Sunday… just to see me.”

“You’re Project Purgatory,” she said with a warm smile. “That’s why I’m here. I’m the team doctor.” She jingled her Team Purgatory bracelet. “And I understand you need some doctoring.”

Waverly fidgeted. She hated being poked and prodded. “I feel fine,” she finally said. “Really.”

“You look fine,” Shae agreed, giving Waverly a bit of a visual once-over that seemed both professional … and something else. She couldn’t help but notice the eyes that appraised her were pretty. Damn her.

“Take a seat on the table,” she instructed, and Waverly hopped up. A blood pressure cuff was immediately wrapped around her bicep.

“Normal.”

A cold stethoscope to the sternum. “Breathe in.”

Waverly breathed.

“Good. Do you work out?”

“Yoga mostly. I do some weights and some running, too.”

“Your cardio is good.” She bit her lip as if to stop from saying something more. Waverly tried not to pay too close attention. She kept a friendly smile on her face. Because that was normal for her, of course. And she kept her eyes focused on the room and not on the doctor or the examination or whatever notes the doctor was jotting in her tablet.

“Can you please put this on?” The doctor handed her a green medical gown. “I’ll be back in a minute.” The door swung closed behind her.

Waverly awkwardly removed her clothes and folded them neatly, leaving them on the office chair. The tile floor felt cold beneath her feet. She took a seat on the vinyl exam table with its crinkly paper covering and felt naked and small.

Presently, the doctor came back and felt along her arms and legs, making note of the scrapes and bruises on her knees and asking if anything hurt.

“Sore,” she shrugged.

“But you can walk on it ok?”

“I hiked out last night, and that was fine,” Waverly said. “This morning my, uh, legs were a little sore … and weak …”

But that may have also had something to do with Nicole.

She tried not to blush. The doctor made notes. “Lie back?” she said, lightly.

After some fidgeting on the vinyl table with its crinkly paper, Waverly lay down, feeling suddenly even more vulnerable.

The doctor stood above her, regarding her face a moment and then moving to poke and prod her belly like doctors do. She really hoped this exam wasn’t going to entail any lube.

Thankfully, it didn’t. Shae asked her to sit back up and Waverly expelled a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

The doctor checked her skin next taking inventory of her many abrasions, making notes. And checked her skull, ears and pupil reactions. The doctor’s Project Purgatory bracelet jingled in her ear as her hands moved with practiced calm and efficiency. “Headaches?” she asked?

“No,” Waverly replied. “But… I do tend to get queasy sometimes. Not, not from the accident. I feel queasy pretty regularly. It tends to pass quickly, though.”

Shae gave her a knowing look. “That’s to be expected,” she said.

“Why is that?” Waverly asked tentatively. She was curious what the doctor would say.

“Well, because you’re Project Purgatory, you’re going to be under a lot of stress … and that’s just your body’s gentle way of telling you to be careful with some of the choices you’re making.”

Waverly placed her fingers on a point just below her ribs. “It- it feels like it comes from here,” she said, cautiously. Shae regarded her a moment.

“Lie back once more.”

Waverly lay down again and accepted the firmer pressure the doctor applied to her belly this time as she probed the area with her nice hands. She frowned and made a couple of notes. “It’s all tied into your central nervous system. Nothing of concern. When these episodes hit you, I’d like you to jot them down… forward your notes to me weekly, ok?”

Waverly sat up again, nodding with a little trepidation.

Shae noticed her reticence. “It’s all right, Waverly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. You’re in perfect condition.”

Like a car.

“When you feel queasy, I’d also like you to make yourself some peppermint tea.” The doctor paused, giving her a funny smile. “And find some ways to relax.”

Sensible advice.

The doctor left again, and Waverly quickly changed back into her street clothes, glad to have this business behind her and the rest of the day with Nicole ahead of her. On the way out into the seating area she found Shae stopping to say something to Nicole.

“I’d like to examine you for a moment, if I may?” the woman said lightly. Nicole lay her magazine down, looking surprised, but nodded. She turned to Waverly with a bright smile and her beautiful, calm voice. “I’ll be right back. Wait for me?”

“Of course,” Waverly said, and felt the meaning of the words as if she’d wait an eternity for Nicole if she had to. She focused on settling her heartbeat -- and her intense curiosity. Waverly was the one who’d fallen. So why did the doctor want to examine Nicole? The ten minutes Nicole was in the examination room felt like an eternity. What was the gorgeous lady doctor up to?

Waverly refrained from grilling Nicole about it until they were out of the building and halfway to the parking lot.

“How do you know her?”

Nicole shrugged. “She said we worked together at Los Alamos.”

“You really don’t remember her? She’s awfully pretty.”

Nicole’s look said that the woman was nothing special to her. “It was a big team down there. Lots of doctors, lots of lab coats. It must have been a long time ago.”

“What did she want to examine you about?”

“I don’t know. Nothing much. Mostly she had me sit on the table so she could check my heart and blood pressure. She took some notes.”

“Are- are you ok?” Waverly made a note to have Jeremy retrieve Nicole’s medical file first thing tomorrow.

Nicole smiled. “She said I was fine. Said it sounded like I’d been working out... like back in the old days,” she said with a chuckle, and Waverly bit back a snarky comment.

Really… What did those Los Alamos people do with Robot Nicole when she was down there?

Nicole pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. “She also gave me a list of herbs to brew into a tea… for nervous system support.”

Waverly accepted the note from Nicole, unfolding it to reveal the pretty doctor’s pretty handwriting.

“Lavender, Passion Flower, Schizandra…” Nicole recited. But those words were not on the paper. All that was written there was a name…John Henry Holliday… the address of an herbarium downtown… and the words: He can help with what’s ailing you.

The sparkle in Nicole’s eyes said she knew that Dr. Shae Pressman had palmed her a secret note, and that it wasn’t for Nicole. It was for Waverly.

It took 10 minutes to get to the herbarium downtown. It was a cute little storefront beside a small, independent bookstore.

By herbarium does she mean weed? Waverly wondered. Was the lady doctor turning her on to her cannabis connection? But the inside of the shop revealed nothing more than a high-end tea store. Nicole had jotted notes in the car on the way over. She now walked up to the counter and handed the slip of paper to the woman working there. The woman was dark-haired and really pretty, too. What was it with beautiful women today? Beautiful women who smiled pretty smiles at Nicole.

The woman introduced herself as Rosita and accepted Nicole’s note and read it carefully. Her gaze popped back up to Nicole and then to Waverly. There was a look of recognition there. Her eyes dropped to their bracelets, as if that somehow clinched something for her.

“Lavender, Passion Flower, Schizandra,” Rosita read aloud. “A great combination for soothing and relaxing. I take it Dr. Pressman would like us to blend this up for you?” She looked up at Nicole, who suddenly seemed to have an authoritative bearing. For a moment, it reminded Waverly of how her cop daddy—now long (and horribly) departed—would sometimes stand when he was talking to folks in town. She shook the thought from her head, part of her still traumatized by the accident that took his life… and part of her traumatized by the doubt that it was even real.

“That sounds great,” Nicole was saying. “And would it be possible for you to brew us a pot of that tea right now, so we can enjoy some while we’re here?” She pulled out her wallet and paid for the herbs… and the pot of tea.

“I’ll have Henry come find you once I have it all together,” the woman said. “He’s the best person to tell you what the herbs are and how to use them. Do you have a French press at home?”

Nicole looked to Waverly, who nodded.

“Great. I’ll write out some directions for you.”

While they waited for their tea, Waverly took the opportunity to peruse the shop in more detail. She did love tea, but she’d never known this shop was nearby, so it was a bit like discovering a candy store – except better for you—and it smelled wonderful in here. She breathed the aroma of green teas, black teas and florals, a veritable garden of scents and colors. Among the herbal blends, she spotted one that particularly spoke to her. “Soothing Sunshine.” She didn’t know why that one made her think of Wynonna. In fact, the woman was not into tea or yoga or herbal medicine or anything remotely like it. She scanned the shelves for anything that might contain the words “Whiskey” or “Hops” or “Home Brew” or even “Old Fashioned.” Come on, absolutely no booze or alcohol references?

She purchased the “Soothing Sunshine” tea and promptly took a photo of it and texted it to Wynonna, who was probably still preoccupied.

Waverly: I got you something!

Wynonna: What did you do with my Waverly?

Waverly: It’s called “Soothing Sunshine” tea, and it’s good for you!

Wynonna: No.

Wynonna: You bring that shit home, and I’ll use it for target practice.

She texted back a photo of her and Dolls on the shooting range, holding up a paper target with a hail of bullet holes ripped through the middle. Ok, so they were having a more exciting day so far…

But that was all about to change.

John Henry Holliday appeared with their brewed tea, introduced himself as “Henry,” welcomed them to “Herbarium” with a bit of old-timey southern flourish, and took a seat with them on the comfy couches. His pale blue eyes sparkled and his moustache looked like it would tickle.

“The good Dr. Pressman sent you,” he said.

Nicole nodded. “Yes. We work at Revenance Corporation, and she sent us over here for some herbs to help Waverly relax. Doctor thought herbs might help with her nerves and her queasiness.”

“Queasiness?” Henry Holliday repeated. His sharp eye caught Waverly’s and pinned her to the spot. “Where do you feel this upset?” he asked with almost doctorly curiosity. “Here?”

He pointed to the exact place on his own belly that Waverly had pointed out to Dr. Pressman. How did he know that? She looked to his wrist, which did not bear a bracelet. He looked at hers –and then Nicole’s—noting that theirs did.

She caught his eye and nodded slowly, meaningfully. “No, it hurts here,” she said, pointing to the exact same spot. John Henry Holiday nodded thoughtfully, regarding her with equal parts curiosity and caution.

“I see,” he said. “That is an entirely different region altogether. And one, I might add, that the herbs Dr. Pressman prescribed would be most excellent for… with one exception.”

Waverly’s eyebrows shot up, her expression inviting him to let her in on his wisdom.

“Yes, this blend, as it’s written, would certainly help calm you. But I have taken the liberty to add one more herb—Kava—to this blend. It’s a powerful herb. Too powerful for everyday use (you see, it takes a toll on the liver), but it is highly effective nevertheless. I wonder if you might take a sip of this brewed tea and let me know how it makes you feel?”

Waverly was now suddenly worried about this mysterious liver-damaging Kava… but she was more interested in doing whatever he wanted, just so long as he gave them some helpful intelligence.

The tea was delicious. The smell of peppermint was most prominent… but there was also the golden scent of chamomile… and the sweet scent of lavender, which was, well, lavender. She had no idea what Kava tasted like, but she discovered what it felt like, because her lips and tongue instantly went numb, and she was suffused with a pleasant calm. Not rummy, not debilitating. In fact, perfectly clear-headed… just… calm.

Wow. She really, really wanted to see what kind of play presented itself if she and Nicole drank some of this together some time. Nicole’s big brown eyes relaxed and she melted into the couch, a happy smile on her face.

“To be honest,” she told John Henry, her eyes still locked on Nicole’s, it kind of makes me want to be, uh, naked.”

The dark-haired woman at the counter rolled her eyes and headed for the basement, but Waverly was relaxed and didn’t care. John Henry quirked a smile and said, obliquely, “Well, Miss Waverly Earp, I do believe you sound a little bit like your sister, although I recall she used much more direct—and colorful—language.”

She was not too relaxed to miss that line.

“Wynonna?” she asked. “You know my sister?”

“Why, yes,” Henry said. “She used to come in here all the time.” The mirth on his face told her he was enjoying blowing her mind.

“’Used to’… Why doesn’t she come here anymore?” Waverly asked, warily.

“Well, of course, times change, people change,” he said with a harmless shrug. But it was clear he knew more than he was saying, and he wasn’t about to say more. Perhaps he was a gentleman.

She leaned forward, growing frustrated with the game of not-letting-the-monitors-hear-words-that-would-make-Svane-suspicious. But she added her own veiled words to the conversational pile. “Why do I have a feeling you might have other herbs that might help us?”

He quirked an eyebrow at Nicole. “Why Miss Haught here, I believe, could use a little something for her heart…”

Waverly’s eyes grew wide with panic. Why were people suddenly worried today about the most important organ in Nicole’s body? What did everyone know about Nicole’s heart that she didn’t?

He clearly caught her distress, because he added. “I believe you could use some for yourself, as well. Follow me, and I’ll show you some herbs that are just the thing.”

He gestured to a door, off to the side, that led to narrow and steep basement steps. The room below was dark, and the space cramped, but Waverly didn’t hesitate to follow him.

He turned to Waverly. “Hold your hand like this,” he instructed, raising his hand and holding one of the exposed floor joists above. The ceiling was oppressively low. Even though Waverly was not tall, she could totally reach.

“You, too, Nicole,” Henry said, and Nicole complied.

“Now, just let me look around a bit,” he said. But he didn’t move, and he didn’t appear to be looking around. He stayed there beside them. He pulled out a watch and let a full minute tick by. Then he grabbed Waverly’s wrist—the one she held above, the one with the bracelet. The woman Rosita handed him a jar of vegetable oil and he lubricated his fingers (and Waverly’s wrist) and then slowly eased the bracelet up over her knuckles. Rosita was there in an instant, holding one of the floor joists beside her. John Henry slipped the bracelet off of Waverly’s wrist and pulled it back down over Rosita’s. He repeated the process with Nicole.

He grabbed their hands. “Now, I think this may take me a few minutes. We just got in a shipment of herbs from China, and Rosita and I have not yet cataloged them all and it’s making it hard to find anything today. Why don’t you two head back upstairs and enjoy your tea. We have some nice travel magazines up there as well. I’ll join you in a few minutes.” He nodded dramatically, encouraging them to play along.

“Sounds good, Henry,” Nicole said, she turned to Waverly, saying softly. “Do you mind if I just chill out? That Kava is really putting me to sleep.”

“Or course, baby,” Waverly agreed. “I’m a little sleepy, too. Thanks, Henry. We’ll just meet you back up there.”

With that, Rosita climbed the stairs, presumably to enjoy the tea and perhaps snooze on the couch, Nicole’s bracelet on one wrist and Waverly’s on the other.

When the door to the basement stairs closed, Waverly spun to face John Henry. “What the hell!” she whispered.

“I know who you are,” he said, looking from Nicole to Waverly. “And Dr. Pressman sent you here, Waverly, which means that you know who you are, too.”

“Yes,” she said, cautiously, with some uncertainty. Did that mean he knew she’s a robot? “But who are you?”

“I am John Henry Holliday,” he said, archly. “I am your creator.”

Waverly was so frickin thankful the bracelet was not on her wrist right now because she almost passed out at that. Nicole’s gentle hands managed to steady her. She leaned into Nicole for strength while she tried to process what John Henry had just unloaded on her.

“You- you work for Revenance?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No, I surely do not… anymore. That was years ago. Robert Svane and I were business partners. But our deal slowly went south, and I eventually left under less-than-ideal circumstances.”

“Why?”

He looked at her with all seriousness. “Robert and I saw eye-to-eye on a great many things. But not everything. The real deal-breaker was I didn’t agree with what he was doing… with you,” he said, with some difficulty, as if he were carefully picking his words.

“What was he doing with me?” she demanded.

“He and I had different opinions about what you are… and what you deserve.”

“What am I?”

“Why, for all intents and purposes, you are human.”

Nicole and Waverly exchanged glances. Waverly pressed. “But… I can do things. I had an accident yesterday… and suddenly I can do things I couldn’t do before…definitely not human things…”

“Oh, you’re enhanced, no question about that. You could probably sharpen a pencil,” he said.

Waverly’s eyebrows shot up and her jaw dropped.

“Please pardon my colorful phrasings. It’s just that what Svane has done makes me very angry.”

“We don’t have much time,” he continued. “We need to get those bracelets back on you, so your monitoring is not noticeably disrupted. But in the meantime, please ask me whatever you want to know… and at the same time please understand that I am here for you. You can buy wholesome and delicious tea here anytime. Waverly, I know you are into alternative medicinal practices, and no one at Revenance would ever bat an eye at you coming here.”

Waverly nodded, understanding. “I have so many questions,” she whimpered. “But- but the one that’s the biggest is this: The kill switch. How do we disable it?”

Holliday drew nearer to her, gazing first from Nicole to Waverly. “You feel the kill switch here,” he said, pointing to Waverly’s belly, to the source of her queasiness. “That’s Revenance shooting you little warnings across the bow. They’re sending you subtle messages when you stray from what it is they want you to do.”

He pointed next to the muscular part of her chest, just between her breast and left underarm. “You feel it down there, but its source is up here. The egregiously misnamed reward center. It’s hard to get to its pink, fleshy bulb without doing obvious damage… But that’s where the special organ lies… the primary one Robert uses to control you.”

Waverly looked at him gratefully, thankful for the new knowledge. “So I don’t really have tummy problems. Just behavior problems.”

“It’s only natural, as you were designed to do your own thing.”

Henry went to a nearby shelf and pulled out a couple of mylar bags of bulk herbs. “Robert Svane and I have no love lost between us. You might say I was hornswoggled. So I relish the opportunity to return the unkind favor, and I have been patiently waiting for this moment.”

Henry gazed back at her, clear-eyed. “There are so many questions you want to ask,” he said. “I know… And yet you started with exactly the one I would have started with myself. You have to know how to turn off Robert’s ultimate control. Once you’ve done that, then you’re in control, and there’s time to figure out your personal hows and wherefores.”

Waverly gave him a desperate hug, which he returned with warmth.

“I know you cannot stay long today… but you come back soon, and I will do my best to help you.”

“Thank you, Henry,” she breathed into his chest, and then turned to bolt up the stairs to the basement door. Henry grabbed her arm, stopping her. “This tea,” he said. “It’s calming, of course, and it also reduces one’s blood pressure.” He paused, letting that knowledge sink in. “When you reduce the blood pressure … and apply ample cooking oil … aided by the power of gravity… you can get out of those aggravating bracelets.” He looked at both Waverly and Nicole, meaningfully. “You get back into them with the same care you got out of them.”

Waverly nodded. She’d already come up with a scheme to confound and confuse the monitors.

She locked lips with Nicole. “Come on, lover. I need you to help me get back into my restraints.”

Nicole’s answering kiss was searing.

Yeah, we got this.

//

Nicole’s surprise ended up being … that she was a very fine cook. After leaving the definitely-enlightening Herbarium, they’d swung by a local market and she’d picked out a nice salmon filet and vegetables and a bottle of wine, with a casual, “I so need to go for a bike ride tomorrow… got to work some of this off…”

“I’ll help you work some of that off,” Waverly said with a sly (and shy) smile, and then added: “And… maybe you could get me on a bike, too?”

Nicole’s whole face changed. It lit up as if Waverly had just told her they were going to adopt a kitten. Waverly felt herself grinning happily, too. She had no idea where she’d find a bicycle… but she definitely wanted to join Nicole for some open road. She wanted to see what it felt like to experience something Nicole was so passionate about… she also welcomed getting Nicole outside of Revenance Tower… and her own apartment… places she assumed were completely covered in hidden cameras or audio devices, or whatever. Robert Svane’s eyes and ears could be many places, but they couldn’t be everywhere.

“Yes!” Nicole enthused. “What time is it?” She checked the time on her cell phone. “We still have time to go by the bike shop before it closes.”

What she’d meant by that was that she intended to help Waverly buy a road bike. The shop just happened to have a handful of used bikes for sale, and Nicole spotted a vintage road bike that was just Waverly’s size – and not too expensive. She’d had the technicians check it over with her to make sure all the parts were in good working order, and Nicole helped her pick out a helmet and headlamp.

//

 

The bike felt solid enough, though Waverly was more than a bit rusty. She hadn’t been on a bike since she was a kid… and though it’s true, perhaps, that you never forget how to ride a bike, getting on one again after so long was a bit disorienting, too. She rode her new pony first around the parking lot, getting the feel of it until finally the parking lot felt too small and cramped, and it was time to explore. She pulled up to the front of her apartment building and waited for Nicole to join her. The twilight was beginning to gather and the air was cold, but they still had plenty of time. Nicole appeared at the front door with her bike over her shoulder. Her grin was sunny and infectious.

“This is your town,” she said once she’d mounted up. “Why don’t you lead away?”

Waverly almost choked at that, not being a biker and having no idea where to go. But then, she realized this was totally within her grasp to figure out. With a quick grin that she hoped was more confident than she felt, Waverly set off across the parking lot and out into the real world, with Nicole riding close behind her.

“How’s the view back there?” she called out, somewhat self-consciously, certain she looked wobbly and dumb.

“Pretty fine to me,” Nicole replied with a bit of warm teasing in her voice that made Waverly smile and blush.

She led them out of the downtown area and out toward where the cars and buildings were fewer and farther in-between and the roads smoothed out and the vistas began to open up. It only took a mile or so before Waverly felt like she’d gotten the hang of it again and she found herself relaxing into the ride and curious where this little journey would take them.

At the edge of town, she stopped at the tracks of a train yard, unsure whether to go any farther. The open prairie stretched out beyond them on the other side. Glancing over her shoulder, Waverly couldn’t help but notice the look of pure joy on Nicole’s face as she pulled up beside her. Clearly, this must have been Nicole’s sanity outlet while at Los Alamos -- her happy place -- and Waverly felt honored to get to see this part of Nicole. It felt like sharing something special.

A train was approaching in the distance. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, catching their breath and just watching. Waverly could feel the heat rising from Nicole’s skin. She chose to ignore the impulse to reach out and touch Nicole, relishing instead the soft energy that seemed to buzz between them.

“Such a beautiful machine,” Nicole said, gazing admiringly at the train as it drew closer and the thunder of it rose up to rattle their chests.

Machines could be beautiful, couldn’t they? Waverly smiled. A flush of warmth swept through her at the love and acceptance she felt.

Nicole: “You’re glowing.”

Waverly looked down at her hands in dismay, seeing the faint shimmer there, just beneath the surface. “Huh. I don’t know what’s happening or what’s causing it. Or how to stop it,” Waverly stammered self-consciously.

“For one, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s beautiful,” Nicole said.

Waverly laced their fingers together, reveling in the steadiness of Nicole’s hand and trying not to give in to fear about what her body was doing.

Nicole leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips, and she didn’t know if the pounding of her chest was from the kiss or the train, but she liked it very much. The train drew upon them, all screeching wheels against the rails and ground-shaking iron clattering. Under the screening of noise, Nicole took the opportunity to be more direct, leaning close to Waverly’s ear.

“I think the first thing we do is try to characterize when this happens,” Nicole breathed. “If we understand that, then maybe we’ll understand what causes it… what it means… and then we can try to control it. If that’s what you want to do.”

Waverly tilted her mouth up to Nicole’s ear, in turn. “It is what I want to do. I need to control this. I can’t walk around Revenance just… glowing! Robert Svane will have my ass down to the robot body shop so fast,” Waverly said. “Or… or he’ll freak and think I suddenly have superpowers… that I’m somehow suddenly dangerous.”

“How do you feel when this happens? Do you feel dangerous?”

I feel turned on.

“There’s – there’s definitely an emotional component to it,” Waverly said with some certainty. “And I feel alive, like I could bike a hundred miles, climb a mountain … bench press a horse… or…”

She shyly reached a hand up to Nicole’s cheek, drawing her lips again into a tender kiss. No words were required to finish this sentence. As their lips finally parted, Waverly noticed that Nicole had the faintest glimmering under her skin as well. Her eyes were soft and expectant. And a pulsing shimmer of electricity seemed to encompass all around them.

“It’s definitely something about you and me,” Waverly said, shyly. “Something about how I feel when I’m with you.”

Nicole pulled her into a warm embrace. “I feel it, too,” she said softly, resting her chin on the top of Waverly’s head.

I know you can.

But while this was a romantic moment, Waverly also wanted to make clear that this phenomenon wasn’t just about lust, or love… or whatever. As the train continued its slow rumble and screech to a stop, Waverly whispered into Nicole’s ear once more.

“It- it also happens when I’m angry.”

She pulled back to look into Nicole’s eyes, seeking understanding. She found it there.

“Any strong emotion. Suddenly I feel like the Incredible Hulk or something.”

Nicole’s eyes held excitement and a bit of fear as well.

“You know I would never hurt you, Nicole.”

“I know.”

“But I could.”

“I know.”

Nicole really did know. She hadn’t been actively thinking about it. But it had crossed her mind since Waverly’s accident. And she knew a few things about the kind of materials Revenance had used to create Waverly. She knew the woman’s bones were stronger than bone, that her respiratory and circulatory systems were on a magnitude of 10 x more efficient than a human’s. They’d made her capable of amazing feats of strength and will… but then shielded that self-knowledge from her, making her think she was merely human, as a means to control its use. Svane didn’t want his potentially killer machine to know the type of hell she could wreak. And Svane played his cards so close to the vest that Nicole didn’t know the type of hell Waverly was capable of, either. She gazed back at Waverly’s eyes, reading so plainly the pain written there, and felt her own heart hurt. Being Waverly was both a blessing and a curse.

Waverly shook off her pain, tossing a joke lightly into the wind. “Well, at least I won’t need to go get a flu shot this year.”

Nicole wrapped her arms tight. “And if I manage to undercook the salmon tonight you probably won’t get a foodborne illness,” she joked right back.

That earned her a chuckle from Waverly. “That is definitely not part of my plan for this evening.”

“Ok, so we’re on the same page about that, then,” Nicole laughed. “But I am sorta curious to know… what else is in this plan of yours?”

You on your back.

“Let’s see how the salmon goes, and I’ll, uh, show you…”

That earned raised eyebrows and a sly grin from Nicole. “Race you home?”

Grinning, they scrambled onto their bikes, fastened their helmets on again and tore back up the hill and toward downtown. Dusk was settling around them, cold and clear, the sky a brilliant purple and the street lights just starting to blink on.

Nicole was faster, of course, cycling being her thing, after all. But Waverly had her robot advantage working for her, so she pedaled hard, ignoring the pain in her legs, which she told herself was just programming to make her feel bad… and so not real. She focused instead on the cute butt ahead of her and the joyous sensations of the wind against her skin, whistling in her ears. Traffic was light, being Sunday night and all. They had the streets to themselves.

They were about halfway back to the apartment. A stoplight ahead. Nicole signaled and then ducked her bike down a side-street, eager to keep the momentum going and loathe to stop. She glanced behind her to see Waverly still hanging tight. She knew she could do it. Nicole smiled and rounded another corner, keeping her eye out for traffic, then gunning it on the straightaway. It felt so damn good to push like this. There was a slight tailwind behind them. Pure bliss on wheels. She grinned and tucked low. It would only take a few minutes to get back to the apartment. She wanted to feel her legs turned to rubber by the time they got there.

Another intersection. She signaled and made the turn, glancing over her shoulder once more to make sure Waverly was with her. She was.

She turned attention back to the road ahead and heard a shout from Waverly. She looked up just in time to see a car pull out in front of her. She hadn’t seen its signal, and was suddenly caught up in a battle with forward momentum to stop herself before she barreled into them. She clamped the brakes hard, fighting for balance, and gritted her teeth. It was going to be close.

The car hesitated, clearly having no idea what was happening behind them. Not good. The bike’s brakes locked up and she was in a slide. Just as she was about to run straight into the back fender of the car, the driver hit the gas and the vehicle pulled away, leaving enough room for Nicole to safely reach a stop. Nicole’s heart pounded and her limbs and lips tingled with adrenaline.

Close call.

Waverly’s brakes squeaked as she drew up alongside her.

“They didn’t see you,” Waverly breathed out in frustration… and also relief that the worst hadn’t happened there, that Nicole hadn’t run into them and broken an arm or knocked out her teeth or something. Nicole was clearly shaken, her face golden and glowing, her eyes big and spooked. She just stood like that for long moments, catching her breath and looking out of her wits.

Waverly gently rubbed her back. “It’s ok, Nicole. Thank god you’re okay.”

Thank god for robot reflexes.

And for luck.

Waverly found herself short of breath and her legs somewhat rubbery, whether from the near accident or the all-out sprint, she didn’t know.

Nicole smiled grimly. “I- I’m usually on better alert than that.” She took a deep breath, steadying herself. She looked upset. Waverly leaned into her, wrapping her arms around her. She noticed her own hands were glowing golden just now, too. The two of them were gently pulsing together, like beacons out into the darkness. They stood like that for a minute or so, gently rocking, letting their heartbeats settle.

If anyone had passed by right now, they would have seen two bicyclists embracing in the gathering dark. They would have seen glowing skin and passed it off as a trick of the headlamps. Just more artificial light coming from the street. Their brains would not have registered it as anything out of the ordinary. But Waverly understood completely how truly extraordinary this was.

That night, when the salmon was done (to perfection), the meal over, the dishes tidied and wine consumed, Waverly took Nicole to bed, leading her gently into the darkened bedroom and laying her across the bed. Her eyes never left Nicole’s. She climbed on top of her and kissed her lightly, appreciatively, lovingly, letting Nicole know she was fine. She was safe and whole. She was everything.

And as they made love, tenderly reaching inside, the light from their bodies came again, illuminating the darkness, chasing away the scaries, enveloping them in its warm energy, buzzing and humming, and Waverly felt it in her heart, too.

Safe and whole.

She felt everything.

 

//

Monday morning Waverly was at her desk catching up on email. Jeremy was in his usual place, hidden behind his giant monitor. He’d left her coffee in the Terminator mug again. (Today, that struck her as funny in a new way). And there was Wynonna, strolling in at 9:05, a half-hour late for work… as usual. She shot Waverly a happy and mischievous smile and swung into her chair, slouching, and entered her network password, mouthing the word “va-gi-na” as she typed it.

“Bingo,” Wynonna said, pleased with herself. “I always get in on the first try,” she said with a naughty wink.

Waverly just smiled. The world seemed right this morning, despite the mind-fucking, world-changing news she’d received this weekend. Somehow, with Wynonna and Jeremy there… surrounded by their familiar shared workspace, on familiar Floor 3 of the Revenance Building… things felt surprisingly, pleasingly … normal.

Dolls was down on W2 running laps around the indoor gym (Jeremy had adorably reported that Dolls had already completed 50 of them… and then 52… and 53…). And Nicole was headed down there to train with him. There were no nastygrams on email from Robert Svane. Nothing weird or hard. She sighed, content.

“Soooo…” Wynonna drawled. She was smirking. “Just gotta say I’m definitely lovin all this *robot wild* business.”

She was talking about sex with Dolls, of course. Waverly expected that her sister would have something to say about that.

Wynonna punctuated her remark with a rolling “grrrr” sound.

Waverly smirked. “Pretty good, huh?”

“Those programmers down at Los Alamos should be granted sainthood,” Wynonna said. “Seriously, what kind of partying must go on down there?”

“Maybe you should ask Dolls?”

“I mean when you and your hot redheaded robot first got together, I assumed she must work like a vibrator.” Wynonna said. “You know... bzzzzzz.”

Waverly’s jaw dropped.

“… Which would be cool enough,” Wynonna added. “But now I get it: S u p e r f r e a k y.” There may have been an eyebrow waggle at the end of that sentence, but Waverly refused to look... and honestly a bit frightened to have to hear anything further about her sister’s sexploits.

“Not listening,” Jeremy piped up, clearly unable to not listen, because proximity...

Waverly’s desk phone rang. Huh. She so rarely got a call on that, she’d grown to think of it more as vintage office decor. Most people in the company just called her cell.

“Hello?” she said, followed awkwardly by, “Waverly Earp speaking.”

It was Dr. Pressman saying she had something she wanted to give her. Waverly agreed to meet the doctor in 10 minutes downstairs.

She hung up the phone and stared into space, wondering what was going on. When she snapped out of it, she noticed Wynonna was looking at her funny.

“Who’s the rotary dialer?” Wynonna quipped. “Ghost from the past?”

Possibly.

“Hot lady doctor,” Waverly simply said, getting up to head downstairs.

“As in hot female doctor… or a hot gynecologist?” She whispered the last part.

“Not sure,” Waverly said… and then with a smirk added, “Probably both.”

//

 

One of the things that surprised Waverly about the phone call (aside from the use of the desk phone) was that Dr. Pressman had asked Waverly to meet her outside, in the parking lot. An odd place for a doctor/patient visit. As she stepped out of the building she spotted the doctor over in the far corner of the lot, where the “stress smokers” tended to hang out when they had a bad day at work. She was the only one there just now. And she wasn’t smoking.

She also wasn’t smiling.

“Thank you for meeting me,” Dr. Pressman said when Waverly reached the smokers’ spot. “Are you feeling any better? Did the herbal tea help?”

Waverly smiled, still confused, but was fine with the doctor leading the conversation, since she’d called the meeting. “The tea was … really helpful,” she grinned. “Thank you.”

“Uh, I also took your advice about relieving some stress,” she added, just to put that out there. “That was also great.”

“Of course,” Shae smiled, amused.

They stood there looking at each other a moment.

Waverly initiated the next: “So, you said there’s something you wanted me to have?”

Shae was holding an oversized envelope. She looked down at it, fingering the edges of it somewhat nervously. The doctor’s discomfort became Waverly’s discomfort.

“Oh, shit, is it something bad with the test results?”

Shae laughed and it made her face even prettier, if that were possible. There was something a little sad there, too.

“You passed all your tests with flying colors. I gave Robert Svane my report on that, and he was relieved to hear it.” Waverly could tell Shae was saying that part for the bracelet, but that wasn’t all…

Shae took a deep breath and said the rest a bit more cryptically: “I know you like a good workout. I’ve seen your charts.” She said the last bit with a rueful smirk. “Think of this as a bit of a prescription for heart health. After all, it’s the foundation everything else is built upon, right? You seem open to herbal medicine. I’ve always had great success with that myself. Think of this as just a starting place. You can always find more help at the herb shop in town.”

She handed the envelope to Waverly with what seemed like some small reluctance. Waverly accepted it, understanding that it must contain something really important, handed over at some personal risk... or like she worried she was doing the right thing. Waverly made note of the doctor’s coded language. The woman was clearly trying to give her a message.

“Thank you, doctor,” Waverly whispered.

“It’s Shae. You can call me Shae,” she said. “We’re teammates.” She raised her braceleted wrist.

Waverly raised hers as well with a silly, “Right! Team Purgatory!” followed by a more heartfelt, “Thank you, Shae.”

Shae smiled and turned to go. “Don’t thank me yet. This tea is not going to go down easily. But it should help. At least I hope that it does. That’s my intention, anyway. Please know that you can always call me if you need to. I’m here. I want to help.”

Waverly nodded as the woman retreated back toward the building. “Should I use the office phone?” she called out, immediately wishing she hadn’t asked that. God, such a dork.

“I wrote my cell # on the prescription card,” Shae replied.

Waverly watched Shae walk her tall, slim sexy walk all the way back inside… and then looked down at the envelope in her hands.

Why do I think I’m not going to like what’s in here?

 

//

It was hard to do, but Waverly managed to not open the envelope until after work. To make sure she didn’t succumb to temptation, she purposely didn’t mention anything about it to Wynonna. She went about the rest of her workday with the envelope in her shoulder bag, like some weird ticking time bomb… and tried to forget about it. Which was impossible. But at least she congratulated herself on resisting the urge to open it.

Nicole had texted to say she and Dolls were going out for happy hour and invited Waverly to join them. She let Nicole know she had a quick errand to run out to the tea shop and would meet them after.

She got up from her desk, starting to leave and Wynonna swung her direction. “Coming to the bar?”

“Yeah, I just want to grab some tea from the shop downtown first. They close early.”

“Hippie,” Wynonna said. “Well, don’t be long. And don’t bring me any of your weird herbal shit.”

“I know… you’ll use it for target practice,” Waverly smirked.

“Jeremy and I will see you there.”

The drive to Herbarium took no time at all, and she got a parking space right in front. She turned off the motor and started to climb out of the jeep… but then paused a moment, realizing she wasn’t exactly sure what she was here for yet.

With a deep breath, she pulled the envelope from her bag and opened it. It contained three things… a list of herbs for heart health… a letter in Shae’s handwriting… and a newspaper article.

What the holy shit!

Her heart nearly stopped and her face went numb. Complete understanding dawned on her for why Shae had sent her to Herbarium. She tried to calm her mind and her emotions, so her fucking bracelet wouldn’t freak the fuck out. Her hands were starting to glow. Please, please, please not now, not now, not now.

Kittens
Kittens
Kittens

She called upon anything she could think of to calm herself, finally closing her eyes and meditating on an image of herself floating in a tropical ocean under a brilliant noon-day sun. She focused on that, imagining the sensations of the water, the play of light beneath the surface, white sand and colorful fish.

When she’d settled herself, she opened her eyes, grabbed the envelope and stumbled out onto the street and into Herbarium.

Rosita and John Henry were the only people inside. They stood at the counter, going over some paperwork together, looking up in surprise as she burst in with what she was sure was a completely stricken look on her face. She couldn’t find her words. She came to a stop in the middle of the room and simply held up her braceleted hand toward the ceiling and said only, “Please…”

John Henry came around from behind the counter and put his arm around Waverly, offering physical support more than anything. He turned the lock on the front door. “Rosita,” he said, ushering Waverly toward the basement stairs, “Miss Waverly is here for more herbs. Can you please grab the salad oil and meet me in the store room so we can blend the order for her?”

The three of them descended the steps. Waverly grabbed the ceiling beam, trying to stay calm and clear her mind. Sea urchins, starfish, coral, sand, shells, out of ocean things now, moving on to kitten, orange kitten, striped kitten, black-and-white kitten…

Meanwhile, Henry and Rosita rolled up her shirt-sleeve, oiled her wrist, waited for gravity to do its thing, and then worked the bracelet up, up and over Waverly’s impatient knuckles … and then slipped it onto Rosita, who was watching Waverly’s face, trying to match her breathing. Finally, it was there.

John Henry put his arms around Waverly to keep her on her feet. “Now, Miss Waverly, I do believe we have what you’re looking for. Why don’t you rest on the couch a few minutes while we prepare the final blend?”

Waverly nodded, and then, realizing this performance was all for Revenance’s sake, she added aloud: “Sounds awesome. I- I’ll just go… sit down.”

Rosita climbed back up the stairs and closed the door behind her… to go sit on the couch for Waverly.

Waverly sank heavily and Henry steered her to a chair. He took a seat beside her, waiting for her to tell him what was happening.

“Thank you, Henry,” she said. “There’s something Shae – Dr. Pressman – gave me… that she wants me to read.”

Henry pursed his lips and nodded. “Then it’s best I let you do what the doctor ordered,” he said, rising to go busy himself so she had some privacy. “I’ll be over here if you need anything,” he added.

Waverly nodded absently. The numbness had crept across her face again, and her heart started racing. She hadn’t actually read the article—not even so much as its headline. But she’d caught a glimpse of the photo, and it was enough. Once more she raised the envelope and pulled out the contents. With shaking fingers, she set aside the tea recipe… and Shae’s note for now… and slowly unfolded the news article.

The photo was of a bicycle helmet laying in the middle of the road, a mangled bicycle laying a few feet off in the distance, and three police officers standing over it in solemn conversation. The headline read, “Bicyclist in critical condition after collision with an SUV.” The dateline was four years ago… August 4, 2013. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Blood pounded in her ears as she turned the page to find a second article. The headline read, “Funeral planned for bicyclist who died following collision with SUV.” The photo beneath the headline was Nicole’s beautiful and smiling face.

NO! WHAT THE HELL? Her hands began to glow again, tiger stripes radiating like mad.

It took all she had to force herself to read her lover’s obituary. One line bounced out at her from among all the other terrible ones. “… She is survived by her wife Shae Pressman…”

NO!

The room started spinning, and Waverly dropped her head into her hands and sobbed… in fear, horror and grief.

“I don’t understand,” she whimpered. “This can’t be happening!”

John Henry came to her side. He glanced at the articles where they lay in her lap and nodded like he already knew the news they contained.

“It has already happened,” he simply said. He put his arms around her… and slowly dragged a trashcan over to her chairside.

From that one piece of information, a series of mind bombs went off one-by-one, each of them completely rewriting her worldview.

She leaned over the trashcan and used it.

Revenance wasn’t just building robots.

 

//

 

Thank you so much for reading. Chapter 5 is almost complete... and will post soon! In the meantime, comments and kudos are always appreciated! I promise to reply to every comment.

Chapter Text

 

//

 

 

 

A girl walked into a bar… the classic setup for a joke.

And tonight, as Waverly walked into a bar to meet her friends, she was aware of it. The joke had been on all of them. Waverly walked into the bar, her mind still reeling from the series of revelations sparked when she’d opened the envelope from Shae Pressman and examined its impossible contents. Wynonna, Jeremy, Dolls and Nicole were all here at a friendly neighborhood place called Shorty’s, a place Waverly and her sister had been a hundred times. They were sitting at a table off to the side, laughing at something Jeremy had just said, happy as if there were nothing in the world but this moment, and this moment was perfect.

Waverly stopped halfway across the room, taking a moment to reconcile the huge new information that still threatened to buckle her knees.

Not yet.

She needed to compose herself. She pivoted and made her way to the bar to order a whiskey… and a beer. She not only had some catching up to do (since her friends had been here a couple of hours already), she had some reckoning to do. While she waited for her drinks, she hazarded a glance over to the table again, smiling a small smile. These were people she cared so much about, and they were happy. She wanted nothing more than that for each of them. And, dammit, she was happy, too. She had her sister—who meant the world to her. She had a new love who felt so exciting, solid and true. She loved the way everything seemed to excite Jeremy until he lost command of the English language and reverted to Geekspeak. And she loved how Dolls, who was anything but fluent in Geek, nevertheless really tried.

But then, reality sank in a little deeper. Thanks to Shae, she also now held a secret, a terrible, dark, world-shattering secret, about each of them. Because there was no way it was purely coincidence. Nicole’s horrible car accident… and her own. Waverly’s mind deftly connected the dots.

Shae’s envelope had contained the news that Nicole had died from the accident. Now here Nicole was four years later, very much alive… enhanced, even, though she clearly had no recollection of the fatal event (or, apparently, her marriage to Shae).

It made Waverly take honest stock of herself. She also had been in a fatal car crash, the one that claimed the lives of her sister and father. Had it also claimed her own? Here she stood years later, alive and well… and enhanced.

Wynonna, too?

Could they have both perished … only to be rebuilt by Robert Svane’s Los Alamos Crazy Town crazies?

And what about Jeremy? He’d been in a terrible accident as a child. She wondered for a moment if Jeremy actually did know he’d died. Perhaps he did. But did that mean he was also an Artificial?

Dolls had served in Kandahar. It was no stretch of imagination to think death might have befallen him, too, only to be reconstructed to serve Robert Svane’s nebulous corporate profit motive.

If death had befallen all of them and they were here today enjoying each other’s very-living-and-real company…. How many others around them might similarly have been re-animated, reconstituted, rebuilt from human scraps and risen from the dead to serve Robert Svane? She thought about the 900 employees of Revenance Corporation… and then glanced around the bar and wondered about the 50 or so townie bar patrons. How many of them might be robots as well?

If Revenance’s protocol was to make the machines think they were human, and because these machines were built on the chassis of (dead) humans, who was to say who among us were true humans… and who were corporate sleeper agents, waiting for some electrical impulse from Robert Svane to be kick-started on some life of lucrative robot mayhem?

Surely this was self-knowledge that Robert Svane didn’t want her to have. This knowledge had to be a threat. It had to be the reason he didn’t tell the robots they were robots. She (and others) had been given a second lease on life… only it came with a tight leash.

Humans could toil their lives away at desk jobs enjoying their simple pleasures because they felt like they had all their lives still ahead of them. Time was there for them in seemingly copious amounts. Tomorrow, for them, was always coming… until it wasn’t. Anyone returned from the dead, on the other hand, would have the terrible knowledge of how actually fleeting this mortal coil really is. How the bubble of invincibility we perceive around us is really just an illusion. Humans looked ahead and saw too many days to possibly count. The resurrected would count every day as if it were some crazy gift that could be taken away again at any moment.

Waverly suddenly found she didn’t give two shits about Revenance Corporation. She didn’t care about doing a good job at work, excelling in her profession, being Svane’s #1 Product Manager. All of that now seemed shallow and dumb at best… and a horrible farce at worst. Here she was breathing and living and loving and being loved, and her entire being wanted to focus on nothing more than the beautiful reality of that. Only that. It was enough. It was everything. Fuck Revenance and whatever plan they had for selling her off… or making her kill or fuck or die or whatever horrible fate capitalism dictated.

She was not willing to be someone’s pawn. She would save herself, Nicole, Wynonna, Jeremy, Dolls… and however many others there were… She would save them all from marching against their wills to some terrible and pointless and humiliating end.

The question was how.

She stole a glance at Nicole, who was in animated conversation with Wynonna. Neither of them had yet noticed that Waverly had arrived. Their faces were intent on each other. Without even hearing the words, Waverly could decipher the gist of the conversation. Wynonna had just made some kind of inappropriate remark to Nicole, whose face colored scarlet and looked profoundly uncomfortable. Waverly translated that to mean perhaps Wynonna had just said something TMI about Waverly in her big-sisterly way… or—even more likely—Wynonna had just revealed something TMI about herself. Waverly smiled.

I should go join them.

But she hesitated, recalling there was one more thing she needed to do first.

Waverly thought about Shae Pressman. She understood now why Shae was so moved to just listen to Nicole’s heartbeat. Such a simple thing, such a basic sound. To almost any other living human, it was something so foundational, so everyday and commonplace as to hardly bear contemplation. But Shae knew too well the day when Nicole’s heart had stopped and her world had ended. She knew firsthand the horror of something she’d always counted on (Nicole)—and their whole imagined future together-- suddenly simply vanished. Nicole’s heart had stopped, and Shae’s whole world had crumbled. Crushed. In only the way that can happen for newlyweds who’d whispered their dreams and desires to each other.

Nicole and Shae had been in love, and fate had snapped Nicole away from her.

Waverly understood a bit of what that must feel like, even though she and Nicole were so new together. What Waverly felt was so profound that she would be shaken to the core to have Nicole taken from her. She would die. She would rage. She would tear it all down. She could simply not imagine having Nicole ripped away from her the way she’d been ripped away from Shae.

Waverly and Shae both loved Nicole. As hard as that had to be for Shae, certainly Waverly understood. That’s why Shae was helping her. Because she was also helping Nicole. She loved Nicole that much. Waverly understood. She would do the same.

Waverly pulled out her cell phone and composed a simple text to Shae:

Waverly: Thank you for the prescription. You were right. The tea is bitter. Almost unbearable, in fact…

Waverly: … But one thing I know is that I will keep going with it. Would you be up for meeting me tomorrow? I’d like to talk to you. I think I’m beginning to understand…

Waverly: … And… thank you, Shae.

She hit “send” on the last of her message, feeling her heart pound with emotion—afraid she’d start glowing again-- and then reached for the whiskey with unsteady hands, tossing back and downing the shot in one big swallow.

The liquid burned on the way down, familiar, satisfying… somehow both calming and clarifying.

She didn’t know everything, but she was gathering more pieces. She would put this all together. And then she would make her plan, and she would get Nicole, Wynonna, Jeremy and Dolls out of there. She would give them the second chance at the life they deserved… outside of the confining black box of Revenance. Somewhere where they each got to choose their own path.

She finally launched herself from the bar and toward the table that held her whole world.

//

 

Wynonna felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and stopped mid-sentence with Nicole to follow the redhead’s gaze across the bar to… Waverly. Her sister was striding toward them with a beer in her hand, a thin smile flashing across her face, but not quite reaching her eyes.

Wynonna had noticed ever since the weekend that Waverly seemed troubled and a bit distant.

She flicked her eyes back to Nicole, who gazed at Waverly a bit slack-jawed and utterly hungry and in love. No, Nicole couldn’t see it. She was too new… and too much in love. Jeremy was engrossed in joking with Dolls, delighting too much in making him laugh to even spare a glance for Waverly.

But something was wrong. Wynonna climbed to her feet and gathered Waverly into her arms. The younger woman crashed into her, burying her face in Wynonna’s chest and wrapping her arms around Wynonna like lightning striking to ground. They fit together like lock and key (and she wasn’t entirely sure which of them was which). Waverly was there and suddenly Wynonna’s mind cleared to a full blue sky stretching horizon to horizon in every direction. Her skin tingled and her feet felt rooted and sure in a way they seldom did when her sister was not around.

She pressed lips to the top of Waverly’s head, breathing in deep the sweet scent of her, the very personal essence that was at once all Earp and entirely, uniquely Waverly. And she felt her soul open up and calm, like the ocean settling after a hurricane. Her sister and her sister alone had that magnetic pull over her. If this were a different kind of story, they would be lovers. But it was not. They were sisters, and that somehow was a connection that went even deeper. Their love was every bit as scandalous, primary, unnatural. And Wynonna felt bad for everyone else in the world who had a sister and didn’t share the kind of bond the Earp sisters shared.

Waverly and Wynonna were survivors. Their mother had left when they were young. Their dad had been an alcoholic. He and their older sister Willa had died (Wynonna had killed them in a car crash – not on purpose). The only heirs to the Earp name were Wynonna and Waverly. At the end of the day, there was only ever Waverly. She couldn’t imagine marrying someone and having that bond feel more profound than the bond she shared with her sister. Nothing could compare.

A tear fell down her cheek and into her sister’s hair. She had no idea where it came from, but she found herself once again tugged deep, as if they completed each other. The punctuation to each other’s sentences. The earth to the other’s sky. If Waverly were the sun, Wynonna was the moon, pulling, always pulling, always cold and remote and dark… until the sun’s rays came back to warm her.

Oh, and here was the earth, throwing shadow between them. She smiled ruefully at Nicole, even though she didn’t really have the right. It was clear her sister (the sun) was in love with the earth. It was hard to begrudge them when they’d fallen into each other so completely, with all the gravity of inevitable destiny and not just heredity, which is what the Earps shared.

Nicole was staring at them.

What? We’re close, but I’m not banging my sister.

Nicole’s look wasn’t scandalized, though. It didn’t say she thought they were lovers: It said Nicole was reeling, suddenly infused with some other understanding of them that was new.

Down, girl.

Wynonna wrapped her arms tighter around Waverly, protective, greedy, and pulled her closer to her chest. Waverly squirmed, and Wynonna brought her hands up to Waverly’s face, tilting her head up so their eyes met. There was something there, something terribly… awesome… and completely unexpected and unexplainable. Waverly’s skin pulsed with a golden-satin sheen that was beautiful… so, so beautiful… but not quite right. All the hairs on Wynonna’s body stood straight up and she shivered. Then she noticed it: the strange glowing of her own skin. Wynonna’s hands were lit like lanterns, illuminating this dark corner of the bar. The electrical current that came off Waverly was like sex and danger, hot and crackling and in conflict, and Wynonna’s whole being thrummed in reply.

What the fuck?

She looked up in awe and horror and saw the light reflected in Nicole’s face. Nicole’s eyes said she understood. She was not surprised. It calmed Wynonna’s fear ever-so-slightly. There was something else there as well, though, something worried and protective. Nicole slid forward and wrapped her long arms around them both, shouting to Dolls, who snapped to attention.

He sprang to his feet. “Let’s get them out of here,” he said urgently and all matter-of-fact. Nicole and Dolls exchanged something else, completely unsaid and yet understood between them. Wynonna didn’t understand what was going on, but she understood her sister… and placed deep trust there. She looked back to Waverly, and the younger woman tipped her chin up and brushed her lips across Wynonna’s. Feather-light, barely-there and completely tantalizing. Wynonna ducked her head and captured those lips in a searing kiss. Waverly met her with equal ferocity. Wynonna’s tongued begged entrance, and Waverly parted for her. Wynonna slipped inside and then and the whole world felt set right … the whole place grew bright, like spotlights had been triggered and tilted suddenly to the floor, the ceiling and everywhere in between.

“Oh, shit,” Nicole said, hugging the two of them tighter, trying to make her slim body somehow bigger, trying to shield them from view of the other patrons who would certainly be staring at them by now, wondering who’d brought the laser light show.

“Dolls!” Nicole’s voice was muffled in Wynonna’s ears.

And then Dolls was there, his large body crashing into the three of them and wrapping them in a bear hug. They stood a moment like that, like Russian nesting dolls, with Waverly in the center, Wynonna, then Nicole and then Dolls wrapped around her.

“We need to move,” Dolls breathed into Wynonna’s ear, sending a hot current through her entire body… and probably through Waverly’s, too. They broke their kiss, and Waverly stared back at her, all golden light and astonishment. They hesitated only a moment to process what had just happened… and then Waverly kissed Wynonna’s cheek, tenderly, and whispered: “We have to get out of here.”

Waverly’s eyes darted to the back exit, and then she began to pull the group toward the door.

As the foursome moved, Wynonna heard Jeremy step behind them, turning and speaking to the crowd: “Join us at the Toronto Winter Light Festival, November 18th to January 31st… You can find us on Facebook.”

Wynonna kind of wanted to razz him (was there a Toronto Winter Light Festival?) … but his presence of mind had just proven him to be unexpectedly awesome.

 

//

 

Out on the street, the gang broke apart. They stood on the sidewalk staring open-mouthed at each other.

“What the fuck did I just do?” Wynonna was saying, hand clapped over her eyes. Clearly, she was more concerned about kissing her sister than about the glowing.

Nicole had her arms around Waverly and could only say, “Wow.” Clearly, she was referring to the fact that Wynonna was still glowing (and less about the kiss).

Dolls was shooting Nicole a hot look, more than ready for her to finally catch him up on what the hell was going on.

Waverly, for her part, was trying to get her own glowing under control, since it was dark out… and there were people out and about at this hour.

Jeremy’s hands were in his own hair, confounded. He glanced first from Wynonna to Waverly. “How are you even able to do that?” He meant the glowing.

Waverly brought a finger to her lips, signaling them all to be careful of what they said. She raised her braceleted wrist and gave it a little jingle. Nicole and Dolls followed suit.

Wynonna was on her own jag. “Dude, I kissed you.”

Technically, I kissed you.

Waverly honestly didn’t think that was the most dangerous thing that had just happened. Wynonna had started glowing the moment they’d embraced. Something about Waverly’s proximity to Wynonna had set off her sister in the same way it fairly reliably set off Nicole. What the hell piece of machine had broken off inside Waverly when she fell that now made her a lightning rod for robots? What was this energy transfer that seemed to happen, and why did it feel so curiously sexy?

Wynonna looked aghast. “Dude, why do I still want to kiss you?”

Waverly had kissed Wynonna to give the Revenance monitors a reason for Wynonna’s readings (and her own) suddenly going off the charts. It maybe wasn’t the best plan for covering up the fact that Wynonna was about to comprehend a really big piece of information about herself. But it was the plan that had sprung to Waverly’s mind in the heat of the golden, glowing moment. Wynonna’s energy around Waverly had always been a little sexually charged. She knew Robert Svane would believe the sisters were hot for each other, the pervert. Wynonna was just that way around a lot of people.

But this was different. Waverly’s heart had called to Wynonna without thinking, and Wynonna’s heart had answered. Could robots connect on some plane she was only just beginning to explore? What did it mean?

Surely Jeremy knew something… having worked at Los Alamos… and being one of the people on the Project Purgatory team charged with robot monitoring.

She shot him a helpless glance.

“Don’t tell anyone,” she pleaded, sounding like she meant about kissing her sister, but really about being a suddenly-off-the-rails robot. “I- I’m not sure why I … feel this way. But I do know that it just feels … right.” She really hoped he was understanding this.

Wynonna was still reeling. “You- you mean you feel this way, too?” she breathed.

God, I love you.

“Yes, Wynonna,” Waverly smiled.

“I- I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening before,” Jeremy said cautiously, catching on to the double wordplay (that Wynonna hadn’t yet). “You know, like... that…” he gestured uncomfortably at the still-glowing sisters.

“Would we be in trouble if people knew about us?” Waverly asked. She said it in such a way as to convey there was only one person she cared about: Robert Svane.

Jeremy nodded glumly. “Oh, yes. I think 'people' are nowhere near prepared to deal with something like that.”

“It’s so hard… Something like this just comes so naturally. It’s really hard to just stop it. Just turn off those feelings. We’re near each other … and, and the emotion of it all is just so huge… It’s so beautiful.”

“Beautiful,” Wynonna repeated, thoughtfully.

“And *blinding*,” Jeremy quipped. “It’s not ‘bad’ because it’s not *natural*… It’s ‘bad’ because it’s not *normal*. Normal people don’t do …” he gestured again, “ *that.*”

“Shut your judgments, cosplay,” Wynonna growled, bless her heart. She looked like she was prepared to deck him.

Waverly rushed to her sister’s side and laid hands on her, trying to settle her down. Her touch apparently had the opposite effect, because instead of placating Wynonna, it made them both suddenly flame bright as the sun. A moment later, Nicole and Dolls went off as well.

Jeremy spun around to face the street, raised his arms above his head and yelled at passing motorists, “Woo-Hoo! Join us for the Toronto Winter Light Festival! Find us on Facebook!!”

Waverly leaned in and kissed her sister again, making it count. She felt Wynonna sink in her arms, her knees buckling. It sent white-hot sparks all through Waverly, too.

Wynonna’s breath was hot in her ear. “God, baby girl, I really want to fu-“

“Dolls!” Waverly interjected. She grabbed his hand and pulled him over. “Please! She needs your help!” It took barely a nanosecond for Dolls and Wynonna to lock lips, all white-hot heat and light.

Waverly pulled Nicole to her, kissing the woman soundly. When they broke the kiss, Waverly reached for Jeremy’s hand.

“Whoa, no!” he yelped. “So not going there with y’all…”

As her hand clasped his, though, Jeremy shot off in light, as well. He looked like he’d been jolted by electricity. And like that wasn’t a bad thing.

“Wuh?” he sputtered with a soft smile.

Waverly stepped forward and kissed his forehead. When she stepped back, his eyes were closed and his expression one of golden, glowing joy and contentment.

“Ok,” he allowed, breathlessly. “That’s pretty, uh, cool.”

 

//

 

“What the heck is going on?”

Waverly spun on the sidewalk to spot a car that had pulled up alongside them, the driver hanging out the driver’s side window, gawking. It was Chrissy Nedley, the nutritionist from Team Purgatory.

“Chrissy, what are you doing here?” Waverly asked.

“I live down the street… Just on my way home,” Chrissy said. Her eyes were big as saucers. “What is up with you… all?”

Waverly turned to see her friends all alight from within. She realized she was going to have to lie to their Project Purgatory teammate.

“Glow-in-the-dark makeup,” she said, feeling like she was being extremely lame. “We- we’re trying out something for Halloween… You know… it’s only a couple weeks away...”

“You’re not using radium, are you?” Chrissy asked, her voice strangely mom-like.

“What? Like Madame Curie?” Waverly jested. But this was the clandestine Revenance Corporation, so she supposed it wasn’t outside the possibility that radioactive material might be laying around somewhere. “Um, well, yeah. Duh. We’re going as Madame Curie. But, no, we’re not using actual radium. Because, that’s like, er… really deadly….”

“She was a hero of mine, you know,” Chrissy smiled. “Marie Curie. That’s why I got into science. I always wanted to be like her… part of a Nobel Prize-winning team.”

Chrissy’s enthusiasm was charming… and perhaps even infectious. And Waverly was still buzzing a hot and tingling buzz from the energy emanating through her. “That is what we’re going to be, isn’t it?” Waverly mused aloud, with a big grin. “Huh, yeah. We’re making some history ourselves, aren’t we?”

Waverly was curious. She walked over to Chrissy’s car and lay her hand over Chrissy’s, where it rested on the doorframe. She focused her energy on Chrissy, but the woman’s skin did not take up the glow. Chrissy could clearly feel something, though, because she looked up into Waverly’s eyes with an almost dreamy expression. Waverly lay her other hand on Chrissy’s cheek. Still no glow.

“Watch out, Chrissy,” came Wynonna’s voice from behind them. “Waverly’s giving out kisses to straight girls tonight.”

Waverly’s jaw dropped in shock and indignation. “Right. Like you’re straight.”

Chrissy’s eyes grew wide and she laughed uncomfortably. “Ha, ha. You guys are funny. Earp sisters.”

Jeremy stepped up. “Eeeeverybody’s had a little too much to drink, maybe,” he said, pretending to slur a little. “We should probably get out of here, eh, gang? Call a Lyft?”

“There’s a hot tub at my place,” Chrissy said.

Oops! Still touching her.

Waverly lifted her hands away from a smitten-looking Chrissy. Clearly, Waverly was dispensing some deeply vibrating power right now… and even non-robots could feel it.

“Damn, little sis has got serious game,” Wynonna was mumbling, sounding jealous.

Jeremy stepped between them. “Ah, I don’t think hot tub is such a good idea,” he said. “Everybody’s a little bit over-the-top right now… and we all, uh, work together. And it’s a Monday.”

“… as in NOT hump day,” Wynonna translated in that way only she would.

Chrissy looked mortified. “Right, uh, sorry I was… inappropriate…”

Waverly felt the woman’s discomfort as if it were her own and chased it away with a kiss to her cheek. “You weren’t inappropriate at all, Chrissy. I’m glad you want to hang out with us. Another night soon, ok?”

Chrissy’s expression transformed into one of cautious joy. She returned the kiss (to Waverly’s cheek) and then put her car in gear. “Promise?”

Waverly couldn’t help her grin. “Yes.”

With that, Chrissy drove off. Waverly could feel the woman’s eyes on her in the rearview mirror.

Wynonna was suddenly practically on top of her. “Seriously, dude. What kind of pheromones are you wearing? Because I want some.”

Waverly caught Nicole’s gaze, feeling sheepish and suddenly very awkward. She hadn’t meant to cause her beloved disrespect.

Waverly answered Wynonna, “I’m pretty sure it’s ‘asshole.’”

//

 

“Wow.”

It was later … sometime near midnight… and Nicole was standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror in the dark, glowing. “Wow” was such a small word, but it held so much. Within it lay equal parts wonder, fear and devastation. Nicole stood stock still just watching the light emanating from deep within her, bubbling up from her core and curling out to her fingertips, pulsing faintly with the beat of her heart and the rhythm of her breathing. The quality of the light was like the glow that happens when you put your palm over a flashlight, the light radiating eerily through the flesh. Only this light was much stronger, and it didn’t seem to be coming from any one “flashlight” source within her, but from throughout her, as if in addition to circulatory and nervous systems she also had an electrical system powered by some unseen dynamo.

Radiant and beautiful.

Waverly stood naked and glowing in the darkened doorway, admiring her lover and worrying about her. After tonight’s street-side spectacle, Nicole, Wynonna, Dolls and Jeremy would each be struggling with what the glowing must mean: that they are machines. Or enhanced humans, though Waverly knew the truth was somehow even worse.

Tonight, they each would be having the same come-to-Jesus Waverly had on that mountainside: and here was Nicole’s. There was so much Waverly needed to tell her, about her true nature—and who she was--but with the bracelets on, this was going to be difficult, and she scarcely knew where to start.

Waverly’s eyes flicked up to Nicole’s in the mirror and held them. It was clear the woman was struggling, and Waverly felt the pain of it in her own chest. She chose her words carefully, as it seemed she always had to these days.

“I’m sorry, Nicole,” she half-whispered. “You deserve better than this.”

Nicole glanced again at her own body in the mirror, regarding it as if it were some kind of traitor, and shook her head. She was quiet a moment longer, then averted her gaze and said softly, “I thought you and I were different,” she said. “I thought you were different. But it ends up we’re the same. Huh. I guess the joke’s on me.”

“The ‘joke’ is on all of us.”

“Doesn’t make it easier.”

No, Waverly supposed the knowledge that they were all robots was only a small consolation.

“It doesn’t make it easier in *some* ways… but what if it does in others?” Waverly gently insisted. “Like… You’re not alone. I’m not alone. We have…” she waved at them glowing, “all of *this* in common. We understand each other.”

Nicole looked down at her glowing hands. “I’m finding ‘all of this’ pretty hard to ‘understand.’”

“Ok, I don’t understand all of it, either… But one thing I definitely know: Until I met you, I was just me. I had this simple life. I had my work, my sister, Jeremy… I thought I was happy. I thought it was enough. I might as well have been a drone, just kind of going through my routine every day, working for the corporate machine. You know?” She stepped closer to Nicole, taking her hand and gazing directly into her eyes. “But… But then I met you. You make me feel things I never imagined were even possible. I- I crave you. I crave this.” She ran her hand over Nicole’s skin, over her arms, her shoulders, her chest. “This is where I feel happy. This is where I belong. I see that now. We’re meant to be together.”

“I feel that, too,” Nicole said softly. “It’s just… a lot to process, though.”

Waverly nodded, pulling Nicole closer and wrapping her arms around her, running slow, comforting circles across the skin of her back. “Yeah, there’s a lot to process.”

“And part of it is… I just don’t know what’s real anymore,” Nicole said, frustrated tears threatening to well up. Waverly squeezed her harder, and Nicole whispered: “What if none of it’s real?”

“It’s all real,” Waverly replied. “All of it. All of this. Everything that came before. Me. You. It’s all real. I’m real. You’re real. None of that has changed.”

Nicole squeezed her back. “I get it. I mean, intellectually I get it. It’ll just take a bit for my heart to catch up,” she said. Waverly’s own heart hurt at that, but she also thought that was an entirely reasonable thing for her lover to say.

Nicole took a deep breath and added, “And… I’m also processing that… that I’m going to have to *share you*.”

There it was. They were going to talk (in veiled language) about the fact that Waverly seemed to be able to exert some kind of control over other robots, and that control came with some serious mojo.

“Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to feel *that* with Chrissy and Wynonna… and with Dolls and Jeremy, too,” Waverly said, honestly. “That was a total surprise… and I’m still trying to figure out what it means.”

“They’re drawn to you,” Nicole said. Her words seemed to refer to both the flirtatious energy as well as the literal skin-on-fire kind. Waverly wasn’t so sure the two were that much different.

“Yes… And, oddly, I can’t explain it, but the feeling is mutual,” Waverly replied. “In the moment, I’m really drawn to them, too.” Her cheeks burned scarlet. “I know that’s got to bother you, Nicole, and I’m really, really sorry about that.”

Nicole looked like she was simply trying to puzzle it all together somehow. “It’s fascinating. I- I never imagined that was possible… to be drawn to so many people at once… to feel something, to share something in that way. Although I felt it, too. I felt all of that… energy. I guess I’m still trying to process that, too. It’s part of who you are, so it’s beautiful. It is. It totally is beautiful. But it’s new and unexpected and confusing, and I’m not sure what to do with it all.”

“If it helps (and it probably doesn’t), I don’t want to be… ‘attracted’ to frickin everybody,” Waverly said, her cheeks flushing hot. “I only want you. Please, baby, I hope you can hear me when I say that, because being ‘attracted’ and ‘wanting’ are two different things. They’re very different. You are different. You’re my everything. I can’t help all the energy I feel when it’s flowing between me and someone else. It confuses and scares me, too. But it feels important. I feel like I’m only just waking up to something really big.”

Nicole’s eyes looked dark-circled and tired in the mirror. “I agree. And I want you to absolutely be the person you’re meant to be. I want you to discover all of it. I want you to be happy. It’s just confusing right now.” Nicole grabbed Waverly and kissed the top of her head. “I- I don’t know how I’m going to deal with all of this…. How *we’re* going to deal with it.”

“Me, either,” Waverly sighed. The words were true, and they hurt. “But please hang in there with me … for now?”

“I’m not going anywhere, but for this to work it’s going to take a lot of communication,” Nicole said. “And if you’re acting on your feelings toward anyone else, I may need you to remind me that I’m special to you.”

Those last whispered words were not veiled language for robot congress. Those words were Nicole revealing her own insecurities about negotiating complicated sexual congress. Waverly knew it was true that the energy flow among the robots felt sexual, though she believed that was only a small part of what was truly happening. The bigger revelation was that the energy felt like communication.

Nevertheless, here was Nicole standing naked (both literally and figuratively) before her, reminding Waverly that Nicole was, at heart, a woman who was in tender, heady, aching love… wanting to be sure Waverly was worthy of her vulnerability – and trust.

Waverly’s heart plummeted at the thought that Nicole might find her unworthy. She wanted this—she wanted Nicole—so much. Damn this special robot gift. Standing in the face of love it felt like a heavy curse. There had to be some way to marshal it… and use it help free them all.

She swallowed hard, resolving she would not let her robot mojo (or whatever it was) rule her… and took Nicole’s hands, stepping back with a level gaze. “You’re more than special, Nicole,” she growled. “You’re everything. And I promise I will not let you forget it.”

With that, Waverly drew Nicole away from the mirror and down the hall to the bedroom. The curtains were still open, the sky black outside, and their inner glow illuminated the room and shined back at them from the glass, a different kind of mirror. Waverly’s heart skipped a beat and her stomach dropped with delicious desire at the thought of watching the two of them glow as they made love. She wanted to see their emotional love written large across their bodies, reflected back from the glass, and she wanted Nicole to see it, too.

Nicole’s breathing had picked up and she was watching their reflections with curiosity and lust as well. “Huh. You don’t see that every day,” she was saying in wonder.

“I *want* to see it every day,” Waverly replied.

She opened the bedside table drawer and pulled out the harness and the Ridiculous Wang. Nicole’s eyes turned to her, darkening as Waverly stepped into the harness and strapped up. Waverly shot her lover a mischievous look as she cinched the buckles tight around her slim hips. The neon orange dildo twitched as she completed the adjustments. She reached next for the coconut oil, scooping it out of the jar. As the stuff warmed and melted in Waverly’s hands, Nicole’s gaze melted as well. Waverly slowly rubbed the oil over the length of it, shooting a tender smile at Nicole, who replied in kind.

“Come here, lover,” Waverly purred. “Let me show you.”

 

//

 

Nicole wanted Waverly. Constantly. Completely. Urgently.

There was no other way about it.

For the first time in her full knowledge, they were about to fuck, (as Waverly would put it), ‘like robots.’ All those other times, she knew Waverly was a ‘robot,’ and it hadn’t mattered. They treated each other as completely human, because that’s all they knew how to do. That was Svane’s game. But the light and heat coming up through their skin right now said differently. It said they were more than human. Nicole could feel the currents coursing all through her, and for the first time, she understood what those currents truly represented: raw power. She knew they were built for this. They were built for each other. What she didn’t know was what they were capable of. And the thought of that filled her with excitement … and fear.

Nicole sat on the edge of the bed, not entirely sure what was coming, but game… and curious. She watched Waverly move toward her, her body fucking lit from within, and felt like she saw Waverly in a completely new light, and she was glorious.

This was not the Waverly Nicole met when she came here from Los Alamos. This was not the nicest person in the room. In this moment, Waverly moved like a dangerous creature, her eyes locked on Nicole’s with a kind of possessiveness and animal hunger that Nicole could feel deep in her belly. Her body gave a kick, and Waverly grinned.

She grinned in return. God, she was ready for this dance.

As if reading her mind, Waverly drew up to Nicole, her eyes flashing furious intent.

Yes.

Waverly cupped Nicole’s cheek, tenderly, but there was an undercurrent of barely-contained force just beneath the small gesture. It was unmistakable. And it was hot.

“You ready for me, baby?” Waverly purred.

Nicole almost growled. “Always,” she said, and grabbed Waverly’s wrist. The smaller woman’s eyes flashed surprise and… pleasure. A sense of challenge bloomed inside Nicole’s chest, a power burning and begging to be unleashed. The light within her felt like fire, flames licking out from her center to the very edges of her – and beyond. Light flickered back from the black-glass windows and glittered across Waverly’s dark eyes.

Nicole’s hand was around Waverly’s throat in a heartbeat, squeezing, imploring. Waverly’s hands grabbed fistfuls of Nicole’s hair, shoving Nicole roughly toward the bed, throwing her weight into it. But Nicole shrugged her off, spinning them both, so that it was Waverly who hit the mattress first, and Nicole fell upon her, pinning her by the shoulders and sinking teeth into her throat. Waverly cried out in pleasure and pain and reclaimed her purchase on Nicole’s hair, yanking hard, drawing Nicole to meet her eye-to-eye, their breaths coming in short gasps, mingling sweet and hot between them.

Waverly captured Nicole’s mouth in a searing kiss that burst them open in white-hot light. Nicole’s lips went numb, but her tongue buzzed with pleasure as Waverly’s mouth met hers hungrily and drew her in deeply, groaning and teasing. Her hand grasped at Waverly’s throat again, squeezing, and Waverly struggled against her, moaning loudly into Nicole’s mouth, an animal growl that begged Nicole to take her to the edge of blackness. And Nicole was filled with a curious desire to try to break Waverly… to claim her, fuck her and wreck her if she could. She squeezed Waverly’s throat harder, setting the smaller woman writhing and struggling deliciously beneath her. Nicole’s free hand snaked between them to grab the orange cock and give it a rough tug, raising Waverly’s hips off the bed as she did so.

“Oh, you want that, eh?” Waverly gasped with some difficulty, her eyes flashing angrily.

The laugh that erupted from Nicole’s lips was hard and teasing. “Oh, baby, I think that’s what *you want. Am I wrong?”

Waverly’s eyes went a dark, metallic blue, reflecting the light. Nicole still had a hold of her cock, and Waverly’s hips bucked hard against her grasp. “I want to fucking tear you apart with this,” she hissed.

“Is that so?” Nicole teased, her whole body flickering with white-hot desire. She throbbed from wanting to find out what Waverly was capable of. She didn’t have long to wait, though, as Waverly’s hand suddenly plunged inside her, and she shouted in surprise and pleasure.

“Gah! Sneaky!”

“God, Nicole, you’re so fucking wet,” Waverly purred, still struggling against the weight of Nicole bearing down on her throat. Nicole could feel the pulse of blood pounding beneath the skin there… matched by the pulse beat insider herself, where Waverly’s clever hand had taken up stroking. Nicole squeezed and rubbed Waverly’s oil-slicked cock in time with the rhythm. Waverly’s gaze said she wanted to dive in, bury herself deep, claw tooth-and-nail and claim her.

Nicole ached from wanting that cock inside her.

As if she had read Nicole’s mind (perhaps she did), Waverly flexed her legs and somehow managed to throw Nicole off the top of her, swiftly diving between Nicole’s legs and shoving them apart. Nicole hit the mattress with a playful laugh, now looking up at Waverly crouched above her, purring, her eyes dark with desire as she rubbed the length of her orange shaft with one hand and slowly slid her other hand down Nicole’s belly, raising goosebumps in its wake. Nicole felt her pulse beat beneath Waverly’s palm. She felt her nipples harden at the chill, and willed her thighs to fall open, all of her focus on that place where she desperately needed to be filled.

She locked eyes with her lover to communicate just that, her hands taking a firm grip of the headboard, arms flexing in time with the movement of her hips.

Waverly’s eyes taunted. She shifted between Nicole’s legs and brought her cock to Nicole’s entrance, pressing ever-so-slightly. Nicole’s breath exploded as she felt the contact deepen. She looked up to see Waverly’s eyes locked on the sight of her cock nudging inside, the tip of it parting Nicole’s lips and advancing one moment, then waiting a heartbeat, only to withdraw the next. With each stroke, Nicole pulled Waverly’s ridiculous cock deeper, energy crackling between them. God, she wanted this woman to slay her… to rip her open … and fuck her silly. But she could be good. She could wait and let Waverly do the fucking driving.

Waverly intuited all of this. As if her crazy orange cock were a divining rod, she understood the struggle within Nicole’s very core. “Oh, yes, I intend to fuck you like that,” Waverly purred, looking like a goddess as she gripped Nicole’s thighs and drew her cock in and out. Each time she slipped inside, a flash of red-and-gold swept across her belly and her beautiful breasts, and each time she withdrew, Nicole felt that same current of light sweep through her own body, pulsing brighter as Nicole found herself growling at the loss of contact. There was some mysterious (or not-so-mysterious) place deep inside she needed Waverly to find.

“Don’t you worry, baby. I’ll get you there,” Waverly smiled, as if Nicole had just spoken her wishes aloud.

But Nicole wasn’t so sure.

So she reached for Waverly’s hips, wanting nothing more than to drag her lover deeper, faster. “Oh, is that how it is?” Nicole whispered. “You’re gonna tease, eh?”

Waverly smirked, understanding the power she’d just been granted. And that Nicole was a terrible bottom… always trying to direct, even when she tried to be good and wait. She clucked her tongue and shot Nicole a warning look. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. What am I going to do with you?” she purred, “Such a bad kitten.” Waverly smacked Nicole’s thigh roughly and left a sting there that sent a current through Nicole.

Such a bad, bad kitten…

The currents beneath Waverly’s skin changed direction as her eyes darkened further, marveling in the torture. Nicole caught her breath and bore down deliciously hard on Waverly’s cock, moaning as it dragged to a stop deep within her belly. Waverly smacked her again, a bright sound that reverberated off the mirror of the black window-glass, and Nicole’s body gave her away with an involuntary quiver and gasp.

“I am going to break you,” Waverly promised. “I think you want me to.” She dropped forward, grabbing Nicole’s throat and squeezing as she pressed the full length of her inside. Nicole shouted at the welcome intrusion—the roughness, the choke-- wanting only for Waverly to cleave her open, to gut her and leave her speechless. Waverly leaned in with a low growl, squeezing Nicole’s throat harder until her hips reached the point of resistance, and Nicole struggled against the fullness, the muchness, of it all.

“Do it,” she gasped.

Waverly plunged in hard, finally burying her cock to the hilt, and drove, each stroke finding its mark desperately deep within her.

Nicole closed her eyes, letting light and energy well up inside with each pump, flashing in time with the motion of their hips. Her whole body was on fire, and Waverly gasped, suddenly being caught up herself in the power of it and crying out from its sheer force. She twined her fingers through Nicole’s hair and pulled hard, throwing herself savagely into the fuck.

And as much as Nicole loved the sheer ecstasy of Waverly’s cock filling and pounding her, the sensation of writhing together in driving machine rhythm with this beautiful creature, she also became aware of a new sensation: It felt like she was fucking Waverly. Nicole’s eyes flashed open and something unspoken passed between them that nevertheless said Waverly felt it, too. A new shared perspective was coursing between them; it was overloaded with sensation and emotion, at once utterly overwhelming and entirely intimate.

At this new realization, Nicole flipped the smaller woman over and focused her energy on making them come together. It shouldn’t have physically worked that way, but Nicole somehow absolutely knew she could do it. Waverly continued to fiercely pump inside of her, and Nicole rode as if she were fucking them both… willing the delicious tension build up between them until she wanted to explode from the heat and energy coiling up within her.

Waverly’s growls joined Nicole’s, and her eyes flashed neon. Nicole focused her energy on that piston inside of her furiously coiling core and she pulled Waverly into her, feeding her lover all the sensation she felt, white-hot energy gathering around them as they clutched and stroked in turn. Their gasps rose in desperate pitch.

Waverly shouted first. Her eyes and skin crackled lightning bright and Nicole felt the woman’s energy burst through her, threatening to tear her apart. She screamed as light filled her, wrestling to release it in turn. Unsure how she could possibly begin to deal with it. Waverly came in a series of bursts, each punctuated by a howl, and Nicole found herself helplessly lifted and buoyed aloft. She bore down, seeking to ride and channel and find her own furious release. The edges of the fire tickled all up and through her belly and legs and chest first, before the power shifted and swiftly intensified, and Nicole’s whole world went up, and off, in glorious light.

She had only one thought, equal parts terror and ecstasy: that if Waverly tore her to shreds, she would die happy.

The energy ripped through her, and she fell apart.

 

//

 

For all intents and purposes, Nicole Haught appeared to be dead.

She’d gone off in light one moment and then slumped heavily against Waverly the next, unmoving and unconscious, her glowing completely extinguished. Waverly scrambled out from beneath her in alarm, rolling her over onto her back, and patting her face and arms.

Holy shit, did I fucking kill her?

Holy shit! Did *fucking* kill her???

 

She leaned over her lover’s chest, watching for an interminably long moment before it resumed its normal rise and fall. Thank God! Nicole took a deep breath and slowly opened her eyes.

“Wow,” was all she could say.

Waverly sighed in relief, pledging silently to go more gently on her next time.

“That was amazing,” Nicole mumbled.

“I’m sorry, sweetie! I kinda hurt you!”

Another sleepy mumble: “’kinda’ felt pretty good to me.”

“You’re ok? Nothing hurts too bad?” Waverly took a moment to scan Nicole’s body to make sure. The tips of her fingers and toes were scorched. She then noticed that somehow the bed had moved away from the wall and into the middle of the room. There was a bed-sized circle of ceiling that was scorched black, and the smell of ozone in the air around them, as if they’d pumped so much power into the air that it actually ripped the molecules apart. Thank God the fire alarm hadn’t gone off in the building.

Holy Hell!

Nicole stretched like a sleepy kitten and pulled Waverly to her. “Mmm. I’m great. And I’m totally going to return the favor,” she sighed contentedly. “Just give me a minute.”

But Waverly was sure she’d experienced the same orgasm Nicole did, and she felt more than satisfied. She pulled Nicole tightly into her arms and legs, holding the larger woman firmly, tenderly. “Take your time,” she smiled.

Waverly lay her head upon Nicole’s chest and reveled at the simple sound of her lover’s heart pounding, the beautiful, healthy and vigorous thumping of it, as if some powerful creature lived inside her ribcage.

Her thoughts flashed to Shae, and she felt a small pang of sadness and jealousy, which she instantly tried to sweep away. It was dumb, really, to begrudge Nicole something she couldn’t even remember, to be jealous of Shae who’d loved and lost everything. But still… the intensity of Waverly’s feelings was so fresh and new and powerful that it made her feel almost desperate not to lose Nicole.

As her lover drifted off to sleep, Waverly pulled ozone-smelling sheets up over them and watched their literal afterglow gradually fade. She kept her hand on Nicole’s sternum, just marveling at the gentle rise and fall of her breathing, feeling profoundly lucky.

If being a robot was what was required in order to experience this bliss, then she was ok with that. In fact, she gave silent thanks.

//

 

Waverly got off the elevator on Floor 3 and made a beeline for her desk. These days she always kept her head down, worrying that everyone around her knew the secret – that she was a robot – and that they were somehow pitying her for being too dumb to know it all along. Part of her also kept her head down to avoid getting reported to management for being an uppity ready-for-a-rollback robot.

She rounded the corner to the Product Management pod she shared with Wynonna and Jeremy to find them both there already and talking to … Robert Svane. Great.

Wynonna’s eyes darted to her, equal parts sad, loving and… guilty? What. The. Fuck. Waverly had a bad feeling about what was going on here. She slowed up her pace, trying to get a clue about what they were talking about.

But the conversation stopped as Robert Svane followed Wynonna’s gaze to … Waverly.

“There you are!” he said with a smile that seemed friendly and happy, but Waverly wasn’t so sure.

She measured her words. “I- I don’t believe I’m late,” she said, glancing down at the time on her phone.

Robert shook his head. “No, you’re perfectly on-time, as usual.”

Wynonna was standing stiffly, looking very uncomfortable, which was saying something. It took her a moment to meet Waverly’s eyes, and when she did her gaze was heavy and troubled.

“What’s wrong?” Waverly asked, cautiously, all the hairs on her neck standing up.

“I told Robert,” Wynonna confessed, “About you and me.”

Waverly’s heart dropped. What the hell did that mean? And why would Wynonna alert Robert to anything about them?

“Yi, yi, yi,” came Jeremy’s voice from behind his oversized monitor, uncomfortably.

Waverly waited for Robert to suggest she follow him to the conference room for another tete a tete… but the request never came. “What?” she said. “Do we need to go talk about something?”

Wynonna’s eyes were pained. Waverly could feel the energy rolling off of her in waves, not enough to send Waverly glowing, but enough to sense that Wynonna had something she wanted Waverly to understand.

Robert turned to Waverly. “On Project Purgatory we have no secrets,” he said. “So there’s no reason to step away for privacy.” He shot a meaningful look over the computer monitor to Jeremy. “Everything you say and do is, of course, monitored and recorded, as you know. Privacy is just an illusion, really.”

“So you want to talk here – in front of the whole Marketing group—about how Wynonna is in love with me?” Waverly asked, sharply.

Wynonna winced. Jeremy softly swore. Somewhere in the background, someone dropped their coffee mug.

Robert’s face was impassive. He finally said, “Yes. That’s about the size of it. Your readings were off-the-charts again yesterday. Yours… and your sister’s.”

Waverly knew she had to lie, but the truth is what came out instead. “I kissed Wynonna…”

Her sister shot her a look like what she said somehow wasn’t profound enough. Waverly sighed heavily.

“It was a kiss. On the lips. It was … passionate. And… I liked it. A lot.” Damn, she was glad Nicole wasn’t here. She kind of wished she wasn’t here, either.

Robert seemed puzzled. “So. You kissed your sister.”

Waverly leveled her gaze at Wynonna’s clear blue eyes, boring into her with every bit of (non-glowing) energy she could muster. She used her words, hoping that words—as opposed to energy—would get her point across without Wynonna popping into full sunshine mode. “Why wouldn’t I want to kiss Wynonna?” she asked, with a small (and sincere) smirk.

“She’s crazy, beautiful, loyal, strong… sexy… and she’s all the family I’ve got.”

“But what about Nicole?” Svane asked. It sounded dumb as he said it, like he was trying to keep up with some convoluted telenovela plot.

“I love Nicole,” Waverly said without hesitation. That had to be the easiest question she’d been asked in days. The one thing she was absolutely certain of.

“But then, clearly it’s not an exclusive arrangement?” Svane asked, trying to understand the suddenly-more-complicated dynamics of his robot posse.

Waverly answered honestly. “I really don’t know what’s happening. I’m trying to figure it out. I spent half the night talking Nicole down off the ledge… and the other half making it all up to her.”

Wynonna winced as if Waverly had just stabbed her. She sensed Jeremy fidgeting lower in his chair, if that were even possible.

“I’m sorry, Wynonna. I love you. You know I do. A lot. More than a lot… a big, big lot.”

Robert Svane raised his hands to silence her. “Ok, Earp sisters. I get it.” He shot Waverly a pointed look. “There’s a lot of *awakening* happening right now. I wonder what’s changed?”

His look held a bit of menace and scrutiny. He was wanting to see if Waverly flinched, if she gave away that her newfound robot self-knowledge was causing her to somehow activate other robots. Which, apparently, it was.

How do I play this?

Jeremy piped up. “Well, Robert, you have to admit these two always have charged readings when they’re around each other.”

Wynonna shot Waverly a look that said, “Yeah! See?”

“So, technically,” Jeremy continued, “this isn’t really anything new—or even an awakening, so much. It’s more of an alcohol thing. They were out at the bar.”

But Robert would only buy that so much. He knew that with Waverly’s epiphany about being a robot surely would come the uncertainty of whether she and Wynonna were sisters at all. He would assume she was acting out on her new robot insights. He would assume she would want to make a new connection with her probably-robot not-sister. Nicole was a robot. Of course, she would assume Wynonna was a robot, too. He would assume that Waverly would try to draw them out. And, apparently, he knew that sexual chemistry is what she’d use to do it.

He knew sex was her thing… because obviously she’d been programmed that way. Waverly’s face flushed scarlet. Wait. Was she a fucking *pleasure model*?

Fucking hell!

“I can’t help it,” she said, honestly. “I- I can’t help how I feel.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and her throat felt tight. “It’s … a lot.”

Robert stepped close, like he was going to give her a fatherly hug. Bad idea. Waverly set her mind to thinking of kittens in a desperate effort to tamp down her robot mojo, in case he could feel it. Kittens, kittens, kittens...

Robert Svane pulled her into a warm hug. “I know you can’t help it, Waverly. It’s who you are, and you are a lovely person just the way you are.”

There was a very real part of her that responded to his affection, welcomed it, relished it. And it did help. It set her mind at ease. He broke the embrace with a warm clap to her shoulder. He shot Wynonna a smile. “You two are my star Product Managers. I’m glad you’re happy.”

Wynonna’s return smile was curious, a bit hopeful, a bit guarded. “You’re not going to try to send us to the company shrink?” she asked.

“No. It’s your business,” he said, easily, and then turned to leave. “You’re welcome to go if you’d like, but I’m not interested in ‘fixing’ you. You’re perfect.” He said the last part for Waverly’s benefit.

She filed that away to think about more later.

And, with that, Robert Svane strode off toward the elevators to go play God in his upstairs tower office. Waverly watched him go, suddenly aware that the rest of the Marketing Group was watching them, probably thinking that Robert Svane had just proved himself to be the most understanding and supportive boss ever.

God, such BULLSHIT! On top of everyone else thinking she’s been a robot all along, Waverly now had to worry about them thinking she was fucking her sister. Great.

Waverly sighed heavily and dropped into her desk chair, training her attention on her email inbox. She needed a dose of normal right now.

“So, Waves, how about dinner tonight?”

She glanced up to see Wynonna looking at her, hopefully.

//

 

“Dude, I can’t believe you figured out how to get out of Svane’s stupid bracelets. You’re brilliant,” Wynonna enthused as Waverly stomped the gas pedal and pointed the borrowed car toward the outskirts of town… and the open highway.

“Well, I had help.”

“Yeah, kind of surprised Haughtstuff was up for a threesome.”

That was an overstatement, of course. Nicole had been game for the three of them to meet at Waverly’s apartment to drink the Kava tea, share some buzzy, glowing energy among the three of them, and then to slip on Wynonna and Waverly’s bracelets and take a nap while the sisters went out to talk. To the monitors, it would read like the three of them had gotten it on and then gone to sleep. But reality had been far more platonic than that. It helped that Jeremy was on monitoring duty and wouldn’t flag anything suspicious. And Svane was probably up in his office imagining the three of them together anyway, so this ruse didn’t require top-shelf performance art.

“Where’d you get the sweet ride?” Wynonna asked, rubbing her hands appreciatively across the textured vinyl dashboard.

“Borrowed wheels from a friend… I assume Svane’s tracking our cars,” Waverly replied. They were in John Henry Holliday’s vintage red Pontiac Firebird. Not the most nondescript of cars, of course. But a far safer bet than Wynonna’s truck or Waverly’s Jeep. She scanned the sky above them. No helicopters.

Wynonna was impressed with Waverly’s thoroughness. “You’ve thought of everything.”

Waverly grinned back. “So frickin much work to get a private word with you!”

“Is that all you want?” Wynonna asked with a sly grin.

Waverly laughed. “Apparently, I’m a dumb horny robot. So, no, that’s never all I want.”

Wynonna sobered enough to ask, “How’s Nicole with that?”

“She’s dealing.”

“She’s not cool with it.”

“Would you be? The woman you’re in love with turns out to be the Amazon Queen of the pleasure models?”

“Waverly. You’re nothing like those Pussywillows skanks.”

“What? How would you know?”

Wynonna crossed her arms and smirked. “Competitive research.”

The highway opened up before them and Waverly pointed the Pontiac West toward the mountains, the mountains where their dad and sister died, where their car veered away from impending destruction, but not fast enough… where this one devastating moment became the single, pivotal, defining moment of her whole shitty life.

In the pale dashboard lights, Waverly shot her sister a shy look. “Did you know… about me?”

About you being the nicest person in town? About you being homecoming queen? About you being most-likely-to-succeed? About you being the smart, friendly, helpful, lovely one?

Wynonna’s throat went dry with an odd mixture of pride and jealousy. She tamped down both emotions, fighting to not over-think, to stay in this moment. Waverly’s eyes were sparkling, vulnerable, pleading for truth, and Wynonna couldn’t – wouldn’t – deny her. “What?” she asked, trying to keep the defensiveness out of her voice. “You wonder if I knew you’re a fucking robot?”

“Yes.” Waverly’s gaze was an open book. That girl had never learned to lie. She’d never learned to be hard. She’d never learned to be ashamed…

“No,” Wynonna said, truthfully. She paused, gathering up her own insecurities. “Did you know I was?”

Waverly’s eyes were soft and tender. They offered her only love and acceptance in return. “No, I only suspected, after I fell off that cliff… and—you know—started glowing.”

“Pretty freaky stuff.”

“Tell me about it.”

“What else can you do?”

“An insatiable sex drive isn’t enough?”

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “You’re just in love. That’s normal.”

“What would you know about that?”

“I don’t know…” Wynonna answered, suddenly realizing the words were true.

They were quiet with their thoughts for a few minutes, gazing out at the road ahead, the yellow lines rolling by like an endless conveyor belt. There was a lot they didn’t know. They both tried hard to grasp at the barest shadows of memories.

“Who was your first kiss?” Waverly asked.

“I don’t remember.”

“How can you not remember?”

“Who was yours?”

“I don’t know.” They suddenly shared a cold new knowledge that sobered them and stilled them and sent them each to her own thoughts and recollections, real or imagined… or programmed.

Wynonna smacked the dashboard in frustration. “What the hell is this? What the fuck? What kind of a life? …. What life?”

“What *do* you remember?” Waverly asked, realizing the words seemed to ring in her own ears, sounding unreasonably needy. This wasn’t helped by the fact that her sister took a moment to gather her thoughts before replying. In that long pause, all of Waverly’s insecurities gathered and pooled together, like some dark ooze.

When Wynonna finally answered, her voice was thick and upset. “Well, I remember a lot of things… that are probably complete-and-total bullshit.”

Waverly remained silent, curious if she’d say more… needing her to say more. Wynonna shot her a hard glance, and she almost couldn’t stand it.

“Am I even …?” Waverly asked in almost a whisper. Words somehow too painful to even utter aloud.

Wynonna scowled. “Are you what? Complete-and-total-bullshit? God, Waves, no! I mean, yes, maybe technically speaking – As in you’re a fucking robot. And I’m a fucking robot. And who knows if anything we remember actually ever happened or if it was some kind of elaborate bullshit story that Svane’s pervert programmers injected into our stupid toaster brains before jacking off all over our stupid plastic doll bodies.”

She paused, gathering steam.

“What the hell were we before we were Wynonna and Waverly? Piles of spare parts down in a lab drawer somewhere? Who thought up our backstories? Who thought up our dumb names? Why am I the fucked-up one and you got to be Miss Perfect? Why do you know four languages while I can hardly read the back of a cereal box?”

Waverly’s cheeks burned.

Wynonna blustered. “You know, when they send us our robot marching orders, you’re probably going to work in a foreign embassy somewhere while I get to be some souped-up skank. It’s fucking bullshit,” Wynonna roared, then softened. “Not the part about you being perfect. That part is awesome. I mean the part about me getting to be to be some billion-dollar spank bot.”

“Wynonna!” Waverly blurted. “There’s no way they spent a billion dollars not to have some very valuable robot mission for you! Robert Svane said our instructions are coming as soon as some paperwork gets signed. I’m fairly certain no one’s going to like their assignments. And we’re not going to get any say in them. The only thing that makes any of this even remotely better is that we have each other.”

She couldn’t help it. Her voice wavered at the last of that.

Wynonna looked at her curiously. “You’re upset that we’re not even real sisters,” she said softly.

“Don’t say that,” Waverly growled, her heart hating the words and wanting to rip them apart. “That’s stupid and not true!”

A shrug. “Doesn’t matter anyway,” Wynonna said, her gaze grim.

Waverly’s face flushed hot. “Don’t be an asshole, Wynonna. Of course, it matters.”

Wynonna shook her head, ruefully. “We may not be sisters,” she said firmly, with a huff. “But you will always be my family. You’re all I remember. You’re all I know. You’re all I love.”

They were pretty words, and she liked hearing them, but Waverly wasn’t sure she could trust them. “I’m your consolation prize,” she pouted. “...For having to be a stupid toaster, you got me.”

“Actually, the way I see it,” Wynonna said, emphatically, “I got the grand prize on the sister lottery, and I don’t much care how I came to win it. You’re the best thing in my life… and I would never trade you… Except if they came out with a newer model … one with more bells and whistles… that maybe vibrates.”

Waverly bit her lip. “God, I love you,” she laughed and smacked her sister’s knee.

//

 

Holy shit!

Wynonna knew it was wrong, but Waverly’s touch set off a course of electricity that jolted and jangled all through her until it shot out of her again like a fucking beacon light. Her skin tingled and hummed and she could swear she just had an orgasm. Kind of. Maybe. She opened her eyes to see her sister sitting beside her, her face lit in awe and wonder, her jaw slack.

“Shit, dude, did you feel that, too?”

Waverly nodded, breathless and maybe a little spooked. “I think I just came.”

“No WAY! What the hell? I would have given anything for that superpower back in high school!”

It took a moment to collect herself, but when Wynonna finally glanced back at the highway before them, it seemed like the hood of the car was enveloped in a ghostly aura of crackling blue electricity.

“Are- are you doing that?” she nervously asked.

“No. I think that’s us. We’re doing that.” Waverly gripped the steering wheel tighter. “But what the fuck is it we’re doing?”

Waverly flashed her a dangerous look.

“Dammit, baby girl, I like it when you’re like this.” She reveled in the chemistry that crackled between them, something that had always been playfully beneath the surface, funny to comment on, but had never felt like *this*… this charge that set all the fine hairs along Wynonna’s arms raising… and that made Waverly’s pupils blow wide open. Wynonna’s breath caught as she noticed a dark shadow pass across her sweet sister’s face.

Waverly’s hand clamped hard on her knee, and Wynonna helplessly went off again like a teenage boy watching free porn.

“Fuck, pull over,” Wynonna shouted, her body still tingling and wringing out the last waves of ecstasy. It suddenly didn’t seem like the smartest thing to be doing, driving along at top speed doing whatever *this* was. Waverly hit the turning indicator to signal she was pulling over, even though they hadn’t passed another car in at least five minutes. Wynonna rolled her eyes. As the Pontiac finally slowed, Waverly killed the motor and the car rolled to its final stop. Nothing but asphalt and grass were visible within the semi-circle of the high beams. The crackling blue was gone. All was still. Wynonna let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

Waverly threw open the car door and climbed out. Wynonna followed. Her sister stood just behind and off to the side of the headlights, gazing off to the black distance, her face in darkness.

Wynonna knew this was perhaps not the moment to say it, but she was fairly buzzing and she couldn’t contain it. “Waves, I don’t know what’s going on between us, but whatever it is … it’s fucking amazing!”

Waverly’s hand clasped hard around hers. Wynonna sensed a gathering energy within her once again, only bigger, and it felt both awesome and terrifying.

“Concentrate!” Waverly growled.

Blood hissed in her ears as Wynonna felt the surge of energy take her, but this time it exploded, sending out a blue shockwave that rippled the grass as it tore away into the distant night. It was accompanied by a deafening thunderclap that burst in a fury and then deteriorated into spasms of echoes, bouncing back faintly from the distance. Wynonna’s heart pounded, her breath heaved and her knees went weak as the flow of energy drained from her. Waverly held her hand tightly, a death grip that felt deadly and life-affirming at the same time. Wynonna’s body was all a-tingle, shaking hands and numb lips.

“Wow!” she sighed as soon as she could find the breath. “That was amazing. Did you see what we did?”

She looked at Waverly, noticing that her sister was shining from within, energy pulsing just beneath her skin. She was beautiful, like an angel, and Wynonna realized with staggering might that she, too, was shining. The Earp sisters had special powers. They could blow up things--with their minds!

“Waves, I have no idea how we did that. How did we do that?” Wynonna said. She glanced at her sister, curious. Waverly slowly turned to meet her gaze.

But the eyes that met Wynonna’s were unexpectedly cold and neon blue. They were the eyes of… What? A robot? Wynonna’s first impulse was to pull away, but Robot Waverly held her hand fast, painfully fast. Her face was impassive, jaw clenching. But those eyes … they were cold and penetrating. It sent chills skittering down Wynonna’s spine.

The grip on her hand intensified, growing painful. Wynonna let out an indignant shout. “Ah! Waves, play nice.” She was sure that was an instruction no one had ever given her straight-A good-girl sister before.

The inhuman look on her sister’s face went darker, and Wynonna cried out in pleasure and pain as Waverly drew one more surge of electricity from her. She felt as if every nerve in her body were being milked and drained and concentrated low in her belly … and it felt terrible and sublime at the same time.

Her knees buckled. “Jesus, stop! You’re going to make me pee my pants!” Wynonna panted, suddenly feeling raw and sore and weak. “Hey, now, Greedy. Save some of that for when we get home to your hot redheaded toy. She’s gonna go nuts for it. I guarantee.”

Waverly blinked back to presence. Her eyes softened and the scary blue was gone. “What the hell, Wynonna?” she asked in a small, uncertain voice, as if she hadn’t been front row and center for all of their fireworks.

“Don’t what-the-hell me! You can’t tell me you didn’t feel that!”

But Waverly merely looked stricken a long moment, then dropped her hand, clutching the sides of her head instead and staring into the distance in dismay. “JEREMY?” she shouted.

//

Waverly spun, suddenly aware that there was another presence inside her head with her. She could hear him plain as day, though she had no idea how he could hear her, considering she wasn’t wearing her monitoring bracelet.

Jeremy repeated himself: “I said I’m wondering if you’re ok. You—you and Wynonna… your readings are steady… But I can feel huge energy discharges coming from you! What’s happening?”

“You can feel that?” Waverly asked breathlessly, spinning to look at Wynonna, who was doubled over, clearly spent and trying to recover.

“Yep. It’s weird and kind of distant, but it’s really, uh, powerful,” Jeremy said. “The hair on my arms is all standing up… and that’s weird because the readings say you’re sleeping. You, Wynonna … and Nicole, too.”

“Nicole’s home in bed. Wearing our bracelets.”

Jeremy pondered this. “Ah, clever, clever! Where are you now?”

Waverly looked around. There was nothing to see but blackness all around. “Out about 40 minutes from town.”

“I get it. You two are, uh, looking for some privacy?”

Her face flushed hot. “Yes, so we can talk in private!”

“That’s some talking you’re doing.”

“All we’re doing is talking,” Waverly said, emphatically, and then realized that wasn’t true. “And, uh, we might be channeling and releasing energy together.”

Wynonna piped up. “Doesn’t sound so romantic when you say it that way… Is that what all the kids are calling it these days?”

Waverly shot her a hot glance.

Jeremy was back in her ear. “You need to tone it down. I can feel what you’re doing.”

“Awkward…” Wynonna mumbled.

“Wait. You can hear him, too?” Waverly asked. “How can you hear him?”

Wynonna shrugged heavily. “I don’t know! I’m not a mind-reader!”

Waverly pressed, putting something together: “But he is! Jeremy, how are you able to do that?”

“I don’t know, Waves. The first time it kinda happened was after your fall. And then ever since the other night… on the street… I can just sort of reach out and feel you…”

“Not creepy at all,” Wynonna quipped. “Perfectly normal. Maybe even awesome.”

Waverly ignored the comment, focusing on the ramifications of what Jeremy was saying. “You’re not on monitoring equipment? There’s nothing here that’s being traced back to Robert Svane?”

“Nope. This is all in my head.” He paused. “But what I don’t know is… if I can feel what’s happening with you, can Robert Svane pick it up, too. Like… If I can feel it, can Dolls feel it… or Nicole? And then what does that do to all of our readings? He may not see the initial surge (unless you have your bracelets on), but he’ll know something’s happened when there’s a surge that, uh, goes through the rest of us.”

Wynonna gave her sister a playful smack in the arm. “Look at you go, Waves, handing out the multiple orgasms.”

Waverly smacked her back, hoping she’d get a clue. Something was bothering her.

“Jeremy, how’s Nicole?”

“I think she’s sleeping… Ah, nope, now she’s awake.” He was quiet for a moment, concentrating. “She’s… I think a text or something came in, and she’s a little freaked out about it.”

Waverly turned to Wynonna. “Who would be texting Nicole?”

“Dolls maybe?”

Jeremy chimed in. “Dolls is, uh, at the firing range right now. At least I think it’s the firing range. It’s either that or he’s in an actual gunfight. It’s, uh, pretty loud.”

Waverly’s senses told her Dolls was ok. “Can you find out from Nicole what’s going on?”

He was silent for a few moments. “Not working. I can’t reach her. She’s there, but she’s too distracted to hear me.”

“Jeremy, please keep trying.” Waverly shot a nervous glance at her sister. “We have to go back. Something’s wrong.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes,” Waverly said, with a certainty she somehow felt in her bioplastic bones. “I do.”

//

 

Nicole had been sleeping peacefully when suddenly she was jolted awake by the powerful feeling that she’d just had an orgasm. Could that be possible? Had she even been dreaming? She lay on her back staring up at the ceiling taking quiet stock of her body, and it was definitely buzzing with a little residual fire that made her wish Waverly were here beside her. It was pleasant enough, so she didn’t mind, of course. It was really nice, in fact… just curious.

Wow, her hormones seemed to be working double-time these days.

She rolled over and reached for her cell phone on the bedside table and accidentally picked up Waverly’s. There was an unread text on the lock screen. From Shae Pressman. The doctor. Nicole was about to put the phone down and reach for her own, when a pang of fear clutched her heart. Why would she be trying to reach Waverly? Did it have something to do with test results? Was it something worse—some under-handed bullshit thing Robert Svane was asking the doctor to follow up on?

Nicole couldn’t help it: She read as much of the text as was visible on the lock screen… just a couple sentences: “Need to see you. I’m worried about…” But the message cut off there. Dr. Pressman was worried about Waverly, and that made Nicole worried, too.

Shit!

She sat staring dumbly at the screen wondering what to do. Waverly and Wynonna had left their phones so they wouldn’t be traced. Nicole had no way to reach them. And she didn’t have the password to Waverly’s phone, of course. She took a deep breath and told herself the only thing to do is follow the plan they’d agreed to: They were sleeping. That was the story. Waverly, Wynonna and Nicole were supposed to have just had amazing sex and fallen asleep in Waverly’s bed. Apparently, that’s what Svane thought they’d be up to, according to the sisters.

She believed Waverly about that, right? That Svane really did make a big scene in the Marketing Dept. this morning? And it’s not that Wynonna was really trying to get Waverly alone for some un-sisterly touching, right? ‘Cause the Artificials were of course not really sisters because… Artificial! And they certainly weren’t into each other the other night, right? That night when Wynonna and Waverly were making out and glowing and everybody was into Waverly, even Chrissy Nedley who had fucking pulled over her car on the street to invite Waverly over for some private hot-tubbing. That’s nothing to feel concerned about, is it?

Shit.

The phone was in her hand. She looked at it again. The text was from “Shae Pressman.” As in, the doctor’s first name was “Shae.” As in, she and Waverly were on a first-name basis now…

And there’s nothing weird about that? Did Shae pull over her car, too, and invite Waverly hot-tubbing?

Nicole sighed heavily, not at all liking where this dark turn of thinking was taking her. She hated being this person. She didn’t want to be suspicious of Waverly’s intentions. She wasn’t a jealous person by nature.

Was she? Had she ever been tested like this before?

“What the fuck do I know, anyway?” Nicole muttered unhappily, realizing she herself was an Artificial (or “fucking robot” as the sisters referred to it). Maybe this was Svane’s big revenge on Nicole for supposedly telling Waverly she’s a robot. Maybe Svane is pulling some robot levers, making Waverly suddenly “turned on” in the literal sense to fucking everybody. As in probably literally wanting to fuck everybody.

Shit.

And what the hell!

She finally set Waverly’s phone down in frustration and reached for her own. It had been 90 minutes since the sisters had left. They could be anywhere, and Nicole wasn’t entirely certain when they were returning.

She wanted to talk to someone. She wanted to leave the apartment and maybe go over to Shorty’s for a beer. Maybe Dolls would go with her. But, of course, she couldn’t go because she had on three bracelets. She was supposed to be three people sleeping right now.

Maybe she should just be three people watching dumb TV right now. It was probably time for Wynonna to start drinking anyway, right? Maybe the “three” of them would just have to go to the kitchen and grab some beers. Maybe Waverly’s cable package had a porn channel she could watch and then the “three of them” could “get it on” again and Nicole could just pass out blissfully to sleep again until Waverly was back and she could learn first-hand what was going on. That would definitely be better than just sitting here wondering and stewing, right?

Nicole walked to the kitchen. “Come on, you two. I bet you’re thirsty. I know I am,” she said to thin air, so it sounded like she wasn’t here all by herself with three bracelets on.

Part of her enjoyed how silly she sounded. She opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer, frowning. “Whoa, there, Wynonna. Leave some for the rest of us.” She grabbed a second bottle and then popped both tops. “Don’t touch. This one’s for Waverly,” she said. “Hmmm. When did I become so bossy? Good question, Earp.” She grabbed her own breast. “Hey, now, Miss Grabby. You two can take turns in one hot minute…”

But her imaginary conversation was cut short by a sharp rap at the front door. Nicole froze, her breath suddenly coming in short bursts. The monitors would think they were just excited from touching each other, right? Who the fuck could be at the door?

Waverly?

No, the knock was too impersonal.

Wynonna? No, she’d probably knock like the cops. Besides, Waverly said they’d knock three times—some cute kitten knock. This was not a cute kitten knock.

“Did one of you order pizza?” Nicole breathed uncomfortably, trying to keep things light. “If so, I hope you ordered pineapple…”

Another knock, this one a little louder, but still politely impersonal.

“Let’s get some pants on,” Nicole said aloud for the bracelets. “Maybe let’s do that before answering the door.”

One more knock. “This better not be Robert Svane or we’re in big trouble,” Nicole said, unhappily… and then unlocked the deadbolt and cracked the door open.

Shae Pressman was standing in the hallway.

“Oh!” Nicole said.

“Oh!” Shae replied, equally startled, and then began rattling nervously: “Oh! I should have realized you’d be here… that, that Waverly, of course, wouldn’t be alone, I mean. That the two of you would be together.” She took a deep breath and started over. “I should have called first.”

Against her better judgment, perhaps, Nicole opened the door for her. “It’s okay. I saw that you’d texted. But… Waverly was, ah… sleeping. She didn’t have a chance to see your message.”

Shae blushed furiously. “Sleeping. Right. I should have realized I’d be interrupting….” She looked uncomfortably at Nicole’s chest. Nicole looked down to see the kitten T-shirt, Waverly’s favorite. Its fit was pretty snug. Nicole became self-conscious that the hallway was cold and her nipples were suddenly hard.

“Ah…” she drawled, embarrassed and not sure what else to say.

“Ah…” Shae replied, equally uncomfortable, and with some effort dragging her eyes from Nicole’s breasts to her eyes.

Nicole couldn’t help grinning at the effort it seemed to take. “Why, doctor, it’s a little chilly out there. Would you like to come in?” There was a coyness to the sound of the words that Nicole hadn’t realized would be there.

Shit! Why did I just invite her in? And did I just flirt with her???

Shae’s gaze locked on hers, and suddenly Nicole was suffused with heat from head to toe. Wow. What the hell was that?

“Yes, I think I’d like to come inside,” said Shae, perfectly polite and agreeable enough, but there was an undercurrent, too, and it set off little sparks.

Nicole swung the door inward.

This was either a very good idea… or a very bad one.

 

//

 

 

Thanks for reading. A note to anyone concerned about Waverly/Nicole. This is a Wayhaught story through-and-through... and I don't intend to introduce any other couplings, despite all the flirty mojo. Right now there's some serious robot energy (and some backstories and connections) coming to light, but I promise to take good care of our girls.

  

Chapter Text

 //

 

 

Nicole Haught was softness incarnate. Soft skin, soft hair, soft eyes… soft lips.

Shae Pressman recalled all-too-well the feel of Nicole Haught. Everything. How she smelled, how she tasted, how she melted to Shae’s touch. She was shocked at how it all came slamming back to her in this moment, standing alone with Nicole in a regular apartment living room like it was no big deal.

It had been two years since Shae had seen her… and four since the terrible accident. The one she’d told Waverly about, the one that took Nicole’s life and left her unspeakably crushed and broken apart in a ditch beside the highway. Shae had been a doctor then. She knew the damage. She’d claimed the body. She’d fought ever since to rid her mind of the memories. The inhumanity of Nicole Haught’s final end.

The only thing that had helped ease the memories was seeing Nicole again two years later at Los Alamos. Standing, sitting, walking, laughing, going about her day. Revenance had remade Nicole (and, really, considering the state her deceased body had been in, that was quite a feat). She was miraculously the spitting image of her previous self, aside from small quirks that only Nicole’s wife would notice.

And, of course, Shae noticed.

One of the things that was different was her scent. Shae would probably always remember vividly the delicious scent of Nicole: earthy, sweet, personal. Equal parts honey and leather, warm grass and blue sky.

But the Nicole who returned two years ago was just the tiniest bit different, and those differences were somehow maddening. Shae had sought to catalog each of them professionally in her notes, and personally, with her hands, her lips, her tongue. The Nicole who came back was Shae’s personal prize, her biggest gift, her most desperate wish… and also, sadly, her biggest puzzle: perfect in almost every way, but somehow also … wrong.

The Nicole who stood before her now, braless in a too-tight kitten T-shirt, looking disheveled, a little cocky and a little uncomfortable: This Nicole was a completely different person yet again. This Nicole remembered nothing about them. She likely remembered little about herself. But, as Shae stood close enough just now that it would take no effort at all to reach out and brush fingertips, she was suffused with the unfair knowledge that this Nicole smelled like her Nicole.

How had Revenance done it?

Damn them.

“Can I get you a beer?” Nicole said amiably enough, though perhaps also with a bit of a confused look, as if she wasn’t entirely sure why she’d invited Shae inside. Shae gave her a small smile, her heart skipping a beat as Nicole’s face lit into a lovely (and achingly familiar) smile.

I shouldn’t have come here.

But she suppressed her misgivings (and tried to suppress her involuntary responses) and followed Nicole to the kitchen. Nicole moved with all the fluidity and grace she always had. Shae stifled an impulse to reach out and touch her as she bent into the refrigerator to retrieve the beer, her long back and shapely hips stretching out before Shae in that way she remembered well, as if inviting her to run hands up under her shirt.

Not yours to touch.

But Nicole was back on her feet a moment later with a cold beer in her hand. “The bottle opener is in the drawer right behind you,” she said as she turned, reaching around Shae to get to it. Their fingertips brushed as Shae accepted the beer, and Shae felt the contact as if she’d been electrically charged. She glanced back up at Nicole and saw a tender expression come over her face. As Nicole straightened again, forgetting the bottle opener for a moment, her eyes locked on Shae’s and … she began to glow from within, her skin faintly shimmering.

What the hell, Revenance?

They stood still like that a long moment, Nicole gazing warmly, and Shae staring dumbfounded at the beauty of the woman’s inner light show: How little stripes of white light seemed to lick out from her heart like ripples on a still pool. They seemed to bounce and shift, reacting to unseen stimulus and responses within her.

“Huh,” Shae said, breathlessly. “You don’t see that every day.”

Nicole chuckled, as if they were sharing an old joke. Were they? She hesitated a moment, and then pulled Shae into a warm hug, saying, “We know each other, don’t we?”

The words were simple; they held no pain, only warmth and wonder, perhaps.

“You could say that,” Shae chuckled in return, reveling in the feeling of wrapping the long-dead woman she loved in her arms once again. They stood together like that for a few seconds, just rocking together. The energy that flowed through them was amazing, all sparkles and tingles. Both of their hearts pounded in time to the pulsing of Nicole’s inner light.

This felt like her Nicole.

Nicole brushed her lips against Shae’s cheek, a soft kiss, and stood back, holding Shae at arm’s length and catching her breath. “Wow. Uh, you feel amazing,” she breathed unsteadily. She shot a curious glance and said, “How well do we know each other?”

Shae laughed, and it felt like she hadn’t truly laughed in a long time. “We used to know each other… but that was a long time ago, and I’m not surprised you don’t remember.”

“I should remember, though, shouldn’t I?” Nicole said, carefully, raising her braceleted wrists.

Wrists?

Why was she wearing two bracelets? Nicole spotted Shae’s sudden comprehension, and rolled a third bracelet down from under the sleeve of her kitten shirt. She lay a finger to her lips, signaling Shae to speak carefully.

Nicole must be covering for two unaccounted-for Project Purgatory team members. Waverly was surely one of them… the other, if Shae were to guess, was probably Wynonna.

Nicole reached again for the bottle opener, laying a hand on Shae’s hip as she did. Nicole’s body lit up like Christmas and her body gave a palpable kick. Shae’s gave one in reply as well, and they both looked at each other with some awe and confusion as the sparks faded. This Nicole may not remember, but she clearly knew she was an Artificial, because, hello, glowing? And she was also sensitive enough to somehow pick up the history—as well as the chemistry—the two of them shared…

Shared… as in past tense… as in years ago.

Curious, though, that the Nicole Haught who arrived at the Alberta office a couple of weeks ago certainly hadn’t been lit from within. What had changed since then? Was it related to some unseen altering of Waverly that happened when she fell? Was it related to new knowledge coming from John Henry Holliday? The Nicole that Shae met a few days ago hadn’t felt like this; she didn’t feel like she had any recollection of Shae at all.

Robert Svane would want to know about these new developments... about the inner light… and the sensing. Waverly had somehow “activated” Nicole. The Artificials were formulating their own agenda.

“I’m sorry,” Nicole said, looking a bit self-consciously at her glowing hands, and referring to the energy exchanging between them. “This probably looks and feels really weird… but, uh, it doesn’t happen with just anyone.” The soft brown eyes that returned to Shae’s melted her heart. “I hope you don’t mind?” Nicole asked. There was so much weight behind the disarmingly simple question.

Shae shook her head adamantly. She was not about to tell Svane anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. Shae had hoped when she gave Waverly the newspaper articles that Waverly would begin to put some pieces together… that she’d be motivated to find a way to get Nicole out of here.

Shae took a deep, steadying breath, knowing that she was really about to cross the boss, and that it would probably not go well for her.

She pulled Nicole into a tight hug once more and whispered into her ear, “I should never have let him have you.”

Nicole froze for a moment, then returned the hug fiercely. When they pulled apart her eyes were wide with new understanding. Her eyes said that even without having all the facts, she understood that by “him” Shae meant Robert Svane.

Why? How? Those were certainly the questions Nicole wanted to ask. Instead, she said something infinitely sadder: “Maybe you could tell me more about… the old days?”

Shae’s eyes stung. “Yes, I’d be happy to…” she replied with some difficulty, though doing so would certainly feel more devastating to her than “happy.” And at the same time, she realized that, finally, this Nicole might actually be ready to hear the truth she had not been prepared to handle two years ago.

Shae had made a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes had torn her apart every damn day since. She had a lot of making up to do. She couldn’t possibly make this up to Nicole. But she had to try. She was ready to clear her conscience.

Her cheeks colored.

“You’d better sit down.”

 

//

 

The Pontiac Firebird was pointed home. The divider line on the highway sped to meet them, furiously hurtling out of the darkness, as the vintage muscle car chewed up the miles between Waverly and Nicole.

Waverly was determined to get back to her baby as fast as possible. She didn’t quite understand what she was feeling… but something big was happening, and all she knew was she needed to connect with Nicole as soon as possible. Wynonna had referred to it as “spidey sense,” this sensation that crawled under her skin, like shit was seriously happening, and she was urgently needed. This spidey sense hurt like hell.

Wynonna regarded her sister somewhat warily. In the last 48 hours, she’d become achingly aware of the serious power Waverly wielded. Wynonna had been turned on, jacked up, manipulated, drained… and at the end of it all, at the height of the energy flow (or was it suck?) between them, Waverly had no longer been present all, and that was perhaps the most worrisome thing. Where did her sister go when the robot shit got real? What did it mean when her eyes went all cold and freaky blue and she seemed to turn into a fucking devil machine from some end-of-the-world sci-fi movie?

Waverly was oblivious. She’d snapped out of it eventually, without an inkling of the danger Wynonna had sensed. But Wynonna felt it for sure: Something with her sister was off, and it wasn’t good.

Waverly had no idea. She was in her own little thought bubble right now. She shot a worried glance at Wynonna. Energy crackled between them. Wynonna knew what it was about, and it wasn’t about the two of them—or whatever had just happened between them out on the dark prairie.

“I’m sure Nicole’s fine,” Wynonna said. “If she wasn’t, you’d know.”

“I know she’s fine,” Waverly replied. “But something’s happening. I feel it, and I need to know what it is.”

Her sister and Nicole Haught shared something special between them, no doubt about it. Wynonna just wasn’t sure what it was. Chemistry, of course. If Haught and her sister shared even a fraction of the energy exchange she had with Waverly… and was still standing…. Damn…

Of course, Waverly wanted to get back to Nicole. Wynonna’s heart couldn’t help but feel her sister’s excitement… and pain.

An idea came to her. She took a deep breath, reached out and clasped Waverly’s hand, twining their fingers together. A jolt went through both of them, tongues of cool, blue electricity arcing across their joined hands, writhing and snaking up their arms, raising their hair on end. Wynonna tamped down the impulse to stop. She resisted the fear of it becoming too much… and instead cleared her mind and focused on one thing: Nicole.

She said Nicole’s name in her mind, and then imagined Haught’s puppy-cute face… her warm smile… and her lovely breasts… in a kitten T-shirt.

Wynonna shot her sister a look. Of course, Waverly would be looking at Nicole’s boobs.

“Who’s the tall-dark-and-gorgeous brunette?” Wynonna asked.

Waverly’s mind must have seen the same thing Wynonna’s did because she said, “She’s with Shae Pressman, the doctor.”

Energy continued to arc between them; it snapped at their skin like little ants.

“The hot lady doctor?”

“Yes,” Waverly said with some effort, “She’s been helping me figure some things out… She and Nicole… used to be married.”

“Robots can marry?”

Waverly shot Wynonna a patient smile. “They were married. Before Nicole was a robot. Before she died.”

Waverly’s eyes never left Wynonna’s.

Wynonna struggled with the pieces. “Wait. Nicole Haught was married… but then she died?” The information was somehow not adding up for her.

“Yes, in 2013. A biking accident in Atlanta.” Waverly’s voice caught at the last part: “She was hit by an SUV… and she died… from her injuries.”

A sudden electrical shock passed between the sisters, and both dropped the other’s hand.

“Ouch!” Wynonna growled, yanking her hand away.

“What the hell?” Waverly whimpered, shaking the pain from her fingers.

Wow. That's new!

So far, the energy that moved between Waverly and other robots so far had felt… good. Really good, in fact. In some ways, too good. This was different. And not good. Waverly sought desperately with her mind to reach Nicole again, but there was nothing but cold blackness.

The car’s AM radio blinked on, and some oldies tune warped and crackled up from the dashboard, as if coming back to life from long, long ago.

Neither of them had touched the dial.

All the fine hair on Waverly’s body raised and her face and lips tingled. Wynonna’s eyes were wide and spooked.

“Stop that,” Waverly said.

“It’s not me,” Wynonna replied.

“Shit!” Waverly’s stomach took a dive. “Then what is it?”

//

 

Dolls stepped outside of the indoor firing range facility and into the cold Alberta night, checking the time on his wristwatch.

9:48 p.m.

His ears rang with a faint, tinny hum from temporary hearing loss, despite the ear protection he was always careful to wear. He knew it would pass, but it annoyed him just the same. There was no one in the parking lot. It was eerily quiet and still as he made his way to the SUV Revenance had assigned him. There was nothing outwardly “off”… but for some reason, all the fine hairs on his body raised, and his lips went numb. He slowed up, reaching his hand inside his jacket to find the handgun he had holstered there.

“Jeremy…” he whispered.

It took a moment, but then Jeremy’s voice was in his head. “Yo, Dolls! What up?”

“Status report.” He swept his gaze across the parking lot before him, taking care to scrutinize the dark shadows for signs of anyone there. His eyes told him there was no one, but his senses told him differently.

“Uh, Nicole is with Shae Pressman (she’s on Team Purgatory). They’re at Waverly’s apartment. They’re talking and it’s kind of intense, but Nicole’s ok….”

“And Waverly?”

“She and Wynonna are about 20 minutes outside of town, driving back to Waverly’s place… and they’ve been throwing down some serious energy bolts together out there. I could feel it even though they aren’t wearing their bracelets… ”

“Why are they out of their bracelets?”

“Uh, I think it involved Nicole… and some coconut oil. But I don’t really want to get into all that.”

“Never mind,” Dolls said, clipping him off. He spun around to make sure no one was behind him. He was still alone. “Where’s the boss?”

Jeremy paused a long moment. “Uh, I don’t really have him on monitors. He doesn’t wear a bracelet, so…”

“Jeremy, reach out with your mind: Where is Robert Svane right now?”

“Oh, wow, okay, okay…” Jeremy said, training his awareness in a way that felt new. “Give me a minute…”

Dolls stopped walking. He was about 20 paces from his car, standing in a pool of light cast down from a light pole above him. He was fully illuminated, even his breath visible in the cold night air. He paused only a moment to notice before stepping away and into the darkness.

“Svane’s headed down to W3,” Jeremy reported. “I think he’s on his way to the monitoring room. He’s… he’s not happy.”

“Is he alone?”

Jeremy concentrated, searching for the answer. “No, he’s not. There are others with him.”

“How many?”

“I- I can’t tell.”

Dolls knew Jeremy was on monitoring duty tonight.

His heart thudded in his chest. “Jeremy, where are you?”

//

 

Jeremy fought to keep his teeth from chattering. He pulled the scarf tighter under his chin and gazed off into the distance, knowing that Dolls would think his reply odd. “Uh, I’m… on top of the Revenance building.”

“On top?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Jeremy nodded, even though no one was there to see him. “Uh, I didn’t feel … safe… downstairs. I felt something odd down there. Waverly was throwing a lot of energy tonight, and I could feel it. I- I was afraid it was going to throw off the instruments… or I was going to throw off the instruments… So I came up here to get out into the clear.” He took a sip of hot coffee from his Optimus Prime mug.

“You realize I don’t have a helicopter to come get you,” Dolls teased, trying to make a point that Jeremy was not in a safe position.

“Y-eah,” he replied. “But I’m going to be front row and center when the helicopters bring Wynonna and Waverly back in tonight.”

“What?”

Jeremy stopped, suddenly realizing his words were true. “Wow. I didn’t even know that… I hadn’t even thought that… until just now.”

 

//

 

There was a crackle of footsteps on asphalt behind him, and Dolls spun, drawing his gun and aiming at the source of the sound.

He found himself eye-to-eye (and gun-to-gun) with a steely-eyed blonde woman in a tailored white pantsuit. Her narrow eyes were cold and amused and her gun was government-issued.

If they had been alone, he would have knocked the stupid grin off her face and engaged her in hand-to-hand combat. But she was not alone. He glanced across the pool of light and noticed the barrels of no fewer than five other guns trained on him as well. This agent rolled with backup.

Dolls took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, reluctantly. She had him. He raised his hands and dropped his weapon, which hit the ground with a dull and disappointing clatter.

This was not good.

The agent’s thin lips quirked into a brittle smile.

There was something achingly familiar about her (as in his chest ached and his eyes stung), but he tamped the pain down quickly, professionalism (and stoicism) flaring up angrily within him. His jaw set as he leveled his gaze at her. “Okay,” he said again, loathe to avert his eyes.

“You are in some trouble,” she purred, as if both pleased… and impressed.

Dolls focused on Jeremy with all his might: “Jerm, warn the others!”

//

 

Chrissy Nedley was not, by nature, a brave person.

She’d worked for Revenance Corporation for 10 years, longer than most anybody she knew. Robert Svane had hired her for some simple clerical job, probably thinking that’s all she was good for because she wasn’t flashy or sassy. But she had grander designs than that for her career. She wasn’t going to push paper or manage stupid projects, like the dumb Marketing Department lackeys. As soon as she learned of the “precious cargo” that was Project Purgatory, her heart formulated one ambition and one ambition only: She was going to support the proper care and feeding of the Artificials. She was going to make sure they were healthy and happy and thrived. Especially the one that had been modeled after her own childhood best friend:

Waverly.

The girl who died.

Beautiful, smart, friendly. A quick smile and a warm hug for anybody… especially for introverts like Chrissy. There were other people she’d grown up with who turned hard and cold and catty. Their barbed tongues lashed out, striking down anyone who was an easy target, seeking only to aggrandize themselves by belittling others. Chrissy saw through all of that. She knew it wasn’t fair… that their cruelty was more about themselves than it was a critique of the targets of their ire. She admired Waverly for her smarts and her heart`… and the fact that no matter what shit life threw at her she always kept her shape. That was who Chrissy wanted to be, too. She wanted to be the tree that bent but would never break. Waverly taught her she could be that.

It was dark, and kind of late for a work night, but Chrissy shoved aside her misgivings, focusing instead on the task at hand. She unlocked her car door and slipped inside, firing up the motor and pulling out into the street without a second thought. She pointed the car in the direction of Revenance Corporation.

When Chrissy felt her heart tugged, she answered the call. She certainly owed Waverly at least that much.

//

 

“Turn there!” Wynonna’s voice sounded sharp and hollow in her own ears.

Waverly obeyed, spinning the huge steering wheel in a broad circle to the left, and the car engaged, all squealing tires and spitting gravel, shooting off on its new course into the night.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Waverly growled.

“I can’t believe you don’t remember,” Wynonna replied.

They stared at each other in worry for a moment, their blood running cold. Then the overhead spotlight swept down upon them again, illuminating their world in an artificial bubble of stark, bright white. Dust and debris kicked up in a maelstrom, making it hard to see.

Shit! The helicopters were still on them, as they had been for the last ten minutes.

Waverly gunned the motor, and the Pontiac fishtailed madly into darkness again.

“Cut the headlights,” Wynonna breathed.

“No way,” Waverly yelled, fighting with the steering wheel enough as it was. The road they’d turned down was a narrow gravel track, and at this speed, it felt like a sheet of glass.

With potholes.

Wynonna reached out her hand, clasping Waverly’s where it white-knuckled the steering wheel. “You can do it,” she said, emphatically.

Waverly’s eyes cut away from Wynonna’s and back to the narrow road ahead. She wasn’t so sure of anything just now… except Wynonna. She took a deep breath and flicked the headlight switch off. She closed her eyes and reached out with her mind … instead of with her stupid human senses.

Wynonna’s hand was right there upon hers; she was lending her strength and her vision. And, gradually, Waverly’s senses attuned so that she became aware of a perfect version of the road ahead in soft gray. Waverly waited for the ditch to come, but it never did. She navigated this completely hallucinated road … and it worked.

“Damn!” Wynonna cheered.

“Don’t thank me yet!” Waverly ground out, fighting against instincts that told her to stop the car and fucking run. She sought out the steadiness of Wynonna’s heart and let it calm her.

“You’re doing great, baby girl!” Wynonna shouted over the beating of the helicopter blades as they approached again.

The pool of light swept down over them once more, kicking up commotion and obscuring their view of the road ahead. “Jerks!” Wynonna spat, followed by, simply: “Gun it!”

Waverly hit the gas, and the car responded with a satisfying kick in power.

She hoped it would be enough.

//

 

The desk phone buzzed.

A voice on the other end of the line blurted out, “Get down to the lab! Units 1 and 2 are awake!”

“I’ll be right there!”

Shae Pressman’s lips went numb, and if she weren’t already seated in her desk chair, she would certainly have fainted, too. Her stomach dropped as she turned her eyes to the black window-glass, her own reflection bouncing back at her, making her feel even more dumb and disoriented.

It had been two years since she’d seen Nicole. Two painful, terrible, empty years. And now, her most desperate wish was about to come true.

She couldn’t fucking believe it.

“I’ll be right there.” Those were the words she’d been waiting to say. This was the summons she’d been waiting to hear all this long time. She’d played those very words in her head a hundred times, this way and that. But now, hearing those words that had always been in her own head suddenly uttered aloud? They felt crazy and wrong.

Shae’s heart pounded and she thought she might be sick.

All she’d ever wanted was Nicole. Her Nicole. Since she’d died, all Shae would focus on was how to get her back. She’d exchanged dirty money. She’d commanded unspeakable things. She’d changed her career, twining her fate with that of her love… and this mission. She’d put everything—absolutely everything—into this.

The moment of truth was now here. It was time to greet her lover again.

Why did she feel such abject terror?

She climbed unsteadily from her chair, her reflection lurching at her from the window like some wicked parody. She closed her eyes and felt her way to the office door, pushing herself through the portal and down the hall.

“Oh, there you are,” said Chrissy Nedley, coming out of fucking nowhere and linking arms together. Shae relished the contact. She was glad for this small moment of normal as they made their way to the elevators.

“I hear they have two units ready,” Chrissy whispered.

Shae didn’t know anything about that. All she cared about was one. And, dammit, today was the day. This hour was the hour. She was minutes away from being reunited with the woman she loved.

She thought she’d be sick.

“Whoa, there,” Chrissy said, kindly, holding Shae’s elbow and keeping her aloft when all her fine motor skills gave up the ghost and threatened to drop her in her tracks. “It’s a big moment, and we get to be part of it!” Chrissy breathed. “We could win the Nobel prize.”

There was only one prize that mattered to Shae. And it had nothing to do with science or personal recognition and everything to do with determination… and love. Chrissy had no idea what Shae had put on the line for this moment.

Her skin broke out in cold sweat. “It’s just a lot,” Shae said, aware of how strangely shaky her voice sounded.

“It’s okay, I got you,” Chrissy said, pulling Shae close and lending her strength.

As they neared the elevators, a third person joined them. Jeremy Chetri held out a latte to Shae, who accepted it numbly and fought even to look up to thank him.

“Jeremy, how is it everything you do is perfect?” she said, the words tripping from her lips, messy, but true.

Jeremy squirmed, happy to receive the compliment: “Oh… I pay attention,” he said with a mysterious smile. “And today is a big, big day” he said, stepping up beside them at the elevators. They watched the numbers slowly illuminate on the elevator’s slow crawl from floor 4 to floor 2. They could have taken the stairs in half the time.

Shae was aware her cheeks and lips were completely numb. And her hands. And her body. And her brain. She was absolutely overwhelmed.

The elevator pinged and Shae’s heart gave a kick. They all seemed to take a collective deep breath.

“Here we go!” Jeremy chirped, equal parts exuberance and anxiety. The three of them stepped into the elevator to meet destiny.

At the bottom, the doors opened to reveal the long hallway at Los Alamos. Shae fought to keep presence of mind and follow its long corridor to the lab. Chrissy and Jeremy had stepped out ahead of her, and she focused her muffled senses on following their flowing lab coats, as if her lover hadn’t just been risen from the dead.

The lab doors popped open, and the three of them stepped inside and took their places among the semi-circle of on-lookers who were about to meet their first-ever advanced human Artificial.

Robert Svane was there, of course, his small round spectacles flashing under the harsh overhead lights. And John Henry Holliday was off to the side conversing softly with his lab tech Rosita. There was a comfortable hush over the room that was not at all proportionate to how huge this moment felt to Shae Pressman.

“I think I’m going to be ill,” she whispered to Chrissy, who merely grabbed her arm more confidently, her eyes flashing nothing but compassion. “You can do this,” Chrissy whispered.

She knew Chrissy was right. She was right, of course.

Shae swallowed her fear and her misgivings… and focused on this one, glowing moment: Nicole was going to be made whole again. Today, they had the chance to meet all over.

The woman she’d fallen in love with four years ago and cruelly lost two years ago? She was going to get to meet her again, and she could not fucking wait. She sipped her latte (it was cold by now) and took a deep breath, willing her body to stop tingling.

Robert Svane snapped his fingers, calling the group to attention, and one of the twins—Greta?—wheeled out the table that held the body.

It was Nicole, more complete than she had any right to be considering the state Shae had last seen her in two years ago, when she’d claimed her remains. As in plural. Shae flashed a glance at Holliday, who received it… and silently tipped his hat to her. He alone knew what this moment meant to her.

She set down her latte cup and clutched Chrissy’s hand on one side and Jeremy’s on the other, gathering energy from them and concentrating on remaining upright. They squeezed her hands reassuringly in return.

Shae’s first thought at seeing Nicole Haught again… was that her skin was flawless. Shae couldn’t help but admire the soft skin, soft hair, soft lips. The color there was pale pink and perfect, and her chest rose and fell in steady rhythm, as if she were sleeping. Shae’s heart sang with joy, and she craved to touch her, to lay her ear to that chest and listen to its heart pound away, to curl up beside her.

It had been so long.

Robert Svane stepped forward, into the pool of light that illuminated Nicole’s body, and spoke:

“My dear Los Alamos teammates,” he said with a thoughtful nod. “Thank you for gathering here with me today. It is a most momentous occasion.”

He ran a hand down Nicole’s arm, admiringly.

“This beautiful creature is the first of her kind. She is fully-functioning… and enhanced. Brought back from the very brink of death—and even beyond—and now, as you see… very much alive.”

He paused a moment to remove a small syringe from his lab-coat pocket. He activated it, and then gently jabbed it into Nicole’s neck and inserted its contents. “She’s her own creature, smart, caring, loyal… autonomous…”

“She’s capable of anything you and I are capable of… and yet so much more.”

He drew around to her face, gently patting her cheek, as if to rouse her. “And thanks to us, she’s getting a new chance at life. A clean start… an empty slate. Come on, Nicole,” he breathed softly. “It’s time for you to meet your new family.”

Part of Shae resonated to that notion: that her beloved would have 900 people to care for her. But another part, that older part of herself that longed for the life she’d had before Nicole’s accident… that part of her wanted Nicole all for herself. The notion of having to share did not sit well with her.

She looked up and noticed Holliday was giving her an inscrutable look. She flashed him a frown and then returned her attention to Robert Svane, who had just received the barest muscle twitch from Nicole in response to his gentle encouragements to wake.

Shae held her breath and felt Chrissy and Jeremy catch theirs as well.

Eyelids flickered open, soft, like butterfly wings, and set Shae’s whole body to buzzing.

With a sigh, brown eyes opened and fixed themselves skyward, gentle and kind. Shae’s body lurched at their powerful draw. Her breath grew strained and shallow. She waited patiently as the Artificial swept its gaze around the room, slowly taking in its surroundings, until finally its gaze swung over to Shae and captured her there.

Shae’s heart swelled with happiness one moment, only to plummet the next, as it slowly dawned on her: The eyes that tracked around the room were the same brown as Nicole’s, but they were anything but soft. They reflected a dark gun-metal gray, a color that seemed to well up from deep within her, revealing a machine-like sensor beneath her perfect surface.

The illusion of this Nicole Haught was good, but it was not quite perfect. And that last half-mile away from perfection was a killer.

Shae shot a look at John Henry Holliday once more. He was still gazing her way, his expression saying he understood her pain. For what that was worth.

It wasn’t fair. He could never feel her pain.

And, anyway, this pain was nothing compared with the brutal reality of all that came next.

Robert Svane stepped back into the light. “Nicole is the first in her series. Within a few weeks, we’ll have a handful of other units activated… and our priority as a team—and as an organization—will be helping them to feel right at home, to learn about their new world… and to run them through rigorous testing.”

A young woman in a lab coat and smart red glasses stepped forward, holding a notepad. “What kind of tests will we be running?” she asked.

Svane turned to her with a smile. “Why, thank you for asking, Waverly.” He turned back to address the group.

“We’ll be performing full monitoring. That means: physical readings, mental testing… aptitude and learning, conversation, problem-solving. Nicole here is an amazing machine. Now let’s discover just how truly amazing she is.”

There seemed to be general assent around the room at that. Nicole, for her part, had a funny expression on her face: equal parts curiosity and openness … and confusion. Did she understand English?

Svane turned to Nicole last. “And most of all, Nicole, I want to thank you in advance for being a part of our team. We are so pleased to meet you… and we’re so grateful for your service.”

Nicole smiled, that same old smile Shae knew so well, and nodded uncomfortably to the room. “It’s nice to meet you all, too,” she said. “I look forward to working with you.”

Svane beamed like a proud papa.

Holliday, from the shadows, smiled and rolled his eyes.

Svane snapped his fingers. “Chrissy Nedley: you’re in charge of nutrition. Jeremy Chetri, you’re on monitoring duty. Dr. Shae Pressman… make sure Nicole is always in good functioning order. And Waverly Earp? You’re in charge.”

With the assignments made, the meeting broke up. The crowd dispersed, leaving only Chrissy, Jeremy, Shae and Waverly standing awkwardly in a circle around an uncomfortable-looking Nicole.

Shae couldn’t help it. She had to ask this woman she’d never met, who somehow outranked her: “What does it mean, exactly, that you’re in charge?” She tried as best she could to keep the petty-sounding edge from her voice. She honestly just wanted to know who she was up against.

Not that this was a competition.

Waverly smiled a very pretty smile. The overhead light flashed off of her glasses a moment before she spoke in a lovely English accent: “Uh, well. That last part was complete news to me, too. As much as Robert told me is that my job title on this project would be ‘handler.’” She used air-quotes on that last bit, with a cute blush. Chrissy and Jeremy grinned back at her. Waverly paused a moment, looking down awkwardly at her notes, and then added: “So I do believe it means you’ll all be, ah, reporting to me… on this project, anyway.”

Shae felt her cheeks burn.

Later, when she’d cornered Holliday about it, he was evasive.

“I never promised you carte blanche, doctor,” he said. “Robert knows nothing about your previous relationship to Ms. Haught, and the team assignments are his to make. I suggest you focus on the operative word here, which is ‘team.’ There was never a scenario where this was going to be a one-woman show. The good news is you’re part of Nicole’s inner, most intimate circle.”

Shae smirked. “I just have to report everything … to her.”

Holliday leveled his gaze at her. “Waverly is not your enemy.”

“That, I guess I’ll just have to determine for myself.” Shae said, turning to leave.

He caught her wrist, adding: “And don’t forget Ms. Haught has a mind of her own.”

Shae shook him off with a terse, “She always did.”

 

//

 

Dolls sat uncomfortably in the back of the shiny, black, government-issued SUV, his hands cuffed painfully behind him, and darted his attention around the agents who surrounded him, trying to notice anything that would tell him who they were. Because they weren’t talking.

The SUV was out on the highway, pointed west toward the mountains. That wasn’t a good thing. There was nothing out there. No military base. No headquarters. Just acres and acres of wide-open space… to dump a body… or hide one. And he didn’t know which was worse.

In the distance ahead, two helicopters swung out over the highway with searchlights on.

“Are those yours?” he asked. He wasn’t liking this at all. Some shit was starting to go down.

No response came from the plainclothes agents crammed in the SUV with him.

He pursed his lips and focused his mind on Jeremy.

It took a few minutes, and then he was there, in Dolls’ head, sounding worried.

“Dolls! What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. Government agents of some kind. I need you to do two things…”

“Fire away.”

“Do some sleuthing. See if you can I.D. this woman. She seems to be in charge.”

“Who?”

Dolls broke communication a moment to bait the agent in the white suit. “It’s hot in here. Can you please crack a window?”

She tossed him a withering look from the front passenger’s seat. “I’ll give you a crack if you don’t fucking shut up,” she snarled. Which was completely uncalled-for. He imprinted the image of her face in his mind… and pressed it on to Jeremy.

“This sonofabitch,” he communicated.

“Hmm. She doesn’t ring any bells off-hand. I’ll look into it,” Jeremy replied. “What’s the other thing you need?”

“Tell Robert Svane I’ve been kidnapped.”

“What!? How?”

“I don’t know. Use your phone.”

//

 

Robert Svane stood in the darkened monitoring room, which was empty (where was Jeremy?), facing a wall of monitoring equipment that was spewing a lot of data that wasn’t making any fucking sense. His face (and esophagus) burned hot from intense annoyance. He had about two minutes to figure out what was happening and where his damn robots were … before needing to explain it to their new owners, the Gardeners, whose representatives were waiting just outside the door for him.

“Fucking Waverly,” he hissed under his breath.

She’d done this. She’d gone off the rails once again. Dammit.

He took a deep breath and surveyed the readings. First things first: Where are they?

Three of them appeared to be at Waverly’s apartment, meeting with Shae Pressman. About what? He turned up the audio monitor.

Shae (crying): “You were my wife! I had to try something! Fuck, I should never have taken the job here…”

Nicole: “… Wow. This is just…. It’s a lot to process. And by ‘a lot,’ I mean on top of the whole-being-a-robot-thing, which is, wow, already a fucking lot to process this week...”

Svane’s eyebrows just about hit the ceiling. When Holliday had brought dead Nicole Haught to him four years ago, he’d failed to mention a certain something about a certain young woman doctor he hired about the same time. And what-the-hell garbage was she trying to fill Nicole’s head with now?

Fucking Shae Pressman had to go!

Where were the other two? Wynonna and Waverly? His eyes scanned the monitors, noting their locations were supposedly right there with Shae and Nicole. But the pair were being uncharacteristically quiet, considering the subject matter. He flipped a switch to isolate their heartbeats. Which were the same… as Nicole Haught’s. Which was impossible.

Fucking beautiful! Two of his most expensive machines were fucking AWOL!

Heartburn clawed like a demon inside him. He dropped heavily into a chair and concentrated on the screens before him to see if he could figure out their locations. Their cars were at Waverly’s apartment. Their phones were at Waverly’s apartment. Their bracelets were on fucking Nicole Haught’s arm.

Balls!

He had one more thing. One more way to contain them. He moved to the console on the far right, the one with the lockbox. The key was in the lock. He gave a heavy sigh of disappointment and twisted the key, which popped open a lid to reveal a set of switches inside. When he’d designed the Artificials, this was his failsafe. He ran his hand along the bank of switches. With one simple press of a button he could shut down any one of them. Below the switches lay a lone dial. With one crank of that, he could make the whole lot of them feel like they’d had bad Mexican for lunch.

He cranked the dial. Just a warning shot across the bow… to get their attention.

In swift response, the wall of monitors lit up like Christmas. He liked Christmas.

A moment later, his phone buzzed in his coat pocket. Who the hell was calling him?

It was Jeremy.

//

 

Jeremy panicked.

Robert Svane had picked up the phone just as a sudden wave of nausea hit him, and he lurched to the edge of the roof and projectile-vomited over the side and into space.

“Shit!” he gasped, clutching the wall and looking down, hoping there was no one below.

Thankfully, the coast was clear! Whew! He dropped to his knees in pain (and some relief), and it took some effort to get the phone to his ear. Robert Svane was yelling something.

“Robert! Ah, sorry about that! Don’t know what came over me. I- I feel better now.”

The boss stopped talking a moment and started over. “Why are you not here?”

He meant in the monitoring room, of course. “Ah, I needed a break. Had to get some fresh air.”

“Where are you?”

Jeremy looked around the rooftop vista. “Uh, outside…”

“You’re on the roof,” Svane said. He’d clearly taken a moment to look at the monitors for himself. “Why… are you on the roof?”

“Sir! That’s not the important thing!” he chirped, remembering the information he needed to deliver: “It’s Dolls. He asked me to tell you he’s been kidnapped!”

There was icy silence as Svane probably tried to decide whether Jeremy was yanking his chain, or if this bit of bad news were actually true. “Kidnapped,” Robert repeated, thoughtfully, his heartburn gnawing at him.

“Armed government agents jumped him outside the firing range at 9:48 tonight. They have him in a black SUV headed West out of town… and this woman…” he focused his mind on forwarding the image to the monitors downstairs. “She’s in charge. Her- her name is Lucado.”

Jeremy was impressed with himself for being able to figure all of this out with only the barest verbal descriptions and cryptic mental images from Dolls. That last bit, about the agent’s name, he’d found for himself running facial recognition software on Facebook.

“What about the sisters?” Svane barked. “Where are they?”

Jeremy concentrated, trying to calm himself so he could share images from Waverly in his mind. There was blackness… a kind of gray-blackness of a rough gravel road in the dark. She was scared; he could feel her heart pounding. A sweep of bright light washed across their shared vision. “Ah! They’re in a borrowed car driving north on a gravel road, no headlights. And they’re being chased by helicopters. They’re… they’re scared,” Jeremy managed, tamping down the palpable fear that was rising up inside him.

He dashed to the edge of the wall again and scanned the distant horizon, feeling like he should be able to see the spotlights from here, though, of course, he couldn’t. While their physical distance was great, it felt like he was right there with them.

 

//

 

Downstairs, Robert Svane drew his hand away from the bank of kill switches and slammed the table in frustration. He couldn’t shut them down if they were in danger. They’d be captured. Kidnapped. Stolen. He needed their natural sense of self-preservation to help get them out of danger.

He took a deep breath. “Keep them on the phone, Jeremy,” he sighed. “Tell them they are in BIG trouble! I am THIS CLOSE to shutting them down! But the helicopters are not mine. So they are not to stop for any reason! I repeat: those helicopters DO NOT belong to Revenance. We need to get them out of there.”

Jeremy’s voice sounded small and scared. “Yes, sir.”

“Tell them we’ll come and get them if they’ll just tell us where they are.”

There was a long pause and then Jeremy’s voice was back on the line. “I- I just ran their coordinates… and they’re headed for a place called Purgatory.”

Robert nodded.

It figured.

 

//

 

 

“Ah, God, Shae, it hurts!”

Nicole was doubled over on the floor in the kitchen. She’d gotten up one moment to go get another beer… and the next she was on her knees looking like she was about to throw up.

What the hell!

Shae dashed to her ex-wife’s side. Nicole’s skin was cold and wet with sweat, and her face had gone a ghastly white. Shae knew a thing or two about the unique physiology of the Artificials… and knew this could be as simple as a case of food poisoning… or as sinister as a mean dose of punishment from the boss. She’d seen her share of the latter at Los Alamos. It was Robert Svane’s favorite way to jerk around robots.

In fact, it was just such an attack that had given away the fact that Nicole and Waverly were lovers that first time. Two years ago.

 

//

 

Nicole Haught was a terrible liar.

They were sitting in Shae’s Dodge pickup truck in the Los Alamos parking lot. Or, rather, Shae was sitting with the truck idling, waiting for Nicole to come and join her. They were going to go grab dinner together in town… and plot out their day trip to go rock climbing tomorrow. It was just a normal thing. A friend thing. Maybe a date thing.

Anyway, it was just the sort of thing Shae and Nicole used to do, in another life, before the accident. And Shae was so looking forward to them spending just a normal day (and an evening) that felt fun and not all doctorly or like work.

She glanced at her wristwatch, the one that used to be Nicole’s.

6:32 p.m.

The side door burst open, and Nicole swung out into the warm New Mexico evening. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the desert stayed cool and comfortable here. Just a few miles up the road into the mountains, it was all temperate, coniferous rain forest. Here at Los Alamos was where the forest and desert mixed, the landscape still dry and fairly open. The Rio Grande valley stretched out pink and beautiful in the distance below them, and the blue sky smelled sweet, green and earthy.

Nicole’s eyes flashed playful and bright as she bounded across the parking lot toward Shae’s truck. She wore a denim workshirt, the top buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. God, Nicole looked like a cop sometimes, even though she couldn’t remember that she used to be one.

Or maybe she looked like a prisoner.

Shae shoved aside that thought, though, as Nicole threw her backpack into the bed of the truck and climbed into the cab, all long arms and long legs and thoroughly adorable.

“I am so excited it’s Friday… and I am so excited to go climbing tomorrow!” she enthused with a bit of southern drawl she probably had no idea of. Her grin was huge and sincere. She took a deep breath full of that clean mountain air and looked happier than Shae could honestly say she’d ever seen her before.

That happiness was infectious.

“Ok. Right now? As of 6:32 p.m.? I am seriously through with charts and spreadsheets for the week,” Shae said. “Right now, the only ‘medicine’ I want… is this.” She didn’t know those last words were coming, but once they were said, Shae knew with all her heart they were true. She’d somehow managed to exist on grief and determination for two long years, and, dammit, that phase of her life was behind her.

She deserved good things. They deserved good things.

“Aw,” Nicole said, with a happy chuckle. “I totally agree.”

“Shall we?”

“By all means.”

Shae threw the truck into reverse and turned to look over her shoulder, throwing her arm across the bench seat to steady herself as she wound the manual-steering wheel and set the truck on its bouncy suspension into motion with a cloud of country dust. As she turned back to pop it into first gear, she just happened to notice the bruise at Nicole’s collarbone, just below her collar.

The moment went all slo-mo as she next noticed a lipstick-red smudge on Nicole’s cheek.

She didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to add that shit up. Shae took a deep, calming breath and turned her attention toward just getting the hell out of the parking lot. She’d sort the rest out later.

But, unfortunately, leaving the facility just wasn’t going to be easy tonight. The side door swung open again, and out walked… Waverly Earp.

Awesome.

Nicole’s eyes brightened and she chewed her lip, in thought.

Waverly spotted Shae’s truck, of course, and studiously tried to ignore it, turning her attention to the ground, which never seemed so fascinating to anyone else, ever, in all of history, probably. She strode purposefully in her tailored pants and her tight, white button-up shirt and her bookish, red glasses. Damn her.

“We should offer her a lift,” Nicole said.

Shae shot Nicole a sharp look, but detected no humor or disrespect there.

That would make you happy, baby?

A little part of Shae kind of wanted to die. But another part was determined to honor her pledge to the gods that she would do anything to make Nicole Haught happy, if only they’d give her one more chance at living.

Whatever she wants.

Shae felt her own heart plunge… and made her choice: Nicole Haught’s happiness. That was the bargain, and she would keep it.

I should really get a different job.

It was the first time she’d thought that. Part of her couldn’t believe she thought that. But it was true. And, in a way, John Henry Holliday was right. This Nicole was her own person. Just because she’d picked Shae once, didn’t mean she would pick Shae again.

Strangely, within that knowledge, despite defeat, there also lay freedom.

She pulled her truck up alongside Waverly and stopped, rolling down the window. “Hey, can we give you a lift into town?”

Waverly softened, visibly relaxing, and shot a warm and grateful glance up at Shae. It was the first time Shae had looked at Waverly and found her… beautiful.

“Yes, please! Sure you don’t mind?” Waverly asked in her very-polite British accent.

“Not at all,” Shae said, willing her heart to feel as open and true as her words.

Nicole threw open the passenger-side door with a grin and said, “Climb on in!”

Waverly skirted around the cab and jumped up beside Nicole.

Shae flashed the two of them a quick smile, noticing that the smudge on Nicole’s cheek was exactly the same shade of red as Waverly’s lipstick. The jealousy was there, of course. But there was something else, as well: an odd desire for Nicole to find her own pleasure and happiness.

She could handle it. It might not exactly feel like it in this moment, but she knew she was strong. She was capable of much more than some people gave her credit for. She had found a way to resurrect her dead wife (one thing you don’t see every day); she had stayed to see the whole thing through. And she would live through watching the woman she loved choose to love someone else.

Shae Pressman was a survivor.

 

//

 

Shae would never have pegged Waverly for an Artificial.

If anyone had asked her that first day to point out all the robots in the room, Shae couldn’t have done it. In many ways, Nicole was the worst Artificial Revenance had. She didn’t smell right. Her eyes were stranger (and darker) than they were supposed to be. There used to be an odd little scar on her cheek that was now somehow missing. And those were just the obvious things. Shae only knew the details were wrong because she’d known Nicole before. But anyone else she didn’t know before? There was no way she could spot their flaws. They all seemed perfectly human… and they all could be Artificial.

But that’s not how Shae thought back then. Two years ago, Robert Svane and John Henry Holliday held their cards close to the chest. They offered up one Artificial for measuring and poking and prodding. And all the rest they cast as characters in some elaborate corporate production.

No one knew them to be any different from human…

…Until they proved themselves to be other than human. Which is what happened when Waverly accidentally gave herself away to Shae.

“I think Robert’s impressed with Nicole,” Waverly was saying over beers at their favorite Los Alamos watering hole. Nicole was shooting pool with Chrissy and Jeremy… or rather they were sharing beers and shooting the shit and kind of waving pool sticks around. Waverly had laid $20 cash on the table, so none of the townies were about to try to take it from them just yet.

Shae took a sip of her beer and smiled. “Did he say that?”

“Not in so many words… I can just tell.”

“Really.”

“Oh, yes,” Waverly said, her eyes sparkling. “I give him the team reports, of course, and he meets with me weekly for my … color commentary.”

Shae nearly spit her beer at that. “What kind of color commentary?”

“Just personal observations … about how she’s getting on, the dynamics between her and the team, funny anecdotes.”

“Did you tell him she’s great at shooting pool?” Shae quipped.

Waverly laughed at that, a lovely, musical sound. “Oh, God, no.”

Did you tell him she’s great in bed?

But, of course, that was a question Shae was not about to ask out loud.

Still, Waverly’s cheeks colored and she answered almost as if Shae *had asked the question out loud: “No… Some skills are better left unmentioned…”

Shae bristled a moment. She tore at the label on her beer bottle. Waverly leaned forward.

“Look,” she said, all perfectly British. “I know that you… have feelings for her.”

We have history. That’s more than just “feelings.” That’s fact.

Shae bit her lip and remained silent. Waverly pressed on.

“And I think you know that I have feelings for her,” she said.

Shae nodded, carefully. Waverly took a deep breath.

“I don’t know what this is between Nicole and me. It- it’s pretty new… marvelous… and new… Anyway, I just want that out in the open between us. Because I care about her … and you… and the team. I don’t want there to be secrets, or anything like that.” She leveled her gaze at Shae. “And I hope that we can get to a place where … there are no hard feelings?”

The label lifted away from the bottle and Shae set it aside, hazarding a glance at Nicole, who was chalking up her pool cue and shooting the two of them a curious look.

Shae sighed inwardly and forced a smile, hoping that it came across as more natural than it felt. “I’m sure I can get there,” she said. “I just hope you’ll forgive me if it takes a little time.”

Waverly set her glasses on the table and laid her hand on Shae’s in a gesture of comfort… that set off sparks and set them both buzzing. Shae glanced up into Waverly’s eyes and felt curiously drawn in. She wanted to slap her, yank her hair, pull her down and wrestle her to release. Her mind flashed with a dozen images of intimate moments that were not hers. It felt like a slap in the face.

Wow. That was a surprise.

She looked up and saw Nicole’s eyes cloud with confusion. She excused herself from the pool table and strode over to Shae and Waverly, a dark look of concern glittering across her lovely features.

“Are—are you two okay?” she asked.

Shae recognized the agitation there. It was a voice Nicole had used once long ago when she’d been trying to reach Shae by cell phone for hours, but her phone had run out of charge. When Shae had finally made it home, Nicole’s voice and mannerisms were all awkward and quavering, though it was clear that Shae was safe and all in one piece. It was the agitation of someone who experienced an uncertain moment and feared the worst... and didn’t know what to do with that energy and pain.

Shae wondered what had happened to Nicole since her awakening that made her feel protective and fearful like this. Or was this the thing that happened? Was this the moment?

Waverly sat slack-jawed, staring at the table, processing something big.

Shae climbed to her feet and stumbled off to the bar, suddenly wanting a stiff shot of whiskey. The bartender handed it to her, and Shae downed it in one big swallow, letting the liquid burn down her throat. Her body gave a kick in response (she wasn’t much for hard liquor) and tried to push the unwanted mental imagery (and all of its unwelcome physical response) out of her mind.

Okay. They’re lovers.

But the bigger mystery was why Shae got a big dose of mental eye-candy she had absolutely no desire for….

“Another beer, please,” she said to the bartender.

She needed to go home. She needed a new job.

She looked up and saw Waverly Earp coming her way. The woman’s eyes were wide and confused.

Can’t help you there, darling.

But Waverly was not to be dissuaded. She grabbed Shae by the collar. “What the hell, Shae?” she demanded, a tiny, powerful creature who was not about to be denied.

“What!” Shae almost shouted. Which way was the door? She needed to get out of here.

Waverly wasn’t about to let this go. “What the HELL, Shae?” Her voice was plaintive, scared. “You … and Nicole… are married?”

Shae’s jaw dropped and her world-view re-wrote itself in the span of five hot seconds. “Wait. You saw all that? When we touched?” Or, rather… you felt all of that? Because the mind pictures Shae had been accidentally privy to were not merely “pictures.” They came with some serious heat.

If the Gods were leveling bad karma at Shae, they could have picked no worse thing than making her wife fall in love with another woman… and making Shae sit front row and center for all of it.

Waverly didn’t answer. She spun around as if she were suddenly called by yet some other head-voice she was powerless to ignore.

Shae clutched her beer and kept her distance, not wanting to hazard even an accidental touch. She had just been filled, against her wishes, with intimate knowledge of Waverly and Nicole’s first time… and every time since, right up until earlier today, before they’d all come down to the bar.

What the HELL?

It took only a few seconds for Shae to realize she could replay every moment, like a wet dream nightmare’s greatest hits. Every fucking moment. She did not sign up for this torture. Her only small consolation prize was that the look on Waverly’s face that said she saw all the same, but from Shae’s perspective.

And Nicole stood off to the side, staring at the fucking wall, grappling with fucking all of it.

Oh, God, baby. I didn’t mean to cause you this pain.

Artificial Nicole was not prepared for this. She had no idea about what came before. She didn’t know she used to be a cop. She didn’t know she was an avid rock-climber. She didn’t know how she and Shae had first met. She didn’t know that they had married and settled in Atlanta. She didn’t know that they had been happy, with ups and downs like any couple. And she didn’t know she’d died and her wife couldn’t fucking handle it, so she sold her dead body to science.

Because second chances.

But now Nicole knew everything.

And now Shae knew something, too: that second chances were bullshit. All there really was is painful, inevitable destiny. Nicole had been destined to die. Shae had been destined to bargain. Waverly had been destined to come. Nicole had been destined to fall in love with her.

Waverly.

Shae stood up, feeling an odd and urgent need to pull Waverly into her arms. All the hair on her body raised to attention, and her lips went numb. She moved as quickly as she could, reaching out across the expanse to touch her. But in a moment’s flash, Waverly went down, as if all electrical impulse had been sapped from her body. Animated one moment. Dead to the world the next. She went down heavily.

The bar patrons stepped aside. A cry went up: “Get a doctor!”

Shae pressed through the crowd and answered, “I’m a doctor.”

And a fraud.

She shoved her way in and dropped to her knees beside Waverly. Nicole was right there at her side. “Please. Help her,” she practically whispered in Shae’s ear. Her breath set Shae alight.

She tried to ignore that and focus on the task at hand. “I’m trying,” Shae replied.

What had just happened to Waverly?

The young woman was completely unresponsive. The color was draining from her skin. Her body felt unnatural, dead, cold, inhuman. She had stopped breathing and didn’t have a pulse. Shae moved in and began chest compressions and rescue breathing, focusing her mind on her training and ignoring all the beautiful images and feelings that came to mind when she touched Waverly.

A current of electricity flowed between them. She could feel it, though she didn’t understand it. Even completely incapacitated, the energy was there.

What the hell unicorn creature was she?

A moment later, Nicole went down, too, heavily. She was crouched beside Shae one moment, counting out her turn for rescue breathing… and then slumped to the floor lifeless and cold the next.

And then Shae had her answer: the kill switch. That’s all it could be. They were both Artificial, and Svane had deemed this their moment to “go.”

Wow. This had all been a test for Waverly and Nicole. And Shae had only been privy to the half of it.

The bar patrons took a huge step backward, as if they had just discovered themselves in an Ebola zone… as if people were dropping out of nowhere and in rapid succession, and they all might be next.

Shae fought back tears, focusing on the professionalism (and stoicism) that she’d made her whole career on up to this point. She knew the moment Nicole fell to the ground that she was dead. Her second turn around the wheel was over. This opportunity was squandered and lost.

Shae couldn’t believe it.

Two years of planning … and these past six weeks were all she got for it. For all the pain and patience. Nicole Haught got to live and breathe for six weeks. That’s it. And now her time was up. And Shae never had a chance with her in the first place. This had always been about the robots.

Shae fought an urge to fucking rage.

 

//

 

Wynonna’s legs felt like they were on fire. And considering she was a robot, that didn’t seem fair.

She and Waverly had somehow managed to shake the helicopters. The aircraft had been hovering like flies above them one moment, and then simply seemed to vanish into the night the next. Waverly had gunned the car down the gravel road for good measure anyway, following the gravel track through the grasslands, hugging the contour of the earth, eyes closed but inner sight turned on. Wynonna hung on, her teeth rattling and her stomach angrily churning.

Presently, they’d come up over a hillock and down toward fringes of forest. Wynonna suggested they ditch the car in the woods and head out overland on foot. It would be easier to evade the helicopters if/when they returned. Waverly quickly agreed to the plan.

That was a half hour ago and they’d been running ever since.

“I really liked that car,” Waverly was saying, despite the fact she should have been totally winded.

Wynonna breathed in her direction, hoping her sister would interpret her respiration as agreement. It did seem like Waverly and the car had shared a moment, and it was kind of deep and kind of sexy, maybe. Though not Haught-level sexy, because of course…

They came to the crest of another rise and paused to survey their surroundings. Wynonna dropped to her knees, panting. Damn, Waverly had taken a lot out of her earlier, with all her huge and flashy, body-numbing fireworks. Showoff. Wynonna really was paying for the energy drain right now, and it made her feel scared.

“Waves,” she gasped.

“What?”

“Promise me if I’m holding you back you’ll keep going.”

Waverly shot her a frightened look. “No way. We stay together.”

“Yes,” Wynonna nodded, struggling to speak in between deep, labored breaths. “When I face-plant in the dirt in about, oh, 50 yards…. I want you to promise me you’ll keep running. Get someplace safe.”

“You’re not going to face-plant. I’ll carry you if I have to,” came her sister’s matter-of-fact reply. Wynonna was not expecting that. She realized she had no idea what her sister was capable of… but perhaps Waverly was starting to figure it out for herself.

They were silent for a moment, both lost in thought, just catching their breath. Lights twinkled back at them from distant farms, tiny reminders that civilization was still present, the thin net of it simply cast over a wider landscape.

The ground seemed to shake, and it tossed Wynonna flat.

Waverly straightened and turned to the southeast. “Jeremy?” she called out, though, of course, he was in her head.

“There you are!” He sounded relieved.

“What’s happening?”

“Uh, government agents,” he replied. “They have Dolls.”

Dammit! With all the sexy sister energy, Wynonna had totally lost tabs on her robot! She cringed, realizing she was kind of a bad product manager.

“And Robert Svane is freaking out!” Jeremy urgently added. “…about all of us!”

Waverly’s voice was even. “It’s ok. I’ll talk to him when we get back.” Her words sounded ludicrous, as if puppet-master Svane was suddenly inconsequential.

Wait. Was he?

“Tell him to call off the choppers!” Wynonna gasped (even her internal head-voice was out-of-breath!).

“The helicopters aren’t ours,” Jeremy replied, somberly.

Wynonna didn’t miss the fact that he used the plural possessive “ours,” as in… are we suddenly all together on Svane’s team? Shocking. And not good.

Waverly’s energy and body language seemed to say she was already aware of all of this, and that it made sense to her.

“Stay with me,” Waverly said to him. “And see if you can help me tap Nicole and Dolls, too.” She dropped to her knees beside Wynonna, her hands reaching out to cup her face. She leaned in close… and began to glow.

Wynonna felt the energy vibration lick out in all directions, through her whole being, and it tickled deep and lit her from within.

She locked eyes with her sister, focusing on staying calm, on finding the good deep within her. Waverly’s energy was like a snowstorm, churned up, bitter cold and pelleting her from all directions. Waverly leaned in and sank her teeth into Wynonna’s throat, and Wynonna felt herself get swept under, her cheeks stinging from the chill. She held her breath and hung tight, letting the sensations sweep over her … and hung on for dear life.

Jeremy butted in: “Waves, go easy on her.”

The external voice seemed to rein her in. Waverly broke eye contact, looking confused. She recoiled and said, simply, “What?”

But the energy transfer had worked: Wynonna was able to pull in enough power to replenish herself. Her breathing settled, and the intense fatigue in her legs diminished. Wynonna disengaged from her sister, drawing away from her and climbing to her feet, suddenly aware of not only Waverly inside her… but also Jeremy, Nicole and Dolls.

“Huh. You don’t see that every day,” she quipped, mentally slapping at the others to keep them in the background. This wasn’t a clown car. She intended to do the driving herself.

She looked down and caught her sister’s gaze. Waverly was still kneeling in the dirt, looking up at Wynonna with both wide eyes and inner sight. Her jaw was slack, and she looked a little scared… and tired… and awed.

Their hearts beat in unison.

Wynonna extended her hand, knowing that when Waverly accepted it, painful electricity would snap at them. But she did it anyway, because this beautiful creature who crouched in the dirt looking up at her?

She meant the world.

//

 

It had taken them almost until midnight to find the place.

Waverly knew the moment she saw it that it was somehow important to her. Wynonna had led the way overland, through the cold, dry grass, weaving among the trees, hills and ditches as if following some kind of homing signal. She’d described it as “the light,” but whatever the “light” was, Waverly couldn’t really see. She could feel it, though. It filled her with a sense of … exactness. They were going exactly the right direction, headed to exactly the place they were meant to find. As long as they followed this course, it felt … right.

And that was something, because Waverly’s “spidey sense” was still jangling angrily in the background. She felt a desperate, painful need to gather the robots together. They were strung out across miles of open space, completely vulnerable to whomever the hell out there was after them. The queasiness was back, interfering with her mojo. And, most disconcerting, she still felt a terrible and raw need to connect with Nicole, whose whole being had seemed to be taken up with something else tonight. Something big and distracting. Waverly was sending her lover as much soothing energy as she could muster… trying to give her comfort and let her know she was not alone. Dammit, she’d feel a lot better if they were together right now.

So reuniting with Nicole was absolutely the next thing on her agenda. But first, she had to find a way to get home.

She and Wynonna stood at a driveway to a modest clapboard farmhouse with a rickety aluminum windmill and tall wooden gate. Wood smoke curled up from the chimney and into the night sky, and there was a light on inside. The place looked warm and cozy. Wynonna’s eyes were wide. “This is it,” she was saying, her voice soft and giddy. She turned a moment later and gave Waverly a furious hug, laughing maniacally.

Waverly stumbled to keep her feet and squinted, feeling something warm… and familiar… but just out of reach.

“What is this place?” she asked.

Wynonna practically twirled circles around her. “Hoo! This, baby girl… This is home!”

Waverly wasn’t so sure. And, besides, someone else was clearly living there. But Wynonna apparently didn’t have the same misgivings because she was headed straight for the front porch.

“Wynonna! Wait!” Waverly growled. “You can’t just walk up there! It’s the middle of the night!”

Her sister spun, waving her arms in exasperation. “We’ll tell them our car broke down on the road! It’ll be okay! We’re supposed to be here!”

“But! What if they’re serial killers?”

Wynonna turned, staring at her sister and scoffing. “Seriously?” She shifted her weight from one foot, then the other. “Dude. We’re dead.”

Waverly’s jaw dropped.

“Yeah,” Wynonna shrugged. “Wasn’t that the point of telling me Haught died in 2013? That the whole robot assembly line starts with a body bag?”

Ouch.

“Maybe that’s true,” Waverly hissed. “But it doesn’t mean I want to end up in one!”

Just then, the front door of the house swung open and the porch light came on.

“Oops,” Wynonna quipped. “Guess it’s for the fates to decide now…”

Waverly clenched her fists in fury and shoved her sister aside, composing in her head how she was going to talk them out of this. But as she stepped forward, she saw that the person on the porch was no stranger.

John Henry Holliday tipped his hat to her. “Why, Miss Waverly Earp, I am so glad you found your way.”

Waverly felt intense relief wash over her. He was exactly the person they needed right now. “Oh, God, Henry! Thank God you’re here!”

Wynonna clutched at her sister’s sleeve, spinning her around in her tracks. Her eyes were frantic. “No! Waves. We need to go NOW.”

“What?”

Wynonna pointed at Holliday. “That guy? He is NOT your friend.”

 

//

 

Thanks so much for reading! Leave a comment or kudo, if you can. Feedback is so valuable… and so appreciated. I promise to reply to every comment!