As Aaron walked along the otherwise-empty street, a fleshy thing began stumbling towards him. It lurched along clumsily, in an unpleasantly organic manner.
“Hello? You, the lurching one, can you talk? Are you some sort of undead being, or just an extremely ill human?” It was hard to tell sometimes, given how disgusting regular human biology could be.
The thing lurched closer. It lifted its head.
Where its face had been, there was just a decaying patch with torn skin and exposed bone.
It didn’t have a face.
It wasn’t human.
It probably wasn’t even alive.
That meant it was a monster, and it needed to be killed.
Aaron took it down with one clean shot through the head, using one of his simpler weapons. He didn’t want to waste ammunition this early in. (His self-repair nanites could make more, but shooting bullets made out of himself was strangely unsettling.)
The fleshy thing dropped with a wet splash, spattering Aaron’s boots with organic fluids.
He was going to need to get new boots after this. That was definitely going on the A.R.M.O.R. expense account.
Another fleshy thing in the distance began lurching towards him.
Aaron smiled and aimed his weapon.
He was in the middle of town, having killed maybe a dozen of the basic fleshy things, when he saw the living human.
The human appeared to be male, maybe thirty, with blond hair, dressed in dirty clothes, and about average running ability for his species.
When he saw Aaron, he ran straight towards him. “Are you here to help?”
“I’m here to investigate and destroy the undead,” said Aaron. “And you are?”
“Pete. Pete Wilson. There’s a thing coming…”
Pete didn’t finish his sentence before the bladed thing arrived.
It was fast, faster than the other fleshy things. It was definitely fleshy, a suppurating mass of open sores and cancerous-looking lumps. It made a strange chattering sound, although Aaron didn’t see a mouth.
On its head, there were two black gangrenous patches, as if the eyes had rotted out and the decay had spread across the face.
The skin had rotted off its hands, revealing two jagged bone blades.
Aaron shot it.
The thing reeled back, then straightened up and charged towards Aaron.
He shot at it again, but it was very fast, and dodged the first shot. It went for Aaron’s face, clawing wildly even as Aaron pumped bullets into it.
Finally, it dropped in a damp heap, and stopped moving.
“We have to go!” shouted Pete. “It won’t stay dead! It never stays dead!"
“Really?” Aaron asked. “Let’s see what I can do about that.”
He lit the blowtorch on his hand weapon system.
This thing wasn’t getting up again if Aaron could help it.
“That should do it,” said Aaron, switching off the torch. “Nothing organic should come back from that.” He turned to Pete, then suddenly remembered the damage he'd taken to the face.
He felt his face. The flesh was hanging off in strips, and his bare metal was exposed.
Pete looked at him, with an expression of concern, and not a trace of fear. “Um, sorry about what it did to your face.”
“That’s okay, they’re pretty easy to replace.”
“That’s good,” said Pete. “You saved my life!” He stepped forward, hesitated, and then stepped forward again and gave Aaron a hug. “You have no idea how happy I am to see a hero in this place!”
“Three days?” Aaron asked.
“I think so,” said Pete. “My place is kind of on the outskirts of town, so I don’t know what happened. I was just at home all weekend, and then when I came in to work, I couldn’t find anyone and there were these…things everywhere.”
“You didn’t hear anything? An emergency alert? A loud explosion? Screaming?”
“No, nothing.” Pete rubbed his face with his hands. “Do you know what happened to people?”
“That’s what I’m here to investigate,” said Aaron. “We’re concerned about possible incursions from outside reality.” If the zombie universe had opened up another portal, that could be dangerous, especially if they’d been able to take out a town full of people this quickly.
Well, dangerous to humans, not to Aaron. But if he fought zombies for the fleshbags, some of them would run breweries, and others would give him money, so he could give the ones who ran breweries money for beer. It was all one vast, tolerable cycle that ensured he could spend plenty of time drunk.
“Outside reality?” Pete glanced around. “That would explain a lot.”
“I think they’re from one of the universes where zombies are real.”
“What about the red thing?” Pete asked. "What universe is that from?"
“Red thing?” Aaron asked.
“Big red thing. Hard to see in the mist, but about the size of a house? Legs like tree trunks. It’s been following me for days. It’s not fast, but it doesn’t stop.” Pete rubbed his eyes again. “I haven’t slept much.”
Aaron frowned. “I don’t know about the red thing. I’ll figure it out when I see it.”
“Let’s try to avoid having that happen,” said Pete.
“I’m here to track down and defeat the monsters,” said Aaron. “If you’re too scared to handle that, you can leave town.”
“You don’t think I’ve tried?” asked Pete. “I…this town is all screwed up. The road...you try to get out and...things happen. Bad things. You can’t go out that way.”
Aaron frowned. This wasn’t good news. He’d come prepared to file a report, maybe shoot some undead, and be home before the bars closed. He hadn’t planned on being trapped here.
“Have you been to the supermarket?”, he asked. “What’s the supply situation like?”
“Bad,” said Peter. “These…things have pretty much smashed everything. I think they like the sound of broken glass.”
“What about the liquor store?” Aaron asked. “The bar?”
“Do you need alcohol for something?” Pete frowned.
“Depends how long we’re stuck here,” said Aaron. “If it’s more than a day or two, my robot brain will definitely need beer.”
They tried the police station. Pete thought there might be some useful records there.
Aaron thought Pete needed a gun, because if some of these things could tear Aaron’s face off, then Pete definitely shouldn’t be walking around unarmed.
The building contained a number of fleshy things, but after Aaron shot a couple, the rest fled.
“It’s locked,” said Pete, at the gun locker. “Is there a key?”
Aaron gave Pete a look, then grabbed the door and pulled it off the hinges. “There. Take as many as you want. Stock up on ammo, you’ll need it.”
Pete nodded, and grabbed a shotgun and a couple of pistols.
“I’m going to check the records,” Aaron said.
All of the computer monitors Aaron could find were smashed.
Several of the CPUs were intact. Aaron sighed and found a compatible cable to connect with it.
This wasn’t the safest thing, but there was a ninety-nine percent chance that the computer would be safe, and his virus protection system should be more than enough to take down anything he’d find on some crappy little desktop computer.
He plugged it.
“Amazing! You’re simply amazing!”
“No! I’m not going if Machine Man takes my place!”
“What? You tampered with him?”
“Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“You all right Aaron?”
“Aaron…Aaron, is that you?”
What the fuck was that?
It felt like memories, his memories. He had gaps in his memories, he knew. He’d been infected by Sentinel programming, and in trying to jettison it, he’d lost some personal memories.
These memories seemed like missing pieces of the puzzle, but how could they possibly be on a computer in a small-town police station?
They shouldn’t be anywhere, that wasn’t how destroyed memories worked, once he lost the data it was gone.
Aaron paused. There’d been a Peter. Blond guy, looked kind of like Pete, different accent. (Pete’s was Maine, Peter’s was California.)
He’d been Aaron’s friend. He’d gotten angry at people over how they treated Aaron. He’d thought Aaron was amazing and valuable and needed to be treated with kindness and respect.
If that was true, why had Aaron lost those memories specifically? Why hadn’t he lost memories of hours and hours of writing insurance reports every week, or Eddie at the office trying to persuade him to bet on some stupid new scheme, or Maggie cornering him and making a grab at him by the filing cabinets?
If it wasn’t true, why would someone fake something like? And how could they?
Aaron wished he could get his hands on some beer.
There was a knocking on the door.
“Aaron? You okay in there?”
It was Pete.
“I’m fine,” said Aaron. He checked over the other files. There’d been some references to an incident at the power plant, after which some people had been injured. Something large had emerged, and then people had been getting sick. “The whole thing started at Toluca Lake Water and Power. We should go check that out. It’s not much of a walk."
Pete didn’t actually look that much like Peter. There were some differences around the nose and chin.
Aaron was going to need to run an in-depth antivirus scan when he had a spare moment, but he was probably just imagining things.
“What’s that light?” Pete asked.
Aaron stopped himself from blurting out, You see it too?
He’d been seeing something weird with the light. He’d blink, and the thick gray fog would briefly turn into sunlight, before switching back.
Glitching, probably. He definitely needed to do an antivirus scan when he got home.
There were flashes, several blocks away, like distant lightning.
And then something shot into the sky and exploded.
Aaron peered up into the sky. “My analysis of the situations is that’s probably not good.”
They were halfway down the block when Aaron heard the ticking.
A moment later, a ball of fire came pelting towards them.
“Peter, get down!” Aaron jump between the explosive and Peter.
It exploded, not hard enough to do Aaron any real damage.
Pete (Pete Wilson, Aaron reminded himself, not that other Peter) was flat on the ground, but he didn’t seem to be hurt.
Aaron heard the ticking start again.
Then he saw it. It was blazing hot, red at the outside, nearly white with heat at the core.
It gives off a rapid ticking sound, like a geiger counter on a nuclear test site.
And as he watched, a smaller ball of fire separated out from it, and shot up into the air.
It landed right by Aaron, and then exploded.
This one was strong enough to knock him off his feet.
“Aaron!” Pete shouted.
That wasn’t good. Aaron didn’t want it turning its attention to Pete.
He got up quickly, and then stretched his arm out to grab Pete.
He extended his legs until he could set Pete down on a nearby rooftop.
The burning thing spat another ball of fire at him.
It exploded right by his ankle, and he fell over.
“Aaron!” Pete screamed. “Leave him alone!”
Pete began shooting at the burning thing.
Trying to kill a fire monster with bullets, thought Aaron. Sounds like something a human would do.
He pulled his legs in, then began to run.
The monster dithered between him and Pete.
“Stop shooting!” Aaron shouted.
“I’m not letting it get you!” Great, the human thought Aaron was being stupidly self-sacrificing. Pete clearly didn’t know Aaron at all.
“Stop shooting, idiot! I have a plan!”
“Flaming idiot!” Aaron shouted. “Stupid gasbag!” …he could have just gone with “Hey!”, but if he was going to shout, he was going to have fun with it.
The monster began chasing Aaron.
It moved more quickly than he’d expected.
Not as quickly as him, though.
Behind him he heard it build up to another explosion.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, BOOM!
It followed him, then stopped at the edge of the water.
It paused a moment, as if indecisive, and started to turn back.
If it went back, it would find Pete.
Aaron was not going to let that happen.
He grabbed the monster. It burned, hotter than he’d expected. It was burning through the synthetic skin on his hands, and starting to melt the metal underneath. He could feel damage signals growing louder and more insistent in his brain.
With all of his strength, he yanked the monster into the water. It created a horrible hissing, bubbling noise as boiled the water around it, setting off a huge cloud of steam.
It tried to fight free, to pull out of the water, moving with a frantic, desperate energy.
The circuitry of his hand glitched, starting to form into bladed attachments, and then failing, half-formed, as the signals died.
But Aaron was determined, and he held on until the monster died.
It fizzled out, into a few pathetic bubbles, and then a black smear of ash.
For a moment, the ash held the shape of a woman.
Aaron immersed his hands in the water for several minutes, then pulled them out.
They were badly damaged. The synthetic skin was gone completely, and the metal bones had started to melt and warp. There were fragments of different metal in there, including the blades of some of Aaron’s more creative attachments. It was going to take his self-repair nanites weeks to fix that.
He was probably better off just replacing them when he got out of here.
Aaron carefully lifted Pete off the rooftop with the claw-crane in his chest, and then set him down. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Are you okay?” Pete asked. He looked down and winced. “Your hands!”
“They took some damage,” said Aaron. “I have self-repair nanites, but it may take them a few days."
Pete took Aaron’s hand in his, and began gently examining it. “Does it hurt?”
“No, I don’t feel pain the way humans do.”
“You don’t feel pain?” Pete was still turning Aaron’s damaged hand over, with a look of pained concern.
“Well, not over something like this.” Ordinary physical damage didn’t hurt Aaron. The damage alerts could be distracting, but it didn’t seem to be anything like human pain.
“Should we...bandage them, or something?”
Aaron looked down. “So they don’t snag on anything? They are kind of pointy now.”
“No I mean...like, I guess you wouldn’t get an infection, but leaving it open like that, could it be bad for you? Could dirt get in and make your hands malfunction or something?”
“Unlikely, given the self-repair nanites,” said Aaron. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Don’t do that again!” said Pete.
“Fight fire monsters?”
“No, I mean...don’t put me out of the way like that. I hate you being in danger when I can’t help you.”
“But I’m a robot. I’m harder to damage and easier to repair. Plus, I’m full of weapons! I’m much less fragile than you and better at handing danger!” Aaron staying in danger while the fleshy one was safe meant everyone lived. The other way around…
“Just don’t,” said Pete. “Please! I won’t do anything stupid, but I want to help.”
Why were fleshy ones so irrational?
The power plant was dark. Something had broken several of the lights, and the ones that remained were dim and flickering. The walls looked scorched, and it had way too many cobwebs for a place that had been working a few days ago.
Fortunately, Aaron could see in a much wider portion of the ultraviolet spectrum than humans, so he could navigate.
“Here,” he said, extending one of the claw-crane limbs that emerged from his chest out to Peter. “You can hold onto this so you don’t trip over it.”
Peter grabbed the claw crane without hesitating. That was one of the good things about Peter; where many fleshy ones found Aaron’s more robotic features creepy, Peter had only ever found them impressive.
...Pete, not Peter. Aaron had forgotten that. What was wrong with him? After this mission, he was asking S.H.I.E.L.D to do a full diagnostic work up.
...A.R.M.O.R., not S.H.I.E.L.D. S.H.I.E.L.D was still mad at Aaron over how he handled the mission with Betty.
He was definitely getting a full diagnostic when he got back. Even if it meant putting up with whatever nonsense S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked up about choosing to capture Betty instead of kill her. They’d saved the world, and in the super-hero business, that usually got you off the hook.
As they approached a bank of power transformers, the cobwebs got thicker.
Aaron heard scurrying.
“Peter,” he said. “Stay behind me.”
Pete cocked the gun. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure yet.” It was something fast, which moved lightly, and didn’t sound like a biped.
Webbing spattered against the sole remaining light, which flickered and died.
Either both Spider-Men and at least two Spider-Women had teamed up to play a particularly nasty prank, or...
A giant spider leapt out at Peter.
Peter yelled and fired a shot, which went wild.
Aaron snaked out a hand and grabbed the spider, flinging it against the wall.
The spider rolled back, and was upright almost instantly. It moved with incredible speed and almost ballet-like precision, trying to leap past Aaron and get to Peter.
He slammed it into the wall again, holding it in place with one hand while he began firing his guns.
The spider jerked as he shot, twitching and squirming so hard so he couldn’t get a clean shot at a vital organ.
If his hands had been working normally, he could have produced a chainsaw and ended it cleanly but, with the jagged mess of spikes and barely-functioning fingers, all he could do was keep attacking until he finally hit it clean in the throat, and with a final splash of red, it died.
Aaron blinked, and the bloody wreckage changed.
“Pete,” he asked, keeping his voice carefully steady. “What do you see?”
“Aaron, are you okay?”
“Probably not,” said Aaron. “Could you tell me what you see? The thing I just killed?”
“Um, it’s dark in here, and I don’t know exactly...”
“Just describe it!” snapped Aaron.
“A spider,” said Pete. “A really big spider. A big dead spider. Aaron, what’s wrong?”
“Programming malfunction,” said Aaron. He blinked rapidly. “Hopefully not serious.”
And now the dead thing on the ground looked like a spider again. A giant black widow with a bright red mark on its black, and a splash of blood on its throat where the bullet caught it.
Not a dead woman. Not a dead red-haired woman at all.
Pete put a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron jerked his arm away.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Pete asked.
“There’s only about forty fleshy ones on the planet smart enough to begin to understand my cognitive mechanism,” said Aaron. “And I’d be very surprised if you were on that list.”
Pete stood silent for a moment. He looked at his shoes, although given the lack of lighting, it was unlikely he could actually see anything. “I wish Gears was here.”
“Gears Garson. Mechanical genius. Friend of mine. Could fix anything.”
Aaron turned to Pete. “You know Gears Garson?”
“Yeah, for like five years now. Ever since he moved up from California! You know him?”
It was an unlikely coincidence. It was a stupid coincidence. But Aaron had noticed that the closer you got to superheroes, the more stupid coincidences your life contained, and it wasn’t impossible that one of the friends in Aaron’s recovered memories was also a friend of Peter’s.
“From back in California,” Aaron said. “Come on, we should check the office.”
There was a computer in the office. It was attached to an uninterruptible power supply. And the monitor was broken.
It was a trap.
It was obviously a trap.
And Aaron was not going to get sucked in.
“Let’s see what they have on paper,” said Aaron. He switched his eyes into flashlight mode.
Pete nodded, and began going through the desk drawers.
“Anything?” Aaron asked.
“Not much,” said Pete. “I found an incident report, but it’s pretty damaged. It says there was an explosion. A couple of injuries, and one fatality. Guy named Stack.”
“Stack?” Aaron asked.
“Yeah,” said Peter. “It says Abel Stack was found dead at the scene.”
“Give me that!” Aaron grabbed at the paper, tearing it on his damaged hands.
“What is it?”
“Stupid coincidences! I know there are stupid coincidences, but there aren’t that many this close together!” He set the paper flat on the desk and looked it over.
...Abel Stack, PhD in Engineering, had died in the initial explosion.
“Someone is screwing with me,” said Aaron. “I don’t know what this is, but someone is screwing with me, and they’re going to regret it.”
“Aaron, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Dr. Abel Stack died years ago.” In an explosion.
“Abel Stack? Who’s that?”
Aaron paused, confused. “The man who died. You just said…”
Pete gave Aaron a concerned look. “I said Caleb Stanz.”
“You just said Abel Stack!”
Peter shook his head. “I said Caleb Stanz and you freaked out!”
Aaron looked at the paper again. Caleb Stanz, engineer, had died at the scene.
“It just said...”. He stopped. “I saw...”.
“Aaron?” Peter put a hand on his shoulder.
...Pete. Pete Wilson. Why did he keep forgetting that?
He looked at the computer again.
It was a trap.
Obviously, it was a trap.
But it might have a clue.
It might have more about Peter.
“It’s an urge common to those who feel they don’t belong.”
“I believe in you...that’s all there is to it.”
“If you do have a way of resting, I advise you to get some. It’s been a busy day.”
“Get out of here, Peter! I’m not sure what that thing really is - “
“Aaron, what happened?”
Aaron opened his eyes. “Peter?”
Pete, not Peter. He had to remember that.
Pete was a different person. Pete was the one he’d only just met. Pete was his new friend. Peter was the one from the memories.
(They’d been friends. Peter helped him. They’d done a trip to Seattle and then...it had been later, and when he’d most needed it, at the lowest, most nightmarish moment of Aaron’s life, Peter had reappeared to help him again.)
(Peter was the reason Aaron hadn’t just permanently parked himself in space, far from all humans, and given up completely.)
Aaron looked around the office. No sign of Pete.
He opened the door, and walked down the hall, scanning for infrared. No sign of Pete.
The door leading outside had TRUST ME carved on it, in large, crude letters.
Pete’s body lay on the ground.
In the distance, Aaron could hear heavy, lurching steps.
Something had killed Peter. Pete. Pete! Now was not the time to lose track of things.
A monster was roaming this town and had killed his friend. It had mauled him and then smashed his head in.
The red thing.
Aaron had been plugged into the computer for a while, judging by the change in sunlight, and Pete must have gone outside for fresh air, or some biological need, or...
To help you.
He didn’t know. He couldn’t know why Pete had gone outside.
But he had.
And the red thing had killed him.
It had to be the red thing. Pete had been killed by something incredibly strong. The fleshy things in this town were relatively weak, and wouldn’t have done it like that.
The red thing had killed Peter, and Aaron was going to kill it.
...Pete, not Peter.
It had been a really stupid idea to plug into the second computer.
(Aaron and Peter had watched The Tonight Show together. They’d listened to Billy Joel albums, and Aaron had liked them. Peter had been bursting with joy to see Aaron safe and well, and spitting mad when someone had even mildly tampered with Aaron without his consent.)
(It had been a stupid risk to plug into the computer, but dammit, Aaron was going to savor those memories.)
The red thing had gotten a frustratingly long head start. Even so, it shouldn’t have been difficult for Aaron to find. The monster was at least fifteen feet tall and the ground shook when it walked.
But he couldn’t find a trace. There was no heat signature anywhere Aaron could see, even when he extended his legs to give him maximum visibility and scanned the town. The visibility was poor because of the incessant mist. Occasional flashes of what appeared to be lightning went off in the distance, briefly lighting up the area and then fading. Aaron didn’t dare risk running his jets for more than the briefest of flights, and they were equally ineffective.
How could a fifteen-foot monster just disappear like that? Did it shrink? Transform into something else? Evaporate into the mist?
After an hour, Aaron finally spotted a small heat signature, by the motel.
It was too small to be the monster. But it was something alive.
The figure looked up at Aaron as he approached. It briefly felt for a weapon, what looked to be a fairly basic shotgun. Then it let go of the weapon and stuck its arms out.
Aaron retracted his legs until he was down to ground level. He couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing.
“Where were you?” Pete asked. “I looked everywhere!”
“What are you?” Aaron asked. “An LMD? A shapeshifter?”
“What are you talking about?” Pete asked.
“You died! I saw you!” Pete frowned.
“Aaron, are you okay?”
“Look, I know this is a trick, so how about we skip ahead to the part where you tell me what kind of trick this is? Surely there’s a super-villain monologue that you’re dying to give? Or are you the henchman?” Aaron looked around. “Come out, come out, whoever you are! I might even be nice and arrest you if you surrender peacefully right now! Offer only good for the next fifteen seconds!”
“Aaron.” Pete stepped back, his hands up. “I need you to listen to me. You saw something?”
“I saw you! Dead on the ground!”
“And you’re sure of what you saw?”
“I know a dead fucking human when I see one!”
“Okay.” Pete nodded, hands still up. “Something definitely happened.” Pete frowned. “You said someone was screwing with you. Could they have done that? Tricked you? Tried to make you turn against me?”
“You’re just saying that to make me trust you!”
“Of course I want you to trust me! You’re my only chance of getting out of this town alive!” Pete drew a deep breath. “Look, I was leading a perfectly normal life, when my entire town turned into...I don’t even know anymore! I thought I was going to die here! And then this amazing robot hero who can actually fight the monsters arrived! Of course I want you to like me and trust me! But I’m just a guy, an ordinary guy, and I don’t know anything about what’s happening! And if someone is trying to do something to hurt you, well, I know which side I’m on.” He looked at Aaron. “Yours. It’s your side. ...I just realized now wouldn’t be a good time to be vague.”
Aaron paused. Pete seemed to be telling the truth. Whatever he was saying, it looked like he believed it.
And generally, when someone or something was trying to use Aaron, they tried to make him attack people. No one tried to manipulate a high-tech battle robot by becoming his friend.
“Okay,” said Aaron. “Okay. I saw you...something that looked just like you, but dead.”
“You said,” said Pete. “No wonder you freaked out. Look, I’ve got a hotel room and scavenged some supplies. We should hole up for the night. I don’t know how much longer I can go without sleep. Do robots sleep?”
Aaron shook his head. “We charge, sometimes, if we’re low on energy.” He could run off solar energy, but this place was so foggy he wasn’t drawing much of a charge. “And sometimes I sit somewhere quiet and do an in-depth scan for mechanical and programming errors.” He paused. “That would probably be a really good idea, actually.”
Pete nodded. “It sounds like we could both use some rest.”
The room Peter had found had a full-sized bed in the middle and a daybed up against one corner.
Miraculously, the area near the daybed had a working outlet.
Aaron plugged in. He wasn’t sure when his next chance to charge up would be.
He sat down and sighed. “That’s better."
Pete began digging through a grimy duffel bag. “I found a few things while scavenging. Some food for me - do you eat?”
“Not if I can avoid it.”
“Okay, well, I suppose the power outlet covers you on that front. I brought some first aid kits.”
“Give it here,” said Aaron, holding out his claw crane.
Pete handed him the kit, and Aaron opened it.
...dammit, disinfectant wipes. He’d been hoping for a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
“I thought I could wrap up your hands,” said Pete.
“With sterile gauze? What if you need it?”
“I mean I don’t need it now, and you...”
Aaron looked at Pete. “You have noticed I’m a robot, right? I’d have thought it would be obvious without the face. I don’t get infections, I don’t feel pain, and I don’t need to worry about keeping wounds sterile.”
“I know, I just...okay, if we don’t want to waste the gauze, it’d still be good to wrap your hands, in case you have to grab me in an emergency or something.” Pete looked around the room. “We could use the pillowcase.”
“Fine,” said Aaron.
Peter pulled a knife out of the bag and began cutting the pillowcase into strips. “So should we take shifts?”
“You know, who gets to rest and who’s keeping a lookout?”
Aaron gave Pete a look. “Robot, remember?”
“You needed to do an in-depth scan, right?” Pete cut the pillowcase into efficient strips. “I’m worried about you.”
“Afraid that I’ll go wild and hurt you?”
“Afraid of you being hurt.” Pete turned back to Aaron. “You don’t seem well.”
“This?” Aaron gestured at his face. “Physical damage is nothing. It doesn’t even hurt.”
“You said you don’t feel pain over physical damage. But something’s happening to you, and it looks like it’s hurting you somehow.” Pete took Aaron’s hand and began carefully wrapping it in strips of cloth.
“I...I think I picked up some sort of virus, or malicious code, or something. My perceptions...things shift.”
“The lighting,” said Aaron. “The fog vanishes. And the monsters...sometimes, for a second there, I think I see a human instead. Like a regular human.”
“God, that would be horrifying.” Pete finished wrapped Aaron’s right hand, and took his left one. “You think it’s some sort of illusion? Monsters can make you see what they want you to see?”
“You’re not seeing it,” said Aaron. “And most forms of illusion don’t work on me. No central nervous system, eyes that see more than visible light, an electronic brain that doesn’t register as a brain to telepaths, I’m pretty hard to fool. Either this has all been set up by someone who knows me incredibly well, or...”
“Or?” Pete asked.
“Or I got some bad code from plugging into those PCs, and it’s making me lose my mind. That kind of thing has happened before. Fixing it was...ugly, and a lot of people got hurt on the way. It might be safer for you to not be around me.”
Pete snorted. “Safer not around you? Have you seen what it’s like out there?”
“I told you, I could become dangerous.”
“Maybe. Hell, Aaron, I could turn dangerous. Lose my mind from lack of sleep and lure you into an industrial furnace or something. But I’m going to get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to scan yourself, and we’re both going to do our best and stop worrying about what could happen.” He gave Aaron’s wrapped hands a squeeze. “Okay? Now who gets first shift?”
“You sleep. I only need about two hours.”
The next morning, a watch alarm went off, waking Pete up.
Aaron looked up at him. “You set an alarm.”
Pete sat up and rubbed his face. “I had to make sure you got your turn, didn’t I?”
“I would have woken you up. I don’t make stupid sacrifices over humans.”
“Sure you don’t,” said Pete. “Give me ten minutes in the bathroom, and you can have your turn.”
The scan turned up nothing.
Plenty of physical damage, sure. The self-repair nanites were scrambling to get his hands fully functioning again. The basic mechanical structure was progressing well, but it would be another day before they could even start to regrow skin.
But in his mind, he found no sign of damage. Nothing on his antivirus scans, no sign of a mechanical fault, nothing.
Possibly Peter was right and this was something the monsters were doing to him.
Or his brain was so corrupted by bad code his self-repair systems couldn’t even spot it anymore.
The hospital had a creature guarding it. Not just an ordinary fleshy thing - those had started to avoid Aaron - but a big huge lumpy one.
It looked humanoid in a crude way, with a huge round bullet head topped by a few scraggly black hairs.
“Should we shoot it?”, Pete asked.
“Let me try,” said Aaron. “Stay back. “Aaron...” “Stay back and cover me.”
Aaron stepped forward and fired bullets at the thing.
It grunted and turned towards him.
Aaron began firing other weapons - larger caliber bullets, missiles, anything he had.
Pete fired off a few shots.
There was no noticeable impact.
The creature was moving towards him and accelerating.
Aaron stepped away, behind a car.
The creature walked over the car in huge, lumbering steps, smashing it to pieces.
Aaron extended his legs so he’d have longer strides and have his vulnerable bits out of reach, and stepped back about three blocks.
The creature ran straight through a building.
It was indestructible and headed straight for him.
Aaron needed to think creatively.
He stepped back again leading the creature through the same building.
It charged again, running straight through a load-bearing wall.
The building collapsed on it.
After a moment, it emerged.
It wasn’t even scratched.
Aaron began running rapidly, trying to keep buildings between himself and the creature.
Behind him, he could hear Pete running into position to cover him, and panting for breath.
That was it.
Flesh creatures needed to breathe.
And whatever that thing was, it appeared to be made of flesh.
Aaron set his nanites to whipping up a glue gun and some specialized ammunition.
He waited for the creature to catch up with him, then caught it right in the face.
It shook its head and tore at its face, but the tarry mixture Aaron had cooked up was impenetrable.
The creature tore at its face, thrashed, and finally collapsed.
And then that wasn’t what Aaron was seeing at all.
— “Aaron!” Pete came running up. “Are you okay?”
Aaron stared numbly at the dead thing.
“Aaron?” Pete waved a hand in front of Aaron’s face. “You there? You’re kind of freaking me out.”
“He had a star on his shirt,” said Aaron.
Aaron gestured towards the dead thing.
Pete glanced at it, then back at Aaron. “He’s not wearing a shirt.”
“He was. He was wearing a shirt, and it had a star on it, and he was human, and I’d seen him before, and...”
“Aaron,” said Pete. “Listen to me. That’s a monster. It’s not a person. You didn’t kill a person, just a thing.”
Aaron looked at Pete. “You see it? A monster? A dead monster?”
“Yeah,” said Pete. He ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I see. Aaron, I think you’re right, someone is screwing with you. Someone, or something, is trying to break your mind.”
“I’m a robot,” said Aaron.
“Robots don’t have mental breakdowns?”
Aaron was silent. (There’d been the…incident involving his attempt at self-therapy. He wasn’t sure if he’d categorize it as a mental breakdown or just a bad drinking binge, but it didn’t exactly suggest he was totally invulnerable to emotional stress.)
“Anyway, they’re trying to do something to you. They’ve got some robot-specific illusion powers or something, and they’re using those on you.”
Aaron looked at Pete. “You think so?”
That would be a refreshingly simple explanation. That would mean there was nothing wrong with him, just a bad guy who he would probably be allowed to inflict violence on. (Limited violence if it was a human, but he was pretty sure he could get away with a decent amount of blunt-force trauma, and possibly a non-fatal gunshot wound.)
“I do,” said Pete. He cocked his gun. “And we’re going to go to the hospital and teach them a lesson about fucking with my friends.”
The power was on in the hospital.
That was weird.
Aaron could normally mentally map a power grid in his sleep, but this town was on an incomprehensible system.
The lights flickered from time to time, but they stayed on.
The hospital had more fleshy things in it than most place. They seemed to be nesting on hospital beds, or in abandoned wheelchairs.
Aaron shot a few, and they started running and scattering.
Aaron closed his eyes for a moment after shooting each of them. What the glitch was making him see was...not good.
They were at a nurse’s station, with the inevitable functional PC, when something blasted through Aaron.
It knocked him flat, and left him struggling to reboot.
“Aaron!” Peter ran over and took his hand. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Aaron. “Something hit me.”
Then he heard it. A crackling electrical noise.
Aaron turned his head.
Something hovered like ball lightning, brief rapid flickers forming an almost human shape.
Aaron grabbed Peter tightly with one arm, and then fired off his flight jets.
It sent him and Peter skidding forward, past the creature and slamming through a wall.
They tumbled out into the road.
“Peter, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Pete looked at Aaron. “What the hell was that?”
Aaron looked at Pete. He wasn’t Peter, not Peter Spaulding. Aaron needed to remember that.
(Had he always looked this much like Peter?)
“Some kind of energy being,” said Aaron. “Electrical. Hit me hard, I wasn’t able to do a full system reboot.”
It would be nine more minutes until he was back to normal, at least four until he could walk again.
“Are you okay?” Pete asked, looking worried.
“Temporarily incapacitated,” said Aaron, and that was partially true.
The other part was the energy drain. When it had blasted him, it had stolen a chunk of his energy. It had fed on him.
Fed on him and made itself stronger, and if it kept up, it was going to take him out of the fight completely.
(Something in the back of his memory banks pulled up a random fragment of memory. Something about a bear?
A bear that wasn’t a bear.
When was a bear not a bear? When it’s a jar?
That electrical thing had definitely knocked a few screws loose.)
“How long do you need?” Pete asked.
It would take eight and a half minutes for a full restoration.
“Three and a half minutes,” Aaron said. He’d at least be able to do something at that point.
“It’s coming,” said Pete. “I’m going to distract it.”
“Peter, no!” Aaron reached out an arm. He couldn’t even manage to extend it, though, and Peter was off and running.
“Dammit, fleshbag!” Two minutes and forty-seven seconds.
The ball lightning emerged. It started to move towards Aaron.
It drifted slowly, as if it was toying with him.
“Hey!” Pete yelled. He jumped up and down, and threw rocks, which flew right through the thing.
“Stop it, you idiot!”, yelled Aaron.
Two minutes and twenty-one seconds.
The thing seemed to be ignoring Peter.
Then Peter started digging through his pockets, and flashing a keychain flashlight.
The electricity got its attention.
One minute and fifty nine seconds.
Aaron sat up.
The thing seemed to be hesitating, staring at Pete but not attacking. Did it want to feed on the keychain flashlight? Did it not want to hurt Pete?
One minute and twenty seconds.
As soon as he got moving, Aaron was going to need a plan.
That thing could hurt him. He couldn’t shoot it or stab it or beat it up.
He could possibly kill it by breaking it up. Drawing it into something too conductive. He could try to lure it into the lake, if he could make it that far.
But it was so much faster than him.
He could go the other way. Too much electricity.
The hospital generator was close. He could see it from here. If the creature didn't move at full speed, he might make it.
Twenty-one seconds. The thing turned back to Aaron.
It wasn’t moving as fast as it could. It seemed to be almost hesitating.
Like it was reluctant to finish him off.
Or it was toying with him.
Aaron watched the thing as he started to slowly stand up.
His system wasn’t fully powered up yet, and he couldn’t fire up his jets, which would have been damn useful right then.
But he should be able to walk.
And, very briefly, run.
Aaron took a step.
The thing moved closer, but didn’t attack.
Aaron took another slow step. The thing moved closer again.
Aaron stopped. The thing didn’t.
He turned and ran. It was a brief burst, and set off a string of low battery alarms, but it got him to the generator while the thing was still
waiting for its opportunity to pounce.
(Aaron, stop. Please. Come in quietly and we’ll find out what happened to you. We may be able to fix it. Aaron, listen to me. I know what you did...something’s been done to you to make you do that. And I don’t want to lose any more friends today.)
Aaron stood in front of the generator and fired an energy blast at the thing.
That seemed to annoy it, and it charged.
Right as it charged, Aaron extended his legs, shooting him up into the air.
The energy drain knocked him over and he landed flat on his face.
But the creature flew straight into the generator.
There was a loud crackling, and something very much like a scream.
The creature didn't emerge.
“Aaron!” Pete came running over. “Aaron, are you okay?”
Aaron rolled over. “I’m going to need at least twelve minutes for a system restore this time.” He paused. “Maybe fifteen.”
Pete let out a startled laugh and gave Aaron an intense hug.
It was her worst nightmare.
Aaron sat up. “Easy,” said Pete. “No rush. We seem to be safe for now.”
“It’s fine,” said Aaron. “The system restore is progressing smoothly.”
“Okay, well, don’t push yourself.”
“I’m not,” said Aaron. It was her worst nightmare. What happened with the electrical thing, it was her worst nightmare.
“God, when you fell over, I thought you were dead,” said Pete. He put a hand on Aaron’s shoulder.
“You keep touching me,” said Aaron.
“Sorry.” Pete took his hand away.
Aaron hadn’t intended it as an objection, just an observation. Humans didn’t usually touch him affectionately.
“It was her worst nightmare,” Aaron said.
“I don’t know!” Aaron pressed his hands to his head. “She...was a leader, and she tried to be friendly until she gave up and started threatening to vaporize me every time I annoyed her, and she told me once, it was her worst nightmare.” He pointed to the generator. “That.”
“No, what happened to the electrical creature!”
Pete put a hand on Aaron’s back and began moving it in a circular pattern for some reason.
“Aaron, is this that thing where the monsters look like people? You said it yourself, someone is screwing with you, and we’re going to find them.”
“I can remember something. But only bits”.
Bright balls of flame that went tick, tick, tick, boom. Black clothes and red hair and powerful kicks. A star on his shirt. It was her worst nightmare. It was all weird broken fragments, and they didn’t add up to anything, except for a nagging feeling that something awful was happening.
“Never mind.” He stood up. “We should check the hospital computer.”
Pete stared at him. “Why?”
“So we can find the rest of what’s on them.”
“Why would you do that to yourself, though?”
Because they’re my fucking memories, and I’m going to get them back if it kills me. “Useful information,” Aaron said.”
“No!” Pete stepped in front of Aaron, arms crossed.
Aaron lifted Pete, moved him to the side, and kept walking.
Pete grabbed Aaron’s shoulder. “Aaron, don’t! Please!”
Aaron shrugged off Pete’s grip.
Aaron paused. “I need to know what’s on there. I need to see this through to the end.”
“That’s no bear!”
“For the last time, get out before it - “
A body on a stretcher carried out on a white sheet.
The Sentinel programming taking over his mind. The blackouts. The violence. Coming to and finding he’d been attacking his friends.
At the same time the nanites in his body ready to take the shape of anything he wished.
Peter, in peril and ready to help, there to need and be needed, pulling Aaron back into the world.
Peter, not quite the same, but close enough that Aaron could believe he had his old friend back.
And when Aaron left again, Peter had been left behind, with no one around to wish him into existence.
“Peter!” Aaron cried out, as he came back to reality.
He’d died. Peter had died.
It had been the Terminii, a murderous robot. It had looked like a bear until the artificial flesh layer had come apart, revealing the titanium killing machine underneath.
It had attacked Aaron. Peter had died saving him.
And then later, when Aaron was infected with the Sentinel coding and the nanites, his body shifting into terrifying new shapes if he so much as had a bad dream, Pete had turned up again.
…Peter, not Pete.
Pete was outside.
Pete was outside alone.
Aaron had left Peter, and he’d died, and now Pete was outside alone.
Outside the door was a heap of gray sludge. It still had Pete’s face on it.
“No!” Aaron dropped to his knees. “No, no, no!” He started reaching out gingerly, trying to do something to save the rapidly-dissolving remnants of Peter.
He felt his self-repair nanites start to drip down his arm, trying to flow into Pete’s body, make him be alive again.
Aaron jerked his hands away. “No!”
He wouldn’t do that to Pete, try to bring back some crude nanite approximation. Peter had been bad enough, and that had been an accident.
Aaron looked up, and saw a circle of fleshy things gathered around him, keeping their distance, but forming a circle. On the ground in front of him was written the words I’M YOUR FRIEND.
It had been carved into the ground with the giant knife that lay discarded next to it.
Aaron blinked and then he saw a circle of police officers, guns drawn.
And then it was the fleshy things again.
It flickered back and forth, wouldn’t settle on one image.
But there was one thing that was steady. The sound of the red thing lurching off into the distance.
Aaron grabbed the enormous knife and ran off to kill the monster.
Everything was flickering, strobing in and out, one instant a town full of shambling flesh-monsters, the next screaming humans, panicking, fleeing the killer mad robot they saw, but he was close, he was so close, all he had to do was kill this one monster and everything would stop changing everything would be right, and he would get Peter back, he would finally get Peter back.
He chased it down, because it may be strong but he was faster, and he took its giant knife and stabbed it, right in the gut.
The monster stopped. Shrank. And turned to Aaron with the face of a woman he knew.
He’d just stabbed Betty Ross.
She’d come into town, Betty Ross, Red She-Hulk, looking to help, looking to save her robot buddy.
She’d come for him, because she was his friend.
And he’d just stabbed her.
She shrank more, grew paler, until the red behemoth was a brown-haired human who was looking at him in shock and pain.
She was never the monster here.
None of them were monsters.
Not the fleshy things, (hundreds of them, everywhere, moving with organic clumsiness).
Not the bladed thing, (Wade, with the two black spots on his face, and chatter that never stopped, and he healed, whatever you did to him he healed, unless you burned him completely to ash).
Not the burning thing, (Tabby, counting down to the explosion, tick, tick, tick, boom).
Not the spider (Elsa, the moment when she’d died and the red mark on her back had resolved into a long, red ponytail).
Not the indestructible thing (The Captain, he’d had a star on his shirt, put there by the aliens he’d said, the night they gave him his powers, he’d told Aaron the whole story, they'd been drinking buddies back then).
Not the ball lightning (Monica, she still had nightmares about this, she’d admitted once, nightmares about her energy being dispersed until she broke apart completely and there was nothing left).
And not the red thing, Betty, who’d come into town to save his life.
Finally, reflected in a window, Aaron saw the monster.
Its face was a shredded wreckage of skin, with bare skull-like metal shining through.
It had twisted blackened hands with jagged blade fragments emerging between the long, claw-like metal bones.
Bits of synthetic skin hug raggedly from a titanium frame. (Like the bear, like the robot bear that had snapped Peter’s spine.)
And its eyes were solid red, reflecting dully in the light.
It didn’t have a face.
It wasn’t human.
It wasn’t even alive.
He was the monster.
And there was no way to stop him.
Humans began gathering. Some started shooting at him.
Aaron ignored them. They didn’t matter.
He stopped. Just stopped.
Maybe if he stood still long enough, the humans would send someone powerful enough to end this.
“Seriously, Aaron? You think I die that easily?”
It was Betty. Or at least her voice.
He didn’t know anymore.
That was the problem. He didn’t know. He was out in the world with more weapons than most small countries, and he didn’t know what was real or who he’e just killed.
“I healed, Aaron! You know that, I heal!” Betty, or the illusion of Betty began waving a hand in front of his face. “Aaron? What’s going on? Can you hear me?”
He didn’t answer. He’d been fooled before. Make me think a friend’s here to save me from myself once, shame on you.
“I don’t know what happened to you, but I’m going to help.” She grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and started carrying him off. “We’re getting out of here,” she said. “I don’t know what this place is or why you’re doing this to yourself, but we’re getting out of here.”
Aaron launched his jet pack.
His shirt, the weak point between robot and Hulk, tore, and he was free of her grip.
He went high, higher than she could reach.
She ran after him and then jumped, powerful Hulk-sized jumps.
Then she stopped. “Aaron! Come back! Trust me! Please!”
He kept flying. “Remember Florida? The wrong timeline? I fell into the wrong world! I would have died there, but you told me to believe Jen! To trust her!”
He’d told her to trust Jennifer Walters, who’d come to save them.
And then he’d attacked her. He hadn’t been able to stop himself. It had been programming, built into the alternate universe body he'd been pulled into, and he was helpless against whatever his brain was programmed to do.
“You have to trust me now! This isn’t what you think! I don’t know what you think is happening, but this place isn’t what you think!”
Aaron paused. “What did you mean before, you don’t know why I’m doing it to myself?”
The town was empty, old and decayed. It looked like it had been abandoned years ago, except for one thing.
It was filled with holo-projectors.
They were everywhere.
Also empty beer cans.
“I think you only built about half-a-dozen robots,” Betty said. “You were mostly shooting thin air. You destroyed all of the robots.”
When Aaron went back to check, the Deadpool robot had the outer layer burned off, but there was a metal skeleton left behind.
Same for the robot version of Tabby, drifting in the lake, and the destroyed bits of the robot Elsa.
The big stupid was still in place, its ‘mouth’ covered with tarry gunk. It didn’t have a star on its shirt, but up close it looked unsettlingly like the Captain.
There wasn’t a robot that looked like Monica. He didn’t know what that thing had been.
If he’d killed the real Monica, Betty would tell him, right?
There were in the forest just out of town when Betty stopped and started building a stack fo wood for a campfire. “Come on, Tin Man, light it up."
Aaron deployed his flamethrower “What’s the fire for?”
“Comfort,” said Betty.
“It’s not that cold. Also, I’m a robot, and you’re a Hulk.”
“Emotional comfort.” Betty fed another log onto the fire. “I like the look of them. And the smell. If we’re going to talk, I’d rather be cozy.”
“We don’t need to talk,” said Aaron.
“Yes, we do.”
“No.” Aaron shook his head. “If you’re right about what happened, I need an expert in debugging defective AI, and if you aren’t, then I’m hallucinating you right now and the Avengers are probably on their way to take me down.”
The last bit was more of a wish than anything. But this couldn’t go on forever, right? One way or another, something had to make it stop?
“You probably do need a robot expert, but first, we’re going to talk.” Betty gestured towards a rock. “You’re going to sit down and tell me what’s behind all of this. I’m going to listen. I’m going to attempt to say something comforting, which is probably going to be vastly inadequate considering all of...this.” She gestured in the direction of the town. “Sit down, Aaron, we’re doing this.”
Aaron wrinkled his nose. “Why?”
“Because you’re not just a machine.”
“Peter was a friend of mine,” said Aaron, after a long pause. “The first friend I had after my father died.”
Betty raised her eyebrows. “Your father?”
“My father.” Aaron gave her a look. “He was one of the scientists at the research facility that built me. He took me home and raised me as a son. When the military decided to destroy me, he sacrificed himself to save me. When I was being hunted down, I met Peter. He offered me help when he thought I was just a hitchhiker. When he found out I was a robot being hunted by the military, he didn’t change his mind.”
“Sounds like a good guy,” said Betty.
“He died. I suppose you could say he died twice. Once I failed to save him, and once I killed him.”
Betty was giving Aaron a look he wasn’t sure how to read.
Aaron started to raise his hands to his face, then stopped. With his real face exposed and his hands wrecked, he’d probably scratch the metal. Although he had much bigger problems to worry about.
“There was a bear. Except it was actually a robot. It ate my arm.”
Betty looked confused.
“I don’t know how to explain it better,” said Aaron. “There was a bear that was actually a robot. It ate my arm. It liked titanium. I...was a less sophisticated design then. No self-repair nanites. Some of the damage alert systems were distractingly loud.” He’d reprogrammed them after Peter’s death, so that no matter how badly he was wrecked, it wouldn’t overwhelm his CPU and he wouldn't be useless in an emergency. “I froze up. Peter manually activated my jets and sent me flying away to safety. I managed to do one thing before leaving. I reached out with my remaining arm and grabbed the head of Jocasta.” He looked at Betty. “My ex-girlfriend. She’d been destroyed fighting Ultron, and I thought I could rebuild her. Bring her back to life. I had one hand left, so I could only take one person. And I thought Peter would be safe.” He’d had the extra claw-crane arms put in after that. He’d fixed it so that, even if he lost an arm, he could easily grab half a dozen people and carry them to safety.
He’d thought that if he made himself sophisticated enough, it wouldn’t happen again.
“The robot didn’t eat Peter,” Aaron continued. “That didn’t stop it from killing him.”
Betty put a hand on Aaron’s arm. “I’m so sorry.”
She was right, that was vastly inadequate.
“Some years later,” said Aaron, “I was infected by malicious code due to a time-traveling robot from the future. It took over my mind. I’d black out and learn that I’d attacked people.”
Betty drew a sharp breath.
“The nanites were powerful, much more powerful than my current self-repair system. I could transform my whole body, turn into a completely different shape. If I thought it, the nanites could build it. And I was scared. I wanted a friend. So I thought about Peter. I thought about Peter a lot. And later, when I was too scrambled to think clearly, he was there. I was going to float in space indefinitely, and avoid all humans, but I got a call that Peter needed me. I got to help him again. Then he was ready to help me.”
Peter was always ready to help him. Peter meant safety. Peter meant home.
“Then the malicious code erased chunks of my memory, including Peter. I didn’t remember he was there, and I didn’t know what he was, so I left. It took a long time to fully restore the databases, and when I did...I found out what happened to him, and then I think I decided I didn’t want to know.”
“What happened?” Betty asked.
Aaron had somehow gotten sucked into that human thing where forcing yourself to talk about horrible things was supposed to be comforting. He wasn't feeling any comfort just yet. “He didn’t have proper programming, not enough to sustain a nanite-based AI system. He was just...my wishes and memories come to life. After I left, he began to decohere. It ended with him dissolving into sludge.”
“I’m so sorry, Aaron,” said Betty. Aaron stared at the pointless fire and didn’t answer. “None of that was your fault, you know that?”
“Of course I do,” said Aaron. “I’m not stupid. If it was my fault, then I could have made different decisions, and it wouldn’t have happened twice.” He paused, thinking of Pete back in town. “Possibly three times. When things are my fault, I can decide to stop doing them. When they just happen, not because of what I decide, but because of what I am...what can you do about that?”
“I understand,” said Betty.
“Do you?” Aaron asked sarcastically. “Caught mind-altering computer viruses yourself once or twice?
“I do understand.” Betty gave Aaron a sharp look. “You do remember when we first met, right? I'd just accidentally killed a man. I went full Hulk and smashed up a military base, and I was trying to hurt that man enough to stop him from trying to hurt me, but I hit too hard and he died. You followed me out to the forest. I was alone, scared, afraid of what I'd become, all of my worst fears come to life, and then you showed up and talked me through it.”
He remembered. She’d been angry, but underneath that she’d been frightened. She’d curled up tightly after he’d started talking, then she’d talked about her worst fears, and then she’d been able to get up again.
She brushed back some hair that had fallen in her face. “I wondered how a robot could understand how I felt so well.”
“You fleshy ones vastly overestimate the complexity of human psychology,” said Aaron. “It’s not a challenging subject. You’re all pretty simple mechanisms.”
Betty ignored this. “You knew what it’s like to lose control over yourself, to do damage you didn’t mean, and be scared you’re going to do it again. And you knew that when someone’s in that situation, they shouldn’t be left alone. They need someone.”
“I see the incredibly obvious point you’re trying to make,” said Aaron. “But this is different.”
“Yeah, I was lucky enough to have you come after me and talk me down as soon as I was calm enough to listen, while you were obviously left alone with your thoughts for way too long. Did you build a town to punish yourself with?”
“I think...I found it?” Aaron frowned thoughtfully. “Most of it, at least." It felt like it had...called him? Like he was supposed to be there? "It’s still pretty confused. I was trying to find answers, figure out what had happened and what to do about it.”
Betty flicked him gently on the forehead. “Talk to people, dummy. Get a different perspective. I promise you it works better than this whole...town-building robot weirdness.”
“It helped last time,” said Aaron. “Kind of.”
“I...was dealing with some stuff, and was thinking about doing therapy, but I was drinking heavily, and it turned into me rebuilding a model of Central City on an enormous hover-carrier, and also a bunch of robots who ran around reenacting scenes from my life.”
Betty shook her head. “That happened when you thought about doing therapy?”
“One of the robots was a therapist.”
“Okay, you need people. Humans. Or other robots. Ones that you didn’t build while drunk. Reasonably friendly aliens, even. People.” Betty put a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “I know this has to be scary as hell, but I’ll find you some help. I know some of the smartest people in the world. We’ll figure this out together. Just trust me.”
“Thank you,” Aaron said.
Even without working scissors, it only took seconds to slice away a few of Betty’s hairs when she wasn’t looking.
She’d said to trust her, but he had to know.
When he had a quiet moment, he opened the hand that held the hairs.
In the palm of his hand was a thin line of gray nanite sludge.
The same sludge that Peter had dissolved into.
The leftover sludge from his nanites shedding, taking shape because he’d wanted a friend so much, and dissolving because the person he’d made wasn’t real.
He blinked, and the hairs were whole in the palm of his hand.
Had he done it again? Wished so hard that he’d created a Betty who would come back and protect him and reassure him that it would all be okay?
Or was he just imagining his worst fears coming true?
They’d both gotten out of the pocket universe, hadn’t they?
He’d been in the body of the military robot he’d designed to be, with a brain that was a slave to commands, programmed to attack her, and then…Jennifer Walters had been there somehow, and Aaron had managed to trick the programming so he wasn’t compelled to attack his friends anymore, and they’d all made it out alive.
He looked down at his hand.
He couldn’t see the hairs at all.
“Aaron?” Betty called.
Aaron looked up.
She looked real.
She sounded real.
Just like he remembered her.
And it was so much nicer to believe she was really here.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.” He brushed his hands off. “Let’s go.”