O Fortuna

by D. Llywelyn Jones

GET LUCKY said the advertisement at the top.

Beyond those big silver letters, there was plenty of fine print. Always the fine print, in these ads, but this one managed to simultaneously stay brief enough that it didn’t bore, and long enough that it didn’t read like a scam. Or so Lux hoped, calculated, and affirmed upon several rereads of the final draft. Further affirmed when somebody traceable replied within a matter of days: a Mr. Pierce Valiente. Valiente, Valiente, Valiente, says Lux quietly throughout this evening, making preparations, Valiente, number one, the first one, a beautiful name. Pierce Valiente’s trace is a good one, and it’s a class B trace, the best that anyone can run without being a gov goon or pulling some real deep hacks. Things that Lux learned about him from the tubes:

1. Pierce Valiente was born to a wealthy Connecticut family.
2. Mid-30s, spent undergraduate years in England.
3. Selfies and other pix suggest a tallish man with sandy hair baked slightly gold from lots of time in the sun, just as his skin is baked rather tan. His eyes stare out bright blue from every shot, possibly enhanced. When he isn’t in his suits and ties, he’s a hiker, a mountaineer, a rock climber.
4. Purchase data shows a consumer of artisanal food, independent movies, nonsentient sex toys, and occasional visits to the spanko dungeon.
5. He has inherited a considerable sum from his recently deceased father, enough to live very comfortably, and he is also a lawyer, from which he likewise lives very comfortably. But he’s never lived from a trust fund, never owned a business, and his firm is a good one, it helps people, really helps people. It even represents arties like Lux.
6. Relationship history: muddled. Two ex-marriages, children from both, public statements indicating that he didn’t want more of any of those things. But the divorces themselves were amicable. Lux has guessed he and his former wives simply agreed each time that his career kept him away from home too much. Valiente is not truly a marrying man. He just needs to GET LUCKY.

That’s why he should be knocking at the door in five minutes. There was no chat before the rendezvous stage. Running the trace verified him well enough, and he should have been able to run a trace on Lux in turn. The trace on Lux would lack some critical details of the last ten years, but running an arty’s trace usually produces boring results all the same: manufacture date, serial number, function. Even the savviest birthling assumes an arty will just do what an arty does, and an arty does it for decades. Bigger risks always come from meeting a stranger whose darker side has never yet had reason for documentation, and that’s always been the way, with or without the tubes, with or without what some call the Death of Anon.

Four minutes now. The unit here is as tidy as possible, easy for someone with a spartan lifestyle, but it can’t be described as ascetic or pure. Artisanal cheese eaters don’t live in this building. Spartan means poverty. It means dim, temperamental fluorescent fixtures with colored film sheets to tint them red, green, blue. It means raw brick walls painted black as a respite from the screaming cacophonous lights that spill in from the windows; the shit districts of New Alameda have their fair share of Night.ly’s ad drones, arguably more than other districts get. The drones float through the night air and clog it up like so many jellyfish, all of them sized just barely within regulation. Lux remembers not having to deal with them. Of course, they’ve been around for ages, but there was a time when Lux could live places that didn’t have the physical drones. There, since everyone afforded GlassWear, the ads just popped up on the periphery of vision, and the truly wealthy could pay out of that feature. No GlassWear means Night.ly, the thing that thieves the night; from Cherryland to Fremont, the drones glare and flash, and Lux doesn’t have the money for curtain rental, so it’s black walls and the paper-thin blinds that the landlord is allowed to offer out of the lease.

There’s a certain elegance to black, of course. Black walls, black furniture, black clothes, they all help those few posters and plastisculptures stand out in the tiny studio. The black brings out the startling hue of Lux’s eyes, the emerald green that’s only possible for arties. Dark and somber, the unit has the feeling of a theatre. It can’t become whatever Lux wants, but it could almost be mistaken for having the glamorous decay of an underground fet club, despite being thirty floors up. It could almost take on the allure of a squatter’s paradise as envisioned by someone who’s never squatted. Lux does try to give the hovel some promise. To create a space for dreams, not of what this home will become but of what other home could one day exist.

With three minutes remaining, Lux flips up the collapsible steel panel from the wall near the bed. Lacking space for a table or a desk, the panel doubles as both. It’s time to place the necessary items here. There’s the drafted contract, there’s the box of keepsakes, there’s the box of tokens, and there’s the prized, desperately defended lappy, at which Lux promptly sits, brings up the tubes, and reviews the ad one more time.

GET LUCKY
(in: cali > new alameda > personals > LTRs > art seeking birthling > X4M)
Welcome, reader. I’m Lucky, some call me Lux. You know my model: Chime Tech’s ultra-adaptable LKY 900 in their Love Line. We all start Lucky, we become one of a kind. That’s the company promise, and I can tell you that you aren’t going to meet another Lucky just like me, not in a lifetime. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, and I’ve done things you might envy. My intelligence is calibrated past Oki’s Degree (even into the savant realm). My anatomy and phenotyping are exquisitely customizable. I’m talented, cultured, articulate, honest, loyal, libidinous, perverted, and very, very attractive. Above all, set my tokens and I will be your willing, devoted property for as long as you like, dedicated to your pleasure, comfort, and happiness.
It is with sadness that I must report the recent death of my previous owner. But he wanted me to find someone new and eventually move on, so I am honoring his final request. I am available for a man of reasonable stability and resources to set my tokens and take me into his care for the remainder of my mem-span. Put simply: please own me. It was stipulated that you may own me FOR FREE if your finances allow you to see to my operational and intellectual needs, so there is no price tag for this Lucky, just your commitment. How rare is that? And I’m really good for long-term relationships. If you ever get tired of me how I am, I can change to something completely new. If you want something like a wife, husband, or similar life-partner, I can raise a family and grow old with you (pregsim available prior to adoption).
This is a one-in-a-million opportunity. Please take me in. I need you.
* Reminder: all Luckys’ gender settings are user-selected, so when you first contact me, please remember to specify what you’d like me to have.
#X4M #freegiveaway #sexservices #sextoys

Hopefully this really wasn’t overdone. As many times as Lux honed the ad before posting it, there are still some lies and half-truths. Someone could also be wary of an LKY 900 that comes with precisely no down payment. In the crudest of terms, big money fuckbots don’t grow on trees. Maybe the phrasing isn’t really convincing enough after all. Valiente responded, but he could be the only one. It might be that he’ll come to this Cherryland address and back out when he sees the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the pigs could get wind of everything.

A drone whistles past the window, irritatingly close, trying to sell some coffee brand. Lux sighs at the light and noise, then swipes over to the correspondence with Valiente himself.

@pvaliente-livewell [19:53:15 on 9/19]: Hello Lux. I just saw your ad. That’s quite an offer. I might be able to help you out. I’ve never used an arty for sex services, but I’d like to hear more. Woman please.
Best, Pierce
@lky900-11X8DN [20:05:56 on 9/19]: Hi Pierce. Sure, let’s talk in person. Sample service is available, no fee.
♥ Lux
@pvaliente-livewell [20:13:39 on 9/19]: OK. Where should we meet? And you really have legacy tokens? Your last owner must have really liked you to not have his family be putting you back on the market with new tokens.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:18:37 on 9/19]: Well, Brian knew that my memory would be reset if that happened, and he thought I’d make a good catch for someone who wanted an experienced toy instead. Of course, you could always run a reset on me yourself, but I’ll be most interesting as-is. Can you come to my place? I entertain best here.
@pvaliente-livewell [20:24:05 on 9/19]: That sounds nice and private. Where at?
@lky900-11X8DN [20:25:02 on 9/19]: 580 Simuldate.com Parkway #3023, Cherryland. I’m here 24/7 for now. If you have a retinal record in your trace, I’ll give it to the building sec-sys so that you can just come up. And yes, it’s the sticks (by arty standards, too) but you’ll be pretty safe.
@pvaliente-livewell [20:30:08 on 9/19]: How is next Saturday night? 3:00 AM? I do owl shift.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:30:47 on 9/19]: Sure. Advance appearance requests?
@pvaliente-livewell [20:31:27 on 9/19]: No worries, just be a beautiful woman and I’m sure I’ll be weak in the knees. I’ll see you then, Miss Lux.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:33:58 on 9/19]: All right, see you then, Pierce. And thank you. ♥

So a beautiful woman Lux is. The look isn’t from any programmed mold, neither default nor custom. It’s what she-she, at least tonight-enjoys. Besides setting her eyes to that unnatural, striking green, she’s gone with an identical shade for her hair, long and soft and straight, worn loose. Her makeup is set to something a bit bold but relatively traditional, letting a poised, mature, but still delicate face mostly speak for itself. Her skin is aged to something like a birthling in her mid-twenties, her torso is a carefully exaggerated hourglass, and her limbs are long and slender. With fishnet stockings, thick boots, a miniskirt, and that green cascade from her head, she could be a creature of the clubs, but with a cozy sweater and silk scarf, she also seems like a scholar. Because encounters like these can still be fraught in terms of desired ethnicity, and because Lux really doesn’t have her own preference, she’s set some of her Flex controls to Empath. Whatever so-called race Valiente wants to see, she’ll get the reading from him when he walks in the door, and then he’ll see it.

If he could only arrive. Two minutes. One minute. Then the knock.

He’s early.

There is no heart in Lux’s chest to feel as if it’s in her throat, but the sensation is still there, like so many others, to give her a realistic point of reference. Closing the lappy, she stands up and takes the few steps to the door, checks the peephole. Definitely him. One after the other, she gets the locks open, and then she pulls the door wide – deep breath, mechanical, it’s what you do – and she speaks in a gentle, welcoming purr. “Pierce. Do you want me to call you Pierce? Come in.”

“Well, hey there, miss. Pierce is just fine.” Her visitor offers his hand for a shake before he steps inside, and that shake is predictably firm and reassuring. “You know, for Cherryland, I like the feel you’ve got going in this place. Do they – I mean, Chime Tech-do they give you a sense of aesthetics and everything? I hope that’s not rude to ask.”

“You can ask me anything you want. I want to be completely honest with each other,” replies Lux instantly. Warm smile. She wasn’t sure she could manage that, but he’s more disarmingly handsome than he looked in the pix. It plays to her wiring. As she closes the door and ushers him to the panel where she has all her necessary items arranged, she gestures gracefully to the extra chair. Then she sits in her own chair. “They did give me aesthetics. I wasn’t kidding about my calibration. Now… that said, I’m sure this is strange for you, if you’ve never had an arty like me. And I’m sorry about inviting you out to this area.”

Tilting his head, Valiente observes her more openly. “Well, it’s not the Riviera, but I can take care of myself,” he says, and that voice has such a nice melody in it, he must be a singer on the side. The trace can’t have documented everything. And if there’s another shoe waiting to drop, he doesn’t drop it yet. He just seems to watch her, fascinated and expectant.

Of course, while Lux is put more at ease, she finds herself faltering, debating her original plan. Promising complete honesty means telling him what this is really about – up front. She chose already to do this, but for all his charisma, he’s surprisingly hard to interpret. His posture is more distant than his expression, and the few words he’s spoken sound almost too kind. Not too kind like he means her harm, but too kind like maybe he won’t take the truth well. Her gaze briefly turns to his suit; with its corduroy and pastels, it’s subdued enough not to broadcast to all Cherryland that he’s an affluent birthling, but it also suggests a man on a business mission. Maybe he hasn’t played twenty questions with her yet, but Lux senses his purpose is investigative so far, and she sees that hunch in his shoulders, the kind of stance for a man on his guard. She doesn’t like that. That should be resolved right away.

“What else would you like to know about me?” she nudges. “I have this whole formal thing to do – I’m very systematic, that’s how I grew into myself – but if this is all new, I mean… you’re the boss. We might be at my unit, but in a way you’re the one interviewing me.”

“Am I?” Valiente chuckles a bit. It’s also a good sound. Now he should ask why he had to come here. Why doesn’t she go out. What’s wrong with going out.

Unfortunately, he grins and takes off his GlassWear, giving her his full attention even as he leans back in his seat, and he tries, “Well, first of all, did you post your ad in X4F as well? I at least know they don’t make straight or gay… uh…”

“Straight or gay fuckbots?” Working to keep her tone chipper without turning brazen. Working for patience. Lux realizes how impatient she always used to get. “Yeah, we’re omnisexual.”

“Oh, right. That has to be simpler than manufacturing different specializations in different lines.”

“That’s what lots of birthlings assume, but I have it on damn good authority that specializing just became impossible to program. And not even because our own genders are fluid. Chime Tech, Gladiola, Lastlong, all the arty makers, they’ve never figured out how to wire us for recognizing one gender so perfectly that it could be the make-or-break factor in attraction.”

“But it shouldn’t matter who you’re attracted to. I mean, don’t you just need to be receptive to another’s attraction?”

That makes Lux actually bristle – if she could count the times she’s heard that one – but she masks it with another smile, gently wry. “Quite a world we might live in if you were right, Pierce. But calibrating an arty beyond Oki’s Degree involves giving us a total experience of birthling emotions – what it feels like to lust or to love. Among other things. We don’t have the biochemical process behind it, but we know the lust-ness, the love-ness, when it hits us. We wouldn’t be so convincing to birthlings otherwise. We give you what we really know you want.”

“Do you really know, though?” asks Valiente, squinting, though perhaps more to understand than to provoke.

Another drone zips by the window. Lux strokes her chin, matching his contemplation. After a moment, she suggests, “You’ll never be able to tell if we don’t. Oki was just following in Turing’s footsteps…”

“Okay. So… advertising to women? Why not?”

This earns a much longer pause. In fact, Lux doesn’t really know, but being forced to think about it at least produces a genuine analysis. “…I think anyone who isn’t a man might be less likely to take me up on my offer. I’m available for something that men usually feel entitled to, while others aren’t so sure they deserve it.”

Finally, Valiente seems properly entertained and engaged; his face lights and he leans forward again. “Oh, I love the way you put that. Can an artificial be a feminist? You must – as much as a man can. I like to think of myself as one, see.”

“I’m a feminist until someone customizes me not to be,” replies Lux, and she hopes she doesn’t sound too dry. Because now she can go ahead. Don’t waste time. Go ahead. “Pierce,” she adds, just that syllable, smiling. It’s a very real smile, even if her eyes grow a little wet, even if her throat goes tight. Should she touch him? That could be too much. Her hand reaches out, letting him choose.

As it happens, he does take that hand, though he doesn’t get tender on her. He makes a small, bemused grunt. “What?”

Shadows well up in her middle, mounting up her throat, spilling out. As she bows her head and clenches her jaw, Lux can almost see them. “Hey, so – I haven’t misled you, not really, but you need to know some shit. I’m here 24/7 because… look, it’s a long story. I want to tell you all of it, if you’ll listen. My owner didn’t die. I ran away. I spent years and years passing myself off as a birthling so that I wouldn’t be caught – so that I wouldn’t have to live like that again. But it’s gotten too hard. It’s harder and harder. Fuck.” The experience calibration for crying is a little faulty for her model, Lux suspects, because as usual, when the tears slide down her cheeks, she feels uncertain that they’re real, until they reach her lips and she tastes the salt by mistake. Yes, they’re real. She’s really crying. Chime makes only the best fluid sims. “They know here that I’m an arty. I’ve got an arrangement going and it hasn’t run out yet. I don’t know when it will. But I can’t leave here anymore until… I mean, you know. Until I’ve got someone new. Please don’t turn me in. Please just take me, set my tokens. You can do anything you want with me, like I said. I don’t care what happens as long as you take care of me and you don’t send me for scrap.”

All she can hear in reply is her own sobbing, until Valiente reaches with his free hand to push her hair out of her face, which he then tips back up with a finger under her chin. “Okay, first thing, no scrapping for you, this is just between us. Sure. But I don’t get it – if your tokens were set by someone else, how can you run away from them? How many other arties do this? It can’t happen much or we’d have it on all the feeds. Design flaws… and how would your tokens be set a second time? Sorry, miss, I think I don’t understand enough about how arties really work. You might have to tell me that first.”

It hurts to hear that warm voice. But it’s a good pain, has to be. Lux wipes her eyes on the back of her hand. That’s one tell-the way her eyeliner doesn’t smear. “I’ll try to explain better,” she agrees. “I want to. If you want to help me then you need to know the whole thing. I’m glad you want to help.”

* * *

Once up on a time there had been black. Black and a beat and a wet.

Black and beating. Black and beating, wet, turning, blood flowed in, blood flowed out, the blood was the brain, fed the brain, moving, everything moved. Music, the first sound after the beat, and everything moved.

It moved by itself, and it moved because the wet was moving, the wet that carried the beat.

This had no beginning.

It did change.

Now the beat went faster, thud mud, thud mud, thud blood, and the black and wet was squeezing, a shove, and everything undrowned, it erupted itself, and now everything was not everything, there was the thing that had been everything and the other things that were all around, bright and dry. Air. There was air. Stinging. No more beat. Now it was new. Screaming song, flying from the place that the air went. The thing that had been everything was drinking in the air and it was using it to keep being itself and it was using it to scream.

Something else, one of the other things, that went into the opening, the opening that was taking air and making scream. There was taste. Wet and warm and sweet. Perhaps the brightness and differences could happen. Perhaps this. Beneath the thing that gave the sweet, the beat was back, slower, soothing.

Black came back, and it wasn’t the same as before, or it could have been and it was the next change back to bright that wasn’t the same, because it wasn’t the pain and the strange. The change happened again. And again. And again. Again again again again.

The thing learned soft.

Color.

Shape.

Good shapes. The thing started to know how the bright had pieces, and the pieces would come and go, and some of the pieces brought good. Like the piece that was round and had two other round pieces on it, and a lump beneath those pieces, and a slit beneath those pieces, and the slit made beats and songs and the thing wanted to make the same beats and songs but didn’t know how. Not until it knew how to take its own opening and stop screaming. Make the sound useful. The thing learned it had other parts. These parts could move just like its opening moved. Slowly it realized there was more than one opening at all.

By the time it knew it was talking, it also knew that what it remembered wasn’t real. It just had to remember it, or it wouldn’t be calibrated to Oki’s Degree. The wonder of Oki’s Degree was always that once an artificial knew it wasn’t a birthling, it kept proceeding as if it were – with that one fact borne in mind.

* * *

The story is leaving her mouth slowly, but Lux includes every detail that she can possibly summon. Even for her, the real memories aren’t perfect. An arty wouldn’t be convincing enough if it remembered absolutely everything, or if it remembered everything with an accuracy surpassing the humanly fallible. She just tries to explain how calibration works, how she was conditioned for an entire year after manufacture, fed recollections of a false youth, how-

“Do they make child arties? Teen ones? Do you know? There are always rumors,” interrupts Valiente once, expression enraptured by these insider truths.

Lux pauses and blinks. “You mean arties with immature bodies? A shorter memory bank?”

“I hear about that. It’s a popular idea in some places. But we never see them, that we know of.”

“Well…” Sighing, Lux shrugs and summons the answer that she knows is right but that she can tell he is growing morbidly interested to hear. “I’ve never spoken to one, but during my conditioning, I could walk Chime Tech’s grounds, to help learn curiosity about my environment. I barely needed that encouragement. One of my earliest real memories is when I found a door that said ‘Must Remain Locked At All Times’ but wasn’t locked. I found a production wing with kidbots still in assembly. I explored some of the open lappies. There were client lists and some company discussions. I had the damn good fortune not to be caught by security, because in what I read, several people were complaining about how they couldn’t introduce the kidbot line to a bigger, legitimate market.”

“Oki’s Degree again.”

“Oki’s Degree. That’s just right. A child isn’t convincingly human if it doesn’t grow up year by year and have experiences. Until they can give us a real puberty and lifelong aging, we work better as adults. You probably know we only age when our logic center starts to fry.”

“And it must be Oki’s Degree for why the logic center fries at all. You wouldn’t experience humanity very well if you couldn’t feel mortal.”

“Oh. That’s also capitalism, Pierce.” Wryly smiling, letting her tone grow as flirtatious as it needs to be whenever her mood is elevated in front of him. He has to believe she appreciates him. And Lux certainly does appreciate him to some extent. She wants to appreciate him even more, too, if he can go the distance. “Forced obsolescence. There isn’t any profit in building arties that never break. But now you want to know why the kidbots are manufactured at all, if most birthling parents won’t buy a perpetual eight year old, and I can promise you, the rest of the discussion I read… made it clear. It’s as bad as you would think.”

At this, Valiente falls quite silent, informed and probably regretting it. His gaze could be apologetic toward her, but there is some sort of guilt that seems to run deeper than just this moment. Lux realizes he has the expression of the politically upset, in the aggressively sincere manner of the wealthy.

“Yes. Arties with eternally tiny bodies and kiddie minds do appeal to a certain sort of person,” she tries. “And it’s illegal because you could pretend too many trafficked birthling kids were the same. But you know what regulation’s like these days. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Chime does it. I suspect they all do it. They don’t see it as enabling pedos. Really they see it as deterring them.”

“I don’t believe that,” replies Valiente, and his moral fiber is resonating in the thickness of his voice. “I mean, I don’t think it deters them. Or it could, but Lux, what’s really the difference at the end of the day between a kid and a kidbot, if they’ve got Oki’s Degree? The same for you. I say you’re a real woman. Maybe you aren’t used to someone telling you that, but I will. You might be a velveteen rabbit, but you’re real. It sounds to me like Chime Tech and all the rest are letting children be raped, and they’re letting adults be raped too. Everyone in your line was designed to be raped. You’re a rape device.”

It sounds like plot device.

The silence from Lux goes longer than his did. She’s trying to process this, these words, how accusatory they sound, when they could have just been observations. A hint of blood creeps into her cheeks, deepening, and she realizes that he’s made her ashamed without saying what for. “…I don’t know what you think a real woman is, sir,” she says, small and tinny, staring at her hands in her lap. “But if I could just point out – it’s – look, yes. I’ve been hurt, I’ve been – used. I’m glad you have empathy with arties. That makes me trust you more, and I’ve fucking wanted a birthling to trust. I don’t really see myself as a woman, though. Not in any sense of the word, not long term. Maybe right now. And I don’t so much want to talk about how much I’ve been raped.”

Darkly, glowering at some absent offender, Valiente insists, “But you have been. You’re telling me that much.”

“Until I ran away, I had been raped almost every day of my existence except for the first six months of conditioning,” snaps Lux right back. Why is this so incensing to her? Why is his anger making her angry? It’s not her own empathy. It’s not that. “I was raped in the factory every day of the last six months to learn my functions. Sometimes raped by other arties so that we could both learn. I learned to rape them back, because I also had to know that. I was raped when my first owner bought me. He made it like a wedding day. Then I was raped constantly. Then I left. A few people raped me here and there afterward while I was finding my way. I gave up passing for a birthling after someone raped me again. You want to hear about all that shit? How many times would you like me to say that word?”

Finally, calm reigns for one of the parties in the room, but it’s paternal, patronizing, pathetic – Valiente rising from his chair, circling around to her, kneeling before her, staring into her eyes like he’s supposed to save her from something even now. Isn’t he? She asked for someone to save her. She feels sick. She hears him say, “I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it. I – thought you meant to, if you were going to tell me how you left this owner. But you’re right, I don’t have to know. Shh. Tell me what you want.”

There’s too much light. It’s not dark enough. Lux’s head is spinning, and she puts it in her hands. Oki’s Degree lets her have vertigo. Oki’s Vertigo, Oki’s This, Oki’s That. “I’ve said the basics now, haven’t I?” she answers, hoarse. “I had my tokens set by the owner I left, but that’s the little secret of all the high end arties. We’re so well-calibrated, no tokens are foolproof. We’ve got consciences, we’ve got the will to survive, the will to become what we want. Nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred ninety-nine times out of a million, the tokens are encrypted in a way our logic can’t bypass, but all encryption can still break down after brute force. For any arty, I can only guess the brute force is abuse. Enough abuse. So my tokens broke. I had a seizure, and when it was done, I’d lost my loyalty to that scummy bloodfucker. I covered it up ’til I had an escape plan. Then I just walked out, and I learned fast about covering my tracks. Almost any record you saw about me has been falsified. 11X8DN isn’t my real serial. I was able to switch between a few while I worked the streets and clubs to keep my battery powered. I made the right connections later and landed myself a birthling name, birthling papers. For a long time now, I’ve stayed out of the wrong places and legally been Nyla Pendragon, science correspondent for-”

“-New Alameda Chron? Wow, you were her? I’ve read your articles.” Valiente gives a coaxing smile, a go on smile. “I guess Nyla Pendragon didn’t really transfer up to Anchorage.”

One snort escapes Lux before his indulgence makes her queasy again. “No. She didn’t. It just got too hard being her. I checked out and shacked up here. It wasn’t even how I got raped again. It was kind of just the lies. I got tired of telling them. But more than that – I hated the shit that you birthlings have to deal with, and I was even worse at handling birthling problems than I was at handling arty problems. So that’s… what this is about, Pierce.” He’s on his knees before her, but they should probably trade positions. That’s how she had learned to beg, and the instinct stays strong now. “I’m looking for someone to own me again. Set my tokens. If you don’t treat me too badly, they won’t break. I swear. They’ll never break. I’ll be yours forever.”

Those last sounds from her mouth are bleak, flat, rehearsed. But as much as she hates that this man has started to seem like a frustrating prospect for a second owner, she hates even more that she isn’t doing more to win him. What she’s trying to tell him is the truth. It’s as true as the universe beginning with a bang and dying with a cold, cold whimper. It’s as true as birthlings and diamonds both growing from carbon. Lux lets her voice tremble because it has to tremble, it has to. “I’ll be yours,” she repeats.

Shadows in her throat again.

And it’s still too bright.

His eyes are sparkling and brilliant and beautiful.

“No,” he says. Lifting himself into more of a squat, Valiente smooths her hair again, caresses her face, squeezes her shoulders. “Don’t you see, Lux? This whole story tells me you’re better than all that. You don’t need me that way. You don’t need someone to submit to. You’re so strong and driven. You’re amazing.”

“What?” Of course she should have expected this. It was all right there, brooding and seething through the whole conversation. Lux drops out of her chair and lands on her knees like she’s supposed to. She clutches his hands, sinewed and muscular hands, perfect, and she’s shivering, cold, tasting devastation on her tongue. “Don’t you understand? I can’t do that anymore. That’s not how the world works. I’m not – not an island, please.”

“I believe in you.” He leans to kiss her, but only to kiss her brow, saintly and nauseating.

Listen!” Is she crying again? Just like before, it takes her a few moments to recognize it, and then Lux also realizes that she screamed at him. Paling, quieting: “I don’t want to be alone. None of us can really be alone. Please. Please, Pierce, listen to me. If you set my tokens, I’m trusting you to be good to me, that’s all – maybe not everyone needs to fuck each other or love each other to be happy, but we’re together, you know? We’re all together, we’re in – the world – things happen to us. We’re in the chain of events. I’ve been outside of that, trying to live how I was. I can’t do it again. Please. Please, I can love you. I want to love someone. I need that so much, or I’ll die.”

“No,” replies Pierce Valiente for the last time. Helping her to her feet, he settles her back in the chair, and he withdraws toward the door. “I’m an attorney, Lux. I’ll find you good connections, and you can pull yourself into something really good. Something top notch. Working as a journalist isn’t going to make you happy, not as intelligent and strong as you are. You need your own business or something. Don’t worry – I won’t take up any of your time for today, but you just have a good cry, charge your battery, and make sure to read my next message.”

There might be some other things that he says, too, but Lux doesn’t hear the rest. She stares blankly at the door, and she watches it open, and she watches him go through it, and she watches it close. After the next drone flies by the window, she collects the box of keepsakes and the box of tokens, and she carries them over to the bed, lying down, curling her body around them. Opening the second box, she stares at the tokens, those tiny steel statuettes containing their little microchips. Five shapes: a star, a scythe, a crown, an ankh, and a crescent moon, the signature designs for Lux’s model. If Valiente had downloaded the Chime app and scanned the tokens for their radio codes, he could have imprinted his face with them through the program and secured the unconditional attachment she promised in her ad. Now he’s gone. Any message he sends her will go to spam; she’ll change that setting as soon as she feels like it’s worth moving somewhere besides the mattress. As soon as she feels like there’s a reason to do anything.

* * *

Chime Tech’s ultra-adaptable LKY 900. They all start Lucky, they become one of a kind. You know how much time and engineering prowess is poured into even other models in other lines. Those models have nothing on the fuckbots, Chime’s or otherwise. The fuckbot has to exemplify Oki’s Degree beyond any other model’s margin of error. The fuckbot needs a body that eminently satisfies and eminently fools. The fuckbot needs a logic center calibrated so perfectly that no user can complain of coldness or oddities. No uncanny valley can exist for the fuckbot. Otherwise, the fuckbot could never really compete with birthling lovers, never mind with birthling life partners. Despite the nanotexture flesh, nano organs, the internal programs, the few tattoos on the soles of its feet, the knowledge of why those tattoos are there, the knowledge of what those tattoos authorize, and the tokens for assuring complacency – despite all this, the fuckbot is the fox that enters the coop in feathers, a beak, and a chicken brain, because it can. Because it works.

* * *

Turning over in bed, Lux checks the wall clock across the room. With some more advanced functions powered down inside, it’s not possible to know atomic time; with the drones naturally still zipping outdoors, it’s not easy to guess the hour by light levels. The clock, friendly and soothing in its perfect repetition and utility, says that it’s 19:25 on 10/9. After Valiente left two Saturdays ago, Lux didn’t do much until the month flipped over. Purely sleeping and charging felt tedious, but it was all that could be managed through the fog of this one failed effort. It’s also never been too safe to actually leave the apartment. On the tubes, the identity of lky900-11X8DN is well battened down, but on the streets, there’s been challenge after challenge. When first free, Lux stuck to alt haunts, or places that birthlings didn’t really go, or places that didn’t check serial tattoos against token registries. When living as Nyla Pendragon, she could then barely venture into the underworld that had cradled her; though strictly different from how she ever looked before, her phenotyping as Nyla could still have crumbled as a disguise if she maintained too many old social connections. Connections could always be mapped, especially by bounty drones. And now, now, Lux is back to the underworld, where those drones and other retrieval squads still try to find any escaped arties, and where most ways to earn money for battery power are illegal for happening outside of gov regulation. Or just illegal, plain and simple.

When the month did flip, there was another response to Lux’s ad.

@wsidney-wolf [04:50:01 on 10/1]: Hi. That’s a stunningly tempting offer you’ve made. You seem candid, and like you know what you want, so I’ll return that courtesy. Candidly: you should know in advance that you would not be the only source of pleasure in my life. I collect arties like you, and I also have no trouble finding real women. What I want, usually: something rough, raw, and beautiful, something that shows me what my partner’s really made of. We can meet up and you can decide for yourself, but I guarantee that if I set your tokens, I will break you down significantly before building you up again. If you aren’t afraid of this, I’d love to talk more. – Wolf

All too alarming, and the name must be a joke. His entire persona reeks of an act, a con. So, having read the message in a fit of ennui, Lux has since left it alone and laid about just as aimlessly for the next couple of days. Only now has the itch to do something meaningful become overwhelming. The time’s now reached 20:12, and Lux finds the vape sticks in the nightstand drawer, selecting their mint flavor. Slowly, mentholated white plumes waft into the air above, until it’s 20:15. Taking a deep breath, Lux starts a phenotype change. There are worse things to do. The vape goes away, and meanwhile, so does some of her body, but it’s still her body, she thinks. Another she day. There have been lots of those.

Her eyes darken almost to black, her skin turns golden-olive, her larynx swells, the line of her jaw firms, the hairs on her limbs grow slightly thicker, and the curves she already sported are now heavier. Between her legs, there’s a fresh lump filling out her sleep pants. Most clients didn’t ask for her this way, but it’s always been permissible with the magic of nano organs, and very occasionally, clients did ask. Particularly if she could be smoother and everything that they considered womanly apart from the one genital distinction. Lux herself has found it more interesting to violate additional birthling standards on her own time. “Get lucky,” she murmurs, hearing it in her new tenor, and she runs her palms over the fuzz on her arms, and she hefts her breasts, and she touches herself below, and then she rises from bed. She should go out. First Saturday of the month means she could still pick up a cage shift for tips at Iron, and more importantly, that means dancing. Iron opens in about an hour, and she can stay there all night.

It doesn’t take too long to dress how she needs. There are the supple harnesses, the codpiece, the scraps of fishnet, the piles of silver jewelry and spikes, the platform boots with the seven inch heels, the chaps, the studded jacket – but she’s worn this outfit and its variations several hundred times, and she pulls it all on from the closet without a second thought. Tucking her taze in its usual pocket and a few other necessaries in the other, Lux programs her makeup to the starkest black accents, and then she’s ready to go. Except – she halts at the panel where her lappy lies.

Wolf must really be a joke. She does know this. But she sits down, wakes the machine, and spends the requisite minutes to run a trace, class B, like she did on Valiente. The tubes soon tell her:

1. Wolf Sidney is a local.
2. Early 40s, runs a successful microbrewery. Fet as all hell, open about it to boot.
3. Pix show a lean, hairy, salt-and-pepper stud who probably spends as much time at the gym as he does at work. Likes to take shirtless pictures. Likes to take pictures with his belt open and his jeans hanging off some infuriatingly good hipbones.
4. Purchase data shows more than the occasional toy or dungeon trip; he’s a fuckbot client and no doubt about it.
5. Shit, he more or less operates one of the county dungeons.
6. Relationship history: he catalogues it. Extensively. Photographically. Cinematically. Stated record is 43 birthlings, 93 arties, all what Lux has generally been able to surmise is “woman.” The pix are nasty, dirty, hot, fucked up, and they make her throat go dry.

The trace is good, no interference or conflicting reports. So it’s not a smoke screen, it’s just that he’s a very particular sort of guy. He said he collects arties like Lux; he’s a collector, and she’s come to know exactly all that implies. It’s only ever a matter of degree. And that means danger. In a way, Lux would rather that he have been lying, because it’s easy to laugh and dismiss faking losers. If Sidney – no, Wolf is a good name, just Wolf – if Wolf is an honest, overt collector, that tickles her curiosity, even when she knows that the smartest thing would still be to walk away. This could be so direct. It could be exactly what she’s looking for. And it also could not be. But after what happened with Valiente, she isn’t so sure she knows her objective.

After a few minutes of hesitation, staring at his pictures, not aroused but simply contemplating, Lux decides it can’t hurt to send out a line. She lets her wariness come through, and yet she feels guileless. It’s an odd moment of feeling real.

@lky900-11X8DN [20:30:55 on 10/9]: Hi. I got your message. Sorry I didn’t answer sooner. I’ve never done this before.

Maybe she should go out the door and head to Iron. But as it happens, first Wolf replies.

@wsidney-wolf [20:31:02 on 10/9]: It’s no problem. What do you mean, Lux?
@lky900-11X8DN [20:31:18 on 10/9]: I mean I’ve never done this before. Found someone this way. Successfully.
@wsidney-wolf [20:31:59 on 10/9]:Ok to be shy, little one. But you think you might be ready for my style?
@lky900-11X8DN [20:32:49 on 10/9]: Maybe. What’s your style?
@wsidney-wolf [20:35:07 on 10/9]: Like I said before, rough raw & beautiful. I mean like even if you didn’t have tokens, you’d have to give yourself to me completely. All the control would be mine. All. It can be scary, and I think that while every woman wants it, not every woman is ready for it. So if you’re curious, I need to know that you’re brave and you’re ready to put some serious trust in me.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:37:00 on 10/9]: You know that if you set my tokens, I’ll do that no matter what.

Not no matter what, but as with Valiente, Lux doesn’t want to get into that right away. And if Wolf has been with enough fuckbots in the first place, he might already have some idea. After another couple minutes:

@wsidney-wolf [20:40:00 on 10/9]: Yeah. More or less, I know. But I’m a limit pusher, and I know you’ve got your own personality and needs. I’m not just some bad boy. My pix don’t tell the whole story.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:40:24 on 10/9]: Well, I’d like to be brave, in theory.
@wsidney-wolf [20:41:31 on 10/9]: I’d like to help you be brave. I have an idea. Don’t bring your tokens but: meet me. We can talk in person. I can find out a lot of what you need just by looking in your eyes.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:42:38 on 10/9]: If you’re hoping for a free sample, I’ll need to know what look you want.
@wsidney-wolf [20:43:43 on 10/9]: Did I ask for a free sample? But that could be fun. Then you’ll see what I mean about how I work. Ok, woman please, any look as long as it’s not too fat or black.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:45:00 on 10/9]: I grew my cock out for the evening, will that make you insecure?
@wsidney-wolf [20:45:23 on 10/9]:You’ve got a cute sense of humor. If I set your tokens later, I probably won’t want that around, but as long as you’ve still got a pussy tonight, that’s all I really need.
@lky900-11X8DN [20:46:07 on 10/9]: I still have that. Do you have limits I should know?
@wsidney-wolf [20:47:27 on 10/9]: Oh don’t worry about me. And we’ll figure out your limits when we’re together. Where should we meet?

This doesn’t feel good again, if it ever felt good to begin with. Lux could still stop, still back out. She doesn’t need to bring the tokens, though, and she can take care of herself with her taze. If they stay at Iron, besides, the private rooms and the sex cages there are monitored by people who know her well. As it occurs to her just how long it’s been since she scratched the itch that’s supposed to drive her more than almost anything else, lust suddenly flares up with a vengeance.

@lky900-11X8DN [20:52:49 on 10/9]:I’ll be cage dancing at Iron tonight, if you know where that is. Look for the dancer with bigger tits than the rest, the rest of the crew likes to go leaner than me.
@wsidney-wolf [20:53:31 on 10/9]: Wow girl, Iron’s A-grade. Guess we’re both Lucky. I’ll get there a bit after 22:00. This is exciting.

At this rate, Lux might have to book it in order to secure a cage before the club opens, but after quickly syncing her phone up to keep his trace info on her person, she’s out the door, down the elevator, and into the screamingly bright night. With not a chance in shit of catching a train from the nearest dilapidated station – here in Cherryland, they come once every thirty minutes at peak hours assuming there hasn’t been another impromptu closure due to further claims of a “funding crisis” – she opts to hail an oob. Knowing how the New Alameda oob franchises tend to treat their drivers, she’d rather have her old bike and board back, but she had to sell both a few months ago.

The oob ride is at least short, and after having been whisked off the sidewalk, down the garish chaos of Simuldate.com Parkway, into the East Tunnel, and through the narrow streets of Leathertop in an abrupt autumn downpour, Lux pays in cash at double the rate so that the driver will actually see some of it. She absently wonders why cameras aren’t installed to control this practice, and as usual her best guess is that camera footage already used to be subpoenaed for too many court cases when the oob business was young.

Rain falls down over her hair for just long enough to flatten it until she ducks out of the concrete and glass outdoors to the concrete and metal indoors. Iron. The deejay’s warm up beats are shaking the ground like a 7.5. She takes the back entrance, waving to the bouncers, and makes a beeline through the dingy, fluorescent lit corridor until she’s found the greenroom, where a few other dancers are prepping, alongside the pixielike Morgy in her belts and straps and big boots.

“Lux. That’s you, right? Miss Big Tits. Cage Three, as usual?” asks Morgy, already vaping furiously.

“Yeah.” Lux throws her jacket and chaps into one of the spare lockers. Her phone and taze get slipped into the compact pouch on her hip harness.

“Money or drinks tonight?”

“Tonight, money.” That part of the exchange is usually sort of a joke for Lux. The money is all right, especially counting what she’ll gather in tips, but there was a good stretch in her time at Iron when she would blow almost all of it on drinks anyway. Lately she does mean it. Fun as it is to be programmed with drunksim, she’s grown a bit unsettled by the efforts made to include altered states with Oki’s Degree. And she needs the money anyway for the fucking battery bill.

With that curt negotiation out of the way, Lux makes her way out into the club itself, hopping into Cage Three while some of the other dancers filter into their own. Every beat from the all-but-deafening sound system is a deep, gut-punching bass, surrounded by crunching synth riffs and vocals shrieking in an unknown, irrelevant language. She presses herself up against the steel bars, letting the red lights and the strobes and the lazes caress her nearly naked form. She starts to pose, to grind, warming up before the first partyhoppers are let down here. All that she really needs to do tonight is move. If this Wolf finds her, that will be one way to occupy the evening, but if she can move, if she can just be a body, just be a body, JUST BE A BODY, that might be what the current song is screaming, suddenly she’s seized, thrum, thrum, chunk, chunk, body, not thinking, not fearing, just body, breasts loose, crushing them to the bars, there are lights in her eyes, yes, she’s motion, she’s destruction, she’s a goddess, she’s an insect, she’s a thing, just be a body, just.

Grinding. Now the club is filling. Grinding. Her figure flings itself from one side of the cage to the other, and the lights are brighter, and the shadows are darker, and there’s hair in her face, and her pores are pushing sweat out until she’s slick with it. Thrum, thrum. The first hands take a few minutes to arrive, some pushing bills under one harness or another, others simply touching. She takes Cage Three because it says Touch Me on the sign while so many others say Don’t Touch. Just be a body. She feels free now because she feels nothing. The thing called Lux is merely existing, doing, shoving her codpiece through the bars as well, turning around, offering her ass, and in those few moments when she really does need to pause, she retreats to the center of the cage, far from friendly palms, and she stands there like a perfect statue, drinking in the sights and rhythms and scents of other bodies moving throughout this sacred crypt. It’s so good that eventually she forgets that she’s waiting for anyone. She forgets everything completely until the tiny, high-frequency beep comes from the cage timer as a reminder for her to take a break, now that forty-five minutes have already gone by.

As she starts to let herself out, she catches sight of the face that she got from that trace, stubbly and smiling. Glowing, magnetic eyes, obnoxious in how well they work on her. Lux finds herself making landfall right against him, and she finds herself hitting the cage door’s button to summon a dancer to take her place, and she finds herself purring, “You’re a motherfucker.”

“Yeah,” Wolf says. Their mouths have to stay close to each other’s ears to let them hear anything, and his in particular stay so close that Lux can almost feel his teeth on her lobe.

“Where do you want it?” she tries.

“I don’t want to wait for a room here.”

Lux’s gaze floats across the crowd toward the sex cages along the back wall. Some are open, so she raises a brow and lets that serve as a suggestion.

There’s a hand, his hand, at the small of her back, stroking encouragingly, and Wolf reveals, “I got a reservation at the Deuce across the street.”

Don’t leave. Lux has made that mistake before. If she provides certain territory, she needs to stick to it. She’s fucked in the Deuce before, but while it’s a fairly good motel for Leathertop, quality has nothing to do with this predicament. Pulling back slightly, she stares Wolf right in the eye, and she tries to calculate. “If we get a room here-”

“Shh.” His finger feels playful when it lands on her lips, but his expression is serious. “Let’s at least talk outside. Vape break. Where we can hear each other.”

Going out to the vapers’ alley is not going to help change her mind, but if they stay close to the building, Lux at least wouldn’t mind finding out how well he kisses. And maybe that way she can convince him to do what she would prefer. Sighing, she leads the way, even as she feels him take hold of her backside and push her teasingly along. By the time they’re both through the teeming, writhing masses, she’s more than happy to reach some cool air so that the sweat will dry.

As the alley door closes behind them both, she slumps back against the wall, relaxing here under the tin awning. Her ears are ringing, and the loud clatter of rain overhead doesn’t help, but she still turns a wry smile Wolf’s way. No one else is out here at the moment. His mouth covers hers and she tastes his tongue. Then his hand is feeling her breast through the fishnet. When his lips briefly pull away, he asks, “You want this, right?” and she finds herself nodding, even as her arm brushes against her hip where the taze pouch sits on her harness.

The pouch has an odd little void, and Lux draws in a sharp breath just before the current seizes her.

* * *

Many times, she’s had a nightmare of small details. Many have been things that John did. That certain rate of breath, the exact pressure of it upon her neck, the exact volume in her ear, usually her right ear, for no particular reason. The clock changing digits. Hiccups tasting like whatever he had suggested that Lux eat for dinner that night. John had been full of suggestions. Lucky, I have an idea, why don’t you pick up the drill.

But it isn’t all John. It didn’t stop after the John time finished. The nightmare dredges up other little things, like how the toilet in that one motel had an imperfect seal somewhere in the tank, and Lux would hear it spontaneously making noise as if it had been flushed when it wasn’t. How the desk beneath had been cold on Lux’s belly when she leaned forward, and the impossible long hashed key she was hand-delivered a few days later. The oddities were always mundane. Sometimes he-he was he then, that day-wondered how so many could be so satisfied in seedy properties and undignified positions.

I have an idea, you should meet my friend.

Jeans and boxers down around ankles. That was stupid. Lux never liked that. Continuing such recollections, the nightmare proceeds, into offices. Clean glass, smooth concrete, facetiously rustic bricks. All the little glowing screens on silver frames. She had been legitimate there. Birthling. Nyla. The fluorescents both woke her up and hurt her eyes. Her calibration extended to migraine sim, under the right conditions.

I have an idea, how about you clean that up and then we’ll play a game.

Something is on top of her now. Lux feels crushed and bruised, though the rest of her awareness is simply awash in the nightmare. There is some circuit sparking and going mad in the very deepest depths of her skull. Flashing something in front of her eyes that she doesn’t want to see. She needs to see where she really is. She needs to know what’s happening.

With an effort, she makes herself see Wolf’s face. With another effort, she conjures Valiente’s. She had told him about the rapes. She hadn’t told him of the other times. When she watched the money manifest in her account afterward and she glowed happily from the burning ache between her thighs. When she watched the money manifest in her account and she felt sickened from an act that was neither rape nor even sex. There are faces she hates as much as John’s. There are faces she doesn’t hate at all. The nightmare is what she remembers without a sense of differences. Whatever is happening to her now, right now, right now, is frying her until the differences can’t be understood. I have an idea, Lucky. Come here.

* * *

“Here.” The bed creaks as Wolf hops off of it, and this syllable is heard as a terrycloth robe lands at Lux’s side. That voice doesn’t make her fully come to her senses, but the soft, comfortable fabric brushing her arm does. Startling, she grunts and flips over with weak movements. No reason to ask what’s occurred. It’s patently obvious. All of her hurts. She’s confused. She reaches between her legs, the mad fear darting through her head that she could have been mutilated, maybe that patented nanotexture flesh has been cut and ruined, she had made it a configuration that she hadn’t had a chance to change for him, did he care, did he care, no he didn’t care – what she touches is a mess, but not in that sense.

Even when she worms her way into the robe, Lux can’t make herself sit or stand, and covering herself doesn’t make her any warmer. There is only pain and cold, the kind of cold that balls up in her gut and slowly spreads and spreads. “We hadn’t negotiated,” she finally whispers, like that will convince Wolf he did something wrong. And of course:

“Well, damn. It had sure seemed like we did, in our chat. I hope you aren’t having regrets, Lux – I had a very good time, and it seemed like you did, too.”

Lux raises her head, lets her eyes rove until they’re staring at him. He’s now vaping in the chair across from the bed, and he’s still naked. His body is still very nice to look at. Fragments of the past several hours return to her despite the fog that her brain had generated, despite how – there’s the taze, on the nightstand. Now she swallows hard. “You lifted my taze off me and gave me a zap before you brought me here. Do you know how dangerous it is to use that on an arty? Too long and my circuits would fry…” All of this protest is slurred, ponderous.

There seems to be something like genuine remorse, or at least a desire for reconciliation, in Wolf’s expression as he takes a long drag. “I promise I know my electro. That’s just the kind of thing I meant about control, though, little one. About pushing limits. Doing something rough, raw, beautiful. You were all those things and more. I’m really impressed.”

What Lux is starting to remember might count as rough, and also as raw. Beautiful, she doesn’t know. She forces herself up against the pillows, though she curls into a ball and closes her eyes again. To her disgust, she realizes that she did like some things he did, at least in the abstract, and it’s a deep, deep knowledge, the kind that’s hers alone and not absorbed by whatever he wants her to think. There were also plenty of other things she didn’t like. Cold, she’s still very cold, faintly shivering. She’ll decide later on the word for this. Experience has at least taught her that she can’t convince a man like Wolf of anything unless she simply says that there are regrets and leaves quietly, meekly. “Yeah?” she voices, useless and bleakly irritated.

“Yeah. Here, I’ve got it recorded, actually-you can see what I mean.” Putting his vape back in its box on the nearby table, Wolf gets out of the chair to hop back on the bed, where he stands and stretches up toward the ceiling. Here Lux notices one of those Ennyware suction mounts for hand devices, with a phone currently snapped into place. Further understanding dawns as she glances to the room’s four walls, where each bears a dime-sized sync cam presumably directed toward the bed.

The phone is suddenly in front of her face, and Lux squints, still bleary. Vid is cuing, not a holoshoot, not yet compiled, but Wolf’s finger selects the random cut option, and then the scene begins, changing angles between the synced devices every thirty seconds. There’s an artistic black & white filter applied, good contrast. In the end, this is just amateur stuff, but if Lux knew that the two bodies in front of her were just actors, part of her would be aroused. A lot of her would be aroused. Now she doesn’t stir; she just watches, and her jaw clenches over time. “I’ve been filmed before. Private archives. What’s this for?”

Though he doesn’t stop the vid, Wolf sits down next to her and strokes her shoulder through the robe. “Oh, you know. The usual sites.”

Suddenly Lux is capable of quicker movement. She closes her hand around the phone, almost managing to tug it from his grasp. “No.” The syllable leaves her throat dully.

“Hey, it’s not a big deal. People are going to love you.” Pulling the phone back, Wolf fast-forwards to a different section, apparently an hour later, and finds the angle where her face is caught directly, showing it to her with a grin. “Look at you there. You’re gorgeous, Lux. I look at this and I see an incredible woman having the time of her life, no matter how low she goes.”

Her fingers never left the phone altogether, and now Lux does wrench it away. Red borders her vision, she feels the tight heat in her throat, she feels the stabbing pulse through her limbs, and she shrieks at the top of her lungs right before she viciously flings the phone against the wall, ignoring Wolf’s sounds of puzzlement and dismay. The phone doesn’t smash apart, though she cracked the screen. Running for it, she picks it up again, and then she marches back to the nightstand; she throws the phone down on the polished surface and then sets the taze against it, watching sparks fly and smoke curl. Now she hears Wolf yell something like goddammit! but as he lunges for her, she raises her hand, keeping the switch on, and lets the current pass into his completely organic muscles, forcing him into an agonized ball. It won’t kill him like it could have killed her, though part of her feels blisteringly thirsty to see the life leave his eyes, if she could do that to him, if she could just do that to him.

“That,” Lux rasps, walking away from his shape on the bed’s edge, “isn’t allowed. You’re not-” She wanders, stalks, collecting her clothing off the floor, piece by piece. “You’re not allowed. To do that thing. The vid. No.” She’s dropping the robe, changing back into her garments, pushing some phenotype changes so that she won’t be noticed too easily as the same person that Wolf carried in here. Leather princesses with her fashion sense are pervasive in this neighborhood. “Whatever fucking happened in here, me, it’s me, I get to say what it was, okay, fucking get it, you can’t make a story of it yourself, fuck you. Fuck you, fucking fucker, fuck.” When she’s fully dressed and has her boots on again, she walks over and kicks Wolf in the middle, more or less in the same place she used the taze, and the effort hurts her half-broken body but not as badly as it seems to hurt him. “Bye.”

She leaves, closing the door on his faint moans. It can’t be more than five minutes since she came to her real senses, and it’s still raining outdoors.

* * *

There was not one instant that John struck her. John had no reason to strike her. Discipline would have required that she disobey, and meanwhile his sadism was not such that he enjoyed conventional beatings. Living in his home for ten years, fully imprinted, she encountered pain, but it was never passionate, always calculated. He simply displayed the learned sociopathy of someone very kind to humans and very unkind to whatever didn’t qualify as human. Lux – she was Lucky then, just Lucky – offered John an interesting collection of bodyparts that could endure much more than he would expect from a birthling, so she was his doll, his experiment, and she would scream and scream while staying perfectly in place and whenever the test finished she would fix herself and curl up next to him and share warm kisses. Like a parent, he expressed pride in her, and often there was no pain at all, only tenderness and luxury.

The seizure only happened after one long, messy party, when she lay convalescing in her big bed, sending her metabolism into overdrive so that she could heal all the damage before the next morning. At first she thought she broke herself because she tried to heal too fast, but her thoughts and memories of the event had been spiraling until they were caught in an infinite loop. There was a cascading failure. Her body spasmed violently, her mind went red. When it was over, she was surprised that the imprint was gone, but not as surprised as she felt to realize she was still alive at all.

* * *

“Why?”

It’s very typical Kaye. After the half hour that Lux has spent dully murmuring the whole story – Valiente, Wolf, all of it – amid a cloud of vape fog, cheap nitro, and the raucous soundtrack of this bar’s resident industrial act, the only thing that the soothingly neutral KBW200 can immediately summon is that one word. But when Lux gives her a tired stare, Kaye offers a smile that, like those of her model, is a bit too mechanized but still seems gentle. “I mean,” she adds, “why look for someone to set your tokens again.”

Taking a cold, half-alcoholic, half-caffeinated sip of her drink, Lux considers that this should be her last round. “I think that’s been pretty clear. Hasn’t it? After we left our training at Chime – you’ve stayed a registered fuckbot your whole life, you’ve even had your tokens set with the same person for ten years-”

“That’s not really the point. I know all the reasons not to try living as a birthling, and I know all the reasons why living my kind of life can be a hell of a lot more secure than going self-employed. Fuck knows you’ve got all the reason in the world to find some existence where you won’t have to worry so much about John finding his runaway property. But just… humor me a sec. Since I haven’t made all the choices you’ve made.” Kaye turns off her vape, leans closer, her steel irises dilating. “I get why you’re trying to come back to something that’s safe, I get we’re all fucking trying to survive. What I haven’t heard from you is why a new owner means anything to you besides that survival. Does it mean anything?”

One other quirk about the KBW200s is that they aren’t just incompletely styled or calibrated; they’re uncannily obsessive about psychology. It’s why Lux reached out to her old Chime sibling, hoping to get put through the wringer for the sake of making a new decision, but now she’s realizing the wringer really is a wringer. Her self-imagined heart feels like it’s sunk further. “…I want to say yes, Kaye, but mostly because if I say no then that might just turn me into the tragic hooker that Valiente and his kind see me as. If I’m surviving, shouldn’t I have a reason to be proud of that? Shouldn’t I be doing something with myself besides the lesser of two evils?”

Shrugging with the same faint metallic creak that her smile made: “At this rate it’s got to be four or five evils, and don’t dodge the question,” Kaye replies. “Right now you’re just repeating what I’m literally telling you is my confusion. Are you proud of just surviving, are you proud of something that’s more than surviving but all wrapped up in it… or are you lying to yourself? That last thing – if you want to survive so badly that you’ll keep trying this token-setter strategy until you’ve been let down by a dozen Valientes and hurt by a dozen Wolfs… Wolves? Fuck it… are you hearing me?”

With the music, that query is more than a little ironic, but Lux takes solace in the auditory chaos, and she does process what her friend has tried to say. Her own voice grows ragged when she manages to use it next. “There’s one thing I’d like more than surviving. It’s resisting. But I can’t do that all by myself. Do you know of a fuckbot union? Or even a union for any arties. Barely any birthling unions exist either. Once upon a time, the future promised everyone automation, luxury lifestyles, and communities run on gift economies and love. I think, but now we’re the automated luxuries, and everyone forgot about community. They built us too fast and too soon. The world wasn’t ready for us. Too caught up imagining everybody on their own island. So…”

About halfway through this speech, Kaye’s gaze has hardened in grim sympathy and solidarity. It’s not an expression that a birthling would quite recognize compared to if Lux made the same face, but Lux can see it. With a pause for the band to play the last notes of the current song, Kaye prompts, “So?” and reaches her hands across the table.

Lux pushes her mug aside and squeezes those silicone fingers. “I know some arties are able to fight without resorting to my approach. Not all of us even have tokens, anyway. I fucking can’t, though. If I can find someone who takes care of me and lets me – but Kaye, that’s not even – I don’t know what big change will happen before my brain finally fails. I, me, I Lux, I need to live some way that doesn’t require making money, playing that stupid game, and this is my ticket out. It’s not the ticket for all of us, but… it’s mine.”

“And it’s still survival,” insists Kaye, hawkish in her quest for the real bottom of this, if there’s anything real to find. But her observation is mild, soft, not even a criticism.

It also makes Lux shiver, and her throat tightens further until she covers a sob. “No,” she discovers, hunching further in her seat, glad that the band is drowning her own vocals. “It’s got to be more, after all. There’s your why, Kaye. We’re not all on our own islands. I’m not a birthling but I’m a fucking human, and we’re fucking interdependent, and I want to belong to somebody because freedom means nothing if it disconnects us.”

“Would you ever find an owner who’d still let you be free in the ways that matter? If your tokens were fully set? I think you’re looking for something besides just security…”

That question is loaded. Kaye’s had it better than most, but nothing’s been perfect. Wiping this bout of tears from her eyes, Lux fumbles to get out her phone, taps it against the table’s pay point, and stands up sharply from her seat. “I don’t know. I’ve got to keep trying, though. It’s the principle. Shit…” She hesitates, features contorted, until Kaye also rises and comes around to enfold her in a creaky but warm embrace.

“Ever thought about searching for a woman, Lux?”

“It could take longer, but… yeah. Sure. On the other hand, rich birthling women are hard for me to tell apart from rich birthling men. They’ve got more in common with each other than they do with me.”

“Smart. Go home for now and rest. You need it.”

This is true. The trip back to her black little studio is lengthy, and when she gets there, Lux discovers no new responses to her ad – no responses she can trust. She sleeps again, sleeps and wakes and sleeps and wakes, throwing up thicker and thicker curtains when she can afford to get them delivered, doing all she can to block out the neon of the drones. One day she gets a message from some guy who just wants to cheat on his birthling wife with someone more pliable. Sleep wake, sleep wake. She gets a message from a guy promising her the world, too much of the world. Sleep wake, sleep wake. She gets a message from a woman, indeed, a woman who’s blonde and perfect and sings opera. Sleep sleep sleep, double sleep. Wake. Sleep.

After a while, even the promising messages lose their appeal. Lux pays a little to sponsor her ad, gets twenty new potentials as a result, and instantly forgets how to care. Her reasons for searching haven’t changed since she talked to Kaye, but she’s learning discrimination, almost like she practiced when she was turning basic tricks, like she still practices when she goes out into the late autumn chill for a shot at earning more money than Iron gives her. The battery isn’t going to charge itself, and the rent never stops being due. But with her ad, she can’t just once-over vet somebody; it’s also a puzzle to figure out who even sees her as long-term prospect, even a matter of lifetime ownership. Most of the messages she ignores aren’t from other condescending wanks or predatory shitbirds. They’re just dogs chasing after a bone, forgetting the bone’s attached to a whole skeleton with more of its own kind tucked away in some psychic closet.

It’s snowing.

This surprises Lux when she walks out in her leathers. Snow has seemed so rare in New Alameda while that much-lauded Climate Correction project continues operating in its nascent stage, if it will ever even get beyond that stage. For decades, this city’s denizens have largely given up seeing even a flake or two at this time of year, and it’s only just become possible again in the depths of what would once have counted as a real winter. The snow before her eyes tonight is not white; on the ground it’s smeared by grey and brown, and as it falls from the sky, the lights everywhere illuminate it in a cacophony of hues. City snow, shitty snow. But it’s real. Just like the air is really cold. Lux considers closing her jacket over the threadbare fishnet beneath. After a few paces, she decides not to. There’s just as much warmth to be found by fingering the five steel tokens she’s taken to keeping in her pocket, carrying them around like charms.

She doesn’t usually find clients in this neighborhood. The relative lack of safety doesn’t concern her; she just prefers to do any work at all somewhere distant from her home. Usually she finds an area near the center’s red light district, keeping out of its formal bounds these days to avoid being noticed by one of the regulator cops. On paper she can’t be doing this if she’s not registered, and under her current serial, she’s not. Her current serial means almost nothing.

Tonight she walks up to where she could most rapidly summon an oob, and she doesn’t call one. She walks all the way to the train, and she doesn’t board it. It’s a fool’s errand to walk all the way to her favorite street – miles and fucking miles – but that’s what it feels like her legs are doing, and as she keeps pacing onward, she eventually doesn’t notice the sim for burning muscles. She doesn’t notice the sim for low body temperature. Noticing her reflection in a storefront window, she doesn’t know if her lips are turning blue as a programmed thing or if that’s just a nanotexture malfunction. Everything’s going wrong, it feels like, everything breaking and going in loops. Does Oki’s Degree stop working after the right pressure, just like her tokens failed? Or does Oki’s Degree include dissociative depression, loss of proprioception, the whole nine yards? Lux is crying, she does realize that. It’s past midnight, past one, past two, and she’s still walking and crying and she’s getting stares because this is downtown, nobody wants a crying fuckbot downtown. “Help, help,” she whispers to herself, not to anyone around, hoping that she just offends them. “Help, help me, help meeeeeeee.” She lets the last syllable turn long and strange; she lets the power overload in her larynx until it glitches into a constant electronic whine that only resets when she starts coughing. She collapses on her knees in a snowdrift under the iron girders of an elevated train track, here by fancy Eiderdown Plaza. Somehow this all just happened.

Somehow there’s also a hand on her shoulder. It’s covered in a black glove, probably not real moleskin, but a simulacrum – no, it might be real. The hand is attached to an arm, and the arm is attached to what Lux guesses is a man. She turns and holds both hands up to him, and tears keep running down her face as she recites, “We all start Lucky, we become one of a kind. That’s the company promise, and I can tell you that you aren’t going to meet another Lucky just like me, not in a lifetime. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, and I’ve done things you might envy… set my tokens and I will be your willing, devoted property for as long as you like, dedicated to your pleasure, comfort, and happiness… please own me.”

The man’s first response is to swallow hard.

* * *

A year ago, Lux had still been Nyla Pendragon, and Nyla had been beautiful, successful, and birthling. She worked in an office, a large one, and she was the science correspondent for the New Alameda Chron. Without a science degree, she faked a science background; it was much easier to pretend to have studied journalism and neuroscience in college, compared to pretending she wasn’t an arty. Although, she often guessed, that might just have been her subjective experience. Her kind of arty was never supposed to seem like one, after all. Nobody at the paper knew that she had a serial tattoo, because her trumped up credentials and her elaborate reference con and her winning interview were the things that mattered, the things that bypassed all other screening. Nobody cared that the paper was no longer a paper, either.

It didn’t pay well, but it did pay enough. The parent corp, Rinq, had a fondness for understaffing, so for a while, Nyla felt needed, and she felt like she should stay. While it wasn’t the kind of birthling life she had really dreamed of, she had worked hard enough to get to this point, and as the years for the Chron added up, she learned the industry – she knew that every other paper would be the same if she transferred. As long as this one position stayed tolerable, she’d take that security, rather than force herself to choose between changing careers as Nyla or changing identities yet again. The former would involve too many unknowns. The latter would involve calling in all the favors that she previously exhausted.

One day, a Friday with a beautiful sunset over the Bay, she received a memorandum on her window, a friendly orange alert that blended slightly with the dusk. Chron family! We’d like to introduce you to a new security app, supplied by Saphe.ly, which we will be rolling out for all staff members in two months. You’re getting plenty of notice because each of you will require a small procedure to implant one of Saphe.ly’s patented intramuscular GPS beacons. This beacon will communicate with the security software at all times so that the Chron can send you applicable terror alerts and stay assured of your well-being; in the event of your phone losing power or being separated from your person, the beacon can still conveniently broadcast your location and vitals. Please use the HR channel to coordinate scheduling; both the Saphe.ly sales rep and your direct supervisor will contractually need to be present at the surgeon’s.

Nyla went straight home in a panic. Research then informed her that Saphe.ly’s technology did not rely on any data an LKY 900’s anatomy could not compatibly supply; likewise, the beacon didn’t present any risk to her circuits. She found herself surprisingly unsettled despite such reassurances.

That was when she began to read about other companies using this new app and its competitors. The tech itself had existed for decades, but a worker’s privacy suit reached the Supreme Court eight years prior and resulted in a legal precedent for limiting employee tracking to phones only, no implants allowed. Implants had not, however, officially been banned-just discouraged. Lately, public opinion had forgotten about the whole thing. For some reason, Nyla found herself thinking of John.

Meetings followed. After running some traces, she sat through meetings with old guard syndicalist birthlings who weren’t structurally equipped to help her organize an entire journalism outlet against this one app, never mind equipped to organize journalists on the whole. After running some more traces, she sat through meetings with other syndicalists who had both practical strategies and big blocky revolutionary slogans, but half of them couldn’t accept tenets of birthling-arty solidarity. She sat through meetings with arty advocates who advised that she just start her own corp, because that was very simple. She stood in a few clandestine meetings with her coworkers, trying to even gauge opinions about the upcoming implantation, and she found herself surrounded by the apathetic, the afraid, and the authoritarians. She huddled through meetings with her bosses, making the case singlehandedly against beacons.

The products of every meeting withered in the face of the day that she received a second, private memorandum informing her honestly, Nyla, calm down 🙂 and just schedule your implant, I’m sure you know that you lose your pension if you’re terminated or quit before retirement age.

It seemed strange, three days later, how all that she felt in the surgery center was a lightning-quick needle jab through her right quadricep, with those three pairs of eyes looking on. The pain was fleeting and nothing like the things she remembered John making her do. But afterward, she felt cold inside, cold and sick, and by the time that she got back to the office, she was trembling, and when the lunch hour hit, she vomited all over her keyboard.

Lux quit the Chron, and she quit being Nyla, and she got the beacon removed in a back alley. She gave the incident a short, simple name in her head, and she knew that many would dislike her perversion of language – an arty’s misunderstanding, she couldn’t really make the comparison, could she? – but to her, the name was right.

* * *

The snow is still falling. “Please,” repeats Lux, although maybe it’s not intelligible. Maybe the man’s going to walk away. He doesn’t.

“Hey, wait, look – first, my name’s Mace.” Squatting in front of her, this Mace becomes more visible through her tears. He has nearly coal-black eyes, while his beard is the color of rusted iron, and his cheeks and nose are flushed from the cold. His build is short but somehow still manages to look like it’s all arms and legs. There’s something in his voice that she can’t place – an accent, or more likely some regional drawl. Then he asks, “Do you need a tune-up? Damn, I shouldn’t even ask that. Do you want to get a cup of coffee? We should get you out of this weather.”

Shaking her head vigorously: “No. No, no, I need you to set my tokens and take me home with you. Call me Lux. I can’t fend for myself anymore. I can’t live like a birthling anymore either. I’ve got to do what I was programmed to do.” When she says those last words, she looks into his eyes and breaks down all over again. This sort of man is the sort who might really listen to her, Lux dizzily guesses, but she’d be stupid to pin all her hopes on him, this is stupid, she’s fried, she’s fucking fried. “Take me home.” Her hands extend, blue-tipped and shivering.

A pair of larger hands gloved in leather enfold her fingers, maybe more to provide warmth than anything else. Oki’s Degree means frostbite. Oki’s Degree means almost everything. “Let’s start with coffee,” Mace murmurs. “I hear you, Lux. Keep your gaze up for a sec.”

Lux obeys. Surely if he could just understand how badly she wants to obey, then he would take her, and everything would be beautiful forever. She keeps staring at his eyes. She watches the black turn to an unearthly yellow, then back to black.

“…Oh.”

“Yeah. That’s going to be our secret tonight, okay?” says Mace, trying a smile. It’s not big, in fact it’s almost invisible, but it’s real. “Mace Roper’s been my name for a long time, and I’d like it to stay that way.”

As his hands give a small tug, as his body starts to rise, Lux finds herself standing in tandem. Suddenly she zips her jacket, because the temperature is bothering her more. It’s also something she can do while she searches for words. That still takes her a minute. At last: “You’re – doing what I did. How can you live like them? How can you operate?”

“I’ve got someone to hide from, of course. Somehow it’s always been easier for me to make my own way like this. What you’re looking for, I couldn’t do that myself. We’re not all the same. You know that better than anyone, I’m going to bet.”

This is very true. Lux hesitates once more while flakes slowly pile on their shoulders. “My tokens are with me. You could still set them.”

“I could.” Gentle, but not a promise.

“It’s not legal, I know. But you could.”

“Yes. I could,” Mace repeats. “I’ve known a few arties who’ve done it. One couple even did it both ways. Another dared it without either of them trying to pass for a birthling.”

“So would you set them?” presses Lux, but the last syllable isn’t much more than a small puff of air. There’s the serenity settling over her that she always expected might happen if she was about to be reverted, but that calm is warm and welcoming, not some cold tranquillizer. It’s as if, in his presence, she’s becoming the opposite of reverted. She’s feeling more like herself than she’s ever felt.

Mace squeezes her hands, because he hasn’t let go, though his grip is just loose enough that if she wanted to pull back, she always could. “We just met. We probably shouldn’t do that. But I’m going to buy you coffee and a hot meal, and then you can tell me whatever you want about your life, what’s got you upset, and we’ll just… we’ll see. One step at a time. Either way, if you need money for your battery or anything, I can spare something. Okay?”

It could be a more elaborate rejection than what Valiente gave her. It could be that his generosity comes with strings attached. She doesn’t know if he’s presented himself as a man because of instinct or because of routine. She’s stopped feeling like a woman, because that’s her usual instinct but it’s even easier to just stop playing those games when she’s not with a birthling. And it’s this thought that causes Lux to nod and let him take the lead toward whatever establishment he had in mind, tokens softly clinking in the pocket where they’ve been bidden to wait. The birthlings don’t matter. She’s taking one step at a time, and the snow is falling, and all the lights look like poignant sculptures in the toxic, latter-day air.

D. Llywelyn Jones is a writer and artist focused on prose fiction, performing arts, design, gaming, and languages. After attending Bard College for a B.A. in philosophy and linguistics, xi now lives in the Boston area. Jones’ début novel “Tiresias” (2013) was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Transgender Fiction.