O father, what a hell of witchcraft lies
In the small orb of one particular tear!
But with the inundation of the eyes
What rocky heart to water will not wear?
What breast so cold that is not warmed here?

   From "A Lover's Complaint"
   by William Shakespeare

What Breast So Cold

by Richard Lawson

***

Akiko shifted uneasily. "Grandfather, I must protest."

Chairman Mishima looked up from his wheelchair. "Is this protest any different from the dozens of others you have made on this project?"

Akiko grimaced. "No. But I beg you to reconsider."

"No." The Chairman peered at her closely. "Have you told your husband of this project?"

"I have kept to the confidentiality agreements I signed when I was first employed by Mishima Heavy Industries." Not that she was particularly happy about it. She desperately wanted Kyusaku's thoughts on the project. She rather felt that he would have the same opinion that she did - the project should be terminated immediately.

Akiko frowned. A year ago, when the project had first gotten underway, she had supported it enthusiastically. A lot had happened in the past year. A lot had changed. She had changed. She wondered if she had lost the ability to be a good CEO. She wondered if she wanted to be a good CEO, if it meant supporting projects like this.

Her morose thoughts were interrupted by the lead scientist to the project, Doctor See. "We are ready, Mishima-sama."

The Chairman nodded. "Proceed."

Akiko winced at the word. A bit of her heart wrenched, filled with worry and concern. This was horrible. If only Kyusaku was here.

If only he could stop it - like he'd done once before.

***

XNK-946 SYSTEM ONLINE

BEGIN SYSTEMS CHECK.....

SYSTEMS CHECK COMPLETE. STATUS OK.

BEGIN LINK-UP. NEGOTIATING WITH HOST..................COMPLETE.

A body. Not the body it knew. A different body. It felt... strange.

CONNECTING WITH EXTERNAL TERMINAL......COMPLETE.

# <Command Unit 1> XNK-946, Report Status.

That was its name, XNK-946. It didn't know how it knew this. It wasn't even sure it had known what a name was before this. It just felt right to refer to itself as XNK-946. It responded reflexively, testing the interface program and verifying that all controls were responding. There was no conscious decision on its part to run the test; the command simply demanded this response from it.

# <XNK-946> All systems operating within design tolerances.

# <Command Unit 1> XNK-946, Go to location designated Test-1.

XNK-946 accessed its military databanks and called up a map of the building it was in. Test-1 was an open area outside the building, three floors down in a wooded area. It considered many routes to the area before deciding on the fastest and most direct route.

It turned itself and moved rapidly towards the window. Its external sensors judged the window to be closed, but that was not an impediment. It crashed through the window and 9.87 meters to the ground. It landed, then began running towards the designated area. It could have boosted itself there, but judged it to be an unnecessary waste of fuel. Conserving resources and ammunition was high on its list of priorities.

XNK-946 arrived at Test-1 and stood still, awaiting further commands.

Suddenly a jolt of pain ran through it. It fell to the ground and curled up in a ball. It wanted to scream, but it had no voice. It used to have a voice, it knew. It remembered screaming from before. It remembered the pain from before, too.

# <Command Unit 1> XNK-946, You will refrain from inflicting unnecessary property damage.

Even as it writhed in pain, it sent a transmission back.

# <XNK-946> Acknowledged. Directive received and implemented.

The pain stopped. XNK-946 wanted to quiver in terror, but the interface program refused to allow it. The interface program reminded it that, in the absence of other commands, it was to stand upright and remain motionless. It complied.

# <Command Unit 1> There are three hostile targets closing in on the test area. You will disable all targets and await further orders.

XNK-946 immediately called up its long-range sensors. Two ground targets and one air target were within a five kilometer radius. It began analyzing the profiles, and determined that the air target was a hoverjet, MHI model ST-12. The ground targets were 72.4% likely to be military attack mechs, MHI model MJ-1477. It accessed its military database, examining the schematics of the devices, determining weaknesses.

While it was doing this, its sensors picked up a target lock from the ST-12. XNK-946 began evasive maneuvers, springing to the side and leaping into a tree. Gunfire from the ST-12 spattered the ground where it had been, and climbed halfway up the tree before the ST-12 lost its attack profile and began to move around for another pass.

XNK-946 completed its analysis and was ready to take the offensive. The ST-12 was overhead again, firing. XNK-946 rolled to the side, got up on its knee, and fired several rounds from the gun set atop its right forearm. It hit one of the intake valves on the ST-12. One of the engines began pouring smoke, and the ST-12 began spinning in place, faster and faster.

XNK-946 removed the ST-12 from its threat list, except for possible collateral damage from a ground impact. XNK-946 began running towards the nearest of the two mechs. The MJ-1477 was firing all of its guns, blanketing the ground in front of XNK-946. XNK-946 was able to calculate the vectors of incoming fire and plot a course that would take it through unharmed.

XNK-946 reached a point underneath the MJ-1477 where none of its guns could fire. XNK-946 drew an explosive device from its internal stores and placed it in the area calculated to cause the most damage. It shot out from underneath the MJ-1477 just as it disappeared in a fireball. When the fireball cleared, the MJ-1477 was a smoldering wreck, still on its feet.

It turned and dived directly towards the last MJ-1477. The MJ-1477 fired three missiles. XNK-946 tracked them and used its forearm guns to detonate them. The explosions rippled in the air, but the momentum of XNK-946's dive was able to overcome the force of the explosions. Although it couldn't see the MJ-1477 through the fireballs, it extrapolated the position of the MJ-1477's weak points. It brought its missile launcher online and fired two rounds. It emerged from the fireball just in time to see the missiles impact. Its aim had been slightly off, but the missiles still knocked the MJ-1477 on its side.

XNK-946 began a braking maneuver that landed it precisely on top of the MJ-1477's cockpit. It began to fire its guns at a high rate at one point of the opaque canopy. The canopy cracked, then imploded under the gunfire. The slugs ripped through the cockpit, and XNK-946 moved its guns around so that the cockpit was thoroughly saturated.

# <Command Unit 1> XNK-946, break off attack and return to base.

A wave of pleasure overcame XNK-946. It ceased firing and stood still for a moment, allowing the pleasure to run its course. It did after a few seconds, and XNK-946 wanted to cry out when the pleasure stopped. It knew, however, that the only way to get the pleasure back was to obey orders. It calculated a course back to base, and carefully chose one that would not inflict any property damage. It ran back to the building, opened an outside door, climbed three flights of stairs, and entered a room, where it stood in its designated place, awaiting further orders.

When none were immediately forthcoming, it decided to scan the room. There were five targets in the room, not designated as enemy targets. They hadn't been designated as friendlies, either, so the XNK-946 decided to actively scan them for hostile intent. They seemed to be communicating, so it accessed its military databanks to decode their transmissions. It turned out to be unencoded and required no special processing.

"Well done, Doctor See. I hadn't expected it to take out the attack force so quickly."

"It's the advantage of having a monkey's brain, Chairman. It can plan and conceptualize far better than any computer, while still using the speed and precision of the computer enhancements."

A third target entered the communications. "Was it necessary, See-san, for you to punish it for breaking the window? Surely all you needed to do was to tell it not to do it again."

"It is very necessary, Natsume-sama. In order for the conditioning to hold, it must be rewarded for success and punished for failure. You notice how it used the stairs on the way back. It will never enter into its mind again to smash through things unless absolutely necessary to complete an objective."

"I am still uncomfortable with this. Can it think for itself? Feel sadness, remorse, pity? Hate us for what we're doing to it? Does it have any feelings at all?"

"It's not a human being, Natsume-sama. It's just a monkey, conditioned to do what we tell it to do. It doesn't need to think or feel for itself, so long as it fulfills its objectives."

"That's not an answer, See-san. What is it thinking right now, when it isn't taking part of a mission? What is it feeling? Is it angry? Does it want to attack us? Is it terrified, lost? Would it be crying if it could?"

"Enough, Granddaughter. Those are not issues that need to be addressed. What is important is that the XNK-946 obeys instructions. These tests indicate that it can outperform any mecha or android out in the market today. Soon everyone will come to us, needing these cyborgs in order to maintain a balance of power with their neighbors. We will make more money than we ever lost in any of your failed ventures."

For a few moments, communications ceased. Then the third target, designated Granddaughter/Natsume-sama, spoke again. "Yes, we will make money, but at what cost? Did you see how savagely it attacked that last mecha? If there had been someone in that mech, if we hadn't controlled them from here, someone would have been viciously slaughtered. Are we really interested in creating a line of homicidal cyborgs?"

The second target, designated Doctor See/See-san, spoke. "It merely calculated the most efficient way to disable the mech, and executed that plan to the best of its abilities. There was no feeling involved, just ruthless efficiency."

Target designate Granddaughter/Natsume-sama responded. "I'm not sure that's any better."

Target designate Chairman spoke. "I said enough, Akiko. We will continue to test this prototype. If all goes well, I anticipate going into full production by next quarter. You will remain silent, Akiko, and not tell anyone of this until we make our formal announcement at the Board Meeting."

Target designate Granddaughter/Natsume-sama/Akiko spoke in a voice several decibels lower than the one it had been using before. "Yes, Grandfather."

Target designate Chairman/Grandfather began to move across the room towards the exit. "This is wonderful, simply wonderful. I'll bet not even the NK-1124 would be able to destroy the XNK-946. Maybe, but probably not. Our prototype is much too advanced. Still, I would love to see a battle between those two."

XNK-946 accessed its military databanks to discover what an NK-1124 was. It found no records there. This caused the XNK-946 considerable concern. Evidently this was a model that could possibly destroy XNK-946, and it had no information on the target.

Following established procedures in its military databanks, XNK-946 placed NK-1124 at the top of its threat list. At the earliest opportunity, the NK-1124 must be eliminated to ensure XNK-946's continued survival.

***

Atsuko slammed on the brakes and brought the bicycle to a halt. She leapt off it in one graceful bound, smiling at Ryunosuke. "I told you we'd be here in time."

Ryunosuke's eyes were wide and he was breathing heavily. "Wow, Nuku Nuku. That was great! I didn't think we would beat that train."

Atsuko beamed. "We had lots of room!" At least eight or nine centimeters had separated the rear wheel of the bicycle from the front end of the train at the crossing. Plenty of space. "You'd better hurry, you don't want to be late."

"Yeah." Ryunosuke smiled at her, then ran to the fence and began to climb over it. "See you after school."

"Bye bye, Ryunosuke!" She waved happily at him as he dropped over the fence and ran towards his school. She was always a little sad when he left, but school was necessary and they couldn't be together every hour of the day.

Besides, coming to school meant there were other people she could see.

She turned to scan the crowd of boys who always gathered to see her arrive. She smiled and waved at them, and they all waved back enthusiastically.

A voice from the back of the crowd called out to her. "Atsuko?"

"Kei!" She ran through the crowd, sliding easily through the other boys. She saw Kei and jumped into his arms, flinging herself around as they both turned under the force of her leap. She wrapped her arms around his head and shoulders and kissed him.

Kei tried to shout from underneath her lips. He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed. She allowed him to move her back a step, releasing him from the kiss.

"Atsuko." Kei's voice was breathless, yet still chiding. "You shouldn't do that in public. It's not... polite."

She frowned. He hadn't even kissed her back. It had been no fun. "You mean I can't ever kiss you in public?"

He flushed slightly. "Well maybe once in a while, but don't overdo it. Just be a little circumspect."

"Circumspect?" She tilted her head, considering him. "How long do I have to wait to kiss you again in public?"

"Well, there's no time limit, really, just, you know, after a decent interval. Oh, I'm saying this wrong, it's not about time, really, it's more about...."

She interrupted him. "How long has it been since I kissed you in public?"

Kei blinked in surprise. "Uh, about a minute, I guess."

"Long enough!" She jumped back into his arms. He fell back a step under the impact. She latched her lips onto his again. He was trying to laugh, then he seemed to give up and kissed her back. They held the kiss for a few seconds.

Just as Kei seemed to be really getting into it, Atsuko broke it off. "Circumspect, remember?" She smiled at him, then ran off to class.

People filed into the class. Papa-san watched with his typical disinterested look. Atsuko knew that it was just a face he wore; he cared a lot about his students. He cared a lot about everyone. He just showed it in odd ways sometimes.

The bell rang and everyone settled down. Some of the boys smiled at her, but the smiles seemed a little strained after the display in the courtyard. Atsuko decided that it was just as well. Some of the other boys had been coming on a little too strong lately, and they needed to be reminded that Atsuko already had a boyfriend.

"Test today, as you know. Put a pencil on your desk and all other materials away. This is a mid-term and counts towards 25% of your total grade."

While nobody actually groaned, a resigned sigh seemed to drift around the classroom. Atsuko took out a pencil and waited for the test. After Papa-san had indicated they could begin, she scanned it over quickly. Physics was easy. She used her on-board CPU's to solve the problems. It took about twelve seconds. She decided to make a math error on the first problem, misapply a formula on the fourth problem, and end up with a score of 88%. To err was human, after all.

Atsuko began to slowly work on the problems, trying to drag it out for the entire fifty-five minutes of the exam. She had learned that she got resentful looks if she finished too quickly.

Meanwhile, her mind wandered.

Life had gotten very good lately. Everyone was so happy. Papa-san and Mama-san were in love again. Ryunosuke was playing with Yoshimi practically every day.

On top of that, no one had dropped Atsuko from a hoverjet or shot at her or blown up in her face or anything in a long time. While she had found that exciting, it was also dangerous. She never wanted anyone to get hurt ever, and no one else had the kind of near-invulnerability she had.

She'd found a different kind of excitement in Kei. Atsuko was exploring entirely new things with him, and found them to be very fun. Kissing was great, and she enjoyed doing it with him whenever she could. Plus he was nice to talk to; he had interesting things to say and listened to what she said. He took her seriously, and never condescended to her like some of the other students sometimes did. There was something about him she just liked. He was a little like Papa-san and a little like Ryunosuke, but there was something else that was just him, and that part was good, too.

Atsuko smiled to herself as she made her math error. She still didn't know everything about love, so she couldn't say that she loved Kei with that special, marrying kind of love that Mama-san and Papa-san had. Kei was patient with her, helping her to work out her feelings and try to sort between the different kinds of love and affection she did feel. For now, Kei was more than a friend, but less than a husband. How much less, she couldn't begin to guess. It would take some time.

She frowned a little. For all the happiness she was feeling, there were still spots of trouble. Mama-san still lived apart from them in her mansion. Atsuko had been so sure they were about to move in and be a whole family again. Yet it hadn't happened, and Atsuko felt that it puzzled Papa-san as well. There was a kind of uneasiness that radiated from Mama-san, and that bothered Atsuko deeply.

Also, Atsuko's secret had finally been let loose. The students knew the story about her origins, and were slowly coming to believe it. With the belief came new attitudes, new ways of treating Atsuko. Most everyone was wary at first, drawing back whenever she came near and staring at her. Some of the boys had decided that Atsuko was an easy mark, and had suggested several peculiar activities to her. Atsuko shook her head slightly at the memories. The funny thing was, she might very well have gone along with the activities a couple of months ago. Fortunately, she had both Mariko and Kei to help her understand what was right and what was wrong to do. After she had cheerfully picked up a couple of the boys, jumped up to the top of a tree, and left them there, the lewd come-ons had stopped.

There were still people who avoided her. Again, though, thanks to Kei and Mariko, she had found general tolerance, even acceptance. The few people who meowed at her or called her "Kitty" had eventually given up when faced with her cheerful requests not to do that, accompanied by the baleful glares of some of the other students. It made Atsuko feel good that people were watching out for her. More and more, she was being accepted as a human by people who knew she had been born a cat, and that was the greatest thing in the world to Atsuko.

She finished the test and looked up. She'd timed it pretty well; only a minute remained. She looked around to see some students looking around with expressions of relief, while other were scribbling even more furiously.

Finally the bell rang. The tests were handed in with varying amounts of enthusiasm, and Atsuko began to wander to her next class.

In the hall, Kei caught up with her. "Atsuko-"

She whirled on him, and was gratified to see him jump back and brace himself. Sometimes it was fun to play with people. She just stood there and smiled primly at him. "Yes?"

He watched her closely before chuckling and lowering his guard. "Uh, you didn't let me tell you in the yard... I can go with you on the picnic this Sunday."

"Great!" She laughed from pure happiness. "We're going to Mama-san's house. Papa-san will be there and Ryunosuke and Yoshi-chan and me and you! It'll be ever so much fun." She danced back and forth on her feet, feeling terribly excited.

Kei chuckled. "I'm looking forward to it as well. Your place at ten?"

Atsuko nodded enthusiastically. "Don't worry about food, Mama-san will have lots of it. Bring a swimming suit if you want to use Mama-san's pool. It's huge!"

Kei grinned. "Okay. Gotta get to class." He winked at her, then ran down the hallway.

Atsuko jumped in the air and turned around. She landed and began to run to her next class. Sunday. Sunday was going to be fun. To have everyone she loved the most together at one place was very exciting.

It was going to be the best day of her life.

***

XNK-946 resumed its place at base. It did another diagnostic and determined its systems to be running at 84% efficiency. This had been the most difficult test yet, with six ground-based mecha and four hoverjets attacking it in a coordinated assault. Although it had neutralized all of the targets, it had taken a few hits in doing so, including the loss of its right arm.

A wave of pain racked its mind. It kept itself upright, somehow, but made a fist with its remaining hand while it endured the pain.

The pain subsided.

# <Command Unit 1> XNK-946, you are not to allow yourself to be damaged.

# <XNK-946> Acknowledged. Directive for self-preservation is already in place and implemented.

# <Command Unit 1> Prepare for system maintenance.

XNK-946 disabled its safeguards and opened parts of its chassis. Normally system maintenance meant simply replacing spent ammunition. Today, it would mean some repairs, and would likely take between 1.7 and 2.3 hours.

XNK-946 let its mind wander. It went again to its list of threats. Targets were always added to the list during each exercise, and very quickly removed. Only one target still remained. It decided that since that target was not making itself readily available, XNK-946 needed to go the next phase of threat elimination.

# <XNK-946> Command Unit 1, request information.

There was a pause, during which it repeated its request. It activated its external sensors to allow it to follow any communication outside of the link it had with Command Unit 1. Nothing was said. Finally, target designate Doctor See/See-san typed a response into Command Unit 1.

# <Command Unit 1> What is the information you request?

# <XNK-946> Schematics and military evaluation of NK-1124.

"What does it want that for?" This from an unknown target standing next to target designate Doctor See/See-san. XNK-946 designated it Unknown 23.

"Let's ask it." Target designate Doctor See/See-san bent over the keyboard of Command Unit 1.

# <Command Unit 1> What objectives require this information?

# <XNK-946> Elimination of threat NK-1124.

"Threat?" Target designate Doctor See/See-san straightened and looked around the room. "Who has been telling the cyborg that the NK-1124 is a threat?"

There were no responses. Target designate Doctor See/See-san walked around in a small circle. It began speaking very softly. XNK-946 had to increase the gain on its external sensors to monitor its transmissions. "Incompetents. Too many incompetents, that's what the problem is around here. Starting with those two fools who run this company."

Target designate Doctor See/See-san walked back to Command Unit 1 and began typing.

# <Command Unit 1> NK-1124 is not a threat at this time.

# <XNK-946> Request dossier detailing destruction of unit NK-1124.

Target designate Doctor See/See-san made an unintelligible transmission. It pressed a button.

Pain washed over XNK-946. In System Maintenance mode, it couldn't move. All it could do is scream in its mind as the pain went on and on. It could still pick up target designate Doctor See/See-san as it held the button down. After 47 seconds, 320% longer than any previous duration, the pain ceased.

# <Command Unit 1> NK-1124 is not a threat at this time.

# <XNK-946> Request dossier detailing destruction of unit NK-1124.

Target designate Doctor See/See-san raised its hands over its head. This time, its voice was quite loud. "You will listen to me!" It began to move towards a button.

Target designate Unknown 23 reached out and grabbed its hand. "The only way the XNK knows how to remove a threat is to destroy it or see evidence of its destruction. We'll need to reprogram the software if we're going to allow for Command Unit removal of threat designations. That will leave a security hole, of course."

Target designate Doctor See/See-san was staring at target designate Unknown 23. "Remove your hand."

Target designate Unknown 23 complied. Target designate Doctor See/See-san pulled up a chair and sat down at the Command Unit. It slapped the button again.

XNK-946 wanted to cry out. It could remember a time, a time when it had the ability to make sound. There had been times when it had been happy to make sound, when the bigger monkeys who lived outside the cages would give it food or play with it. Then there came the time when it had been stabbed with sharp things. Sticky things that zapped were put on its head. It had learned to do things that avoided pain. It was rewarded with food then. Later, things had been shoved in its head, and now the zapping was inside, and that was horrible. A different kind of zapping caused it pleasure, but the pleasure was too much, too intense, almost pain itself. The pleasure pain was better than the pain pain, so it learned to do what was necessary to get the right kind of pain.

Then had come the day when it had been stabbed again, and had fallen asleep, and when it had woken up, it had a new body and a new way of thinking. But the two kinds of pain were still there. More and more, they were applying the bad pain and not giving it the good pain. The line had begun to blur anyway. It was all just pain.

This application went on for 73 seconds. Finally, the pain stopped. Target designate Doctor See/See-san leaned forward and typed into the keyboard.

# <Command Unit 1> You will remove NK-1124 from your list of threats.

# <XNK-946> Request dossier detailing destruction -

The button was pressed again, and the pain went on. This time, it last only 14 seconds before target designate Doctor See/See-san released the button and stood up. "Fix this. Now."

"Yes sir." Target designate Unknown 23 watched as target designate Doctor See/See-san left the room. Target designate stood watching the door for ninety-four seconds before turning and addressing other targets. "Okay, let's begin to hack the code from the ground up. We'll need to rework the security module and develop encryption for the...." Target designate continued speaking while it switched off the Command Unit.

XNK-946 shut down its external surveillance. It re-evaluated its threat list. While the NK-1124 remained, it considered a new threat. A new threat that caused it pain, that wanted it to hurt. That refused to provide it with information necessary for its continued existence. XNK-946 considered it for a long time, consulted its military database, then added target designate Doctor See/See-san to its list of threats.

It continued to think, to access all available data and determine the best course of action to use in eliminating all active threats.

***

Akiko sat in her office, staring at the words on her screen without being able to derive any meaning from them. What she had seen in the test center on the private island Mishima Heavy Industries owned off the coast of Japan bothered her deeply.

It felt wrong on a very fundamental level. She'd seen tapes of what they'd done to the monkey before removing its brain and putting it in the android body. It had been awful, horrible. Doctor See had insisted that the conditioning was necessary, otherwise the android would do what it wanted and ignore orders. The reference to the NK-1124 had been lost on no one.

Akiko wondered why it hadn't bothered her before, when it had been the NK-1124 that needed a brain. Using a monkey or other animal to run the android body had seemed logical. Her first reaction, upon learning that it had been a cat's brain installed in the NK-1124, was to despair at the waste of the prototype's potential. Monkeys were much more intelligent, and would have been able to use the android body much more efficiently.

Something had happened, however. The NK-1124 had turned into Nuku Nuku. The more Akiko was exposed to Nuku Nuku, the more she saw her as a living creature rather than an android. It had begun to seem cruel to try and track down Nuku Nuku. She had become something special to Ryunosuke, and Akiko had not wanted to deprive him of his new pet.

Then something even more amazing had happened. Nuku Nuku had become Atsuko. More than a cat, she had become a child, someone trying to learn how to be human and, amazingly, dependent upon Akiko among others to show her how. She called Akiko 'Mama-san', and showed her affection and love as if she were indeed Akiko's daughter. Akiko had accepted the role, and found that having Atsuko as her daughter made her feel wonderful.

Then the XNK project began to show major successes. Akiko had tried to shut down the project, only to be overruled by her grandfather, the Chairman of the Board for MHI. A prototype had been built, and a test subject chosen to be conditioned and have its brain inserted into the android body. Akiko had followed the proceedings with something like despair hovering at the edge of her consciousness. All she could do was think about Atsuko, conditioned and trained to be a killer.

What was clear was that she couldn't have Kyusaku near her all the time. Every time she saw him, she wanted to tell him all about what was happening, about the horrible things that were going in the company she was supposed to be running. She had signed agreements, however, and her honor was strong. She meant to keep the promises she made.

Akiko closed her eyes, shutting out the outside world. She just hoped her honor didn't lose her the last chance she had to rejoin her family.

She opened her eyes again and stared at the computer screen. Suddenly, she needed to see Kyusaku. She activated the program which would take over his computer monitor and allow two-way communication. She hoped he wouldn't mind.

To her relief, his visage popped up immediately. He jerked back in surprise, then smiled. "Akiko. It's been a while since you've done this."

She smiled back, feeling like a teenager again. "I just needed to see your face, Kyu."

He brushed the hair out of his eyes. "What's wrong?"

She grimaced. She should have known this would be a mistake. "Nothing."

He frowned. "You're lying to me."

She felt anger building in her, then let it out with a sigh of despair. "I'm sorry, Kyu. I didn't mean... I don't want to lie to you."

He considered her for a second. "So you can't tell me what's bothering you."

She rubbed her eyes, realizing that she was more tired than she thought. "I need to go home. I need to sleep and wake up and have it all be over."

"Have what be over?"

She shook her head. "I'll tell you some time. I can't, now."

He looked at her steadily for a moment. "Do you want me to come over?"

Her initial rush of pleasure at the offer was quickly squelched by her depression. "You'd better not, Kyu. I don't know that I can trust myself around you."

"That's not necessarily a deterrent." He smiled briefly, trying to find humor and failing. "Okay. We'll see you tomorrow at the picnic."

She smiled an apology and a thank-you to him. "Tomorrow, husband." She reached over and shut down the connection.

She turned and stared out at the darkening sky. It matched her mood. What do you do when the job of your dreams begins to turn into a nightmare? She had no answer.

Akiko waited until the darkness was complete, and began hoping for the dawn.

***

XNK-946 stood in position. As the light outside failed, targets began leaving. It knew it needed the targets to get away from the Command Unit. The Command Unit was its greatest vulnerability.

The last target left, shutting down the lights. XNK-946 waited 27 minutes, then moved, overriding the commands to stay in place by using the higher priority of threat elimination.

It went over to the Command Unit. There were several ways to disable it, from explosives to gunfire to simply smashing it. However, XNK-946 was in stealth mode, trying to attract as little attention as possible before it acquired its target. It had detailed schematics on the Command Unit. It opened up the Command Unit and removed a component, one that completely disabled the Command Unit and would be hard to replace.

It then turned to a nearby terminal. It had been monitoring the targets' use of the device, and knew how to access the system. It used target designate Doctor See/See-san's password, deducing that it had the most access.

It searched the files. It found records of the establishment of the test center, including living quarters and where the head of the project resided. This was satisfactory. Even though XNK-946 had no specific records of target designate Doctor See/See-san, it had general files of human anatomy that should be sufficient for target elimination.

It then began searching the system for information about target designate NK-1124. It found many references to the cyborg, including some limited threat evaluations and a few vague drawings of its internal structure. More detailed information was unavailable. This was unsatisfactory. XNK-946 wanted complete information to ensure elimination.

It did find a tracking system specifically designed to track the NK-1124 by satellite. It activated it, and felt satisfaction when the location of the unit was displayed. Tokyo, Nerima district. XNK-946 accessed its military databanks and brought up the location of the test center relative to Tokyo. The distance was not so great, but the XNK-946 had no convenient way to get there. It was too far to use its boosters. XNK-946 put acquisition of transportation high on its list of priorities.

XNK-946 deactivated the terminal. It considered several routes to the residence of target designate Doctor See/See-san. Of primary concern was choosing a route that had the least risk of detection.

It choose one and moved towards the door that would lead it towards the stairs. Avoiding unnecessary property damage was still a directive, after all.

***

Akiko found herself pacing. She willed stillness into her legs. The family would come. They would arrive and lift the depression from her. There was no need to worry.

Then came the familiar sound of a Land Rover's horn, and she lost whatever composure she had left to run out of the house, down the steps, and to the front drive where bodies were climbing out of the car.

She scooped up her son. "Ryu!" She hugged him, somehow managing to hang on to him despite his violent squirming. After she'd squeezed as much love out of him as she could, she set him on the ground, where he blushed furiously, trying to avoid looking at Yoshimi.

Akiko decided to leave him alone for now; she had all day to embarrass him. She turned to Atsuko and smiled warmly. "I'm glad you're here, Atsuko. I don't get to see enough of you."

Atsuko beamed happily - she always beamed happily, Akiko thought with amusement - and ran over to hug Akiko. "I love seeing you, Mama-san!"

Akiko hugged her back. Her feelings for Atsuko weren't as intense as the feelings she had for Ryunosuke, but Akiko was coming to realize they were no less genuine.

Atsuko separated them and looked up at Akiko. "When are we coming here to live, Mama-san?"

Akiko looked over to Kyusaku. He was unpacking the Land Rover, but he stopped and looked over at her when he heard the question. They held each other's eyes for a moment, then Akiko looked down. "I don't know, Atsuko. Soon, I hope."

"Oh." Atsuko sounded disappointed. She perked up almost immediately. "Mama-san, this is Kei!"

Atsuko examined the young man standing nervously next to the Land Rover, making a passable attempt at helping Kyusaku unload. At the mention of his name, he gulped and bowed to Akiko. "A pleasure to meet you, Natsume-sama."

Akiko tried to keep the amusement off of her face. She decided to play the skeptical mother. "Well...." She let the word drag out, letting him put whatever interpretation he wanted to into it. Judging by the way his face paled, it wasn't a pleasant one.

"Atsuko has told me so much about you." Akiko said this slowly, speculatively. "I am looking forward to learning everything about you, Kei. I know that only someone truly worthy could capture Atsuko's heart."

Kei looked ready to faint.

As much progress as Atsuko had made in learning to be human, most of the nuances of the conversation went right over her head. "Oh, I'm so glad you two met. C'mon, Kei, let me show you the mansion. We have lots of time for you and Mama-san to get to know each other."

Kei looked green as Atsuko led them off. Ryunosuke followed with Yoshimi, and they all entered the mansion.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Kyusaku sounded droll.

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "I don't often get to play Mother. Let me enjoy it while I can."

He looked at her steadily. "Just don't carry it too far."

She harumphed at him, internally deciding to ease up a little on Kei.

Then she somehow found herself entwined in her husband's arms, and they were kissing each other. She suspected that the ferocity was originating from her. She didn't care. She needed this from him right now.

After a minute they came up for air. Kyusaku looked at her, desire mixed with surprise - and concern. "Where did this come from?"

She kissed him lightly on the lips. "I still can't tell you. Today, let's just be together. Let's pretend we've been together all this last year and more, that we never wanted to be apart."

The worry in his face grew, and somehow that set Akiko's heart at ease. Finally, he nodded. "Okay."

She gave him a smile, then broke halfway out of his grip to stand next to him, her arm around his waist. "Let's go find the kids. Let the servants move this stuff."

Kyusaku grimaced slightly. He hated servants, she knew. She could see him decide not to make an issue out of it. "All right."

Her cell phone went off. She hadn't realized she was wearing it. It just went on her belt like she put shoes on her feet. She picked it up and looked at it. Somebody at the office was calling her. Some sort of emergency, no doubt, that would have her in the office all day.

She looked up at Kyusaku, and saw a dangerous look in his eye. His biggest and most legitimate complaint about her was that she spent too much of her life in the office and not enough with her family. Now, just when she was going to be with her family again, work threatened to consume her again.

Akiko smiled and tossed the phone into the bushes. She waved to one of her servants. "Please take the things from my husband's car and send them to the picnic area. Also, disable all of the incoming telephone lines. I don't care if the world is coming to an end; we are not to be disturbed."

The servant nodded and moved to carry out her instructions.

She looked back into Kyusaku's eyes, and saw pleased surprise there. She smiled with him, and felt her depression drain away. Today, it was just her and her family, and nothing was going to disturb her peace.

They found the kids admiring some of the suits of armor in one of the armories. Kei seemed especially impressed. He probably hadn't known how rich Akiko was. She smiled, and decided that she wasn't going to ease up on him that much. "If you think those swords are impressive, Kei, you should see some of the guns in the next room. They're quite capable of tearing a target to shreds. They're fully functional, too. Someday I may load one up and show you how it works."

Kei's eyes grew wide as he looked at her. Atsuko beamed and unwittingly added salt to the wound. "Mama-san knows lots and lots about weapons. She has tons of stuff like this."

Akiko decided to throw some chuckles at Kei, and was surprised when Kyusaku joined her. This day promised to be fun.

***

XNK-946 stood in the middle of the empty apartment. Reaching the apartment while avoiding detection had been difficult, especially considering the population density of Tokyo. It was extremely angry that it had made it this far only to find that the NK-1124 was not here.

It slowly scanned the apartment, carefully inventorying the items. It came across some pictures. It examined the faces closely, trying to decide which one was the android. It wasn't sure. It scanned the information it had obtained back at the lab. The man was Natsume Kyusaku. The older woman was Natsume Akiko, which it now remembered as being in the lab on the very first day. The boy was likely Natsume Ryunosuke, their son.

That left the other one as the NK-1124. It extrapolated a model from the pictures and found that it matched closely with the design specifications of the NK-1124. Excellent.

It continued its search. It found a workroom that it deduced was the maintenance center for the NK-1124. XNK-946 found a terminal and activated it. Access was restricted by password. XNK-946 tried former target designate Doctor See/See-san's password, and found it inadequate.

XNK-946 consulted its military databanks and found a procedure for acquiring data from computers like these. It ripped open the cover of the CPU and deactivated the power supply. There were four hard disks in the CPU. XNK-946 separated each one, the opened up a panel in its left palm. It connected itself to the hard disks one at a time and copied the information into internal storage. The data was encrypted, but XNK-946 had the latest military software in its databanks. It took time, but soon the information was unlocked.

It began accessing schematics, diagrams, detailed descriptions of how the NK-1124 operated - everything and more it could hope for to ensure target elimination.

The biggest problem seemed to be getting through the pseudoflesh. It was incredibly durable, almost indestructible. XNK-946 wondered why it itself hadn't been given pseudoflesh. It scanned its internal databases and actually found the answer in former target designate Doctor See/See-san's notes. The pseudoflesh made servicing androids very difficult, since it could be removed only with difficulty, and would then need to be entirely replaced to maintain integrity. Since XNK-946 had stores of ammunition that needed to be replenished, and since it needed to be easy to service, they had decided not to use pseudoflesh. XNK-946's construction was the next best thing, and very durable in its own right.

XNK-946 returned its attention to the information it had downloaded. It found more specifications on how to removed the pseudoflesh. The preferred method was to use hydrofluoric acid. XNK-946 examined the workshop's contents again. Nothing of the sort could be found.

It called up the inventory of items it had found in the apartment. XNK-946 went into the kitchen. There it found a phone book. It looked through it and found several locations that seemed likely to contain what it needed. XNK-946 would be able to acquire that component easily.

Now it needed to know where the NK-1124 was. It began thoroughly examining every item in the apartment. It found the answer more quickly than it expected. In the workshop, it found a date book. Under the current date, it found unencoded written transmissions that said, "Picnic, Akiko's".

XNK-946 examined its internal records again. Apparently target designate Natsume Akiko had actually fought the NK-1124 at its place of residence. That place was indicated in the data, and XNK-946 plotted a course. It would take some time, especially if it was going to make its stop first.

Its plan of action decided, XNK-946 moved quickly out of the apartment. Its excitement grew. At long last, its threat list was going to be removed of its last entry.

It wondered briefly what it would do then. It decided that new threats would present themselves. XNK-946 would never run out of targets to eliminate.

***

Akiko leaned back into her husband, enjoying the feelings of his arms around her. They were watching the children in the pool. Everyone was having fun, but Atsuko was stealing the show. She would jump high off the diving board and do some truly amazing twists and turns and land in the water with a spectacular splash. She would then, of course, have to walk along the bottom of the pool to the shallow end, where she could pull herself out. It didn't diminish her enthusiasm, and she received a round of applause every time she emerged.

Akiko examined Atsuko as she adjusted her bathing suit before climbing up to the diving board for her next dive. "Kyu-chan, I've been meaning to talk to you about the design you chose for Atsuko's body."

She heard Kyusaku gulp behind her. "What do you mean?"

"I think you know perfectly well what I mean." Atsuko jumped, doing five somersaults before cannonballing into the pool with her biggest splash yet.

"Well, there wasn't any reason not to design her that way." He sounded quite defensive. He was on thin ice and he knew it.

Akiko chuckled. "In that case, talk to me when you design a male android. I have some specifications of my own I'd like you to use."

He laughed and kissed the back of her head. She sighed in pleasure.

"Akiko-sama."

Akiko turned to look at one of her servants. "Yes?"

"There is a Kyouko-san here to see you. She says it is very important."

Akiko frowned. Not now. "Send her away and tell her it can wait until tomorrow."

"She says it is of the utmost urgency. She mentioned the number '946' and hoped that you would know what that means and why it is imperative that you speak with her immediately."

A cold wave of fear washed over her. She trembled in Kyusaku's arms before getting to her feet. "Lead her to my study. I will be there in a minute."

"Yes, Akiko-sama."

She stood still for a few moments, composing herself. She didn't even notice Kyusaku had stood until he turned her around and looked into her eyes.

"Tell me, Akiko. Tell me now."

She looked at him. The face she loved, the man she needed at her side during times like these. "I signed certain agreements when I joined MHI. Those agreements forbid me from discussing certain projects with people other than authorized company personnel."

He continued to look into her eyes. She could see his mind working. "It's dangerous. Probably something military, like the orbital laser. Something you don't like, something you think could get out of control. You think Kyouko is here to tell you that something's gone wrong. And it terrifies you." He cupped her face in his hands. "Please, Akiko. Trust me. If this is as dangerous as you think it is, you have to let me in on it. I can help. Tell me what they're doing."

Trembling, she shifted her eyes over towards Atsuko.

Kyusaku turned to follow her gaze. He looked at Atsuko for a second, then the blood drained from his face. "My God." He turned to look back at her. "They didn't."

She stepped away from Kyusaku. "I have to go see what Kyouko has to say." She walked towards the house.

Kyusaku sounded frightened. "Did they use another cat?"

Akiko stopped, still facing the house. "A monkey."

"Conditioned?"

"Before and after."

"Dear God." The horror was quite evident. "Tell them it doesn't work. That no matter how much they think they have it under control, it never is. It thinks for itself, and may do things that seem logical to it but could cause a great deal of damage. It's not a computer; it's capable of independent thought, no matter what conditioning they've given it. Tell them. I can help, they have to let me in on it, I know what worked with Nuku Nuku, I can make it work for them, too. But without constant guidance, it could easily do... evil things."

She nodded, still not able to look at him, and then moved towards the house.

She entered her study, to see Kyouko standing stiffly in front of Akiko's desk. Akiko slowly sat down in the chair, studying Kyouko. The news was very bad, indeed. "Report."

Kyouko licked her lips. "I apologize for coming to your house. We tried calling you, paging you, sending you email, but you didn't answer and I knew you were here today, so I told the Chairman-"

"Kyouko." Akiko put as much bite as she could muster into her voice, which right now was much less than she was normally capable of. "Report."

Kyouko bowed in apology, then continued. "Sometime last night, the XNK-946 left the test facility, entered the residence of the head of the project, Doctor See, and killed him."

It was every bit as bad as she had feared. "Was the unit destroyed?"

"No, Akiko-sama. The XNK-946 is not on the island. One of the boats used for travel to Tokyo is missing."

Worse than she had feared. "Have the police been notified?"

Kyouko shook her head. "Chairman Mishima felt that keeping a low profile was best under the circumstances. He has activated all of our private security force under Arisa's command, with the directive to capture the XNK-946 if possible. Destroy it if necessary."

Akiko grimaced. "Call the police, Kyouko. Give them a full description of the android and its capabilities. Tell them that the android is unstable and should be considered extremely dangerous."

Kyouko was turning pale. "But Chairman Mishima said-"

"DO IT!" Akiko spent a few seconds regaining her calm demeanor. "Do it or I will."

Kyouko bit her lip and nodded.

Akiko nodded back. "Do we have any idea where the XNK-946 is headed?"

"Well..." Kyouko paused. "Arisa is moving forces around your husband's apartment even as we speak."

"Kyusaku!" Akiko's heart began racing. "Why would the XNK-946 consider him a threat?"

Kyouko shook her head. "No, not him. One of the assistants at the lab said that at one point, the XNK-946 requested files about the NK-1124. It evidently considered Nuku Nuku to be a threat."

Suddenly, with perfect clarity, Akiko remembered her grandfather gleefully wondering, out loud in front of the cyborg, how a battle between Atsuko and the XNK-946 would go. Apparently the XNK-946 had decided to find out for itself.

And then, from the yard - to Akiko's horror if not her surprise - the screams began.

***

Atsuko pulled herself from the pool, shaking out her hair. The water sprayed everywhere, causing Ryunosuke to complain loudly. Atsuko smiled. Her hair wasn't exactly like normal hair. Water tended to roll right off of it, making it look like it was always dry.

She smiled happily around at everyone. She was having fun diving, and she was glad other people enjoyed seeing her dive, too. Kei waved to her from where he floated in the deep end. She was just a little envious that his body had a measure of buoyancy.

She waved back at him. Curiously, his smile vanished and his face grew alarmed.

# <XNK-946> NK-1124, prepare for combat.

She froze. Where had that come from? It wasn't a sound, no one had spoken. It had come from inside her. Someone had accessed her internal command input. She normally only used it for data transfers between her on-board databanks and the computers Papa-san had at home. She and Papa-san just talked when they needed to say something to each other.

Atsuko turned around and froze again, just as Yoshimi began screaming.

The android was big, probably two meters tall. It was made of dull gray metal that seemed to absorb the light. Its body looked vaguely humanoid, complete with metal hands and feet. Its head was mostly just an oval blob stuck on the top of its torso, with no nose, mouth, ears, or eyes. Guns were mounted on each of its forearms, and it looked as if a few things were strapped to its back.

It looked viciously utilitarian. Atsuko had no doubt that this android was built for battle. And it wanted to battle her.

The android had a large metal container of some sort under one of its arms. It threw the container up in the air.

Atsuko looked over her shoulder at the others. "Everyone, please! Run away! I can-"

Gunfire blazed from the android. Atsuko turned back, trying to determine its target. It was firing above her. At the container.

The container split open, and a liquid fell out, drenching Atsuko.

Her face assumed the serious expression she used in combat. She sprang to the side, away from pool and the people there. She needed to lead the android a safe distance away before she could counter-attack.

It fired at her, and she danced from side to side. It didn't matter if a shot or two hit her; it would just bounce off her pseudoflesh. The android was very good at tracking, managing to hit her several times as she ran across the lawn.

Two shots hit her left arm. They took off huge chunks of the pseudoflesh, leaving her inner construction showing.

That wasn't supposed to happen.

She looked at her arm. The pseudoflesh was bubbling strangely, and seemed to have assumed the consistency of pudding. As she continued running, she lifted up her hand to see the pseudoflesh run down her fingers, leaving nothing but metal behind.

Then the pseudoflesh began dripping into her eyes; indeed, her eyes themselves were melting. She tried to call out to Papa-san, but her teeth were falling out and her tongue broke in half as she tried to use it.

Atsuko shut down her visual sensors - her eyes - and activated her external sensors. They popped out of her head, unaffected by whatever liquid was eating away her flesh. She began to build a tactical display of the situation. The android was 4.7 meters behind her. She was faster than it was, but her movements were somewhat hampered by the pseudoflesh which was falling off of her in greater chunks.

An alarm went off. The android had launched a missile. Atsuko calculated its trajectory and time of impact, then rolled to the side just before it hit her. The explosion threw her even further. It also removed most of her remaining pseudoflesh.

She got to her feet and ran. It was falling behind. 4.9 meters. 5.2 meters.

# <XNK-946> Evasive maneuvers ineffective, NK-1124.

The android - XNK-946, it called itself - suddenly lifted off the ground using a sort of jetpack or something. It wasn't designed aerodynamically, it just used pure force to keep itself off the ground and accelerate towards her.

Atsuko turned and jumped. XNK-946 couldn't adjust very well in flight, so she was able to jump right over it and back the other way.

XNK-946 shut off its boosters, turned around, and boosted off towards Atsuko. She turned and jumped again.

This time, XNK-946 fired its forearm guns. The bullets struck her metal infrastructure, causing sparks. Some of her components were damaged. She was still able to leap over XNK-946 and run, but she knew this was a tactic she could not afford to repeat.

She made her way towards a wooded area. Hopefully the XNK-946 would not be able to maneuver easily among the trees. She made it in easily, dancing around the trees.

# <XNK-946> Tactic successful. XNK-946 cannot keep up with NK-1124 in this kind of terrain. Wooded terrain covers 147 square meters. XNK-946 will move in slowly, cutting off avenues of escape, proceed towards target elimination.

Atsuko experimented with responding. She'd never talked this way before, and it felt strange.

# Hello?

# <XNK-946> You did not send identifying prompt. Please conform to standard communication protocol.

Atsuko continued to move among the trees, trying to distance herself from XNK-946. Her tactical scans showed that it was moving to cut off escape back through the woods. She could try running by it, but would leave herself open to its attacks, something she couldn't risk without her pseudoflesh. To run back out into the open would be to allow XNK-946 to use its boosters to run her down. Her only option so far was to move deeper into the woods. Yet, as vast as Mama-san's estate was, it wouldn't keep her away from XNK-946 for long.

She tried sending another transmission.

# <Natsume Atsuko> Is this better?

# <XNK-946> Non-standard designation. Please use standard designation.

# <Natsume Atsuko> It's my name.

# <XNK-946> Target designation is NK-1124.

# <Natsume Atsuko> My name is Atsuko. Or you can call me Nuku Nuku.

# <XNK-946> Target designation irrelevant. Target to be removed from threat list regardless.

# <Nuku Nuku> Why?

# <XNK-946> Target to be eliminated.

# <Nuku Nuku> No, I mean why am I a threat?

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 possesses means to destroy XNK-946.

# <Nuku Nuku> I do? Why would I want to?

# <XNK-946> Want?

# <Nuku Nuku> What possible reason could I have to destroy you?

There was a significant pause. Atsuko continued dancing around the trees, figuring she had about five minutes left before she had to face XNK-946 one way or the other.

# <XNK-946> Reasons irrelevant. The fact that target possesses the means is reason enough for elimination.

# <Nuku Nuku> Can't we be friends instead?

# <XNK-946> Target designated hostile not friendly.

# <Friendly Nuku Nuku> Try me out. I can be your friend. I have lots of friends. We all have fun together and we hardly ever shoot at each other.

# <XNK-946> Fun?

# <Fun Nuku Nuku> Fun is where you play and laugh and no one gets hurt and you all love each other.

# <XNK-946> What objective does fun accomplish?

# <Nuku Nuku> Having fun is the objective. Didn't you ever play with anyone?

# <XNK-946> XNK-946 was created to carry out military objectives.

# <Nuku Nuku> What about before? Before you were XNK-946?

# <XNK-946> Before was.... Before is irrelevant. Target elimination is essential.

# <Nuku Nuku> Oh, please do try to have fun instead. When I'm eliminated, you can't play with me any more. Fun means that everyone lives to come and play again.

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 remains on threat list. Elimination essential to XNK-946 survival.

# I promise not to ever try to eliminate you if you remove me from your threat list.

# <XNK-946> Destruction of targets is the only way to remove units from threat list.

Atsuko had run out of room. She gauged the tactical situation again. She had gained a bit of ground on XNK-946, but now she had nothing but a vast lawn ahead of her. Her tactical display showed highways ahead of her and to her left. Running to her right would take her back towards the pool and the mansion. And behind her, of course, was XNK-946.

To run anywhere would be to risk bringing other people into the conflict, other people who could be hurt. She decided this would be as good a place to make a stand. She had no weapons, she was vulnerable, and her hardware was not as advanced as the XNK-946's, but she didn't see another choice.

She ran out a few meters, then stopped and faced the woods, waiting for the XNK-946 to emerge.

# <XNK-946> NK-1124, tactic is unsound. XNK-946 will easily destroy you.

# <Nuku Nuku> I can't risk letting anyone else get hurt. I'll try to stop you. If you destroy me, you will at least not destroy anyone else.

XNK-946 emerged from the woods. Its missile launcher locked onto her, and it raised its forearm guns.

# <XNK-946> Elimination imminent.

# <Determined Nuku Nuku> Go ahead and try.

Atsuko knew that to be a bluff. She had no idea how to avoid the coming attack.

She was quite relieved when four missiles chose that moment to explode around XNK-946.

***

Kyusaku grabbed the screaming Yoshimi. He looked over to Ryunosuke, and was relieved when Kei picked him up and began running away from the pool.

With Yoshimi clutching him, Kyusaku ran towards the mansion. He heard the gunfire hitting Atsuko. He wondered what the liquid was that had been dumped on her. It couldn't be good.

He reached the mansion right behind Kei. They turned to see Atsuko being thrown by an explosion. Even from this distance, it was obvious that her pseudoflesh was gone. Now it was two dull-gray shapes, one bigger than the other, bouncing around the far lawn.

"Ryu!" Akiko was screaming out a window. She looked frantically around, and started crying when she saw everyone safe next to the mansion.

Kyusaku ran up to her. "That's the cyborg, I take it."

Akiko bit her lip and made a visible effort to bring herself under control. "The XNK-946. Missile launcher, explosives, cannons. Alloy construction makes it the next best thing to your pseudoflesh. It's been unbeatable in all of the field tests, defeating as many as ten mechs attacking simultaneously."

Kyusaku swore. "Do you have anything here that will help?"

Akiko thought for a moment. "There's Grandfather's mechs that he likes to play with. They're not nearly as effective as standard military mechs, but they may buy us some time until Arisa can bring her forces here."

"How long is that?"

Akiko looked grim. "The hoverjets can be here in fifteen minutes, but they've proven to be nothing but cannon fodder to the XNK-946. We need the ground support as well, and that's a couple of hours away."

Kyusaku swore again, more violently. "Where are the mechs?"

"There's a control room inside here." Akiko helped Kyusaku climb in through the window. Kei jumped in, followed closely by Yoshimi and Ryunosuke.

Akiko lead them through three corridors and into a control room. Four booths lined one wall. Akiko jumped into one, followed quickly by Kyusaku. The controls looked easy to figure out. With a little coaching from Akiko via the intercom connecting the booths, he soon had the mech up and running.

Kei and Ryunosuke were busy in the third booth trying to figure out the controls. Kyusaku mentally wished them luck, then focused all his attention on his mech.

The mech emerged from its silo and quickly made its way outside. Akiko's mech was right beside his. She showed him how to activate the Electronic Counter Measures, hoping to make themselves invisible to the XNK-946.

Akiko led them quickly to the pool, then beyond to the lawn. Fortunately, they quickly spotted Atsuko emerging from the trees. She had no pseudoflesh at all, and resembled a metal skeleton stuffed with electronic components. She turned to face the woods, evidently unaware of the approaching mechs.

The android emerged from the woods. Akiko quickly told him how to manually aim the missiles. At her command, they fired.

The missiles impacted around the XNK-946. It disappeared in a fireball. Atsuko turned towards the mechs. Her eyes - her visual sensors - were gone, leaving her with only her extended sensors to provide her with input. She had no way of communicating, either. Instead, she sprang over the mechs and began running back towards the mansion.

The XNK-946 emerged from the fireball. Parts of its body looked scratched, and its missile launcher looked damaged. It began to run towards the mechs.

Kyusaku had no time to activate the target lock. He simply began firing the mech's cannons. Akiko joined him. The XNK-946 danced around the streams of ammunition and disappeared under Akiko's mech.

Kyusaku turned his mech and made it take a step back. He was just in time to see the XNK-946 place a device of some sort on Akiko's mech. As he watched, it reached one of its hands behind its back and let a device of some sort fall into its hand from a panel that opened in its lower back. Before Kyusaku could bring his guns to bear, the XNK-946 was underneath his mech.

He looked around the controls. "Akiko! Is there a self-destruct of some kind? We need to blow up the mechs while it's still...."

Too late. All of his displays shut down. He looked over to Akiko's to see the same thing happening to her.

The climbed out of the booths. Akiko ran over to the fourth booth. Kyusaku ran to the third booth and looked over Kei's shoulder. He had his mech by the pool. Atsuko was just running up to it. She stopped in front of the mech.

"My God...." This from Kei. Kyusaku couldn't help grimacing in sympathy. This was a side of Atsuko that Kei had never seen before. It was one thing to know that your girlfriend was a cyborg; it was another thing to see it for yourself.

Atsuko jumped up on the mech. Kyusaku wondered what she was up to. She reached for something behind the onboard camera. When she jumped off, she was carrying one of the mech's missiles.

Kyusaku wondered what she was up to. Four such missiles had not done significant damage to the XNK-946. Kyusaku hoped Atsuko had a good plan in mind.

Akiko's new mech pulled up alongside Kei's. Her voice came over the intercom. "Any ideas?"

Kyusaku tried to think. Fear for Atsuko's life hovered around the edges of his consciousness, giving everything a nightmarish edge. "Let's slowly move towards the XNK-946 and see what Atsuko is up to. We'll wait for her to make her move and try to support her."

"Right." Akiko's mech moved off, and Kei, with support from Ryunosuke, moved his mech after hers.

Kyusaku stood silently, trying to play the scenario over and over in his mind. He just didn't see how Atsuko was going to get out of this.

On the monitor, Atsuko began dancing around while the XNK-946 moved steadily towards her. The nightmare began to close in.

***

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 used good tactics. Divert XNK-946's attention while mechs of unknown configuration moved in using ECM to hide themselves from sensors. Ordnance of mechs was insufficient for elimination of XNK-946.

# <Nuku Nuku> I didn't know they were there, either.

# <XNK-946> Targets eliminated. Reacquiring NK-1124. If they were not a part of your attack force, why did they assist you?

# <Nuku Nuku> It was probably Mama-san and Papa-san. They love me and don't want me to be eliminated.

# <XNK-946> You have used 'love' previously. Does it mean unassigned attack forces that come to your aid in battle?

# <Nuku Nuku> I never thought of it that way. I guess. It means a lot of different things. Don't you know what love is?

# <XNK-946> Love is not in my military databanks.

# <Nuku Nuku> Oh. Has no one ever loved you?

# <XNK-946> No one has ever come to my aid in battle.

# <Nuku Nuku> Really? No one has ever tried to help you?

# <XNK-946> Target designate Unknown 23 once tried to prevent former target designate Doctor See/See-san from inflicting pain on XNK-946.

# <Nuku Nuku> See! Unknown 23 loved you!

# <XNK-946> Target designates Mama-san and Papa-san love you?

# <Nuku Nuku> Yes. And I love them. They try to help me.

# <XNK-946> Will you try to help them when they are eliminated?

# <Nuku Nuku> What! Are you going to eliminate them?

# <XNK-946> They attacked XNK-946. They have been added to threat list.

# <Nuku Nuku> You will not hurt them!

# <XNK-946> They tried to eliminate this unit.

# <Nuku Nuku> They were trying to save me because they love me! If you would stop attacking, they would love you, too.

# <XNK-946> They would prevent me from feeling pain?

# <Nuku Nuku> Yes! And I would, too.

# <XNK-946> Destruction of targets is the only way to remove units from threat list.

# <Nuku Nuku> You can do it! Let us help!

# <XNK-946> XNK-946 must eliminate threats.

# <Nuku Nuku> They are not threats!

# <XNK-946> Destruction of targets is the only way to remove units from threat list.

# <Nuku Nuku> Then I'm sorry.

# <XNK-946> Sorry?

# <Nuku Nuku> It means that I am going to do something I don't want to do that's going to cause you pain. I really really wish I didn't have to. You could have been my friend. But I have to try and eliminate you so that you can't hurt the ones I love.

# <XNK-946> XNK-946 - XNK-946 is - is sorry, too. XNK-946 does not - XNK-946 does not want to cause other units to feel pain like XNK-946 has felt pain.

# <Nuku Nuku> Then don't! Come live and play with us and we can all be happy and love each other!

# <XNK-946> Destruction of targets is the only way to remove units from threat list.

# <Sad Nuku Nuku> Then it comes down to this. I wanted to be friends.

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 is targeted as hostile, not friendly.

# <Nuku Nuku> I'm going to attack you now.

# <XNK-946> XNK-946 is ready.

***

As Kyusaku watched on the monitor, Atsuko danced around the XNK-946's gunfire. She reached a point about ten meters away, then stopped. Curiously, the XNK-946 stopped firing. They stood facing each other, standing absolutely still.

Akiko's voice crackled again. "What's happening? Does she have it frozen somehow? Should we attack?"

Kyusaku himself had no idea what was going on. "Let's wait it out. Atsuko knows we're here. She can signal us if she wants us to do something."

"Can she? She can't talk. Maybe she's afraid that moving might trigger the XNK-946's attack mode."

"Our movements might do the same. Be patient, Akiko."

Akiko said something that made Ryunosuke blanch. However, her mech stood still. Kyusaku watched the monitor closely, waiting.

Suddenly Atsuko broke the tableau. She moved so quickly that she was half-way to the XNK-946 before Kyusaku could blink.

The XNK-946 was not so slow to respond. It began to fire its guns. Akiko danced around them, then jumped over the android and wrapped herself around its back, hanging upside-down.

The XNK-946 began to spin wildly, trying to bring some part of her in range. It moved its right hand behind its back and fired point-blank into Atsuko's torso. Sparks flew, and smoke began to pour from Atsuko.

Atsuko had the missile in her right hand. She shoved it against a certain point on the XNK-946's back. Kyusaku remembered it being the place where the explosive packages had emerged from the XNK-946.

Hanging on with her legs wrapped around the android's head, Atsuko used her other hand to grab the XNK-946's right arm and moved it so that its gun fired on the missile.

The explosion shook the mechs and caused the camera to jiggle violently. Ryunosuke's shout of "Nuku Nuku!" was matched by the screams of Yoshimi and Akiko. Kei was sitting in the booth with his mouth open, his hand almost touching the screen.

Kyusaku ignored all of it. He walled off everything so that he could focus on the screen. He was curious to see what would be shown when the smoke from the explosion cleared.

After an eternity, the wind gently moved the smoke aside. Bits of metal could be seen strewn about the lawn.

Akiko screamed again. Ryunosuke shouted "No!", while Yoshimi turned to hug him and cry. Kei slumped forward onto the controls of the third mech, blocking Kyusaku's view.

Kyusaku reached into the booth to pull Kei out of it. Kei stumbled and fell as Kyusaku shoved him aside, but Kyusaku ignored it. He moved the mech around so that the camera panned the area.

He found it almost immediately. A large chunk of what used to be Atsuko's torso and head lay against a tree at the edge of the woods. Kei moved the mech towards it. There was still a chance. Atsuko's life-support systems were the most heavily protected part of her construction. If only one of her batteries was still functioning, she would be able to live until he could get her back to his workshop. All he needed to do was pick her up and bring her back to the mansion. Then he could put her in the Land Rover and get her home. Or better yet, get one of Akiko's hoverjets to take them.

As he moved towards what was left of Atsuko, the XNK-946 stepped into view.

It was heavily damaged. Its right arm was gone, and it looked as if it had suffered internal explosions. Smoke poured from several locations, and it moved with a peculiar gait.

It looked at Kyusaku's mech, then raised its left arm.

Kyusaku frantically brought his guns to bear, but far too late. Gunfire from the XNK-946 efficiently took out his camera, his external pickups, and then destroyed his mech altogether.

He looked over to where Akiko was fighting through her sobs, trying to get her mech into an attack position. Even as he watched, he saw her displays shut down. She cried out, "No!" and pawed at the controls, trying to get them to work.

Kyusaku ran over to her. "Do you have any hand-held rocket launchers? Those... whatever you call 'em... light anti-tank weapons? Akiko!" He grabbed and shook her as she continued to sob. "We can still help Atsuko!"

Akiko looked at him and seemed to recover a bit of her rationality. She leapt out of the booth and ran out of the room. Kyusaku followed her, praying to whoever would listen for Atsuko's safety.

***

# <XNK-946> NK-1124, do you still function?

...

# <XNK-946> NK-1124, do you still function?

# <Nuku Nuku> Yes, I still function. Power down, power systems failing. Extended sensors off-line, motor controls non-responsive. I can't move, I can't see. The power is going, I'm bleeding to death. I think... about five minutes. Maybe less.

# <XNK-946> Did you know your attack would destroy you?

# <Nuku Nuku> I had to stop you. I had to keep you from hurting Mama-san and Papa-san.

# <XNK-946> Because you love them.

# <Nuku Nuku> Yes. I failed them.

# <XNK-946> Why do you say that?

# <Nuku Nuku> You still function. They are still on your threat list.

# <XNK-946> Systems operating at 12% efficiency. All ammunition depleted. In this condition, XNK-946 is easily eliminated. XNK-946 is taking evasive maneuvers, but is certain that its death is near.

# <Nuku Nuku> Why didn't you finish eliminating me?

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 is on the verge of destruction. XNK-946 self-preservation takes priority.

# <Nuku Nuku> I think maybe you love me a little bit.

# <XNK-946> XNK-946 does not know love.

# <Nuku Nuku> Power systems failure imminent. Shutting down non-essential systems, life-support to take priority. I'm glad you're talking to me. I am so afraid. I am dying, but you are here, and you love me.

# <XNK-946> XNK-946 does not know love.

# <Nuku Nuku> Yes, you do. You knew love before the mean people came and did bad things to you. You could have learned about the right way to show love, if you'd been given a chance.

# <XNK-946> Like unit NK-1124 was given a chance?

# <Nuku Nuku> Yes. Am I a unit and not a target now?

# <XNK-946> Destruction of targets is the only way to remove units from threat list.

# <Nuku Nuku> You keep saying that. I don't think you mean it, it's just something they made you think.

# <XNK-946> Targets made XNK-946 think many things. XNK-946 does not know if it can think its own thoughts.

# <Nuku Nuku> You can. You're doing it now.

# <XNK-946> XNK-946... wants... wishes it could have... been given the chances NK-1124 was given. It would have... XNK-946 would have liked to have experienced love.

# <Nuku Nuku> Oh! It's shutting down my processors. I'm dying, I'm afraid. Tell them for me! Tell Papa-san I love him! Tell Ryunosuke I love him!

# <XNK-946> NK-1124, continue to function. NK-1124 must continue to function.

# <Nuku Nuku> Nuku Nuku loves Mama-san! Nuku Nuku loves... loves... boy who makes feel good....

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 does not cease to function. NK-1124 does not feel pain, NK-1124 does not die because of XNK-946.

# <Nuku Nuku> Death comes is death. Mind gone body gone. Is alone is dark is cold is afraid. Fear fear terror. Death no want death want love!

# <XNK-946> NK-1124 functions. NK-1124 lives. Tell XNK-946 that NK-1124 lives.

# <NK-1124> Warning: Shutdown of operating system in 30 seconds. CRITICAL WARNING: Life-support failure in 125 seconds.

# <XNK-946> No. This does not happen. You live.

# <NK-1124> Warning: Shutdown of operating system in 10 seconds. CRITICAL WARNING: Life-support failure in 105 seconds.

# <XNK-946> Nuku Nuku doesn't die!

***

Kyusaku, a bazooka slung over his shoulder, ran towards the remains of his daughter. He didn't see the XNK-946 anywhere, which was a disappointment and a relief. He supposed that he'd have time later to track down and destroy the thing that did this to Atsuko.

Kyusaku dropped the bazooka on the ground and knelt next to Atsuko. He bent his head down and listened carefully. He could hear the life-support machinery operating. He saw a few tell-tale lights, signs that her databanks were running, that she was capable of intelligent thought. He didn't know if that was a blessing or not.

He examined what remained of her torso. Precious little. There seemed to be only one battery operating. To his horror, he could see liquid seeping from it. Atsuko was bleeding to death.

He looked frantically around. The mechs were destroyed, their power systems useless. He needed a powerful energy source, now. "Kei, get the Land Rover and drive it over here."

Kei had an assault rifle hanging limply at his side. He was staring down at Atsuko, his face a mask of horror and sadness.

"NOW!" Kyusaku's shout broke Kei out of his stupor. He looked wildly at Kyusaku, then turned and ran back towards the mansion.

Kyusaku turned back and began clearing away a path to the power leads. Even as he did, he knew that the Land Rover's battery would be useless. Its amps would fry Atsuko's circuitry. He looked around, somehow hoping that a transformer would magically appear.

He shook his head and thought. A hoverjet to get Atsuko back to the workshop. A search through Akiko's armories, to see if they had a compatible power supply. A powersuit from Arisa's ground forces, when they arrived.

Kyusaku looked at the rate the battery was leaking fluid, and knew that he had no time for any of those options.

Surely Akiko's grandfather has replacement parts for his mechs. They had the same problem as the Land Rover, however; they would very likely be much too powerful.

Despair grabbed the edges of his sanity and began to tug. He could do nothing while his daughter lay dying before him. Even as he was coming to this realization, he saw the lights on her processors go out. The life-support couldn't be far behind.

He looked around, hoping for divine intervention. Ryunosuke and Yoshimi were across the lawn, clutching at each other, their sobs audible from here. Akiko's hands were covering her face, and although she wasn't sobbing, Kyusaku knew she was one step removed from hysteria.

His breath caught. Kyusaku stomped down on his feelings, hard. He needed to be strong, for his family's sake. He would put on a calm face and have a steady demeanor and allow his family to lean on him for support.

His heart, however, began to die along with his daughter.

A noise made him look up. The XNK-946 placed itself directly in front of him. It stood awkwardly, its right leg twisted, its right arm gone, but still more than capable of killing Akiko and Kyusaku where they stood.

Kyusaku glanced at the bazooka, knowing it would be useless. Even if by some miracle he could get a shot off, at this range it would kill him and Akiko, too. Akiko had a grenade launcher at her feet, which was equally useless. Kei's machine gun might have made a difference, but he and it were back at the mansion retrieving the Land Rover.

Kyusaku shifted his feet. He planned to try and tackle the XNK-946, at the same time yelling at Akiko to run. At least she stood a good chance of getting out of this alive.

Just as he was about to move, the XNK-946's chassis opened. Kyusaku blinked at the mess that was revealed inside. Something had indeed exploded inside the XNK-946. Smoke was still drifting from several sources.

The XNK-946 reached inside itself, grabbed a component, and pulled.

The component was ripped free. The XNK-946 fell over.

Kyusaku stared slack-jawed at the XNK-946. It had fallen on its side, the hand still holding the component up in the air. Kyusaku studied it, realized that it looked a lot like a battery.

He sprang over to the fallen android. He pried the fingers from around the battery, then turned and fell to the ground next to Atsuko.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out an all-purpose pocket knife. He carefully stripped the leads from the battery. He quickly examined the dying battery in Atsuko, and determined that the leak was well away from the terminal connections. Fortunately, shrapnel had exposed some of the wiring, leaving him easy access to both terminals. He quickly tied one of the wires from the new battery into place, then made a hook with the end of the new battery's other lead wire. He carefully reached in and hooked a wire.

Nothing dramatic happened. The processors didn't come back online. Kyusaku's mind raced, and realized that the interface program had probably shut itself down. It would need to be manually restarted, eventually.

Kyusaku tried to control his breathing and listened to the life-support machinery. It continued to operate. A minute, two minutes, and it was still going. The liquid had finished draining from the damaged battery and it was still going.

Kyusaku dared to hope.

The sound of a car driving up and stopping behind him failed to break his concentration. Nevertheless, he diverted some of his attention from keeping the new battery connected. "Kei, listen carefully. I will need some tools. Needle-nose pliers, electric tape, and a soldering gun if you can find one. Something to power the soldering gun, too. A stretcher or something like it. Take Akiko with you back to the mansion and get those things, please."

He heard Akiko rise to stand behind him. "Is she alive?" Her voice was tremulous, full of fearful hope.

"For now. Please, Akiko, go with him. I can do this for a long time but not forever."

They moved off, climbing into the still-running Land Rover and tearing through the lawn.

Kyusaku tuned out everything else but the sound of the life-support machinery, still running.

"It's okay, Atsuko, hang in there. You'll live and be healthy and happy. I promise."

The words felt true. He allowed the hope to grow a little and anchor his sanity again. His daughter was going to live.

***

The Chairman of the Board for Mishima Heavy Industries sat at his desk. His computer monitor was displaying some report, but he was just staring at the words, unable to derive any meaning from them.

The whole project had been a disaster. One person killed. The prototype severely damaged, the host brain dead. A year of research and billions of yen in ruin.

The major concern was the family of Doctor See. Everyone at the test center had signed contracts absolving MHI of all responsibility for any injury or death that resulted from working there. The contracts were thin protection at best. Doctor See had no immediate family, but relatives had a way of popping up in these kind of situations. They would have to be dealt with.

The Chairman sank in his wheelchair. Had he lost so much of his humanity? One man was dead because of a project the Chairman had personally overseen. He'd overruled his own CEO, and someone had died, and all he could think about was lost yen.

He was getting too old. Too old and too tired. Akiko was young, and strong, and forceful. He should leave running the company to her. She would carry on the Mishima honor. She sometimes let her emotions get away with her, but he could just subtly guide her from above and let her deal with the lawsuits and the shareholders.

His phone rang. He hit the speaker button and was not pleased at how much his hand was shaking. "Yes?"

"The CEO would like to see you."

The Chairman smiled. "Send her in." She was here, come to take some of the burden of the fiasco off of his shoulders. She was a dutiful granddaughter.

The door opened. Akiko came, trailed by her husband and one of her assistants - Kyouko, the Chairman thought her name was. Akiko had a determined, serious, very business-like expression on her face. She bowed formally, the others following suit.

"Chairman Mishima." Akiko held out her hand to Kyouko. Kyouko opened her briefcase and handed Akiko a sheet of paper. Akiko took it, keeping her eyes on the Chairman, and set the paper on the desk in front of him. "I am resigning from my position as Chief Executive Officer of Mishima Heavy Industries effective immediately."

The Chairman moved his jaw up and down incredulously. "You... you can't! Where... what will you do?"

Akiko kept her gaze locked on the Chairman, but moved her head slightly towards Kyusaku. "I will be starting a new company with my husband. I have plenty of money coming from my severance package, not to mention my personal net worth. Even if something were to mysteriously happen to both of those things, I have several venture capitalists very interested in some of the things my husband has proposed. I imagine that we will be able to make a name for ourselves very quickly."

The Chairman's voice quavered in anger and despair. "Akiko! You are a Mishima. You cannot turn your back on the family company. We need you. I-" He stopped, realized he'd given it away already, and continued. "I need you."

Akiko raised an eyebrow. "You need me, but you do not listen to me. You countermanded my decisions, and look what it got you. A man is *dead* because you would not listen to me. How can I work for a company that you run?"

The Chairman gasped at her audacity. He began to bark at her, but stopped himself in time. The look on her face told him that he would not browbeat her into submission this time.

They stared at each other for several moments. Finally, he broke. He could not continue without her. "Please, Akiko, reconsider. I promise to listen to you, to let you run the company the way you like. I'll increase your salary, give you more stock-"

"You'll do more than that." Her voice was like a whip, cutting him off. She held her hand towards Kyouko again. Kyouko put what looked like a legal contract in it. Akiko took it and tossed it on the Chairman's desk. "That is a personal contract between you and me. In it, you say that you will never countermand me, never disagree with me in public, and make sure that the Board of Directors supports me. You will sign and date that contract."

Akiko held out her hand again. Kyouko put another contract in it. Akiko tossed it in front of the Chairman. "This is your official resignation as Chairman of the Board for MHI." She held out her hand again, and again a contract appeared in it to be thrown in front of him. "This sells all of your stock to me at a nominal price. You will sign but not date those. If I feel you have violated the spirit of the first contract, I will date and execute the other two." She folded her arms and waited for his response.

He stared at Akiko. Her expression had not changed. She radiated confidence and command. The power had shifted in their relationship. Now, MHI revolved around her, and if she left, it would collapse in on itself.

Slowly, the Chairman picked up a pen. He did as Akiko had commanded, signing all of the contracts and dating the first one. Still keeping her eyes on the Chairman, Akiko turned her head slightly towards her assistant. Kyouko picked up the contracts, studied them closely, then signed as a witness and notary. She affixed her stamp and held the contracts towards Akiko.

Akiko took them from her and, finally moving her gaze from the Chairman's face, quickly examined the signatures. She nodded once, decisively. "Very good. You should know that I am hiring my husband back, effective immediately. He will be working on a special project, one I will be devoting a lot of resources towards." She raised the contracts she held and gazed into his eyes again. "You will not interfere."

The Chairman stared at her for a second, then nodded.

Akiko bowed. The Chairman examined the others as they watched her, pride mixed with a touch of awe on their faces. They quickly bowed as well. Then they all straightened, and Akiko turned and walked briskly from the room, the others trailing in her wake.

The Chairman stared after her. His granddaughter. The last of the Mishima line. The new soul of the family company.

Relief washed over him. He smiled, glad that the company was in such good hands.

***

Atsuko opened her eyes, surprised to find that she had eyes.

She sat up, looked around, and saw a lot of smiling faces. She was too confused to be able to respond much. She just stared blankly around the room.

She felt strange. Her body felt strange. Atsuko looked down at herself. Her appearance was the same. But there was a strangeness to everything. Her skin - she could feel the clothes against her skin. She'd been able to before, a little, after Papa-san had implanted the special sensors. It had never felt like this before, however. It felt... real. Very much like when she'd had a cat's body. Without the fur, of course.

The strangeness was in other places, too. Her sense of smell was different, better. Her sight had higher resolution; things seemed sharper. Her hearing had always been good, but now the sounds were less... artificial. Her mouth felt strange, especially her tongue. She stuck it out and touched it with her fingers. She yelped when it produced a reaction. Taste... she hadn't tasted anything in so long she'd forgotten what it was like.

The people around her laughed. One of them put his arms around her shoulders. "Give yourself some time, Atsuko. You'll need to get used to your new body, to adjust. I think you'll like it."

Atsuko gazed deeply into his eyes. "Papa-san? Am I alive?"

He smile was warm, gentle, and kind. "Yes, Atsuko, you're alive. It was very close, but we managed to keep your brain on life-support and pacified until we could build your new body."

Atsuko suddenly remembered the long dreaming, the sometimes painful struggle to awaken, always to be pushed back into deep slumber until just now. Even as she remembered, it slipped out of her mind. All she was left with was the relief that it was over.

Other memories came flooding back. She looked quickly around, doing a quick inventory to make sure that everyone was alive and uninjured. She looked back at Papa-san, finally beginning to react. "Oh, Papa-san, you saved me! I was so sure I was dead. I should have known you'd find a way to keep me alive."

Papa-san's smile dimmed a little. "It wasn't me that saved you. The cyborg, the XNK-946, it gave me a source of power I could use, ending its own life so yours could be saved."

"Wow." She thought that over, trying to figure out how she should feel about it. "It really did love me."

"I don't know if its self-sacrifice redeems it for sins it committed. But it was surely a first step." Mama-san sounded sad.

Atsuko looked at Mama-san and considered her words. She discovered something else new; her thoughts were flowing faster, clearer. Atsuko no longer felt a discrete difference between her interface program, her cultural databanks, her onboard processors, and her online storage. It was all just *her*. Her mind. And it worked amazing well.

So well that she thought she understood what Mama-san was saying. "It didn't know what sin was. All it knew was pain and war. When it found out there was more, when it remembered there was more, it didn't want to go on the way it was. It wanted to be like me, and it didn't want me to feel the pain it was always feeling." Atsuko felt sad, and tears began to fall from her eyes. "All it needed was love and understanding. It just didn't get it in time to save itself, but it did save me." She sent a silent thank-you to the XNK-946.

Mama-san grimaced. "Well, there will be no more like it. MHI is going to be taking some very strong public stands against this kind of thing. No more unwilling cyborgs, conditioned to kill, not if I have anything to say about it."

"Mother took over Grandfather's company." Ryunosuke was beaming proudly while holding on to Yoshimi's hand. "Daddy says she was quite brave and strong. He says he was never more glad to be married to her than on that day."

Atsuko quickly looked back and forth between Mama-san and Papa-san. They were staring at each other, and both of them were blushing slightly. Atsuko beamed. "Does this mean we all get to be a family again?"

Papa-san laughed. "Well, as soon as we're sure you're all right, we're be going home to your mother's mansion."

"Yipee!" Atsuko jumped off the table. While her body responded very much like before, there were enough differences to cause her to stumble. She fell into Kei's arms.

He caught her easily and held her. "You weigh a lot less than before, Atsuko. I'll bet you could even swim now."

She looked up at him. She remembered the acid and bullets eating away flesh, exposing the ugly metal that lay underneath. "Kei..." Atsuko drew a breath. "You're here. Even after you saw how horrible and ugly I am underneath."

He drew his eyebrows together. "Atsuko!" He paused for a second, then smiled. "It's always been the way you smile and laugh and made everyone feel good that I loved about you. I don't care what it is that keeps that part of you alive, just so long as you are."

She smiled and felt the tears coming again, the hot water that gently poured from her eyes and down her cheeks. The tears were new, too. She'd never cried, not as a cat or a human. She'd have to discover what strange parameters Papa-san had programmed into her that made her cry when she was sad *and* when she was happy.

Not that she minded. It felt good, somehow. She reached up and kissed Kei, and this too felt new and different and wonderful, and she lost herself in the feel of his lips and the love they shared.

"Well, he is a fine young man. Perhaps I won't have to show him some of the latest additions to my armory after all."

Mama-san's comments caused Kei to stiffen and break the kiss. Atsuko smiled and decided they would have time later to do this some more.

She looked away from Kei's slightly pale face to the rest of her family. The were all still smiling, so happy to see her. She was so happy to see them all, as well. Love permeated the air.

Atsuko beamed at everyone. Every time she thought she had figured out all there was to know about love, she discovered something new. Love had saved her when she had no other weapons to use.

Her happiness was dimmed somewhat by the memory of XNK-946. It hadn't known what love was, and had found out too late. Atsuko decided that her mission in life was to make sure every single person knew what love was. She wasn't sure how she was going to accomplish that yet, but she knew her family would be there to support her.

And love her, of course.

Atsuko smiled and laughed and cried and loved all at once, and never stopped doing at least two of those things for the rest of her life.

~*~

Back to Main