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HerculeHastings

NC-17 Outcast

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Arn smiled deviously while dodging the few people that roamed the streets in the safer part of the day. Earlier in the day more people seemed to be out, but evening was when everything began to go silent. "I'm way ahead of you, though I'm glad I'm not the only one who is curious about this. I figured we should probably grab something to eat while we're out, and..."

 

Arn stopped in front of a shop with a sign in large red letters that read "Aruka Cafe". "Here we can get both food and privacy. We don't have to worry about anyone bothering us," he said and then walked into the not so busy shop. 

 

There were booths and tables from front to back and a "bar" for customers to sit at and eat as well. There were only three other people sitting down to eat, and two workers could be seen on the floor. Arn went to the woman with dyed red hair who was washing dishes behind the counter, making sure Joi followed, and greeted her. "Hey Amy. I need to use the basement, and can you send down service to us as well?"

 

The woman looked up at Arn with sharp eyes and stopped working for a long moment. "Ha? No way! I'm not gunna let you keep bumming off me all the time. Go find another charity!" she replied harshly before going about more work.

 

Arn chuckled slightly. It was clear they knew each other well, and the air Arn held with her was more laid back as well. "It's not like that. I have money today. I'm paying for both of us today. No bumming. We have some business to take care of," Arn replied, flashing the device to Amy for a moment before slipping it back in his coat pocket. Amy eyed him again then sighed reluctantly. "Geez Arn. You're more than I can handle, I swear. I'm guessing the usual for you. What about the kid here? What will she be having," Amy asked, the question directed at Arn, but her eyes inspecting Joi.

 

Joi peered at the selection of food on the menu and picked out all the appetisers."I'll have the breaded chicken wings, fries, and fish fingers," she said then looking back at Arn, she grinned, "I like to munch on snacks."

 

Yeah, and everything that seems fried Arn thought with slightly humor. Amy looked at Arn as if it was supposed to be some sort of joke, him bringing in a little girl. He shrugged and said, “She’s grown and can make her own choices, and I’m paying for it regardless. Thanks deary!â€

 

Amy waved him away as Arn began leading Joi towards the door that led to the night bar. “Yeah yeah. I got it. I’ll have the food down when it’s ready,†she said with a sigh, then proceeded to mumble things under her breath that Arn couldn’t hear.

 

Arn lead them through a black metal door marked for employees only and down a flight of stairs to where the bar was. “This bar is also owned by Amy. Customers come in by that door there. There’s a flight of stairs on the side of the building they use,†Arn explained pointing to the door on the far end of the room.

 

To the left was the long bar with its many drinks and glasses set up, and to the left were tables for others. In the small setting, there were no booths, and the middle was left open to move about. Arn occupied the nearest square table on the right that sat four, two on each side, and put the device on the table. “We’ll be fine down here for now. No one else will come in, so we’ve got a few hours to use this space at least,†he said sitting with a satisfied sigh.

 

Arn loosened his tie and put it on the back of the seat, undoing the top two buttons on his shirt as Joi took the seat adjacent to him. “I brought this cord for work today, but it should be compatible with the port on this thing too,†he said pulling out the three foot cable with one jack one an end, and several others on the opposite end.

 

He took his PD off his wrist and plugged the cord into it, then fiddled with the many other ends, looking from the port on the device to the cable connections to compare for a match. Finally he found the right piece and hooked it in with a sigh of relief. He clicked the screen of the unknown device on, then started up his PD’s hologram screens, calling up several different commands in a command prompt.

 

He spent several moments sighing over obvious glitches in the prototype’s OS. Finally, a single load screen appeared on the hologram and then Arn leaned back and let it work; slowly. About that time, Amy came down with a tray full of their order and Arn nearly jumped out of his seat when she came through the door yelling at them. “An order of breaded chicken wings, fries, and fish fingers, and an order of beef fried rice and dumplings, just for you Arn,†she called out and the tray came down and she maneuvered the food over to the table.

 

“Scared the shit outta me Amy. Can’t you be any less loud? I thought that was supposed to work itself out during high school years,†Arn half complained while adjusting himself in the seat again.

 

“I don’t want to hear that from yo Mr. Work-with-computers-all-day. I just made your food for you at a discount price too. Always so ungrateful Arn, I swear,†she said.

Amy then proceeded to peer over his shoulder at his work. “What have you got this time?â€

 

“Don’t know yet. Just some old PD that’s locked. I plan to see what’s on the inside like this,†He replied with a smile, adjusting the food and water to eat.

Amy tucked the tray under her arm and headed for the door saying, “Well I’m headed back, but try not to get yourself into trouble.â€

 

She cast a look and Arn then left before he noticed. Arn began to eat while the hacking progressed, the sequence at 50%.

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It was the dingy underground bar of the café that Arn led Joi into. It was currently deserted, which suited their purpose. She could imagine it filling up come nighttime, with slow jazz music playing in the background, and bartenders hard at work mixing colourful cocktails. She had never been to a bar, but she imagined this must be how it was. Then again, with the murders going on lately, people would probably rather stay at home too.

The hacking process was taking a while, so she absently grabbed a breaded fish finger to while away the time. It was tender and juicy (and really, deep-fried food all tasted good anyway) and she found herself taking another, and another. It was quite embarrassing considering Arn had not touched his own food yet, and she hurriedly stopped herself as well. Always best to save some for later.

It only took another few minutes – which were spent twiddling her thumbs, tapping her foot and wiping her mouth – before a soft click sound was emitted from the PD, indicating the procedure was complete. She let out a yelp and leaned forward to see the result on the screen.

“Do not take action yet. Wait for further instructions from Top Dog. Someone is on to us.â€

“Who’s Top Dog?†she blurted out, before realising Arn probably didn’t know either. This was a message being relayed from one person to another. The messenger was probably the man they had seen outside the station, to an unknown recipient. It sounded all very mysterious.

“I wonder if the recipient has seen this message, if we took it away,†she mumbled. “What shall we do about this? Should we put it back or something? It all seems so suspect, though.â€

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 "There would be no point in putting it back now. If someone was supposed to pick it up, they wouldn't risk going back to get it. Wouldn't do them any good knowing it's been intercepted. But..."

 

Arn smiled and adjusted his glasses on his nose with an accomplished smile. "They probably didn't expect an expert hacker to intercept the message either. I'm guessing based on this message, if we hear anything in the news, we'll at least be able to tell what this was probably referring to. So who is Top Dog, who is on to them, instructions for what, and of course, who is "us"." Arn said, then plucked a dumpling from his plate and stuffed the whole piece into his mouth without restraint. 

 

He chew it slowly, then took a big gulp of water and nodded his approval of the food. He pulled the beef fried rice to one side and began eating it with his left hand, while his other began to glide across the holograms on his PD as well as the screen of the device. While multitasking, he also took time to speak between eating. "You know, ever since you asked what this thing was, it's been bugging me. I think though, I figured it out. This isn't a new PD model, but rather a defective one. If my memory serves me correctly, this is a model that was in production for only a week before a defect was discovered about it and all of them were scraped. That was when the D3r@il model came out to replace this one," he explained one sidedly.

 

He scratched his head in frustration while working with the device some more. What's bothering me so much about this? I know it was in the news for a week or so, but why can't I seem to remember what was wrong with it. Man what a pain. This food is good though. I wonder if she likes it too...

 

Arn glanced form his work to see Joi watching intensely, a fish finger halfway eaten between her lips, bobbing around as she chewed. He smiled and stifled a laugh at her flustered reaction when she realized he say her. He went back to work and found another file folder while his thoughts distracted him. She’s just too cute, and loves her fried food too...fried…

Arn looked at the device again in a new light, but just a little too late. The touch screen began to flicker wildly, destroying all other information as the machine shorted and began to emit microwaves from internal parts, strong enough that Arn grabbed helplessly at his head, feeling the intense waves trying to boil his brain already. In a wild panic he pushed Joi away, who had begun to react as well, and then looked for something to help. The condiment rack. Thank you Amy!

 

He grabbed the metal rack on the table and slammed it into the machine over and over again, even after it had stopped emitting waves. Finally he stopped, his chest heaving as he struggled to breath and his cheeks flushed from strain and effort. “This thing…it shorts…a-and emits microwaves. That’s…why it was scraped,†he managed to say between breaths.

 

Arn pulled the cable from the now smashed device and stuffed it back in his pocket, clipped the PD back on his wrist, and gulped down water before helping Joi back into her seat finally. “I’m sorry about that. I panicked and tried to keep you safe, though I guess it didn’t really do much,†he said shamefully, then went about eating his food in silence.

 

I can’t believe I just put her life in danger because I couldn’t remember something so simple. What good am I if I can’t even protect her from something as simple as this? Ugh, now I can’t even bring myself to look at her after that. 

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One moment Joi was just eating normally, then in the next moment she had dropped her food in a daze as a strange feeling overtook her. Her skin was giving off a prickling sensation. She clutched her head confusedly before Arn pushed her out of her seat, sending her staggering to the far side of the room. She looked questioningly at Arn. Just what was going on?

Arn grabbed the metal condiment rack from the shelf and began hammering at the PD repeatedly, and it was only then that the strange feeling subsided.

“This thing…it shorts…a-and emits microwaves. That’s…why it was scraped,†he said breathlessly. She gulped. Didn’t microwaves leave permanent damage? Was part of her brain irreparably boiled already?

“Oh wow,†was all she could say as they got back to their food. She didn’t quite feel like eating anymore, and made sure to stay as faraway from the now-defunct device as she possibly could, in case something strange happened to it again. “But if the devices are so dangerous, why’re these people still using them? Wouldn’t their brains all be fried already? There must be some way to withstand these things, short of wearing tin-foil helmets.â€

The idea of tin-foil helmets was amusing, but she wasn’t quite in the mood for laughter. The scare had been rather great earlier, and she wasn’t sure what they had gotten into. That said, it also made her even more determined to probe into the truth of this matter. This was all too mysterious to just give up and set aside.

She left the defective PD with Arn this time as she walked home on her own. The PD had been in her possession for the past few days; if it had triggered off at any other time, she might have died or been permanently damaged with no explanation. It was so fortunate that Arn was around and he knew what to do.

Her mother was reclining on the sofa watching television when she reached home.

“Shall I re-heat dinner for you, darling?†she asked, looking at Joi kindly. For some reason, though, Joi could not bring herself to look back at her. Or maybe she was just weary.

“I’ve no appetite,†she said. “I’ll have an early rest.†She went straight to her room and shut the door.

Lying in bed did little to help her sleep, though. She took out her PD and consulted it for information on “microwaves on brain damage.†What she gleaned from it was that her skin would show signs of burn before her brain would be damaged, but that wasn’t particularly comforting either. She touched her scalp gingerly. She didn’t know if she was only imagining it, but it did still feel very odd.

Her bedroom door suddenly opened. She turned her head to look. Her mother had just come in.

“Mum? Is there anything wrong?†she asked blearily.

She did not reply, but went forward and towered over her bed.

Joi straightened herself. Her mother moved forward even more and stretched out her hands. In the light from the window, Joi thought she could see her face. She was smiling widely.

“Mum?†she scrambled instinctively for her PD, trying to call Arn with her fingers. “Mum, what’re you doing? Help!â€

Her mother didn’t say anything, only letting out a soft mechanical sound. Then everything went dark.

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"Type type type. Code code code. Deedle deedle doo. Piano and cello. Bass and mello."

 

Arn coded away at his OS, the bento bought at the store empty on his desk as his clicked away on his keyboard, classical music playing into his eyes to drown out the sounds of anything else. Though his father was already out drinking at this time, he worked better while listening. He looked at the clock that read 8:04 P.M. and smiled. It was still rather early for him. one of the perks of winter, it gets dark so early it always feels way later

 

About fifteen minutes later his progress was interrupted by the call tone linked to his computer from his PD. With a flick of his wrist, the mouse scrolled and answered the phone call. 

 

“Mum, what’re you doing? Help!â€

 

Arn was frozen in place. The phone had already gone silent, but the words echoed in his head and he remained still. That was Joi. She was talking about her mom acting strange, but what happened? Shit, this is no time to think, I need to run! 

 

Arn abandoned his work, leaving the system on and he rushed to dress himself against the chilling night air. Shirt, jacket, shoes... wait, socks! Now shoes! 

 

Fully dressed, Arn bolted out the door, ignoring the lock and lights. He headed for the stairs this time, taking them several at a time and hit the bottom, PD screen called up and dialing Joi's number. No answer came even after the fourth call. With no bike, Arn simply dashed out into the middle of the night toward the train station. “Thank god I work out!†he yelled to himself as he pushed his legs to carry him further along.

 

He glanced at the time on his PD and saw 8:29 just as he rounded the corner and came to the train station. He managed to make it in time for the 8:30 train and without stopping barreled past the scanner, taking just enough time to scan for a ticket, and then he hopped on the train before it departed. Arn collapsed into one of the many empty seats heaving breaths as he began the ride. I charged head long to the station and boarded, but I don’t even know what’s going on here. I really didn’t think this one through.

 

With a heavy sigh, Arn tried his best to rest on the long ride over. It would do him no good to waste time, so he began to brain storm ideas trying to figure out what each step would be. Before he realized, he was already at the stop for the next town. Stepping off the train, he immediately regretted forgetting his hat and gloves. Zipping his jacket up to the neck, he recalled the place where he first met Joi and how he’d gotten there, then started at a more paced jog towards her place, saving energy just in case. Right. Left. Park. Straight. Vending machine. Bench. There!

 

Arn made it to the building he’d seen Joi climb out of just days before hand and ran up to the porch, but stopped. The lights in the house were on, but there was no sound inside. If it was nothing serious, he could easily get arrested for breaking and entering, but if he didn’t someone could very well die worst case.

 

This is no time to be hesitating. You came all the way over here for this!

 

Arn reached for the door knob just as the door swung open and knocked him out of the way, only for him to be tackled by a fleeing Joi. They collapsed on the paved walk way and Joi scrambled to her feet in a panic, slamming the door shut as fast as possible. “What’s going on?!†Arn yelled and climbed back to his feet, adjusting his glasses.

 

Joi almost tackled him in a hug, sobbing into his jacket as she tried to explain. “I-I was just asleep. Then mum walked into my room and then I woke up tied to a chair. I-I don’t know. I’m not sure what was going on, b-but the chair was weak, so I broke the wood and I’m here…â€

 

A loud bang, followed by the sound of splintering wood sounded as the mother smashed through the door. Arn covered Joi from the debris, but when he looked up the mother had something like red glowing eyes, and was holding two large kitchen knives that reflected the moon light. With total silence and a dead face, she lunged forward at Joi, but Arn pushed her to the ground, narrowly avoiding the attack. Joi jumped up faster than he could and began trying to pulling him along, but soon they were being chased by something that Arn could only think to call a demon.

 

Between regulating his breaths, Arn said, “We can’t--out run that thing.  We have to—face it somehow.â€

 

Joi didn’t respond as she struggled to keep up, adrenaline driving her forward into the chilling night. She glanced back to see her mum tailing closely with the knives and panic grabbed her again. Arn suddenly remembered the shed and pulled Joi with him. “That shed—should have something. Just a little—futher.â€

 

Just as they arrived at the old shed, the mother caught up, stabbing Arn in the left arm as he shoved Joi aside. “Go!†he scream in pain and Joi ducked inside the shed. Mum pulled the knife out of his arm and completely ignored him, plunging into the darkness of the shed. With Joi hiding, Arn gritted his teeth and push kept pressure on the fresh wound while going into the darkness himself. Weapon. C’mon, something to use.

 

Arn felt along the walls with his free hand until he found something with a long wooden handle. A fucking sledge hammer! Yes! Arn grabbed it with his right arm and with all the strength he could muster used his left arm to help sling it over his shoulder. The tale-tail sounds of unchecked walking marked the location of the mother and Arn stalked her in the dark until finally, his hammer came crashing down into the her skull with a metallic crunch and the sounds and light of electric sparks surging from what was clearly a machine. “Joi! Where are you!?†he called out finally.

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In a surprising feat of athletics, Joi burst out the door.

Her mother continued to give chase, her red eyes flashing creepily in the dark, kitchen knives in her hands. She bumped right into a person standing there, and a flood of warmth crept up her chest when she saw it was Arn. He came!

“What’s going on?!†Arn yelled. She quickly explained the situation to him as much as her breath would allow, but before she could finish her blustering, her mother had charged out to attack. Arn pushed her onto the ground to duck. It all felt like some kind of action movie, except it was a hundred times more unpleasant experiencing it in real life.

Joi’s mind was a blank for the next few minutes. She only remembered thinking over and over again, as they ran towards the shed, “this isn’t human.â€

~~~

“I’m here,†Joi answered softly as she emerged from the shed, looking incredulously at the chunk of twisted metal that was supposed to be her mother, now crumpled up on the ground. Was this the woman she had been staying with for so long? When had the replacement even occurred? She felt the stinging shame of stupidity now, that she couldn’t even tell the difference between a robot and a flesh-and-blood human. What sort of daughter was she?

And yet the robot had been made to look so much like her mother that as she looked down at it, she couldn’t help but feel a little confused. It was as if someone who looked and spoke like her mother had been hit by a hammer, but it wasn’t really her mother. She tried to steady her breathing, and turned to Arn.

“Where’s my mother?†she asked, though she knew full well he couldn’t possibly know the answer. “What happened to her?†All she knew was to keep asking questions, before exhaustion finally overtook her and she collapsed onto Arn, too weak to stand.

All of a sudden, she felt as if she didn’t understand the world anymore. Not at all.

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Arn had no answers for Joi. All he could do was stand in the darkness and stare at the "thing" he just destroyed. Clearly a machine, but has he been wrong, he would have just become a killer. This feeling of realization and relief mixed in his gut in the most sour blend. He dropped the hammer with a loud gasp as a wave of pain blossomed in his arm again. Whatever had just happened was absurd, but further analysis would have to wait for the morning. Right now Arn was more focused on treating his wound and getting but himself and Joi to safety. "Listen...umm...I don't really understand any of this myself. We'll come back tomorrow and investigate if you want, but why not come back to my place for tonight? I mean, I think it would be rather unsettling to go back there after all this," Arn suggest as he applied pressure to his upper arm again.

 

The cold from his fingers felt strange on his wound, but would probably help any inflammation. He grabbed her with his left hand and gently pulled her from the building, closed the door behind them for later, then began guiding her towards the station. Was her mother always a robot? But she did talk about her being wierd recently. That was the start of yesterday? Damn. Stupid knives were sharp as hell. They must never cook at her house.

 

They reached the station and Arn checked his PD to find the time at 8:57 P.M. Just in time for the 9 o’clock train. He couldn’t think of any words to say to Joi to put her at ease, so rather than chat, he let her stay close to him, hoping his company would do something. Arn paid for both their tickets and they boarded when the train arrived. The whole trip was silent, but Arn could feel Joi shivering. She was dressed only in pajamas, no socks or shoes either. Arn pulled his jacket off, wincing as it slid over the stab wound, and draped it over Joi’s shoulders. “You can use this. Sorry,†he said, not sure what he was apologizing for.

 

After the train ride, they arrived in his town and Arn offered to carry her on his back. “Since you don’t have shoes, I’m sure your feet hurt after all the running we did. I’ll carry you to my place,†he said with an exhausted smile.

 

Though very shy, Joi agreed to allow it and Arn lifted her up on his back, glad she was small, and began trekking to his apartment. It hadn’t occurred to me until now, but Joi has good proportions Arn thought as he held her by the thighs, her chest pressed against his back. The winter clothes kinda hid it up until now, but the pajamas are very…Thin.

 

Arn blushed at the thought and forced himself to try focusing on something else, but with each passing moment he was more and more aware of how she felt pressed against him. If it wasn’t for what just happened I would be enjoying this so much! Actually, I still am. Argh! Stop enjoying it, this is serious!

 

Arn’s thoughts were interrupted by Joi who broke the awkward silence at last. “So what’s your place like? Are your parents friendly? Or rather, do you live with them still?†she asked clearly interested.

 

“Oh. Ummm…†Arn adjusted her on his back while walking and continued, “Well, I try to keep it tidy. Ya know, no excessive clutter, filth, or dust. I only clean on the weekends really, but sweeping and dusting doesn’t need to be done too often. The real task is keeping things clean when my father is around. He…Anyway, he’s probably going to be out until the early morning, so we don’t have to worry about him for a while. I pay the rent and utilities anyway, so he can’t say anything,†Arn added with a tinge of spite.

 

Arn told her a bit about how he paid for the place, how his mother passed away, and other details, avoiding speaking of his father any more. Time passed until they reached his place and they stepped into the elevator. “I can walk now,†she said as the doors closed and Arn hit the third floor button.

 

Using opened the door, remembering that he’d rushed out so fast he didn’t lock the door or turn any of the lights off. Taking his shoes off at the door, Arn lead her inside and showed her the lay out. To the right was the kitchen with a bar-counter separating it and the dining room with a single table. The living room was a long rectangle with a television against the right wall, a coffee table littered with empty beer cans, and a couch facing the TV. Beside the TV was a door to Arn’s father’s room, and closer to the entrance was a bath room. Through the dining room was Arn’s room.

 

Arn led her to his room and took his jacket back, placing it on the back of his rolling chair, which he promptly sat in. “You can just sit on the bed. I have to power down my PC right quick.â€

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The night wind blew harshly against them. Joi stifled a sneeze, afraid that she would upset the precarious balance she had on Arn’s back. Arn must be cold too – she could feel his arms shaking as he carried her to his house. He was just as weary as she was, after all, and yet she was tiring him out further by being a useless burden. She considered telling him that she could walk, after all, but somehow the words failed her, and instead she went off on a much more casual topic, asking him what his house was like.

She listened to him detailing a bit more of his life, careful not to interrupt and break the flow. It was uncommon to hear him talk so much about himself, but she appreciated it and wanted to know more. They had to stop, unfortunately, when they reached his apartment. It seemed a barren place to her, devoid of furnishings or flowers or ornaments. Perhaps this was what it was like, when two men stayed in a place without a woman. She also noticed the beer cans sprawling on the table. His father's door was resolutely shut. Evidently their returning so late in the night had not disturbed him. She suddenly had the impression that the house must be very cold and lonely.

He led her to his bedroom and told her to sit on the bed while he powered down his computer. She nodded. His bed was rather comfy – a little firmer than her own back home. Home made her think of the gruesome incident earlier again, and she kept her knees close to her chest and shuddered.

She realised she hadn’t brought her PD out with her. In the ensuing commotion she must have flung it somewhere and escaped. Now she didn’t know what time it was. It seemed still dark out, judging by the window, but she didn’t feel even a hint of sleepiness. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she was ever going to be able to sleep in the coming days.

“It all feels like a nightmare,†she blurted out. “Mother could’ve been abducted long ago, or even… or even killed…†Just like the serial killings in the news these days. But where would her body be? No, it couldn’t be. She couldn’t be dead. She must still be alive, and they had to search for her and rescue her quickly.

“First we get poisonous gas, now my mother’s replaced with a robot… do you think they could be related?†she asked Arn desperately. She might be grasping at straws, but if there was a clue, something, anything to work on…

She suddenly noticed Arn wincing as he sat down, and gasped. She had completely forgotten that he had been injured during the fight. How could she have let him carry her all this way?

"I'm sorry!" she cried. "I was so selfish, only thinking of myself. But you've gotten hurt because of me. I don't know how I can ever repay this... why're you so good to me?"

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At first Arn was confused. Joi was suddenly apologizing and he didn't get why until she mentioned him being injured. "Oh. I thought you'd done something wring the way you were apologizing. This is nothing I'm sure. I wanted to get to my computer before anything though. I left in such a rush that I just dropped everything," He said making light of the wound.

 

Despite how it hurt, his computer was his life, and took priority over everything else. He'd invested nearly all of his free money to make it what it is. Looking over the diagnostics that had run in his absence he was content with the results, marking a few places that came back with errors before saving it and moving the file where he wanted it. After confirming everything else, he closed out the script and put the computer on the desktop, switching it to a single screen and reducing the number of terminals with output and left it at that. 10:02 huh? Still kinda early. 

 

Arn spun around and found Joi nearly in a panic over the matter, something he didn't expect. "Calm down Joi. It's all right. I'll grab the first aid kit and we can have a look at it," he said hauling himself out of the seat and motioning for Joi to follow. He grabbed the kit from the cabinet under the sink and turn the over head light in the dinning room on, sitting at the table with Joi hovering worriedly. "I gotta take my shirt off. I hope you don't mind," he said not waiting for a response. 

 

He reached back and grabbed the collar with his right hand and took a deep breath, then quickly snatched the shirt off, minimizing the pain of moving his left arm. Arn's back and chest were more broad and muscular than they appeared at first, but his skin was pale, showing a clear lack of sun exposure. He gingerly poked at the wound and examined it, wincing at the pain as well as the severity of the injury. "It's a lot deeper than I thought. It'll certainly hurt for a while," he said more to himself, then looked to Joi, "Do you think you can bandage it up? I can't really do much with only one arm."

 

He smiled brightly at her hoping to dispel some of the worry she had, adjusting his glasses as always. Even if I am going out of my way to help her, I'm not that bothered by it for some reason.is it because I've just grown tired of my boring life? No. Well, partly, but she's more than just that. Maybe it's because she needs my help and I'm just a good person? As if. More likely it's because...

 

Arn looked at Joi's face, his eyes following the messy hair, down the curve of her cheek, to the soft pink of her lips turned down in worry. He swallowed visibly, now very conscious of how close she was, that he wasn't wearing a shirt, and they were all alone. I think I'm falling for....No no no no no no! Now's not the time to be thinking about that! Focus. Waterfall, the tranquil sounds of the forest and the sounds of the river running. Ugh! Now I just have to piss! 

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"Do you think you can bandage it up? I can't really do much with only one arm."

“Huh?†Joi asked in alarm. She had never really bandaged anybody before, but Arn had already passed her the first-aid kit and was now sitting looking intently at his computer. His wound did look like it needed some help, too. She couldn’t very well admit to him how useless she was. She took a deep breath and tried to logically figure out how bandages were done.

It took a lot more time than usual, but she had finally wrapped a large amount of bandage around his arm, so much so that it formed a laughable mound. She let out a dry cough and put the first-aid kit away, turning back to see that he was looking at her now. She was suddenly aware of their close proximity too, and the unusual way he was looking at her. She swallowed. Now was not the time to be getting romantic, and yet she was experiencing a feeling she had never had before. Arn was, in a cheesy way, special. And something was telling her she shouldn’t be interrupting this moment…

All of a sudden, Arn’s face seemed to crease up, and his legs twitched. She blinked, the spell temporarily broken.

“Do you, er, need the toilet?†she asked bluntly.

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Joi breaking the silence startled Arn and he nearly fell out of his seat, catching his balance just in time. "Sorry, I..uh, yeah! Toilet! Please excuse me," he said awkwardly standing and walking away from the situation.

 

Ugh. The moment is ruined now. That could have been my chance! Stupid bladder! Wait, chance for what? What was I even thinking about...This isn't any time to be getting romantic with her you idiot! As Arn washed his hands he looked at himself in the mirror and saw the pathetic attempt at bandaging that Joi had done for him. It was crude, amateur, and Arn couldn't help but smile at it. She had tried which was really all that mattered so long as it was effective. He dried his hands on the cloth hung on the wall rack and adjusted his hair as he exited the bathroom. "Sorry about that," he said rejoining her at the dining table. 

 

With the previous mood destroyed, Arn couldn’t think of much to talk about. The biggest thing on his mind was what exactly they’d witnessed just before. A robot? And it replaced her mother without her knowledge too. The best thing they could do would be to investigate in the morning. For now, there wasn’t anything they could do. Arn yawned and scratched the back of his neck. “I’m tired now. How about we call it a night? Tomorrow morning we can go and investigate. Try to figure out what we can,†Arn said grabbing his bloodied shirt and getting up.

 

He could see the worry in Joi’s eyes as she fidgeted with her hands and he said, “It’s all right. In the worst case, you’ve still got me. We’ll do everything we can, so just rest for tonight. I’ll sleep on the floor and you can have my bed for the night.â€

 

He led her back into the room and tossed his shirt in the hamper by his door. Despite the clutter of all manner of posters on his walls, electronics lying around in boxes and scattered about on shelves, and the large computer set up, there was still enough room to lay out a pillow and covers for himself. He pulled his socks off and tossed them into the hamper and after Joi had lain down, he clicked out the lights and went to bed himself. It wasn’t long before they were both fast asleep after the days absurd events.

 

_____________________________

 

The next morning brought the gentle sunlight through Arn’s window, casting it’s morning spell over the clutter of his room. Arn stirred awake as the first rays of full sun pushed over Joi’s sleeping figure and into his face. Morning would usually consist of hygiene, followed by a short work out, then breakfast, ending in his seat at the computer. With Joi in his room, Arn skipped his workout and going straight to breakfast. “Hmm…I don’t really know what she eats. What do I have here? I need to go shopping. Eggs toast and bacon will do just fine though,†Arn said as he pulled the food from the fridge and began cooking.

 

Joi awoke to the fragrance of bacon and the sight of sunlight flowing over Arn’s bed. She walked out of her room and plodded to the kitchen to see Arn cooking.

 

"Smells great!" she said, "Are you cooking eggs?â€

 

“And bacon and toast. I don’t really have a whole lot right now since I’ve not been shopping in a while. Have a seat. I’ll be done in just a moment,†Arn said from his spot behind the counter.

 

Joi sat down happily; glad to have a decent breakfast for once. Arn finished cooking the fried eggs in the bacon grease the way he liked it and buttered the toast as it popped out of the toaster. Soon, Joi was served two fried eggs, two pieces of toast, cut diagonally and placed on the outside of the plate, and three slices of bacon, fork included. “I apologize if it’s not to your liking. I just kinda did it all how I usually like it,†Arn said sitting down at the table with her.

 

They began to eat and she seemed happy just to be eating, so Arn didn’t worry much. They had small talk while eating; not touching on the big problem at hand and it was a pleasant meal that way. However, as Arn finished, he finally broached the subject. “I figured we should leave early and head out that way to investigate. Probably best to leave before my father wakes anyway,†he said checking the time on his PD which read 7:38 A.M.

 

“Take your time eating though. There’s no rush,†he said a little too quickly in an attempt to reassure her.

 

It wasn’t the time that bothered her though. After the previous night’s events, it was unsettling to think about returning. Even though she knew it was the only thing to do, there was no way to prepare for whatever might lay in wait at this point. Arn ran water over his dishes before returning to his room and booting up his computer on a single monitor. While that ran, he slipped out of his “lazy pants†and pulled on a pair of clean jeans, then a clean shirt about binary, his jacket over that, and finally socks. Returning to his master piece, he checked the news to find nothing new that was of value, both a good and bad thing. His messages to find a few spam mails, and one from a source about a possible job.

 

Hey QueenCard. I thought I’d let you know that I think I’m about to get myself into some pretty deep shit. It’s rather unavoidable at this point, but I don’t know exactly what it is I’m getting into really. I don’t think it’s worthy of details right now though. I don’t think I’ll be able to take that job right now, but I’ll keep you posted of course. I might not be as accessible either so if you don’t hear back from me for a few hours, it’s just that. If it’s few days though, then I might be in trouble. Anyway, I wanted to let you know before anyone else. If I need anything I’ll drop you a mail.

~GodEater

 

After sending the mail off Arn peeked from his room to see Joi cleaning the dishes and putting them in the drainer beside the sink. “Ah, you didn’t have to do that. I was just going to do it later.â€

 

“It’s easier to clean right after you finish. Besides, I can’t just free load. I want to at least do what I can do after staying the night here and putting you through so much trouble,†Joi said without looking from her task.

 

Arn didn’t have any way to combat her statement, nor did he intend to. Instead, he said, “Well, thanks for the help. I said we should go investigate, but I think it would be better to stop by your place first to get the things you need. Can’t have you walking around town in PJ’s all the time.â€

 

Joi glanced down at her clothes for a moment, suddenly very self-conscious of her rather unkempt appearance. She blushed slightly, but Arn had already retreated to him room. Not long after she had finished with the dishes, Arn had given her his hoodie, which seemed to dwarf her small stature, and he donned the jacket that now had a rip in it from the attack yesterday. “I’ll carry you if you want. I don’t think you’ll fit my shoes after all. We can bring back whatever you need, so I don’t really mind,†Arn said rather absently, not thinking as much about what he was saying as he was the situation and what to do.

 

Despite the offer, Joi respectfully turned him down with a stern reasoning. “You’re hurt. I can’t have an injured man carrying me around like that. It’s just wrong. I’m perfectly healthy and capable of walking on my own.â€

 

With that said, Arn locked up the apartment and they were on their way to catch the 9 o’clock train. Though Joi had refused, she walked awkwardly along the cold sidewalk bathed in useless sun light. They arrived a short while before the train and had to wait for it, but once on the train it was warm and pleasant. They discussed what to do when they reached the site, but neither of them really knew what except and the discussion quickly fell to silence. One lazy montage later, and they arrived at Joi’s house, the door still busted open from the robo mother. “Well, that can’t be good,†Arn said inspecting the jacked up hinges after Joi had already gone inside.

 

“You can get everything you’ll need to while staying with me too, so take all the time you need. I’ll just wait down here and watch TV or something,†he said while looking around the place.

 

Joi stopped a moment, baffled and alarmed at what Arn had said. “Stay with you? There’s no way I could. I mean, it’s a small place, and what about your dad? I couldn’t intrude like that,†she said.

 

“You can’t possibly stay here though can you? By yourself with no work or money? What if something else where to happen? I’m offering it to you, so don’t worry so much. And my father can suck it up or get out. I pay all the bills, so he has no say in the matter anyway. If he gives any problems I’ll handle them,†Arn said with a reassuring smile while adjusting his glasses on his face.

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It was a strange sort of feeling, padding around in Arn’s slippers as they headed back to the home she had abandoned in the night. She wondered what might have happened to the house in her absence. Had neighbours been alerted to the commotion and rung up the police? Was it cordoned off now? Then again, ever since the gruesome murders, the whole city had adopted a “mind your own business†attitude. Whenever one heard noises, especially signs of violence, one would shut the windows and draw the curtains and pretend nothing was going on. She knew because this had happened with her and her mother before. They had heard screams and sounds of things being hit, and had resolutely gone into the sitting-room to watch TV.

So she was not astounded to see the house pretty much as they had left it, its door still wide open. She went in and picked up her PD, which had run dry of battery power overnight. That was when Arn casually offered to let her stay in his place indefinitely, which made her pause.

“You can’t possibly stay here though can you? By yourself with no work or money? What if something else where to happen? I’m offering it to you, so don’t worry so much. And my father can suck it up or get out. I pay all the bills, so he has no say in the matter anyway. If he gives any problems I’ll handle them,†Arn said with a reassuring smile while adjusting his glasses on his face.

“Well…†Joi was about to protest further, but she realised she really had no argument to back herself up. She didn’t want to stay on her own in this place, and she didn’t have any other friends whom she could seek shelter with. Rationally speaking, this was indeed the best option.

“Well, I shall take it that I’m renting your place, and pay my rent every month,†she insisted. “And I’ll make myself useful and help out too, by doing the household chores or something.†She wasn’t very good at chores, but she had helped her mother around the house before.

The thought of her mother sobered her again, and it was with grimness that she packed her things and walked out just in time to see Arn reclining on her sofa watching television. Somehow the sight made her laugh, the idea of him just relaxing at her home. It temporarily wiped away from her mind the dark situation she had been thrust into. He seemed so relaxed and calm about everything, and it made her feel more comforted too.

“Maybe we should do something about that robot though,†she said with a small shudder. She would have preferred to never deal with it again, but they couldn't avoid it forever. This was the best clue for her to find her mother. â€œWe should go back to the shed to look for it."

 

With her bags packed, she locked the door to her house and followed Arn to where they had left the robot, its wreckage still visible at the shed.

She walked up to the robot, its decapitated metal body glinting in the sunlight. The remains of its head, smashed in with a sledgehammer, lay a few feet away. She bent down to examine the body and spotted a series of words on its side.

 

"Hey, what's this?" she cried out, beckoning to Arn to come over.

 

Printed in black ink was…

“An address,†she muttered to herself. “The address of the manufacturer, maybe?â€

Clankad Robotics Limited

45 Lotharius Street

PD Code: x567GHu


She could suddenly hear her heartbeat quicken against its will.

“Could this be a clue? If we follow this address, we can find the manufacturer, and maybe they’ll know who ordered this, and lead us to whoever took my mother away!â€

She stared at the small, innocent-looking print. Could this be the start of an adventure?

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Arn stooped down and looked at the small print on the machine along with her. The address didn't seem familiar to him in the least, but he pulled his PD from behind his sleeve and clicked a quick photo of it for reference. "Hold your horses Joi. We can't just storm in there asking about a robot that replaced your mother and attacked you. It seems like they maybe have been targeting you if they left the robot," Arn said thinking about why they might have done such a thing.

 

He looked the machine over for any other clues, but found nothing of significance there. He couldn't help but admire it though. For someone to have created something to realistic that it could function properly and even partly fool someone was truly impressive. The coding was likely similar to what he'd been working on for so long, though different and flawed in the key points. He stood up and brushed the dust from his knees, then grabbed the broken body and dragged it to a far dark corner of the shed, careful for his injury. "I think we should get situated back at my place then do some research into the address first. See what we're getting ourselves into at least," he said finding a tarp and tossing it over the machine, making sure to toss the busted head into a box of some sort of scraps.

 

"I'm sure that's not really what you want to hear right now, but there's no point in you getting hurt or something. If nothing else, I'm at least here for you though."

 

He gave her a bright smile while brushing his hair around and offered his hand to help her up. He couldn't really carry her bags with one hurt arm, but he tried to seem as useful as possible. As she stood up still in his clothes, Arn chuckled slightly. Any curves that she had were completely hidden in his hoddie, and she moved awkwardly in his shoes. He found it strangely cute and stared for just a little too long before obviously looking away and scanning the room for anything else.

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