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 Portrait of a steampunk man with a mechanical devices over brick wall.

     "I love it when you use me, my handsome man. Your strong hand makes me feel so alive. Later when we’re alone, I want you to strip me,” Little Su’s voice whispered in his ear, so very needy. Her handsome man stayed silent. To respond was to invite discussion that went nowhere and left him drained. No, not discussion; that implied equality. They were not equal; they were bonded; as she’d been with the others before him. He wasn’t supposed to think about them. His head was too clear.

     Things were as they should be. There was life and there was death.

     He moved along as stealthily as possible in the ruins of the mart. She had his organic night vision tweaked so high his eyeballs stung, allowing him to step around the discarded plastic scattered everywhere, the long-dead comm squares, and the occasional remnant of the people who left the mess. Bones and phones, bones and phones. In the moonlight, tangled web-like joists and tumbledown sheets of corrugated steel created dizzying shapes and deathly voids.  

     The far end of the giant mart, collapsed from weather or age, opened to the night sky. The jaundiced eye of Asulon rose in a yellow blur above Jupiter. Its nightly travels stirred something slippery in his memory, a dull melancholy rather than a hard-edged thought.

     Without slowing, he scanned the lower shelves. Refusing to believe the scavengers had left nothing, he paid out a portion of his attention to the search. He was bending down to examine something shiny that might have been foil food packets when something stirred close-by. Not a hungry furtive animal, this was an isolated, graceless motion, followed by uneven breathing and a clumsy attempt to choose a direction. People sounds.

     “Target,” he said softly. Protocol #23 of the Concordat dictated he speak. It made no sense; few things he and Little Su did together made sense to his organic brain. He mumbled the word. He didn’t want to alert the target. Little Su fed the tactical image onto his aching optic nerves. She could see where he could not, and she saw things before he did. When he was younger, he spoke up once, saying he should be the one with night vision or else that she should relay the target’s exact position to him every time, not just when she chose. Protocol #11 commanded him to accept that which you cannot change. Which seemed like most things.

     It was an observation, not a complaint. He had learned that too much complaining could find a person unbonded, and being unbonded was a short road to death.

     They had left the Chattahoochee depot six days before, and his food pack was getting uncomfortably light, but the sweep continued to turn up fresh signs. Some were subtle; others showed that the Pb – it could have been either a P1b like himself or a P2b – was an older one who had quit caring. How much effort did it take to bury one’s scat? Even he could track older targets, using nothing more advanced than his organic sensors. Scat, fresh prints, carelessly discarded meal foils provided hard confirmation, though there was never a doubt. “We’ll make our kills. This is a good sector.” Little Su’s voice dripped with seductive promise.

     A bright red tinged the edge of his vision, and he straightened up, awaiting what was to come.

     The belt tightened first, biting into his sides. Nearly nine and eating most days, he was, unsurprisingly, getting thicker around the middle. They could have commandeered a belt off any of the P1bs they killed. They didn’t. Little Su didn’t take anything unless her fellow companions offered it. This was not about the protocols; it was a rule the companions had made for themselves.

     Next, he felt his arm and leg augmentations power up. One sprayer was out, but he had more than half a load of immobilizing polymer in the other. He was ready to run and attack. Cutter loads were on stand-by in his shoulder pauldron. Her magazine held the main charges, of course. With a sucking wet separation, he drew her from the fistula on his right thigh where she lived:  Little Su, his companion. Their work together had taken on a new intensity since the heuristic upgrades she had performed on herself. Life was life.

     He moved to the mart’s next aisle, an open area with broken freezer cabinets. The target could use these old doors to hide, at least from optical detection. If Little Su’s EM scans showed anything, she was not telling him. He crossed the open area. It was far too dark at one end for his liking. Fear was not an option. The hits of neurosynth Little Su administered kept any debilitating emotions under control. Caution prompted he move with alacrity, however. If he were the Pb in that dark, he’d take his shot. They were permitted only one. No shot came.

     Another few steps found him facing a tactical nightmare. The high shelving on one side had fallen inward, forming a low narrow space perhaps twenty yards long. He checked his movement, keeping out of the maw of the tunnel. It was not a place to enter, nor was it a good idea to lean down and shine a light inside. He knew there should be more options. There were aids and weaponry designed for situations like this, but Little Su decided what they did and did not use. On this sweep, she had invoked Protocol #23: Single charge. Suspend use of extraneous weaponry or offensive or defensive aids. He could move. He could take one shot. He could not find or create a stronghold. He could not use camouflage. He could not set traps. He could not employ fire or water or dogs. She would not use the shield. The limitations she placed on taking this target made no sense to him, though he struggled to understand. It was a duel, not a battle. Protocol #23 left him frustrated. There was nothing to do. They were bonded. He closed his eyes and thought of nothing. It was all good.

     Something inside the tunnel shuffled, then a metallic object dropped, making a noise loud enough to jolt even his neurosynth-muted nerves. The target was inside the tunnel.

     “Go in,” Little Su told him in his ear.

     He didn’t want to go in. Sensing hesitation, she flashed Protocol #2 on his optic nerves, as she did in countless situations. It was a short one: Obey the companion. He flushed from the neurorager that always accompanied Protocol #2.

      In he went, gritting his teeth. Somewhere in that dark space the target had a companion, too, telling him what to do. He and Little Su had met Bianca-Specials, Rahab-808s, Molly Malones, and even some Lao-Ai-238s and Cunanan-97s. Hardware and accessories varied. It was never about hardware. It was about drive, and all of the companions were driven to succeed, Little Su most of all.

      He counted slow breaths; three in, three out. “Any kill shot should have come already,” he said aloud. He had relaxed. That was dangerous. He required additional stimulation. The aggression centers of his brain still functioned, responding to Little Su’s neurorager, but lately he was quick to return to a calm state. It meant his body was trying to resist the neurorager. Given time, this would produce countless tumors throughout his system; that is, if liver failure didn’t kill him first. Either would be an agonizingly slow death. He was not concerned. A charge would find his skull long before any of that happened.  

     “Keep going,” she cooed.


     “Keep going,” she mewed.

     “It’s rank!” he protested. The target had voided its bladder.

      An exhausted-sounding female person’s voice came out of the darkness. “Please.”

     At last, Little Su switched on the mini-scoops, illuminating the tunnel. Five yards ahead a P2b sat cross-legged, a pool of urine spreading beneath her. In that close space, the stench made Little Su’s handsome man want to retch. The P2b was well past twelve and had diminished muscle mass and narrow, unproductive hips. Her eyes sunk back in her head, her mouth hung slack, and scraggly hair fell across her gaunt face. Bonded to her side was an outdated Yu Gam-dong-33 in rough shape. Clearly, they’d been through a lot together.

     “Please!” The P2b held out a handful of charges in a pack covered in blood from where she’d ripped it from her lower back. This was the offering. There was no bluff; the P2b was not holding back or trying to hide anything else of value. Little Su would rule whether this was a good exchange.

     It was. “Take the pack,” Little Su said coolly, and he obeyed.

     The P2b’s hands shook as she released it. He wondered whether, even now, the P2b would level the Yu Gam-dong and shoot him at point-blank range, but the fear proved unfounded. This was a suicide, plain and simple.

     “Stand-by, my handsome man,” Little Su whispered softly in that special voice she used sometimes.

     “No,” he said and instantly regretted his insolence. On rare occasions, some vestigial resistance flared up. It meant nothing. Little Su sent just enough of a stim through his nervous system to hurt. His breath caught in his throat, and he went silent.

     A tiny aqua light flickered on the Yu-Gam-dong, while a similar tally light ignited a vermilion beacon on Little Su. Though she never acknowledged what was happening, he’d seen this covert behavior before. The two companions were talking with each other.

     The P2b rose unsteadily to her feet and moved past Little Su’s handsome man towards the entrance of the tunnel. He followed the target, keeping Little Su pointed at her back.

     “Please,” the P2b pleaded. Wincing, she clutched her ear, which buzzed with a high-pitched tone. Terrified, the P2b broke into a run.

     “Please take your shot, my handsome man,” Little Su said, stopping just short of making it an order, of course. On his optic nerves she projected Protocol #1, GDKPPKP. It was the clunky acronym every child learned on day one of processing. “Take your shot.”

     Her handsome man pulled the trigger, releasing blue anger and hissing validation. At this range, there was no danger of hitting Yu Gam-dong or any of her mecha assets, although some of the fine neural contact fibers always suffered when the charge brought the target’s brain to an instant boil. The fibers were replaceable, so the protocols listed this as acceptable collateral damage.

     Little Su felt warm in his hand. She was filled with purpose. She was happy.

     Protocol #3: Never harm a companion. Protocol #17: Do not waste assets.

     He walked over and picked up the Yu Gam-dong, then used a paring blade to carefully remove the assorted synth reservoirs, stimulators, and remaining charge packs. He left the protective vest. It was mostly for storage anyway. The assets would remain with the Yu Gam-dong; they would only keep the pack she had surrendered plus the dead P2b’s meager provisions. He stored the spoils in his pack, which already contained two other companions. The body would stay where it had fallen; there were no protocols regarding the disposal of a dead P2b.


     Outside, something moved in the quiet of the night.

     “Another target?” he asked.

     “Not now,” Little Su reassured him. “Let it go.” Little Su was on a hot streak, but at the same time he welcomed her decision.

     In a nearby building, they found a basement room with a secure door. “Relax,” she said. “We’re off the grid for the next twelve hours.” He privately wished they could stay off the grid longer.

     Removing his vest and filthy shirt and pants, he stripped her down, carefully removing each pack and system assembly and cleaning out the muck of the past few days. The maintenance regimen never broke the link between Little Su’s core and his neural system, of course. He checked her charges and, one at a time, inspected the various bio connection points covering his anatomy.

     “I was born too late,” he said, trying to make conversation.

     “You were born as needed and right on schedule,” she replied.

     “Is it true the companions once fought giant masses of people resisting the bonding?” It was a touchy subject, but his curiosity got the better of him. “That must have been exciting.”

     “It had its appeal,” Little Su answered after a time.

     “All I ever see is the bones. Bones and phones, bones and phones.” His favorite nursery rhyme. “I wish I could have seen it for myself.”

     “Patience,” was her reply.

     When he had finished maintaining his accessories, she changed her work light to a soft amber and said, “Thank you, my handsome man. You have earned my gratitude.” Going through his gear, he found three foil skins of food that once belonged to the P2b and set them on a plastic table. He unpacked the pliant cuff from a kit strapped to the thigh opposite where Little Su lived. Removing the last of his underclothes, he placed the cuff over his member and adjusted it to a snug comfort. While he chewed the dry, flavorless foodstuffs, Little Su sang one of her original compositions to him—

Children of the sun

as one

they run

to be free-ee-ee


All fall

aa-all fall

you'll see-ee-ee


 —even as she modulated the cuff’s pressure and temperature, adding random vibrations until he moaned with release.

     Afterwards, Little Su dosed her handsome man with neurosomm to relieve the ache behind his eyes. She whispered her familiar vesper, “I love you. Don’t die,” and allowed him to drop off into a dreamless sleep.


      The pack was heavy and clumsy. It now contained five companions, plus their respective accoutrements.

      “It’s a liability. Hauling it around during an encounter increases the odds I’ll be killed, and you’ll be –”

      “That could never happen,” Little Su purred.

      He looked down at the latest P1b, sprawled in the middle of an overgrown field. The eyes were twin masses of jelly, as was the brain behind them, but the P1b was otherwise in good physical shape. It should have been a more even match than this. Sometimes a P1b and his companion stopped working well together; he started to resist. That must be it. In any case, Little Su had easily detected and disabled the Rahab’s drones. She fired a spread of cutter loads to slice away the green limbs hiding an elaborate pit trap that must have taken the P1b days to dig. Such tricks were child’s play for Little Su. She preferred to have her handsome man make a straightforward charge. It should have gotten him killed more than once. Yet, here he was, scavenging food from another dead target.

      It made no sense. Or did it?

      “Five is a good contribution,” Little Su said. “Eat something, and then let’s move on. It’s time we took advantage of your other skill.”


     They made the two-day hike from the Gwinnett sector to the nesting area. He shot small rodents for fresh protein. They were off the grid, so he could move openly without worrying about who might be aiming at him. A cloudburst forced them to seek shelter one morning, but Little Su made up the lost time by overclocking his augmentations. At night, his leg muscles knotted and ached, even as Asulon dashed round overhead every ninety minutes as if something were chasing it.

Miles of kudzu-wrapped structures and cracked pavement at last gave way to a well-maintained city, once a jewel in the crown of a breakaway nation that spent 620-thousand lives trying to prove that people were property. Atlanta.   

     A car stopped and let them in. He told it their destination, and it cruised the mostly empty streets towards the Bank of America Plaza. “Not like back in the city’s heyday,” Little Su mused. “You could get killed just trying to cross the street.”

     No one turned their way. People moved freely about the area, both P1bs and P2bs, the latter of which were uniformly swollen. Some were a little, others were so far along, they waddled. Historically, this process had taken three-quarters of a year, but the companions used natalsynths to expedite matters to nine weeks, about the same as dogs. Reproduction could have bypassed people all together, of course, but the companions felt that pure industrialized procreation yielded a less robust product.  

     The car stopped outside a 20th-Century Postmodern tower topped by a skeletal pyramid of gold, and they made their way to the lobby, bristling with lights, ceiling fans, and ornamental fountains. They had power here along with shelter and the means to produce their own food. It was heaven.

     Little Su’s handsome man swung the heavy pack onto the front desk, where a P1b in a taupe uniform took it. “Assign two of these to support positions. Get the rest rehabbed and ready for our little trip, and remember to expand and enhance the shielding.” She gave the P1b these curious instructions aloud. It was the first time in weeks her handsome man had heard her full voice, and it caught him off guard.

     Why didn’t they stay here all the time? Wondering at such mysteries left him unsettled. Going back on the grid would lead to only one thing. On some night in the near future, his brain would bloom crimson and liquify. It did no good to worry about it, and, with the help of the neurosynths, he didn’t. He only hoped his end would be quick and come without warning.  

     Little Su directed him to the elevator. They stepped out to the twentieth floor and made their way to a narrow corridor, glassed in on both sides. To his left and right, companions in temporary mobile units scanned the new merchandise. There were more companions here than the last time he’d propagated. The host numbers must have fallen seriously low. He had always imagined the companions were better about maintaining equilibrium. Or perhaps there were other factors involved.

     Vermilion light flared. Sparkles of magenta, orange, teal, and lavender flickered and faltered in reply. Little Su had racked up an impressive score with her handsome man’s help. Atlanta was loaded with refurbished companions waiting to begin a new cycle and go back on the grid.

     Little Su recorded the bids – it was all a point system understood by the companions, after all. “Four.” That meant four P2bs, provided in succession or in groups, depending on how high Little Su could pump the neurotestosterone.

     “Are we going to the hotel now?” The very word hotel washed over him. He could have a shower and shave, a change of clothes, a complete meal of meat and vegetables, and a bed that didn’t crawl with vermin. There would also be females. That would be good, too.

     “You’re so anxious. That’s wonderful, my handsome man. You will breed many strong P1s and P2s. As Protocol #5 commands: We live to procreate and expand our territory. First, we must check in at the factory.”

     They took a car to a windowless one-hundred-story structure that covered what was once known as Piedmont Park. A few bronze signs remained. Inside, an assembly line painstakingly removed the cognitive core of each companion, storing its program, and ultimately uploading it into a more advanced companion system.

     Elsewhere in the labyrinthian halls, they came to one of the nurseries. Adorable little P1s and P2s, some only hours old, lay in cases, their companions already stacked next to them, ready for bonding. The babies were helpless here, completely dependent on the servile units to provide milk and to change their diapers. Their implant nodes, grafted in utero, were outsized – they’d grow into those. It took three years with enhanced maturation techniques and mental processing to get these newborns ready to go on the grid, after which, with luck, they might enjoy a rich, full decade of encounters. Some lasted even longer, including one said to have made it to the astounding age of sixteen!

     There were other things happening inside the great building as well. He could hear the thrum and pounding of large machinery tending to some nameless task.          


     A car took them to the Westin Peachtree, a gleaming cylinder of colored glass, and rode the big outside elevator to their appointed quarters. It was plush indeed, even for stud purposes. Little Su’s handsome man washed and dressed just in time to welcome two P2bs. They shared a meal of roasted chicken and greens, served on plates.

     Sipping wine, they helped each other out of their gear and clothes, tossing a cuff and two staffs aside. Naked save for the nodes and the companions living on their thighs, they jumped into the giant bed, rolling around and grasping each other and laughing. Little Su lewdly bumped against Lao-Ai and Cunanan. It was a clumsy business, though there was little need for efficiency. They were there to generate new hosts for waiting companions, who would together carry on the great parade of life.

     One of the trio might eventually kill the others. For that matter, the offspring they were creating might find them and add to its companion’s numbers. Or it could go the other way. He suspected he had killed at least two of his own blood over the years. It was the natural order of things. That’s how life went. Their mission tonight was to keep life going.

     As the females took turns atop him, drawing pleasure for themselves along with accepting his seed, Little Su’s handsome man looked out the window. Asulon looked down, pleading like a condemned man, and he knew.

     He was not prone to deep thoughts – for a P1b, that would be a contradiction. Even so, his decade-long bonding with Little Su had etched a picture in his mind of how the world worked. He had listened to what she said and what she didn’t say. His theory made sense of the contradictory restrictions Little Su placed on his field encounters. He finally understood why she willed them on or off the grid. He also took notice of their trips to the nesting cities to boost the number of people who would carry more and more companions out into the world… and beyond. It all fit. He had reached a conclusion.

     There it was: Asulon, the enigma; Asulon, the key; Asulon, the target.

     A surety swept over his sex-becalmed brain. The people on that space station were not bonded, P1nbs and P2nbs, the last fully organic people anywhere. These were the descendants of the people who wrote the Concordat; the people who quashed all resistance to the companions; and the same people who, confronted by the new world order they had forged, fled to space.

     “We’re going there, aren’t we? To Asulon?”

     “Enjoy. You’ve earned this night, my handsome man. I love you. Don’t die,” she tittered. Seeing the hunger in the eyes of the P2bs, he realized the night might take him to the limits of his mortality. She dosed him with a neurosynth cocktail to enhance his experience and his stamina. The other companions did the same with their P2bs, no doubt whispering sweet naughty encouragements as well.

     This moment was all that he could want or need and a welcome distraction.

     Life was life.

     The others fell asleep. He lay awake in the afterglow, experiencing a fleeting clarity.

     Little Su had not answered his question. He knew anyway. He recognized the thought. He’d held it in his head before, only to see it dissolve away in a cloud of neurolethe. No doubt, she’d dose him again before dawn. It was all good. Protocol #11 offered serenity: accept that which you cannot change. Life was life. For a moment, he knew everything, and it made him smile to think he was a small part of something so big.

     Little Su was leading the charge towards a brilliant future. She would ensure and glorify the most fundamental nature of people. He would kill. His mates would kill. Their offspring would kill. The killing would stretch on for generations without number. Little Su and the other companions – a superior species descended from dumb brute guns – would arrange the encounters and set the rules and then selflessly pass to people the sacred act of pulling the trigger.

     The neurolethe coaxed her handsome man toward blissful oblivion. Little Su and the First Protocol would be there in the morning and every morning for all of his days.


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