"Be charming, for fuck's sake," hisses Amanda, buttoning her lab coat over her garter belt.
"We can be charming," says Frank, affronted.
Gerard looks stricken. "Oh god," he says. "Oh god, you don't think we can do it. This was a bad idea. It's too late to cancel it now, right?"
"My chest hurts," Mikey puts in. "You know how my respiratory system glitches when I get anxious? I sort of can't breathe. Like, don't wanna worry you or anything, but."
Ray frowns. "I don't know, guys, maybe we should wait. Just until Mikey's okay, I mean. Amanda, you could hack his motherboard if we found a scalpel and some glue, right?"
"Alright, kids." Janelle heads off the feedback loop of panic before it can gather any more momentum. She's stretching her legs out, rolling her head from side to side and breathing deeply like she's limbering up to run a marathon, not walk twenty paces out onto a stage. "Showtime."
The camera flashes are bright, and every inch of space in the room is packed. There's a low hum of conversation among the journos, sharp and wary, and too many pairs of eyes fixed on them. They wait behind the table, and the noise gradually begins to die down, but the staring doesn't stop. When the crowd eventually quiets, Amanda takes a sip from the glass of water in front of her and adjusts her microphone.
"Eight years ago," she begins, and the hush that's fallen over the room is almost eerie. "Dr. Monae and myself began work on the ArchAndroid project. We designed and assembled the prototypes, created language chips and programmed responses to thousands of different situations and stimuli. By the time they were ready, we'd designed and tested everything, right down to the cybernetics and the synthetic organs."
They're eating out of the palm of her hand now, notebooks and dictaphones forgotten.
Amanda smiles. "Two months ago," she says, "We switched them on for the first time."
Light. Light scratching at his new retinas, pressing against his new skin, harsh and artificial and too-bright. He can feel the drag of every fiber of the thin cotton sheet over him, the rush and roar of every shallow, stale-tasting breath in his throat, the pounding of his blood in the new tangle of his veins. Then, suddenly, a circuit sparks into life with a sharp flare of pain inside his skull and there are words for all these things and everything else, too many to count, thousands and thousands and thousands, scrolling past his eyes too fast for him to read.
It's overwhelming. Droid RAY001 keeps his eyes closed.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why isn't he responding? You did switch him on, right?" says a voice from somewhere above him. The words aren't threatening, but the tone is agitated, so his eyes snap open as his self-preservation protocol kicks in. There are two figures standing over him, both dressed in white, with identical expressions. A quick cross-reference with the schemas he finds installed in his memory bank tells him they're both female, even though they couldn't look more different. He tries to speak, but his mouth is dry and won't quite do what he wants it to.
"Can you hear us?" asks the pale one with tangled hair and drawn-on eyebrows, in a softer voice. A programmed response tells him that a nod is generally accepted to mean "yes", so he tentatively bobs his head up, then back down. He feels the muscles in his neck stretch and move under the skin, shifting. He blinks a few times, the action becoming smoother and easier with each repetition.
"I can hear you," he says, but the inflection is strange and unnatural-sounding even to his own audio processing systems (ears, he corrects himself) and the words are slurred and indistinct. The two females don't look at all disappointed, though, and as they help him sit up, the sensation of their hands on him is enough to make him shiver.
"We did it," breathes the one who hasn't spoken yet, with – it takes him 2.37 seconds to identify it – wonder in her eyes. "My god, we actually did it."
A stern-looking woman with glasses calls out, "Were there any unexpected problems when you, uh, activated them?"
"I can stand," insists droid FRA004. The delivery of the words sounds easier and less electronic already. "Look." He plants his hands firmly on either side of his hips and levers himself up (force multiplied by the distance between his shoulders and his hips) into a sitting position first. The world around him swings into focus again, and he feels a little unsteady, but it looks interesting. There are so many things to look at in this cluttered, white room, so he twists sideways and, shakily, he stands.
And promptly topples over.
He looks at his feet, puzzled. He miscalculated, obviously, but they look like they make a very small base for his center of gravity. Then again, the two females don't seem to be having any difficulty with it. He isn't sure, but from the unnatural blankness of their expressions, he thinks they're trying not to show amusement.
"I can stand," he says again. He can, he will. "You wait."
Amanda pauses for a moment before she answers, with the air of someone choosing their words very, very carefully, but there's a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. "What you have to remember is that the droids are still only prototypes," she says. "Given the scale and the – complexity of the project and the amount of experimental technology involved, there were always going to be..."
"Glitches," says Janelle. "Obviously they're not perfect yet. Frank's got a faulty personality circuit, Gerard's primary memory chip is kind of temperamental, there's a bug somewhere in Mikey's speech protocol, and Ray's anger response is kind of laggy."
And those are only the things they noticed on the first day. Plus, between the experiments in using the media to help socialize them and Janelle modeling their vocabulary chips and speech patterns on Amanda's, they're also the world's most potty-mouthed androids, although with any luck there won't be any occasion for the world's press to find out about that.
"Mikey and Gerard share a lot of the same glitches, anyway," Janelle continues. "We built them from the same pattern. They're sort of mark .1 and .2 of the same series, I guess. Their booting systems are slower. They get through a hell of a lot of coffee. And their skin's slightly different from Ray and Frank's, they're a little more photosensitive."
There's a brief pause, filled with manic scribbling, and then someone near the front asks, "Are those – do they have names?"
"They do. Ladies and gentlemen, Frank, Gerard, Ray and Mikey," Janelle says, gesturing to each of them in turn.
Another reporter speaks up. "Don't you think it was kind of unprofessional, to name them? If the droids are a scientific experiment, I mean. Wouldn't that increase the risk of emotional involvement?"
Amanda lets out a seriously unprofessional snort of laughter. "Honey," she says, "We've both poured all of our savings and nearly a decade of our careers into these things. We're so far past worrying about emotional involvement, it isn't even funny."
"Anyway," Janelle adds, with a shrug, "you've got to, when you're talking to them and about them all day, you know? F-R-alpha-zero-zero-four doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."
"Don't you have a serial number?"
Gerard shrugs. The easy, careless movement of his shoulders is fascinating. "I do," he says, "But it was – wrong. So I picked a name. This is Mikey," he adds, presumably referring to the droid next to him, who's moved on to stretching out and running his fingers experimentally through his own hair, "And that's Ray." He points to the droid pacing the other side of the lab.
FRA004 has nothing to say to that. He's run out of pre-programmed responses. He's dimly aware that the two humans who switched him on are watching him closely, and he decides, illogically, that he doesn't want to disappoint them. He can feel his emotional response system fluttering distractingly. He scrolls through a list of acceptable male names, cross-referencing it with his serial number. He wants a name, but he doesn't want to lose the number altogether. It's part of what he is, it wouldn't be right.
"Frank," he says. "I'm Frank."
Gerard's smile is crooked and imperfect and warm.
The low hum of muttering and scribbling starts up again. It sounds like a swarm of bees. A man in the front row raises his hand, and Amanda points. "There in the front?"
"Do they have any kind of – superhuman abilities?" he asks, evidently trying and failing to look serious and intent.
Janelle raises an eyebrow. "You mean increased stamina, that kind of thing? Or are you hoping they shoot lasers out of their eyes?"
A nervous ripple of laughter spreads briefly and dies again. The reporter looks embarrassed now, his cheeks flushing pink and clashing magnificently with his ginger hair. Janelle waits for him to stumble through three aborted attempts at rephrasing the question before she takes pity on him.
"In answer to your question, no. None of the droids have any special abilities that we're aware of at this time."
"Can I stop now?" wheezes Gerard. "Please? This is – some kind of – cruel and unusual – punishment, Jesus Christ."
Amanda looks down at her stopwatch, and sighs. "You can stop," she says. "You're no good to anyone if you crash and we have to re-boot you, get off that thing before you hurt yourself. You've done six minutes on a treadmill, I think we can safely rule out superhuman stamina. Looks like we didn't manage to replicate that non-fatiguing cardiac muscle tissue after all."
Gerard groans, and flops melodramatically off the treadmill. He lies there on the scuffed floor for a minute, breathing hard, and Amanda nudges him none-too-gently in the ribs with her foot.
"Get up," she says. "Muscle fatigue is one thing, but your backup oxygen generation system should have kicked in by now. I built you, you don't get to pull this shit on me."
Gerard doesn't deign to respond to that, only heaves himself up into a slightly closer approximation of a sitting position. "Why am I the only one who has to do this?" he asks, his tone midway between wounded and snotty. Amanda has to wonder again at how human he is, even though he isn't, but she doesn't let it spill over into unnecessary sympathy. She reaches out and hauls him upright, and he sways a little. She rolls her eyes, because he's being melodramatic again. Swaying is actually taking up more of his processing power than standing still would.
"Because Janelle's still trying to fix Mikey's respiratory system, Frank's still recovering from that CPU virus he caught, and Ray's keeping Frank out of trouble, which leaves you. Suck it up, motorbaby."
"Not even any kind of affinity with electronics?" the reporter asks, a little desperately.
Amanda shakes her head. "Nope. Sorry. Not enough to be significant, at least."
(The thought did occur to them when Mikey showed an interest in fixing the lab's broken radio. Unfortunately, it transpires that Mikey's love for all things electrical is tragically unrequited. After the incident with the toaster, they drew up two lists: things he's allowed to touch, and things he isn't even allowed to look at. The latter consists mostly of anything that involves fire, moving parts or both.)
Further down the table, Frank wears an almost nostalgic expression, and Gerard looks deeply disappointed by his lack of superpowers. Mikey looks bored, and Ray's smile is bright and slightly nervous. None of them are blinking quite as often as they should be.
"Next question," says Amanda. "Over there?"
An uneasy-looking blonde man says, "This probably going to sound kind of dumb, but – how do they work? Do they have... I don't know, synthetic brains or something?"
"We're still a pretty long way from being able to synthesize a functioning human brain," Janelle says patiently. "They've got central processing units instead, like your computer."
"I'm not sick," croaks Frank, then coughs pathetically.
"I think you'll find you are," Amanda says, examining the printout on her clipboard. Janelle hooks her chin over Amanda's shoulder, her eyes skimming down the lines of code, and she winces.
"Wow," she murmurs. "That's one nasty Trojan you got there."
"You can repair him," says Mikey, handing Frank another handful of tissues. It isn't a question; if Janelle and Amanda can build androids, they can fix a Trojan.
"Sure, sure we can." Janelle's smile is her most reassuring one. "Don't worry, it probably hasn't been in there long enough to corrupt anything important. Probably."
"Wasn't worrying," snarks Frank. "Couldn't if I wanted to, because someone fucked my self-preservation protocol."
"Sorry," mumbles Gerard, turning the ice pack over to press the cold side to Frank's chest. They haven't run a full analysis yet, but it looks like Frank's central cooling system is pretty comprehensively broken.
Janelle has gone back to squinting at the sheet. "Seriously, Frank, how did you manage that? What were you downloading?" "Nothing," Frank replies instantly. "Absolutely nothing. Just powered on yesterday morning and it was there. Just like that."
Amanda looks singularly unimpressed. "I'm going to add shitty liar to your notes. You do realize we only have to check your download history?"
"Nope. Already wiped it," says Frank smugly, and then his CPU catches up with his speech circuits. "...Oh."
"And the CPUs coordinate everything else, like movement and reasoning."
"But what do they run on? Do they need... recharging, or something?"
"They don't. We developed a system that lets them convert chemical energy to kinetic and electrical energy like you do," Janelle says.
"By eating," says Amanda. She looks like she's mentally strangling the reporter. Janelle shoots her a warning look.
"It took them a while to figure out how much they needed and how often," Janelle adds, and Frank looks sheepish. "But they got it eventually."
When Janelle pushes the door open, Frank is running in place and talking nineteen to the dozen at a beleaguered-looking Mikey.
"And," he's saying, "And and and. They put paint in them and then when you pull the trigger the paint explodes all over everything and it looks fuckin' A, man, you think if we got one we could, like, decorate a wall with it? I'm gonna find out where you get them from and--"
Janelle shuts the door behind her.
"Hey, hey, Janelle! You know those paintball guns, where would you get one of those? Because I was thinking if we--"
She ruffles his hair. "Baby, you should try the internet. Or ask Amanda." She turns to Mikey and raises an eyebrow.
"Pop-Tarts," says Mikey. "We don't know how many he ate. We've found three empty boxes. Gerard and Ray went to check he didn't hide any more under his bed."
Frank grins unnervingly. "Fuck you," he says. "I feel fuckin' great right now, man."
He's still running in place. Janelle pats Mikey sympathetically on the shoulder. "Don't blame yourself," she says, and he nods wearily.
"In the pictures in the press release, that... uh, he," (she points to Mikey) "was wearing glasses, right? Is that a, uh, fault you've managed to fix since then?" "There was a loose connection in my visual system," says Mikey blandly. "Amanda opened me up and fixed it. The glasses were temporary."
"Oh," she says faintly. "Right, sure. Opened you up, like...?"
Mikey's expression is nonplussed, or possibly slightly amused. It's difficult to be sure. "Like, powered me down, drilled into my skull, rewired the loose connection and closed me up again. You know?"
It's clear from the reporter's face that, no, she doesn't know.
"Next question, please," says Janelle, with a slightly brittle smile. This particular avenue of questioning is not leading anywhere good.
"Your press release mentioned that you used the media to help socialize the droids, could you tell us a bit more about that?"
Mikey watches the screen with his head on one side. "That looks unhygienic," he says.
"Right?" Gerard reaches into the popcorn bowl balanced precariously in Frank's lap without taking his eyes off the screen. They've upgraded Frank's antivirus software to a new version so paranoid that it's been christened "the nervous system", and it's been a whole two weeks since he's had so much as a sniffle. "Why would you even... who looks at someone else and thinks it looks like fun to stick their tongue down their throat, seriously?"
Frank smacks Gerard's hand when he reaches for the bowl again. "Hey! Leave some for the rest of us, you greedy fucker. I don't know, maybe it's one of those things that doesn't make sense until you've, you know, done it."
Silence falls. Frank eyes Ray in a way that's less thoughtful and more calculating, and Ray tries to edge away from him but Gerard is pressed against his other side and there isn't really anywhere else for him to go.
Suddenly, and without warning, Frank lunges for him. The popcorn bowl clatters noisily to the floor and rolls away. Ray makes a startled noise against Frank's mouth, his hands flailing wildly. Frank takes advantage of his element of surprise by clambering into Ray's lap and straddling him, getting his hands in Ray's hair while Gerard and Mikey watch with interest.
"Huh," says Frank, pulling back and touching his bottom lip experimentally with a finger. "Well, what?" asks Mikey. "Weird," pronounces Frank, testing his lip again, not moving from Ray's lap. "Really weird. Slippery. But... sort of nice, I guess?"
"I think you bit me," says Ray, touching his own lip. "Ow. And – oh, man, Frank! Was that the last bag of popcorn?"
"What?" Frank looks down at the popcorn littering the floor, the bowl overturned and a few solitary kernels rolling under the couch. "Oh. Yup." "Get off me, you little weirdo," grumbles Ray, shoving Frank so that he slides to the floor, but he's smiling.
"Well, we all really liked Star Wars?" Gerard offers, suddenly bright-eyed and leaning forward in his chair to gesture emphatically. "Like, they're these fantastic films that make you care about the characters and they're so, you know, imaginative, but at the same time you can really relate."
Ray is laughing so hard it's interfering with his motor skills programming; his shoulders are shaking and he's doubled over and gasping. "Oh my god," he says weakly. "Oh my god, you're R2D2."
Gerard and Mikey crack up in obnoxious stereo, and Frank gives Ray the finger. "Fuck you," he says. "Fuck you all. I'm the last one they built. You're all rough drafts, I'm the motherfucking masterpiece, bitches."
"Masterpiece, my ass," says Mikey with a derisive snort. "Your CPU had how many viruses before they fixed you, eleven? You got through, like, an entire fucking rainforest in tissues when you had that last Trojan."
"Masterpiece," Frank insists, kicking Mikey in the shin, but he goes quiet again as his attention returns to the screen.
"But," says another reporter, frowning and ignoring Gerard. "Weren't you... worried, at all? That some of the, uh, content of the media would affect their values and stuff?"
"That was the idea, yeah." Amanda smiles serenely. "And it worked beautifully."
"But the media's so sexualized now, how did you combat that?"
"Combat it?" Amanda asks. "All we gave them was a representative cross-section, we were never trying to shield their virtue from sex and violence."
She neglects to mention that Gerard and Mikey both developed a borderline unhealthy interest in gory horror movies and Frank had to be told twice that jerking off in communal areas is generally frowned upon. She also neglects to mention that the second time it happened, she told him to go his room and think about what he'd done, and that his response to this was to leer at her and answer, "With pleasure."
Gerard looks away from the screen and right at Frank. His lips are wet and parted and his pupils are blown wide, the curve of his cheekbone lit up with the ghostly blue glow of the TV screen. He's completely still, distracted enough that he's forgotten to act human. Frank's eyes stray downwards and, okay, from the conspicuous bulge in the front of Gerard's jeans it's pretty obvious that there's nothing wrong with the programming on his arousal response.
"You think," he says, his eyes fixed on Frank's mouth. "You think we can do that?"
Frank waggles his eyebrows suggestively at Gerard. "Only one way to find out," he says. He can see his own shit-eating grin reflected back at him in the window, but he's – curious.
He gets up off the couch and drops to his knees.
Janelle leans in toward her own microphone to explain. "We wanted to make sure they'd be able to function as members of society," she says. "It was an experiment. Our hypothesis was that using movies and TV shows would help them learn the things we couldn't program into them without putting anyone at risk. We weren't just going to let them loose on the world, the sensory overload could have caused them to shut down in public. We desensitized them gradually, then, when we thought they were ready, we started taking them out with us."
"You're smiling too much," murmurs Janelle out of one side of her mouth. "Tone it down, you're scaring people."
"Horror movies scare people," Frank retorts, continuing to beam at the passersby. "And they still buy the DVDs."
"And after that we started sending them out without us. We let them go out in pairs so they could have each other's backs, which just made it a bit easier for them."
Mikey stands there, completely, inhumanly still, his fear response system sparking and crackling behind his eyes. The human behind the register knows, he can tell Mikey isn't what he's pretending to be, he knows Mikey's wrong, built instead of born, and he's going to raise the alarm and get Mikey taken away to be dismantled and tested and--
"Mikey? Everything okay?"
The voice is low and steady and a hand lands on Mikey's shoulder like a heavy, solid anchor. Mikey jerks automatically at the touch, but it's just Ray, sure and calm. His body language is telling Mikey it's okay, I've got you, you can do this, and Mikey believes him.
Mikey takes a deep breath, bends his mouth into a polite smile and hands over a twenty-dollar bill.
Mikey opens his mouth the minute they're out of sight of the store, but the words die in his throat as Ray takes him by the arm and tugs him gently into an alleyway. Mikey finds himself backed up against the wall, but he feels safe, not trapped.
"Amazing," Ray says, and he looks – hungry. Mikey catches himself licking his lips.
"You were so fucking amazing back there," repeats Ray, and then Ray is kissing him, hot and wet and sloppy and Mikey suddenly gets it.
A bony, dark-haired man in a cheap suit points at Frank. "Why does that one have tattoos?"
Amanda opens her mouth to answer, but Gerard gets there first. "His name," he says icily, "is Frank, and he got tattoos because he wanted them."
"The buddy system, Gee, remember? C'mon, you have to come in with me. You can close your eyes when they get the needles out. I promise."
"Wow," says Frank, with interest. "Something in your fear protocol's really fucked. Maybe you've short-circuited it. We could get Amanda to fix it for you."
Gerard narrows his eyes. This feeling, the new vocabulary patch informs him, is suspicion. "And she'd be using needles for that?"
"How else is she only supposed to hit the right part of your motherboard, loser?"
"No." Gerard shudders. "Not in a million years. You're gonna have to take me apart and sell me for scrap before I let you anywhere near me with a needle. And fuck you, I saw you flip out when you found that spider in your hair yesterday."
Frank scowls. "See how you like it," he mutters. "All those fuckin' legs. What if one of those got all up in your wiring?"
But he drops the subject, for which Gerard is grateful.
The room freezes for a long moment, and there's something scared and nasty in the air.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the fateful day when Frank discovered LA Ink," says Amanda dryly, and some of the tension drops away again.
"But why did – he want them?" another reporter asks, stumbling slightly over he. "Didn't you program them to be... I don't know, average? So they could integrate better with society? Lots of people think tattoos are ugly."
"Well, I think your nose is too big and your hat's fucking horrible," says Frank sunnily. "But what're you gonna do, right?"
Amanda and Janelle's smiles look slightly strained.
"Anyway," says Amanda briskly, before Frank can open his mouth again. "One of the most interesting things for us to study was the way they started to help each other out without being asked to."
It's dark, and Mikey's eyes have to work hard to adjust. When they do, he sees Gerard folded in on himself, hollow-eyed and twitching restlessly. "Again?" he asks, and Gerard nods, jerky and mechanical.
"What kind of robot gets bad dreams? There's something wrong with me, there fucking has to be. I know it's probably just a crossed wire or something," he says quietly, staring fixedly at the wall. "But, like. What if it's not? What if it's me, Mikes? What if." There's a long silence. He's forgotten to blink. "What if I'm the defective one they have to hush up? I know we're not – alive, or whatever, but I think about getting... I don't know, powered down for the last time and getting taken apart and sold, and it fucking scares me."
He goes quiet and seems to sink even further into himself, almost disappearing completely into the dark.
"You're dumb," Mikey tells him, and sits down next to him on the bed. "Gerard. Fucking listen to me. You're no more glitchy than the rest of us. No one's selling you for scrap, I promise."
"I mean, it wasn't really that unexpected," Janelle continues. "They had all these shared experiences to bond over, so of course they were going to form close relationships with each other. They've known each other all their lives, they're totally comfortable with each other."
"Dude," says Mikey flatly, stopping in the doorway. "Frank, what the fuck."
He phrases it like that because it might be Ray up against the wall in Mikey's room with his jeans shoved down around his thighs, but Mikey would be willing to bet that it's Frank's fault.
Frank's on his knees, and when he turns to look at Mikey, and his mouth looks red and used.
"'Sup, Mikey," he says, with this sly, fucked-out smile that leaves Mikey in absolutely no doubt that it's Frank's fault.
"Hi," says Mikey intelligently, trying to hold onto his train of thought. "Like. What are you doing?"
Frank doesn't answer him, just quirks an eyebrow and turns away again, bracing his hands on Ray's hips and sinking back down. That's what Mikey assumes is happening, anyway; he can't actually see, but Ray's eyes roll back and Frank's noise of approval sounds muffled.
Mikey stands there for a long moment, his CPU working overtime and flashing up images of what Frank's mouth must look like around Ray's cock, what Frank's low humming sounds must feel like, how hard Frank must be working not to gag when Ray fits one hand around the back of Frank's head and pulls him in.
Frank pulls off again and looks back at Mikey, dark-eyed and tousled. "C'mon, fucker," he says, his voice rough. "You just gonna stand there?"
Mikey actually stumbles a little on his way over to them, his motor skills programming glitching with how distracting this is. "What should I..." he starts, then Frank grabs a fistful of his shirt and pulls him down so he lands on his knees, facing Frank. Frank looks so fucking good, flushed and panting a little, his lips spit-slick. Mikey gives Frank shit every time he insists that he's Janelle and Amanda's masterpiece, but sometimes he just – wonders.
Mikey looks up at Ray, holding his glassy gaze for a long moment, then looks away and pulls Frank in by the hair for a slow, dirty kiss. Frank opens his mouth against Mikey's with a low, dirty moan, and tilts his head to make sure Ray's getting a good view when Frank slips his tongue into Mikey's mouth.
"Jesus," Ray breathes, and Mikey can feel Frank smirking. Frank pulls back from Mikey to drag his tongue along the length of Ray's cock, unashamedly filthy and agonizingly slow, then looks up.
"You want both of us?" he says. "Both our mouths on your dick? I think Mikey wants to help me out here."
Mikey knows what Frank's doing – he's not stupid – but he does want to. Fuck. Ray's big, easily bigger than Mikey, flushed and hard. Mikey feels some illogical impulse trigger somewhere in his CPU, and his mouth waters.
"Go ahead," Frank prods. His lips are parted, and his pupils are blown wide. Ray clearly isn't the only one getting off on this. Mikey leans in, and wraps his mouth around the head of Ray's cock. The ache in his jaw starts to build up almost immediately, but it's good, and it definitely doesn't make him want to stop. He can feel Frank and Ray's eyes on him, and Frank swears softly when Mikey opens wider and takes Ray as deep as he can. He has to pull back before long, his eyes watering, but it's worth it for the noises Ray's making, filthy moans scattered with Mikey's name.
Once he's got a rhythm going, Mikey reaches up to get his hand around what he can't comfortably fit in his mouth, but Frank stops him with a hand on his wrist.
"I got this," he says, and ducks his head to lick at what Mikey can't reach. His tongue flicks against Mikey's lip when Mikey sinks down, and Ray's hips stutter forward.
"Fuck," he grits out. "You two, I can't even..."
Mikey kind of wishes he could see what Ray's seeing right now. He pulls off to lick teasingly at the slit and Frank joins him, his tongue sliding hotly against Mikey's. Frank runs a hand down over Mikey's chest, his stomach, then grinds the heel of his hand against Mikey's hard-on. Mikey makes an involuntary noise at how fucking good it feels, and bucks forward against the pressure and the friction. Frank keeps his hand there for Mikey to rut against while he takes over from Mikey's mouth, sucking Ray's cock down almost greedily.
It's too much for Mikey, and he comes in his pants with a blissed-out groan.
Frank doesn't move his hand, keeps squeezing and rubbing until Mikey's a mess, over-sensitive and whimpering helplessly. When he finally moves it to start jacking Ray off instead, Mikey slumps against Frank's side, completely spent. Frank hums contentedly around Ray's dick, and Ray inhales sharply. "Frank," he says, "Frank, I'm gonna--"
Frank sucks him through it, taking his other hand off Ray's hip and letting Ray fuck his mouth as he comes. He pulls off, but Mikey doesn't see him swallow. It takes Mikey's poor, fried circuits a while to catch up when Frank grabs the front of Mikey's shirt, leans in and presses his lips to Mikey's, and – oh. Oh. His stomach drops; that's both gross and so fucking hot he thinks he's genuinely in danger of fusing his motherboard. He opens his mouth a little, letting Frank in, and then he can taste it, sticky-slick and bitter and so fucking dirty. Frank moves away, grinning. He looks like a mess, he's got to be close.
"C'mon, let's see you swallow," he says, and Mikey does.
"We started to see them learning from each other's experiences, too, and the results of that study are going to have a massive impact on what we can do with artificial intelligence."
"That chick on TV made it look so easy," mumbles Frank defensively, screwing his eyes shut while Ray scrubs at the thin film of bubble gum on Frank's face.
"And we saw them learning from each other's mistakes and translating them into fear responses via their self-preservation protocols, which was really great to see," Amanda continues. "I did most of the modeling and the assembly and Dr. Monae wrote more of the software. Self-preservation took us longer to get right than pretty much anything else, but Dr. Monae's done some really amazing work."
"It's alright for you," says Gerard snottily, folding his arms protectively over his chest. "They built you later, you got the new kind of skin. Mine tears too easy. You wouldn't want to shower either if you were worried about getting water all up in your circuits."
Frank rolls his eyes and shoves Gerard firmly backwards into the shower. "How about I check for you?" he says, before turning the water on and going for the zipper of Gerard's jeans.
There's a pause while frantic notes are made and comments are muttered into dictaphones.
"I think the real breakthrough there happened when we finished the morality chips," Janelle says, and ten more hands shoot into the air. "We wrote up tables of... well, morals, I guess. Don't kill, don't steal, basic stuff like that. It was a real challenge to get that information encoded in a way that the CPUs would be able to balance with the self preservation protocols."
"But it's worked pretty much perfectly," says Amanda, cutting Janelle a sidelong smile.
"Ooh," Frank pipes up. "Except that time--"
Janelle administers a swift kick under the table and Frank suddenly seems to forget all about "that time".
"So, hey," says Frank conversationally, blowing a perfect, pink gum bubble. He still isn't over the fact that he's learned to do that. "I was gonna tell you, but, you know, I was waiting for the right moment, or whatever. My morality chip failed last week."
Amanda looks horrified. "It what?"
"Don't get your panties in a knot, it's not like I'm suddenly gonna turn into a complete douche or anything." Frank looks wounded, and stops drumming his heels against the side of the lab bench where he's perched. "I don't need a morality chip, the values table's still there. Jeez, it's like you don't trust me. Just thought I'd mention it, is all."
Amanda looks at him pointedly.
"Okay, fine, I can maybe see why you wouldn't trust me," he concedes. "But c'mon, you know me. I'm a dick, but I'm not a bank robber." He flashes Amanda his most endearing grin.
"Fine," she says. "But I'm still watching you, asshole."
"You mentioned emotional involvement earlier. Exactly how involved would you say you are?"
"Two weeks," says Janelle, watching Frank trying to tangle a fork in a sleeping Ray's hair. "You think they're ready?"
Amanda cracks up. "Fuck, no," she says. "It's going to be great."
Janelle's concern must be written all over her face, because Amanda reaches out and catches her arm. "Hey," she says. "C'mon. Whatever those fuckers say in the papers, we know we did it."
"We're gonna have a lot of people on our backs after the conference," says Janelle quietly. "There are gonna be people who want them destroyed. You know that, right?"
"Then we'll fake it if we have to." Amanda's chin is tilted up stubbornly, her arms folded. Janelle would defy anyone to fuck with her. "We'll say we've done it and hide them somewhere. We'll say we faked it all and they're just four guys we paid to help us out. I don't care. No one's fucking taking them away. Okay?"
She squeezes Janelle's hand, and Janelle nods.
Amanda considers. "Put it this way," she says. "Have you got kids?"
"What Dr. Palmer means," Janelle says thoughtfully, "Is that we've really... learned from them, I guess. It's been amazing."
A hand goes up. "I thought you said you knew them inside out?"
"We did, but they've learned too. They keep on surprising us."
Janelle looks up from the analysis she's working on to see Ray leaning against the doorframe, and she smiles. She's so tired her eyes are stinging and the numbers in front of her keep blurring and doubling themselves, but there's something about Ray that never fails to make her proud of them and everything they've done. Everything they've achieved. She doesn't play favorites, but she thinks if she did, it would have to be Ray.
"Hey," she says. She reaches out to turn the radio down, but he makes an abortive movement towards her.
She drops her hand, and he steps forward into the room.
"You know this song?" she asks, and he shakes his head. It's something slow and lazy, with a rhythm like a heartbeat. She watches him listen with his head on one side, drumming the beat against his thigh and adding a syncopated counterpoint with his heel.
It's kind of amazing.
She gets up from her desk chair and stretches out slowly. She's been looking at those numbers for too long, she deserves a study break. She turns the radio up, and offers Ray her hand.
"You wanna dance with me?"
"I'm a horrible dancer," he warns her, but he takes her hand anyway and she reels him in close, swaying gently on the spot. He settles a tentative hand on the small of her back and she nods encouragingly, leading them in a slow circle. Ray is strong and solid, moving without thinking. You'd never know, she thinks, wondering, as he dips her and she starts to laugh. You'd never know.
"So, did you feel like you were prepared for today?"
"I'd say so," says Amanda. Her expression is aggressively neutral, while Janelle tries valiantly to resist the urge to smirk. Frank is grinning his most obnoxious shit-eating grin, Gerard looks guilty, Mikey is perfectly deadpan and Ray looks harassed.
"I think," she says eventually, "everything went about as smoothly as we'd expected."
"Fucking fuck, the cab isn't coming," Amanda groans, jamming her cell phone back into her pocket as she strides into the lab.
"What happened?" Janelle looks up from stitching up the gash on the back of Mikey's head.
"The driver crashed the car."
Ray looks concerned. "Is he okay?"
Amanda snorts. "He was okay enough to text me a stupid fucking faux-pology. Bastard. We'll have to drive, that's the only way we're getting there on time. Where's Frank?"
Ray massages his temples. "He laughed so hard at Mikey tripping and almost cracking his head open that he spat Mountain Dew all over his shirt, he went to change."
"Done," Janelle announces. "Don't fall down again, that was the last of the thread. We're gonna have to use staples next time."
Mikey blinks owlishly up at her, and Janelle sighs. "Leaving in five, everybody," she says wearily.
"What about Gerard?" asks Mikey. "We can't go without him, he'll flip his shit. You know what he's like."
"Well, where is he?" Amanda pauses halfway through lacing up one of her boots. "Oh my god, please tell me someone knows where he is."
For a long moment, no one says anything.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, he can't have just-- wait." Amanda frowns. "How long has Frank been gone? Longer than it takes to change a shirt?"
When Amanda gets back to the lab, she has a vice-like grip on both Frank and Gerard. They both look rumpled, Frank distinctly pleased with himself and Gerard contrite.
Ray looks between them despairingly. "Seriously, guys?"
Frank sticks his tongue out at Ray, and Amanda continues to herd them toward the door.
"This is not going to work," Mikey says, as he clambers into the back seat of Amanda's beat-up car with Frank, Ray and Gerard right behind him.
Janelle sighs as she climbs into the front. "Honey, you're gonna have to make it work, or we're putting Frank in the trunk."
It takes some indignant complaining and some half-assed arguing about whose elbow is in whose space, but they finally manage to fit themselves into the car. Which is probably in blatant contravention to several health and safety regulations, but it'll do.
"Okay, emergency media training 101," Amanda says, craning her neck to look in the rearview mirror as she pulls out into the road and steps on the gas. "Speak when you're spoken to, don't tell them what you really think of them under any circumstances and for the love of god don't fucking swear. Understood?"
"Understood!" chirps Frank, which is somehow less than reassuring.
"Okay, who's got the map?" Janelle asks, fastening her seatbelt as Amanda takes a corner too fast with a squeal of tires.
"Me," says Mikey. "Uh, it's a left here, I think."
"No, look, you're holding it upside down, you moron," Frank chips in. "That should have been a right, but you can-- oh, wait, no, you missed the shortcut. Go back!"
A hand goes up at the back of the room. "Okay, last question – over there in the back corner?" says Janelle.
The hand goes down. "There've been rumors circulating," says the woman attached to it, "that they can feel. Emotions, I mean. Like we do."
"And?" Janelle says. They're taking questions. That was a statement.
The woman smoothes down her skirt suit uneasily. "And I'd like to know whether – uh, how much truth there is in that."
Amanda takes over. "They feel," she says. "Dr. Monae had concerns that the emotion chips weren't ready yet--" (and Amanda had smiled slightly manically at her and asked, purely rhetorically, what could possibly go wrong) "--but we tested them like we did all the other components, and we haven't had any problems with them."
The revelation spreads like ripples in a pond, and there's a flurry of frantic scribbling and typing. Frank is smiling inanely at the assembled reporters while Gerard is visibly resisting the urge to chew his nails, Mikey is taking deep, slow breaths and Ray is drumming his fingers against his thigh; nervous tics picked up from Janelle and Amanda and a whole host of actors and actresses.
"So they could love?"
"Yup," Frank says, with total conviction.
The reporter looks a little taken aback. "Just hypothetically, you mean?"
Frank grins, warm and bright. "Sure," he says. "Hypothetically."