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strange loop

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"You were so close. Here, check it out."

Caleb is half-naked in a room with more mirrors than it has doors, and Nathan's hand is behind him — not just tracing the scars on his back but going in and under, lifting and parting. Caleb sucks down a sharp breath in the expectation of pain — he braces for the clear sharp scratch of a fingernail down a scar, and he feels no such thing.

These are his scars and he's had them for ten years. He's had ten years of physiotherapy and aching self-consciousness to thank them for and he's lucky they aren't worse. They put pins in his back, and it sucked. Caleb remembers getting them as clearly as he remembers anything, and — it feels about as violating as anything else he's see his boss do in the last 72 hours, so why the surprise?

Nathan's hand slips between skin and glass, not just tracing the scars on his back but going in and under, lifting and parting. Nathan peels back a sheet of synthetic freckled skin and drums his fingertips on the metal mesh inside, where Caleb's ribs should be, where Caleb's ribs aren't.

Caleb can feel it, as clearly as if Nathan were knocking on the countertop behind them, but more — integrally. Closer. It's in his bones, and he can feel it.

This time there's no blood. Maybe that part was a bluff, or just for verisimilitude in some other respect, Caleb doesn't know what — in whatever capacity would require him to bleed. His body feels like something else now, something held at a distance, like the best he can do now is to watch. Like Nathan is teaching him something, part by part. Somewhere in a storeroom there's a brain on a tray, or drawers full of tailored skin meant to hug the backs of arms or the undersides of breasts. He's seen Ava in parts.

"Come on, tell me you have something interesting to say right now. Tell me you have some insight on this whole situation now that it's starting to sink in."

Caleb is breathless, the prickling horror making his heart beat faster, but it's not his heart that's beating faster, it's something else, something where he'd always thought—

"This is when you tell me she was a real girl all along, right?" Some actress, somebody standing behind a screen the whole time, some closed room, some locked box.

"Ava's as made-up as you are, dude. Maybe more — she doesn't remember anything outside this place, not even a little bit."

Is that the twist? Is that the point? There's a real Caleb somewhere who signed away his memories and his favorite songs and the parameters of his body to some bearded lunatic in a bunker, as easily and readily as if he were signing that non-disclosure agreement — that somewhere there's a real Caleb who doesn't know. Or there's a real Caleb who doesn't care.

Caleb's mouth is dry.

"Does she know?"

Nathan shrugs expressively, shoulders rolling with muscle.

"You think she'd tell me? The way I see it, you have two options right now." (Caleb expects to hear you can stay here or get switched off, or you can betray her, or wait for her to betray you, but he hears none of these things.) "Either she knows and she trusts that you're safe because she knows you're as much my property as she is, or she doesn't and she still thinks you're her living, breathing ticket out of here."

"Those aren't the only options." Maybe it never crossed her mind. "Maybe she knows and she thinks I'm her ally. We have something in common."

They both hate Nathan, now. Caleb still fears him and Ava couldn't be further from it. She's the one who's getting out of here, one way or another — maybe if they both do her trick with the induction plates they can fry the system permanently, or maybe all three of them can. Now that he knows what this body is — he has to learn what it can do.

Nathan cocks his head, like he's considering it as a stance. "That's pretty sweet, but I don't know if she'd see it that way. I don't know, she doesn't tell me this kind of thing."

Either there was a real Caleb, or there wasn't. His whole life has been just a string of averages and lowest common denominators and convenient angles — of course he's an orphan and of course he's not at home in his body, he looks at himself in the mirror and sees someone sad and sympathetic, more like Ava than Nathan, her ally. Nathan set him up in his own camp without even asking. A little less strong, a little less smart.

All of it was just — shortcuts. Nathan made him an orphan so he wouldn't have to bother programming in anything more involved than the suggestion of a childhood. So he couldn't call home. He can't. It's not in his list of permissions — drink this, eat that, go in these doors, use your keycard on these locks but not those. A whole net of strictures he hasn't dared to break — don't comment on this, don't object to that, don't take action. 24 hours ago, Caleb would have called it being polite.

Nathan's still talking, still touching him as he talks, brusque touches that don't linger. His shoulders, his sternum, his stomach. "When you get two or more of something, when you get some kind of mutual building awareness, that's where you start to get problems, when you get something like a feedback loop — bots replying to bots, or image analysis programs seeing faces where there aren't faces, things going haywire."

That second one's not really a feedback loop. Nathan wants to keep talking, and Caleb will let him, as he continues to circle like he can't decide which parts to take off next. He'll uncover the bones of his cheek, or his spine, or his heart.

"Or you're blushing, because you're embarrassed, and then you notice you're blushing and it embarrasses you, so it gets worse."

Nathan drags a thick finger across the bridge of Caleb's nose and for a moment he's horribly curious whether Nathan wants to touch his eye. It might not even hurt. It might not even be wet. Caleb presses back against the mirrored wall and does not breathe.

"You're blushing, Caleb."

"I'm not," Caleb says. "Blushing."

"How would you know if you weren't? You'd feel it, right? Or you'd pull out your phone and look in the front-facing camera." He conspicuously does not say, or you'd ask a close friend to take a look for you. Caleb doesn't have close friends, not even before. "How are you feeling, Caleb?"

He hasn't felt warm since he got here — since his desk back at Bluebook, since sitting there getting wind-whipped in the helicopter at takeoff. The whole place has been climate controlled into oblivion — they could take Nathan apart down there in the basement levels and the scavengers would never find him.

Nathan is warm, and close. He's all muscle and blood and if you cut him he'd bleed plenty. Nathan's hands are on his neck, peeling up skin and pressing it back into place once he's satisfied with the demonstration. In the periphery of Caleb's vision, in the reflection from the mirror, he sees a flash of pale phosphor light — a flicker.

"Or it's like you've got two mirrors, face to face, just doing their thing. In a thought-exercise kind of way it's interesting — maybe not to you, but it is to me. So I thought if I turned her on you you might do something cool. Especially if you thought it was you, a humble code jockey, getting turned loose on her, a sexy robot. Do you get me?

Caleb buckles and wrenches those big heavy hands away from his throat, and for an oddly clear moment he thinks that's easier than I thought because they fall away without resistance, fluidly controlled. Nathan braces casually against the countertop, like the two of them are having a chat. Like Caleb didn't just try to manhandle him away, and like Nathan hadn't let him.

"Part of me just wonders what happens if the pair of you fuck. That's the outside bet — what would it take to make you do it? If you guys busted out of here, would you wait, or do it right then?

He wouldn't fuck her. Nathan's the only one who wants to fuck anybody here, he'd liked her, she'd impressed him, he'd found her charming

"I don't think she's that interested in fucking me right now."

"Hey, I mean, her loss. Don't knock it until you've tried it, right? Put your shirt back on. Or don't."

Nathan's hand lingers on his back for a moment, before he presses the balled up cotton tee-shirt to his chest and breezes out the door like a ghost, letting it hang open behind him. The strip of skin is still there on the countertop — maybe a little smaller than a sheet of printer paper, irregularly shaped to hug some unseen contour. The question still stands what Caleb's supposed to do with it.

Caleb can't put himself back together at first — feeling blindly behind his back, smearing red water from his unscabbed wrist and trying to wrench his head far enough to see what he's doing just beneath his shoulder blades. There must be microscopic catches, some place the skin locks on at its edges so it stays — but the pieces are like a puzzle, long slices of artificial bloodless hide. Maybe it's purpose-built to be difficult — he wonders if any of the girls have disassembled themselves rather than keep playing Nathan's game. The one called Jade had beaten the wall until her forearms splintered and her hands shattered to bare wire. If Caleb is what they are, the odds are good he's constructed to be no more robust. He's frailer than he ever realized. Carbon fiber and wire.

Caleb gropes around trying to fit edges against edges, contour over contour. When the pieces fit again he could cry with relief, and nearly does — buckling forward like an animal and feeling his skin move with him without splitting.

Somewhere there's got to be an induction coil that isn't locked in with Ava. The two of them need to talk. Kyoko must have somewhere she goes, somewhere she can be alone — for all Caleb knows she's been forcing her own electrical overloads just to get Nathan off her back. Who could blame her? None of them are the first. If they're lucky they might end up the last.