It's Not a Date

Part 2

by Maureen S. O'Brien (mobrien at

The white car swooped down the coastal highway, collecting many an envious glance. A few people noticed that the driver was a man in a tuxedo, or that the passenger seat held a woman in a lovely gown. But nobody noticed the boy robot sprawled out upside down on the seat between them, his metal shoes slowly hitting the back of the seat while his head dangled down in the footwell, his aerodynamic ridge of hair narrowly missing the floor as the spiky back of his head stayed hidden in the darkness under the seat.

Rusty was enjoying the ride. Sure, he could have flown to the amusement park a lot faster. But this was a pretty darn cool car, plus he got to sit between his two favorite humans in the world, Dr. Slate and Lieutenant Dwayne. His best buddy Jeffy was third, and Mack, Jo and Garth were sorta tied for fourth, fifth and sixth. But number seven was definitely that guy who'd designed Magitech Warriors, because Magitech Warriors was his most favorite video game ever! And the Big Guy was his favorite robot, and the Boy Unit was his favorite biomechanoid, and Edie was his favorite supercomputer. He waved at Edie's approximate position up on her space station in lunar orbit. "You can see the Moon pretty darn good from here!" he reported.

Dr. Slate, who looked pretty funny upside-down, smiled at him a little, but mostly at Lieutenant Dwayne. "You can see it pretty good from up here, too."

"But I like it down here! And I can see under the dashboard. There's wires and pedals and stuff, and it's pretty darned neat!"

Lieutenant Dwayne smiled at Dr. Slate. "Acorn doesn't fall too far from the tree."

Dr. Slate's cheeks turned all pink for some reason, but she smiled so she must've been happy about it. But why the heck were they talking about acorns all of a sudden? Why did they keep laughing at each other's jokes, when he couldn't even figure out what was funny? And why did they keep giving each other those goofy smiles?

It must be some kind of mushy stuff. Rusty sighed and looked back under the dashboard, hoping nothing too gross was going to happen tonight. Dr. Slate had asked Lieutenant Dwayne out, and that meant mushy stuff, he was pretty sure. The funny thing was that both of them seemed about as embarrassed by the mushy stuff as he was. "It's not a date!" they'd said.

He rolled his eyes. He could put 10 plus 10 together in binary and get 4.

This not-date was a pretty darn good thing, he'd decided. Dr. Slate and Lieutenant Dwayne really liked each other. Heck, back when he'd just been put on active duty and Dr. Slate was just starting to help out the BGY Project, he'd thought the two of them were going steady. Of course, that'd been months ago! He'd only been a little kid back then, and didn't know any better.

But when he'd told Jeffy about it and how he'd been wrong, Jeffy had pointed out that if his Uncle Dwayne married Rusty's creator, that would make them kinda like cousins, and then Rusty'd probably be allowed to go visit Jeffy a lot, instead of just sending him emails.

On the other hand, Dr. Slate would probably be spending a lot more of her free time with Lieutenant Dwayne. Rusty frowned. Or with him and Lieutenant Dwayne, but not just with him anymore. Maybe it wasn't all good, after all.

Rusty's positional sensors felt the car make a sweeping turn and Lieutenant Dwayne tug on his leg.

"Time to surface, sport. We're here."

Rusty scrambled around and resumed his seat. A big sign that said "Seaside" and was decorated with colored lightbulbs and stuff loomed out of the darkness over a building that looked a lot like a big tollbooth. Most of the places for cars to drive through had gates across them. Not a lot of business this close to, closing time, he guessed.They drove up to one of the places, and just like with the tollbooths he'd once saved from a hungry giant mutant crow, there was a human sitting inside. Lieutenant Dwayne got out his wallet and took out some bills. Rusty watched with fascination. Was this 'paying toll' or 'tipping'?

The woman took the money and quickly shuffled through the bills, counting them. "That's fifteen bucks for three night tickets, and parking's free after dusk." She handed Dwayne three tickets and some money back. "Have a nice night, folks." She smiled and waved at Rusty. "Cute Rusty costume."

"Costume? What costume?"

"And you do his voice really well, too!"

Rusty would have said more, but Dr. Slate made a shushing noise, and Lieutenant Dwayne said "Thank you," and drove off.

"But I am Rusty! Why did that lady say I was wearing a costume?" he demanded.

"Well, Rusty," Dr. Slate said, "a lot of people do wear costumes to amusement parks. I guess it started back in the old days at those Renaissance faires, when people in historical reenactment groups would dress up in their historical clothes to visit. And then other people started coming wearing costumes that weren't historical. And then I guess they just started wearing them to amusement parks, too. It's been like that as long as I can remember, anyway."

"Never understood that," the lieutenant said, pulling into a parking space that was well-lit but well away from other cars. "Used to be the employees wore the costumes, and I sure as heck wouldn't want to pay good money for admission and then spend all my time telling people where the bathrooms were. But I guess it saves the parks some money." He pulled his key out of the ignition.

Dr. Slate said, thinking out loud the way she sometimes did, "Most cultures have a time of year when people wear masks or costumes, or are allowed to act in ways which are considered undignified the rest of the year. But in our culture, Halloween's really not a holiday for grownups. There's Mardi Gras, but most people don't live in New Orleans. So instead of ritual events, I suppose we have places for people to get away from normal life."

Lieutenant Dwayne, who'd walked around the car, opened Dr. Slate's door. He gestured at his tuxedo and her pretty dress. "Some stuff we dress up for."

"How could I forget the annual stockholder appeasement ritual?" she said wryly. "But look at us; we dressed differently, and suddenly we were different people."

"Not that different," the lieutenant objected. "Just parts of us we don't usually get a chance to show." He offered her his arm, and she took it. "Knew the Academy made us take that deportment class for a reason. Ready to roll, Rusty?"

"I've been ready," Rusty said impatiently.

"Don't forget where we parked," Dr. Slate said.

Rusty gave her a look, then noticed that Lieutenant Dwayne was giving her one, too.

Dr. Slate was unapologetic. "I once spent an hour fanning out through VirtuWorld's parking lots to find my dad's car. I prefer being paranoid."

Rusty shifted from foot to foot. The parking lot was half-deserted, and Lieutenant Dwayne's car stood out plenty. "Can we go now? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?"

"Yes, Rusty," Dr. Slate said, smiling a little.

"Cool! Power up! Blast off!" Rusty took off across the parking lot.

"No flying!" Dr. Slate called after him.

"Aw, gee." Rusty settled back onto the asphalt and began running toward the park instead.

"And no running!"

Rusty took the last few steps toward the park entrance's map at a walk. He rolled his eyes. Grownups were so sloooooow. He took the opportunity to scan the map into his memory, happily noted the schedule for the dance pavilion, and made his plans accordingly.

"Next dance set doesn't start for 45 minutes!" he yelled back at the slowpokes, who were just now stepping onto the sidewalk. "So we get to ride as many rides as we can 'til then, right?"

Dr. Slate nodded. "That's the plan," Lieutenant Dwayne said, sounding a little suspicious. "Why?"

Rusty just grinned. "Then follow me!" He walked into the park, carefully keeping his pace at a walk. Okay, more like an Olympic racewalker's walk than what Dr. Slate had in mind, but it was still a walk, right?

Erika, who used to spend quite a few days in Seaside, soon recognized their destination from the route Rusty was taking. She was amused and impressed to note that Rusty, all by himself, had managed to deduce the First Principle of Amusement Parks: ride the roller coaster first. The thought put a little extra spring in her step. It wasn't something she advertised, but Erika Slate had a thing for roller coasters.

The one ahead of her was an old wooden one, designed for families and not particularly tall. But size didn't matter to her; neither did speed or level of difficulty. From the the humblest baby coaster to the highest, fastest, longest, meanest, and loopiest in the world, she loved them all and rode them when she could. Or rather, she had back in college, grad school, and the good old days when she'd worked for Itsibishi -- or at Quark before the Donovan regime. She calculated just how long it'd been since her last coaster ride and winced. Much worse than calculating her last date (not counting Huckle).

She glanced over at Lieutenant Hunter as she walked and he glanced back, smiling. She smiled back. Tuxedos and evening gowns weren't really designed for walking fast. They both seemed to be managing it, but they still looked pretty funny. It was just as well. If she thought too much about how good she was feeling, and how she was about to share Rusty's first coaster ride with somebody else who loved flight and speed, she might just lose her head and giggle like a little girl.

She glanced ahead to make sure that Rusty was still within eyeshot and saw the sign for the coaster proclaiming it the "Cat and Mouse." She grinned, then glanced back at Hunter. All the animation was gone from his face. His expression would have seemed absolutely wooden to a stranger, but she read something else in it: the resigned certainty that something bad was about to happen.

She had seen that look before. She'd just never expected to see it on the lieutenant.

"Hurry up!" Rusty demanded from up ahead by the gate. "There's hardly any line!"

Erika, seeing noone else close enough to interfere, kept the same brisk pace until she reached the gate. Then she stopped and bent down to adjust her shoe. Rusty waited impatiently. She waved him on. "You go ahead, Rusty. We'll catch up in a minute." She bent back down to her shoe, and Rusty's feet eagerly clattered ahead.

"You okay, Doc?" the lieutenant asked.

She looked up. "That's what I wanted to ask you."

"What do you mean?" His face was expressionless again, but his eyes avoided hers.

She sighed. "If you don't like roller coasters, we don't have to ride."

He meant to lie. Well, not lie, exactly; just say nothing and gut it out. He was, after all, a fighter pilot. He had the Right Stuff. He could stare down Senate subcommittees, and he could break his arm and not even swear. But he couldn't bring himself to lie to Erika Slate. It wouldn't so much be a betrayal as just plain insulting to her intelligence. Besides, she'd guessed already.

Instead, he just said, "I can handle it." After all, it was just a kiddie ride. Wouldn't bother him at all, if he didn't know some high school kid was running the thing. At least there weren't any serious G's involved. He'd never let anyone know how close he came to losing his cookies back when they made him ride backseat at the Academy for 'acclimatization', but then, he already knew darned well that aerobatics didn't bother him when he was at the stick.

"I'm sure," she said dryly. "But you're supposed to have fun."

"The kid wants to ride."

"And we can watch." She stopped fiddling with her shoe and started to get up.

He offered her a hand up. "We'll ride. I saw your face when you saw that thing."

She froze. "What do you mean?" she asked.

He smiled down at her. "Like a kid in a candy store."

She looked at him for a long moment, then took his hand. He pulled her up until she was standing again. The whole time, she kept her eyes on his face, studying him like he was one of her experiments. You could almost see the wheels turning. He couldn't take his eyes off her, and he felt his breath starting to quicken. She was so beautiful when she was thinking....


He blinked. "Uh?"

Her cheeks reddened slightly, but her expression grew even more earnest. "We'll sit in the middle if we can. Try pretending that you're steering the car." She paused. "Alternatively, you could just sit back and trust the technology."

He felt his lips twist wryly. "Not my style, Doc."

"I know," she said. But she smiled at him when she said it.

Control. It was a fighter pilot thing, Erika thought as she and the lieutenant caught up to Rusty. She had put a great deal of study into the issue when she was designing Rusty's human emotion grid, since fighter pilots were the best example of lone combatants that she could find. Fighter pilots always had something to prove. They had to be the best. They had to keep the initiative. They had to do everything just so. It kept them alive in battle, but it also made them do stupid things and drove their families crazy. On the other hand, that very need for control made them regard all failures as temporary and all problems as small obstacles to be overcome, which struck her as eminently more healthy than her own tendencies toward depression when she fouled up. In the end, she had designed Rusty with as much of that fighter pilot ego as she thought safe. There were times she thought she'd given him too much.

"There you are!" Rusty said sternly as she came up to him. He grabbed hold of her hand, then one of Dwayne's. "We have to stick together, or you'll get lost," he instructed them seriously.

"All right," she said mildly. "But you'll have to agree not to get too far ahead of us."

"But you said I could!" Rusty said.

"I did," she agreed. Oops. "This time. I'm talking about the rest of the night."

Dwayne stood there expressionlessly as she and Rusty ironed out the rest of their agreement. But she could tell he was amused. He was less amused when Rusty got back onto the subject of roller coasters, especially since they were almost to the front of the line. But even if Rusty hadn't been holding tightly to his hand, she knew he would never have gotten out of line.

Compared to Dwayne, she thought, listening to Rusty enthuse at top speed about how they were going to whooooosh! and zoom!, her little bot was an amateur. Dwayne was so good he no longer needed to be cocky, and so much in control that his command style was best described as 'nearly nonexistent'. But he never let go. Of anything. Not a fact or figure he'd learned. Not an opportunity, however slim. And, most especially, not of his duty to America and Earth. But all the fun of a roller coaster was letting go and letting it take you for a ride.

The train of roller coaster cars rolled back into the station and gradually came to a halt. After a moment, the attendants walked out and started opening the car doors and releasing the lapbars. The passengers got out and walked away, little kids kinetic with energy and even the grownups looking exhilarated. She counted the cars against the people in front of them. No, not this run. Next one.

Rusty dropped both their hands and pressed up against the fence, watching with fascination. "Why do they look so happy, Dr. Slate?" Rusty asked.

"Dopamine," she said, anticipation beginning to catch up with her. "It's a brain chemical associated with excitement and risk. The simulated danger of the roller coaster stimulates the brain to produce more."

Rusty's face fell. "So I won't feel like that."

She smiled down at him and touched his hair, though he couldn't feel it. "Rusty, I designed your human emotion grid. And I didn't forget to let you enjoy flying, did I?"

"No," he agreed. "And this is kinda like flying, right?"

"The closest thing to it, for those of us without nucleo-accelerators," she agreed. "So don't worry. I think it's safe to say you won't miss the dopamine."

The next group boarded the train, and suddenly the three of them were at the head of the line. She took a deep breath of cool night air. It smelled full of oil, metal, and wood. There was nothing else like it. Nothing at all. The gates were closed in front of them, and the train set off again.

Dwayne watched the train of cars running up and down the tiny little hills, trailing screams behind them like a vapor trail. Tiny, he told himself again. That big hill was maybe forty feet high. The train was going, what, 30 or 40 miles per hour? If you ended up pulling 1.5 G's going downhill and half a G going up, you'd be doing well.

He shook his head. Like he'd told the Doc, it wasn't the speed or the size of the hills that made his gut do Immelmanns. If it were that, he wouldn't be able to ride the express elevators in Quark Tower. But elevators came with control buttons, and roller coasters didn't.

Who the heck came up with these stupid things, anyway?

"I read on the Net that roller coasters were invented in Russia," Rusty told Erika solemnly. "People liked sliding down ice hills in carts, so they put wheels on 'em so they could do it all year."

Erika opened her mouth as if to correct him, but then shrugged and smiled. "Close enough for the Net. What else did you read, Rusty?"

Great. Some bunch of Russians with cabin fever and too much vodka decided to slide down an ice hill, and not in, he noted, a nice steerable sled, but in a cart! For fun! You'd have to be drunk for that to sound like a good idea. What'd they do in the summer, spook their horses on purpose?

The cars slid back into the station as Rusty began to fidget. Doc firmly took him by the shoulders and held him down. She bent down and said something in a low voice about "don't run" and "you have to stay in your seat while the cars are moving."

The people left again, apparently just as drugged by their own brains as Doc had described. The teenagers running the ride -- swift, my life in the hands of people not old enough to drive -- ran around doing some sort of maintenance and cleaning up the seats. Better not think too hard about what they were cleaning. Then, walking slowly and casually, they came over and opened the gates.

"Hmm," said one of the pimply attendants, eyeing Rusty. "Let's measure you up against Mr. Dolphin, kid."

"I'm tall enough," said Rusty. "I'm four foot one."

"Uh huh. Well, let's see if that's taller than Mr. Dolphin."

Rusty rolled his eyes, but somehow resisted the temptation to point out that his sensors could tell the exact length of a bug a half mile away, if need be. Instead, he pressed back against Mr. Dolphin's dorsal fin until the attendant was convinced that Rusty was tall enough.

"Okay, kid! You get first pick of where to sit. Next!"

Doc let go of Rusty's hand. He headed straight for the car in front. Then Rusty stopped, looking at the wide seat uncertainly. Doc, who'd been walking beside him, stopped too.

"What's wrong, Rusty?" she said quietly.

The kid looked back, nerves he didn't really have showing all over his face. "That seat's kinda big. What if I fall out?"

"You won't fall out, Rusty. The design is...."

"But what if I slide over and fall out? I thought rollie coasters had seat belts and harnesses and stuff...."

"Newer roller coasters do, Rusty, but that's because their speed is so much greater and...."

Rusty didn't seem to be reassured. "Dr. Slate, will you ride with me? Please?"

She turned back toward Dwayne, looking torn. "Will you...?" Dwayne waved her on firmly. Family always comes first. She nodded and turned away.

He glanced across the track. The exit gates stood open, just a step away. Rusty was so excited he might not even notice, and Doc wouldn't think any less of him.

But he would. He shook his head at himself. The same thing that made him hate this stupid coaster wouldn't let him leave. He turned and followed Doc and Rusty up to the very first car. If he was gonna have to ride this thing, he sure wasn't gonna do it alone.

Rusty happily scooted over. "I'll sit in the middle," he said. "That way, Dr. Slate gets to be shotgun."

That way, Dwayne noticed wryly, there was also a body on either side to keep Rusty from sliding out. Smart kid. Smarter than him, anyway.

The teenage kids walked by, checking the lapbar to make sure it was locked down securely. Then they signaled to the kid with the console, and the cars started to roll.

And the Doc wanted him to pretend he was driving this contraption. Riiiight.

Dwayne had some serious questions about the engineering of this ride. Was it really necessary for that chain thing to clink-clank- clank-clank that loudly, and pull them up that slowly? And who was the jerk who decided they ought to sit there at the top for a minute, staring all the way down the first hill? Was his last name de Sade?

Slate turned to Rusty. "Don't forget to scream! And put your hands in the air," she said, demonstrating. "We'll have more fun that way." Dwayne glanced over at what her new posture did for that sleeveless gown and had to agree.

"Okay," Rusty said warily. "You do it too, Lieutenant Dwayne."

Scream? Take his hands off that lapbar and reach for the sky? Not a cha....

The car plummeted down the hill. Dwayne's stomach did, too. He clenched his mouth shut, but not too tight because this wooden track was a real tooth-rattler. Doc shrieked like a banshee. Not for any particular reason, apparently, since she was grinning like a thief. Rusty's scream sounded considerably more realistic.

They got to the bottom, then turned, jostling Rusty and Doc into his side. The car rattled and bounced up another hill, making his stomach fly upward and his rear end, too.

Doc chortled, "Hang time!" and then went back to her new heavy metal career. Rusty said, "Wahoo!" Then he let go of the lapbar, and waved his hands in the air. Great. Even the kid was doing better than him.

At the top of the hill, they turned again, running along a ridge of track that gave them a nice scenic view of how far down it was to the ground. Rusty's emotion grid was apparently giving him plenty of happy juice, and the Doc couldn't stop smiling. He hated them.

Doc looked over at him encouragingly. Okay, so he didn't hate them; he just wished Doc had been around to design his emotion grid, too. He gave her a tightlipped smile over Rusty's head.

Her own smile slipped a little. "Just thirty more seconds," she told him. But she couldn't help sounding a little regretful. The Doc was a speedfreak, he told himself again, still finding it hard to believe. And I thought she had that little red sportscar because she liked the engineering.

"You forgot to put your hands up, Lieutenant Dwayne," Rusty informed him. "And you didn't scream."

He looked down at the kid. Aw, what the heck. He could do it for twenty seconds. He raised his hands in the air as they approached the drop at the edge of the hill. It was only thirty feet or so. Whatever he did, it'd be over quick.

Rusty nodded, satisfied. Then he looked from left to right conspiratorially. "Let's have a screaming contest, okay? I bet I can scream louder than you guys can."

Dwayne swallowed hard as they glided toward the drop. "I wouldn't bet on that." But he kept his hands in the air. It was only thirty seconds. And the faster this thing went, the faster he was back on the ground.

He snorted. Go, baby, go.

The bottom dropped out, but this time he could feel the night wind whipping against his arms as well as the feel of the car through the seat of his pants. Rusty was obviously trying his best to scream louder than the Doc. Feeling stupid, he opened his mouth and yelled something as well.

Just for that moment, he forgot about how much he hated what was going on, and just for that moment, it wasn't so bad to be hurtling downward with the wind in his face. Sorta like skydiving. He liked that okay, even if it did involve jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.

The track whooshed up again in a tiny hill, then quickly dipped down again. It turned a little more and did it again. Then the station was waiting for them, along with a little crowd of people. There was still hardly any line. The cars glided to a halt and the teenagers walked up to release them from lapbar bondage. He made a face when they realized that Doc had already managed it. Dwayne followed Rusty out of the car and out the exit gate.

Rusty, as he'd expected, was already talking a mile a minute. "...and then, wasn't it neat when we went like this and then like this?" He gave Dwayne his hand.

"It was pretty neat," Dwayne allowed as they walked. He actually felt a slight smile on his face.

Doc stood waiting for them. She brightened when she saw Dwayne's expression. "Looks like you two boys had fun," was all she said.

"Some," he allowed.

Rusty happily took Doc's hand, too, and continued telling them how great it had been as he swung their hands back and forth.

Doc looked at her other wrist reflexively. No watch, of course. "How are we doing on time? Want to ride this again?"

Dwayne checked his watch. "39 minutes till we go dance."

Rusty looked as if he didn't believe his own internal clock. "Then we gotta go!" He strode forward, almost dragging them with him in his enthusiasm. Sometimes Rusty forgot that he was stronger than any human.

Over the next 38 minutes and 58 seconds, Lieutenant Dwayne Hunter was given plenty of opportunity to reflect on those people, who, like General Thorton, believed that the boy robot had an inadequate grasp of strategy and tactics. These persons had never been given a chance to accompany Rusty while he rode almost every ride at Seaside in just under 40 minutes. Rusty didn't bother complaining when he saw a sign noting that one had to be more than 4'1" high to get on board; he simply and went to the next ride along his carefully planned and very efficient route leading from the park entrance all around the park and over to the dance pavilion. It would have been an impossible feat in the daytime, but the lines were short enough after dark that it could be done...barely.

"It's amusement park boot camp," Dwayne muttered from his carousel horse, a wooden blood bay coated with a saddle that would have weighed at least fifty pounds if it were real. It was a good thing he was in good shape. How the heck did the Doc manage?

"At least we get to sit down every few minutes," Erika said, only puffing a little as she sat sidesaddle on a little gray Arab that bobbed slowly up and down. "Try playing street hockey with Rusty sometime. He never gets tired, and I guarantee you do."

"Woohoo!" said Rusty, happily pulling up and down on the reins of a big black Thoroughbred. "Look at me, Dr. Slate! I'm a cowboy!"

"I see you," she called back. Then she turned to Dwayne again. "I think Rusty's going to start bugging you to let him go visit Jeffy again. Jeffy's been emailing him about his new horse, I understand."

"New pony," Dwayne said firmly. "As gentle and calm as Darlene could find, and she looked." He considered the problem. "But Rusty's quite a bit heavier than Jeffy; you'd probably need a horse to mount him. Lemme see... the Whitakers had that old paint horse for their kids to ride, but they've got to be past that age now. We'll have to check him out, of course, but...."

He stopped. Erika was smiling at him, for no particular reason he could see. "What?"

"Nothing," she said, smiling a little wider. "An old paint horse, you said?"

"Yeah. Nice gaits, gentle, and about as calm as you can get without being dead. The perfect horse for Rusty, I'd say...."

Erika tapped him on the shoulder. "The merry-go-round's slowing down."

"Well, here we go again."

But even 39 minutes must come to an end, and after being scrambled, swung, slid, bounced, shook, rattled and rolled, Rusty was more than willing to lead the way to the dance pavilion. The major question for Dwayne was whether, even after sitting out most of the later lines and rides, either he or Erika were going to be capable of dancing at all. All in all, he was very glad to see that the dance pavilion served beer. It was the kind of beer that ought to be labeled "Nondescript Yellow Liquid", but hey, it was beer.

"Thank you," Dr. Slate said with feeling as he handed her a plastic cup.

He settled into a seat himself, careful not to jostle the little round table as he sat down. "How're your feet, Doc?" How women could wear those things was beyond him; after that one prank, his feet had swollen like sausages....

"Not too bad, believe it or not -- these are good shoes. It's my legs that hurt."

"Well, no reason we can't just sit here and listen to the music for a bit," he reasoned. "When it starts, that is."

"You guys are tired?" Rusty said incredulously. "But we've hardly done anything yet!"

"It's been a full day for us," Erika said quietly. "You, too. How're your power levels?"

Rusty shrugged. "Fine. Didn't have to do much flying today."

Dwayne, struck by a thought, had gotten out a twenty and an ink pen and scribbled a quick message on a napkin. He handed the twenty and the napkin to Rusty. "Since you've got more energy left than me, Rusty, why don't you take...uh, walk...this up to the guy in charge of the band?"

Rusty took them. "Why?"

"I want the band to play a song."

"Ohhhhhhh. For you and Dr. Slate," Rusty teased.

"That's right," he nodded. "But the song's a surprise."

"Okay," Rusty said, and started away. When he came back, he was giggling. Apparently he approved of Dwayne's choice.

The band had come on stage a little late, the way bands always did -- must be some corollary of Murphy's Law -- so it took a few more minutes before they started to play. The music sounded pretty good in the cool of the evening, and the beer tasted fine. People started to get up in couples from the tables around the periphery of the big wooden dance floor. He took a look at Erika. She looked contented enough, which he figured was a good sign.

Meanwhile, Rusty people-watched, his eyes wide. It wasn't a bad place for it, Dwayne had to admit, since the crowd of dancers and spectators seemed to be about half-and-half people dressed up and people in costume, with some people mixing the two.

"Look," Rusty stage-whispered. "You see that guy in the Hawaiian shirt?"

Dwayne scanned the dance floor until he finally noticed the Hawaiian shirt under a much more recognizable feature. "You mean, the guy with the tiger head and glasses?"

"Yeah, that's him. He looks just like one of the people I met in that Moon Platoon chatroom. Do you think maybe it's him?"

"Probably not," Erika said, shaking her head. "A lot of people watch Moon Platoon , and Raksha's a popular character."

"Can I watch Moon Platoon?"

"You've asked me before. The answer is still no."

"Oh. Well, do you think that's really the Neo-Cateri, then, or just people dressed up like them?"

"The existence of the Neo-Cateri isn't public knowledge," Dwayne said, frowning. "Where do you see...."

Across the dance floor, a small silvery figure stood up from his chair and started waving at them. "Rusty Unit! Over here!"

"Hi, Boy Unit!" Rusty happily yelled back.

Dr. Slate pushed him back down into his chair. "It's rude to yell."


"You may go talk to the Neo-Cateri -- but you have to walk. And keep your voice down, so you won't disturb anyone."

"Okey-dokey!" Rusty 'walked' off at the same speed he'd been using all evening.

Dwayne groaned. "Well, isn't this a nice little security breach." It did look like a couple of uniformed MPs were sitting with the Neo-Cateri, but he had a feeling General Thorton hadn't been consulted about this little trip. After all, the three sentient alien biomechanoids and their damaged spacecraft were hiding from the evil robotic Zingcal. It wouldn't do to have them showing up on talk shows or other electromagnetic transmissions. And now the other two Neo-Cateri were waving, though a little less conspicuously.

He waved back. Well, he couldn't not wave back. He liked them, and their stubborn insistence on keeping the emotions and way of life they'd created for themselves. But they shouldn't be out in public.

"They are guests here," Erika pointed out. "It'd be a shame if they never got to see anything more of Earth than the Fort's infirmary and repair hangar. And we brought Rusty." She rose from her chair.

"Rusty's not on the run," he pointed out, also getting up. "But maybe I'm just paranoid." He gave her his arm again.

"Probably not," she said, threading with him through tables and dancers. "But we didn't get any say in it, and they're here now."

They certainly were. Three Neo-Cateri, their eyes large and ovoid and their bodies entirely metallic, sitting with two uniformed MPs right in the midst of a crowd of ordinary humans. And aside from the occasional approving murmur at their wonderful 'costumes', nobody noticed anything odd. He reminded himself that the Neo-Cateri only knew him as Big Guy's chief mechanic and a human helping with the spaceship repair, and headed over.

"Greetings, Erika Unit and Dwayne Unit," the melodious voice of the Mother Unit greeted them as they approached the table. "Did you intend to find us here, or is this meeting by chance?"

A little bit of an edge to that question, Dwayne thought. "Didn't know you were coming. We came here to dance."

"And go on rides!" Rusty added excitedly. "How many rides have you been on, Boy Unit? Did you get to ride the rollie coaster?"

"I have been on many rides, but I was permitted on the rollie coaster only once," the Boy Unit said earnestly. "I hope that I shall be permitted to ride it again before we leave."

"Maybe we can ride it together," Rusty said. "That'd be really keen!"

"So," Dwayne asked, hoping the kids'd forget all about rides of any kind, "what brings you folks here?"

The Father Unit smiled, a human gesture that all three had adopted. "You see that I am once again fully functional -- thanks to your treatment, Erika Unit. The Somtow Unit and the Cooper Unit suggested that we visit this recreation area as a celebration."

"They did, huh?" Dwayne gave the two MPs sitting with them a hard look.

"Uh, yessir," Corporal Somtow admitted. "But they've been working so hard, we thought they could use a little fun. Especially the Boy Unit."

"And we were right about this being the perfect place, weren't we?" Private Cooper said enthusiastically. "Heck, we couldn't've been less noticed if we'd had a public access cable show!"

"Maybe so," said Dwayne blandly. "We'll talk about this back at the Fort sometime."

Cooper's smile slipped as he noticed the exceptional mildness of Dwayne's gaze. He'd never dealt much with the Big Guy's chief mechanic before, but he had a feeling he was going to become real familiar with his chewing-out skills, real soon.

"I am sorry to be so suspicious," the Mother Unit said, her voice like a silver flute. "You have all been so very kind to us. Almost too kind."

"We can never repay your people for all that they have done," the Father Unit agreed. "Yet this is a culture based on exchange. It makes us wonder if there will be hidden fees or additional charges." The Father Unit had obviously seen a few cellphone ads on TV while he was recovering in the infirmary.

"Repay us?" Slate was indignant, and the fact that she spoke quietly somehow gave her words more weight. "You've let us observe and repair your spaceship, your equipment and yourselves. You taught us the basic principles behind your bio-mechanical technology, helped us reverse- engineer some of it, and opened up an entirely new branch of materials science which will revolutionize our way of life within the next twenty years and give our economy a boost like we've never seen since the discovery of microfusion. What more could we ask? You've already repaid us a thousand times over. We owe you."

The Father Unit looked uncomfortable with so much praise. The Mother Unit cocked her head. "And what of the knowledge that you shared with us, Erika Unit? You saved my mate's life," she said, taking his hand, "and that is worth more to us than all the technology in the world."

The Father Unit looked more embarrassed still. "It would have taken us much longer to repair our spacecraft without the help of the Dwayne Unit and the many Army and Navy Units," he pointed out hurriedly. "Now I think that we will be able to leave again within ten to twelve of your days."

Slate glanced at him, startled. "So soon?"

Dwayne felt pretty startled himself. "There's still a lot of hull damage to repair."

"The ship has been repaired enough now that it can begin to repair, or rather, to heal, itself," the Father Unit explained. "I started the process today. Tomorrow the ship will need feeding with certain compounds, and then...."

"And then we will go," the Mother Unit said, her voice definite.

"We will bring no more danger upon your planet," the Father Unit agreed.

That was the one thing the Neo-Cateri had kept saying since they first landed. No matter how much General Thorton tried to persuade them to stay on Earth, they kept refusing. Erika sighed to herself. The galaxy seemed to be a very densely populated and unfriendly place, and she worried about how the Neo-Cateri would fare after they left. They were too nice of people to be always on the run.

"But we will remember Earth as a place of friendship for us. We have learned much from you about how to live as beings with emotions," the Mother Unit said. "Your culture and customs are very interesting, since our people came into being so recently as to have none to speak of. I was particularly interested in your accounts of courtship rituals, Erika Unit."

The lieutenant raised an eyebrow. Erika refused to blush. "The Neo- Cateri have been too few to require such things, Lieutenant. They wanted to know more about what they'd been seeing on TV, so I gave them some explanation of our customs."

"Like 'never kiss on the first date'," the Father Unit chimed in. "And rings, and dancing...."

"Dancing." The Mother Unit's smile slowly widened. "So, Erika Unit, are you and the Dwayne Unit currently participating in a 'date'?"

The Father Unit gave them a searching look. "And when do you two units intend to mate and reproduce? Will it be before we leave?"

Erika searched for a way to phrase a reply, but was struck utterly speechless. This was probably just as well, since she would probably have spent several minutes just saying 'uh'. The two MPs maintained their professional stonefaces, with a good deal of help from Dwayne's bland gaze. Otherwise, he was no help at all. Erika prayed for help from above.

The two younger robots had been ignoring the adults' conversation up to this point, but now the Boy Unit looked up. "Biological reproduction is too messy," he objected. "The Erika Unit should just make another unit like Rusty."

Rusty frowned. "Dr. Slate told you about biological reproduction? She won't tell me hardly anything!"

"She told the Mother Unit, who uploaded the data to the Father Unit and me," the Boy Unit explained. "Would you like me to upload it to you?"


"Oh, no, you don't," Erika said sternly. "In this culture, information transmission on certain subjects is controlled by parents," she told the Boy Unit. "Rusty will learn what I want him to, when I want him to. And since I am responsible for the proper development of Rusty's human emotion grid, I would appreciate it if you didn't interfere."

Rusty sighed. "But Dr. Slate...."

"It involves lots of mushy stuff. Do you really want to know?"

"Oh." Rusty considered. "No."

"All right, then."

She hardly noticed when the band began to play another piece of music, but Dwayne hastily touched her on the arm and then spoke to the Neo-Cateri. "I think they're playing our song. If you'll excuse us?"

Relieved to have a good excuse to get out of there, she took Dwayne's offered hand and stood up. They stepped out onto the dance floor together as the band's singer moved to the microphone. It was so simple a thing to put her arms around him. Dwayne didn't hesitate now to put a hand on her bare back. Something had shifted today as they fought the goo and walked through the park. They no longer felt like mismatched parts; they were starting to be pieces of the same thing.

"Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars.
Let me know what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars...."

Swaying with the music, Erika laughed. "You weren't kidding about it being our song!" Dwayne looked pleased. As if she wouldn't have liked it. As if she would hate to remember the moment when he'd been air and life.

"...are all I long for, all I worship and adore.
In other words, please be true!
In other words, I love you."

The drums of the band cleared the way for the horns, and Dwayne whirled her out into a spin. Centripetal, she thought, like the roller coaster, and she laughed again. She was still laughing when the lights and the speakers suddenly went off. Everyone could hear her. She blushed furiously, fiercely self-conscious. Dwayne squeezed her hand a little tighter, and she felt him close the space between them.

"Sorry," he muttered into her ear. "I shoulda known better than to take a night off."

She sighed. "That was what I was about to say."

They looked out into the darkness and saw nothing but dim shapes, moonlight on the sea, and the faintly glowing eyes of the Neo-Cateri. Microfusion lines ran underground. They didn't get knocked out by storms.

"I didn't feel any earthquake," she said quietly. "Could be one farther away, but microfusion lines are hard to break...."

Then, behind the disappointed babble of the crowd, they heard the noise of metal clicking on asphalt. The sound scuttled along, as if made by many legs. Now dark-adjusted, their eyes met. As one, they murmured, "Legion."


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