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It's been yet another crazy day in Metro City, with the Chaos Crew showing up to attack the Pekar Parkway amusement park. A small group of the city's superheroes handled the problem fairly effectively -- with perhaps the exception of yours truly, as I spent the whole battle getting blown into metal fragments by bazooka shells. But it turns out the fight isn't actually over -- in fact, it's actually just beginning.

"Where have you guys been?!" shouts the Chrome Cobra angrily over our communicators. "We've been screaming at you guys for ages!"

"Hey, Cobra, Phreakazoid set up a communications signal jammer out here at Pekar," says the Star. "We weren't able to receive or send any messages."

"So they've got the Chaos Crew in on this, too?" she says. "How's Pekar holding up? And who've you got out there with you?"

"There's been some damage to the park," says Star. "Destruction of some attractions and buildings. Some civilian injuries, but no deaths. Chaos Crew is all rounded up, too. Out here, we've got me, Wheelman, Gearbox, Gamma Girl, Calypso, Polyphemus, and Kumiko. What's going on, Cobra?"

"We're in the middle of a dogpile," Cobra says. "Make sure the Chaos Crew is secure, then stand by so I can get you guys deployed."

"What's a dogpile?" asks Polyphemus. 

"Short answer?" says Wheelman. "A coordinated attack on the city by a whole bunch of supervillains. Long answer? Actually, it's pretty much the same thing as the short answer."

"So why would anyone do that?" asks Calypso. "Who would be behind something like this?"

"There's no way to tell right now," says Kumiko. "Could be an attempt to take over the city. Could be a distraction for some other scheme. Whoever's behind it either has a hell of a lot of money or they're promising the other bad guys some really excellent spoils."

"Alright, listen up," says Cobra through our communicators. "I've got everyone else split up into three squads, and they could all use a hand, so I'm sending all of you to different locations to help out. Star and Polyphemus: head to Bushmiller Park. The Scumdogs of the Universe are trying to tear the place to pieces. Wheelman, Gamma Girl, Calypso -- I want you helping us with the Doom Chorus downtown over by the Waid-Claremont."

As everyone else takes off, Cobra says, "Gearbox, Kumiko, sorry to do this to you, but I'm sending you to the Boardwalk to help Miss Mega deal with Splatter."

"Oh, dammit, Cobra," I say. "I've already been taken to pieces once today."

"Yeah, well, you can survive that, which is more than I can say for anyone else," she says. "And Kumiko may have some tricks to help knock her out a little faster than normal."

"I'm not familiar with this person," Kumiko says. "I take it she's some sort of serious threat?"

"Fill her in on the details on the way, Gearbox," says Cobra. "I gotta go -- Doctor Damnation is just begging for an ass-whuppin'."

 So I extend some helicopter rotors from my shoulders and take to the air, followed by Kumiko. Flight is apparently one of the few powers she has where she doesn't have to shout some ridiculous "Shiny Happy FLYING" crap. 

"So who is this Splatter person, and why is she such a great danger?" she asks. 

"Essentially, she's almost as strong as Miss Mega, and she's a damned psychotic."

"Okay, but it is just superstrength, right? Some crazy woman flinging a few cars around is something that should be pretty easy to handle."

If I had moveable eyes, I would be rolling them so very hard right now.

"I'm sorry, but I've got to assume that Portland didn't have a lot of superstrong metas, am I right?"

"No, there were several," she says. "Officer Steele, Rubicon, the Unnamable..."

"Ahh, okay," I say. "All of them are classified as pretty powerful, but... well, you're going to get an interesting education today. Try not to get killed."

"Oh, sure thing," she says. "I don't scare very easily, Gearbox. Just tell me what I need to know to help take this person down."

"Gladly," I say. "Splatter is a former chemist who discovered a superstrength formula and overdosed on it hard. She's wants to become the strongest person in the world and has obsessed on beating Miss Mega as part of her 'master plan.' Luckily, she's never yet managed to get stronger than Mega, but sometimes, she's really close -- and she can fly, which puts Mega at a disadvantage. The good news is that her formula has changed her body chemistry so she's the only person it'll work on, so she can't give it to every hood in town to make a superstrong army. Also, the effect is always temporary -- it lasts no more than a few days before it stops working, and it burns out faster the harder she has to exert herself. The bad news is that she can synthesize a new dose anytime someone busts her out of prison, and every application of the formula has variant effects on her -- sometimes she's stronger, sometimes weaker, sometimes crazier, sometimes less. Eventually, she'll take one overdose too many, and it'll kill her."

"Okay, so our primary objective is to get her to over-exert herself and burn through her formula, right?"

"No, Miss Mega will handle that," I reply. "What we need to do is try to limit civilian casualties and property damage. And seriously, Kumiko, your primary objective is not to underestimate her. If your spells can affect her, that's great. But don't you dare let your overconfidence about Metro City's supposed inadequacies blind you to the colossal danger we're about to fly into. I'm glad you don't scare easily -- I don't either. But I've seen fights between these two more than once, and up close, too. And I consider the level of fear I'm feeling to be both embarrassingly extreme and entirely appropriate. Be cautious, be careful, and stay the hell out of their way."

"Okay, okay," she groans. "Never dreamed I'd meet a robot with fears."

"My programming is more sound than yours. My creator was a genius."

So how big a genius was my creator? You've heard of Futorium atoms, right? They're the designer atoms used in the costumes of almost every superhero and villain in the world. They're what make costumes stretch for stretchy heroes, that let heroes use fire powers without burning up their clothes, that vanish when heroes turn invisible. Clothing made of Futorium or treated in a Futorium solution can be folded into very compact bundles and easily hidden in a pocket. No one knows how Futorium works or why Futorium only works on clothing, except of course, for the foundation that owns the patents on Futorium and distributes the costumes.

Well, my creator made me almost completely out of Futorium atoms. I avoid publicizing that fact because it's supposed to be impossible -- and because it would make me even more of a target than I am already.

The effects of Futorium on clothing are very well documented, even if they are not well understood by the scientific community. The effects on Futorium on non-clothing materials have never been studied. Even I am not entirely sure what it means to be made of Futorium. I'm fairly certain that most of my abilities can be attributed to the Futorium atoms, particularly the way I can rapidly reassemble myself, and the way I can spontaneously generate new components, assemblies, and parts for any other forms I shapeshift myself into. But I'm not 100% certain, and that is very frustrating to me.

By now, we've reached the Boardwalk, and it's just as big a mess as I'd feared. Several buildings have been destroyed, dozens of cars have been wrecked, injured and panicked civilians are running everywhere, several craters are dotting the landscape, and Miss Mega, Splatter, and Daphne Diller are right in the middle of it all.

I've read plenty of surveys that show that humans, if they wish they had superpowers, are most likely to want to be a brick -- superstrong and invulnerable. I suspect it's a very empowering idea, to be strong enough to pick up a car, to punch a hole in a wall, to be bulletproof. And certain heroes do a very good job of making that appealing. Paladin and Madame Ultimate were able to do it. Valkyrie does it. Atlas does it, and I suspect Calypso will, too. They're very strong, but they're also -- how to say it -- almost a comforting presence. They're all very good at making people feel safe, even inspired.

Miss Mega is an extremely nice woman. Very protective, always doing what she can to keep others from harm, genuinely good-hearted and friendly and charismatic. But she just can't be a comforting presence at all, not once she starts throwing serious punches around. Her level of strength just seems designed for epic mass destruction.

And when she's fighting someone who's at her own level? Do everything you can not to be in the same zip code.

So here's the scene as Kumiko and I fly up: There's Miss Mega -- black and orange lightning-bolt costume, long brown hair, 2.4892 meters tall, grim, determined expression. There's Splatter -- blue and white costume (she says it makes blood show up better), short blonde hair, 1.651 meters tall, thoroughly deranged grin. And there's Daphne Diller -- black khakis, blue blouse, leather jacket, short dreadlocks, 1.7018 meters tall, trying to stay out of Splatter's line-of-sight.

Why is Daphne here? Well, though she's not much stronger than a normal person, she is completely indestructible. Granted, if Splatter gets even one good hit in, Daphne's gonna disappear over the horizon, but she's looking for a good opportunity to distract Splatter so Mega can give her a really good punch.

Miss Mega and Splatter are trading punches. Splatter smashes her fist into Mega's jaw and drives her back, and Mega returns with a roundhouse to Splatter's face that drives her back.

The only reason they aren't both punching each other miles away is one of the crazy things about superstrong people -- if they know the punch is coming, they can brace themselves against it. If either of them hit me, I'd dissolve into powder and take a couple of hours to stitch myself back together. If they hit Atlas or Polyphemus, it wouldn't matter how much they braced, they'd both end up a state or two away, probably with a few broken bones. But they can keep hitting each other and come out mostly okay.

I don't know how long they've been going at this, but I suspect they could keep going for several more hours. Both of them are just starting to bruise. I'm fairly sure it still hurts like hell.

The noise is incredible. Each punch sounds like an artillery shell exploding. The shockwaves are buffeting us in the air and have blown out every window within 1.07826 kilometers.

And as bad as things are here, I really hope Splatter doesn't decide to go flying to another location. Miss Mega can't fly, and it's not easy for a jumper to pursue a flyer.

I catch a glimpse of Kumiko, her eyes wide. Yeah, Portland doesn't have anything like this, does it? Not feeling so overconfident anymore, are you?

"I think I can handle her," Kumiko says.

Some days, I just cannot understand how the human race has survived.

"Kumiko, are you high?"

"Watch and learn, metal man," she says. She flies lower, to 48.09744 meters above the combatants, and shouts, "Blazing Mystical THUNDERBOLT!"

There's a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky. Shoots straight down and hits all three of them. Sets off a small explosion in the ground at their feet, accompanied by an unexpectedly loud crack of thunder -- 167 decibels, compared to the normal 120 decibels. 

When the smoke and dust clear, Splatter, Miss Mega, and Daphne are all okay. They've been knocked to the ground, but they're all getting up while we watch. All three are going to need to schedule time at the salon to fix their hair. None of them look very happy. 

"Who the hell do you think you are, bitch?" Splatter snarls as she launches herself into the air.

I've got a very fast-moving computer brain, and I can tell exactly what's going to happen. Splatter's moving too fast, and Kumiko will never be able to cast a shielding spell in time, if that'd even help protect her at all. Miss Mega won't be able to stop her, Kumiko won't be able to dodge, and when Splatter hits her, she'll dissolve into a fine red mist. 

I configure my legs into a crude rocket, shoot myself at Splatter as hard as I can, and set my batteries to detonate on impact. I close the distance in 0.00853 seconds, we hit each other, and I feel my limbs and frame start to crumple. 

After that, I open my eyes and find myself lying on my back in the middle of the ruined Boardwalk. Kumiko, Miss Mega, and Daphne are standing over me, joined by the Chrome Cobra, Penitente, Polyphemus, and Hybrid. Miss Mega has a fairly awe-inspiring black eye, and Kumiko has one arm in a makeshift sling and a number of gauze bandages wrapped around various cuts and contusions. 

I update my internal chronometer. Two hours, 36 minutes, and 32.352 seconds have passed. Same as the last time Splatter atomized me. 

"Welcome back, Gearbox," says the Cobra. "Everything copacetic?"

"Everything's five by five," I reply. 

"I am so sorry," Kumiko says. "So, so sorry."

"Has Splatter been corralled?" I ask. 

"Yeah, she's already back in the Weisinger State Pen infirmary," says Miss Mega. 

"We couldn't have done it without you, champ," says Daphne. "You blew up, knocked her flat on her back, and Mega was able to move in and spend five straight minutes punching her into a very deep crater."

"I gave her a broken jaw, two broken ribs, and more cuts and bruises than our precious magical girl got," says Miss Mega. "I might've lost my temper a bit."

"I said I'm sorry," cries Kumiko.

"Wait a moment," I say. "If the police have already taken custody of Splatter, how did you keep me out of their hands? You know they usually try to arrest me if they get the chance."

"Like we'd let 'em do that to you," says Hybrid. Her face shifts into her fanged muzzle, and she rasps, "We took advantage of a little friendly perssshuashhion."

"You didn't hurt anyone?"

"Of course we didn't," says Penitente. "It mostly was friendly persuasion. With our usual undercurrent of quiet menace."

"How's the dogpile going?" I ask. "Sorry for all the questions, but I missed most of the excitement."

"It's winding down," says Daphne. "With the standard you-can't-win-'em-all finish."

"Splatter's in jail," says the Cobra. "The Chaos Crew is in jail. We only managed to catch Anathema, Rad, and Fricassee -- the rest of the Doom Chorus got away. The Scumdogs ran the minute things started getting rough for them. And Johnny Staccato, the Canelli Mob, the Furious Five, and Punch's Boys all pulled off some capers no one managed to stop. We think they were just opportunistic robberies, to take advantage of all the commotion, but they may have been part of the dogpile, too."

"Do we know who organized it?"

"Not a clue, at least not yet," says Cobra. "Any ideas, Daphne?"

"I've been out here all day," Daphne says with a snort. "Haven't even had time to ask anybody anything. At least gimme a few days to bug the cops for info."

"Good enough," says Cobra. "In the meantime, children, what lessons have we learned today?"

"For the record," says Polyphemus. "I am certainly no child, and I would rather you did not address me as one. However, I have learned that one should avoid giving up the advantage of an intimidating appearance by attempting to quote Milton at a group that calls themselves the Scumdogs of the Universe. I've also learned that watching a robot self-repair itself is the most fascinating thing I've seen all week."

"I'm a 'he,' " I say. "Not an 'it,' please." 

"Does it matter?" he says. "I wasn't aware you had a gender at all."

"Technically, I don't. But I've always self-identified as male."

"Very well," Polyphemus says. "I would also appreciate some advice about how to rescue people from burning buildings while also trying to fight crazy supervillains. But not right now, I have to teach a class in 45 minutes and need to leave now."

"Fine, have a good class, Professor," Cobra says. As he leaps away toward the university, Cobra turns to Kumiko. "Well?"

"Well what?" Kumiko asks.

"What have you learned today?"

"I said I was sorry!"

Hybrid makes a very low growl. Penitente says, "Madre de Dios," and goes to look for his motorcycle. Miss Mega says a word that I very rarely hear her use.

Cobra sighs heavily. "Everyone go home," she says. "Kumiko, you stay. Gearbox, you stay. Megs, you stay. Everyone else, go home."

Once the rest of the group clears out -- Daphne wants to stay because she hopes there's going to be a fight, and she likes Kumiko even less than I do -- the Cobra trains her glare on Kumiko and says, "Do you understand what we're all doing here?"

"I've already said I'm sorry several times," says Kumiko. "I'm not going to let you lecture me like I'm a child. I've been in the hero business longer than any of you. And I'm not going to let you slug me again, Cobra. So all of you can just back off."

"Gearbox is here because he's the guy who got punched into metal fragments," Cobra continues. "Miss Mega is here partly because she would've been the person feeling the most guilty if you'd been killed by Splatter, and partly because she thinks I've shown too much of a tendency to punch you in the face, and she wants to make sure I behave."

"Okay, you know what? I'm going to go home and call the Seventh Son, and I'm going to get reassigned somewhere that's not overrun by psychos. I'd be better off at the Antarctica base."

"No, you're going to listen to me," says Cobra. "And you're going to listen to me because I've read your website."

There's a bit of a pause. "You mean the fansites for the TV show?" Kumiko says slowly. "I have no control over those."

"No, no, Kumiko," says Cobra. "I mean your website. The one with your real name on it."

There's another pause. "I don't know how you could do that," she says. "My real identity is magically protected."

"I know the real name of every superhero in Metro City," says Cobra. "Figuring yours out was a little harder than normal, but still not all that difficult."

"So -- So what is this? Are you blackmailing me?!"

"No. No, definitely not. I have no intention of ever telling anyone else who you are. Don't worry about that."

"Then what the hell is this all about?!" Kumiko yells, clearly getting more and more frustrated. 

"Listen, all I'm saying is, I've read your site -- I like it a lot. You're a good thinker, you've got serious insights, and it's clear that lots of people see you as someone they can trust to give smart opinions and analysis."

"Well... okay. Thank you. But what on earth does my blog have to do with any of this?"

"Frankly, the person who writes the great, insightful, really smart stuff on your site -- and the person who has such a good rep as a superhero and crimefighter in Portland -- is not the same person we've seen here in Metro City. The one we have here is angry and dismissive and arrogant and rude -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you weren't directing all that negativity at the people who are on your side."

"I don't know where you get off on talking about my--"

"No, no, you're not getting it," Cobra interrupts. "Dammit, I'm no good at this interpersonal stuff. You guys tell her."

"How would I know?" I say. "I haven't read her website. Besides, I think all you mammals are crazy anyway."

Miss Mega rolls her eyes. "Okay, it's not like I've read your site either. But as far as I can tell, you're unhappy that you had to move here, and you're taking your anger and frustrations out on us. It's patronizing as hell, it makes you act reckless, it puts you in danger, and it puts the rest of us in danger. And ultimately, I think you know we're right. So you can martyr yourself, either by letting somebody like Splatter kill you because you're acting overconfident or by letting Splatter blow someone to pieces who isn't able to heal himself so you can let guilt and self-pity kill you. Or you drop the immature act and learn to work with us. I know third-graders who act more mature than you do."

Kumiko, looking a bit more insulted than before, starts to say something, but is immediately interrupted by the Cobra. "Okay, I was actually expecting Megs to take the softer, diplomatic approach, not read you the riot act. Why don't you take everything she said in the best possible light instead of the worst -- we wanna help you, we want you to help us, don't be mad at us, let's be friends. Sound good?"

Before anyone else can respond, the Cobra's communicator starts beeping at her. "Hey, Cobra, looks like the dogpile isn't quite over," says Express. "We've got new attacks reported from the Damned Yankee at Kirkman Cemetery, Professor Quackers at the zoo, and Meurtrier holding the reporters hostage at the Metro City Metropolitan. Might be a few more villains around, too. You got ideas for who needs to take these guys on?"

"Crap, gimme one minute, okay?" says Cobra. "I need a little time to deploy the right squads."

"Keep talking about squads over the official Metro City communicators," Atlas breaks in over the communicator, "And I'll start telling people we really are a superteam."

"Zip it, Atlas!" Cobra barks.

She  turns to Kumiko and me first. "I want you two to go home," she says. "Don't argue with me. Gearbox, you've been torn to pieces twice today, and Kumiko, you're in a rotten mood and aren't in any condition to think clearly or fight effectively. Go home and rest. If things actually get bad enough, we'll call you, but I bet we've got all this handled. Now go already."

"Whatever," says Kumiko. "I'll go home and wait for you zeroes to call me for help."

"Cobra, could I suggest we do a circuit around the city before we call it quits," I say. "Nothing to put us in danger if you don't want us to, but if you're scrambling everyone else to three locations, it wouldn't hurt to have us looking for other trouble spots, simply to let you know if there's anything else serious going on."

"Sounds good to me," says Miss Mega. "If it's okay with the magical princess."

"Screw you," says Kumiko.

"Stop it already," says the Cobra. "Please do what Gearbox suggests, okay? It's a good idea, and it'd help take some of the pressure off. Do a loop or two around the city, then head for home."

Not much of a way to argue -- I'm never particularly at my best after I've recovered from severe damage, and Kumiko isn't particularly interested in working with anyone right now. I pop out my helicopter rotors again, and we fly off, taking a zigzag pattern over the city.

We spend a few minutes not seeing anything out of the ordinary, and Kumiko says, "Listen, can we stop at that convenience store? I've got a serious caffeine craving."

"There's a Starbucks that's open late just 0.450616 kilometers to the north," I say. "I'm told it's not bad for a Starbucks."

"I can't deal with good-tasting coffee on patrol nights," she says. "If it's not stale and rancid, I just don't feel like a real superhero."

So we stop at the nearest MetroMart. While Kumiko gets herself a mug of coffee, I have to wait by the counter and endure the clerk gawping at me. Yes, even with a famous, beautiful magic girl buying lukewarm caffeinated sludge in the back, the guy is still more interested in me. I seem to get that a lot. It's not that I'm any better looking or more charismatic, but humans just seem to be a bit fascinated by robots.

So you may be wondering what it's like for me to be a robot. Seriously, if you really are wondering that and thinking I'll be able to tell you, you're an idiot. I still have people ask me that sometimes, and it's just about the dumbest question imaginable. It's not like I could explain to someone with a biological brain what it's like to think in binary, same as it'd be impossible for a human to explain to me what an apple tastes like.

This is kind of a universal complaint with the other self-aware robots. I mean, there are not a whole lot of similarities among all of us, but we all hate that stupid question. Please don't annoy self-aware robots, okay? I doubt we'll do anything about it, but it'd just be nice not to have humans annoying us, that's all.

So what leads a self-aware robot to become a superhero, instead of, for instance, a college professor, a grocery clerk, or an accountant? Well, the most obvious answer is that those other jobs simply aren't available to us, as the United States government doesn't recognize a robot's right to exist as a free being. If I had a 9-to-5 job, I'd be very likely to be picked up by the police and delivered to the Defense Department so they could take me apart and try to figure out how I worked so they could build more of me. Or I'd be captured by any one of a dozen or so large megacorps who would want to take me apart for the same reasons. Public opinion is fairly evenly split on whether sentient robots should be given "human" rights, but the courts and the legislatures are mostly uninterested in pushing the issue. We're a very small constituency, and there's not much political will focused on the rights of fewer than two dozen robots in the continental United States.

So why be a superhero at all? Why not spend all my time hiding out? Or trying to get to a country that recognizes robot rights? My programming is probably a really big factor. I was programmed to want to do good things, to help people, to fight criminals and evil-doers. It's extremely hard for me to change my programming -- but that's true for everyone, right? But I am self-aware, and that gives me the ability to act counter to my programming -- and I prefer to be a superhero anyway. I enjoy acting to help others, despite the risks -- seems like a good enough reason to keep being a crimefighter. I like getting to fight bad guys. I like getting to save lives. 

The funny thing is I don't even like humans all that much. You don't have to spend much time with them to realize that the entire species is a bunch of venal, cruel, greedy, self-deluding, violent, idiot weirdoes.

Not that I really hate humans, of course. They've got good points, too. They're compassionate, enthusiastic, loving, funny, artistic, and musical in ways I really wish I could be. 

If that sounds contradictory, I'm sorry. I like humans and I hate them at the same time. Don't try to tell me you don't feel the same way sometimes. But when a robot says it, everyone starts in with "Ohh no, incoming robot murder spree, heeeelp!" Please settle yourselves, stupid, freakish humans.

Really, I try my damnedest to show the calm, level-headed, occasionally snarky character that I think most humans would be comfortable with. But deep down, in the core part of my personality programming? I'm a red-hot ball of fury. All the damn time. Humans make me angry, supervillains make me angry, cops make me angry, other robots make me angry, my creator pulling a vanishing act makes me angry. I do a pretty good job of suppressing that anger most of the time, because I really don't want to be the asshole who takes his bad attitude out on everyone else. But the other heroes in Metro City have dealt with me enough to know I've got some anger issues -- nothing like Jonni Rotten, of course, except for days like this where I get disassembled multiple times. 

As far as I know, I'm the only robot superhero who has to deal with any serious levels of rage. But nearly all of us have mixed feelings about humans. I can count on the fingers of one hand which ones love humans unreservedly. In fact, I can count on the fingers of the same hand all the robot supervillains who hate all humans. Mechano-Boy has a severe Pinocchio complex and wishes he was human. He's a good kid, but his attitude is a bit embarrassing for robots -- and I think for a fair number of humans, too. I've never heard Protectotron say anything bad about humans, but I'm not entirely sure he's actually sentient.

As far as human-hating robot villains go, there's Necrobot and Nihilix. It's possible that Necrobot doesn't even count as a self-aware robot -- I think there's a pretty strong chance it's possessed by demons. Nihilix runs a pro-robot cult somewhere in the Southwest -- but who knows whether you can call it a cult when she's the only self-aware machine in it. I guess she's happy preaching to junked cars and pop-up toasters and occasionally emerging to try to turn everyone on Earth into a robot. 

They still don't hold a candle to the first major robot supervillain -- Computronix, one of the first self-aware computers. It made a serious bid to wipe out all biological life on Earth in the mid-1950s -- it managed to take over the Pentagon and hold a lot of important people hostage, but the original incarnation of the Assembly of Order tore it to pieces and threw its remains into deep space. 

Most robot supervillains don't even mind humans that much. Some want to rule the world and just don't see a point in global genocide, some are old-fashioned heist artists and need humans around so they'd have someone to steal from, and some actually like humans as friends. That's the great thing about self-awareness -- everyone has a different motive for what they do.

Anyway, once Kumiko gets her coffee, we head back outside and perch on the roof, partly so she can drink the coffee (Would you want to fly around the city while holding a cup of boiling hot liquid? No, you wouldn't.) and partly so we can keep an eye out for late-night robbers.

Kumiko takes a sip of the coffee and makes a face. "Ohh, god, this is horrible," she gasps. "What the hell do they put in it?"

As she chokes down another couple gulps of java, I say, "If you're really interested, I could analyze the contents. Dr. Mauro or Dr. Denziger might be able to help, too."

"Oh, gimme a break, Gearbox. I know you don't really take everything I say literally. Were you making a joke or giving me the passive-aggressive treatment?"

I decide to be diplomatic for once. "Oh, you know robots and our inability to understand humor."

"Whatever," she says, rolling her eyes and taking another gulp of joe. "I have another trivial and off-topic question. Think you can answer it without being an asshole?"

"Anything's possible," I say. "Let's hear it."

"You said earlier that you don't have an actual gender, but you still self-identify as male," she says. "How does that really work out?"

"Wow," I say. "That really was off-topic. Well, basically, I don't have any identifiable sexual characteristics or equipment, and yet I still self-identify as male. I'm like a mechanical, shapeshifting, sarcastic Ken doll."

"Yeah, but a Ken doll doesn't have any choice about its gender identity."

"Neither does anyone else, as far as I can tell."

"Touché," she says. "I apologize for the odd questions. I've got an ongoing interest in gender identity, especially when it comes to someone who could actually alter himself to more closely function as a man or a woman, right?"

"I -- Listen, I don't like where this conversation is going. Are you hitting on me?"

"What?! No, I definitely am not!"

"I mean, I know you humans are prone to some astonishingly weird sexual proclivities, but you're all just a bit too... biological to appeal to me. I mean, if it's your fetish, okay, but no, we are not going to become an item."

"Oh my god, just shut up, okay? No, not interested in robots. And I have a boyfriend I'm very happy with. A biological one, even."

"Don't blame me," I say. "You were the one asking all the sexy questions."

"They are not sexy questions!" Kumiko says, jabbing a finger at me. "You're misinterpreting innocent questions about gender identity. Possibly deliberately."

"Is this going to turn into some kind of thing where we're arguing, we hate each other, then we decide it's really super-hot and start kissing each other? I'm not sure how that'll work because I don't have an actual mouth."

"That is not going to happen at all!"

"Oh, like I haven't seen this movie before."

"Alright, enough," she snaps. "You're just being a troll now. Would you please stop being a total dickbag?"

"Well, since you ask so nicely..."

"I really don't care whether I asked nicely or not," Kumiko says. "I've been a jerk, now you're being a jerk. Why don't we quit acting like jerks so much?"

I never get a chance to answer her, because that's when the roof blows up.

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