London bartender Fane thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he finds a rare and expensive service Bot discarded in a dumpster, and he takes it home to get it working again. The Jo-E brings some much-needed companionship to Fane’s lonely life, but there’s something different about this Bot, as indicated by its odd behavior. Fane’s developing feelings toward Jo-E trouble him, and things go from bad to worse when a robotics engineer arrives on Fane’s doorstep, demanding the return of his property. Fane is forced to choose between a hefty reward and following his heart. Giving in to his forbidden desires might get him killed—or change his life forever.
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Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 3
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: Ageless/Immortal
Tropes: Forbidden Love
Word Count: 23000
Setting: London, England
Languages Available: English
IT WAS raining cats and dogs when Fane Maddox left the club and made his way through Soho’s neon-lit streets. His shift at Spunk, London’s rundown retro gay bar, had finished at 2:00 a.m., and his weary feet ached as he commenced the long walk back to his flat in Finsbury Park.
On foot, it was a journey of a good hour and a half, but it wasn’t as if he had any other options. The first Tube service on a Sunday morning didn’t begin until gone seven, and since a lack of customers, combined with a recent petrol shortage, had led to the cancellation of all London’s night buses, it was a case of walking or taking a taxi. Thanks to the fuel hike, the cost of a black cab was extortionate these days, and the trip home in one would use up all his tips for the night. Therefore, he had no choice but to rely on his own two feet. At least the long walks kept him fit.READ MORE
He would have passed the alley without a second glance. However, at that moment, the neon sign that wrapped around the corner of the building flickered, drawing his gaze. He started to turn away, then looked back, convinced he must be seeing things. Either he was losing his mind, or there were a pair of legs dangling over the side of the huge garbage bin at the entrance to the alleyway.
Fane dithered. He was tired and sopping wet. The last thing he wanted was to be responsible for finding a dead body. He’d have to call the cops, and who knew how long it would take them to show. If they turned up at all. In the meantime he’d be left standing in this downpour and, knowing his luck, would probably catch pneumonia. Then again, maybe the guy was merely drunk or injured and in need of assistance. Could Fane live with himself if he walked on by?
Heaving a sigh, Fane shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and crossed the street. Once he reached the alley, he glanced left and right. Then, seeing no one around, he boosted himself up and into the dumpster.
The bags of rubbish crunched and shifted beneath him. He lost his balance and shot out a hand, grabbing hold of the rim of the bin to steady himself. One of the bags must have split under his weight, because a foul smell wafted through the air. Fane screwed up his nose. Determined to make a speedy exit, he scrambled two steps forward to reach the body.
Even in the dim, stuttering neon glow, it only took him a second to realize his mistake. This wasn’t a body. At least not a human one.
The Bot lay faceup amidst the black sacks, its pupilless eyes open but devoid of life, and its hair a tangled mess. A pair of torn jeans covered its lower half, but its torso was bare, displaying smooth, pale skin and toned, compact muscles. Or the facsimile of muscles, anyway, Fane reminded himself.
He assumed the thing had malfunctioned. Although why the owner would dump it rather than taking it in for repair was beyond him. He recognized this model, and it was far from obsolete. The Jo-E had been out less than six months and was still being advertised all over the Internet. A domestic worker, it was touted as the most lifelike yet, with cognitive abilities that far outstripped its predecessors. And a price tag to match. Fane couldn’t even afford an entry-level Bot on his meager salary; one as advanced as this was beyond his wildest dreams. A thought occurred to him, and he cast another wary glance out toward the street.
What if he took it home with him? It had been thrown in the trash, unwanted, so it wouldn’t be classed as theft under current laws. He was no robotics expert, but he knew a bit about computing and mechanics. If he could get the thing working, it would do all the housework for him, saving him hours of labor. He couldn’t manage the long walk home with it, though, so it would mean expending his night’s tips on transportation. After a moment’s reflection, he decided the cost of the cab ride would be worth it—assuming the Bot could be fixed.
He peered closer to check for any obvious faults, but the Jo-E looked whole from what Fane could make out in the half-light. There were no missing limbs, and he spotted no obvious damage to the outer layers. Whatever had gone wrong must have been internal, and he wouldn’t be able to assess that until he got home. It was time to make a decision. He chewed on his bottom lip as he weighed the pros and cons once more. Then he eased his arm under the Bot’s back and got a good grip on its torso.
The Bot was heavier than Fane had anticipated, but he managed to inch it up and over the edge of the dumpster. Despite the weight, he lowered it to the ground as gently as he could, not wanting to cause any additional damage. Then he clambered out himself and picked up his prize. He had to try a few different positions until he found a semicomfortable way to carry the Bot, but once he had a decent hold on it, he headed toward Piccadilly Circus where he knew he’d be able to pick up a cab.
The aged driver looked at him askance at first, but once Fane held out his wrist and a scan confirmed he had sufficient credits for the journey, the man nodded and unlocked the passenger door. It took a couple of goes to maneuver the Jo-E inside, but then they were off. They made swift progress through the empty streets, and twenty-five minutes later, Fane dragged the Bot into his flat.
FANE DIDN’T wake until gone eleven the next morning, but upon rousing, he dressed, grabbed a quick breakfast of cornflakes, and then moved into the lounge.
The Bot was exactly where he’d left it eight hours before—propped up on Fane’s dilapidated two-seater sofa. In the light of day, it still looked unblemished on the outside, confirming Fane’s initial suspicions that any damage was beneath the surface, in the wiring.
He sank into the seat next to the Jo-E and shifted its torso so he could reach its back. The maintenance panel opened with a gentle click, and Fane bent forward and peered inside. The problem was easily identified: one of the wires had been fried extra crispy. Fane investigated further, but as far as his layman’s eye could tell, that appeared to be the only defect, and he wondered again why the owner had given up on the Bot when the fix was so straightforward Fane could accomplish it himself with no more than a new strip of wire and a soldering iron.
He retrieved his toolbox and got to work. He cut out the toasted section of wire and tossed it onto the floor. Then he prepared and set a new strip from among the scraps he kept on hand. The job took all of ten minutes, and when he was done, Fane set his tools aside and braced himself for the moment of truth. After shutting the maintenance panel, he felt around behind the Bot’s right ear until he found the button to switch it on.
For a second nothing happened, and Fane slumped. It appeared he’d overestimated his knowledge and abilities, and the cost of the taxi ride had been for naught. But then the Bot emitted a soft whir and blinked. When it turned to look at him, Fane was greeted with the most dazzling green eyes he’d ever seen. The color of seafoam, they were pale and bright—beautiful but unnatural.
Fane remembered reading about the reasoning behind the eye color in the early online reviews. Bots had been around in various forms for close to ten years now; however, there were still many opposed to the very concept of AI. These naysayers were convinced the Bots were biding their time, waiting to take over the world and enslave humanity, and the more realistic the Bots became, the louder they spewed their prognosis of doom. The eyes of the current models were a compromise: a way to tell Bot from human at a single glance. Without them, the Bots would be indistinguishable from the humans around them, unless their skin was cut and the inner workings revealed.
The greeting shook Fane out of his contemplations. Under that unwavering stare, he felt a rush of timidity and scratched the back of his head. “Uh… hi.”
“Where is Samuel?”
“Was he your owner?”
The Jo-E nodded.
“Look, I don’t know how to tell you this, but, well… he left you.”
“Yeah. You had a malfunction. But don’t worry, I fixed you.”
“Are you my owner now?”
Fane hesitated for a split second, then cleared his throat and spoke with as much confidence as he could muster. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
The Bot broke into a wide grin. “What is your name?”
“Fane. I’m Fane.”
“Hello, Fane. It is nice to meet you.” It held out its hand. “I am Jo-E.”COLLAPSE