Somebody pointed out that I made the setting in Russia when GFL's canon (or at least the early parts of it) takes place around Ukraine. That was admittedly a goof on my part, so I went back and changed a couple of things. It should be more accurate now while staying historically believable.

Geography's not my strongest point, but eh, what are you gonna do?

"Let me repeat your story to see if I've heard it correctly, Commander Sykes: You allowed a Nanosuit owner- correction; the LAST Nanosuit owner to visit your base, walk out of it freely, and settle in a village under YOUR oversight which Sangvis Ferri then attacked? …The fact you weren't aware of his identity at the time is beside the point! A rogue Nanosuit is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Find that man and get a report on his status!" -Helian

(Berdychiv Quarantine Zone, Ukraine, New Soviet Union)

Whatever Berdychiv was like forty years ago, it's been restructured into a fortress city in the present day.

It sits in one of the rare Green Zones – areas of land where humans can freely roam without the need for protective radiation equipment. The city itself is a designated safe haven, and thanks to its newfound prominence in the years following the Beilan Island Incident, several changes to its infrastructure and social customs were made so it wouldn't buckle from the strain of accommodating the sudden influx of refugees.

The most glaring redesign is the shift toward verticality. The dozens of ultra-modern skyscrapers clumped together in each district reminds me of NYC's building philosophy: If you can't expand outward, go upward. Not a single inch of space was wasted, either. Everything, and I seriously mean everything – gardens, public swimming pools, shopping centers, even road systems are elevated in some way for the sake of space management. Of course, the same rule also applies to residential areas. Ever live in an apartment and the tenants above you have a screaming baby that never fucking shuts up? Yeah. There's no more escaping that hell in cities like Berdychiv.

Unless you're desperate or stupid enough to squat near the quarantine zone, that is.

What's that? Why is there a quarantine zone in a city that's supposed to be free of contamination? Well gather around, kids, because it's time for another one of Uncle Alky's depressing as fuck history lessons.

Seven years ago, an explosion of Collapse radiation wiped out a whole market district in the western side of the city. Nobody's quite sure how it happened. The most popular and credible theory is that some asshole was trying to smuggle a preserved container of Collapse Fluid through the black market and someone mishandled it. Whatever the cause may have been, there's no denying the ugly aftermath: Most of the district's residents died, the remainder were mutated into ELID snot zombies, and the local mayor swiftly ordered the construction of a concrete and metal barrier to keep the infected at bay until a more permanent solution could be found. The wall was completed almost overnight.

Moscow pitched in the day after, sending shipments of old tech that CELL used to build their Nanodomes. No way the politicians were about to roll over and let a precious Green Zone be lost. Many citizens whose homes were located near the newly-dubbed "Devil's Shell" migrated deeper into the city, fearful of the horrors now lurking in their old neighborhood.

Hooray for story time, am I right?

It didn't take long afterward for the rumor mill to start spreading its own type of poison; there's no shortage of hushed tales about valuable trinkets and other goodies supposedly left behind, waiting for scavengers seeking their fortune to penetrate the wall and claim them. Naturally, some jackoffs learn to tap into their creative side when there's money to be found. Breaches were discovered in the shoddier sections of the dome's perimeter. Security cameras were hacked or disabled. Scavvers slipped past wandering patrols of guard Dolls, or in extreme cases, gunned them down, just so they could raid the cash registers in an abandoned shopping mall. All proof that some people are simply rotten to the core.

I learned all of these things after I'd initially snuck into the city through a drainage pipe that exited in the quarantine zone. It was either that or strut into a populated area wearing the Nanosuit. Or nothing at all. I had no desire to repeat the Makeyeva incident, and I sure as hell wasn't getting arrested for public indecency.

Thank the lucky stars not all the department stores had been picked clean.

That was several days ago, give or take. Since then I've gotten settled and even found myself a steady, if unorthodox source of income.

Rainfall pitters on the fun-sized Nanodome far above where I'm perched on the roof of a decrepit sporting goods store, cloaked, double-checking my shopping list to see if my employer requested a specific number of the item he's paying me to find. He didn't specify, so I'll just grab as much as I can carry. I look to my destination on the other side of the street: The sign above it is graffitied over but the suit's waypoint confirms I'm at the right place.

I make the short hop to ground level, still invisible. I take cover behind an empty roadside booth advertising penis enlargement supplements (Reach for the impossible, with Lerectus), wait for a lone snot zombie blocking the entrance to shamble out of the way, then book it across the cracked asphalt and duck inside a home improvement store through a broken windowpane. The cloak shimmers away as I take in the interior.

Besides the incremental wear and tear of time, it's not in terrible shape. The cash register in the leftmost corner remains untouched, evidence that no other souls have set foot in here since the Collapse explosion. Kinda figured that would be the case. I'm deep in the contaminated zone, practically skirting the border of ground zero, where none but the most well-equipped scavengers dare tread. You'd need a level A hazmat suit to safely traverse the area and those only have twenty minutes' worth of oxygen in them at best. Or you could, you know, bring a Nanosuit and not have to worry about suffocation or an ELID zombie's claws tearing away at flimsy fabric.

I'm still looking around when the little blue hexagon guiding me vanishes and reappears down the 'Fruits & Veggies' aisle to my right. I pull up the tac visor: no one else is in here. It's safe to move.

Sickly yellow dust is stirred up from the floor as I walk.

Primary target located: tomato seeds. Once a common sight, now a rarity post-apocalypse. Time to earn my pay.

I set down my K-Volt – looted off a dead scavver, who likely stole it from a disabled security Doll – and spend the next minute shoveling seed packets into my rucksack. There's still plenty of leftover space once I've finished; I fill it up with whatever else looks tasty. My client said he needed tomato seeds, but perhaps he'll cough up a bonus if I bring him a few extras. Not like anyone in the era of the wasteland would complain about surplus food.

SECOND plots a route out of town as I sling my bag over my back and dust off the SMG. And not a moment too soon, either: I flinch when a titanic roar echoes somewhere a few blocks over, so loud and powerful that I literally feel my biomass vibrate. Whatever made that noise, it's big, foul-tempered, and certainly not something I have any desire to meet.

If there's one thing I learned over the course of my expeditions in the Devil's Shell that'll stick with me, it's that ELID mutation can produce some crazy-ass abominations that make the Manhattan virus' victims seem lucky by comparison, and those people were melted down into human soup. Sometimes they were alive while it happened.

The Ceph threat might be over, but they sure left behind a hell of a legacy, eh?

Anyway, now that the job is accomplished, Operation Bug Out is free to begin. I recloak and exit the same way I came in. The Thing In The Distance roars again, and for a fleeting moment I consider going over to take a look at it before waving the idea away. If the worst came to pass and I was forced to tussle with the beast, a K-volt wouldn't cut it. Electrostatic pellets are great at short-circuiting the human nervous system and Doll processors, and they pack a mean punch against Ceph exoskeletons, but when your target is a walking mass of deadened nerves with a siliconized epidermis, it kind of defeats the entire point of the K-Volt.

I make a quick detour on the return trip to pick up the clothes I'd stashed in the back room of an old photography studio. Stained white t-shirt, brown cargo pants, and black sneakers; all taken from abandoned shops and apartments during my first day in Berdychiv. My new getup is completed by a hooded flecktarn camo jacket imported from Germany – or so the price tag claimed, anyway. Probably just a lie to squeeze some extra dough from wealthier shoppers.

The last traces of Nanosuit 2 disappear under my skin as I pull up my hood in preparation to walk the last mile out of the Devil's Shell back into the main city's rain-slicked streets. Shouldn't be difficult; sneaking past security is a cinch when your body has integrated cloak tech.

Maybe I'd have stopped to take a look at my reflection, see for myself how far I've fallen from grace if there was a mirror or other reflective surface in the office. A proud Force Recon Marine possessing the nigh-unstoppable CryNet Systems Nanosuit 2.0, savior of the human race in 2023, now reduced to a petty scavenger struggling to scrape together a living. What a sight that would've been.

But there's no mirror. There's nothing that'll let me gaze at the amalgamation of scientific ingenuity and alien biotech imitating what I once was. Nothing around to distract me from getting today's job finished so I can grab some lunch and head home for the evening.

I don't run into a single soul, natural or artificial, until I'm well away from the containment dome and seamlessly insert myself into the downtown crowd.

"Back already, panie Alcatraz? Forgive me, my memory is no longer what it once was, but didn't I send you away just this morning?" My employer checks the wind-up wristwatch he'd paid me to scrounge during my last run, his thick Polish accent doing little to mask his confusion at seeing his favorite part-timer again after only a few hours. He turns to bid one of his A-Doll assistants away before shuffling toward me on creaky legs.

If you could attach a face and a name to the phrase 'born in the wrong century', you'd have Mr. Kowalski. Our first meeting was purely by accident, the result of my lack of knowledge regarding how modern cities work: One week ago I'd been attempting to make heads or tails of the redesigned public elevator system, though instead of dropping me off at the skyscraper's 30th floor bar as I'd requested, somehow I wound up in a sprawling hanging garden on the 67th. By happenstance, the head caretaker noticed me standing there like a lost child separated from his parent and came over to chat me up.

Kowalski's well into his eighties, bald on top and kinda hunchbacked, and he always wears this tacky Hawaiian shirt that's two sizes too big under an apron caked with dirt and botanical residue. From what I've gathered based on our interactions, he's a widowed botanist who chose to spend his twilight years studying the effects of Collapse radiation on various species of flora.

Somewhere down the line he realized he might croak before his research could bear fruit – no pun intended – so he convinced the city's governing body to let him lease an entire floor in a public building, with the goal of creating an educational greenhouse where visitors can learn about cacti, daisies, and other… uhh… exciting plant facts.

I guess it wasn't a bad idea, though, since apparently the city council liked the idea so much that they chipped in ten A-Dolls at no additional cost. Maybe that's just me being a dumb jarhead who never cared for naturey stuff.

Mr. Kowalski sounds like noble old fart, but then you get to his eccentricities.

This dude is the single most fanatical environazi I've ever met in all my lives. Really into that TwenCen hippie shit, too, and I'm talking over a century ago, like the 1960s. In his worldview, the best way to settle a score with an enemy is through love and compassion, never violence. He legitimately believes every conflict can be resolved by smoking yourself to Cloud fucking Nine, singing songs about harmony while planting trees in the Green Zones.

Although it gets pretty hypocritical (and funny) when he sometimes forgets I'm there and starts ranting to himself about disemboweling poachers threatening an ecosystem that's already on the brink. Hippies, am I right?

Yeah, I do know a lot about a man I've only met, like, three times. I have the feeling he gets lonely up here despite having his A-Dolls for company. My leading theory is that he doesn't have many close guy friends, so he decided to make do with yours truly. I wonder how he'd react if he found out his hired helper was a walking crime against nature.

Couldn't be worse than Lev, a dark part of me muses. The thought is quickly banished – that's in the past, now. Can't do anything to change it.

I drop my rucksack on an open table rather than answer his question verbally. Kowalski waddles over, and eyes go wide behind his magnifying glasses as he unzips the time-beaten pack. He stands there in shock, rooted to the floor like a gnarled eighty-something year old tree, mouth hanging open as dozens upon dozens of seed packets are vomited out across the dirt-smeared workspace.

"My word, this… this is fantastyczny! This is everything I had asked for and more!" He sounds like a teenage girl who just won a ticket to a K-pop concert. "With the surplus alone, I can conduct maybe six… no, seven trials on the effects of growth in variably contaminated soil! Thank you so much, my boy. You never fail to disappoint!"

I shrug, my hands finding their way into my jacket pockets. "No problem," I tell him simply, watching as Kowalski goes back to looking over the packets. "You got the payment?" I follow up after a minute ticks by.

"Hm? Oh, yes, of course! Please pardon me for a moment." Kowalski takes a break from fondling his seeds to shuffle down the tiled floor. He rounds the left corner and disappears behind a row of potted ferns, muttering something about fertilizer the whole way, leaving me waiting there with not much to do besides read plant trivia written on plastic display cards.

Did you know bamboo grows at a rate of nearly two inches per hour? This makes it the fastest growing plant on Earth.


"Oh my, if it isn't the great Alcatraz! Back again so soon?" an eerily familiar voice quips from my left. I'm fully aware it doesn't belong to the same android I'm acquainted with already, which leaves me feeling uneasy despite the warm and motherly tone.

I turn to address the A-Doll, carefully keeping my own tone neutral. "What can I say? The pay is pretty decent and the company's tolerable. Hello, by the way."

Look, it's not that I have a problem with Mirabelle. She's sweet, kind, gentle, and takes good care of her elderly owner on and off the clock. If she were the first IOP-made Doll I'd met, I could see myself becoming good friends with her.

What puts me off about her is that she's a spitting image of Springfield – same green eyes, same coppery hair, same caring personality, same everything. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been surprised. Springfield and the other Griffin Dolls can look as human as they want on the surface, although when you strip away the synthetic flesh and emotion modules, what you're left with is machines. Machines that by 2062 are no longer too complex or expensive to mass produce. Take Sangvis Ferri's army of stripper soldiers, for example.

My chest suddenly aches; phantom pain from Makeyeva surfaces. I wonder how the Springfield I'm familiar with is doing. I wonder what she thinks of me now…

Mirabelle drags my thoughts back to Berdychiv. "Have you tried finding a new source of work lately? Not that I'm complaining about you being here!" she's quick to reassure me. She probably saw the gloom on my face and mistook it as being her fault. "Mr. Kowalski really appreciates the effort you've put in to help us, and that gratitude extends to myself and the other Dolls here as well. It's just that… Oh, how do I word this… if you continue finishing your errands at this rate, he soon may not have a need for you anymore."

"Getting let go for being overproductive? That's a new one."

"This isn't a business," she points out through a thin smile. "So you're not technically on any payroll. I wouldn't be concerned about finding more work if I were you, though. There are plenty of people in this city who could use your services!"

Just to reiterate, she means my magical ability to traverse the Devil's Shell without any ill effect, along with my mystifying power to pinpoint valuable salvage. The rumors might've exaggerated the riches but not by much. Lots of folks who are too scared or sane to enter the quarantine zone are willing to cough up some serious dough for the retrieval of random things – medicine, missing heirlooms, plant seeds… you get the idea. I don't question the items as long as I get paid.

I tend to get results quicker than my competitors, for obvious reasons.

"I'll keep that in mind. Thanks, Mirabelle."

She giggles. It sounds exactly like Springfield. "No need to thank me. It's in my core programming to help others, after all."

Her smile turns slightly mischievous, and oh my god it brings back memories. Delicious food. Playful banter. More sugar than a normal person could eat without developing health problems. It was the first time I genuinely felt happy in this future of Dolls and disease.

Why did it all have to go wrong…?

The shuffling footsteps heralding Mr. Kowalski's return thankfully stops my mind from traversing down a path leading nowhere good. He hands me a small pile of bills secured by a rubber band; it's not any type of currency I recognize, although I used it a while ago to buy a change of clothes and it ended up being valid so who gives a fuck.

"Three hundred was the agreed amount, correct?" He continues when I nod, "I threw in fifty percent extra for the surplus. You've earned it, mój chłopak."

"Thank you, Mr. Kowalski." I stash the money in my back pocket, already making a mental list of what I need to buy later.

He seems hesitant all of a sudden. I'm about to ask if something's wrong but the old man beats me to the punch, and Mirabelle's words turn out to be prophetic: "Alcatraz… my boy… I'm sorry to tell you this, especially after everything you've done, but I'm afraid there's nothing else for you to fetch right now. My experiments with these seeds could take weeks to finish. Maybe months, depending on the results." He finds it difficult to meet my eyes, and it's not because of the height difference.

I glance at Mirabelle. The café manager's A-Doll lookalike is playing with the hem of her green apron. She seems flustered, like she wasn't expecting to be proven right not even two minutes after throwing out the suggestion.

"Nah, I get it," I tell them, shrugging. I grab the empty rucksack and sling it into place. "Rome wasn't built in a day, and reintroducing tomatoes to the market will take time. It was nice while it lasted. I don't suppose you know anyone in need of a scavver for hire, do you?"

"I don't, but I will have my Dolls ask around the next time I send them shopping. In the meantime, you are welcome to visit the greenhouse whenever you like."

"Thanks. I'll see you around, Mr. Kowalski." I send a nod to his android helper. "Take care of this guy, will you?"

"As if I'd let a man his age out of my sight!" she chuckles.

"Before you go," Kowalski interrupts me as I move to head for the elevator, "I was wondering if you would indulge an old botanist's curiosity. Ever since we met, you've never referred to yourself by a name other than 'Alcatraz'. If I may ask… what is your actual name?"

I turn to face the pair, noting their expectant and, dare I say it, hopeful expressions. It's a perfectly harmless and understandable request. One look at Mirabelle, however, and I'm reminded of the day I revealed my birth name to Springfield. I'd given it to her at the time because I didn't see any harm in doing so.

That was before Executioner returned and everything went to hell in a handbasket.

I exhale slowly. "Sorry to break it to you both, but as far as I'm concerned, Alcatraz is my real name. I just identify better with it, that's all." I explain when I see their hopes get dashed before their eyes.

Kowalski's the first to get over it, straightening somewhat. "No, no, I completely understand. It's really not any of our business what you choose to call yourself."

Yeah, it isn't, so he'd better not ask me again.

"Don't be a stranger, Mr. Alcatraz. I wish you the best of luck out there!" Mirabelle chimes in, waving at me over her shoulder as she gently escorts the hunchbacked man to whatever work he was busy with before I arrived. I send a small wave in return before proceeding to exit stage left.

And thus concludes the tale of how I made dank money by delivering tomato seeds to a hippie.

(Western Berdychiv)

Remember when I said you'd have to be a total moron to settle near the Devil's Shell? Guess what idiot didn't care and found himself an abandoned apartment building to call home?

The entrance is located on a deserted street, behind an electronics store that sits at the base of the building – a lucky find during my first days in the city. It's just far enough away from the quarantine zone's perimeter that the military-loaned security Dolls don't bother patrolling it. No secret tunnels or worthwhile salvage, either, which discourages scavengers from coming here – even better. It's a cost-free spot to hide away from the world.

Still, paranoia dictates I stay cloaked while working my way upstairs. The place is as out of the way as it gets although there's always a possibility of some enterprising guest deciding to pay a visit. I'm quiet as a mouse, moving through the cramped, dusty hallways with muted steps. The K-Volt is out and ready in case shit hits the fan.

It doesn't. I make it to the fourth floor without contact, nudge open the door to the third apartment on the left, take a peek inside, then decloak when I find no evidence of burglary.

"Leavenworth, I'm home," I call to my roommate.

The concrete cinderblock sitting on the tiny round kitchen table doesn't reply.

…What? Of course I used a cinderblock. Leavenworth, the bumpkin conspiracy nut, was my most thick-headed squadmate by a literal country mile. An average rock wouldn't have cut it. Besides, it's not like I can casually chat up the security Dolls roaming a few blocks over; unlike G&K's T-Dolls, the military-made ones aren't all that chatty.

Those things, holy crap. Those things are built from scratch to kill. Heavy titanium armor plating, painted olive drab, substitutes for soft synthetic flesh while the lack of complex personality programming means they aren't burdened by human weaknesses like emotions or temptation. They can't lose morale or be bribed. They're nowhere near as lethal as your garden variety Ceph but I'm deeply grateful it was Sangvis Ferri that went Skynet and not them.

I'd learned from observation that the model sprinkled around the Shell's border is called 'Cyclops' due to the singular mini camera optic in their oversized toaster heads. And if the whispered rumors I've occasionally heard have any hint of truth in them, they're the least nasty unit in the post-WWIII armed forces.

"Shut up, dumbass. The first Dolls weren't built until 2035, remember? CELL didn't have a fucking 'android hit squad' in New York." I cross the short distance to the dingy marble counter and drop two full grocery bags on the five feet or so of space. "Even if they did, I'd have definitely known about it," I prattle on as I start laying stuff out. "Commander Huff-n'-Puff would've sicced them on me at Roosevelt Island. Tch. Not that it would've saved his ass…"

Potato chips, canned soup, beans, dried fruit… all things you'd keep in the pantry, stuff that doesn't need to be refrigerated to stay fresh. It's necessary since the whole building doesn't have power. Another long-term consequence of the Collapse explosion: If the threat of wandering ELID victims didn't finish the mass exodus from the western market district, cutting off all utilities in the area did. What use is there keeping the lights on in a portion of city that's nearly deserted?

It doesn't inconvenience me too much, however. My body's adapted to the cooler Ukrainian climate, so there's no need to buy candles or something for warmth (and potentially give away my hidey-hole after nightfall). Sponge baths utilizing bottled water make up for the inert showerhead. The apartment itself, which is so tiny and cramped it may as well have been built with dwarves in mind, isn't the worst place I've ever stayed. And I've got Leavenworth for company, even if he's a royal pain in the ass sometimes. Better him than Prophet at least.

He makes a snide comment when he sees me bring out the final item: a six-pack of cold beer, brewed in a local distillery. A little treat for a job well done today.

"The hell are you talking about? I'm not the one with a problem. You are, Mr. Fake-Moon-Landing."

Leavenworth rolls his Sharpie-made eyes and pries deeper.

"Yeah, I know, we're living in squalor. Not for much longer though. If I can get a decent payment on my next few runs, we'll have saved enough to reach Kyiv and buy a plane ticket to the U.S."

He asks what I plan to do once we're stateside. My eyes narrow dangerously.

"Careful," I warn him. Outside, rain continues to patter. The dark clouds cutting off the sun further adds to the apartment's bleak atmosphere. "You know damn well I could toss you out the window and make Folsom instead. He never poisoned his mind with conspiracy bullshit."

I grab some water bottles, a rag, and a clean sponge and withdraw to the bathroom. Or maybe I should call it a bathcloset. The sink and toilet are within kissing distance of each other, and if you stood in the shower and spread your arms, you'd touch both walls. Once I've washed off the grime I'd accumulated in today's venture, I take the last, smallest shopping bag and head to the not much larger bedroom, getting cozy in sheets that haven't experienced the gentle caress of soap in two years.

I take a moment to stare at the worsening rainstorm outside, then open the bag and take out a paperback book. The text on the front cover leaps out at the reader, black bold and blocky: "Dolls for Dummies".

Don't ask me how the series is still around in 2062. I'm not sure of the answer myself.

Neither do I know much about Dolls, and if I'm to survive and adapt in this unfamiliar new world, that needs to change. The pitter-patter of rain provides soothing background noise as I pour over the androids' history, programming, internal workings, and everything in between. Soon I'm as engrossed with this book as my mom was with the Holy Bible.

I'm forced to break out the beer when I reach the chapter on external anatomy though. I'd assumed A-Dolls were given human appearances for the purpose of easier interactions with their creators, and my theory ended up being right, but… I mean… God, how do I put this…?

Let's just say the rest of my evening was spent cowering under the sheets in fear at the idea of Mk23 having the ability to, ahem, 'consummate her love'.

"I'm heading out, Leavenworth. Keep the place locked down." I don't give the cinderblock a chance to reply before shutting the door behind me and heading downstairs.

Another morning, another day to go job searching. Another opportunity to leave that crummy apartment and my conspiracy-obsessed roommate behind. The rain's finally died down but it's still fairly cloudy; bright sunbeams flicker across the worn asphalt like some natural rave lighting, popping in and out in the blink of an eye.

I almost didn't make it to Berdychiv, you know. I nearly succumbed.

It was breaking down my tissues again. The suit, I mean. It needed the raw material to patch up the damage I'd taken against Executioner and, y'know, how much meat does a guy like me really need on the inside? The human anatomy is a mimicry, nothing more. A generous attempt by the N2 to make its host feel more comfortable in his new skin. I'd arrived in the city starving, my internal biomass stretched so thin it was through sheer willpower alone that I hadn't stooped to eating a stray dog or cat. I still didn't have two functioning lungs when I first met Mr. Kowalski and Mirabelle.

That damn symbiosis, making me feel the need to eat again. I hate to say it but some things were easier when I was just a corpse stuffed in a suit.

Maybe it's the memory of those early days in Berdychiv spent in constant, agonizing hunger that directs me to the front door of a downtown pizzeria I'd sampled a few days ago.

So there I am, leaning against the side of the old brick building, watching the crowds go about their daily lives. Nobody pays me any attention, of course. Not one of these hamburgers suspects the average-looking dude munching on a hot pepperoni slice is, in actuality, an undead cyborg infused with alien DNA. Hell, being a full-sized city, it's the perfect place to blend in… or disappear.

They'd still lose their shit if they knew.

Fuck off, guilt. I'm eating pizza. Leave me alone.

I toss the empty paper plate into a nearby trash bin once I've finished the slice, rubbing the tiredness from my eyes. Sleep has been elusive ever since the showdown at Makeyeva.

Every time I rest my eyes, I see Damir's severed arm. Jolly old Damir, who doesn't seem to have a mean bone in his body. I hear his agonized screaming in my dreams. It's always followed by flashbacks of murderous blood rage as I tear Executioner apart with my bare hands, then culminates when Lev – a man I almost considered a friend – pointed a gun at me and didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.

Maybe if I'd died like a normal person would, he'd have seen that I'm still human at heart.

The memory plays back every single time I close my eyes. I keep berating myself in hindsight, telling myself I should've done things differently: lure Executioner away from the village, play it safe until Griffin's reinforcements came, try and keep the damage to a minimum. Anything. Instead I chose to play rough, and my recklessness cost Damir his arm – maybe his life. Executioner might've dealt the blow but I'm the one who set it up to happen.

Ugh. My chest aches, and not because of stab wounds. I need something to distract myself. A way to bury the guilt and not think about it. Something easy, like… people watching.

Staring at smartly-dressed passing businessmen yakking away on their company phones gets dull after about thirty seconds, so I turn my attention to their helpers. Huh. I never realized how thoroughly Dolls have been integrated into civilian life. They're not hard to discern from their human masters, given that most of them possess ridiculous hair and eye colors.

That one's holding an umbrella open for an elderly woman, even though the clouds are dispersing. There's another one carrying what seems like sixty pounds' worth of shopping bags without breaking a sweat, and another with a gun slung over her back wandering by her lonesome. Some asshole who looks like he earns more in a month than I would in a lifetime struts down the block like he owns the place, two gorgeous automatons hanging off his-

Wait, back up: One of these Dolls has a gun.

My interest is instantly piqued. The chat with Springfield and M249 ages ago, along with the handy guidebook I'd binge read last night clues me in that this girl is a T-Doll, not an A-Doll. A-Dolls generally don't carry firearms. Which begs the question: What the fuck is a T-Doll doing in the middle of the city?

Suddenly this day promises to get a bit more interesting.

I step away from the wall and begin shadowing her, the throng of people helping me stay hidden as well as if I'd been using cloak. There's some distance between us, however, and the way she nervously darts between humans like they're poisonous to the touch makes it difficult to get a solid look at her. The things I do see are a red military beret atop a long mane of silver hair, a black uniform, and black garter belts that connect to – you guessed it – a fucking miniskirt.

SECOND snaps a light blue silhouette around the gun holstered on her back. If the trend of T-Dolls being named after their weapons holds true, then this one is Gewehr 36 Compact. G36C.

I hear her muttering to herself as I silently draw closer: "Ooh, this isn't good, this isn't good at all… Big sister, where are you? Oh no, it's not working… There's too much signal traffic… uuuuuh…"

Shy. Nervous. A scared lamb separated from the flock. All of these words describe my first impression of the girl.

It's frighteningly similar to M4A1.

Pushing aside whatever that might mean, I remain on her trail as she blindly fumbles her way through the twisted highrise of skyscrapers and elevated roadways. Sometimes she'll accidentally bump into someone; she practically begs for their forgiveness whenever that happens, like a scared child apologizing to her abusive parent after the slightest infraction. Their responses range from dismissive to outright hostile: "Get out of my sight" or "Stupid clumsy Doll". Each time G36C invariably folds like a house of cards and hurries away.

Springfield wasn't kidding when she said Dolls are often treated like second-class citizens. I guess that makes old Mr. Kowalski one of the few good exceptions. Heartbreaking to learn that, really.

"Big sis G36, if you can hear me, please respond! I'm sorry for leaving your side!" She presses a dainty finger to her ear, waits a moment, then sighs in defeat. "Uuuh, it's no use… I shouldn't have napped in the park during a search, but that tree looked so comfy…"

Whether she consciously realizes it or not, she's wandered down south, into a seedier area of the downtown district. Older buildings from times before the ELID pandemic replace most of the modern ones, save for the odd apartment complex. Several structures are decrepit, covered in obnoxiously bright graffiti that isn't dissimilar in design to the equally in-your-face holographic billboards plastered on the front of every building up north. The number of civvies loitering the streets greatly dwindles, forcing me to stay further away, otherwise I risk her spotting me.

Rabbits are easily startled creatures that must be approached slowly and quietly. Doubly so in this case since this little rabbit is packing heat in the form of a subcarbine.

G36C tries again to hail her sister, then again when she fails and so on. The girl's so absorbed in her comms system, I'm almost certain she didn't just mean to enter that sketchy-looking alley between those two apartment buildings up for lease.


Movement from the other side of the street, highlighted in red. A trio of dudes who can't be much older than twenty. Typical cyberpunk kids: stupid haircuts dyed purple and neon green, along with enough tattoos and piercings to make any basic bitch on Tinder swoon. Ripped skinny jeans, edgy T-shirts, and lots of black leather complete the look of three guys who must've been born in Hot Topic after their teenage mothers didn't reach deep enough with the coat hanger.

And they follow G36C into the alleyway, snickering under their breaths.


I've seen enough superhero shows to immediately figure out where this is going. To my chagrin, I also know who's going to be saddled with the role of hero.

I cloak when the coast looks clear, then slip in after them like a ghost.

Even though there's plenty of space between the complexes, their height blocks out most of the natural sunlight, casting the whole place in shadow. Overturned trash bags litter the pavement – their contents smell like death warmed over, and I nearly give myself away by gagging. The alley stretches about thirty meters in length, ending at a brick wall. There's an overflowing dumpster at the very back.

G36C is standing right next to it, swiveling her head around like a periscope, silver hair flying everywhere, looking more jittery than a drug addict going through withdrawal. Her mind seems to have caught up with her body, and she's none too happy with where it led her. I hear her choke back a light sob as the punks approach her.

"You lost, babe?" asks the presumed leader of the trio, who I'm noticing for the first time has a Glock 17 grip sticking out of his pants pocket. G36C spins around at the sound of his voice, lets out a tiny squeak, then freezes like a deer in headlights.

"I… um…" She stammers, quaking in her boots. "I am a bit turned around, yes…"

The head punk sends a look to his cronies, and together they start snickering again as if they have some inside joke going on. "Well then, today's your lucky day," he says. There's a hint of Slavic in his accent. "We know this whole area inside and out. If you need a couple of guides, we'd be happy to escort you. Wouldn't we, boys?"

They both respond in the affirmative. I can't see their faces from this angle, but I'm certain they're eyeing the Doll with lustful male gazes. Diagnostic data says they're getting hornier by the second, which is… not something I wanted to know.

"I-I, uh…" G36C's shivering grows worse.

"Of course, we're gonna require a little… payment, in exchange for our services," the My Chemical Romance reject goes on. "And I don't mean money. Don't worry – we're the good guys here. We're not like those snobs who abuse their Dolls. You see, the crew and I, we love Dolls…" He audibly unzips his pants. "We love em' all… especially the total hotties Griffin takes in, hehehe…"

I'm mentally shouting at G36C while this is going on: The fuck are you waiting for? Fight back!

She's a T-Doll armed with an actual assault weapon being confronted by three dumbass stereotypes. She could end these wastes of skin in moments if she took action. Instead she's gone completely paralyzed, tears leaking from her deep red eyes. Why hasn't she drawn her gun yet? Is it nerves, or is her programming holding her back somehow?

"Wait, s-stop!" the T-Doll cries as the lesser goons restrain her by the arms. "Uuuuuhh… HELP! Please, someone help me! Big sister! ANYONE!"

Look, I don't give a rat's ass if G36C is just another mass-produced automaton. This depraved act unfolding in front of my eyes, this base indulgence of human instinct, is the highest degree of sickening. Time to intervene. I drop cloak.

"Leave that Doll alone before someone gets hurt."

All eyes are suddenly on the new guy. One of the punks pulls out a knife, visibly sizing me up. G36C takes the lull in action to shake herself free and takes a few steps back, but trips over a bottle, landing on her rump with a high-pitched yelp. The lead creep scowls at first, though it switches to a toothy smile when he sees I've come unarmed.

"And who do we have here?" he mockingly inquires. "Some white knight wannabe? More like a loser with a death wish if you ask me!"

"Get the fuck out of here, needle dick. I won't say it again."

The jab at his (already low) masculinity contorts his ugly tattooed mug into a snarl. His hand hovers toward his pistol, and I briefly wonder if that single insult was all it took to send him over the edge. Common sense pulls off a last-minute victory, however, and he straightens himself, standing a little taller. He's smirking now. He thinks his gun and backup gives him all the power here.

If he knew what happened to Scarecrow, he would've thought twice.

His tone is almost casual when he speaks again. "Listen here, fuckstick. I don't know who you are-" Which is hilarious, because there's no doubt in my mind he'd be trembling if he did, "-but if you think you can show up out of nowhere and stake a claim on what's ours, then you're fucking retarded. You're the one walking on dangerous ground here. Now leave before I show you what happens to idiots who cross us!"


All three punks look taken aback. "The fuck did you just say?" their leader hisses.

I roll my eyes. "I said no. N-O. Did you not learn that word before you dropped out of school? It means I refuse to comply with your de-"

The creep whips out his Glock and shoots me in the chest.

Too bad for him I can read his reflexes. Too bad it wouldn't have put me down even if I couldn't.


Azure light illuminates my veins. I feel the impact, stare down at the tiny hole in my shirt, but the shot didn't budge me. I look up and scowl at the lead punk who's staring at me with huge eyes and an open mouth. Behind him, his goons have gone ashen-faced.

I take a single step forward. One of the punk squad steps back, accidentally bumping against G36C. The sound of my knuckles cracking reverberates through the alley.

"Shoot me again, asshole," I say in a low, dangerous voice. "Shoot me again and I'll shove that shitty little pistol of yours someplace you won't like."

Maybe it's the sight of my armored skin, the dawning realization that they aren't dealing with your typical street vigilante, that causes the punks to panic. Maybe they're aware they've just ticked off a guy who can shrug off bullets. Or maybe it's a simple, last, desperate act of defiance. Who the fuck knows.

The arm holding the gun is shaking, badly. "M-M-Monster! Help me kill it, guys! Kill it! KILL IT!"

Whatever the case was, the lead creep seals his fate by emptying his gun, with predictable results.

I make good on my threat.

His screams are music to my ears. His gang's are just as entertaining; they're hollering for their leader as he waddles out of the alley, sobbing like an infant, pants around his ankles. The tip of the Glock's barrel pokes out between his bare lower cheeks. I watch the rat scurry away, laughing over all the shouts.

A second punk, the one with the knife, suddenly charges and tries to stab me while I'm distracted. The key phrase is that he tries; the blade snaps right off the handle as soon as it makes contact with my scapula.

The next moment he's dangling in midair, locked in a one-handed chokehold. He claws ineffectually at my arm, choking out pleas for mercy. Afraid for his pathetic life. I won't kill him, obviously. No reason to further validate their claim that I'm a monster. I squeeze his scrawny neck – not so hard it'll cause permanent damage, but enough to starve his brain of oxygen. His thrashing stops a few seconds later, his hands falling limply to his sides. He's promptly tossed into the dumpster with the other trash.

Once I've taken care of Goth Sleeping Beauty, I notice the final lowlife had removed one of the plentiful chains crisscrossing his waist. My gaze alternates between his makeshift weapon and his fearful expression. I look him dead in the eye, raising a curious brow, silently asking what makes him think he'll have any better luck.

What this dumb kid does next is possibly the first smart decision of his life. He whimpers, drops the chain, then barrels past me toward the alley's exit; I hear him huffing and puffing down the street until he's out of earshot. That's it, kid. Run away. Go back to school and get a job. Become a productive member of society.

Tch. Fuckers.

Unfortunately, fighting off those punks was the easy bit. Now comes the hard part: Comforting a Doll who wasn't built to handle traumatic experiences.

G36C is teetering on the edge of shock. She's curled into herself, knees drawn to her chest, arms wrapped tightly around them. Her breathing comes in quick, short gasps, and nothing changes as I tentatively approach.

"…You okay?" I mentally slap myself. Of course she's not okay; she just watched me shove a Glock up a guy's ass. "Listen, I'm not gonna hurt you. You're safe now."

No response. I sigh. My former CO would know what to do better than me. Or Folsom. Or Sing Sing… any of my old squad but Leavenworth, really. Obviously I should stay by her side, but what else am I supposed to do now? Keep talking? …Poke her? The latter I write off as a bad idea considering the punks were already beginning to get handsy. I guess I'll just talk some more and hope for the best.

"You saw what I did with my skin, right? The glowy effect? Could you do me a favor and not tell anyone about that? If someone asks, say I went all Bruce Lee on their asses." I wet my lips. "Actually, hold on, you might not know who that is seeing as it's 2062 and he's been dead for… shit, almost ninety years? Strange how time flies like that. Hey, have you ever heard of Chuck Norris?"

G36C sniffles. She peeks up for a fraction of a second, then shrinks back into herself when she sees me looming over her like death's shadow.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't. No idea how popular he is in Ukraine," I continue anyway, playing with a bullet-sized hole in my flecktarn jacket. "There's a ton of interesting facts about him online. I browsed through them once, and lemme tell you, I might be a human chainsaw but I don't even begin to compare to that dude." Somehow I manage to smirk. "Did you know he accidentally shot off one of his testicles? The whitecoats later dubbed it planet Jupiter."

She looks at me again, longer this time. A silent gasp passes her lips. She finally says something, though it's so faint I would've missed it if I didn't have integrated subtitles: "Diese AugenDu bist es…!"

Oh, shit. She knows who I am.

"You're one of Sykes' girls, aren't you? G36C." Once again, my hands unconsciously snake into my pockets – a universal sign of distrust. "You have to be. What brings a T-Doll to this city? Were you looking for me? How many others are out there?" Familiar paranoia settles in and makes itself comfortable. It dictates I fire off question after question after- Ah dammit, she's clammed up again.

I exhale and look at the sky, running a hand down my face. You know what? I give up. I've always sucked at using words to comfort others, even my sister whenever she had a bad day. The only way I could cheer her up was to… take her out… for… hmm.

Resorting to a tactic I'd used often as my family and the world around us tore itself apart, I speak up again, far more gently this time.

"…Wanna get some ice cream?"


The little Doll slams into me. She hugs me tight, burying her face into my chest. The artificial girl hiccups, trembling, and I feel wetness as her tears leak through my shirt. I hadn't paid much attention before, but I'm realizing now just how fricking tiny she is – five feet tall at most, barely enough to reach my armpits.

Awkwardly, I pat her beret. I'll take this as a yes.

"I could've sworn that ice cream parlor was open," I mutter into my cappuccino, talking more to myself than to G36C. Not a huge deal, I suppose. And I never did buy a drink to wash down that pizza. "At least we managed to find some for you. Thank God for easy retail, huh?" I stare at the familiar green and white logo on the side of the cardboard cup. "I swear, if Sangvis Ferri doesn't take over the world, Starbucks will."

The silver-haired girl sitting next to me giggles through a mouthful of coffee-flavored ice cream.

We've relocated to the park where G36C was separated from the other Dolls. Or I think this is the same park? I'm not sure. She sort of just walked away after we left the coffee shop, and I followed like an obedient service dog. She hasn't spoken a word since the earlier dustup.

Despite the recent industrialization that overturned most of the old city, some areas retain a quaint 'green' atmosphere designed to give residents a taste of the pre-Collapse natural world. I wonder if Central Park was this peaceful before the Ceph landscaping team turned it into a scenic aerial death trap.

The two of us are lazing on a park bench along a jogging trail, waiting for any T-Dolls to show up. Yeah, yeah, I know – not a stellar plan, but you do what you can with what you're given. I pass the time taking in the activity around me as I sip my coffee, watching the occasional jogger pass by, sometimes smirking at the antics of a few children scurrying around playground equipment adjacent to us. The sound of distant traffic breaks the illusion of nature somewhat, but let's be real here, Berdychiv is a modern city. I'd be more worried if it was quiet.

"They really wanted to make this place into a haven, huh?" I muse aloud. "I've never been to a city that wasn't in the middle of a mass riot. Or infested with space aliens. Are all Green Zones this… clean?"

G36C frowns and looks down at the small ice cream container in her lap, picking at loose chunks with a plastic spoon.

I give a halfhearted shrug. "If you're not in the mood to talk, that's fine by me. I'm not much of a conversationalist either." My previous trainwreck of an attempt should've been clear enough evidence of that. I scratch my head, then sigh. "Look, I… I'll keep you safe until we find your friends, and that'll be that. Then you can go home and try to forget this ever happened."

This isn't working out as I'd hoped. In retrospect, a miserable day at school and almost getting raped are two very different things; even if the N2 amped my intelligence, I'm not a trained psychologist. Would therapy even work on machine people? Nothing in the, uh, 'guidebook' mentioned professional help for Dolls. I literally have no idea what I'm doing.

"You've put me in quite the conundrum…" G36C suddenly says in a very small voice.

Call me Dr. Rodriguez, PhD.

She plays with her spoon as she continues, "Part of me wants to forget. A large part. I could, and probably should wipe those memories when I return to base… I… I-I can't bear to think about what those humans… what they…" She swallows, shaking her head, silver hair rippling. "But if I did, then… I wouldn't be able to remember you. You risked your life to save me…"

"Uhhh…" comes my genius reply.

Truthfully, I wasn't in any real danger. A typical fight for me involves space squids, rogue androids, or dumbass mercenaries, and all three factions invariably come packed with ultra-high-tech weaponry and seemingly endless cannon fodder reserves. Compared to the shit I regularly put up with, a trio of punk kids doesn't even register.

"I don't understand, though." G36C's red eyes fix themselves on me. "Why would you put yourself in harm's way for a Doll? Why are you helping me? We don't even know each other."

"Do I need a reason?" I counter. "Maybe I just don't like seeing others in distress. Also, I'm fairly certain you're with Commander Sykes. You do work for Griffin & Kryuger, right?"

She nods timidly.

"How come you didn't fight back? It's not like you're unarmed," I probe.

A potent silence descends on us. I polish off my cappuccino and throw the cup in the trash. When G36C's done with her ice cream a minute later, I get rid of the container for her out of politeness. Dad might've been a pushover but he wasn't hesitant about teaching his kids some manners.

The Doll fidgets in her seat, grabbing fistfuls of her skirt. Her expression portrays a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and above all else, shame.

"I… I can't. We can't." She admits a short while later.

Okay, now I'm lost. "The fuck are you talking about? I might be a little behind on the times but I know that everyone, human or Doll, has a right to defend themselves. Even if you somehow got in trouble, I'm sure Sykes would've bailed you out."

She shakes her head again. "It's not that. I mean we literally can't cause intentional harm to humans." She draws her namesake carbine, probably for emphasis' sake, and rests it on her lap. Delicate fingers stroke the weapon's polymer casing. "If we tried, the failsafe programming in our digi-minds would activate and… terminate us. The same thing happens if we disobey direct orders…"

"Didn't happen to Sangvis Ferri, though."

"That's because Sangvis Dolls were built exclusively for combat. They're the true Tactical Dolls. The ones Griffin employs – myself included – are actually converted civilian models."

Huh. I already knew the 'converted civilian model' part, but the rest is news to me. I guess this explains why Griffin's engineers didn't disable the failsafe – they wanted to avoid any possibility of a second Doll rebellion.

Looking back a couple of weeks, I remember M249 mentioning how some Dolls voluntarily choose to work at Griffin, with herself among that number. If that's the case, then she was just another household helper before she became M249. And I can't imagine many people would trust the help with a loaded gun, especially when said helpers are constantly looked down on as second-class beings.

Was M4 once a regular A-Doll? Judging by her meek personality, I'd wager the answer is yes. What was her life like before paramilitary service? Was she treated fairly? The memory of Alice's stepdad raising a hand to strike her comes to mind, and it makes me grind my teeth in quiet contempt.

Nothing in my handy-dandy guidebook said anything about this. I'm beginning to think I've been ripped off.

Dolls are fucked up creatures, man.

"Earlier, in the alley, you mentioned my eyes. Did you recognize me? Is Sykes looking for me?" I move to a different subject, not at all surprised when the little android girl falters.

"W-Well, I… You see… u-umm…" She nervously averts her gaze. The fact that she's stammering for an answer isn't helping her case either. "We, um… Uuuuhh…"

I fold my arms. "You're hiding something. Spit it out."

Wilting under my glare, knowing there's no chance in hell I'm backing down on this, the dam finally bursts. G36C spills the full story: "That new girl, M4A1, she told us everything! She said you're a marine who calls himself Alcatraz. She said you have a Nanosuit, and that you brought her to safety after rescuing her from feral Ceph! Commander Sykes, he – I think he always suspected something. I can't say for sure. After Makeyeva was attacked and you ran away, Director Helian ordered him to find you and bring you in for questioning!"

"And how did you know I was here?"

"It was a lucky guess," she admits. "M4 led an echelon to the ruins of a farmstead she claimed you lived at, hoping to find you – without success, obviously. Commander Sykes decided afterward that Berdychiv was the next likeliest place."

This is just fucking fantastic. No, really, another PMC hunting me down is exactly what I wanted. I came to this bastion of human civilization for one purpose only: to disappear. Combing the entire city would take weeks; you could send a search party the size of a company and it would still be like finding the needle in a haystack.

I'm ready to follow up on that train of thought but G36C cuts me off before I can speak. Now that the floodgates have opened, it seems they can't be closed again. "It sounds ridiculous, I know, but Helian demanded that you be located as soon as possible and we didn't have the time or resources to develop a more effective plan. Five-seveN suggested we put up posters around the city offering a reward to anyone with information on your whereabouts. FAL disagreed… She said if you saw one, it might've scared you away…"

It takes me a moment to remember FAL is the ferret girl with the curves. She was smart to assume I'd vanish again; I'll give her that.

G36C sighs. "It was hard enough tracking down one man in a city, but then the Zener network stopped working and-"

"The what?" I interrupt.

She blinks. "The Zener network? Oh, forgive me – I suppose you wouldn't be familiar with that, if what M4 said is true." She gives me the barest of smiles, tapping a finger to her temple. "Think of it as Doll telepathy. There is a strict range limit, however, and places with high signal traffic like urban population centers can disrupt the link."

Her explanation confirms two things. The first is that I've definitely been ripped off, unless that book is outdated or Griffin's modifications to their Dolls is particularly unique. The second is that girls really do possess secret telepathic abilities – which some might call nonsensical, but fuck you and your logic. You're a damn liar if you say you've never seen two or more women share a weird mental conversation.

"Just my luck the system would go down during a five-minute nap," she laments with a sigh. "G36 must be worried sick… Uuuuhh, I should've stayed here and waited. Instead I let my fear get the better of me, and…"

"You got yourself even more lost," I finish. She nods. What happened after that is left unmentioned, neither of us willing to bring it up. "Look, G36C… I'm glad I was able to step in, though in all honesty, I think you should delete that memory. Don't hang onto it for my sake."

"Huh? Why?" She tilts her head, looking straight at me, red eyes full of confusion.

"Because I'm not worth remembering."

I stand up and start to walk away. That coffee went through me like a lightning strike and I'm eager to seek out a men's room. Unfortunately for my bladder, G36C interprets the action as me trying to leave her; a surprisingly strong grip around my forearm halts me before I can take more than three steps.

"Wait, don't go!" Some of the panic in her voice returns. "Alcatraz, please, you need to come back to base! M4's been crying!"

My urge to pee is suddenly forgotten.

M4 is… crying? Holy fuck, as if I didn't already have enough reasons to feel like a piece of shit. I snap my head around, finding the T-Doll on her feet giving me a pleading look. She's upset, so much so that she looks ready to turn on the waterworks herself.

I work my mouth, trying to form words. To say something. Anything at all. Nothing comes out.

G36C takes a deep breath, her gaze sharpening. "Listen to me, Alcatraz… nobody at Griffin blames you for what happened in Makeyeva. You fought off a Sangvis Ferri Ringleader by yourself to protect those civilians. If you hadn't been there, our forces would've arrived at a graveyard." She releases her hold on my arm. Her intense expression softens a bit. "And… please, don't say such things about yourself. You saved M4, and the village, and me as well. You once saved all of humanity! So… please…" A single tear slides down her cheek. "Please don't put yourself down like that! You are worth remembering. You're a hero!"

She lunges forward, trapping me in a tight hug.

It's critical to note that even though she's only a hair's breadth taller than Destroyer, unlike the SF pipsqueak, G36C was constructed with a far more mature figure. That means I feel every shapely curve against my body. Soft, warm, womanly assets press into my upper abdomen. My thoughts are so scrambled that I hardly notice another passing jogger shoot me a conspiratorial smile and a thumbs-up.

I'd tell you I'd died on the spot and gone to Heaven, except I've kicked the bucket twice already and I still haven't seen those golden gates.

"Eek!" She suddenly lets go and springs backward like she'd touched fire. Her face is beet red, matching her eyes. "I'm sorry! I-I wasn't thinking properly, and… please don't be angry with me! I'm so sorry!" She rattles off more apologies while I stand there looking like a dumbass.

Somehow my brain forms a proper sentence and rams it through my mouth: "Going to base wouldn't be a good idea."

"I forgot that some humans don't like being touched without permission first, and I really, truly am- Eh?" It takes the Doll a few seconds to calm down and register what I said. "It… wouldn't? Why not?"

How should I know? Oh, wait, I'm the one who said so. Fucking hell. If a nice hug is all it takes to break my concentration these days, Sangvis Ferri could employ death by snu snu and that would be the end of me.

I turn my back to her and start down the trail again, motioning for her to follow. My urge to piss is back with a vengeance now that I'm not physically preoccupied. "Well, uhh… I just think going there would do more harm than good."

"You're worried about what others will think of you," she surmises, keeping a nimble pace to match my longer strides.

"That's one way to put it." Plus I have zero clue what I'd do if I saw M4 again.

"That's understandable. After the attack, most of the staff's opinions were…" She pauses, lifting a finger to her chin. "…Divided? Yes, that's the right term. They were divided. Even after M4 revealed the truth, some held lingering suspicions about you; WA2000 especially. Commander Sykes stomped out any false rumors, however. He vouched for you personally, and as a result, us T-Dolls felt no reason to argue with him."

She gives an encouraging smile. "Springfield and M249 backed him up, you know. Springfield's word carries a lot of weight, almost as much as the Commander's, and M249… well… let's just say it's difficult to get her to care about something."

"I find that very easy to believe," I smirk.

"Also, Kalina wants to sell your suit on the market. Just a heads-up."

"Pfft. Tell her good luck with that. The damn thing's wormed its way into every cell – not even laser surgery can pry it loose." To prove my point, and partly to see how G36C will react, I wrap my hand in CryFibril and show it to her. It's discrete enough to not draw unwanted attention.

She's taken back for a moment, staring at the appendage with wide doe eyes, though she gradually relaxes. "I see… In that case, she's already made a backup plan: Convince you to join G&K, then sign you up for arm wrestling competitions. Or anything else offering prize money."

Devious. Cunning. Some might call it underhanded.

Why the heck didn't I think of that? I've been running around a zombie-infested quarantine zone doing other people's shopping when I could've made the same payout by breaking a few wrists. Hey, if you've got the strength, might as well use it.

"I'm still not comfortable with the idea," I admit. Her face is sympathetic.

"I understand why you'd be nervous. But as I said, no one there thinks you're at fault. The Commander isn't looking to interrogate you. All he wants is to hear your side of the story."

"Which brings me to my next point. There's honestly nothing I can say that M4 or the villagers haven't already," I tell her matter-of-factly. "Sangvis tried to overrun Makeyeva, and I helped to defend it. That Ringleader cunt forced my hand and paid the price. I ran because… because of Lev. That's it." I stop in my tracks. Blink when I remember something. "Actually… there is one thing. Executioner, before she died, she told me the purpose of the assault was to lure M4 out of hiding."

G36C tilts her head. "She was after M4…? Are you certain?"

"Dead certain. Don't ask me why; I don't know the reason either. All I know is that SF's after two VIPs: her, and me."

"Thank you, Alcatraz. I'll inform Commander Sykes about this as soon as I can."

"Good." I glance around the park. We're in an open space about sixty or so meters away from a stone pavilion, and the handful of civvies casually strolling by aren't close enough to hear us converse. "Hey, can you do me a favor?"

"Of course! I'd be glad to." She nods and smiles. Part of me wonders if some of the obedient A-Doll left in her is responsible for the sudden eagerness to receive orders.

I chew the side of my lip. "When you see Sykes again… tell him I'm doing alright. Tell him I've found myself a little place and that I'm getting by." I leave out how I'm lacking both electricity and a job. Some details are better left out. "Let M4A1 know, too. She should be looking for her sisters, not crying over me. I'll be fine."

G36C prepares to protest, when-

"Meine Schwester, where are you?!" SECOND cranks up the audio dial. G36C hears it too; both our heads swivel to the source.

The German-accented female follows up: "Magal, are you sure you heard her voice?"

"Positive." Comes the muted reply. "And she's not alone."

On a separate paved road opposite of the pavilion, a blond-haired woman wearing a motherfucking maid outfit spearheads a group of five armed Dolls. My vision zooms in automatically; there's a G36 assault rifle bouncing around the maid's back as she moves with haste down the trail.

"Big sis!" the silver-haired girl next to me exclaims in unbridled joy. Forgetting me altogether, she takes off across the grass, shouting excitedly in German the whole way over. The blond Doll whirls around just in time to intercept her sister's tackle-hug.

I watch their happy reunion with a smile, amused as the elder Doll fusses over her sibling, checking her for injuries while she berates her for wandering away from the team.

My lighthearted mood doesn't last long, however. I ditch the T-Dolls – easy since they're preoccupied with G36C's safe return – and make my way out of the park, back into the crowded city streets where they have next to no hope of finding me again. Touching as that was, the veiled reminder that I have no one left to call family – besides a fucking cinderblock waiting for me in a scummy apartment – hits me deep. I need to be alone for a bit. I need to find someplace to think, to confess, to grieve in private. Someplace quiet.

So I go to a place I haven't been to out of my free will since I was fourteen.

I go to church.

(Berdychiv Church)

If New York's Trinity Church was the house of worship equivalent of a Beverly Hills mansion, Berdychiv's chapel is the trailer home owned by that one redneck neighbor with a gun collection and a Confederate flag on his truck whom your parents warn you to stay away from.

I never did understand why a majority of white folk living in suburban New Jersey thought they were really in the Deep South.

Not to say the place is sketchy by any means; on the contrary, the local clergy put in a decent effort to preserve it. It's just that the church is old – like, built before 1900 old. It's a surviving relic of the Berdychiv that stood through ELID and the Ceph and three world wars. With humanity's collective focus now on survival, the need for worship fell by the wayside, and someone high up evidently decided the city didn't have enough skyscrapers and that siphoning funding from historical sites would fix the problem.

So yeah, it's not in the greatest shape, and the fact that it's cozied up next to an elevated parking garage doesn't do its image any favors. Despite its neglect, the interior is still welcoming. Behind the main alter is a bronze statue of Jesus Christ, double the size of the average man, hanging on the crucifix. There are signs of oxidation; flecks of blue mar the statue's pitted surface. Light shining through the giant stained-glass window creates a halo around the visage of our Lord, it paints the modest space every color of the rainbow, it has me mentally debating how that's possible since it's a damn fact that a nearby office building should be blocking the sun's rays at this time of day.

I'm sat on a pew. The priest isn't around, nor do I hear muffled banging from choir boys trapped in the basement. There's not a single living soul here. Heh. It's funny, y'know, because I'm technically not 'alive' by any standard definition.

You know what else is funny? That a guy like me – who encountered space calamari from another fucking galaxy, whose body became a nightmarish amalgamation of dead flesh and alien tech over the course of humankind's war with them – could still be a praying man. Though in hindsight I guess it's not that ridiculous; if the Ceph are the closest things to gods we've seen, who says there can't be something even higher in the cosmic pecking order?

Now how should I begin? My mom was the Bible thumper in the family, not me.

Suppose I'll just wing it, then. I mark myself with the sign of the cross and lean my head forward, eyes closed, hands clasped.

Uhh… hi, God. It's James. Been a while, hasn't it? My parents used to take Alice and I to visit you every Sunday… at least until you apparently decided my mom was too uptight and loosened her up with a heap of dementia. Which was kind of a dick move. She said to me once after the Double Dip drained our savings that you often work in mysterious ways. She idolized you, you omnipotent fucker. Why did she have to suffer for her loyalty? Why did all of us?

But I didn't come here today to air grievances… well, okay, I did but this time it's different. As you're no doubt aware, I've been tossed thirty-nine years into the future. Whatever family and close friends I had either died or moved on without me. We've got these lifelike machines called Dolls coexisting with humanity, or in Sangvis Ferri's case, trying to purge it. Really the only thing that hasn't changed is that I keep alienating others by making an ass out of myself.

God… I'm exhausted. Not physically. Emotionally. The longer I'm in this world, the more it feels like I don't have a place in it. All I want is… stability, I guess. Something to anchor me down, keep me from drifting down the wrong path. And I don't mean the boring kind of stability – you know as well as I do I'd find no happiness slaving away in an office as an overworked, underpaid insurance salesman who only makes it through each day with copious amounts of caffeine and hatred. That lifestyle won't fly for me. My augments, my skillset, they demand I do something more… worthwhile.

Right now I feel utterly lost and I have no fucking idea how to change that. Please, I have nothing left… If finding my purpose in this twisted future means embracing the demon I've become, I'll do it. I'm just so fucking tired of hating myself.

Lord, please, give me a sign…

The doors behind me swing open.

In comes a man who has to be almost seven feet tall. Dude's built like a tank: arms the size of tree trunks, legs just as girthy. Just pure muscle all around. He's dressed in a rugged black two-piece business suit with a fur-trimmed maroon longcoat draped like a cape over his shoulders. The echo of his footfalls pierces the silence in the church; as he draws closer, I make out windswept salt-and-pepper hair, a weathered face with a nasty scar on the right cheek, and a scruffy beard.

He comes to a stop at my left, right next to where I'm sitting. "Have room for one more?" he asks in a thick Russian accent.

I shrug, gesturing to all the empty space surrounding us.

He takes that as the cue it probably isn't. "Ah, thank you." He takes a seat on the pew, mindful enough to leave a few inches of room between us. "It is rare to see a young one such as yourself in a place of worship these days," he says. "What brings you here on a weekday afternoon?"

"None of your business why I'm here."

Maybe that came across a bit icier than intended, but Putin himself could've walked in and I wouldn't have appreciated him pushing my buttons.

The man eyes me for a moment or two, then turns his gaze to the statue of Jesus. He breathes a quiet sigh. "Business… I run a business, you know. The type where not all of my employees are guaranteed to survive. It is why I go to church whenever my schedule permits– to pray for them, and ask for the Lord's forgiveness."

I don't say anything back.

He continues, "I always liked Berdychiv. Always a lively city, even before the tragic accident that spawned the Devil's Shell. Always something exciting happening." He looks at me again, face set in stone. "When I arrived here this morning to negotiate a price drop with one of my suppliers, the last thing I expected was to find some of my Dolls conducting a manhunt."

"You know who I am." It's a statement, not a question. The man folds his arms across his barrel chest.

"Privyet, Mr. Rodriguez. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Berezovich Kryuger, co-founder of Griffin & Kryuger private security firm. You've caused quite the stir within my company lately. Commander Sykes in particular had much to say about you."

Well isn't this an interesting turn of events? It seems like I bump into G&K's personnel everywhere I go lately. If I didn't know better, I'd think the universe is trying to tell me something…

"Then you know a settlement under your protection was attacked." A thought occurs to me, something I'd forgotten to ask G36C. "There was a civilian injured during the fighting, Damir Paskov. He and his brother had a trade deal with Base 794. Do you know if he…?"

"I am familiar with the man you speak of. He is alive."

Thank you, Jesus. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Kryuger continues, "I read the after-action report personally. GSh-18 managed to get him stabilized. He was airlifted to our headquarters and is receiving the best medical care money can buy."

"I'm surprised you'd go that far for a civvie."

He raises a bushy brow, then closes his eyes, slowly shaking his head. "I have seen many terrible things during my lifetime, Mr. Rodriguez. The Ceph invasion. The release of ELID. Another pointless war. Endless violence... The human population is at an all-time low, and if I am presented with an opportunity to save a life, I will take it no matter the cost."

"Alcatraz," I correct him.

"I am sorry?"

"I'd prefer you call me Alcatraz. Sergeant James Rodriguez died decades ago. You've probably dug up my file, collaborated with Sykes to fill in the blanks. I'm sure you know why I'd say that."

"…Indeed." Kryuger tilts his head forward in a slight nod. Even with my augments it's hard to get a read on what he's thinking. Not a terribly expressive guy, it would appear. "You were listed as KIA after the New York incident. I know this will not bring you any comfort, but at the very least you weren't around to see CELL buy your Marine Corps afterward."

Hold the fuck up, did he say those abominable snow idiots bought the United States Corps of Marines? With, like, money and shit? I wasn't aware a privately owned company could even do such a thing. But then what happened after their corporate empire collapsed?

Kryuger must see the confusion on my face, because he's quick to provide an answer. "They owned most of the world's military power. Much of it never recovered, especially in the aftermath of ELID's spread, to say nothing of World War III."

My throat suddenly feels dry. "So what you're saying is… I'm not just the last guy with a Nanosuit. I might also be the last active Marine..."

"Sadly, you are correct."

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. So much for going back home and reenlisting, even if that realistically never was an option in the first place. The military was like a second home to me. A shitty home, mind you, but at least my squadmates never tied me to my bed in the middle of the night so they could try to exorcise me with a glowing hot fire poker. Chino, Folsom, Sing Sing – hell, why not throw in Leavenworth while we're at it – they were all in the same boat as me. Serving Uncle Sam gave our lives a semblance of real meaning.

My eyes drift down to my hands, which are still balled together. "I don't know what I'm gonna do," I confess.

"Then my advice is to do whatever you think would be most productive." Kryuger rests a mammoth hand on my shoulder. "You have power, Alcatraz. Enough power to shape the fate of our world, as you demonstrated in your fight against the vile Ceph. Tell me something: Where do you think it would best be put to use?"

"I told you, I don't know."

Kryuger hums noncommittally. "Then let me ask you a different question. At what point did you feel your destiny was no longer yours to control?"

I blink in surprise, and suddenly I'm a pile of dying meat washed up on the shore of Battery Park, staring through blurry eyes and rainfall at the smoky sky above. Nanosuit 2.0's cycloptic visor stares back at me. As Prophet reaches down to pick me up, I hear the suit's synthesized speakers pipe up:

"Destiny's a bitch, huh? It'll be on you now, son."

"When I was forced inside that cursed suit." I grumble out.

"'Forced'? …A curious answer, and one we will talk more about later, though I meant when you first awoke in the present day," Kryuger clarifies.

That's an easy one. I think back to the very beginning, back to when I was shivering naked on the floor of an abandoned facility. "Then I guess… it would be when I found out Sangvis Ferri put a capture order on my head. Or a kill order, depending on which Ringleader you ask. I… I didn't realize how dangerous they were, not at first anyway." I swallow and take a deep breath. "Not until Makeyeva…"

Now that I'm thinking about it, everything that went wrong since I fell out of that cryo-pod can be traced back to Sangvis Ferri. Yeah, their human scientists fixed my brain, but it wasn't out of any sense of generosity and they're all dead now so I feel like I don't owe them anything there. And their Dolls, Jesus Christ. Cruel. Heartless. Sadistic even. Their entire existence revolves around killing, with each Ringleader model embodying some of the worst traits of war.

They're absolutely relentless, and I know from firsthand experience that no act is despicable enough for them when it comes to achieving their goals. I watched them attempt to slaughter an innocent village just to see if M4 would be among the Dolls who showed up to rescue it. They would've committed the same atrocity earlier if they knew I was there.

Executioner's dying words ring in my ears: "We will not stop. We will not rest. We will hunt you to the ends of the earth…"

And here I am hiding away like a bitch when they're out there plotting who-knows-what. Me, who can go toe to toe with their Ringleaders and come out on top.

At my core, I don't like fighting. I signed up for the Marines so I could fix things, not engage in wanton violence. Sangvis Ferri just happens to be a problem where violence is the only solution. The only way I'll get rid of them for good isn't by going off the grid, but by facing them on our shared turf – the battlefield. If SF tracks me down again… God forbid, if they learn I'm here, there's no telling how many people could get hurt.

My mind plays back to the sound of metal cutting into flesh, Damir's scream, his arm hitting the ground, Lev's panic attack. G36C is right: None of what happened that day was ultimately my fault.

It was all Sangvis Ferri's.

My heartrate increases. Blood thumps in my ears in a steady pulse. Somewhere in the distance I hear G&K's leader ask another question.

"How will you use that power? What is it that you want, Alcatraz?"

My hands ball into shaking fists.

"Revenge," I whisper. I look at Kryuger, feeling my face twist into a snarl. "You hear me? I want revenge on those tin cunts. I don't care how many foot soldiers they throw at me. That Mastermind of theirs can hide behind all the Ringleaders she wants; it won't make a difference. I'll fucking tear through them all! I…" My voice cracks. "I tried to ignore them, pretend that life was normal again, and it cost a dozen villagers their lives. Never again!"

He gives me a long, searching gaze, like a DI in boot camp measuring me up. Finally, he nods. "A noble goal if I've ever heard one. Tell me something, though: Do you plan to beat them into submission by yourself?"

I'd smack myself later for letting a sign as big as a school bus fly over my head.

"If that's what it takes," I reply without hesitation.

"It does not have to be that way. We share a common enemy, do we not? You will need a place to rest in between battles, filled with others who care about you. And I suppose it wouldn't hurt to be paid for your service every once in a while."

My brows knit together. Once again, I'm too stupid to take the hint. "What are you getting at?"

"Join Griffin & Kryuger," he bluntly declares. "The Sangvis insurrection must be dealt with as quickly as possible. On this we can assuredly agree. With the world's strongest soldier working alongside our elite Tactical Dolls, not even SF can stand a chance against us... and I do not make such claims lightly."

I bite my lower lip to hide my astonishment. Wow, umm… this is unexpected. If he'd tried to recruit me a couple of weeks ago, I would've spat at his feet. Bad memories of CELL and all, you know? Besides, I said way back when that PMCs don't compare to shit against real armies.

But this is the future, man, and as with the rest of society, the world's armed forces are so diminished in manpower that they've become reliant on T-Dolls to pick up the slack and do the dirty work. And I was treated nicely during my short visit to Psycho's pad.

I think of all the reasons why accepting Kryuger's offer wouldn't be wise.

I come up with none.

"Okay." I nod once, then again with more conviction. "Okay, I'll join your little security firm. But on two conditions."

The big man's stoic expression doesn't budge. "Name them."

"First, I really hope you're not planning on assigning me a commander role like Sykes has. Never was much good at leading." I gesture at myself. "And, like, I've got a fucking Nanosuit in me for chrissake. If you wanna get the best results, put me on the front lines and watch the ensuing bloodbath. Err… coolantbath."

That gets an amused sound out of him. "I wouldn't dare remove you from your element. However, it remains to be seen how well you'll operate alongside Tactical Dolls. How good are you with teamwork?"

"You kidding me, dude? A marine is nothing without a team backing him up. I'm good with other stuff, too. Recon, assault, support, covert ops; you name it, I can handle it."

"Excellent to hear. And for your other condition?"

To be perfectly fair to Kryuger, I'd still join G&K even if he couldn't fulfill my second request. I'm definitely asking for a lot on this one, but… if I'm going to be staying in Ukraine for the foreseeable future, I'm going to need a few lingering questions put to rest. There's this sense of minor irritation in the back of my skull telling me he has friends in high places. This might be my best shot at gaining some closure.

"Back in the States, after New York went down, I left behind a couple of people important to me. I'd like to find out what happened to them."

His hardened features soften a fraction. "Da, of course. Everyone should know what has become of their loved ones. Give me their names, and I will see what I can do."

"Thanks. I'd like you to look into an Alice Rodriguez first, if you don't mind." I pause when I realize something. "Uh, Rodriguez is her maiden name. No idea if she ever got married. Christ, it's weird to think about your baby sister like that."

"I'm sure it is. I would not know, being an only child. Next?"

"Robert Garcia. Call sign 'Chino'." A smirk slips as I remember my fellow jarhead. He was a carefree soul, with a joke or snide remark always loaded and ready. "He was my squadmate in Omega-One. You said you read my dossier, right? Think you can find his?"

"I will put in a request." Kryuger whips out a smartphone and starts tapping away at the keys. He makes it look easy despite his huge digits. "Anyone else?"

Is there anyone else? I never got on with the rest of my family. Hardcore religious freaks, the lot of them. The straw that broke the camel's back was when they accused me of being a monster for calling the police on my mother, even though she had the screwdriver. And I wasn't all that close with any marines outside of my squad. Kinda says something when- Actually, I just thought of someone.

"Tara Strickland. Former Navy SEAL, daughter of some late bigshot Major in the Corps. Rescued my sorry ass from the skinning lab one time. Ever hear of her?"

Kryuger chuckles. He actually chuckles. That has to be an impossibly rare sight coming from a jacked-up bear of a man like him. It's like witnessing some kind of odd miracle, and I find I can't tear my gaze away from him.

"Have I heard of her?" he says through his mirth. "Of course I have heard of the fifty-first President of the United States. She won a landslide victory shortly after CELL was dismantled."

Did he say president? He said president. Holy shit, Tara. Way to shatter the glass ceiling.

"Damn, that's pretty fucking incredible." She would've gotten my vote, hands down. "Where is she now?"

Kryuger's laughter fades, and he takes on a somber expression. "Gone, I am afraid. She passed away two years ago from natural causes. A huge shame. She was the only senator in America who refused to let greed corrupt her into one of CELL's little government puppets."

Oh. That's… I guess the most appropriate way to phrase it would be 'bittersweet'. Even though we barely knew each other and I spent half that time thinking she was my enemy, I'll miss that woman. "I'll be sure to say a prayer for her."

"Good idea. Far too often we do not get to-" Kryuger's phone rings. He grumbles something under his breath as he checks the caller ID. "Helian. Excuse me, I must take this."

I tune out his conversation, letting the enormity of my decision sink in. Of what I've just done. For better or worse, I've unofficially been hired by a private military firm that appears to rely solely on modified T-Dolls for combat roles. Michael Sykes holds my chain now – no idea how that's gonna go. I'll be surrounded at all times of day by androids designed to look like attractive women.

I'm going to be surrounded by attractive robot women.

Heaven help me.

While my face is busy draining itself of color, Kryuger hangs up his phone and stuffs it in his suit pocket. "Well Alcatraz, it seems we'll have to skip the paperwork and the formal introduction for the time being. Instead you will be getting a trial by fire at Commander Sykes' outpost."

"What do you mean?"

He looks me dead in the eye. "We have just located two missing members of AR Team – ST AR-15 and M4 SOPMOD II."

Sorry about any delay. I don't have a specific update schedule, in case anyone's curious. I write whenever I feel that creative spark kick in, but sometimes it can take a long while for that to happen, you know what I mean?

Anyway, I feel like the introduction arc has been dragged on long enough. Hopefully this chapter didn't feel rushed; I like worldbuilding as much as the next reader, but I'm itching to finally get to the real meat of the story. From now on, we'll be getting a ton more interaction with those quirky T-Dolls we've grinded a year of our lives for.

Oh, and before I forget: The reason I listed SOP-II as a main character is because the character index for GFL is pitifully small. (I was initially shocked, too.) There's only like five or something Dolls on there. One of them was Mk23, which… kinda scared me.