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"I like Denny's!" Danica protested as she shrunk her shell until it appeared like more of a whimsical backpack, her skin turning pinker and more human at the same time. "Their Tumblr is amazing. But other restaurants are good too." She hopped back onto her scooter and steered herself out the door after Yves. "Do you think they have good Mexican food here? I know South Texas does, but I've never been to this part of Texas. Maybe there's a barbecue place? Barbecue is pretty good too." 

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They wound up at the Mexican restaurant across the street, a spot where Eira allowed that she could at least get decent cell reception. The atmosphere was authentic enough, with a soccer match playing on the wall-mounted television and Spanish-language advertisements for calling cards and money transfers on the glass inside the door, even if it lacked the telenovelas that were even now playing on the other side of the border. Eira sat down with her back to the window and took the menu in at a glance, and ordered the black bean soup (without the creama) with pepper and avocado molletes, after a quick check to make sure it wasn't chicken stock going into the soup.

 

The front-of-the-house staff were Hispanic, dressed in the black dress shirt and jeans that were universal among food service workers, and friendly enough to the three visitors. "Man, everything interesting is happening today!" said Pablo, their cheerful, goateed waiter. "Three people from Freedom, that girl with the dreads livestreaming herself...hey, maybe I'll see another robot! Have you heard about that?" he asked them. 

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"No we haven't, it sounds rather interesting.   After all, robots!  Could you tell us more?  Only robot I've ever seen was either on the tube or attacking the city."  Yves responded.  She had made sure to sit with a view of the window next to Danica.  She took an awkward pause to decide before finally finishing with "Sounds super interesting."  Though he did use the words 'another' clearly quantifying his robot experience as existent.  Yves had no actual expectation to gleam anything new from the waiter. But, a curious tourist blended in better than a know it all. 

 

Plus he seemed cheerful enough that he might've been the type to have both halves of the conversation for her.  Yves' plate was filled with  carne asada, rice, and beans.  She hadn't taken any care with selecting an item.  And simply picked whatever was listed on the Chef's specials of the menu.  

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"We just got here today!" Danica told the waiter excitedly. "Who's been livestreaming herself? Was it cool?" She ordered the chiliaquiles and extra spicy salsa for the tortilla chips, along with a glass of horchata. "Mexican food in Freedom City is not always very good," she confided to Pablo. "Some of it tastes more like Taco Bell. Did you see one of the robots? I thought most of them turned up outside of town?" 

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"Oh, we've had a lot of these crazy robot-animals show up," said Pablo with a smile. "Nothing you should be worried about, being from Freedom and all, but it was pretty wild! My cousin Charlie, she saw a rattlesnake that was like, glowing silver metal, outside of town! The sheriff came and took it away, though, so I think it's some kind of big government coverup or something. Maybe aliens!" 

 

The guy behind the counter called something to Pablo in Spanish about "Hey are you telling customers about aliens again?" 

 

"No way!" Pablo called back in English, "It's totally legit! I heard there was one even living in our town!" There was a general sigh at this from the rest of the staff, and at least one made the classical temple-twirl signal of "crazy". "Anyway, if _I_ saw one, I wouldn't tell just anybody." He winked, a suggestive sparkle in his eye. "They'd have to be some very special people. And tip really well, ha-ha! The livestreaming girl was very, uh, pretty," he said, looking at the three women around the table. "Looked pretty touristy, just running up and down the streets with her phone out. We get a lot of tourists around here, you know!" 

 

Pablo took this opportunity to place their orders, but the place wasn't very big, he was within easy reach if needed. For her part, Eira was frowning, staring at something neither of the other two could see. "I found the streamer. I do not know her, somebody named Zuumer420. With two Us." Her lip curled in disgust, then her eyes widened as she whispered, "Her English is...idiomatic, and very _stupid_, but she says she is here because of the robots too.

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It took a lot of restraint for Yves not to give the very polite young man a threatening glare after he winked.  She had it in spades.  Not enough to stop herself from calling him a fool in Galactic Standard as he walked away with a smile on her face.  Needing to at least keep to a language the younger two had little chance of understanding.  Especially as she would transition back to English with vivid enthusiasm. "Oh that all sounds very interesting.  I bet she was a funny sight running up and down the streets."

 

The AEGIS agent then leaned back in the booth as Eira spoke.  Taking the moment to listen to the explanation.  Looking between the two she openly began to ponder, "Before the crocodile planted itself in the golf club, this wasn't anywhere near national news.  I don't believe this streamer is involved in any other way than her own curiosity and seeking views.  Still she may have accidentally uncovered something.  In situations like this agents would normally investigate the lead.  The job is often combing through paperwork or writing up reports.  For example, in this case I would suggest we watch both her latest video and a few minutes of her older ones.  This is not only to see if robot chasing is the subject, I mean girl's, normal activity. It also confers up the possibility that she accidentally stumbled on something."

 

Yves then went back to the complimentary glass of water that had been brought at the beginning. 

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"That's a good idea!" Danica agreed enthusiastically. "Eira can watch the fastest, but maybe if we all watch, we'll see different things." She pulled out her phone and searched up the username, typing with one hand while holding her horchata in the other. "That's another weird difference about the crocodile," she mused. "If it was the thing that drew all the attention. The robots before were native creatures and didn't draw a lot of interest from anybody, then _boom_, robot crocodile, like a Reese Cup in a bowl of M&Ms. It feels like either they changed their strategy or somebody else got involved and went a  different way, doesn't it?" 

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Eira grumbled a bit but helped both Danica and Yves find Zuumer420's channel on Youtube and other streaming services, obviously impatient to get them there as quickly as possible. 

 

Zuumer420 turned out to be a pretty girl of indeterminate race, her skin a few shades lighter than her braided brown hair, her blue eyes wide and ingenous as she spoke with brightly painted lips. Something looked a little off about her bodily proportions; not quite inhuman but looking as if she'd had a substantial amount of plastic surgery, especially given her habit of filming herself while running. It was hard to make any immediate conclusions about who she was from her narrations, perky talk about "Zuuming" all over the country to see the sights "and be seen!" (the perkiness seemed to be what annoyed Eira more than any of her talk about her reddittors or her refrain of "remember to like and subscribe, Zuumers!") It was hard to tell where she was from, her voice the sort of breathy "late-teen-early-twenties" voice that could have belonged to any other streamer. It was hard to tell how she was making money short of the usual monetization and merch usual to people in her profession. She seemed to be something of a hero chaser, from her video titles talking about Emerald City, Freedom City, Vibora Bay, and other hotspots of heroic activity in the United States. 

 

Pablo came by with their orders to find them all watching on their devices except Eira; a good waiter, he left their food with just a few questions if there was anything else. Eira gave him a _look_, but returned to her watching when he was gone. 

 

"Tomorrow morning," Eira suggested in a breathy whisper as she stared off into space, "we need to find that crocodile.

 

 

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"A superfan.  She seems to be a green level at the worst."  Yves mused while watching the videos. "Successful enough to get around.  Assuming she doesn't have other non financially dependent travel means."   She didn't really have her finger on the pulse as far as social media went.  Though after the third time being asked to like and subscribe it was clear that Zuumer's business model survived on its audience in some way.  The mother of three was surprised at how drastically different the levels of enthusiasm going into watching the videos was from the other two in front of her.  Especially since out of the three, by Yves' estimation, the one most likely to enjoy seeing a show put on would be Eira.  Probably it's because she's not the one starring in the video.

Yves attention turned to her food.  Nudging it along with her fork before finally picking up a bite.  "I'm optimistic that we will.  I can't make any guarantees it will be a crocodile.  But, from the sounds of it we'll certainly find something robotic at this rate."     

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Danica studied the video thoughtfully. "She's a hero chaser," she observed, "she likes to be where the action is. So what's she doing here now? I mean, a robot crocodile is kind of interesting, but it's like, the second most interesting thing that happens on a Tuesday morning in Freedom City. It's weird that it would catch her attention so fast, you know? And none of the other robots really got any attention at all. If it weren't for the crocodile, nobody probably would've showed up, right?" She tapped her fingertips idly against the table. "But in Freedom City, there are a zillion hero chaser blogs even for the Tuesday morning stuff. Here, she's got the story all to herself. Maybe there's a reason that the biggest, flashiest robot has a totally different MO." 

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"We should look into that tomorrow," agreed Eira. "I do not like hero-chasers, they make life difficult. Her gear was too good for some random Youtuber with a Patreon. If she knows something about the crocodile....I think you are right again, Danica." It wasn't _exactly_ a begrudging admission.

 

With no more immediate clues to be had, and a mystery to keep wrestling with, the group headed back to the hotel. The girls had been booked in a room with two queen beds, and Eira was happy to give Danica access to both as she set herself up in the room's office chair. "I will be sitting here, all night." She turned and placed her hands on the desk and a silvery cord snaked out from under her arm, burying itself in the wall outlet not being used by the coffeemaker with a distinct snik. "I am not asleep but you can talk or make noise." And with that, she closed her eyes. 

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The next morning, as going after a possible hero chaser for questioning was considered a fairly low-danger mission, it was decided that Chelone and Angelic would be teaming up together for the meeting. "After all," Agent Larrikin pointed out, "she's likely to freeze up or demand to talk to a lawyer if AEGIS agents go in to meet with her. But if two stalwart teenage heroes come to meet with her, what self-respecting hero chaser could turn that down?" 

 

It was compelling logic. Luckily it was easy enough for Eira to put on her hero 'outfit' - she stepped into the bathroom of the AEGIS office just long enough to divest herself of her clothes, and then step out looking like the robot she was - all silvery chrome-like body that was of no particular gender (albeit with a short metallic "skirt" that began above the waist and descended down to the knees), with flat white eyes and a smoothly polished head. With that, she waited in the office for Danica to finish donning her hero garb - they'd use an unmarked car to actually get out to the hotel where Zuumer420 was staying 

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Danica's hero garb wasn't too dissimilar to her everyday schoolwear, though it was more eye-catching than the civilian look she'd been wearing around town. Her shell was proportionate to her body today, big enough to hide in, big enough to obscure most of her clothes. Just barely visible were the legs and sleeves of a black bodysuit with the same distinctive gold piping of her shell. Her skin also looked a little greener and more leathery than when she was passing, her hair a little wispier. She looked perhaps a bit more like an alive cartoon character than a superhero, but she certainly didn't look ordinary. "So do we actually have a meeting arranged," she asked Eira as the car took them to the hotel, "or do we just go out there and do hero-y stuff till she notices us?" 

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"I have already called her," said Angelic, tapping the side of her head with a smirk on her quicksilver face. With her seemingly-organic appearance dismissed, her artificial voice was distinctly low and throaty. "She was very interested to meet two real superheroines." She put some emphasis on the last word, looking Danica up and down, and offered, "You look...cute. She will...underestimate you." That sounded like praise? It was hard to tell with Eira, who didn't seem to praise much of anything at all. Still she helped Danica get her Segway down from the back of the car, and led the way as they headed inside the hotel and to the elevator. Alpine wasn't Freedom City - they got startled exclamations (and a distinct photograph snapped) from the desk clerk as they headed inside. 


The hotel room turned out to be occupied by "Katie Luvara", as Zuumer420 introduced herself, a statuesque woman who looked distinctly like someone who'd had some good enhancement surgery in the recent past. She was all smiles for the two young heroines at her door, cameras running behind her as she said "Hello and welcome to my special guests, the amazing Angelic and the adorable Chelone!" Cameras and gear aside, Luvara's room was immaculate - not even a wrapper in the trashcan as Angelic and Chelone headed inside. "They're here all the way from Freedom City investigating the real mystery of the Big Bend! You two look _darling_," she said cheerfully, big brown eyes wide. "Is this your first time fighting crime together?" 

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"Thanks, Katie!" Danica chirped. "Angelic is a good friend of mine, and I'm excited to be out on a mission with her! Hi YouTube!" she added, waving to the camera with no hint of insincerity. "I've never been on a YouTube before," she admitted. "Are we live right now? I was hoping we could ask you a couple of questions about the, you know," she waved her hands, "the situation. We know you've been out here for a couple of days already, and we were hoping you might have seen something that would help us with the investigation!" 

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"Oh, I'm always live and turned on," said Katie with a saucy smile. She seemed to be focusing in on Danica, largely ignoring Eira. It was hard to read Eira's expression when she didn't have a human face 'on', but she seemed to be scowling as she looked from cameras to livestreamer. "I'd be happy to answer any questions you have, but I've only been here a few days myself. Do you know anything about all the robots here in town?" 

 

Angelic crossed her arms over her chest, fixing her flat white gaze on the livestreamer, and said throatily, "Yes.

 

"Well good!" said Katie with a laugh - and a lie. "Because I hardly know anything. I'm just here for the lulz and to see what's up." She hopped from the bed where she'd been sitting and zipped over to Danica's side. "You are just so cuuuute! Do you have any merchandising deals?" 

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"I do!" Danica replied cheerfully, plopping herself down onto the edge of the hotel bed. "You can buy a Chelone plushie or sticker set from the Albuquerque BioPark website, and all proceeds go straight to the zoo! But I know you're being too modest, Katie," she cajoled teasingly. "You wouldn't be out here unless you knew something to start with, and I'm sure that once you started looking, you found stuff! It's content, right?" She laughed. "How about we trade? You give us the scoop, and I'll send you some really wild pictures of robots I got on my phone!" 

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Eira shot Danica a look at that - but fortunately the moment seemed lost as Katie smiled. "Oh, well, the big scoop is just for subscribers," she said cheerfully, "but I decided that with all this super-science running around, there must be a super-scientist or two! Can you imagine a secret robotics lab somewhere, right here in the middle of the desert? It'd be totally wicked!" She grinned and threw an arm around Danica that felt cool, as if she'd had the air conditioning in the room turned up full blast before they'd come in. "That is you! I thought I recognized you, you are sooo cute!" She held up a phone and took a quick selfie with the two of them.

 

Across the way, Eira was fidgeting with something that looked like a phone, but Katie didn't seem to notice until Eira said, "Why? What would be so wicked about that?

 

"My subscribers love it when I find out wicked secrets," Katie grinned. "There are all sorts of things out there that _man_ was just not meant to know. I bet we can find out some pretty cool stuff if we all work together..." 

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"Cool idea!" Danica agreed enthusiastically, giving the camera a game smile and a peace sign. "How long have you been in town for? We only just got here yesterday, but I know you've been here longer than that. What was the first thing you heard? Have you actually seen any of the robot things close-up? They seemed kind of small and simple to me, mostly, but Angelic is the real expert on that." She nodded to Eira in the background.

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Katie told them everything she'd seen, or so it seemed - a tale of how she'd read posts about the events in Texas on Reddit, then followed her nose out there a few days earlier in time to chase down a few of the animals, and stories about the animals herself. She spoke live for much of it, turning and smiling at her cameras, occasionally shutting them off for 'real secrets.' "I've got a few leads on the base out in the high desert, but I don't want to give anything away. Not to sound like a simp, but I'm a city girl through and through, and I could use an expert on desert conditions for my next video up there - if you're interested, that is. And as proof I'm not some redditor with big dreams..." She headed over and reached under her bed, fishing around for something.

 

They were definitely no longer live, which was probably for the best because Eira was staring fixatedly at Katie with an odd expression on her face. After some time, she pulled something out from underneath the bed - a bright pink bag covered in roller derby stickers. "Check this out." She zipped open the bag, smiling big as she showed Danica and Angelic what lay inside - a small, slick-looking lizard - if you ignored its delicately-worked metal skin and glowing red eyes. The small creature had seemed inactive in the bag, but blinked and began to move in the light. Eira glanced down at the lizard, blinking hard. The lizard looked up at the trio of humanoids above it and seemed to focus its attention on Danica, blinking its eyes and darting away from her the way a small, nervous lizard would bolt from a human, only to find its little scrabbling legs couldn't take it up the soft sides of the bag. "Huh! That's strange - he hardly even noticed I was there," commented Katie. 

 

Eira considered a moment, then looked at Danica significantly - just as the latter's phone began buzzing with an incoming text. "That is important," she whispered softly. 

 

 

 

SHE IS A MACHINE.

 

 

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"Oh, he's cute!" Danica's phone trilled like a bird with the incoming text, distracting her from the little robot. "One second," she told Katie, and pulled out her phone. It took all her diplomatic ability to keep her eyes from widening like saucers at Eira's text. "Ugh, we need to meet up with our handler before we can go anywhere," she told Katie, which was technically true, though it had nothing to do with the text. "But it would definitely be good to work together on that desert base. When can you meet up?" 

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They made rather hasty plans to meet late that afternoon, around the time the heat of the Texas day would be fading to something more manageable. It was hard to tell if Katie knew she had been 'made' or not, but it seemed as if everything was still on the up and up as the duo headed outside and around the corner to meet up with a waiting Argonaut. Her own human disguise renewed once they were outside, Eira looked uncommonly thoughtful for a girl who had  been so brash and thoughtless (for all her cleverness) as they drove away. "I saw it in her eyes," she answered when she was asked how she'd figured out Katie's secret. "Her blinking pattern is exactly the same, every time. It is the same with what she uploaded onto Youtube and Tiktok. It is a 'tell' in some synthetic life built to resemble organic." She looked up at the hotel again and said, "She was here before we were - and she acted as though she knew more about this situation than us.

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Yves drove with one hand on the wheel and the other resting comfortably at her side.  "Interesting."  There was no shock or excitement in her own tone.   Staying silent until the first traffic stop came into view.  Then without turning the AEGIS agent once more spoke.

"I shall posit a question.  Do either of you believe she herself is aware?"  The question wasn't a deep philosophical waxing of poetic on the culpability of AI consciousness and free will.  Or anything of that nature.  "There is a significant difference in how we can approach this next depending."

 

Her tone remained even temper, but Yves made the effort before the light turned to look directly in the girls faces as she spoke that last sentence.  Before her attention returned on the road.  Whether she was reading their expressions, taking a quick visual scan for any trailing vehicles, or even just doing a bare cursory in maintaining an adult conversation with eye contact the agent apparently choose not to elaborate.

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