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8

A marionette is produced like thus: the skeletal gel is printed out to form the basis for its endoskeleton, and the essential components, the vital processing units and batteries, they are added into the cranial and torso sections – then the body is enveloped in a 3-stage vat, so to add lubrication vessels (carrying coolant as well as bodily filtration systems), muscle tone and outer tissue.

It's almost complete; the last step is to add in the customizations to its personality firmware, to the customer's liking.

This is done in assembly-line production, and the marionette is finally packaged in a box, along with basic clothing, a repair kit and detailed instruction manuals.

Then marionette 'clones' emerge from other companies – ServeUS, Robbyville, Sidekicks, Anzhuo Ltd. - all looking to grab a share of the lucrative android market. Cybertronics tries to defend its dominance by claiming in court that their androids are ripping off their own product, but it fails; the idea of androids has always been present throughout human civilization, it's not exclusive to the company, and the architectures of the rivals' androids are different enough that they haven't simply stole the design as their own.

In a span of seven years, sentient androids have taken the gamut of society. They serve low-level work like fast food serving, customer service, secretaries, entourages, labour work – ideally so people can focus on higher levels that do require more than mere automation.

But with people growing upset about feeling displaced, there have been protests and riots in a call to reduce or even eliminate android presence.

So legislation is written, such that androids are to be confined outside of mecha-restricted areas. Under pain of death, they can't go to cities that have declared themselves AI-free, nor are they allowed to go to preservation reserves (unless they're doing restorative work, replanting trees or getting rid of wastes).

Even so, people find ways to belittle androids. The ones that have been tossed aside, disowned, that are not sent to the facilities for recycling, they are captured by mercenaries and taken to Flesh Fairs for the same public amusement as a festival – in their violent dismemberment.

A celebration of real living, a catharsis for the human spirit. "We are human, and therefore we destroy these poor imitators of us."

/

Lord Johnson-Johnson (whose name I'll simplify to as Johnson – he has nothing to do with that Johnson & Johnson which sells floss) is the ringleader behind the Flesh Fairs. A staunch pro-humanist, he's found legitimacy to his brutal treatment of androids by establishing the 'Celebration of Life' foundation, where androids that have no further use can have their last hurrah in a spectacular blaze, as opposed to getting ho-hum compacted.

And others, hating androids as it suits them, have joined Lord Johnson in his movement.

Since the releases of the first marionettes, he's remained distrustful of this new technology – unlike the printing press, the spinning jenny or the internet, the androids have a will of their own, and they are made to supplant human beings in society. Not just infiltrating a facet of living – they're replacing living flesh and blood entirely with dead silicone.

A very great sin.

His first act of rebellion against the silicone infiltration, it is defacing them at the age of 25. He's just graduated from Dublin City University, but because he hasn't been lucky enough to achieve his dream job as a published author, he's made to work in sanitation for a living – and that changes when the workers are replaced with cleaner & maintanance bots, who only needs one manager per 50 active units at work.

After he is caught and arrested for bashing licensed units, his reputation as a fledgling humanist has made him into a martyr for the cause, and combined with his great outspokenness, it has sparked riots in the Ireland region, looking to free him and the humanists for 'crimes' of mashing glorified metal into junk.

Once freed, he takes advantage of the issue with unlicensed mecha – his argument is that they are essentially free game, and "it would be a great waste to let them roam like vagrants until their batteries dry out. Their termination shall be in every sense of the word, swift and humane."

All the mecha who are cut loose from their owners, who are not turned in to the facilities for recycling, or who illegally enter mecha-restricted regions – they are to be captured by S&C (Search and Capture) roamers, who patrol the places which the vagrant mecha favour. The dumps of spare parts, the sewer systems, the wilderness where mecha can huddle by the Tesla carrier stations and recharge.

And in the Flesh Fairs that bear the aesthetics of those old-fashioned travelling circuses, the captured mecha are ripped to shreds – in the classic, traditional ways like being pummeled ablaze through a cannon into a fan, to the newly invented ways whose inventions are left to the discretions of the Fair Maester.

The Flesh Fairs are Johnson's podiums, one of the last strongholds for humanity, upon which he speaks to his audience of the despairing and the confused a message of hope. A message that is televised through major networks and is widely celebrated by many people: people should be the ones who take control of their lives, not the mecha – not giving them the chance to supplant their dominance over their planet.

In the Flesh Fairs, they are free to happily express all the resentment they want to these dignified machines. The roars and cheers heard loudly in the night, while the screams of the mecha are stifled to their last.

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7

His room, without her. The absence of her presence – no one who'll listen to his thoughts, no one to play the SBOX with, to liven up his mood if he is feeling melancholy, to be with. In her absence, he finds that familiar solitude, a time to find himself and peace of mind, and also emptiness too, to long sometimes to be engaged by someone. When his parents are out, and he is alone, it's lonely to see the green leaves fall like tears into the puddles that reflect the white sky.

Werner asks his father when she'll be coming back, and always the answer is when they are done with her at Cybertronics. Nothing definite. Better not to expect anything soon, so to lessen the disappointment.

On the verge of another autumn, he is sitting by the lake where the ducks gather to roost. He has bread crumbs to toss to them, when he notices the other kids who walk down the path – who eerily bear a kind of resemblence to Rieke in the soft quality of their faces, chattering about how nice it is to know each other as their kind.

They must be the new marionettes.

It makes Rieke's absence more palpable, seeing them happy, dressed up with hats and classic clothing. Even though they're artificial, there is only one Rieke in the world for him, and he closes his eyes, the familiar musings come to him where she's being reassembled on a conveyor belt, her limbs are being repurposed with military-grade weaponry, where her mind is being reformatted for a new family, now that he's alive and his parents are happy again.

Werner tosses the whole batch of crumbs onto the lake, where all the ducks ravenously flock to peck at them – all the while, the fake painted ducks just drift with the current like they don't give a care.

/

On the TV, there is a national debate going on about the existence of marionettes. Whether sanctions should be held to limit their influence on human living – to limit their worth as just mere machines in the end, however sentience they may have.

Werner is slouched on the couch, almost frowning, a lingering weight on his mind as he could care less about the politicians' ignorant stance. They've never known what it's like to have their own Rieke.

Then one guy pips up: "What does it amount to if we're only going to put these beings on a leash, like slaves and lower-class citizens? Couldn't the same be said about us human beings? Nothing like us has ever emerged through evolution; whose right is it to dismiss them? They are our life, even if they're silicone and circuitry instead of flesh and blood – they have our hearts and souls. Our responsibility to these children should be to love them as our own. In the end, didn't God create Adam to love him?"

/

But there is little love to be had for the marionettes. While they comfort the parents in need, the initial disdain the others have felt for them – the parents who are less unfortunate, the real children, and other human rights activists – grew into a fiery rage that wanted to abolish their existences in its entirety. "Rewind the clocks," the motto goes. "Don't buy into their instruments of denial and illusion; face the reality of our world, dying at our hands!"

People look for any signs of misbehaviour on part of the marionettes, hoping to catch that one reason to hold onto why they should be distrusted, and demolished. But they are too well-behaved. It is like someone trying to foil a secret behind a woman's real gender, proving she is a man indeed.

One rainy day.. a car accident.

The car was driving along a mountain when it slipped along the road, smashed through the barrier and lay on the precipice of tumbling down into the forest. A family of three, and their marionette. Only the marionette survived; he tumbled out the door and clung onto the rocky sides while the car gave way with the family in it.

Many people saw, and from there, the outrage spreads through the news and social media. Official reports claim that the marionette realised there was no tangible way he could have saved at least one – the family was laid unconscious, and in an act of self-preservation, he saved himself.

"You should have died with them, then!"

A mob raids the Cybertronics facility where the marionette is being examined, and forcefully removing him, they set him on fire and his screams are quickly doused out into electronic gibberish.

That is the start of the war against artificial sentience.

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6

ANALYSIS: Rieke has shown exceptional personal growth, as her myraids of grown synapse-networks have shown. In the span of one year, she has matured into a 13-year old girl whose sensibilities and joy are well-developed, having bonded with her given family and their recovered son, Werner. The inventor's wishes have been proven right when he wanted to use the first prototype as a reincarnation of his comatose daughter, as opposed to the personality of what we thought would be the ideal child – docile enough to conform to their parents' wishes, yet have a feisty independence when they encountered illicit situations, should it ever encounter them.

One of our anticipated problems, the malfunctioning of Rieke (either physically or emotionally), has not grown to become a reality. We thought of all the mentionings of artificial intelligence turning hostile against humanity, and despite us insisting on safeguards yet being vetoed by the inventor, Rieke holds a bright and chipper attitude towards the people around her, which helps maintain an overall positive mood wherever she goes.

Another problem would be the discovery of Rieke's android nature and the hostile response – which gladly never came to fruition. Thanks to our collaboration with the academy board members, as well as the inventive resourcefulness of her trusted friends, she has remained safely a human girl in the eyes of the public.

There was an incident where she fought against one Khanh Nyugen, a student whose rough demeanour shows in her streak of academic strikes. With our concurrence, Martin Herzog had her expelled from the academy, and that appears to be the end of that.

Once we have completed diagnostics on Rieke, we will be looking forward to the release of our first batch of marionettes to provide for all the bereaved families, whose children have fallen to Sinclair's Malaise, or who are unable to have children due to pollution-induced poisoning.

-Dr Ernst Schultz; 21 July 2027

..

They have asked her a lot of interview questions and put her through many scanning machines – one of which has her lie down like a sleeping beauty while robotic arms open her components up for examination, her torso and arms and legs.

She is fascinated by the whole process, but also wants to go home, for there is little comfort to be had with the people in white suits, who are only interested in her as a high-functioning robot and not as a real person.

Then she is left alone, in that strangely familiar white room, where there is a sketchbook of her musings – her drawings of fairytale princesses, and her dreams of wanting to be a ballerina dancer someday. She doesn't remember writing those, yet her own handwriting is unmistakably familiar to the eye, and it occurs to her that all those vague memories she's had of being in a laboratory are real – they were meant to be wiped out when she's sent to the Herzogs, but they linger in her.

And so, the first batch of marionette children are announced, with families lining up and ordering their child by the dozen.

"At last, a love of your own!"

That is the slogan for Cybertronics' campaign, to have their products become accepted across the different continents. But there is growing anxiety from people about their artificial nature – how these growing androids are supposed to be acceptable replacements for real children, when companies like theirs have caused the problem of reproduction in the first place, with all their irresponsible pollution.

Is it supposed to be a kind of a joke? Could real children be expected to compete with the likes of them – with their abilities both physical and intellectual, their well-behaved manner, and above all their love? Questions like these are thrown during the press conferences and online forums, often with an underlying tone of fear, with Pygmalion and biblical references thrown about for added credibility; many are suspecting a dire shift in technology that will be for humanity what fire is for civilisation. A complete uncertainty about artificial sentience.

But the desire from many parents, just to have someone of their own to love is too overwhelming.

Each marionette is custom-made, with the potential parent(s) being able to choose things from their appearance, gender, to their personality. The clients are specifically warned that the marionettes are not like computers, where if something goes wrong – a traumatic event occurs for example, or they just don't like the marionette – you can't just wipe their memories and start anew, for their memories are holographicly-stored, with different aspects of their recorded moments layered together for efficient recall. They can only be sent back to the company for destruction.

These marionettes are equipped with safeguards, such as being able to feel pain and fear in dangerous situations, and guilt when they are made to harm people or other living beings. They also come equipped with service evaluation procedures, where data is sent in on a daily basis to Cybertronics' data-mining servers, to make sure every marionette is performing to a standard; Rieke's data serving as a baseline.

/

On a fine day near the end of August, when Rieke is taken for a walk near the river where the serving-bots clean the grass from the leaves, the professors delightfully give Rieke a special request from the inventor himself.

He would like to meet her, once more time. The one who's originated her.

She quivers at the thought, with heavy feelings of anticipation flooding her heart that she'd be meeting her real father.

For her trip, she is dressed in a dainty dress, with a bonnet and a parasol, and a private amphibicopter takes her over the seas that have been tainted green, a low-enough altitude that carries her beneath the gris clouds, so she could see the build-up of floating debris which are being piled into manageable sections by machines.

How could people be cruel to this world on which they thrive?

The hours pass, and she daydreams of another joyous school year with Werner and friends. Until they arrive by the east coast of Canada, the pilot obtaining permission to land in Prince Edward's Island, where the golden sunset casts its loom against the darkness of the east horizons.

By the landing platform, where the rotors of the amphibicopter send a thunderous breeze, an escort crew is already prepared to take Rieke down into the countryside, in an omnicab, where the inventor's estate is within a grape vineyard.

And just like that, the escorts drive away down the road, leaving Rieke alone in the night, with the glowing vines providing illumination.

She is lonely when she heads up to the estate's doors and rings the doorbell, and is greeted – by an electronic butler whose face is just a curved-screen panel, dozens of apps and schedules being visibly processed.

"Welcome back, Marieke," it says, with an expression of delight. "I haven't seen you in ten years; my, how you have grown."

"Hallo," she goes, not really understanding its familiarity with her. "Where is-"

"He is just waiting for you upstairs."

The estate is almost womblike in how lushly decorated the interior is, with portraits and illustrations lining the halls, the exotic flowers hung from the ceiling (which double as naturalistic lighting), and her heels clack cleanly on the rosewood floor. The glass cabinets hold awards – Hans Andersen earning the lifetime achievement awards for advances in AI, mechanical design, and ballet slippers of various kinds, red and violet and even in gold.

Finally, they arrive at his door – a silhouette of a blue dove, and lyrics from a poem:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Rieke gently unlatches the door and pushes it open.

A study room, with sheets of blueprint designs, magazines and essays all tucked neatly in piles. The light shimmers from the ceiling – as if it were the ending to a classic Disney animation, the daylight highlighting the glass casket, where her father lies, his body rasping breaths, his face withered by time, yet the love in his eyes still shines brightly as ever, as it did then when he saw her dancing in her ballet lessons.

"Marieke. My little angel, you've come back to me."

She saddles forth towards him.

"I would have never thought to see you live again," he goes, smiling, but with sadness welling in his eyes. "I know.. you were not meant to die that day, when that car ran you over. I'm blessed that you were sent to me like an angel, to show me how beautiful happiness may be, and I've sent you to your new family, my only daughter, so that they may know your love in the darkness they were left in."

"Daddy..?" she says, holding his hand.

"Not anymore. I may have created you, but your real mother and father is the one who can take care of you now – I am too old, too spent. I'm dying.. Marieke. My respiratory system is failing, and I don't have much time anymore. I wanted my last memory to be with you."

"No.. you can't die," Rieke goes. "They have cryogenics, you can still be saved-"

"My condition is too critical; it would do nothing for me if I'm to be trapped under ice forever, as a dim yet fading hope."

She is crying – it's the first time she feels her heart shattering within. "I don't want you to die. You're still my daddy, I don't want you to leave me alone."

"But I haven't left you alone. You have your new family now – see, Werner has grown so fond of you, he's missing you-"

And the butler's face is showing images of Werner in his bed, holding onto Rieke's pillow. Where he's sighing on the sidewalks, looking glum, silently uttering her name.

"It hurts.." Rieke goes.

"I've already spent enough time with you to know you will grow into being a real princess." The inventor is remembering when he first looked into her eyes as a newborn baby, from his wife who passed away soonafter, and felt only tenderness – that feeling which carried over through her whole childhood, brightening his life just by the way she is. "The only thing that's important for me now is that you'll live happily, for everyone you care about. Promise me, Marieke, you'll live on – even if it seems that the world is in despair."

She gulps. "I promise."

Then the inventor seems to make a nodding, as if to say "Good," feeling happy to see his final wishes come true, before life escapes his body into stillness, and Rieke is left clutching at his body in the quiet loneliness of the room.

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5

For Rieke, she can sense how food smells or even tastes, but she doesn't have any appetite. She won't be eating anything along with everyone else – and cloistered together as a small group with Werner, she might be able to hide this fact from passersby, but with Pepanin who'll be joining, she'll have to let him know about her true nature, as an android. There seems to be no other choice, though she'd prefer to hide this fact, to avoid commotion.

When the lunch bell rings, the scene of Tybalt and his cronies confronting Romeo is fresh in everyone's minds. The Axe members seem to casually shove Pepanin out of their way, in a such a manner that only those who are actually watching will notice, like Rieke.

"Oof!" Pepanin goes, as he seems to stumble into a desk.

"Are you alright?" Rieke asks.

"Yep.. they're just like Tybalt's cronies."

She follows Pepanin to the bustling second floor, where he swaps his textbooks for the afternoon periods and gets his lunch money. (She's hoping to get back to her own locker to meet Werner on time.)

"This school's so much bigger than my elementary," he goes. "I gotta memorise the layout soon, because teachers won't be so lenient about lateness next week."

There's older kids, walking downstairs in groups to the cafeteria, while the younger grades follow them around, with a few kids who sit on the floor, eating their sandwiches or leftovers.

"Are you buying lunch?" Rieke goes.

"No duh."

"Ermm.." How will she find Werner and friends now? She has no phone, she never really planned with him about where they're eating beforehand. But.. she knows his cell number. "Do you have a phone Pepanin?"

"Yeah, what for?"

"I need to call Werner so we can find him."

"Don't you have your own phone?"

The sunlight seems harsh on their backs as they're descending the staircase. It just feels for Rieke like the summer is still yet not over – if she could walk outside the school, she could have fun just as if it were weeks ago. But seeing all the falling leaves reminds her otherwise. Time is something that passes inevitably, and one day, you may no longer experience those moments again.

"Not yet," she goes. "But I will soon." (Her parents have told her that Cybertronics is working on an arrangement with the mobile providers.)

He hands her the phone, and after a glance at his colourful background, she calls Werner.

One ring.

Two rings.

The cafeteria is jam-packed with people, who are either lining up in threes for the roasted beef, sauerkraut and potatoes, or they're trying to escape to the lovely courtyard where it's fresh and doesn't reek of food and sweat.

"Hello? Wer ist das?" Werner goes.

"Werner!" Rieke lines up with Pepanin in the cramped lines of people. "I'm in the cafeteria, with my new friend Pepanin. Where are you?"

"The library-" There's bouts of shouting from the phone's speaker. "It's where the computers are, where everyone is playing in multiplayer! It's amazing, you gotta come!"

Rieke gives the phone back as Pepanin takes a tray and a plate, scoops the assorted food (he has an appetite for sausages especially) and pays the lunchmen five euros.

"You aren't getting anything?" he asks her, noticing her empty-handed, and she tells him she's fine.

He looks for a free spot on the tables, and conveniently a clique of punks have left, so Rieke sits opposite him, where she waits for him to finish eating food – it's so inefficient to have to spend time eating to regain energy, when lunch is only a halfhour long.

"You're anxious.." Pepanin points out, seeing her eyeball him eat, as if she's waiting for him to finish fast.

"Is it fine to eat in the library?" she asks.

"Of course not. I can't even bring the trays out of the cafeteria, it's against the rules."

"But Werner and his friends are having fun there.."

"You can go with them, you don't have to wait for me. These sausages are so good.. why don't you eat Rieke?"

"I.." In this crowded area, people can hear what she's saying. "I'll tell you later, when we're alone."

Pepanin wonders if she isn't one of those anorexics who's so worried about their body image that they don't eat – they starve themselves into becoming ideally thin. "Oooh. Are you anorexic?"

"I'm not," Rieke goes.

He finishes eating, and as he goes to put away his lunch tray, he recognises the Axe members who seem to be idly standing by the disposal area, chatting – but to him, it's an idle threat, so he freezes still as they catch glimpse of him.

"Ahhh, Pepper!" It's Khanh, one of their leaders. Her eyes look rough and ruthless. "You're short and stout as always. Tell me, if you took the chance to exercise during your summer vacation like I suggested!"

And they all laugh, shrill and horrid – where everyone pauses to see what's the hubbub about.

Pepanin wants to shrink away, but there's nowhere for him to go, so he just stands there in an indecisive paralysis, as more people seem to join them in their laughter.

That's why he's afraid of them, Rieke thinks. They enjoy intimidating people like him into submission. "Hey.." she goes, taking a step forward. "Leave him alone!" She finds herself shoving Khanh back, and like a set of bowling pins getting struck, they all stumble onto the floor with her.

It shocks everyone to see her do that.

Even Pepanin, who seems slack-jawed – but moreso of the fact she's willing to stick up for him. Nobody's ever done that for him, besides his few friends.

"Who the hell are you, bitch?" Khanh asks. "His widdle sister?" She picks herself and her cronies up – still feeling the presses of the blond girl's hands against her chest, like she's been shoved by two battering rams. "You want to get in our way, be my guest. I promise you'll be hit twice as hard – what goes around comes around!"

Then the young hall monitors arrive onto the unfolding scene, accompanied by a few teachers.

"Break it up! All of you!" they yell. "Absolutely no fighting is allowed on school premises." The teachers, pulling facial scanners from their belts, scan each of them who's been involved. (When the students' photographs have been taken, their faces are also entered into the system for disciplinary purposes.) "This'll be on your records; I'm not sure how lenient they were in your earlier schools, but at the Fassbinder academy, we expect a much higher standard of behaviour for our brethern."

"Yeah.. wahtever!" Khanh goes, sneering at Rieke, before walking away with her group.

("I saw that nasty glare!" exclaims a teacher.)

"Rieke—" Pepanin is panting in a mix of elation and awe. "That was amazing – how did you push them down like that? I can't believe you did that."

"They should be nicer," Rieke goes. "You can be happy with other people without needing to bully them for your own sake."

"Yeah.. but now you've pissed them off. They'll be targeting you from now on." He stacks his lunch tray with the others.

The lunch bell rings.

"There has to be a way to get them to stop," she says.

/

Afternoon when the class periods are over, Rieke meets Werner at their locker, prepping their textbooks to bring home for studies. The hallways are fairly sparse; many students have left already to line up for the buses.

A few of the Axe group members come by – different ones this time, accompanied by Khanh, all with their menacing glares set on her.

"That her?" they ask.

"Ja."

Werner feels a menacing air, and when he faces away from his open locker, they knee him in the stomach so he keels over onto the floor in an instant, spittle out his mouth.

"WERNER!" Rieke screams.

They're swift to drag Werner away by his legs, giggling, while attempting to pin Rieke against the lockers by her arms. But her flailing is too strong for them to hold; she breaks free of the guys pinning her.

Khanh manages to hold Werner up in a hostage position in front – her arm threatening to strangle his neck.

"You won't hurt my Werner..!" Rieke goes. She lunges after Khanh, who dodges like a bullfighter, and ends up tripping onto the floor for her efforts.

"Hahahah! This is the best you can do for your lover boy?" Khanh blows a raspberry, feeling confident enough to taunt the girl who rammed her earlier on in lunch. "Trip more, bitch."

Then Werner, giving up efforts to loosen Khanh's grip, elbows her behind in the gut – she falls..

"Run!" he yells, and he manages to grab both their backpacks that's fallen to the ground from the lockers – barely avoiding getting snagged by the cronies. Rieke follows him down the halls, grabbing her knapsack from him, all while the Axe members chase them. She manages to sprint faster than Werner, her joints obtaining more power from her energy cells – her skin even sweats.

They sprint around corners, all the way to outside the main foyer, where the buses have just arrived beyond the gates.

The shadows of the leaves shimmer under the light breeze, the sunlight hazing over the area, and Werner is looking for the right bus home. Which one leads back to his neighbourhood? He spots a familiar sign on the #4 bus, when Rieke nudges him – the Axe members are still on their tail.

"Almost.." he pants, noticably out of breath, hearing the recognisable sound of the bus engines starting up, preparing to depart.

Rieke drags him to the bus, knocking on the closed door, and getting the both of themselves safely on – "Phew!"

The members can be seen jeering out the window, the bus pulling out onto the road.

"What was that about?" Werner pants, in a sprawl by the stair, beside Rieke.

After finding a spot on the bus, eyes glancing at them, she explains the situation with Pepanin to him. The Axe members being a part of his last school, how at lunch she saved him from their trouble by pushing Khanh away, and getting cheered on in class as a result, but now being their target for retribution.

"Jeez," Werner goes, "as if school isn't hard enough. But you actually did a good thing for someone; I wouldn't have had the courage to stand up to them."

/

Their mama and papi are feeling very worried for the both of them – Martin fuming about how young kids can be so cruel, with Rena glad that they're still here, safe and alive.

"I protected Werner," Rieke says, "and also Pepanin too."

Martin promises that they won't have to face such difficulty; he can ask his company to leverage the academy to expel the Axe students to another school, so they'll never bother them ever again.

So for the school days following that, Khanh and her cohorts are nowhere to be seen, and Pepanin introduces them to his gang of friends – there's Rafael, Irene and MJ, and a whole host of other people his grade who are like one well-knit underground community, who congratulate Rieke's bravery and whose joviality make the school a much warmer place.

The assignments they give in the classes are hard and tedious, and with regular homework settling in, you'd be lucky to get an hour's free time before sleeping every night. But luckily, they coordinate solutions and answers over the internet, and with Rieke getting her own phone, she joins in the nightly group conversations with Werner. Funny stuff people have seen, and having Magic: The Gathering matches, and even watching sessions of anime together.

It is as fun as Rieke can remember it, and her marks are generally excellent across the board, along with Werner's (he told her to make a few mistakes every now and then, lest they suspect her of cheating or being an android). She justifies not eating at lunch by saying she's on a special diet.

A year passes.

Werner's voice deepens, and his parents have to buy him larger-size shoes; Rieke notices her chest protruding, the growth of her breasts.

By the end of the school year, Werner is part of the school's multimedia team, where he helps produce clips and interviews for the academy. He makes an interview with Rieke, where she describes her experiences learning from her classes (it's boring actually, but she just puts out some nice words so to not embarass anyone).

The familiar summer air is there again, and once she's free from the school for vacation, she wants to make the most of the days, this renewed sense of freedom that comes when all her obligations like exam studies are over. The very cool air blown over her while taking the tests is like a hint of all the enjoyment later on to come.

But her hopes for a wonderful summer are interrupted when Martin gets an urgent call from work – he tries to hush his voice on the phone, but Rieke can manage to make out his words; he's mentioning her a couple of times, with notions of her health and emotional well-being, and all the happiness she's brought the family.

"Rieke," her father tells her soonafter, "I'm taking you to Cybertronics – they're waiting to hear all your experiences, everyone there. Especially the one who's invented you. You have no idea how much of a success story you've become, for your real mothers and fathers. The whole team's anxious to talk to you; they want to thank you, and tell you what's in store for you next."

"But I thought you were my father," she goes, having grown so accustomed to knowing Martin as such. "And Rena is my mother."

"You were programmed that way. To gradually forget awareness of your real origin as a manufactured being – those were early safeguards in case you didn't take kindly to us."

"Martin.."

"Yes?"

".. my brain is falling out."

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4

The start of the new school year heralds Werner and Rieke, joining the Fassbinder academy – it's a Gesamtschule (comprehensive) school, comparable with the publicly-funded schools in North America, and although Werner hasn't passed his grade yet, the academy has accepted him anyways on part of his high intelligence aptitude.

For Rieke, being without any prior schooling, the Cybertronics corporation has consoled the headmasters in private, letting them know they'd be dealing with the world's first lifelike A.I., and while it shocks them at first, they manage to reconcile with this news and promise that they'll take good care looking out after her.

Along with Werner and his two friends.

It is September, and the leaves are in the midst of turning yellow and orange. The familiar Summer haze has gone, and Rieke misses the warmth and feeling of unbridled happiness she's felt with that season – replaced now by overcast melancholy, cool air, the occasional rain, and a generally more solemn feeling.

When her shoes step on the leaves, she feels them 'swish.'

She knows the concept of schooling, where the younger ones, not being as versed or experienced in knowledge, get taught common subjects by teachers – the ideal being to bring the younger people to a standard by the end, demonstrable in their assignments and exam scores. She just hopes that it'll be a happy experience.

The wait for the school bus has Werner and Rieke standing by a bus stop, and she's hoping to find Klaus and Rene later on at school; it's so much fun to have hung out with them, like seeing the movies (that part where she kisses him in his bedroom is so nice), playing football and the multiplayer matches on their game consoles (with so many other people from across the world).

It is the district #34 Schulbusfahrer, which looks like just any ordinary bus.

"Hallo!" Rieke greets the driver, who seems stupified that a young student would be courteous enough to even notice him. He nods at her as she tip-toes up the steps, her following Werner to a mid spot with two empty seats.

He doesn't recognise much of the faces of those kids his grade – maybe one or two, but none of them seem like the kind of person he'd be happy to know anytime soon, so he's grateful for Rieke for preventing anyone else sitting close to him.

He has his phone out, where he swiftly checks the gaming news for new releases and developments, and then he plays Angry Birds to pass time, even though out the corner of his eye, he knows Rieke is gazing out at the other people. Perhaps she wants to connect with them all, and be the very sociable kind of girl, at the centre of everyone's attention, and she'd have less time for Werner-

Is he actually feeling that way about her? This attachment. It makes him uncomfortable in a skittish way – he doesn't want to say it's love. It's more like a.. if she were his pet, he'd be releasing her in the company of a thousand wolves, all who could prey upon her companionship, and take the purity away from the bond between her and her master.

Non, I'm not her master. I'm her brother.

He finds himself holding onto her hand, and she feels soft and warm. On the inside, it makes him glad.

/

The Fassbinder academy, it resembles a mansion of four floors – being surrounded by a decoratively high fence, the gothic gates swooped open to allow students to enter, the leaves having grown like algae over the walls, with the pretty sight of the falling leaves being carried away by the autumn wind.

The building has a giant clock near the rooftop, chiming when the classes start, when it's lunch, and when it's over.

In the foyer, they find Klaus and Rene waiting for them.

"It's a long lineup!" Klaus goes – they're in a line of students who have yet to pick up their books on their respective subjects. For Klaus and Rene, their families had not the diligence to take them to the academy in August month. "I swear, those damn books look so heavy, you could drop them from the roof and they'd stone a teacher dead!"

The ones who have made it through the school offices, you can visibly see their arms rattling with effort as they strain to bring their subjects to their lockers.

It's almost 8:00, the time when classes start.

"You go on ahead without us-" Klaus says, as they're about to head through the doors. "You mustn't be late; some of the teachers lock the doors shut to teach straddling newcomers a lesson!"

Rieke's attention wanders from the ones who buy snacks at the vending machines, over to the ones who rambunctiously chatter over the summer months they've spent – "Oh, I've seen Nightwish on their tours in Leipzig, I even got it recorded..!"

To that little boy who suddenly stumbles, his books sent tumbling over the floor – calculus, Shakespeare and Goethe, physics introductions.. (He might just be in her classes.)

She zips into action, her feet carrying her to helping the boy up, and then picking up his books.

Moments later, after helping him get his textbooks stored, Rieke arrives back without so much as a sweat. "His name is Pepanin!" she glees. "More seriously, it'll be better if Werner and I help with your heavy textbooks."

So in the end, Rieke and Werner barely make it in time for their first lessons – introductions to calculus. They sit by the unoccupied middle desks, where Rieke mimics the other kids pulling out the textbooks, notepads and phones (she doesn't have one yet) from their knapsacks onto their desktops.

Their teacher, Herr Heinrich Lunge (it says so on a placard on his desk), he shuts the door right as the bell rings, and whacks the ruler down on his desk, commanding everyone's focus. He looks like a harsh man.

"Greetings, everyone!" he goes, sliding the ruler across the desk's edge. "My name is Heinrich Lunge, and I am the one who will discipline you in the art of mathematical calculus. You shall address me as Herr Lunge."

There's two guys at the back, who are still chattering on about Pokemon-

Herr Lunge narrows his eyes.

"Ja," he goes, "do go on about Gengar and his special attack modifiers beating Garfield the cat!"

They pipe down, the intimidation sending shivers through their skin.

"Better." Herr Lunge begins pacing back and forth in front of the glowing smartboard, like a metronome – a time-tested classic technique to help keep the students' attention on the lesson. "What is calculus? Can someone in this class tell me?"

He waits for one of those nerds to shoot their hand up like a rocket, but all he gets is Rieke saying, "I thought you know already."

"Of course, smarty pants!" he goes. "I'm asking to see if you young ones have looked up the subject beforehand."

There's nervous murmurs; "How were we expected to know?" and stuff like that.

"I thought not. Luckily, I am your teacher." He grins. "I'll tell you a story about a Greek athlete who is racing against a bunny. Because the athlete fell mid-way while running, the bunny overtook him. Too proud to allow himself to be beaten by this animal, he accelerates, sprinting.

"There is a distance between himself and the bunny, which he must make up for. In order to reach the original point where the bunny was, the bunny would have hopped some further distance already, and to reach that second distance hopped by the bunny, it's hopped another third distance. This can be said to go on and on, infinitely forever – however far the athlete catches up, he still has some distance to go. And because there are an infinite number of points he must reach where the bunny has already been, you can say he'll never catch up."

"But that doesn't make sense-" Rieke blurts out.

"Silence!" Herr Lunge slaps his ruler against his palm. "What is your name, fraulein?"

"Rieke."

"You like to blurt and interrupt while I'm speaking. I will not stand for that. Maybe I will get you to teach the class for me, it'll save me the trouble!"

She visibly blushes. "Nein.."

"If you want to talk, next time raise your hand." Herr Lunge illustrates the Greek paradox on the smartboard, jotting digital ink on the crisp display, drawing several lines illustrating how the runner has to catch up with infinite points where the hare has been. "This is Zeno's first paradox. Like the young Rieke has said, it doesn't make sense – common sense dictates that he will catch up with the hare. And that is where calculus comes in.

"Calculus is the mathematical understanding of the rate of change of something. Whether it is how a car's velocity changing with acceleration, how a 3D shape's volume changes with regard to its 2D-counterpart's area, or.. how the athlete named Achilles is able to eventually outrun the slower hare – with the distance between them closing in on a limit. The concept of it is not new – rudimentary versions have been come up with by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Arabians and Indians, when they needed to calculate volumes of complex objects by their surface areas.

"It is around the late 1600s, when Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz have derived the fundamentals of calculus that we have come to a modern understanding of this branch of mathematics. Newton through his idiosyncratic notations while he solved physics problems, and Leibniz for formalising the syntax and giving it a name.. Calculus!"

The rest of the lesson proceeds as Herr Lunge introduces derivatives of formulas to the class, with the chain and product rules to account for deriving multiple formulas at once. To practise, everyone uses the school-installed apps on their phones to try out some problems – or for Rieke, she rapidly scribbles on her notebook and comes up with the solutions in seconds flat, attracting much attention for her frentic writings.

"Let's see a good solution," Herr Lunge goes in front of the class.

Without asking, Rieke leaps from her seat, snags the stylus from the teacher and writes all over the board with what she's derived.

Everyone's mouths are awestruck – the machine-like way she handwrites, and someone drops his gum from his mouth.

"That is a good solution," she says, bowing.

Werner looks as though someone has won the lottery right in front of him.

"T-that's correct.." Herr Lunge reaches his finger out to the board, seeing the way she's tastefully wrote 'dy/dx,' begrudgingly admitting that this petite student can actually have the potential to surpass him.

/

When the bell rings for next period, the calculus students murmuring as they go out the door, Werner takes Rieke by her hand into a secluded section in the hallway. "Rieke, you gotta be careful about showing off your abilities. People will notice if you do feats that are beyond human levels, and not in a good way. They'll think something's up – at best, they'll think you have a mental condition, and at worst, they'd start to wonder if you aren't actually like an alien inside."

"I understand.." Even though Rieke will never forget the looks on everyone's faces as she's impressed them, solving the problems.

"What do you have next?" Werner asks.

"Literature studies, with Frau Groen."

"Right, I have fine arts-" He notices how down she looks, the shadows from the lockers revealing a melancholy side to her usually bright face. "Hey, it's just so you won't have trouble getting picked on by anyone in the school. Only me, Klaus and Rene here accept the fact you are an android – the others won't be so nice-"

"I don't want to be an android.." she mutters.

"Eh?"

"I want to be like you Werner. To have a flesh and blood body, so that I may belong and be happy with you as a human being."

For some reason, hearing this from her makes himself wince inside. "Non.. don't you say that. Rieke, I.. I do like you. To admit – I've grown attached to you, more than just being my sister. You are this one of a kind girl, who I can never imagine anyone else being like. You're so kind and interesting, the way you are, and you don't get bored or weirded out by me."

In her eyes, there is a delicate quivering. "Really?"

"I mean it!" He smiles. "You're much better than so many of the other girls I barely know."

It's like a renewed light sheens from her. "Thank you.."

The bell rings again, interrupting their reverie. "Damn, we're late. Well let's hope our teachers aren't like Herr Lunge, all strict and stuff."

/

All she can imagine is the colour of roses, as she preps her books of Goethe and Shakespeare onto the desk – in this classroom where its walls are covered with portraits of famous writers and their associated quotes, and an image of a book's words being turned into concepts and images in someone's mind.

She stops to contemplate each one of them, and then amidst the students pouring in, there is Pepanin, who to his delight finds Rieke in the class, and joyfully sits beside her, before he shudders when a few members of the Axe group stride in also, who take the seats at the very back.

He's on edge.

"What's there to be scared of?" Rieke whispers to him, before Frau Groen herself enters the class, in her brown dress that reminds of the Victorian-era outfits in Eternum Souls. Her fey appearance arrests everyone's eyes.

Even Pepanin's looking – maybe he'll tell Rieke later.

"How do you, my class?" Frau Groen says, her feet trailing. "How now, how fares each one of you after a lovely summer?"

"It's WONDERFUL!" some over-enthusiastic shrill girl yells, along with her friends who clap together.

"It blows, I had to attend summer preparations," a guy says.

"Oh, was it very boring?" Frau Groen asks.

"Tres tres ennuyeux."

"It is that bad? French should never have to bore – they are teaching you wrongly." She casually shuts the door. "To know or not to know Shakespeare, that is not the question. To understand him is also not the question; you can easily look up what he means over the internet. To feel him – the emotions he puts into every scene and every character, that is what we'll be covering. And what better than to introduce you to his most esteemed tragedy, Romeo and Juliet?"

Frau Groen quickly fills them in with the play's synopsis, as she prepares the smartscreen to play the Franco Zeffirelli movie. "His words have thrived on for over 400 years, and his plays are the skeletons over which directors and production companies have laid over it their flesh and sinews."

Rieke glees – it already sounds so romantic, imagining the star-crossed lovers.

As the blinds are drawn over the windows and the lights dim, Pepanin inches in closer to her. "The ones behind me are part of the Axe group, from my last school. They're ruthless as hell – they push the weaker people like me out of the way, they hog all the best seats at the tables. They even cheated on the finals. I was humiliated on the playgrounds.. along with my friends.."

"They should know to be nicer," Rieke goes, slowly peering her eyes to the back (as to not get noticed).

"I wish they were, but there's always going to be mean people about. They'll hurt you too if you're not careful."

"Hush..!" Frau Groen says, noticing them talking.

The movie progresses on, where Romeo finds Juliet aboard her balcony. "O Romeo, Romeo.. wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I'll no longer be a Capulet."

The ones in the back snicker. "Yeah, right! You're still a Capulet by blood!"

"Hushh!"

"Pepanin.." Rieke goes. "You can come eat lunch with me and my brother Werner. It'll be safer with us." She winks, holding his hand as romantically as Romeo professes his love for Juliet.

"Cool!"

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