The Nero Protocol
Ario six-four-nine-one is an obsolete synth gigolo—especially when his latest trick proves to be his last in a brutal and horrifying way. But he's only a synth, it's not like he can really think and feel. No one will notice one more out of date synth tossed in the garbage.
Except for Elias, homeless and lonely because he's not what his father—or the world—wants him to be, haunted by a tragedy for which he cannot forgive himself. When he finds a battered, broken, long-discontinued synth in a dumpster, he decides to repair the poor thing despite all the reasons he shouldn't.
Then all those reasons come crashing down, and in order to save each other from a world that doesn't want either of them, Elias and Ario will have to sacrifice everything they hold dear: freedom, safety, and even themselves.
Ario six-four-nine-one analyzed the patterns in the ancient, dirty carpet of a run-down hotel as he lay bent over the bed. A middle-aged businessman was plowing him, sweat slick on his brow as he made awkward grunting noises that wouldn’t have been out of place on a farm. Ario studied the carpet, even though he had seen it a million times before, and the pattern was stored in his memory. It was a habit of sorts, a way to pass the time as one faceless stranger after another fucked him.
He was torn from his reverie by the man grabbing his long, black hair and jerking his head back. Ario’s neck snapped up, pain sensors firing as every synthetic nerve in his scalp lit up and sent signals to his neural network. The synth equivalent of pain shot through his sensors, warning him of impending danger that he was already aware of. This man liked to hurt synths. Ario had known that much as soon as he had stepped into the dingy room. The scars across his face were enough to tell Ario that the man was into some rough business. The predatory look in his eyes had told Ario he was the type to mete it out rather than take it.
“It’s not enough,” the businessman panted. “Not nearly enough.” He wrapped his hands around Ario’s throat and squeezed. Ario could feel the pressure of those desperate, filthy hands and was grateful he didn’t need to breathe. He pretended to choke, hoping it would give the man what he needed so he would come already. The man slapped in and out of him harder before withdrawing. He wasn’t getting what he needed.
There was danger in men with an edge who wanted to see synth gigolos. Sometimes, their obsession was more than any human could handle. Ario had seen the remnants of a synthetic who had fallen victim to a snuff chaser. It was something he never wanted to see again: shattered fiberglass, staring dead eyes, liquid coolant flowing down her face like semen. Her head had been literally torn from her body in pursuit of a man’s fucked-up fantasies. They’d thrown her in the trash like a piece of garbage with nobody to mourn her. Nobody but Ario six-four-nine-one, who grieved, even though it was supposedly impossible for a mass of wires and computer programming to care.
The cheap price placed on his own existence scared him. Synths weren’t supposed to feel fear, and yet, he did. How could any being exist that didn’t protect its own life? Cybot Corporation was clearly lying, but people believed what they wanted to. Fear and other emotions couldn’t be easily proven. Cybot’s own data proved that any emotions seen in synthetics were nothing other than projections from their human users. Cybot’s data was God’s own word with a few million dollars’ worth of hookers and bribes sent to influential senators and seniors at the Department of Synthetic Affairs.
“Get back on my cock.” The businessman yanked Ario down onto his lap, thrusting in and out until he stopped again. His hand tightened back around Ario’s throat, squeezing with all the strength the man had. Ario wondered if his neck might snap, but the thick steel supports that stopped his coolant lines from being crushed held up.
“Damn dolls don’t need to breathe,” the man realized. “You’re fucking useless to me.” He pulled out again and threw Ario to the floor like he was a sack of garbage. “Created for my pleasure—right. You’re nothing but a rundown piece of shit that should have been hauled to the scrap yard years ago.”
Ario said nothing. A million responses flooded into his brain, but he still had enough self-preservation not to goad the businessman into killing him. Not that Ario truly cared any more. His new master was the lowest of the low, the kind of ‘legitimate businessman’ who trafficked women, young boys, and synths for whatever desires his customers would pay for. The cops turned a blind eye to his operation as long as they received the right amount of money.
Movement caught his eye and he saw the businessman reach for his phone as his softening dick waggled helplessly between his legs. Complaints to the master were a bad thing. The kind of thing that could see him deactivated or sold to an even lower cause. He didn’t want to end up on some torture porn flick, being ripped apart. Or worse: having his programming overridden so that he was the one doing the torturing. He’d heard it could be done. Revulsion was another emotion that he seemed to possess, even though he lacked a digestive system to physically quail and vomit like humans did.
“Xan-Li? I am most displeased with this thing, but I think there is something you can do to make me a happy customer. You know my tastes. I’ll pay you an extra thousand if you let me do it.”
“Your reputation for ending prostitutes is well-known,” Xan-Li said in heavily-accented English. Ario heard every word with his advanced sense of hearing. “It causes a lot of trouble these days. Synths have some rights now. The police will have to be paid. I’ll expect to be compensated for that.”