A Criminal Mind

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Part 1

Chirkey Dam – Dagestan, Russia – August 11, 2011

Had anyone bothered to glance all the way up, at the apex of the Chirkey Dam, they would’ve seen a most interesting sight. Perched at the top of the 763-foot tall structure was a figure---a feminine figure, at that; by itself, the visual of a woman (or 20-something college girl) on top of the dam would’ve been enough to warrant an inquiry, probably costing several people their jobs. If, of course, one chose to investigate further…

The climbing ropes, harness and safety clips did little (if anything) to slow the girl down. Her pace was even, steady and patient; she didn’t have all the time in the world, but she wasn’t going to complicate this by rushing through the prep for what had to be the most insane thing anyone in Dagestan had ever done.

After all, how many chances does one get to bungee-jump off a 763-foot tall dam two hours before midnight?

Others in this particular spot of bother may have gone for the “shoot first, ask questions later” method of getting in, doing their best not to trip alarms as they shot every guard in the kneecaps while running in like a fool to reach the jump point. Those with more “professional pride” might’ve chosen to cut the power, wait until the security staff went to investigate, and then sneak over to the area from which they were to jump. Still others would’ve just said “to hell with it” and done a High Altitude, Low Opening parachute fall, which carried the very high risk of a failure to open---and, by proxy, instant and painful death.

For this particular operative, however…there was a far easier option.

Shooting the guards on the dam, even in the kneecaps, would’ve raised alarms and probably started an international incident. Cutting the power would’ve rendered the entire facility useless. As for a HALO fall…

With one last glance down at her destination, the girl clipped the bungee line to the railing, checking over every connection between her rappelling harness and the line. If even one clip failed, she’d be jumping to an even more instant and painful death than a HALO fall would give. Her eyes closed….she inhaled a deep breath…..

…and with the grace of an Olympic diver, the black-clad female figure lept from the apex of the Chirkey Dam.

Time seemed to stretch, almost tangibly slowing down as the girl descended; even so, the bottom of the dam came closer with every passing moment. If the bungee line didn’t slacken out soon, anything (and anyone) on the other end would be smashed against either the dam itself or the ground below, abruptly ending the perfect dive and turning the diver into a smear against the wall (or a stain on the spillway). Only someone with the most flawless reflexes could even hope to pull off such a feat without getting killed.

Obviously, the girl on the line was more than up to the task.

The line slackened out a full 21 feet above the ground…but there was still one more task to be done. Without hestiating, the black-clad girl unhooked what appeared to be a pistol from her safety rigging and fired it at the stone wall---sending a diamond-edged drillbit piton into the rock.

A few seconds later, the grapple gun pulled her in close enough to transition to an easy landing.

The bungee line was left where it had been clipped, and the grapple gun was set down on the ground, where it burst into flames ten seconds later due to an internal phosphorus charge. Anyone who stumbled upon it now would find only a blackened, charred hunk of plastic, cheap metal and maybe some high-tensile cord.

Whether or not anyone found the gear was irrelevant.

All that mattered was climbing into that strategically placed ventillation grid a foot below the piton…


Demitri Madjelnev was bored out of his skull.

His early hopes about defending the Motherland by joining the army had petered out in the early years of the decade, and were now reduced to a low-paying job working as a guard for a “server farm”---one that, for reasons known only to its investors, was situated near the base of a massive dam. Many claimed that its close proximity to the dam’s hydroelectric power plant made it an ideal location for such a venture.

For Demitri, such information was irrelevant.

All that mattered was finishing his bathroom break on time.

He sighed as he unfolded the newspaper---only two days old, in comparison to the usual week-old papers his coworkers usually brought in. The front page bore a headline in Cyrillic Russian proclaiming the latest charity work of multibillionaire Darien Tavares to be “a shining moment of hope for impoverished African nations”; a much smaller byline heralded the rumors that Russian roboticist Boris Vlatko was either on the run, in captivity somewhere out West, or dead. Not that it mattered to Demitri, of course; the full-page ad for the Starlet Dolls’ first-ever Russian concert was enough to catch his eye and divert all attention from some article about---

Somewhere above him, something shifted.

The 30-year-old soldier arched an eyebrow, wondering if he’d hit the vodka bottle a bit too hard a few hours earlier. He cocked his head, waiting for another sound…and none came.

Satisfied, he returned his attention to the paper…only to get the feeling that someone was staring at him.

He lowered the paper, expecting to get a face-full of Cool Whip or something equally useless…

…and was instead greeted by the upside-down face of a grinning 20-something brunette girl, seeming to float in the air before him.

“Ooh, sorry,” she apologized. “Forgot to knock.”

Seconds later, Demitri’s vision exploded into a white flash…


Anyone seeing the pair of legs descending into the bathroom stall would’ve probably alerted their superiors and/or taken up their sidearm to perforate the intruder before they left the stall. Seeing as how said intruder had only knocked the stall’s occupant unconscious, however, there was nothing to worry about.

Naturally, this was small comfort to the one who emerged from the stall, scowling with every step.

Next time I go on a mission like this, Vicki Lawson mentally growled, I’m asking for the full blueprints of any and every building I have to infiltrate. Seriously, climbing through a bunch of ventillation shafts to end up in the men’s room?! Ted and I are going to have a talk about this as soon as I get back home… With an annoyed sigh, she dismissed any and all thoughts of lecturing Ted; her job here was far too important to be sidelined by a detour through the men’s room. She quickly checked the loadout of her ES-9950, making sure every round in the clip was nonlethal to make sure anyone she might’ve had to shoot wouldn’t end up dead---such a mistake could very well be the end of her Field Agent career, in addition to landing her in a Russian prison.

Seeing as how I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in the gulag…

Vicki nodded in approval as the SCEMP ammo indicator lit up with a nice green glow. Had the clip been loaded with any other rounds, the gun would’ve locked itself (the safety and trigger would be magnetically jammed), and her weapon would’ve been good only for pistol-whipping.

With the gun check out of the way, the brunette gynoid left the bathroom…thankful that it had been empty.

Two minutes of quiet sneaking later, Vicki found herself staring into the entrance of the facility’s kitchen. A slab of meat hung from a chain on the ceiling, as a white-suited cook retrieved the necessary utensils to cut the thing and prep it for the next day’s lunch.

Right…time to go…well, right….

Vicki made her way past the kitchen, entering an open “pantry” sort of area….that, predictably had almost zero visibility. The lights had been turned off, and the entire room was populated by cheap metal shelves holding a multitude of foodstuffs. With one hand on her ES-9950 and the other balled into a fist, ready to clock anyone waiting to jump her, Vicki crept through the rows of shelves, her built-in night vision suite allowing her to see as clearly in the darkness as she could’ve seen in the day.

Thus, the arrival of a gun-toting sillhouette a few feet in front of her wasn’t as surprising as it might’ve been.

“Lopeta!” the figure ordered. “Tunnista itsesi!” Someone speaking Finnish in a Russian installation…good thing I know the language. Vicki remained silent, a smirk playing at her features. “Mikä on teidän tarkoitus täällä?” the figure demanded; again, Vicki didn’t flinch as the weapon in front of her was aimed at her forehead.

After a few more seconds of silence, the brunette gynoid spoke: “Olen yksin.”

The gun-toting figure relaxed its stance. “Well, in that case,” a familiar voice replied, “we can get on with the mission and stop speaking the wrong language…” A lithe, blonde figure stepped forward. “Hello again, Agent Lawson.”

“Capri?!”

“Technically speaking, I’m Agent Bishop now,” the blonde replied. “As in Ayla Bishop. Oberon did tell you---“

“He did,” Vicki stammered. “It’s just…they said I was getting a contact for this mission, but I thought---“

“Anton rebuilt me after the incident at the Starlet Dolls concert,” Ayla replied quietly. “Restored my original personality profile, too…thus, Agent Bishop, reporting for duty.” She grinned; “I kept my original hair color, by the way,” she added. “This blonde job is just a wig.”

Vicki nodded, still more than a bit surprised that her contact was a formerly-fallen friend.

“Well,” Ayla mused, “let’s get a move-on.” She loaded her ES9950; “For the Valley, Agent Lawson?”

“For the Valley, Agent Bishop,” Vicki replied, clicking off the safety of her own weapon.

The two gynoids emerged from the pantry into a clean, metal-walled hallway. “I still don’t get why anyone would put a server farm at the base of a dam,” Vicki murmured. “It’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it? What if the spillway floods over, and---“

“Trust me,” Ayla replied, “they’ve got it covered. Speaking of which…hang a left here.” She nodded towards a four-way intersection up ahead. “I caught your transmission before you jumped,” she whispered, grinning slyly as she spoke. “Very inspiring stuff, if I do say so myself…though I think you could’ve done without mentioning Hannsen by name. If the wrong people get a hold of that signal, and we botch this mission, we might end up knee-deep in the---“

“Don’t finish that sentence,” Vicki warned. “Let’s just get to the server room, okay?”

Ayla chuckled. “Fair enough. Lead on, Agent Lawson…”

With an annoyed sigh, Vicki stepped out in front and edged her way dowh the hall, with Ayla not far behind.

It took the pair less than three minutes to find the server room, and even less time to crack the simple keypad lock on the door. “You’ve been practicing,” Ayla noted, arching an eyebrow as the door slid open.

“Not really,” Vicki admitted. “This door just has really crappy security protocols---“

The sound of footsteps from further down the hall ended the conversation, prompting both Field Agents to duck into the server room and close the door immediately to avoid being spotted. “Any more patrols like that on the way?” Vicki whispered, silently hoping that the answer would be “no”.

Ayla’s answer pretty much dashed those hopes. “Three more over the next twenty minutes.”

“Scrap.” Vicki stared at the ammo readout on her ES9950; “And here, I thought bringing only non-lethal ammo would be a good thing,” she muttered, quickly adding “Not that I wanted to go the Rambo route, or anything like that…”

Her frustration only garnered an amused wink from Ayla. “Patience, my young Padawan.”

“Call me that again,” Vicki growled (albiet playfully), “and I’ll put your wig through a shredder.”

Ayla managed to avoid giggling at Vicki’s lame threat---which proved fortunate, seeing as how two guards had stopped outside of the server room to converse about a colleague who’d apparently passed out in a stall inside the men’s room. The blonde (for the moment) gynoid arched an eyebrow; “Since when does someone get a black eye from falling backwards when they passed out?” she whispered.

“When they get punched,” V.I.C.I. quietly monotoned, her smirk at odds with her robotic voice.

“So I’m not the only one who got a major upgrade,” Ayla mused. “Got any other surprises?”

“Carbon titanium endoframe, higher-security internal WiFi, improved audiovisual suite…pretty much anything and everything that could make me a more efficient Field Agent.”

“Then how come you didn’t accept any missions last month?”

V.I.C.I. hesitated…for all of ten seconds. “I was otherwise engaged. Personal business…family stuff, to be honest---“

“I got the brief, Vicki. You don’t have to lie about what happened between you and Faceless---“

“You mean how I used his own weapons to nearly paralyze him?” Vicki cooly shot back.

Ayla didn’t flinch. “How you kept yourself from killing him.”

The brunette gynoid nodded. “Seeing as how we both know all the sordid details,” she advised, “let’s just not talk about it any further…if the briefing was correct---“

“Which it is.”

“If the briefing is correct,” Vicki continued, “we need to work fast---otherwise, the Chirkey Dam may be the latest casualty of one Matthew Hannsen….otherwise hated as the Maestro.” She scanned the room, her gaze taking in every terminal she could see from her current position. “How fast can you get to that console on the far left side?” she asked.

“25 seconds.”

“Make it 22.”

Both gynoids moved silently, their half-crouch sprints getting them farther than a “commando crawl” or full-on crouch-walk would’ve allowed. True to her word, Ayla was able to reach the terminal Vicki had gestured to in a mere 21.8 seconds, with Vicki arriving at “her” terminal just as quickly. The two set to work cracking through the firewalls and security measures meant to keep them out…but also to keep all secure files in.

Even if one of those secure files had been planted by one of the co-creators of the Stylo virus.

“Half the intranet is infected,” Ayla muttered. “It’s a miracle this place didn’t overload already…”

“Not really,” Vicki corrected. “The intranet’s been worked on six times in the last six months---and take a wild guess who lodged with one of the guards before all the complaints started being filed?”

Ayla shook her head in disbelief. “You’re joking.”

Vicki’s gaze never left the keyboard in front of her. “Current ALPA theory is that Hannsen was able to con his way into staying at a guard’s house,” she informed her fellow Field Agent. “If he did, he probably ‘accidentally’ left a flash drive loaded with goodies for the guard to bring to work and share with his buddies…I’m guessing songs, games, movies…the works.”

“You were able to figure all that out from guessing?”

“That, and the fact that all the files are on here.” Vicki sighed as she scrolled through the list of pirated Starlet Dolls songs, bootleg movies and beta-version games. “And they’re all infected, too…”

“Not from Hannsen, I hope.”

“No, just the usual littany of viruses one might get from massive downloads in a public place….I’m still looking for the file Hannsen put in here, to be honest.” The brunette gynoid sped through the list of files that had been uploaded to the servers over the last few months. “No, no, no….where the hell---“

“Found it!”

Instantly, the screen of the terminal Vicki was using changed. “Nice trick. Think I could learn it soon?”

“Ask me when we’re done,” Ayla replied. “If I’m feeling froggy, maybe I’ll jump---wait, what the hell?!” Her smile vanished; “The counter just went from five files infected by Hannsen to fifty,” she gasped. “This…this is just---“

“Exactly the kind of situation we were warned about,” V.I.C.I. reminded her. “The mission is still on---“

Form outside, someone pounded on the door.

“Closing time, Vicki!” Ayla shouted, her fingers flying over the keyboard. “Last call!”

“Buy me a shake,” the brunette gynoid calmly replied. Gotta love that ALPA-issue code talk… She grinned as the list of infected files shrank to zero---just in time for her to roll out of the way and avoid getting cut down in a hail of machine-gun fire from the door. Time to exit…stage right!

By virtue of its construction, the server room was set up with an exit on either side of the far end---both meant for emergency use only. Considering the fact that several angry guards were now advancing on Vicki and yelling at her in heavily-accented English, the term “emergency” now had a rather important---and, by proxy, immediate---definition than “fire”, “flood”, “act of God” or “uninterrupted broadcast of a 700 Club marathon” could ever hope to have.

To put it simply, it was time to haul butt to the next server room and hope for a clean getaway afterwards.

“I guess this means they didn’t get the memo!” Ayla stated (throwing a convincing “out of breath” posture, with the appropriate vocal tones, in for the hell of it) as she met up with Vicki in the hallway. “They do know we’re trying to help, right?”

“Apparently not,” Vicki muttered, scowling as another group of guards approached. “Where to now?”

Ayla thought for a moment. “There’s another server room ahead.”

Vicki groaned; “We already took care of---“

“We deleted one third of the infected files,” Ayla interjected. “There’s still---“ A volley of shots hit the wall three feet away from her head.

“Less talking,” V.I.C.I. suggested, “more running.” Silently, Ayla followed the brunette gynoid’s lead, ducking into an alcove and waiting for her to cross the hallway to get closer to the next server room. The wait only took a few few short seconds…which, not surprisingly, felt like minutes from where the two were waiting. “Any chance you might’ve accidentally packed a standard round in that clip?” the temporarily-blonde gynoid called out. “Even a flare?”

The glance she received from V.I.C.I. was a far better answer than any words could’ve been.

“Me and my wishful thinking,” Ayla muttered.

Despite the increased security presence (and the fact that every guard in the building would be converging on their location in a few short minutes), Ayla and Vicki had no major problems getting to the next server room to finish the job they’d started. “Tell me again,” the ersatz blonde called out, “why someone like Matthew Hannsen would go through all the trouble of crashing at some random guard’s house just to leave behind a flash drive that the guy may or may not have brought with him to use at work…” She ducked behind the doorway as a few more shots peppered the frame.

“Simple,” Vicki replied. “He slipped the leash, and the ALPA lost him for three months.”

“WHAT?!”

“Long story. I’ll tell you when we’re done here---“ Vicki ducked behind a console as another volley of shots slammed into the wall behind her. Without bothering to finish her sentence, she set to work finding and deleting the scores of infected files Hannsen had left on the server farm’s infranet. Almost there---

Something exploded two centimeters away from her left knee.

With a smirk, Vicki highlighted and deleted another column of infected files. “Shut the door, Agent Bishop---there’s a draft!” She managed a chuckle, expecting Ayla to respond with an equally-pithy remark…

…and received only silence as a reply.

Her finger hovered over the “DELETE” key on the console’s built-in keyboard; slowly, the creeping sensation that something had gone wrong crawled up her titanium spine. She leaned out, hoping not to get shot…

…and was met with a scene that would’ve broken the will of a lesser Field Agent.

Ayla stood in the doorway, her expression one of sullen defiance as two guards flanked her while a third held a pistol to her head. Another guard---the leader, probably---strode forward, glancing at his suboordinates with something like disdain; in lightly-accented English, he called out: “Surrender now, and we will spare her!”

With a sigh, Vicki laid down her ES9950 and stood, hands raised. “This isn’t what it looks like….”

“Then what, pray tell, is it?” the head of security inquired, sounding surprisingly calm for someone who had just caught two intruders in the facility he’d been appointed to protect. “We find a guard knocked out cold in a bathroom stall, gigabytes of data missing from our facility’s infranet---“

“Those files were infected,” Vicki countered. “My friend and I---“

“Infected?” The somewhat-smug look on the security head’s face faded slightly. “How did you---“

In an instant, every guard trained their guns on Vicki as she reached for something in her pocket. “It’s just a photo,” she assured them, slowly withdrawing a piece of paper and holding it out for the head of security to take from her. “Namely, a photo of the guy who put all those infected files on your infranet…” Her expression was neutral as the man strode forward, gingerly plucking the photo from her grip and unfolding it. “Who is this?” he asked.

“Matthew Hannsen. A cybercriminal, and someone who never---“

The sceurity head turned and showed the photo to his suboordinates. “How did this man have access to our networks?” he demanded. “How did he have access to the secure infranet of this facility?!”

To Vicki’s amusement (tinged with annoyance), the once-resolute guards---most of whom would’ve shot her without hesitation had she not explained that she was only getting a photograph from her pocket---were now shifting their weight uncomfortably, staring at the floor or the ceiling and muttering under their breaths.

“HOW DID THIS MAN ACCESS OUR NETWORK?!” the security chief echoed, glaring at the men.

Vicki cleared her throat. “That guy you found in the bathroom stall…brought a flash drive here that someone left at his house,” she quietly explained. “We…my employers have reason to suspect that the flash drive was intentionally left in his care by the man in that picture…for purposes that, as of now, remain unknown. We’re still investigating the whole thing---“

A crackle of static---accompanied by strains of Bach played faster than humanly possible---emanated from every speaker in the room. “LIVE, FROM DAGESTAN,” a voice called out, “IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!” The unfiltered, maniacal laugh of Matthew Hannsen---the Maestro---filled the room; “Hello, Chirkey Dam!” he taunted. “If you’re receiving this message, it’s been…about two years since the last time I was in your neck of the woods…and seeing as how I would never have been able to gain entry into your fine establishment all by my lonesome, I had a little help from a friend---or, should I say, an extremely impressionable would-be soldier who gladly accepted the notion that I was a long-lost college friend who needed a place to stay…”

The Maestro’s voice turned sinister. “…and volunteered to do a bit of…electronic smuggling for me.”

Every guard in the room listened, stunned into silence, as the rant continued. “Back in the 1990s, a certain someone was offered a position at one of Russia’s most prestigious universities…a position that dealt with the complexities of coding security programs to protect places like banks, stock exchanges…that sort of thing. In a sad twist of fate, however, that individual was never able to attain this postion at the aforementioned Russian university…because I ran him over with his own bloody Mazoratti and left him in a coma!”

To Vicki’s absolute lack of surprise, the guards weren’t amused by the annecdote.

“See, that kind of dedication would usually be grounds for a reward,” Hannsen’s rant continued, “but to a guy like me…it’s bloody worthless. What good is having someone go through all that trouble making security systems to keep people like me out…when that same person can’t even remember how the bloody hell to get back in?” A drawling, sadistic chuckle sounded through the room; “You lot probably didn’t even know his mind was failing,” the voice mused.

Seconds later, it turned sinister: “…but I did…and I wasn’t about to let that stand in my way.”

“Agent Bishop,” Vicki whispered, “get all of these people out of here now---“

“Of course,” the Maestro’s voice continued, “the easy solution was to just wipe him out and nuke his research, which I did---although I’ll admit that I saved some of the…choicest cuts…for myself.” That sinister, intenionally-melodramatic chuckle sounded again. “Case in point: the security codes that would give someone complete and total control over…a certain dam in Russia…”

Immediately, another voice---this one female (and noticably synthesized)---interrupted: “Attention: Spillway lock override active. Commence test flooding in ten minutes.”

Vicki abandoned all subtlety. “Commander,” she declared, grabbing the head of security by the sleeve, “you have to get your men out of here now---“

“I do not have to do anything,” the officer replied, more flustered than frustrated. “And how did you know---“

“My partner and I were sent here to purge a virus from this system,” Vicki admitted. “The same virus that’s just overridden the spillway controlls of the Chirkey Dam---and unless you let me do my job, that virus is going to be the end of everyone in this facility!” She ignored the fact that everyone would technically have been “ended” by drowning, since Hannsen’s virus was going to cause their deaths anyways by having opened the spillway gates to begin with, and chose instead to focus on the immediate threat. “I can neutralize the virus in…seven minutes,” she stated. “How long will it take your men to get to the exits?”

The security chief stared, more stunned than he felt like admitting. “I, ah…I---“

“How long?!”

“Four minutes,” the uniformed security chief blurted out. “Four minutes to get from here to the emergency---“

“Do it.” Vicki’s eyes never left the workstation as she spoke. “I have stuff to take care of.”

After a few miliseconds’ worth of hesitation, the security chief nodded, turning towards the officers under his command and shouting orders in Russian. “I really hope you know what you’re doing, Vicki,” Ayla muttered, “otherwise---“

The death glare she received in reply said more than any words could’ve conveyed.

“Never mind.” With one last glance at the brunette gynoid, Ayla shook her head; I knew she changed after the whole incident with Faceless, she mused, but I never expected this…she’s nuking the Maestro’s infected files without even breaking a sweat!

What Ayla didn’t realize was that Vicki was, in all manner of fact, doing her damndest not to break a sweat as she worked---the Maestro’s infection of the facility’s infranet had been far more pervasive than she’d originally thought, and a single mistaken stroke on the keyboard would doom the entire staff to a drowning death…and I really don’t need that on my conscience, she reminded herself. The idea of covertly entering the facility had already gone down the tubes (or at least the part about covertly exiting it had)…any more mistakes, and there was a strong probability (more likely a certainty) that her career as a Field Agent would be over as soon as she set foot on San Jose soil once again.

Except I won’t make another mistake.

Even with Hannsen’s mocking laughter still ringing in the background, Vicki never looked away from the screen as she worked. Line after line of code filled the screen in the span of a few seconds, many of which were erased just as quickly. Anyone who could’ve been watching would’ve marveled at---

“So we meet again…Agent Lawson.”

The mention of her name, especially by the leering voice of Matthew Hannsen, would’ve prompted a shriek of terror from the brunette gynoid…had this been any day before July 10, 2011. Now, she simply stared at the screen, her resolve only growing as her fingers flew over the keyboard.

“As you can probably tell,” the Maestro’s taunt continued, “this is just a recording…but I’ll bet you’re dying to know how I knew you’d be the one who came here? How I slipped the leash during that work release program…and more importantly, how a recording from two years ago could possibly contain a mention of you, when I didn’t even know you existed?”

Hannsen’s mocking chuckle filled the room. “Simple, really…this isn’t a recording.”

Vicki’s brow knitted in frustration; he’s just messing with you, Lawson. Don’t let him know he’s getting to you, don’t even give him the satisfaction…

”Case in point,” Hannsen continued, “I can see that your ES-9950 holster is slung a bit low on your right hip at the moment, possibly due to you not pulling the belt tight enough---“ Vicki instantly shifted her weight and maneuvered her right side out of camera range, prompting a laugh from the Maestro. “Oh, the look on your face…I’ve got eyes and ears all over this building, ‘Agent Lawson’…a simple change in posture isn’t going to do anything to stop me from seeing every move you make! Not that I want to stop you…in fact, as hard as it may seem to believe, I want you to win this one. I want to see you lock out my virus and save the Chirkey Dam Data Farm from a watery grave…because even if you beat me this time, there’s no way in HELL---“

A terminal on the far side of the room erupted in sparks, a victim of Vicki’s “over-exertion” while trying to purge the viruses from it.

“Was that supposed to scare me?” the Maestro taunted.

“No,” V.I.C.I. shot back. “It was supposed to lock you out of the slipgate controls and keep them from opening.”

“Bra-vo, Agent Lawson!” Hannsen drawled, a sarcastic clap accompanying his words. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d figure out that this was a two-way connection…and congrats on blowing up a terminal to make your point, by the way. Still, you’re going into a meeting of the minds against me---and even though I have no clue what the hell you’ve got up there in that brainpan of yours, I can tell you this….it won’t be anywhere near a match for a criminal mind like mine!”

The taunt did little---if anything---to perturb the gynoid. “We’ll see about that.”

“So you’re not afraid to play with the big boys, then….I can see---“

“The only thing you can see right now is a self-delusional image of you ‘winning’,” V.I.C.I. coldly replied as she typed, “even though this isn’t a contest. You’re putting people’s lives at risk for this…and it’s high time your criminal mind got kicked right in the medula oblongata.” With one final key press, she deleted the last trace of code Hannsen’s unwitting lackey had left on the building’s infranet. “Game, set and match,” the brunette gynoid declared, smirking.

“Again, bra-vo,” the Maestro drawled. “Now, tell me…what happens next?”

V.I.C.I. stared up at the nearest camera. “What do you---“

A low-flying, almost-deafaning roar cut off the end of her sentence. “What I was going to say,” the Maestro continued, “is ‘What happens when I send a…borrowed drone---a prototype from Aeronautics and Robotics Technologies---flying at the building you’re in, with every intent to smash you flat?!”

Oh, scrap---

In the hallway outside, something sheared through the ceiling like a celestial Ginsu knife, cutting a jagged gash through the formerly-spotless tiles. V.I.C.I. barely had enough time to duck and cover behind the farthest-right terminal in the room as the ART drone---looking for all the world like a rejected starship design from a sci-fi movie---sliced through the doorframe and pulled up just enough to not hit any of the terminals. “It’s a bit like an Xbox game,” the Maestro declared, “except you only get one life…and I can just borrow more drones if I feel like it!”

“Maybe,” V.I.C.I. countered, the makings of a completely insane plan already beginning to form in her bubble memory processors, “but I have a few tricks up my sleeves, too.” Without hesitating, she ran towards the drone---and jumped on top of it.

Any snarky comments the Maestro intended to make faded out in a fog of shock. “No.”

“Remember when I said your criminal mind deserves a kick in the medula oblongata?” V.I.C.I. taunted, her robotic voice surprisingly doing little to undercut the question. “Looks like it’s time for a little boot-to-brain action!” Without giving her unseen (and distant, she reminded herself) adversary time to come up with another retort, the gynoid pulled away a panel atop the aerodynamic drone and found a USB port (ART had taken up the drone-design project to make the things easy for the winning bidder to use, but impossible for any “outside influences” to mess with---a task they had obviously failed at). “Word to the wise, ‘Maestro’,” she suggested. “The next time you try to hack a prototype drone, don’t hack one designed by an ALPA company.”

As the drone turned in midair, (gotta hand it to ART---they managed to master the VTOL idea without breaking the bank…), V.I.C.I. deftly unspooled a cable from her left hip pocket and plugged the end of it into the port inside the drone (the other end, naturally, was plugged into her---via the back panel Ted had upgraded after her last encounter with the Butcher of Lake Gilmour in July). “Time to plot a new course…” She ignored the increasingly-profane rants of the Maestro as the drone moved forward, first slowly---then with a speed that could only be classified as “break-neck”.

Even as the drone ascended, the gynoid couldn’t help but appreciate its design; good thing ART designed this thing to be aerodynamic, she mused. Indeed, the drone had been based off of the body of a horse---with stabilizer fins, wings and a front-mounted camera rig in place of a tail, legs and a head. As such, the drone was also surprisingly compact, with a new wing design that allowed the wings to bend---instead of buckling, bowing or simply breaking off---in confined spaces, then return to their original shape in the open air. No wonder Hannsen jacked it---it was the only one he could get through the front door!

A sharp jerk to the right snapped V.I.C.I. out of her reverie. Right…job now, random thoughts later.

Her focus shifted to overriding the control signal Hannsen had installed into the drone; if she could break the connection, the aerial attack ‘bot would---for all intents and purposes---be as compliant to her commands as the animal that inspired its design. Even as she worked, however, the thought of drone warfare using only non-sentient drones briefly flitted through her mind…and she was actually glad that the machine hadn’t been designed to think for itself, or to have emotions. Sentient androids and gynoids were just as capable of feeling guilt, trepidation, remorse and even fear as any human being, and giving an unmanned drone the same sort of emotional capacity as an android would only compromise its effectiveness---

The drone banked sharply, nearly slamming V.I.C.I. into a wall as it shot through the corridors.

Right…I really need to quit having these extended thought breaks in the middle of the freaking mission!

Several feet ahead, the exit door sat waiting---either for the drone to break through it and soar, unburdened, into the night sky, or for it (and, by proxy, the brunette gynoid sitting atop the thing) to slam into the doors and be reduced to a sparking, gibbering wreck in a matter of seconds.

Personally, V.I.C.I. was really hoping for the former option.

“Vicki, what the hell just happened in there?!” Ayla’s voice rang in the ear of her fellow Field Agent with a distinctly worried/pissed-off undertone. “I’m getting a reading that something crashed through the roof---“

“Hannsen stole an ART drone and tried to fly it into me,” V.I.C.I. replied calmly. “It didn’t work---“

“Wait, what?! He stole an ART drone---“

“That’s not the issue here, Agent Bishop. You need to get the workers as far away from this facility as possible, and fast…otherwise they might get rained on with debris when the drone self-destructs.”

An exasperated sigh issued in V.I.C.I.’s ears. “Fair enough---wait, what’s that rushing noise---“

“I’m…sort of on the drone right now---“

“YOU’RE ON THE DRONE?!”

I knew she wouldn’t take it well… “I just need to get it to a nice cruising altitude and jump off before it self-destructs. It shouldn’t take me that long.” In all manner of fact, the drone was flying at a nice cruising altitude…but it was still too close to the dam for V.I.C.I.’s liking. “Just give me a few more minutes, and I’ll meet up with you on the ground.” The gynoid blinked, ending the call and trying to keep her thoughts from flashing back to Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (for some reason, her bubble memory processors always called up the full title of the movie, instead of the short version; she suspected IMDB was involved).

The drone soared further and further away from the dam, and V.I.C.I. managed to angle it up just enough for her next insane idea to work. As the runaway drone flew higher, the gynoid unzipped thin pockets on the arms and legs of her special-issue uniform for the mission, hoping that what she was about to do wouldn’t end with a sudden impact into a tree…or anything else. The wings of her prototype ALPA Night Ops Wingsuit (formerly the “Covert Ops Wingsuit”, until someone pointed out the unfortunate acronym) snapped into place quickly and securely, thanks to neodymium magnets in the wings and titanium “struts” in the corresponding hookup points on the uniform itself. Right…Three…two….one….NOW!

What happened next wasn’t so much a jump off of the drone as it was a gracefull fall…but the results were still effective: the wings did, indeed, hold. I have to remember to thank Anton for designing these for me, seeing as how they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to---

Without warning, the drone above her exploded.

Any human being in her position would’ve either panicked, tried to angle themselves downward for a faster descent, or been killed by the falling shrapnel before they could react…but V.I.C.I. wasn’t about to let the mission end in a complete failure just because the Maestro had to go and nuke his new toy in an effort to kill her. Instead of positioning herself for a faster descent (which would’ve made it all too easy for the shrapnel to slice through her back, and the wings), the brunette gynoid tilted to the right just a bit---seconds before the camera mounted in the drone’s nose would’ve nailed her in the head. A barrel roll to the left carried her out of reach of the razor-sharp stabilization fins that could’ve easily cleaved her in half; a carefully-controlled descent allowed her to swoop past a massive section of the drone’s chassis that would’ve otherwise smashed into her midsection and sent her falling to the ground like a stone.

Normally, this would’ve been the part where anyone else relaxed and let gravity take over until they landed with both feet safely and firmly planted on the ground…but V.I.C.I. knew that the Maestro wasn’t done with her yet.

Of course, it helped that her sensors detected a bird-shaped object coming at her like a bat out of hell…

…and this is the part where I either stick the landing or die trying.

She’d heard rumors that ART was experimenting with “drones inside drones”---basically, storing smaller, more maneuverable unmanned units inside of the larger ones to deploy in the event of the larger drone getting shot down. It no longer mattered that Hannsen had stolen the thing, or even how he’d stolen it; what mattered now was outrunning the damned drone and getting to the ground in one piece. Of course, if that failed….

It’s locking onto my RTG’s energy signature, the gynoid mused, noticing the telltale heat of a targeting laser as it “painted” her back. Great…

Had she been standing on her own feet, V.I.C.I. might’ve sighed at the development; in this instance, though, the proper course of action was a bit more…creative: as she fell/glided towards the ground at ever-increasing speeds, the Field Agent pulled a half-barrel roll and went to unholster her ES-9950---only to remember that it was still on the floor inside the facility she’d just flown out of.

Oh, scrap…..

With her original plan now completely dead, V.I.C.I. decided to go for one even more insane---and angled into a loop that took her just above the smaller drone. If I can’t shoot it down… The camera mounted in the drone’s “head” was just able to lock onto her when she tore the wings off. A veritable flood of bird-related puns ran through her bubble memory processors, and all of them went unused---she’d have enough time to joke about it on the ground, rather than trying to laugh it off in midair.

The only problem now, of course, was getting back to the ground.

A cursory scan of the terrain revealed that the drone’s flight path had taken V.I.C.I. farther than expected---the dam itself was too far to fly back to, and the only residential areas nearby were a suburb of Dagestan and what looked to be a fishing camp on the bank of the Sulak River. Knowing that the residents of the suburb had most likely already gone to bed, V.I.C.I. decided to make a split-second call…and angled towards the camp.

Hope they don’t mind a visitor…


The three late-night fishermen stared at their unmoving lines, bored out of their skulls. They’d already drank most of the beer they’d brought with them, and had long since run out of stories to tell that would help pass the time. If someone didn’t catch something soon…

Somewhere in the sky above them, a shape descended.

Ironically, the first to notice had been the last to arrive at the sight; thus, it gave him more than a bit of a thrill to see the black-clad figure with what appeared to be some sort of fabric connected to the sleeves and legs of its outfit gracefully descending on the campsite. Excitedly, the man---Sergei Prochnëv---shouted for his friends to come and see the “angel” as it landed…only to duck for cover as the ersatz angel bowled straight into his own tent, coming to rest only after skidding to a stop in the dust.

Sergei and his friends gathered around the figure, more than a bit confused…only to stare, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, as the “angel” pulled her way free of the tent, shaking leaves out of her shoulder-length brown hair and looking a little less perturbed than someone who’d lost their luggage.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, the girl spoke: “Any chance I could get a ride to the edge of town?”


Ayla stared in disbelief as a beat-up van drove into view, shaking her head. “I tell her to meet up with me,” she muttered, “and this is how she shows up…” Despite her annoyance, Ayla couldn’t help but grin as Vicki emerged from the back of the van, thanking the occupants in Russian. “I take it you had a safe flight?”

“A little turbulance,” Vicki replied, “but I’ll live.”

She glanced over her shoulder at the looming shadow of the dam.

You win this round, Hannsen…but the game’s still on…


ALPA Field Agent Briefing Center - San Jose, California - August 19, 2011, 7:05 AM

“You know, a lot of good people might’ve easily been killed if we hadn’t acted on your…’hunch’, Wakefield.”

Ashley Tobias Wakefield---more commonly known as “Ash”---chuckled; “No offense, sir,” he admitted, “but it wasn’t just a ‘hunch’. Hannsen planned for this, and the Coalition’s hands were tied---any of them would’ve made a move to stop him, and the DVS---“

“The DVS,” Oberon declared, lowering the folder he’d been reading from, “is not the matter we came here to discuss…though it’s still on our list of investigations to conduct over the coming years.” He sighed, steepling his fingers; “If Faceless hadn’t reared his head in July and gone on a spree like he did,” he admitted, “this DVS thing would’ve been given a thorough looking-through…but we had one of the most hated serial murderers in recent history running loose in Silicon Valley, and that sort of thing tends to take top priority.” He sighed again, shaking his head. “As for this top priority matter…I think it best if we---“

Oberon never got to say what he thought it would be best for them to do---and Ash wouldn’t have been paying attention even if he had---thanks to the door on the far side of the room opening at that moment. “So, I save a Russian data farm and everyone working in it from a drowning death,” Vicki Lawson called out, “and these are the best cover stories you came up with?!” She dropped a pile of newspapers on Ash (more precisely, in his lap) and stared at both Ash and Oberon in turn, waiting for one of them to read the things. “I literally just got these today,” she added. “Ayla and I both read them, and we both think the cover stories just plain suck…seriously, I could’ve come up with something better than this during my recharge cycle.”

To her annoyance, Oberon didn’t even bother trying to hide his smile as he read the headlines out loud: “’Toy company recalls prototype RC helicopter after Russian test flight’, ‘Steven Segal escapes injury during filming at Chirkey Dam’, ‘Russian fishermen say fallen angel wrecked visited them’…” He chuckled. “I take it you didn’t like the Steven Segal one?” he mused.

“I don’t like any of them,” Vicki shot back. “They all suck!”

“That’s the point, actually,” Oberon admitted. “I’d rather see a bunch of hokey lies than the truth, especially in your case. I thought you would’ve liked a bit of anonymity….and I can tell you want me to, as someone once said, ‘cut the Obi-Wan Kenobi crap’ and get straight to the point.”

Vicki stared at the floor. “I was kinda sorta thinking that, yeah…”

“So was I,” Ash quickly added, smiling when Vicki turned to glance at him. “What? It was boring---“

An overly-exaggerated throat-clearing noise from Oberon ended the conversation before it could start. “As I was saying,” he declared, “I do believe it’s time we scythe through the fog of big words and vagueness to get right at the heart of the matter…”

He leveled his gaze at Vicki. “How much do you know about Professor Matthew Emmerich Hannsen?”

“Only what I’ve heard from higher-ups at the ALPA,” the brunette gynoid replied, “including his rap sheet.”

“Good…because that’s all you needed to know at the time.” Oberon handed her a sealed folder; “Don’t break the seal until you leave,” he advised, “otherwise I’ll have at least fifteen subcommittees on my arse for reasons too stupid to go into here….oh, and you conveniently forgot to mention that you learned something new about Hannsen before your mission yesterday---or were you hesitant to ask about that little incident from two years prior, in which he---in his own words---‘slipped the leash’?”

Am I that obvious? “I…didn’t want to---“

“I’ve long since gotten over any bad blood regarding the incident, Agent Lawson…I won’t bite your head off.”

Ignoring the chuckle that accompanied the assurance, Vicki decided that now would be as good a time as any to mention the incident---or, more specifically, its repercussions. “What exactly did Hannsen do while he was off the grid? And why the hell did he target a random server farm---“

“It wasn’t ‘random’,” Oberon countered, “nor is it relevant to this discussion. What is relevant is the list of the other buildings Hannsen had visited or attempted to infiltrate during his brief moment of freedom…and I might as well take back what I said about not opening the folder until you leave,” he added, “because the information inside of it is rather important considering what I’m about to say. I’ll pay the fine if I have to, if it’ll keep the beaurocrats from ripping my spleen out with their bare hands…”

Vicki split the paper seal on the folder (with the aid of a pencil handed over by Ash) and glanced at its contents, most of which were photos, blueprints, eyewitness statements and transcripts of interviews with Hannsen himself. “Las Vegas, Athens, Havana, Singapore, Miami….he did a lot of travelling for a guy who prefers life in prison,” she remarked. “How the hell did he get around like that in the span of one month? “

Oberon sighed. “At the time, we blamed his ease of escape on a lack of interagency communication, dwindling resources and a laundry list of other stupid excuses,” he admitted, “but the simple truth is that he got away because he’d planned it. It was disturbingly similar to Cyrus Grissom’s escape plan from Con Air---right down to the charts and graphs hidden in his cell walls…the only difference, of course, being that the Maestro actually succeeded, and Cyrus the Virus failed. That, and Michael Bay had nothing to do with the planning and/or execution of Hannsen’s escape.”

“If he had,” Vicki deadpanned, “there would’ve been more explosions…” One look at Ash’s left hand over most of his face---and the corresponding Glare of Mild Annoyance® from Oberon---told the gynoid that her joke was better left unfinished. “Never mind,” she squeaked. “Ah, please continue…sir.”

The ALPA Chairman nodded, the ghost of a smile flickering through the Glare. “The actions of yourself and Agent Bishop were enough to keep Hannsen’s plan from succeeding down at the server farm,” he informed the brunette gynoid, “and you can expect commendations for it…but that was only one part of a larger---and, by my own estimations, considerably more insidious---scheme. For example, the site in Las Vegas was vacant at the time…but three months later, ground was broken for the start of construction of a new casino.” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out an already-opened magazine, handing it to Vicki as he spoke; “You might’ve heard of the place,” he mused. “It’s quite popular---“

“Wasn’t this casino in that one video game, though?” Vicki inquired, frowning. “And, ah, aren’t the statues---“

“The LadyKiller has undergone extensive renovations since the initial concept of the place was chosen,” Ash cut in. “They even hired some…aesthetic supervisors to make sure the décor was as far from its…in-game equivalent as possible. And to answer your question, the statues wear tasteful, form-fitting robes and gowns.”

At this, Vicki nodded her approval. “Good call,” she replied. “Naked statues probably would’ve ticked off more people anyways….but how did Hannsen even know the place was going to be built? I mean, the game that it was based on---“ She paused. “Hang on….why did they design a full level based on the LadyKiller for a game that took a decade and a half to make?” she asked. “And how did Hannsen know the casino was going to be in the game, or did he even---“

Another throat-clearing noise from Oberon ended the rambling. “At this point,” he murmured, “it’s unclear as to how he was able to obtain the information. The main concern we have is another document in the folder you have: the list.”

Vicki’s predictable “What list?” question died on her tongue as she pulled five stapled pages out of the folder.

“The first two pages are just what he was going to say to the press,” Oberon quietly informed her. “The third page is a list of targeted locations---before Chirkey, we were able to neutralize all of them rather quickly---and the fourth is still being decoded. As for the fifth…”

Just as Oberon had said, pages one and two were Hannsen’s “manifesto” (a rather tongue-in-cheek name for the document, which actually made fun of the idea of a manifesto), while page three listed the locations that had already been targeted (those that had been neutralized were blacked out. Page four, meanwhile, held a list of bizarre names---possibly codenames, nicknames or online usernames, Vicki realized---that included “Steel Pariah”, “Pearl Lion”, “Diamond Viper” and “Spinnel Owl”.

On page five, however…

“Why is Jesse Ventura’s nephew on here?” Vicki had last heard from Stephen Crandall---aka Sterling Golden, a wrestler in Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) with dreams of making it big in the WWE---two years ago during a chance encounter while on vacation. “I mean, Jesse might’ve told him about me before we met---“

“Hannsen targeted Stephen Crandall because of a debt his uncle never paid,” Oberon replied. “You may have noticed Raquel Sanderson’s name on the list---she used to be one of Hannsen’s prison guards. Boris and Elena Vlatko were targeted after the incident with Kirsten…basically, they’ve all been marked for death by the Maestro for having pissed him off in one way or another.”

“Except he’s still in prison,” Vicki groaned. “How the hell---“

“Remember how I mentioned that Hannsen had help? Well, even within the facility where he’s spent most of the last decade, the man’s still got enough pull to call in favors and have things ‘taken care of’ without so much as lifting a finger. If he wants them dead…chances are they’ll need every bit of protection we can offer---and before you mention it,” he added, raising a hand to keep Vicki from bolting out of her chair, “some of the lower priority cases---Stephen Crandall, for instance---are being looked after as we speak.” He handed the gynoid another folder. “Your assignment is to visit the final five sites listed on page three---the LadyKiller in Las Vegas, one of three hotels in Miami frequented by a Mr. Stahl, a ‘beautification clinic’ in Havana, an excavation site near the Parthenon in Athens, and the headquarters of Hannsen Electronics/Robotics in Singapore.”

Vicki stared at the folder. “You do know the next semester at SJSU starts soon, right?” she quietly asked.

“Considering the fact that you’re going on an acedemic study trip for the remainder of the month, I don’t think the dean will mind.” Oberon grinned. “Ayla will give you the details for the Vegas portion of this assignment during the flight…I suggest you follow her advice, otherwise this entire thing could become a massive cock-up.”

A brief flash of the drone exploding over Dagestan entered Vicki’s thoughts---and left just as quickly. “I won’t let you down, sir,” Vicki promised. “I’m guessing Ayla will be getting her own room for the Vegas mission…or is she even coming with me at all?” Her question was met with silence from Oberon. “You’re not sending me out there alone, are you?! I mean, this is Las Vegas, for scrap’s sake! Hunter S. Thompson barely survived the two times he went---“

“Then we should all be lucky that you have considerably more internal fortitude than the late Dr. Thompson,” Oberon replied calmly. “Crystal will help you pack for the mission, if you want; your flight leaves in ninety minutes.” With that, he turned his attention to the laptop sitting on his desk. So…that’s it? Just a few folders and an offer to help me get my stuff together? What the hell---

“Something wrong, Vicki?”

In that one sentence---with her actual name instead of “Agent Lawson”---Vicki felt her fears evaporate. “No.”

Once again, the reassuring smile. “I’ll tell Crystal to bring the car around, then…oh, and good luck.”

“Thank you…Oberon.” Vicki smiled and nodded, feeling just a bit better about her prospects. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all…

Once again, she’d forgotten the all-too-common outcome that awaited anyone with that line of thought…

Part 2: Las Vegas

Encore Hotel - Las Vegas Strip - August 19, 2011, 01:15 PM

The flight to Las Vegas had been uneventful, except for two idiots getting in a fight in the lobby at McCarran Airport and conveniently letting go of a bunch of balloons that just so happened to block a security camera above them. Funny how I notice all the little details like that, Vicki mused, nodding her approval at the rather opulent suite she’d been booked into. Must be that new software Dad put in me after…

Her teeth clenched, as a crystal-clear memory---a black-clad figure kneeling before her, with two blades in his back---shot to the forefront of her mind, juxtaposed with another, more painful memory. Stop it….you were able to move on from this before Dagestan, and you can move on from it now…he’s in ALPA custody, for scrap’s sake! Both images faded quickly…only to be replaced by an even more horrifying image of Jamie---

“Ah, Miss…Lawson?”

A knock at the door, accompanied by a mildly concerned voice, snapped the brunette gynoid out of her morbid reverie. “Just…give me a minute,” she called, hating the fact that her voice sounded shaky. Get it together, Lawson…like Shawn would say---in this town, they kill the weak and deranged…and I really hope that the source material he got that from was just exaggerating. With a last deep breath, Vicki composed herself and headed for the door, the image of Jamie’s mutilated form fading just as quick as the last had…

…which was helped more than a bit by the sight of a ruggedly-handsome older gentleman glancing at his watch as the door open. Just as Vicki noticed him, the man looked up, smiling. “I found this in the lobby,” he informed her. “Had your name and room number on it…thought I might return it to you.”

“Thanks,” Vicki replied, giving the fakest smile she’d ever had to give. The bag wasn’t hers, nor did it have her name on it; I’m here for 90 minutes, she mentally growled, and someone’s already trying to---

A hmph cut into her chain of thought. “I’ll be on my way now.” With that, the man turned on his heel…

“You’re not going to ask for a finder’s fee or anything?” Vicki half-drawled, wanting to kick herself for even thinking that.

Surprisingly, the man chuckled. “Do I look like a first-timer?” he replied, without even looking back.

“No, but you do look like George…Cloo---oh, the hell with it.” Vicki groaned and slammed the door, already dreading what she’d find in the bag (which, in all probability, had most likely been stolen). With an annoyed sigh, she set the oversized duffel bag down on the bed, unzipped it…

…and stared, too stunned to speak, at the equipment contained within.

$100,000 in “gambling money”. A complete set of papers identifying her as a Research and Development staff member from Lawson Robotics. Three complete changes of clothes (including swimwear). A full kit to detect and remove any and all covert surveilance equipment from her hotel room. Backstage passes for every floor show in every casino on the Las Vegas Strip. An iPhone and iPad, both with a secure WiFi connection built in…and, most amazingly of all, two spare ES-9950s, coded to her own thumbprint. Above all the gear was a card, with “V. Lawson” scrawled on it in elegant pencil. Vicki opened it and read:

Miss Lawson: it’s come to my attention that your…handlers, for lack of a better word, have sent you out here to Las Vegas in order to derail the scheme of a certain Matthew E. Hannsen. To be quite honest, my crew and I have been trying to do just that ever since the shyster conned a good friend of mine out of his life savings two years ago, and your people---being the upstanding defenders of justice they are---allowed us to help. I’m told that this bag contains everything you need to get the job done, so good luck, and kick Hannsen’s ass once for me. Actually, kick it fourteen times…once for me, and once for each of my crew.

Her eyes widened as she read the signature: See you when I see you, D. Ocean.


LadyKiller Casino - Las Vegas Strip - August 19, 2011, 7:00 PM

It took Vicki only two hours to finish the necessary research on Hannsen’s previous jaunt to Vegas (including the incident that pissed off her unexpected benefactor), and even less time to figure out why he’d targeted her next destination---the LadyKiller Casino. Back in 2009, Hannsen had made some dodgy investments in the up-and-coming establishment known as The Harmon, which culminated in the place being scheduled for a controlled demolition sometime in 2013….except Hannsen, not wanting to let anyone else in on the action, had a few of his cronies nuke the site without the necessary safety precautions, then attempted to pin it on the wrong people. One of those people just so happened to be a relic of the “Old Vegas” days---a man by the name of Saul Bloom, and a good friend of the guy who’d dropped off Vicki’s gear.

The rest, as they say, was history.

Except Hannsen wasn’t finished, Vicki reminded herself as the shuttle pulled up to the LadyKiller. He still had a few more things to do before the ALPA caught up with him…

All thoughts of Hannsen’s slight against Bloom were shuffled aside as the shuttle made its way down the Vegas Strip. Vicki had never been to Las Vegas before---at least, not to the Strip; she’d accompanied Ted to a tech convention back in the 90s, but that had been a “sheltered” experience compared to this. She’d spent most of the day at a hotel and the rest of it at the convention center, politely smiling for photos (she wasn’t the tech on display, thankfully; Ted and a few United Robotronics co-workers had made the trip to demo the security system for the Crystal City project…later to be known as Shrapnel City thanks to one Demetrius Blunderwitz) and never even getting to see any casinos.

But this…

This was surreal.

Seeing all these sights---a massive onyx pyramid, a full-scale castle, a replica of the Eiffel Tower and the New York City skyline---all jammed into one, lit up like some massive, garish carnival, was a sight to behold. There was a definite feeling of….was it hope? Or maybe desperation? Whatever it was, Vicki could almost feel it like a stiff breeze across the face, even inside the shuttle bus. Fortunes had been built and squandered in Las Vegas; careers were made and broken, lives were changed…and sometimes ended.

The phrase “I’m not in Kansas anymore” comes to mind in times like these…

Vicki tried to shake off the feeling that she’d made a mistake coming to Vegas, chalking it up to nerves or some other imagined jitters. In reality, even with the years of living amongst flesh-and-blood homo sapiens, all the time spent interacting with them….she’d never experienced anything like Las Vegas. I bet Franklin’s fembots never felt like this, she assured herself. The Franklin incident---and others like it---had been the trying point for the already-rocky partnership between the ALPA and the Coalition, and it would take an even worse incident, in a little under a decade later, to fully sever the ties between the two groups…but that was another story for another day.

Right now, Vicki Lawson was about to get her first real taste of Las Vegas.

As she exited the shuttle bus, the brunette gynoid let out a whistle; she’d seen concept art of the LadyKiller from the game she’d mentioned to Oberon, but seeing it up close made it---like the rest of the Strip---all the more surreal. Thanks to Hannsen’s use of unauthorized explosives and “other methods”, the demolition of The Harmon had been…rough; even so, one could be forgiven for not remembering that The Harmon had ever existed to begin with, just from looking at the LadyKiller. The massive, double-arched entrance was held up by four columns in three places, with an ornate fountain---sporting a tastefully-robed statue posing seductively over a nuclear symbol---in the center of the curving driveway. Golden circles with “LK” emblazoned within marked the arches, and gold piping adorned each of the columns holding them up. The one in the game wasn’t nearly as detailed as this, the brunette gynoid mused, waving “hello” at a few random staff members.

The “controlled decadence” continued inside---the place looked a lot more like a high-class, high-cost casino than a testosterone-fueled gaming joint. Every statue in the building depicted curvaceous females, just like the fictional equivalent---but these were sculpted to look as if they were clad in robes that clung to their curves without billowing, a far cry from the game’s topless (and possibly bottomless) golden girls arching their backs and bending over. Even more amazing, the staff wasn’t all women---and those women who were employed at the LadyKiller were actually dressed…well, like casino employees should be dressed. Granted, their dress shirts were short-sleeved, and their skirts were…shorter than the length Vicki was used to wearing, but they were actually wearing clothes, not just strips of fabric connected with a few bits of string---

“Miss Lawson?”

Vicki turned to find a blonde woman patiently glancing at her. “Your seat at the blackjack table is available, if you’re ready.”

“Ah, thanks…” When the hell did I ever arrange to meet anyone at the blackjack table?!

The blonde nodded and led Vicki over to the gaming floor. “Your sponsor called ahead before you arrived,” she explained, “and our manager was more than happy to reserve your spot until you showed up…he sends his regards.” She smiled and handed over a plastic case full of gold- and silver-plated chips.

“Let me guess,” Vicki mused. “These are to get me started?”

“Precisely. Good luck!” The blonde winked and headed off to another table, leaving Vicki to wonder---

A hand on her shoulder cut off all thoughts of who her “sponsor” might be. With a flash, the gynoid whirled around, grabbing the wrist of her potential attacker---and getting three Desert Eagles pointed at her in quick succession.

“Easy, gentlemen…Miss Lawson was simply taken aback by my casual gesture.” The man whose wrist was currently in Vicki’s death grip smiled reassuringly. “My apologies for not announcing my presence sooner, Miss Lawson,” he stated. “I’m Darien Tavares, your, ah, sponsor for the upcoming game…my original player had to drop out due to family issues, and a good friend of mine suggested I book you as a replacement player…if you’re not otherwise engaged, of course.” Tavares glanced at the bodyguards; “She’s not going to rip my arm off!” he assured them, laughing. “Put the guns away, please…people are beginning to stare.” He nodded his approval as the guards holstered their weapons, still scowling at Vicki. “No hard feelings, right?”

“Trust me,” Vicki replied, “my feelings would be a lot harder if your men hadn’t showed self-restraint.” “My feelings would’ve been a lot harder”….really, Lawson?! Even as she chafed at the stupidity of her response, Vicki had a feeling that Tavares’ “good friend” was the same one who’d dropped off her gear earlier. Let’s test the waters, then… “So, about this whole sponsorship thing,” she mused. “Do I get to keep my winnings, or do they go to your favorite charity?”

At this, Tavares laughed again. “I think my bank account will be enough to explain why I chose to not play this game personally,” he replied, “and anything you win at the table is yours to keep…provided you don’t have any of your own prior commitments to attend to.” He nearly winked. “The game starts in three minutes, so---“

“Just point me to the table, and I’ll do the rest.” Note to self: Call home after the game.

With Darien and the three bodyguards leading the way, Vicki headed over to the table where she’d been signed up to play a “Best of Seven” series…of Blackjack. Seven rounds of a card game where the winning hand is twenty-one, she reflected, fighting the urge to groan at the irony. If Psycho McCrazyMask wasn’t in the hospital, I’d swear he had something to do with this setup…still, I’ve got time for a few rounds, and at least I know the rules of this game---seeing as I still don’t get baccarat, and I suck at poker!

The brunette gynoid took her seat, glancing around the table and sizing up her competition.

A young, mid-to-late 20s/early 30s woman sat to her immediate left, her tanned-brown suit looking rather crisp in comparison to the dealer’s aged-leather vest. Her black hair was done up in a manner that was far too severe for someone so young, and while everyone else at the table tended to survey the dealer with a wary eye, the woman in the brown suit looked almost…bored. Vicki made a mental note to scan her after the game, assuming she didn’t drop out early from losing.

Nobody could mistake the figure sitting to the raven-haired woman as looking bored. Even if he hadn’t been sporting a 3-inch long scar over his clouded-over left eye, there was no doubt that Anders Stahl was as far from bored as possible. Thanks to a number of “unethical practices” attributed to his European banking guild, Stahl was right up there in the Hall of Shame alongside Ponzi, Gordon Gekko, Bernie Madoff and hosts of others as a symbol of corruption and greed in the banking world…except Stahl had managed to avoid the fates each of his predecessors had suffered and gotten away relatively clean.

Vicki had to think for a while before she recognized the girl to her right---and the realization was more than a bit surreal. Like the LadyKiller itself, the brunette gynoid had only seen/heard of Mary Holsom in the video game she’d discussed with Oberon…except in that game, Mary and her twin sister had both met a rather…messy demise thanks to questionable alien breeding practices. Here, however, she was 100% alive, cheerful and (thankfully) wearing jeans and a “Las Vegas Detonators” T-shirt (the Detonators were apparently an arena football team sponsored by the LadyKiller’s owner) as opposed to her in-game counterpart’s “slutty schoolgirl” uniform. The passive scans built into Vicki’s optical sensors ID’d Mary as human, confirmed seconds later when Vicki activated the detailed scan (by blinking three times); it helped that the other Holsom twin was at the slot machines nearby, shouting encouragement.

The final player at the table was almost the textbook definition of “nondescript”: bland shirt, retail-brand jeans and shoes, cheap sunglasses and a five’o’clock shadow. He could easily have been just another one of the nameless rabble risking their fortune, or a trained con artist waiting to fleece everyone out of their hard-earned savings…or even just a professional card shark, idly passing the time.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the dealer declared, snapping Vicki out of her observing reverie, “the name of the game tonight is Blackjack. Rules are simple: Aces are low, face cards high. Each player gets two cards to start with; just say ‘hit me’ for more cards or ‘stay’ to keep your hand. First player to 21 wins; anyone who goes over 21 busts. If all players bust, the house wins and the pot stays here.” Even the rapid-fire delivery of the words didn’t distract Vicki from the dealer’s hands…though she was careful enough to glance at the other players around the table, just to make sure none of them tried to accuse her of counting the cards before the game even started.

Anders Stahl casually flicked two $50 chips down on the table, looking almost bored. Mary Holsom set down her own pair of $50 chips; the man sitting to her right laid down a $50 chip, followed soon after by a $100. The woman in the brown suit set down a single $100 chip, and Vicki decided to lay down a $200 chip to start off.

“All bets are in, let the game begin.” The dealer shuffled the deck a final time before dealing the cards.

Silence settled over the table as Vicki regarded her hand: a pair of aces. After a few seconds of deliberation, she nodded. “Hit me.” The dealer slid her another card---a six---and waited for her (or anyone else) to either hit or stay. Anders Stahl muttered something under his breath before nodding towards the dealer; Mary Holsom chose to keep the hand she had. The woman in brown nodded silently, and the man sitting next to Mary said nothing.

Vicki decided to play it dangerously. “Hit me.” Another card…a nine. “Again.” The dealer slid her a card…

…an ace.

Anders Stahl set down his hand, scowling at the dealer. Mary simply glanced at the slots and gave a quick thumbs-up to her sister; the woman in brown stared at the dealer patiently, as if waiting for a phone call. Even the guy next to Mary didn’t seem all too concerned as he set his cards on the table….

…until the dealer revealed his own hand---a ten and four twos. “Miss Lawson wins.”

Vicki couldn’t help but grin at her good fortune as the dealer pushed the stack of chips her way. The cards were collected, the deck reshuffled, and the dealer began again.

Within seconds, Vicki had attained another hand of 20---a pair of threes and a pair of sevens. She once again chose not to hit, as Anders and the others laid their cards down. Yet again, the dealer broke; surprisingly, Mary Holsom and the woman in brown had avoided going over as well. Either someone here is doing a really good job at holding back, the brunette gynoid mused, or I’m just really lucky…

Somewhat ironically, Vicki didn’t win the next hand (she had a total of 22, whereas the woman in brown, Mary Holsom and the guy next to her all managed to avoid breaking). By that point, Anders Stahl rose from his seat, gave everyone a glare and walked off. Guess some people just don’t have the patience for blackjack, Vicki noted. Either that, or he’s playing with someone else’s money… She ignored all thoughts of who Stahl might be in debt to (she was there to investigate Hannsen’s crimes, after all…though she already had plans for a possible midnight jaunt in mind) and turned in her cards for the next hand.

The fourth hand saw Vicki returning to form, getting twenty-one after just two more deals. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Mary Holsom chose to drop out at that point and go play the slots with her sister. The guy who’d been sitting next to her didn’t watch her leave; either she’s not his type, Vicki noted, or he’s got a damn good poker face…well, blackjack face, really…oh, screw it.

Regardless of whether or not his poker face was sufficient, the guy dropped out after the next hand, which Vicki and the black-haired woman both won. Either he’s tired of playing, or he’s nearly broke…

Out of the corner of her eye, Vicki saw the black-haried woman’s eye twitch imperceptibly.

In what could only be considered a stroke of perfect fortune, the dealer’s cellphone went off; after two casino security guards sauntered over to watch the table and make sure neither of the remaining players tried to mess with the deck, he turned his back on the two and took the call. Vicki didn’t pay the guards any mind; she was too busy running a scan on the woman in brown. Let’s see what makes you tick…

Seconds later, a box in her HUD pinged: the woman was, in fact, a gynoid.

The fact itself wasn’t surprising---Vicki had expected to encounter at least one other android or gynoid at the gaming tables during her time in Las Vegas---but the actual surprise was…nothing. Or, to put it bluntly, a great big mess of nothing…at least, as far as the ALPA and Coalition databases were concerned (the truce between both groups had been extended to cover the remainder of the year, in the event of any “sudden developments” that might otherwise be unmanagable). Other than the name “Miss Campbell” (she doesn’t even have a first name?) and a personality software package that was too vanilla even for the word “vanilla”, the raven-haired gynoid was almost completely…blank. No maker’s marks, no identifying signatures for her internal OS…it was as if she existed outside the realms of the ALPA and the Coalition altogether. Even checks for parts and software from unaffiliated companies came back empty-handed.

Oh, scrap.

For a few brief moments, Vicki reflected on the case of Rachel, the gynoid she’d encountered at the halfway house in December. Like “Miss Campbell”, Rachel had almost no identifying data within her systems…but the difference between the two cases was pretty simple: Rachel had started out not knowing what she was.

As for what Miss Campbell was…

The click of the dealer’s cellphone closing cut into Vicki’s thoughts. “Ladies, this is the final hand of the game,” he informed the two gynoids. “You both have the chance to double down and win the entire pot, or walk away with what you have…what’ll it be?”

Miss Campbell stared silently at the dealer, her face bearing the textbook definition of “blank expression”.

The hell with this. “I’m in,” Vicki declared, putting the last of her chips on the table. A sizeable crowd had gathered to watch the game, with murmurs of approval (most of them coming from Darien Tavares) rippling through the masses.

As he accepted the chips, the dealer gave Vicki a knowing smirk. Don’t tell me he’s in on this….

Within seconds, Vicki and Miss Campbell were dealt the last hand of the game---Vicki, a pair of aces; Miss Campbell, a pair of sixes. Both stated “Hit me”---Vicki with defiant calm, Miss Campbell without emotion---and received their next cards. Again, the two simultaneously declared “Hit me”, and again, the dealer complied without hesitation. For a third---and, in Vicki’s hopes, final---time, the two gynoids said “Hit me” (thougn Vicki nearly shouted it) and were given their cards.

Immediately, Vicki nearly felt like throwing her hand.

Through what could only be considered a cosmic twist of fate, she’d been dealt a pair of eights and three aces, also known as the infamous Dead Man’s Hand. The “aces low” rule---which, now that she realized, was almost a complete paradox within the game of blackjack---was the only reason the notorious hand hadn’t ended the game for her at that moment; if she asked for one more card, she could either get twenty-one and win…or get anything that would put her over that number, and walk away with nothing.

Predictably, Miss Campbell was the picture of calm.

Steeling her nerves, Vicki took a deep breath (out of habit)….

“Hit me.”

Slowly, almost methodically, the dealer slid another card her way. She turned it over….

…and nearly cried as the Two of Spades was revealed.

Miss Campbell arched an eyebrow, but said nothing else as she laid down her hand---two sixes, two tens and the Queen of Spades. The crowd behind the table held its collective breath, waiting for the dealer to reveal his own hand…

…and cheering their heads off as he flipped over two tens, the King of Spades and a five.

“That was brilliant!” Tavares beamed, clapping Vicki on the shoulders. “Absolutely brilliant…I was worried you’d lost it in the third, but this was just amazing…” His comments only held half of the brunette gynoid’s attention; she was more focused on Miss Campbell’s reaction…or lack thereof. As the crowd parted and returned to their games of chance (or whatever else they’d been doing), Campbell simply rose from her seat, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’d blown well over $10,000 in less than an hour, and walked away.

Note to self: follow her later… Vicki allowed Tavares and his entourage to lead her away from the blackjack tables, already planning her next move against Miss Campbell. Of course, there was the small matter of cashing in all those chips she’d just won…

Ten minutes later, Vicki---now several thousand dollars richer than she’d been before entering the LadyKiller Casino---took in the surreal sights of the Vegas Strip once again, marvelling at the juxtaposition of architectural types against a night sky lit up with neon. It was still somewhat bizarre to see icons like the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx and a New York City-style skyline against such a garish background, but that was just another part of the Las Vegas experience: buy the ticket, take the ride.

Unfortunately for Vicki, the ride would soon be getting a bit…bumpier.


Containment Facility codenamed “DragonTown” - Location Classified - August 19, 2011, 8:40 PM

“You get kicked in the leg one time by an enemy fembot,” Major Tom growled, “and they put you on guard duty for the rest of the year…this is just stupid.” He glanced down at his left leg; “I even got a myogel knee brace,” he added, “fresh off the assembly line, and they tell me that I’m on ‘foot patrols’ for the rest of the year…this truly sucks.”

Kylie Lyndon sighed. “It could be worse---“

“How?” the Major snapped. “How in the hell….never mind. I just want this to be over with before I get the urge to break someone’s face.” Without another word, he gestured for Kylie to follow him down the corridor.

Out of the two of them, only one had been to the facility known as DragonTown before---the Major had pulled guard duty on a few of the more notorious inmates back in the 90s---and neither of them had known exactly where it was located. This was the highest-security prison on the planet; things like contraband, prison gangs, guard assaults and problems that plagued other penitentiaries were pretty much nonexistant behind the walls of DragonTown. Even tattoos were forbidden---if you were caught with any, you had them removed, without the benefit of anesthetics or sedatives to ease the pain. The entire facility was under 24-hour surveilance, and even the bathrooms were monitored. The necessary facilities for seven different forms of execution were on hand in the event of “extreme circumstances”, and no prisoner transferred to DragonTown had, thus far in its long and sordid history, been paroled or spared by an eleventh-hour call from the governor.

The only failing the place had was its inmate escape record: three extremely lucky individuals had managed to break out so far, with one of them being William J. Rengold III…otherwise known, feared (by many) and hated (by more) as Faceless.

“Every minute I’m in here,” Major Tom muttered, “it feels like I might lose part of my soul.”

She didn’t say it out loud, but Kylie felt all too inclined to agree with him.

After a few more minutes of walking, the pair found themselves in a room with a monitor bank, two headsets and two chairs. “They don’t let anyone get anywhere near the inmates physically,” the Major explained to a somewhat confused Kylie. “Last time that happened, a guy lost an arm.”

“What’d they do to the inmate?”

“Not much they could do---other than get his arm back from the idiot who’d smuggled a ceramic hatchet in.”

Kylie’s eyes went wide, but any and all stunned statements she could’ve made died on her tongue as the bank of monitors clicked on. “So,” the voice of Matthew Hannsen drawled, “who exactly did you two piss off to get stuck on monitor duty, eh?” As per usual, his orange prison denims were pristine, whereas his facial hair now bordered on wino trim, and his voice bore the petulant arrogance of a spoiled brat…albiet one who could easily rig up an entire city’s traffic lights to turn every intersection into a potential pile-up.

“Save the speeches, Hannsen,” the Major ordered. “We’re here---“

“You’re here because your higher-ups want to know what I did in Vegas during my vacation two years ago,” Hannsen drawled. “I’m not an idiot, spaceboy…any news about me eventually gets back to me.” He grinned lazily, stretching out on the bed. “Unless the lovely Miss Lyndon would like to…correct me?”

The Major had to bodily hold Kylie back before she could damage any of the monitors. “Keep talking.”

“What’s in it for me if I tell you anything?” Hannsen inquired. “Free satellite TV, new books…”

“What’s in it for you is the continued use of your limbs due to me not ripping them off with my bare hands---“

At this, Hannsen nearly fell off the bed laughing. “That’s…that’s too much. You actually threatened me just now…that is really hilarious…” He sighed, shaking his head. “Unfortunately for you,” he continued, his voice now positively brimming with hatred, “the only one getting their limbs ripped off will be you, if you make another crack like that.” He ran over to a desk in one corner of the admittedly spacious cell and stood on top of it, his face mere inches away from the camera; “All I have to do is say five words,” he hissed, “and neither of you will be leaving this place intact…”

“Except you won’t need to say those words,” the Major replied calmly, “because nobody’s going to be doing any limb-removal for the foreseeable future.”

Hannsen nodded, chuckling as he got off of the desk. “There’s a good dog,” he crooned. “Seeing as how I’m fresh out of snacky tweats, I’ll give you what you came here for---provided you do something for me that has nothing to do with me getting threats from that new idiot in Block 19. “ He sat down on the bed, staring at the camera in the other corner of the room. “I want to know what Vicki Lawson is doing right now.”

Kylie nearly said something, but the Major spoke up first: “She’s at the LadyKiller in Las Vegas. Won $75,000 at the blackjack table---“

A cough that sounded suspiciously like “More like $77,520” sounded from one of the speakers.

“He just said something,” Kylie murmured. “Hannsen just said---“

“I’ve told you what you wanted to know,” the Major continued, ignoring the Field Agent’s outburst, “so you live up to your end of the bargain: Why the hell were you in Vegas after you slipped the leash? What were you trying to---“

“Do you find it odd,” Hannsen interjected, “that out of all the people who saw me in Vegas after I escaped, not a single one of them ever tried to report me? I posed as a pirate in ‘The Sirens of Treasure Island’ for two nights in a row---and had my picture taken with at least fifty complete strangers! I won a thousand dollars at the poker room in the MGM Grand, spent half of it at the shops in the Stratosphere Tower and stowed the rest somewhere in the desert…I even got a quickie marriage at a drive-through chapel! Granted, I had to trade the wife at the border for a passport to Cabo that I never ended up using, but it was still pretty hilarious!” A sigh escaped his lips; “In spite of all that,” he concluded, “none of ‘your people’ were able to catch me…”

To Kylie’s surprise, the Major nodded. “We were having problems of our own at the time,” he admitted.

Again, Hannsen laughed. “So you were too busy making sure nobody threw water bottles at Sophia Starlet during her mall tours to do anything about the little old Maestro, were you?” He laid back on the bed, his hands clasped behind his head. “How utterly sad---“

“Screw this,” Kylie growled, putting on one of the headsets before the Major could even stop her. “Listen to me, you prick: you either---“ Her sentence ended in a pained gasp---seconds before the Major grabbed the headset off of her. “What….the hell?! All I did was---“

“All you did,” Hannsen spat, “was put on a headset rigged with an ultrasonic transmitter that, by all means, should’ve been enough to fry your pathetic grey matter into a congealed lump of fat. You’re lucky they don’t let unshielded gynoids in here anymore….if you’d been a bargain-bin coppertop, that headset would’ve crisped every processor in your plastic skull within a matter of seconds.” He chuckled darkly; “One of the few advantages human beings still have,” he muttered. “The mundane can easily save our lives…”

The Major let out an annoyed breath. “Enough faffing around, Hannsen. Tell us---“

“Here’s what I’m going to tell you,” Hannsen cut in. “Vicki Lawson won more money than she knows what to do with at that blackjack table…but there’s a very high chance that she won’t live long enough to spend a dime of it. That relevant enough for you, rocketman?!”

Again, Kylie was surprised to hear the Major’s reply---and even more surprised to see him give the Maestro a cheerful smile. “That’ll be all for now. Thanks.” He pushed a button on the nearest monitor, muting the sound from the Maestro’s cell. “He’ll be more chatty tomorrow,” he informed the stunned Field Agent. “They’re letting him watch Malaysian MMA on the internal PPV system, in exchange for him giving us the info we need---“

“How the hell did he know how much Vicki won at blackjack?!” Kylie demanded.

“He’s got people on the outside,” the Major replied. “Seeing as how all access to his criminal activities beyond these prison walls has been cut off, he’s allowed to receive ‘mundane’ news from outside sources…after it’s been carefully screened, of course. There’s no way he can do anything to attack Vicki while she’s in Vegas, so anything he says---“

A burst of static emanated through the speakers. “Ah, to be honest,” Hannsen called out, “there is someone in Vegas right now who may actually pose a significant threat to Miss Lawson…”

Ignoring Kylie’s protests, Major Tom turned his attention to the monitors. “And that someone is…?”

“Anders Stahl. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Head of a major European banking guild…not exactly one of the most trustworthy individuals to have looking after your life savings…bit of a sore loser as well---especially when the one who beat him happens to be a female. Supposedly, he’s one of the players from Vicki’s little game of blackjack who dropped out before she won the pot…I hear tell that he’s more than a bit ticked off at her for winning all of his money.” He gave a bored sigh; “Then again,” he mused, “this is none of my business, after all, so if you want to handle it---“

Major Tom pushed the button again, silencing the Maestro’s gloating.

“You’re not buying that, are you?” Kylie groaned. “There’s no way---“

“ALPA shadowing teams spotted Stahl at the LadyKiller earlier today,” the Major quietly replied, “and a man matching his profile was seen leaving the building less than an hour ago. All that stuff Hannsen said about Stahl hating to lose to women is true, by the way…” He stared at the monitors, frowning. “He probably knows we’re short-staffed, too,” he muttered, turning away from the images of Hannsen doing exaggerated Yoga poses. “Kylie, get to the comm room and call HQ; tell them we need a---“

“You can’t tell me you actually bought Hannsen’s story!” Kylie protested. “He---“

“Matthew Hannsen,” the Major reminded her, “has been known to keep informants in multiple countries, just to make sure that no news ever gets past him during his incarceration. We’re sending a team to Vegas on the off chance that Stahl tries something, and if it proves out to be a fool’s errand, I’ll take the blame for it.”

Despite the fact that she hated Hannsen’s guts (and, by proxy, hated the idea of following any intel given by him), Kylie nodded in agreement. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she whispered. “If he’s stringing us along here…”

“I’ll tell DuBraul that he strung me along, and that you were doing your job.”

The intended encouragement only gave Kylie a reason to frown. “I don’t need you protecting me---“

“Except for now,” the Major cut in. “Otherwise, you’ll be another notch on Hannsen’s belt.” Without another word, he turned away from the bank of monitors and headed for the door, leaving Kylie to ponder what she’d just been told. Hannsen was a master manipulator, a habitual liar and---worst of all---a convicted criminal, but the ALPA was effectively being forced to follow his advice for the time being…to stop whatever plans he’d set up two years ago from coming to fruition.

Why do I get the feeling that this whole thing is going to end badly?


Encore Hotel - Las Vegas Strip - August 20, 2011, 5:50 AM

Wake-up cycle initiated. Loading V.I.C.I. BIOS……….BIOS loaded. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. RAM: OK ROM: OK Testing Neural Network Settings…Neural Network Settings OK Bubble Memory Processors: Activated Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 99.2% Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Saturday, August 20, 2011.

Vicki didn’t bother stifling the yawn that emerged from her lips as she rose from the insanely-plush bed; it was just another one of those “human things” she never got tired of. Funny how it’s the little gestures like blinking, yawning and every other random thing people do when they’re just waiting that always get taken for granted by everyone, she mused, yet the people working on Actroids are still trying to get them “just right”… As ironic as it was that other roboticists had, indeed, gotten those little gestures (and many more besides) “just right”, the brunette gynoid couldn’t tell whether or not to think it was funny or sad; those working on the Actroid and other such projects had spent the better part of a decade on what they thought was the cutting edge in robotics, yet many of them had no idea that the true bleeding edge of the field had been discovered long before---and was constantly being refined.

Still, at least I know where I stand on the technological food chain…

Another yawn fought its way out of her throat (at least, she liked to think it did---yet another “human thing” she couldn’t help but enjoy) as she made her way to the bathroom. Most people in Las Vegas were either sleeping in or too hung over to care---and for anyone who did get up this early on a Saturday morning, there was very little (if anything) to do. Of course, most people weren’t able to hear a roving argument coming down the hall…

With a somewhat annoyed sigh, Vicki headed for the door---then thought better of it and decided to head for the kitchenette instead, going for the Keurig coffeemaker (Ted had nearly trashed a prototype Keurig machine at Lawson Robotics by pouring milk into it, necessitating the use of vinegar to clean it out) and absentmindedly shuffling through the sampler coffee pod pack that had been provided by the hotel. One of the voices in the hall was that of Darien Tavares, who (for reasons unknown, especially considering Vicki’s win at the blackjack table the previous night) sounded pissed. The other was an as-yet unknown Asian male (I can’t quite place his accent…Korean? Maybe Vietnamese?), who alternated between agreeing with Tavares and barking orders (in Mandarin---stick to one language, for Jobs’ sake!) to the two guards (or two guys of equal height and build) from the previous night. Ten seconds before Tavares’ reached the door to her room, the brunette gynoid plugged a coffee pod into the Keurig machine and rapidly keyed the button sequence to turn the thing on; just as someone knocked on the door, the machine sputtered to life.

“Who is it?” Vicki called out, giving her voice a slightly tired-sounding undertone.

“Please open the door, Miss Lawson.” The Koreietnamese guy? “Mr. Tavares needs to speak with you.”

“Okay, just…give me a minute…” Vicki shuffled to the door (again, for the sake of appearing tired) and opened it slowly. “Ah, is this about the blackjack thing?” she murmured, the barest hint of apology in her voice. “I didn’t think I was going to win as much as I did…”

To her relief (and mild annoyance), Tavares---still clad in a tuxedo for some reason, smiled. “Trust me, it’s not about your winning the game,” he assured her. “Well…not about you winning, but about someone else losing to you…it’s all a bit complicated, actually.” He glanced at his entourage; “Mind if we come in?”

Vicki gave her best “sleepy grin”. “No problem; I’m just making some coffee right now…”

Tavares entered, followed by a tallish, somewhat-athletic Asian man who looked to be either Korean-American or Japanese-American---either way, his ridiculously expensive suit was custom tailored, and had probably cost more than the combined salaries of Tavares’ two bodyguards. “I’ll get right to the point,” Tavares began, glancing around the room for a moment. “It seems that your victory last night has, ah, upset one of the other players---“

“Don’t tell me the Holsem twins want a rematch,” Vicki muttered. “The one sitting next to me was probably just there because she was bored.”

“The Holsem twins aren’t the issue, Miss Lawson,” the Asian guy stated, handing her a folder. “How well do you know this man?” Vicki skimmed the pictures inside; “Enough to know that I wouldn’t trust him with my money,” she replied. “Anyone who doesn’t think ‘permanently on the naughty list’ when they hear ‘Anders Stahl’ must be living under a rock…though why does he have anything to do with---“

“He doesn’t take too kindly to being defeated by women,” Tavares sighed. “It’s…a rather strange character flaw of his, and, ah…” He cleared his throat. “We think he may want to kill you.

To the surprise of her “guests”, Vicki laughed.

“Sorry,” she apologized, “I just…give me a minute.” She composed herself. “I get the whole ‘corrupt banker’ thing, but…why would he want to kill me?! I’m just---“

“Looking for information on one Matthew Emmerich Hannsen,” Tavares finished, arching an eyebrow. “You didn’t think that ‘sponsorship’ was a random act of generosity, did you?” He gave the gynoid a sly grin; “Even if your superiors hadn’t called ahead and asked for my support,” he admitted, “news would’ve reached me eventually---rumors travel fast, especially in Las Vegas---and any number of Hannsen’s former victims would probably have leant their support…except for Stahl, of course.”

That prompted Vicki to quit giggling. “Hannsen conned Stahl?! When did that happen?”

“Back in the 90s, when Hannsen was part of that stupid ‘Great Dirty World Wide Web’ group with that…oh, what the hell was his name…never mind. In any case, Hannsen ended up scamming one of Stahl’s banks out of a pretty large sum by way of computer trickery…then exposed his affair with his niece to the press.”

“They were the ones who leaked that story?” Vicki gasped, genuinely surprised. She’d remembered hearing about it on most of the major channels---namely because the news broke into a marathon of the Sophia Starlet cartoon she’d been watching. “I can see why he’d be mad at Hannsen for that,” she acquiesced, “but why me? Other than the beating him at blackjack thing, I mean…”

Tavares sighed. “Lu,” he muttered, “tell her.”

After a few seconds’ worth of hesitation, Lu---the man Vicki had previously ID’d as “the Asian guy”---nodded and took a seat on the couch. “Stahl’s personal view is that women are…naturally…inferior to men in matters concerning money,” he explained. “Many believe that the gas explosion that nearly killed his first wife was orchestrated after she tried to give him advice on how to settle an important account at his banking guild; the authorities also believe that Stahl arranged the ‘accidental’ deaths of his second and third wives, and tampered with the breaks on his fourth wife’s car to cause the accident that put her in an assisted living facility.”

Vicki’s eyes widened in shock. “He did all that just because they tried to talk business?” she gasped.

“The first did,” Lu replied. “Some believe the second never paid back a small debt to the construction crew that had build their house, and the third racked up a substantial tab at one particular bar and lied about it…which explains why one was found in a cement mixer and the other drowned in the fish tank at her favorite bar.”

“Their families disappeared after the funerals as well,” Tavares added. “Most people think he killed them, too.”

“Or had them killed,” Lu suggested. “Stahl himself was never found to be connected to any of the cases---at least, not in any way that could get him sent to prison---but given the rampant corruption in his banking guild…”

And I thought Hannsen was bad… “So he wants me dead because I won all his money?”

Tavares shook his head. “He most likely wants you out of the way because you’re the newest name on his least favorite females list---in his mind, a girl your age would be better suited to hawking cigarettes and beer on the gaming floor, instead of winning at the blackjack table. To put it bluntly, it’s a very specific---and very stupid---kind of misogynistic mindset: women can’t know more than he does about money, and if they do, then they deserve to be eradicated.” He sighed sadly; “He presents such a ‘noble’ persona to the world, while playing fast and loose with the life savings of hard working people…all of it, just a defense mechanism to hide a veritable typhoon of crushing inadequacies.”

“I get the picture,” Vicki yawned, drawing annoyed looks from Lu and the bodyguards---and an amused stare from Tavares. “Sorry,” she apologized, “I just got up a few minutes ago…last night was more of a power nap than actual sleep…” She gave a sheepish grin. “Anyways…what do I need to do to get him off my case?”

Lu and Tavares exchanged glances.

“Ah, all I asked was how I could keep Stahl from trying to get rid of me,” Vicki murmured. “What’s---“

“The problem isn’t whether or not Stahl wants to get rid of you,” Tavares cut in, “at least, not entirely…it’s more about what he intends to do to your sponsor---aka, me. Don’t take that the wrong way---your safety is, of course a major concern between myself, Mr. Lu and my associates---but if Stahl thinks I brought you onboard in some convoluted scheme to bankrupt him and drive him out of Las Vegas…”

Vicki nodded. “So how do you intend to get him off your case?”

“Mr. Tavares has arranged to have a meeting with Mr. Stahl tonight at the LadyKiller,” Lu replied. “If all goes well, the situation can be resolved amicably.”

Somehow, Vicki reflected, I doubt it’ll be that easy… “Maybe you could just let me talk to him,” she offered, “or at least let me give him some of my winnings---if it’ll keep him from doing anything stupid, I’m all for it. I mean, I’m not saying that I don’t want any of what I won anymore…I just don’t want anyone else getting hurt because Stahl can’t take losing to a girl, or anything…”

Lu shook his head. “He’ll think you’re patronizing him if you try to hand over your winnings.”

“What?!”

“It’s sad, but true,” Tavares sighed. “Stahl absolutely refuses to be made to look the fool by any member of the fairer sex…if they manage to outthink him in the corporate world, or outplay him at the gaming tables, then he’ll do whatever it takes to make their lives hell.” He shrugged; “He’s probably got some maternal issues he needs to work out,” he suggested. “Either that, or he’s just a very strange---and stupid---kind of misogynist, and if that is, indeed, the case---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied. “So….you two want me to come along just in case things get too stupid?”

Tavares thought about it. “Tell you what,” he offered. “At around…let’s say 7:50 PM, take the service elevator in the back of the LadyKiller up to the 15th floor, and try to get to room 610 before 8:30. If anything starts going pear-shaped, feel free to intervene.” He grinned and handed Vicki a passkey for the service elevator.

“I’ll be there,” Vicki assured him. “By the way,” she added, looking at the keycard, “how’d you get this?”

Again, Tavares smiled. “Simple,” he replied. “I never bet against the manager.”

LadyKiller Casino - Las Vegas Strip - August 20, 2011, 7:40 PM

Despite the fact that Tavares had suggested she wait until 7:50 PM, Vicki chose to head for the LadyKiller ten minutes early---after all, she reasoned, if Stahl is planning something, he’s not going to stick to anyone else’s schedule…

Tavares’ keycard got the brunette gynoid into the “service area” of the building without problems---and allowed her to see that the LadyKiller was a lot more intricate (and interesting) than she’d initially realized. Rolling racks housing identical, bikini-clad female forms lined the walls, and a few branching rooms had some of the bikini girls getting different hairstyles applied (in the form of wigs), being dressed in the uniforms of dealers and cigarette girls, or even getting prepped for an old-school chorus line routine. One room in particular had at least half a dozen of the female figures getting new faces and---as far as Vicki could tell---having chassis modifications added to change their body sizes. Nice to see at least one casino on the strip employing gynoids for something other than call-girl services, she mused.

The service elevator was attended by one such gynoid, a polite blonde in a crisp red jacket and shirt over dusky stockings (Vicki thought back to Joan “tsk tsking” at her for not wanting to call the things pantyhose) and black high heels. After showing the keycard and requesting to be brought to Floor 15, Vicki stepped into the elevator car and waited…

…and just a few short minutes later, immediately regretted ever having shown up at the LadyKiller to begin with.

From the looks of things, someone had either had a running fight in the hallway or gone completely off the deep end---whatever the truth was, it did little to calm the brunette gynoid’s nerves. The small chandeliers over each door had been shattered, with some of the fragments embedded in the floor (and a few in the ceiling); a few other light fixtures had been knocked out of the walls entirely, leaving sparking wires and gaping holes where they’d once been. The doors on either side of the hall were closed and locked---except for the door leading into Room 610, which had been left ajar for whatever reason.

Already dreading what she’d find, Vicki made her way into the room…and froze.

Tavares’ two bodyguards lay slumped against the wall, knocked unconscious by blunt force trauma to the back of the head (thank you, medical imaging software); a quiet moan from the bathroom alerted Vicki to the fact that Lu was still alive…and bleeding from the rather sizeable gash on his forehead.

As for Tavares himself….

Had an ordinary human being walked in on “Miss Campbell” strangling Darien Tavares with his own belt (and tie), they probably would’ve chalked it up to an unbelievably kinky night gone awry and left it at that. Seeing as how Vicki had a stunning array of audio-visual sensors to detect changes in Tavares’ heartbeat, breathing and other “small things” that indicated he wasn’t enjoying the experience---alongside a little thing called common sense---she could instantly recognize an assassination attempt when she saw one.

“Drop the belt and step away from him,” she ordered.

Campbell didn’t move an inch.

“I said, drop the belt and move away from Mr. Tavares---“

Even as she tightened the belt around Darien’s throat, Campbell’s head seemed to lift half a centimeter off her neck---and then 180 degrees until it was staring directly at Vicki. “Dar-Dar-Darien Tavares is not in right-right now,” she calmly intoned, her voice at odds with the blood-red glow in her ocular sensors.

Oh, scrap….

Before Vicki could even move to stop her, the raven-haired gynoid dropped the belt---just in time for her entire upper body to turn towards the other gynoid and fire a series of flechete needles from her fingertips. A few months ago, Vicki noted, I might have been worried… She grinned at the thought, quickly angling her arm up to deflect the hail of needles directed at her. “Don’t do that again,” she warned the assassin gynoid, “or I may have to---“

Any and all potential threats she could’ve come up with died on her tongue as Campbell charged towards her, still wearing a calm expression on her face. Vicki half-fell sideways just trying to get out of the way, wincing as Campbell collided with the “foyer” walls before staggering into the hallway.

That’ll keep her out of my hair for a few more minutes…now to check on my “sponsor”.

Even as she eased him into a sitting position, Vicki could tell that Tavares would’ve blacked out if she’d been just a few seconds late. “What…happened?” he groaned. “That…Campbell woman….where did she…” He paused, noticing his belt on the floor---and the conspicuous absence of his pants. “What the hell---“

“The Campbell woman tried to strangle you with your own belt...and your tie,” Vicki explained. “She was probably going to leave you in the closet after she finished…the guards are still out cold, and Lu’s got a pretty bad cut on his forehead, so you may want to get them to the hospital…” She helped Tavares to the bed. “I think Stahl hired Campbell to lose the game and scope out any worthy opponents,” she suggested, “which just so happened to describe me perfectly….”

“And he wanted me dead for sponsoring you,” Tavares finished, shaking his head in disgust. “That cretinous little---“

“Save the insults for later,” Vicki advised. “You’re lucky I got here when I did, otherwise your obituary would’ve looked more than a bit…unflattering.” She handed Tavares his belt (and his pants); “Call hotel security and tell them we’ve got an assassin in the building,” she continued. “And while you’re at it…leave out the part where she took your pants off.”

“But what about---“

Vicki grinned. “I’m not just a hot chick who happens to be really good at blackjack,” she teased.

Despite an overwhelming urge to pass out, Tavares managed a chuckle. “That Lawson girl is really something else,” he mused, nodding his approval as Vicki headed out into the hallway.

Outside, Vicki was doing her best to make sure that “something else” didn’t turn into “sliced into ribbons by razor-sharp playing cards”---the current weapon of choice hurled at her by Miss Campbell. For reasons as-yet unknown, the assassin gynoid had decided not to head for the elevator and make a clean getaway---she’d chosen instead to simply wait for Vicki to emerge from Room 610 and attack her once she stepped through the door. Stupid move on her part, the brunette gynoid mused. I could’ve put an SCEMP round right between her eyes…if I’d remembered to bring my freaking ES9950!

After a quick round of mentally kicking herself, Vicki decided to abandon all ideas that centered around a one-sided shootout, choosing instead to run at the would-be assassin and tackle her to the floor. A flurry of elbows to the head once again reminded her of how much easier an ES9950-assisted takedown would’ve been…but she willed herself into ignoring such thoughts, choosing instead to return the favor and bash Campbell in the face with a few elbow strikes of her own. Annoyingly, the tactic didn’t work as well as she’d hoped it would; her efforts seemed to be doing little other than pissing off the assassin gynoid, and there was also the small matter of the flechete needles poking through her fingertips. The hell with this…

Without waiting for Campbell to fire another round of needles, Vicki hooked one finger under the gynoid’s left eyelid and another in her left nostril---and pulled. “Let’s see if you’re as bland on the inside as you are on the outside,” she quipped---immediately hating the line as soon as it left her lips. I seriously need to learn a few---

Her mental note ended rather abruptly as Miss Campbell threw her into the wall, knocking a fire extinguisher loose and rattling a nearby painting hard enough to knock it off its fixtures on the wall. Before the brunette gynoid could even get to her feet, Campbell took off for a run---towards the window. Vicki felt a flood of data enter her mind---she’s going to destroy herself to keep anyone from finding out who sent her after Tavares, she realized. Nice try…but….

“If you really want to reach the ground floor,” she called out, smirking, “you may need a bit of help…”

Five seconds before Campbell reached the window, a red-white blur slammed into her back---and slammed her through the window, and towards the ground below.

Note to self: work on making “spontaneous plans” less…spontaneously.

Even as she and her opponent fell, Vicki’s HUD lit up with information---wind speed, angles of descent, and a veritable onslaught of ways to keep herself from hitting the ground and shattering. One of the more promising ones happened to be a bus---a bus, she realized, that was approaching the intersection of Harmon Avenue and the main road of the Strip. Please brake, please brake…

The bus rolled to a stop at the end of Harmon Avenue.

Yes….and now, for my next trick…

Thanks to her shifting just a bit to the left, Vicki managed to control her rate of descent (as well as that of the assassin gynoid) just enough to hit the roof of the bus without denting it---quite a feat, considering their fall from the 15th floor of the LadyKiller. Ignoring the startled gasps from within the bus, Vicki rose unsteadily to her feet; All I have to do now is get to the elevator at the Encore, she mused, trick Fifty Shades Barbie here into following me, and---

A roundhouse kick to the side of her head ended that particular line of thought.

“Vick-Vick-Vicki-Vicki-Vicki LawLawLawLawLawLaw---“ Campbell’s head twitched to the right as servos in her neck rizzed; a thin ribbon of smoke was trailing out from between the gleaming metallic cheekbones on the left side of her face. “Vicki Lawson,” she repeated, “you wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii---“

The thunderous uppercut that smashed into her abdomen ended the glitching threat.

“I wiiiiiiiill not sit here and listen to you going on like a busted See’n’Say all night,” the brunette gynoid replied, cracking her knuckles for extra effect. “Who gave you the order to kill Darien Tavares and make it look like a suicide?”

Campbell’s head was now twitching to the left every three seconds. “That---information---is---classified,” she droned, her voice alternating in pitch with every syllable. “You---do not---have---access---“ Something within the left side of her head shorted out, followed by electrical smoke wafting out of her left ear. “Error---this unit is---Error----Error----“ The stricken gynoid reared back for a punch with her right hand, only for her left hand to suddenly start tearing at her shirt of its own accord. “This---unit---is----undergoing---“

“Would you please shut the Hell up?!” Vicki groaned, kicking the assassin gynoid in the shin.

To her annoyance, the gesture did little (if anything) to silence the malfunctioning gynoid---a fact made even worse by the sudden onset of seductive moans issuing from the raven-haired ‘bot. Her face (at least, the half of it that was left) was now frozen in a blissful moan as she staggered backwards.

You have got to be kidding me…

“Command…line…not…accepted,” Campbell moaned. “Oooh, YES! YESYESYESYES---brzt---ERROR---“

She doesn’t even rank an E on the Andrews Scale, Vicki realized. And here, I was worried about having to hold back… As Campbell continued spewing out a string of half-erotic nonsense punctuated by declarations of system errors, the brunette gynoid grabbed her around the waist (ignoring the shouts of apparent pleasure from her malfunctioning opponent) and hoisted her overhead in a version of the Fireman’s Carry. “Seeing as I don’t have to worry about standards and practices,” she called out, “here’s a little something---“

Campbell’s left hand blindly shot out, raking Vicki across the eyes.

“GAAAH!” The brunette gynoid fell to her knees, pitching Campbell onto her back. “Damnit,” Vicki angrily shouted, “do you have any idea how much my ocular sensors cost?! I mean---“ Her tirade faded into silence; the assassin gynoid was now flailing about, her hands ripping and tearing at her clothes (and flesh) with every spasming motion of her arms. Dark, viscous fluids were trailing from her eyes, nose, ears and mouth, as well as from behind what was left of her shirt (as evidenced by the two dark stains growing beneath the fabric). To Vicki’s disgust, a trail of the stuff was snaking down the assassin’s thighs and pooling on the metal roof beneath her---

Wait a minute.

A quick runthrough of her memories from the last year confirmed the worst: this was looking eerily similar to the Stylo-induced infection of the Coalition gynoid known only as Denise! If Stahl did this to her… It took every ounce of her resolve for Vicki to not think of beating Stahl’s face in with her bare hands; the bus was on its way to Caesars Palace, and unless Campbell was neutralized soon…

No. This ends now.

The bus rolled to a stop in front of Caesar’s Palace, and Vicki wasted no time in throwing Campbell off. Even as the passengers disembarked, staring in awe (and trepidation) at the scene before them, Vicki jumped down from the roof and slung the still-twitching assassin gynoid’s body over her shoulders. A quick glance in the direction of the tourists allowed the brunette gynoid to target---and disable---their cameras; I don’t need anyone posting about this on FaceBook, she noted, otherwise I’ll be in a world of trouble. The crowd was silent, for some strange reason---but to Vicki, that was all the better.

After what felt like half an hour, she reached the fountain. “Time to talk,” she droned, throwing Campbell off of her shoulders and into the water. “Who sent you to the LadyKiller to murder Darien Tavares?” she demanded. “ANSWER ME!”

The only reply she received was more twitching from the broken assassin.

“Who sent you to kill Darien Tavares?” Vicki growled, lifting Campbell by the hair. “TALK!”

Silence.

“One last time,” Vicki whispered. “Who sent you to the LadyKiller---“

Something inside Campbell’s torso pinged, and Vicki immediately dropped her. The pinging inside Campbell quickly turned into a loud rizzing noise---just as something burned a hole through the broken gynoid’s back with the intensity of a cutting torch. A smaller---but just as devastating fire---erupted within the raven-haired robot’s head, frying her processors and completely obliterating any and all files that could potentially lead to her employer/owner.

Damnit…

A few seconds after the pinging had begun, Campbell’s body stopped thrashing in the water. There goes my only lead for this whole thing, Vicki sulked. If I run, I can probably make it back to the hotel, change clothes and get on a plane before anyone from the ALPA---

“And CUT! PERFECT take, everyone, that’s definitely going in! Somebody get those two out of the fountain, okay?”

Before Vicki could even ask what the hell was going on, six guys in Universal Studios jackets walked out and grabbed the inert assassin gynoid’s body, zipping it up into a large tote bag. “And can we please get her dried off and ready for wardrobe? I do not want the DP yelling at me for delaying the shoot by even five minutes for the rest of the night..” Someone flung a towel around Vicki’s shoulders and guided her away from the fountain; seeing as how nobody has a gun to my head, she reasoned, I guess this isn’t as bad as it could be…

When she realized she was being led towards a van, that thought evaporated. WHY didn’t I take the ES9950?!

Thoughts of Jimmy Hoffa, Bugsy Seigel and others who “went for a ride” and never came back flooded through the brunette gynoid’s bubble memory processor as she was shoved into the van (it was actually a Hummer, but she could barely focus on the details at a time like this). She tensed, waiting for the feel of a pistol against her temple…

…and instead heard an all-too familiar chuckle. “So this is how you choose to enjoy the nightlife….”

“Anton?!” Vicki threw the towel off of herself, feeling equal measures of relief and annoyance; given what had just transpired, the presence of Professor Anton Malvineous was as unexpected as it was welcome. “How did you even---what the hell was all that movie stuff back there?!”

“Well,” Anton admitted, “we had to think of a logical reason for two women to be fighting on top of a moving bus and eventually getting into a wrestling match in the Caesars Palace fountain…so as soon as the manager of the LadyKiller called HQ and told them that someone broke one of his windows and left Darien Tavares dazed, confused and pants-less in his own room…we figured you could probably use a hand getting rid of Miss Campbell back there.”

“You knew?!”

“We had our suspicions. She was with Stahl last week, scoping out the Tropicana---supposedly, he had plans to get into a Mah-Johng tournament and win the entire pot---and she’s been spotted at airports with him for the past few months…we knew there was some connection, just not like this.”

Vicki sighed; “I came here to get intel on Hannsen, “ she muttered, “and I rip half of an assassin gynoid’s face off and leave her in the Caesars Palace fountain…I suck at this.” She propped her chin up on her hands and blew out an annoyed breath. “When does Oberon want me back in San Jose?”

Anton’s response was more than a bit surprising---he laughed.

“What’s so funny?!” Vicki demanded. “I screwed up---“

“Actually,” Anton admitted, “you did exactly what we needed you to do.” His laugh degraded into a chuckle, but the smile remained on his face. “Hannsen’s stopover in Vegas only amounted to a few scams against some high-rollers and an attempt to buy the land that the LadyKiller ended up being built on; judging from the hotel records and a few eyewitness reports, he didn’t bring his ‘work’ with him---and before you yell at me, you may be interested in the fact that Anders Stahl is currently on the ALPA blacklist for some, shall we say, not too pleasant dealings with ALPA and Coalition companies. Seems he has a nasty habit of using their cash to pay for his vacations in the Hamptons…”

“…and Campbell had his room key?” Vicki offered. “So you could get at Stahl’s computer---“

“More like Campbell was Stahl’s computer,” Anton corrected. “Three portable hard drives---one TB each---in her abdomen, with enough financial records and other assorted documents to connect Stahl to Hannsen’s little jaunt from two years ago…among other things.” He grinned. “Feel better about it now?”

Vicki returned Anton’s grin with one of her own. “Definitely. Now, then…where am I headed next?”

“Miami, Florida,” the famed roboticist replied. “Specifically, to track down one Björn Aaberg, a known associate of Anders Stahl….and, if the rumors are correct, Stahl’s premiere ‘cleanup man’.”

The grin that had crossed Vicki’s face earlier faded rapidly. “You mean ‘hitman’, right?” she murmured.

“Unfortunately, yes. According to the last count, Aaberg has ‘cleaned up’ after at least twelve different messes for Stahl over the past few months…and he’s considered the worst of the bunch. He’s got a whole cadre of them out at his Austrian estate…and if Aaberg is on the hunt, then that can only mean that Stahl’s getting paranoid again…and when Stahl gets paranoid, people disappear.”

Something about the name “Björn Aaberg” struck a chord with Vicki. “That name sounds familiar…has he been on the ALPA’s radar before now?”

“There was that incident at MIT earlier this year---not the one Faceless was involved with, obviously---and it’s believed that he also had something to do with rioting at a few of the Australian tour dates for the Starlet Dolls’ last tour…specifically, the one where one of the sponsors ended up dead. There’s been speculation that the riot was started to cover for Aaberg…but that’s beside the point. The fact of the matter is, he’s been on Stahl’s payroll for a good long while, and if he’s headed to Miami, then you need to get there before him and find out what, exactly, he intends to accomplish while he’s soaking up the sun.”

“And I’m guessing I also have to look into anything the Maestro may have been doing in Miami, while I’m at it?” Vicki inquired.

To her absolute lack of surprise, Anton nodded. “Aaberg may be retrieving Hannsen’s research while he’s in town,” he added, “so you’ll need to move fast---and avoid attracting his attention. If we can get to whatever it was that Hannsen was trying to work on in Miami, we might be able to figure out his next move…and before you ask how we know that he actually did anything in Miami, he left a single notebook in his hotel room.”

“So you’re just going to accept that notebook as proof?” Vicki frowned. “It could’ve been a false clue---“

“Trust me,” Anton assured her, “this notebook wasn’t a red herring. At least 30 pages in it correspond with the notes Ash Wakefield gave us on Project Epsilon---and if Hannsen was doing his own work on Epsilon, then we need to find out what else he might’ve been working on.”

If it’ll help restore Tony Sanderson to some degree of normal sanity… “I’ll do the best I can.”

“Excellent.” Anton smiled. “Oh, and no need to worry about the whole ‘fake movie’ thing, by the way---HQ is putting together an in-house project to explain the whole thing.” The familiar glint in his eye cued Vicki into the fact that she was probably going to groan at Anton’s next statement: “We were able to get Steven Segal out to the Chirkey Dam to film a few scenes for it,” he added, “and so far everything’s coming along swimmingly…we just need a convincing title, and the whole thing---“

Vicki’s overly-annoyed groan ended Anton’s spiel.

“Okay, okay! No more about the fake movie…in all seriousness, though, your flight for Miami leaves tomorrow morning at 6 AM. If you want---“

“A room at a hotel that’s as close as possible to the airport. And a change of clothes.”

“Done. And all of your belongings from the Encore are already being brought to the airport---by a few of our own ‘connections’.” Anton grinned. “Still think you ‘suck at this’?”

The brunette gynoid couldn’t help but grin. “Not at all, Professor,” she replied. “Not at all.”

Part 3

Fontainebleau Hotel – Miami, Florida – August 21, 2011, 10:32 AM

“…and I do believe that you have lost again, Mister Donnelly.” Björn Aaberg grinned as he raked in the pile of money owed to him by his opponent, who just so happened to be Texas oilman Richard Donnelly---aka the twentienth most valuable man on Planet Earth at that moment. “You’re just lucky that my gin rummy game is absolute crap,” Donnelly grunted, shaking his head. “If you’d have had the common decency to chose Texas Hold ‘Em---“

Aaberg laughed good-naturedly. “Come, come, Mister Donnelly,” he assured the other man, “this is nothing more than a friendly game of cards. Of course, if you truly wish to, as they say, recoup your lossess…”

“Maybe some other time,” Donnelly offered, glancing at the figure approaching the table. “Ah, did you call for a refill on your drink, Aaberg?”

Björn held off on making pithy comments, choosing instead to size up the new arrival. The slate-grey skirt and jacket combo, matched with dark stockings, black heels and the best-ironed dress shirt he’d seen in a week all added up to a “strictly business” agenda…whereas the rose eyeliner and copper hair done up in a ponytail hinted at a personality type accustomed to long vacations on beaches or tropical environments. As for age, he would’ve guessed mid-to-late 20s, possibly early 30s---slightly odd, but they were called “young professionals” for a reason, weren’t they? And, of course, the fact that she approached the table with a smile that blended politeness and professionalism didn’t hurt.

“I’m looking for a Mr. Aaberg,” the girl stated, her voice lightly tinted with a Liverpudlian lilt. Björn grinned. “It appears you have found him, then,” he replied. “Björn Mikhail Aaberg, at your service…and to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Miss…”

“Rothschilde. Melanie Rothschilde. I was told by Mr. Stahl that you were expecting me?”

At the mention of Stahl’s name, Björn’s smile faded slightly. “He told me to expect a Miss Campbell.”

Melanie’s shoulders sagged a bit. “So you didn’t get the memo…”

“What memo?”

“Miss Campbell suffered a nasty fall in Las Vegas,” Melanie explained. “From what the authorities were able to gather, she got a bit…intoxicated and fell out of a fifteenth-story window---right into a swimming pool. Got a nasty scrape on the left side of her face, too…she’ll probably be out of action for the rest of the month.”

Something about the “explanation” didn’t sit right with Björn. “Where was she when this…accident occurred?”

“The LadyKiller Casino, if I remember correctly. The manager will be paying for her medical bills…in any case, Mr. Stahl sent me to handle the transaction Miss Campbell was going to oversee…with your approval, of course.”

After a few seconds of hesitation, Björn nodded. Campbell had always been somewhat of a pain---she rarely, if ever, spoke when she was with Stahl, and she always had that calm/bored look, like she either didn’t want to be there or just didn’t care for whatever was going on. “Very well, then. I was told that Mister Stahl had an interest in certain…information, that I have acquired, regarding matters that have long since passed from the public’s attention.”

“He was,” Melanie admitted, “and he still is.”

“Excellent,” Bjorn beamed. “I believe we can---“

His words were cut off by an annoyed hrumph. “Aren’t you, ah, forgetting something?” Richard muttered.

“Hmm? Ah, yes, of course! Where are my manners….Miss Rothschilde, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Richard Donnelly, one of the premiere power brokers of the Midwestern United States, and a man whose word is worth more than its weight in gold.” Melanie and Richard shook hands; “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Donnelly,” Melanie informed him.

“Likewise.”

Björn nodded. “Now that we’ve settled that matter, let’s get down to business, shall we?” His fingers steepled as he regarded Melanie from beneath furrowed brows; “Before we begin, I would like to make it clear that this information has been acquired through perfectly legal means,” he intoned. “None of it was ‘stolen’ or ‘taken’ from anyone, and could easily have been acquired by Mister Stahl himself, had he been given the time and resources necessary to search for it.” He gave a thin smile; “I hear he is still having financial troubles related to his…sizeable gambling debts,” he added. “Perhaps he intends to sell what I am offering him in order to pay off these debts…”

“I’m afraid I can’t disclose Mr. Stahl’s current financial situation,” Melanie apologized. “I was only authorized to proceed over the sale.”

Her words were met with another nod from Björn. “Perfectly understandable…now, as for the sale itself, I am afraid that such a sensitive transaction coud potentially be interrupted and/or taken advantage of in such an open environment as this.” He handed Melanie a piece of paper; “My room number,” he explained. “We will meet tomorrow night to negotiate the terms of sale---“

“Mr. Stahl requested that the sale take place tonight,” Melanie murmured. “I sincerely hope this won’t cause any problems…a pressing engagement came up last night, and Mr. Stahl has requested that the sale of the information take place as soon as possible.” Her expression was somewhat downcast, as if the idea of moving the sale to that night was presentign a major inconvenience for herself and Björn. “Again, I’m sorry if this whole thing will cause any problems with your own itenerary, Mr. Aaberg, but the sale must take place tonight, as per Mr. Stahl’s request.”

For a full three minutes, no-one at the table spoke.

Finally, Björn blew out a long, half-annoyed sigh. “As…sudden as this decision is,” he declared, “I will be more than happy to accommodate Mr. Stahl by rescheduling the sale of the information. I assume the time itself has been changed?”

“Yes, Mr. Aaberg---from the original 9:30 PM time to 10:42 PM.”

“Why’s he want the sale to be done so late at night?” Richard asked, confused. “I mean, I get why he didn’t want Björn to just go peddlin’ off whatever he’s sellin’ in broad daylight, but 10:42---“

“Mr. Stahl also requested that the sale take place in the hotel bar,” Melanie added. “He sent along a request to the hotel staff that the bar be closed early tonight, to allow the transaction to take place without any outside interference.”

Another drawn-out sigh from Björn hung in the air. “Does he wish that I attend the sale alone,” he asked quietly, “or am I allowed to bring security?”

“…I was told you were allowed to have three guards,” Melanie informed him. “All unarmed.”

“And you?”

“I’ll be unarmed as well, with two private security officers.”

“Fair enough.” Björn rose from his seat. “I take it our discussion is finished now---“

“Actually, sir,” Melanie added, “there is…one other thing.” She handed over a manilla envelope. “I was told to give this to you after the arrangements for the sale had been finalized,” she explained, “and to tell you to open it in the privacy of your hotel room.”

Richard arched an eyebrow. “And why should he wait until then?” he drawled.

“Security reasons,” Melanie politely explained. “Also, the papers inside contain substances that…have a rather negative reaction to excessive sunlight, such as the kind one might find in a Miami hotel courtyard.” She gave an apologetic smile; “I assure you that Mr. Stahl has a perfectly normal reason for all of these precautions, Mr. Aaberg, and that these measures are in no way a sign of distrust or---“

Her sentence was cut off by a laugh from Björn. “My dear Miss Rothschilde,” he chided, “I would never accuse Anders Stahl of not trusting me…he knows better than to even think such things. I respect and accept his stipulations, and look forward to our meeting tonight.” He shook Melanie’s hand; “I must commend Mister Stahl on his taste in business partners the next time we meet,” he noted. “You are, quite honestly, the least obnoxious of the couriers he has employed to convey messages thus far in our acquaintance…and might I add, you are also of a far more…pleasing variety than his past employees have been.”

Melanie smiled. “Well, I appreciate the comments, Mr. Aaberg,” she admitted, “but I must be going…I have another appointment to attend to, and I wouldn’t want to be late.”

Björn kissed her hand. “I would never dream of standing between you and your work.” He turned his attention to Richard; “Mister Donnelly, we will have to reschedule our rematch for your winnings. I will be spending the rest of the day categorizing what is to be sold to the beautiful Miss Rothschilde tonight, and there will be no time for us to have another game.”

“Fine by me,” Richard replied with a grin. “Gives me more time to practice.”

“Practice,” Björn admonished, “is only an empty gesture without discipline.”

Richard rolled his eyes. “That a Zen thing?”

“Something along those lines,” Björn replied. “Now, if you excuse me, I really must be going…”

Melanie cleared her throat. “You, ah, seem to have forgotten something, Mr. Aaberg…” She gestured to the table, where Björn’s car keys still lay next to his last winning hand before her arrival. “I wouldn’t leave those just lying around where anyone could get to them, sir,” she advised.

“Indeed…” Seeing as how his car was a state-of-the-art Koenigsegg, Björn couldn’t have afforded to leave the keys laying around for anyone to grab. “You have my thanks, Miss Rothschilde…as well as my gratitude, for sparing me the indignity of losing my automobile due to something so trivial as a careless mistake.” He nodded in her general direction, twirling the keys on his finger before pocketing them and giving a cheerful wave.

Richard shook his head. “That guy is just something else,” he muttered. “Fleeces you out of a thousand bucks one minutes, nearly forgets his car keys the next…and this was him on a good day.” He scoffed; “I’d hate to see what he’s like on a bad day,” he mused. “What do you think---“

He turned to ask Melanie the question directly, only to find that she wasn’t there.

“This day just gets weirder and weirder,” he muttered, blowing out an exasperated sigh. He glanced at the cards that were still on the coffee table, scowling; “This is the last time I let anyone talk me into playing gin rummy,” he grunted, setting off for the lobby with a frown.

A few seconds after he left, the cards effectively vanished into a greyish blur….


….which composed itself into the grey-clad shape of Melanie Rothschilde within a corridor somwhere inside the Fontainebleau. After checking over both shoulders to make sure she hadn’t been followed, Melanie ducked into the ladies room and secured the door.

There was no way she was going to let anyone walk in on her now….

After smoothing out her clothes, Melanie undid the scrunchie that bound her hair into a ponytail, shaking every strand loose with a quick nod of her head. Once her vibrant red locks were freed, she held up her right hand, flexing the fingers and focusing….then, with a slow, deliberate pace, she ran her hand through her hair, staring at her reflection in the mirror as the copper color slowly faded to a darker brown----aka the “natural” color of her hair.

And here, I thought it wouldn’t work…guess Anton really did know what he was talking about after all.

Once her proper hair color had been restored, “Melanie” quickly changed out of the business suit she’d bought as part of her cover---as Anton had told her on the ride to the airport, Stahl’s banking guild had a full suite of papers for a Melanie Rothschilde floating around in their servers already, so the ALPA’s best and brightest had no trouble securing them and giving one of their best Field Agents that identity for the jaunt to Miami. The fact that Björn Aaberg had effectively accepted a tracking beacon (the “sensitive chemicals” on the papers in the envelope were really picoscopic tracking strips) only aided their good fortune---if the deal could be made and then interrupted, they’d have him dead to rights.

Before that could happen, though, “Melanie Rothschilde” had to disappear for a few hours…and within the confines of the Fontainebleau’s ladies room, that’s exactly what happened. Melanie faded back into the ether from whence she’d been summoned…

…leaving Field Agent Vicki Lawson to pick up where she’d left off.

The thermally-activated hair dye was a nice touch, she mused, grinning at Anton’s latest “treat”---a dye that, when applied to hair (natural or synthetic), changed color according to the prominent temperature in whatever area it was used in. The copper tone “Melanie”’s flowing locks bore was triggered by the near-constant sun in Miami’s skies…and was deactivated just as quickly by Vicki’s near-frozen hand running through her hair and reversing the reaction. Still, she admitted, it’s nice to get back to being me for this part.

After stowing her business attire in a suitcase (and stowing said suitcase in the ceiling, by way of a loose panel she’d been notified about during her 395-minute flight from Las Vegas to Miami), Vicki felt around under the sink and removed yet another of Anton’s “toys”---an iPod-like tablet that was as thin as three SD cards stacked on top of each other. Richard Donnelly had instructed one of his people to leave the thing there, and it had gone unnoticed by the hotel’s usual clientelle for the majority of the day…not that any of them could’ve used it if they had found it. Donnelly had given Vicki the “key” that would allow her to activate the tablet---a dermal patch, applied to the palm of her hand, that held a barcode written in infrared ink.

Chalk another cool point up for Anton Malvineous…

Vicki touched her palm to the surface of the tablet, removing her hand after three seconds. When a prompt box appeared on the screen, she spoke her full name and title: “Field Agent Victoria Anne-Smith Lawson.” The tablet hummed quietly for a moment or two…

…then the screen lit up, prompting a grin from the brunette gynoid. “Let’s see what ‘Mr. Aaberg’ is up to…”

Predictably, Björn had casually laid the manilla envelope on a bedside table---allowing the micro-thin strip on one of the pages inside to function as a rather effective microphone (given the acoustics of the room) and pick up on even the slightest of sounds.

Time for a little eavesdropping…

“…and this Miss Rothschilde claimed that you sent her,” Björn was declaring---he’s already on the phone with Stahl? Looks like someone’s been reading up on their spy fiction---“and she claims that you are interested in the information I contacted you about last month.”

A long, drawn-out sigh from the phone Björn was holding sounded in Vicki’s ears; “I do not recall sending Miss Rothschilde to Florida,” the voice of Anders Stahl intoned, “but it is…quite possible that I deployed her after the unfortunate incident with Miss Campbell. I have not had the most agreeable time in Las Vegas, Mr. Aaberg; you picked a very inopportune moment to call me." Another sigh, this one sounding as if Stahl was on the verge of a migraine, entered Vicki’s range of hearing. “Conduct the sale as agreed, but…have your people follow Miss Rothschilde after she leaves. If someone else has contacted her, they will be eliminated…and the information shall be delivered to me by alternate means.”

“You mean, the information will be sold to you by other means,” Björn corrected. “As much as I have come to value the friendship between us, I will not stoop so low as to simply give information away---“

“I have neither the time nor the patience to debate this issue with you, Björn,” Stahl snapped. “You will give Miss Rothschilde the information, whether not she pays for it. If she does, it shall be from her own pocket. If not…then you will simply have to make up the cost of it on your own time.”

Björn, to his credit, managed to not sound completely and utterly pissed off. “I will consider it.”

“Consideration is for those who can fall back on other options,” Stahl coldly replied. “Despite the fact that I, too, value our friendship, I cannot---and will not---allow sentiment to take precedence over logic. Either the data reaches my office by tomorrow evening, or your employment will be ended…permanently.”

Vicki terminated the connection to Björn’s room, knowing that the only things she’d be hearing for the next few minutes would be swearing, the sounds of furniture breaking, and other such things. Had the circumstances been even the slightest bit different, Stahl’s ultimatum---and Björn’s more-than-predictable response---would’ve had the brunette gynoid painted into the proverbial corner. Seeing as how Vicki had acquired the Melanie Rothschilde persona during the flight to Miami, that very easily could’ve been the case…except Björn and Stahl both assumed that “Melanie” might be working for another party interested in the information up for sale.

Neither of them had any suspicion that the ALPA was involved…or that the “information” they were bartering over was worth far more than either of them imagined.

If the ALPA’s intel was correct, Björn Aaberg had managed to get his hands on Matthew Hannsen’s “research” on Project Epsilon, the Stylo virus and a number of other dangerous projects. Any one of them, in the wrong hands (though in Vicki’s line of thinking, few qualified as the “right” hands for this type of stuff) could lead to a massive clusterschmazz between any and all parties involved, potentially even unseating the infamous Bloody Valentine incident for putting the most red in the ALPA’s ledger.

Except I won’t let it get that far.

After checking to make sure that “Melanie’s” clothes were safely stowed away in the ceiling, Vicki smoothed out a few wrinkles in her own outfit and headed out. Her original plans involved getting a room at the Eden Roc hotel, but for purely strategic purposes lodging at the Fontainebleau was, the better choice.

Speaking of her room…

As she exited the ladies restroom, Vicki couldn’t help but notice a janitor leaning against the wall, snoring his head off as he slept on the job. And this is why I’m so glad that my work with the ALPA is never boring, she reminded herself, heading for the elevators. If I ever got caught nodding off like that, I’d head over to Tell’s for a full debug.

All thoughts of sleeping on the job vanished as she reached the elevator. Time to get dangerous…


Within the span of 30 minutes, Vicki had gone over every bit of equipment she’d need for her upcoming jaunt, to make sure that it all worked---and, more importantly, that she’d be able to use everything needed when/if the time came for it.

To her complete lack of surprise, everything was, indeed, in working order.

First and foremost, her own audio/visual sensor suite was still in prime condition; none of the major bits had degraded since her last encounter with Faceless (if anything, they’d improved---thanks in no small part to the decision to upgrade her and remove everything that could potentially be used as a weakness), and the rest of her systems were operating just as smoothly as ever. Physically, she wasn’t suffering from internal fatigue or myogel leakages---in short, V.I.C.I. was ready and waiting to carry out the mission she’d been given.

As for the rest of her gear…

The ES9950s were still loaded (with SCEMP rounds only), and both were still coded to only fire at the touch of Vicki’s own thumbprint on the grip. The listening/recording gear Anton had given her hadn’t even been taken out of the boxes yet; if any of those are broken, Vicki reflected, I may have a problem… She instantly rolled her eyes at the thought---the boxes had been shipped directly from ALPA HQ, so if the gear was broken, then she would have a lot more to worry about than just finishing the mission.

Next up to be inspected was her Field Agent uniform---which, as expected, was still in one piece. The security bag for her day-to-day attire was given a similar examination, with the same results; the brunette gynoid chose to change the combination on the bag’s lock anyways, just to be on the safe side.

Well, that’s the gear check taken care of…time for a room check.

The scan that followed didn’t exactly have much in the way of surprises. The room wasn’t bugged---at least, not anymore; someone had introduced all the usual bugs into the room earlier in the day, but they’d since been neutralized, removed and/or broken by the cleaning lady (a sleeper gynoid who engaged in Perimeter Sweep Pattern Alpha 44129 as soon as she entered Vicki’s room) while Vicki was out doing her Melanie Rothschilde gimmick.

Everything else was….everything else.

In short, the equipment check came up green: everything worked, and everything was ready.

“All I need to do now is figure out how to pass the time until then,” Vicki murmured. “I could go shopping, but that…might not end well…I don’t want to show up too early or too late at Björn’s room, and I definitley don’t want to get stalled on the way back to the hotel…might as well just chill and watch some TV---“

Something just out of the corner of her eye---more accurately, in the uppermost lefthand corner of the new and improved HUD she’d been given---pinged; Björn was apparently calling someone else from inside his hotel room. “Looks like that plain old manilla envelope wasn’t as plain as anyone thought,” she murmured. “Let’s take a listen and see just who it is that Björney the Dinosaur is trying to call up…” After a quick bit of reflection on how lame that pun was, the brunette gynoid listened in…

…and a few short minutes later, decided that chilling and watching TV probably wasn’t a good idea.

With one last examination of her hotel room, to make sure that the window was locked and that nobody could possibly enter through the ventillation grate in the ceiling, Vicki headed out once again---this time, to find a secure phone line that she could use to call ALPA HQ and tell them about what she’d just heard. If she got the news to them in time, and they were thus able to authorize her next move, there might be a chance of keeping Björn from doing something supremely stupid.

Considering the alternative, that was the best possible course of action they could take…

“DragonTown” - Location Classified - August 21, 2011, 11:23 AM

As she pocketed her iPhone and stared through the window looking into the monitoring room, Jen Larssen didn’t exactly feel like telling Reaver the bad news---yes, they’d been partners long enough for this sort of thing to be commonplace now, but it still didn’t make it easier.

There was also the fact that Reaver would probably throw his cellphone. Again.

Something about getting put on “Hannsen duty” was clearly bugging him. This, in and of itself, wasn’t really that big of a surprise---anyone who had to spend more than five minutes watching the man who’d come to be known simply as The Maestro usually ended up wanting to pull his intestines out through his nose…or at least make him beg for such a fate.

…and this is why I wanted to take my vacation earlier this month, Jen mused, already hearing a muffled tirade of profanities from the room on the other side of the security door. He probably got the call right when I did.

Trying---and failing---to keep a sigh from escaping her lips, the gynoid Field Agent entered the monitor room.

“IF YOU EVEN THINK I’M NOT REPORTING YOU FOR THAT REMARK, HANNSEN, YOU’RE JUST AS STUPID AS YOU ARE INSANE!” Eric, to the surprise of absolutely nobody in the faciltiy, had taken offense to just about every single word out of Hannsen’s mouth---which, given the latter’s fondness for dry wit, sarcasm and cutting rejoinders in response to everything, wasn’t exactly news to Jen. “YOU ARE DAMN LUCKY I’M NOT IN THAT ROOM WITH YOU---“

“And what would you do if you were,” the Maestro calmly replied, “spit all over me?”

Whatever Eric shouted next was incomprehensible---a garbled mix of vowels and consonants that may have been something threatening. Whatever it was, Jen was quick to take over on headset duty---she deftly plucked the comm piece from Eric’s head and put it on herself, ignoring her partner’s sudden (and predictable) turn to yell at her. “Hannsen, we’re only trying to keep more people from getting killed,” she assured the Maestro, “so could you please just cooperate---“

“What’s in it for me?”

Jen frowned. “This isn’t ‘Let’s Make a Deal’---“

“Anyone ever tell you that you’d make a terrible mother?” Hannsen taunted. “Honestly…if you want someone to do something, never lead off with ‘this isn’t “Let’s Make a Deal”, sir’---or ‘madame’, if the situation requires that particular pronoun. You’ll have to try a bit harder than that.”

The “you’d make a terrible mother” comment galled Jen deeply---she’d been thinking of “settling down” with Eric and maybe even adopting a few kids, just to give herself something to look forward to (and to give Eric a reason not to stay active past his prime)---but she composed herself before replying. “I’ll be my own judge of character on how up-do-date my maternal instincts are,” she calmly stated. “And this isn’t about me, Hannsen, it’s about---“

“What this is about,” Hannsen cut in, “is something you couldn’t possibly begin to understand…”

That remark prompted a smirk---of all expressions---from the gynoid Field Agent. “Oh, really?”

Hannsen frowned. “Don’t try that ‘Oh, really’ crap with me, sunshine,” he muttered. “You, Yelly McShouty over there and the rest of your little friends have no idea what you’re getting into---when I broke the chain and hid from you bastards, I had plans…I had backup---“

“You also had a rather sizeable debt to Anders Stahl,” Jen casually remarked.

A bored yawn emanated from every speaker in the room. “Not as big as the debt Richard Donnelly owes one Björn Aaberg,” he replied. “Or as important as the small tidbit of information that Mr. Aaberg has just been told via cellphone call…”

The yawn transitioned seamlessly to a chuckle. “…something about Epsilon Mk II, I believe?”

“Not even close---“

“Oh, I know that wasn’t it,” Hannsen interjected. “It was in the call, though---just like that even jucier tidbit of gossipy goodness about…what was it? More Stylo cure research being stolen from a server farm in Detroit, owned by someone who just so happens to be on the ALPA’s permanent naughty list?”

Jen’s confident smile faded ever-so-slightly. “That…isn’t even what I was---“

“Then maybe it’s about all those names on that list I wrote two years ago, and how Björn’s been ordered to terminate them.”

The comm set fell to the floor with a clatter as Jen backed away from the monitors, staring in shock. “How…”

“I make it a point to find out when---and if---my requests are being followed,” Hannsen replied. “You seem a bit surprised, in my honest opinion; I thought you’d have figured that out by now…” Again, the chuckle---this time, with a much more sinister undertone to it---filled the room. “I have a certain knack for getting exactly what I want, when I want it…despite the best efforts of any group of over-paid, talentless hacks who might be trying their damndest to see me hang. How does that song lyric go, again? ‘I stand accused before you, I have no tears to cry….and you will never break me, until the day I die’---“

“THAT DAY’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK!” Reaver bellowed. “YOU SON OF A---“

“Better put a leash on your boyfriend there,” Hannsen cautioned Jen. “Wouldn’t want him to forget the kind of person he’s addressing, would we?” Every monitor in the room depicted him shaking his head derisively; “To be honest,” he mused, “I don’t know if putting a leash on him is a good thing, really…”

His voice turned to a sneer. “…after all, knowing him….he might like it---“

Whatever Jen tried to say to calm Eric down was drowned out by a chair being kicked over, followed soon after by Eric punching the edge of the setup that housed the montior bank. “YOU BASTARD! YOU SPINELESS, GUTLESS, WHORE-FACED SCUM-SUCKING BASTARD!” The entrance of five DragonTown security officers into the montior room was almost impossible to hear---even as one of them went for the syringe full of tranquilizer to get Eric out of the room, the Field Agent’s fist smashed into the officer’s face and sent him to the floor in a heap. Jen ran to help the man up as two other officers tried to sedate the enraged Field Agent. “I can explain,” the gynoid told the downed officer. “It was Hannsen, he was provoking him---“

“We know,” the officer replied, sounding as tired as he looked. “We heard the whole thing.”

“Then cut off the commlinks to his room, or something!” Jen pleaded. “Get him to shut up---“

“---RIP YOUR THROAT OUT!” Eric shouted, grabbing at the table as if he intended to tear each and every one of the monitors out of the wall and break them with his bare hands. “I WILL END YOU, HANNSEN, DO YOU HEAR ME?! I WILL FUCKING END YOU!”

After a few more minutes of commotion (with Hannsen’s laugh as the soundtrack), the guards finally managed to get Eric out of the room. “We’ll set up an appointment with an anger-management specialist,” the lead officer told Jen. “Hopefully, it’ll help him get over whatever Hannsen did to set him off.”

“I sincerely hope it does, sir,” Jen replied, thanking the officer.

Seconds later, the security door closed again, and the room was silent….for two whole minutes.

“That man,” Hannsen observed, “has some deep-seated aggression issues…”

Jen ignored the remark, and set about returning the chairs to their proper places. Unless the situation just so happened to be a crime scene, the gynoid could never stand to see furniture out of place; for years, she told herself that it was just her domestic programming kicking in, reminding her to keep things neat.

Except my own apartment looks the same today as it did seven years ago…misplaced chairs and all---

A loud throat-clearing noise cut off her revere. “Am I too boring for you?” Hannsen jeered.

“I was just putting the chairs back where they belong,” Jen replied. “You shouldn’t have set Eric off like that---if he’d been anywhere near your cell---“

“If he’d have been anywhere near my cell,” Hannsen shot back, no trace of humor in his voice, “at least fifteen or more people would’ve jumped him before he reached the door to it, and every single one of them would’ve had enough time to shank the bastard long before he got close enough to ‘rip my throat out’, or act on any of those stupid threats he made.” A note of smugness punctuated his next few words: “Of course, he probably would’ve broken into the wrong cell and beaten up the wrong guy…or am I thinking of the wrong case here---“

The solid, hollow clang that followed that sentence was enough to get the Maestro to shut up…though anyone with an actual sense of empathy would’ve been shocked to see a lone tear rolling down Jen’s cheek. “It was a simple mistake,” she whispered, ignoring the dent in the table as she raised her hand. “HQ got one digit wrong in the address…the house was usually empty that time of day, he didn’t know there was a birthday party…”

“And yet he chose to bust in without yelling ‘surprise’,” Hannsen chuckled, “and fire off a few tear gas rounds.”

Jen turned away from the montior. Very few people knew about the sole black mark on Eric’s record, or that the tear gas rounds he’d fired off had been recalled the previous day, due to containing a component that could lead to a rare---yet fatal---allergic reaction in certain people…which, as fate would have it, included three of the guests at the party Eric had mistakenly crashed (five, if one counted the grandparents---both of whom were using oxygen tanks). Two of those who’d had the reaction were taken to the hospital in time for the necessary treatment that kept them from succumbing to shock. As for the third… “He was about to blow out the candles,” Jen sobbed. “They were just finishing the song, and he was about to blow out the candles…” She remembered staring, horrified, as four of the guests were stretchered out…followed by the fifth being carted out in a body bag.

“Looks like ‘Reaver’ could’ve changed his name to ‘Reaper’, if you ask me,” Hannsen chuckled. “Or maybe---“

One of the monitors erupted in a shower of sparks and broken glass. “One more word,” Jen droned. “Say one more word, and I will find your cell, take this weapon---“ She raised the RF7590 (a slightly older gun than the ES9950) in her right hand. “---and give you as many compound cranial fractures as I can.”

“More like you’ll try,” Hannsen hissed. “Nobody in this hellhole can touch me…especially you.”

The gun fell from Jen’s limp hand. He was right, of course…it wasn’t even remotely fair, but he was right.

“And there it is,” Hannsen beamed. “This is what I love about this place….sooner or later, no matter how long it takes….everyone loses it eventually.” His voice took on an ugly edge: “…and sooner or later, everyone here learns their place on the food chain…which, inevitably, is several billion miles below me.”

At that moment, Jen wanted---more than anything---to wake up and find that this was all just a bad dream…

…except even her worst dreams were nowhere near as bad as her waking life tended to be.

Fontainebleau Hotel – Miami, Florida – August 21, 2011, 09:10 PM

The hallway leading to Björn Aaberg’s hotel room was, like most of the other hallways in the Fontainebleau on this particular night, quiet. Under the circumstances that most people would refer to as “normal”, this wouldn’t mean anything particularly interesting---hallways were, after all, usually empty at this time of night, and anyone who was still lurking around, for whatever reason, probably had no logical (or legal) excuse to be there.

Of course, for Vicki Lawson, circumstances could rarely---if ever---be classified as anything that even remotely resembled “normal”.

For one, there was the matter of the maid…and the fact that her head was detatched from her body.

Again, under a different set of circumstances, Vicki having removed a maid’s head would instantly qualify as the farthest thing from “normal”---but, in a sort of twisted ironic way, this was normal for her. Her own head had been removed and reattached more than a few times, and she’d never been the worse for wear…

…though that probably had something to do with the fact that she---like the maid---was a gynoid.

“If you can hear me,” Vicki murmured to the disembodied maid’s head, “I am so sorry that I had to do this…it’s just a security precaution to make sure that you don’t got blabbing on me to Björn or anyone else.” Even as she said this, the power screwdriver in her hand threw off a spark as it hit something within the neck stump of the gynoid maid’s head. “My bad…that was completely by accident.”

As soon as she was sure that the maid wouldn’t be raising any alarms any time soon, Vicki edged her way out of the storage closet from the corridor (she wasn’t about to dismantle a maid gynoid in plain view of any paying customers) and headed for Björn’s hotel room. The meeting with “Melanie Rothschilde” was set to take place just under an hour from then, but Vicki didn’t care---she had no intention of arriving on time (or at all, for that matter), and would in fact be leaving Miami before Björn even knew what the hell was going on. Anyone else would’ve chalked it up to her feeling a shred of remorse for deactivating a feellow gynoid without her consent…

…but to be honest, it was more about her wanting (and needing) to deactivate the other security systems that were put in place to keep the lowly commoners from getting into Aaberg’s room and accessing the oh-so-vital information on his PC.

Easier than acing a physics test.

The numerical keypad/private keycard lock combo---specially installed at Björn’s request, and at considerable expense to the Fontainebleau---had been meant to stifle any attempts at breaking into the room..and, had anyone other than Vicki tried to crack the keypad, it might’ve worked. Of course, a little Detaining Grip applied into the rather sensitive keycard reader threw the built-in magnets completely out of whack, thus overriding the lock and allowing the brunette gynoid to slip into the room like a professional cat burglar (though she made a mental note to look up the origin of the term “cat burglar” after the whole thing was over with). The pressure sensors that should’ve kicked as soon as she set foot in the room were placed too far away from the door (and too far apart from each other) to make any major difference; thus, she literally tiptoed over/between them to reach the room proper…after closing and locking the door (the inside lock hadn’t been given a keypad).

So far, so good.

Nearly everything in the room that could be fitted with a lock had been---apparently, Aaberg had a lot of friends in the hotel business, and as such had been able to arrange for these “high security” locks to be installed in his room. Of course, such locks were only designed with the intention of keeping things out of reach from human thieves and intruders; in Vicki’s hands, the so-called “unbreakable” locks were safely (and quietly) clicked open thanks to the precise manipulation of their tumblers by a nifty little ALPA tool known simply as the MasterKey.

Once they were defeated, the real challenge began.

The passwords on Björn’s five laptops (two MacBooks, a Dell, an HP and one generic laptop with no badge) and the lone desktop computer (another Dell---an Inspiron that was running the already-outdated Windows Vista, at that) were almost too easy to crack, even though Björn had gone for a password far more complex than “God”, “sex” or any number of vulgar terms most in-name-only “computer savvy” types tended to fall back on. Vicki simply used a program to search out repeated phrases typed into the computer, and used the one that had been typed the most often over the past few days---“kernargfagel9962XYJ”.

I’ll admit, he’s got a pretty good password…I have a hard time picturing “kernargfagel9962XYJ” ever being used in conversation.

After the login screens faded out (big mistake, Björney---different computers should ALWAYS have different passwords), Vicki found herself confronted with a security measure that, by her standards, was actually pretty damn clever: every single file on every laptop was encrypted. The measure was intended to keep a would-be hacker busy trying to sort everything out---separating the wheat from the chaff, to use the biblical term---until the owner of the computer returned to kick the crap out of them and have hotel security haul them off…unless, of course, the aforementioned would-be hacker had the resources (and allies) available to Vicki Lawson.

Case in point: the thin tablet left for her by Richard Donnelly’s crew.

Specialized cords ran from five ports on the tablet and hooked up to each laptop in turn, running the built-in decryption programs as soon as they were connected. With the tablet doing most of the work for her as far as the laptops were concerned, Vicki turned her attention to the Inspiron…and shook her head disdainfully. She’d never really been all that fond of Dell computers, ever since that brief period of time in 2006 where her only PC had been an already-craptacular Dell Dimension L933r with an 18 gigabyte hard drive…primitive even for its day. The memory of begging Ted for a better computer---and subsequentally getting an HP desktop with hard drive space in the triple-digit gigabyte range---briefly rose to the forefront of her thoughts before she forced it aside…though not before smirking at the memory of Jamie “accidentally” dropping the L933r down a flight of stairs after it had been replaced. The only ones who’d yelled then had been the Bloombergs---aka the family that made the Brindles look like saints.

Now, on the other hand….

Vicki shook herself out of the revere and returned her attention to the Inspiron---which, to her annoyance, was already beginning to show signs of slowdown. Just like the Dimension, she grimaced, blowing out an agitated breath from between her teeth. It took a full fifteen seconds (as opposed to five) for the C Drive icon to register that it had, in fact, been clicked---I guess even Björn didn’t feel like trying to install security software on this brick---and only a bit less time for the screen to scroll down with the mouse wheel.

The annoyance that Vicki had already felt at the Inspiron only intensified when she got to the folder that (more than likely in bad humor) had been labeled “TOP SECRET”---and found that it contained nothing but the ISO files for a pirated copy of the latest Call of Duty game. Three other folders, each with imposing names, all held similarly worthless items; apparently, Björn (or one of his friends) had been having quite a bit of fun pulling an all-nighter or two on Megaupload and downloading whatever the hell they felt like getting. Over half the hard drive had already been filled with useless ISO files and bloated RAR and ZIP archives, with the rest containing pictures of Björn and various women that looked like parodies of vacation photos.

Despite her urge to smash the Inspiron to bits with her bare hands, Vicki decided against it in the end. Björn had probably let one of his suboordinates go crazy on Megaupload just to fill the hard drive…and to attract anyone who might want to get the information he felt like selling.

That, or he was planning to “give” the Inspiron to the buyer, and leave them with the proverbial empty bag.

Not exactly a great way to bolster client relations there, Björney…

With a sigh, the brunette gynoid returned her attention to the laptops and the decryption tablet.

The little gadget was doing a pretty damn good job of sorting through the files; it had already flagged the vast majority of encrypted data as old e-mails, Solitaire games and other such useless junk. In what could only be considered one hell of a backup plan, however, a select few encrypted files on each laptop were actually pieces of larger files---specifically, they were parts of a RAR archive. Vicki considered copying the files to the tablet (it had a surprisingly high storage capacity---32 gigs, to be precise), but when she noticed a display on it showing “file copy progress”, she realized the thing was already doing that task itself. Good thing Donnelly’s on my side, she mused, nodding her approval. Now, then, let’s see---

Something inside the unlocked closet moved.

Only her split-second thinking kept Vicki from blasting the living hell out of the door; she hadn’t actually opened the closet after unlocking it, mainly because she didn’t want a cavalcade of luggage falling down on her. In what could only be considered a vast stroke of luck, the laptops and tablet were all on the farthest side of the room from the closet---and close to the bed, which had just enough space underneath for Vicki to store the laptops by closing them halfway and shoving all five (with the tablet still connected) beneath the bed.

Just a few all-too-short seconds later, the closet door opened.

In a few short seconds, Vicki---who’d been mentally kicking herself as soon as she heard something moving inside the closet---realized that Björn had not, in fact, left a security drone in the closet…at least, not one that he legally owned.

Even more shocking was the fact that the figure that fell out of the closet happened to be Jake Brightstar.

“What the hell?!” The brunette gynoid managed to catch Jake just before he hit the floor; from the looks of it, he’d been shackled and left for dead by Aaberg’s cronies earlier in the day---or possibly in the week. “Jake, are you okay? Talk to me! JAKE!” Vicki lightly slapped Jake’s face, hoping to rouse him out of whatever state of unconsciousness he’d been in (be it blunt-force trauma or a drug-induced stupor). “C’mon, Jake, you’ve survived worse than this…”

After a few seconds, Jake groaned. “Steak Sauce?”

“Not even close,” Vicki teased, smiling briefly. “What the hell were you doing in Björn Aaberg’s closet?”

Jake groaned again. “Somehow, I thought I was headed for a car crusher,” he muttered. “Guess that’s what I get for trying to spy on Aaberg without checking the entire layout of the building…two of his idiots jumped me and I wasn’t able to call on any of my support crew for backup---“

“Your support crew?” Vicki echoed, arching an eyebrow.

“I’ve always sucked at doing solo work,” Jake admitted, “and Celeste agreed to lend me one or two of her more promising new recruits while the others stick to helping rebuild the House…but Aaberg’s goon squad busted up my phone before I could even think of calling them. Björn himself said he was going to drag me out to Miami Beach, stick me on a boat, fit me with a pair of cement shoes and let me sink…” He shook his head. “I don’t even know why the hell I got involved in this, Vicki.”

The brunette gynoid sighed. “At least you’re still alive,” she offered. “You’re just lucky it was me who stopped in here and unlocked the closet---Aaberg probably would’ve forgotten about you after he met with me later on tonight---“

“Met with you?!”

“Me in disguise,” Vicki clarified. “I’m posing as a representative of Anders Stahl, with a generous offer to buy information that Björn has up for sale.” She grinned again; “Seeing as how I’m copying the files to a secure storage medium right now, though,” she added, “I think that appointment has officially been cancelled---“

Jake gripped her shoulders. “No. Come back for the scheduled appointment, and let me handle Björn---“

“Jake,” Vicki breathed, “You’re a good person, and I’d be honored if you volunteered to have my back in any other situation, but PLEASE don’t try to play Lancelot here. I’m not a damsel, and I sure as hell don’t feel like I’m in any particular distress---and this is my mission, as well---so let’s just forget about who handles what, get what I came for and get the hell out of here before Aaberg comes back. I already had to dismantle a maid to keep her from alerting Aaberg---and if you say anything about recruiting her…”

“Depends on which maid you dismantled,” Jake replied, his smirk showing a glimmer of his usual bravado.

Not surprisingly, Vicki didn’t think it was all that amusing. “This isn’t the time for you to be recruiting new members to your ‘crew’, Jake,” she admonished, “and the Fontainebleau won’t take too kindly to you running off with one of their brand-new maid units. I’ll reattach her head before we leave, and erase the memory of her ‘down time’---you, meanwhile, will be on your way to the ground floor via the elevator, and take the cab that’ll be waiting out front to---JAKE, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!”

Even as she’d been talking to him, Jake---now wearing a weird sort of backpack---was making his way towards the window. “Sorry, Vicki,” he called out, “but I’ve got plans of my own.” He grinned as he opened the window and stood on the ledge; “BE SEEING YOU!”

“Jake, don’t---“ Vicki’s protest came too late, as Jake jumped out the window; the gynoid ran over, dreading what she was about to see---

---and, upon seeing what had happened to Jake, instantly wanted to punch him in the middle of his face.

The backpack had dissolved (for lack of a better term) to reveal a complex mechancial setup that, upon first glance, looked completely useless…until the two “arms” resting at its side folded up and out, the nozzles at the end spurting to life like miniature jet engines. Even as he soared unsteadily towards another building, Jake was whooping it up the whole time, laughing as the crude-but-effective jetpack carried him off.

“That clever little prick,” Vicki muttered, her pissed-off mood giving way to an impressed smile.

A few minutes later, with the laptops back out from under the bed, the gynoid Field Agent was piecing together the RAR archive from the bits saved to the tablet---and instantly found herself hating Björn Aaberg even more than she already did. The hit list she’d called the ALPA about earlier was there, along with vague mockups for an Epsilon Mk II…but what truly stirred the gynoid’s ire was a list of “clients”, followed by an identical list of “targets”---both of which included names of prominent ALPA and Coalition company heads and researchers, as well as unaffiliated benefactors for organizations on both sides of the coin. Stahl’s name was on both lists in the “maybe” column, meaning that Aaberg was either going to take him on as a permanent client…

…or terminate their working relationship in a far-too permanent manner.

Apart from the “target/client” lists, Aaberg had been keeping a running tab on various factors whereever he stayed, with the most noticeable being a list of potential “new girls” for his ever-growing entourage. Many of the names listed for Miami were gynoids working at the Fontainebleau---including the maid who’d been taken down by Vicki a little under an hour ago---and several others had ALPA database numbers…including at least five sleepers in close proximity to the Fontainebleau.

The fact that “Melanie Rothschilde” was the newest entry on the Miami list really didn’t help.

I am so going to enjoy watching Aaberg get hauled off for this, Vicki mused, shutting off all five laptops and disconnecting them from the tablet. If the ALPA could use the info she’d gathered to build a case against Björn and connect him to whatever the hell the Maestro had been doing---

Oh, SCRAP!

All feelings of triumph faded instantly as soon as Vicki realized her colossal error---she’d completely forgotten to follow up any leads on why Matthew Hannsen had come to Miami. Nearly everything she’d just done had been for nothing---

Wait a minute.

Her attention turned, once again, to the Inspiron (which she hadn’t bothered to shut down), and the hard drive loaded with useless crap…except it might not be useless crap, she realized. Aaberg’s encryption trick had already been used on the laptops, to great effect; what if each and every bit of “bloatware” on the Inspiron was hiding other files as well?

Might as well give it a shot…

Vicki checked every archive file, regardless of format, size or seeming insignificance---and, just a few minutes later, shook her head in disbelief. Once again, Björn had gone for the strategy of hiding stuff in plain sight by putting vital information and files inside otherwise worthless archives, most of which had been obtained using methods of dubious legality. Had the police or any other authority found the tons of junk he’d downloaded, the files would’ve simply been deleted---and the important data would’ve been erased with them…or worse, those same files would’ve been noticed by a curious computer repair shop employee (or any number of other people tasked with cleaning up the PC) and mentioned to said employee’s superiors…

…and I don’t even want to think of how bad things could get from there.

Despite all prior training and being told never to even think of removing a critical piece of evidence from what was obviously a crime scene (last time I checked, locking an unconcsious person in a closet did, in fact, count as kidnapping them), Vicki realized that she just didn’t have enough time to go through the files stored on the Inspiron’s hard drive and put the pieces together one by one.

She’d have to take the damn thing with her.

A quick check of her internal chronometer revealed that it was just hitting 9:30 at that moment; if the computer in question was anything other than a Dell Inspiron with a half-filled hard drive, she would’ve been more than happy to sit there and zip through its contents without a care in the world…but the recalcitrant Inspiron was already demonstrating why that idea would’ve been tantamount to suicide. Even with just seven windows open (I’d blame it on Psycho McCrazyMask if he wasn’t still chained to a hospital bed), the stupid thing was taking its sweet time to load---and thanks to the delay between her clicking on things and them actually reacting, windows were being minimized and maximized at a semi-random pace, which did absolutely nothing to improve Vicki’s mood. She almost yelled “WORK, YOU STUPID PIECE OF CRAP!”, before remembering that more than a few of the Fontainebleau’s guests were probably asleep by now.

The Hell with this…

With all the grace of a predatory jungle cat, Vicki ripped one side panel off of the Inspiron and grabbed the hard drive, plucking it free from its moorings. The monitor connected to the Inspiron blanked out, while the cooling fan chose that moment to sputter and die. Not my problem, the brunette gynoid reminded herself. I just need to get out of here with the hard drive before anyone else shows up…and this is usually the part where the door opens right after I say “before anyone else shows up”, so I need to leave now!

After re-locking everything (including the closet), returning the laptops to where she’d found them, and turning the Inspiron to face away from the door (not that it mattered---Björn would see how damaged it was soon enough), Vicki headed for the window---and, just like at the LadyKiller, spotted a bus parked outside.

Here goes nothing…

With one final look back at Björn’s hotel room, she leapt from the window.

The impact with the roof of the bus didn’t exactly hurt---Vicki’s upgrades effectively nullified the shock and left her physically undamaged---but only her quick thinking allowed her to land on her feet---if she’d gone for the “cannonball” approach, the hard drive and tablet would’ve shattered in her grasp.

At least I got back before Björn got back to the hotel room…

Twenty minutes later, in a room at the Eden Roc reserved for Melanie Rothschilde (Vicki had paid for the room to keep Aaberg or anyone else who might be tailing her from figuring out “Melanie’s” true intentions), Vicki stared at the computer screen that the Inspiron’s hard drive had been hooked up to. She’d expected to find a second set of lists hidden away within the pirated games and bootlegged movies, or some new version of the Stylo virus; part of her even expected to find A.I.s from ALPA or Coalition companies.

What she found instead…was horrifying beyond words.

Every single file she’d found hidden in the RAR, ZIP and BIN archives had the security stamp carried by all data from Project Apollo---the same carte blanche program that, back in the dark ages of the 1980s, had given Ted Lawson the resources necessary to create the Variable Industrial Cybernetic Implement, later changed to the Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant….aka V.I.C.I….aka Vicki herself. That, however, wasn’t what sent the chill down her titanium-carbon spine, or what gave her that all-too-familiar sinking feeling somewhere in the pit of the chemically-treated sac within her abdomen that served as her stomach.

That honor went to the timestamp on each file….a timestamp dated July 30, 2011.

Project Apollo…is still active?!

Ted had told her that the project was shut down, that it had been written off in 1990 due to budget problems and “other stuff”….so why in the hell was the Maestro stealing data for it?!

“Chills the blood, doesn’t it?”

Vicki almost flinched at the sound of Hannsen’s voice coming from the computer she’d hooked the Inspiron’s hard drive up to. “Where did you get all this data?” she droned, her voice sounding toneless even to her own ears. “Project Apollo has been---“

“Carried on in secret, under the watchful eyes of the Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” Hannsen replied, “in every city and every nation from Lake Geneva to---wait, no….that’s ‘West End Girls’, sorry. ANYWAY, as I was saying before my train of thought momentarily derailed, Project Apollo is, in fact, still being worked on to this very day, no matter how many government-sponsored loonies will try to tell you otherwise. More to the point, I’m more than a bit surprised that you didn’t comment on what was in those files….”

The only reason Vicki hadn’t, in fact, commented on what was in the files was the fact that the images she was looking at were either part of someone’s sick joke…or something straight out of any nightmare that didn’t involve Faceless.

“Go ahead,” Hannsen whispered. “Why don’t you start with that rather large PDF file…”

Despite the sting of artificial tears in her eyes, Vicki read the name of the file. “V.I.C.I. Mk III Schematics.”

Hannsen’s chuckle rang in her ears like dice in a cup. “See, I’d really love to tell you that those were from last month---after Little Billy Rengold tried to turn you into robo-kebab, but they’re actually from ’93---seems old Teddy Boy was planning a major retrofit that he never got to work on.” He gave a disappointed sigh; “Oh, I’d love to have seen the look on your face when you read that file name,” he taunted. “Still, the fact remains: if ANY of these files got leaked, a lot of people would be in a LOT of---“

“No.”

“A lot of ‘no’? Sorry, but even by my standards, that doesn’t---“

“You’re not going to leak the files. You’re going to delete them from this hard drive, and then you’re going to---“

“I’M not going to do ANYTHING unless I FEEL LIKE DOING IT!” Hannsen barked. “You don’t seem to get the picture, ‘Agent Lawson’, so allow me to spell it out: YOU HAVE NOTHING TO THREATEN ME WITH! I’m already in prison, and thanks to a few well-planned ‘mishaps’, it’s not like anyone’s just going to burst into my cell and shank me to death in the middle of the night!” His shouting degenerated into a deranged giggle. “This never gets old,” he sighed blissfully. “Watching you so-called professionals just break down…”

V.I.C.I. fought the urge to punch the screen. “What do you want from me, Hannsen?”

“Now that is a good question…and luckily for you, I happen to have quite a good answer. What I want from you is for you to not go to Havana, Cuba, as originally planned---and yes, I happen to know all about your itenerary for the week, so don’t bother trying to puzzle over it---and instead book a flight to Athens, Greece, where you’ll be getting the full scoop on my itenerary. As much as I enjoy watching you fumble about in the dark, trying to figure out why I went where I did when I slipped the leash, seeing you cock about trying to get on Aaberg’s computer just sort of takes all the fun out of it. I want action, and drama…not this boring---“

“I’M NOT DOING ANY OF THIS FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT!” V.I.C.I. snapped.

Her anger only prompted more derisive laughter from the Maestro. “Oh-ho, so the girl finally grows a spine and fights back, does she? Pretty funny stuff, especially considering your track record…I really thought you’d have learned to mind your manners around your betters, Lawson---“

“YOU’RE NOT MY ‘BETTER’, HANNSEN!”

Hannsen’s voice dropped to a positively venomous leer. “Care to bet on that….Vicki?”

Even with her fists clenched and poised to smash the monitor, the brunette gynoid knew that breaking her own PC out of rage would do nothing to help her beat Hannsen. “This isn’t Vegas, Hannsen,” she murmured. “I don’t bet unless---“

“Unless you know you can win? Good call…except this time, you can’t---“

“I don’t bet unless I know everything about who I’m up against…even a common thief like you.”

Hannsen’s laugh faded out. “A common thief?!” On the other end of the line (probably in his prison cell, Vicki reminded herself), the criminal mastermind drew in a quick, annoyed breath; after a few seconds of silence, he exhaled, sounding noticably calmer. “For your information,” he drawled, “there is nothing ‘common’ about what I do. My skills are legendary in certain circles---yours obviously not included---and to be quite honest, I don’t know if you’re even worthy of trying to figure out what it was I did during my all-too-brief freedom---“

“This isn’t about me being worthy,” Vicki shot back, “or any of your other stupid crappy excuses. This is about you being brought to justice---“

“Already been there,” Hannsen drawled. “The only black mark on my otherwise perfect record.”

Somewhere within Vicki’s mind, the smallest sliver of that old, dark desire---wanting to kill someone---began to rise…only to be quickly buried again. “Your record is as far from perfect as humanly possible, Hannsen,” she calmly replied. “You’ve made mistakes before---just like you’re making them now. Letting Aaberg handle your data was the biggest screw-up you’ve made up to now…”

A smirk played at her features. “…and something tells me you’re going to top yourself before the week ends.”

Hannsen’s answering chuckle was dry, humorless and damn near acidic. “If you’re so dead-set on seeing me fail,” he sneered, “then maybe you should call up your friends and tell them to just break down my cell door and put me out of my misery forever…unless you want to keep the chase going.”

“Oh, I really do,” Vicki beamed. “To be honest, Hannsen, this whole thing is actually sort of…dare I say…fun.”

Silence.

With a derisive chuckle, Vicki turned off the computer connected to the Inspiron’s hard drive. Though her face showed calmness that Bhuddist monks would find admirable, her thoughts were a veritable typhoon---rage, guilt, fear and nearly every other emotion that could possibly drag her down coursed through every single circuit within her CPU, all of them nearly deafening in their intensity…

…but not nearly loud enough to drown out the knocking on her door.

“Miss Rothschilde? Miss Rothschilde, are you here?”

A few seconds worth of concentration allowed Vicki to assume the Liverpudlian accent she’d sported earlier in the day. “Yes?”

“This is Björn Aaberg….we met at the Fontainbleau this morning. May I---“

“NO! I….I, ah, I’m not decent…just got out of the bath….” Damn, damn, damn, why is he here, right now….

“….my apologies, Miss Rothschilde. I simply dropped by to tell you that---with great regret on my own part---I must cancel our meeting to discuss the sale of information to Mister Stahl. Someone has broken into my hotel room and seen fit to vandalize my personal property…I believe they may have also stolen something of mine.”

“Stolen what?” Vicki blurted, still using Melanie’s voice.

The drawn-out sigh that answered her question proved her suspicions all too well. “I believe that a young man who was…attempting to obsevre my activities earlier today may have absconded with the hard drive containing data---the same data, in fact, that I was going to sell to Mister Stahl. I’ve heard some rather remarkable stories about someone jumping out of the window of my room with…” Aaberg chuckled. “…a jetpack, if such tales can be believed…but the description of the so-called rocketeer matches that of this would-be spy.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Vicki asked, hoping to give the impression that Melanie Rothschilde would be more than happy to accommodate Aaberg by arranging another sale (or at the very least reimbursing him for the stolen data).

“I’m afraid not…but Mister Stahl has assured me that you will not be reprimanded despite the failure to acquire the data. He was upset at the news of the theft, of course…the police are doing their best to apprehend the fool who broke into my suite, and seeing as how the data is rather…sensitive…I do not wish to involve more people than those who are already investigating this…admittedly heinous affair.” A muttered Norweigian curse word punctuated the sentence…

…followed by what was, unmistakeably, an oath against “Brightstar”.

He thinks Jake did this?! Vicki neary gasped. It wasn’t too farfetched of a plan, to be honest; Aaberg had left Jake chained up in the closet, most likely “sure” that he couldn’t escape…only to return to his room and find the Inspiron missing its hard drive, and the closet locked---but missing its occupant.

“I’m sorry I can’t do more to assist you with this matter,” she told Aaberg. “If there’s anything I can do…”

“I appreciate the offer, Miss Rothschilde,” Aaberg replied wearily, “but I must be going.”

With that, Aaberg (and at least three bodyguards) moved away from the door; Vicki’s enhanced hearing picked up every muttered swearword and oath as they trudged down the hall, promising swift and painful vengeance against “the one called Brightstar”.

All at once, the feelings of self-loathing, fear and rage subsided, but the guilt still remained---stronger than before, this time. “They think Jake did it,” she muttered. “They think Jake broke out of their room with the hard drive…” It wasn’t exactly a stretch of the imagination for her to realize what was going on---Jake, flying away in a jetpack and laughing like a fool, had caught the attention of the crowds below far more than some girl jumping onto a bus---

---except the crowd should’ve noticed that the girl jumping onto a bus didn’t so much jump as she fell….

…and that she’d landed on her feet.

“They were ignoring me,” Vicki realized. “They all heard it, but…they didn’t react at all---“

“Surprised?”

Oberon’s voice in her ear nearly prompted a scream from the brunette gynoid. “What…how did you---“

“You’re not the only one who took a red-eye flight to Miami,” the ALPA Chairman informed her. “That crowd of random people near the bus---the same crowd that saw Jake Brightstar flying off into the night---were all ALPA operatives from the local office. No gynoids or androids---otherwise Björn might’ve suspected something---and all of them told that if two people went flying out of the window, ignore the second one….and for the record, I know that Aaberg is after Jake now---“

“So you’re not going to do anything to help him?!”

“We’ll get him out of the state and as far away from Aaberg’s people as possible. After that, he’s on his own.”

Vicki sighed. “The Maestro contacted me after I hooked the Inspiron’s hard drive up to one of the laptops here; apparently, he wants me to go to Greece---“

“Then we’ll get you on the first flight there tomorrow morning. Havana’s a bit…busy this time of year, and we don’t want to risk bringing you to Singapore quite yet---some SPS-style attacks have put the local ALPA branch on edge, and we’re trying to get that sorted out before we start anything else there….on a completely different note, what exactly was on that Inspiron hard drive---“

“Project Apollo data. Current Project Apollo data.”

A pause… “Vicki, you must understand something---“

“I’ll understand it when I get back from Greece,” the brunette gynoid interjected. “Right now, I want to make damn sure that Matthew Hannsen is punished for every single stupid thing he’s done…the Project Apollo thing can keep until I’m back in San Jose.”

She could sense Oberon’s smile as he replied. “Couldn’t have put it better myself. Oh, and Vicki?”

“Yeah?”

“I think I’d be remiss in my duties if I ended this call without giving you some sound advice for the journey ahead, so even though this goes without saying, I thought I might as well pass along this little kernel of wisdom anyways….keep up the awesomeness.”

Those four words erased any lingering traces of doubt in Vicki’s mind. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem, sir.”

Part 4

ALPA Safehouse Athens, Greece – August 22, 2011, 03:10 PM

“…not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, guys, but this place looks kind of…old.”

Vicki’s assessment of the safehouse on the outskirts of Greece wasn’t exactly out of place---indeed, the facility had once been a factory (of what kind, nobody knew)---but after the most recent development in her mission, she’d been assured that the place was, in fact, secure.

Considering that “recent development” they briefed me on during the flight…

It hadn’t come as a major shock that Jake Brightstar had chosen to reject the offer of aid from the ALPA after escaping Björn Aaberg’s hotel room…and it was even less of a shock that Aaberg’s men had caught up with Jake (who’d apparently raided Aaberg’s room earlier that week and stolen $15,000 in cash) when he tried to leave Miami. What was more than a bit shocking was the fact that Aaberg, instead of simply handing Jake over to the police or giving him to Stahl (which would’ve made a bit more sense, considering Jake’s assumed role in the theft of the precious information), chose instead to---as the Field Agents who’d arrived on the scene put it---“punish” Jake.

And by punishment….

“I find it hard to believe that even someone like Björn Aaberg could try to rip out every single one of Brightstar’s upgrades like that,” one of the Greek Field Agents mused. “Especially with gardening tools…does the man even know how well-integrated those things were with Brightstar?”

“He probably did,” the other Agent replied, “and he didn’t give two shits.”

Vicki said nothing, mainly because she’d seen the photos of Aaberg’s “techniques”---including one that showed Jake with a massive chunk of his back missing, due in no small part to Aaberg trying to get at the implants connected to his spine. I never thought anyone other than Faceless could show that kind of brutality, she mused, but I guess Björn Aaberg isn’t exactly a rational kind of guy…. She dismissed the thoughts and went back to giving the safehouse a once-over.

As it was, the building just so happened to be pretty damned effective as a secure facility for hiding any number of ALPA Field Agents. What looked like crumbling stone on the outside was reinforced with steel on the inside, and held up with titanium support pillars. Wooden doors had been replaced with high-impact plastic and ceramic “Star Trek doors” (the kind that slid into the walls), windows were plexiglass and Perspex, and all flammable surfaces had been treated with chemicals to impede the progress of accelerants by any means. In short, the entire building had been turned from a crumbling symbol of the old Greece into a bastion of strength and security for the ALPA.

It also helped that there was a friendly face there to greet Vicki as soon as she arrived.

“So let me guess,” Alicia 5 teased, “you got bored with Las Vegas, and Miami didn’t give you enough time to work on your tan….or am I completely off base?”

“Nice try, Alicia,” Vicki replied, “but this isn’t a social call. I’m here to find out why Matthew Hannsen came to Greece two years ago, undo any damage he might’ve done, and get back to the States before the end of the month…or something along those lines.” She paused; “I…don’t suppose you’ve heard about what happened to Jake,” she added, “have you?”

Alicia 5 turned away. “I heard all I needed to hear from HQ before you showed up.”

“I just wanted to tell you---‘

“I know it’s not your fault, Vicki,” Alicia muttered. “I just…I should’ve been there. I could’ve stopped him.”

“Stopped Jake?”

Vicki’s question prompted a mirthless grin from Alicia; “He always was the type of guy to charge in headfirst,” she admitted. “Never bothered with the whole “discretion is the better part of valor” thing, really…even when it would’ve saved him from a metric buttload of insanity….anyways, they got him out of Aaberg’s torture chamber in time, and I hear he’s…on the mend.”

That’s one way of putting it, Vicki mentally replied. Jake had been flown to a facility in Delaware after being rescued from Aaberg’s men; the repairs on his cybernetic implants were just starting that day.

“In any case,” Alicia continued, “he’s not the main issue here. The local branch has been doing some digging as to what Hannsen was working on before the ALPA was able to put him back in prison, and it’s…not exactly pretty. I’m not gonna lie to you, Vicki---some of this stuff ranks right up there with the Stylo virus in terms of sheer nightmare fuel potential…” She led Vicki to a table ladden with folders and binders. “This is what we dug up from the hotel where Hannsen stayed the last time he was here,” she explained, “and when I say ‘dug up’, I literally mean ‘dug up’---the crazy SOB took the place out with a bulldozer before he got caught.”

“Why would he level an entire hotel---“

“To protect all this,” Alicia snapped, gesturing at the documents on the table. “I don’t know what’s worse,” she muttered, “the fact that forty-five people got injured in the building collapse…or that fifteen never got out at all.”

“The fact that Hannsen actually knocked over an entire building is probably the worst part,” Vicki stated, her words tinged with sadness. “Y’know the really sucky thing? Humanity keeps worrying about A.I.s turning on them and robots ‘rising up’ to wipe them out…yet they’ve proven time and again that they are, without a doubt, their own worst enemy…” …and I’ve seen some of the worst proof, she mentally added, reflecting on her last encounter with the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. “Any androids or gynoids in the hotel when he razed it?”

Alicia shook her head. “Grecian ALPA is all human for the time being; they’ve been having some issues with a few local WiFi hotspots being used to transmit viruses---and while I’m thinking about it, your antivirus software is up-to-date, right?”

“I didn’t spend a fourteen-hour flight watching The Joy of Painting,” Vicki wryly replied.

“That makes two of us,” Alicia giggled. “Seriously, if I would’ve had to sit through fourteen hours of Bob Ross talking about ‘happy little trees’ and all that stuff…” She rolled her eyes at the potential banality of such a flight; “I spent my airtime doing some online shopping---and before anyone asks, I used the House credit card, and yes, I had permission from Celeste.” She turned in place, showing off her new hip-hugging jeans and transluscent flowered blouse (with a white tank-top underneath). “Too much? Or not the right colors---“

Vicki gave an exaggerated groan. “You’re asking me about fashion?!”

A loud throat-clearing noise cut off any further goofiness the two could’ve embarked upon. “Ladies….I trust you’ve read the brief?”

Alicia snapped to attention with a salute, and Vicki did her best to look serious as the Grecian-branch ALPA Field Commander, Stanislaus Raikov Pascalous, entered the room. Pascalous had been one of the first few internationally-recruited ALPA Field Commanders in the wake of the Bloody Valentine incident---and he’d been the first to secure the office in his home country. Standing at an even 6”, with a face that bore more than a striking resemblance to Leonidas from 300, he looked every bit the battle-hardened leader he was.

“We did read the brief, sir,” Vicki replied. “I haven’t actually been given the opportunity to read the documents recovered from Hannsen’s old hotel room, though---“

“Then we should start now,” Pascalous replied. “Miss Lehane, if you would…”

“Ah, who’s Miss….Lehane?!” Vicki glanced at Alicia, who retrieved a folder from the table. “’Lehane’?! Your last name---“

“Changes from mission to mission,” Alicia replied. “I might stick with Lehane for my next job….” The sentence trailed off as Pascalous stared at her; “We’ll discuss ‘the next job’ after this job is done,” he stated. “Seeing as how both of you read the brief, I’ll stick to the Cliff Notes version: Several of Hannsen’s associates have been spotted in and around Athens, and they’ve been talking about ‘visiting the Parthenon’.”

Alicia frowned. “Let me guess….they’re not just going on vacation, are they?”

“ALPA HQ believes that Hannsen may have hidden something near the Parthenon the last time he was in the area,” Pascalous replied. “Current intel pegs his associates as having been sent to retrieve it---“

“Or to destroy it.”

Pascalous and Alicia both glanced at Vicki. “Something you’d like to share with the class?” Pascalous inquired with a slightly skeptical glance at the brunette gynoid.

“Hannsen won’t be getting out of prison any time soon,” Vicki explained, “and security around the Parthenon is obviously tight, so if Hannsen’s men can’t retrieve whatever it was that he hid…they may have been told to just let it burn, or something. Knowing Hannsen, he might’ve even told them to get someone else to dig it up, or to at least make sure nobody else can get to it.”

“And you just thought of all this?” Alicia murmured.

Not exactly… “Fourteen hours in first class on a top-of-the-line airliner gave me plenty of time to think over the brief,” Vicki admitted, “and considering Hannsen’s history of…theatrical gestures…”

Several of the Greek Field Agents---Pascalous included---nodded. “That does sound like him…”

“Then send a team down there to make sure that Hannsen’s idiot squad can’t get to whatever they’re trying to get to,” Vicki insisted. “Also…I have a feeling the tourism department won’t want to hear that a bunch of thugs are messing around near a nationally-recognized historic…thing….okay, that sounded a lot better in my head.”

“We’ll have a team out there as soon as possible,” Pascalous promised. “In the meantime---“

“Ah, I don’t think ’as soon as possible’ is going to cut it this time, Pascy,” Alicia mused. “Hannsen’s known for having a complete lack of anything even remotely resembling decency and/or tact; if his thugs have their way, the Parthenon might very well get knocked over by the time your guys get there.”

Pascalous frowned. “It’ll take more than a bunch of idiots to ‘knock down the Parthenon’.”

“And Hannsen’s group just so happens to be ‘more than a bunch of idiots’,” Vicki countered. “Unless we get out there now, and keep them from doing anything really, REALLY stupid, we’ll have more to worry about than the Tourism Board breathing down our necks.”

“She’s got a point,” Alicia mused.

The Greek Field Agents thought it over and convened with Pascalous…for all of ten seconds. “Looks like your way gets the popular vote,” he informed Vicki. “I just hope we’re not running in half-cocked here, otherwise this whole thing could backfire on us…and trust me, the Tourism Board is the least of our worries right now.”

Alicia nodded. “Well, Vicki,” she mused, “I think we might be about to bust Hannsen’s game wide open.”

If that’s true, the brunette gynoid wondered, then why do I feel like we’re about to make a huge mistake?


“DragonTown” - Location Classified - August 22, 2011, 03:43 pM

“You know, Hannsen,” Clive DuBraul mused from the DragonTown observation room, “this whole thing will be over with a lot faster if you just tell us what you hid near the Parthenon…rook takes bishop, check.” He stared nonchalantly at the monitor as Hannsen moved the pieces on his board to match those in the observation room.

“And deprive your team of the surprise?” the man who called himself the Maestro replied. “I wouldn’t dream of it…knight takes rook.”

DuBraul arched an eyebrow as he moved the pieces. “At least tell us if it’s dangerous or not,” he suggested, “so that we don’t have a containment crew going out there to neutralize a box of letters….if I’m going to send my people out there, then we need something concrete---bishop takes knight.”

“Well, I’ll tell you right now that it’s not a box of letters---queen takes bishop.”

“Fair enough---queen takes queen. Checkmate.”

A wry laugh sounded from Hannsen’s cell; “Beat me again, DuBraul!” he declared. “Never let it be said that your mental accumen is unworthy of my time…but you missed a few moves.”

“’Checkmate’ means the game is over, Hannsen---“

“Oh, I’m not talking about the chess game, DuBraul…” Hannsen’s chuckle turned sinister. “I’m talking about the fact that I could’ve had your precious Agent Lawson hauled off to God-knows-where at any time while she was in Vegas and Miami…but I chose to let her continue on her merry little way, because I am simply going to relish meeting her face to face.”

“I think you may need to get a window installed in your cell, Hannsen,” DuBraul wryly observed, “or at least get something to pipe in fresh air…even if you live to be 500 years old, you’re not leaving DragonTown to have this ‘face-to-face’ meeting with Vicki any time soon---“

“There you go with that conventional thinking again,” Hannsen laughed. “Always thinking inside the box…”

His voice dropped to a malicious whisper: “Who says I haven’t left my cell already?”

If the words prompted anything resembling concern from DuBraul, he didn’t let it show. “Have you forgotten the monitoring system?” he inquired. “The same one that’s allowing us to have this conversation, right now, with about fifteen guards---“

Within his cell, Hannsen rose from his seat at the ornate table, strode over to the camera hooked up in the corner of the room---and removed it from the mount. “You mean this monitoring system?” he cheerfully asked, grinning a shark’s grin. “The one that can’t be tampered with, or moved off its moorings, or even cleaned without special permission from Hizzonor, the Lord King God of Stupidity---aka Warden Whatever the bleeding hell his name was, since I never bothered to remember….anyways, that’s beside the point---“

“Then perhaps you’d like to fill me in on what the point is,” DuBraul offered.

“Always one to be direct,” Hannsen chuckled. “You’re a man who knows exactly when to make the move that ends the game, I’ll give you that…but alas, Monsieur DuBraul, the game is no longer yours---it’s mine.” With a flourish, he unbuttoned the orange denim shirt and shrugged it off…revealing a dress shirt beneath it.

Again, DuBraul was unphased---even though the guards behind him were panicking. “If this is a joke---“

“He’s not supposed to have that shirt,” one guard informed him quietly. “That’s the warden’s dress shirt!”

DuBraul’s faint smile vanished. “What are you playing at, Hannsen?”

“Who says I’m ‘playing’ at anything?” the Maestro replied, ripping off his pants---and revealing a pair of custom-tailored dress slacks beneath them. “I’m not going to go out for a night on the town in my denims, if that’s what you mean…then again…” After setting down the camera on the table, Hannsen half-danced over to his bed and lifted the mattress to reveal a dry-cleaning bag; “Just had this brought in last night,” he beamed. “Figured it’d go well with the rest of the outfit…which---where I’m going---means all the difference between getting on the front page and getting tossed out on your arse---“

“Where did you get these contraband items?” DuBraul demanded. “How did you bypass prison security---“

“Oh, Clive,” Hannsen sighed, “you are just so thick! I didn’t bypass prison security, and these aren’t any old ‘contraband items’---I had them delivered to me…or have you not figured it out yet?”

Even as the guards were shouting their heads off behind him, DuBraul let out a slow, quiet breath. “You don’t have to do this, Hannsen,” he intoned.

“So you do get it!” Hannsen beamed, clapping sarcastically. “A bit late, honestly, but---“

“Just tell me this,” DuBraul interjected. “How long?”

“How long what?”

DuBrual had to force himself to look at the monitor. “How long have you been planning this?” he whispered, even as the answer resonated within his mind.

“I’ve been planning this ever since the last time I got off the leash, Clive. You and I both know that.”

“And how long have you been out of DragonTown?”

At this, Hannsen grinned. “Honestly, I was going to wait another two or three months, but…I just couldn’t bear the thought of being left out of my own grand game any longer than I had to…” He chuckled again. “I’ve been out since the first of the month, Clive. Honestly, you people and your reliance on security systems---“

Every guard in the room stormed out, with the leader of the group yelling for “Security Clearance A6993”.

“Does it hurt, Clive?” Hannsen hissed. “Knowing that I’ve been out in the world, again, all while you and your pencil-pushers try to ‘fight the good fight’ and keep monsters like William J. Rengold III alive ‘to face their final justice’? And does it gall you to realize that William J. Rengold III will NEVER face justice, as long as there is breath in his body? More to the point…does it hurt to realize that I slipped out of your grasp right under your nose…and you couldn’t do anything to stop me?”

Even in defeat, DuBraul was calm. “Pain is temporary, Hannsen.”

“Oh, I won’t doubt that,” the Maestro agreed. “It’s just that this pain….well, I have a feeling that it’ll stick with you for the rest of your life…or at least the few years you’ve got left.” A smirk crossed his face; “How many of them even know, Clive?” he whispered. “Is it terminal, or just annoying?”

“I’ll live long enough to see you put back where you belong,” DuBraul replied.

Yet another chuckle from the Maestro filled the room. “Oh, you and your tenacity…always something to be admired. Anyways, it’s been relatively entertaining having this little chat with you, Clive, but I have a feeling you’ll want to see what’s on Channel 4….”

DuBraul walked over to one of the other monitors and changed the frequency…

….and turned away as soon as the picture clarified.

“…the body’s been here for at least two or three weeks,” one of the guards in Hannsen’s real cell stated. “He probably showed up to change out Hannsen’s sheets, then got jumped…stabbed to death…Hannsen must’ve ridden out in the laundry cart. That’s the second time someone’s left here that way, G__damnit---I told the warden to put a lock on those stupid things---“

The monitor clicked off.

“That, by the way, wasn’t even the opening act,” the Maestro declared. “Tipping off Stahl and giving him the number of Tavares’ hotel room, calling Aaberg about Brightstar trying to flee the state…all nice work, if I do say so myself---and I do---but the REAL big banana is coming up in ATHENS, GREECE---where Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson will have her first-ever confrontation with the one, the only---“

“Why?”

“Eh?! Whadaya mean, why?!”

“Why now, Hannsen? Why not in July, when William was on the loose?”

An overly-dramatic sigh issued through the speaker. “Do you really think I’d risk being upstaged by that idiot?” the Maestro drawled. “If I’m going to give a command performance to the ALPA’s finest, then you know damn well that it’ll be on my terms---if I have to compete with some looney-bin reject in a mask, why the hell should I bother showing up at all?! Anyways, as I said before, it’s been tremendous fun having this nice little convo with you, but I really must be going…” The door to the Maestro’s “cell” opened; DuBraul could just faintly see the outline of the Parthenon in the background. “Oh, and don’t bother calling ahead to spoil anything for Vicki,” he called out, “otherwise---“

In a distant part of the prison’s interior, a quiet, booming roar rang throughout the halls before going silent.

“Ah, that’ll have been the surprise I left under the bed for the investigating guards,” the Maestro muttered, his tongue playing over his teeth. “Really should’ve set the time-delay longer on it before I left…but it’s over with now, so…engh.” He shrugged. “CATCH YOU IN THE FUNNY PAPERS, CLIVE!” He turned to stride out of the fake cell---then whirled on his heel, producing a Glock from his jacket and firing at the camera. The image on the monitor faded out to static…

…though DuBraul could swear he heard a last, lingering echo of the Maestro’s laugh after the shot.

Weariness seeped through his bones as he sat down in the chair before the monitor bank. The Maestro had played everyone for fools---agreeing to “confess” about his previous brush with freedom, infuriating Reaver with the mention of his job before joining the ALPA, psychologically abusing the entire staff---and heaped one final indignation on them all by revealing that he wasn’t even in the damn prison anymore…nor had he been for at least half a month.

…and the worst part was, everything he’d said about the ALPA’s failings had been true.

“Has it always been this hard?” he murmured. “Doing the right thing, as opposed to doing what comes easy?”

From the back of the room, a voice he’d heard so often that he could’ve easily confused it with that of his own (albiet a few years younger) replied: “It always has been, DuBraul….as it should be. You and I both know that to be true.”

“Then tell me this, Oberon,” DuBraul replied. “What happens now?”

“Now….Vicki gets to learn exactly why making the right choice is rarely---if ever---the easy thing to do.”

ALPA convoy en route to the Parthenon – Athens, Greece – August 22, 2011, 06:10 PM

“…and you’re telling me everything’s in place to make sure they don’t tear down the whole thing before we can get there? You’re positive? Okay, yes…thank you.” Pascalous turned off his cellphone; “They’re bringing in a few extra security people,” he informed Vicki and Alicia. “If that doesn’t deter Hannsen---“

“This isn’t about ‘deterring’ him anymore,” Vicki reminded him. “This is about getting him as far away from the Parthenon as possible before he hurts anyone…or worse.” She glanced out the window, already regretting her decision to join the convoy meant to intercept Hannsen; “He’s set this whole thing up just to get to me,” she muttered, “and I don’t want anyone else getting killed trying to stop him….”

Once again, an image from the previous month surged to the forefront of her thoughts---stop it! Faceless is in ALPA custody, he’s not going to---

“Ah, Vicki, I know you’re tense, and all…but d’you think you could ease up on the armrest?”

At Alicia’s insistance, Vicki let go of the armrest between their seats…and cringed as she noticed the perfectly formed dents where her grip had clenched. “Sorry about that…I was just, ah….remembering something---“

“Babe,” Alicia replied, “you don’t have to make excuses here---July 9 wasn’t exactly that long ago.”

“I know,” Vicki insisted, “but it’s….I’m sick of thinking about it all the time! I should be over this by now, but I just….” She waved it away. “Never mind. It’s probably just some residual memory files from my old bubble memory processor popping up and messing with my thought processes---in fact…” She closed her eyes and focused, navigating through her CPU’s built-in OS and starting a new process to flag and contain all memory files from July 9 when/if they recurred. “Hopefully, that’ll keep me focused,” she mused. “If not, I can always call Dad and ask for a full debug….what, Alicia?!”

“You just ran a process on yourself,” the blonde House gynoid mused. “A high-priority subprocess that only the techies usually have access to…during maintenance….”

“And you’re surprised? I already told you, Dad and the rest of the Eleven upgraded every single part of me, both hardware and software, that could’ve been considered a weakness---basically, I have full awareness of every aspect of myself, and of the world around me---including the fact that your internal power cell is currently running at---“

“I get it!” Alicia laughed. “You’re one with everything now….pretty cool stuff.”

The brunette gynoid smirked. “It’s not really being ‘one with everything’,” she admitted, “but it’s as close as I ever intend to get. It’s like a second awakening for me---it just feels like….I’m more alive now, than I ever was before. It’s kind of weird to say that, but that’s the only term I can use right now that makes sense….and I can tell everyone else in the vehicle wants me to stop talking,” she added, nervously glancing at the other occupants of the Rhino.

“It’s not so much that we don’t want to hear you,” Pascalous admitted, “it’s more about, ah….”

“Maintaining silence during the ride,” one of the Greek Field Agents stated.

Pascalous nodded. “We need to be alert for whatever may happen between here and the Parthenon.”

Vicki nodded her approval. “Good call…if we’re too busy chatting, then we may miss something really, really important….like that gigantic roadblock made out of what I think are a bunch of old tank traps?” She glanced at Alicia with a frown; “If this is his grand master plan to stop us,” she murmured, “he’s losing his touch.”

“Leave it to the pros,” the blonde gynoid replied with a grin. “STANNY! Park the car---I have an idea.”

The Rhino---and the entire convoy with it---rolled to a halt, just as Alicia half-jumped out of the vehicle. “Keep it running,” she called out, “I won’t take too long….hopefully.” With a cheerful wink, she set off towards the roadblock.

Even as she waved Alicia off, Vicki realized something about the situation was too…..easy. The Rhino could’ve plowed through that roadblock at full speed, and it wouldn’t have suffered more than a few scratches on the way through…and what the hell is that buzzing noise---wait a minute! “Stan,” she gasped, “is there any chance that someone could possibly be sending WiFi signals into the Rhino while we’re parked?”

“….the Rhino was rated to withstand physical damages, Agent Lawson,” Pascalous replied. “It---“

“It was never designed to shield against WiFi!” Vicki groaned. “Hannsen played us right into his hands with this stupid roadblock---he wanted someone to get out and investigate it!” She leaned out of the Rhino and cupped her hands over her mouth: “ALICIA! GET BACK IN THE RHINO! THE ROADBLOCK IS A TRAP---”

“I…..I can’t!”

It didn’t take a genius to note the panicked tone of Alicia’s voice as she spoke. “I…I can’t stop walking, Vicki! Something’s…ENGH…..making me walk….like I’m….uurghh….being controlled---”

“IT’S HANNSEN! HE’S USING A WIFI SIGNAL TO GUIDE YOU TOWARDS THE ROADBLOCK!”

“Why…the hell…would he do that?!”

“I don’t know…give me a minute…” The brunette gynoid focused on the road leading to the massive wall of concrete and steel. “I’m not sensing anything with an EMP in it,” she murmured, “but---oh, scrap---ALICIA, GET OUT OF THERE! HE’S MINED THE ROAD!” Pascalous and the other human Agents stared, horrified at the revelation; “He mined the road?!” Pascalous echoed. “As in---”

“As in ‘he put LAND MINES under the road’!” Vicki screamed. “ALICIA---GET OFF OF THE ROAD NOW!”

“I….I can’t! I….I can’t…stop….walking!” Alicia’s face was the only part of her body that still remained under her own control; “What…the fuck….is happening to me?!” she cried out. “WHY CAN’T I STOP WALKING TOWARDS THAT STUPID ROADBLOCK?!” Tears streamed down her face as she tried---and failed---to stop herself from walking towards the mined portion of the road

“Stan,” Vicki muttered, “drive towards Alicia.”

“I thought you just said---”

“DRIVE TOWARDS THE ROADBLOCK.”

Pascalous nodded grimly. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” he muttered, gingerly pressing the gas pedal down. “If we get nuked to high Hades before this whole thing is over with, Hannsen gets four more notches on his belt, and---”

“He won’t.”

As the Rhino plowed forward, V.I.C.I. focused all her effort on finding and blocking the WiFi signal that was turning Alicia into a glorified puppet. “Don’t accelerate until I give the signal,” she ordered, “otherwise we may end up running over Alicia before I can break Hannsen’s hold over her.” …and if that happens, then the House will hit the warpath, she mentally added. Not exactly something I want hanging over my conscience while I’m trying to stop Hannsen…

“Vicki,” Pascalous shouted, “we’re about to hit her---”

“Then hit the brakes.” Just as V.I.C.I. had instructed, Pascalous stopped the Rhino before it could plow into Alicia. “Don’t move the car any further...I’ve got a lock on Hannsen’s signal, and I think I can shut it off from where we are.”

“Vicki,” Alicia sobbed, “make it stop…..I….I don’t want to die…”

“You won’t,” the brunette gynoid quietly replied. Just give me 25 more seconds….

“He’s telling me to run, Vicki!”

“And I’m telling you not to. Give my signal priority over his---”

“You’re sending a signal into me?!”

“To save your life. Just focus on the song you’re hearing right now….focus on that, and nothing else.”

“I…I’ll try to…..” Alicia closed her eyes, and her steps towards the roadblock slowed to a halt. “What…what is that song……Vicki…..you’re playing ‘Only You’……”

“The synthesizers in the background just so happen to have an ideal tone for disguising all of the counter-signals I’m using to block Hannsen’s signal…and I thought it could be some nice moral support for you in your time of need.” She grinned. “Just to make sure you’re not getting any ideas, or anything…” Despite the tears streaming from her eyes, Alicia managed a smile. “Vicki, you goof...if I wasn’t trying to keep myself from walking into a minefield, I’d kick you in the butt right now!”

“You might want to hold off on all thoughts of butt-kicking for the time being,” V.I.C.I. advised. “I still need a few seconds to fully deactivate the control signal Hannsen is using on you…just focus on the song and try not to let yourself take any more steps forward.”

“Right! I’ll…do the best I can….” Sure enough, just as her left leg was moving to take another step, Alicia closed her eyes, focusing all of her thoughts on not stepping forward…and to her relief, her left leg stopped mere inches before touching the ground. “It’s working, Vicki!” she shouted. “I have never been so happy that I’m not walking forward…seriously, this is just…” She was crying again, but the sobs had a distinctfully more positive edge. “Vicki, you are epic!”

“I’ll be even more epic in seven seconds,” the brunette gynoid deadpanned, “when you can move again.”

Alicia couldn’t help but grin as the seconds ticked down. “This is the coolest thing you’ve ever done, Vicki,” she beamed. “I just want you to know that…and when we finish kicking Hannsen’s ass from here to the Rock of Gibraltar, I say we---“

Three feet behind the Rhino, something exploded.

“OUT OF THE RHINO, NOW!” V.I.C.I. ordered. Pascalous and the other two Agents jumped out, followed soon after by V.I.C.I. herself---just in time to avoid going up in a fireball along with the rest of the transport. “He mined the whole road,” the brunette gynoid droned, her monotone taking on a growling edge. “He left time-delay mines along the entire road and waited for us to arrive…” She stared at Alicia, who was now almost frozen where she stood. “This wasn’t a roadblock,” she realized. “It was a killing jar…” A quick scan of the ground around them confirmed it. “Anything heavier than this vehicle would’ve set it off---that bastard wanted all of us to get out and investigate….”

She shook her head in disgust. “Alicia,” she called out, “get the nearest ALPA office on the horn and ask them if we can get an airlift to the Acropolis…”

…something tells me Hannsen’s saving the biggest surprises for the Parthenon…

The Parthenon – Athens, Greece – August 22, 2011, 07:00 PM

By the time the ALPA chopper touched down at the Acropolis, Vicki knew something had gone terribly wrong.

For starters, the floodlights that usually illuminated the building at light had been redirected to search the skies, most likely for any approaching aircraft. Looks like Hannsen has all the bases covered, she realized. Or at least he thinks he does… On the ground, several all-terrain transports---light, six-wheeled vehicles that could easily traverse anything from muddy fields to rocky hillsides---were parked around the Parthenon at strategic points, with men in colorless Battle Dress Uniforms and body armor standing nearby.

“Either we’re interrupting an important visitor’s trip to the Parthenon,” Alicia mused, “or the scrap just hit the fan…and I have a feeling it’s probably going to be the latter.”

Vicki said nothing, partially because she was thinking the exact same thing herself…

…and partially because she had a very strong feeling that this wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped.

Five of the BDU-clad men approached the chopper as it landed, with one gesturing for Vicki to follow him into the Parthenon (or what was left of it). “Do I get to bring my gun?” she inquired. “It’s only got non-lethal rounds in the clip, so…..never mind,” she finished, frowning as the men walked ahead of her without pause. “If they open fire on the chopper,” she whispered to Alicia, “just run. Don’t even bother waiting up for me---“

“And leave you to take all the credit for yourself?” the blonde gynoid teased.

“I was never programmed to take all the credit for myself,” Vicki corrected. “Just to get the job done.” With that, she turned and followed the guards (makes more sense to call them that than anything else…and they haven’t tried shooting at any of us yet, so that’s a plus) towards the ruined temple. “So, ah, any particular reason why we’re going into the Parthenon?” she asked the guard in front of her (after jogging a bit to catch up with the group). “Am I meeting someone, or barganing for something, or….anything?”

The guard’s silence spoke volumes.

“Okay, never mind….yeesh.” Vicki stayed quiet as she followed the phalanx of guards…

…and as soon as she stepped into the Parthenon, she felt like screaming her head off.

Three figures, all bound and gagged, knealt amidst the ruins of the ancient temple: Raquel Sanderson (Kirsten Sanderson’s gynoid “mother”, and the only family she had left after her father vanished---and was later found to be Project Epsilon), Aaron Cardwell (the soon-to-be CEO of Tentrex Electronics, and an ally of the gynoids and androids at the DreamWorld “dating service plus”), and Sharon Wilson---Vicki’s own roommate. All three were blindfolded, struggling frantically (and futilely) against the chains that bound them; a pair of guards stood over each of the three captives, high-caliber carbine rifles held at the ready to blow their heads off if they even tried to escape.

Worse than that, however, was the figure standing immediately behind the three…a figure Vicki hadn’t seen in person outside of a brief encounter within the virtual reality of MDM’s backup mainframe at the Silicon Dynamics plant. The five’o’clock shadow was still there, as was the impertinent smirk…but the prison denims had been traded out for a custom-tailored suit that he wore with the air of a crown prince. Even with the new clothes, there was no mistaking the almost palpable aura of power emanating from him…

…power that only came from having deep roots, connections…and the willingness to do anything to survive.

“Vicki Lawson….we meet at last. Maybe you remembered me from that little jaunt in the SD mainframe---“

“I know who you are….Maestro.”

“Ah, so my reputation preceeds me!” the Maestro beamed. “FANTASTIC! I am, indeed, the one and only Professor Matthew Emmerich Hannsen, alias THE MAESTRO---the SOLE SURVIVING member of the Great Dirty World Wide Web who DIDN’T disappear into that good night, or otherwise sell their soul to the ‘good guys’….and please, don’t feel any pressing need to introduce yourself, Miss Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson---or should I say Miss Voice Input Cybernetic Identicant? Oh, yes, I know all about you---“

“Then you know why you should let those three people go, now,” Vicki replied, with only the slightest tremor in her voice as she spoke.

The Maestro chuckled. “I don’t think so. See, I’ve been planning for this---“

A red-white blur flashed past him, knocking the three guards on their asses; a few short seconds later, Vicki stood before the Maestro again, dropping the carbines held by the guards. “I said, let them go NOW.”

“Was that supposed to scare me?” the Maestro taunted, only to feel something grabbing him by the collar.

“No,” V.I.C.I. intoned, “but this is.” Her grip closed around Hannsen’s throat, just enough for his breath to catch. “Either let them go,” she droned, “or you’ll spend the rest of your life in an iron lung.”

Maddeningly, the Maestro only chuckled. “You and your threats,” he wheezed. “Small wonder that Rengold nearly went insane trying to fight you---yes, I heard all about your little grudge match with Billy Boy, back at the factory…nice job putting the blades right on either side of his---hurk!”

The brunette gynoid’s grip tightened. “LET. THEM. GO. NOW.”

“You…first…”

With one last death glare into the Maestro’s eyes, V.I.C.I. unclenched her grip, letting the cybercriminal fall to his feet. “Why did you bring them here?” she asked. “They have nothing to do with---“

“WRONG….absolutely 100%…wrong….just…give me a minute to catch my breath there…WHOO!” After a few seconds of deep breaths and throat-clearing, the Maestro stood, dusting himself off as he regarded V.I.C.I. with a smirk. “You people make it a habit to nearly choke out a potential informant while questioning them?” he taunted. “Or is that just something you do exclusively? Actually, never mind that---“

V.I.C.I.’s hands closed around his lapels. “WHY DID YOU BRING THEM HERE?!”

“There is such a thing as ‘invasion of personal space’, y’know!” the Maestro complained, pushing away from the enraged Field Agent. “Just…just back away, and give me a few minutes…” He dusted himself off again.

“Talk,” V.I.C.I. demanded, “or next time---“

“There’s not gonna be a next time if you try that crap with me again, sunshine,” the Maestro countered, his voice no longer holding any trace of humor. “Here’s how this is going to go: You backpedal all the way to where you were standing before you decided to strangle me, and I MIGHT tell you what you want to know---“

A glowing blue pinprick of light appeared on his forehead.

“Talk,” V.I.C.I. repeated, “or I’ll put an SCEMP round through your skull.”

Even with a gun trained on him, the Maestro scoffed. “You want me to talk?” he murmured. “Fine….I’ll talk. I’ll do more than talk, really…I’ll tell you a nice little story---about how a bunch of twonks nearly RUINED my entire life’s work before I got sent to prison!”

The brunette gynoid’s stare never wavered. “I’m listening.”

“Of course you’re listening, idiot,” the Maestro spat. “You wouldn’t even be here…oh, sod it.” He shook his head and turned away; “I suppose this sordid little tale begins right around the time my hacking career went pear-shaped,” he began. “Anton had grown a conscience and left, Nicolai pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth….I had nothing. No friends, no casual acquaintances to let me crash on their couch when the heat was on…not that I gave a toss, mind you. All I needed was a laptop with an Internet connection, and I was set for life---“

“Except you got caught,” V.I.C.I. cut in.

“I was getting to that!” the Maestro hissed. “I was, as you so eloquently put it, caught…thanks to a series of events that NEVER WOULD’VE TAKEN PLACE had it not been for EVERYONE on Aaberg’s hit list. Raquel over there? She was originally built to be a prison guard, complete with access to every available database that had my mugshot in it…my brilliant plan to abscond with a guard’s uniform and use their Internet to further my nefarious schemes fell apart when she spotted me driving off in the plonk’s car. Cardwell? His company was the first to put out security software that SPECIFICALLY blocked every single exploit I wrote---well, except that one your team’s still having trouble with….anyways, Tentrex effectively ENDED my virus-writing career, and since I couldn’t bloody well go and drag each and every one of them off to the Parthenon, I settled for bagging him. Hell, even Vlatko and his battery-powered bride screwed me over….both of them ended up on my list when they let you go, back in May---“

“What about Stephen Crandall?”

The Maestro scoffed. “Owes me money. I fleeced the twonk, and he never paid up.”

“And Sharon?”

At this, the Maestro grinned. “Ah…her. See, she never actually gave me any problems before today, to be perfectly honest…I just figured she was…oh, valuable enough to warrant a visit…and then I decided that she might have a good time visiting Greece---“

“LET HER GO.” V.I.C.I.’s eyes blazed red with each word.

“What is it with you and interrupting people?” the Maestro inquired. “Is it just this thing that you do whenever you feel the need to exert power or influence over everyone? I mean, even Harrington’s not as bad as everyone thinks he is---hell, the man’s nearly a saint, compared to the way propaganda machine painted him back in the early 90s---but unless I’m sorely mistaken, then you are just a fountain of rudeness compared to me---and DON’T EVEN THINK about drawing that ES-9950 of yours again,” he added, “or your friends will be shot dead where they stand…well, where they kneel, really, ‘cos they’re not actually standing at the moment….ANYWAY, back to the original topic---“

“Let Sharon go NOW,” V.I.C.I. demanded, “or---“

“’Or’ NOTHING!” the Maestro thundered. “This is not your grand moment, Vicki Lawson! This isn’t the part where you play the hero and save everyone’s life---this is the part where you listen to every single word I tell you and then do exactly what I say…or your pathetic friends DIE.”

For three whole minutes (and fourteen seconds), the Parthenon was silent.

“Glad to see you understand how things are going to go,” the Maestro beamed. “Now, then…speaking of how this will go….it’s high time I laid out the rules of this little encounter between us. The guards you so charitably knocked out were only the FIRST line of security---secondary and tertiary guards, snipers in fact, have been stationed around the Parthenon to fire three shots apiece into the heads of your precious little meat popsicles if you decide to go all Rambo on me again. Are we absolutely clear on that?”

Vicki nodded silently, her fingernails nearly digging into her palms as her fists clenched.

“Good. Now, then….you only get to save one of them for now---AND DON’T INTERRUPT ME!” The Maestro glared at Vicki, almost daring her to make a move; “You want to see them walk out of here, don’t you?” he called out. “Then stand back and shut up.”

Even as her face contorted into a positively hatefull look, Vicki stepped back.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, you will only be ‘rescuing’ one of the three here tonight,” the Maestro continued. “Out of the remaining two, one will be accompanying me to my private helicopter, which will take us out of this boring little country and as far away from your attempts at retaliation as humanly possible---and before you even think of pursuing me on foot, I’ve taken the liberty of laying time-delay EMP mines all over the area---they’ll go dormant tomorrow, if they haven’t triggered by then. So, just to reiterate, you get one, and I get one. Are we absolutely, postively clear on the understanding of THAT rule?”

Vicki forced herself to nod, all the while trying to dismiss the thought of ripping the Maestro’s head off.

“Molto bene! Now, you’re probably wondering what happens to the third little idiot who’s been kind enough to grace us with their presence today…and to be quite honest, I saved this part for last because you are very much an integral component in it…”

The Maestro’s voice turned sinister. “You get to choose which one of these three dies.”

All three blindfolded figures winced as they heard the sound of a mine going off, followed soon after by Vicki hitting the stone floor of the Parthenon; “I told you that the mines were meant to keep you from doing anything stupid,” the Maestro chided, “but you didn’t listen, did you?!” His fiendish cackle echoed through the ruins as the brunette gynoid struggled to return to a standing position. “Oh, this is just too much fun….”

“Let….them…go,” Vicki growled through clenched teeth.

“Did you not hear me just now?” the Maestro complained. “Seriously, I went through all the trouble of going over the rules, laying out how the whole bloody thing works---and you still try the old ‘LET THEM GO’ routine, even though you KNOW that’s not how this is going to---“

“SHUT UP.” Those two words nearly shook the Parthenon.

Even so, the Maestro wasn’t impressed (or was at least doing a damn good job of pretending he wasn’t).

“That’s it? That’s your big retort? Yelling ‘shut up’ at me---that’s the best you could come up with---“

Something slammed into his face with just enough restraint to avoid shattering his jaw. “Now that I have your attention,” Vicki stated, her voice cold, “here’s how this is really going to go. Your snipers are going to stand down, or the ALPA Field Agents that brought my friends and I all the way out here are going to use whatever means necessary to remove them from their posts. You, meanwhile, are going to free these people from their chains and let them leave---after you deactivate the EMP mines. Once they’re gone, you get a five-minute head start….and you’re going to run. You’re going to run because when I catch you---not ‘if’, but when---I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that you NEVER even THINK of doing anything like this ever again for the rest of your natural life. I’m not going to kill you, I’m not going to maim you---I’m not even going to hurt you….”

Once again, her eyes blazed red. “…but I will make you pay…for everything.”

“Do you really think that scares me?” the Maestro chuckled. “You think I’m afraid of a stupid little cu---“

V.I.C.I.’s iron grip snatched him up, closing around his throat, and he briefly thought she’d snapped…

…only to stare in shocked silence as she put her finger to her lips: “Shhhhh……”

Three seconds later, the Maestro hit a pillar.

As soon as her internal sensors confirmed that the Maestro was unconscious, Vicki set about ripping the chains off of Sharon, Raquel, and Aaron---which, to her annoyance, was more complicated than it looked. He’s been planning this for a while, she mused. And yes, there’s the whole “oh, he’s not in prison anymore” thing that might have surprised me a few months ago…anyways, back to the matter at hand. The chains binding Aaron, Raquel and Sharon were “prison-grade”, meaning that improvised cutting tools were useless in cutting through them or otherwise breaking them. Fortunately for me, I’ve got the best possible tools for the job…

A few seconds of straining was all it took for Vicki to rip the chains apart. Now, for the handcuffs---

The crack of a pistol firing interrupted her chain of thought, followed soon after by a round hitting the stone ground right next to her feet. “You should’ve stuck to the rules, Vicki!” the Maestro shouted. “I was going to be fair, and actually give you the choice of picking which one died---”

“That isn’t being fair,” Vicki called back, “that’s stacking the deck---”

Another gunshot split the night. “I’ve got fifteen clips of ammo laying around here,” the Maestro declared, “and I’ll be more than happy to turn this into a one-on-one deathmatch---that is, of course, unless you’re willing to have a bit of a compromise!”

“No deals, Hannsen! I don’t negotiate with common criminals---”

“MY CRIMINAL MIND IS NOT COMMON! I AM A CERTIFIED GENIUS---”

“You call this the work of a genius?!”

Several more shots hit the ground around Vicki and the three captives. “Either quit with the potshots and face me in the open,” she called out, “or just leave now---I’m not going to let you kill anyone, Hannsen! The game is over!”

“THE GAME IS NEVER OVER! NOT WITH ME!”

Vicki frantically worked to pick the locks on the handcuffs (which, to her chagrin, had been made of stronger stuff than the chains---the same carbon-titanium alloy as her new endoskeleton, to be precise) and trying to move the captives out of the way. “Just so you know,” she shouted, “I knew something like this would end up happening---you didn’t exactly go out of your way to disguise yourself back in Miami, and you blew your own cover at the blackjack tables in Vegas!”

“VERY CLEVER, LAWSON, BUT---”

“I also recognized you at Dagestan---you were the only guard at the Chirkey Dam who left before I told the chief of security to lead the men out!” She actually laughed; “How much time did you waste putting up all of those portable prison cells of yours?” she called out. “Must’ve taken you at least three hours---”

The click of a safety being pulled back sounded a few inches away from her head.

“More like two and a half,” the Maestro calmly replied. “On your feet, now---”

Something shot the pistol out of his hand before he could finish the sentence. “DAMNIT! What the HELL---“

“Leave it,” Alicia’s voice called out, “or you’ll lose a finger next time.” Sure enough, the blonde gynoid strode into the Parthenon a few seconds after the order, flanked by six Field Agents in full body armor. “Let them go, Hannsen,” she ordered, “or---“

Scrap---the mines! “Alicia, step back---“

Before Vicki could finish her warning, Alicia---and the Field Agents---froze in place as the EMP mines tripped, sending wave after wave of electromagnetic pulse energy through their bodies.

No….

“…damn stupid bitch, nearly blew a hole right through my hand….” The Maestro swore as he crawled after his pistol. “Damn it! She’s ruined it---completely trashed the damned thing! I really liked this gun---actually, I just got it last week, but it was a good gun….why the hell did she have to shoot my gun, instead of just firing a bloody warning shot…”

Vicki did her best to avoid punt-kicking the Maestro’s skull off his shoulders, choosing instead to shoot out the EMP mines around Alicia and the Field Agents. “C’mon, Alicia, say something,” she murmured. “Those were just low-level EMPs, they didn’t do any lasting damage…”

Alicia didn’t move.

The fully-armored Agents groaned and shook off the effects of the mines as they rose to their feet (a quick check of her medical scanners allowed Vicki to see that they were human---the mines merely interfered with most of the sensitive electronics integrated into their suits); “I don’t think she’s getting up from that,” one Agent informed the brunette gynoid. “She took the full brunt of the shock---I think she was channelling it away from us---“

“Get her to the helipad,” Vicki muttered, “and have her brought to the nearest ALPA base.”

“But---“

“DO IT.”

After several seconds of awkward silence, the Field Agent nodded, gesturing for his fellow Agents to help get Alicia off of the stone floor of the Parthenon. Vicki watched them leave, silently hoping that the EMP mines hadn’t completely trashed the blonde gynoid’s systems; I already lost one good friend to a psychopath this year, she mused, remembering Anton’s graphic retelling of Claudia’s death at Faceless’ hands the previous month, and I don’t want to lose another---

“Well, well, well….I think we’ve reached a rather interesting plateau in our little confrontation…”

The Maestro’s taunt did little to improve Vicki’s mood. “Tell me this,” she quietly asked, “how long have you been planning this? A year, two years…..a whole decade? Did you even do anything the last time you got off the leash---“

“I made preparations,” the Maestro replied coldly. “I set things into motion, I greased the right wheels…I did everything in my power to make sure that I could leave that hellhole whenever the need arose…and this time, I don’t intend to go back.” His sadistic grin returned as he cocked the revolver; “Speaking of which,” he mused, “when’s the last time you had a face-to-face with one Stacy Tanque? Last I heard, you haven’t seen her since that incident with Falken, last december…”

He chuckled again. “…what’s say we rectify that situation right now, eh?”

From behind him, a figure---a 6’5”, black-and-green clad female with green hair and eyes that, as far as Vicki could tell, were literally blank---strode forward out of the night. “Had to borrow some gear from a few friends to, ah, turn off most of her mind,” the Maestro admitted, “but she can still fight…”

He nodded in Stacy’s direction. “…speaking of which: STACY!”

The verlette gynoid stood at attention.

“Sic’ her.”

Had this fight taken place before July 10, 2011, Vicki would’ve been at a tremendous disadvantage---but now, with her improved systems allowing her to almost literally read her fellow gynoid’s mind (or at the very least, to detect a nearly-infinite number of potential attacks and counter/dodge as efficiently as possible), the “fight” became little more than an exercise in evasive maneuvers and pinpoint-accurate strikes.

Of course, the fact that her opponent was almost a hollow shell of her former self didn’t help.

“This is usually the part where I say ‘I know you can beat this’, or something,” Vicki mused, dodging an axe-handle smash, “but to be honest, I have no idea what Hannsen did to shut off your personality---actually, now that I think of it, let’s see if we can’t change that---” She whirled under a clothesline meant to take her head off, almost cartwheeling to evade the blow as she wrapped one arm around Stacy’s neck. “And the scanner says: She’s got three dorsal access panels!” Vicki immediately dug her fingernails into the verlette gynoid’s back, trying to pry the panels open---

---and nearly fell over as Stacy’s head swiveled around 360 degrees to stare at her with its blank eyes.

“Nice trick….but I’ve got one of my own.” Instantly, heat and cold began cycling through V.I.C.I.’s fingers in equal measure as her hands played over the panel lines in Stacy’s back; good thing that scan of her systems detected faulty temperature seals, she mused. Hopefully, this is enough to---

One of the panels popped out, revealing the vital components the brunette gynoid was looking for.

YES!

With a wry grin, V.I.C.I. jammed her finger into the opened panel on Stacy’s back. “Let’s see if we can’t give you a sunnier outlook on things…” Electricity (and data) surged through her fingers, prompting the vacant expression on Stacy’s face to change to a stunned look. “Normally, that would be a sign for me to run,” V.I.C.I. mused, “but in your case…” She grinned again as Stacy’s face twitched erratically. “Just a few more seconds, and….”

Something resembling a skin tag rose out of the synthetic flesh on Stacy’s forehead.

“And now for the restore.” V.I.C.I. pulled something out of the verlette gynoid’s back---an SD flash media card, to be precise---and pulled at the tab on Stacy’s forehead, revealing the chrome, plastic and servomotor assembly that made up her face. “…and the card goes here,” she murmured, inserting the card into a slot right between Stacy’s eyes, “and then we pull your face back up…” She rolled the rubbery “mask” that was Stacy’s face up to where it was meant to go, sighing as the connection points spasmed yet again. “Good thing your design includes SD card backups,” she mused, “otherwise you’d have been Hannsen’s puppet for a good long while…”

Two minutes later, Stacy’s head rotated back to its default position…

…followed by the gynoid herself yawning. “What….where am I….” She turned around to find Vicki staring at her. “You?! What the hell----what is this place?! I’m supposed to be working for Mr. Comstock in Oregon; how the hell did I end up….wherever the hell this is?!”

“Long story,” Vicki admitted. “Oh, and you’ve got a gaping hole in your back…and you’re apparently a robot.”

Stacy groaned. “This is just great,” she muttered. “I was supposed to be preparing a report on some weird project for Mr. Comstock, and now I’m out here with one of my dorsal ports open and---“ She glanced across the Parthenon, staring in wide-eyed shock at the figure of the Maestro. “What the fuck is HE doing here?!”

“He’s….the guy that dragged you all the way out here,” Vicki admitted. “He just said so---“

“AND A GOOD EVENING TO YOU, MADAME!” the Maestro shouted, cackling with unfettered delight (even though Vicki had just ruined his plan). “You know, Miss Tanque, you look simply stunning in the nude---like a classical Greek sculpture brought to life---”

“YOU KIDNAPPED ME AND UNDRESSED ME?!” Stacy shouted. “That is IT---I am going to kick the living shit out of---LET ME GO!”

Vicki’s grip on the verlette’s wrist tightened. “We’ve got more pressing matters to tend to, Miss…ah, Tanque,” she informed her former foe. “Those three people over there are in danger---Hannsen’s the one who brought them here---“

“Then allow me to be the one who gets them the hell OUT OF HERE,” Stacy growled, snatching the lockpicks Vicki offered her and setting to work on the handcuffs. “Seriously, of all the crap I’ve had to deal with….first I get ‘sent on vacation’ for not bagging Falken, then I get sent to work for McMire, then that falls through, and that Comstock guy and those two freaky twins show up…at least he’s not some lunatic who wants to take over the world, or anything, just a guy with a vision---but this?! Getting dragged out to Greece, of all places, and finding out that some pervy cybercriminal UNDRESSED ME---“

“Less talking,” Vicki whispered, “and more lockpicking…..please?”

Stacy glared at her, but went right back to picking the locks. “Now, then, let’s get them….out of here…” She frowned. “Are you sure those handcuffs were the only things on them?” she asked.

“What are you---oh, NO!” None of the three former captives were moving; Raquel had likely been affected by the EMP mines, but as for Aaron and Sharon… "WHAT DID YOU DO TO THEM?!” Vickio shouted, turning her glare on Hannsen. “They were conscious a few minutes ago, struggling to get out of their chains…why aren’t they moving now?!”

“Oh, nothing,” the Maestro replied. “Nothing serious, at least….unless you count an aerosolized poison as---“

The roar of a helicopter above the Parthenon drowned out his words. “LOOKS LIKE YOU HAVE A CHOICE TO MAKE AFTER ALL, MISS LAWSON!” the Maestro shouted. “EITHER STOP ME, OR SAVE THEM! I WOULDN’T TAKE TOO LONG IF I WERE YOU, THOUGH….THEY ONLY HAVE SIXTY MINUTES!”

Several angry (and potentially obscene) replies filtered through Vicki’s processors, but none of them left her lips. “Stacy, I need you to help me get these people out of here,” she stated. “There’s an ALPA helipad---yes, I know what the ALPA is----just get to the helipad and tell the pilot to get these three to…this hospital.” She handed the verlette gynoid a piece of paper.

“If it means that asshole doesn’t win this one,” Stacy replied, “I’ll do it.”

As Stacy ran off to reach the helipad, Vicki stared back at Hannsen---who was now dangling off the ladder dropped by the helicopter hovering overhead. “UNTIL NEXT TIME, VICKI LAWSON!” he cackled, laughing as the ladder was drawn up.

Next time, Vicki silently vowed, I won’t let you pull a stunt like this….

A few minutes later, the brunette gynoid sat next to the three former captives as they were loaded onto the ALPA helicopter, silently praying that none of them---especially Sharon---would die mid-flight. “Just hang in there,” she whispered, “please hang in there…just stay alive for a few more minutes….please don’t die…” A tear fell from her eyes, landing with a splash on Sharon’s face.

I’m sorry, Sharon….I’m so, so sorry…..

ALPA-Owned Hospital – Athens, Greece – August 22, 2011

“Are they going to be okay?”

Oberon didn’t look away from the three beds to respond. “Raquel’s going to need another night in the repair bay,” he intoned, “and Aaron nearly had an allergic reaction to whatever Hannsen used on them…but they’ll live. Sharon might have a few nightmares, but otherwise she’ll be fine. Long in a short, they’ll all survive---“

“And what about Hannsen?”

This time, Oberon did turn. “He’s free. Again. The bastard slipped the leash right under our noses this time, and we damn near didn’t notice until it was too late…” A sad, tired sigh punctuated the sentence. “I thought Faceless was the worst we’d have to deal with,” he admitted, “but…with him out of the picture, it seems like every other lunatic is vying to take his place.”

“Then you must do everything in your power to ensure that they fail in their endeavours…for all our sakes.”

“I will. You have my word that I will.”

“Good. And what about Vicki?” A pause….

“You don’t think she can handle---”

“You don’t know her like I do,” Oberon countered. “She’s more than just the sum of her parts---she’s more than anything any of us could’ve predicted. She can most certainly handle this….and she will.”

With that, Oberon’s attention returned to the three beds. “She’ll handle it,” he repeated quietly. “She has to.”


Vicki stared at the magazine she’d plucked from the rack, not actually reading the thing. Thoughts of the past few hours filtered through her mind; Stacy being used like a puppet, three innocent people nearly being killed, Alicia 5 being drained by the EMP mines…and Matthew Hannsen laughing as the helicopter carried him away from the Parthenon. Yes, Aaron, Raquel and Sharon were going to survive…but the price was too high.

I thought Faceless was the worst I’d have to fight, she realized, but this….Hannsen was being cruel because he found it funny. She reflected on the tears shed while she begged Sharon not to die on her; guess I haven’t changed as much as everyone thinks I have---

“Says who?”

Oberon’s voice startled her to the point of nearly falling out of the chair; “I…I didn’t say anything,” she gasped.

“You didn’t need to,” Oberon quietly replied as he approached. “Body language, Vicki…the expression on your face, the way you’re sitting---to me, it’s as telling as getting shouted at.” He sighed as he sat down next to the brunette gynoid; “None of this is your fault, by the way,” he assured her. “We should’ve made it a priority to keep Hannsen under lock and key, but now…well, he’s out in the world again, and everyone on Aaberg’s list will need the best protection the ALPA can provide.”

“What about you?”

The question didn’t surprise Oberon as much as he’d expected it to. “I’ll be doing what I do best…making sure that everyone else in the ALPA is doing what they do best---including you.” With that, he rose from the chair and turned to leave; “You made the right choice, by the way,” he added, glancing over his shoulder. “Bringing them here instead of chasing Hannsen. Never forget that…doing what’s right isn’t always doing what’s easy.”

“I won’t forget it,” Vicki replied. Not now…and especially not when I face Hannsen again. Not after this…


PHONE CALL – TRACED BY ALPA HQ – AUGUST 22, 2011

[Matthew Hannsen]: It’s done. They’re in hospital, the green-haired bitch is in protective custody, and Lawson is still alive.

[????] (later identified to be the individual known as the Baron): Good. Was your threat believable?

[Hannsen]: “Believable”?! I did tell you that I actually poisoned two of the idiots and infected the third, right?

[The Baron]: ….and she believed that they only had an hour to live?

[Hannsen]: She did…brought ‘em straight to the medics after I left. They survived, apparently.

[The Baron]: Good. And the virus used to infect Sanderson’s wife….

[Hannsen]: Is on a timer that’s set to go off in about…I’d say a week or two. Sounds good to you?

[The Baron]: It does indeed. You have earned your place among the DVS…now, we must discuss our next move---

[Hannsen]: Way ahead of you. I’ll be on the next flight to Singapore within the week; I assume everything will be in order when I arrive?

[The Baron]: Unless you choose to…misuse your newfound freedom, everything will be as we arranged.

[Hannsen]: I won’t be misusing anything. What about the data I sent from Stacy Twonk?

[The Baron]: It will be given to those who know how to use it. I assume Comstock was unaware that Miss Tanque was ever missing?

[Hannsen]: ….ah, about that---

[The Baron]: No matter. He is of no consequence for the time being, nor are his…associates. We must tread carefully from this point on, lest we awaken giants; we have come too far to be laid low by a single false step or a careless whisper.

[Hannsen]: ….right, right. Everything’s in place for our grand finale?

[The Baron]: It is. The Valley will kneel before us…or fall dead at our feet.

[Hannsen]: (chuckles) Wouldn’t have it any other way.

[CALL TERMINATED]


To Be Continued in The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” coming later this April to Fembot Central!


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