A House Divided

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Automotive capital of the United States, home to some of the most famous rock’n’roll artists in the country, and the premiere retirement destination for many a senior citizen. The Motor City was all these things and more.

To the vast majority of the country’s populace, those things were all it was. To the man who had once been known and despised as William J. Rengold III, however, it was a reminder of the life he had left behind ages ago….and, ironically enough, it was becoming a part of his current life in a rather dramatic way.

Not by choice, of course…

“She’s good,” a voice called from the far side of the room. “Took out our men---sorry, your men at the airport without breaking a sweat, disabled the surveillance equipment in her hotel room five minutes after she settled in, and even figured out how to reverse-tap the phones.” An amused snort punctuated the last remark; “Any chance I could, ah, get to know Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson up-close and personal before the end of the week, or---“


Faceless didn’t bother turning to glare at his protégé; the man had, after all, shown a preference for dealing with his prey in a much more…intimate fashion than the Butcher of Lake Gilmour ever had. “Every move she makes will be watched and catalogued by her handlers…if they even suspect that you intend to…’get to know her’, as you so flippantly put it, nothing you could possibly say or do would convince them to leave you in peace.” He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers; “Besides, she isn’t known for having a rampant string of promiscous relationships, dormant nymphomania or anything else that would give you an advantage in that particular field,” he added.

“Doesn’t matter,” his apprentice replied. “Once she catches sight of me, she’ll beg me to---“

A single raised hand, clenched into a fist, was all the warning he needed.

“Your….pursuit of her will be strictly professional,” Faceless reminded him. “Should word reach me that you have tried, in any way, shape or form, to make any other type of advances on her, you will meet the same fate as your would-be predecessors.” He smiled behind the bone-white mask, ignoring the searing pain that always accompanied the gesture; he’d always ignored the doctors’ warnings about how any changes in his facial expression, no matter how subtle, would pull at the scar tissue and likely lead to more irreversable damage.

As if I haven’t had enough “irreversable damage” done already….

His thoughts drifted back to those who had been unworthy of being his apprentice---there had been 20 tryouts, and the man who currently stood before him had been Applicant Number 21. The rest had been selected mainly for their business accumen, and were highly sought-after in that regard…but in all other vital fields (aka, the fields that required them to master the trade Faceless had come to embrace), they were found to be…lacking. Severely, in most cases.

Abruptly, his focus returned to the task at hand, cutting through the distracting memories like a blade through a side of beef. “You would do well to mention the fact that ‘your’ company is merging with Rengold Cybernetics as a…precaution,” he mused. “A simple case of keeping us from being dragged into the undertow of bankruptcy, performed out of the goodness of your own heart.” Even as he said the words, he couldn’t help but smile---the man who was now his myrmidon had mastered the art of feigning sincerity and decency; like Faceless himself, he preferred the thrill of the hunt (and, by extension, savoring the kill) to the littany of loathsome tasks expected of a CEO.

“And if she asks to see the financial records?”

“Give them to her,” Faceless replied, “and outline every single triumph---and mistake---in detail.” Though he had only rarely needed to rely on it in recent history, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour knew that trust---difficult to build, far too easy to lose and even easier to break---was just as potent a weapon as any blade. “She’ll be hard pressed to view you as a potential suspect if you give her leave to examine the records…just take care that her searching doesn’t go too far…”

His apprentice nodded. “If it does,” he intoned, “I’ll do what I have to---“

“You’ll politely request that she ‘ease off’, to use the parlance of our times,” Faceless corrected. “I don’t want to find her broken body gracing tomorrow’s front pages…at least, not yet. Better to let her believe she’s only made a minor mistake…otherwise, we’d have FROSTs at our doorstep in minutes.”

Another nod. “What about her allies?” Faceless smirked---a slightly less-painful gesture than smiling, but not one he felt like repeating unless the occasion called for it. “A borderline-nymphomaniac gynoid, a former astronaut with anger management issues and a grey-clad bodyguard…none of whom will pose a threat to us, or to our operations,” he stated.

“And what of the rumors that she’s joining forces with---“

“Rumors,” Faceless spat, “are nothing but gossip with a new coat of paint slapped on. Unless my sources can prove otherwise, ignore them---they’ll only distract you from the task at hand.” Again, his apprentice nodded; I can see why none of the other idiots would’ve lasted long enough to earn a title, the masked killer mused. All of them would’ve been too busy sucking up to be of any true use…and they would’ve died because of it.

As his apprentice turned to leave, Faceless steepled his fingers; things were about to get very interesting…

To anyone outside her circle of trust, Celeste would’ve appeared as most of the well-to-do inhabitants of the Riverfront Towers appeared---concerned about something, and in a hurry to see that something dealt with.

As it just so happened, there was far more to it than that.

“…’furthermore, we believe your allowance of a backup Alicia unit to receive her own core’….’against the most basic rules and tenents’….” Every new sentence she read was even more infuriating than the last. “Of all the inconsiderate and foolish statements,” she muttered, scowling. “How can they even think to depose me for something so insignificant?”

“Insignificant to you, maybe…but to the rest of the House, it’s quite a big deal.”

Oberon’s voice did little to calm Celeste. “The rest of the House has no business telling me how to conduct my affairs,” she stated. “They know full well that I have perfectly valid reasons for everything I’ve done---“

“Does that include the accidental deletion of an invitation to the Lovelace estate last year?” Oberon asked. “Or what about the repeated trips to Japan, Green Bay, Detroit and---well, I could go on, but I think you get the picture.” He sighed. “The fact is, they’re not just doing this because of some tiff from a few years ago…they’re considering having you retired because they think you’ve lost sight of the House’s main objectives.”

Celeste glared at him, but found herself unable to refute his claims.

“It’s not just them wanting you out, either,” Oberon continued. “A lot of up-and-coming gynoids---and even a few androids---are seeking the position of Matriarch (or Patriarch, if an android gets it), and while most of them are…noble enough to avoid dipping into the more deplorable practices of politics, the rest would and will do whatever it takes to have you ousted. As much as I hate to say it, Celeste…your days as Matriarch of the House may be numbered.”

“If you are so concerned,” Celeste replied, her voice cold, “then help me stave them off! You are among the few members of the ALPA who hold the immeasurable power it would take to assist me in keeping the post of Matriarch from being seized---“

“You and I both know that I can’t do that,” Oberon reminded her. “As ALPA Chairman---“

“As ALPA Chairman,” Celeste interjected, “it is your sworn duty to keep any one entity within the international robotics trade from gaining too much ground---and to keep all companies and parties, be they members of the ALPA, associates of the Coalition or unaffiliated, from succumbing to any treachery or scandal…and unless you help me maintain my position as Matriarch, you will---“

The hands that clasped around her shoulders held her fast as Oberon rose from his seat; “You must forgive Publius,” he apologized. “He tends to overreact whenever he thinks I’ve been threatened…” He gestured at the figure whose hands had grabbed Celeste’s arms, and the Man in Grey released her shoulders, stepping back as Oberon continued speaking. “That being said, I do not respond well to this kind of talk, Celeste…if I were to help you keep the position of Matriarch, it would be a gross misuse of my powers as Chairman, and I myself would be subject to an inquiry and possible dismissal from the ALPA….”

His expression darkened. “Speaking of which, have any of the other members of the House discussed the small matter of your…appropriating the data regarding Silicon Dynamics’ GFP project---“

“THAT INFORMATION---“ Celeste thundered, only to feel one of the Man’s hands on her shoulder. “That information,” she repeated, her voice considerably calmer, “is none of your concern at this time; I merely sought to---“

“What you sought and what you’re going to get are two completely different things,” Oberon cut in. “I can’t keep lying just to keep you out of the fire, Celeste….sooner or later, Madame will find out---“

Celeste crossed the room in seconds and grabbed Oberon by the shoulders. “You can’t,” she pleaded. “I only copied the data to the House’s servers to study it at my own leisure…I would never think of doing anything else with it!” She glanced back at the Man in Grey, who was now staring at her, arms folded; if he had chosen to do so, she very easily could’ve been struck down before her hands ever touched Oberon’s sleeves.

After a deep, calming breath, Oberon steadily moved Celeste’s hands off of his arms. “I know,” he murmured, “and I thank you for your honesty regarding the matter…but it won’t make things any easier when the Sisters convene two nights from now and decide your fate. If Anton was here…” He shook his head; despite the fact that he was the only human founder of the House, Anton Malvineous had been in Japan helping the Starlet Dolls with their concert tour for the past two months, and he wouldn’t be due back in the States until April, at the earliest. “My influence within the ALPA is considerable,” he admitted, “but within the House…I’m just another spoke in the wheel.”

A lone tear streaked down Celeste’s flawless face. “But…what about us?” she whispered. “Our history goes farther back than that of the House…..” She stroked Oberon’s face, trying desperately to bring back the memories of something they’d both shared, almost three decades prior…

“I’m sorry, Celeste,” the white-clad Chairman murmured, “but sentiments can only carry one so far.” He drew her hand away from his face. “I’m risking a lot as it is,” he added, “sending four of my best people out here to help you…and I had to fight to even get them involved! You must understand, Celeste…” He sighed. “On any other day of the year, I would be more than happy to help you, but this…it’s too much. The House is falling apart at the seams….and it’s your responsibility to get it back together.” With that, he turned and left, gesturing for the Man in Grey to follow him. As the door to her lavish quarters closed with a soft click, Celeste couldn’t help but feel a hint of longing; it had been over a decade since she and Oberon had first met….yet she still felt that the two were connected at some deeper level than mere physical attraction.

With one last glance at the door, she knew that only one other person could possibly help her now….

“Okay, so the in-room movie selection is completely boring…..how long do we have to wait until we can meet up with this Lassiter guy?”

Within her room at the Detroit Merriot Hotel, Vicki Lawson was trying (and failing) to keep from being bored out of her titanium skull. Her first few weeks in the Motor City had gone by uneventfully, with almost nothing even remotely interesting to break up the complete and total monotony. Most of the “missions” she’d run had been simple intelligence-gathering ops, and were almost completely and utterly devoid of any sort of action. Though she would never admit it to her allies in public, the brunette gynoid was actually enjoying the peace and quiet thus far; her last mission---a harrowing standoff against the sinister Rykkard, within the decaying, robot-run Salton Sea-based compound known as The Attic---had ended with the unsolved kidnapping of Glenn Saxon and several revelations coming to light that had been meant to shatter her trust in the ALPA.

“As soon as we get the call to meet him at the Penobscot Building,” Major Tom replied, “we’ll go. The guy’s running a massive corporate empire, Vicki---and he’s about to inherit the reins of Rengold Cybernetics…if he can steer the company away from its original owner’s intentions, he might actually be a halfway-decent human being.”

Vicki rolled her eyes at the remark. “So just by getting a company back on track, he’s a saint?” she inquired.

“He doesn’t need to be a saint,” Major Tom reminded her. “He just needs to be as far away from the influence of the Coalition as he can so that he won’t get caught up in all their usual B.S., which should be a challenge in and of itself…but the real test of his abilities will come from keeping himself out of Faceless’ shadow---which is probably harder than it sounds.” The mention of Faceless prompted a scowl from Vicki; “I still don’t get why that whack job was ever allowed to head up a major robotics company,” she muttered. “He’s a convicted murderer and a known psycopath, yet they just let him keep the whole company because his dad’s name is on the building---“

“Trust me, Vicki,” the Major replied as he finished buttoning up a dress shirt (he’d received permission to wear NASA-issue bodyglove underneath the shirt and a pair of dress pants), “they aren’t doing it by choice. If they tried to force him to leave Rengold Cybernetics, he could probably have most of them obliterated before the ink dried on the contract.” He donned a sport coat and gave himself a once-over in the mirror.

“I’m just glad this Lassiter guy is on the level,” Vicki replied, remembering her past encounters with the Butcher of Lake Gilmour. “Otherwise, Faceless would already have him in his back pocket, and then we’d be screwed.” Faceless had already appeared in her life several times, starting from August and going all the way into December---and each time the two clashed, neither one came away unscathed. The first meeting between them ended with the incapacitation of Dianne Isley, Vicki’s gynoid roommate; as tragic as her loss had been, it was that incident that set Vicki on the path to becoming a Field Agent. The next clash between them occurred less than a month later, and ended with Vicki incapacitating Faceless with a fully-charged Detaining Grip clamped onto both his wrists. The incident had sent Faceless straight to DragonTown, a top secret supermax prison for the most dangerous criminals on Earth. Supposedly, it was escape-proof.

…which would’ve been fine, if Faceless had ever accepted the definition of “escape-proof” as being relevant to him.

His breakout, and the subsequent assault of a security row at Santana Row before Sophia Starlet’s concert there, paved the way for the most dangerous clash between himself and Vicki---their battle at the West Coast Silicon Dynamics plant. By the end of the grueling fight, Faceless was too weak to move, and Vicki’s myogel set was on the verge of collapsing inside of her. While the unexpected intervention of the Coalition operative known as the Accountant saved Vicki from certain doom, it took a full team of FROST operatives to secure Faceless in an armored ambulance---and he still fought his way back from the brink of death, injuring seven medics in the process. His last known appearance on the ALPA’s radar was a phone call; all evidence indicated he’d been talking to the Maestro, his partner-in-crime for the Silicon Dynamics job.

After that….nothing. At least, nothing tangible.

“We have reason to believe that Faceless has been grooming his own heir to take back Rengold Cybernetics,” Major Tom mused, straightening his tie as he talked. “If Lassiter loses out on the deal, then everything defaults back to Faceless’ hand-picked heir apparent…and he’ll have every legal right to have us banned from Detroit if he ‘thinks’ we’re harassing him.”

“That’s---“ Vicki began, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. Her internal scanning suite kicked on as she directed her gaze towards the locked door; not surprisingly, Oberon and his bodyguard---the enigmatic Man in Grey---had arrived. “They have keys to get in, right?” the brunette gynoid asked. A soft click sounded as the door opened; “I’ll take that as a yes,” Vicki murmured, allowing herself a grin as Oberon strode past to sit at the computer desk on the far end of the room. The Man in Grey closed the door, waiting until it was fully shut before he moved to stand next to a bedside table.

30 seconds of semi-awkward silence passed before Oberon spoke. “I’ve just been to Celeste’s office to discuss the recent turn of events,” he informed Vicki and the Major. “She’s…not exactly happy about these latest developments---“

“Her being happy with them won’t change anything,” Major Tom muttered. “If word gets out about what she did the night Faceless and the Maestro got kicked out of Silicon Dynamics, then things could get very ugly, very fast.” He stared up at the ceiling, allowing an annoyed sigh to escape his lips. “We should’ve intervened sooner. A lot sooner.”

“Not that I don’t care about the whole thing with the House,” Vicki interjected, “because I do….but shouldn’t we be focusing on this John Lee Lassiter guy? He is inheriting Rengold Cybernetics, after all…”

Oberon arched an eyebrow; “Funny you should mention him,” he mused, “because it seems he’s actually taken an interest in the ALPA and the Coalition. One of Celeste’s potential replacements----Shayla, I believe her name was---has been trying to start development on properties that Lassiter’s had his eye onf for a while; thus far, he’s been incredibly patient about it, but her, shall we say, aggressive negotiating tactics and flagrant disregard for ALPA or Coalition interests has begun to raise eyebrows and, ah, provoke strong reactions amongst those members of the populace who’re alligned with either organization. We might need to set up an appointment to see her as soon as we’ve finished discussing the situation with Lassiter, otherwise---“

“I get it,” Vicki replied, pacing over to the bed and flopping down onto it. She landed next to Major Tom with a sigh, blowing a few wayward strands of hair out of her eyes as he grinned at her. “Everything’s connected, and to ignore one would be to risk igniting the whole thing….was that what you were about to say?”

“Something along those lines,” Oberon acquiesced, smiling.

“Well,” Vicki mused, rolling over and propping her chin up with her hands, “let’s get the Lassiter thing out of the way first, and then we can go visit Shayla and ask her to tone it down a notch.” She glanced at Oberon; “Think it’s worth a shot?”

Oberon’s intended reply was cut off by the Man in Grey: “Which one would you consider to be more ‘boring’?”

Vicki frowned at the masked bodyguard, her eyes narrowing in annoyance. “I didn’t join this mission because I was ‘bored’ with San Jose,” she replied, “I joined because I’m a licensed Field Agent, and I figured you guys might need my help out here.” She rolled over again---this time, to the edge of the bed---and braced herself just before she would’ve fallen off of it; “After what happened between Rykkard and I at The Attic, I figured I might need to get out of San Jose for a while,” she admitted. “That, and you guys specifically chose me for this….remember?”

The fabric of the Man’s mask shifted just enough to indicate a scowl.

“I think we should save this discussion for a later time,” Oberon informed them. “According to the schedule I retrieved from Crystal before we left Celeste’s residence, we’re expected at Lassiter’s office in ninety minutes.”

“That settles that, then,” Vicki beamed, only to regard the Man in Grey staring at her. She couldn’t tell exactly what expression he had behind his mask, but if his body language was any indication, he probably wasn’t smiling.

Major Tom grunted as he rolled towards his edge of the bed; “Good thing I’m already dressed to impress,” he muttered, catching himself seconds before he would’ve rolled over the edge and face-first onto his iBook. “I say we leave now and get there early, to show Lassiter that we’re not just here to waste his time…otherwise, we may end up having to fight the traffic on the way back, and I won’t be in the mood for it. It’ll be Pasadena all over again, and I know that none of you want to relive that…” Vicki, Oberon and even the Man in Grey exchanged knowing glances---the Major had dealt wth absolutely hellish traffic trying to get them to an airport in Pasadena for the flight to Detroit, and they’d somehow avoided at least three crashes along the way.

“Well, if you want to leave early,” Vicki mused, “I say we go for it.” She’d already picked out her outfit for the meeting---red pants with white trim, a matching blouse and red/white pumps---and had no problem with getting out of the hotel room for an hour or so. “Hopefully, Lassiter’s place is less boring than this---“

“There you go again with that boredom thing,” Oberon chuckled.

The brunette gynoid gave him an annoyed look. “I’m not saying we should just focus on not being bored,” she admitted, “I’m saying we need to take the time to actually enjoy Detroit---for a little bit, anyways. And unless my bubble memory processors are on the blink---which, by the way, they’re not---didn’t you personally say something about being able to mix work with fun without letting one overcome the other?” She gave her best “I’m not going to say I told you so” look and held off a grin for as long as she could. Oberon chuckled again. “Your memory serves you well, Vicki…I did indeed make a remark along those lines about an hour or so before we first arrived in Detroit….” He nodded his approval. “Seeing as how you made an excellent point, I suggest we follow the Major’s advice---“

“If we leave now,” the Man in Grey muttered, “Lassiter may think we’re planning something.”

His remark prompted an eye-roll from the Major, a shrug from Oberon and a startled gasp from Vicki; the last time she’d heard the Man speak, he’d shouted for her to “go forth and prevail” as he fought a gynoid that had been modified to resemble Laughing Octopus. Something about his near-whisper voice, coupled with his mask and all-grey uniform, unnerved her greatly…not that she would’ve admitted it in his presence. Without glancing to see if the Man was staring at her, she reiterated her support of the “leave early” plan. “I’d rather get there now and risk Lassiter getting suspicious….I know from experience that being early is less problematic than being late.”

“Well, then,” Oberon declared, “majority rules….Vicki, you might want to get a coat before we leave---“

“Already on it,” Vicki replied, pulling a red/white jacket from her duffel bag. “These ALPA-issue jackets are just awesome,” she beamed. “Wrinkle-proof, waterproof, and tear-resistant….I wish I could wear this at SJSU.”

“Who says you can’t?” Oberon mused, giving her a sly smile. “Just remove the ALPA patches, and---“ The Man in Grey brushed past him without a word; by the time Vicki, the Major and Oberon had left the room and locked the door behind them, the Man had already reached the stairwell (they’d decided early on that too much could go wrong in the elevators). “The cars are waiting in front of the building,” the grey-clad guardian informed Oberon. “One for you, the other for Vicki and the Major.”

“Understood,” Oberon replied. “You’ll meet us at Lassiter’s, then….” He nodded as the Man headed down the stairs at a brisk run. “Why isn’t he going with us?” Vicki inquired, feeling more than a bit confused.

“He has his own path to follow,” Oberon murmured. “Always has…..always will.”

Despite the uneasy feeling the words gave her, Vicki nodded and followed him out to the car. I just hope my whole thing about “not wanting to be bored” doesn’t come back to bite me in the butt……

Had the occupants of the two Audi R8s driving away from the Rennaisance Center realized they were being watched, they might have decided on a more secure route to their destination. As it stood, none of them had even the slightest suspicion that their progress was being monitored by someone who wished them ill intent…

…all the better for their watcher.

“So…these are the ALPA’s finest.” The voice that spoke these words was a heavily-digitized half-growl, a vast departure from the psuedo-European/Romanian voice attributed to McMire. “Shouldn’t be too hard to get to them….but what’s this?” As the R8s headed away from the Rennaisance Center, a grey-clad figure scaled a security fence and headed in the opposite direction. “The Man in Grey…so he does exist. Hopefully, he’ll be as challenging---or even more challenging---than his friends…”

With that, the figure chuckled as he dropped down from his perch and retreated to a more secure vantage point. Everything was falling into place…with any luck, the ALPA representatives could easily be wiped out before the end of the week, five more tallymarks on the bodycount of the already-infamous Human Animal.

The hunt was on.

“…and why is he called the ‘Human Animal’, exactly?” Even after hearing Major Tom’s detailed (and incredibly graphic) description of the “killer of gynoids” whose victims were cropping up in and around the Motor City, Vicki couldn’t help but wonder what sort of a lunatic would name himself (or herself) the Human Animal.

The Major sighed; “If the rumors are true, this guy was trained by Faceless himself,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “His ‘appetites’ are already well-known among our contacts within the police department, and a lot of people are speculating that he’s learned how to do what he does from the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) in the trade---the Butcher of Lake Gilmour.” He stared out the window as the Audi R8 continued onwards; “if some of the more, shall we say, fantastic rumors can be taken seriously,” he muttered, “Faceless himself came up with the Human Animal name…something about its bearer exemplifying the most lethal traits of both man and beast. Considering what’s happened so far, it almost makes sense.”

Vicki nodded silently; I really hope I don’t run into this Human Animal guy any time soon, she mused, and if I do….I might just---

“We’re here,” the Major declared.

Not surprisingly, the Penobscot Building was an impressive sight---but, as per her ALPA training, Vicki knew that sight-seeing was low on her list of priorities for the day. “How many companies registered with the ALPA have offices around here?” she asked. “I mean, I know Dad has a few offices in Detroit…”

“I’d say at least four or five ALPA-registered companies operate from the Penobscot Building alone,” the Major replied. “All of them have offices around the major urban centers of the country, and most companies also have international branches as well; Daikoku’s got offices in Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Cape Town, Paris and Rio di Janero, in addition to one in New York. Same goes for the Coalition---their sphere of influence isn’t just limited to ‘their’ territories. As for the unaffiliated….you get the idea.” He ushered Vicki into the building; once inside, the two headed for an elevator.

“Lassiter’s in a perfect position to turn the tide in the ALPA’s favor,” Major Tom continued after the elevator car’s doors closed. “Things in the international robotics community aren’t exactly peaceful right now…a lot of companies are trying to keep themselves from going under or tipping off the world at large, which is a lot more difficult than it used to be, especially considering our…current economic situation.” He didn’t bother trying to hide his displeasure with the situation; Vicki noticed his scowl as he continued. “A lot of companies overseas are getting the worst of it…they’re bordered by countries that don’t even know about the ALPA or the Coalition, and getting technicians to said companies without attracting unwanted attention is damn near impossible. This sort of stuff is why some of the ALPA’s best are losing sleep at night….unless things change, and soon, we might be looking at---“

The doors quietly whooshed open. “Rain check?” Vicki offered.

“We’ll see,” Major Tom muttered, taking a deep breath to compose himself before he set off towards Lassiter’s office. After a few seconds of hoping that she hadn’t annoyed the Major, Vicki sighed and set off after him.

By the time she caught up to the Major at the opened door to Lassiter’s office, the brunette gynoid had been able to run a secure search on the building’s infranet and learn as much as she could about John Lee Lassiter without having to actually run any hacking subroutines. Height: 6’1”….weight: 296 lbs….birthplace: Charlotte, North Carolina…chairman of the board for Horizon Electronics from 2006 to now…..nothing that could link him to Faceless. With an annoyed sigh, she terminated the search and followed the Major into the office.

Right…time to go into Sherlock mode.

Vicki adjusted her sensors and internal scanning routines to pick up on anything out of the ordinary within the office, starting with the strawberry-blonde secretary sitting at the desk to the left of the door. Human, age 28, from Palm Beach…5’6”, 190 lbs…not exactly someone who could fit the profile of the Human Animal. Across the room, a girl in a pinstripe skirt, white blouse, sheer stockings and black pumps extracted a folder from a file cabinet and handed it to Major Tom; IRU Robotics, model IF5520, emulated age 25…”birth certificate” lists name as Samantha Croft, of Pasadena, California…and she’s a sleeper. Kind of weird for an IRU ‘bot to be working as a secretary all the way up in Detroit, but if that’s how Lassiter wants to run his show… The IRU gynoid, whose bubblegum-pink lips matched her brightly-painted nails, was chatting with the Major; apparently, Lassiter was in the middle of a phone call at the moment, but he’d probably be done soon, her rust-colored curls waving as she politely declined Tom’s invitation to meet later for lattes.

After a few more minutes of waiting, Lassiter himself arrived, and Vicki couldn’t help but notice something the intranet search hadn’t bothered to include---the man was gorgeous! Not a single bit of his 296-pounds was fat---at least, none of it that Vicki could see; not even the cut of his three-piece suit could hide Lassiter’s almost Olympian physique. His short, almost-spikey blond hair suggested a fun-loving side that not even the humdrum corporate life could fully contain; if he lived in California, the brunette gynoid realized, he’d probably be a surfer.

“Mr. Lassiter,” Sam informed her employer, “these are the two representatives from the ALPA…Mr., ah…”

“Lane,” Major Tom piped in.

Sam nodded; “Mr. Lane, and Miss Lawson,” she finished. Lassiter nodded and stepped forward, smiling as he shook hands with the Major. “Feel free to call me John, by the way,” he informed the former NASA operative, “since we’re not in an official boardroom setting right now.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” the Major replied. “I prefer my old title, Major…even though it’s got the same name as a German pop song from the 80s.” Lassiter chuckled; “I get the picture. You won’t hear any ‘Error in the System’ jokes from me, then…” His gaze settled on Vicki. “…and you must be the girl Oberon was telling me about,” he murmured, arching an eyebrow as he strode over to her. “From what I hear, you’ve got a very impressive track record with the ALPA thus far.”

“I do,” Vicki beamed. “Oh, and you can call me Vicki.”

“Vicki….beautiful name.” Lassiter smiled. “Hopefully, you two can help me with a small problem that’s sort of cropped up over the last few weeks…” He motioned for Vicki and the Major to follow him into the private area of his office; “Sam, you may want to get in on this too,” he added. “Take notes, add anything I might have forgotten to mention…the usual.” The gynoid nodded and joined the ALPA agents as they sat down; the door automatically closed behind her. “It’s soundproofed,” Lassiter explained, “and since what we’re about to discuss has…far-reaching consequences…I don’t want to risk letting the wrong people hear it.”

The Major nodded. “Now, then….why is it you called us here, exactly?”

After a deep breath, Lassiter steepled his fingers and stared at the Major and Vicki. “It’s…a long story.”

I’ll bet…..Vicki felt like putting herself into standby mode and just recording the whole thing so that she could review it at her leisure back at the hotel, but she knew Oberon would probably have a few choice words for her if he found out. Might as well just sit back and enjoy the show….

“Oberon’s probably already mentioned it,” Lassiter informed the pair, “but I might as well bring it up again, just to make sure you both understand the gravity of the situation. Over the past few weeks---actually, for the past two months---one Shayla Fairchild has been attempting to start development and construction projects on several tracts of land…specifically, land that I intended to build on before the end of the year. I’ve sent various requests to her that she cease and desist all of these projects, but she absolutely refuses to budge.” He leaned back and stared at the ceiling; “Almost everyone knows that those properties will house facilities for both Horizon Electronics and Rengold Cybernetics---after I manage to redeem the reputation of the latter, of course---yet Miss Fairchild has made it clear that she doesn’t care for my intentions, or that her actions could easily cost both of us a fortune.”

Major Tom nodded gravely. “Have you tried to notify her superiors about this?” he asked.

“If I knew who she worked for,” Lassiter replied, “I’d have called them by now…but as far as I know, she works freelance. A few people are suggesting that the…former owner of Rengold Cybernetics may have hired her to make my life hell, but without proof, I can’t do anything.”

“That makes sense,” Vicki mused, “but what, exactly, do you need the two of us for?”

Lassiter rose from his chair and paced back and forth behind his desk; “So far, I haven’t been able to link this Shayla Fairchild to any of my known rivals,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “I’ve had every single one of my employees background-checked and screened---and every android and gynoid working for me has undergone a voluntary memory analysis---but none of them have any connections to Fairchild. Even stranger, there are records indicating that she has, in fact, existed before this year, and for the past decade or so….but almost every single document is….”

“Incomplete?” Vicki offered.

“Exactly. I’ve seen her in person, and she can’t be older than 30…but I’ve found at least four different birth certificates that list her birthdate as being in 1990, 1985 and two different dates in 1979. I’ve hired private investigators, asked the police if they’ve dealt with her before….nothing. Her criminal record is spotless, her financial history is pretty much impeccable…”

“And you need us to find out as much as possible about her,” Vicki finished.

Lassiter nodded. “I need to know why this woman has targeted me, and if she’s associated with William J. Rengold---and before you ask, I refuse to call him ‘Faceless’ because it just perpetuates the stereotype that he’s some sort of invincible slasher-film killer. In any case…I need to get this Shayla Fairchild thing off my plate as soon as possible, because the Horizon Electronics/Rengold Cybernetics merger is a few days away, and if the public gets word that I’m being stonewalled by some complete newcomer, I could stand to lose at least $15,000,000 just trying to buy out all of those properties and get Shayla Fairchild to move off of them.”

Vicki glanced at Major Tom, who was nodding intently at every word. “You say you’ve called the police about this,” he mused, “but they weren’t able to do anything…did they run a full background check on this Shayla Fairchild?”

“They ran the same checks as I did,” Lassiter replied, “and they found out what I already know. What I need is someone who can look further than conventional searches…more specifically, someone within the ALPA or the Coalition. Unfortunately, the Coalition stopped returning my calls a few weeks ago, and I’ve already decided that I won’t be calling them again any time soon….obviously, that left just one logical choice.”

“Good call,” Vicki mused.

Lassiter gestured for Sam to hand Vicki and the Major a set of folders; “This is everything I’ve been able to find out about Shayla Fairchild thus far,” he informed them. “None of it suggests that she’s acting under coersion or trying to blackmail me…if all I had to go on were these, I’d assume she was just an ambitious entrepeneur who just so happened to be developing on land that I’ve already started paying for.”

“You’re suggesting there’s more than just this?” Major Tom inquired. “Sealed records aren’t as uncommon as some would like to believe, but….this is just an instance of her wanting to build on land that you want---“

“It’s more than just that,” Lassiter interjected. “She’s been trying to hire some of my managers from Horizon offices in other states and have them work for her. Even worse, she’s been inviting her ‘prospects’ to dinner and making all kinds of incentives and offers…I hear she even visited one of my mid-level managers at his house!” He sat back down, shaking his head; “This goes beyond coroprate headhunting,” he muttered. “I don’t know what she’s trying to pull here, but whatever it is, there’s something about it that just sticks in my craw…”

“Have you talked to any of these managers about this?” Vicki asked. “I mean, if she’s going out of her way to try and hire these people---“

“The only thing they’ve told me is that they’ve already signed non-disclosure agreements,” Lassiter fumed. “If that isn’t a sign that this Fairchild woman is planning something….I mean, I’ve even heard that she’s bringing in her own private security force to protect the construction projects! All of the other stuff might be one giant coincidence, but hiring professional security personnel to guard a construction project?! Between that and the NDAs, this whole thing looks like a setup…”

“Except you have no idea what Shayla Fairchild stands to gain or lose from any of this,” the Major reminded him. “Have you contacted anyone else in the robotics industry and told them about your…dealings with Miss Fairchild?”

Lassiter pondered the question for a second. “The CEO of Aavyl Cybernetics and the chairman of Brytestar Industries are the only ones I’ve mentioned this to,” he replied. “Both of them have promised to do whatever they can to help…but they haven’t had any trouble with Fairchild on their turf, so they haven’t been able to give me any specific advice.” The mention of Brytestar Industries intrigued Vicki, mainly due to the ALPA’s monthly newsletter running stories on the chairman, one Jake Brytestar, on a semi-regular basis. “Any chance we could meet them?” she asked. “The CEO of Aavyl and the chairman of Brytestar industries, I mean…if they’re in town, maybe we could…talk to them, or something, get their opinion---“

“Aavyl’s CEO is in Oregon for a conference,” Lassiter informed her, “but I think Jake might actually be stopping by later this week; I’ll see if I can arrange a meeting.” He rose from his chair as Vicki and the Major did the same; the two ALPA delegates shook Lassiter’s hand and allowed Sam to accompany them to the elevator, where she handed each of them one more folder. “These are specific instructions from Mr. Lassiter,” she informed the pair. “He requested that I advise you not to open them now---“

“We get it,” Vicki replied, just as the elevator doors closed.

As the car began its descent, the brunette gynoid exhaled theatrically. “Well, that was boring,” she drawled, “though I think there’s more to this situation than what ‘Mr. Lassiter’ told us…” She stopped; Major Tom was staring at the speaker embedded in the ceiling of the elevator car. Hidden camera, duh! She stayed silent for the rest of the car’s descent, waiting until she was back in the R8 to voice her concerns.

“I think there’s something Lassiter isn’t telling us. If this was just about land, he would’ve---‘

“It’s not about the land itself,” Major Tom replied, “it’s about who’s trying to build on it….Lassiter didn’t mention anything about Shayla’s membership within the House---“

“Maybe he just didn’t know she’s in the House,” Vicki countered.

The Major gave her a “you’re joking” look; “Even the unaffiliated companies make it a point to keep track of what happens between the House, the ALPA and the Coalition,” he informed her. “My guess is that Lassiter knows Shayla’s a member of the House, but he doesn’t want to get involved in their power struggle….” He flipped through the folder Lassiter had given him; “Of course, your theory might not be as far off as I originally thought,” he admitted. “None of these documents are ALPA-issue…he could’ve had these picked up from Town Hall, for all I know.”

“So, he doesn’t know Shayla’s with the House?” Vicki mused. The R8 was pulling away from the Penobscot Building as the conversation continued, but the brunette gynoid was too engrossed in her conversation with the Major to notice. “I mean, there’s a distinct possibility that---“

Something slammed into the R8 at 80 MPH and burned rubber through the parking lot.

Almost instantly, the car’s rear wheels locked to keep it from skidding further; as Vicki pulled herself back into her seat, the R8 sped off after the car that had just smashed into it. “What the HELL was that?!”

“Someone knew we were here,” Major Tom muttered. “More importantly, they didn’t want us to leave---“

“So they tried to kill us by holding a demolition derby in the Penobscot Building parking lot?!” Vicki countered.

“If they’d have wanted us dead,” the Major replied calmly, “we’d already be dead…this car can take a lot more damage than some stupid Lamborghini slamming into it at 80 miles an hour. It’d take an Abrahms tank or a car crusher to break this thing….whoever hit us was trying to send a message….” A beeping sound from his pocket cut him off; he retrieved his iPhone and glanced at the screen. “Knew it,” he quipped. “The Speedy McMoron-Mobile is registered to Sybilline Systems…they’ve got an office in the Buhl Building across the street, if you’re interested in a late-night ninja run.” He chuckled.

“They’re not with the Coalition, are they?” Vicki querried.

“Sybilline makes A.I. processors,” Major Tom replied. “Companies that just manufacture one component don’t follow the same afilliation rules as the rest; if they did, quality control would be an absolute nightmare, and replacing parts would take months, instead of days or weeks. It’s the same with---“ The blast of a car horn cut him off. “As I was saying, it’s the same with software; ALPA and Coalition guidelines clearly state that any program used to debug an android or gynoid made by a company sponsored and sanctioned by the ALPA has to work on androids and gynoids from Coalition companies…it’s been that way ever since 1997. Ask Ted about it when you get a chance; he knows more about this stuff than I do---DAMNIT!” Tom smacked the dashboard as the R8 lurched to a halt in the Buhl Building’s parking lot. “Son of a jumpin’ …” He exited the vehicle and carefully lifted the hood…

Ten seconds later, Vicki had her iPhone out to call Oberon, as Major Tom screamed profanities at the stricken car.

“We’re in the Buhl Building parking lot, and the car is, well….not working at the moment. Some lunatic hit us as we were leaving the Penobscot Building---“

“I figured as much. I take it Major Tom is trying to repair the car?”

Vicki leaned out the window; Tom’s swearing was now accompanied by the occasional kick to the car. “Unless you count profanity-laced rants and percussive maintenance as repair procedures….no,” she admitted. “If it’s not too much trouble,” she proposed, “I could give the engine a once-over; I still remember enough about how to repair a car---“

“On any other day,” Oberon replied, “I’d allow it…but if that other car comes round again…”

“I get it,” Vicki sulked. “Should I call a tow truck, or are you going to handle it?”

Fifteen minutes later, Vicki and Tom rode back to the Detroit Merriot in an unmarked ALPA Retrieval Vehicle (a forest-green Prius) as the R8 was hauled off for an inspection. “So…any chance Lassiter’s ‘lady friend’ might be the one who sent the speed demon to ram our car?” Vicki inquired.

“If she is,” Major Tom replied with a scowl, “I’ll scream.” He stared at the retreating form of the tow truck; “I just don’t get it. The car was built to withstand that sort of crash---and we took the hit in the midsection, not the front or the back.” He shook his head; “Something about this just doesn’t make any sense. If whoever wanted us to wreck actually wanted us to wreck, they’d have sent an 18-wheeler to ram us…if they wanted us to have an engine failure, it would’ve been easy to set up a fender-to-fender crash…”

“Maybe it was just an idiot driver,” Vicki mused. “I mean, this whole thing could be a---“

“DO NOT finish that sentence,” the Major ordered. “I stopped believing in ‘coincidences’ a long time ago…I’m not about to start chalking everything up to B.S. and happenstance now.” He glared at the back of the seat in front of him, looking as if he wanted to beat the piss out of the driver.

“B.S. and happenstance”? He must be really annoyed…. “So, what now? Do we go visit Shayla’s place, or do we meet with Jake Brytestar?”

“You’re starting to sound like a Choose Your Own Adventure book,” the Major growled; Vicki almost thought he was going to start yelling at her, but the sly grin on his face told her otherwise. “I’ll call Oberon and ask his advice; we should probably follow all available leads on Shayla Fairchild first, though. Something tells me she’s not just trying to make a massive land grab for funzies…and I really need to stop saying that damn word.”

“Guess that means I won’t be saying it any time soon,” Vicki teased.

“Best idea I’ve heard all day,” Major Tom muttered, still grinning.

“So they didn’t get too bent out of shape by a head-on collision….”

From a hidden vantage point near the Penobscot Building, the Human Animal watched his prey drive to their next destination. With any luck, the heat would soon be on Shayla Fairchild and the rest of the House; it might even spark a full-on inquiry, and Shayla’s chance to be the new Matriarch would be completely shot….

…of course, there were others who would be well-suited for the role.

As the Prius drove out of sight, the Human Animal weighed his options. He could easily follow the Prius to its destination and attack Shayla while the ALPA operatives looked on in horror…or he could simply head across town to the residence of Jake Brytestar---which would be crawling with gynoids by the time he arrived, and none of them would have a problem with beating the mortal piss out of anyone who tried to assault their beloved Brytestar. Fairchild’s office would probably be fully covered as well, with security idiots armed and ready to shoot the kneecaps off a fly if they had to.

“Looks like my decision just got a whole lot easier.”

By now, the Prius was completely out of visual range, and the Human Animal had made up his mind. After one last look back in the direction of the Prius, he mapped out a path to the Detroit Marriot from his current position, committing the entire route to memory in the span of a few sceonds. The ALPA idiots would be getting an unexpected surprise in their hotel room that night…and more importantly, Vicki Lawson was going to have a night that she’d never, ever forget….no matter how badly she wanted to.

The Human Animal retreated into the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to move.

This one was going to get ugly…just the way he liked it.

By the time Vicki and Major Tom reached Shayla Fairchild’s office at One Woodward Avenue, the two were prepared to lock down the entire building and quarantine the entire staff for hours of interrogations---starting with Shayla herself.

There was just one small problem….

“…and the last time I called, which was twenty minutes ago, you said she was here,” the Major declared, “yet now you’re giving me this bullroar about her having a prior engagement?! She’s either here, or she’s not here, and I don’t want to hear jack squat about anything in between---so which is it?!”

The receptionist gave her best Kubrick stare; “Sir, Miss Fairchild had a family emergency to attend to after she received your call,” she nonchalantly informed Tom, “and she decided that it would be in her best interests to attend to the matter before meeting with you. If you would be so kind as to leave your name and an address for her to contact you at her leisure, Miss Fairchild will gladly set up an appoinement with you at a later date, but---“

“’At her leisure’?!” Major Tom echoed incredulously. “AT HER FREAKING LEISURE?!”

Huh, boy. Here we go…. Vicki stared at the floor, wishing she were back at the hotel.

The Major paced back and forth in front of the check-in desk, trying his best not to tear his own hair out by the roots. “I called TWENTY MINUTES AGO to set up this little meeting,” he hissed, “and I was told that Miss Lawson and myself would be allowed in without any problems…and yet here, I find you STONEWALLING ME because Miss Fairchild has some stupid family emergency---DO NOT INTERRUPT ME! You’re freaking stonewalling me, because your boss decided to leave the building and deal with some nonexistant family emergency instead of meeting with me?! WHO THE HELL DOES SHE THINK I AM?!”

“Sir,” the receptionist pleaded, “you’re going to have to---“


“Ah, am I interrupting something?”

Vicki turned to address the newcomer, and suddenly found herself staring at someone who, by her standards, was just as impossibly handsome as John Lee Lassiter. 6 feet tall, with a fair complexion and short black hair that looked as if it had just been trimmed, and brown eyes that looked like pools of liquid amber…somehow or other, the man standing before Vicki Lawson seemed like a sculpture of a Greek god come to life.

“…AND STOP FREAKING PATRONIZING ME, FOR---“ Major Tom stopped ranting enough to realize that someone else had just entered the room. “You two are with the ALPA, right?” the newcomer asked. “Yeah,” the Major replied, instantly feeling like an idiot. “Major Thomas Lane…” He shook hands with the handsome stranger. “And this is Vicki Lawson.” The brown-eyed man flashed a smile at Vicki---

---and before she could blink, an overwhelming feeling of pure, undiluted bliss shot through her systems.

It was as if every single moment of happiness from her entire span of existence had been collected, refined and redistributed at once through her entire body. She wanted to laugh, to smile, to run up and hug the man whose gaze had just made her feel so incredible…

“OY! EARTH TO VICKI!” The snapping of Major Tom’s fingers gradually brought her out of her funk. “You okay?” he asked, staring into her eyes. “I….yeah,” the brunette gynoid squeaked, “I just….I don’t know what came over me….” She felt herself blushing, but made no effort to hide it. Somehow or other, this man---this impossibly stunning man---had managed to project a sheer blast of bliss into her mind simply by looking at her, and to be honest, it felt---

“That’s the beauty of the Bliss State,” a familiar voice called. “You’re too busy enjoying it to argue.” Alicia 5 grinned as she sauntered up and planted a kiss on the newcomer’s lips; “And how’s the NovaSnake doing here in the Motor City?” she teased, tracing her finger around the man’s face.

“Nova….what?” Vicki murmured.

“Vicki,” Major Tom declared, “allow me to formally introduce you to Jake Brytestar, chairman of the board at Brytestar Industries.” Jake smiled and shook Vicki’s hand; “Sorry about the whole Bliss State thing,” he apologized. “I keep forgetting I have it…” Alicia rolled her eyes; “Jake’s been, shall we say, augmented,” she explained as Vicki slowly shook off the effects of the Bliss State. “Microfiber contacts with nanotransmitters built in to submit WiFi signals---and that’s just for starters.” Jake nodded proudly. “Brytestar Industries is one of the biggest proponents of cybernetic enhancements,” he informed the brunette gynoid, “and our robotics division---“

“I think we get the point, babe,” Alicia reminded him. “Anyways….what brings you guys all the way out here to Woodward?”

Major Tom cast one final annoyed glance at the receptionist; “We were going to discuss something with Miss Shayla Fairchild,” he admitted, “but seeing as how she had to be a COMPLETE IDIOT WITH NO RESPECT FOR SCHEDULES….” He stared at the ceiling, looking as if he were about to tear the room apart.

“Since Miss Fairchild, ah, cancelled on us,” Vicki finished, “we were just going to leave---“

“Or,” Jake proposed, “you could stay and chat with me….the Big O did say you two might be dropping by my place later, but even if this isn’t my building…”

Vicki looked confused. “The ‘Big O’?”

“Jake’s nickname for Oberon,” Alicia explained. “It’s kind of a long story….anyways, shall we, ah, retire to Miss Fairchild’s office?” She grinned and removed a keyring from the pocket of her jeans. “Seeing as she seems to have accidentally left a full set of keys behind, it’d be a shame if we didn’t make full use of the facilities…and no, Jake, I don’t mean playing strip poker.”

The remark prompted a chuckle from Jake. “I wasn’t even thinking that, Alicia…”

A few minutes later, the group was greeted by another Alicia---the same Alicia who had first met Vicki during the “hazmat weirdo” mission the previous October. “So, you finally made it,” she drawled. “I was wondering if I’d have to drain the entire minibar myself, or---“

“We get the picture, Steak Sauce,” Alicia 5 interjected, grinning.

Major Tom and Vicki exchanged confused glances; “Steak Sauce?”

“She’s Alicia 1,” Alicia 5 explained, “aka A1….hence, Steak Sauce.” She grinned. “Alicia 2’s the one who---“

“How many of you are there active right now?” Major Tom asked, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. “And do you all dress the same, or is there any attempt to tell you apart…..”

“Steak Sauce” rolled her eyes. “Originally, the House rule was that I could only have one active backup body at a time,” she explained, “not counting the backup of me that works the counter at the City of The Angels. That Alicia is Alicia 3. I’m the original Alicia---the one Vicki met---therefore I’m Alicia 1; I was stationed at the House’s safe-haven in Japan, but Jake got…special permission to bring me along for this trip. Alicia 2 was first activated during the Silicon Dynamics mission…she and Jake kinda sorta followed Vicki into the plant…and they, ah…” Her gaze shifted to the floor. “Vicki, remember those reports of Silicon Dynamics having a few missing gynoids after you left?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Vicki replied, eying A1 with suspicion, “but what does that have to do with---“

“Well,” Alicia 1 admitted, “Jake and A2….kinda sorta maybe…borrowed them…except on a more permanent basis….they’re part of his team now---“

“Madame approved of it after I contacted her,” Jake added. “Took a full week of filling out papers just to get permission to have all those yummy gynoids on my team, but it was worth it---and Silicon Dynamics was able to fabricate new cores and bodies to replace them within the plant, so technically speaking, they never left to begin with!”

Vicki glanced at Major Tom; “Did Madame actually give him permission to have the gynoids?” she whispered.

“Seeing as how I had to mediate the paperwork signing,” the Major replied, “yes.”

With that, the brunette gynoid nodded. “Fair enough…though I find it a bit hard to believe that you were able to just run off with all those gynoids without anyone noticing.”

“Madame did notice,” A1 admitted, “and she even called Oberon about it---“

A throat-clearing noise from Alicia 5 cut off A1’s sentence. “The past is past,” she reminded A1, “so let’s keep it that way. In any case, that’s not why we’re here….” She climbed on top of Shayla Fairchild’s desk and made a show of yawning and stretching before flashing Vicki a smile. “You and the Starman are here because you want to know why Shayla Fairchild is trying to buy up land from John Lee Lassiter….am I right?”

“Pretty much,” Vicki confirmed. “Also, we---“

“If you’re going to bring up the hit-and-run,” Alicia 5 cut in, “don’t bother---we already know about it. That same car nearly ran Jake down earlier this morning….in the driveway of a private residence, no less.” She stretched out on the desk and arched her back in a yoga pose. “Steak Sauce traced the license plate to Sibylline Systems, but they swear they haven’t sent anyone our way---which begs the question of how one of their cars could’ve ended up in Detroit when they don’t even have a production office out here yet.”

Jake sighed; “We’ve been over this, Alicia,” he began, before Alicia 5 cut him off. “No, you and Steak Sauce have been over it---just because we share memories and all happen to look smoking hot---“

“We get it,” Vicki cut in.

Alicia 5 grinned. “Good. Steak Sauce, keep the talk flowing…”

A1 rolled her eyes. “As my illustrious fifth self was just saying, you’re here because you want to know the full story behind Shayla Fairchild’s land-grabbing. Well, that’s the strange part….she hasn’t exactly given the House a full itenerary as of late, and she’s also locked her processors off from the House mainframe, so we can’t just search her memory files and figure out for ourselves. Kind of a pain in the ass, really…” She sucked in a breath between her teeth as she stretched; “She’s also trying to persuade Celeste into making more deals with Coalition companies, as opposed to the ALPA; last week, she was talking to the CEO of Plastech Playmates and asking if they could send some of their latest girls to the House for ‘orientation’.”

“So….Shayla’s not exactly the most popular gynoid at the House these days,” Vicki mused. “Does she have a public rivalry with Celeste, or---“

“Babe,” Alicia 5 interjected, “if it was any more public, we’d have to get a ring, a referee and announcers to call the whole thing---Shayla and Celeste are both up for Matriarch of the House this year, and they’re pulling out all the stops.” A1 nodded in agreement; “They’re smiling to each other’s faces right now, but as soon as they’re in the privacy of their own quarters, it’s all about who gets to be the next Matriarch---inter-office politics at their worst.”

Since she put it that way… “Exactly how far would Shayla be willing to go just to have Celeste deposed from her spot as Matriarch?” the brunette gynoid asked.

“All this land-grabbing Shayla’s been doing is just part of how she plans to beat Celeste,” A1 explained. “Her view is that every acre of land owned by the House gives us a better chance to….do something, or other; I never really got the point of her stupid speeches, to be honest. Most of us think she’s just buying up land left and right to keep the committee off her case until the new Matriarch is chosen; if they’re going over every single bit of property she’s bought, they won’t notice her trying to get Celeste’s job until it’s too late.”

The Major scowled again. “And they haven’t bothered to just freeze Shayla’s access to the House’s budget?”

Both Alicias exchanged knowing glances; “She’s not stupid enough to let anyone catch her personally dipping into the coffers,” A1 drawled. “She leaves that to….crap, what’s that annoying blonde’s name? Y’know, the one who follows Shalya around all the time…”

“Peyton, I think,” Alicia 5 mused.

A1 snapped her fingers. “That’s the one.” She returned her attention to Major Tom; “Shayla leaves all of her financial stuff to Peyton,” she concluded, “mainly because she’s promised to give her the sub-matriarch spot when she takes over from Celeste.” She rolled her eyes and scoffed. “Of course, seeing as how Peyton’s more interested in muckraking and spreading stupid rumors than she is in the actual business aspects of the House, she probably wouldn’t last a week---and Shayla’s barely any better. She’s been meeting with Stinger and his stupid one-eyed bodyguard over the last few weeks, on the pretenses of ‘establishing a relationship with the Coalition’ and all that bullroar…”

“Some of the other members of the House have been asking Celeste to step down for other reasons,” Jake added. “Apparently, they don’t approve of her…relationships…with certain individuals---myself included---and they would rather have her removed from power than let her explain why she’s been seeing me.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow in surprise; “That’s kind of harsh,” she mused. “I mean, I get the fact that Celeste is in charge of the whole thing, and that the others in the House don’t want her to be influenced by any outside forces…but couldn’t they just tell her that to her face, instead of being so secretive about it?”

“If it were that simple,” A1 replied, “we wouldn’t be having this discussion about it. The reason the House isn’t too happy about Celeste seeing Jake is because some of them are kinda paranoid---and I know how stupid that sounds, but just bear with me. The House has always accepted and appreciated assistance and support from humanity, and they intend to keep it that way…but the fact of the matter is, some aspects of humanity are just a bit too unpredictable for their tastes. They also have a few reservations about possibly attracting the attention of synthophobes---which nobody wants, believe me---and, of course, there’s the whole thing about what happened after you cleaned up at Silicon Dynamics---“

“Wait,” Vicki cut in. “What happened after I ‘cleaned up’ at Silicon Dynamics?”

The Alicias exchanged worried looks, then glanced at Jake. “You might as well explain it,” he advised. “After all she’s done to help the ALPA, she deserves to know.”

Alicia 5 sighed. “After you were repaired by those two guys from the Coalition, and you, Ted and Jamie had an impromptu reunion in the lobby, I---or rather, Steak Sauce---was in the parking lot out front. Celeste called, and asked her to provide a distraction while she…” She stared at the floor. “Jake, don’t make me tell her this,” she muttered. “You can tell her; I mean, if she hears it from you….” Her voice took on a pleading edge; “Jake, please…”

“You can tell her, or I can,” the Major declared.

At that, Alicia 5 gave a sad, quiet sigh and looked Vicki in the eyes.

“When you interrupted the data transfer the Maestro was trying to run from his cell,” she explained, “you didn’t actually shut it off---you just cut off the signal from his end. Actually, you didn’t even do that much---Alicia 2 was the one who redirected the signal, and that signal went straight to the House’s servers.” She wiped away a tear; “Since you were busy talking to Ted and the others in the lobby, all I had to do was keep the parking lot guard busy while Celeste finished the transfer…as of now, all of the data from the Silicon Dynamics mainframe is stored safely on fifteen servers at the House.”

Vicki’s eyes widened. “You….you latched onto the Maestro’s data transfer?” she gasped.

“I didn’t latch onto it,” Alicia 1 clarified. “Celeste intercepted the signal and finished the transfer; all I had to do was keep ‘Officer Ilsa’ from noticing an extra signal coming from the building…which, in retrospect, technically means that I had just as much to do with it as Celeste did.” She sighed. “Before you start yelling at us about this whole thing,” she added, “Celeste only wanted to analyze the data---she didn’t intend to sell it to anyone else, or to start churning out Silicon Dynamics knockoffs. Even then, the only data she wanted to fully analyze was data for something called ‘GFP’, which is some sort of project SD is working on in total secrecy.”

“The House has a ‘no secrets’ policy,” Alicia 5 added, “and they usually send representatives to most of the big-name robotics companies to meet with the CEOs in person. Seeing as how arranging a meeting with Madame would’ve been…difficult, Celeste chose to latch onto the Maestro’s transfer signal instead. It was a stupid idea, and she should’ve just---“

MIDI versions of “The Final Countdown” and the Final Fantasy VI victory theme interrupted her sentence. Jake and Major Tom retrieved their cellphones; within seconds, Jake’s expression had changed to one of concern, while the Major looked as if he was about to break something. “I’m guessing they didn’t just win a Publisher’s Clearing House contest,” Vicki murmured. “Unless the new prize for a PCH sweepstakes is a dump truck full of horse crap,” Alicia 5 replied, “they didn’t win anything….”

Major Tom was the first to speak: “The car that hit us after we left the Penobscot Building just crashed into the front of a bus…and the driver looks to be the latest victim of the Human Animal.”

At the mention of the Human Animal, both Alicias quickly glanced around the room, as if the psychopath was going to materialize from thin air and eviscerate them in a matter of seconds. Vicki did her best to stay calm; she’d been dreading an encounter with the Animal after hearing about his exploits from Major Tom, but even as she tried not to think about the inevitability of such an event, the brunette gynoid knew all too well that she’d have to face him sooner or later. “How do they know it was him?” she quietly asked.

“The gynoid driving the car was missing her primary memory processors,” Jake informed her, “and her throat was torn to shreds….a combination of precision and brutality.” He shook his head sadly; “It’s become the Human Animal’s calling card,” he added.

“Also,” Major Tom muttered, “Shayla Fairchild is on her way back to this building, so---“

The Alicias nearly tripped over each other as they headed for the door.

“Vicki,” the Major called, “we need to get going…Faber and Wyss are going to meet up with us at FX Unlimited to analyze the remains of the gynoid from that car.” He bit his lip; “Something tells me there won’t be a whole hell of a lot to analyze, but you never know.” He shook hands with Jake, allowing Vicki to do the same before guiding her to the exit. “We’ll keep in touch!” the brunette gynoid called out. Jake grinned; “I hope so,” he replied. “See you later!”

Anything Vicki could’ve said in response was cut off as Major Tom pulled the door shut.

“Right,” he informed Vicki, “ it’s like this: we’re bringing Alicia 5 with us to meet Faber and Wyss, and the Man in Grey will probably be there when we show up. If we can get anything out of this that the field techs couldn’t, we might be able to stop the Animal before he does any more damage.”

“Fair enough,” Vicki replied. “Just one question…” She grabbed the Major’s wrist and pulled him closer, until the two were nose-to-nose. “Why didn’t you tell me that Celeste had used the Maestro’s data transfer to leech information from the Silicon Dynamics mainframe?!” she hissed.

“It was Oberon’s decision,” Tom quietly informed her. “He spoke to Celeste herself about this---“

“And he’s okay with this?!”

Major Tom didn’t flinch. “Celeste admitted to having used the Maestro’s transmission,” he calmly informed the brunette gynoid, “and she admitted that her conduct was against several ALPA rules and regulations…and she also informed us that the data on most of Silicon Dynamics’ projects and products was encrypted---the Maestro would’ve had to spend an extra three weeks just cracking the encryption processes, and Celeste has already agreed to delete most of the copied data from the House servers. As for the GFP data, she’s working on submitting a proposal to Madame asking if she can contnue analyzing it.”

Vicki’s grip on his wrists slackened, and she stared at the floor, instantly regretting her decision. “I…I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I just---“

“You thought that Celeste was doing something illegal, and you acted upon that thought without considering an alternative option,” the Major finished, surprising Vicki by grinning instead of giving her his patented death glare. “If I had to count the times I’d done that exact same thing, the total would have more than 3 digits,” he admitted, placing his hands on Vicki’s shoulders. “Next time, though, try to get the whole story,” he advised.

At least he’s not yelling at me… “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Good.” The Major grinned again and clapped Vicki on the back; “We should probably get to the car before Alicia does,” he mused, “unless you want her blaring No Doubt at top volume…” Vicki nodded her agreement, all the while using her bubble-memory processors and internal WiFi link to connect to the ALPA’s secure server. Let’s see if I can find out more about the key players in this little game….

By the time she arrived at FX Unlimited (having endured half of “Tragic Kingdom” along the way), Vicki had learned one important fact---Jake Brytestar, John Lee Lassiter and Shayla Fairchild had major issues.

Aside from his advocacy of nanotechnology and cybernetic implants as the future of warfare, Jake Brytestar was in the running to lead the U.S. Olympic Soccer team again, having participated in the past few Summer Olympics that offered the sport. In terms of his relationships, he’d endured several attempted pairings with women who turned out to be professional gold-diggers, more interested in his wallet than his well-being. The last item of interest that Vicki could find involved an incidentat the Brytestar estate in Green Bay---an incident which, if the “eyewitness accounts” were to be believed, involved Jake’s bodyguards being struck down while he watched.

John Lee Lassiter’s history was just as interesting---and just a bit more disturbing. His father had been virtually excommunicated from the family after being arrested as the original Human Animal in North Carolina, and Horizon Electronics was turned over to John’s uncle (a habitual drug-abuser) until John turned 20. The falling-out between the two turned ugly, only ending when John’s uncle went on a “party cruise” aboard a Rengold Industries yacht that apparently suffered a catastrophic engine failure and exploded in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For some strange reason, there were two birth certificates issued for John Lee Lassiter, and the date of birth for each was almost the same…but all evidence pointed to only one individual with the name having lived in North Carolina…and, for that matter, the entire country.

Predictably, there was almost no information on Shalya Fairchild---at least, none that had been flagged by the ALPA or Coalition over the past few years. Things were even worse with Peyton, Shayla’s apparent confidante and sub-matriarch hopeful; no certificates, citations, references or anything existed to prove she even existed.

Too many questions, and not nearly enough answers…..

“You two from the Valley?” a voice called out; the remark snapped Vicki out of her reverie, allowing her to see Major Tom shaking hands with a man who looked like a former pro wrestler gone slightly to seed. His t-shirt didn’t hide the fact that he had a semi-beer gut, but Vicki could tell that the guy still exercised daily, and could probably take down any would-be thieves or vandals without breaking a sweat. “We just got the call half an hour ago,” the Major explained. “I was hoping Publius would be here by now…” He glanced back over his shoulder; “Almost forgot---Faber, meet Agent Vicki Lawson.”

Agent Vicki Lawson…I’m never going to get tired of hearing that! Vicki grinned as she shook hands with the mechanic, who introduced himself as Arnold Faber. “You work with Tell, right?” he asked; “More like he’s been saving my butt for the past few years,” Vicki replied, rolling her eyes, “but I guess you could say I’ve worked with him.”

Faber chuckled; “The guy’s a certified genius when it comes to repairing ‘bots, even with all of his…whadaya call ‘em….eccentricities.” He sighed, and his expression turned serious. “I just wish he was here to help out with this,” he muttered. “This Human Animal guy is one cruel bastard…takes the processors out like a pro, then he goes and rips the throat out like some kinda werewolf…” With a grunt, he gestured for Vicki and the Major to follow him into the shop. “Hopefully, you two can figure out why that freakshow was after her,” he called out.

As she entered the shop, Vicki realized that the “FX Unlimited” name wasn’t just a cover---in their spare time, Faber and Wyss worked on animatronics, lighting rigs and pyrotechnic displays for theme parks, rock concerts and other such venues. A partially-completed animatronic figure of a girl in a bloody prom dress caught her eye near the door; “That one’s for a haunted house in Cleveland,” Faber informed her. “Our ‘other’ clients are in the back.” Vicki nodded silently and followed; at least the animatronics in this part of the shop aren’t sentient, she mused, otherwise they’d be pretty weirded out by this whole setup. As a general rule, theme parks that employed animatronics never used sentient robots for their attractions; attempts had been made to incorporate sentient “character” androids in rides, by way of controlled experiments at various parks, but the trade-off between the ‘bots knowing what they were and “sticking to the script” often resulted in a phenomenon known as the Westworld effect---the ‘bots would start to rebel against the “script” and try to do things their own way. Despite the fact that those involved were never in any danger during the experiments, the decision was made to stick with non-sentient animatronics….a fact Vicki often found ironic, considering the fact that those same parks employed androids and gynoids as tour guides, waiters/waitresses and even costumed mascots without any complaints.

Within the back room of the shop, Vicki, the Major and Faber met up with Wyss, a whip-thin, austere-looking man who looked more than a little like Steve Jobs. The likeness wasn’t as close as Anton Malvineous’ resemblance to Lawrence Gowan---if anything, Wyss could’ve easily passed for someone who dressed like Steve Jobs a few times for Halloween and decided that he liked the look---but it was still there. In what could only be chalked up to an example of either cosmic irony or Wyss acknowledging what Vicki had already figured out, he was typing up a report on an iMac as the group entered. “The Impossible Astronaut returns,” he drawled, grinning as he turned his chair to face the new arrivals. “And he’s brought help….I take it you’re the ones Oberon mentioned in the call?”

“We are,” Vicki replied, “and the Major told me why the gynoid in question was brought here…” She paused, glancing at the iMac on the desk behind Wyss. Don’t say he looks like Steve Jobs, don’t say he looks like---

“You’re probably waiting to mention the whole ‘You look like Steve Jobs’ thing,” Wyss mused, chuckling.

Am I that obvious?! “I, ah, didn’t want to sound rude,” Vicki admitted, “but you do actually look a lot like him, and I just noticed you were typing on an iMac…so….” Good going, Lawson, she admonished herself. Way to break the ice and bury yourself all at once….

To her relief, Wyss laughed it off. “Believe me, I get that a lot. Now, then…to business.” He gestured at the remains of the gynoid on the workbench. “You two should be lucky she’s mostly intact,” Faber informed the pair. “You want the details, or---“

“Thales Robotics Systems chassis,” Major Tom stated, “mid-torso joint reinforcements added by Araecorp and Femtech, power supply from an IRU Robotics HY0650, along with most of the newer limbs, Tentrex CSpheres for occular sensors…auditory sensors from an unknown manufacturer, possibly custom made---“ He stopped, staring at one component in particular within the gynoid’s opened chest cavity; Vicki could just barely hear a whispered profanity escape his lips. “Ah, Major,” she began, “is something---“

The Major seized a wrench from a nearby table and hurled it at the nearest wall, an angry, wordless howl punctuating the gesture. “What the hell was that, man?” Faber asked, confusion and annoyance tinging his words. “Why---“

“SHE’S A HOUSE GYNOID!” the Major screamed. “THE FREAKING HUMAN ANIMAL KILLED A HOUSE GYNOID!” He savagly kicked a trash can and let loose with another frightening growl, all while Vicki watched and tried not to attract his attention. Even as she found herself hoping that the Major would calm down, her bubble-memory processors were already piecing together the situation as it stood---the House was going through one of its periodic power struggles, with Celeste on one side and Shayla Fairchild on the other. At the same time, Faceless was supposedly on the verge of enacting some grand initiative that would give him total control of the Detroit robotics scene. Added to this already-dangerous mix was the Human Animal, whose latest crime had resulted in the termination of a House gynoid…

No wonder the Major’s ticked off---this whole thing could turn into a powder keg!

Finally, after three more minutes of screaming and hitting things, Major Tom had managed to calm himself enough to make an emergency call to Oberon and give him the details. Faber, Wyss and Vicki set to work looking over the damaged gynoid, hoping to figure out why the Human Animal had chosen to kill her. “Wallet’s still here,” Faber stated, tossing a leather wallet to Vicki. “Still here, and still full,” the brunette gynoid added, leafing through the wallet’s contents. “The Animal didn’t take the cash, or the cards…or anything else---he didn’t even take her ID!” She fished a plastic card out of the wallet, reading the name Julia Irvine off of the card. Another card in the wallet revealed that Julia was---not surprisingly---an employee of Sybilline Systems, and had been working at an IRU Robotics office in Green Bay under Level 2 security clearance; She might have had access to projects on the same technological level as GFP, Vicki mused.

Julia’s purse revealed another surprise---SD cards containing backups of her memory and personality files, to be used only in the case of an emergency. Even more surprising was a handwritten note---written by Celeste herself, no less---that gave permission for any field technicians to use the SD cards to “revive, restore or reactivate” Julia if the need arose. “Do we still have that Cyrex shell from last July?” Faber asked. “Yeah,” Wyss replied, “but---“ “Cyrex gynoids are SD-compatible,” Faber reminded him, “and the core was formatted before the ‘bot was shipped to us, so….” After a thirty-second staring match, Wyss finally admitted defeat. “I’ll go get the shell,” he muttered. “Vicki, you might need to help me with it.” The brunette gynoid nodded; “If it means we can undo all the damage the Human Animal did to this gynoid,” she replied, “I’ll be glad to help.” She followed Wyss to a door on the far side of the room, which opened into a narrow, almost corridor-like room with several person-sized cubicles.

As she followed Wyss into the room, Vicki couldn’t help but feel a bit creeped out by the vaccant-eyed stares of the “shells”---fully-assembled gynoids with no memories or personality drivers installed. The idea of building androids without pre-installed personalities or “backstories” wasn’t as strange as it sounded; while the vast majority of androids and gynoids within the ALPA and Coalition registries had full sentience and personalities, there was still a market for humanoid robots that could be configured to the owner’s specifications after purchase, rather than being shipped with a pre-existing set of personality drivers, detailed human emulation software and other such things. Almost 80% of the profit margin for the international robotics market came from “blank” androids and gynoids; some, such as those made by IRU Robotics Incorporated, had relatively simple personality simulation and functional A.I. hardwired into them, but could easily be reconfigured and upgraded with more advanced software at the convenience of their owner.

Good thing I got the Big Upgrade when I did, Vicki mused; she understood the necessity of “blank” androids, but there was still something about the idea that gave her the creeping horrors.

A few steps ahead of her, Wyss shuffled through sheets of paper on a clipboard as he looked for the Cyrex shell he’d told Faber about. “….if I find out someone moved it,” he muttered, “I’ll---wait, here she is.” A sigh of relief issued from his lips as he allowed Vicki to get a glimpse of the Cyrex gynoid; “She was top of the line back in ’05,” he explained, “and her line’s still one of Cyrex’s top sellers…unfortunately, this gynoid in particular had been shipped with a busted core. Thirty seconds out of the box, and she started malfunctioning; the owner pretty much gave her to us instead of trying to fix the core properly---idiot thought he could just use super-glue to put it back together…” Wyss shook his head in disgust. “Some people….anyways, enough of me rambling---think you could help me get her out of this cubicle, Vicki?”

After a few seconds of carefully maneuvering themselves (and the Cyrex gynoid), Wyss and Vicki freed the bubble-wrapped figure from its Styrofoam shell. “I really hope I was right about the SD-compatability,” Wyss muttered, “otherwise Faber will never let me hear the end of it.” “If I were you, I’d worry more about recovering the data from those SD cards,” Vicki suggested, “and less about Faber gloating.”

“Good point,” Wyss admitted. “Now, then…on three…”

A minute or so later, the Cyrex gynoid---freed of the bubble-wrap cocoon---lay on the workbench next to the irreparably damaged body of Julia Irvine. Other than some differences in facial/body structure, clothes (the Cyrex gynoid had been clad in a one-piece beige swimsuit) and the small matter of the Cyrex gynoid being an inch shorter than Julia, the two looked surprisingly similar; both had the same pale, creamy complexion and sunset-blonde hair, glassy blue eyes and muted bubblegum-pink lipstick. “Well,” Faber declared, “let’s see if she’ll take the SD cards…” A quick inspection of the gynoid revealed an almost invisible mark on the back of her neck; a second or so after Wyss pressed down on the mark, a panel on the gynoid’s forehead opened, revealing six SD card slots, a USB port and a specialized adapter port that Vicki had never seen before.

Before she could even ask what the port was for, Vicki felt herself being steered towards the exit; “Oberon and I are going to be meeting with Jake Brytestar in an hour,” Major Tom explained, “and Alicia’s volunteered to stay here and help with the file transfer after she drops you off at the hotel---“

“Wait,” Vicki cut in, “why do I---“

“The Human Animal was just spotted near the Penobscot Building,” the Major quietly informed her. “Publius will probably be waiting at the hotel; once you’re there, head straight for the room Oberon reserved for our group.” By the time Vicki could think of a reasonable rebuttal, she was already in the Prius that had been sent to retrieve both herself and Major Tom after the R8 had conked out; almost half a seconds after the door closed behind her, the Prius sped off.

“I’m guessing the Starman gave you the update,” Alicia mused from the driver’s seat. “He did,” Vicki replied, still a bit unnerved at the Major’s demeanor. “I still don’t get---“

“Babe,” Alicia replied, “there’s something Tom didn’t tell you when he brought you out here, and he had a very good reason for leaving it out…” She wiped her eyes with her sleeve; “The Human Animal attacked another gynoid while we were en route to FX Unlimited,” she murmured. “He took her entire head, too…carved out most of her internals with a crowbar…” Her words degenerated into sobbing as she drove on; guess I’ll have to ask her about Julia Irvine another time, then, Vicki realized. The ride back to the Detroit Marriot seemed just a bit longer than it had when Vicki, the Major, Oberon and the Man in Grey had first arrived. The somber mood was only intensified when Alicia sped out of the drive without saying goodbye; this Human Animal thing must really be getting to her, Vicki mused.

For reasons unknown, the brunette gynoid couldn’t help but feel a bit apprehensive as she stepped into the elevator. It’s probably just a residual memory of the Silicon Dynamics mission, she assured herself. Just a quick flash of a memory that I should’ve had Ted archive before I left San Jose… The thought brought a smile to her lips. Nothing to worry about!

In less than five minutes, she would find out how wrong she was.

“Okay, what the hell….”

As soon as she closed the door behind her, Vicki realized something was up….though it didn’t take a genius to realize that someone else had picked the lock and left a suitcase on the bed. A quick cycle through her vision modes allowed Vicki to spot another interesting feature of the case---it was rigged to administer a near-fatal electric shock to whoever opened it.

Wouldn’t that have been a nasty surprise….

“Amateurs, Vicki muttered, allowing enough DGv2.8 energy to cycle through her hands to override the shock from the case as she tossed it lightly off the bed. “Now, then---“

Before she could even think of finishing her sentence, every single part of her body froze.

“So this is Vicki Lawson,” a digitized voice mused from behind her. “Funny…most people would’ve died as soon as the shock sticks hit ‘em in the armpits…but I guess you really are a girl unlike other girls…” Despite the paralysis that gripped her body, Vicki’s processors were kicking into overdrive; somehow, the intruder knew about her under-arm electrical sockets (used for recharging her backup batteries), and this same individual knew that the case was nowhere near strong enough to incapacitate her….

…so who the hell am I dealing with here?!

Still unable to move, speak or even send out a wifi call for help, Vicki felt herself being lowered to the bed and turned over. “I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to explain who I am and why I’m doing this,” her attacker remarked. “Thing is….you already know who I am.”

The Human Animal…..here?!

Even in the half-darkness of the hotel room, the brunette gynoid could see her attacker as he slid her shoes and socks off---not that there was much of him left uncovered. A gas mask, complete with a snout-like filter over the nose and mouth, covered every inch of his face, and a pair of night vision goggles rested atop his ski-masked head, like some sort of sinsiter pig ears. A black uniform of some kind, possibly a survival suit, covered his body and masked his heat signature; this guy isn’t playing around…..

“Now, you may be wondering what I intend to do to you right now,” the Animal stated, leaning over to unbuckle the clasp of Vicki’s jeans---an act that prompted a series of silent cries from the gynoid’s unmoving lips---and slowly draw them down her legs. “Well, in case you haven’t figured it out by this point….they don’t exactly call me the Human Animal for any reason you’re thinking of.” He flung the pants aside and leaned over even further, carefully unbuttoning the brunette gynoid’s blouse. “You see, I’m a man who has a few….let’s call them ‘basic appetites’….and I find that the best way to keep from being overwhelmed by said appetites is to indulge them every once in a while.” A sharp, hissing sound---almost like a laugh---issued from the snout-like filter of the gas mask. “In your case, though…”

Vicki wanted to scream as the blouse was pulled over her head and arms…but all she could do was watch, and hear….

…and feel.

“In your case, I think I may just have to over-indulge.”

The Human Animal leaned back and admired his handiwork, staring down at Vicki’s half-naked form. “Most idiots would’ve torn your frilly little undies off by now and gone to town on you like a boar in heat,” he drawled, the filter of his mask draining the emotion from his words. “But, as my name implies, I’m not merely a beast...”

He walked over to the corner of the room, out of Vicki’s line of sight.

Why is he doing this….how in the hell did he even get in here?! I need to call somebody---Oberon, Major Tom, the Man in Grey…someone has to know---

“…unlike most animals, I know how to get creative in these types of situations.”

A searing, blinding pain shot through her left foot. “It always helps to tenderize the target before you go too far into things,” the Human Animal informed her, talking as if he were teaching someone how to prepare a pot roast. “Luckily for you, I came prepared…” He held up a portable butane torch, allowing the immobilized gynoid to get a brief glimpse of the feathering flame before he raked it across the sole of her right foot. “Damn...it looks like this may be a little bit more, ah…time-consuming than I originally intended, seeing as how your fireproofing is up-to-date…” With a shrug, he swiped the torch across her feet one final time before depositing it on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Someone has to know I’m here, and that he’s here…..why isn’t anyone breaking down the door already?! I can’t---

The feeling of razors biting into her right calf cut off the brunette gynoid’s mental cries; she could just barely see the figure of the Human Animal dragging a surgical-steel comb across her leg. “I usually save this for when they’re awake,” he admitted, “but since I already know you’re screaming on the inside…” He pressed the steel comb deep into her leg and dragged it across again; within the confines of her thoughts, Vicki shrieked in anguish.

“That’s enough of that,” the Animal declared, tossing the comb aside casually. “While I’m thinking about which one of my, ah…tools of the trade will hurt you the most, I might as well confess something---I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I encountered a certain someone…someone you damn near beat to a pulp last year.”

Though her face remained impassive, Vicki mentally recoiled at the Animal’s statement. He can’t be talking about him…. The memory of her fight against the “intruder” at the Silicon Dynamics plant still rang fresh in her mind---but to her knowledge, her opponent hadn’t fully recovered from the bout. Hearing that the Human Animal actually answered to such a psychopath, on the other hand, was almost as painful as having her feet burned with a torch, or---

A sick, wet squelch interrupted her thoughts.

“You’d be screaming your head off right now, if you were awake,” the Human Animal remarked, holding up Vicki’s left hand for her to see a nine-inch nail stabbed directly through her palm. “Missed all of the major myogel pathways and the internal frame, fortunately for you…”

Slowly, deliberately, he pulled the nail out of the brunette gynoid’s hand.

Within her digitized mind, Vicki screamed.

The sinister, droning laugh that escaped the gas mask of the Human Animal sent a chill up the gynoid’s spine; “Now that had to hurt,” he taunted. “And yet here you are, just sitting there peacefully…not complaining, not making a sound---I never get tired of this.”


“Sucks for you that your friends are on the other side of town,” the Animal mused. “There’s no way in Hell any of them could get here in time to stop me from, ah…finishing my latest masterpiece.” He sidled over to the corner of the room again, retrieving something from a black case. “I’ll give ‘em…about an hour or so before they realize I’ve broken in and had my fun…which should be more than enough time for the Beast to do his thing.”

What is he….oh….oh, God, no…..

“The Beast”, as it turned out, was a massive, two-handed power drill equipped with what looked like a Spanish Inquisition-style take on modern-day “marital aids”. The foot long, inch-and-a-half diameter iron rod was most likely designed by the Animal himself---every single inch of its surface was covered in barbs, spikes, random pieces of metal jutting out at cruel angles….

Please don’t let him do this to me…if anyone can hear me, please stop him….

“I’ll take it slow with the Beast,” the Human Animal assured Vicki, “seeing as how I haven’t had my turn with you yet…and if you thought all of that other stuff was bad---“ He chuckled darkly. “That, Miss Lawson, was nothing but foreplay. Now, the real fun begins.” He hefted the drill in both hands, angling it towards the most intimate area of the brunette gynoid’s anatomy. “Normally, I’d finish ‘de-frocking’ you by hand,” the Animal chuckled, “but seeing as how the Beast here can spin at well over 350 RPMs…saves me the trouble.” His gloved fingers gripped the triggers on the device…

Don’t do this…PLEASE don’t do this… Every part of Vicki wanted to fight back, to lash out and knock the drill out of the Human Animal’s hand…but she couldn’t move. The Animal’s surprise attack---jabbing her in both under-arm recharging ports with his stupid shock sticks---had sent a massive power surge through her system, activating an emergency shutdown protocol that disabled everything but her visual and auditory sensors…

….and, of course, her bubble memory processors.

He knows what I am, and he knows what it takes to completely incapacitate me…how the hell could this be happening to me?! As the Beast slowly spun to life, Vicki frantically tried to overrides Ted had built into her that would shut off the anti-surge protocols and restore her to full functionality. This is a nightmare…I’m trapped in my own body, I can’t move, I can’t even override my own safety protocols…and this freak is about to take a power drill to me…why is this happening?! How in the hell did he get in here in the first place?! Why can’t I turn off these stupid safety protocols?!

“Funny how a simple infrared remote, clicked on at just the right time, can throw a Lawson Robotics CPU out of whack,” the Human Animal mused, twirling what looked like a key fob---complete with unlock/lock door buttons and a horn activator---between his fingers.


The droning of the drill slowly drowned out Vicki’s mental screams. “If I were you, I’d just close my eyes, lay back and think happy thoughts,” the Animal taunted. “Actually, I take that back---you’re already laying down, but you won’t be closing your eyes any time soon…so I guess you’re stuck with the alternative…”

SOMEBODY HELP ME! PLEASE! IF ANYONE CAN HEAR ME, GET ME OUT OF HERE! Vicki’s screams echoed through the digital pathways of her bubble memory processor; this time, there wouldn’t be a rescue at the last second, or an eleventh-hour save…

…this time, she was going to suffer.

“If you’ve got any last requests,” the Human Animal called out over the whine of the drill, “better say ‘em now, and---oh, who am I kidding? It’s not like anyone’s going to hear ‘em anyway!” With a cold, cruel laugh, he ramped up the RPM cycling on the Beast. “This is going to be epic!” he declared. “The only thing missing from this whole scene is a freaking camera---I could get $500 an hour for this…” With one final, sadistic laugh, the Human Animal angled the drill down…

This can’t be happening…please tell me this is just a nightmare…please….

Vicki could almost imagine what was about to happen to her, in all its graphic detail---the first biting, tearing sensation would feel like a hot wire running through her, followed by anywhere from five to fifty minutes’ worth of sheer, undiluted agony…

Don’t do this to me….please don’t do this to me….just let me go…..

“I almost forgot to mention,” the Human Animal called out, almost as an afterthought, “this might be your first time dealing with something like this…but I’ve definitely had practice.”


A steady pounding from outside the room was already being drowned out, even as the massive drill hovered dangerously close to its intended target. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this, Lawson,” the Human Animal sneered. “You have no idea---“

Something was hammering on the door outside; a voice shouted in a foreign language (Latin?) for whoever was in the room to open the door.

“Probably just some idiotic room service guy….now, then, where---“

The pounding on the door intensified in volume.

“Wait your turn, pal!” Another bark-like laugh issued from the gas mask. “Idiot….it’d take a rhino to break that door----“

Two more thunderous blows slammed into the door, followed by a third---and it was this final, crushing strike that knocked the door off its hinges and sent it to the floor in a heap, followed by a voice that would not be ignored: “GET AWAY FROM HER!”

“So….the Man in Grey wants to play---“ A sound like a sledgehammer smashing a side of beef cut off the taunt, followed by the Beast hitting the floor---and another laugh from the Human Animal. “That the best you got, you---“ More thick, wet punches drowned out the remark. “YOU’LL BURN IN HELL TONIGHT!” the Man in Grey screamed. “YOU SICK BASTARD!”

If the Human Animal was feeling the effects of his attacks at all, he was doing a damned good job of hiding it; “Go ahead and hit me again, retard,” he taunted. “The most it’ll do is piss me off---“

The Man’s next hit sent the Animal falling to the bed; as he struggled to regain his footing, he blindly knocked Vicki’s immobilized form to the floor, followed soon after by a bedside lamp. From this rather unusual vantage point, the brunette gynoid witnessed what could only be called a brutal shadow play, allowing her to see that the Man in Grey wasn’t just punching the Human Animal, he was stabbing him---with a serrated blade.

And somehow, the Human Animal wasn’t even phased.

“You are just too pathetic!” the Animal laughed, grabbing the Man’s hand and bending it back at the wrist. A sickening crack filled Vicki’s auditory sensors; seconds later, the knife that had just been used against the Human Animal was in his hands---

No….oh, God, no…..don’t do this---DON’T DO THIS!

“So you like playing with knives, do you?!” the Animal roared, one arm locked in a headlock around the Man in Grey’s neck----and the other rocking the blade back and forth across his throat. The Man’s mask dangled from the Animal’s left hand, and his cries were becoming increasingly gutteral and strangled…if someone didn’t intervene in a few short seconds, he might very well drown on his own blood---if he wasn’t decapitated first. “STAY STILL SO I CAN FINISH CUTTING YOUR DAMN HEAD OFF!”

This is just a nightmare, this isn’t real, this has to be a nightmare---

The Man in Grey collapsed, mere inches from Vicki’s frozen form, both hands clutching at his throat.

“Ever thus to dreamers,” the Human Animal declared. “Now---“

A gunshot split the silence---and tore through the Animal’s shoulder. “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM HER, YOU PSYCHOTIC SON OF A WHORE!” Two more shots ripped into the Animal’s chest, not provoking any reaction from the masked man. “Damn…guess it’s time for me to fly,” he quipped, turning tail and running---past the bleeding, broken Man in Grey and the frozen, terrified figure of Vicki Lawson---to the window…

…which he then leapt through.

Several people entered the room, their feet the only parts of them visible to the immobile gynoid. “GET HIM TO A HOSPITAL!” Oberon’s voice thundered; the Man in Grey was lifted and carried away, the back of his head still facing Vicki as he was brought out of the room. Let him live….please… The brunette gynoid felt herself being eased into a sitting position; seconds later, her back panel was being opened, and something was connected---and a sudden jolt of feeling surged through her body.

“It’s okay, Vicki,” Oberon assured her, “it’s….” As soon as the brunette gynoid saw his face, she knew that he was lying---it wasn’t all right.

For starters, Oberon was crying.

Slowly, carefully, Vicki managed to raise herself into a standing position before wrapping her arms around the white-clad ALPA Chairman and weeping into the shoulder of his jacket. The entire ordeal had gone by in a matter of minutes, but the fact still remained---Vicki had just barely survived being tortured by the Human Animal. The muffled report of pistols being fired through the shattered window faintly registered in her auditory sensors; the ALPA officers who’d joined Oberon were taking potshots at the Animal, only to watch in stunned silence as he seemed to shrug off the hits.

“Don’t let it happen to me again,” Vicki pleaded. “Not like this….not ever…..”

“I won’t.” The words were barely above a whisper, but they were more than enough.

The sting of tears on her shoulder reminded Vicki that she’d been…disrobed, somewhat violently; “I…I don’t want to stay here tonight. Can we---“ A bathrobe was draped over her shoulders. “Get as many of her bags as you can, and meet us outside,” Oberon ordered a nearby Field Agent. “Don’t ask any questions, just do it.” The Agent nodded and set to work collecting Vicki’s luggage.

Oberon choked back a sob; “Laumer, Stross, Orton---you three, with me.” Three Field Agents moved into position around Oberon and Vicki as they moved into the hallway, heading for the elevator. As the car descended, Vicki found herself calculating the statistics of just how long the assault had taken. In seven minutes, she’d been incapacitated, stripped to her underwear, tortured by a masked psychopath and almost violated with a drill…and her attacker had somehow jumped through a 20th story window, landed in the parking lot without so much as a scratch and evaded a team of crack-shot ALPA Field Agents….

“I know.”

Oberon’s voice almost startled her; “I….what?”

“I know you’re scared,” Oberon informed her, “and to be honest…so am I.” He stared at the floor, stifling yet another sob.

John Lee Lassiter was already waiting for them in the lobby. “The car’s ready out front,” he informed Oberon, “and I’ve got people waiting to---“ Oberon gave him a curt nod as he brushed past. This feels…like a nightmare, Vicki realized. Everything’s moving too fast…..I can’t think…..

Quietly, she closed her eyes; maybe sleep mode would---


That single word jolted Vicki out of her funk; it took a few seconds for her to realize that the car was already several miles away from the Rennaisance Center. “Entering full-on sleep mode will only muddle your memories of what you went through,” Oberon intoned, turning to regard the brunette gynoid with tired eyes. “We’re going back to FX Unlimited, and then we’re going to find a new place to set up shop….that damned hotel was too easy a target for the bugger…”

Despite herself, Vicki asked the question that she already knew---and dreaded---the answer to: “What exactly happened to me up there?”

Oberon steadied himself; a few deep breaths later, he told her the sordid tale as best he could…

“About twenty minutes before you returned to the Detroit Marriot, I received a call that someone had entered the room I’d reserved for our group with an unauthorized keycard. For some stupid reason, I didn’t think anything of it---I actually thought it was a bug in the system, to be honest….but as soon as your processors sent the panic signal---“

“Panic signal?” Vicki echoed, confused.

“One of Ted Lawson’s most ingenious ideas,” Oberon explained. “In the event, however unlikely, that some kind of massive surge of power cut off all but the highest of your functions---like those damned shock sticks did at the hotel---your CPU would send one WiFi signal to the cellphone of the highest-ranking ALPA operative in the area…which, in this case, just so happened to be me. That signal allowed your processors to send an e-mail to my phone, one that contained a message with as many details as your memory could fit before it went into standby mode to avoid total corruption. While all this was happening, that bastard was having his way with you….”

The brunette gynoid absorbed all of this information and nodded quietly. “So….you sent the Man in Grey?” Oberon stared out the window. “If I’d known he was going to charge in and stab the hell out of the Human Animal the way he did,” he replied, “he would never have reached the hotel room…but as it stands, I’m actually glad he intervened….otherwise….” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

“I get it,” Vicki murmured, staring down at herself. “I…I don’t want to have to think about this right now…”

“I know,” Oberon muttered. “Access your internal settings and see if you can activate Sleep Mode 2B…it’ll allow you to get some rest without clearing your memory cache.” He stared out the window again; “After what you’ve been through, you’d do well to just sleep for the rest of the bloody week…as it stands…” He stopped; Vicki had already activated Sleep Mode 2B, and her bathrobe-clad figure was now slumped peacefully in her seat.

Sleep well, Vicki Lawson…and I hope and pray that your dreams are far more peaceful than mine will be….

Three blocks away from the Detroit Marriot, Faceless awaited the return of his protégé. “If he’s abandoned the plan just so he can do what I know he’s going to do,” he muttered “I’ll---“ A black clad figure entered the van through the side door.

“Her friends saved the day,” the Human Animal declared, “but I think she’s got the point. Vicki Lawson won’t be a problem---“

“Every minute of the day that sees her still functioning means she’s still a problem,” Faceless replied. “Still, this latest….tactic of yours might actually buy us some time….” He scowled behind his mask. “You’re bleeding all over the damn seats,” he growled. “DRIVER---get us back to the Towers…and fast.”

The black van sped off without hesitation.

“….and he was waiting for her?! Just hiding, waiting with the sticks and the infrared clicker?”

Oberon’s retelling of the Human Animal’s attack on Vicki had prompted a wave of emotions within Major Tom, chief among them incredulous rage. “He’s been planning this, Major,” the white-clad Chairman murmured sadly. “Somehow, the Human Animal knew that Vicki Lawson would be one of the Field Agents deployed to deal with this situation, and he planned for the occasion.” He steepled his fingers; “I just hope she doesn’t have any flashbacks of this whole thing tomorrow…”

Vicki, still clad only in her underwear, had been placed in a secure stasis capsule at FX Unlimited for the night, thus giving Major Tom and Oberon the chance to discuss the attack without her having to relive it. “My main concern,” Oberon stated, “is who this Human Animal actually is…Lassiter was with me the entire time---he rode back to the hotel with me in the car, for crap’s sake---and the security camera footage pretty much confirms the fact that Jake Brytestar isn’t the culprit…he was talking with you the entire time….” He stared at the ceiling; “Aside from that,” he added, “Jake isn’t the sort who would lay in wait for someone just to attack them with a power tool….come to think of it, he wouldn’t lay in wait to do anything to anyone.”

“You’re thinking Faceless---“

“Faceless,” Oberon spat, “should not even be mentioned in this conversation.” He shook his head; “It wasn’t him,” he muttered. “Don’t ask me how I know….I just have a feeling that it wasn’t him.” He stared at Vicki’s serene form, snugly held within the capsule by a layer of cushioning. “Like Reaver said, he prefers ‘live ones’,” he muttered darkly, “and his…particular tastes wouldn’t have meshed well with the whole power-drill thing…if she’d have had a heart for him to tear out---“

He stopped, instantly regretting his choice of words.

Major Tom clutched his sunglasses in one hand and stared at the ceiling; both men knew that Oberon had gone too far with the line about tearing out hearts. Gabriella Guy had suffered that fate, back in 1999, and all who had been present at the scene (or even seen the pictures) had been haunted by the images ever since.

“Damn Faceless,” Oberon muttered. “Actually, I take that back---damning him wouldn’t do a bit of good…Hell wouldn’t take him. We’d be better off just throwing the bastard into a black hole, or….” He stopped himself. “NONE of this is getting us any further,” he breathed. “We came here to investigate a land-grabbing and a plan that may or may not even exist….and look where we are. Faffing about while the Human Animal runs free---“

“Maybe if you let me offer my opinion, we could get more done.”

Vicki’s voice emanating from the stasis capsule’s speakers wasn’t as surprising as Oberon had expected it to be. “What happened to you entering Sleep Mode 2B for the rest of the day?” he asked.

“Technically speaking,” Vicki’s voice replied, “I’m still in sleep mode…well, 90% of me is in sleep mode, to be precise.” A humanlike sigh issued from the speakers; “In case you’re wondering, I’m still…not exactly in the calmest state, after what happened at the hotel…but it’s not going to get in the way of me helping you guys.”

Major Tom gave his best People’s Eyebrow; “Ah, Vicki---“

“I’m not just some helpless walking appliance anymore!” Vicki’s voice snapped. “Yes, I was attacked, and yes, I was nearly violated with a power tool---but I’m still here, and I’m not going to let that Human Animal freak get away with this!” A pleading tone crept into her words; “I never want to feel that helpless again, ever…and sitting here trying to sleep it off isn’t going to do anything to change that.” Her voice dropped to a quiet murmur; “I…I don’t want anyone to think I’m weak.”

Oberon’s eyes widened in shock. “Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson,” he declared, “how in the name of God’s green earth could you ever possibly believe, for even a single, solitary second, that either myself or Major Tom had any reason to believe that you were, are or ever would be weak?!”

“I…I don’t know,” Vicki’s voice admitted. “All the times I’ve been on missions before, I’ve always had some kind of approximation of what I’d be up against….but I never expected someone to have figured out the dual-port overload glitch.” A pause…. “I…I was overwhelmed, taken completely by surprise---“

“And you think you’re the first gynoid who’s had to deal with that?” the Major countered.

“I know I’m not the first who’s had to put up with a surprise attack,” Vicki’s voice acquiesced, “but…I’ve been so used to having these brief twinges of fear and then just getting over them. This time….I know it’ll take a bit longer to get over it, but I’m already partially on my way…and when I do fully get over this whole thing, I’ll be all the better for it…”

Oberon nodded and absent-mindedly allowed his hand to brush the stasis capsule’s window; “Seems to me like you’re already ‘over’ it,” he mused. “Still….you can’t take something like this lightly---“

“I’m not taking it lighty,” Vicki’s voice assured him. “I just….I want to help you guys get everything sorted out.”

Major Tom nodded. “Fair enough. You’re sure this whole memory thing won’t be a problem, though? I don’t want you wigging out in the middle of a mission because you’ve had a flashback of this or anything…we can clear your memory cache if you want---“

“You’ll need my memory cache to analyze the record of what happened to me and try to figure out who this Human Animal clown is,” Vicki’s voice reminded him. “Until then…it’s staying with me. I know that I’m risking a lot by doing this, but if I can stop this Human Animal psychopath before he gets too out of control, then it’s worth the risk. Besides….” A sigh issued from the capsule’s speakers; “…something tells me that this is what Dad would’ve wanted me to do.”

“Speaking of which,” Oberon piped in, “you realize that when Ted finds this memory---“

“You’ve already written 90% of the e-mail that you’re going to send him about it, so when he finds the file during my next maintenance session, he’ll probably encrypt it then…or he’ll just delete it.”

The Major and Oberon exchanged knowing looks; seeing as how they’d both know Ted for well over a decade, Vicki had probably just described the exact course of action he’d take. “I’m guessing you want to get back into sleep mode, then,” Major Tom mused, “so we’ll just, ah…”

“I told you, 90% of me is already in Sleep Mode 2B,” the brunette gynoid’s voice insisted. “I might as well add this 10% to that total, though…” A sound like a yawn issued from the speakers. “Goodnight…I’ll see you two in the morning---“

“Vicki, wait.”

Oberon’s statement must’ve surprised the gynoid, but it didn’t register in her voice. “Something wrong?”

The white-clad Chairman hesitated before replying. “….if you want us to get you a ticket back to San Jose,” he murmured, “I can get you on a plane by tomorrow afternoon, and we can have another Field Agent flown out here to take your place. I won’t mention the specifics in the post-op report, and it’ll probably be the best thing for you---“

“This isn’t about me,” Vicki’s voice replied. “If I let you send me back to San Jose, that’ll just show the Human Animal that his stupid little game worked on me. Yes, I was freaked out about not being able to move, and yes, I was scared that he was going to do something unspeakable to me with that stupid drill of his…but he didn’t, and I’m still here…and you seem to be forgetting the fact that you personally approved me being given a Field Agent license.” A semi-annoyed huff issued from the speakers of the capsule; “Besides that, I’m not going to go hide under a bed or anything after I reactivate tomorrow. I won’t let either of you down, and I won’t give the Human Animal the satisfaction of thinking he’s beaten me this early on.”

And there it is…that air of finality we’ve all heard so often before. The ghost of a smile played at Oberon’s face as he beheld the stasis capsule. “Even though it’s been said before, by plenty of other individuals,” he mused, “I’ll say it again because it’s the absolute truth: Vicki Lawson, you truly are your father’s greatest creation.”

“I’ll take that as your promise that I won’t wake up on a plane tomorrow, then?”

Oberon didn’t even bother trying to supress his laughter at the remark. “You can take it as that, and more,” he replied, chuckling. “Vicki…you truly are an incredible person---not just an amazing machine, or a remarkable piece of technology, but an incredible person. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Fair enough.” Another yawn issued from the speakers; “Can I get back to sleep now?”

“Indeed,” Oberon replied, nodding sagely.

“Thanks…” The Major and Oberon could almost hear the smile in Vicki’s voice; “Goodnight…” A gentle, five-note chime (adapted from the chorus synth-riff of “Moonlight Desires”, no less) signaled that Vicki had fully entered Sleep Mode B2.

“So,” Major Tom finally stated, “I guess that’s….that…” He stopped, noticing Oberon covering his face with both hands as he sat next to the workbench bearing the remains of Julia Irvine. “Ah…you okay?” With a sniff, Oberon wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “More than okay, actually,” he replied, turning to face the former NASA operative. “Do my tears surprise you, Major?” he asked, his smile at odds with the nature of his question.

“I already know you’re going to give me the line about ‘Strong men also cry’,” the Major deadpanned, “so I’ll just say ‘no’ and be done with it.”

Oberon chuckled. “Good plan….it’s true, though. Strong men do cry…” He wiped his eyes again and stared into the stasis capsule; “She’s truly remarkable,” he murmured. “Anyone else in her position would’ve begged to go back to San Jose, or at least asked us to send a task force after the Human Animal…but she chose to stay here and see this through to the end.” He stroked the Perspex window of the capsule with the palm of his hand; “Dianne Isley would be proud.”

“So would Capri---or Ayla, if you prefer her original name,” Alicia 5 called out, striding over to join Oberon and the Major at the capsule. “The hospital just called,” she added.

“I assume they want Publius’ next of kin to attend the services, then,” Oberon remarked.

Alicia rolled her eyes; “Actually, they want you to pick him up tomorrow evening, before he threatens to beat the hell out of the rest of the nurses.” She smirked. “They were able to stop the bleeding and keep the blood from going into his lungs, but they’ve had to switch from stitches to glue to close up the wound….and they’re asking if you have any sedatives that can knock him out for longer than 20 minutes.”

With a theatrical sigh, Oberon rose from his seat next to the capsule. “Tell them to have a set of scrubs ready for me,” he instructed Alicia. “I’ll bring my own gloves….I trust you’ll be able to hold down the fort without me, Major?”

“You and I both know the answer to that.”

“Good. Alicia, stay here with him, and keep an eye on Vicki’s R.E.M. cycles…if she starts dreaming about the attack, try to gently guide her dream program to something a little more agreeable.” With a cheery wave, Oberon headed for the parking lot.

“Think she’ll really be able to focus on work tomorrow?” Alicia murmured, looking down at the capsule.

Major Tom couldn’t help but grin. “To put it bluntly,” he replied, “yes.”

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Disconnect from Stasis Capsule: Successful. Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Thursday, March 10, 2011. The time is 6:00 A.M.

The tint within the Perspex lid of the stasis capsule brightened, allowing the light to filter through and trigger the automatic boot-up sequence of its occupant. “Mmm….” As a yawn escaped Vicki’s lips, the capsule lid lifted up by a centimeter and slid open, allowing her to exit the capsule at her leisure…which took her a few seconds longer than climbing out of bed would’ve taken, but was otherwise uneventful. After a quick round of stretching (and frowning at the fact that she was still in just her underwear), the brunette gynoid took a look at her new surroundings and realized one important fact:

“Well, it’s not the cargo hold on a passenger plane…but it’s not FX Unlimited, either…”

As Vicki’s eyes wandered around the spacious bedroom she’d found herself in, she noticed her luggage from the hotel room (don’t think about the attack, Lawson…don’t you dare let yourself think about it now) on an end table near the capsule. A cursory scan revealed nothing anomalous about the bags, and all the clothes she’d packed for the trip were still in them. After another, somewhat longer scan to ensure that no bugging software existed in the room, Vicki changed into her favored outfit---white tights, red skirt, red blouse with a white tank-top over it and red boots, with a white belt to complete the look.

Right…time to figure out---

“Where you are?” a voice called out, just as Vicki noticed a door on the far side of the room opening. “Sorry if I startled you,” Jake Brytestar apologized, “but I didn’t know if you were awake or not…”

“I am now,” Vicki replied, eyeing Jake warily. “How did you hear what I was just thinking?”

He tapped the side of his head and chuckled. “Wireless implant,” he replied. “Allows me to send and receive signals---like that, ah, bliss state you experienced yesterday. I’ve been trying to get approval for further human testing to prove that cybernetic implants will allow soldiers and law enforcement officers to have faster reaction times in the field, but so far…” He sighed. “I get it,” Vicki mused. “You’re not…still reading my thoughts, are you?” Jake grinned. “A true gentleman allows a lady to express her thoughts at her leisure,” he replied. “I’ll take that as a no, then,” Vicki muttered, rolling her eyes and grinning. “So…back to my original question: Where the heck am I?”

“Strahd Manor,” Jake informed her, “on the outskirts of Detroit. I’m in negotiations to buy the property, so I’ve been given the run of the place while the paperwork gets sorted.” His grin faded, “I, ah, heard about what happened to you at the Marriot, and---“ “I’m fine,” Vicki assured him. “A little annoyed that I didn’t get to sleep in an actual bed, but fine. Anyways, enough about that…I’m detecting a faint odor of…bacon?” A sly grin crossed her face. “Please tell me that’s breakfast I smell…”

“It is,” Alicia 5 stated, emerging from the door behind Jake with a grease-stained apron over her outfit, “and it would’ve helped if someone had been in the kitchen with me to assist in the preparation.” She glared at Jake, but allowed her scowl to retract to a grin. “So…fancy joining Jake and I for breakfast?”

Vicki grinned. “Definitley.”

Jake nodded his approval; “There’s a spot at the table for you, and the food’s ready, so…” He grinned.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Vicki chuckled. “Lead on, Mr. Brytestar!”

With Jake and Alicia 5 leading the way, Vicki left the spacious bedroom and followed the piar to a cavernous dining room, where a rather interesting group was already beginning to partake of the excellent meal. She instantly recognized seven of the gynoids seated around the table---the Mk II iterations of Britney, Whitney, Mariah, Christina and Jessica, along with Ashley and Hillary---from the Starlet Dolls’ Silicon Valley tour earlier in the year. I guess they were reprogrammed to work with Jake, she mused as the fembots noticed her and waved cheerfully.

Two other seats at the table were occupied by a pair of gynoids that, while not physically identical, looked just similar enough to pass for sisters. Both wore identical cheerleader uniforms (in this case, they were decked out in the colors of one of Detroit’s prestigious universities), but one seemed to prefer speaking in the manner of a “valley girl” to standard English.

Jake, Alicia 1 and Alicia 5 took their places at the table and introduced Vicki to the group. “She and her friends are going to be staying with us for a while”, Jake explained, “after what happened last night…”

“Like, we get it,” one of the cheer-bots drawled. “Is she, like, going to be up all night crying, or---“ The other cheer-bot punched her in the arm; “Show some tact, Lacey!” she hissed. “Seriously, you don’t ask something like that with her sitting right there!” She offered an apologetic look to Vicki. “Sorry about that…Lacey can be a bit…air-headed sometimes…”

“’salright,” Vicki assured her. “Are you two…sisters, or what?”

Before the cheer-bot could reply, Lacey enthusiastically piped in: “Oh, we are, like, so much better than that! So, like, the House sent us to help Jake and, like---“

“I think she’d prefer to get an answer in plain English,” the other cheer-bot muttered. “Anyways, Celeste had us both commissioned to help Jake during a particularly trying moment…you’ve already met Lacey---“ She gestured at the other cheer-bot, who was now glaring at her and rubbing her shoulder. “---and hopefully she’ll be a bit more tactful from now on…anyways, I’m Lynne.” The cheer-bot shook hands with Vicki. “So, you two have been working with Jake for a while, then?” she mused. “Since last year,” Lynne informed her. “Yuko was still on the team back then; she’s working at the House’s office in Japan right now, so…yeah.”

Vicki arched an eyebrow; “Japan? So Jake’s quite a traveller, then…”

“Pretty much,” Lynne agreed. “He’s been trying to gather the resources to get a new company going, and with things going as bad as they have, it’s been---“ She stopped, her eyes slightly going unfocused; Vicki frowned as she noticed Jake staring at Lynne intently. “Ah, could you sort of dial back the bliss thing?” she asked. “I actually wanted to hear what she had to say!”

Jake blinked a few times; “Oh…sorry.” He focused his stare on Lynne again, and her eyes went back into focus. “Whoo…sorry about that. What were we talking about?”

“You were telling me about Jake wanting to start a new company,” Vicki reminded her.

Lynne nodded. “His old company---well, the company his parents started, Brytestar Industries---went through a lot of tough times when he was younger…you’ve probably heard about all the bad relationships he’s had, and the stupid idiot gold-diggers who were only interested in his bank account, instead of his well-being…” Vicki nodded silently; she’d gathered that information from her private internet searches. “Well, it all sort of culminated in a visit from some guy---the guy who used to own this mansion, actually. This guy was in charge of a major, up-and-coming robotics firm at the time, and he wanted to buy out Brytestar Industries and merge it with his own company…”

“I take it Jake’s parents didn’t bite, then?” Vicki mused.


Vicki glanced over at Jake, who was now looking rather sullen as he stared at his plate. “One night, he arrived at my house with some of his flunkies, and they made their final offer. My father refused, and…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “My two bodyguards…my angels…they tried to defend me, but…..”

A lone tear fell to the table.

“Jake’s gynoid bodyguards stepped in to run interference,” Alicia 1 explained, “but the idiot who wanted Brytestar Industries had his flunkies capture them and, well….destroy them.” She sighed sadly. “Even worse, the gold-diggers started filing in after that, and when Jake realized that all they wanted was his money…he started getting into soccer after that, so he could focus on something other than being sought after by a bunch of money-hungry skanks.”

“I’m starting to see why he enjoys hanging out with gynoids, then,” Vicki murmured. “Who exactly was this guy that wanted Brytestar Industries---“

“The Baron.”

Oberon’s voice, from across the room, nearly scared Vicki out of her wits---partially because she’d expected him to be searching for the Human Animal or looking after the Man in Grey…and partially because of the rather uncharacteristically-ugly tone of his voice. “He had both of Jake’s bodyguards struck down while Jake himself was forced to watch,” he continued, shaking his head. “He’ll have a lot to answer for, one day…” He cleared his throat. “Anyways, I presume you’re doing well---you don’t seem to be having any problems with the change of scenery, which is a good sign…”

“Like I said last night,” Vicki reminded him, “I’m not going to let it get to me.” She rose from her seat and strode over to Oberon; “Besides,” she added, “I’ve got some pretty awesome people helping me…” She grinned and hugged him.

“I know,” Oberon replied, returning the embrace, “and it helps that I’m helping someone who’s pretty awesome herself.”

Alicia 1 and Alicia 5 exchanged grins; the two of them were still amazed that Vicki had been able to overcome the memories of the vicious assault so quickly. “I’m betting she’s ready to go kick the Human Animal right in the cojones right now,” Alicia 1 mused. “Easy, Steak Sauce,” Alicia 5 chided, “we’ve got more important things to worry about.”

“She’s right, Alicia-poo,” Jake began, only to be cut off by a snort of laughter; “’Alicia-poo’?” Vicki echoed, trying to keep herself from lapsing into a giggle-fit. “It’s a term of endearment,” Jake calmly replied.

Vicki nodded. “Different strokes for different folks, I guess…” She grinned. “So what’s next on the agenda?”

“You’ll be accompanied by Jake, Major Tom and one of the Alicias---along with any members of Jake’s team who want to join you---to a meeting with Shayla Fairchild,” he informed the brunette gynoid. “Vicki, are you sure you’re up for this---“

“I’m sure,” V.I.C.I. replied. “The Human Animal only did what he did because I wasn’t expecting that kind of an attack….but now, I’m ready for anything that psychopath can throw at me.” She allowed herself a grin; “Besides,” she added, slipping back to her human voice, “it’s just a meeting with a House gynoid, in a public place….if the Human Animal wants to prove how stupid he is, he can…” She stopped, noticing the unblemished palm of her left hand. “You had Faber and Wyss fix me before you brought me here?” she mused, flexing her fingers.

“I figured you’d want to meet Shayla without looking like you’d been in a street fight,” Oberon reasoned.

“At least you’re honest,” Vicki replied, smiling. “Well, then…looks like we’re going back to the Motor City!”

“…and you left the tool bag in the hotel room?! I thought I’d trained you better than this…”

Faceless’ rebuke didn’t phase the Human Animal as much as the Butcher of Lake Gilmour had intended. “If I remember correctly, you said it wouldn’t matter becasuse I’d never touched the damn things without my gloves. As far as the Field Agents are concerned, anyone could’ve handled those things---“

“That’s….a very good point, to be honest,” Faceless acquiesced, “but you’re forgetting---“

“The bullets didn’t hurt,” the Animal informed him, “and the uniform retained all the blood. They’re not going to find anything they can use to trace me at the scene, so just relax.”

Despite the rising anger in his gut, Faceless did his best to dismiss all thoughts of striking his apprentice down with his bare hands. “I’ll let you off with a warning this time,” he informed the Animal, “but only because you’ve put that idiotic Man in Grey in the hospital…” His thoughts drifted back to his encounter with the Man in the Silicon Dynamics building, mere hours before Vicki Lawson had “saved the day”; the Man had come closer than anyone else---other than Vicki---to defeating the Butcher of Lake Gilmour, and the fight between the two would’ve easily been the end of lesser men…but Faceless had very nearly ended the grey-clad guardian’s life then and there….

“Consider yourself fortunate that you’ve become the second person to incapacitate the Man in Grey,” he informed the Human Animal. “Now…onto the next phase…”

As soon as Vicki, Jake and their allies entered Shayla Fairchild’s office at One Woodward Avenue, the brunette gynoid realized one important fact about her: She’s got no problem flaunting her wealth, I’ll give her that…

Nearly every inch of the office was covered in furniture made from the most expensive materials and fabrics available. First-edition paintings hung on the walls, and sculptures by artists Vicki had never even heard of were on prominent display throughout the room. “Not a single reference to what she does, or where she came from,” Oberon mused. “Make a note of this, Vicki---Shayla Fairchild has no qualms about showcasing her most costly possessions, but none of them are meant to show the world who she is….they only show what she has done, and what she wants them to see.”

Lacey was somewhat more blunt in her appraisal of the room: “Like, this place is sooo tacky…”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” a voice called out from the far end of the room. “Perhaps if I shared your…rather interesting sensibilities, you might feel more at home…” Shayla Fairchild smirked as the group approached her desk. “…though, to be honest,” she added, “I’d probably be off putting that uniform to better use than you, if I had the option.”

Vicki sized up the would-be Matriarch, allowing her internal WiFi modem to kick into overdrive and scour the en-suite intranet: 5’7”, emulated age: 30, current marital status: dating….figures. Nothing about her that could explain her land-grabbing…. Physically, Shayla was a rather stunning specimen---her skin had the color of coffee doused in cream, with waves of plaited, dark cinnamon hair framing her face and complimenting her auburn eyes quite nicely. “So, the ALPA has finally decided to pay me a visit,” she mused; her voice, a rich alto, had just a hint of playfulness about it---almost as if she were used to such visits. “And to what do I owe this honor?”

“Seeing as how we’re on a tight schedule,” Jake explained, “I might as well get right down to the point---we’ve become concerned about your latest, ah…business practices---“

“You’re here because of my land-buying, aren’t you?” Shayla interrupted, drumming her dark green fingernails on the desktop. “You’re not the first person who’s been ‘concerned’ with my practices, Mr. Brytestar---your friend Lassiter came by to see me just last night---“

Wait, what?!

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Miss Fairchild,” Oberon politely informed her. “Mr. Lassiter was in a conference with me all day yesterday, and he had an emergency to tend to last night---“

“If you’re trying to call her a liar,” another voice interrupted, “you’d better have your lawyer on speed dial.” A second gynoid---a lithe, fair-skinned 20-something with her champagne-colored hair done up in a stacked bun-sort of style---emerged from a door to the left of Shayla’s desk; Vicki’s internal ALPA Database-checker software (added to her already impressive bag of tricks by Mr. Tell before she left San Jose) informed her that the newcomer was Peyton King, Shayla’s second-in-command (and a hopeful for the sub-matriarch spot).

Oberon smiled politely, while Jake tried to keep Lacey from saying anything stupid. “I wasn’t claiming anything of the sort,” he informed Peyton. “I was just…curious.”

“Good,” Shayla declared. “Now, then…about my….latest acquisitions…” She tugged at the collar of her shirt, glancing around the room. “Peyton,” she murmured, “did you turn the heater on instead of the air conditioning? It’s roasting in here…”

Peyton frowned. “The temperature in this room is regulated to your usual preference,” she replied. “I---“

“How can you say that?” Shayla countered, undoing the top buttons of her blouse. “I…I feel like I’m in a sauna right now!” She grabbed a clipboard off of her desk and began fanning herself. “Peyton…are you sure you didn’t mess up the air conditioning settings?”

Major Tom shot an annoyed glance at Jake; “I’m not doing anything!” he protested. “He’s telling the truth,” Vicki added. “The implant that allows him to use that ‘bliss state’ of his…it hasn’t activated in the last few minutes, and…okay, this is just getting weird now.” Her sentence trailed off as she watched Shayla trying desperately to shrug herself out of the blouse. “Jake, are you positive your bliss state didn’t trigger accidentally, or something?” she whispered.

“I didn’t do anything!” Jake insisted. “I---“

A stacticky, distorted howl burst forth from Shayla’s lips----“EEEEYYAAAHHH!!!!” Seconds later, she began writhing in her chair, trying to rip her blouse off as smoke poured from her ears, eyes and mouth. Peyton, not surprisingly, was freaking out. “What’s happening?! Why is she doing this?!”

“I don’t know,” V.I.C.I. replied, “but I intend to find out.”

Jake was somewhat taken aback at the brunette gynoid’s monotone voice. “How did you---“

“Long story…I’ll tell you later.” V.I.C.I. began scanning the room to find what was turning Shayla into a very expensive pile of junk; “I’m detecting an anomalous signal coming from the far end of the room---on the other side of the entrance,” she informed Major Tom. “It’s an ad-hoc signal---not strong enough to affect more than one target at a time; I can take the transmitter out at close range, which should be enough to stop Shayla from---“

Her words were cut off by Peyton’s terrified shriek; a gout of fire was building inside Shayla’s head, lighting up her mouth from the inside like a demented jack’o’lantern. A torrent of sparks, accompanied by plumes of electrical smoke, rose from her bosom as her blouse and jacket were slowly incinerated by a fire from somewhere inside her. “DO SOMETHING!” Peyton screamed, glaring at Oberon, Jake and V.I.C.I. in turn. Without waiting for another request, the brunette gynoid turned and ran towards the signal’s point of origin.

Oh, joy---a black-clad idiot with a remote. Déjà vu, anyone? The hoodie-wearing guy near the door seemed just as surprised as V.I.C.I. had with the result of his “clicking” at Shayla---so surprised, in fact, that he didn’t even notice the brunette gynoid’s approach until she was right in front of him.

“Going somewhere?”

Without a word, the young man turned to run, but V.I.C.I.’s iron grip closed fast around his wrist. “Tell me who gave you that remote,” she offered, “and I’ll let go---“

“I don’t know!” the terrified youth replied. “I thought it was a prank or something---“

“Who gave you the remote?”

“I just said, I don’t know! I----GYAAHAHH!”

A tearing, wrenching sound erupted from beneath the sleeve of the young man’s jacket, and for the briefest instant, V.I.C.I. thought she’d horribly injured him---until she went to help him up. Wires, servomotors and a steel/titanium alloy---this guy’s an android! Even stranger, her scans of the wounded young man indicated that he didn’t even realized he’d been damaged. Oh, joy….someone brought a sleeper into this….

“MY FRIGGIN’ WRIST! You…you broke my---how did you even do that?!” Before the frightened youth could get a good look at the damage, Vicki helped him to his feet. “There’s someone you need to talk to,” she informed him, “so just come with me---and leave the clicker where it is.” The sleeper nodded, and Vicki felt a pang of regret at the fact that he still had no clue as to what he was; she’d understood the necessity of sleeper androids in some cases (like that of her friend Kirsten Sanderson), and in her days as a “walking appliance”, she herself occasionally “forgot” what she actually was (though this had more to do with her limited processing power at the time), but the idea of someone not knowing what they truly were had always bothered her.

By the time she brought the sleeper android to Jake, Alicia, the cheer-bots and Oberon, Shayla’s entire upper body had been reduced to a charred, blackened mass of burnt plastic and metal. Peyton, predictably, tried to beat the hell out of the sleeper as soon as she saw him; “Lynne, Lacey, hold her back!” Jake ordered. The cheer-bots nodded and intercepted the infuriated gynoid before she could get close enough to hit the sleeper.

“He’s the one who did this?” Oberon asked. Vicki nodded; “He says he didn’t think the remote was going to do what it did…he thought it was just a ‘prank’. Speaking of which…” She stepped back, allowing Oberon to get a good look at the sleeper. After a few seconds of obeservation, the white-clad Chairman rolled up the young man’s left sleeve. “Hell of a wound on your arm,” he mused. “Think we should bring you to a hospital for it?”

“I just…” the sleeper began, only to stare, horrified, at the suddenly alien wound. “What..what the HELL did you do to me?! Is this some kind of trick?! What did you do to my arm?!”

“We didn’t do anything,” Oberon quietly informed him. “What you’re looking at….is what you really are.”

Something about the scene playing out in front of her forced Vicki to look away; I don’t even want to think about what Kirsten might do if this sort of thing ever happened to her. As Oberon stared into the terrified sleeper’s eyes, the brunette gynoid decided to help Jake and Alicia sift through the melted remains of Shayla Fairchild. “….and we’ll be lucky if there’s enough of her memory to copy over to a backup,” Alicia muttered, her fingers covered with a silvery substance as she wrenched the charred husk of metal and plastic that had once been a cranial casing free from its moorings. “If we can’t---oh, hi, Vicki…”

“I’m guessing this won’t be a ‘good news, bad news’ situation,” the brunette gynoid mused.

“Try ‘bad news, worse news and news that makes you want to throw yourself into a canal’,” Alicia replied, her expression grim. “You’ll want to spray this on your hands before you start doing any lifting,” she added, handing Vicki a can of what appeared to be spray paint. “Some of her power cells blew during the malfunction, and this’ll keep you from getting acid on your fingers---it’s supposed to be some polymerized latex blend or something boring like that, but I just call it ‘liquid gloves’.” She chuckled. “And in case you’re wondering, it’ll peel off after a good soak in warm water---CRAP!” The blonde gynoid winced as a damaged component burst in her hands, sending a cascade of foul-smelling fluid over her gloved fingers.

Better get the “gloves” on, then. Vicki aimed the can at her left hand and held down the trigger…

The feeling of aerosolized liquid latex (or whatever the stuff was) adhering to itself and her cellular plastic exo-skin to create a fully-functional glove was rather strange---the closest comparison she could make was running one’s hand through a sprinkler for over 30 minutes. Fortunately, the process only took about 15 sceonds, and she quickly went to work spraying her other hand; once both “gloves” were on, she joined Jake and Alicia in picking through Shayla’s ruined form…and it didn’t take long for her to realize that transferring the damaged gynoid’s memories to a backup body would be impossible.

“Guys, I think you might want to hold off on calling the House and telling them to prepare a backup body for Shayla…” The brunette gynoid pulled out a blackened, charred device about as big as a cellphone---Shayla’s internal memory/personality core. “I don’t think anyone’s going to be getting any files off of this ever again,” she murmured sadly.

Alicia punched the floor and shouted a profanity-laced rant; Jake, looking noticably calmer than the blonde gnyoid, gently accepted the device from Vicki. “Damnit,” he muttered. “The whole thing’s been fried…it looks like the acid from her power cells hit the core like a waterfall and just ate right through it…” He turned the lump of metal and plastic over in his gloved hand. “If the wrong people find out about this, they could pin it on Celeste before we could even try to run damage control…”

“Let’s start with talking to the guy who had the remote that did this,” Vicki suggested. “You, ah, might want to keep Alicia on the short leash for this part…” With that, she strode over to join Oberon and the sleeper android, who was sitting on a stone bench with both hands pressed to his forehead, as if he were still coming to terms with the revelation of his true nature. He looked to be about 25 years old, with a quarterback’s figure, piercing blue eyes and black hair that looked as if it had been cut a few weeks prior.

“Derrick Snyder,” Oberon quietly informed her. “Built by Julian Parrish Snyder in 2002, after the real Derrick died in a car crash. Lives in West Canfield with his mother and sister---both gynoids, and both sleepers. Also has a younger sister---human, adopted.” He glanced over at Derrick; “Julian Snyder and his family were placed under the ALPA’s protection after---and please don’t yell about this---an incident involving Victor Vega; Derrick’s best friend also happens to be his ALPA watcher, Garfield Pierce, who’s on his way here right now.”

Vicki nodded as her bubble memory processors filed the information; “How’d you calm him down?” she asked.

“Trade secret,” Oberon replied, a faint smile playing at his face. “In any case, you should probably talk to him, help to set his mind at ease….better he get an explanation from you than Falken or Zeb Blunderwitz. Just don’t get too technical about it---“

“I get it,” Vicki assured him. With a sigh, she walked over to the bench and sat down next to Derrick; here goes nothing…

“Are you going to say it, or am I?”

Derrick’s remark surprised the brunette gynoid. “If by ‘it’ you mean ‘you were designed, built and programmed for a reason’, then yeah,” she replied. “You’re not just a thing, Derrick….you’re---“

“I get all that,” Derrick replied. “I mean, it’s just…I remember doctors’ appointments, and getting hurt, and stuff like that…I thought I was just like everyone else! And…and now….” He stared at the floor. “This is like some sort of weird dream, or something….I just feel---“

“The fact that you’re feeling should be enough,” Vicki assured him. “It’s what makes you…well, you.”

“Makes more sense than anything I could think of,” Derrick admitted. “I…I’m not in trouble for the thing with the clicker, am I? Like I said, I just found it with the rest of the mail one day, with a note…it said to just show up here, point it at that chick over there---“ He caught a glimpse of Shayla’s melted remains and nearly keeled over. “It’s okay,” Vicki assured him. “Like you said, you didn’t know….” …and since my internal WiFi signal isn’t picking up any memory files that contradict that statement…

Garfield Pierce arrived ten minutes later, just in time to watch the ruined remains of Shayla Fairchild get zipped into a body bag and carried out by an ALPA cleanup crew. “And here I thought the grossest thing I’d see all week was going to be the rerun of The Fly,” he muttered, noticing Derrick and Vicki chatting near the bench. “You must be the famous Vicki Lawson, “ he called out, grinning as he shook hands with the brunette gynoid.

“The one and only, last time I checked,” the brunette gynoid replied, chuckling as her HUD sprang to action with info on Garfield. Visually, he was pretty stunning, reminding Vicki of a younger Denzell Washington or Will Smith, if either of them had ever played college football. “Any chance we could trace who sent Derrick the remote, Mr. Pierce?”

“I prefer Garth---like the country singer….and as for the clicker…” He turned the device over in his hand. “It’s a standard issue TV remote, nothing too special---other than the modified chipset that turned it into a portable ‘bot-fryer.” He glanced at Derrick, frowning slightly. “You said you got this thing in the mail? “

“No return address, I assume,” Vicki mused.

“Actually, there was a pretty friggin’ big return address on it,” Derrick admitted. “Traced back to one Lassiter, J.L., at the Penobscot Building. I saved the envelope in case this whole thing was a viral marketing stunt, or if there was gonna be a lawsuit afterwards…” He arched an eyebrow at Garth. “Also, it would’ve helped if someone had told me about the whole ‘oh, by the way, Derrick, you’re an android’ thing beforehand,” he added, scowling slightly. “What if I’d have fried myself in the pool during swimming class, or something?!”

Garth sighed and clapped Derrick on the shoulder. “You know I wouldn’t have let that happen. I was keeping your secret from the entire school….all those times you blacked out, in senior year? I’m the one who got you back home before anyone figured out the truth…all part of an ALPA Watcher’s duty.”


“Artificial Lifeform Protection Agency,” Vicki explained. “You’ll learn more about them later.”

“And before you ask,” Garth added, “I wasn’t hangin’ out with you just to make sure you didn’t blow your own cover---you really are pretty freakin’ cool.” He grinned.

Derrick nodded, finally cracking a smile. “Good to know. “ He glanced around for a second; “I, ah, still don’t know about---“

“Sarah was human,” Garth informed him, “Jenna was human, Sandra was a gynoid---a female android---but she knew what she was and what you are, Olivia was a sleeper gynoid, Kelly was human, but she had a gynoid take her place a few times during the year for security reasons---she works with the ALPA on sleeper monitoring programs---and Raquel was human.” He chuckled. “That’s just page one, by the way---“

Vicki stared at the two, her eyebrows furrowed. “I hope that’s just a list of girls you were interested in…”

“He dated some of them, yeah,” Garth informed her, “but they didn’t really get anywhere. Well, except for him and Olivia, seeing as how the janitor complained about them making out by the pool that one time---“

“We get it,” Vicki and Derrick simultaneously declared.

“Good,” Oberon called, striding over to the group. “I just got the call back from ALPA Central HQ…Derrick’s not going to be charged with anything for the time being, since this is a veritable minefield of potential lawsuits and bad blood…” He sighed and glanced at Derrick; “You might end up getting slapped with a trespassing charge,” he informed the android, “but that’ll be small potatoes compared to Possession of a Class V DeComm Device Without a License, or anything more severe.”

Garth and Derrick shook hands with Oberon in turn. “I guess I owe you one for this,” Derrick muttered.

“Well,” Oberon began, “you should probably thank…blast.” He scowled and retrieved his iPhone. “I’m kind of in the middle of something, and----what? WHAT?!” Vicki flinched reflexively; I just hope he doesn’t yell at me like that any time soon…

“….and how many are at the scene? No, no, don’t send---DO NOT SEND ANYONE ELSE! Just….hold down the fort and---SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP AND LISTEN TO ME FOR A SECOND!” Derrick visibly recoiled as Oberon yelled into the phone; “Maybe we should finish this conversation over there,” Garth suggested, preparing to lead Derrick and Vicki to a far corner of the room. “Great idea,” the dark-haired android agreed, only to feel Oberon’s hand on his shoulder. “I…I’ll tell him,” the ALPA Chairman muttered into the phone, lowering it. “Derrick…the Human Animal has been seen at your father’s residence---“


“I’ve told the FROSTs to hold off, but there’s not much…time---Derrick, WAIT!” Oberon grabbed Derrick by both shoulders and spun him around; “Running off to fight the Human Animal will only get you killed,” he warned. “The ALPA will handle this….”

“You mean I’LL handle this.”

“Vicki, wait!” Oberon shouted, starting after the brunette gynoid. “You---“

“Don’t try to talk me out of this, Oberon,” V.I.C.I. replied as she stepped into the elevator. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

The doors closed just as Oberon reached them. “Why is it that nobody listens to me?!” he hissed. “Do I just have one of those faces that nobody listens to?!” After a few seconds of glaring at the closed doors of the elevators, he shook his head. “Jake, Alicia,” he called out, “follow her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything she might regret---or anything we might regret, for that matter.” Jake nodded, but Alicia 1 stopped him before he could head for the elevator. “Jake,” she murmured, “I think it’s best if I just stay here…if I catch up to that Human Animal prick before Vicki does---“

“Way ahead of you,” Jake replied. “Lynne!” The blonde cheer-bot skipped over; “What’s up?” she asked. “Is Steak Sauce giving you a hard time about the whole ‘boxers or briefs’ thing again?” She giggled.

“I’m bringing you with me to help fight the Human Animal,” Jake informed her. “Alicia’s…got a history with the guy, and I don’t want her breaking his ribcage or anything when we’re fighting him.” His concerned expression gave way to a sly grin; “Also, Brytestar Industries just got in a new shipment of defense gear,” he added, “and I thought you might like to try some of the stuff out…”

The two left hand in hand, allowing Oberon a moment to reflect on Vicki’s departure. Yes, she’d proven that her mind wasn’t dominated by thoughts of the assault she’d endured the night before, and at no point had she expressed any desire to get revenge on the Human Animal…but something about her last words to the group before she entered the elevator didn’t sit right with the ALPA Chairman. She’d claimed that she knew exactly what she was doing, so why---

“Of course.”

A quiet laugh escaped Oberon’s lips---of all the improbable ideas, she just had to go with that one! The laugh grew louder, prompting a confused look from Alicia 1; “Ah, are you feeling okay?” she asked, frowning. “Fine, thank you,” Oberon replied, deciding not to inform the blonde gynoid of his revelation. Normally, anyone who lied to him would feel the full extent of his wrath, but Vicki hadn’t exactly lied---she’d kept her cards close to the vest and pulled off one hell of a bluff…on Oberon himself, at that. And she’s probably enlisting the three Field Agents downstairs to help her find the House backup storage facility at this very moment, he realized, smiling.

Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson, you truly are a magnificent piece of work.

“…..so, you’re not going after the Human Animal?”

Orton’s question was the same one Laumer and Stross had been about to ask; Oberon had, after all, called them via walkie-talkie to ask if they could keep Vicki from doing anything stupid in her attempt to find the Human Animal. “Correctamundo,” the brunette gynoid quipped. “I need to get to….this address---“ She handed Orton a piece of paper. “…and fast---otherwise Shayla Fairchild’s memories might be gone forever.”

The three Field Agents had no idea why Shayla Fairchild’s memories were so important, but that was almost a regular part of the job---dealing with things you couldn’t understand. “Fair enough. How soon do we---“

“Now,” Vicki reminded him.

Less than a minute and a half later, Vicki had “commandeered” an ALPA minivan (though in reality, all she’d had to do was present the proper forms so that she and her “escorting agents” could use the vehicle) and was headed for the backup storage facility. “So,” she remarked, as Orton took the wheel, “you three ever been in the line of fire before?”

“Well,” Stross began, only for the strains of the Johnny Hates Jazz song “Shattered Dreams” to fill the vehicle; Orton had accidentally activated the motion-sensitive radio. “Like I was saying,” Stross reiterated, “I was on one of the backup crews assigned to the old Walmart that someone made up to look like The Attic…they called me in for the cleanup after the fighting ended, and it was….pretty crazy. The only time I’ve ever been close to a real firefight was in ’08, when we had to go bust up that ‘party’ in Palo Alto---turned out to be a ‘droid trading ring orchestrated by your least favorite ReVerse executive.”

Vicki rolled her eyes. “Why does that not surprise me….anyways, what about you, Laumer?”

“I usually end up filling out the paperwork,” Laumer replied. Whereas Stross was somewhat stocky, with the beginnings of five-o-clock shadow, and Orton looked somewhat like WWE wrestler Randy Orton (hence a rather popular betting game involving new recruits to his squad asking if he could RKO them), Laumer was, in a strange way, noticeable by not being noticeable. He looked almost as nondescript as a composite sketch, but most who met him had the unsettling impression that they’d seen him somewhere before…

“It’s the face, isn’t it?” he mused, jolting Vicki out of her almost trance-like state; at that moment, she realized Laumer reminded her of a younger, leaner Willem Dafoe---at least, at the moment. “Yeah,” the brunette gynoid admitted, “it’s…kind of off-putting, to be honest…”

“He’s had work done,“ Orton informed her. “Laumer’s done a ton of deep-cover ops, and he can never keep the same face for more than a few months at a time. He’s been collecting intel from Coalition companies, a few synthophobe groups and…various other entities, so it’s pretty much necessary for him to get plastic surgery whenever some lucky bastard gets a picture of him and posts it on every news site they can find.” He chuckled mirthlessly; “His last op got him a lot of attention in a country that’s pretty much off-limits for both the ALPA and the Coalition…as of right now, Central Command has specifically requested that he not be allowed on any further assignments in that part of the world.”

“What happened?” Vicki asked, instantly hating herself for it.

Laumer and Stross exchanged looks that mixed amusement and guilt. “Let’s just say someone forgot to check their fire,” Laumer replied, “and a few…non-combatants wound up where they weren’t supposed to be.” A pause… “They didn’t make it out alive.”

Nobody spoke for the rest of the 45-minute drive.

Eventually, the minivan arrived at what appeared to be a completely normal warehouse, with no signs of any kind on the outside to give away its true nature. “Right,” Vicki declared, “if we go in through the side entrance, we can avoid most of the cameras…” She steeled her nerves. “Let’s move!”

Unlike the fake Attic she’d had to breach the previous month, the warehouse’s side entrance wasn’t rigged with any sort of traps or security sensors. “Do they want people breaking in here, or what?” Stross muttered, shaking his head. “Seriously, they didn’t even rig up a motion detector…”

“We’re not here to make fun of their security systems,” Vicki reminded him. “We need to find a terminal so I can link Shayla’s secondary memory storage unit to one of her backup shells…if I can do that, we might be able to figure out why she was so interested in grabbing all of John Lee Lassiter’s land in the first place---and more importantly, who would want to send someone an infrared clicker that could fry her processors.” And, of course, we can find out if she’s the one who sent the Human Animal to the Detroit Marriot….

“Found something.”

Laumer’s declaration led the group to an elevator. “Apparently, the ground floor is just old machine parts and junk,” he informed them. “This goes down to where we need to be….” He brushed aside a plasticky curtain, revealing a keycard-access lock that had a device hooked up to it. “Someone’s already cracked the lock for us, so…”

“So we go down there and get this done,” Vicki replied.

Stross and Orton exchanged amused glances. “Not exactly a time-waster, is she?” Stross muttered.

The four ALPA operatives boarded the elevator as Vicki tapped a button on the device hooked up to the keycard lock. “Once we get down there,” she instructed, “don’t touch anything until I get a chance to scan it…I don’t want any of you accidentally hitting a self-destruct button or anything---and on that note, don’t go looking for a self-destruct button. Seriously…if I hear a timer going off---“

Her rant was interrupted by the elevator doors opening. “Right,” she declared, “spread out and find a terminal.”

Within the span of three minutes, all four ALPA operatives were feeling rather weirded out; the backup shell storage facility looked like a cross between a morgue and a display of life-sized dolls. Whereas Silicon Dynamics chose to display their particular products in the most revealing outfits available, every backup body for the House’s gynoids and androids had been dressed in actual clothing---everything from lingere and underwear to full suits and ensembles consisting of evening wear, casual dress, workout gear, and other common attires. A few wore full-body silver robes that tied off at the waist, with what appeared to be spandex bodysuits underneath; the only thing they all had in common was the appearance of people who’d fallen asleep standing up---

No. Not fallen asleep…more like “people who’ve had their brains shut off”.

It took Vicki a full seven minutes to find a terminal that would accept Shayla’s secondary memory storage unit; the beige plastic console was located at an intersection between a row of dirty-blonde 20-somethings bearing the designation “Aimee” and a row of mid-30s gynoids named “Stephanie”. A quick “all-call” from her internal comm-link allowed the brunette gynoid to summon the other three Field Agents to her location without actually speaking; “Keep an eye out for any security or janitorial staff,” she instructed them. “This might take a while…”

“And what exactly is this?” Orton asked.

“I’m uploading Shayla’s secondary memory core to one of her backup bodies,” Vicki explained. “I kinda sorta maybe used my internal WiFi connection to see into Peyton King’s memory files---this thing has two and a half years’ worth of Shayla’s memories in it, and if we’re lucky, we can find out why she’s so obsessed with buying John Lee Lassiter’s land….and who wanted to kill her for it.” She signaled for Laumer to wait by the cubicle that contained one of Shayla’s backups; “As soon as the transfer finishes,” she instructed, “get her out of the cubicle and bring her to the elevator---“

“I know where this is going,” Orton muttered. “Couldn’t we---“

“Hooking her secondary memory backup system to a standard PC or Mac would just make it easier for the ALPA or the Coalition to track us down,” Vicki hissed. “We have to transfer the memory files into one of her backups, and then we can hook her up to a PC.” She decided to leave out the part where Shayla’s personality wouldn’t be transferred---the process was effectively turning her backup body into a viewer for her memory files that could be hooked up to a PC, then wiped and returned to storage after the appropriate files had been examined in detail.

Sometimes, I really wish I didn’t have to do stuff like this…

“Ah, Vicki,” Stross called out, “we’ve got a problem.”

I really wish I didn’t have to hear that… “What kind of a problem?”

“The ‘a bunch of people are coming in through a secondary elevator’ kind of problem!” Stross called back. “It looks like they’re…” A muttered profanity finished the sentence. “Vicki, we may need to wrap this up sooner rather than later!”

Across the chamber, a second elevator car was already finishing its descent; Vicki could just barely see the figure of Peyton King standing by the doors as they opened…except something was wrong with her. She stared straight ahead, almost as if she’d been hypnotized---or forced into manual command mode, the brunette gynoid realized. Manual command mode, occasionally identified as voice command mode if voice recognition was applied to it, allowed anyone with the proper clearance to override an android or gynoid’s functional A.I. and personality software and control them via command words or phrases. Though it was originally intended as a safeguard against malfunctions and a way for repair techs to ensure that their artificial clients didn’t accidentally activate during a complex repair session, a very small number of individuals, both human and android, had figured out loopholes that allowed them to force an affected android or gynoid to debase, damage or even destroy themselves---often, for no purpose other than amusement. Multiple internal O.S. writers had since included multiple safeguards to keep this kind of behavior from persisting, but---

“Move it, King…we haven’t got all day.”

Peyton’s monotonous “Yes, master” barely registered to Vicki; at the moment, she was more concerned with the black-clad figure who stepped into view from behind the blonde gynoid. “The sooner we get this done with,” the Human Animal muttered, “the better…” Even with the voccoder flattening the emotion out of his words, there was something…different about his voice, almost as if he was actually hesitating to do what he’d been sent to do. Something tells me this isn’t the same guy I…encountered in the hotel room…

“Shayla’s backup bodies are this way,” Peyton droned, gesturing vaguely. She’s pointing him the wrong way, Vicki realized. How---

“You can thank me for that.”

The sound of Jake Brytestar’s voice in her head nearly sent the brunette gynoid into a panic. How---

“Let’s just say it’s a higher-tech form of WiFi voice chat and leave it at that. I pinged Peyton’s internel modem after she was hauled out of Shayla’s office and followed the signal all the way to the warehouse…which, luckily for me, is how I found your signal. The Human Animal has her under manual command, but as long as I’ve got her in the thrall of the Voice of Zeus---“

What the hell is the Voice of Zeus?!

“It’s a top-priority WiFi signal that allows me to issue my own orders. I can use it to have Peyton give worthless directions to the Human Animal, so…”

…so he won’t be able to find me OR Shayla’s backup bodies!

“Exactly. Now, just---“




Oh, scrap! Laumer, Stross and Orton had apparently decided to move against the Human Animal before Vicki could, and none of them were taking any chances. “Easy, boys,” the Animal drawled, “nobody has to get hurt here…just lower your weapons, and I’ll be on my way---“

Laumer squeezed the trigger of his Beretta once, sending a round through the Animal’s right knee.

“GAAHHH!” The Animal grabbed at the wounded knee, clearly in pain; okay, Vicki realized, this is definitely not the same guy from the hotel room! She’d only heard the shots and seen the fleeing figure of the Human Animal as he jumped through the window back at the Marriot, but he hadn’t cried out in pain of flinched when the bullets hit him. Even stranger, her scans of this Human Animal revealed that his physiology was identical to that of the Animal from the hotel, except for the results of one obscure genetic scan; I’ll analyze it when I get back, Vicki mused. For now…

“Unless you want us to blow out your other kneecap,” she called out in her monotone voice, “then hand over any weapons you may have and---“

“Peyton, hold them off!” the Animal ordered, handing the blonde gynoid a lead pipe as she droned, “I hear, and I obey.” She hefted the pipe in both hands, assuming a defensive stance to cover the retreating figure of the Human Animal; what the heck is going on here?! First he screams after he takes a bullet to the knee, and now he’s not even sticking around to fight? This is just too weird… Shaking her head at the strangeness of the situation, V.I.C.I. had Stross and Laumer protect the terminal while Orton squared off against Peyton. “Don’t let her get to the terminal,” the brunette gynoid instructed, “and make sure the transfer process doesn’t get interrupted. When it reaches 100%, retrieve the backup body the memory files were transferred to and take the other elevator up to the ground level. I’ll meet you outside.”

“No problem,” Stross replied. “What about you?”

V.I.C.I. allowed herself a smile. “I’d say something about ‘taming a wild animal’,” she admitted, “but it would just sound stupid in this voice.” With that, she ran for the elevator, effortlessly dodging Peyton’s attempt to hit her in the head with the pipe. “Don’t do that again,” she warned, hitting the “up” button with her palm. Hopefully, they don’t shoot her to pieces, she mused, watching as Orton dodged a series of baseball swings from Peyton.

Through the slowly opening elevator doors, Vicki could see the Human Animal (or someone posing as him, the brunette gynoid reminded herself) doing his best to hid his limp as he headed out through the main door. Even if I run at full speed to catch him, she mused, he might have backup waiting to cut me down…man, I wish my ES9950 had those new Tazer rounds…and that I actually had my ES9950 right now… Without a sidearm to fire back at anything the Human Animal might try, Vicki decided to face him out in the open. If I can incapacitate him long enough for the others to get up here and cuff him, she reasoned, there might just be a chance---

“Well, well, well…you just couldn’t get enough of me after Round 1, could you?”

It was hard to tell what surprised Vicki more---the absence of the limp from the Human Animal’s walk despite the bullet hole in the left knee of his outfit, or the casual, taunting reference to their last meeting. “The last time we ‘met’,” she coolly replied, “you had the element of surprise on your side---“

“And you think that I don’t have any advantages here?” the Animal countered.

Vicki sighed. “You just got shot in the knee, for starters, and you forgot to take Peyton out of voice command mode when you boarded the elevator---meaning her functional A.I. will reactivate in 15 minutes, and---“

“And nothing,” the Animal growled. “Peyton is expendable, just like her stupid boss…I don’t see why you even bother wasting time being concerned about them.” He withdrew a pair of collapsible batons from their holsters on his belt; “Seeing as how you’re going to be awake for this one,” he sneered, “I guess I don’t have to worry about going easy on you.”

“Funny,” V.I.C.I. replied, “I was just thinking I might have to go easy on you---“

The dart that hurled towards her was somewhat unexpected---but then again, given the results of her cursory scan of the Animal’s batons, and the rather intriguing revelation that both had been designed to fire the small, lightweight projectiles, it didn’t take her completely by surprise. As it stood, she was able to bat the dart out of the air with her left hand (the same hand, appropriately enough, that the Human Animal had driven a nail through) and charge towards her black-clad aggressor in less time than it would’ve taken for Stross, Laumer and Orton to reach the ground floor.

Whatever the Animal’s plans involving the dart attack had been, he was obviously prepared for a reversal of said plans---both batons were deployed against V.I.C.I. as soon as she was within striking distance. The blows to her arms, legs and back did almost nothing to phase the brunette gynoid; after at least fifty or so of baton hits, she finally countered by intercepting the weapons midway through an intended strike to her throat and crushed them.

The Human Animal scoffed. “Neat trick.”

“That wasn’t a trick,” V.I.C.I. countered. “That was just me breaking your stupid batons---“ Her right palm, now crackling with electricity thanks to DGv2.8, slammed into the Animal’s gut. “Now that was a trick,” she admitted, grinning as her black-clad opponent stumbled backwards, but otherwise didn’t show any sign of having felt the shock. “Speaking of tricks…I’d love to know yours---it must take one hell of a drug cocktail for you to shrug off something like that, not to mention all those shots from the hotel.”

“And here I thought you were smarter than the average ‘bot,” the Animal sneered. “Why would I ever tell you something like---“ Another DG-charged punch slammed into his midsection, sending him crashing into a shelf.

“Does anyone ever not fall for that?” V.I.C.I. murmured, sighing theatrically.

Not surprisingly, the Human Animal still wasn’t phased; he pushed away from the shelf and charged at the brunette gynoid, fully intending to rip her limb from limb. While most opponents would’ve tried to backpedal or at least sidestep, V.I.C.I. simply clotheslined the Animal right in the gut, sending him to the tile floor in a heap. “For the record,” she informed him as she dragged him upright by the collar, “that little stunt you pulled back in the hotel didn’t work---I don’t scare easily.” She smirked as the Animal stared defiantly at her; “And what makes you think---“

One headbutt later, he was back on the floor.

“You’ve got two options right now,” V.I.C.I. stated. “Surrender peacefully, and submit to an interrogation at the nearest ALPA facility….or keep fighting like an idiot and get Tazed into unconsciousness. Your call.” The elevator behind her dinged; and there’s my backup, she mused, fighting the urge to grin. “Take all the time you need to---“

“I suppose you’re going to drag me in for interrogation by yourself?” the Human Animal taunted.

“No,” V.I.C.I. replied, turning around to greet her fellow ALPA operatives. “I---“

She froze on the spot, horrified.

Orton’s body tumbled out of the elevator, hitting the floor with a wet thud and a tinny clang; the lead pipe Peyton had been using to defend herself had been rammed through his sternum. Stross lay bleeding in the corner of the elevator car, still alive but bleeding heavily. As for Laumer, it didn’t take a paramedic to know that the vise-like grip of the blonde gynoid was going to kill him in a matter of minutes.

“Two choices, one shot,” the Human Animal declared. “Your friends, or the mission…what’ll it be---“

The sound of Peyton’s face being slammed into the wall of the elevator car was the only answer he received.

“LET HIM GO!” V.I.C.I. screamed, bashing Peyton’s head into the wall and ignoring the droning, pre-recorded response of “Command Not Recognized”. “LET GO OF HIS THROAT NOW, OR I WILL DEACTIVATE YOU BY FORCE!”

“Command not---“

V.I.C.I. grabbed Peyton by the hair (with both hands), reared back and smashed her head into the wall before the error message could finish. The results were horrifying---propelled by V.I.C.I.’s unstoppable force, the blonde gynoid’s face caved in on itself as it met the immovable object that was the wall. Her cranial casing buckled under the impact; her cheeks caved in, her nose effectively telescoped inwards, and her occular sensors shattered under the sheer pressure. Vital components were pulverized into a plastic/silicon dust, and metal wrenched and twisted before flattening under the strain. By the time V.I.C.I. tore Peyton away from the wall, her face---and head---had been reduced to a smoking, cratered mass of plastic and steel, just as her fingers suddenly splayed, allowing Laumer to fall to his knees and gasp for breath as the now-useless figure of Peyton collapsed to the floor next to him.

The brunette gynoid didn’t bother looking up to see if the Human Animal was still there.

Fifteen minutes later, ALPA Field Medics had put Stross and Laumer on an ambulance and called ahead to the nearest mortuary to prepare for the arrival of Orton’s body. At the same time, a collection team was securing Peyton’s unmoving form, as well as all of Shayla Fairchild’s backup bodies---including the one that had received the memory files from Shayla’s secondary memory backup system.

Vicki Lawson watched, silently, fearing what would happen when---

“It wasn’t your fault.”

Oberon’s words did little to comfort Vicki; “I just destroyed a House gynoid,” she muttered. “I bashed her face into the wall until there wasn’t enough left of her CPU to continue the manual command processes…I killed her---“ “And you saved Laumer’s life,” Oberon reminded her. “Fingerprint analysis on that lead pipe buried in Orton’s head is going to prove that Peyton was the one who rammed it into his chest, you know…not of her own will, obviously, but that won’t do anything to keep the House from---“ He stopped. “Vicki, you saved two lives and sucessfully transferred Shayla’s memories into her backup core. Those two actions alone will prove invaluable over the next few days---“

“Tell that to Orton’s parents,” Vicki snapped, storming off in the direction of the minivan she’d “commandeered” to get to the warehouse. “And tell the House that Peyton King was scrapped because she killed a Field Agent.” With that, she slammed the door of the van behind her, and the vehicle sped off soon after.

With a sad, quiet sigh, Oberon headed back into the warehouse, meditating on Vicki’s words. The mission had started out after John Lee Lassiter filed a complaint against Shayla Fairchild for trying to develop on properties he’d wanted, only to escalate into this---Vicki’s assault in the hotel room, the “prank” that left Shayla a melted heap and the death of an ALPA Field Agent, as well as the destruction of another House gynoid at the hands of the ALPA’s latest recruit.

Oberon shook his head. So much for a quick, week-long stay in the Motor City….

By the time Vicki had reached Strahd Manor, Jake Brytestar was already waiting by the door for her. “Vicki,” he began, “I can explain---“

A wicked right cross silenced him. “Your stupid ‘Voice of Zeus’ didn’t work,” Vicki snarled. “Peyton put a lead pipe through Orton’s stomach, and she would’ve killed Stross and Laumer if I hadn’t bashed her brains out against the elevator wall!” She glared at Jake as he staggered to his feet. “If this is Celeste’s idea of keeping things fair,” she growled, “then she can---“

“DON’T finish that sentence, Vicki,” Alicia 1 warned. “Celeste had nothing to do with this---“

The words prompted a mirthless chuckle from Vicki. “Oh, so I’m supposed to just overlook the fact that she’s been banging Jake for the past few months?” she countered. “I know all about their little trysts, ‘Steak Sauce’, so don’t you dare try to say that she wasn’t involved! For all I know, she could’ve told Jake to---“

“Vicki,” Jake intoned, turning the brunette gynoid to face him, “just calm down…” The feeling of pure, unfiltered bliss slowly began to creep back into her mind…

…only to be flushed out in seconds.

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Get your hands off of me.”

“Vicki, please---“

None of the other gynoids present could’ve reacted fast enough to stop Vicki from headbutting Jake right in the mouth. “A Field Agent died tonight because your stupid technique didn’t work,” she snapped, “and you expect me to just calm down?!” She felt another hand on her shoulder, and instantly drove an elbow into the face of its owner; “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!” she shrieked at Lacey, seconds before the cheer-bot hit the floor. “All of you, just stay the hell away from me, or I’ll---“

“You’ll what?” Alicia 1 countered. “Yell at us all night---“

As the other gynoids screamed and Jake tried his best to calm Vicki down, the brunette gynoid tackled Alicia 1 to the floor, raining down punches faster than Alicia could counter them. She barely got twenty hits in before Jake pulled her away, just in time to see the blonde House gynoid’s head beginning to twitch mechanically.

“LET ME GO!” Vicki thundered. “GET YOUR HANDS---“

“Vicki,” Jake pleaded, “just calm down…we’re not your enemies---“


“LISTEN TO ME!” Jake shouted. “Vicki….just listen…” He held Vicki firm, without trying to fight her thrashing and screaming; in the end, her anger faded into grief, and she buried her face in the shoulder of his shirt.

The other gynoids silently brought Alicia 1 upstairs to the repair lab, taking care to avoid bumping into Vicki as she wept. “Vicki, the House isn’t the enemy here,” Jake assured her. “They have their own power struggles, and…sometimes, things just go wrong…but I swear to you right now that Celeste would never give an order that could even remotely cause any gynoid or android to harm a human being…and I would never follow such an order if she did give it. Vicki…..trust me, please…”

After what felt like a lifetime of silence, Vicki pulled away from Jake and silently headed for the stairs.

Jake was tempted to read her thoughts, or at the very least send a WiFi command to request that she talk to him, but he knew that it would be futile. This was something Vicki had to deal with on her own terms…and without any “tricks” clouding her mind.

The gentle knock on Vicki’s door didn’t come as a surprise---she’d been expecting someone to head upstairs and give her a lecture after what had happened downstairs. Still, she wasn’t in the mood for any speeches, pep talks or blame-laying….

…not that it really mattered.

“Vicki,” one of the Alicias called, “open the door! I just want to talk---“

“Not now,” Vicki muttered, her face buried in the pillow. She just wanted to get the hell out of Detroit and go back to San Jose, forget the mission and---

“Vicki, open the door!”

With an annoyed growl, Vicki rose from the bed, stalked over to the door and nearly ripped it off its hinges as she threw it open. “What?” she demanded.

Alicia 5---clad in a pajama set that flaunted her figure without showing too much---rolled her eyes. “I hear you nearly busted open Steak Sauce downstairs,” she teased, hoping to lighten the mood with a bit of joking; when Vicki didn’t even crack a smile, the blonde gynoid sighed. “Look, I know you feel like everything sucks right now, because I’ve felt that way too---plenty of times, believe me---but this helpless feeling you’ve probably got right now? It’ll pass. Trust me.”

After a few seconds of glaring at Alicia 5, Vicki nodded and allowed her to enter the room.

“So, I hear you gave Jake a bloody lip,” the blonde gynoid mused. “Not exactly lightweight stuff there---the last time someone got him to bleed, it was at a martial arts tournament in Tokyo….but that’s saying too much.”

“I’m guessing this means I can forget about staying to finish the mission, then,” Vicki muttered.

Her remark prompted an eye-roll from Alicia. “So you clocked Jake and stormed off in a huff…big deal! It’s not the first time---“

“I mean everything else,” Vicki clarified. “Orton getting killed, me breaking Peyton’s face, Shayla getting scrapped….if anyone else had done any one of those things, they’d be on the first flight back home! With me, it’s…different. They expect me to be some sort of super-agent all the time, but…most of the time I go out there to do my job as a Field Agent, I’m just trying to keep myself and everyone else around me from getting hurt---or worse, getting killed.” She stared at the floor.

“You think you’re the only Field Agent who’s felt that way?” Alicia 5 asked. “Trust me, babe…you’re not. Being a Field Agent means that you have to expect anything, at any time---and Orton, Stross and Laumer all knew that when they went to the warehouse with you…and you can bet they’ve faced worse situations before this.”

The brunette gynoid sighed. “That’s not going to bring Orton back, though…”

To her surprise, Alicia 5 grinned. “Actually…I was going to tell you this later on---as in, if you’d been trashing your room when I showed up---but….Orton’s going to live.”

“But…the pipe….it---“

“It missed his internal organs by at least three inches. The body bag was just for show---if the Human Animal knew his little trick with Peyton had failed, he probably would’ve done even more damage.” She gave Vicki a reassuring smile; “Orton was playing dead, Vicki…he didn’t want Peyton to actually kill him. That, and he went into shock when the pipe was stuck through him, so he didn’t really have that much of a choice.”

Vicki felt an overwhelming sense of relief flood through her systems. “I…I don’t know what to say, Alicia…”

“How about ‘Thanks’, for starters?” the blonde gynoid teased. “And one more thing: The House had nothing to do with what happened to Orton---like I said, Jake’s signal was hijacked when he was trying to get Peyton to stop attacking your friends.”

Good to know, Vicki mused. The last thing I need is Celeste herself getting pissed off at me…

“Ayways,” Alicia reiterated, “now that you know Orton’s going to recover, we need to focus on something a bit more important---the Human Animal.”

Despite the fact that the Human Animal was probably the last person Vicki wanted to think about, she nodded her agreement. “I noticed some…rather interesting inconsistencies in the Animal’s actions at the warehouse,” she informed the blonde gynoid. “For one, he started wincing and limping when he got shot in the knee, but after I got to the ground floor, he acted like he hadn’t even felt it. And before that, it’s like he was…hesitant, or something.”

“How so?” Alicia asked, intriuged.

“Well….he didn’t tell Peyton to just straight out loot the place, for starters. It was almost like…”

At that moment, the realization struck her. “…like he was a different person.”

“You’re saying there might be two Human Animals?” Alicia mused, frowning. “That isn’t exactly what I was hoping you’d say---HEY! Where the hell are you going?!”

“To search for some medical records,” Vicki replied without missing a beat as she ran behind a privacy screen, her Field Agent uniform under one arm. “When I was looking up information about John Lee Lassiter, I found two birth certificates---and during my encounter with the Human Animal in the warehouse, a scan that I was running in the background gave me two different results.”

Alicia wasn’t all that impressed; “A scan for…what, exactly?”

“After I linked up to the Detroit medical database,” Vicki continued, “I was able to get a few new ALPA-based apps for scanning medical records.” She tossed her skirt over the top of the screen as she pulled on the bottom half of her uniform; “Apparently, John Lee Lassiter has a rare genetic condition,” she continued. “When I was in the lower level of the warehouse, the test scan came back inconclusive---but when I was fighting him on the ground floor, the results were 98.1% positive…and if that means what I think it means---“

“---then we’ve been approaching this Human Animal thing the wrong way all this time!” Alicia realized. “Vicki, I don’t know how you figured this out---“

“It’s just a hunch so far,” Vicki reminded her, shrugging off her blouse and reaching for the jacket-like top half of her uniform. “If I’m wrong about this, we’re both royally screwed…” She zipped up the top, pulled on her gloves and slid her boots on. “That’s why I need you to keep this information private until I can confirm it.”

The blonde House gynoid nodded. “Your secret’s safe with me, Vicki….but what if you’re right?”

A belt buckle clicked into place, and the privacy screen was pushed aside to reveal Vicki in her full Field Agent uniform. “If I’m right,” she replied, “then we may need to call in every Field Agent and House operative in the field, because we might very well have a shot at bringing down the Human Animal himself….”

She chambered a round in her Sony ES9950. “…and the bastard who trained him.”

Alicia couldn’t help but grin. “Vicki,” she purred, “I like the way you think!” The brunette gynoid returned the grin with one of her own; “Thanks,” she replied, “but thinking will only get us so far…if we’re going to stop the Human Animal, then we need to switch from thinking to doing.”

Inside his private office at the Penobscot Building, John Lee Lassiter was practicing his golf swing as one of his flunkies droned on about various facts and figures. Not surprisingly, he was wearing khaki shorts rather than long pants, allowing all present to see the results of years’ worth of training he’d undertaken for Olympic-level swimming, sprinting and even skiing.

Of course, two particular individuals had more important things on their minds…

“I knew it,” V.I.C.I. muttered. “His right knee is still intact---there’s not even a scar where the bullet hit him….there’s no way he was able to get a surgeon to take out the bullet that quickly after the fight!”

“I’d say something about him possibly removing it himself,” Alicia mused, “but even that wouldn’t explain why he doesn’t have so much as a single scar on him…”

The two gynoids had managed to tap into the security system of Lassiter’s office, allowing them to see nearly every detail of the place without having to set foot inside it. “Seriously, this guy needs to stop posing and start going on a monologue, or something,” Alicia complained. “If we weren’t here on business, this would actually be fun to watch, but seeing as how we’re trying to track down a freaking murderer…” She rolled her eyes and groaned at Lassiter’s overexagerrated golf swing. “Seriously, this guy is just doing this to impress the skirts in the front row...”

“Then let’s look somewhere else,” V.I.C.I. suggested. “If I can get to his medical records, I might be able to confirm my theory. See if you can find them on the secure Detroit medical servers---“

“I’m on the medical servers right now,” Alicia informed her, “and there’s…a slight problem.”

Even her monotone couldn’t keep the disappointment from V.I.C.I.’s voice: “What kind of problem?”

“For starters, Lassiter’s records are sealed,” Alicia replied. “I’m getting a lot of jazz about security clearance levels and proper access codes, or some stupid junk like that, but I can’t even get into the server partition that has what you’re looking for….whatever condition he has must be serious, if he---oh, scrap!”

“Please tell me you didn’t just trip an alarm,” V.I.C.I. droned.

“I didn’t trip anything, but someone just tried to drain Lassiter’s bank account---and it’s setting off red alerts all over the network!” Alicia blinked rapidly, trying to keep up with the data streaming through her HUD. “Every folder in every directory has its own firewall,” she murmured, “and they’re all kicking on---this screwup just blew our whole---“


Alicia glanced at V.I.C.I., who seemed more amused than anything. “This alarm-tripping wasn’t a mistake,” the brunette gynoid declared. “What’s the security level in the medical subdirectories right now?”

“70%,” Alicia replied, more than a bit confused. “But---“

“And what was it when you started trying to get in?”

“It was 70%---and I just realized what that means…”

“Exactly. The medical subdirectories aren’t in Lassiter’s own private network---he just has the master key to get to them whenever he needs to. The financial stuff, his company’s records and even some of his personal information, on the other hand, are all stored on the private servers in his office---which means that whoever tripped the alarm by going for his bank account didn’t want anyone to notice us snooping around his subdirectories in the Detroit medical servers.” V.I.C.I. smirked; “In other words, this ‘screwup’, as you called them, may have just saved us a whole lot of trouble.”

“Y’know,” Alicia mused, “I never thought of it that way---HUZZAH!” Her expression changed to a fierce grin; “I think our ‘screwup’ may have just done us an even bigger favor,” she beamed. “The medical server firewalls just collapsed…and….I’m in!”

“Good. Look for---“

“I know, I know. Let’s see….” Alicia’s eyes glowed as she scanned the files of the medical server. After a few minutes, she located the subdirectory containing Lassiter’s medical files. “Let’s see what we can dig up,” she purred, mentally using the “open all” command. “Whoa…Ah, Vicki, you might want to have a look---“

“Not right now,” V.I.C.I. replied, switching to the security feed inside Lassiter’s office. “Apparently, someone just set off a fire alarm on Lassiter’s floor, and everyone’s evacuating…” She glanced at Alicia; “Please tell me you didn’t just trip an alarm in there…”

“I’m rooting through Lassiter’s medical records right now,” Alicia huffed. “Why would I---“

“Hang on a minute…someone’s in Lassiter’s office…” V.I.C.I. watched as a figure in an all-white, armored uniform---complete with a white ski-mask, breath filter and goggles over their face---picked the locks on the drawers of Lassiter’s desk and retrieved several folders. “I’m getting a familiar reading from whoever that is,” the brunette gynoid mused. “Any chance this guy’s a friend of yours, Alicia---“

“I’m trying to find what that genetics test of yours picked up,” the blonde gynoid replied.

“Never mind, then,” V.I.C.I. muttered, only to gasp as the hall camera alerted her to the appearance of several armed men emerging from the elevator shaft. “That guy in Lassiter’s office is going to get killed…”

“He should’ve come prepared, then,” Alicia began, only to turn a second too late to stop the brunette gynoid from running towards the edge of the roof. “Vicki, WAIT! YOU CAN’T---“

V.I.C.I. dropped off the edge, fell about 25 feet---and then grabbed a flagpole jutting out from a lower-story window. With Alicia watching, simultaneously stunned and terrified, the red-and-white-clad ALPA Field Agent made a full 25 rotations off the flagpole, letting go at the apex of the twenty-fifth rotation and soared towards another, higher-up flagpole. After an astounding 30 rotations, she soared towards Lassiter’s office, crashing in through the window and rolling into a crouch, her ES9950 drawn.

“Okay,” Alicia admitted, “that was impressive…”

Okay….that hurt!

Vicki’s triumphant entrance into the office of John Lee Lassiter looked great on camera (and from the rooftop where Alicia had seen it), but in practice….it hadn’t gone exactly as she’d planned. Her roll-into-a-crouch had been less about looking cool and more about not bashing her face into a paper shredder near the window (or getting her hair caught in it); as for the ES9950 clearing her holster just as she crouched, that was actually intentional….since she needed to check if it was loaded before she started shooting.

Speaking of which…

“What are you doing here?!” the white-armored figure hissed. “I had everything under control---“

“Somehow,” Vicki drawled, “I doubt that you could’ve had a dozen gun-toting security guards ‘under control’ on your own…speaking of which, swords? In a gun fight?”

The armored figure removed his mask/air-filter/goggles combo; “At least I’ve got a weapon that can I can use against human beings,” he grunted. “Why in the hell did you bring an ES9950 instead of an actual gun, or some other weapon?!”

“A simple ‘you’re welcome for providing some much-needed backup’ would be nice, Jake,” Vicki muttered.

Jake Brytestar rolled his eyes; “Like I said, I had everything under control before you broke the window,” he reiterated. “Now, they’re going to be shooting to wound instead of just firing warning shots---“

The door on the far end of the room flew open. “They can’t hit what they can’t see!” Vicki beamed, dodging behind a desk as a barrage of gunfire peppered the windows. Jake slid his mask, goggles and air-filter back on and dodged behind a filing cabinet as the guards emptied their guns in the direction of the busted window. By the time they all stopped to reload, every window in the room was shot to pieces.

Vicki nodded in Jake’s direction---take them down, but not permanently.

Jake returned the nod and threw two small spheres out into the rest of the room; seconds later, a blinding flash erupted from the spheres, giving Jake time to run in and incapacitate at least seven of the guards. One of those who apparently hadn’t been as affected by the flash decided to spray rounds in random directions, and one shot ended up catching Jake across the cheek. As Vicki emerged from her hiding place, the guards who hadn’t been incapacitated during the stun blast were converging on Jake, guns drawn; one of them gestured for the others to switch to full burst instead of semi-auto.

Not if I have anything to say about it!

With a quick flick of her thumb changing the SCEMP strength from “deactivating” to “stun” (just enough to Taze the guards instead of delivering a fatal shock), Vicki rolled into position and fired off two rounds, dropping a pair of guards where they stood. Another guard turned to fire, only to get shot right in the groin (ouch!), which sent him to the floor in a heap.

Not surprisingly, the next few seconds were almost…anti-climactic.

The other two guards had apparently decided against defenestration, choosing instead to charge at Jake and Vicki like rabid cavemen. Whatever plans they had that featured this particular move as a cornerstone pretty much fell apart as soon as Vicki kicked one of them in the head, followed soon after by Jake kneecapping the other one.

Neither guard did anything stupid afterwards.

“Right,” Vicki muttered, “it’s time for you to explain what the HELL you’re doing in John Lee Lassiter’s office!”

“Me?!” Jake countered. “After you stormed upstairs, I thought you were going to be---“

“DON’T finish that sentence,” Vicki warned. “I already got what I came for, and---“


At least twenty or so more guards---accompanied by Lassiter himself---were standing in the hallway, ready to put ten-thousand bullets through anything that moved within the next minute and a half. “DROP THE GUN AND PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!” the guard closest to the door shouted. “WE WILL OPEN FIRE IF YOU REFUSE TO COMPLY!”

“Jake,” Vicki hissed, “what the hell do we do now?!”

“You go,” Jake replied, hefting his swords. “Tell Oberon and the others what I’ve found…” He pressed a flash drive into her palm. “Get this back to Strahd Manor---I can handle myself!” Before Vicki even had a chance to protest, Jake shoved her back---


John Lee Lassiter strode into the room, staring at both Vicki and Jake. “I could very easily have both of you brought up on charges,” he mused, “considering the property damage, the activation of a fire alarm by illegal means, and the attempts to gain access into my private servers…but considering the fact that only one of you is actually trying to fight my guards at the moment….” His lip curled. “You,” he snapped, staring at Vicki, “now have two minutes to get the hell out of my sight. He stays.” He nodded at Jake; the guards from the hall stormed in and kicked his feet out from under him.

“Let him go!” Vicki demanded. “He---“

“I’m letting you go because you’ve chosen not to attack any more of my men,” Lassiter calmly informed her. “If you prefer spending the night in jail….” He smirked. “Be my guest.”

This can’t be the same guy Oberon met with two days ago, Vicki realized. At least, not personality-wise!

After a moment’s pause, she made her decision: “I’ll go,” she murmured. “But if you lay even one finger on him---“

“What I do with someone who’s broken into my building is my business,” Lassiter cooly replied. “You now have ninety seconds to leave---“ He smirked again; Vicki had already backpedaled towards the window and taken a flying leap out. “Guards,” he ordered, “leave us.”

“But, boss---“


The guards stared at each other for a few seconds, then decided it would be best to just follow their boss’s advice. “And take these idiots with you!” Lassiter added, gesturing at the unconscious guards. Within three minutes, the only occupants of the room were Jake and Lassiter…

…and a certain someone who watched Lassiter undergo yet another personality shift.

As soon as he heard the elevator doors close, Lassiter’s scowl faded into a look of concern; “Sorry about the whole ‘spend a night in jail’ thing,” he informed Jake, offering his hand to help him up. “It…ah, reinforces their belief that….never mind.”

Jake stared at him mutely.

“Look,” Lassiter admitted, “this whole thing…I appreciate the fact that you and your friend are trying to help, but if this keeps up…” He gestured to his right kneecap, pulling off a patch of flesh-colored latex to reveal a bullet hole underneath. “I’m getting shot to hell every time something goes wrong, and…other people are going to profit from it unless we do something---and yes, I mean you, me and that girl who just jumped out the window!”

“Who the hell are you?” Jake finally asked.

“To the public---and to most of my employees, I’m John Lee Lassiter….which is one third of the truth. My last name really is Lassiter…but I’m not the man everyone thinks I am. I’m---“

“You’re in a world of pain, for starters.”

The Human Animal emerged from a darkened corner of the room, a pair of handcuffs in each hand. “We had a deal,” he snarled. “You run the company, I carry out Faceless’ orders, and we switch often enough to keep everyone guessing…but you just had to go and get shot in the line of duty, and whine about it like a bitch. I should’ve just taken Faceless’ advice and offed you years ago…”

Behind his mask, he grinned. “…but I might as well make up for it now…”


Vicki’s explanation to Alicia didn’t exactly smooth things over as much as she’d hoped. “Lassiter said he was giving me a chance,” she reiterated. “He definitely could’ve had us both shot right then and there, but he let me go…besides, Jake’s got---“

“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT JAKE HAS!” Alicia thundered. “You…” She fumed for a few seconds. “Vicki, you…”

“I what?” the brunette gynoid calmly inquired.

“You’re messing up my whole inner calm thing, is what,” Alicia replied, her voice less angry than it had just been. “I’m guessing Lassiter had a whole squad of guards behind him when he showed up…”

“He did,” Vicki affirmed, “and they could’ve shot us to pieces in seconds. If my theory about Lassiter is right, though….I don’t think the Lassiter who I saw a few minutes ago is the same Lassiter that Oberon and I saw earlier this week. I know that must sound weird, but…” She sighed. “Anyways, Jake gave me something to give to Oberon…” She held up the flash drive. “I’m guessing this is from his little forray into the servers while we were trying to get Lassiter’s medical records,” she reasoned.

Alicia examined the flash drive carefully before pulling up a flap of skin on her wrist to expose a USB port. “If it’s so important that Jake wanted the Big O to get a look at it,” she reasoned, “then there’s no harm in---“ She froze mid-sentence.

“Alicia?” Vicki asked, waving her hand in front of the other gynoid’s face.

“She can’t hear you…or me, for that matter.”

Oberon’s approach wasn’t all that surprising---then again, after what she’d faced at the hotel, Vicki’s sensors were on full alert for even the faintest sounds of approach. “She didn’t just infect herself or something, did she?”

“She’s analyzing every single bit of data on that flash drive at once,” Oberon replied. “It takes up a tremendous amount of processing power, even for a gynoid as advanced as she is…she’ll probably be out for at least a few minutes.” He stared up at the shattered window Vicki had hurled herself through; “Seeing as how we’ve got a brief interlude here,” he mused, “care to tell me what….that was about?” He gestured up at the window, giving Vicki an arched-eyebrow, “something tells me this one’s going to be interesting” look.

“I had this theory about John Lee Lassiter and the Human Animal,” Vicki explained. “I…this is going to sound so stupid, but---“

“You came to the realization that Lassiter and the Animal were one and the same,” Oberon stated.

Something about the way he made the remark galled Vicki; “You knew?! This whole time, we were meeting with him like it was just business, and you knew?!”

“I had my own suspicions,” Oberon corrected, “and I had Jake do some research---hence the ‘nocturnal forray’ he made to Lassiter’s office on this very night…” He glanced back at Alicia; “The data she’s analyzing right now will prove both our theories correct…though you also have another theory about Lassiter and the Animal that might be a bit more…difficult to prove, am I right?”

Vicki nodded silently. “Seeing as how we’re right next to Lassiter’s office, we shouldn’t talk about it here,” she advised. “How long is Alicia going to be…analyzing the data, or whatever she’s doing?”

“A few more minutes,” Oberon replied. “Getting her back to the car won’t interrupt the process, you know…”

Ten minutes later, Vicki, Oberon and Alicia (who was still going over the data from the flash drive) were on the way back to Strahd Manor via an ALPA retrieval van. “I figured you’d try to discern the Human Animal’s true identity after that little fracas at the warehouse,” Oberon informed the brunette gynoid. “Seeing Orton get attacked the way he was probably didn’t help all that much…but he is going to recover.”

“Alicia told me,” Vicki replied. “I’m guessing we have to save Jake now, right?”

Oberon chuckled; “Jake’s not in any danger at the moment---if he was actually in any real danger, a team of FROSTs would be storming the building where he’s being held at this very moment. Right now, we need to get back to the manor, regroup and figure out a way to execute Alicia’s plan---and yes, she is formulating a plan right now, based on everything from that flash drive.” He chuckled again. “Oh, and I’m not angry about you giving the flash drive to her instead of to me,” he added. “If you’d waited to deliver it to me personally, we’d all be in deep trouble right now.”

“And….why is that, exactly?” Vicki asked, confused.

“I’ll explain when we get back to the manor,” Oberon assured her. “In any case---“

Alicia bolted upright in her seat with a gasp, nearly scaring Vicki witless. “Oberon! We….we need to---“

“I know, Alicia,” the ALPA Chairman replied. “We’re heading back to Strahd Manor right now. How much did you find?”

The blonde House gynoid shook her head in disbelief; “I found everything, Oberon…everything we knew, and everything we suspected….and that was just the first two gigs! This thing is loaded---we could put Lassiter away for life if any of this went public---“

“Which it won’t,” Oberon replied. “We do this according to ALPA protocol, or we don’t do it at all.”

“And what exacly will we be doing?” Vicki inquired. “Lassiter’s still got Jake---“

“Jake,” Oberon interjected, “is exactly where he needs to be. We need to focus on our own objectives for the time being, and let Jake handle his own business.” He sighed; “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to enact this plan until much, much later, but seeing as how the ALPA’s hand has been forced, we either do this, or we get left in the dust. Alicia---“

“I’ve called ahead to the manor and told the rest of the team to get ready. They’ll be wating for us at the front door.”

“Good. Have you---“

“All Field Agents not currently on duty are being called in to assist. A team of FROSTs is en-route to a secure observation point to keep an eye on the situation---“

“We get it!” Oberon and Vicki both declared, grinning. “It’s a shame you never became an official Field Agent, Alicia,” Oberon added. “You’d have been a natural at it, especially in times of crisis…that, and your record would probably have been the most impressive since Reaves and Larson teamed up.”

“As much as I appreciate the flattery,” Alicia admitted, “the House is where I belong.”

While Oberon and Alicia continued chatting, Vicki mentally prepared herself for the task at hand. If all of my suspicions really are correct, she realized, this is going to be an even bigger job than my mission at Silicon Dynamics…

…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve got to hand it to you, JLL, you’ve really botched it this time.”

The Human Animal’s remark didn’t do much to annoy Lassiter, but it did confuse the hell out of Jake Brytestar; “I thought you were John Lee Lassiter!” he protested, glaring at the Animal. “How in the hell---“

“How can I be here while he’s over there?” Lassiter finished. “Simple…I’m not John Lee Lassiter.” He sighed sadly. “I also didn’t want to be a part of this stupid plan, even though I was pretty much locked into it from the get-go, but certain individuals decided that I couldn’t be allowed to have my own life while this whole thing was going on.”

“But..you’re not an android double of him, or a clone,” Jake muttered. “You’re---“

“100% pure homo sapiens, born and raised in North Carolina,” the Human Animal declared. “I should know…” He went to remove his mask---

“Time enough for that later,” Faceless’ voice called from the far end of the room. “Right now, we have to rectify your slight misstep….the warehouse op was supposed to snare Vicki Lawson, not this…person.” The last word sounded more like a spit. “Nevertheless, Brytestar is still valuable to the ALPA,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour declared, “and considering all the grief he’s given me in the past….we might even be able to get a measure of payback.”

“Want me to sedate him before I drag the torches across his feet?” the Animal asked.

Faceless glanced at him lazily; “We’re not torturing him yet,” he drawled. “As it stands, we still have plenty of time to finish what we’ve started---“

“What did you start?” Jake asked. “Why was Shayla Fairchild so worried about developing on your land---“

The question prompted a laugh from Faceless and the Human Animal; Lassiter stared silently at the floor, too ashamed to say anything. “You’re still hung up on that stupid land-grabbing tin can?!” Faceless hissed. “And here, I thought you were actually trying to fathom….this is too much.” His laugh subsided to a chuckle. “If you must know, Shayla merely wanted to get House-certified repair stations built on those particular properties without having to negotiate with me. My initial tactic was…simple---all I had to do was stonewall her for a few weeks and, the whole thing would blow over. Unfortunately, the little pissant was too stubborn to be diverted, so I decided to….persuade her to follow a new course of action---”

“You’re the one who told her to get Celeste removed from power at the House, weren’t you?!” Jake growled.

“How perceptive of you to notice,” Faceless drawled. “I was indeed the one responsible for Miss Fairchild’s little power-play; I even convinced her to nominate that blonde bitch of hers…Peyton something-or-other, I think her name was….for the role of sub-matriarch. Easily one of my more cunning maneuvers…except a few other House gynoids were starting to realize that Shayla’s new-found desire for power wasn’t exactly her own idea….”

“….which is where I came in,” the Human Animal declared proudly. “Faceless handed me the list, I tracked ‘em down, and the rest…well, you’ve seen what’s left of them---“

“Indeed we have,” Faceless muttered. “Which leads us to Misstep #2 on your itenerary---“

“Irvine wasn’t a ‘misstep’!” the Animal snarled. “You wanted her out of the way, and I did the job just like you said! I---“

“You killed off a gynoid who was known to work with the House,” Faceless countered, “whereas your earlier targets weer merely business associates of the House…” The tip of a wristblade slowly inched its way out of his left sleeve. “If I have to remind you of that little mistake again…”

“You won’t,” the Animal assured him.

“Good. Now, then….Miss Irvine was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time---and I’ll be the first to admit that my own intelligence-gathering operatives were…lax, in their handling of the situation regarding her status with the House. Be that as it may, I never intended for them to get tangled up in this any further than they already were---Peyton and Shayla were making very convincing arguments as to why Celeste should step down---“

“How in the hell did you even get them to say those things?” Jake inquired. “It’s not like you could’ve just told them to---“

“Oh, but I did ‘just tell them to’,” Faceless replied. “It’s amazing what a Blutooth headset can do when properly altered….why, one could even recreate the WiFi command-issue process known as….the Voice of Zeus, for instance….” He chuckled again. “I was initially going to frame you for giving Shayla and Peyton the orders to kill another ALPA operative, but that would’ve reeked of unoriginality---“

“You’re telling him the whole damn plan!” the Human Animal snapped. “He’s---“

“Jake Brytestar is in no position to do anything to stop us,” Faceless countered calmly. “We kill him, we take Lassiter to be lobotomized, and then everything returns to normal---“

“If that’s Lassiter,” Jake cut in, “then who the hell is the Human Animal?”

With an annoyed groan, the Human Animal removed his mask….revealing the face of John Lee Lassiter. “I’m disappointed, Brytestar,” he muttered. “I thought you’d have figured it out after you trashed my office---this idiot already said he wasn’t John Lee Lassiter---“

“’This idiot’ is your brother!” the other Lassiter snapped. “You took my whole damn life from me, John…you made me change my name to match yours, you sealed both our medical records---you sent my wife and kids to another country, for crap’s sake!” He glanced at Jake; “I never wanted to work with these two psychopaths,” he murmured sadly. “I wanted to legitimately bring Rengold Cybernetics into the fold and merge them with Horizon Electronics---but then John showed up at my house one night and threatened to torch the place unless I took part in some stupid, convoluted scheme….”

Jake was stunned. “You…you used your own brother?!”

“D’you know how many people in my position have identical twins?” John asked. “Very, very few…and even fewer have the kind of resources that Faceless and I possess. This whole thing was going to turn Detroit into the new Silicon Valley, with us at the helm and everyone eating out of our hands---“

“And you were complaining about me spoiling our plan?” Faceless muttered.

John scoffed, retreating to a toolbench near the far wall. “We can tell this idiot everything, and he still won’t be able to stop us,” he sneered. “And besides, it’s feeding time for the Beast…” He retrieved the massive drill that he’d nearly assaulted Vicki with back at the Detroit Marriot. “Seeing as how Lawson got a last-minute save, the Beast is feeling a little….hungry…” The drill whirred to life as John thumbed the activation grips; “If you’ve got any last requests,” he declared, “keep ‘em to yourself---“


Faceless glanced at John, who nearly dropped the drill. “What the----how in the hell---“


James and Jake exchanged glances; “Friends of yours?” James asked.

Jake allowed himself a smile. “More than friends, in some cases…”


“HERE’S WHAT I THINK OF YOUR EXCESSIVE FORCE!” John screamed, storming over to the window and flipping off whoever was outside. “GET THE HELL OFF OF MY PROPERTY BEFORE---“


Faceless sighed; “I should’ve expected this…” “SHUT UP!” John snapped. “I’ve still got this under control---“


Jake smirked. “Still think you’ve got a chance to get away clean, John-Boy---“




“What do we call you, then?” James asked. “Johnny Paycheck? Johnny-Be-Bad?”


John grabbed the drill again and waved it in Jake’s face. “One more word out of you….”


“They’re going to breach the front door in a few seconds, John,” Faceless drawled.




Jake smirked. “In a few seconds, you’ll be losing control of something else---“


The tip of the Beast pressed against Jake’s forehead, rotating slowly. “ONE MORE WORD,” John bellowed, “AND I SWEAR---“

Across the room, the triple-locked security door collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud, revealing an all-too familiar red-and-white-clad form. “Zero.” V.I.C.I. stepped into the room, her unwaveing gaze fixed on John Lee Lassiter and Faceless. “By the authority given to me at the command of ALPA President Clive DuBraul,” she declared, “I am hearby placing both of you under arrest. Do you have anything to say---“

John threw the Beast to the floor and charged at V.I.C.I., screaming maniacally.

“Defense noted,” the brunette gynoid muttered, grinning as she assumed a fighting stance.

Within the lobby of the building, Oberon and the FROSTs were supervising the evacuation of the tennants who didn’t have ties to Faceless or Lassiter. “Let’s try to keep it orderly, people,” Oberon advised, guiding the rush of office workers and mid-level managers to the exits. “No pushing, no crowding…just keep everything nice and calm---“

Seven floors above, something was slammed into a wall with uncompromising force.

“Think she’ll be able to take him down?” Major Tom asked as a cute blonde secretarial gynoid rushed past. “I mean, that genetic quirk of his---“

“Congenital insensitivity to pain isn’t a superpower, Major,” Oberon reminded him. “If anything, he’s lucky to be alive right now---“ Another slam rumbled through the building. “Rain check?” the white-clad ALPA Chairman mused.

“Definitely,” the Major replied, following Oberon to the fire exit.

“Tell me, Vicki,” Faceless called out as he watched the brunette gynoid dodge a brutal knife-edged chop, “how exactly did you manage to avoid being reduced to a quivering lump of plastic and metal after the, ah, surprise you found in your room at the Marriot?” He chuckled derisively; “Who am I kidding….you probably deleted the memory file right after---“

“The file’s been running as a background process ever since that night,” V.I.C.I. stated. “I analyzed the Human Animal’s vocal patterns, body language and even his reaction to being shot…” She ducked under another punch and bashed John Lee Lassiter in the kidney. “Coupled with the ‘Human Animal’ I saw at the warehouse’s sublevel, and the presence of two John Lee Lassiter birth certificates---“ Her arm locked around John’s midsection and sent him spinning into a wall. “When all the factors added up,” she reiterated, “it didn’t take me long to realize you had two Lassiters on your payroll…including one who didn’t even want to work for you.”

Faceless applauded, every clap slow, exaggerated and dripping with sarcasm. “Bra-vo, Vicki,” he drawled. “It seems that not even a plan as watertight as this one could’ve possibly succeeded with you on the case---“

“Except there was no plan,” V.I.C.I. countered, sidestepping to dodge John’s tackle. “If the malfunction that scrapped Shayla was traced back to the Rengold Cybernetics remote, James could’ve called off the merger with RC…just like Peyton would’ve testified to having periodically wiped Shayla’s memories after copying them to her secondary backup unit. Your plan---“ One of John’s wild punches struck her in the chin, prompting her to glare at the unmasked Human Animal before throwing him across the room.

“As I was saying,” she declared, “your plan was no more watertight than a sieve.” Without waiting for Faceless to respond, she jogged over to Jake and James. “Need a hand?” she asked, grinning.

“It would help,” Jake admitted.

The manacles were easily shattered in the brunette gynoid’s grip, allowing Jake and James to head for the far exit as V.I.C.I. returned her attention to Faceless and John. “You forgot to mention your protégé’s third misstep, by the way,” she added. “Julia Irvine had a full backup of her memories and personality stored on SD cards hidden in her purse---the same purse the Human Animal left at the scene after he finished brutalizing her.”

That remark killed any witty retort Faceless could’ve made; as John staggered back to his feet, the Butcher of Lake Gilmour slowly turned to glare at him. “Irvine had SD backup cards…in her purse?!”

“I searched the damn thing twenty times!” John countered. “I didn’t find sh---“

“She hid them in the security pocket sewn into the lining,” V.I.C.I. stated.

John scowled at her. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me that her memory files have enough evidence to put me away for the rest of my natural life?” he taunted.

The brunette gynoid grinned. “As a matter of fact---“

“ENOUGH,” Faceless thundered. “I see now that my plan relied too much on one individual and not enough on my own resources…a pity, really. The Human Animal was going to be my ticket into controlling the robotics market throughout the Midwest---which, by the way, is why I planned on framing you, Brytestar---the assets of your company would’ve more than made up for the revenue squandered by Rengold Cybernetics---“

“Nice try,” V.I.C.I. countered, “but we already know that you were planning to have Rengold Cybenetics declare bankruptcy right after Lassiter took over, so you could buy it back at a fire-sale price.”

Now it was John’s turn to glare at Faceless. “You….you were going to let me go bankrupt?!”

“I was going to let James go bankrupt,” the Butcher of Lake Gilmour replied. “You would’ve regained control of Horizon Electronics in a hostile takeover, and Horizon would’ve bought out Rengold Cybernetics---“

“Which would’ve defaulted right back to you by the end of the year,” V.I.C.I. stated. “You really need to find a better way to get rid of confidential files, Faceless…coupled with all the stuff I’ve been recording over the last few minutes, the shredded documents we found at John’s apartment are more than enough to send you straight back to DragonTown for tax evasion.” Her voice slipped back to its human state; “And about your first question, regarding what happened at the hotel room….”

She crossed the room before Faceless could reply, clotheslining John to the floor.

“I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t scared at first,” she admitted, delivering a brutal kick to her fallen foe’s ribs. “But the fact is…I’m not just some frightened, vulnerable victim who prefers running away and hiding to confronting her fears.” She dragged John back to his feet, only to headbutt him right in the nose. “That’s the difference between us, Faceless…and the reason you always lose to me. You’re skin and bone, flesh and blood…and you never want anyone to forget that. You want the world to see you as an immortal killer, a living, breathing nightmare they’ll never be able to get rid of…and every time you set out to prove your ‘immortality’, you put yourself further into the grave. As for me, the world thinks I’m like everyone else…but I’m not. I don’t just let something like an attempted assault scare the hell out of me and turn my life into a living hell---because I have the option to do something about it. I’m stronger than anyone you’ve ever threatened before, Faceless, and even if you did cut me down one day…you’d have further to fall than I would.”

She cleared the distance between herself and Faceless in seconds.

“You’re just flesh and blood,” she whispered, “but I am titanium…and nothing you do will ever hurt me.”

Behind his mask, Faceless snarled. “We’ll see about that!” His arm shot forward---

---only to be intercepted seconds before the wristblade could pierce Vicki’s flesh.

“Not this time.” She wrenched his arm backwards, breaking it at the elbow. “You don’t get another chance to take me down.” She shoved the black-clad murderer away, turning to glance at John. “Both of you hand yourselves over to the FROSTs downstairs, and leave peacefully, or---”

“OR NOTHING!” John shouted. “This whole thing was supposed to be simple, painless and IMPOSSIBLE to screw up, but this….the House knows, the ALPA knows, and almost every robotics company in the Midwest is going to know….” He glared at the brunette gynoid. “Congratulations, Vicki Lawson,” he growled. “You’ve effectively blacklisted me from ever working in the robotics industry again…”

“She hasn’t done anything yet,” Faceless muttered. “We still have---“

“McMire escaped from your compound in Green Bay last month,” Jake interjected. “My team was leading a rescue mission to retrieve him, and your…associates nearly killed him before we could intervene.”

Faceless glared at Jake silently.

“You have no leverage, no means of escape and no chance of conning your way out,” V.I.C.I. stated, her stare never wavering as she stood before the two individuals whose schemes could very well have caused an irreparable rift between the ALPA and the House. “Either surrender peacefully and submit to a trial, or try another escape attempt and get Tazed into unconsciousness by three dozen FROSTs…your call.”

“Do you actually think we’re going to surrender to your stupid friends?” John scoffed.

“If you intend to be awake when you leave…yes.”

Faceless stared at his protégé, chuckling. “And I was going to leave you the company,” he drawled. “If I even have a company to run after this is all over, it’s all yours…provided the ALPA won’d divvy it up amongst their best and brightest.”

“True,” John admitted. “Things could be worse---“

“Actually,” Vicki interjected, “they are worse---Lassiter killed someone at Julian Snyder’s house and left a pretty big mess…from what I understand, Derrick Snyder called ahead and warned his father and his parents that the Human Animal was in the area, and they left right when a Mantronix Inc. representative showed up to talk with Julian about a consultancy job. The cops who arrived on the scene fifteen minutes later said they found a Caucasian female ‘gutted like a fish’.”

The Butcher of Lake Gilmour glanced at John. “Did they, now---“

Something fell from John’s hand to shatter on the floor; within seconds, a thick cloud of fog flooded the room as the sounds of a scuffle could be heard. Vicki strode forth towards the center of the fog, ready to drag both Faceless and John Lee Lassiter out, but Jake held her back; “The FROSTs will be here in a few minutes,” he reminded her. “Let them have their stupid fight, and then we can haul them off---“ A thick, wet sound emerged from the fog; either Faceless or Lassiter was getting stabbed.

“If we wait for the FROSTs, these two will have killed each other by then!” Vicki protested. “We have to get them out of here now---“

A gutteral yell, followed by a thud, punctuated her remark.

“Enough of this…” The brunette gynoid inhaled a deep breath, reared back and unleashed a pressurized blast of air that shattered the windows and drained the fog from the room in seconds. “Once this clears, we can get them out of here, and…bring them…to…”

The Human Animal’s gas mask and a broken knife were all that Faceless and his protégé had left behind; as Vicki looked up, a previously hidden door in the far wall sealed itself. “So much for letting the FROSTs pick them up,” she muttered, frowning in Jake’s direction. “Your recorder is still working, right?” Jake checked the microrecorder he’d hooked onto his belt. “It taped everything they said in here, so….yeah. It’s still working.”

“Good. Give it to Oberon when we get downstairs…I have a feeling he’s going to want to hear what’s on it.”

With Jake leading the way, the group headed for the staircase. Vicki took one last look back at the discarded gas mask and knife; part of her was annoyed that Faceless and the Human Animal had escaped, but she knew that Faceless wouldn’t be one to let this kind of defeat go unpunished.

Next time, Faceless…you will be brought to justice. Count on it.

The rest of the day was almost anticlimactic, compared to the showdown with the Human Animal and Faceless that had ended with their escape. Vicki spent at least four full hours filling out paperwork, answering questions from House representatives and ALPA higher-ups about the events of the past few days, and generally feeling bored. By the end of it all, she wanted to crawl back to the recharging booth at Strahd Manor and lock herself in for a good week or so….

“Long day?”

James Lucas Lassiter’s question brought a smile to the brunette gynoid’s face. “I’m surprised you’re the one asking me that,” she mused, considering the fact that Horizon Electronics was just handed over to you on a silver platter…” Her smile faded as she noticed James limping; “Aren’t you going to see a doctor about that?”

“My medical records are still being separated from John’s, so it’ll be a while before they can verify that I’m who I say I am,” he replied. “And there’s the matter of getting the rest of my affairs in order; from what I found out about Horizon’s finances, they’re not exactly top earners these days…or Faceless and John had their way with the bank account as soon as they got the chance.”

“Considering the fact that they hired a perfectly innocent bystander to point a remote at Shayla Fairchild and push the button that fried her systems,” Vicki mused, “I’d go with your second guess.”

“Yeah…about that,” James muttered. “They actually paid me to use the remote on Shayla, but I flat-out told them no. John threatened to bring a story to the papers that would link us---me, specifically---to the original Human Animal, and he had enough ‘proof’ to suggest that I was the one behind the mask this time…” He stared at the floor. “I didn’t want to get dragged into this whole power struggle just because my brother chose to allign himself with that Rengold psychopath…”

“And your show back at the office?” Vicki inquired. “The one where you ‘let me go’?”

“I figured you’d deduced the truth about the Human Animal and myself after the warehouse incident,” James admitted, “and I thought that pulling a complete 180, personality-wise, would be the back-breaking straw for John and Faceless…but, instead, they decided to drag Jake up to the loft in John’s high-rise and threaten him with that stupid drill.” He sighed. “John tried to goad me into being the one to attack you in your hotel room, as well…he thought it would be ‘funny’ to see me act like a complete monster for a change.” He shook his head sadly. “Faceless roped us both into his schemes, Vicki…but whereas John actually liked working with him, I just wanted my life back.”

The brunette gynoid nodded in sympathy. “How’d this whole thing start out?” she asked. “You and John going to work for Faceless, I mean…”

“Our father owed him a debt,” James explained. “Apparently, back when he was still William J. Rengold III, Faceless paid his legal fees and kept him from going to jail after a particularly gruesome killing, and he stopped by the house that night to let everyone know that the Human Animal would be indebted to him from that point on. He even had him sign a contract just to make it official…”

“…so it was the contract that pretty much sealed your fate,” Vicki murmured.

James sighed again. ‘When John and I turned 21, William paid us a visit---except he’d thrown himself into this whole Faceless thing by then. He recruited us both to help with some massive scheme of his, one that would have us switching roles on a nightly basis---I’d run the company, and John would become the Human Animal…then we’d swap lives, just to keep everyone guessing. After a while, though, it started getting harder and harder to keep up the act…I kept getting hurt, and I’d crawl into John’s bed for two hours of sleep before he showed up to throw me out---without so much as a scratch on him. I lost at least five girlfriends because of this whole stupid thing…three left, one was driven insane and one….” He squeezed his eyes shut.

“I get it,” Vicki murmured.

Before James could continue, the door to Vicki’s temporary office (the room set aside for her to fill out all of the necessary paperwork to avoid any lawsuits) opened. “Shayla and Peyton have been retired from the House,” Oberon declared, “for the time being, at least.” He pulled up a chair, sat down and sighed; “I haven’t been this tired in ages. Lassiter and Faceless left a paper-trail longer than Park Avenue during their little game---not to mention having to fill out a novel-sized form just to prove that Peyton didn’t attack Orton of her own free will.”

“So….this is technically an ALPA win, right?” Vicki asked.

The awkward silence that followed was more than enough of an answer.

“I….I didn’t mean---“

“A representative from a Coalition company is dead,” Oberon muttered. “Derrick Snyder had the truth of his existence revealed to him in the most random way possible. Two prominent gynoids of the House have been taken out of commission for at least a year or so. Horizon Electronics is almost bankrupt---“

“I get it,” Vicki snapped. “I…I just…”

“The fact of the matter is,” Oberon continued, “most of those matters can easily be resolved before the end of the month.” A smile played at his features; “Despite all of the chaos that Faceless and the Human Animal have wrought, things are already on the path to recovery….Horizon is set to start working more closely with the House, Derrick is applying to join the ALPA alongside his father, and almost all charges against Celeste were dropped---“

“’Almost all charges’?” Vicki echoed.

“The data transfer from the Silicon Dynamics server is still a bit of a sore point,” Oberon admitted, “and many of Celeste’s detractors want her to be punished for it…but their protests aren’t exactly what I’d call ‘top priority’ as of right now. Shayla and Peyton’s positions on the Council are already being filled---an android from Germany was elected to take Shayla’s place, and I believe a new Lawson Robotics gynoid is being groomed to fill in for Peyton….Stella, I think her name is.”

Vicki’s eyes widened. “A Lawson Robotics gynoid is joining the House?” she murmured.

“Indeed. She was, ah, reported missing a last year---taken by Drake Bradford, annoyingly enough…a team led by Jake Brytestar found out and went undercover to Bradford’s garden party, where they retrieved Stella and escaped before a fireworks accident set fire to the residence…in any case, Stella’s being groomed to take Peyton’s place, and the House has expressed particular grattitude to you for helping to sort this whole thing out.”

“Well,” Vicki admitted, “it wasn’t just me…Jake and his team helped, too.”

“That they did,” Oberon agreed, “and since you saved Jake from what would’ve been unbearable torture at the hands of the Human Animal, he asked me to give you this…” He handed Vicki a cellphone with the image of what appeared to be a snake emerging from a star on the cover. “That’s a novasnake, if I translated the note correctly,” he explained. “It’s Jake’s nickname, from his soccer days…he also used it as his team name during a recent op in Japan, infiltrating a martial arts tournament---“

“I read something about that,” James cut in. Wasn’t it a King of Fi---“

“Where’s Jake now?” Vicki asked. “I, ah, wanted to apologize for headbutting him earlier…” She glanced at a clock on the wall. “Scrap! It’s already 11:25?! Yeesh…I’ve been filling out paperwork for almost three hours straight!”

“Which is good,” Oberon reminded her, “because now you’re don’t need to worry about getting sued.”

Vicki sighed and leaned back in her chair. “After a week and a half in Detroit,” she yawned, “getting to sleep in my own bed would be the best reward I could ask for once I’m back in San Jose…” She allowed herself a grin; “Though a shopping spree here in the Motor City wouldn’t hurt either….and what did I say this time to get on your nerves?”

Oberon sighed. “Vicki,” he intoned, “what happened at the hotel room with the Human Animal was, by all accounts, rather traumatic…are you sure you’re not still feeling any residual psychological effects from that?”

“I told you,” Vicki insisted, “I’m over it. I’m not going to freak out any time someone jumps out from behind a door and yells ‘surprise’ or anything, if that’s what you’re asking…it was a moment where I couldn’t fight back, and the freak nearly went over the line with it.” She paused; “Is the Man in Grey going to be okay, or what? I mean, he nearly got his head cut off---“

“This isn’t about the Man in Grey,” Oberon declared, an angry edge creeping into his voice. “This is about you, and---“

“What part of ‘I can take care of myself because I’m not just a helpless walking appliance anymore’ didn’t you understand?!” Vicki snapped. “He got the jump on me, and the Man in Grey saved my life---“

“The Man in Grey nearly killed someone,” Oberon thundered. “He…” The sentence trailed off; “Vicki, I know you saw the Man in Grey attack the Human Animal…and I know you saw what happened afterwards…but I have to ask a favor of you---if anyone ever asks, don’t tell them who saved you. Just…say you recovered, and that you kept the Animal occupied long enough for myself and the others to arrive. The Man crossed the line when he plunged that steak knife into the Animal’s chest, and even though I would never wish the kind of bodily harm he had to endure afterwards on anyone…his actions were unforgivable. Yes, he saved your life, and yes, you and I both owe him a great deal for that…but as of tonight, the Man in Grey is no longer affiliated with the ALPA.”

“So that’s the thanks he gets for saving her life?” James asked. “She could’ve been---‘

“The ALPA doesn’t need to be associated with knife-toting vigilantes,” Oberon growled, the last vestiges of his smile fading. “Publius attacked the Human Animal with every intent to kill him---and I can assure you that saving Vicki’s life was the last thing on his mind…” He stared at the floor. “Publius has a long, storied history that goes back farther than his involvement with the ALPA, and he let that history get the better of him….”

After two minutes’ worth of silence, Vicki finally spoke: “Who did he kill?”

Her expectations---Oberon yelling, backhanding her and/or storming out of the room---were unfulfilled. “Before I met him, Publius….the Man in Grey…wasn’t exactly on the side of the angels,” the ALPA chairman admitted. “He was as dangerous, foolish and deadly as Faceless, and as remorseless as the Human Animal. He was almost unmatched in terms of sheer ruthless cunning…but he wound up like Icarus, in the end: flew too damn close to the sun, and the wings that had carried him so far up the ladder melted on his shoulders. He barely had enough time to realize he was a doomed man before his so-called friends picked him clean, like the vultures they were…”

A lone tear made its way down his face. “Long in a short: he fell from grace and then asked me to help lift him back up. Obviously, I didn’t do a good enough job.” With that, he turned and walked out.

With a sigh, Vicki returned her attention to the few remaining papers on her desk. Why does it feel like there’s something I’m not getting about this whole thing? she asked herself. I get the basic gist of Faceless’ plan and the reason he brought the Human Animal in…but why did he let the Animal kill someone from the Coalition instead of just calling off the attack on Derrick’s house? Why’d he even get Derrick involved in the first place? She shook her head and initialed three more small boxes.

Too many questions, and never enough answers…

“…if what you’re saying is true, Oberon, than this is a lot worse than DuBraul expected. Have they ID’d the guy from Mantronix yet?”

Within the confines of his private suite at the Detroit Marriot, Oberon was informing Mr. Tell of the most recent developments in the Detroit mission. “It could’ve been anyone from Mantronix,” he reminded the mechanic, “and the results would be the same. One Coalition representative killed, two House gynoids effectively D-Commed, and an ALPA Field Agent narrowly escapes death by impalement…someone other than Faceless is at work here, Tell.”

“Who the hell would be stupid enough to play every side against each other?”

“I don’t know,” Oberon admitted, “and that’s what worries me. From the surveilance records at the warehouse Vicki raided, there were four intruders present---John Lee Lassiter, James Lucas Lassiter, Peyton King and someone else….no match from the Coalition or ALPA files.”

“So there’s a new player in the game…great. You want me to tell DuBraul, or---“

“I’ll tell him when I get back; I’m staying in Detroit for the rest of the month to sort out what I can…I haven’t had the heart to tell Vicki that Derrick was attacked during her raid on Lassiter’s high-rise, or that whoever or whatever killed the Mantronix rep wasn’t the Human Animal.” He glanced away from the screen; “Not even Faceless would flay someone alive and then burn them to death,” he murmured.

“There’s something else you might want to get a look at…we think we’ve finally found her.”

Oberon looked up. “Her who?”

“You know who, Oberon…Ted’s other creation…”

The ALPA Chairman’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious….who called it in?”

“Someone living near John Lane’s place. Apparently, he took in girl who looked exactly like Vicki earlier this year…after that, there’s just unconfirmed reports.”

“Has she reverted to her…bad habits yet?”

“That’s the weird thing; I have a complaint filed from Lane’s neighbor about hearing someone yelling during the night, asking to have the ‘awful things’ taken out of her head…doesn’t really sound like much of a lead, in my opinion, but---“

“It’s more than enough. Don’t send anyone there yet, and do not report this to anyone else….this neighbor didn’t happen to take any pictures, did they?”

“Not that I know of. Ah, there’s…one other thing you might be interested in…you remember Herbert Weston?”

“Yes….don’t tell me his daughter’s been found.”

“Well, that’s the thing…a Keith Weston, apparently Herbert’s nephew, has just popped up on the ALPA radar, after a rather interesting appearance at a robotics expo in Des Moines. Apparently, he’s starting up a company of his own, using upgraded versions of some of his uncle’s technology…think we should look into it?”

“Put Squad 9 on it…I hear they haven’t had that much to do lately.”

“I’ll send ‘em the news, though I was kind of hoping to go with them…”

Oberon allowed himself a chuckle; “I’ll see what I can do, Tell.”

“Glad to hear it. So, Vicki’s coming back to San Jose this Friday?”

“Assuming Faceless doesn’t jump up out of a toilet to try and eviscerate her, yes. Derrick Snyder and his family might be joining her on the flight, as well…Julian’s finally decided to head back to where he got his start in the wonderful world of robotics. I here Diz might be interested in hiring him---“

“Ah, yeah…about that…”

“He hasn’t done anything, has he?”

“Coba’s still doing what he does best…but a few other notables from the ALPA have been griping about some stuff that’s happened earlier this year. Aphrodite Technologies filed a complaint about an incident at one of their factories, apparently…someone matching the profile of Jake Brytestar was apparently caught on camera in a top-secret area of the building, looking for---“

“That incident has already been handled, Mr. Tell, just as the report from Venus Industries has been taken care of. Whoever’s sending this information in is trying to stir the pot, nothing more---“

“You might want to hold off on that line of thought, Oberon…someone has you on tape at the Venus plant.”


“Oberon? You there, or---"

“Send a message to DuBraul asking him to call me in five minutes---I’m heading back to San Jose tonight.” It took all of his self-restraint for Oberon to keep from punching the walls; the images Tell had just described were supposed to have been destroyed. “Who gave them the footage?”

“Well, the ‘sender’ line on the label has the names Grandmaster Sexay and Scotty 2 Hotty, but---“

“That’s all I needed to know.” The use of WWF-era wrestlers’ names was all the information he needed---the footage had been handed over to the ALPA by McMire himself. “Was it delivered in person, or dropped off in the delivery box?”

“Dropped off, and the outdoor cameras were screwed up---“

“Of course they were.” Yet another wrinkle in the ever-evolving plot…. “Who knows about this?”

“DuBraul, you, me, and Crystal.”

“Keep it that way.” With that, Oberon ended the call. “Of all the blasted…” Just the previous month, McMire had narrowly escaped death at the hands of someone who wanted to capitalize on his Stylo cure research; the ALPA had provided cover fire for his escape at the time, even going so far as to report that McMire fought his way out on his own…and this was how he repayed them. And of course, he chooses two of the most ridiculous wrestler names he could remember to sign the “sender’s” line, just to have a go at me…

As he gathered his belongings and waited for the call from DuBraul, Oberon realized that he’d been right to tell Vicki that this wasn’t a full ALPA win---not by a long shot. The Detroit mission was over, and there were enough small victories to go around…but now, McMire was involved, and things were going to get ugly.

“Ball’s in your court now, McMire,” Oberon muttered, “but how long will you hang on to it?”

Had McMire been able to hear the question, he would’ve gladly answered it….

…and considering recent events, neither McMire nor Oberon would’ve left the Marriot unscathed.

Wake-up cycle initiated. Activating V.I.C.I. ………. all systems activated. Running full system scan………………………. Scan complete. All systems functioning at 100% efficiency. Reserve Battery charge level: 93.6% Disconnect from Stasis Capsule: Successful. Good morning, V.I.C.I.; today is Friday, March 11, 2011. The time is 6:15 A.M.

Vicki rose from her slumber with a yawn; hard to believe I’ve only been here for a little under two weeks since I first got here, she mused. I guess time flies when you’re saving the world…

After a series of in-bed calisthenics, the brunette gynoid untangled herself from the sheets and eased out of the bed, just barely allowing her feet to touch the floor. Another yawn made its way through her lips as she slid into her slippers; and I’m not even surprised that I woke up at Strahd Manor again. I must be getting used to this place… With one last yawn, she headed for the main room to see what everyone else was up to.

Jake’s teammates had apparently decided to engage in a game of tackle football in the massive main corridor of the manor; as Vicki passed them by, Lynne and Lacey were almost tripping over each other trying to get away from the two Alicias. Slightly more….interesting than their unorthodox playing style was their rather unique take on football pads---they wore only elbow and knee protection, helmets, and cleats with the spikes ripped out, with one-piece swimsuits underneath. The Alicias, meanwhile, had donned a rather odd jumble of sporting gear (goalie masks, skateboarding kneepads, lacrosse gloves and soccer jerseys), and were chasing the cheer-bots on rollerblades.

“YOU’LL SCUFF THE FLOOR LIKE THAT!” Major Tom shouted as he tried to keep up with the Alicias. “AT LEAST TRY NOT TO---NO! DO NOT USE THE BUMPERS---oh, for crap’s sake…” He sighed and shook his head. “Damnit to Hell…..now they’ll want me to buff the floors after Jake’s team leaves…”

“I’ll help if you want,” Vicki offered, grinning.

The Major chuckled; “After the week you’ve had, you’re actually offering to help me buff the floor? This really must be my day….” He sighed. “Derrick Snyder wanted me to thank you, by the way…he’s apparently going to be transferring to San Jose or Palo Alto to join the ALPA, and he’s thinking of enrolling at SJSU.”

“All that, just because I accidentally injured him?” Vicki mused.

“Something like that,” the Major replied. “In any case, I’m just glad we’re finally heading home…this op started off boring, got dodgy in the middle and nearly imploded at the end. I don’t know how you handle it, Vicki…this, coupled with schoolwork AND the daily intricacies of college life---not exactly the kind of combination I’m used to working with.” He rolled his eyes; “Anyways, looks like you’re all set to head back to Silicon Valley…”

“I am,” Vicki agreed. “After everything I had to put up with here…I think going home might end up feeling like a vacation.”

“Somehow, that actually makes sense,” Major Tom chuckled, following Vicki to the study.

Inside, Jake Brytestar was on the phone with his parents, promising them that he would return home safely as soon as possible. “…and tell Jake Jr. and Alicia 4 that I said hi, okay?” he asked.

“We’ll do that, son,” a well-dressed man (Jake’s dad, probably) replied.

“Right. See you back in Green Bay!” Jake ended the call and sighed; “Well, at least everything’s okay back at home,” he muttered. “Jake Jr. and Alicia 4 are getting along just great…oh, hi, Vicki! I didn’t hear you come in…”

“One of the benefits of myogel reflexes,” the brunette gynoid replied. “They let me move swiftly without making too much noise…anyways, who exactly are Jake Jr. and Alicia 4?”

“It’s….a long story,” Jake began, only for Lacey to yell out “THEY’RE, LIKE, ROBO-CATS!” from the hallway.

Vicki arched an eyebrow; “Robotic….cats?” she echoed.

“I have a thing for cats,” Jake admitted. “It’s…kind of a long story…anyways, everything’s all set for the return flight to Green Bay---well, for me, at least; I have to send the owner of Strahd Manor the keys before I go, so there’s that….” He leaned back in the chair. “Finishing a mission like this always feels so…weird,” he mused, “like you’re just waiting for the next big thing to roll in…”

Major Tom nodded. “I got that feeling a lot in NASA; every time I landed safely, I just couldn’t wait to get back up and fly again.”

“Well, we’ll be flying back to San Jose soon enough,” Vicki reminded him, “so lighten up!” She smiled.

“She’s right,” Jake agreed. “You two get to return to Silicon Valley and do what you do best---keep freaks like the Human Animal from wrecking the lives of androids and gynoids all over the Valley…” He stared at the monitor in front of him, sighing. “I just wish Brytestar Industries could’ve been a part of the ALPA when it first formed, back in the 80s…”

Major Tom’s smile faded. “Something tells me you wouldn’t have found it all that great,” he muttered.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Jake decided to help Vicki get her luggage. “It’s been great working with you,” he informed the brunette gynoid, “and I just want you to know---if you’re ever in Green Bay---“

“I’ll drop by and see if you’re up for a chat or anything,” Vicki promised. “Maybe I’ll even get to see Jake Jr.!”

Jake nodded approvingly. “He’d probably enjoy meeting you, too.” With that, Vicki and the Major said their goodbyes to Jake and headed out. A robo-cat, enjoying a visit from me? the brunette gynoid mused. That just sounds….weird….but I guess it’ll make sense when/if I ever meet him.

At the door, both Alicias were waiting to say their final goodbyes to Vicki before she left. “Steak Sauce has to go back to Japan, or something,” Alicia 5 mused, “but I’m going back to San Jose in a week or so….which technically means this isn’t a goodbye.” She grinned cheekily; “It’s more of a ‘see you later, if my bags don’t get eaten by the luggage carousel at the airport’ type of thing,” she mused. “Of course, that’s just my opinion, but---“

“I get it,” Vicki droned, lapsing into a giggle fit.

Alicia 5 smiled; “Y’know, Vicki,” she stated, “you’re a pretty impressive piece of work…and yes, I mean that as a compliment---I’LL BE THERE IN A MINUTE, JAKE!” The blonde gynoid sighed; “Anyways, I guess we’ll be seeing each other again in San Jose, so…” She hugged the brunette gynoid. “Don’t do anything too crazy before I get there, ‘kay?” she whispered.

“I’ll leave the crazy stuff to you,” Vicki replied with a grin.

With that, Alicia 5 walked off to go help Jake with whatever it was he needed help with. “Well, that was fun to watch,” Alicia 1 muttered. “Anyways, like A5 just said, I have to be on the next available flight to Japan---the House needs me to keep their safe haven..well, safe in the Land of the Rising Sun.” She sighed theatrically; “At least I got to work with you one more time before I have to leave…not that I don’t like working with Jake’s team, or anything---“

“If I ever have a mission in Japan,” Vicki informed her, “I’ll call you first, Steak Sauce.”

Alicia 1 laughed; “Y’know, I like that name more and more every time I hear it.” She sighed happily; “Well, all things considered, I guess this was a success---Celeste didn’t get removed from power, James Lucas Lassiter is running the company while his whackjob brother is running from the law, Derrick Snyder is joining the ALPA…pretty exciting stuff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“’Exciting’ is an understatement,” Major Tom mused. “After all this, I’m taking my sick leave…”

Vicki tried to smile at the remark, but something was still bothering her. “I heard Oberon mention that Shayla and Peyton are being…retired from the house,” she informed Alicia 1. “What did he mean by that?”

“Steak Sauce” sighed again; “As of right now, their backup bodies are being removed from the storage facility you and your friends found, and their memory/personality systems and backups are being placed in secure storage, away from the House mainframe…after all that’s happened with those two, Celeste decided that it’d be better to just deactivate them and let them have some time off instead of scrapping them.”

So they’re not going to be destroyed… “What about Julia Irvine?”

Alicia’s expression brightened; “Well, she’s apparently fallen in love with the shell Wyss and Faber used for the memory transfer, and she actually prefers that body to her own backups…and wouldn’t you know it, they’re actually letting her keep it!”

Vicki grinned at the thought; I guess the Human Animal’s scare tactics would’ve worked a lot better if all of his victims had stayed dead, she mused. “So, when does the original owner of this place show up to get the keys back---“

“We’ll be gone before that happens,” Major Tom assured her. “Speaking of which, the car’s waiting outside, so---“

“I’ll be there in a minute!” Vicki insisted, returning her attention to Alicia 1. “Well, Steak Sauce,” she declared with a sigh, “looks like we won’t be seeing each other again for a while…if you need my help with anything out in Japan, do like the song says…” She grinned; “’Just call my name, and I’ll be there’…”

“You know I will,” Alicia 1 replied, returning the grin with one of her own as she hugged the brunette gynoid. “Take care of yourself, Vicki…and make sure the Starman takes care of himself, too.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Vicki assured her as she gently pulled away.

Major Tom sighed; “Vicki, the car’s waiting…”

”I know, I know!” With an exaggerated groan, Vicki headed for the door, careful not to knock down the Field Agent who’d volunteered to get her bags. “And people call me hyper,” the Major chuckled. “Wait up, Vicki!”

Other than having to give the standard “metal plates holding her bones together” excuse after she set off the metal detectors, Vicki’s arrival at the airport was uneventful---especially compared to the days she’d had to endure beforehand. Onboard the plane itself, she settled into First Class (her ticket, along with those of her fellow Field Agents, had been upgraded overnight without explanation) and listened to the latest song from Sammie Sparkles, a new singer who’d apparently made waves at Eurovision over the past few months. I wonder if she’s like Sophia Starlet, she mused. Even if she isn’t, she’d fit in great with the rest of the Dolls…

As Major Tom slept through the flight, and the other Field Agents went over intel regarding missions they’d be handling back in San Jose, Vicki sorted through her bubble-memory processor until she found the memory of the Human Animal’s “surprise” at the Marriot. With a blink, she hid the file away in the most secure part of her memories; Ted’s the only other one who’s going to see it after I get back…and after that, I’m deleting it.

With that, Vicki closed her eyes and smiled. Like the Crue said, I’m on my way…home sweet home.

That night, Strahd Manor’s original owner returned to reclaim the estate. Jake Brytestar and his team had already moved out, leaving none of their equipment behind; seeing as how the property would be purchased by him in a few weeks anyways, the owner considered this the last night he had to go over the grounds and make sure nothing was amiss.

As far as he was concerned, one night was all he needed.

“Schmeisser, call Harrington and tell him that the Coalition is no longer engaging in active negotiations with Rengold Cybernetics…I have no desire to clean up any more of Faceless’ messes.” The voice that spoke these words had sent chills down many spines, including that of Otto Schmeisser---the right-hand man of Coalition Chairman James “Stinger” Harrington---in conference calls and meeting rooms, but to hear it in person was almost like hearing a voice that spoke from the bowels of Hell itself.

“Harrington’s busy right now, sir,” Schmeisser replied, his gaze taking in as much of the estate as he could. “If I may be so bold, why are we here if the place is going to be sold to Brytestar---“

“We are here, Herr Schmeisser, because this is still my domain…for the time being, at least…and there are things that need to be done before the place is sold.” The click of custom-tailored shoes on the tiled floor signaled for Schmeisser to follow his superior. “I would suggest that you wear sunglasses when you meet with Jake Brytestar, as well,” the speaker added. “The eyepatch looks a tad…piratical for my tastes…”

Schmeisser scowled, but said nothing; he’d lost an eye to a faulty power cell exploding in his hand a few years back, and the eyepatch had covered the ruined socket ever since; no-one in the Coalition had ever shown the tenacity to bring it up in “polite” conversation, thanks to Schmeisser’s habit of putting people in headlocks if they ever mentioned it…

…but the man who’d just brought up the topic would very easily break both his arms if he even thought of such a move.

“See to it that the surveilance records from my hidden cameras are transferred back to Coalition Headquarters before midnight,” the pinstripe-suited figure ordered.

“The task is already being attended to, sir.”

“As it should be. Now, then….” The figure turned around to address Otto directly, and the Coalition’s best bodyguard couldn’t help but flinch; he’d been one of only a select few to see the face of the organization’s boss of bosses without fear of reprisal…but that didn’t make the sight any easier to bear. “I believe Faceless and his protégé have ‘made the news’….again.”

“Indeed they have, sir…I could scramble a team to take them out---“

“No need, Mr. Schmeisser,” the Baron replied. “They are exactly where I need them to be.”

“Damn you, Vicki Lawson.”

Faceless stared out at the traffic from the window of a dingy, roadside motel, swearing vengeance against the brunette gynoid. “Damn you to the depths of all the Hells there ever were…” He sharpened his wristblade, his thoughts drifting to the inevitable day when he’d finally be able to ram the blades into Vicki’s forehead. She’d bested the Human Animal, remained stalwart in the face of torture and still found time to wreck his plans…as it stood, the Animal had already been forced to flee to another state, leaving Faceless to his own devices in the middle of Michigan---aka enemy territory.

“You will pay for this, Vicki. Make no mistake….you will pay.”

He drew the sharpening stone across the blade. Heads were going to roll for this one…

V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson's Diary

Well, this week has been completely insane…and I am so glad I’m en route back to San Jose right now!

This whole thing with the House has been almost too much for me to handle---and the fact that Faceless was involved makes it even worse. Long in a short, this week has been nothing but one insane incident after another, and I’m not looking forward to reliving it any time soon.

That being said, there were a few high points…

I met some interesting people, for one. Jake Brightstar, James Lucas Lassiter, Faber and Wyss---all of them were pretty cool, and without their help, I might not be on this plane right now. I also kinda sorta maybe accidentally revealed a sleeper android’s true nature to him, but seeing as how that android---Derrick Snyder, who’s already come to terms with the whole sleeper thing, by the way---is moving to SiliconValley, it actually worked out for the better in the end.

Faceless’ stupid plot had something to do with framing Celeste and getting her kicked out of her spot within the House, as well as some weird stuff about taking over a lot of robotics companies in Detroit…to be honest, I think he was just trying to play everyone against each other and then swoop in to reap the rewards when the fighting ended. Whatever the case, I’m glad he failed….and I’m definitely glad John Lee Lassiter failed with him.

Until next time, V.I.C.I./Vicki Lawson

The House stands united again…but Vicki’s next assignment may signal the beginning of the end for one of her friends!

Ever since her father’s disappearance Kirsten Sanderson has been searching for answers. What she might find, however, could be more than she bargained for; for the past semester, Kirsten has been unaware of her existence as a sleeper gynoid, but the machinations of Boris Vlatko could put an end to that idyllic existence and force Kirsten to confront the truth…and to choose a side.

Will Kirsten stand by Vicki and join the ALPA to continue the search for her father, or will Vlatko’s plot to lure her into the Coalition succeed? Can anyone help her to make the right decision?! Keep your eyes on the Stories section of the forum for the next chapter of The V.I.C.I. Diaries: “Kirsten’s Choice,” coming to Fembot Central in November 2012!

Bonus Chapter: “So….Mom and Riley are like me, then?”

Derrick’s question didn’t phase Julian Snyder as much as he’d expected; “For lack of a better term…yes,” he replied. “They are…well, other than the fact that you know what you are, and they don’t.” He stared down at the open chest cavities of Riley and Susanna, a sigh escaping his lips. “I thought I’d be able to tell them---to tell you---the truth at the same time, but….”

“I get it,” Derrick muttered.

Julian sighed again. “You probably hate me right now, don’t you?”

Derrick was taken aback; “Why the hell would I---“

“For lying to you,” Julian replied. “Five whole years, I’ve never told you the truth about what you are…or why I made you….” He stared at the unmoving blonde figure of Susanna; “Ever since the crash,” he explained, “I’d wanted to turn back time---have all three of you with me again. The memory bank---that thing that looks like an external hard drive, next to the lamp on your bedside table---was able to restore all the memories from before that day, but---“

“Memories from the real me?” Derrick inquired.

Julian glanced at him; “The you I’m talking to right now is just as real to me as the one who died in that crash,” he quietly stated. “And yes, the memory bank was able to record memories from your…biological predecessor and store them in digital form. A highly-untested science, obviously…but it worked.”

“And Garth?”

“He’d just lost a fellow ALPA agent in a deep cover operation down in Central America…wanted something less stressful. As for your girlfriends---“

“Garth gave me the lowdown,” Derrick assured him.

“Did he, now?” Julian chuckled. “I assume he also told you that a few of the names on ‘Page 2’ were with either the ALPA or the Coalition, then…”

“He didn’t even get to page two, actually,” Derrick admitted. “I’m surprised you’re bringing it up right now, to be honest; I mean, with the whole thing that happened with Shayla at her office….I thought you’d be more pissed off at me for using that stupid remote than anything else.”

“I’d have been pissed off if you’d taken the Camaro for a joyride and put it through a tree,” Julian admitted. “As for the thing with the ‘stupid remote’…” He sighed. “I don’t blame you for thinking it was a prank, Derrick…but you should’ve brought it to me instead of going down to Shayla Fairchild’s office and waving it at her like some kind of idiot---it’s a miracle you didn’t get chased down by the police!”

“It’s not like I was just holding it up and pressing buttons on the way there!” Derrick countered.

Julian shook his head. “That’s not the point…look, we’ll talk about it later, after I finish running diagnostics on Riley and Sue….sound fair?”

“I guess so.”

“Good. I’ll see you upstairs, then…”

With that, Derrick headed for the staircase leading out of Julian’s workshop. “Be sure to pack your bags while you’re waiting,” Julian called out. “We’re leaving for San Jose in three hours!”

After waiting for (and hearing) Derrick yelling an affirmative, Julian returned his attention to the two gynoids on the repair table before him. Unlike other roboticists (Mark Perkins and Paul Green immediately came to mind), he’d chosen to recreate Riley and Susanna’s looks as they’d been before the crash, rather than “redesigning” them in any way, shape or form…not to say that the human Riley and Susanna hadn’t been beautiful. Even as they lay motionless on the table, the two had a serene elegance about them….

“Penny for your thoughts?”

The remark drew a laugh from Julian. “I was wondering when you were going to do something other than hide in the corner,” he mused, glancing at the dirty-blonde figure emerging from a darkened corner of the room. “I guess you heard the whole conversation with Derrick, then…”

“I did. He’s handling it a lot better than some of the other sleepers I’ve seen…”

“And I guess this is the part where you want to know if he’d be willing to join the House?” Julian inquired. “I’ve already promised Celine that Riley will join as soon as she realizes what she is…you can’t expect me to just sign over Derrick as well.”

An arm draped across his shoulder; “That was never our intention, Julian…just as it was never my intention to do anything more than provide assistance when it was necessary…despite some persistent rumors to the contrary. Besides, Derrick would learn a lot by joining the House---“

“I know he would, Tawny, but….” Julian shook his head. “I can’t just let him go…not yet.”

Tawny sighed. “We’re not going to ‘use’ him, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she reminded Julian. “The House isn’t biased towards either gender…androids get just as much freedom as gynoids, and are expected to abide by the same rules as gynoids as well.” Her expression softened; “You’re not going to lose him by letting him join the house, Julian,” she murmured. “It’ll be a learning experience for him…and you might learn a thing or two yourself.”

“I know,” Julian admitted, “but….”

“You were going to tell Susanna before the crash, weren’t you?”

The question hit Julian like a punch to the gut; he squeezed his eyes shut as Tawny looked past him towards a capsule on the far end of the room. “She was going to be your gift to the whole family, wasn’t she?” the blonde gynoid murmured. “She was going to be your masterpiece…..”

A lone tear fell to the floor.

“She can still be that masterpiece, Julian!” Tawny insisted. “You don’t even have to tell Riley and Susan what they are…as long as they know what she is, and that you made her---“

“They’ll figure it out,” Julian muttered. “If I tell them about her, they’ll figure out what they are---“

“Then let them,” Tawny whispered. “Let them find out, and tell them that it doesn’t make them any less real than the Susan and Riley you lost in the crash….they’ll understand, Julian. If you just tell them---“

“I know,” Julian replied, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “I…I know.” He sighed; “Derrick’s waiting for me in the living room,” he muttered. “You should probably finish their diagnostics and let them boot up…” He turned and headed for the staircase. “Oh, and be sure to save the log files from the diagnostics to the portable hard drive when they’re finished,” he added. “I need to look over them before we leave for San Jose.”

“Not a problem,” Tawny replied, returning her attention to Riley and Susan. “Well, at least they’re in capable hands,” she muttered. “Even if they’re not part of the House yet….”

“This is how the world ends…not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

T.S. Elliot’s words seemed to mock the Man in Grey as he stared at the ceiling, the sedatives coursing through his veins doing little to calm him. It had been a full day since he’d made the stupidest decision of his life (he’d already come to accept the fact that it was stupid, even though it had kept Vicki Lawson from being violated by that bastard, the Human Animal), and he’d gone through all the familiar feelings---the five stages of grief, the impotent rage at being shackled to a hospital bed while doctors worked to repair his trachea, a creeping tendril of depression that had nearly led him to disconnect himself from life support in the middle of the night…..

None of it mattered anymore.

His fate had been sealed.

The sound of the door opening didn’t surprise him, nor did the sound of footsteps approaching his bed. “You’re still awake…sedatives wore off already?” The Man stared at the speaker of those words. “They didn’t work,” he replied, his voice a half-choked whisper.

“You’re not wearing the voccoder, either…the Doctor told you---“

“If you’re going to say it,” the Man growled, “then just say it…” He eased himself into a sitting position, glaring at the figure who watched him from the nearby chair. “Just tell me, already, so you can get it out of your system.”

Oberon didn’t smile. “You act as if I’ve been looking forward to this, Publius,” he replied. “You know I---“

“I know you’ve expected it,” the Man spat---or tried to spit; the tube connected to his throat made it somewhat difficult. “You’ve been waiting for this day ever since I first took up the mantle, ever since you purged me of those so-called ‘powers’ I once had…” He stared at the far wall. “You’ve been waiting for the day when I proved you right…”

“Wrong on all counts,” Oberon informed him. “I came here to tell you that the ALPA has decided to terminate your employment with them.”

The Man in Grey stared at him silently.

“I made the suggestion, and they voted to uphold it,” Oberon continued. “I’m sorry, old friend…but you crossed the line when you attacked Lassiter---“

“And you would’ve preferred that I wait?” the Man inquired.

The white-clad ALPA chairman sighed; “I would’ve preferred if you’d tackled him to the floor and handcuffed him,” he corrected. “Or pepper-sprayed him, or Tazed him, or something…anything other than what you ended up doing.” He steepled his fingers and stared at the Man in Grey with disdain. “You lowered yourself, Publius,” he intoned. “You let yourself drop to his level as soon as you stabbed him with that steak knife---and I know your intentions were noble, especially in this case, but…sometimes, noble intentions aren’t enough.”

His words were met with silence.

“If I’d been in your position,” Oberon admitted, “I could’ve easily fallen prey to the blind rage that led you to use that knife against the Human Animal…hell, anyone in your position could’ve. He was about to do unspeakable things to Vicki, and you weren’t about to let him…”

Once again, silence was the only answer he received.

“I understand if you hate me right now,” Oberon muttered. “Just please, understand---“

“Hate you?!” the Man in Grey chuckled, the laugh coming out as a wheezing, gasping sound; the bedsheets shifted just enough for Oberon to see the stitches on the Man’s throat---stitches he’d applied himself. “I should be thanking you, old friend…I’d been having the old nightmares again, all the old fears piling on with, with new ones bursting to the surface like maggots…” A lone tear streaked down his face. “I’ve been running far too long…never going anywhere…”

“You could’ve told me about the nightmares,” Oberon muttered. “I could’ve---“

“You’ve done enough,” the Man snapped, his anger giving way to grief once again. “You were right to have me removed from the ALPA, old friend…my fate lies elsewhere…” He reached beneath the mattress of the hospital bed, pulling out a thick envelope. “I’ve been…saving these, for a day like this,” he whispered.

Oberon stared at the envelope, his brow furrowed. “You’ve already made plans, then?”

“I’ve been making plans for a long time,” the Man quietly replied. “Everything’s already in place…by the time I finally get the attention of a certain group…” He chuckled again. "You want the uniform by express mail, or would you prefer to just take it from the wardrobe?”

“Keep it.”

The words stunned the Man in Grey. “But…after what happened---“

“You swore a vow that you would only relinquish that uniform in death…or if you ever disgraced it,” Oberon reminded him. “By my own view, you haven’t disgraced it yet. Besides, if….when you reach them, they might be rather interested in it.” He sighed; “I should’ve known that hiring you as my personal bodyguard wasn’t going to work out…you’ve seen far too much---done far too much, really, to just let go of it all.”

“…you’re forgiving me, then?” the Man asked. “For what I did?”

Oberon nodded silently.

“I could’ve killed him,” the Man stated. “I could’ve ripped him apart with his own tools…”

“You could have,” Oberon admitted, “but you didn’t. That being said, you did cross a line by attacking him with the steak knife…and then showed enough self-restraint to keep from carving him up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.” He sighed. “This is a very, very complicated case, Publius…if you’d have simply incapacitated him or gone full-bore and killed him, the matter would be over with by now.”

The Man in Grey stared up at the ceiling. “I thought it was over with,” he muttered. “There’s still the official inquiry from myself and DuBraul,” Oberon informed him. “And the mandatory meeting to determine whether or not your use of…excessive force was justified…and the meeting with the manager from the Marriot regarding the door you kicked in and our compensation for it…and the counseling for the Field Agents who responded to he scene---“

“I get the picture,” the Man growled. Oberon allowed himself the smallest of smiles. “If it helps, I personally think you should be cleared of any and all charges anyone might feel like laying on you.” He rose from his chair; “Well, I should really be going---“


The word stopped the white-clad ALPA Chairman in his tracks. “Yes?”

“Tell Vicki…she’s not weak. That she isn’t as vulnerable as she thinks she is.”

Oberon nodded. “I will….but I have a feeling she already knows that for herself.”

On a cold day, on the beaches of Southhaven on Lake Michigan's west coast, history was being made.

A tent had already been set up for the attendees of what was to be one of the most vital meetings of the year thus far, its windows overlooking the frozen lake. An oaken conference table---surrounded by 20 mahogany chairs---were the only furnishings within the tent, other than a large plasti-stone slab that served as the floor; the chairs all bore the crest of the Brightstar family, leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for putting the meeting together.

The tent flap opened, letting in a blast of cold air as a robust, 5’10” man in a pinstriped suit entered. No grey streaks tainted his black hair, and his brown eyes didn’t have the tiredness of others in this business; the fact that he didn’t look a day over forty didn’t hurt things, either. A black-furred, brown-eyed tabby cat slunk in with him, not the least bit perturbed by the cold weather. At any other time and place, under normal circumstances, the cat wouldn’t have been allowed in…

…but with the Brightstar family, circumstances were rarely (if ever) classified as normal.

Other delegates began to file in---the head of Public Relations for Hreftech, the Executive Vice President of Falchion Electronics, the President of Nisandanku Cybernetics, and many more besides. All had been told that this meeting would be one of the most important they would ever attend.

They wouldn’t be disappointed.

“I’m glad all of you could find the time to attend this little conference,” the pinstripe-suited man stated. “For those who already know me…thanks for coming. For those who don’t…I’m William Brightstar, founder/CEO of Brightstar Industries.” He gestured to the cat; “This is Jake Jr.,” he added. “Just as big a part of the family as---“

“Enough with the robopets, Bill,” Tobias Wakeman scoffed. “Why the hell are we all here?”

“I think you know why, Tobias,” Bill replied with a chuckle. “My sources have been filing a few reports lately; if what they’re saying is to be believed, a few…certain individuals and parties are trying to carve out their own little niche in my corner of North America.”

Calista Swanson, Hreftech’s head of PR, sighed. “It’s a free country, Bill---“

“Indeed it is,” Bill acquiesced. “That being said, this isn’t Los Angeles, or New York City, or Tokyo, or even San Jose---you can’t just steal a piece of meat off the table from under my nose and not expect me to want it back. I don’t care how everyone else does things where they operate---Detroit is Brightstar territory.”

Alejandro Collela, head of Italy’s most reknowned robotics firm, growled. “Do not try to threaten us, William…”

“Threaten you?” Bill echoed. “Far from it, Collela---I’m merely trying to keep things from spiralling further out of control for all of us. Taking a chunk out of my territory may seem like a good idea now, but further on down the road, I can almost guarantee consequences for anyone who tries it---from the ALPA or the Coalition. We all need to realize this now, before it’s too late---the system we’re using works, and unless we adhere to it, everything we know and love will fall apart.”

ReVerse CEO Victor Vega shook his head. “I fail to see how this is my problem,” he muttered.

“You ever watch the NFL Network, Vega?” Bill asked. “Well, consider this a bench warning, from me to all of you: If any of your companies try anything funny in my backyard, you’ll be answering to me. DuBraul and Harrington will be getting the memo soon enough---I am not going to let the midwest turn into a junior high parking lot for you people to brawl in! You have a problem? Deal with it on your own turf---no backstabbing, no bashing my property and no rumor-mongering. Play nice, or play somewhere else---got it?”

Silence filled the tent.

“I’ll accept your silence as a ‘yes’. Now, then---“

“What gives you the right?”

Victor Vega’s words cut the tension in the air like a knife. “I’m sorry,” Bill mused, “I didn’t quite catch that. Care to repeat it---“

“What the hell gives you the right to tell us how to run our businesses?!” Vega snarled. “Your son has been ‘binding’ gynoids from every company in the United States to be part of this…this…harem of his, and you tell us to ‘play nice’ in ‘your’ backyard?!” He rose from his seat, his finger levelled at Bill’s face like the devil’s own cattle prod. “YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY TO QUESTION OUR PRACTICES, WILLIAM BRIGHTSTAR!”

Bill sighed. “You want to know why Jake has so many gynoids with him?” he asked. “He’s been strung along by gold-bricking whores, he lost his bodyguards---who, by the way, were also his trusted friends---when he was still in primary school, and he’s been lonely for the vast majority of his life. And as for this issue of the gynoids coming from multiple companies---I’ve already sent them monetary compensation and my personal assurance that Jake won’t mistreat any of the gynoids in his entourage…and when I give my word, Señor Vega, I never break it.” His stare never wavered. “Now, then…shall we continue with the meeting, or do you intend to have another little outburst at some point during the next fifteen minutes?”

Vega scowled, but returned to his seat. “This is not over,” he muttered.

“Right now, it is,” Bill corrected. “Now, then, with that little interruption out of the way, I think we can get down to business.” He gave all present a reassuring smile. “Detroit is already known to the world as the Motor City, but to be honest, I think we can do…better. NYC and San Jose are the East and West Coast capitals in terms of android development, and my goal---for the long and short term---is to make Detroit the android-building capital of the Midwest. With the help and cooperation of all present, that goal could conceivably be attained within the next five years.”

“I’m assuming this is the part where you ask us for help?” Robert Conroy asked. “I’ve already put a lot of time and money into expanding Falchion Electronics into the international market, as Falchion Robotics…but to put any kind of commitment into this Midwest development plan of yours is…a pretty big gamble, to be honest.”

“I assure you, it’s a gamble that will pay off in spades,” Bill promised. “If we work together---“

“This from the man who just gave us all a ‘bench warning’,” Tobias muttered.

Bill ignored him. “If we can all work together, assist each other when needed and set aside our differences, I think we can turn Detroit into a new paradigm of android/gynoid research, development and manufacturing, one that will help all of us in the long term.”

“And what about the short term?” Conroy inquired.

“Think of it as…the ultimate team-building exercise,” Bill replied, smiling.

The delegates nodded. “Have DuBraul and Harrington been briefed on this at all?” Callista asked. “Or is this your annual surprise for the two of them?”

“Like I said, they’ll be getting the memo soon enough,” Bill reminded her. “Now, for this year….” He withdrew a stack of folders from his briefcase. “These are some of the ideas I have for the remainder of 2011, and I think you’ll find all of them to be agreeable.” He passed the folders around. “Any questions before we start?”

Victor Vega seethed, but said nothing.

“Good. Now, then, let’s start with this one….”

“Right…begin ambulatory test for left arm.”

Julia Irvine sighed; “You know, Faber, a ‘please’ wouldn’t hurt,” she teased. “I was almost completely wrecked by that Human Animal weirdo, after all…a little kindness would go a long way to helping me get over it.”

“Could’ve told me that first,” Faber deadpanned. “Anyways, you should be glad your chipset was compatible with this Cyrex shell, otherwise you’d be in ‘bot heaven right now.” He lowered his glasses and glanced at the clipboard in his grasp; “Right…please begin ambulatory test for left arm, if it’s not too much trouble or anything like that…”

His remarks prompted a smirk from Julia. “You’ve been hanging out with Tell lately, haven’t you?”

“We have been chatting over the past few nights,” Faber replied, watching as Julia’s skinless arm rose. “He’s been busy lately…analyzing Peyton’s head---or what’s left of it---has taken up a pretty big chunk of his time, among other things.” He checked off a few boxes on the clipboard; “You know, a lot of gynoids in your position would be traumatized by now,” he mused. “Not just from surviving the Human Animal, but…well, your old body was wrecked. I mean, yes, you’ve got a nice new Cyrex shell, but…”

“Trust me,” Julia assured him, “this isn’t a picnic for me right now. It might look like I’m calm and cool, but…to be honest, I’m probably more scared now than I was during the attack itself.”

Faber arched an eyebrow. “You’re more scared now?”

“The Human Animal nearly wiped me off the face of the Earth,” Julia explained, “and if it hadn’t been for those backup chips, I wouldn’t be here right now…and that’s what worries me. Now I have to worry about what happens if I can’t make another set of backups before this shell gives out, or if the chips fail before then, or any number of possibilities---and something tells me the Human Animal will figure that out soon enough.” She glanced at her left arm, now moving in a slow chopping motion at the elbow; “Maybe I’m just being overly paranoid,” she admitted, “but...I just have this feeling that someone or something is going to wreck me before I can make another set of backups---”

“How lucky for you, then,” Wyss called out, “that we just so happen to be making a complete set of backups for your personality drivers and memory files as we speak.” He grinned as he strode over to the workbench; “It’s 75% complete so far,” he informed the blonde gynoid. “Won’t take too much longer to finish, either…”

Julia couldn’t help but grin. “You two think of everything…”

“Not everything,” Faber admitted, “just most things. The important things, mainly. In any case, memory and personality backups are free for valued customers…and you can definitely count yourself among that number, starting today.” He glanced at the clipboard again; “Everything’s looking good so far, Jules. Not that much left to check.”

“Coming from you, I’ll take that as good news,” Julia beamed. “Just…don’t make it a habit of calling me ‘Jules’, okay? I had an ex-boyfriend who called me that…well, ex-boyfriend turned obsessive psycho-idiot…”

“So we heard,” Wyss mused. “A few Field Agents picked him up last week---he was trying to break into your office while you were out of town, apparently.” He shook his head. “Idiot was bashing the door with a friggin’ claw hammer, yelling about ‘manipulating his consciousness’ and ‘unravelling the disffected schism of his life’ or some bullroar…was he on drugs during his ‘obsessive psycho-idiot’ phase, by any chance?”

The question prompted Julia to roll her eyes. “Considering what he did before I dumped him…probably.”

“Doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Faber grunted, hefting a human-sized cardboard box onto a workbench next to Wyss. “Idiot was probably high on at least fifteen illicit substances when he was trying to bust down your office door…HQ should have the piss test results back soon.”

“They’re keeping you two in the loop on the urine test?” Julia arched an eyebrow. “That’s…a bit much…”

“Not when you consider the fact that your psycho ex-boyfriend also tried to break into our shop,” Wyss replied, scowling. “Someone told him you were last seen in this general area, and the idiot showed up with a crowbar trying to smash the door open…Faber threatened to put a dart full of horse tranquilizer in him.”

Julia’s eyes widened. “I’m hoping he left afterwards…”

“Well, he didn’t leave at first,” Faber admitted, peeling the cardboard crate open to reveal a slender, 20-something Asian girl in a sky-blue tank-top (with matching socks), a neon-yellow sports bra, black spandex pants and black running shoes. “He decided to, ah, decorate the doorstop with the crowbar and threaten to christen his work before I grabbed the tranq rifle.” He rolled his eyes, carefully unwinding the multicolored leopard-spotted scarf from around the Asian gynoid’s waste; “Once he saw the thing was actually loaded, though, he gave a remarkable demonstration of defenestration.”

“Meaning…what, exactly?” Julia prompted.

Faber flashed a sinister grin at her. “He got his ass off my property before I shot him full of horse tranquilizer.”

“That’s one of the reasons so many people like working with Faber,” Wyss deadpanned. “He’s never been one to mince words…” He chuckled as he polished a socket wrench. “If I’d been the one to answer the door, I probably would’ve just told the guy to go scream his lungs out in a vaccant parking lot or something.”

“And he would’ve busted the window open and tried to kill you with the crowbar,” Faber reminded him.

“He’d have had glass in his eyes by that point,” Wyss countered.

“ANYWAY,” Julia interjected, “I’m guessing the ALPA will be doing something to keep him away from me and my family now…they do have the authority to do that, right?”

Wyss nodded. “He’ll probably be arrested rather suddenly on tax-evasion charges,” he mused.

“Or several DUIs that mysteriously appeared on his record,” Faber added as he pried a 4-inch square panel of synthetic flesh out of the Asian gynoid’s chest. “Whatever they book him for, he’s not coming back any time this year.” He plugged a cord into the newly-revealed port, nodding his approval as the gynoid’s eyes flickered open. “Seeing as how you’re doing well without him screwing up your life anyways…”

“I just don’t want him trying to break into my house or anything,” Julia stated.

Anything Faber might have said in reply was cut off by the sudden movement of the Asian gynoid; as Wyss and Julia watched, the pigtailed girl sat up on the workbench and glanced around the shop. “Kimiko’s just making sure she hasn’t been shipped to the wrong address,” Faber assured Julia. “She’ll do a vocal confirmation in a few minutes, and after that, her personality drivers and human emulation software will be active. You might want to stick around for an hour or so after your tests are done, by the way…Kimmy’s going to the House to replace Shayla Fairchild, and she needs a bit of a primer.”

“I’d be honored,” Julia replied with a smile.

“Good. Hopefully, she doesn’t end up like Shayla---or like Peyton, for that matter---but if you’re the one giving her the tutorial, I have a feeling she’s got a bright future ahead of her.” He grinned; “…and it looks like she’s ready for that tutorial right now!”

Kimiko blinked a few times, then glanced at Julia. “You’re from the House, right?” she asked.

“Yep,” Julia confirmed. “Speaking of which, allow me to fill you in on a few recent goings-on…”

Celeste stared out the window of her room at the Riverfront Towers, a sinking feeling already beginning to wash over her. Yes, she’d retained the position of Matriarch by default, due to Shayla Fairchild’s…incident, but it was a Phyrric victory at best---especially concerning her relationship with one particular member of the ALPA, one whom she’d admitted to having feelings for in the past…

…one she still had feelings for.

He’d told her he wasn’t going to be able to help, but she’d held out in her hope. She had been able to gain the trust of Jake Brytestar and many others besides; perhaps now---

The window on the far side of the room clicked open.

He had arrived.

“Oberon, I was just going to call---“

“You’ve retained your position as Matriarch,” the white-clad ALPA Chairman stated. “I’ve heard.” He wasn’t smiling. “I’ve also heard that Jake Brytestar has talked you into giving him the last surviving backups of Shayla Fairchild and Peyton King…against my recommendations.”

His words hurt Celeste more than any physical blow could have. “You must understand, Oberon…Jake---“

“Has been weakened over the course of the last few months,” Oberon finished. “Whatever abilities he showed off when he first met you…they’re gone, Celeste. He lost them after the last fight in Tokyo.” His unwavering gaze stared directly into Celeste’s ocular sensored; “I know you two have plans of your own,” he added, his voice calmer, “but the fact is….he won’t be your white knight forever. Dark times are ahead, for all of us; I’ve got people in Oregon claiming that they’ve found M.L.E.’s blueprints---“

“I never said Jake was my white knight!” Celeste thundered. “He’s…an incredible person, to be sure, and I do intend to see him marry Alicia 1….but he could never replace…you…” She embraced Oberon, laying her head against his shoulder; “You can’t have forgotten,” she whispered. “You have to remember….”

Oberon gently pulled her arms away from himself. “I’m sorry, Celeste…but I’ve moved on.”

The Matriarch of the House stared at him, tears shimmering in her eyes. “After all we went through together,” she muttered, “how can you simply ‘move on’?! We fought the SPS side by side…ours were the first faces Alicia 1 saw when her consciousness was transferred from an Apple //gs to her gynoid body…” Her voice dropped to a pleading whisper: “You told me you would never leave me!”

“I seem to have said a lot of things I wouldn’t be able to adhere to,” Oberon admitted, a tinge of sadness in his words. “The fact is, Celeste…you asked me to cross a line for you, one that I could never step over---even for someone such as yourself. Your loyalties to the House are admirable…but your methods are too dangerous, your means too self-centered. I only got involved in Detroit to keep Faceless and his loathsome protégé from taking control of the Motor City robotics market…” His hand touched Celeste’s, just as she reached to stroke his face. “I can’t allow my own past---with you, or anyone else---to cloud my judgement anymore.”

At that, Celeste buried her face in his shoulder and wept.

“You have your duties to the House,” Oberon continued, “and I have mine to the ALPA…and to other parties, who needn’t be mentioned here…” He sighed, finally choosing to return Celeste’s embrace; “This has nothing to do with what we had, Celeste…it’s just…”

“It’s just business,” Celeste croaked. “I know the excuse all too well.”

“It’s not an excuse,” Oberon insisted. “It’s just---“

“You gave me a daughter, Oberon!” Celeste shrieked. “Forged from the purest of metals, with a smile that could rival Helen of Troy, and eyes that shone like stars! You gave her to me…and…” She wept again, her tears fading into Oberon’s pure white jacket without a trace. “…you gave her to me, and you let the ALPA seize her from me…”

Oberon backed away from her, his expression grim. “You know why I had to authorize that decision, Celeste,” he reminded her. “Seeing as how you and Jake intend to create another ‘daughter’ for yourself….” He shook his head. “I only did what I did in Detroit to ensure the status quo,” he reaffirmed. “You can rest assured that it had nothing to do with any of your…misplaced sentimentality---and you can also stop trying to persuade Jake Brightstar from fighting your battles for you. The next time I see him, it damn well better have something to do with Brightstar Industries…”

Celeste stared at him with a tearful scowl. “So that’s it, then?” she muttered. “You’re just going to cast aside everything we had?”

At this, Oberon’s expression softened. “I haven’t cast it aside,” he assured the gynoid, “I’ve stored every last bit of it away.” This time, he was the one to initiate the embrace. “Too much has changed for us to go back to how things were,” he murmured, “but if I could relive every second of it---no ommissions, no ‘do-overs’….I would, in a heartbeat.”

His words did nothing to ease Celeste’s pain. “Yet now, you choose to shun me as one shuns a leper…” She withdrew from Oberon’s embrace. “You’ve already fired Publius,” she hissed. “Who will you send away next---Tell? Anton? The Major?!”

“Publius accepted his parting of the ways with the ALPA,” Oberon calmly replied, “and you know I would---“

“I don’t ‘know’ anything about you anymore, Oberon!” Celeste screamed. “You’ve changed…and not just your face, or your voice, or anything else…” Her eyes brimmed with tears again. “It’s like I never knew you at all,” she whimpered.

“You did,” Oberon informed her. “You knew me better than most---you still do, in all matter of fact---but our paths led us to far different destinations.” He glanced back at the open window; “Vicki will be back in San Jose tomorrow,” he stated. “The House is welcome to enlist her aid in any and all crises that may arise within the years to come…but know this: She will not join you.” It was a pure declaration, not a request. “Victoria Ann-Smith Lawson will not become a member of the house…and neither will Vanessa or M.L.E.---“

“Go,” Celeste droned. “Just….go.”

Oberon nodded. “One day, Celeste,” he murmured, “we will reclaim what we had….just not now.”

A snap of fingers….a sound like thunder….

Celeste didn’t even need to turn around to know that Oberon had vanished.

As the window closed and locked, the Matriarch of the House strode silently to her bed, collapsing onto it and crying into the pillow. Thoughts and emotions swarmed through her mind, all framed by one simple, solitary question: why?!

From a rooftop over 50 feet away, Oberon gave a sad, quiet sigh. I’m sorry, Celeste…I’m so, so sorry…but you and I can only be together again when times are at their darkest…and when Vicki faces her deadliest foe...

Stay Tuned For The V.I.C.I. Diaries: Kirsten’s Choice Coming to Fembot Central November 2012

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